Iridescence

pearl pendantNatural pearl and diamond pendant, 18th century;
set with an oval diamond supporting a diamond bow motif
and a baroque drop-shaped natural pearl measuring approximately 16 × 18 × 26mm.

A natural pearl and diamond jewel of delicately wrought beauty once belonged to history’s most glamorous scapegoats for the abuses and injustices of autocracy, the victim of nationalism and misogyny, reviled by women and men, the hated l’autrichienne, the Austrian bitch, Maria-Antonia von Habsburg-Lothringin, known as Marie Antoinette, queen of France.

Political assassination is arguably justified, character assassination is not. Of all the offensive insults thrust at her, the most hurtful, far worse than all the salacious sexual slurs, the one that cut deepest, more humiliating than being deprived of shoes and false teeth in prison, more painful than beheading, was the Tribunal’s allegation of incest with her son.

“If I have not replied it is because Nature itself refuses to answer such a charge laid against a mother. I appeal to all mothers here present – is it true?”

Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, drawn by David, 16 October 1793. Image: Wikipedia.
She was 37 years old. Usually, press reports about celebrity women degrade them by mentioning their age, but in this case the vulgar habit of prejudging by numbers is justified by the shock of
this woman’s premature ageing due to suffering

She, who was brought up to be a dynastic pawn, a bride and mother of kings, became the Eternal Feminine demonized. She was never expected to have control of her identity; her often derided play-acting at being a fashionably Romantic shepherdess in a pastoral idyll was her attempt at self-emancipation.

The modern perception of Marie Antoinette has shifted away from the inverted fairy story heroine, the romanticized narrative of an over-privileged but misunderstood star of the diamond-studded, blood-stained Versailles reality show, to the universal figure in women’s history of wronged mother and foreigner.

Marie-Antoinette and her children by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1787

While she was imprisoned, she was separated from her children. As she prepared for death, her chief anxiety was about their fate. An 18th century princess endured the kind of degradation and psychological torture that tyranny in the modern world still inflicts on female immigrants and their families.

And there’s the jewel itself, the progeny of animals and human skill, that natural pearl of iridescence beyond price, a man-made thing lovely enough to be the symbol of our atonement for our sins against nature and each other, sold for silly money, £25 million that should be spent on environmental conservation and humanitarian missions to reunite migrant families and release political prisoners.

Fortitude in high heels

SerpottaFortitude
Fortitude Sculpture by Serpotta in white stucco and gilding, height 200 cm, 1710-17.
Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico, Palermo. Image: WGA

Elegantly dressed for the life she wants,
in her favourite high-heeled shoes, breastplate bodice and plumed headdress,
Fortitude leans her elbow on the pillar of patience,
never keeping her eyes off the longest battle.

She doesn’t like what she sees, but she will never give in, she will never be part of it, even when other people make snarky remarks about her posing in her Rococo niche.

She exemplifies the moral courage of sticking to her post “because it is noble to do so, or because it is disgraceful not to do so.”

Keeping true to herself, and her fashion sense,
without bragging or lecturing, she puts the fun back into virtue.

“Patience is the pillar which nothing can soften.”
St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Music composed by Hildegard of Bingen

“She sat like Patience on a monument, Smiling at grief”
Viola in Twelfth Night, Shakespeare (1601)

Smile sung by Judy Garland (1963)

Fortitude is one of the four Cardinal Virtues of Christianity, recommended in a life skills course dating back to the 4th century, based on Aristotelian and Platonic ethics.

Aristotle defined fortitude as courage governed by reason (or temperance) in circumstances of fear or over-confidence: “Courage….chooses its course and sticks to its post because it is noble to do so, or because it is disgraceful not to do so.”

St Augustine of Hippo defined fortitude as “love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object”.

Kant: “Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty, never developing into a custom but always springing freshly and directly from the mind.”

Fortitude has become rarer in the modern world where license has chained us to new tyrannies, and freedom is as elusive as ever.

The advantages of self-control in adverse circumstances have been forgotten in the revolt against the misunderstood stiff upper lip. It’s adorable. The straighter the face, the better the joke.

The primary importance of sincerity in human intercourse – “speak what you feel, not what you ought to say” – has been effaced by knee-jerk opinion polls and social media group anxiety – Like to be Liked, Follow and Ye Will Be Followed – which have compromised Freedom of Speech and promulgated the nonsense that passes for wisdom nowadays.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a modest disclaimer: yes, I’m as foolish as you.

The most self-expressive of Romantic poets would not have predicted humanity blogging itself to death.

The people who died for Democracy did not expect the Voice of the People would come from Babel.

