Thursday, 5 January 2017

"Viene, viene la Befana" - On Befana, Italy's Christmas Witch

5 January – on the eve of Epiphany, La Befana the Christmas Witch flies through the night and brings gifts to children in Italy.

"Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana"

Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes La Befana! 
(Giovanni Pascoli)

Rembrandt van Rijn (attr.) "Girl with a Broom" (around 1650)

Once upon a time there lived an old woman east of Suez who was known as the best housekeeper near and far. Her reputation preceded here and thus it was no wonder that three wise men stopped by at her house on a cold January evening and asked her for accommodation. They came from the East they said and were led by a star towards Bethlehem to praise the infant. The crone did not complain about tales from oriental fortune tellers at all, did not even accuse them of being led by a bottle rather than a star and even considered to join them to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews and do a lot of praising and all that. Alas, top notch maintaining of a household famously is not work done by itself and the lady told the three Magi to go on ahead, she would just tidy up, arrange a few things and join them later on the road. And finally, when everything was shipshape and Bristol-fashion, she packed her things, heaved a sigh and set out on the road to Bethlehem. Alas, a sense of direction apparently was not her strong side and soon she was lost and wandered the roads and asked every girl and boy she met on her way if he or she was the infant and gave them sweetmeats when they shook their heads and on she marched to this very day. On every night before Three King’s Day, Epiphany, she appears to ask her way and give sweets to children in return and became known as Befana after La Festa dell'Epifania. And since old habits tend to stick, she sometimes even cleans the house and is glad to find a glass of wine and something to eat left for her. 

James Tissot (1836 - 1902) "Journey of the Magi" ( 1894)

Poor Befana, condemned to walk the night for all eternity like Ahasverus or Melmoth the Wanderer, has acquired a few more sombre aspects. Sometimes, it is not the infant saviour she asks for but her child who had died in a plague. In other variants of the legend her son was slain by order of Herod the Great during the Massacre of the Innocents and a doll that once had belonged to him or a robe sewn from her wedding dress given as gifts certainly carry a somewhat melancholy tune. But she remains a friendly sort and whatever made her appear as a witch, the worst she does is leaving garlic, onion or the ubiquitous lump of coal for naughty children in Italy and in Italian communities across the world while the rest receives gifts. La Befana appeared in Italy for the first time in her current guise during the late Middle Ages and she rode either a donkey or even a broom, the one she uses to sweep the house, and became known as the Christmas Witch. However, it’s safe to assume that some older customs and aspects of the Crone and ancient deities shine through La Befana’s appearance. The story of the Triple Goddess, the Maiden, Mother and the Crone, is ages old, naturally, and often told to reflect the seasonal cycle. La Befana, the old witch, walking the night and giving gifts towards the end of the year or just around the beginning of the new might very well echo ancient customs of the Italian peninsula. Once, before the Christians and even before Rome was built on her seven hills, there was a cult among the Sabines, the ones whose women were famously abducted by Romulus, revering a goddess known as Strenua. To honour her, they gave gifts at the beginning of the New Year known as strenae and in Roman times, Strenua had her shrine and a sacred grove on the Via Sacra on Capitoline Hill and a procession on 1 January when twigs from the grove were carried up to the old citadel, somewhere near the place where the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli al Campidoglio stands since the last 1,500 years. 

A Perchten mask from Austria

And who knows, maybe the witchy part of La Befana was blown across the Alps from the snowy north with the Tramontane and the Goths, Lombards and the rallying cry “Wibbelingen!”, Waiblingen in Swabia, of the Ghibellines. And up there, in the cradle of the Tramonate in the mountains and on the upper reaches of the River Rhine, where once the Alemanni and Suebi gathered, the goddess Bertha or Perchta roamed through the nights during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany and found out whether children were naughty or nice. Sweets or coal, however, were not to be found in the arsenal of a walker of the Rauhnächte, the rough nights, rooting back to the Dark Ages. Perchta would leave hard cash, a silver coin, in the shoes of well-behaved little ones, whatever that meant in the 8th century. Those who weren’t got their bellies slit, their guts eaten and their abdominal cavity stuffed with straw. By the end of the Middle Ages, the custom to leave food and drink during the Rauhnächte for Frau Perchta was condemned in Austria and Southern Germany and the Perchtenläufe, display processions with people wearing masks and costumes not unlike that of Krampus, were banned well until the folklore revivals of the 19th century. Italy, though, maintained the more gentle customs of La Befana and in one version of the story, she even finds the Christ child, gives him her gifts and he blessed her with a smile.

