A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3 million hits| History of Science, Math & Tech | Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places...
The late Medieval/early Renaissance Tractatusartis bene moriendi was a work book of the dead--rather, a book for those about to be dead, an instructional for the process of dying the good death along the (loose) order of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol and the Egyptian book of the dead. The Ars was written in the early the 15th century (some sources say 1415) and began appearing in some of the earliest illustrated printed books by about 1450--it was a wildly popular/necessary book, going through some 100 editions by 15001.
The books basically readied the dying for death, for a holy death, a death filled with high possibilities of a rewarding afterlife, for dying in the good graces of Christ and the christian ideals. The images were such that non-readers could understand them--and this is still pretty much the case.
Many of the variants of this work include a dozen or more woodblock illustrations, an example of which is found above. We see the soon-to-be-departed at the very last instant before death, surrounded by all manner of distractions and entertainments aimed at luring the person to an earthly- rather than holy-demise. Demons, conjurers, makers of greed, and devils surround his bed in temptation, all while the Virgin Mary, Christ and the creator look down upon the besieged from behind the top of the bed.
Death was not an uncommon visitor in Europe in the early/mid 15th century, and perhaps this book served some in the way it taught people how to die a noble and religious death, especially when clergy may not have been so available.
(We offer a version of this print--printed in 1771 in Leipzig, and published in Heinecken's Idee Generale d'une Collection Complette d'Estampes. True this woodcut comes some 200 years or so after the original, but it still has a flavor of substantial age, of one of the earliest images to ever appear in a printed books.)
Here's another example, this time the dying man is beign attacked by agents of pride and greed. The images are genuinely upsetting--scary even.
This is not a particularly early Cubust-like comic book or sci-fi pulp image--it actually comes quite late in the career of early Cubism, in 1934--some 21 years or so following the pro forma appearance of the movement at the Armory in 1913. But it is interesting, and seems to have been composed in context with the story--and it looks rather good.
The earliest examples go right back into the very heart of Cubism:
This is a detail from a very early example, "Mamma's Angel Child", by M.T. "Penny" Ross, which appeared within a year or two of the show. Ross (1881-1937) was a very active illustrator and seemingly somewhat Zelig-like, somewhat everywhere, and signed this work "Paul Vincent Cezanne Van Gogen Gaugin", just to make sure that there was no mistake, and no real understatement.
[Kuznetsov, E. Tsirk. [Circus.] Moscow: Academia, 1931; Cover design by N. Akimov.; 8 v.,  leaves of plates : col. ill. ; 32 x 57 cm.]
I found this dustjacket art of Soviet-era books (all from the 1930's save one) in the New York Public Library collections (here)
and was struck by the geometrical objects in many of the designs. They
have a sense of warmth to me, somehow, like softer work coming from the
tail end of the Constructivist period, having elements of Dada but
really just having some of the hard edge of Constructivism without the
scorching/awakening images that might have been embedded in the
Lapin, Boris Matveevich. Podvig. [A Heroic Exploit.] Leningrad: Izd-vo Pisatelei v Leningrade, 1934. Cover design by S. Iudovin.
Duchmap stopped painting at a certain point in the 1920's, which was fairly early on in his life, but he didn't stop making art.
de joueurs d'échecs" Marcel Duchamp,
Dreams that Money Can Buy is a 1947 film by surrealist/dadaist Hans Richter (1888-1976, a 1912 member of the Blaue Reiter) that includes many artists. This is a Duchamp's fragment, with music by John Cage. (As a matter of fact, Richter claims to have made the first abstract film in Rhythmus 21 in 1921 and also made the interesting 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in 8 Movements in 1957.)
Long is the line in the history of art--far less so the dot.
The line has been part of a long and deep inheritance of rendering a truth, factual, perspectival presence--in general, at least. Certain symbolic and metaphoric elements will sometimes confuse and collapse bits of the image, but the effort for centuries has been to present a balanced nature as close as practicable to its perfection. That was the strength of the line.
The strength of the dot was in doing something not quite the opposite but approaching it.
