31 May 2008

Seminar on Zoroastrian Religion, History and Culture

World Zoroastrian Organisation
Seminar on
Zoroastrian Religion, History and Culture

(Held in association with the World Zarathushtrian Trust Fund)

Sunday 1st June 2008

Shapour Suren Pahlav, "The conversion of Zoroastrian shrines and temples in Iran to Islamic ones."

Prof Stanley Insler, "Zarathustra: The Man and the Message."

Prof Kejia Yan (China) & Dr Takeshi Aoki (Japan) , "Zoroastrians and the Sassanian Royal Family in the Tang China (618-907)."

Gulbenkian Room
The International Students House
229 Gt. Portland Street
London W1N 5HD

Please reserve your place by telephoning Mr Darayus S Motivala on +44 (0)
1844 352 887 or email: darayus@motivala.uk

(Above) A panel from a Chinese Zoroastrian screen that surrounded the coffin bed in the tomb of the Sogdian religious leader (sabao) called An Jia, discovered in May 2000, at the eastern end of the Silk Route: Xi'an, Shaanxi province, Northern Zhou period (557-581 AD).

25 May 2008

Atlantis Rising by Bierenbroodspot

Today is Bierenbroodspot Day (reality) -- or Atlantis Rising Day (myth).


Scoot over to bierenbroodspot.com to see why I'm excited. That's the newly refurbished website of the Dutch artist Gerti Bierenbroodspot. And today her big show of paintings and sculpture opens at the Museum Jan van der Togt. The theme is Atlantis Rising.
There is magic in names and the mightiest among these words of magic is Atlantis… it is as if this vision of a lost culture touched the most hidden thought of our soul. (H.G. Wells)
The official ribbon will be cut by the Dutch film star Rutger Hauer (Bierenbroodspot's dream). And the cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger will be there, too, to make his music -- a fellow barefoot artist.

Here's something I wrote about them.


Bierenbroodspot always walks barefooted, whether over the rough unlandscaped grounds where the past has placed a temple, or when she paces over slabs of alabaster that once were palace floors. And she is always barefoot when she paints, indoors or out. It is not so much that footwear constrains her, but barefoot is freer, and gives her a mindset conducive to improvisation.

Letting happenstance into her paintings. Like white light that contains all colours.

Seeing a beautiful painting is also to hear the music of it. Triads, consonance and rhythmic patterns metamorphose into paint; these are the themes, tunes and icons of a silent song. Its mathematical structure incorporates silence and the sound of birdsong, a single note and the rush of the winds. This brings her close to the music of cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger.

Bierenbroodspot first listened to Reijseger's music on the terrace of her house in Petra one evening nearing sunset, as she watched a sandstorm approaching.

She was listening to his Requiem For A Dying Planet, the music he composed for Werner Herzog's documentaries, "The Wild Blue Yonder" and "The White Diamond", and remixed for this recording. Requiem evokes the near-term end of Earth, a longing and nostalgia for what is disappearing – just as the dim outlines of jebels and mountains were dissolving in the distance as sand began to obliterate all distinctions between earth and sky.

In this half-dream world, Sardinian voices (Tenore e Concordu de Orosei) were chanting Libera me, Domine, "Kyrie," and "Sanctus", mantra-like droning and bursts of full-throated singing, "Free me, Lord!" Mingling with the choir and sometimes taking turns, the soaring vocals of Mola Sylla in the Wolof language of Senegal, singing to the metal-tongued mbira . And underneath the songs, the dark contemplative shadow of Reijseger's cello, his chords rising like storm winds before the oncoming, invisible sand. Bierenbroodspot was sinking into the gorgeousness of it when the storm reached her, blanking out the dying planet's sounds of radio bleeps and not-quite-audible ground control-to-space messages, and jungle rivers and wildlife cries. As if doomsday had hit.

She took that music with her into the desert, and into her studio. She painted with it and sculpted with it, even going so far as to remove her shoes when working with stone and listening to it. Despite her bruised toes (it was truly foolish), the Requiem inspired her while she created the icons of Atlantis Rising, the end of an earlier world, a dream transmuted into art before it too passes finally away.

(Don't have time, I'm afraid, to write more about the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day today, but will try for tomorrow.)

Update 26 May 2008: A photo made by Theo Botschuijver yesterday. Over 1,000 people attended Gerti's opening. It was amazing.

This is Gerti (left) and Ernst (right) after he had played.

A fabulous show.

(but no time yet for reporting on the Zenobia Day. Sorry)

Update # 2, 1 June 2008: For everything you always wanted to know about Atlantis, a wonderful book by the late Pierre Vidal-Naquet has now been translated into English, The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato's Myth. It recounts the history and development of popular views of the City of Atlantis from Plato's time through the myth's many transformations in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Serious stuff but a delightful read, too:
The book is written in a casual and conversational tone and reading it is rather like spending an afternoon with a great scholar, but with several brandies and in a state of total relaxation.
What could be wrong with that! I've ordered a copy as a little gift for Bierenbroodspot; she's earned it.

24 May 2008

The Best Yet Mansour Rahbani Zenobia Video

As seen at the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day today.

It was part of Robbert Woltering's presentation: Zenobia Lives! The Modern Arab Reception of al-Zabba [Zenobia]. I couldn't wait to post it.

But I've no time to comment now; not even for a smile. So Robbert gets the beady eye tomorrow.

Prepare yourself, if you will, by reading my three earlier Mansour Rahbani posts, Zenobia Receives Royal Patronage, Zenobia the Musical and Conquest's Law, and Zenobia's Terrible Curved Sword.

I have lots to say (for better or for worse). But what an extraordinary Amsterdam Zenobia Day! Thanks to the Netherlands Classical Association, along with Ex Oriente Lux, Laverna (University of Amsterdam), and the Athenaeum Bookstore.

15 May 2008

The Baker's Daughter and the Artemidorus Papyrus (with multiple updates)

What has Margherita Luti (left), a baker's daughter from Siena, to do with this lively giraffe (right) drawn on a papyrus in the late first century BC -- the so-called Artemidorus Papyrus?

Known as La Fornarina * ('little baker girl'), Margherita's portrait was painted c. 1518 by the 'prince of painters', Raphael -- who was undoubtedly her lover. Appropriately, it is one of Raphael's most seductive portraits. Marguerita gazes prettily to one side, presumably at the artist himself; a smile plays at the corners of her lips. We can well believe, as Giorgio Vasari tells in his Lives of the Artists, that Raphael “could not give his mind to his work because of his infatuation for his mistress”.

Aside from a fashionable silk turban, all she wears is jewellery: a tiny ring on her left hand and a blue armband that bears the artist's name—Raphael of Urbino—in gold letters. She pulls a diaphanous veil over her belly with a gesture derived from classical sculptures of the Venus pudica (modest Venus), and suggestively cups her left breast. Her other hand rests between her legs, the fingers splayed and outlined in a deep red.

That's the hand we want!

The splay of its fingers may be thought to offer a blatant suggestion of sexual possibility -- or it may just be a way a hand lies, relaxed. Like one of the several hands (below), carefully drawn and shaded, and seen from a variety of angles, on the spectacular 1st C BC papyrus roll which also hosts the giraffe; specifically, the limp hand appearing centre left.

How can that be BC? It's a very Renaissance-looking hand; isn't it?

In fact, all these sketches of hands and feet could easily pass for Renaissance drawing exercises.

'Aha' cried the Italian classical scholar Luciano Canfora,* clearly someone was copying La Fornarina's hand on the papyrus! Needless to say, if true, there is only one possible conclusion: the papyrus is a forgery.

Is this papyrus a fake? And what is this all about?

The case for the defence.

The story begins mid-first century BC, when a scribe in Alexandria, Egypt, began working on a very big piece of blank papyrus (nearly 32.5 cm [13 "] tall and over 2.5 meters [8'] long). His task was to copy the geography of the Mediterranean world from the 11 books written by Artemidorus of Ephesus, who lived at the turn of the 1st century BC. He got as far as writing a preface and the beginning of Book II (about Spain), neatly leaving a space between the third and the fourth columns where two maps were to be inserted.

He probably didn't plan to draw the maps himself but took the papyrus to a painter's workshop to have the job done. Alas, 'tis many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip -- and what would have been (and, in a way, still is) the earliest Greek map to survive was never finished. It does show roads and rivers, but none of them have names, and, anyway, it seems to be the wrong part of Spain; at least it's not the place described in the text.

The stupid painter had ruined the papyrus ... and consequently stopped working on it. But papyrus is expensive and you don't throw it away .

What was to have been an édition de luxe became instead an exercise book for the workshop's artists practising their draughtsmanship. The whole of the left-hand margin and any empty spaces were completely filled with sketches of hands, feet, and heads. The heads are extraordinarily vivid (left), presumably based on, or even copied from, statues of gods, philosophers, and perhaps even prospective patrons.

At much the same time, the entire back of the papyrus was covered with small drawings of birds, fish and animals, real and imaginary. Some are extremely lifelife and strongly reminiscent of a medieval bestiary -- such as the haughty giraffe above, the rampant tiger below, elephants, and griffins (if a mythical creature can be described as 'lifelife'), a winged horned lion (below left) and a strange crocodile-like monster and a dragon biting each other's tails (way below, centre). The drawings were presumably displayed as a 'pattern book', an index of mosaics and frescos that the painters would offer to their customers.

