Redbad, my unusual film review


This 2017 video is a scene from the new film Redbad, recorded at the Alde Feanen nature reserve in Friesland province in the Netherlands.

A film recorded not only in Alde Feanen nature reserve, but also on Ameland island and elsewhere.

A film sold to 14 countries.

This will be a very unusual film review by me. I have written all my other film reviews on this blog after seeing the films. However, when the film Redbad arrived in the cinemas, I was busy. I thought: ‘Many media expect it to become a big commercial success. So, I can wait a bit and then I will still be able to see it in the cinema’. However, after I had waited a bit, the success turned out to be not that big.

I had already gathered information on the film to write a review later. Well, I thought, it is a pity to waste that. So, I prepared to write a strange review of this movie; strange, as I read quite a lot about it, but did not see it myself. Meaning that I would not be able to say 100% certainly whether the film company’s publicity and/or the reviews were correct.

This is the trailer of the film.

Redbad film with Arabic subtitles

Then, however, I found out that someone had put Redbad, with Arabic subtitles, on YouTube. So, after all, this did not become my first film review ever without having seen the film. Though I saw it on my small computer screen; meaning I may have missed some details which I would have noticed on a big cinema screen.

One day after I saw the movie on my computer, it turned out that YouTube had deleted it.

Some reviews of Redbad are sharply critical.

The film is accused of historical inaccuracies. Also here. And here.

The film makers did have a historical adviser: Nathalie Scheenstra. However, Ms Scheenstra is a specialist in Dutch medieval clothes and jewelry. Not in other aspects.

The film depicts conflict in the Dutch Dark Ages, about 700 AD, between the Frisians, living in the north west of the present Netherlands; and the Frankish kingdom, of the south-east of what is now the Netherlands, of present Belgium and parts of present France and Germany.

Who was King Redbad?

King Redbad, the protagonist of the film, probably only ruled what is now North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht provinces; not Friesland province, as the film claims. Franks and later historians saw ‘Frisia’ from the Zwin estuary on the present Dutch-Belgian border to Denmark as an unity which it was not.

The film is mainly about Redbad’s youth, the time before he became king. However, about Redbad’s youth nothing is known. Was he a son of Aldgisl, an earlier Frisian king? Unknown. Redbad’s daughter Theudesinda, aka Thiadsvind, married Frankish royal prime minister (mayor of the palace) Grimoald the Younger, son of Frankish prime minister Pepin of Herstal. The film wrongly calls Pepin of Herstal ‘king’. And in the film, not Redbad’s daughter, but his sister marries a Frankish leader. She marries not Grimoald the Younger, but Charles Martel, who would become prime minister, and is better known to many people than that other Frankish mayor of the palace Grimoald. Charles Martel is the villain of the film, depicted as, apart from atrocities against Frisian civilians, murdering his father Pepin of Herstal and his little child nephew who might have become a rival for the mayor of the palace office.

This video shows an interview with US American actor Jonathan Banks (Mike in Breaking Bad) who plays Pepin of Herstal.

No uncle, no cousin of Redbad is known in history; though these are major roles in the film.

Both according to Christian hagiography and the film, a missionary tried to baptize Redbad. In the film, that missionary is Saint Willibrord. In historic sources, it is Saint Wulfram of Sens. In the film, the baptism attempt is while Redbad was not yet king. In Christian tradition it was while he was already king; which makes sense from the early medieval church’s viewpoint that converting a ruler makes its easier to convert his subjects (Cuius regio, eius religio …); which is less probable if the convert is a non-ruling royal family member.

Both according to tradition and in the film, Redbad then asked whether, if he would die and go to heaven being a Christian, he would then meet his deceased ancestors again. No, was the answer: it turns out that his pagan ancestors are in hell, while his Frankish enemies will be in heaven. Then, Redbad refused baptism; a bit like the 16th century native Cuban who refused baptism as he did not want to meet the Christian Spanish conquistador killers of his people in heaven.

Expansion of the Franks' realm

This picture shows the expansion of the Franks’ realm.

Who were the Frisians and the Franks?

Who were ‘Frisians’? Were they Germanic or Celtic? Was Frisia maybe Celtic speaking in the Roman age, and became Germanic speaking only later? We are not sure.

In Friesland province, people object that there is no Frisian language in the film. In the movie, the Frisians speak Dutch. The Anglo-Saxon missionaries Willibrord and Boniface speak English, not Anglo-Saxon. Early medieval Anglo-Saxon was rather similar to Frisian, that is why the church sent Anglo-Saxons as missionaries. While in the film there is a language barrier which hardly existed in the early middle ages. Franks and Danes also speak English in the film. Though it would have been logical to have the Franks speak Dutch, derived from the Frankish language.

In the film, houses of the Frisian upper class look too much like primitive barbarian dwellings. According to archaeological research, they were more comfortable than that.

This Dutch language video is about the cast of the film in a reconstructed prehistoric village in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. One should not wonder that the ‘Frisian houses’ in the film look so primitive: as they are really Eindhoven prehistoric houses.

While the Frankish aristocrats are depicted as living in castles: which look like they belong in the late Middle Ages, not the early Middle Ages (the film was recorded partly in Bouillon castle in Belgium, in its present form mainly from the 16th-17th century).

Even Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, of about 100 years after the time depicted in the film, did not live in castles like Bouillon castle, but in not so palatial farmhouses, though a bit more luxurious than usually then.

