BATLINER COLLECTION, ALBERTINA MUSEUM

Vienna, 11 September 2019

I should have written this post a long time ago, when I first went to see the Batliner collection at the Albertina Museum here in Vienna. But somehow it got left behind. I have been jogged along by the death in June of Mr. Batliner, although even then I am several months late. But hey, better late than never!

A little bit of background is in order. Herbert Batliner was a hideously rich Liechensteiner banker (he was actually half Liechensteiner, half Austrian; his mother was Austrian). It will probably come as no surprise to readers to know that his Liechensteiner father was a banker and that he himself followed his father into banking. He made millions helping seriously rich people stash their wealth away from pesky tax collectors (and others) in “family foundations”. Some of these people had iffy reputations – the son of an African dictator, the partner of an Ecuadorian drug baron, a pardoned fugitive US financier, that sort of thing. Some of his replies when he was asked about these rather grey financial dealings were quite instructive: “I’m not a Father Confessor who has to ask his clients if they have obeyed the laws of their homelands”,  and “We don’t take unannounced clients, or those that show up with suitcases full of cash”. At one point, the German tax authorities started investigating him for possible involvement in illegal financial transactions by one of the country’s political parties, but he saw the danger off with the payment of a rather hefty fine. All this assistance to the filthy rich made him rich too. In 2006, his assets were estimated at about 200 million Swiss Francs.

On the plus side, Mr. Batliner, together with his wife Rita, used his millions to build up a remarkable collection of modern and contemporary art. In 2007, he transferred his collection (in the form of a foundation, of course) to the Albertina Museum as a permanent loan. The Museum was, of course, exceedingly grateful. The Director Klaus Albrecht Schröder called the donation a “key event in the history of the Albertina”. We see here Herbert and Rita, together with a beaming Schröder, in front of one of the paintings in their collection, a Monet painting of the water lilies in the pond of his garden at Giverny.

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This same painting make up the background to the Albertina’s poster which publicizes the permanent exhibition.

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The Albertina then cannily transferred this poster to the long flight of steps leading up to the entrance to the museum.

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It has become quite a hit with the public, being a popular spot for photos and selfies.

The poster, and other material related to the exhibition, highlight the presence of paintings by Monet and Picasso, but in truth these were not the paintings that struck me the most when I visited the exhibition. I show here, in the order in which I came across them, the works that caught my attention.

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Peace (1915) by Augusto Giacometti, a Swiss painter. He was related to the more well-known Alberto Giacometti, being a cousin of Alberto’s father. This is the only time I’ve ever come across any of his work. Wikpedia informs me that “he was a prominent as a painter in the Art Nouveau and Symbolism movements, for his work in stained glass, as a proponent of murals and a designer of popular posters.”

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Forest (1909) by Emil Nolde. Nolde was German-Danish, being born in Schleswig. He was one of the first Expressionists, a member of the Die Brücke movement.

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Moonlit Night (1914), again by Emil Nolde.

Unfortunately, Nolde is a prime example of the fact that being a great painter doesn’t mean that you are a nice person. Already in the early 1920s Nolde was a supporter of the Nazi party, expressing anti-semitic opinions about Jewish artists and considering Expressionism to be a distinctively Germanic style. But he was hoist on his own petard. Hitler rejected all forms of modern art as “degenerate”, and the Nazi regime officially condemned Nolde’s work.  Over a thousand of his works were removed from museums, more than those of any other artist, and some were included in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition.  He was not allowed to paint – even in private – after 1941.

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Irises in the Evening Shadows (1925) by Max Pechstein. Like Nolde, Pechstein was German and a member of the Die Brücke movement. He fell out with his fellow members, though, in 1912 and went it alone. He too fell foul of the Nazis and had a number of his works exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition.

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Approach to Löbau Train Station (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Also German, also an Expressionist painter, also a member of the Die Brücke movement, also branded as “degenerate” and had a number of his paintings exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. He committed suicide in 1938.

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Yachting on Lake Tegern (1910) by August Macke. Macke was another German Expressionist painter, but he was a founder member of another movement, the Blaue Reiter, which was based in the outskirts of Munich. He died in the first weeks of the First World War, in Champagne.

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The Blue Cow (c. 1911) by Natalia Goncharova. A Russian, Goncharova was, according to her Wikipedia entry, “a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow’s first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913), and with her lifelong partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented Rayonism (1912–1914). She was also a member of the German based art movement known as Der Blaue Reiter.”

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Young Girl with a Flowered Hat (1910) by Alexej Jawlensky. Another Russian, Jawlensky moved to Germany, joined the Expressionist trend, and was another founder member of the Blaue Reiter movement. I recently saw a wonderful painting of his in Munich.

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Another gorgeous painting by Jawlensky, Cornfield near Carantec, from a bit earlier: 1905. Very different from the “typical” Jawlensky painting, of which the Young Girl with a Flowered Hat is an example.

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A third Jawlensky, Abstract Head, from 1928/29. I suppose he felt the need to move with the times. But the colouring is still lovely.

Jawlensky is another example of a great painter but not a very nice man. Early on in his career, he shacked up with a rich woman, Marianne von Werefkin, who gave up her painting to look after him and ensure he could paint without having to work, then at some point he dumped her and married another woman, by whom he had already had a child. Marianne died alone, in poverty and obscurity in 1938.

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Hungarian Fields (1919) by László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy is not normally an artist that I warm to, but this painting stopped me dead in my tracks. I had noticed this same pattern of small strips of fields in Austria around Lake Neusidl, on the border with Hungary.

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On the Hungarian side of the lake, the fields were much larger. I’m sure they were just as small as the fields in Austria until World War II, but collective farming during the Communist period wiped them out.

The exhibition had a number of examples of Austrian painters who adhered to the New Objectivity movement which sprang up after World War I, as a reaction to Expressionism. One strand of New Objectivity was a return to classicism. After the horrors of the war, throughout Europe there was a “return to order” in the arts, which resulted in a turn away from abstraction by many artists towards neoclassicism. I include here one example from the exhibition, The Big Port of 1928 by Herbert von Reyel-Hanisch.

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I started with Augusto Giacometti, I finish with his more famous cousin once-removed, Alberto Giacometti.

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One photo doesn’t do justice to this remarkable statuette, Slender Bust on Plinth (Amenophis) from 1954. I suspect that when Giacometti refers to Amenophis he has in mind the pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten started reigning as Amenhotep IV, a name which the Greeks translated as Amenophis. As this photo attests, he did have a long thin face with pronounced features like Giacometti’s statuette.

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I was certainly much struck by the statues of Akhenaten which we saw during a recent visit to Egypt. I could well imagine that Giacometti would have found his face fascinating.

Well, those were my take-aways from this exhibition. If any of my readers come to Vienna, they should really make time for this exhibition and see what they think. The rest of the Albertina Museum is also worth visiting, they normally have excellent temporary exhibitions.

QUAFFING MEAD

Vienna, 18 August 2019

Back in April, I was up in Vienna to make a presentation at a workshop on ecodesign and its role in promoting circular economies. Fascinating topic, but what I actually want to write about is the fact that at this meeting I met an old contact of mine, Wolfgang, who many years ago had run a training programme for me on ecodesign in Sri Lanka. After the workshop, we repaired to a bar to catch up on the past 15 years or so over a beer. Wolfgang first told me all about what he’s been up to in the ecodesign world, but then added, “What’s really exciting me at the moment is my production of mead.”

Mead … I don’t know what visions this conjures up in my readers, but for me I immediately see Vikings wassailing the dark Nordic nights away, drinking mead out of horns or possibly the skulls of their enemies, and preparing for the battle of tomorrow where they will die heroically and go to Valhalla. These fine fellows will stand in nicely for such a scene.

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I had certainly never drunk the stuff myself; I didn’t know anyone made it anymore.

Thoroughly intrigued, I pressed Wolfgang for more information. As is the case with all enthusiasts, I didn’t have to press very hard. With a pint of beer inside him, he waxed lyrical on the subject. He had to start at the very beginning, with what mead is made from – I didn’t even know that. It’s a mixture of honey and water to which yeast is added to turn the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The relative ratios of honey to water will determine the level of sweetness of the final product. Sweetness can be further increased by the addition of fruits. On the other hand, the mix can be made dryer by adding astringent berries or herbs. Wolfgang was very dismissive about the modern trend of making sweet meads. In fact, he said, he started making mead because he was appalled at how horribly sweet most modern meads are, which in his opinion obliterates the wonderful underlying tastes of the honey. He decided he was going to swim against the current and make a dry mead. He had been at it for a couple of years, and was beginning to sell his product to other enthusiasts.

Well, this all sounded very interesting! I was definitely going to have to try this stuff. Unfortunately, I was going back down to Milan the next day. But we agreed that when my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I would contact him and we would arrange a mead-tasting event.

In the meantime, down in Milan, I did some research. Mead, it turns out, is very ancient, probably the first alcoholic drink that human beings ever quaffed. It’s also a pretty universal drink. The tribes that settled Europe certainly all drank mead. I’ve already mentioned the Vikings. They loved mead so much, they wrote a whole saga about it – Kvasir and the Mead of Poetry. It’s a story that has dwarves, giants, the god Odin, thievery, murder, and various other bits and bobs. A shaggy dog story if ever I heard one, good to while away those long Nordic nights while quaffing mead. The bottom line of the saga is that mead can turn you into a poet or a scholar: a feeling that I’m sure all of us have had when we have drunk too much alcohol; a feeling we normally have just before we are sick or pass out, or both. And much of Beowulf, that Anglo-Saxon poem greatly revered by lovers of the English language, takes place in a mead hall; it was in these specially-built halls that Viking chieftains and their retinue of warriors drank mead, listened to long, long – long – sagas, and generally wassailed the nights away, before collapsing onto the benches or even onto the floor in a drunken stupor. Here is an artist’s representation of a mead hall.

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And here is an excellent summary of the first part of Beowulf: “The fantastical mead hall of Heorot forms an integral part of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, serving as both the setting and instigation of the action. It is the carousing of Heorot’s denizens as they slug back mead in the hall which awakens the terrible ire of the monster Grendel – with predictably gruesome results. The solution to the problem – in typical Old English style – was not to put down the mead horns and cease partying, but to slay the monster (and his mother) before throwing an even bigger and more mead-soaked party to celebrate.”

