Category Archives: ot

Leonora Carrington

The day began with a YouTube video, which has Leonora in her 90s talking with her (somewhat clueless) younger cousin:

I found Leonora’s remarks absolutely riveting, so I transcribed them:

(asked if there had been other artists in the family)
LC: My mother used to paint biscuit tins for jumble sales. That’s the only art that went on in my household.

Joanna Moorhead: I wonder where it came from?

LC: I have no idea.

JM: No other artists in our family? None at all?

LC: Why are you fixed on the idea of heredity? It’s not hereditary … comes from somewhere else, not from genes. You’re trying to intellectualize something desperately, and you’re wasting your time. That’s not a way of understanding, to make a kind of intellectual mini-logic. You never understand by that road.

JM: What do you think you do understand by then?

LC: By your own feelings about things …if you see a painting that you like… canvas is an empty space.

JM: If I got one of your pictures down from upstairs and said to you what were you thinking when you painted this…?

LC: No. It’s a visual world, you want to turn things into a kind of intellectual game, it’s not… the visual world, it’s totally different. Remember what I’ve just said now, don’t try and turn it into a …kind of intellectual game. It’s not… It’s a visual world, which is different. The visual world is to do with what we see as space, which changes all the time. How do I know tgo walk –that’s one concept– to this bed and around it without running into it. I’m moving in space. Or I can have a concept of it and then I can see it as an object in space…”

This is fascinating on several levels, not least the asperity of the nonagenarian being not-understood on a subtle point, and trying to convey its importance to an interviewer who doesn’t quite get it.

And that led to Adam McLean’s marvelous 6-part Study Course on Leonora Carrington:

1: The Early Years

2: Mexico

3: Celtic

4: Esoteric and Magical

5: Map of the human animal

6: Humor and Animals

(see also his Surrealism Lesson the first of 20 videos!)

and here is a somewhat younger Carrington:
“The Flowering of the Crone, Leonora Carrington, Another Reality”

And her story “The House of Fear”, read by Farah Rose:

There are lots of other Carrington videos, and see Leonora Carrington is Having A Moment from 2017, Carrington’s centennial year.

Much more awaits me…


One of New England’s Autumn rituals is the Binding of the Evergreens. A bolt of [gunny] sack cloth or burlap or tow sackin’ or hessian (dialect variants for pretty much the same very rough cloth, almost loose enough to qualify as net) is sourced from somewhere (Tractor Supply, maybe?) and wrapped around ornamental evergreens for the first 5 or 6 years after they are planted. One must wonder why (not to mention where and when and wither and how) this custom came to be and to spread to its present territory?

And of the style and other niceties of the Binding: The most common configuration is the line, which often looks nothing but military:


The ideal is a uniformity that is rarely achieved. Most straggle and sag and some even wander. Some manage to stand in a line as if on parade:


(most of these can be read as faces…)

With Evergreens planted as specimen trees, there’s more latitude for the fanciful when it comes to Binding. It’s not clear if the Binders consider that they might be doing Evergreen Sculpture, or if the main point is to ward off hungry winter-browsing deer, and you get the burlap around her good enough…

Remarkable characters sometimes emerge:


hawk-nosed portrait head with extravagant plumed headdress


I can’t decide between genuflection and a couch too deep


Exercise: caption this as you will

Some are marvelous portraits of character. I read this one as disgruntled old sergeant with silly tufted headgear.


Longtime I’ve thought of these as Hessians, a tip o’ the hat to the 18th century Germans with whom the Crown sought to maintain order in 1770s North America. Others collected can be seen in my Hessians Flickr Album.

My friend Brian Higley, landscape architect and vegetation whisperer, comments thusly:

I like to call these, trees in bondage. Whenever I see them, they look pretty tortured to me. But maybe the more creative way to see them is perhaps… homage to the landscape artist Christo. See the forms without any preconceptions, only for what they are as sculpture. What happens to the flora when you wrap it? … The wrappings can actually serve a purpose in some cases, but those cases included, it usually means that someone has planted the wrong species of plant in the wrong location, or deer.

Some species of evergreen trees and shrubs are extremely sensitive to wind and can become dessicated in the winter. If the winter wind doesn’t kill them, they will stay nice and brown the rest of the year. Wrapping can keep them alive and perhaps green.

