21 Mar 2015

Spring Eulogy - Illustrated by My Mum

As a visual tribute to Spring - my favourite season of the year - I had planned a photographic article that would collate together a few items from my vast photographic collection of wildflowers taken over the last five years in Corsica. But when yesterday I rediscovered my mum's illustration portfolio as the 15-year-old budding artist she was then, I knew straight away which visuals I would rather use for my post!

I scanned my mum's illustrations and selected those two as a representation of Spring renaissance and insouciance. Mum and I had despaired lately that her portfolio might have ended up scrapped inadvertently by the builders when they cleared boxes out of my grandma's house prior to tackling structural work... But delightfully the precious drawings resurfaced just as I had given up on them!

Mum used watercolour, pencil and ink for her illustrations, and de-facto Canson paper, from the eponymous renowned French artist paper institution that has been in existence since 1557! I too was a Canson convert from the moment I started mainstream education and then art school classes every Wednesday.

My mum was a bit of an artist. As a teenager, she wanted to become a 'script girl' (script supervisor) for motion films, while caressing secret dreams of movie stardom. She sat in photobooths, moody and pouty and downright funny, and under auspicious climes her photogenic features would have caught the eye of a film-maker or casting director. She once attended a casting call, oblivious to the fact that it was scheduled on April Fool's Day, need we say more... I hearsay that she had some male friends on the beatnik side of life with guitar to boot, and when that cool dude with the sweeping fringe and duffle coat walked up to my grandma asking her permission to take her teenage daughter to some party, grandma went 'Huuuh?' followed by a vociferous 'No way!'.

Shortly afterwards, my mum met my dad. Although he was no sultry Kerouac type, he played guitar and harmonica pretty well and his repertoire span Django Reinhardt to Bob Dylan, via Charlie Parker, Little Richard and 'Saint Louis Blues'. Although she never became a 'career' artist, my mum has sought to incorporate creative elements into her life, despite not being overtly lauded or encouraged. I am sure she still has those script girl dreams at night.

14 Mar 2015

Inspire Aspire - As Time is of the Essence

No matter how much of a contraption or contraction time is to anyone who has developed a wide array of passions and interests, who cultivates observation skills and childlike curiosity, who is on an expansive inner-journey of spiritual and intellectual growth, the constraints imposed by our own mortality fuel us with the desire and urgency to cram in an extra experience, a new place to visit, another ponder and wonder.

To accommodate a spot of travel into the constraints imposed by timescales of our own device, and those imposed by work and social obligations. To contract space and time into a balancing act of a mutually-beneficial arrangement. Time-saving gadgets have come into their own to simplify modern life, yet with a curse attached. They keep life connected to the time-wasting curse of the social media vortex and those other internet distractions and temptations, thus turning time-saving procedures into time wasters to the soft-willed, easily-distracted and the unfocused - and even the more disciplined of us may lapse at times. Here's five pointers to keep in mind in order to stay on track:
  1. Keep internet interactions to a minimum (i.e. no idle browse and/ or aimless chats). Time your time online if need be.
  2. As a result of (1), streamline your online activities, including your blog reading list. Make sure to keep Lifestyle with Attitude on your radar!
  3. Get a good clock, of the conspicuous kind (see below) and hang it where it will catch your eye, so as to keep track of time and make it resourceful.
  4. Downgrade (Upgrade!) most of your online activities to offline, and rediscover the paper, design and lay-out experience of 'physical' books all over again! Put the keyboard aside and put pen to paper.
  5. Make sure your booklist (4) will include books that help you make the best use of your time (see below)!

Source: (1) Concentric Flora Green Scalloped Porcelain Plate Clock by Angus & Celeste. (2) Teaser to (3) '36 Hours Latin America & The Caribbean', part of the 36 Hours collection by The New York Times, edited by Barbara Ireland and published by Taschen. (4) Citix60 Berlin, 60 Local Creatives Bring You the Best of the City, published by Viction:ary, and available to purchase directly from the publisher, or from selected retail outlets like Anthropologie.

7 Mar 2015

Napoléon the Great Fascinator

On 1st March 1815, having sailed back to the southern coast of France from his exile on the Italian island of Elba, Napoléon set foot on the beach of Golfe-Juan. He took to the road heading north, with an army of loyals and associates, and made a triumphant return to Paris. To reconquer a nation that was being divided by the drawn-out Napoleonic campaigns and the power struggles between empire, aristocracy and bourgeoisie was a wild card for the emperor. He had 100 days to prove himself, until the fated Waterloo defeat against England (18th June 1815), resulting in his capitulation and forced exile to the British island of Saint-Helena, the ultimate insult to a man who had been the world over feared, envied and lauded in equal measures.

