HG Wells, Attenborough, Martians and Tasmanian genocide

BRITISH MADE GENOCIDE: The last four Tasmanian Aborigines of solely Aboriginal descent c1860s. Truganini, the last to survive, is seated at far right

This photo shows the last four Tasmanian Aborigines of solely Aboriginal descent c1860s. Truganini, the last to survive, is seated at far right.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Friday, December 6, 2019

Alien invasions and meetings with Stalin

The BBC TV adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds has finished. PETER FROST reminds us what a great socialist the author was

LAST SUNDAY saw the screening of the third and final episode of the BBC’s magnificent, if controversial, adaptation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Wells’s classic tale of Martians invading Earth has long been a favourite of mine. It is a beautifully ironic analogy of British imperialism’s invasions of foreign lands. Gun in one hand, a bible in the other the British invaded so many places in order to colour the globe pink.

Soldiers and missionaries carried a whole arsenal of fatal secret weapons. Viruses and bacteria of diseases like influenza and even the common cold. These were endemic back home but unknown and deadly among folk who had never built up immunities to them.

By coincidence before I watched the first episode of War of the Worlds I watched David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet documentary on the animals of Australia.

Attenborough focussed on two Tasmanian species. The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a carnivorous marsupial. Once widespread, today it is fighting hard in just a few Tasmanian locations to avoid total extinction.

He also showed amazing black and white footage of the very last Tasmanian tiger, or Tasmanian wolf. The Thylacine, (Thylacinus cynocephalus), was a marsupial wolf and the largest carnivorous marsupial of recent times. That film showed the very last survivor in a private Hobart zoo before the species became totally extinct in 1936.

The documentary however didn’t mention another Tasmanian species that was wiped out by the arrival of the white man. They were the indigenous people of the island — the Tasmanians — a population of Aboriginal people known as the Palawa.

It was the tragic fate of the Palawa that inspired HG Wells to write War of the Worlds. Wells told his brother Frank about the catastrophic effect of the British invasion on indigenous Tasmanians. What would happen, he wondered, if Martians did to Britain what the British had done to the Tasmanians?

So what of the BBC adaptation? I’ll leave most of that to TV reviewers more erudite than me. One widespread complaint was that the BBC adapters had added — horror of horrors — a woman hero.

The series opened with a hero, a journalist called George having left his wife, his cousin, to live with a woman called Amy in a small cottage called Lyndon near Woking, Surrey. Not one fact of the above can be found anywhere in the original book.

However H George Wells, a journalist, did marry his cousin and left her to live with a woman called Amy in a cottage called Lynton in Woking, Surrey.

It was at Lynton that Wells wrote the book and set the start of the Martian invasion in the countryside around the cottage.

What I want to do here is to remind readers what an incredible man HG Wells was. He always described himself as a committed socialist and wrote a wide variety of political writings — pamphlets, political books, newspaper and magazine articles — as well as novels and stories.

He was never afraid to use his novels and stories to advance his political opinions. Wells saw that socialism would abolish class barriers and foster equality of opportunity. Other writers such as Virginia Woolf berated him for using the novel as a vehicle for delivering his political ideas.

His novels took up diverse individual political issues. For instance The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) examined the fierce debates over vivisection. Ann Veronica (1909) deals with the struggle of the suffragettes for the vote for women.

In his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), he explained his political thinking was motivated by an awareness of the “incompatibility of the great world order foreshadowed by scientific and industrial progress with the existing political and social structures.”

For him the question was: how could politics and society catch up with the advances of science and technology? How could social and political institutions become more scientific, more efficient, more ordered?

As early as 1905 he described his ideal socialist society in his book A Modern Utopia. In it he paints a picture of a highly regulated world state where all property is state-owned, and where sexes are equal.

The Fabian Society were keen to have Wells on board. Despite some earlier differences with George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb he accepted an invitation to join the Fabians in 1903.

It would not be a happy time for the Fabians. They quickly realised that Wells could be a loose cannon. Openly criticising the Fabians from the beginning, in 1906 he shocked them with a paper called, unambiguously, The Faults of the Fabian.

