Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Little Touch of Harry In the Blight: Henry V in 1944

 England, 1944: still fighting in World War II.  In the fall of that year, Laurence Olivier's film version of Shakespeare's Henry V was released, two months after D-day.  It had been in production since the year before.  During this time, England was a drab place indeed, ravaged by the German Blitz bombings of 1940-41, and by 1944, though hope was increasing, there were shortages of things everywhere, the country was still in a belt-tightening wartime mode, and V-E Day would not come until May of the following year.  This film was made with backing from the British government's Ministry of Information, with an aim to giving some respite to the British public during this dark period, and this was the reason that the most brutal episodes of Henry in Shakespeare's play, such as the execution of the three treacherous English noblemen by order of the king were cut, and  Henry's basic aggressiveness in invading France at that historical moment was glossed over, and the whole justification of the war, the issue of Salic Law, was made comic, while the doings of Pistol, Nym and their mates were rather sanitized.


Many of the criticisms made by film historians have to do with the integrity of Shakespeare's play itself, and its proper context within the grouping of Henry V, and Henry IV, parts I and II.  To my reasoning, all of choices made in this production was the logical outcome of the film as a stand-alone production and the circumstances that drove its making in the first place. In that sense, it is more akin to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), also a morale-raising propaganda movie, which probably influenced Olivier's treatment of the Battle of Agincourt.


Olivier and his production crew envisioned his version more as an extravagant pageant--an unreal, exciting yet comforting vision of a battle far removed from the realities of World War II, coming to us from a galaxy far, far, away. Not only that, there are two separate moments in time depicted here, one as a staged performance being done at the time of Shakespeare's Globe theater, the other, concerning the actual battle, in France of 1415, with a return to the Globe in 1600 at the end.  In addition, the film was shot in Technicolor, with its bright saturated colors, making the Battle sequence even more spectacular.


The Globe theater scenes are filmed with a zoom-in Smithsonian "Arial Britain" style over a pristine model of 1600 London and seamlessly into the little Globe "wooden O" theater where the play itself is presented, with views of both audience and backstage, with the initial scenes in Elizabethan dress.  The style of the actors'

Henry V at the Globe
presentation is exaggerated with broad gestures and declamatory manner, and audience response is very robust. The makeup is equally exaggerated.  There's even a rainstorm drenching the audience and players, but the show goes on. William Walton's score--contemporary British orchestrations of period music, provides accents.


As soon as Henry begins his departure in Southhampton we enter the even more imaginary world of the 15th century as is verbally invoked by the play's Chorus.  We know it is fantasy, because suddenly we've entered a 15th century as it is pictured in manuscripts of that period. Landscapes are painted with tilted perspectives, the distant fortresses also tilted--and broadly painted too.  This is staged as are the Globe sequences, but in a totally different way, particularly as envisioned with the eyes of the Limbourg Brothers' celebrated book of hours of

Très Riche Heures… January

1416--the Très Riche Heures of the Duke of Berry.  The costume references are so specific, that the Duke of Berry in the play is dressed in a costume that almost exactly matches his portrait in the January Calendar page.  The costumes of the other men invoke the same source, right down to the bowl-shaped haircuts of the younger men, the tall hats and turbans or chaperons on their heads, colored tights and long robes or shorter doublets. 


Ernest Thesinger as  Berry

The interior set of the King of France's palace evokes the images of architectural interiors in the illuminations too: thin columned and almost pavilion-like, some of these columns lacking shafts so as not to mask the characters' actions, and an interior entry point so tilted as to resemble a street access to a subway entrance marquee in New York City.


These sets, and the painted landscapes with their bird's eye views of distant high castles and vertically sloping pathways are invocations of the labors of the month calendar pages from the Berry manuscript, brilliantly achieved by matte paintings produced by Walter Percy and his associates. These create seamless setting for the real actors, skillfully placed so as not to seem out of scale. Foregrounds often have jagged rock faces.

Walter Percy Matte design

Added to this festive artificiality is the color scheme of the costumes in the fifteenth-century sections.  They are bright in hue and conceived in broad sweeps of ultramarine and vermillion--expensive pigments back then, as well as yellow, grass green, and of course a lot of metallic silver for armor. When the foot soldiers are massed, we are shown tiers of helmeted figures holding flags and spears.


Très Riche Heures: March
Henry Before the Battle

The battle scenes were filmed in Ireland in actual landscapes, fairly flat and very green. The charge of the French troops certainly owes much to Eisenstein's filming of the battle on the ice of Alexander Nevsky, but here they are also like the battles in French Manuscripts, including one in Enguerrand de Monstrelet's Chronique de France of the battle of Agincourt itself (though the actual illustration postdates the battle by eighty years).


