Phantasmagoria

Harry Clarke’s Hallucinatory Faust

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Because of its innumerable characters and epical content, Goethe’s Faust has been infrequently performed. Considered a “closet play”, or one meant to be recited rather than staged, the 1st Part of Faust was completed in 1829, while the 2nd (veering as it does from the typical storyline of scholar-makes-pact-with-devil-in-exchange-for-esoteric-knowledge) was published posthumously in 1832. The play has been dramatized exactly twice, in 1938 and again in 2000, each version with a running time of around 21 hours. Faust is less suited to the limitations of the stage, and more toward the high production value of a CGI landscape.

Perhaps the closest we can come to watching Faust is the hyperbolic, nearly over-the-top and terrifying illustrations of Harry Clarke. Originally paired with the faithfully rhyming, meter for meter verse translation of Bayard Taylor, which was published in 1925 by Hartsdale House. The volume contained 70 monotype and duo type images from Clarke, as well as 8 color plates.

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Born in Dublin in 1889, Clarke became an influential proponent of the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement. His first book illustrations to be published accompanied Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson, followed by Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which was reprinted in a collectible edition by Brentano’s, which collected 8 color plates in addition to the 24 drawings.

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But Clarke’s Faust illustrations are considered the pinnacle of his career. Esteemed as a stained glass window designer, he brought his stylish, artsy configurations to Faust. Apart from the ghoulish representations themselves, a provocative rigidity permeates his aesthetics. His religious and secular stained glass tableaus are an elegant matrix of minimalist posturing and compression. Likewise with Faust, Art Nouveau motifs of barely recognizable human-like figures clash with the pure white space of the margins. Characters from the play morph into one another, redefining Goethe’s humanist context. More than simply personifying, Clarke’s depictions convey the thematic threads of Faust, digging into the inherent ontology of the play rather than just showing words with pictures. Clarke’s demonic, eloquent phrasing of heavily inked lines truncate the playwright’s philosophy into a consistent, and consistently disturbing Freudian Id. Formal almost to the point of Russian icon painting, Clarke’s Faust is also a structuralist statement about text and subtext.

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A c1925 edition published by De Luxe Editions.

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Although an adherent to French Symbolism Clarke’s illustrations are unquestionably Art Nouveau, while also a subversion of that technique, toying as he does with the approaching Art Deco movement.  And in the maelstrom of 1920s and ‘30s book illustrating, they also seem to have arisen from a crisis of genre, on the surface belonging equally to horror, fantasy, mythology, religion and the occult. Clarke’s Faust, rooted in the modes and compositional manners of his day, reaches into the graphics of the late 1960s; it is a series of artwork that could just as easily illustrate a 19th century German play as it could a psychedelic Beatles album.

A Gathering of Strange Beasts: The Bestiary

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The medieval world had a habit of attributing divine meaning to the activities of the animal kingdom. Pelicans, for example, were endowed with the gift of raising their dead offspring after three days, in a Christ-like imitation of rebirth. However, the religious interpretation of creatures was overshadowed by the practical. Beavers were known to be tracked for their testicles, and so they self-castrated in an attempt to flee capture. Boas ate cattle, crocodiles wept after devouring men and the kingfisher was a bird that was known to tranquilize storms at sea. The magpie could enunciate discernible human words.

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Apocrypha such as these came directly from medieval bestiaries (Bestiarum Vocabulum). Categorizing the fabulist minutiae beasts and their Christian leanings, bestiaries were often adorned with portrayals of animals. An anonymous tome from the 2nd C was the first zoological inventory, a Greek work entitled the Physiologus. It compiled excerpts from Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and other ancient chroniclers of natural science and was assembled in Alexandria sometime between the 2nd and 5th centuries. Later, in the 6th century, Isidore of Seville compiled his  Etymologies, which was followed in the 8th century by Maurus’s German text, On the Nature of Things. Commentators took these mythological descriptions and transmogrified them into moral tales, so that what at first seems like an early instance of natural history is really an amalgamation of the superstitious  underpinnings of medieval belief and more modern natural history, so that it was deemed as infallible that cats eat mice as it was that dragons with two heads exist. Manticores are given the same validity as parrots. To medieval researchers, sources of information were not empirical observation but the intractable writings of auctores — Classical and ancient writers known mainly today for their unreliable histories. Like biblical studies, literal Christian analysis trumped the scientific method. Much of what is written as authority in bestiaries is often the result of faulty perception, so that, according to Richard Barber in his introduction to Bestiaries (The Folio Society, 1992), a belief in unicorns is possibly due to a “misreading of Persian sculpture”, insofar as creatures were represented in 2 dimensional relief, so that their bifurcated horns appeared to the onlooker as one.

