Friday, September 12, 2014

Secrets of an Eminently D&Dable Subcontinent

Fifth in a series about D&Dables in Art History 

The best of Indian art generally falls into three broad categories, each with their own fairly distinct aura:

First, there's folk art--

These are objects in all media and a bewildering range of styles made all over India because someone, somewhere felt like it.

Here's a drawing somebody did of some guys hitting each other:

…it matches no other style on the continent or, really anywhere else.

Similarly, these look like they could've been made on any planet so long as it wasn't ours:
Earring or Iron Golem?


Different as the earrings and the abstract dudes fighting, they have a certain set of qualities--densely composed, vivacious, playful, curvy--which come out in a lot of the other art of the subcontinent.


The second category is richly decorated luxury objects…

This is an elephant goad and an amazing piece of sculpture. Enlarging it lets you see how the whole thing is hollow, plus all the dozens of different animal shapes worked in. While Western art basically went up to the Medieval period with the weird monster art and then took a long breather to try to figure out how to make people, India just kept going with the monsters, making ever more refined, inventive and insane zoomorphic and teratomorphic shapes and giving them new things to do.

Indian miniature painting fits firmly inside the "decorated luxury object" category--for the most part--and the figures writhe and settle along the hills and plains of the paintings in much the same way the creatures sidle into the curves of that elephant hook.

Ustad Mansur was the star animal painter at the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, he made one of my favorite paintings of all time:
I love this fucking painting. It is unbelievably charming.
See the butterfly? The chameleon's totally gonna eat that butterfly.
There's an adventure hook in there somewhere: yes, the party needs to find a chimera and get it back to the imperial zoo, but then someone has to paint it so-- in case it dies--they can send another party out to get another one just like it.

The Mughals were an Islamic dynasty and Indian painting during this time is very similar to Persian miniature painting (about which more later). These kinds of paintings have something of the design sense of east Asian painting while still having something of the very European desire to get everything in and get everything right.

A Chinese painter would've more ruthless subordinated the branches, animals and leaves to an overall design so the whole picture looked like it was one elegant gesture while a Western painter of the same period probably would've tried to make the chameleon look as much like an observed chameleon really sitting on a branch as their technical skill would allow while also trying to make the composition look like it all just happened to be that way (but covertly fitting it into a cross or a triangle or some other eye-pleasing organization of shapes). This painting is a third thing: the curve of the branch and tail are obviously the way they are for the convenience of the image, but each object's texture and color has been rendered carefully and independently, with no desire to "push" any of the elements back in order to create a unified whole. Each object is its own thing, and can be examined separately or as part of a pattern.


This lion works much the same way: the head is done in a sort of bulbous style reminiscent of Chinese lions but then the mane is done totally differently in layers of fine-lined hair, then the torso is done in a highly stylized, muscular way and the tail could've been snipped off the chameleon. A single animal is conceived as a collage of differently patterned and decorated parts (which, if you read old naturalists' and fabulists' descriptions of new animals, is how they're described in words).
Lanterns generally echo their cultures' architecture in miniature and this very Taj Mahally one's no exception.
They made a pig cannon. Awesome.

Persian and Mughal paintings often have neat architectural
perspective tricks. Enlarge this painting, save it, add a few numbers and you've
got a complete dungeon, with a tower and animals and
even NPCs--note the couple in western dress on
the far right getting married.

Emperor Jahangir's friend Imayat Khan was wasting away from
opium addiction so the emperor was like, Better have somebody
paint him c. 1618
Notice the way the withered addict-flesh is treated as just one more color and one more texture in the arrangement.
Mughal miniature paintings are very video-gamey in both the way they use space and the way they use color and pattern to differentiate figures from each other. It's a really good format for illustration-as-diagram style pictures or things with hidden clues.

This is a chair-leg. It's typically Indian that, even detached
from the whole, it's still a sculpture in itself.


Third, There's Temple and Religious Sculpture

I don't plan on doing too much architecture in this series because if I did we'd be here all day but I'd feel remiss if I didn't at least show a little Indian stone temple architecture because these things are mind-blowing and there is an off-chance someone doesn't know that:
Lingaraja Temple. Holy fuck.
C. 1100
Anyway, these dungeony temples were (and sometimes still are) filled with utterly dungeony sculptures...



