Sunday, 30 March 2014

"De la musique avant toute chose" - The French Poet Paul Verlaine

30 March 1844, 170 years ago, the French poet Paul Verlaine was born in Metz.
"De la musique avant toute chose" (Music before everything else, Paul Verlaine)

Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) “Coin de table“ from 1872, showing Verlaine to the far left with Rimbaud sitting to his right.

Zigzagging between the yearning for a cosy bourgeois existence and the life of a complete social dropout and, if maybe not reaching the peaks of Parnassus then at least having them within sight, producing masterclass poetry are not an unusual traits for a 19th century lyricist, but few went to extremes as Verlaine did. His short marriage with the half-sister of a friend failed gloriously, he glamourised the time in later poems, fell in love with the poet Rimbaud, ten years his junior, they had quite a stormy relationship that ended with Verlaine trying to shoot him and bringing him to jail – along with several murder attempts on his mother, he found religion behind bars, ranging through Paris’ poorhouses and public hospitals or simply on the streets, alcohol and drug addicted and while he was elected “Prince des poètes“, the syphilis, what else, finally got him at the age of 52. Several thousand people followed his funeral procession to the Cimetière des Batignolles.

Verlaine drinking absinthe in the Café François 1er in 1892, photographed by Paul Marsan Dornac (Wikipedia)

Coming under the influence of Baudelaire at an early age and reading Schopenhauer on top of it usually does wonders in terms of believing oneself to be a poètes maudit, an accursed poet, like his generation was later dubbed. Not everyone has the ability to express his sensitivities in a perfect euphonic harmony, leading the French language to a musicality that was unheard of before. Verlaine became over the years the leading poet of symbolism with a sujet ranging from morbid erotic to ecstatic piety, portraying the impression of contemporary visual artists in a musical language, influencing poets, composers and writers from all over the world for the following decades, with suggestive images sans rhetoric in a language that is based on harmony, new metrics and the cadence of verse, leading the visionary poetry of the fin de siècle to a preliminary climax of the art form itself.

Gustave Courbet: "Portrait of Paul Verlaine"

Rooted deeply in other nations’ approach on being French and the Frenchs’ own identity in the following years, the allies chose verses from Verlaine to signal to the Resistance that the liberation was underway. Two weeks before “Operation Overlord”, the Normandy landings, began, the BBC broadcasted the opening lines of Verlaine’s "Chanson d'automne" and 48 hours before the invasion on 6 June 1944, the next lines were sent over the ether, signalling the beginning of the Resistance’s sabotage operations

Les sanglots longs - The long sobs - Seufzer gleiten
Des violons - Of the violins - Die saiten
De l'automne - Of Autumn- Des herbsts entlang
Blessent mon coeur - Wound my heart - Treffen mein herz
D'une langueur - With a monotonous - Mit einem schmerz
Monotone. - Languor. - Dumpf und bang

Tout suffocant - All choked - Beim glockenschlag
Et blême, quand - And pale, when - Denk ich zag
Sonne l'heure, - The hour chimes, - Und voll peinen
Je me souviens - I remember - An die zeit
Des jours anciens - Days of old - Die nun schon weit
Et je pleure, - And I cry - Und muss weinen.

Et je m'en vais - And I'm going - Im bösen winde
Au vent mauvais - On an ill wind - Geh ich und finde
Qui m'emporte - That carries me - Keine statt...
Deçà, delà - Here and there, - Treibe fort
Pareil à la - As if a - Bald da bald dort
Feuille morte. - Dead leaf. - Ein welkes blatt.

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Saturday, 29 March 2014

"O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!" - The Battle of Towton in 1461

29 March 1461: During a snowstorm on a Palm Sunday in Yorkshire, the largest and bloodiest battle on English soil was fought at Towton during the Wars of the Roses.

