Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The conquest of the air

Just over a century ago, on 08/08/08, at 18:25 hours, Wilbur Wright made the first public flight anywhere in the world. It was not in the USA, but in France, at the Hippodrome des Hunaudières at Le Mans, within easy reach of Paris. Over the next five months Wright made another nine exhibition flights at the same location, in a Flyer III bi-plane with a Barriquand-Marse motor.
         I imagine newspapers at the time published cartoon sketches of these exciting displays (though I haven’t seen any). But who was the first fine artist to record this extraordinary breakthrough for mankind? My guess is the Czech painter and printmaker Tavik František Šimon (1877-1942).
         Šimon was born at Železnice in Bohemia. He studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, where he was in 1928 appointed as Professor of Graphic Arts, a position he took over from his friend Max Švabinský.
         František Šimon lived and worked in Paris from 1904 to 1914, when the outbreak of WWII caused him to return to Prague. He was therefore right on the spot when Wilbur Wright made his inaugural flight. I believe that this etching, first published in 1909 by Gesellschaft für Vervielfältigende Kunst, Vienna, almost certainly shows that very first flight, though it is possible that František Šimon attended one of the later displays.

František Šimon, First Flight of the Aeroplane, Paris
(also known as Die Eroberung der Luft)
Etching, 1909

The title given to this etching in the catalogue raisonné by Arthur Novak (in which it is listed as N106) is First Flight of the Aeroplane, Paris. However, the published title in German is quite different: Die Eroberung der Luft, The Conquest of the Air.
         The etching is signed with T. František Šimon’s monogram in the plate, but not, sadly, dated. If anyone knows any detail that might precisely date this as showing the very first public flight, I would be fascinated to hear it. So far, one can only say for sure that it must depict one of those first 10 displays, given at the Hunaudières racecourse between 8 August 1908 and 2 January 1909.
         The initial edition of this etching was 125 signed prints (printed in brown on Japan paper) issued by Gesellschaft für Vervielfältigende Kunst, plus 10 artist's proofs. In 1911 the same publisher included this etching in the art revue Die Graphischen Kunste, still printed in brown, but this time on cream wove paper. The artist is credited as Franz Šimon (his calling card at the time says François Simon), and the printing of the etching is credited by K. K. Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, Wien.

František Šimon, Passerelle de L’Estacade, Paris
Etching, 1909

First Flight of the Aeroplane, Paris, and another original etching—N113, titled here Alte Brücke (“L’Estacade”)—were published in Die Graphische Kunste to illustrate an extensive article on the art of T. F. Šimon by Joachim Friedenthal.


bibble said...

Very interesting Neil, I have always like his works, and you have illuminated them nicely.

Neil said...

Clive - a lot of T. F. Simon's etchings are in colour, but I prefer these more impressionistic monochrome ones.