In the paper Wells called the Fabian Society a talking shop for middle-class socialists, which lacked the appetite for real change. He argued Fabians should aim for mass membership and more radical reforms.

Wells’s love life and his reputed advocacy of free love didn’t go down well either. When In 1908 he advocated a wage for all mothers and the Fabians refused to adopt this as a policy, he left.

What Wells wanted was a single, socialist world state, a great world order, and it was no doubt to study this kind of development that he visited and championed the young Soviet Union repeatedly.

Wells visited Russia in 1914, 1920 and 1934. During his second visit his old friend and fellow writer Maxim Gorky arranged for him to meet and talk with Vladimir Lenin.

In July 1934, on his third visit to what had become the Soviet Union, he interviewed Joseph Stalin for the New Statesman. The interview lasted three hours.

He told Stalin how he had seen “the happy faces of healthy people” in contrast with his previous visit to Moscow in 1920 but he also raised some serious criticisms. Stalin, we are told, enjoyed the conversation.

During the second world war, Wells drafted a Universal Rights of Man that was published in the Times. This document and the advocacy he did around it led to the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times but never won.

He suffered for much of his life from diabetes and in 1934 co-founded the charity The Diabetic Association known today as Diabetes UK.

Winston Churchill was an avid reader of his books, and after they first met in 1902 they kept in touch until Wells died in 1946. Prime minister Churchill famously described the rise of Nazi Germany as “the gathering storm”. He actually took the phrase from War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds has never been out of print since its original publication in 1897. Films, radio dramas, comic-books, video games, and many television series have been based on it.

The most famous, or infamous, adaptation is the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles. Presented as a live, realistic set of news bulletins interrupting normal programming, supposedly terrified listeners had heart attacks and even committed suicide, though recent scholarship has suggested this is an urban myth.

Perhaps the greatest and most surprising tribute to the author and the book is that of Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry. Goddard says his interest in rockets and space travel was first inspired by reading War of the Worlds aged sixteen.

Goddard would invent both liquid fuelled and multi-stage rockets that put men on the Moon and sent robotic probes to Mars — HG Wells would have wanted no finer tribute.

History of Dutch fascism, new film

This 18 November 2019 video is the international trailer of the new Dutch film by Luuk Bouwmans All against all.

The film is about the history of Dutch fascism till 1945. The biggest and best known Dutch fascist organisation was the National Socialist Movement of Anton Mussert, founded in 1931. However, already from the 1920s on, there were also many smaller organisations.

The film will be in cinemas on 30 April 2020.

Oscar Wilde’s twice stolen ring found again

This video says about itself:

Friday, November 15, 2019

A golden ring once given as a present by the famed Irish writer Oscar Wilde has been recovered by a Dutch “art detective” nearly 20 years after it was stolen from Britain’s Oxford University. The friendship ring, a joint gift from Wilde to a fellow student in 1876, was taken during a burglary in 2002 at Magdalen College, where the legendary dandy studied.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

The Dutch art detective Arthur Brand has found the lost ring of the famous writer Oscar Wilde. The Irish author donated his ring in 1876 to the University of Oxford, where he studied. The ring was stolen in 2002 and had since been considered lost.

But thanks to Arthur Brand, the ring has surfaced again and will soon return to Oxford. “I have to admit that I did wear it for a while with pride,” says Brand. The art detective is a big fan of the writer. When he searched for something about Wilde seven years ago, he came across the story of the stolen ring. That is how a long search began.

The ring was stolen in 2002 by a university cleaner. He was looking for evidence that his wife, who also worked at the university, was having an affair. He did not find that proof, but he did find the ring and he took it. The man was sentenced, but the ring remained lost: he claimed he had it melted down.

“I didn’t believe that. Most thieves say something like that, so they don’t have to betray to whom they’ve sold something,” says Brand. The art detective was convinced that the ring still had to be somewhere. “I have quite a few contacts in England so I started asking around, but unfortunately nothing came out.”

