Great Landscapes: Bruegel, again

Pieter_Bruegel_(I)_-_The_Return_of_the_Herd_(1565)
Pieter Bruegel the elder, The Return of the Herd, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1565

To be honest, Bruegel turned out great landscape after great landscape. Coming as he did, from the Low Countries, one suspects that if he hadn’t made a long and arduous trip to Italy and back, over Alpine passes, from 1551 to 1555, then it might be that we’d still have lots of quirky peasants and scary devils, but zilch in the way of towering crags, dark forests and Alpine meadows. It would have been our loss.

john_everett_millais_3_autumn_leaves
Millais – Autumn Leaves, 1856. Manchester City Art Gallery

So I’m recommending this one for a topical reason: it’s November and it’s deep into autumn. Try as we might in our modern times, unless we have free global travel and lots of time off, we can’t  escape the seasons, for good or bad. Someone could write a modern day Georgics on this. The increasing use of strange devices like SAD lamps tells us that despite Christmas good cheer and all that, going into winter is still tough.

As an aside, on November days like today, with clear skies, skeletal beauty in the garden, and rich twilight, then a painting like Millais’ 1856 classic, Autumn Leaves actually makes the whole thing appealing.

pb4
…live from the Bruegel gallery!

Back to the master though. If you visit Vienna’s amazing Kunsthistorisches Museum, you can enter the Bruegel room and see some of the seasonal paintings (also Prague and New York). Everyone has seen Hunters in the Snow, and the summer ones are charming and fun, but it’s February (The Dark Day) and November (The Return of the Herd), that to me are the most evocative and genuinely powerful. Man toiling against a harsh nature, outwith the relatively settled calm of the snowbound landscape of the depths of winter.

By a strange coincidence, today’s Daily Mail, of all publications, had a fascinating piece on how the shepherds in a remote and very inaccessible part of Georgia, Tusheti, bring their sheep down from the high pastures (10,000 ft!) for the winter, via the thoroughly hair raising Abano Pass.  Which is exactly what Bruegel’s peasants are doing with their cattle in this landscape, and the main reason why the painting has been identified with November. It’s incredible to realise that large swathes of rural Europe are essentially the same, culturally and economically, as they were 400 years ago.

Devils_03
…from Ken Russell’s The Devils

Looking at the painting, as a study of structure it’s endlessly rewarding, with cunning obliques, horizontals, verticals and blocks of muted colours. As a Bruegel geek though, I have to say it’s in the specifics that I get the most pleasure. Looking at the two details below, there’s a classic barely visible Bruegel village with its identikit church, and buildings so dirty and muddy that they blend into the surroundings. The other shows a couple of late season boats on the river as it expands into the freezing estuary, with in the foreground an absolutely echt Bruegel motif – the gallows and the executed, rotting on the wheels high above the ground.

A stunning painting.

pb1

pb3

There’s even a song to go with it – Tom Waits, always reliable

 

 

Advertisements

A Brief History of Social Media – it’s not good

Life changes, technology advances and only curmudgeonly old farts should object, right? We always have the eternal verities to fall back on, religious belief still provides succour, we’ve never been healthier or more prosperous here in the developed world, etc etc

But…

There are a lot of unhappy people out there. This post is not to condemn all social media, far from it, but a little history is very telling. Over to Jonathan Haidt, quoted extensively in the admirable Spiked:

‘I don’t know if most college students, even at those elite schools, are more fragile. What we do know is that rates of depression and anxiety [have been] sky-rocketing since around 2011.’

Haidt says these issues are not related to the millennial generation, but to those born after 1995, who grew up with social media as the norm. He calls them the i-gen (the internet generation). This tendency towards vulnerability has a number of causes, he says, but there are three main ones: social media, rising national polarisation, and the decline in unsupervised (adult-free) time during childhood.

