A Cat Chasing a Butterfly

Chat angora blanc guettant un papillon

Had you met a royal page with red ears, there would have been only one fitting explanation — he must have been to see the King, for one had to trace his nobility to the 1300’s to be a royal page, which of course made corporal punishment for the golden youth of Versailles impossible; unless the King himself happened to walk in on a wrong-doing, the way it happened when Louis XV found his personal attendant sleeping in the royal bed. There was however one creature in the palace who could jump onto that bed with impunity, Brilliant, the white cat painted by Jean-Jaques Bachelier. To this day, the animal can be seen chasing butterflies at Musée de Lambinet, at 54 Boulevard de la Reine.

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News (a text of Michel Butor translated by Vadim Bystritski)

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The daily newspaper

is like a window

through which we observe

the agitated sea under the grey sky

ships in distress

even drowning people

no lifesaver ring to throw them

it’s too far anyway

the alarms keep wailing

you have to raise your voice

to be heard even at home

an ocean liner has just splashed us

ought to close the window

some lighthouse beacons still blink from the seawall

frequently disappearing with the fog

and when the night asserts itself

with additional anxiety

the window panes are hastily closed

to resume peaceful reading 

of the daily newspaper

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The daily newspaper

is comparable to a theater

where the props are upside down

and the actors have forgotten their roles

and repeat their lines like a broken record

their costumes are dusty

all private balconies have been taken out by bombs

yet there are still a few members of the audience left

mostly reading newspapers

in the flickering light 

the chandeliers are not without an occasional lightbulb 

hence you may behold gilding 

every now and then a rare functioning spotlight

catches up with an actor

then abandons him in the dark

till the fall of the faded curtain  

of the daily newspaper

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The daily newspaper

resembles a forest

whose fire provoked by 

thoughtlessness or deliberate malice 

continues to burn

almost all the branches are charred

cindered leaves turn falling

toward the tapestry of embers

that smoke in the drizzle or under grey snow

a few buds valiantly continue

to inform of a stunted bloom

no continuity is expected 

after the most pressing needs are met

the asbestos encrusted bandits

herd crowds of refugees

vainly in search of home

in an unrecognizable landscape

where scatter monthly supplements

of the daily newspaper

.

The daily newspaper

reminds me of a hospital

whose facade is torn down

with only the emergency room

and psych ward still going

all the other patients transferred 

to make-shift facilities

always in need of further relocation

deeper under the rubble

to the ice stalactites suspended 

from the water heater pipes

attached to the shredded wall sections

here and there handicapped nurses

huddle next to pitiful braziers 

fed by textbooks

from abandoned school buidings

and the old special issues

of the daily newspaper

.

The daily newspaper 

is like a monitor 

of a surveillance camera

in some parking lot

where all cars are out of gas

the garage has no parts or mechanics 

and the game parlors have their machines

installed between concrete pillars

where the shiny screens report the defecting 

entertainers and horse race betting

the stock market value of long bankrupt companies

all sandwiched between commercials 

for the salons held at other levels 

with other old-time luxury autos 

and the yesteryear tourist attractions 

in tattered photos

of our daily newspaper

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Actualités

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Le journal quotidien

est comme une fenêtre

par laquelle nous découvrons

une mer agitée sous un ciel gris

où nous apercevons des navires en détresse

et même des gens qui se noient

mais nous n’avons aucune bouée à jeter

de toute façon ce serait trop loin

la sirène d’alarme ne cesse plus

on est obligé d’élever la voix

pour se faire entendre dans la maison

un paquet de mer vient nous éclabousser

qui nous force à fermer les vitres

quelques phares tournoient sur les digues

mais souvent le brouillard nous les cache

et lorsqu la nuit se confirme

avec son surcroît d’angoisses

nous nous empressons de tirer les volets

pour reprendre en paix la lecture

de notre journal quotidien

.