Senior citizen robbery in 2015

In 2015, a group of mostly elderly men broke into a locker business in the London jewellery district of Hatton Garden. They stole jewellery for 20 million euros. The theft is seen as the biggest robbery in British history. “Soon after, rumors arose in the criminal underworld that things had been found that had been stolen before. Eg, it was said that there was a Victorian ring with a Russian text,” says Brand.

Brand actually already knew that it had to be Oscar Wilde’s ring, because the description almost corresponded exactly with what the ring looked like. “Only there is no Russian on Wilde’s ring, but a Greek text. The criminals couldn’t tell apart Russian and Greek and they didn’t know it was the famous writer’s ring. The ring was therefore stolen twice.”

Through various intermediaries, the art detective finally managed to find the person who owned the ring. “By now, almost all of London was looking for the ring, because Oscar Wilde is so famous that even criminals knew who he was.”

The person who had it was shocked when he heard that it was Oscar Wilde’s ring. “He or she, because I don’t know who it was, would probably have bought that ring as an ordinary Victorian ring. For perhaps a few hundred pounds. If they had known at that time that it was Wilde’s ring, that price would have been sky high.”

It still had to be checked whether the ring was ‘real’. Then Brand finally got hold of the ring. He couldn’t resist wearing the ring for a while. “I certainly put it on my finger a couple of times. I don’t normally wear jewellery and it is not my style at all. Wilde was, of course, the prototype of a dandy so that ring is a bit over the top. But I think he would really like it if he knew that a big fan had worn his ring.”

The ring is now in a safe place in England and on Wednesday, December 4 he will be presented with a ceremony at the University of Oxford, the rightful owner. “I miss it a bit. You got a kind of bond with it”, says Brand.

It is not the first time that Arthur Brand has been able to find a great art treasure.

Earlier, Mr Brand discovered that the theft of 17th-century paintings and silverware from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, the Netherlands, had been done by the secret police of Ukraine, jointly with the neofascist Svoboda party.

Bauhaus architecture, 1919-2019

This January 2019 video from Germany is called Architecture, art and design – 100 years of the Bauhaus (1/3) | DW Documentary.

These two videos are the sequels.

By Sybille Fuchs in Germany:

100 years since the founding of the Bauhaus art school and movement: “A New Era”

2 November 2019

Rarely has an anniversary been so extensively celebrated and commented on in Germany as the founding of the Bauhaus School (Staatliches Bauhaus) in Weimar in 1919.

Cities all over the country have opened their cultural institutions, museums, theatres, schools of art and further education to a host of exhibitions, lectures, symposia and performances devoted to the famed art and design school and subsequent movement.

Numerous books and articles have also appeared, along with a series of films and documentaries on television and radio. The celebrations even include the construction of two new museums, in Weimar and Dessau, aimed at preserving the Bauhaus legacy.

The question arises: what is so special about this school, which existed for only 14 years and was forced to change its location three times in Germany due to the hostile reaction of conservative and nationalist forces?

(Bauhaus literally means “building house” in German, or “School of Building”, although, ironically, the institution did not have an architecture department to begin with.)

Undoubtedly, the Bauhaus artistic movement has had an enormous influence over the course of the past century. As one art historian comments, “Its assimilation throughout the world can be traced … in numerous buildings, artworks, objects, designs, concepts, and curricula.” Its founder, architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), writing in 1923, noted that the movement’s “identifying traits are clear, well-proportioned lines from which all unnecessary ingredients have been removed—the same traits characteristic of the modern engineered products of the machine.”

Walter Gropius

However, the contemporary significance of the Bauhaus does not lie merely in the forms of modern design it developed and propagated or the simple, functional architecture that was to largely characterise the 20th century—until its replacement by postmodernist conceptions of design. Above all, what makes Bauhaus special is its notion of combining many forms of artistic work and unleashing the creative power made possible by collective work. It appears that as the crisis of capitalism intensifies there is a longing for forms of creativity that no longer strive merely for individual “self-realisation,” but rather address real social needs and problems.

