European studies blog

14 posts from August 2016

31 August 2016

Shakespeare’s role in the development of Esperanto

In the summer of 1887, Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof published a 40-page brochure in Russian entitled Mezhdunarodnyi iazyk: predislovie i polnyi uchebnik  (‘International Language.  Foreword and Complete Textbook’), under the pseudonym  Dr. Esperanto, meaning “One Who Hopes” in his new language. Soon “Dr. Esperanto’s language” became known simply as “Esperanto”. This obscure, self-published booklet by an unknown author achieved a remarkable success in a surprisingly short period of time.  Over the next three years it was translated into Polish, French, German, Hebrew, English, Swedish and Yiddish, and very quickly Zamenhof began to receive letters from enthusiasts written in the new language. In 1888 he published a second book with further discussion of his language project and a number of short reading passages.

Cover of 'Dua Libro de l’Lingvo Internacia' Dro Esperanto, Dua Libro de l’Lingvo Internacia (Warsaw, 1888) 12906.aa.48.

Literary translations, as well as original poetry, played an important role in Esperanto from the start. What better way for the author to test the limits of his new language, and to develop it where it was found lacking? But in addition, Zamenhof wanted to prove that Esperanto was not merely a convenient tool for business and tourism, but a complete language capable of translating the most exalted masterpieces of world literature. In his first two booklets he concentrated on short and relatively simple texts: the Lord’s Prayer, a passage from Genesis, proverbs, a fairy tale by Hans Andersen, a short poem by Heine.

In the literary traditions that Zamenhof knew best – Russian and German – Shakespeare was a dominating presence. His works were admired by Pushkin and Turgenev, Goethe and Schiller, and in 1875-77 three volumes of Shakespeare’s complete plays appeared in Polish translation, edited by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski . Zamenhof may also have seen Polish performances of Hamlet in Warsaw, where he lived as a student and later as a struggling ophthalmologist.

Illustration of the Gravediggers' scene from 'Hamlet'A Polish translation of Shakespeare  such as Zamanhof might have encountered, Dzieła Dramatyczne Williama Shakespeare (Szekspira), translated by J. I. Kraszewski (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. Tom II. Hamlet. p. 393

Humphrey Tonkin, in his essay “Hamlet in Esperanto” (2006) points out that: “Shakespeare and Shakespeare translation played a special part in the national revivals of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: for several languages of central Europe, translations of his plays marked their emergence as fully credentialed literary languages – Macbeth in Czech (1786), Hamlet in Hungarian (1790), for example.” Under these circumstances, it was inevitable that Zamenhof should feel his new language could not be considered fully mature until it had shown itself capable of translating the complex language of Shakespeare. Hamleto, reĝido de Danujo  came out only seven years after the publication of Zamenhof’s first brochure – no longer at his own expense, but as No. 71 in the series “Biblioteko de la lingvo internacia Esperanto”, printed by W. Tümmel in Nuremberg. The second edition, in 1902, was brought out by the prestigious French publishing house Hachette.

Cover of 'Hamleto'Cover page of Zamenhof’s translation of Hamlet (Paris,1902).

“As early as 1894, Zamenhof published a complete translation of Hamlet,” writes the Esperanto poet William Auld  in the journal Monda Kulturo. “It was his first extensive literary translation and among other things it served to prove incontestably the elasticity and power of expression of this merely seven-year-old language. It rooted the iambic pentameter firmly in Esperanto, and established criteria allowing us to measure and assess the success and poetic qualities of all subsequent translations.”

In her biography Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto (London, 1960; 10667.m.13.), Marjorie Boulton  points out that Esperanto was already sufficiently developed to rise to the challenge of translating Shakespeare’s work without the need to coin a significant amount of new vocabulary for the purpose. Zamenhof’s Hamlet according to Boulton is “perhaps competent rather than brilliant, but it is a good translation – readable, speakable, actable, generally a fair rendering of the original.” Seventy years later, L. N. M. Newell (1902-1968) made a new translation of the play. His Hamleto, princo de Danujo, published in 1964, is more faithful to the original, but less successful at reproducing the spirit of the work. As Tonkin says in his essay, “Newell is for reading, Zamenhof is for acting.”

