Tuesday, 29 December 2015

2016 year of the Monkey

According to the Chinese Calender 2016 will be the year of the Monkey.

Japanese Monkeys enjoying the warm water of a hot Spring

Monkeys are renowned for their intelligence, naughtiness and ability to imitate, this has led artists to make pictures of monkeys as being like a society of hairy little people. 

The Sleeping Pedlar robbed by Monkeys  Bruegel the Elder 1562
Some people will tell you apes, which have no tails, are not monkeys, others think apes are part of the monkey family.  Of the two ape is the older word, it comes of unknown origin and has been used widely across northern Europe;

old English : apa,
proto Germanic : apo
Dutch : aap
Icelandic : Api.  

It is a bit of a riddle to know how the word Monkey arrived into the English vernacular.  The word is particular to the English and was already common in Shakespeare's day. (monkies and monkeys : Macbeth and Othello).  The leading theory is that is was imported in the 14th century with either German or Romance translations of a poem called Reynard the Fox where there is a character called Martin the Ape who has a son called Moneke.   This pushes back to new question; why did Martin called his son Moneke?  Here the story gets very murky but there are interesting and thorough explanations here.
Searching Google for images I could not find a neolithic representation of a monkey but there are plenty  Bronze age artworks depicting apes and monkeys, amongst the earliest is this Bactrian Bronze Monkey seal 2,500 - 1,900BC.

Bactrian Bronze Monkey Seal
2500 BC - 1900 BC

Under volcanic ash on the Minoan island of Thera (1650- 1500 BC) they discovered rooms decorated with friezes of blue monkeys with tails.

Minoan fresco of Blue Monkeys 1650 - 1500BC

The Minoans were seafaring nation that traded with the Egyptians.  They would have been familiar with the many Egyptian artworks featuring apes and monkeys, like this pretty blue amulet from the reign of the heretical Pharaoh Akhenarten  1350 - 1335BC

Brooklyn Museum. Egyptian
Blue glazed Faience
from Amarna  1335BC

and the Egyptians also revered a dog faced baboon. that they called Thoth who was more often depicted as an ibis.

Thoth in the British Museum (1400 BC)

A thousand years later the seafaring Phoneticians are shown bearing tribute of a pair of tailed monkeys to the Assyrian kings in Nimrud

Assyrian 365-360 BC British Museum
Monkeys can be found in the art of many civilisations across the world.  This huge Peruvian Nazca image of a monkey (500 BC - 500 AD) is  90 meters across and only visible the air or the tops of surrounding hills and mountains.

The Hindus call their monkey god Hanuman and say he was a reincarnation of Shiva the god of destruction

The Indian monkey god Hanuman

The Chinese have a numerous stories about a rebellious monkey king called Sun Wukong who defied and challenged the gods of both heaven and hell. Sun Wukong was also a shape-shifter who could transform himself into the form of other animals but was unable to shape shift his tail which was a give away.  This ancient Chinese personality has survived into modern pop culture; if you Google Sun Wukong you will find thousands of manga style pictures of a superhero with a monkey tail.

Sun Wukong shape-shifted into a human superhero with a monkey tail

In the Buddhist Shinto tradition of Japan monkeys were messengers of the gods that hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil.  

Monkeys on the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō (Japan)

and four whimsical twelfth century Japanese scrolls known as Choju-giga are filled with charming drawings of rabbits, frogs and monkeys impersonating the lives of people.

The Choju-giga scrolls - heree the Monkey is a thief
At about the same time the Christian monks in Europe were having almost identical fantasies of worlds populated with people-impersonating animals.  The monks often illustrated the margins of illuminated manuscripts with doodles of what was going on in these imaginary animal kingdoms of the mind. There were fierce man killing rabbits with bows and arrows that brought wicked men to trial.

Rabbits bring a man to trial from Smithfield Decretals of Gregory IX (English c. 1300)
 and warrior snails that fought with knights

Smithfield Decretals (English c. 1300)

Monkeys also appear defending amongst their doodlings; here they are defending their castles from the warrior snails  Copenhagen Chansonnier (15th century).

