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103 posts categorized "Visual arts"

08 May 2018

“A rogue and a madman”: August Strindberg's Antibarbarus

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In his anti-literary 1890s, August Strindberg took to the laboratory to experiment in alchemy, and some of his thoughts led to a peculiar book published in Germany in 1894 called Antibarbarus I: oder Die Welt für sich und die Welt für mich (YA.1990.a.22668). His discovery of the process of transmuting lead into gold was conjecture and anti-scientific, if anti-anything, but 13 years later, this simple pamphlet, first published in Germany, transmuted into one of the finest luxury editions printed in Sweden.

Antibarbarus - coverCover of August Strindberg,  Antibarbarus: Det är en vidlyftig undersökning om grundämnenas natur och ett nytt betraktelsesätt af de kemiska operationernas förlopp enligt den rådande monist-teorien om naturens allhet & enhet, sådan den af Darwin och Hæckel tillämpats på de andra naturvetenskaperna (Stockholm: 1906) Cup.408.I.20.)

Strindberg composed Antibarbarus as a series of letters written in the second person, addressing an unidentified correspondent on diverse scientific principles. His first letter was entitled, ‘The ontogeny of sulphur’, the second, ‘On the transmutation of matter, transformist chemistry, or everything in everything’, the third, ‘Thoughts on the composition of air and water’, and a fourth, simply ‘Paralipomena’. He himself thought he ‘simply drew all the logical conclusions inherent in Transformism and Monism,’ (letter to Torsten Hedlund, 23 July 1894) that is, the belief that all matter has a single shared substance and elements differ only in their properties and not as entities, to paraphrase his first letter.

What he did not account for was the mixture of bemusement and vehement criticism that the publication received. In a letter to Georg Brandes, soliciting the great critic’s help in reviewing it favourably in Denmark, Strindberg writes that his work ‘has caused the Swedes to depict me as a rogue and a madman […] There is in fact not a single paper in Sweden honourable enough to print a word in my defence’, ultimately surprised ‘to see a whole country’s chemists so blinded by jealousy that they cannot acknowledge their own views when they see them put forward by someone they find offensive!’ (31 May 1894). Even his friend and the translator of his Swedish manuscript into German, Bengt Lidforss, reviewed it harshly in Dagens Nyheter—albeit under a pseudonym, which was scant consolation.

Antibarbarus - title pageTitle page of  Antibarbarus

Five years later, the magazine Nordisk Boktryckarekonst (Stockholm, 1900-1925; PP.1622.h.) was established by Hugo and Carl Lagerström, who subsequently set up a publishing house, with aim of inaugurating an authentic Nordic style of book design. They sought a work with which to begin a series of bibliophile editions and Arthur Sjögren was enlisted both to produce the book and to convince Strindberg to volunteer the first idea for the series. Sjögren, who had worked with Strindberg, arrived at Strindberg’s studio to find a chemist’s laboratory in disarray and the author-cum-goldmaker deep into experiments. With Strindberg only thinking about scientific works, they eventually landed on Antibarbarus. The Antibarbarus manuscript had been under perpetual revision and expansion since 1894 and, with Strindberg’s encouragement, the Lagerströms decided to take it on.

Antibarbarus - fascicle 1Fascicle 1, Antibarbarus

Taking nearly a year to produce, Antibarbarus had a limited print run of 299, each copy priced at 30 Krona. To put it in context, very few books cost over 10 Krona and Strindberg’s luxury edition of Ordalek och småkonst, which came out a year earlier in 1905, cost 8.50. No expense was spared from the light-brown leather binding incorporating the same decorative coils and knots that frame the text throughout, to the thick hand-made paper from Grycksbo  with a specially designed watermark by Sjögren, depicting a four-leaf clover over a three-leaf clover. The coiled dragon-tail ornamentation that envelops the title-page is derived from Viking picture stone iconography, which speaks to the National Romantic ethos of the new publishers, but by no means renders William Morris’s decorative influence any less obvious. The portrait of a Faustian Strindberg facing the title-page takes us back to Sjöberg’s encounter with the author in his laboratory, while drawing comparisons with Goethe, as a similar polymathic genius.

Like his illustrated works before this, Strindberg’s manuscript influenced the artistic design and the drop capitals and annotations set within the body of the text appear to be original to the author. Notes are literally indicated by a red hand pointing and paragraphs are marked by red pilcrows, rather than spaced out. Connoisseurs did not particularly warm to these latter innovations in the layout but the book has been acknowledged to be one of the most exquisite Swedish books ever produced. Georg Svensson considers it Sjögren’s best.

Antibarbarus - slaying the dragonSlaying the dragon, Antibarbarus

Ultimately, we might say the design is in harmony with the content. One critic, G. Bargum, reads the work as the creative scientist’s labyrinthine search for a greater truth where each path is a dead end. He suggests that what is stabbed in the final ornamental image is a many-headed Hydra, who constricts the courageous opponent, so that he will never escape. A review in Dagens Nyheter (cited in Samlade Verk) prefers to see the dragon finally slain by a Sigurd figure and the obstacles triumphantly overcome. While Strindberg never made gold and never did conquer the world of science as his anti-barbarian persona might have wished, his creative genius – with all its delusions and idiosyncrasies – is still wonderfully celebrated in this book, paradoxically ensuring a legacy for his failure.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

August Strindberg, Naturvetenskapliga skrifter I [August Strindberg’s Samlade Verk, vol. 35] (Stockholm, 2009), YF.2011.a.4183

August Strindberg, Strindberg’s Letters [selected, edited and compiled by Michael Robinson] (London, 1992), 92/19967-8

G. Bargum, ‘Der neue Antibarbarus’, in Zeitschrift für Bücherfreunde (10:6), 1906, p. 253, P.P.6548.c.

30 April 2018

Why did Joseph Banks go to Iceland in 1772?

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In 1772 Joseph Banks, a wealthy 29-year-old landowner and one of the early naturalist explorers, led the first British scientific expedition to Iceland, then a dependency of the kingdom of Denmark-Norway. Banks had been on the celebrated Endeavour expedition with Captain Cook  in 1768-71, one of the most important voyages of discovery ever made. A member of the Royal Society since 1764, he was accepted for Cook’s voyage as a supernumerary in natural history, after he offered to pay not only for himself but a party of eight including artists and scientists. His participation on the Endeavour elevated Banks to ‘a figure of international scientific significance’ (Gascoigne, p. 692).

JosephBanks1773_Reynolds

Portrait of Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds (1773).  Image From Wikimedia Commons. The original portrait is currently on display in our exhibition ‘James Cook: the Voyages’, which runs until 28 August.