This need coincides with the general goals and perspectives with which the Bauhaus was founded and developed. In its founding manifesto, Gropius placed construction at the center of artistic work by attempting to build on the artisanal and artistic traditions of medieval architecture. The building, its space and everything in it, should be designed to serve the people. This principle should also apply to what appears to be at first glance a backward-looking return to craftsmanship and its foundations. In fact such craftsmanship is deliberately aimed at creating models which can then be produced industrially.

Foyer of the Bauhaus University, Weimar

In the April 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius wrote: “The ultimate goal of all art is the building! The ornamentation of the building was once the main purpose of the visual arts, and they were considered indispensable parts of the great building. Today, they exist in complacent isolation, from which they can only be salvaged by the purposeful and cooperative endeavours of all artisans. Architects, painters and sculptors must learn a new way of seeing and understanding the composite character of the building, both as a totality and in terms of its parts. Their work will then re-imbue itself with the spirit of architecture, which it lost in salon art …

“So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”

Lyonel Feininger, Bauhaus Manifesto, 1919

It is no accident that the manifesto was adorned by a sketch of a cathedral by Lyonel Feininger, symbolically expressing the common aspiration of artists, master builders and craftsmen.

Even prior to the First World War, the architect Gropius had assimilated the ideas of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen, established in 1907), which called for an economic and cultural “union of artists, architects, entrepreneurs and experts” whose central concern was the search for a new form of architecture centered on “function”, “materials” and “construction.” These concepts were further discussed by architects and artists during the war. They were not limited to Germany or the Bauhaus, but were discussed and developed internationally, with different tendencies influencing one other.

One of the most important representatives of the association of art, architecture and arts and crafts schools in Germany was the architect Bruno Taut, whose exemplary large Berlin housing developments (“Hufeisensiedlung”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” etc.) are today part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

In 1918, Taut was one of the founders of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council for Art, or Art Soviet), which drew its inspiration from the workers ‘and soldiers’ councils founded in Berlin at the same time, as well as from the 1917 October Revolution. Taut set himself the goal of bringing progressive developments and trends in architecture and art to broader layers of the population. He believed that capitalism was a grotesque system and had to perish. Like many artists of the time, members of the “art soviet” were reacting to important impulses from political and artistic developments and discussions in post-revolutionary Russia.

Bauhaus-style building in Chemnitz, Germany

A March 1, 1919 leaflet produced by the Arbeitsrat, for example, read: “Priority rests with the guiding principle: art and the people must form a unity. Art should no longer be the plaything of a few, but rather the fortune and life of the masses. The aim is to combine the arts under the wings of a splendid architecture.”

At the end of World War I, Gropius also joined the “soviet” and played a leading role in it.

Bauhaus—A New Era

Bauhaus—A New Era is the title of a six-part series that recently featured on German television to coincide with the Bauhaus anniversary. The title is entirely apposite. It refers to the social approach of the Bauhaus school, which remains so relevant today. The school emerged from its predecessors, the Grand-Ducal Saxon Art School and the School of Applied Arts founded by Henry van de Velde in Weimar in 1907, in whose buildings it initiated its work.

The television series is limited to the Weimar years of the Bauhaus. It depicts the spirit of optimism and enthusiasm that made possible highly progressive solutions despite the severe material shortages. Under these conditions, Bauhaus students developed new and creative methods of producing materials, often based on recycling existing sources.

Weimar was traditionally associated with German artistic giants Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, and reactionary forces in the city were quite prepared to distort the heritage of these two radical thinkers and artists to justify their own backward nationalism against everything Bauhaus stood for. They deplored the school’s internationalism, its opening up of opportunities for women and efforts to overcome boundaries between various arts and crafts to develop a comprehensive socially based concept.

Gropius (August Diehl) had already applied for the post of heading the Weimar school from the trenches of the First World War. The opening credits of the first part of the series feature this scene against the backdrop of images from the war. Both pupils and teachers (known as masters) returned from the horrors of war to what they hoped would be a fresh start for society, a new society which they were prepared to fight for with all their might.

