Thursday, February 10, 2011

Anatomy: Lessons from Aikido, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Monks

Aikido
Could I become a better artist by being thrown around like a sock puppet?   Newby Aikido students (myself included) quickly gain a new perspective of anatomy as they attempt to "roll properly"...only to flounder like a fish-out-of-water.  Being more aware of posing, posture, and balance is allowing me (to my surprise and delight) to enhance my approach toward composing figures.

In Cincinnati there is an local interest in Aikido, a martial art that focuses on rolling, momentum balances, and defense rather than stereotypical punching and kicking.  At the World Fantasy Convention 36 in Columbus this past Oct. I introduced myself to a local fantasy writer Stephen Leigh Farrell  (author of The Nessantico Cycle and The Cloud Mages Trilogy) -- a coworker teaches Aikido with him so I had a story to introduce myself.  Stephen  was clearly as enthusiastic about "throwing" people as much as he was encouraging them to write.  Turns out, another co-worker/friend of mine teaches Aikido so I signed up and am being thrown on a weekly basis now ("I am so a white belt" as my niece once said proudly about her own martial art expertise).

I am far from being an Aikido expert, but a key to "proper rolling" seems to be considering your body a set of axes (a "x") such that you can roll across one of them (thus limiting damage to your spine and transferring momentum across your body).  Below I illustrate this by sharing an image from the oft-reference book of Westbrook and Ratti called Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, an illustrated introduction: I draw over the image of a man rolling with  primary and secondary axes indicated.


This "primary and secondary axis" approach toward understanding and composing figures is nicely explained by Jim Pavelec (fantasy illustrator and author of Hell Beasts, a guide for drawing evil creatures).  I met him also this October in Columbus at theWorld Fantasy Convention 36 .  In his Hell Beasts book he details "Gesture" as:
"Gesture, or the overall movement and pose of a figure, is the foundation of any good composition, giving your drawings the fluidity and force necessary to capture the viewer's eye.  You can set the mood for an entire piece by first laying out a simple gesture drawing consisting of only a few lines...There are two types of gesture lines: primary and secondary.  The primary gesture line is the fluid mark that runs along the figure's centerline.  For example, when looking at the humanoid figure from the front, the primary gesture line goes from the head, through the center abdomen, then to the pelvis, where it sifts into either the action leg or the weight-bearing leg....Secondary gesture lines,or rythym lines, are lines that flow through the form connecting secondary body parts such as limbs, tails, wings, and tentacles..." p14

This zombie is about to roll!
http://www.jimpavelec.com/books/hell-beasts/
 

Historical Anatomy: Composing Bodies and Representing the Invisible Soul
Sixteenth century apothecaries sourced both medicine to physicians and raw materials to artists; the former treating souls with medicine, the latter manufacturing their own paint so they could portray the divine (as there were no art supply stores then, nor industrial means to mass produce it).   Artists, alchemists, and early physicians would also convene within the dissection chambers.  Anatomical artists had to grapple with documenting macabre scenes of opened bodies while remaining 'artistic'.  For the dignity of the specimens and to satisfy the surgeons' needs, artists often found harmony by posing their subjects.  Many artists captured or imparted a bit of the lost soul into their dead subjects.  Perhaps most famous are Johannes de Ketham's Fasiculo de Medicina (1491), Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), and Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks (~ 1452-1519).   Recent compilations like The Quick and the Dead i and Spectacular Bodies ii are fantastic resources on this subject.
 
The prevailing Church did not permit the dissection of innocent believers, so criminals or 'sinners' were often used.  Then, the notion of the four humors prevailed.  Bodies were considered divinely sacred and were thus difficult to obtain and dissect; those corpses deemed acceptable could not be refrigerated, so one had to work fast!  Nor were there cameras or video to capture the observations!  Artists and alchemists partnered to explore, and document the microcosm of life.  Leonardo Da Vinci provided detailed notes along with his drawings:

