Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is modernity our antiquity? A prologue.

In the first of a series, we invite writers to comment on the three leitmotifs posed by the Documenta 12 team. Here, Abigali von Bibra provides a short prologue to the question: Is modernity our antiquity? Abigail von Bibra teaches linguistics in Paris. She is writing a history of Prussian gender roles.

Every generation has its defining moments. The death of a leader. The collapse of commerce. The emergence of a nation from war. In due course, these events come to form a special kind of ground zero for the generations that follow. The chronicle of these and still lesser events falls together in what is at best a connect-the-dots manner, with one event crudely linked to the next. The picture that emerges is our skeletal image of history -- a working sketch held in general agreement upon which ‘definitive’ histories are then forged (yes, a double entendre). With these simple drawings in hand, the interpreters get down to business, over-painting their canvases in rich hues of red or yellow or white or black or whichever colour -- in whatever form and density -- the interpreter’s school of thought believes is relevant amid the cross-currents and undertows of the era. In this fashion, a portrait of history comes into being, with no two quite the same.

The Battle of Leipzig is one such defining moment, not just for Napoleon and Europe, but as well for three generations of Saxon cabinet-makers whose lives spanned the 19th century. The latter of the three -- Johann Dieter Wassmann – would come to pioneer early German modernism, but it is The Battle of Leipzig that most clearly informs his craft. These art works are boxed curiosities, falling somewhere between wunderkammern and Joseph Cornell, but what Johann’s boxes house are the anxieties of an era in which changes in science, medicine, industry and political philosophy have moved beyond the salons of noblemen and academics, engulfing the very real lives of the peasantry and guild classes.

Through this collection of boxes -- a collection which was once exhibited under the title ‘Bleeding Napoleon’ -- a portrait emerges in which we see a man not overly rapt with all that was taking place around him. Circumstance and good fortune made him witness to the worst and best the century had to offer, but the works themselves reflect a more focused concern. From the busy playfulness of his early pieces, to the spare elegance of his final efforts, these ‘worlds in a small room,’ as one critic has called them, are tinged with regret for what Johann perceived as the senseless separation of space (read here as Nature) from time, an apprehension that is no less endemic to our own age.

The Battle of Leipzig is an ominous moment on which to build a narrative, but it is a widely shared narrative, so much so that numerous writers and historians through the years have posited this catastrophic battle as the birth of modernity itself.

Book-ended by Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign the previous winter, and his defeat at Waterloo two years later, the battle is sometimes brushed past as a mere footnote on the road to Napoleon’s defeat. It was a bit more than that: this three-day engagement in 1813 was the greatest and bloodiest single battle of the 19th century. Never before in the history of mankind and never again until the First World War did half a million troops come face to face on the battlefield. The build-up began in the early weeks of October, the French and Allied armies assembling along a sixteen mile front east and southeast of the city. On the 16th of the month the first shots were fired; 72 hours later, Napoleon and his few remaining troops were fleeing for Paris. During this bat of an eye, 94,000 combatant casualties were incurred and 30,000 French troops were taken prisoner -- half on the battlefield, the remainder plucked from the hospitals of Leipzig. In addition, untold civilian casualties were inflicted by the vagaries of artillery used so close to an urban population.

If there had been any doubt previously, there was little doubt by 19 October 1813 that the modern era was fully upon us.

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