Saturday, 28 May 2016

"Weather today fine but high waves" - Tōgō Heihachirō and the Battle of Tsushima

28 May 1905, halfway between the Korean mainland and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, the two-day Battle of Tsushima ended with the Japanese fleet rounding up most of the surviving Russian cruisers and torpedo boats and Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō accepting the surrender of what remained of the Russian Second Pacific Squadron.

“I am firmly convinced that I am the reincarnation of Horatio Nelson.“ (Tōgō Heihachirō)

The Battle of Tsushima, reimagined in a contemporary traditional ukiyo-e print triptych by Toshihide Migita (1862 -1925)

The Great Game played by Russia and Great Britain for supremacy in Central Asia had reached a stalemate during the 1880s. Imperial Russia was still lagging behind, though, in some fundamental 19th century world power disciplines, like industrialisation, for instance, and in desperate need for politically dependent foreign markets to sell the only just produced industrial goods to benighted natives and exploit the places for raw materials. The basic economic game of colonialism. Just warming up, with manufacturing facilities bought on tick and, at least as important, the railway that would connect Siberia and the Far East with the Russian heartland financed with foreign capital as well, the need for Imperialistic success became desperate by the end of the century. And with the idea of wrestling the control of India from the British becoming increasingly unrealistic, crumbling China and her feudal vassals like Manchuria and Korea got into the imperial focus of the Tsars. The strategic advantage of being able to deploy troops comparatively easy in Manchuria via the brand new Trans-Siberian Railway, helped Russia to secure the lion’s share from the reparations wrestled from the Chinese after the Boxer Rebellion was put down in 1901. Unfortunately for the Tsar, there was another Imperialist newcomer to the Far Eastern theatre, coveting the same territories as the Russians did: Japan. Thrown in at the deep end of Industrialisation since the 1850s, the Japanese had, just two generations later, managed to come out on par with the West, in terms of technology, a state-of-the art army and navy and an appetite for imperialistic expansion. Not that the western powers fully acknowledged Japan’s new role as the dominant power in the Far East, even if the imperial Japanese army had, to everyone’s surprise, basically wiped the floor with the semi-modernised Chinese troops deployed in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and wrestled Korea from the Manchus in a lighting campaign. It was only due to Russian diplomatic efforts that Japan wasn’t allowed to annex larger parts of the Chinese mainland as well and Russia played the part of being China’s protective power over the next ten years. The price for that was another old strategic Russian dream, that of an all-year ice-free major port, this time on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Vladivostok, founded in 1860, did only partly meet this requirement. The next best thing was Port Arthur, located on the Liaodong Peninsula 500 miles southwest of Vladivostok, already expanded into a veritable fortress and naval base by the Chinese with the help of German engineers from Krupp’s, captured by Japan during the war, returned and then leased to Russia in 1897. Immediately, the Russians began to expand the fortifications, connect the place to the railway lines and base their Pacific Fleet there, securing their base of power in the Manchurian hinterland and exercising pressure on neighbouring, nominally independent Korea. Japan protested, the Tsar ignored it, sabre-rattling, and on 8 February 1904, the Japanese retaliated with a surprise attack on Port Arthur. The Russo-Japanese War had begun.

Getsuzô's contemporary ukiyo-e print take on Tōgō's torpedo boats harassing the Russian "First Pacific Squadron" off Port Arthur (1904)

