Friday, January 25, 2008

Didier Massard: Voyages Imaginaires

Today's Morning News: Black and White and Read All Over features an interview with Didier Massard, the Parisian tabletop photographer whose gallery series Voyages Imaginaires features dreamlike or fairy tale scenes.

I think the interviewer hits on the perfect description of the emotive mood of Massard's work: "Didier Massard’s photographs look like they could have been on the cover of your favorite book as a child, or come straight out of that weird dream you had last night." According to Didier Massard himself in the interview:

"I try to keep alive the ability of childhood to transform as a game an object into something else. I am doing the same in a sophisticated way. This means that I have a special relationship with things and consider that they may have a different meaning than what they appear to be. It is a great satisfaction when a trick succeeds."

Consider, for example, this landscape, with a carousel planted in the midst of a snowy wood - the "trick" is indeed beautiful; as Massard claims, the carousel - a recognizable object - becomes something else entirely:

And yet it remains a carousel. Is this not what fairy tales do? Take objects that are quite familiar and every day and plant them in strange surroundings, so that a farmer's daughter finds herself contending with trolls and becomes both more than a farmer's daughter and more fully realized as a farmer's daughter? Or so that a spinning wheel becomes something entirely strange when it begins spinning wool into gold, yet in doing so becomes more fully realized by the reader as a spinning wheel, that is, as a tool with an almost magical power to transform a plain substance into something blindingly wondrous in its usefulness? We forget that in spinning, we turn thread into a coat or a dress or something beautiful. We forget the alchemy that takes place. To remember, we have to see the spinning wheel as if for the first time, as a strange and wondrous artifact. Watching the wheel spin gold allows us to do this. The same is true of the carousel in Didier Massard's photograph: seeing the carousel like a surprise in the snowbound forest, we recover the childhood wonder of our first encounter with a carousel as an artifact strange and beautiful.

To view more of the Voyages Imaginaires, see Didier Massard's website, which is available in both French and English versions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Coelacanth documentary clip

As a follow-up on my earlier post on cryptozoology, I had to post this - a clip from a Japanese documentary:

40 seconds into the clip, you will be granted an underwater view of the coelacanth, the fish known as the "living fossil," presumed 200,000 years extinct until it appeared in a fishnet off the coast of California. The gracefulness of this fish that time forgot is accented by the musical score for the documentary, an almost outlandishly sweeping romantic melody: suggestive of the nostalgic and heroic overtones of the "lost world" or "land that time forgot" myth.

One further contemporary cryptozoological cultural phenomenon: the wild success of the art galleries - and later the books (I believe there are now four) - of James Gurney's Dinotopia:

Despite contemporary discourse about the shrinking of our world into a "global village" (or perhaps partly because of it?), and even though we no longer draw maps that have white spaces (which is probably a fallacy of our chartography), our artists, writers, and journalists continue to wonder about the white spaces on the map.


If you haven't seen it, check out the ongoing Cryptozoo contest, a contest for Photoshopped images of creatures rumored to exist though never scientifically proven. (Now there is the key nostalgic myth of modern society: the myth of the unfound and exotic creature in some white space of the map - the hope that there are white spaces on the map.) Also check out Michael Newton's Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology: A Global Guide to Hidden Animals and Their Pursuers, a surprisingly thorough almanac to the many Bigfoots, yeti, and surviving dinosaurs of the world.

To whet the appetite, here are several of my own favorites from the Cryptozoo contest:


Marine biologists - of the deep-diving, adventurous kind - are still searching for living specimens of architeuthis dux, the giant squid, which has the largest living eye of any animal, and which Walt Disney's rendition of 20,000 Leagues has made into an iconic creature. Clyde Roper in New England wrote a wonderful article once detailing his early research into the giant squid - I need to track down a copy - in which he described once preserving a part of a deceased, beached specimen in the deep freeze, and then trying it for dinner at a celebration with his fellow marine biologists. (Apparently in the high spirits of their knowledge-sharing, they were attacked by both the munchies and a case of extreme curiosity. Being a sushi lover, I can understand.) Roper reported that architeuthis dux tasted, regrettably, of ammonia.


