Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lair of the Sea Serpent

Obliging monsters have always rushed in to fill the gaps in human knowledge. When far lands were still unexplored, and the vast stretches of ocean which divided them were still uncrossed, our imagination peopled those unknown lands with improbable giants whose heads in the tropic sun steamed like puddings, and the untraversed seas were stocked with huge coiling serpents that would rise up from the deeps to seize terrified sailors from the decks and gollop them down whole - and presumably still alive to regret the experience all the more.

We have inherited the depiction of such scenes from previous centuries, and they invariably brim with action and lurid detail. All the more startling, then, to encounter such a monster as portrayed by 19th century artist Elihu Vedder (above). What makes Vedder's sea monster so effective is its sheer matter-of-factness. Not only does the scene offer no trace of stirring action; Vedder actually depicts the glistening serpent calmly at rest, sunning itself unconcernedly among the dunes by the shore. In the distance a sandy peninsular stretches into a calm blue sea, and the sky speaks only of fine, warm weather. Every element in the painting is the antithesis of the way in which such fantasies have traditionally been portrayed, as in the engraving (below) from Konrad Gesner's extensive 16th century catalogue, which cheerfully included such fantastic creatures alongside more commonly-known animals.

It is a further irony that Vedder painted his basking sea serpent in an age when global exploration and enlightened knowledge of the intervening centuries had confined such threatening creatures to the human imagination. Ironic, because even though we know (as Vedder's audience also knew) that such an animal is the product of fantasy, we find ourselves willingly convinced by the existence of Vedder's monster. In contrast, Gesner's writhing horror, if it touches us at all, might raise no more than an amused smile.

Vedder's first painting shown here was in fact a second version painted some thirty five years after his more finished first version (above). It is always interesting to see the ways in which an artist has chosen to alter things between different versions of the same subject, and the first version is notable for its daring composition. Here, the artist has chosen to break a compositional rule and has used the horizon to split the canvas into two equal halves. And not only that, but the top half is just unbroken empty sky. The effect achieved is of great space and distance. Even the clouds lying on the horizon are less defined than in the later version, and we feel that this huge panorama of empty sky, azure sea, and sandy dunes is indeed the realm of the oh-so-believable monster lying before us.

The monster seems peaceful enough. But would we dare to venture past it and take the path between the dunes that leads down to the shore? We are, after all, in an alien realm. It is the realm, not only of the creature itself, but of the artist's own vivid and extraordinary imagination.

Artist: Elihu Vedder
Work: The Lair of the Sea Serpent, 1899
Medium: Oils
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Artist; Elihu Vedder
Work: The Lair of the Sea Serpent, 1864
Medium: Oils
Location: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Winter Shadow

Here in northern Europe the long winter evenings are drawing in, and today's strong winds are stripping the few remaining dead leaves from the trees. There they lie beyond counting on the damp ground, then briefly sail up again like a club of kite surfers as the wind catches them. And apart from the fact that this year it is unseasonally mild, for me it's typical November weather. It was the same two years ago, when while out walking with my dog I stooped to pick up just one leaf out of the hundreds that lay around me.

The leaf had evidently been lying on the damp ground for some time, for much of the membrane between the veins had already rotted away, leaving a lace-like network so fragile that I dare not even place it in my pocket, but carried it in my hand until I was home again. I laid it carefully upon the glass platen of my scanner and scanned it in (above, but please note that this is a large image, and, for those with a slow Internet connection, clicking on the image may mean that it will take some time for it to load). Now a digital image, the full intricacy of the leaf's details could be examined on my monitor (the detail, below); more effectively, in fact, than if I were looking at the original leaf with a magnifying glass.

The scan was sitting on my hard drive for a few weeks before I hit upon the idea of using it as the main design element for a presentation cover of the music A Winter Shadow, by Swedish metal band Tiamat, which I was then compiling for a digital portfolio of my work. By converting the image to a negative, and adding a mirrored section of the leaf itself to create a more complete symmetry (below), the effect of a skeletal wintery darkness was emphasised.

