DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Oddities of the Anatomium

Filed under: Collections of Images,Figure Drawing: Anatomy — Tags: , , — fred @ 22:14

"Vegetables Are All Your Body Needs", advertisement for the International Vegetarian Union

Most figurative artists spend some time studying human anatomy – basic musculoskeletal structure, often just enough that your Spider-Man doesn’t come out looking like Popeye.  But of course the study of anatomy is a vast edifice, with wings and annexes, great halls and obscure corridors, constructed by physicians and yogis, gymnasts and psychiatrists, animators and masseurs, mystics and coroners.  Let’s call this imposing monument the Anatomium.

For an artist, the body is more than just a physical structure.  It is an instrument for experiencing and portraying realities beyond the physical plane:  emotions, energy, spirituality.  We need to understand structure, but we also need to go beyond structure.  Your teacher may have urged you to spend most of your time studying in the great hall of bones and the gallery of muscles, but there is much to discover in the more obscure rooms of the Anatomium.  Let’s look at some curious specimens found in many different parts of the labyrinthine palace, from the viewpoint of the artist.  (All of these images were found on the web, and clicking on an image will take you to the page where I found it, and where, usually, more pictures and information will be found.)

The brilliant ad that leads this post tells us that if we are what we eat, we can construct a healthy body from a vegetable diet.  In folk wisdom, it’s often been thought that various plants and other substances support the functioning of the body parts they resemble, so for instance walnuts are supposed to be good for the brain, and tomatoes for the heart.  This way of seeing the anatomy arises from a metaphorical understanding of the body as a garden or landscape, a popular image since the time of Arcimboldo, at least.  Here’s Aurel Schmidt’s beautiful contemporary rendition of body as garden, a teeming but unsettling garden full of insects, snakes, birds, and cigarette butts.

Super Natural, 2006, mixed media on paper by Aurel Schmidt

Since the industrial revolution, the metaphor of the body as a factory or machine has been common in the culture.  A lot of medical practice, especially orthopedics, is essentially based in this mechanical metaphor.  Perhaps the ultimate realization of the industrial view of the body is Woody Allen’s depiction of the internal sexual functions as a military-industrial deployment in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.

Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace), 1926, by Fritz Kahn

The technology of the industrial and digital era has given us countlesss new ways of seeing and studying the human body.  X-rays, MRIs, and endoscopes have become essential tools in medicine.  The National Institutes of Health and the National Medical Library collaborated on the “Visible Human Project”, high-resolution 3D scans of real bodies for anatomical study.  The bodies were sliced in razor-thin layers and scanned, the data assembled into a 3D image that can be viewed in any cross-section or in the round, or even “flown through” in a digital animation.

Coronal cross-section from the Visible Human Project of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health

Controversial physician and showman Dr. Gunther von Hagens invented a technique for preserving human tissue by replacing the water  with plastics, which enabled him to prepare real cadavers for public display in his “Body Worlds” exhibits.  Von Hagens’ figures follow the renaissance convention in anatomical illustrations of posing flayed figures as though alive and active.  These exhibits are educational, fascinating, and more than a little creepy.

The Walker, plastinated from Body Worlds exhibit, from Gunther von Hagens' Institute for Plastination

Therapists, athletes, dancers, and others who study movement, posture, and fitnesss experiment with the living body, which can reveal dynamic aspects of the structure that may be missed when you’re cutting up cadavers.  This illustration from Thomas Myers’ Anatomy Trains, a study of the fascia and connective tissue in bodily movement, looks like a bit of couture in the outré style of an Alexander McQueen.

The Back Functional Line, illustration from "Anatomy Trains", by Thomas W. Myers

The illustration below shows the dermatomes.  Most of the nerves of the body are wired to the spinal cord, and the dermatomes are the areas of the skin divided according to the particular vertebra where each area has its nerve connection to the spinal cord.  The different areas of the spine are color-coded, cervical (neck) nerves in white, thoracic in yellow/black, lumbar in blue/black, and sacral nerves in red/black.  This too looks like a bit of latex fetishwear or a high-tech superhero costume.