Fortitude rests on her broken pillar, not on popularity.
Fortitude does not betray her soul, which to her is virtue, which to us is self-identity.
She fights on.
She wears the shoes she wants.

She?

All four of the Cardinal Virtues, Prudence (or Wisdom), Fortitude (or Courage), Temperance (or Self-control) and Justice (or Fairness) were allegorized as female.

Figure_des_quatre_Vertus_from_Ballet_comique_de_la_reine

Figures of the Four Virtues from Ballet Comique de la Reine, 1582, one of the court entertainments commissioned by Catherine de Medici from which classical ballet, and political satire, developed. Image: Wikipedia

Fortitude lives up to her reputation for cheerfulness in adversity by playing the lute and holding a pillar at the same time.

“Ginger Rogers did everything [Fred Astaire] did,
backwards and in high heels.” Bob Thaves, Fred and Ernest comic strip, 1982

Step By Step
Poster for Top Hat, 1935

“Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.” Bette Midler
(often misattributed to Marilyn Monroe)

SerpottaFortitudeHigh Heels

USE DEMOCRACY AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. SIGN AND SHARE THE PETITION FOR A PEOPLE’S VOTE TO STOP BREXIT DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY.

The gift of kings

Matthew Paris Book of Additions c. 1250 Manuscript British Library, London
This African elephant was given to Henry III of England by Louis IX of France in 1254. Soon after its arrival during a cold English winter, the elephant was imprisoned in the royal menagerie, established in 1235, in The Tower of London. The elephant died three years later, in the “house of forty feet long and twenty feet deep” that had been specially built for it, after being given too much red wine to drink.

“[I WILL] PUT [MY] DECISION ON HOLD UNTIL SUCH TIME AS I REVIEW ALL …. FACTS” Donald Trump, 2017

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an Angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals….
Shakespeare, Hamlet, c. 1600

captured elephantPietro Longhi The Elephant 1774, Oil on canvas. This shackled Indian elephant was exhibited during the cold winter of Carnevale in Venice.

After claiming credit for the invention of Fake News, Trump now seems to believe he has invented rational leadership. He has postponed his decision to allow imports of elephant hunting trophies

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” Machiavelli, The Prince

“Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.” Machiavelli, The Prince

elephantmerrygoround

Antoine Caron The Elephant Carousel, one of the famous, ground-breaking entertainments devised as part of Catherine de Medici’s political programme to augment the Valois dynasty during the second half of 16th century France. Our modern concept of performance arts derives from her vision; a political agenda is understandable, the abuse of a living animal is always inexcusable. Image: WGA

“The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar.” Machiavelli, The Prince, written 1513, published 1532.

NATURE’S GREAT MASTERPIECE, AN ELEPHANT (THE ONLY HARMLESS GREAT THING) John Donne

Antoine-Louis Barye Elephant from Senegal Bronze. Private collection. Image: WGA
Not shackled any more, but still running, always in danger from human cruelty, made up of stupidity, pride, envy and greed.

Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant
(The only harmless great thing), the giant
Of beasts, who thought none had to make him wise,
But to be just and thankful, loth to offend
(Yet nature hath given him no knees to bend)
Himself he up-props, on himself relies,
And, foe to none, suspects no enemies,
Still sleeping stood; vex’d not his fantasy
Black dreams; like an unbent bow carelessly
His sinewy proboscis did remissly lie.
(John Donne, stanza XXXIX from The First Song Of The Progress of the Soul, 1612)

The Cat’s Dream

Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA

A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. The girl smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly. She is grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.

The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.

Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.

Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.

The cat sleeps.

Nothing, or the Magic Pin Board

Part ten of Nothing

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Shakespeare (Hamlet)

The most personal of Gijsbrechts’ deceptions casually pins down all art, and individual identity, as a coat of arms on a plain wooden board. A musical instrument, the tools of his own craft of painting, even himself, in a miniature self-portrait, are stuck there, a declaration of THIS IS ME, all in vain, until somebody three and a half centuries later looks at them.

GijsbrechtsTrompe_l'oeilviolin art

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with violin, painters implements and self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1675,
Royal Castle, Warsaw. Image: Wikipedia

We should be so lucky, to create anything so well-made that it lasts beyond a moment on the web. Most of it is worthless, read or not. Words, words, words as a fictional Danish prince said in around 1602.

There is nothing deep here, on this blog, only a brazen attempt to create the illusion. I don’t know much about Nihilism and Existentialism, and can seldom untangle a metaphysical conceit, but, as I like the sound of the words, I’m content to use them as labels for states of mind, alluding to concepts without fully understanding them, just like a monkey would, and now with WP technology I can tag them, separating them with commas, meaninglessly. “Words are wise men’s counters….but they are the money of fools” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651).

