Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Book from the Kingdom of Shadows

I seem to have something of a dilemma. My present state of indecision is the result of my acquiring a book; in this case, a book which was offered to me by an antiquarian dealer. This particular dealer - I will call him Meneer (Mr) H - is the joint owner of a bookshop which overlooks the main canal that runs through the city of Utrecht. Now, Utrecht is probably my favorite city in the Netherlands, so any excuse to visit the shop and browse around is good enough, and Meneer H knows me now by sight.

Last week found me in Meneer H's shop once again, and knowing my taste in these things, he disappeared briefly into a small annex and reappeared with a leather-bound volume (my photo, above) which he placed upon the glass-topped counter for my inspection. At first glance the book seemed a puzzle. The leather covers (probably calfskin, although this is not certain) were a dark, nondescript greyish-brown, and felt somewhat oily to the touch. 15th century, I guessed. But the ribbed spine did not match the covers, and seemed to be from a later period by perhaps as much as a century. Meneer H considered it to be a hybrid binding - one which, due to damage or for some other reason, has been partially rebound at some stage of its history. I agreed.

The book had been acquired by Meneer H from an estate clearance auction. The deceased (for insurance purposes) had itemised the volume in his collection as 'Het Boek van het Schimmenrijk' - The Book of (or from) the Kingdom of Shadows. But 'schimmen' is an elusive word to translate. It implies not merely shadows, but illusions, false realities, the deceitful appearance of things - even ghosts. The clue to the book's name could be found in the carefully lettered Gothic script on its cover (the scanned detail, above). As near as I can make it out, the phrase reads:

"Om dat de Schimmen zijn ongetru, Darr om gha ik in den ru"

Now, this is 16th century Dutch, almost as remote from contemporary Dutch as Chaucerian English (which it curiously resembles). But by converting it into approximate modern Dutch ("Omdat de Schimmen zijn ontrouw, daarom ga ik gekleed in rouw") my best shot at a translation is this: "Because the Shadows are untrustworthy (or unfaithful) - that is why I go clad in mourning." The color of mourning is black, and I have this mental image of some unknown, black-robed figure, broken from some deep loss, despairing, betrayed, disillusioned, after an encounter with.. what, exactly? The tone of the phrase, and the capitalised term 'Schimmen', implies something dark. Written across the front of the book, it reads almost like a warning.

Above the two-line phrase, and written by a different, perhaps much earlier hand, are the two words: 'Escharoth' and 'Malchut' (the scanned detail, above). To whom - or what - do these names refer? Demonic entities? Down almost the entire cover run four deeply-scratched furrows, having the appearance almost of the raking tracks of great claws or talons. But even all these features are not the most curious.

On the paginations fore-edge are two metal clasps. Outwardly, there is nothing unusual about these, as such clasps are seen on many books of the period. What makes these clasps unusual (and which is the reason why I managed to acquire the book at a 'sight unseen' price) is that there seems to be no means whatever for unfastening them. They are, therefore, not so much clasps, as seals. The book cannot be opened.

And that is my dilemma. Having become the owner of the book, should I force the metal seals to discover its contents? Would it even be 'safe' to do so? Since it has been in my house, I have noticed an oppressiveness in my studio where it is now kept with the rest of my collection. Is the book perhaps dangerous? Is it even real? Of course it's not! After all, I did say that the 'Schimmen' were not to be trusted..

Happy All Hallows' Eve to my readers!

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: The Book from the Kingdom of Shadows, 2009
Medium: Digital (composite textural, lighting, typographic and other effects created using Photoshop CS and Ulead Photo Express software). Font for the 'demon' names: 'Aquiline'. Font for the 'Schimmen' phrase: 'Dürer Gothic' (yes, it actually was designed by Albrecht Dürer). The 'talon marks' were created wholly digitally with Photoshop embossing filters. Now you know!

Thanks to Henderickx and Winderickx antiquarian and second-hand bookshop, Utrecht, for the inspiration.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Villa by the Sea

Waves break upon a rugged shoreline. Tall Lombardy poplars bend in the salt wind from the sea. Nestled among the trees we glimpse a shadowed colonnade overlooking the waves. The colonnade, topped by statuary, fronts other structures; perhaps these rooms are inhabited. We cannot know this for sure, although partial ruins in the foreground suggest that the rest of the building may also be deserted. Sometimes we see a lone black-shawled woman on the shore. At times this lone figure appears to be a black-garbed nun, and on other occasions she seems to be dressed in some secular classical garment. Pensively, she gazes out over the waves. Sometimes she is not there at all.

The reason for the woman's changing appearance is due to the fact that she appears in different painted versions of the same scene (the 1878 version, above). This is the Villa by the Sea, painted by the 19th century Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. As with his famous Isle of the Dead series, Böcklin returned repeatedly to this same villa as a subject; certainly it seems to have held a particular fascination for him. So far, I have tracked down six different versions, from the preparatory oil sketch (below), to mention of a version which Hitler, for his own darkly inscrutable reasons, apparently commandeered as spoils for his private collection. I say 'mention', because this version (whose only surviving evidence is a partially visible but still identifiable framed painting glimpsed over Hitler's shoulder in a poor-quality photograph) has now been lost.

