Sunday, July 25, 2010

ramble: I am busy, so have a King Arthur comic

Too busy to ramble this weekend. Instead I share this comic from the brilliant Married to the Sea (which you ought to read daily, because it's always this hilarious):

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

recommendation: "Drawing the Head and Figure" (1963 book)

Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm is my favourite art how-to and reference book. Though it's relatively old, it's the only such book I've found that best satisfies the art questions I encounter when drawing/painting. Whenever I'm stuck on something, this is where I turn first.

Its cover (I have the 1983 paperback reprint) says it's "A how-to handbook that makes drawing easy. ... Offers simplified techniques and scores of brand-new hints and helps. ... Step-by-step procedures. Hundreds of illustrations."

Yes, hundreds. And while it hardly makes drawing "easy" (drawing is never easy, c'mon now), it certainly does help when you can't figure out how a shoulder attaches from that angle or how lips look from that other angle. It's pretty retro/vintage/choose-your-dated-but-still-hip-term, with its chiseled menfolk and coiffed ladyfolk--but since we're not using this as a fashion reference, it's really quite charming.

The sections are (so you can see just how in-depth and fantastic this book truly is): Introduction to the Head, The Facial Features, The Hair, Head Patterns and Comparisons, Youth and Age, Fundamentals of the Figure, The Torso and the Figure, Principles of Figure Drawing, The Neck and Shoulders, The Arm, The Hand, The Leg, The Feet, and Clothing. In each, Hamm doesn't just go over the basics--he illustrates a lot of tricky things and describes how to tackle frequently problematic areas. The hundreds of illustrations are truly great: some are sketches, some focus on perspective or action, some show muscles or bones, and some are fully finished illustrations for comparison. His captions and explanations are clear and friendly.

So thanks, Mr Hamm. Saving the world from weirdly garbled proportions and unfortunate limb alignment disasters for almost fifty years!

Monday, July 19, 2010

inspiration: "Knight, Death and the Devil" by Albrecht Durer


-- Albrecht Dürer (1513)
[image via Wikimedia]
[see more works at the Art Renewal Center here]

ramble: I love Robin Hood, film edition

I love Robin Hood. I love the hazy green bliss of Sherwood, the sounding of the hunting horn, the camaraderie and adventure and starry-eyed idealism. I love sly Will Scarlett and loyal Little John and brilliant Maid Marian and witty Alan-a-Dale and wicked Guy of Gisbourne and all the side-characters unique to one version of the tale or another. And most of all, I love wry, brave Robin himself. I love the man and I love the legend and I love the retellings.

I've loved it all since I was little. I collect Robin Hood books (up to nearly thirty now), from picture books to scholarly works to novels (a post for another time). I've attended academic sessions and panels on the history and myth of the dashing outlaw. I've learned archery because of my love of the hooded man (and though I've never split an arrow myself, I've seen friends accomplish the feat!).

Oh, Robin, you scoundrel. The things you've made me do!

And, unsurprisingly, I'll watch any and every Robin Hood movie and TV version. While I certainly haven't seen them all (or even close to all; just search for Robin Hood on IMDb! good god!), I've seen a respectable number. Here's a brief overview of the standouts, both good and bad. Oo-de-lally! Let's go to Sherwood!

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

One of the classics, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Dashing and charming. This portrayal really shaped my vision of Robin.

Robin Hood (1973)

Everyone's seen this Disney animated version, even those who don't know anything about Robin Hood. And surely everyone loves it. It's perfectly wonderful. Foxy little Robin and Marian! The anthropomorphic characters could not suit the tale better. And who could forget Sir Hiss? And the songs--especially "Oo-de-lally"?

Robin and Marian (1976)

This movie is such a disappointment. Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as Robin and Marian sounds absolutely wonderful, but it's wretched. It's not that I mind seeing older, jaded, tired versions of our heroes--it's that Sean Connery's portrayal is simply not Robin Hood. Too brusque, too thoughtless, too presumptuous, and treats Marian with no respect. None of that is Robin at any age. I would like to forget this exists.

