The past is a foreign country

Pour la patrie

This must be about the strangest image to have ever appeared on this blog. How to explain it?

First of all, it was published in Review of Reviews, May 1913, 457, accompanying the second part of a two-part article by Count Zeppelin on 'The conquest of the air'. However, apart from the obvious aviation theme there's no obvious link to the text. The caption reads:

The Pictorial Postcard issued for sale on behalf of the Swiss National Aviation Fund.

I can't find much about the Swiss National Aviation Fund (which doubtless had a proper name in French and German -- there's a version of the postcard in the latter), apart from a solitary but simultaneous mention in Flight, 3 May 1913, 496:

Having arranged to fly at Aaran in the interest of the Swiss National Aviation Fund to which £16,000 has already been subscribed, Oscar Bider flew over from Berne on his Blériot tandem on the 22nd ult., in 45 mins.

This confirms what was already apparent from the name, that the Swiss National Aviation Fund was an effort to raise funds to buy aircraft, 'pour la Patrie', for the Fatherland, presumably for military purposes. (It seems to have been reissued during the First World War, in which Switzerland of course was neutral, but in need of aircraft more than ever.) Similar efforts were then underway in Britain and the Dominions, such as the Britannia Airship Committee and the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, and during the recent airship panic the Navy League had tried to get British municipalities to volunteer funds to buy aircraft for their own defence -- though I suspect none were as successful as the Swiss National Aviation Fund, if the report in Flight is correct.

All that may help explain the presence of this image in Review of Reviews, but it doesn't explain the image itself, a photograph of a sculpture, probably in clay, by the Italian Domenico Mastroianni. All I can offer is that the woman with the sword and the cross on her breast is Helvetia, the national personification of Switzerland. The grouping of her with the horses almost seems like a statue group; perhaps it is a reference to a well-known depiction, but I haven't been able to find it. Like Helvetia herself, the horses also seem to pull the image away from modernity into a classical past, which is contrary to how you'd expect such a radical new technology to be portrayed -- on the Italian side of the Alps, the even newer literary and artistic movement, Futurism, was filled with images of aviation precisely because it was such a break with the past. But perhaps that was the point of this image -- maybe by classicising the aeroplane and relating it to safe and familiar forms of patriotism and strength it reassured the viewer that the traditional virtues and mores would not be overturned along with transportation and warfare. It this context it might be noted that the British committees and leagues referred to earlier all had, in that typical Edwardian way, aristocratic patrons: Lord Desborough was president of the Imperial Air Fleet Committee, for example. It's a more subtle way of giving the same assurance, that the social order will be upheld.

It's still a bizarre image, though. And it must be pointed out that 3 hp is woefully underpowered for an aeroplane, even in 1913.

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5 thoughts on “The past is a foreign country

  1. Nicolas Chachereau

    If you read French, you should probably check out Christophe Siméon's L'envol manqué de l'aviation militaire suisse à la fin de la Belle Époque. He speaks also of this funding effort, I think, started by the "Société suisse des officiers" after the government refused in 1910 to fund military pilot training (source: Swiss Historical Dictionary).

    As for Helvetia, I don't think I've ever seen her with horses. I rather share your interpretation. Many officers were quite conservative (after all, Ulrich Wille, general during the First World War, was married to a von Bismarck), so this may also have been adressed to them.

    And now for an unconventional Helvetia.

    Greetings from Switzerland!

    P. S. Flight says "Aaran", but I guess it's Aarau.

  2. Jukka Keränen


    Domenico Mastroianni seems to have repeatedly depicted aviation as a heroic activity of epic proportions, mixing mythological imagery with what was then cutting edge technology.

    There are examples of his art on the following two sites, for example:

    In addition, in a book I have there is a reproduction of Mastroianni's postcard showing yet another monoplane, this time with a ram's head and draped in the Italian flag. It is led by mythological female figures holding laurel wreaths.

    (As an aside, I've been reading your highly interesting site for some time now, although this is my first comment here.)

    Espoo, Finland

  3. Post author

    Thanks for the information, everyone. It's interesting what you say about Mastroianni, Jukka -- I did look at some of his other work and it seemed like he mainly dealt with classical and religious themes, so I thought perhaps he was commissioned to do something with an aeroplane and fell back on what he knew best. But it looks like he had his own interest in aviation, and had already developed this style of representing flight as early as 1909. It seems very unusual; but in saying that there were all sorts of artistic responses to aviation, some of which incorporated classical themes, such as the Schneider Trophy. I still think it's likely to be significant that the Société suisse des officiers (thanks Nicholas -- unfortunately I don't read French, though just a couple of days before your comment, I did in fact hold my very first conversation in French. Since I was simply buying a museum ticket, used approximately eight words in the whole exchange, and understood about one word per sentence spoken to me, it doesn't say much for my language skills) chose this image as propaganda for the aviation fund, and that they liked it enough (or it was successful enough) that they continued to use it for at least a year.

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