After seeing the Tegu by Maria Sibylla Merian at The Morgan Library & Museum the other day, I was gripped by an acquisitive frenzy, and went off to Argosy Books in Manhattan in search of representations of lizards. Ms. Merian’s prints fetch upwards of $3,000 – the Tegu goes for over $8,000 where I’ve seen it – so I settled for a charming plate by her father, part of large publication on natural history, available in full, online here. Click the print for a large image of the plate at top.
Here in this dehumanizing machine known as Manhattan, there’s a lot to be seen on one’s lunch hour – a slack work-ethic helps.
I went to the Morgan Library to see its exhibit on animals in art, music, and literature. Yes, there were some bestiaries devoted to the theme of love. I hope Santorum is alerted.
I was drawn to the show by the magnificent Tegu lizard in the newspaper review: I love that pose!
The Grandeville satire below is typical of his sly work, which always shows French bourgeois mores in an animal light. Here a boring teacher drills his students who parrot his words and respond to his demands for conjugation with the fresh lines: “we are tired; you tire us.”
James Gillray’s early work was filled with animals because that was a very long tradition in satirical caricature, and because, how could he resist?, one of his principal subjects was James Fox, always referred to as Monsieur Reynard. This print, lacking his later complexity and pizzazz, nevertheless packs a lot into its simple composition. Note the understated slyness of the fox’s expression, peering down his long muzzle and over his paunch, and the attitudes of the rat-headed retainers. Art Spiegelman comes to mind, of course.
I love serial small images on paper. This page is titled, Affordable Animals, and was a cheap Dutch production intended for instructing young children.
The latest addition to my collection of Regency satirical prints: A Parliamentary Toast by Thomas Rowlandson. Alas, mine isn’t so clean and bright, and it’s mounted on card. The officers are bantering on the price they paid to get their commissions. The recipient of their bribes was the Duke of York, or his mistress Mrs. Clarke, who was proven to have worked her will on him to corrupt the military promotion process. She wrote a scandalous memoir that was suppressed only with difficulty.
Of course, there had to be more than mere money involved, don’t you think? The fellow sitting on the far right urges, “Come Jack, honor us with a toast,” and the standing officer obliges with a pun on the male anatomy: “Here is the Lady that can raise five hundred members!!“
Rowlandson did a series of prints on this scandal. The one directly below makes an oblique reference to Mrs. Clarke’s female anatomy, which is the sure road to advancement.
I began to walk down a steep path, winding like a serpent amidst the forest: at first in a light, elastic step; later, passing into a brisk, happy run which became gradually faster, until it resembled a gliding descent on skis. I could regulate my speed at will and change course by light movements of my body.
This passage is from the end of a chapter called “Cinnamon Shops” in a book of fiction by Bruno Schulz called The Street of Crocodiles. (Originally, it was titled, Cinnamon Shops). I have this dream sometimes, and it’s always very pleasant and positive. I don’t think I’ve ever read a description that so well captures the feeling and nature of my imaginary whooshing down the street.
Labels such as surrealist, magic realist, symbolist, etc. don’t do justice to the depth of feeling, the poetic atmosphere, and the richness of imagery and situation that Schulz creates in his stories. His father gives a metaphysical exposition of the significance of tailors’ dummies; he keeps an aviary in an attic room, and believes he can fly with the birds; a puppy named Nimrod; a glimpse of Pan incarnated in the person of a homeless wonderer surprised in an overgrown garden… I read on.
I don’t know how I found out about Bruno Schulz, or how I missed him all these years. I may have first seen one of his prints – made on scratched glass – from his suite called Idolatry.
Here is an excerpt from the conclusion of a chapter called The Gale. Father is lost in the storm. Two men go out to get him, but don’t get far. An aunt visits, has an altercation with a fowl, and shrinks to nothing!
Wrapped in great bearskins, they weighted their pockets with flat-irons and kitchen mortars for ballast, to prevent them from being swept away by the gale. Cautiously, the door was opened, leading into the night. Barely had the shop assistant and my brother taken their first step into the darkness, their overcoats swelling, when the night swallowed them whole on the threshold of the house. The gale washed away all trace of their departure in an instant. Even the lanterns they had taken with them were nowhere to be seen through the window.
Once it had engulfed them, the gale abated for a moment. Adela and Mother tried again to light a fire in the range. Ash and soot blew out through the tiny door, and their matches were extinguished. We stood by the entrance and listened, seeming to hear amid the gale’s laments all manner of voices, persuasions, exhortations and gossip. We thought we could hear Father, astray in the gale, calling for help, or my brother and Teodor chatting lightheartedly, just outside the door. So convincing were the gale’s deceptions that Adela flung the door open–and in fact we did catch sight of Teodor and my brother, struggling into view out of the gale, in which they were immersed shoulder high.
