Friday, August 31, 2012

The Craft, The Workshop

In recognition of (American) Labor Day, which is celebrated this weekend, Lobster & Canary honors the work, the discipline, the craft that goes into the production of art.

One example: above are pictures from, revealing a little bit of the care and artisanal detailing that Jason Wu and his team put into the making of his collections.

The form springs from the mind, the making (with needle or keyboard, paintbrush or mouse, chisel or mallet, pencil or horn, violin or dance-shoe) from the hands and the body, our feet.  From the sweat the sweet.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beyond the Loggia, Outside the Garden

Antonello de Messina, Saint Jerome in his Study (1460-'75)

In our genres of speculative fiction--fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, the weird and fabulistic in all their many strokes of invention--we have devised advanced strategies for "world building."  Not to replace or displace the World, but to understand it better, to improve it in some small way by bringing back what we saw and what we learned Beyond the Fields We Know.

I wonder when the urge to travel outside the World first hits those of us who write speculative fiction (or "Fantastika," to use John Clute's term).  For me, the desire has simply always been with me, but I can  pinpoint the first times I thought about the desire, when I recognized its power and began to name it.  I was a boy, less than ten, poring over books full of pictures by European Renaissance painters, captivated by the gorgeousness of oil paint, the lushness of draping fabric and sheen of angel wings, rays of the sun, gilt scrollings, birds brilliantly plumaged, the glory and strangeness of the stories depicted.  But most of all I found myself curious about what might lie beyond the scenes portrayed, by glimpses the painters provided (in a seemingly off-hand or indifferent way) of a world outside the garden (but don't be fooled, the artists poured their souls into the vedute), views that coolly teased and drew me on.

Like Saint Jerome, I sat in my enclosed study, within the order of the World, surrounded by known things and the symbols of known things.  Yet enclosure is no necessary prison; follow Saint Jerome's gaze to the book, as it skips then towards the southwest corner of the picture, and focus on the window set into the wall, beyond which is a landscape.  Oh, there it is...the landscape into which I want to go, forsaking the Book of the World for the Alphabet of the Unknown. 
Antonello de Messina, detail from the painting above

It takes a while to find the way through the window, as the Renaissance painters knew.  First you zoom in too far back, then in too close, losing perspective, seeking to center the road while it evades your feet.

Carlo Crivelli, Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486)

When you begin to triangulate, to place the way right in front of you, to enlarge the little side window into an open archway, you can find yourself drifting backwards.  After all, it is hard to leave the World, with its endless delights and wonders and stories stranger than water.

 Pinturicchio, The Annunciation (1501)

When at last you center the view and open the window, you begin to approach the outside, you begin to see others out there.  Are they... 

Rogier van der Weyden, St. Luke Draws The Madonna (c. 1440)

...pilgrims like you, or at least dilettantes on an afternoon's picnic excursion...or are they denizens of the Other World, come in close to ours, like dolphins in the surf?  Who built those houses, that bridge, the ship at anchor in the river?

Jan van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c. 1435)

Sooner or later you realize that the view itself has changed (perhaps the parti-colored wings of Gabriel have amazed you), something in the air is more lucid yet also more aslant-- look carefully at the scenes under each arch window in de Credi's Annunciation below (each is a slice of a different world, the angles and atmospheres not aligned, the perspectives askew).
Lorenzo de Credi, The Annunciation (c. 1480)

You summon the nerve to come closer, yet still you hover and hesitate on the border, a pear held upside down...

Bernaert van Orley, Madonna with Child (c. 1520)

...a final draft before setting out...(from the Lady who must be floating just outside our window, looking in at us, in our chambers far above the ground)...

Quentin Metsys, Marie-Madeleine (c. 1517)

...and then you are on your way...

Hans Memling, Saint John Altarpiece' detail (1474-'79)

...equipping yourself for the journey... 

Pietro Perugino, The Delivery of the Keys (1481-'82)

...a journey that takes you far away...

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magi (1459-'61)

...far away, but not alone, and with knowledge of the path back.

Paul Bril, Imaginary Mountain Landscape (1598)

[As always, no copyright infringement is intended; all images have been located on the Web and are believed to be in the public domain; this is a non-commercial use].

