Tuesday 19 November 2013

Epic Art of Prehistoric Flying Reptiles from the American Museum of Natural History

In October 2013, I visited New York's famous American Museum of Natural History with my wife. Among its many wonders, one of the most interesting was this giant, six-meter-tall mural of pterosaurs on an ancient shore.

Executed in 1942 by a certain C. Astori and his assistant A. Brown, the mural depicted most species of prehistoric flying reptiles known at the time.

Leathery shapes were everywhere, feeding on fish remains while the largest forms flew overhead like silent dragons with stick-figure limbs. The sea lapped lazily on the shore, looking more like a giant amoeba than water, undulating with waves of orange, green and blue. Details of the shore, rocks, the and the sky were infused with a sense of antediluvian otherness, an alien planet on the same world.

The piece was mesmerising. Individual animals were rendered in meticulous detail, and each could stand as a beautiful example of palaeoart on itself. Here are some closeups;

The well-known Pteranodon, and the tailless Pterodactylus looked like demons out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. These were the largest figures in the mural. 

A puffin-headed Dimorphodon flew on the beach, with footprints of other pterosaurs visible on the background.

Another Dimorphodon was about to make a meal out of a cockroach, the enduring pest of all ages. Note how each tooth was beautifully rendered. All animals in this mural seemed to be referenced from actual fossils.

This rather satanic looking critter, on the other hand, was a long-tailed Rhamphorhynchus - one of the earliest-discovered pterosaurs. It was standing among a pile of fish bones - the remnants of its lunch.

Everyone was having fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner! This was another Dimorphodon.

Another Rhamphorhynchus was hanging on a cliff-side, rather like a giant, reptilian bat. Pterosaurs have such unusual anatomies that for a long time, scientists were unable to guess how they got about on land. The "bat hypothesis" was one of the more popular ideas during the early years of pterosaur research.

Another Pterodactylus reached down from its perch. This was one of the smaller and wonkier figures in the mural.

This animal was also supposed to be a Pterodactylus. The reason for this multitude of Pterodactyli was that during the 19th century, every flying reptile with a long-ish snout, no crest and no tail was lumped into the Pterodactylus genus. Today, the classification of these animals has gotten very complicated - individual species seem to look very different at different stages of their growth, but there were also a lot of separate species that looked quite similar to one another.

On another note, the head of this figure seemed to be borrowed from an earlier engraving of Rhamphorhynchus by the French illustrator Édouard Riou.

A Rhamphorhynchus, or perhaps a Dorygnathus, shouted angrily at one of its cousins.

I'm at a loss to identify this one. Its head resembled a Dimorphodon or a Dorygnathus, yet it had no long tail and its body looked like that of a Pterodactylus. It was possibly referenced from an obscure fossil of a different genus.

Finally, these were the signatures of C. Astori and his assistant, A. Brown. An internet search revealed more information about Constantine Astori. He was a Russian artist who had come to America in the late 1920s. Before that, he lived in Istanbul after fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Imagine that - a hundred years apart, a fellow prehistoric artist in my own city! A New York Times article credited him with "causing who knows how many millions of children to suffer nightmares over the last 60 years." Not much else is known about A. Brown.

This spectacular mural is sadly under-represented in the online world. I hope this post has somewhat corrected this situation.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Nationalism, Zoology and Monster Art from an Abandoned Greek School in Istanbul

In May 2012, I sneaked into the Karaköy Greek Orthodox School, near the Galata district on the European part of Istanbul. Nothing could have prepared me for the wealth of visual weirdness, poignant history and the sense of nostalgia that filled the place.

Like almost everything that is beautiful and historically worthwhile in Istanbul, this school was built and operated by the City's Greek community. This school was opened in 1885 as part of the Galata Greek Primary School - a larger institution at the time. The school lost many of its students after the 1955 pogrom and other wanton acts of nationalism in the following years.

