Tuesday, 23 August 2016

"The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole" - The subversibly sensuous paintings of Henryk Siemiradzki

23 August 1902, the Polish Academic painter Henryk Siemiradzki died at the age of 55 in Strzałków

“I was most drawn to Tacitus as a historian. Dwelling on his Annals I was frequently tempted by the idea of presenting, in a literary form, these two worlds in which one was the all powerful governing machine of the ruling power and the other represented only a moral force. The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole. Also, as an artist I was drawn to it by the wonderful forms with which the ancient world was able to cloak itself.” (Henryk Siemiradzki)

Henryk Siemiradzki: "Nero's Torches" (1877)

was never quite forgotten in Poland. His artificial silk Duchy of Warsaw was seen by many as the reincarnation of the lost Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth of old. The next round of enthusiastic and quixotic insurgents tried their luck against their Russian overlords in 1831, to the Romantic strains of Chopin and the epic poems of Mickiewicz and Słowacki and failed gloriously. 1848 brought a short summer of anarchy and hope until the Austrian and Russian armies returned with a vengeance. Poland bred the next generation of dreamers and freedom fighters, on the barricades during the January Uprising of 1863, gunned and sabred down by the Tsar a year later. And this time, the Russian Empire really had with the Poles and their freedom-loving stubbornness. The szlachta, the Polish nobility of old who had played an active part in all uprisings, was finally dispossessed and banished to Siberia in droves, civil servants and officers of Polish or Lithuanian descent were either dismissed or put under close surveillance of the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery, the later Okhrana, and so were the intellectuals and everyone else who smelled even remotely of tendencies to support Polish independence. A thorough Russification followed as well as a Germanification in other parts of Poland occupied by the Austrians and especially the Prussians. But the last post-revolutionary clean sweep after the January Uprising did something to the Poles and their attitude of resistance as well. Not that they gave it up. Far from it. They still loved Chopin and read Mickiewicz, but in a quiet chamber and for themselves and instead of flying colours, sabres and desperate last stands on the barricades of Warsaw or Kraków, they backed praca organiczna, organic work, and positivism. That meant, in general terms, economic success and education, more often than not in league with the Russian and German Empires, to give a new Poland a solid fundament, whether it might come about some fine day or not. Many Polish artists followed suit and promising Polish painters were often trained in the Royal and Imperial academies of St Petersburg, Munich, Vienna and Berlin. One of them was the scion of Sloboda Ukraine’s szlachta, Henryk Siemiradzki.

Henryk Siemiradzki: "A Christian Dirce" (1897)

Speaking the language of slaves is a linguistic skill many artists are forced to acquire under oppressive political regimes lest they end up in Siberia, on the wrong side of a firing squad or worse. Slave language will not call a spade a spade but _Piques_ or pikes and may, if the author is so inclined, transport a world of hidden meaning. 19th century’s academic art with her limited arrangement of available sujets, usually historical, mythological or biblical scenes, often was quite adept in playing with more than the superficial meaning of images and contexts. And if only to paint naked people in oil on mammoth canvasses. A scandal if the scene showed a still from the red light district. Comme il fault if the image was labeled “Zeus and Ganymede” or “Susanna and the Elders”. Naturally, the somewhat algolagniac tales of the early Christian martyrs did provide artists with a lot more subtext for the baser instincts of the audience, especially in regards to sado-masochistic fantasies. But in Poland, edifying stories about persecution for one’s faith had a far more immediate political context. Famously arch-Catholic since Prince Mieszko was baptized back in 966, Poles had every right to feel like a suppressed minority even if their Russian Orthodox and Prussian Protestant rulers did not exactly fed devout Catholics to the lions. Bismarck might have been tempted during the “Kulturkampf”, though. Nevertheless, images of martyrdom exerted a special fascination for Poles, far more than for the Irish who were basically in the same boat. No wonder that Siemiradzki got along famously with Henryk Sienkiewicz of “Quo Vadis”-fame when the two met in Rome. The Polish painter’s arguably best known work, “Nero’s Torches” from 1877, looks indeed like a 6’ wide preliminary illustration for Sienkiewicz’ novel, who relates the tale handed down by Suetonius and Tacitus in epic breadth. Admittedly, Siemiradzki’s painting and its macabre narrative is quite epic all on its own.

