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Hollow (Katie Paterson, 206, wood)

Hollow (Katie Paterson, 2016, wood)

A lot of conceptual art strikes me as being perhaps a bit [cough] lazy.  The concept is forced to stand in for the elegance and beauty of masterful craft.  But here is a sculpture where the concept and the craft are both amazing: the work doubles as a lovely artwork and as a story of truly ecumenical breadth.  The synthesis is sublime. This is “Hollow” a 2016 sculpture by the Berlin-based Glaswegian artist Katie Paterson.

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“Hollow” is a folly grotto in the historic Royal Fort Gardens of Bristol.  It looks a bit like a wooden megalith from the outside, but inside it becomes a magical proliferation of thousands of rectangular solids made of wood which give the simultaneous effect of a comfortable wooden grotto and an otherworldly scene from religion or abstract mathematics. The rectangular shapes are all wood and all clearly belong together.  Yet the pieces are all different colors, densities and textures because they represents all trees…ever.

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Paterson traveled the world gathering more than 10,000 samples of every known species—from trees young and old; from taxa alive and those long extinct.  There are petrified remnants of the first forests which sprang up 390 million years old, and bits of the horsetails which preceded those. There are slivers of genera long gone, which now exist only as rare museum specimens.  There are pieces of historically significant trees like “Methusela” the oldest known Bristlecone pine…and from clonal colony giants like Pando.  There are also hunks of historically meaningful trees like a surviving gingko from Hiroshima, the Fortingall Yew, and suchlike.   There are human stories aplenty, but they are dwarfed and transcended by the majesty of arboreal diversity and development through the ages.

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The piece is indeed hollow and it is illuminated only by the Earth’s sun, as is entirely proper for a piece about trees (which live even more in tandem with our star, than other life forms—though each living thing depends on it).  We humans come from an arboreal order, and the worship of trees is nearly universal (sacred trees sprout up up even in hardnosed monotheistic faiths like Islam and Christianity) yet trees are so much older than us…or even than mammals.  The full story of trees exists in deep time which is difficult to comprehend in a meaningful way. “Hollow” is a microcosmic sculpture which endeavors to present a sliver of this complexity.  The work succeeds in enshrining both the abstruse sacred quality of trees and the real nature of their diversity and long history here on Earth.

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OK, Last week was egg week here at Ferrebeekeeper where we looked at home-made egg-art and astonishing primordial mythology.  Unfortunately, due to budget constraints and temporal vicissitudes, egg week only had 4 posts—yet we also need to keep moving on.  Today’s post is therefore somewhat egg-themed….even if the real theme is more about the changing nature of language.  It is a bridge from past to future—but a humorous one which has eggs at its center.

Here is a story from the late 15th century, when English was changing from Middle English to Modern English.  The author, William Caxton, was a merchant, diplomat, and writer…and probably England’s first printer.  He wrote this story in 1490 to marvel at how quickly the language was changing (indeed he relates how he can’t understand truly old English which seems like a completely foreign tongue).  I have transcribed the story, as best I could, from the Gothic black letter manuscript (try reading some of the beautiful—but incomprehensible–Gothic calligraphy and I think you will appreciate my effort).

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The story is a vignette about how language changes, seemingly on its own.  This point is particularly poignant to modern readers who don’t speak with quite the same idiom and usage as the upstanding William Caxton!  The story is about some merchants from the north who say eggs in the Norse fashion “eggys” as opposed to the South English way of saying it “eyren.”  Misunderstanding ensues.  It is interesting to note that contemporary English speakers talk about “eggs.”  If I went to the C-town and asked for “eyren” they would probably look at me funny (or tell me where to get an iron or Irish whiskey).  The Norse word for “eggs” clearly won out over the old Anglo-Saxon word when English went global.  Anyway, here is my transcription of the story.  Kindly help me out if you can figure it out better and enjoy the eyreny…err…the irony of Caxton’s words:

Fayn wolde I satysfye every man, and so to doo toke an olde boke and redde therin and certaynly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I could not wele understande it.
And altho my lord abbot of Westmynster ded do shewe to me late certain evydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now usid.
And certainly it was wrton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe.
I could not reduce ne brynge it to be understonden.
And certaynly our language now used Uaryeth ferre from that. Which was used and spoken whan I was borne.
For we englysshe men ken borne under the domynacyon of the mone.
Which is neuer stedfaste, but ever waverynge wexynge one season and waneth & dycreaseth another season
And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one Shyre varyeth from a nother.
In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in tamyse for to have sayled over the see into zeland
and for lacke of wynde they taryed atte Forrlonth, and wente to lanthe for to refreshe them
And one of them named Sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hous and axed(!!) for mete, and specyally he axyd after eggys.
And the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no frenche.
And the marchant was angry for he also could speak no Frenche but wolde have egges and she understode hym not.
And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde have eyren then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel
Loo (?) What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte egges or eyren, Certaynly it is harde to playse every man that is in any
reputacyon in his contre. Wyll utter his comynycacyon and maters in suche maners & terms that fewe men shall understonde theym…

 

 

 

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A Shamrock is a bright green spring clover–the species is unclear….but probably common clover (Trifolium dubium) or white clover (Trifolium repens), just like your garden variety pony eats. The shamrock has been an instantly recognizable symbol of Ireland for a long time…or maybe not. Anecdotally Saint Patrick utilized the humble plant in order to explain the nature of the trinity to his nascent flock in the fifth century AD (in which case they were the only people to ever understand the incomprehensible mystical unity-yet-separation of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost).

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More realistically, however, the association between the Irish and the plant is less clear. English sources from the 16th century mention Irish “shamrocks”– but largely in the context of destitute Irish eating field plants (once again the species in unclear, but it seems like it might have been wood sorrel or watercress). Edmund Spenser, who lived among the Irish (and hated them), wrote approvingly of seeing Irish people starving to death after a failed rebellion left them with no crops, “…they spake like ghosts, crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the carrions …. and if they found a plott of water cresses or shamrockes theyr they flocked as to a feast for the time, yett not able long to contynewe therewithall.” Of course, since Spenser reportedly starved to death himself he might have later found occasion to eat these harsh words (literally and figuratively).

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All of this leaves (!) us no closer to understanding how the shamrock became so indelibly affiliated with the Irish. Increasingly it seems like it may be a connection which was made in the early modern era. However, pre-Christian Irish were known to hold the number 3 in greatest esteem. Certain Celtic deities had three aspects and the number 3 was obviously sacred. This is strongly reflected in pre-historic Celtic art. Some of these mystical gyres and whirls do indeed look oddly like shamrocks…so you will have to judge the merit of the little green plant on your own. In the mean time I am going to head down to the great Irish restaurant, McDonalds, and see if I can find a shamrock shake. Usage maketh the myth and by that token there is nothing more Irish than a three-leafed clover.

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It should additionally be noted that in the modern world, “shamrock” has become the name of a bright Kelly green color.  You may even see it today reflected in spring foliage, or jaunty banners, or on a furtive leprechaun or two (although, leprechauns traditionally wore red until they became standardized and bowdlerized in the early twentieth century).  Have you ever wondered whether everything you know if blarney made up by marketers less than a lifetime ago?

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Wha…? That is clearly a four-leaf clover!  Curse you infernal tricksters!

Today’s post introduces a completely new feature for Ferrebeekeeper. Every month we are going to spend a day traveling back in time to 16th century England. The method we are using to go back half a millennia to the birthplace of modern English is itself the content of these dozen posts: which is to say we are stealing a poem from Edmund Spenser (ca. 1552 –1599). In fact, arguably we are stealing a whole book of poetry! Yet Edmund Spenser, the great fantasy allegorist, is dead. In taking this poem we are not robbing him or his family. Instead we are giving him all he really cared about—an audience for his poetry (although Spenser scholars may argue that he also cared about money and oppressing Ireland).

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Spenser’s first major work The Shepheardes Calender was published in 1579. It consisted of 12 allegorical pastoral poems about the year (and about art, politics, the natural world, and the human heart). Each poem is an eclogue—a pastoral soliloquy by the eponymous shepherd, Colin Cloute. Each month is written in a different form—to reflect the differing months and the changing subjects. The first poem, January, is a lament. The land is bare, wasted by winter. The sheep are mangy and dirty. The poet’s beloved does not return his affection. The poor shepherd breaks his pipe (his only remaining source of joy) and gives in to winter darkness.

As we go through the year with Spenser, we can say more about the larger meaning of The Shepheardes Calender (and more about Spenser, the first major literary figure of modern Enlish), but the despair of winter and of loveless life speak for themselves. So, without more preamble, here is…

The Shepheardes Calender: January

By Edmund Spenser

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Januarie. Ægloga prima. ARGVMENT.