And more about La Befana on:

Sunday, 6 November 2016

"On the field of Lützen on the same day / Gustavus Adolphus lay in his blood.” - The Death of the Leu von Mitternacht

6 November 1632, the Leu von Mitternacht (lit.: Lion from Midnight, meaning from the North), Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, fell in the Battle of Lützen, 20 miles southwest of Leipzig during the Thirty Years’ War.
“Like a ray of light it flashes through the fog / no rider in the saddle sits / The fleeing beast, it steams, it reeks / Its white is dipped in scarlet red // The saddle bloody, bloody the mane / All Sweden saw the horse / On the field of Lützen on the same day / Gustavus Adolphus lay in his blood.” (Theodor Fontane “6 November 1632, A Swedish Legend”)

Wilhelm Carl Räuber’s (1849 – 1926) imagination of Gustavus Adolphus’ dead at Lützen (1886, Museum Schloss Lützen) 

And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed him. Like many other creatures great and small of mythological significance to the Indo-Europeans, greys experienced a bit of a revaluation under the new management of the Christian symbol system. Once, though, white horses were held sacred from the steppes of Central Asia to the hills of the Berkshire Downs where “The White Horse of the White Horse Vale / Was cut out of the grass”, as Chesterton once put it, “before the gods that made the gods”. And while deities like Odin, Indra and Svantovit rode them as well as Persian kings, Celtic fertility goddesses and Greek heroes and white horses were sent as messengers to propitiate the gods before battle by Romans, the Norse, Huns and Magyars, greys never lost their ambiguous connotation of being bearers of bad tidings and ghostly apparitions. When Streiff galloped out of the November mist and gun-smoke of battle, the king’s charger, riderless and smeared in blood, running between the front lines, offered a spectacle of epic proportions on many archetypical levels. Even if Streiff wasn’t a grey at all, as popular iconography and history painting have it, but a chestnut. The “Lion of the North”, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, champion of the Protestant cause in the Thirty Years’ War, did own a grey once, though, but the horse was shot under him during a reconnaissance ride near Ingolstadt after the Battle of Rain on the River Lech in the spring of the year, where Count Tilly fell, then the commander of the Imperials and the Catholic League before Wallenstein took over. The year before, Gustav Adolf already had acquired his Oldenburg chestnut charger from Johann Streiff von Lauenstein, one of his cavalry colonels, for a thousand riksdalers, at least ten times the price of a war horse. Ironically enough, the gift of an Oldenburg stallion by a breeder near Celle once prevented Tilly from sacking the stud farm and  Gustavus’ horse shot at Ingolstadt, probably another Oldenburg, was recovered by the Bavarians after the siege was raised and the town had become the first fortress that held against a Swedish army during the Thirty Years’ War. The “Schwedenschimmel”, the Swedish grey of Gustavus Adolphus, was taxidermied as a trophy and is now the Europe’s oldest stuffed animal, on exhibition in the city museum of Ingolstadt. Streiff, Europe’s second oldest specimen so preserved, would suffer a similar fate. 

Carl Fredrik Kiörboe (1799 - 1876): "The horse of Gustav II Adolf at the Battle of Lützen" 

Things looked bleak for the Protestant cause after 14 years of war that killed literary more people than the plague. The “Magdeburger Hochzeit”, the infamous sack of Magdeburg, by Count Tilly’s imperial mercenaries in 1631 with a death toll of 25,000 slaughtered civilians of a total of 30,000 inhabitants, men women and children, marked the horrible climax of a terrible conflict. A few weeks later, a Swedish army appeared on the battlefields of Saxony, led by the Protestant King of Sweden himself and defeated Tilly decisively at Breitenfeld. Gustavus Adolphus became the champion of the Protestants and his new ways to wage war, the innovative use of muskets, the mobility of field artillery and dashing cavalry charges. For a year, Gustavus Adolphus led the Protestant armies, mostly victorious. Wallenstein managed to defeat him once, though, near Nuremburg, and the autumn of 1632 saw the armies back again in Saxony. After Tilly’s demise, Wallenstein lead the Imperials and the troops of the Catholic League, Gustavus Adolphus the army of the Protestant Union, roughly 20,000 men on each side. Dense fog over the battlefield at Lützen delayed commencing of hostilities, Gustavus Adolphus is reported to have knelt in front of his kneeling, praying army, a “moving song” was sung, probably the Protestant rallying hymn Vår Gud är oss en väldig borg ("Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" / “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), then “Mount!” was ordered, the king himself wore only a buff coat of elk skin, wounds received in battle prevented him from donning armour. The Battle of Lützen had begun. When Wallenstein’s second-in-command Pappenheim’s counter charge on the outflanked Imperial left wing stopped the Swedish advance, the next Swedish cavalry divisions moved up, personally led by Gustavus Adolphus, fog came up again, the myopic king got separated from his Smålands cavalry regiment, got too close to the Catholic firing line, a musket ball hit him in the left arm, Piccolomini’s Imperial cuirassiers caught up with him, another bullet hit him in the back, he fell out of his saddle, was dragged along by his horse Streiff, the beast stopped, one of the Imperials shot him in the head, another pierced him with his estoc, a slim bladed long sword, the king was dead, his corpse was plundered, he lay naked in the mud and Streiff galloped away.