‘The widespread introduction of social media on a potentially hourly basis occurs after around 2009 or 2010. The iPhone is introduced in 2007, Facebook opens itself to teenagers in 2006. So it takes a couple of years before most teenagers are on social media, but by 2008, 2009, a lot are… The problem seems mostly to involve social-media sites, where a teenager puts out something and then waits to sees what dozens or hundreds of people say about it. That seems to be the most damaging thing – it leads to more anxiety and insecurity.’

On polarisation, Haidt says that cross-partisan hatred has been increasing in the US since the early 1980s, ‘but it’s much more intense now… There is a much fiercer battle going on, and there is more motive to charge the other side with crimes and to claim victimhood for your side. I think this is part of the “speech is violence” movement. It is part of a rhetorical move to convict the other side of more serious crimes.’

The third major cause has been the ‘general decline in unsupervised time and the rise of adult protection’, says Haidt. In the US in the 1980s, there were two high-profile abductions and murders of two young boys, and parents panicked, he says. ‘Now there never was much of a risk of abduction from strangers… But America freaked out and overreacted and stopped letting kids out of their sight.’ By the 1990s there were pictures of missing children everywhere – ‘as if it was an epidemic, but it never was an epidemic’, he adds. At the same time, there was more of an emphasis on anti-bullying, as well as a decline in unsupervised play. ‘Studies of how kids spend their time show that up until the early 1980s kids spent a lot of time outside playing without adult supervision, but by the early 2000s that has almost disappeared, especially for younger kids’, he says.

Ironically, this over-protection of children may have done more harm than good. ‘The key psychological idea in understanding the rise in fragility is the idea of anti-fragility’, says Haidt. ‘It’s a word coined by Nassim Taleb and it describes systems that are the opposite of fragile. If something is fragile then you need to protect it, because if it breaks then it’s broken and it won’t get better. But there are some things that if you protect them, they won’t get better; the immune system is the classic example. If you protect your kids from germs and bacteria then the immune system can’t develop and your kids will be immunologically fragile… So protection can sometimes be harmful if there is an anti-fragile system at work.’ He continues:

‘Kids need conflict, insult, exclusion – they need to experience these things thousands of times when they’re young in order to develop into psychologically mature adults. Every adult has to learn to handle these things and not get upset, especially by minor instances. But in the name of protecting our children we have deprived them of the unsupervised time they need to learn how to navigate conflict among themselves. That is one of the main reasons why kids and even college students today find words, ideas and social situations more intolerable than those same words, ideas and situations would have been for previous generations of students.’

Haidt is obviously making several points here, but they are related.  The key period of 2007-2010 that he highlights is exactly right. People in their twenties and younger do not really know the previous world and its social structures and norms. The social challenges though have multiplied.

On balance I would say this is a bad thing, and the mental health issues that he identifies are very common indeed.

The irony is that the all powerful Zuckerberg with his $70billion+, and various ludicrous attempts to be normal pending his presidential run, seems to be a long way from being a “psychologically mature adult”.

reading-facebook-an-act-of-isolation-4-638
*

Great landscapes: Jan van der Heyden

I have an enduring soft spot for Dutch art in general, well beyond the big names. The second tier, like Hobbema, Avercamp and so on are not just technically gifted, but also supremely evocative of real life, only several hundred years ago. Taking your time to closely scrutinise their works is like entering a time machine. One could say the same for the Brabantine twins Bosch and Bruegel, except with those supreme masters their admittedly great landscapes are frequently in the context of the wackier end of the imagination. Not always though, as I detail here.

Back in 2010 there was a terrific exhibition at Holyrood Palace, featuring works from the Royal Collection, called Dutch Landscapes. No-one could even approach the scale and quality of the Royal Collection if starting from scratch today, not even Bill Gates. It is an amazing body of work, technically still in private hands. The original cover of the book that went with the exhibition, was a painting by Jan van der Heyden. He was a bit of a polymath, not least because he seems to have invented the fire engine. This painting of the Vliet, near Delft repays your attention. It is a classic of structure, technique and numerous small details – the flying birds, the bridge, the human activities. As with most of these Dutch Golden Age pictures, it seems like a good time and place to be alive, health/social circumstances permitting (see also 1950s USA, Habsburg Spain etc).

