Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Rant against Mediocrity

Anyone who has even been slightly paying attention to my blog posts will have noted by now that I like highly ornamental and decorative designs and do not shy away from the intricate or complex. I once designed something for a client, and when I presented the drawing, got the comment of "that is not going to be easy, is it?"to which I replied, "I do not do 'easy', If it was easy, it would be someone else's job." I enjoy the challenges that complex designs provide, and find making simple things extremely boring and uninteresting.

An early 19th century "Pietre Dure" table in the national Gallery, Washington
Made before people wanted everything "easy" to do
(own photo)

Part of my work involves coordinating tasks with other contractors to do work that I do not have time to do, or is outside of the scope of what I am proficient in accomplishing. In that vein, I was trying to work with three contractors this past week for the tasks of upholstery, painting, and marble work. All three had the same basic paraphrased complaint against what I wanted them to do. "That is too complicated, why can't you come up with a design which is easier?" They did not want to do the work I was asking for because it would take some actual thought and time (which they would be getting paid for) to complete. They would much rather do something simple and straight-forward; get done and get paid. Getting done seems to be the main goal of the modern contractor, with no enjoyment of the process of doing.

This reminded me of my college days studying interior design. At that time I realised why most modern architecture was so boring, In those days everything was still drawn on a draughting table with pencil, pen, triangle and parallel ruler. As a result, everyone wanted to do the simplest design they could get away with. once, we all had one project which involved drawing several walls all in brick, all of my classmates griped and complained endlessly about how long it took to do. Many of them tried to come up with methods to avoid drawing the bricks altogether, such as using a plastic brick template which would imprint the pattern onto the parchment, or drawing a grid instead of a running bond, both with horrible results. Draughting itself is an art which takes skill and practice to perfect, and something which one can take pride in achieving; an art which is completely and sadly lost with the age of computers. (The twisted irony is they now have programs to make the computer renderings "look like" daughtsmanship to give it "character"!)

I often got into conflict with my professors over design style; they wanted me to do "modern" things, and I wanted to do things which had style and elegance, which, to them were usually "outdated" or too complex, There was a sense that any style that had been previously used could not be used again, except that did not really hold true, because simple designs void of any decoration or real creativity had been being invented for most of the 20th century, fueled, in my opinion, by two things; a desire to be different, for the sake of difference, at the cost of beauty, and a general laziness resulting in trying to make things "easier".

A former factory building in Seville, Spain. It was built from day one as a factory
and continued as such until the 1950's
(source, Wikipedia)
A modern factory. Both of these factory buildings were built to process the same
raw material. The first was built in an era when people took pride in what they
built. I wonder if anyone would be interested in the second facade 300 years
from now. This is the sort of design my professors expected me to produce
but the first image is the sort of designing that I wanted to do. Sadly,
our world is now filled to overflowing with the sterile hulks of this style.

Wanting to make things "easier" is nothing new in human history, we have been inventing labour saving devices for thousands of years, and for the most part, these inventions have been useful and helpful. The past hundred years though, have marked a new phase in human invention, which is going from improving the way things get done, to creating devices for the lazy, and encouraging a general lack of skill. I have a poster on my wall with a quotation from Ogden Nash, " Progress may have been all right once, but it has been going on far too long." (He died in 1971, I wonder what he would think of 2017?)

