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Posts Tagged ‘art history

“A Witch is born out of the true hungers of her time”*…

 

Witch

In 1488 during the reign of Henry VII, one year after the Dominican Heinrich Kramer wrote his notorious witch-finding manual Malleus Maleficarum, an adolescent girl named Agatha Soothtell gave birth in a cave among the dales and moors of Yorkshire to her daughter Ursula, supposedly conceived by the Devil himself. Ironically it was there in “God’s Own Country” that young Agatha would raise her demonic charge, both of them forced to live in the cave where Ursula was born. The site that would be visited by pilgrims for centuries afterwards, making it arguably England’s first tourist attraction, was known as much for the strange calcifying waters of its subterranean whirlpool as for its medieval Satanic nativity.

Most sources claimed that Ursula died during the rule of Elizabeth I in 1561, but with eight decades separating her supposed death and the first appearance of her name in print, it’s fair to assume a degree of invention in her biography. Despite her legendary ugliness (Ursula’s seventeenth-century biographer described her as “a thing so strange in an infant, that no age can parallel”) at the age of twenty-four she married a carpenter named Toby Shipton, and it is to posterity that she would come to be known as “Mother Shipton”. A less appropriate surname, because as “Smith” and “Taylor” indicate profession, so too did “Soothtell”. Mother Shipton would become the most famed of soothe tellers in English history, renowned for her prophecies and used as a symbolic familiar in the art of divination for generations, the very constructed personage of the seer, a work of poetry unto herself. As scholar Darren Oldridge writes, “Unlike other ‘ancient prophets’ who were known by their words alone, Shipton emerged as a personality in her own right”…

Mother Shipton was Yorkshire’s answer to Nostradamus. Ed Simon looks into how, regardless of whether this prophetess witch actually existed or not, the legend of Mother Shipton has wielded great power for centuries— from the turmoil of Tudor courts, through the frictions of civil war, to the specter of Victorian apocalypse: “Divining the Witch of York: Propaganda and Prophecy.”

See also “Woodcuts and Witches,” an explanation of how the rise of the mass-produced woodcut in early modern Europe helped forge the archetype of the broom-riding crone.

Then watch Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages, an extraordinary 1922 Scandinavian film by Benjamin Christensen. As you’ll see, it’s a curious (and groundbreaking) mix of documentary and silent horror cinema. Most films of the period were literary adaptations; but Christensen’s take was unique, based on non-fiction works, mainly a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft that he found in a Berlin bookshop.

* Ray Bradbury, Long After Midnight

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As we search for our eye of newt, we might note that today is All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween.  Many Halloween traditions originated from ancient pagan Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was Christianized as Halloween in the eighth century, by Pope Gregory III.

The original reason for disguise on Samhain was to prevent lonely spirits recognizing and snatching one away to their between-the-worlds home; it was an additional bonus that the costumes allowed you to lead a mini-riot without being recognized.  The custom of trick-or-treating seems to date to the 19th century in England, when people went house-to-house in costume at Halloween, reciting verses in exchange for food, and sometimes warning of misfortune if they were not welcomed.  It seems to have taken off in the U.S in the 1920s.  The custom of making jack-o’-lanterns began in Ireland in the 19th century; “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces,” were used at Halloween in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

Special Halloween bonus: Jacques Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal, a monumental compendium of all things diabolical, was first published in 1818 to much success; but it was the fabulously-illustrated final edition of 1863 that secured the book as a landmark in the study and representation of demons.  Read “Defining the Demonic,” then page through the 1863 edition at The Internet Archive (whence every item in this post).

