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 Fl├╝geln; 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.

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