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04 APRIL, 2014

Young Hans Christian Andersen Climbs Mount Vesuvius During an Eruption and Lives to Tell About It in a Beautiful, Dramatic Account

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“The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky…”

Hans Christian Andersen revolutionized storytelling with his timeless fairy tales, driven by a cinematic sensitivity to beauty. In mid-February of 1834, while touring Europe, 29-year-old Andersen arrived in Naples just as the mighty Mount Vesuvius was in the midst of one of its then-regular and dramatic eruptions, three centuries after the first of them had drowned dozens of Italian villages in hot lava and killed an estimated 3,000 people. The flamboyant mesmerism of the event cast a spell that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — the same obscure yet remarkable volume that gave us Andersen’s little-known and lovely sketches — comes his breathtaking account of his visit to Vesuvius and his crazy quest to climb the mount as it was erupting.

18th-century painting of Vesuvius erupting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797)

In a diary entry from February 18, Andersen — a true enchanter with a penchant for cinematic storytelling — recounts his first breathtaking impressions of the fiery marvel:

I bought some drawings, walked by the sea pounding against the rocks. — It was the world’s great pulse beat that I heard. The sea raised its great wings, coal black smoke arose from Vesuvius into the blue sky… Such shades of colors on the mountains! Just as the sun went down, the red lava was glowing. Some boys played soldiers on the beach, and tramps in their brown hooded coats sat on the rocks watching them.

It may seem like a wild and rather unsafe notion today, but the eruption of Vesuvius, a regular occurrence since the middle of the 17th century, was quite the tourist attraction in Andersen’s time — so much so, that tour guides hustled for visitors’ attention. Andersen writes on February 21:

They were literally chasing me, underbidding each other… I had to say, in order to get away, that I would come back tomorrow. Then they all asked me to write down their names, and I got away by scribbling something down, and so I walked around in a small side street that seems to have been constructed entirely by lava debris.

But unperturbed by this brush with the materialistic exploitation of such a wonder, he goes on to marvel at nature’s might ablaze before him:

Smoke swirled thickly up out of Vesuvius, and the lava gave off a cloud of steam… At dusk I walked down to the sea. Vesuvius spewed great streams of lava; it blazed into the air; it was like tongues of fire flaring up. This is the most violent I have seen it.

Hans Christian Andersen's diary drawing of the Vesuvius eruption, 1834

Four days later, on February 22, Vesuvius quiets down as Andersen paints another breathtaking vignette:

The moon was shining on the dark blue water, and the waves breaking on the shore looked like a glimmering piece of embroidery. Fire was running in great streams down Vesuvius, but there was almost no smoke to be seen. — I walked out to the lighthouse and saw then in the moonlight a handsome frigate coursing under full sail into the harbor.

But then, two days later, Vesuvius reaches its climax and Andersen beholds it in breathtaking detail as he and a small group of fellow Danes set out to climb the mountain, now shaken by Vesuvius’s frequent huffs and puffs of smoke and lava:

The evening was so infinitely beautiful; the sun set like a ball of fire; the sky was a glimmering gold that shaded over into the ether-blue. The sea was like indigo, and the islands were lying like pale blue clouds on it. It was a magic world that had manifested itself… The mountains were shining so splendidly with the white snow; they lay far off in the blue sky, and close to us we could see all the red lava of Vesuvius.

Nocturnal Eruption of Vesuvius with Bay of Naples by Michael Wutky (1739–1822)

By the time Andersen and his crew reached the hermitage in the mountain, it was almost dark — a perilous detail that only added to the inspired insanity of their expedition. Andersen recounts:

The wind was so biting cold that I had to get off my donkey and walk… Soon the donkeys couldn’t take us any further. We stood before the mountain itself, whose rounded contours were covered with blocks of lava and ash. We were now ascending a fairly steep grade, sinking up over our knees into ash. With every other step we slid backward by one. Large, loose rocks went sliding downward when we stepped on them.

[…]

An hour passed and we were on some sort of plain under the cauldron. Here we caught a sudden glimpse of the moon right over the crater. Coal-black smoke swirled upward; then a ball of fire and gigantic, glowing boulders rolled down onto the plain that we had to cross to get to the lava flow… There was no path at all; we had to walk and crawl between huge pieces of lava… With every eruption the moon was entirely hidden by the pitch-black smoke.