It is interesting to think of the importance of dots in the first revolutionary changes in 500 years in the history of art. Honestly, there wasn’t anything epochal that happened between the re-discovery of perspective (ca. 1330-1400) and the arrival of Impressionism (and just afterwards of non-representational art) in the 1872/3/4-1915 period.
Dots aren’t brought to bear formally in the revolutionary movement until the early 1880’s. Impressionism for all intents and purposes is formed with the Societe Anonyme in 1872 (whose members included Monet, Pissaro, Degas, Sisley, Morisot and eleven others), and perhaps more realistically in 1874 when the Societe exhibited its first salon. (The first show held at the Nadar Studio in Paris in April 1874; a tiny, one month long affair, compared to mammoth exhibitions like the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867.)
It was Georges Seurat who brought the whole world to the dot experience with his artistic method of Pointilism, in particular with his magnificent Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, an enormous work given its composition—dots. The dots replaced the brushstroke, and their placement in relation to their color was an absolutely brilliant innovation, establishing a perfect result for the viewer when examining the work as a whole. (It may well be that the French chemist an designer Michel Chevreul made this discovery a few decades earlier, noticing the effect and changes in color depending on placement and—in his case, with fabric—color in the dyes for his material.)
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the discoverer of nothingness in art and the introduction of the first non-representational paintings in art history (1913) used his fair share of dots in his exploration of the previously invisible. One good example is his 9 Points in Ascendance (1918), which is nothing but black dots, an impossible composition just two decades prior to its creation.
In the middle of this appeared the half-tone illustration, the great liberator of photographic illustration in popular publication. Invented in the late 1870’s by Stephen Henry Horgan and used in the Illustrated London News for the first time in 1881, it made the publication of accurate images much feasible and economical. No longer were readers dependent on the accuracies of artists interpreting photographs or photographed scenes—the photographs themselves were now publishable at little cost and in high quality, vastly increasing the veracity of published reports dependent upon images. This was revolutionary in its own way, democratizing the sharing of images and icons.
That said about dots, the line was surely used to transport a bit of reality in art, even before the 18th century--among the earliest appearances being with Hans Holbein in his The Ambassadors of 1533, and a beautiful and very famous use was made by Andrea Pozzo in his illusionistic works at S. Ignazio in Rome in 1685 (and which I mention in an earlier post). Certainly Carel Fabritius attempted and succeeded in this throughout his career, playing with the substance of perspective, as we can see here in his View in Delft, in 1652:
Also the lines of the anamorphic image severely distorted the presentation of reality--if you had the mirror to distort it and if you had the mirror to reconstitute it:
This example is much more recognizable in widely-circulated images of the modern work of people like Kurt Wenner, who have continued in the tradition of Leonardo's researches in the difficulties of wide angle distortion:
Seeing this collection of dots in the construction of human faces I was reminded very strongly of the portraits made on the typewriter by Julius Nelson in his work, Artyping, published and sold for a dollar by the Artyping Bureau of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1939 (and pictured first, above). Nelson was an instructor in "secretarial science" in Windber High School in Pennsylvania and no doubt put together this pamphlet as something expressive of his artform and as an advertisement for his profession. This was hardly the first time that anyone used the typewriter artistically, as I can recall some measure of artistic expression in type in Punch magazine as far back as 1869, though portraiture by typewriter does not appear to be a very wide section in the art world between those times. In any event, a portrait that he made here is rather close to those presented on the Modern Metropolis site--the "Dot Portraits" Nathan Manire.