Robin of Sherwood (1984-1986)

This three-season TV series is my favourite portrayal of the Robin Hood story. Nothing will ever supersede it in my heart. We get two versions of the hooded man, following the two major threads of the legend: the yeoman outlaw (Michael Praed as Robin of Loxley) and the noble outlaw (Jason Connery as Robert of Huntingdon). They're both breathtakingly gorgeous and absolutely marvellous. The whole show is enchanting, from its blending of Celtic mythology with medieval Christian magic to its powerful and moving storylines. Nothing is forgotten.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Another disappointment. Kevin Costner's portrayal is another that is not Robin. Even the awesome cast (Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Christian Slater!) can't rescue this for me. There are moments I enjoy, but overall this movie's got far too much empty action and not enough mystique or depth to the worldbuilding to be a true retelling of the legend. Leaves me cold.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I love this movie (and Cary Elwes!) so much. Anyone who enjoys weird humour in the Monty Python vein [full disclosure: I laugh so hard at Monty Python that I make myself ill] loves this, Hood-fans or not. There is so much hilarity: the praying mantis! the portcullis with the garage-door opener! the chastity belt! So tasteless. So hilarious.

The Princess of Thieves (2001)

In this movie is another washed-up, worn-out Robin, but this one I love and want to root for. And this is the movie that made me a Keira Knightley fan! She had the spunky heroine thing down even at sixteen years old, here playing Robin's daughter, Gwyn. And Stephen Moyer [sigh] is in this! Yes, perhaps I am more charmed by the cast than by the story, but they absolutely nailed a light-hearted take on the legend and made daydreaming teenagers like me very very happy.

Robin Hood (2006-2009)

This three-season BBC series is a very close second to Robin of Sherwood. Very close. The two aren't really comparable, though; this one is a total rollicking romp that plays with the story in delightful ways. The cast is stellar (in particular, Richard Armitage as Guy [sigh] and Lucy Griffiths as Marian) and the characters are magnetic, each one eliciting love and hatred sometimes within the same episode. Strong and emotional--the most vibrant Robin Hood I've ever seen, and I adore it.

Robin Hood (2010)

And I haven't seen this yet! Though I like Russell Crowe and love Cate Blanchett, they don't fit my Hood-vision right off. But I am super excited to see it anyway: there's always room in my heart for more Robin.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

recommendation: "Labyrinth" (1986 movie)

You remind me of the babe. (What babe?) The babe with the power. (What power?) The power of voodoo. (Who do?) You do!

What happens when dreams come true?

This is the question at the heart of Labyrinth, a funny, creepy, lovely story of temptation, trust, and self-discovery. Sarah wants a different life, a fantasy. "It's not fair!" she cries. Reality is miserable. It's wretched. It sucks. But as Jareth, the Goblin King, replies: "You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is."

What is better than reality? Labyrinth is one of the few movies I would dare to call magical, and no doubt--it was made by a very literal dream team, including Jim Henson, Brian Froud, Terry Jones, George Lucas, David Bowie, and Jennifer Connelly, all vastly talented.

And every scene is a wonder. My imagination can't even keep up. Each creature, from the Worm ("'allo!") to dear monstrous rock-caller Ludo is a self-contained marvel, a fully-developed person, thoughtful and strange and devious and gentle. The labyrinth itself has countless depths, countless worlds, countless symbols.

Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems.

In the labyrinth, who do we trust? Jareth is wickedly beautiful. (David Bowie reaches jaw-popping, heart-killing aesthetic nirvana.) The masquerade ball is just the same, and breaks my heart every time. It's the scene that encapsulates the movie: a ball within a ball, a bubble of loveliness within a bubble of sly forgetfulness, layers upon layers, just like the Goblin King. The masks and the costumes are gorgeous beyond belief--and they're only so gorgeous because they hide malice underneath. Such unbearable beauty can only be dashed.

