Monday, April 25, 2011

Tattered tulips...

The ornamental park has finally opened again after the long winter/early spring period so I decided to go and admire, amongst other things, the tulips.

However I soon realized that I was a little late, since most of these were fully blown, tattered and twisted but I thought that their weird forms and tainted colours gave them a second beauty after the first exuberance that I had missed. So perhaps beauty isn't that transcient after all!

The tulip, national emblem of Holland, was used in the 17th century Dutch still life paintings (stilleven) as one of the symbols of ephemeral beauty and pleasure, and the transcience of man's time on Earth.

As artists could no longer use religious images in their work following their ban by the Dutch Reformist Protestant church they turned to indirect religious and allegorical symbolism.

There was already an established tendancy towards realism and the use of symbols, so this could also be seen as a further development of this tradition. Reflection on morality and mortality was central in much art, especially in a country benefitting from a great influx of wealth brought by the trade routes, yet still ravaged by devastating outbreaks of the Bubonic plague.

Indeed, the Netherlands witnessed a great increase in the number of wealthy merchants and a growing bourgeois element in the population, all aspiring to develop and, more importantly, demonstrate this wealth and new social status. It could even be said that the Dutch were the first members of the consumer society. Such middle-class patrons soon replaced the church and state in commissioning works of art that would serve to leave their trace on the world around them "Ars long, vita brevis" (Art lasts long, life is brief).

The Vanitas were an essential part of this aesthetic trend. Vanitas - meaning emptiness in latin - referred to the futility and transcience of life and the vanity of man's attempt to escape this. Memento mori - reminders of mortality and death abound in such paintings, hence the recurrent skulls, hourglasses and watches to measure time, burnt-down candles, bubbles ready to burst, full-blown, fading flowers and rotting fruit. These symbols underlined the brevity of existence and man's need for morality in order to face the Last Judgement.
 Representations of nature were common and reflected an ever-growing interest for the discoveries made in the New World and Asia, wherein the collection and classification of botanical specimens played a significant role. It was the tulip itself that played an even more vital role in the history of the Netherlands and directly symbolized all the themes of the vanitas, and above all the weakness of man.

Although not actually native to the Low Countries, the tulip was introduced there from Turkey where it was cultivated in the sultans' palaces, having initially been a wildflower in Persia. Legend has it that a young Persian man, Ferhad, died from his unrequited love for the beautiful Shirin, and as his tears fell and hit the ground they transformed into the flower.

The Ottoman tulip, known as a lily to the Turks, was later called the tulipan, owing this name to tulbend, meaning 'turban' as it was considered to be shaped like the head dress.
Oriental turban!
 These first tulips had rather pointed petals, whereas the European varieties would bear rounded forms, the perfect outline said to be upright, with the flower head shaped like a wine goblet.

It was the great variation in shape, colour uniformity, patterns and petal formation and the unbridled desire to seek ever-greater originality that was to drive individuals to the height of folly and the country, as a whole, to financial ruin.

 The Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius brought back the first specimens to the Netherlands and went on to classify and cultivate new types of tulip. As a rarety, it was a much-coveted status symbol in the 1570's but cheaper varieties enabled the middle classes to start collecting and  thus tulip mania was born.
Due to a disease transmitted by aphids, a tulip bulb would develop streaks and alterations in colour, leading to highly unusual flowers. Buyers and sellers entered into a flambuoyant game of speculation, gambling fortunes in  the hope of obtaining a single bulb that would 'break' (develop a break, or change in its colouration) in a unique manner.
  Markets developed as bulbs were fought over at auction so that paper fortunes would be made or lost in a dangerous game that seemed to draw everybody in. No one was immune to tulip fever...
 The Semper Augustus tulip was the most expensive - one single bulb was worth as much as a large house with garden. Naturally, as demand was higher than offer, there were fewer bulbs than could be traded so future contracts were sold for bulbs still being cultivated. Prices rose frenetically, as increasing numbers of Dutch people invested, but the bubble finally burst when a sudden glut in bulb supplies caused values to plummet. In the space of two days, the prices fell to only 10°/° of their former worth. Thousands of people went bankrupt overnight in 1637, with Haarlem being particularly affected since it was at the centre of the flower trade. Finally the government intervened and imposed laws to control the cultivation and sale of the tulip...
Dusty, feathery flowers;
 There are hundreds of hybridized tulips today, but my favourite variety has got to be the Parrot tulip, with its tortured, gnarled petals and beautiful colours. Although I was too late for photos this year, I ought to buy a few bulbs for next year.
Trimmed with a frilly border.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Buds, bugs and beasts...