Carl Wahlboom's (1810 - 1858) imagination of the "Death of King Gustav II Adolf at the Battle of Lützen" (1855), with a correctly coloured chestnut Streiff 

There is an old legend that people back home in Sweden heard the roar of battle and saw the apparition of Streiff running through the mist that November day when their king died. However, every Swedish soldier and Protestant landsknecht on the spot recognised the riderless Streiff, an outcry went through the army, first of despair, then of rage and the Protestants charged again and again and eventually won the Battle of Lützen, narrowly. The naked, plundered body of the king was recovered and carried by the army in a funeral procession from Saxony to the coast of the Baltic Sea. Swedish troops continued to fight until the end of the war in 1648 and Gustavus Adolphus’ reforms cleared the way for Sweden to become a major if continuously broke European power for the next 150 years. Gustavus Adolphus’ charger that ran so picturesquely in the fog between the frontlines died a year later from the wounds he received on the day his master fell. The carcass was taken from the Swedish port of Wolgast in Pomerania to Stockholm. Streiff, just like the Schwedenschimmel of Ingolstadt was taxidermied and is exhibited today in the Livrustkammaren, the Royal Armoury established by Gustavus Adolphus himself in 1628, along with his armour, the king was finally buried in Riddarholm Church after his wife Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg kept his body for herself, first in Wolgast, later in Nyköping castle, unwilling to surrender her beloved husband to eternity. Another somewhat Gothic aspect that surrounds the death of the Lion of the North. His buff coat of elk skin, however, captured by the Imperial cuirassiers at Lützen was a trophy brought “all bloody” to the king’s adversary Emperor Ferdinand II in Vienna and ended up in what is now the Museum of Military History until the Great War was over in 1918. Humanitarian aid from Sweden helped the starving, newly founded Austrian Republic to her feet and as a gesture of gratitude, Gustav Adolf’s buff coat was returned and is now at Livrustkammaren, along with Streiff and the rest of the king’s paraphernalia.

Taxidermied Streiff at the Livrustkammaren* 

Theodor Fontane’s poem quoted above goes as follows:

Der 6. November 1632
Schwedische Sage

Schwedische Heide, Novembertag,
Der Nebel grau am Boden lag,
Hin über das Steinfeld von Dalarn
Holpert, stolpert ein Räderkarrn.

Ein Räderkarrn, beladen mit Korn;
Lorns Atterdag zieht an der Deichsel vorn,
Niels Rudbeck schiebt. Sie zwingen's nicht,
Das Gestrüpp wird dichter, Niels aber spricht:

»Busch-Ginster wächst hier über den Steg,
Wir gehn in die Irr', wir missen den Weg,
Wir haben links und rechts vertauscht, –
hörst du, wie der Dal-Elf rauscht?«

»Das ist nicht der Dal-Elf, der Dal-Elf ist weit,
Es rauscht nicht vor uns und nicht zur Seit',
Es lärmt in Lüften, es klingt wie Trab,
Wie Reiter wogt es auf und ab.

Es ist wie Schlacht, die herwärts dringt,
Wie Kirchenlied es dazwischen klingt,
Ich hör' in der Rosse wieherndem Trott:
Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott!«

Und kaum gesprochen, da Lärmen und Schrein,
In tiefen Geschwadern bricht es herein,
Es brausen und dröhnen Luft und Erd',
vorauf ein Reiter auf weißem Pferd.

Signale, Schüsse, Rossegestampf,
Der Nebel wird schwarz wie Pulverdampf,
Wie wilde Jagd, so fliegt es vorbei; –
Zitternd ducken sich die zwei.

Nun ist es vorüber ... da, wieder mit Macht
Rückwärts wogt die Reiterschlacht,
Und wieder dröhnt und donnert die Erd',
Und wieder vorauf das weiße Pferd.

Wie ein Lichtstreif durch den Nebel es blitzt,
Kein Reiter mehr im Sattel sitzt,
Das fliehende Tier, es dampft und raucht,
Sein Weiß ist tief in Rot getaucht.

Der Sattel blutig, blutig die Mähn',
Ganz Schweden hat das Ross gesehn: –
Auf dem Felde von Lützen am selben Tag
Gustav Adolf in seinem Blute lag.

And here is a rough translation:

Swedish heath, November day,
Fog lay grey over the ground,
Over the stony field of Dalarn
Rumbles, stumbles a wheeled cart

A wheeled cart, laden with grain,
Lorn Atterdag pulls the shaft at the fore,
Niels Rudbeck shoves, they take it easy,
The shrub grows denser, but Niels says

“Gorse grows over the pathway here,
We’ve gone astray, we’ve lost our way,
We have confused left with right,
Do you hear the Dal-Elf’s rushing?”

“That is not the Dal-Elf, the Dal-Elf is far,
There is nor rushing ahead of us and not to our side,
It’s high up in the air, it sounds like the trot
Of riders to and fro.