The world comes down. But, like Sarah, we forget, and begin again....

Labyrinth is a story about finding love (of someone, of something, of things tangible and intangible and things hoped for and things longed for), a story about learning what you'll surrender for your desire. Both Sarah and Jareth are in pursuit, but neither realizes what they're truly chasing until the last moment. Sarah thought she wanted her baby brother back, but in fact, she discovers herself. Jareth thought he could rule everything, including himself, but he discovers that no one can walk through the world untouched. Their hearts lead them in different directions, and to be together means one must submit to the other.

Look what I'm offering you--your dreams. I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

There is nothing equal about the relationship between creator and created. And how can one be both? Even dreams have realities, and they too can be harsh. When we struggle through the labyrinth to discover what is in our hearts--that's when the bubble breaks. We learn that to dream is to think in paradox. Nothing is what it seems: whose world is whose? To imagine is to live, but to imagine is to hurt.

I have been generous up until now, but I can be cruel.

Dreams give, but dreams take. If we fall for our dreams, we're in their power; we belong to them as much as they do to us. Can we risk falling?

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city; for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me.

Sarah is strong. She learns how to open the right door. She accepts weakness, and in doing so, finds balance. She says to her dreams, "I don't know why, but every now and again in my life, for no reason at all, I need you." She is the one with the power.

It's so hard to be strong.

Monday, July 12, 2010

inspiration: "Our Lady of the Twilight" by Alfred Noyes


Our Lady of the Twilight
    From out the sunset-lands
Comes gently stealing o'er the world
    And stretches out her hands,
Over the blotched and broken wall,
    The blind and fœtid lane,
She stretches out her hands and all
    Is beautiful again.

No factory chimneys can defile
    The beauty of her dress:
She stoops down with her heavenly smile
    To heal and love and bless:
All tortured things, all evil powers,
    All shapes of dark distress
Are turned to fragrance and to flowers
    Beneath her kind caress.

Our Lady of the Twilight,
    She melts our prison-bars!
She makes the sea forget the shore,
    She fills the sky with stars,
And stooping over wharf and mill,
    Chimney and shed and dome,
Turns them to fairy palaces,
    Then calls her children home.

She stoops to bless the stunted tree,
    And from the furrowed plain,
And from the wrinkled brow she smooths
    The lines of care and pain:
Hers are the gentle hands and eyes
    And hers the peaceful breath
That ope, in sunset-softened skies,
    The quiet gates of death.

Our Lady of the Twilight,
    She hath such gentle hands,
So lovely are the gifts she brings
    From out the sunset-lands,
So bountiful, so merciful
    So sweet of soul is she;
And over all the world she draws
    Her cloak of charity.

-- Alfred Noyes, in Collected Poems, Vol. II (1913)
[read this book online here]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

ramble: Sophia Baddeley, 18th-century courtesan

Sophia Baddeley (1745-1786) was a terrible actress.

This, however, hardly held her back. She became one of the wealthiest and most popular of the notorious women of mid-eighteenth-century London.

But though she is a vibrant character and we may wish to see her life as self-determined, we should remember, as Katie Hickman writes (in her book Courtesans), that "[f]or all the power which her beauty and desirability conferred, a courtesan, even the most fashionable one at the very height of her career, was still negotiating in a man's world" (p. 53). Sophia shone brightly, but she played a dangerous game in order to do so.

Sophia came from a middlingly well-to-do family, but her elopement with actor Robert Baddeley (when she was nineteen) meant she'd chosen her course (though the pair hardly got along and soon separated). Though her acting was apparently wretched, she was a lovely singer, and her popularity skyrocketed. As her friend Elizabeth Steele, who wrote her memoirs, said:
"Such persons as have moved in a conspicuous line of life naturally excite the curiosity of the world. The public has always had it's [sic] favourites, and since the Drama has been known on the English stage, merit in that line has been the best road to acquire it's [sic] favour" (The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley, Vol. I, pp. 2-3).
After all, fame need not necessarily grow from talent. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, actress was still nearly synonymous with courtesan, though respectability was becoming more and more possible (Hickman, pp. 40-3). Sophia, however, was not respectable. She went through an extravagantly long string of men (including Lord Melbourne and the Duke of Northumberland), living with some, teasing others. "A pattern was already emerging in her life: a pattern of love affairs and unscrupulous admirers, of reckless extravagance, debt--and laudanum" (Hickman, p. 38).