French lawyer Frank Samson plays Napoléon (Corse-Matin, 02/03/2015)
As controversial as admiration may be regarding warriors, Napoléon remains the greatest man borne out of France. He was born in 1769 in Corsica, one year after the island became French, making his arrival a timely - almost tactical, one might think - affair in favour of France, for should he have been borne one year earlier, his genius would have served Italy instead! He was 20 years old when the French Revolution broke out, then again a timely occurence for any ambitious, educated, self-disciplined young man working on an ideal.

Napoléon was a genius in many intersected ways: a gifted visionary, thinker, strategist, tactician, modernist, social reformer and re-organiser, high-calibre administrator and educator. He was a pacificator of France and a staunch patriot. He also happened to be a European, way before the EU, and acted as an Illuminati inspiration for New World nations! He left a legacy that is still relevant today: Code Civil (French Civil Law), Code Napoléon, Conseil d'Etat, Code du Commerce (Trade Law), Cour des Comptes (Finance Court), Pension system for army veterans, Légion d'Honneur (merit award distinction medal), Metric System (a rationalised measurement system), Baccalauréat (academic qualification leading to University studies), to name but a few of his achievements in Civil Life, not to mention that he was surrounded by a winning team of skilled supporters, including the discoverer and the decipherer of the Rosetta stone that brought quantum leaps into Egyptology. Moreover his reign delivered a sober and classic style in architecture, furniture design and fashion, that makes it incredibly fresh and contemporary. He also championed civil engineering programmes, Université Impériale and Concordat.

Napoléon Auction Sales Catalogue by Osenat (16/11/2014)

Meanwhile his military tactics are still applied today and studied in high places like the US Military Academy at West Point.Undeniably, to depict such an emblematic character of encyclopedic proportions in a blogpost will not do him the justice he deserves and I can only apologise to the Napoléon purists out there.

Napoléon's archenemies Nelson and Wellington respected him and praised his tactical approach. Whenever I have discussed Napoléon with Brits, their immediate description of him has been 'dictator' (their obligatory label) before lowering their voice to express their personal admiration for the man. What I find ironically admirable is that when you visit the Waterloo battle site, Napoléon is treated as the victor rather than the vanquished.

What fascinates me though is that beyond the grave, Napoléon has enjoyed enduring popularity. He is the historical character who has inspired the highest number of documentaries, fiction films, biographies and studies the whole world! No matter how little educated or historically-inclined Joe Bloggs is, they will have heard of him.

(Wounded Eagle Flag Post, 1804, auctioned by Osenat, image via Nouvel Observateur, 16/11/2014)

Auction sales involving Napoléon and consorts are extremely sought after and prices reach astronomical heights! Last November, the prestigious collection of Napoléon artefacts put up for sale by Prince Albert of Monaco through Osenat delivered results beyond every expectation! As the most striking example, Napoléon's famous hat, the 'Bicorne' model fetched 1.5 million Euros! We find out from the detailed description by Osenat that from 1800 to 1815, Napoléon wore a total of 120 Bicorne hats. He constantly had 12 of those hats on the go, each of those made to last 3 years, and 4 replaced yearly.

Entombed in granite and marble, Napoléon still reigns. He leads armies of worldwide supporters and troops of re-enacters who don the costumes and get muddy down the battlefields, or tactically advance scores of lead soldiers across maps, while consulting their reference books. He is a commonality as an inspiration, a fascination, an adulation even, and certainly a leveller that transcends nationality, age group, class and every affiliation under the sun. My better half, who is American, is a Napoléon expert and admirer, and his admiration can only make me prouder to be French.

P.S: The Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated on 18th June 2015 on a grand scale, with no less than 5,000 re-enacters, 300 horses, and 100 canons. Find out more here.

1 Mar 2015

Of the Sack of Assyria and its Insult on Humanity

Since Saddam Hussein's demise, Assyria and Mesopotamia, the very cradle of civilisation (better known nowadays as Irak), have been nothing but crippled by war and death, pillaged away, looted, blown apart, crushed to cinders, and their populations, including the Christian minority, tortured and decimated. The latest instalment in Irak's ongoing tragedy is the ransacking of the Mosul Central Library and the Mosul Museum by the crazed-up ISIS iconoclast cohorts.

For classic Art appreciators like myself, the realisation of this pillage is unbearable! Historians, archaeologists, antiquities department directors, librarians, academics, intellectuals and UNESCO are up in arms too!

The Assyrian and other pre-Muslim artefacts and statues got smashed up on cue for the cameras, and 8 to 10,000 rare books and manuscripts were subjected to auto-da-fé. In other words, this wave of destruction was an orchestrated cultural ethnic cleansing with a brutal message of irreverence and intent eradication of civilisation, past, present and future. The defacing and beheading of statues is an echo to the beheading of hostages by ISIS. The LA Times (28/02/2015) adds that "the vandalism's cultural insult strikes deep. The Iraqi people, [Altaweel said,] "are taking the destruction of their cultural heritage - their identity, essentially - just as seriously as the beheadings."

