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Category archive: Politics

Sunday November 19 2017

I once was once briefly acquainted with a quite close relative of Robert Mugabe, and that person was truly remarkable in being utterly incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly disagree with the truth that he saw so very clearly.  This person also looked exactly - spookily - like Robert Mugabe. (It was asking about this resemblance that got me the information that he was a close relative of Mugabe.) I have never known a more deeply stubborn person, ever.  But it was not a stubbornness made merely of the desire or the determination not to change his mind.  No.  He was simply unable to change his mind.  The idea of him every having been wrong, about anything, was simply impossible for him to grasp.

If Robert Mugabe is anything like this relative of his, and everything I know about Robert Mugabe tells me that Mugabe is, in this respect, exactly like him, Mugabe may find himself sacked, imprisoned, or even executed, but he will never resign, or ever change his mind about the wisdom of anything he ever said or did.  That he has not yet resigned has, according to the Guardian headline linked to there, has “stunned” Zimbabwe.  I was not stunned.

They’ll have to force him out, like King Richard II was forced out by King Henry IV.  But if Mugabe is forced out, there will be no scenes like the closing scenes of Shakespeare’s version of Richard II, where the deposed Richard comes to see the world and its ways differently, and to understand things more deeply.  Simply, Mugabe is right, has always been right and will always be right, and if everyone else disagrees with him, it can only be that everyone else is, was, and will be, hopelesslyl wrong.  Mugabe is literally incapable of understanding matters in any other way.

Mugabe is indeed now a rather confused old man.  But his confusion concerns only how it is possible for so many people to be so completely mistaken.

Thursday November 09 2017

I have started reading Music & Monarchy, by David Starkey and Katie Greening.  What the division of labour is between these two (Starkey is in larger letters thatn Greening on the front cover) I do not know, but it certainly starts very promisingly.  I have already encountered two passages worthy of prolonged recycling here, the one that starts the book (see below), and the bit that follows, about England’s profound medieval musicality.

So, to begin where Starkey and Greening begin, here is how the introduction of this book launches itself (pages 1-2):

Music or Words? Poetry and Drama? Or Anthems, Opera and Oratorio? Which, to personalise and particularise, is the more important in British history and to the British monarchy: the anniversary of Shakespeare or the centenary of Handel? The question almost seems absurd. Nowadays there is no doubt that Shakespeare wins every time. Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays, famously described by another maker of history, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as ‘the only history I ever read’, still shapes the popular understanding of English history and its murderous dynastic rivalries; while in their nobler moments the plays (re-)invent the idea of England herself before going on to adumbrate a larger, mistier vision of Britain:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this sea of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise ...
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea ...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings ...
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land.

Who could resist that? George III (1760-1820) for one, who confided to Fanny Burney: ‘Was there ever such stuff as a great part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so!’ The eighteenth century more or less agreed with its longest reigning king. The bicentenary of Shakespeare, celebrated five years late in 1769, was a provincial pageant, which, despite the best efforts of the actor-manager David Garrick, made little impact outside the Bard’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon and, thanks to torrential rain, was literally a washout even there. On the other hand, the centenary of Handel’s birth (celebrated a year early by mistake in 1784) was a grand national event the like of which had never been seen before: not for the greatest general, politician or king, let alone for a mere musician.  Fashionable London fought (and queued) for tickets; Westminster Abbey was crammed and ladies were instructed not to wear excessive hoops in their dresses while hats were absolutely forbidden. Even then, demand was unsatisfied and two of the events had to be rerun.

Wednesday October 11 2017

So far, I have featured here three excerpts from from Ross King’s book about nineteenth century Frency art, The Judgement of Paris, about Ernest Meissonier, the Paris Salon, and Louis Napoleon.  In this excerpt (pp. 31-35), Ross King describes French government Art supremo, the Compte de Nieuwerkerke, who was in charge of the Paris Salon, among many other enterprises.  I found the picture, by Ingres, of Niewerkerke, the picture that King also places in his text, here.

King describes how the artists who were on the receiving end of Nieuwekerke’s policies reacted.  Rather surprisingly, one of them was Meissonier.  They were not happy:

Under the ancien régime, the fine arts had been the business of cardinals and kings. Since the French Revolution, the politicians had taken charge. Under Napoleon Ill, a special section of the Ministry of State known as the Ministry of the Imperial House and the Fine Arts had been given jurisdiction over artistic matters. The tasks of training young artists, organising exhibitions, commissioning works for churches and other public buildings-all became the responsibility of this Ministry, which was headquartered in the Louvre. Not the least among its duties was the administration of the Salon. To that end, each Salon year, usually in January, the Ministry published what was known as the règlement, an official set of rules and regulations stipulating the conditions under which artists submitted their works to the Salon’s jury, the composition of which was detailed in the document. The artists were informed, for example, by what date they needed to send their paintings or sculptures to the Palais des Champs-Élysées for judging, how many works they could enter into the competition, and how the Selection Committee - composed of separate juries for the different visual arts - would be formed.

