Words Edit Memory: The Importance of Wordlessness

The reason, I find, that it’s occasionally grating to analyze creative work is when it operates on a primarily emotional level. There are poems, for example, that are easy to understand internally, but lose their meaning when you try to define them. At best you can capture their message, but in a concrete and superficial ay. At worst you lose track of what it made you feel in the first place.

The Arrival, as it stands, is a work that operates on an emotional level. It’s easy to understand because we’ve all experienced much of what’s portrayed– the domestic scenes with his family, the emotions that play out on his face. We’ve been children, same as his daughter, and we’ve been strangers, same as him. And what we haven’t personally experienced in terms of historical immigration, we are reminded of what we’ve learned about our country from elementary school-on-up about Ellis Island, factories, and tenements. Even if we don’t realize at first what we are reminded of, we feel the way we feel when we see off-the-boat photographs of vaguely menaced-looking turn-of-the-century immigrants. It’s an intuitive thing.

And it’s essential that it’s wordless, because words would “edit” this intuition, just like we discussed in class. Tan manages to portray the immigrant story on an emotional level, calling us to imagine it with the awe and sympathy we felt when we did as children– or as I, born and raised in the US, did as a child. Giving the protagonist dialogue would make it an adult story. It wouldn’t seem so much like a memory, it would seem more like a report of events. It wouldn’t be possible to improve it with words, in my opinion. Shaun Tan deserves enormous credit (on top of what he deserves for his storytelling and artistry) for understanding that.

Peter Rabbit and the First Letdown

Peter Rabbit is such a mild, relaxing story in a lot of ways, in its illustration as well as its language. It’s a bedtime story, like we talked about in class. We also talked in class about what elements of it are scary. We talked about the fact that Peter’s father got baked in a pie, and how that’s the fate that awaits him, too– it’s the elements that makes the whole story just a little more Victorian than most of the books I read as a child. The thing I remember most about Peter Rabbit from my childhood, though, is that it was the book with the least satisfying ending that I’d ever heard.

I didn’t like Peter Rabbit. Well, I liked it a little, because I was being read to, but it would never be my first choice. It wasn’t because it was scary. We had a big Beatrix Potter treasury, actually, and my favorite story in it was called Roly-Poly Pudding. I won’t go into detail, but it has to do with a kitten getting caught in a chimney and baked into a pudding by rats. It was a harrowing enough tale that his escape was a victory. I was used to stories that end in some kind of victory, and Peter Rabbit ends in some kind of defeat. He escapes, but only at the cost of his coat, his shoes, and his confidence, and only gets punished for it when he gets home. It’s not a bad ending, it isn’t like anything bad happens, but it did strike me as a downer. All that for some radishes. Who even likes radishes?

Anyway, I think one of the reasons Peter Rabbit endures is that it is, in this ending, very mature. He does the wrong thing, and he suffers a fair amount. Not too much, just a fair amount. His mother isn’t happy with him, but she still takes care of him. It ends like you’d expect it to end.


Digital Workshop

Working in Adobe Illustrator was so interesting because in a lot of way it’s counterintuitive. We aren’t accustomed to thinking in terms of shapes an lassoing angles to try and create images. It’s a challenge. Try and use the mouse like you would a pencil and you don’t end up with much. Try and use your mouse to put down anchor-points and manipulate angles and… if it’s your first try, like it was mine, you still don’t end up with much, at least until you except you’re working towards a colorful, clean-edged abstraction. which is a lot of fun, and it made me think.

This is what I thought. I think in the long run, if any of us were to keep after mastering this program, it would expand our creative capacity. It takes a skill most of us haven’t developed yet to think of, say, a drawing of a cow in the terms of the process we’d need to in order to build it out of these blocks. It underlines the problem-solving exercise inherent in all artwork, the execution half of the process, and that’s got to be pretty valuable.

Ghastlycrumb Tinies and Postmortem Photography

I’d read Gorey’s The Ghastlycrumb Tinies before– I knew a girl in elementary school who used to recite it a lot too, how’d you like to be her first grade teacher– but I’d never been able to put a really solid meaning behind. I felt compelled to either understand it as a statement or accept it as just a kind of morbid nursery-rhyme wordplay, and I always chose the second one, because it was just easier that way.