Bauhaus—A New Era stands in contrast to the television film Bauhaus (original German title, Lotte am Bauhaus, 2019, directed by Gregor Schnitzler) recently broadcast on the ARD television channel, which is dominated by a love story and concentrates on the theme of the supposed oppression and discrimination of women at the Bauhaus.

The six-part series directed by Lars Kraume (The People vs. Fritz Bauer, 2015) has a number of strengths, even if the basic story and the choice of Dörte Helm (also present in the Schnitzler-directed film) as main protagonist initially suggest a similar approach. Kraume and his team have carried out extensive research to provide a realistic insight into the spirit of elation and enthusiasm with which the students, male and female, and masters, took up their work.

The series opens with an interview with an 80-year-old Walter Gropius in New York City carried out by the feminist journalist Stine Branderup (Trine Dyrholm), who accuses the architect of oppressing female students at the Bauhaus.

Branderup brings up Helm (Anna Maria Mühe) as an example of such alleged repression. Helm is able to develop herself and play a leading role among the students. The series explores the different factors determining why the talented young woman is not able to rise to the position of master-professor.

Kraume also deals with issue of the failure of the school to fully implement equality between the sexes, although the Bauhaus makes clear it favours equality for women. Instead of simply laying blame, the series presents a number of plausible explanations based on Gropius’ manoeuvres aimed at preserving the school.

Gropius has the support of the Social Democratic education minister Max Greil (Sebastian Blomberg), who, however, repeatedly makes concessions to the members of Weimar’s conservative-nationalist “fine society” and other reactionary circles. These included previous masters of the former art school and its pupils who despise Gropius for allowing Jews, women and Bolsheviks to participate in the Bauhaus. The prejudices of some of the teachers brought to the school by Gropius also play a significant role.

The establishment of a “women’s-only class” and the banning of female students from all the activities apart from work in the weaving department was undoubtedly a concession to the hostility and prejudices Gropius confronted. But as the film shows, the weavers were not oppressed. Rather, the textile workshop at Bauhaus headed by Gunta Stölzl (Valerie Pacher) developed into a highly creative center for textile art and technology and became one of the school’s most economically successful workshops.

Regarding the conflict about equal rights for women, Kraume explains: “Of all of the biographies, hers [Dörte Helm’s] was best suited to our story. She came from a middle-class home and yet was the most rebellious amongst her fellow students. She was denied matriculation but then resumed her studies, and had an unexplained relationship with Gropius on the basis of which she was able to join the painting class of Oskar Schlemmer, although women were only supposed to participate in weaving. Finally, after many conflicts, she moved back to her patriarchal father in Rostock. We asked ourselves the question, why.”

The role played by Gropius’ alleged affair with Helm remains unclear, but it clearly provides for dramatic film material. The court assembled to clarify whether Gropius did have a relationship with his student really existed and concluded there was no basis for the accusation.

Was the Bauhaus “political”?

Although the alleged affair occupies a central role, the series includes powerful scenes, performed by a cast of outstanding actors, which throw light on the history of the Bauhaus and why the school continues to fascinate up until today.

Kraume and his team have inserted key dramatic events drawn from the social struggles that took place between 1919 and 1923. The scenes commence with original film material from the battlefields of World War I. Later scenes, shot partly in black-and-white, feature battles between workers and police and in particular the events surrounding the general strike carried out by German workers to oppose the counterrevolutionary Kapp Putsch in March 1920. The militant resistance by workers was supported by many Bauhaus students.

Gropius sought to protect his school against reactionary forces by declaring it to be “unpolitical”, but there could be no escape from the political strife and antagonisms that dominated the early years of the Weimar Republic.

Time and again, A New Era reveals the precarious conditions under which members of the Bauhaus fought to further their aims of freedom of art, emancipation and internationalism against a host of right-wing forces. Based on their artistic work, the Bauhaus students were determined to overcome social differences and contribute to a better understanding between different nationalities.