Further layers and textures, mostly derived from close-ups of the leaf's own patterned filigree, helped to enhance the depth surrounding the leaf's shape, and suggest the idea of a fragile preserved pressed botanical specimen framed for display in some cabinet of curiosities. The added title typography completed the image (below).

And what of the leaf itself? Lying undisturbed on the damp ground outside, the fragile structure had survived, but in the dry warmth of my studio it soon dehydrated and disintegrated into a papery nothingness. The resulting scan is therefore all that remains: a winter shadow indeed, the ghost of a ghost.

Artist: Hawkwood
Work: A Winter Shadow, 2007
Medium: Digital, derived from scanned natural material
Location: Cyberspace

The music A Winter Shadow is featured on the Tiamat album The Astral Sleep.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Between Two Fires

The table is set with simple fare: a loaf of bread, a green glass flagon of red wine, and a portion of pie ready to be served up onto a peuter plate. Hands crossed upon each other, the puritan is poised to say grace so that his meal can commence (below). If only it were that straightforward. Uneasily he glances around at one of the two distracting serving maids who are the 'fires' of the painting's title, as the other leans confrontingly towards him from the opposite side of the oaken table. Whichever way he turns, he must meet the coquettish gaze of one or other of them. Clearly they mean no real ill, but the puritan's starched dignity presents too soft a target to resist for a little harmless teasing, and the sprig of seasonal *mistletoe decorating the chandelier provides the excuse for their taunts.

It would be easy to dismiss as sentimental the now-unfashionable narrative style of this painting by Massachusetts-born Francis (Frank) Davis Millet. But to do so would be to do the painting an injustice. The narrative elements aside, Millet's canvas captures an interior light so tangible that we might have to look to Johan Vermeer for a quality of light as intense as this. Vermeer was, of course, the master of such interior light, and could deploy his genius to summon it's magic seemingly at will. From what I have seen of his other work, Millet captured it only once; in this painting. But that 'once' is so sublime, that everything in the painting, from the wine flagon to the rack of clay pipes on the serving table (detail, below) seems coated with this same cool light and soft, diffuse shadows so typical of a European interior.

And Millet deploys his color palette with great assurance. The overall muted warm and cool greys are offset against russet greens and browns, which are themselves counterpointed by the stark blacks of the puritan's garb and the bold broad stripes of the second maid's bodice and sleeves (detail, below). The textures as well are tangible. The white linen of the tablecloth, the coarser textile of the first maid's striped underskirt, dark wood, brass, glass, peuter, copper and flagstone floor are all given their due attention.

The scene is, of course, artifice. Millet apparently used a professional model - a Miss Green - to pose for both of the serving maids. And the puritan has the body of one of Millet's male models, with the face of a dour Scottish neighbor - a certain Linsay MacArthur - superimposed to capture the required facial expression. The interior was Millet's own home - the 14th century Abbey Grange in Broadway, Worcestershire. But knowing these details need not detract from Millet's accomplishment. The tableau is so charming that we find ourselves wanting to be convinced by the scene.

En route to the United States in 1912, Frank Millet took a first-class passage on the maiden voyage of the White Star Line's R.M.S. Titanic. He was last seen alive helping women and children into the lifeboats as the striken vessel settled lower into the water. His body was recovered from the North Atlantic waters, and taken for burial to East Bridgewater Cemetery, Plymouth County, in his native Massachusetts, where it now rests.

Artist: Francis Davis Millet
Work: Between Two Fires, c.1892
Medium: Oils
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

'Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists', by Ronald Alley. Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981.
'The World's Greatest Paintings, *Vol. II', edited by T. Leman Hare. Odhams Press, Ltd., 1934.

*My image for this post has been scanned from the above volume. Luxurious for their time, the color plate reproductions of this three-volume publication are nevertheless inevitably coarse by today's standards. For this reason I have not been entirely successful in eliminating the dot-screen with anti-aliasing, but as far as I have been able to trace things, this still represents the best image of this painting currently available on the Web, and I hope that other readers will enjoy seeing its details - just click on the first image here.