Henryk Siemiradzki: "Burial of a Ruthenian Chieftain" (1883) - in 19th century terms, the Ruthenians were, by and large, the ancestors of the modern Russians 

the 1880s Modern Art and more openly rebellious, if not always specifically Polish imagery took root and flourished as Młoda Polska, Young Poland, and like everywhere else, traditional Academic Art like Siemiradzki’s, national importance or not, was superseded by the Symbolism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau and what not of Ślewiński, Podkowiński and Wyspiański. Like the other great and best-selling European salon painters, with Alma-Tadema leading the way, so to speak, became a thing of the past. With his excellent research, a good eye for a gripping narrative, sensuous scenes in strong colours and a wonderfully accentuated use of sunlight, Siemiradzki’s usually large canvasses deserve to be mentioned in one breath with Alma-Tadema’s. Even so, he is by and large forgotten, even if his paintings show up every now and then when somewhat racy illustrations of days gone by are called for to get the attention of readers, viewers and buyers. Not in his native Poland, though. “Nero’s Torches” went straight to the newly founded National Museum in Kraków, an establishment tolerated by the more lenient Habsburg rulers of Poland’s south. And his contribution as an artist to preserve Polish identity in difficult times with subversive, non-violent stubbornness during the days of the praca organiczna gives his work, as outdated as it may seem these days with representationalism and narrative being anathema to visual arts, a bittersweet, revolutionary note few of his Europe’s established Academic painters cared to add.

And more about Henryk Siemiradzki on:

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Battle of Havana in 1762 - How Cuba's capital became British for 11 months

13 August 1762, Spanish Havana surrendered to a large British invasion force under General George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, after two months of siege.

"It would require a greater philosopher and historian than I am to explain the causes of the famous Seven Years' War in which Europe was engaged; and, indeed, its origin has always appeared to me to be so complicated, and the books written about it so amazingly hard to understand, that I have seldom been much wiser at the end of a chapter than at the beginning“ (William Makepeace Thackeray “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”)

HMS "Stirling Castle", "Dragon" and "Cambridge" in action during a first attempt to take the fortress in a combined land and sea attack -
Richard Paton (1717 - 1791): "Bombardment of the Morro Castle, Havana, 1 July 1762" (around 1770)

It was a world war. Quite in contrast to the other conflicts after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, the Cabinet Wars fought for minor territorial gains and strategic advantages on isolated theatres with a minimum of civilian suffering, at least on paper, the Seven Years’ War meant carnage from the Ohio Valley, India and Central Europe to the Russian border, involving all of the Old World’s powers, gathered either in the camp of France and Austria, the bitter Bourbon and Habsburg enemies from the War of the Spanish Succession, or in that of Great Britain and her continental allies, chiefly Prussia. After the “annus miriabilis”, the wonderful year of 1759, it seemed that King George III, who had just succeeded his grandfather on the throne, was winning, even though most of the combatants and politicos probably had long since forgotten what the war was all about in the first place. During the last stage, it was a catch-as-catch can, especially in the European colonies across the globe. In 1761 then, King Louis XV of France had mobilised the rest of the Bourbon rulers, both Sicilies, Parma and Spain. Charles III, the fourth Bourbon ruler on the Spanish throne since Utrecht, actually had troubles enough to maintain his crumbling overseas empire, but something along the lines of Bourbon Nibelung loyalty and the worry the British might attack his possessions next anyway after they had finished with the French finally brought him into the war alongside his cousin. The British, ruling the waves since their decisive naval victories at Lagos and Quiberon Bay, promptly mobilised against Bourbon Spain and moved towards key positions in Manila on the Philippines in the Pacific and Cuba in the West Indies. Back in the day, the colonies in the Caribbean usually were the crown jewels among the European colonial possessions and sugar islands like Guadeloupe or Martinique, just recently conquered by the British from France, generated more income than the whole Eastern American seaboard. Cuba, however, was a Spanish domain since the days of the Conquistadores and her capital Havana was considered to be impregnable with fortifications established and improved since more than 250 years. In 1762, Havana’s harbour was guarded by the star fort Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the Fortresses San Salvador de la Punta at the western and Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, the Morro, at the eastern entrance, besides somewhat treacherous currents and winds, by and large a death trap for a fleet under sails. Nevertheless, a squadron under Sir George Pocock sailed in March of the year from Spithead to carry General George Keppel’s 12,000 troops across the broad Atlantic to take Havana.

