Queer Art at the Tate


The Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain is a major undertaking and something I am very pleased to have seen. I’m by no means an art expert, so this is very much an amateur review, but hopefully you’ll find it useful.

One of my main reasons for wanting to go is that the exhibition features several pieces by Simeon Solomon. They are very fine, but the thing you see as you go in is another work by an unfairly ignored Pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn De Morgan. The image above (which has rather poor color rendering – sorry) is “Aurora Triumphans” and represents Dawn escaping the bounds of sleep. Which is all very interesting except that the model for Aurora was a woman who was believed to have been De Morgan’s lover, and who she was fond of painting tied up.

The collection includes a number of well-known pieces including Charles Buchel’s portrait of Radclyffe Hall and William Strang’s portrait of Vita Sackville-West. There are also several Aubrey Beardsley pieces, for those of you who like priapic art. (Personally I love Beardsley’s style, but the prevalence of giant penises is a bit much after a while.)

Another of my favorite pieces (though not so much for the quality of the art) is this one by Walter Crane. It is titled “The Renaissance of Venus” and it looks like a fairly standard mythological picture. It only becomes obviously queer when you know that the model for Venus was a young man called Alessandro de Marco. Crane’s excuse was that his wife would not allow him to use nude women as models, so he had to use men instead. Yeah, right.

Which brings me to the whole vexed question of trans inclusion. In my post on the Claude Cahun exhibition Andrew Butler mentions a feedback card that accuses the exhibition of not having any trans representation. Frankly I think that’s ridiculous.

To start with there is much trans imagery on show. There’s the issue of Picture Post with Roberta Cowell’s coming out story in it. There is a famous photo of Fanny and Stella (which is much sharper in real life than any of the digital versions I have seen). And there are some fascinating photos by John Deakin. One of them is from a series called “drag” which was once thought to be of drag queens but has since been discovered to be of women dressed as drag queens. Another is of a person known only as “Colin”. The originals are in the Getty Archive (e.g. this one) where they are labeled as being of a drag artist, but the Tate notes that we don’t know who Colin was, or how they identified.

There is also a very strange Hockney piece titled “Bertha alias Bernie” which could be seen as representing a trans identity emerging from the original body of the subject.

The curators have made a point of getting trans input on the show. There are cards giving input from people such as Juno Roche and Sabah Choudrey.

It is true that there are no binary trans artists exhibited. The show covers the period 1861-1967, a period in which male homosexuality was illegal in the UK. This was not a time when anyone who was openly and obviously trans was likely to become a famous artist, so I’m not entirely surprised at the absence. But there are at least two artists who identified openly as non-binary. One is Cahun, who is included because they lived in Jersey. The other is Gluck who is the face of the exhibition. Just look at this and try to tell me that this is not a trans person of some sort.

Gluck was assigned female at birth but eschewed that identity. They famously insisted on being known only as Gluck, with no prefixes or suffixes. Anyone who dared refer to them as “Miss Gluck” would be on the receiving end of a mighty strop. Being non-binary is not a new invention. There were people who were proudly non-binary at the beginning of the 20th Century.

There are two pieces by Gluck in the show. The other is “Lilac and Guelder Rose”, a painting of a flower arrangement. This was one of the paintings done for Gluck’s sometime girlfriend, Constance Spry, who was then the official flower arranger for the royal family. I’ve seen lots of pictures of it online, but none of them can capture the remarkable texture of the real thing. Gluck built up layers of paint to make each leaf and petal stand out physically from the canvass.

The painting is displayed in Gluck’s trademark frame style, which is supposed to be painted the same color as the background wall. It’s a shame that the Tate was unable to do that.

Where I will fault the exhibition is on deadnaming. Gluck and Cahun both have their birth names paraded as their “real” identities. I don’t think either of them would be happy about this.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the exhibition. I’m certainly glad I went. My thanks to Clare Barlow and her team for putting it on.

