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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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Electric blue is one of my favorite blues.  The hue is named for the color of an electrical discharge through the atmosphere (which is to say the fluorescent ion glow of nitrogen).  The name is older than you might imagine:  according to “A Dictionary of Color,” the first use of the name was in 1845.  The blue note of electrical sparks is readily apparent in photos of sparks and discharges—but somewhat less so in the real world where electrical discharges are bright, swift, and unpredictable. A lot of Victorians must have stared at wacky apparatuses for this to become codified as a standard blue.

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Nineteenth century scientists realized that there was some connection between electricity and the human nervous system, but they could not quite put it all together.  Electric blue therefore became a favorite color for indicating supernatural phenomena.  The color became immensely popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was used in all sorts of garments, sales brochures, and products.  It was a fad color which lasted a long time (since fads spread more slowly in those days).

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The color has faded from popularity somewhat, but in our era of glowing screens, glowing blue is never entirely irrelevant (plus, as noted, it has a basis in the physics of electricity and the composition of the atmosphere).

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Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period.  Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms.  Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times.  Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film).  However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes.  For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters.  To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.

Caccia all’anatra (Pietro Longhi, 1760, oil on canvas)

Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice.  Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery!  The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy.  Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.

Marie Adelaide of France as Diana (Jean-Marc Nattier, 1745, oil on canvas)

Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France.   Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana.   The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe).  Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.

Diana and Cupid (Pompeo Batoni, 1761, oil on canvas)

Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome.  Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid.  The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap.  The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition.  All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there.  Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.

 

Announcement of Death to the Virgin (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Duccio di Buoninsegna was born in the middle of Sienna in the 13th century.  Before his death in 1319 or 1320, Duccio combined the stiff formal conventions of Byzantine and Romanesque art with newfound Italian interests in modeled forms, three dimensional architectural interiors, and naturalistic emotions.   Along with Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini he is regarded as one of the progenitors of Western art (and the sole father of Siennese gothic art).

Detail of “Announcement of Death to the Virgin” (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Duccio’s painting Announcement of Death to the Virgin is one of only thirteen surviving works by the master.  A beautiful gothic angel has materialized before Mary as she reads from a psalter. The heavenly visitor silently presents Christ’s mother with a palm frond to symbolize the coming death of her son.  Mary gestures in resolute horror at the message.  Beyond the three-dimensional room delicate arches lead to a background of blackness.

Detail of “Announcement of Death to the Virgin” (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310, tempera on panel)

Little is known of Duccio’s life, but we know that it was a disorganized mess.  He had seven children and thanks to an inability to manage money he was frequently in trouble with debts and fines.  Fortunately his gifts as an artist outshone his problems with organization.  By the beginning of the 14th century he was the most famous (and revolutionary) painter in Sienna and he managed to solve his financial problems by painting numerous commissions around the thriving communal republic.

Ned Ludd was a person with severe developmental problems back in the 18th century, when society lacked effective ways of assisting people with disabilities.  In the cruel parlance of the time he was a “half-wit”.  Supposedly, Ned worked as a weaver in Anstey (an English village which was the gateway to the ancient Charnwood forest).  In 1779, something went wrong—either Ned misunderstood a confusing directive, or he was whipped for inefficiency, or the taunts of the villagers drove him to rage. He picked up a hammer and smashed two brand new stocking frames (a sort of mechanical knitting machine used to quickly weave textiles).  Then he fled off into the wilderness where he lived as a freeman. Some say that in the primal forests he learned to become a king.

The Leader of the Luddites (Annymous, published in 1812 by Mess, Walker and Knight)

Ned is important not because of his life (indeed it seems likely that he was not real—or, at best, he was just barely real) but because he was mythicized into a larger-than-life figure around whom the Luddite movement coalesced.  This diffuse social rebellion had some roots in the austere and straightened times of the Napoleonic war but it was mostly a direct response to the first sweeping changes wrought by the Industrial revolution.  Skilled weavers and textile artisans were aggrieved that machines operated by unskilled workpeople could easily produce much more fabric than trained artisans using traditional methods. The unskilled workpeople were angry at being underpaid and mistreated in the harsh dangerous early factories.  This anger was combined with widespread popular discontent about the privations of war and the rapacity of the elite. Free companies of rebels met and drilled at night in Sherwood Forest or on vacant moorland. Anonymous malefactors smashed the new machines.  Mills burnt down and factory owners were threatened.  It was whispered that it was all the work of “King Ludd” whose rough signatures appeared on broadsheets and threatening letters.