Dominic Serres (1719 - 1793): "The British Fleet Entering Havana, 21 August 1762" (1775) - to the right is Pocock's flagship HMS "Namur" (90), flying the Blue Ensign along with the Union flag

Hurricane Season had already begun when Pocock’s fleet of 23 ships-of-the-line, 11 frigates and almost 200 smaller vessels, transports, bomb ketches and what not, finally arrived off Havana. The Spanish commander Juan de Prado Mayera Portocarrero y Luna had 9 sail of the line at anchor under the guns of his fortresses and about 5,000 men to defend the city. And time was on his side. Besides hurricanes and Spanish steel and shot, a far more deadly enemy lay in wait for Keppel’s troops. Yellow fever and other tropical diseases, known to kill European troops by the thousands as soon as they set foot on a Caribbean island. In fact, there were regiments who rather preferred to get court martialled and shot than to serve out there in the West Indies. Basically, all Juan de Prado had to do was to hold out until the British besiegers began to die like flies and a hurricane shatter their fleet. Keppel knew that as well, of course, bottled the Spanish squadron in the harbour of Havana by sinking three of his own no longer seaworthy battleships in the harbour entrance and prepared to take the Moro double quick. Unfortunately for him and his men, the fortress was built on solid rock, making the usual undermining operations of its walls virtually impossible and its works and batteries sat high enough to keep them out of range of the hundreds of pieces of naval artillery of Pocock’s ships of the line. Thus, the time-consuming process of reducing the fortifications by land began. The British dug in beyond the fortress and over the next six weeks, more than 500 shots hit the Morro from field artillery, siege guns, mortars, howitzers and the heavy 32-pounders taken ashore from the battleships. A last Spanish sortie was repulsed on 20 July, the British siege works were now close enough to risk a direct assault and allowed the undermining of some bastions, Keppel offered terms for surrendering the fortress, the proud Spanish commander refused and a week later, a mine exploded under the right bastion of the Morro and in the night of 31 July, the British rushed into the breach and finally took the fortress. Keppel now controlled the eastern shore, with the guns on the Moro overlooking the city and batteries placed up to La Cabana Hill and still the city refused to surrender. On 11 August, the bombardment began, the guns of La Punta, the last fort on the eastern shore, were silenced and the British soldiers, marines and seamen were about to storm the city. Juan de Prado finally gave up. The Spanish garrison was allowed to abandon Havana with all military honours, keeping their arms and flags.

Joshua Reynolds (1732 - 1792): "General William Keppel, Storming the Morro Castle" (around 1770)

feared tropical diseases caught up with the British, though. Until October 1762, “Yellow Jack” got 5,000 of Keppel’s men and Pocock’s sailors, along with the 3,000 killed in action about one third of the force sent to take Havana was lost. By then, Manila had fallen as well and the good people of Havana, allowed to keep their Catholic faith actually began to prosper under their new British masters, especially since the trade restrictions of all Spanish colonies in regards to engaging in business with heretic foreigners were over and done with. At least until the end of the Seven Years’ War and the Peace of Paris in 1763. Both Manila and Havana were returned to Spain, for a considerable compensation and the shock of having lost quite bit of status as top rate overseas empire and one fourth of its high seas fleet during the capture of the city. Somehow Admiral Don Gutierre de Hevia y Valdés had neglected to burn the nine ships of the line when Prado surrendered the place. Both grandees were court martialled, stripped of their rank and sentenced to ten years of fortress detention. Spain got off quite lightly, though. Florida remained in British hands, Minorca was ceded and that was that. France, however, was ruined, having lost almost all of her vast American and East Indian possessions while the state of Louis XV’s national finances was, in a nutshell, a disaster. The stepping stone of the revolution his son had to face some 25 years later, but not without squandering what was left during France’s intervention in the coming American War, basically to reclaim the losses of the Seven Years’ War. Not to mention the cost of about a million lives, both military and civilian, from all warring powers. On the other hand, Havana, along with the rest of Cuba and Puerto Rico, became the place that would see the eclipse of Spanish colonialism in the Americas in 1898, despite being British for some eleven months.

