Thursday, 24 July 2014

“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create" - the Czech Art Nouveau painter, graphic and commercial artist Alphonse Mucha

1860, the Czech Art Nouveau painter, graphic and commercial artist Alphonse  Mucha was born in Ivančice in Moravia.

“The purpose of my work was never to destroy but always to create, to construct bridges, because we must live in the hope that humankind will draw together and that the better we understand each other the easier this will become.“ (Alphonse Mucha)

Mucha’s co-operative advertisement for “Bières de la Meuse“ (1897),
Beers brewed along the river Meuse in Belgium

The jotted lines, the simple but expressive shapes, the strong colour contrasts of a Toulouse-Lautrec’s imagination that had revolutionised theatrical advertisements in the early 1890s and made them into works of art, they were all yesterday’s news, when the last man in a Paris print shop on the night before Christmas, a 34 years old Czech artist, found himself tasked with the creation of a poster ad for the great Sarah Bernhardt as “Gismonda” in Victorien Sardou’s recently premiered eponymous play that went into extra time on January 4th. The young man was Alphonse Mucha and his creation revolutionised poster ads overnight. Displaying Sarah Bernhardt, already 50 at the time, as a life-sized stately, but youngish-ageless beauty with flowing hair in a fantastically, fluently tasteful arrangement full of gold, flowers and palm branches hit the nerve not only of the great, flattered actress but that of the whole of the capital of arts as well. Mucha became a celebrity all by himself, praised Bernhardt in further poster ads on a five-year contract, did more advertisements in the same style, had fans who scraped his characteristic designs as collector’s items from the walls as soon as they were posted while the artist himself had become the midwife and figurehead of a new style: Art Nouveau, Jugendstil.

Alphonse Mucha:
"La Dame aux camélias" (1896),
featuring Mme Sarah Bernhardt

After all is said and done, Mucha was a bit miffed about being best remembered and cherished for his ads and Jugendstil on top of it. And while he designed bank notes, stamps and other documents and more commercial art for customers from all over the world, he dreamed about more epic forms of painting and finally created a cycle of 20 large canvasses celebrating his Slavic heritage, completed in 1928 and being largely ignored. Except by the Gestapo. When the Nazis marched into Prague after the Munich betrayal on 16 March 1939, Mucha was among the first Czechs cashiered for their obvious patriotism. He was released afterwards as mostly harmless, but the old gentleman didn’t survive the attention of the Third Reich for long. He died in July of the same year and his art was promptly ignored again by the Communist regime after the war, since he was rather not fitting into the ideal of socialist realism, tractors, wheat fields (albeit flowing) and happy workers and farmers. Rediscovered after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Mucha was officially rediscovered in his native land, the Slavic Cycle is finally on exhibition in Prague’s National Gallery, while his wonderfully aesthetic, groundbreaking commercial art was never quite forgotten all over the world.

Alfons Mucha: “The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy - Praise the Lord in Your Native Tongue” (c 1925), 
part of the “Slav Epic”.

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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun." - Praising Raymond Chandler

23 July 1888, the American author Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago, Illinois.

“When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed." (Raymond Chandler, “The Long Goodbye”)

A caricature of Raymond Chandler by Adam Hughes, found on:

When “The Long Goodbye” was published in 1953, Chandler had already passed his peak as an author. His beloved wife Cissy, 18 years his senior, died a year later and he began his scheduled routine of drinking himself to death, trying to shoot a bullet in his head under the shower, failed, staggered to London for a spell, back to California and England again until his body gave up for good and he died in La Jolla at the age of 70. His last two attempts to write a novel, “Playback” and “Poodle Springs” remained thankfully unfinished. But by then he had already altered the hardboiled course adopted by American crime fiction after Dashiell Hammett into a melancholic, gritty and witty swan song of society with a Lone Ranger-type protagonist of earlier popular novels adapted to mid-20th century urban life as his solitary hero. A character whom Hammett’s Sam Spade would have regarded as a goon. But a spirited one with a quixotic code of honour who plays chess and listens to Classical music. Philip Marlowe.

