Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Charles Cros, poet-inventor-visionary

                                                                 Image: victorugo.blogspot.com

In 1877, Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, self-publicist and notorious elephant assassin (1) invented a sound reproduction audio contraption called the phonograph. 

Or did he? Was it perhaps - as some claim - the poet, inventor, surrealist and visionary Charles Hortensius Emile Cros that gave the world this new invention in sound recreation?

                                             Image: L'Independent (France)

Charles Cros was born 1st October 1844. A precocious boy, at the age of 16 he was teaching Hebrew and Sanscrit, and two years later was a Professor of Chemistry. 

His imagination and genius for invention was unstoppable. At the Universal Exhibition of 1867 he presented his automatic telegraph system. He proposed a solution to the problem of processing photographs in colour. And on 30 April 1877 he delivered to the French Academy of Sciences a sealed envelope containing a document describing a procedure for the ‘registering and reproduction of phenomena perceived by the ear’. He gave his invention the poetic name of Paleophone - Voice of the Past.

                                   Image: jeanpaul.legrand.free.fr

Poetry, indeed, was in his soul. He was friends with Paul Verlaine, and with Arthur Rimbaud, who Verlaine once shot with a revolver in a moment of drunkenness. He rubbed shoulders with Manet, Renoir and Sarah Bernhardt. And in one of his surreal and visionary moments, he became convinced of the existence of large cities on Mars and Venus, and tried to persuade the French government to construct a parabolic mirror in order to communication with our extra-terrestrial brothers and sisters.

                                                                     Image: Verlaine & Rimbaud
Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud seated on left (1872)

But it was his Paleophone that most preoccupied him. He tried to find financial backers, but without success. On 10 October 1877, an article in a publication La Semaine du clergé renamed the invention 'the Phonograph'. But rumours were circulating that the famous Edison was also developing a system for recording sounds. Did he see the article in La Semaine du clergé? That modern-day Repository of All Human Knowledge, Wikipedia, says not. But Charles was taking no chances.

He rushed to the Academy of Sciences and requested that they open at once the sealed envelope in order to make public his indisputable claim to the invention. The envelope was duly opened on 8 December. But sadly it was two days too late, for the great Thomas had already given the first public demonstration of the recording of a human voice. Then on 17 December Edison registered his patent.

                                                                          Image: Timbre France

In the years that followed Charles became more emerged in his poetry. He gave public readings of his poems, and many decades after his death in 1888, one of his verses, Sidonie a plus d’un amant, was recorded by screen icon and tireless campaigner for animal rights (elephants included) Brigitte Bardot.

                                                                                            Image: 45cat

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The First Impressionist Exhibition - Monet and his gang go solo...

Impression: Soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise)
by Claude Monet

Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, all universally regarded as among the greatest artists of the Nineteenth Century, or of any century. But in 1873 things were very different.

The bourgeois press shunned them as amateurs without talent. Classical painters treated them with disdain. All venues at which they could display their work were closed to them, with one sole exception, the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition for Rejects). Then that closed down! They were in desperate straits. There was only one option left if they wanted their work to be seen. They’d have to go solo and organize an exhibition themselves.

La Danseuse (The Dancer)
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Monet was nominated their leader and they set up their Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors & Engravers. For the exhibition location, they hired the photographer Nadar’s defunct studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. They selected the paintings to be exhibited, and arranged them on the walls. But while printing the exhibition catalogue a problem arose over what to call one of the Monet’s works.

The work in question was the now famous painting of the sun rising as seen from a room in the artist’s house in Le Havre. Monet proved unhelpful in providing a title. “It’s… the thing”, he replied vaguely. Edmond Renoir, the son of Auguste, pressed him to be more explicit. “All right... call it…. I don't know... call it... Impression”, said Monet, to which someone added Sunrise. And so the work became Impression: Sunrise (Impression: Soleil levant).

La Maison du pendu
by Paul 

The exhibition doors opened at 10 a.m. on 15 April 1874. A total of 165 paintings were exhibited, among them Monet’s Impression: Soleil levant. Several days later the journalist Louis Leroy wrote an article on the exhibition which he entitled The School of the Impressionists. In the article he imagines a traditional landscape painter visiting the exhibition and seeing Monet’s painting.

“What’s this one?” wonders the landscape painter. “Let’s look in the catalogue. ‘Impression: Sunrise’. Of course, what else or could it be? That’s what I told myself, since I’m so impressed!”