"I have dissected more than ten human bodies, destroying all the various members and removing the minutest particles of flesh which surrounded these veins, without causing any effusion of blood other than the imperceptible bleeding of the capillary veins.  And as one single body did not suffice for so long a time, it was necessary to proceed in stages with so many bodies as would render my knowledge complete; this I repeated twice in order to discover the differences.  And though you should have a love for such things you may perhaps be deterred by natural repugnance, and if this does not prevent you, you may perhaps be deterred by fear of passing the night hours in the company of these corpses, quartered and flayed and horrible to behold; and if this does not deter you, then perhaps you may lack the skill in drawing, essential for such representation; and if you had the skill in drawing, it may not be combined with the knowledge of perspective; and if it so combined you may not understand the methods of geometrical demonstration and the method of estimating the forces and strength of muscle; or perhaps you may be wanting in patience so that you will not be diligent." iii
How brutally, and beautifully, clear he was in describing what was necessary to follow his muse.   Corpses were given personality, soul if you will, through artificial poses and theatrical, emotional countenances.  Da Vinci determined through his dissections that the senses were linked to a 'common sense' that led to the brain.  But no actual soul was discovered. He yielded the goal of managing the soul to religion.   Below, from his treatise on painting, he spoke how the artist must deal with this and impart the soul into its subjects otherwise:
"A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul; the former is easy, the later hard because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs. "iv 

Interactive Book Link
With the most promising connection to our souls being the senses, it follows that the next great promise of discovery came when the technology of optics allowed scientists to see, and draw, new worlds.  Astronomers were anxious to probe the heavens and documented the heavens; for instance, Galileo's Starry Messenger (1610).  Pioneering microscopists had to capture their views with pen and parchment.   In 1664, Robert Hooke published a large treatise entitled Micrographia, containing an encyclopedia of detailed drawings of his microscopic views.   To have these reproduced in print, each drawing had to be converted into an engraving!  From this, Hooke is credited for coining the word 'cell' to describe the pores in cork.   In his preface, he explains to the reader that optics have enabled a spiritual quest:

The next care to be taken, in respect of the senses, is a supplying of their infirmities with instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial organs to the natural; this in one of them has been of late years accomplished with prodigious benefit to all sorts of useful knowledge, by the invention of optical glasses.  By the means of telescopes, there is nothing so far distant but may be represented to our view; and by the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding.  By this means the heavens are opened, and a vast number of new stars, and new motions, and new productions appear in them, to which all the ancient astronomers were utterly strangers.  v
There are two key points: one, the spiritual creative process occurs when artistry, science, and spiritualism coincide; and two, the soul has never found.  Despite how far we see into space with telescopes, or how well we resolve structures with microscopes, the soul still eludes us.  

Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919) was a famous artist-scientist fascinated with the aesthetics of nature and the elusiveness of the soul.  His 1904 set of lithographs Art Forms in Naturevi  brilliantly exhibit his obsession with the symmetrical beauty of biological microstructures, and his extensions into comparative embryology brought him controversy.   He argued this in his support of his own monistic religion that scientific adventures continually uncovered the beautiful designs inherent in nature (monism generally supports that "body and soul" are one connected entity, not separate as many dualistic religions profess):

The remarkable expansion of our knowledge of nature, and the discovery of countless beautiful forms of life, which it includes, have awakened quite a new aesthetic sense in our generation, and thus given a new tone to painting and sculpture.  Numerous scientific voyages and expeditions for the exploration of unknown lands and seas, partly in earlier centuries, but more especially in the nineteenth, have  brought to light an undreamed abundance of new organic forms...affording an entirely new inspiration for painting, sculpture, architecture, and technical art.  vii

In 1900, Haeckel published his scientific, spiritual book Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century in which he explains his monistic philosophies.  Within this he has elegant discussions about the soul's lack of participation in the "Laws of Substance" (conservation of mass and energy); below, he discusses how many related the nonexistent soul to that which is tangible:
Thus invisibility comes to be regarded as a most important attribute of the soul.  Some, in fact, compare the soul with ether, and regard it, like ether, as an extremely subtle, light, and highly elastic material, an imponderable agency, that fills the intervals between the ponderable particles in the living organism, other compare the soul with the wind, and so give it a gaseous nature; and it is this simile which first found favor with the primitive peoples, and led in time to the familiar dualistic conception.  When a man died, the body remained as a lifeless corpse, but the immortal soul "flew out of it with the last breath." viii
Many beautiful rituals evolved since souls could not be truly located or measured after a body died; many myths persist that cannot be readily falsified.  The notion of relics is common across cultures and time. It assumes that the soul is a contagion remaining attached to the body postmortem.  Hence, the power of a Saint could be absorbed if one obtained his or her bones; this gave rise to the theft and desecration of many crypts and catacombs.  Many crypts remain with the bodily relics are on display:  the crypt of Saint Munditia of Munich and the Vienna Imperial Crypts are fine examples.