 

IN this fyrst Æglogue Colin clout a shepheardes boy complaineth him of his vnfortunate loue, being but newly (as semeth) enamoured of a countrie lasse called Rosalinde: with which strong affection being very sore traueled, he compareth his carefull case to the sadde season of the yeare, to the frostie ground, to the frosen trees, and to his owne winterbeaten flocke. And lastlye, fynding himselfe robbed of all former pleasaunce and delights, hee breaketh his Pipe in peeces, and casteth him selfe to the ground.
COLIN Cloute.
A Shepeheards boye (no better doe him call)
when Winters wastful spight was almost spent,
All in a sunneshine day, as did befall,
Led forth his flock, that had been long ypent.
So faynt they woxe, and feeble in the folde,
That now vnnethes their feete could them vphold.
All as the Sheepe, such was the shepeheards looke,
For pale and wanne he was, (alas the while,)
May seeme he lovd, or els some care he tooke:
Well couth he tune his pipe, and frame his stile.
Tho to a hill his faynting flocke he ledde,
And thus him playnd, the while his shepe there fedde.
Ye gods of loue, that pitie louers payne,
(if any gods the paine of louers pitie:)
Looke from aboue, where you in ioyes remaine,
And bowe your eares vnto my doleful dittie.
And Pan thou shepheards God, that once didst loue,
Pitie the paines, that thou thy selfe didst proue.
Thou barrein ground, whome winters wrath hath wasted,
Art made a myrrhour, to behold my plight:
Whilome thy fresh spring flowrd, and after hasted
Thy sommer prowde with Daffadillies dight.
And now is come thy wynters stormy state,
Thy mantle mard, wherein thou mas-kedst late.
Such rage as winters, reigneth in my heart,
My life bloud friesing wtih vnkindly cold:
Such stormy stoures do breede my balefull smarte,
As if my yeare were wast, and woxen old.
And yet alas, but now my spring begonne,
And yet alas, yt is already donne.
You naked trees, whose shady leaves are lost,
Wherein the byrds were wont to build their bowre:
And now are clothd with mosse and hoary frost,
Instede of bloosmes, wherwith your buds did flowre:
I see your teares, that from your boughes doe raine,
Whose drops in drery ysicles remaine.
All so my lustfull leafe is drye and sere,
My timely buds with wayling all are wasted:
The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare,
With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted,
And from mine eyes the drizling teares descend,
As on your boughes the ysicles depend.
Thou feeble flocke, whose fleece is rough and rent,
Whose knees are weak through fast and evill fare:
Mayst witnesse well by thy ill gouernement,
Thy maysters mind is ouercome with care.
Thou weak, I wanne: thou leabe, I quite forlorne:
With mourning pyne I, you with pyning mourne.
A thousand sithes I curse that carefull hower,
Wherein I longd the neighbour towne to see:
And eke tenne thousand sithes I blesse the stoure,
Wherein I sawe so fayre a sight, as shee.
Yet all for naught: snch [such] sight hath bred my bane.
Ah God, that loue should breede both ioy and payne.
It is not Hobbinol, wherefore I plaine,
Albee my loue he seeke with dayly suit:
His clownish gifts and curtsies I disdaine,
His kiddes, his cracknelles, and his early fruit.
Ah foolish Hobbinol, thy gyfts bene vayne:
Colin them gives to Rosalind againe.
I loue thilke lasse, (alas why doe I loue?)
And am forlorne, (alas why am I lorne?)
Shee deignes not my good will, but doth reproue,
And of my rurall musick holdeth scorne.
Shepheards deuise she hateth as the snake,
And laughes the songes, that Colin Clout doth make.
Wherefore my pype, albee rude Pan thou please,
Yet for thou pleasest not, where most I would:
And thou vnlucky Muse, that wontst to ease
My musing mynd, yet canst not, when thou should:
Both pype and Muse, shall sore the while abye.
So broke his oaten pype, and downe dyd lye.
By that, the welked Phoebus gan availe,
His weary waine, and nowe the frosty Night
Her mantle black through heauen gan overhaile.
Which seene, the pensife boy halfe in despight
Arose, and homeward drove his sonned sheepe,
Whose hanging heads did seeme his carefull case to weepe.
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An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III (1520, Royal Collection)

An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III (1520, Royal Collection)

Richard III is indelibly remembered as the dark antihero of Shakespeare’s great play, but his real life seems to have been even more complicated and ambiguous. The last king of the House of York of the Plantagenet dynasty was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field by means of a halberd blow which shaved off the back of his skull.  We suddenly know a great deal about Richard III because his remains were discovered a few years ago under a car park (which had once been the churchyard of the Church of Grey Friars) in suburban England!