Sunday, August 12, 2012

For Star-Crossed Lovers Everywhere: The Thorn and the Blossom, by Theodora Goss

The Thorn and The Blossom by Theodora Goss (2012 by Quirk Books, with illustrations by Scott McKowen) is a delightful love story, a tale of missed chances and mutual misunderstandings, woven around a thousand-year-old curse by a jealous witch.  Brendan and Evelyn meet cute in a bookshop in Cornwall, but their first kiss ends with Evelyn fleeing from a vision she has of Brendan transforming into the Green Man.      A decade passes before they meet again, fate (?) throwing them together in the English Department of a small college in Virginia.  Their love reignites ("For the first time that she remembered, the world felt right, as it should be.") but then Evelyn learns of Brendan's secret...

Goss--a professor of literature at Boston University--re-imagines in an original way the tale of Sir Gawaine and the  Green Knight, evoking more generally Arthurian legend as glossed by Tennyson and John William Waterhouse (she refers explicitly to Waterhouse's famous 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott).  Goss conjures not only a modern-day love story but the spirit of 19th-century fascination with an idealized medieval world, the world envisioned by Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris.  Deeper still, Goss updates the dangers of passions that seem to cross decades and centuries, the chill hazards of romance on the thresholds of death--summoning here a sensibility found in the work of Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Mew.  Best of all, Goss leaves some things unexplained, and ends on a note of musing rather than finality.

Goss is already one of the fantasy genre's leading voices, both as a storyteller (she won the World Fantasy Award in 2008; her collection In the Forest of Forgetting from Prime Books in 2006 is a casket of gems) and a scholar (her 2008 study for Aqueduct Press, Voices from Fairyland, should be a standard on syllabi for Victorian poetry).  What she has done now is refresh the genre, expanding its interests into territory explored by A.S. Byatt in Possession and--still further afield--by Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler.  Alice Hoffman has shown that there is a large audience for such explorations, as have movies featuring love stories with a paranormal or Borgesian twist such as 1998's Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah and the 2006 Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves vehicle The Lake House.  I hope Goss will continue mapping out her own lanes and fields in this province--and why not a film version in the bargain?.

No review of The Thorn and the Blossom can be complete without mention of its charmingly ingenious construction: the story is told separately from the point of view of each main character; the book is bound accordion-style, so that the reader can start with either "Brendan's Story" or "Evelyn's Story," then flip the volume upside down and backwards to conclude with whichever version of the tale is as yet unread.  Quirk Books has done a masterful job of physical production, from the slipcover to the McKowen illustrations, from the golden ivy and floral scrolling that runs the borders of each page to the embellished lettering on the covers--all worthy of Morris's Kelmscott Press.  The book even smells delicious, which unites the reader near perfectly with the heroine Evelyn:  "Yes, there it was. The intoxicating smell of old books.  It was one of the reasons she'd wanted to study literature rather than attend law school."

FTC-required book reviewer note:  I purchased my copy of The Thorn and the Blossom (for that matter, I bought my own copies of In the Forest of Forgetting and Voices from Fairyland as well); the review above is unsolicited.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sam Smith: Tigers, Harpies, Centaurs And A Packet of Crisps

Sam Smith (1908-1983) created characters of startling personality, based on enduring types (e.g., the Harpy, the Bareback Rider, the Steamboat Captain), showed us small worlds that opened endlessly inwards.

I love most the mood of his settings, which are snapshots of the phantasmagorical made into the reality of everyday: but of course one sees centaurs being ferried across the river on a Tuesday! and parti-colored tigers on parade down main street!

Like all true artists, Smith generates in his audience the urge to create as well--in my case, to create stories based on the whimsical people he sculpted and the eccentric toys he made.  I have for years built narratives around his mock-solemn, gently skewed, brightly lacquered creatures.  His sculptures are vignettes captured mid-stride...but where are they going, and why?
Deborah & I had the great good fortune to see Smith's work at his last major exhibition, at the Serpentine Gallery in London in the winter of 1980-'81.  His vision has never left us since.  

For more on Smith, click here.