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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Art of Trees

A ficus tree(s) that has been shaped.

For centuries humans have attempted to manipulate plants and shape them. Topiary, espalier, pleaching, and bonsai immediately come to mind.  The latest attempts, which have become art forms, are tree shaping.  There are not many artists using plants and trees, but each seems to have their own name for it.  An overall term for it is arborsculpture but arbortecture and biotecture are often seen. The plants used are usually evergreens.

What the above ficus may attain to.

Pleaching, once known as plashing, was commonly done from late medieval times into the early eighteenth century.  The term comes from the French word "plechier", meaning to braid.  It is the technique of weaving branches of trees to form a hedge or a quincunx.  Hedges made this way grew thick enough that they were impenetrable, perfect for enclosing animals, not to mention cost-effective. Every few years the lower parts of the hedge are bent and interwoven, and pruning is an annual task.  A somewhat labor-intensive technique, it never caught on in the U.S., but was popular in shaded allées in Europe.  The word dropped out of common usage until Walter Scott used it in 1822.  Trees with smooth bark, such as linden, apple, or hornbeam, are most used.

Pleaching usually requires a support structure in the beginning
such as the one here, especially horizontal support.

Espalier is a rather ancient practice, usually done against a wall or fence but occasionally freestanding.  Although the word is French, it comes from the Italian word "spalliera" meaning something to rest the shoulder (spalla) against.  Branches are pruned and tied so they grow as a flat plane.  This is popular to do with fruit trees, such as apple, which allows for less space and easier access to fruits.  Also planting next to a wall helps retain heat and allows more sunlight, extending the fruiting season.  Vineyards have been planted with this technique for millennia. There are various patterns both formal and informal.  These, too, are started with supports, and require maintenance.

An espaliered pear tree.

Another method of training plants, and one almost everyone is familiar with, is topiary.  This is different in that the overall aim is to shape a plant into a living sculpture by trimming the leaves and twigs.  The term comes from the Latin word "topiarius" (landscape gardener), which in turn came from the Greek "topia" meaning places.  Plants with dense foliage are preferred, and shaped wire cages often are used to provide structure.  This method has been popular in the West since ancient times, but has also been popular in the East as well, although the Eastern style celebrates a more natural style.  Topiary has caught on and can be seen all over the world, as the examples below show.

At a park in Karachi, Pakistan.
Ocean Park, Hong Kong
Prague, Czech Republic
Zarcero, Costa Rica

Bonsai is only for the patient, as it takes a long time for these plantings to develop. My father loved bonsai, and even took a class in it at a local Japanese nursery he frequented.  Unfortunately, the class was conducted in Japanese, and he was only able to learn what he could comprehend visually.  A "bon" is a tray-like pot used in the art, traditionally one from the few accepted proportions and shapes.  Once a selected tree is pruned, including its roots, and has attained its desired miniature size, it is planted in this special pot which further restricts its growth.  This tradition has been dated back to 6th century Japan, and the idea was that natural beauty could only become true beauty through human intervention.  It is common practice to wire the branches and trunks to manipulate their growth into a predetermined look. Because of the small container, repotting is part of the regular maintenance and special soil is a must.  Most plants, unless specifically chosen, cannot survive indoors.  Some plants grow up a meter tall, but most are significantly taller.  The goal is to create a tree that looks mature with the proportions of a fully-grown tree but no apparent sign of human intervention.

A "group" planting from Martigny, Switzerland.
A California or Coast Redwood from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, NY.
This Sargent Juniper was "born" in 1905 and lives in the National
Bonsai and Benjing Museum in the U.S. National Arboretum.

Some species of trees used for many of these techniques have a tendency for inosculation, or self-grafting, which is a well-known botanical phenomenon. Tree shapers like to use this tendency and choose inosculate trees.

Inosculated crab apple trees in Scotland.
These are known as "Husband & Wife" trees.

Tree shapers consider the environment where they are creating their art, and choose trees known to do well in an area, and that are resistant to insect damage and disease.  Most trees require time to be shaped, but there also are techniques for "instant" tree shaping.  Grafting, framing (the use of supports), and pruning all contribute to the final work.  Although some tree shapers have "harvested" their works, thus rendering them no longer living, many intend for their works to be living sculptures.

Needle and Thread Tree by Axel Erlandson, Gilroy, Ca.
Image courtesy of Richard Reames/Wikipedia.
The Person Tree, planted in 1998 by Pooktre - Peter Cook & Becky Northey.
Peace in Cherry, by Richard Reames of Arborsmith Studios, Ore.
Image courtesy of Richard Reames/Wikipedia.
Tree shaped by Dan Ladd.
Image courtesy of Treeshapers.net.
Tree shaped by Aharon Naveh.  Image courtesy of Treeshapers.net.

Poet Joyce Kilmer expressed his joy of trees in his famous poem.  Wonder what he would think of some of these tree shapings.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Treeshapers.net is a good site for more information on history and artists.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Madame Guillotine

The Radical's Arms, 1819.