The Vikings may be the best known quaffers of mead, but the Celts were no slouches, and nor were the Germanic tribes. There is riddle-poem in the Exeter Book, a 10th-century anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, about honey and mead. I quote the first couple of lines:

Ic eom weorð werum, wide funden,
brungen of bearwum ond of burghleoþum,
of denum ond of dunum. Dæges mec wægun
feþre on lifte, feredon mid liste …

But since I’m sure that 99.99% of my readers are like me not able to read Anglo-Saxon, I insert here a translation of the poem into modern English:

I am valuable to men, found widely,
brought from groves and from mountain slopes,
from valleys and from hills. By day, was I carried
by feathers up high, taken skillfully
under a sheltering roof. A man then washed me
in a container. Now I am a binder and a striker;
I bring a slave to the ground, sometimes an old churl.
Immediately he discovers, he who goes against me
and contends against my strength,
that he shall meet the ground with his back,
unless he ceases from his folly early;
deprived of his strength, loud of speech, his power bound,
he has no control over his mind, his feet, or his hands.
Ask what I am called, who thus binds slaves
to the earth with blows, by the light of day.

The Anglo-Saxons clearly recognized the power of mead to bring you crashing to the floor of the mead hall or any other establishment where you drank the stuff in excess.

The Slavs also drank the stuff – they still do, with Poland having an especially developed culture of mead drinking. We have here a painting of a couple of early 19th Century Polish noblemen enjoying a flagon of mead, a scene inspired by that great nationalist Polish poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. I don’t even bother with the Polish here, I just launch straight into an English translation, and cut out much of the saga-like talk between the two old men who are our subject:

Two old men sat outside the house, tankards
of strong mead resting on their knees; …
The old men drink their mead and dip their snuff
from a bark case, continuing their chat.
“Yes, yes, Protazy, it is true enough,”
said the Warden. “I can agree with that,”
replied Protazy the Apparitor.
“Yes,” they repeated in unison, “Yes,”
nodding their heads. …
…. The turf bench in the yard
on which they sat adjoined the kitchen wall;
from an open window, steam filled the air,
billowing like a conflagration. When all
the smoke was gone, a white chef‟s hat was there,
flitting like a dove. It was the Seneschal,
who stuck his head out through the kitchen window,
eavesdropping on this private conversation.
Finally, he handed them a plate with two
biscuits. “Have this cake with your libation,”
He said …

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It wasn’t just tribes in Europe’s north who drank mead. The Ancient Greeks drank it – I read that Dionysios was the God of mead before becoming the God of wine. Greek followers of Dionysios, and Roman followers of Bacchus (same God, different name), used to hold festivals – the Dionysia or Bacchanalia – where much drinking and dancing and cavorting about (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more) was the key. Here is a take on a Bacchanalia by Hendrik Balen (he did the figures) and Jan Breughel the Elder (he did the landscape), painted in about 1620.

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As I say, the Romans partook enthusiastically in Bacchanalia, but there were more sober Roman citizens who left us some serious commentary on mead. Here is my favourite, by the Roman naturalist Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who included a recipe for making mead in his tome on agriculture, De re rustica, which he wrote in about 60 CE (again, I skip the Latin and go straight into an English translation).

Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius [ca. ½ litre] of this water with a [Roman] pound [ca. ⅓ kg] of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces [ca. ¼ kg] of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.

I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by this idea that one could take several-year old rainwater and use it to make something to drink; I suppose this was a way of inoculating the honey-water mix with natural yeasts which somehow found their way into the rainwater. I presume Columella drank his own mead and survived, so it cannot have been as deadly as it sounds.

And it wasn’t just the Europeans who drank it. The Chinese did – in fact, the oldest archaeological evidence tentatively pointing to mead drinking has been found in China: some honey, rice, and fermentation residues found on the inside of a pot 9,000 years old. The Mandaya and Manobo people in the island of Mindanao in the Philippines still drink mead, which they call bais.

In Africa, the Xhosa in South Africa have an ancient tradition of drinking mead, or iQhilika in Xhosa, and the Ethiopians have been, and continue to be, enthusiastic drinkers of mead (or tej as it’s called locally). Here we have Ethiopians enjoying a wee dram of the stuff.

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And I love this picture, done in the traditional Ethiopian style, of what appears to be a priest and his acolytes getting ready to down some tej.

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What I find particularly delicious in this painting is that normally the figures in Ethiopian paintings are very solemn; no-one breaks into a smile. Yet here, at the thought of the pleasures to come, we see a hint of a smile on the acolytes’ faces (while the priest looks troubled, which is perhaps how it should be: “Guys, should we be doing this? What if someone sees me drinking this stuff? I have an important position in the community.”).

Even in the Americas mead was, and still is consumed. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya made a drink called balché made by soaking the bark of a special tree in a honey-water mix and allowing it to ferment. Apparently, the Maya consumed balché in enema form to maximize its inebriating effect (just think if the Vikings had cottoned on to that …). For some reason, the Conquistadores banned the drink, but it never went away completely. Here is an Amerindian from the Chiapas region of Mexico making balché the old way: in a hollowed log, place the bark of the tree, add water and honey, cover and wait.
Balché may be making a comeback, although one of the reasons the Spaniards didn’t like it is that it smelled foul to them. They popularized a variant, xtabentún, which replaced the tree bark with anise (they also added rum, which makes the drink more of a liqueur).

In a way, it’s not surprising that mead is drunk in so many parts of the world. Honey, its basic ingredient, is to be found pretty much everywhere on this planet, as this map of the global distribution of the honeybee attests (the different colours refer to sub-species of the honeybee; the pinkish colour, the most dominant, gives the range for apis mellifera).

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For reasons that are not completely clear to me, the drinking of mead went into steep decline in Europe some time after the Middle Ages. Somehow, it got squeezed out by wine on one side and beer on the other. So now there are a few traditional hold-outs where mead never completely died out and enthusiasts like Wolfgang who are trying to bring mead back.

Coming back to Wolfgang, when June came around and my wife and I came up to Vienna for the summer, I contacted him. But one thing and another – he was away, then I was away; he was busy, then I was busy – meant that we weren’t able to arrange the mead tasting until last week. But it was finally arranged! Wolfgang keeps his mead in an old wine cellar in a small village outside Vienna, so we took a bus with him one evening and sallied forth. It was a lovely cellar, very deep, at the end of which he had a table with chairs where we sat down to do our mead tasting.
He got us some glasses and a bottle of his best mead.
He uncorked it, poured us a generous portion, and invited us to taste. We ceremonially picked up the glass, sniffed it, swirled it around, and took a sip.

It was … interesting. I think that’s the best I can say. I don’t know if readers can imagine this, but it tasted like honey without the sweet taste. What gets left behind if you take out the honey’s sweetness is a slightly acrid, slightly “waxy” taste. If any of my readers have ever nibbled at wax, that was the predominant taste of the mead.

The first mead we tried was made with honey where the bees had been feeding on the nectar from lime-tree (linden) flowers (I have waxed lyrical about the flower of the linden tree in a past post). We then tried a mead made with honey where the bees had feasted on rhododendron nectar up in the Alps. It was much clearer in colour, but the taste did not change much. As a finale, we tried a mead to which chokeberries had been added. These turned the mead’s colour redder and made the taste smokier – but it did not change the basic facts.
Well, we bought two bottles from Wolfgang. We felt we owed him that for the trouble he had gone to. We plan to take the bottles down to Milan, where we’ll try them on our son and see what he thinks.

In the meantime – but I have to hide this from Wolfgang – I think we should find some sweet mead to try. I feel that despite Wolfgang’s tut-tutting, people are not so wrong to drink their mead sweet. And that Ethiopian mead looks really interesting! I wonder if the Ethiopian restaurant we go to in Milan has any?

HOLIDAY SNAPS OF MUNICH AND BREGENZ

Vienna, 8 August 2019

I left readers at the end of my last post promising to cover the rest of our stay in Munich as well as our stay in Bregenz in another post. Well, I am a man of his word, here is that post!

In truth, the post will be more of a showing of photos than anything else, the e-equivalent of having your friends round for dinner after your latest holiday and boring them with your holiday snaps. I hope my readers will not be too bored and slip away early from this post …

With that, let us begin!

Munich

Well, I can’t say that I was carried away by the overall look and feel of the city. Pleasant enough, but Vienna for instance is a much more striking city overall. So what follows is a string of individual things that stuck in my mind as we criss-crossed the city.

The Nymphenburg Palace, the little summer pad of the Dukes-Kings-Electors of Bavaria.

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It was once out in the countryside but is now in the suburbs of Munich. Considerably more dramatic than the Hapsburgs’ little summer pad at Schönbrunn (now also marooned in Vienna’s suburbs).

The outside may have been dramatic, but the palace’s interiors weren’t up to much. On the other hand, the interior of Amalienburg, a little hunting lodge hidden among the trees of the Palace’s park, was quite something.

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“One of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in Germany” intones the Michelin Green Guide. I’m quite ready to believe it.

A riot of colour at the city’s botanical gardens, situated on the edge of Nymphenburg Palace’s park.

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A striking painting by Alexej Jawlensky (Portrait of the Dancer Sacharoff), at Villa Lenbach, one of the museums we visited.

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The museum has a whole section devoted to members of the Blaue Reiter group. A worthy collection indeed, but nothing other than this painting grabbed me.

Villa Lenbach also had a room devoted to paintings from after 1945, which is where I saw this one.

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The Seated Man, by Jean Hélion, a French painter whom I had never, ever heard of prior to entering the Villa Lenbach. Well, you learn something new every day …

We also visited the Modern Art Gallery (Pinakothek der Moderne). Again, a very worthy collection, but only this painting by Max Beckmann (Dance in Baden-Baden) has stayed with me.

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On our wanderings, we entered the Burgersaal church by mistake (I misread the map and thought we were visiting St. Michael’s church (“the first Renaissance church built north of the Alps” the Michelin Green Guide dixit – the serendipity of tourism).

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The paintings on the ceiling were a pleasingly modernized take on an old art form.

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The church is dedicated to Blessed Rupert Mayer (kneeling to the left on that ceiling painting), a priest who stood up to the Nazis. He was one of the very few German Catholics who did so …

The new main Jewish synagogue in St. Jakobs Platz in the old town.

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The previous main synagogue was pulled down by the Nazis in 1938. We didn’t get to visit inside, but the brooding, rugged exterior was impressive enough. It reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish Museum next door was interesting, too, but more as a collection of memories of a community scythed down by the Nazis. Many were sent to Dachau, a mere 20 km to the north of Munich.

The Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall in the old town.

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This was one of several such halls in Munich in which Hitler used to speak in the early days of his political career. I don’t know what I was expecting; a sense of menace or of dread in the air? No doubt I was influenced by a painting I had seen in Los Angeles’s County Museum of Art: The Orator, by Magnus Zeller.

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The location of that painting could easily have been the Hofbräuhaus.

