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It is Mardi Gras today: tonight the season of carnival excess and frivolity comes to a crashing end at midnight as Lent begins. Well…actually I am from Appalachia, a land of hypocritical puritans and runaway indentured Protestants and I don’t really remember any of this Carnival business from when I was growing up…but I do know about it…from Venetian art! That is why today we are traveling back to the decadent Venice of the 18th century–hundreds of years after Venice’s reign as the dominant military and cultural power of the Mediterranean was over—but in an era when the City of Masks was still the preferred playground for cosmopolitan European aristocrats. Venetian art of the great era was ruled by titans like Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese…but even centuries later during the 1700s it could still produce masters like Canaletto (who painted those vast watery Grand Canal pictures which you undoubtedly know) and my personal favorite 18th century painter, Pietro Longhi.

Longhi paints in the literary/social critique style of Hogarth, but, unlike Hogarth. his pictures are rarely straightforward morality tales. Usually his small intimate canvases superficially present people dancing, drinking coffee, playing cards, or meeting friends in a sitting room. Closer examination discloses all manner of duplicity hidden in these small scenes which turn out to be filled with mountebanks, debauchees, flimflam men, cardsharps, pickpockets, gigolos, and procuresses (and other categories of extinct grifters that modern critics can’t even understand).

Masked Party in a Courtyard (Pietro Longhi, 1755) oil on canvas

For example, in this small painting (now in the Saint Louis Museum of Art) two different groups of revelers take refreshments in a small courtyard during the carnival season. A conventional description of the painting would probably be something like ” a debutante and her chaperone enjoy hot chocolate from an important admirer while their friends chat in the background.” But what is actually going on here? Who are all of these enigmatic revelers wearing hall-masks and veils? What is actually in that beverage which the porcelain faced beauty is carefully holding but not drinking? What is the wire implement held by the figure in the upper right or the ancient sumptuous platform which intrudes a single voluptuary angle into the painting? Why is the figure looming above the young woman so menacing? At the composition’s dead center is a glowing pink flower, visible beneath the young lady’s veil just above her heart. What’s up with that?

I can’t definitively answer any of these questions! However my proposed explanation of this painting would be as follows:

A wealthy but older nobleman presses his amorous suit on a teenage beauty by offering her a cup of chocolate (an expensive new world luxury reputed to be an aphrodisiac). The nobleman’s manservant pushes the spoon at her like a contract as the debutante’s chaperone (or Madame?) enjoys her own chocolate while carefully eying her headstrong young charge (who wears the corsage of her actual love interest between her breasts). In the background another couple arrange an assignation while at back a roue shows off some sort of cheating implement to a masked & veiled person who is mostly hidden behind a column. Roman columns and a piece of an ancient marble (a font? a catafalque? a sarcophagus?) remind us of greater eras in the past, and the inexorable death of empires.

Is this interpretation right? Who can say. The pictorial puzzle has no clear answer that I am aware of, but the puzzle of it invites us to turn it over and over in our heads. Probably the Longhi expert at the Saint Louis Museum would say “oh that wire device is actually a clotheshanger and the model’s white slipper and gown indicate that she is figure beyond reproach.” Yet once we start asking questions, the painting feels anything but innocent, even if we can never know the specifics. The sense of exciting secrets just beyond our apprehension is Longhi’s greatest gift. It has endowed this perfectly chaste picture of a girl drinking cocoa with all sorts of shadowy insinuations. Longhi’s brush did not just tickle a subdued (yet strangely sensual) palette of pinks, browns, and grays, it also tickles our imagination…and that turns out to be naughtier than any actual Carnival naughtiness.

Although 2020 has been a pretty alarming year in all sorts of ways, there was a silver lining: my flower garden ended up being unusually fulsome and colorful this year. Unfortunately photographs don’t really do gardens justice (just like the camera “adds 10 pounds” to portraits, it apparently subtracts 20% of blossoms and color). Even so, I think a little bit of the prettiness shows up in these pictures.