Achievements, contradictions and conflict in the Bauhaus

The Bauhaus school is often associated with “reduced colours, clean lines and functionality”, but that is only partially true and applies above all to the work of Bauhaus in Dessau. During its period in Weimar the school’s approach was much broader and more colourful. The series shows this clearly.

This was precisely the approach adopted by those masters employed by Gropius in the school’s early days, including Johannes Itten (Sven Schelker), Lyonel Feininger (Ernst Stötzner), Oskar Schlemmer (Tilo Werner), Marcel Breuer (Ludwig Trepke), Wassily Kandinsky (Pjotr Olev), Paul Klee (Marek Harloff) and later Lazslo Moholy-Nagy (Alexandru Cirneala). Some of these artists had already made a name for themselves as Expressionists before the war.

The inclusion of dance and theatre in the school’s education program was also revolutionary. The series depicts Bauhaus evenings which included performances by well-known artists, such as Else Lasker-Schüler (Marie-Lou Sellem), as well as the famous Bauhaus festivals with their imaginative costumes and lanterns, expressing the hunger for life on the part of young people following the horrors of the World War.

Fierce polemics about the artistic orientation of Bauhaus’ educational program are also addressed in A New Era. In the course of the Weimar years, these conflicts developed mainly around the teachings of Itten and his followers, who in their endeavour to place the perfection of man at the center of their artistic activity turned to extreme forms of lifestyle. The conflict with Itten eventually led to his departure from the school. Nevertheless, albeit with some changes, the compulsory preliminary course developed by Itten, requiring all students to acquire basic skills in dealing with color, materials and techniques, was retained.

At the same time, great weight was placed on clear, constructivist forms based on the principle of “form follows function,” as well as a concentration on primary colours, represented by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg from the De Stijl (“The Style”) movement who was invited to the school as a guest speaker. De Stijl had many followers at the Bauhaus, although Doesburg was never appointed as a lecturer.

The sixth and last part of the series is devoted to the highly successful Bauhaus exhibition of 1923 which, for the first time, combined all of the various arts and crafts in the form of a new building—the Haus am Horn. The intention was to build an affordable house with all the features necessary for a family. The Haus am Horn predates the conceptions developed later in Dessau, i.e., construction with cheap and in part prefabricated but solid materials, together with simple but functional and appealing interior accessories.

Haus am Horn

However, the end of Weimar was not far away. In 1924, funding for the school was withdrawn following the election of a right-wing, German-nationalist administration in the state of Thuringia. The Bauhaus was forced to find a new location in the industrial city of Dessau.

The approach to the training of artists and architects encouraged by Gropius and his co-workers continues to be fruitful in many respects. Even if they could not solve many problems due to the constraints of capitalist society and the devastation of culture by the National Socialists and war, a study of the school’s ideas and aesthetic conceptions remains rewarding.

Bauhaus in Dessau [Source: Hjochheim]

The issues and contradictions surrounding art, design and building, posed in Weimar in 1919, are again very relevant at a time when ultra-right forces are once again seeking to influence cultural affairs. A whole layer of intellectuals is embracing reactionary politics.

In Germany the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is threatening to withdraw funding to artists and projects that seek to defend the rights of refugees and immigrants, should the party come to power. It is already agitating against art which does not conform to the party’s own thoroughly nationalist and backward provincial outlook.

In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ines Weizman, a professor at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, was asked: “Do the Bauhaus institutions—in the light of this history—have a socio-political responsibility today?”

She replied: “Yes, that is very important! Then as now we must make a stand against right-wing tendencies and their attacks against cultural institutions and recognise the international network of scientists, teaching institutions, cultural institutions, collections and involved public celebrated in 2019, to be a strong, unifying force against the right wing.”

Weizman went on to criticise the decision by the Bauhaus in Dessau to cancel a concert in 2018 by the left-wing punk band Feine Sahne Fischfilet following threats of counter-demonstrations by the far right.

The author also recommends:

100 years since the founding of the Bauhaus
[25 January 2019]

Ernst Haeckel, biology and art, Haarlem exhibition

Hummingbirds, by Ernst Haeckel

In Teylers Museum in Haarlem in the Netherlands, there is a special exhibition.

