Saturday, July 28, 2018

Drama of the Skies

A sequence one evening

and the next evening

Sunday, June 24, 2018

In Praise of Hands by Henri Focillon 2

 Hand print found in a cave in Borneo with other images created by cave people. 

No matter where found, the ancient art of the cave people features the stenciled or traced hand. 

"The human hand forms one of the most ancient themes of human art," reports a study of hand stencils in Upper Palaeolithic cave art, published by Durham University. "Prehistoric examples of hand prints (positive images formed by covering the hand with paint and placing it on a surface, rather like modern children create) and stencils (negative images formed by placing the hand against a surface and blowing paint around it) are known from prehistoric contexts in Latin America, the Sahara, Indonesia, Australia and Tasmania, in many cases dating back several thousand years. For decades these have been thought to be Mid Upper Palaeolithic in age (around 22-29,000 14C BP) but recent dating and critical evaluation of existing data have shown that they are among the earliest examples of European Upper Palaeolithic cave art., stretching back at least to 35,000 (calendar) years ago."

Investigations by Anthropology professor Dean Snow at Pennsylvania State University further show that many of the hands stenciled or traced are those of women, and it is thought that this could mean that the stenciling of hands had a religious significance. 

Henri Focillion would not be surprised by such conclusions. "I seem to see primitive man inhaling the world through his hands," Focillon writes in his essay "In Praise of Hands," "stretching his fingers into a web to catch the imponderable."

Hand stencils next to drawings of horses in the Peche Merl caves in southern France. 

Focillon writes as if to explain the presence of hands as a kind of signature or sign of human presence and action on the world:

"As soon as man tries to intervene in the natural order in which he is subject, from the moment he begins to push a pointed instrument or a sharp edge into some hard material in order to split it and give it form, his primitive labor contains in itself its whole future development. The caveman carefully chipping the flint and fashioning needles out of bone astonishes me much more than the clever builder of machines. He is no longer activated by unknown forces; he can work on his own. Formerly, even in the recesses of the deepest cave, he remained on the surface of things; even when he broke up animal vertebrae or tree limbs, he did not penetrate, he had no access to meaning. The implement itself is no less remarkable than the use to which it is put. It is both a value and a result in itself. There it is, set off from the rest of the world, something new. Though a stone knife may have a cutting edge no sharper than that of a thin shell, it was not picked up by chance on some beach. It can be called the work of a new god, the product, indeed, the extension, of his hands."

Hand stencils from La Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Patagonia, Argentina. 

"What distinguishes dream from reality is that the dreamer cannot engender art, for his hands are asleep. Art is made by the hands. They are the instrument of creation, but even before that they are an organ of knowledge," Focillon writes."...In the artist's studio are to be found the hand's trials, experiments and divinations, the age-old memories of the human race which has not forgotten the privilege of working with its hands."

Hand print decorations in a cave in southern Africa. 

See In Praise of Hands by Henri Focillon 1

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Simple and Beautiful

So interesting that all the different colors chosen by Amish women all go together in such beautiful harmony.

Also see: Amish Communities Now in 28 States

Saturday, May 19, 2018

In Praise of Hands by Henri Focillon 1

Henri Focillon (1881-1943) was an eminent French art historian and professor, who fled Nazi-occupied France to the United States, where he taught at Yale University. In 1934, he published a book of essays titled The Life of Forms in Art.

He concluded this volume with an essay titled "In Praise of Hands." In its opening section, Focillon notes that "all great artists have paid close attention to the study of hands, they have sensed the peculiar power that lies in them." In recognition of this, this post, composed of excerpts from Focillon's essay, is illustrated with the studies of hands by the German painter Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), of which his study of hands in prayer is the most famous.

Praying Hands

Perhaps in 1934 Focillon had a premonition of the degree to which we would lose the use of our hands in much of our daily lives, for other than typing or tapping, or of the increasing replacement of manual human labor with the prescribed performance of robots, or the extreme mechanization of agriculture that has practically removed the human hand from the soil. So far, in the plastic arts, the hands have not been replaced. The hands of the artist remain intrinsic to the creation of the work of art, to a far greater extent than in industry or the activities of daily life.

Boy's Hands

The hand, says Focillon, "is, like the higher forms of life, highly original and highly differentiated. Jointed on its delicate hinges, the wrist has a structure of many small bones. From it five skeletal branches, each with its system of nerves and ligaments, run beneath the skin, thence they fan out into five separate fingers. Each of them, articulated on three knuckles, has its own aptitude and its own mind." The hand has remarkable flexibility of motion and of purpose--it can hold, stiffen, be supple, or make a fist that is as hard as a rock.