The author of this important document, for the previous fourteen years, had been a suave but ruthless aristocrat named Alfred-Émilien O’Hara, the Compte de Nieuwerkerke. Occupying majestic apartments in the Louvre, where he entertained lavishly amid his collection of antique armour and Italian art, Nieuwerkerke cut an impressive dash through both the Parisian art world andthe Imperial court. Despite his Irish surname, he was a Continental blueblood who could claim descent from both the House of Orange in Holland and the House of Bourbon in France. Born in Paris in 1811, the young Émilien had begun his career in the military, training as an officer at the cavalry school in Saumur; but a six-month visit to Italy in 1834 convinced him to try his hand at sculpture. He began studying under Carlo Marochetti - an Italian who had worked on the Arc de Triomphe - and regularly exhibiting at the Salon, to no particular acclaim, works such as his bronze sculptures of Réné Descartes and Napoleon I. An urbane séducteur with a thick mane of hair, a well-groomed beard and, according to one admirer, eyes of “silky blue,” Nieuwerkerke really made his reputation when he took as his mistress Princess Mathilde, the niece of Napoleon Bonaparte and the cousin of the Emperor Napoleon III.

imageFollowing vigorous promotion by Princess Mathilde, who was the daughter of one of Napoleon’s younger brothers, Nieuwerkerke had been appointed Directeur-Général des Musées in 1849. In this capacity he was given charge of a number of museums, including the Louvre and the Luxembourg, the latter of which had been founded in 1818 in order to exhibit works by living artists. Most important from the point of view of painters and sculptors, Nieuwerkerke oversaw the Salon. He had therefore become by far the most powerful figure in the French art world.

Nieuwerkerke concerned himself, naturally enough, with upholding what he regarded as the highest artistic and moral standards. He wanted both to encourage history painting and to discourage Realism, the new movement, led by Courbet, whose followers had abandoned noble and elevated subjects in order to depict gritty scenes featuring peasants and prostitutes. “This is the painting of democrats,” sniffed the debonair Nieuwerkerke, “of men who don’t change their underwear.” In order to achieve his lofty aims for French art, he had already forced through a number of reforms, such as taking the decision in 1855 that the Salon should instead be held only biennially in order to give artists more time to complete and display paintings of the highest merit. Then in 1857 he decreed that the painting jury should no longer be made up, as previously, by painters elected by their peers. Instead, the only men eligible to serve would be members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the self-perpetuating élite of forty “immortals” whose duty it was to guide and protect French art. With these wise and venerable men acting as gatekeepers, Nieuwerkerke believed, only works of the most compelling aesthetic and moral standards would be permitted into the artistic sanctum sanctorum that was the Paris Salon.

Then in 1863 Nieuwerkerke introduced yet another reform. Whereas previously artists had been allowed to submit an unlimited number of works to the jury, the latest regulations stated that they could submit no more than three. Nieuwerkerke’s reasoning was that artists had been sending as many as eight or ten rather inferior works, in the hope of having at least one or two accepted, instead of concentrating their efforts on a true masterpiece - a large and heroic history painting, for instance - that would take its honoured place in the pantheon of French art.

Nieuwerkerke’s previous reforms had not been popular with large numbers of artists. The fact that the Salon was held only every two years meant that an artist whose offerings were rejected from one particular Salon would face, in effect, a four-year exile from the Palais des Champs-Élysées. Furthermore, many artists were displeased by the complete domination of the juries by members of the Académie, most of whom had made their reputations in the dim and distant past, usually with grand history paintings. The majority of them were only too happy to enforce Nieuwerkerke’s ideals and exclude from show “the painting of democrats.” Indeed, these judges had rejected so many artists from the 1859 Salon - Édouard Manet among them - that Nieuwerkerke’s soirées in his Louvre apartments were interrupted by mobs of painters chanting protests beneath his windows.

Not surprisingly, a large group of artists also objected to Nieuwerkerke’s change to the rules for the 1863 Salon. Ten days after the publication of the regulations, on January 25, a letter with a signed petition was sent to the Minister of State, the Comte de Walewski, who was Nieuwerkerke’s superior as well as an illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte. The letter complained that the new proviso was prejudicial to the fortunes of French artists. It argued that the Salon was intended to operate as a kind of shop window for collectors, and so exhibition in the Palais des Champs-Élysées was absolutely vital to the economic well-being of artists. Nieuwerkerke’s new regulations left them, however, with an even poorer chance of having their wares displayed. “A measure that would result in making it impossible for us to present to the public the fruit of our work,” the petition read, “would go, it seems to us, precisely against the spirit that presided over the creation of the Salon.”

This letter concluded with a hope that the Comte de Walewski would “do the right thing with a complaint which is, for us, of such a high interest.” Six sheets of paper adorned with 182 signatures were attached. Many of the most prominent and successful artists in France had added their names, including both Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, bitter professional rivals who usually disagreed on everything. Also signing the petition were a pair of accomplished landscape painters, Camille Corot and Eugene Isabey, the latter of whom had once been court painter to King Louis-Philippe. However, the signature boldly leading the charge, the one scrawled with a thick-nibbed pen at the top of the first page, was that of Ernest Meissonier.

Meissonier and Nieuwerkerke knew one another well. Meissonier had attended the soirées hosted by Princess Mathilde on Sunday evenings at her mansion in the Rue de Courcelles, and he and Nieuwerkerke shared a number of friends, such as Theophile Gautier. In r855, moreover, Nieuwerkerke had been Vice-President of the International Awards Jury when it presented Meissonier with the Grand Medal of Honour at the Universal Exposition in Paris. For these and other reasons, Nieuwerkerke might have expected Meissonier, of all people, to support his latest reform. After all, Meissonier was guaranteed a place at every Salon since he was classified as hors concours ("outside the competition"). This distinction, given only to those who had received three major awards at previous Salons, meant he was not required to submit his work to the jury for inspection. Nor was he guilty of the practice that Nieuwerkerke wished to snuff out - that of dashing off half-finished paintings and hoping that one or two of them might slip past the jury. Meissonier sought, indeed, the same high standards of morality and aesthetic purity as Nieuwerkerke: he regarded mediocre artists, he once said, as “national scourges.”

