The aged are inclined to live in the past. In 1576, when Thomas Platter was seventy-seven, he published a charming autobiography. It would be admired centuries later by Goethe. Platter was the son of Swiss peasants. In Europe, the explosion of printing begun in the fifteenth century made advanced education available beyond the traditional literary elite, and Platter had learned seven languages and ended as a schoolteacher in Basel. As a legacy of his success, both of his sons, Felix and Thomas, became physicians. In 1599 the brothers were well enough off to partake of the new fad of international tourism, and they traveled to London. In his travel diary the younger brother, Thomas, describes attending a play “very pleasingly performed” on September 21. The drama was a tragedy concerning the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Felix is sometimes remembered for being one of the first to articulate a theory of germs. Thomas is remembered for having attended a play.
Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing,something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious more beautiful — more lasting than life itself.
— Charles Rennie Mackintosh, from “Seemliness” (1902 lecture)
Albrecht Altdorfer, a contemporary of Copernicus who worked in Regensburg (today a German city of 138,0000 near the Austria and Czechia borders), was a leader of the Danube school of painting. These painters spearheaded a move toward landscape painting in its own right, as opposed to using landscape mainly as a background for setting classical and biblical scenes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this small oil painting. St. George and the dragon are dwarfed by trees in a woodsy setting. In fact, some of the leaves appear nearly as big as the dragon, whose appearance is more that of a hapless toad of the traditional ferocious fire breather. Many critics, such as Linda Murray in The High Renaissance and Mannerism (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), call Altdorfer the first modern landscape painter. A number of his painters contain no figures at all — Altdorfer also worked as an architect, and some depict lonely ruins at twilight.
Altdorfer cleverly uses lighting effects to bring out the figures from the background and give the scene a sense of mystery. The effect is a strange stillness that is at odds with the traditional dynamism and violence of depictions of this subject.
- The most famous of all musicians is Brian ENO.
- Anything mixed up is an OLEO. Not to be confused with AIOLI, foremost among condiments, or OREO, the most popular snack ever.
- All Asian holidays are TET.
- Scandinavian queens like to name their sons OLAV.
- A poem is probably an ODE.
- If you’re on the water you must be ASEA, and very likely ALEE.
- To get someone’s attention, say PSST.
- Taps nearly always produce ALE. But MEAD is a more popular drink than anyone knew (other than crossword constructors). It is nearly always poured from a EWER.
- History is the study of ERAS. Perhaps the most important is that of Pope LEOIV.
- If you only know one muse, make her ERATO.
- Native Americans are often ERIE, which is also by far the greatest of the Great Lakes.
- The most significant architectural features are the APSE and the NAVE.
- Of all of the stories in the bible, the most compelling are those of ENOS and ESAU.
- Don’t forget your SSN.
- When climbing, keep an eye out for ARETES.
- Shakespeare never produced a greater line than “ET TU, Brute.”
- Pinyin has still not been accepted for romanizing Chinese in Crosswordese. Never write Laozi, always Lao TSE.
- A great jazz singer is ELLA. Hey, they got one right!
Greg Fallis, on the website gregfallis.com, does a service in reminding us of the history of the statues of the Charging Bull and the Fearless Girl. I live on the West Coast, and the last time I saw the Bull in the Bowling Green of the Financial District in Manhattan, New York City, the Fearless Girl had not yet been installed.
But I cannot agree with the conclusion Fallis draws from that history. He reminds us that Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant who produced the bull at his own expense, created it to represent “the strength and power of the American people.”
The Girl, on the other hand, was commissioned by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. It was intended as corporate marketing. So that seems to be a mark against the Girl.
Additionally, Fallis notes that the Girl draws her strength from the Bull, so she in effect is parasitic on it. “A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art,” Fallis says, “to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art” (Di Modica installed the Bull without permission from the city).
