Monday, 28 June 2010

The Character of Holland...According to the English

In a previous post, we have referred to English hatred of the Dutch, and it's no secret that during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the English launched some pretty nasty anti-Dutch propaganda that would have made Goebbels proud. Below is a poem by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), a friend of Milton's in the service of Cromwell. It's pretty rude, but some of it is quite funny! Lest any Dutchies get offended, Marvell also used anti-Semitic stereotypes to berate his opponent, Samuel Parker:
who but such an Hebrew Jew as you, would, after an honest man hade made so full and voluntary Restitution, not yet have been satisfied without so many pounds of his flesh over into the bargain.
This is actually in the context of a debate rooted in Hebraism, so the insults get way more interesting than that (check out Rosenblatt's book on Selden, chapter 5).

Unsurprisingly, in the early modern period, religion was a source of conflict. The English disapproved of the Dutch pluralistic society, which was rooted in Republican sensibilities; this disregard for order and hierarchy was dangerous. The Dutch took the reformist call for personal autonomy in interpreting Scripture too far:
They are generally so bred up to the Bible that almost every Cobbler is a Dutch doctor of divinity...yet fall those inward illuminations so different that sometimes seven religions are found in one family.' (Schama)
And finally, here is the poem. Incidentally, if you're Dutch and Jewish, well, Marvell will offend you in one form or another! ;-)

Monday, 14 June 2010

Parashat Korach and Early Modern Polemics

The story of Korach, which we read this week, was a popular epithet used by seventeenth century theologians for their adversaries. Amusingly, it would seem that everyone called everyone else 'Korach'.

Richard Hooker uses the term to describe the Presbyterians' desire to democratise ecclesiastical power amongst the laymen

Launcelot Andrewes made use of it from his earliest sermons at Cambridge in the late 1580s and throughout his career at court (the sermon that comes to mind is his 'Sacrilege a Snare', which is difficult to find online, so uploaded it here. Below is a different example of Andrewes alluding to Korach), as well as in his Catechism as an anti-Puritan polemical device.

As a royalist, Jeremy Taylor made frequent use of the story of Korach

Taylor also brings Korach in order to discuss the importance of purity of intention:

But, since everyone was vying to portray their masoret as the spiritual heir of Israel (Catholics, Protestants, and amongst the Protestant factions, Presbyterians, Conformers, Calvinists, Arminians, etc., etc.), republicans like John Milton compared royalists with Korach and his followers:

And of course, in his unfortunately-timed 'Brief Notes Upon a Late Sermon' we have an example of a Puritan responding to the charge of being like Korach with a seventeenth-century scholarly version of 'I know you are but what am I?'

Milton also identified Satan's rebellion against God with Korah in Paradise Lost.
The examples are endless--i haven't even thrown in Hobbes!--and would make for an interesting survey, some day....

Friday, 11 June 2010

Eliav Digs Dutch Designers

EliavchairOne day, whilst pretending to work with my friend and esteemed colleague Hoffy (she's the one i tricked into taking me to get the lumber for my Roubo), i stumbled upon this guy Juan's blog post in which he describes his 1/2 scale build of Rietveld's classic Red and Blue Chair for his son Hugo. That was it. Hoffy and i knew we had to make one for either the kid on the way (Oria, a beautiful baby girl, now two months old), or her son Eliav (he's two and gorgeous). It seemed logical that Eliav should be compensated for the traumatic experience awaiting him, (and it will be a while before Oria can sit!) so the chair was scaled to 2/3 size. Despite its appearance, the chair is rumoured to be quite comfortable, but because it tilts back, i did not expect Eliav to want to sit in it for longer than it took to take a photo to appease his mother and myself. But apparently, if Hoffy is to be believed, he loves his little chair! As they might say in their family, der Apfel fellt nicht gerne weit vom Baume.

Below is a CGI animation of the chair:

Gerrit Rietveld chair from Max Philip on Vimeo.