I blog profitlessly, in every sense.  I shouldn’t be here at all; I should be out, trying to earn a living, not flirting with dead men and downloading old pictures. “Vanity of vanities! all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, King James Bible version, 1611).

wood

wood by Martin Hübscher Photography  © August 2014

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts began his adventure in still-life and trompe l’oeil in Antwerp, then found customers in the German cities of Regensburg and Hamburg, before he was appointed court painter in Copenhagen where he decorated the King’s Kunstkammer, one of the greatest of all European cabinets of curiosities, with his illusions of illusions; no job or position ever lasted, he always moved on, itinerant artist in search of the same theme, first to Stockholm, and then back to Germany, to Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, and then, almost full circle, he returned to Flanders, ending up in Bruges. On the way, he broke the fourth wall.

kms3076

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil. A Cabinet of Curiosities with an Ivory Tankard, 1670
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Gijsbrechts painted a series of representations of cabinets of curiosities, with closed or half open doors revealing the eclectic objects inside, for the Perspective Chamber of the real cabinet of curiosities of the Danish kings, a sort of site-specific art installation, except none of the objects were real.

Visitors to the Chamber were unwittingly entering a stage-set. In one of the paintings, they were given a glimpse back-stage. The door opens on to nothing, Lord Rochester’s “Great Negative”, the beginning and end of everything, into which all our words and illusions must “undistinguished fall”, where the cosmos itself started and will end.

That is the rational end, but for most of us it is not the end of illusion. We are unable or unwilling to grasp finality in our minds. When we look at the picture, we are tempted to jump into the grey empty space on another adventure of the imagination, through a portal to another world.

Gijsbrechts’ tricks with our eyes were intended to entertain, no more, but few things, let alone people, turn out exactly as intended. Some of us spending too much time looking at his painted half open-doors, might find, like Keats looking at the Grecian Urn, an art form “dost tease us out of thought”. Is it something, or nothing?

Unable to encompass the magnitude, or the littleness, of what art and history is telling me, bemused by all their illusions, this blogger is like one of those people described by Hobbes in Leviathan as “birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

It’s been a long train of thought that’s led me here, and, look, guess what, at the last post, all those words, all those pictures of dead princes and poets, their monkeys and dogs, all those letter racks and skulls and fruit pieces, they’ve all been in vain, and I’ve blogged my way to dusty

NOTHING

the front of the picture

Part eight of Nothing

KMS5

Is this a photograph of an easel and canvasses arranged for a trendy shop window display? Or you might see it on the cover of one of those aspirational free lifestyle mags published by estate agents, showing off the latest interior design features to fill those awkward corners of a penthouse with river view.

We know it’s staged – no real painter’s easel ever looks like that – but it is a reproduction of a real three-dimensional, isn’t it?

It is the three-hundred and forty year old optical illusion proving that human life is transient and meaningless, but art is not:

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts Cut-Out Trompe l’Oeil Easel with Fruit Piece oil on canvas 1670-1672.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum, Copenhagen..

Is this why all of us, even if we can’t draw or paint or write much more than a list of tags, are so desperate to leave our mark? Because we can’t bear being meaningless?  Even if we can’t find a market for it? Even if we’re vanity publishing?

Posting on our online pin boards is another opiate for existential angst, supplying illusions ad infinitum. We think it keeps us sane, even while we drive everyone else mad. All is vanity.

Our response to the portrait of Lord Rochester holding a laurel crown over a monkey is dictated by the subject matter, because the charisma of the wild glamour boy poet, and the daring symbolism, which was the patron’s idea, not the artist’s, are more striking than Huysman’s execution, gorgeous though the baroque reds and ochres are.

Most Vanitas painting, of everyday objects, just stuff lying around, succeeded in glorifying itself as much as the customer’s lifestyle choices.

It was bravura advertizing of the painter’s technique and ingenuity, especially in conveying perspective, and of the power of art, in which the painting triumphed over the concept, the artist over the patron, however rich or royal; as an exercise in humility it defeated its own object. It is utterly vain. It’s not even transient.

The strict moral message is usually, thank God, almost completely submerged in wonderfully extravagant decorative effects, like theatre design.

The seventeenth century was as fluent in theatrical metaphor as we are in digital media and the manipulated image. Vanitas, which at first glance is the least dramatic of historic painting, with none of the stories to tell of landscape and portraits, is all about theatrical illusion.

Gijsbrechts created his delectable fruit-piece for the Danish king’s cabinet of curiosities. It was plainly described in the inventory from 1674 as: “A stand with painter’s paraphernalia painted on perspective.” (SMK website, which is superb.)