It is like battle pressing towards us,
And church song sounding in between,
I hear in the chargers’ hoofbeats
“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”

And hardly that was said, clamour and cries,
With broad wings it bursts,
Air and earth roar and boom,
At the fore a rider on a pale horse.

Signals, shots and horses’ stamps,
The fog grows black like powder smoke,
Like Wild Hunt it’s flying past,
Trembling the two take cover.

Now it is over… there, again with might,
Backwards surges the cavalry charge,
And again booms and thunders the earth,
And at the fore again the pale horse

Like a ray of light it flashes through the fog,
No rider in the saddle sits,
The fleeing beast, it steams, it reeks,
Its white is dipped in scarlet red

The saddle bloody, bloody the mane
All Sweden saw the horse
On the field of Lützen on the same day
Gustavus Adolphus lay in his blood.

More about the Battle of Lützen on:

And an image of the “Schwedenschimmel” of Ingolstadt can be wondered and marvelled at on:

* the image of Streiff was taken by Göran Schmitt and found on:

Saturday, 22 October 2016

"The Arabian Nights Man" - Golden Age Illustrator Edmund Dulac

22 October 1882, the French-born, British naturalised illustrator Edmund Dulac was born in Toulouse.

“… he would have chosen some dream city of the Orient for his birthplace, a Persian princess for his mother, and an artist of the Ming Dynasty for his father.” (Introduction to a New York exhibition of Dulac’s work)

Edmund Dulac: "The City of Deryabar"
from "Stories from the Arabian Nights" (1907)

Once upon a time, the line was blurred between picture books for children and illustrated editions of tales aimed at an adult audience. Not that the artists who created the works of art that illuminated the medieval books of hours or chivalric romances cared one little bit about the idea of pictures in books being suitable for children or not. Neither did publishers of the mass of printed creations with their woodcuts that swept across Europe during the media revolution of the 15th and 16th century after the invention of the printing press. The gorier the better was the maxim of most. Some 100 years later though, the first educational books for children appeared in the Netherlands, Comenius’ “Orbis Pictus”, something along the lines of a pictured encyclopedia for children and reading primers with letters assigned to animals, plants and people that began to parallel compulsory education in some European countries. But it was the discovery of folk and fairy tales as cultural assets that gave the go-ahead for the appearance of the illustrated childhood treasures and the expensive gift books with the artworks of the masters of the Golden Age of Illustration. With the technological quantum leaps in printing and reproduction techniques that became commonplace towards the end of the 19th century, the enchantingly sophisticated designs of these men and women, lines and colours as well, became an integral component of the book market, a far cry from the black and white steel engravings that were the peak of reproducible illustrations not even a generation before. And the gift books that came out every autumn in time for the Christmas sale changed more and more from garishly bound and expensively slipcased luxury editions of poetry and short novels aimed at well-off, educated ladies and gentlemen towards their offspring. The collections of fairy tales from the beginning of the century, usually sparsely pictured back then, reappeared together with genuine picture books, brought to life with imagery from Walter Crane to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Rackham, many of them making a living from illustrating children’s books that became crown jewels among the Christmas presents. Up to a point that they were collected and reissued for frontline soldiers when the age ended in the storms of steel and blood and terror of the Great War to give the tortured souls something to cling to, reminiscent of strong childhood memories and home. The illustrations of Edmund Dulac, the “Arabian Nights Man” were included in the “relief books”. They already had become something archetypical for dreaming oneself away, for old and young, during the 10 years since Dulac entered the scene in 1904. 

Edmund Dulac: "The Little Mermaid" (1911)

Orientalism and Japanese woodprints were all the rage in Europe when Edmond grew up in Toulouse. His uncle was an art dealer and brought the lad in contact with the imagery of far-away places and Edmonds fascination grew to a point were he began to learn Arabic and Chinese, his law studies forgotten, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and finally relocated to London, the Mecca of the Golden Age of Illustrations, the world of Beardsley, Crane and Rackham. His first commissioned works there were illustrations of fairy tales of a different kind, though, the works of the Brontë sisters, first and foremost Jane Eyre. Other classics of English and American literature followed, from Shakespeare to Poe and Hawthorne, but Dulac was most influential and best loved when he transposed the imagery of the “Arabian Nights” and Omar Khayyam into his singular illustrations. It became something of a paradigm change from the sweltry salon erotica depicting harems and slave markets of 19th academic art along with virile imagery of savage oriental warriors, hunting scenes, camel races and romantically bygone glories of ancient Egypt á la Ozymandias into the floating Art Noveau-influenced dreamlike scenes Dulac created with his illustrations. French literary fairy tales along with those of Andersen provided an equally fertile breeding ground for the French artist’s imagination who became a naturalised Britisher in 1912. In the ten years between his arrival in London and the outbreak of the Great War, Dulac became one of the top artists among a set of excellent illustrators, sought after by publishers and beloved by his audience, both children and adults. The line between picture books and illustrated texts for grown-up readers were blurred again and if only by keeping the actual buyers of the quite expensive books in mind that contained Dulac’s works, the children’s well-off and usually quite cultivated parents. 

