A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3.6 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, The Paris Review, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 3,000+ total posts
"Ist der Weltraum absolut leer, oder nicht?" ("Is outer space absolutely empty, or not?")
Carl Kutter challenged Isaac Newton on the 1st law of motion. Or at least that is what it looks like to me, the story presented in a slim but attractively designed pamphlet, published in Basel in 1944. Die Weltraumreibung presents the issue of "space friction", and I frankly could not make my way through that much of it--not even to the point of understanding whay Halley's Comet is illustrated on the front cover. But the design is interesting, and the issue was certainly very highly unexpected.
Dr. C. Sterling Cooly wrote an incredibly-titled pamphlet of
slim means called Should Insanity be Cured?How could anyone proceed further than this?Dr. Cooley wasn’t a eugenic apologist, nor
was he an accountant for a life insurance firm—he was advocating a drugless
cure for all different sorts of “insanity”, which was a term he doesn’t really
stop to identify and classify, which of course is deeply problematic.
Or it is so until you hear how one can treat the insane via
his new drugless method:chiropractic.I didn’t see that
one coming.“An insane mind is a sick
brain, a sick body is an insane body” writes Dr. Cooley with leading
confidence, claiming that chiropractic can release “the power within…marvels of
healing are performed not only in mental cases but in virtually ALL forms of
disease”.That’s a lot to live up to in
theory, let alone in practice.
Dr. Cooley was evidently a deeply important founder father of modern chiropractic, with a 50-year career in the area (1908-1957), and who was also very prolific--this is one work that he probably shoud've edited out of the publishing phase.
I don't know why the eyes are so very prominently featured--except I guess to enhance some understanding of the subject area,
"Sometimes a book is just entirely bad, and sometimes it is entirely nothing. It is impossible for a book to be both very bad and very nothing. Impossible. Except for this book, whose badness is exceeded only by its nothingness, and vice versa". --Oscar Wilde
And so into this black hole of imaged Wildeian description we go, into a very real-ish book.
I found a novel tonight, bought long ago and long ago mostly lost. It was written by a doctor who worked in the District Hospital in Lima, Ohio, and written in 1934. The Lima Hospital was the largest poured concrete structure in the world when it was built in 1915, and stayed so until the Pentagon was completed. The hospital was established for the criminally insane, had 14"-thick walls, and reinforced steel bars laid into the walls that went "right down to bedrock".
It was somewhere in there that this doctor wrote something that was really so toweringly bad that it escapes comprehension. I own the carbon copy of the unpublished work, which is typed on 14x8.5" sheets of paper, front and back, running 94 pages. It is a very crowded affair, with 90 lines of single-space typed lines, making the work about 115,000 words long.
There wasn't enough space evidently for paragraphs, which gives the work a kind of insistent, casket-cramped cruelty. To read it takes your breath away for its dullness--the book moves so weirdly and at the same time so very slowly that it doesn't move at all even while moving.
A few months ago I found the seven-foot-long scroll of the book's plan--a work of crowded magnificence of nothing and confusion, being very orderly at the same time. It went to a friend of mine who created artwork around it, and as it happens made a very noticeable appearance in a very significant yearly show in NYC last week. I was stunned to find that there was actually a text to go with the scroll-outline--it emerged from the warehouse this week, so perhaps this too will find a very celebrated life as art as well. Certainly the book would go nowhere on its own as a book, though it stood a chance at surviving on the grounds of its considerble design weirdness, which is of a complexified beauty.
In the meantime, before all of the letters slide themselves off the page from sheer boredom and before the thing is resurrected as a magnificent artistic effort, I'll share some ianges of the extra-ordinary book of reversed brilliant badness. I've also culled a few imaginary descriptions of the book from writers known and not:
"He couldn't speak. He could barely see. Blinded by the flames ignited inside his eyeballs from the novel in his lap. The words were like molten lead, sucked off the page by his eyes, forming a vacuum in his brain. It was a bad book".
The first-time published novelist's approach:
"He couldn't speak the words of the thoughts in his head, because they and all of his breath were stolen by the magic of the complete badness of the book in his lap".
"The book was bad and bad, and bad was the book. Even the badness of the bad was bad, a whole new insight into being bad. It was the bad book by which bad books are called bad".
"He didn't read the book so much as he looked through it. It was easy--there was nothing there. As bad as it was, it could get no worse. So he shot it, and poured a drink".