Like many of the first and second generation of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s officer corps, the 56-years old Commander-in-Chief of the Tenno’s Combined Fleet deployed on the coast of the mainland, Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō had received a thorough training from the Royal Navy. In fact, “Johnny Chinaman”, as his classmates on the training ship HMS “Worcester” nicknamed him much to his dismay, graduated as second-best student of his year and had made a name for himself already in Japan’s various conflicts of the 1880s and ‘90s. Now, with a couple of brilliant manoeuvres, Tōgō wiped out the Russian Far East Squadron, while the Japanese Army put Port Arthur under siege and advanced deep into Manchuria. To get at the undisturbed Japanese supply lines and do anything to stop the Japanese advance, Tsar Nicholas II found himself forced to move his Baltic Fleet into the Pacific. On the other side of the world, a journey of 18,000 miles. The so-called “Second Pacific Squadron” under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky left Kronstadt in October 1904 with 11 battleships, 6 cruisers, 9 destroyers and a convoy of transports. His four new “Borodino”-class units made the core of Rozhestvensky’s fleet as up-to-date models, the rest of his battleships were already hopelessly outdated in the 19th and 20th century’s arms race of constructing bigger, better armoured, faster and more heavily armed vessels and commission them every five years or so, at the latest. Thus, the rag-tag “Second Pacific Squadron” had to adapt its cruising speed to that of the oldest warhorse and slowest transport in the fleet and steamed along at an average of 10 knots. Not that bad. For speeds achieved during the Age of Sail. And when the Russians mistook British fishing vessels in the North Sea for Japanese torpedo boats and sunk a few of them for good measure, they caused a major diplomatic incident, had the passage through the Suez Canal slammed into their faces and were forced to sail around Africa with no supply bases until Port Arthur. Unfortunately, the place surrendered to the Japanese on 2 January while Rozhestvensky was somewhere off Madagascar and it was now Vladivostok or bust. The latter alternative was not far-fetched at all, when the Russians, with morale at an all-time low and ships in a rather desolate state after half a year at sea with no maintenance to speak of, steamed into the Yellow Sea towards the Tsushima Strait.

Tōjō Shōtarō (1865-1929): “Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō on the bridge of the Battleship Mikasa”, with the "Z" signal flying on the upper left

When sighting Tōgō’s squadron of state-of-the-art battleships and cruisers in the Eastern channel of the strait between Korea and southern Japan, Rozhestvensky gave a signal of more or less “every man for himself”, ordering the ships of his squadron to break through at their individual maximum speed. Flying the “Z”-signal on his flagship “Mikasa” with the prearranged meaning of “The fate of the Empire rests on the outcome of this battle. Let each man do his utmost", quite like Nelson, Tōgō made his move. As the only man alive at that point with experience in handling a squadron of ironclads in a fight, he had his faster ships forming a battle line on a perpendicular course, bringing their entire main artillery to bear while the Russians could only return fire with their forward facing guns. Admittedly, the “Mikasa” in the lead had to take the brunt of Russian fire and was heavily damaged, but Tōgō’s manoeuvre, though, known as “Crossing the T”, became an ideal for naval warfare for the next 50 years, from the Battle of Jutland in 1916 to Surigato Strait in 1944 in the vicinity, where it was used for the last time. Rozhestvensky’s capital ships were shot to pieces. He himself, seriously wounded, was forced to transfer to a torpedo boat when his flagship sank. As dawn rose over the Tsushima Strait on the next day of the battle, Tōgō’s destroyers and torpedo boats began to round up what was left of the “Second Pacific Squadron”. Rozhestvensky’s second-in-command Admiral Nebogatov had the decency to surrender to spare the lives of his crews, knowing full well that he would in all probability get shot when he returned back home. It was the last time in naval history that a battle fleet surrendered on the high seas like in the days of Nelson, a hundred years before. With his navy at the bottom of the Strait of Korea and another crushing defeat on land at Mukden, the war was over for Tsar Nicolas II. He had to acknowledge Japanese supremacy in Korea, Manchuria and lost half of Sakhalin, another nail in the coffin of his regime. Japan, developing from a feudal state to a modern industrial naval and colonial power within half a century was irrevocably positioned as a force to be reckoned with. Nebogatov was not shot in the aftermath. Sentenced to ten years prison, he got off two years later, after the famous “Potemkin” mutiny and the Russian Revolution of 1905, triggered not in the least by the crushing defeat at Tsushima and the lost Russo-Japanese War. Tōgō Heihachirō was dubbed the “Nelson of the East” after the Battle of Tsushima, certainly the most significant and momentous event in naval history since Trafalgar.

Tōgō's "Mikasa" in 1905, listing to port after the damage received in the Battle of Tsushima* 

* Togo's flagship at Tsushima, the "Mikasa" is moored as a museum ship in Yokosuka since 1925, one of the few Russian survivors, the protected cruiser "Aurora", fired the her forward guns to signal the storm on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, the last episode of the October Revolution twelve years later. She is a museum ship today as well.

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

"She sells seashells on the seashore" Fossil Hunter Mary Anning

21 May 1799, the fossil hunter and early palaeontologist Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis on the Dorset Coast of England.

“She sells seashells on the seashore The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure So if she sells seashells on the seashore Then I'm sure she sells seashore shells.” 