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Written by LW

October 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

“What is admirable about the fantastic is that there is no longer anything fantastic: there is only the real.”*…

 

surreal

“Let’s Put Out the Light and Rekindle the Fire!,” from La Silhouette, June 24, 1830

 

The poet Charles Baudelaire greatly admired the graphic arts, writing several essays about the major caricaturists and illustrators of his day. He found something positive to say about each of them with one exception, the artist Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard, known simply as Grandville (1803–1847). And yet, despite Baudelaire’s antipathy, Grandville is arguably the most imaginative graphic artist of the nineteenth century, as well as the most influential on subsequent generations. Baudelaire was well aware of Grandville’s gifts, but his aversion was that of a true classicist:

There are superficial people whom Grandville amuses, but as for me, he frightens me. When I enter into Grandville’s work, I feel a certain discomfort, like in an apartment where disorder is systematically organized, where bizarre cornices rest on the floor, where paintings seem distorted by an optic lens, where objects are deformed by being shoved together at odd angles, where furniture has its feet in the air, and where drawers push in instead of pulling out.

Baudelaire’s comments were perceptive: these are the very characteristics that, while making him uncomfortable, appealed to the next century’s surrealist artists and writers who saw in Grandville a kindred spirit who shared their interest in the uncanny, in the dream state, and in the world of imagination…

With its dreamlike inversions and kaleidoscopic cast of anthropomorphic objects, animals, and plants, the world of French artist J. J. Grandville is at once both delightful and disquieting. Patricia Mainardi explores the unique work of this 19th-century illustrator now recognized as a major precursor and inspiration to the Surrealist movement: “Grandville, Visions, and Dreams.”

* André Breton

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As we revel in the revolutionary, we might send finely-drawn birthday greetings to Giovanni Battista (also Giambattista) Piranesi; he was born on this date in 1720.  An Italian artist, he is best known for his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric “prisons” (Le Carceri d’Invenzione).  The latter, with their Kafkaesque, Escher-like distortions, influenced Romanticism and perhaps especially Surrealism.

Carceri Plate VII – “The Drawbridge”

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Self-portrait

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Written by LW

October 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life—bios—graphically on a map”*…

 

Carmel

A Jo Mora carte of Carmel-By-The-Sea, made in 1942. Larger image at David Rumsey Map Collection

 

Joseph Jacinto Mora knew all the dogs in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. He knew Bess, a friendly brown mutt who hung out at the livery stables. He knew Bobby Durham, a pointy-eared rascal who, as Mora put it, “had a charge [account] and did his own shopping at the butcher’s.” He knew Captain Grizzly, an Irish terrier who went to town with his muzzle on and invariably came back carrying it, having charmed a kind stranger into taking it off.

If you spend time with Mora’s map of the town—which was first printed in 1942—you’ll know the town dogs of that era, too. They’re all stacked in a column on the right side, lovingly described and illustrated, and looking as natural as those items you’d be more inclined to expect on a map: streets, land masses, the compass rose. On this particular map, those elements aren’t so typical either: the streets are strewn with tiny houses, and both the land and sea are peppered with busy people. The compass rose is rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise, and—as befits an artist’s town—is helmed by a painter, a performer, a writer, and a musician.

Such is the way of a Jo Mora map. Over the course of his life, the “Renaissance Man of the West,” as some have called him, packed history, geography, and personal details into a series of maps of different parts of California. Although well-known in his time—“Mora has produced works of art which have told their story to more persons, probably, than have the works of any other Californian,” columnist Lee Shippey wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1942—he has largely fallen out of the public consciousness. But a few minutes with one of his maps plunges you back into his era, and his own worldview…

Jo Mora poured the state’s whole history—and his own life—into his incredibly detailed, whimsical maps.  More of his own extraordinary story at “The Cowboy Cartographer Who Loved California.”  Browse a wonderful selection of his works at the glorious David Rumsey Map Collection.

* Walter Benjamin

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As we find our place, we might send delightfully drawn birthday greetings to Ben Shahn; he was born on this date in 1898.  A photographer and artist, known for his social realism, he earned acclaim in a variety of fields:  Edward Steichen selected Shahn’s work, including his October 1935 photograph The family of a Resettlement Administration client in the doorway of their home, Boone County, Arkansas, for MoMA’s world-touring The Family of Man which was seen by 9 million visitors; he was selected as a painter to join Willem de Kooning in representing the United States at the 1954 Venice Biennale; and his commercial illustration (like his well-known 1965 portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the cover of Time) earned him membership in the Art Director’s Club Hall of Fame.  His published writings, including The Biography of Painting and The Shape of Content, have ben enormously influential in the art world.

220px-Ben_Shahn_artist source

 

Written by LW

September 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I see black light”*…

 

Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi
da Caravaggio used ivory black to convey asceticism, piety, and inspiration in his 1605-6 painting, St Jerome Writing.

Suddenly, black was everywhere. It caked the flesh of miners and ironworkers; it streaked the walls and windows of industrial towns; it thickened the smoky air above. Proprietors donned black clothing to indicate their status and respectability. New black dyes and pigments created in factories and chemical laboratories entered painters’ studios, enabling a new expression for the new themes of the industrial age: factory work and revolt, technology and warfare, urbanity and pollution, and a rejection of the old status quo. A new class of citizen, later to be dubbed the “proletariat,” began to appear in illustrations under darkened smokestacks. The industrial revolution had found its color…

Black is technically an absence: the visual experience of a lack of light. A perfect black dye absorbs all of the light that impinges on it, leaving nothing behind. This ideal is remarkably difficult to manufacture. The industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries made it easier, providing chemists and paint-makers with a growing palette of black—and altering the subjects that the color would come to represent. “These things are intimately connected,” says science writer Philip Ball, author of Bright Earth: The Invention of Color. The reinvention of black, in other words, went far beyond the color.

In the 20th century, a flood of new black paints would inspire a new set of artistic styles that took on modern subjects and themes. “Black was increasingly connected with industry, technology, and the urban environment,” says Erma Hermens, who leads the Technical Art History Group at the University of Glasgow. “Black becomes a statement.” Black also helped artists to delineate a new period in the history of art. “It was saying that the time of classical painting was past,” says Ball, “that we’re using modern materials in a modern way.”…

Black through the ages– as the means of creating the color black have changed, so have the subjects it represents: “The Reinvention of Black.”

(And looking forward, consider the implications of the newest technological revolution in creating black: vantablack.)

* Victor Hugo’s last words

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As we paint it black, we might send a finely-limned birthday card to Jacques-Louis David; he was born on this date in 1748.  A master of cerebral “history painting, he is considered the preeminent artist of the French Neoclassical period.   David had a great many pupils and followers, making him the strongest influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially on academic Salon painting.

 

Written by LW

August 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults”*…

 

cards

Bumblepuppist

Definition – a bad whist player

Every so often you need a specific insult, and bumblepuppist is about as specific as they get. We will grant you that the game of whist is not as popular as it once was, having been edged out by newfangled card games such as euchre and canasta, but once upon a time whist was the most deucedly popular card game in the land. This ranks pretty high on the list of words which are likely inapplicable in your life, but imagine how excited you will be if you do meet someone who not only plays whist, but is bad at it, and you have the appropriate descriptor.

Bumblepuppist is also sometimes rendered as bumblepupper, and the word for “whist played poorly or without regard for rules” is bumblepuppy (from bumble and puppy).

“Bumblepuppy,” as defined by a renowned authority upon whist, is a game played by people who imagine that they are playing whist, but who in reality know nothing of that intricate game.
— The New York Times, 1 Jul. 1883

Just one in a collection of put-downs bigger than the sum of their parts: “8 Insults Made Up of a Noun and a Verb.”

* Louis Nizer

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As we test the limits of civility, we might send fascinating birthday greetings to Fernando Arrabal Terán; he was born on this date in 1932.  A playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, and poet, the New York Times’ Mel Gussow has called him the last survivor among the “three avatars of modernism.”  In 1962, Arrabal co-founded the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, inspired by the god Pan.  In 1990 he was elected Transcendent Satrap of The Collège de ‘Pataphysique, a “society committed to learned and inutilious research” (“inutilious” = “useless”).  Forty other Transcendent Satraps have been elected over the past half-century, including Marcel Duchamp, Eugène Ionesco, Man Ray, Boris Vian, Dario Fo, Umberto Eco, and Jean Baudrillard.  Arrabal spent three years as a member of André Breton’s surrealist group and was a friend of Andy Warhol and Tristan Tzara.  A chess fanatic (a passion he shared with Duchamp), Arrabal wrote a chess column for the French weekly L’Express for over thirty years.

