28 March 2015

Northern Landscapes, Northern Lights - Peder Balke

In collaboration with the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø, The National Gallery in London has opened a Peder Balke exhibition that will continue until mid April 2015. They are displaying 50+ paintings from private and public collections across Europe.

The National Gallery released this press release: Born into poverty on the Norwegian island of Helgøya in Eastern Norway, Peder Balke (1804-87) studied decorative painting in Oslo (then called Christiania) for two years from 1827. In 1829 he transferred to Stockholm, where he was taught by landscape painter and Professor at the Art Academy, Johann Fahlkrantz. Balke was drawn to the landscape of Norway; he walked across much of its lower regions and in 1832 travelled by ship to the North Cape, a rugged, inaccessible area of the country. There he found bleak and original landscapes, and continued to exp­lore them in ever-more austere images throughout his career.

Johan Dahl, 1827
Lower Falls of the Labrofoss
Loaned to the National Gallery London

Caspar David Friedrich, 1824
Which gallery?

Between 1835 and 1844 Balke travelled twice to Dresden where he studied with the leading Norwegian artist, Johan Christian Dahl, and also got to know the art of Caspar David Friedrich. It has been suggested Friedrich, the Danish-trained leader of German Romantic painting, was important in spreading Northern influences back in Germany.

In 1845 Balke travelled to London and to Paris, where he received a major commission from the French King for northern Norwegian scenes. By 1850 Balke was back in Christiania/Oslo, although his artistic career was not going ahead in leaps and bounds. Instead, the painter devoted more time to politics and to property development for the poor. Yet even after 1860 his paintings, mostly small improvisational oils on panel, continued.

The Gallery’s conclusion is that Balke was one of the first artists to venture to the vast, untrodden plains of the North Cape where he was overwhelmed by “opulent beaut­ies of nature and locations delivered to the eye and the mind.” With depictions of stormy seas, towering glaciers and threatening skies, the exhibition reveals an artist who is only now being recognised as one of the forerunners of modernism. His works are finally being regarded as highly original improvisations of unequalled virtuosity and innovation. His C19th oeuvre celebrated the drama and romance of the Far North.

The National Gallery in London owns just one painting by Peder Balke - The Tempest c1862.

Peder Balke, c1862
The Tempest
National Gallery London

Is it true that Peder Balke was one of the very first artists to venture to the far north of his native Norway? And that he was one of most original painters of C19th Scan­d­inavia? In 1832 he visited the distinctive, dramatic and rugged northern lands, an exper­ience of primal nature so pro­found that he built his career on those isolated Arctic Circle sea­scapes. Look at the words he used to describe his experience: “illustrious and overwhelming impression”, “opulent beauties of nature” and “inspiring vision”. They suggest that the sublime beauty and expressiveness of his seascapes reflected the awe this Romantic artist saw and felt.

Peder Balke, 1860s
North Cape
currently in the National Gallery London

But if the small scenes he painted for his own pleasure are now recognised as highly original improvisations e.g using his hands instead of brushes, I am confused between Romantic awe and modernist expressionism. Perhaps I am not familiar enough with Northern Landscapes and Northern Light enough to comment. I think I needed to be eased into these strange land and sea scapes - it would have been very useful to have seen the previous National Gallery exhibition of Scandinavian art – Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscapes (2011).

Landscape painting had a special significance everywhere in the C19th - no other type of painting could express nature's changeability and romance as clearly. But Norwegian artists sensed something extra from their landscapes and that was a ghostliness. So the viewer has only one task now. Do Balke’s paintings convey as atmospherically-charged landscapes as John Dahl and Casper David Friedrich’s paintings do?

Reading Northern Light: Nordic Art (Yale UP, 1988) by Kirk Varnedoe was very useful. Also read the excellent blog called Some Landscapes.

24 March 2015

Australian and Israeli science - eucalyptus trees, bush fires, honey and swamps.

 When you travel in Israel nowadays, it is difficult to believe that 150 years ago the south was total desert (60% of Israel’s land surface). Only a small number of trees grew in the south; the trees that had once grown were either taken for wood, eaten by sheep and goats, or died in the droughts. The other 40% of the country, in the north, was covered with swamps ..which were worse than the desert. In the late C19th the swamps caused malaria and prevented people from inhabiting the north of the Promised Land.

The eucalyptus tree was first introduced from Australia to other parts of the world by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, on Captain Cook’s expedition in 1770. But the eucalyptus was not brought to Israel from Australia until the late C19th. The hope was that this tree would dry the swamps that were causing so much trouble to the settlers.