Edmund Dulac "Little Girl in a Book" from "Fairies I Have Met" (1907)

Together with Rackham, Dulac developed a sophisticated watercolour mixed method to allow for the glamorously rich tones of his works as well as Rackham’s wan greys and browns along with the nuanced lines of both artists. It was their good fortune that print technology had developed to a degree that allowed almost faithful reproduction of the intricate works Dulac created, true to his influencers, on expensive Japanese paper only to add to the enhancement of his tones and textures. The distinctive ukyio-e style that influenced the great painters of the age as well, Manet, Whistler, van Gogh, his compatriot Toulouse-Lautrec to name but a few, along with the whole Art Nouveau style made the major impact on Dulac’s creativity, together with Mogul miniatures and Chinese artworks. And even among imagery inspired by Grimm and Andersen, these elements appear, upturned slippers, turbans, floating garments, pointed domes and crescent moons, set pieces he saw in the life when he visited the Arab East before the Great War, something of a self-affirmation of the mindscape and imagination of the East he had created for Western audiences. Styles and tastes changed already during his life and times, famously, and between the wars Dulac continued to work as an illustrator, fairy tales as well as literary classics, as caricaturist and stage and costume designer, quite like the miracle workers who were responsible for the wondrous appearance of the immensely popular Ballets Russes. Commercial graphics helped to pay the rent and a last illustration helped to keep his imagery in the mindscape of the public, a stamp he was tasked to create on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Sans turban, though. Dulac died in the same year.

And more about Edmund Dulac on:

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The painter of English Enlightenment and Industrialisation - Joseph Wright of Derby

3 September 1734, "the first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution" Joseph Wright was born in Derby.

“So in some Engine, that denies a Vent,
If unrespiring is some Creature pent,
It sickens, droops, and pants, and gasps for Breath,
Sad o'er the Sight swim shad'wy Mists of Death;
If then kind Air pours powerful in again.
New Heats, new Pulses quicken ev'ry Vein;
From the clear'd, lifted, life-rekindled Eye,
Dispers'd, the dark and dampy Vapours fly.“ (Robert Savage, “The Wanderer”, 1729)

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797):“Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump“ (1768)

is always a bit scary. When the Industrial Revolution dawned upon England during the 18th century, many, and not only those who were fated to become the lumpenproletariat of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, were plainly terrified. Art offered an escape route for some of the upper crusts of society and artists began to illustrate heirlooms, real and fancied, with images and text, picturesque nature, the Middle Ages and antiquity. Existential angst became a topic, it was the natal hour of the Gothic novel, man averted the gaze from the deteriorating landscapes that made room for the eerie factories, darkening day with hellish smoke and lighting night with a fiery glow, looked at the inside and found it equally hideous. Mad masters of hellfire sprung from imagination as well as demonic scientists playing god and turning the natural order upside down. Meanwhile, the selfsame scientists cemented the 19th century unswerving faith in progress, along with inventors and the rising class of entrepreneurs and industrials who turned scientific discovery into a profit far quicker and more thorough than anywhere else in the world. A somewhat paradoxical counterpoint to the discontent in civilisation and especially the arts. Few artists let themselves in for the magic of change and the wonders of science. Those who did were not the first ones, however. About a hundred years earlier during the Dutch Golden Age, painters had already moved away from the traditional canon of suitable subjects and began to paint progress, ships, the workhorses of Dutch prosperity, scenes of everyday life and the workshops of contemporary scientists, usually alchemists. Depicted in bright-and-dark techniques, these paintings were certainly the ideological forerunners if not the inspiration for one of the prophets of the Industrial Age, Joseph Wright of Derby.

Joseph Wright of Derby: "A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun" (1766)

Caravaggio was a blasphemer. Using Rome’s male and female prostitutes as models for his saints, choosing the most obscure scenes from the scriptures to express violence and debauchery, highlighting all the wrong elements. And he was a master of highlighting. Chiaroscuro, the strong contrasts between light and dark, wasn’t exactly his invention. Renaissance artists already used the technique at least a century before Caravaggio created “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” in 1599 and became the “most famous painter in Rome”. Few mastered the drama of tenebrism, as Caravaggio’s extreme use of chiaroscuro was called, as he did, though. In 1773, when Wright came to Italy and might have seen an original Caravaggio, it certainly was something of a revelation for him. By then, he already was, in the words of his contemporary James Northcote, portrait artist, "the most famous painter now living for candle-lights" and had finished several large canvasses, depicting somewhat curious topics, usually by the light of a single candle. Wright had learned his trade from Thomas Hudson, just like Joshua Reynolds, and it was Hudson who had introduced him to Hogarth and the idea of depicting contemporary curiosities as well as the Dutch Baroque masters, first and foremost the Utrecht Caravaggisti. While working with religious subjects, the fun usually stopped for Terbrugghen, Honthorst and Baburen, though, and they highlighted the proper elements, infant Jesus, the stigmata, eyes raised to heaven, but there was more of Caravaggio in Wright, consciously or not, since he chose to illuminate experiments and scientific achievements in the way the Utrecht Caravaggisti chose faith and there were some scenes of boys fighting for a pig bladder or two girls dressing up their kitten that look quite like a perception of Hogarth with lighting nuances even Caravaggio might have approved of.

