The Man Who Drew Everything

For the very first time, 103 drawings by the Japanese artist Hokusai are on display. The illustrations, recently acquired by the British Museum, were produced for an illustrated encyclopedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything. Yet, the book was never published. Hokusai specialised in printmaking during the Edo Period (1603-1867), which involved drawing a design on paper to be pasted onto a woodblock and used as a stencil. As a result, the original drawings were destroyed. To see 103 original illustrations is a very rare honour and highlights Hokusai’s skill and style. 

Katsushika Hokusai lived between 1760 and 1849 in the Katsushika district of Edo (Tokyo). Not much is known about his childhood, except his father was an artisan who possibly taught his son to paint from a young age. Throughout his life, Hokusai went by over 30 names and pseudonyms. As a child, he was known as Tokitarō, but whether this was his birth name is uncertain.

At age 12, Hokusai started working in a library where he became familiar with illustrated books made from woodcut blocks. Two years later, he became an apprentice to a woodcarver until the age of 18, after which he joined the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93). Renamed Shunrō by his master, he produced his first set of prints.

Between joining the studio and the end of the 18th century, Hokusai (or Shunrō) had two wives, both of whom died young. He fathered two sons and three daughters, the youngest of whom became his assistant. Known as Ōi (1800-66), she became an artist in her own right. Around the time of the birth of his children, Hokusai began exploring European styles, which ultimately resulted in his expulsion from the Katsukawa studio.

Away from the constraints of the Katsukawa studio, which primarily produced prints of courtesans and actors, Hokusai began focusing on landscapes and people of all levels of society. He joined the Tawaraya School of artists, changing his name to Tawaraya Sōri in the process. Hokusai mostly worked for private clients, producing prints for special occasions and book illustrations. He eventually broke away from Tawaraya School and set out as an independent artist under the name Hokusai Tomisa.

In the early 1800s, he changed his name to Katsushika Hokusai, by which he is known today. “Katsushika” refers to his district of birth in Edo, and “Hokusai”, literally meaning “north studio”, honours the North Star, a symbol of a deity in Nichiren Buddhism. As an independent artist, Hokusai took on over 50 pupils but continued focusing on his artwork and self-promotion. He also collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848), producing illustrations for several novels, including Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon.

At the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name once again. Under the name Taito, he produced “Hokusai Manga” (Hokusai’s Sketches) about various subjects. This should not be confused with the story-telling manga of the 21st-century. Hokusai’s manga featured random drawings, such as his Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing manual (1812). This book was both an easy way to make money and to attract new students.

In 1820, Hokusai changed his name to Iitsu. Under this new name, he published his most famous work, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which included the picture Great Wave off Kanagawa. The British Museum owns three copies of the Great Wave, which date to around 1831. As the scientific researcher Capucine Korenberg points out, there is no “original” copy of the drawing because between 5,000 and 15,000 were printed in the 1800s. Despite the significant output, only 111 or so survive today.

By studying the copies of the Great Wave, Korenberg identified subtle differences between each print. To create the print, Hokusai drew one copy with pen and ink, which he sent to his publisher, Nishimuraya Yohachi. The original drawing was pasted onto a block of cherry wood and given to a block cutter (hori-shi), who carved out the “white space” between the lines with a chisel. This resulted in the “key-block”, which could be used numerous times to produce prints.

Through her study of the Great Wave prints, Korenberg noted that some were printed using different key-blocks. She assumes new blocks were produced after the old ones wore down. Korenberg also suggests changes were made to the blocks to “improve” the print or make it more appealing to specific customers. In some prints, the outlines are stronger than others, and the colours brighter. To emphasise the differences, a modern reproduction of the print was made in 2017 by the sixth-generation proprietor of Takahashi Studio. They used the same colours, or as close to, as the “original” prints, which have faded over time. Aside from the colours, there are several subtle differences, such as the shape of some of the lines.

