Friday, December 28, 2018

In Flanders Fields: John McCrae's poetic tribute to the fallen of World War I

John McCrae Memorial "book" close-up. McCrae House, Guelph, Ontario, Canada (Photo: Lx 121)
(Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported License)

ESSEX FARM CEMETERY, YPRES, BELGIUMNovember 11, 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice. In many ways, the "Great War", as it is called, is also the "forgotten war" because so few Americans know much about it.

In fact, as of this writing, there is no memorial in our nation's capital that honors those who  perished in the preservation of our liberty and freedom during World War I.

Muddy trenches were home for four long years
(Courtesy: Imperial War Museum)

In the countries and battlefields where the mayhem took place however, the story is quite different.

In early May of 1915, Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae composed his now famous poem In Flanders Fields in tribute to his close friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer who was killed on May 2, 1915 in the gun positions near Ypres. Helmer was just 22 years old.

In the absence of the chaplain who had been called away, McCrae was asked to conduct the burial of his friend.

Death march (Courtesy: Imperial
War Museum)
It was a Sunday morning when Helmer left his dugout taking a direct hit from an 8-inch German shell. He was killed instantly. According to reports "what body parts could be found were later gathered into sandbags and laid in an army blanket for burial that evening."

The memorial ceremony was simple and brief as Major McCrae recited from memory a few passages from the Church of England's Order of Burial of the Dead. Helmer's burial site was marked by a simple wooden cross; a grave that has since been lost.

Essex Farm Cemetery is home to the John McCrae Memorial
(Courtesy: Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Today, the John McCrae Memorial Site is a prominent feature of Essex Farm Cemetery where 1,204 fallen soldiers are interred, of which 104 are unidentified. The monument includes the In Flanders Fields poem composed by the major.

Established next to a dressing station by the Canadian Field Artillery during the Second Battle of Ypres, the cemetery is called "Essex Farm" to commemorate the Essex Regiment. Many believe the name was chosen in honor of a member of that regiment who was buried there in June 1915.

Model of battlefield and bunkers in Flanders  (Courtesy: In Flanders Fields Museum)

Following Helmer's burial, it is believed that McCrae began to draft his poem, though there are several accounts of what happened.

One version says McCrae was seen writing the poem the next day, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer's grave with the vivid red poppies that were springing up amongst the graves in the burial ground.

Another said that McCrae was so upset after Helmer's burial that he wrote the poem in twenty minutes in an attempt to compose himself.

Trenches, Ypres Salient
(Photo: Taylor)
A third version by commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Morrison, stated that John drafted the poem partly to pass the time between the arrival of two groups of wounded soldiers at the first aid post and partly to experiment with different variations of the poem's meter.

Regardless of which story is true, Major McCrae's poem is a haunting reminder of the insanity of war. During the 16 day of the Second Battle of  Ypres, of which there were a total of five, one observer wrote this account:

"We saw how they crept out to bury their dead during lulls in the fighting. So the rows of crosses increased day after day, until in no time at all it had become quite a sizeable cemetery. Just as John described it, it was not uncommon early in the morning to hear the larks singing in the brief silences between the bursts of the shells and the returning salvos of our own nearby guns.” 

In the autumn of 1914 a small burial ground had been established by the French Army on a canal bank during the First Battle of Ypres. By May of the following year, the site contained graves of both French and Canadian casualties becoming known as Essex Farm British Military Cemetery.  Essex Farm was a nearby farm in the area.

Plaque denotes the first use of poison gas in warfare
(Photo: Taylor)
It was during the battle to defend Allied terrain in the northern Ypres Salient, that the Germans introduced a deadly, never before used weapon, poison gas.

Major McCrae submitted his poem to The Spectator magazine but it was rejected and returned. It was not published until Punch printed it on December 8, 1915.