The Frankish knights in the movie are depicted wearing chain mail; not in use about 700 AD.

According to the medieval Christian Saint Wulfram hagiography, Frisians practiced human sacrifices. The film’s opening scene is a young woman burned to death as a sacrifice to the goddess Freyja. We know that later polytheist Scandinavians worshiped Freyja. But we know nothing about Frisians about 700 AD worshiping Freyja; let alone sacrificing humans to her. In fact, we know very little about Frisian polytheism then.

The Saint Wulfram hagiography mentions Frisians sacrificing humans by tying them on rafts pushed into the North Sea. That happens to Redbad early in the film. He miraculously survives, the raft taking him all the way to Denmark.

There were no invading Vikings yet in the 8th century Netherlands, as the film says wrongly.

However, the film is accurate about depicting the kingdom of the Franks as using Christianity as a tool in violently subjecting Frisians and others. The point on which Google corporation tried to censor the film for supposedly ‘insulting Christianity’ by criticizing Frankish rulers of 1300 years ago.

Franks, Frisians and xenophobic propaganda

Both the 8th century Frankish and Frisian kingdoms play a role today in right-wing nationalist propaganda.

The French neofascist National Front, now called National Rally, claims Charles Martel is a Christian hero as he waged war on the Muslim Umayyad caliphate. Marine Le Pen‘s party equates present day immigrant workers and refugees from wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere with 8th century armed Muslim soldiers.

On the other hand, Dutch neopagan neonazis see King Redbad as a hero, supposedly saving the ‘Germanic race’ from supposedly ‘Jewish’ Christianity. Ancient Germanic religion did not know ‘race’. It glorified war in its Viking age Scandinavian form. But we cannot say whether 8th century Frisian polytheism also glorified war. We know so little about early medieval Frisian religion.

The film might be interpreted as saying opposing ‘foreign intruders’, like Redbad did, is a good thing; some spectators might draw unpleasant parallels between Redbad stopping Frankish soldiers and stopping unarmed 21st century refugees from coming to the Netherlands. Historian Sven Meeder says that the film might be used by the Dutch extreme right.

However, Redbad’s fights against the Franks, in history and in the film are not really useful for chauvinist Dutch nationalism. The people of the southeastern half of what is now the Netherlands were Frankish in Redbad’s time. The present Dutch language is derived from Frankish.

Also, the real Redbad, though he fought the Franks, and did not want to convert, often had diplomatic negotiations with Franks. Like Queen Cleopatra used more diplomacy than war to keep Egypt as independent of the Roman empire as possible.

Redbad offered Christians some religious tolerance. Missionary Willibrord (depicted as a bigoted enemy of the Frisians in the film) was allowed to preach in Redbad’s kingdom.

Redbad was a pagan, but not a fanatical pagan, as the Frankish Carolingian dynasty wrongly claimed, Meeder says.

Communist Frisian author Theun de Vries wrote ‘Redbald and [Saint] Wulfram’ and ‘Odin’s City’ about Redbad.

Roman Catholic and Celtic Christianity

The film asks the question why in 754 AD Christian bishop Saint Boniface was killed near Dokkum town in Friesland. Was it murder, maybe with the vile motive of robbery; as medieval hagiographies claim? Or did Boniface rather go to Friesland with a Frankish kingdom armed force to forcibly convert Frisians, and did Frisian polytheists therefore kill him in battle, as 21st century historians think?

Historian Han Nijdam criticized the film (eg, about its depiction of Willibrord as a hardliner, and of Saint Boniface as mild; while it was the other way).

In the film, when Willibrord forcibly baptizes a woman or a man, it looks more like waterboarding torture than a religious ceremony. While in history, Boniface may have been more likely to baptize people in that violent way than Willibrord.

The historical Willibrord originally had Celtic Christian influences, which may have made him less dogmatically authoritarian. Boniface had persecuted Celtic Christianity in England. Willibrord and Boniface did not like each other.

Historians point out that the forced conversions by Saint Boniface and similar preachers basing themselves on Frankish weapons, were at least as much against Irish ‘Celtic’ Christianity as against Germanic paganism. Roman Christians accused Celtic Christians of mixing their religion with Judaism, claiming the Celts did not like to eat pork etc.

This 2014 video says about itself:

Is This the Reason Ireland Converted to Christianity?

Many attribute the spread of Christianity in Ireland to St. Patrick. But medieval history and scientific evidence dating back to 540 A.D. hint at a more cosmic reason.

‘Celtic’ Christianity originated in Ireland. It differed much from continental European Roman Catholic Christianity; due to social differences. Irish 5th century society had never been occupied by the Roman empire. It still had many leftovers from ‘primitive communism’; though there were kings, and some slaves. Saint Patrick, traditionMany attribute the spread of Christianity in Ireland to St. Patrick. But Medieval history and scientific evidence dating back to 540 A.D. hint at a more cosmic reason.ally seen as the originator of Irish Christianity, used to be a slave. ‘Saint Patrick Christianity’ used to be much less top down than Frankish and other continental religion; based on collectives of monks, rather than on hierarchies of bishops with the bishop of Rome, the pope, at the top. A difference with ‘Roman’ monasteries, where monks and nuns took vows supposedly for life, was the greater flexibility in Irish convents, where people could move in and out; a bit like in Buddhist monasticism. Women had a bigger role in churches than they had in the Frankish kingdom. Celibacy was not universal among Celtic clerics.