Well. This item is of course lost on me, but the new “wonder-worker comb" somehow did an anti-crushing something to the scalp and the hair root that promoted/restored and fictionalized hair health. The secret to understanding it all, evidently, is that "bad scalp" is “crushed thin”. This is brought about by “HAND pressure”, from “strong fingers that mash and force the elastic scalp to become thin and such” causing hair to be “more crowded, flattened”. For some reason the inventor didn’t speculate on whether other sorts of combs did this, or not; it looks as though he/she was targeting only those who combed their hair with their own non-plastic fingers, clearly elucidating this primal contest in a "wonder worker comb" vs. crushing/flattening comb fingers vocabulary.
The comb with the adjustable fingers “pulls, exercises, stretches, thickens and loosens the scalp as it passes through” (the hair, the scalp?). It makes the scalp “roomy inside”, allowing the extra room that the hair needs “to function”. These hair restorative miracles is the result of the simple use of the comb, providing “complete results all by itself, no wasted efforts…”.
The comb also, it seems, controls dandruff, and improves “thin, Lifeless, Dry-hair (sic)”. That’s a lot to ask of a piece of plastic.
This somewhat-scary item is a photographic postcard sent to the Library of Congress as a Copyright Deposit copy--part of the process of securing protection from intellectual theft via American copyright. One is set to wonder about who--and why--this idea would be stolen. It would make an interesting story about Really Bad Ideas that were appropriated to no good end.
It is difficult to lose your reader right in the very title of your text. But I do think that John Penn ("the Greatest of Living Authors" accomplishes this in his
Right from the Star-Chamber! Wholly Moses Another Coutnry Heard from Another Presidential Candidate declines the Nomination! Big Little Franklin Puts in its Disclaimer and Begs to be Heard Before the Big--(June)--Bug Convention... And on and on.
I can find nothing for Mr. Penn, who claims that this is Volume 3 Number 2 of a magazine called The Revelator (June 1888), a magazine that doesn't seem to exist in the holdings of the massive WorldCat/OCLC. The message of the slim and fragile pamphlet is--in the most kind appreciation possible--unclear. There seems to be a lot of political something going on, though it is a tangled webby road. Much of the center stage seems occupied by the election of 1888, when President Cleveland was renominated in a peaceful convention, but then bested by Republican challenger Ben Harrison in the electoral college in one of those elections where most stuff seemed to be going relatively fine in the United States. (Cleveland would come back to defeat Harrison in 1892.) So references to something like "Big Little Franklin" might actually refer to Benjamin Franklin Jones (1826-1903) who was the chair of the RNC from 1884-188 and the force behind the failed James Blaine nomination in '88. Some references are obscure but solid, and some are just obscure and unsolid, and others turn the deep corner of obscure and fly into the arms of mondo bizarro.
Perhaps it was all just theatre. And perhaps it was the work of someone who had some money and insisted of giving a platform to his black-and-white kaleidoscope, and had the thing printed (if not published) there in Concord, Pennsylvania, in 1888 (also known here as "J.P. 6600").
Here's the last page--the pamphlet is too delicate to open and scan any of the interior--perhaps this is enough:
Vision from the inside out, or from another version of the outside-in, from the very Outside, can be very fruitful things, idea-engineers, inspirations. They might have real insight of lasting applied value, or imaginary insight into the unexpected and imagined, with nothing of immediate or future values save for sense impressions that might trigger thinking in unexpected ways or areas.
There are occasionally great finds in mounds of experimental thinking that find a foothold in the outside world, such as in the case (further) below of Robert Fludd. Fludd (1574-1637) was a Welsh-born, London-based (and Oxford- and Padua-educated) astrologer, Paracelsian physician, occultist, Qabalist, hermeticist, semi-cosmologist and energetic thinker who found inspiration and solution in many ususual areas, some of which didn't really exist.
For example, a visionary of a different sort, as his celestial sphere will show:
Fludd’s (1574-1637) features a complicated astrological existence well beyond the point of Copernicus. In addition to everything else, real and imagined, Rosicrucianism and astrology and puffy-birds, Fludd looked deeply into the real stuff of the world in this book in addition to all of the other make-believe--optics, the musical intervals, perspective drawing, hydraulic engineering, construction of lifting machines, military engineering and many other interesting, physical science topics. But this drawing, right there on the title page, reveals Fludd’s real interests and shows what governs what he does. Everything else, the math and and the physics, services this need. Of course the image is beautiful, which is why it is here, but it is also a deeply personal, exploitative, cover-all for the things that Fludd *wanted* to find.