At issue for all of the petitioners, however, was the right of artists to exhibit their works to the public. And Meissonier ardently believed in this right - or, at any rate, he believed in his right to exhibit his own work in the Palais des Champs-Élysées in whatever quantities he desired. He had shown five paintings in 1861, while the Salons of 1855 and 1857 had each featured nine of his works. Under Nieuwerkerke’s new règlement. he would be allowed to show only three of his works every two years. For an artist possessing Meissonier’s large and enthusiastic following, this new regulation would make for a disappointingly slender offering to his public. He therefore dedicated the full weight and authority of his name to overturning Nieuwerkerke’s new rule. Given the prominent position of his signature, he may well have assisted with the argument and wording of the letter itself.

Whatever his involvement in the composition of the appeal to the Comte de Walewski, Meissonier soon took a much more drastic step than simply signing the petition. He let it be known that should Nieuwerkerke’s new reform not be struck down, he would personally lead a boycott of the 1863 Salon.

Friday October 06 2017

A couple of days ago, I photoed words, and I photoed the top of the Boomerang (although I would recommend scrolling down rather than following these links (a lot quicker (alas))).  But in among photoing all that, I also I photoed this ambiguous beast.  Ambiguous because originally, the beast looked a lot like this:

image

But then someone else, by adding some alternative eyes, turned the beast into this:

image

The original photo I took, from which both the above versions were cropped, looked like this:

image

You see, that’s the trouble with the Leake Street Tunnel.  Nobody owns it, other than a sort of conglomerate of politicians, and what that conglomerate has decided is that whereas all artists may paint in the Leake Street Tunnel, none of them can prevent further painting by further artists.  The only immortality achieved is virtual and digital.

Or, maybe it’s a bit more complicated.  And if you aren’t part of the club, and you just turn up and paint, you get your knees broken, or something.

Whatever.  The thing I really admire about the beast, as originally painted by Artist One, is the state of its teeth.  Check them out.  Thought has gone into them.  No wonder Artist Two was envious, and decided to appropriate them for his alternative beast.

Tuesday October 03 2017

To quote my own earlier words about David Hockney:

What I particularly like about him is that he doesn’t indulge in the usual artistic sport of epater-ing the bourgeoisie.  He is content to be bourgeoisie.

And as if to prove me right, in the same book I was referring to, I later encounter (pp. 105-106) this amazingly honest Hockney outburst:

The best form of living I’ve ever seen in Monet’s – a modest house at Giverny, but very good kitchen, two cooks, gardeners, a marvellous studio.  What a life!  All he did was look at his lily pond and his garden.  That’s fantastic.  He was there for forty-three years. ...

Two cooks!  Gardeners!  How rare it is to encounter such full-throated pleasure being taken in the idea of having servants to look after you!

You can feel the people who try to decide these things going off Hockney, and I’m guessing that this has been going on for some time.  I’m not saying that Adrian Searle, for instance, doesn’t mean the things he says in this Guardian piece about Hockney’s pictures over the years.  And I actually rather share some of Searle’s preferences as to which Hockney pictures are nice and which are not so nice.  Searle says they’ve got worse, basically.

However, I suspect that Hockney’s real crime is that he started out looking like a radical homosexualist, but then when homosexuality settled back into being just part of the scenery of modern affluent, successful, happy life, Hockney was revealed as being not angry about modern, affluent, successful, happy life.  He just wanted that sort of life for himself, and for many decades now, he has had it.  He would have been angry only if denied such a life by anti-homosexualists.  But he wasn’t.  As soon as the world started happily tolerating Hockney’s not-so-private life and made his picture-making life affluent and successful, Hockney was content happily to tolerate the world and to revel in its visual pleasures, natural and electronic.  The Grand Canyon!  iPhones!  Bridlington!

Capitalism?  Commerce?  Hockney’s not angry about it.  He’s part of it. He produces it, he consumes it, he applies it to his work, he knows this, and he loves it.  And he has long surrounded himself with a small and happy team of assistants and cooks and bottle-washers of all the sorts that he needs, to enable him, Monet-style, to concentrate on his picture-making.  Hockney is the living embodiment of the glories of the division of labour.  Aka: social inequality.

I surmise that this is what really makes Searle’s readers (i.e. Guardian readers) angry about Hockney, not the claim that his pictures have got worse.  They’re angry about modern life, and they’re angry that David Hockney isn’t angry about modern life.

And I suspect that Hockney is, in the eyes of Those Who Try To Decide These Things, helping to take the Impressionists down with him.

Sunday October 01 2017

When reading a book about the rise of a particular style of painting, you don’t expect lessons in political history, but while reading The Judgement of Paris, I learned much about nineteenth century France and its political dramas, of which I had formely known extremely little.  The to-ings and fro-ings of artistic style and taste in nineteenth century France were, France being France, a very political matter.  You can’t properly understand the paintings without understanding the politicians who, for their various political reasons, were trying to encourage or to discourage them, and who either inspired artists or failed to inspire them.

Hence passages in this book like this one (pp.62-65), which describes the rise to supreme power in France of Napoleon III.

imageCharles-Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had been born in Paris on April 20, 1808, in a mansion in the Rue Cerutti (now the Rue Laffitte). His was a dizzying genealogy. His mother was Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of the Empress Josephine and the stepdaughter of Napoleon. His father, at least on paper, was Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and the King of Holland from 1806 until his abdication in 1810. However, the marriage between Louis and Hortense was so unhappy ("Never was there so gloomy a ceremony,” wrote Louis of his own wedding) that the child’s true paternity was the object of much speculation. Candidates ranged from an admiral in charge of the Dutch navy, to various equerries and chamberlains, and even to Napoleon himself, who was rumoured to have nourished a soft spot for his stepdaughter.