Joseph Wright of Derby: "Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight" (1770)

a while, Wright was the painter of English Enlightenment and Industrialisation in its humanistic and positivistic aspects. And his native Midlands didn’t lack for suitable patrons. Josiah Wedgewood was one of them and so was Richard Arkwright, “Father of the Industrial Revolution“ and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles who would shake the very foundations of the world two generations later. All three were “Lunarticks”, members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a dinner club dedicated to science, learning and intellectual discourse, and so was Wright, among other worthies who furthered progress and, naturally, they made up quite an audience for the artist and his paintings of science. The humble painter of portraits had become something of a figurehead of an age. Or at least someone who created a visible and aesthetically pleasing image of its spirit. However, his visit to Italy must have done things to him, awakening a romantically beating heart under his scientifically girdled breast. A “Grotto by the Seaside in the Kingdom of Naples with Banditti, Sunset“ appears, along with moonlit Midland landscapes, eruptions of Vesuvius and similar themes that wouldn’t look out of place in the oeuvre of contemporary and later romantically moved artists, those who abhorred the very idea of the Industrial Revolution. But, who knows, maybe Wright was something of a Romantic all along, ensorcelled by the magic of change and steam and speed like a younger, more prominent member from the ranks of British painters of the late 18th and early 19th century whose best known works hang opposite Derby’s “Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump“ in the National Gallery.

But read more about Joseph Wright of Derby on:

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

"The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole" - The subversibly sensuous paintings of Henryk Siemiradzki

23 August 1902, the Polish Academic painter Henryk Siemiradzki died at the age of 55 in Strzałków

“I was most drawn to Tacitus as a historian. Dwelling on his Annals I was frequently tempted by the idea of presenting, in a literary form, these two worlds in which one was the all powerful governing machine of the ruling power and the other represented only a moral force. The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole. Also, as an artist I was drawn to it by the wonderful forms with which the ancient world was able to cloak itself.” (Henryk Siemiradzki)

Henryk Siemiradzki: "Nero's Torches" (1877)

was never quite forgotten in Poland. His artificial silk Duchy of Warsaw was seen by many as the reincarnation of the lost Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth of old. The next round of enthusiastic and quixotic insurgents tried their luck against their Russian overlords in 1831, to the Romantic strains of Chopin and the epic poems of Mickiewicz and Słowacki and failed gloriously. 1848 brought a short summer of anarchy and hope until the Austrian and Russian armies returned with a vengeance. Poland bred the next generation of dreamers and freedom fighters, on the barricades during the January Uprising of 1863, gunned and sabred down by the Tsar a year later. And this time, the Russian Empire really had with the Poles and their freedom-loving stubbornness. The szlachta, the Polish nobility of old who had played an active part in all uprisings, was finally dispossessed and banished to Siberia in droves, civil servants and officers of Polish or Lithuanian descent were either dismissed or put under close surveillance of the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery, the later Okhrana, and so were the intellectuals and everyone else who smelled even remotely of tendencies to support Polish independence. A thorough Russification followed as well as a Germanification in other parts of Poland occupied by the Austrians and especially the Prussians. But the last post-revolutionary clean sweep after the January Uprising did something to the Poles and their attitude of resistance as well. Not that they gave it up. Far from it. They still loved Chopin and read Mickiewicz, but in a quiet chamber and for themselves and instead of flying colours, sabres and desperate last stands on the barricades of Warsaw or Kraków, they backed praca organiczna, organic work, and positivism. That meant, in general terms, economic success and education, more often than not in league with the Russian and German Empires, to give a new Poland a solid fundament, whether it might come about some fine day or not. Many Polish artists followed suit and promising Polish painters were often trained in the Royal and Imperial academies of St Petersburg, Munich, Vienna and Berlin. One of them was the scion of Sloboda Ukraine’s szlachta, Henryk Siemiradzki.