But all I saw were a lot of people enjoying a beer, and all I heard was a lot of cheerful babble.

And that’s it for Munich! Next stop:

Bregenz

I must confess that I was expecting more. Its location on Lake Constance, its venerable and ancient past (it was originally a Roman town by the name of Brigantium), all led me to think it would be an interesting place to visit. But no, there really wasn’t much to it, and what there was, was ruined by bad town planning: the railway station and a busy through road effectively cut the city off from the lake. So again, just a few photos of some individual places.

A view of the upper town, a charming and quiet little corner of the city.

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That tower in the background with the squat onion dome is St. Martin’s Tower; this charming fresco is one of several which adorn its interior.

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A view of the city and the lake from up a mountain outside the city. We discovered some beautiful walks in the mountains surrounding the city.

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The spectacular set for the opera; it was the fact that our friend from Bregenz had extra tickets that brought us to the city in the first place.

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The stage is a little way out in the lake, just off the shore, and the audience takes its place on seating put up along the shore. We were seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the opera itself was completely overshadowed by the set. That giant head went up and down and turned this way and that, the eyes opened and closed, as did the mouth, people entered and exited the mouth, the hands moved, fluttering here and there, the tethered balloon went up and down … All this while the sun was setting over the lake and darkness came creeping up on us. It was jaw-dropping. Was the singing good? I don’t know, I was so concentrated on that head and its next move.

And that’s it for Bregenz!

I hope you’re still with me and that you enjoyed our holiday snaps. See you next time!

EL ANATSUI, GHANAIAN-NIGERIAN ARTIST

Vienna, 2 August 2019
amended 5 August 2019

A couple of months ago, a friend of ours told us that he had two spare tickets for the Bregenz Opera festival and asked us if would we like to take them. It so happens that I had been meaning to go and check Bregenz out ever since, many years ago, we had driven through it one wintry day on our way to visit my parents. So my wife and I gladly took him up in his offer. A write-up on that trip, though, will have to wait for another day. What I want to write about today is our little pre-trip to Munich.

It just so happens that a couple of days after we accepted our friend’s offer to go to Bregenz we read about an exhibition in Munich of the works of the Ghanaian-Nigerian artist El Anatsui.

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We had come across his work in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art some five years ago, and had been hankering to see more of his stuff ever since. It also so happens that we had passed through Munich as well as Bregenz that wintry day of many years ago – as readers will ascertain looking at a map, Munich and Bregenz are in the same general direction from Vienna. There too, I had promised myself to return some day to visit the city.

So after a little discussion and a study of bus and train timetables, my wife and I decided that we would visit Munich for a few days before going on to Bregenz for another couple of days. Thus it was that two weeks ago we disembarked from the bus at Munich’s bus station to start our visit.

Since it was the primary reason for our visiting Munich, I will focus in this post on the exhibition of El Anatui’s work. I’ll deal with the rest of Munich and Bregenz in a later post.

Anatsui is best known for these kinds of works.
At first glance, they appear to be large sheets of textiles of some sort, draped on the wall. But actually, the sheets are made up of thousands of aluminum bottle tops, from bottled drinks, as well as of the aluminum bands or sheaths to which the unopened tops are attached.
Anatsui was driven to experiment with these waste objects by a principle he lives by: artists should use what they have around them to create their art. He buys these discarded pieces of aluminum from the informal recyclers who collect them. His large crew of assistants then flatten them, after which Anatsui has them lay the pieces on the ground, where he shuffles them around, using the brand colours of the aluminum pieces to produce an overall large-scale abstract design. Once he is satisfied with the design, his assistants “sew” the pieces together with copper wire. When Anatsui is setting up an exhibition, he will spend much time in “draping” the sheets on the wall until he is satisfied with the effect. Here are some other pieces in the exhibition.
Sometimes, Anatsui uses the aluminum pieces differently. He will have his assistants twist them into circles, which they will then sew together.
This gives him semi-transparent sheets with a gauze-like effect. He had one very large work of this type in the exhibition, filling up a whole room.
While Anatsui has mostly used aluminum bottle tops and their sheaths in these kinds of works, he has also used other metallic discards. This work, for instance, is made with the “Easy Open” can tops, the ones you can just pull off the cans.
Personally, I find his work with the aluminum caps and sheathes more interesting. Can tops are too big, so the textile-like effect of his other works is not really there. The brand colours are absent too, so he can’t get the abstract designs he creates with the bottle tops.

I have to say, I find these pieces fascinating. Not only are they beautiful to look at, they are also a wonderful example of how, with some thought and dedication, a waste can be given a new life. And what a new life they have been given by Anatsui! His works remind me of another African artist whom I have written a post about earlier, Abdoulaye Konaté. He also takes small coloured pieces of material, in his case pieces of textile, and creates beautiful abstract designs out of them.

Although Anatsui is best known for his work with aluminum bottle caps, he actually arrived at this quite late in his career. Before that, he worked, and continues to work, with wood. His basic approach is to first take a chain-saw to the wood, gouging out lines, often criss-crossing and of varying depths and orientation, and then taking a blow torch to the surface to selectively blacken it. He may then add touches of colour. The effect can be quite striking. Here are photos of a couple of his works in the exhibition.
Before that, he worked in clay. We are now at the start of his career, and as is perhaps often the case with artists this early work is good but not great. I include only one of these works here.

As I say, a really great artist. I’ve said it before, and I say it again: I think the best art today is coming out of the developing countries; In Europe especially, our art is dying on its feet. I’m afraid any readers who are interested in seeing this exhibition will no longer be able to see it in Munich. It closed at the end of July. But I think there is a chance it will go on to other places. Keep a lookout for it!

LAMENTATIONS OVER A LOVED ONE

Milan, 8 June 2019

During the month of March, my wife and I went to Bologna for a short visit (I should have written up this post quite a while back; but hey, as they say, better late than never). It’s a nice little town, somewhat off the tourists’ beaten track, which makes it all the nicer. It had been decades since either of us had been back – my wife studied there for a year in the late 1970s, and I had visited her one Christmas before we went off for a little jaunt to Puglia. So it was nice to visit a few old haunts, although in truth her memories of the town were somewhat hazy and mine were almost non-existent.

But actually, what I had really been looking forward to visit was a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, by Niccolò dell’Arca from 1463, which is located in the Church of Santa Maria della Vita (tucked away behind Piazza del Nettuno). I had come across it a decade or so ago when I was methodically leafing through the 1,000 pages of the book 30,000 Years of Art: the story of human creativity across time and space.

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This very – very – thick book purports to summarize the best art that we humans have created ever since we started making things: the first entry in the book is from c. 28000 BC, the last is from the mid-1990s. Its entry for the year 1463 is Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation (on page 685, if anyone is interested). When I saw it, I said to myself, “One day, I must go to Bologna to see this!”

The Lamentation in question is not a painting. Rather, it is a collection of terracotta statues making up a sort of “tableau vivant” of the scene of sorrow around Jesus’s dead body, after he has been taken down from the cross and before he has been deposed in his tomb. It seems that Lamentations of this kind were quite common, at least in Italy (and not just in terracotta; I recently saw the remains of two other Lamentations made of wood, in the Pinacoteca of Milan’s castle). The statues represent a set of stock characters: Jesus, of course, lying on the ground after being taken down from the cross; Mary, the mother of Jesus (whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Madonna, to avoid confusion with the three other Marys); St. John the Evangelist; the three other Marys – Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleophas, Mary Salome; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. Here is a typical example of the form, which we also saw in Bologna, in the cathedral, made by the artist Alfonso Lombardi between 1522 and 1526.

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Very nice, very dignified, very composed.

But now consider the Lamentation which I wanted to see.

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Talk about lamentation! Look at the faces of the women!
Mary, mother of Jesus, first of all

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Next to her, Mary Salome, gripping her thighs frenetically in her anguish

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At the feet of Jesus, Mary of Cleophas, trying to shield herself from the awful truth

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Finally, next to her, Mary Magdalene, shrieking out her horror at what she sees.

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The weeping, the wailing – the shrieking – going on in that circle of people is all heightened by Mary Magdalene’s clothes streaming behind her in a most dramatic fashion.

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The explanation given in the church is that she was running to the scene and the artist caught her – as if in a cinematic still – at the moment when she burst into the circle around the body and saw with horror that Jesus was dead.

In contrast, the two men in the group are quite subdued. St. John’s expression can only be described as that of someone who is feeling somewhat miserable

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while Joseph of Arimathea simply looks phlegmatic.

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(for those of my readers who might be asking themselves this, Nicodemus was either not part of this particular group or he disappeared in the intervening 400 years)

This male-female contrast in emotions brings to mind an exchange we as a family had on WhatsApp about Theresa May’s resignation speech in late May. Our son commented that it was somewhat embarrassing to see her cry, at which our daughter leaped to her defence. I quote: “I thought her speech was pretty good. She got emotional when talking about the honour of the job and the fact that she was the second ever female UK prime minister (and not the last) – I think it’s fair to get emotional at that stage! We need to stop vilifying emotional releases such as tears. Women are physiologically more prone to crying – our tear ducts open more easily. If we see tears as a sign of weakness we are inherently disadvantaging women. Anyway, the premise that being “strong” means being unemotional I also think should be changed. We don’t need to go to the opposite extreme but her release was very appropriate.”

Well, Nicolò dell’Arca certainly seemed to think that grown men don’t cry, but that women do, and copiously!

It struck me that I could use the various Lamentations paintings created over the centuries to explore how painters felt about this gender difference in the showing of emotions, or simply about the showing of emotions at all. I should add a warning here that my personal take on this is that in real life the scene at the centre of the Lamentations would have been highly emotional: your son, or your leader, who has had you believing that he is heralding the arrival of the end of time and the start of the reign of Yahweh, has instead been shamefully put to death by the colonial authorities and now lies before you, dead. All your hopes, all your beliefs, smashed to smithereens. If I had been there I would have been a total puddle, even if I am a man. But let’s see what painters thought.

We can start this exploration some two centuries before dell’Arca’s composition, with Giotto’s Lamentation of 1303, which is to be found in the Scrovegni chapel in Padova (and on page 615 of the Very, Very Thick Book).

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Here, everyone who is gathered around the dead Jesus is crying – not wailing as the women are in dell’Arco’s composition, but definitely crying. Even St. John – the person standing over the women huddled around Jesus – is crying. In fact, I would say that St. John is in transports of sorrow, more so than the women. Even the angels are in anguish. It is true that the two fellows to the right – believed to be Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – are quite composed, but one could argue that they were not close companions of Jesus and so not as committed to the cause that he represented. It could also show that Giotto thought it was OK for young men like St. John to show their emotions, but that older men should keep their upper lip well stiffened.

Jumping forward to 1440-42, we have a Lamentation by the Dominican monk Fra’ Angelico, in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence.

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Here, no crying, just a gentle preparation of the body for the tomb behind, by the women and St. John (who has his back to us) (the fellow in the background is St. Dominic, seeing all this in a trance). A typical work of Fra’ Angelico, I would say, as gentle as the man himself. Maybe strong emotions frightened him. Maybe he preferred to choose a moment slightly after the tears and the wailing, when practical considerations kicked in: the dead body needed to be prepared for the grave.

We can go forward another fifty years, to Mantegna’s Lamentation of 1489, hanging on the walls of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera just up the road from where I write this (and which can be viewed on page 707 of the VVThB, by the way).

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Looking at the painting, readers can see that next to Jesus there are three people – the Madonna, St. John next to her, and a third person you can just make out over the Madonna’s shoulder. They are all crying copiously. It seems that Mantegna, rather like Giotto, believed in everyone showing their emotions.

On the other hand, in Botticelli’s Lamentation of almost the same period (1490-92), now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, the artist only has the women lamenting (although in a very stylized way, it seems to me; shades of things to come). St. John simply looks grim. So Boticcelli appears to be with dell’Arco on this one: women show emotions, men don’t.

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The painting also has that stock situation, common in later times, and which I must confess to find most irritating, of the Madonna fainting from the emotion of it all. This really is the male assumption about the weakness and frailty of women: when the going gets tough, women faint. The other men, saints of various kinds, are simply there to witness the scene, like St. Dominic in Fra’ Angelico’s version, so do not show much emotion (I do think, though, that Botticelli had some cheek in including St. Peter – the fellow to the right, clutching a big key – since according to the Gospels while Jesus was being taken down from the cross and being buried he and the other – male – disciples were all cowering in a room somewhere, in fear of imminent arrest).

This next Lamentation is by Bellini, executed at the same time as Botticelli’s (1485-95). It is one of many Lamentations which he painted. This particular one is in the Uffizi in Florence. Here, everyone is even more composed: the Madonna, Mary Magdalene, and St. John seem to be sniffling a little while everyone else is looking calmly noble. Bellini does not believe in showing emotions, it would seem (although in fairness to him, some of his other Lamentations seem somewhat more emotionally charged).

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On the other hand, in this Lamentation by the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli, from exactly the same period (1485) (and now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts), both the Madonna and St. John are in absolute agony, with the latter literally howling (it is true to say, though, that Mary Magdalene is more contained).

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It would seem that Crivelli was a believer in showing strong emotions, like dell’Arca, and was quite happy with men showing such emotions.

But now look at this Lamentation by Perugino, again from the same period, 1495 (and now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).

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I mean, everyone, man and woman, looks ridiculously calm and noble! (there is one half-hearted attempt at gesticulation, by the lady in red at the back, but it’s very unconvincing). Perugino must have thought that emotions weren’t necessary to the scene.

From 50 years later, 1547, we have this Lamentation by Paolo Veronese (it seems that every artist worth his salt had a go at this theme), now in the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona.

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Again, everyone looks calm and dignified. The Madonna looks a trifle pale, but that’s about it. No emotions please!

A decade on, 1560 or thereabouts, Tintoretto painted this Removal from the Cross bleeding into a Lamentation, now in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice.

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This is best described as baroque, although it’s a bit early for that. We have a fainting Madonna, dramatic gesticulation, contorted clothing – but not a single tear. Drama is required, but not emotions.

The same message comes through 45 years later in Caravaggio’s Deposition of 1603-1604 (which also contains some Lamentation in it), now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

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The drama here comes from the play of light and dark and the angle from which it was painted. But the women seem quite composed in their sorrow; the gesticulation of the girl at the back feels contrived.

If real emotions seem to have drained away from the Lamentations painted in Italy, to be replaced first by Olympian calm and then by drama, there never seems to have been any real emotions at all in the Lamentations painted north of the Alps. The genre crossed the Alps at about the time that Giotto painted his Lamentation in Padova and became very popular. I have not been able to find any tears, or even much emotion, in these Northern European versions of the genre. For instance, this Lamentation from 1455-60, by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus (and now in Brussel’s Royal Museum of Fine Art) has the Madonna in a tasteful swoon, a lady to the right possibly wiping away a tear, and a woman to the left meekly wringing her hands. But everyone else is quietly going about their business.

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This Lamentation by the Burgundian Early Netherlandish painter Simon Marmion is from a little later, about 1476 (and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum).

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Not a shred of emotion here. No drama, either. “Oh dear, he’s dead” is all I get from it.

Dürer, a few decades later (c. 1500), managed to include one person in his Lamentation who is gesticulating, although in a quite contained manner (you almost feel that Dürer included her because it was the done thing to do). The other women just look a little sad, while all the men are simply standing around. (This is another painting in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek)

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This next Lamentation, in London’s National Gallery, is by Gerard David, another Early Netherlandish painter, and is from a few decades later still, 1515-1523.

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It looks a polished work, but I still see very little emotion. A certain quiet sadness is all I get from the painting, from everyone involved.

I could add more paintings – like I say, every painter worth his salt seems to have had a crack at this one – but I think we get the gist. If there is any trend in later paintings, it’s towards the dramatic – exaggerated gestures, contorted clothing – but with only the women showing – theatrical – emotion; the men simply look stolid.

So what conclusions can we draw? – because we have to draw some conclusion. I have to say that I agree with my daughter on this one. Perhaps it is physiologically easier for women to cry than men, but I also think that European culture (and possibly all cultures) have evolved and now strongly suggest that men should have stiff upper lips while it’s OK for women’s (and children’s, male and female) upper lips to tremble.  I also think that it is expected for our leaders not to cry – stern anger, for instance against the enemy is OK, but no tears. Tears imply weakness, and our leaders must not be weak. Which is why the Renaissance painters stopped showing these ordinary people around Jesus, which Christianity had turned into leaders, crying – and why our son felt a certain embarrassment at seeing May crack up at her podium in front of No. 10. But I think we men should stop trying to look strong and weep and wail when we feel the need to, especially when we have lost someone very near and dear to us.

Oh, and do go to Bologna to see dell’Arco’s Lamentation. it’s really worth the visit – and Bologna is a nice place, with very good food.

 

FRANCESCO BARACCA, ACE OF ACES

Sori, 3 June 2019

My wife and I were recently walking to the library of the Italian Alpine Club, with the idea of looking at some guide books on a walk in the Dolomites which we will be doing in a few weeks (and on which I hope to write a post or two). The walk took us through a part of Milan with which I’m not familiar, and so it was that I found myself walking for the first time through a little square. In the middle of it was this very intriguing statue.

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As readers can see, it consists of a man emerging from a stone plinth, naked but for some sort of cap with ear flaps on his head, holding a lit torch in one hand, and wearing a heroic expression. The name carved into the base of the plinth was Francesco Baracca. I asked my wife who it was. She wasn’t sure – a First World War general, she hazarded? But I wasn’t convinced. The cap looked too much like those leather caps worn by the early aviators. I mean, who doesn’t remember Snoopy on his way to fight the Red Baron?

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In my memory, there were also pictures of Biggles from the boys’ books of my youth.

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No-one who is not British and not my age or older will know who this Biggles is. He was a fictional World War I fighter pilot about whom a series of exciting books were written. He was a very heroic figure and a Jolly Good Chap.

A bit more seriously, here is a photo of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to manage a solo crossing of the Atlantic non-stop, which he did in 1927.

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Well, it turned out I was right. Francesco Baracca had indeed been an aviator. And not just any old aviator! He was Italy’s Ace of Aces during the First World War, racking up 34 recognized victories, the highest score for any Italian fighter pilot. Here we have him sitting in his plane with his flying cap on (and, contrary to his statue, with his clothes on; very sensible, it’s cold up there), ready to go and let the enemy have it.

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While here we have him posing in front of one of the enemy planes he had downed.

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Of course the government squeezed all the propaganda benefits they could out of his exploits. Anything heroic that could take the public’s mind off the bloody and ineffectual meat grinder of trench warfare was to be welcomed. And anyway, there was something terribly dashing about these aerial duels; it was the modern equivalent of Medieval knights jousting. As a result, he was lionized by the Italian public, who followed his every victory with enthusiasm.

It wasn’t just Italians who were enthused by the new forms of warfare in the air. On all sides of the war, the exploits of these new heroes of the air were followed avidly. But perhaps the Italians had a particular penchant for the exploits of aerial warfare. After all, it was in Italy that the Futurismo art movement was born, which had a total commitment to modern technology. To make the point, here are some key excerpts from two of the Futurist Manifestos that were published in 1910.

This is from the Futurist Painters Manifesto:

We want to fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish worship of the past … We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time … Comrades! We declare to you that the triumphant progress of science has brought about such profound changes in humanity as to excavate an abyss between those docile slaves of past tradition and us, free, and confident in the radiant splendour of the future. … In the eyes of other countries, Italy is still a land of the dead, a vast Pompeii, whitened with sepulchres. But Italy is being reborn … In this land of illiterates, schools are multiplying; in this land of “dolce far niente” innumerable workshops now roar; in this land of traditional aesthetics are today taking flight inspirations dazzling in their novelty. Only art which draws its elements from the world around it is alive. Just as our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls, so must we inspire ourselves from the tangible miracles of contemporary life: the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts, those marvelous flights which furrow our skies, the profound courage of our submarine navigators and the spasmodic struggle to conquer the unknown. 

 

And this is from the Futurism Manifesto penned by the poet Marinetti, the “Father of Futurism”, who laid out a decalogue of futurist thought.

1. We want to sing of a love of danger, and the practice of energy and rashness.

3. Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt aggressive movement, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the punch.

4. We affirm that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car, its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car, which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

9. We want to glorify war – the only cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of liberals, beautiful ideas for which one dies, and contempt for women.

10. We want to destroy the museums and libraries, the academies of every type, and combat moralism, feminism, and against every opportunistic and utilitarian vileness.

11. We will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; we will sing of the multi-colored and polyphonic tide of revolutions in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nocturnal fervour of the arsenals and construction sites, enflamed by violent electric moons; the ravenous railway stations, devourers of smoking serpents; the workshops suspended from the clouds by the twisted threads of their smoke; the bridges which, like giant gymnasts, leap across rivers, flashing in the sun with the glitter of knives; the adventurous steamers sniffing at the horizon, and the great-breasted locomotives, pawing at the rails like enormous steel horses harnessed with pipes, and the gliding flight of aeroplanes whose propellers flutter in the wind like a flag and seem to applaud like an enthusiastic crowd.