Dermatomes (Spinal Innervation Map), artist unknown, from the website of New York School of Regional Anesthesia

Within the field of anatomical studies, there are many ways of dividing the body into regions.  Here’s a diagram for doctors with named regions on the surface of the body, for the purposes of clinical description.

Anatomical Regions of the Body, illustration from David Darling's online "Encyclopedia of Science"

“Surface Anatomy” is an interesting field for the artist who works with live models, as it’s all about learning to identify underlying structures based on what can be seen or felt at the level of the skin.

Surface Anatomy of the Abdomen, from "The Anatomy Lesson", a website by Wesley Norman, PhD, DSc, professor at Georgetown University

Seeing beneath the surface shows that the beautiful reality of the body conceals even more beautiful hidden realities.

Pregnant Anatomy, illustration found on Ed Merritt's Flickr photostream (may not be original source)

These back muscles look like the head of a goat – cool.

The Back,iIllustration by Phrenzy84

The illustration below shows a method of analyzing the structure of the face by geometrical analysis of a series of identifiable points.  This kind of analysis was invented for forensic use, but it’s also the basis of computer face recognition and other forms of digital biometrics.

Illustration from "Geometric Morphometric Analyses of Facial Shape in Twins", a paper by Demayo, et al.

This kind of geometrical analysis of faces and bodies is also important to artists working with digitally generated 3D graphics.  Some of the most interesting anatomy illustrations, from an artist’s point of view, are found in CGI tutorials.

Illustration from Phung Dinh Dzung's "Realistic Human Face Modeling", a guide for 3D computer graphic artists

Here’s a look at the different typical patterns of fat distribution on the male and female body.  It’s a fine illustration, although that male figure looks disconcertingly like me!  These sketches derive from works by Prud’hon and Rubens.

Fat Distribution in Women and Men, illustration from an online anatomy and figure drawing tutorial by Nocte

This one compares the basic skeletal structure of a person with that of a four-legged animal such as a dog.  I think the best way to grasp anatomical realities is to see how the same basic structure manifests with variations in different individuals and even different species.  You can learn a lot about anatomy just petting an animal!

Comparison of Human and Quadruped Skeletons, source unknown

In this illustration, an artist shows how different arrangements of the shoulder girdle express different emotions.

Shoulder Movements of Psychological Description, source unknown

The brain contains its own models of the body.  The sensory cortex and the motor cortex are bands of the human brain devoted to the senses and to movment, respectively.  When the image of the body is projected to correspond with the appropriate parts of the brain, the resulting distorted figure is called a “homunculus” (latin for “little human”).  The homunculus, the body in the brain, has huge lips and hands, since those areas are so important for sensation and action.  Note that the hand area is right next to the eye area – perhaps this facilitates the connections a visual artist makes.  And the genitalia area is right next to the feet – an explanation for foot fetishism?

Somatosensory Homunculus, artist unknown

Many forms of traditional therapy use this kind of mapping of the whole body onto a part of the body.  Auricular acupuncture, for example, is a form of acupuncture in which the ear stands in for the whole body, and practitioners believe that any part of the body can be treated by needling the corresponding parts of the ear.  Reflexology massage of the feet and hands is another treatment that uses similar charts.

Indian Hand Reflexology Illustration, original source unknown

Of course these aren’t anatomical studies in the scientific sense, but the ancient energy arts, including qigong and tantric yoga and many kinds of martial and healing arts, are based on extensive experiential study of energy flow in the body.  Understanding the immaterial but dynamic aspects of the body should interest any artist who strives to capture the feeling of aliveness.  Here’s an unknown artist’s attempt to represent the human aura, the field of energy clairvoyants say they can perceive around the body.

Human Aura, artist unknown

Chinese Traditional Medicine, martial arts and practices of “internal alchemy” aimed at physical or spiritual self-transformation, use a highly developed system of subtle anatomy to understand the movement of many different kinds of energy within and around the body.  For a visual artist, but even more for a performing artist, this way of visualizing and projecting emotions and forces can be a powerful tool.

