Tag Archives: art

The Witches’ Sabbath

It is a lowering, disturbing sight – a vision that strides the jagged edge between art and illness.  Its cloven hooves balance on a precipice as it looks downward into a pit where reality and madness, swirling like cats, battle for superiority.  Casualties – science, reason, ignorance, insanity: every faculty of the human mind – lie discarded and untended on the killing fields.  Only fear remains:  the robust hunter that seeks the mind of both everyman and madman.

A sick crescent moon huddles in the corner.  It sinks into a twilight that melts into a horizon rippling with lavender and sapphire.  Alone and betrayed, the lunar refugee rides the blue columns of an empty, ominous sky, illuminating the inverted ceremony below.


This is Goya’s black dream:  a hallucination of bats dripping from the dusky hem of night…of barren, predatory hills that crouch like animals.   This is his heroic portrait of a masculine goat sitting amongst his witches, culled from the bare-foot peasantry of Spain.  His stunning horns, curled like a lyre are at the center of his vision, draw the eye to the eerie threat, the subdued terror, of the devil assuming an earthly creature’s shape.

The unwashed coven is hypnotized by the sight before them.  Their superstitions have knitted their ragged bodies together; their beliefs have brought to life the musty goat that gestures towards them, regal and dark.  The women offer him their children – but whether for sacrifice or for nourishment is unclear.   With expressions that are sloppy and unformed, they are united in a nightmare performed on an empty plain beneath a feverish, unsettled sky.

“The Witches’ Sabbath” is one of Goya’s ‘black paintings’:  canvases that begin with a layer of black, his “sleep of reason that produces monsters”.  Objects and ideas hide in these frightening works, their eyes glowing in the dark:  optic denizens that keep their logic confined and private.  Sometimes they venture into the light:  terrible thoughts round with illumination, standing alone in the middle of a sick drama.  Like disappointing births, these paintings achieve their twisted life out of darkness.

At first glance, the work resembles one of the silken garden parties of Watteau or Fragonard.  But instead of graceful couples with nothing but pastel secrets and delicate longings to occupy them, there is a circle of witches that lie in the dirt, their howls freezing the sky into a shuddering twilight.  There are no diamante trees, spangled with tears and sunlight.  The landscape instead is barren:  Nature’s sigh of hopelessness shrouding the charcoal-colored earth. Only the demon remains, smelling of sulphur and the barnyard, its horns swathed in vines of belladonna and nightshade. 

There is no Venus or even a benevolent Bacchus to watch over a prancing, flirtatious world.   There is no glossy, pretty life here.  And there is no god at all


The Venus That Lived

"…in that stern Ligurian district up above the seacoast, where angry Neptune beats against the rocks.  There, like Venus, she was born among the waves."

Her profile was like a coastline, offering both dangers and havens to the hand that caressed it.  The fingers would hold the memory of the lines, curves and soft plateaus of her face – and the skin would be pierced with burning recollections.

Coiled and curled about her neck like amber vipers, her hair writhed down her back.  Her flesh was pale and warm – marble that had melted under an Italian sun and then poured into a shape rivaling that of Venus.  Some said she was born in Portovenere, where that most voluptuous of goddesses was born; where she combed her gilded hair inside a pillared temple.

She was named Simonetta Cattaneo, and was born in 1453 or 1454.  During this time the roles of women were obvious, yet hidden:  prostitutes lounged in churches; the beauties of the day wove amongst their admirers like fish; they were exquisite blurs, eluding the many hooks laid out to catch them.

But Simonetta was caught when still a child – adulthood came quickly to claim youth, innocence had few defenders.  She was married at 15 to a Florentine, Marco Vespucci.  Within a few years, every nobleman in the city was watching her, catching his breath at the sight of her creamy skin and wild, auburn braids.  Each one saw his desire reflected in the pearls ascending her brow.

In 1475 one of those men, Guiliano de Medici, entered the lists of a jousting tournament carrying a banner that bore the image of Simonetta dressed as Athena.  In the soft, golden breezes her figure rippled and beckoned; beneath it was written La Sans Pareille, "The Unparalleled One".  Guiliano won the tournament and Simonetta was named "The Queen of Beauty".

Sandro Botticelli decorated the banner.  Her face floated throughout his paintings, a ghostly feminimity that chained them together in unrequited ardor.  She was Flora, Goddess of Spring; She was Venus, gazing serenely on the sleeping Mars, lying naked an defeated next to her; she was Venus emerging from the sea, her hair unlocked and alive in the rose-scented air, balanced on a shell that curled at her feet. 

But these veiled tributes were painted after her death, when grief drove Botticelli's limbs and creativity to recapture an unacceptable loss.  Simonetta died in 1476 from tuberculosis; her beauty shining with a sickly glamour, her blankets sprayed with blood, like scarlet mists from Venus' sea. 

It was Botticelli's request to be buried at Simonetta's feet, a request that was honored.  He lies there as a victim of beauty's tyranny, a symbol of humility and exhausted passion, beating against distant shores.

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Roads Not Taken

My art is a rite of passage.  I emerge from it weary, frustrated and temperamental.  It is a journey that winds sinews around brain, heart, hands.

When I draw, my eyes wander over the surfaces of my subject: curves that wind and widen, dip and disappear, straighten, stop and start.  The slightest fold is an expedition into texture, light and shadow.  It's no wonder, perhaps, that a square inch of work leaves me tired and shaking.

I finished this today:

It's a favorite subject of mine.  Scarves.  I have so many:  silk, cotton, velvet; stamped with patterns of cities, castles outlined in turquoise, leaves and peach-colored shells.  They are embroidered with fiery sequins and beads, decorated with knots, bows and spirited fringes.

