Sunday, 26 June 2016

Day of the Greasy Grass - The Great Sioux War and Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn

26 June 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Lakota, finally ended after the death of Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer on the previous day and the attacks on Benteen’s and Reno’s position ceased with the confederation of Lakota, Cherokee and Arapaho leaving the area.

“Directly below us the placid river wound in great loops between fine groves of trees in a broad valley bottom. On our side the valley was enclosed by the bluffs on which we stood, although to our right the bluffs became a ridge, running away for a couple of miles into the hazy distance. From the bluffs to the river the ground fell pretty steeply, but from the crest of the long ridge the slope was much more gentle, a few hundred yards of hillside down to the river with a few gullies and dry courses here and there. It’s like any other hillside, very peaceful and quite pretty, all clothed in pale yellow grass like thin short wheat, with a few bright flowers and thistles. All ordinary enough, but I suppose there are a few old Indians now who think of it now as others may think of Waterloo or Hastings or Bannockburn. They call it the Greasy Grass.” (George MacDonald Fraser: “Flashman and the Redskins”)

Charles Marion Russell (1864 - 1926): "The Custer Fight" (1903)

It is not quite without irony that General Phil Sheridan became one of the foremost promoters of establishing the Yellowstone National Park. He even used the army to protect the area and its wildlife from encroaching settlers, hunters and prospectors about the same time he ordered flamboyant Custer to lead an expedition into the Black Hills to direct as much public attention on the rich local mineral deposits as he could. And gold was found, in August 1873 in the soil near French Creek and with the close newspaper coverage of the Black Hills Expedition, there was no holding back in the east. Gold seekers flocked in droves to Bismarck, North Dakota Territory, to try their luck in a region that was actually given to the Lakota under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Said agreement was grudgingly concluded when protecting the Bozeman Trail to the recently discovered gold fields in Montana from the raids of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho became simply too costly. Ending what was known as Red Cloud’s War, named after a prominent Oglala chief, the treaty gave the Lakota and their allies legal control over the Powder River country and most of the Black Hills. At least to those “good Injuns” who would give up their traditional way of life and cooperate with the agencies established in the region. Those who didn’t were dubbed “hostiles”, but General Sheridan, Head of the Department of the Missouri, was of the opinion that the only “good Injuns” he ever saw were the dead ones, the distinction didn’t make much of a difference anyway. And since the US Army was obviously powerless to stop Americans from going to where they damned well pleased on American soil, settlers and prospectors soaked into the Black Hills in droves. A calculated provocation, since the Powder River country was not only one of the last areas, where still herds of buffalo roamed after Sheridan encouraged hunters to exterminate them in their millions on the Great Plains. To feed railway workers, for sport and to systematically destroy the livelihood of the Native American Plains Nations. Ȟe Sápa, the Black Hills, had become hallowed ground for the Lakota ever since they wrested the region from the Cheyenne about a hundred years earlier and Sheridan was dead certain the mass incursion of gold seekers would drive more and more of the Treaty Lakota under basically cooperative chiefs like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, rather miffed over the desolate combination of corruption and general incompetence of the agencies anyway, into the arms of the Hostiles around the Hunkpapa holy man Sitting Bull. And that they would fight, providing Sheridan with the opportunity to eradicate the last free nations on the Great Plains that stood in the way of progress, the Northern Pacific Railroad and America’s Manifest Destiny. An eleventh hour attempt of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail in May 1875 to persuade President Grant to honour the existing treaty failed, the governmental counter-offer to pay the Lakota a compensation for quitting the Black Hills, far below any reasonable economic worth of the region, almost drove them to hysterics and in the winter of the year, the Department of the Missouri issued the order to all Lakota and Cheyenne to report to the nearest agency until the end of January or else.

W.H. Illingworth's (1842 - 1893) photograph of the wagon train of Custer's 1873 Black Hills Expedition passing through Castle Creek Valley

"Or else” began in the spring of 1876, when no one came, unsurprisingly in the middle of a harsh Montana and Wyoming winter. In a so-called “three-pronged approach”, the army was supposed to pin down the hostile Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho, eradicate any resistance and drive the survivors back to the reservations. The Great Sioux War had begun. And since all US Army commanders involved occupied themselves with how to catch the Injuns, expecting anything but a stiff resistance, the first real contact with the enemy on Rosebud Creek in Montana on 17 June came as a bit of a surprise to General Crook’s northbound column. A more or less equally strong contingent of Lakota and Cheyenne braves under the Oglala war chief Tȟašúŋke Witkó, Crazy Horse, had fought the advance of Crook’s 1,000 army regulars and Crow and Shoshoni allies to a standstill, putting his column out of action. The commanders of the Dakota and Montana column, General Alfred Terry, Colonel Gibbon and Terry’s cavalry leader Lt. Colonel Custer met on 21 June on board of the supply ship “Far West” on the banks of the Yellowstone River and discussed their further proceedings. And, basically, Terry let his subordinate Custer off the leash. The ex-“boy general” of the Civil War certainly had the most experience of the the three as an “Indian Fighter”, if massacring the inhabitants of Cheyenne Villages and fighting fruitless skirmishes was taken into account. However, Custer had served on the Plains for ten years and saw the campaign as his last chance to win fame, glory and promotion. He opted for leaving infantry support behind, along with a battery of Gatling machine guns, and headed his 7th Cavalry straight for the Bighorn River where scouts had located a large Indian encampment. Just how large nobody could say for certain, but Custer was anxious they might still escape him and pressed ahead into the Powder River Country. Terry basically had given him permission to act and, if necessary, fight on his own initiative and that was exactly what Custer was about to do, basically to get at the non-combatants in the village to force the supposedly retreating braves to come back and either fight it out or surrender. Unfortunately for Custer, the up to 2,500 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors opposing the 647 men of his unsupported cavalry regiment had no intention to withdraw.