tumblr_mj7p6yflLe1ryx4h7o2_1280 pheonix-lBecause of the enormous rate of illiteracy during the medieval period, images of the creatures discussed accompanied nearly every entry.  When sermons were given on the topic, congregations could along pictorially. Illustrated beasts, both imaginary and real, appeared in churches, on furniture, carved on surfaces, painted in monasteries and woven into fabrics. Allegorical beasts were everywhere, and there was no filter to determine the derivation or possibility of such creatures.img4994 Animal-Medieval-Bestiary

One of the most ornate of bestiaries is the Aberdeen, one of only two illuminated compilations of animals.  From the 12th C, the Aberdeen Bestiary begins with the creation of the universe and extends to the miraculous properties of stones. Blending fantastical creatures found in the Bible with creatures of fantastical qualities, it confirms the the 12th and 13th Century fascination with the sentience of animals. The Ashmole Bestiary (Bodleian LIbrary MS., 1511) was written shortly thereafter, perhaps sharing the same illustrator, and containing highly detailed Gothic miniatures. In one notable illumination, a basilisk, notorious for its deadly stare, is shown being set upon by a weasel, the only animal, according to the Ashmole, that can kill the basilisk. Striving to bring the natural world under some kind of divine systematization, writers and illuminators were as provoked by randomness as the behavior of animals they sought to displace. Illuminated bestiaries are the apotheosis of the era’s need for Christianized lore.

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Bestiaries led circuitously to the anthropomorphic stories of the world, to Aesop’s folktales and the talking beasts of C.S. Lewis and to Borges’s Manual de zoologia fantastica and other compendiums of imaginary creatures. Originally, English bestiaries were an attempt to locate meaning in the caprices of nature. That urge to uncover order in the chaos of the animal kingdom has persisted in the form of Loony Tunes and animation studios, whose output seeks to reinvent ever more technologically savvy bestiaries. All of which retain the ancient mythologies.

Medieval Deco

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The completion, in 1930, of Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for The Canterbury Tales caused a minor sensation in the book world. Limited edition books of any kind were obsessively collected in pre-Depression America, and copies of the exclusive 2 folios sold out before they were printed. Prior to that Kent’s popularity was exponential. Based on his illustrations of Leaves of Grass, Voltaire, and the works of Shakespeare (his masterful woodblock for Random House’s Moby Dick was still a few months away)  established Kent as one of the most popular illustrators of his day, as well as an adventurer (he was involved in a shipwreck while finishing The Canterbury Tales), and a writer of sorts.

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With Chaucer, Kent took a different approach than he had with Whitman or would with Melville; rather than scenes of evocative activity and symbolic portraiture, he chose to depict Chaucer’s pilgrims with a blend of homespun simplicity, Renaissance posturing and Art Deco delineations.

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Kent’s individual caricatures mirror Chaucer’s own epic, yet deeply humanist satire. The 25 illustrations were done with ink, pen and brush, and retain the look of an antiquated woodcut. Kent’s static depictions of Chaucer’s characters is an exercise in irony and humanity, with each pilgrim a monologuist on an imaginary stage. The Miller looks a typical drunk feigning dignity, with crossed arms and a regal, dim expression. The bald Cook, a petite nervous bundle, has a frightening aura, while the Sailer — mouth ajar as though in the midst of his raucous tale — stands wide-legged in a pose of relaxed openness. A smug, large woman, the Wife of Bath is posing so obviously it’s uncomfortable, without noticing the small bird careening toward her face. The Summoner is a grizzled man sitting atop a rock and wearing an anachronistic laurel on his head. In all the drawings, Kent specifically included very little of the natural landscape of his subjects, and because of the dearth of information about attire in 14th C. England, he conjured every costume solely from Chaucer’s descriptions. For the dust jacket of the collectible Garden City Publishing special edition, the Friar was chosen to be the collective unconscious of Chaucer’s work, with all of its irreverent humor, religious flippancy and vibrant yarns.