Not the masterpiece of the original black-and-white, but very classy. This particular Nessie looks like a very beautiful creature.

Sea Eaglephant

My hat goes off to this one. Not since Dumbo without his feather have I seen such grace from an elephant. Look at that leap!

Scuba Dive

Not the best art, but I love the audacity and suggestiveness of it!

Definitely visit Cryptozoo and check out the rest. I believe the contest is still in progress. You can even submit. Some of the entries are just terrible, but all of them are fun.

Opportunity for Comparative Study: Cerberus

Maybe you've noticed my addiction to archiving, or to collecting oddments. Had I lived in the eighteenth century, I would have built a wunderkammern, a cabinet of marvels and beautiful things. Had I lived in the eighteenth century, though, the eighteenth century would have driven me mad.

Here is a collection for the sharing: a cabinet of portraits of Cerberus, the Guardian of the Gates of the Underworld, Hesiod's "Cerberus who eats raw flesh, relentless and strong," whom I first met in raw terror in the pages of Dante. Though I have been unable to find a digital copy of the illustration from my tattered old copy of Mandelbaum's paperback translation of the Inferno (I'll have to scan it later), I remember the illustration upon my first encounter with it gave me vivid nightmares - something about the ice-cold, ravenous eyes. As did Dante's verbal imagery: the three-headed, snarling creature tearing the souls with its claws:

Li occhi ha vermigli, la barba unta e atra,
e 'l ventre largo, e unghiate le mani;
graffia li spirti ed iscoia ed isquatra.

This is what Mandelbaum makes of that last line, trying to capture the viciousness of the sound in English:

His talons tear and rend and flay the shades.

And it is not just the sound that's vicious: it's the way Dante piles ed on ed, and on and: Cerberus does not just tear the damned, he tears them and rends and flays them.

Gustav Dore's Cerberus doesn't do this horror justice at all, although his Cerberus does have a dark grotesquerie to it that I like:

So I met Cerberus first in the pages of Dante. But we can find Cerberus in many places, some of them surprising. First, though, here are some of the older depictions of Cerberus on Greek plates, vases, and amphorae:

And, as proof that Cerberus continues to haunt our imagination, here is the eater of flesh in two renditions in modern popular culture:

Cerberus: Guardian of Hell
, a horror film. The one-line pitch for the film: "Three times the terror." Enough said.

Titan Quest: Immortal Throne, a blockbuster PC roleplaying game, sold with a cover illustration of the gaming world's standard scantily-clad amazon facing off with the three-headed beast. Titan Quest deserves much more credit than the Cerberus horror film, though; with a rhapsode in each village to tell the player tales of ancient heroes - Herakles, Orpheus, Achilles slayer of men - often in compelling prose and in a more compelling voice recording, Titan Quest introduces the gamer generation to the attractions of Hellenic mythology.

Levity aside, Cerberus is everywhere. While writing this post, I ran a search on deviantart for "Cerberus" and found 9,372 results, some cartoonish, some deeply haunting. Here is a brief selection - not just from deviantart, but from artists of this century and previous ones, showing how Cerberus has appeared in the dreams and nightmares of many artists. If I've missed some worth noting, please drop a comment or an e-mail! Let's build this menagerie....

That is Herakles in the tradition of Tarzan.

This next Cerberus, with its medusan hair-of-serpents, and with the Boatman in the background, is from Slovenia, I think. See the forlorn slant of light and the snarling of the beast - the emphasis on both the melancholy and the horror of the approach to the dimmer world:

Christopher (Topher) Allen Shephard's Dante and Virgil Encounter Cerberus captures the cruel and mindlessly animal gluttony of the creature:

Things that I really like about Topher's drawing are its antique style and its mix of stylized symbolism and grit-detail: it is almost like a Renaissance emblem.

Here is Cerberus in origami - a creation that truly boggles my mind. Origami as an art both eludes and enchants me - what folding the artist responsible for this one must have taken!