Modern Art would have the final dispositional comment on the typewriter as an instrument of art, when Claes Oldenburg made his Soft Typewriter in 1963:
And then, of course, the magnificent resurrection of the typewriter artform, replacing the spplication of black or red with something a little more complex:
I was digging a little in Herman Melville and Moby-Dick and fell into eleven pages of his scholarly ruminations on the depictions of whales in art and literature, fictional and otherwise. Its really a very fine little gem, bobbing there in the nearly the exact middle of the book. (It is not the middle of the middle of the middle like Gettysburg in Mr. Foote's The Civil War, a Narrative, where as it happens the battle appears in the middle chapter if the middle volume, but it is close enough.) Here it is, from the full text at the University of Virginia:
There are times when the future turns up in unexpected places--and sometimes that imagery is quite unintentional, and belongs only to the viewer in that future, looking back. It seems to me that many of these examples belong in the history of scientific illustration
Thomas Dick's Celestial Scenery, or, The wonders of the planetary system displayed
was published by Harper & Brothers in New York in 1838 is a good example for a home of some of these flashes of future brilliance. What we're seeing in the pages of this chunky book--which was an influential object in the early reading of a number of people who were to become influential astronomers, one including E.E.. Barnard--are lovely, simple, and include some relatively simple images of size comparisons. The result seems to my eye to suggest Suprematist art, geometrical art that would come into being another 75 years hence or so. (This movement was founded by the great Kazimir Malevich in the 19-teens, who said of it: "Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth.") Of course the Dick images were simple comparatives and not-yet-art--but they certainly do suggests themselves as something more than what they are. The full text of the book is located at the Internet Archive, here. (Thanks to Trevor Owens and his interesting Pinterest collection here who brought my attention to the Dick book via images of the Martian canals.)
A plan of the rings of Saturn relating their size and some of their imagined composition:
Kazimir Malevich, Black Circle, 1915:
Comparative of the Earth to Saturn's rings; image bottom, depicts the Sun and Jupiter
Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757-1825), a French architect of fabulously distanced sight, produced this breathtaking image in 1792. The Tomb of Lars Porsena, King of Etruria (the great Etruscan king, d. ca. 500 BCE ), is just one of hundreds of works by Lequeu, a re-discovered architectural genius who worked during the same era as other visionary architects such as Etienne Boullee (1728-1799), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1803), Francois Barbier (1768-1826), Charles Bernard (1765-1818), Francois-Joseph Belanger (1747-1818), and others, though these guys are the most famous. As a matter of fact, I think, almost all of these architects were re-discovered—Boullee, perhaps the most famous of the lot, was found again not in his buildings but in his visionary drawings that he deposited with the National Library. But Lequeu—found again in the same way--it seems had to be rescued from an even greater obscurity than the others. He tried to expose a unity that he saw in the world, some secret sort of unity, that he saw all around him, and which was unseen by everyone else in creation—at least until the 20th century.
Lequeu started out in a staid and brilliant way, a successful architect in his own right, and student of Scoufflot, designing ancient-inspiration buildings for the super rich. But along came the Revolution and away went his career—he wound up a surveyor and a cartographer until his retirement in 1815, after which he enters social and historical oblivion, until he finally dies in total obscurity ten years later (or so, the date is unclear). His post-revolutionary vision was as phenomenal as his success in selling his ideas were dismal. Well, this is really a cheap shot—his imagination was shockingly large, enormous, his designs fantastic and beautiful, and completely unexpected, and they seemed to grow larger/loftier and more interesting as time wore away at him.
I think that as Lequeu was cleaved away, cell by cell falling through the floorboards of his single rented room, he reached further into time and deeper into space than almost any architect of that hundred-year period. I also think that he was very well aware of his genius being seen as pure eccentricity—his dozen or so self portraits are among the most bizarre that I’ve ever seen (before 1900).
The odd thing in all of this is that in this brilliance there is still a reluctance to leave the Baroque, and this at a time when just about everyone else---beginning around 1750—was abandoning it. So much of the work of the other visionaries mentioned earlier freed themselves of the Baroque—not entirely true, not true at all, for the unique creations of Lequeu, who (as in the Tomb of Lars Porsena) included more than a few bits of the practice even in his most incredible works.
Somehow Lequeu saw the Lars Porsena tomb as a 650-foot tall (!!) structure, with impossible insight and filigree. Extraordinary. (In the upper corners of the drawing of the tomb Lequeu included a design for a coin and also the plan of the structure. The original tomb of Lars Porsena, according to Pliny the elder in his Natural History, XXXVI, 19, 91ff, was a 15 meter high rectangular base with 90 meter sides--completely destroyed in the wars in the first century.