*For anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with European Christmas traditions (several of which, such as the mistletoe and the traditional tree, have been borrowed from earlier pagan customs): a sprig of mistletoe is hung inside. Anyone who happens to find themselves beneath the mistletoe is tradition-bound to grant a kiss to the person who asks them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Five Women and Four Serpents

"Her black python, the great serpent.. was believed to be born of the earth's clay, since it emerges from the earth's depths and does not need feet to move over it; its progress recalled the rippling of rivers, its temperature the ancient, viscous darkness full of fertility, and the circle it describes, as it bites its own tail, the planetary system.." "The heavy tapestry shook, and above the cord holding it up, the python's head appeared. It came down slowly, like a drop of water running along a wall, crawled among the scattered garments, then, its tail stuck against the ground, reared up straight; and its eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, fixed on Salammbô."

This vivid passage from Salammbô, Gustave Flaubert's 1862 novel of ancient Carthage, conveys all the exotic, erotic, and primal emotions that are recognisable elements of the woman+serpent theme. Flaubert's experimental novel, radically original for its time, sought to convey narrative through the sheer force of description. Lighting, color, scents and extended lists of exotic treasures are piled upon each other to create an atmosphere almost top-heavy with incense, ancient music, tapestries, ornaments, and precious stones and metals - an atmosphere captured in Gaston Bussière's sensual painting of the scene (above).

Flaubert's novel provides us with one of the most memorable woman+serpent encounters in fiction, but if we look to history for such an encounter, then the name which probably most readily springs to mind is that of Cleopatra, the queen of the Nile who reigned as one of the occupying Greek Ptolemy dynasty. The queen's elected form of suicide - to allow herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp (a small North African viper) has proven irresistible subject matter for artists; most of whom have taken the route of Jean-André Rixens (above).

Here, the queen who conquered the heart of Mark Anthony is portrayed as a suitably palid marble-colored corpse, her nudity eroticised by the partial covering of bed linen which reveals more of her body than it conceals (the detail, above). And any signs of the grim realities which are the symptoms of death by snakebite - swollen limbs blackened by necrosis with accompanying extensive morbid dermal blistering - are tastefully overlooked; as indeed they are in all such treatments of this subject. And where is the serpent? The picture could be a 'spot-the-snake' competition, because I have yet to find it.

Rixens' Cleopatra is one of many of it's kind, where the artist concerned has succumbed to the elements offered by the theme as an apparent pretext to show swooning and mostly nude female flesh. This would also seem to be the case with the version by Jan Massys (above), where the deadly reptile is reduced almost to a piece of decorative jewellery, and where the moment of death seems imbued with an orgasmic mysticism, as Massys reclines his classically-posed Cleopatra in pained yet graceful abandon to expire upon brocade cushions before a charmingly pastoral - and decidedly European - backdrop.

Compare Rixens' and Massys' treatments of the incident to Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin's version (above). Böcklin's Cleopatra was painted only two years earlier than Rixens' version, but here the artist plunges us into a very different world indeed. Böcklin steers himself deftly past any easy-option eroticism to confront what is actually happening. The dark shadow of Death itself slowly descends as a tangible black veil over the queen, and we are left in no doubt whatever that this is a flesh-and-blood woman who is actually in the act of dying. It is a brave and powerful image that, once seen, echoes in the mind.

But for all their varied treatments, one thing which unites the above paintings (at least; the three in which the serpent is visible) is the rather nonchalant - even unconvincing - way in which the snake itself has been portrayed (the detail from Bussière, above). The female anatomy on view is correct enough for us to conclude that the artists made use of models (although Massys seems to have relied upon a somewhat shaky memory), but the poor serpent is clearly from those artists' imaginations. It just is not that snakey.

Reason enough to include my third woman: an anonymous and mysterious femme fatale who seems to be a combination both of Cleopatra and of Salammbô. Charles Allen Winter's Fantasie Egyptienne (above), for all its formalised decorative background, presents us with a snake worthy of the name. This reticulated python (yes, it even can be identified by type) is clearly a living reptile, as serpentine as they come.