They fell breathless into the hallway, struggling to fasten the door behind them. For a moment it was all they could do to press themselves against the door, so powerfully was the gale assaulting the entrance. But at last the bolt was shot home, and the wind hastened away.
They spoke incoherently about the night and the gale. Their furs, impregnated by the wind, now smelt of air. They fluttered their eyelids in the brightness, and their eyes, still full of the night, bled darkness with every beat of their lids. They had not been able to reach the shop. They had lost their way, and barely managed to find their way back. The town had been unrecognisable, so disarranged were all the streets.
Mother suspected that they were lying. That whole scene, in fact, gave the impression that throughout that whole quarter of an hour they had been standing by the window, and gone nowhere at all. Or perhaps there really was no town or market square any more, and the night and the gale had merely surrounded our house with dark coulisses, full of howling, whistling and groans. Perhaps there were no such enormous and doleful expanses as the gale had suggested to us. Perhaps there were no such lamentable labyrinths, such many-windowed passageways and corridors, played by the gale like long, black flutes. We became increasingly convinced that the whole storm was merely the quixotism of the night, imitating tragical immensities in the narrower space of coulisses, acting out the cosmic homelessness and orphanhood of a gale.
More and more often now, the door to our hallway was opened to admit guests, grey and muffled in cloaks. A breathless neighbour or acquaintance would struggle out of his scarf and overcoat and exclaim in gasps, in a breathless voice, discontinuous, incoherent and fantastically magnified words which unreliably exaggerated the immensity of the night outside. We all sat in the brightly lit kitchen. Beyond the hearth of the range, beyond the wide black hood of the chimney, a few steps led to the attic door.
On those stairs sat Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening intently as the attic rang throughout with the gale. He could hear in the gale’s pauses how the bellows of the attic’s ribs arranged themselves into folds, how the roof grew limp, and sagged like enormous lungs whose breath has escaped them, and how it drew breath once more, rising up into palisades of rafters, growing like a Gothic vault, spreading out into a forest of beams, filled with a hundredfold echo, how it reverberated like the box of an enormous double bass. But later, we forgot about the gale. Adela was pounding cinnamon in a chiming mortar. Aunt Perazja had come to visit. Small, mobile and thrifty, the lace of her black shawl tied around her head, she began to bustle about the kitchen, lending a hand to Adela, who had plucked a cockerel. Aunt Perazja lit a handful of papers under the hood of the chimney, and broad sheets of flame rose up from them, into the air, into the black abyss. Adela, holding the cockerel by its neck, lifted it over the flames in order to burn off its few remaining feathers. Suddenly, the cockerel beat its wings in the fire, crowed, and was consumed. Aunt Perazja began to shake, to curse and shout abuses. Shaking with vexation, she shook her fists at Adela and Mother. I had no idea what had so upset her, but she worked herself up in her anger into an ever rising state of frenzy–she became one great cluster of gesticulations and execrations. It seemed that she would gesticulate herself to pieces in that paroxysm of vexation, divide, and disperse in all directions, into a hundred spiders, and branch out across the floor in a black, twinkling burst like the paths of crazy cockroaches. But instead, she began to grow rapidly smaller, to contract, trembling more and more and pouring out profanities. Suddenly hunched and small, she tottered to the corner of the kitchen where the firewood was stacked. Cursing and coughing, she began to rummage fervidly among the resounding wood, until she found two thin yellow splinters. She seized them, her hands fluttering with agitation, and measured them against her legs. She mounted them like stilts, and proceeded to walk around on those yellow crutches, clattering over the floorboards, running faster and faster, back and forth in an oblique line across the floor. Then she ran up onto a pine bench, hobbling along its clattering planks, and from there onto a shelf of plates, a resounding wooden shelf running the whole length of the kitchen wall. She ran along it, her knees propelling her stiltlike crutches, finally–somewhere in the corner, growing smaller and smaller–to blacken and curl up like shrivelled, charred paper, smouldering into a flake of ash, crumbling into dust and nothingness.
We all stood helpless before that raging fury of vexation that had consumed and digested itself. We looked with sympathy on the sad course of that paroxysm, and returned to our everyday tasks somewhat relieved when that woeful process had come to its natural end.