Even without tricks of perspective, the most mundane looking Baroque still life is set-dressing of a drama or satirical comedy, an illustration to a Shakespearean soliloquy about the futility of life, in which the cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, all our invented consolations dissolve; or it simply looks good enough to eat.

dessert

Photo: Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014

And there is more vanity to come, in yet another post….

Pets, Familiars and Excuses

Part three of Nothing

That damned monkey has led me somewhere I swore I would not go……

NPG 4519; Prince Rupert, Count Palatine attributed to Gerrit van Honthorst

The best-known portrait of the young and dashing Prince Rupert, Count Palatinate (1619 – 16800 by Honthorst, oil on panel, feigned oval, circa 1641-1642. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

For the first two years of the Civil War Rupert’s success as a cavalry leader deploying shock tactics dominated the fighting. He seemed to be invincible. The Parliamentarian propagandists instilled the idea into their supporters that his pet monkey was a disguised witch who had sex with the prince, and, along with his other familiar in the shape of a huge white dog, gave the Cavaliers victory through sorcery.

Prince_Rupert_-_1st_English_Civil_War

Parliamentary propaganda depicted Prince Rupert’s poodle Boye as his familiar, an agent of black magic. The Roundhead troops who killed the beautiful animal at Marston Moor believed they were destroying the source of Royalist luck, and in particular, the power of the hated foreign general. Woodcut, illustrating a pamphlet called The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert, 1643. Image: Wikipedia

It was preposterous, hardly anybody believed in witchcraft in normal times during the 17th century, but the 1640s were not normal. It was, after all, the age of Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed Witchfinder-General, exploiting the public’s paranoid fears during a terrifyingly violent and unstable period, when everyday life and relationships had broken down.

Rupert’s personality and appearance made him easy for both sides to demonize to their advantage. He was young and arrogant, tall and handsome, talented and, most significantly, foreign, all of which made him obnoxious to a lot of people, Royalist and Parliamentarian, and inspiring to his own men.

It was well known that he had a diabolical temper: his brothers and sisters called him Rupert the Devil.

It was true that the dog, Boye, was a beloved companion, but not for sexual purposes. He was not the source of a prince’s superpowers, nor even a trained dog of war, just the most famously tragic hunting poodle in history, who was always tied up at the Royalist camp before one of Rupert’s battles.

On only one occasion, Boye escaped his leash, or, terrible to contemplate, Rupert or his servants had forgotten to tie him up, and he instinctively sprang forward with glee, as any dog would, to follow his master.

But when Rupert rode off, it wasn’t to a hunt, it was straight into battle. Boye was killed instantly by enemy fire and hacked to bits in an atrocity fomented by human ignorance and prejudice.

KMS3065

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with Christian V of Denmark’s Equipment for Riding to Hounds, 1671. The artist’s power of illusion is applied to the leisure pursuits of the powerful. With thanks yet again to: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen for the free use of this image of a painting from their collection.

The “Wrong but Wromantic” Royalist cause was lost, not because a spell was broken, but because of the superiority of Cromwellian strategy, tactics and discipline, and the political and military ineptitude of the king, who didn’t take Rupert’s pragmatic advice the following year, 1645, to start peace negotiations before his position got worse.

(The quote, for anyone neither British nor of a certain age, is from a comic work of genius published in 1930, called 1066 and All That, one of the most truthful books in the spirit of history ever written.)

Credulity and coincidence often make history and still inform election choices in modern democracies. Just because there isn’t an official Witchfinder-General today, doesn’t mean to say there aren’t a lot of them about under different titles. We’re all frightened of one thing or another, all willing to believe in something, even if we call it nothing.

Marston Moor was Rupert’s first and worst defeat as a general and a rite of passage into accountability and remorse. He had suffered before, and been held, aged nineteen, as a prisoner of war in Europe for three years, but after Marston Moor he was never quite the same. All is vanity.

A note for purists of military history and Rupertists: he always maintained that he was misled by ambiguous written instructions from Charles I to seek battle at Marston Moor, a strategically disastrous decision which lost the north of England to Parliament. The letter survives in evidence.

Rupert was a strange (and terribly attractive) mixture of arrogance and fidelity; he had the fatal flaw of many other proud and intelligent Germans of obedience to authority.

And Rupert, the professional European soldier, should never have been so reckless to take his dogs on campaign in England, certainly not without locking up, poor Boye during a battle; civil wars are always fought with savage bitterness outside the rules of engagement of other conflicts.

Maybe he had started believing his own publicity; he was only twenty-four.

A 6’4″ German prince who last breathed in 1682 – a whisker and a whisper ago – has rudely attacked my train of thought – it must be love that makes me tarry –

the journey into Nothing will be continued when I’ve found that monkey….