The child, known as Louis-Napoleon, was so feeble at birth that he was bathed in wine and then wrapped in cotton wool. For several years thereafter, disappointed at having given birth to a boy, Hortense dressed him as a girl, an inauspicious start in life for someone whose horoscope proclaimed that he would wear the imperial crown of France. Still, greatness was impressed upon the child from an early age. An imperial decree gave him, at the age of two, the title of “Prince Louis-Napoleon,” and he received regular visits from his uncle the Emperor. One of his most vivid early memories, indeed, was of Napoleon picking him up by his head.

After Waterloo, the young prince, then aged seven, was exiled with his mother to a castle in Switzerland, where they were put under the surveillance of the British, French, Austrian, Russian and Prussian ambassadors. This exile was to last for many years, during which time the sickly child became a vigorous young man who fought by the side of Italian revolutionaries in Rome and conducted multiple love affairs in Switzerland. In London, working in the British Museum, he penned a political treatise, Ideas of Napoleonism, which he published in 1839. These musings were no idle occupation, for in 1832 the possibility of the young prince fulfilling the prediction of his horoscope and seizing the French throne had unexpectedly presented itself. Napoleon’s only legitimate son, the Duc de Reichstadt - the so-called Napoleon II - died of tuberculosis in Vienna, leaving Louis-Napoleon as the dynastic heir. He duly set about making plans to oust King Louis-Philippe, but an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1836 ended with his arrest, imprisonment and then another exile as he was sent to America aboard a French warship. In New York City he proved a great social success, meeting Washington Irving and impressing the locals with his wax-tipped moustache, a sight virtually unknown in America.

Four years later, in August 1840, Louis-Napoleon made a second attempt to reclaim what he regarded as his birthright. By this time he was living in London, in a mansion in Carlton Gardens staffed by seventeen fervent Bonapartists. In a daring bit of bluff, he and his band of fifty-six conspirators - his domestic servants among them - donned military uniforms, chartered a Thames pleasure boat named the Edinburgh Castle, and made for the French coast. On board were nine horses, two carriages, several crates of wine, and a tame vulture bought at Gravesend to improvise as an eagle, the totem of the Bonaparte family. This ragtag expeditionary force landed at Boulogne-sur-Mer but beat a hasty retreat when the presence on French soil of the Bonaparte heir failed to incite a popular uprising against the King. When the landing craft capsized in the Channel, the invasion ended with Louis-Napoleon clinging to a buoy and awaiting his rescue, which came in the form of the French National Guard. Fished from the waves, he was arrested and then sentenced to life imprisonment in the fortress at Ham, a medieval chateau in northern France. There he spent the next six years. His confinement does not seem to have been onerous, since he found opportunities to author a treatise on sugar beets, hatch a scheme to dig a canal across Nicaragua, and carry on a liaison with a ginger-haired laundress named Alexandrine Vergeot, who ironed the uniforms of the prison’s officers and lived in the gatekeeper’s house. He gave her lessons in grammar and spelling; she returned the favour with two children, both of whom: confusingly, were named Alexandre-Louis.

Louis-Napoleon escaped from Ham in 1846 by donning the uniform of a workman and casually strolling through the front gate with a plank of wood balanced on his shoulder. He then returned to England, where he served briefly as a special constable at the Marlborough Street police station and dallied with his latest mistress, Lizzie Howard, the daughter of a Brighton bootmaker. Soon, however, Louis-Napoleon’s destiny drew nigh. His chance came in 1848, the “Year of Revolution,” when an economic downturn and widespread crop failures, combined with demands for more liberal governments, triggered riots and revolutions across much of Europe. In February, following pitched battles in the streets of Paris, King Louis-Philippe abdicated his throne, fleeing to England as his Bonapartist rival crossed the Channel in the opposite direction. In December of that year, with a majority of four million votes, Louis-Napoleon was elected President of the Second Republic, and the former prisoner of Ham found himself enjoying the splendours of the Élysée Palace. Three years later, anticipating the end of his four-year term as President, he consolidated and increased his powers in a bloody coup d’état. In an operation code-named “Rubicon,” he dissolved the Constituent Assembly, imprisoned many of his opponents (including Adolphe Thiers), and sent the army into the streets of Paris, where 400 people were killed in violent skirmishes. One year later, on December 2, 1852, he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III.

The Second Empire was one of the gaudiest and most vainglorious eras in the history of France. The years since Louis-Napoleon came to power had witnessed unprecedented economic expansion and commercial prosperity. Industry flourished, foreign trade tripled, household incomes increased by more than fifty per cent, and credit grew with the establishment of new financial institutions. Grand projects were undertaken, such as the building of the new sewers and boulevards in Paris and the laying of thousands of miles of railway and telegraph lines. Louis-Napoleon was making the country live up to his vision of “Napoleonism,” which, he had written, “is not an idea of war, but a social, industrial, commercial and humanitarian idea.” Louis-Napoleon may have disliked wars, but he had nonetheless involved France in the Crimean War, which ended in 1856, and in the war against Austria in Lombardy in 1859. The year 1859 also witnessed French military expeditions to Syria and Cochin-China, in the latter of which the Emperor’s troops occupied the capital, Saigon. In the following year, French troops invaded Peking and burned the Summer Palace.

His swashbuckling career notwithstanding, Napoleon III was a less than prepossessing character. He looked, to Théophile Gautier, like “a ringmaster who has been sacked for getting drunk,” while one of his generals claimed he had the appearance of a “melancholy parrot.” The urbane aristocrat Charles Greville, meeting him in London, found him “vulgar-looking, without the slightest resemblance to his imperial uncle.” In fact, the only thing that he seemed to have shared with Napoleon was a short stature: he was only 5 feet 5 inches tall. A reserved and thoughtful man with a waxed moustache, a pointed beard and hooded eyes, he possessed an air of inscrutability. It was said that he knew five languages and could be silent in all of them. Prince Richard von Metternich, the Austrian ambassador, called him the “Sphinx of the Tuileries.” But most of his opponents were guilty of underestimating his abilities, and by the 1860s he had become, as an English newspaper admitted, “the foremost man of all this world.”

