If his Death as an Enemy (above), although elegant and refined, is not so original as it is inspired by a long tradition of “Triumphs of Death” and skeletal figures towering over piles of dead bodies, it is instead the specular Death as a Friend which always fascinated me.
I recently managed to get a reproduction of this etching, taken from a late 19th-century book, and I was finally able to scan it properly. Much of the charm of this lithograph, in fact, derives from the attention given to the smallest details, which need to be carefully examined and interpreted; for this reason, admiring it in high quality is fundamental. At the end of this article you will find the link to download it; but I’d like to show you first why I love this image so much.
The scene takes us to the topmost room inside the bell tower of a medieval cathedral.
The environment is modest, the only discreet frieze present above the window arch is certainly nothing compared to how the church should look from the outside: we can guess it from a glimpse at the gargoyle in the upper left corner, and from the carved finials of the spire we see from the window.
Between these four walls the old sexton and bell ringer spent his whole life; we can imagine the cold of harsh winters, when the wind whistled entering from the large window, causing the snow to swirl in the room. We can feel the fatigue of those wooden stairs that the man must have climbed up and down Lord knows how many times, in order to reach the top of the tower.
Now the guardian has come to the end of his days: his horn remains silent, hanging on the handrail.
The frail limbs of the old man (his right foot turned to the side, under the leg’s weight), his sunken figure in the armchair, his hands abandoned in his lap and weakly united in one last prayer — everything tells us that his life is coming to an end.
His was a humble but pious life. We can guess it from the remains of his last poor meal, a simple piece of bread and a glass that allude to the Eucharist. We also understand it from the crucifix, the only furnishing in addition to the table and chair, and from the open book of scriptures.
The bunch of keys hanging from his belt are another element bearing a double meaning: they identify his role as a sacristan, but also reference the other bunch of keys that await him, the ones Saint Peter will use to unlock the gates of Paradise.
The real vanishing point is the sun setting behind the horizon of a country landscape. It is the evening of the day, the evening of a life that has run its course just like the river we see in the distance, the emblem of panta rei. Yet on its banks we see well-cultivated and regular fields, a sign that the flowing of that water has borne fruit.
A little bird lands on the windowsill of the large window; is she a friend of the old man, with whom he shared a few crumbs of bread? Did the bird worry when she didn’t hear the bells ringing as usual? In any case, it is a moving detail, and an indication of life carrying on.
And finally let’s take a look at Death.
This is not the Black Lady (or the Grim Reaper) we find in most classic depictions, her figure could not be further from the one that brought scourge and devastation in the medieval Triumphs of Death. Of course she is a skeleton and can inspire fear, but the hood and saddlebag are those of a traveler. Death came a long way to visit the old man, so much so that she carries a scallop on his chest, the sea shell associated with Saint James, symbol of the Pilgrim; her bony feet have trampled the Earth far and wide, since time immemorial. And this constant wandering unites her, in spirit, with the old man — not surprisingly, the same shell is also pinned on the sexton’s hat, next to his staff and a bundle of herbs that he has collected.
This Death however, as indicated by the title, is “a friend”. When facing such a virtuous man, that same Death who knows how to be a ruthless and ferocious tyrant becomes a “sister” in the Franciscan sense. Her head lowered, her empty orbits turned to the ground, she seems almost intent on a secret meditation: from the beginning of time she has carried out her task with diligence, but here we see she is not evil.
And in fact, she makes a gesture of disarming gentleness: she rings the bells one last time, to announce vespers in the place of the dying man who is no longer able to do it.
It is time for the changing of the guard, the elderly man can now leave the post he has occupied for so long. With the quiet arrival of the evening, with the last tolling of those bells he has attended to throughout his life, a simple and devoted existence ends. Everything is peaceful, everything is done.
Few other images, I believe, are able to render so elegantly the Christian ideal (but, in general, the human ideal) of the “Good Death”.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to afford such an idyllic end; but if Death were really so kind, caring and compassionate, who wouldn’t want to have her as a friend?
To download my high-quality scan (60Mb) of Death as Friend, click here.
Model Monique Van Vooren bowling with her kangaroo (1958).
We’re back with our bizarre culture column, bringing you some of the finest, weirdest reads and a new reserve of macabre anecdotes to break the ice at parties.
But first, a couple of quick updates.
First of all, in case you missed it, here’s an article published by the weekly magazine Venerdì di Repubblica dedicated to the Bizzarro Bazar web series, which will debut on my YouTube channel on January 27 (you did subscribe, right?). You can click on the image below to open the PDF with the complete article (in Italian).
Secondly, on Saturday 19 I’m invited to speak in Albano Laziale by the theater company Tempo di Mezzo: here I will present my talk Un terribile incanto, this time embellished by Max Vellucci’s mentalism experiments. It will be a beautiful evening dedicated to the marvelous, to the macabre and above all to the art of “changing perspective”. Places are limited.
And here we go with our links and curiosities.
In the 80s some lumberjacks were cutting a log when they found something extraordinary: a perfectly mummified hound inside the trunk. The dog must have slipped into the tree through a hole in the roots, perhaps in pursuit of a squirrel, and had climbed higher and higher until it got stuck. The tree, a chestnut oak, preserved it thanks to the presence of tannins in the trunk. Today the aptly-nicknamed Stuckie is the most famous guest at Southern Forest World in Waycross, Georgia. (Thanks, Matthew!)