The guy above is actually Buddhist--it's Manjuvajra Mandala, who is an esoteric form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom. Or so I'm told. A lot of sculpture from the Pala period (8th-12 c) is done in this kind of black soapstone--I always wondered if Giger looked at a lot of this stuff.
Sometimes you'll see the same face ten or twenty times in a row on human-faced deities but figuring out how to do Ganesh's face and big belly often pushes artists to try something new.

Srirangam Temple. These date from the Vijayanagara period (1336–1565)--again there's that Gigerish, almost unfollowable, density of shapes.

The eyes on suave Ganesh here stand in contrast to the inquisitive slits on the previous Ganesh, and the pose is more naturalistic than symbolic.

Lions from Kailasanath, 750-850 AD. Asia in general was pretty confused about what lions looked like for a shockingly long time. But, then, if every time you saw something it was trying to kill you you'd probably have a sketchy time describing it, too. And when everyone's confused art wins, so I'm not complaining.
This sandstone apsara (sexy female nature spirit, see also yakshi), known as the Dancing Celestial was made in the 12th century in Uttar Pradesh and is at the Met...
…her pose is known as the tribhanga (or 'three bends') and is pretty common in Indian sculpture and dance. It's kind of the less douchey, more fun-loving version of Greek art's contrapposto pose. Tribhanga's like Oh My God I Love This Song and Contrapposto's all Oh, That's Cool, I Used To Like This When I Was In High School I'll Be Over Here In The Corner Hoping Everyone Notices My Hair.
Now click this and enlarge it:
This is Durga killing Mahisha--a buffalo demon--from the Pala Period. There are a million cool things about it, but three of the less obvious ones are:
-it's tiny--shorter than your hand with fingers extended
-Durga has, among other weapons, a chakram, which is like a murder-Aerobie
-the way Durga has decapitated the bull (very cleanly) and the head is just sitting there and she is just literally yanking the demon right out of its neck.
Whoever made that would've had a very promising career at Forge World had they been born in our century.
This is Chamunda, 8th century. Speaks for itself, really.

And this is an Indian stepwell, which has nothing to do with anything but is worth noting as probably the most D&D-looking place ever:


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Other Renaissance, or There Is No Ninja Turtle Named Claus Sluter

(Fourth in a series about D&Dish art)

"With a few exceptions, however, Vasari's aesthetic judgement was acute and unbiased.[citation needed] "
-Wikipedia
St Anthony from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. Why did no-one
ever tell you that art was totally fucking Warhammer?
Because Vasari, that's why.

In the crime novel "Who Killed Everyone's Interest In Art History?" the villain is a man named Giorgio Vasari. However, he also invented art history and did a great deal of the groundwork for the whole rhetorical and social frame that makes us see "art" as a special thing that people do that we should talk about at all. As a working painter whose rent is paid by the continuing mercantile machinations of the international gallery system, I just may owe him my job.
I repeat: this man did not want you to hear about this
giant bludgeoning eagle monster.

Vasari's major work was called "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" and it:

-Was published in 1550
-Invented art history
-First applied the specific term "Renaissance" to what was going on in Italy then
-Helped put Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo on the pedestals they currently occupy
-Has an amusing anecdote about Paolo Uccello and cheese
-Contains a lot of mistakes
-Is fun to read
-Was kind of a piece of pro-Florentine propaganda

"Paolo Uccello would have been the most gracious and fanciful genius that was ever devoted to the art of painting, from Giotto's day to our own, if he had labored as much at figures and animals as he labored and lost time over the details of perspective; for although these are ingenious and beautiful, yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers, fills his mind with difficulties, and often transforms its fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner, by attending more to these details than to figures, dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely; not to mention that very often he becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, as did Paolo Uccello."
--Vasari

A deposition by Rogier Van Der Weyden
The Italian Renaissance was big on painting baby Jesus.
the Northern Renaissance was big on painting dead Jesus
Although much of what he did was simply record ideas people had already had for a while, the shadow created by Vasari's record is very long. Thales invented philosophy, but people don't still think everything is made of water. Vasari invented art history, and people do still think the Mona Lisa is the best painting ever. There are even people who don't like looking at the Mona Lisa and yet feel like it's still objectively "good" in some way they lack the expertise to describe. There are very intelligent and perceptive people all over the world who are intimidated into not trusting their own eyes when they look at art because of things he wrote 500 years ago. Vasari is the most successful One True Wayist in world history.
Rabbit by Albrecht Durer, or--as Vasari called him in
Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects--
"Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Book"

Part of the Italian Renaissance painters' continued pre-eminence is due to the early (if halting and uneven) adoption of innovative realist techniques like perspective, chiaroscuro, sfumato, careful anatomy, and the not-inconsiderable fact that the cities they built are, to this day, still very beautiful due to the influence of their Renaissance buildings--but part of it's just politics and luck.