Cover of 'Hamleto: princo de Danujo' with an image of castle ramparts William Shakespeare, Hamleto: princo de Danujo; traduko de L. N. M. Newell. (La Laguna, 1964). YF.2007.a.1982

Zamenhof’s translation of Hamlet  was only the first of many translations which were to follow. 21 out of Shakespeare’s 38 plays have been translated into Esperanto over the decades, some of them more than once, while his complete Sonnets were translated by William Auld, one of Esperanto’s most outstanding original poets, besides being a prolific translator, essayist, and candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Parallel English and Esperanto versions of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'
Sonnet 18 in parallel English and Esperanto, from William Shakespeare, The sonnets = La sonetoj , el la angla tradukis William Auld. (Pizo, 1981). YF.2007.a.2014. 

Particularly notable are Otelo, la maŭro de Venecio translated by Reto Rossetti (La Laguna, 1960), Somermeznokta sonĝo (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Kálmán Kalocsay (1967; YF.2007.a.2023), and most recently two translations by Humphrey Tonkin: La vivo de Henriko Kvina (Henry V; 2003;  YF.2008.a.28552) and La vintra fabelo (The Winter’s Tale;  Rotterdam, 2006; YF.2008.a.28551).

Covers of 'La vivo de Henriko Kvina' and ' La vintra fabelo' Translations by Humphrey Tonkin from the British Library’s collections

Anna Lowenstein, writer and journalist, author of the historical novel The Stone City,  a member of the Academy of Esperanto


William Auld, ‘La enigmo pri Hamleto’, Pajleroj kaj stoploj (Rotterdam, 1997), pp. 235-249. [Reprinted from Monda Kulturo 13. 1965]. YF.2006.a.30902

 The translator as mediator of cultures, edited by Humphrey Tonkin, Maria Esposito Frank (Amsterdam, c2010) YC.2011.a.8838

30 August 2016

Russian Hamlet(s)

The first Russian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was made by the founder of the Russian classical theatre Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov (1717-1777). The play was written in 1748 by the ambitious 31-year old statesman and poet.

Opening of Sumarokov's translation of 'Hamlet'
Rossiiskii teatr" ili Polnoe sobranie vsiekh' rossiiskikh' teatralnykh' sochinenii.
Ch. 1. (Sankt-Petersburg, 1786).  1343.h.1. The first page of Gamlet' by Aleksandr Sumarokov 

Some researchers suggest that this work was commissioned to legitimise the power of Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth through cultural discourse. Elizabeth took the Russian throne as a result of a court coup against an infant great grandson of Peter’s elder brother. Ivan VI was barely two months old when he became Russian Emperor and “reigned” for eleven months. For the rest of his short life he lived in exile and, from the age of 16, in solitary confinement. Elizabeth’s actions might be seen as avenging her father by returning power to his successors.

Portrait of Empress Elizaveta_Petrovna in royal regalia and a white gownElizabeth of Russia (portrait by Ivan Vishniakov, State Tretyakov Gallery)

Translated from French, Shakespeare in Sumarokov’s version was also turned into a classist play, where people represented functions, such as order and chaos, good and evil, wisdom and stupidity. According to this pattern, the state could not be left without a legitimate ruler. Therefore, Sumarokov wrote a happy end with Claudius and Polonius punished by death and Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude victorious and content.

Although this version was rarely staged, the image of an outcast prince was often referred to. For example, Catherine the Great’s son and heir Paul tried on this role – his father was assassinated and overthrown by his mother’s lover to get her the throne.