Chandler’s slurs on absolutely every group of people already a victim of discrimination in the US of the 1940s and 50s as voiced by Marlowe appear as outdated as a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere in the age of fuel efficiency. The rest of Marlowe’s urban Californian environment is a swamp of corruption, lies and murder anyway. His plots are incoherent as a rule on top of it. But few writers were able to tell a tale with a concise, believably sketchy and nonetheless lyrical language like Raymond Chandler did, believable with a wealth of detail and psychological consequence, adding a poetic note to the hardboiled novel that actually ought not to be there. Together with a devastating wit, Chandler’s texts, his short stories, novels and letters, stand out as popular fiction that legitimately claims a place in high literature, making their author on of the great American novelists of the 20th century.

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Sunday, 20 July 2014

An Emperor and his Elephant - Charlemagne and Abul Abaz

20 July 802, the first elephant north of the Alps mentioned in a document since antiquity arrived as a gift from Harun al-Rashid at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

“On July 20 of this same year Isaac arrived with the elephant and the other presents sent by the Persian king, and he delivered them to the emperor at Aachen. The name of the elephant was Abul Abaz” (“The Royal Frankish Annals”)

A 19th century imagination of Abul Abaz from Charlotte M. Yonge's "Young Folks' History of Germany" (1878), found on

Even though the Abbasid Caliphate was at the height of its power during his reign, Harun al-Rashid's legacy is not regarded as non-controversially glorious at all in the Islamic world. The West remembers him as the wise and resourceful ruler though, roaming through the streets and taverns of nightly Baghdad in disguise to get first hand information about his subjects' sensitivities. And the embassy from Charlemagne he received in 801 made his name almost eponymous with “Caliph” in Western tradition since the early Middle Ages.  Led by the first Jew known by name from medieval Europe, the merchant Isaac of Aachen, who acted as guide, interpreter and counsellor for the two Frankish ambassadors Lantfried and Sigismund, the mission to Baghdad negotiated access to the holy sites in Palestine for Western pilgrims and, one a geostrategic scale, a rapprochement of the Frankish Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate against their mutual rivals and enemies, Byzantium and the Umayyads in Spain. Isaac and his embassy returned to the west laden with wondrous gifts and led one exceptional present towards Aachen – an Indian elephant named Abul-Abbas.

Julius Köckert's (1827 - 1918) imagination of unfortunate Lantfrid and Sigismund arriving at Harun al-Rashid's court (1864)

How Isaac and the pachyderm made it back to Europe is unrecorded, they probably crossed the Mediterranean from Kairouan in Tunisia and landed in Genoa in October 801, wintered in La Spezia and started their trek across the Alps in the following spring. Finally arriving in Aachen, Charlemagne and his court were rather overwhelmed by the exotic grandeur of the gifts of “Aaron, the king of the Persians” as the Caliph was called in the chronicles, aromatics, fabrics, an automatic water clock and, of course, Abul-Abbas the elephant. The annals remain silent about Charlemagne’s immediate reactions on suddenly having an exotic 3-ton pet but at least he seems to have regarded Abul-Abbas as a symbol of his Imperial power. The imperial pachyderm was probably exhibited in his various “Kaiserpfalzen” (fortified imperial palaces) over the next years, accompanying Charlemagne on his meanderings through his vast domains on a regular basis. Rather inclement weather conditions in Central Europe, at least for elephants,  finally did it for the pachyderm in 810. Abul Abbas died of pneumonia, after crossing the Rhine in 810 in a place called Lippeham in Wesel.