Le journal quotidien

est comme un théâtre

dans lequel les décors sont retournés

les acteurs ont oublié leurs rôles

ils répètent certaines répliques

comme des enregistrement enrayés

leurs costumes sont couverts de poussière

les loges ont été détruites lors d’un bombardements

car il y a encore des spectateurs

qui pour le plupart lisent encore leur journaux  

avec des éclairages de fortune

c’est que s’il ont encore des dorures

les lustres n’ont presque plus d’ampoules

personne n’arrive plus à diriger

les rares projecteurs qui fonctionnent 

s’attardant longuement sur tel ou tel

puis soudain les oubliant dans la nuit

où retombe le rideau fané

de notre journal quotidien

.

Le  journal quotidien

est comme une forêt

où s’éternise un incendie provoqué

par l’étourderie ou la malveillance

la plupart des branches sont carbonisées

des feuilles en cendres tournent en planant

pour rejoindre le tapis de braises

qui fume sous la bruine ou la neige grise

il y a bien quelques bourgeons

qui restent encore assez vaillamment

on signale un floraison rabougrie

qui assurera la relève dit-on

dès que les dangers les plus pressants

commenceront à s’éloigner

des bandits caparaçonnés d’amiante

rançonnent les troupeaux de réfugiés

qui cherchent en vain leur demeure

dans le paysage méconnaissable

où s’éparpillent les suppléments

de notre journal quotidien

.

Le journal quotidien

est comme un hôpital

dont les façades sont arrachées

il n’y a plus que les départements

des urgences et des suicides

tous les autres malades sont transportés

dans des campements provisoires

qu’il faut toujours déménager

un peu plus loin dans les décombres

où les stalactites de glace

pendent aux tuyaux

des anciens radiateurs accrochés

aux pans de mur déchiquetés

de place en place les infirmiers

handicapés viennent se chauffer

autour des braseros malingres

alimentés par les manuels

des écoles d’autant désaffectées

et les vieux numéros spéciaux de notre journal quotidien

.

Le  journal quotidien

est comme un moniteur

d’un circuit de télévision

qui surveille un parking

d’où les automobiles ne sortent plus

faute d’essence et de mécaniciens

des salons de jeux se sont installés

entre les piliers de béton suintant

avec de grands panneaux sur lesquels

on affiche les défections de chanteurs

les pronostics de courses qui n’ont jamais lieu

les cours d’actions en bourse d’entreprises

qui n’existent plus depuis des années

entre deux parades publicitaires 

pour les salons d’autres étages

ou les vieux autocars de plaisir

où l’on contemple des photographies

d’anciennes attractions touristiques

découpées dans les lambeaux rescapés

de notre journal quotidien

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My Uncle Circus Artist (a text of Michel Leiris translated by Vadim Bystritski)

My mother loved her brother a lot, and I remember her mentioning his quixotic side to my dad. For years he came to lunch every Monday. He often took me to music-hall, and as a connoisseur of it explained to me every aspect of the show. He knew, for example, in many cases how many people in Europe could perform an act we were watching; he taught me to appreciate real work as opposed to a flashy number without substance. Sometimes, he would take me to his friends that were the music-hall or circus artists. I remember a family of acrobats living in a cabin in the area, selling produce at the market they had grown in their garden. In the little lodging near Paris where he lived, Uncle Leo had a table loaded with all sorts of juggling objects, red a white balls, cannonballs, variously shaped wands and clubs, and an opera hat. Although he was no longer doing it professionally, he was still juggling as part of his keep-fit morning routine. He often showed off his talents, and his ability seemed magical to me. Very thin, with a prominent nose, he did look like a Don Quixote style minstrel. During my sister’s pregnancy, to stress the difference in their physical appearance, my brother and I nick-named two domino pieces, the double six, Juliette, and the double zero, Uncle Leo.

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In spite of his total lack of snobbism and secluded life-style, my uncle had an amazing grasp of daily events; for instance, during the war, he hailed the first Chaplin movies, as the arrival of a brilliant clown. Certain things he had taught me remained indelible in my mind and I still adhere to some of those precepts: he made me understand in particular that staging a song or a music hall number may require a lot more talent than an execution of more ambitious projects. It was also my uncle who explained to me that there could be more poetry in a little song than in a classical tragedy.

