Saturday, March 28, 2009

AHNCA Symposium (Part 2)

Yesterday was the Sixth Annual Graduate Student Symposium in Nineteenth-Century Art, co-sponsored by AHNCA (Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art), the Doctoral Program at the CUNY Graduate Center, and the Dahesh Museum of Art. Last week I posted about this and put the abstract for my paper online. The symposium was held at the Graduate Center in the Martin E. Segal Theatre, the same location where we held the Why Victorian Art? symposium in early February. Symposia such as this are excellent opportunities for so-called "junior scholars" to discuss aspects of their dissertations or other art historical projects on which they are working. Just when you thought everything had been said about a particular artist or topic, it's surprising to discover there's apparently always something more that can be said. These symposia also are excellent opportunities to network with fellow students and many of the leading art historians in the field. Below I summarize each of the papers, although I leave open for discussion whether or not my occasional interpretation of each is completely accurate. I confess that I often find it difficult to listen to conference papers for the first time and fully grasp their entire meaning (i.e., I'm a visual learner, not an audio learner). It would have been helpful to have read abstracts ahead of time to be more familiar with what the papers would be discussing. Regardless, it's fortunate that with art history, there are always pretty pictures to look at.

I spoke last on the morning panel session about the Ottoman Turks at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, examining the ambiguity of Anglo-Turkish relations as both colonialist and exoticist and issues of Otherness and the Self. Hannah W. Blunt (Boston University) spoke first about the American artist William Bradford's tour of Greenland and discussed issues of reality and the picturesque in the composite photographs used for his travelogue and Bradford's subsequent landscape paintings of the Arctic circle. Stassa B. Edwards (Florida State University) discussed Oscar Rejlander's theatrical performative photographs that were used by Charles Darwin in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). (It turns out Stassa and I have colleagues in common: we both worked as interns at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.) Stephanie O'Rourke (Columbia University) spoke about the 19th-century optical illusion of the "waterfall effect" and used this to discuss issues of motion with regard to the ever-increasing spread of the railroad in early Victorian history, drawing on J.M.W. Turner's painting Rain, Steam, Speed - the Great Western Railway (1844) to exemplify the impact of motion. This painting from the Tate is the image you see above, with Turner suggesting the rush of the train as a symbol for new industrial technology. This is one of Turner's best-known works, mostly for his handling of the swirls of paint to suggest the atmospheric conditions of the steam train. If you look closely, you can also see a minuscule white rabbit hopping just in front of the train, which scholars have interpreted as a symbol for how technology was advancing beyond nature. I've written about Turner on this blog before. I'm not a huge fan of his work, but I do think he was an amazing artist.

If the morning session was about the English-speaking art world, then the afternoon session was all about the French. My fellow co-student Karin Zonis (CUNY) presented on a heretofore unexamined French Revolution print by an unknown engraver named Duplessis, considering the work as an example of what she calls a middle-ground print, using aspects of both fine art engraving and popular prints. Phoebe Prioleau (Columbia) discussed fictional accounts by Balzac, the Goncourts, and Zola that utilize the imagery of the skin of artists' models as a metaphor about the creation of art. Emily Eastgate Brink (Stanford University) spoke about the appreciation of Japanese manga prints by Hokusai in late 19th-century France. Justine De Young (Northwestern University) gave a paper on paintings of women dressed in mourning at the 1872 Salon as new allegorical subjects for French patriotism over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. The last speaker of the day was Andrew Eschelbacher (University of Maryland), whose paper dealt with the overthrow of the independent city-state the Paris Commune in 1871 and the Third Republic's use of public monumental sculpture to consciously erase the memory of the Commune's brief, but bloody, period in French history. By the late 1880s, however, aspects of the Commune were being incorporated into French public art, as seen in the figure of Labor in the work reproduced here, Jules Dalou's The Triumph of the Republic (1889) [image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons].