Portrait of the future Tsar Paul I seated at a table
Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (the future Tsar Paul I) in 1782 (portrait by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni)

There is no evidence that Paul read the tragedy, as Hamlet was unofficially banned during Catherine’s reign, but when he  was abroad on a grand tour in 1781-1782, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II cancelled a performance of Hamlet as part of Paul’s reception, apparently because the actor who played the Danish prince hinted that there would be two Hamlets in the theatre. 20 years later Emperor Paul I was strangled in his bedroom to make way for his son Alexander I.

New attempts to translate the play resumed in the second decade of the 19th century, about ten years into Alexander’s reign, but really kicked off in the 1820s, under the rule of Nicholas I, when coups d'état went slightly out of fashion. Many critics think that before the Nobel Prize laureate and the author of Doctor Zhivago Boris Pasternak translated the tragedy (the first version was  published  in 1940 and the final one in 1968), the best translation into Russian was by Emperor Nicholas I’s grandson Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, or “poet KR (Konstantin Romanov)” – the name he signed his works with. Although trained as a naval officer, Grand Duke Konstantin was more inclined to the arts. He played the piano, wrote lyrics, and translated from English and German. His translation of Hamlet was created after Emperor Alexander III told his cousin Grand Duke Konstantin about his visit to Helsingør, where the play is set.

View of the castle of Helsingør
Helsingør  (Photo by Katya Rogatchevskaia)

The visit to Denmark prompted Alexander to re-read the play and he found that its translations were lacking the true “feel  of the time”. KR’s was the 14th translation into Russian. This time the translator used the American edition of 1877 as his source. KR was proud of his work, when it was published in 1901 with extensive commentaries.

Opening of a bilingual English and Russian edition of Hamlet

               Tragediia o Gamletie printsie Datskom' (Sankt-Peterburg, 1901)

The play was performed several times and Grand Duke Konstantin himself played Hamlet in an amateur production (below).

Photograph of Grand Duke Konstantin in the character of Hamlet

In the 20th century the story of Russian Hamlet continued. As the Russian poet of the Silver Age Maksimilian Voloshin put it, “Hamlet – is a tragedy of conscience,  and in this sense it is a prototype of those tragedies that are experienced by the “Slavonic soul” when it lives through disintegration of will, senses and consciousness”.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

26 August 2016

Staging Shakespeare in Soviet Azerbaijan

“To beguile the time, look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye, your hand, your tongue…” (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 5)

The British Library’s collections contain a remarkable Shakespeare item from the Soviet Caucasus: the record of an Azerbaijani production of Macbeth in 1936. It consists of black-and-white photographs of the production, by the Baku State Theatre, directed by Alexander Tuganov and with impressive sets and costumes by Mikhail Tikhomirov. Articles about the production and a copy of the programme are bound in the same volume. Two of the photographs are displayed in the Library’s current exhibition “Shakespeare in Ten Acts”.

Cover of 'Cover of Maqbet'
Cover of Maqbet
V. Seqspir (Baku, 1936) British Library N.Tab.2022/3

Very little is known about the director or the performance itself. Soviet theatre created many memorable productions, including of Shakespeare’s plays, but the Baku theatre production – no matter how professional – was not one of them. Nonetheless it does have a particular significance, being staged in 1936, a time of terror in the Soviet Union when artists, poets, and musicians were sent into exile or even murdered as enemies of the Party and people.

Shakespeare was extremely popular in the Soviet Union and the most highly regarded foreign dramatist. He was rendered acceptable on the Soviet stage by Marx and Engels, who had great esteem for and a solid knowledge of the Elizabethan dramatist and his works. The theatre was always recognised as a political weapon by Soviet leaders. Having insisted on Shakespeare’s role as a proto-revolutionary writer and appropriated his works as evidence of the inevitability of the October Revolution, Soviet ideologists had by the 1930s fully re-launched Shakespeare and his legacy.

Article about 'Macbeth' with a picture of the author in the title role
Article about Macbeth by A.M. Sharifov, who played the role in Tuganov’s production

The republics of the Caucasus – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – each had a separate history of Shakespearean productions and scholarship, but in the Soviet period there was an intensive effort to create a new Soviet culture. The Baku National Theatre had 30 years of experience performing Shakespeare, having performed Othello, Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and King Lear. These productions attempted to be creative and innovative. However, the 1936 production of Macbeth was different, as the principal aim was to be realistic. The articles in our volume show that the production team studied the text and the historical background of Macbeth in depth. Both Soviet historicism and Soviet realism were key ideological requirements in art.