So in the middle of all of this, Fludd wrote his Pulsus seu nova et ARcana Pulsuum Historia e Sacro Fonte Radicaliter Extrata...(Published in Frankfurt in 1630), which was a tall but realtively skinny work on what at the time was a skinny topic: the pulse. In addition to discussing an listing all manner of data and observations ancient and modern on the subject, Fludd visits the newish and vastly important work of William Harvey, De Motu Cordis (1629), and gives it the first published favorable review. This was a big deal at the time as Harvey's epochal work was still feeling its way around for support. And here it was, in an unlikely place, a book filled with useful and not information, its writer claiming a certain association with mystical medicine and universal knowledge and getting the whole deal with Harvey right.
There are some other more recent contributions in our Outsider Logic collection that reach the limits of outside, reaching far into the aspects of knowledge that lies more or less completely hidden and inaccessible to the vast majority of readers. Sometimes bumping into outré thinking like this is very useful because it is just so very different; and sometimes this thought process is just and only that: very different.
This is last bit is probably the case for W. Clarissa Christeen’s (“D.D.A.T.O.M.”)The Universal Color Keyboard for Body Building. But what Ms. Christeen absolutely does have going for her is her artwork, which is, in its own special way, quite sensational—I’m really sorry that the pamphlet is limited to only two pieces of her work, as I’d really like to see more.
Her philosophy is at the very least odd, though it may spring from a synesthesia.Or not.
"Syn" (Greek, "together" and "Aisthesis" ("sensation") combine to form this very interesting word and ability, being an automatic response to a stimulus by one sense when that stimulus is usually associated with another sense. For example, there are "synesthetes" who perceive color as an auditory input, basically hearing yellow and so on; more famously are the musicians composing tone poems associating sound with color. There are letter-color and number-color associatons, as well as taste-senses from colors and sounds and so and on. For example in Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art there is an attempt to relate color theory to touch and smell; Franz Liszt wrote color music; Isaac Newton attempted to establish the common distribution and association between color and tone frequencies; Rameau constructed a clavencin oculaire while Rimington made a color organ; Richard Feynman spoke of colored equations, and Nabokov recorded (Speak, Memory) letter/color visions. THese are just a few examples of some of the more well-known practicing synesthetes.
In any event Ms. Christeen may be of that mold, and is attempting the universal perfection of mind and body through the combination of color and music (and scent), which “is valuable in building body-tissues of a harmonized order…the music chosen for social functions, the key notes being for the planet ruling or governing the day or the hours etc..This brings celestial and terrestrial vibrations in direct contact, without interrupted angles which produce in harmony; in other words the creative powers which produce these various waves f light and sound or color or tone, acts upon the lower octave, matter or material manifestations recreating it, transforming it, and raising the vibrations of the said matter or material manifestations, thus, refining the temperature and quality of germ or tissue, etc.”
This is a long passage, but I include it because, well, I just had no idea when an abrupt turn was going to be made in the discourse; nor did I have any idea of what the principles were of what was being discussed.And this is still all on page one.Sometimes passages like these are breathtaking, as in leaving you without breath, because their foundation for understanding is so elusive.All you’re left with, sometimes, is a “wow!” reaction, like appreciating a pitcher who has just struck you out on three roughed-up-greasy-spit-laden nastiness pitches that were invisible and illegal, and didn’t matter at all.(What the figure in the cover illustration is saying. by the way, is "Ether air motions creates cell activity", with a couple of Biblical references, somehow.)
I do know that the major divulged secret is the Universal keynote (and “keyboard”) and its control through music and fragrance of all that is, “each individual is to harmonize his or her astral colors to the universal keynote that he or she may be surrounded by a correcting aura, which sends out its streamers of light rays into the cosmos”.Things get more deeply possessed after this, stretching into the Old Testament and astrology, which we don’t need to get into here.
As I said, perhaps Ms. Christeen was a synesthete, and perhaps multiply so.In 1925, when this book was written, there mayn’t’ve been a place for people to go who had advanced sensibility of seeing colors in music, and perhaps colors in fragrance. Perhaps Ms. Christeen was working out there in Los Angeles completely alone, trying to figure out just what her special and very different gift actually was.Perhaps her life was greatly enlivened by her synesthesia, and sent herself out on a mission to the world to have other people experience it, too,, with the help of her color-relational charts.I do feel for her, though I have absolutely no connection to what she was trying to explain.I do find the artwork fascinating—a true “outsider” contribution.
(By the way, I don't think that we ever got to the "body building" part in this work. Also, I think the "DDATOM" after Ms. Christeen's name meant something like "Doctor of Divinity of the Atom" or something like that--it wasn't mentioned in the text.)