According to Petra ten-Doesschate Chu in her book Nineteenth-Century European Art (2nd ed., 2006), this work shows "a larger-than-life figure representing the republic, complete with Phyrigian cap and fasces [symbols of freedom and legal order]. She stands on a globe, which rests on a chariot pulled by two lions. Symbolizing the strength of the people, the lions are led by the genius of Liberty, a young boy with a torch in his raised right hand. Additional allegorical figures--Labor, Justice, and Abundance (or Peace)--surround the chariot on the other three sides." (p.376)

Brian Lukacher (Vassar College) and Anne Higonnet (Columbia) were the respondents for the sessions. The members of the selection committee, all of whom were present, were Petra Chu (Seton Hall University), Stephen Edidin (New York Historical Society), Brian Lukacher, and Patricia Mainardi (CUNY). All in all, it was a great academic day, and I was fortunate to be part of it. The Dahesh Museum of Art is sponsoring an award for the best paper given at the symposium, so I'm sure I'll be reporting back very soon on who the winner is. I think I know who they are going to pick (no, I don't think it's me!).

UPDATE (4/5): All of the speakers received word that Andrew Eschelbacher won the Dahesh prize for the best paper presented at the conference. This wasn't a surprise to me or KZ, as we both thought he was going to get it. His paper was written and presented well, and his argument convincing, so he rightfully deserves the award.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MTA Aggravation

Permit me a moment to bitch about something. The MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority), which runs all of the subways, buses, and bridge/highway tolls for the greater New York City area, announced this morning that in fact they would be raising rates and cutting services as of May 31. They've been warning us for months about the possibility of this happening, but it was officially decided this morning. The implication was that the MTA has been waiting from Albany to have the state government assist with their budgetary shortfall, but of course Albany is in no rush to do anything for NYC. Albany has a love-hate relationship with the City. They're willing to take in all the tax revenue and tourist dollars that the City brings the state, but they hate the fact that the 5 boroughs of NYC thus become the focus of the entire state's attention. Not too long ago, when Mayor Bloomberg was begging them to make a decision about supporting the federal government's plan to help states improve mass transit systems, they couldn't even get their act together to discuss the issue, and we lost out on an opportunity for millions of dollars of revenue to improve our mass transit system. Sometimes I wonder whether NYC would be better off as its own independent state.

I realize of course that everyone is hurting financially, including all government agencies. But during an economic crisis such as this, doesn't it make more sense to somehow help the people by improving mass transit systems, so as to alleviate traffic from commuter cars? You should see the subway terminals. Very few are attractive. One or two are actually quite nice. The vast majority, however, are in desperate need of some serious cleaning. And what's with the ridiculous waste of thin plastic cards that you can only reuse if they're pay-per-ride? London has been using a permanent debit-like card for ages now! (Okay, admittedly, the tube in London is also more expensive.) A few years ago, the MTA was claiming they had a budgetary surplus, so they gave people free rides through extended passes. A year later, they were raising rates, and now they're raising them again.

It currently costs $2 to ride the subway or a bus. That's going up to $2.50. Many residents have unlimited passes though. I always buy 30-day unlimited passes that are currently $81 and allow me to ride all the subways and buses without paying another fee. That is going up to $103. Now, that's a bit of a jump to me. Admittedly, it's only $22 per month, but that works out to be $264 a year. Can I afford that? Yes, I guess so, but it means cutting back on a few splurges. For people who are making lower salaries and are dependent on the mass transit system to get them to work, this is going to make a difference, and I feel most angry for them. To make matters worse, the MTA also is planning to cut 35 bus routes and 2 subway lines completely. In addition, they're cutting back on subway service during nights and weekends. Tolls on highways/bridges are increasing as well.

People started complaining months ago when the MTA held hearings, but it had no effect. You would think they at least would have adjusted these changes to make them less severe. Supposedly there is a slight possibility that Albany may come through in time to help salvage some of this before it officially goes into effect, but I'm not holding my breath. You can read more about all this in The New York Times. You'll quickly discover by all the comments from readers that it's a mixed bag. What bothers me more than anything else is that it seems like something just isn't working at the MTA.

Friday, March 20, 2009

AHNCA Symposium (Part 1)

Next Friday, March 27th, I will be giving a conference presentation at the Sixth Annual Graduate Student Symposium in Nineteenth-Century Art, co-sponsored by AHNCA (Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art), the Doctoral Program at the CUNY Graduate Center, and the Dahesh Museum of Art. The title of my presentation is "Turkish Delights: The British, the Ottoman Turks, and the Great Exhibition of 1851." My abstract is below, but you can see a list of all the presentations by clicking here. My friend and fellow student Karin Zonis is speaking on "Prints of the French Revolution: The High, Middle, and Popular Styles." We did a test-run this morning, and I learned quite a bit about printmaking after the French Revolution from her talk.

If you're surprised that I'm presenting about the Ottomans, I have to admit I am too. I've always had an interest in Asian culture and I used to teach about art and religion from India, China, and Japan, but I was less familiar with the Ottoman world. Ever since I took a course last semester on the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries, however, I have become fascinated by their interactions with the British during the 19th century. I'm particularly interested in Sultan Abdülmecid, whom you see here (image courtesy of Wikipedia; painting in the Pera Museum in Istanbul). He reigned in Istanbul from 1839 to 1861. There is a lot one could say about this Sultan, but Wikipedia gives a pretty good summary. Since the anonymous author provides citations and an extensive amount of detailed information, I suspect the fact he had 24 wives in his harem must be true. What the entry doesn't talk about is his court favorite, Serefnaz Hanım, presumably his homosexual lover. One of my favorite quotes about this relationship comes from Çelik Gülersoy, who writes in Dolmabahçe: Palace and It's [sic] Environs (Istanbul, 1990): "When, on one occasion, the government had with the greatest difficulty managed to scrape together fifteen thousand gold purses to pay some of the wage debt they owed the construction workers, Abdümecid gave five thousand of these to Serefnaz Hanim, with whom he was infatuated at the time, and then had to distribute vast amounts of gold to his wives and concubines to keep them quiet.” (p.55)

Here is my abstract for the conference paper. Since I first submitted it, I have modified it somewhat. It's such an enormous topic that I had to make some cuts and modify my methodology a bit. In any case, wish me luck! I'll report next week about some of the other papers at the symposium.

Turkish Delights: The British, the Ottoman Turks, and the Great Exhibition of 1851
Roberto C. Ferrari

On May 1, 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations officially opened in London’s Hyde Park. When it closed in October, the Crystal Palace had welcomed in over six million visitors to see the products of Great Britain and other nations. Although it was not the first industrial fair, the Great Exhibition was truly the first world’s fair, as foreign lands were asked to display their own national examples of products for public consumption. Among the more eager international participants were the Ottoman Turks. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had been Europe’s most formidable enemy, but by the eighteenth century they were smaller and a less serious threat. By the mid-1800s, the Ottoman Turks were regularly interacting with Western Europe, and Great Britain was one of their closest allies. Although they had helped liberate Greece from the Turks, the British now worked with the Ottomans to help modernize their empire, encouraging the Tanzimat reformation laws that forever transformed Turkey, and in 1854 fighting with them against the Russians in the Crimean War. Thus, the 1851 Great Exhibition was for the Ottoman Turks an excellent opportunity to display not only their empire’s industrial productivity, but also their strong ties with Great Britain.

Situated in a prime location in the Crystal Palace, at the northeast corner where the nave and transept intersected, their pavilion was boldly labeled “Turkey.” It was large in size, surpassed only by India among the Eastern nations. Arranged like an Eastern bazaar, the pavilion hosted a panoply of Turkish delights, from spices, animal skins, and swords, to hookahs, embroidered silks, and a sled. Yet, despite the pavilion’s size and impressive display, it is startling that over the past 150 years few (if any) scholars have considered the impact of the Ottoman Turks and their pavilion at the Great Exhibition. Indeed, the historiography on the fair largely has focused on, not surprisingly, what the Great Exhibition tells us about Victorian British culture. Only recently have scholars such as Jeffrey Auerbach, Lara Kriegel, and others begun to consider the international scope of the Great Exhibition, and much of this discussion has been on India because of its importance as a British colony. Until late 2008, no article in English had discussed the Ottoman Turks at the fair. This new article by Francesca Vanke considers their presence from a historical perspective; however, she neglects to incorporate the visual culture that provides us with insight into Anglo-Turkish relations at this time.

In this paper, then, I will discuss some of these examples of visual culture, such as published lithographs of the Turkish pavilion and its wares, the architectural floor plan of the pavilion, and an illustrated guide to the fair that was written for children. More importantly, and thus coursing through this discussion, will be an assessment of Edward Said’s ideas about colonialist attitudes towards the East, first published in his book
Orientalism in 1978. Scholars have taken to heart Said’s theories, with Linda Nochlin’s subsequent groundbreaking work among the more demonstrative examples of Orientalist attitudes in Western art. However, in more recent years, other scholars such as Emily Weeks have begun to redress Said’s (and thus Nochlin’s) essentialism in art historical discourse. Ultimately, by considering some of the primary source material in English on the Ottomans, such as news articles from the London Times and the works of visual culture mentioned above, I will demonstrate that indeed both Saidian and post-Saidian interpretations are necessary and apparent in an examination of Anglo-Turkish relations and the Ottoman presence at the Great Exhibition. Indeed, the products of the Ottomans—their Turkish delights—were greatly welcomed, as long as their producers—the Turks—knew their place and didn’t intend to stay.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NYC Moments (1)

We've all had those moments where we've entered a room and we hear someone say something like, "My God, he's huge!", and we stand there befuddled for a moment wondering who they're talking about and whether they're making reference to his career or to a certain appendage. This "walking into the middle of a conversation" syndrome can be embarrassing or startling, but you have to admit it's worth the experience if for no other reason then the story that comes out of it. This thought occurred to me earlier today after two classic New York City experiences. But I didn't exactly walk into conversations. Rather, I walked into classic NYC Moments.

The first one happened yesterday morning as I was on my way to work. I have about a 15-minute walk from my house to the 4 subway in Brooklyn Heights, so anything (or nothing) can happen on that walk. As I got closer, I realized there were enormous trucks and trailers everywhere, some with lighting equipment, others with cables and cameras. I kept walking and watched a gaggle of teenaged-like people snacking on breakfast foods at the catering truck, and I realized I had walked onto a film set. Television and movie crews film regularly in NYC, and they love Brooklyn for its brownstones and residential feel. My own neighborhood has been featured in Moonstruck and the Spiderman movies. Now, if I watched more television, I might have been tickled pink to be able to identify the stars of Gossip Girl, for that was what was filming, but alas I cannot tell you who I saw. The show films regularly at Packer Collegiate Institute, usually during periods when they're closed (they're on spring break right now). It's a private school whose Tudor architecture suits the snooty rich kid soap opera environment perfectly. I couldn't care less about the show, but it was fun to think I had very briefly stumbled onto a television production set.

The second experience was a little less fun. I was leaving work on the Upper East Side and decided to walk a different route to the subway. As I turned from Park Avenue onto 77th Street, I was taken aback by all the news crews. I followed their cameras, and I realized I was standing outside Lenox Hill Hospital. This is where the actress Natasha Richardson had been brought after she fell unconscious from her skiing accident. I stopped for a moment, looking at the newscasters. I didn't recognize anyone, and so I started to go on my way. But then something made me stop again, and I looked back at the hospital. I realized that at that very moment her husband Liam Neeson, her children, and probably her mother and aunt, the Redgrave sisters, were in there, hoping and praying for her recovery. It was another NYC moment, the realization that while I knew she had been brought here and had heard about it on the television news that morning, to actually walk by the hospital and realize this was happening then and there gave me a completely different sense about the reality of what had happened to her. (As I've been writing this, I've checked online again, and Natasha Richardson has died. Click here to read her obituary in The New York Times. She was only 45 years old.)

Anything can happen in NYC, and it usually does. These two very different experiences both made me feel like I had walked into the middle of something, and I had. It's called life. We forget so easily that while we go about our own business, going to work and meetings, eating lunch, shopping, whatever, other people everywhere around us are living their own lives. Some are working hard as actors on a television shoot. Others are ringing up sales at a cash register. Others are booking vacations. And then others are praying over their sick loved one while news crews wait outside to know if their mother/wife/daughter has died. It is disturbing to realize that the world that exists in our own head is not the center of the universe. It is only one of over eight billion parts of the same universe, and they are all moving, all acting, all living, at the very same time, in the very same city. I find that synchronicity unnerving, mind-boggling, and comforting all at the same time.

