Saturday, February 22, 2020

But, the Pieces Fit


In retirement, I’ve gone back to school, where I’m working on a bachelor’s degree in Art History.  Naturally, the history part is relatively easy, but the art half of the equation is an uphill climb for someone with no measurable amount of artistic talent.  Still, the courses are fascinating and my professors are all exceedingly kind to a ‘non-traditional’ student in their classrooms (that’s education-speak for ‘old fart’).

After delivering a little over 6,000 lectures, being a student again is a little strange.  It took a while, but I finally stopped answering the instructor’s hypothetical questions during a lecture.  And with difficulty, I can sit quietly when the audiovisual equipment acts up and my fellow students offer insanely impractical solutions. It’s not my circus.

Just this week, I was discussing the day’s reading assignment with another student before class.  When I opined that the author had used thirty pages to say something that could have been more clearly stated in two paragraphs, another student remarked, “You should take an upper level history course—all the reading is like that!”

The student I had been talking with almost lost it—as he had taken several upper level history courses from me a few years ago.  

The class in art conservation and restoration is interesting.  We are practicing on terra-cotta flower pots.  After carefully painting them and testing them with various solvents and resins—the professor not-so-carefully broke them into pieces and threw some of the pieces away.  It is now my task to somehow put the poor pot back together.  I fear that my prized flowerpot will never be able to play the piano again. 

After being checked out on cheap terra-cotta pots, I will be more than willing to do the same thing for your prized Ming vase.  I know the procedure—first, you break it with a rock…

The pieces of the pot do not go back together as easily as you might imagine.  The terra-cotta didn’t really break cleanly, some of the edges crumbled into dust.  Imagine a jigsaw puzzle where the edges of the pieces got sanded down a little.  As it is now, I suspect that my restored pot may look like something Picasso produced.

All of this reminds me of the remains of an old church I visited in Central Mexico.  Once a prosperous Catholic church, the building had been a revolutionary target during the War of the Reforms in 1850.  Though it seems unlikely today, in Mexico’s past there were several occasions when the prosperity and conservatism of the Catholic Church came under attack by the Mexican people.  There were even times when it was possible that the church might completely vanish.  Today, the Mexican Constitution still contains anti-clerical provisions that, though largely ignored, severely restrict the Church’s role in public affairs.

At various times during wars and revolutions, churches were sacked, priests were assassinated, and the state confiscated church property.  During the War of the Reform, this particular church was looted and all of the fabulous stone statues and sculpted facades were turned into rubble.  In particular, the stone carvings that made up the front face of the church were busted into crumbled debris.

What was left of building remained more or less intact, and for over a century the former church was employed for a variety of secular uses.  What had been intricate carvings became building blocks used to create walls breaking up the vast chapel into rooms and hallways.  For a while, the former church was used as a dormitory for Protestant missionaries, as a warehouse, and even as a bowling alley.  Locals delight in telling gullible tourists that the building was used as a brothel, but the tale is almost certainly apocryphal since the building is far too prominently located within the city to have ever been a whorehouse.

Eventually, the city decided to restore the former church and with cooperation from the local diocese, work commenced to restore the old building.  The interior walls were dismantled carefully, recovering as much as possible of the pieces of the former artwork.  Luckily, most of the stonework had originally been in the form of large stone cubes, sort of like a large stone three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle.

As these stone blocks were recovered, they were carefully placed on racks, awaiting a somewhat problematic restoration.  There were huge problems with the restoration, however.  Both interior and exterior walls had been destroyed and it was impossible to tell whether any individual carved block of rock was originally part of the altar, of the nave, or of the church’s ornamental facade.  Much worse was the fact that no one alive had ever seen the original and there were no drawings or photographs.

Think of several three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles mixed together, the edges all worn enough that any piece will fit in several locations, and the boxes the puzzles came in are missing the photographs and instructions.  There are almost an infinite number of possible reconstructions.

When I visited, the conservation team was carefully numbering the blocks and photographing the carved faces of the stones.  Then, using a computer, the digitized images were carefully fitted together until they had recreated an image of the long-lost graceful carved facade of the old church.

Working carefully and slowly, the team rebuilt the facade, using as little concrete filler as possible between the stones.  The result was remarkable.  Though still covered with a protective net of wires to hold the work together while the concrete cured, here was the beautiful face of an early church from the colonial period of Mexico, lost for over a century and a half, restored.

Sculpted stone columns flanked each side of a delicately carved portico.  Niches in the walls protected the statues of the church’s patron saints. Together once again, the stones that had been carefully fit into place revealed a church with a clearly defined Baroque style.

Within a year of the restoration, a painting of the old church was located in Paris.  The French artist had visited the town during the heyday of the silver boom and, impressed by the beauty of the church, had rendered the facade of the church in an oil painting that he had taken back to France.