Although the eucalyptus trees easily adjusted to the Israeli swamps and grew rapidly, they were unsuccessful in actually drying them. But at least the trees created better air in the area and were found useful in other ways. The eucalyptus forests brought bees to the area and improved the honey industry; the wood was used for various purposes, such as railway sleepers and telephone poles.

The eucalyptus trees adjusted well to Israel, from very humid to semi-desert areas, and were easily acclimated. Today eucalyptus trees are found all over Israel in forests, along roads, and in urban and other populated areas.

Eucalyptus trees in the Hula Valley in Israel.
Australians believe this photo was actually taken in Australia.

Reforestation of Israel’s drought-ridden lands has always been of interest to Australia. How could new areas of the Negev be able to flourish and grow, specifically through the conservat­ion projects undertaken jointly by Aust­ralian Jewish National Fund ((JNF) and by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia? Since 1917 & JNF Australia’s first project of a forest to hon­our the return­ing forces after World War One, the Australian group has engaged in a range of projects that have helped to create an improved lifestyle for rural Israelis. And during the British Mandate, the British took even more Australian eucalyptus trees into Israel.

The Israeli-Australian connection has continued this century. Euc­alyptus researchers and growers from around the world attended a training course in 2008 on eucalyptus forestry; their particular focus were two invasive gall wasps and their natural enemies. After two years the solution was developed cooperatively through the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Indus­t­rial Research Organisation) and Israeli scient­ists. It HAD to be fool-proof. There are 700 types of eucalyptus in Israel and JNF distributes 200,000 saplings a year free of charge for forestation and bee grazing.

Israel may be a desert, going six months of the year without rain, but local bee populations are thriving and honey production rising thanks to a new flowering tree brought over from Australia. It is not a good time for honeybee populations worldwide just now, yet Israel has 450 bee­-keepers in the country who manufacture 3,600 tons of honey annually for local consumption and for export. But rain is critical. Like other desert coun­tries, the majority of native plants and flowers blossom in Israel only once a year after the winter rains.

After research, the correct eucalyptus plant and bees were chosen.
The bees began to pollinate the flowers while collecting nectar to be made into honey.
Since there are more trees with nectar available, the output of honey is rising.

Of course eucalyptus trees can withstand long periods of drought – they were from Australia! But a new environmental crisis arose in December 2010. With no rainfall for the previous eight months, the Israeli forests became extremely dry, and along with the strong winds and heat, bush fires quickly got out of control. The fire in Israel’s Mt Carmel region caused the death of 44 citizens and destroyed 5000 hectares of forest land. It had been the worst fire to take place in Israel’s national history, and destroyed nearly double the amount that 30 years of intermittent fires in the Carmel had caused. It will take at least 50 years to replant all of the trees that were lost and to bring the Carmel Forest close to its former condition.

Eucalypts are well adapted for periodic fires; in fact most species are dependent on fires for spread and regeneration. So it is not surprising that the fire-loving eucalypts account for some 70% of Australian forests, reg­en­erating quickly every summer. But in this Mt Carmel bushfire crisis, Australia could do nothing to save Israeli lives or forests :( The countries that did send fire fighting aircraft were Greece, Turkey, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia and Cyprus.

One other agricultural connection between Israel and Australia is worth mentioning. The Arava is Israel’s long, eastern valley between the Dead Sea and Eilat, and although it is mainly desert, 90% of its residents are successful farmers! Some Arava farmers specialise in organic farming and soil-free cultivation, in cooperation with farmers across the nearby Jordanian border. Sharing knowledge is important here; the local government maintains a training centre that welcomes students from around the world.

For example dirty solar panels produce less electricity, but the need to use water for cleaning those panels in dry regions makes even a clean power project less eco-friendly. Solar panels could lose from 10-35% of electricity production over time if they remain unwashed So the newest robots (by Ecoppia) dry-clean each panel, making for more efficient energy production. As agricultural research stations work to constantly upgrade the area’s produce, teams of Australians will spend time in the Arava to find solutions to the challenges of desert agriculture.

21 March 2015

World War One cinema - propaganda or reality?

I have examined the art and architecture of World War One in lect­ures and in this blog, with a focus on all the art forms that were so evocative of the tragedy of war – posters, shrines, cemeteries, portraits, war landscape paintings, sculpture, trench art objects and even royal gifts to the soldiers. We have examined the collections of the Imperial War Museum in London, Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Ballarat Arch and Avenue of Honour, Bendigo RSL Military Museum, Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Commonwealth War Graves in Northern France, Park of the Australian Light Horse Brigade in Beersheba and every other place I could visit.