(Terry Sullivan’s 1908 tongue twister that probably references Mary Anning)

Geologist and palaeontologist Henry de la Beche’s (1796 – 1855) idea of life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning (1830)

The idea of these funny shellfish-formed stones being actually petrified marine life instead of snakes turned to stone by some Northumbrian saint or something similar was actually not quite new. The Ancients, most notably Pre-Socratic Xenophanes of Colophon, already philosophised around 500 BCE that there once was sea where now was dry land and the fossils he found had been its inhabitants. 1,500 years later, Avicenna took it from there, the Chinese had developed resembling theories about the same time, Leonardo da Vinci elaborated on it and they all came up with the idea that the Earth had looked quite different in olden days and the beasties populating it did as well. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment though, that these theories were formulated in earnest beyond mere speculations. Beginning with the idea that the fossilized remains of ancient pachyderms found in Europe proved a significant climate change and ancient species did go extinct ages ago, like, for example, the mastodon, the seeds were sown for a scientific approach on bygone creatures and their environment. George Cuvier’s name stands out in the earlies of paleontology, before the discipline was even properly named, by comparing fossils with the remains of contemporary species, identifying the Mastodon and the Megatherium and what not, until he came across the first proper dinosaur in the Netherlands in 1808, the Mosasaurus. He speculated the giant aquatic lizard would have been alive long before the “Age of Mammals”, along with the Pterodactyl he identified from drawings made in Bavaria, a revolutionary, or rather evolutionary idea that rang in the 19th century’s  “Age of Reptiles”.

An 1840 painting of Mary Anning, allegedly by one Mr Grey,
showing the fossil hunter at the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast,
pointing at her trusty fossil dog Tray. The poor thing was killed in a landslide in 1833.

“... an animal of the Lizard Tribe of enormous magnitude” the obstetrician Gideon Mantell speculated about the former owner of the giant teeth his wife Mary Ann had found while he was seeing a patient in Cuckfield, Sussex, in 1822. And since the dental remains looked quite like those of an iguana, a reptile native to the Americas, he dubbed the scaly Methuselah “Iguanodon”, iguana-toothed. Mrs Mantell never got the credit for her discovery and her fellow fossil-hunter Mary Anning almost suffered the same fate. She was a strange one, young Mary was. Born into a poor working-class family in Dorset, she was the only survivor of a lightning stroke at the age of just 15 months that killed the four grown women who were with her at the time and little Mary was reported never to be the same again afterwards. Whatever that means in regards to a toddler aged 15 months. However, her father boosted the meagre salary he earned working as a carpenter by collecting and selling the petrified shellfish he found down at the beaches and cliffs of the Anning’s picturesque home, Lyme Regis, and little Mary accompanied him and showed a remarkable skill at finding and cleaning the fossils. During the late 18th and early 19th century, collecting fossils had become a gentlemen’s hobby and with the help of young Mary, Richard Anning could keep his family afloat. Mary’s old man died, though, when she was just 11 years old and she and her brother Joseph now had to earn the keep of the family. The siblings did so, by collecting fossils and selling them in a comparatively large scale. And just a couple of months later, Mary hit a mother lode, so to speak, when she discovered the 4’ long skull of a petrified beast that was later known as Ichthyosaurus, “fish lizard”. The thing sold for £23, more than 1000 Pounds in today’s money. A storm hit the cliffs of Lyme Regis shortly afterwards and Mary found the rest of the presumed ancient crocodile’s remains in its wake and her Ichthyosaurus became the first known complete Mesozoic fossil. Her discovery did not go unnoticed by the scientific authorities of the day, but one does not discover an ichthyosaurus every day, unfortunately, and without any major finds over the next ten years, fossil-hunting Mary, though main breadwinner of the Anning family, remained destitute until a rich fossil enthusiast, Thomas Birch of Lincolnshire, decided to auction off his ample collection for the benefit of her family. The discovery of the remains of a plesiosaur in 1821 and a pterodactyl in 1828 did not only increase her fame but made her enough money to finally buy a shop with a glass front in Lyme Regis instead of having to sell seashells by the sea shore as she did for more than 20 years.

A sketch by Henry de la Beche showing Mary Anning hunting fossils at Lyme Regis.

