Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Vincent van Gogh and Herod the Great: Exhibitions of Genius and Madness

For 2,000 years it has been thought that there is a connection between genius and mental illness.  Seneca, the 1st century Roman philosopher, wrote “There is no great genius without some touch of madness”.   Does the evidence support the idea?  The jury is still out but, even if geniuses are more prone to mental illness than the rest of us, to have psychological problems is no guarantee of genius.

There are three outstanding exhibitions showing in Israel at the moment - two in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv.  Each focuses on an individual who was important and influential in his own way despite psychological problems and episodes of mental illness.  Two achieved greatness.  One led his country and the world to disaster.

The Kaiser is Coming!

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1905
Kaiser Wilhelm II was the last German Emperor.  Wilhelm was undoubtedly intelligent but he was also insecure, bombastic, autocratic and prone to bouts of depression and hysteria.  He was quite unfit to be a ruler.  In 1898 he visited Jerusalem.  His aim was to cement relationships between the German and Ottoman empires. 
The Turks were as determined to honour their imperial guest as he was to strengthen his relationship with them.  He was welcomed with great pomp and ceremony.  Three great decorated arches were set up along his route to the Old City.  The section of the city wall between the Jaffa Gate and the Citadel was torn down and the moat filled in to allow his entourage, complete with horses and carriages, to pass through.  Beggars and stray dogs were banished from the city lest they give a bad impression. 

Wilhelm's Entourage by the Sultan's Arch

Wilhelm saw himself as the patron of the Protestant church and wanted to leave a religious and architectural legacy of his visit to the Holy City.  During his visit he dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, acquired the land for the Augusta Victoria Hospice on the Mount of Olives and, in a gesture to German Catholics, laid the cornerstone of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. 

Wilhelm's Tent Camp Jerusalem
On November 2nd Wilhelm formally received Theodore Herzl in the elaborate tent camp that had been set up for him in Jerusalem.  Herzl had timed his visit to coincide with that of the Kaiser and hoped to enlist his support for the Zionist cause.  The brief encounter left Herzl deeply disappointed.

Wilhelm’s erratic and reckless foreign policy led to the carnage of the First World War and the downfall of his empire.  He died in exile in the Netherlands in 1941.

There was huge press interest in the Kaiser's visit.  An exhibition in Jerusalem's Tower of David cleverly combines 21st century technology and contemporary reports and photographs to bring this encounter between European and Levantine empires to life and to explore its impact on the city.

“The Kaiser is Coming!” is at the Tower of David in Jerusalem until April 6th 2013.

Van Gogh Alive

Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters
In his own lifetime Vincent van Gogh’s work was not fully appreciated.  Today however he is considered one of the greatest artists in history.  He was born in the Netherlands in 1853 into a family in which art and religion were formative influences.  He began to draw as a child but worked as an art dealer, as a missionary in a poor coal mining district in Belgium and, briefly, as a teacher in London before applying himself more seriously to his art from 1885.  That year he produced his first major work The Potato Eaters.  It reflected the poverty of peasant life and was executed in dark, sombre colours.  His work changed radically when he moved to Paris in 1886.  Here he became interested in Japanese wood block prints and was exposed to the work of the Impressionists and the company of Post-Impressionist artists, notably Toulouse Lautrec, Seurat and Paul Gauguin whom he befriended.  He experimented with their brush techniques and adopted a palette of brighter, primary colours.
Van Gogh - Self Portrait With Straw Hat

In 1888 van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France.  For a time he worked there together with Gauguin but their relationship became increasingly tense.  Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor blade, but fled and used the razor to cut off his own earlobe.  He descended into delusions and hallucinations and was admitted to an asylum in nearby Saint-Remy where he remained for a year.  In May 1890 he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris.  On 27th July 1890, at the age of 37 he shot himself with a revolver and died the next day as a result of his wounds.

Van Gogh left a vast artistic legacy.  He worked quickly producing over 2,000 works of art in ten years and averaging a painting a day during his last two months.  He used bold, dramatic brush strokes that gave a sense of movement and emotion and often applied paint directly from the tube.  Uniquely he used colour to express mood rather than realistically.

Van Gogh Alive is not a regular art exhibition.  It is a dramatic multi-sensory experience.  Large scale projections of over 2,000 of van Gogh’s works are synchronised with classical music.  It takes you on a spellbinding journey through his life, his work, his thoughts and his state of mind.

“Van Gogh Alive” is at the Maxidome, Israeli Trade Fairs and Conventions Centre, Tel Aviv until April 30th 2013

Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey

Herod the Great
Herod the Great was King of Judea from 37 – 4 BCE.  He was one of the most ambitious builders of the classical world combining the most modern building techniques with a determination to defy nature.  In Jericho he diverted a river through the middle of his winter palace.  At Masada, in the middle of a desert with scarcely any water, he built a swimming pool.  In Caesarea Maritima he used hydraulic cement that hardened underwater to create a port where no natural harbour existed.  In Jerusalem he rebuilt the Temple of which the rabbis of the Talmud wrote "Whoever has not seen Herod's Temple has not seen a beautiful building in his life". 

Model of Herod's Temple Israel Museum
Herod was far more than a builder.  He was a skilful and effective ruler - the most successful client king of the Roman Empire.  He was also a difficult and dangerous man, famously paranoid.  Descended on his father’s side from Idumean converts to Judaism and on his mother’s side from Nabatean Arabs he married Mariamne, a princess of the royal Hasmonean line, to strengthen the legitimacy of his kingship.  She and two of Herod’s sons were put to death for Herod suspected even his closest family of plotting against him.  Caesar Augustus commented that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his son”. 

Josephus the Jewish historian of the Great Revolt describes in graphic detail Herod’s death in Jericho and the procession that accompanied him to his last resting place in Herodium. 
 “There was a solid gold bier, adorned with precious stones and draped with the richest purple.  On it lay the body wrapped in crimson, with a diadem resting on the head and above that a golden crown, and the sceptre by the right hand.  The bier was escorted by Herod's sons and the whole body of his kinsmen, followed by his Spearmen, the Thracian Company, and his Germans and Gauls, all in full battle order.  The rest of his army led the way, fully armed and in perfect order, headed by their commanders and all the officers, and followed by five hundred of the house slaves and freed-men carrying spices.  The body was borne twenty-four miles to Herodium, where by the late king’s command it was buried.” Josephus, Wars, I, 33, 9.
Herodium from above
For over 40 years Ehud Netzer, architect and archaeologist, excavated sites that had been built 2,000 years before by Herod.  Herod’s tomb however remained elusive.  It wasn’t until April 2007 that Netzer and his team discovered the remains of a magnificent mausoleum and three sarcophagi on the slope of the hilltop palace fortress of Herodium facing Jerusalem.  Together with staff from the Israel Museum Netzer began to plan an exhibition of these recent discoveries.  Sadly whilst working on this plan at Herodium in October 2010 he fell to his death.

This world class exhibition represents Herod’s final journey from Jericho where he died, through the Judean Desert to Herodium where he was laid to rest.  The richly decorated throne room of Herod’s Winter Palace in Jericho and the royal box of his theatre at Herodium have been reconstructed together with his sarcophagus and elaborate mausoleum.  These and many other original artefacts are on display for the first time. 

“Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem until October 5th 2013

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