“O piteous spectacle! O bloody times! / Whiles lions war and battle for their dens, / Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity. / Weep, wretched man, I'll aid thee tear for tear; / And let our hearts and eyes, like civil war, / Be blind with tears, and break o'ercharged with grief." (William Shakespeare “Henry VI”)

Re-enactors from the Towton Battlefield Society. Their website is well worth a visit:

The order "no mercy" was issued to the 50.000 fighting men on both sides and the commanders on both sides meant it and it was the wind that changed, giving the outnumbered Yorkists the advantage. Not every man-at-arms was as heavily armoured as the French knights at Verneuil and Castillon and two salvos with 120.000 arrows shot by the northern longbowmen with the wind at their backs through the driving snow into the ranks of the Lancastrians charging down the steep slope into Towton Dale proved to be devastating and then it was man against man when the two battle lines closed, literally to the knife in the close packed ranks for the next three hours. When the Duke of Norfolk arrived in the afternoon with fresh troops and took the Lancastrians in the flank, the battle was over and the real slaughter began. The men of House Lancaster throwing away what armour they could and trying to run with the growing dark were cut down mercilessly by the Yorkists. 28.000 lives were lost on that day ensuring the throne of the Yorkist king Edward IV for the next 10 years, when the Wars of the Roses flared up again.

 The Battle of Towton, according to the American artist Richard Caton Woodville (1922)

What we know about the bloody fight where every second man that entered the field on the fateful Palm Sunday morning did not leave it alive by the end of the day, an exceptionally high death toll, even for a modern battle, is mostly hearsay, written down two generations later, by the Tudor historian Edward Hall, for example, who claimed that his grandfather was at Towton. Modern battlefield archaeology is only partly in accord with the gory 16th century accounts, but mass graves that were discovered in recent years show not only the deadliness of late medieval and early modern weapons, from skulls pierced by arrows with their deadly bodkin tips that went straight through the helmets worn to the aftermath when the fleeing men-at-arms had thrown their protective gear away. Depicted below to the upper right is the head of a fallen soldier who was killed by a direct hit from a war hammer, probably wielded from horseback who positively did not wear a helmet anymore. The same is true for the man’s skull depicted on the bottom left. He was killed by the slash of a typical 15th century long sword, wielded with both hands, probably while turning towards his pursuer. He was a seasoned soldier who already had survived another nearly fatal blow of a sword to his lower jaw before, a hit that would have been a challenge for present-day casualty doctors, fully healed though and speaking volumes of the medical skills available during the so-called dark ages.

The images of the skulls were found on:

together with more information about Bradford University’s research on the battlefield.

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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

"beyond the bed of Procrustes of topical and ideological art" - the Painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

26 March 1794, 220 years ago, the painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld was born in Leipzig.
  “The picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and a better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed." (John Ruskin)

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: “Portrait of Frau Klara Bianka von Quandt with a lute” (1820)

Students of the various renowned 19th century art academies in Europe had found a common thread from Madrid to St Petersburg in protesting against the prevalent curricula and teaching methods. In short – they found them bloodless. The following peculiarities of the disciples’ protests in art varied quite widely from country to country and generation to generation, though, and a decidedly Christian motivated movement was more or less a singularity, nevertheless, the Nazarene movement among early 19th century German Romantic painters grew to be quite influential in art as well as in popular imagination of religious imagery. The renewal of art in the spirit of Christianity along the lines of the great masters of the late Medieval and early Renaissance period predated and paralleled the development of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England and the works of the individual artists often look quite similar in the range of motives as well as execution albeit without the sublime erotic prevalent among the Pre-Raphaelites.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: “The Frankish Army under Charlemagne in the City of Paris” (1817 - 1827)

Among the likes of Overbeck, von Cornelius and Veit, Schnorr von Carolsfeld made an extraordinary appearance. Besides being the only artist among the Nazarene Movement who drew and painted nudes more than once, he was far from committed to the sole depiction of religious motifs. History paintings alternate with mythological portrayals such as illustrations of the “Nibelungenlied” and, as common denominator of his work, Schnorr von Carolsfeld was one of the best landscape artists of the 19th century. Not in terms of vedute, though, the detailed rendition of a place, but the detailed blending of a place into a sublime entirety of a scene. And while most of the art of the Nazarene Movement and their successors had degenerated into religious Kitsch when the new century dawned, Schnorr von Carolsfeld remained, along with Doré, the most influential Bible illustrator of the age but an artist beyond the bed of Procrustes of topical and ideological art.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” - the Dioramas of Frances Glessner Lee

25 March 1878, the millionaire heiress Frances Glessner Lee, who revolutionised the study of crime scene investigation with her dioramas, was born in Chicago.