While I was there I had a look around the rest of Tate Britain. As an art gallery it is a bit limited by being devoted to British art. There’s quite a bit of Pre-Raphaelite material in there, but frankly most of them weren’t very good. Solomon was perhaps the best of them, and they treated him abominably when he was arrested for sodomy. De Morgan was also good, but she was a woman and has been passed over because of that. The best Tate Britain can do is John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott”. Personally I much prefer Frank Dicksee’s “La Belle Dame San Merci” which is in Bristol Museum.

What Tate Britain does have is a huge Turner collection. If you have any affinity for the sea you should go take a look. Currently they also have a small William Blake exhibition which I also very much enjoyed. Alongside the Queer Art exhibition they have one devoted solely to David Hockney. I didn’t see that because you needed to book in advance to get in, but I presume it will be rather good. It is a shame, however, that so little of Hockney’s obviously homoerotic art found its way into the Queer Art show.

Claude Cahun at the National Portrait Gallery

Claude Cahun
Seeing as I was in London on Saturday I took the opportunity to stay over and do some art gallery visiting. With this year being the 50th anniversary of the start of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK, there are a lot of interesting exhibitions being staged. The most high profile is the Queer British Art show at Tate Britain. More of that later. Right now I want to talk about Claude Cahun.

Cahun and their partner, Marcel Moore, were French surrealist artists who lived together in Jersey in the 20th Century. Both deliberately adopted gender-neutral names and Cahun at least was adamant that they was neither male nor female. This is reflected in their art. That’s one of Cahun’s many self portraits above. During WWII both Cahun and Moore were active in the French Resistance, and were imprisoned for some time by the Nazis.

Cahun and Moore were forgotten by the British art establishment after the war, but Cahun in particular were rediscovered by a British artist, Gillian Wearing. As far as I can make out, Wearing identifies as female. Certainly all of the self-portraits in which she is being herself are obviously feminine. However, Wearing has a fascination with masks and gendered appearance. She has done many “self” portraits in which she is playing someone else. Her subjects include Cahun, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and various members of her family, including her father and brother. When playing someone else she makes a mask of that person’s face to change her appearance (and in the case of her brother she wore a full body suit to allow her to appear shirtless). The National Portrait Gallery has made the interesting decision to stage an exhibition featuring Cahun and Wearing together.

Gillian Wearing as Claude Cahun

This is Wearing impersonating Cahun in the persona that Cahun used for a famous series of photographs titled, “I am in training don’t kiss me”. The mask that Wearing is holding is of her own face. There is a very large version of this photograph at the opening of the exhibition and it is quite stunning.

What isn’t immediately obvious from Wearing’s impression is that Cahun is dressed as a circus strongman. In the Cahun photos the strongman’s barbells are present. The cute hairdo and makeup are therefore acting to feminize a very masculine figure; a statement that is lost by Wearing.

Personally I found the exhibition quite disturbing. Some of that obviously was a result of the art. Both Cahun and Wearing set out to discombobulate their audience. But what really got to me was the persistent misgendering of Cahun throughout the exhibition. It was as though the National Portrait Gallery, despite prominently quoting Cahun’s self-identification, was insisting that a non-binary identity was invalid, perhaps even impossible, and that therefore Cahun could only be female.

Part of this, I suspect, is that Cahun refuses to abandon their feminine side. These days “androgynous” is often taken to mean “male” by the media. Long hair, feminine clothing, colors coded feminine, and heavy make-up are all deemed inadmissible. Many of the photos of Cahun are recognizably feminine, and indeed the pictures of her on the beach on Jersey remind me of the mental image I have of Tristessa St. Ange from Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. However, many of the images are recognizably masculine, and the fact that Cahun sometimes presents as feminine should not invalidate their non-binary identity.

Mostly, however, I think the NPG is being clueless. There is a common view that non-binary identities are a 21st century invention. The more I learn about the early 20th century, the more obvious it is that this isn’t true. When I get to talking about the Tate exhibition I’ll be mentioning Gluck, who was adamantly ungendered. The NPG manages to be respectful of Lea de Beaumont in their famous portrait of her. They should have extended the same courtesy to Cahun.

A Day at the V&A

The Siege of RanthambohrI spent most of today at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the company of some of their volunteer tour guides, in particular my friend Dan Vo with whom I have worked on various LGBT History projects. I was there to talk to Dan and his colleagues about trans terminology, and how to represent trans people in a respectful and authentic way when talking about them during LGBT-themed tours of the museum. We also took the opportunity to have a look around some of the galleries to see if we could spot some trans-themed exhibits. I’m pleased to say that I found a few. Nothing on quite the scale of a Grayson Perry Vase depicting April Ashley, which has to be their prize exhibit, but I was pleased with what I found.

I also found a mystery, which I’m going to talk about here. The picture to the left is in the South Asia gallery and is one of a series depicting the conquests of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It shows bullocks pulling cannon up a hill to attack the fortress of Ranthambhor in Rajasthan.

Most of the characters in the scene are depicted with facial hair, either mustaches or full beards, and they wear turbans. But my eye happened upon one character in the painting who is clean-shaven and is wearing what looks to be a more feminine style of head covering.

Possible hijraI know nothing about Mughal art, but I do know that hijra were common at the courts of the Mughal emperors. (They were, for obvious reasons, used in the harem as guards and servants, which gave them a place of honor in Mughal society.) So I am now wondering whether the artist has chosen to depict a hijra among Akbar’s army. Dan is going to make inquiries with the museum staff for me to see if anyone knows anything about this. If anyone reading this is an expert on Mughal history, I’d love to hear from you.

At the end of the day I got to see Dan in action doing one of his guided tours. The V&A has a wealth of LGBT+ material and Dan is very knowledgeable. If you happen to be in London on the last Saturday of a month I recommend popping along. You may even get to hear one of the guides talk about an item I found for them. Though of course the tours can’t be too long, there are several depictions of Roman emperors, and I could talk all day about them. Dear Goddess, Tiberius, what were you thinking?

Angela Carter at the RWA

Pomps of the Subsoil - Leonora CarringtonYesterday afternoon, having a couple of hours to kill between radio work and the talk to the medical students, I finally got to see the Angela Carter exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.

What, may you ask, is a writer doing having an exhibition in an art gallery? Well, there is a lot of material. Some of Carter’s books were lavishly illustrated as well as having great covers. Many artists have created works inspired by her writing (Fevvers is a favorite subject, as is Red Riding Hood). And Carter herself was an art lover so the exhibit also includes a number of works that she is known to have been fond of.

I thought it was a great exhibition. Indeed, there is one part of it that I’m not going to talk about because you really have to go and see it for yourself. The only slightly off note for me was the fact that there was no mention of The Passion of New Eve save for a listing of Carter’s works. Given the breadth of work available, I suspect this may have been a curatorial decision.

The exhibition website has a gallery showing many of the works on display. Some of them are much more impressive in reality than as web images. I particularly like “Hades II” by Anna Marie Pacheco and “Grandma’s Footsteps” by Angela Lizon. (Did I mention that most of the art is by women? Of course it is.) However, some of the best work isn’t in the gallery so I have found copies for you here.

The painting at the top is “Pomps of the Subsoil” by surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington. Given that she was a feminist and fond of themes of female sexuality, she’s an ideal person to have in an Angela Carter exhibition. But I am embarrassed to say that my favorite image is one by a man. It is “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton. In my defense I note that Carter was apparently very fond of it too.

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton

Bristol LGBT History Month Alert

Following up on my Sunday post about my schedule for February, it appears that I need to sound a little warning about the Bristol event on Feb. 25th. Daryn Carter from Bristol Pride tells me that they have over 100 people booked in already so if you want a place you should grab one a.s.a.p. The EventBrite site is here.

Further information about the day’s events is available here. I’m assuming that people are mostly coming to see the lady from the Tate, or perhaps for the new Jake Graf film. Fingers crossed what I’ll have to show will hold up in that company. The blurb for my talk is as follows:

Transgender people are mostly absent from recorded history, leading some people to claim that they didn’t even exist until the 20th Century. However, a few interesting characters have found their way into the history books, and for some of them we even have portraits. Cheryl will present artistic images of trans people from the present day back to 2500 BCE.

Hopefully I will see a few of you there.

February On The Road

My dance card is looking pretty much full for February already. It is going to be a very busy month. Here’s some of the events you’ll be able to find me at.

At the beginning of the month I’ll be spending a few days in Barcelona hanging out with people doing cutting edge research into gender in the ancient near east. Here’s the conference program. It looks awesome.

I’ll be spending the weekend of Feb. 11th/12th in Exeter at their LGBT History Festival. I am one of the speakers at the launch event on the Saturday at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, and I’m also giving a talk at the Phoenix on the Sunday. The Saturday talk will be something about the importance of history in trans activism, and the Sunday one is on Trans Women in the Ancient World, which will focus mainly on Mesopotamia and Rome.

On Wednesday 15th I’ll be on the radio talking about some of the things happening in Bristol to mark LGBT History Month. Fingers crossed I’ll have a studio full of guests.

On Saturday 18th I will be in Bournemounth of their LGBT History Festival, and will once again be giving the Trans Women in the Ancient World talk. I’m delighted to see that Bournemouth’s soccer team (who are currently in the Premiership) is one of the sponsors of that event.

On Saturday 25th I will be at the Watershed in Bristol as part of the Art & Us event being staged by Bristol Pride. I’ll giving a talk titled Images of Transgender People in Art Down the Ages, which will cover 4500 years of trans history.

And because there’s just too much happening in February, and not very many days, the academic conference has slipped into March. On the first weekend I will be in Liverpool for the Sexing the Past conference where I will be giving a paper on Gender and Citizenship in Ancient Rome.

So if you want me to do something for you in February I’m likely to have to say no. Hopefully it will be obvious why.

Introducing The Art Detective

One area of the media in which women are doing quite well is history documentaries. I was very pleased, therefore, to discover a new podcast series hosted by Dr. Janina Ramirez. Titled The Art Detective, it will feature a different piece of art each week, and use that to illuminate issues from history. (Yes children, art has always been political, from ancient sculptures to Star Wars movies.)

The series caught my eye because episode #2, released this week, features one of my historical heroes, Empress Theodora of Byzantium. Guesting on the show, because she’s just finished writing a book on Byzantium, is another star of history documentaries, Bettany Hughes. If you know anything about Theodora you can guess how much fun listening to two women historians talking about her is.

Janina has promised may more guest appearances as the series develops. It seems likely that will involve the likes of Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Alice Roberts, Amanda Foreman, Carenza Lewis and so on. And some men, and hopefully some non-binary people, as well.

Of course I have now added to my bucket list getting an appearance on the show. I know exactly which piece of art I want to talk about. It is Sumerian (obviously), and if you turn up to one of my LGBT History Month talks in February you’ll get to see me enthuse about it.

Happy Solstice



I have a radio show to do today (yes, I am working on a religious holiday), so I have scheduled this post in advance.

My annual northern-hemisphere-winter solstice card (posted here in order to save trees and postage costs) comes, as usual, from the fabulous Dru Marland. You can buy physical copies of the picture (and many other fine artworks) from her Etsy shop.

Capricorn is a sea goat and is a representation of the Sumerian god, Enki (Ea in Babylon and Assyria). He’s the guy who, in the myth of Inanna in the Underworld, created a couple of trans people to go and rescue the goddess. Good choice, Dru.

Capricorn is also, of course, the astrological sign with provenance over the midwinter period. And yes, that is Glastonbury Tor in the background.

I hope all of your solstice celebrations go well, and that 2017 manages to be less awful than 2016.

Bristol Celebrates Angela Carter

As some of you will know, Angela Carter attended Bristol University and stayed in the city for many years after graduating. A major new exhibition celebrating her life and work is opening at the weekend. Bristol 24/7 has a preview by way of an interview with the co-curators. It sounds very much from what they say that any influences she might have had from or into the world of speculative fiction will be carefully elided. After all, this is the British arts establishment we are talking about here, and one wouldn’t want to stoop to involvement in -gasp- genre, would one? However, Carter’s work stands for itself so I am sure that there will be lots for us folks to see in the exhibition.