Mary Anning died at the age of 47 and even Charles Dickens felt compelled to obit: “The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.“ She was soon enough forgotten, though, and was not re-discovered until well into the 20th century. Not even a dinosaur was named in her honour until 2012 when Vincent and Benson called a genus of plesiosaur found recently at Lyme Regis “Anningasaurus”. However, her discoveries did prove that species had gone extinct ages ago and that Earth looked quite different than it does today, back then during the Age of Reptiles, as Gideon Mantell dubbed the Mesozoic Era in 1831, and, finally, the Royal Society, who refused her attendance on grounds of her gender back in the day, included her in a list of the ten British women most influential in science history. More than a hundred years after her death. Her hunting grounds, now known as the Jurassic Coast, had become a World Heritage Site long since. 

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Sunday, 15 May 2016

"... victorious Hellenes should dance again in India" - Alexander the Great and the Battle of the Hydaspes

 15 May 326 BCE, or around this date, during his attempted conquest of India, Alexander the Great defeated King Porus of the Paurava Kingdom at the Battle of the Hydaspes in present-day Pakistan.

“If it were not my purpose to combine barbarian things with things Hellenic, to traverse and civilize every continent, to search out the uttermost parts of land and sea, to push the bounds of Macedonia to the farthest Ocean, and to disseminate and shower the blessings of the Hellenic justice and peace over every nation, I should not be content to sit quietly in the luxury of idle power, but I should emulate the frugality of Diogenes. But as things are, forgive me Diogenes, that I imitate Herakles, and emulate Perseus, and follow in the footsteps of Dionysos, the divine author and progenitor of my family, and desire that victorious Hellenes should dance again in India and revive the memory of the Bacchic revels among the savage mountain tribes beyond the Kaukasos.” (Plutarch “On the Fortunes of Alexander”)

Alexander in the thick of it - the Battle of the Hydaspes,
as imagined in T. H. Mannerhow's "Peeps at History", Illustrated by Allan Stewart (1911)

drunken god. The mischievous priests serving at the Ammonium in Siwa, the oracle out in Egypt’s western desert, confirmed what mother had told him all the while. Not grumpy, blustering, boorish Philip was his father but Zeus himself, the king of the gods, known as Amun in Egypt. And while Freudian exegetes would have had a field day, Alexander, the brilliant young commander with an Oedipus complex, who had already conquered half the Middle East and Egypt in a lightning campaign, began to behave as if he had already one foot in divine spheres. He adopted Persian court ceremonials, demanded the proskynesis, full prostration, even from his former mortal companions, his grumpy, blustering, boorish Macedon soldiery. And then, one night in Maracanda, the fairytale-like provincial capital of Bactria, while feasting in Eastern splendour, someone put the Indian bee in Alexander’s divine bonnet. India. A half-mythical place of untold riches beyond the borders of even the Persian world empire Alexander had just conquered in a quasi coup de main. His half brother Heracles failed to conquer it back in the days of the Heroic Age before the Trojan War, his other sibling Dionysus wandered there in his Hera-induced madness, subdued India and returned to the West in triumph in a chariot drawn by panthers. Was there a final frontier for a deity like Alexander himself? Not on this earth. Let’s go. It might be then and there that one of his cavalry generals, grumpy, blustering, boorish Cleitus the Black, in his cups himself by then, had asked him to bring his Macedonians back to life if he was a god, those fallen at the Granicus, at Issus, the siege of Tyre, at Gaugamela and during the endless skirmishes fought since they began their conquest of the world. The deity grabbed a spear from one of his life guards and hurled it into the heart of the man who had saved his life at the Granicus and henceforward, nobody dared to blaspheme against the god anymore or question his decisions. And off they marched, in the spring of the year 327 BCE, with 40,000 foot and 7,000 horse, his heavies, the hetairoi, companions, among them as well as light horse, mostly archers recruited in the Middle East, onwards through the Caucasus Indicus, the Hindu Kush, and further, across the Indus to the Land of the Five Waters, the Punjab.

A silver victory coin minted in Babylon in 322 BCE,
showing Alexander crowned by Nike, goddess of Victory above
and Alexander charging King Porus on his war elephant below

