The Shape of War

I am still a bit preoccupied with the ongoing World War I commemoration, even though it’s obviously going to go on for some time and I’m up in Maine on vacation: pretty pictures to follow, but for today images that (while colorful!) could certainly not be called pretty. I was clicking around the vast British Library site devoted to the Great War, which is incredibly resourceful in myriad ways, when I came upon some of the wartime images of the Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). I sort of knew about him–but not really: his name conjured up distant images of the iconic “black square” painting which is quite simply a black square but little else. He was actually an artist who worked in several mediums and experimented with different depictive approaches, most prominently a Cubist-inspired geometric abstraction which was labeled “Suprematism”. He clearly loved shapes. I naively thought of him as simply a Russian Revolutionary artist, but in fact he was born in Ukraine to Polish parents and his work was suppressed in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. I have not idea what his identity was, but his World War I posters are very decidedly anti-German and immediately accessible: by merging the folkloric and the geometric–and using a bright, simplistic palette–he was able to make some pretty powerful statements, which were published as posters and postcards. World War I is known for its strident and sophisticated (but not subtle!) propaganda, another form of warfare itself, and Malevich’s images are great examples: they represent the shape of war but also of things to come.

Malevich Just Look

Look, Just Look, the Vistula is Near (1914); ©  Kazimir Malevich.

Malevich Butcher

The Butcher came along to Lodz, We said “My good Sir” (1914) © Kazimir Malevich. A depiction of the Russian victory–and defense of Warsaw– at the Battle of Lodz in the Fall of 1914.

Malevich Wilhelm

(Kaiser) Wilhelm’s Merry-Go-Round (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Allies

Our French allies have a cart full of dead Germans, and our English brothers – a whole basket too (1914); © Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky (text).

Malevich Boom

What a Boom, What a Blast (1915); National Library of Australia.

All images, except the last, at the British Library World War One site. Malevich is having a moment, and an exhibition: “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art”.

 

 

 


The Great War Remembered

With the centennial anniversary of the commencement of the Great War, World War I, occurring yesterday perhaps Americans will become more conscious of the commemoration that has been underway in Europe for some time. Or perhaps not–we might wait until 1917. This was a war that was so momentous, so global, so total, that there are many ways to recall and remember it–literary, visual, material: the detritus of the Great War will be with us forever. I’ve read many World War I poems, by soldiers who died and survived, seen many World War I films, made close to its time and farther away, seen many examples of “trench art”, and touched medals, bullets and helmets. Whenever I have to teach this War (which for me happens only in broad world and western civilization surveys, so I don’t have much time), I rely on examples of the stunning (in a horrifying way) photographs of life on the front (my key source for these is the Imperial War Museum in London) and recruiting posters, which can represent themes and issues relevant to both fronts: “over there” and home. As it happens, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City is auctioning off a large collection of vintage 20th century posters next week, including some amazing (in terms of both art and message) World War I recruiting posters, and the online catalog is comprehensive, annotated, and extremely educational. Here’s a small sample–in chronological order:

M29589-30 001

M28269-31 001

M29589-5 001

M29140-2 001

M29027-9012 001

M29589-15 001

M29589-3 001

1. SAVILE LUMLEY (1876-1960) DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR? 1915. The classic “shame” poster–pretty powerful! 2. A.G.R. (DATES UNKNOWN) CANADIENS FRANCAIS / VENEZ AVEC NOUS DANS LE 150IÈME BATAILLON C.M.R. 1915. A bird fight! 3.A.O. MAKSIMOV (DATES UNKNOWN). [WAR LOAN / FORWARD FOR THE MOTHERLAND!] 1916. One of the last Tsarist appeals before the Russian Revolution. 4. JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1870-1960) WAKE UP, AMERICA! 1917. 5. DAVID HENRY SOUTER (1862-1935) IT’S NICE IN THE SURF BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN IN THE TRENCHES / GO AND HELP. 1917. An Australian version of the shame poster. 5. RICHARD FAYERWEATHER BABCOCK (1887-1954) JOIN THE NAVY. 1917. This might have been the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove! 7. EDWARD PENFIELD (1866-1925) YES SIR – I AM HERE! / MOTOR CORPS OF AMERICA. 1918. So many World War I posters reflect women’s service during the war; this is a rare Edward Penfield image.

One young American man who could not wait until 1917 was Allan Seeger (uncle of Pete), who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion almost immediately after the hostilities began in Europe and died at the Battle of Somme (July-November, 1916) alongside a million other men. He left behind this prescient, poignant poem, which was first published in 1917, just as his fellow Americans were heading “over there”:

I Have a Rendezvous with Death, Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,/When Spring comes back with rustling shade/And apple-blossoms fill the air–/I have a rendezvous with Death/ When Spring brings back blue days and fair/ It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath–/It may be I shall pass him still/I have a rendezvous with Death/On some scarred slope of battered hill,/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear./God knows ’twere better to be deep/Pillowed in silk and scented down./Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep/Pulse nigh to pulse and breath to breath/When hushed awakenings are dear…../But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/at midnight in some flaming town./When Spring trips north, again this year,/And I to my pledged word am true,/I shall not fail that rendezvous.