The first wave of Luddite Rebellion broke out in 1811 centered in Nottingham and the surrounding areas.  It is interesting that the same region which came up with Robin Hood, the hero-thief of folklore, also was responsible for remaking Ned Ludd from a lumpen outsider into a bellicose king of anti-technology.  Disgruntled (male) artisans marched in women’s clothes and called themselves “Ned Ludd’s wives”.  Circulars were addressed from the “king’s” office deep in Sherwood forest.

The original teasing tone quickly vanished as Luddite uprisings broke out across Northern England in the subsequent months and years until British regulars were sent in to quash them.   For a brief period, there were more redcoats putting down Luddite insurrections in England than there were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. Professional soldiers made short work of the rebels and Parliament hastily enacted a series of laws which made “machine-breaking” a capital crime. A number of Luddites were executed and others were transported to Australia.

Ned Ludd escaped these reprisals by being from a different era (and fictional).  “Luddite” has now become a preferred label for all people who eschew technology.  The half-wit King Ned still lives on in the imagination of people who have lost their jobs to the march of progress and in the nightmares of technophiles and economists. Indeed one of the great constructs/truisms of economics is the Luddite fallacy—which holds that labor saving devices increase unemployment.  Neoclassical economists (who named the concept) assert that it is a fallacy because labor saving devices decrease the cost of goods—allowing more consumers to obtain them.  However there are some who believe this has only been the case so far because the machines have not become sophisticated enough. Once a certain threshold of technology is passed thinking machines might replace many skilled positions as well as unskilled ones.  This simultaneously awesome and horrifying concept will be our theme tomorrow.

The latter half of the summer is the silly season for journalism.  During August, in particular, when legislative bodies are on break and the titans of finance are estivating in Gstaad, the papers are filled with stories about pie-eating contests, surfing dogs, and other similar bucolic follies.   The evocative Swedish phrase for this indolent time is “rötmånadshistoria” which literally means rotting month—a time when every Swede is on holiday elsewhere and the forgotten leftovers rot in the fridge.

Silly Season 2011?

Well that is how it is supposed to be anyway. This summer the paper is filled with disasters.  America’s leaders have collectively decided they would prefer to see the country ruined as long as the opposite party is blamed.  US Government bonds have been downgraded. The markets are crashing. Darpa’s experimental scramjet is lost.  London is on fire.  Internecine wars grind on in west Asia. Bullet trains are crashing in China. Syria is taking another step on the road to genocidal civil war.   This year seems like a dark literal version of rötmånadshistoria–in which everything is revealed to be rotten. The silliness is simmering over into madness.

Rushton Triangular Lodge (1595)

Sadly there are no facile solutions for any of those problems here.  This post is not meant to be a blueprint for fixing society, but rather a paean to the traditional summer silliness we should be enjoying.  Instead of concentrating on the bad news, let’s pretend none of it is happening! Sit back, imagine that it is a traditional silly season, and enjoy this post dedicated to frivolity.  In keeping with the finest tradition of Erasmus we will embrace absurdity and literally praise folly—or actually follies. So here is the first half of a two-part post concerning garden follies–extravagant ornamental structures intended solely for the amusement of bygone aristocrats. Such structures were expressly built not to be useful.  Oftentimes follies were purposefully manufactured as ruins or were designed with a glaring structural anomaly—like a tower without stairs, or a greenhouse without windows. A folly was often the centerpiece of a large garden and tied together the disparate themes.  Additionally, like powdered wigs, hoop skirts, and most other luxury goods, the very uselessness of a folly was testament to a nobleman’s power and prestige: he could afford to throw away princely sums on a decorative building.

Rococo Folly from Painswick Garden (Ca. 1750s)

Follies originated just prior to the 17th century. It was customary for gentlemen of that era to take a grand tour of southern Europe when they came of age.  As they traveled through Italy and southern France these elite tourists were exposed to actual Roman ruins.  When they returned to England or northern France they built copies of Greco-Roman temples to symbolize various classical virtues and ideals (which were already enshrined in the educational system of that time). Although the first wave of garden follies in the Seventeenth century was motivated by classical and religious ideas, the craze for extravagance and eccentricity deepened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  As France and England reached the apogee of their economic power, the ruling classes of those nations went all out to show their taste, sophistication, and rank with increasingly lavish and increasingly novel garden architecture.  Follies proliferated and took the shape of the eclectic pursuits of the lords commissioning them.  An interest in the Levant filled England with orientalist fantasies. The gothic revival led to a host of spooky medieval towers and pseudo-crypts.  The Earl of Dunmore, a Scottish Earl who loved tropical fruit commissioned an immense stone pineapple as a cupola for his hothouse.