And finally, this gem of a photograph - I have no idea what to say about this one:

The artist offered this comment as a caption: "3 heads, but only 2 hind legs to scratch with. No wonder he got so mean." The photo is a finalist in the Cryptozoo contest, an inspired competition of Photoshopped renditions of "all the animals rumored to exist, but haven't been caught."

What does Cerberus mean to us, to a culture that no longer paints vivid visions of the physicality of hell or the underworld? Why does the image of this deadly guardian, whose claws flay the dead, still pull at our minds?

Sending giant rabbits to North Korea

The photos that are appearing on blogs everywhere have been Photoshopped absurdly (see the one near the end of this post, especially); however, the actual rabbit, prior to its attack of foreshortening, was 22 pounds with eight-inch long ears...a massive rabbit. Their breeder in Germany is now selling them to North Korea, where rabbit breeders want to help the long-eared giants become fruitful and multiply to supplement the North Korean food supply. You can read the story here. NPR quotes Karl Smolinsky, the breeder, as saying:

"During Hitler's time and afterward, I remember how hard it was on everyone. I lived it as a child and wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. I hope through the rabbits I can help a little bit, and that Korea might wake up and start caring more for its people than for the bomb."

Certainly this gives pause for thought. It is almost the foundation of a fairy tale or a bit of folklore - where presidents and princes fail, an altruistic and hard-working farmer sets out to appease the evil dictator of a starving land with the gift of a host of giant rabbits to feed the people. No doubt NPR meant it that way, as well.

We tend to think of "folklore" (or, for that matter, fairy tales) as something that either got told a while back, maybe by our grandparents' grandparents or their ancestors, or else as something indigenous to our earth's few remnants of hunter-gatherer peoples. This allows us to ignore the way that in our movie-downloading, iPod generation we are developing folklore and we are being developed by our folklore all the time. We live in uncertain times - even the most sheltered of us feels this. What stories are we telling to make sense of that uncertainty? What folk heroes are we adopting? What tricksters?

P.S. Here is a film clip with both farmer and rabbit; the real rabbit is perhaps less imposing than his Photoshopped cousins. What is more remarkable is the stories and conversation already springing up about him:

Monday, January 21, 2008

Dragon on a Leaf: Mystery Solved!

Dear readers,

We have at last reached the end of one quest and have determined the identity of this piece, Autumn Gold, for which we have been searching since May:

The work is by Ursula Vernon; the owner of Amthrax's Lair was able to offer us this tip, and we have since contacted Ursula and confirmed it. You can visit Ursula Vernon's site, Metal and Magic, to see more of her work:

Sea Hag

Ursula Vernon is a freelance illustrator in the American South. When contacted about Autumn Gold, she remembered the piece with delight - it is a very old piece - and told us that she still has the tube of gold paint used to set the dragon infant on its leaf: "you never use that much gold." Her work ranges from the eerily beautiful to the decidedly odd, and you have probably come across some of it before. She has a knack for evoking wonder, though not always comfortable wonder:

Portrait of the Artist with a Crow in her Ribcage

Pregnant Mandrake

(Think John Donne: "Go and catch a falling star/Get with child a mandrake root...")

Woman with Bird Skull

Catch more of Ursula Vernon's work at her site. Her enthusiasm and vivacity for both art and life are terribly contagious ("Divorced, moved, moved back, kicked down, knocked around--but I'm ALIVE! And being an artist, being alive means that there's art!"), and as an artist she is relentlessly prolific. You can find dozens of intriguing works at her site, and somewhere over 600 if you look her up on deviantart (as ursulav). Well worth exploring her work. Those lines of text inscribed into the self-portrait, together with the whiteness of the crow, have me longing to meditate at length on that particular piece....

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dragon on a Leaf: Update!