Pick up any woodworking companies' catalog, today, and one will find hundreds of gadget which are designed to be so simple and easy to use, that "anyone" can do a task which formerly required someone with an acquired set of skills to accomplish. It used to be that a carver, for example,  would begin as an apprentice when  his muscles and brain were still so young as to be easily taught, he would then spend his youth honing his skills to be able to achieve the exquisite carvings which are seldom ever seen by even the best carvers of our day. (There is a reason that the best guitar players of our times all began playing when they were kids, it is much more difficult to train the adult mind/hand coordination.) Nowadays, no one seems to even be willing to invest the amount of time in a lot of skills to become proficient at them, and instead try to invent machines and computers to substitute for the time they do not want to spend. This comes partly from a lack of interest in keeping skills alive, partly from valuing income over a pride in accomplishment, and in my opinion, a general laziness inherit in our general human race. Personally, my biggest argument for my belief that God is an human invention is found in the very writings which are supposed to "prove" his existence. In this story, God "spoke" and things appeared, this has a very suspiciously human characteristic to it; a true "creator" would relish and enjoy the act of creating, he would want to "get his hands dirty" and actually be actively involved in making the things he thought of. A lazy human wants to "speak the word" (press a button on a computer) and have things come instantly into being.

A sad byproduct of this 'dumbing down' of creativity and design and of trying to make everything as simple as possible, has been to produce generations of consumers who no longer even know what fine quality, design and creativity look like. They go to the stores and shops and see mass produced rubbish and assume that is the way things should look. As a result, almost no one wants to pay for anything to be made well. I once spent eight hours hand rubbing the finish on a small table to give the look of a highly polished antique, but the client did not like the "streaks" that sharp light made visible; I spent five minutes spraying it with an aerosol finish and they were delighted. (I was appalled) All of the other furniture in their house was finished that way and when presented with something much finer, they had no point of reference in which to receive it. Taste is something acquired through exposure and education, as is the lack of it.

Another sad thing is that, for the most part, we are really no longer even able to produce the quality of work which was achieved in ages past. As a collective society, we have lost the skills and there is almost no one left to teach them to others. It is like we have artistically entered another "dark ages" if we compare the work created now, to that of the 16th through 18th century (and even before). in my work, I try to do the best I can, and strive always to improve and hone my skills, but I will readily admit that compared to the fine work produced in past centuries (and even by a few modern artists) my work is scarcely more than amateur cobbling. I have not had the fortune of receiving an apprenticeship to a true master of anything and have had to try the best I can to teach myself the "skills" that I do have.

My ceiling which I recently finished. Though I am a bit proud of what I
created, it is a far cry from a master of the 18th century as pictured below

The irony of the whole evolutionary process is also very stark. Before the 20th century a well established artist or a fine cabinet maker had a much more prestigious place in society and a better comparative economic position than his modern counterpart (does he even have a modern counterpart?) has for all of the time and labour-saving devices which have been invented since the time of such illustrious artists and craftsmen as Giotto, Michelangelo, Charles Boulle, Gringling Gibbons, or David Roentgen.

A random robot carved design as found on the web by a company advertising'
their "carving" machine
A carving by Gringling Gibbons illustrates the quality of carving to be had
in the late 17th century

In this modern world in which we find ourselves living, we are caught in a vicious cycle of a lack of clientele willing to pay for truly well made products and a lack of artisans skillful enough or willing to take the time to produce them. Laziness and mediocrity have become the norm of our world and no one seems to be concerned. This really leaves me to wonder what this new century will bring?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Assumptions and Closed Minded Prejudices

This past week I was reading something related to a stone monument which is supposed to mark the grave of a certain Boethius, who was bishop of Carpentras, a town in southern France, from 583 to 604. According to what I read, "the sculptor was ignorant of Greek, and no doubt all language, because he has placed the cross in reverse, with the 'Omega' before the 'Alpha'".

The plaque reads, "stone tomb of  Boethius, bishop of
Carpentras and Vasque from 583-604"
Picture from Wikipedia

The French Wikipedia says that this stone was originally ornamented with semi-precious stones and glass, (presumably in the little squares within the cross, for example). It does not say so, but from what I know of artwork at this time, and bishop's tombs, it would have been covered in gold foil or gilded as well. This is also only part of the original tomb.

