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Taronga Zoo: Sydney

Europe Sketches 1975: Reflections


o best describe myself as the author of this creative project is to say that I am basically a visual person with a taste for the macabre who delights in using words. Just like Keith Hansen the artist uses paint to create an impression of the symbolism of the secret language of being too human.

Europe Sketches 1975: Creatures of Mythology

FIGURE 4.01. Etruscan horses, Tarquinia, South of Italy SOURCE: Keith Hansen

he mythology of how legends are woven about creatures’ real or imagined has always fascinated me even as a child especially after seeing the red winged horse displayed in the format of the Mobil brand at the gasoline station in Arncliffe, New South Wales, Australia, so long ago. The term I believe is referred to as Pegasus created from the blood of the beheaded Medusa. The legend of the disempowerment of the feminine gender should be a timely lesson for women in positions of power in the twenty-first century. When considering the meaning of the name Medusa (sovereign female wisdom). There appears to always be the scapegoat syndrome in recorded history either through mythology or preceded mistrust that women are always to blame for the ills of this civilised society so-called whether in the past or the present. A perfect interpretation of this malady of blame is that "some people believe that the mythological beheading of the Gorgon Medusa symbolises the domination of patriarchal society." Keith Hansen was so inspired by these exquisite Etruscan hand-painted terra cotta frieze of two winged horses of the Pegasus mould from the 6th century B.C., which are the perfect example of the amazing craftsmanship of the artisans who rarely ever worked in metal or marble: please refer to figure 4.02., below. He crafted his own interpretation of these winged creatures deemed to be sourced either from mythology or reality as the details of form seem too precise of the original. The outcome were the whimsical shapes of fancy created through the application of ink and charcoal on paper with blue watercolour: please refer to figure 4.01., above.
FIGURE 4.02. Etruscan Horses Tarquinia SOURCE: Ulrich Mayring, 2007.
FIGURE 4.03. 3D Zebra SOURCE: Keith Hansen

I always had a fondness for the zebra mainly because the appearance of this horse-like creature could so easily be sourced from mythology: please refer to figure 4.03., above. Keith Hansen has informed me that he does so like to create the unusual as a fragment of memory within Europe Sketches and so this three-dimensional sketch of the zebra crafted with lead pencil and crayon ever so grey from the real breathing creature somewhere in Rome at the zoo in the 1970s. Lastly there is the sketch of the Porcellio: please refer to figure 4.04., below. The subject of this inspiration which caused Keith to recall a story about how he placed one of his hard-earned coins into the mouth and rubbed the snout for good luck. He walked away assured that his wish would be honoured. Regrettably for Keith, there was a gypsy lurking in the shadows ever so watchful and he stole the coin so this artist's wish was never granted. There is Keith's final word on the gate-keeper namely the night-owl, this mythological creature of the night, the spirit world and the dreamscape of humans is "the owl is the guardian of souls. Trust your instinct and go with the owl." This accounts for why the owl is Keith's talisman which is continually represented in paintings, sketches and woodblock prints.

  FIGURE 4.04. Porcellio, Florence SOURCE: Keith Hansen

Europe Sketches 1975: the Bubonic Plague

FIGURE 3.01. Poveglia - the haunted island of Venice SOURCE: Keith Hansen

his sketch of Poveglia – the haunted island of Venice from Keith Hansen’s European portfolio of artwork; please refer to figure 3.01., above. I have modified the original sepia-toned sketch with certain hues of blueish colour tinted with yellow to instill the eerie sense of creepiness associated with this former quarantine station and insane asylum. Poveglia is also often referred to as the spooky isle of the damned because of the macabre history of the bubonic-related deaths' and the inhuman treatment of the insane. The topsoil of the island is believed to at least fifty-percent of the ashes of the plague victims who were as a rule burned alive in the cremation pits to help stem the spread of the bubonic plague. When any symptoms associated the plague (also referred to as the Black Death from the times of ancient Rome) exhibited within children or babies. These unfortunates would be thrown into pits of decomposing corpses to die among the festering collective of diseased flesh. In the present day in the twenty-first century most fishermen are somewhat loath to fish anywhere this cursed place because of the cremated ashes and human bones which sometimes wash into the sea. There are also the ghosts of the former insane asylum which linger within the memory of the crumbling walls of the various buildings which is often referred to as 'stone tape theory.' This institution of malpractice was discontinued either after the suicide or murder of this doctor as yet unnamed. The cause of his demise is open to conjecture. Firstly his broken body was consumed by a white mist with acid-like tendencies. Secondly he was walled up alive in the bell tower by persons unknown to atone for the practice of the experimental lobotomy surgery on various mental patients who had no redress or say in the matter. This doctor also had certain culinary expectations of a cannibalistic nature and therefore it stands to reason that he ate some of his patients. 