As if to address the increasingly "virtual world" that we inhabit, where our perception is divorced from physical reality and the natural world, Focillon notes:
"Sight slips over the surface of the universe. The hand knows that an object has physical bulk, that it is smooth or rough, that it is not soldered to heaven or earth from which it appears to be inseparable. The hand's action defines the cavity of space and the fullness of the objects that occupy it. Surface, volume, density, and weight are not optical phenomena. Man first learned about them between his fingers and in the hollow of his palm. He does not measure space with his eyes, but with his hands and feet. The sense of touch fills nature with mysterious forces. Without it, nature is like the pleasant landscapes of the magic lantern, slight, flat, and chimerical. ...

"Without hands there is no geometry, for we need straight lines and circles to speculate on the properties of extension. ... Man's hands set before his eyes the evidence of variable numbers, greater or smaller, according to the folding and unfolding of his fingers. ...
Did not the hand, moreover, set number in order, being a number itself and thus an instrument for counting and a master of rhythm?"
"For touch is at the very beginning of Creation. Adam was molded of clay, like a statue. In Romanesque iconography, God does not breathe on the globe of the world to send it off into the ether. He sets it in place by laying his hand upon it." 
The hand makes possible a relationship with objects--tools--with vast potentials for experimentation, Focillon indicates.
"... Between hand and implement begins an association that will endure forever. One communicates to the other its living warmth, and continually affects it. The new implement is never 'finished.' A harmony must be established between it and the fingers that hold it, an accord born of gradual possession, of delicate and complicated gestures, of reciprocal habits and even of a certain wear and tear. Now the inert instrument becomes alive. To this association no material lends itself better than wood, which, even when mutilated by and shaped to the arts of man, maintains in another form the original suppleness and flexibility that characterized it when growing in the forest. ...  Contact and usage humanized the inert object... Anyone who has not known men who live by their hands cannot understand the strength of these hidden relationships, the positive effects of this association in which are found friendship, respect, the daily communion of work, the instinct and pride of ownership, and on the highest plane, the concern for experimentation."

Durer Self-Portrait, Hand, and Pillow
"When one realizes that the quality of a tone or of a value depends not only on the way in which it is made, but also in the way in which it is set down, then one understands that the god in five persons [the senses] manifests itself everywhere. Such will be the future of the hands, until the day when artists paint by machine, as with airbrush. Then at least the cruel inertia of the photograph will be attained by a handless eye, repelling our sympathy even while attracting it, a marvel of light, but a passive monster. Photography is like the art of another planet, where music might be a mere graph of sonorities, and ideas might be exchanged without words, by wavelengths. Even when the photograph represents crowds of people, it is the image of solitude, because the hand never intervenes to spread over it the warmth and flow of human life."

Christ Among the Doctors (detail of hands) by Albrecht Durer

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Albrecht Durer's Lion

I am wondering if this remarkable drawing of a lion by the great German artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was an inspiration for C.S. Lewis' children's classic, The Chronicles of Narnia

A gentle lion: Is this what Aslan looks like?
In his essay, "It All Began With a Picture,"  C. S. Lewis informs us that the Chronicles of Narnia actually began with an image of a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood. "At first I had very little idea how the story would go," he relates. "But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time [maybe he had seen and was remembering Durer's lion!].  Apart from that, I don't know where the Lion came from or why he came. But once he was there, he pulled the whole story together, and soon he pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him." 
Surely Durer's drawing of this lion did inspire the artist's great engraving of Saint Jerome in His Study. Here is the lion sleeping in the foreground as Saint Jerome translates the Bible at his desk in the background.  
Sleeping next to the dog--"the peace of God that passeth all understanding" 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Master of Mary of Burgundy's Charming Book of Hours

The Book of Hours in question was created for Engelbert II of Nassau (1451-1504) of the Duchy of Burgundy. The name of the author remains unknown to this day, but  the same hand also produced a Book of Hours for Mary of Burgundy, and so the illuminator bears the name The Master of Mary of Burgundy.

I have a kind of replica of this book, as published by George Braziller, Inc., of New York in 1970. It is the same size of the actual Book of Hours for Engelbert II now held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England: 4 inches wide by 5 1/2 inches in height. It's a pocket book, that you literally hold in your pocket and then pull out to read at the appointed time for prayers. The book begins with the calendar of the year ,so that Engelbert can check which saint is honored on this day.