Poppy fields of Flanders have become the symbol of the region
and the war  (Photo: Taylor)
In the Punch version the word "blow" is used in the first line even though McCrae also wrote the word "grow" in other handwritten rewrites. The poem contains just 15 lines but they are as powerful and poignant as they are haunting:

John McRae's poem
(Photo:  SherylForbis)

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

                     We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
                     Loved and were loved, and now                       we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields."

Travelers who visit the Menin Gate Memorial and/or participate in the Last Post ceremony will find Lieutenant Alex Helmer's name commemorated on Panel 10. His name is among nearly 55,000 soldiers with no known grave in the battlefields of the Ypres Salient.

Last Post at Menin Gate in Ypres honors the fallen every night of the year (Courtesy:
Today, in tribute to those fallen warriors, Ypres honors them with a nightly ceremony known as the "Last Call." A tradition which has been observed each evening since 1929.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A love affair with the art of Pablo Picasso

Art collector Angela Rosengart posed for Pablo Picasso when she was a teenager (Courtesy: Rosengart Foundation)
LUCERNE, SWITZERLAND – Angela Rosengart was only a teenager when she met Pablo Picasso for the first time. Today, at 88, the Swiss art collector from Lucerne fondly recalls more than 50 encounters with the charismatic Spanish artist, most notably the five occasions when she posed for him.

The Kapellebruck (Chapel Bridge) is Lucerne's most endearing
landmark (Photo: Eluveitie -- Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
For years Rosengart displayed her collection of Picassos in a historic but unobtrusive gallery on a side street in the Old Town of Lucerne. In 2002 however, the exhibition expanded and moved to a neoclassical building across the River Reuss in New Town. Situated on Pilatustrasse, across the street from the railway station and in the shadow of the famed Chapel Bridge, the new display represents three Rosengart collections, each with its own floor.

Rosengart Museum, Lucerne
(Courtesy: Rosengart Foundation)
Over the years Rosengart also met Miro, Matisse, Braque and Chagall, but none of them could match the aura of Picasso. “It was those deep, piercing Spanish eyes,” she says. “They felt like arrows, and I very much felt that.”

After sessions ranging from 20 minutes to three hours, Frau Rosengart says she was exhausted each time because her soul felt “burned” by the experience.

Following in the footsteps of her father Siegried, who was responsible for love of art and collecting, Rosengart’s exhibition includes about 60 Impressionist and pos-Impressionist paintings, over 125 water colors and drawings by native son artist Paul Klee and 32 oils plus more than 50 drawings by Picasso.

Kapellbrucke with rushing waters of the River Reuss in Lucerne (Photo: Edwin Lee -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution  license)
Siegfried Rosengart became Picasso’s principal dealer in Switzerland and held eight exhibitions of the artist’s work between 1956 and 1971. Each catalogue cover was designed by the artist himself.

For years the Rosengarts frequently visited Picasso in the south of France, and it was this unique life-long friendship that has a subliminal effect on visitors to her gallery today.

Part of the magic lies in a collection of black and white photographs by American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan that chronicle the artist’s life. Duncan and Picasso became close friends, and he was the only person allowed to photograph many of Picasso’s private paintings.

First encounter with Picasso
(Photo: David Douglas Duncan
-- Rosengart Foundation)
Duncan made a name for himself as a combat and freelance photographer of Life magazine and National Geographic. Duncan, who died earlier this year at the age of 102, first met Picasso while on assignment for Life magazine. The artist invited him to enter his home as he was taking a bath and, unable to resist the opportunity, Duncan’s photographic instincts took over. It was an event that  marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Later, Angela purchased Duncan’s entire collection of Picasso images. When combined with her personal collection of Picasso’s work, the artist comes to life in ways that are difficult to describe without a personal viewing.

