Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Black Stain (1887)

Albert Bettanier: The Black Stain

While today France and Germany are leading a peaceful and (hopefully) common way out of the Euro crisis, it may be good to remember that historically, European future was more often than not decided on the battlefield.

Rising tension between the two nations resulted in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, leading to the downfall of Napoleon III and the unification of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm I. Moreover, France had to surrender its Eastern provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to the victors. The revanchist sentiments resulting from this humiliation, fueled by nationalist pride on both sides of the volatile Alsatian border, inevitably contributed to causing the two 20th-century World Wars.

In 1871, Lorraine-born painter Albert Bettannier opted for French citizenship and dedicated much of his later work to the public desire of recovering the lost territories. In The Black Stain, painted in 1887, a geography teacher shows his pupils the area that must be regained by a next generation, in line with the ‘one and indivisible’ education policies of the French Republic. Various details reveal the warlike spirit of the day. Next to the black stain, a huge sinister blackboard represents the German threat in the East, heightened by the drum in the corner. On the far wall, a map of the walled-in city of Paris reminds of the Prussian siege of 1871, symbolized by the black, unlit ceiling-lamp that stretches out its eagle-like talons towards it.

The boy in front of his classmates wears the ‘school battalion’ uniform instituted by the state in 1883. It allowed pupils to march, drill and practice shooting, as testified by the gun-rack in the right corner. One boy in the first row is dressed in impeccable white and wears the Legion d’Honneur, a prefiguration of future heroism. In the foreground, an optimistic splash of sunlight reflects the heraldic Cross of Lorraine. [Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

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