Oglala veteran of the Greasy Grass Chief Matȟó Wanáȟtake's (Kicking Bear, 1846 - 1904) recollection of Custer's Last Stand (1898)

In the morning of 25 June his scouts reported to Custer the arguably largest assembly of Indians that had ever gathered on the plains. Still unperturbed, Custer split his regiment into three parts, one under Major Marcus Reno, one under Captain Frederick Benteen and one to be lead by himself. Reno’s three companies charged around 3 pm into the southern part of the Lacota village and Chief Gall promptly answered with a fierce counter charge, forcing Reno to retreat and the retreat was turned into a rout. With what was left of his command, Reno managed to reach a hillock and dug in. Joined by Benteen’s three companies, the two decided to hold out there instead of joining up with Custer, who was about to get cut up farther north. What happened there up on the banks of the Little Bighorn River became the stuff of legends, for both sides. In all probability, Custer charged with his roughly 200 men across the river at Minneconjou Ford right towards the middle of the Cheyenne encampment, probably believing it was the northern end of the whole village, was pushed back, again the retreat became a running battle, then a rout until the last survivors were killed on what is now known as “Last Stand Hill” and no man of Custer’s detachment lived to tell the tale. Reno and Benteen held out in their position and watched the thousands on the river banks strike their tents and withdraw. The day after, on 27 June, Terry and Gibbon arrived on the scene, finally relieved Reno and Benteen and began to take account of what was the US Army’s greatest defeat in the Indian Wars. The news reached the East Coast a few days after the grand United States Centennial Celebration and caused a major shock, the Battle of the Little Bighorn became an American myth, especially with Custer’s outspoken widow, by fingerpointing at Reno and Benteen, trying to preserve the memory of her husband as a hero and not as the rash, glory-seeking self-promoter that he was, traits that had caused his death and that of his men on the Day of the Greasy Grass. The Great Sioux War was over within a year, most bands surrendered, joined the agencies or fled to Canada. The offer of recompensating the Lakota for giving up the Black Hills still stands, though. The money wasn’t touched to this day.

And more about the Battle of the Little Bighorn on:

Sunday, 19 June 2016

"While Souvaroff, determined to obtain it..." Suvorov, the three military arts and another Battle at the Trebbia

19 June 1799, the three days of battle at the Trebbia in Northern Italy ended with Russian Field Marshal Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov’s combined Russian and Austrian forces completely defeating the French under Jacques MacDonald.

“The three military arts. First - Apprehension, how to arrange things in camp, how to march, how to attack, pursue, and strike; for taking up position, final judgement of the enemy's strength, for estimating his intentions. Second - Quickness... This quickness doesn't weary the men. The enemy doesn't expect us, reckons us 100 versts away, and if a long way off to begin with - 200, 300 or more - suddenly we're on him, like snow on the head; his head spins. Attack with what comes up, with what God sends; the cavalry to begin, smash, strike, cut off, don't let slip, hurra! Brothers do miracles! Third - Attack. Leg supports leg. Arm strengthens arm; many men will die in the volley; the enemy has the same weapons, but he doesn't know the Russian bayonet. Extend the line - attack at once with cold steel; extend the line without stopping... the Cossacks to get through everywhere... In two lines is strength; in three, half as much again; the first breaks, the second drives into heaps, the third overthrows.” (Alexander Suvorov)

A contemporary sketch of Cossack lancers charging at the Trebbia

was a dark and stormy night, and bitter cold one on top of it, when one of the greatest commanders of all time prepared his debut on Lo Stivale, the Italian peninsula, back then in December 218 BCE. The icy waters of the river Trebia played a major role in his tactical setup to beat Tiberius Sempronius Longus’ advancing 42,000 legionaries and Italian allies with his ragtag army of 30,000 that he had just led across the Alps and Hannibal famously did. The Battle of the Trebia became the first of the three major military disasters Hannibal inflicted on the Romans in the Second Punic War. 2,000 years later, another military genius conquered the Po valley in a lightning campaign. When the other reactionary European powers joined the Habsburgs and declared war on revolutionary France in 1792, Northern Italy had soon become the ugly backend of the otherwise quite successful French operations across the continent. Until Napoleon, after Toulon and the 13 Vendémiaire’s “whiff of grapeshot” took over in 1796, licked the desolate Army of Italy into shape, took the Kingdom of Sardinia’s continental Piedmont part in a fortnight and continued to beat the Austrians as the major opponent on the Italian theatre across the peninsula and back towards Vienna until Habsburg, exhausted, asked for a cessation of hostilities with the Treaty of Campo Formio in October 1797, ending the War of the First Coalition on the continent. With Venice, Austria still had a foothold in Italy, most of the rest of the peninsula was reorganised into French satellite states and Napoleon had his hands free to play at becoming a second Alexander the Great in the East. Or so he thought. Predictably, war broke out again a year later and this time, the Tsar joined the Second Coalition against France, chiefly because he was angered about Napoleon occupying Malta en route to Egypt. Just a few years before, Paul was named protector of the Knights of St John who had held the Mediterranean island for centuries and Napoleon’s highhandedness was enough for the eccentric Tsar to give up his armed neutrality. The allies presented him with what he felt was quite an imposition right from the start. They demanded disgraced General Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov recalled from exile to command not only the Russian troops to be deployed in the European southwest but to take over the High Command on the Italian theatre. Paul grudgingly agreed and the old warhorse Suvorov was to become the next military genius to fight on the banks of the River Trebia. 