Irish preachers managed to convert many people in Britain and also in Germany and elsewhere on the continent to their brand of Christianity. This caused conflicts with Roman Catholics. At clerics’ meetings, that might take the form of quarreling about what was the proper time to celebrate Easter (Roman clergy thought Celtic Easter was too much like Jewish Passover). However, behind that were much deeper, social, differences.

In the Frankish kingdom and elsewhere, there were many less leftovers from ‘primitive communism’. These were countries in transition from Roman empire-days slave-owning societies to medieval feudalism. In religion, that led to hierarchical, Vatican-centred Christianity.

The Celtic and Frankish monastic ideals differed. The Celtic ideal was ‘peregrinatio’. Literally, that means ‘pilgrimage’, a concept known throughout Christianity and other religions. Specifically to the Saint Patrick monks, it meant travelling far away, without Frankish soldiers to help you, to tell people wanting to listen voluntarily about the Christian religion. Peregrinatio had a link with rests of ‘primitive communist’ nomadic hunter-gatherer societies in ancient Ireland and Scotland, never conquered by the Roman empire.

The Frankish ideal for monks was ‘stabilitas loci’. Monks should in principle stay in one place, at their monastery in territory controlled by the Frankish kingdom or other Roman Catholic states. Eg, the Frankish king, later emperor, Charlemagne was against Christian missionaries going to areas not subjected by Francia; like Celtic missionaries did. There is a parallel with peasant serfs in continental European feudal society: they were not allowed to travel unless their masters permitted it.

In England, Saint Boniface managed to defeat Saint Patrick Christianity, with a little help of coercion by Anglo-Saxon kings. In Germany, he also had successes against Celtic style Christians, with a little, or rather much, help from Frankish rulers. Celtic Christians, to become Roman Catholics in good standing, had to be re-baptised; equating them with pagans who had never been baptised. We are not sure about Celtic Christianity in early medieval Frisia. Often, Boniface converted kings and other nobles first; usually then, he could leave coercion to convert their peasant subjects to the newly Christianized nobility. The slogan ‘Cuius regio, eius religio’ is best known from 16th century conflicts in Germany between Protestants and Roman Catholics. However, it also seems to have worked about 800 years earlier. That conversion strategy did not work for Boniface in Friesland: decentralized, hardly ever been occupied by Roman empire armies. So, Frankish invasive armies had to do the work that local kings did not.

This 13 July 2018 video is called Why did the Carolingian/Frankish Empire Collapse?

In the 11th century, after Saint Patrick Christianity had been defeated in Britain and on the continent, newly Christianized Normans conquered England and made themselves kings there. After that, the Normans invaded Ireland, bringing feudalism and destroying Celtic Christianity to replace it with Roman episcopal hierarchy.

The people of Ireland paid a bloody price for that forced conversion to Vatican-centric religion. Eg, when in 1689 the Protestant king of England, William III, supported by the pope, defeated Irish forces in the battle of the Boyne.

Eg, when in the 19th century Protestant Anglo-Irish landlords obstructed Home Rule for Ireland, claiming it would be ‘Rome rule’. Untrue, but not 100% incredible.

And in the 20th century, when the Roman Catholic hierarchy subjected Irish women to slave labour, and Roman Catholic children’s homes massively dumped dead Irish babies in septic tanks and other mass graves.

And why was the missionary Saint Boniface killed in Friesland province, as the film’s publicity material asks? According to historians, because of converting people forcibly, accompanied by Frankish soldiers. While the film depicts the not-so-hardline Saint Willibrord as a hardliner; and Boniface as a moderate. It is more logical for Boniface to have been killed for being as historians depict him than for being as the film depicts him.

Unknown Einstein letters discovered


This video from Canada says about itself:

Jos Uffink: Tatiana Ehrenfest-Afanassjewa & the foundations of thermodynamics

I will consider Afanassjewa’s work on the foundations of thermodynamics. In particular I consider her response to Caratkhédory’s (1909) axiomatization, her view on the definition of a “reversible process” in the context of Norton’s recent claim that this notion is paradoxical, her discussion of negative absolute temperatures, 30 years before Ramsey introduced this notion into statistical mechanics, her view on the question whether thermodynamics is a dynamical theory at all, and, if time permits, on the distinction between thermal contact and “pressure contact” (as mediated, say, by a piston) between thermodynamical systems.

Annual UWO Philosophy of Physics Conference Thermodynamics as a Resource Theory: Foundational and Philosophical Implications

June 20-22, 2018

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Three unknown letters by Albert Einstein have been found in the archive of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden. The famous physicist wrote it to his Russian colleague Tatyana Afanasyeva. According to NRC Handelsblad daily, the letters were found by science journalist Margriet van der Heijden. She is working on a double biography of the Russian physicist and her husband, the Austrian-Dutch physicist Paul Ehrenfest.

The couple lived in Leiden at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ehrenfest succeeded Hendrik Lorentz in 1912 as a professor at the university in the city. Einstein regularly stayed with the couple at the Witte Rozenstraat. In the 1960s, the widow Tatyana Ehrenfest-Afanasyeva donated her husband’s archive to the museum.

‘Too detailed’

According to the newspaper, Afanasyeva in 1947 sent her manuscript Die Grundlagen der Thermodynamik [The foundations of thermodynamics] to Einstein. The letters show that he has read it with great interest. He wrote he sent back the manuscript “from which I have learned a great deal” with respect. He did, however, think the work was too detailed.

