Trip Report: Silent Partners

Yesterday, we went to the Fitzwilliam Musem to see their “Silent Partners” exhibition, which is about artists’ mannequins, and is, as you might expect, pure high-octane nightmare fuel.

Just to give you an idea, the exhibit — which is more or less chronological in its structure — opens with a print of this goddamn thing:


That is “Smugglerius,” and that is a cast of the body of a person — a smuggler, probably — who was hanged, then flayed, posed to look like this:

That's "The Dying Gaul," and it's completely fucked in its own right.
That’s “The Dying Gaul,” and it’s completely fucked in its own right.

— and then used to teach art students anatomy. Which is among the nicer things people could think of to do with the bodies of their fellow sinners back in those days.

So we’re into weird territory right from the start, and we’re going to firmly stay there. Of course, it’s not hard to make mannequins creepy. Anything that resembles a human but clearly isn’t is unnerving, but there are limits. This is “Child Number 98,” a mannequin that we know was rented from a London “colourman” by John Everett Millais (they have the shop’s book on display showing the dates of the rentals):

'Child No 98'.

Now, that’s fucking creepy, but with the head off, so that you can see the big column/tentacle of faux-flesh that supports it, it looks like a more perverted Pyramid Head from Silent Hill.

What’s interesting is that the exhibition really acknowledges this. In the later stages, it gets into dolls and fashion mannequins as well as artists’ mannequins. One of the dolls is an Edison Talking Doll, and the plaque explains that the doll’s “disembodied, sepulchral voice” made it unpopular with children. There’s even a little recording, although for some reason it wasn’t working when we were there. See if you agree with the analysis.

When you’ve got sections of your exhibition called “Silenced Partners” or “Finding the Bodies,” that’s called leaning in.

I thought that some of the exploration of the social history of the mannequin was really interesting. Consider this image, The Black Brunswicker by the aforementioned John Everett Millais.

wgl100299So, the deal here is that it would have been totally inappropriate for the models (Charles Dickens’s daughter and some guardsman) to stand so close together, even, oh God, touching, for the hours it would take the painter. So Millais painted each of them posing against a mannequin and put them together.

I figure that gives it the necessary historical context to make it a blogworthy thing, right? But there’s much more that we didn’t have time to see, or that I don’t know enough to talk about. It’s definitely worth seeing, though — it’s informative, it’s creepy as anything. It’s on until 16 January, so if you get some time over the holiday I recommend you check it out.


Also this goddamn thing is in there what the fuck museum.

Trip Report: Silent Partners

Trip report: Witches and Wicked Bodies

As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I were in London last weekend, so after going to the V&A on Saturday we met up with friend Abi to go to the “Witches and wicked bodies” exhibit at the British Museum. This is another little one-roomer, and it’s mostly prints, posters, handbills, and books — that is, what-you-might-call-art rather than the artefacts you’d normally find in the BM. It covers the period from about 1450 to about 1900, with a few classical bits and pieces to show that witches aren’t just a late-medieval and later concept.

The main thrust is to show the evolving depiction of the witch, presumably as it goes hand in hand with evolving conceptions of the witch. And that is interesting — I’ll come back to it in a second. But there’s also just a lot of interesting art in this exhibit. I don’t know much about art, but it’s creepy and evocative.

Hans Baldung, Bewitched Groom, 1544 I think? That horse looks like a horse that just kicked someone, all right.
Hans Baldung, Bewitched Groom, 1544 I think? That horse looks like a horse that just kicked someone, all right.
Daniel Hapfer, Three witches beating a devil. I didn't write down the date. "Gib Frid" apparently means "uncle."
Daniel Hopfer, Three witches beating a devil. 1505-36. “Gib Frid” apparently means “uncle.”

A lot of this art is German, which is interesting because Germany in the 17th century is Witch Panic Central. This Daniel Hopfer piece is earlier than the majority of witch freakouts, but it’s definitely from an era in which people believed in witches. But witches are both serious business and a suitable object for comedy devil-beating images.

Martin Schongauer, St Anthony Tormented by Demons. That demon in the bottom right is just having a grand old time, but the one with the big nose on the left looks concerned.
Martin Schongauer, St Anthony Tormented by Demons. That demon in the bottom right is just having a grand old time, but the one with the big nose on the left looks concerned.

During the age of the witch trials, things get a little weird. Like, this broadside, “Witchcraft in Trier,” is from around 1600 — the Trier witch trials ended in about 1593. And it is a fascinating piece; clearly the product of genuine fear and horror and fascination. I can sit here and smile at it and go “man, that’s fucked up.” But it’s also a legacy of a really scary event that lead to hundreds of deaths.

The card next to this piece told me that a) Anonymous German lived from 1473 to 1531, and b) that this piece is from around 1600. I think a) is very likely to be wrong.

Or check out Matthaus Merian I’s “Witchcraft,” from 1626:


But I think that my favourite part of the whole exhibit was this Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jacques Callot (1635). I don’t think it is easy to see how Saint Anthony would be tempted by a giant goddamn dragon spewing other dragons out of its mouth or an armoured goblin shooting some kind of monstrous lion-cannon thing, but what do I know? Perhaps it’s a tribulation rather than a temptation.


Then you get into a later period and people start viewing witches in a more symbolic light.

Richard Earlom (after David Teniers): "The Witch." Late 18th/early 19th c, I can't remember. But check out that Cerberus. My wife pointed out to me that he is like a dachsund. I call him Derperus.
Richard Earlom (after David Teniers): “The Witch.” Late 18th/early 19th c, I can’t remember. But check out that Cerberus. My wife pointed out to me that he is like a dachsund. I call him Derperus.

And a Gillray caricature to class the joint up:


By 1890, witchcraft is all symbolic or romantic, presumably because no one really believes in it — but interestingly to me, this is what people think of when they think of witchcraft, not all that stuff with sticking people with needles and Vinegar Tom and angry disputes over who moved the branch an old lady left over a puddle. So the historical fact of the witch persecutions is married to a completely ahistorical understanding of what people meant when they said “witch.”

Anyone who tells you that the Halloween image of a witch is “historically inaccurate” should be punched in the gizzard or at least gently corrected, because honestly the horrible old hag with the broomstick and a black dress is way closer to the actual Thirty-Years’-War conception of a witch than Symbolic Serpent Moon Lady. As we have seen.

Lest I be misunderstood as taking a cheap shot at modern-day witches (who are usually much more clued in about this than people who just happen to know some witches), let me point out that Treadwell’s Books has an upcoming class on making witch hats.

Odilon Redon, Serpent-Auréole (1890)
Odilon Redon, Serpent-Auréole (1890)

So anyway: for me, the most interesting things were the prints and other popular materials from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the King James Daemonologie and so on. But the whole thing is good — once again, it’s the BM, so the depth and range of their collection is excellent. It’s pretty tightly focused: 4-500 years, pretty much Europe only, but that allows you to see the same themes appearing and reappearing, both as expressions of widespread popular belief and as evidence of artists copying and inspiring each other. It’s one room, so it’s pretty manageable in time terms. And it’s free. Check it out if you’re in the area or visiting the BM for another reason; I’m not sure it’s quite enough to merit a visit all by itself. But then that’s what I did. It’s on until January.

Oh, and there’s a pretty cool display of Albrecht Durer’s Triumphal Arch downstairs, so you could check that out as well. That’s only on until mid-November.

