Print the Legend: “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey” at the NGA, London

In the classic Western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart’s character confesses that he wasn’t a hero, only to hear the newspaper man he’s confessed to respond, "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." When Lady Jane Grey met her end on the executioner’s block in 1554 after once serving for nine days as the Queen of England, the facts of her death soon became a legend of martyrdom.

Nearly three centuries later, French artist Paul Delaroche revisited the legend in his 1833 painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (pictured), which became the sensation of the 1834 Salon exhibition. In Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Greythe National Gallery of Art in London reexamines that moment in history when a French artist used the legend of an English monarch to say something both about art and about French society in the nineteenth century.

The story of the painting itself is remarkable. Researchers rediscovered Delaroche’s mammoth oil, thought lost or destroyed for many years, in 1973 rolled up beneath a conservator’s table while looking for a different painting approximately the same size. Amazingly, the canvas showed little signs of wear. Over the years, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey has become a favorite subject of the English people, who identify with the blindfolded monarch groping for the chopping block as her disconsolate handmaids fail to match Lady Jane’s stoic grace before the unkindest cut of all. As this exhibition sets out to prove, the facts of the case may differ from the more powerful legend, which began as propaganda and lived on as pathos.

In mid-nineteenth century France, Ingres and Delacroix stood as the twin towers of art, but more like poles of neoclassicism and romanticism, respectively. Ingres hoped to carry on the mantle of Poussin and David as the reigning king of the Paris Salon. 1834 seemed to be Ingres’ year, at last. Ingres’ The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorian seemed unbeatable. Enter Delaroche and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. These dueling martyrs hung directly across from one another in the gallery. Amazingly, Delaroche’s David-esque monumental canvas with its clear emotional appeal and (somewhat) subtle political message drew the larger crowds and rested the Davidian crown from Ingres, at least for the moment. Still reeling from the aftershocks of the French Revolution, the French people immediately noticed the parallel between Jane’s chopping block and their nobility’s journey to the guillotine. In 1851, Delaroche abandoned all pretext and painted a memorial to France’s executed queen in Marie-Antoinette Before the Tribunal. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey soon inspired works on the stage and other outpourings of emotion in France, which groped for a way to process its recent past and latched on to the opportunity of an English parallel thanks to Delaroche.

Painting History examines the uses of propaganda and martyrology in Delaroche and contemporary works. Delaroche’s painting makes use of the near-religious fervor that the Romantic abandonment of organized religion had stoked in creating a faith void. As a study of the uses (and misuses) of history, Painting History forces us to question the nature of history painting as well as our own uses of history to personal ends.

Pushing politics aside for a moment, Painting History also makes us question how an artist such as Delaroche, who in his lifetime garnered more acclaim than either Ingres or Delacroix, could fade into obscurity, just as his painting had literally disappeared for so many years. Ingres eventually came out on top in the race for immortality, but Delaroche’s technique and imagination seem to modern eyes worthy of some place in the pantheon. Painting History allows us to rediscover such a "minor" artist and reevaluate what the line between major and minor is, or should be.

[Image: Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833. Oil on canvas © The National Gallery, London.]

[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art in London for providing me with the image above and other press materials for Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, which runs through May 23.]

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Image: SRF
Strange Maps
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  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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