Solstice Shopping

Uffington Hare - Dru Marland
This morning I popped over to Bradford-on-Avon where the canal folk were holding a floating Christmas market. (It will still be on tomorrow if you are local and want to go.) I did so because the Daily Malice‘s War on Non-Christians has made it almost impossible to buy a solstice card in a high street shop. If I want cards to send to friends and family I have to get them from small businesses. Thankfully I have the fabulous Dru Marland to rely on. The above is the card I used last year. If you like it, and want to guess which card I’m using this year, you can see more at Dru’s Etsy shop.

I also discovered SkyRavenWolf, on whose products I could spend an absolute fortune.

Yesterday on Ujima – Art, Books, Steampunk

It was a busy Women’s Outlook show on Ujima yesterday. It started with a full studio as three artists came to tell me all about this year’s North Bristol Arts Trail. SF&F readers will be most interested in the work of Lou Gray who is a set designer, costume maker and puppet maker. I’m very sad that I’ll be out of town the weekend of the Trail because I would love to see her work.

For the second segment I welcomed Rebecca Lloyd, whom some of you may remember was a World Fantasy nominee last year for her collection, Mercy and Other Stories. Her latest book is Oothngbart, which is one of those delightfully uncategorizable novels. Hopefully the interview will give you some idea of the flavor of the book. I’ll try to get a review soon, because it is a lovely story.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

Next up were Kate and Tina, two fabulous ladies who are setting up the Bristol Steampunk Museum. They are looking for all sorts of fun steampunk things to exhibit and sell. They plan to have an online shop as well, so steampunk fans around the world will be able to order from them. The major interest from my point of view is that they also want to host readings of steampunk stories, and I happen to have an entire anthology full of them. I may end up buying some clothing and jewelry too.

Finally I had a pre-recorded interview with Tade Thompson about his newly released novel, Rosewater (which I warmly recommend) and other forthcoming work. We also discussed the newly-formed African Speculative Fiction Society, and there was brief mention of Piracity.

There’s a lot more of that Tade interview. Some of it has been badly mangled by the Internet, but I hope to be able to post a much longer version on Salon Futura in due course.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for yesterday’s show was as follows:

  • Get Up, Stand Up – Bob Marley
  • Expression – Salt ‘n’ Pepa
  • You Gotta Be – Des’ree
  • Working Day ‘n’ Night – Michael Jackson
  • Night Train – James Brown
  • The Ascent – Ren Stedman
  • Automatic – Pointer Sisters
  • Loving the Alien – David Bowie

I’d like to draw your attention in particular to the new Ren Stedman single. It is a charity record. All proceeds are donated to Hesten Lodge Activity & Wellbeing Centre to raise the money to build a sensory room for adults with severe learning disabilities. You can buy it for as little as £1 here.

River Kingdom on Amazon

Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom
Those of you keen to get hold of a copy of the new Juliet McKenna book, Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom, can now find it available to pre-order on Amazon. The US page is here, the Canadian page is here, and the UK page is here. Doing something about Australian availability is on my list.

I was hoping to have a non-Amazon option, but sadly life appears to have got in the way of that.

Of course if you are going to be at BristolCon, Eurocon or Novacon you can get a copy direct from me, which is a win-win-win because you get the book cheaper and both Juliet and I get more of the money. BASFA members, I’ll be getting a box of them shipped to Kevin so you’ll be able to get it from him.

Ben Baldwin tells me that he’s happy to do signed A4 prints of his work at £10 a pop, presumably plus postage. That includes the four Aldabreshin Compass covers as well as River Kingdom. More details can be found at his website. We are talking to Sophie about prints of the map as well.

And because any excuse to re-post this is a good excuse, this is the art I’m talking about.

River Kingdom full cover

River Kingdom Map

River Kingdom Map Reveal

River Kingdom Map - Sophie E Tallis
Hello, lucky people, we have more River Kingdom goodness for you.