FIGURE 3.02 The dance of death SOURCE: Michael Wolgemut 1495

I picked this example of this woodblock print of the macabre nature of the dance of death (danse macabre) of what is referred to as plague art so as to continue with the uncanny themes: please refer to figure 3.02., above. In the twentieth century, in 1975, Keith Hansen has visited this haunted space of Poveglia in the daylight hours. And even then he felt the unease and the creepy nature of the vibes of the lost souls and the utter neglect of the buildings. The lush greenery has reclaimed most of the island with just the rusted remnants of civilisation so-called  such as an enamel white bath-tub exposed to the open air seemingly odd yet quite normal. The surreal visual of the corroded metal fixtures in the crumbling shells of the abandoned buildings were intriguing from a artist's perspective. The unexpected sensation of the dried blood and charred bones smell was unsettling to the psyche of this overly sensitive man. Sometimes in unguarded moments of reflection there is the unwanted memory of walking on cremated human remains. This island of death is extremely toxic and is off-limits to tourists and locals because of the paranormal aspect of being the cemetery of the damned.

       FIGURE 3.04 the Plague Doctor SOURCE: Eugen Hollander 1921

The history of the plague doctor of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries is indeed a intriguing one judging from a story told to me by my Australian cousin John. He was widely known for his expertise as 'the repair doctor,' in the medical possession in the twentieth century in Melbourne, Australia. The problem here was that the bubonic plague was out of control when the decision was made to hire these medieval equivalents of medical practitioners who were on the whole were considered to be the ideal candidates for the blame game for the deaths of the citizens of Venice and Rome. Most of these men were apothecaries, the forerunner of the chemist. They knew how to protect their own health against infection with an ancient recipe of distilled herbs which eventually acquired the name of 'four thieves vinegar." This medical remedy of alchemy, dating back to the times of the original Egypt and Thoth: please refer to figure 3.04., below. The beak of the mask of the plague doctor was padded with a sponge soaked in this antiseptic vinegar which was also used as a throat gargle and body wash: please refer to figure 3.03., above. This anti-plague remedy's main ingredients were garlic and lavender with variations on the theme depending on the availability of the other herbs also needed for this concoction. The shape of the bird-of-prey mask represents the combined symbolism of the Ibis and the raven.

FIGURE 3.04. Thoth SOURCE:  Jean-Francois Champolion

Firstly the Ibis is also representative of Thoth the first scribe who is considered to be the patron god of medicine: please refer to figure 3.04., above. Secondly the raven is also considered to be the messenger of the gods and thirdly the black feathers of this bird-of-prey were considered to be the omen of death. Therefore the plague doctors' became the unwilling symbols of the harbingers of death. The garment, hat, gloves and shoes had to be black in colour to discourage the ghosts of the bubonic plague dead from haunting the plague doctors' at least. The wearing of black renders one invisible to the newly departed as this is a long-held belief going back centuries, in European and English-based culture and that is why the mourners always wore black. There is an Oriental mythology that there was a plague daemon who originated in China which is mentioned at great length in quite a creepy novel, The Plague Lord, penned by the lecturer and historian Paul Doherty.  This reference reminds me of a quotation regarding my late mother's wisdom,about how "mythology is based on a kernel of truth misplaced." The reference point here is the Oriental flea which was responsible for all the plagues in Venice and Rome: please refer to figure 3.05., below. 

FIGURE 3.05 Oriental rat flea SOURCE: Herms William Brodbeck, 1915
FIGURE 3.06 Church of Santa Maria della Salute SOURCE: Keith Hansen

In a attempt to appease for the sins of too many - several plague churches were built in honour of the Virgin Mary such as this example of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute: please refer to figure 3.06., above. The whole structure of the church seems to be bathed in pastel blue shades of night with the sailing boats of wood outlined with sharpish dabs of varying  shades of amber. The dome-like roof is representative of the crown of stars and the interior of the church is the womb of creation. A pledge was made to this sainted mother that if the population of Venice were spared from any further outbreaks of the bubonic plague, a church would be elected as the place of sacred worship. Every year on the anniversary of the completion of this religious tribute there is the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, to give thanks for the deliverance from the pestilence that claimed too may lives. This is an interesting take on how faith can be the most powerful medicine of all if you have the courage to believe. 

Happy Halloween

Europe Sketches 1975: The Bridge of Sighs

FIGURE 2.01. The Nude and the Bridge of Sighs SOURCE: Europe Sketches

eith Hansen also attended  art classes in Venice and the nude sketch which is skilfully rendered in salmon-pinkish crayon and charcoal is a cherished memento of a beautiful example of the human female form. The Bridge of Sighs - Venice is also constructed with just enough detail to perk one's interest in regard to both pages of Europe Sketches: please refer to figure 2.01 above. Lord Byron was fundamental in renaming this architectural marvel of white limestone, the 'bridge of sighs,' in his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt which appears to have too many stanzas and as such just one will be selected: please refer to figure 2.02 below. There is also the mythology about how eternal love can be assured for couples who kiss underneath this particular bridge wishing to engage for a lifetime of wedded bliss or hell depending on your viewpoint. Keith inferred that walking over the said bridge was indeed a creepy experience. The reason being the claustrophobic nature of the passageway and the fact of trying to see through the stone lattice windows is somewhat problematic because of the smallness of the design. The macabre history concerning the prisoners who were on the whole female witches may be of interest to the readership with the most famous inmate of all namely Giacomo Girolamo Casanova: please refer to figure 2.03., below. Casanova was imprisoned in one of the cells within the Doges Palace for his "public outrages against the holy religion," as inferred in the online article Who was Casanova. This famous Venetian ladies man also invented the use of just one lemon halve as a preventative against falling pregnant which resulted in the design of the Dutch cap contraceptive. 

 FIGURE 2.02 Canto the fourth I SOURCE: Lord Byron
FIGURE 2.03 Portrait of Casanova SOURCE: Adriano
FIGURE 2.04 the devil and witches SOURCE: Guazzo, F. C. 1929.

This woodblock print scanned from the page fourteen of the Compendium  Maleficarum (Book of Witches) showing the devil bearing witness to the unholy actions of two witches of both genders. The cross deemed to be a sacred symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth in Medieval times. This image of this particular daemon dating back to the 1600s bears an uncanny likeness to some stone gargoyles within the present-day of the twenty-first century. Keith Hansen has also painted two examples of what would be regarded to be the art of the grotesque carved by the old-school stonemason, namely the griffin and the gargoyle. These two examples are showcased within his favourite subject of inspiration, the San Giorgio Maggiore Church, Venice. The first painting which depicts quite a spooky example of the gargoyle suggestive of a somewhat pensive daemon, (meaning the guardian angel from the ancient Greek)apparently unable to fly because of the smallish wings: please refer to figure 2.05., below. The execution of the oils on the canvas have indeed produced an unearthly tones of sinister intent in the stone-like grey of this creature designed to be just  a medieval decorative expression of the talisman of protection against the forces of evil. The church and the buildings in the background are bathed in soft pastel-shades of sepia reflecting back into the mirror-like surface of the water of the Grand Canal. The gondolas are just black shapes moored securely until the new morning heralds a new day bleeding into the water. Too many storm clouds obscure the midnight blue of the dying night.      

FIGURE 2.05 San Giorgio Maggiore Church - Gargoyle SOURCE: Keith Hansen

The second painting is quite a quaint rendition of this stone griffin meaning (the guardian of anything too precious to lose from the ancient Persian)a composite of the lion and the eagle: please refer to figure 2.06., below. The religious landmark of Venice in the background of the painting is dabbed with the creamy brushstrokes of an overcast day within the strange aspect of the unoccupied gondolas', decidedly creepy. So Gothic, also in the way the black painted gondolas' cast a sinister vibe of the uncanny theme of the macabre. Occasionally, you will see a collection of arranged man-made stone spheres that my late mother always referred to as devils' eggs; regrettably there was never any clarification about this taboo subject of the occult. There is a present-day example of these stone spheres on the campus of the University of Sydney, Australia - quite unnerving. The only concrete fact of these yet to be defined objects is that these spheres are always made of stone and usually placed at the entrance of the building.  And yes there are also stone gargoyles aplenty on the Gothic-like building which was the original Fisher library which has been renamed the MacLaurin Hall. In the rare books section of the Fisher library there is a publication entitled Australia's first: a pictorial history of the University of Sydney 1850 - 1990. Strangely enough on page eighteen there is a photograph of a gargoyle and a griffin, circa 1907. This hand-carved examples of the stonemasons' craft inspired by mythology.
FIGURE 2.06. San Giorgio Maggiore Church - Griffin SOURCE: Keith Hansen
FIGURE 2.07. Stone Spheres (devils' eggs) SOURCE: Marjorie Savill Linthwaite