Monkeys fighting Snails Copenhagen Chansonnier (15th century).
Monkeys ride into battle on the backs of birds

monkey from the Rutland Psalter 1260 British Museum
and and it was not uncommon to put monkeys on the backs of goats because both animals represented lasciviousness.  This goat has a golden scrotum

1315 - 1325 Baltimore Museum

we find monkeys looking after kittens

Book of Hours 1400s Koninklijke Biblotheek
and swinging on ropes

Hours of Saint-Omer, France ca. 1320
Medieval monks were schooled in a world where images of animals were ascribed special meaning and moral reason, for example, the pelican, which was believed to tear open its breast to bring its young to life with its own blood, was a living representation of Jesus

A Pelican as imagined by the Medieval mind (Museum Meermanno)

The monks created a Bestiarum vocabulum which was used as an illustrated description of the creations by God.   Many of the allegorical tales had roots in ancient classical stories with a gloss of Christian morality. This is how the Author of the Aberdeen Bestiary described the purpose behind his paintings:  "It is my intention to paint a picture of the dove, whose wings are sheathed in silver and whose tail has the pale colour of gold (see Psalms, 68:13). In painting this picture I intend to improve the minds of ordinary people, in such a way that their soul will at least perceive physically things which it has difficulty in grasping mentally; that what they have difficulty comprehending with their ears, they will perceive with their eyes."

Apes had a bad reputation amongst the monks.  The place of apes in God's universe was often illustrated using the sad classic story from Aesops fables about a mother of two children that is running from hunters; the child the mother loves most is held close to her tummy whilst the one she hates clings on her back.  As she tires she drops the one she loves and is left holding only the one she hates. 

The tailless ape was equated with Satan who began as an angel in heaven, but "lost his tail, because he will perish totally at the end".  It was also believed that the devil would carry unwilling souls in front of him so that he could tease them on the way to hell .  My interpretation (maybe wrong) is that the hunter is forcing the ape to drop the good child that rightfully belongs to God, whilst the wicked child that willingly clung to the devil's back was to be taken away to the damnation of  Hell.

Another story the monks loved to illustrate used the apes love of imitation to destroy it;  The hunter would take of his shoes and put them on again several times and then leave a shoe on the ground.  Hidden behind a bush the hunter would then wait until a luckless ape came and started to put the shoe on and off.  The ape could be caught before it could take off the boot and escape.

The medieval period eventually gave way to the renaissance.  Monkeys in 16th century art and portraiture often symbolized uncontrollable passion and desires.  The pet monkey in this image of Katherine of Aragon, the soon to be discarded first wife of Henry VIII,  is used to send a message to her husband King Henry VIII.

Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout

The monkey holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed.

Northern European Artists like Jan van Kessel left behind the religious art of the middle ages and embraced a type of art that made detailed studies of nature that could be enjoyed for their realism and brilliant acuity

Jan van Kessel, Study of Birds and Monkeys, c. 1660-1670
In new forms of painting monkeys were sometimes included as decorative objects that showed off the artists techniques and were enjoyed for their beauty alone.

Adriaen van Utrecht (Antwerp 1646)

Jan Kessels son Ferdinand was one of the first to move on from simple observation loved by his father into a world of social commentary and frivolity 

Ferdinand van Kessel 1648-1696, The Painting Monkey
and new age arrived in which artist monkeys became the rage.

The Monkey Antiquarian (1740) by a follower of Chardin
The shock of Charles Darwin's book the Decent of Man (1871) brought an abrupt seriousness back to our attitudes towards monkeys.

An 1871 Caracture of Darwin witht eh body of an ape
The age of reason had become the age of science and technology.  The frivolity never really disappeared and political commentary through cartoons became very important in the complex social world of the 19th century, but the joke about monkeys became tempered with knowledge; the reason monkeys behave like us is that we are monkeys ourselves. 

Artist could also contribute towards the world of science and technology by providing visual catalogues of species.  

1984 book plate featuring the following Old World Monkeys

Throughout history art had been centre stage but by the middle of the twentieth century it was losing its status to the new glossy world of Science and technology.  Illustrators were replaced with photographers and art needed to find a new role that mirrored the intellect and importance of science.

Artists like Picasso looked urgently around for new ways to expressing the world, they wanted the new Art, now spelt with a capital A, to be progressive like science.  At first Picasso's efforts, like his sculpture called Baboon and Young (1951), seemed to answer the search.   Newspapers began writing of "modern art" and it seemed as if Art had a vibrant future, but was the sculpture about monkeys or was it about being new, innovative and progressive?  Had the significance of the monkey been lost to the gimmick of newness?

