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Happy Halloween! I am celebrating by taking the day off and presenting nothing other than a gallery of amazing old prints of epic snake monsters!  Be sssssafe and have fun!

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Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Snake, Pheasant, and Canna (Katsushika Hokusai, mid 1830s, woodblock print)

Katsushika Hokusai is probably Japan’s most famous artist.  His woodblock print of a wave breaking in the foreground with Mount Fuji in the background is almost universally known and has been reproduced everywhere (and his erotic print of two octopuses dallying with a nude pearl diver is almost as famous).  Today however, we feature one of his woodblock prints about drama at a smaller scale. A snake and a pheasant are engaged in a mortal battle beside a canna flower.  I will let the swirling, slashing drama of the composition speak for itself and only add that the snake is a mamushi (Gloydius blomhoffii) a highly venomous pit viper of Japan.  Pheasants generally eat snakes, but the contest does not seem to be going that way in this tableau and the sinister mamushi seems to be gaining the upper hand.

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Catfish Envy (Masami Teraoka, 1993, woodblock & etching with hand-tint)

Masami Teraoka is a Japanese-born artist who addresses contemporary issues and mores with ancient Ukiyo-e artistic style. The results of this fusion are not only visually stunning but frequently droll & ridiculous as well. Here is a mixed woodcut/etching print titled “Catfish Envy” which has been hand-tinted by the artist. A risible middle aged samurai is trying to snorkel his way up to a contemporary international femme fatale who, in turn, is embracing a wily catfish. The young woman seems contemptuous of the old fashioned warrior–who looks quite out of breath and rattled. The catfish is an enigma, but he seems to have shades of the mythical Namazu–the earthquake-causing catfish god who lives beneath Japan (and who sometimes represents wealth caused by corruption). There is something distinctly nouveau riche and jaded about that catfish. The beautiful lady snorkeler has a disdainful and mercenary light in her eyes. Even the tradition-bound samurai seems like he might be a bit lecherous and silly (although we sense that the lecherous, silly, tradition-bound printmaker sympathizes with him). The juxtaposition of the centuries-old technique, the old-school sexual/class moralizing, and the modern sporting equipment earns this print a place of high distinction in the annals of catfish-themed art (even if it might be somewhat lacking in egalitarian humanist values).

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.

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