Let’s remain in Georgia, where evidently there’s no shortage of surprises. While breaking down a wall in a house which served as a dentist’s studio at the beginning of the 20th century, workers uncovered thousands of teeth hidden inside the wall. But the really extraordinary thing is that this is has already happened on three other similar occasions. So much so that people are starting to wonder if stuffing the walls with teeth might have been a common practice among dentists. (Thanks, Riccardo!)
Artist Tim Klein has realized that puzzles are often cut using the same pattern, so the pieces are interchangeable. This allows him to hack the original images, creating hybrids that would have been the joy of surrealist artists like Max Ernst or Réné Magritte. (via Pietro Minto)
This year, August 9 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most infamous murders in history: the Bel Air massacre perpetrated by the Manson Family. So brace yourselves for a flood of morbidity disguised as commemorations.
In addition to the upcoming Tarantino flick, which is due in July, there are at least two other films in preparation about the murders. Meanwhile, in Beverly Hills, Sharon Tate’s clothes, accessories and personal effects have already been auctioned. The death of a beautiful woman, who according to Poe was “the most poetical topic in the world“, in the case of Sharon Tate has become a commodity of glam voyeurism and extreme fetishization. The photos of the crime scene have been all over the world, the tomb in which she is buried (embracing the child she never got to know) is among the most visited, and her figure is forever inseparable from that of the perfect female victim: young, with bright prospects, but above all famous, beautiful, and pregnant.
And now for a hypnotic dance in the absence of gravity:
In the forests of Kentucky, a hunter shot a two-headed deer. Only thing is, the second head belonged to another deer. So there are two options: either the poor animal had been going around with this rotting thing stuck between its horns, for who knows how long, without managing to get rid of it; or — and that’s what I like to think — this was the worst badass gangster deer in history. (Thanks, Aimée!)
Who was the first to invent movable-type printing? Gutenberg, right?Wrong.
Sally Hewett is a British artist who creates wonderful embroided portraits of imperfect bodies. Her anatomical skills focus on bodies that bear surgical scars or show asymmetries, modifications, scarifications, mastectomies or simple signs of age.
Her palpable love for this flesh, which carries the signs of life and time, combined with the elegance of the medium she uses, make these artworks touching and beautiful. Here’s Sally’s official website, Instagram profile, and a nice interview in which she explains why she includes in all her works one thread that belonged to her grandmother. (Thanks, Silvia!)
Those who live in dream are superior beings; those who live in reality are unhappy slaves.
Alberto Martini, 1940
Alberto Giacomo Spiridione Martini (1876-1954) was one of the most extraordinary Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was the author of a vast graphic production which includes engravings, lithographs, ex libris, watercolors, business cards, postcards, illustrations for books and novels of various kinds (from Dante to D’Annunzio, from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from Tassoni to Nerval).
Born in Oderzo, he studied drawing and painting under the guidance of his father Giorgio, a professor of design at the Technical Institute of Treviso. Initially influenced by the German sixteenth-century mannerism of Dürer and Baldung, he then moved towards an increasingly personal and refined symbolism, supported by his exceptional knowledge of iconography. At only 21 he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale; from then on, his works will be featured there for 14 consecutive years.
The following year, 1898, while he was in Munich to collaborate with some magazines, he met the famous Neapolitan art critic Vittorio Pica who, impressed by his style, will forever be his most convinced supporter. Pica remembers him like this:
This man, barely past twenty, […] immediately came across as likable in his distinguished, albeit a bit cold, discretion […], in the subtle elegance of his person, in the paleness of his face, where the sensual freshness of his red lips contrasted with that strange look, both piercing and abstract, mocking and disdainful.
After drawing 22 plates for the historical edition of the Divine Comedy printed in 1902 by the Alinari brothers in Florence, starting from 1905 he devoted himself to the cycle of Indian ink illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, which remains one of the peaks of his art.
In this series, Martini shows a strong visionary talent, moving away from the meticulous realistic observation of his first works, and at the same time developing a cruel and aesthetic vein reminiscent of Rops, Beardsley and Redon.
During the First World War he published five series of postcards entitled Danza Macabra Europea: these consist of 54 lithographs meant as satirical propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were distributed among the allies. Once again Martini proves to possess a grotesque boundless fantasy, and it is also by virtue of these works that he is today considered a precursor of Surrealism.
Disheartened by how little consideration he was ebjoying in Italy, he moved to Paris in 1928. “They swore — he wrote in his autobiography — to remove me as a painter from the memory of Italians, preventing me from attending exhibitions and entering the Italian market […] I know very well that my original way of painting can annoy the myopic little draftsman and paltry critics“.
In Paris he met the Surrealist group and developed a series of “black” paintings, before moving on to a more intense use of color (what he called his “clear” manner) to grasp the ecstatic visions that possessed him.
The large window of my studio is open onto the night. In that black rectangle, I see my ghosts pass and with them I love to converse. They incite me to be strong, indomitable, heroic, and they tell me secrets and mysteries that I shall perhaps reveal you. Many will not believe and I am sorry for them, because those who have no imagination vegetate in their slippers: comfortable life, but not an artist’s life. Once upon a starless night, I saw myself in that black rectangle as in a mirror. I saw myself pale, impassive. It is my soul, I thought, that is now mirroring my face in the infinite and that once mirrored who knows what other appearance, because if the soul is eternal it has neither beginning nor end, and what we are now is nothing but one of its several episodes. And this revealing thought troubled me […]. As I was absorbed in these intricate thoughts, I started to feel a strange caress on the hand I had laid on a book open under a lamp. […] I turned my head and saw a large nocturnal butterfly sitting next to my hand, looking at me, flapping its wings. You too, I thought, are dreaming; and the spell of your dull eyes of dust sees me as a ghost. Yes, nocturnal and beautiful visitor, I am a dreamer who believes in immortality, or perhaps a phantom of the eternal dream that we call life.