But I had never considered the role of cinema during WW1. My first question would be was the Australian cinema so full of prop­aganda that viewers had doubts about what they saw? Nich­olas Reeve's book The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? traced the history of Government-sponsored film propaganda in off­icial British war films during WW1. He noted that "there is a clear relat­ionship between the chronology of changing audience attitudes towards the official films and the chronology of changing wartime public opinion. Film propaganda was the servant, not the master of the audience it sought to control".

A recruiting poster that employed the theme of Australians fighting at Gallipoli to encourage men to enlist. Printed in 1915 by the Defence Department of the Commonwealth

Does his study help with our WW1 film propaganda, for there were interesting similarities and differences in the Australian experience. Daniel Reynaud said that as a British Domin­ion, Australian culture was heavily influenced by the imperial centre, so it is no surprise to find that its cinematic history has many parallels to that of Britain. But there were also distinct differences, due to the unique circumstances of the Australian wartime environment.

An outpouring of Imperial loyalist sentiment occurred at the outbreak of the war. Parliament passed the stringent War Precautions Act unopposed, which empowered Prime Minister Hughes later to develop a repressive censorship from August 1914 that choked any kind of opposition to the Government. And it was not just the Australian parliament that were keen on war. Other public institutions, such as the press and the pulpit, energetically orchestrated a campaign of popular support for the war. But this superficial national consensus appears to have broken down in Australia earlier than it did in Britain.

Now let me cite War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-18 in Melbourne. And Michael Bodey in The Australian Newspaper, 14th -15th March 2015. Bodey noted that Australia was quick to adapt to cinema. Australians made what is regarded as the first surviving full-length feature film The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906. By 1911, there were more than 100 permanent and temporary cinemas in Sydney, and in 1912 the first colour films were screened in Australia. So by the time World War One started in 1914, the cinema screen was the only tangible way to learn about and understand a war being fought 15,000 ks away.

Footage of the Light Horse Brigade
Australian film, 1914

The War Pictures Exhibition shows extracts from the films Australians saw when they went to the cinema during the era. Between 1914 and 1918 Australian film prod­ucers made c54 feature films, yet only about 12 still exist in full. So 30 films, or pieces of film, were assembled from the NFSA archive and the Australian War Memorial; they give a sense of the spectacle, entertainment and information that cinema provided during the war.

During the early days of the war, most cinema items were short and focused on the facts e.g industrial films showing manufacturing processes and our boys heading off to war. Some were patriotic with­out being jingoistic, at least until feature films became part of the landscape around 1916. No-one will forget the DW Griffith epic Birth of a Nation. Another pure piece of entertainment included in the exhibition is Neptune’s Daught­er, starring Australia’s film star and swimmer Annette Kellerman. The hugely popular Charlie Chaplin also features.

One of the most striking to survive is The Hero of the Dardanelles, the first feat­ure film made about the Gallipoli landing, produced just months after the event. The producers re-created the landing on Sydney’s Tamarama Beach. This film was a turning point for audi­ences. By that time, so many people lost husbands and broth­ers that the impact was totally traumatic. A Hero of the Dardanelles dramat­ised the event with actual documentary footage, including images of the soldiers relaxing in Egypt at the pyramids, a later inspiration in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. But even that film was lost for years before re-emerging in a composite film in 1928.

Note a British documentary made in 1916, The Battle of the Somme, that strongly affected cinema audiences. The Battle of the Somme was a global sensation, with 20 million paying customers in Britain alone; it stunned viewers as the most detailed and realistic representation of what was happening on the actual battlefields.

Despite the trauma, Australians continued to go to the cinema. By 1919 it was clearly the nation’s most popular entertainment, with admissions reaching 67.5 million at 750 picture theatres across the country.

Real footage in The Battle of the Somme, 
British film made in 1916

The exhibition cinema has been set up to replicate what our grandparents saw in 1915. The screening room has been changed into an old-fashioned picture palace with a foyer and video of a ticket seller in a booth. The hour-long footage includes contemporary advertisements & newsreels, accompanied by specially commissioned scores for piano and other instruments.

Visit War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918, the exhibition which combines the resources of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The free exhibition will show at ACMI until 12th July 2015. And read Daniel Reynaud’s excellent paper “The Effectiveness of Aust­ral­ian Film Propaganda for the War Effort 1914-1918”