After using it for decades (the roll was mended after the animals were drawn), the papyrus was sold as pulp to be turned into mummy-cartonnage -- torn or cut up, and glued together like a kind of papier mâché.

Almost two millennia later, local excavators recovered and sold the mummy wrapping to an Egyptian collector who owned it until the mid-20th century. After passages around Europe, a German collector bought it, opened the cartonnage (soaking it an enzyme solution, which dissolves the glue) and recovered about 200 fragments of papyrus. Fifty of these have been pieced together to make the Artemidorus roll.

The case for the prosecution

Not only has the forger copied La Fornarina's hand but the animals, according to Luciano Canfora, are copied as well -- in this case from drawings of constellations in early modern star-maps.^ Hence, the papyrus which combines an ostensibly early script (the animals are dated to the end of the first century BC by the written names which accompany them) with demonstrably later drawings, must be a fake.

But who could have faked both the script and these graphics?

Canfora has a culprit in mind -- a man whose name "deserves a whole page in the golden book of chutzpah", Constantine Simonides, Dr. Ph. (Moscow).

He was undoubtedly the greatest forger of the last century (1820? - 1867?). Even 19th century critics, who knew styles of writing Greek, the colours of the ink and paints of different times, and the kinds of parchment and papyrus used, were often fooled by his skills. Simonides combined intellect with versatility, and industry with ingenuity, such as is rarely found. His stock-in-trade was a large number of both genuine manuscripts, many obtained from Mount Athos, and of forged ones written by himself. In 1846, he was reportedly in possession of 5000 manuscripts, which he exhibited to savants at Athens.

His known scams include an incredibly ancient copy of Hesiod's Theogony, marked up with pseudo-ancient musical notes plus three indecipherable 'ancient' poems; a parchment which carried a hitherto unknown history of the kings of Egypt by Uranius of Alexandria; a papyrus with an early and 'corrected' copy of Hanno's Voyage Round Africa; and a text of St. Matthew's Gospel dictated by the apostle himself to Nicholas the Deacon. Finally, in a triumphant display of chutzpah, Simonides falsely claimed to have forged the genuine Codex Sinaiticus (the Book from Sinai: one of the two earliest Christian bibles, 694 pages of which were acquired by the British Museum in 1933 for £ 100,000).

Even if he didn't forge the fabulous Codex Sinaiticus, had he the skills to create the drawings and recreate the text of a shadowy geographer in first century script?

Peter Parsons, for many years director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, and unquestionably one of today's cannier experts , sees no compelling reason to doubt the papyrus (Forging Ahead, TLS 22 Feb. 2008): To my eye the script of 'Artemidorus' looks unexceptionable, both in quality of line and in delicacy of execution, and much more accomplished than any sample of Simonides that I have yet seen.

His judgment got an unexpected boost with a letter published in the TLS on 14 March from a Greek architect, Ms. Haris Kalligas:
...as my family originates from the same island (Symi, near Rhodes) as Simonides, I had the fortune to come across some new material, including his father’s will, when I was writing a short article on his family house, of which some parts are still standing....
Simonides forged his own descendancy, claiming that his ancestors originated through a direct line of eighty-eight generations from Stageira, the city Aristotle came from, and gives lots of other false facts. Apparently, as a young man he tried to poison his parents, and this was the reason he had to leave the island around 1840. He also forged Symi’s past, having composed a totally imaginary history: “Symais, or History of the Apollonias School in Symi … ” (1849), claiming that the author was a certain monk called Meletios, from Chios.
During my term of office as Director of the Gennadius Library in Athens, I had the chance to examine in detail various holdings of the Library referring to Simonides. To my great surprise his forgeries are so evident and so clumsy that I was really mystified as to how it could have been possible for him to fool eminent philologists of the nineteenth century, who should have been familiar with authentic manuscripts.
Luciano Canfora shot back an angry reply (published in the TLS on 11 April):
It was with great surprise that I read the letter on Simonides from the architect Haris Kalligas. Her assertions strike me as faintly comical....

... I must, anyway, confess to being greatly impressed by the palaeographic skills which, as an architect, Kalligas demonstrates in her letter.

The Scoop

But time had already run out for Prof. Canfora. On 12 March, 2008 , it was reported that the Laboratory for Cultural Goods (LABEC), Florence, Italy, of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics had dated the Artemidorus Papyrus. According to the analyses, the Papyrus dates back approximately 2,000 years.