Pablo Picasso's piercing, penetrating eyes as viewed by Angela Rosengart (Photo: David Douglas Duncan -- Rosengart
The five portraits of Angela, which Picasso gave to her, are the centerpiece of her exhibition. Though Picasso was passionate in his love for women, his sketches of Angela are “compassionate” in a manner that presents his subject as the chaste, innocent teenager she was. In that sense, the etchings are uniquely different from most of Picasso’s other portraits.

Rosengart believes that perhaps the reason for the lovingly platonic representations of her was due to the fact that Picasso’s childhood sweetheart’s name was Angela.

Duncan captured the many moods of the complex artist
(Photo: David Douglas Duncan -- Rosengart Foundation)

Says Rosengart of Picasso’s portraits, “He only wanted to know whether my mother liked them.”

Angela Rosengart never married. If she had, she says she would probably never have been able to amass her collections.

Despite that, when one of Siegfried’s clients became frustrated that Angela’s father would not sell one of his prized Picassos because he had promised it to his daughter on her wedding day, the bemused Picasso pragmatically asked, “Then why didn’t he marry Angela?”

Rosengart Portrait
(Courtesy: Rosengart
Thanks to their close association with the artist, the Rosengarts were able to watch Picasso at work on several occasions. That relationship allowed them to reserve some of the renderings while the paint was still wet.

So intimate and personal are Angela Rosengart’s collections that she never lends to other galleries. For her, a stroll through her museum is like visiting with old friends.

The Rosengart collection features the works of Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and Chagall as well as those of Swiss native son Paul Klee, who also holds a place deep in Angela’s heart. But it is the works of Pablo Picasso she holds most dear.

You see this is a love story about a triangle between a photographer, an artist and a collector. It is a story about life, living and friendship and though it was not sexual, it was every bit as passionate and intimate.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Ravello, Italy: Where scenery goes for inspiration

Positano along the Amalfi Coast as seen from Ravello
(Photo: Taylor)

RAVELLO, ITALY — When it comes to scenery and dramatic picturesque settings, it is difficult to find any place in the world more spectacular than Ravello, Italy. With breathtaking views in every direction, even the worst photographer become Ansel Adams in Ravello.

Ravello is not a destination for first-time travelers in the sense that it makes a good base for sightseeing. It's a relatively remote location that is not difficult to reach, but neither is it convenient for travelers with wanderlust in their shoes.

Ravello is a place to relax
(Photo: Taylor)
No, this is a place for relaxation, contemplation and savoring the best that life has to offer; a combination of sunshine, landscaping, superb cuisine and elegant wine all blended with a history that reads like a who's who of celebrities who have discovered its charms.

Ravello is small with a resident population of about 2,500 people. It nestles above the villages of Amalfi, Atrani, Maori and Minori overlooking the scenic wonderland of the Amalfi Coast where mountains plunge into the sea to create a coastline that defies description.

Al Fresco dining with the world
below (Photo: Taylor)
In 1996, Ravello earned a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only question would be "what took them so long?"

Founded in the 5th century as a shelter against the barbarian invasions that marked the end of the Western Roman Empire, Ravello's geographical location in the forested hills above the Amalfi Coast made it an ideal vantage point with natural protection from outside invasions.

Piazza Vescovado is Ravello's main square

Today, local SITA buses and taxis drop visitors off at the village's main square, Piazza Vescovado, in front of Duomo di Ravello, the Cathedral of Ravello, where the open space is surrounded by shops filled with high quality local ceramics, small cafes, a post office and a bank. This is the spiritual center of the city.

Ravello is also accessible by self-driven cars but be forewarned, the serpentine roads are narrow and can be difficult to negotiate.
Terrace garden overlooking the Amalfi Coast from Villa Rufalo
Upon arrival, most visitors check out the cathedral or Villa Rufolo (1270) after they are able to catch their breath from the breathtaking vistas that spread out before them.

The appeal of the two sites is initially due to their locations as the first things a visitor encounters. It doesn't take long however, to realize that location is only the carrot at the end  of the stick, because both offer far more than first meets the eye.

Villa Rufalo is an inspiration
Villa Rufolo sits on a ledge that has attracted thousands of visitors over the years, thanks, in large part, to the inspiration it provided Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron and as the location where Richard Wagner composed the second act of his opera Parsifal in 1880.

Each summer since 1953 the Ravello Festival has honored Wagner with concerts held on the dramatic Villa Rufolo stage overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

From Villa Rufolo, most visitors turn left through a narrow passageway lined with ceramics shops and cafes en route to Villa Cimbrone, about a ten minute walk from the center of town.
Villa Cimbrone was the oasis for Greta Garbo "to be alone"
Thanks to its location, Villa Cimbrone would have eventually become well known in its own right, but the catalyst for its notoriety came when Virginia Woolf and other member of London's Bloomsbury Group discovered it as a retreat.

In 1938, reclusive actress Greta Garbo took up residence in Villa Cimbrone with the intention of marrying Leopold Stokowski, the musical genius behind Walt Disney's Fantasia.

It's not difficult to see how D.H. Lawrence drew inspiration from Villa Cimbrone in 1927 where he wrote parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Sculpture row at Villa Cimbrone
Be sure to meander through the lush forested gardens to view the "Terrace of the Infinite." The row of white sculptures serves as an enticement that enhances the stunning vistas that spread out below and into the infinite horizon of the sea.

American author Gore Vidal lived in Ravello for 30 years, eventually earning himself the distinction as an honorary citizen.

Bedroom at Villa Cimbrone in Ravello
The great English novelist, E.M. Forster, famous for A Passage to India, Howard’s End and A Room with a View, wrote his first short story, Story of a Panic, while staying at the Villa Episcopi.

Other Hollywood legends have discovered Ravello as well. The 1953 movie Beat the Devil was filmed in Ravello using a script written on the site by Truman Capote. The all-star cast included Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, all of whom stayed at Hotel Palumbo.
Fine dining at Ravello's Hotel Ravello
Situated beside a narrow entrance road that is only wide enough for one car and housed in a medieval palace dating to the 12th century, Hotel Palumbo preserves reminiscences of the original medieval structure of Palazzo Confalone offering a magical atmosphere with refined hospitality.
Palumbo's arches and tiled floors are alluring
Ancient marble columns, mosaic-tile floors, and museum-quality antiques contribute to the intimate charm of this luxury.
Rooms at Hotel Palumbo have no numbers. Rather they are identified by names. Each is unique and each offers panoramic views of the Amalfi Coast that defy description.
Confalone Restaurant

The Confalone Restaurant features frescoed rooms including a stunning painting of San Giovanni Battista by Guido Reni, a student of Caravaggio. The terrace overlooking the picturesque landscape is almost too breathtaking to describe.

In addition, Hotel Palumbo produces its own wine under the Episcopio label. You can tour the Episcopio wine cellar but don't expect a massive operation. The facility is almost toy-like in its location, but never underestimate the quality of the wine it produces.

Idyllic scenery lies just beyond the archways
Take time to browse through the hotel guest book and you will know you have visited someplace unique when you encounter names such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, General Dwight Eisenhower, who in World War II plotted the allied advance on Monte Cassino while staying at the Hotel Palumbo, Winston Churchill and Jackie Kennedy took a two week vacation in Ravello along with her sister, Princess Lee Radziwill.

Other celebrities include; Edvard Grieg, Tennessee WilliamsGraham Greene, Leonard Bernstein, Sara Teasdale and, of course, Richard Wagner who composed on the piano in the lobby.

One final tip. As mentioned above, most visitors turn left when they arrive in Ravello and fail to explore the other side of the village. Big mistake.

Ravello or bust -- Dusk envelopeshe statues at Villa Cimbrone
As stunning at the views are from Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, they are equally dramatic at the other side of Ravello. Miss them and you have missed half of the city.

Visit Ravello once to experience its charms, but be sure you return to savor its magic.