According to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, the large-scale destruction of books by ISIS across Iraq's cultural centres - already harked as the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history - "adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

In this article, I will attempt to demonstrate why and how Art is besieged from the moment it takes form. And also how Art transcends its geographical and cultural origins to become part of humanity's spiritual, artistic and immaterial wealth. Therefore the destruction of ancient Art forms, wherever in the world, should concern us all.

Human-Headed Winged Lion (Lamassu), 883–859 B.C., Neo–Assyrian period, reign of Ashurnasirpal II,
excavated at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Mesopotamia. Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ancient Art promulgates spiritual elevation and educates humanity as a whole. It anchors modern civilisation to its past, roots it for a strong and resilient growth. It confers it direction and a reference point, a meaning, a sense of stability, belonging and progression. It summons respect and other values and symbolises immortality, the transcendence of the past into the present towards the future on a timeline of cultural continuity, evolution and expansion. The sack of Assyria is therefore yet another example of an assault against humanity as a collective.

Man's creation, borne out of a dream, a vision, a hope, a wishful thought, or a representation of reality, is sublimated and enchanted to heights godly of his own making. Art's portrayed sublimation of man and self as a tool, a vehicle, engenders reverence, awe, peace, admiration, adoration even. Yet creation is pitted against man's ability for destruction. Man is creation's best friend and foe. The way I picture this complex yet simple relationship is as a triangle between the Creator (the artist as an artist - or as an envoy of God to earth as luminaries tend to be perceived as), the Creation (the actual objet d'art) and the Creature (the recipient, the public).

Creation is no mere work of art. It is a currency, a pawn, a covet, a symbol, a collateral. The immortality it exudes is at the mercy of its shortcoming of imminent destitution and/ or destruction. In times of economic and political stability, Art prospers. Otherwise it is endangered, looted, smuggled, traded as booty wares, or destroyed. The LA Times (28/02) sums it up nicely: "It [Stone] is meant to express aspirations toward permanence, sometimes vainglorious and sometimes noble. Obliterating a revered stone edifice says - in no uncertain terms - that radical change has arrived."

Human-Headed Winged Bull (Shedu), bas-relief, c.713-716 B.C. Via Wikipedia

Let us make an aside for Irak's current situation and rewind 13 years. The Anglo-American interference in Saddam Hussein's governance opened a Pandora's box of oil-fuelled malevolence. It was a prophecy of doom realised, bringing to its knees a modern and progressive nation, and return it to the Dark Ages, with the complicity of religious fanaticism. The culture of chaos is used as a smoke-screen while the country's resources are being redistributed, because it just so happens that world domination is no piped dream, it is an intention that has been pushed through from the moment that man realised that his tribe, his settlement, his kingdom, was not sole and only.

Meanwhile, in a peculiar timely twist with the Mosul tragedy, The Iraq Museum of Baghdad reopened its doors to the public yesterday (28th February) after undergoing extensive rehabilitation under the patronage of UNESCO, following lootings in 2003. The museum brings together a collection of antiquities that testify the rich cultural heritage of this particular region of the world, in terms of Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic cultures.

Our role as a collective is to safeguard our cultural legacy. Yet how can we achieve this unless we treat civilisation with reverence? The way culture is treated is a reflection of a malaise on a grander scale. Meanwhile, aside from witnessing cultural artefacts falling foul to world events, I witness in my daily endeavours fragments of culture from my immediate vicinity falling prey to greed, being wiped off the map under a slab of concrete, just ceasing to be. More often though, I witness fragments of culture chipping away, turning to rubble - not purely as a result of time's wear and tear, but as a helping hand from land developers, unscrupulous antiques dealers, opportunists - with the complicity of general apathy and the selective blind eye syndrome. This happens 'unnoticed', incrementally, insidiously, perniciously, cancerously, like a Chinese torture form... turned to an art form.

The Tigris River, seen from Mosul (1932). AP Photo/ American Colony Photo Dept. via Library of Congress.

Our dumbed-down society models dis-educate our white- and blue-collars on classic art forms, while rampant short-attention deficit disorder has become an excuse, yet suited to our lifestyle on the go. Meanwhile religious extremism goes rampant on the lost and the meek, empowering them with guns as their mode of expression. Intellect is shunned by the media and derided as elitist by politicians. Our consumerist model emphasises fast fashion, fast food, cheap wares, Mickey Mouse degrees and jobs, and worldwide uniformisation of style and taste under the umbrella of a handful of global FMCGs. All of those combined factors are challenging the appreciation and survival of Ancient and Classic Art at large. It is therefore the duty for individuals like myself to warn against such dumbing-down.