Due to the success of the Endeavour voyage another expedition to the South Pacific was planned for 1772. The prime aim of the second Cook voyage on the Resolution was to search for the existence of an Antarctic continent, the mythical Terra Australis. Banks, convinced that a ‘Southern’ continent existed, was overjoyed when Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, invited him to be the scientific leader of the expedition.

Throughout the winter of 1771-72, Banks was busy assembling a party of scientists, artists, secretaries and servants, including a French chef, as well as vast equipment for collecting specimens, again at his own expense. All was progressing well until Banks saw the shipboard facilities for himself and his party. He became famously displeased. The vessel, he thought, was simply not large enough to accommodate his entourage and after a heated exchange with the Navy Board he abandoned the Resolution expedition in a fit of pique, thus earning himself negative epithets both from contemporaries and his later biographers.

To the disappointed Banks, it was, however, of prime necessity to engage his men in a new project. By early June he had settled on his new destination. Instead of searching for a massive continent south of Australia, he decided to head north, his choice falling on Iceland. The question begging to be answered is: why Iceland?

Clevely View of a mountainJohn Cleveley the younger, ‘View of a mountain, near Hekla with a view of a travelling caravan’, Add MS. 15511, f.48.  

Scholars have advanced various theories, but in his Iceland journal Banks adequately explained the reasons for his decision. As the sailing season was much advanced he:

saw no place at all within the Compass of my time so likely to furnish me with an opportunity as Iceland, a countrey which...has been visited but seldom … The whole face of the countrey new to the Botanist & Zoologist as well as the many Volcanoes with which it is said to abound made it very desirable to Explore... (Banks’s Journal, p. 47).

And from the documentary evidence it seems clear that seeing ‘burning mountains’, as volcanoes were called at the time, had become the major aim of the voyage. There was a growing interest in volcanology and in his passport, quickly issued at the beginning of July by the Danish envoy in London, the main purpose of Banks’s visit was recorded as observing Mount Hekla, the most famous of the Icelandic volcanoes. The ascent of Hekla was the highlight of the expedition, the measurements of the spouting hot springs described by Banks as ‘volcanoes of water’ (the word geyser was coined later, Geysir being the proper name of the most magnificent of the Icelandic hot springs), coming a close second. On their return The Scots Magazine reported in November 1772 that they had ‘applied themselves in a particular manner to the study of volcanoes’.

Clevely Crater of GeyserAbove: John Cleveley the younger, ‘View of the crater of geyser, immediately after an eruption when empty’, Add MS. 15511, f.37; Below: John Cleveley the younger, ‘View of the eruption of geiser’, Add MS. 15511, f.43. Both drawings are also on display in the James Cook exhbition.

Clevely Geyser erupting

Banks prepared his voyage as best he could within the limited period of time he had. Understandably he found no-one in London who had been to Iceland but Claus Heide, a Dane resident in London, gave him information ‘Chiefly out of books’ (BL Add MS 8094, ff. 29-30). The King of Denmark was notified of their wish to visit Iceland and was only too happy to sanction the ‘celebrated English Lords’ journey.

Among the members of the expedition were three artists: John Cleveley Jr, James Miller and his brother John Frederick Miller, and their magnificent drawings and watercolours are invaluable sources. These illustrations, over 70 of them, are now in the British Library and in steady use (Add MS 15511-15512).

Clevely Skaholt ChurchJohn Cleveley the younger, View of the Cathedral Church of Skálholt, southern Iceland; with houses, and villagers tending cattle in the foreground, Add MS. 15511, f.17

Banks also collected Icelandic manuscripts and books – something he had prepared before his departure as he wrote to Bodley’s Librarian, the Reverend John Price, that he was about to sail to Iceland and while there would endeavour to procure Icelandic manuscripts. Today over 120 books and 30 manuscripts are in the British Library, including copies of the first Icelandic version of the Bible from 1584, Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and the most famous saga, Njal’s Saga (Add MS. 45712, 4857-96). Men were sent to the only printing press in Iceland, at Hólar, to buy copies of the books printed there. In the years following his visit the district governor Ólafur Stephensen, now a friend, continued to collect and consequently ‘charged our best copyists to transcribe the antiquities and sagas’ (24 June 1773, Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820, p. 183)

Banks’s chartered ship, the Sir Lawrence, a brig of 190 tons, with a crew of 12, eventually left Gravesend on 12 July 1772, ironically the same day as Cook started on his second voyage. He arrived in Iceland at the end of August and after an eventful stay of six weeks they left in early October, loaded down with, among other objects, specimens of lava, Icelandic manuscripts and two Icelandic dogs, aptly named Hekla and Geysir.

As a consequence of the Iceland expedition, Banks became the acknowledged British expert on Iceland and a faithful friend of the Icelanders. Three decades later during the Napoleonic Wars, Banks assumed a crucial political role as self-appointed protector of Iceland, smoothing the way for their trade during the conflict and repeatedly urging the British government to annex the island for the benefit of the inhabitants. He became the architect of Britain’s political and commercial policy towards the Atlantic dependencies of the Danish realm.

Anna Agnarsdóttir, Emeritus Professor, University of Iceland

Further reading:

Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820. Journals, Letters and Documents, (London, 2016), YC.2016.b.2118.

Id., ‘After the Endeavour: What next for Joseph Banks?’, in Endeavouring Banks: Exploring collections from the Endeavour Voyage 1768-1771 (London, 2016), LC.31.b.1774

Harold B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks 1743-1820 (London, 1988), YK.1988.b.2415

Neil Chambers (ed.), The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks. A Selection 1768–1820 (London, 2000) m01/13368

John Gascoigne, ‘Banks, Sir Joseph, baronet (1743-1820)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 3 (Oxford, 2004).

Halldór Hermannsson, ‘Sir Joseph Banks and Iceland’, Islandica, vol. 18 (1928) Ac.2692.g/6.

Uno von Troil, Letters on Iceland (Dublin, 1780) 10280.eee.14.

19 April 2018

‘Now my text will be destroyed by gingerbread men’: the collaboration between Arthur Sjögren and August Strindberg

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August Strindberg (1849-1912) – the unorthodox, self-taught, one-of-a-kind writer, painter, historian, photographer, scientist-alchemist and one-time schizophrenic – can’t have been easy to work with. A pioneer with such singular vision would naturally find some difficulty opening his work up to the ideas of those forever catching up with his modernity.

From the 1890s onwards, Strindberg did however work closely with the artists Carl Larsson and Arthur Sjögren, falling out with each in turn some ten or so years later. The beginning of the end for the partnership with Sjögren came when Strindberg dismissed his contribution to a future publication in 1906, suggesting ‘now my text will be destroyed by gingerbread men,’ perhaps a jab at the artist’s stylizing tendency. Yet, undoubtedly, in the collaboration between Sjögren and Strindberg, some of the most significant Swedish works of art and literature emerged.