The month of October in calendar of the Book of Hours. 

This October page and the writing in the book were not created by the Master of Mary of Burgundy but by two calligraphers. All of the pages by the calligraphers contain whimsical scroll work, as seen in the page on the right above, and birds. The birds fly in and out, like little angel prompters and heralds. Here the birds are piecing together Engelbert of Nassau's coat of arms--just as the birds design and sew Cinderella's first ball gown in the Disney production of Cinderella!

Then follows a prayer to the Holy Face (Saint Veronica's veil) and prayers to the Virgin, which includes the page below.

This page ends the prayer to the Virgin and shows the oat of arms of Philip the Fair and of his family.  Pages done in this mode were created by the Master of Mary of Burgundy. 

Next is a prayer to Saint Sebastian, a prayer to Saint Anthony Abbot, a prayer to Saint Christopher, prayers to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and prayers to Saint Barbara--all with a painting from the life of the saint surrounded by a flower-filled margin. These are the work of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, although the afore-mentioned calligraphers supply the text.

Then we proceed to the prayers of the Hours of the Cross for both Matins and Lauds.

But what is life without comedy in the face of such tragedy? The book abruptly switches topic from the Hours of the Cross to...a falconer who unleashes his falcon and his greyhound to hunt down and bring to his lady a beautiful magical bird. The story runs for 18 pages, with the angel prompter birds flying about to guide the falconer and guide us through the story. With this insertion, Engelbert II of Nassau could appear to be piously praying with his Book of Hours while actually reading a medieval comic book!

The falconer begins his chase to bring the magical bird to his lady. 

At the conclusion of this story, we resume the prayers for the Hours of the Cross for Prime, Terce, Terce Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. Most of these pages are beautifully illustrated by the Master of Mary of Burgundy, with flowers painted in the borders of the holy picture painted with such accuracy as to suggest that actual flowers had been strewn on the page. 

Next comes the Hours of the Virgin. beginning with the Annunciation, with a border of peacock feathers signifying Engelbert of Nassau II. 

The Annunciation embellished with peacock feathers. 

The painting of the Annunciation on the page is only 3 inches by 1 7/8 inches, yet the Master of Mary of Burgundy has managed to create an entire architectural space within this tiny boundary and created   exquisite facial expressions on both the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. 

Toward the end of the Book of Hours of the Virgin are these remarkable pages, a trompe l'oeil of crockery of identifiable types set within painted niches. The placement of crockery within niches is a trompe l'oeil technique that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, as Ms. Mastai and others document. In this painting, the crockery is meant to show the sacramental offerings to the Christ child.

Toward the end of the Book of Hours of the Virgin are these remarkable pages, a trompe l'oeil of crockery within niches. 

The Master of Mary of Burgundy was a skilled practitioner of trompe l'oeil, as his paintings of flowers, insects, and butterflies in this Book of Hours show. My interest in him was piqued when I saw a page of a book that he had painted that had a beautiful flower with the stem painted as if it had been woven through the page itself. I saw this page in black and white in Illusion in Art, Trompe l'Oeil: A History of Pictorial Illusionism by M. L. d'Otrange Mastai but have not been able to find it online.  This painting is a triumph of trompe l'oeil, because it seems so real and the sizing of the flower for the page is perfect. Thus, the text is lovingly surrounded by a reverent offering of completely life-like flowers, a butterfly, and an insect.

The Prayers to the Virgin are followed in the Book of Hours by the Seven Penitential Psalms, which include this beautiful illustration for Psalm 38, where David confronts the giant Goliath. The emotional confrontation of David and Goliath, along with the details and perspective background, a display the Master of Mary of Burgundy's skill. The borders show his ability to paint flowers--columbines and pinks--in an elegantly realistic way. 

Illustration for the penitential Psalm 38.

Then the Book of Hours ends with a Litany and the Office of the Dead. That is the official book ends, but not the real book. We are treated to another cartooned story--the Sequence of the Grotesque Tournament, which begins with the lady preparing the monkey for battle and then the unicorn, and her forces go into battle and win the day. And then the Book of Hours of Engelbert II of Nassau truly ends.

The monkey is prepared for battle.

Then the unicorn. 

The forces race to meet the enemy.

They meet the enemy, and the unicorn and his monkey squires leave the battle triumphant.