Baboon and Young 1951 by Picasso

As Picasso himself wryly observed when he saw the 30,000 year old cave paintings at Chavau " “We have invented nothing!”  he might have added that words like "invention" and  "Modern" are rightly applied to science but not to art.  The combination of "Modern" and "Art" was oxymoronic.   Art is always changing and moving on, it did not need Picasso or celebrity artists to reinvent a role in the age of science because art is always in us all.  Art always changes, it will always assimilates new technologies and it always have fresh messages.  Art never dies because it is as natural and vital to our social world as breathing and eating are to our physical presence.

Yes we are monkeys ourselves, but when we look at monkeys we are not looking at ourselves.  We differentiate ourselves from all our cousins through the evolution of one aspect of our minds; wherever our species exist so do complex languages with syntax and art.  These two features give us an innate ability to communicate our inner feelings and thoughts, from this ability we are able to find new sorts of empathy and even stand back and laugh at our own ridiculousness.


I think have written enough and I have to prepare for New Year.  Thank you for your support during 2015 and Happy New Year and !



Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Trocks


The Trocks

Recently a ballet friend called Brian (AKA "La plus celebre du monde") told me he was was teaching the Trockaderos whilst they were on tour of the UK.  I begged him to arrange an opportunity for me to draw their class and rehearsals, last weekend my wish was granted and I spent two happy afternoons and evenings watching this extraordinary ballet company at work.

If you do not already know who "the Trocks" are you must watch this video:

The all male company were formed in the1970s and have a strong following amongst ballet fans who appreciate both their wit and their classical technique.  Before arriving I wrote to the director, Tory Dobrin, telling him how important this opportunity was for me because I have always been influenced by the works of  Japanese Ukiyo-e (Fleeting Floating World) artists who in the 18- 19th centuries made idealised portraits of the beautiful courtesans in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto and Edo.

Utamaro was a master at idealised beauty

I explained that there was one Ukiyo-e artist who is an enigma, he went his own individual way and became known for uncompromising characterisations of the Kabuki actor-dancers who were masters of impersonating women on stage. His name was Sharaku.
Sharaku (active 1794 - 1795) 
This is the great Kabuki dancer Tamasaporo who has perfected the female role in a theatrical tradition where woman are forbidden to go on stage.

I got a fairly instant response "Please keep in mind, we do not do female impersonation....we portray Ballerinas on stage with an eye to the fact we are men doing these roles in costumes and wigs, make up etc...but we are not trying to impersonate females". Tory's interesting response has occupied my mind a lot and is a good start point for this blog posting.

On the first day I watched the class and rehearsals from the wings.  This was a mistake because I was too close and could not see the wonderful line that is a product of their technique.  My drawings reflected my difficulties. The second day was better because I had watched them on stage the evening before and I took a better position from which to study their movements

This study is of a very tall dancer with bony features called Josh.  He was very friendly and interested in what I was doing so we became friends.

He used his long limbs to make very flamboyant feminine movements and liked using his hands.  On stage he was a natural comic.


and Josh leads an equally colourful life off stage, here he is visiting Stonehenge

Alberto is another characterful dancer.  He was slender, naturally elegant and feminine.  When people like this enter a room everyone is aware of their personality.  I think Sharaku would have loved him as a subject, for a few hours he was mine to draw.

This dancer was manly

This dancer had brilliant jumps

Tory's letter had intimated that it is not their maleness that makes the Trocks different from other ballet companies, it is their determination to be themselves.  This is a picture of the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancing the cygnets, each dancer is chosen for their perfection; brilliant technique, beauty and height.  They are chosen to fit together in perfect harmony

Birmingham Ballet Dance of the cygnets.  Photos Bill Cooper
Here are the Trocks having fun with the same dance

Here are the Trocks having fun with the same dance

The Trocks are a group of individuals being themselves

and this has benefits we can all learn from.  One dancer was very striking, his name is Philip Martin-Nielson.  He is not tall, maybe even slightly stocky, he had a mop of thick blond hair that he held in place with a large plastic hair clip.

Philip Martin-Nielson

I never managed to make a drawing that captured his perfect pointed extensions and neat feminine steps.  He danced the role of Odette, the swan maiden who bewitches Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. 

Philip was born in New York and...."at the age of three was diagnosed as profoundly autistic – unable to speak, make eye contact with others or focus on the simplest task. He was so severely withdrawn that doctors and therapists warned his mother that there was little chance of him ever leading an independent life."  His life has been managed and developed through ballet "the first time he told his mother he wanted to dance was one of the first, halting verbal communications he’d been able to make."......"Now that terrible early diagnosis seems impossible to believe. Charming, smiling and candid, it’s only the occasional hesitancy over an expression or a choice of word that betrays any sense that language was ever a problem". 

