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.
–Picasso

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.

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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?

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

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Festina Lente: Cycling, Leopardi, and Galileo

Speed and conciseness of style please us because they present the mind with a rush of ideas that are simultaneous, or follow each other so quickly they seem simultaneous, and set the mind afloat on such an abundance of thoughts or images or spiritual feelings…
– Giacomo Leopardi

If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.
– Galileo

I was thinking about Calvino’s essay on Quickness while biking this morning, in particular the quotes from Leopardi and Galileo. Calvino explains that the horse has long been a metaphor for speed of thought in literature. I suppose a road bike is a decent substitute. In both quotes above, it is important to note that the speed reflected is that of reasoning or writing, not speed of execution. They are not arguing for Kerouac-like binges. Much preparation goes into achieving the speed of thought. This is why Calvino likes the motto “festina lente,” or hurry slowly.

In order to achieve quickness on a bike, one must prepare one’s body. In order to achieve quickness of thought, one must prepare one’s mind. The same is true with any visual art, as my gestural sketch below shows. I executed it in about 30 seconds while holding up my bike. This is not an ideal way to go about things, but I wanted to see if I could achieve both quicknesses at once–in execution and in thought or expression. I think not yet, but it was fun regardless. This attempt, as others like it, will enable a better understanding and execution when it comes to painting, at least so I hope.

Watercolor is a medium that perfectly aligns with the festina lente motto in that patience is so important to producing a watercolor that reads like Galileo’s courser, or Leopardi’s style that sets the mind afloat. I think of this usually in terms of avoiding mud and making a watercolor light, so taking time between glazes, etc, but it also applies to the more apparently haphazard methods of painting, such as rapidly poured watercolor moved around with credit cards and other things, that seem so casual, so easy. This kind of painting quickly as performance, like racing a bike, can only happen effectively with patience in advance to learn the way the paint moves.

It has been interesting and refreshing rereading Calvino’s Six Memos in the context of painting rather than writing fiction. As I tried to do in writing, I need to remind myself again in painting: festina lente.

Thanks for reading.

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