Dominic Serres: "The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762" (1775)

And more about the Battle of Havana on:


Friday, 5 August 2016

"Prince Eugene, the Noble Knight" - The Battle of Petrovaradin in 1716

5 August 1716, during the Austro-Turkish War of 1716-1718, the Austrian military genius Prince Eugene of Savoy decisively defeated an outnumbering Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha at the Battle of Petrovaradin.

“The Prince exposed himself to a great extent … and was in the greatest of dangers to get sabred or captured by the Turks” (Anonymous Austrian participant of the Battle of Petrovaradin, 1716)

Jacob van Schuppen (1670 - 1751):
"Prince Eugene during the Austro-Turkish War."
(around 1720)

Palatine Elisabeth Charlotte, Liselotte von der Pfalz, was usually quite spot-on in her assessment of her fellow players at the court of the Sun King. In her own, inimitable down-to-earth manner, full of heart-warming common sense. Once she was rather mistaken, though. An “uncleanly and very debauched boy”, she wrote about the third youngest of Olympia Mancini, Countess Soissons’ eight children. The neglected, wraithlike, smallish son of Louis XIV’s poisonous mistress would never get anywhere, the worldly-wise princess concluded. The Sun King intended the lad for a career in the Church, but the very debauched boy wanted to play soldier, walked out on him and turned to Louis’ rival, the Holy Roman Emperor, and promptly ended up in the Siege of Vienna of 1683. It was the beginning of Prince Eugene of Savoy’s career as, according to Napoleon himself, one of the seven greatest commanders in history. At the same time, the epic siege of the capital at the gates of Western Europe marks the beginning of the end of Ottoman supremacy on the Balkans and in Hungary, not least because of Prince Eugene’s brilliance. The Great Turkish War would drag on until the end of the 17th century, protracted by the Sun King’s invasion of the Rhineland and the Palatine, the Nine Years’ War in the west of the Holy Roman Empire, but ended with Prince Eugene’s decisive victory over Sultan Mustafa II at the Battle of Zenta in 1697 and the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz. It was Zenta that established the House of Habsburg as the dominant power on the Balkans and the treaty marked the first time peace terms were dictated to an Ottoman sultan by Western powers. And while Prince Eugene distinguished himself in the War of the Spanish Succession, teamed up with Marlborough at Blenheim, Oudenarde and Malplaquet and Louis XIV might have rued the day more than once when he drove the debauched boy into the arms of the Habsburgs, the Sublime Porte plotted revenge for Vienna, Zenta and Karlowitz. In 1715 then, with the Austrians still exhausted after the Peace of Utrecht and the efforts of the 18th century’s first global war, the Ottomans struck out against one of the beneficiaries of Karlowitz, the Republic of Venice and their territories in Greece. It took a papal guarantee for Austrian territories in Italy and lots of diplomatic persuasion to goad Emperor Charles VI to take a clear position against the Ottomans. The High Porte reacted with a declaration of War and mustered an army 150,000 strong at Belgrade. Emperor Charles sent Prince Eugene.

