Tag Archives: Remembrance

Conflagration Commemoration

Across the Atlantic, the year-long commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Great London Fire of 1666 is peaking this weekend, today actually, with a contained conflagration: a 400-foot wooden replica of the seventeenth-century city will go up in flames on the Thames at 8:30 pm tonight. This is only one spectacular event amidst many creative ventures  organized by the arts production company Artichoke, which seeks to”transform people’s lives and change the world through extraordinary art” along with other institutional purveyors. The Artichoke events include illuminations, projections, lectures, interactive performances, pub crawls, a “fire food market” and “fire garden”, all offered under the umbrella of “London’s Burning”, while London’s more traditional institutions are offering a variety of thematic exhibitions and displays. It’s a very complete commemoration, befitting a transformative event in London’s–and Britain’s–history.

Fire of London St Pauls

Fire of London model Flames projected onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of post-Fire London. Photograph: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Getty Images;  the David Best-designed wooden model to be set on fire tonight @artichoketrust.

Fire has played such a huge role in London’s history–not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when another Great Fire of 1834 leveled much of Westminster and the Blitz destroyed much of the central City. The commemoration of tragedy in general, and fires in particular, must necessarily focus on loss and devastation but also on rebuilding–and how the process of rebuilding reflects on the particular society that is engaged in it. I think an incandescent commemoration of 1666 is appropriate because it will illuminate the loss at least as much as the rebuilding–which has always been the focus in remembrance of this particular Great Fire: Wren’s London. We don’t even know how many people died over those three burning days: we have precise knowledge of property damage but a woeful lack of comprehension about the human toll. When the Fire burnt itself out late in the day on September 5 it had consumed 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and left up to 200,000 people homeless, but how many people?  Who knows: anywhere from hundreds to thousands (doubtless including anonymous souls who had survived the preceding plague year), yet we still seem to repeat the ridiculous number of only six verified deaths. Then as now, it seems that we can only begin to process the enormity of destruction in a visual and structural way.

Griffier I, Jan, c.1645-1718; The Great Fire of London, 1666

Fire of London print BM Griffier

Fire of London print BM after Griffier2 BM

The paintings of Dutch artist Jan Griffier I (c. 1645-1718), who came to London just after the Great Fire, seem to be particularly influential depictions: his view of the burning of Ludgate (Museum of London Collection) was reproduced in scores of prints over the next century and a half (Trustees of the British Museum).


Mums for Mourning

The holiday Halloween evolved from pre-Christian traditions as well as the Christian days for remembrance, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is today. Remembrance in general, and mourning in particular, were a bit more active in the medieval era than the present but still it is interesting how reflection was transformed into celebration! Mourning, as both a state of mind and an act, is of course universal, transcending time and place, but there are many distinctive and divergent mourning customs, and since its expressions seem to be in season now (as reflected by the new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Morning Attire and The Art of Mourning at the new Morbid Anatomy Museum, as well as the exhibition from a few years ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society, The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, which you can still view online), I thought I would examine just one: the use of chrysanthemums. While the omnipresent autumn plants seems to sit on every stoop and front porch throughout New England, they are used to decorate graves in France and other countries on the European continent and elsewhere (predominately but not always yellow mums in France, white mums are traditional funereal emblems in China), and are as much a natural symbol for mourning as the weeping willow was in nineteenth-century America. You won’t see any mums on the Met’s dresses or the Anglo-American jewelry in the MHS exhibition, but they figure very prominently in French memorial depictions from the same era–and after.

Mums for Mourning 2 MET

Mums Toussaint-Emile-Friant

Mums for Mourning 3 NYPL

Mums for Morning MET shadow print

Mums for Mouring NBC News

“The Cemetery of Père Lachaise,” after John James Chalon, 1822; Emile Friant, La Toussaint, 1888, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nancy, Daniel Hernandez cover for Figaro illustré, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Adolf de Meyer, The Shadows on the Wall (“Chyrsanthemums”), 1906, Silver Print Photograph, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a French cemetery in November 2013, NBC News.

 

 

 


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