The thing I take issue with, here, is the idea that people automatically assume that the artist was "illiterate". For the past couple of weeks I have been reading The History of the Franks, written by Gregory of Tours in the late 6th century. He speaks a lot of the goings on in France at the end of the 6th century, and even mentions this Boethius by name. He obviously did not mention his death or tomb, because Boethius died about 13 years after Gregory did, but one does not get the impression from reading his work that artists of his day were ignorant or uneducated. In fact, the remarkable thing one gleans from reading this work is how much life seems to go on, in his mind, as it always had. He sees himself, and the people of France as the natural extension of the "Gauls" of the Roman period, and mentions nothing about a "fall" of the Empire. In fact, he refers many times, in his work, to the "emperor" (Justinian, who's portrait can still be found in two basilicas in Ravena). The only thing out of the ordinary which he mentions are many unnatural phenomena such as a couple meteor strikes, and other wild natural disasters, and the Franks seemingly incessant penchant for violence against one another. 

Because we are so programmed to think that this period was the deepest of the "Dark Ages" whenever we see an anomaly like this, the automatic assumption is that the person involved was ignorant. We do not even stop for a second to contemplate whether or not there could be another explanation. This is proof positive of our viewpoint, and therefore there is not need to give another second's worth of consideration. I could not disagree more strongly!

While it might be possible that the artist was in fact illiterate, this is "proof" of nothing. Artists worked from models, other works, or pictures in books. Might it be possible that this was not originally the tomb stone, but a stone mould for casting a bronze plaque for the tomb? (if it was a mould, the cast piece would not be reversed) It might also be possible that what this artist had as an example was a mould for a cross and he forgot to reverse it. How many times have modern people done the same thing? I know I have several times, such as when I wanted to carve a stamp for my monogram. I guess I must be illiterate as well.

Matrices for embossing metal. These are for embossing so the image
would look the same in the stamped metal. I have an image of a fragment
of a carved stone from Cluny which was used as a mould but cannot
seem to find where I filed the picture. A casting makes a reverse
image of what is carved.

If anyone getting something backwards is an automatic indication of illiteracy, then what does that say about the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? I noticed this fragment on the wall when I visited last summer. You see, we cannot assume just because someone did something other that the way it is "supposed to be" that they are automatically illiterate or ignorant.

Which is a sign of worse illiteracy, backwards or upside down?
A stone slab displayed in the met with the "Alpha and Omega" upside-down 
 Perhaps there is another excuse, and in the case of the MET, we would naturally give that assumption. In this case, if the Alpha and Omega are right side up, then "Chi Ro" symbol for Christ (the X with another vertical line and and half loop which is an R) would be upside down. So perhaps here is another example of another "illiterate". If we can give a modern person the benefit of doubt and possible human error, why not for the anonymous 7th century mason as well? 

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Painted Ceiling

It has been mentioned in this blog a few times before that although I make my living primarily as a cabinetmaker, in fact, I am an artist. Once in a while, I actually get paid to be an artist, which gives me great satisfaction. Such was the case for the past two weeks, in which I completed the following project. (working 12-14 hour days)

A painted medallion for the ceiling

I actually did this bit last summer; making a plaster medallion, then painting it, and installing it.

The plain plaster medallion, and after painting the ornaments gold

This year the clients asked me to paint the entire ceiling, so I had to make a design that would fit with the painting I had already done in the centre. The clients also allowed me to paint a few putti so long as they were "not naked" (even a crossed leg was not acceptable) Other than that restriction, and the comment that they wanted some birds, they actually gave me free reign to do what I wanted, which was very commendable.

Because of my perpetual problem of forgetting the memory card, this is the
closest I have to a "before" picture. This was at the beginning of the second
day of painting

The best way I could come up with to draw on the
ceiling; chalk taped to a stick

Neck-breaking work, this really gives a new appreciation
to the work that went into some of the great historical ceilings.