Fern from the garden.
Spring has come and gone, it seems, at an astonishing speed. We have flown from the stage of the early budding forms of plants, bushes and trees and hesistant sunny spells to full-blown summer in a very short, accelerated space of time, or so it appeared today (and 27° forecast for tomorrow!). As they unfurl, burst open their chrysalis-like forms and spread out to reveal the real nature of their contents, many buds assume such strange shapes. It is hardly surprising that they have inspired so many artists...
Ferns by the garden pond.

Ferns seem to unravel, like weird bobbins covered in a furry or wet-feathered down, yet do not give any real indication to the future shape of their fronds.

Their forms stand up so straight, yet with a distinctive curve as the coiled head bows into itself, looking like some prehistoric creature stooping forward, ready to strike some unsuspecting prey.
Like curled seahorse tails...
The Victorians were great enthusiasts of the pteriphytum family and were led by the craze of 'fern fever', pteridomania, from the late 1830's onwards. Fern images were widely reproduced, appearing on all manner of decorative household items, and were used to embellish many of the keepsakes from gatherings such as Christenings. This enthusiasm led to the introduction of the Wardian case, a version of the terrarium, in which ferns could be kept, preserved  from the harsh polluted city air yet enabling all to admire the exotic forms that the fern could offer. Indeed, fern fever was not just the preserve of botanists but of any self-respecting cultured individual and it is perhaps not surprising that this craze led onto the burgeoning interest in orchids.

Wisteria outside the kitchen door.

The Wisteria buds sprang out, the flowers always more abundant than the leaves in the first stage, yet the tiny fronds are waiting to burst out, like feathery fans around the papery cocoon of the future blooms. The flowers are now fully open, draping themselves over the trellis and hanging down with their weight, and perfuming everything with the honey scent.

Here the vines are starting to bud, although the ones in the photo below are not representive of any viticulture since they are never cut back as they would be in a true vineyard. These vines, just outside the school, are simply for ornamental purposes, showing their development over the weeks as the rosy-pink buds break out from the dried, furling tendrils that look like snaking barbed wire!
Vines near work...

Not far from the wild-running vines are decorative beeches that are, on the contrary, kept closely clipped behind mesh fencing but the little pleated leaves with their silvery down still catch your attention because of the bright green.
Beeches behind the fencing.

The sticky buds of the Horse Chestnut tree are perhaps the weirdest of all with their determined drive...
Horse chestnut.
And of course with the buds come the bugs - and in the park we came across these strange creatures les gendarmes that congregate in impressive numbers the minute the spring comes... in order to frolic. Such frolicking usually presents itself in tandem formation - end to end - and can last up to 30 hours! I don't ever remember seeing these busy creatures in the UK where they are better known as 'Firebugs'.
Firebugs - Les Gendarmes.
The bumblebees have returned and this one made its way into the house to the great surprise of the cat, who had not yet seen such a beast. Deposited outside again, safe from a curious kitten, it seemed to enjoy crawling around the plants, within the vision of a very frustrated cat, watching from behind the window!

The cat also discovered this horned beetle in the garden...
A beetle crawling down a blade...

However, the strangest beast that we have encountered this spring was most certainly the gigantic spider that awoke from its dormant position, having been hunched on the flank of Reims cathedral waiting for its moment to come.

