Category Archives: ot


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?

daunting graphic skills

Here’s an example of what I aspire to in clarity of line and presentation:

(Clemens Habicht, in Jan/Feb 2020 Atlantic, pg. 82)
(Ida Tarbell, pioneer of investigative journalism)

…but no idea how to get to such fluency. I have been working with Adobe Draw on the iPad, using the iPencil as a tracing tool with some success (see back at Drift Inn from a fortnight ago) but the next step to interpretive drawing is a high one. Two more examples, working from


And yesterday the Brown Truck brought Raymond Briggs’ absolutely brilliant Time For Lights Out (“an extraordinary exploration of old age in words and pictures”) and I ran across this illustration about halfway in:

I ought to know how to do this sort of digital collage, and I think I almost do, but once again getting to fluency is daunting.


Some of my most off-the-wall thinking happens as I’m waking up. A few days ago Therianthropes guard the bridge between the risible and the numinous bubbled to the surface and I managed to write it down before it went off into the stratosphere. This morning it occurred to me that there was a map to be drawn of the territory of the Risible and the Numinous, on either side of the Ot River (think: Buda and Pest…), having squares and streets and buildings associated with people and movements. The Surrealists surely inhabit the land of the Risible; William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg and Charles Peirce hang out in Numinous territory, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo (despite the questionable proclivities of the latter pair). Most Cubists are denizens of Risible (though Picasso has moved back and forth), and cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Kliban and Gahan Wilson are to be found in especially disreputable parts of Risible territory, where the tattoo parlors are and punk musicians hang. Some of my photographs definitely belong in one or the other:

3ii1812crop 1i1872adj
are obviously Risible, and

6xi1812 Wass066trac
might make it to Numinous. And what of
(the lattermost from Roger Caillois’ collection)?

I think these might be guardian therianthropes on the bridge:

Saltus beach hands up

So I’m starting to gather up waypoints and toponyms for this possible map, along the lines of (but of course less glorious than) maps of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork: