Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Post

The recent post by Parvum Opus about Christmas crackers reminded me of the cracker-pulling scene in the 1913 Russian silent stop-action animated film, The Insects’ Christmas, by Ladislav Starewicz. If you have never seen this, please click on the link to Youtube and watch it now. Those not already familiar with Starewicz probably think that I am tricking you into watching something scary, but I guarantee that you will be charmed by this short film and that it will become your new holiday tradition. Let me know in the comments what your favorite part was--mine is perhaps the breaking ornament, or the doll that keeps waking up. Incidentally, Fröhliche Weihnachten! is German for Merry Christmas.

Father Christmas is distributing the presents to the insects.

Pulling the cracker. One would imagine that inviting Mr. Frog to an insects’ celebration would be a disaster, but I suppose that Father Christmas knows what he's doing.

I haven’t been out much recently, but the other day I went to the electronics plaza, and this tree outside was cleverly decorated with neon ornaments showing computers, digital cameras, cell phones, cd’s, etc.

The Taiwanese don’t seem to have gotten Santa quite right;  he’s not as jolly as in the Western version. Maybe it’s his glaring expression or emaciated body, or perhaps it’s that gun he’s reaching for.

You better watch out! 

If that’s what Santa is like in Taiwan, it’s just as well that there are no chimneys or fireplaces here. For those of you in more temperate places, I would like to wish everyone a Happy Holiday Season.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Weird Chinese Antiques: An Anti-Pilfering Device

In Chinese galleries and museums, we see impressive examples of carved jades, imperial porcelains, and Ming furniture. However, a whole other world of Chinese antiques and artifacts exists, objects which people used in their daily lives. Many of these are easily recognizable, such as mirrors, paperweights, or teacups. Others are remarkable for their strangeness, either in form or decoration, hence this new series dedicated to exploring them.

I don't use the word 'weird' in any negative way, but rather in its sense of fantastic or bizarre, something that stimulates the imagination to wonder about the people who created it, and what needs they had that these items could fulfill. 

Objects can be weird in different ways. Some are strange only to Western eyes, but familiar in Asia, for example the constant use of bats and dragons. Others are obsolete and strange to modern eyes, but familiar in earlier times. Many had a very specific use only known to specialists, things like spokeshaves or watchmaker's tools.

At the very highest level of oddity are those relics with no conceivable use or explanation, but which have survived nonetheless. The patina of time usually manages to enhance the strangeness and mystery of these obscure vestiges of the past, which are among the most delightful to seek out and collect.

In short, a weird antique is anything that evokes a sense of wonder and delight, that serves as a window to a dramatically different place, age, or mindset.

Mystery Object #1
First let me thank you for all of your perceptive and interesting guesses. Many realized that the pattern on the face was meant to be transferred, but the question remained transferred to what?

This maze-like object is a device to prevent pilferage of flour or other grains. Flour was kept in a barrel, and when meals were prepared the housekeeper would measure out the needed quantity, then press this onto the surface of the flour to make a design, so it would be easy to tell if the flour were later disturbed. (This flour print would work equally well in a restaurant or store.)

The light was somewhat harsh. The wood actually looks richer and more natural.

The old days are constantly touted for their honesty and ingrained moral values, but people back then were in the habit of putting locks on almost everything. Think of most antique furniture—a lock on every drawer and cabinet door. Closer to the kitchen, tea caddies were always provided with locks to prevent filching of tea leaves.

Fair or not, servants were distrusted, and supplies kept under lock and key. Jennifer Davies’ excellent book The Victorian Kitchen outlines the housewife’s daily schedule: “She then went to the store cupboard, unlocked it and doled out any extra provisions that the cook might need for the day.”

It is important to closely examine unusual items before making judgments. The present flour stamp is about eight inches across, and thus the right size to insert in a barrel. The finger grips on the back would likewise have been necessary for a stamp that was meant to be pressed down from above. The labyrinthine design seems to be a variation of the longevity character shou (), frequently found on decorative and lucky objects. The design is very deeply cut, which would work well for flour, but be rather unusual for other purposes.

Some of the alternate suggestions that readers offered deserve careful consideration, as rare objects can be misidentified or have multiple uses. This does look a lot like a printing block, and there might be traces of black ink on the surface. However, print blocks were not cut this deeply, and as a rule are deeply stained with ink. Also they generally were not as attractively finished as this flour stamp, with its nicely rounded back.

This print block shows evidence of much use. The deeper areas in the middle were for replaceable text.

Another suggestion was a mold to make cookies or moon cakes. These pastries, impressed with traditional designs, are still available everywhere. Most are two to four inches wide, but larger ones exist. The problem with using this for moon cakes is that the design was normally carved in the bottom of the cup-like molds, and usually not cut so deeply.

Typical cookie molds, one with a design of butterflies, the other of flowers surrounding a double-happiness symbol.

Several people noted the maze-like appearance of the design. This vaguely resembles some of the patterns on ancient bronzes, but this is another point requiring research. It does work as a maze, even if not a very challenging one:

Follow the maze. Two solutions ending at points A and B.

Have you encountered anything like this, or any unusual anti-theft devices, either as an antique or perhaps in an old novel? I have not met with another of these, although I now have something to look for in the kitchens of house museums. So there you have it—flour stamp, cake mold, or printing block? I think that the preponderance of evidence points to an anti-pilferage device, not to mention that explanation makes the best story.

(All objects and photos property of the author.)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Mystery Object—What Is It?

This post marks the inauguration of a new series, tentatively called Weird Chinese Antiques, featuring items that perhaps are more remarkable for their oddity than for their decorative value. In addition, I have always enjoyed those What-is-it? columns, in which readers guess the function of some no longer familiar article, so I am inviting all conjectures as to the identity of this object:

The item presented here is carved out of wood, and is about eight inches across and about an inch thick. As far as I am aware, these are no longer in use, and I somehow doubt that even in their heyday, these were in high demand in the average household.

Although this all but gives it away, here is the reverse side. The patterned side alone gives an inadequate sense of this as a 3-dimensional object.

Maybe you’ve seen one of these, and know what it is, otherwise please take your best guess.

(Mystery object and photo property of the author.)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Chinese Scholar’s Studio -- Paperweights

In Asian cultures, the art of writing has assumed a much greater significance than the simple transmission of texts; calligraphy is regarded as one of the high arts. Many of the Emperors were expert calligraphers, and their writings from centuries ago are still used as models. The ability to write and draw well, and to understand classic examples of calligraphy, became part of the basic equipment of educated people.

A veritable cult grew up around the art of calligraphy, and this soon encompassed the various tools used to produce the scrolls of writing and ink paintings. The scholar’s studio became a place of incredible refinement, and the finest artists and materials were employed to create the related accoutrements. Many of these are museum pieces and out of the range of an ordinary collector, but writing utensils are so integral to Asian culture that it is possible to seek out attractive and unusual items.

To begin with, there are the Four Treasures of the scholar’s table: the writing brush; the ink-stick; the ink-stone; and the paper. Brushes held vertically are used for both writing and painting. Ink comes in solid sticks, which are ground with water on the ink-stone to produce liquid ink. There are in addition many allied items that aid in the production of calligraphy. Some of these will be covered in the future; today’s post concerns paperweights.

Chinese paperweights fall into two categories. The calligraphy type, long and thin, is used to hold down the edges of paper scrolls when displaying or painting on them, while the novelty type can take any shape and so resemble Western examples.  Most of the weights are decorated with Chinese good luck symbols and other traditional emblems.

Click on images to enlarge.
This leaping fish paperweight above is among my favorite examples of the calligraphy type. The design possesses great vitality, with its swirling waves, golden fish, and rocks or mountains jutting from the water. The empty spaces between the raised elements also allow it to serve as a brush rest. Interestingly, the base metal under the enamel is not brass or bronze, but copper, an unusual metal for Chinese objects. 

Calligraphy weights often came in sets, with one engraved design spread over the individual pieces. These three white brass bars are all orphans from various sets. The one with half a deer on it is obviously of a higher class of engraving; it is a pity that its companions have become lost.
Detail of the engraving. The lovely color of white brass is not easily captured in photographs.

These three weights are so handy that they are among the few objects that I have not put away. Their long shape, perfect for holding down curling edges, makes them invaluable for photographing books and paper items.

Cut from rock crystal, this paperweight also serves as a brush rest.

An iron calligraphy-style weight features ancient coins.

This poorly-photographed commemorative inscribed weight is of gray marble.
Another white brass paperweight, this time in the shape of a sword:

Many objects can serve as paperweights, but some are specifically made for the purpose, such as these yuan bao (money ingots) on stands. One is somewhat vintage and the other is new; obviously this design has not changed much over the years.

 What initially looks like a miniature ship's wheel is an important Buddhist symbol, cast in bronze:

  I was powerless to resist this iron lobster:

Paperweights are universal objects which transcend many boundaries of time and place. The fact they are so easily improvised using any ordinary rock or solid object has the ironic effect of making some people seek ever more lavish and costly ones. They are fun to collect because they are small, yet heavy and solid in the hand, exhibit great variety, and additionally are still useful for their original purpose. Do you have a favorite paperweight or object that you use as one, such as a stone or fossil?