Psycho-Emotional Aspects of the Liver Channel, from a website on the energy channels of acupuncture theory, by Lieske

Going back to scientific medical imaging, but keeping the emphasis on energy flow, we have thermographic imaging, which shows patterns of heat radiating from the body.   (Check out a brief excerpt from a dance film made with high-resolution thermographic cameras.)

Thermogram of the Breast, original source unknown

For an artist, the most subtle part of the human form, the most difficult thing to capture, is the spark, the life force, the flow of energy.  It’s important to understand structure, but it’s also important to see the dynamism and tension within that structure.  Anatomical studies of all kinds can open our eyes to the amazing tornado of different forces that is the human body.

I’ll conclude this post with a traditional medical anatomical illustration, but one of great beauty.   This is an abstraction, not a visual transcription of reality.  Of course the veins aren’t really blue and the arteries red and the nerves yellow – this is just a convention to aid in a functional understanding of what is going on.  But the life force in all its explosivenesss expresses itself here.

Thoracic Anatomy, 2006, illustration by Patrick J. Lynch

In researching on the web and my own archives for this post, I found such a wealth of incredible anatomical images that I think there will be many posts to come on the general subject of human anatomy.

Nearly all of these images link back, if you click on them, to where I found them on the web.  If any of my readers has further information about the sources or artists behind these images, please let me know.  It is often frustrating to me that so many great images on the web are published without attribution.


The Full Gamut

Filed under: Collections of Images,Color — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 00:07

Munsell principal and intermediate hues, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

I am a person of serial obsessions.  Every few years I feel compelled to learn everything I can about some topic, usually something esoteric or scientific.  Around 2003-2005, my obsession was color:  the science of light and spectra, the biology and psychology of color perception, the technology of color reproduction, ways of naming colors and dividing color space, and philosophical ideas about color.  When I had the idea of writing a blog post about color, I started looking through my notes and collections of digital images, making a list of interesting things I’d learned.  There was enough there for a book or a semester course!  Perhaps in the future there will be more posts on color.  For now, I’ve selected a few interesting or lovely images from my collection, and here present them with interesting related factoids.  Even if you don’t share my hunger for knowledge about color, I hope you’ll appreciate the beauty of these diagrams.

I’m titling this post “The Full Gamut” – we’ve all heard that phrase meaning the complete range of something that has varieties.  The word gamut originally meant a range of musical notes.  It’s used in color science to indicate the limited range of colors that can be described or reproduced given a certain technological context.  A computer monitor, for example, can simulate many colors by combining various intensities of red, green, and blue “primary” colors.  The surface colors of most naturally occurring objects can be reproduced, but there remain many colors outside the gamut of the monitor.  You can see pure spectral colors by looking at the reflections on a CD or DVD.  The colors in the image at the top of this post approach the limits of saturation achievable on a monitor, but compared to pure spectral colors they’re surprisingly dull.  Even Newton’s prismatic spectrum does not contain the full range of vivid colors – magentas and purples cannot be represented by single wavelengths, but only exist as the blending of the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Color is a three-dimensional phenomenon.  Every model for describing colors requires three variables: three primaries, or three polarities.  For a general understanding of color independent of any particular medium or technology, the clearest dimensions are hue, value (lightness or luminance), and chroma (saturation or intensity).  Albert Munsell’s model of color space is one of the most illuminating systems, based on rigorous study of human color perceptions rather than on physical or technological variables.  In Munsell’s system, value is the vertical dimension, hue is the angular dimension, and chroma is shown as the distance from the center.  The resulting arrangement of colors is called a color solid, or a color tree.

The Munsell colors are produced in rigorously accurate sets as books and charts to be used to describe colors by visual reference to standard samples.  They come very close to representing the full range (gamut) of colors that can exist in the form of physical objects.

