21 January 2017

The Aberfan Catastrophe in Wales, 1966

When I was writing about the Halifax Catastrophe of Dec 1917, several Welsh readers thought I was discussing the Aberfan catastrophe of 1966. In each case:
1. the deaths were not through an act of war or an act of God, but were due to human error.
2. the catastrophe occurred at 9.15 AM, just as the school children were getting settled into school. The loss of so many young children devastated the community.
3. the original event caused a domino destructive effect that could not be stopped.
4. the entire community rallied to help the survivors
5. the bereaved parents and families never really recovered.

Prior to the disaster, Aberfan was a small South Welsh coal min­ing village, founded shortly after the first excavations for the Merthyr Vale colliery in 1869. This close knit community of miners and their famil­ies was sufficiently large to require both a primary and a sec­ondary school. Pit jobs kept Aberfan thriving.

Dealing with the waste was always a problem in coal mining companies, which often generated large volumes of dirty material that could not be recycled. In South Wales, they piled the waste next to the mine workings. Ever since 1869, the hills right above the Aberfan village had been dominat­ed by enormous spoil heaps. Many complaints had been made to the National Coal Board about the dangers of one of the seven gigantic slag heaps that loomed high above the village, including a petition from Pantglas Junior School in 1963.

I recommend readers find "Death under the black mountain" by Steve Humphries in BBC History Magazine. One Friday morning in October 1966 it was raining very hard and the streets were covered in a dense, miserable fog. By 9.15 am, just the children had settled into school, spoil tip No 7 – one of seven slag heaps that loomed high above Aberfan – started to move. Then the entire edifice was transformed into a 30’ tsunami of sludge that slid downhill at 80+ mph. Seconds later, a wave consisting of half a million tonnes of liquefied coal waste crashed into Aberfan in a deafening roar. The wave swept across a canal and over an embankment, before sinking the primary school.
The dense black sludge descended down from the slag heaps on top of the mountain,
down on to the village below.

The walls of four of the school’s seven classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were destroyed and inundated by 1.4 million cubic feet of liquefied slurry. By the time the cloying black mass came to a halt a few seconds later, the victims were engulfed exactly where they stood or sat. An eerie silence envel­oped Aberfan as villagers tried to understand what happened. Then fireman and ordinary citizens rushed to the school and began frantically clawing at the re-solid­ifying slurry. The dense mass that was left behind was almost impossible to excavate.

Miraculously, some children survived. Five children in the school hall were saved by a dinner lady who dived on top of them to shield them from the slurry. She died.

There was a second grave danger: the avalanche was not caused by water from natural springs underneath the tip, but a torrent of water from fractured mains was spreading over the slurry. Even if the villagers had survived the avalanche by keeping their noses above the slurry line, they would have drowned in flood waters. [It is interesting that the Commission of Enquiry later noted that when coal waste tips were involved, water was undoubtedly the root cause of most failures. But the springs had been known about for many years – they were even shown on the Ordnance Survey maps of the area!]

Then the lead was taken by the local coal board’s Mines Rescue Service, established to rescue miners trapped underground. Coal miners from Mountain Ash, some of them fathers of the school children, were called from their shifts underground and took over from the firemen.

Within 2 hours, the resc­uers realised that all of the children they were finding in the school were dead. Many were still sitting at their desks, entombed by the slurry. Once the miners understood that no-one could be saved, it turned into a recovery operation. The slurry had been so fine that the children would have been suffocated straight away; did it comfort the parents to know that their children died instantly? The dead were taken to a makeshift mortuary set up in Bethania Chapel, where many parents had to identify the bodies of their children.
Searching for survivors and for bodies

By the end of the day, the landslide had utterly demolished Pantglas Junior School and 18 houses. Additionally it had seriously damaged the secondary school and many more houses. The final death toll reached 144, of which 116 victims were children – nearly half of the primary school’s pupils. And their teachers.