Heavy pressures from a starving deer population (the case in several places I have worked) can make it next to impossible to have any new plantings without a seven foot deer fence around your entire property. Many people with money do just that, and then the remaining deer have that much less land to feed on. When they are starving they will eat anything in sight, including things they aren’t even supposed to like. Some people like to wrap up their plants in winter to protect from the hungry deer, a reasonable protective measure by tree loving owners, but in my view the dressed up soldiers stand out as a loud and obvious symbol of defeat. Really? looking at wrapped up trees all winter? I get it though. Falling in love with your trees can be as irrational as falling in love with another person.

Now if you live in Beacon, New York and you happen to get a nice little fig tree, and you wrap it all up and bury it in the fall to keep it from getting too cold, you can get some nice figs every year — it is totally worth the trouble. And the ugliness you have forced upon the plant, and the rest of the world, is justified.


The Song Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) was famous as an artist himself, and he had a special bent for collecting rocks. Here’s a cautionary tale, perhaps a bit overwrought in the telling, from Paul Prudence’s marvelous Figured Stones: Exploring the Lithic Imaginary:

His biomorphic rocks were so prized that they were given names and inscribed with gold calligraphy. Rocks resembling birds, animals, and demonic forms were collected from the furthest reaches of the province. Solemn figures stood in gardens, their countenances frozen within the cryptic seams of time—each a messenger from the earth’s unconscious underside. And, by some providential twist of fate, Huizong’s destiny was written in his amassed collection. In a desire to quench his unabated thirst for stones he dismantled bridges to allow boats to bring him increasing mounds of rocks and stones. So obsessed was he with such a seemingly surreal addiction that his eye was turned from the invading Jurchen nomads who set his fate by using his precious rocks as fodder for their catapults. In a twist that would seem to mock any fiction, poor Huizong’s collection was used against him. And not just his empire was lost but his entire rock collection, which to him was more precious than any universe… (pages 79-80)

Albrecht’s pillows

Albrecht Dürer, 1493

How can I not have seen this before yesterday? Here’s AD imagining and then drawing faces in 6 pillows… 530 years ago. On the other side of the page there’s a marvelous self portrait, with a 7th pillow with a face:

Think of the fun he must have had…

Leonardo’s Approval


This from my friends and co-conspirators Daniel and Tamara:

Daniel says that Leonardo would approve;
that all you need for inspiration
is to look at cracks on walls.

I decided to hunt down the background to that excellent precis, and found two nice versions as extracted from Leonardo’s A Treatise on Painting:

Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose pealing you can find every name and word that you can imagine.
(from Goodreads)


Leonardo da Vinci advised the budding artist with creative block to leave behind his blank canvas and stare at the stains on walls: ‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.’ Leonardo’s technique, which encouraged the viewer to search for meaning in chaos, referred back to myths about the origin of art in accidental shapes.

(from Tate-etc Christopher Turner ‘The deliberate accident in art’)


The yashmak

In the present climate of peril with respect to things one mustn’t say or think, some delightful stuff is fated to be forced underground. A case in point has to do with masking and veiling: masking is now (in 2021, not in 2019) de rigeur in some settings and circumstances, but a bone of contention in others. Veiling is deprecated in some settings and circumstances, but obligatory in others. One mocks with care, and with an eye peeled for the culture police, and never quite knows where the edges are today. A case in point is packed into this image:


which I’ve described as “the yashmak of her wildest dreams” (well, it’s really ‘yaşmak’, in Turkish).

I first learned the term 60+ years ago, via an Elsa Lanchester song that skates awfully close to the incorrect in 2021:

The original image was pretty undistinguished, or perhaps just too chaotic,
and I didn’t process it the day I took the photo (there were much better candidates):
(see Sand for how and why)


but later it occurred to me that mirroring might do something interesting. The first attempt:


Hmmm. Elaborate, but not eloquent enough. So try flipping vertically:


Closer, but no cigar yet. And then I saw those eyes:

How about if I bring them together by taking a narrower slice and mirroring…
and there you have two bewitching eyes and a marvelously ornate yashmak:

So, once again: something from nothing.