Perhaps his most sensational creation (and one which was devoid of all Baroque influence, as it turns out) was his Meeting Place at Bellevue. It is almost impossible to believe that it is am 18th century creation—it is as harmonious (armonia) as it is asymmetrical. It looks deeply 20th century, and looked as far into the future as it was deeply unknown.
[Plan of a portion of the principal storey in the Poggio Gajella]
The plans of underground cities, of catacombs and cemeteries, share a certain biological appeal in their design with the plans of Medieval cities, or at least they seem so to me. Removed from their context and placed in an undifferentiated environment, the plans look very much like biological structures, and art. As maps of cities of the dead it is somewhat ironic that their geological chrysalis seem to indicate a biological structure.
And sometimes the images aren't so reminiscent of micro-structures as they are macro-structures, as in the case above. If you squint just a little and look at the Poggio Gajella you can visualize a cross section of the upper torso of a body, including an open mouth, with nasal cavity, throat, digestive system, and even intestines and egress routes--a picture of a person in the city of the dead.
The images below illustrating this ragged point are by Seroux d'Agincourt, (1730-1814), and appear in his Histoire de l'art par les monuments, depuis sa décadence au IVme siècle jusqu' à son renouvellement au XVIme (Paris, 1825). The images illustrate the article "catacombs" from the Encyclopedia Britannica, in the great/standard 11th edition, from Project Gutenberg:
"Tears are the trails of plenty and of want, both of which are sometimes the same."--Not from Ambrose Bierce's Devils Dictionary.
"Let one rejoice in smiles, the other in tears;
Let the same labour or pain be the office of both...."-Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy
fools, O madmen, he exclaims, insana studia, insani labores, &c. Mad
endeavours, mad actions, mad, mad, mad. O saeclum insipiens et
infacetum, a giddy-headed age. Heraclitus the philosopher, out of a
serious meditation of men's lives, fell a weeping, and with continual tears
bewailed their misery, madness, and folly. Democritus on the other side,
burst out a laughing, their whole life seemed to him so ridiculous, and he
was so far carried with this ironical passion, that the citizens of Abdera
took him to be mad, and sent therefore ambassadors to Hippocrates..."
Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, page 224.
The image above is a detail from one of the sixteen engraved images found in Ame Bourdon's fabulous anatomy, Nouvelles tables anatomiques (printed in Cambray and also in Pair by Laurens d'Houry in 1678). (A good description is found for this work, as well as the rest of the illustrations in their entirety, from the National Library of Medicine, the source for this diversion).
I'm not sure why the subject here is crying; and I'm also feeling that I've never seen an example of a crying figure in any antiquarian anatomy book before this one. I remember from another;project that eyelids and tears were of some considerable interest later on, finding no less than 25 books dedicated to the subject printed in the period 1825-1895 or thereabouts. (That bit of research was undertaken doing some background on a 19th c aboriginal torture of staking a victim to the high desert ground and cutting their eyelids off so that the sun would cause blindness from constant exposure). And I don't know when the eyelid is given its first anatomical drawing/consideration, displayed on its own and flattened out for inspection. And it would be interesting to know when the first extended modern scientific appraisal of tears was made. On the offhand I thought that Burton in his absolutely magnificent and very difficult book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, might have something to say about it, but it doesn't--as a matter of point, it seems that the word 'tear/s" appears less than ten times through the whole work, which I find a little surprising.
No matter. I just wanted this to be a quick diversion to consider if Bourdon really did intend to include tears for his model, or if the engraver took a little liberty and added some emotional elements to the image. It is certainly plausible, as human anatomical specimens had been presented in any number of different poses and posed with different items and in tremendously wide spectrum of emotion expression that crying would be but a small step to take for exhibition. There also seems to be perhaps no connection to any sort of physiology of crying--the subject just looks like someone with tears on their face, unassociated with any sort of muscle movement around the eyes, or glands or ducts or whatever. (Charles Darwin described a usual contraction of the muscles around the eyes when the subject cried, as he published in his Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)). The tears may just be Baroque ornamentation.