In this way the word Impressionist was invented, by someone in an article taking the piss.

The exhibition was a resounding failure! Only a handful of art critics bothered to turn up, and most wrote bitter reviews, accusing Monet and his gang of having “declared war on beauty”. A mere 3,500 people visited the exhibition.

It was also a financial disaster. Renoir, heavily in debt, was forced to sell 20 paintings for just 2,251 francs, painting which today would be worth millions!

And Monet’s Impression: Soleil levant? It is on permanent display at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, and is one of the most famous paintings in modern art.

Proving that it sometimes pays to go solo!

Monday, 15 April 2013

Arthur Stace : Mr Eternity

"...I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write 'ETERNITY'. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down there and wrote it". - Arthur Stace.

Arthur Stace was a graffiti writer with a message. 

His message consisted of just one word:


Over a period of 35 years he wrote the word 500,000 times around the streets of Sydney (Australia), and if apprehended by the police would tell them he had"permission from a higher source".

                                                                  Image: darlinghursttheatre.com

His mission began on 14 November 1932 when he heard an evangelist preacher John G. Ridley telling his congregation:

"Eternity, Eternity, I wish I could sound or shout that word in the streets of Sydney. You've got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?"
Though he had no schooling and could hardly spell his own name, Stace found that not only could he spell Eternity, but that when he wrote it "it came out smoothly in beautiful copperplate print".

Soon the word was mysteriously appearing on pavements throughout Sydney. But who was the culprit? Journalists wrote columns speculating on his identity? Several people claimed they were the author. But he remained an enigma.

Then, on a day in 1956, more than 20 years later, his cover was finally blown when Reverend Lisle M. Thompson, a preacher at the baptist church at which Stace was a cleaner, saw him writing his now famous word on a pavement.
"Are you Mr Eternity?" he asked Stace.
"Guilty, Your Honour", came the reply.

Arthur Stace died on 30 July 1967 at the age of 83. After much haggling within Sydney City Council, a commemorative plaque in wrought aluminium of the copperplate message was placed on public display. And the word was chosen to light up Sydney Harbour Bridge at the start of the new Millennium.

Image: darlinghursttheatre.com

More on Mr Eternity at mreternity.com.

Friday, 12 April 2013

La Goulue (the Glutton) swings 'le French cancan'....

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Poster advertising La Goulue and the Moulin Rouge.

1893, and Louise Joséphine Weber, known as La Goulue (the Glutton) is the unquestioned star of the new dance sensation - le French cancan.

They come from across Europe to watch her raise her petticoats and go through her dazzling display of high kicks, cartwheels, vertical one-legged turns and flying splits.

She's a sensation!  So much so that when Joseph Oller, owner of the Moulin-Rouge cabaret club, needs a star attraction to inaugurate his new theatre on Boulevard des Capucines, there's only one kid in town - La Goulue and her chorus line of hot dancers!

La Goulue circa 1890 by an unknown photographer.

The opening night is slated for Wednesday 12 April 1893. All of Paris is there. The reporter from Le Gaulois is frantic in his poetic enthusiasm: 'Nothing is more admirable than the seats in the stalls, like chaises longues, in which we could easily fall asleep, if there weren't so many wonderful things to look at".

The programme includes a ventriloquist, performing dogs, acrobats, and female dancer called Bob. 

But the only star is La Goulue! And she is unstopable!  She whirls her lace petticoats revealing her underwear, kittenishly embroidered with a heart. In a high kick she knocks a male dancer's hat off, to wild applause from the spectators. And among the spectators, cabaret singer and actress Yvette Guilbert, is in raptures over her 'adorable, agile, spiritual' legs. 

The night is a triumph! Soon everyone wants to know her! She sleeps with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. She is painted by Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir. She is seen walking a goat in Paris! She breaks men's hearts, and is not indifferent to women. Rumours circulate of an affair with a girl dancer known as La Môme Fromage (The Cheese Kid), but La Goulue denies being gay.

La Goulue et La Môme Fromage (1892)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 

Then two years after her success La Goulue leaves the Moulin-Rouge, thinking to make more money performing at fairground stalls. Gradually she fades from the public eye. She becomes a lion tamer, marries a conjuror, and returns to the stage as an actress. And in 1929 she dies.