Andersen was a man at once keenly sensitive to beauty, as both his fairy tales and his travel writing attest, and afflicted by great vanity, which reared its head even in these grueling circumstances: “I sang loudly to show how little it was tiring me,” he confesses in the diary. Indeed, the entire endeavor was perhaps a manifestation of youthful vanity for a band of twenty-something men — an exercise to conquer danger for no good reason, except the vainglory of living to tell about it. And their bravado only accelerated as the danger got more intense:

After a while we could feel the heat coming up from underneath us. In order to see the new lava flow we had to cross one that had been flowing the night before; only the outermost crust was black and hard, and red fire was burning in the cracks. We stepped out onto it; it burned our feet through the soles of our shoes. If the crust had broken, we would have sunk into a sea of fire. Then we saw the monstrous stream of fire pouring slowly, thick and red like porridge, down the mountains. The sulphur fumes were so strong; the fire was burning our feet, so that after two minutes we had to go back. All around we saw fissures of fire. There was a whooshing sound coming from the crater, like when all at once a flock of birds starts up from a forest.

Eruption of Vesuvius by Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857)

Ultimately, however, one has to give Andersen the benefit of the doubt and trust that the hazardous undertaking was for the sake of beauty, driven by a longing to get as close as humanly possible to nature’s source, to that fiery frontier of life and death, of beauty and suffering, from which true awe springs. It was beauty, ultimately, that Andersen took away:

The lava looked like colossal, fallen stars. — We rode again over the black lava field. I hung back from the others in order to watch the matchless play of nature.

The voyage to Vesuvius is but a sliver of the richness found in The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen, an exquisite read in its entirety — a treasure trove that blends breathtaking travel writing with rare insight into the great storyteller’s soul. Complement it with the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of Andersen fairy tales.

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03 APRIL, 2014

The Presence of Absence: Jane Dorn’s Haunting Photographs of Abandoned Buildings in the South

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A poignant reminder of our impermanence and the beauty of accepting life’s cycles of growth and decay.

UPDATE: Dorn’s photos are now available on society6. Click each image below for the respective print.

“While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography, “a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency.” Early photography advocate Frederick Douglas spoke of photography’s singular power to reveal the unseen as “aesthetic force,” and yet in today’s image-overloaded culture, how easily that aesthetic force can slip into what Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” as we devour timeline visuals and telepresence stand-ins for our friends, our communities, and our own experiences of reality. The need for an antidote is precisely what makes the work of Greenville-based photographer Jane Dorn so compelling. Like a contemporary Eudora Welty of the camera, Dorn captures the mesmerizing intersection of place, presence, and absence in her project Empirical Evidence — a series of haunting photographs of abandoned houses, churches, schools, and other once-inhabited buildings across the American South.

Emanating from Dorn’s photographs is a disquieting sense of impermanence as one beholds these derelict structures once erected as assurances of permanence. And yet a quiet beauty slips in through the cracked back door, gently reminding us of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — the awareness that life’s beauty comes from accepting imperfection and welcoming the natural cycles of growth and decay.

Dorn writes:

Looking is benign. Seeing has teeth and comes with consequences. You see it, you own it. Sometimes it owns you.

I think of photographs as proof. Empirical evidence of both what is and what is not. Through the camera, I see not what is present, but what is missing. I see evidence of absence through the presence of what remains.

See more of Dorn’s work, which is so striking it belongs in a gorgeous photography book and it’s a miracle it isn’t yet in one, on her site and follow her on Tumblr, where she is a consistently stimulating presence.

Images © Jane Dorn courtesy of the artist

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02 APRIL, 2014

Winston and George: An Illustrated Ode to Friendship, with an Incredible Creative Journey 50 Years in the Making

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A beautiful and bittersweet redemptive triumph.

In 1956, a twenty-something New Yorker named John Miller left Gotham for Rome to live the life of an aspiring writer, following in the expat footsteps of his heroes, literary legends like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There, he befriended Italian artist Giuliano Cucco, and the two created a beautiful series of four nature-inspired picture books. But when Miller returned to New York in 1966, carried on the wings of enormous enthusiasm for the collaboration, he quickly smashed against the realities of an industry which the great Ursula Nordstrom once accurately described as being run by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” Publishers deemed the imaginative and uncommon books too unmarketable — not mainstream enough — or too costly to produce, given the vibrant colors of the illustrations.

John Miller (left) and Giuliano Cucco in the 1960s

Discouraged but not resigned, Miller followed the typical fate of the New Yorker and changed many apartments over the decades that followed, but he carried the manuscripts and portfolios faithfully with each move, until they ended up in the attic of his house in upstate New York. All along, he knew there was something very special about these books — as did the friends he showed to whom he showed the manuscripts over the years.

It was his friends, too, who encouraged him to resurrect his efforts to find a publisher nearly half a century after the books were created. Eventually, the manuscripts found their way to Muriel Bedrick, the mother of Claudia Zoe Bedrick, head of Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that quietly and consistently churns out such award-winning treasures as Alessandro Sanna’s The River, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole, and Albertine’s Little Bird. Bedrick instantly fell in love with the heart and art of the books and decided to publish the series. The news came as exquisite creative redemption for 80-year-old Miller, who rushed to get a hold of his old artist friend. (He and Cucco had lost touch over the years.) But when he finally reached the artist’s sister, he was devastated to learn that Cucco and his wife had been killed in a motorcycle accident in 2006, but his son was thrilled to hear about the long-awaited creative validation.

And so the debut of the first book in the series, Winston and George (public library), is a bittersweet feat — an exuberant triumph for Miller after decades of harbored hopes, and a posthumous tribute to Cucco, who never lived to see his dream come true.

But the book itself counters the tragedy with its boundless hopefulness and celebration of life: It tells the story, both playful and poignant, of the unusual friendship between Winston the crocodile and George the crocodile bird who love each other dearly but who have to withstand a flurry of hazards to remain together. It’s a beautiful ode to what true friendship means and to what it necessitates — the unconditional acceptance of each other’s flaws, the ability to see past the surface behavior and into the deeper intention, and the capacity to defend the sanctity of the relationship from the poison of outside pressures.

Winston and George live happily together, fishing in the jungle river as pilot and co-pilot — perched up on the tip of Winston’s nose, George would look into the water for fish and shout “DIVE!” at the opportune moment. Winston would snap the fish up, then the two would share a delicious meal ashore.

But George has one rather irksome quirk: he likes to play pranks on Winston and the other crocodiles. He would fly over and cry “DANGER! DANGER!” just to see them startle from their afternoon nap and dive into the river, or he would push sleeping Winston off the shore into the water, so that his friend awakes in the middle of the water three miles down the river and has to swim back until after sundown.

Irritated, Winston’s crocodile friends would urge him to simply eat George to put an end to the pranks. But the idea is unthinkable to Winston.

In one particularly misplaced prank, Winston and George were coasting down the river in their usual arrangement when George, upon spotting a pile of mud rather than a fish, issued his customary command for Winston to dive.

Down Winston dove, but instead of a fish he found his snout stuck firmly in the mud.

It was very funny at first to see a crocodile’s feet and tail kicking and wagging in the air. But when George realized that his friend was stuck, he grew frightened.

George calls on the other crocodiles and the hippos for help but, fed up with his pranks, they agree to only help Winston if George agrees to accept the fate he deserves for his mischief and let himself be eaten by Winston. Desperate to save his friend’s life, George agrees and the crocodiles and hippos make a long chain to pull Winston out, tugging and tugging.

With one final yank, Winston flew over their heads and landed on a far shore.

Eventually, the crowd gathers around Winston and urges him to gobble up George. Puffing a mighty cloud of mud from his nostrils, Winston demonstratively agrees and opens his giant jaw for George to climb in.

Reluctantly, George stepped over Winston’s sharp teeth and stood inside, waiting for his end to come.

Winston snaps his jaw and emits a loud burp, which pleases the others enough and they disperse satisfied. But the end, of course, is not the end:

Winston opened his jaws, and there was George, alive as ever, safe on his friend’s soft tongue.

George has learned his lesson, but has also felt the bonds of friendship tighten as the two souls expand.

Winston and George is unspeakably magnificent, and the screen does absolutely no justice to Cucco’s rich and enchanting illustrations. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s treasures, including My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, Little Boy Brown, and The River.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion

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