LABEC used the ultrasensitive technique of accelerator mass spectroscopy to perform carbon-14 dating on three tiny fragments from different points on the Papyrus. The analyses consistently showed that the fragments are from around the 1st century A.D., with a 95% probability that they date back to between 40 B.C. and 130 A.D.

And the ink, too is consistent with ancient inks:

Another important analysis conducted by LABEC was that of the ink used to write the Papyrus, performed using Ion Beam Analysis. According to the results, the Papyrus was definitely not written with iron-gallic ink (which is based on metal salts and was commonly used in the 19th century) but with an ink with a purely organic base.

Why this matters

The drawings on the Artemidorus Papyrus, while not in themselves masterpieces, are the first solid evidence of the quality of draughtsmanship that underpinned the easel paintings of the famous painters of the Greek and Roman world. The celebrities of classical and Hellenistic Greece -- Zeuxis, Parrhasios, Apelles, Protogenes, Sosos -- are but names today, their works known only from glowing accounts by ancient writers.

While we need not believe (with Quintilian) that a single man, or even a single generation of painters were responsible for creating the illusion of 'space enveloping light and air', there's little doubt that this is what happened in Greek art around the time of Zeuxis (c 464 - 397? BC) and Parrhasios (d. 388 BC):

Of these, the first invented the systematic calculation of light and shade, the second, according to tradition, brought great refinement to draughtsmanship.

Zeuxis was responsible for a chiaroscuro that, like Parrhasios' linear method, suggested both the three-dimensionality of the parts we see as well as the continuation into space of the parts we do not see. So the sketches from the Artemidorus Papyrus are like living fossils, missing links between the lost masterpieces of ancient painting and the generally workmanlike pictures that 'till now have actually survived.

We End As We Meant to Begin

The Artemidorus Papyrus sketches come so close to quattrocento art that one almost believes that the painters of the Renaissance must have known and studied ancient prototypes -- and that these prototypes have, somehow, again vanished into dust. But, in truth, they had nothing to guide them besides the same written descriptions that we have today, plus some ancient reliefs and a few carved gems -- and their own genius.

And vice versa.

So when we see this incredibly Raphaelesque head of a woman in this painted stele of the 3rd C BC (left) from a site near Verria in Macedonia,^^ we can only marvel at the coincidence.

As a good Tuscan, Marguerita would have cried out, "Madonna Patata!"

Given a similar canon of beauty, is it true that the solutions that emerge are somehow natural and inevitable?

* Wikipedia wrongly describes Margherita as his "semi-legendary Roman lover". Of course she did exist -- and her family was Sienese, not Roman (which counts in Italy), though her father's bakery had moved to Rome at the time she met Raphael; more at Raphael's other woman.

The True History of the So-Called Artemidorus Papyrus (Bari) 2008.

^ There are certainly some striking resemblances -- but I'd wager that
the winged horned lion, at least, is an amalgam of Greek and Achaemenid-Persian images and styles. Winged lions are of ancient Babylonian lineage, but the horned variety, afaik, first appears in the Persian period (for example, a gold plaque from the Metropolitan Museum, and another gold jewel from the Oriental Institute collection). So this post is very slightly on-topic after all: although I've been unable to work into the story Zenobia or Palmyra, try as I might, I'm at least back in almost the right time and place with this Persian note.

^^ Stele found near Verria, Macedonia. Photo (and musings) from Vincent J. Bruno, Form and Colour in Greek Painting (London) 1977, Pl. 5a.

Update 23 May 2008:

An Artemidorus Papyrus One-day Conference will be held at St John's College, Oxford on Friday, June 13th, 2008.

The conference aims to bring together specialists on all aspects of the papyrus - the text, the map, and images. Scholars from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the UK and the USA have agreed to participate. Luciano Canfora, should he be unable to come, will send a written statement. The aim of the conference is to study the artefact, and its text, map, and images, as "gobbets"* first (in a well-established Oxford tradition), thus contributing to a deeper understanding of what the papyrus presents, before discussing probabilities and authenticities.

*For those who do not know Oxford-speak, 'gobbets'are raw lumps of texts cut into bite-sized chucks, which can then be munched by scholars; they become morsels to be analysed as to (1) the source: what has the document or picture to "say" and how is it "said"? (2)who produced it ? What is being said/shown? Who was it intended for?

Update 17 June 2008:

An excellent close-up of one of the heads (above) drawn on the Artemidorus papyrus; via PHDiva.

Update 15 July 2008:

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Artemidorus Papyrus

Il papiro di Artemidoro : (P.Artemid.) has just been published. Six hundred and thirty pages, with full reproduction of the scroll in the original Greek, a translation into Italian, reports on all scientific tests, plus illustrations of the drawings in 40 folded leaves of plates.
This important, finely produced work (edited by Claudio Gallazzi, Bärbel Kramer, and Salvatore Settis), is the complete critical study of the papyrus of Artemidorus.

You can read part of the study on the web.

And enjoy a few of the illustrations, such as this excellent reproduction of the two battling monsters:

Of course, the accompanying text also has a learned discussion of what the draughtsman thought he was drawing. The left monster is labelled as a Xiphias -- the usual word for swordfish; the snout may be vaguely right but a fish is hardly a quadruped. The dragon-like creature coiling about the Xiphias is called a Thunn[o] Prist[is], a combined tunny sawfish (if ever there were such a thing). Yet, the artist was not entirely wrong: to my surprise, there once were sawfish in the Mediterranean, though they are long extinct in such waters. If, as I imagine, the artist lived somewhere in the Nile valley, he must have heard of such beasties but, to him, they were just as much a part of fantasy as dragons and chimeras.

That doesn't mean that they are not accurately drawn -- down to every detail. And I wouldn't want to tussle with either of them.

(Via What's New in Papyrology, where you can find more information; and gasp at the price)

Update 13 November 2008:

Luciano Canfora Strikes Back

Backed into an academic corner by the sheer weight of
Il papiro di Artemidoro published in July (discussed above), Professor Canfora has come out fighting, wielding heavy cudgels of his own -- and in English, this time, so that his arguments will be read by the whole international papyrological community.

He hasn't backtracked one bit.

Translating from the publisher's blurb (why in Italian only?), he declares the big papyrus in every respect dubious (inverosimile): its script, its contents, the pictures of humans and animals, as well as the famous "first-ever Greek map" of an unidentifiable country -- the lot. In short, the papyrus cannot be Artemidorus in any shape, way, or form.

The True History is the "definitive word" and is intended to put an end to the passionate quarrel that has consumed reams of paper in cultural supplements in Italian and foreign newspapers.

Fat chance!

But buy it by all means: it's a very modest Euro 18. A snip compared to the opposition's Il papiro di Artemidoro, at a hefty Euro 480.

My thanks again to What's New in Papyrology for alerting me to this new book.

Double Update 1 November 2009

An online review of Il papiro di Artemidoro by Arthur Verhoogt has just appeared in The American Journal of Archaeology. Prof. Verhoogt neatly sums up the significance of P. Artemid.
"This papyrus reminds us that our knowledge of antiquity is incomplete and based on sources that have survived....Whenever something falls through the cracks of selection and survival, so to say, we may not like what we see because it does not fit what we have, but we have to deal with it."
In other words, it's not a forgery: get on with studying it even if that means changing some long-held assumptions.

And that's exactly what is happening. Just yesterday, I received this report from What's New In Papyrology :

The book of the conference at St John’s College, Oxford (see my update of 23 May 2008) has now been published. Read all the lively and impassioned debates by the international panel of scholars as they discuss the artefact, the images, the map and the texts on the papyrus. And, yes, it does include the promised papers by Luciano Canfora and other opponents of authenticity although they did not attend the Oxford conference.

Kai Brodersen &Jas Elsner (eds.)
Images and Texts on the "Artemidorus Papyrus"
Working Papers on P. Artemid.

You can buy the book at Franz Steiner Verlag, € 50,00

The book also contains, courtesy of the original publishers, black and white photographs of the whole papyrus -- which makes it a very good deal compared with the whacking price of € 480 for the major publication.

 Update 7 October 2010

An excellent on-line review of Images and Texts on the "Artemidorus Papyrus" by Stanley M. Burstein appears today at Bryn Mawr Classical Review: "Papyri always produce something new and surprising, but surely nothing was more unprecedented and unexpected than the Artemidorus Papyrus...."  For those who can't or won't read the book, this review will bring you up-to-date on the state of scholarly play.  An important shift: it now seems unlikely that the papyrus was originally intended to be a deluxe edition of Artemidorus, but instead its layout is more compatible with it being a notebook created by several scribes with varied interests.

08 May 2008

An Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day

Attention Dutch-speaking readers of this blog!

(the linguistically-challenged should scroll down a paragraph or two for other English fare)

An all-Zenobia Day is coming to Amsterdam. And what a gloriously indulgent day that will be. The title says it all -- Queen Zenobia between East and West: Zenobia of Palmyra in Arab and European Literature, Archaeology, Music and the Visual Arts from Antiquity to Now. Whew, the Netherlands Classical Association and Ex Oriente Lux are not missing much. I advise anyone in or near Amsterdam to get an invitation by hook or by crook (Zenobia2405@yahoo.com) and then hurry over to the Academic Cultural Centre on Saturday 24th May.

We've already touched on some of the same subjects -- the lecture entitled "Zenobia to Zenobia: Two Dethroned Queens on Canvas" will surely cover our glorious queen and the Armenian Other Zenobia, while "Zenobia as Opera Star" must hum along with Johann Adolph Hasse; but there are many more Zenobia operas and I am eager to listen. "Zenobia Lives! The Modern Arab Reception of al-Zabba" will undoubtedly cast the queen as anti-colonial Arab fighter (as in the massive Mansour Rahbani musical play in Dubai , which I also discussed in Zenobia's terrible curved sword). The day also promises many sparklingly new topics that I haven't even started on: from "Zenobia on Coins" to the traditions preserved in Tabari's History of Prophets and Kings and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It will be a veritable feast.

The organizers very kindly sent me an invitation (as I happen to be in NL for quite other reasons*) and I plan to be there ... and shall report , in English, after the event.

But, for today, I am struck by the image the learned institutions have chosen to adorn their invitation, Zenobia's Last Look on Palmyra by the unfortunately named Herbert Schmalz (1856-1935). I know we must not make fun of people's names (and as a 'Weingarten', I wouldn't dare) but he's such such a schmalzy** artist, it's not true). Take a better look at the picture (left). Painted in 1888, Zenobia is almost a parody of High Victorian art. As Richard Stoneman describes it in Palmyra and its Empire, the queen
looks down from a high balcony over a fantasy scene of spreading temples, porticoes, and colonnades. Noble melancholy suffuses her brow as the sun goes down behind the wheeling desert birds. The picture, overblown as it is, might easily be a stage set for Cecil B. DeMille.
Actually it is one of Schmalz's better efforts. He painted a host of subjects from classical and biblical history, choosing episodes which offered opportunities for elaborate and exotic architectural settings.

And nudity.

At least Zenobia is dressed. There was little Schmalz liked better than to get his models to take off their clothes. All in the name of art, of course.

And piety.

A Great Moral Lesson

This painting from 1888 looks like a cinematic vision of the blood-thirsty crowds in the Coliseum, with a group of nude young women, all pretty, all tied up, all in pseudo-classical poses, waiting for the lions to maul and devour them.

Their various poses obviously have been chosen to show their bodies to maximum effect. For Victorian lovers of bondage, their bodies in restraint must have been a real thrill. A little torture and suffering go a long way to expose virtue and bare flesh.

But these Victorian viewers were still piously and justifiably able to deplore the savagery of the Romans in making martyrs of these adorable, snowy white Christians. The painting offered a Great Moral Lesson about Christian Sacrifice. To make sure no one missed the point—and to free it from any hint of sexual titillation—it was titled: Faithful Unto Death: "Christianes ad Leones!"

Only a sourpuss could fail to be uplifted.

Schmalz's paintings frequently involved the tying-up of nubile women and a lot of execution and death by various means -- and one might expect that his works would have raised questions of taste. Yet it's hard to know how to read a critic, writing in the Strand, when he describes how Schmaltz had used his 15-year old model for Faithful Unto Death:
No one can fail [in looking at the painting] to notice how the bonds which bind the girl to the post seem to cut into the soft flesh of her arms. This was realised absolutely by the model, for Mr Schmalz had a post erected in his studio and bound the girl to it exactly as represented. Within the limited area of the panel it will be noticed how the whole spirit of the large picture has been retained, even the mark in the foreground of the chariot-wheel, which has thrown to one side the thigh and the shin-bone of some long dead-and-gone martyr who had perished for the sake of her faith.
The detail was admirable. And, come on guys, a bit of high kitsch never did anyone any harm.

Keep it in the family

I 'm not sure if this 15-year girl was his favourite model and mistress, Dorothy Dene (whose real name was Ada Alice Pullen), who also modelled for Frederic Leighton, a close friend and mentor. Here she is (left, posing as a demure Iphigenea, though the flowers don't quite hide the carelessly exposed breast). Dorothy was widely admired for her "'splendid growth and form such as the ancient Greek never saw." But ties do not always bind (or not tightly enough) -- a year after painting Faithful Unto Death, Schmalz married Dorothy's sister, Edith Pullen.

Sensation! The Nude in High Art

The credit -- if that's the word I want -- for bringing nudity into English art belongs to the aesthetic movement of Leighton, Watts, Poynter, Albert Joseph Moore and Burne-Jones. They ushered the nude back onto the walls of the Royal Academy, but decently draped, and with a suitable classical title. The naked young maidens, shackled to a rock or draped over the oars of a ship or riding horses or just standing there with a tumescent serpent wrapped around their bodies were Andromeda, the Sirens, Godiva and Harmonia. One recognizes the high moral narratives combined with exposed breasts.

The nude evokes a classical era, a remote past without pubic hair or a hint of cleft. Venus and other classical allusions were allowed; but a naked lady was not, as Alma-Tadema found out when he exhibited a nude female figure, a girl with no waist and rather thick ankles, and called it "A Sculptor's Model". Alma-Tadema was severely rapped over the knuckles by the Bishop of Carlisle; thereafter he was careful to avoid nudes altogether.

Schmalz had better luck. His sculptor's model passed muster (albeit a little later). In 1900 he showed this painting at his biggest one-man show at a Bond Street gallery. It is called the Dream of Fair Women.

Perfume and underwear advertisers today have nothing on the kinky Victorians.

I can only imagine that it is Schmalz himself, the sculptor, at her feet.

Words fail me.

But they didn't fail Oscar Wilde, who knew Schmalz slightly.

Schmalz was just leaving one of Lady Wilde's salon gatherings when Oscar stopped him.

Wilde: "Ah, Schmalz! leaving Mamma so soon?"

Schmalz: "Yes, I have a picture I must get on with."

Wilde: "Might I ask, what subject?"

Schmalz: "A Viking picture."

Wilde: "But my dear Schmalz, why so far back? You know, where archaeology begins, art ceases.

* I'll be helping to install Gerti Bierenbroodspot's new exhibition of paintings and sculpture, Atlantis Rising, at the Museum van der Togt in Amstelveen; opening 25 May. A catalogue, written by yours truly, is available.

Schmalzy is another New York word of Yiddish origin, meaning maudlin, sentimental, slushy or mushy effusiveness. Above all, if applied to a painter it means really kitschy. In 1918 Schmalz changed his name to Carmichael – after his maternal grandfather, the marine painter John Wilson Carmichael. But that was too late to stop people like me from making bad jokes.

03 May 2008

Laurel and Hardy Meet Zenobia


Skinny, British-born Stan Laurel and fat American Oliver Hardy began appearing together in movie shorts in 1926. Their incredible chemistry took hold immediately: two supremely brainless, eternally optimistic men, secure in their perpetual and impregnable innocence. They are life's innocent bystanders who run afoul of irate landlords, pompous citizens, angry policemen, domineering women, antagonistic customers, and apoplectic bosses. But, no matter how disastrous the consequences, they faced the world together....

Albeit not in Zenobia.

Originally developed for the comedy duo, Zenobia ultimately teamed Hardy with silent screen legend Harry Langdon when Laurel had a falling out with Hal Roach studios. The result is a well-meaning comedy, one which shows Hardy’s talents as a “leading man” yet isn't very funny. The title character — a testy female elephant named Zenobia — is the film’s primary claim to fame.

Yes, I know that the headline claims 'Laurel & Hardy' and Zenobia, but I misspoke.

Forget that for a moment, and let me muse.

This teaming of Oliver Hardy with someone other than Stan Laurel was the result of a contract dispute between Hal Roach and Stan Laurel. Zenobia (based on the story, Zenobia's Infidelity by H.C. Bunner) was Roach's attempt to create a new comedy pair without Stan Laurel, and a series of films with Hardy and Langdon was planned. The dispute was short-lived, however, and Laurel and Hardy were reunited soon thereafter (though, of course, they couldn't know this at the time).

Hardy was cast in the semi-serious role of John Tibbitt, a 19th century Mississippi doctor whose heart is bigger than his bank account. When Hardy is summoned to come help someone who is sick, he races across town only to find that the patient is an elephant (Zenobia) in a travelling carnival. "I am a doctor, and I work mainly with humans..." says Hardy, "but when you see an elephant in distress I want to help." Not the snappiest of lines, but Zenobia's owner (Harry Langdon) and Hardy figure out how to treat the elephant.Zenobia is so grateful, she falls in love with Hardy and refuses to leave his side. Attempting to say 'thanks', Zenobia relentlessly follows the good doctor and there is no place to hide: Zenobia even crashes a society party to be with him. Langdon gets mad and sues Hardy for alienation of Zenobia's affections.

The ensuing scandal plays right into the hands of Mrs. Carter, the town's richest and snobbiest woman (whose family put the 'Carter' into Carterville, Mississippi), who has long opposed the romance between her son John and Tibbitt's daughter Mary. During the climactic courtroom trial, despite occasional interruptions by Zenobia, all problems are resolved and Mrs. Carter finally gives in. She agrees to pay for any damages to the circus and consents to the marriage. And they all live happily ever after.