This chair had huge implications for design, and we have discussed the unique Dutch conception of space in the context of football (link).

For Anthony C. Romeo's interesting article on Rietveld's chair and the unification of motion and rest, click here. It's a great, short read. Andries van Onck's site has a very in-depth analysis of Rietveld's chair, including some fascinating sections about the various kabbalistic sephirot; it will blow your mind.

On a personal level, i definitely learnt a lot more about the ideas of De Stijl from building the piece. When all the components were laid out on the floor, it seemed hard to believe that they would eventually constitute a chair (though i must confess, i did have some doubts!). It seemed so...abstract! I wasn't so struck by the design until i started making the piece. Then, and i apologise for the vagueness, i just seemed to fall into the piece; it had some hypnotic effect; the more i looked at it and interacted with it, the more entranced i was. I know that sounds totally fruity, but it's true. I also came away with an appreciation for just how strong the joints are. There--that was a more rational, concrete comment. It was like creating a 3D Mondrian painting. The symmetry of the piece always amazed me; the way the overhang on every intersecting point was the same, and how the piece seemed so mathematically...uniform (I'm easily impressed in maths, since i have little to no understanding of it). Some concepts cannot be conveyed with words, and there is an understanding that you cannot come by through books. Indeed, Rietveld himself regarded his furniture design as experimentation with ideas, as studies. David Pye wrote about this, and for a frequent blog on this topic, Doug Stowe's blog (Wisdom of the Hands) is a must-read. Those interested in the technical execution of the piece can view the building process on this little slideshow:

Friday, 4 June 2010

De Stijl (1917-1931) 'Truth is the Overall Unity of Opposites'

Schroder-House Floor PlanDe Stijl has been capturing my imagination for quite some time now. But it wasn't until fairly recently that i have been able to contextualise it. After the first world war, there were two main avant-garde Dutch movements in architecture and decorative arts. There was The Amsterdam School and De Stijl, also known as Neo-Plasticism. Both were related to Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts, and German Expressionism. They were into a unified style, and definitely subscribed to Morris's idea that art could change society. But that is about where these two movements go their own ways. As Alan Colquhoun explains it,
Each inherited a different strand of the earlier movements--the vitalistic, individualistic strand in the case of the Amsterdam School and the rationalist, impersonal strand in the case of De Stijl. Each movement condemned the other, ignoring their shared aims and origins. (Modern Architecture, Oxford History of Art)
Mondrianikes Jammer. Hopefully we'll come back to the A'dam School, but just some short background on them: Michel de Klerk (1884-1923) would be the main name to associate with the movement. They were into taking traditional architecture and tweaking it into fantastical, weird design, and they held dear the craftsman relationship to materials. Personally, of the two, the A'dam school's ethos is more to my liking, but i think De Stijl has loads to offer. So let's get back to them!

The main names (or best-known) associated with the movement are:
Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)--some of my friends had no idea he was Dutch based on his surname. It was originally Mondriaan, but he omitted the second 'a' to make himself sound less Dutch. Mission accomplished, i guess.
Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964)

In 1924, Van Doesburg published the manifesto of De Stijl in the eponymously named magazine he founded with Mondrian and other artists of the movement in 1917. You can read it here. De Stijl rejected craftsmanship, favouring geometrical anti-naturalism, and, according to some, was a misinterpretation and an extreme form of the abstraction of Cubism. But what was up with all the abstraction? Could they just not paint or draw? What were they getting at? Basically, according to Carsten-Peter Warncke, Mondrian, Vantongerloo, van Doesburg, and Huszar were all trying to get back to the basic principles of art; colours, shapes, planes, and lines. They wished to create a metaphorical language, and create an ideal world counter to reality, transcending language barriers. You can see Neo-Platonism's influence on Mondrian's obsession with the purity of art and spirit, and its aim for the absolute. Style was a manifestation of a particular age's attempt to express the absolute. Therefore, Mondrian felt that the best possible style was one in which 'the individual was most strongly subjected to the universal.'