(A. Martini, Vita d’artista, manoscritto, 1939-1940)
In economic hardship, Martini returned to Milan in 1934. He continued his incessant and multiform artistic work during the last twenty years of his life, without ever obtaining the desired success. He died on November 8, 1954. Today his remains lie together with those of his wife Maria Petringa in the cemetery of Oderzo.
The fact that Martini never gained the recognition he deserved within Italian early-twentieth-century art can be perhaps attributed to his preference for grotesque themes and gloomy atmospheres (in our country, fantasy always had a bad reputation). The eclectic nature of his production, which wilfully avoided labels or easy categorization, did not help him either: his originality, which he rightly considered an asset, was paradoxically what forced him to remain “a peripheral and occult artist, doomed to roam, like a damned soul, the unexplored areas of art history” (Barbara Meletto, Alberto Martini: L’anima nera dell’arte).
Yet his figure is strongly emblematic of the cultural transition between nineteenth-century romantic decadentism and the new, darker urgencies which erupted with the First World War. Like his contemporary Alfred Kubin, with whom he shared the unreal imagery and the macabre trait, Martini gave voice to those existential tensions that would then lead to surrealism and metaphysical art.
An interpretation of some of the satirical allegories in the European Macabre Dance can be found here and here.
The Civic Art Gallery of Oderzo is dedicated to Alberto Martini and promotes the study of his work.
In this post I would like to address three different discoveries I made over the years, and their peculiar relationship.
∼ 2009 ∼
I had just started this blog. During my nightly researches, I remember being impressed by the work of an Italian photographer who specialized in still life pictures: Guido Mocafico.
I was particularly struck – for obvious reasons of personal taste – by his photographs inspired by Dutch vanitas paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the pictures showed an outstanding, refined use of light and composition (they almost looked like paintings), but that was not all there was.
In this superb series, Mocafico represented many classic motifs used to symbolize transience (the homo bulla, man being like a soap bubble, but also the hourglass, the burning candle, etc.) with irreproachable taste and philologic attention; the smallest details betrayed a rigorous and deep preparation, a meticulous study which underpinned each of his photographs.
I went on to archive these fascinating photographs, promising myself I would talk about them sooner or later. I never kept that promise, until now.
∼ 2017 ∼
Last year Taschen published a somptuous, giant-size edition of Ernst Haeckel‘s works.
The German scientist, who lived between late 19th century and early 20th century, was an exceptional figure: marine biologist, naturalist, philosopher, he was among the major popularizers of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Germany. He discovered and classified thousands of new species, but above all he depicted them in hundreds of colorful illustrations.
Taschen’s luxurious volume is a neverending wonder, page after page. An immersion into an unknown and alien world – our world, inhabited by microorganisms of breathtaking beauty, graceful jellyfish, living creatures of every shape and structure.
It is a double aesthetic experience: one one hand we are in awe at nature’s imaginative skills, on the other at the artist’s mastery.
I’ll confess that going through the book, I often willingly forget to check the taxonomic labels: after a while, human categories and names seem to lose their meaning, and it’s best to just get lost in sheer contemplation of those perfect, intricate, unusual, exuberant forms.
∼ 2018 ∼
London, Natural History Museum, a couple of weeks ago.
There I am, bewildered for half an hour, looking at the model of a radiolarian, a single-celled organism found in zooplankton. In the darkened room, the light coming from above emphasizes the model’s intricate craftsmanship. The level of detail, the fragility of its thin pseudopods and the rendering of the protozoa’s translucid texture are mind-blowing.
This object’s peculiarity is that it’s made of glass. It’s one of the models created by 19th-century master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
And this is just one among thousands and thousands of similar masterpieces created by the two artists from Dresden.
The Blaschkas were a Bohemian family of glass artisans, and when Leopold was born he inherited the genes of several generations of glassmakers. Being especially talented from an early age, he created decorations and glass eyes for many years, until in a short span of time he happened to lose his wife, his son and his father to cholera. Shattered by grief, he took sails towards America but the ship was stopped at sea for two week due to a lack of wind. During this forced arrest, in the darkest period of his life, Leopold was saved by wonder: one night he was looking at the dark ocean, when suddenly he noticed “a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars”. He observed those sea creatures in awe, and took sketches of their structure. Since that night, the memory of the magical spectacle he had witnessed never left him.
Years later, back in Dresden and happily remarried, he began creating glass flowers, as a hobby; his orchids were so perfectly crafted that they caught the eye of prince Camille de Rohan first, and then of the director of the Natural History Museum. The latter commissioned twelve sea anemones models; and thus Leopold, remembering that night on the stranded ship, began to work on scientific models. Soon Blaschka’s sea animals – and glass flowers – became famous; Leopold, with the help of his son Rudolph, collaborated with all the most important museums. After his father’s death, Rudolph continued to work developing an even more refined technique, producing 4.400 plant models for Harvard University’s Herbarium.
Together, father and son crafted a total of around 10.000 glass models of sea creatures.