Nine months later, a tribunal published its report on the disaster. It found that the National Coal Board (NCB) was completely to blame for the disaster, despite the fact that, while giving evidence to the trib­unal, NCB chairman Lord Robens insisted the Coal Board was blameless. Lord Rob­ens and the NCB even denied that the Aberfan tip complex had ever slid bef­ore, despite clear, documented evidence of tip slides in 1944 and 1963. In the end, no person or organisation was prosecuted for caus­ing the deaths, and for the physical and social ruin of the Aberfan community.

Since the NCB was treated as if it were a government department, making them pay the direct costs of the disaster was considered to be unwise as it would increase the governmental deficit. Furthermore the report said that, according to laws relating to corporate negligence in 1966, no regulatory offence was committed during the Aberfan Disaster because no miners were killed. Unfortunately since the NCB and the Treasury refused to accept liability, they would not fund the removal of tips that still loomed above the village. Lord Robens claimed that it was too expensive (£3 million) to remove them. Fortunately since the 1966 catastrophe, coal spoil tips have been treated as engineering structures requiring proper design and maintenance.
So many small coffins, buried together

Coming to terms with the loss of so many children and teachers has been very difficult for the people of Aberfan. And they haven’t been helped by the local or national governments.

Exactly 50 years after 21st October 1966, on 21st October 2016, Wales again fell silent as the country remembered the Aberfan disaster. A day of events to commemorate the disaster included a service at Aber­fan Cemetery. First Minister Carwyn Jones and Prince Charles planted trees in the Aberfan memorial garden... while the bells rang out from St Tydfil's Church. The Rev Irving Penberthy, Methodist minister covering the Aberfan area back in 1966, gave the memorial sermon in 2016.

20 January 2017

New art exhibitions in Europe, USA and Australia, starting Jan 2017

I only get to enjoy one overseas excursion a year, so I am paying very close attention to Christopher Allen’s Caravaggio and beyond: exhibitions in US, Europe, Australia. Allen wrote that this has been an eventful year for Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, starting at Easter with the flurry of excitement about a picture found in an attic, claimed to be an original Caravaggio but was quite obviously a copy by another hand of the famous Judith Beheading Holofernes. Then the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid showed Caravaggio and the Painters of the North from June-Sep.

Now Beyond Caravaggio is at the National Gallery in London, showing works by Caravaggio and his followers in Italy and further north. The show includes some master-pieces by Caravaggio and other important figures. It is particularly interest­ing for us to realise how certain themes that Caravaggio occasionally dealt with, eg card cheats or gypsies, became the stock in trade of later imitators.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio. Valentin (1591-1632) was Caravaggio’s most interesting direct follower, after Caravaggio’s death. He had a poetic depth that went far beyond most of his contemporaries, and he aspired to the seriousness of history painting. In the 1620s, Valentin de Boulogne and another young French­man, Nicolas Poussin, were regarded as the two most promising emerg­ing artists in Rome; but while Poussin went on to become a giant, Val­entin’s career was cut short by his untimely death in 1632. So only Poussin remained a hero to modernists like Cezanne. This exhibition, with a scholarly catalogue of the highest quality, marks the belated rehabilitation of a great painter.

Beyond Caravaggio exhibition
National Gallery in London
ends 15th Jan. 2017

Among other international exhibitions of art-historical significance are Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt at the National Gallery in Washington, which will be followed at the same museum by Della Robbia: Sculpting with Colour in Renaissance Florence — a comprehensive exhibition of the distinctive Florentine style of poly­chromatic ceramic sculpture.

Paris' most remarkable exhibition is Icons of Modern Art at the new Fondation Louis Vuitton. This show brings together important works from the later C19th and early C20th that were assembled by Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy collector and art lover. The collection was confiscated during the Russian Revolution and later broken up under Stalin, so we are lucky the works are now being seen together.

Another collection that suffered from the disapproval and censorship of a revolutionary regime is that of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran; works of modern art acquired in the time of the Shah were largely deemed unsuitable for exhibition after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but attitudes have recently grown more liberal. Now 60+ of this art will be shown in an exhibition at Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie.