Paradoxically, the lines in the 1415 sections are said much more naturalistically than those at the Globe. The rousing cheerleading of Henry's "Sts. Crispin and Crispinian speech, recited this way, serves to introduce the battle of Agincourt itself. The ground is muddy, as has been historically noted, but not enough to impede the French charge. There is blood and chaos in the battle, but certainly no hacked-off body parts.  One of the most exciting special effects here is the perfect grid pattern of the English archers' arrows against the sky hurtling towards the mounted French troops.  I've seen this film several times in theaters, and the audience gasps as this happens every time; it's as good as any modern special effect. Towards the end of the battle, when Henry unhorses the Constable of France in single combat, the battle becomes a tournament.

Enguerrard de Monstrelet: Agincourt


The set-pieces of the battle, the scenes at the French court and Henry's wooing of the Princess Katherine are all presented in the "International Gothic" conception of this fifteenth-century world.  The viewer gets so enchanted that incongruities are accepted. The battle took place in October, but the scene suddenly switches to the

Henry and Katherine 1415

dead of winter so that the snow-covered February page of Berry's hours can be used for the interlude scene of Fluellen and his leeks, then switching abruptly back to the autumn of 1415 so that Henry can court his Princess.Everything resolved, it's back to the Globe again where the actors portraying Henry and Katherine are seen once more in Elizabethan dress.


If we look at his film today, we actually have to deal with not two, but four time periods. Besides the two shown in the film, we need to be aware of the late World War II environment when it was released and towards which it was aimed. Early showings of the movie had an inserted dedication to "the commandoes and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture."  And now, some 76 years later, we have to consider the film's debut in the historical context of that 20th century war. Maybe in our own bleak times of fire, flood, plague and conflict, we could use another movie like this one.


You can rent the 1944 Henry V from Amazon

Here are a few websites that discuss technical aspects of making this film:

Many interesting posters and stills from the movie can be found at: (there are additional pages)

Here are three diverse reviews/discussions on this film:

And an excerpt from Andre Bazin's What is Cinema:

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Fallen Monument Park: What to do with Used Heroes

San Antonio Express-News, 7/21/2020: p. 3
This past Tuesday, National Public Radio's Morning Edition had a short segment on what I've always known as the "Park of Fallen Idols."  I visited it in 2000, and of all the memories I have of a study conference in Moscow and Saint Petersburg that year, this is the one I remember best.  SInce I've seen it, it has been expanded and now comprises part of the Muzeon complex, that also includes the Tretyakov Museum of Modern Art, a sculpture
Lenins in the Park, Muzeon Complex, Moscow
workshop and contemporary exhibition space.  Here, the problem is nicely solved as to what to do with many of those triumphant images of real or imagined heroes and leaders of discredited regimes, religions or causes lost.  Numerous Lenins, Stalins and other titans of the USSR, and allegorical muscular workmen stand around on green lawns, often gesturing heroically, with nothing to do.
The offending statues cited in the headline above
 At this very moment, we in the U.S. are in the process of toppling our own monuments to now literally fallen heroes, now images of Confederate soldiers, most standing, a few on horseback.  Though they were memorials to the losers, we still see them as uncomfortable reminders of a horrific part of our history.  The same can be said for sculpted monuments to Columbus, who as well know now, didn't "discover" America--even as a European; he only represents the advent of European colonialism.  The Vikings before him and probably also European cod fishermen had already been there, but only came to get a few goods or hang out for awhile.

Tearing down monuments to disgraced former ideas or leaders has been around as long as humans have been making them.  Just think of the obliteration of Pharoah Akhenaten's whole city of Akhetahten (Amarna) by his successors, or the legend of the Golden Calf--a
Nicolas Poussin: The Golden Calf, London, National Gallery
would be rival to God by the stiff-necked Israelites and how that turned out. Sometimes, the destroyed monuments were simply erased, as in the recent case of the Taliban's destruction of the giant buddhas of Bamiyan.  In other cases, they were destroyed, and new sacred icons replaced them; as in the fraught history of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The Bamiyan Buddhas: Before and After
On the other hand, sometimes they have multiple evocations as in the instance of the Vendome Column, a colossal self-glorification of Napoleon in the form of a big Roman-style triumphal column like Trajan's that the Emperor of the French had made to commemorate the Victory of Austerlitz in 1805. It was (and is) located in the place de la Vendome, on the site of an earlier equestrian statue of Louis XIV, destroyed during the French Revolution. Like the Roman one, the column was very tall (at 44 meters, or around 145 feet, or taller than its Roman prototype by around 15 feet) with a spiral of imagery narrating Napoleon's victory, cast from captured cannons from the Austerlitz battle, and topped by a bronze image of Napoleon as a reincarnation of a Roman emperor.  After Napoleon fell, the top effigy was replaced by several different flags, depending on who was in power, later by an image of Napoleon again in his more positive role as "the Little Corporal," and then, under his nephew, Napoleon III by a replica of the original Roman-style image again. 