After one day of drawing and another of painting I realised I needed to come up with a better way to do this and save my neck. I thought of the method that Michelangelo supposedly used of making the scaffold high enough he could lie on his back, but this obviously would not work, because one thing an artist needs to be constantly doing is stepping back to observe his progress. (I achieved this by lying on the floor of my scaffold) In my opinion, what he probably actually did, was make a platform that he could move around on his scaffold and lie on that. I came up with a slightly less cumbersome, but not quite as effective, method of making a sort of chair. It had the advantage of allowing me to easily access my paint, but the disadvantage was that it still does not give as good of a perspective as lying down does. It also limits the area where one can work,and I was constantly moving it around. When I would get energetic and want to move from place to place quickly to work on multiple areas simultaneously, I had to just skip the thing altogether..

The clouds are finished here, I managed to get them to make sense with those I
had previously done in the medallion

The putti were drawn onto poster paper and then cut out to use as templates;
everything except the silhouette had to be done free-hand and therefore I
taped the drawing to the ceiling beside the painted in shapes to
 use as a reference 

Putti number two...

...three and four, plus a dove

This bloke looks terrible

As I began painting these figures, I realised how "rusty" I was at it. I had not painted figures in the past 8 years and I was never much for painting figures most of my life; add to that the additional challenge of painting upside down, and I really struggled to get going on this. I had intended to finish all four figures in one day, but at the end of that day, I had only done their silhouettes and this guy, which I was very unsatisfied with.

Another more detailed drawing, and a fresh start
made a difference, but it was still a bit of a

The third one went better...
It only took a bit over three hours to get this one

Once the main ceiling was finished, I added a "faux" border to it, painted to
look like moulding.

Again, my template only gave me an outline, I then had to paint all the
details in by following my drawing. I first did the highlights, then the shadows.

After adding a few birds, I was happy with the results, as testified by
my signature

This little baby cloud escaped from his parents up in the sky and came down
to have a look into the room

And these two are trying, though not very hard, to catch a bird. I managed
both of them and the bird in four hours; the rust was beginning to loosen up

For me, art should be more than just a "picture"; it needs to have secret things, which must be searched out. it must have things that cause you to study it, and it should keep you finding new things each time you view it. To this end, even though the composition is simple, I have added many things for contemplation, such as the cloud, which at first glance someone might mistake for a "mistake". This causes you to have another look. and then, once you find the answer to this riddle, you might think to search for more. There are plenty, such as the putto with a bow, but no arrow; look at what his companion holds. Two other putti are engaged with a dove, though the dove is perfectly unconcerned with their playful attempts at catching him.

The finished ceiling as one sees it upon entering the house; as if he is looking
up into the sky.

And here it is seen as one reads a picture on an horizontal plain.
All of the moulding is illuminated as it would be from the natural light coming'
in the window. I used  models to check for the lighting effect for each section.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Odd Bits

It has been a while since I posted anything about the work that I do which I actually get paid for. This has been mostly because I have not been working on any significant project which is "blog-agenic", In other words, there is nothing that I took enough pictures of to compose a story about, or that would look good in pictures, had I taken them. A lot of what I have done recently does not even photograph well, such as this marbling job that I just finished.

This is my best section

This project is impossible to photograph as a whole. It is quite wide, spanning almost the entire room (3.6 metres) and is painted on both sides. If the camera were far enough away to capture the entire arch, it would simply look like a thin frame around the breakfast room; something that I had nothing to do with. In addition, there are a couple of TV's, a computer router, some other electronic gadget of  large size, and a telephone which all distract from the view. 

I first applied the carved moulding but did not take any pictures of that process. The best I can do is this picture after I made plinth blocks, but before attaching the carved sections of moulding.