Monday September 25 2017

I recently quoted a big chunk from Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris, about his number one lead character, Ernest Meissonier.

Here are a few paragraphs by King, a few pages later, on page 17 of my edition of this book, about the Paris Salon.  They begin with a reference to King’s number two lead character, Édouard Manet:

Not until 1859, when he was twenty-seven years old, did Manet feel himself ready to launch his career at the Paris Salon, or “The Exhibition of Living Artists,” as it was more properly called. This government-sponsored exhibition was known as the “Salon” since for many years after its inauguration in 1673 it had taken place in the Salon Carré, or Square Room, of the Louvre. By 1855 it had moved to the more capacious but less regal surroundings of the Palais des Champs-Élysées, a cast-iron exhibition hall (formerly known as the Palais de l’Industrie) whose floral arrangements and indoor lake and waterfall could not disguise the fact that, when not hosting the Salon, it accommodated equestrian competitions and agricultural trade fairs.

The Salon was a rare venue for artists to expose their wares to the public and - like Meissonier, its biggest star - to make their reputations. One of the greatest spectacles in Europe, it was an even more popular attraction, in terms of the crowds it drew, than public executions. Opening to the public in the first week of May and running for some six weeks, it featured thousands of works of art specially - and sometimes controversially - chosen by a Selection Committee. Admission on most afternoons was only a franc, which placed it within easy reach of virtually every Parisian, considering the wage of the lowest-paid workers, such as milliners and washerwomen, averaged three to four francs a day. Those unwilling or unable to pay could visit on Sundays, when admission was free and the Palais des Champs-Élysées thronged with as many as 50,000 visitors - five limes the number that had gathered in 1857 to watch the blade of the guillotine descend on the neck of a priest named Verger who had murdered the Archbishop of Paris. In some years, as many as a million people visited the Salon during its six-week run, meaning crowds averaged more than 23,000 people a day.

At the bottom of the page, King adds this illuminating footnote:

To put these figures into context, the most well-attended art exhibition in the year 2003 was Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Over the course of a nine-week run, the show drew an average of 6,863 visitors each day, with an overall total of 401,004. El Greco, likewise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, averaged 6,897 per day during its three-month run in 2003-4, ultimately attracting 174,381 visitors. The top-ranked exhibition of 2002, Van Gogh and Gauguin, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, drew 6,719 per day for four months, with a final attendance of 739,117.

So it is with all Art, with a capital A.  Arts start out as mere arts, in this case the art of picture making.  But then, a particular technique that for a long time dominates the art in question gets elbowed aside by new technology.  At which point the art in question becomes Art, of the High sort, the sort that all those crowds of mere people are no longer so interested in.  They have other entertainents to divert them.

In the case of the art of painting pictures, the new technology was of course photography - still photography, but most especially photography of the moving sort.  Motion pictures, in that telling phrase used by the pioneers of the new art.

When I read the paragraphs I have quoted above, I found myself thinking: Hollywood.

Wednesday September 20 2017

This is how Chapter One, “Chez Meissonier”, of Ross King’s book The Judgement of Paris begins:

One gloomy January day in 1863, Jean-Louis-Emest Meissonier, the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated painter, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowfall, climbed onto the roof top balcony of his mansion in Poissy.

A town with a population of a little more than 3,000, Poissy lay eleven miles north-west of Paris, on the south bank of an oxbow in the River Seine and on the railway line running from the Gare Saint-Lazare to the Normandy coast. It boasted a twelfth-century church, an equally ancient bridge, and a weekly cattle market that supplied the butcher shops of Paris and, every Tuesday, left the medieval streets steaming with manure. There was little else in Poissy except for the ancient priory of Saint-Louis, a walled convent that had once been home to an order of Dominican nuns. The nuns had been evicted during the French Revolution and the convent’s buildings either demolished or sold to private buyers. But inside the enclosure remained an enormous, spired church almost a hundred yards in length and, close by, a grandiose house with clusters of balconies, dormer windows and pink-bricked chimneys: a building sometimes known as the Grande Maison.

imageErnest Meissonier had occupied the Grande Maison for most of the previous two decades. In his forty-eighth year he was short, arrogant and densely bearded: “ugly, little and mean,” one observer put it, “rather a scrap of a man.” A friend described him as looking like a professor of gymnastics, and indeed the burly Meissonier was an eager and accomplished athlete, often rising before dawn to rampage through the countryside on horseback, swim in the Seine, or launch himself at an opponent, fencing sword in hand. Only after an hour or two of these exertions would he retire, sometimes still shod in his riding boots, to a studio in the Grande Maison where he spent ten or twelve hours each day crafting on his easel the wonders of precision and meticulousness that had made both his reputation and his fortune.

To overstate either Meissonier’s reputation or his fortune would have been difficult in the year 1863. “At no period,” a contemporary claimed, “can we point to a French painter to whom such high distinctions were awarded, whose works were so eagerly sought after, whose material interests were so guaranteed by the high prices offered for every production of his brush. No artist in France could command Meissonier’s extravagant prices or excite so much public attention. Each year at the Paris Salon - the annual art exhibition in the Palais des Champs-Élysées - the space before Meissonier’s paintings grew so thick with spectators that a special policeman was needed to regulate the masses as they pressed forward to inspect his latest success. Collected by wealthy connoisseurs such as James de Rothschild and the Duc d’ Aumale. these paintings proved such lucrative investments that Meissonier’s signature was said to be worth that of the Bank of France. “The prices of his works,” noted one awestruck art critic, “have attained formidable proportions, never before known.”