Jan-van-der-heyden-a-country-house-on-the-vliet-near-delft
Jan van der Heyden A Country House on the Vliet near Delft, Royal Collection. 1660

As a comparison, which in terms of the aesthetically pleasing rural idyll shows you what has been lost, here’s an up to date view of a scene from the same vicinity:

Stompwijk_-_boerderij_langs_de_Vliet
…it lacks a certain something

…and if you didn’t believe the fire engine thing, here’s JVDH’s sketch of his design. Quite an all rounder...

Jan_van_der_Heyden_-_Comparison_of_the_old_fire_engines_with_Van_der_Heijden's_hose_fire_engine
*

Great Landscapes: Hopper

I guess I’m displaying a degree of ignorance in admitting that I’d always associated Edward Hopper – a real American original – only with  airless city scenes, isolated buildings, lonely people and so on. Like this, in fact:

hopper2
Office in a small city, 1953. Metropolitan Museum, Manhattan

..and it is a work of genius, completely original. Hopper spent a lot of time In Cape Cod though, and he did produce terrific seascapes that are highly evocative of that frankly blessed portion of the planet. So, landscapes of a sort.

However, it was only a random spot on Twitter that alerted me to his other work in New England, and here it is. Lush, verdant magnificence, totally different in feel to his more famous stuff, but quite marvellous.  This was nearly 20 years before the painting above.

hopper-first-branch2
First branch of the White River, Vermont. 1938. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It turns out that there is a book on this period in Hopper’s life, with this watercolour masterpiece on the cover. More weirdly, in a good way, is this blogger’s realisation that he lives in a Hopper painting. The picture above is the view from his driveway.

How cool is that?

Ayrton Senna: The W126 Mercedes SEC ~ men of taste and distinction (a continuing series)

senna1
…terrible number plate

This is the 6th post I’ve done on this topic, slightly to my surprise (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). They always get regular hits, presumably from people googling Mercedes W126/SEC/coupe. I do it myself.

I previously noted that racing drivers liked to drive SEC’s in their civilian lives, and if you’ve seen the remarkable movie documentary Senna, you’ll know that he was in some ways the greatest of them all, a true archetype.

One of my patients knew him from back in his Formula 3 days, and has nothing but praise for him as a driver, naturally, but also as a man.

Well, the excellent Mercedes Enthusiast magazine has done some detective work and unearthed Senna’s original 500SEC, which clearly has had a harder life than some. It’s been somewhat transformed, but this car has real pedigree, something not very common in the used vehicle market.

As before, here are expandable .jpeg files (just click) and a pdf…

AS6

AS7

AS5

…and…

Athens

One feels for the EU-trapped Greeks, who are an exceptionally friendly and helpful people. Athens was always flawed as a city for visitors, one suspects – it’s not like Prague or Paris – but the lack of public money and successful business is certainly showing. Even so, some things are timeless.

AthensJune2017
*

**it’s a big pic, click and press +, if you want detail

Great Landscapes: Turner

From a long but rewarding read by Daniel Johnson in the always interesting Standpoint magazine, considering the theme of Europe v the EU, through the lens of the life of Spanish intellectual  Jose Ortega y Gasset:

Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.

Venice as the antithesis of Brussels is a great concept, and entirely in keeping with the flavour of those cities. Venice is the one you want to revisit, for sure.