Trip report: Witches and Wicked Bodies

The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000

Right; I promised I would talk about gaming, so here it is. (I generally talk about gaming on my gaming blog.) Today we’re going to talk a little about historical themes in Warhammer 40,000 and its various derivatives. Now, if you have ever played this game, or are familiar with its art and design, you’ll know that it tends to be covered in little Gothic flourishes — or, to be less charitable, that everything is made out of cathedrals. Imperial_Imperator_Titan Now, I remember when I was in high school I really didn’t like how everything in the 40K universe was encrusted with skulls and spires, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate it a bit more. Let me begin at the beginning: it’s obvious that the first edition of Warhammer 40,000 was a stew of many different influences. The most obvious of these is 2000 AD: you can see Judge DreddStrontium DogRogue Trooper and Nemesis the Warlock in its genes very easily. There are also a lot of other connections — Dune, obviously, Michael Moorcock, The Road Warrior, and earlier games like Laserburn and Dungeons and Dragons, not to mention the then-still-inchoate Warhammer Fantasy Battle setting. The Realm of Zhu has done some amazing work on tracing artistic inspiration in the Warhammer Fantasy Battle game. It also drew a lot of its inspiration from history. That’s no surprise: as this interview with Rick Priestley points out, several of the members of the Design Studio during the classic era had backgrounds in archaeology. (In fact, during my recent trip to the British Museum, I saw this book by GW and TSR alumnus/archaeology guy Graeme Davis, who also wrote the AD&D Vikings book [EDIT: whoops! He did the Celts one], in the gift shop. (Big hat tip to Orlygg for making me think about this stuff.) Now, in the 1990s, the design of the various aspects of the 40K setting took on explicitly historical models. For instance, the Ultramarines are pretty heavily modelled on Romans: Dow2r_ultramarines_dlc_02 While the Valhallan Ice Warriors are pretty obviously modelled on the Red Army of the Second World War: 2266_imperial_guard.valhallan But these aren’t the historical references I’m talking about, really. The early historical references are a bit messier, a bit more … playful, maybe? I think the best-known of these is probably the Dark Angels chapter. The Dark Angels were founded by a godlike being called a Primarch — this particular Primarch is variously called Lyyn Elgonsen, Lynol Jonsen, or (currently) LionEl’Jonson. Lion_kretschmann_by_slaine69 All of which are, of course, just ways of spelling “Lionel Johnson,” a 19th-century English poet who did all the usual 19th-century English poet stuff: repressed his homosexuality, converted to Catholicism, was Alfred Douglas’s cousin. His most famous poem is “The Dark Angel,” which seems to be mainly about fighting against temptation. Now, I don’t think this was part of a plan — I think the people compiling these books were well-read people, and when they needed to come up with the leaders of their chapters, they threw in a couple of literary and historical references (see also: Jaghatai Khan, Konrad Curze, Perturabo). It was only later that some people came along with a (perceived, anyway) mandate to systematise. But whether early throwaway references or later systematic exploration, I think both “generations” of 40K have this in coming: the setting is weighed down by its history. I think this aesthetic is not uncommon in British sci-fi of the 1980s. Consider this excellent article by Chris Sims about Judge Dredd’s costume. I think it’s all worth reading (I’m a fan), but here’s the key point:

Judge Dredd exists in the world of Thrillpower, the far-off future year of 2099 AD, in a society where every single thing has become monstrously overwhelming. Just the very idea of Mega City One, this towering post-nuclear metropolis that’s built on overcrowding and stuffing as many people into the only tiny space that can actually support life? That’s the core idea of Judge Dredd, and when Pat Mills, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra created him, they made sure to weave that into the fabric of those stories. There’s a good reason that one of the first ideas that comes up in a Judge Dredd story, once they’ve established this massive, teeming, crushing society where the fascists are the good guys, is the “futsies,” people suffering from “future shock” who just snap under the pressure of living there. Life in the future is just too much for people.

And that idea of too much is present in the art of 40K. Everything is covered in skulls, everything is a mile tall, everything is ten thousand years old or hungers for all life or iz kuvvad in Orky know-wotz — everything is just way too much to endure and stay sane. It’s a world where these are the good guys: warhammer-40000-art-песочница-Imperium-322656 Nothing in the 40K universe should be “efficient” without having “brutally” on there first. Even the Eldar, who are meant to be all lithe and elegant, are covered in trinkets and greeblies, literally encrusted with the souls of their dead ancestors, persistent reminders of the tragedy of their species. (This is why the Tau, a late addition to the canon, sit so uneasily with the rest of it.) I think this is a very interesting contrast to a lot of “classic” science fiction. A lot of the tradition of sci-fi art shows images that are clean and futuristic without a whole lot of visible past-ness: science-fiction_7d5c2c9b You know the kind of thing. Now obviously that’s not all science fiction art, but I think there’s an identifiable trend where the future is often portrayed without a past. But the 40K future is all about the past. Partly it’s about our past — although it’s the future, it’s decidedly primitive, with swords and whatnot. It uses the images of our past, but in romantic ways: so the Dark Angels, for example, aren’t medieval-like in their modern incarnation: they’re Gothic, using images of medieval monks and knights to create a moody, mournful aesthetic that doesn’t actually resemble the middle ages at all. DeathwingKnights (This is a new-ish look for them, but it’s been developing for well over a decade). I think this is a pretty interesting use of historical imagery: as a source of weird greeblies to cover every visible surface with. It creates this impression of the 40K setting as somewhere that’s almost rotten with history, encrusted with meaningless and cruel legacies from some forgotten era. tumblr_m4j033XucV1qhslato1_1280 tumblr_m5tab3jL3z1qhslato1_1280     And it’s interesting to me that as the setting’s been developed, it’s become more and more specifically obsessed with its own history — going back and mapping out every nook and cranny of the Horus Heresy, for instance, in an endless series of commentaries and footnotes on books written 25 years ago. If you want to consider this view of history something that very specifically comes out of Britain in the 80s, I wouldn’t argue with you. I certainly think that the fusion of the Gothic and the modern would come much easier to someone who lived in London or even Cambridge; I have referred in the past to the place in the New Museums Site where I used to work as “Necromunda.” To summarise, then:

  • The creators of the 40K setting borrowed liberally from everything around them (partly in response to a company mandate to reuse existing miniatures lines, partly because that’s how a game designer do).
  • A lot of this was from history or historically-influenced literature, because they were into that stuff.
  • This interacted well with their other influences.
  • The result was a mess of different historical influences …
  • … that greatly enhanced the setting’s theme of immeasurable antiquity and weirdness.


The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000

Mummy portraits are sad and lovely

This summer, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by (among other things) going to the Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum, which I recommend seeing if you haven’t. While there we also picked up a little book on some of their mummy portraits. 

Now, these aren’t the mummies you’re probably thinking of, with the impassive gold faces and whatnot. These portraits are from the Roman period, and they’re much more naturalistic, very much in the Greco-Roman idiom. This sort of thing fascinates me — it’s an example of a way in which both Hellenistic cultural elements and much older traditional Egyptian ones are blending to create a distinct new thing. I love that stuff. 

Some of these portraits are hauntingly personal: 



That’s from the Er-Rubayat site, and it’s … I don’t know about you, but I find it kind of chilling and uplifting at the same time. But actually this portrait is not really typical of the Er-Rubayat portraits, it’s much more the type of thing that you find at Hawara, another mummy site with similar portraits — so much so that some scholars think a family from Philadelphia (the community served by the Er-Rubayat cemetery) may have called in an artist from Arsinoe (the community served by Hawara). The portraits attached to the Er-Rubayat mummies are much more like … well, like these: 





I think it’s the middle one that gets me the most. You can tell it’s of a specific person rather than an idealised formula, someone who was known and cared for and missed and whose legacy is that art scholars talk about how crude her portrait is compared to the pretty girl at the top of the page. I know it’s wrong to project modern emotions onto the past blah blah _blah_ but remember what I said about using the bullshit you have to hand to cope with the worst feeling you’ll ever have? This is the thought that keeps coming back to me, the Roman-Egyptian equivalent of some humiliating conversation in a funeral director’s office where you have to try to make whatever coins you happen to have match this godawful grief and just pile the bitter indignity of being poor on top of the kick in the heart of losing someone you love. 

But what the hell do I know? Maybe they thought that was a _bitchin’_ mummy portrait. Maybe that was just what they wanted. Maybe that wasn’t their artistic tradition. The hand holding the flower looks like some older Egyptian representations of hands; maybe it was just customarily rustic. I like to think so. 

Whatever; tomorrow I’m going to make fun of Tony Curtis’s underpants. 

Mummy portraits are sad and lovely

People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 2

So, if you have been on the webbernet over the last few days, you have no doubt seen a story about jewelled saints’ skeletons sent by the Pope to bolster Catholicism in Germany. And they look pretty amazing!



Of course, these are far from the only completely mental medieval reliquaries; they’re just articulated and therefore mess with our sense of propriety somehow. But viewed with the correct perspective, many other medieval forms of venerating a saint are also unbelievably fucked-looking. 

Skull from one of the two rival bodies of St Valentine.


St Yves, apparently.

Bling all the hell over the place is just what a proper medieval church looks like. Consider if you will the hanging crown or votive crown. Kings would offer these to churches as offerings of thanks or demonstrations of favour or whatever. The best ones are from Spain, part of the Treasure of Guarrazar. They are amazing. I was going to say they were gorgeous, but by most modern aesthetic standards they’re actually hideous. Just vulgar as hell. But they’re gloriously vulgar. 



Encrusted with sapphires and all hanging with gold and shit, this is the crown of king Recceswinth, a Visigothic Spanish ruler. The hanging letters read RECCESVINTUS REX OFFERETActually, it says ECCESVINTUS, one of the Rs having fallen off at some point since the Dark Ages, but whatever. You get the idea. 

But reliquaries aren’t just for the middle ages. There are also some modern artists doing examples of the form that are baller as hell. This is Al Farrow’s “Reliquary for the Extended Family”. 



I want one. You know, for my mantelpiece. Except my mantelpiece is already covered in toy robots. 

People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 2