Sunday, 31 August 2014

“Hélas! tout est abîme, — action, désir, rêve, Parole!" - The Death of Charles Baudelaire

31 August 1867, Charles Baudelaire died in Paris.

“Hélas! tout est abîme, — action, désir, rêve,
Everything, alas, is an abyss, — actions, desires, dreams,
Words!“ (Charles Baudelaire)

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet, 1848

When the poet lay dying at the age of 46 in Dr Duval’s hospital in the Quartier Chaillot in Paris, after a stroke he suffered the year before in Brussels that left him paralysed on one side and incapable of speech, cared for by his ageing mother, there were really few things left that he had not pursued within the framework of a stereotypical vie de la bohème. Picking up the Great Pox when he was 18, dawdling in the Parisian demi-monde while letting his law studies slide, experimenting with every type of narcotics available, drinking, of course, like a sailor on shore leave, squandering his inheritance, making several suicide attempts, living with his Haitian mistress Jeanne Duval, an actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry, while declaring popular courtesans to be his muses, being always in debt and indulging in Wagner and whatnot. And, as a sideline, Baudelaire squeezing the idea, the spirit and the awareness of modernity out of the chaos of his own life and the labour pains of the industrial age and pressing it in the shape of a poetic language that was and his unheard of in its quality and depth.

Charles Baudelaire in 1855

It was arguably one of Baudelaire’s greatest innovations to integrate the urbs, the big city, as a biosphere worthy of artistic involvement in his poetry. Sparsely, though, but it is simply not possible to imagine his oeuvre without the grazing big city lights illuminating his disillusion, pessimism and melancholy in their ugly and morbid actuality. In fact, he found a way to integrate his Romantic predecessors’ otherworldly Gothic mindscapes from their fairytale-like settings of castles, mountaintops, forests and other exotic spots, rooted in history and legend, into a grim, contemporary reality. Filled to the rim with symbols, black-romantic, but present, for the time being. Literary modernity had begun with “Les Fleurs du Mal” and verses that once, in 1857, earned Baudelaire a lawsuit for offending the public moral and forced him to publish his works abroad, can now be found as “epoch-making” in school books. The poet wrote to his mother: ”You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title (Les Fleurs du Mal) says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier and even Byron." He turned out to be right.

A frontispiece to “Les Fleurs du Mal” created by Eugène Decisy in 1917.

And more about Charles Baudelaire on:

Friday, 29 August 2014

"Anatomy is a dreadful science" - The French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

29 August 1780, the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was born in Montauban in France.

“Anatomy is a dreadful science. If ever I had to learn anatomy, I never would have been a painter.“ (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: "Grande Odalisque" (1814)

There is a French expression along the lines of riding one’s hobbyhorse, le Violon d’Ingres, alluding on the painter entertaining his guests and students with his inexhaustible violin playing. With somebody who emphasised on harmony like Ingres did, it must have been a bit more than just an endearing quirk. His attempts on the fiddle were, very probably, quite terrible and an ordeal for his audience. But there are other major blurs in his biography. For decades, Ingres, as one of his contemporaries once remarked, was a bit like a Greek from the age of Pericles, wandering through a wasteland of harmony, where everything held dear from the days of the ancients and the art of Raphael had exploded into a chaos of violent emotionality, light, shadow and fantasies, wondering what ever had become of truthfully depicting the harmonious serenity of nature. In fact, his realism consisted of painting odalisques with three additional vertebrae and overstretching nature into something how things ought to be and not necessarily as they really were. A Pericleian version of truth indeed.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres: "Jupiter and Thetis" (1811)

It is not quite without irony that the painters the high priest of Raphaelite augustness despised with vengeance, Romantics like Delacroix and Géricault, were among the first few professionals who admired his art. They had found something in his forbidding, statuesque and icy cold serenity that others failed to recognise for decades and Ingres was forced to lead the picturesque life of a poor artist, in Paris, Rome and Florence until the late 1820s saw him rising in acceptance and becoming a respected teacher. A couple of years later, Ingres was the most popular representative of Neoclassicism and upholder of tradition and would duly been forgotten today, if not for his anatomical and perspectival magic world that influenced artists from Degas to Picasso and Barnett Newman.

One of Ingres’ most famous paintings and an accumulation of his earlier odalisques into an old gentleman’s harem fantasies, the “Turkish Bath” from 1862, created when he was 82 years old.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

“Ours is the commencement of a flying age" - The Flying Boat Dornier Do X in 1930

27 August 1930, the biggest airplane of her time, the flying boat Dornier Do X, landed after a promotional flight of several months at her final destination in New York.

“Ours is the commencement of a flying age, and I am happy to have popped into existence at a period so interesting.“ (Amelia Earhart)

A contemporary photo of the Dornier Do X in New York harbour*

The origins of one of the most unconventional airplanes of all times were a bit shady. While her spiritual father Dr Claude Dornier probably never had any military use for his colossal brainchild in mind, it was financed with money from black accounts of the Reichsmarineamt, the Weimar Republic’s department of the navy. They might have thought of something along the lines of a large, long range sea reconnaissance plane or a bomber. Forbidden, however, to construct fast or large airplanes even for civilian use under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, Dornier began the development of the 50-ton flying boat Do X in a shipyard on the Swiss side of Lake Constance in 1926 and when the press got wind of it, along with other secret re-armament plans, the republic’s defence minister Otto Gessler was out on his ear in 1928. The Reichsverkehrsministerium (Ministry of Transport) stepped in, though, and the Do X was realised as a passenger plane. She made her first test flights on Lake Constance in 1929 and, with Dornier’s workers and their families on board, the “Flugschiff” (flying ship) set the world record for the number of persons carried on a single flight, 10 crew and 159 passengers, that would hold until the Lockheed Constellation broke it 1948.

Do X approaching New York

A couple of years before the large Short flying boats of Imperial Airways and Pan Am’s Sikorsky clippers set standards for long range flights, Do X’s main competitor were zeppelins. And with a length of 131’ for 66 passengers, along with a dining salon, a wet bar and a smoking room on her main deck and large seats that could easily be converted into sleeping berths, her accommodations could easily match those of the big blimps as well as the luxury offered to passengers of most ocean liners. In 1930, she started for her first transatlantic flight, just four years after Lindbergh flew the “Spirit of St Louis” across the pond, and the Do X set forth with a cruising speed of 109 mph, via Amsterdam, Lisbon, Western Africa, across the Atlantic to Natal in Brazil and up north to New York. The giant flying boat was greeted everywhere with enthusiasm and thousands came to see her at New York’s Glenn Curtis Airport where she spent the winter.

A short contemporary film showing the sea plane in flight, a bit of her interior and her unusually smooth way of taking off and landing on water.

Claude Dornier’s marketing plan did not come to fruition, though. Hoping for a large order from the US, the still virulent Great Depression put a spoke in his wheel and only Italy ordered two more Do Xs. Back home in Germany, the political situation went belly up in the meanwhile and the new regime saw no further use for the big sea plane, made up a story about her technical unreliability and had her mothballed in the Third Reich’s new aviation museum in Berlin. She was destroyed during a RAF raid in 1943, having set the pace for the intercontinental flights and opened the short era of the wonderfully romantic flying boats in the time between the wars, before travelling to far away places became an easily available commodity.

* image found on