Scene from 'Maqbet' with two armed men in a rocky landscape
Images from Tuganov’s production of Macbeth 

Scene from 'Maqbet' showing two knights fighting

The articles consist of accounts of the performance by the actors, directors and journalists. Personal experiences are described as far as ideological pressures allowed. It appears that they all were seeking ways of bringing their production close to a safe political standpoint and tuned carefully into the latest news spread by the Party press.

Drawing of Sharifov in the role of Macbeth
Sharifov in the title role of Macbeth

In his article “For genuine Shakespeare”, Tuganov discusses realistic interpretations of Shakespeare and the importance of the text and translation. A new translation was used for the 1936 production. As a result the Baku State Theatre’s Macbeth was well received. Tuganov was made a People’s Artist of Azerbaijan, the highest honour in the Soviet Union for outstanding achievement in the theatre. However, these things were not permanent and circumstances could change, as in the case of Shostakovich and his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. At its 1934 premiere it was immediately successful at both popular and official levels. It was described as “the result of the general success of Socialist construction, of the correct policy of the Party”, and as an opera that “could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture”. A few months later an article in Pravda, “Muddle Instead of Music”, condemned it as “formalist, coarse, primitive and vulgar".

Artists had to skilfully create works that could co-exist with the Communist Party’s ideology and yet be regarded as aesthetically creative. They were not judged solely on their artistic achievements, but rather on how well those achievements matched the Party’s agenda of the day. Works of art were banned, while their creators were exiled or murdered if the Party, or Stalin personally, objected to them:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more… (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

Anna Chelidze, Georgian Curator

24 August 2016

The 1919-1921 Ukrainian Diplomatic Mission in London

24 August 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the day when the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) of the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) declared Ukraine’s independence and the creation of today’s sovereign state of Ukraine. This decision was endorsed in a referendum held in Ukraine on 1 December 1991. The United Kingdom officially recognised Ukraine at the end of the year, and on 10 January 1992 diplomatic relations between Ukraine and the UK were formally established. Later in the year the Ukrainian Embassy in London began to function. This was not, however, the first time that diplomatic representatives of an independent Ukrainian state were based in London.

In the years 1919-1921 there was a semi-official diplomatic mission in London representing the government of the Ukrainska Narodna Respublika, or UNR (variously translated as Ukrainian People’s Republic or Ukrainian National Republic), established in the revolutionary period after the fall of the Russian Empire. A law providing for the dispatch of a ten-member mission to England was passed on 23 January 1919. Part of the text of this law is shown in the following image from a collection of laws and resolutions concerning Ukrainian government institutions abroad, published unofficially in 1919 in Vienna.

Pages from a collection of laws and resolutionsFrom Zbirnyk zakoniv i postanov Ukrainskoho Pravytelstva vidnosno zakordonnykh instytutsii, compiled by Ivan Khrapko (Vienna, 1919) 5759.aa.17.

The mission was not officially recognised by the British government and initially had difficulties in obtaining clearance to enter the UK. It finally arrived in London, via Vienna, Stockholm and Copenhagen, in May 1919. The first head of the mission was Mykola Stakhovsky, a practising doctor and, from May 1917, administrator of the Podillia region of Ukraine. In September 1919 he resigned owing to ill health. To succeed him the UNR government appointed Arnold Margolin, a prominent Ukrainian-Jewish political leader who was the UNR government’s deputy minister of foreign affairs from January to March 1919. Margolin headed the London mission from November 1919 until his resignation in August 1920. His successor was Jaroslav Olesnitsky, a lawyer from Western Ukraine, who was already on the staff of the mission.