Meissonier’s success in the auction rooms was accompanied by a chorus of critical praise and-even more unusual for an art world riven by savage rivalries and piffling jealousies - the respect and admiration of his peers. “He is the incontestable master of our epoch,” declared Eugène Delacroix, who predicted to the poet Charles Baudelaire that “amongst all of us, surely it is he who is most certain to survive!” Another of Meissonier’s friends, the writer Alexandre Dumas fils, called him ”the painter of France.” He was simply, as a newspaper breathlessly reported, “the most renowned artist of our time.”

From his vantage point at the top of his mansion this most renowned artist could have seen all that his tremendous success had bought him. A stable housed his eight horses and a coach house his fleet of carriages, which included expensive landaus, berlines, and victorias. He even owned the fastest vehicle on the road, a mail coach. All were decorated, in one of his typically lordly gestures, with a crest that bore his most fitting motto: Omnia labor, or “Everything by work.” A greenhouse, a saddlery, an English garden, a photographic workshop, a duck pond, lodgings for his coachman and groom, and a meadow planted with cherry trees - all were ranged across a patch of land sloping down to the embankments of the Seine, where his two yachts were moored. A dozen miles upstream, in the Rue des Pyramides, a fashionable street within steps of both the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre, he maintained his Paris apartment.

The Grande Maison itself stood between the convent’s Gothic church and the remains of its ancient cloister. Meissonier had purchased the pink-bricked eighteenth-century orangery, which was sometimes known as Le Pavilion Rose, in 1846. In the ensuing years he had spent hundreds of thousands of francs on its expansion and refurbishment in order to create a splendid palace for himself and his family. A turret had been built above an adjoining cottage to house an enormous cistern that provided the Grande Maison with running water, which was pumped through the house and garden by means of a steam engine. The house also boasted a luxurious water closet and, to warm it in winter, a central heating system. A billiard room was available for Meissonier’s rare moments away from his easel.

Yet despite these modern conveniences, the Grande Maison was really intended to be an exquisite antiquarian daydream. “My house and my temperament belong to another age,” Meissonier once said. He did not feel at home or at ease in the nineteenth century. He spoke unashamedly of the “good old days,” by which he meant the eighteenth century and even earlier. He detested the sight of railway stations, cast-iron bridges, modern architecture and recent fashions such as frock coats and top hats. He did not like how people sat cross-legged and read newspapers and cheap pamphlets instead of leather-bound books. And so from the outside his house - all gables, pitched roofs and leaded windows - was a vision of eighteenth-century elegance and tranquillity, while on the inside the rooms were decorated in the style of Louis XV, with expensive tapestries, armoires, embroidered fauteuils, and carved wooden balustrades.

The Grande Maison included not one but, most unusually, two large studios in which Meissonier could paint his masterpieces. The atelier d’hiver, or “winter workshop,” featuring bay windows and a large fireplace, was on the top floor of the house, while at ground level, overlooking the garden, he had built a glass-roofed annexe known as the atelier d’été, or “summer workshop.” Both abounded with the tools of his trade: canvases, brushes and easels, but also musical instruments, suits of armour, bridles and harnesses, plumed helmets, and an assortment of halberds, rapiers and muskets - enough weaponry, it was said, to equip a company of mercenaries. For Meissonier’s paintings were, like his house, recherché figments of an antiquarian imagination. He specialised in scenes from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century life, portraying an ever-growing cast of silk-coated and lace-ruffed gentlemen - what he called his bonshommes, or “goodfellows” - playing chess, smoking pipes, reading books, sitting before easels or double basses, or posing in the uniforms of musketeers or halberdiers. These musicians and bookworms striking their quiet and reflective poses in serene, softly lit interiors, all executed in microscopic detail, bore uncanny similarities to the work of Jan Vermeer, an artist whose rediscovery in the 1860s owed much to the ravenous taste for Meissonier - and one whose tremendous current popularity approaches the enthusiastic esteem in which Meissonier himself was held in mid-nineteenth-century France.

Typical of Meissonier’s work was one of his most recent creations, Halt at an Inn, owned by the Due de Morny, a wealthy art collector and the illegitimate half- brother of the French Emperor, Napoleon Ill. Completed in 1862, it featured three eighteenth-century cavaliers in tricorn hats being served drinks on horseback outside a half-timbered rural tavern: a charming vignette of the days of old, without a railway train or top hat in sight. Meissonier’s most famous painting, though, was The Brawl, a somewhat less decorous scene depicting a fight in a tavern between two men dressed - as usual - in opulent eighteenth-century attire. Awarded the Grand Medal of Honour at the Salon of 1855, it was owned by Queen Victoria, whose husband and consort, Prince Albert, had prized Meissonier above all other artists. At the height of the Crimean War, Napoleon III had purchased the work from Meissonier for 25,000 francs - eight times the annual salary of an average factory worker - and presented it as a gift to his ally across the Channel.

“If I had not been a painter,” Meissonier once declared, “I should have liked to be a historian. I don’t think any other subject could be so interesting as history.” He was not alone in his veneration of the past. The mid-nineteenth century was an age of rapid technological development that had witnessed the invention of photography, the electric motor and the steam-powered locomotive. Yet it was also an age fascinated by, and obsessed with, the past. The novelist Gustave Flaubert regarded this keen sense of history as a completely new phenomenon - as yet another of the century’s many bold inventions. “The historical sense dates from only yesterday,” he wrote to a friend in 1860, “and it is perhaps one of the nineteenth century’s finest achievements.” Visions of the past were everywhere in France. Fashions at the court of Napoleon III aped those of previous centuries, with men wearing bicorn hats, knee breeches and silk stockings. The country’s best-known architect, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, had spent his career busily returning old churches and cathedrals to their medieval splendour. By 1863 he was creating a fairy-tale castle for the emperor at Pierrefonds, a knights-in-armour reverie of portcullises, round towers and cobbled courtyards.