Before the moulding and marbling process began

Another post I suppose I could have done, had I thought of it, was a picture frame I made. No, I did not carve it, this is made the same way frames have been made for centuries, using something called "compo" which is a mixture of hide glue, whiting, and natural (usually pine) resin.The stuff is super-heated with live steam until it melts, poured into a mould, and pressed under great pressure to remove air bubbles. it is then turned out of the mould and let to cool and cure for several days before it can be used. To use it, it is again heated with steam, which renders it flexible, and activates the glue in it so that it may adhere to the frame. It is a fun process, but this was the first time I had made a frame, and so was not to keen on taking pictures as I went along, I was just hoping like heck that it would actually turn out ok. I also gilded it after it was finished. Since my business is not making picture frames, I did not see the purpose of doing a post on the process. It was only made out of sheer necessity.

Finished frame; it will actually be hung horizontally

My friend Steffen made the wooden stock which is the basis of the frame.
To the left is a piece of the compo as it comes from the mould.

I did carve the scalloped edges and pierced the openings in the centres

Another thing I did with this same compo was this ceiling medallion. What with the delicacy of the design, the fact that it is attached to the ceiling, and that steaming this stuff makes it flexible, this was quite a challenge to get right. Fortunately it comes in 13 pieces, which helped a bit. I painted and gilded the parts before installing them. The end result is much nicer than your typical out-of-the-box plastic ceiling medallion.

A large (1.3 metre) ceiling medallion made of compo

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Utrecht Psalter and its Furnishings - Part IV

In my ongoing, alphabetically organised discussion of the furniture and furnishings found in the Utrecht Psalter, we come to 'O', which is for organ, as in a pipe organ

One of three organs illustrated in the Utrecht Psalter
This one inferres levers and bellows for four people, though none are shown
pumping them and only two of the four handles are pictured

Some people might find this amazing, but the pipe organ is actually a very ancient instrument. It was supposedly invented in the 3rd century BC by Tesibius of Alexandria. However, as with many inventions of history, there were doubtless other instruments of similar principle which had already been in existence and which he either made improvements on, or which worked on a principle similar to a field he was famous for working in (hydraulics), and thus tradition came to associate that object with him,

This mosaic comes from the floor of a 3rd century Roman villa in the
 present-day town of Nennig, Germany. The villa was not destroyed
 until a Viking invasions of 882 meaning that the nobility of this region
would have had direct contact with this image for the first four 
centuries of the "Middle Ages"

However, and whenever the pipe organ came into being, there are numerous portrayals of organs of many forms and sizes from Greek and Roman art in many different mediums. According to The Organ; An Encyclopedia, the organ was "re-introduced" into Western Europe from Byzantium in the time of Pepin the Short, (in 757 AD) and Charlemagne. While these two incidents are recorded and thus textual evidence for actual events, the fact that they are illustrated in the Utrecht Psalter and the Stuttgart Psalter testify to them being fairly commonplace at the beginning of the 9th century. The above mentioned Encyclopedia also speaks of another, which was installed in Louis the Pius's palace by a "Venetian cleric" (826). There are also 9th century records of organs having been installed in an abbey in Bages, Catalonia, as well as in Köln, Halberstadt, and Rheims. Pope John the VIII requested an organ and an organist to be sent to Rome, from the Bishop of Freising, in 873. (Because of the nature of Humans and politics, this in no way implies that there was no one in Rome or Italy who could have done the job - notice the "Venetian cleric" cited above!)

The Encyclopedia goes on to cite (though a bit ambiguously) evidence of 8th, 9th and 10th century organ making in the British Isles. (This actually contradicts the author's statement that it was "re-introduced" to the "west" in the 9th century.)

In doing a bit of my own research for this blog, I came across several references, and pictures of the remains of a 3rd century Roman organ and a modern replica of it found in the National Museum in Budapest. It seems that it belonged to the dormitory of a fire brigade in the town of Aquicum (Budapest). The remains are in remarkably good condition given that the building was destroyed by fire (the ironies of history) and had then been buried from the 5th century until 1932.