And so there you have it. I think that I'm just making the point that the outcome of some of this very provocative work doesn't necessarily come into play in its ultimate evaluation, and that it should all be judged by what short of thinking that it excites in its reader.
As these things go, this mechanical device is awfully pretty in an Outsider-y kind of way, and I have no doubt that I'd want to own one if for nothing else than for its explicit implied-complexity (whatever that is). [Source: US Patent and Trademark Office.]
This is the frontispiece to the delightful work with the luscious title of The Slang Dictionary; or, the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases and Fast Expression of High and Low Society… printed in London by John Camden Hotten, in 1870. It is a hobo or “cadger” (“a mean or vulgar fellow who would rather live on other people than work for himself”) map (or the map of “a tribe of vagabonds”) of Maidstone, in Kent, drawn by a “screever” (a sidewalk chalk artist who normally would draw religious images for money), and showing the various chalked and etched signs that the hoboes (“and other mendicant marks”) would leave for one another, being a key to the town, for what was practicable, safe, dangerous, and the like.
Recorded antiquarian hobo and tramp symbols like these are really quite rare, given their ephemeral nature to begin with; of course the need to record these obscure signs by polite society was not on a high order. There are many indications that signs such as these existed, but not many illustrations. For example in the book The Triumph of Wit; or, Ingenuity Display'd in its Perfection, edited by John Shirley. (1724), as well as works by Holyland and Borrow there is a description of English gypsies and their travels, and a short description of their use of boughs and sticks, set out for each other, so that a duplication of effort by different bands or families would not occur.
(The figure of the woman, wonderfully named “3/4 Sarah”, probably connects this Sarah to a sort of popular dance.)
Hotten also published the following interesting and title-bending work in 1874: THE ORIGINAL LISTS OF PERSONS OF QUALITY; EMIGRANTS; RELIGIOUS EXILES; POLITICAL REBELS; SERVING MEN SOLD FOR A TERM OF YEARS; APPRENTICES; CHILDREN STOLEN; MAIDES PRESSED; AND OTHERS WHO WENT FROM GREAT BRITAIN TO THE AMERICAN PLANTATIONS 1600-1700, WITH THEIR AGES, THE LOCALITIES WHERE THEY FORMERLY LIVED IN THE MOTHER COUNTRY, THE NAMES OF THE SHIPS IN WHICH THEY EMBARKED, AND OTHER INTERESTING PARTICULARS.
This book--The Writing of the Insane, by George Mackenzie Brown, 1876-- seems remarkable to me for the attention paid to the creative products of the insane. I am not sure when the first of these efforts occurred, but it seems to my experience that 1876 is an early production date for such an undertaking. It also seems to be a very early identification of the "special talents" of some of the observed individuals, including in the text of the book two remarkable (and remarkably "modern" looking) pieces of what today might be considered Art Brut/Outsider Art.
The author is George Mackenzie Bacon (1836-1883), a doctor who took classes at Guys Hosptial and who had membership in the College of Surgeons in 1858.1 Bacon was the author of Primary Cancer of the Brain (1865) as well as an editing contributor of at least a dozen annual reports of the Committee of Visitors of the Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely and Borough of Cambridge Pauper Lunatic Asylum (from 1869-1883 ro so). He definitely made improvements to the conditions of the inmates when he worked at Cambridegshire County Asylum (also known as Fulbourn Hospital, 1858-1992), where he provided those living there with more personal living space and patient-built work areas. This was certainly an interesting approach to take for the mentally ill, especially given the time and place.
But in his (scant) published works it seems that the Writing of the Insane must be his masterwork for at least being among the earliest books to serve as an archaeology of deeply-different and illustrated thought:
This is certainly not a "celebration" of talent, but there are moments of recognition of such in the Writing of the Insane, which at the very least is a very early expose of the topic. One of the earliest books written by someone who was admittedly "insane" (and this is very different from the many books written by insane, or brilliant, or misunderstood, or "complex", or "different" author) came to us in 1846 by Green Grimes. thirty years before the Bacon work. In A Treatise on the Most Important Subject in the World: Simply to Say, Insanity...2 Grimes recounted his life at the Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, about which the blog Canton Asylum for Insane Indians writes: “There are other Medical books which treat on Insanity, but comparatively few to the population, and none written by an Insane man,”
1. There is scant personal information on Bacon available online. This data comes from the British Medical Journal, 3 March 1883, in an obituary on Bacon.