The Gemaldegalerie also has an exhibition on Hieronymus Bosch and His Pictorial World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. It marks the 500th anniversary of the death of this eccentric but highly sophist­ic­ated painter best known for his intricate and proto-surreal comp­ositions like The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado. Note its dis­quiet­ing depiction of the earthly paradise, and its evocations of sinful humanity and grisly punishment in hell.

An even more dramatic story of the impact of war and revolution on art collecting is told in an exhibition at Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome: Il Museo universale marks the 200th anniv­ers­ary of the return of hundreds of paintings and sculptures looted from churches, convents and palaces by the French army in the time of Napoleon. The return to Italy of so many masterpieces that had been rendered homeless by the suppression of monasteries led to the creation of important museums in Italy. Think of the Brera in Milan and the Accademia in Venice.

Icons of Modern Art. The Shchukin Collection
starring Henri Matisse 
Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris
end 20th Feb 2017.

The Tate in London has a survey of the art of Paul Nash, while the British Museum has South Africa: The Art of a Nation and an exhib­it­ion of French Portrait Drawings from Clouet to Courbet. For something completely diff­erent, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has an exhibition devoted to the beautiful and ultimately tragic Emma Hamilton, best known as the mistress of Lord Nelson. And the National Gallery has a wonderful exhibition on the artists of the Heidelberg School: Australia’s Impressionists.

Here in Australia, there are significant exhibitions in most of our big cities over the summer period. In Canberra, the National Gallery’s Versailles show is open and runs until Easter. It stars 130 paintings, tapestries, gilded furniture, monumental statues and personal items from Louis XIV to Marie Antoinette, The gallery also has a long-running exhibition on Artists of the Great War. The National Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, from the British Museum, continues until the end of January.

Sydney's Art Gallery NSW has Nude, an interesting if uneven loan ex­hibition from the Tate, as well as a survey of Oriental callig­raph­ic tradit­ions. The State Library has Planting Dreams, an exhibition devoted to the art of the garden.

The National Gallery of Victoria has a number of substantial exhibit­ions. Its main summer show devoted to David Hockney who is said to be Britain’s greatest living painter. They also have a retrospective of John Olsen, for whom an equivalent claim is made in Australia. Lat­er on the NGV will host an impressive exhibition of work by Vincent van Gogh, who has also been the subject of a recent forging controversy. And the Heide Mus­eum has an exhibition devoted to Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, which will later come to the Art Gallery NSW.

Madame de Pompadour as the beautiful gardener, 1754–55 
by Carle Van Loo
Château de Versailles
Now at the National Gallery, Canberra

In Brisbane, No 1 Neighbour is a survey of recent art in Papua New Guinea, from the last decade of Australian rule to the present. In W.A, Travellers and Traders at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle is a fascinating exhibition about the Dutch connection with Western Australia and, more broadly, the trading networks the Dutch estab­lished between Europe and East Asia during their heyday in the C17th. Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art has an exhibition in which four scientists have been invited to ponder On the Origins of Art.


If I, Hels, could only select one exhibition, it would be a] Emma Hamilton in Greenwich, b] Icons of Modern Art at the new Fondation Louis Vuitton or c] Travellers and Traders at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle. The beloved would have opted for the Caravaggio and the Painters of the North, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

17 January 2017

Wannsee Conference (1942) in a beautiful Berlin villa

History of the Wannsee Villa homepage says that the beautiful home was first built in SW Berlin in 1914-15. The original owners of the home, merchant-factory owner Ernst Marlier and his wife Margarete, were photo­graphed standing in their front doorway in 1916. The photograph of the dining room shows how the room was fur­nished: Queen Ann chairs, Oriental rug, chandelier and wall tap­estry. The Wintergarten, the sun room next to the dining room, is still lovely. The house had 1,500 sq ms of living space, and a very large garden. One of the great joys of living in Wannsee was proximity to beautiful parks, lakes and beaches.