Their artistry attained such perfection that, after them, no glassmaker would ever be able replicate it. “Many people think – Leopold wrote in 1889 – that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation”.
∼ Convergence ∼
Some of our interests, at first glance independent from one another, sometimes turn out to be actually correlated. It is as if, on the map of our own passions, we suddenly discover a secret passage between two areas that we thought were distinct, a “B” spot connecting points “A” and “C”.
In this case, for me the “A” point was Guido Mocafico, the author of the evocative series of photographs entitled Vanités; whom I discovered years ago, and guiltily forgotten.
Haeckel was, in retrospect, my “C” point.
And I never would have thought of linking one to the other, before a “B” point, Blaschka’s glass models, appeared on my mind map
Because, here is the thing: to build their incredible glass invertebrates, Leopold and his son Rudolph were inspired, among other things, by Haeckel’s illustrations.
And you can imagine my surprise when I found out that all the best photographs of the Blaschka models, those you can see in this very article, were taken by… Guido Mocafico.
Unbeknownst to me, during the years I had lost sight of him, the photographer dedicated some amazing series of pictures to the Blaschka models, as you can see on his official website.
I always felt there was a tight connection between Haeckel’s fantastic microorganisms and my beloved vanitas. Their intimate bond, perhaps, was sensed by Mocafico too, in his aesthetic research.
A wonder for the creatures of the world is also the astonishment in regard to their impermanence.
At heart, we – human beings, animals, plants, ecosystems, maybe even reality itself – are but immensely beautiful, yet very fragile, glass masterpieces.
I am delighted to present you with a project that I hold dear. In fact, when some time ago I was asked to write an essay for Claudio Romo’s Bestiario Mexicano, I immediately accepted: I never made a mystery of my unconditional admiration for the Chilean illustrator, and I talked about him on this blog on several occasions.
There are many excellent artists, who can strike you for their visionary imagination or their poetic touch; but if these elements are backed with a personal research that is not merely aesthetic, their works rise to a different level.
Such authors are rare.
For this reason, as he will be in Bologna from March 25 to 28 (all the details on Logos Edizioni‘s FB page), I strongly advise tou to go an meet Claudio in person if you have the chance.
With him, you will be able to talk history, literature, art; he will infect you with his passion for Borges and Cronenberg, Kircher and Frank Herbert, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Arcimboldo, effortlessly shifting from the philosophy of language to comic books. He will tell you why Chile is such a liquid land, that it somehow instills a fluid vision of reality in the mind of Chilean people; he will get all excited talking about alchemical etchings, or the sacrality of lucha libre. As with all real great artists, he will amaze you with his modesty and his boundless enthusiasm.
For a person who has such a vast and faceted culture, drawing is not a simple means of “expression” for his inner world, but rather resembles a tool to understand reality. It is a tile within a much larger intellectual exploration, an urgent, inevitable need.
Such authors are rare indeed.
This colorful Bestiario Mexicano Romo has been working on for several years, is now finally published in its definitive, expanded version.
The book represents his personal take on five mythological figures of the Maya tradition which are still common today in Yucatán folklore: the Sinsimito, the Aluxes, the Nahual, the Waay Pop and the Waay Chivo.
Claudio presents us with a fantastical and awe-inspiring interpretation of all these creatures, combining Pre-Colombian iconography with a modern and surrealist sensibility.
In the introduction, I addressed the concept of metamorphosis and the nature of the monstruous, trying to show how – despite these monsters’ apparent exotism vis-à-vis our own tradition – there are several interesting similarities between the Mesoamerican culture and European paganism.
Each monster also has its own in-depth information box, which integrates Claudio’s poetic descriptions of these spuernatural figures: besides defining their aspect, specific powers, behavior and regional variants, I have also tried to explain their anthropological value, the symbolic function served by the different creatures.
I think the book is a little gem (I don’t take any credit for that), packed full with wonderful imagery from start to finish, and Claudio really deserves a wider recognition; in my own small way, I hope my contribution helps clarify that his Bestiario, with all its richness, should not be confused with a simple comic book.
Unfortunately for the time being the book is out in Italian language only. If that’s no problem for you, you can still get your copy of Bestiario Mexicanoon this page.
The last time I wrote about my friend and mentor Stefano Bessoni was four years ago, when his book and short film Gallows Songs came out. Many things have happened since then. Stefano has been teaching in countless stop motion workshops in Italy and abroad, and he published some handbooks on the subject (an introductory book, together with first and second level animation textbooks); but he also continued to explore children’s literature by reinterpreting some classics such as Alice, Pinocchio, the Wizard of Oz and the traditional figure of Mr. Punch / Pulcinella.
Bessoni’s last effort is called Rachel, a thrilling work for several reasons.
First of all, this is the reincarnation of a project Stefano has been working on for decades: when I first met him – eons ago – he was already raising funds for a movie entitled The Land of Inexact Sciences, to this day one of the most genuinely original scripts I have ever read.
Set during the Great War in a faraway village lost on the ocean shores, it told the story of a seeker of wonders in a fantastic world; eccentric characters roamed this land, obsessed with anomalous and pataphysical sciences, amongst ravenous wunderkammern, giant squid hunters, mad anatomists, taverns built inside beached whales, apocriphal zoology shops, ventriloquists, ghosts and homunculi.