The sheen of moving light upon the scales, and the bunched muscle and rippling belly scales of the animal's coils (the detail, above), are as confidently portrayed as the woman's body (curiously, human knees are tricky things to convey convincingly in paint, but Winter carries off even this detail with surety), and the pattern of the floor mosaic (note the two scuttling frogs!) is a stylised version of the reptile's own markings. No attempt is made to provide the woman with a historically authentic costume, but the title of the piece makes it plain that this is, in any case, intended as a work of fantasy.

A journey into Ancient Greek mythology produces my fourth woman. Harmonia could claim stunning parentage, being the daughter of the gods Venus and Mars. She was also the wife of Cadmus, the hero and founder of the city of Thebes. But misfortune followed the couple, for Cadmus had killed a sacred serpent, and for this violation the gods meted out rough justice by transforming him into a snake. Evelyn de Morgan's treatment of this story (above) conveys all the bewilderment of Harmonia, as the transformed Cadmus attempts desperately to embrace his beloved wife with his coils.

The serpentine writhings are vividly conveyed by de Morgan, and even if the artist does take liberties with the serpent's length, the bewildered anguish of Harmonia (the detail, above) is plain enough. And despite her nude heroine, de Morgan understands well enough how to keep any eroticism in check with a combination of classical pose and poigantly-expressed emotions. But what became of Harmonia? It seems that in the end the gods were merciful in their own inscrutable way. Rather than granting Cadmus his former human state, Harmonia was herself transformed into a serpent. In the wilds of the Grecian landscape the two snakes sometimes can be seen together, entwined passionately in each others' coils.

Salammbô, Cleopatra, the unnamed Egyptienne, and Harmonia. That is a count of four women and four serpents. There is no serpent to accompany my fifth woman, for the fifth woman is herself the serpent. Isobel Gloag's The Kiss of the Enchantress (above) portrays a lamia, that seductive creature of legend that is half-woman, half-snake, claiming her knightly victim. On the banks of a twilit river lined with pollarded willows, the knight willingly succumbs to the creature's embrace as startled rabbits scuttle away. We are left to guess the outcome of this mysterious encounter, but in spite of the crucifix which he protectively clutches, a combination of encircling coils and equally-encircling thorny briars suggest that this knight's fate is already sealed.

There is, of course, another famed woman+serpent combination whose portrayal has been a much-favored and diversely-treated theme of artists through the centuries. But this post being my longest to date, that story will now have to wait. And far and forbidden Eden is a story in itself.

Artist: Gaston Bussière
Work: 'La Scène du Serpent', from Salammbô, 1910
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée Municipal des Ursulines, Macon

Artist: Jean-André Rixens
Work: The Death of Cleopatra, 1874
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée des Augustins, Toulouse

Artist: Jan Massys
Work: Cleopatra, c.1565
Medium: Oils
Location: Galleria Antiquaria L'Intrigo , Milan

Artist: Arnold Böcklin
Work: Dying Cleopatra, 1872
Medium: Oils
Location: Untraced

Artist: Charles Allen Winter
Work: Fantasie Egyptienne, 1898
Medium: Oils
Location: The Collection of Barry Friedman Ltd., New York

Artist: Evelyn de Morgan
Work: Cadmus and Harmonia, 1877
Medium: Oils
Location: The de Morgan Centre, London

Artist: Isobel Lilian Gloag
Work: The Kiss of the Enchantress, c.1890
Medium: Watercolor
Location: Private collection

'Salammbô', by Gustave Flaubert. Translated from the French by A.J. Krailsheimer.
Penguin Classics edition, 1977.
'Femme Fatale: Images of Evil and Fascinating Women', by Patrick Bade. Ash and Grant Ltd., 1979.
'Bulfinch's Mythology', by Thomas Bulfinch. Modern abridgment by Edmund Fuller. Dell Publishing, 1967.