 

Pretty incendiary stuff …

Right from the start, Futurist paintings reflected this adoration of speed and power, although initially the focus was on terrestrial technology. For instance, from 1912-1913, we have Luigi Russolo’s Dynamism of an Automobile.

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From 1922, we have Ivo Pannaggi’s Moving Train.

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(which rather reminds me of the opening credits of the Poirot TV series)

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From 1923, we have Ugo Giannattasio’s Motorcyclists

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It was only in the 1930s that Futurist painter’s started painting airplanes. For instance, from 1930 we have Tato’s Flying Over the Colosseum in Spirals.

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Perhaps it took a while for the painters to get into a cockpit and experience the sensation of flying.

Coming back to Baracca, he was eventually shot down, in June 1918. For propaganda purposes, the Italian government put it out that he had been hit by ground fire (to perpetuate the myth that no other aviator could shoot him down), although the Austrians claimed with good evidence that he was taken out by one of their planes. However it happened, his body was recovered and he was given a hero’s funeral. He was finally laid to rest in his home town of Lugo in Emilia-Romagna. Several decades later, the Fascists erected a large statue of him in the main square (this time with his clothes on)

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while his co-citizens opened a museum about him – might as well make some money off the town’s most famous son …

This story has a fascinating coda, which was really why I wrote this post. To explain it properly, I have to go back a bit and give readers a thumbnail biography of Baracca. He was, as I said, a citizen of Lugo, a small town located close to Ravenna. His parents were well-off and to some degree aristocratic – his mother was a countess. After his schooling, he chose to join the army. After studying at a military academy, in 1909 he was assigned a regiment. Given his social status, this was a cavalry regiment, the 2nd “Royal Piedmont”, a regiment created in 1692 by Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy. Because of its importance to my story, I insert here the regiment’s traditional banner: a silver prancing horse on a red field.

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In 1912, after watching an aerial exhibition in Rome, Baracca became wildly enthusiastic about the future of military aviation. He asked to join the newly-created aviation arm of the army, a request that was granted. He went for training in France and by the time Italy joined the War in 1915, he was trained and ready to go.

As his number of victories climbed, the High Command fawned over him. In 1917, he was given his own squadron, the 91st, and allowed to choose his own pilots. He took all the other Italian aces, so the squadron became known as “the squadron of the aces”. On the right side of his plane’s fuselage, he placed the squadron’s insignia, a rampant griffin. On the left side, he placed his personal insignia. For this, in recognition of his earlier affiliation with the 2nd cavalry regiment, he chose its prancing horse. He changed the colour scheme, though, making the horse black on a silver background. Here we see him standing in front of his plane on which we see plainly his personal insignia.

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The insignia was an instant hit with the public, especially when the pilots of his squadron all adopted it in his honour after his death.

Fast forward a few years after the war, 1923 to be exact. I now introduce another character to this story, that of Enzo Ferrari, the fabled creator of the Ferrari racing team and car manufacturer. In 1923, he was just a driver for Alfa Romeo, racing their cars on various circuits. Racing was very popular in Italy, and the successful drivers were stars, rather like Baracca had been – and they wore the same leather caps as aviators.

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In any event, in that year Ferrari won a race near Ravenna. On the race’s edges, he met Baracca’s father. This led to a second meeting, this time with Baracca’s mother. He must have told them how much he had admired their son. And maybe they saw the racing of cars as an honourable descendant of what their son had been doing with planes. Whatever the reason, Baracca’s mother uttered these fateful words: “Ferrari, put my son’s horse on your cars. It will bring you good luck.” And that is exactly what Ferrari did seven years later in 1930, when he created his own racing team. From then on, his cars sported Baracca’s prancing horse. The only changes he brought were to make the field behind the horse canary yellow, to honour his home town, Modena, whose coat of arms has the same yellow field, and to raise the horse’s tail.

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And that is why, dear readers, Ferrari cars to this day sport a shield with a black prancing horse on a yellow field.

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NON-WHITES IN BRITISH PAINTING – PART III

Venice Beach, 4 May 2019

Yesterday, by sheer happenstance, my wife and I took in an exhibition entitled “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983)” at the Broad museum in Los Angeles. In one section, this was written on the wall: “During this period, centering the Black figure – historically marginalized in Western painting – was radical. Many artists created powerful images of Black Americans, including portraits of writers, artists, and everyday people.” It is true that the non-whites in almost all the paintings I showed in the last two posts are not centre-stage. So as a follow-up to my last two posts, I have decided to do some centering of my own, extracting the portraits of non-whites which are to be found in Art UK’s database. Here is the result: not quite all the ones I found; I chose the best.

Head of a Man (? Ira Frederick Aldridge) (?c. 1827), by John Simpson (1782-1847). Photo credit: Tate. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

Interesting fellow, Ira Frederick Aldridge, whose portrait this almost certainly is. An African American, he found himself constantly discriminated against as an actor in New York and so came to the UK in 1825. Thereafter, he had a very successful acting career, both in the UK as well as in the rest of Europe. There was of course a dearth of black characters in plays, so occasionally he took on roles as white European characters, for which he would be appropriately made up with greasepaint and wig. I love the idea: blackface in reverse …

After this, we have a number of portraits of anonymous people who sat as models.

Portrait of an African (c. 1861), by George Harrison (1840-1910). Photo credit: Royal Cambrian Academy of Art

Even though the model’s face is hidden in this next portrait, I thought of including it because it is the first portrait of a woman.

Female Figure Seated (1898), by Evelyn Cheston (1875-1929).  Photo credit: UCL Art Museum
Negro in White (c. 1922), by Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1887-1937). Photo credit: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

The next portrait is the first I found of a South Asian.

Bapsybanoo, Marchioness of Winchester (c. 1930), by Augustus Edwin John (1878-1961). © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Intriguing woman, Bapsybanoo Pavry. She was born in Bombay, daughter of a Parsi Zoroastrian “Head Priest”. She came to the UK at a young age, determined to use her great beauty (and presumably great riches) to break into high society. She was about 30 when Augustus John painted her portrait. 20 years later, aged 51, she managed what she thought was a great coup: she married the Marquess of Winchester. Admittedly, he was marrying for the third time, was 90 years old, impotent, and bankrupt. But he was la crème de la crème of British aristocracy. Alas! Within weeks of marrying her, he eloped with his former fiancée Eve Fleming, mother of Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame), first to Monte Carlo and then to the Bahamas. Bapsybanoo followed them there, but was reduced to pacing up and down in front of their house and shaking her fist at them. Of course, she became a figure of ridicule in British high society, who no doubt felt that this Indian parvenue had got what she deserved. She eventually returned to India and died in 1995.

Melita (1931), by Ronald Ossory Dunlop (1894-1973). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries
Head of a Negro (c. 1935), by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884-1937). Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

The artist who painted this last picture, Glyn Philpot, spent most of his career in the UK as a pretty conventional Edwardian portrait painter. Then in his last five years or so, he moved to Paris, his palette lightened and his style became more modern. He painted numerous paintings of people of African origin in this period, a good number of which are in Art UK’s database. This painting is of a young Jamaican, Henry Thomas, who was his lover.

I include the next painting, of Nurse Brown, to remind ourselves of the huge role non-whites played, and continue to play, in the UK’s health service. Although the painting is undated, I’m guessing it is from the immediate post-World War II period.

Nurse Brown (undated), by Irene Welburn (active 1936-55). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

I include the next two paintings because they intrigue me. They are both set in what we could consider an iconic UK context, Trafalgar Square. One shows three Indian women and the other Caribbean family in the square, with white families forming a background. I wonder what the artist was trying to tell us? That non-whites were now a part of the UK landscape?

Indian Women in Trafalgar Square, London (1950-62), by Harold Dearden (1888-1962). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Museum of London
Caribbean Family in Trafalgar Square, London (1950-62), by Harold Dearden (1888-1962). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Museum of London

Perhaps immigrants were becoming more visible. This next painting is actually entitled “The Immigrant”.

The Immigrant (1960-80), by George Hodgkinson (1914-1997). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Tameside Museums and Galleries Service: The Astley Cheetham Art Collection
Ester Thuriappah (Indian Girl Wearing a Sari) (1964), by James Scott (b. 1920). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Royal Ulster Academy Diploma Collection
Head of a Girl (1971), by Craigie Ronald John Aitchison (1926-2009). © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Rugby Art Gallery and Museum Art Collections
Negro Lady (1978), by Mary Kempson. © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Bassetlaw District Council

It’s in this period that we see the first non-white councillor, the first step on the political ladder. It is David Pitt, who was councillor, the first non-white councillor ever, and later chairman of the Greater London Council. He was later made a member of the House of Lords, the pinnacle, one might say, of the British political establishment.

David Thomas Pitt, Lord Pitt of Hampstead, Councillor and Chairman of the Greater London Council (1976), by Edward Irvine Halliday (1902-1984). © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: City of London Corporation

David Pitt tried twice to be elected as an MP. It seems that the British population was not ready for that. More or less overt racism seems to have been behind his loss both times.

As we enter the 1980s, the pace picks up, and non-white artists begin to make an appearance.

Head and Window (1984), by Andrew Stahl (b. 1954). © the artist. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

As far as I can make out, this next painting is the first by a non-white artist in this series.

Man on a Horse (1987), by Gilford Brown. © the artist. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
Chris Ofili (1989), by Susan Thomas. © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Leicester Arts and Museums Service
Figure and Rocket (1990), by Andrew Stahl (b. 1954). © the artist. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection
Wanting to Say I (before 1998), by Eugene Palmer (b. 1955). © the artist. Photo credit: The New Art Gallery Walsall
Woman’s Head (1991), by Patrick Martin (b. 1958). © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection
Changing Face (1994-95), by Andrew Tift. © Andrew Tift. Photo credit: Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

This is the first portrait which I found of an Asian entering the political mainstream.

Nirmal Dhindsa Singh (1995), by Trevor Hodgkison (b. 1928). © the artist. Photo credit: Derby Museums Trust

This next portrait is the first in this series to celebrate a sportsman, in this case the boxer Randy Turpin. Interestingly enough, it was painted some 40 years after his triumphs and 30 years after his death: British Middleweight champion 1950-54, World Middleweight champion 1951 and 1953. Why did it take so long to get around to painting his portrait, I wonder? I rather suspect that Warwick Town Council rather tardily remembered one of its more famous local sons.

Randolf Adolphus Turpin (1995), by Gina Busby. © the copyright holder. Photo credit: Warwick Town Council

This next painting certainly brings back memories for me, of the corner shops that were suddenly being run by South Asians. But we’re talking of the 1970s, while this portrait was only painted in 2000.