This was the rational approach to the arts that favoured the machine above the craftsman, the empiricism of maths over the romance of nature (part of the Constructivism movement). Yet, the influences on De Stijl were as disparate as van Gogh for the colour schemes and the geometrising of Baruch Spinoza (whose Ethics had considerable influence on Mondrian and Vantongerloo).

Indeed the contradiction inherent in the movement is summed up by Mondrian himself:
The universal in style must be expressed by the individual, i.e. the way in which style is formed
I like contradiction and paradox. That's why i like Donne. There's something about paradox that makes it seem truthful, if that makes sense. And there is something about mechanics that can sometimes be very spiritual. Whilst perusing Warncke's book on De Stijl (seriously, what is up with Taschen? They normally do every art form. It was so bloody hard to get this book--it's 20 years old!), it became clear to me what i find attractive about this art:
It remains remarkable that Mondrian should have succeeded in combining the disparate parts of the painting in such a harmonious structure. Again, he could only have achieved this through the multifaceted ambiguity that pervades the various elements of the painting. [...] a perfect harmony of opposites [...] Nothing is fixed in this system , except for the basic elements and the aim of balancing the different forces. This presupposes that all our seemingly secure assumptions should be questioned again and again. (Warncke, p.20)
And, in explaining the differences between Mondrian and van Doesburg, we are surely reminded of different poetic schools of thought:
Mondrian's construction of squares and lines is a process that leads to harmony and rest to the extent that we forget everything that might be reminiscent of processes, while van Doesburg's pictures show a completely different approach to dynamics, with colour squares that border on each other harshly and are right next to each other. This dynamic has the rank of an elementary force which can only be tamed with great difficulty and changed in such a way that the well-balanced painting oscillates in its visual impact, paradoxically demonstrating harmony as vibrating restfulness. (Warncke, p.26)
Milton and Donne, anyone?

Mondrian and van Doesburg had a big split (think Simon and Garfunkel) over De Stijl doctrine. And the jury is still out regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the movement. Either way, De Stijl continues to exert its influence over current design (and had an impact on Bauhaus). 2008 saw the introduction of Mondrian Nikes (pictured above), and in April of this year, the Italian jewelry house Fope introduced their Mondrian Collection . Last week, designers looked to Mondrian for decoration inspiration, and within the past few years, designers have created Mondrian lines of handbags and dresses. Jack White was an upholsterer himself (he used to write poetry on the inside of furniture!) and an admirer of Rietveld. His band, the White Stripes released an album named after the movement.

I'm still (enjoying) struggling to understand De Stijl (erm, Hegel, Kant, Plotinus, Blavatsky, Vedas, Pali books--Jutakas?, Paracelsus, Bohme, Kabbalah, Rosicrucians...should i go on?!), which is probably evident by this rambling, rubbish post. For a better source, I would definitely recommend Colquhoun's book; he boils everything down nicely. It will be quite difficult to find a more fascinating piece on the subject than Runette Kruger's MA (linked below).

Additional links:

Jakob van Domselaer was the only musician associated with the movement. Here you can listen to his Proeven van Stijlkunst, inspired by Mondrian's paintings
Dada to Pop--cool essay
Artlex Entry on De Stijl
To read De Stijl magazine, click here
Interesting article (or MA thesis) by Runette Kruger about the integrative tendency of the movement, unparalleled in Modern art, in which the artists of De Stijl equally evoked the technological as well as the transcendent as indicators of humanity's spiritual and cultural progress
James Presley-- Mondrian van Doesburg

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

In the Library

I always thought it would be cool to open a bar called 'The Library'. It would improve the quality of many people's lives. Frequent imbibers could pass themselves off as the studious types, and nerds could appear slightly cool and social when in fact they were headed to...the library. But this is actually real. Here is how the website describes its fragrance:

The Scent

In the Library is a warm blend of English Novel*, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish

*The main note in this scent was copied from one of my favorite novels originally published in 1927. I happened to find a signed first edition in pristine condition many years ago in London. I was more than a little excited because there were only ever a hundred of these in the first place. It had a marvelous warm woody slightly sweet smell and I set about immediately to bottle it.