A true compendium of Bessoni’s poetics, stemming from his love for dark fairy tales, for the aesthetics of cabinets of curiosities, for 18th Century natural philosophy and Nick Cave’s macabre ballads.
Today Stefano is bringing this very peculiar universe back to life, and Rachel is only one piece of the puzzle. It is in fact the first volume of the Inexact Sciences tetralogy, which will be published every six months and will include three more titles dedicated to the other protagonists of the story: Rebecca, Giona and Theophilus.
Rachel is a sort of prequel, or backstory, for the actual plot: it’s the story of a strange and melancholic little girl, who lives alone in a house on a cliff, in the company of some unlikely imaginary friends. But a terrible revelation awaits…
It is said that Rachel helped her father with his preparations, and that she was actually very good at it. A proof of this unusual childhood activity is her presence in a famous painting by Jan van Neck where, dressed as a little boy, she assists her father during an anatomy lesson on a dissected newborn baby. Rachel’s job was to dress with lace and decorate with flowers the anatomical creations, preserved in a fluid Ruysch had named liquor balsamicus, an extraordinary mixture which could fix in time the ephemeral beauty of dead things; many of these specimens, now on display in museum, still maintain their original skin complexion and the softness of a live body.
But Rachel’s fate was different from what I imagined in my story. She abandoned medicine and anatomy, and grew up to be a very good artist specializing in still life paintings and portraits, one of the very few female artists of her time that we know of. Some of her works are now on display at the Uffizi and at the Palatine Gallery in Florence.
Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Basket Full of Flowers and Herbs With Insects, 1711
At this point, I feel I should make a confession: Bessoni’s books have always been like a special compass to me. Each time I can’t focus or remember my direction anymore, I only need to take one of his books from the shelf and all of a sudden his illustrations show me what is really essential: because Stefano’s work reflects such a complete devotion to the side of himself that is able to be amazed. And such a purity is precious.
You only need to look at the love with which, in Rachel, he pays homage to Ruysch’s fabulous lost dioramas; behind the talking anatomical dolls, the chimeras, the little children preserved in formaline, or his trademark crocodile skulls, there is no trace of adulteration, no such thing as the mannerism of a recognized artist. There’s only an enthusiastic, childish gaze, still able to be moved by enchantment, still filled with onirical visions of rare beauty — for instance the Zeppelin fleets hovering in the sky over the cliff where little Rachel lives.
This is why knowing that his most ambitious and personal project has come back to light fills me with joy.
And then there’s one more reason.
After so many years, and taking off from these very books, The Inexact Sciences is about to turn into a stop motion feature film, and this time for real. Currently in development, the movie will be a France-Italy co-production, and has alreay been recognized a “film of national interest” by the Italian Ministry of Culture (MiBACT).
And who wouldn’t want these characters, and this macabre, funny world, to come alive on the screen?
Imagine living in a country whose government decided to block any scientific discovery coming from abroad.
Even worse: imagine living in this hypothetical country, at the exact time when the most radical revolution of human knowledge in history is taking place in the world, a major transformation bound to change the way Man looks at the Universe — of which you ignore every detail, since they are prohibited by law.
This was probably a scientist’s nightmare in Japan during sakoku, the protectionist policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate. Enacted around 1640, officially to stop the advance of Christianity after the Shimabara rebellion, this line of severe restrictions was actually devised to control commerce: in particular, what the Shogun did was to deny access and trade above all to the Portuguese and the Spanish, who were considered dangerous because of their colonial and missionary ambitions in the New World.
China, Korea and the Netherlands were granted the opportunity of buying and selling. Being the only Europeans who could carry on trading, in the enclave of Dejima, the Dutch established with the Land of the Rising Sun an important economic and cultural relationship which lasted for more than two centuries, until the sakoku policy was terminated officially in 1866.
As we were saying, Japan ran the risk of being cut off from scientific progress, which had begun just a century before, in that fateful year of our Lord 1543 when Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and Vesalius his Fabrica — two books which in one fell swoop dismantled everything that was believed was above and inside Man.
If the nightmare we previously mentioned never became true, it was because of the Rangaku movement, a group of researchers who set out to carefully study everything the Dutch brought to Japan.
Although for the first eighty years of “isolation” the majority of Western books were banned, ideas kept on circulating and little by little this quarantine of culture loosened up: the Japanese were allowed to translate some fundamental works on optics, chemistry, geography, mechanical and medical sciences.
In the first half of the XIX Century there were several Rangaku schools, translations of Western books were quite widespread and the interaction between japanese and foreign scientists was much more common.
Medical studies were recognized since the beginning as a field in which cultural exchange was essential.
In Japan at that time, physicians followed the Chinese tradition, based on religious/spiritual views of the body, where precise anatomical knowledge was not seen as necessary. Human dissections were prohibited, according to the principles of Confucianism, and those doctors who really wanted to know the inside of the human body had to infer any information by dissecting otters, dogs and monkeys.
The very first autopsy, on an executed criminal, took place in 1754 and was conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō. The dissection itself was carried out by an assistant, because it was still a taboo for higher classes to touch human remains.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the inside of a human body was much more similar to the Dutch illustrations than to those of traditional Chinese medicine books. The account of the autopsy signed by Yamawaki caused the uproar of the scientific community; in it, he strongly supported an empyrical approach, an unconceivable position at the time:
Theories may be overturned, but how can real material things deceive? When theories are esteemed over reality, even a man of great widsom cannot fail to err. When material things are investigated and theories are based on that, even a man of common intelligence can perform well.