Strindberg & Sjögren book covers
A range of book covers by Arthur Sjögren for August Strindberg’s work, from Arthur Sjögren: Typografi och bokkonst, grafik och måleri… Nationalmusei utställningskataloger nr. 99. (Stockholm, 1944) W.P.6606/99

From the 1880s to the mid-1890s, Swedish book illustration and typography found itself in a ‘trough’, wrote the art historian Georg Svensson: ‘It had a plethora of styles but lacked style.’ That is to say, it did not have a national style of its own. Under the influence of William Morris in particular, publishers Waldemar Zachrisson and Hugo Lagerström called for a new style and for innovative artists to burst forth. Hugo and his brother Carl established the magazine Nordisk Boktryckarekonst (PP.1622.h) in 1899 and chief among its contributors was the prolific Sjögren (1874-1951), who fast moved away from an early career in architecture to the ‘pure lines’ of book craft. Nordisk Boktryckarekonst had as its aim to create the conditions for a Nordic style in book design and Sjögren would become, in the words of Erik Wettergren, ‘one of the most ingenious and intensive pioneers of book design in the national spirit’.

Sjögren signature
Arthur Sjögren’s monogram

Sjögren began working with the already famous Strindberg in 1900, at which point the writer had had a few years’ experience collaborating with Carl Larsson. In the earlier relationship, it is clear that Strindberg very rarely gave free rein to the illustrator and Sjögren would meet a similar level of artistic direction. This is by no means an abnormal situation but there is little sign of the ‘role of chance in artistic creation’, as one of his essays once lauded. Strindberg sets out the roles in the preface to their first collaboration, Sveriges Natur (1901), ‘the drawings offer landscapes, not prospects, which are composed by the writer and carried out by Arthur Sjögren to the writer’s contentment [belåtenhet].’

Sveriges Natur - Cover
Cover of August Strindberg and Arthur Sjögren, Sveriges Natur (Stockholm, 1901) L.49/151

Strindberg had travelled around Sweden in 1891-2, much as he had done around France before, and made notes and sketches in situ and these drawings and photographs were the strict basis for Sjögren’s work. The author still insisted on writing both their names on the cover in the same gold type, despite the illustrator’s protests, yet we find Sjögren’s name appears smaller than Strindberg’s, perhaps as a concession to the modest artist.

Sveriges Natur - Lappland title
Above: Heading from the section ‘Lappland’, and Below: Landscape of Lapland, from Sveriges Natur

Sveriges Natur - Lappland landscape

Future collaborations did see more conceptual input from Sjögren, yet Strindberg continued to be prescriptive. If the balance of input is not clear, Sjögren’s artwork in the poetry collection Ordalek och småkonst [Word Play and Minor Art] (1905) is without doubt as masterful as Strindberg’s verse, both encapsulating the tension between the innocent simplicity of nature and everyday life and the mystical otherness that Strindberg saw flickering everywhere at the edges.

Ordalek - Cover - title page - end combined
Cover, title page, contents and ending of August Strindberg Ordalek och småkonst (facsimile edition, Stockholm, 1974) X.989/34103

Ordalek och småkonst is visual poetry. Even without the illustrations, critics resort to imagistic terminology, evident in Lotta M. Löfgren’s interpretation prefacing her translation: ‘The realist’s eye now picks up a surreal shimmer.’

Ordalek - Gatubilder
Above: ‘Gatubilder’ [Street Pictures], below: ‘Molnbilder’ [Cloud Pictures], from Ordalek och småkonst

Ordalek - Molnbilder

The stand-out poem in the collection, if not in all of Swedish poetry, ‘Stadsresan’ [The City Journey] moves from a perfectly harmonious Midsummer’s Day in Stockholm and the shores of Lake Mälaren to a sudden apocalyptic nightmare summoned by a pianist’s music. While such darkness always sits beneath the surface for Strindberg, it only takes the warmth of an impromptu audience and his wife’s hand on his shoulder for ‘life to smile again’.

Ordalek - Stadsresan
Above: The third song in ‘Stadsresan’,  below: ‘Skapelsens tal och lagar’ [Creation’s Numbers and Laws], from Ordalek och småkonst

Ordalek - Skapelsens tal och lagar

As the pianist steps back and the room begins to glow with the praise of the onlookers and the happiness of the family, the piano itself begins to gleam and, ‘Also it beamed out a power, it cast a glow all around them / Shone on the paltry furnishings, elevated the humble.’ Strindberg captures it precisely. In art, in poetry, in the illustrations of Sjögren and the words of Strindberg, the humble life is represented as it is and, in its simple beauty, is elevated at the same time.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
A second blog post on the collaboration between Strindberg and Sjögren will appear shortly.

Further Reading:

August Strindberg, Selected poems of August Strindberg, edited and translated by Lotta M. Löfgren (Carbondale, 2002)

Michael Robinson, An International Annotated Bibliography of Strindberg Studies 1870-2005 (London, 2008),  YC.2009.a.2140 vol. 1, YC.2009.a.2141 vol. 2, YC.2009.a.2142 vol. 3

Sten-Ove Bergwall, series of blogs on the collaboration between the Strindberg and Sjögren

 

09 April 2018

French 18th-Century Books with Colour-Printed Illustrations in the British Library

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In the long 18th century, colour-printing techniques changed the ways in which information could be communicated. British Library collections of French books illustrate these seismic shifts, and highlights from its collections will be showcased in the study day 18th-Century Colour-Print Cultures, involving nine London collections, which is part of the conference ‘Printing Colour 1700-1830’ (10-12 April 2018, Senate House, University of London).

0PC1700-1830-Programme-27 Mar 2018a (2)

Following technical innovations in printmaking processes in various European countries in the first half of the 18th century, colour printing flourished in France from the 1740s. It waned shortly after the beginning of the French Revolution, but French single-leaf colour prints were, and still are, very collectable because of their outstanding technical qualities and highly fashionable subjects.

Until the introduction of chromolithography  in the middle of the 19th century, French intaglio colour printing was dominated by illustrations about natural science. Colour printing was rarer in other disciplines, such as medicine, and it was briefly used to illustrate novels around 1800. Scientific illustrations in intaglio (etching and engraving are far more detailed than relief techniques, like woodcut) were first colour-printed in Holland, England and Germany in the early 1700s. By the 1780s, French engravers, printers and hand-colourers were producing the most refined scientific images in Europe, particularly in botany and zoology. They still faced strong competition internationally, especially from England and Germany, but the quality of their designs and colour-printing techniques was renowned.

