Saturday, 12 September 2015

Shades of the northern Homer.

We've all heard of Homer and his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, which tell the story of the outbreak and the aftermath of the Trojan Wars.  They are not only epic poems but have had an epic influence on world literature, for they've been known and studied for centuries, as they are thousands of years old.  The Romans liked to associate themselves with the events of the poem and claim decent from the hero's whose deeds it records, and then every European kingdom and society after them wanted to at least claim sympathy with Homer.

So that was the poetry epic of the south, but what about the north?  All those cold chilly countries that were gaining ascendancy wanted to have a really important epic work of literary greatness to help buttress their ideas about themselves.  Step forward James Macpherson, (1736 - 1796) a Scottish poet and translator who starting in 1760 began to publish fragments of Gaelic manuscripts he claimed to have found in his researches around the Western Isles.  Then, in 1761 he claimed to have discovered a complete epic poem on the subject of Fingal by the ancient poet Ossian, thought to be the son of the legendary Irish king Finn Mac Cumhail.

James Macpherson by George Romney.  Wikipedia Commons
This was published to huge success throughout Britain, and celebrated as one of the literary finds of the century.  It also had an influence on other writers of the period, although Dr Samuel Johnson was very scathing about it.  Artists were also influenced to paint pictures based on the poem, most famously JMW Turner, but as the eighteenth century drew to a close they seemed less enthusiastic.  Meanwhile its popularity started to spread into Europe, for the German Romantic poet Goethe translated part of the epic to include in the climactic scene of his poem 'The sorrows of young Werther'.

As the nineteenth century got under way, more and more European artists began to do Ossian inspired work, especially the French as the poem was an especial favourite of the emperor Napoleon.  The young radical classicist painter Maurice Quay (an odd figure if ever there was one) is quoted as saying,

'Homer - Ossian, the sun, the moon.  That is the question.  In truth I prefer the moon, as it is more primitive.'

Quay was a member of a small number of artists in the studio of J. L. David who had decided to live as ancient Greeks, called themselves the 'Barbus' or bearded ones and wandered Paris dressed in Greek robes and sandals.  They believed that to live a 'primitive' life away from luxury and wealth was the only way for a decent person to exist.  Apart from giving Paris something to laugh at, they had little impact as almost nothing of their work survives.  But Quay admired Homer, the Bible and Ossian and felt almost no other literature was worth a second look.

Fingel defeats the spirit of Loda by Asmus Jacob Carsters. (1754 - 1798)

The list of European artists who painted Ossian inspired work reads like the neoclassic painters hall of fame induction list, starting with mister big himself,  J.A.D. Ingres, then Ary Scheffer, Paul Duqueylar, François Gérard, Nicolai Abildgaard, Johan Peter Krafft, and Asmus Jacob Carsters.  To name just a few.

 Anne Louis Girodet, another pupil of David also wanted to suck up to Napoleon by painting him a big Ossian inspired work, and this time he had the idea of combining the fallen French heroes of the Napoleonic wars with Ossian.  He painted a six foot by six foot painting of these fallen soldiers being welcomed into a kind of Ossianaic Valhalla by Odin and Ossian himself, all realised with a bizarre light glow flooding over everything.  It has the sleep inducing title of - Apotheosis of French Heroes who Died for the Fatherland during the War of Liberation.
Anne Louis Girodet (1767 - 1824) Apotheosis of French Heroes who Died for the Fatherland during the War of Liberation. 1802.

As might be expected it didn't please everybody, but it was a brave and honest attempt to do something different.  Its difficult to take in everything in a picture as busy as this so you really need to see a high resolution image to appreciate what's going on, but it has real three dimensional depth and is even cinematic in its realisation of a supernatural event.  When he saw it David said,

'Ah, that picture!  Girodet, is he mad?  .  .  . either he is crazy or I no longer understand my own trade.  Those are figures of Glass that he's produced.  What a shame; with his beautiful skills he will never achieve anything but follies.' 

Well, you can't please the people all of the time, and that also applied to James Macpherson when they finally realised what Dr Johnson had been saying decades before was right.  Ossian was a fake, concocted from scraps and fragments of written and spoken verse that Macpherson had collected and mixed with a goodish amount that he'd penned himself.  The British had realised this towards the end of the eighteenth century and this was responsible for the cooling off of their enthusiasm for the poem, but in Europe the craze was only just starting in the latter years of the century - and well, Napoleon wasn't in a mood to take advice from the British.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. (1780 - 1867)  The Dream of Ossian 1813

So the craze had to burn itself out like any other fever, and was still throwing up paintings and other works as late as the eighteen twenties.  Macpherson's work is deemed to be a pretty good pastiche and his skills as a poet of his time were not unworthy.  It's a little unclear what his motives were, but I suppose he just thought there'd be more interest in his poems if they were deemed to be a lost work of ancient origin, however the fraud would never have taken the imagination of the artists and thinkers of the time if they'd had no merit whatsoever.  So he had an idea, and for a time something big grew from it.  It often happens that away.

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