All objects and photographs from the collection of the author.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cihu: Taiwan’s most surreal tourist site

Taiwan has many traditional tourist sites, loaded with beautiful scenery, monuments, and architecture, which reflect Taiwan's long and varied history. One of its most interest sites, Cihu, is remarkable for a different quality, its sheer air of unreality.

Cihu is a short drive from Taipei City and the Taoyuan Airport, and well repays a visit, but first you must understand a little of the history of Taiwan and Chiang Kai-Shek. When the Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949, General Chiang brought the Nationalist government to Taiwan, where he served as President until his death in 1975.

As a result of his importance and long reign, statues of him were put up everywhere, including virtually every park, school and public building. However, in recent years, Chiang Kai-Shek has become somewhat of a political football, and many of these statues were taken down.

That is where Cihu comes in. Cihu was Chiang's home in Taiwan, and in fact his former house has become his mausoleum. There was a small lake and park attached to the house, and when the Chiang statues were taken down elsewhere in Taiwan, Cihu offered to provide a home for them. 

Chiang Kai-Sheks for all tastes and attitudes. (Click on any picture to enlarge.)

The result was the Cihu Memorial Statue Park (慈湖紀念雕塑公園), perhaps the world’s most bizarre memorial, with hundreds of Chiang Kai-Shek statues and busts edging the lake and scattered around the grounds. These statues are of many materials and different poses, and are mounted singly and in surreal conversational groups, all of the same person.

You will first want to visit the Chiang Mausoleum. People line up and wait patiently to file one by one past his sarcophagus in his former living room, where visitors pay their respects by bowing as they pass by. It is a solemn moment, and you wonder what is passing through the minds of the older people who remember Chiang, perhaps even fought with him, and whose lives were greatly influenced by Chiang and the period of Chinese history which he represents.

Chiang's sarcophagus in his former house. No photos were allowed inside, so this is from Wikipedia.

These serious thoughts are replaced by those of amazement as you pass on to the Statue Park. Rather than attempt to describe them, I’ll let the statues speak for themselves:  

Most of these standing Chiang Kai-Sheks are slightly larger than life-sized.

This dashing equestrian statue adds some flair to the mix.

With those beautiful woods and mountains in the background, one can see why Chiang loved his home at Cihu.

A row of Chiang Kai-Shek busts on pedestals borders the lake.

A large bronze seated statue is missing a few parts.

Standing perpetually can be tiring, so these seated Chiang Kai-Sheks are taking it easy.
The designers of the park did a very good job. They did not crowd the statues or have so many that it would become overwhelming or like visiting a storage facility. In spite of the surreal aspect, the park retains a pleasant and intimate quality.

That hillside might be a good spot for a picnic.

This bust seems to be sinking into its pedestal.
While these statues have been removed from many sites around Taiwan, there has been no major effort to obliterate Chiang’s memory. It is true that the Chiang Kai-Shek Airport was officially renamed the Taoyuan International Airport, and several large-scale memorials were dismantled, including the monumental statue in the National Palace Museum.

However, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Plaza in Taipei is unaltered, and with its concert and exhibition halls, gardens, and spacious plaza, is an important place for both locals and tourists. And there are still many local statues and monuments scattered about. While some sites have been shorn of their Chiang statues, perhaps the mass display at Cihu provides an even stronger focus for remembering Chiang Kai-Shek and reflecting on his life and accomplishments.

A wide variety of poses visible here.

What is the most bizarre tourist site that you have come across? Please let me know what you think of Cihu park—whether you find it insane or an apt memorial.

(All photos except Chiang’s sarcophagus taken by the author.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The New England Hurricane of 1938

The recent devastations of Hurricane Sandy have prompted comparison with other great storms of the past, including the Hurricane of 1938, one of the fiercest storms to hit New England. 

The 1938 hurricane is still legendary, and not long ago I acquired some original photographs of the hurricane's damage along the Connecticut coast.

It is difficult to compare the impact of different storms, because the damage from hurricanes is spread over so wide an area, and some localities are hit much harder than others, not to mention that the country has been built up in the last seventy-odd years. Furthermore, one can't always tell from photographs the true extent of the damage. For example, loss of life, underground flooding, or the historic value of destroyed property may not be evident in the pictures.

Here is a selection of photographs that indicate the force of the wind and the water back in 1938:

Boats blown across the road into yards.

The decking torn off, these docks are reduced to forests of pilings.

Extensive rubble and many displaced boats.

These buildings were tossed around quite a bit, almost like a tornado.

Rubble and a torn-off roof. I assume the hanging laundry was part of the cleanup, and had not weathered the storm.

I wonder if fire damage was also a factor for this building; the storm spawned many fires.

Collapsed buildings.