In 1968, the school's assets were seized by the Turkish government and it was renamed the Karaköy Primary School. From then on the school’s attendance steadily dropped as Istanbul’s Greek population fled to Greece and other countries. For a long time it remained derelict, a locked-up shell of a building without any students or activity.

However, in 2011, the school was returned to Istanbul’s Greek community as a token gesture of democratization by the government. Without students, the school was turned into a cultural centre. 

The rooms were full of educational paraphernalia from earlier decades. It was like a time capsule; everything had an untouched, dusty look. I wasn't able to figure out how much of this was genuinely preserved, and how much of it was restored to look "historically authentic" during the school's conversion to a cultural institution. 

A handwritten sign curtly told students to "not fight" in the hallways.

Pictures of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's modernizing-but-authoritarian father figure, were everywhere. I think most of these were placed in the school after its 1968 takeover by the government.

Even stranger was this poster of Mehmed the Conqueror. This was the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople and vanquished the Byzantine Empire. I don't think Greek pupils were very happy to see him every day.

In what I took to be the headmaster's office, a copy of the controversial "Students' Pledge" hung framed behind the office chair. Every schoolchild in Turkey was forced to recite this pledge, every morning, since 1933. The Pledge was abolished in 2013 as part of a series of "democratizing" reforms, which were themselves of dubious integrity - but that's another story.
Here is a translation so that you can judge it for yourself;

"...I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. 
My principle is to protect the younger, to respect my elders, 
 and to love my homeland, and my nation, more than I love myself.

My ideals are to rise up, to progress.
O, Great Atatürk, who made today possible! 
On this path that you opened,
We swear to walk incessantly toward, the targets that you have set.
May my existence be a gift to the Turkish existence. 
Happy is the one who says "I am a Turk!"

I wondered how the school's Greek pupils felt after being constantly surrounded by glorified portraits of the leaders who too over their heritage and exiled their people; and being forced to pledge mortal codes of allegiance to the "nation" that shunned them. It's as if the school itself was bullying its own students on a daily basis.

But there was a flip side. Such nationalist memorabilia could have been willingly adopted by the school's Greek superintendents in order to prove their credentials as good "citizens". When the government could arbitrarily confiscate their property and mobs threatened to attack them for any display of "non-Turkishness"; such posters, pictures, and associated paraphernalia could have functioned like nationalistic talismans to ward off oppression.

Another classroom detail, with portraits of Kemal Ataturk and an old, cast-iron heating stove.

These colouring book cutouts, describing life in Christmas were some of the few symbols of Greek culture in the school.

...as was this sign with Greek letters, painted over with a bright red colour.
I think this was the school's original insignia, but I may be wrong.

Another symbol of Greek culture was this scene of Hercules killing the Lernaean Hydra,
from a poster depicting his famous labours.

I moved on from the teachers' offices to the classrooms. These old Greek educational posters were a fascinating and welcome change from the array of nationalist icons elsewhere. This was the most impressive poster I came across - a giant chart, entirely hand-drawn and handwritten in demotic Greek, explaining the basic concepts of zoology.

The poster had folk-art-like depictions of mammal and bird skeletons, snake skulls, bird anatomy, reptile body parts and so on. The proportions of the poster grid, the arrangement and alignment of text boxes and pictures were nothing short of amazing - it would be very hard for a member of our computer-native generation to produce something like this by hand.

Also of interest were these educational posters about botany and entomology, imported from a printing company in Athens. This plate showed various agricultural pests and the signs of their presence.

On this different poster; weevils, moths, caterpillars and beetles frolicked among delightfully-painted apples, plums, pears and other fruit.

Another poster, part one of a double series, about the birds of Greece; which are more-or-less the same as those of Turkey.

...and here is part two of the poster above. I love the owl and the crows on this plate - the artist clearly had a good understanding of bird anatomy.

This poster, entitled "animals of foreign countries," was not as expertly drawn, but still had an interesting raw quality. It showed a rather ambiguous collection of tropical and polar animals, kangaroos and snakes.

The section, named "apes," was full of funny mistakes. The "gorilla" was a fat, black monkey. The "orangutang," in the middle, seemed more like a chimpanzee than the real thing. And the "chimpanzee" looked more like a macaque monkey with a mullet haircut and eerily human-like hands. Clearly, the artist had no idea what he was doing.

Check out that face on the polar bear! It looked like a melting wax sculpture made by a surrealist or a retard. For extra laughs, observe its pasty, human-like feet. The bear on the right, on the other hand, was possibly copied from a photograph.

But the most fascinating surprise lay in the decorative murals that covered a classroom, a hallway and a spectacular “theatre room”. In addition, some classrooms had their walls painted entirely. These may have contained other murals that are now lost.

In the murals, surreal beings such as cartoon flowers with the faces of children mingled with scenes from ancient Greek myths and fish-like sea monsters in bewildering dream-scapes. The artist clearly had a unique style and a subtler vision than that of a simple wall-painter. It was breathtaking. With my camera about to run out of batteries, I rushed across the rooms, photographing section after section of the walls.

A cartoon rabbit approached a terrified cabbage with the face of a child.

Two flowers with the faces of children in a fantastic landscape; in front of blue, crystalline mountains. One of the flowers had a malignant expression.

Another colourful landscape with blue and red flowers.

The sun shone blue-yellow with a peculiar grin. This was one of the scariest pictures in the building, I wonder if it was meant to creep out its viewers.

Perilous rocks jut out from the sea.

Around the rocks, the seas teemed with terrifying monsters. This was a giant red swordfish.

Monstrous fish with globular form, perhaps in reference to Charybdis,
the mythical whirpool-monster.

Monstrous fish with its face obscured by a more recent daub of paint.

A whale-like monster fish with bright red lips.

A green, monstrous shark.

A golden sea monster.

The Argo sailed through the Bosporus, undaunted by the monsters around it. I wonder if this was  how Istanbul's remaining Greeks saw themselves; a perilous little community caught in a time of hardship, surrounded by the monsters on all sides.

    A fish with long eyebrows like a woman’s.

On the corner of one room, the vision of a fantastic realm.

Grotesque faces and Turkish flags from the theater room. The figure in the centre may have been a parody of Ataturk designed to fly over the heads of government officials.

The artist had signed his name on the walls as Zografos, and the date ’54 was visible alongside his signature. This collection was over 59 years old.

After my visit, this school hosted part of the 2013 Istanbul Biennial. The Karakoy Greek School section of the Biennial did not have a single word, let alone artworks, about the history of this building, nor about the community that built it.

This school, with its Orwellian symbols of nationalism, vintage educational aids and surreal murals, had turned into another of the atmospheric, "cool" places from the Ottoman Empire's multi-ethnic final decades; a playground of the elite, Western-looking descendants of nationalist Turks whose forefathers helped drive the country's Greeks, (and the Armenians, and the Jews, and the Syriacs, etc.) into near-total extinction.

The final nail in the school's coffin came in 2014, when it was used as the site of a design biennial. The building's walls were all painted over in white, and Zografos' murals were eliminated. On their place, the design biennial organisers had written vapid hip quotes about design such as: "Can we change the future by dissecting it?", "Isn't it time design got personal?" etc. The classrooms were replaced by pretentious indoor gardens, organic coffee and muffin shops and "art activity spaces". Ironically, the intellectually-conscious design biennial was more destructive for the school's history than the decades of oppressive nationalism before it.

At the design biennial, I overheard some bright-eyed arts students exclaiming how the newly-decorated school was "Just like London!" I was filled with anger. These people were a bunch of well-meaning idiots! They were toting the last splinters of the culture they helped obliterate as markers of cultural sophistication.

As far as I know, my photographs remained the only record of the Greek School's fantastic murals.