The rather late-Romantic imagination of an unknown mid-20th century
illustrator showing the arrival of Abul Abbas in Aachen and substituting Isaac
with various Orientals against the background
of quasi-Carolingian Renaissance architecture
(image found on

If Abul Abbas really was a white elephant and if Charlemagne considered to use him in war is debated since the last 1200 years. Elephant bones found in a field near Lippeham in 1750 were, naturally, classified as the remains of Charlemagne’s elephant, even though they might have been the remains of some prehistoric trunked animal. Abul Abbas became the name that inspired the German word “Popanz”, a kind of a bogeyman, and the idea of the large animals carrying towers on their backs, inspired by Charlemagne's elephant and resounding from antiquity as well, got stuck at least in the depiction of chess castles as elephants with fortifications on their backs and an 18th century pub sign showing the same image and lending the name to a district in south London, Elephant and Castle, along with other rather curious displays of pachyderms in western imagery until the late 19th century.

Friday, 18 July 2014

“Vae victis!” - The Battle of the Allia and the Sack of Rome in 390 BCE

18 July 390 BCE, Gaulish warriors under the Senoni chieftain Brennus decisively defeated a Roman army twice their strength at the Battle of the Allia, followed up by the Sack of Rome.

“The Gauls for their part were almost dumb with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory. At first they did not dare to move from the spot, as though puzzled by what had happened, then they began to fear a surprise, at last they began to despoil the dead, and, as their custom is, to pile up the arms in heaps. Finally, as no hostile movement was anywhere visible, they commenced their march and reached Rome shortly before sunset.“ (Livy, “History of Rome”)

 The French academic painter Paul Jamin’s (1853 – 1903) rather racy imagination of
"Brennus and His Share of the Spoils", (1893)

It was the gaggling and skirling of Juno’s holy geese that alerted the garrison on the Capitol of the Gaulish assault detachment that climbed the hill in the night, while the dogs slept. Marcus Manlius’ men held the Capitoline Hill but that was that. Brennus, chieftain of the Senonii sacked Rome, but the vigilance of the geese was remembered for a long time. A goose of Juno Moneta, Juno the Warner, adorned with gold and purple and carried around in a litter oversaw the crucifixion of a dog during a procession held every year in the city on Juno’s feast day, the Supplicia Canum. And the Sack of Rome by Brennus and his Gauls marked a traumatic event in Roman collective consciousness, climaxing in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and was well remembered 700 years later, when the Visigothic King Alaric sacked the city again. But by then, the end of the Roman Empire in the West had already begun.

A late 19th century imagination of Juno's Sacred Geese
warning the Roman defenders of the Capitol

A couple of weeks before, the infamous haughtiness of Roman ambassadors had asserted itself during the negotiations between a large Senoni raiding party threatening Rome’s client city of Clusium in Tuscany. One of the three brothers sent by Rome to come to terms with the Gauls had slain another negotiator and that meant open war. 24,000 men came to answer the threat of Brennus and deployed along the river Allia, a tributary of the Tiber. Back in the 4th century BCE, they still looked and fought like the already obsolete phalangists of the Greek city states. Nevertheless, Brennus was an experienced warlord and knew how costly it was to tackle a phalanx head on in its centre. Thus, his 12,000 Senonii outflanked the Roman battle line, overran the young and poorly equipped Roman warriors on the left wing, surrounded the hoplite core and slaughtered them. The day was lost for Rome, losses of life tremendous and who still could, flew back to the city and barricaded up, with the Senonii in hot pursuit.

Vae Victis - woe to the Vanquished - A 19th Century imagination of Brennus throwing his sword on the scales

Brennus and his Gauls were not equipped to maintain a long siege and decided to withdrew when malaria began to take its toll and they still couldn’t take the Capitol. A 1,000 pounds of gold were agreed as ransom for the city of Rome and when the Romans realised that the Gauls used fake weights and complained, Brennus threw his sword on the scales and cried: “Vae victis!” – woe to the vanquished. Allegedly, a Roman relief army arrived just then under the command of Marcus Furius Camillus and routed the Gauls. However legendary the events that Livy recorded are about the deeply-rooted Roman trauma, they played an important part in Roman politics, beginning with a reform of the army into the shape that fought and conquered Rome’s enemies over the next 300 years, from Samnites and Seleucids to the Carthaginians until Marius’ army reform of 107 BCE that brought Roman military organisation into the shape as we know it best today.