A photographic portrait of Richard III ca. present

A photographic portrait of Richard III ca. present

The discovery of Richard III’s body in 2012 makes for fascinating reading and we learned all sorts of amazing things, but the researchers and archaeologists were left holding a surplus dead medieval king (and a rather sinister one at that). What to do?

A modern funeral crown in medieval style for the (second?) funeral of Richard III

A modern funeral crown in medieval style for the (second?) funeral of Richard III

For reasons of pomp and tradition, it was decided to reinter Richard’s remains in a fashion befitting an English King—and this required a crown (since such prop is an essential ingredient for royal funerals).  The original medieval crowns of England were lost during the age of the Protectorate (except for the little wedding crown of Richard III’s sister).  The modern crowns of the sovereigns of England are inappropriately anachronistic (not to mention super-valuable)…plus the queen hardly wants some long-dead evil king handling her cool stuff.   Yet there could hardly be a kingly reburial without some sort of crown, so history enthusiasts built their own funeral crown out of copper with gold plating.  The crown featured white enamel roses and cabochon rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and turquoise.  They based the crown on that of Margaret of York, and on descriptions of the open crown which Richard III wore during his last days.

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Funeral crowns purpose-built for the exequies of kings were not unknown during the Middle Ages.  Often these crowns were kept at churches or sacred sites near the burial place of the monarch.  Presumably this will be the future for this strange yet beautiful piece of modern medieval jewelry for the strange and disturbing king.

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April is poetry month and poetry month is coming to an end.  What better way to celebrate than with a modern poem about flowers…and what blossom could be more renowned in poetry and art than the rose?  I was worried that nobody enjoyed the previous poetry month entry (four interconnected erotic poems by Elizabethan luminary Edmund Spenser) so I asked my roommate, the gifted poet Katie Fowley to name the first poem about flowers she could think of.  Her answer was “The Rose is Obsolete” a poem by William Carlos Williams from his 1923 book Spring and All.  The poem does not utilize the rose in the obvious metaphorical contexts which are familiar from the dawn of writing (perhaps Mr. Williams saw such symbolism as obsolete).  Instead it is a poem about universal thresholds–the liminal transition between the rose and the rest of the universe.   The poem thus has a mathematical sensibility to it–as though it transcends contemplation of things which exist in order to concentrate on higher categories of being.  The reader is thus rapidly transported from the rose–real, sensual, and mundane–to abstract realms of calculus and ontology.  Cosmological truths beckon from the rose’s fractal edge as the physical rose is left behind. I think however you will agree that the poem strikes a wistful note for the obsolete rose.  The reader must decide for themselves what has been left behind–and just where humankind’s new sophistication at cosmological apprehension is leading.

[The poem does not have a title in the original printing so it just starts after the picture]

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

Supernova Fragments (NASA 2011)

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air–The edge
cuts without cutting
meets–nothing–renews
itself in metal or porcelain–

whither? It ends–

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry–

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica–
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses–

The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end–of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
laboredness–fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching

What

The place between the petal’s
edge and the

From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact–lifting
from it–neither hanging
nor pushing–

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space

He Jiaying is a contemporary Chinese painter.  Born in Tianjin in 1957, he is famous for his masterful figures painted with classical Chinese brush painting.  He Jiaying’s favorite subjects tend to be beautiful women lost in contemplation beneath trees or bamboo.  The models in his paintings are either attired in fluid dresses or, more often, in nothing at all. So deft is his style that he miraculously combines European-style hyper realistic portraiture with ancient Chinese style brushwork (which is famed for being free and spontaneous).  Because his paintings are masterpieces in two opposite styles, He Jiaying is widely known  both in China and abroad.

 

Painting by He Jiaying

Painting by He Jiaying

Here a wistful beauty walks pensively beneath autumn birch trees.  Despite the adroit brushstrokes, the woman’s figure possesses perfect verisimilitude–and the trunks of the trees are likewise simultaneously simple yet perfectly lifelike.  Despite the realism, the composition is anything but Western: the off-center figure, the abstract leaf-litter, and the empty background are all hallmarks of classical Chinese painting.

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Today Santa Claus, an undead cleric from the early Byzantine Empire, is one of the most popular and beloved figures in the world.  In the Christian canon, only God, Jesus, and Mary are more recognizable than the jolly fat man (sorry, Holy Ghost).  As discussed in yesterday’s post, there were many different portrayals of Saint Nicholas/Santa/Sinterklaas/Father Christmas in different parts of Europe during the late middle ages and the early modern era.  As industrialization and mass media became more prevalent, these images became amalgamated into the contemporary image of Santa, a compassionate old man with a red and white suit who tends to portliness.   Much of this picture comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”.  Additionally a series of illustrations by German-born American caricaturist Thomas Nast filled out the vernacular picture of Santa (Nast also popularized the Republican elephant, the democratic donkey, the figure of Columbia, and Uncle Sam).  Coca-Cola did not first provide his signature red outfit–but they made it famous.  Breakthroughs in communication have further consolidated this modern identity.

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The Coming of Santa Clause (Thomas Nast, 1872)

The mass-produced, mass-media portrayals of the gift-giving saint show a compassionate globalized executive who runs his supernatural empire from the geographic North Pole.  All the dark edges have been smoothed away from Santa:  he does not whip bad children or give them fossilized hydrocarbons nor does he subcontract such punishments to devils like Krampus.  Like me, Santa is a toymaker, but, unlike me, he has a tremendous grasp of worldwide logistics.  A huge team of competent elves run his modernized factories and provide him with support.

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Even more shockingly, after one and a half thousand years of celibacy, the devout bishop suddenly obtained a wife.  Mrs. Claus is usually pictured as a matronly but vivacious partner: a kind of polar first lady who frets about child-welfare, PR, and housekeeping –unless Santa is indisposed, whereupon she seamlessly takes over the reins for her demi-god husband (or am I the only one who saw that Christmas special?).

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning my position as bishop” -Santa

“For entirely personal reasons, I would like to announce that I am immediately resigning from my office as bishop” -Santa

Santa can be omnipresent, traveling everywhere on Earth in one night with help from deathless flying reindeer and a bottomless bag of holding.   He hears and sees all. This globalized Santa no longer performs flashy individual miracles (like resurrecting chopped-up children from barrels of salt).  Instead he has become a polished politician—relying on vast support networks to change the emotional frame of reference for the masses.

A typical contemporary movie might show Santa simultaneously helping a sad little girl connect with her estranged business-executive father, reuniting lovers sundered by mischance, saving a shelter puppy about to be put down, and finding homes for a plucky group of orphans (maybe even trying to help a lost toymaker/blogger/artist).  Santa always accomplishes everything with a deft touch so that the plots all interweave and everyone discovers the goodness was always in their hearts.  The solutions—kindness, generosity, love–were always obvious and Santa didn’t need to be there at all…or did he?

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Santa’s tale is one of the strangest but strongest story arcs imaginable.   Over millennia, Bishop Nicholas, a thin, ascetic church prelate from fourth century Anatolia has changed into a globally recognized god of generosity.   The orphan child has apotheosized into the spirit of giving: A Christmas miracle indeed.

Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist.  Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died.  The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease).  Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”.  He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists).  However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.

The Snake Charmer (Henri Rousseau, 1907, oil on canvas)

Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay,  Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907.  The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness.  A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile.  Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun.  Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).

The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme,1870, oil on canvas)

Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting.  Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think.  Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time.  Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War.   Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing.  Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, with the sign of Cancer (by Baldassare Peruzzi, 1481-1536)

According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna.  The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath.  When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place.  The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.

Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster.  After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.

Attic Black Figure on White Ground from Funeral Lekythos (Attributed to the Diosphos Painter, ca 500 - 480 BC)

But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics.  First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club.  Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout.  With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast.  But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either:  Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature.  Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head.  With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius.  Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal  things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall.  Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.

Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists.  Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially.  The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations.  Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving.  Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father).  In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.

I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team.  In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:

Hydra (Sculpture by Elford Bradley Cox)

A performance art troop, Fluid Movement, presents "The Dance of the Hydra"

Figure 24.3: Hydra (by Richard Oden)Hydra (Installation piece made from muslin and transistor radios by Kelley Bell, 2002)

Hydra 1 (ironwood sculpture by Cody Powell & Ben Carpenter)

A hydra drawn on a styrofoam cup with marker by Cheeming Boey aka Boy Obsolete

Hydra (painting by Travis Lampe for "Beasts 2)

The Hydra of Madison Avenue, (by Todd Schorr, 2001): a vivid nightmare of corporate mascots run amok

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