Our discussion in class has helped me put a meaning to it, though, and now I can actually say I like it. It really works for me as a story of neglect, of children left alone to tragic ends. To take this a step further, I like the thought of it as a memorial. So much of Gorey’s style is in homage to the Victorian era, which was one of grimness and high mortality as much, maybe more, as it was one of formality and grandeur. It was the era of post-mortem photography, particularly of children, which the illustrations here remind me a bit of. I won’t put any in this post, because they are disturbing and sensitive things, but I’ve seen some before in museums and I think they share a sense of memoriam, not to mention an astonishing morbidity. Most of the illustrations are, of course, slightly pre-mortem. But the whole goal of photographs like that anyway are to remember the child as they were, in an era where that could likely be the only image of them ever captured.

I’m not denying the elements of humor, obviously. But I think the work can also stand as as an homage to the neglected children of history, especially in the dark and newly-industrialized landscape of Victorian times that Gorey so often portrays the melodrama and tragedy of.

Indifferent on Tuesday

There’s so little and so much to on with Une Semaine de Bonté. On one hand, if we assume there’s a plot, the structure of that plot is a lot of speculation. For simplicity’s sake I go with what we decide in class and make alterations from that. On the other hand, there is so much content to experience! Every plate is its own work, and we could go into depth on all of them.

All that is just to say that I’m going to talk about one aspect of a few images, but that’s only because I have to focus to get anything said.

Looking at Tuesday today in class, Professor Serrano pointed out just how many images it takes for the sleeping lady to notice the flood. As the city is ravaged around her, as so many crowds and individuals can’t escape the water, it takes her four plates to wake up, even when she’s knocked out of bed. And as soon as the water touches her, it skips to her servants drying her feet. And that’s the last we see of her, because as a beautiful woman of the upper classes, that’s as much as the drama touches her. As much as Ernst considers femininity to be sacred, there seems to be an injustice illustrated by the ease, even the laziness, of her escape when others struggle so. It seemed like one of the plainer class statements so far. The fact that it was a woman is interesting, though, because they are often depicted here being violated or erased, not usually as figures in power unless you count their power to captivate the male gaze.

What do you guys think of the implication that class superseded gender as  a fact of life for the Victorians, as far as their power over their own worlds? Can they even be equated?

Avoiding Clichés in Book Covers

It was interesting in class today to see everybody’s cover designs– I always love to see what different people come up with for creative tasks like that. As much as I enjoyed seeing them, though, it did strike me that the same imagery was present in each: Quixote and either a book, a windmill, or both. That held for all of the covers we saw earlier in the slideshow, as well. These are effective images for sure, and there is a lot lot of creative expression to be had in the way they are combined, but it seems strangely limiting that this pattern held for every single cover we saw or created.

So here’s the question: is it cliché or is it shorthand? I mean, I suppose that’s what a cliché is already, a way to let a reader or viewer on on something without their having to analyze it. It’s when  things like that are overused that we take issue with it. And I do think it’s arguable that a 100% rate of occurrence is overuse. So what’s the alternative?

I’ve been trying to think of a different image that might pack a similar punch on a Don Quixote cover, and it’s not easy without having read the entire book. Besides, it doesn’t do to be too obscure just to try and avoid cliché. I once saw an edition of Les Misèrables that had a painting of some boots on the cover. Like, I’m sure somewhere in there they must mention boots. They mention everything else. But why boots? it gives the reader no information and no lense to read through, no comment on the plot or meaning, nothing to focus on– just something that looks kind of old and is probably worn. Sometime. So, a balance must be reached. If Don Quixote and a scary windmill is too specific, than a Spanish flag or a horse is too general. A book or some fire are integral enough they might work.

My favorite idea, though, was to give Sancho the cover. The poor guy deserves it, and it’s something not often seen. It would be a comment, besides, on what perspective to take. He is unarguably integral. Why shouldn’t he get as much focus as a windmill?

Archangel Raphael talks Illumination

… I was about to try and pull an Orhan Pamuk and have the drawing I did in the scriptorium tell you about itself, but I thought twice (and apologize for even thinking of it). Anyway, as he would have told you, I had a great time with it.

