October 13, 2017

Of Mountains and Monsters

        The true measure of a mountain’s greatness is not its height but whether it is charming enough to attract dragons.

        This line appears in Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (2013) as a quotation “from a Chinese poem.”  As no other citation for it appears, I have to wonder whether Henderson didn’t make it up himself.  No matter - whether the words of Henderson or some anonymous Chinese poet, I love the sentiment.  After all, it’s true of so many things in this world that we tend to value them as they can be measured and given numerical status when we should be valuing them for their beauty, or their spiritual significance, or other intangible, unquantifiable attributes.
        This wood block print of a dragon that has found its home is rather charming in itself.  The dragon looks more sly and roguish than downright fierce, and the sheep seem fairly unconcerned, although the poor shepherd boy is certainly terrified.  Not everyone is in agreement as to whether the presence of a dragon improves a mountain or not.  The print is the dragon of Wawel Castle from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis and I think the artist must have had a little fun with this dragon.

[Picture: The dragon of Kraków, wood block print from Cosmographia Universalis by Sebastian Münster, 1544 (Image from Arte Lisa).]

October 10, 2017


        Jack and The Beanstalk is one of those “problematic” tales, in which the hero is far from admirable and his quest is nothing nobler than greed.  Jack’s a quick thinker, but no one who knows him wants to hire him, which is understandable given his light fingers and general dishonesty.  The ogre’s wife is probably the nicest character, and she just gets taken advantage of.  (You can refresh your memory of the story by reading it here.)  So what is there to like about this story?  The beanstalk, of course!  What a wonderful image it gives us, starting with magic beans, representing infinite magical possibilities.  Then there’s the beanstalk itself, growing overnight until it reaches the sky.  It’s especially pleasing that it grows right up past Jack’s bedroom window so that he can climb straight out of his bedroom and up to the sky.
        And then there’s the sky at the top of the beanstalk: a solid sky country.  This is no cloudy, heavenly realm of air and wind.  It’s got a broad road and a great, tall house.  It’s also got magical things in it: magical hen, magical harp, ogre...  I presume it’s got all manner of other magical things in it, too, which we might have heard about if Jack had been more inclined to gathering knowledge rather than gold.
        Here are a few fun depictions of that wonderful beanstalk.  In the first one, the oldest, it looks as if Jack’s climbing the vine to escape his mother’s wrath.  In any case, the perspective is charmingly topsy-turvey so that Jack’s cottage looks huge and the ogre’s castle looks tiny, and Jack himself looks quite shrunk, too.  It also makes it look as though the ogre’s house is the flower blooming at the top of the vine, rather than being built in the sky on its own, with the vine simply reaching up toward it.  This wood block print has some really nice textures, especially the thatch and the tree in the background.  A very different version of the sky is imagined by George Cruikshank.  Although his vine looks much taller - even reaching above the clouds - his rocky sky looks as if it’s actually attached to the earth after all.

        Walter Crane shows us the lower portions of the beanstalk, with Jack’s cottage and angry mother in the background again, but no view of skyland or ogre’s castle at all.  And finally, a modern imagining in scratchboard.  This also gives us no view of what the skyland might look like, but does give us the dizzying perspective of a beanstalk that really has reached as high as the sky.  The town way down there on earth has telephone poles, but no sign of cars or other people about.  As for this climber, I’m holding out hope that, unlike Jack, he’s actually interested in exploring and mapping the world he finds. After all, it must be an amazing place!

[Pictures: Jack and the Beanstalk, woodcut from Round about our Coal-Fire, 1734 (Image from The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie);
Jack Climbing the Bean Stalk, illustration by George Cruikshank from The History of Jack & the Bean-Stalk, 1854;
Jack climbing, color wood block print by Walter Crane from Jack and the Beanstalk, 1875 (Images from SurLaLune);
Beanstalk, scratchboard by Doug Smith (Image from RonSusser.com).]