A wise woman reminded me earlier this evening that life is about the journey and not the destiny. So can there be a better place to live an exciting journey than in New York City? I think not.

UPDATE (3/20): Just to show you how frequently film crews are in NYC shooting, by total coincidence my friend TF over at the New York Portraits blog posted an entry talking about the same thing: "We Prefer The Term 'Background Actor."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Solomon in Italy

As many readers of bklynbiblio know, I have done much of my art historical work on Simeon Solomon (1840-1905). I posted about Solomon on his birthday last October. This Anglo-Jewish artist made a career for himself among the greater Pre-Raphaelite circle, until he was largely erased from their history after being arrested for homosexual crimes in 1873. During the height of his career in the 1860s, he took three trips to Italy where he toured the sites, socialized with British and American artists and writers, learned a great deal about ancient and Renaissance art, and painted quite a few important pictures. I recently was asked to write an article about Solomon for the premiere issue of an academic electronic journal, and I'm pleased to announce that this article has just been published online and can be accessed for free. The title is "Simeon Solomon in Italy: The First Trip, 1866-1867" (click here to read it).

The bilingual (Italian-English) e-journal is called Ravenna, and it focuses on 19th-century writers and artists who had a connection to Italy. The e-journal is part of THE OSCHOLARS, a series of free journals that deals with aspects of late 19th- and early 20th-century British art, literature, and culture, with its focus on Oscar Wilde and his world. Ravenna is edited by Luca Caddia and Elisa Pizzotto.

The image you see here is one of Solomon's best works, an oil painting entitled Bacchus which he painted while he was in Rome. The picture is marked in the lower left with his monogram SS and the number 3 and 1867, signifying he painted this in March 1867. The subject is of Solomon's own design, and it is one example of various works in which he experiments with subjects that reflect aspects of his own homosexuality during a time when the expression of such feelings was unlawful. The subject is the ancient Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in ancient Greece), the god of wine and sensual pleasures. You can see grape leaves making up a crown in his hair, and he carries grapes hanging from the thyrsus, or wooden staff, which he carries over his shoulder. In mythology, Bacchus was a youthful, bisexual god whose followers included wild animals like panthers and cougars, as well as satyrs (youths who were part-goat) and Maenads, beautiful maidens who turned into ravenous creatures when they succumbed to the intoxication of wine. Walter Pater, the doyenne of Victorian Aestheticism, saw this picture exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1867 and later noted in his essay "A Study of Dionysus" about the work, describing the figure as “the god of the bitterness of wine, ‘of things too sweet’; the sea-water of the Lesbian grape become somewhat brackish in the cup.” Because of the god's association with wine, his worship related to the release of inhibitions associated with drunkenness, including sexual licentiousness. In the play The Bacchae by the 4th-century BCE playwright Euripides, puritanical King Pentheus tries to stamp out the worship of the wine god and in turn is fooled by Bacchus into spying on the Maenads dressed as one of them. But when they discover him, they tear him apart and eat his flesh. The lesson here was never to fool with the gods. To see this painting and many other works by Solomon, go to the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery in England, where they have the largest public collection of works by Solomon and many other Pre-Raphaelite artists, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.

Shakespeare Portrait?

Since my last few posts have included discussion of the Tudors and a discovered portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, it seems rather timely that earlier this week the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust released to the public what they contend is an official portrait of William Shakespeare (left). It's been given the name the Cobbe portrait because it has been owned by the Cobbe family since the 18th century. However, its original provenance was in the collection of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare's most important patron. It is also worth noting that, despite his marriage to Anne Hathaway (not the actress), some scholars argue that Southampton and Shakespeare were lovers, citing the bard's sonnets which convey male-male sentiments of love and may have been written to Southampton.

The search for portraits of Shakespeare has been something people have spent much time debating over. There is, in fact, an excellent page on Wikipedia called "Portraits of Shakespeare" that shows you what many of them look like, including the most recent Cobbe portrait. But much like the situation with Leonardo da Vinci, I find myself wondering what all the hullabaloo is about. Why should we care what he looks like? I mean, it's interesting to know, but do we need to know him physically in order to understand his writings? Do we need to know what Leonardo da Vinci looked like to appreciate his paintings and drawings? Not really. That said, it is fun to speculate on all of this. Now, I am not an expert on the Northern Renaissance, so I can only cite what I've picked up from others, but one of the things I've read is that Elizabethan portraiture was meant to idealize the sitters and not portray them as they actually looked. Charlotte Higgins from the Guardian newspaper also has pointed out other reasons to doubt this is an actual portrait of Shakespeare. For instance, the Cobbe portrait is supposed to resemble the Janssen Portrait, but apparently that was repainted at a later date so as to make the subject look like Shakespeare. As Higgins points out then, "What we are essentially left with ... is a portrait of just about the right period of a fellow with roughly the right kind of hairdo."

So we're back to square one. Is it Shakespeare? Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, believes so, and has made it the center of an exhibition called Shakespeare Found: A Life Portrait. Is it cool to think it might be? Absolutely! Does it make a difference about how we appreciate Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Tempest? No. What does interest me, however, is the news coverage over the find. Articles have appeared in numerous newspapers across Europe and America. Then there are all the subsequent naysayers, many of whom are associated with newspapers as well (see Verlyn Klinkenborg's op ed piece in The New York Times, for instance). Comparatively speaking, the Leonardo portrait barely got even an ounce of the same amount of coverage! What does that say about art and literature? Is there an assumption people are more interested in Shakespeare than Leonardo? If so, why? I think there may be something to be said that people believe literature--even written in poetic Shakespearean language--is more approachable than visual art. Indeed, how many out there have read Shakespeare as compared to studying paintings by Leonardo? It seems like something to think about...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Power of a Pup

Newsweek magazine has a weekly feature called "My Turn," which gives the public an opportunity to submit personal essays about things that matter most to them. Most of the stories often relate to issues that families often deal with, whether its children or the elderly, politics or religion, and so on. This week's issue, however, is a heartwarming story about how a dog helped heal a family's emotional wounds: "The Dog That Made Us a Family" by Ginny Blanford. After a close friend of Blanford and her husband passed away, the couple took in their friend's orphaned child. The girl had never seemed to grieve over the loss of her mother. After the girl begged for a dog, they relented and brought home from a shelter Molly, "a regal chow mix, chestnut red with a feathery tail that wagged all the time," whose picture you see here. Unfortunately, the dog ran away almost immediately afterwards. Their daughter was so devastated, she broke down and sobbed openly for the first time, not only about Molly, but about her mother and all of her feelings. The good news is that Molly the dog eventually did come home after some adventures of her own. Blanford writes that Molly helped break down the walls their daughter had built around her because of her grief, and as a result made them a family. It just goes to show you how important pets are in our lives. It's all about the power of a pup!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Library Bytes: Collapse in Köln

Word about the physical collapse of the building for the Historical Archive of Köln (Cologne), Germany on March 3 only seems to be hitting the American newsbytes in the past day or so. I checked with a few people today and no one had even heard about it before today. The picture you see here (taken by Federico Gambarini) is one of the images available with this article from the London Times from last week reporting on the catastrophe. All the staff and researchers got out in time, although early reports said that two construction workers were trapped. I have not read that anyone died in the collapse, so it seems the biggest misfortune is the devastating loss of material that was held in this archive. According to the article in the Times, among the holdings of this archive were some original manuscript writings by Karl Marx and handwritten musical scores by Jacques Offenbach. Reporter Roger Boyes notes one particular group of records whose potential loss is a serious tragedy: "The archives included the minutes of all town council meetings [for Cologne] held since 1376. Not a single session had been missed, making the collection a remarkable resource for legal historians." An update from the director, Dr. Ulrich S. Soénius, came through a email listservs today that salvage operations are in effect. They've been surprised by the fact that some of the archives seem to be completely intact or suffered only minimal damage, although many others have been completely destroyed. A full assessment will probably takes months to determine. The sad part is that apparently none of this material was ever digitized, which means that which was lost is now permanently lost. This is the type of situation that demonstrates the importance of digitizing such materials for future generations, but of course this takes a lot of money. What shocks me most, however, is that this six-story building was only constructed in the 1970s. Germany has enormous stone cathedrals dating back over 1,000 years that have withstood the tests of time, but a 35-year-old building comes tumbling down. I don't know much about architectural engineering, but there seems to be something seriously wrong with that.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: The Tudors

Since the beginning of the year, I've been indulging in the first two seasons of the Showtime series The Tudors on DVD. If there's one thing people know about the Tudor dynasty, it's usually King Henry VIII, specifically that he founded the Church of England, and that he had six wives and he cut off all their heads. Well, that of course isn't entirely true. He only executed two of them (2 and 5). Two others he divorced divorced (1 and 4), one died in childbirth (3), and the last outlived him. He also had three children who all became rulers of England: Edward VI, Mary I (aka Bloody Mary), and Elizabeth I (aka The Virgin Queen, patroness of William Shakespeare, etc.). This very brief history lesson teaches you to be aware of the facts of history. That said, if you're looking to a show like The Tudors to teach you history about 1530s England, you're in for a reality check, because little is historically accurate in this show. People usually think of Henry as a bloated, red-headed, middle-aged monarch. In fact when he was young he was a dashing Renaissance prince, and so he is depicted in the show by the suave Jonathan Rhys Meyers (pictured here). But the events in which he divorced his first wife Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn didn't happen until he was close to 40 years of age, and thus that picture you have in your mind of the old guy is actually more accurate than Rhys Meyers here. But that just won't do for television. Anyone would rather see a former Hugo Boss and Versace model have sex with all these gorgeous women. I could go on and on about more of the historical discrepancies, but this article on Wikipedia does a good job explaining some of them (my favorite is the conflation of Henry's two sisters into one). There are attempts in the show to relate to art historical events: the French king Francis I mentions Leonardo da Vinci being in his court; Hans Holbein is court painter to Henry; and Pope Paul III hires Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in 1534. All of these things are true. But otherwise this show takes creative license to an extreme. Indeed, as creator Michael Hirst has pointed out, "Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... [a]nd we wanted people to watch it." So what does that mean? American audiences can't handle historical accuracy like the British can? Does that also explain the occasional need for the marketing staff to write the king's name as "Henry 8" because Americans can't understand Roman numerals? Please. Give us more credit than that.

If it seems like I'm being overly harsh about the show, it's only because I love it. I know that seems pardoxical, but it's true. I hate the fact that so many liberties were taken with characters and historical events, in particular because this time period of British history is so critical and deserves an accurate retelling. On the other hand, it's a total guilty pleasure of mine to sit down and watch this show. If I perceive it as a soap opera in historical dress, then I can't get enough of it. It has the makings of everything you'd ever want in a trashy soap opera. The writing is strong (most of the time), the costumes are gorgeous, and the settings are fabulous. Even more important, everyone young is sexy: the women are beautiful and the men are hot (Rhys Meyers may be the king, but it's Henry Cavill as his best friend Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who makes me pause and replay in slow-motion every time he appears on the screen!). There are sexual romps, musical feasts, battle scenes, not to mention execution after execution, involving quite a few of the major figures too. Is it all over the top at times? Totally. But isn't that how a soap opera is supposed to be? Still, I should mention that two actors stand out for their superb performances: Sam Neill as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Season 1) and Jeremy Northam as Sir Thomas More (Season 1 and some of Season 2). Both of them should be noted out for their excellent performances. And I can say that Episode 7 from the first season, when the "sweating sickness" affects them, is one of the most disturbing episodes to me. It makes you realize how in that age death literally waited for you around any corner. Think about this: by the age of 25, nearly 1 out of every 3 people you had known already in your life probably would have died already, assuming you even had made it to 25 years of age. It makes you realize how far we have advanced in medical treatments.

So I admit it, I'm addicted to The Tudors. Season 3 starts in a few weeks on Showtime which, alas, I do not subscribe to. But I will be patient and await its arrival on DVD hopefully by later in the year. The new season is supposed to recount Henry's marriages to wives 3, 4, and 5. Does that mean we'll have another season for the last wife? I guess we'll have to see. Personally, I think they should keep it going, let Henry die as eventually will happen, and then continue the series with his children. After all, it's about the Tudor family, not just Henry, isn't it? I wonder if Michael Hirst is listening...