N.A. Shabunin's imagination of Suvorov leaving his exile in the village of Kochanskoye to set forth for his last campaign (1903)

Some of the Austrian generals fought alongside with Suvorov during the Russo-Austro-Turkish War a decade earlier where he usually won against impossible odds, took impregnable fortresses and what not. He was one of Catherine the Great’s favourites and the tsarina showered him with honours. Deservedly. During the Kościuszko Uprising of 1794 she wrote: “I am sending a double power to Poland: the army and Suvorov” and he won. He always won. Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov was one of the very few generals in history who had never lost a battle. He wouldn’t make it a habit in his old age in Italy either, even though he had to demand a free hand from Tsar Paul, Katherine’s son and successor, and the Tsar, again, agreed grudgingly. He and Suvorov hated each other with a vengeance. Paul was an admirer of Prussian military discipline, brutal corporeal punishment and the drill instructions of the “soldier king” Frederick William I while Suvorov insisted on treating his men decently. He addressed common soldiers as “brother”, shared their lot and rations on the march, was usually found in the thick of battle, earning him several serious injuries and his men would march to hell and back for him and with him. Or to Italy. Suvorov arrived in Milan in April, talking the overall command from the Austrian Feldzeugmeister Kray, beating the French under Schérer at Magnano, Moreau at Cassano and pushed south to the Trebbia early in June. Force-marching his men for 36 hours over 50 miles literally without a rest and the Austrians dragging behind, Suvorov’s avant-garde attacked the French under the absolutely capable General Jacques MacDonald in the night of 17 June along the small river Tidone, a thorough success – the French left more than 2.000 dead in the field and were driven back to the old battlefield on the banks of the Trebbia, or Trebia in Latin, where Hannibal crushed the Romans two millennia before. 18 June ended with another French defeat and high casualties due to Suvorov’s masterly manoeuvring his outnumbered troops in oblique order over the French left wing. During the night, the French received reinforcements and most commanders would have quit the field by then, but the Russian military genius didn’t content himself with anything but a complete victory. In the morning, Jacques MacDonald’s men stood their ground and even managed to push back the Russians. "The bullet is a mad thing”; as Suvorov was fond to say, “only the bayonet knows what it is about”. When he personally joined the front-line on the left wing, the motivation of his men surged to an all time high. A fierce bayonet charge broke the French line, the pincer movement in the back of the French army finally succeeded and the Battle of the Trebbia went down into history as one of the most decisive engagements that ever were fought. Macdonald fled to Genoa and mentioned that the defeat at the Trebbia and his loss of the Army of Naples should have been the end of his career if it wouldn’t have been Suvorov who had beaten him. 

Adolf Charlemagne (1826 - 1901): "Ceremonial reception of Alexander Suvorov in Milan, April 1799" (1855)

Over the next two months, Suvorov forced the French out of Italy by picking up their strongholds from the Po Valley south to Naples, Capua and Ancona and fought one last battle, against Joubert, at Novi in the Piedmont, in August 1799 and then the Russian genius was called up north to Switzerland to relief his colleague Rimsky-Korsakov, who was about to get soundly beaten by Masséna near Zürich. Suvorov came to late and with about 20,000 exhausted men left against Masséna’s 80,000, he opted for a strategic withdrawal towards Austria when winter was about to set in. And he imitated Hannibal again, fighting his way through the mountain passes of the snow-capped Alps, lost about 2,000 men but finally made it. “The Russian eagles outflew the Roman eagles”, he said and to this day a monument near the dramatic landscape of the Schöllenen Gorge and the aptly named Devil’s Bridge, where the Russians battled the French for the access towards St Gotthard Pass, remembers the epic feat. Naturally, jealous Tsar Paul ignored the carte blanche he had given to the conquering hero who returned home to Mother Russia and was about to exile him again over minor breaches of standing orders his imperial highness had issued meanwhile when the old soldier, tired to death, drew his last breath and died on 18 Mai 1800 in St Petersburg at the age of 69. It was just four weeks before Napoleon, who had, after conveniently forgotten his army in Egypt, returned to the Italian theatre and soundly defeated the Austrians at Marengo, undoing all of Suvorov’s successes achieved the year before. The French would occupy Italy until 1814 and Napoleon’s first abdication.

Vasily Surikov (1848 - 1916): "March of Suvorov through the Alps" (1899)

And more about the Battle of Trebbia on: of Trebbia

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Birth of Frankenstein and the ancestor of Dracula in a fateful night at the Villa Diodati

16 June 1816,  in eighteen hundred and froze to death (1816), both Frankenstein and the ancestor of Dracula were conceived during a writing contest at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva by some of the most famous authors of the Romantic Age and Gothic fiction.