Last Saturday, its moment truly came, and with hordes of people gathered to watch the event, the spider made its way down from its lair and started to wander around the streets, flexing its huge legs from a body of over 15 metres in width, 13 metres in height. The visual effect was very eery since it was so lifelike, spidery and stealthy, and the accompanying noise of music and the hiss of fire and water made our skin creep.
A dormant spider preparing for action...
Kumo, this Meccano arachnid of enormous proportions, is one of the mécaniques savantes - the performing mechanical devices created by a French company in Nantes which has the aim of creating 'sculpture in motion'.
The spider in front of the library - reflecting the cathedral.
The spider is here in Reims until the beginning of May in order to commemorate the 800 years of the cathedral, and on Saturday it marked the official opening of the tramway system in the city. Although new to Reims, similar beasts have already set the tone for official events in Liverpool, as European capital of Culture in 2008, and in Yokohama in Japan.
Kumo - Parvis de la cathédrale.
Operated by several people sitting on top of the body, and then many more below, the creature nevertheless looked so 'natural' that many children were simply terrified, and the adults' turn to feel a certain apprehension came in the evening! By nightfall, the spider had made its way to the Place de la République where it took a central position, surrounded by hundreds of unsuspecting people, about to get caught in the hypnotic web of the firework show. Despite the mounting music, which was like a pulsating, threatening throb, the beast slept, and only started to stir when the huge flames and roaring drum beat became overpowering. The atmosphere was like something from the War of the Worlds, with a tension that grew and grew. The fireworks then exploded into action and Kumo came to life, thrashing enormous legs, black silhouettes against the backcloth of night sky, explosions and fire. The fireworks were like an air raid blitz that lit up the whole place, the noise was deafening, all of which reached a culmination point that ended in abrupt silence and blackout. Talk about dramatic! Most people were left rather shell-shocked from the experience...
Here's a link to see the event... If you can't watch the whole clip, just follow the opening sequence and then the final minute - it makes my skin prickle just watching it again.

I thought Kumo had met a symbolic end, but she was to rise from the flames like a phoenix for the next day....

On the subject of creatures arising, the twisted, burgeoning forms of the Paris metro entrances, designed by Hector Guimard, at the end of the 19th century always remind me of the triffids from John Wyndham's 1951 novel (The Day of the Triffids)...You get the feeling that these will suddenly come to life as you descend into the depths of the Paris underground system!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

L'Orient des Femmes - flowering in a Parisian exhibition signed Christian Lacroix.

Ramallah, Gaza, Hama, Mossoul, Naplouse, Hebrun, Bethlehem, Neguev; all these beautiful-sounding names from the Middle-East pour off the tongue, but often stick in our minds here as being zones of turmoil and upheaval,  often cited heatedly and hastily as part of a news flash. With this contrast in mind, I recently visited the  Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, where all the above were linked by a common thread of delicate beauty and a sense of timelessness; that of the traditional women's embroidered outfits.

The Orient des Femmes exhibition is designed as "a hymn to women, a hommage to those who throughout the centuries have tried to create vestimentary means by which to embellish themselves and to prove their existence in societies that had long marginalized them.....through the gestures, tastes and talents they have given to each garment, thus giving a part of themselves in composing each work as a work of art" as said the commissioner Hana Chidiac.

Dresses, head-dresses, veils, coats, caftans, cushions, jackets, jewellery and serouals are revealed to us in their intimity; all the items, in short, that composed the traditional, timeless marriage trousseau in a continuity of custom and skill that was passed on from mother to daughter throughout the ages.

The exhibition leads us from the northern part of the region to the Sinaï dessert in the south as Syrian, Jordinian, Palestinian and Bedouin costumes are displayed, like strange winged creatures in a dance-like procession, or an ethereal, floating catwork - Christian Lacroix being the conjuror behind this magical display. Just as the terrain covered is vast, so too is the time span as the exhibition opens with a little girl's dress from the 13th century, found in a valley in Northern Lebanon, and ends with the dresses from a relatively modern-day Palestine.