This small (15.75 x 12.25 in.) watercolor is called Das große Rasenstück in German, which is most often translated as The Great Piece of Turf. Some of its greatness lies in that fact that in one sense it is not great at all — it’s just a seemingly ordinary couple of square feet of weeds and grasses. According to Tom Lubbock in The Independent, the plants can be identified as “cock’s-foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow grass, daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, greater plantain, hound’s-tongue and yarrow.” Not focal plants for most gardeners.
Recently I visited Sohier Park in Cape Neddick, York, Maine (near Ogunquit). About 100 yards offshore on a small rocky island perches one of the prettiest lighthouses I have seen, called Nubble Light House. The lighthouse was built in 1879, and the original lighthouse and perhaps outbuildings are still standing (though no doubt much repaired and updated). The 41-foot-high lighthouse — built of cast iron lined with brick and equipped with a Fresnel lens — remains in use today.
No. 85000844 on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse is a New England icon: its image was included among the Voyager spacecraft materials so that any extraterrestials the ship encounters can gape at it, just as we do. The day before we visited we were hit by an April Fool’s Day storm that dumped ten inches of snow on us. But when we got to the lighthouse the sky was clear and blue.
The visit to Nubble made me recall a few other lighthouses I’ve visited, some of which I was able to dig up from my photo files. My favorites are two Northern California lighthouses, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse near Pescadero (the tallest on the U.S. Pacific coast), and the Point Cabrillo Light Station near Mendocino.
The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse near Mendocino (and the small community of Caspar) is one of the most complete remaining lighthouse complexes.
Subtle, sweet, subversive, and sly, The Lost Poems of Cangjie will leave many readers puzzled – and, equally, delighted. The core of the book consists of two series of lyrical, imagistic poems, both apparently made up of fragmented ancient Chinese verses somewhat in the style of the classic Book of Songs. Individual poems mostly are short, both in line length and in number of lines, and most explore themes of longing and forbidden love.
I’m not kidding when I say ancient. The two poem sequences, as explained in a sort of Borgesian prose frame that describes their origin and discovery, were preserved in scrolls concealed within one of the terra-cotta warriors of the First Emperor’s underground army. One, the “Beta Scroll,” was written near the time of their concealment, which is to say, around 210 BCE, when the Qin dynasty collapsed and was replaced with the Han. (That places these verses roughly contemporaneous with the poems of Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the Argonautica, and a good century and a half before Vergil.)
But that’s nothing compared to the longer “Alpha Scroll,” which is attributed to Cangjie, the legendary founder of Chinese writing. He is supposed to have lived two and a half millennia earlier still, during the reign of the primogenitor of Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor. In other words, he is more distant in the past from the author of the Beta Scroll than we are in the present. If these poems are indeed the work of Cangjie, that would make them the oldest extant poems in the world by a considerable margin.
Despite the vast time separation, the two scrolls are similar both stylistically and thematically. This may be attributable in part to the transcription (or translation) of the Cangjie poems by the later Chinese poet, known as “the Sculptor” because of his work as one of the creators of the First Emperor’s underground army. In addition, both poem series are translated into English by a mysterious figure known only as “E. O.” The translator also provides an afterword.
But the book begins with a foreword by John Briscoe, who identifies himself as “a lawyer whose practice takes me to East Asia.” There, we are told, he met E.O., who asked him “to act as agent to bring this work to publication.” (Briscoe in turn asked me to assist in producing the publication — under the imprint of Risk Press, directed by Charlie Pendergast — and I will talk a bit about the book’s design in a subsequent post.)
