30 April 2009

The Princess of Mantua, by Marie Ferranti

I was very interested in Mantua as a source of art, since Duke Vincenzo II Gonzaga sold the family’s fabulous collect­ion of Renais­sance paintings to the English King Charles I in 1626-7. So when the very slim novel The Princess of Mantua popped up in a local bookshop, I bought it. The only blogs that even mentioned this novel were Reading Books in Mount To Be Read and normblog (Oct 2007), and they gave no information.

The story concerns the historical figures of Barbara von Brandenburg, who was brought from Germany to Mantua as a young girl to marry in 1433, and Ludovico Gonzaga her young husband. I found myself in the Mantuan court alright, but 200 years too early.

It appeared that the author used a large archive of family letters and other documents to record the story of the Gonzaga family, their court and the other noble families they interacted with eg the Sforzas, d’Estes and Malatestas. But on the very last page, the author explained that Barbara’s cou-sin Maria of Hohenzollern, the correspondent in most of the mail exchanges, never actually existed.

So Ms Ferranti must have really done her historical homework. Court life in the 1430s-70s seemed very finely observed in the book; this was a time when powerful lords wanted to surround themselves with some of the best known men of letters and artists of the era.

The early years of Barbara’s married life seemed difficult beyond belief. Her parents in law educated and protected her, but her husband Ludovico was away, establishing a reputation for himself as a military man. The most important man in her young life was a learned tutor. When Ludovico returned, Barbara became constantly pregnant, safely delivering ten babies in 19 years. Just as well Mantua was one of the liveliest, most intellectual courts in Europe.

In middle age, Barbara was surprised at the way she was depicted in Mantegna's amazing painting, The Court of Mantua - Gonzaga Family. Here Andrea Mantegna took an endless amount of time, but in the end he created a master-piece in the room Barbara most loved, the Camera Depicta.
Mantegna, Palazzo Ducale Mantua, 1471-4 (Barbara centre)
Barbara’s older age was unhappy, filled with self-imposed isolation from her family and mourning for her peers. Only the Camera Depicta remained a source of inspiration to the depressed marquess.
Normally I don’t mind slim novels, but in this case, I wanted more. As an afterthought, note that a blog called The Daily Evergreen Book Reviews added something that I, an art historian, had forgotten. Sometimes great fictional versions of court life can be produced, simply by examining a very real painting. Of course I knew Mantegna’s large painting, The Court of Mantua, very well. But a literary version of an art historical object is something we don’t teach under-graduate students. Perhaps that explains my discomfort at finding out that the letters sent between Barbara von Brandenburg and her cousin never actually existed.

27 April 2009

The Ghan: luxury train trip from Adelaide-Darwin

When The Ghan first departed Adel­aide for Alice Springs in 1929, it was intended that it would one day travel through to Darwin. 72 years after this north-to-south route opened, The Ghan train IS running the entire 3,000 ks between Adel­aide & Darwin.  It took over 100 years of Federation to agree on one railway gauge!

Named for the camel-riding Afghans who once carried supplies to opal miners in the remote parts of the outback, it took almost 3 years of laying track through the most inhospitable parts of Australia. The 2.5 day ride glides past the red-hued Macdonnell Ranges, over the baked Great Victoria Desert, via vast sheep and cattle stations. It leaves twice/week, from both ends.

On board, travellers can enjoy the spectacular Australian land­scapes through the heart of the continent. But sight seeing tours (book Whistle Stop Tours on the train) are the best way to make the most of the journey. Alas The Ghan only has two set stops: in Alice Springs and Katherine, for 4 hours each. There are only two nights on board, so people who want to get off and tour other places will need to leave the train and join a later train.

Dinner on board

The Ghan’s carriages are totally silver from the outside. The dining car serves first-class meals and Australian wines, while the lounge bar is a meeting place for Australian and international visitors. The train’s internal decor highlights the dramatic colours of the desert land­scape through which the train travels. The best cabins are lovely.

I wish there was a half day stop in Coober Pedy (pop 3,500), a small town 846 ks north of Adelaide. The harsh summer temperatures mean that most resid­ents live in caves drilled out of the rock in the side of a hill, rather than actually under-ground. A stan­dard 3-bedroom cave home has a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. It remains at a constant temper­ature, even during the boil­ing hot summer months. And people work under­ground in mine shafts. The town is known as the opal capital of the world because 90% of the world's finest opals are mined there. Other interesting attractions in Coober Pedy include the mines, the graveyard, and the underground churches.

I also wished the train would stop for half a day in Uluru where it is worth rising early to witness the rock at sunrise. Travellers could learn about Uluru from Aboriginal cust­od­ians on the Liru Walk. Or choose to take a Harley Davidson tour, a desert camel ride or see unique wildlife at the Predators of the Red Centre show. The park is open from sunrise and sunset all week, and the Cultural Centre explains the spir­itual legends surrounding the rock. Listen to the didgeridoo as the sun sets on Uluru.

Original Telegraph Station, Alice Springs

The train stays for 4 hours in Alice Springs (pop 38,000) so there is some time to explore the history of the town. Alice Springs has many hist-oric buildings eg the Overland Telegraph Station 1872-7, the Old Courthouse and Residency and the Hartley St School. The modern town of Alice Springs has both western and Aborig­inal influences. The town’s focal point, the Todd Mall hosts a number of Aboriginal art galleries and community events. The Royal Flying Doctor Serv-ice, brainchild of John Flynn of the Inland, was created here in 1939. For people wanting to see the outback, half-day tours visit Alice Springs Desert Park or explore the Aboriginal Dream time.

The Ghan arrives in the beef cattle town of Katherine (pop 7,000) early in the morning, only 6 km from the township by shuttle bus. In stunning Nitmiluk National Park, go on a guided cruise through Kath­erine Gorge, a series of 13 gorges cut in­to the Arnhem Land plateau by the Katherine River. The towering sandstone walls of Kath­erine Gorge house an array of wildlife as well as ancient Ab­original rock art. Commentary from local guide examines the gorge’s plants & animals, especially the freshwater crocodiles. Travel and Trains and Other Things blog went on a different tour that shows travel­lers the highlights of this outback town and its surrounding en­virons, includ­ing School of the Air, Katherine Museum and the Old Spring­vale Home­stead 1879. Jim and his friends re-boarded the train for the last part of the journey, clearly having had a splendid time.

Katherine Gorge

The trip ends at Darwin train station which is located c20 minutes drive south of the city centre. Darwin has changed from the rough frontier town pre-Tracy to a modern vibrant multicultural city. It is home to the Indo-Pacific Marine & Australian Pearling Exhibition, which houses a huge aquarium. The Museum of the Northern Territory focuses on regional history, including exhibits on Cyclone Tracy and the boats of the Pacific Islands.

Darwin Harbour is surrounded by scenic mangroves and pristine tidal beaches. Some visitors want to go on a day tour to Litch­field National Park with the strange magnetic termite mounds. Swim in the nat­ural pool at Wangi Falls, view the beautiful double waterfall that is Florence Falls and see stunning Tolmer Falls. Travel to Adelaide River and join a guided crocodile cruise. Watch as salt water croc­odiles leap from the river. Or explore Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu National Park

In The Bible on the Ghan, I really liked the idea that The Ghan has up to three private carriages: Chairman's, Prince of Wales and Sir John Forrest Carriages. The carriages have cabins, lounges and dining facilities, and would be perfect for a conference.

25 April 2009

ANZAC Day 2009: Longstaff in Ypres

Map. Flanders 1917-8

The Great War resulted in the utter devastation of the town of Ypres in Flanders. The Menin Gate marked the start of one of the main roads out of Ypres towards the front line, on to an obscene loss of young life. There was no actual gate – just a gap in the old city walls and a bridge across the moat. When the First World War came to Ypres in 1914, the walls could not stop the heavy shells which were fired into the town.

The Menin Gate, Ypres

Almost as soon as the war was over, there were plans to build some kind of memorial in the Ypres area. The Belgian Government off­ered Menin Gate to the British for their use as a commemorative site and the British Government decided that it should commemorate the Missing i.e soldiers of the British and Empire armies who had died in the 1918 fighting around Ypres, but who had no known graves. The number of dead was staggering - Britain: 40,000 men, Australia: 6200, Canada: 7000 and India 4200. [New Zea­land and Newfoundland soldiers were honoured separately]. This mem­orial was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and was opened in 1927.

Artist Will Longstaff (1879-1953) enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of WW1 but was injured early in the war. In October 1915 he rejoined the war in France and Egypt before being evacuated, again, to England in 1917. In England, he returned to military art. Eventually Longstaff was appointed Official Australian War Artist in 1918 and produced many works during the final campaigns of the Western Front.

Australians and New Zealanders are used to war artists painting tent camps, men on parade, men in trenches, men in hospital and women farewelling/welcoming their soldier husbands and sons. But it was less common for artists to portray spiritualist ideas in WW1 paintings.

Longstaff painted Menin Gate at Midnight well after the war, after he saw the opening ceremony of the Menin Gate memorial at the ent­ran­ce of Ypres. Longstaff said that he was so pro­foundly moved by the ceremony that during a midnight walk along the Menin road he saw a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit corn fields around him. It is said that, following his return to London, he painted the work as quickly as he could, so as not to lose the sensation of Menin Gate.

Longstaff, Menin Gate at Midnight 1927. 
Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The scene was painted largely in blue, which was part of the midnight imagery. It was created in a traditional, landscape structure: the moonlit memorial was placed on the horizon line, and before it marched a host of ghostly soldiers, portrayed by just a suggestion of bodies and helmets. In the foreground, the ground was covered with red pop­p­ies. In the distance, a small building added a dramatic con­trast to the Menin Gate and to the silence of the region.

Following the success of Menin Gate, Longstaff painted several other works on a similar theme. Immortal Shrine/ Eternal Silence 1928 dep­ic­t­ed ghostly soldiers marching past the cenotaph in London on Remem­b­rance Day 1928. This work was closely based on a watercolour by Long­staff held in the Imperial War Museum that depicted the cenotaph on a rainy day: the bold structure of the cenotaph, the reflections in the street, and the glimmering lights were similar, but the watercolour was peopled by the ghostly figures of ordinary citizens, rather than by soldiers, and in Immortal Shrine the cenotaph itself had an eerie presence, dimly spotlighted in front of the solemn, dark buildings.

Longstaff, Immortal Shrine 1928. 
Australian War Memorial, Canberra.       

Holties House blog wrote of the extraord­inary importance of ANZAC day on the Australian and NZ national psyche in ANZAC Day 2009. Sleepless Travels Reloaded blog said in ANZAC Day that “Longstaff’s Menin Gate at Midnight was the exhibit that really stood out to me, and is my favourite. It is displayed in a darkened alcove. I remember standing there practically mesmerised by the painting, holding back tears”. Craig Tibbetts blog reinforced the symbolism of the Gate in The Menin Gate Memorial. He said the gate itself, beyond which these men’s fate lay, became symbolic. It was the last place they marched through, on their way to the Front Line. Attempts blog 2006 in Poems for Armistice Day wrote 88 years ago tod­ay World War One ended: after four mad years, the guns at last fell silent.  

I agree. As a passionately anti-war person, I hope the war to end all wars will never ever be repeated. Nonetheless spouse and I still thought it important to visit Gallipoli in Turkey a few years ago. We were very moved by the entire experience.

22 April 2009

Selfridge's, Suffragettes and Fashion

Irenebrination: Notes on Art, Fashion and Style tells us that the innovative shopping experience promised by Selfridge’s was the result of the vision of Gordon Selfridge, originally manager of Marshall Field, Chicago. This American businessman planned to open an American-style emporium in London that could give shoppers a pleas­urable day out as well, presumably, as making a fortune for himself.

Selfridge's Oxford St, London

Foundations for the department store were laid in early 1908 and by 1909 the building opened. Taking up an entire block in Oxford St, the neo-classical columns, impressive entrance and rich decor­at­ion became a veritable temple to shopping. You can see the Queen of Time clock over the entrance, with its classical sculptural programme.

600,00 personal invitations had been sent out in the days before the opening, inviting everyone in Britain to come to see the Selfridge's during its first week. Orchestras played music and masses of flowers filled the interior.

Invitation to the opening

Selfridge wrote a book about retail­ing, entert­ainment and success called The Romance of Commerce; he should have called it the Religion and Politics of Commerce.

Timing was critical. Gordon Selfridge founded his store just as the women's suffrage movement was becoming successful and the London Underground was bring­ing respectable ladies into town. To make shop­ping easier and more pleasant for women, Selfridge opened the first in-house coffee shop, roof top restaurant and ladies bathrooms. It was all designed to make a day of shopping in the city something a respectable lady might thoroughly enjoy.

Selfridge's rooftop restaurant

Gordon Selfridge was an important supporter of the women's movement. He even refused to press charges when a suffragette broke one of the store's enormous plate glass windows. And it is said that Selfridge’s flew the Suffragette flag on its roof! I wonder why he was so supportive. Selfridge said independent women would be his best customers. But it would be interesting to know if Mrs Selfridge was pushing him.
For their part, suffragettes believed that fashionable, feminine dressing was important. Barbara Caine in Australian Feminism and the British Militant Suff­ragettes wrote Suffrage demonst­rations were very much costumed affairs. Unlike their later counterparts, early C20th feminists regarded fashion as very important. Christabel Pankhurst urged: “Suffragettes must not be dowdy” and urged the women to outfit themselves approp­riately.
Beautifully groomed suffragettes
Photo credit: US Library of Congress

Every suffrage group developed a close relationship with a particular West End emporium, which fitted them out appropriately. They also published attractive advertising in the pages of their weekly papers. The moderate suffragettes chose as their stores Derry and Thom, or Swan and Edgar, or Burberry, shops that provided sen­sible coats and skirts, silk blouses and serv­iceable overcoats at moderate prices. This was the kind of outfit that, as the advertisements sug­gested, allowed for comfortable move­ment. The more militant suffragettes chose the classier Selfridges which offered a far more elegant array of clothes.

Selfridges ad­vertised regularly in the suffragette paper Votes for Women, featured the suffragette purple, white and green in its win­d­ows, and offered many different designs in white with delicate stripes of suffragette colours to wear to demonstrations. Selfridges garments usually chosen by suffragettes were not the rugged brown outdoor coats and skirts, but rather delicate white tea gowns, of a kind normally worn indoors. The white garments emphasised the physical fragility of women.

Derry and Toms advertising, directed at suffragette demonstrators

Sally Feldman in The New Humanist wrote that for the Suffragettes, the department stores rep­res­ented both opportunity and limitation. While some more radical women disapproved of the trivial pleasures they offered, they also held meetings in the shops and even used them to distribute their own propaganda. When hordes of militant women rampaged through the West End shattering shop windows in March 1912, it was a manifestation of this ambiv­al­en­ce. The Suffragettes recognised themselves as con­sum­ers and partly accepted retailers' claims that shopping was a female form of eman­ci­p­ation. But now they were demanding more fundamental rights, so they broke retailers' windows to encourage them to become their advocates and vote against the government.
Swan and Edgar advertising, suggesting that movement ribbons could be added to their clothes

21 April 2009

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Floormodel’s Weblog reminded me that it is acceptable, and indeed admirable, to write about grandchildren in blogs.

My oldest grandchild, aged 6, asked me if grandpa smoked. I assured her he did not. She relaxed and said "thank goodness. Scientists have discovered that there are very harmful chemicals inside each cigarette. When a person smokes, the harmful chemicals are sucked out of the cigarette, go into the smoker's mouth and down into his lungs. Then he gets lung cancer and has to go to hospital".

I said "so if it is so clear that the chemicals in a cigarette make people very sick, why would any sensible person smoke?" My very clever granddaughter thought for a moment and said "They cannot help themselves. They must be addicted". I was briefly silent so she added , smiling, "I bet you didn't think I knew what addicted meant".

With all my fancy education, I didn't know about the harm cigarettes did until I was at university. So I asked her how she knew all this information. Clever girl said "oh we did a Risk Management talk at school".

20 April 2009

Beechworth's Victorian Architecture

Beechworth (pop 3500) is 271 km NE of Melbourne. It has at least 30 sites listed with the National Trust, mostly elegant buildings from the middle/late Victorian era. Even more noteworthy is Beechworth's coherent street­scape, partially because honey-coloured local granite was used as a building material. Today the streets are still well laid out, broad, tree lined and in proportion. This is no Disneyesque mockup of a town.

Main street

In 1839, David Reid was one of the first Europeans to explore the area which he named May Day Hills. The Beechworth gold rush started when one of Reid's for­mer shep­herds found gold on Spring Creek in 1852. Many other gold discoveries were made and 800 people arrived by late 1852. May Day Hills shop keepers asked the government to lay out a township, which it did.

Within a few years years, loads of gold had been found. At its peak there were 30,000-40,000 people and 61 local drinking establishments. Then reef min­ing of quartz replaced alluvial work as the main source of gold. The use of dynamite led to the 1859 Beech­worth Powder Magazine, a small buttressed room for storing the gunpowder used in gold mining. All the major gold fields had a powder magazine, also used in the quarrying of stone for building.

Consequently Beechworth became the administrative centre for NE Victoria. Many sub­st­antial public buildings were erected at this time eg a hos­p­ital 1856, hospital for the aged, a mental asylum, a flour mill 1855, law courts 1855 and, of course, a gaol was an early neces­sity 1853. The first local member was elected to parliament in 1855.

Beechworth was said to have had the largest Chinese population in the country outside of Melbourne, with 7,000 on the local fields by the early 1860s. They worked claims aban­doned by others, and established market gardens and tobacco crops. European racist sentiments led to a riot in the Buck­land Valley in 1857 where Chinese miners were robbed or killed. Still, Beechworth’s Chinese community made a significant cult­ural and social contribution. The Beechworth Cemetery, estab­lished 1856, contains the graves of 2000 Chinese who worked the goldfields. See the twin ceremonial Chinese Burning Towers.

The man sent to deal with the anti-Chinese disorder was Robert O'Hara Burke who, with William Wills, later led the first expedition to trav­el north across Aust­ra­lia in 1860-1. Burke had served as super­in­t­­endent of police at Beech­worth from 1854-8.

Courthouse and cells

Australia's best-known bushranger, Ned Kelly, had a long association with Beechworth, especially the courthouse and gaol. The impressive gaol 1859-64 was built to replace a wooden stockade and is still work­­ing. Huge granite perimeter walls, fine rounded sentry towers with octagonal roofs and the arched gateway stand grimly. The Robert Burke building became a museum in 1863, housing one of the country's largest Ned Kelly collections.

In 1856-60, they demolished many timber buildings from the early gold rush, making way for more sub­st­antial granite structures on Ford and Loch Sts today. The courthouse 1857-9 is one of several excellent public buildings in Ford St. It closed in 1989 and opened soon after as a museum and hall. Built of granite by Scot­tish stone masons, it feat­ures a cent­ral block with gab­led ends con­taining the main courtroom, flanked by office wings. Ver­andas outside and a public vestibule inside still remain, as do the original fittings.

The gold treasury is wonderful, with its offices of the Chinese Protector and Warden of the Gold-fields. Originally built as a Gold Office and Sub-Treasury in 1856, the building served as a storage area for gold found on the fields. The gold was then transported fort­nightly to the Melbourne Treasury. In the 1880s the gold Treasury became the Beechworth Police Station, lasting 100 years

Post Office

Today’s post office was erected in 1869-70, to replace the original building which had been destroyed by fire. This amazing building is an Ital­ianate structure with a square tower containing the original bell and clock. It features a colonnade on the ground floor and a bal­cony with slender columns for the post master’s residence upstairs. Note a lion’s head iron drink­ing fountain.

Another imposing site is the Bank of Victoria building. It was built in 1867 to replace an earlier large bank that had been destroyed by fire. The building features arched windows on the ground floor and a small cast -iron balcony above the main entrance. Inside is the original gold vault which was used when the building was a gold office. And an impressive crystal chandelier. The original toilet blocks, servants' quarters and balcony have been restored and a Victorian-style fount­ain has been installed in a fine stone pool within the garden area. This is overseen by wrought-iron gates. And the former Bank of NSW buil­d­ing 1856-7, two-storey stone, is now a wine centre. Finally we have the Bank of Austral­asia 1858. Banks were clearly the most important institution in a city based on gold money.

The famous Beechworth Bakery was first built as a small store in 1857. It was expanded to include a second story and a balcony with grille work before 1900. In Camp St is the impressive facade of the former London Tavern 1859-62 which was the town's first all-brick hotel. It is arranged around a veranda and central courtyard.

In Ford St is the former Star Hotel 1864 which has been con­verted to shops with the upstairs serving as private accommodat­ion. It was actually the third building on the site to go under that name; the first being erected in 1853 and the second burned down by fire. The polychromatic brickwork hotel doubled as a theatre where professional acts performed for the miners. A social centre!

The pubs were the most important establishments in town for many miners. Dozens of simple structures sprang up with the initial gold rush, on the local goldfields. The best survived with ear­lier wooden structures being replaced by more extensive build­ings. Thus the Tanswell's Commercial Hotel 1873 rep­laced the 1853 wooden original. It is a two-storey stone and brick structure with a decorative iron lacework veranda. The facade, with its richly gilded crest on the front window and French doors, has been carefully rest­ored. The lounge is furnished in mid-C19th style, as the Kelly gang knew it.

To the rear of the building are the coach house and stables which were originally built by the American Hiram Crawford. He establ­ished his firm and a coach-building works, with Tanswell's acting as the booking office. Crawford's was the most successful coaching service in the 1850s and 1860s - it covered all of Victoria's north-east stretching from Echuca to Corryong, Bright, Wangaratta ...and into Albury and southern NSW's Riverina area.
Tanswell's Commerical Hotel

Breweries were almost as important. Murray Breweries Historic Cellars were built in 1865, at which time they were known as Billson's Brew­ery.

Churches were as important as pubs. Christ Church was started in 1858 while the tower and chancel date from 1864. This fine early prov­incial church design has a massive square tower and stained-glass windows. Nearby is the Gothic-style St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church 1868 with its fine rose window and interior granite columns. Over the road from the gaol is St Andrew's Uniting Church 1857, a rendered brick structure featuring an unusual square tower.

In 1886 four Brigidine nuns sailed from Ireland to Australia. They arrived in Beechworth where they established a con­vent in the former Oriental Bank building in Ford St, which in 1886 became the second Brigidine convent in Australia. The following year the sisters took over St Joseph's school, buying land adjacent to the school. Much later it became the Old Priory Lodge.

Old Priory 1886

Ovens District Hospital was once the largest hospital between Melb­ourne and Sydney. It was built in stages from 1856-1900 with the key work and extensive gardens being done 1862-64. All that remains now is the elegant Palladian granite façade; its fine stonemasonry featured a triple-arched entrance and stylised Classical pediment.

In the late 1880s it was decided to demolish the first Council off­ices in the town hall and erect a double st­orey building. Early on the hall also served as a Court of Petty Sessions, with the magistrate seated in an elaborate carved chair. Kerosene chand­el­iers illuminated the hall for social occasions. Adjacent are the Town Hall Gardens 1875, when botanist Ferdinard von Mueller donated trees.

The Mental Hospital and Lodge 1867 is a very large structure built of bricks in the Dutch colonial style with curved gables. The verandas were impressive. The gardens were designed by a landscape gardener who was one of the first in­mates. Water was supplied by rainwater which was funnelled from the roof into 7 under­ground chambers via hollow veranda posts. It is now one of Latrobe University’s campuses.

Beechworth benefited from being on the main Melbourne-Sydney road, alth­ough the town's importance decl­ined when Wangaratta received the railway in 1873. Worse still the town declined as the mining activity faded, in the late C19th. But for people who want to inspect intact Victorian architecture and history, Beechworth's lack of modern development is ideal. The best blog is Beechworth Today eg Historic Burke treasure stars in new circus exhibition.

Old Town Hall

12 April 2009

Orientalist Art: males in the harem

Charlotte's blog wrote about The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting at the Tate gallery in London (June-Aug 2008). The exhibition brought together paintings by British artists of the Orient i.e eastern Mediterranean countries under the control of the Ottoman Empire till WW2, although most of the paintings were 19th century.

J-L Gerome, Harem Guard

Gender issues were important. A number of themes structured the exhibition: Orientalist portraits demonstrated the fashion for adopting the dress of foreign countries by travellers like T.E. Lawrence; Genre and Gender explored the gendering of public and private spaces, although Charlotte felt this was more fully covered in the section on Home and Harem which drew attention to female travellers who could, unlike their male counterparts, access exclusively female places like the harem.

Not surprisingly, the idea of an all female harem, representing beauties in lavishly appointed settings fed the imagination of C19th artists. This was to such an extent that there were many images of women reclining, bathing or being bathed, and exotic dancers. But were strong, handsome and possibly dangerous males depicted as well?

Rudolf Weisse, Nubian Guard

The Harem Guard by Jean Discart 1885 was magnificent in its de­t­ail and exotic in its subject matter. Guards of the Harem by Ludwig Deutsch depict­ed the never-ending boredom endured by these colourful men. Rudolph Ernst's favour­ite compos­it­ional technique of depicting his subjects from a low perspective, heightening their grandeur and presence eg Guard at the Harem. Note the favourite props that reapp­eared often, such as the Indo-Persian helmets, shields, exquisitely embroid­ered green silk fabric and ornate faience tiles.

These men were far from weakened, effeminate eunuchs. The guards, as depicted by the European male artists, had determined, masculine faces and bodies. Plus they carried nasty weapons. One of my favourites is in Images by Gro. Standing in front of an arch that closely resembles the architecture of the Alhambra in Spain, the Moorish Chief by the Austrian artist Eduard Charlemont does indeed exude power and mystery. Another is in Painting History.

Rudolph Ernst, Harem Guard

The Orientalist Gallery has an unusual image of a handsome male, lounging in front of fire place alongside an equally handsome and very alert tiger. The Sheik's Favourite by Rudolph Ernst was fully armed, like the other males in this article, but presumably his favourite status allowed him to guard in comfort.

08 April 2009

Orientalist Art: the harem

Fabbi, Musical Interlude in the Harem
In 1453 Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and the Ottomans captured their most important political and financial goal, Constantinople. Topkapi Palace was the first built palace in Islamic Con­stantinople, while the harem remained in the Old Palace building for 70 years. That meant that for 70 years the Sultans had to divide their life into parts. Family life was run at the Old Palace while admin­istration of government and affairs of state were conducted in the New Palace.

The word haraam means the thing or person that is forbidden (in Ar­abic). But the harem included all the important facilities needed by the Sultan and his family. The Sultan lived there, as did the next most import­ant person in his empire, his mother. All the wives and their child­ren had apartments, while the Favourites, unmarried concubines (slav­es) and staff had smaller rooms. In addition there were shared rooms, like the lounges, court yards, kitchens, prayer rooms, music rooms, libraries and most certainly a Turkish bath. Other than the Sultan’s sons, the other males inside the harem were eunuchs. But even the eunuchs could not enter the central core of the harem.
It is impossible to know the size and complexity of the harem build­ings since individual sultans had rooms added or pulled down at will. However the harem at Topkapi probably had 70 rooms and courtyards, on top of the bedrooms given to wives, Favourites and concubines.

Gerome, The Harem Bath

K. Erhan Bozkurt wrote in Life in The Harem that the harem required a continuous supply of fit young women, largely bought in the slave markets of the Middle East. Their tasks included participating in celebrations, both religious and for entertainment. Musical evenings were often organised within the harem where the sultan would attend with his wives, favourites and all their children. Trips were org­anised on the upper shores of the Golden Horn. Dancing was arranged for weddings and circumcision ceremonies. But what happened to the harem women who were surplus to requirements? The Sultan could, and did make high-ranking officers marry girls in his harem. Statesmen of the very highest rank would be made to marry Sultana i.e the Sultan’s daughters or sisters.
As The Orientalist Gallery and Mark Vallen's ART FOR A CHANGE  have beautifully shown, the paintings that we see of harems tend to be from French, German, English or Italian artists, painted in the second half of the 19th century. Presumably that is because Islamic artists knew better than to paint forbidden images. Even if there were such paintings in Islamic collections, I am unlikely ever to see them. But that creates a problem. Travelling artists coming back to Western Europe from Constantinople or Cairo wouldn’t have known what the inside of a harem looked like: they simply wanted exot­ic, colourful reminders of their trip. Exotic and lush they were!

Eugene Delacroix man­aged to sketch some women secretly in Algiers, as in the large painting Algerian Women in their Qu­art­ers 1834. Shrouded in dark­ness, three seductive Orientals lounged on the ground, evoking a harem and also the sense of mystery which so glam­orised the Orient to European eyes. Note the favourite props that reapp­eared often, such as the colourful clothes, exquisitely embroid­ered green silk fabric and ornate faience tiles.

John Frederick Lewis, The Reception

Ingres did NOT ever travel to the East himself, but some of his most famous nudes are located in the harems of Egypt and Turkey. Odalisque with Slave 1839 showed a musician on one side and a worker in the back­gr­ound. But this was an exotic, sensuous nude; she was supple, fleshy, pale col­our­ed and full of ripe languor. The textiles, archi­t­ecture and costumes were absolutely crowded with decorative de­tail, but the nude dom­inated the picture with her pale, heav­ing body and her blond tress­es. These are the images that influence our idea of a harem most.

05 April 2009

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem (661-91)

The Temple Mount has a recorded history of c4,000 years. It is first mentioned when the Patriarch Abraham met the king and where Isaac was to be sacr­ificed to God. King David capt­ured it from the Jeb­usites, prom­is­ing to erect a sanct­uary to God there. But this didn't happen until Dav­id's son, King Sol­omon, built a wondrous Tem­p­le on the Mount in 955 BCE. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and later the same site was chosen by Ezra and Nechemiah, when they build the second Temple.

So why did Jerusalem assume an importance to the Muslims that was third only to Mecca and Medina?

Im­por­t­antly for Islam, the Koran itself (17th surah) tells of Moham­med's famous dream in which he took a night jour­ney on the winged horse El Buraq along with the Angel Gab­r­i­el. The night journey went from "the sacred temple to the temple that is more remote"; that is, from Mec­ca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Here Mohammed wor­shipped with his predec­es­sors including Abraham, Mo­s­es and Jesus. They escort­­ed him up a lad­der of light to the presence of God where he re­ceiv­ed rev­el­at­ion, then descended again. The Rock on the Temple Mount refers to the rock from which Mo­ham­med is reputed to have ascended to heav­en.

The rock, surrounded by a walkway for pilgrims

But by the time Caliph Omar visited the city to inspect his troops’ victory in 638 AD, the site of King Solomon's temple mount had been des­o­late for 700 years. Omar was offend-ed. He dec­id­ed to res­t­ore the Tem­ple Mount and er­ect a lav­ish Moslem edifice, now called the Dome of the Rock/ Mosque of Omar. But it took some time to get the project going; it was not started until Cal­iph Abd el-Malik arrived from Mecca in 661 AD and was completed within 30 years.

Designed by Byzantine architects engaged by the Caliph, the Dome of the Rock was the greatest monumental building in early Isl­amic history. Yet the blog From Lebanon to Jordan in Anal­ysing art and the Dome of the Rock suggested that religious art and architecture's main role was to reinforce memory and experience. The Dome of the Rock opposed Byzantium ideas and art, and since Christianity was coupled with the Byzantine political power, the Umayyds had to oppose it.

Thus the mosque became a visual proclamation of the New Faith in the city of Judaism and Christianity. The new building was to rival the finest sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, and its presence was also to stimulate the local economy by becoming a focus for pilgrimage. It was certainly to surpass the best Christianity had to offer, from the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerus­alem. They succeeded well.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock was a very ambitious building project. Stan­d­ing in isolation and visible from all sides, it is a unique build­ing in Is­lam­­ic culture. The aisled rotunda al­l­owed early pilgrims to walk about Mo­hammed's rock under a dome and col­on­nade. The Dome of the Rock therefore is bas­ed more on the Church of the Holy Sepul­chre built by Con­stan­tine in 335 AD, and less on Moham­med's centre in Medina. Perhaps it was built by the Caliph Abd-al-Malik specifically to rival that memorable church.

The octagonal building has an inner drum of sixteen piers and col­umns, and an outer arcade of 24 piers and columns. Four of the eight sides have doors set in them and in the other four there are windows. All this suppor­ts a wooden dome of 60’ diameter. The dome has no lit­urgical sig­nific­an­ce, but it is the cr­ow­n­ing glory of the build­ing. It is the cosmic heaven, and a per­­­fect surface for gold. It was initial­ly covered in gold leaf but that was all stolen, revealing the lead be­neath. Now it is covered in a gleaming bronze alloy.

There may have always been tiles on the exterior walls of the building, but the stunning beauty we see today didn't arrive until 1545. The outer side walls were covered with blue and green Iznik tiles, around the many windows. The interior of the dome was decorated with mosaic, faience and marble, all commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. As expected, the decorative elements consisted entirely of flora, geometry or Koranic inscriptions.

Iznik tiles, blue and green

All this decoration seems surprising. Most Islamic architect­ure puts value only on what’s inside the buil­d­­ing, so that the out­side of a building is irrelevant and often hid­den; a Muslim building may well be concealed by being total­ly sur­r­ounded by adjacent buildings. Enclosed space is the most imp­or­tant ele­m­ent of Islamic arch­itecture; decoration is normally res­er­ved for the ar­t­iculation and embel­l­ishment of the inter­ior. If there is to be any minimal decor­at­ion on the outside of a building, it is usually limited to the domes or gates.