More bizarre, and beautiful, is the notion that souls could be deified by creating architecture with the bones of the deceased.  Here the artist would convene with the spiritualist in a funerary chamber and temple.  Famous examples include: the shrines of Capuchin monks in Rome and Palermo, Sicily (these catacombs contain 6,000 to 8,000 bodies); and the Kostnice 'Church of Bones, Kutna Hora, Sedlec Ossuary, Prague, (containing remains of forty thousand people); lastly, the impressive catacombs of Paris (l'Ossuaire Municipal) in which several condemned cemeteries were collocated in the 18th century and countless skulls comprise the walls.  
If one can make architecture from our bodies, can one make pigments or paint from them?  Organic matter played a strong role in the history of art technology.  Parchment, vellum, was manufactured from the hides of animals before wood based paper was available.  Size, a gluey substance used to prepare surfaces or harden gesso, was made from boiling skin and bone.  Many medieval pigments were iron based (blue, red, black iron oxides) or were derived from living material (dried blood, sintered black bone, and many binders were protein based (milk casein, egg yolk).   Calcined bone is used as a white pigment.  Gallstones were sometimes used as a source of yellow color in the Middle ages.  Bile was used for some greens.  Caput mortem was a mysterious pigment that may have been just iron oxide or, if the ghoulish rumors are true, powder from pulverized mummies.

If the sourcing of material was a spiritual motivation of alchemical artists, as the Mappae Clavicula indicates, would the sourcing of material for a self portrait be most genuine if the elements to manufacture it were provided by our ancestors?   This notion was in the inspiration for the Inheritance Rite of the Picts in Lords of Dyscrasia.

i Petherbridge, D. J., Ludmilla (1997). The Quick and the Dead Artists and Anatomy. Los Angeles, University of California Press.
ii Kemp, M. W., Marina (2000). Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now. Los Angeles, University of California Press.
iii Da Vinci, L., Ed. (1998). The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Oxford World's Classics New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press.  p151
iv Da Vinci, L., Ed. (1998). The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Oxford World's Classics New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press.  p178
v Hooke, R. (2007). The Preface, Micrographia or Some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies. New York, NY, Cosimo, Inc. section d-e
vi Haeckel, E. (2008). Art Forms in Nature - the prints of Ernst Haeckel. New York, Prestel.
vii Haeckel, E. (1900). Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (Die Weltraethsel). New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers. p341
viii Haeckel, E. (1900). Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (Die Weltraethsel). New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers. p199


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sword and Sorcery Film Queue 2011

There is a steady list of 2011 Sword and Sorcery films in queue:
Released globally, but not in US
Solomon Kane , a well received depiction of R.E.Howard's doomed, religious hero. Click here to request it to come state-side by "Demanding" it.

Out now or soon in the US
Season of the Witch Feb-011
Black Death Mar-011
Red Riding Hood Mar-011
Sinbad 2011 The Fifth Voyage July 2011
Conan The Barbarian Aug 2011 - this movie is finally close to release, after transforming from a third installment in the Arnold Schwarzenegger series (delayed due to his becoming governor) and seems to have become a re-branding of Conan (a new series).
Jason Momoa as Conan



In queue or on-hold


The Hobbit (~2012); stymied by a writer's strike and a legal tangle with the Tolkien estate, the prequel(s) to the Lord of the Rings trilogy promises to be great whenever it is finished.
Bran Mak Morn
Red Sonja: Let's hope it is better than the 1985 version...