Adela once more clattered her mortar, pounding the cinnamon, whilst Mother continued her interrupted conversation, and Teodor, the elder shop assistant, listening to the attic’s prophesies, pulled comical grimaces, raising high his eyebrows and chuckling to himself.
Translated by John Curran Davis – Draft of September 2010 - www.schulzian.net
I took a bike ride along the Delaware-Raritan Canal near Princeton yesterday, and after lunch, I made a brief visit to the art museum on the university campus. There, I saw an exhibit of shapes from the Shape Project of Allan McCollum. His objective is to have a unique shape for every human being on the planet. He does not produce them with a computer algorithm: he assembles them individually from a ‘catalogue’ of elements that he has created and indexed, using Adobe software, and then he prints them, or gives them to others to make sculpture, decorations, or whatever they like. Obviously, he cannot create even the few billion shapes that are needed right now: he just started the process, created a tool to index them so that no shape is repeated, and got the ball rolling.
If you visit this site and do the math – 144 top parts, 12 middle, or neck parts, 144 bottom parts – you will see that 61,917,364,224 unique shapes are possible. The idea that everyone could have an ID# number is easy to grasp, even though we recoil at the thought, but the notion of a shape for each of us seems somehow humane, sort of cool. I like to think that in the future, when this crazy project is fully realized, parents will give their children shapes using some of the parts in their shapes, so the forms will be passed on down through the generations, changing with the genetic lineages of their family. Will certain nations and regions have distinct tendencies in shape selection, leading to regional variation and cultural identification? Doesn’t that happen now? Isn’t that what we call culture?
As I posted earlier, I have been venturing into Japanese flower arranging. The pull of the Japanese minimalist aesthetic is very powerful for me, and I was first introduced to it in college when I took a survey course on Japanese art. I have thought about it a lot, and I decided to write my professor a thank-you note about it – thirty years late. It took a bit of doing to locate her – her name has changed – and in searching, I came across a talk she gave about this famous print by Hokusai, “The Great Wave.” [Complete talk here: Totebags, Teeshirts, and Tableware: The Domestication of Hokusai's Great Wave.]
In her talk, she addresses issues of the commercialization of art, mass reproduction of images and commoditization for the consumer economy, cultural appropriation of icons, and the history of japonisme in Western art. The latter has been known for a century among art scholars as an important influence on Art Nouveau, Impressionism, and other trends, but it was brought to the fore in the public mind with one of Thomas Hoving’s first “blockbuster” exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Among the ironies Professor Guth points out is that in Japan in the 1970s, Hokusai, and the Ukiyo-e genre in which he worked, was not exactly a universally lauded high point of Japanese culture. Indeed, he was considered a practioner of a rather disreputable art form, and not a member of the high-art pantheon, not the least because he worked in woodblock prints, a medium intended for popular mass consumption. Ukiyo-e, the floating world, is the culture of the pleasure district, if not the red light district, and one of his more kinky essays in that direction is shown here:
Imagine this on display in a high-profile exhibit of loan works from Japan during its heyday as the International Bogeyman of the American economy!
Guth takes a broad minded view of the inevitable mixing of art and commerce, tracing the ways in which museums aided the transformation of The Great Wave into one of the most recognizable images of Japanese art today. She dismisses the attitude of one critic whom she quotes early on as saying that museums must hold the line between art and mass-consumption, accepting the situation of today. After all, anytime you put a person in front of art, you never know what kind of experience they will have. An opposing view, whether from the right or the left of the political spectrum, decries the degeneration of cultural capital in favor of profit, spectacle, kitsch…etc., sharing a remarkably similar lack of confidence in the power of ordinary people to evolve imaginative responses of their own to art works.
I became aware of the ubiquity (highlighted at this blog) of the Hokusai print myself when I noticed the logo of a clothing line with which my son was obsessed during his skateboarding phase. I don’t think I have seen another example of the appropriation of the image through such abstraction.
I went to a wonderful exhibit of prints by Albrecht Durer today, including many of his most famous – The Knight, Death, and the Devil, Melancholia, and St. Jerome in his study. Looking at the detail from an image in his Apocalypse series shown above, (full image) I was struck by the forlorn aspect of this beast from hell as he vomits fire onto the world. He doesn’t want to do it, but he must. It’s his life. Laying waste to the world. Godzilla had his tragic aspect too, no?
I was also struck by the vomit imagery, so much like this visual trope that is to be found in Maakies again and again. (See the whole strip here.) It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Tony Millionaire were a fan of Durer.