Nevertheless the same basic shape of dress is to be found tracing over the centuries, despite the diversity of material used, the colours selected and the embroidery applied to the whole. In this manner the child's dress leads us on the journey to the final stages in each girl's rite of passage, the preparation to become a woman, finally marked and flagged with the wedding dresses that close the display.
 Indeed, all these dresses, with their distinctive outline float beyond us like flags, leading us on, signaling the geographical background of the wearer with their unique designs and motives; tied and grounded by ancestral practices yet offering a symbolic esthetic freedom in this journey from past to present, present to past. A geographer of the early 20th century, Jacques Weulersse, remarked during a visit that travellers "had expected to see clothes of poor peasants and instead discovered the costume dresses of opera dancers" (Paysans de Syrie et du Proche-Orient; Paris Gallimard 1946).

Each outfit would bear the characteristic features of its particular region, village or tribe of origin, thus acting as geographical and social indicators that could be 'read', as Christian Lacroix mentions "Ce qui dissimulent ces femmes les racontent bien mieux que n'importe quelle mode occidentale". Indeed, these "robes écrites" covered and cloaked their wearers yet uncovered, revealed so much more through their conception and the intricate personalised ornamentation of their needlecraft.

As a cultural, economic and political crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa, the Middle East developed a wealth of artistic civilisations and, as a consequence, a mastery of cloth production and  the creation of exquisitely ornate clothing. Embroidered cloth can be traced back to the Egypt of Tutankhamun and this art form later extended under the Fatimides (960-1171) when linen material would be run through with multicoloured silk thread and gold to provide embelishment. Under the Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) production of such cloth increased to meet the demand for ornate gowns to be worn by the sovereigns and dignitaries during ceremonies.

Caligraphic detail was gradually replaced by animal and plant forms, eternal elements such as the sun, the moon and the stars and geometric forms - largely featuring lozange shapes to ward off evil forces.

In a similar manner, each piece would bear a basic flaw in its decoration in order to respect the principle whereby only Allah is perfect, humans being incapable of aspiring to or attaining such perfection.

In terms of materials used these evolved over the centuries, in turn influencing and inspiring designs and styles. Silk production - sericulture - developed around the Mediterranean basin, in Turkey, Syria, and the Lebanon, and following the Arab conquests of the Iberian peninsula, in Spain and Portugal too.
 Linen and cotton were commonly used, of course, followed by gauze, the light material that was developed in Gaza, and also mousseline, created in Mossoul. Likewise colours were introduced, following and elaborating ancient dyeing techniques so that the resulting hues influenced surrounding regions, spreading out like ink. In the north and eastern regions clothes were sewn from dark-coloured material - midnight blue and black - whilst in other areas ochre tones would be favoured.
Women from Damascus.
Certain Bedouins, who dressed in sombre black or blue tunics were later inspired by their Palestinian neighbours and would brighten their clothing with vivid embroidery of contrasting colours. Indeed, during the golden age of needlecraft the towns of Bethlehem and Beit Dajan were stylistic centres comparable to Paris in terms of couture....

Much of the choice of colour would naturally be based on the availability of the essential dyes. Indigo, perhaps being the oldest dye dating back to ancient Egypt, was introduced by the Arabs to what became the Muslim Mediterranean and was said to have the attribute of offering protection from the Evil eye. Garance, a hardy plant from Persia was cultivated in the eastern regions of the Mediterranean and its root provided a blue colour, whilst walnut would be used to yield a dark brown dye, and safron would produce the characteristic yellow colour. The colour of predilection for many, however, remained red since it symbolized fertility and protection, and assured future wealth.

