Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Children at Play" (Chinese Art)

"Children at Play" Exhibition, Freer Gallery of Art, April 2010. Last year I saw this exhibition and I thought these paintings 齊白石 (Qi Baishi) were just so charming I had to post about them on this blog. The painting on the left (c. 1930) is called 夜讀圖 ("Studying at Night"), and the one on the right (also c. 1930) is 送子師從 ("Taking the Son to School"). The paintings seem quite sympathetic toward the child's plight.

Incidentally, the name 齊白石 is a pseudonym. The self-taught artist was known for landscape painting (among other things), and 白石 literally means "White Stone," suggesting snow-covered mountains.

For more about the artist and his legacy, see here.

Guide to Arabic Calligraphy

Guide to the Arabic alphabet, "Calligraphy of the Islamic World," Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art, 2007. This pamphlet offers a chart providing information on the letters of the Arabic alphabet and it also allows you to trace the proper strokes in order to write السلام عليكم (As-Salāmu `Alaykum = "Peace be with you"). I'm not exactly sure if the chart of letter forms is all that useful, since Arabic letters (as I understand it) must change their shape depending on where they appear in a given word.

(For more on calligraphy in Muslim cultures, see this online exhibition. To see another chart of the Arabic alphabet with cute animal pictures, see this earlier post.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jibberish Scripts (Hebrew? Greek?)

A holy child writes in a book in this detail from Bernhard Strigel's Saint Mary Salome and Her Family in the National Gallery of Art (click image to enlarge). I was intrigued by the appearance of the writing in this book, which looks to me like jibberish script. At first I thought these letter-forms were approximating Hebrew, but if that's so then the writing is going in the wrong direction (i.e., the pen is moving left to right, as one does when writing Latin and other languages; Hebrew should go from right to left).

When I took another look at the entire painting online (see image and description here), I realized this child actually identified as SANCTV. IOHANES EWAN. (Saint John the Evangelist) - and his Gospel was actually written in Greek. But the writing doesn't look very much like Greek either.

I guess it doesn't really matter whether the writing is "supposed" to be Greek or Hebrew. It looks like the artist was much more interested in representing the "idea" of a holy writer rather than conveying the accuracy of any particular script. (For another creative use of script in a religious painting, see this earlier posting about upside-down Latin.)

I'm sure I could find other examples of jibberish script throughout the NGA if I really looked around, but here's a similar example from a painting I saw in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo during a visit to Siena:
I don't remember who this figure is or even the name of the artist, but it's another intriguing example of visually stylized script that lends an aura of authority. Whether it's meant to represent Hebrew or Greek, the symbols here look to me a lot like a older form of Arabic numerals.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chocolate-Covered Fortune Cookies?!

I saw this quality Valentine's Day themed product for sale today: chocolate-covered fortune cookies, complete with red "Chinese takeout" shaped box. Each fortune apparently has a romantic theme. The character 愛 (love) is written on the box in reasonably legible traditional script, but for some reason it has been rotated counter-clockwise by 45 degrees.

At least this company knows better than to use a stereotypically pointy "Chinese take-out menu" font (for some examples of this, see here). That being said, I do think it's rather odd that the white tear-drop shaped portion of the yin/yang symbol becomes the "dot" in the letter "I" as well as the apostrophe.

P.S. The origin of the fortune cookie is disputed (see here), but as far as I know it is not actually a Chinese invention.

P.P.S. I have not purchased, nor have I tasted, these cookies.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Muse of Poetry (National Gallery of Art)

Calliope (muse of heroic poetry), as sculpted Austin Pajou (c. 1763), in the French Neoclassical style. The name for Calliope comes from the Greek Καλλιόπη (Kalliope, or "beautiful-voiced"), and she is conventionally depicted holding a book or tablet.

In this detail, we see that the sculptor has chosen to show her holding an open book. On these pages are a Latin inscription. The first 3 lines on the left-hand page read CALLIOPE REGI/NA HOMINVM / DIVVMQVE (Calliope, Queen of Humans and Gods). The "queen" form of address is an allusion to Horace, whose Latin poetry refers to Calliope as regina, or queen (Carminae, III.iv.2). National Gallery of Art, West Wing.

To read more about this sculpture (including a full transcript of the Latin inscription), see here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Trans-Atlantic Poetry (Navy Memorial Metro)

Two poems are inscribed all the wall in part of Ocean Piece, an artwork by Jorge Martin (1995). As far as I can tell, the artwork honors trans-Atlantic navigation and exploration. On the left (Western?) side of the artwork is an excerpt from Walt Whitman's poem "The Prayer of Columbus." The lines read:

All my emprises have been fill’d with Thee, 
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee, 
Sailing the deep, or journeying the land for Thee; 
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine—leaving results to Thee.
O I am sure they really come from Thee! 
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will, 
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words, 
A message from the Heavens, whispering to me even in sleep, 
These sped me on.
By me, and these, the work so far accomplish’d (for what has been, has been); 
By me Earth’s elder, cloy’d and stifled lands, uncloy’d, unloos’d; 
By me the hemispheres rounded and tied—the unknown to the known. 

On the right (Eastern?) side of the sculpture - across a gentle bulge, which seems to me to evoke an ocean wave - is an excerpt from "Occident," a work by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. These lines read:

With two hands - Deed and Fate
We have unveiled in the same gesture, one
Raises the flickering and divine torch
While the other draws the veil aside.

Whether the hour was ripe or it owned
The hand that tore the Western veil,
Science was the soul and Audacity the body
Of the hand that unveiled it.

Whether the hand rose the glittering torch
Out of Fortune, Will or Tempest,
God was the soul and Portugal the body
Of the hand that bore it.

This artwork was a gift from the Lisbon Subway to the DC Metro (see this website for more). The oceanic and transportation-themed artwork is indeed fitting for its location: the Navy Memorial metro station.