Fallen Napoleon: The Vendome Column 1871
By 1871, after the Franco-Prussian war and Napoleon III's downfall, the revolutionary Communards who briefly held power had had enough.  They pulled the whole thing down, and therein lies the tale of the painter Courbet's populist role in the demolition, for which he was briefly imprisoned, presented with the bill for the column's restoration, and caused him to self-exile to Switzerland. It was re-erected shortly afterwards in 1873 by the Third
Republic with Napoleon-as-Roman Emperor on it once again and has stood unopposed in its luxurious plaza ever since.  Nobody has seen fit to criticize it much since then, except for the architect/architecural historian Daniel Gissen's proposal to make a dirt-mound installation to temporarily cover the columns base in 2013-14 in order to commemorate the temporary demolition of 1871.

So, once those Civil War soldiers and Columbus are all taken down, what will we do with them?  Many of them were previously in parks; do we collect them all like the Russians did?  I bet that if we had all of the statues and monuments of former gods and heroes in one place, they'd occupy more space than Arlington National Cemetery does.  When they were in situ, how many of us actually looked at them anyway?  Why do visible symbols have such power? But that's not the real point: why must we continue to make these graven images at all? Are humans hard-wired to fashion visible idols?
The article in the Express-News covers the proposed monument demolition in Austin; many local newspapers in the U.S. have similar articles on other local examples.  For another reference to the removal of a statue of Columbus from San Antonio, see:

The most interesting succinct discussion of the Vendome Column can be found in the French Wikipedia article :ôme#/media/Fichier:Colonne_vendome.jpg

 David Gissen's proposal to cover the Vendome Column's base with an earthwork can be explored at:

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Extremes and Escapes

            A memoir and Netflix series partially based on a memoir, both popular in these Coronavirus times, deal with young women overcoming very difficult childhoods that kept them apart from normal life in the US in parallel but, on the surface at least, widely divergent situations.

            The first, Educated, by Tara Westover, which has spent several months on the New York Times bestseller list, deals with the narrator's departure from a survivalist family in Idaho.  Her family lived at the edge of the wilderness.  Although near a small town, Ms.
Westover and her brothers were isolated from the LDS society of their families and other
inhabitants of the town, both physically and psychologically.  Her father owned a salvage yard at the foot of their property, in which all of his children worked alongside of him, sorting heavy machinery and machinery parts for resale.  His wife was a midwife and an herbalist, whose tinctures of essential oils would later develop into a successful business, operated out of her home.  The children were all home-schooled.

            The term "survivalist" has many connotations, but one of these refer to people who basically live isolated from society and strive to be as totally self-sufficient as possible.  Though both parents were Mormon in their upbringing, Tara's Father developed his own religious philosophy, based on his own interpretations of the Old and New Testament, upon which he expounded frequently, and spent his time when not working laying in supplies for the inevitable day of judgement.  He particularly identified with the Weaver Family of Ruby Ridge fame and was obsessed with the idea that the Feds would come for him and his family sooner or later, and that he needed to be prepared to resist--and perhaps martyred--if the Day of Judgement didn't come first.

            There was a great deal of physical abuse in Tara's background, partially from injuries in the junkyard and various family construction projects.  She herself was severely injured in the process, her father nearly died, and there were also two harrowing car accidents.  All of this was complicated by the fact that her parents did not believe in doctors and trusted only her mother's herbal preparations to pull them through.  What is remarkable that these remedies worked, though family members suffered scarring that medicine probably would have made less extensive.

            In addition, she was repeatedly abused by one of her brothers over a considerable amount of time.  As the children grew, their paths diverged in two directions.  Tara and two of her brothers, in spite of haphazard homeschooling, were motivated to self-educate; all three three went on to receive Ph.Ds.  The others remained largely illiterate and stayed in their father's business.

            I don't want to say more here, if you haven't read the book, please do.  Tara's story is extraordinary, and her drive to secure her education is a study beyond impressive, for not only did she achieve all of this without initially having a high school diploma, but she had to experience severe culture shock as she literally hit the world running at Brigham Young University, and later beyond even that world at Cambridge.  In the process, she had to separate from her domineering father and some of her brothers, and then make some sort of emotional and psychological peace with that, a process that involved years of overcoming what was virtually PTSD.