1IMG_8540aLes Egyptiens submergés dans la mer rouge. Plate 75 from Recueil d’estampes d’aprés les plus beaux tableaux et d’aprés les plus beaux desseins qui sont en France, dans le Cabinet du Roy, dans celuy de Monseigneur le Duc d’Orleans, & dans d’autres Cabinets… (Paris, 1729) 1899.p.14

One item on display will be the first volume of the so-called Recueil Crozat of 1729, of which the second volume was published in 1742. The title translates to ‘collection of prints after the most beautiful paintings and drawings in France, from the collection of the King, from that of the duc d’Orléans, and from other collections’, with descriptive texts and biographies of the artists by Joseph-Antoine Crozat (1696-1751). He was the nephew of the great collector Pierre Crozat (1665-1740), owner of the (anonymous) collection mentioned in the title; Pierre died shortly before the publication of the second volume, and Joseph-Antoine inherited part of his vast collection. Some might say that this enormous project ‘democratised’ art collecting, because these reproductions of original artworks in French collections allowed many people unprecedented access to unique artworks through the then best-possible, full-colour reproductions. However, relatively few copies were printed, they were expensive items for elite collectors, and they celebrated royal and aristocratic collections. Nevertheless, it demonstrates how a range of new colour-printing processes created a new, relatively mass market for artwork.

2IMG_3148a

‘Le Pongo’ from Jean Baptiste Audebert, Histoire naturelle des singes et des makis (Paris; Frankfurt, 1799) 39.i.11–12.

The display will also include a volume of Jean-Baptiste Audebert’s Natural history of apes and monkeys from ‘an VIII’ of the French Revolutionary calendar (1799/1800). It demonstrates how new colour-printing techniques transformed zoology through the exact depiction of animals, sometimes life size (hence this volume’s large folio sheets), to achieve the then-unsurpassed natural rendering of their skins and furs. Hand-colouring could not provide for that level of accuracy and standardisation across an edition. The colour printing in Audebert’s work transformed the understanding of apes and monkeys—and also the field of zoology itself.

3IMG_8510a‘Stuartia’, from vol. I of Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau/Pierre-Joseph Redouté/Pancrasse Bessa [et al.], Traité des arbres et arbustes que l’on cultive en France en pleine terre…, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1800-1819) 37.i.1-7.

Another highlight will be one of the botanical volumes designed by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), which demonstrates the implications of these new techniques to the understanding of plants. The title boasts of the new information, much like textbooks in the 1990s might have boasted of a CD-ROM: ‘Treaty of trees and shrubs that are cultivated outside in France: with illustrations in colour’. This first volume of a series of seven exemplifies the high quality of French botanical publications, which were world-leading at the time. They visualised the scholar Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau’s (1700-1782) extensive expertise through the draughtsmanship of Redouté (the most prolific botanical artist of his generation) and Pancrase Bessa (1772-1846), the engraving skills of a team of 54 engravers who translated their drawings into prints, the artisanal skills of the printers who inked each plate à la poupée in natural hues, and also the artistic skills of what must have been a large team (possibly of women) who delicately finished impressions with paint.

4canvas1a Decorated paper, Le Tourmi, No 190, Orléans. Hirsch J1390-J1415 f. 16

The display will be accompanied by a projection of 18th-century French decorated papers which are part of the Olga Hirsch collection  and have been digitised by the British Library (see Box 13, Hirsch J1390-J1415  and Folder 14, Hirsch J1416-J1436 ). The decorative colour printed sheets were meant for daily use. They contrast with the elegance and technical skill of the scientific illustrations. They were printed manually (that is, by block-printing or stamping), so they use matte pastes or water-based inks, rather than glossy oil-based printing inks. This means that a different palette was available to the producer, and the inks have a different and often less even appearance. This kind of colour printing is often omitted from the history of colour printing, because it was not produced with a printing press, but it would have been familiar to people of all social classes and far more common than the elite and educational uses that exemplify the furthest technological advances.

Elizabeth Savage (Institute of English Studies) and Ad Stijnman (University of Leiden)

Further reading:

Margaret Morgan Grasselli, Colorful Impressions. The Printmaking Revolution in Eighteenth-century France (Washington, 2003). LC.31.a.1009

Otto M. Lilien, Jacob Christoph Le Blon, 1667–1741, Inventor of Three- and Four Colour Printing (Stuttgart, 1985). 2020.148000 Bd. 9

Ad Stijnman, Engraving and Etching 1400–2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes (London; Houten, 2012). YC.2014.b.820

Ad Stijnman and Elizabeth Savage, Printing Colour 1400–1700: History, Techniques, Functions and Receptions (Leyden, 2015). YD.2015.b.527

 

13 March 2018

Konstantin Somov and Hugh Walpole in Russia

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One of the curious aspects of working with the material book is the sudden confrontation of its physical properties, the weight of proofs, the storage of sheets and missing gatherings – and its combustibility.

I was reading a work by Hugh Walpole, written in Russia during the First World War. A copy of the first edition of this novel, The Dark Forest, published in 1916 is in the British Library, and contains two curious pieces of evidence: a printed dedication to Konstantin Somov, and a pencil annotation stating that almost the whole of the edition was destroyed in a fire at the printer’s warehouse.

Walpole Dark forest dedicationHugh Walpole, The Dark Forest (London, 1916) C.134.c.9. Front endpapers with a note describing the fate of the edition and a handwritten dedication by Walpole to Sir Gerald Kelly.

Fires were not, unfortunately, uncommon in the printing trade at that time and accounts abound with records of losses or inventories depleted by smoke damage. More commonly mice or cats are blamed for the loss of sheets or full gatherings. However, I had been reading about Walpole’s experiences writing a novel and attending to proofs in the conflagration of the Eastern front, so a fire in what was the safe shores of ‘home’ was all the more shocking.

Walpole was a popular, though now largely forgotten, English writer who, in the First World War, travelled to Eastern front as a volunteer for the Russian Red Cross. He stopped in Petrograd before joining his ‘Otriad’ on a tour of duty near Lviv in May 1915. He managed to get a position as a ‘sanitar’ (medical orderly) and in his memoir ‘The Crystal Box’ he vividly described the conditions in which he wrote his novel at the Galician front:

Standing beside some carts in the Galician lane, my knees trembling with terror, the wounded moving restlessly on their straw, the afternoon light like the green shadow of a dried-up conservatory, I found a pencil and, steadying my shaking body against the cart, I wrote.

After his tour ended in October 1915 Walpole returned to the UK to publish his novel, excited by what he had achieved. The Dark Forest and his second novel The Secret City: ‘capture an atmosphere that would I know escape me afterward. … they are not bad books because as records of a foreigner’s apprehension of a country at its most critical time, they are true.’ In 1916 he went back to Russia to found the Anglo-Russian Bureau in Petrograd, part of a British initiative to counteract German propaganda.