 

 


Floorcloths

There is one small place in my house where the dreaded fake brick vinyl flooring that once covered an entire hallway still lies: in my mudroom. I kept it there for sentimentality’s sake and because it is a mudroom, so it is mostly covered by sneakers, boots and flip-flops, depending on the season. But now “bricks” are tearing off and I think I’ve had enough: rather than replace with vinyl or tile, neither of which I particularly like, I might go for a custom reproduction floorcloth, based on a sample secreted under one of my china cabinets. I’m thinking this pattern covered the entire dining room, as this part of the house was built at just about the time that new “linoleum” (flax and linseed oil) floorcloths replaced the less durable cloth and canvas varieties following Sir Frederick Walton’s 1860 invention: despite his patent, these new “carpets’ often based on older patterns spread like wildfire on both sides of the Atlantic. My husband says the original flooring was wood, but then what is this little demilune patch of linoleum doing in the cabinet?

Floorcloths 042

Floorcloths 045

I suppose he could be correct: this covering might date from the 1920s, when “linoleum rugs” seemed to be all the rage. Glancing through Frank Alvah Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration, conveniently published by the Armstrong Cork Company in 1919, I spotted “linoleum designs for every room” including several that are similar to my china cabinet sample. Floorcloths seem to evolve from area coverings to wall-to-wall “carpet” over the nineteenth-and early twentieth centuries, following Walton’s invention. And then wooden floors came back into fashion, and my little linoleum went into the closet.

Floorcloth 1811 MET

Floorcloth Crawford House BIG OLD HOUSES

Floorcloth 1919

Floorcloths from c. 1810 to 1920: the Drawing Room of the Craig House in Baltimore, c. 1810, a period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Captain David Crawford House in Newburgh, New York (from the great blog Big Old Houses); illustration of a living room from Parsons’ Art of Home Furnishing and Decoration (1919)

Whenever it dates from, I do like the pattern (though not the colors), and there are many floorcloth options out there; in fact we seem to be in the midst of a floorcloth Renaissance. One major manufacturer for both museums and individuals (out of her Vermont farmhouse) is Lisa Curry Mair of Canvasworks Floorcloths. There are all sorts of patterns on her site, available in different sizes, and custom options too:  I might request a reproduction of my linoleum patch in a less muddy color for my mudroom and something a bit more 1827ish (the year my house was built) for our entry foyer—now covered rather inconveniently with carpet.

Tumbling Blocks

blockandscrolls

“Tumbling Blocks” and “Blocks and Scrolls” floorcloths from Canvasworks Floorcloths


Secret Weapons

Today I have another Victorian fad: sword canes or “sword sticks”: harmless-looking walking sticks with blades concealed inside, one of several variations of “novelty canes” produced in the nineteenth century. Yesterday I drove up to York to celebrate my father’s birthday accompanied by my stepson, who has long had a singular obsession on the sword cane (or cane sword) that has leaned in the mud room alongside more mundane umbrellas and tennis rackets since I was a little girl. It’s the first thing he went for when we got there–what? why? and most importantly, who will inherit it? I don’t know much–all I could think of was the recent Sherlock Holmes film, in which Jude Law’s Dr. Watson wields a sword stick, and John Steed in The Avengers, who utilizes the umbrella variation. I checked out some auction archives, and they don’t seem to be particularly valuable. I can imagine that it ceased to be respectable in genteel society to walk around with a sidearm in the nineteenth century and so sword sticks emerged, but they seem to have been more fashionable than utilitarian. Ours looks like a simple cane made with a curved handle, but the steel blade inside has interesting markings: I think I might take it to an appraisal event at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Sword Cane 046

Sword Cane 037

Sword Canes ATHM

Sword Cane Skinner Auctions

Our family’s sword stick (alternatively called swordstick, sword cane & cane sword) and 19th century examples from the American Textile History Museum and Skinner Auctioneers.

There are a few cultural references to sword canes and I’d be grateful for more! Besides Watson and Steed, there is Bob Dylan (Your grandpas cane, it turns into a sword, “On the Road Again”, 1965, thanks to Cheryl Beatty at the American Textile History Museum, which is also the source of the image above) and Lord Byron, who apparently used his sword stick for more than prop. The recent Byron exhibition at King’s College, London features several references to and images of swordsticks: no doubt they amplified his dashing demeanor.