This sense of nostalgia predisposed the French public towards Meissonier’s paintings, which were celebrated by the country’s greatest art critic, Théophile Gautier, as “a complete resurrection of the life of bygone days.” Meissonier’s wistful visions appealed to exactly the same population that had made The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas père, first published in 1844, the most commercially successful book in nineteenth-century France. Indeed, with their cavaliers decked out in ostrich plumes, doublets and wide-topped boots, many of Meissonier’s paintings could easily have served as illustrations from the works of Dumas, a friend of the painter who, before his bankruptcy, had lived in equally splendid style in his “Château de Monte Cristo,” a domed and turreted folly at Marly-le-Roi, a few miles upstream from Meissonier. Both men excelled at depicting scenes of chivalry and masculine adventure against a backdrop of pre-Revolutionary and pre-industrial France - the period before King Louis XVI was marched to the steps of the guillotine and the old social relations were destroyed, in the decades that followed, by new economic forces of finance and industry. “The age of chivalry is gone,” wrote Edmund Burke, a fierce critic of the French Revolution who lamented the loss, after 1789, of “manly sentiment and heroic enterprise.” But the age of chivalry had not entirely vanished in France: by the middle of the nineteenth century it lingered eloquently in Dumas’s novels, in Viollet-le-Duc’s spires and towers, and in Meissonier’s jewel-like “musketeer” paintings.

Still, the subject matter of Meissonier’s works accounted only partly for their extraordinary success. What astounded the critics and the public alike was his mastery of fine detail and almost inconceivably punctilious craftsmanship. “It is impossible to comprehend that our clumsy hands could achieve such a degree of delicacy,” enthused Gautier. Meissonier’s paintings, most of which were small in size, rewarded the closest and most prolonged observation. After purchasing one of his works, the English art critic John Ruskin would examine it at length under a magnifying glass, marvelling at Meissonier’s manual dexterity and eye for fascinating minutiae. A critic once joked that Meissonier was capable of putting the Prophets of the Sistine Chapel on the setting of a ring. No one in the history of art, it was said, ever possessed such a superlative and unerring touch with his brush. “The finest Flemish painters, the most meticulous Dutch,” claimed Gautier, “are slovenly and heavy next to Meissonier.” ...

Monday September 04 2017

A few weeks ago, Patrick Crozier and I recorded a conversation about the First World War.  Patrick’s short intro, and the recording, are here.  (It would appear that Croziervision is now back in business.)

The “If only” of my title is because we talk about the question of “what if” WW1 had never started.  What might have happened instead?  The unspoken assumption that has saturated our culture ever since is that it would surely have been far, far better.  But what if something else just as bad had happened instead?  Or even: something worse?

We discuss the reasons for such pessimism.  There was the sense of economic unease that had prevailed since the dawn of the century, resulting in a time not unlike our own.  And, there was the fact that Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey were all embarked upon their various journeys from monarchy to democracy, and such journeys are always likely to be, says Patrick, bloodbaths.  Whatever happened in twentieth century Europe, it surely would not have been good.

Wednesday August 30 2017

I love the trappings of London’s tourist industry, and I love that I can enjoy these trappings by photoing them rather than by spending any of my own money on them.  This applies to small stuff in shops, and to bigger stuff out in the streets.  There are exceptions, but they are very few.

I don’t, for instance, buy even miniature vehicles, let alone drive around in my own life-sized vehicle.  But I love to photo idiosyncratic life-sized vehicles owned and maintained by others.  Vehicles like this one:

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This is the Ghostbustours bus, the “London Necrobus”, as it says on the side.

Below left we see punning respellings of London sights and streets and squares:

imageimage

Rather disappointingly, on the right there is a sign, towards the back of the Ghostbustours bus, featuring no such respellings, so that people know where they can get on and off the Ghostbus.  I understand that this is necessary, but it rather spoils the fun.

It greatly helps that the bus in question is a classic Routemaster, still the favourite of many, including me, of all the different versions that there have been of the London double decker.  When tourists buy miniature London buses, this is the one they mostly buy.,

By blogging “Routemaster”, I just learned (a) that the word Routemaster also, supposedly (i.e., in reality: not), applies to Boris buses.  (The actual name for the Boris bus is: “Boris bus”.) And I learned (b) that, for quite a while now, there has been no more buying of Boris buses.  Blog and learn.

Monday August 28 2017

I like to photo buses with adverts all over them.  I consider the elaborate graphics involved to be of aesthetic interest.

Buses like this one, photoed in Tottenham Court Road on the same afternoon, just over a year ago, that I photoed the dfs Union Jack door that I just added to the posting below:

image

Okay very pretty, but do what I did.  Take a closer look:

image

What intrigues me about that is how it points up the contrasting reputations of the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie.  The Gherkin is clearly visible there.  But the Walkie Talkie is deranged by that clutch of ventilation holes, or whatever they are.  The advertising classes don’t do things like this by accident.  They like Lord Foster of Gherkin, but they do not like Rafael Vinoly of Walkie Talkie, and the same probably applies to most other people who know both of these Starchitects.  (I like both of them.) My sense is that Vinoly is reckoned to be too much the entrepreneur, too much the profit maximising businessman, too bothered with making buildings that make money, the way (so I hear it) the Walkie Talkie does and the Gherkin does not.  Vinoly, I surmise, is the Richart Seifert of our time, but on a global scale.