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Without trying to present myself as comparable to him as far as courage, I feel very close to this uncle who with admirable consistency sought all his life what the others viewed as debasing and found his women, one in circus sawdust, the other practically on the sidewalk; he had taste for what was raw and authentic, which he believed to encounter among the humble, finding joy in self-sacrifice, – in this I am very similar to him, forever on a look out, albeit in fear, for different forms of suffering, fatality, atonement, and retribution.

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The stature of this uncle also grew in my eyes due to the fact that he frequented people of all walks of life, not excluding the lowest, and that in his youth a woman he was trying to separate from had stabbed him with a knife.

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His death, the same as my father’s — a few years later, happened during a snowfall. All his life the sight of falling snow gave him a kind of vertigo.

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Mon oncle acrobate

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Ma mère aimait beaucoup ce frère et je l’ai souvent entendue parler avec mon père de son côté “Don Quichotte”. Pendant des années, il vint toutes les semaines – chaque lundi, à ce qu’il me semble – déjeuner à la maison. Souvent il m’emmenait au music-hall et, très connaisseur, m’expliquait tous les tours ; il savait par exemple, dans beaucoup de cas, combien de personnes en Europe étaient capables d’accomplir l’exercice auquel nous assistions ; il m’apprenait à apprécier le vrai travail et me mettait en garde contre ce qui n’est que vulgaire truc à effet. Parfois aussi il me menait chez de vieux camarades à lui, tous artistes de cirque ou de music-hall ; je me rappelle entre autres une famille de saltimbanques qui vivaient en maraîchers dans une cabane de la zone. Dans le petit logement qu’il habitait aux environs de Paris, il avait une table chargée de tout un matériel de jonglage : boules rouges et blanches, boulets, baguettes de diverses formes, massues, chapeau haut de forme ; bien que n’exerçant plus, il jonglait tous les matins, en guise de culture physique ; fréquemment il s’exhibait devant moi et son habilité me semblait merveilleuse. Très maigre, le nez fortement accusé, il avait bien l’air d’un baladin mâtiné de Don Quichotte. Lors de la grossesse de ma soeur, pour bien marquer la différence de volume qui opposait à nos yeux les deux personnages, mon frère et moi, jouant aux dominos, avons coutume d’appeler le double-six “Juliette”, et le double-blanc “Oncle Léon”.

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Malgré son âge, son défaut complet de snobisme et la vie retirée qu’il menait, mon oncle avait un sens de l’actualité parfois surprenant ; ainsi, pendant la guerre, c’est lui qui me signala dès leur première apparition les films de Charlot, m’annonçant que venait se révéler un pitre tout à fait génial. Certains préceptes qu’il me répétait sont restés gravés dans mon esprit et j’y souscris encore maintenant ; il m’a fait comprendre notamment que la mise au point d’un tour de chant ou d’un numéro de music-hall peut nécessiter beaucoup plus de talent que bien des exécutions plus ambitieuses. C’est lui aussi qui m’a appris qu’il peut y avoir “plus de poésie dans une chanson à deux sous que dans une tragédie classique”.

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Sans vouloir me comparer à lui au point de vue du courage, je me sens très proche de cet oncle qui tout sa vie rechercha, avec une constance admirable, ce qui pour autres n’était qu’un abaissement et ramassa ses femme, l’une dans la sciure des pistes, l’autre presque sur le trotoir, tant il avait le goût de ce qui est nu et authentique, et qu’il pensait ne pouvoir rencontrer que chez ces humbles, tant il devait trouver de joie aussi à se sacrifier, – en cela extrêment semblable à moi qui ai si longtemps recherché (en même temps que redouté), sous des formes différentes, la souffrance, la fatalité, l’expiation, le châtiment.

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Le prestige de cet oncle était encore accru à mes yeux du fait qu’il avait fréquenté un peu tous les milieux – sans excepter les pires – et que, dans sa jeunesse, une femme qu’il voulait quitter l’avait frappé d’un coup de couteau.

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De même que celle de mon père (qui survint quelques années plus tard) sa mort coïncida avec une période de neige. De toute sa vie il n’avait pu voir tomber la neige sans ressentir une espèce de vertige.