Castlevania: Based on Konami's popular vampire games
Elric movie: Check out Michael Moorcock's blog for details.
Red Nails (Since 2006) this endeavor has struggled; based on REH's only full length Conan novel...see some pre-production animations that surfaced.
The Power of the Dark Crystal (2011??)  Announced in 2005, this sequel to the Dark Crystal (1982) has stumbled, always making some forward progress.
Pixar and Disney's Brave (2012) - Disney tries out Heroic Fantasy
Underworld 4 (2012) 
John Carter of Mars (2012)
Narnia 4 The Silver Chair (2012)
Silent Hill Revelation (sequel): Okay, not 100% Sword and Sorcery, but it is a mix of Horror-Fantasy and Pyramid Head does have a large sword and Michael Basset (who just delivered Solomon Kane) is leading the effort.
At the Mountains of Madness (2013): More weird horror/fantasy than Sword and Sorcery, but it is Lovecraft...and Guillermo del Toro is involved.




 

Nostalgia: Fighting Fantasy Books Evolve to Kindle, PSN, and DS

  •  Before hand held electronics (early 1980's), Sword & Sorcery geeks were enthralled with choose-your-own-adventure-books with a Dungeons & Dragons style of character development and adventure (dice required, but it was still portable adventure); in 1982 the best arrived in the form of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the first in a series created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston (famed originators of Games Workshop which spawned the Warhammer game system (table-top warfare) and the Black Library (awesome gritty sci-fi and fantasy).

  • The artwork of the Games Workshop empire has always been top notch.  The image below from Section 122 of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain has haunted me for two decades (artist = Russ Nicholson)! 
  • Still available by hardcopy, they are making their way in 2011 to the Playstation and the Ninendo DS, according the Fighting Fantasy website and PSPminis (PSP version to be made by Laughing Jackal). An electronic, Kindle edition is even available, which may spark a rebirth in the RPG-choose-your-own-adventure-style books as they become blended with the video-game.
  • The Kindle Active Content version (made by WorldWeaver) is well translated into the electronic form.  Several Way Points allow you to bookmark/return to sections upon untimely deaths; An automapping feature adds a new dimension to the game, tracking your progress (with options to use again in subsequent tries through the book); the battles are intense, and you even have choices on how to perform the dice rolls.  Oh...on the way is the Kindle Version of Deathtrap Dungeon!


Kindle Cover





Screen-shot of PSP version of Talisman of Death


  • On a related note, the legendary RPG for the PS-Vagrant Story (2000) is also finally becoming available for the PSP in the US this year.
  • Actually, a must-have from PSN is the already available Blood Omen Legacy of Kain (1996), the game that launched the Soul Reaver and Blood Omen series.


Blood Omen

Vagrant Story







The Picts and the Lost IX Legion : Realism vs. Sword & Sorcery Representations

  • Who were the Picts? The mystical Picts were iron-age Caledonians, the indigenous people of Scotland. Labeled barbarous, the tribes were never conquered by the Romans; instead, they were eventually isolated by Hadrian's Wall. Picts consistently influence fantasy tales, including many Arthurian legends, Howard's Bran Mak Morn, Arthur Machen's Litte People, and Kuttner's Pikht's of Atlantis. This alone makes their aura sufficient to work with, but my fascination lies with their name since Picti means 'colored people' in Latin. Julius Caeser's documentation (de Bello Gallico ~ 45AD) indicates that the local Picts marked their bodies with vitrum before going to battle, though many think they were painted with woad (a blue dying plant akin to indigo). The Legio_IX_Hispana is a roman legion that mysteriously disappeared ~120 AD.
  • The Pict are appearing in films more frequently, though not in a mystical context:
  1. In 2004, they appeared in the Historical-Fiction-Action movie King Arthur in which Guinevere is portrayed as a Pict (played by Kiera Knightley); I recommend the Director's cut which includes short, but worthy extra scenes fleshing out Arthur's motivations.
  2. The Centurion 2010: This movie explicitly tackles the mystery of the missing IX Legion, and also blames the Picts. Olga Kurylenko
  3. The Eagle (2011): Obviously, I haven't seen this yet, but the trailers indicate a slant toward another pseudo-historical/non-sorcery representation of the Picts. 
  4. Hammer of the Gods (2013): This brutal Viking movie depicts the Picts as cannibalistic.   

Guinevere is a Pict in King Arthur

Centurion Pict

A wild Pict attacks in The Eagle
Vikings are captured & tattooed by Picts in Hammer of the Gods
  • For the mystical “Sorcery” representation of the Picts, you will either:
  1. Need to pick up R.E.Howard's stories (short pulp stories written ~1930 and compiled in 1969) or Karl Wagner’s Legion From the Shadows (1988)
  2. ...or hope that the forthcoming Bran Mak Morn movie actually is produced ...and remains "true" to Howard's depiction
R E Howard's Brank Mak Morn

Wagner's Legion from the Shadows



Frazetta Cover art
  • R.E. Howard's Bran is less famous as Conan, but is a similar hero in many ways. Bran is arguably REH's darkest character, and David Weber did a fine introduction of him in Bran Mak Morn (1969 Bean compilation):
“Of all Robert E. Howard's characters, Bran Mak Morn may be the least known. After all Howard is the author who brought us Conan, Kull the Conqueror, and Solomon Kane. Yet in a sense, Bran and his Picts are more important to Howard's world than any of his characters, including Bran's ancestor Brule. The brooding darkness which clings to virtually all of Howard's heroic fantasy is nowhere stronger than in the case of Bran Mak Morn, last king of the oldest race-an alien among his own degenerating people, set apart by a pure bloodline they no longer share, who knows his entire race is going down into the dark no matter what he does. Yet for all his awareness of the inevitability of the Pict's doom, Bran refuses simply to submit to it. He fights it tooth and nail, as he downs his Roman and Norse enemies. However hopeless his future, all he asks of fate is the chance to meet it on his feet and fighting. ii


•Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, assumes epic stature as he is often not the primary protagonist in the tales but a iconic force overseeing the action; in The Dark Man, Bran had been deified in a stone effigy, thus allowing him to participate in the tale and realize the looming warrior-muse that peered over Howard's shoulder and inspired his weird accounts of dark heroes. Below, from the Dark Man, the hero Black Turlough fights to save his beloved Moria from her Viking kidnappers and Howard literally captures his vision of his muse:
And over all towered the Dark Man. To Turlough's shifting glances, caught between the flash of sword and ax, it seemed that the image had grown - expanded - heightened; that it loomed giant-like over the battle; that its head rose into the smoke-filled rafters of the great hall; that it brooded like a dark cloud of death over these insects who cut each other's throats at its feet. Turlough sensed in the lightening sword-play and the slaughter that this was the proper element of the Dark Man. Violence and fury were exuded by him. The raw scent of fresh-spilled blood was good to his nostrils and these yellow-haired corpses that rattled at his feet were sacrifices to him. iii

•If there is any bridge between Howard's work and Lovecraft, it is Bran and his Picts. Lovecraft and Howard had extensive conversations about the Picts and their historic origins. As Bran and his Picts constitute a majority of Howard's 'weird' sword & sorcery landscapes, they resonated with me.  Karl Edward Wagner is worth mentioning here. He constructed a convincing novel length pastiche of Bran Mak Morn called Legions of the Shadows (1976). He was also a well respected horror writer and anthology editor and, like his predecessors, had a fascination with art, which is demonstrated in his Kane story Dark Muse and his short story Sticks (1974). Although I enjoyed the extended insight into Bran Mak Morn's world, I still felt the need to build on the Pict's connection to divine art. 

•I needed to populate Lords of Dyscrasia, and what better civilization to extrapolate from than the Picts, the 'colored' aborigines of the haunted isles of England? There is a subtle reason Picts appeal to me: their evolution in fiction and myth has paralleled that of the artistic dwarf culture. The subterranean and artistic nature of the stereotypical dwarf has always appealed to me. Dwarves are the fantastical representation of demiurges, workers of the chaos of the universe, transmuting the nothingness and divinity of ether in material substance. In Norse tradition, the dwarves of Nidavellir lived in caverns working magical forges. These Norse myths mingled their way into the fairy tradition of the England, in which elves, dwarves, and fairies seem to descend from outcast natives that sought refuge underground. The precise cultural identity of the Picti is quite complicated, and Lovecraft influenced Howard's writing by educating him on the influence of Mongoloid cultures.i


•i Howard, R. E. (2005). Bran Mak Morn The Last King. New York, N.Y., Del Rey Ballantine Books. p327

•ii Howard, R. E. (1996). Introduction, Bran Mak Morn. Riverdale, NY, BAEN. p ix

•iii Howard, R. E. (1931). The Dark Man. Weird Tales, Popular Fiction Publishing