October 6, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Mystery Manuscript

        I love a good historical and linguistic mystery and this is one of the best.  The Voynich Manuscript is a 15th century codex handwritten in an undeciphered writing system and illustrated with unidentified figures.  Its 240 or so pages are divided into six sections based on the illustrations and format, and these include unidentified plants, astrology, rather symbolic biological images, “circular diagrams of an obscure nature,” and vaguely apothecary-ish themes.  The pictures are fairly crude, but the alphabet is really quite beautiful.  It seems as if it might have something to do with herbology, women’s medicine, and astrology, but of course nobody knows, what with it being undeciphered and all.
        Wilfrid Voynich was the book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912, but it has quite a long and fascinating provenance.  In 1637 Georg Baresch, an alchemist from Prague, sent my man Athanasius Kircher a sample of the text asking for his help deciphering it, since Kircher had claimed to have decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Baresch called the book a Sphynx “taking up space uselessly” in his library, but nevertheless refused to send Kircher the whole thing.  The next owner, however, gave Kircher the book, noting that he had been told it was bought by Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) for 600 gold ducats.  There is some evidence that Rudolph could have bought it from English astrologer John Dee, although this is speculation.  At any
rate, we don’t know what Kircher made of the mysterious language, and the book presumably went with all the rest of his papers into the library of the Collegio Romano, where it lay until 1870.  At that point we catch a glimpse of it being spirited into the personal library of the university’s rector in order to preserve it from confiscation by Victor Immanuel II of Italy when he captured the city, and then returned to the college in a new location.  Forty years later the college sold it to Voynich, and eventually it was given to Yale University by book dealer Hans Kraus in 1969 after he failed to sell it.
        So, what is this mysterious thing and why has no one made any progress decoding its mysterious language?  If indeed it even has any meaning?  Among those who have tried to decipher the manuscript are (possibly) Dee, whose son reported that Dee had owned “a booke… containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon;” and Baresch, who “devoted unflagging toil” to the task; and Kircher, whose thoughts we have no record of.  Moreover, the manuscript was examined and hypothesized over by several distinguished professors in the early 20th century, and by
codebreakers from World War I and World War II.  William Friedman, most  famous for breaking Japan’s PURPLE cipher during World War II, spent much of his free time over four decades trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, before finally admitting defeat.  Recent computer analyses suggest that the language shares many characteristics with natural languages (as opposed to artificial language), and that its writing flows more smoothly than is consistent with encryption.
        What do we know?  Its origin is most likely Central Europe.  Analysis of the vellum tells us not only the date (1404-1438) but also that the vellum was not previously used and that it all comes from a single area.  This rules out all possibility of modern forgery as it would be impossible to collect that much unused ancient vellum from a single source.  All the inks and paints are also consistent with the same date.  This date of origin contradicts the early and popular claims of authorship by English polymath and possibly wizard Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who would be much too early.  It also casts some doubt on claims that the manuscript was made in the seventeenth century as a hoax intended to fool Baresch and/or Kirscher.
        So we don’t know much, but what have we speculated?  Almost everything.  Some of the more intriguing possibilities include glossolalia or similarities to Asian languages.  Some of the less possible possibilities include an author from ancient Egypt or outer space.  At any rate, I think it’s something cool!  As the author of the letter to Kircher wrote in 1665/6, “such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master.”
        You can see the whole weird thing here, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Library.

[Pictures: pages from the Voynich Manuscript, early 15th century (Images from Yale University).]

October 3, 2017

Tsoka's Happenings

        Here’s a cool linoleum block print I saw at the Davis Museum (Wellesley College) last week as part of a small exhibit on recent South African printmaking.  David Tsoka (South Africa, b. 1992) is a member of Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg and this piece, unlike the others in the exhibition, echoes and carries on the long tradition of South African linocuts.  However, Tsoka definitely brings his own, modern vibe to it.  For one thing, this piece is quite large, about 3x2 feet.  But even more so, its imagery borrows not so much from a consciously African aesthetic, as many of the South African block printmakers did in the mid twentieth century, but from large-scale sculpture, comic book illustrations, sci fi movies, and even Transformers.  Also, while the title All Things Began to Happen seems from the explosion of imagery in the piece like it might be a reference to the Big Bang, in fact Tsoka says it also refers to his own birth, and the beginning of his own life.  The piece is, in fact, about “the journey of life.”  Tsoka says that the gear-like shapes evoke the idea of the passage of time because the rusting of metal shows time.  I would think that gears also evoke time because of their reference to clockwork.
        I certainly don’t know what all the little scenes and elements of the piece refer to, but I really like the texture and vibrancy of it.  The wide variety of blade marks create a pleasing balance of shades, and the mostly abstract shapes evoke a variety of possible images.  It seems as if it’s about to resolve itself into recognizable scenes, but it never quite does.  Does it depict chaos in an orderly way, or order in a chaotic way?  And maybe that’s about right for life: all those little random moments simultaneously scattered and connected, coming together into a cohesive big picture despite there being no single obvious path or focal point.