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The Emperor’s Barge

It is well known that Louis XVI’s Naval victories were due to research and innovation. Often the king himself was behind them. The introduction of copper hull boats, for example, took years of study and experimentation. Louis XVI personally constructed and tested a good number of models at Versailles before commissioning any life-size realization of those projects. He simultaneously worked on cartography, ballistics and buoyancy. The catastrophes of later years known in history as Aboukir Bay and Trafalgar come in the wake of republican neglect and mismanagement. The Navy officers had fled the country. The marines coming from disloyal to the republican government coastal areas were distrusted. 

The Napoleonic wars were notorious for naval disasters. There was scarcity of experienced Navy officers and the new recruits were poorly trained. As for the boats, built from green-lumber, they often self-destructed from the impact of their own artillery. The sea-faring boats had to be built out of air-seasoned wood, and the French Revolution made no provisions of any suitable timber or lumber. We should say that Napoleon’s incompetence in these matters was exaggerated. He lacked patience, not competence. And to be patient, he would need time. 

That is why it is not a small miracle that this barge built for Napoleon in 1810 is still around. It was recently transferred from Paris to Brest, where it can be seen any day for free at a former boat factory.

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Marie-Antoinette (a text of Jean Cocteau translated by Vadim Bystritski)

The expression to lose your head brings to mind that fringe and tragic meaning  we happen to associate with Marie-Antoinette and how the haughty frivolousness of her good-weather days turned nobly decorous in the face of adversity. 

Courteous heartlessness is a mark of a spoiled child. The good breed finds its glory in a courtly comedy taking a dramatic turn, when the heart stifled by ceremony has an opportunity to reveal itself. 

Our protagonist looked equally annoying at balls and in sheep pens, but the courtroom of Fouquier-Tinville was a perfect setting for that personality. Stripped of power and fregates sailing in her powdered hair, she was simply as an outraged mother, there her pride never deformed her speech. Previously booed off stage, she manages to transform herself into a tragic actress capable of touching her audience. 

Her best portrait is the one sketched by David when she was getting transported to the guillotine. She looks already dead. They bring to the scaffolds a very different person. She appears to be drained of herself, distinct from the queen we’ve seen before, far from velvet and satin and the Venitian lanterns — all the plumes have been plucked, the austere hearse is on its way.

Deep in the forests of Germany, a secret Swedenborg lodge has correctly guessed what will serve her as a hearse, dispatching Cagliostro to France, whose mission was to destroy the Queen and her reign. All it took was a gullible cardinal, gold bullion for the alchemist furnace,  a scheming lady in waiting, two jewelers, a diamond necklace, a queen-resembling prostitute for the whole edifice to crumble. However, at the very last moment a good fairy will transform our victim into the park of Trianon, where a visitor can still see her pink blood.   

Perdre la tête prend son sens extrême et tragique lorsqu’un songe à Marie-Antoinette. Sa frivolité hautaine en période de chance devient, lorsque les circonstances l’y obligent, une grâce très noble devant le malheur.

Rien de plus mal élevé que le cœur sous le maquillage de politesse. Rien de mieux élevé que une âme étouffée par la pompe des cours lorsque le spectacle change et que le comédie change en drame.

Le sens du lieu qui nous agace dans les bergeries et dans les bals donne immédiatement le génie de son rôle au Tribunal de Fouquier-Tinville. Plus de morgue, plus de frégate sur des boucles blanches. Une mère très simple et insultée qui se révolte avec les mots que l’orgueil ne déforme plus. Cette actrice sifflée, devient une grande tragédienne et touche le public de galeries. 

La meilleure portrait de la reine est sans doute cette esquisse de David, lorsqu’elle passe, assise dans la charrette. Elle est déjà morte. C’est une autre personne que les sans-culottes conduisent à l’échafaud. C’est une autre personne, vidée d’elle-même, qui défile sous un considérable catafalque de panaches, de velours, de satin et de lanternes vénitiennes.

Dans les forêts allemandes, les loges secrètes de Swedenborg devinaient bien ce que serait ce catafalque, elles qui dépêchèrent Cagliostro en France pour perdre la Reine et ruiner le régime.