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation; and all hearts / Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light: / And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones, / The palaces of crowned kings—the huts, / The habitations of all things which dwell, / Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd, / And men were gather'd round their blazing homes / To look once more into each other's face; / Happy were those who dwelt within the eye / Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch: / A fearful hope was all the world contain'd; / Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour / They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks / Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black.“ (Lord Byron “Darkness”)

An atmospheric print of Villa Diodati with Byron in the foreground, stretched out decoratively á la Goethe in the Campana by an unknown artist, probably from mid-19th century*

By and large, 1816 was not a really good year. Although the conflicts that shook Europe and many other places all over the world for almost a generation had ended a couple of months before, the country was often still marked by war, unemployment of soldiers, sailors and marines retuning home skyrocketed, civil unrest did not take long to wait for and to top it all, the volcano Mount Tambora had erupted between April 5 – 15, 1815 on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies, present-day Indonesia. What sounds like a rather remote affair unfortunately had global consequences. The eruption of Mount Tambora was later rated as “mega-colossal” on the open-scaled Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), one of the 4 eruptions that were indexed as “7” in historical times, with Vesuvius in 79 CE getting a “5” and Krakatoa in 1883 a “6”. After four somewhat weaker eruptions across the globe between 1812 – 1814, all rated at least at index “4”, Mount Tambora made the catastrophe complete. In 1816, land temperatures dropped about 1° C on the average, harvests failed all over the world, causing massive famines, riots, migrations and a generally apocalyptic mood.

J.M.W. Turner: "Chichester Canal" from 1828. Turner's spectacular sunsets and the light with its characteristic yellow tinge might have been caused by the high level of tephra in the atmosphere after the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Tambora, still making its presence felt 12 years later  

A general mood of “tenebrae factae sunt” came to the fore in Lord Byron’s ill-fated marriage as well during the spring of 1816. Public scandal that accompanied his separation from Annabella left him almost no choice but to leave England for good and in May, Lord Byron rented a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, because, as the shrewd landlord claimed, Milton had once lodged there – even though Villa Diodati was built 40 years after Milton’s death in 1674. However, Byron was probably in the right Gothic mood during the Year Without a Summer and when the Shelleys, along with Byron’s ex-lover, Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, paid him a visit there, the course was set for one of the most consequential events for popular fiction. Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, Claire and Byron’s private physician John Polidori, something of a writer himself and paid by Byron’s publisher John Murray to keep a diary about the events, often couldn’t leave the house because of the awful weather but would meet every night, discuss, besides politics and philosophy, especially spiritism and occult phenomena, read German ghost stories and drink laudanum, an opium tincture dissolved in brandy and wine – and one fine evening, his lordship proposed that everyone present should write a Gothic story.

Frontispiece of Polidori's "The Vampyre" in a penny dreadful look & feel,
attributing the novelette to his master Lord Byron

Shelley and Byron more or less weaselled out of the agreement, Shelley’s ghost stories remained fragmentary at best, Byron drafted a “Fragment of a Novel”, a vampire story that, in return, inspired Polidori to borrow the name of Lord Ruthven, Byron’s alter ego from his ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb’s rather malicious exposé novel “Glenarvon”, published a few weeks before, and write a vampire novel of his own. “The Vampyre” became a bestseller soon after its publication, Goethe himself thought it was the best of Byron’s works so far, Byron himself, as well as Polidori, denied the authorship, rather half-heartedly on Polidori’s side as soon as he saw that he was simply unable to step out of the shadow of his former master before he committed suicide two years later. However, it was Polidori’s undeniable achievement to have condensed the vampire myths of the 18th century into a coherent novel for the first time and to have created the progenitor of all subsequent literary vampires after the model of Lord Byron, most notably “Dracula” and all the 20th and 21th century’s successors of Stoker’s undead count. Mary Shelley, in the meanwhile, wrote her own novel from that night onwards that would stand out through the ages of Gothic fiction, popular novels and movies: “Frankenstein”, published for the first time in 1818.

A 1922 illustration showing Frankenstein at work in his lab

* The image was found on:

And more about Villa Diodati on:

and the Year Without a Summer on

Sunday, 12 June 2016

“Everything is dead while it lives.“ Wiener Moderne, Neuritic Novels and the Expressionist Egon Schiele

12 June 1890, the expressionist painter Egon Schiele was born in Tulln in Austria.

“Everything is dead while it lives.“ (Egon Schiele)

"...figures like a cloud of dust resembling this earth and seeking to grow, but forced to collapse impotently." - Egon Schiele: "Tod und Mädchen" (Death and the Maiden, 1915)

"Fin de siecle," murmured Lord Henry. "Fin du globe," answered his hostess. "I wish it were fin du globe," said Dorian with a sigh. "Life is a great disappointment.", Oscar Wilde had his circle of decadents trade barbs and witticisms on the edge of the abyss towards the end of long 19th century over existential despair in 1890. The good people of Vienna were about to go one better by then. Some ten years later, in the voltage field of the cosmopolitan capital of a dying empire and its anachronistic structures, delicacy, moribund sensuousness sense and neurotic sensibility exploded into the rampant growth of all art forms of the “Wiener Moderne”, the Viennese Modern Age. It was a Golden Age, or at least a gilded one, with gold foil covering decay and Angst and the artistic sublimation of life’s great disappointments. A world counteracted by the establishment with well understood Wagnerianisms, misunderstood Nietzsche, too bright uniforms and sabre rattling. A world of coffeehouse literati and neuritic novels, “Nervenroman”, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Trakl at the Café Griensteidl and Café Central, the music of Bruckner and Mahler, the overripe flowers of Art Nouveau with Klimt as its somewhat unsavoury high priest and Sigmund the Great and his students sleuthing the psychic life with a metaphoric magnifying glass. Oscar Kokoschka already depressed the dying “Jugendstil” into more expressive lines, distorting form into a radically subjective effect. And between the two, Klimt and Kokoschka, a young, wild, nervous man, having just arrived from the back of beyond in the glittering capital, began to make a name for himself, Egon Schiele.