Whilst the Great Wave off Kanagawa is Hokusai’s most famous work, it is not the main focus of the exhibition at the British Museum. The original drawing of the Great Wave was destroyed during the printmaking process, as were those of all Hokusai’s other prints. The only surviving sketches are those that never made it to publication. Although some may consider these works “unfinished”, they provide an insight into Hokusai’s drawing ability, which gets lost during the printing process. The small size of the illustrations is also surprising, especially considering the intricate lines and detail in each drawing.

In 1849, Hokusai famously exclaimed from his deathbed, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” Unfortunately, the 90-year-old passed away shortly afterwards, leaving over one hundred drawings intended for The Great Picture Book of Everything unprinted. The illustrations were placed in a purpose-made silk Japanese box and forgotten about for many years. In 1948, the drawings appeared in a Parisian auction, then disappeared from public once more. Finally, they resurfaced in 2019, and the British Museum used a grant from the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest and Art Fund to purchase them. Nearly two hundred years since their creation, Hokusai’s hand-drawn illustrations are on display for the first time.

As well as demonstrating Hokusai’s illustration skills, the drawings explore ancient history and the natural world, as well as the desire to learn about unfamiliar countries and cultures. The Tokugawa government forbade the Japanese to travel abroad, which fueled their desire to learn about the world. Only those with special permits could leave the country, so Hokusai set out with the determination to sketch and document everything for those stuck back at home.

Despite the strict control over travel between different countries, trade between Japan and China flourished. Silk, ceramics and daily goods often came from China, and along with them, ancient Chinese lores and traditions. Several of Hokusai’s illustrations represent Chinese legends about the creation of the world and the beliefs of Chinese scholars, poets and Daoist philosophers. Hokusai explored the origins of the universe and human beings, including prehistoric deities, such as Kang Hui, who allegedly flooded the world in a rage.

In one illustration, Hokusai drew the mythological general Hou Yi, the greatest Chinese archer of all time. According to legend, he married the moon goddess, Chang’e, and shot down nine of the ten suns. The ten suns were making the temperature on Earth unbearably hot and causing widespread famine and drought. To save the planet, Hou Yi attempted to shoot all ten out of the sky. He hit all but one, which hid in a cave, plunging the Earth into unbearable darkness and cold. After much begging, the sun reemerged and remained the only sun in the sky.

Chinese myths explain the beginning of nearly all aspects of society and culture, including music, medicine, carpentry, and art. Most of these discoveries are associated with mythical emperors who were revered as gods, such as Fuxi, who the myths credit with the invention of music in the form of a transverse harp, hunting, fishing, domestication, and cooking with fire. Confucian scholars believe the origins of Chinese society derived from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors in around 2,000 BC. Fuxi was the first of the Three Sovereigns, and the first of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor, who reigned for 100 years.

As well as Chinese mythology, Hokusai illustrated other East Asian legends, in particular Buddhist India. Buddha came from India and passed his teachings on to his disciples, who gradually spread Buddhism to neighbouring countries. Travelling storytellers wove sacred Buddhist texts into their tales and took them to China, from whence the myths made their way to Japan. Some narratives became part of popular culture, featuring in stage dramatizations and such-like. Hokusai looked at these well-known stories and explored the original myths.

One illustration depicts the moment the boatman Monk Decheng knocked Jiashan into the sea. According to the story, Decheng left monastic life to become a ferryman. While sailing his passengers across the river, he taught them about self-realisation. On one occasion, a man called Jiashan boarded the boat, and Decheng began his usual spiel. In the middle of the journey, Decheng knocked Jiashan overboard and hit him three times with his oar, upon which Jiashan reached enlightenment. Several versions of the myth exist, and according to one conclusion, Decheng named Jiashan as his successor, then jumped into the river and drowned.

Another illustration shows the fate of Virūdhaka, the king of Kosala who lived during the time of Buddha. Despite his mother coming from the Shaka clan, the same family as Buddha, Virūdhaka did not receive a warm welcome. As it turned out, the king was the son of a slave girl, which he took as a grave insult. Virūdhaka planned to annihilate the Shaka clan, despite warnings from Buddha that he would die in the process. Virūdhaka succeeded in destroying most of the Shaka clan, but during the victory banquet was struck by a bolt of lightning and killed.

Hokusai’s depiction of the lightning bolt striking Virūdhaka is an early version of modern manga, which developed a century later. Contemporary manga artists use lines of varying thickness and length to indicate speed, sound and physical impact. Hokusai surrounded Virūdhaka with a sunburst of lines to demonstrate the strength and direct hit of the lightning bolt.

Not all Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything focused on mythical beings and stories. He demonstrated the typical clothing and costumes of men from different cultures and countries to fuel the Japanese people’s interest in other lands. He focused on East, Southeast and Central Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Ryūkyū (a chain of Japanese islands that once belonged to China), India, China and Korea. He also drew a Portuguese man who lived in Asia during the Edo period. At this time, the Japanese called Europeans “Southern barbarians”.

The majority of Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything cover geographical features and nature. Several depict Japanese landscapes, mountains, seas and rivers, home to many animals and plant life. Rather than simply drawing each animal, Hokusai detailed the movement of fur, limbs and tails to create a sense of individual characterization and energy. His sketch of two street cats, for instance, demonstrates a standoff as one reprimands the other for stepping on his territory near the overgrown hibiscus plant.

Other animals Hokusai drew include otters, bears, tigers, leopards, deer, donkeys, porcupines, goats, camels, ostriches, and aquatic birds. As well as these, Hokusai sketched mythical beasts, for instance, kirin, a dragon-shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail, and baku, a nightmare-devouring beast created from the leftover pieces when the gods finished forming all other animals. Hokusai also drew a hairy rhinoceros with a tortoise-like shell on its back. This was probably not a mythical creature but based upon descriptions of the animal.

Hokusai occasionally drew natural animals alongside mythical beasts, for example, his sketch of a phoenix and peacock. In Chinese tradition, and subsequently Japanese, the peacock is a manifestation of the phoenix. The phoenix is one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty, the others being the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon, goblets, seaweed, grains, fire, an axe head, and the “fu” symbol (representing the power of the emperor to distinguish evil from good and right from wrong.) According to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD), a peacock represented divinity, rank, power, and beauty. The eyes on its tail are associated with the goddess Guan Yin, whose name means “The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World.” Buddhists believe when they die, Guan Yin places them in the heart of a lotus and sends them to the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.

When Tim Clark, the former Head of the Japanese Section and now an Honourary Fellow at the British Museum, recommended the purchase of Hokusai’s drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything, little did the museum know how popular they would prove with the public. Tickets sell out daily as people flock to see Hokusai’s preliminary drawings up close for the first time. The purchase has allowed the museum to collaborate with scholars across the globe to deepen their understanding of printmaking and Japanese culture and history. Just as the prohibitions on travel made the Japanese people of the late Edo period hungry for knowledge about history, foreign lands and the natural world, people of the 21st-century can discover the same things by studying Hokusai’s drawings. Displaying the drawings now, as the world comes out of lockdown, helps visitors relate to the desire to travel during the Edo period. Whereas the contemporary world resorted to digital technology to survive the pandemic restrictions, the Japanese used books, stories and drawings to learn about the world beyond their shores.

Hokusai’s achievements as an artist have influenced people for over 200 years. During his lifetime, his work inspired up-and-coming printmakers and book illustrators, and before his death, his prints had made their way to Europe. Impressionist artists, such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, replicated themes of Hokusai’s prints in their paintings, and several European painters developed large collections of Japanese prints, in particular, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Klimt and Édouard Manet.

In the 1985 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hokusai is recorded as having “impressed Western artists, critics and art lovers alike, more, possibly, than any other single Asian artist.” This entry proves true today as Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything entices thousands of people to the British Museum. The exhibition runs until 30th January 2022 and tickets, priced at £9, are selling fast. So, book now to avoid disappointment!


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Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

mata_hari

Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.


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