northern part of the Indian subcontinent was, by and large, a conglomerate of several warring states in the early 320s BCE. The ancient kingdom of the Pauravas might have been one of the more powerful and its lord, Porus, literally stood out as being over 7’ tall and maybe he was the scion of an ages-old Vedic clan, the Puru. However, he had assembled a mighty army himself, 30,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 300 chariots and, most notably, up to 200 well-trained war elephants. It was a bit early for the monsoon to set in, but one of the eponymous rivers of the Punjab, the Hydaspes, was swollen, and rain bursts changed with extreme heat. Alexander began to look for a suitable crossing while Porus would defend his riverbank and had everything he needed to turn a Macedon crossing into a bloodbath. Now Alexander came up with a rather clever ruse de guerre, leaving a small part of his troops behind, ordered them to create lots of noise, march up and down the river and light fires to give the impression that the whole army was entrenched there and about to sit it out until the monsoon season was over. Porus obviously fell for it, Alexander’s main battle crossed the Hydaspes further upstream, at night, in heavy rain, and rushed his men towards the position of the Pauravas. Porus was alerted when day broke but had no idea yet about how large the approaching Macedon force was. He sent his son with the chariots and cavalry to reconnoitre, the lad and his men where caught by Alexander’s horse archers, trampled into the ground by his heavies, Porus junior fell and the skirmish’s survivors gave his old man the news that the Macedon obviously had managed to cross the river in force. Porus left a contingent behind to watch those on the other side of the Hydaspes and turned the rest of his army to meet Alexander. The Battle of the Hydaspes had begun in earnest. It is, generally speaking, not a very bright idea, to chase one’s already exhausted heavy cavalry, what after a nightly river crossing and a hard-fought skirmish in somewhat inclement weather, back and forth across a battlefield swimming in mud to deceive the enemy, but that’s exactly what Alexander did. And wondrously enough, after riding hard from the left flank around the rear of the Macedonian phalanges to the right and back again, they crushed into Porus’ horse, drawn out and forward by the Macedon manoeuvres, right to the point where Alexander wanted them and there the hetairoi rode them into the ground. With their flanks safe from enemy cavalry, the now nearly invincible Macedon phalanx pushed the 20’ long steel hedgehog of their massed pikes forward into Porus’ elephants and infantry. The pachyderms were driven to madness by arrows and javelins shot into their vulnerable eyes, stampeded and ran back into the lines of the Pauravas while the heavy rain obviously stopped Porus’ own archers to fire mass volleys into the advancing Macedonians, the nightmare of every infantry formation. The phalanx pushed on, crashed into the dissolving enemy lines and turned the battle into a bloody rout. Porus was soundly defeated and Alexander had supplied a tactical masterpiece. At least according to reports that were written hundreds of years later. None of the original eyewitness accounts of the so-called Alexander Historians have survived.

Charles Le Brun (1619 - 1690): "Alexander and Porus" (1673)

Porus, or so the story goes, was captured and brought before Alexander. The god-king admired his defeated enemy’s bravery and tenacity, allowed him to rule as his vassal and marched on towards the banks of the mighty River Ganges and the borders of the Nanda Empire, stretching far to the east into Bengal. And then his men simply had it. By the river Hyphasis, a tributary of the Sutlej, they refused to go any further and Alexander grudgingly ordered the retreat back to Babylon. It was the end of his Indian adventure. And since a god is not denied with impunity, he decided to march his mutinous men back through the Gedrosian Desert that stretches from the mouth of the Indus to the Strait of Hormuz. Many died of exposure until they finally reached Persia in 324 BCE, two years after their epic march began in Bactria. Alexander finally ascended to Olympus after his mortal veil died in Babylon a year later, leaving the mortal world with one of the greatest stories ever told. Greek civilisation, though, had gained a sphere of influence from the western edges of Europe to the Ganges valley and would remain a prominent identity-establishing cultural factor for centuries. And while Alexander’s successors in the Middle East, most prominently the Seleucid dynasty and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, along with the tribes and horse nomads of Central Asia, were at each other’s throats, another young adventurer used the power vacuum left behind by Alexander in Northern India as a chance to carve out his own domain: Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya Empire who unified much of Greater India into one state for the first time.

A 3rd century BCE Ptolemaic coin celebrating Alexander's victory in India posthumously, attributing the conqueror with a symbolic elephant scalp

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Saturday, 14 May 2016

"...plenty of charm in these bright projections..." Évariste Vital Luminais, Painter of the Gauls and Merovingians

14 May 1896, the French academic and history painter Évariste Vital Luminais died in Paris at the age of 74.

“And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to have come straight out of a Merovingian past, and to shed around me the reflections of such ancient history.“ (Marcel Proust, “Swann’s Way”)

Évariste Vital Luminais (1821 -1896): "Goths Crossing a River" (c 1880)