The museum writes about it (translated):

June 1, 2019 to December 8, 2019

In honour of his 100th year of death, the Teylers Museum highlights the wonderful visual world of German zoologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Haeckel was one of the most important scientists of his time and a very gifted draftsman. Just like his great heroes Goethe and Von Humboldt, he wanted to understand nature in its great context. He used emotion and reason, art and science.

Haeckel’s first research was about micro-organisms from the sea, but ultimately his theories were about the development of all life forms, including humans. His books and his powerful visual language played a major role in spreading Darwin‘s ideas about descent and evolution. His Kunstformen der Natur in particular was a huge success and inspired artists and architects. This work is completely digitized and can be admired online. More than 20 plates from the book can be seen in the exhibition.

Ancient Chinese historian on the Roman empire

This 13 October 2019 video says about itself:

Ancient Chinese Historian Describes The Roman Empire // 3rd century AD “Weilüe” // Primary Source

“The ruler of Da Qin is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment…”

Here we have the words of the early third-century Chinese historian Yu Huan, who lived during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Though he never left China, he collected large amounts of information on the countries to the West, chief among them the Roman Empire.

Enormous thanks to John E. Hill for kindly allowing us to use his translation, and for tips on the possible locations mentioned and correct pronunciation. There is still some debate on some of the places mentioned in the text, so please enjoy debating further about it!

Tolkien, new film, a critical review

This March 2019 film trailer video from the USA says about itself:

TOLKIEN | Trailer 2 | FOX Searchlight

TOLKIEN explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt, until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-earth novels.

The film is produced by Fox, part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. Not a good omen.

By Sandy English in the USA:

Tolkien: Biopic of author J.R.R. Tolkien rings false

5 October 2019

Directed by Dome Karukoski. Screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford.

Tolkien is a fictionalized biography of the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit (1936) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1947-55).

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) is the most significant figure in the field of heroic fantasy, one of the most popular genres of fiction, film and television today. Fantasy, closely related to science fiction as a type of imaginative writing, emerged in the 19th century from the study of folklore, northern European epic poetry and medieval romance. The understanding of these sources was making great strides in the second half of that century, and helped to inspire fantasy, which was influenced by the romanticism of the earlier 19th century.

It is generally agreed today that Tolkien’s stature as an important English-language novelist—whether one agrees with this characterization or not—should not be diminished by the fact that he wrote about imaginary worlds with fictitious mythologies in which magic is used and which he populated both with humans and with a variety of human-like creatures.

After an initial success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, the trilogy, and its prequel The Hobbit, steadily grew in popularity and are today a defining influence on the fantasy genre, which includes many bestselling novels and popular television dramas, such as Game of Thrones.

Tolkien was born in South Africa, where his father died in 1896. His mother relocated the family to Birmingham, England, and raised him and his brother in poverty until she, too, died in 1904. He spent the rest of his youth under the stewardship of a Catholic priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan (played in the film by Colm Meaney), who sought to prevent his attachment to a fellow orphan, Edith Bratt.

Tolkien shows the author as a young man in the period preceding, during and immediately following the First World War of 1914 to 1918, in which Tolkien served as a junior officer in the British army on the western front. The film more or less stops there, however.

On this basis alone, the film must be judged wanting. It cannot possibly give a serious depiction of the times and experiences that produced Tolkien and his work while omitting the impact of the rest of the first third of the 20th century on Tolkien’s work. Even more seriously, it gives a simplistic and linear view of artistic development in general.

The film lavishes attention on Tolkien’s childhood and youth as an orphan, his association with a group of young friends, first at King Edward’s school in Birmingham, and after 1913—while he was at Oxford University—the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The TCBS scenes are given far too much emphasis in the film. Another focus is Tolkien’s courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Both of these elements only add to a misleading impression of Tolkien as simply a typical middle-class youth of the pre-war period, with an interest in ancient languages.