Rajesh Patel, Shop Owner (2000), by Hans Schwarz (1922-2003). © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Girton College, University of Cambridge
Self Portrait (2000), by Barbara Walker (b. 1964). © the artist. Photo credit: The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

I rather like this next double portrait of mother and daughter. It captures beautifully the process of integration, from one generation to the next.

Muktaben Bhogaita and Daughter Alka (2001), by Alan Parker (b. 1965). © the artist. Photo credit: Leicester Arts and Museums Service

And here we arrive at the pinnacle the British political elites. Paul Boateng was able to be elected MP, he became the first non-white member of the Cabinet, and after a spell as High Commissioner to South Africa he became a member of the House of Lords.

Paul Boateng (2003), by Jonathan Yeo (b. 1970). © the artist. Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection

One other pinnacle has been scaled, first black woman MP. The honour goes to Diane Abbot, Labour MP.

Diane Abbott, MP (2004), by Stuart Pearson Wright (b. 1975). © Palace of Westminster. Photo credit: Parliamentary Art Collection

There is another elite, the military elite, which we have not had examples of yet. As of 2016, there wasn’t a single non-white in the British army’s top 133 positions. Perhaps it’s improved slightly since then although I doubt it. But there is also an elite of courage. Here, we have Johnson Beharry, who I believe is the first black British recipient of the Victoria Cross, the UK’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He won it during the Iraq war (there have been a good number of non-white recipients of the Victoria Cross, but they have all been Commonwealth troops).

Johnson Gideon Beharry (2006), by Emma Wesley (b. 1979). © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

As for the future, let’s give space to the kids!

Jaida (2008), by Rhiannon Fraser (b. 1986). © the artist. Photo credit: Charnwood Borough Art Collection
The Traveller (2008), by Valery Koroshilov (b. 1961). © the artist. Photo credit: The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust

NON-WHITES IN BRITISH PAINTINGS – PART II

Venice Beach, 2 May 2019

In this post, I’ll continue looking at how non-white people were represented in British art, covering the period from the early 1800s, which more or less coincides with the formal abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, to the present day. I want to focus on group paintings, that is, paintings where a number of people are present, because I feel that these more than anything else tell us how much non-white people were “visible” in society; if the paintings show them, it means that the painters – presumably as a reflection of those who commissioned the paintings – noticed that non-white people were present in British society. These types of paintings also show the “power relationships” between the people in the paintings. In the previous post, for example, I showed mostly group paintings, where the non-white participants – young black pages for the most part – were clearly in a subsidiary position to the whites in the painting. When do the paintings in Art UK’s database show that these power relations change, and how do they change?

In the previous post, the last of the group paintings with a non-white person in it was from 1794.  There is then a big gap in the Art UK database; the next group painting in which I identified some non-whites was from 1875, some 80 years later. They were in what I would call a society painting entitled “Hush!”.

Hush! (1875), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

The sharp-eyed reader will notice two Indians sitting on the sofa to the right. From their dress (and the fact that they were even at this type of high-society gathering), they must have been high-class Indians, Maharajahs or such-like. Like the little black pages of the previous post, they were no doubt an exotic addition to the gathering, but their presence in the UK also suggests that they were presumably part of the British elite’s attempts, throughout the Empire, of co-opting the traditional ruling classes of the colonised countries and turning them into philo-Britishers. There is a similar painting in Art UK’s database, from some forty years later – similar in the sense of celebrating a high-society occasion and including a sprinkling of ethnic exotica. It is a painting celebrating a formal luncheon in London’s Guildhall in honour of King George V’s coronation.

The Coronation Luncheon to King George V and Queen Mary in the Guildhall, London, 29 June 1911 by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927). Photo credit: City of London Corporation. Distributed under a CC BY-NC licence

Straining a bit, readers can see a group of Indian grandees, dressed in their colourful ethnic costumes, to the left and towards the back (of course). I presume they are there to remind readers that ever since Queen Victoria British monarchs had appropriated to themselves the title of Emperors of India; the Indian grandees were there, then, to celebrate “their” Emperor.

What about group paintings of normal people? Well, the very first I could find after the “black page period” is this one, from 1880 – once again, some 80 to 90 years after the “black page period” petered out.

Friends in Adversity, Christmas Day at the Dreadnought Hospital, Greenwich (Coming Down to Dinner) (1880), by John Charles Dollman (1851-1934). Photo credit: Nottingham City Museums. Distributed under a CC BY-NC licence

This is actually a very intriguing painting, since it positively bursts with ethnic pluralism. Three of the main figures – the old man, the man with an injured arm, and the boy – are white, but the young man on whom the old man is leaning is Middle Eastern, while immediately behind the injured man are an East Asian man and an African, there is another African on the second flight of stairs on the top left, while some of the other characters at the back could also be of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. Of course, the artist is stressing the Christmas angel’s message of “On earth, peace and goodwill to all men” but I cannot believe that he merely invented this ethnic diversity. I have to think that this Old Sailors’ Home in Greenwich really did look after sailors with very diverse ethnic backgrounds. As I highlighted in the previous post, life on the high seas seems to have been a place where ethnic diversity was common.

Thereafter, there is another gap of 90 years in Art UK’s database until I find the next group painting with a non-white person in it. This painting is from 1971. By this time, the immigration of non-whites into the UK to fill low-class jobs that white British people didn’t want to take anymore or to fill gaps in the growing labour market had been going on for some 20 years. The West Indians first started to arrive in the 1950s, followed by the South Asians (Indians and Pakistanis) in the 1960s and ’70s. This particular painting is not very flattering, as it turns out.

Salon (1971), by Richard Parsons (1925-2000). © the artist’s estate. Photo credit: Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum

It seems sad that the first group painting with non-whites in it that I could find in the modern, post-War, post British Empire era should be about prostitution. But perhaps it is an apt if somewhat harsh descriptor of the position in British society of non-whites at the time. And perhaps it continues to reflect the old idea of non-whites as exotic: the exotic is a popular selling point in the sex trade.

Thereafter, things get more normal. In 1985, for instance, we have this painting of a South Asian family walking down a road, with a white couple behind them.

Lady in Red (1985) by Rosemary Gabrielle Davies (1922-2016). © the artist. Photo credit: Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

It is a scene showing equality among the painting’s participants – although perhaps the artist, in having the adults in the South Asian family wearing traditional dress and the children in “British” dress, is making a point about integration? I certainly see integration as the issue in this next, undated, painting by the same artist.

Children on a Slide (undated), by Rosemary Gabrielle Davies. © the artist. Photo credit: Alexandra Hospital

White children are using the slide. The South Asian children are looking on. Do they want to go on the slide? Is the little fair-haired girl at the bottom of the slide inviting the smaller South Asian girl to join in? What about the mother? Is she urging her children to get on the slide?

As we get into the 1990s, the presence of different ethnicities in the UK becomes more recognized in Art UK’s database. For instance, we have this painting from 1990 shows the mix of ethnicities in football.

Pride of the Nation (1990), by Stuart J.C. Avery. © the artist. Photo credit: National Football Museum

This painting from 1992 (which I’ve used in an earlier post) gives an example of different ethnicities in the workplace.

The Black-Country Steelworkers (1992), by Andrew Tift.  © Andrew Tift. Photo credit: The New Art Gallery Walsall

While this painting from 1993 (also used in a past post) comments on the lack of work affecting all ethnicities.

Unemployment on Merseyside: Campaigning for the Right to Work (1993), by Michael Patrick Jones. © the artist. Photo credit: Museum of Liverpool

This next two paintings show the presence of different ethnicities in the political process. This painting, from 1993-94, shows what we might call the politics of the street.

History Painting (1993-94), by John Bartlett. © the artist. Photo credit: Museum of London

While this painting, from 1993, gives a view of the more formal political process.

Council Chambers (1993), by Peter Bunney. © Leicester City Council. Photo credit: Leicester Town Hall

I suppose this last painting represents a key moment in the integration of non-whites into British society. I started this series of posts with paintings from the mid 1600s to the early 1800s where non-whites were clearly in a subordinate – actually, a subjugated – position. This painting shows that by the 1990s non-whites were entering the British elites. It is not enough to have racial integration “on the street”, as this next painting from 2001 would suggest.

Comic Strip (2001), by P.J. Crook. © the artist / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

Only when non-whites are consistently present at the elite levels, as suggested by this 2008 painting, can one say that racial integration is truly occurring.

Royal Free Consultants (2008), by Bill Butcher; Royal Free Hospital

It has certainly been a long journey from subjugation to equality for non-whites in the UK. After a presence as slave-servants in the mid-1600s to early 1800s, non-whites disappear from British art, apart from brief appearances as upper-class exotica, until the 1970s. Thereafter, their presence becomes more felt and a steady progression up the social ladder is apparent. The process is not yet complete; it would be nice, for instance, in the last painting to have more non-whites in the front rows rather than finding them all in the back rows. But it is happening, which is heartening.

NON-WHITES IN BRITISH PAINTINGS – PART I

Venice Beach, 1 May 2019

Several weeks ago, I read about an exhibition opening at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Titled “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse”, its purpose is, according to the Guardian where I read the article, to “tackle the depiction of black and mixed-race people in French art from the country’s final abolition of slavery in 1848 until the 1950s.” One of the paintings in the exhibition, for instance, is Manet’s “Olympia”, showing the said Olympia, a courtesan (or high-end prostitute in today’s parlance), naked on her bed and being attended by a black servant.

source

The painting has been renamed “Laure” for the exhibition, after the name of the black model who posed for the servant in the background. The exhibition renames several other paintings where the curators managed to discover the name of the black person in the painting. Once more from the Guardian article: “the influence of people of colour has been eclipsed from art history by racism and stereotyping, Murrell [one of the exhibition’s curators] said. Instead their identities were hidden behind “unnecessary racial references” such as negress or mixed-race “mulatresse” – which comes from the French word for mule.” For any readers who are interested in this exhibition, here is the link.

After reading the article, it occurred to me that I could use the data base of Art UK, which I used for a different purpose several posts ago, to carry out the same sort of study: see how non-white folk have been represented in British art over the centuries. Just a quick explanation to those readers who are not familiar with Art UK: it is a pictorial data base of all the pieces of art held by the UK’s public bodies. For those interested in perusing it, this is the link. I would imagine that it is probably a statistically valid sample of the art which has been created in the UK ever since painting started in the country.

Just as I did in my previous foray into Art UK’s data base, I will spread my results over several posts, each with a somewhat different subject. This post will cover the period from the very first representations of non-white people in British paintings until the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th. I choose to end it there because in 1772 there was a famous case in England, Somerset vs. Stewart, which in effect concluded that slavery was not allowed under law in England, while in 1833 Parliament passed a law banning slavery throughout the British Empire.