            Deborah Feldman's memoir Unorthodox and its sequel, Exodus narrate her equally harrowing departure from a confining situation, except here it is not the microcosm of a country family, but the macrocosm of a closed urban community: the Satmar Hasidim of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The Satmars are one of the most extreme sects of the ultra-orthodox wing of Judaism.  Organized around hereditary Charismatic Rabbis who each maintain their own communities of adherents, they are self-separated from American secular society, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  The men wear distinctive black dress and hats, do not trim their beards, and have curled sidelocks.  Women dress modestly, with long sleeves, modest skirts or dresses, and opaque stockings.  Upon marriage they cut off their hair and wear wigs or other head coverings.  Their everyday language is Yiddish, and they educate their children in that language.  They marry only among themselves and arrange their children's marriages.  Most have large families, and the Satmars believe that this is one of the essentials of their existence is to replace the six million Jews who were murdered during the holocaust, and the great fear that something like this might happen again.  Their entire lives are dictated by strict halacha, or Jewish law.  As a society within America, they are as closed as the Old Order Amish or polygamous members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
            Ms. Feldman was born into this community, and her two memoirs chronicle her early life among the Satmars, and her leaving the community. Like Westover, she came from a dysfunctional family: her father was mentally flawed, and her mother deserted the community when Deborah was a child; her mother was gay, completely unacceptable in the eyes of her family. Unlike Westover, Feldman was married off at seventeen to a member of the community and suffered a great deal of trauma consummating her marriage because of anatomical abnormalities, though she eventually bore a son.  Unusual among the Satmars, she was able to keep custody of her son after she obtained a divorce and left.

            Feldman had an equally difficult time adjusting to mainstream life; her trauma stems from the Satmar Community, holocaust survivors, and in many ways, she was as much a victim of post-Holocaust survivors as her grandparents, who raised her (like Westover, one grandmother provided some positive influence).  Through persistence and an inner strength, she too was able to get a college education and is now a writer.  After much moving around, she has finally settled in Berlin, where she writes in both English and German.  Like Westover, she is a strong and articulate woman, and like her, has journeyed through the tribulations of PTSD.  Her two volumes are also worth reading.

            In 2020, the Satmar part of Deborah's life became the initial part of the Netflix series, also entitled Unorthodox, and she was a consultant on its production.  However, the series' heroine, named Esther Shapiro (Esty's) process of adjustment to the outside world is different.  In it, she is married, but escapes the community when she finds out that she's pregnant, and she flees directly to Berlin, where her mother has settled with her partner.  It is as if she has entered not only a totally different place, but a new century. She is taken in by a group of multicultural music students, and eventually gains admittance to their elite conservatory via her extraordinary voice.  She reconciles with her mother, is able to part from her husband, who follows her to try and bring her back, and leaves us to make her place in her new world.

            Except for exteriors in the Satmar area of Williamsburg, the series, including the interior "Brooklyn" scenes was entirely recreated in studios in Berlin.  If you do watch the series, also watch the additional "Making Unorthodox" episode, that shows how it was done.  The Berlin footage is a love letter to that wonderful city, which incidentally has a growing Jewish population again.

            I am writing this as a privileged American Jewish woman who has suffered little hardship, and who has had a successful American career and a comfortable, loving family life.  I salute these two extraordinary women, who have overcome so much to be who they now are. Their books and the miniseries too, will transform your vision.

Tara Westover, Educated, Random House (2018) is still on the New York Times Bestseller List, and is available in all formats.

Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox, Simon and Schuster, now available as a 2012 reprint: ISBN-10: 1439187010. You can also find it in a Kindle edition on Amazon.

Deborah Feldman Exodus (2014), is available in a Kindle Edition, and used print ones are available.

If you read German, Deborah Feldman's Überbitten, her revised and expanded memoir, written with Christian Ruzicska, just published by btb Verlag (2020), is also available in a Kindle edition.

Both the series, Unorthodox, and The Making of Unorthodox are currently screening on Netflix.

Tara Westover has her own website with information and links to interviews, etc.

Interview with Deborah Feldman since she moved to Germany in 2013 can be found at:

Friday, October 25, 2019

Of Brick and Wood: Multicultural Masterpieces

Humans are the dominant species in our age.  We are the most destructive to each other and to our environment.  But the upside is that we are creative and inventive in this environment too, and produce things that are beautiful to us--and often starting with the humblest of materials.  As art historians, we like to study these things, classify, organize and group them according to norms we establish within our lifespans.  Great stone cathedrals come to mind, or Norwegian stave churches, or the formidable structures that are driven by technological advances like those towering skyscrapers of Dubai and Singapore.
Cervera de la Cañada, Santa Tecla: Interior detail

Gwozdziec Synagogue: Portal of the Rabbis by Isidor Kaufman
For me, some of the most remarkable of these structures are those that are very regional and time-restricted, and that make something remarkably beautiful out of very modest materials.  There are many over time and geography, but I just wanted to mention two: 13th-16th century brick churches in the region of Aragon in Spain, and 17th-18th century wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe--now long gone but well-documented by pre-World War II photography.  Both were built by artisans of one religion for another.  Within the last sixty years or so, both groups of buildings have been well studied and analyzed, and I'll give you excellent links to detailed sites below.