In 1758, one of Yamawaki’s students, Kōan Kuriyama, conducted the second dissection in Japanese history, and was also the first physician to cut up a human body with his own hands, without resorting to an assistant.
Sugita Genpaku was another doctor who was shocked to find out that the illustrations of Western “barbarians” were more accurate than the usual Chinese diagrams. In his memoir Rangaku Koto Hajime (“Beginning of Dutch Studies”, 1869), he recounts the time when, together with other physicians, he dissected the body of a woman called Aochababa, hanged in Kyoto in the Kozukappara district (now Aeakawa) in 1771. Before starting the autopsy, they examined a Western anatomy book, the Ontleedkundige Tafelen by Johann Adam Kulmus:
Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs. […] Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions. [Even the bones] were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.
Genpaku spent the following three years translating the Dutch textbook. The task had to be carried out without any knowledge of the language, nor dictionaries available for consultation, by means of constant interpretations, deductions, and discussions with other doctors who had been in contact with the Europeans in Nagasaki. Genpaku’s colossal effort, similar to an actual decryption, was eventually published in 1774.
The Kaitai Shinsho was the first Japanese illustrated book of modern anatomy.
As Chinese traditional medicine gradually began to pale in comparison to the effectiveness and precision of knowledge coming from Europe, in Japan the practice of dissection became widespread.
This was the context for the real masterpiece of the time, the Kaibo Zonshishu (1819), a scroll containing 83 anatomical illustrations created by Doctor Yasukazu Minagaki.
Minagaki, born in Kyoto in 1785, attended public school and became a physician at a clinic in his hometown; but he also was a better and more gifted artist than his predecessors, so he decided to paint in a meticulous way the results of some forty autopsies he had witnessed. The scroll was part of a correspondence between Minagaki and the Dutch physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who praised the admirable drawings of his Japanese collegue.
There are several online articles on the Kaibo Zonshishu, and almost all of them claim Minagaki was obviously distant from the classicist European iconography of the écorchés — those flayed models showing their guts while standing in plastic, Greek poses. The cadavers dissected here, on the other hand, are depicted with stark realism, blood trickling down their mouth, their faces distorted in a grimace of agony.
But this idea is not entirely correct.
Already since the XVI Century, in Europe, the écorchés paired with illustrations of an often troubling realism: one just needs to look at the dissection of the head by Johann Dryander, pre-Vesalian even, but very similar to the one by Minagaki, or at the cruel anatomical plates by Dutch artist Bidloo in his Anatomia Hvmani Corporis (1685), or again at the corpses of pregnant women by William Hunter, which caused some controversy in 1774.
These Western predecessors inspired Minagaki, like they had already influenced the Kaitai Shinsho. One clear example:
The representation of tendons in the Kaibo Zonshishu…
…was inspired by this plate from the Kaitai Shinsho, which in turn…
…was taken from this illustration by Govand Bidloo (Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams, Amsterdam, 1690).
Anyway, aside from aesthethic considerations, the Kaibo Zonshishu was probably the most accurate and vividly realistic autoptic compendium ever painted in the Edo period (so much so that it was declared a national treasure in 2003).
When finally the borders were open, thanks to the translation work and cultural diffusion operated by the Rangaku community, Japan was able to quickly keep pace with the rest of the world.
And to become, in less than a hundred years, one of the leading countries in cutting-edge technology.
You can take a look at the Kaitai Shinshohere, and read the incredible story of its translation here. On this page you can find several other beautiful pics on the evolution of anatomical illustration in Japan.
I don’t want to go into much detail about his work, because he himself will talk about it in the next paragraphs. I would only like to add one small personal note. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know, to various degrees of intimacy, several writers, filmmakers, actors, illustrators: some of them were my personal heroes. And while it’s true that the creator is always a bit poorer than his creation (no one is flawless), I noticed the most visionary and original artists often show unexpected kindness, reserve, gentleness. Claudio is the kind of person who is almost embarassed when he’s the center of attention, and his immense imagination can only be guessed behind his electric, enthusiast, childlike glance. He is the kind of person who, after the presentation of his book, asks the audience permission to take a selfie with them, because “none of my friends or students back home will ever believe all this has really happened“.
I think men like him are more precious than yet another maudit.
What follows is the transcription of our chat.
We’re here today with Claudio Romo (I can never remember his impossibly long full name), to talk about his latest work A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, a book I particularly love because it offers a kind of mixture of very different worlds: ingredients like time travel, giant jellyfish, flashes of alchemy, flying telepathic cities and countless creatures and monsters with all-too-human characteristics. And rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this garden is a kind of place within the mind, within the soul… and just like the soul, the mind is a mysterious and complicated place, not infrequently with perverse overtones. A place where literary and artistic references intermix and intertwine.