This particular article was a mild, pastel green.  In my uneducated hands it felt like rough silk.  The fabric was delicate, with each individual thread standing apart and catching its own angle of light; so what I held was like five feet of shimmering air.

This took me about a week to draw.  Every day, as I peered into the green folds, it seemed as if I was traversing meadows, hillsides and bowers that I'd never seen before.  Sometimes the path was wide and verdant…sometimes it took a sudden turn and vanished completely.

I like this picture.  It is a travelogue, a cartographer's fancy.  It is my sculpture; carving into stone, through silk and across fields. 

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A Long Time Ago, There Was A Time

There was a time when castles were painted white:  pale warnings set in the world's wildest places.  Their floors were carpets of rushes whose starry flowers blossomed in vain against the sour smell of garbage and unwashed bodies.  There was a time when forks were considered effete and kings ate with their hands.  There was a time when ladies plucked their hairlines and men dyed their beards purple.  There was a time when a tournament was a graceless clash of up to 3,000 knights fitted into massive saddles draped with heraldic tapestries.  There was a time when a life could end with a simple sword thrust or the complications from a pin prick:  a time of violence and filth.  Blood and disease flourished in the gutters.

There was a time when people lived in shacks – airless and dark.  There was a time when light's invisible molecules pierced cathedral windows that arched into heaven and were spliced into fierce primaries:  blue, red and yellow.  The columns of color blessed the shadowy naves and transepts, the architectural crucifix.  There was a time of rags and of mud.  But it was a time of gold:  it dripped into embroideries, it was hammered into walls that writhed with alchemic life.  A knight's helmet could sprout antlers, grow branches, or cradle a falcon:  all golden symbols of his brutal ancestry.  There was a time when fear held men by the throat.

Yet it was also a time for books – spared from society's barbarism.  Before the firt printing presses began to smear and creak, manuscripts were illustrated by hand – 'illuminated'.  Decoration and calligraphy merged to birth tiny worlds of zoology and humanity that swirled like painted galaxies on skies of vellum and parchment.  A living filigree of crimson dragons, twisted vines, flowers, birds, ships, animals that drooled and glowered, twittering insects:  a hallucinogenic pattern that wove between letters and reclined within margins:  buzzing and rustling.

Within a single letter, a ship will balance on a triad of moss-colored waves while below, the gray shadows of dolphins and whales balanced between air and water.  Or, beneath a canopy dotted with fleur-de-lis, a king sits at a banquet, choosing from the plattes held up by his cowering servants.  Beasts and monsters were curled and cramped inside their etymological cages. 

Sometimes the letters sprouted leaves, serpent's heads that barked and spat, or faces with dark, Byzantine eyes.  Once the pen completed its essential outline of the initial, it lept from the artisan's fist, erupting into a madness of pointillism and populations.  Colors that were crushed out of berries, insects and herbs spilled into angles and curves that twisted into endless highways across the map of a single page.

There was a time when Art held a handkerchief to her nose to walk amongst the fog of humanity and stand at its shoulder.

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Drawing From The Past


MC2's post from last week got me thinking about a few drawings – copies, actually, the originals have no doubt returned to the earth long ago - of mine, things that I did within my first five years.

Let's get all Sister Wendy on this, and do a friendly critique, shall we?

Drawing #1.  Unicorns as circus horses – the convergence of myth and fact within a child's imagination.  An idea whose time has come?  Surely so!  Fabulous horses standing 2 1/2 times as tall as the Master of Ceremonies?  Of course!  And students, please observe closely that you may take note of his curled and waxed moustache.  And before we leave this work, marvel at the dancing poodle, which the artist has chosen to render in pencil, the better to illustrate the creature's curly and wiry hair.

Drawing #2:  Here we are lucky to have both caption and date:  'Merry-Go-Round at Knotts' Berry Farm May 7, 1960'.  We see here the artist's choice to illustrate physical motion, rather than physical detail.  We receive the impression that the multi-colored and textured horses are traveling at approximately 150 miles per hour and are in danger of flying off their axis.  Further proof of this is seen in the expression of the terror-stricken rider, drawn in blue…perhaps because his cries for help have left him blue in the face?

So young!  Yet perceptive enough to see, in the words of a favorite movie of mine, "the violence inherent in the system".  Oh dear yes, so many times the Carmelite Sisters have been caught re-enacting the scene between King Arthur and the French guard…

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The Cafe Royal

I believe a while ago the Vox Question of the Day was to explain the name of your site.  I was highly enthused about that one, but as my computer was acting stupidly I was unable to act on that question.

However.  All seems serene for the moment, so  here we go.  The Cafe Royal was the Main Attraction of Victorian London.  It was where you went to eat, drink, socialize and to be seen.  Oscar Wilde had his only civil meeting with the Marquis of Queensberry there.  He lunched with Bosie there.  Max Beerbohm went there; he called the cafe's domino room the 'haunt of intellect and daring' .  The artist and wit Will Rothenstein drank vermouth there.   W. B. Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Verlaine - AUBREY BEARDSLEY went to the Cafe (no doubt nursing the glass of milk his tuberculosis relegated him to, rather than a dose of grusome, green absinthe).   Civil and not-so-civil society attended.  It was the epitome of everything that was artistic, ravishing and scandalous in the late 1890's.

The collection of luminous names and voices that that place contained makes my head REEL.

So I honor it here.   And it serves as a reminder that I too should be as luminous as I possibly can.

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