Another Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago I was organizing books in the Auxiliary Library in the barn and happened on Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (which I had bought in 2008, on just what inspiration I can’t recover, 12 years later). Many of the 40 essays contained within are interesting to probe again, touching as they do on interests and enthusiasms and questions that have arisen during those dozen years. The last third of the eponymous and first (“The Geography of the Imagination”, originally a Distinguished Professor Lecture at University of Kentucky in 1978) is an extended riff on American Gothic, Grant Wood’s evocation of American essence:

(Art Institute of Chicago)
(see Wikipedia entry)

Davenport’s four pages of deconstruction of this eidetic image is a lovely mapping of implications, of allusions, of in-knottings. Some are explicit references by Grant Wood, others seem imbricated [an overlapping of successive layers], where the pointer is to bricolage, in the sense of ‘creation from a diverse range of available things’, rather than to an orderly pattern of overlapping, as with shingles (bricoler is “to tinker”). A similar unpacking can be visited upon other familiar images, to get at the question of how and why they come to be eidetic, and I’m tempted to try some of that myself (stay tuned…).

It’s no surprise that American Gothic has been praised as representing “steadfast American pioneer spirit”, derided as Norman Rockwellish cliché of a[n imaginary] small town America, and widely replicated in satire and parody (see a blog devoted to instances). Here’s an instance from my own archives:

Kent and Shel 1969
Shel and Kent Anderson, 1969

Dept. of Blinding Flash and Deafening Report

I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of Japanese paintings and woodcuts, but only really looked at a handful, and with even fewer have I had anything more than the shallowest understanding of what I was seeing. A couple of months ago I heard about an exhibit at the Harvard Museums, Painting Edo (mid-February through July), covering about 250 years (1615–1868) and seeming to be an opportunity to repair my ignorance. And then COVID-19 closed museums. So I looked to see if there would be a published catalog, and sure enough Painting Edo: Selections from the Feinberg Collection of Japanese Art appeared… Knowing that it was most unlikely that I’d be in Cambridge by July, I ordered it. Well. It’s a lovely book, and the text overflows with just the sort of explanations I was hoping for. Here’s part of what I read this morning, accompanying the first image in the book:

Tani Bunchō’s “Grasses and Moon” from 1817. (photographed by John Tsantes and Neil Greentree); © ROBERT FEINBERG/COURTESY HARVARD ART MUSEUMS

The Gallery Text is a good start, but Yukio Lippett’s text in the book is eye-opening, and this passage transfixed me:

Bunchō aimed to create a “true view” (shinkei), as stated in his inscription. This term in fact designates a literati concept of great complexity shared among advanced painters and intellectuals from the mid-Edo period onward. Rather than referring to any notion of optical truth or reality, it was rooted in the ability of the painter to capture the subjective experience of a site or scene through picture-making. Works in this tradition invariably involve some combination of motifs identifying the site and a discursive framework—typically provided through an inscription—that refracts the image through a particular emotion, interpersonal exchange, or sensory experience from the encounter. In many cases, the inscription incorporates a citation from classical literature, thus fashioning this moment of encounter as both contingent and eternal. The true view was a fundamentally interrelational concept that imbricated the singular, intimate experiences of an artist with those of earlier figures who had commemorated similar instances. (pg 15)

So much to admire here: an elegance and precision in the prose (discursive, refracts, imbricated), a lucid explication of shinkei, a generous nudge toward thinking differently about how and why text might accompany images.

Some more of the text accompanying this image:

The scene is conceived as if observed from a low vantage point among the river reeds, looking up and through them at the moon… The powerful sense of immediacy thus generated by the design is reinforced by the fact that Japan was a floor-sitting culture: viewing a painting from a standing position would have been highly irregular, and accordingly, Grasses and Moon anticipates the vantage point of a Yaozen patron looking up at the scroll from the tatami mat-covered floor. (pg 14)

The image on the book’s cover is a marvel itself:

the whole image:

and a detail:

Three enigmas

Some photographs resist simple interpretation, even when their ostensible subject matter (ice, sand, rock…) is clear. Sometimes it’s possible to imagine a figure or a face, but even the most fertile imagination runs up against limits now and again, and one is tugged into surreal territory. Here are three such that I’m puzzling over, from a trip to Drift Inn a few days ago:

almost Arcimboldoesque, a right-facing head ?


? a demonic cocktail shaker ? a flamingo executing a jeté ?

scale indeterminate: ? a view outward toward the Cosmos? satellite view of a caldera?