I looked around online for awhile for different letters to draw inspiration from. I decided to do a letter T, for my last name (then I figure my parents could have it, and, you know, display some pride in their lineage), and these are the ones I decided to jump from:

I thought an angel would be a lot of fun, and the letter seemed interesting, but doable– and not like it would distract from the angel part of it. I decided to make it a specific angel: the archangel Raphael, who is the Catholic angel of healing. He’s the youngest of the archangels (the others being Michael the warrior, Gabriel the messenger, and Lucifer the beautiful, who… well, you know), the only brunette, if you believe the paintings, and associated as well with fishermen and the sea. My family lives near the sea and is obsessed with boats, and my mother is a nurse, so it all seemed pretty appropriate for a family crest like I was going for. A little research also let me know Raphael’s usually pictured standing on the backs of fish, holding a staff, with the color green. So, I gave him a staff, some fish to stand not really on, but near, and a green halo. I borrowed his outfit from this painting:

And added images of the ocean to the inside of the T. I went for water in the stem (he’s standing in front of it, anyway) and tried to illustrate “red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky in morning, sailors take warning” in the spaces in the crossbar.

Here’s the (not-quite-finished) product:


I didn’t get around to gilding, which is a shame, but I’ll do it another time. Still, I think I learned a lot, both about working biblical references into a drawing and about the lengthy physical process of sketching, outlining, mixing paints, and filling things in. Having used some similar paints, I’m even more impressed how precise and how evenly medieval artists were able to color!

What were you guy’s favorite parts of the scriptorium workshop?

Swingin’ in the Scriptorium

I had a great time in the scriptorium workshop today– what a way to start a morning!

I think it was worth more than my own entertainment, though. I ended up working on a historiated letter, trying to combine a few historical examples to come up with one I really loved, that was both interesting and traditional, both intricate and feasible. With this experience I think I have a better understanding of medieval scribes’ environment. They placed a lot of importance on copying and otherwise maintaining traditions of their craft. Still, look at the variety and expression we see in even the fraction of their work we can still see today! They knew how to fix and match, and that’s a part of what we learned today in the scriptorium.

On a more concrete note, we also got a lot of hands-on experience mixing paints, sketching, and inking that brought us closer to the scribes we’re studying. We faced questions like “how do I make this T symmetrical?” and “what do I do now that the muller is stuck again?” that force you to put more thought into the process of an illuminated manuscript than you might just looking at one for content.

November/December vs. The World

I’ve been looking at the Très Riches Heures a lot over the past couple of days, and one of the questions I’ve been asking myself is why the last couple months of the calendar (completed by a different artist) are considered problematic. I guess it’s just because the brothers who did most of the work didn’t live to complete it, and people are sad for the sake of their vision. That’s all I can do to account for it, because November and December appeal to me more the other plates.

Of course, my personal preference has nothing to do with their worth as judged by art historians and critics. But from my own experience I can say that these two illuminations remind me more of more modern paintings. Their shadowy nature, the encroaching woods, the dark backgrounds and red clothing, and peasants featured as protagonists all remind me a little of Dutch and German renaissance paintings.

You know, things kind of like these. November and December aren’t nearly as sophisticated, but they’re closer, I’d say, to later art than the rest of the Très Riches Heures. That might make them a poorer example of a medieval manuscript (and I will admit that they aren’t nearly as colorful), but it doesn’t make them poorer artworks. It’s to the credit of the artist that he branched out.

The Illustrated Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I was fascinated by all of the books and manuscripts we got the chance to look at today, but the one that most absorbed me was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with engravings by Gustave Doré. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way, not just because I saw a bunch of other people sitting down to read it, but because the engravings were such an engaging mix of beautiful and grotesque.

More importantly, they let me experience the poem in a way I hadn’t before. I have seen it before, I’m pretty sure– I know a couple famous lines from it– but I didn’t remember what actually happened in it, and I probably found the antiquated language a little distancing. The intricate engravings closed this distance for me. Interestingly, they seemed like the illustrations were more central to the volume than the text, which was printed small beneath full-page spreads of Doré’s illustrations. I think I could have gotten as accurate an impression of the prom from the illustrations alone as the text alone, and that has to speak to a job well done.

Zooming out a little, I can’t decide if this kind of book is a step closer to an illuminated manuscript (in that the pictures successfully illuminate the message of the text) than, say Diderot’s encyclopedia, or a step further (since the text is actually de-emhpasized in a way, in favor of spelling out events in illustrations). What I’m pretty sure of is that these illustrations weren’t really metapictures. The scenes and characters are contained in their frames, without any apparent awareness either that they are acting out a poem or that they have an audience. It’s funny, because the poem is really a poem about someone telling a story. It’s a meta text without meta pictures.

What do you think?