This was the period of Tolkien’s life during which he formed an interest in the study of Germanic languages, ancient and modern. His love of linguistics and ancient Germanic literature (the Old Norse Eddas or the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, for example) and his play with word-origins became the focus of his academic career after the war, but also a significant source of his own fictional mythology of Middle Earth, the world of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other works.

To its credit, Tolkien does show this interest—in one scene, John Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) approaches the famous Oxford Germanic linguist Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) to ask to be transferred to his course of study.

The acting in the film is generally good. Jacobi is a scholar obsessed by his field, and Hoult has the right proportions of enthusiasm before and discouragement after the war.

Tolkien’s induction into the military, and the depictions of battle on the Somme in 1916, are vivid and affecting scenes. The nightmare visions of thousands of soldiers are here: the piles of corpses, the maddening artillery barrages. One gets a sense of the suffering and carnage that Tolkien saw in that battle, one of the worst in human history.

But the film makes completely misguided attempts to locate these experiences in the development of Tolkien’s art. At one point on the Somme, feverish, he goes on a journey through the trenches to find his TCBS friend Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). He is accompanied by a soldier conveniently named Sam (the name one of the characters Tolkien uses in an epic journey in The Lord of the Rings 20 years later). Clouds of shell smoke form themselves into the shape of wraiths that resemble those of the Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings.

The rest of the film also indulges is this kind of oversimplification of the sources of Tolkien’s artistic work. When Edith asks John Ronald to tell her a story, he begins by saying, “It’s about journeys, the journeys we take to prove ourselves,” leading the viewer to assume that Tolkien already had in mind the kind of journeys that form the basis of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

While Tolkien was a flop at the box-office, it is true that anything associated with Tolkien is potentially worth millions. In this case, the film was disavowed by the Tolkien Estate, which announced before the film was released that it wished “to make clear that they did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film.” The estate has taken authors and business to court several times, and it sold rights for a television series based on his works to Amazon for $250 million in 2017. The company is said to be investing over a billion dollars in the production of this series.

Tolkien is loosely based on a biography by John Garth that covers the same period in Tolkien’s life, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth (2003). Garth has also raised doubts about the accuracy of the film.

Garth’s biography is a better effort. Overall it sticks to the facts of Tolkien’s life. it makes some interesting observations about the work that Tolkien began writing when he was convalescing from trench fever and was associated with the mythology that later became the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings.

Garth, however, uses the same method as the film does when he fails to identify the place of World War I in history, to trace the conceptions that formed Tolkien’s sensibility or to compare his time on the Somme in any detail with those of other writers who experienced the war. There is little in his book about the immediate postwar period and the enormous impact of the war on European society and politics.

While the war unquestionably had a profound effect on Tolkien—years later he called it an “utter stupid waste” and “an animal horror”—the real question is, what impact did World War I and the next 20–25 years, which saw the rise of fascism, the depression and the coming of a second world war, have on him and his creative work.

Any assessment of the effect of the war itself would have to be weighed in that context, especially since his work about Middle Earth did not appear for nearly two decades. The complexity and richness of a whole historical period during which Tolkien worked out his languages, mythologies and fiction is missing from the book as well as the film.

The immediacy of the war came full force and gave expression to the feelings and thoughts of millions of active-duty soldiers, in works such as Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire (1916) and the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, which were also published during the war.

But other works by soldiers took time to develop. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was not published until 1928, for example, and William March’s Company K not until 1930.

In fact, few authors had a less immediate response to the world around them than J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, who invented his own mythology and even whole languages, passed through a prolonged development, 19 years between the end of the war and the production of The Hobbit.

Understanding Tolkien’s life is an entirely legitimate project, especially for what it can reveal about the social, artistic and personal influences on his work, but the film unfortunately fails to give a broader sense of the times in which he lived.

Tolkien is not in any way critical of British society before the war. The viewer is as surprised as the characters when war is declared and when it turns into a disaster. The film offers few insights into the character of the war, aside from its bloody violence, and it does not show a world transformed by the war. At best we get a sense of what it did to Tolkien, but not to European society. This method does not help us understand the 20th century, the artists that it produced, or Tolkien’s own work.