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In our latest lecture, we looked in great detail at the symbol of the wolf in literature, in particular the well known bloodthirsty villain of Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf has been used as a motif throughout history – in Native American culture the wolf is a symbol of courage, strength, loyalty and intelligence. However, in modern narratives I have observed that the wolf has come to represent the outcast, or outsider.

The book series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver, explores the many different facets in the wolf’s nature. The series is set in a Prehistoric world, following the story of a boy, Torak, and a wolf. The society is made up of many different clans named after animals indigenous to their own regions, and each values the characteristics of its ‘clan creature’ above all else.

Torak, originally of the wolf clan, has lived separate from them for most of his life, up until the death of his father. As a baby he was left for a month in the den of a she-wolf and as a result is naturally able to communicate with wolves. He rescues Wolf, an orphaned cub who sees Torak as his pack brother. As children, both are made outsiders by the death of their parents, and must learn to survive on their own. As adults, Torak is cast out by the other clans as a result of his coveted abilities and the actions of his father, but Wolf chooses to remain with him rather than join a true wolf pack.

The Wolf Clan live alongside the rest of the clans, but separate. They seek to understand and think as the wolf does, even using plants to turns the whites of their eyes yellow. However they remain separate from wolves, unlike Torak, and are envious of his bond with Wolf. While not cruel, they are ruthless, with strict rules.

The wolf is often seen as a bloodthirsty creature that follows its base instincts. Werewolves, for instance, see humans changing from a man to a beast during a full moon, a gruesome phenomenon transmitted through infection from a bite. As a mythical creature in a world where science is king, they have to keep it a secret, which alienates them from society. In the Harry Potter series, the character Remus Lupin was a werewolf and as a result he was alienated from normal society. J K Rowling herself said that she created Lupin and the stigma surrounding his condition based upon the current stigma of HIV sufferers. In the series, Lupin due to the invention of a medicine, his condition was stable, and he was rendered harmless in wolf form, but society continued to turn their backs on him. It was only recently that I was reading about Rowling’s thought processes behind many features of the story and I commend her for dealing with a very sensitive subject with compassion.

This week’s lecture was on The Rise of the Avant-Garde, which appeared around the end of the 1800s and flourished during the 20th century. Before this lecture, I knew very little about Modern Art, but after last week’s lecture on what came before; I was very interested in what would happen next. I believe that after so long of painting in very realistic styles that the world needed this blast of change that came with the appearance of a new, easier way of living, made so by the development of new technology. People needed to open their eyes and realise that there are so many different ways to look at the world and so many places within to look at, so that there could finally be a complete freedom of expression in art.

At this time, many different movements started around Europe. Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism were inspired by painters of the previous century, but much more experimental and dynamic. Constructivism, Suprematism, Futurism and Vorticism were inspired by the new fast-paced technology; its followers loved the speed and noise of the modern industry., and  Dadaism was in protest of the direction in which modern society was moving. I believe the Avant-Garde movement was founded around the idea of looking beyond the immense detail and structure of biology, breaking it down to its most basic visual components. El Lissitzky was a Russian Suprematist, who was well-known for his painting, photography and architecture. He claimed “Our time demands designs that have their origins in elementary forms.” This belief is further studied in his much of his work.

Image Beat the Whites with Red Wedge

Dadaism, in particular, I believe was a huge step forward in art history. Today, artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst could be considered contemporary Dadaists. However, when it first came about, it broke through the restrictions of what society considers art to be. Dadaism began in Zurich, Switzerland, and artists from all over Europe living there became part of it. They created ‘non-art’ by changing the context of everyday objects. Duchamp’s Foundation is of the one of the most famous examples, by presenting a urinal out of its usual context and confusing a crowd normally transfixed by gallery work. The fact that a lot of Avant-Garde pieces were refused by galleries meant that Dadaists had to find other outlets to present their work, such as magazines and private viewings. 

ImageFountain, Marcel Duchamp

One of my favourite paintings from the 17th century is Olympia, by Edouard Manet.  Manet paints Olympia as confident and bold in her nakedness, which was a change from the submissive, pleasing Venuses of previous works.

ImageOlympia, Edouard Manet

For instance, Venus Asleep by Giorgione, shows the vulnerable nude, asleep and innocent. She is unaware of the artist, and surrounded by beautiful trees and mountains

ImageVenus Asleep, Giorgione

. A later example, Reclining Venus by Ingres, shows a more Queen-like Venus. She is in a palace, her two handmaids are in the background, and she wears several pieces of jewellery. More importantly, she gazes at the view from the corner of her eye, inviting the artist in, and like the first her hand is draped across her hips to preserve her modesty.

ImageReclining Venus, Ingres

Olympia, however sits more upright, and stares boldly out at the viewer, confidently, almost confrontational. Her hand is not carefully draped like the other Venuses, but placed deliberately, confidently, claiming her own body. She is not at the mercy of the viewer, as with the others, but in total control. She is also decorated with jewellery, and her servant brings her a bouquet of flowers from an admirer. The story of this painting is that Olympia was a famous Parisian prostitute, hence the black cat, the flowers and the jewellery, all symbols of sexuality. The truth in the painting comes from the fact that he did not romanticise her, or attempt to transform her with artistic license into Greek goddess. The harsh brushstrokes and strong light also serve this purpose, and as a result was hated by many of the gallery viewers.