2. The full title is pretty full: A treatise on the most important subject in the world: simply to say, insanity: The only work of the kind in the United States, or, perhaps, in the known world, founded on general observation and truth. There are other medical books which treat on insanity, but comparatively few on the population, and none written by an insane man. This contains a short history of the author's case, giving the general causes which produced the disease on him individually, manner of treatment and termination. Giving the only treatment by which a cure may be effected, the manner of detecting the disease, and the duties of sane parents towards the insane offspring of their bodies; with some general remarks upon idiotism, the jurisprudence of insanity, suicide, &c
The American Journal of Insanity simply states that the 94-page book is "very curious".
Sometimes a word is just a word, and the elements of recognition sometimes inhibits that. Except in this case that the word seems to be just what it is and also indicative of what it would become.
Outsider, or outside, outside the recognition of "official" art, of critiqued-art, is the English language equivalent/translator coined in 1972 (by Roger Cardinal) to illustrate the term art brut ("raw art") created by Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet created with others Compagnie de l'Art Brut in 1948, which in some respect was a reaction to a new sort of displayed art that had begun its life in the early 1920's, mainly as the efforts of doctors treating psychiatric patients who were expressing themselves through their art. (Two famous examples include Dr. Walter Morgenthaler's Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist), published in 1921 on the work of perhaps the most famous people in the Outsider canon, Adolf Wölfli; and another being Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the mentally ill) published a year later by Dr Hans Prinzhorn.)
Well, "outsider" as we know it today in reference to the arts is definitely not what the editors of Punch magazine pursued in this cartoon for their issue of 6 May 1886. The "infuriated outsider" was simply an artist left outside a show, whose work was not accepted for exhibition. (And from the looks of it, the small work on the huge easel, being rejected for the "want of space" might not have been the reason for the artist not making the list.)
This outsider was simply outside with probably-not outsider art. Henry Darger (1892–1973), Martín Ramírez (1895–1963), Paul Gösch (1885–1940), Charles A.A. Dellschau (1830-1923), Willem Van Genk (1927–2005) and so on were Outsiders, their work being Outsider/Art Brut and also being left outside for a long time. Far outside. In the far-deep outsider, further and deeper outside than the more aesthete outsider varieties of "outsider" art--like Impressionist, Cubist, Dada, Constructivist, Futurist--ever got outside.
[Willem van Genk, detail]
Anyway, I thought it curious to find the term stuck in the middle of a cartoon rant in an 1886 popular journal.
In a world where everyone wins and no one loses, why can't we cut a square hole with a round bit. Or vice versa? Well, we can of course, its all just a matter of perspective. The image (below) that started this thought thread down the rabbit hole is of a member of Great Britain's ruling class, Sir William Houghton, appeared in Punch magazine in 1890 as an illustration in a debate over hunting rights for hares and other small critters, in what seems to have been an attempt to further control the access of the wide working class to certain freedoms. To be honest I haven't looked at this debate, and I'm not sure why the liberal Sir William is shooting Dodos as rabbits, but the image--independent of what it was intended to represent--seems to be the inside-out, or the reverse-inside-out of what had been the situation with the bird. It would look "wrong" even if you didn't know the history of the flightless and basically defenseless creature being hunted to extinction, standing in the place of the rabbit. It has an oddness to it, like a very high-pitched tone that floats above a piece of music, a slightly pungent odor coming from a nicely-executed painting. Perhaps it is the the sense of expectation being thrown off just a bit with something like the unexpected-expected.
And then of course there's the rabbit hole connection. And Alice. And the Dodo.
From Report of Debate on Hares Preservation Bill, June 26.—"They (the other Members of Parliament) could not go out and kill 300 Dodos,"—but evidently he (Sir W.V. HARCOURT) could, and here he is—caught in the act... [He reminds me of a peeing stallion--one of the most majestic poses a horse can strike]
Lewis Carroll's Alice gets right down to business in her adventures in Wonderland, right from chapter one ("Down the Rabbit Hole"), only a few hundred words into the story1--down she goes. In one very memorable scene (in a book composed of memorable scenes) Alice meets a Dodo bird (which scholars say is a play on the stuttering Carroll's real name, Dodgson, or Do-do-ogson), and <things happen> after which the Dodo suggests a "Caucus Race", being a play on the legislative process in which the Dodo-shooting Sir William participated above.
The deal with the Caucus Race was that there was no set course, necessarily, for any one racer--everyone would run their own course as they chose; so in a self-defined course with no competitors and no rules, racing a race that the race liked, it would be hard to lose. Carroll writes:
"First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'
"This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes."