Let's assume, despite 500 years of evidence to the contrary, for just one moment that pictures actually can speak louder than Vasari's words, :

Here is Michelangelo's Moses done circa 1513-1515
And here is Claus Sluter's Moses, done over a hundred years earlier:
Whatever else you might think, Sluter's wise and horned Jew is way more metal than Michelangelo's.

This is because while the Italian Renaissance was largely a reaction against the symbolism, suffering, and icy clarity of the International Gothic style (the tail-end of Medieval art), the Northern Renaissance was largely just a continuation of the International Gothic with more sophisticated techniques.  I mean no disrespect to the draftsmanship of Leonardo or the many magnificent sculptures of Michelangelo when I remind you: these were still people who looked at Gothic cathedrals and didn't like them.
Jean Fouquet
The great change in Italy was not so much in improved technique (which had been slowly evolving all over the continent since 1300 ) but in taste--and after 1000 years of fear of an angry god, the new Italian sensibility--where Mary was all Disney and round and friendly and held our savior like a radiant and fleshy bowling ball--was the hip new thing.
By the Limbourg Brothers, pre-eminent purveyors
of the International Gothic 
One of the themes of religious painting in the Italian Renaissance was the abandonment of symbolism and detail in favor of humanistic and sentimental themes. This would result in a lull--or at least recategorization--in monsters in art in the following centuries. They typically were pushed into service as foes in mythological paintings, and also made their way into natural history illustrations.
Michael Pacher, Austrian. This painting could be titled
"Bizarre Northern Renaissance Foreground Event
Intrudes On Otherwise Pleasant Italian Renaissance Day"
Reliably D&Dable subjects around this time include St George:
Rogier Van Der Weyden. Totally not giving a fuck
how big you think a horse's head is and putting
an awesome castle on a weird crag because he
fucking can.
Crivelli
Carpaccio. And definitely click to enlarge.
...the Expulsion from Heaven…
Pieter Breugel's Fall of the Rebel Angels


(detail) He'd been specifically commissioned to imitate Bosch
in this painting.

…and the Temptation of St Anthony--who is always depicted as set upon by weird demons:
Schongauer
Good old Hieronymous Bosch
Close up. Because: Death With A Lyre On A Freak Emerging From A Tomato
The Temptation of Anthony theme is itself something of a shibboleth in the unending Western culture war of Art as Excuse To Bore People with Sweetness & Light vs Art As Awesome Inventive Freakshow. The Nazis actually declared Grunewald's Anthony-depicting Isenheim Altarpiece "Degenerate" in their era for being too badass and when Gustave Flaubert fathered all the worst tendencies in the modern novel with Madame Bovary it was because a pair of his boring friends had just heard him read his mind-blowingly hallucinatory Temptation of St Anthony ("Since then I have dwelt in the deep pools left by the Deluge. But the desert grows vaster about them; the winds cast sand into them; the sun devours them; -- and I die upon my couch of slime, gazing at the stars through the water.") and promptly told him to write something boring instead.

So anyway, the upshot for D&D fans is that the Northern Renaissance with its twin and opposing manias for precision and invention is basically the best treasure trove of "What This Thing Actually Looks Like" art outside of purpose-built modern fantasy illustration (much of which is consciously or unconsciously influenced by the art of this era) I mean, check it:
Durer, man, Durer.
…and, likewise, the sort of colored-light-blurriness and ritual vagueness and weightlessness of corporate fantasy illustration is derived from hazy recollections of the Italian Renaissance.

In the end, though, quality knows no real borders. Here's Nicola Pisano being awesome:
…and, y'know, this thing Michelangelo did is pretty good...
That is a seriously dead guy right there--and it's achieved not with blood-spray theatrics but rather with minute attention to positioning--the way Christ's body lays is not just believable (a little more believable than Van Der Weyden's deposition above) but it uses that new believability to push forward to being articulate--it is a pose that tells you at every moment (the armpit, the upper arm, the wrist, the knees) where the weight is going. It reminds you of death in a new way that art--all the skulls and twisted faces of the previous millennia notwithstanding--had not yet been able to do. It puts a new tool in everyone's toolkit going forward.