Walpole’s time in Russia was formative of his literary taste. On 28 March 1915 he noted in his diary that he was with Arthur Ransome, Hamilton Fyfe, Konstantin Somov, and other Russian friends debating that ‘realism no good any more for Russia – Symbolism also dead. Alexis Tolstoi most interesting new novelist.’

Ransome Truth about Russia After Walpole left the Anglo-Russian Bureau, his friend Arthur Ransome continued to report on the situation as in this pamphlet, The Truth about Russia (London, 1918) 8286 f. 17.

Walpole’s mentor in Russia was the acclaimed painter Konstantin Somov. A former member of the ‘Pickwickians of the Neva’, the circle whose ideas were to be key in the creation of innovative magazines such as Mir Isskusstva (‘The World of Art’), and of the Ballets Russes, Walpole was a sentimentalist and his reaction to the Russian Modernists is complex: in his appreciation of plays at home or in Russia he frequently mentions the emotion of specific scenes, individual actors or joint performances. He was not ‘highbrow’ and also went with Somov to watch wrestling and barebacked riding, and his enthusiastic observations are drawn into his novel: ‘I adore a circus; and when I can find one with the right sawdust smell, the right clown, and the right enthusiasm, I am happy.’ Yet he was drawn to the idealism of the Russian Revolution.

Somov Lesebuch der Marquise
 Illustration by Somov from Frans Blei Das Lesebuch der Marquise: ein Rokokobuch (Munich, 1923) YA.1994.a.19985. Somov was working on this book when Walpole was in Russia.

Somov had not followed Diaghilev to the West, finding for the time being artistic fortune in his own country. Escorted by Somov, Walpole was thus able to socialise with leading representatives of Russia’s new culture, such as Sologub, Glazunov and Scriabin, and to see legendary stars such as Tamara Karsavina in La Fille Mal Gardée, recording that she ‘seemed inspired’. In addition to the Anglo-Russian Bureau in Petrograd, Walpole set up a small office in Moscow with R.H. Bruce Lockhart which had good relations with Moscow’s cultural life. As Karsavina recalled in her memoir Theatre Street, entertainments continued, Lockhart gave banquets, wrote stories for the wide-circulation Russian trench newspapers and took propaganda films to the Russian troops. Walpole himself reported on the build-up to the October Revolution, writing the official report for the British government, and portraying it in his second novel The Secret City which won the inaugural James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction in 1919.

Karsavina Portrait

Picture by Edmund Dulac of Tamara Karsavina in the ballet Parade in 1920, reproduced in Karsavina’s memoir, Theatre Street (London, 1930) 010795.d.46. in which she records her friendship with Walpole.

The development of his taste in Russia would lead to Walpole’s re-evaluation of the role of cultural production and his desire for a ‘broadbrow’ view of the arts. He recalled his Russian experiences in the forewords to his works on Russia, recommended Lockhart’s A British Agent to the British Book Society, and wrote an introduction for an edition of Saki's Reginald and Reginald in Russia. His experiences also gave him a lifelong collecting habit; he filled his house in Cumbria with paintings, books and sculptures and later donated works to the Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

On his return to Britain Walpole helped Russian friends who came over after the Revolution, seeing Somov again on his way to New York for an exhibition of Russian revolutionary art in January 1924. Somov urged Walpole to support the artists by writing magazine articles, but Walpole had moved on.

Somov was disappointed in their US reception: the American public were more interested in prerevolutionary art and icons. He moved to France he continued to paint and produce illustrations. He corresponded briefly in his later years with Walpole, offering to sell him paintings to add to his collection, something Walpole could not resist.

Daphne Somov p127
Illustration by Somov from Longus Daphnis et Chloé translated by Paul Louis Courier. Grande Collection du Trianon, No.8 (Paris, 1931) 012403.f.38.

Giannandrea Poesio and Alexis Weedon, University of Bedfordshire

This work is part of a larger project and forthcoming article ‘The origins of the ‘Broadbrow’: Hugh Walpole, Konstantin Somov and Russian modernism’ co-authored by Giannandrea Poesio and Alexis Weedon.

References

Hugh Walpole, ‘The Crystal Box: Fragments of Autobiography’, in The Bookman (Feb 1923) PP.6479.e.

Hugh Walpole, The Secret City: a novel in three parts. (London, 1919) NN.5340

27 February 2018

Women on brooms and more such raging.

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Every child knows that the humble broom is the transport medium of choice for wizards and witches. They use it to fly to the Witches’ Sabbath, although other magical forms of transport are used, too. Why has the image of a witch on a broom taken such a firm hold in our culture? Why a broom and not a bread peel, or a cooking pot, or a pig, or even a cat?

According to art historian Renilde Vervoort two engravings by Pieter Bruegel The Elder were instrumental in imprinting the image of the witch on a broomstick (and her cauldron and black cat) in our collective imaginations.

Images of witchcraft in the 15th-century Low Countries were rare, which may go some way as to explaining their impact. Vervoort lists seven major works with such images produced in the Low Countries between 1420 and 1560. One example of a work that influenced Bruegel greatly is a pen-and ink drawing by the 15th-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, owned by Bruegel who greatly admired Bosch.

The drawing (now in The Louvre) depicts nine women playing around with sticks and brooms and other household utensils. Bosch clearly pokes fun at the silly old women, who are jumping and running about, trying very hard to get airborne, not succeeding very well. The striking thing about this drawing is that there is not a broom in sight, apart from one very short one, held over the shoulder by one of the women.

BroomsticksYF2012a4427JBosch
Hieronymus Bosch, Nine Witches, drawing in ink (Paris, Musée du Louvre). Reproduced in Renilde Vevoort, Vrouwen op den besem en derghelijck ghespoock (Nijmegen, 2012) YF.2012.a.4427

As an aside, this could also point to the belief that witches did not so much use broomsticks, or other sticks for that matter, to fly to the Sabbath, but to conjure up spirits and demons who would take them there. This belief might explain at least in part the origins of the wand.

Broomsticks Discorse
A witch and her familiars, from A Discourse of Witchcraft as it was Acted in the Family of Mr Edward Fairfax ... (18th-centurt English Manuscript) Add, Ms, 32496

Enter Bruegel. His engravings ‘St. James Encounters Hermogenes’ (1565) and ‘The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes’, copies of which are held in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, make a lasting impression on anyone who sees them. They are full of weird and wonderful creatures, very ‘Bosch-like’.

Both engravings have the legend of St. James’s encounter with the magician Hermogenes as subject, a story that was well-known in the Middle Ages. However, nowhere in the story is there any mention of witches, therefore no earlier representations depict any. Bruegel’s does.

‘St. James Encounters Hermogenes’ shows witches on broomsticks, flying up into the air via the chimney, where they join two other witches fighting each other.

BroomsticksYF2012a4427Bruegel1
Pieter Bruegel The Elder, ‘St. James encounters Hermogenes’. Reproduced in Vrouwen op den besem ...

