When Napoleon met his Waterloo

The debate over the Battle of Waterloo rages on in a not-so-united Europe!

Battle-of-Waterloo

June 18, 1815 seems like a LONG time ago, but tempers flare and national prides soar or plummet remembering the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated that day at Waterloo in present day Belgium, by a coalition army of the English, Dutch and Prussians, although Wellington takes most of the credit. I will leave the debate about what really happened to the specialists!

I am a not-so-secret admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte for the fact that he managed to restore some of the damage done to France by the Revolution. He singlehandedly revived the great traditions of  the French savoir faire in the great Art Décoratif crafts, seen by the revolutionaries as decadent and obsolete and created the highest French honor, the Légion d’Honneur, amongst other things. And he was the first to have a “European Dream.”

Map1806Map of 1806 depicting Europe

“I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe,” declared Napoleon nearly 200 years before Europe finally unifies under the new currency of the European Union. The dream of a strong Europe in which the French, Spanish, Italians, and Germans coexist peacefully as a single united body is being realized today, but it is a dream that was held by Napoleon, based on his vast knowledge of history, and hoped for by many great men after him. Finally this dream is beginning to become a reality although some might argue it has perhaps become a nightmare?

So now, on June 18, 1815 Napoleon is defeated. And that, you would think, was the end of that! But no, a new Battle of Waterloo has ensued between the French and the Belgians about the minting of a commemorative euro coin. The Belgians, excited about prestige of the battle having been waged on their territory wanted to literally make mint of that fact.

waterlooCoin

Yet history has its own currency in Europe, which even a common currency has yet to overcome. Back in March, officials in Paris wrote a letter to the European authorities insisting that the Battle of Waterlo, and altered the shape of European history, had a deep and damaging resonance in the collective French consciousness.

France protested Belgium’s plans for its original coin by saying that basking in France’s defeat threatened to undermine European unity, troubled enough already. The €2 coin, it said, could spur an “unfavorable reaction in France.” In Belgium, the victory embodied in the €2.50 coin is being lauded as if the tiny country had itself triumphed on the battlefield.

deathmaskNapoleon’s death mask, cast on May 6, 1826 in Saint Helena, now in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg

Napoleon Bonaparte may be long dead, but his history is an ongoing battle…

 

 

News from the Western front…

The Horrible Waste of War

The eloquent and sensitive WWII war correspondent Ernie Pyle describes his day in Normandy on June 16, 1944, 10 days after D-Day.

NormandyA fallen soldier on the beach, the crossed rifles signify homage and identity him as an infantry man.

NORMANDY BEACHHEAD, June 16, 1944 – I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.

It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn’t know they were in the water, for they were dead.

The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell yes.

I walked for a mile and a half along the water’s edge of our many-miled invasion beach. You wanted to walk slowly, for the detail on that beach was infinite.

The wreckage was vast and startling. The awful waste and destruction of war, even aside from the loss of human life, has always been one of its outstanding features to those who are in it. Anything and everything is expendable. And we did expend on our beachhead in Normandy during those first few hours.

For a mile out from the beach there were scores of tanks and trucks and boats that you could no longer see, for they were at the bottom of the water – swamped by overloading, or hit by shells, or sunk by mines. Most of their crews were lost.
You could see trucks tipped half over and swamped. You could see partly sunken barges, and the angled-up corners of jeeps, and small landing craft half submerged. And at low tide you could still see those vicious six-pronged iron snares that helped snag and wreck them.

On the beach itself, high and dry, were all kinds of wrecked vehicles. There were tanks that had only just made the beach before being knocked out. There were jeeps that had been burned to a dull gray. There were big derricks on caterpillar treads that didn’t quite make it. There were half-tracks carrying office equipment that had been made into a shambles by a single shell hit, their interiors still holding their useless equipage of smashed typewriters, telephones, office files.

There were LCT’s turned completely upside down, and lying on their backs, and how they got that way I don’t know. There were boats stacked on top of each other, their sides caved in, their suspension doors knocked off.

In this shoreline museum of carnage there were abandoned rolls of barbed wire and smashed bulldozers and big stacks of thrown-away lifebelts and piles of shells still waiting to be moved.

In the water floated empty life rafts and soldiers’ packs and ration boxes, and mysterious oranges.

On the beach lay snarled rolls of telephone wire and big rolls of steel matting and stacks of broken, rusting rifles.

On the beach lay, expended, sufficient men and mechanism for a small war. They were gone forever now. And yet we could afford it.

We could afford it because we were on, we had our toehold, and behind us there were such enormous replacements for this wreckage on the beach that you could hardly conceive of their sum total. Men and equipment were flowing from England in such a gigantic stream that it made the waste on the beachhead seem like nothing at all, really nothing at all.

A few hundred yards back on the beach is a high bluff. Up there we had a tent hospital, and a barbed-wire enclosure for prisoners of war. From up there you could see far up and down the beach, in a spectacular crow’s-nest view, and far out to sea.

And standing out there on the water beyond all this wreckage was the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload.

Looking from the bluff, it lay thick and clear to the far horizon of the sea and beyond, and it spread out to the sides and was miles wide. Its utter enormity would move the hardest man.

As I stood up there I noticed a group of freshly taken German prisoners standing nearby. They had not yet been put in the prison cage. They were just standing there, a couple of doughboys leisurely guarding them with tommy guns.