Einstein lived and worked in the USA at the famous Princeton University when he wrote the letters. “Such discoveries shed new light on Einstein and his contacts, on the history of science”, says Anne Kox, emeritus professor of the History of Physics to the NRC.

In California, the Caltech technical university is taking stock of Einstein’s work. The Einstein Papers Project has now cataloged some 30,000 letters and other documents. The three letters will be added to it.

Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s novel as TV series


This 2018 video from Britain says about itself:

Gwyneth Hughes’ adaptation of Thackeray’s literary classic is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows Becky Sharp as she attempts to claw her way out of poverty and scale the heights of English Society. Her story of “villainy, crime, merriment, lovemaking, jilting, laughing, cheating, fighting and dancing”, takes her all the way to the court of King George IV, via the Battle of Waterloo, breaking hearts and losing fortunes as she goes.

By David Walsh in the USA:

Vanity Fair: A new television adaptation of the great 19th century novel

1 February 2019

“But we are bound to stick closely, above all, by THE TRUTH—the truth, though it be not particularly pleasant to read of or to tell.”— Catherine: A Story (1839–40), William Makepeace Thackeray

A seven-part series based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, was broadcast in the UK in September and October, and released in the US on December 21. It was distributed by ITV in Britain and Amazon Video in the US.

Vanity Fair, published in 1848, is one of the great novels of the 19th century. Thackeray (1811–1863) set his work during and after the Napoleonic Wars, with the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815 playing a role in the events.

It follows, over the course of two decades or so, a group of characters—Becky Sharp (“Sharp by name, and sharp, I fear, by nature”, as someone in the series suggests), a young woman from a poor family who survives by her wits and charms; her friend, then rival … and then friend again, the naïve Amelia Sedley; Amelia’s husband George Osborne and her adoring lover from a distance for much of the book, William Dobbin; and Becky’s spouse Rawdon Crawley, and their respective families, lovers and friends.

Vanity Fair, book cover

It is a remarkable social satire and picture of life. Without moralizing or lecturing, Thackeray holds up to the light the opportunism, hypocrisy and greed of the middle classes, the pseudo-greatness and viciousness of society’s “betters,” the high price to be paid for “getting ahead” in society at any cost, etc., all these social features and more.

The title comes from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the extended Christian allegory. In that book, often considered the first English novel, “Vanity Fair” is a location built by the devil, where people are sinfully attached to the things of this world. For Thackeray, who uses the title somewhat ironically, “Vanity Fair” refers to contemporary Britain, whose inhabitants, he writes in Chapter Eight, have “no reverence except for prosperity, and no eye for anything beyond success.”

During its 19-month serialization in Punch, the British humor magazine, in 1847 and 1848, the author gave his novel the subtitle Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, giving notice that he had also included many of his own illustrations. When it appeared as a single volume, it carried the unusual subtitle A Novel without a Hero.

Both subtitles are correct—and both are significant.

The new television series, written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by James Strong and (for one episode) Jonathan Entwistle, opens with Thackeray himself (Michael Palin), who acts as narrator throughout, introducing us to “Vanity Fair”, which he explains, “is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbug, falseness and pretension.”

In London, 1814, Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke), the daughter of an “opera girl” and an artist, and Amelia Sedley (Claudie Jessie), from a wealthy background, leave Miss Pinkerton’s school for girls, where Becky has been teaching. She quits the place on bad terms, complaining about her poverty wages and insulting its headmistress. Leaning out of the departing carriage, Becky shouts, “Vive la France! Vive Napoleon!” In his novel, Thackeray observes that “in those days, in England, to say, ‘Long live Bonaparte!’ was as much as to say, ‘Long live Lucifer!’”

Before she takes up her position in the countryside as a governess for the Sir Pitt Crawley family, a prospect she dreads, Becky spends a week in London with Amelia and her family. The vain, oafish Jos Sedley (David Fynn), Amelia’s brother, described by his own father as a “lardy loafer”, who has been making his fortune in India, is home for a visit. Captain George Osborne (Charlie Rowe), Amelia’s fiancé, also comes around. George, whose family is rich, takes an instant, snobbish dislike to the ambitious Becky, who openly sets her cap at Jos. George’s friend, Captain William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn), also loves Amelia, hopelessly. A memorable outing to Vauxhall Gardens, one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London at the time, provides Jos, who is known to be “terrified of young ladies,” the opportunity to propose to Becky, but he drinks too much, makes a fool of himself and evades the opportunity. Becky heads off to her governess position.

She sets to work in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley (Martin Clunes), a horrible, miserly, dishonest man, taking care of his two neglected young daughters. Thackeray writes of Sir Pitt, “Vanity Fair—Vanity Fair! Here was a man, who could not spell, and did not care to read—who had the habits and the cunning of a boor: whose aim in life was pettifogging: who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul; and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow: and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius or spotless virtue.”