On the other hand, there may be a tenuous connection in the engraving to the tears and the sectioned brain. It wasn't too much earlier in the history of crying that it was thought that tears were a cathartic-purgative product of the brain, which is an idea that goes back to Hippocrates and his heirs and which held sway for more than a thousand years.
As Tom Lutz writes in his wonder Crying, the Natural & Cultural History of Tears (W.W. Norton, 1999) the English physician Timothy Bright poetically described tears in 1586 as "the excrementious humiditie of the brayne" (page 73), which were the "brai's thinnest and most liquide exrement". The idea of catharsis began to wane by the 17th century, and the four humours were identified more as a belief system than a medical reality, but the idea of the cathartic brain and its release of tears may have hung on to be included in Bordon.
But it does seem rare, crying does, in the annals of the history of anatomy--much less so in the history of art books that explore emotions and facial expression (like Chalres Le Brun (1616-1690) in his Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions (1698)). At the end of the day, these tears may well just have been a sly way of the engraver to exercise a little creativity.
It is difficult to find children's art from the 19th century--original work, printed work, published work. Very difficult--perhaps even more so for the published work than the manuscript. It is easy to understand why: first, the children would need access to paper and pencil or pen and ink--items that had some cost, that were not inexpensive, not available to the vast majority of children. Their work was ephemeral, produced on slate, or in horn books, or in charcoal on a wall, or in dust. Then, if the children did manage to record their creativity, then it would have to survive a generation of possessionship within their own lifetimes--to survive from the first part of the 19th century, the paperwork would have to survive five generations or more, 150+ years of house cleanings. Tough odds.
One way that this artwork survives is accidentally, as in the case below. Scribbles, notes, sketches, finding their way into ledgers and notebooks and works for children--the book closed, placed on a shelf, and perhaps forgotten. Put away in a trunk, saved in an attic, stored. And then, finally, found again after a century or two. Opened, the book of seeming nothingness is loaded with, well, everything. In this glorious example, ironically titled Blank Books, the books are anything but, now. This notebook was intended as a Ledger for the Merchant, and there was a bit of that done...but at some point, the ledger became a practice book, a tablet. And from the looks of it, from the scribbled date in practice signatures over the ledger columns, that change took place around 1868.
And in the blank spaces of the ledger and notations appear all sorts of everyday things, the sort of stuff that might be invisible to an adult because we take it for granted--perhaps not so with children, who might be fascinated by these objects because they have only been cognizant human beings for a few years. (It never fails to amaze me when I look at the photographs that our daughters made when they were three or four, wandering--and I could write "wondering"--around the house with a digicam. The images they recorded were things that were mostly part of the background hum of everyday life for me, except that their pictures were made at their eye level and gave a new meaning to these objects, for me.) What the child/children recorded in this dead ledger were common objects in 1868. Perhaps they are of a forgotten commonness. Whatever the case, it gives these objects a renewed interest to the observer of the future and our present simply because a child saw fit to draw them in the limited space in which they could draw.
Sometime we see a Cloud that's dragonish,
A Vapour sometime like a Bear, or Lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendant Rock,
A forked Mountain, or Promontory,
With Trees upon't, that nod unto the World
And mock our Eyes with Air.--Anthony and Cleopatra (Act IV Scene II) from the title page of Cozens' A New Method..., 1785
This blog maintains a longish thread on the History of Dots, but no where in there yet is any appreciation or discussion of the blot (the "blot" being "the unhappy and rejected love of the Dot" not according to Ambrose Bierce).
Cloud-writing is difficult work, mostly because it involves making the invisible visible in an imaginary landscape. This is I think exactly what Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) had in mind when he wrote about using ink blots for inspiration in preparing a landscape, writing about it in his A New Method of assisting the
Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of
Landscape. In 1785. He had the idea in mind and was using it in lessons for decades before that, but the work only found its way into print at the end of the century, a year before his death--and more than a century before such thoughts began to enter the early archaeology of the social meme. In a way he wrote about implementing a sort of simple calculus of discovery, of seeing the impression of possibilities in, well, anything, but particularly in the memory and sensation of forms.
These weren't literally what we would think of today as ink blots--they were suggestive forms that sort of looked like blots from which more determined and refined images could be made. He suggested that landscapes be generated as instinctively as possible, with blots being used to arouse memory and curiosity and to be incorporated into or suggestive of natural forms in constructing the landscape. [Although the word "blot" reaches back into the 14th century according to the OED, the version that Cozens had in mind I think was the verb "blot", which appears around 1440, and which means "to spot or stain with ink or other discolouring liquid or matter; to blur" (emphasis mine). It seems to me that the blot art that Cozens had in mind was both a blurring and a refining method, something that could release the artist and allow the mind to roam freely around the blot's inspiration and the artist's landscape memory. as Simon Schama says about the blot in Landscape and Memory, "there blots were deliberately random impressions meant to express, rather than to slavishly outline, the natural heaping of rock forms. The impulsiveness and spontaneity of their production served to reinforce the new idea...that mountains were dynamic, even turbulent things..." (page 461).]
Cozens was working on imagination and discovery, a way to make an improvisation in art, a riff on whatever the ink blot might suggest to the viewer. On page seven of his pamphlet he describes The Blot:
‘A true blot is an assemblage of dark shapes or masses made
with ink upon a piece of paper, and likewise of light ones produced by
the paper being left blank. All the shapes are rude and unmeaning, as
they are formed with the swiftest hand. But at the same time there
appears a general disposition of these masses, producing one
comprehensive form, which may be conceived and purposedly intended
before the blot is begun. This general form will exhibit some kind of
subject, and this is all that should be done designedly’ (p.7, from The Tate description),
[An example of Cozens' work with the blot, source: the Tate http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/cozens-plate-11-t03179]
In a way it Cozens reminds me of Leonardo's cracks and shadows:
"...if you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd
appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like
landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humerous faces,
draperies, &c. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will
be furnished with abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new".--Leonardo Treatise on Painting (in the English translation published in 1721), pp 5-6
Cozens worked for insight, for "the art of seeing properly", for surprise, the discovery of forms. IT was an extraordinary work, especially given its time, ten and more decades and more away from the work of Redon and ernst and the rest of the suggestive painters, and even seven decades out from Courbet. It was slightly closer in time to the quizzical work of Justinus Kerner, whose Kleksographien of 1890 used ink blots in a parlor-game fashion for his readers to fashion stories and narratives with. (A full text with illustrations of the 1890 edition of the work is found here, in the digital collections of the University of Heidelberg).
An example of Kerner's work:
And well in advance of Hermann Rorschach's 1921 book Psychodiagnostik, which employed the use of ink blots to help him diagnose schizophrenia, the predictive and diagnostic aspect of the idea coming in 1939, not as a result of Rorschach's doing).
What these blots might all have in common was their pre-modern earliness. their anticipation of something that would become a standard framework in the decades--or centuries--to come.
Reading means approaching something that is just coming into being. --Italo Calvin (1979)
What is it exactly that the Christ child is doing in this painting (ca. 1435) by Rogier van der Weyden? I don't think he's reading, and there are some who seem in anti-reading--tearing out pages of the book, which is supposed to be the Old Testament, an allegory for pointing the way to the newness of the Bible in the New Testament.
To me he looks like just any other baby handling a book--not tearing, but just figuring out how the book functions, how to make it work, with fat-fisted baby hands. Perhaps the baby was looking into the past and the OT and not seeing the future in it in the NT. But even in an era of high symbolism and metaphor, perhaps this is just a baby playing with a book.
