Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Music of the Gears

I was wondering if I needed to comment on the images in the masthead of this blog at some point -- to comment on the obvious, to expand on the similarity of the physical work that goes into turning the starwheel on a press and turning the crank on a bicycle (never mind that some of us print with a wooden spoon). I was running this through my head as I wound around Lone Star Lake last weekend when I passed a family fishing from the bank of the lake – click-fzzzzz-plop-tick-tick-tick – the sound of the spincaster feeding out its line, the tackle hitting the surface of the lake and of the reel winding in a foot or two of line; like humming to the sound of your bike’s freehub whizzing away, as you back-peddle for the pleasure of doing so; like cranking out a print – a silent spinning effort that ends with a clunk. These manual activities have an aesthetic reward it seems, at least so long as spinning and gears are involved.

For several days I have been thinking about Paul Klee, especially his early etchings. I’m surprised that these few early works (Jungfrau im Baum; Held mit dem Flügeln; Komiker, etc.) did not land Klee in that hall of fame for eccentric printmakers, Leonard Baskin’s wonderful text, Five Addled Etchers.

Klee often signed his works with his initials and some combination of the city, date, number of the work in the year’s production and an ornamental flourish. A similarly inclined artist, Dirk Vellert, a sixteenth-century stained-glass window painter who worked in Antwerp and, almost on a whim, it seems, produced two dozen prints, also had an obsessive mode of signing his etchings with a monogram [D★V] and the day’s exact date. Vellert, however, did make it into Baskin’s small group of addled etchers. Monograms, those seemingly little bits of documentation, contribute far more than is generally acknowledged to the aesthetic whole. What would a diminutive Nothnagel etching be without it’s elegant “N” monogram? A Whistler without its butterfly monogram? A Franz von Stuck without its precise architectural lettering for title and signature? A Bellange without it’s elegant scrolly-rolly-polly cursive? A Cranach without escutcheaons and winged serpent? A Wiley without the circle-W brand?

As for the task of closing the gap between the "music of the gears" and the issue of monograms (that ooze pictorial fantasy from a safe vantage point, that of being anchored in a shred of language), I can only say that, in the case of Nothnagel, the vertical form under the “N” is a nail (a Nagel), forming a rebus for artist’s name, which is a very satisfying click-fzzzzz-plop-tick-tick-tick sort of thing.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Peaceful Cow

Returning from the junction of Colorado and Thomas roads in Franklin County I stopped at Pleasant Hill Cemetery for a brief rest and befriended a cow who, with three calves, had also made her way into the trees for a bit of shade. She was eating leaves from a scraggly Osage Orange, gingerly pulling the leaves from the thorny branches. I decided to call her Sadie Mae and scratched her head, which was probably a useless gesture since hedge thorns and barbed wire didn’t seem to make much of an impression on her, though she did take the opportunity to carefully sniff my arm.

Sadie Mae is the kind of peaceful cow who has inspired vegetarianism in many cultures through the ages. I felt a pang of guilt for having suggested to her that humans were friendly companions, especially in front of the calves, who had decided I was dangerous until Sadie Mae walked over to demonstrate how benign the human is.

There is a heavy concentration of early prints from the Low Countries that feature cows in leading roles, no doubt due to the central importance of cows to the economic and geographic landscape of the Netherlands. In 1510 Lucas van Leyden engraved an unforgettable image of a cow between two peasants, and Paulus Potter and Nicolaes Berchem’s prolific production of cow prints in the seventeenth century suggests there was a real demand for such images.

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe’s brilliant etchings of cows amidst reeds (illlustrated here) argue for the centrality of ruminants in a peaceable, if largely botanical, kingdom, while Kolbe’s near contemporary, Goya, changed the formula from one of agricultural harmony and bucolic fantasy to a more aggressive world of bulls and bullfights, carried to embarrassing extremes by his twentieth-century admirer, Picasso. Unable to turn back the clock to Kolbe’s peaceful world, Sue Coe has recently drawn and printed an array of virulent exposés of stockyards and the meat industry, as in her 1990 and 2001 photoetchings, Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat.

I’ve included a self-portrait as an age disclaimer – the shadowy form in the upper right is Sadie Mae lying down in the shade, before we visited face to face, though over the fence.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Bike Boom is On

While organizing my books today I came across Godfrey Frankel's, Bike-Ways (New York, Sterling Publishing Co.: 1950). Browsing this optimistic text reminded me of a college friend who claimed that his biggest wish was that the modern, lightweight, fully-geared bicycle had been available at the end of the nineteenth century, as surely this would have thwarted the union of the industries of oil, automobile manufacture and tire manufacture in favor of bicycle transportation. Here are some of the opening remarks in Frankel's text:

"The Bike Boom is on. Not since the golden year of 1899, when cycles were more numerous than automobiles, has the United States seen anything like this."

lready there are more than 18 million bike riders on the road, and with 3 million bikes in production this year, it seems likely that the two-wheelers will give their motor competitors a run for their money."

otor cars dominated the scene for the first half of the 20th century, and serious cycling was left to racers, faddists, youngsters, and old-timers who somehow never got over their first crush -- the bicycle. Self-propulsion was passé. Bike production dropped to a low of 250,000 units in 1933, when even in the midst of depression, the American family stuck to its jalopy."

oday, it's a different story. Americans seem finally to have awakened from the onslaught of the car [...] They want to smell fresh country air, untainted by exhaust fumes."

Frankel continues with the virtues of cycling, it is "a palliative for our age," that leads to better emotional health, it is a good exercise, and embraces the attraction of youth hostels. "More and more, wives are using their cycles to market" and the bicycle is used for work in industry, on college campuses, and in hospitals. If, in the manner of Good Bye Lenin, Frankel had fallen into a coma in 1951 only to awaken today, how would we break it to him?

Original captions for the images:

All movable parts of the bicycle should be oiled regularly.

On jobs like patrolling and meter-maintenance at vast oil refineries, the workers cover ground and save time on their balloon-tire bikes.