Becky makes herself useful, as a secretary, to Sir Pitt, who, in turn, develops a longing for her. His second wife’s health is fading. However, Pitt’s handsome son, Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman), a dissolute, debt-ridden cavalry officer who earns his living by gambling, catches Becky’s eye instead. The entire Crawley clan are in economic thrall to Miss Matilda Crawley (Frances de la Tour), their wealthy and eccentric relative (Thackeray writes that she was considered “a dreadful Radical … She read Voltaire, and had Rousseau by heart; talked very lightly about divorce, and most energetically of the rights of women”). Becky worms her way into Matilda’s good graces, until the older lady learns that her new protégée has gone and secretly married Rawdon! His aunt instantly cuts Rawdon out of her will, largely determining the course of the new couple’s future.

A renewed war with France looms, as Napoleon has escaped from exile on the island of Elba and assembled a new army. George is generally inattentive to Amelia, who naively adores him. Thackeray, throughout his works, writes strongly about the situation of women. He observes that Amelia’s “heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise. … She did not dare to own that the man she loved was her inferior; or to feel that she had given her heart away too soon. Given once, the pure bashful maiden was too modest, too tender, too trustful, too weak, too much woman to recall it. We are Turks with the affections of our women; and have made them subscribe to our doctrine too.”

Amelia’s father goes bankrupt and George’s cold, unforgiving banker-father (Robert Pugh) demands that his son instantly end the relationship with her. George proceeds to marry Amelia against his father’s wishes, and is cut off financially for his efforts. This couple too is now poor. George grows resentful of Amelia, who he blames for his difficulties. To make matters worse, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, with the various characters now temporarily quartered in Brussels, George falls for the flirtatious, conniving Becky and begs her to run away with him, which she refuses to do.

George dies at Waterloo, and Amelia, pregnant with his child, dedicates herself to his memory. Dobbin knows the truth about George’s failings and disloyalty, but can’t bear to tell her.

Becky becomes disgracefully involved with Lord Steyne (Anthony Head), a rich, powerful and cynical marquis. “I have arrived”, she says, when the nobleman inveigles her an invitation to court.

In one of the most powerful, disturbing sequences in both the novel and new series (in Episode 6), Rawdon is locked up for non-payment of debts. Although appealed to and fully capable of doing so (thanks to the depraved marquis’ “generosity”), Becky does not extract her husband from debtors’ prison. Another of his relatives eventually does so.

Rawdon returns home unexpectedly to find Becky—alone, at night—singing to Lord Steyne, with whom she has been carrying on an affair. Becky protests her innocence. Steyne, believing that Rawdon is aware of the sums he has given Becky, supposedly to pay her debts, interjects: “Innocent! When every trinket you wear on your body I gave to you. Oh, I see what this is. The pair of you mean to lay a trap for me, to con me out of even more money than the thousands of pounds I have already given to this whore … which, no doubt, Colonel Crawley, you have already spent.” He calls Rawdon a “pimp”, who thereupon attacks and drives him out of the house. The marquis obtains his revenge, having Rawdon appointed to a position on a remote island where he later dies of yellow fever.

Mr. Osborne continues to persecute Amelia, who he blames for the falling out with his son. When Dobbin intervenes on behalf of Amelia and her young son, her deceased husband’s father hisses, “She may have seven children and starve, for all I care. She is dead to me.” Later, he makes his support for Amelia’s son conditional on the boy being taken away from his mother, which she, heart-brokenly, accedes to.

Dobbin, seeming to give up on Amelia, goes off to India. Years pass. In the end, fortune favors Amelia, when her son inherits his grandfather’s house and wealth. She now is provided for. Becky wanders the continent, working in gambling dens and such. She has been cold and unloving to her own son, and when he, for his part, ends up with the Crawley estate, he informs his mother, in a letter, “I do not wish to see you. I do not wish you to write to me. On no account should you ever attempt to make contact again.”

In Pumpernickel (a fictional Weimar), Germany, Becky and Amelia meet and reconcile. Dobbin arrives from India, with Jos, and hopes that time will have opened Amelia’s eyes. When she still persists in her illusions about her dead husband, Dobbin bursts out, “All these years, I have loved and watched you. Now I wonder, did I always know that the prize I’d set my life on was not worth winning? Your heart clings so faithfully to a memory because that is all you are capable of. Your soul is shallow. You cannot feel a love as deep as mine. … Goodbye, Amelia. Let it end. We are both weary of it.”

It takes Becky’s intervention, who informs Amelia that George proposed their flight together when they were in Belgium, to finally make her friend see the light: “George was not as he was painted! A man who was weary of you, who would have jilted you, but Dobbin forced him to keep his word! Why would anybody do that? Heavens above, Amelia, because he [Dobbin] loves you! Because he wants your happiness above his own!” It is a quasi-happy conclusion for Amelia and Dobbin, while Becky goes off with Jos, to a less certain future.

The new series (Vanity Fair has been adapted numerous times for radio, film and television) is a valuable and conscientious one. It starts off slowly enough, but then so perhaps does Thackeray’s novel. The first two episodes are slightly colorless. The scene at Vauxhall Gardens is not as spectacular and disastrous as it ought to be. With Becky’s departure from the dreary Crawley household and the emerging financial distress of the Sedleys, however, events become more colorful and compelling. The last few episodes are quite riveting. …

Cooke is fine as Becky, who exhibits an extraordinary selfishness and ruthlessness (produced by her circumstances), but who is not essentially mean or vindictive, as her ultimate conduct toward Amelia and Dobbin reveals. The younger generation of performers is generally fine, but it is the older generation—a chilling Anthony Head, Frances de la Tour, Robert Pugh, Simon Russell Beale (as Amelia’s father), Felicity Montagu (as Matilda Crawley’s unfortunate servant) and Suranne Jones (as Miss Pinkerton)—who truly stand out.