Before capital punishment was abolished in France in 1981, the guillotine was the sole method of execution.  Made popular during the French Revolution, it was considered the "People's Avenger" by supporters, and the symbol of the "Reign of Terror" by opponents.

Detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's
"Triumph of Death", circa 1562-1563.

The breaking wheel, also known as the Catherine wheel or just "the wheel", was the preferred method of execution in the Middle Ages on into the 19th century.  It was basically a huge wooden wagon wheel with lots of spokes.  The condemned was tied to the wheel and beaten and the spaces between the spokes gave the club space to continue its arc.  There were several adaptations of the wheel, but the one used in France involved tying the victim with limbs stretched over two wooden beams placed on a wheel which was slowly revolved.  An iron bar or hammer was used to strike the limbs of the condemned in the spaces between the beams breaking the bones.  This action was repeated several times for each limb, and dying could take hours, even days.  If the situation merited "merciful" treatment, the executioner would commit "coups de grâce" (literally "blows of mercy") by fatally striking the chest and stomach areas.  The luckiest of the French condemned would be granted a "retentum" or strangling after the second or third blow (or with extreme luck, before the wheel work began).

Circa November 1721.

Another French word is associated with this form of capital punishment - "roué" - which means a "dissipated debaucheree".  Its original meaning was "broken on the wheel" since this type of execution was reserved for atrocious crimes, while hanging was used for lesser crimes.  Hence "roué" came to be construed as a man who was impious and callous, primarily thanks to Philip, Duke of Orléans, regent of France in the early 1700s, who used it to describe the bad male company he kept for amusement.

"The French Penalty" by Francisco de Goya, circa 1824.

In 1789, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a reformation of capital punishment in which he called for the same punishment for the same crime despite the status of the offender, that the family of the offender not be affected nor reproached on pain of judicial reprimand, that the offender's property would not be confiscated, and the body would be returned to the offender's family and no register of the manner of death be made.  Most importantly, he called for decapitation to replace the wheel.  The National Assembly looked for a new instrument of death, affirming the belief that capital punishment should be the ending of a life and not torture.

The Scottish Maiden, a precursor to
the guillotine.

A committee was formed which included Dr. Guillotin and Dr. Antoine Louis.  The committee was influenced by several instruments designed to decapitate, including the Scottish Maiden.  The Maiden was built in Edinburgh.  Once built it remained unused for so long it was dubbed the "Maiden".  It was constructed in 1564 during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots.  This in turn was designed from the Halifax Gibbett, last used in 1650.  The original stone platform was used as a base for a working replica erected in 1974 with a plaque listing the 52 people known to have been executed there.

The Halifax Gibbett in the town of Halifax.  The original
iron blade is in the Bankfield Museum near Halifax. 

Although the French device was named for Dr. Guillotin, he did not invent it.  In fact he was against capital punishment, which is why he spoke out for ending the use of the wheel.  Dr. Louis came up with the prototype design, which was build by Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and Harpsichord maker.  Schmidt is also credited with designing the triangular blade with a beveled edge instead of a crescent one.  The first execution was done on April 25, 1792 for the highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier.

Two French models.  The one on the left was built in 1792;
the one on the right was built in 1872.

This was considered a more humane form of execution even for beheading.  Prior to the device, beheading was done by a sword or axe, which usually required at least two strikes.  This was also considered a blow for equality between the classes, as it was the only method of execution.  Except for death sentences from military courts, which meant death by firing squads, this became the national execution type of France.

The execution of Marie Antoinette.  Circa 1793, artist unknown.

During the Reign of Terror, large-scale public executions were conducted, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, executed in 1793. Thousands were sentenced to the guillotine by the Revolutionary Tribunal, often on little or no grounds - mere suspicion  of "crimes against liberty" was reason enough.  Death estimates range from 16,000 to 40,000 during this time.  The executions were popular entertainment and attracted huge numbers of spectators. A group of female citizens, the tricoteuses ("knitters"), became regulars, functioning as macabre cheerleaders as they watched while knitting.  The man most associated with the Terror was Maximilien Robespierre, and as the appetite for executions waned, he was arrested and executed in the manner of those he condemned - by Madame Guillotine.

"Les Tricoteuses" by Pierre-Étienne Lesueur, 1793.

The last public guillotining was of convicted multi-murderer Eugen Weidman.  He was beheaded on June 17, 1939, but due to public behavior, the fact that it was secretly filmed, and the fact that the guillotine was incorrectly reconstructed, it was decided that future executions would be private.  The very last victim of the guillotine was convicted murderer Hamida Djandoubi on September 10, 1977.

The execution of Robespierre, 1794.

After all these deaths, France abolished the death penalty in 1981.  Madame Guillotine had a healthy appetite but wiser heads eventually prevailed.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.