Franz Wacik (1883  - 1938): "Prince Eugene at the Battle of Vienna, 1683", illustration from Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Prince Eugene, His Life in Pictures", 1913

the fortress of Petrovaradin, was known as the Gibraltar of the Danube for a while. During the Great Turkish War, Habsburg wasn’t able to reach out as far down the river as Belgrade, since the late Middle Ages the key fortification on the great river beyond the Great Hungarian Plain. The need for a bridgehead drove the Austrians to extend the works they captured from the Turks in 1687 some 60 miles up the river. They did build a state-of-the-art complex that held out against a first siege in ’94, became the key position of Habsburg’s Military Frontier and the first target of the Ottoman advance up the river. Silahdar Damat Ali Pasha, Grand Vizier and commander of the Turkish army who had taken the Morea, the Peloponnese, from the Venetians during the previous year, arrived on 2 August 1716 before Peterwardein, skirmished with Austrian cavalry, ordered his troops to dig in and lay siege to the fortress. It might have been up to 200,000 men, women and children in the siege lines and Silahdar Ali Pasha’s camp. At least half of them made up the customarily immense Ottoman baggage train, the rest were fighting troops. Field Marshal Prince Eugene arrived with the main body of his army, about 80,000 men, a day later on the left shore of the Danube, crossed the river on a bridge of boats, a breakneck manoeuvre in the middle of the night, and on the next morning at 7 am sharp, with a short prayer, “Mon Dieu!”, eyes raised to heaven for a blink, a curt nod and ”Avancez!“, the Battle of Petrovaradin began. The Ottoman right flank was rolled up immediately, Silahdar Ali Pasha’s Janissaries put up a stiff resistance in the centre, counter-charged, drove the Austrians, Eugene committed his reserves, the Austrian centre held, Eugene seemed to be everywhere at once, always in the thick of it, a timely cavalry charge into the Ottoman flank closed the sack, the battle was won and the slaughter began. The Grand Vizier stood to the last, holding the green banner of the Prophet, an Austrian bullet struck him in the head, the 50,000 survivors of his army took his body back to Belgrade where he was buried. His tomb can be seen to this day. His pompous tent, captured with the rest of his baggage train, is exhibited at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, the Museum of Military History in Vienna.

Franz Wacik: "Eugene's Last Days and the Lion of Belvedere" (1913)

a day and age when European warfare often resembled a kind of brutal minuet, with ritualised marching and countermarching to protect supply lines and achieve strategic goals and bit of distrust against new-fangled weapons like flintlock muskets and bayonets, few commanders really manoeuvred and fought for decisive actions on the battlefields. Prince Eugene stands out as a tactical and logistic genius who, more often than not, personally risked life and limb. He was wounded nine times in battle and during sieges and maybe his personal commitment won him Petrovaradin. It certainly did at Belgrade, a year later, his arguably greatest victory against impossible odds and circumstances. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who personally met his great model in his youth, called Prince Eugene the actual Emperor of Austria and well into the 1720s, he was at least one of the most influential men at the court of Vienna and in the whole of Europe. Along with being one of the richest men on the continent. Other than his Habsburg masters, Eugene of Savoy knew quite well how to be economical. Neither was he above feathering his own nest with the spoils of war and war bonds. And it was quite a nest he built for himself, several palaces in Vienna, a large library, today known as the Eugeniana, the core part of the Austrian National Library, adorned with works of art collected from all across Europe and beyond. He remained a “Mars without Venus” though, as a ditty sung in the side streets and the new coffee houses of Vienna had it. Whether Eugene was homosexual, asexual or simply shy in regards to personal relationships never became quite clear, but he wouldn’t be a Viennese hero without a proper neurosis or three. It seems, however, that he never recovered emotionally from his loveless childhood and lived a loveless life, a fate he shares with his admirer, the other of the two greatest commanders of the 18th century, Frederick the Great. However, there is a legend, handed down by the Austrian Knight of the Neurosis Hugo von Hofmannsthal, that Prince Eugene was at least bewept by the lion he kept in his menagerie in the park of his summer residence, the Belvedere. He, the toothless lion who was driven out to war for the third Habsburg emperor he served in his seventieth year and finally made a mess of it, wasn’t seen by his beloved pet for three days. Eugene lay dying, his lion refused to eat, and then, in the night of 21 April 1736, the lion began to roar, about 3 o’clock in the morning. The animal keeper who went out to ensure that everything was in order, saw, all of a sudden, the lights coming on in every room of the palace and heard the death knell ring. “And so he knew”, Hofmannsthal says, “that his master, the great Prince Eugene, had died within this hour.”

