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I wanted to quickly write about a great piece of art from the 19th century (or really two great pieces). When Honoré de Balzac died, the city fathers (or the Second Empire…or someone) commissioned a great bronze statue of the (in)famous realist. Balzac was renowned for his larger-than-life personality and for his exuberant personal life. The commissioners of the sculpture found an equally over-the-top realist sculptor to make the statue, Auguste Rodin. Rodin tracked down every daguerreotype and drawing of Balzac. He interviewed Balzac’s mistresses and intimates and went to Balzac’s tailor for exact measurements. He took casts from Balzac’s death mask and did everything but exhume his corpse (presuming he didn’t do that in secret). Then Rodin made a brash sculpture of the great novelist standing nude, with his legs apart and his arms crossed, brooding upon the human comedy.
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The patrons who commissioned the sculpture were predictably aghast (although I like to think Balzac would have been amused–and flatterd by his muscular torso). They demanded that Rodin redo the whole thing–this time properly clothed. Rodin went into a huge huff and he threw a great cowled cloak over the statue (which only showed a tiny portion of Balzac’s brooding countenance). That was that: it was thereafter impossible to get him to work further upon the project. Nobody was satisfied…but the publicity from the controversy made all parties more famous and rebounds down to this day.
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Astonishingly, and somewhat improbably, we are having a great national debate in the United States over nineteenth (and early twentieth) century sculptures (I will write more about that shortly). Eventually, inevitably, the turgid bronzes of rebels, slavers, and secessionists will be taken down or moved (like “The Triumph of Civic Virtue”). However right now they are in limbo. The most controversial of all, the statue of Lee in Charlottesville has had a great tarp cast over it (which improves it no end, to my mind). Seeing gawkers pointing at the plastic cocoon upon a plinth brought a smile to my face and reminded me of Balzac’s statue and all of the trouble that public art causes.

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Oak-wood (Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, 1887, oil on canvas)

Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832.  His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies.  Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects.  For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism.  He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time.  Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Stream by a Forest Slope (Ivan I. Shishkin, 1880, oil on canvas)

Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings.  The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood.  The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Wind-Fallen Trees (Ivan I. Shiskin, 1888, oil on canvas)

Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature.  Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy).  However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods.  Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.

The Calm Sea (Gustave Courbet, 1869, oil on canvas)

The Calm Sea (Gustave Courbet, 1869, oil on canvas)

Gustave Courbet was preeminent among the realist painters of nineteenth century France.  Although he rejected the romanticism of the previous epoch of painting, there was often a certain robust drama to his paintings—which frequently portrayed dark hunting scenes, stormy waves, and tempestuous mistresses.  This painting however is a real exception: here is a delightfully undramatic summer beachscape. Hazy half-cumulus clouds melt into the aqua sky above a yellow strip of sand. Small practical fishing vessels bake in the sun as sailboats drift by on the offing.

Although this is a view of the beach as it appeared in the 1860s, there is something timeless about it.  In real life the simple painting seems alive with the sounds and sunlight of the Atlantic coast—you almost expect a seagull to fly out of it (hopefully that comes across from the digital image—it is hard to look at art online).  Courbet’s work was a bridge not just away from the tempestuous Romantic art of the first half-of the nineteenth century, but towards the liveliness and freedom of impressionism.   This simple but powerful work really shows how he could enliven a familiar landscape with bravura brushwork!

In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral.  In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway).  Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system.   The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life).  His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers).  After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe.  Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams).  He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.

For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium.  He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus.  Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother.  Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi.  In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity).  Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion.  He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets.  The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury.  Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere.  The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China.  Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas.  Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers.  In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late.  The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander.  The rebellion had begun in earnest:  on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”.  He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.

Scroll painting from "Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855."

Scroll painting from “Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855.”

The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history.  At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects.  As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted.  Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.

The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration.  He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines).   For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers).  Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision).  Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley.  Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history.  By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.

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