Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 11:38 PM
While Van Gogh was furnishing his Yellow House in Arles, France was shaken by political strife. In Paris, the ex-War Minister General Boulanger was wounded in a duel with Prime Minister Flocquet, while Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany made ominous threats of war. In Britain, Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of London and heavy snow fell in mid-summer.
An American astrologer predicted that this year would see the world's last days, with the sun turning to blood and one universal carnage of death'. It started badly: in January and February, deep snow and ferocious frosts brought most of Europe to a standstill. The French astronomer Camille Flammarion, a recognized authority on the end of the world, warned that the cold spell defied normal explanation. In Birmingham, word went round that the Day of Judgement had arrived. And in London, Edward Maitland wrote that the world had ended and another was being born.
This was right in one sense. The comforting edifice of nineteenth-century science had begun to crumble. Michelson and Morley, experimenting in Berlin on the speed of light, were destroying the idea of a fixed universe and paving the way for Einstein's theory of relativity. In Vienna Ernst Mach, whose excellent work on the speed of sound would give a new word to the language, insisted that it was no longer possible to believe in absolute space or absolute time.
Men of imagination, artists and writers, stepped into the breach, claiming their insights were more valuable than those of the scientists. Fiction, declared Robert Louis Stevenson, was closer to truth than 'the dazzle and confusion of reality'. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche summed the matter up more pithily: 'The old God has abdicated, and from now on I shall rule the world.
Like Van Gogh, Nietzsche felt threatened by approaching insanity. Yet there was much to suggest the world around them was at least as mad as they were. When Van Gogh arrived in Arles early in 1888 he found a city torn by violence and by wild racial hatreds. Italian workmen were attacked by angry crowds and half-strangled before local contractors were finally persuaded to stop employing them. Throughout France, people became impatient with their dull Republican government, and looked for something less rational, more flamboyant. General Boulanger, until recently Minister for War, seemed ready to take over.
On 15 March, the day after the troubles in Arles had come to a head, Boulanger was stripped of his army commission. For-bidden to go to Paris because of his suspected intrigues against the Republic, he had dared to go there in disguise, 'wearing dark spectacles and affecting lameness'. The attempt to disgrace him only made him more popular and he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies by two separate constituencies for one of 'which he had not even been a candidate.
Boulanger then tried to sweep away the Republic by getting the Chamber to dissolve itself and challenged the Prime Minister, Charles Floquet, to a duel. When the duel was fought Boulanger 'with blind impetuosity spitted himself on Monsieur Floquet's sword', receiving a severe wound in the throat, while Floquet sustained only minor injuries. Three days later a group of shocked and peaceable deputies tried to get duelling banned, but were overwhelmingly defeated. Boulanger's popularity continued to grow.
Colourful swashbucklers, however impetuous, were more to French taste than the frock-coated politicians of the Republic. This was partly because the Republic no longer seemed respect-able. A deputy called Daniel Wilson, who had married the President's daughter, had used his position to further his own interest as a newspaper proprietor. There were other scandals in the offing, as politicians became more and more enmeshed in the shady dealings of the company which had been formed to build the Panama Canal.
Paris was hit by a wave of strikes, as well as other forms of violence: anarchists and communists waged an open gun battle in Pere la Chaise cemetery and an artist, Eugene Dupuis, was killed by another artist in a duel about their paintings. The bloodletting fell a long way short of the universal carnage fore-cast by astrologers, but continued the collapse of the solid values of the Republic.
One man who did talk about carnage was the new German Emperor, Wilhelm II, who came to the throne in June. Within a week of his accession he had two French newspaper correspondents thrown out of Berlin, and embarked on a series of official visits to countries that might be Germany's allies in any future war with France.
In August, the Kaiser made an uncompromising speech, saying that if France tried to recover the German provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, more than 40 million Germans would rather 'be left dead on the battlefield than see one stone taken from them'. A few weeks later the imperial coat of arms above the German consulate in Le Havre was torn down. The French government made hasty apologies, but the Boulangists exulted.
Meanwhile, Britain stood aloof. She refused to take sides, even when Germany challenged her naval supremacy by laying down 28 new battleships. Instead she turned to such dull matters as the establishment of County Councils and floating a new issue of government stock.
Britain's own favourite prophet, the mediaeval wise woman known as Mother Shipton, had said the world would come to an end when summer turned into winter; this happened in 1888, with snow in June and July, but the British remained un-perturbed. Yet they did see their own brand of sadistic violence, with Jack the Ripper's murders in the East End of London.
As the tension mounted, and Boulanger won election after election in an atmosphere charged with anti-German delirium, his advent to power seemed inevitable. But January 1889 saw a farcical anti-climax. Cheering crowds in Paris tried to install him in the Presidential Palace, but Boulanger refused to budge. His opportunity passed and the French Republic was saved, along with the peace of Europe. The end of the old world, the predicted 'universal carnage of death', was put off for 25 years, until the terrible days of August 1914.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish