Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hot Air Balloons

I'm not sure why the idea of hot air ballooning is fascinating to me- it is something I have always wanted to do.  The idea of crossing a landscape in silence, with only air between myself and what is below, appeals to me, but there is also an anachronistic romance to ballooning that I like.  The first manned balloon flights took place in France in 1793, in a balloon built by the Montgolfier brothers.  (The brothers also demonstrated their invention at Versailles, floating a sheep, a duck and a rooster above the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) The subsequent French fascination with the balloon- soon used in military campaigns and for entertainment-  is beautifully documented in the Library of Congress archives in the Tissandier Collection.  A selection follows....


And yet, despite all the grandness and carnivalesque delight of the above images, it is the ballooning disasters that interest me the most.  Perhaps I am morbid- but there is something about the mad risks of the early inventors and explorers that fascinates me.  And the dramatic failures- of equipment, of planning, of financing, of ego- are so evident in the following images.  A punctured balloon is almost an archetype- there are platitudes about popping someone's balloon, aren't there?  Or deflating someone's ego?  What better image of human hubris than a collapsed balloon, taken from an era when the ambitions of humans were driving us across the globe, to greater and more far-flung conquests and discoveries.
I especially love the woodcut below, of Felix Nadar's balloon "Le Geant" in 1863.  The combined disaster of fallen balloon and oncoming locomotive, rendered in the ominous grey values of printer's ink, undermines the frolicsome colors of the Folies-Bergere advertising above.

Even more compelling; images from the failed expedition of S.A. Andreé, the Swedish balloonist who attempted to fly a balloon from Svalbard over the North Pole in 1897.  Andreé's faith in technology was so strong that he ignored apparent defects in his French- made balloon, and two days after departure, he and his two companions crashed onto pack ice, where they later died of exposure.

from Wikepedia

Andreés polar balloon was made in Henri Lachambre's balloon workshop in Paris (image from Wikepedia)

The following images of the Andreé exhibition are taken from the site, which appears to be in Polish, so I can't give much information about what it says.  Though it appears to be thorough.... 

I love the above image- the inception of the trip, so optimistic!  And the trailing ropes, and their wake in the water- such an image of something too weighted down to succeed....

The three men had supplies and sledges with them, and were able to survive a couple of weeks....

The remains as discovered in 1930.

As far as I can tell, no one is reading this blog- which is oddly liberating.  It gives me permission to drift, and to free-associate, which is an important and delightful part of being an artist.  And perhaps reveals a little of how visual culture operates- the links from image to image building a network of understanding, of attitudes and conceptions and even prejudices.  Neuroscience tells us that memories are linked by likenesses- if you have a memory regarding a horse, for example, your next experience with a horse will be stored in the same area- the neural passageways will be laid down right next to each other, linking, and possibly distorting, your two horse-related memories.  Which means that a recollection of one will bring up the other, and so on, through the whole messy post-modernist network of images.  Images are liked in our minds, in radiating webs of relationship, as they are linked in the broader cultural consciousness, and, of course, on the world wide web.
Which is why we call it a web, of course.
I digress, but as I mentioned above, my digressions are the luxury of an unread blog.
So after thinking of balloons long enough, and drifting into their darker territories of hubris and nightmarish failure, I naturally thought of Redon's weird surrealist print, Eye-Balloon, of 1878.  Which I share with you- or at least with me- here:

reposted from

Also worth check out are the very odd and melodramatic surrealist short of Guy Maddin- Including Odilon Redon or the eye Like a Strange Balloon  (which you can see onYouTube at  The image below is from one of Maddins' films.....

Well- from lighthearted to progressively darker.  How did I go from colorful balloons to dead horse heads?  Personal predilections for gloom, I suppose.

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