The series sincerely attempts, all in all, to do justice to Thackeray’s complexities and ambiguities. As one commentator observed, in Vanity Fair, “Conventional categories of human types were disregarded in favor of an individualization so complete that we know the characters better than we know our friends” (A Literary History of England, edited by Albert C. Baugh, 1948). The book is “without a hero,” as its subtitle suggested. Thackeray “possessed a terrible power,” asserted the same literary historian, “to detect and expose men’s self-deceptions, shams, pretenses, and unworthy aspirations.”

The novelist despised cant and mythologizing. For example, in his earlier Barry Lyndon (1844—adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1975), the story of an Irishman striving to become a member of the English aristocracy in the late 18th century, the narrator, a soldier at the time, remarks that it is very well “for gentlemen to talk of the age of chivalry; but remember the starving brutes whom they lead—men nursed in poverty, entirely ignorant, made to take a pride in deeds of blood—men who can have no amusement but in drunkenness, debauch, and plunder. … While, for instance, we are at the present moment admiring the ‘Great Frederick [Frederick II, King of Prussia 1740 to 1786],’ as we call him, and his philosophy, and his liberality, and his military genius, I, who have served him, and been, as it were, behind the scenes of which that great spectacle is composed, can only look at it with horror. What a number of items of human crime, misery, slavery, go to form that sum-total of glory!”

In Vanity Fair, Thackeray flogs the “great ones” in society for their selfish, callous treatment of their servants and the small shopkeepers and others whose bills they refuse to pay. How many noblemen, he asks, “rob their petty tradesmen, condescend to swindle their poor retainers out of wretched little sums and cheat for a few shillings? … Who pities a poor barber who can’t get his money for powdering the footmen’s heads; or a poor carpenter who has ruined himself by fixing up ornaments and pavilions for my lady’s dejeuner ? … When the great house tumbles down, these miserable wretches fall under it unnoticed: as they say in the old legends, before a man goes to the devil himself, he sends plenty of other souls thither.”

As for the Becky-Rawdon household, “Nobody in fact was paid. Not the blacksmith who opened the lock; nor the glazier who mended the pane; nor the jobber who let the carriage; nor the groom who drove it; nor the butcher who provided the leg of mutton; nor the coals which roasted it; nor the cook who basted it; nor the servants who ate it: and this I am given to understand is not unfrequently the way in which people live elegantly on nothing a year.”

Thackeray was no political radical himself, and he had terrible blind spots, including the suffering of the Irish people, but he was for the most part a devastating, uncompromising realist about people and society, a figure who belongs alongside Dickens, George Eliot, Scott, Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as a leading practitioner of the novel.

In The Historical Novel, Georg Lukács argued that Thackeray “is an outstanding critical realist. He has deep ties with the best traditions of English literature, with the great social canvases of the eighteenth century [in the work of novelists Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett in particular].”

Famously, Karl Marx, in his 1854 New York Tribune article, “The English Middle Class,” included Thackeray, along with Dickens, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, as belonging to that “splendid” group “of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

These writers, Marx indicates, have specialized in depicting “every section of the middle class.” And how have they painted this social grouping? “As full of presumption, affectation, petty tyranny and ignorance; and the civilised world have confirmed their verdict with the damning epigram that it has fixed to this class that ‘they are servile to those above, and tyrannical to those beneath them.’”

Thackeray’s major novels, Vanity Fair, Barry Lyndon, Pendennis (1848–1850) and The History of Henry Esmond (1852), along with rambling, uneven but still occasionally fascinating works, like The Newcomes (1855) and The Virginians (1857–1859), can hardly be recommended too highly. The new television series, in so far as it captures much of Thackeray’s intent, also deserves an audience.

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, Liverpool, England


The head of Leda, by Leonardo da Vinci, c1505-8

From daily The Morning Star in Britain, 30 January 2018:

LIVERPOOL/NATIONWIDE

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing
Walker Art Gallery
Until May 6

This free exhibition of 12 Leonardo da Vinci drawings, coinciding with 11 other simultaneous shows nationally, marks the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance master‘s death. It explores the diversity of subjects that inspired his creativity, including painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.

And it presents new information about his working practices and creative process, gathered through scientific research using ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence.

Painter Frans Hals exhibition in the USA


Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 152 x 107.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, inv. 4732. ©Roya

This painting is by Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666); Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 152 x 107.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, inv. 4732.

By David Walsh in the USA:

An exhibition of the great 17th century Dutch painter

Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion at the Toledo Museum of Art

17 January 2019

The Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art recently presented an exhibition featuring works by one of the leading Dutch painters of the 17th century—Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion.

The Dutch “Golden Age” produced a host of extraordinary artistic figures, including most prominently Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Hals (c. 1582–1666) and Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). Other brilliant painters, of everyday life, domestic and tavern scenes, of landscapes and seascapes, of still lifes and historical events, included Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), Salomon van Ruysdael (c. 1602–1670), Judith Leyster (c. 1609–1660), Adriaen van Ostade (1610–1685), Gerrit Dou (1613–1675), Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), Jan Steen (c. 1626–1679), Jacob van Ruisdael (c. 1629–1682), Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684) and Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693).

The Hals exhibition will next run at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels from February 1 to May 19 and later at the Fondation Custodia, an art museum in Paris focusing on works by European old masters.

