Festina Lente part 2: Some Thoughts on Emblems and Still Lifes

If I paint a hammer and sickle people may think it is a representation of Communism, but for me it is only a hammer and sickle. I just want to reproduce the objects for what they are, not for what they mean.

In my earlier post on cycling, I focused on the motto Festina Lente, hurry slowly. I didn’t get into the emblems associated with that motto. There are two that Calvino calls out: A dolphin wrapped around an anchor, produced by Aldus Manutius near the start of the 16th century, and a crab and a butterfly, produced by Paolo Giovio early in the 16th century.



I find emblems very interesting with their incongruous and potent imagery–I even contemplated making a book of new ones. Today we think of emblems primarily in branding–corporate logos or country flags–and we also know them in chivalric terms–every great family has a shield, for example–but in the 16th century there seems to have been a real pursuit of emblems as a moral art (though this could also just be the proliferation of a long-standing tradition now made public by the invention of the printing press). They represented ideas and mottos that have value independent of brand (though Apple’s first logo was very emblematic, and, in todays visual culture, a real dud). They were essentially visual fables. The first formal book of emblems was published by Andrea Alciato in 1531, though it is worth noting that each emblem was accompanied by a poem.

In some ways we can think of a still life similarly to an emblem, and this seems to be what troubled Picasso. This might also be an underlying assumption in the imagist proclamation “no ideas but in things.” Calvino puts that idea differently when he says “in a narrative, any object is always magic.”

But can a thing ever just be a thing? The answer is likely to be no, because all things are interpreted through the lens of culture, but I wonder if that depends on how the thing is rendered and what objects are included in a composition. In the Alessi and Zeke’s sketch I did, the two objects go together naturally, and I rendered them as such. They seem to only convey coffee, with no assertion of value, no tension. Is this true or am I taking an oversimplified look at them? Is there any greater lesson or meaning in them?

Had I painted, say, a hammer and an iPhone together, the resulting incongruity would have taken on a variety of meanings. Would it be a Luddite statement, or a statement of design and build elegance? Would we assign a silly motto like “build through communication,” or something stronger and more sinister? It depends on how we view a hammer, as a sign of construction, or destruction. A nail beside it would show construction. A hole in the wall would show destruction.

So how about this? What do we take away, or are these just things?

20130420-072500.jpg–Hammer & Bananas

Thanks for humoring me on this one. Back to original watercolors soon.


3 thoughts on “Festina Lente part 2: Some Thoughts on Emblems and Still Lifes

  1. davidtripp April 20, 2013 / 9:10 am


    Very intriguing blog. I’m fascinated by your musings, and deeply impressed with all these ideas you have pulled, like disparate threads from history, and woven into quite a thought-evoking tapestry (sorry if that sounds cheesy; I’m not the refined writer you are). Of course I am always thinking over William Carlos Williams “no ideas but in things.” I’m fascinated to watch how a writer and watercolorist fuses his ideas, always coming up with compositions that are not derivative of the ones we’re used to seeing in art history.

    I could go on and on with this, but I’m waiting to join a group to go on a plein air painting excursion this morning, so I’ll just drop this one: I have a watercolor in my collection that I cannot seem to give away, though I’ve always been proud of the piece. It is two heavy-set, senior-age men at their Harleys, in front of a “shop.” I took the photo to use as a reference, while hanging out at an art festival. Once I enlarged the photo and began planning the composition, I loved the meanings evoked by the Harleys (real American icon) and the retired-aged men, doing what they always wanted to do as youths when they couldn’t afford Harleys. But I did not like the “shop” they fronted–a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor. So, I searched the Internet, carefully selecting neon beer signs, for their colors and designs, and arranged them, very proud that I had actually created an American bar to back these two guys.

    I cannot tell you how many times patrons have looked at this painting in my booth, complimented how “attractive” it was, but passed on the purchase because they were “troubled” about the beer signs. Unbelievable.

    Thanks for your contributions to the blog. I think of your work and ideas everyday while I’m pursuing mine. I wish you a great day of discovery.


    • coreyaber April 20, 2013 / 4:40 pm

      Thanks David. I am thrilled you’re enjoying my blog as much as I have enjoyed yours. By the way, your coffee and cigarettes post made me wonder–have you seem Down by Law, another Jim Jarmusch film? I remember it being another visually arresting film, and Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni are great in it together.

      That’s a sadly funny story about the reaction to the beer signs. I like that it was a Baskin Robins in real life, and the thought that your potential customers wished the bikers were also teetotalers is also amusing. Your story reminds me of a common scene when I was in college. Up on Thayer Street, which was one of two gathering streets around Brown, the bikers would hang out in front of and across from the Gap. The Harley riders took the spots in front of the Gap, while the sport bikers hung out opposite. No altercations ensued. Each group just pretended the other wasn’t there.

      Hope you have a great plein air outing today. I am looking forward to getting out again soon.

      • davidtripp April 20, 2013 / 9:52 pm

        Thanks for the tip on Down by Law–I had never heard of that. I’m a real sucker for painting compositions that “strike” me on the cinema screen. I’m looking forward to checking that one out. I’m delighted that you “connect” with this “ideas in things” matter. And glad you can laugh with me about the bikers in front of the ice cream parlor. I guess if I’d stuck with Baskin & Robbins that the painting would have been sold by now. But it would not have been half the painting it is now. I guess that makes me sound like some sort of elitist snob, who paints only for the audience of myself, yes?

        I loved Tom Waits in “Coffee and Cigarettes”. And of course I get lost in his music, cannot play it enough in the studio while I’m working (playing).

        I cannot thank you enough for finding me, and pointing me to your blog. I really look forward to following your discoveries. Thanks for sharing your ever-fertile mind.

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