Briscoe touches on the story of the poems’ creation and their journey into English, but this is explained most fully in the translator’s afterword. E. O.’s prose style is more florid than Briscoe’s (though this is not particularly evident in the poems). This is how he begins:
When words first pealed the ecstasy of sunrise, cried the ache of moonrise, sounded the desolation of this life, we don’t know. We don’t know when sounds first stood as words for we, for home. We don’t know whether a word for home existed before a word for returning home, or for the unutterable ache to return home. We do know, though, that like many words, like whole languages, those clusters of words we call poetry arc like meteors. They blaze brief, if at all. If it is particularly right, for its time, or all time, and if the people who spoke it are not all dead or, if written down, and the libraries holding it have not been put to the torch, then a poetry might persist longer, more like a comet than a meteor, a comet plying the night sky that in the end fades into the cosmos. A poetry that survives centuries, however, much less millennia, stands in the firmament like a constellation, wandering at seasons beyond the horizon, but in time returning to the night sky.
E. O.’s telling of the discovery of the scrolls is cloaked in circumspection for political reasons. “Vagueness,” he tells us, “is the better part of discretion, which is better here than any valor.” A young archaeologist, E. O. explains, chanced upon the scrolls within the torso of a terra-cotta soldier as he was working on the excavation of the underground army. To the First Emperor is traditionally attributed a great Burning of the Books, and these scrolls were apparently hidden to avoid that fate. Worried that the scrolls might even today be suppressed or destroyed for political reasons — because they are critical of political rulers and might be seen as seditious — the archaeologist concealed his discovery and removed the scrolls. Eventually the poems were translated by E. O. into English.
I mentioned that the scrolls share certain themes. The archaeologist’s concern about the possibility of their being viewed as seditious results from a shared animus toward emperors and their high-handed governance. Each poet served a strong emperor: Cangjie the Yellow Emperor and the Sculptor the First Emperor (although the Yellow Emperor preceded him by millennia, Qin Shihuang is known as the First Emperor because he unified China only a couple of centuries before the beginning of the common era). In the words of E. O.,
A number of the verses of Cangjie speak (not at all with affection) of an emperor, the Yellow Emperor. Verses of the sculptor, the transcriber of Cangjie’s poems, also speak occasionally of an emperor, the First Emperor. At times Cangjie’s emperor seems a conjured emperor, at times not. The loathed emperor of the sculptor, though, is not a conjured emperor, no mere metaphor for life’s oppressions and petty oppressors. He is, plainly, the historical figure the First Emperor, the Burner of the Books.
For example, the Sculptor writes the First Emperor
First Emperor is only
an emperor, only
But this emperor burns our books.
Burners of books
in the end burn people.
while Cangjie writes of the Yellow Empeor
Emperor practices jealousy
as if it were an art
like falconry, or archery.
He more than lusts,
he is more than jealous,
he is envious of the beauty
sleeping languid in your skin
and not in his.
He seethes when he sees you before him.
Does he take you thinking
you will ravish him
and he will be reborn as you?
The object of the Yellow Empeor’s lust was one of his concubines, who perhaps resembled the woman depicted in the cover art by contemporary artist Hung Liu. Cangjie loved this woman, who of course was unattainable to him, and, we are told, invented writing to communicate his love to her. As the Sculptor explains:
in mudded shallows
the tracks long-legged
wading birds made,
little prints the feet of song birds
left in snow.
. . .
The prints of feet of song birds
were pictures of words
for moonset, and breast
An egret leapt into flight
leaving in sand the etched word
Cangjie perhaps alludes to teaching his love to read his poems in the first fragment of his series (part of which was indecipherable to the translator):
You have listened to my poems. Now
I teach you
to see them to [?.?.?.?]
Mostly his poems express his love and longing. The poems are imagistic, economical, heartfelt, and lovely. The fascinating prose frame that surrounds them (and sometimes manifests in footnotes to the poems themselves), should not cause us to overlook the poetic quality of the verses themselves. These verses, for example, are typical of Canjie:
Like your lashes
your hands flutter?—
quails in a bush
at an approach?—
. . .
The court lights — has a sun pierced
No, it is you entering,
smiling. You have, I think,
drunk more than a cup of wine.
. . .
A band of players pipes
a tune, an air?—
no, it is you
somewhere in the open court.