The prisoners too were looking out to sea – the same bit of sea that for months and years had been so safely empty before their gaze. Now they stood staring almost as if in a trance.

They didn’t say a word to each other. They didn’t need to. The expression on their faces was something forever unforgettable. In it was the final horrified acceptance of their doom.

If only all Germans could have had the rich experience of standing on the bluff and looking out across the water and seeing what their compatriots saw.
pyle_signatureErnie Pyle was one of the most popular and beloved journalists during the Second World War. His ability to portray the life of the soldier with feeling, realism and humor made his columns favorites amongst the men and women he wrote about, the GIs, and painted a words-eye view for the millions of readers back home. On April 18, 1945, Ernie Pyle was killed by enemy fire on the island of Ie Shima.

EP Ernie Pyle

 

 

Magna Carta

The cornerstone of the modern democracy turns 800 years today.

MagnacartaMagna Carta

It is crumbling, water-stained and written in Medieval Latin, but the Magna Carta has managed to remain relevant to the cause of human rights even today, 800 years after it was scrawled on parchment and affirmed with the sticky wax seal of the English king. England’s “Great Charter” of 1215 was the first document to challenge the authority of the king, subjecting him to the rule of the law and protecting his people from feudal abuse.

Although most of the charter’s ideas were revised or have since been repealed, the Magna Carta’s fundamental tenets provided the outline for modern democracies. One of its clauses, still in the English law books, has been credited as the first definition of habeas corpus – the universal right to due process.

Taking a cue from the document more than five centuries later, American revolutionaries incorporated many of the Magna Carta’s basic ideas into another important piece of parchment – the United States Constitution.

US ConstitutionUS Constitution

The Magna Carta had nothing to do with democracy of course at the time, it was really about the barons of England protecting their own legal rights, and there was no concept at the time of protecting the rights of your average Englander. It was a case of the rich and powerful protecting themselves from the slightly more rich and powerful. However, it curbed the absolute might of the king for the first time and that, centuries down the line, evolved into the parliamentary democracy we know today.

Fine and Dandy

Dapper dressers of the world show how to stand out in a crowd through elegance and posture

walkerevans1Citizen in  Havana, Cuba, 1933 – Photographer Walker Evans

Some men really stand out in a crowd with a mixture of style and most importantly: posture. I don’t much care for the meaning of the word ‘Dandy’ as defined in the dictionary: “a man who cares too much about his clothing and personal appearance.” It sound quite judgmental! A truly elegant man evokes an air of nonchalance as if his style is a mere casual expression of his inner refinement and something that comes naturally to him…

sape4A “Sapeur” in Brazzaville, Congo – talk about standing out in a crowd…

I much prefer Charles Baudelaire’s definition: “Dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism” and “These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking …. Dandyism is a form of Romanticism. Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of mind.” Take that, sloppy dressers!

Sape5A trio of young “Sapeurs”

An exceptionally active group of Dandy’s today live in Brazzaville, Congo and are known as “Sapeurs”. They  belong to ‘La SAPE’ (Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes) – one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Members have their own code of honour, codes of professional conduct and strict notions of morality.

sape1Elegant “Sapeurs”

Dandies are never stiff or contrived, their posture self assured without a whiff of arrogance and mostly good company, who does not want to be seen with such a man? In my world Dandy wins over Hipster every time!

ralph_lauren001An ever perfect Ralph Lauren suit

 

I have seen the future…

How the Futurama in 1939 created the vision of the future

photoThe iconic Trylon and Perisphere structures of the 1939 World Fair in Queens, New York

The theme of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York was “The World of Tomorrow.” One exhibit created by General Motors, called the “Futurama,” was an ride designed by Norman Bel Geddes that presented a possible model of the world 20 years into the future. It showed a utopian city of the future called “Democracity,” characterized by its automated highways and vast suburbs.

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Modern Mosaik

Ordinary everyday objects form intricate patterns in the hands of Bejing contemporary artist Hong Hao

things“Tian-B,” 2008

Thank god for the New York Times online subscription, my day was lit up by an article about the works of this artist from China. Everything I love: every day objects, collage, mosaic, still life, abstraction…

Books“My Things No. 7,” 2004 – books

The artist and photographer Hong Hao has kept track of almost every item in his life for the past 14 years. You think he is a hoarder?

bottom“Bottom No. 3,” 2009 – bottoms of ordinary objects

In fact, no: he scans each item and composes what results into colorful, intriguing large-format still life’s. I love this “objet pixel” infinity collage:

circleMy Things About Circle no. 2 , 2006

This collage is made up of ordinary consumer goods packages, chronicling the change in China over the last 14 years:

stuff“Book-Keeping of 07 B,” 2008

The objects are scanned and then arranged according to their forms and colors.

art“My Things No. 5,” 2002

Hong Hao destructs the functional property of the materials and reproduces an undifferentiated, flattened, deliberately superficial world of aesthetics.

books2“My Things Book-Keeping of 2004-05 A,” 2006

The amazing thing is, this is done with a scanner and a computer! No camera, just scanned images carefully rearranged on the computer and printed in large format! I find these images so poetic or in the words of Horace:

“A picture is a poem without words.”

The Way of the Knife…

Swiss Army Knife: with this tool you will be able to get out of (nearly) every hairy situation

SAChampSwiss Army Knife “SwissChamp”

Since the discovery the oldest tools recently in Kenya, dating back 3.3 million years, it is not surprising to find that the tools were very sharp flint knives:

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