I would add that Philip's acting is a feast of facial expressions and body language.  In his off stage life he has "a nightlife alter ego" that he calls Mariette Moure.  

Dancers like Philip are being themselves, and this exemplifies the culture from which his dance company has grown and flourished.

The Trocks appear to mock the perfection of the Royal Ballet, but perhaps they have a different message, perhaps they are saying we are too quick to label our differences as difficulties; we atomise our view of people around us into men and women, we point out when they have "autism, dyslexia or dyspraxia".  When we do this we fail to celebrate the breadth of our humanity and our spirit's ability to find it's own perfection and reconciliation with the world.

I think I understand why Tory was so keen to tell me the Trocks are not impersonators, I also think the enigma of Sharaku's independence of spirit belongs with their view of the world.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Grand Tour Of Italy

These are a selection of drawings made during our 9 day trip to Italy.  For the first five days we shared a villa in hills near Massa Lubrense which is a few miles west of Sorrento.

On the first day our friends wanted to "chill out", fortunately the villa was surrounded with things that I wanted to draw, like this ancient olive tree
Ancient Olive tree

and this pot plant

and this delicate sedge

The temperatures were in the mid twenties and there were plenty of lizards that darted across the stones and rustled amongst the leaves.  I found that if I sat still long enough they would return and watch me back
Green lizard on leaf

 and there was even a gecko which sat on the wall at night

Our spacious villa had been built by the owner farmer in his olive and lemon grove.  He had put all his passion into decorating the bedrooms with brightly coloured friezes of mermaids and Romans.

There was even a Roman in a tree guarding the entrance.

Strangely his eccentric tastes fitted well with the history and personality of the landscape.
After we had settled in we took the car down winding roads to a fishing village built on cliff edges.  Massa Lubrense has a pretty harbour which is reached by walking down a steep-stepped ally between pretty fisherman's cottages that are now mostly uninhabited (take a look if you are wanting a to buy a holiday home in Italy).  The main square of the town is well kept and thriving.

Massa Lubrense

The following day we tried to go to Pompeii but took a wrong turning and ended up driving the length of the coastal road that winds along cliff edges through towns that cling to the south side of the Almalfi peninsular.  I chose this picture because it shows the narrow road we travelled along as well as the extreme beauty of the scenery, it took us three hours to travel 50km.

By the time we arrived at Pompeii and had something to eat it was already too late to visit the ruins. The next day we used the direct route and reached Pompeii at 9.30 am, my friends took a tour of Vesuvius whilst I  drew the bell tower in the main square.

Bell tower in Pompeii

The bell tower (1925) stands more than 80 metres high and is built in grey granite and white marble.  Next to the tower is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rosary which was completed in 1901.

The church is a work of spirit

Inside the air was filled with music and a beautiful tenor voice.  Standing discreetly to one side I  made these drawings of a marriage ceremony that was taking place.  The newly married couple, Carlo and Maria-Rosa Rosso, also had a baby that was brought to the alter and blessed.  In the front pew were two brides maids who flitted between their parents and the bride.

The square has an impressive collection of palm trees under which old people sit on park benches

After lunch we entering the ruins of Pompeii.  The ruins are vast and badly signed.  Mami and I eventually settled in the cool of a Roman bath house where the walls were covered with images of water, like this relief of a cherub and dolphin

Cherub and Dolphin - Bath house Pompeii

and this hippocampus (Seahorse)

hippocampus in the bath house Pompeii

Through images like these it was possible to imagine the spirit of the people who lived there.

The following day we took a boat from Sorrento to Naples.  As we were leaving the harbour I drew this image of the rocks of Sorrento.


An impressive castle overlooks the port where we docked,

Castel Nuovo Napoli

inside the walls are museums and galleries where I drew this Madonna.


there are also many attractive architectural details, whilst I was drawing this portico a group of guests arrived  in chic Italian clothes and gathered round the door for a wedding about to take place inside the castle. 

Wedding Guests at the Castel Nuovo

Our trip in Naples was cut short because we had to catch an early boat back to Sorrento.  We only had time for a quick lunch and brief walk through the bustling streets of "Old Naples".  For me  the city was an artists paradise but not for my companions who were disappointed by the graffiti that cover the walls and alleyways that are littered with excrement and broken glass.   Sadly we never stopped long enough for me to draw the beautiful lamp posts, architecture and vibrant street life, I only managed one quickly scribbled sketch of an equestrian statue.

