Friday, 28 February 2014

“Many runes the cold has told me" - The Kalevala

28 February: The anniversary of the publication of the Finnish national epic, the “Kalevala”, by Elias Lönrot in 1835 is celebrated in Finland and elsewhere with the “Kalevala Day”

“Many runes the cold has told me, / Many lays the rain has brought me, / Other songs the winds have sung me. / Many birds from many forests, / Oft have sung me lays n concord / Waves of sea, and ocean billows, / Music from the many waters, / Music from the whole creation, / Oft have been my guide and master.” (The Kalevala)

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865 – 1931): “The Forging of the Sampo” (1893)

Hegel once mentioned that a nation would count for nothing if it hasn’t produced an epopee, a national epic, but few of those texts proved to be as identity-establishing as the Kalevala. When the physician Elias Lönrot published the results of seven years of travelling the countryside and collecting folk tales and mythology, compiling it into a compelling tale known as “Kalevala”, the work dropped on the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland like a bomb. All of a sudden, a common background had been put into writing that was engaging for everyone who felt to be Finnish – a milestone for a region that was ruled by the Swedes and then the Russians since time immemorial and Lönrot wasn’t called the Second Father of the Finnish Language for nothing, after the first one, Mikael Agricola, who translated the New Testament into Finnish in 1548. The formative influence of the “Kalevala” on the nascent Finnish literature was a catalyst for Finnish identity and a stepping stone towards Finnish independence.

Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1808 – 1873):
"Väinämöisen soitto" (Väinämöinen's Play,1866)

The story itself revolves around the conflict of the people of Pohjala, probably Lapland, and the folks from Kalevala, the country of the hero Kaleva, and the possession of a cornucopia, the Sampo. And while working magic and sung language are almost identical, the tales’s most important protagonist, the first man Väinämöinen is, of course, a shaman as well as a singer. The rest is an epic succession of blood, thunder, seduction, romance and more magical feats that not only inspired the Finns to be Finnish but a lot of artists, local and from abroad, painters, musicians and authors, the most prominent of them probably being Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and J.R.R. Tolkien. The one copying the metre of the “Kalevala” for his own epic, the “Song of Hiawatha” while the other attributed Väinämöinen with a Germanic name, Gandalf, the elf with the staff, along with the many other influences the Finnish masterpiece exerts on the tale of Middle Earth.

Aksell Gallen-Kallela’s (1865 – 1931) triptych about the tale of Aino from the “Kalevala”

Depicted above is the Finnish painter Aksell Gallen-Kallela’s (1865 – 1931) triptych about the tale of Aino from the “Kalevala”: “ Aino was Joukahainen's sister who was promised to the old and wise Väinämöinen in marriage after Joukahainen lost a magic singing match against Väinämöinen. Aino instead decides to drown herself. The three pictures tell the story: the left panel one is about the first encounter of Väinämöinen and Aino in the forest, the right panel depicts mournful Aino weeping on the shore and listening to the call of the maids of Vellamo who are playing in the water. Aino has made her decision to choose death rather than her wizened suitor. The middle panel depicts the end of the story. Väinämöinen goes to fish for Aino in the lake that she entered. He catches a fish which he thinks to be a salmon and tries to cut her up with a knife, but the fish slips away from his hands and springs back into the water. Then the fish changes into Aino who proceeds to mock the old man, that he held her in his hand but couldn't keep her. After that she vanishes for ever.“ (wikipedia)

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Thursday, 27 February 2014

"He is said to have discovered the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone, and many other equally marvelous things." - The Comte de Saint Germain

27 February 1784, 230 years ago, the Comte de Saint Germain, alchemist, occultist and adventurer extraordinaire, allegedly died in Eckernförde in Schleswig-Holstein.
“Finally, she remembered a friend of hers, Count Saint-Germain. You must have heard of him, as many wonderful stories have been told about him. He is said to have discovered the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone, and many other equally marvelous things. He had money at his disposal, and my grandmother knew it. She sent him a note asking him to come to see her. He obeyed her summons and found her in great distress. She painted the cruelty of her husband in the darkest colors, and ended by telling the Count that she depended upon his friendship and generosity.” (Alexander Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades”)

An engraving made in 1783 after a portrait of the Comte de Saint Germain
owned by Jeanne Marquise d’Urfe, a rich widow dabbling in the occult,
the lady both he and Casanova courted during the late 1750s
and who finally granted he favours to the rather shady Italian poet Giacomo Passano.

Creating a gold-like metal by means of old alchemical procedures in the days of Brandt, Cavendish and Lavoisier – that became tarnished after a few weeks, composing arias and sonatas nobody really liked when Gluck, Haydn and, of course, Mozart celebrated their successes, a diplomat, a traveller, a secret society man, competitor of Casanova, at least once in Paris, a man who never dies and knows every secret, in short: a wonderman, as Voltaire dubbed him, as usually, tongue-in-cheek, or, as Frederick the Great replied, "C'est un comte pour rire" ("He is a count to laugh about"), the Count of St Germain. Modelling his own legend along that of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, he could hold an audience in his thrall with vivid descriptions of historical events from centuries past, just as he would have been present there and then and he was at least very prolific in obfuscating his own background. He fluently spoke several European languages and a few dead ones on top of it, was obviously highly educated and filthy rich. Neither the source of his wealth nor his heritage could ever been satisfactorily untangled from a web of myths the illustrious Count had begun to weave already during his life and times though. If he was the bastard of the Transylvanian Prince Francis II Rákóczi, and raised by the last Medici in Tuscany, as he once claimed, or that of the last Habsburg Queen of Spain and a Jewish banker from Madrid or the offspring of the tax collector Sig Rotondo from San Germano or an immortal being, will probably remain a mystery forever.