This is not the kind of thing you can prove very easily, and maybe I’m reading too much into a meaningless piece of graphics.

Well, I’m tired, I’ve had a complicated day attempting other things, unsuccessfully, and this is what you are getting.  Also, there’s a really good test match going on.

Thursday August 17 2017

World’s first autonomous cargo ship to set sail in 2018

This kind of echoes my guess, several years ago now, that robot lorries are a better immediate bet than robot cars, because lorries do lots of quantifiable work to which only slight improvements will make a big difference, and because motorways are highly controlled places.  Ships do lots of quantifiable work, and the sea is also, nowadays (after centuries of it being the ultimate arena of anarchy), a highly controlled place.

And maybe they could make such a ship out of:

Unsinkable aluminum foam

Then there’s this:

NASA’s Next Great X-Plane Will Try to Revolutionize Electric Flight

Although you just know, from that “try to”, that (although you never know (and I actually don’t know at all)) they won’t.  But, they’ll learn lots of little stuff.  Most tech seems to be the gradual accumulation of relatively small improvements, which, when they add them up, as they do from time to time, over time, add up to one of those revolutions.

Such as all the revolutions which are now happening or which are about to happen because: 

Oil and Gas Innovation Goes Well Beyond Fracking

This is an article which quotes gobs from another article which is behind a paywall, which is helpful and frustrating at the same time.  I have no problem with people charging for internet stuff, but there is not a lot of point in linking to it from a blog.

But the basic message is that the plunge in the price of energy that the Americans have recently contrived didn’t just happen because of the Big Thing that is fracking.  It also consisted, and continues to consist, of lots of smaller innovations, of the sort that those electric airplane guys will be finding out while failing to revolutionise electric airplanes, and then passing on to their fellow techies.

Quote:

There are three trends driving the new energy revolution: smarter management of complex systems, more sophisticated data analytics, and automation. The first trend has allowed companies to become much more efficient while drilling for oil and gas in ever more complex geological environments … Simpler, standardized designs make drilling and production platforms easier to replicate, less expensive, and less likely to suffer costly delays and over-runs in construction. […]

Oil companies … have begun to use complex algorithms to analyze massive amounts of data, making it easier for them to find oil and gas and to manage production … The industry has also begun to use data analytics for “predictive maintenance,” reducing unplanned downtime by analyzing historical data to predict equipment failures before they happen. […]

Soon, intelligent automated systems will enable remote drilling, controlled almost entirely by a handful of high-tech workers in onshore data rooms hundreds of miles away … In the future, automation, along with better data analytics, will make it easier to manage the variation in supplies that comes from using renewable sources such as wind and solar energy and more complex, decentralized grids. It can also make the grid more reliable.

That being from the stuff behind the paywall, quoted at the other end of the above link.

Several years ago now, I had a Last Friday talk saying pretty much exactly this.  This talk happened just after the price of energy had halved, but before most of the rest of the world had realised.

There are, as always, a lot or things wrong with the world just now.  But stagnant technology is not one of these things.

Monday August 14 2017

The titles of these things were getting to be too long-winded.

So yes, the Camden Highline.

Bid to turn disused railway between Camden Town and King’s Cross into elevated ‘Highline’ park

Sadiq Khan throws weight behind Camden highline project

The official website.

Where they hope it will be, just north of the Regent’s Canal:

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Click on that to get it twice as big, and consequently (if your eyesight is anything like mine) legible.

Those little green circles are cameras.  Presumably this means good places for photography.  If and when they contrive this, I will definitely be checking it out.

Long moderately high platforms, even ones that are not very high, often supply great views, because you can walk along them until the great views appear.

I have not yet read and probably never will read James Damore’s internal memo that went external, about diversity policies within Google, the one that got him fired.  But just in case I do want to read it, here is the full text.

And here is a conversation between James Darmore and Jordan Peterson.  I haven’t watched all this either, but so far Peterson has been doing a lot of the talking.  But the fact that Damore doesn’t mouth off a lot actually reinforces the feeling that he’s a good guy, if somewhat naïve.

Samizdata has also had a lot of Google/Damore posts recently, here, here (lots of good stuff and links to good stuff in that one), here, here, and here.

Damore was naive, in particular, about what will get you fired.  Most people know that if you criticise your bosses and it gets out, they do not like it.  The better you do it and the more it gets out, the more they do not like it.  Damore did it pretty well and it got out a lot.

Normally, I’d say that Google wanting only employees with “googliness”, of whom Damore proved himself not to be one, would be reasonable.  But the trouble is, Google is in the business of making judgements about what opinions should and should not be allowed on the internet, encouraged, discouraged, and so on.  For that job, they need political diversity.  Unless, of course, they’ve decided to ignore the other half of America.

Which might make sense.  That other half of America is, in global terms, a rather unusual bunch of people.  As are the “other halfs” of all other countries.  The “cosmopolitans” of the world, insofar as they really are a single group, are the biggest and, crucially, the richest group of people in the world.  But what if actually, the two halves of America, and the two halves of everywhere else, each have more in common with one another than they do with all the other cosmopolitans?  Stay, as the saying goes, tuned.

My own hunch is that Google ignoring half of America will be bad for business.  I mean, even the cosmopolitan Americans will want, from time to time, to actually pay attention to the other half, to find out about how, for instance, the other half votes and might be persuaded to vote differently.  If Google’s googliness gradually stops helping them do that …?

DuckDuckGo.  I found that here, via here.

Friday July 21 2017

Here.

LATER: And here.