And more about the Battle of Petrovaradin on:


Wednesday, 3 August 2016

“Try to be civil, Marlow“ - On Joseph Conrad

3 August 1924, the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad died aged 66 in Bishopsbourne, England.

“Efficiency of a practically flawless kind may be reached naturally in the struggle for bread. But there is something beyond — a higher point, a subtle and unmistakable touch of love and pride beyond mere skill; almost an inspiration which gives to all work that finish which is almost art — which is art.“ (Joseph Conrad)

Sir William Rothenstein (1872 - 1945) "Portrait of Joseph Conrad" (1903)

There is a white man’s grave in Yambuya on the upper reaches of the Aruwimi, a tributary of the Congo River. Yambuya once served as the base for Morton Stanley’s relief expedition to bring back the German-born condottiero Emin Pasha, one of Gordon of Khartoum’s paladins, governor of Egypt’s Equatoria province, besieged by Mahdists. The white man’s name was Major Edmund Barttelot, commander of Stanley’s rear column, and even the Bula Matari Stanley, an infamous martinet himself, called him a disgrace for treating native porters and workers quite beastly. Besides completely messing up Stanley’s base camp because the man obviously was unable to organise more than having people beaten and tortured to death by the dozen. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, in the hell of King Leopold II’s so called Congo Free State, but Barttelot was shot dead by the husband of a woman he had tyrannised, in July 1888. Two years later, a Polish-born captain of a riverboat steaming up the Lualaba towards the Belgian government station at Kisangani below the Stanley Falls had heard the tale of a bad man gone to worse in the heart of Africa and it might be that the sea- and river-faring aspiring author had heard the enthralling voice of Mr Kurtz for the first time. Nine years later, the author had combined the madness of Barttelot with the cruelty of another one of King Leopold’s worthies at Stanley Falls, Léon Rom, who decorated his flower beds with severed heads, adding a layer of the merchant empire the Zanzibari slave and ivory trader Tippu Tip had established in the region, and the popularity of the Bula Matari himself, the “breaker of stones” Henry Morton Stanley. But beyond taking the mendacity of King Leopold and his minions’ allegedly humanitarian and civilising mission in the Congo ad absurdum, Mr Kurtz had received the superstructure of a Nietzschean Übermensch, the psychological abyss of Dostoevsky’s outré protagonists and Captain Ahab’s hubris. And founders at the Heart of Darkness, the distorting mirror Africa had become for Europe’s cloud-cuckoo-land at the end of the long 19th century The only remedy against things falling apart, the centre that might hold, were the seamannish virtues of the tale’s narrator, idealised by its author, Joseph Conrad, but he always was a novelist who went to sea instead of a seaman who became an author.

Few, if any of Poland’s poets and authors, revered at home, are known beyond their motherland’s borders. Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, of “Quo Vadis” fame, was an exception, at least for a while, making Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad, the best known of all of them in the whole wide world. And he famously wrote in English, ranking tops among the English-speaking novelists and not only of his day and age. A phenomenon, since he learned the language not before his early twenties when he decided to join the British Merchant Navy. However, many of his tales might look like tarry, rough handed sailors at first acquaintance, but they soon take on the guise of Marlow, Conrad’s alter-ego and oftimes narrator, sitting on deck of the Nellie riding at anchor in Gravesend, spinning his yarn, with “sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards,” resembling “a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower“ or comforting aspects beyond the “bond of the sea” and British civilisation. Not of the “White Man’s Burden” type of Kipling, whom Conrad despised, but of common decency, discipline and the quiet but infrangible endurance that once was associated with the Empire. At least sometimes. And from far away. Consequently, Conrad seldom deals with the British from close up at home, only with their seafaring minority, and at heart, his motifs are deeply Polish, of peoples and individuals in their struggle for freedom and finding or preserving their identity. Even his nom de plume resounds with Adam Mickiewicz’ epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod”, a highly influential, inspiring and patriotic piece in the days when Poland had all but disappeared from the maps.