Un cardinal crédule, quelques lingots d’or, un four d’alchimiste, une intrigante, deux joailliers, un collier de diamants, une petite prostituée qui ressemble à la Reine, et tout l’édifice s’écroule.

Une bonne fée changera la victime de Trianon où le visiteur peut voir circuler encore le sang rose de ses veines. 

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Indifferent (a text of Paul Claudel translated by Vadim Bystritski)

File:Antoine Watteau - L'Indifférent - WGA25468.jpg - Wikimedia ...

No, not indifferent, this mother-of-perle messenger, this precursor of Aurora should be described as someone who could either fly off or continue, and is not about to step into a dance, as one of his extended arms unfolds with magnitude its lyrical wing, but suspends an action in equillibrium, though those half-lifted weights are not the central element. His posture could be interpreted as an entry or departure, he is listening, waiting for the right moment, he is searching for it in our eyes, his extended arm has deployed its feelers, those quivering fingers, counting, while the other volatil arm, holding its wide cape, is ready to endorse the leg. Half a foan, half a bird, half appreciative yet half discoursive himself, half assertive but simultaneously relaxed, this sylph’s vertiginous quill is up and ready to initial! An archer has already started his long pulling motion, and the meaning of our character is in the measured impetus he’ll give, effased, obliterated in his own swirl.

Watteau, Indifférent

Non, non, qu’il soit indifférent, ce messaget de nacre, cet avant-courrier de l’Aurore, disons plutôt qu’il balance entre l’essor et la manche, et ce n’est pas que déjà il danse, mais l’un de ses bras étendu et l’autre avec ampleur déployant l’aile lyrique, il suspend un équilibre dont le poids, plus qu’à demi conjuré, ne forme que le moindre élément. Il est en position de départ et d’entrée, il écoute, il attend le moment juste, il le cherche dans nos yeux, de la pointe frémissante de ses doigts, à l’extrémité de ce bras étendu il compte, et l’autre bras volatil avec l’ample cape se prépare à seconder le jarret. Moitié faon et moitié oiseau, moitié sensible et moitié discours, moitié aplomb et moitié déjà la détente ! sylphe, prestige, et la plume vertigineuse qui se prépare au paraphe ! L’archer a déjà commencé cette longue tenue sur la corde, et toute la raison d’être du personnage est dans l’élan mesuré qu’il se prépare à prendre, effacé, anéanti dans son propre tourbillon.

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Napoleon II and the Cinco de Mayo

by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s painting The Sleeping King of Rome can be seen at Louvre-Lance. That is where I saw it six or seven years ago. The painting was originally presented at the Salon in 1811. As the official drawing instructor of Her Majesty the Empress Marie-Louise, Prud’hon had an opportunity to paint the future Napoleon II — the child officially bore the Imperial title for only a couple of weeks, succeeding his father right after the abdication and prior to the restoration of the Bourbons to the throne. The baby’s title, the King of Rome, was there to remind the detained at Fontainebleau Pope VII that Rome was but one of the cities of Napoleon’s Empire. It doesn’t help general public that in the annals of history the boy is more commonly referred to as the Duke of Reichstadt, that title was given to him by his maternal grandfather, the Emperor of Austria.     

Let us take a quick look at the pastoral setting of the picture, it was probably chosen as a reference to the pastoral childhood of the founder of Rome, Romulus; the purple blanket covering the baby’s lower extremities works both as an Imperial cloak and a French national color — add the white cushion and blue drapery and you have a flag. The two flowers, Fritillaria imperialis  a.k.a. the Imperial Crowns, represent the boy’s parents, Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria; the inclined flowers also anticipate a later Romantic development of the theme of an affectionate royal parent — it’s not that Napoleon wouldn’t be affectionate with his son, but the circumstances of Russian campaign and the following in its wake heroic attempts to stop the advancing coalition armies left little time for parenting. As for the motherly love, that one consistently left to be desired and so by default greatly contributed to the later Romantic cult of the French prince in exile.