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

Sorrento is the opposite to Naples.  In the summer months it's native populations is swollen with beautiful people from all over the world who come to inhabit the coffee bars and restaurants.

Cafe bar in Sorrento
This is where I drew and met an elegant German man, Stephan Nouss who was sipping coffee with his Italian boyfriend and a spaniel on his lap.

Stephan Nouss

This is pretty waitress who served us called Imma


and this is a sketch of the road down to the port

road down to Sorrento harbour

Here is a view from the harbour

In the main Square of Sorrento (Tasso Square) I came across was a statue of a monk with his foot on the head of a fish, the plaque told me the statue used to be on an arch over the city gates and represented the "Protettore di Sorrento".

Walking just a few yards down a side street I found another square with another statue of a monk with his foot on a fish

Saint Antonino in Sorrento

This time I learnt the name of the mysterious protector; St Antonino.   The Statue faced a church, this is how statues guided me to the Basilica of St Antonino, patron saint of Sorrento.

St Antonino was born in Campagna and died in Sorrento in 625.   Around the upper pediments that rim the interior of the church are a series of pictures depicting the many miracles St Antonino performed in Sorrento, the most famous being the delivery of a child from the mouth of a whale.

St Antonino was a favourite for seafarers who have honoured him by placing these whale bones at the entrance of the Basilica.

In another miracle he rubbed oil to heal the leg of a the Bishop of Sorrento after he had fallen off a donkey.   The church offer holy oil to pilgrims who visit St Antonino's tomb in the crypt,

St Antonino's tomb in Sorrento
the oil is taken by dipping your hand into a jar at the back of the shrine.

Pilgrims who are healed by the oil record their gratitude by placing silver plaques around the shrine.  It seems the oil is particularly good for healing legs.

but he also heals diseases of the lungs, hearts and minds.

Alas our day at Sorrento was our last on the Almalfi Peninsular, the next day we travelled to a film festival with Alberto who was waiting to be picked up from Naples airport. The drive North took 12 hours.  In the unindustrialised South driving seemed like a social dance, even in Naples there are often no traffic lights or rights of way at major junctions, driving was about nudging and giving way. In contrast the motorways of the north are clogged with lorries and competitive drivers that came up behind us and flashed to move us aside. 

It was dark and raining when we arrived at our destination which was an Alpine house in the Sud Tyrol, area on the border with Austria where the local population speak German as their first language.  The rich land in valley is covered with vineyards and apple trees.

Getting up early I went outside to look at our location, we were on a small holding high in the mountains.  The clouds shifted across the valley below us.

The panoramic view was like a cinema screen, the picture always moving between thick white fog and shards of sunshine so hot they burnt the skin.  Sometimes when the mist parted and I could see a church in a village below us

Church in the clouds

The countryside felt very alive.  Out of the mist I could hear the sound of bells on languid animals.  The owner of our house had chickens and a cockerel, three cats that mewed and a caged rabbit with black eyes. I saw jays and heard  blackbirds, finches, great tits and the peeping squeaks of families of goldcrests and long tailed tits in the trees about me.  On the meadow Alpine flowers were still blooming

in amongst purple Alpine plantains and grasses unknown to me.

Against trees and posts were collections of tools for scratching the earth, scythes for cutting crops, pole ladders for collecting apples.

the owner obviously appreciated nature, he had placed bird boxes for blue tits.

After breakfast we went down to the valley to a food festival that was taking place in Kaltern, a neighbouring town.  The rich sun baked valley around Kaltern is covered with neatly tended vineyards (the highest in Europe) and apple groves (10%  of Europe's apples are grown in this region).  The culture and food festival was very German; Apple strudel, beer, tidy, geraniums, reserved warmth, there was little of untidiness and informal friendliness we had seen in Souther Italy. |


Drinking in Kaltern
The Fountain in Kaltern

Even the smallest village had beautiful well kept churches,

and perched on rocks are impressive ruins of castles

In the evening we went to the film festival that was being held in old railway station.  The film Alberto was showing is about Mami's dancing, it was shot in black and white celluloid and only 90 seconds long.  Before we went in we had bowls of pumpkin soup amongst groups of  film makers

and slightly dishevelled men

who looked as if they might be chatting about Sartre with their intellectual girlfriends

and for five minutes Mami was dressed like a film star and drinking delicious local wine

It was an exhilarating way to end our holiday.  The film was well received and is going to be shown again at festivals in Barcelona and California