The barque "Otago", Captain Joseph Conrad's command in 1888/89 and the cover image of Conrad's "Mirror of the Sea" (1906)

experience, things he had seen and done or had seen done while he was in foreign climes, whatever that meant for a wanderer between the worlds, trivial novels, politics of the day, from abroad, mind you, not in England, where he lived since 1894, were the sources from which Conrad drew the ideas of his tales, or rather prose poems. Again, at first glance his narrative is straightforward like a naval log until the reader realises he has been drowned in sea of imagery, nautical and otherwise, while being held in thrall by Conrad’s narrators and their perceptions and their single-minded insights. His psychological depths have been compared to Dostoevsky’s, Conrad despised him even more than Kipling, mostly for being Russian and an advocate for Russian imperialism, Pole that he was. And for indulging himself in the abyss of the human soul that is seen and heard in Conrad’s work but never voiced in single arias with all highs and lows, standing out from the choir of highly polyphonic arrangements, like Dostoevsky’s. It’s a horror, and that’s that. With a surprisingly simple remedy: “Try to be civil, Marlow“, despite the tragédie humaine Conrad usually narrates. And while his matchless prose with all its Gallicisms, Polonisms and artificially wonderful word and grammar structures and creations no native speaker could come up with remains unrivalled, his influence, at the very least through his rich images, is felt to this day, in novels, movies and even computer games and a journey up a river is never the same after reading Conrad, whether the stretch of water flows up into a foreign country or down into one’s own Heart of Darkness.

And more about Joseph Conrad on:


Monday, 1 August 2016

"Away with the Fairies" - The Victorian Painter Richard Dadd

1 August 1817, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd, noted for his highly detailed scenes of fairy paintings and spending most of his life in psychiatric hospitals, was born in Chatham, Kent.

“He's a fairy feller
The fairy folk have gathered round the new moon shine
To see the feller crack a nut at nights noon time
To swing his ace he swears, as it climbs he dares
To deliver...
The master-stroke“ (Queen, “The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke“, 1974)

Richard Dadd: "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" (1855-1864)

is a dragonfly in the upper left playing the trumpet, just as if it had walked in from a Hieronymus Bosch painting after sounding the fanfare for an apocalypse there. The rest is quite Shakespearian in a Midsummer Night’s dreamscapish way. Oberon and Titania are there, the royal fairy couple watching the drama of getting the coachwork for rival royalty’s vehicle prepared, Queen Mab’s, the fairy midwife, of “and she comes / In shape no bigger than an agate-stone / On the fore-finger of an alderman“-fame. And since the old hazelnut that was her chariot apparently had its day, a new chariot is on the stocks and a fairy feller is about to strike his master-stroke, cutting a hazelnut exactly in two halves. A feat that draws all kinds of English otherworldy denizens, some in Elizabethan garb and period beards, some dressed-up in last season’s dandy attire, two voluptuous maids with legs like Soviet shot-putters and a satyr-like creature peeking under their skirts. Good Queen Mab is present herself, of course, looking a bit oversized for a chariot made from the shell of a hazelnut and casting a cold glance at Titania’s stern post instead of the faery feller’s feat. The elfin woodsman is posed to strike, waiting for the word of the Patriarch wearing his triple crown that grows vegetational extensions with Mab’s conveyance riding on it, “Drawn with a team of little atomies / Athwart men's noses as they lie asleep; / Her wagon-spokes made of long spiders' legs, / The cover of the wings of grasshoppers, / The traces of the smallest spider's web, / The collars of the moonshine's watery beams, / Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film, / Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat“. And up in the right-hand corner are the seven figures from the children’s counting rhyme that foretells boys their future trade and girls their prospective husbands’, soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy, apothecary, thief, dressed up in the fashion of the artist’s own childhood in the 1820s. In regards to possible future trades, the rhyme leaves out “artist” as well as “schizophrenic patricide”, but that was the painter’s fate. When Richard Dadd had almost finished his own opus magnum, “The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke” in 1864 after nine years of meticulously painting enchanted details quite apart from contemporary art trends and styles, he was about to be transferred from the criminal department of Bethlem Royal Hospital, Bedlam, where he was kept since 1843, to Broadmoore Hospital in Berkshire for the rest of his life.