[Picture: All Things Began to Happen, linocut by David Tsoka, 2013 (Photo by AEGN, Davis Museum).]

September 29, 2017

Words of the Month - Naming the Needful

        Not surprisingly, the English language has a plethora of words for money, especially slang words.  After all, the more we talk about something, the more words we come up with to spice up the conversation.  Here are a few of our words for that filthy lucre (which is from the King James translation of the Bible).

money - from Old French from Latin, in which moneta was the mint, so called from a title of the goddess Juno Moneta, in whose temple coins were minted.  (By the way, mint itself comes from the same root.)  Not until the early 19th century did money apply to paper bills as well as coins.

currency - used in 1699 by John Locke to refer to the flow or current of money in the economy.

cash - originally a money box in the 16th century, the secondary sense of the coins inside the money box took over as the sole meaning in the 18th century.

coin - from Old French for “wedge” because the die for stamping the coins was wedge-shaped.  (Yes, it’s related to quoin, “an external corner of a building.”)

bill - from the 166os, with a long history tracing back to Latin, of referring to receipts, formal documents, and official notices.

quid - 1680s, British pound, probably from Latin “that which is, what, something.”

bread - As mentioned back in May, bread is short for bread and honey, which rhymes with money.  However, a century before money was called “bread” it was already
dough - This slang usage appeared in the mid 19th century.  One source claims it’s a variant of bread, from the idea of the daily necessary basics of life, but since dough comes first by a full century, I don’t think that holds up.  Nevertheless, clearly the idea of conflating money with food is a popular one, as in
gravy, potatoes, chicken feed, peanuts, cabbage, kale, lettuce - (The last three, of course, are not just about food, but referring to the green leaves of US bills, like greenback.)

spondulicks - mid 19th c, possibly from Greek spondylos, a seashell used as neolithic currency.
buck - mid 19th c, a US dollar, possibly from buckskin as a unit of trade between Europeans and Native American Indians.
simoleon - 1895, a US dollar, unknown, but possibly from Napoleon, a late 19th century French gold coin, or semodius, a Roman coin
Clearly another recurring theme is calling money by the names of foreign currencies or money, including
shekels, gelt, wampum, dinero, ducats

boodle - mid 19th, usually graft money, possibly from Dutch boedel, “property, riches.”
pelf -  1500, originally stolen goods, then booty or loot (now distinctly archaic).
The underworld is a rich source of words for money, including the grand or G for a thousand dollars (1915).  The most popular letter indicating 1000 bucks has now shifted from G to
K - from kilo-, originally from the 1970s, but I suspect it really took off with all the talk about Y2K in the very late 20th c.

Another theme in money slang is references to the metals of which coins are made (or at least metals that seem jocularly similar), including
brass, nickel, tin

This is far from a comprehensive list of money words, but there were a handful that I hated to leave out because they’re such fun, but which, like so much slang, have unknown etymologies...

smacker - c. 1918 (maybe from being smacked into a palm?)
moolah - c. 1920
lolly - mid 20th c

        All these words clearly indicate a serious and abiding obsession with money, which is understandable, if perhaps not our noblest focus.  On the other hand, many of these words are purposely a bit silly and probably serve to lighten money talk so that the speaker sounds more off-hand or less seriously concerned with money.

[Pictures: Master of the Mint, wood block print by Jost Amman from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
The Rich Man, wood block print by Hans Holbein, before 1538 (Image from dodedans.com).]