Henryk Siemiradzki: "A Christian Dirce" (1897)

Speaking the language of slaves is a linguistic skill many artists are forced to acquire under oppressive political regimes lest they end up in Siberia, on the wrong side of a firing squad or worse. Slave language will not call a spade a spade but _Piques_ or pikes and may, if the author is so inclined, transport a world of hidden meaning. 19th century’s academic art with her limited arrangement of available sujets, usually historical, mythological or biblical scenes, often was quite adept in playing with more than the superficial meaning of images and contexts. And if only to paint naked people in oil on mammoth canvasses. A scandal if the scene showed a still from the red light district. Comme il fault if the image was labeled “Zeus and Ganymede” or “Susanna and the Elders”. Naturally, the somewhat algolagniac tales of the early Christian martyrs did provide artists with a lot more subtext for the baser instincts of the audience, especially in regards to sado-masochistic fantasies. But in Poland, edifying stories about persecution for one’s faith had a far more immediate political context. Famously arch-Catholic since Prince Mieszko was baptized back in 966, Poles had every right to feel like a suppressed minority even if their Russian Orthodox and Prussian Protestant rulers did not exactly fed devout Catholics to the lions. Bismarck might have been tempted during the “Kulturkampf”, though. Nevertheless, images of martyrdom exerted a special fascination for Poles, far more than for the Irish who were basically in the same boat. No wonder that Siemiradzki got along famously with Henryk Sienkiewicz of “Quo Vadis”-fame when the two met in Rome. The Polish painter’s arguably best known work, “Nero’s Torches” from 1877, looks indeed like a 6’ wide preliminary illustration for Sienkiewicz’ novel, who relates the tale handed down by Suetonius and Tacitus in epic breadth. Admittedly, Siemiradzki’s painting and its macabre narrative is quite epic all on its own.

Henryk Siemiradzki: "Burial of a Ruthenian Chieftain" (1883) - in 19th century terms, the Ruthenians were, by and large, the ancestors of the modern Russians 

the 1880s Modern Art and more openly rebellious, if not always specifically Polish imagery took root and flourished as Młoda Polska, Young Poland, and like everywhere else, traditional Academic Art like Siemiradzki’s, national importance or not, was superseded by the Symbolism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau and what not of Ślewiński, Podkowiński and Wyspiański. Like the other great and best-selling European salon painters, with Alma-Tadema leading the way, so to speak, became a thing of the past. With his excellent research, a good eye for a gripping narrative, sensuous scenes in strong colours and a wonderfully accentuated use of sunlight, Siemiradzki’s usually large canvasses deserve to be mentioned in one breath with Alma-Tadema’s. Even so, he is by and large forgotten, even if his paintings show up every now and then when somewhat racy illustrations of days gone by are called for to get the attention of readers, viewers and buyers. Not in his native Poland, though. “Nero’s Torches” went straight to the newly founded National Museum in Kraków, an establishment tolerated by the more lenient Habsburg rulers of Poland’s south. And his contribution as an artist to preserve Polish identity in difficult times with subversive, non-violent stubbornness during the days of the praca organiczna gives his work, as outdated as it may seem these days with representationalism and narrative being anathema to visual arts, a bittersweet, revolutionary note few of his Europe’s established Academic painters cared to add.

And more about Henryk Siemiradzki on:

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Battle of Havana in 1762 - How Cuba's capital became British for 11 months

13 August 1762, Spanish Havana surrendered to a large British invasion force under General George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, after two months of siege.

"It would require a greater philosopher and historian than I am to explain the causes of the famous Seven Years' War in which Europe was engaged; and, indeed, its origin has always appeared to me to be so complicated, and the books written about it so amazingly hard to understand, that I have seldom been much wiser at the end of a chapter than at the beginning“ (William Makepeace Thackeray “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”)

HMS "Stirling Castle", "Dragon" and "Cambridge" in action during a first attempt to take the fortress in a combined land and sea attack -
Richard Paton (1717 - 1791): "Bombardment of the Morro Castle, Havana, 1 July 1762" (around 1770)

It was a world war. Quite in contrast to the other conflicts after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, the Cabinet Wars fought for minor territorial gains and strategic advantages on isolated theatres with a minimum of civilian suffering, at least on paper, the Seven Years’ War meant carnage from the Ohio Valley, India and Central Europe to the Russian border, involving all of the Old World’s powers, gathered either in the camp of France and Austria, the bitter Bourbon and Habsburg enemies from the War of the Spanish Succession, or in that of Great Britain and her continental allies, chiefly Prussia. After the “annus miriabilis”, the wonderful year of 1759, it seemed that King George III, who had just succeeded his grandfather on the throne, was winning, even though most of the combatants and politicos probably had long since forgotten what the war was all about in the first place. During the last stage, it was a catch-as-catch can, especially in the European colonies across the globe. In 1761 then, King Louis XV of France had mobilised the rest of the Bourbon rulers, both Sicilies, Parma and Spain. Charles III, the fourth Bourbon ruler on the Spanish throne since Utrecht, actually had troubles enough to maintain his crumbling overseas empire, but something along the lines of Bourbon Nibelung loyalty and the worry the British might attack his possessions next anyway after they had finished with the French finally brought him into the war alongside his cousin. The British, ruling the waves since their decisive naval victories at Lagos and Quiberon Bay, promptly mobilised against Bourbon Spain and moved towards key positions in Manila on the Philippines in the Pacific and Cuba in the West Indies. Back in the day, the colonies in the Caribbean usually were the crown jewels among the European colonial possessions and sugar islands like Guadeloupe or Martinique, just recently conquered by the British from France, generated more income than the whole Eastern American seaboard. Cuba, however, was a Spanish domain since the days of the Conquistadores and her capital Havana was considered to be impregnable with fortifications established and improved since more than 250 years. In 1762, Havana’s harbour was guarded by the star fort Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the Fortresses San Salvador de la Punta at the western and Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, the Morro, at the eastern entrance, besides somewhat treacherous currents and winds, by and large a death trap for a fleet under sails. Nevertheless, a squadron under Sir George Pocock sailed in March of the year from Spithead to carry General George Keppel’s 12,000 troops across the broad Atlantic to take Havana.

Dominic Serres (1719 - 1793): "The British Fleet Entering Havana, 21 August 1762" (1775) - to the right is Pocock's flagship HMS "Namur" (90), flying the Blue Ensign along with the Union flag

Hurricane Season had already begun when Pocock’s fleet of 23 ships-of-the-line, 11 frigates and almost 200 smaller vessels, transports, bomb ketches and what not, finally arrived off Havana. The Spanish commander Juan de Prado Mayera Portocarrero y Luna had 9 sail of the line at anchor under the guns of his fortresses and about 5,000 men to defend the city. And time was on his side. Besides hurricanes and Spanish steel and shot, a far more deadly enemy lay in wait for Keppel’s troops. Yellow fever and other tropical diseases, known to kill European troops by the thousands as soon as they set foot on a Caribbean island. In fact, there were regiments who rather preferred to get court martialled and shot than to serve out there in the West Indies. Basically, all Juan de Prado had to do was to hold out until the British besiegers began to die like flies and a hurricane shatter their fleet. Keppel knew that as well, of course, bottled the Spanish squadron in the harbour of Havana by sinking three of his own no longer seaworthy battleships in the harbour entrance and prepared to take the Moro double quick. Unfortunately for him and his men, the fortress was built on solid rock, making the usual undermining operations of its walls virtually impossible and its works and batteries sat high enough to keep them out of range of the hundreds of pieces of naval artillery of Pocock’s ships of the line. Thus, the time-consuming process of reducing the fortifications by land began. The British dug in beyond the fortress and over the next six weeks, more than 500 shots hit the Morro from field artillery, siege guns, mortars, howitzers and the heavy 32-pounders taken ashore from the battleships. A last Spanish sortie was repulsed on 20 July, the British siege works were now close enough to risk a direct assault and allowed the undermining of some bastions, Keppel offered terms for surrendering the fortress, the proud Spanish commander refused and a week later, a mine exploded under the right bastion of the Morro and in the night of 31 July, the British rushed into the breach and finally took the fortress. Keppel now controlled the eastern shore, with the guns on the Moro overlooking the city and batteries placed up to La Cabana Hill and still the city refused to surrender. On 11 August, the bombardment began, the guns of La Punta, the last fort on the eastern shore, were silenced and the British soldiers, marines and seamen were about to storm the city. Juan de Prado finally gave up. The Spanish garrison was allowed to abandon Havana with all military honours, keeping their arms and flags.

Joshua Reynolds (1732 - 1792): "General William Keppel, Storming the Morro Castle" (around 1770)

feared tropical diseases caught up with the British, though. Until October 1762, “Yellow Jack” got 5,000 of Keppel’s men and Pocock’s sailors, along with the 3,000 killed in action about one third of the force sent to take Havana was lost. By then, Manila had fallen as well and the good people of Havana, allowed to keep their Catholic faith actually began to prosper under their new British masters, especially since the trade restrictions of all Spanish colonies in regards to engaging in business with heretic foreigners were over and done with. At least until the end of the Seven Years’ War and the Peace of Paris in 1763. Both Manila and Havana were returned to Spain, for a considerable compensation and the shock of having lost quite bit of status as top rate overseas empire and one fourth of its high seas fleet during the capture of the city. Somehow Admiral Don Gutierre de Hevia y Valdés had neglected to burn the nine ships of the line when Prado surrendered the place. Both grandees were court martialled, stripped of their rank and sentenced to ten years of fortress detention. Spain got off quite lightly, though. Florida remained in British hands, Minorca was ceded and that was that. France, however, was ruined, having lost almost all of her vast American and East Indian possessions while the state of Louis XV’s national finances was, in a nutshell, a disaster. The stepping stone of the revolution his son had to face some 25 years later, but not without squandering what was left during France’s intervention in the coming American War, basically to reclaim the losses of the Seven Years’ War. Not to mention the cost of about a million lives, both military and civilian, from all warring powers. On the other hand, Havana, along with the rest of Cuba and Puerto Rico, became the place that would see the eclipse of Spanish colonialism in the Americas in 1898, despite being British for some eleven months.

Dominic Serres: "The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762" (1775)

And more about the Battle of Havana on: