Does history have to be true?

Millions of viewers saw the Academy Awards on Sunday evening as Argo won the award for best film. People who have seen the movie mostly agree that it’s a fine adventure film based on the story of the American hostages who escaped from captivity in Iran in 1979. Everyone seemed happy with the award except for the Canadians who were chiefly responsible for the escape. Somehow the adventure had turned into a CIA caper instead of an appreciation of the help of Canadians, and especially ambassador Ken Taylor, who had planned and carried out most of the successful escape.

Does it matter that a movie gives credit to the wrong people in a film based on real history? It certainly matters to Canadians, especially to those who know and respect Ken Taylor, the former ambassador who was central to the story. Former president Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time of the escape, was one of the few Americans who tried to set things straight. He credited Canadians with being responsible for 90% of the planning and execution of the escape.

In an unusual happy ending, producer and director Ben Affleck worked to set the matter straight by changing a final line in the film to credit the Canadian contribution as an “example of international cooperation” according to newspaper reports. Ambassador Taylor was flown to LA for the Academy Awards ceremony and the story ended with smiles all around.

But did it matter that history was distorted in the first version? It seems to me it does. As most of us are aware, we often get of information about history from movies, television, and fiction. If entertaining stories are based on history, the least their authors can try to do is get the facts straight. The Argo story was corrected because there are many people still around who remember the events. Many other historical events are distorted in films for the sake of building tension or glorifying a hero or some other motive, but those of us who care about understanding the world ought to protest. While we will never know all the facts of history, at least we can try to present honestly the ones that are verified.

Seeing Vermeer

Vermeer's The Geographer
Vermeer’s The Geographer
San Francisco is full of talk about Vermeer these days because a new exhibit at the DeYoung Museum is attracting crowds of people to see the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring and other paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. The Vermeer show seems to be attracting almost as many people as the Impressionists did recently.

Why does Vermeer attract so many viewers? The sheer beauty of his work, the light and color that infuse his paintings are surely part of the attraction, but it seems to be more than that. Vermeer shows real people in an intimate world that we can recognize even though the details are far removed from the 21st century. Many of his paintings feature women, which surely is an attraction for the female majority among the museum-goers. Vermeer shows women in everyday scenes, playing a musical instrument, reading a book, chatting with an attentive gentleman,

Vermeer's Lacemaker
Vermeer’s Lacemaker
making lace. Well, all right, very few of us make lace these days, but most of us have handled a needle and thread if only to sew on a button.

There is a fascinating book called Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook published a couple of years ago, which is not a study of Vermeer’s paintings, but an introduction to his world. Starting with the hat Vermeer features in several of his pictures, Brook expands on the number of items that Vermeer shows us which give us clues to his world. At first glance the pictures show us what seems a mundane world of domestic comforts, but knowing the background of some of the items lets us see them as keys to a new world. The hat brings up the subject of beaver fur and how important the fur trade was in opening North America to trade with Europe. Who knew?

The map on the wall in Vermeer’s rooms as well as his painting of The Geographer poring over a sheet on which he is presumably drawing a new map, shows us a world that was growing beyond the boundaries of Europe. During the 1650s and 1660s when Vermeer was painting, scientists and explorers as well as merchants were finding that the world was much bigger and laden with greater treasures than they had dreamed of. The history behind Vermeer’s paintings expands our understanding of why they appeal to us so much. The people seem alive because their world was opening up to them and the more we know about and enjoy their world, the more we can understand the possibilities in ours. It’s a perfect example of how looking at the past informs our feelings about today.

Cosima Wagner–ambitious wife

February is a chilly and unwelcoming month in most of the country, but still it’s the month we celebrate love with Valentine’s Day and all the frilly romance that goes with it. Many women over the centuries have defined themselves by the men who loved them, becoming the “wife of…”, “mistress of…” or perhaps even better, “beloved of…” was the height of their ambition. Very few of these women are remembered in history, but Cosima Wagner is an exception. Her fame rests not so much on having been the wife of the composer Richard Wagner, but on her relentless dedication to him while he was alive and to his memory after his death. She managed to become a celebrity during her lifetime, sustain a permanent memorial to her husband, and to merit a full biography in 2007, more than a century after he died.

Why would a woman (or a man for that matter) want to define herself entirely through another human being? We’ll never know for sure but some clues might be found in Cosima’s childhood. She was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, the famous 19th century composer and pianist, and his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, who had left her husband for Liszt. Both parents were preoccupied by their own lives and Cosima’s happiest years as a child were those she spent with her grandmother, Liszt’s mother. Cosima WagnerThese days we all know children who are virtually raised by a grandparent—usually a grandmother—and who carry with them for years the pain of being neglected by their parents. Cosima seems to have been an example of this. Her marriage to Wagner, who was 24 years older than she, seems to have given her the emotional security she had not found as a child. All her life she clung to that security and to her memory of Richard Wagner.

When Richard Wagner died in 1883, Cosima was dramatically grief stricken. She insisted on sleeping in the same bed with her husband’s dead body and clung to it until she was physically removed. After the funeral, her children, family friends, and colleagues expected that she would retire into seclusion for the rest of her life, but Cosima chose a different path. Suddenly released from being a wife in the shadow of a famous man, she became the head of the family, director of Wagner’s beloved Bayreuth festival, and keeper of the Wagnerian flame. Through the force of her will she shaped Wagner’s legacy and watched his cult become a lasting influence throughout most of the musical world.

Cosima Wagner was not an admirable woman. She accepted Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism and eventually became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She built the Bayreuth festival into an aristocratic gathering place for the wealthy and powerful as it still is today. But people do not have to be admirable to be fascinating. Despite having been born a woman in a strongly masculine world, she became a powerful figure who helped shape that world. And all the time she masked her ambition behind the womanly excuse of devotion to the man she loved.

Oh, and about that biography. It is now available in English and is well worth reading: Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth by Oliver Hilmes.