Archive for the Art Category

D-Day 75 Years On

Posted in Art, History with tags , , , , on June 6, 2019 by telescoper

Today is the 75th anniversary D-Day, the start of the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy. I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote about 9 years ago about this very famous picture:

This remarkable photograph was taken at 8.32am on 6th June 1944 on “Queen Red” beach, a sector in the centre-left of Sword Area, during the early stages of the D-Day invasion. The precise location is near La Brèche, Hermanville-sur-Mer, Normandy. The shutter clicked just as the beach came under heavy artillery and mortar fire from powerful German divisions inland.

Some time ago I came across a discussion of this image in the Observer. As the article describes, it consists of “a series of tableaux that look like quotations from religious art”. The piece goes on

In the foreground and on the right are sappers of 84 Field Company Royal Engineers. Behind them, heavily laden medical orderlies of 8 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps (some of whom are treating wounded men) prepare to move off the beach. In the background, men of the 1st Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment and No 4 Army Commando swarm ashore from landing craft.

The sapper in the bottom left, looking directly into the camera, is Jimmy Leisk who was born in Shetland. His strained expression gives the impression that he’s trying to escape from the photograph; through his eyes we get a glimpse of the grim reality of armed conflict. His colleague, turning away from the lens, seems to be calling to the men behind, but the image of his head and upper body links with the more distant figures forming a dramatic arc that pulls you into the centre of the picture before veering off to the right. Each element of this image tells its own story, but apart from one person in the foreground, all the faces are all hidden from view. I’m sure these anonymous figures were all just as frightened as the man in the foreground, but their individual identities are lost as they blend into graphic depiction of the monumental scale of the invasion. It’s a truly wonderful work of art, and a brilliant piece of storytelling, at the same level as an Old Master, but this is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the photographer was risking his life to take this picture.

This photograph, which was taken by Sergeant Jim Mapham of the Army Film and Photography Unit, was described by the US Press as “the greatest picture of the war”.

Jim Mapham was one of seven cameramen of the AFPU who went in on D-Day: Sgt Ian Grant, Sgt Christie, Sgt Norman Clague (killed), Sgt Desmond O’Neill (wounded), Sgt Billie Greenhalgh (wounded) and Sgt George Laws. Their work forms an extraordinary record of the invasion and is still widely used by the media – but rarely credited.

Robert Capa, the famous Hungarian photographer, was also on the beaches that morning, pinned down in the waves by enemy fire. But while he clambered on to a landing craft to get his pictures back to London, Sgt Mapham moved inland with the invasion force…

Jim Mapham survived the D-Day campaign and entered Germany with the army to document the fall of the Third Reich and the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp. He died in 1968. Until today I’d never heard of him. His name should be much more widely celebrated. I understand that the complete set of photographs he took on D-Day can be found in the Imperial War Museum‘s photographic archive.

As a final comment let me add that, contrary to popular myth, the landings at the Sword beaches were by no means a pushover. It’s true that the American forces, especially at Omaha beach, suffered heavier casualties on the actual landings – primarily because they failed to get their tanks and heavy artillery pieces ashore. However, the British troops at Sword were the only ones at any of the five landing areas to encounter strong German Panzer divisions on D-Day.

The main assault force at Sword beach was the British 3rd Infantry Division and its primary objective on the day of the invasion was to capture the city of Caen. As it turned out, the fighting was so heavy that they didn’t manage to take Caen until over a month after D-Day.

In fact it is worth remembering that the Allies failed to achieve any of their goals for D-Day itself: as well as Caen, Carentan, St. Lô, and Bayeux all remained in German hands. Only two of the beaches (Juno and Gold) were linked on the first day, and it wasn’t until 12 June that all five beachheads were connected. The battle to secure and expand the foothold took far longer than anticipated and the success of the operation was by no means the foregone conclusion that some would have you believe.

Does it move for you?

Posted in Art with tags , on May 20, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve posted a couple of items like this before. It’s a static image that is supposed to appear to move in some sort of swirly fashion when you look at it. All it does for me is give me a headache. Does it move for you?

Silhouettes of Gustav Mahler – Otto Böhler

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , , , on April 25, 2019 by telescoper

Schattenbilder (Silhouettes) of Gustav Mahler conducting, by Otto Böhler (1847–1913), published posthumously in 1914.

Moving Image?

Posted in Art on April 22, 2019 by telescoper

Here’s another interesting image that for some people creates an optical illusion in that the circular patterns seem to rotate. I have to admit, though, that I don’t see the effect. Actually, correct that. I don’t see anything when I view it on my phone, but do see swirling motion when I have it on my computer screen.

Do you see movement?

Our Lady of Paris

Posted in Architecture, History with tags , , , , on April 15, 2019 by telescoper

As I write, a catastrophic fire is raging in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Having started on the roof (or perhaps in a space underneath it), the flames spread rapidly through the mediaeval timbers of the building, bringing down the ceiling onto the nave, and causing the spire to collapse.

Restoration work on the roof started just four days ago and the area where the fire began was surrounded by scaffolding. Though nobody yet knows for sure what caused the fire, it seems likely to have been something to do with the ongoing repairs.

Watching the video streamed live from the scene with increasing horror, it seemed to me that the firemen were helpless to halt the advancing inferno. They just couldn’t get enough water onto the top of the huge structure quickly enough to contain the blaze. It was heartbreaking viewing. I fear very little will be left standing and most of the interior will have been completely destroyed, as this drone picture suggests:

At least there seem to have been no fatalities, although one brave fireman is reported to be seriously injured.

