Tuesday, March 15, 2016

On the Austro-Hungarian Empire

On the Austro-Hungarian Empire: If there was ever an empire that embodied the imperial decadence of late-nineteenth-century Europe, it was Austria-Hungary. Formed in 1867 after a compromise between two quasi-independent lands of the former Holy Roman Empire (ruled by the Habsburgs), Austria needed to redefine itself in the wake of two embarrassing and expensive wars. In fact, the Franco-Austrian War of 1859 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 pushed Austria to the brink of financial collapse. On the other hand, the Kingdom of Hungary was looking to distinguish itself as a major player in European affairs (probably since the days of Attila the Hun). It also sought protection from potential incursions by the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the compromise that birthed the Austro-Hungarian Empire was rather ill-conceived. At its core, however, Austria-Hungary suffered from an identity crisis. Was it more Austrian or more Hungarian? And where was its primary seat of power, Vienna or Budapest? In short, the Empire struggled to recognize its vast diversity of Germanic, Slavic, and Muslim peoples, which ultimately helped spark World War I in 1914. Perhaps Franz Ferdinand was better off not assuming the throne.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

On Why Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear

On Why Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear: There are various theories regarding Van Gogh and what happened to his left ear in December 1888. For starters, ever since about 1880, Van Gogh's father wanted his son committed to an insane asylum, because he experienced serious bouts of psychosis (delirium, depression, etc.) from time to time. When Van Gogh's father died in 1885, these psychotic episodes appeared more frequently. In the late 1880s, Van Gogh had been living in the south of France (Arles on the Rhone to be exact). He intended to turn the city into a colony for artists of the post-Impressionist genre. In fact, some of his most well-known paintings (Starry Night over the Rhone and Cafe Terrace at Night) originated during his time in Arles. And for two months in late 1888, Paul Gauguin lived with Van Gogh. Yet after Gauguin made plans to return to Paris, Van Gogh confronted him. The prevailing theory is that Van Gogh cut off his ear in a fit of rage during the ensuing argument, and gave it to a woman at the local brothel. Some art historians believe that Gauguin and Van Gogh shared a love interest with this woman, and thus, Gauguin might have actually attacked Van Gogh in a fit of jealousy. Whatever the case may be, this story will forever fascinate scholars of late-19th century impressionism.