Apart from the figureless sketch, it is the four versions which survive - and there may well be more which my searches have yet to turn up - that all show these variations of the solitary woman. With minor architectural adjustments, the villa itself remains recognisably the same (below). Its appearance has a convincing draftsmanship, for Böcklin, in order to make ends meet, painted Roman villas and other Italianate landscapes to meet the popular taste of the time.

So although such paintings might not have been as close to his heart as the more mysterious, ambivalent, and altogether more powerful works for which Böcklin is now rightly known, they clearly had their spinoff benefits in terms of knowledge gained, and this knowledge the artist ploughed back into his own fabulous and brooding villa by the sea (the other two versions, below).

All of this begs the question as to why, exactly, did the artist return to this subject so often? Artists do so for various reasons, of course. To fully exploit the potential of a particular theme, or simply because the subject matter appeals to them. But this villa of Böcklin's is a very specific place; and an imaginary place at that. I am sure that whoever reads this will have had that common dream experience of returning to the same location in different dreams, and often over extended periods of time. Perhaps some similar thought continued to draw Böcklin back to his imaginary villa. Perhaps the actual repetition of painting it was a mysterious magic that made the villa more real for him. And perhaps it worked.

Artist: Arnold Böcklin
Work: Villa by the Sea, 1878 (the first version shown here, and the last version which the artist painted)
Medium: Oils
Location: Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Other versions shown are in various collections. Specifics for these have proven particularly difficult to trace, so anyone with more information is welcome to leave that information as a comment here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Little Shepherd and the Little Vampire

Under the vast blue bowl of the sky a shepherd boy lies sprawled upon a grassy hilltop, shading his eyes from the glare of the sun (below). We know that it must be the height of summer: the sun is directly overhead, and the boy's light clothing, and the insects which float busily in the air around him, all tell of the season. The boy's eyes are closed. We cannot know his dreams and thoughts, but our own childhood memories must somewhere contain scenes and experiences such as his, and with these to draw from, we can readily identify with his summery daydreams.

The picture was painted by the Bavarian artist Franz von Lenbach in 1860, when the artist would have been just twenty four years old. When viewed as a whole, von Lenbach would seem to have had a respectable if rather standard career, painting the portraits of the notables of his day, from Bismarck to Pope Leo XIII, as well as several notable composers, including Richard Wagner and Clara Schumann (below). He apparently also worked on commission as a copyist - that is, an artist who paints copies of the works of other known artists so that his clients could own a 'genuine' Velázquez or some other masterpiece to hang in their private collections.

Fast forward from the painting of the shepherd boy another forty three years to 1903, just a year before the artist died. This time, von Lenbach turns his canvas upon himself and his own family (below). We are shown the artist himself, together with his wife Lolo and their two daughters Marion and Gabriele. But it is certainly not just in the loose, scrubbed-on treatment of the brushwork that sets this work so dramatically apart from the little shepherd. No happy and contented family here, for von Lenbach opted to follow the prevailing fashion and portray his nearest and dearest with all the moody and brooding intensity which was 'The Look' of the time.

In fact, going on the way in which they have been painted, we might only be mildly surprised if Frau von Lenbach and the youngest daughter Gabriele (detail, below) opened their mouths to reveal predatory vampire fangs. The half smile which plays on the girl's mouth is betrayed by those evil-intentions eyes (just cover over the mouth to see what I mean). Let's face it: would you want your daughter to have little Gabriele as a playmate? One shudders to think what she does to her dolls. Well, fortunately we can assume that this was not how the von Lenbachs looked in their day-to-day existence, any more than a snapshot of a happily smiling and consciously posed family group is typical of that family's everyday appearance.

It is as if between the happy smile and the glowering frown there lies an ungraspable something which perhaps is what we think of as 'everyday life'. Both the smile and the frown are therefore somewhat artificial: unnatural states contrived by the camera or by the artist's brush. And between the little shepherd and the little 'vampire' is an artist's entire career, moving from summery innocence to something darker, changing in ways which the young twenty four year-old artist could not imagine.

Artist: Franz von Lenbach
Work: Shepherd Boy, 1860
Medium: Oils
Location: Schack Gallery, Munich

Artist: Franz von Lenbach
Work: The Artist with his Family, 1903
Medium: Oils
Location: Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich

Monday, October 5, 2009

Would You Adam and Eve It?