Glorifying the past was a trademark of the Romantic Movement. Amidst the political turmoil of the long 19th century, the romantically moved hotheads usually did not take long to climax even the “once upon a time” of a seemingly innocent fairy tale into a revolutionary message. A nation, Goethe mentioned, was supposed to have a national epic if it wanted to count for something while mountains, rivers and forests became identity-establishing symbols, usually personified and subsequently depicted as half-clad females, languishing appetisingly in an explosion of light on the respective Romantic spot or, became heroines virtuously armoured in scale mail, swinging the national colours in a previously half-forgotten battle. Especially the downtrodden ethnicities of the post-Napoleonic multinational empires revelled in Romantic nationalism, from Galway to Heidelberg, Helsinki, Budapest and Athens, “freedom!” was on the lips of every self-respecting individual, at least in a spirit, and reaching for muskets and stuff to erect barricades on the high street of the provincial capital of the back-of-beyond one inhabited always was a political possibility. But Romantic nationalism wasn’t the playing fields of the humiliated and insulted alone. Far from it. The major voices in the Concert of Europe revelled in it as well, to celebrate their own leitmotif, especially if they got their noses bloodied in some event or the other and called out for revenge. In the process, the recourse on ancient history itself usually was somewhat unscientific, ruins, old texts and unearthed artefacts usually were interpreted to fit in the romantically moved political programme and during the rising tensions between France and the German-speaking states, Gauls and ancient Germanics became role models and rallying points on both sides of the River Rhine. Back in the day, Caesar claimed the tribes dwelling on the left side of the river called themselves “Celts” while they might or might not referred to themselves as Gal(a)to. Greek folk etymology already connected the derived term “Galateans” with the word γάλα, gála "milk" with their milk-white skins and during the Middle Ages, le coq gaulois began to crow, the Gallic rooster, since the Latin word for said poultry, gallus, was so wonderfully similar to “Gaul”. During the French Revolution, the cocky fowl finally became an unofficial national symbol and the idea to start French history in the days of the ancient Gauls instead of those of Christian Merovingian royalty began in earnest. Along with the idea of having blond or ginger drooping-mustachioed, long-haired, winged-helmet-wearing, boar-feasting, freedom-loving Roman- and German-trashing barbarians hence known as Gauls as one’s ancestors. And one artist, almost lost to oblivion these days, codified this image, the “Painter of the Gauls”, Évariste Vital Luminais.

Either a Gallic or Merovingian barbarian on the rampage:
Évariste Vital Luminais: "Le Ravissement" (1889)

When Luminais first came to Paris at the age of 18 from his native Nantes to study painting in the capital of arts, the Romantic Movement was the dernier cri and Delacroix was rising to the height of his fame. “Passionately in love with passion,” as Baudelaire later put it, “but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible”, Delacroix’s masterpieces certainly did things to the impressionable young man. Approaching the old masters that had taught Delacroix himself a thing or three under these auspices, the Academic education of Luminais took a somewhat surprising turn. Academic painting after the 1840s, usually derided as “Fireman Art” among the Bohème, a pun on the quasi-Greco-Roman helmets the figures populating academistic art wore, making them look quite like contemporary Parisian firefighters, en déshabillé, admittedly, was certainly influenced by the drama of the Romantic Movement that was about to pass away by then, and did salvage some stylistic elements. But, by and large, book-learning and historical reference obfuscated a complete lack of imagination and many of the exhibits of the Salon and the pieces hanging in the upper classes’ parlours and bedrooms were technically sound kitsch. Aristotle’s ideal of mimesis, imitation and representation of reality, combined with the sujets and lines of Neoclassicism were at the core of what was taught. Strict compliance to the technical and aesthetic rules as well as the choice of desirable motifs for a sculpture or a painting, usually was the fundament, while the –isms of the day, Realism, Impressionism and Symbolism, to name but a few, took root and flourished outside the academy’s walls. And Luminais did climb over the wall, every now and then. While he is generally classified as “Academic Painter”, if he is remembered at all, he took up the baton from the Romantics, especially in choosing patinated subjects from beyond the Classical canon of Greco-Roman antiquity, and created an amalgam of history painting and symbolist art with a distinct national romantic note.