Gustave Doré's imagination of Ahasuerus striding through the ages
Gustave Doré's imagination of Ahasuerus striding through the ages

Mme Blavatsky and Annie Besant both claimed to have met the Count of St Germain during the late 19th and early 20th in various places but he was an archetype in occult circles long since, among Free Masons, Rosicrucians and later, of course, the Theosophical Society and its offshoots, the Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater allegedly saw him in Rome in 1926 and the count told about his Transylvanian castle, performing magic there in a “suit of golden chain-mail which once belonged to a Roman Emperor; over it is thrown a magnificent cloak of Tyrian purple, with on its clasp a seven-pointed star in diamond and amethyst, and sometimes he wears a glorious robe of violet." When he took up office with Charles of Hesse-Kassel though back in 1779, he claimed he was 88 even though he looked like being in his 50s, the pair created new dyes for colouring cloth and melting small diamonds into large ones first in the Prince’s summer residence in Schleswig-Holstein and then in an alchemical laboratory in Eckernförde near Kiel where, all of a sudden, the capricious count died, leaving nothing behind but a few everyday things, no riches, no books and no further miracles.

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797): "The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus"

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

“Women and children first!" - The Sinking of HM troop Transport “Birkenhead” in 1852

26 February 1852, HM troop transport “Birkenhead” sank in Gansbaai with 643 people on board and the call “women and children first!” was used for the first time during a ship disaster.

“To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about, Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout; But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew, An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too! Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you; Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw, So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too“ (Rudyard Kipling "Soldier an' Sailor Too")

Thomas M. Henry’s painting “Wreck of the Birkenhead” (1892)

It was during the 8th Xhosa War, when the British colonial forces slowly gained ground against the tribes being at war after their prophet Mlanjeni had promised them they’d no longer be harmed by the white colonists’ bullets after a row of sacrifices, that HM troopship “Birkenhead”, en route to the Eastern Cape with 643 people aboard, soldiers, her crew as well as women and children, struck a rock off Danger Point, 100 miles southeast of Cape Town at 2 o’clock in the morning. The “Birkenhead”, a 210’ paddle wheeler, had her forward compartments pushed in and flooded along with her engine room and at least 100 soldiers were drowned in their berths and the ship began to sink quickly, two miles away from the coast. The rest of the people aboard quickly assembled on deck and noticed that the ship had not only too less lifeboats but that two of the six available were already lost due to hectic action. Until that day, it had been “every man for himself” in Christian seafaring but the highest ranking army officer present, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton of the 74th Foot, quickly recognised that the boats would be swamped, dooming women and children almost certainly. He ordered the military still present to fall in and remain disciplined while the cavalry horses were driven over the side and women and children boarded the life boats.  Then the “Birkenhead” was pushed against the rock again, her funnel and mainmast went over her side and the ship broke asunder.

Charles Dixon: "The Wreck of the Birkenhead" (1901)

The astonishing discipline maintained by the soldiers of the 74th Highlanders ensured that, 
at the cost of the life of most of them, all of the 25 women and 31 children aboard the ship could reach dry land. 193 survived the catastrophe, the rest drowned, died of exposure or was taken by sharks, earning the local Great White variant the nickname “Tommy Sharks”. The motto “women and children first”, carried out during the sinking of the troop ship, became synonymous with grace under pressure, the “Birkenhead Drill”.

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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

"One does not paint with one's hands." - Pierre-Auguste Renoir

25 February 1841, the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges.
“To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.“ (Pierre-Auguste Renoir)
“... one of the masterpieces of early Impressionism“ - Bal du moulin de la Galette 

It’s hard to tell in hindsight who is to blame for devising the distinctive, comma-like brush strokes that mirror colours changing with the light, characteristically for the style that was to be called Impressionism. Monet and Renoir basically came up the same approach under the influence of Courbet and while both friends discovered diffuse reflections in the shadows and the difference that the incidence of light attribute to the same scene en plein air, often working side by side, Monet developed a more formal application of technique when a visit to Italy and the sampling of the renaissance masters, especially Raphael, convinced him that a return to a more classical approach was due in his art. He never lost his touch, though, that he developed quite early in his artistic career, of blending his figures with a softly hinted background.
"It is fresh and free without being too bawdy“ - Renoir’s “Le déjeuner des canotiers“ (1881)

The inherent beauty of human beings remained at the centre of his art through all periods of Renoir’s work, not only his famous nudes that would have made a Neolithic fertility fancier proud, but his fellow artists and the common people as well, usually out in the open air, at their leisure in softly suggested scenic spots. His light palette, rich colours and delicate brush strokes bestow a gentle, rather unmistakable atmosphere to his more than 6.000 paintings, even on a portrait of grim Richard Wagner – he still painted when he was confined to a wheelchair due to rheumatoid arthritis, affecting his hands as well, and when a visitor asked him how he could work under these conditions, Renoir answered "One does not paint with one's hands."
“Bathers”, 1918, Barnes Foundation

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