This building was blown off its foundation, although the delicate railing remains. There is not much left of the house next door, either.

From its upright position, I wonder whether this large boat was blown in from the water, or just across the tracks.

I am sure that many out there are more capable of interpreting these coastline/nautical photos than I am. If you notice any special features or details, please let me know. (Sorry if these are not as sharp as they could be; the originals are in Ohio, and the scans I have here are not high-resolution.)

There is no way directly to compare the Hurricane of 1938 to Hurricane Sandy or to any other storm. Each storm and disaster should be remembered and memorialized for the effect it had on its world, and serve to remind us of the awesome forces of nature.

(All photos from the collection of the author.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Shadowy World of Night View Postcards

While Hurricane Sandy has temporarily eclipsed such thoughts from many people’s minds, fall weather is remarkable for crisp, clear nights illuminated by a harvest moon, highlighting everyday scenes with an eerie glow and beauty. This dark, mysterious quality inspired night-scene postcards, very popular in the first half of the Twentieth century.

Court Square, Springfield Massachusetts, postmarked 1920

I enjoy collecting these because of their evocative atmosphere and charm. In the frenetic, rapidly changing world of their heyday, night view cards seem to take a step back and relax, and even often to bring a bit of nature back into an artificial and developing world.

Moon over State Capitol and Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut
They often capture the naïve appeal of Currier and Ives prints. In addition, many of them with their spooky drifting clouds, bright moons, and dark color schemes punctuated by yellow-orange lights, are a perfect complement for Halloween.

Columbus, Ohio postmarked 1942

River Front, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Oddly, the photographs on which these cards are based were not really taken at night. These were day scenes, with the clouds, moon, lit windows, and pall of darkness all painted in. Often you will find matched day and night views, identical down to parked cars, strolling pedestrians, or bits of debris on the beach.

San Antonio, Texas

The Perry Monument in Put-in-Bay, commemorating the great hero of the War of 1812

Night-scene cards can be divided into two periods. The first is roughly from 1900 to 1925. These cards often are more romantic in nature, and tend to preserve the night effect by having the dark scene extend to the edges of the cards. The artwork also tends to be a little finer in this period.

Around 1925, Art Deco kicked in, and these cards seemed to have a special affinity with Art Deco ideals, such as geometric shapes and streamers, and blocks of light and color, all of which showed up well with nighttime contrasts. Also, the not-quite-realistic look of these linen-finish cards worked better with night scenes in which atmosphere rather than detail predominated. These later cards frequently have a white border containing the title of the card in black type. Night cards were produced after the 1950’s, but these are often real photographs and outside the scope of this post.

This view of the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska is pure Art Deco.

In my opinion, this painted sky is too bright and colorful, and fails to complement the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This attempt at showing the Temple in Salt Lake City, postmarked 1930, produced an Art Deco masterpiece of lighting.
In addition to important buildings, streetscapes of small towns were popular subjects:

This linen-finish card, postmarked 1943, depicts Columbus Avenue in Sandusky, Ohio

Many night cards reflect the influence of the Ashcan school of gritty, realistic art, showing industrial scenes such as railways, bridges, and docks. Even city skylines were often shown from a vantage point which included a water or harbor view.

Bridge and Skyline in Cleveland, Ohio, postmarked 1954.

Early view of Charlestown Bridge and Boston Elevated. No postmark, but early format is verified by 1906 copyright date.

Restaurant Ship Hotel in Venice, California, postmarked 1910.

Nature was also a favorite theme for these cards, and again water is often involved, partly for its reflective qualities. These scenes, while quite beautiful, can also seem desolate without any sign of human habitation or life.

Moonlight on the Mahoning River, Warren, Ohio--no date, but its early date is evident from the typeface and the lack of a border.

Mt. Hood, Oregon, another early card.

Another use for the moon that people found in 1911.

Night cards are fascinating because they show how the people who produced and purchased them were able to see their world in more than one way. Night has always held a special symbolism in art and literature, indicating things that are to some degree evil or frightening. Night-scene cards, while capturing some of that ‘dark’ mood, also imbue the photos with beauty and color.

Murphy's Hotel in Richmond, Virginia

Special Postscript:
Storm after Nor'easter, Old Orchard, Maine postmarked 1911
This wave-tossed scene of a nor’easter is a special reminder, if any were needed, of Hurricane Sandy that at this moment is severely affecting the United States from the East coast all the way to the Great Lakes. Old postcards or photographs may romanticize storms and disasters, but it is quite different having to live through them.I hope that everyone in Sandy’s path is able to stay safe and secure.

Please let me know if you have a favorite scene here, or whether you have any preference between the ‘old style’ and the ‘Deco style’ cards.

(All cards depicted here in possession of the author.)