The exhibition was prompted by the Toledo museum’s acquisition in 2011 of Hals’s The Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape (c. 1623–25), along with the recent conservation work done on the Brussels museum’s Three Children of the Van Campen Family.

Remarkably, as the Toledo museum website explains, “These two works [by Hals] originally formed one composition, separated for unknown reasons likely in the late 18th century or early 19th century. The exhibition reunites the sections of the Toledo/Brussels painting along with a third fragment from a private collection.” In other words, this was the first time in some 200 years that three pieces of the original painting were present in the same location.

The curators also offered a proposed reconstruction of Hals’s complete painting as it might have looked when it was painted nearly four centuries ago.

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), Family Group in a Landscape, ca. 1645–48, oil on canvas. 202 x 285 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, inv. 1934.8. ©Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid

Additional works by Hals were featured in Toledo, including Family Group in a Landscape (c. 1645–48) from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Family Group in a Landscape (c. 1647–50 ) from the National Gallery in London; Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (c. 1622) from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; and Portrait of a Dutch Family (mid-1630s) from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Also on display were Portrait of a Seated Man Holding a Hat and Portrait of a Seated Woman Holding a Fan (both c. 1650, from the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio).

A good portion of the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition is devoted to explaining the facts of the Van Campen family painting and proving that the three pieces belong together (along with other still unknown ones). The case seems convincing, but that is a matter for art historians and experts to debate and determine.

The Toledo exhibition was not large, nine paintings by Hals (including the three separate fragments), but the work was all beautiful.

Frans Hals was born in 1582 or 1583 to Adriana and Franchoys Hals in Antwerp, then in the Spanish Netherlands. Starting in the 1560s, the “Seventeen Provinces,” including present-day Netherlands and Belgium, had risen in revolt against the rule of Philip II of Spain, the Habsburg monarch. The struggle lasted for some 80 years. The Dutch uprising was bound up with the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Antwerp became the capital of the Dutch revolt. However, the Spanish forces counter-attacked and their troops, under the Duke of Parma, laid siege to Antwerp in July 1584. The city surrendered in August 1585 to the Spanish, who gave the Protestant population four years to settle their affairs before leaving.

Hals’s parents apparently fled during the siege, some 110 miles, to Haarlem in the new Dutch Republic to the north, where the artist lived for the rest of his life. Hals apprenticed as a painter starting in 1603. In 1610, he registered with the St. Lucas Guild, which, as the museum catalogue explains, “enabled him to establish his own workshop.”

Hals married twice. He had three children with his first wife, Anneke Harmendr, only one of whom survived early childhood. Anneke died in 1615, and two years later Hals married Lysbeth Reyniersdr, who bore 11 children (four of whom became painters).

The painter’s naturalistic work fell largely from favor in the 18th century, as a tendency even in Holland toward more aristocratic and classicistic academicism took shape, and was only “rediscovered” in the second half of the 19th.

Hals is now widely admired. Critics, historians and museumgoers alike are impressed, in the words of one commentator, by his “vigorous, slashing style.” The painter is always “amazing in fidelity, astounding in surety and vitality of draughtsmanship. Among the Dutch [Hals is] inferior in genius only to Rembrandt, [and] his influence was almost as far-reaching.” (Blake-More Godwin, Catalogue of European Paintings, The Toledo Museum of Art)

Another study argues that in Hals’s portraits, “the quick and decisive look of each stroke suggests spontaneity, the recording of one specific instant in the life of the sitter.” The complete picture “has the immediacy of a sketch. The impression of a race against time is, of course, deceptive. Hals spent hours, not minutes,” on his canvases, “but he maintains the illusion of having done it in the wink of an eye.” (A Basic History of Art, H. W. and Anthony F. Janson)

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Seated Woman Holding a Fan, c. 1650, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hals came to specialize in portraiture. The Toledo exhibition had several magnificent examples. Seated Man Holding a Hat and Seated Woman Holding a Fan (the subjects’ names are unknown) are assumed to be a newly married couple. Hals scholar Seymour Slive describes the pictures as among “Hals’s most sympathetic portraits of a husband and wife.” She in particular makes an impression, gazing at the viewer confidently.

The painter made a name for himself with his group portraits. Writing of the famed Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard (1616, not in the exhibition), Lawrence W. Nichols, the Toledo museum’s senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900, notes that, in contrast “to the stiff formality typical of the genre, Hals’s poses, gestures, and animated countenances—many conveying engagement with one another, and others rendered as peering out at the beholder—all induce the sense of being a firsthand witness to the actual gathering.” A contemporary of Hals’s, the historian of Haarlem, wrote in 1648 that his “paintings are imbued with such force and vitality that… they seem to breathe and live.”

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 151 x 163.6 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, inv. 2011.80

In Hals’s first family group portrait, the work at the center of the Toledo-Brussels-Paris exhibitions, The Van Campen Family in a Landscape, the painter continued—Nichols asserts—“to visually communicate a sense of immediacy … Moreover, he confronted the pressing challenge incumbent on a painter of group portraits of any category: how to capture individuality as well as the collective dynamic of the group and each individual’s relationship to it.” Van Campen, a cloth merchant, his wife and seven children are represented in one of three fragments; a second, narrower picture shows four children; and a third includes the head and torso of a boy (apparently another Van Campen son).