I think it's a fair assumption that Ron Burgundy was the inspiration for this fragrance. It seems preferable to his colleague Champ Kind's Sex Panther.

The Story

I have always loved books. I am told this was the case even before I could read for myself. When I was very small, I loved the bedtime story and being read to by my mother. As a child, books provided a fantastic escape from boredom and a rather dreary daily life. As I grew older, I began to read voraciously and spent as much time as possible in the school library. I borrowed books with wild abandon and I read every one.

As an adult in New York, my reading increased further and I began to cover a much wider group of topics - possibly a rather strange group but fascinating to me nonetheless. Now I can say that reading has been perhaps the most important element of my life. So much of who I am, what I've discovered and what I know began with a book. Indeed even becoming a perfumer started in the main reading room of the New York Public Library.

In my time, I've acquired an enormous number of books. When I was very young, my parents subscribed me to a book club and they came every month in the mail. I got books regularly as birthday presents and Christmas gifts. When I was about thirteen and earning a bit of money of my own, I began to buy them for myself. One of the first was a collection of James Thurber stories, which I have to this day. I have spent countless hours of my life in bookshops large and small perusing titles carefully and hunting for the interesting. I have bought books like groceries and for much the same purpose - except instead of food for the body, books are nourishment for the spirit.

Now collecting books is one of my greatest passions. Many years ago I began hunting first editions of my favorite authors. I have learned that these can be found in the oddest places and I find few things more thrilling that stumbling across an unexpected treasure. I cannot pass a second hand bookshop and rarely come away without at least one additional volume. I now have quite a collection...

Whenever I read, the start of the journey is always opening the book and breathing deeply. There are few things more wonderful than the smell of a much-loved book. Newly printed books certainly smell very different from older ones. Their ink is so crisp though the odor of their paper is so faint. Older books smell riper and often sweeter. Illustrated books have a very different odor from those with straight text and this smell often speaks of their quality. I've also noticed that books from different countries and different periods have very individual scents too. These speak not only of their origin, but of their history to this moment. I can distinguish books that were well cared for from those that were neglected. I can often tell books that lived in libraries where pipes or cigars were regularly smoked. Occasionally I run across one that I am certain belonged to an older woman fond of powdery scent. Books from California smell very different from those I buy in New York, London or Paris. I can tell books that have come from humid places - these have a musty richness in the scent of their pages.

And then of course there are the scents of different bindings: the glues, the leathers, the cloths and boards, even the paperbacks all have very unique characteristics and, to my mind, add an extra dash of personality to an otherwise mundane object. And yes, sometimes if a book has had the misfortune of being very poorly kept, I can detect a faint whiff of mildew. This doesn't bother me in the least. It means this book has survived.

To many of course, these various bookish odors mean nothing. But to an avid reader and collector like myself, these smells are as magical as the bouquet of a great wine is to a connoisseur - a sort of literary terroir. These scents mean Excitement, Adventure, Discovery, Enlightenment and Knowledge. Of course my deep love of reading is exactly what lead me in the first place to begin capturing the scent of books and of the libraries where they live. That's what this perfume is all about.

Now, whenever I have the chance, I read aloud to my nieces and nephews. I am delighted they so enjoy this and are so eager to listen. I love sharing with them some of my own childhood favorites. There have been some very interesting discussions afterward about some of these...

But before I begin to read to the children, I always take a moment to open the book and encourage them to take a whiff. I hope for them, as it has been for me, this smell will mark the beginning of a long and wondrous journey.