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:

Friday, 5 August 2016

"Prince Eugene, the Noble Knight" - The Battle of Petrovaradin in 1716

5 August 1716, during the Austro-Turkish War of 1716-1718, the Austrian military genius Prince Eugene of Savoy decisively defeated an outnumbering Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha at the Battle of Petrovaradin.

“The Prince exposed himself to a great extent … and was in the greatest of dangers to get sabred or captured by the Turks” (Anonymous Austrian participant of the Battle of Petrovaradin, 1716)

Jacob van Schuppen (1670 - 1751):
"Prince Eugene during the Austro-Turkish War."
(around 1720)

Palatine Elisabeth Charlotte, Liselotte von der Pfalz, was usually quite spot-on in her assessment of her fellow players at the court of the Sun King. In her own, inimitable down-to-earth manner, full of heart-warming common sense. Once she was rather mistaken, though. An “uncleanly and very debauched boy”, she wrote about the third youngest of Olympia Mancini, Countess Soissons’ eight children. The neglected, wraithlike, smallish son of Louis XIV’s poisonous mistress would never get anywhere, the worldly-wise princess concluded. The Sun King intended the lad for a career in the Church, but the very debauched boy wanted to play soldier, walked out on him and turned to Louis’ rival, the Holy Roman Emperor, and promptly ended up in the Siege of Vienna of 1683. It was the beginning of Prince Eugene of Savoy’s career as, according to Napoleon himself, one of the seven greatest commanders in history. At the same time, the epic siege of the capital at the gates of Western Europe marks the beginning of the end of Ottoman supremacy on the Balkans and in Hungary, not least because of Prince Eugene’s brilliance. The Great Turkish War would drag on until the end of the 17th century, protracted by the Sun King’s invasion of the Rhineland and the Palatine, the Nine Years’ War in the west of the Holy Roman Empire, but ended with Prince Eugene’s decisive victory over Sultan Mustafa II at the Battle of Zenta in 1697 and the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz. It was Zenta that established the House of Habsburg as the dominant power on the Balkans and the treaty marked the first time peace terms were dictated to an Ottoman sultan by Western powers. And while Prince Eugene distinguished himself in the War of the Spanish Succession, teamed up with Marlborough at Blenheim, Oudenarde and Malplaquet and Louis XIV might have rued the day more than once when he drove the debauched boy into the arms of the Habsburgs, the Sublime Porte plotted revenge for Vienna, Zenta and Karlowitz. In 1715 then, with the Austrians still exhausted after the Peace of Utrecht and the efforts of the 18th century’s first global war, the Ottomans struck out against one of the beneficiaries of Karlowitz, the Republic of Venice and their territories in Greece. It took a papal guarantee for Austrian territories in Italy and lots of diplomatic persuasion to goad Emperor Charles VI to take a clear position against the Ottomans. The High Porte reacted with a declaration of War and mustered an army 150,000 strong at Belgrade. Emperor Charles sent Prince Eugene.

Franz Wacik (1883  - 1938): "Prince Eugene at the Battle of Vienna, 1683", illustration from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Prince Eugene, His Life in Pictures", 1913

the fortress of Petrovaradin, was known as the Gibraltar of the Danube for a while. During the Great Turkish War, Habsburg wasn’t able to reach out as far down the river as Belgrade, since the late Middle Ages the key fortification on the great river beyond the Great Hungarian Plain. The need for a bridgehead drove the Austrians to extend the works they captured from the Turks in 1687 some 60 miles up the river. They did build a state-of-the-art complex that held out against a first siege in ’94, became the key position of Habsburg’s Military Frontier and the first target of the Ottoman advance up the river. Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha, Grand Vizier and commander of the Turkish army who had taken the Morea, the Peloponnese, from the Venetians during the previous year, arrived on 2 August 1716 before Peterwardein, skirmished with Austrian cavalry, ordered his troops to dig in and lay siege to the fortress. It might have been up to 200,000 men, women and children in the siege lines and Silahdar Ali Pasha’s camp. At least half of them made up the customarily immense Ottoman baggage train, the rest were fighting troops. Field Marshal Prince Eugene arrived with the main body of his army, about 80,000 men, a day later on the left shore of the Danube, crossed the river on a bridge of boats, a breakneck manoeuvre in the middle of the night, and on the next morning at 7 am sharp, with a short prayer, “Mon Dieu!”, eyes raised to heaven for a blink, a curt nod and ”Avancez!“, the Battle of Petrovaradin began. The Ottoman right flank was rolled up immediately, Silahdar Ali Pasha’s Janissaries put up a stiff resistance in the centre, counter-charged, drove the Austrians, Eugene committed his reserves, the Austrian centre held, Eugene seemed to be everywhere at once, always in the thick of it, a timely cavalry charge into the Ottoman flank closed the sack, the battle was won and the slaughter began. The Grand Vizier stood to the last, holding the green banner of the Prophet, an Austrian bullet struck him in the head, the 50,000 survivors of his army took his body back to Belgrade where he was buried. His tomb can be seen to this day. His pompous tent, captured with the rest of his baggage train, is exhibited at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, the Museum of Military History in Vienna.

Franz Wacik: "Eugene's Last Days and the Lion of Belvedere" (1913)

a day and age when European warfare often resembled a kind of brutal minuet, with ritualised marching and countermarching to protect supply lines and achieve strategic goals and bit of distrust against new-fangled weapons like flintlock muskets and bayonets, few commanders really manoeuvred and fought for decisive actions on the battlefields. Prince Eugene stands out as a tactical and logistic genius who, more often than not, personally risked life and limb. He was wounded nine times in battle and during sieges and maybe his personal commitment won him Petrovaradin. It certainly did at Belgrade, a year later, his arguably greatest victory against impossible odds and circumstances. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who personally met his great model in his youth, called Prince Eugene the actual Emperor of Austria and well into the 1720s, he was at least one of the most influential men at the court of Vienna and in the whole of Europe. Along with being one of the richest men on the continent. Other than his Habsburg masters, Eugene of Savoy knew quite well how to be economical. Neither was he above feathering his own nest with the spoils of war and war bonds. And it was quite a nest he built for himself, several palaces in Vienna, a large library, today known as the Eugeniana, the core part of the Austrian National Library, adorned with works of art collected from all across Europe and beyond. He remained a “Mars without Venus” though, as a ditty sung in the side streets and the new coffee houses of Vienna had it. Whether Eugene was homosexual, asexual or simply shy in regards to personal relationships never became quite clear, but he wouldn’t be a Viennese hero without a proper neurosis or three. It seems, however, that he never recovered emotionally from his loveless childhood and lived a loveless life, a fate he shares with his admirer, the other of the two greatest commanders of the 18th century, Frederick the Great. However, there is a legend, handed down by the Austrian Knight of the Neurosis Hugo von Hofmannsthal, that Prince Eugene was at least bewept by the lion he kept in his menagerie in the park of his summer residence, the Belvedere. He, the toothless lion who was driven out to war for the third Habsburg emperor he served in his seventieth year and finally made a mess of it, wasn’t seen by his beloved pet for three days. Eugene lay dying, his lion refused to eat, and then, in the night of 21 April 1736, the lion began to roar, about 3 o’clock in the morning. The animal keeper who went out to ensure that everything was in order, saw, all of a sudden, the lights coming on in every room of the palace and heard the death knell ring. “And so he knew”, Hofmannsthal says, “that his master, the great Prince Eugene, had died within this hour.”

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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

“Try to be civil, Marlow“ - On Joseph Conrad

3 August 1924, the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad died aged 66 in Bishopsbourne, England.

“Efficiency of a practically flawless kind may be reached naturally in the struggle for bread. But there is something beyond — a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill; almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art — which is art.“ (Joseph Conrad)

Sir William Rothenstein (1872 - 1945) "Portrait of Joseph Conrad" (1903)

