Information Graphics: Charles Minard

Napoloeon’s invasion of Russia of 1812  was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, as it had the effect of reducing the Grande Armée to a tiny fraction of it’s original strength.

This was not only an event of epic proportions it was also of momentous importance for European history, since it triggered a major shift in the balance of power in European politics, and signalled the end of French dominance in continental Europe.

This important historic event became the subject for many European painters who vividly contrasted the arrogance and hubris of the original invasion with the humiliation and the human suffering of the retreat from Moscow.

However, it was a French man, Charles Minard, in 1869, who had pioneeed the use of information graphics in engineering and statistics, who, decided to tell what had become a familiar story to most Europeans, in an a revolutionary new fashion.

His “Carte Figurative des Pertes Successives en Hommes de l’Armée Française dans la Campagne de Russie 1812-1813”, is a flow map which portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.

This statistical graphic displays several variables in a single two-dimensional image. As it  shows:

1) The Grande Armée’s location and direction, showing where particular units split off and rejoined
2) The declining size of the Grande Armée’s as it retreated back to France
3) The falling temperatures during the retreat.
Edward Tufte in his masterpiece “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” describes Charles Minard’s map as perhaps ” the best statistical graphic ever drawn”.

But it’s power is not just as piece of information graphics. Because although it might appear at first sight a colder, less emotional, less romantic depiction of the campaign, than the work of say Adolph Northen or Illarion Pryanishnikov it is, on closer inspection a far more chilling, and far more devastating depiction of the scale of the human folly and suffering.


Persuasion vs Education

In this powerful TED Talk by Benjamin Zander, the music director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra neatly illustrates the fact that the most powerful way to change entrenched opinions and behaviours is often more like education than persuasion.

And as with all great teachers, in Zanders case, this is coupled with large amounts of charisma and infectious enthusiasm.

As TED puts it: “Benjamin Zander is known around the world as both a guest conductor and a speaker on leadership — and he’s been known to do both in a single performance. He uses music to help people open their minds and create joyful harmonies that bring out the best in themselves and their colleagues.

His provocative ideas about leadership are rooted in a partnership with Rosamund Stone Zander, with whom he co-wrote “The Art of Possibility.”

Or as Zander says himself: “The best review I ever got was not from a music critic, but from my father. He was 94 years old at the time and completely blind. He attended a Master Class I gave in London and sat there in his wheelchair for about three hours. When it was over, I went to speak with him. He lifted up his finger in his characteristic way and said, “I see that you are actually a member of the healing profession.” It seemed to me the highest accolade.

But there’s much more to be enjoyed at:


Prussian Blue

When you experience something that seems to defy classification, you tend to experience it in a more vivid, more visceral fashion.  The more you struggle to find a suitable narrative to explain it, the more deeply involved you become.

What’s more, whatever you experience in this manner, tends to touch you and stay with you in a way that other, more intellectually mediated, experiences do not.

Recently I saw Nigel Rolfe do a performance piece called European Dream at the Green on Red Gallery, in Dublin.

Imagine this…

You walk into a darkened gallery, where people are milling around in the gloom, you immediately begin to feel slightly uncomfortable.

From loudspeakers, somewhere in the back of the space, you can hear distorted military music. Every so often you hear the sound of a hand slapping flesh.

After a few minutes you start to get your bearings. You begin to see that there are projections on three of the walls.

The wall in front of you features an image of what looks like a prison cell… except it is too large to be a cell., and there are strange bluish stains on the walls. Perhaps this is some kind of interrogation room… or worse, some kind of torture chamber… the image is somehow reminiscent of images of Abu Gharaib.

Suddenly you hear that slapping sound again, and you turn to see that, to the left of the wall featuring the large prison cell, is the image of a huge pair of hands. Blue powder is sifted from one hand to the other, until every so often the top hand slams down on the lower one, creating a gaseous explosion of blue pigment.

In contrast, on the wall to the right, is the image of another hand covered in gold leaf, this hand does nothing more than open and close majestically. In front of the central projection is a small desk, chair and desk lamp… perhaps an interrogation is going to take place? At this point the artist enters. He is a tall, imposing figure. His head is shaven and he wears a white shirt and black trousers. He sits at the desk and pulling up a shirt sleeve, begins to lift slivers of gold leaf and apply them carefully onto his hand. After ten minutes the hand is completely covered. This is the image projected on the left. He then carefully empties a bowl of blue pigment onto the table. Leaning forward on the table he looks around him at the audience in the darkness. Suddenly he plunges his face into the pigment…and rolls his head around on the desk.

Eventually he he pulls himself erect, and with his knuckles still on the desktop, once again he looks at the audience, one by one with a look of sheer malevolence.

The effect is staggering, without quite knowing why, you feel that you are staring evil right in the face.

Your mind is working overtime, as you try and figure out what is happening at which point, Nigel Rolfe steps forward into the crowd, and urgently explains that the room behind him is one in which, in less than 24 hours, on November 3, 1943 over 18,400 Jews were killed with Cyanide gas.

Choking back the tears, which begin to run through the blue pigment on his face, he explains how gold was extracted from the bodies, and how the strange blue marks on the walls of the chamber were from the use of Prussic acid, otherwise known as Zyclon B or cyanide… in some kind of gruesome historical irony, this is the same ingredient used in the pigment that artists  call “Prussian Blue”…

It is clear that the performance has taken its toll on Nigel Rolfe, in tears he leaves the stage. The audience applaud, but are all clearly in a state of shock.

It is one thing to know something intellectually. It is quite another to feel it emotionally.