Spain: Aragon at Upper Right
Art Historians have given a name, Mudéjar, to the Aragonese churches.  The term Mudéjar generally refers to the Muslim residents of Christian Spain during the Reconquest period.  In Aragon, Mudéjar artisans and builders dominated the construction trade and their principal building material was brick: they made brick and ceramics as well.  Presumably, the Mudéjars also made mosques for themselves and perhaps synagogues for Aragonese Jews,  but none of these survive.  A number of the Christian churches were built on the sites of former mosques in this region as the Christians continued
Ateca: Santa María.  Minaret-Bell Tower
to vanquish Muslims up to 1492.  Some of the towers we call minarets from these conquered mosques were appropriated, extended higher and converted into bell towers when they became churches, though most often the church proper was rebuilt to conform to the shape and orientation of Christian practice: longitudinal nave, polygonal apse.
Morata de Jiloca, San Martín
The builders of the churches were these Mudéjar craftspeople, who used local and inexpensive brick, and their own time-tested building methods.  Following their own traditions, they adorned the repurposed or new towers, apses and facades with geometric decorations of raised and angled brick as well as colored ceramic inserts to liven them up.  The interiors were plastered and painted with patterns to imitate stone, or repeated geometric motifs; windows and their supports were filled in with geometric patterns too.  Several of these buildings remained reasonably intact, such as those in Tobed, Cervera de la Cañada, Maluenda and Torralba de Ribota, and in the last few decades meticulously restored.

Cervera de la Cañada: Apse (with later retablo and painting)
What makes these structures so interesting is that this profusion of motifs merged with the interior objects and adornments provided by their Christian users: big brightly colored and gilded multi-paneled altarpieces called retablos were in most side chapels and over the high altar; elaborate stucco pulpits and choir screens use a Mudéjar technique but also Gothic pattern motifs.  The interior effect was a riot of pattern and color, but the long nave, sometimes side-aisles, lateral chapels and the apse with its high altar were undeniably and proudly Christian. So these churches were a design collaboration of Muslims and Christians that resulted in a unique fusion.

This fusion produced a very regional kind of architecture that achieved its opulence through brick, ceramic, stucco and painted and gilded wood: inexpensive materials that combined to produce something unique and rich.  There is a website that serves as a visual and informational treasure trove for this architectural movement illustrated with meticulously photographed details for all of them that are out there, maintained by José Antonio Tolosa.  I give the link below.

Map of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
If brickmaking materials abounded in late medieval Aragon, so did trees in eastern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Wooden architecture developed in the region and encompassed both housing and places of worship.  It is readily seen in old photographs of small towns in the countryside, in large manor houses, cottages and both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the region, as well as spectacular Jewish wooden synagogues. The greatest flowering of this multi-cultural renaissance took place during the existence of what was known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795).

Wolpa Synagogue: Bimah (c); Ark (r)
While masonry synagogues were built in larger cities, synagogues in the countryside were constructed of timber, and though the present consensus has it that the builders and carpenters themselves were not Jews, their  methods conformed to those of the general type of all architecture of the period.  As in the case of Mudéjar churches in Aragon, this was modified to meet the needs of Jewish practice. Interior synagogue space was basically a square, and had two liturgical focus points: the Ark, which held the Torah scrolls, generally located on the eastern wall, and the Bimah, here a pavilion-like platform in the middle of the room, where the Torah portions were read each Sabbath and on holidays, with seating around it.
Due to less durability and fires, these synagogues were often modified over time, with their roofline raised to accommodate interior cupulas of complex construction.  Exteriors were relatively plain, though as roofs were raised, the exterior profiles became multi-tiered.  Also, extra galleries, porches and other rooms were successively added, resulting in complex exteriors such as at Zabludow.

Zabludow: Synagogue
But much as the altarpieces and stucco screens of the Aragonese churches transformed their appearances to conform to a profound Christianity, the wooden synagogues' interiors were adorned with structures, and often wall and ceiling paintings that expressed their Judaism.  Torah Arks became tall narrow often filigreed affairs, often richly colored and sometimes gilded.  The bimahs rivaled the baldacchinos of Italian Baroque churches, with elaborate wooden carving.  And in some synagogues, the walls were covered with painted Hebrew religious texts, while the ceilings and painted cupolas could offer Zodiac imagery, various animals and painted ornament: human form might not be represented (except for the painted hands offering the Priestly blessing above some arks), but anything and everything else was.  It's not clear who actually executed the interior carvings, but the wall and ceiling painters were Jewish: they signed their work and formed itinerant teams who traveled from town to town, much like the Romanesque church
Khodorow: Ark and wall painting
painters in medieval Catalonia.

There is one irony, though: this superb environment was for men only.  Originally most of these structures had no accommodation for women at all; subsequently a narrow side upper or lower room for women was added on in many of them, but the only visual access was through a heavy grill or a narrow slit.  At least Aragonese Catholic women could sit or stand alongside of the men.