The revolutionary comic strip generator Winsor McCay had a great 12 months in 1904/1905. McCay may have been the Einstein of his field, and his
work I think may still be the standard bearer for high excellence and
creativity. It was in 1904 that he began his Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, which seems to have also launched the main character for the creation of his crowning masterpiece of the medium, Little Nemo in Slumberland, which would premier in 1905. (McCay's work was appearing in two different newspapers in New York in 19041, forcing him to contractually sign his work for Rarebit as "Silas").
Nothing had really quite been seen like that before, two newspaper
strips that were filled with vision and elegance and weirdness and the
bizarre, beautiful stories illustrated on one sheet of paper, of great
imagination and a wide stretch of subversiveness. They so captivated the
readers of the time that McCay went off on illustrative lecture
circuits, found movie (in their relative infancy) versions of his work,
and performed in vaudeville venues along with Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields.
What is different in Rarebit from McCay's other work seems to be its new material from strip to strip--there's no recurring characters--unlike Nemo, which has storylines that continue for periods of weeks--and there is a great reliance on message than in the usually-beautiful artwork that is found in Little Nemo. Rarebit tells a social story, and is capable of satirizing political and other issues; this is almost never the case in Little Nemo.
There's also the appearance of giants in --this one, in particular, we see a New York City stomper of varying heights. The giant seems tallest when standing on the New Jersey palisades; when he gets to Daniel Burnham's Beaux-Arts Flatiron/Fuller building--which had just been completed a few years before this strip--he rises above it by about 1/4, making him about 400' tall. When he gets to the Statue of Liberty, which is about 305' from ground to the base of the torch, making the giant somewhat shorter than earlier, tough he seems his mightiest when sitting on the center span of the Brooklyn Bridge, this portrayal making him seem considerably taller than the earlier 400', as the height of the bridge from tower to river is about 276'). I'm not altogether sure of how early NYC-attacking giants come in in the literature, though there are plenty of other appearances of giants in the history of myth and literature (including the Cyclops, Eoclesia, Paul Bunyan, Fatna/Fanolt, Gargantua, Goliath, Orin, the Kraken, Rukh, Zeus, and so on, all of whom come before our Wall-Street-Wrecking giant rarebit fiend. (I wrote earlier in this blog on an Alphabet of Giants, here). There is an 11-minute movie (The Pet, 1921) by McCay featuring a city-attacking giant, which may actually be the first movie featuring a gigantic-anything distributing mayhem on a city:
Its unclear to me why a person should have nightmares from the seasoned
cheese slathered toast that it is rarebit--it seems fairly innocuous,
unless of course it is weirdly seasoned or the cheese is bad. But this
is Cartoonlandia, which means anything is possible.
1. The strip ran from September 1904 to 1911; it appeared in different papers and under different title for a few years from 1911-1913, and then once again revived under a different name in bits and spurts from 1923 to 1925.
It is said that the smile of the Mona Lisa says everything to everyone, but in saying all of that so loudly in such a quiet way, is it possible that the smile is saying noting? That in the vast encyclopedia of emotion that this smile is said to contain, is there really no "there" there?
It has been pointed out by many that while the male figures in Leonardo's work have a great diversity, the female figures seem not to, that there is a definite overlapping consistency of charm and image from one figure to the next. The young Leonardo took his time with la Gioconda1, in a way making the painting his own in spite of the person for whom the work was painted. Perhaps he did more than that, perhaps he developed the Mona Lisa within an existing framework, and then continued that practice in his painting over the years.
It is intriguing, in its way, to think of her like this, a simple solution under the great enigma. But I think it is probably wrongheaded, and that at base those other folks writing about the sameness in the female figures are incorrect. Though there is something to be said about a continuing fascination in Leonardo with that smile.
So, I think thinking of Leonardo's women as more-or-less invariant and their smiles tending towards one another, establishing the Mona Lisa's smile as the apotheosis of the symbol of some sort of glorified, unified, aspect of women might make for an interesting sci-fi adventure, but I believe it doesn't exist in the real world--or in mine, anyway. That smile is not nothing.
1. Like many paintings, this one is known by a number of names: La Gioconda or La Joconde, or Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, or Mona Lisa, and so on.