The computer algorithms had matched the stones with mathematical accuracy, the restorers had carefully fitted the pieces together, and according to the painting—not a single piece was in the correct position.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Permanently Linked to War


Years ago, I read Is Paris Burning, the story about the liberation of Paris from the Nazis by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  The book is fantastic and well-documented, since the authors interviewed as many of the survivors of the siege as possible, including General Dwight Eisenhower and General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German officer who deliberately disobeyed Hitler’s order to destroy Paris so the Allies could not capture it.

I have often wondered just why so many bad movies are made from the butchered carcasses of good books.  It would seem relatively simple for a script to adhere to the guidelines of a successful book—which I acknowledge is easy for me to say since I have never attempted to write a screenplay. 

Still, I don’t think I could list in an hour the number of disastrous movies that resulted from scripts so dramatically different from the original publication that not even the author could find the vestigial traces of his former work.  On the other hand, I can name several good movies that closely followed the original novel—Lonesome Dove, Dr. Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Bladerunner come to mind. 

Then, in contrast, there are the movies in which you wonder if anyone bothered to read more than the back cover of the book.  I was going to list a few examples of this, but just think of any bad movie you have ever seen.  Since not even Hollywood would actually pay for the movie rights to a bad book, chances are they butchered an otherwise decent novel.

In the case of the 1966 production of Is Paris Burning, we can’t blame the writers of the screenplay, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal.  I haven’t seen the original screenplay, but these two authors are certainly talented enough to have delivered the director, René Clément, a decent script. 

Courtesy of Netflix, I recently re-watched the film.  The movie is horrible, and not because of the occasional historical inaccuracies.  Yes, the crowd scenes show lots of people with clothes and hair styles from two decades after the war, and many of the German tanks are rather obviously thinly disguised American tanks.  You can also spot a few television antennas on buildings, and other anomalies.  None of these details really matters:  the movie is bad because President Charles de Gaulle stomped all over it.

It seems de Gaulle controlled the rights to where and when the movie could be filmed, and his approval had quite a few “qualifications”.  First, the participation and bravery of the resistance fighters could contain very little of the activities of the student communists.  The students are still in the film, but they are all murdered for not following orders.

Second, because of de Gaulle, the film had to be filmed in black and white.  President de Gaulle would allow Nazi flags and uniforms to be filmed on the streets of Paris, but only if the colors were changed.  Red Nazi flags were changed to green, and black SS uniforms were actually dark purple.  In both cases, when filmed in black and white, the colors appear correct.  (I would love to see a copy of the film using the computer ‘colorized’ technique.  The idea of storm troopers in purple—or is that “aubergine”?—uniforms sounds wonderful.)

Grudgingly, I will admit that de Gaulle may have had a point.  During filming, one startled postal worker came across some actors in German uniforms and ran away screaming, “They’re back!  They’re back!” (Well, to his credit, he didn’t surrender.)

There is one quick scene towards the end of the movie that I can’t stop thinking about.  Two SS officers show up with orders to remove an old tapestry from the Louvre and take it back to Berlin as a gift from Goering to Hitler.  Unfortunately, explains General von Choltitz, the Louvre is in the part of Paris under the control of the Resistance. 

The scene is historically accurate, though it was actually Heinrich Himmler who ordered the tapestry’s removal, not Goering.  The old tapestry in question was, of course, the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual retelling of the invasion and conquest of England by William the Conqueror, in 1066.  Roughly 230 feet long, the tapestry tells the story from the Norman point of view using approximately 1400 embroidered images along with Latin text.  The fact that the tapestry is not only a priceless work of art but an important historical document has seldom spared it from being seen as a prize of war.

Napoleon (Were you wondering how I was going to work him into this?) considered the tapestry to be an important propaganda tool, which is only natural—that is precisely why Bishop Odo, the brother of William the Conqueror had the tapestry created.  While he was planning his own invasion of England, Napoleon had the cloth removed from the Bayeux Cathedral and sent to the Musée Napoléon, formerly the Louvre.  When Napoleon’s invasion was called off, the tapestry no longer had any significance, so he had the tapestry returned to the town of Bayeux.

At the time, no special significance was seen in the tapestry.  During the French Revolution, the military had requisitioned the cloth to be used as a tarp to protect military wagons.  The only reason the artifact survived is because a local lawyer spirited the cloth bundle away and hid it in his home until the madness of the revolution had ended.

Once again, the value of the tapestry as propaganda supporting an invasion of England was recognized by the Germans in World War II, and once again, the tapestry was taken to the Louvre while a planned invasion was being prepared.

What seems odd to me is that in the thousand-year history of the Bayeux Tapestry, the priceless art object has been on display only twice at the world’s premier art museum, and both times have been because the work was taken there by force—once, by Napoleon, and the second time, by the Nazis.

Although we think of the tapestry as a work of art today, perhaps, because it was made to commemorate a successful invasion, twice—over 750 years after its creation—it has also been considered a propaganda tool for war and more recent invasions.  Or could it be that would-be conquerors believe it to be a magic talisman for successful conquest?