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It has been a long time since this blog has explored the strange and evocative world of mascots, those perplexing symbolic stand-ins who (or “which”?) represent an organization or concept. This year’s Halloween theme is graveyards, and naturally the question arose (snicker) of whether there are gravestone mascots. The world contains Japan–so of COURSE there are (albeit not many). We will get to them shortly, but first let’s philosophize about this subject for a moment. After all a grave itself is already a sort of mascot–a symbolic stand-in which represents an entire life. Even when that life is gone, the idea remains (for what is a person to another person really, but a complicated arrangement of ideas). Oftentimes the idea supersedes the life itself. How many people actually knew Lenin or Colonel Sanders or whatever?

Also, as I “researched” this article I found hundreds of graves of mascots which underlined what a powerful idea both graves and mascots are. I included Colonel Sanders’ grave above because, just as Colonel Sanders was the epitome of mascots, his tomb is the epitome of mascot tombs (in fact, it might be nicer than Philip the Apostle’s tomb at Hierapolis, and the Byzantines had 600 years to spiff that up). Yet most of the bulldogs, homing pigeons, goats, and pigs had pretty nice graves too. There was something particularly moving about the granite memorials of regimental mascots from WWI and WWII–which made it seem like mascots not only bore the honor of their units but also served as much needed emotional surrogates for the soldiers. Symbols are much more powerful than people initially suppose!

We will return to these ideas. The reason I am writing about graves is not (just) because I am a morbid weirdo, but to examine the relationship we have with people of the past–who never knew us, but whose ideas, works, and institutions are the basis of our own lives. Maybe it is also a way of asking what meaning and assistance we can provide for the unknowable people (and suchlike entities) of the future other than useless hunks of rock which narcissistically yet feebly proclaim that we existed. Um…ok…anyway, here are some strange grave mascots I found online:

This Japanese grave is pretty cute actually–I wish I had found a bigger picture (or at least found out where WordPress put the danged “center” button)

More of a coffin–but he does the job
Is this a…warning? an ad?
This guy might straight-up be a sugar cube or a hunk of goat cheese
Tombliboos are tombs, right?
Aww!
The end…for this post anyway

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Tree (M.C. Escher, 1919 woodcut print)

Tree (M.C. Escher, 1919 woodcut print)

Here are two early woodcuts from the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. In the course of time, Escher would become extremely famous for intricate black and white prints which picture the paradoxical juxtaposition and interplay of seemingly irreconcilable moral, aesthetic, or mathematical concepts. These two works, however, date from 1919 when the artist was only twenty years old and was still finding his artistic path. World War I had just ended (as had the Spanish flu epidemic) and a dark pall seemed to still hover over humankind. Escher had been a sickly child who failed to excel at any particular course of studies in secondary school. He was studying (and failing) architecture at Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. In a few years he would reconcile himself with the artistic life and set off for Italy, but in these works some of the gloom of the war, and of his unhappy youth seems to linger in the solemn simple lines of the huge enigmatic trees.

 

The Borger Oak (M.C. Escher, 1919, Linocut print)

The Borger Oak (M.C. Escher, 1919, Linocut print)

The two woodcuts here both show fractal trees against the cosmic backdrop of a black sky with a single luminous star burning in the heavens. In Tree, a tiny benighted human figure drops to his knees in front of the great tree which seems to hold a burning star within its interwoven branches. The Borger Oak is even starker: the boughs of the tree are becoming a simple recursive pattern against white hills. A glowing celestial body fitfully illuminates the scene. Already the themes which would dominate Escher’s life work are apparent: the recursive patterns of mathematic sequences are apparent in the prints (albeit not with the vertiginous intricacy which would characterize later works). Both works are simple and beautiful microcosms. The trees represent life, science, and even the entire universe itself (like Yggdrasil, the world tree of ancient northern myth). Living things and the laws of space are both part of an overarching pattern.

In previous posts I have written about the great German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who came to prominence and fame at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for Friedrich, art is fickle.  As he approached his middle years, the melancholy and dramatic realism which was his specialty fell out of fashion.  His patrons abandoned him and his art became even more bleak and pessimistic (which did nothing to help his sales). Although fashion abandoned Friedrich, his genius did not desert him: his works became more somber and metaphysical, but their lonely beauty and solemn majesty also became more pronounced.

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

Here is a picture from 1829 of a denuded oak tree standing alone in the snow.  Although leafless and broken the tree is still magnificent.  The artist has painted the dark tree looming up into an indifferent sky above the viewer.  The desolate winter landscape accentuates the bare branches and gnarled trunk of the tree which seems to strive against the cold grasp of winter–and even against time itself.   There is a paradox to this work: the very emptiness and plainness of the composition awakens an imagined spring within the heart of anyone looking at the picture.  Sadly, for Friedrich, spring was never to come again: his work did not regain its popularity in his life (and a stroke in 1835 robbed him of his ability to paint with oils). Yet The Oaktree in the Snow is a triumph—a fully realized painting of existential complexity in the simplest and boldest of compositions.

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