September 26, 2017

This Holy Day

        News flash!  Great glad tidings!  My book of hours is now published and available on amazon!
        This Holy Day is just a little book, something that could be slipped in a purse or a desk drawer, or left in the car for some calm and beauty in times of rush and irritation.  It includes a selection of short verses for each of my “canonical hours” through the day, although unlike a traditional book of hours, I expect these short devotional pieces will be dipped into and sampled a little more casually, rather than being assigned to a specific rule.  (Previous post on medieval books of hours here.)  The verses I chose range from bits of psalms and hymns to excerpts from secular poetry that seem to me to celebrate that same joy in the awesome beauty around us.  I’ve also included a number of pieces I wrote myself over the years.  Although of course the psalms come from the Hebrew Bible and the hymns are Christian, it is my hope that these words will resonate with people from a wide range of religious backgrounds and spiritual experiences.  I believe that we’re all capable of connecting with that Spirit that is so much greater than any human understanding of it.
        For the illuminations, the primary pieces are my series of rubber block prints representing the “hours” of the day.  (Previous posts on the block prints here and here.)  In addition to these I created a different border pattern for each hour, and a final double page scene inspired by the metaphor of being held by Love, or “the whole world in God’s hands.”  I also used lots of my previous prints to illustrate and illuminate the pages throughout.  I think it’s turned out really pleasing!
        And so now it’s freshly available on amazon.   (I must say, I never imagined that I would be responsible for creating a book labelled “Self Help,” but that’s where amazon files it, since it’s the same category as “Personal Inspiration”.  It kind of cracks me up.)  As of now, the “Look Inside” feature is not active, but I hope it will be available before too long, and in the meantime, here are a couple of sample spreads so you can see how the pages are laid out.
        Finally, when you rush off to purchase copies for all your friends and family, please do so through Amazon Smile, to make sure that a fraction of your purchase price goes to the worthy cause of your choice (at no additional cost to you).  After all, although my book focusses primarily on the natural world for inspiration, it is in human interactions that our inspiration should be playing out.

[Pictures: cover and two interior spreads from This Holy Day, by AEGN, 2017.]

September 22, 2017

Poems of Middle Earth

        Today is Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, in honor of which let’s talk about the poetry that is such an important part of Middle Earth.  J.R.R. Tolkien loved poetry and wrote dozens and dozens of poems related to Middle Earth, and one of the things that he did particularly well was explore a whole range of registers and types of poetry.  He was, after all, a scholar and was familiar with the importance of poetry in pre-literate societies, when giving words rhyme and rhythm made it easier to remember and pass on everything from riddles to epic history.  Tolkien’s own poetry included casual snippets and entire long lays, elegant hymns, rollicking drinking songs, and somber laments.  He wrote marching songs, humorous ditties, prophesies, mnemonic lists, love songs, ballads, reimaginings of nursery rhymes, praises, elegies, trash-talking challenges, and more.  His characters knew and used poetry in all aspects of their lives, as  real people really do. (If you don’t believe me, revisit my previous posts Poetry is Everywhere.)  This idea of the wide variety of poetry in culture was extremely influential to me and inspired me to try writing many different types of poetry for my own fantasy Otherworld.  It’s a fun and challenging exercise that ensures you don’t end up making all your poems sound the same!
        As for Tolkien, here are a few samples of his poetry that I especially like.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? 
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing? 
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing? 
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing? 
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow; 
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. 
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, 
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
  This Lament for the Rohirrim is an elegy of a historical figure, and involves no actual magic, but I find it quite moving.  (From The Two Towers.)

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
        This one is more fun for its content than its actual poetry, but it’s a touchstone for all things Lord of the Rings, and fun to adapt and play off of, too.

        And I can’t fail to include my favorite Middle Earth poem of all (from The Hobbit):
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day,
To claim our long-forgotten gold.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

The pines were roaring on the height,
The winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red, it flaming spread;
The trees like torches blazed with light.

The bells were ringing in the dale
And men they looked up with faces pale;
The dragon’s ire more fierce than fire
Laid low their towers and houses frail.

The mountain smoked beneath the moon;
The dwarves they heard the tramp of doom.
They fled their hall to dying fall
Beneath his feet, beneath the moon.

Far over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

[Pictures: The Knight, wood block print from Caxton edition of Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, c1485 (Image from Luminarium);
One Ring scarf, design by Lyle Stafford, made by dhglenn (Image from Ravelry);
Untitled (Alpine Landscape), color woodcut by Oscar Droege, 20th century, probably 1920s-30s (Image from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).]