Munsell Color Tree, illustration by limaorian@hotmail.com

The “color wheel” most people are taught in basic art classes is a rigid and simplistic model compared to Munsell’s color solid.  The color wheel doesn’t account for the fact that different hues have different ranges of chroma or intensity, and that some hues (e.g. yellow) achieve their highest chroma at high values, while other colors (e.g. bluish purple) are more intense at a darker value.  Munsell’s system defines the hues by letters and numbers, starting with five fundamental hues (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple), and five secondary or intermediate hues (yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, and red-purple).  The diagram below shows five cross-sections of the Munsell color solid, with the principal hues on the right and the complementary intermediate hues on the left.

Five cross sections of Munsell Color Solid, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Here are the most saturated colors around the perimeter of the Munsell Solid.  Here, the hue circle is repeated twice along the horizontal axis with the values arranged on the vertical axis.

Munsell hues at maximum chroma, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

If we consider the color solid as a kind of globe, with the neutral grays as the axis, we can look at the irregular shape from a point of view centered above the north (white) pole or the south (black) pole.  The colors with maximum chroma are at the outer bound of these polar views, whether they are on the “equator” (middle value perimeter) or not.  Please note that the gamut of the computer monitor is considerably smaller than the gamut of the physical samples included in the Munsell standard, so the colors closer to the outside edge of the figures below are not really accurate.  You can see that the colors yellow and green achieve high chroma at the higher values, while deep blues and purples are most intense at low values.

Light and dark hemispheres of the Munsell color solid, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Some of the transitions between adjacent colors in the illustration above may seem abrupt, but that’s because of variations in the maximum achievable value or chroma.  If we look at the full range of hues at a uniform value and chroma level, as in the circle below, the transitions are very smooth.

40 Munsell hues at value 7, chroma 8, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

This circle is at value 7 and chroma 8, the maximum chroma level achievable all the way around the hue circle at any value in the Munsell solid.  We probably all learned in school that Newton proved that light is a waveform, and that different colors are different wavelengths of light.  The diagram below charts the level at which the Munsell samples, at the same chroma and value seen in the above illustration, reflect various wavelengths of the spectrum.  The horizontal axis goes from short wavelengths (violet blue) at the left, to long wavelengths (red) at the right.  You will notice that even these samples, which appear quite vividly colored, are all reflecting almost half the spectrum at over half their average reflectivity.  These colors are not “pure”, but they do look intense!

Spectral reflection curves for five principal Munsell hues at value 7, chroma 8, illustration from article by A. Kimball Romney and Tarow Indow

Munsell’s model arranges colors by measures of equal perceptual distance, but what does that have to do with how we learn to identify and name colors?  One of the most cited academic papers of all time is Berlin and Kay’s cross-cultural survey of color names.  Berlin and Kay used a study of color terms to address the question of linguistic relativity, that is, whether linguistic categories define perceptions, or vice versa.  They used the highest-chroma Munsell samples of colors at the full range of hues and values, asking participants of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds to choose the “best examples” of their basic color words, and the range these words would cover.  The “best examples” were called “focal colors”.  In the diagram below, the focal colors are marked as chosen by speakers of American English.

American English focal colors in a Munsell grid, based on data from Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, 1969, by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Berlin and Kay found a high degree of uniformity in the specific colors chosen as focal colors between speakers of different languages.  They also found evidence that color terms evolve in a given language in a predictable order.  First, a distinction is made between dark/cool and light/warm.  Red is the first individual color to be given a name.  Next, green or yellow are distinguished, followed by blue.  More complex languages separate brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray.  Berlin and Kay’s findings have been challenged and reproduced by many subsequent researchers, using the same Munsell grid.  The chart below shows interesting variations on how the color range can be divided, with eight divisions in English and five in a language called Berinmo.

