SWF ISO Weird Long-Lost Mystery Painting.
July 5, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Several years ago, my boyfriend and I saw a really weird painting/print/poster in a thrift store. We didn't buy it (nooo!), it disappeared shortly thereafter (NOOO!) and it's haunted us ever since. What WAS it?

(Shameless plea for help: our anniversary is coming up shortly - several days after he undergoes surgery - and I'd LOVE to delight the poor guy by getting him a copy of Mystery Painting.) Here's what I remember:

- The "artwork", as such, consisted of a series of crude, stick figure-like groups of men, women and children. The style was reminiscent of aboriginal/primitive paintings, or of African tribal artwork.

- The pictures were supposed to represent a series of... something. The phases of man? Family arrangements? Milestones? It wasn't entirely clear.

- Each picture had a text caption that explained what it depicted... I forget the exact verbiage, but the captions were stuff like "man with wife and child", "man in old age", "man after losing father", etc. (note: those may or may NOT have been items in the series; like I said, I can't remember the exact ones used).

- It might have been monochrome, it certainly wasn't more than a few colors.

- While the captions were in English, it didn't feel like a product of mainstream America.

- I'm pretty sure there were other words/symbols on the poster. They were neither in English nor in any alphabet I recognized.

- The poster was about three times taller than it was wide, and I believe there was only one stick figure picture per row.

- It definitely didn't seem like a unique, one-off thing, weird and inscrutable though it was. The vibe was way more informational/historical than artistic... the thing did not have a ton of aesthetic value. It's very slightly possible that it may have been religious in nature (the thrift store itself was owned by a Christian organization).

Please help, endless trove of wonderfully obscure information that is AskMe!
posted by julthumbscrew to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Were the illustrations in the style of Keith Haring?
posted by halogen at 10:14 AM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: Halogen: nope, extremely non-Haring-y. Way more crude/primitive than just minimalist.
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:17 AM on July 5, 2011

Were they Penmen of some kind?
posted by gemmy at 10:27 AM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: Nope - Penmen, like Haring, are very modern, hip, cute, "illustration as art". The painting/print I'm talking about is the polar opposite - very UN-hip, possibly archaic. The Met would NEVER EVER print it on a tote bag, is what I'm sayin'.
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:40 AM on July 5, 2011

Long shot: sketch it out from memory, paying attention not to the details, but to the basic proportions and the shades (so even though your version might not be similar at all, if you were to squint, it would look similar), then feed that into Google Image search by clicking the camera icon to search using your image.
I doubt this will be fruitful, but it sounds like you'd prefer to make the efforts which are available to you.
posted by anonymisc at 10:42 AM on July 5, 2011

Could you clarify how the figures were arranged? Was it a top-to-bottom linear progression, like a depiction of the "Seven Ages of Man"? Or just groupings of figures around the poster?
posted by orrnyereg at 10:46 AM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: Could the unknown language be Amharic?
posted by JoanArkham at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: Orneryreg: I am PRETTY sure it was a top-to-bottom linear progression.

JoanArkham: you know, it very well MIGHT have been Amharic! The "four little stars arranged in a square" thingie that I see used a lot in an online Amharic reference looks REALLY familiar!
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:54 AM on July 5, 2011

fozzie33 appears to be linking to this image, an Ethopian manuscript posted on Wikimedia Commons.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:54 PM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: Nope... 'fraid not. Here's what I know so far: I am 99.9% certain the non-English text IS Amharic (way to go, JoanArkham!). This led me to believe the thing I saw might be an Ethiopian text or magic scroll. HOWEVER, the art on MY picture was way, way, WAY simpler and less-cluttered than every single Ethiopian document I've seen online... my picture had a fair amount of blank space (something not often found on the scrolls). and the stick figures were either monotone or duotone and were SUPER-simple... almost as though they were quickly sketched with a calligraphy pen? All the Ethiopian art I've seen thus far has been orders of magnitude more sophisticated, unfortunately. Excellent sleuthing so far, guys!
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:18 PM on July 5, 2011

Best answer: See if you can find any work online that resembles what you saw. For example, does any of it match the style from the pictures in this link? Most of won't know off hand what the poster is about...but might be able to help you find it through google-fu image searching.

Also, is it possible to go back to the thrift store for more information about the poster?
posted by samsara at 4:36 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: --The phases of man? Family arrangements? Milestones? It wasn't entirely clear.--
--"man with wife and child", "man in old age", "man after losing father"--

There is definitely a kind of famous 17th/18th/19th century (thereabouts) European illustration that has a visual =record of a life=. It includes marriage and death etc and I think it's arranged in a semi-circle or at least the start and finish end up on the same level. I'm pretty sure there were various versions (in a number of languages) and they were generally more crude than sophisticated. It is definitely intended to be humorous, or at least ironic.

I just can't remember if I've posted it on my blog or it's something that I've just come across a few times. It sticks in my mind because it's one of those things that - as you say - it's not hugely high on the aesthetics scale (if I'm thinking of the same thing as you) and so I've paused over it, wondering if it would be worth ganking and posting. "Amsterdam" sticks in my mind; by which I mean, I probably saw it in their museum archives last time, if I'm recalling right.

I suppose I'd go with "ages of man", in a google image search, but I'd translate those words into Dutch, German, Italian and French and see if that drags anything familiar to the surface.

If something else comes to mind or you sketch something helpful etc, you're welcome to email me. Finding this sort of stuff is a kind of hobby of mine - and particularly so if I've described something above that seems plausible to you. I have a whole bunch of places/links I could trawl, although I'd rather wait to find out a bit more detail first, if possible. (and I'll prolly forget to come back and see this thread)
posted by peacay at 4:53 PM on July 5, 2011

Could it be the Annals of Creation? Or, if you click on the images under "Similar Items," pictures of Romance Ceremonies?
posted by janerica at 5:45 PM on July 5, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, embarassing confession: after consulting with my boyfriend and looking at a lot of Amharic sites, I'm not sure whether, 1. The painting featured ACTUAL stick figures, or 2. The painting ONLY had Amharic words (some of which, to my credit, look AN AWFUL LOT like stick figures) and their English translations. I'm leaning towards the latter (if there WERE stick figures, their style was NOT markedly different than the Amharic lettering).

Here is a very, very, very rough sketch of how I kind of, sort of, maybe remember how the painting looked: http://thumbscre.ws/Untitled.jpg.
posted by julthumbscrew at 3:47 PM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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