From an artistic viewpoint, this work certainly brings to mind Roland Topor’s film Fantastic Planet, although filtered by a Latin American sensibility steeped in pre-Columbian iconography. On the other hand, certain illustrations vividly evoke Hieronymus Bosch, with their swarming jumble of tiny physically and anatomically deformed mutant creatures. Then there are the literary references: impossible not to think of Borges and his Book Of Imaginary Beings, but also the end of his Library of Babel; and certain encounters and copulations between mutant bodies evoke the Burroughs of Naked Lunch, whereas this work’s finale evokes ‘real’ alchemical procedures, with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and its famous phrase “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”. At the end of the book it is revealed that the garden is as infinite as the cosmos, but also that it is connected to an infinite number of other infinities, not only his personal garden but also mine and yours. In a sense, the universe which emerges is an interpenetration of marvels in which it is highly difficult to grasp where reality finishes and imagination begins, because fantasy too can be extremely concrete. It’s as though Claudio was acting as a kind of map-maker of his mental ecosystem, doing so with the zest of a biologist, an ethnologist and an entomologist, studying and describing all the details and behaviour of the fauna inhabiting it. From this point of view, the first question I’d like to ask concerns precisely reality and imagination. How do they interact, for you? For many artists this dichotomy is important, and the way they deal with it helps us to understand more about their art.
First of all, I’d like to thank Ivan, because he has presented a good reading of my book.
I have always thought that no author is autonomous, we all depend on someone, come from someone, we have an inheritance transmitted not through a bloodline but through a spiritual or conceptual bond, an inheritance received from birth through culture. Borges is my point of departure, the alchemical inscription, the science fiction, fantastical literature, popular literature… all these elements contribute to my work. When I construct these stories I am assembling a collage, a structure, in order to create parallel realities.
So, to answer Ivan’s question, I think that reality is something constructed by language, and so the dichotomy between reality and imagination doesn’t exist, because human beings inhabit language and language is a permanent and delirious construction.
I detest it when people talk about the reality of nature, or static nature. For me, reality is a permanent construction and language is the instrument which generates this construction.
This is why I take as models people like Borges, Bioy Casares, Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit alchemist named as maestro of a hundred arts who created the first anatomical theatre and built a wunderkammer)… people who from very different backgrounds have constructed different realities.
In this sense, the interesting thing is that the drawings and stories of Apparitio Albinus remind us of – or have a layer, we might say, that makes them resemble – the travel journals of explorers of long ago. Albinus could almost be a Marco Polo visiting a faraway land, where the image he paints is similar to a mediaeval bestiary, in which animals were not described in a realistic way, but according to their symbolic function… for example the lion was represented as an honest animal who never slept, because he was supposed to echo the figure of Christ… actually, Claudio’s animals frequently assume poses exactly like those seen in mediaeval bestiaries. There is also a gaze, a way of observing, that has something childish about it, a gaze always eager to marvel, to look for magic in the interconnection between different things, and I’d like to ask you if this child exists inside you, and how much freedom you allow him in your creative process.
When I first began creating books, I concentrated solely on the engravings, and technically engraving was extremely powerful for me. I was orthodox in my practice, but the great thing about the graphic novel is that its public is adult but also infantile, and the thing that interests me above all is showing and helping children understand that reality is soft. The first book I made on this subject is called The Album Of Imprudent Flora, a kind of bestiary conceived and created to attract children and lead them towards science, botany, the marvel of nature… not as something static, but as something mobile. For example I described trees which held Portuguese populations that had got lost searching for the Antarctic: then they had become tiny through having eaten Lilliputian strawberries, and when they died they returned to a special place called Portugal… and then there were also plants which fed on fear and which induced the spirits on Saturn to commit suicide and the spirits on Mars to kill… and then die. I created a series of characters and plants whose purpose was to fascinate children. There was a flower that had a piece of ectoplasm inside its pistil, and if you put a mouse in front of that flower the pistil turned into a piece of cheese, and when the mouse ate the cheese the plant ate the mouse… after which, if a cat came by, the pistil turned into a mouse, and so on. The idea was to create a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers. There was another plant which I named after an aunt of mine, extremely ugly, and in honour of her I gave this plant the ability to transform itself constantly: by day it was transfigured, and in certain moments it had a colloidal materiality, while in others it had a geometric structure… an absolutely mutant flower. This is all rather monstrous, but also fascinating, which is why I called the book “the imprudent flora”, because it went beyond the bounds of nature. Basically I think that when I draw I do it for children, in order to build up a way of interpreting reality in a broad and rich kind of way.
This corporal fluidity is also visible in this latest book, but there’s another aspect that I also find interesting, and this is the inversions that Claudio likes to create. For example, Lazarus is not resurrected, he ends up transformed into ghost by the phantasmagorical machine; we get warrior automatons which reject violence and turn into pacifists and deserters, and then again, in one of my favourite chapters, there is a time machine, built to transport us into the future, which actually does the opposite, because it transports the future into our present – a future we’d never have wanted to see, because what appears in the present is the corpses we will become. It seems that irony is clearly important in your universe, and I’d like to you tell us about that.
That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me, there are two wonderful themes involved.
One is the theme of the ghost, because for the phantasmagorical machine I based the idea on an Argentinian author called Bioy Casares and hisThe Invention of Morel. In that story, Morel is a scientist who falls in love with Faustina, and since she doesn’t love him, he invents a machine which will absorb her spirit, record it, and later, in a phantasmagorical island, reproduce it eternally… but the machine turns out to kill the people it has filmed, and so Morel commits suicide by filming himself together with Faustine, thus ending up on this island where every day the same scene is repeated, featuring these two ghosts. But the story really begins when another man arrives on the island, falls in love with the ghost of Faustine, learns to work the machine and then films himself while Faustine is gazing at the sea. So he too commits suicide in order to remain in the paradise of Faustine’s consciousness.
This is a hallucinatory theme, and I was fascinated by the desire of a man who kills himself in order to inhabit the consciousness of the woman he loves, even though the woman in question is actually a ghost!