Ernst and Margarete Marlier sold the house in 1921, to a firm bel­ong­ing to the industrialist Friedrich Minoux. The first important conf­erence was held in this villa in Feb 1923. This was when Minoux mediated an un­successful discussion between the chief of the army command and the former quartermaster general on measures to be taken against the French occupation of Germany’s coal-rich Ruhr region.

Wannsee Villa, 
surrounded by well kept, peaceful gardens

Wannsee beach

According to the museum, Minoux was also involved in Hitler's failed Putsch in Nov 1923. Minoux believed that "on that date, which was the 5th anniversary of the overthrow of the 500-year old Hohenzollern dynasty of Germany by the Jewish-led Social Democrats", Hitler made an attempt to overthrow the democratic Weimar Republic.

In 1940, Minoux was arrested for fraud and embezzlement in his busin­esses. In Nov 1940 he sold the villa, with all its furn­ishings and art works, to the Nordhav SS Foundation set up by Reinhard von Heydrich. The foundation's role was to build and main­tain vacation resorts for the SS Security Service. Hey­drich, Himmler's second in command of the SS, wanted to use the Wannsee villa for official functions and as a hol­iday resort. It offered renovated guest rooms, a music room, a billiards room, the gorgeous winter garden and terraces facing the Wannsee.

With the invasion of Poland in Sep 1939, the persecution of European Jewry was raised to unprecedented levels. But worse was to come in June 1941 after the onset of Operation Barbarossa against the Sov­iets. On 31st July 1941 Hermann Göring gave written authorisation to Heydrich to prepare and submit a plan - he had to create a Total Solution of the Jewish Question in territ­ories under German control and to coordinate the participation of all involved government organisations.
The Wannsee Museum rooms,
as lightfilled and spacious as they were in 1914

Thus the Wannsee Conference. It was a meeting of 16 senior government officials of Nazi Germany and SS leaders, held in the house on 20th Jan 1942. Called by director of the Reich Main Security Office Rein­hard Heyd­rich, the conference was to ensure the cooperation of administrative leaders of various government dep­art­ments in the final solution to the Jewish question. State sec­re­t­­aries from the Foreign Office, the justice and interior ministries, plus representatives from the Schutzstaffel/SS heard the plan, and pooled their expertise. It took less than two hours for Heydrich to outline how European Jews would be rounded up from west to east, and sent to the General Government i.e the occupied part of Poland. Once the mass deportation was complete, the SS would take complete charge of the extermination camps.

Many records were destroyed. And it was only in March 1947 that the Wannsee Conference even came to light, by accident. One copy of the Wannsee Protocol with circulated minutes of the meeting survived, found by the Allies among files that had been seized from the German Foreign Office.

In 1965 the villa was proposed as an ideal site for the study of Nat­ional Socialism and its Consequences, organised by historian Josef Wulf and largely financed by the World Jewish Congress. But the Ger­man gov­ern­ment was not prepared to allow the Jews to buy the property or use it as a document centre. Only on 20th Jan 1992, EXACTLY on the 50th anniversary of the conference, the site was finally opened as a Holocaust Memorial and as the House of the Wannsee Conference Museum.

Most of the ground-floor rooms have large panels on the walls with text about the Nazi era and the Holocaust, along with a collection of pictures related to the evacuation of the Jews, as planned at the Wannsee Conference. The Joseph Wulf Bibliothek-Mediothek on the second floor houses a large collection of books on the Nazi era, plus other materials such as microfilms.

Reinhard Heydrich on the front cover of
Professor Mark Roseman's book

The 75th Anniversary Wannsee Conference Commemoration will be taking place in Melbourne on the 29th January 2017, chaired by the Federal Member of Parliament for Melbourne Ports and opened by the President of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

If readers are planning to attend the Melbourne commemoration, it may be worth reading Mark Roseman’s book The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution (Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2002) first. Or read the review in The Guardian.