Today, handwriting is beginning to be viewed as a dying artform. Computers, which barely 30 years ago were seen as an optional luxury, are now everywhere. Everyone has laptops and mobile phones, which means that fast accurate typing is understood to be a more useful ability. Certainly communication through the hand-written word has almost vanished. Personal letters are few and far between, replaced by text messages, instant messaging, phone calls and Skype – the only ‘snail mail’ I receive is computer generated and impersonal, and sent to many other people that are in the same age range and probably lead a very similar lifestyle (student deals, takeaway menus, club nights).

Leaflets, bill board posters, business cards, packaging, legal records, books – everything is typed using a computer. In fact, it is widely believed that in the future humans will have no use for handwriting.

I believe that learning to write by hand is very important for a number of reasons. First of all, it is the easiest most spontaneous way of expressing yourself through words. It doesn’t matter if it’s an essay, a story, a poem or even a blog post, I always have to hand write notes and a first draft before I type it up and make final adjustments to it. For me, ideas flow better when I put pen to paper. When I type without writing it down first, I think it sounds emotionless and robotic, like it could have been written by anyone. In addition, studies have shown that a person’s handwriting can reveal as many as 5000 personality traits. Furthermore, if you ever wish to further your drawing education, learning to write the alphabet neatly and clearly is essentially your first lesson in refining your technique and developing your fine motor control. It is something you will continue to do over many years, until you are happy with it.

So far, we have looked at the very first illustrations in cave paintings, then we moved on to Pictograms and looked at semiotics and the relation of an object to its many symbols. This leads us to Typography and the origins of the written languages of today.

However, no one is quite sure why humans made the leap from drawings and pictograms to learned symbols. Within fixed communities writing developed more quickly and this knowledge was passed between them and other nearby communities.

In Ancient Egypt, the written language that we have all heard of today is Hieroglyphics. However, these were actually considered to be mainly for decoration, for writing prayers and religious script on the walls of tombs or palaces. A faster of writing was developed, known as Hieratic, which was the simplified version of the Egyptian language. Hieroglyphics and Hieratic are now thought to be the basis of many languages including Chinese, Latin and some Greek. The Hieratic evolved into the demotic, which bore no trace of the original Hieroglyphs, then was replaced by Greek (Coptic), after which, all knowledge of the language disappeared. It was not until 1798 when the Rosetta Stone was discovered that historians were able to decipher Ancient Egyptian texts. What made this possible was the three sections of text carved onto the stone all translated to mean more or less the same thing, but were written in Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphic. After many years of study, Champollion was finally able to translate the writing into a memorial to honour the deceased Pharoah.

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I include now a fun image from the Asterix and Cleopatra comic of characters speaking ‘Egyptian’.

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Bibliography

http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/writing/rosetta.html

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/the_rosetta_stone.aspx

I feel it is important to look at Sumerian Cuneiform Script in further detail, as it is relevant to the topics I have covered so far. Sumerian Cuneiforms were developed in Southern Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. These symbols represent the first form of learned communication – language in a written form. Unlike the older Pictograms of the Rinconada Canyon, today we understand their exact functions, and have even been able to translate them.

Sumerian Cuneiforms were developed to make records of goods and services. They were stamped into wet clay using Mesopotamian Counting Tokens. The nature of the Pictogram, that it is carved or stamped onto a tablet, meant that the records were very durable and the clay tablets they were carved upon were fairly easy to travel with.

Originally, Counting Tokens were kept in clay containers and sealed. However, there came the problem of not being able to determine what was inside. To remedy this, they used the tokens as stamps to make an imprint on the outside of the container, thus enabling the owner to determine the value inside. Eventually, they simply used clay tablets with the different symbols stamped onto the surface.

ImageMesopotamian Counting Tokens

Bibliography

http://www.ancientscripts.com/sumerian.html

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/sumerian.htm

During our second lecture, Exploring Cognition, we began with a talk about the movement from observational drawing to abstract art. Even in Prehistoric times this is easy to see – in my last posts on the Birth of Symbolic Language, I wrote about the Lascaux cave paintings and the Pictograms of the Rinconada Canyon. Here, we can easily identify the move from the representational paintings to the abstract symbols.

An interesting example of the move from representation to abstraction is the study Pablo Picasso made in his series El Toro. He began with an accurate study of a bull, and in 11 stages broke it down to its most basic characteristics in a much more abstracted image. Through each stage Picasso analyses, adds line, tone then removes them, finishing with an image that captures the true essence of the bull. The 11th stage shows the great, hulking body, the horns, and the equal size of the head and genitals. Picasso uses the bull as a metaphor throughout his work, but always remained ambiguous as to its true meaning. Some have called it a representation of the Spanish people, or a stance on fascism and brutality, even a self portrait, as many say that his signature is the 12th stage, and therefore a depiction of his own nature. I personally really love this series. Picasso’s exploration of different ways to break down the form of the bull and the train of thought throughout the eleven stages is really interesting to see, and the eventual resolution is an excellent representation of the true nature of the bull.

ImageEl Toro Pablo Picasso

Scott McCloud also illustrated this process in his popular 2000 book, Reinventing Comics. In this image he looks at the development of Mesopotamian Cuneiform script, showing the evolution of the bull and wheat, until their final forms bear little to no relation to the first image.

Image Scott McCloud’s evolution of Sumerian Cuneiforms

I have done some research into how Chinese characters evolved in similar way, but there are many different theories and it is difficult to ascertain which are most accurate. However, I have drawn a few I have found, just to show another language that has developed in this way over time.

Image Illustration of how the Chinese character for ‘fish’ has evolved over time.

Bibliography

http://brown.edu/about/administration/international-affairs/year-of-china/language-and-cultural-resources/introduction-chinese-characters/introduction-chinese-characters

http://www.omniglot.com/chinese/evolution.htm