Distribution of English and Berinmo color names, illustration from the article "Colour categories in a stone-age tribe", by Jules Davidoff, Ian Davies and Debi Roberson, Nature 398, 1999

Below are pretty close representations of the “focal colors” chosen by English speakers.  There are eleven basic color terms in English, the eight easily identifiable ones shown below, plus black, gray, and white.  Chosen samples of focal colors would be very similar for nearly every language in the industrial world.  Why are these colors seen as basic?  They are not evenly distributed on the grid of colors, and no one, as far as I know, has been able to show any fundamental relation between these specific colors and any measurable aspect of color vision or color physics.

Focal colors, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

You’ll notice that people make finer distinctions in the colors around the red/yellow portion of the range.  Human skin color and the colors of most animals are in this area, so perhaps we are more attuned to fine differences there than we are in the blue and green areas associated with the landscape.

Randall Munroe, author of the classic geek webcomic XKCD, conducted an online color-naming experiment, with a random color generator that asks random web participants to name the colors they see.  His report on the results of the survey is hilarious as well as interesting.  Here’s his map of how thousands of participants intuitively divided up the color space.

Dominant color names mapped to RGB cube, illustration from XKCD Color Survey Results, from Randall Munroe's XKCD blog

Color naming experiments are usually done by showing subjects one color at a time.  When the colors are shown together, as in the chart above, or in the Munsell grid illustrating the Berlin and Kay survey, we notice the arbitrariness of the lines we draw to distinguish colors.

Color perception is a relativistic phenomenon.  The book Interaction of Color, by the painter and teacher Josef Albers, shows by example how colors are seen differently according to their surroundings.  In the illustration below, the double-x line looks very different depending on its background, but where the line joins we can see its continutiy.

Illustration from Interaction of Color, 1975, by Josef Albers

As an artist, I find it most useful to look at colors as polarities tending one way or another.  Many real-life colors are very muted and subtle, but if you can look at a shadow and see, for example, that it has a bluer tone compared to the adjacent highlight’s yellower tone, you can begin to capture those subtleties.

In photography, it is common to analyze and correct colors using such polarities.  The most important one is the color temperature axis, what most painters would describe as the warm/cool distinction.  In the study of light, it was observed that the temperature of any incandescent substance, such as a heated piece of metal, could be determined by the color of its glow.  White hot is hotter than red hot, and blue hot is hotter still.  Color temperature is a scientifically defined scale for describing the color of light on a red/orange/white/blue scale.  Typical incandescent lights glow at 2500-3200 degrees kelvin, while daylight is 5000-7500 degrees.  The temperature-color correspondence is exactly the opposite of what is taught to artists as warm and cool colors.

Color temperature illustration, from a webpage by W. A. Steer, PhD

Of course, fluorescent lights, neon lights, high-intensity discharge lamps, LEDs, and other non-incandescent sources aren’t defined by the color-temperature scale, so correcting colors from those lights involves a second scale, which photographers call “tint” or “plus green” and “minus green”.  Minus green is magenta or pink.  A minus green filter, for example, can overcome the tendency of fluorescent lights to photograph as greenish.  These two axes, orange-blue and green-magenta, are used in filtering for lenses or light sources while shooting, and in digital post-processing of photographs and video recordings.

In figurative art, I’m always looking at the variations in flesh tones.  I find it useful to look at these very subtle differences as tendencies along axes of complementary colors:  orange/blue, magenta/green, red/green blue, yellow/deep blue.

Eight part color arrangement, digital illustration by Fred Hatt

Some of the illustrations in this post are my own, and others are found on the web.  Clicking on found images links to the site where I found them. For the Munsell colors used in some of the digital illustrations I am indebted to Wallkill Color for their Munsell Conversion Software.


The Artist’s Beard

Filed under: Art History,Collections of Images — Tags: , — fred @ 00:19

Fred Hatt, b. 1958, artist and blogger, self-portrait photo 2011 by Fred Hatt

This is a first for Drawing Life – a men’s style post.  Artists, writers, and musicians create not only a body of work but also a persona.  The possibilities are broad, but the options are naturally constrained by the face and body Nature has given.  As I have found myself becoming a bearish middle-aged man, my own style has gravitated towards a classic type.  The trimmed beard I had ten years ago has expanded to what is now known on the interwebs as an “epic beard”.  It covers my double chin and also serves as a tribute to my many artistic forebears, artists whose fulfillment manifested in silverback gravitas rather than studly cutness or prettyboy romance.  So here is a fairly arbitrary selection of bearded males (and one female) of the creative bent, presented in completely random order.  What a great opportunity to put myself in the context of the greats!