As a Londoner myself, I have an ear for Cockney rhyming slang; that colorful banter of London's East End which substitutes a rhymed phrase for the word otherwise used. Thus: plates of meat = feet, apples and pears = stairs, trouble and strife = wife, butcher's hook = look, and so on. It's a simple code language, which becomes a notch more complicated when the rhymes are dropped - as in practice they often are. So: plates = feet, butcher's = look, apples = stairs, etc. And even further: 'beady minces' = mince pies = eyes. You catch on fast. ;)

No prizes for guessing that in this slang, 'believe' is substituted by 'Adam and Eve'. After all, this pair of names has become embedded in our culture, whether the original scriptural account is personally meaningful to us or not. Although this significance or otherwise is not the point of this post, it seemed like a plan to have a look at two contrasting portrayals of the subject and to see where things lead.

Albrecht Dürer engraved his masterpiece portrayal of the subject (above) in 1504. Dürer’s Eden is a place not without its whimsical charms. Here, as we can see, a sleepy cat can lie peaceably close to a quietly approaching mouse, and an otherwise northern European wood, stocked with rabbits, deer, and even a domestic cow, can also accommodate an incongruous tropical parrot. And almost overlooked in a top corner, this nimble-footed goat (detail, below) seems to be searching for new adventures. The shadows of the forested background lend an almost dimensional quality to the contrasting classically posed figures, and Dürer's engraving burin creates an astonishingly varied textured surface of leaves, bark, rock, flesh and flowing hair.

If we want to analyse the inner harmony which Dürer's scene radiates, we can find it in his use of the so-called Golden Section (or Golden Mean) rectangle. Dürer would have learned of the construction of this famous proportion, used in art and architecture since the Ancient World, during his stay in Italy. The method of its construction (below) is simple enough: a square is bisected, and from the base line an arc is swung from the top corner back down to the extended base line. The resulting rectangle is 1 unit high by phi long, the mysterious phi measure (as with pi) being both mathematically constant and indeterminate.

An artist can use such devices as the Golden Section rectangle to control and enhance drama in a scene. In preparation for his engraving of Adam and Eve, Dürer made this pen and wash study (below). The poses of the figures are identical to the subsequent engraving (which Dürer would have engraved onto his metal plate the same way round as the sketch), but whereas in the study Eve is on the same eye level as Adam, in the engraving Dürer has placed her slightly lower.

When a Golden Section rectangle is superimposed upon the two scenes (below, in which the sketch is transposed to match the printed engraving), in such a way that the principal vertical construction lines align with the median lines of the figures (and also, as it happens, with the median line of the tree), the reason for the alteration between the study and the engraving becomes clear: in the engraving, the 'sweet spot' of the rectangle (here highlighted) now falls exactly at the point of greatest drama - the place where Eve's fingertips touch the fruit offered by the serpent.

Dürer's masterpiece influenced those artists who came after him, but finding an example from our own time of a depiction of the subject whose creation has been motivated by a genuine scriptural sincerity (rather than by a tongue-in-cheek irony) has proven difficult. The Creation *Museum in Kentucky has produced its own version for its displays (below), which at least meets my criterion of its creators being driven by a genuine religious belief in their subject material. And that, to me, is the single most puzzling thing about it.

For in spite of the undoubted religious sincerity of its creators (and who could cling more loyally to literal readings of Biblical texts than a creationist?), this particular depiction of Adam and Eve presents us with a scene from Eden as maudlin as it is trite. All the power, mystery and wonder of one of our culture's most potent and enduring stories has here been reduced to the appearance of a banal theme park attraction - and by the very people who presumably believe in its actuality the most. No Golden Section rectangles here to enhance any radiant harmony of the scene. Instead, we are presented with an Adam whose niftily-trimmed beard and 80's-style hairdo matches nicely with Eve's one-length-covers-all hair. Eve might here be shown in a state of innocence before the Fall, but she was clearly made by uptight post-Fall hands and minds that evidently were guiltily troubled by even a glimpse of female breasts.

And although Dürer at the beginning of the 16th century might not have been deflected by such issues, in this day and age the depiction of such an obviously Caucasian Adam and Eve raises questions of racist bias that I'm sure some must find both ludicrous and offensive. A theme park-style Eden? Would you Adam and Eve it?

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Work: 'Adam and Eve' (aka: 'The Fall of Man', aka: 'The Fall'), 1504
Medium: Engraving
Location: Prints from the engraved plate are housed in various museum collections, including The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, The Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio, The Cincinnati Art Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, and others. The drawing in pen, brown ink and wash is housed in The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

Artist(s): Preparatory staff of the Creation Museum
Work: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 2006
Medium: Painted fiberglass cast from sculpted originals, synthetic hair, and other materials
Location: The Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky

Sources: Original Golden Section rectangle research, diagrams and applications by Hawkwood.

*It can only be an irony that in an apparent striving after a spurious academic respectability by describing itself as a museum, the ultra-Christian (and anti-science) Creation Museum named itself - presumably unknowingly - after the pagan temple of the Muse in Ancient Greece, which is the source of our word 'museum'.