"The picture must radiate light, the bodies have their own light
which they consume to live: they burn, they are not lit from outside"
- Egon Schiele "Weiblicher Akt" (Female Act, 1910)

ground was prepared for a new generation of artists who took it personal and transformed their own experience and surroundings into works of art like the Impressionists did a generation before. Admittedly, under rather different auspices. It was the next step beyond the processing of classical and historical allegories with an erotic note, ensembles still recognisable and intelligible by the public, into something more individual, far less accessible. Schiele’s early work was heavily influenced especially by Klimt with even stronger erotic overtones. Along with the visualised Nervenroman, though, far less eye-pleasing and appealing than anything Klimt had ever done. Fascinated by Eros and Thanatos without being overburdened by scholarly bookishness, Schiele’s females contort, tangle and twist, seemingly made up from nerves, looking half-starved, or muscles alone, not always with complete limbs, with eyes straight from a Hofmannsthal play, either dead, deadly sensuous or completely bewildered. He promptly served a prison sentence, for producing pornography, since court couldn’t prove the accusation of him having seduced minors. He moved his sujet into more remote and darker imagery afterwards, still in his early twenties, he lived the Vie de la Boheme, always bordering on revisiting the clink for allegedly painting and drawing smut and his lifestyle, of course. And then the world was turned into something far worse than the moribund visions of the fin de siècle had envisioned on 1 August 1914 and the catastrophe of the 20th century began in earnest.

"Art cannot be modern, art is timeless." - Egon Schiele "Tote Stadt III" (Dead City III, 1911)

outbreak of the Great War changed everything. Again. While he was allowed to drop out of the Austrian Army due to his poor health pretty soon, necessity, attrition and hardship sharpened the somewhat poetic fascination with decay and death society and artists already had in the pre-war years into the real thing. Schiele’s work ripened during this years, technically as well as in terms of his topics, ironically returning to the more archetypically shaped images Klimt might have chosen ten years before. But death is omnipresent, bodies rearing up in spasmodic contortions, in defiance and despair, bodies cling to each other, rather in exasperation than making love and even the rows of houses Schiele depicted look like a painted ossuary. He was a painting, threatening moralist, in a sense, as a Viennese newspaper put it back then, his visions of vice truly having nothing tempting to offer, nothing seductive, he indulges himself in the colours of decay. The early-ripened, overripe Schiele died at the age of the 28 in Vienna during the major flu epidemic that swept across Europe in autumn 1918, just a few days after his wife Edith, 6 months pregnant, succumbed to the disease that cost the lives of millions just after the hecatombs of the Great War. Schiele remains one of the foremost representative visual artists of “Wiener Moderne” and pre-war Expressionism and became increasingly popular since the second half of the 20th century, when another fin de siècle was snored away, somehow, and one had to live on memories of the gilded age of the “Wiener Moderne”.

"To Confine the Artist is a Crime, It Means Murdering Unborn Life." -
 Egon Schiele "Liebespaar - Selbstdarstellung mit Wally"
(Lovers - Self-Portrait With Wally, c. 1915)

And more about Egon Schiele on:

Saturday, 11 June 2016

"But You know Landscape is my mistress" - On John Constable's 240th Birthday

11 June 1776, the English Romantic painter John Constable was born in East Bergholt, in the Stour Valley of Suffolk.
“But You know Landscape is my mistress — 'tis to her that I look for fame — and all that the warmth of the imagination renders dear to Man.“ (John Constable)

John Constable: "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden" (1826)

April 1336, Petrarch climbed the Provençal Mont Ventoux, looked down from the summit and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape spreading out below. The letter to his former confessor describing the poet’s night on the “Bald Mountain”, so to speak, is often enough quoted as the starting shot of a paradigm change in the artistic perception of nature itself. Admittedly, minnesingers and troubadours did take notice at least of nature’s sublime beauty about a hundred years before already, but the fine arts used a landscape as stylised background at best since antiquity. Until Petrarch climbed form his mountain. About the same time, painters of the nascent Renaissance began to recognise the intrinsic artistic value of a landscape and depicted it. Maybe with a whiff of euphemism and apotropaic magic, since Mother Nature still was seen of having a somewhat cruel streak and maybe it was scientific interest to get a grip at and behind the appearance of things, but landscapes were there to stay as part of the Western canon of figurative painting. The Dutch masters of the 17th century excelled in it and even bequeathed the term upon the English language, landschap, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain took it from there and finally established the groundwork of landscape painting. Regardless, landscapes still ranked quite low in the hierarchy of paintings while historical, biblical and other mythological scenes and portraits were on top and the latter gaining mythological qualities with the Grand Manner of English 18th century artists like Reynolds and Gainsborough. And while Gainsborough actually loved to paint landscapes, he was forced to use them as allegorical backgrounds for his famous portraits since they sold better. One of Gainsborough’s admirers though took heart and decided to become a landscape artist and developed the genre to iconic quality, a Suffolk lad from the Stour valley named John Constable.

John Constable: "The Hay Wain" (1821)

Gracing cookie boxes these days with the picturesque tranquillity and the assumed essential Englishness of the Suffolk countryside, Constable’s works were revolutionary once upon a time. Even though Constable today is one of the best known English painters, he struggled most of his life for his breakthrough as an acknowledged artist who can live by his art and feed his family of seven. Not that he had to, since he came from a solid middle class background and his wife brought money into the family, but nevertheless, it’s always nice to make a living from doing what one loves. Constable tried portrait painting and hated it, attempted religious pictures and failed abysmally, gave drawing lessons and somehow managed, to visit Suffolk’s green and pleasant lands and capture a fleeting moment of the seemingly ordinary places of his youth and created something eternal. In the almost 40 years of his active period, John Constable later found his inspiration in monuments like Stonehenge, Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral but mostly under “every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up“ and painted it in broad, revolutionary strokes, the turmoil his perception created well hidden under a seemingly plain exterior. For most of his active period, it was his native Stour valley and the good folks populating it that provided Constable with inspiration. To get at least some visibility at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy where the works of non-members like him usually hung in corners or under the roof far above eye level, he expanded his canvasses to at least 6’ and these six-footers allowed him to render the scenes he sketched during the summers spent in Suffolk with lots of endearing details arranged into a harmonious big picture. The plan took off, Constable was recognised and the six-footers even began to sell for decent amounts. But since the prophet has hardly any honour in his own country, it was the French Romantics who really fell over themselves in admiring his paintings with essentially English subjects like the weather and the clouds that made the “Wild Swiss” Henry Fuseli exclaim “I like de landscapes of Constable; he is always picturesque, of a fine colour, and de lights always in de right places; but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella.”

John Constable "Stonehenge" (1835)

The death of his beloved wife and mother of his seven children of tuberculosis at the age of 41 in 1828 dealt him a heavy blow. Constable, in his early 50s by then, only wore black afterwards and the weather in his paintings grew considerably worse. He always felt that there was empathy between nature and her spectator and few managed to convey these affectivities on the canvas like he did. His contemporary and a bit of a rival Turner could, of course, admittedly in a somewhat more churning manner and it might be a case of keeping up with the Joneses, but towards the last phase of Constable’s creative period, one is inclined to reach for a sou’wester instead of an umbrella. The magic of his paintings was still fed by the tension of exact observation and subsequent neglect of the line in favour of colours and the colour effect. Like that a good Romantic painter should. But his sujets grew more sombre and the neglect of lines sometimes assumed an almost expressionist quality. Like Turner, Constable had no real successor to his monolithic body of works, both artists stood out as insular singularities on a magnificent scale, far ahead of or rather beside their times. Constable did influence the painters on the continent and especially in France and while Géricault and Delacroix reduced his dramatic landscapes to backgrounds again for topics they had in focus, the English landscape artist already had become one of the primal fathers of the School of Barbizon, late 19th century art, especially Impressionism and consequently modern art – and stands out in landscape painting by creating supratemporal things of beauty that convey the feeling of a place more than most descriptions could. Even on a cookie box.

Small monographic shows of Constable's works can be found here:

Friday, 3 June 2016

“The Greatest German Living” - Master Entertainer and Polymath Matthias Buchinger

3 June 1674, the 29’’ tall polymath and contemporary show star Matthias Buchinger was born in Ansbach, Bavaria.

“He is the wonderful Little Man of but 29 inches high, born without hands, feet, or thighs, June the 2[nd], 1674, in Germany, in the Marquisate of Brandenburg, near to Nuremburg. . . . This Little Man performs such wonders as have never been done by any but himself. He plays on various sorts of music to admiration, [such] as the hautboy, [a] strange flute in consort with the bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet; and designs to make machines to play on almost all sorts of music. He is no less eminent for writing, drawing of coats of arms, and pictures to the life, with a pen; he also plays at cards and dice, performs tricks with cups and balls, corn and live birds; and plays at skittles or nine-pins to a great nicety, with several other performances, to the general satisfaction of all spectators.” (Matthias Buchinger, describing himself in an advertisement)

"Matthias Buchinger" - a self-portrait from 1723,
along with the advertisement quoted above

is the old superstition that pregnant women should not look at ugly or unpleasant people or animals, lest the child they carry takes on their resemblance and becomes ugly too. “Maternal Imprinting” was the terminus technicus. Thus, the freak was forbidden to show his tricks to everyone out in the open of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt but had to appear in a pub with a primarily male audience in the winter of 1708. Ironically enough, the highly gifted man they called a freak or a monstrosity back then sired at least 14 children with his eight wives and a lot more out of wedlock. But that was after he left the Holy Roman Empire and went to the court of King George I. The German-born monarch wouldn’t see him either, pregnant or not, the Little Man from Nuremberg went on to Dublin to perform his skills and had his breakthrough in Dublin in 1720, finally. “The Greatest German Living” stood just 29’’ tall, was born without feet and hands, his arms ended in flipper-like appendages, but never the less, Buchinger was an accomplished stage magician, marksman and knife thrower and a one-man-orchestra on top of it. He played the trumpet, bagpipes and, even without fingers, flute, oboe and dulcimer. Somehow, eyewitness reports remain silent about how exactly he managed to do it, but it seems he constructed mechanical contrivances for the purpose. Along with a considerable amount of charisma, Buchinger was a perfect showman and it seems almost as wonderous that it took the world 45 years to realise that. But after a performance in Glasgow in 1722, the British Isles lay at his feet, from Prime Minister Walpole to the nobility and hoi polloi. Even decades after his death, “Buckinger’s Boot” was a code for the primary female sex organs. He was a man of many talents indeed. Only the king wasn’t quite enchanted.

Matthias Buchinger's micrographic portrait of Queen Anne from 1718,
signed with "This is drawn and written by me, Matthew Buchinger born June 3, 1674.
Without Hands & Feet in Anspach in Germany"

Born as the last of nine children, Matthias was grateful to his parents throughout his life that they treated him quite like the rest of his siblings and did not sell him to a travelling freak show or something along these lines, not an unusual fate, obviously. He had the time to develop his talents, like learning to walk with the help of a floor-length, apron-like leather shell he propelled forward by shifting his weight. When his parents died, Matthias voluntarily joined the travelling showmen’s trade to make a living and to further hone his many skills and to entertain far beyond the mere display of his curious appearance like many of the folks did who somehow looked out of the ordinary. And there was another self-taught skill of Buchinger’s that would last beyond his certainly grandiose performances on the stage or during privately held shows. He was an accomplished visual artist as well. And as though it was not enough to be an accomplished draughtsman with two flipper-like appendices instead of hands, Buchinger did not only earn good money by drawing highly detailed family trees for the aristocracy but excelled in a rare form of calligraphy as well: micrography. Also known as microcalligraphy, micrography basically is the art of drawing by making up the lines with miniature writing, in Buchinger’s case usually bible verses. There’s even the possibility that he was a “quick-drawer” or “lightning draughtsman. Nobody knows how exactly he did it, but he did, his wonderful micrographic drawings survive to this day and along with his stage magician acts, his somewhat esoteric artworks brought him the reputation of being a true-blue wizard. With the sum of Buchinger’s talents being even more than the parts, a notion that is not very hard to follow. 

A contemporary German broadsheet showing Matthias Buchinger
exhibiting some of his show acts and many talents

There is no hint, though, that Buchinger was a member of one of the more popular magical or secret societies of his day, like the Rosicrucians or Freemasons but he created a magical world of his own regardless. And there is the obvious suspicion that he didn’t work alone, at least not all the time and with every trick he managed to entertain his audience with. He was a master showman regardless as well as a polymath and did not only overcome his physical disadvantages but developed them into an art form. Buchinger finally settled down in Ireland and died in Cork in 1740 at the age of 65 as one of the most exceptional and extravagant individuals in modern European history.

And more about Matthias Buchinger on:

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

"Don't give up the ship" - The Capture of USS "Chesapeake" during the War of 1812

1 June 1813, off Boston during the War of 1812, the British frigate HMS “Shannon”, Cpt. Philip Broke, captured USS “Chesapeake”, Cpt. James Lawrence, in a brief, bloody action.

“As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her maindeck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarterdeck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation. We have both noble motives. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by repeated triumphs in even combats that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect. Favour me with a speedy reply. We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.”

(Philip Broke, original message to Captain James Lawrence, USN; edited by James and Chamier 1837)

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783 - 1853): "The Fight between the English frigate Shannon and the American frigate "Chesapeake" (1836)

She was the ugly duckling of the original six frigates of the US Navy. A sturdy design, like that of Joshua Humphrey’s three battle-cruisers, more heavily armed than most European contemporaries of her rating and still, a bit of a lapse in tensions between the young United States and the Barbary Coast pirates ensured that her completion was challenged by the Naval Secretary. Her long keel and her scantlings lay at the Norfolk Navy Yard for two years, almost a stillbirth, when the Quasi-War with France broke out and “Frigate D” was launched in a hurry, but commissioned not until 1800, when the conflict was already resolved. And thus, USS “Chesapeake” became the only one of the 6 that bore a name not chosen by George Washington or even one with at least some reference to the US Constitution. She really did get up on the wrong side of the bed. Her baptism of fire would have been the US’ First Barbary War, “Chesapeake” left Hampton Roads in April 1802 to sail for the Med and had to seek shelter in Gibraltar because she ended her Atlantic crossing as half a wreck. Actually, she was supposed to blockade Tripoli, spent most of the time in port, either at the Rock, in Leghorn or Malta and finally was ordered back home without having fired a shot in anger. After being placed for five years in reserve, her career’s preliminary sad climax came when she was reactivated and promptly ran into HMS “Leopard”, a British 4th rate scouring American shipping for deserters. “Chesapeake’s” commander Barron refused to let a search party come aboard but somehow neglected to clear his frigate for action beforehand. “Leopard” fired a couple of broadsides into her, three American sailors were killed while Barron had to order live coals brought up from the ship’s galley to be able fire at least one of his 32-pounder carronades, pour l'honneur du pavillon, before he struck his colours. “Chesapeake” was indeed searched, four men were dragged away, all of them deserters from the Royal Navy, but only one was a native Brit, one Jenkin Ratford, who was hanged in Halifax a couple of weeks later. The US exploded in outrage over the incident that became a nail in the coffin of Anglo-American relations, ending in the War of 1812. And while her bigger half-sisters USS “Constitution” and USS “United States” covered themselves in glory by taking three Royal Navy frigates in single-ship duels only weeks after war broke out, the “runt of the litter”, poor “Chesapeake”, set forth to fight the guerre de course with the British between Madeira and the Cape Verdes as well, was even moderately successful, but then her skipper fell ill, she had to head back to Boston for refitting anyway and only half of her prizes made it back to the States. “Frigate D” finally had acquired the reputation of being an unlucky ship. And then HMS “Shannon” turned up off Boston.

"The Brilliant Achievement of the Shannon ... in Boarding and Capturing the United States Frigate Chesapeake off Boston, June 1st 1813 in Fifteen Minutes (sic.!)" as imagined by W. Elmes, artist and engraver in August 1813

Lawrence was 31 years old when he returned to the States in the sloop-of-war USS “Hornet” after a hugely successful cruise in the South Atlantic, learned that he had been promoted to Captain and was supposed to relieve ill Samuel Evans of his command of USS “Chesapeake” in Boston. Arriving there on 20 May 1813 he found his frigate in a dismal state, badly in need of repair and her crew in a near mutinous state while HMS “Shannon” tacked in Massachusetts Bay, visible off the entrance of Boston Harbor often enough and issuing challenge after challenge. Her commander Philip Bowes Vere Broke was one of the best of the Royal Navy’s frigate captains and he had drilled his crew to perfection. “Shannon” herself was built along the lines of the French Hébé-class frigates designed by the master shipbuilder Jacques-Noël Sané, less sturdy and resilient than Joshua Humphrey’s ships, but smarter sailers and in 1813, after the experience of 5th rates loosing duels with USS “Constitution” and USS “United States” on a regular basis the year before, as heavily armed at least as “Chesapeake” was. The US Navy vessel could throw a broadside weight of 550 pounds and “Shannon” would answer with 512 pounds at close range, fired from her long guns and 32-pounder carronades. On 1 June then, Captain Lawrence could no longer endure to ignore Broke’s challenges. And while the good people of Boston cheered “Chesapeake” along, expecting another victory of an American frigate over her British opponent in a single-ship duel, the two captains arranged their men-of-war indeed quite like knights at the joust, allegedly, chivalrous Lawrence even ignored the opportunity to rake “Shannon’s” vulnerable stern before the two frigates came alongside and the battle began in earnest and, as usual in love and war, every bloody contrivance was considered fair. At a range of just 160’, they fired into each other, the Royal Marines in the fighting tops, trained by Broke to be expert sharpshooters, picked off the Yankee officers with muskets while the “Shannon’s” guns fired canister and grape to clear the “Chesapeake’s” decks from opposition before the British closed in to board. Lawrence was mortally wounded by a musket ball and still managed to utter his famous last words: "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks" while he was carried below and then the British jolly tars came, led by Captain Broke in person and overwhelmed her. Broke himself received severe wounds in close combat, 23 British sailors and marines were killed and 56 wounded of “Shannon’s” crew of 330 while 48 of the “Chesapeake’s” 379 men were dead and about a 100 injured, 23 would later die from their wounds, Captain Lawrence being one of them The engagement had lasted for just about 11 minutes until the “Chesapeake” struck her colours to a British man-of-war for the second time. The American run of victories at sea in the War of 1812 was broken, balm for the sore British national pride and the Royal Navy with victory actually being one of its traditions.

"Boarding and Taking the American Ship Chesapeake", a contemporary print by one M Doubourg

the temporary command of “Shannon’s” 1st Lieutenant, the British frigate and her prize sailed into Halifax on 6 June and were cheered by all around. Lawrence was buried with all military honours and those of both crews who had died en route of their injuries received in battle were laid side by side on the Royal Navy Burying Ground of what is now the CFB Halifax. When “Chesapeake’s” surviving officers who, giving their parole, were allowed on land started to riot after the locals played a patriotic song commemorating the event of their frigate’s capture, chivalric treatment came to a quick end, though. “Chesapeake” herself was bought into service of the Royal Navy, only to be found wanting in quite a lot of qualities demanded of a post-war frigate. The “runt of the litter” was finally sold to a timber merchant for breaking up in 1819 and Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, Hampshire, was built from her remains, to be wondered and marvelled at to this day. “Shannon” served until 1831, when she became a receiving ship and ended her life in 1859. One of her sister ships, HMS “Trincomalee”, survived the end of the Age of Sail and is now a museum ship in Hartlepool, County Durham. Broke recovered from his wounds but never went to sea again. He was knighted, served as a naval gunnery specialist and was promoted to rear-admiral in 1830, dying at the age of 64 eleven years later. His rival James Lawrence’s last words, though, lived on and became a byword in the US Navy and US naval legend ever since his friend Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry hoisted them in commemoration as his personal battle ensign during the Battle of Lake Erie three months after the duel between “Shannon” and “Chesapeake”. 

John Christian Schetky (1778- 1874): "H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour" (c. 1830)

And more about the Capture of USS “Chesapeake” on:

… while the song that enraged her captured officers in Halifax to a point that they wouldn’t mind their manners anymore, “The Shannon and the Chesapeake" might be heard below. Please don't riot if you are of the American persuasion.