Nothing in Sophia's world was stable, and her lovers always fluctuated as wildly as did her expenditures. Her only constant companion was Elizabeth, who stayed with her and tried to protect her from the men around her and from herself. As Amy Culley writes in her article on the Memoirs,
"[T]hroughout the Memoirs their connection remains highly ambiguous: perhaps a sentimental friendship, a lesbian relationship, or a business arrangement in which Steele acted as Baddeley’s procuress" (p. 679).
But Elizabeth could not, ultimately, keep Sophia safe.

As the entry for Robert Baddeley in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica notes, "[Sophia's] beauty and her extravagance rendered her celebrated, but the money which she made in all sorts of ways was so freely squandered that she was obliged to take refuge from her creditors in Edinburgh." There she became very ill, and took more and more laudanum in order to cope.

She died when she was only forty-one. But she acted (still terribly? perhaps!) until the very end.

"Sophia Baddeley had neither moral strength nor level-headedness. She was vain, spoilt, impetuous, lazy, spendthrift, only moderately intelligent, and possessed of a great deal of sexual energy. She was also warm-hearted, affectionate, funny, mercurial, and generous to a fault" (Hickman, p. 33). She sounds like she would have been fascinating to spend time with--and indeed, her vast popularity proves that she was.

- Sophia Baddeley as Joan of Arc [via link]

- Culley, Amy. "The Sentimental Satire of Sophia Baddeley." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer 2008): pp. 677-692. [via Project Muse]
- Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. London: Harper Perennial, 2003.
- Steele, Elizabeth. The Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley, Late of Drury Lane Theatre. 6 vols. London: 1787. [read online: vols 1-2, vols 3-4, vols 5-6]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Baddeley, Robert." 1911. [via Wikisource]
- Wikipedia [link]

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

recommendation: "Doctor Who Series 5" (2010 TV series)

I've loved Doctor Who for several years now, but have I ever loved Doctor Who this much?

My Doctor is the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant's Doctor. The first episode I saw was Series 3's "Blink" (ah, terror). Then I watched Series 1 with the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, and adored it, especially "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances."* But the conclusion to Series 3 is right up there with my most beloved episodes. The Tenth Doctor is simply unspeakably fabulous.

Companions are a trickier matter. Though I haven't seen all of Series 2, Rose is my favourite. I also love Martha, for very separate reasons. If I could be any companion, I'd be Martha. But then there was Series 4, and Donna. Oh, Donna. I wanted to like Donna. But I didn't really like Donna. I liked that Donna had opinions, and that she wasn't unnecessarily gaga over the Doctor, but I did not like that Donna always had to be right, could never be quiet for a second, and had to tell everyone all the time that she really definitely wasn't in love with the Doctor.

So, Series 5. New Doctor, new companion. I was hesitant about Matt Smith because I am still extremely attached to David Tennant. I really liked the first episode, especially the fishsticks. And then I really liked the second episode (those Smilers? dear god). I liked the revisited Weeping Angels, at least until they started contradicting their own rules.** I liked the dinosaur people (I like anything with dinosaurs, so this may not be a useful judgement) and I loved both "Vincent and the Doctor"*** and "The Lodger"+ in two entirely different ways.