And then, there is that beautiful image of the Prodigal Son at the moment when he is inspired to return to his father and beg his forgiveness. I can’t help but think that the pigs, on which Durer has lavished so much loving attention, are looking at the wayward son slyly, a little knowingly…”Oh, you’re leaving are you? Well, be gone with you. We have eating to do…“
I was much taken as well by this image of Christ before Pilate, a woodcut from his Small Passion series. I love the slightly crazy steps, rendered carefully in perspective but not like any steps I’ve seen lately. They give it a slightly dreamlike atmosphere, I think.
I am always on the lookout for sources of new stimulation, literary and visual. Sometimes this means I stumble on something that has been around for a while without my knowing about it. So it is with the comics of Tony Millionaire. He is known not so much for “graphic novels” as for a syndicated comic strip, “Maakies” that I am sure that I have seen many times – I don’t know where – and for which I now have an intense enthusiasm after reading his latest book of collected strips.
Millionaire (presumably a pen name, though he has denied it) has a style that is rich and detailed. His landscapes recall to my mind those of R. Crumb, though their style is otherwise very different. They do share an intense dedication to the possibilities of black and white ink line work and to exploiting control and detail. I also think of Windsor Mckay (Little Nemo and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend). Another illustrator, one of my favorites, W. Heath Robinson, comes to mind, but in a recent email exchange with Millionaire, he said he’d never heard of Robinson. (“Is he funny?” he asked.)
Maakies (why the name, I dunno) is very funny, absurd, wierd, extremely vulgar, sometimes scatological…I could go on. It also veers into the literary and metaphysical with bizarre wit. I frequently exploded in laughter to tears on reading some of the strips in “With the Wrinkled Knees,” the new collection. The ones I read mostly featured a perpetually drunken crow (Drinky Crow) that seems like Heckel or Jekyll on a bender, and his Uncle Gabby, a mentally deviant (Irish?) monkey. Many of the strips play out in a nautical setting that seems lifted from hallucinations induced by 19th century searfaring stories – Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym”, and London’s “Sea Wolf” come to mind, but you need to imagine them through the fog of psychosis or radical inebriation.
Click on the strips below to see a full-size image -
Nautical Phantasy Maakies:
These strips bring up an arcane association in my mind, the 19th century novel, Atar Gull, by Eugene Sue. That story shared a nautical setting with Maakies, and it was about Gull, a captured African being transported to the slave market and his subsequent escape and adventures. The slave captain is a total opium addict – in fact, so deep is his addiction that he believes his opium dreams to be reality, and he is certain that the hellish life on board the slave ship is simply his bad dreams.
In the book/film, Black Robe, the story of French Jesuit missionaries in Canada in the early 17th century, there is a passage in which one of the priests demonstrates the power of writing to the Algonquins. They have no equivalent tool in their culture. He takes aside one tribe member and asks him to whisper his name into his ear. He writes the name on a piece of paper and then hands it to another missionary who is standing some distance away. The second man speaks the name of the Algonquin and all the tribesmen are amazed. How did the name travel across space? There was no sound, no hand signs. Somehow, the name was captured in the scratches of black on the piece of paper!
Works on paper take the ideas and images of the creator and capture them for us to see, so that we can digest them in our minds. I have always thought about this a lot, this is what art is (and not just on paper) but lately I’ve been thinking about it on paper because of my preoccupation with James Gillray and comics. If you doubt that last connection, click on this thumbnail and examine this work from 1800 by Gillray: “Democracy: or a Sketch of the Life of [Napoleon] Buonaparte.”
For a superb social history of the English satirical print in the time of Gillray, I recommend the immensely enjoyable and beautifully produced book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in 18th Century London by Vic Gatrell. You will even get a history of laughter!
The history of comics, and its relationship to art and ideas is wonderfully presented by Scott McCloud in his book, Understanding Comics.
Of course, the title is a nod to Marshall McCluhan’s Understanding Media, which is the inspiration for his text, although I think McCloud is better at explaining his more clear and sensible ideas than was McCluhan. Perhaps too, McCloud is a fan of the book that I never tire of promoting,
Prints and Visual Communication, by William Ivins. This book delves into the fundamental philosophical issues of just what reproduced images, i.e., prints, are, and what they do to us and for us. It tells us how they became ubiquitous – the movement towards mass reproduction of photographs in periodicals is the epic challenge motivating the ‘plot’ of the book – and lets us imagine what the world would have been like before this earthshaking change.
Meanwhile, these panels are from the comic tale, “One of the Wonders of the World,” by Richard Sala. This is, perhaps, my all-time favorite. I hope to post more on comics, with more examples, later.