Monday, November 20, 2006

(61) chronology: 1520

The combination of ears and knife might also have been fairly easy to read as a European hieroglyph for speech, similar to the artist R.B. Kitaj’s cover design for John R. Searle, Speech Acts. On the cover of an anthology of letters from Subcomandante Marcos, Desde las montañas del sureste mexicano, negative connotations have disappeared altogether.

(60) chronology: 1520

The mnemonic/translation for 2-Flint/ome tecpatl in The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias is a European style knife. It might have been confusing for Spanish speakers that the word tecpatl can mean flint (pedernal), a knife (cuchillo), or a day or year, but not extremely confusing since there are flint knives in the Bible. The problem seems to be that whereas in a European language “flint knife” only calls to mind a vague image since knives are no longer made of flint, a tecpatl or a picture of one sometimes had a face with eyes and teeth, and looked like a fish when turned sideways. A translation into Nahuatl would have had to go from a fairly neutral word to one loaded with unknown connotations. The image in The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias translating the glyph tecpatl to a picture of a knife is relatively simple.
On the other hand in the twentieth century the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhorn found the idea of using the same Navajo word for an old arrowhead, a new knife, and metal complicated enough to warrant a diagram with both words and pictures. (The page shown here is from the 1974 paperback edition of The Navaho.)

(59) counting and measuring time

The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias differs from many vanitas images in the sense that it does not include much in the way of images of time measuring, for instance clocks and hourglasses, although it does include images of pain that would increase over time, fruit that could go bad, boats that could capsize, etc. The emphasis is on counting time, with two daytime scenes and one night scene. The obvious link is to Genesis where time is marked by days (defined as evening and morning, Appellavitque lucem Diem, et tenebras Noctem: factumque est vespere et mane, dies unus). There is also musical notation in the right panel, which also seems to relate to counting time. There is a complex series of images relating to the Jewish calendar, which involves counting days and full moons, and there is a series of images marking years in an eccentric version of Nahuatl picture writing. The explanations will be long and complicated both for the Jewish calendar and the Nahuatl annals, both of which seem to be memory systems devised for learning and recalling, but it seems worth noting at the start that the point seems to have been to emphasize and facilitate translating one into the other. Measuring time in terms of hours or even relative age (as in the steadily decaying books in the painting by Jan Lievens) could come later.

There are also publication dates, of which the most striking is the 1492 publication of Nebrija’s Gramática de la lengua castellana, represented by a hieroglyph that Nebrija described in the text. These are helpful for establishing the date of the triptych, although in some instances the artist might have known about a book that was not yet published, and it is also interesting that printed title pages that include years of publication are not very dissimilar to Nahuatl annals. A title page often includes some sort of picture, and a year in Roman or Arabic numerals, and title pages might have seemed less peculiarly European than the rest of the book.

(58) Pearls Before Swine and Metallica

Art historians have not focused much on war, or on war and health, or religion and health, ceding the larger view of things to singer-songwriters and rock stars. In Tom Rapp’s first Pearls Before Swine album, One Nation Underground (1967), the image on the album cover seems to have to do with antiwar themes that were expressed much more blandly in the lyrics (“I shall have peace as leafy trees are peaceful”). But like The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias, the lyrics also contain a code,
Dit Dit Dah Dit
Dit Dit Dah
Dah Dit Dah Dit
Dah Dit Dah

It was notorious at the time since
'…It got Murray the K in trouble.’
The New York deejay played ‘(Oh Dear) Miss Morse’ on AM radio. It turned out that very few people knew Morse code, but among them was every Boy Scout in America. (Washington Post)

The video of Metallica’s “Until It Sleeps” (1996; originally on the 1996 album Load, and also on a compilation DVD to be released in December, 2006) includes images adapted from The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias, and since the band is well known there is an explanation that goes beyond the lyrics by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich to say that the song has to do with Hetfield’s father dying of cancer and refusing medical treatment because of his religious beliefs.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

(57) vanitas

Here is where the question of the “viewer” seems to have to be considered, since to any reasonable person it seems cold and harsh for “vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes: vanity of vanities, and all is vanity)” to be the major theme of a history painting representing the conquest of Mexico. It seems likely that this is the reason that there is no surviving Dutch commentary on the tapestries based on The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias that were completed in the Netherlands in the 1560s for two successive governors. The tapestries were in the style of a Dutch artist and seemed to prioritize sunbathing and fruit eating over thinking about events in Mexico or the 1527 sack of Rome, with the implication that northern artists and perhaps by extension the rest of the population took a frivolous view of things.

Although there is as far as I know no record of Juana la Loca having received the original triptych, the bizarre iconography would have made some sense in terms of her circumstances when she was living at Tordesillas, since she was criticized for neglecting her health to the point of refusing to eat, but was also observed on occasion to be lucid and rational, and she had been reputed to be well educated and intelligent as a girl. It would have been reasonable to focus on health first, then news of the world.

A famous biombo represents similar ideas in a different way, where the rebuilt city on one side of the screen obviously comes after the war shown on the other side.

Friday, November 03, 2006

(56) vanitas and books

The art history library at UC Berkeley is like a vanitas still life, with a clock visible through the window next to graduate students' shelves for books relating to projects they are trying to complete. The campanile is used for storing fossils from the La Brea tar pits, and when there is a special lecture there are wine, bread, bottled water, and grapes or strawberries, and there are people with and without gray hair, and the uncomfortable chairs seen in the picture at the left. During a lecture, with the lights out in order to show slides, it is impossible to read the books, and the wine is usually not opened until after the lecture.
The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias predates the typical vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century, which makes it more difficult to see as an illustration of the book of Ecclesiastes, but it is really simpler. The center panel has to do with enjoying life in the present since it is soon followed by death, shown in the right panel. In the seventeenth century paintings the idea that "Of making many books there is no end: and much study is an affliction of the flesh" (Ecclesiastes 12:12) is expressed by painted books where the pages can never be turned, and in The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias there is practically no end to the books illustrated and the time it would take to explain all the allusions to books. The triptych's organization is reminiscent of hypertext as seen in libraries, systems for memory, concordances, and commentaries. The obscurity of the references to books serves a purpose, which is to remind the viewer that it would be better to do something like go outdoors and eat strawberries.
At the same time, the books illustrated in The Garden of Delights/El Jardín de las Delicias have become obscure for various reasons, including the destruction of books in New Spain. The artist was so successful at conveying the idea of "nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:10) that the triptych has been regarded as the work of Hieronymus Bosch, who died before Europeans arrived on the mainland, which means that the attempt to convey that studying Nahuatl books was wearisome has not even been noticed. The detail is interesting since it seems to shed some light on the interactions between Europeans and Indians, as seen from the artist's perspective.
(see here later for a note on how the foregoing comments follow José de Sigüenza's chapter on the paintings in the Escorial)

Thursday, November 02, 2006