Category Archives: Classics

“Birth of a Flower” (1910)

We modern movie-goers are so accustomed to visual effects in films that it’s almost difficult to imagine the awe people felt when they first witnessed such things as traveling shots and fade-outs.  But, just as soon as moving pictures became a new form of entertainment at the start of the 20th century, some creative individuals began pushing it to new levels.  One was Percy Smith, a London native who found his career as an educator boring and unfulfilling.  He turned to the medium of film by going to work for Charles Urban, another cinematic pioneer, before creating his own films.  Smith began experimenting with a variety of innovative techniques.  Among them was time-lapse.

In 1910 Smith shot the world’s first time-lapse film, Birth of a Flower, which showed an array of different flowers blossoming.  It became an international sensation.  Smith’s name may have been lost to movie history, but his desire to stretch filmmaking into unknown regions helped transform a novelty into an art form.

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F This!

oldest-F-word

Just when you think something is new, researchers prove you wrong. For example, I thought American cowboys invented the ‘F’ word. Then I heard rumors someone in my family came up with it during a baptism, but that’s another story. A British historian, however, has found the earliest written record of this vocabulary gem in a court document – from 1310.

The item refers to a man named “Roger Fuckebythenavele,” and was discovered accidentally by Dr. Paul Booth, a historian at England’s Keele University. Booth was examining medieval court cases, when he stumbled upon the unfortunate moniker. Roger wasn’t actually born into a family called “Fuckebythenavele.” He was branded as such because he was an incompetent copulator. Usually that refers to most politicians, but Booth informed the local press, “Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with the navel, or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex.”

Apparently Roger was so bad at sex he was considered an outlaw and would be tried under judiciary circumstances. Before Booth’s discovery, the earliest documented example of “fuck” was in a 1475 poem titled “Flen fyys.” The line in question reads, ““fvccant vvivys of heli,” which can be translated to “they fuck the wives of Ely.”

Booth has contacted the Oxford English dictionary people to advise them of his discovery; whereupon they should then make the appropriate updates to the historical etymology of the “F” word. As of now, Booth hasn’t received a reply. In that case, just tell them to…have a nice day. Dagnabbit!

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A Jewel of Black Film History Appears

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

If anyone involved with film in its earliest days realized how important their work would become, they probably would’ve taken greater care to preserve the medium for future generations. But, at the time, few seemed to believe cinema would last beyond its initial novelty. So, when a silent film surfaces, it’s cause for celebration. Such is the case with the recent discovery of an untitled, unreleased film from 1913.

Comprised into 7 reels, the movie is unique for two reasons:

  • it’s an early concerted attempt at a feature-length project;
  • it stars a mostly-Black cast.

At the start of the 20th century, film was still expensive, and movie studios – really just a gathering of adventurous artists – put out “shorts” that would often last only a few minutes. In this particular film, refurbished by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, we see a rare depiction of a Black middle class. It features Bert Williams, the first Black star on Broadway, and already a veteran of music and stage. Williams competes with other men for the affections of a young woman played by Odessa Warren Grey. The film had three directors; one of whom was Black. With titles, it would have run for about 35 minutes. The movie was made in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary period beginning in the 1890s when a variety of Black artists – writers, singers, dancers – expounded upon their creative intellects and showed the world that they and all Blacks were human, too.

The film is part of a collection of 900 unprinted negatives produced by the now-defunct Biograph Company of New York. In 1939, Iris Barry, MOMA’s founding film curator, acquired the cache in 1939. In 1976, a MOMA film curator began copying the film and realized its historical significance when he spotted Williams amidst the characters. But, not until 2004, did the museum begin both restoring the film and searching for its origins. The research team showed the material to film historians; looked through a number of old movie trade papers; and even hired a lip reader to extract potential clues from the movie scenes themselves.

Their efforts have paid off. Now, we know the names of just about everyone appearing in the film, as well as its producers. It’s been fully restored and is scheduled for a premier showing this October 24.

A strange fact is glaringly obvious: Williams, of all people, appears in black-face; the antiquitous cosmetic concoction often used by White performers on stage and in film at the time to portray Black characters. Why Williams did that is unknown. It may have been a mockery of the technique itself, or perhaps an attempt to make him more appealing to White audiences. Regardless, this is an important historical find and it should be treasured for the cinematic gem that it is.