September 19, 2017

Block Prints by Murphy

        Today, as promised, I have some work by the husband of the previous artist featured.  John J.A. Murphy (USA, 1888-1967) was married to Cecil Buller, and both were active printmakers.  They shared a somewhat similar style in portraying the human body, stylized, with different areas modeled and shaded boldly.  They both made series with Biblical themes, Murphy illustrating the Stations of the Cross, among other things.  But as with Buller, Murphy’s bodies aren’t my favorites, and I’ve chosen pieces I like more.
        First, “The Morning Gossip,” which looks like a simple gathering of women chatting pleasantly, until you notice the figure on the outskirts in a black shawl, staring at the group of which she is not a part.  And the woman nearest her turns and looks over her shoulder.  Is it a warning to stay away?  Is it guilt?  Some of the other women have interesting expressions, as well, considering how simple their faces are.  I also like the variety of stripes on the women’s skirts, giving them interesting texture and an almost Cubist angularity.  This piece is pretty intense.
        The other pieces I have here today are from a series illustrating the Aberthaw Construction Company.  I don’t know the story behind them; I can only assume that Murphy was commissioned to celebrate/promote the company.  The second one suggests at first glance the Parthenon or some classical temple on an Olympus, perhaps reminding the viewer of the Aberthaw Construction Company’s noble work in building the grand cities of our golden future.  These have a very different sort of style from the first piece.  The people are small and quite simply silhouetted.  The buildings and construction projects are huge and magnificent, soaring to the skies.  And the cloudy skies are especially exuberant with their bold, curling, swooping lines.  These prints are listed
as wood engravings, and although their carving style does not look at all like engraving to me, they are quite small, only about 3 inches square.  I like how bold they are and how grand their views for such small images.
        (By the way, it turns out that Aberthaw Construction is still around, at 123 years old, and still constructing in the greater Boston area, including a few buildings I drive past on occasion.  It's fun to find a connection.)

[Pictures: The Morning Gossip, wood block print by John J.A. Murphy, first half of twentieth century (Image from Thomas Shahan);
Aberthaw Construction Company, wood engraving(?) by Murphy, 1919;
Aberthaw Construction Company, wood engraving(?) by Murphy, 1919 (Images from Art Institute of Chicago).]

September 15, 2017

Block Prints by Buller

        Cecil Buller (Canada, 1886-1973) is half of another block printing couple, and I’ll feature her husband next post.  As with my previous couple, the Zorachs, Buller and her husband have many similarities in their styles, but for now we’ll just look at her on her own.  One of her most famous projects was a series of illustrations for Song of Solomon, which naturally features lots and lots of embracing nudes.  In fact, Buller loves her nudes altogether, and her nudes are very characteristic of their time as well as her style.  They are very stylized, with lots of musculature and almost lumpiness of anatomy, as their bodies are composed of many areas, each formed and shaded with many strokes.  I confess to not being a huge fan, so the pieces I offer you today are those that stood out to me as being a little different and more appealing.
        First up is representative of some of Buller’s more expressionistic work.  It seems very symbolic, with its white-gowned maiden and black-robed crone.  I like the way the maiden’s garland is composed of such simple strokes with the multi-line tool, which yet so clearly resolve themselves into flowers.  I like the chandelier floating above like a celestial constellation instead of a light fixture.  I like the variety of marks and textures forming the different areas, especially the wall along the right, with all its doorways for entrances and exits.
        I also have two of the illustrations from Song of Solomon.  The first is what you might expect: the lovers in a beautiful garden in some secluded paradise.  They take pleasure in each other’s company among the palm trees beside a fountain.  It all looks very plausibly Biblical, despite the presence of that wonderful tropical traveller’s tree (ravenala) which is native to Madagascar and therefore presumably unknown to King Solomon.

On the other hand, perhaps Buller was very consciously placing her lovers in a non-Biblical setting as she did in this second illustration set in a city.  I really like this one (despite the danger of arrest for indecent exposure.)  I love the perspective of the skyscrapers towering over the viewer, the different facets of the buildings, the bright night sky, and the lovers glowing together in the darkness.

[Pictures: Theatre, wood engraving by Cecil Buller, 1950;
Song of Solomon, Chapter I, Verse 1, wood engraving by Buller, 1929;
Song of Solomon, Chapter III, Verse 2, wood engraving by Buller, 1929 (Images from National Gallery of Canada).]