This is the map of Juliet McKenna’s new world. It was drawn for us by the fabulous Sophie E. Tallis (who is also a fine writer). You can learn more about Sophie at her website.

What you see above is obviously well shrunk for web display. However, if you click on the image above you can see a full size version. The paperback, sadly, will only have a black and white map, but the ebook version is in color. Hopefully Sophie and I can put together a means for people to get full color copies if they want one.

Talking of the book, the paperback is currently undergoing validation at Lightningsource and the ebook is almost ready. It won’t be available to the public until BristolCon, but if you are a reviewer and would like an ebook version do let me know. We’ll have epub, mobi or PDF.

Arrangements for ordering the paper book from non-piranha sources are underway and will hopefully be announced soon. I’ll also have the book available to buy (at a discount) at BristolCon, Eurocon and Novacon. If you want to make sure you get a copy, please let me know and I’ll reserve one for you. It will be £10 at the conventions.

River Kingdom Cover Reveal

River Kingdom cover
As announced last month, Wizard’s Tower will shortly be launching a brand new book by Juliet E. McKenna. This fabulous cover is by Ben Baldwin. I’ll be announcing details of how to pre-order the book soon. In the meantime, here’s some blurb.

Imaginary friends should be a comfort when other consolations fail. But what if these longed-for companions think different? What if they’re none too pleased to be summoned? What if untamed magic can spawn creatures from daydreams or nightmares? Could something eerie half-glimpsed in a shadow actually be there?

Shadow Histories of the River Kingdom introduces a brand new fantasy setting from acclaimed author Juliet E McKenna. This volume brings together stories previously available in a range of publications, not all easily found, as well as some new material.

Welcome to the River Kingdom, where shadows can be all too solid and dangerous.

And here’s the full wrap-around.

riverkingdomfull

The book has a really great map by Sophie E. Tallis as well. Sadly we can’t do color, fold-out interiors, but something else interesting may happen.

The Chesleys

Uncanny004

The Hugos are by no means the only awards to be given out at Worldcon. Another very significant set of awards is the Chesleys, given by the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists (ASFA). Locus has a full list of winners and finalists. I’d like to highlight a few that pleased me.

First up, adding to the diversity of the weekend and a fantastic Worldcon for Uncanny Magazine, Best Cover Illustration – Magazine was won by Tran Nguyen for the cover of Uncanny #4 (see above).

Second, Best Art Director was won by Neil Clarke for his work on Clarkesworld, which is an amazing achievement given that he’s up against professional art directors in big publishing houses. Well done, (ex-)Boss!

Kinuko Y. Craft won the Lifetime Artistic Achievement award, which is richly deserved.

And finally a nod to my good friend John Picaccio who picked up Best Product Illustration for one of his Loteria cards (see below).

ElArbol

1941 Hugo Envy

1941Retro

That’s the 1941 Retro Hugo trophy. Isn’t it gorgeous? Sadly even I am not old enough to have been in the running for one of those.

The trophy base was designed by Brent Simmons and the photo is by Fred Teifeld (permission for non-commercial and journalistic uses with attribution granted. All other rights reserved.).

The full results of the 1941 Retro Hugos are available here. I’m pleased with quite a few of those, especially Fantasia, but cringed over the Novel result. I have nothing against the book itself, but Slan has become a byword for fannish elitism.

The 2016 Hugos will be presented tonight. You should be able to follow all of the action via text-based commentary from Kevin, Mur and myself here. There should be video via UStream as well, but there will be the usual bandwidth issues and probably an un-moderated comment feed.

Tom of Finland Exhibition

MyLittleTom
One thing I definitely wanted to see while I was in Finland was the Tom of Finland exhibition at the Taide Halli (Art Hall) in Helsinki. They currently have a huge selection of Tom’s art on display, along with a large number of reference collages that he made from magazines that he scoured for pictures of good-looking young men.

By going there I discovered two things I had not known before about Touko Laaksonen. First up, he was a war hero, having been given a medal for his part in the defense of Helsinki against Russian bombing raids in WWII. Second, he was a classically trained pianist and a very good jazz musician.