Painshill Turkish Tent (mid 18th century)

The Dunmore Pineapple (1776)

Follies were meant to be beautiful and/or striking. Since they were designed specifically to be interesting ahead of all other concerns they often possess unique fantasy flourishes. In many cases the purpose of an architectural folly was to provide a direct allegorical lesson, however, even when no clear lesson was meant the structures clearly reflected the nature of human beliefs and desires…

The Chanteloup Pagoda (1775)

Perrott's Folly (1758)

To be continued tomorrow

Five Shells Mounted on a Slab of Stone (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Here are three tiny paintings of seashells by the great Dutch still-life master Adriaen Coorte.  I would love to tell you more about Coorte, but I am unable to do so.  The date of his birth and his death are both unknown.  Aside from his apprenticeship to Melchior d’Hondecoeter (which took place in Amsterdam) it is believed that Coorte spent his entire life in Middelburg, Zeeland.   His signed paintings date from 1683 to 1707 and, according to records, he belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke.

Seashells (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Everything else we know about Coorte comes from his beautiful jewel-like paintings–which were also largely unknown until the 1950’s (when a fashionable art-historian publicised them to the world). The compositions are minimalist with dramatic lighting and exquisite object arrangement.  Coorte painted on paper which he then glued to wood (an unusual technique now and even more so during the 17th century).

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte, 1697 oil on paper on wood panel)

Along with Balthasar van der Ast and Antoine Berjon, Coorte was one of the greatest painters of seashells. He gives an emotional context to the shells while capturing their alien beauty. For example in the painting below, there is something about the spatial relationship between the spiny murex, the tiny red shell, the spiral, and the cowry which transforms the inanimate shells into actors in a tragic play.  The mysterious Coorte seems to know something about the fundamental nature of things that he can only reveal through these tiny charged tableaus, but like Coorte, the message remains a mystery.

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte,1698, oil on paper on wood panel)

Claude Mollet, Innovator and Gardener to the Kings of France

Devoted readers may have noticed that I haven’t written a garden post for a while.  That’s, um, because my garden is kind of…well…flat.  It got hit by triple punches in the form of a tornado, a giant hail storm, and now winter.  All that’s left is to plant my bulbs, put my roses to bed, and sadly stare at the little yew bush in the corner until Spring comes again with its ancient magic.

During this cold dead season, gardeners fantasize about spectacular gardens they can never have or even see in person.  I personally have been reflecting on parterre gardens and wanted to present a little gallery with pictures of great parterre gardens around the world.  Parterre gardens are highly formal gardens which make use of gravel walkways, flat planted beds, and tightly clipped hedges and topiaries to create extremely precise geometric designs.  They were created at the end of the16th century by Claude Mollet (ca. 1564 – shortly before 1649), the first gardener for three French kings.  The Mollets were a dynasty of exalted gardeners who were much in demand by the French nobility.  Claude’s father was chief gardener at the Château d’Anet where young Claude saw formal style Italian herb gardens being planted.  He admired the geometric precision of these small geometric her beds or compartimens as they were known in France and wondered if they could be made larger.  From this concept sprang a vast world of “embroideries (passements), moresques, arabesques, grotesques, guilloches, rosettes, sunbursts (gloires), escutcheons, coats-of-arms, monograms and emblems (devises)” to quote Jacques Boyceau, another luminary of the early parterre movement.

But enough words!  Enjoy this tiny gallery of parterre gardens from around the world as you plan your spring gardens and get ready to pass the long winter.

Waddesdon formal flower garden

Villandry garden

Tatton Park Gardens

Parterre at le Chateau de la Hulpe

Longwood Garden Topiary Garden

Leaning Pine Aboretum at CalPoly

La Casa Pacifica flower parterre

West Parterre of Hatfield House

Parterre Garden at Hampton Court Palace in London

Parterre at Château de Courances

Bourton House Topiary

Brodsworth Formal GardenHillwood Garden Fountain

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