The rabbit hole was made by the cylindrically-gifted rabbit, though in Carroll's world the rabbit could've been a square, a cube or cube2-something. Or of course the rabbit could've made a square hole, or square-squared hole, which probably would've been more to Carroll's taste, approaching a very early thought on square2. But people in the three-dimensional world had been working on making square holes with round bits, though coming a bit after Carroll's time, as in this example:
The device at the bottom of the drill was made to follow and then restrict its cutting motion to that of a square, the device (considerably less wide than the diameter of the bit) cutting and scraping the round hole into a square. Which in its own way reminds me of a motion picture depicted on a polygon, in a movie theatre for example, which began in a somewhat different way, filmed on a circular surface, or at least in one aspect of it. Auguste and Louis Lumiere began the new mass-medium, illustrated here from their Nouvel Appareil Photographique Panoramique Reversible le Photorama (which was printed in Lyon in 1895/6)
The Lumieres claim for "first" as cinematographers is better understood in terms of the motion pictures being a new mass medium. Whereas other inventors and experimenters were earlier--like chronophotography devices constructed by Eadweard Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey and Ottomar Anschütz, which all produced forms of moving pictures in the decade prior to the Lumieres, but were decidedly not for public consumption. The work of these men, as with that of Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope (1891), was intended for scientific and academic consumption; or with the case for Edison, at least, for the amusement of the wealthy classes, as well as for educating the children of the rich. There were certainly others who worked in this area in the 1890's, but none really fashioned an interest to their invention for the use of one-and-all as did the Lumieres.
Which gets us back to our square rabbit hole. Soon after the Lumiere's introduced their fabulous new invention, they decided that there was no future whatsoever in the motion picture as a new medium, and abandoned it. They undoubtedly felt a little bit like the square peg in the round hole of the needs of art, and moved on.
1. "There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat- pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge."--Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.
It is highly probable that no artist who ever depicted a Dodo actually saw one.
Hildegard of Bingen (ca. 1098-1179) was a polymathic religious visionary1, composer and writer who was a well-know intellectual whose work attracted the attention of people at all levels, not the least of which were several popes In one version of the manuscript of her 150,000-word work, Scivias (Scito vias Domini, or "Know the Ways of the Lord" ) we find the following illumination, which is basically an image of the object that contains the nameless stuff of the human soul:
The image above—from the Wiesbaden manuscript and unfortunately only in a black-and-white, and found in Charles Singer's From Magic to Science (1928)2--shows Hildegard's vision of the soul entering the body. (There's a wide range of opinion concerning how much influence Hildegard had on these images—some say that she sketched out the outlines, or directed the illuminator, or had some sort of hand in the construction of the image, all with varying levels of involvement.3)
It is an extraordinary thing, trying to represent what gives the human-ness to people as seen from a 12th-century perspective, and in Hildegard's version/vision it is the soul, the very essence of the birth and death cycle of human nature. It is resident as we see within a special place in the sky, the "the wisdom of god" (Singer page 226), and it passes from the vault of heaven into the fetus while still within the mother's womb. It is in this square, evidently, that the essential matter of the creator can be found, and within that structure can be seen the essence of the stuff of human nature that is about to pass into the developing fetus through the tube-like connection. As Singer writes, quoting (loosely?) from the manuscript: "down this [the tube] there passes into the child a bright object, described variously as 'spherical' and as 'shapeless' which 'illuminates the whole body' and becomes or developes into the soul." (Singer, p. 226).
In the frontispiece to another ms of Scivias, we see Hildegard herself sitting and making a sketch on a wax tablet (a sort of Medieval chapbook, or hornbook, or slate/charcoal sketchpad that could be reused), showing that the images she created were the product of a higher source, of light from another metaphoric vault:
1. Hildegard said that she had these vision,s from a very early age, beginning at about 3.
2. This manuscript was removed from Wiesbaden during WWII and “sent to Dresden for safekeeping”, where it subsequently “disappeared”. “Destroyed” is more like it, as Dresden of course was the scene of an enormous firebombing campaign in the last days of the German involvement of WWII. There are still hopes that the ms lives somewhere in someone's grandfather's attic, perhaps taken in the third week of February 1945 as war booty, and then forgotten. "You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined." --Kurt Vonnegut, Jr
3. Historian of science Charles Singer and medical anomaly writer Oliver Sacks have both made strong cases for Hildegard to have been a migraine sufferer, though they do explicitly state that given that as the case it does not necessarily affect the vision that she had.