We can say that the story of Duke of Reichstadt serves as a shadow to the Great pyramid — it would be a sure guess that the thought of the son inheriting some of his father’s qualities sent waves of shiver down many a royal spine. In the end, the pyramid’s shadow turned out to be pretty short: in the prince’s own words, nothing remarkable happened besides his birth and early demise, “Between my cradle and my death bed,there is nothing to report, zero.” Were this truly so, no great quantities of Tékaté and Corona beer would be consumed on May 5th in the US. The purpose of this entry is to remind everyone whose defeat we celebrate. The thing is that Ferdinand-Maximilian, whose execution promptly followed the French military fiasco south of the imaginary wall, yes, the unfortunate Emperor of Mexico, was an illegitimate son of the baby boy in the picture. And now I would like to convey to everyone reading this my seasonal greetings, as well as happy Cinco de Mayo to all those who may celebrate the event later in 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Le Gros’ Portrait of Napoleon’s Aid-de-Camp

dominique-alexandre legrand

By the time he was twenty-one, Antoine-Jean Gros had become a painter of the victorious French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. After meeting Josephine in Genes, he was received by her husband and assigned to an art expert position; basically, he was helping the army with the spoils of war. The loot was later organized by Dominique-Vivant Denon into the Universal Museum of Napoleon.

Previously in Genes, Le Gros was in voluntary exile, living off portrait painting. In revolutionary Paris his life, in spite of the patronage of Jacques-Louis David, was in danger. Le Gros was of aristocratic origins and wisely decided to wait it out in Italy. By the early 1800’s, he was back in Paris and produced several monumental canvasses anticipating Romanticism, but also continued with portraits.

Dominique-Alexandre Legrand was Napoleon’s aid-de camp, who lost his life on 2 May 1808 after receiving a flowerpot on his head. The incident took place in Madrid during the Spanish uprising. His therefore, was a posthumous portrait commissioned by a bereaved father. The painting could be viewed in the tradition of the late XVIII century aristocratic portrait, the Imperial aristocracy aspiring to match the Ancien Regime, while striving to invent their own, more militant style. As to the background, it is even more baroque, reaching out for inspiration to the landscape with ruins, the latter tradition being more nostalgic and with a larger emotional pool.

After the Restoration, notwithstanding that the Romantics were impressed by the cult of death generated by the painter of the Napoleonic wars, the younger generation was merciless to the old-timer’s retrograde eclecticism. The aging Le Gros, now running the Jacques-Louis David’s workshop, found little support for his Neoclassical work and drowned himself in the Seine. His suicide note read, “Weary of life and betrayed by his faculties, he quits.”

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Style Empire in Painting

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Style Empire continued after the Bourbon restoration to the throne of France. The Style is well understood in furniture and other decorative arts, but in painting, apart from the portraits of the Emperor Napoleon I, Josephine and a few of her ladies in waiting, we can see it as problematic. The problem is that we may find separating the Empire from its progenitor, the Neoclassicism and its progeny, the Romanticism as somewhat  of a challenge. Nevertheless, the differences do exist, and to point them out, I would like to take a quick look at the painting by Auguste Couder, The Death of General Moreau.

What Napoleon’s propaganda machine had in mind was a paradox — it was a strange idea, the idea of compromise between austerity and luxury, perfectly conveyed by Aguste Couder in the picture through the combination of red and golden-yellow, simulating oriental opulence, as well as military camp, offering us both drum and bugle and most importantly the chief attribute of successful campaign, a mountain of loot. It’s not easy to combine opulence and austerity, but in this picture, I believe, the ingredients are skillfully reunited. The year is 1814.

Yes,  the year is 1814. The defeated Napoleon has abdicated and Louis XVIII gives the first Painting Salon of the restored monarchy, where a young artist, Auguste Couder, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David, presents his work. And by the way, do you know who is the dying hero in the painting? Oh technically, this is a traitor to the cause of the First Empire, someone whom Napoleon accused, tried, magnanimously pardoned and exiled, and who in the course of subsequent years drifted to the enemy camp, that is into the service of the Russian Tsar, and by so doing, traced the trajectory for many of the Emperor’s veterans: in 1814 most of them find themselves in the service of Louis XVIII.