Calm Horror - Évariste Vital Luminais: "Les Énervés de Jumièges" (1880) *

After the sound trashing Napoleon III and France’s Second Empire got from Bismarck’s reunified Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, the newly founded Third Republic was in desperate need of some balm for injured national pride. And Luminais had mixed a wonderful remedy. Not only with a pictorial narrative mourning the end of empires brought by the hands of barbarians, Rome, in this case, but with a reimagination of a wonderful past as well, that of the ancient Gauls and, interestingly enough, the bittersweet memory of the bygone Merovingian dynasty that had once ruled what was to become France. Anathema to the revolutionaries of 1789, who desecrated the tombs of the old kings buried at St Denis, Clovis, who had famously swept the floor with Les Allemands at the Battle of Tolbiac back in AD 496 experienced a renaissance with the imagination of Luminais and so did the grim old monarch’s rather outré successors. Who were deposed by the Carolingians from east of the Rhine, the poor things, and after 1871, one could heartily sympathise with them, non? Until, in 1883, an art critic sighed over Luminais’ “The Last of the Merovingians” that he hoped it would indeed be the last one. Charlemagne was forgiven and had been repatriated. The Gauls were more innocuous, however, even if Europe’s and France’s Celtomania was on the decline and the Gaelic revival was met with a rising Celtoscepticism among the English, French and German audiences. However, Luminais was inspired to create some Breton imagery referring to more recent narratives than that of the Gauls of antiquity but by then, Luminais had almost become a museum piece himself and the winner of several medals awarded at the Paris Salon and member of the Légion d'honneur began to withdraw into the realm of legend. His archetypical paintings of the barbarians of yore, though, remained and significantly shaped the popular image we have of Gauls to this day and not only through the influence Luminais had on Goscinny’s and Uderzo’s “Adventures of Asterix“.

Half Gaul, half Merovingian, riding a steed à la Delacroix:
 Évariste Vital Luminais imagination of Merovech, the half-mythical
progenitor of the Merovingian kings of the Franks  

* according to an old legend, the two sons of the 7th century Merovingian King Clovis II of Neustria, rebelled against their father while he was on pilgrimage in the Holy Land. In a Freudian primal scene, their returning sire defeated and unmanned (unnerved) the two juvenile miscreants by cutting their tendons and setting them adrift on the River Seine on a raft. They were later rescued and nursed back to health by monks of Jumièges Abbey in Normandy. A legend indeed, since Clovis II was otherwise known as the “Child King”, lived to the age of 21 and albeit he sired three sons who succeeded him as kings of Neustria, Austrasia and Burgundy, all parties involved were hardly old enough to enact the legendary drama for real. However, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in 1960 about Luminais’ arguably best-known painting on display in Rouen: “I remained for a long time affected by the calm horror which it evokes."

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Sunday, 8 May 2016

'Hermes has entered our midst" - Gustav Hirschfeld's Discovery of “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus" in Olympia

8 April 1877, the German archaeologist Gustav Hirschfeld discovered a statue of Hermes in the cellar of the Heraion of Olympia.
 “The figures I have enumerated are of ivory and gold, but at a later date other images were dedicated in the Heraeum, including a marble Hermes carrying the baby Dionysus, a work of Praxiteles, and a bronze Aphrodite made by Cleon of Sicyon“ (Pausanias, “Description of Greece”)

Hermes with the infant Dionysus, at least probably, attributed to Praxiteles around the 4th century BCE, now at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Greece

The Persians, according to Herodotus, taught their sons three things alone: to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they and the Greeks simply couldn’t get along. After all, the latter worshipped a pantheon shaped by a teller of tall tales full of deities who all were notorious liars. And one of them made lying left, right and centre an art form. Born to Maia, a daughter of Atlas and Zeus, the father of the gods who had a rather elastic relationship with truth himself, infant Hermes sneaked out of his cave on Mount Cyllene in Arcadia on the day of his birth and went all the way to Pieria, 250 miles to the north in Macedonia where his half-brother Apollo grazed his cattle. The juvenile rustler stole all 50 of them and hid their tracks by weaving twigs around their hooves like snowshoes. There was a witness, though, a vintner who informed on Hermes and Apollo hastened to Arcadia to confront the thieving godling. Infant Hermes, now two days old, played dumb and claimed that, at his age, he wouldn’t even know what a cow was. Apollo, though, insisted in legal action and brought the little liar before their father Zeus. Hermes lied like a trooper and managed to steal his brother’s bow and arrow in the process, just in case, but the father of the gods finally ruled that Hermes had to return the cows, no matter how. Fortunately, the future patron of thieves had invented the lyre on his raid into Pieria from a turtle shell, two cow’s horns and sheep gut, brought forth the instrument and began to play and sing so heartbreakingly that the god of music decided he must have the thing, offered the 50 cows in return, taught Hermes the art of prophecy and gave him the kerykeion, a winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it, his future trademark as messenger of the gods, an appointment Hermes received by Zeus immediately after said show trial. The Thunderer probably needed someone who was able to cloth something disposable as the truth in a finer garb on a more regular basis.