Sword Cane

Byron

Sword Stick Byron

Jude Law as Dr. Watson with cane; drawing of Lord Byron, by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel dOrsay, 1823, Victoria & Albert Museum; Lord Byron’s sword stick, from the online exhibition Byron & Politics: ‘Born for Opposition’, King’s College, London

 

 


Paper Shadows

When I found the hand shadow trade card for Salem furrier T.N. Covell below I thought I had stumbled onto something unique, but it turns out that shadowgraphy, ombromanie, or “Ombres Chinoises” was just another Victorian fad, like phrenology, penny farthings, and mesmerism. It didn’t take long to find other examples, and other “animals”: the seal led to search for other shadow cards made in Boston and elsewhere, and the offerings of John Bufford, who was a very serious lithographer and businessman. So here we have a late nineteenth-century variation on the silhouette: more whimsical than documentary and more commercial than personal. An ephemeral art, as (electric) light was already too bright when it appeared, and very reflective of a much simpler time!

Paper Shadows

Paper Shadows 2

Paper Shadows 3

Paper Shadows 4 Chatterbox

PicMonkey Collage

Victorian hand shadow trade cards and the December 15, 1869 edition of Chatterbox, Library of Congress; Illustrations from the Ombres chinoises, guignol, marionnettes, par Émile Lagarde , 1900, Bibliothèque nationale de France


One Powerful Painting

I’m still processing the subject of my graduate institute–the enduring fascination and evolving image(s) of the Tudors, collective and individual–even though it ended on this past Friday afternoon. The week was pretty intense: a lot of history, prints, portraits and plays, films and discussions of all of the above. The students were great: many of them were high-school and middle-school teachers who are always fun to teach. I don’t think we had any problem figuring out the towering and projecting figures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the perpetual pull of the three beheaded ladies (Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen”) seems a bit more complex, especially the latter. While Anne’s and Mary’s lives were longer and their impact greater, young Jane still captivates, and I think this is largely due to one powerful painting– Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)–and its impact on the Victorian era and our own.

Jane execution

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833; National Gallery, London

Lady Jane Grey, the grand-niece of Henry VIII, was proclaimed Queen following the death of Edward VI in 1553, as part of a short-lived coup initiated by her father-in-law John Dudley, The Duke of Northumberland, to avoid the succession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, who had a more legitimate claim. She ruled for only nine days (until July 19) and was executed for high treason in February of 1554. Over the centuries, Jane has transcended historical-footnote-status for several reasons: she can be seen as a Protestant martyr or an innocent (feminine) pawn, depending on the time and place. But Delaroche transformed her into more a romantic heroine, grasping for her “headrest” in the dark, clothed in some semblance of a satin wedding dress! With all the anachronistic details, Delaroche took Jane out of her own time and placed her in his, enabling future portrayals to follow suit. The painting was apparently a sensation when it was first exhibited, and inspired many sentimental depictions of Jane and her end over the nineteenth century–and after. It was donated to the National Gallery in 1902 but forgotten for much of the twentieth century after it was feared lost in the Tate Gallery Flood of 1928. After its rediscovery in the 1970s, it was restored and re-installed at the National Gallery, where it was the subject of a 2010 exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, which seems specially timed to coincide with the “Tudor-mania” of the past decade. That same year, Victoria Hall produced her own portrayal of Lady Jane, or (more accurately) Delaroche’s Lady Jane.

Jane 18th c

Jane Last Moments

Jane Tower Grant

Jane 2010 Victoria Hall

Lady Jane Grey before Delaroche (anonymous etching and engraving, late 18th century, British Museum) and after: Hendrik Jackobus Scholten, The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey, The Tower of London; William James Grant, The Tower (The Relics of Lady Jane Grey), 1861, Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London; Victoria Hall, After Delaroche, 2010.

 


Peak Season

My garden is a bit of a wild tangle right now, as usual, but I love it; I’ve finally got the layers that I have been seeking for some time, along with the right mix of leaves and flowers and textures. And the mix of colors is good–I have gradually weeded out annoying colors like red (I actually love red indoors but passionately dislike it out-of-doors, even to the extent of red roses. Not sure why).  It’s pretty much at peak; I knew I was going to be in class all week so I took some pictures this past weekend when the weather was absolutely beautiful: sunny and not too humid or hot. Now it’s muggy and rainy, and all the flowers are water-logged and a bit past their prime. The roses look very spotty so I’m not showing them here. Next week will be vicious deadheading week; I always leave the Lady’s Mantle flowers too long because I love them so much, so it’s going to be a big job to cut them back. Yes there are red berries on the thriving baneberry but that is my exception–it’s a great plant and you really don’t want berries to be any other color (its flowers are white). I absolutely love, love, love the fuschia flower of the bee balm in the last picture–wish I could remember its varietal name!

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