I should have known medieval farm illustrations might still be relevant to my own farming experience — found in the Lutrell psalter above all, which is unbearably wonderful. Also full of grotesques and wondrous creatures, everyday life is not forgotten. Here is catching lambs and ewes after the sheep have been herded up tight tight between hurdles — otherwise it is near impossible:
This is, to be honest, a little spooky as it is exactly what we actually did, though the hurdles look a little different these days. Those look like buggers to manage, I confess. Also, they should be as tired and dirty and scraggly as me, but if you’ve been doing it longer maybe you can do it better in style.
Then there is the use of the little hook blade — not to harvest grain as here, but to clear pathways, wonderful things:
To be fair, I did not in fact plough anything, but I have hunted out the old ridge and furrow patterns of open fields, seen all over the Peak District farm I worked on. Below is how they were formed and sown. Dogs, to be clear, do still chase birds with similar lack of success, but there were no clouds of birds settling across the newly turned earth as I have read about here, and once experienced magically in Mexico:
When working in the permaculture garden, Rob pointed out to me a Bruegel painting where someone was obviously peening a scythe in the front left corner — a method still used to give a new edge to the blade when the metal has blunted enough that whetstones are no long able to hone it.
This makes mowing look lovely — mowing weeds isn’t quite the same, but the piles are much the same and the work teaches you just how wonderful such rest and food can be:
There are few things in life better than Brueghel paintings, whether by the elder or the younger, especially for understanding a landscape and how people fit into it, how they shape it.
Tractors are mostly used to cut and bale hay for long winters, but we did some smaller bales — still mechanized, but heaved around and stacked by hand. No grain though.
We’re still feeding chickens, and building them secure homes in the hopes that the foxes won’t get them.
No feeding of squirrels though.
Raised beds? I spent so much time working on raised beds just like this one, and the space looked just the same:
Here as well — we had no knot garden, but edged and dug the earth using the same tools:
I am rather certain that is some pollarding of the tree happening at the top right, and look at those sheep!
This look has been a bit desultory, I am sure there are many more!
This blog does almost nothing to capture the delightful ephemera of everyday social media…but today has been a cracker, not least because of this Valentine’s Day headline:
It’s from the Onion, but real news none the less, and the thought of a Supreme Court making decisions impacting millions of lives without him is the best valentine a girl could ask for.
But there is so much more. From this representation of Mark whenever he is with me:
To the Puritan Valentine’s day cards making the rounds
To the nod to St Valentine himself:
Now this is one hilarious thing I had never seen before:
but the 25 Critical Theory Valentine Cards filled me with joy last year and the year before, and they make Valentine’s Day something to look forward to…
I’m just gonna throw this one in as an internet win bonus:
Watching an old black & white 1950s documentary on housing in London, it struck me greatly when they showed graphics like the one below on the screen, talked about something they called isotype in a way that made it seem like a new technology that was being mobilized to understand and change the world.
What struck me most is that as organizers and popular educators in the oughts, we sought to create such graphics all the time (though never creating anything quite so professional I confess). Yet I’d never heard that word before.
I looked it up.
Isotype — International System of TYpographic Picture Education, initially known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics (Wiener Methode der Bildstatistik). Developed at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Wien between 1925 and 1934 — interrupted by the rise of fascism in Austria and Neurath’s and other collaborators’ move to the UK. Found this book. Found that a technology for social change is what Otto Neurath always meant isotype to be, though he thought of it and described it more in the terms of his own day’s idealism and with sometimes unfortunate phrasing.
Also, it might be confirmed that, if you start with visual material, problems which are usually dealt with at a higher level can be discussed within the curriculum at a lower level of education. One of the advantages of this is that people can remain in contact with certain problems throughout a much longer period of their lives. (6)
The point is that making information visual in this way allows us both to understand it better, and to open up meaningful discussion on key issues to forums beyond a handful of experts — and even they may have failed to fully grasp the facts. This in turn is key to any meaningful democracy.
Therefore, whenever the fate of individuals and communities is at stake, we need some comprehensive knowledge to help us make our own decisions. It is for this that I think visual aids are so important, especially when we wish to educate ourselves and others in citizenship. (7)
I kept thinking the phrasing is often not quite what I like, partly the period, partly language and culture and class gaps. Yet his commitment to graphics emerges from a desire to facilitate people looking at their own reality, and then thinking and making decisions about it for themselves. It is also clear that part of this is because the very process of transmitting expert knowledge is not a neutral one. Neurath’s words doesn’t quite nail the issues with it the way Freire does, but grapples with some of the same questions.
