Thursday, 29 December 2011

Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) - the Bauhaus Stairway and the Dessau Bauhaus

Bauhaus Stairway by Oskar Schlemmer (1932)

German born artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer is best known for his Triadic Ballet, in which the performers are transformed into geometric shapes. The work had its first performance in Stuttgart in 1922 and became the most frequently performed avant garde dance show of the time. 

The ballet was created at the Bauhaus, the influential school of art, architecture and design, which began its life in Weimar in 1919, before moving to Dessau, where it remained until 1932, and then dismantled shortly after. During this period it had been under attack from the far-right for its robotic and supposedly Marxist images. 

Schlemmer's painting Bauhaus Stairway is seen as his farewell to the Bauhaus. It depicts an ordinary day in the last year of Bauhaus in its modern Dessau building. In the picture we see the students walking up the stairs, away from us. Except, that is, for one figure, walking towards us, a symbol of hope, in sharp contrast to the stark realism in another depiction of the same event in the same year, Iwao Yamawaki's The End of Dessau Bauhaus, with its overarching brutality.

The End of Dessau Bauhaus by Iwao Yamawaki (1932)

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thomas Nast : Good old Mr Santa Claus!

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

So, it's that time of year again - Christmas! The supermarkets are serenading their shoppers with Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade, and John and Yoko's Merry Christmas (War is Over); the chirpy carol singers are out in the shopping centres with their joy and their bonhomie - except, that is, in the English town of Hemel Hempstead, where they've been banned for health and safety reasons (is it to protect them from us or us from them?); and the jolly Santas are filling their grottos with the sound of their merry, Yuletide laughter - though not the one that recently attacked his employer brandishing a knife.

The cult of Father Christmas most likely owes its origins t0 Dutch folklore and the figure Sinterklaas, anglicised into Santa Claus, and refined into his modern image by German-born American political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902). It was Nash that gave Santa his red coat and his chubby profile, and also, in the many illustrations that Nast did for the magazine Harper's Weekly, his opium pipe (?), which was the fashion at the time. (His contemporary, Sherlock Holmes, also liked to dabble in the opium dens of old London town, much to the disapproval of his fuddy-duddy associate and chronicler, Dr Watson.)

Thomas Nast cartoon
Nast was a friend of Mark Twain and shared his political views with him. He was an advocate for the abolition of slavery and an end to segregation. He was a supporter of the Republican Party until the 1884 presidential election when he switched his allegiance to the Democratic Party, and became a mugwump in the process (ooh, nasty!). But these things are insignificant compared with his iconic Santa Claus, without which our Christmases would have no more significance than getting drunk and behaving badly at the office party. 

Good old Santa!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Who was Moliere?

We're used to the controversial and sometimes provocative assertions that William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays that bear his name, so it's perhaps not surprising that there should be similar arguments d'outre Manche about France's own literary and theatrical hero, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière.

It all began in 1919 when French poet Pierre Louÿs became intrigued by what he percieved as the stylistic disparities in some of Molière's plays. He published a series of articles on the subject, before deciding that the great comedies (Tartuffe; Don Juan; The Misanthrope; The Miser) were not from the pen of Molière but were the work of Pierre Corneille, tragedian and author of El Cid.

He went further and compared the chronology of the two men and discovered that their paths had crossed on more than one occasion, leading him to affirm that 'Corneille dominated Molière's entire life'. He then posed the same predicable and indispensable questions about Molière that we hear about Shakespeare : Why did he leave no trace of his handwriting? Why have none of his letters to his family or to his friends survived? And Louÿs also wanted to know why, in 1644, did he adopt the pseudonym of Molière after a stay of six months at Rouen, the very place in which Corneille was living?

Fast forward to December 2001 and the publication of an article in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics by one Dominique Labbé, in which he compared sixteen plays of Molière and two comedies of Corneille using a statistical tool known as 'intertextual distance' which measures the overall difference in vocabulary in two texts in order to determine the relative difference in the occurrence of words. The lower the numbers are the more likely that they are the work of the same author. He concluded that the lexical difference in the plays was sufficient close to zero to prove that they came from the same hand, namely that of Corneille. He followed it all up in a book entitled Corneille in the Shadow of Molière.

Needless to say, Labbé's book upset many scholars. They pointed out that many playwright of the 17th century used similar vocabulary registers, and that in any case there are syntax and rhythm differences between the works of Corneille and Molière. Also the subject matter of their plays differed widely, Molière influenced by Italian farce, Corneille with heroic figures of tragedy and tragicomedy. And Corneille also went to great lengths to ensure intellectual copyright of his works.

As with Shakespeare, there may also be an element of snobbery involved. Both playwrights were provincial, both followed the lowly profession of actor, and both wrote bawdy comedies. Victims, perhaps, of their own uniqueness.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Viva l'Italia! (But mind your bottoms, ladies!)

Place Garibaldi, Nice.

Every nationality has its own quirks and characteristics. The Irish are famed for their songs and their storytelling; the French for their individuality (it is the reason there are so many political parties in France); Americans for their work ethic; Germans for their lack of humour (a little unfairly that one); and the British for their stiff upper lip and their understatement. (There is the story of the jet airliner crashing headlong into the sea from 30,000 feet, passengers screaming and praying, and the Englishman looks out of the window as one of the engines falls off and says: “The captain seems to be having a spot of bother”.) And there’s the Italians….

Italians are famed for their passionate and excitable natures (naturally!), and also for having the dubious distinction of being the goosing champions of western Europe, inspired perhaps by their recent prime-goosing minister Signor Berlusconi. If the European Union were to ever appoint a Minister of Sex, no contest, il Berlusconi is the one.

Italians are also a naturally expressive people. You can see it in their language which is so accentuated that you have really to open your mouth wide when you speak it. For this reason Italians speak with LOUD voices, so it follows they should be expansive too in their gestures when they speak. Mussolini, for instance. You may not have agreed with his politics, but he knew how to wave his arms around.

It must be the Latin temperament and the hot sun that makes them so effusive. On a busy street in Rome I once saw a motorcycle carabiniero come tearing along at 50 miles an hour, then suddenly turn his machine 90 degrees and come screeching to a halt in front of the oncoming traffic from the direction he’d just been travelling. No sooner had he stopped than he was off his bike and bringing the traffic to a complete stop. You can bet your life they don’t do that in Reykjavik.

I really like Italians. Ask them a question and they reply with a monologue that’s rambling and impossible to understand, but at least it’s not a grunt or a grumble, or worse, the discouraging word. There used to be a song about it - ‘Where never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day”. In the Nineteenth century they left Europe in their millions, not to escape the pogroms or the famines or the poverty, it was the discouraging word these huddled masses were fleeing from. Italy isn‘t completely free of it, of course, no-where is, it’s still there, along with its co-conspirators in low-mindedness: the half-baked look and the obsession with trivialities. But with Italians, at least, it’s not quite so institutionalised. 

I once stayed in a hotel in the musicians’ quarter of Nice, so called because the streets and squares are named after European classical composers, and was more than pleased that most of the guests staying in the hotel were Italian. Nice, in fact, is a popular holiday destination for Italians. At one time it was even an Italian city, when it was called Nizza. And one of the city’s most famous sons is Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy’s national hero, who was born there on 4 July 1807. His name is commemorated at Place Garibaldi.  

So Viva l’Italia! But mind your bottoms, ladies!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Nineteenth Century Photographs of Promenade des Anglais, Nice

The Promenade c1865-1895 photographed by Neurdein Frères.
Source: Cornell University Library]
La Prom in 1882 looking towards Hôtel Royal.
Source: Archive départementales des Alpes Maritime]
The Promenade in 1894 photographed by Jean Gilletta.
Source: Archive départementales des Alpes Maritime]
La Prom c1865-1895 with the old pavilion.
[Source: Cornell University Library]
View east along the Promenade in 1863 in this picture by Charles Nègre. In the background is Castle Hill. The artist turned photographer retired to Nice in 1863 and died in nearby Grasse, his home town.  [Source: Archive départementales des Alpes Maritime]

Friday, 9 December 2011

Exotic Botanical Garden of Menton (Jardin botanique exotique du Val Rahmeh)

Located in the Alpes-Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of south-east France, the town of Menton (population 28,833 in 2008) began its journey to international tourist status in the nineteenth century when it was 'discovered' by wealthy English and Russian aristocrats in search of a winter destination in which to idle away their privileged lives.

It is located close to the French-Italian border and is famous, among other things, for its many gardens, among which the beautiful Jardin botanique exotique de Menton, also known as Le Val Rahmeh, after the spouse of its first owner, Sir Percy Radcliffe, in 1905.

Lord Radcliffe created the garden on several levels, and brought there a large number of exotic fruit plants, such as Kiwi, avocado and banana trees. But the botanical aspect of the garden was introduced by a later owner in the 1950s, the exotically named Miss Maybud Campbell, who also added a second garden in which she installed a pond for water lilies, water hyacinth and papyrus.

In 1966 the garden passed into public ownership (French Museum of Natural History), and is now home to over 700 species of plants and trees, among which the Sophora Toromiro, the sacred tree of Easter Island, no longer found in its indigenous terrain. And for citrus fruit fanatics there is a bizarre finger-shaped lemon for them to drool over.

You'll find it in the sun and the silence of the Avenue Saint-Jacques, 06500 Menton. And just relaxez-vous !