La Goulue Fairground Stall (1895)

Saturday, 6 April 2013

La Reine Margot (Marguerite de Valois) and the death of her teenage gigolo lover.

La Reine Marguerite de Valois
by Pieter Paul Rubens

"Love works in miracles every day: such as weakening the strong, and stretching the weak; making fools of the wise, and wise men of fools; favouring the passions, destroying reason, and in a word, turning everything topsy-turvy". - Marguerite de Valois.

"To see the court without Marguerite de Valois, is to see neither France nor the court". - An Italian scholar in La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas. 

"She was so hot you could cook an egg on her!" - Free translation from Brantôme, Agrippa d'Aubigné.

It may not be apparent from the portrait by Rubens, but in her younger days Marguerite de Valois, the first wife of King Henry IV, was famed for her beauty and for her sexual exploits, having seduced many of France's aristocrats, including, it was claimed, the Duke de Guise, assassinated in 1588.

Assassination of the Duke de Guise
by an unknown artist.

Marguerite had three passions in life - love poems, young men and sex. Some believe that her adventures were the inspiration for Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost, and she is the heroine of Alexandre Dumas's novel La Reine Margot.

After her marriage to Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV of France, was annulled, and following a long exile, she was finally permitted to return to Paris. Here she had a succession of young lovers, in April 1606 the most recent being Gabriel Dat de Saint-Julien. Marguerite was 52 years old at the time, her lover an 18 year old teenager.

Marais-Hôtel-de-Sens, in 1606 the Paris residence
of Margaret of Valois.

One day, 5 April 1606, Marguerite was returning to her residence at Hôtel de Sens, and was about to step out of her carriage when her young lover appeared and gallantly offered his assistance. But before she could react, her previous teenage lover, the Count de Vermont, now 20 years old, rushed forward, gun in hand, and put a bullet in the head of the unfortunate Gabriel.

The count took to his heels but was quickly apprehended and confessed that he was jealous of the younger man! But Marguerite was unimpressed. "Kill him, the miserable wretch! Here, take my garters! Strangle the life out of him!" she screamed.

The count was thrown into a dungeon, and three days later was executed by having his head removed at the scene of his passionate crime, and then put on display for public view.

"Tears may be dried up, but the heart - never!" - Marguerite de Valois.

Poster of La Reine Margot film (1954).
Based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas
with Jeanne Moreau in the title role.

The novel was also adapted for film in 1910 and in 1994 with Isabella Adjani as Marguerite.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Juan Ponce de Leon and the Quest for the Fountain of Youth

Agueybana (The Great Sun) greets Juan Ponce de Leon
at his arrival in Puerto Rico.
Painting by Agustin Anavitate.

On 2 April 1513, after several days of sailing, three small vessels under the command of Juan Ponce de Leon, reach sight of land. Have they found at last the island they are looking for? The mysterious world is which is hidden the Fountain of Youth? They can almost taste its waters! 

Juan was 39 years old at the time, a respectable age for the period in which he lived. He had fought Arabs in Granada, and then, like many soldiers, had cast his eye on the New World, recently rediscovered by Christopher Columbus. 

So, along with 200 other Spanish gentlemen adventurers, he accompanies Columbus on his second expedition, plays his part in exterminating the natives, and is rewarded with an appointment as a provincial governor. 

Like any conquistador worthy of the name, Juan consolidates his power and wealth in the islands around Hispaniola. Then he falls foul of one Diego Columbus, a son of the illustrious Christopher, sent to replace him as governor. The feud continues until the King of Spain authorises Juan to launch an expedition in search of the island called Bimini and its mythical Fountain of Youth. If he finds it he can claim the territory for the Spanish crown and become its first governor, beyond the jurisdiction of the hated Diego.

He sets sail with his three vessels on 12 March 1513 and follows a north-westerly course past the Bahamas. By 27 March they are in uncharted waters, and six days later a sailor sights land. Is it the famous island of Bimini? Have they found the elixir of life? Will women throw themselves at his feet for the secret he has discovered? Alas, he is disappointed. For what they discover is not Bimini, but a wilderness which he baptises La Florida - “flowery land”. 

He goes on to explore the land. But there is no Fountain of Youth! Unfortunately for Juan, he is too early. Right place - wrong time! 

If only he could have waited another 500 years! Then he would have found the Florida we know today, the land with the highest concentration of old people anywhere in the world, and with a true Fountain of Youth, only now called Cosmetic Surgery!