As found in the Wikiu article on Scivias:" Some authors, such as Charles Singer, have suggested that the characteristics of the descriptions of the visions and the illustrations, such as bright lights and auras, imply they may have been caused by scintillating scotoma, a migraine condition.Oliver Sacks, in his book Migraine, called her visions "indisputably migrainous," but stated that this does not invalidate her visions, because it is what one does with a psychological condition that is important. The resemblance of the illuminations to typical symptoms of migraine attacks, especially in cases where it is not precisely described in the text, is one of the stronger arguments that Hildegard herself was directly involved in their creation.
It has also been suggested that the visions may have been due to hallucinogenic components present in ergot, common in that area of the Rhineland, at certain times of the year.”
This slim booklet, Catalogue of the Spirit Drawings in Water Colours, Exhibited at the New British Gallery, Old Bond Street (London: 1871), offered descriptions of the work of Georgiana Houghton (b. 1814), an artist who in some way communicated with the spirit world, and allowed her art to be guided by it. She writes in the very first paragraph of her catalog's introduction, "the execution of the Drawings my hand has been entirely guided by Spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced..." She explains that the spirits were definitely those of dead people, and after having heard of such possibilities of communication as early as 1859 set out to "obtain mediumship" by holding hands with her mother at a small table for some months on end waiting for contact--which of course she says happened. Sundays worked best, "as we should then be less disturbed by evil influences". The spirits would communicate at first by table movement, then tapping, and then through the alphabet by the use of a planchette. So it seems to me that given that she had abandoned her own input in the creative process (even though she had a history of formal art education or instruction), and that the inspiration she received seemed not to be her own, that Miss Houghton was an outsider-Outsider artist, pursuing the spoken artistic needs of others, and then providing her own interpretations of the forms and colors. (We offer the original copy of this catalog at our blog bookstore.)
It seemed that Miss Houghton was inspired by the spirit drawings of a Miss Wilkinson--it was then that she sought the artistic guidance of a dead artistic sister though without success, and then from a dead brother. It was the brother who brought her into contact with dead Henry Lenny ("a deaf and dumb artist") who then guided her hands at first with the planchette, then with a pencil, and finally to watercolors.
After ten years of her own spirit drawings, Miss Houghton produced for herself a four-month show at the New British Gallery on Old Bond Street, exhibiting 155 of her works, all exhibited in rented frames for the occasion. Her reviews seem to have been very-light and mixed at best, and for all of her effort and trouble, she sold only one painting, She did however produce a catalog of the exhibition, which was a great aid to the viewer as the interpretations of the meanings of the forms and colors that Miss Houghton used were written on the backs of the artworks, which were hidden from view by the frames--many of the paintings' meanings were annotated in the catalog.
Miss Stoughton was hardly alone in this field of representing what seems to have been a very actice after-life of the dearly departed, though it seems that not as many participated in her own brand of automatic representation than other methods of spirit communication. She did appear at the beginning of what would become a significant culture of spiritualism, with spiritual manifestation, telepathic communication from one person to another and then to the dead, thought transference and magnetisation. The evidence of spiritual contact was produced on high levels, not the least of which were seances in which the dead appeared as floating ghosts filled with quiet or phantasmal groans and noises, sometimes luminous, sometimes leaving the medium's body as colored smoke, sometimes appearing as an electric spark, or an imprint on a photographic plate, or an aural shadow produced in iron filings, or an impression made in clay or other accepting materials2. They offered possibilities for hope and belief that are no less vigorous than our own today, save for their technological limitations. (An interesting article, "Proof Positive, the Photomatic Body in fin-de-siecle Science, by Alessandro Violi, can be seen here.)
There is a very interesting article on Houghton and the exhibition by Rachel Oberter called "Esoteric Art Confronting the Public Eye: the Abstract Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton" which was published in Victorian Studies 48.2 (2005) 221-232. About the pre-Abstract abstract and proto-impressionist work, Oberter says:
"Given the lack of abstraction within Victorian visual culture, watercolors such as those painted by the artist Georgiana Houghton in the 1860s and 1870s seem shockingly out of place. In her work The Eye of God from 1862, we see a tangle of transparent straight, wavy, and spiraling lines flowing out of the left corner of the paper and up from the bottom edge of the page as white filaments float across the surface. No recognizable forms appear; all that is visible are lines and colors—yellow, sepia, and blue. There is an organic quality to the undulations, a sense of microscopic detail, and a feeling of being in a deep-sea world or otherwise mysterious place. The vagueness of the imagery contrasts with the specificity of the title, which evokes a dense underlying symbolism. Houghton attributed meaning to particular shapes, colors, and directions in her paintings. While her works were abstract, they remained representational."
"The most important tools for decoding these works are the explanations that Houghton wrote on the backs of the drawings [above] . These elaborate descriptions provide a key to the symbolism in the drawing, clarify the message of each work, and name the spirit who acted as Houghton's guide in the creative process. Houghton believed that these explanations were written by the spirits through her hands; they are automatic writings that complement her automatic drawings. The same spirit who inspired the drawing provided the interpretation on the back—the explanations, one could say, came directly from the source."
The catalog does give Biblical references for every one of the works, giving at least a location in the Bible for every artwork. There are occasional (though sparse) longer descriptions of the work, though the great majority give Biblical citations for what each of the paintings represents.
Also of interest is Ms. Oberter's description of the gallery event:
"...in 1871 she exhibited her works in a more formal venue: she organized an exhibition at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street in London. The exhibition, entitled "Spirit Drawings in Water Colours," lasted for four months and consisted of 155 of Houghton's watercolors. She rented frames for the occasion and hung the watercolors against the walls of the gallery. This arrangement meant that the backs with the explanations would not have been visible. Yet it was still critical for Houghton that she convey this hidden information to her viewers. In her autobiography Houghton recalled: "The chief object aimed at in this Exhibition, was not so much to display the wondrous powers of the unseen intelligences, as to manifest unflinchingly to the world that true Spiritualism is inextricably bound up with the religion of the Sacred Scriptures" (Houghton, Evenings 2: 53). It was not enough for Houghton that the drawings serve as proof of communication between spirits and humans; it was also important that they convey the relationship between Spiritualism and Christian theology, particularly the insights that the spirits give about God and the Trinity."
The artwork of Miss Houghton is an interesting blip in the history of Victorian art, and I'm not exactly sure what to say about it. It certainly occurs during the first wave of Impressionism, and is wholly different from that new art form as well as the high Victorian fashion of the time; it also is entirely non-representational, an abstract art that precedes that revolutionary phase by about forty years. Its a little puzzling to me, especially since Miss Houghton seems to have escaped virtually any sort of lasting review or critique. But again Mrs. Stoughton is not alone in the non-representational art field apart from the automatic spirit manifestations--for example, in addition to an enormous literary output, Victor Hugo produced some 4,000 pieces of art, some of which are exceptional examples (to my mind) of non-representational art that came in a period decades before the Kandinsky and the rest. Here is Hugo's "Evocation of an Island":
He was certainly outside the mainstream of Victorian art, and even well outside that of Impressionism.
There was also Hilma of Klint (b. 1862), a woman who like Stoughton also represented the spirit world through her art, and who began painting in non-representational and abstract ways beginning in 1897/8, an example of which is below:
Miss Houghton went on to improve her representation of the spirit world through photography, a very wide selection of her work being available at the Keith De Lellis Gallery, here.
In the realm of extra-sensical belief, I'm not so sure that these brands of spiritualism would be too much different from any other belief in things that cannot be seen, or heard, or felt in any detectable way, a prayer by any other name.
1. Our catalog was the property of William Crookes (with his bookplate, and with a signed inscription to him from "Miss Houghton") who was an eminent British chemist and physicist and a pioneer in the field of vacuum technology (and remembered now mostly for the Crookes Tubes and his superior approach to experimentation). He was interested in spiritualism from about the year 1869, pursuing it until his death in 1919. He was hardly alone in his interests among highly-paced British intellectual elite: Alfred Russell Wallace, Lord Rayleigh, Oliver Lodge and William James were all extremely interested in the spiritualism phenomenon. Curious.
Imprints of ghost hands and faces produced by Eusapia Palladino, from Bozzano, Ipotesi spiritica, 1903, in C. Lombroso Ricerche..., 1909
This alphabet fell into place almost by itself as I wandered through this maze of business motivational pamphlets published by Men of America Inc (of Chicago), all printed in the late 1930's to about 1941. The design of the covers of this series is sensational (and I gulp wind as I say this) in very short and limited ways, just like it is sensational to watch a motionless penguin for a long time and then to see it suddenly turn its head to the left. But these images served a very dedicated purpose when they were printed, and were even perhaps useful,or successful, as this publication saw at least 500 different numbers in this series.
Perhaps more interesting--where did these models come from?
I think many of these covers are fantastic: charmingly naive, naively bizarre, cluttered with fantastically abandoned sentiments, and dripping with design elements all but forgotten and/or abandoned. They are beautiful in their own special way. And I'm not so sure that I wouldn't want to go back in time, read them and take their lesson to heart. (All are available for purchase via our blog bookstore.)
A is for AIM to keep workers happy and profit happier
B is for BURN and hoping for a better-built candle
C is for CAPITALIST, an exclamation point in a land of question marks