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212

16 July 1212, an outnumbered crusader army led by the Kings of Castile, Navarre and Aragon and the Archbishop of Toledo decisively defeated the host of the Almohad Caliphate at Las Navas de Tolosa in one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages.

“The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down (—I do not say by what sort of feet—) Why? Because it had to thank noble and manly instincts for its origin—because it said yes to life, even to the rare and refined luxuriousness of Moorish life! ... The crusaders later made war on something before which it would have been more fitting for them to have grovelled in the dust -- a civilization beside which even that of our nineteenth century seems very poor and very "senile". (Friedrich Nietzsche)

The Catalan painter Francisco de Paula van Halen y Gil’s (1814 – 1887) somewhat wimmelbook-like imagination of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa set in the dramatic landscape of the Sierra Morena (1863)

Calatrava la Vieja had fallen in June of the year, the key fortress in the valley of the Guadiana that controlled the approaches to the Muslim domains and Cordoba and Seville itself. The Almohad Caliph Muhammad an-Nasir, the Miramamolín or amir al-mu'minin, the Prince of the Faithful, was beside himself with wrath and the town major found himself one head shorter. The crusaders, on the other hand, especially the Francos from Narbonne, Nantes and Bordeaux thought their task, given to them by Pope Innocent III, was more or less done, left for good and found the world a perplexing place anyway. King Alfonso VIII of Castile had spared the lives of the infidels inhabiting the place and hadn’t they made the far way to slay Mussulmen, like they did already, along with the Jews, in Christian Toledo, the crusade’s rallying point? The amir al-mu'minin, who had just arrived in al-Andalus from North Africa a year before and already gained considerable territory from the Christians, cried havoc, rallied his redoubtable army and marched to intercept the men from Castile, Navarre and Aragon and both sides approached the Sierra Morena to seek a decision.

A shepherd named Martin Alhaja led the coalition army through the Desfiladero de Despeñaperros, the gate to Andalusia, marked by a cow’s head, a Cabeza de Vaca, and Martin was ennobled on the spot by King Alfonso and his family was hence known as Cabeza de Vaca. One of his descendants was the conquistador and travel writer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who explored the New World from Florida to Argentina and became something of a proto-anthropologist 300 years later. The coalition army led by his ancestor surprised the Almohad army and the Caliph hastily fielded his 22 -30,000 men against the 12,000 Christians. It was touch and go for a while, but finally the Castilians managed to break through the Almohad centre after suffering heavily under a literal storm of arrows. King Sancho VII of Navarre and his household knights closed in from the right wing and overcame the caliph’s lifeguards, slaves, armed to their teeth and chained together for good measure. The Prince of the Faithful hastily fled the field, his fairytale-like camp gear and war chest fell into the hands of the Christian coalition, Sancho changed his coat-of-arms into a network of golden chains on a red field, to commemorate his feat in battle and the army of the faithful was nearly annihilated. It was the beginning of the end of al-Andalus.

Another King of Aragon surveying a mountain pass in dramatic surroundings - here: Pedro III, as imagined by Mariano Barbasán Langueruela (1864 - 1924) 

The valley of the Guadalquivir was occupied immediately after the battle and over the next thirty years, all major Moorish cities in southern Spain fell to the Reconquista, Córdoba in 1236, Jaén in 1246 and Seville, the new capital, in 1248. Only Granada held out until 1492. The Miramamolín died in Marrakech a few months after the battle, his standard and tent were given to the Pope and the rich tapestry that once had covered the entrance to the tent is still on display in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas near Burgos and the last major battle between Muslim forces and the Reconquista was fought in 1340 in a futile attempt of the Sultan of Morocco to support Granada and regain lost territories in al-Andalus.