If any of these synagogues survived, they would surely be Unesco World Heritage Sites, but some vanished in the late 19th - early 20th century as small-town populations became very impoverished, and many Jews emigrated.  Those that did make it up to Hitler's invasion of Eastern Europe perished in the Holocaust.  Fortunately, many of them were photographed, analyzed and documented in the 1920's in a project sponsored by the Department of Architecture at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute.  A good portion of this archive survived World War II, and was utilized by the architects Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka in their superb wooden synagogue studies beginning in 1957 (I cite a reference to the later English edition below).  Building on this, the architectural historian Thomas Hubka produced a marvelous monograph on one Synagogue, that of Gwozdziec, and this inspired the new Museum of Polish Jewry and the American Handhouse studio to recreate the Synagogue's ceiling and bimah as the museum's centerpiece, joining an earlier recreation of the painted Chodorov ceiling at the Beit Hatefutsoth Museum in Tel Aviv.
The reconstructed bimah and ceiling from Gwozdziec
A more curious reconstruction is of the Wolpa Synagogue in the town of Bilgoraj, integrated into a reproduced Jewish Shetl, --is this a sort of Shtetl theme-park?  Bilgoraj now has no Jews, but it did--and a synagogue too, but not this one!

We often forget about the multicultural artistic collaborations found in so many places in the world at so many different time periods; human beings can coexist and produce masterpieces, but histories and the current news so often accentuate the negative.

The very best place to see an encyclopediopic collection of images and many details of Aragonese Mudéjar architecture is José Antonio Tolosa's website Aragón Mudéjar:

The two superior works on Wooden Synagogues are Books:
1. María and Kazimierz Piechotka, Heaven's Gates.  Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Warsaw, Wydawnictwo Krupski i S-ka, 2004.
There are earlier versions, Wooden Synagogues, both in Polish and English, going back to 1957. There's a later edition published by Polin, The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and a sister volume on masonry synagogues in the same region: pricey, but worth seeking out.

2.Thomas C. Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue. Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth=Century Polish Community, Brandeis University Press, 2004, also pricey--but easier to find.

A short film on reconstructing the Gwozdziec ceiling can be found at:

For discussions of many and varied aspects of Jewish art, including synagogues of all places and times, I recommend Samuel Gruber's wonderful website:

Friday, August 2, 2019

Dastardly Deeds on The Nueces Strip, Art, a Museum, and a Saloon

Michael Ome Untiedt: On the Nueces Strip.  Rangers and Another Heye Saddle.  San Antonio, Briscoe Western Art Museum
A man gallops his horse up a dusty path.  Judging by the starry sky, It’s night, but there must be a full moon because the rider casts a moon-shadow on the trail.  The rider looks back at two pursuing men, also riding full-tilt, trying to catch him.  Way in the background are some darker hills with a few lights of a town at their base.  The brushstrokes are broad, impressionistic.  In spite of the fugitive’s red shirt, moonlight makes the colors cool and ghostly.

The painter of this work is Michael One Untiedt, a contemporary Western artist and this work, entitled On the Nueces Strip: Rangers and Another Heye Saddle, is recent (2014).  A lot of Untiedt’s work falls in the western genre.  Some of them have historical figures such as Charlie Goodnight and Quanah Parker.  Sometimes two almost identical compositions have divergent backstories, for example, On the Nueces Strip is very similar to another of his works, When Faith Takes a Fast Mount, where there is only one pursuer, the weather is stormy rather than nocturnal, and a crucifix is on a low hill to the right.  On his website, the painter comments on many of his works, accompanied by photographs of them.  Quite a number are night scenes; he gives tribute in these to earlier Western painters in the genre, Frederic Remington and Frank Tenney Johnson.  Many are general nostalgic scenes of cowboy life, others are pure but recognizably western landscapes, and all appear to narrate something, identifiable or not.

The title “On the Nueces Strip: Rangers and Another Heye Saddle” certainly implies a specific story being told here, but unless you happen to be a die-hard Texas history buff, you are probably asking “Nueces Strip?  Where is that?”  “Heye Saddle—is it a type of saddle, or does it refer to one owned by somebody named Heye, or made by Heye?,” not to mention exactly what did these rangers do and when did they do it?  Were they Texas Rangers, and if so, this certainly is not the major league ball club, since they’re in Arlington—nowhere near the Nueces river in south Texas.

The particular incident referred to here was a robbery of a general store on the Nueces River, the theft of eighteen valuable saddles among the loot, and the story of their recovery in 1875.  The Nueces River, which flows from Edwards County in central Texas, to Corpus Christi Bay, was considered the boundary between Mexico and Texas, until Texas, the winner of the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 definitively fixed its border southward at the Rio Grande with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  But there were many Mexican citizens who had had land grants in the “Nueces Strip”—the area between the two rivers.  They still considered their lands theirs, even as Anglo-American settlers began to populate the territory and take property for themselves.  Conflict in the region raged for another thirty years or more.  One of the biggest Mexican land-grant leaders, Juan Nepumaceno Cortina, lost a considerable amount of property claimed ancestrally by his family north of the Rio Grande in the vicinity of Brownsville.  He became the leader of disenfranchised Mexicans in the region, and fought two local wars during the period 1859-1861 before he was driven back over the border.  