And then I really liked Amy, the new companion, who's Rose/Martha/Donna blended with kooky, so that's awesome, even if she did inherit a bit of Donna's annoyance factor. I liked the purpose River Song serves in the narrative, even though I found her by turns badass and grating (River, you cad, stop toying with me!). And then I absolutely loved Rory, companion number two, with a fiery blazing passion. OH RORY. OH RORY. ♥

I was clearly teetering on the brink. Then, in episode eight, the Doctor said, "Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense. You're just not keeping up," and I was done for. I was all Eleven's. He's so young and sprightly and so old and curmudgeonly; he's weird, but it's not a Tennantesque wacky. He's entirely new and yet entirely familiar and I love him. He speaks to me: "Never underestimate a Celt!"++

So after some reflection, soul-searching, and salving of my guilty conscience: I'm sorry, Ten, you're still my Doctor, but my tent is now firmly pitched in Eleven's camp. And Series 5, with its excellent use of the funny, the emotional, the strange, the wondrous, and the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff (the finale! I did not know true glory until I watched that finale!), might just be my favourite, too.

* Due, of course, to Captain Jack Harkness. I need say no more.
** I don't want to spoil anything, but seriously. You close your eyes, they attack you. That is incontrovertible.
*** I haven't cried that hard at the TV for a while, and I cry at the TV with alarming regularity. I'd start a New Who newcomer with this episode. Crazy adventure, fascinating historical personage, ooky-looking alien, heartbreak, and quiet truth: yes to all. Beautiful.
+ The Doctor trying to be "normal." I need say no more here, either.
++ Cue me squealing.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

ramble: damask, the aristocratic, immortal textile

Damask is a figured, reversible textile, usually silk satin or velvet, historically used to make tablecloths, napkins, curtains, wall coverings, furniture coverings, gowns, waistcoats, robes, etc. The most familiar damask patterns are stylized florals or are otherwise organic in appearance--acanthus leaves, scrolls, pinecones, pomegranates, and shells are all common--but the motifs may also be of animals or even detailed scenes.

Damasks could be any colour dyes allowed. Most damasks are monochrome, with a shiny pattern against a dull background (vice versa when flipped over), but polychromes, including those with metallics, are also possible.*

The name "damask" supposedly refers to the city of Damascus, but this, of course, may be apocryphal. Technically, the term refers to a particular weaving technique, one of five traditional types in the early medieval Middle East. However, some early damasks (simple checkerboard patterns) date from the Roman era and the technique itself may have truly originated in eastern Asia.

Damask weaving fell out of fashion in Europe in the high medieval period, but by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the textiles were being produced in Italy. Thereafter damasks became fashionable throughout Europe. In England, for example, King Richard II wore silk damask, and in the mid-fifteenth century, one of King Edward IV's sumptuary laws decreed that no one below the rank of knight could wear the fabric. Damasks became especially popular in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, damask motifs conjure up images of the boudoirs of doomed queens and languishing courtesans.

I compulsively buy damask fabrics when I come across them and turn them into curtains, pillowcovers and tablerunners. I also own damask plates, mugs, candles and heaven knows what else. The recent interior design trend, which involves putting the pattern on everything, is hardly new! For damask inspiration, try a search of the Victoria & Albert Museum; you'll turn up all manner of textiles displaying various permutations of the motif. Take a look at this glorious Chippendale chair from 1772, covered in green damask. Ah, to dream of luxury.

* The pictured crimson-and-black damask is a modern damask from my fabric stash. It's really a false damask--it's faux-satin printed with faux-velvet, and it is not at all reversible. I don't think a real damask could even be stark black-on-red like this; reversible weaving just doesn't work that way (though I am not entirely sure, not being a weaver myself).

Here instead are two examples of lovely authentic monochrome damasks: crimson silk (1680-90, Italian) and yellow silk (1710, Chinese or English).

And (you may have noticed!) my blog's background is a damask-inspired motif designed and drawn by yours truly.

- Morgan, Krystal. "Satin Damasks of Renaissance Europe." Complex Weavers' Medieval Textiles 37 (Sept. 2003): 1-6. [available as a .pdf at link]
- V&A Collections [link]
- Wikipedia [link]