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Maidens of the Medieval Seas

Two years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared once and for all that mermaids – now known by the politically correct term of “aquatic humanoids” – do not exist. But, considering that tales of the luscious watery vixens have existed for eons, it’s not likely people will stop believing in them any time soon. Drunken sailors notwithstanding, these mythical figures have appeared in Paleolithic (Stone Age) cave drawings, dating some 30,000 years ago. They also show up in stories from the Orient where they were the wives of sea dragons; in Australian Aboriginal folklore where they were often called “yawkyawks”; and, of course, in Homer’s classic “The Odyssey.”

Mermaids took on a more evil persona in medieval Europe where – not surprisingly – the Roman Catholic Church viewed them as the diabolical spawn of Eve; proof, they declared from their ivory towers, that women were harbingers of doom. Drawings of the creatures during this period often show them with mirrors and combs; both signs of vanity and lust. But, there are plenty of them! It seems that, while mermaids were viewed with some level of disdain, they still fascinated scores of medieval artists.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 – 1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 –
1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

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The Island of California

In this age of aerial photography – including satellite photos – it’s difficult to understand how our ancestors navigated the world and composed maps of their environment. But, they simply traveled across mountains, through forests and along coastlines, taking myriad notes and creating drawings of what they saw. Not surprisingly, they got a lot wrong and thereby, inspired many myths. One of the most legendary is the long-held belief by many Europeans that what is now the state of California was an island.

Much of this came from Francisco de Ulloa who explored the Bay of California in 1539. His curiosity apparently was provoked by one of the most famous Spanish explorers and conquerors, Hernán Cortés, who allegedly became entranced with tales of an island paradise called California that was ruled by a Nubian queen named Califía. (Somehow, they thought Africans had made it to the Americas before they did, which may actually be true.) In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino, another Spaniard who established the city of San Diego, sailed up the California coast, as one of his passengers, Father Antonio de la Ascension, wrote a journal about the voyage. Ascension claimed that California was separated from the American continent by the “Mediterranean Sea of California.” This ultimately led to the depiction of California as an island beginning in 1622, with a small map on the title page of Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales, a book written by Antonio de Herrera and initially published in 1601.

But, the first complete map to depict California as island appeared in 1624, courtesy of Abraham Goos, a Dutch engraver who worked on maps for various individuals. The following year Henry Briggs, a British mathematician, produced a similar map. More explorers continued to add to the California island myth over the ensuing decades. By the 18th century, however, some cartographers began to doubt this theory and – as fate would have it – they were eventually proven right. I suppose, if any of these explorers had thought to converse with California’s indigenous peoples, they might have figured out sooner that the area was actually part of the mainland. But, hindsight is always 20/20.

 

John Speed, one of England’s most well-known mapmakers, produced this piece, “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged” in 1626. It was first published in A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World.

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Nicolas Sanson, France’s most famous cartographer, created “Amerique Septentrionale” in the 1650s. This is one of the most significant maps of North America, in part because of the California island depiction, but also because it was the first map to display the five Great Lakes.

 

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This is a colorized version of John Speed’s “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged,” issued in the 1676 edition of his atlas.

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Vincenzo Coronelli, a Franciscan monk and cartographer, produced “Mare Del Sud, detto altrimenti Mare Pacifico,” first published in Atlante Veneto in 1690. This version is particularly unique because it shows much of the Pacific Ocean, along with depictions of Australia and New Zealand.

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French cartographer Alexis Hubert Jaillot continued the tradition of French mapmaking set by Nicholas Sanson, including depicting California as an island. He updated Sanson’s “Amerique Septentrionale” in 1692, which advanced French cartography and challenged the work of the Dutch.

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British mapmaker Herman Moll worked in both England and Holland and, in 1715, came out with “This Map of North America according to ye Newest and most Exact observations.” It’s notable for its extraordinary detail of rivers, lakes, cities and various other features – including, of course, the “Island of California.” Notice the “Gulf of California or Red Sea” between the island and the mainland.