Many painters have tackled Venice of course, Brussels not so much (though this, from the greatest Belgian of them all, is stupendous). Turner, the most brilliant of all British artists, did many, many such scenes, and the one I’ve chosen is not a favourite as such, just a good example of  the prolific Turner’s stunning technical and creative facility. And it is indeed a metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky.

turnervenice1
Venice, Seen from the Guidecca Canal. JMW Turner, 1840. Victoria & Albert Museum

Avoiding the End of Days

article-pilot1-0203
How easily we ignore this stuff

Two quotes, one old, one new, from smart experienced people. In fact, the very opposite of the mob of weekend warrior moral relativists currently besieging Twitter and various airports.

First up:

No party or ideological faction has The Solution because The Solution doesn’t exist. Much of the world beyond our shores is a wreck, and the best you can pull off right now is damage control.

Michael J Totten, The Tower, November 2016

Totten has been out there in the Middle East, at the sharp end. So have lots of people I realise, but whilst well travelled, I wouldn’t necessarily include various presidents, prime ministers, secretaries of state etc in that category. The article is terrific.

Second up is an oldie. A very oldie, from Frederick William, The Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, in his fairly famous Political Testament, 19/05/1667. It is very relevant:

“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”

They didn’t have airports or ISIS back then, but the Thirty Years War was about as bad as it gets. We seem to have tried complacency on the domestic front in the last 10 years or so, and I don’t think it’s working out too well.

fw
Frederick William. Tougher than he looks

Collateral damage is just fine?

It would be entirely reasonable to extrapolate from the Twitter and media hysteria of the last 24 hours, that the deaths of numerous civilians in Boston, Florida, California and elsewhere recently, notwithstanding the lineage that stretches back more than 15 years to 9/11, are only so much collateral damage.

That is to say that in some way, they are painful and regrettable, yes, but also acceptable. Acceptable if the alternative is taking some steps – which by necessity will have to be through a process of partially informed trial and error – which may curtail in varying degrees things that people have been taking for granted. In this case that means getting rid of a managed free-for-all in entering the United States, which is what we’ve had until yesterday, by and large.

It’s not an original observation, but everyone remembers and brandishes the names of Anders Breivik (massacre more than 5 years ago) and Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma bombing 22 years ago), yet who can name the Nice lorry mass murderer only 6 months ago? Who is sure about the names of the Berlin lorry attacker, or the murderers of Jacques Hamel? The truth is that as a society – in the US, Europe and the UK- we happily obsess about the evil people ‘like us’ perpetrate, and weirdly almost accept the regular violence of the ‘other’. We have become inured to the reality of Islamic fundamental terrorism – until it hits someone that we know.

As renowned sage Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online put it yesterday:

kdw1

Particularly when there are all the usual clues – migrant background (often the parents), minor criminal record, affinity with violence, dubious web browsing etc etc. Well Trump is ‘doing something’. In fact, he’s doing slightly less than he said he’d do, but no-one could say they weren’t warned. That fact in itself might explain the suspiciously large and well organised mob that descended on JFK in a very short space of time. It’s not that easy to get to in a hurry.

Whether it will help I don’t know. It is after all trial and error , and might take a long time before any benefits – if there are any – will emerge. But to quote @KevinNR again:

kdw2

People have occasionally lost sight of what an elected government’s primary duty is – the safety of its citizens. After that, other people’s citizens, if one can. They usually go together, but not always. Supranational bodies and the whole globalsim thing have blurred this essential definition.

That said, I can sympathise with people who argue their corner in disagreeing with this immigration policy, but I didn’t come across any such rationalists in the last 24 hours. In fact if you want rational (I do), then it’s back over to NRO, for two superb pieces dissecting the policy, the background and the government actions (1,2). Remember, NRO famously didn’t support Trump, and they still don’t, by and large.

The cynic in me says that this is just another bonanza for the Secretly Pleased Voters, for whom Trump remains the gift that keeps on giving. After all, talk is cheap.