The earliest British painting I found with a non-white person in it is this one. It depicts a certain Lady Tollemache being served by a young black page.

Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache, Later Countess of Dysart and Duchess of Lauderdale with a Black Servant (1651) by Peter Lely (1618-1680). Photo credit: National Trust Images

If one was rich, it must have been quite the thing to have a little black page in one’s household to show off to one’s friends. A number of such paintings are to be found in the Art UK data base, stretching from 1651 to 1740. I don’t think those dates are a coincidence. 1651 is about when there was a large increase in the transatlantic slave trade to feed the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Many English landowners had important economic interests in these plantations, while English ships – in which, again, landowners had interests – began to dominate the slave trade. It would therefore have been increasingly normal for rich and important families to be involved with black slaves. It is but a small step from this to start thinking that it would be cute to have a black child as your slave-servant. At the other end of this period, 1740 marks the time when abolitionists were becoming increasingly vocal and when it became “not done” to be so visibly seen as involved with black slaves.

The next painting of this type is from about 1660 and is of a certain Elizabeth Risby and her son, being served by both a black page and a maidservant who also looks non-white.

Elizabeth Risby, with John (c. 1660), Anglo/Flemish school. Photo credit: St Edmundsbury Museums. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

Quite what the ethnicity of the maidservant is, is not clear. I wonder if she was not the companion to the manservant in this next painting, also of Elizabeth Risby but this time with her daughter.

Elizabeth Risby, with Elizabeth (c. 1660), Anglo/Flemish school. Photo credit: St Edmundsbury Museums. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

Given the date of the painting and the manservant’s hair style, I wonder if he, and therefore she, were not Native Americans, signaling perhaps that either Elizabeth or her husband had lands (and slaves) both in the Caribbean and in the American colonies.

From some 40 years later, 1695, we have this painting of the 3rd Earl of Chesterfield and his family, being served once again by a black page.

Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield, with His Wife, Lady Elizabeth Savile, Children and Nubian Slave (c. 1695), British (English) School. Photo credit: Barnsley Arts, Museums and Archives Service

It is interesting to see in this last painting the presence of some exotic bird (a parrot? a cockatoo?), something which you also see in the second of the two paintings of Elizabeth Risby and see again in the painting below of Lady Grace Carteret. I wonder if that puts black pages into the category of exotica, with the families using these paintings to show off all the exotic things they owned?

The next painting, from 1711, is a portrait of Sir John Chardin, a Frenchman. He travelled to Persia and the Near East and wrote learned tomes about these places. He was also a Protestant, who emigrated to the UK because of the persecution of Protestants in France. That experience of persecution didn’t stop him from taking part in the persecution of enslaved Africans, though.

Sir John Chardin (1711), British School. Photo credit: The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

This next painting of Lady Grace Carteret, from 1740, is the last I could find of this type.

Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart with a Child, and a Black Servant, Cockatoo and Spaniel (c. 1740) by John Giles Eccardt (1720-1779). Photo credit: National Trust Images

Apparently, it wasn’t just the aristocracy and the landed gentry who had young black slave-servants. I found one painting of a doctor who is letting the blood from a patient’s arm and whose assistant is a young black boy.

A Surgeon and His Black Slave Letting Blood from a Lady’s Arm (1750-1790), British (English) school. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

For the sake of completeness, I should say that it wasn’t just black children who were taken on as servants. I’ve already shown one example in the second of the two paintings of Elizabeth Risby. In the Art UK database, there are two other examples of children of other ethnicities being taken on as servants. One is of a certain Colonel Blair and his family. Colonel Blair worked for the East India Company and commanded a brigade at one of the early battles through which the UK eventually took over India.

Colonel Blair with his Family and an Indian Ayah (1768), by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810). Photo credit: Tate. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence

The painting’s title suggests that the little Indian girl in the painting is an ayah, a maid or nursemaid. She looks too young to be either; perhaps she played the same role as the black pages, a cute little addition to the family belongings which also allowed the Blairs to signal to the viewer their connection with India.

The other is of a Lady Staunton and her son George, with a Chinese servant lurking in the background.

Lady Staunton with Her Son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese Servant (1794), by John Hoppner (1758-1810).  Photo credit: School of Oriental and African Studies

This picture was painted a year after her 12 year old son George had come back from China. George had accompanied his father, who was Secretary on Lord Macartney’s mission to the Chinese imperial court. Macartney’s instructions were to wrest trade concessions from the Emperor, which he signally failed to achieve (I’ve mentioned the diplomatic spat about whether or not Lord Macartney should kowtow to the Emperor in an earlier post). Presumably, George’s father, Sir George Staunton, got himself a young Chinese servant while in China and had him inserted into the painting to show off his connection with that country.

Coming back to the black pages, assuming that the idea of having one was that it was cute, like having a parrot, what happened to these black pages when they grew up and lost their cuteness?

From what I can gather from the painterly record in Art UK’s database, it seems that some of them at least continued on as servants of one kind or another to the rich folk. We have, for instance, this painting by William Hogarth of an aristocratic captain in the Navy, who has, among other appurtenances, a black servant ringing what looks like a dinner gong – or is he giving the beat to the fellow singing?

Captain Lord George Graham in His Cabin (c. 1745), by William Hogarth (1697-1764). Photo credit: National Maritime Museum

We have this painting by Jacopo Amigoni, an Italian painter who spent some ten years in London, of three gentlemen whose precise relationship to each other is not clear to me. In any event, the painting-within-the painting of one of the three is being held up by a black adult servant.

James Howe, Benjamin Tilden and Richard John Thompson (1729-39), by Jacopo Amigoni (c. 1682-1752). Photo credit: York Museums Trust

We have a painting of Baron Nagell’s running footman. The Baron was the Dutch Ambassador to England, while according to Art UK’s entry on this painting “a running footman could be expected to serve as a messenger and to accompany his employer’s coach”. I presume the poor man had to run alongside the coach.

Baron Nagell’s Running Footman (c. 1795), by Ozias Humphry (1742-1810). Photo credit: Tate

Servants to the rich does not seem to have been the only niche that Black slaves or ex-slaves filled. Art UK’s database throws up a few other examples. This next painting suggests that Blacks worked in taverns or inns or maybe even brothels (given that he is trying to attract a soldier), presumably as servants to their owners.

Wallis, George; The Fall of Napoleon (1836), by George Wallis (1811-1891). Photo credit: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

The sea also seems to have been a home for Black people. A recent article in the Guardian suggests that already in Tudor times (so 200 or so years before the period we are considering here), foreigners – specifically, North Africans – were present among the sailors in the English fleet. This sympathetic drawing of a Black sailor – the first of our subjects whose name we know: Thomas Williams – suggests that Black men found a profession at sea. Probably, the British Navy, always short of men (we remember stories of the press gangs roaming the countryside and kidnapping men for the Navy), was quite happy to take on Black men in their crews.

Thomas Williams, a Black Sailor (1815), by John Downman (1750-1824). Photo credit: Tate

I think what this next painting is telling us is that Black sailors also took part in the smuggling that was chronic along the UK’s coasts.

Smugglers Alarmed (c. 1830), by John Prescott Knight (1803-1881). Photo credit: Staffordshire Heritage & Arts. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

I suspect the next one tells us that some Black sailors, like all sailors, were mutilated at sea, either by cannon fire or in some other way.

The Negro Boat Builder (c. 1850), by William Parrot (1813-after 1891). Photo credit: Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

It seems appropriate at this point to insert what is thought to be the portrait of Ignatius Sancho, the second black person in all these paintings for whom we have a name.

Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho) (1757-60), attributed to Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Photo credit: Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Distributed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

Ignatius Sancho was well known in his time. I think it instructive to cite a somewhat shortened version of his biography in Wikipedia:

“Charles Ignatius Sancho was born [in about 1729] on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. His mother died not long after in the Spanish colony of New Granada. His father reportedly killed himself rather than live as a slave. Sancho’s owner took the young orphan, barely two years old, to England and gave him to three unmarried sisters in Greenwich, where he lived from ca. 1731 to 1749. John, Duke of Montagu, impressed by Sancho’s intellect, frankness, and his amiability, not only encouraged him to read, but also lent him books from his personal library. Sancho’s informal education made his lack of freedom in Greenwich unbearable, and he ran away to the Montagus in 1749. For two years until her death in 1751, Sancho worked as the butler for Mary, Duchess of Montagu, where he flourished by immersing himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing. At her death in 1751 he received an annuity of £30 and a year’s salary, which he quickly squandered.

During the 1760s Sancho married a West Indian woman, Ann Osborne. He became a devoted husband and father. They had seven children. Around the time of the birth of their third child, Sancho became a valet to George, Duke of Montagu, son-in-law of his earlier patron. He remained there until 1773.

In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. Laurence Sterne’s widely publicised response to Sancho’s letter became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature. Following the publication of the Sancho-Sterne letters, Sancho became widely known as a man of letters.

In 1774 with help from Montagu, Sancho opened a greengrocers shop, offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea. These were goods then mostly produced by slaves. As shopkeeper Sancho enjoyed more time to socialise, correspond with his many friends, share his enjoyment of literature, and he attracted many people to his shop. He wrote and published a Theory of Music and two plays. As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, he qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780; he was the first person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. At this time he also wrote letters and in newspapers, under his own name and under the pseudonym “Africanus”. He supported the monarchy and British forces in the American Revolutionary War.

Ignatius Sancho died from the effects of gout in 1780. He was the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press. He gained fame in his time as “the extraordinary Negro”, and to eighteenth-century British abolitionists he became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and immorality of the slave trade. The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former slave.

Sancho noted that despite being in Britain since the age of two he felt he was “only a lodger, and hardly that.” In other writings he describes: “Went by water – had a coach home – were gazed at – followed, etc. etc. – but not much abused.” On another occasion, he writes: “They stopped us in the town and most generously insulted us.””

His life encapsulates what a Black person could expect his or her life to be at this time in the UK. Although Sancho was unquestionably a man of great intellectual ability, he rose no higher than a greengrocer. Of course, in those times this was not the fate of Black people alone, it was generally true of any poor person: the top 1% controlled every important position. But what I find really chilling is his commentary on how Black persons were treated back then, almost as animals in a zoo. And of course, there was overt racism.

The debates that Sancho was involved in to abolish slavery were intensifying from the 1760s onward and no doubt were putting moral pressure on slave owners in the UK itself. This probably explains why the kinds of paintings I have shown up to now disappeared. It was “not done” anymore to own little black pages – or at least not to be painted with one at one’s side. They were replaced by paintings such as these criticizing slavery and the slave trade.

The Kneeling Slave, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ (c. 1800), British (English) School. Photo credit: Bridgeman Images
Slave in Chains (c. 1820), British School. Photo credit: National Maritime Museum
Three Young Women Chained Together at the Neck (Enslaved?) are being Escorted along a Road by Two Men with Guns (Slave Traders?) (undated), by Caton Smith. Photo credit: Wellcome Collection

I add this last painting because it is the only one I found where black women were the subject.

The Capture of the Slaver ‘Formidable’ by HMS ‘Buzzard’, 17 December 1834 (after 1834), by William John Huggins (1781-1845). Photo credit: National Maritime Museum

In the next post, I’ll trace the presence of non-whites in UK art after slavery was formally abolished throughout the British Empire up until the present day.

SAN LORENZO ALLE COLONNE

Milan, 1 April 2019

Many, many years ago – it must have been the Easter of 1976 – I visited my wife-to-be in Milan during the Spring holidays. After the dark, cold Scottish winter we had just endured in Edinburgh, the tepid spring temperatures in Milan were a godsend. On my first day there, my wife(-to-be) took me on a walk around the district. We rounded a corner and I found myself confronted with this:
It was even more striking closer up: a froth of tender green partially masking the ruddy red of brick in the walls of a venerable-looking church topped off with a very fine dome.
I took these two pictures from the same spots a week or so ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening 40+ years.

It was a vision – after that cold, dark winter – of the coming of spring that has remained with me ever since. I put my eventual decision to “pivot” away from grey, rainy, cold UK towards sunny, warm Italy down to that first spring visit to Milan and in particular to this vision of tender green on brick red.

A walk around the back of the church through a little park made the church look even more interesting.
I have always been very fond of this seemingly higgledy-piggledy pile of venerable-looking buildings, all in that warm red brick so common in this part of the world. Over the intervening 40-odd years, whenever I’ve been in Milan I have always tried to find a moment to come back to this spot to admire the view.

The church is just as interesting on the front side. There, the first thing that meets the eye is a row of very worn Roman columns.
They enclose one side of the piazza in front of the church, a piazza which is as orderly as the back of the church is disorderly. Facing the columns, the church’s facade rises up to the church’s imposing dome, adopting the clean lines of classical-looking architecture.
The canon houses on the other two sides of the piazza continue this projection of orderliness, balance, and harmony.
As a finishing touch, in the centre of the piazza stands a statue of a Roman emperor, calmly gazing down on passing visitors.
Meanwhile, in the near distance those same visitors can make out one of Milan’s few remaining gates in its Medieval walls, the Porta Ticinese.
This church is the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It is a very ancient church; the latest archaeological digs put its foundation at the end of the 4th-beginning of the 5th Centuries. Its history is not nearly as orderly as the piazza in front would have us believe; the disorderliness of the back is a better metaphor for its passage through the centuries.

Like many ancient churches in the lands of the old Roman Empire, the church was built atop a Roman temple. This aerial view of what Roman Milan probably looked like has been put together by some clever fellow.
San Lorenzo was built over that square grey temple close to the amphitheatre which readers can see in the bottom left corner. This is a close-up of what the clever fellow thinks that temple might have looked like.
My guess is that the columns now standing guard over the piazza in front of the church were reused from this temple. But it’s just a guess; no-one seems to know for sure where they came from. What is sure is that stones from the nearby amphitheatre were dragged over for use in the foundations of the church.

That reuse of stone and columns strongly suggests that this was an imperial basilica – you needed imperial permission to mine old public buildings for their stone. It’s further believed that the basilica was built close to an imperial palace – at this time Milan was the imperial capital of the Western Roman Empire – as a counterweight to the four basilicas which St. Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan, had been busily building in Milan (and which still exist today, although in much modified form).

We don’t know for sure what the first church looked like, although archaeological excavations and the sparse written records have helped the experts form an opinion. Based on this, some other clever fellow has come up with this cut-away drawing of what the first church might have looked like.
Very little remains of this complex today: the four towers (two are visible in this drawing), the two octagonal side chapels, and the recycled Roman columns at the front. What also remains is the ghostly outline of the central part of the church, a very striking space composed of a large square with each side having a shallow apse, and with a wide circular deambulatory corridor around that central space.
Anyone who visits many churches, either for religious reasons or – like me – to admire their art and architecture, cannot but be struck by the uniqueness of this space. Very few old Christian churches have this kind of floor plan.

The drawing above doesn’t give any indication of the decoration of the church, but if this was indeed an imperial basilica then the interior would have been richly decorated with mosaics. If we had been lucky, if San Lorenzo had passed through the centuries relatively unscathed, we might have been able to admire something as glorious as the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna.
But it was not to be.  Almost all of San Lorenzo’s mosaics are gone, swept away by water leakage, poor maintenance, rebuilding after fires or structural failures, and changing tastes. What little is left is tucked away in one of the old octagonal side chapels, the chapel of St. Aquilinus. The best conserved mosaic is this one, depicting Christ among the Philosophers.
A much more damaged mosaic is tucked away in another corner of the chapel. Experts believe this to have shown the Christ-Sun in his chariot (presumably borrowing from the classical representation of Apollo in his chariot moving the sun through the sky) – one can still see the horses’ legs against a golden background.
Two fires and an earthquake did it for the first church of San Lorenzo, with the central dome probably collapsing. Major rebuilding programmes took place in the 12th and 13th Centuries to rebuild the dome in “modern” style. While the basic plan of the church was left untouched, various other things were added: a few more side chapels and no doubt other things here and there. No-one seems to have committed to paint or paper this newer version of the church. The best we have is some miniatures painted by Cristoforo de Predis in a book of 1476, Leggendario libro della fine del mondo. They show Milan as background to scenes drawn from the New Testament. This one in particular, which depicts Jesus returning to Nazareth where he is presented with a paralyzed man, has Milan standing in for Nazareth. The paralyzed man is being brought out of the Porta Ticinese, which has the old medieval walls attached to it as well as the defensive moat in front of it (now a busy ring road), while in the background we see the church of San Lorenzo with its fine new dome.
The interior decorations were of course also renovated, this time in the “modern” fresco style. Again, if we had been lucky, we might have found ourselves today gazing on something as glorious as the interior of the Collegiata in San Gimignano:
But no. As time went by, these frescoes were also attacked by their enemies: water, fumes from candles, neglect, structural damage, and changes in taste. In the final indignity, someone decided to whitewash over what was left of them to make nice white walls. In the last fifty years or so, modern conservationists have scraped away the whitewash and have revealed some scraps of the frescoes that adorned the church:
Of the first generation of frescoes, we have a Descent from the Cross
St. Helena, holding that same Cross, which she is purported to have found in Jerusalem
The Virgin and the Christ child, enthroned
Later frescoes were added, or substituted the earlier ones, like this Last Supper from the early 16th Century.
Things were definitely not helped by the dome collapsing again in 1573. Once more it was rebuilt, and that is the dome which I admired 40 odd years ago and which we still admire today. But one can imagine that the collapse of the dome brought down a lot of the interior decoration with it and putting it back up again put paid to a good deal more.

Meanwhile, things were changing around the church. At the beginning, the church had been outside the city, but when the city expanded its walls in the Middle Ages, it had been brought within the city boundaries. With the greater protection this afforded, people had decided to build houses all around San Lorenzo. These pressed right up to the church’s walls. In fact, in the front of the church, houses had invaded the space between the church’s front doors and the old Roman columns so that these were now completely isolated from the church, as this painting from about 1815 shows.An exception was the back of the church. There, the ground was marshy, being low-lying and the point where several streams and canals met. As a result, an open no-man’s land was left there, which during normal times was used by the city’s tanners. As anyone knows who has been anywhere near a tannery, the smell in the neighbourhood must have been overpowering, so it was not a place that the good folk would have wanted to live. Tanning was still going on here in the 1830s, as this painting from 1833 attests – note the skins stretched out to dry in the foreground.
To make matters worse, it was on this no-man’s land that until the mid 1800s the city’s authorities carried out their executions, and of course executions included all the hideous tortures that the poor bastards were subjected to before being allowed to die. This print shows vividly what could await those being executed in this space – San Lorenzo stands as a mute witness in the background.
Definitely not an area for the good folk to have their houses! And so the area behind the church was what we might politely call a lower-class neighbourhood, or impolitely call a slum. In the late 1800s, the city authorities decided it was time to spruce up the area. So the no-man’s land was upgraded to a piazza, piazza Vetra, houses were built along its edges and buildings were built in the piazza to house weekly markets. This one, for instance, was built in 1866 for the weekly market in dairy products. We see behind San Lorenzo looking on benignly.
In the first three decades of the 1900s, the city authorities cleaned up the area further. In 1911, as this postcard shows, there were still houses located between the old Roman columns and the front door of the church.
In the 1920s, the city fathers decided to give San Lorenzo back its piazza, and by the 1930s the houses were all gone. In keeping with the period’s desire to stress Italy’s glorious Roman past, a copy of a bronze Roman statue of the Emperor Constantine was placed in the re-formed piazza; no doubt Constantine was chosen because he was the co-author of the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire and which led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Empire.

The city authorities were also busy behind the church clearing the slums but what really did it for that area were the Anglo-American bombings of Milan in 1943 and 1944. The church itself was unscathed but whole swathes of housing were destroyed.
The damage was so extensive that the authorities decided to simply clear away the rubble and create a park. This is what the complex looked like by 1960.
Nothing has really changed since except that the tram lines have been shifted to the other side of the columns.

What of the interior? Did grand paintings and sculptures take the place of the frescoes which disappeared? I’m afraid not. Walking around the church, one rather gets the feeling of being in the church’s attic: various pieces plopped down here and there, many of dubious artistic value. Here are some pictures to show what I mean, from the good
(a Pietà in polychrome terracotta from the late 18th Century)
(a baptism of Christ; the author is not given, nor is the date, but from the style I would guess late 16th Century)

to the bad
(I don’t know why so many Catholic churches insist on having these horribly sucrose statues of the Virgin Mary; the church has a few more statues of this type dotted around)

to the downright ugly
(it took me a few minutes to figure out that this carved wooden statue was meant to be Pope John XXIII).

I must confess to a certain melancholy when I walk around the interior of San Lorenzo. What splendours we could have had, if only the church could have slipped through the ages unscathed! I console myself with not quite a splendour but at least something lively and fun to look at, murals that have been recently painted on the walls surrounding one of the canon houses.
I’m not really sure what the artist is trying to tell us, but they bring a smile to my lips whenever I see them.