Ernst Curtius, his team and local workers, obviously dressed in Greek national garb for the occasion, during the excavations at Olympia (around 1875)

Two years after a team of German archaeologists, lead by Ernst Curtius, began their project of excavating and preserving the site of Ancient Olympia, Gustav Hirschfeld discovered a remarkable piece of art in the cellar of the Heraion, the large temple dedicated to the goddess Hera. Since the whole group had received a thorough classical education customary and was well-read in the contemporary accounts and travelogues depicting the ancient playing fields, Hirschfeld decided his find to be the “Hermes of Praxiteles” or “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus” mentioned in Pausanias’ “Description of Greece” from the second century CE. Whether this was a Hermetic act of clothing truth in a finer garb or a shot in the bull’s eye of archaeological sleuthing has been debated in circles of experts ever since. Why a statue of Hermes had been placed in a Heraion, of all the places, was not quite clear even in Pausanias’ days. After all, Hermes had saved his infant half-brother Dionysus from Hera’s wrath and hid him in Boeotia where the jealous goddess finally struck Dionysus’ foster father Athamas with a “Shining”-like madness. However, Praxiteles himself was probably the most renowned sculptor of Athens, living in the 4th century BCE, but there are indications that the Hermes might actually be a later Roman copy or not even one of Praxiteles’ works at all. Nonetheless, “Hermes and the Infant Dionysus” has been described as a masterpiece of sculpture from the late classical period and is besides “Apollo Sauroktonos, the “lizard killer”, Louvre) and Aphrodite of Cnidus (survived only in Roman copies, in Rome’s Capitoline Museum and elsewhere), the epitome of the ideal of the image of the youthful gods of Greek art. Hermes is obviously unfinished, though. While his front is smooth marble, almost glowing from the caress of generations of temple attendants, as the British art historian John Boardman once mentioned – no wonder, since Hermes almost looks like a young Paul Newman - preserved by soft earth over 1.500 years, his back is rough. In all probability either Praxiteles or his later Roman copyist never finished the job. Hermes right arm, maybe holding a bunch of grapes once, teasing young Dionysus with it and giving him ideas, is missing as well. Nonetheless the sculpture is still in excellent condition, showing even the traces of cinnabar in its hair that probably was once painted red.

Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl (1860 – 1933): “Souls on the Banks of the Acheron“ (1898), with Hermes having entered their midst in his role of psychopompos

Sales people obviously showed the essential ability to cloth truth in tall tales already in days of yore, since everyone found Hermes, the admirable liar, to be their appropriate patron, including themselves. So did thieves and Hermes’ skills in redistributing other people’s property did reach a metaphysical level beyond mere cattle rustling. According to some sources, it is he and not tragic Prometheus who steals the fire from the gods and bestows it upon mankind, the true trickster spirit of Greek mythology. Thus, the mercurial messenger of the gods is actually a friend to man and, by relating divine messages to mortals, becomes the highest authority on their level of existence. A role that equated the deity in ancient philosophy with “logos”, “word” as well as “meaning” and “reason”, reflected to this day in the term “hermeneutics”, a theory of text interpretation meant to disrobe truth of its symobol-clad layers of garb to get at a meaning. It is not without irony that the divine cattle rustler was, in all probability, a god of herdsmen at the very outset of his career in remote antiquity, born in a cave like Mithras and a good shepherd that helped the spirits across to the other side. And since it usually takes one to know one, Hermes Poimandres and Psychopompos was their advocate as well during the judgement of the death. No wonder Hermes formed a unity with Toth, the Egyptian god of writing and magic, as well as Anubis, another psychopompos, in the wonderful late period of old Greek civilisation known as Hellenism and became the founding father of Hermetic Magic and alchemy, highly influential if somewhat obsolete disciplines well into the early modern age that left us at least with the term “hermetically sealed”. A good thing to the alchemists of old, since the trickster’s messages were useful only to those who truly understood them while others who messed with Hermes looked rather stupid in the end.

And more about Hermes and the Infant Dionysus on: