Friday, April 29, 2016

“Sense and Sensibility” Illustrated

Copyright © Edward Riojas
William Greatbatch

By now, most of the guys that read the headline are half-way down the street. It happens. And in case any remaining non-romantic-types are still lingering, this is where you may gracefully exit, rummage around in the fridge for leftover wings, and plop yourself on the couch for the latest brain-dead hockey game that might be airing. The rest of you may stay with me.

I’m one of those odd-balls who much prefers a chic flick over sports of almost any kind. Unless it’s barrel jumping. On second thought, even barrel jumping. A thick glaze will cover my eyes if you mention in my presence any major league team, the latest trade, or any nonsensical abbreviation like ERA, RBI, and TKO. So please stop it.

On the other hand, it’s nearly embarrassing to admit I have a rather large mental stockpile of quotes originating from Jane Austin works. I know: It’s sad. And to think I could have been such a gifted purveyor of useless sports facts.
Hugh Thomson

Now here’s an interesting fact about Jane Austin’s 1811 work, “Sense and Sensibility:” It has been illustrated at least six times, and is still considered fair game for artists intent on bringing the author’s words to life.

One of the earliest – if not THE earliest – to illustrate the novel was William Greatbatch, whose work graced the pages of the 1833 edition. Calling them “illustrations” might be a stretch, because they were metal engravings done with all the care and precision one might expect from offices of the Her Majesty’s Treasury. While they may not have represented the full flavor of Jane Austin’s words, doubtless they were lavish ornamentation in their day.

Hugh Thomson was perhaps the first to truly illustrate “Sense and Sensibility” in the best sense. His 1896 work carries the flavor – both comic and pathetic – of the romantic tome. Thomson’s illustrations come from the same mold as Charles Dana Gibson, of “Gibson Girl” fame, and have the same nostalgic, feminine feel. To Thomson’s credit, the original illustrations were digitally cleaned up for a 2008 edition, proving that his work is as timeless as the words it supports.
C.E. Brock

British illustrator C.E. Brock took his turn for a 1908 edition, with lively watercolors framed within light ornamentation and a snippet of text set in Edwardian script. The figures are handled with a superb sense of form and drama that harkens to a younger contemporary in America – N.C. Wyeth.

Maximilien Vox illustrated a 1933 edition of the novel. Not only was Vox an illustrator, but he was also a writer, journalist, critic, publisher and historian of typography. Perhaps the French chap spread himself a bit thin. His work is decidedly dated and on the weak side. Pastel hued washes don’t help the illustrations that are overshadowed by his predecessors’ work. A great deal of fresh vision was needed after the Vox version.

Sonny Liew did just that. The Singapore-based illustrator added a breath of fresh air to the Marvel Comic [GASP!] adaptation of Jane Austin’s novel published in 2010. The illustrations walk a fine line between being honest to the original novel and upholding the look of a classic, comic book. It might raise the hackles of every purist, but it works.
Sonny Liew

“Esteem him! Like him!” The lines still hold their elegance, even when written in all-caps Comic Sans.

A year after Liew’s interpretation, Niroot Puttapipat illustrated the Bath Bicentenary Edition of “Sense and Sensibility” The illustrator, who goes by the name Himmapaan, is a native of Thailand and is a product of Kingston University. For such a young artist, he brings massive guns to the drawing board. Himmapaan has technical skill higher than the stratosphere. The look of his work is heavy on the Arthur Rackham end of the spectrum. In fact, they seem to be different in name only. Himmapaan also exudes a slight Russian flavor in his illustrations on occasion, especially when the subject is folkloric.

Niroot Puttapipat

With British credentials in hand, it is no wonder he was chosen for the special edition of the novel. Himmapaan slightly softened his normal handling of figures for this project, giving them extra innocence and femininity, while retaining strong edges and solid form. The only critique of the special edition is that it contains too few of his illustrations, but that might also be it’s highest praise. Leaving the reader begging for more, I am certain, is a characteristic of the die-hard Jane Austin fan.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Sanctuary for a Tapestry

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There are all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t like them – but I do.

The word “tapestry” always brings to mind ancient, faded images wrought in clunky fibers. Those wall hangings, meant to decorate and insulate castle walls, make me think of moth balls and copious amounts of dust. Though woven with great skill and patience, tapestries have always seemed the simpleton cousins of oil paintings and not much more than a rug on the wall. I suppose I now must amend my opinion of them.
Tapestry detail.

John Nava’s tapestries were created for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The new cathedral was not quite finished when Nava's tapestries were unveiled in Belgium 15 years ago. It is clear the hangings were integral to the master plan of the new Roman Catholic landmark. Tapestries hung on the north and south walls of the cavernous sanctuary are filled with a procession of 135 “blesseds” and canonized saints, some of whom lean toward annoyance.

I am a product of the German Reformation, and while I embrace the legacy of sacred art handed down through the Church, I stop short of embracing all things Roman. Doing so would be going against my beliefs. Indeed, a handful of saints included on the tapestries were vehement enemies of the Reformation. Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon are noticeably absent. Still, there is something very attractive about Nava’s tapestries.
Tapestry detail.

It’s certainly not the photos translated into another medium. I hate that lazy approach, and the artist used photographs with abandon. Yet I can understand why. There was a definite schedule to which Nava was bound, coupled with a strong desire to use faces of real people. The artist went so far on that count as to employ a casting agent of sorts to find folk who might fit the part of long-dead, historical figures. Costumes were also created to help fill visual gaps.

Where Nava differs from the usual shoot-a-photo-and-call-it-good method is that he translated those images into his own style – a decidedly-illustrative approach in which heavy outlines distinguish individual figures and compositional areas. It’s the sort of technique that isn’t natural to a photograph, but rather is a conscious effort on the part of the artist. It can be found in the work of early illustrators, including Norman Rockwell. Perhaps it is coincidental, but Rockwell also knew a thing or two about the face of the masses [pardon the pun]. Both artists, whether consciously or not, used the common face of humanity in a most uncommon way.

Nava carefully choreographed the poses in a cross-section of heavenly lay. Had the tapestry only contained Roman movers and shakers, it would have appeared pompous, but mingled among the miters and tonsures are young women with children, humble visages, and representatives of cultures beyond our own. The viewer is drawn in because the tapestries are in essence a portrait of ourselves.
North and South wall tapestries. John Nava. 2001.
(Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles)

But then there’s that Photoshop thing – the one that [cringe] shows up on hallowed walls. For those of us who have used, over-used, and abused Photoshop techniques, we can see digital tinkering a mile away. They might look good in a tabloid, but they don’t belong in high art. Nava, however, dances a fine line with an obvious “grunge” technique to antique the images, making them very much at home on the sanctuary walls. They don’t look tabloid-slick. Neither do they look like the typical felt banners made by an altar guild. And they aren’t.

The artist definitely did not use a glue stick or sequins. Each image was digitized – a massive undertaking in itself – and the electronic files were then translated by state-of-the-art looms in Belgium. An effort that would have taken decades in the Middle Ages was designed in 20 months and woven during a further two months.

The results are stunning, and there is a wonderful compliment between the tapestries and the walls on which they hang. They simply belong. Neither paintings, nor mosaics could have done so well. It very well may be that that the medium was chosen over painting or sculpture or mosaic simply for the rich metaphor woven into this piece – a tapestry of the Roman Catholic Church.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Personal Space

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We all have our comfort zones – especially that little area around our bodies we call our “personal space.” If you’ve ever had that invisible barrier breached, chances are you remember it. It can be a little on the creepy side and, unless you’re in another country where social customs are different, it is unavoidable and disconcerting.

A gentleman with hearing problems once wanted to chat with me. As he leaned in and crossed my personal barrier, I instinctively leaned backwards with alarms going off in my head. As humans, we have definite lines where another’s presence is off-limits.

Enter Jesus Christ.

It was a while since Jesus had risen from the dead, and stories were spreading like wildfire – wonderful stories; amazing stories; unbelievable stories. Thomas not only disbelieved, but also demanded physical proof to change his mind. We, knowing the full story, think of him as a nincompoop; a pea-wit with the faith of an ashtray. But we may want to hold that thought for a just a bit, as we dislodge the log from our own eye – you know: the one with 20/20 hindsight.
“The Incredulity of St. Thomas”
Michael Angelo Merigi da Caravaggio.
1601-02. (Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany)

I’ve always looked at Caravaggio’s work with an approving eye. The artist did things differently. He spurned the long-used convention of idealizing figures in a sometimes-unreal vision of Holy Scripture, and instead employed real people – warts and all – as models for Biblical folks. Using people off the street as stand-ins for saints didn’t sit well with some in the Roman Catholic church, but it smacked viewers in the face and forced them to take a closer look at the sinners in Scripture's epic narrative.

Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” is one of his best pieces. We look at the deeply-furrowed brow of Thomas, and quietly murmur, “Noob.” But it’s his finger that upstages nearly everything else in the masterpiece. Some serious personal space is invaded. Like no other painting on the subject, the finger does not stop at the skin of the Savior. It goes into the wound. It is unnerving, and we wonder if a liver is touched. Or a gall bladder. Or a heart.

The artist at once painted something so disconcerting and so beautifully intimate, and it is cause to ponder the unthinkable: That Almighty God, who once caused the wandering Israelites to plug their ears for fear of death; who once utterly destroyed a few who mistakenly touched the Ark of the Covenant, now invites a touch that one – and all – might believe. What a gracious, Living God we have!