Wounded spectators lie injured following an explosion at the Boston Marathon
Not quite 4 years – memories are short

Lest we forget: the Blair years revisited

powell_1561314c
Powell

Time moves quickly. When I was looking for slides for an operation that I thought I’d done two years ago at the most, I found it was actually five years that had passed. It’s nearly 7 years since Dave became PM but  it frequently seems like only yesterday. The other side of the tempus fugit coin though is that significant events, and the relevant knowledge that they provide, slip away in the memory all too quickly.

The current drivel regarding Russia is a perfect example. When I was a lad Russia was only a bogeyman because of its central place in the Soviet communist empire, which fell apart twenty six years ago, roughly. That was why we had a Cold War, not because Russia = Bad. Whether we like it or not, Russia (and Iran/Persia) are big powerful proper countries (unlike say Iraq), with very long histories and very distinct identities. We would be mad to not talk to them, to assume a relationship of permanent enmity. That’s not to say you should trust them, it’s strictly business.

mandy12_33834b
Mandelson

You would guess none of the above from the hysteria that passes as foreign policy debate in much of the media.

Likewise, it’s salutary to remember that Britain was run by complete chancers for a long period – the Blair/Brown Terror – which seems pretty fresh in my memory, for lots of reasons, but if you are a first time voter this year, you were about 8 when we finally got rid of Blair and reasonably enough you would be unlikely to have useful political memories of the time.

Which brings me to an absolute zinger of a piece by the venerable Peter Oborne in today’s paper. He is reflecting on the nefarious past of an A1 hypocrite and member of the Blair Fixer Triumvirate, the other members of which were Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, both sadly still making themselves available for their tired commentary. I refer to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s smooth and somewhat sleazy chief of staff.

Oborne provides a very timely synopsis of much that was wrong then, and hopefully we can learn, or relearn, the relevant lessons of corrupt cliquey government and its abuse. I can only quote a few gems, but do read the whole piece. Its relevance to the current EU debate is very striking:

I was a junior political reporter in the early years of the Blair government. I can testify that it was disgracefully responsible for systematically setting about destroying the career of any civil servant who was not prepared to be unthinkingly loyal to New Labour — and then replacing those who refused with trusted Labour cronies….

….Within days of winning power in 1997, Tony Blair bullied pliant civil servants into waving through special laws which gave Powell the power to give orders to top civil servants.

It is no exaggeration to say that Powell’s relationship to civil service integrity could be compared to that of serial killer GP Harold Shipman’s to medical ethics — or gangster Al Capone’s to law and order. From the moment he entered Downing Street with Blair in 1997 to the moment they left together ten years later, Powell worked ceaselessly to undermine and destroy it….

The brutal truth is that during the Blair Years, Powell’s conduct was scurrilously partisan and he constantly flouted codes of honesty and decency.

Time and time again, he was caught up in the most putrid corruption scandals. Lies about the threat posed by Saddam. The stench of the Hinduja passports scandal when Labour was said to have helped two billionaire Indian brothers obtain British passports after giving £1 million to the Millennium Dome — leading to Peter Mandelson’s resignation. The scandal over Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour.

Powell was always lurking, playing a key role.

If anybody brought back to British public life the corruption and ‘jobbery of the 17th and 18th century’, it was Powell and his friends Blair, Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Indeed, an illustrated ‘map of power’ in Downing Street at the height of the Blair years, showed Powell at the apex.

His No. 10 empire — in a clear breach of the civil service ethics which Powell told the BBC yesterday he cared so much about — stretched to include power over the prime minister’s private secretary.

And who occupied that position when Powell held most sway at No 10? None other than a rising young civil servant called Ivan Rogers. What a small world we live in!

A brilliant piece that could only be written by someone who saw it all unfold at close quarters.

There are plenty of people now who tut tut about the Iraq lies and the subsequent war, but would have you believe that the other stuff from the Blair era was wonderful. Don’t be taken in….

…. remember kids, know your history!

grauncampbelltoilet
The Blair/Campbell, courtesy of Martin Rowson