And the other question… on irony. Most of the machines I construct in the book are fatuous failures and mistakes: those who want to change time end up meeting themselves as corpses, those who want to invent a machine for becoming immortal drop dead instantly and end up in an eternal limbo… I like talking about ghosts but also about failed adventures, as metaphors for life, because in real life every adventure is a failure… except for this journey to Italy, which has turned out to absolutely wonderful!
A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a fragment of a conversation in which you, Claudio, argued that the drawing and the word are not really so different, that the apparent distance between logos and image is fictional, which is why you use both things to express your meaning. You use them like two parallel rail tracks, in the same way, and this is also evident through the way that in your books the texts too have a painterly visual shape, and if it weren’t for the pristine paper of this edition, we might think we were looking at a fantastical encyclopedia from two or three centuries ago.
So, I wanted to ask a last question on this subject, perhaps the most banal question, which resembles the one always asked of songwriter-singers (which comes first, the words or the music?)… but do your visions emerge firstly from the drawing paper and only later do you form a kind of explicative text? Or do they emerge as stories from the beginning?
If I had to define myself, I’d say I was a drawing animal. All the books I have created were planned and drawn firstly, and the conceptual idea was generated by the image. Because I’m not really a writer, I never have been. I didn’t want to write this book either, only to draw it, but Lina [the editor] forced me to write it! I said to her, Lina, I have a friend who is fantastic with words, and she replied in a dictatorial tone: I’m not interested. I want you to write it. And today I’m grateful to her for that.
I always start from the drawing, always, always…
Among all the artists adressing the liminal zones of obscenity and taboo, few have explored the Unheimliche in all its variations with Toshio Saeki’s precision.
Born in 1945 in Miyazaki prefecture, he moved to Osaka when he was 4 years old and then landed in Tokyo at 24, right when the sex industry was booming. After a few months in a publicity agency, Saeki decided to focus exclusively on adult illustration. His drawings were published on Heibon Punch and other magazines, and slowly gained international interest. Today, after 40 years of activity, Toshio Saeki is among the most praised japanese erotic artists, with solo exhibitions even outside Japan — in Paris, London, Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco and Toronto.
For Saeki, art — like fantasy — cannot and should not know any limit.
In spite of the sulfurous nature of his drawings, he had surprisingly little trouble with censorship: apart from some “warning” notified by the police to the magazines featuring his plates, Saeki never experienced true pressions because of his work. And this is understandable if we take into account the cultural context, because his work, although modern, is deeply rooted in tradition.
As the critic Erick Gilbert put it, “if you look at Saeki’s art outside of its cultural sphere, you may be troubled by its violence. But once you go inside that cultural sphere, you know that this violence is well-understood, that ‘it’s only lines on paper,’ to quote cartoonist Robert Crumb. This extreme imagery of Japanese artists, and their characteristic need to go as far as possible, can be traced several centuries back to the so-called bloody ukiyo-e of the 19th century“.
To fully understand Toshio Saeki, it’s essential to look back to the muzan-e, a bloody subgenre of prints (ukiyo) which appeared around the half of ‘800, drawn by masters such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. This latter created the Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, in which he depicted all sorts of atrocities and violent deaths, taken from the news or from the stories of Kabuki theater. Here are some examples of Yoshitoshi’s extreme production.
Other muzan-e, often particularly cruel, were drawn by Utagawa Yoshiiku, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and more marginally Hokusai; this current would then influence the more recent generation of artists and mangaka interested in developing the themes of ero guro – eroticism contaminated by surreal, bizarre, grotesque and crooked elements. Among the contemporary most prominent figures, Shintaro Kago and the great (and hyper-violent) Suehiro Maruo stand out.
So our Toshio Saeki is in good company, as he mixes the solid tradition of muzan-e with classical figures of japanese demons, bringing to the surface the erotic tension already hidden in ancient plates, making it both explicit and obsessive.
His work is a visionary maelstrom in which sex and torture are inseparable, where erotic pulsion is intertwined with frenzy and psychopatology. The manic intensity of his illustrations, however, is coupled with a formal and stylish elegance, which cools down and crystallizes the nightmare: his prints are not created on the spot, because this precise refinement points to a deep study of the image.
“Often they are connected with nightmares I had as a child, or extreme fantasies of my youth. These images made an impression on me, and I exaggerate them until they become those works that seem to have such a stong impact on the viewer“, declared the artist. These visions are carefully considered by Saeki, before he puts them on paper. For this reason his work looks like some sort of cartography of the further limits of erotic fantasy, those fringes where desire ultimately transforms into cupio dissolvi and cupio dissolvere (the desire to be annihilated, and to annihilate).
But, for all their shocking power, Saeki’s paitings are always just dreams. “Leave other people to draw seemingly beautiful flowers that bloom within a nice, pleasant-looking scenery. I try instead to capture the vivid flowers that sometimes hide and sometimes grow within a shameless, immoral and horrifying dream. […] Let’s not forget that the images I draw are fictional“.
And, again: “The important thing, to me, is awakening the viewer’s sensitiviy. I don’t care if he is a bigot or not. I want to give him the sensation that in his life — basically a secure and ordinary existence — there might be “something wrong”. Then hopefully the observer could discover a part of himself he did not know was there”.
Quotes appearing in this post are taken from: here, here and here.
For a deeper treatise on muzan-e, here’s an article (in Italian) on the wonderful website Kainowska.