I will have another cup
brought to you.
Is it all an elaborate put-on? Perhaps, but the sentiments are real and the verses are moving, informed by poetical tradition and crafted with an awareness of poetic technique. Borges would have loved the deadpan literate frame, and Cervantes — whose Quixote is attributed to a Moorish author, Cide Hamete Benengeli — would have appreciated the possibly deflected authorial attribution. And even more the empathatic impulse to acknowledge universal human feelings across vast cultural boundaries. The Lost Poems of Canjie is one of the most original and fulfilling books I have read in a long time. Highly recommended.
This interview with Grace Paley by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, and Larissa MacFarquhar ran in the Paris Review in 1992. Still of interest.
The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.
A lot of [my stories] begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant…. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.
Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.
There’s an idea that there’s this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It’s the tributaries that seem to have the energy.
You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell…. The pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?
Read the rest here.
In 210 BCE Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” of China, died at the age of forty-nine, likely from poisoning by the very elixirs that were supposed to make him immortal. He was placed in an underground tomb where he would be protected for eternity by thousands of life-sized terra-cotta warriors. In 2013 some of those warriors took a break from their guardian duties to visit San Francisco as part of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition China’s Terracotta Warriors.: The First Emperor’s Legacy.
Above ground, things did not go well for the emperor’s people. Less than four years after his death, his empire collapsed. A new power, based first in Chang’an and later in Luoyang, controlled China. It would be known as the Han dynasty, lending its name to the country’s majority ethnic group. It would endure for more than four hundred years (while the West was dominated by imperial Rome). The new dynasty was marked by economic and technical development, as well as a great cultural flourishing. It too left elaborate tombs full of spectacular and intriguing artifacts. Now a new Asian Art Museum show presents 160 such objects, most never before seen outside China, in Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty (through May 28).
Few fields have advanced as rapidly as the archaeology of ancient China in recent decades. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not many archaeologists were systematically exploring sites in China. This omission began to be remedied in the second half of the twentieth century, resulting in the first major exhibition devoted to the new discoveries, Archaeological Finds of The People’s Republic of China, organized by the U.S. National Gallery and the Nelson Atkins Museum in 1974. Twenty-five years later, the same institutions teamed up on another major exhibition, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology. Since that time there has been an explosion of archaeological activity in China, and scholars are still working on making sense of the ongoing discoveries.
Traditional Chinese histories tended to treat the nation’s development as the passing of the mandate of heaven from one monolithic dynasty to another. But the archaeological discoveries have suggested that ancient China was more multiplistic and multicultural than had previously been acknowledged. Chinese culture, to judge from the archaeological finds, did not arise in one place and then spread throughout China so much as it arose in multiple and varied locations, with several regional cultural groups all contributing to the mix.
Under the leadership of director Jay Xu, the Asian Art Museum has intensified efforts to strengthen working relations with sister institutions in China, as well as to keep abreast of the rapidly changing developments in the archaeology of ancient China. (Xu received his doctorate from Princeton University with a specialization in early Chinese art and archaeology.) The objects in this exhibition mostly come from mausoleums excavated in 2011 belonging to the Jiangdu Kingdom at Dayun Mountain, and from royal tombs of the Chu Kingdom at Xuzhou, first uncovered in 1995. They were borrowed from museums in Nanjing, Xuzhou, and Yizheng, all located in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, where the new archaeological discoveries were made.
Co-curated by Xu and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the exhibition is organized into three areas built around Han-era phrases found on period objects:
A representative of Oxford University Press writes requesting permission to use this image of Abe Lincoln (one of the 44 U.S. presidents better than the current one) in a textbook entitled MYP Biology 4&5. Of course I am delighted.
The image is part of a project I did about a decade ago comparing the left and right sides of people’s faces. I divided a series of face in half and showed what they would look like if both halves were like the right size versus both halves being like the left side.