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Africans in Renaissance Art

That the United States has a long – and sometimes ignored – history of Black slavery is not news. But, what’s often not discussed – at least here in the U.S. – is the fact Europeans also maintained an African slave culture. To be fair, European countries began outlawing slavery long before the U.S. Yet, as intriguing and painful as the slavery issue may be, I find it even more fascinating that African slaves actually appeared in some Renaissance-era art.

The period known simply as the Renaissance in Europe began after the “Middle Ages,” which was the time extending roughly from the 5th century A.D. – or the collapse of the Roman Empire – to the 14th century. The Middle Ages are also often dubbed the “Dark Ages,” a term that may be more appropriate considering that the Renaissance saw an overall revival in the learnings of ancient Greece and Rome; development of new technologies, such as the printing press; increased political stability; overseas exploration; and, of course, the evolution of various art forms.

It makes sense, though, that part of the ongoing revival was realizing that Africans were humans, too. Therefore, the placement of Blacks in paintings – even if they were slaves or servants – is somewhat appropriate. While the following examples may be unsettling to many people, one has to view them within the context of their respective time frames. The bright colors and stoic poses of these delineations can’t and won’t eliminate the brutal legacy of African slavery in either Europe or the U.S. But, just like the clothing worn by the subjects, we can never look like that again.

Thank you to blogger Barbara Wells Sarudy for highlighting these artworks.

 

“Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages,” Paris Bordone, 1530s.

“Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages,” Paris Bordone, 1530s.

“Courtly Lady with Moor Boy,” unknown German artist, 1600s.

“Courtly Lady with Moor Boy,” unknown German artist, 1600s.

“Marchesa Elena Grimaldi,” Anthony van Dyke, 1623.

“Marchesa Elena Grimaldi,” Anthony van Dyke, 1623.

“Portrait of Two Children as Hunters in a Garden,” Nicholas van Helt, 1640s.

“Portrait of Two Children as Hunters in a Garden,” Nicholas van Helt, 1640s.

“Belgium Family Group in a Landscape,” Frans Hals, 1648.

“Belgium Family Group in a Landscape,” Frans Hals, 1648.

“Lady Elizabeth Noel Wriothesley,” Peter Lely, 1660-65.

“Lady Elizabeth Noel Wriothesley,” Peter Lely, 1660-65.

“Portrait of Maria, Princess of Oranje,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1665.

“Portrait of Maria, Princess of Oranje,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1665.

“Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1668.

“Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1668.

“Portrait of Johan de la Faille,” Jan Verkolje, 1670s.

“Portrait of Johan de la Faille,” Jan Verkolje, 1670s.

“Portrait of Franziska Sibylla Augusta von Sachsen-Lauenburg,” Georg Adam Eberhard, 1678.

“Portrait of Franziska Sibylla Augusta von Sachsen-Lauenburg,” Georg Adam Eberhard, 1678.

“Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth,” Pierre Mignard, 1682.

“Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth,” Pierre Mignard, 1682.

“Three Musicians of the Medici Court,” Anton Domenico Gabbiani, 1687.

“Three Musicians of the Medici Court,” Anton Domenico Gabbiani, 1687.

 

For related reading material, please consider the following:

Allison Blakely, “Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society,” Indiana University Press, 1993.

Simon Gikandi, “Slavery and the Culture of Taste,” Princeton University Press, 2011.

Kim Hall, “Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England,” Cornell University Press, 1995.

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Life Was Better on Coke!

It’s difficult to believe now, but a little more than a century ago, cocaine was perfectly legal in the United States and many other countries. In fact, cocaine was once a key ingredient in Coca Cola – hence, the name – a fact the company doesn’t discuss too readily. Before scientists realized the intensity of cocaine’s psychoactive drawbacks, it was a widely-prescribed medicinal remedy for just about everything from hay fever to tooth aches.

As the U.S. continues its treacherous “War on Drugs,” some in the medical community are actually daring to re-consider the potential value of the coca plant. The indigenous peoples of South America’s Pacific coastal areas cultivated the plant for millennia. Knowing that these were the same folks who charted the planets and constructed buildings that remain standing today, they might have been on to something.

Still, take a look at these late 19th century editorials describing cocaine’s benefits and wonder – like I do, sitting at the computer all day – if the agonizing blogger’s butt could be a thing of the past.

Image courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.

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cocaine-electricity

cocaine-in-hay-fever

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cocaine-remedy-for-many-ills

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