So far, so slight.

The Hidden Message?

I wonder how many people who saw the film in 1939 understood that Zenobia was also a symbol -- quite literally the 'elephant in the room'. What else was big and always present like an elephant in the heart of the Old South?

Three of the actors are black: Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, and Philip Hurlic. Stepin (spelled Step'n in the credits) is Zero, the butler. You can see him either as a horribly stereotyped black actor playing someone dumb and lazy, or find him quite funny talking under his breath about his thoughts every time he gets ordered to do something. Hattie McDaniel is the cook. Her name, too, is misspelt (last name has an 's' added in the credits), not that she would have minded very much because, that same year, she became the first black ever to win an Oscar -- for her role as Mammy, Scarlett O'Hara's servant, in 'Gone With the Wind'. That's her (left) receiving the award for Best Supporting Actress in 1939.

But it is Zeke (Philip Hurlic -- sorry, I can't find a picture of him anywhere on the web) who almost steals the show from Zenobia. Playing Hardy's child servant, he is smart and cute. Hardy attempts to explain race to Zeke as being the difference between white pills and black pills. As he puts it, the Declaration of Independence is made up of black, white, red and yellow pills. When Hardy asks the child if he understands, Zeke answers back, "No, Suh". Hardy finally offers him a quarter-dollar (no mean amount in 1939) if he can memorize the Declaration of Independence. He does and recites it aloud -- in what is obviously meant to be the film's highlight. It's impossible to imagine that a black child speaking those stirring opening words (We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal) could fail to make an impression on the audience. Even in Mississippi.

Zenobia is telling us that the elephant in the room is bigotry and inequality. For Hardy, black, white, red (Indian) and yellow (Oriental) pills are created equal. At least, that's how most modern film buffs read the underlying story. For some, it's even it too obvious: the film "tries desperately to force feed its audience a plate of moral fiber for digestion." Others, however, are offended by Stepin Fetchit's "hideously racist performance". The black community has always had a love-hate relationship with Stepin Fetchit. One can see why (that's him on the right in Carolina, 1934).

Still, let's not project our current ideas in a rear view mirror. In 1939, it wasn't 'self-evident' -- not in Mississippi, not in Hollywood -- that a film would have a black kid reciting the Declaration of Independence ... and some of the credit, I think, should go to Hal Roach.

Here's why.

Our Gang

The idea of creating a series starring real children came to Hal Roach as he was watching a group of young boys fighting over a pile of sticks. As he stood there laughing, he thought that if he could capture that natural youthful energy on film, he might have a hit.

The result was Our Gang, one of the longest-lasting short subjects series of all time (1922-1944). Roach always believed that the most successful comedians are childlike (like Laurel & Hardy, really 'children' in an adult world), and the Our Gang series took his theory one step further, making children themselves the comedians.

The "Our Gang" shorts are heartwarming and funny. They featured the Gang stuck in a world with mean step-mothers, irritable neighbors, heartless dog-catchers, shotgun toting chicken farmers, befuddled cops, and, once in a while, a kindly old grandma. The Gang was always remarkably diverse, featuring white kids, black kids, Oriental kids, fat kids, skinny kids, tough kids, wimpy kids ... always hanging tough together and rising above their troubles through their wit, spirit and creativity.

Our Gang had more integration between races than the feature pictures being filmed in the same era. Whereas in most feature films, black men were almost always porters or janitors, in the world of Our Gang, the black members, like Stymie and Farina, were always on an equal footing with their white counterparts.

There was no distinction between the white pills and the black pills.

But let's not get carried away, folks. In a country where a current contender for the Democratic presidential nomination (speaking through the teeth of his team) is hurling about accusations of racism, we can hardly pretend that there is no distinction between pills. Still, I think that Hal Roach was basically on the side of the angels. How else can you explain that he lived long enough to be honoured at the Academy Awards of 1992 (his second honorary Oscar) -- and looked at least thirty years younger than his actual age of 100?

"Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."

This was Laurel and Hardy's catchphrase and it has passed into the American language.

A kindly critic might call the comedy duo precursors of the Theatre of the Absurd. Certainly, two tramp-like men bewildered by the simplest elements of life irresistibly leads to Samuel Beckett, himself a fan, who was unquestionably influenced by the characters in Waiting for Godot.

ESTRAGON: I can't go on like this.

VLADIMIR: That's what you think.

If any of my readers have 69 minutes to waste, you can 'go on like this' and see the whole of Zenobia. After all, it's the only time that Oliver Hardy is the thin one of the comedy pair:

"Well...." says an impatient Hardy.

And Laurel replies, "Here's another nice mess I've gotten you into."

Next week, back to ancient history.

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