31 March 2021

The Stupid Iconoclastic Rage of the Reformer

Claude Phillips, “Vandalism in Art,” Emotion in Art (London: William Heinemann, 1925), pp. 220-221:

The ravages of time we deplore, yet must sighing accept; the all-devouring rage of fire we may not, with all our precautions, wholly and for ever avert. But the stupid iconoclastic rage of the reformer, the still more hideous nihilistic rage of the destroyer, to whom all greatness and beauty are an insult — these things are surely among the vilest and most irreparable crimes that the individual, or body of individuals, can commit against the human race. For to the whole civilized world — not to the past only, or the present, but to the future — belong, surely, the grandest and most significant achievements of art that the successive ages have brought forth. To slay them, to tear out the heart of their beauty and greatness, is worse even — if we may dare to say so — than to slay the human body, which may, and in the common order of things must, perish, and be replaced. Thus is destroyed, indeed, and obliterated the outcome, the embodiment of man's immortal part, his genius, his soul.

Ivan Alexeyevich Vladimirov, Soldiers Burning Paintings (1917)

When Phillips writes of people “to whom all greatness and beauty are an insult”, I am reminded of a line in Ernst Jünger's Auf den Marmorklippen: “Tief ist der Haß, der in den niederen Herzen dem Schönen gegenüber brennt.” (Deep is the hatred that burns in base hearts in the presence of beauty.)

23 March 2021

No Opinion

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.52, tr. George Long (London: Macmillan, 1914), p. 205:

It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments. 


Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Pompeian Scene or The Siesta (1868)

15 March 2021

L'Inconnue de la Seine

Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), pp. 128-130 (with his footnote):

During the 1920s and early 1930s, all over the Continent, nearly every student of sensibility had a plaster cast of her death mask: a young, full, sweetly smiling face which seems less dead than peacefully sleeping. The girl was in fact genuinely inconnue. All that is known of her is that she was fished out of the Seine and exposed on a block of ice in the Paris Morgue, along with a couple of hundred other corpses awaiting identification. (On the evidence of her hair style, Sacheverell Sitwell believes this happened not later than the early 1880s.) She was never claimed, but someone was sufficiently impressed by her peaceful smile to take a death mask. 

It is also possible that it never happened at all. In another version of the story a researcher, unable to obtain information at the Paris Morgue, followed her trail to the German source of the plaster casts. At the factory he met the Inconnue herself, alive and well and living in Hamburg, the daughter of the now-prosperous manufacturer of her image. 

There is, however, no doubt at all about the cult around her. I am told that a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her.* She appears in appropriately aroused stories by Richard La Gallienne, Jules Supervielle and Claire Goll, and oddly enough, since the author is a Communist, was the moving spirit behind the heroine of Aurélian, a long novel which Louis Aragon considers his masterpiece. But her fame was spread most effectively by a sickly though much-translated best seller, One Unknown, by Reinhold Conrad Muschler. He makes her an innocent young country girl who comes to Paris, falls in love with a handsome British diplomat — titled, of course — has a brief but idyllic romance and then, when milord regretfully leaves to marry his suitably aristocratic English fiancee, drowns herself in the Seine. As Muschler's sales show, this was the style of explanation the public wanted for that enigmatic, dead face. 

The cult of the Inconnue seemed to attract young people between the two world wars in much the same way as drugs call them now: to opt out before they start, to give up a struggle that frightens them in a world they find distasteful, and to slide away into a deep inner dream. Death by drowning and blowing your mind with drugs amount, in fantasy, to the same thing: the sweetness, shadow and easy release of a successful regression. So the cult flourished in the absence of all facts, perhaps it even flourished because there were no facts. Like a Rorschach blot, the dead face was the receptacle for any feelings the onlooker wished to project into it. And like the Sphinx and the Mona Lisa, the power of the Inconnue was in her smile — subtle, oblivious, promising peace. Not only was she out of it all, beyond troubles, beyond responsibilities, she had also remained beautiful; she had retained the quality the young most fear to lose — their youth. Although Sitwell credits to her influence an epidemic of suicide among the young people of Evreaux, I suspect she may have saved more lives than she destroyed. To know that it can be done, that the option really exists and is even becoming, is usually enough to relieve a mildly suicidal anxiety. In the end, the function of the Romantic suicide cult is to be a focus for wandering melancholy; almost nobody actually dies.

* I owe this information to Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex. He suggests that the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modelled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo.

L'Inconnue  appears on plate 53 of Charles Bargue's Cours de dessin, where she is described simply as a jeune femme. Goupil & Cie. published Bargue's series of lithographs between 1868 and 1871, so if she did drown it must have been before then.

11 March 2021

The Last Survivor of a Vanished Race

A note on Arnold Böcklin’s painting Villa am Meer, from the Bates and Guild Company Masters in Art Series of Illustrated Monographs, Part 75, No. 7 (March 1906) 38:

The Villa by the Sea, painted in Rome in 1864, after Böcklin's visit to Naples and Capri, is one of the artist's most beautiful renderings of nature in a minor key. Upon a rocky shore stands an old Italian villa, its marble walls and the statues which once adorned its garden almost hidden by dark cypress-trees whose tops are swayed by the wind. Lower down, upon the beach, stands a woman clad from head to foot in mourning garments, leaning against the rocks as she gazes sorrowfully over the water which breaks in waves at her feet. A leaden sky enhances the indescribable sadness which pervades the picture and imparts itself to the spectator. 

“In the measured beating of the waves upon the shore,” writes Henri Mendelsohn, “we seem to hear the swan-song of a mighty past. May not this mourning woman be some Iphigenia yearning for the lost land of Greece? Such a thought was in the artist's mind, for he says that in this melancholy figure he wished to represent the last survivor of a vanished race.”


Arnold Böcklin, Villa am Meer II (1865)

“Henri” Mendelsohn was the art historian Henriette Mendelsohn (1853-1928). The quote mentioned above can be found on pages 76-77 of her biography of Arnold Böcklin (Berlin: Ernst Hofmann & Co., 1901), which is the 40th volume in Hofmann's Geisteshelden series.

3 March 2021

Removing Problematic Literature

Bob Le Sueur, Growing Up Fast: An Ordinary Man’s Extraordinary Life in Occupied Jersey (Jersey: Seeker Publishing, 2020), p. 42:

I clearly remember one day a group of Germans coming in and informing the librarian that they were to search the shelves for any material that was thought hostile to German interests. While they were polite they were also very thorough, and climbed up to the highest alcoves in their quest to uncover literature to which the Reich might object. Their progress was marked by a series of thumps as books were flung to the floor, to be gathered up and disposed of. I’m sure there were many books there which were critical of the Nazi regime and it was hardly surprising that they were to be destroyed, but I found it very, very hurtful. It was a clear reminder that free information was something not to be countenanced. 

I do remember thinking that any German soldier who was intellectually alive could not have done that job.


Wartime poster designed by S. Broder
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942
Image from the Library of Congress

2 March 2021

Cold, Implacable Surveillance

John Lewis, A Doctor's Occupation (Jersey: Starlight, 1997):

Later, when wireless sets were forbidden, they [German soldiers] would go up to any pair of civilians whom they saw in close conversation on the street, separate them out of ear-shot of each other, and demand to know what they were talking about. If the details of the conversation did not tally, both civilians would be taken away for interrogation. Very soon we learned not to talk to each other in the street, and only passed the time of day, though we might be the best of friends. After curfew, when no one was abroad, the Gestapo even stood with their ears glued to the window of an occupied room, either to catch details of conversation or even, if they were lucky, the tones of an illicit radio. This cold, implacable surveillance induced a feeling of dread in many people who had any sort of guilty secret, and many radios were either destroyed or handed in.


A homemade crystal radio used during the occupation
From Jersey Heritage, # JERSM/1984/00166