Teaching habits, whether we are acting as schoolmasters or museum directors, are often dangerous. Such habits might tempt persons in power to present what they themselves like… (7)
Yet he isn’t quite able to see a world where we all have bias, even when we draw pictures based on just the ‘facts’.
The few remarks I have made here may suffice to explain what Isotype sets out to provide for the masses of citizens who want to learn simple things in a human way and without bias, so that they are stimulated to further reading and museum visiting. (114)
And his goals — I may love these goals, but wonder why he has chosen them for mention above ending poverty, increasing direct democracy, fighting fascism, improving life.
Still, in the end it is a wonderfully visionary and utopian ideal behind all this effort, behind this creation of a visual language for making complexity more immediately graspable that does not rely on spoken language or literacy to show people things as they are.
But there is perhaps a chance that visual communication will play its part in the creation of a brotherhood of man, for it can help to bridge many gaps and reduce some of the sources of antagonism. I should like to take my share of the cooperative work, thinking of the possibilities that lie ahead, while tending to the tasks of today. (8)
I share many of these ideals of communication through visual means, believe in using my many years of work and study to help sift information, understand it, convert it into a graphic form (or work with someone more graphically skilled to do so) that best represents the facts as I have done my best to understand them. This is long and hard — just the way conveying an idea or proposal in one hundred words is so much harder than conveying it in 500. You have to have complete clarity on what you are trying to convey, on what is most important.
Yet it never occurred to me to try to create a universal visual language. I rather love this vision, and initially it made perfect sense. But then I thought about it, and realised as much through his visual autobiography as anything that probably much much of our taste and understanding of pictures emerges from our time and place and culture. How much the images you chose should reflect the people you are trying to reach. Neurath writes:
One of our museum slogans in Vienna was: ‘Words divide, pictures unite’. (126)
Interesting, and perhaps more true than false, but I am not entirely sure. Just imagine depictions of ‘home’, and how much that might differ across countries and cultures.
But to return to the subtitle…what is his visual autobiography? Too complex to capture here, but a wonderful collection of things…
Always he loves pictures that capture information, that transmit knowledge, the more knowledge in the simpler the line and more arresting the graphic the better.
He talks of beautiful etchings of birds and plants, colour-coded maps of military movements
It is not realistic depictions he favours, but what best transmits an idea, gives an overview without need of words.This is particularly interesting I think.
Again and again I felt that the orthodox perspective is somewhat anti-symbolic, putting the onlooker in a privileged position. A perspective drawing fixed from the point from which I had to look, whereas I wanted to be free to look from wherever I chose. (49)
He loves the details abounding in Hogarth:
Egyptian wall paintings
He later writes:
I revive some of the feelings I had when looking at Egyptian wall-paintings, but without the sad undertone: pageantry for the dead. No–now it is pageantry for the living, for people of every kind throughout the world, whatever way of life they may accept, whatever creed they profess of reject, whatever their colour, whatever language they use. (126)
he shares these amazing visual mnemonics from 1808:
At the end there is just a collection of images Neurath had collected after fleeing Austria. I particularly loved these:
All of these things fed into the creation of isotype’s visual language, the attempt to create a new language all together through scientific study, observation and testing.
I think we were the first to evolve a theoretical framework of visualization, which started from a few observations but later on covered a wide field of experience, applying what we had learnt from the behaviour of pupils in schools and visitors to exhibitions, and of course everything one could learn from the literature concerned with visual problems. (103)
One of the key artists Otto Neurath worked with to develop pictograms and the language of Isotype was Gerd Arntz, a google search on his name shows something like this:
These figures — or figures like them are now so familiar. Their impact is clearly visible in the US as well, in graphics like these I found in Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago — their use pushed this book to one of my very favourite sociological studies as one of the most helpful to the people it studied:
Similar is a pamphlet emerging (somewhat surprisingly perhaps) from the Truman Administration on racism in 1946:
I think these show just how powerful numbers can be when translated into images, and how they can educate the school-educated and non-educated alike, while serving as a call to action. And this as well:
…at least I may be allowed to express my personal hope that the increasing speed of Isotype may perhaps be symptomatic of the spread of certain general trends towards a cosmopolitan attitude, a commonwealth of men connected in a human brotherhood and human orchestration. (126)
Form and Philosophy — some amazing drawings from Bertrand Goldberg on the geometries of space, how architecture creates or blocks movement and how it can be structured to facilitate human work and communication.
These are all from Goldberg: Dans la Ville of course, as I continue working my way through it.