From the end of the Civil War and later, as Anglo-American ranches were being established, great numbers of feral longhorn cattle were rounded up, claimed by the ranchers, and branded with their brands.  After 1870 Cortina became active again, directing raids into the Nueces strip area, stealing cattle and looting Anglo-American settlements and ranches, taking all of it across the Rio Grande to Mexico.  To Mexicans, he was Robin Hood.  To many Anglo-Americans, he was more like Attila the Hun.

Captain Leander McNelly
This is not the place to talk about the Texas Rangers, a sort of Texan “Special Forces” with a long and checkered history; just to mention one short part of it. A company of Rangers was commissioned by Texas Governor Edmund J. Davis to settle a long-standing feud between the Sutton and Taylor families in south Texas in 1874.  It was commanded by 30-year-old Captain Leander McNelly, a Civil War veteran and former state policeman.  Though they were only partially successful, McNelly was called to action again in 1875 to try and establish some law and order in the Nueces Strip. He recruited forty men, and for the next two years, often using brutal and unorthodox methods (McNelly was a disciple of the “take-no-prisoners-school), they succeeded.  For a detailed account of their activities at this time, I recommend the account of the youngest member of the company, George Durham called Taming the Nueces Strip.”

Untiedt’s painting invokes this campaign.  The San Antonio Daily Express sounded a general alarm about the threatening situation on the Nueces Strip on May, 20, 1875.  Cortina sent out four groups of marauders consisting of Mexicans and some allied American over the border five days later.  Three were soon repulsed, but the fourth group charged north, heading towards Corpus Christi.  On the way, they destroyed ranches and homesteads, raided a store run and owned by George Franks, and took some prisoners of both genders, driving them in front as human shields and/or bargaining chips.

On March 26 (Good Friday), they reached Nuecestown, a small place then, and now absorbed into Corpus Christi.  There, they attacked the general store owned by Thomas J. Noakes, who was also the town’s postmaster.  Noakes, knowing of the local potential for disaster, had dug a tunnel under the house, where he hid after shooting one of the robbers, and then realizing the overwhelming odds against him.  His five children escaped to the river,  but Noakes’s wife Martha took a stand.  As the robbers attempted to set fire to the store, she managed to douse it twice before ducking inside to grab her feather comforter.  One of the Anglo robbers, described by her with a distinctive facial scar, beat her severely with his riding quirt, but she eventually escaped, quilt and all.  T.J. Noakes survived as well, but the store was completely sacked and burned before the banditsrode away.

Among their haul were eighteen luxury saddles, heavily adorned with silver in distinctive pattern and design, manufactured by Dietrich Heye of San Antonio.

This robber band was prevented by traveling further by a posse who came down from Corpus Christi, and other armed locals.  Retribution was evidently very intense and violent, but did nothing to stop the lawless carnage between both Mexicans and Anglos in the region over the next month.

According to George Durham, when NcNelly and his rangers Nuecestown and the site of the burned store, he gave his men very specific instructions.

Captain seemed mighty concerned about those eighteen saddles.  He got Mike Dunn 
[one of the prisoners the posse freed from the gang after the raid] to give him a good 
picture of them—length of the tapideros, if the skirts were cinched.  He wanted all 
details…and ordered: “Describe those saddles to the Rangers.  Make sure they 
understand exactly.  Then order them to empty those saddles on sight.  No palavering 
with the riders.  Empty them.  Leave the men where you drop them and bring the
  saddles to camp.”

The following month, McNelly and his rangers caught up with many of the raiders at the salt marsh of Palo Alto, north of Brownsville. He and his men slaughtered them all—and George himself killed the scarfaced man who beat up Mrs. Noakes.  McNelly had the bodies brought back to Brownsville and stacked them in a public square—shocking friends as well as the unsympathetic.  A tally of the loot recaptured from the battle included twenty-two pistols, twelve rifles and fourteen saddles.  Durham reported that

Nine of the saddles…look to be almost brand new.  they are dandies.  Garnished with 
two-inch silver conchos, foot-long tapaderos.  The first ones I’ve seen.  Came from Dick 
Heye saddlery in    Santone. “Captain  perked up and said, ‘Let’s have a look at them.  
Sounds like they’re part of the plunder taken up in Nuecestown in a raid last 
March.” They were.  No mistaking them.

Befitting their special value, Cortina had given them to his trusted and honored lieutenants. McNelly, in the instructions to his men, practiced what art historians call “connoisseurship:” analyzing the traits of a distinctive style to determine the authenticity of a work of art.  It worked for the art of saddles too.