There is a white man’s grave in Yambuya on the upper reaches of the Aruwimi, a tributary of the Congo River. Yambuya once served as the base for Morton Stanley’s relief expedition to bring back the German-born condottiero Emin Pasha, one of Gordon of Khartoum’s paladins, governor of Egypt’s Equatoria province, besieged by Mahdists. The white man’s name was Major Edmund Barttelot, commander of Stanley’s rear column, and even the Bula Matari Stanley, an infamous martinet himself, called him a disgrace for treating native porters and workers quite beastly. Besides completely messing up Stanley’s base camp because the man obviously was unable to organise more than having people beaten and tortured to death by the dozen. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, in the hell of King Leopold II’s so called Congo Free State, but Barttelot was shot dead by the husband of a woman he had tyrannised, in July 1888. Two years later, a Polish-born captain of a riverboat steaming up the Lualaba towards the Belgian government station at Kisangani below the Stanley Falls had heard the tale of a bad man gone to worse in the heart of Africa and it might be that the sea- and river-faring aspiring author had heard the enthralling voice of Mr Kurtz for the first time. Nine years later, the author had combined the madness of Barttelot with the cruelty of another one of King Leopold’s worthies at Stanley Falls, Léon Rom, who decorated his flower beds with severed heads, adding a layer of the merchant empire the Zanzibari slave and ivory trader Tippu Tip had established in the region, and the popularity of the Bula Matari himself, the “breaker of stones” Henry Morton Stanley. But beyond taking the mendacity of King Leopold and his minions’ allegedly humanitarian and civilising mission in the Congo ad absurdum, Mr Kurtz had received the superstructure of a Nietzschean Übermensch, the psychological abyss of Dostoevsky’s outré protagonists and Captain Ahab’s hubris. And founders at the Heart of Darkness, the distorting mirror Africa had become for Europe’s cloud-cuckoo-land at the end of the long 19th century The only remedy against things falling apart, the centre that might hold, were the seamannish virtues of the tale’s narrator, idealised by its author, Joseph Conrad, but he always was a novelist who went to sea instead of a seaman who became an author.

Few, if any of Poland’s poets and authors, revered at home, are known beyond their motherland’s borders. Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, of “Quo Vadis” fame, was an exception, at least for a while, making Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad, the best known of all of them in the whole wide world. And he famously wrote in English, ranking tops among the English-speaking novelists and not only of his day and age. A phenomenon, since he learned the language not before his early twenties when he decided to join the British Merchant Navy. However, many of his tales might look like tarry, rough handed sailors at first acquaintance, but they soon take on the guise of Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego and oftimes narrator, sitting on deck of the Nellie riding at anchor in Gravesend, spinning his yarn, with “sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards,” resembling “a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower“ or comforting aspects beyond the “bond of the sea” and British civilisation. Not of the “White Man’s Burden” type of Kipling, whom Conrad despised, but of common decency, discipline and the quiet but infrangible endurance that once was associated with the Empire. At least sometimes. And from far away. Consequently, Conrad seldom deals with the British from close up at home, only with their seafaring minority, and at heart, his motifs are deeply Polish, of peoples and individuals in their struggle for freedom and finding or preserving their identity. Even his nom de plume resounds with Adam Mickiewicz’ epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod”, a highly influential, inspiring and patriotic piece in the days when Poland had all but disappeared from the maps.

The barque "Otago", Captain Joseph Conrad's command in 1888/89 and the cover image of Conrad's "Mirror of the Sea" (1906)

experience, things he had seen and done or had seen done while he was in foreign climes, whatever that meant for a wanderer between the worlds, trivial novels, politics of the day, from abroad, mind you, not in England, where he lived since 1894, were the sources from which Conrad drew the ideas of his tales, or rather prose poems. Again, at first glance his narrative is straightforward like a naval log until the reader realises he has been drowned in sea of imagery, nautical and otherwise, while being held in thrall by Conrad’s narrators and their perceptions and their single-minded insights. His psychological depths have been compared to Dostoevsky’s, Conrad despised him even more than Kipling, mostly for being Russian and an advocate for Russian imperialism, Pole that he was. And for indulging himself in the abyss of the human soul that is seen and heard in Conrad’s work but never voiced in single arias with all highs and lows, standing out from the choir of highly polyphonic arrangements, like Dostoevsky’s. It’s a horror, and that’s that. With a surprisingly simple remedy: “Try to be civil, Marlow“, despite the tragédie humaine Conrad usually narrates. And while his matchless prose with all its Gallicisms, Polonisms and artificially wonderful word and grammar structures and creations no native speaker could come up with remains unrivalled, his influence, at the very least through his rich images, is felt to this day, in novels, movies and even computer games and a journey up a river is never the same after reading Conrad, whether the stretch of water flows up into a foreign country or down into one’s own Heart of Darkness.

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