This was derived from the ground bodies of the Kermes scale insect, but would later be commonly replaced by the Cochineal beetle. To decorate garments to an even greater degree ancient dyeing techniques would be employed - varying from the tie-and-dye methods, inserting a date pit or lentil to form a corollary effect of colour blossoming out, to wax-and-knotting.

The stitching itself reflects the influences experienced and these organic changes can be seen in the clothes that have taken inspiration from the Ottoman army. Gold brocade seen on army uniforms has been transcribed onto a feminine garment, using striking point de Boulogne stitching to highlight the gold thread incorporated into its decoration.

Although the T-form of the dresses, formed from one piece of material, was maintained through the generations of women, this could be modified. The addition of extra panels of fabric in order to widen the sleeves, or extend their points led to wing-like proportions ending in tassels that further enhance the effect. Such sleeves would be tied behind the dress during daily domestic tasks and then let loose for dancing in festivals. Simply by length, a garment could assume another character as is demonstrated by a dress of seemingly elephantine proportions which at over 3 metres long required a complicated routine (maybe a little like that needed for preparing a sari) in order to position the excess material to form an ample veil and pouches to transport objects.

As garments fell victim to wear and tear all the richly decorative stitchwork would be removed and sewn onto new clothes, thus recycling the art work and perpetuating the tradition of ornate sewing as an integral part of vestimentary customs.

Such clothes would generally be completed and set off by a head-dress and veil which would enhance the esthetic effect. These would be decorated with coins, chains, shells and beadwork and offered a certain protection from the sun, sand and wind but above all seemed to emphasize the beauty of the wearer in her entirety.

Pierre Loti, one of the many 19th century French enthousiasts of all things Oriental mentioned this ornamentation of faces hidden under "streams of coral and silver".
Initially these veils and head-dresses provided a means to distinguish between different classes and appartenance to specific clans, and were less associated with a religious function of imposing modesty and concealment, and were thus far removed from our notion of the burqa today.

 Young girls generally did not wear such items, whereas married women wore these tribal burqas - head-dresses that displayed all their dowry to such devastating effect.

 The poet Alphonse de Lamartine remarked on this in his Voyage en Orient, 1832, when he spoke of women with coins plaited in their hair "ressonnant à chaque pas qu'elles faisaient comme les écailles d'un serpent".

For Bedouin women of Syria and Berbers khol around the eyes would further intensify the gaze, whilst facial tatoos or henna would extend the eyebrows and complete this impression of depth.
Berber woman.

 Sadly the tradition of these dresses that reflect a collective voice made up of thousands of individual stories has largely faded out.
Eugène Fromentin

Gustave Moreau.
The contact with the Western world, so sought after by countless European 19th century Orientalists, enriched the latter, inspiring numerous artists and writers.This contact was to have a largely negative effect on the vestimentary styles of the Middle East.

The influence of the myriad of Western fashions altered the ancestral ones of the Orient, and the end of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War further accelerated this process.

 The advent of sewing machines changed customs, industrially- manufactured thread and synthetic materials altered techniques whilst dramatic social upheavals wreaked havoc on the rites and rituals of fragmenting social groups. Before 1948 Palestine had a rural population on coastal plains, by 1967 many Palestinian women were obliged to sell their costumes and jewellery merely to survive the displacement after the war of Six Days. Towards the end of the exhibition we see several more recent dresses created thanks to an endeavour by humanitarian associations to give life back to the ancient traditions and provide a welcome source of revenue.

Poster from a Pierre Loti exhibition.
However, perhaps the disappearance of ancestral needlework practices is, in some ways at least, similar to that we see here in Western countries.....Cheap, ready-to-wear clothing, free of adornment, along with modern textiles unsuited to traditional designs and motives, coincide with a desire to turn to 'easier', modern styles and  newer means of self-expression.

Here in our western culture this trend has, in part, led to the ubiquitous jeans-and-teeshirt uniform that has stamped and swamped generations since their rise in the 50's, and there, a certain loss of a precious, intimate art form.
Bedouin 1937 Sinai.