Monday, 27 February 2017

Very Picturesque Melancholy - Prague, Jakub Schikaneder and his Nocturnes

27 February 1855, the Bohemian painter Jakub Schikaneder was born in Prague.

“You know yourself how little sunshine reaches Prague's dark streets and alleys.“ (Gustav Meyrink, “The Golem”)

Jakub Schikaneder "Early Evening on the Hradčany" (around 1900)

"A schöne Leich”. A beautiful funeral, to the good people of Vienna, the place where the dead buried at the Zentralfriedhof, the Central Cemetery, outnumber the living by almost two to one. The place where the elderly still set up saving accounts to pay for their “schöne Leich”. The place where Sigmund Freud came up with the “Todestrieb”, death drive, and where death and dying always had a somewhat funny side and usually was celebrated with a drunk and merry note over Mozart’s “Requiem”. Not that Vienna’s beautiful Bohemian cousin Prague isn’t every bid as morbid as the merry Danube necropolis. With the added melancholy of centuries of foreign rule by the Habsburgs, the apocalyptic visions of the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years’ War and a liberal dose of mystery and magic since the days of Emperor Rudolf II’s Bohemian Parnassus. However, it was the Habsburg’s spearheading of Germanisation since the Thirty Years’ War that reduced Czech language almost to being the means of lower class communication and hindered the further development of genuine Czech fine arts for almost two hundred years. The nationalist revivals of those downtrodden by the major empires of the age at the beginning of the 19th century, from Dublin to Warsaw, Athens and Kiev, saw a rise of Czech identity as well, first in language and writing, then with fixed bayonets on the barricades of the revolution of 1848 and finally in music and the visual arts a generation later. And while the first notable Czech painters took up the style taught at the Imperial Academies and celebrated under these auspices their own Slavic and Bohemian identity-establishing heroes and heroines, only a few years later modernity caught up with their successors who began to work with the various –isms of the second half of the 19th century’s art trends. They studied in Paris, naturally, in Vienna, Düsseldorf and Munich and one aspiring artist from Prague was quite taken with the Munich School’s subtle blend of Academic Art, elapsing Romanticism, Baroque Chiaroscuro and a note of Impressionism. Jakub Schikaneder who would develop the style into imagery with a morbid and mysterious All Souls' Day mood, sometimes gloomy enough to let even the sulkiest of his Russian contemporaries appear like they were merrily morbid Viennese. 

Jakub Schikaneder "All Souls' Day" (1888)

Schikaneder grew up in Prague’s Old Town as the son of an Austrian customs officer, not exactly in bourgeois upper middle class surroundings, but as the scion of an art loving family who had the author of the libretto of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” among their forebears, the lad had at least the moral support to further an artistic career, first in the theatre and, since he was 15, at Prague’s Art Academy. He began to exhibit his works already during his time at the academy to an audience that hungered for works by genuine Czech artists. Even though the young painter’s inherent sarcasm and irreverence that went against the grain of the hard core of Bohemian patriots like the journalist and author Jan Neruda who criticised Schikaneder’s works rather severely in the National Newspaper, the “Národní listy”. Never the less, Schikaneder won the prestigious artistic commissions to contribute to the decoration of Prague’s iconic National Theatre and other public works and had finally assembled enough money to finance several trips and stays across Europe, first and foremost in Paris and Munich. Becoming a professor at Prague’s new Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in 1891 helped him to travel again and again to Europe’s artistic hotspots and stay in touch with current art trends while he led an otherwise quite un-bohemian life, overshadowed only by the death of his only child during the first year of its life. Getting inspired by Whistler’s Nocturnes and reading Schopenhauer in Prague’s moody atmosphere does things to one’s inspiration, though. When the last decade of the 19th century ended, Schikaneder entered the arguably most important phase of his artistic work after a couple of years of refocusing. It was the time when his night images of Prague came into being.

Prague and her defenestrations. Here: Jakub Schikaneder "Murder in the Hiouse" (1890)

So-called “Problem Pictures”, a visual narrative encouraging the spectator to solve the depicted puzzle, family drama with open endings, court procedures, crime scenes, more often than not, were quite popular in France and especially in Great Britain. Schikaneder saw a few during his travels and was intrigued. He painted one or two himself, bridging his period à la Munich and his later Prague nocturnes. Narrative along with Realism went overboard while Symbolism lurks in the shadows of the Staré Město’s winding lanes, the Hradčany and the shores of the Vlatava and the eerie light of the gas lanterns. Gustav Meyrink’s golem wouldn’t look out of place at all and sometimes, Symbolism comes out in the open when Joe Black is seen, fiddling in the driveway or listening to a moribund musicians last song in a Prague with her landmarks depicted not quite correct but extrapolated to convey a mood. It all ends with the usual late Symbolist body count, sick beds, morgues and dead girls by the dozen until modernity and the 20th century finally caught up with Schikaneder himself on the brink of the Great War. When a new generation of very active young artists began to exhibit their works, Cubists, chiefly, their professor from the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design began to withdraw and finally fall silent. Schikaneder’s last pictures show scenes from the German North Sea coast and Heligoland, quite sombre, still with a whiff of Symbolism, until he died at the age of 69, back home in his beloved Prague, duly forgotten outside his home turf, leaving a legacy of very picturesque melancholy.

Jakub Schikaneder: "A Lane in Old Prague" (1907)

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: