Archive for August, 2014

Canaletto, Somerset House, and Victoria Embankment

In Allgemein by Francesca / 27. August 2014 / 0 Comments

I arrived at Yale graduate school, having just graduated from King’s College London. Not surprisingly then, when I discovered the Yale Center for British Art building, I immediately went in for a wander.  Intrigued to find a 1750 painting of Somerset House hanging on its walls, signed by none other than the acclaimed „vedutista“ (a painter of panoramic views) Canaletto, I decided to try and understand more about Somerset House, this geometric and palatial 16th century building in London, that flanked King’s College. I soon realized that its beginnings were as aristocratic and grandiose as they are mysterious: the architect of the building is not known. The sumptuous three-storey Renaissance building is one of the earliest of its kind in England, and over five centuries, it changed, and changed again, reinventing itself and its purpose as the times changed.

Works on Somerset house began in the 1540s, though it would take many decades before it was complete. Even then, the house had many subsequent changes. The story goes that in the 1530s, Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, received some land in the area directly above the river Thames, and started a grand palace construction project. This involved tearing down most of what was there in order to lay the foundations for his flashy new residence on the Strand. In 1547, he became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to the boy-king Edward VI. It seems that nothing was further from Edward Seymour’s mind than to abandon the plans he had for redeveloping his mansion. The works were in full swing when he was overthrown and executed in 1552. The building was left half-finished.

“Somerset Palace”, as the house was then also known as, became the royal residence of Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I, and finally Anne of Denmark, consort to King James I. Royal occupancy of Somerset House continued into the 18th century, with interruptions to mirror the many crises of the English monarchy in those three centuries. Naturally, whenever a new royal occupant moved in, they moved out leaving their own cachet in terms of modifications they had made to the building.

In the mid-18th century, the building began to be used for grace-and-favour residence purposes, a kind of “benefit in kind” system in which royalty would grant persons a free stay in the residence at Somerset House to thank them for favours or services.

It was around this time that Canaletto painted the building and the views of London to the East, and the West, from the Terrace of Somerset House. Canaletto had moved to London in 1740, and stayed there until approximately 1755, as he had been very successful in Venice selling his paintings of Venice vistas to Englishmen traveling on the grand tour. When, in those years, the English ceased to travel to Italy as much as previously, Canaletto squarely moved to England, to be closer to his market, and took many commissions from English patrons to paint their residencies, or landscapes and cityscapes; the views from Somerset House fall within this category (see above). A nerdy trivia about Canaletto in London is that he was at one stage believed to be an impostor by art critics who thought his style had become all too predictable, and was forced to paint in public in order to prove his identity as the painter, Canaletto.

What struck me (as it would anybody) about Canaletto’s Somerset House painting, was that it showed it with direct access to the Thames, un-embanked at that time. The Thames Embankment is a Victorian achievement, as the name “Victoria Embankment” suggests. Characteristic ironwork designs like nautically themed street lamps with Poseidons enormous, gaping-mouthed fish, or Egyptian themed benches with camel and Sphinx, make this stretch of the Thames historical in its own way. To embank the Thames had certainly been a project contemplated by other generations before the Victorian era. Although proposals to do something about the marshland in central London and to reclaim the acres near the Thames had been put forward by architects and engineers before, the works began in 1862. The project was huge, and it also incorporated a section of the London Underground network, the Savoy Hotel and Shell Mex building, as well as the creation of extensive public gardens atop the river, which Londoners can still enjoy, in the center of town.

Definitely an amazing part of town to visit.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons. Yale Center for British Art

Crystal Palace, Dinosaurs, and Exhibition Road

In Allgemein by Francesca / 20. August 2014 / 0 Comments

Last week, I visited the Dinosaur Park in London’s Crystal Palace Park. Not half as awe-inspiring as the Jurassic Park rendition, this odd and adorable collection of extinct animals, or animals that perhaps never existed outside the imagination of a few scientists and sculptors in the mid-19th century, was opened in 1854, making it the first of its kind in the world.

It was born into hectic times for the history of modern science and biology. With the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species just around the corner, and in the context of an exponentially rising public interest in the natural sciences, the discussion and visualization of dinosaurs in conjunction with new theories on biological evolution, was received instant critical acclaim from the press.

Sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had modeled his creations under close supervision of biologist Richard Owen, so that this was much more a park of science visualization than an entertainment theme park. It became a popular attraction none the less, because the gigantic lizards from the distant past were a novelty, and a mesmerizing thought. So much did the dinosaur as a concept and image enter the public imagination, that Charles Dickens started one of his novels with the sentence:

Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Richard Owen, a hugely successful, if controversial, natural scientist in the public eye, also advocated that natural historical specimens that were stored in the British Museum, should be presented in a museum specifically dedicated to natural history, and in 1881, London’s Natural History Museum was inaugurated.

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is part of an interrelated complex of cultural and educational institutions around Exhibition Road, referred to as „Albertopolis“ in the 19th century, which also comprises the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, Imperial College, the Royal College of Music, all of which and more were launched by Prince Albert, prince consort to Queen Victoria, in the period immediately following the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This brings us back to Crystal Palace, where that Exhibition took place. World Exhibitions held to showcase the progress of science and industrial advance were an important, much-anticipated and feted feature of the 19th century’s cultural life in the industrialized nations. The Crystal Palace was a temporary structure erected to host the 1851 exhibition in Hyde Park. Designed by Joseph Paxton, this building, which was made entirely of glass, was some 564m long and 39m high, and provided a total of 92,000 sqm of exhibition space for more than 14,000 exhibitors. Exhibits included an early facsimile machine, daguerreotypes, telegraphy, and the first flushable lavatories.

As if all this wasn’t brazen enough, after the six month exhibition ended, the exhibition building was—of course—removed from Hyde Park, and transported to Penge Common, where it was built up from its parts in a structure completely different from the original. The reconstruction was recorded photographically for posterity, and pictures widely distributed. In 1854, Queen Victoria again performed an opening ceremony.

Although it looks like no expense was spared here and that this exhibition might have left the budgets somewhat drained, the opposite was recorded (although, as an aside, the human toll was probably rather huge, but unreported). A substantial profit was made from the exhibition, and the surplus in the budget was used to purchase some land in South Kensington, and commission the creation of this “Albertopolis” (the term being perhaps a tad satirical) of London’s most high-profile museums and learned institutions. Hence the apellation “Exhibition Road” for that dazzlingly elegant road in Kensington.

Now that the wondrous Crystal Palace had been relocated to South London to the Penge and Sydenham area, which received its very own railway station and was henceforth referred to as simply Crystal Palace, North Londoners felt that a fitting counterpart for London’s North was in order. This is how Alexandra Palace was born, a “palace of the people”, erected in 1863 from a building that had also been used for a world exhibition beforehand. As the centrepiece of Alexandra Park in Harringey, it was a grand public arts and entertainment center named after Alexandra of Denmark, who had married prince Edward earlier that year. The Alexandra Palace was destroyed by a fire in 1873 and, in typical Victorian vigor, repaired and re-opened for the spring of 1875.

As for Crystal Palace in South London, after numerous crises and problems with its upkeep, in 1936, it caught fire and burnt down entirely in just a few hours. 400 firemen could not check the fire, and the flames were seen across 8 counties. In just a few hours, it was completely destroyed. 100,000 people came to Sydenham Hill to watch the blaze, among them Winston Churchill, who said, „This is the end of an age“.

Ditigal Renaissance? Ancient Texts, New Media

In Allgemein by Francesca / 14. August 2014 / 0 Comments

Books are media. Old-fashioned as it may sound, the book itself was once a radical innovation. In fact, somewhere in the foundational knowledge useful to anyone interested in classical civilizations, is an understanding of how the contents of the ancient Romans, Greeks and other ancient peoples have actually reached us through a series of transformations in the media.

The Iliad is amongst the oldest known documents of ancient Greek literature. As an epic in verse, it is thought to have been the product of an oral tradition of bardic poets who specialized in telling stories in a rhythmical, poetic verse pattern. They developed a large pool of formulaic turns of phrase, which fit into the metre and rhythm of their songs. An added benefit of pre-fabricated formulae was that they would automatically be in line with the overall poetic style of the songs. Thus the formula would come ready-made with an aura of poetic beauty suitable to the context and subject matter – not unlike the modern practices of spoken word poetry.

The genesis of the Iliad and similar texts has puzzled many scholars of ancient Greek. It’s been proven that the Iliad, like the entire epic cycle to which it belonged, was at first an oral tradition, which existed for decades, if not centuries, before it was for the first time captured in writing, in the 8th century BCE. Scholars then wondered if the name “Homer” was the name of the man who wrote it all down, or if he was a prominent bard-master whose accolade gave him the authorship rights to the work altogether.

It has even been argued that the Greek alphabet was specifically developed in order to write down the Iliad.

However it happened, this was the first in a series of several changes of medium, for the Iliad: from its preservation in the collective memory of a network of humans whose job was that of the bard, to the written form: first on stone, and later, on papyrus. For centuries, ancient works of literature like the Iliad were preserved through hand-copying, and from the scroll of papyrus, evolved the folio edition, and the modern book. The invention of the printing press in the Renaissance brought about a major change, and from early print making to the modern paperback, the book form established itself as the default medium for text.

The internet brought back the scroll. Plus, the internet’s affinity with the search-engine brought on new text search modalities, that allow a more thorough-going examination of texts, dictionary building, and data gathering. A much more “scientific” angle on ancient texts is then possible, and lets us map the development of ancient languages with greater accuracy and less effort.

The internet also performs the functions of a library and archive, and provides a rich and multi-faceted communication infrastructure to aid the distribution and dissemination of information on a large scale.

Often compared to the book printing revolution in information technology or even celebrated as a new renaissance of learning and knowledge, it is often argued that the internet provides wider access to learning at a cheaper cost. Simultaneously, other voices have put forward the argument that a digital divide exists in the online infrastructure, which reflects the social divide in education, and remains just as hard to bridge as before.

Likened also to the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century, the digital revolution is unquestionably changing the way we peruse information, because it changes the way we publish it in the first place. In recent months, the “Hachette Affair“ has made news headlines more than once, because it highlights the grand scale and profound nature of the changes occurring, and underscores the painfulness of these transformative processes, that bring not only innovation and new creations, but also destruction. Online retailers and the digital availability of books first made a dent in the business of physical book shops, and now also is knocking down established pillars of the book publishing industry: a process that few find fault with per se, but that is happening at ravaging speed.

The content of the Iliad and other books remains the same, but the experience of reading them is a different one now that the media of reading change. The pace, expectations, and entertainment value of literary works is a different one in this context. Television didn’t overtake ancient Greek literature, television began with a televised series of Oedipus, expanding upon certain themes and bringing the ancients closer to the modern living room again. The world of computer gaming and fantasy abounds with ancient warlords and mythological creatures from Greece and Rome. But how is ancient literature made palatable to the new generation of readers? So far, the use of out-of-copyright translations which are free to download on kindle, I would say, leaves room for improvement…

Modernist Mythology : Berlin

In Allgemein by Francesca / 6. August 2014 / 0 Comments

Berlin is famous and infamous for its theatre and performance scene. You can find and see all sorts on the Berlin stage. Frequent nudity is what the outside onlooker most frequently discerns first and foremost, but the experimental and innovative use of stage, space, objects and living beings, and the breadth of acting is massively lively in the city. As many will know, Berlin has a bit of a tradition in experimental directing and acting for the stage and screen.

The expressionist stage of the early 1900s pioneered an uprooted aesthetics of the nightmare-like, the derailed and the brutal, presenting the industrialized city as an artistic reality for the first time. In another post, I wrote in more detail about one example, Strauss‘ Elektra, but this is only one of several works that fell within the framework of the time’s new set of artists. It ran a deep cut through both the measured and elevated tentes of neo-classical style and the heart-rendingly beautiful, emotion-rich and idealizing tendencies of the romantic era, in which a far more prolific trend had been the focus on rural landscapes, the communion with nature, oftentimes accompanied with medievalizing scenes of old castles and ancient knightships.

The expressionist movement not only had Berlin at the heart of its subject matter, in all its industrialized, over-crowded, gas-lit, disease-ridden, poverty-stricken and department-store-dazzled glory. It also found a fountain of creativity in early cinematography through works such as the silent movie Metropolis, Nosferatu or indeed Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. The expressionist style also took the fancy of the operatic milieu.

It wasn’t long before the modernizing pushes of expressionist performance in the 1900s and 1910s morphed into the heyday of fashion, film, and cabaret in the golden ‚twenties of the Weimar Republic.

A classic example is the 1930 film The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich as a burlesque variety starlet singing „Falling in Love Again“ to the syncopated sounds of a jazz band, the first in german film (the movie was simultaneously produced in German and English, premiering in London in 1930). The film, based on the 1904 novel Professor Unrat by realist writer Heinrich Mann, tells the story of an older school teacher falling in love with a much younger burlesque starlet, which leads to the entire unravelling of his own self and ends with him having gone completely insane.

Another novel, another male personality’s unravelling : Berlin-Alexanderplatz. This 1929 tale of a freed convict’s failure to find his feet in Berlin upon a stint in jail, his return to criminal life and ultimate defeat in his daily struggles against the odds in the great city, is the first German modernist epic set in the metropolitan milieu, often compared to Ulysses. Turned into a movie by 1931, the story was revisited in the 1980s by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the production of a television series.

Like many of his colleagues in the expressionist literary movement, the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, was a medical doctor. The tale of someone’s unraveling, degeneration and descent into an abyss, certainly has the appearance of showcasing a determinist concept not only of biological evolution, but also moral and psychological evolution, so dear those engaged in the natural sciences at the time. Today, we can probably review this imputed agenda, and marvel at how these early seeds urban mythology have grown into a well-watered forest of urban myths alive in oral history, pop culture and indeed, the contemporary Berlin stage and screen.