Hermeto Pascoal, b. 1936, composer and musician, photographer unknown

Daniel Day-Lewis, b. 1957, actor, photo by John Spellman/Retna Ltd.

Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961, writer, photo by Yousuf Karsh

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935-2007, singer, photographer unknown

Jim Henson, 1936-1990, puppeteer, photographer unknown

Thelonious Monk, 1917-1982, composer and musician, photographer unknown

George Carlin, 1937-2008, comedian and writer, photographer unknown

George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, playwright, photographer unknown

Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528, painter and artist, self-portrait

Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, sculptor and artist, photo by Nadar

George Clinton, b. 1941, musician and bandleader, photo by Marcy Guiragossian/Marcy G. Photography

Constantin Brancusi, 1876-1957, sculptor, photo by Edward Steichen

Toshiro Mifune, 1920-1997, actor, still from Red Beard, directed by Akira Kurosawa

Erik Satie, 1866-1925, composer and musician,photographer unknown

Charles Dickens, 1812-1870, writer, photo by Jeremiah Gurney

Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997, poet, photographer unknown

Devendra Banhart, b. 1981, singer-songwriter, photographer unknown

Ai Weiwei, b. 1957, artist and activist, photographer unknown

Sergei Parajanov, 1924-1990, film director and artist, photographer unknown

Walt Whitman, 1819-1892, poet, photo by Matthew Brady

Isaac Hayes, 1942-2008, songwriter and musician, photographer unknown

Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, painter, self-portrait

Alan Moore, b. 1953, writer, photographer unknown

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1497-1543, painter, self-portrait

Oliver Sacks, b. 1933, neurologist and writer, photographer unknown

John Lennon, 1940-1980, songwriter and musician, photographer unknown

Jennifer Miller, b. 1961, performer and writer, photographer unknown

Claude Monet, 1840-1926, painter, photo by Nadar

Terry Riley, b. 1935, composer, photo by Lenny Gonzalez

Salman Rushdie, b. 1947, writer, 1992 photo by Andy Ross

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895, writer and statesman, photographer unknown

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897, composer, photograph by C. Brasch

Jerzy Grotowski, 1933-1999, theater director, photographer unknown

Stanley Kubrick, 1928-1999, film director, photographer unknown

Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910, writer, photographer unknown

Gustav Klimt, 1862-1918, painter, photographer unknown

The beard is naturally an expression of masculinity and maturity.  It also seems to denote sensitivity in a man of rough or plain features.  Imagine many of the men in these photos clean shaven, and see how their power, like that of the shorn Samson, is diminished.

All photos, besides the one of me, were found on the web.  Clicking on the photo links to its source.

Of course this collection is arbitrary and incomplete.  Feel free to use comments to nominate worthy bearded artists I’ve omitted.



Dawn After the Longest Night

The Winter, 1563, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo


The year’s longest night falls around December 21st in the Northern hemisphere, and the return of the Sun symbolizes rebirth or renewal in cultures around the world.  Italian Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, who anthropomorphized the seasons and elements as grotesque heads composed of bits of flora and fauna, here reveals the face of Winter in gnarly roots and gray bark, with hair of ivy and lips of fungus, but includes a lemon, surely a sign of the sun.  This shows the promise of returning light and life, of which our understanding of the nature of cycles gives us faith.  In the famous “yin/yang”, the Asian emblem of cyclic nature, the yin contains a little seed of yang, and vice versa, telling us that all dualities are cyclic and each extreme contains the potential of its own reversal.The Winter Solstice is the scientific name for the moment of the Earth’s maximum axial tilt away from the Sun.  On Earth we experience it as the shortest daylight and longest night, and the Sun’s lowest path across the sky, the effect the more extreme the farther one is from the equator.  This photograph combines 43 exposures over the course of a day to show the low southern arc of the Winter Solstice sun looking over the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Mediterranean area between the Italian peninsula and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.  (Of course the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice is the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, and vice versa.) 

Tyrrhenian Sea and Solstice Sky, 2005, photo by Danilo Pivato


The cycles of the heavenly bodies were among the first natural phenomena to be understood with scientific precision.  Artifacts like the Mayan Calendar or the Antikythera Mechanism show that these celestial cycles engaged the most sophisticated minds of ancient times.  While theories of the function of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments as astronomical observatories are disputed by scholars, new evidence shows that prehistoric peoples conducted ritual sacrifices at these sites around the time of the Winter Solstice. 

Stonehenge Winter Solstice, photographer unknown


Walking a Labyrinth is another ancient ritual that has seen revival in our time.  In walking meditation, the convolutions of the labyrinth provide a physical experience of cycles, of gradual penetration to the depths and re-emergence.  Below is a labyrinth made out of candles, which are themselves symbols of the survival of light through the darkness, set up for a contemporary Winter Solstice festival

Labyrinth of Light, Secret Lantern Society Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver, photographer unknown


The most popular holiday of classical Rome was the Saturnalia, a seven-day period around the Winter Solstice when king of the gods Jupiter ceded his throne to Saturn, god of harvest.  It was a time for the reversal of social roles, when servants played at bossing the masters and feasting and revelry replaced work.  We still keep a bit of this spirit alive in Saturn’s day, Saturday, the day to play. 

Saturnus, 1592, by Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio


In a work of satirist Lucian of Samosata, Saturn says, “Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things, wealth and gold and such, Zeus [Jupiter] distributes as he will.”  (source of quote) 

In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, authorities knew it was hopeless to stop people celebrating Saturnalia, so they simply changed the name of the holiday – to Christmas

Saturnalia, 1909, by Ernesto Biondi, Jardín Botánico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, photo by Daniel Smiriglio


In the Christian era, the central image of the coming of light into the darkness became the Holy Nativity, or birth of Jesus, God made flesh, in a stable for livestock.  Thousands of paintings depict the scene. Giotto’s fresco of the event is stark and simple. 

Nativity, 1304-06, by Giotto di Bondone, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua


Botticelli’s visionary manger scene combines celestial beauty with apocalyptic elements, a version in which the light is on the surface and something darker emerges only on closer inspection. 

Mystic Nativity, 1500, by Sandro Botticelli


By the 17th century, an aesthetic of realism is emerging.  Georges de la Tour, the master of candlelight effects, gives us this intimate grouping around the peaceful sleeping infant. 

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1644, by Georges de la Tour


Proto-psychedelic painter Abdul Mati Klarwein painted this 1960’s “Nativity”, a post-nuclear, pop art, new age vision of a birth of new consciousness.  The yin-yang symbol is there, beneath the legs of the central figure.  (Note that the de la Tour painting is roughly right in the middle between the Giotto and the Klarwein on the art history timeline.) 

Nativity, 1961, by Mati Klarwein


In contemporary American culture, Christmas is a complex and contested amalgam of Christian, pagan, and commercial elements.  The central figure is no longer the baby Jesus but the jolly old Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is himself derived from multiple cultural traditions, some surprisingly devilish.  The very name “Santa”, of course, is an anagram for the name of the Prince of Darkness.  David Sedaris has written hilariously about European Christmas legends that may be surprising to Americans. 

Our contemporary image of the jolly old elf can be traced back to Clement Clarke Moore‘s “The Night Before Christmas”, and to the illustrations of the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast, originator of the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey. 

Santa Claus, 1881, by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly


Another icon of the Winter Solstice holiday season is the New Years Baby, popularized by the great illustrator J. C. Leyendecker in annual Saturday Evening Post covers.  For an image of rebirth, I’ll leave you with this awakening infant from an earlier era, troubled like our own.  May you and the 2011 baby face the coming year with innocence and the power of growth!  Blessed Solstice, Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! 

New Year's Baby, 1938, by J. C. Leyendecker for the New York Post


All illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images links to their source.


Flanking Figures

Filed under: Art History,Collections of Images — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 17:06

Far Side of the Moon with Flanking Figures, 2010, by Fred Hatt

I made these two large reclining nudes, each one 48″ x 30″, with the idea that they would be flanking figures, a human frame for some significant object or image.  They could be on either side of a mirror or a portrait or a proscenium stage.  They could be facing center or away from center.  For me these figures have a lunar quality, so here I have used them to bracket an image of the far side of the moon.

[Tangent:  The far side of the moon was a complete mystery before the era of space flight, as the moon always turns the same face towards Earth, and of course people imagined that it hid alien civilizations or other exotic marvels.  Even now this distant hemisphere is unfamiliar to most of us.  The far side of the moon is mountainous and heavily pocked with craters, and lacks the great “seas” or mare that give the near face the dark patches that we see as the man in the moon, the rabbit, or whatever it is supposed to resemble.  The face that is turned away can be a symbol of the unseen aspect of things.  Here is an interactive map of both sides of the moon, and here’s the source for the moon map used in the illustration at the top of this post.]

Allegorical flanking figures of this sort are a fusty old iconographic tradition.  The ones I had in mind were the figures of Dawn and Dusk on the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, designed and sculpted by Michelangelo.  The chapel also features a similar idealized portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, accompanied by figures called Night and Day.  These nudes, named as embodiments of cycles of nature and shown reclining at the feet of the enthroned noblemen, exalt their central figures by portraying them as masters over Nature itself.  Those Medicis were as self-aggrandizing as Trump!

Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, c. 1530, by Michelangelo

This kind of arrangement of human images embodying abstract concepts became a standard trope in public art.  Here are the figures over the entrance to the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, by sculptor F.W. Pomeroy.  In the middle is the Recording Angel, lurking under a hood and looking far more intimidating than most of the court stenographers I’ve seen.  On the left is Fortitude, with a sword, and on the right, Truth, with a mirror.

Allegorical Figures, Old Bailey Central Criminal Court, London, 1907, sculptures by F. W. Pomeroy

Allegorical flanking figures became such a cliché in the depiction of official power that they are a frequent feature of the engraved headings of stock certificates, such as this one for Shell Oil, Inc.

Shell Oil Company stock certificate engraving, 1975

The tradition probably originates with Medieval Heraldry.  A coat of arms often shows a shield with symbolic emblems or colors, held up on either side by what some cultures would call power animals, such as Great Britain’s lion and unicorn.  Here’s a lovely new variation on the theme, the official coat of arms of Nunavut, the Inuit province of Northern Canada.  The symbolic animals are the caribou and the narwhal.

Coat of Arms of the Province of Nunavut, Canada

Christian religious painting also frequently includes figures flanking a central personage.  The sidekicks may be angels, saints, or the donor who funded the artwork.  It naturally occurs in crucifixions, in which Jesus is often shown between the two crucified thieves, as in this Mantegna painting.

Crucifixion, 1459, by Andrea Mantegna

Raphael omitted the thieves, but framed Jesus between two angels, representations of the sun and moon, and one kneeling and one standing figure on each side.  Clearly the idea here is to convey the centrality of the Christ.

Crucifixion, 1503. by Raphael

I can’t tell you why I was drawn to such a thoroughly old-fashioned figurative motif.  I suppose applying my loose and energetic style to neoclassical subject matter seemed an interesting variation on improvised compositions and experimental process.  Here are some closer looks at these two drawings.  The models are Yuko and Jeremiah.  Let me know if you have anything that needs to be exalted by being displayed in between allegorical figures!

Waning Moon, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Waxing Moon, 2010, by Fred Hatt

My works shown here are aquarelle drawings on black paper, each 48″ high by 30″ wide.  All the other images were found on the web, and clicking on the images will take you to the sites where I found them.

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