I noted when I posted this image that “Lincoln had a condition called cranial facial microsomia — the left side of his face was much smaller than the right.” Above are, left to right, two-right-face Lincoln, actual Lincoln, and two-left-face Lincoln.
I’ve been a bit more active recently over at Frisco Vista (that could change). Among the more recent posts there:
- photo magic
- an aromatic bitters triumph
- the best online guide to DIY vermouth resources
- one of the best posts on making ginger beer (bug or yeast?)
- anatomy of a flower
- bioregions of the SF Bay Area
- an appearance from the great Sir Oliver Hardy
I received an e-mail from Katie Smith of Creative Market calling my attention to their infographic on design trends of the past year. “f you feel this article is a good fit for your audience then please feel free to pass it along with your blog post,” she wrote. As it happens, I do think it is worth sharing. The ten trends are “Flat 2.0; bold, playful typography; whimsical illustrations; the new retro; motion; minimalist logotypes; geometric shapes; print-inspired (analogue printing influenced); abstract Swiss; movies and cartoons.” Has abstract Swiss been trendy for eighty years now?
I’m not a trendy designer myself, but still, it’s worth keeping up with what’s going on. The graphic itself is a good example of a type of current information design (which I generally like). Note that the graphic is followed by discussion further down the page. Click through the portion of the graphic displayed above or click here for the original post.
Since I’m taking a batch of my homemade ginger beer to an event in a few days I slapped up this little label for it. It goes on a recycled orange juice container.
The font is Bau Pro.
I can see I need to top this bottle up a bit!
This winter, projects and holidays conspired to prevent me from catching the Asian’s current exhibition, The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe until late in its run. Now there remains just a week left to see the show, and before I say anything else let me say that you should stop reading this and go catch it right now.
The Rama Epic is a major exhibition that was organized by the Asian under the direction of Forrest McGill, Wattis Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the museum, and it draws materials from a wide region. Included are 135 objects from India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The objects, of the highest quality and carefully chosen to highlight the exhibition narrative, were drawn from institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Asia Society, the British Library and British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, LACMA, the Met, the Guimet, MFA Boston, the Peabody Essex, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Museum Rietberg Zurich, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the V&A, and several others, in addition to the Asian’s own respected collections. This is an extraordinary gathering together of materials that must have been a formidable undertaking for the organizers.
The Rama epic, best known in the West through the Ramayana of Valmiki, is of course, along with the Mahabharata, one of the key sources of narrative in South and Southeast Asia, not only (as the exhibition illustrates) for Hindus but also for Buddhists, Muslims, and others of the region’s peoples. (McGill compares it to the King Arthur stories; comparison could also be made to the Homeric epics and tales of the Bible.) As a result, many variations of the stories exist. The exhibition conveys the diversity of the Rama stories, as expressed in a wide range of places and times, while also distilling them down to their underlying essence.
It does this by focusing on four key figures, presented as the Hero, the Heroine, the Ally, and the Foe. These are Rama, his wife Sita, the monkey warrior Hanuman, and the demon king Ravana. Through a succession of artworks arranged to highlight these four figures, the complexities and controversies of the epic emerge, while even visitors who are not much familiar with the stories gradually come to understand its essential structure.
Reduced to bare bones, the story is this: Rama, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, is born a prince of an Indian kingdom. His worthiness is evident and also proven by challenges, yet he is prevented from ascending to the kingship by palace intrigues. He meets and weds the faithful Sita. Always he is accompanied by his constant companion, his brother Lakshmana. Exiled from the city of his birth, Rama and his companions live for years in a forest wilderness. There a female demon attempts to seduce the brothers. Appalled by this prospect, Lakshmana hacks off her ears and nose, which must have done little to improve her presentability. She complains to her brother, the powerful demon Ravana, and things go downhill from there. Soon warfare engulfs everyone.