And, god, we haven't even got to Jan Van Eyck yet:
click and enlarge you fool
Look at that NPC. Look at his very specific face. Look at that floor--isn't it cool someone had that floor back then? Look at that rug. Look at that armor. 

Alright. See you next time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Medieval Art: 1000 Years Of Bad Ideas

(Third in a series)
The highlights of art history, as usually taught, go:

1. Egypt
2. Greece and Rome
3. the Renaissance
4. the mainline of Western painting (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc)
5. Modernism

This offers a pretty easy-to-follow story: from humble beginnings, realism steadily increases until (around 5) photography is invented, history ends, art explodes with Picasso-shaped fireworks, and here we are now and we can just watch movies instead.

It's also taught this way for another reason: the cultures involved represent a simple history of improving ideas. Egypt is a tyranny, but it is undoubtedly a civilization--it has laws and stuff, it's well-documented and explicable. Then we have Greece and Rome where we have democracy (occasionally) and individuality and philosophy and all that. Then the Renaissance with humanism, and then the Enlightenment, which leads (via a familiar paper-trail) to the wonderful now. It's not that all of history was great, but it was at least necessary. This is a very complacent philosophy: Everything's fine now, right? It's that way because of millennia of refinement.
Meaux Cathedral gargoyle
Seen this way it's pretty clear why you'd leave the Middle Ages out: in this story they can only be seen as a terrible thousand-year-long detour on the way from stateless barbarism to equality, science, and safety.
Gargoyles are so distinctive a form that even though
they're just carved images of demons, in D&D & other games they're actually
their own class of monster
And I would submit that this is why we like them so much. Nothing is so much fun to play in as a ruin. And the more sophisticated the culture that produced the building in the first place, the more fun it is to fuck around in the fucked-up shell of it. This is why we find post-apocalypses fascinating to play in, too. Games offer the imagination all of the exoticism and none of the consequences. This is why the Renaissance Fair always ends up skewing Medieval.
Case in point: This isn't Medieval at all. The flowing lines and naturalistic ear give this away
as being, like many famous gargoyles,  a product of
the 19th century Gothic Revival. The Gothic keeps getting revived for
a reason.

Unlike the oldest eras, The Middle Ages have a great many markers of civilization in abundance: writing, fortresses, machines, churches, philosophies, domesticated animals, politics, steel, towns, cities. But unlike the Renaissance, they're using them all wrong. And that's amazing.
This is the Moneymusk Reliquary. That tracery lets you know its
from Scotland or Ireland. Reliquaries are special expensive boxes
to keep the body parts of saints in. This is a dumb idea.
Since this isn't my first D&D blogging rodeo I will now pause to acknowledge the amateur and professional historians in the first row with their hands in the air straining to point out two things:

1. There was actually a great deal of intellectual and technological progress made in the Middle Ages,
and
2. Several of the tropes we associate with D&D and the traditional "fantasy" era are actually more Renaissance or Age of Exploration than strictly Medieval.
Another dumb reliquary.

Well that doesn't matter: we're talking about how people view history, not how it is. And in our minds we associate the Middle Ages with warfare and superstition. And warfare and superstition is fighters and magic-users. And those things are fun.

Lindisfarne Gospels.
Some Irish monk spent all this time painting ("illuminating")
this one page of a copy of the bible. Like as if they had
nothing better to do.

If we view the history of art as a history of philosophy (that is: a search for truth) then the Middle Ages are meaningless. If we view the history of art as a history of the imagination (that is: a history of human emotions and inventions) then the Middle Ages are absolutely essential to who we are today. Few people in any walk of life even now go longer than a week without using words like "king" or "knight" or "witch" or "wizard" or "demon" and the very linguistically convenient concepts these words encapsulate.
Painting in the Middle Ages raised the pattern established in ancient art of
"animals drawn well and lots of ways, people drawn poorly and always the same"
to the level of a fetish.
Even today, the stupidest members of the RPG community think of art as serving philosophy--likely due to not knowing what imagination is.
The entrance to Hell (dumb idea) was frequently depicted as
being a big mouth called…a 'hellmouth'.
And, yes, it says 'penis'.
Nothing guarantees tourism like a castle or a cathedral--and yet few buildings incarnate such stupid ideas. You don't need a castle unless you've created a social order based around petty tyrants living in constant fear of each other--and you don't need a cathedral unless you decided to waste all your stone and cash and several generations of your able-bodied men building a stylish antenna to talk to a ghost. These are awful, beautiful things. These are Fleurs Du Mal.
Classic Greek column capitals are divided into three orders:
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. All of which are a subset of
the Not As Cool As These order.