Brooklyn was appropriately rainy and not too hot. Even though I have a shade garden where barely anything grows (except for the trees which are the true stars of the show), there was still plenty of color, texture and form to keep things exciting.

Spooling through theses pictures makes me wish I had taken some shots in summer when sundry flowers were at their apex, but at least these allow you to see some of the Halloween decorations I put up (and the “Furnace Flounder” sculpture which I lugged out into the elements). I can’t believe I haven’t posted about my garden since spring (when I was busy painting watercolors back there).

The Floundering Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2018) mixed media

I don’t know what I am going to do when winter brings gray desolation to this refuge (and cracks my sculptures to pieces). I guess I can always start thinking about next year’s garden and how it could be better. For one thing, maybe I will be able to have parties again with lots of guests to enjoy it with me. In the mean time I am going to go out and soak up some of the last rays of September sun and listen to the crickets. Even this slow, messed-up year is starting to gallop by as summer dies. Maybe I will find some more pretty flower pictures to post before the frost starts though.

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9,000 year old Neolithic limestone mask found in the Judean desert

We are coming up to Halloween and, as always, we will have a special week of horrifying posts concerning a theme topic (like flaying, the undead, or the monstrous brood of Echidna).  Before we get there, though, let’s take a peak back through time to look at some of the other faces that our forbears decided to put on in the ages before “Joker” or “It”.  The greatest masks are astonishing sculptures, but they were more, too–masks lay at the crux of ancient cults and ancient drama.  We will never truly know what the makers of that first mask up there were doing with it 9000 years ago (human sacrifice?), nor will we know what the Etruscans wanted with their Charun-like mask (human sacrifice?).  We truly can’t know what the mysterious Moche wanted with their mostrous mask (human sacrifice?), and sadly, I couldn’t find out about the Bornean & Congolese masks.  Yet on a deeper level we do know: our hearts tell us what each of these masks is about as surely as we can read a line of emoticons on a phone or know to jump away from a striking cobra.  Some things are instinctual even for humans.  Although I am sure an ethnologist would chide me, it is hard not to look through the empty eyes of masks, both sacred and profane, and see the familiar dark places always within the human heart.

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Borneo Mask Indai-Guru Mask Borneo, Iban Dayak

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Kumu Mask: Congo/Central Africa

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Etruscan mask in Archeology Museum in Cagliari.

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Moche Mask, Peru, 6th-7th century AD, Silvered copper, shell

Taiwanese Opera

Chinese opera traces its roots back to the Three Kingdoms period (or even earlier).  The first formal opera troop is said to have been founded by Emperor Xuanzong who ruled China from 712 AD to 756 AD, a period which marked the apex of the Tang Dynasty.  This first opera troop styled itself as “the Pear Garden” and even today Chinese opera performers describe themselves as “Disciples of the Pear Garden.”Wu Hsing-kuo, Wei Hai-min

Styles and performing conventions have changed many times in the long history of the opera as different forms have come and gone.  The craft is based on mimetic gestures which express narrative actions such as horse-riding, fighting, or traveling by boat. Traditional instruments such as lutes and gongs provide a score: the libretto is sometimes sung and sometimes recited.

Chinese Opera Masks

The most visually arresting features of Chinese opera are the bold & colorful masks worn by the performers. These masks hearken back to an ancient tradition of face-painting among warriors and, as with war paint, the colors and patterns bear symbolic meanings.  The spirit and personality of each character is effectively color coded. Wikipedia nicely summarizes the meaning of each color of mask with the following handy chart (which I have copied verbatim):

White: sinister, evil, crafty, treacherous, and suspicious. Anyone wearing a white mask is usually the villain.
Green: impulsive, violent, no self restraint or self control.
Red: brave, loyal.
Black: rough, fierce, or impartial.
Yellow: ambitious, fierce, cool-headed.
Blue: steadfast, someone who is loyal and sticks to one side no matter what.

Additionally gold and silver faces represent mystery and aloofness.  Of course the masks are often not real masks on stage but elaborate make-up and costuming so that the players can sing and pantomime to extravagant and wondrous effect (and so that patrons can appreciate pretty faces).

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