A few of you who have been readers of this blog from the beginning may remember that in May we posted an inquiry about a painting of a baby dragon on a red leaf, asking if anyone had seen it or knew its title or artist. Today we received an e-mail from Rachel Schneider (many thanks!), who located a digital copy of the painting in the art collection called Amthrax's Lair on the University of Utah web server:

The painting is entitled Autumn, although the identity of the artist remains to us a mystery. Please comment or e-mail our editors if you know of the artist. In any case, here is the painting and now you can see why our chief editor loves it so much. It is like a haiku in watercolor, and so evocative of the small, accidental wonders we discover if we don't hurry too fast through the woods.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rogue Black Holes

Rogue black holes...the highwaymen of the universe. I beg forgiveness of those astronomers or telescope enthusiasts who may be reading, but I had to post this bit of sensational prose from today's AP Science:

"The research findings from this week's annual meeting of U.S. astronomers range from blue orphaned baby stars to menacing "rogue" black holes that roam our galaxy, devouring any planets unlucky enough to be within their limited reach."

This is what I love about journalism, and I'm not even being ironic - only a journalist has the liberty to come up with such wildly raw statements.

Despite glib references to "post-menopausal stars" and similar cosmic effects, the article is definitely good reading: a quick scan of a host of recent discoveries and theories about the stars at which we gaze at night (or at which we don't get to gaze, if we live in the city and they're washed out by the light). Is there any emerging myth around the idea of the "black hole"?

It's a compelling idea - a hole in space in which the mass is so compact and the gravity so violent that once drawn in, nothing escapes, not even light. Hollywood has made several attempts at a mythology of the black hole, and David Brin tackled the black hole in a long science-fiction novel in the 1980s. The digital painting shown above is Black Hole by Jason Warren, the artist whose Solar Voyager site shows dramatic portraits of the universe's wonders.

The fascination with the heavens cannot have completely left us with the decline of funding to NASA; a young child I know went to Halloween recently dressed as a black hole, and eager to explain his costume (which to my mind was the most creative costume I saw that year).

Madeleine L'Engle used to comb through news of recent scientific discoveries for just such nuggets as this: black holes that wander wild through space and devour planets. She would have woven it into a story that was wondrous and strange and breathlessly new.

Such an anomaly as the black hole demands a good myth.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Ice Bears

If you were disappointed by New Line's Golden Compass adaptation, here is a gift to lighten and brighten your spirits - a portrait of Dulac's from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London - the same Dulac who did so many beautiful paintings for The Thousand and One Nights and other texts. I found this on the Endicott blog, which is buzzing busily lately - definitely check out the recent posts there. Terri Windling & company have been posting everything from fairy tale costumes to art galleries to the covers of recent French retellings of old tales...their blog is itself a museum and a wunderkammern filled with bright and beautiful curiosities, or oddities. Their Dec 27 entry highlights a showing of work by Dulac and his contemporaries in London. I am trying to find out what story the illustration above belongs to.

It makes me think of Margaret Cavendish's Blazing New World, when the captive lady is rescued by creatures that walk upright but have the shape of bears. A memorable passage from a seldom remembered book - or at least seldom remembered until very recently. I have no idea if Cavendish was reprinted at all in Dulac's generation. Perhaps the illustration belongs instead to some Andersen fairy tale that I missed as a child. Those bears and that lady beneath the stars are beautiful, yes? Sing out if you know what story the image belongs to.

Although it would be hard to beat the efforts of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, here is a New Year's challenge to the few and the brave who are listening in to this blog and reading Dante's Heart: wherever you are, get some collection together or contest for fairy tale and imaginative art in your own town. I think that even in the smallest and most allegedly drab of towns there are a few born artists, and if there are not, there are at least an entire flock of children who have not lost the talent of wondering, and they might come up with such work as would surprise whole academies, given the chance. Strike up a league with whatever local galleries, libraries, universities, or museums are readily available, post word of a contest, and see what happens. In the wake of the financial successes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the studios are pouring films with fantastical themes and imagery into our waking eyes; are we going to leave it up to Hollywood to give us our dreams? Any town on this continent or overseas can produce beautiful or provoking art that speaks to the heart more loudly.

If every reader of Dante's Heart was to assemble some kind of gallery before the year 2008 was out, what beauty and imagination we'd all be wondering at by next Christmas!