Richard Dadd: "Titania Sleeping" (1841)

, Spenser, Shakespeare, the Romantic Movement had not only resurrected and firmly established the Victorian appreciation of the giants of English 16th and 17th century’s literature but put their fairy worlds into the limelight of popular taste. William Blake and Henry Fuseli were artistic forerunners before the industrial revolution began in earnest and the demand for staged as well as painted counter-drafts, otherworlds, grew into a market catered by the Georgian and early Victorian pop artists like William Etty, John Martin and even Edwin Landseer when he didn’t do dogs, horses, and the Highlands and so did the famous satirist George Cruikshank. Not that the sujet was completely trivialised, though, Turner, a true-blue Romantic, painted fairyscapes and the Pre-Raphaelites took to it like the lads to strong drink on stag night. But most of the illustrated fairy tales where just that and wouldn’t look odd gracing biscuit tins or chocolate boxes. Many did. When he was a promising young artist and one of the youngest members of the Royal Academy, Richard Dadd had already created a few fairy paintings à la mode, remarkable only to connoisseurs of the genre, but back then good enough to get him hired as draughtsman for the politician and entrepreneur Sir Thomas Phillips’ expedition to the eastern Mediterranean world by recommendation of the Scottish painter David Roberts, who certainly was an authority on depictions of scenes out east from the life. Greece, the Near East and Egypt did things to young Richard, however. Not that he didn’t do the job he was hired for. He actually drew some rather remarkable scenes of picturesque sights seen en route, but all of a sudden, he began to let Sir Thomas’ entourage know that he was illuminated and influenced by Osiris, no less. Sunstroke was the diagnosis and he was sent home to recuperate. Unfortunately, Dadd’s disease picture was far worse than the effects of going out in the midday sun in tropical climes.

Richard Dadd working on Contradiction: Oberon and Titania (1854/1858)

According to his contemporaries, Richard loved his father dearly and the old man, a chemist by profession, accompanied his son to Cobham, hoping that the very un-Osirian surroundings would cure him from his delusions. One fine August evening in 1843, while they walked in Cobham Park, Richard, all of a sudden, drew a knife and stabbed his father to death. He believed, as he later confessed, that he was the devil in disguise. It obviously wasn’t a spontaneous act, since Dadd already had his things together and managed to escape to France. He was finally caught when he tried to slash a fellow passenger in a coach with a razor. Under the influence of demons, as he later confessed, when he was sent back to England, tried as a patricide and found to be a criminal lunatic to be locked away for life in Bedlam. Later, he confessed he had wanted to kill the pope as well when he saw him on St Peter’s Square back in ’42 en route back home to England, but found him too well guarded for an attempt and a tourist in the Vatican Museum escaped a grisly fate as well, probably while staring at some painting depicting a Freudian primal scene. The corridors were quite well monitored even back then. Dadd’s sunstroke might have been a form of paranoid schizophrenia, not that the symptoms were recognised as such, at least not before Bénédict Morel described “démence précoce“ in 1860. However, Dadd was allowed to paint in Bedlam and later in Broadmoore. More than 60 drawings, watercolours and oil paintings came about during his more than 40 years in closed institutions, one of his doctors, William Charles Hood, collected them, since they did have a considerable artistic value, they were even sold the outside world. All of his works are highly detailed, at least in their depictions of floral elements, to a degree of pedantry, while Dadd’s human and fairy figures are usually slightly distorted and wear either outdated or historical costumes, as one cut off from the outside world might remember them, along with a typical fixed stare and tons of detail for psychological interpretation. Even if the artist himself wrote "You can afford to let this go /For nought as nothing it explains / And nothing from nothing nothing gains" in his epic-length doggerel “Elimination of a Picture & its Subject—called The Fellers' Master Stroke” accompanying his own master-stroke. He died in 1886, aged 68, “from an extensive disease of the lungs". His legacy as an artist, some of it still at display in Broadmoore Hospital, remained an insider’s tip for lovers of fairies and fairy tales, especially those with a Gothic nuance, ever since. From Octavio Paz and Angela Carter to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and Freddy Mercury.

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