Nichols writes: “Hals’s arrangement is nothing less than the visualization of a household jubilantly being together—their familial cohesion is rendered palpable and is the painting’s very subject. … Gijsbert Claesz [van Campen] gazes out at the viewer as if to proudly present his progeny. Only the two babies … also engage us directly; all the others are involved in or reacting to the spectacle the painter has contrived. … Hals’s vivacious and animated portrait, with its expressive poses, gesticulating hands, and exuberant countenances, was ground-breaking.”

One of the prominent features of the Family Group from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid is the presence of a black child. The catalogue notes that black youths made their appearance as servants in Flemish and Dutch portraits from the 1630s, “not coincidentally after the Dutch West India Company was established in 1621 and took control of Dutch involvement in the Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans.” The individual “in the present work is as much a specific personality as the rest of the family. That Hals represented him with such dignity and humanity, in conjunction with his relatively substantial wardrobe … suggests that he may have been of high birth, perhaps someone from West Africa who came to Holland for his education or part of a trade delegation.”

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, ca. 1622, oil on canvas. 140 x 166.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. SK-A-133. ©Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A painting that deserves its own essay is Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, described as “an unmitigated standout in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.” Mariët Westermann (A Worldly Art—The Dutch Republic 1585–1718) argues that there “are no direct Dutch precedents” for this double portrait.

Massa and Beatrix lean back against a tree or an embankment. He smiles at the viewer. “Beside him to the right,” as a 1910 catalogue of Hals’s works described it, “sits a woman, bending slightly forward, with her head turned three-quarters left. She smiles rather slyly at the spectator.”

Again, Hals is a pioneer in presenting human relationships in a flexible and informal manner. The famed Rijksmuseum observes that the “happy, smiling pair sits comfortably close to each other. Posing a couple together in this way was highly unusual at the time.”

We know something about Massa, born into a wealthy silk merchant’s family and sent to Moscow at 15 to assist the family trade, including the fact that Hals painted him several times. Massa also served as a witness at the baptism of one of Hals’s daughters. They presumably were friends.

Frans Hals, Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa, 1626, Art Gallery of Ontario

Massa, an intriguing figure, belongs to the epoch when the bourgeoisie, in its ascendancy, played a revolutionary role. The Toledo museum catalogue describes him as a “polymath of sorts.” According to historian G. W. van der Meiden, Massa “played a prominent part in the beginnings of diplomatic contact between Russia and the Netherlands. He was a many-sided intellect … Thanks to his eye-witness report on the Time of Troubles he is well-known in Russian historiography.” (“Isaac Massa and the Beginnings of Dutch-Russian Relations”)

Massa authored a famed “Short Narrative” on the events of the “Time of Troubles” (1598–1613), a period of civil war in Russia, which ended with the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty. He also was an eye-witness to the terrible famine of 1601–03, which is estimated to have killed one third of the Russian population. Massa extensively describes the suffering. At one point in his “Narrative”, he writes that “Heaven inflicted on the whole country of Muscovy scarcity and famine of which history records no similar examples.”

Massa also published five maps of Russia, including an effort to render the Siberian coast. Van der Meiden writes that Massa “learnt Russian” and that, although “he had received very little formal education, his curiosity was insatiable.”

The same, of course, could be said about Hals himself.

In 1626, Hals painted a portrait of Massa leaning over the back of a chair toward the viewer in an astonishingly informal and intimate pose. The critic John Berger (“Hals and Bankruptcy” in About Looking ) asserted that Massa’s “expression is another one that Hals was the first to record. It is the look of a man who does not believe in the life he witnesses, yet can see no alternative. He has considered, quite impersonally, the possibility that life may be absurd. He is by no means desperate. He is interested. But his intelligence isolates him from the current purpose of men and the supposed purpose of God.” This appears generally legitimate considering what we know of Massa’s life and some of the terrible things he had seen. Berger, in the same essay, also claimed that no one “before Hals painted portraits of greater dignity and greater sympathy.”

Writing of the larger trend, art historian Arnold Hauser (in The Social History of Art, Volume II) observed that “Dutch art owes its middle-class character, above all, to the fact that it ceases to be tied to the Church. … Representations of real everyday life are the most popular of all: the picture of manners, the portrait, the landscape, the still life, interiors and architectural views.” Such motifs “acquire an autonomous value of their own; the artist no longer needs an excuse to portray them. … It is as if this reality were being discovered, taken possession of and settled down in for the first time.”

The bourgeois conditions of life did not make things easy for the Dutch painters, who were “free” of noble and Church patronage and thrown on the marketplace. The resulting state of artistic production, wrote Hauser, allowed “the boom on the art market to degenerate into a state of fierce competition, to which the most individual and most original talents fall victim. There were artists living in cramped circumstances in earlier times, but there were none in actual want.” The Dutch artists’ financial troubles “are a concomitant of that economic freedom and anarchy in the realm of art, which now comes on the scene for the first time and still controls the art market today. Here are the beginnings, too, of the social uprooting of the artist and the uncertainty of his existence.”

Hals went bankrupt in 1652. Rembrandt was effectively declared bankrupt in 1656. Vermeer left his wife in debt at the time of his early death in 1675. She wrote in a petition that during the “ruinous” Franco-Dutch War (1672–78), her husband “not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in.”

Every opportunity should be taken to see the work of Hals and the other Dutch painters.

The author also recommends:

Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
[29 October 2015]