“It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.“ (Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue“)

The daughter of a Chicago millionaire who loved to read Sherlock Holmes stories as girl and was fascinated by forensic pathology was about to line up with the thousands of other women who were discouraged by their families to pursue a scientific career, a fate that would have cut out medical jurisprudence from the general idea of detailed investigations of crime scenes to reconstruct the circumstances of an offence by a hair’s breadth. Or, at the very least, set back the current protocol of crime scene investigation for decades. Widowed at the age of 52 and a mother of three children, Frances plucked up the courage and finally pursued her own career, first by assisting a classmate of her brother, Boston’s chief medical examiner George Burgess Magrath who was responsible for replacing the traditional coroners with medical professionals, furthered the establishment of the first department of legal medicine in the US at Harvard in 1931 and finally began constructing her eighteen hauntingly beautiful dollhouse-style dioramas.

With an astonishing attention to detail, Frances reconstructed quite gruesome crime scenes on a 1 inch to 1 foot scale with dolls and dollhouses, re-evaluating little Victorian girls’ dreams of the world of adults into a nightmare of mayhem. She created 18 of these scenes, calling them “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, mostly scenes of domestic violence, presented at annual conferences. Professionals were given 90 minutes to study them and draw their conclusions to be presented during a banquet. What sounds like a quirky mystery writer’s folly was actually so detailed and realistic that her dioramas are still used for training purposes to this day. Frances died at the age of 84, a pioneer of forensic science and the first female (honorary) captain of the New Hampshire State Police.

Depicted above are, along with a contemporary picture showing Frances at work, two  photos of her astonishing dioramas, released in a press kit accompanying a documentary of her life and works, called “Of Dolls and Murder” – more on 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

"there is no middle way" - the Death of Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as “Stendhal”

23 March 1842, the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known as “Stendhal” died at the age of 59 in Paris.
“In our calling, we have to choose; we must make our fortune either in this world or in the next, there is no middle way.“ (Stendhal “Le Rouge et le Noir“)

A portrait of Stendhal by the French painter Louis Ducis (1775 – 1847)
from 1835 Fonds Bucci, Bibliothèque Sormani, Milan.

The thought suggests itself every now and then that it was the prerequisite for being an artist of class during the 19th century, one had to suffer from a venereal disease at the very least. Henry Beyle contracted the great-pox at the age of 18 during Napoleon’s campaign in Italy where he served as a second lieutenant in a dragoon regiment, and while he had to quit active service in 1802, Henry had at least the opportunity to fall in love with Italian music, art and literature in and around Milan. He joined the Grande Armée again five years later as war commissar, served in Napoleon’s German satellite states, Russia and, again, in Italy and his admiration for the German art historian Winckelmann, born in Stendal in Saxony-Anhalt, one of Henry’s operating sites in 1808, made him choose the nom de plume: Stendhal when he began writing in earnest in hid mid-30s since he had to. The civil administration of France’s restoration period had no place for him anymore.

While the Romantic Movement, by and large, indulged in the description of touchy-feely conditions, Stendhal, though far from being able to disenthrall himself from the prevalent maudlin of his age completely, found his focus in acute psychological observations and depictions of his characters, especially his female cast, that made them appear simply alive along the lines of the protagonists’ coming to naught in civil society. His narratives often anticipate and outrank the later works of literary realism and, as usually, his merits, ahead of the times, were recognised by few contemporaries. Stendhal dictated world literature like “La Chartreuse de Parme” because he couldn’t hold his pen steady anymore, rather more from the coeval treatments than from the syphilis itself, the “Charterhouse” became the only success during his life and times, while artists of the late 19th and 20th century again and again recurred on Stendhal’s works and he posthumously engages a devoted audience from all across the world.

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