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In distinction from other illustrated editions of The Canterbury Tales (illuminated leafs, William Blake’s, the artwork of Arthur Szyk, which look more like stills from an animated film), Kent’s are willfully unspectacular, focusing instead on the intense humaneness of Chaucer’s parody. Storytelling is paramount in The Canterbury Tales, and Kent, with his Art Deco sensibility and portraits of individuated voices, tells his own, idiomatic story within the framework of Chaucer’s world.

For an in depth look at Kent’s representation of The Canterbury Tales, this site is indispensable.

Originally posted on Aldine by Rebecca Romney:

Wittgenstein is another one of those warrior-poets I love. One of the greatest philosophical works of the 20th century—and indeed, perhaps in the history of the subject—was written by him while in the trenches of World War I.  Not only is it an incredible philosophical piece, but it is also one of the most beautiful works I have ever read.

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnis

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnis

 

Before he had even turned thirty, Wittgenstein believed that he had solved all the problems of thousands of years of philosophy.  His thesis was composed into what The Times called “a logical poem,” published in 1921 as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  By propositions, Wittgenstein set about to demonstrate that the problems with philosophy are based in the imperfect nature of language, and that a precise use of language could bring about resolution. Here is the first part of the work:

1. The…

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Chic Nightmares

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Aubrey Beardsley, book illustrator and deranged Victorian, was the dark precursor of Art Nouveau. He was a founding father of the Aesthetics movement, the original “art for art’s sake” platform, and the British version of symbolism. Beardsley’s output, done almost completely with black ink, was a cross between Goya’s late style and the surrealists, with the unconventional sensibility of Odilon Redon and the compositional gestures of Japanese woodcuts and especially Parisian fashion magazines, whose layouts were transubstantiated into sleek grotesques.

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Beardsley was born in Brighton and died at the age of 25 in France. His first commission was as an illustrator for Thomas Mallory’s La Morte d’Arthur. Around that time he co-founded the magazine The Yellow Book, and later The Savoy, where he inked the covers and wrote an occasional piece.

Oscar Wilde, an acquaintance and fellow Aesthetician, described him like this, which does more not to describe him: “a face like a silver hatchet and grass green hair.” Purportedly asexual and addicted to his work, the artist was nonetheless rumored to have been in a relationship with his sister. The rumors were unfounded, but his images were enough to make his name the most notorious of the early Art Nouveau era.

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Beardsley’s output is bleak and incredibly meticulous. Private editions compiled from his illustrations to Aristophanes Lysistrata were printed. More unnerving than erotic or thematic — the anti-Dore illustrator in many ways — the drawings are nonetheless exquisitely refined. The artist’s works for Wilde’s Salome are equally as disturbing: androgynous creatures of almost-human proportion, starkly Klimptesque women, blank squares of paper offset by deeply inked sections, images of maniacal perfectionism. In Beardsley’s work, decorative motifs serve to elaborate the dreamlike and the uncanny, making him something like the Poe of Fin de Siecle Europe.

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In 1897, after Beardsley had converted to Catholicism, he told his publisher to destroy his “bad art”. His publisher ignored his request. The “bad art” Beardsley wanted destroyed would appear in a volume entitled “A Book of 50 Drawings”, and was so scandalous that it was unofficially reprinted in the equivalent of bootleg copies passed off as the original.

Beardsley’s compulsively original  illustrations are a commingling of traditions from the couture of Paris to the Symbolists and the Art Nouveau poster designers. His unnerving tableaus and voguish nightmares are like slightly enhanced Freudian inkblots. Beardsley’s illustrations are the carefully perfected little implosions of late Victorianism.