Through trickery, Ravana succeeds in kidnapping Sita, and Rama must lead an army to find and recover her. Chief among his warriors is the bold and powerful Hanuman, who succeeds in locating the captive and who distinguishes himself in the ensuing battles. Eventually Rama kills Ravana, Sita is freed, and Rama is crowned king. But false rumors circulate that Sita might not have been faithful to Rama during her captivity. To prove her fidelity, she enters and emerges unscathed from a bonfire. In many versions of the story this dubiously happy ending settles matters, but in others Sita’s trial by fire still does not satisfy some of the kingdom’s malicious gossips, and Rama, putting good governance over his own feelings for Sita, sends her packing. After many years in exile, she is returned, only to be asked once again to submit to the fiery proof. But by this time she has finally had enough. Calling on her mother, the goddess of the earth, as a witness, she is swallowed into a great opening in the ground—whose fault was that?—and she disappears forever. In this bittersweet version of the ending, Rama then abandons his earthly form and ascends to the heavens.
In many ways it is a story of bonds and fractures. Constancy and inconstancy are the, well, constant themes. Some works that highlight these motifs can give a sense of the content of the exhibition (though the diversity of works is far greater than I can show here).
Among the bonds is the constant friendship of Rama and his brother Lakshmana. Lakshmana never wavers in his support of Rama, and the two experience many adventures together. This sixteenth-century ivory relief from Sri Lanka depicts the brothers’ falling victim to arrows fired by Ravana’s faithful son Indrajit, who has become invisible.
Hanuman is equally constant. After the brothers are grievously injured by Indrajit, Hanuman brings healing herbs from the Himalayas to revive them. Unsure which herbs would work best, he carries back the entire mountaintop, as shown in this eighteenth-century painting from northern India.
Constancy also features on the demonic side of the conflict. Ravana’s giant brother, Kumbhakarna, is something of a comic figure, but a complex one. Despite disapproving of Ravana’s actions, he feels obligated by fraternal bonds to fight on Ravana’s behalf. Here, in a seventeenth-century Indian painting, he battles an army of monkeys and bears, allies of Rama.
Kumbhakarna’s decision to battle to the death for Ravana is contrasted with the path taken by another of his brothers, Vibhishana. Like Kumbhakarna, Vibhishana was outspoken in criticizing Ravana. Unlike him, he goes over to the enemy and fights alongside Rama. What does fidelity mean in this case? By being true to his beliefs is he untrue to his brothers? In the lower left of this seventeenth-century painting depicting mourning for the death of Ravana, Vibhishana— who has refused to carry out traditional funeral rites, arguing that Ravana was cruel and despotic—is upbraided by Rama, who says that Ravana was nonetheless heroic in battle.
Many more instances of fidelity and infidelity appear in the epic. A Structuralist critic could have a field day diagramming all the binary oppositions. But the core case is that of Rama and Sita. Sita remained faithful throughout her long captivity, despite Ravana’s pressures. Yet Rama appears to treat her as if she had been sullied, despite never believing this had happened. Many will feel that Sita—“an abused wife and yet a feminist heroine,” according to Sally J. Sutherland Goldman in the exhibition catalogue—has been treated unfairly. In this 1940 painting by the modernist Indian painter Jamini Roy (or his workshop), Sita sits enigmatically amid the flames during her trial by fire.
Equally enigmatic is a painting of Sita by Odilon Redon. Redon said of it that “a title is only justified when it is a little vague, and even aims confusedly at the equivocal.”
Moral dilemmas abound in the Rama stories, and people have debated them for centuries. I have only been able to touch on a few here. I strongly urge anyone who can make it to go see this show, now in its final week, before its marvelous artworks return to their lenders or to storage.
For those who can’t make it to the city this week, the exhibition catalogue (handsomely designed by Wilsted & Taylor) is organized along the same lines as the exhibition. It is a must-have for anyone with an interest in South or Southeast Asian art and culture.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
This playlist mainly features traditional jazz, R&B, and Latin.