We get a sense of complexity of the subject matter. The dying general is an ex-hero of the French Revolution. The protagonist, perhaps unjustly accused by the First Consul Bonaparte, possibly jealous of his rival’s military successes matching his own, becomes something like an anti-hero. The peripety is well-known to the onlookers. It takes them to his last battle, where advising the advancing on Paris Russian troops, he gets his legs blown off by a French projectile. “Serves him well!” you imagine a patriotic Frenchman conclude at the Salon of 1814. Nevertheless, observe the royal white of the death-bed, the intensely zigzagging adjutant’s body ready to commit to paper the Moreau’s last words. Sh-sh! I can’t make it out. What is he saying? On my grave you can write whatever you like? I guess. The Russian Tsar Alexander-I very wisely arranges for the interment to take place in Saint Petersburg.

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Falling in Style

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“Thou shalt not blow pot smoke into the face of thy pet!” was the thirteenth commandment according to William Burroughs. The effort to upgrade the moral standards according to the needs of society is an ever-going process; and over the course of centuries, we turned populations of criminals into law-abiding citizens as we created new populations of criminals out of former law-abiding citizens. “Thou shalt not keep an old children’s book on your library shelf!” for nothing corrupts the young mind worse than an uncensored nursery rhyme, or the original version of a fairy-tale where no woodcutter comes to the rescue of a mischievous little girl who talks to strangers while taking short-cuts through the forbidden forest.
I believe that an old moralist tradition rife with conventional and somewhat retrograde wisdom, is not any worse than a new one, for both are equally good for a laugh. Not all humor is ha-ha, of course, some of it could be he-he, and other is closer to hm…, but whichever is your natural disposition, allow me to elucidate here the moral message of the above painting by Hubert Robert, the painting that anyone happening to be in Paris can see in a small and quite neglected by tourists museum of Cognacq-Jay. 

A fall, even as the result of stepping on a banana peel, always contains moral lesson. You know you deserved it. But I leave my reader to his introspective reasoning, for I am more curious about the gentleman in the picture: what might have been his infraction? What had he done to deserved this triple punishment — falling off some kind of an ancient temple and into a sarcophagus and then receiving a huge piece of loose masonry on top? Before we touch upon why, an astute observer can help me with how: we see how he got up there — there’s a long ladder leaning against the building. Devil made him do it, of course, but what else? The man grasps something in his right hand. We cannot make it out, since the detail is too small, but we can infer that it is the same object the fleeing woman holds in her hand, probably a small bouquet of flowers.

Obviously, the terrible punishment does not match the crime, if we can call crime what looks more like a safety or risk management issue. And there an onlooker is likely to remain as baffled as I was when trying to crack the code of this late XVIII painting. Is the puzzle even decipherable? It should be, given that the author of the rebus was a simple mortal, creating in a well-understood historical context. True enough, for a painter of ruins, all ruins offer ethic and aesthetic lessons. The first one is about vanity of our pursuits. The second is more subtle and is often due to a shere scale of the site, and as we try to surmise from the skill demonstrated in the execution of a fragment and complete through the work of imagination the rest, gradually arriving at the quality and size of the whole, which is quite comparable or sometimes superior to our present ability and skill, the artifacts dwarf and humble our unequal idea of the past, bringing our emotional reaction to the point of astonishment, or even consternation or someting close to sacred awe.

At that euphoric moment a moral flaw that deserves to be squashed without mercy is none other than callousness, insensitivity, and obtuseness shown in the presence of a ruin. And if we fail to appraoch the ruin with tripidation, a different type of horror, more trivial like a stupid accident will substitute itself for the sublime. To each according to his ability. The aesthetics is replacable by the sensational. Such intolerance to simple pleasures we would find intolerable. Actually, they did too. I don’t know about my reader, but myself when in the presence of Hubert Robert’s paintings, I am subject to hearing hallucinations. Whenever I put my ear close enough to a guilded frame, I hear a metallic noise: it sounds like a ghostly figure dressed in lace and silk stockings is sharpening a large rectangular blade to be fitted into a different, much cruder and much larger wooden framework.

 

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