No matter what was actually going on in the hearts and days of the millions of Europeans that lived and died after the influence of Rome abated and before the Renaissance reached them, what we see in the art--in the best of it anyway--is bad ideas. Bad ideas made beautiful and touching and compelling by effort, by intensity of belief, by invention.
The Roettgen Pieta
…and by the (stupid) idea that things needed to be artified--to glorify a god or a duke. Any object was a possible site of aestheticization. The craft ethic has probably never reached a greater height in Western civilization than in the Middle Ages--not only because it was the last time there wasn't much division between high art and useful craft, but also because being crafty was one of the few ways to avoid dying face down in a pig ditch before you lost all your baby teeth.
Ivory chess pieces from different sets.
And--by no coincidence at all--the category of "the fantastic" is about bad ideas. Otherwise the ideas wouldn't be called "fantastic" they'd be called "true". Fantasy is literally all about received ideas that we, by definition, no longer believe and threw out. There is no magic, there is nothing special about kings or clerics, the world isn't made of four elements, people aren't made of four humours, there's no such thing as a whole race being evil, Jews don't have horns. Signing up for the "the fantastic" is putting a sign on the door saying "Everything you're about to hear is bullshit". So policing the implications of fantasy is stupid: every idea in fantasy is awful.  Anyone mistaking any of it for philosophy is in desperate need of a parent or a psychiatrist.
I've told this story on the blog before:
The first time I saw this in the Met it was labeled "St George
Chesspiece". I asked, in an essay, "if St George is
your knight, what the hell does the rest
of the chess set look like? Is it all saints? Is your
king Jesus? It's either not St George or not a
chess piece." My teacher worked in the Met.
The next time I saw it, it was re-labeled.
Here's an interesting thing about Medieval art and our modern concept of The Fantastic:

We know for a fact that, for example, Dante Alighieri was genuinely a religious man. He would likely feel really bad--blasphemous, in fact--if he got the details of what Hell was like wrong. And Jesus fuck he had a lotta details.
Again: Monsters done well. People done poorly.
So what did he go on? Research? So far as we know: not really. He was something of a numerologist, but basically there are details of stuff in there that are obviously original to Dante. So was he like "Fuck it, I'll make something up, God won't notice. It's not like he sees all and knows all, right?"?
This is Scandinavian knotwork on this staff-end,
it's chunkier than Celtic tracery
Viking chest

No: here's what he and thousands of Medieval Christian artists probably thought "If I'm having this idea, it's probably because God gave it to me". Which is marvellous, as terrible ideas go: If you get an art idea, it's because you should get it.
Hey guys, lets make folding Marys!
God tell you to do that?
Yup.
Alright. On it.
This is the world your players' D&D characters live in--even moreso than genuine Medieval people because your party has daily totally incontrovertible evidence of divine power in the form of the party cleric.

Everything, even a new thing, belongs. Something higher has ordained it. Mallory, Wagner and Tolkien mined the echoes of this idea very hard: everything, even the pettiest handicraft, even the pies and mutton, is mythic. Everything is, was and always will be basically this way. The only "future" (conceived as a time when things in general look different than they do now) is apocalyptic.
This is a strange psychoaesthetic trick: portraying the Middle Ages--which is actually a very distinct moment in the development of politics and technology on a very specific continent--as a sort of platonic eternal. It seems very natural to us, but it takes a certain kind of sleight of hand to look at something as complex and specific and historical as, say, a crossbow, and read it as a weapon in a mythic conflict. You couldn't imagine a fairy tale with an arquebus in it.
We don't know whether people back
then thought this guy looked funny.
But they might've: Chess is less
important than God, so the
chess piece carvers had a
freer hand. 
If the Lord meant for me to not Hobo and thence to Murder why would he put the idea in my head?

More Irish graphomania--
The Book of Kells
Hey let's keep water in a lion!
Alright.
These shaped jugs are called "aquamaniles"
Often these unimportant domestic objects are
the most interesting. Art historians hate that.
The Tara Brooch. More insane Irish intricacy. This was before
whiskey had come to the Isles.
Perrecy-Les-Forges
Bishop's grave