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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

"This Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated“ - Alexander Nevsky and the Battle of the Neva in 1240

1240 near present-day St Petersburg, Alexander Yaroslavich, then the young Prince of Novgorod, defeated a Swedish army in the Battle of the Neva, earning himself the nickname Alexander Nevsky.
“He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon ... this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated“ (The Second Pskovian Chronicle)

The Russian Symbolist artist Nicholas Roerich’s (1874 – 1947) interpretation of Alexander Nevsky striking Birger Jarl during the Battle of the Neva, using his lance with a two-handed grip, Iranian or Sarmatian-style, like an Eastern Roman clibanarios, more or less a Byzantine knight.

Legend has it that Slavic and Finnish tribes, tired of fighting each other, called a Norman lord from over the sea. He as a foreigner, equally foreign to every local tribe, might bring about peace. The year was 862 and the Norman’s name was Rjurik. His son Igor conquered Kiev and united almost all East Slavic tribes under his rule and their successors, the Rurikids, lorded it over a region between Lviv and Nishni Novgorod and from the Dnepr north to Lake Ladoga and Onega, became Christian in 980 with all of the Rus, as the people were now known, and grew rich on trade with Constantinople and the Baltics. Everything changed though when the Mongols came. Kiev fell in 1240 and what remained of the lands of the Kievan Rus’ became Polish and Lithuanian possessions or small city-state principalities, tributary to the Golden Horde – with one notable exception, Vladimir-Suzdal. They became Mongolian subjects as well, but one of their Rurikid rulers would make history and set the course for the development of future Russia: Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky.

Nicholas Roerich’s imagination of the Rurikid’s arrival: “Guests from Overseas“ 1901 

An echo of the Viking raids of old, disguised as “Northern Crusades”, resounded through Northeastern Europe during the life and times of the scions of the Rurikids and the Rus as well. Targeted were the pagan Slavic and Finnish tribes along the Eastern coast of the Baltics and their hinterland, but the orthodox successors of the Kievan Rus came second. Allegedly, Birger Jarl himself, founder of Stockholm and man behind the throne of the Kingdom of Sweden, led a foray up the river Neva, 120 miles north of Novgorod. Alexander Yaroslavich had become knyaz, prince, of the place in 1236 with Mongol approval and moved his army of burghers and his own druzhina, his personal retinue of professional warriors, to intercept the Swedish invasion of his homelands. The Novgorodians surprised Birger Jarl and his men in dense fog in their camp in a place along the river where today St Petersburg’s outskirts are. And according to the old chronicles, Alexander Yaroslavich met Birger Jarl in single combat, knocked out his eye, won the Battle of the Neva and earned himself the nom de guerre “Nevsky” (of the Neva) and ended the Swedish–Novgorodian Wars for generations. Or so the story goes.

Nicholas Roerich: “Alexander Nevski”, 1942

Sweden’s conflict with Russia dragged on well into the 18th century though and interestingly enough, Swedish sources do not mention an invasion along the Neva in 1240 nor the battle itself and Alexander Nevsky’s main opponent certainly were the Teutonic Knights and not Swedish raiders. The existing Russian sources call the leader of the Swedes Spiridon and mention that he was killed in the battle, along with other leaders and a bishop. Since “Spiridon” does not sound Swedish at all and no person could be found who might have lead the Swedes in the 1240s other than Birger Jarl who conquered Finland eight years after the date of the Battle of Neva, tradition has it that he was the one who face disaster at the Neva. And when his grave at Varnhem Abbey in Västergötland was opened in 2002 a large wound was clearly perceivable on his cranium. Whether Birger Jarl had received the blow at the Neva or somewhere else in one of the many battles he had fought, is not clear of course. And whether or not Alexander Yaroslavich defeated a Swedish army at the Neva – he was not called “Nevsky” in the various chronicles until very much later – or not, his other achievements outshine the one battle anyway and he was revered as a saint soon after his death in 1263 by his people.

And more about the Battle of the Neva on: 

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