The loss of an iconic building like Notre Dame is shattering event for anyone who has been there, as I have on several occasions. Nobody who has seen the splendour of the 13th Century Rose Windows, for example, will ever forget the experience, so the destruction feels like losing a part of one’s own life. But above all it is a terrible loss for the people of Paris, as Notre Dame is the embodiment of so much of that beautiful and ancient city’s history.

Nobody put this better than Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris:

Notre Dame de Paris, in particular, is a curious specimen of this variety. Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art. Thus—to mention here only a few of the chief details—whereas the small Porte Rouge almost touches the limits of fifteenth century Gothic delicacy, the pillars of the nave, by their massiveness and great girth, reach back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would imagine that six centuries lay between that door and those pillars. Not even the Hermetics fail to find in the symbols of the grand doorway a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus the Roman Abbey—the Church of the Mystics—Gothic art—Saxon art—the ponderous round pillar reminiscent of Gregory VII, the alchemistic symbolism by which Nicolas Flamel paved the way for Luther—papal unity—schism—Saint-Germain-des-Prés—Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie—all are blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame. This generative Mother-Church is, among the other ancient churches of Paris, a sort of Chimera: she has the head of one, the limbs of another, the body of a third—something of all.

I’m sure Parisians will be in a state of shock tonight and that will turn to something very close to grief. Mere words from me won’t help much, but let me in any case express my profound sadness and sympathy to my French friends and colleagues in Paris and around the world.

But if I know them at all, the French will soon set about the task of rebuilding, probably creating something majestic and extraordinary to replace what has been lost.

UPDATE: the morning after, it seems the fire was brought under control quickly enough to save the walls and towers, and at least one of the Rose Windows.

That this has been achieved owes everything to the courage and skill of the Pompiers, 500 of whom fought the blaze last night. Magnifique.

This is not an Animation…

Posted in Art with tags , on April 8, 2019 by telescoper

To find out more about this optical illusion, which was created by Yurii Peripedia using nothing more complicated than Adobe Illustrator, see here.

The Most Ancient Heavens

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am, in that London, getting ready for the start of a two-day conference at the Royal Astronomical Society on cosmology, large-scale structure, and weak gravitational lensing, to celebrate the work of Professor Alan Heavens, on (or near) the occasion of his 60th birthday. Yes, it is a great name for an astronomer.

I was honoured to be invited to give a talk at this meeting, though my immediate reaction when I was told about was `But he can’t be sixty! He’s only a few years older than me…oh.’ I gather I’m supposed to say something funny after the conference dinner tomorrow night too.

Courtesy of alphabetical order it looks like I’m top of the bill!

Anyway, I’ve known Alan since I was a research student, i.e. over thirty years, and we’re co-authors on 13 papers (all of them since 2011). I’m looking forward to the HeavensFest not only for the scientific programme (which looks excellent) but also for the purpose of celebrating an old friend and colleague.

Just to clear up a couple of artistic points.

First, the title of the meeting, The Most Ancient Heavens, is taken from Ode to Duty by William Wordsworth.

Second, the image on the conference programme shown above is a pastiche of The Creation of Alan Adam which is part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known to his friends as Michelangelo. Apparently he worked flat out painting this enormous fresco. It was agony but the ecstasy kept him going. I’ve often wondered (a) who did the floor of the Sistine Chapel and (b) how could Michelangelo create such great art when it was so clearly extremely cold? Anyway, I think that is a picture of Alan at high redshift on the far right, next to the man with beard who at least had the good sense to wear a nightie to spare his embarrassment.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I must be going. Time for a stroll down to Piccadilly.

Update: you can find a bunch of pictures of this conference here.

Star Maker, by Remedios Varo

Posted in Art with tags , , , , , on March 9, 2019 by telescoper

by Remedios Varo Uranga (1908-63), painted in 1958.

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann – Havfruen

Posted in Art with tags , , , , on February 20, 2019 by telescoper

Something else I discovered in the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen on Saturday was the art of Polish-Danish painter Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, who lived from 1819 until 1881. There are many of her compositions on display in Copenhagen. I found some of them very conventional and even a bit sentimental, but she undoubtedly had a distinctive way of handling light and some of her paintings are very fine indeed. I thought I’d pick this one to share as it is a large and striking oil painting that greets you when you enter the first room of Danish art (upstairs).

The title of this is Havfruen (`The Mermaid’).

Incidentally, one of the few things I know how to say in Danish is Den lille Havfrue (`The Little Mermaid’), largely because of the famous statue which is a local Copenhagen landmark. This illustrates an interesting feature of Danish grammar. Instead of adding a definite article, as one would do in English, a singular definite noun is denoted by adding the indefinite article en (or elided form) as a suffix at the end of the noun. This is the rule unless the noun is qualified by an adjective, in which case a definite article `Den’ is put at the front. Hence `the Mermaid’ is Havfruen but `the little Mermaid’ is Den lille Havfrue, owing to the presence of the adjective lille. The Mermaid above may or may not be little, but the painting certainly isn’t!

Danish grammar isn’t really all that hard – quite similar to German, actually – but the pronunciation is very challenging!

A Day Out in Copenhagen

Posted in Art with tags , on February 16, 2019 by telescoper

As planned I spent most of today as a tourist in the fine city of Copenhagen. Specifically I decided to visit the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, a museum of considerable interest. Here are some pictures I took inside.

Head of a wounded Amazon, a roman copy of a Greek original, c. 350 BC

A fine selection of classical beards

Head Room

Statue of the Egyptian God Anubis

A fine collection of bronzes by Degas.

And this is a gratuitous tourist picture of the lovely harbour of Nyhavn in the sunshine…

And after that I had a late lunch with an old friend. All in all rather a nice day. Now I should get my stuff together and head to the departure gate!