‘The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes’.  shows only one witch who flies away on a broomstick, which she holds upside down.

BroomsticksYF2012a4427Bruegel2
Pieter Bruegel The Elder, ‘The Fall of the Magician Hermogenes’. Reproduced in Vrouwen op den besem ...

It is unclear where Bruegel found his inspiration for the way he represented the legend of St. Jerome and Hermogenes. It may have come from a performance of the Three Apostolic Plays, by the Antwerp Chamber of Rhetoric ‘The Violets’, which showed witches and magicians. What we do know is that his fellow artist, engraver and printer Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570) commissioned the works, most likely also providing the framework for them. Cock must have expected to find a market for the prints. He was right and it is also probably due to the high reputation of both men that the prints spread rapidly, thus establishing the fairly new concept of a witch on a broom.

BroomsticksHyrdeCockLC31b12817
Portrait of Hieronymus Cock. from Joris van Grieken, Hieronymus Cock: the Renaissance in print (New Haven, 2013) LC.31.b.12817

This concept remains a standard feature in depicting witches and witchcraft to this day.

BroomsticksX95026593
A 20th-century witch. Woodcut by woodcuts by Nicolaas Johannes Bernardus Bulder from Kornelis ter Laan, Groninger overleveringen (Groningen 1928-1930) X.950/26593.

Witch trials more or less ceased altogether in the Low Countries around 1600, although people from surrounding areas would sometimes find their way to the small town of Oudewater, to be cleared of any accusations in their own countries.

That, however, is a topic for another post.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

09 February 2018

Maria Prymachenko’s fantastic world of flowers and animals

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Among the outstanding figures of 20th-century Ukrainian culture Maria Prymachenko (1909-97), the Honoured Artist of Ukraine and winner of the Shevchenko National Prize, occupies one of the highest places. Her name belongs to the line of outstanding artists of naïve art, such as Henri Rousseau, Niko Pirosmanishvili, Ivan Generalic and Nykyfor Drovniak

Maria Prymachenko devoted nearly 60 years to her beloved occupation, painting. Her works are spread among Ukrainian museums and private collections. The largest part of her legacy, nearly 650 works, dating from 1936 to 1987, is kept in the collection of the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art in Kyiv.

PrymachenkoPhoto
Maria Prymachenko in 1936. Reproduced in Mariia Pryimachenko. Al'bom (Kyiv, 1994) YA.1997.a.1106.
  

Maria Prymachenko was born in the Kyiv region into a peasant family. In her childhood she suffered from polio, which left her an invalid for the rest of her life. But this severe illness did not break her spirit. Having learned embroidery from her mother during childhood, in the late 1920s and early 1930s the future artist started to work in the Ivankiv Co-operative Embroidery Association, where she brought her own interpretation to traditional ornaments as well as creating her own artistic designs. The Kyivan artist Tetiana Floru saw Maria’s embroideries in the Ivankiv market, and in 1935 invited the talented girl to work in the Central Experimental Workshop of the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Art. Here folk artists from the whole of Ukraine were assembled together for the preparation of the First Republican Folk Art Exhibition, which took place in Kyiv in 1936 (photo of Maria Prymachenko from 1936 above), and was later shown in Moscow and Leningrad. In 1937 some of Prymachenko’s drawings were presented in the International Exhibition in Paris.

PrymachenkoBirdOfPrayХижачка 1936Bird of Prey (1936).  Reproduced in  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al'bom 

From the start Maria Prymachenko showed herself to be an artist with a unique world view. In the creation of artistic images in her drawings from the 1930s a decisive role was played by line and by the principles of traditional Ukrainian ornaments, presenting flowers, plants and animals in two-dimensional forms.

PrymachenkoBlackBeastЧорний звір                                    Beast (1936) Reproduced in:  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom.

This period of Maria Prymachenko’s life was brightened by two important events: after several successful operations in Kyiv, she could stand on both legs – and in Kyiv she met her beloved fellow countryman, the Red Army lieutenant Vasyl' Marynchuk. After productive activity in the Workshop, she came home to her native village, Bolotnya. In March 1941 she gave birth to her son Fedir. A few months later Ukraine was occupied by the Nazis. The artist experienced all the horrors of war: her brother Ivan was shot by the Germans, and later her husband also perished. The hard war years were exchanged for post-war poverty, constant work on a collective farm, and bringing up her son. She had neither the time nor the strength for painting. But her intensive artistic energy constantly sought realisation. At the beginning Maria embroidered a lot, and later took up painting again,predominantly small compositions with animals, birds and landscapes on leaves from school sketchbooks.

With time the format of her paintings increased. The white backgrounds of the 1930s works gave place to coloured ones in the 1960s-1980s. At the same time her technique changed: from the transparent watercolours with clear graphic contours of her early works to thick intensive gouache, which gave birth to wonderful full-toned depths of colour. But the world of her images remained unchanged, as well as the virtuosity of line and colour.

PrymachenkoBearsВедмедіувазі 1965Bears in Beegarden (1965).  Reproduced in  Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Flowers had a special place in her artistic heritage. Bright, decorative, unusual in shape and colour, they rose to the rank of the miraculous, and joined the aesthetic-philosophical interpretation of relations between human beings and the universe.

PrymachenkoPoppies Домашні маки  1965 (2)

 Poppies (1964) Reproduced in Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Images of birds, which for centuries have personified goodness, love, peace, and represent intermediaries between heaven and earth, occupy a significant place in her numerous compositions.

PrymachenkoFairyBird

 Bird (1962) Reproduced in: Mariia Pryimachenko. Al’bom

Decorative pictures with images of animals and fantastic creatures are a quintessential part of Prymachenko’s art. She impresses us by her talent for the creation of new unique images. Many critics noticed her specific 'philosophy of the good’, which she embodies in images of ‘kind’ beasts and birds (lions, hares, bulls, horses, storks, swallows etc.). In the 1970s an important innovation appeared – on the backs of her drawings she wrote captions, a kind of explanatory proverbs, organically linked to the images.

PrymachenkoCoverOstrovsky Cover of Grigoriii Ostrovskii, Dobryi lev Marii Primachenko (Moscow, 1990). YA.1993.a.25439

Many articles and albums with reproductions of her works were published, exhibitions held, films were made, coins and postage stamps issued in the independent Ukraine. The magic world of Maria Prymachenko continues to capture the imagination.

PrymachenkoPostalStamp PryjmachenkoPostalStamp2

 Two postage stamps with fantastic beasts by Maria Prymachenko (From Wikimedia Commons

Olena Shestakova, Head of Department, National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Applied Art

Further reading:

Oleksandr Naiden, Mariia Pryimachenko, Ornament prostoru i prostir ornamentu (Kyiv, 2011) YF.2012.a.9431

Oleksandr Naiden, Mariia Pryimachenko 100 (Kyiv, 2009). On order

Derzhavnyi muzei ukrains’koho narodnoho dekoratyvnoho prykladnohio mystestva URSR. Al’bom (Kyiv, 1983) L45/3278

Platon Biletsky, Soviet Ukrainian art. (Kyiv, 1979). X.421/20427

Natalia Brodskaia, Naïve Art. (New York, 2000). LB.31.c.12796.

29 January 2018

PhD placement opportunity at the British Library: First World War French Posters

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PhD students are invited to apply for a placement which focuses on the British Library’s collection of French First World War posters. Working with the European and Americas collections curatorial team, this three-month placement offers an exciting opportunity to research, catalogue and promote the collection to the widest possible audience in the context of the anniversary of the First World War.

1

 H. Delaspre, L’infanterie française dans la bataille. Tab. 11748.a. Box 3, poster 238.

The collection, which spans the period 1914-1918, consists mostly of propaganda posters and includes advertisements for war loans, calls for donations to charitable causes, and official proclamations. One third of the posters are illustrated and the rest are text based.

2 Lucien Jonas, Debout: nos morts pour la patrie... Voici la France! 1914. Tab. 11748.a. Box 6 poster 314.

The project will enhance the discoverability and public awareness of this collection (there are some 350 posters, but only one generic catalogue record which hides the wealth and appeal of the collection). The posters constitute invaluable primary material for research. They promote national identity, aim to sustain the morale of the home front, and demonstrate solidarity between the French army and the Allies.

3

Andrée Médard, Fumeurs de l’arrière économisez le tabac pour que nos soldats n’en manquent pas. Tab. 11748.a. Box 6 poster 247.

During their placement at the British Library, the PhD student will produce descriptive records for the posters, researching and recording their key features (issuing organisation, artist, date, location, and context). These records will be made visible in the Library’s online catalogue.

The student will also promote the posters and their research findings by contributing posts about the collection to the  European Studies blog  and twitter account. They will also have the opportunity to write an article on the collection for publication and to contribute to Library events.

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 Daniel Ridgway Knight. 3e Emprunt de la Défense Nationale. Le bas de laine français. 1917. Tab. 11748.a. Box 3 poster 269.

The placement is open to PhD students from all disciplines and academic backgrounds; however, good knowledge of written French is essential, and knowledge of early 20th century European history and/or visual arts would be an advantage.

The closing date for applications is 4pm on 19 February 2018. You can view the full project description here. and details of how to apply here.

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Victor Prouvé. Hygiène de Guerre. 1918. Tab. 11748.a. Box 2 poster 302.

The research placements offered through this scheme are opportunities for current PhD students to apply and enhance research skills and expertise outside of Higher Education as part of their wider research training and professional development. They are training and development opportunities to be undertaken within this specific context and are therefore different to the paid internships or other fixed-term posts that the Library may occasionally make available.

Please note that – unlike for an internship or a fixed-term post – the British Library is unable to provide stipends or payment to PhD placement students. It is therefore essential that applicants to the placement scheme obtain the support of their PhD supervisor and Graduate Tutor (or someone in an equivalent senior academic management role) in advance and that, as part of their process, they consult their HEI to ascertain what funding is available to support them.

After the interview stage, students who have been offered a placement and are not able to cover the costs through funding from their university or other sources may apply to the Library’s PhD Placement Travel Fund to request help to cover day-to-day commuting expenses or one-off relocation travel costs only. Please note that this Fund is limited and the success of an application to it cannot be guaranteed.

To support self-funded and part-time students, the placements can be done on a part-time basis, and some remote working is possible.

6

Lucien Jonas. Emprunt de la libération. Souscrivez. 1918. Tab. 11748.a. Box 6 poster 279.

 Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator Romance Collections / Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator Romance Collections

22 December 2017

Like a Shadow. Heorhiy Yakutovych as Illustrator

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50 years ago, in 1967, the Kyiv publishing house Dnipro published a small edition of the novel by the Ukrainian writer Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi, Tini zabutykh predkiv (‘The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’), with illustrations by the outstanding graphic artist Heorhiy Yakutovych. At this time Kotsiubynsky’s work inspired many people – it is worth mentioning the film of the same name by the director Serhii Paradzhanov in which the artistic director was Yakutovych himself. The same ideas were circulating in the artistic milieu of Kyiv, but everyone manifested them in their own way. And if Paradzhanov’s film influenced the future development of contemporary Ukrainian cinematography, the book, illustrated by Yakutovych, became a classic achievement in the development of 20th-century book art.

1. Георгій Якутович. 1980-ті р. Фото з архіву В. Юрчишина

 Photo of Yakutovych, from the family archive of Volodymyr Yurchyshyn.

Yakutovych was born in Kyiv on 14 February 1930, into the family of a military officer, which influenced his childhood as the family constantly moved from one place to another – from Moscow to Leningrad, from Estonia to Finland. From 1948 to 1954 he studied in the newly-created Graphics Faculty of the Kyiv State Art Institute, under Illarion Pleshchynskyi and Vasyl' Kasiian. There he also met his future wife Oleksandra Pavlovs'ka. The artist was strongly influenced by his meeting in 1961 with the Russian graphic artist and woodcut illustrator Vladimir Favorsky, whom he considered as his teacher, and who inspired The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Yakutovych’s work with Kotsiubynsky’s masterpiece started in the early 1950s as his diploma project, when he went to the Carpathians (at this time still a closed military zone), collecting sketches of life among the Hutsuls. Later when assisting with Paradzhanov’s film, he spent nearly a year living in the mountains enriching his experience, which led to the creation of his series of woodcut illustrations to The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

The scheme of the book is exceptionally clear: the artist divided it into four parts, each corresponding to one of the periods in the life of the main character, the Hutsul shepherd Ivan Paliychuk: childhood, youth, adulthood as a farmer, and lonely misfit. These milestones in the story are marked by four illustrations at the beginning of each section, combining different time fragments of the novel (images below). They are complemented by 16 illustrations in the text, each symbolizing a separate idea, making the story by themselves.

YakutovychTini1    YakutovychTini2

 

YakutovychTini3    YakutovychTini4

Illustrations from  Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi, Tini zabutykh predkiv (Kyiv, 1967). X.909/15769

At the same time as The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Yakutovych illustrated a collection of stories by Mariia Pryhara, Kozak Holota (The Cossack Holota), an adaptation for children of the Ukrainian epic stories of the Cossack period. Understanding the nature of these stories, the artist turns to the tradition of Ukrainian folk art, particularly popular prints.

YakutovychKozakHolota Cover of  Mariia Pryhara, Kozak Holota (Kyiv, 1966) YF.2009.a.32830 

After The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Yakutovych continued his interest in Ukrainian history which can be shown in his series of historical tales – Zakhar Berkut (1974; X.950/31763), Slovo pro Ihoriv pokhid (1982; YA.1996.a.7413) and Povist' mynulykh lit (Chronicle of the Bygone Years; 1982; 805/6102). The last one, created in collaboration with Mykola Pshinka (artistic design) and Volodymyr Yurchyshyn (artistic design and fonts), received the highest award in the All-Union Competition of Book Art, the Ivan Fedorov Diploma. Here all the elements of the design - the illustrations, ornaments, fonts and text composition - create one complete artistic object: the book.

YakutovychChronic2

Chronicler from: Povist’ mynulykh lit (Kyiv, 1982). X.805/6102.

For nearly ten years Yakutovych worked on one of the last of his works, a series of illustrations to Gogol’s novel Vii (1989), where he presented the supernatural nature of Gogol’s work by making them look like delusions, using different perspectives and scales.

YakutovychViiCoverCover of N.V. Gogol’, Vii. (Kyiv, 1989). YA.1997.b.2590

Celebrating the anniversary of The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in the spring of 2017, the publishing house Artbook published a new book Like a Shadow, edited by Polina Limina and Pavlo Gudimov, dedicated to the history of the creation of Yakutovych’s woodcuts. It includes numerous artistic works and sketches, archival material, photographs and early studies of  the artist’s work by contemporaries. The last chapter is quite personal, where the artist’s son Serhiy gives one of his last interviews, sharing memories of his father.

LikeAShadowCover Cover of  IAk u tini: Heorhii IAkutovych iak iliustrator knyhy "Tini zabutykh predkiv = Like a Shadow. Heorhiy Yakutovych as the illustrator of the book "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors". (Kyiv, 2017). YF.2017.a.25613

One of the best-known of Ukrainian graphic artists in the second half of the 20th century, awarded many prizes and distinctions, Yakutovych influenced the future principles of book design, and worked in the spheres of graphics and film production. In Ukraine a graphic art exhibition and competition named after him has taken place since 2002. The artist’s sons Serhiy and Dmytro and his grandson Anton followed the same path, dedicating their lives to working in graphic art, painting and film.

Original concept by Polina Limina, editor-in chief of the publishing house Artbook, with the kind editorial assistance of Oksana Yurchyshyn-Smith

Further reading:

Igor’ Verba. Georgii IAkutovich. Poisky, rabota. (Moscow, 1970). X.410/3266.

Lidiia Popova, G. IAkutovich (Moscow, 1988). YA.1998.b.3073.

Tini zabutykh predkiv. Knyha. (Kyiv, 2016). YF.2017.b.1958

S. Paradzhanov. Tini zabutykh predkiv: rozkadrovky (Kyiv, 1998). YA.2002.a.21508

09 November 2017

Alberto Savinio. The social utility of Surrealism

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One day in 1937, in Paris, André Breton, read to me a page in which he wrote that in the time before WWI, the name of my brother, Giorgio de Chirico, and mine, stand among the leaders of that art-form which later took the name of “Surrealism”’.

This is how Alberto Savinio begins the preface to his collection of short stories titled Tutta la vita (‘A whole life’). The stories were published in various newspapers and magazines between 1942 and 1944, before being gathered and published under that title in 1946. The British Library holds the edition published in 1953, which contains in addition 13 illustrations of his paintings and drawings.

Savinio tp
Title page with the author’s self-portrait from Alberto Savinio, Tutta la vita (Milan, 1953) 12472.e.9.

Now, what happens then when a surrealist painter transfers his skills into writing?

Pieces of furniture talk among themselves revealing uncomfortable secrets to Candido Bove about his wife, while he is sitting on the sofa, sleeplessly overcome with grief as she died just the day before. This is what happens! (In the story ‘Poltrondamore’ [Lovesofa])

Savinio Nonna

‘La nonna’ picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p. 49).

A taxidermist, nicknamed God Almighty, kills and embalms his wife and his assistant, after finding them naked under the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden he made in his house. This is what happens! (In the story ‘Il Paradiso Terrestre’ [Heaven on Earth]).

Savinio Adamo Eva

 ‘Adamo ed Eva’, picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p. 96)

When Miss Fufù receives the piano she ordered, she notices that it looks bigger; the morning after she finds it breathing heavily and surrounded by little pianos: the piano was pregnant. This is what happens! (In the story ‘La pianessa’ [Miss Piano]).

Savinio Sorelle
 ‘Le due sorelle’, picture by Savinio reproduced in Tutta la vita (facing p.257)

In Savinio’s short stories “A whole Life” is injected in pretty much everything, in fact, we could say that objects are more alive than people. What these short stories have in common is that the surreal events their main characters experience have a formative function, that is, surrealism here has a social purpose: it aims at shaking the reality of the main characters, whose life is flattened by loneliness, self-absorption, surrender. As Savinio continues in his preface:

... surrealism, as many of my literary works and paintings demonstrate, does not content itself with representing the shapeless and expressing the unconscious, but it wants to give shape to the shapeless and consciousness to the unconscious

This becomes clearer in Anima, the story of Nìvulo, a child described by his father as a typical old house in Milan, where façades do not face the street, but the rear garden: a child with the face turned inward. Nìvulo has the soul of his brother, who died at birth 32 years before, trapped in his body, this has prevented him to live his life, in fact, has prevented him from even learning to talk.

The social purpose of Savinio’s work is more explicit in the tale titled ‘Scendere dalla collina’ (Walking down the hill).

Parents, do not let your children grow up under the shadow of a great man… Equally, do not let them grow up under the shadow of a memorable event or a remarkable idea, and, let me also add: do not let your children grow up under the shadow of a famous name.

It is difficult not to read here a certain autobiographical reference since Alberto Savinio, whose real name was Andrea Francesco Alberto de Chirico, changed his last name so that he would not be eclipsed by his more famous brother.

Savinio L45-2089 cover

The British Library also holds a copy of the prestigious first edition of Alberto Savinio, pittura e letteratura (Milan, 1979; L45/2089, pictured above), a volume with black silk covers printed in gold, the pages printed in Bodoni characters on azure blue paper, and numerous beautiful plates of Savinio’s paintings glued on the pages.

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions South Support Manager

References/Further readings

Filippo Secchieri, Dove comincia la realtà e dove finisce – Studi su Alberto Savinio. (Florence, 1998). YA.2202.a.24958

Matteo Marchesini, Soli e civili – Savinio, Noventa, Fortini, Bianciardi, Bellocchio. (Rome, 2012) YF.2017.a.21214)

Alberto Savinio, musician, writer and painter (Milan, New York, 1995.) q95/27443