The thing that surprised me most, however, was the My Little Tom of Finland pony they had in the gift shop. It is by Mari Kasurinen, who has done pony versions of many other well known people, including Darth Vader, Skeletor and Wonder Woman. You can see the whole collection here. Her My Little Cthulhu is another masterpiece.

I can’t do a post like this without including some of Tom’s art. This is the piece that both Otto and I liked best from the exhibition. Of course to be truly topical the globe needs to be rotated a bit.

TomGlobe
The gift shop, and many stores around Helsinki, also had a selection of Tom-themed gifts. There was coffee, and also a wide range of home furnishings from Finlayson. If you really want Tom of Finland art on your sheets and pillowcases you can do so.

Finland Update

Iisalmi Church Outside
My apologies for the lack of blogging over the past few days. That’s partly due to being on the road, partly due to lack of wifi access (I get free roaming in Finland on my phone, but that doesn’t include tethering), and partly due to my being so boggled by the goings on back home that I have no idea what to say. Here, in lieu of anything more intelligent, is a little bit of Finnish history.

Well, sort of history anyway. The basic facts are true, but I have embellished them somewhat. Also I have translated the mythic context from Finnish to Scandinavian. That’s partly because you folks will be far more familiar with Scandinavian folklore, and partly because the Finns don’t have an equivalent of frost giants. Irma tells me that, like the forest, snow is something that Finns are not afraid of. They see both things as something that keeps them safe from invaders rather than a threat.

Iisalmi Church Inside 1
Once upon a time the people of Iisalmi decided that they would like to have a church of their own. They had been Christian for many generations, but there had never been a church in their town, so they decided to build one. They built the church out of wood, but this proved to be a mistake because Thor was angry with them for deserting him. He threw a bolt of lightning at the church and it burned to the ground.

The people of Iisalmi determined not to be cowed by pagan gods. Swiftly they erected a new church. But they did so in such a hurry that the first time a frost giant stomped past that winter it fell down.

Iisalmi Church Inside 2
Still the people of Iisalmi refused to be beaten. They decided to build a church out of stone that no one could burn or knock down. Stone churches are expensive, so they collected a great of money and silver to pay for it. They put all of this wealth in a great wooden chest with seven locks. But Loki saw all of this treasure are determined to have it for himself. He sent thieves to steal it, giving them magic with which to open the seven locks and get away unseen.

With their money stolen, the people of Iisalmi had no choice but to build in wood once more. They were, of course, afraid that their church would be demolished again, so they got together to decide how to proceed. After much discussion the people decided to build a church so beautiful that no one, not even pagan gods, would dare to destroy it. That is what they did, and the church is still standing today.

Iisalmi Church Inside 3
I should note that the church has been renovated several times since it was built, but they have tried to stick to an 18th Century look for it.

I note also that the altarpiece was painted by a woman, Alexandra Såltin. Apparently her work was well known and she did paintings for several other churches in the area.

Introducing Adela Breton

Yesterday’s history conference was held in the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (yes, of course Bath has such a thing). On the ground floor of the building there was a remarkable exhibition celebrating the life and work of a 19th Century Bath archaeologist and artist, Adela Breton. Ms. Breton spent much of her life in Mexico painting Aztec and Maya cities. As with most other pioneering women scientists, her work has been largely forgotten.

Breton’s faithful recording of the ancient cities have proved invaluable to archaeologists, but the most amazing thing she did was produce recreations of the decorative friezes on the buildings, in full color. Note that this is not a case of an artist fancifully colorizing an ancient artifact, this is an archaeologist painstakingly examining a site for evidence of pigments, and recreating the art as it would have looked when the site was inhabited.

Here’s a frieze from the Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén Itzá as it looks now.

JaguarsOriginal

And here is Breton’s recreation.

JaguarsColored

My favorite piece from the exhibition is this amazing image of a bat demon. The Maya apparently associated bats with the underworld, because they live in caves.

BatDemon

The exhibition in Bath will continue to October 1st, so do pop in if you happen to be in town. Bristol Museum will be doing something soon too.