The metal remains of organ pipes and mechanical parts of a 3rd century
Roman organ found in Aquicum (Budapest) in the 1930's. At right is a modern
interpretation of the organ based on contemporary artwork, but without any
decoration which would have originally been found on the wooden case 

This seems to be of a small personal sized organ, such as another portrayed in the Utrecht Psalter. (pictured below) One can deduce that just as in the later Middle Ages, and even today, there were many varieties and sizes of organs for different uses in the early medieval period.

An interesting note of the ever recurring battle of cultural "morality" and music comes from a quotation concerning St Jerome (342-420 AD) who advised a mother, regarding the virtuous upbringing of her young daughter, that she must "let her be deaf to the sound of the organ" for its "sensual" sounds would allow her to fall into a life of "committing every conceivable sin". Sounds like a Highway to Hell for sure. (rock on Angus!)

The third organ depicted in the Psalter is even larger than the first one pictured. It is shown with four pump operators and two organists. An organ such as the one the artist had in mind must have been spectacular to see and hear.

A small organ, quickly depicted with an economy of line. No doubt the artist
had an organ such as the Aquicum example in mind.
It was not necessary to depict every pipe to represent the idea of an organ 

A very large, elaborate and highly ornamented organ. (represented in typical
quick stokes and a minimal use of line, as seen throughout this Psalter)

Such an organ as this must have been what the chronicler Wulfstan of Winchester, writing in the mid 10th century, had in mind, in describing an organ that required "seventy strong men" to operate (the bellows) and two men "of concordant spirit" to operate the slides (keys); the sound of which "thunder[ed]...reverberating to such a degree that everyone stopped his gaping ears with his hands...". (A 10th century rock concert? cool!) As is typical with any medieval illustration, the artist only used the amount of visual imagery necessary to portray his intentions, utilising his personal artistic style, and did not represent an organ as we would like to see it in a photograph. The organ described by Wulfstan had ten pipes for each of forty notes on the organ, in other words 400 pipes; no medieval artist had the need or the inclination to draw so many. Given the prerogative of medieval illuminators, this illustration could actually well represent an organ as large as that described by Wulfstan, as four men could well stand for seventy. It is my belief that it can stand for one so big, one as depicted with four men, or others with any number of four or more operators, based one the representational nature of medieval art. (Oftentimes one even finds a Last Supper scene with only four or five characters, where space did not allow for the full 13.)

One of two organs depicted in the Stuttgart Psalter (also early 9th century)
The artist has also depicted a man holding a section of tubing used to convey
the air from the bellows to the organ. 

It is very interesting to compare the Utrecht Psalter and the Stuttgart Psalter for their very different ways of treating the subject matter and for the style of illustration. In the Stuttgart Psalter, the artist has included a lot more visual information, such as suggesting the structure of the platform on which the organ is built, as well as a 'shorthand' indication of acanthus leaf decoration to the top. What he has not properly observed, or did not care to accurately indicate in his drawing, is exactly how the air tube connects to the organ. and has simply shown it 'branching' out from the side of the pipes. (These organs differ from those in the Utrecht Psalter, in that they are operated by 'airbag' bellows, as opposed to ones with some sort of stationary pump.)  This does not tell us that he never saw an organ, it simply informs us that he knew enough about organs to know that there was a tube connecting the bellows to the air chamber, but he had no idea how it worked from a design standpoint, or he had no idea how to efficiently draw in an accurate manner. (and probably did not care)

The organ seems to have changed very little during the middle ages; an illustration of a 14th century organ will quickly demonstrate this fact. The main thing that changed, as with all medieval furnishings, was the style of applied ornament to the general form, which evolved with people's tastes in overall decoration as time progressed.

An early 14th century manuscript on the vices of men. This illustration is one
of  two, dealing with "gluttony", and shows a Middle Eastern court scene with a
very fat ruler and his court entertainment, including these musicians. We will
avoid the obvious political implications which do not seem to have changed
 much in 700 years, and point out that this organ is very much like the
 3rd century Aquicum example pictured above.

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