200px-Fernando_Arrabal,_2012 source

 

Written by LW

August 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary”*…

 

ernst_ludwig_kirchner_-_czardas_dancers_-_google_art_project

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, CZARDAS DANCERS, 1908

 

Ugliness has never been the subject of much scrutiny. For the most part, artists and thinkers have treated ugliness as an immutable category, filled with things they simply didn’t like. These included dangerous landscapes, people with disabilities, and objects that showed signs of too much use. When survival was a number one priority, people viewed anything potentially threatening as ugly. And for the most part, ugly works, particularly pieces that were unintentionally ugly, were forgotten to history.

As a result, the most significant ugly works created before the nineteenth century were intentionally ugly, created by technically skilled painters who decided, for whatever reason, to depict an ugly subject. Often, ugly art was created as a warning. There but for the grace of God go I, screams the gargoyle clinging to a medieval facade. To contemporary eyes, the art of the Dark Ages looks ugly as a whole (consider this great Vox explainer about ugly babies in medieval paintings.) At the time, however, people didn’t consider the malformed dogs or awkward hat-wearing crows to be ugly, though they did know that doom paintings, which depict the worst-case afterlife scenarios, were hideous. Doom paintings highlight the difference between heaven and hell in order to strike fear into the heart of viewers and thus discourage them from, say, coveting their neighbor’s hot spouse or lying when the tax official came around to collect coins. Sometimes these paintings function like the medieval version of Jonathan Edward’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermons: they actually make the afterlife look interesting, stimulating, and perhaps even a little bit appealing…

A consideration of the less-than-beautiful in Western art through the ages: “Ugliness Is Underrated: In Defense of Ugly Paintings.”

* “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace”  -Marquis de Sade

(Echoed by Umberto Eco: “Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules … Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.”)

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As we agonize over aesthetics, we might spare a thought for Lucas van Leyden; he died on this date in 1533.  A seminal Dutch artist, he was among the first Dutch exponents of genre painting and is generally regarded as a very accomplished engraver.

220px-Durer-Lucas-Van-Leyden

A portrait of Lucas van Leyden by Albrecht Dürer, June 1521

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Written by LW

August 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Life swarms with innocent monsters”*…

 

MS H.8, Fol. 191 verso, St. Martha taming the tarasque. St. Martha preaching (margin), and initial O, “Hours of Henry VIII”MS H.8, "Hours of Henry VIII,” book of hours, France, Tours, ca. 1500

“The Taming the Tarasque,” from Hours of Henry VIII, France, Tours, ca. 1500

 

From dragons and unicorns to mandrakes and griffins, monsters and medieval times are inseparable in the popular imagination. But medieval depictions of monsters—the subject of a fascinating new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan [which includes the image above]—weren’t designed simply to scare their viewers: They had many purposes, and provoked many reactions. They terrified, but they also taught. They enforced prejudices and social hierarchies, but they also inspired unlikely moments of empathy. They were medieval European propaganda, science, art, theology, and ethics all at once…

Finding the meaning in monsters: “The Symbols of Prejudice Hidden in Medieval Art.”

* Charles Baudelaire

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As we decode dragons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1542, with Pope Paul III’s papal bull Licet ab initio, that the Roman Inquisition formally began.  In the tradition of the medieval inquisitions, and “inspired” by the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition gave six cardinals six cardinals the power to arrest and imprison anyone suspected of heresy, to confiscate their property, and to put them to death.

While not so much in the prudish spirit of Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,”  the Roman Inquisition– which lasted in the 18th century– was ruthless in rooting out what it considered dangerous deviations from orthodoxy.  Copernicus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and Cesare Cremonini were all persecuted.  While only Bruno was executed, the others were effectively (or actually) banished, and in the cases of Copernicus and Galileo, their works were placed on  the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books).

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Written by LW

July 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

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