Friday, April 8, 2016

En Route to Emmaus

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It would be an understatement to say that Easter has staying power. Christ’s resurrection and our following the First Born from the dead changes everything. Ramifications of Jesus’ redemptive act are far reaching, and the Easter season‘s length enables Christians to soak in as much as our puny minds allow. Then again, perhaps the season isn’t long enough.
“The Road to Emmaus.”
Robert Zünd, 1877.
(Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland)

I love different aspects of events surrounding that first Easter, one of which is the little excursion to Emmaus by a couple of clueless and dejected disciples who find themselves joined by a third party. The account is loaded with massively-significant things – walking and conversing intimately with a very real Jesus, urging this “Stranger” to stay with them, being finally aware of His [real] presence in the breaking of the bread, and so on. Personally, I love the disciples’ retrospective assessment of the trip, “Did not our hearts burn within us?”

Arguably, one of the most recognizable images of that Emmaus trip was painted by Swiss artist, Robert Zünd. Reproductions of the piece found their way decades ago into church basements and parishioner’s houses and parochial school offices, and have lingered in the minds of many. In the painting, Christ gestures heavenward, as He tries to bring the two men up to speed. The trio is nearly swallowed by foliage of what is obviously a European forest. Dappled sunlight plays with trees, the winding path, and a little brook. The image is perhaps outdated and a bit on the trite side, but we know it well.
“Supper at Emmaus.” Caravaggio.
1601. (National Gallery, London)

Zünd was a gifted artist of middling fame that worked in the shadows of heavy hitters and the avant garde of the late 1800s. His middle class upbringing allowed him to study under solid artists, but his resume did not include top Parisian schools or travels to Italy, and his interpretation of the Emmaus event was eclipsed by Caravaggio’s and Rembrandt’s earlier versions of their esthetically superior “Supper at Emmaus.”

But like Easter, Zünd’s piece stays with us. It shows the disciples at their clueless worst when they yet did not recognize Christ, and that easily resonates with those of us who still stumble along this side of paradise, ignorant that Christ has been along side us the whole way; ignorant that He has been enlightening us by His Word. We read Holy Scripture and still moan, “Lord, where are You?”
“Supper at Emmaus.”
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
1628. (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris)

We’re not just clueless – we are sinful. Our hearts are usually elsewhere. We sometimes allow interests to burn in unhealthy places, while we ignore the real presence of our Lord and Savior in our lives.

But thanks be to God that, by Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been freed from our bondage to sin. We are encouraged by the Spirit, and urge Jesus to tarry with us a while longer. Someday we will think back on our own uncertain paths, remember the events following that first Easter, and join with all the saints in confessing, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?”

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fools and Easter cards

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It's April Fools Day, so I thought I would lighten things up by throwing a few barbs at the pagan side of Easter. Frankly, I can't think of a more sorry lot than those who hold fast to bunnies and eggs and marshmallow Peeps, while totally ignoring the resurrected Christ.

I will, however, withhold judgement on the moronic sentimentality of the pagan crowd, and will instead allow you to form your own opinions based on some old-timey Easter greeting cards. And yes, my sympathy goes out to the anonymous artists who were forced to create this waste of time and talent – most probably with gun barrels to their heads.

Let's start with a questionable symbiotic relationship in the animal kingdom: Rabbits and chickens. Actually, it isn't a symbiotic relationship, because the chickens obviously get the raw end of the deal. Check out this rabbit who is bent on having a yummy breakfast at the expense of Mrs. Hen's children.

There is also some strange fixation on Mr. Rabbit's part that is just wrong. Here he is schmoozing up to one of the chicks at a dance. We've got our eye on you, bud.

And what is it with Mr. Hoppity-hop and his pals? And holding hands? There's got to be a bad egg in the bunch.

Demented rabbits isn't enough, so let's throw in some mean kittens to make the holiday bright.

Thankfully, stupid Easter cards isn't just a thoroughly-American thing. My apologies to the Dutch, but, really, you KNOW the Easter bunny-thing is wrong, don't you?

Now here's something that is headed for disaster. Oh, the humanity!

I think you shouldn't. I think you shouldn't. I think you shouldn't.

I knew you'd ignore me. I knew you'd ignore me. I knew you'd ignore me.

Kids, that's a T-Rex egg. Put it back before your mother freaks.

A pagan Easter isn't confusing enough, so let's throw in some four-leafed clovers and a drunken leprechaun in a mobile home.

Finally, here's a little lesson about the Easter Bunny and the dangers of crossing an Interstate highway. Clearly, Jesus was the co-pilot in that 18-wheeler.