But if Islamic arch­it­ect­ure is normally hid­den architect­ure, the Dome of the Rock has pro­vided a notable except­ion, standing in its isol­at­ed glory on the top of Jerusalem. In fact it is not of pure Islamic ar­chit­ec­ture nor is it a mosque - the Dome of the Rock was built as a comm­em­orative site for Muslim pilgrims. Thus if worshippers want to face Mecca and pros­trate themselves, they can do so out­side, or in Al Aqsa Mosque next door. On Ramadan, this could mean tens of thousands praying in the open spaces.

The Spiritual Archive blog cited the British authority on Muslim architecture, KAC Creswell, who wrote in the 1920s: “..the size of every part is related to every other part in some definite proportion; the building instead of being a collection of odd notes becomes a harmonious chord in stones. Some of the ratios involved are fundamental in time and space, they go right down to the very basis of our nature, and of the physical universe in which we live and move.” I agree.

02 April 2009

Modernist Architecture

The blog arch-tour has picked up, in two different posts, one of my favourite topics: the arrival of modernity in architecture at the end of the C19th and into the early C20th. Roby even mentioned some of my most significant architects by name: Adolf Loos, Peter Behrens, Erich Mendelsohn, Hans Poelzig, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, and Josef Olbrich. He wrote

The period 1880–1920
It was this period that saw the end of ancient and historical archit­ectural styles, such as antique styles and the later Romanesque, Got­h­­ic, Renaissance, Baroque, thus paving the way for C20th modernism. Independence was achieved by former colonies. The benefits of scientific revolution and industrial development were reaped mostly by the leading powers of the day: Great Britain, USA, France, Germany and Japan. Their conflict resulted in WW1 1914–18. At the end of this war it seemed that society was being impelled by democracy and the ideas of liberal capitalism & rationalism, and it was hoped that scientific and economic progress would provide the means for solving the world’s problems.

In architecture and the applied arts, there were attempts to revive historical styles, such as the neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance. Later, the mixture of these historical styles and their reinterpretation gave rise to the Art Nouveau or Jugendstil movements, collectively known as the Secession, which literally meant the abandonment of the classical stylistic conventions and restraints. A similar style was propagated in Britain by the designer William Morris (1834–96), and in America by his followers, in the Arts and Crafts movement, whose aim was to recapture the spirit of earlier craftsmanship, perhaps as a reaction to the banality of mass production engendered by the Industrial Revolution.

Wagner, Savings Bank Vienna, started 1904

Consequently, a schism occurred amongst artists, designers and the involved public, between those who advoc­ated adherence to the old academic style and tradition and secess­ionists, who favoured the use of new techniques and materials and a more inventive free style. Also during this period some architects began to experiment with the use of natural, organic forms, such as Spaniard Antoni Gaudí (d1926) in Barcelona. Amongst European proto-modernists, Austrian Adolf Loos (d1933), Dutchman Hendrik Petrus Berlage (d1934) and German Peter Behrens (d1940) merit mention. Using exaggerated plasticity and ex­t­ravagant shapes, the German Erich Mendelsohn (d1953) and Hans Poelzig (d1936) were important figures in the lead into modern architecture.Sebestyen, Gyula. 2003. New Architecture and Technology.

Mendelssohn, Einstein Tower Potsdam, designed 1917

Otto Wagner (1841–1918)
Otto Wagner’s work, although originating from a traditional educ­at­ion, anticipated the emergence of modern architecture. The innovative use of new technologies and materials (wrought iron, glass, and aluminum) found their way into his architecture. His buildings were often clad with decorative panels, as distinctive of the Jugendstil, or infused with historical expression. He influenced a generation of architects through his teaching and mentoring, such as Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, and Josef Olbrich.

I hope Roby at arch-tour will enter into a dialogue on the questions that come out of these two posts.

1. Attempting to revive historical styles seems to me to be a sign of tradition and historicism. Yet the Secession, which meant the abandonment of the classical stylistic conventions and restraints, saw itself in direct opposition to tradition. So what did the various Secession movements across Europe use as their Model for the Future?

2. We can easily understand their reaction to the banality of mass production engendered by the Industrial Revolution. Yet going back to older, purer methods of design and manufacture seems the antithesis of modernity.

3. New techniques and materials, and a more inventive free style, would have had to have been liberating for the new generation of young designers and architects. But I wonder if Gaudi, Le Corbusier and Wagner were all impelled by the same sense of liberation.

Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye France, mid 1920s

4. Modernists were always going to have to battle for their vision. I wonder if, in the debates with town councils and building owners, modernist architects felt their vision was realised or watered down. Perhaps the modernist architect, like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, had to be lucky enough to find a career’s supply of cooperative patrons.