McNelly died young at 33.  He had been suffering from tuberculosis and had originally migrated to Texas from Louisiana in search of drier air.  He lived long enough to conduct more skirmishes along the Rio Grande, including one over the border in Mexico itself.  The Nueces Strip was pacified, but the Rio Grande is, to this day as we well know, a volatile border.

T.J. Noakes got these saddles back—and eventually all  eighteen—plus seven more!  They were evidently prized targets.  The problem was, according to Durham at least, they had morphed from notable to notorious—no one wanted to buy them, given their history.

So who knows which incident in this border war involving Heye saddles, if any, is the specific pursuit depicted in Untiedt’s painting?  It’s more a poetic narration of pursuit—and for this writer, a lot more moving and impressive than such standard “western issue” paintings depicting Captain McNelly by Joe Grandee or Clyde Heron.

Part of the irony of it all, is that no part of the saddle and its rich adornments is visible in the painting, but visitors to the gallery where the painting is hung can examine a genuine Heye saddle, with all its silver concho trimmings (Durham mentions that these were particularly large), and characteristically long and silver-plated tapaderos (stirrup covers) on display in the same room.

Diedrich Heye and his workers, 110 Commerce St., San Antonio
The Site of the Original Saddlery Today
It would be cool to say that this particular saddle was actually part of the Nuecestown loot, but it isn’t, for the firm of D. Heye and his sons kept the enterprise going well into second third of the 20th century.  Deidrich Heye was part of a wave of German settlers who came to central Texas during the mid 19th century.  Born in Holstein in 1837, he received his initial training in saddlery in his native country, then moved on to an apprenticeship in England, which had the reputation for being the best in the business.  He then moved on to Mexico city, where he learned the art of silver-decorated saddles, the basis for the American western saddle.  He came to San Antonio in 1866, where he set up a shop on Commerce Street, then the principal business street in the city.  He and his workers quickly built up a reputation for quality saddlery, and prospered during the period of the cattle drives during the next two decades.  The firm produced work saddles too, but the Heye saddle became the darling of wealthy stockmen, with their distinctive concho pattern and quality leather work (Durham called them “the Cadillac of Saddles).”

Heye died in 1896, but he had taught his trade to his sons, and later the business was continued by his grandson.  Among other projects, the Heye enterprise made many of the saddles for Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who trained in San Antonio.  Later on, they became saddle makers to Hollywood cowboy stars and wealthy ranchers, and as automobiles displaced horses as transportation, they branched out into all sorts of luxury leather goods, including fancy luggage.

Over their long business operation, the enterprise moved several times to larger quarters, but the upper facade of the original workshop is marked by a commemorative sign that still reads “G. Heye, Est. 1867” (it is now occupied by the Coyote Ugly Saloon).

The saddle on exhibition at the Briscoe Museum was made for Rex Stout, a now-forgotten country singer who was popular in the mid-20th century, and so was presumably custom made at that time.  It has the characteristic conchos and silver-adorned tapaderos.  I can’t say how closely it resembled the Diedrich (or Dick) Heye saddles of the 1870’s, but I  think it’s terrific that it occupies the same gallery as Untiedt’s painting, so you can really understand what the painter’s reference is.

The Rex Stuart Heye Saddle. Briscoe Museum of Western Art
Rex Stuart (?)
But it gets even better: the D. Heye original San Antonio saddlery site, nicely marked, is just one block north of the Briscoe Museum—you could even see it from a window in the gallery if it weren’t blocked by a parking garage.  For Art Historians, it is completely rare for a work of art, its iconographical source and the location of its origins are all in the same place.  We should all go to Coyote Ugly after a Briscoe Museum visit and raise a glass to Heye, McNelly, Untiedt and brave Martha too!
Michael Ome Untiedt’s personal website is at:

There are numerous recounting of the attack on the Nuecestown store.  Though it was written down nearly 50 years after it happened, there is the eyewitness account by former “Little McNelly” George Durham (written in 1934 as told to Clyde Wantland, it was not published until 1962):

George Durham (told to Clyde Wantland), Taming the Nueces Strip.  The Story of McNelly’s Rangers.  UT Press, Austin 1962

Leopold Morris, “The Mexican Raid on Corpus Christi,” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 1900), pp. 128-139

William A. Hager, “The Nuecestown Raid of 1875: A border Incident,” Arizona and the West, No. 3 (Autumn, 1959), pp. 258-270

More contemporary newspaper accounts:
Noakes’s account in the Galveston News:
“Statement of the Postmaster at Nueces. A Narrow Escape from Death,” Galveston News, March 30, 1875, p. 1.

Consequences of the battle in the salt marsh at Palo Alto:
”Letter from Brownsville” The San Antonio Daily Express, May 29, 1875, p.2

Diedrich Heye’s Obituary:
“Death of an Old Citizen,” The San Antonio Daily Light, February 26, 1896, p. 2

A brief history of the Heye Saddlery:

“Identified With Growing Cattle Business,” San Antonio Express, October 25, 1935, p. 16.