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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

If you wander through the beautiful landscape of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you will encounter many lovely sights: vistas of pastoral splendor will open before you filled with fields, trees, forests, streams, and lakes. There are stately statues, Victorian villas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens aplenty in the huge park–but there oddities too. Beside the Beaux Arts boathouse which floats above the lake like a huge elegant wedding cake, you will come upon a strange sight.  Completely bounded within a gothic ironwork fence, a horribly twisted and mutated tree is held together with bolts, crutches, and wire.  Although the tree’s trunk and limbs are monstrous, it is only 4 meters (twelve feet) tall and it is covered with lovely deep green hand-sized leaves in summer.

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The tree is a Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) a bizarre mutant elm brought as a graft from the old world.  It was planted in 1872–the year that Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president (and also the first year that Arbor Day was celebrated). This particular tree has survived Dutch Elm disease, which wiped away America’s splendid elm-lined avenues, and the wizened tree somehow stayed alive during the urban decay of the 1960s-1990s (indeed its limbs are carved with obscure yet strangely familiar graffiti).  The wires, crutches, and supports are the work of gifted tree surgeons, brought in by the Prospect Park Alliance to keep the ancient tree alive.  It remains bonsai-like in its own little yard, a testament to the vigor of trees.

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The story of how the weeping elm was discovered is likewise a strange trip into the past.  Between 1835 and 1840 David Taylor, who was the forester for the Earl of Camperdown, discovered a bizarre mutant branch of what seemed like an elm tree growing along the floor of the forest outside the Earl’s huge Greek revival manor house in Scotland.  The forester grafted the branch onto a normal Wych Elm and discovered that the resultant tree was a twisted weeping mutant.

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

During the Victorian age, there was a trend towards interesting and bizarre specimen plants in aristocratic gardens and arboretums (the perplexingly self-referential name of the aesthetic movement emphasizing such specimens was “gardenesque”).  Prospect Park’s Camperdown elm tree rode this movement across the ocean to Brooklyn where Olmstead and Vaux were putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece park.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by Wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany.  Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness.  He was a strange figure as a king.   Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers).  At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.

Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire.  At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War.  Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria.  He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage).   The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles.  The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style.  Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime.  It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat.  Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers.  Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction).  Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane.  Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in).  In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day.  By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman.  The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.

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On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing).  He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden.  The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants).  Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men.  Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake.  The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious).  Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.

These things happen...

These things happen…

The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course).  Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles.  His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).

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The world is different than it seems to be.  Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic).  Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations.  His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state).   Bavarians speak of him fondly even today.  Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.

 

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas, by Alexander Boguslawski, Professor of Russian Studies, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Professor Boguslawski's dissertation (1982), "The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia," provided the background for the painting

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas (Alexander Boguslawski, 1982, “The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia,” provided the background for the painting)

Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well…he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus within a basilica in Asia Minor.  Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed the death of Nicholas, stories began to spread that he was up and about, busily performing miracles.  The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography.  Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man (yeah!), or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree.  However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport, control the weather, and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea.  In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale.  Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs.  Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors.  Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!).  So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died.  Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries.  The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession.  As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house.  It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent the little girls from being turned out.

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca.  1430s, tempera)

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s, tempera)

The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls.  Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor.  They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner.  In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes.  Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses).  For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn.  The Saint summarily dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more.  Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies.  Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity).  As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children.  After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.  You can read all about it in tomorrow’s post!

On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion.  Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death).  The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.

In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era.  Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy.  Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity.  Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Lorenzo Lotto, 1521, oil on canvas)

Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints.  The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles.  Everything else, however points to their humanity.  The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism).  Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it.  The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden.  Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.

A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance.  In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade.  Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting.  They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze.  The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia.  The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity.   Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.

Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist.  Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died.  The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease).  Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”.  He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists).  However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.

The Snake Charmer (Henri Rousseau, 1907, oil on canvas)

Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay,  Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907.  The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness.  A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile.  Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun.  Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).

The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme,1870, oil on canvas)

Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting.  Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think.  Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time.  Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War.   Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing.  Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.

The Feast of Herod (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533. Oil on limewood)

Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life.  Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight.  Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim.  To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images.  These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work.  When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other.  It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515, oil on canvas)

My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise.  Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre.  Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530, Oil on wood)

Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).

It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much.  Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism.  Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar).   A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.

Salome (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Oil on Wood)

But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads.  Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1530s)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes and a Servant (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530)

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1520-1537, oil on wood)

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art.  Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier,  I wanted to address his work further.  Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths.  The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums.  Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day.  Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!

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