Photograph of the members of the UNR mission to London
Members of the initial staff of the London mission. From Istorychnyi kaliendar-almanakh “Chervonoi Kalyny” na 1939 rik (Lviv, 1938)

The mission’s two main tasks were to urge the British government to recognise the Ukrainian republic and to provide information on the state of affairs in Ukraine. The mission also appealed for moral support for Ukraine in its struggle against Soviet forces, and sought to establish commercial relations between Ukraine and the UK.

Shortly after arriving in London, the mission established a Ukrainian Press Bureau which published a weekly bulletin entitled The Ukraine. This covered topics such as events in Ukraine, activities of the UNR government and its delegation at the 1919-1920 Paris Peace Conference, and opportunities for trade with Ukraine. 35 issues in total were published, between July 1919 and February 1920, before it was discontinued, probably owing to a lack of funds. A complete set of The Ukraine is held by the British Library (LOU.LON 628 [1919] and LOU.LON 580 [1920]).

Opening of the first issue of 'TheUkraine' Page 1 of the first issue of The Ukraine (London, 1919) 

The British Library also holds a copy of a 64-page booklet, published by the mission, entitled Ukrainian Problems. A Collection of Notes and Memoirs Etc. This contains the texts of various letters and memoranda addressed to British officials between March 1919 (when the mission was still seeking permission to enter the UK) and September of that year.

Cover of the pamphlet 'Ukrainian Problems'Cover of Ukrainian Problems  (London, 1919). 8095.g.35.

In the second half of 1920 members of the London mission were closely involved in an unsuccessful attempt by the UNR government to gain the admission of Ukraine to membership of the newly-formed League of Nations. In November 1920 the UNR government, having suffered military defeat, was forced to leave Ukraine for exile in Poland. This, and the increasing consolidation of Soviet power in Ukraine, made it ever more difficult for the mission to fulfil its purpose. Its head, Jaroslav Olesnitsky, returned to Ukraine in 1921.

Although Ukraine’s struggle for independence in 1917-1920  was short-lived, it played a pivotal role in the formation of the modern Ukrainian nation. It was also a key reason why the Ukrainian SSR was initially established as a nominally independent state, even though in reality it was controlled by Moscow. Ukraine’s distinctiveness was emphasised again in 1945, when the Ukrainian SSR, along with the Soviet Union as a whole and the Belarusian SSR, became a founding member of the United Nations, the successor of the League of Nations. In this story, which culminates in Ukraine’s declaration of independence 25 years ago, it is worth remembering the part, albeit small, played by the London diplomatic mission of the UNR.

Roman Krawec, editor of Ukrainians in the United Kingdom: Online encyclopaedia 

Further reading

Dyplomatiia UNR ta Ukrainskoi Derzhavy v dokumentakh i spohadakh suchasnykiv, ed. by I. Hnatyshyn, O. Kucheruk and O. Mavrin, 2 vols (Kyiv, 2008). ZF.9.a.7417

Arnold Margolin,  From a Political Diary: Russia, the Ukraine, and America (New York, 1946). 9011.g.15.

D. Saunders, ‘Britain and the Ukrainian Question (1912-1920)’, The English Historical Review, vol. CIII, no. 406 (January 1988), pp. 40-68. P.P.3408.

22 August 2016

The First World War, Ukraine, and the Birth of Independence?

In 1914, when the First World War broke out, the Ukrainian lands were split between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. Ukrainian soldiers fought on both sides of the conflict; 4,500,000 Ukrainians fought in the Russian armies and 250,000-300,000 in the Austro-Hungarian armies.

In August 1914, while the global conflict was beginning to take shape, a small group of political exiles from the Russian-ruled area of Ukraine, who were living in Vienna, began an independence movement. It was founded on 4 August 1914 by six men who called themselves the ‘Union for the Liberation of Ukraine’ (Soiuz Vyzvolennia Ukrainy): Oleksander Skoropys-Yoltukhovsky, Marian Melenevsky, Andrii Zhuk, Volodymyr Doroshenko, Dmytro Dontsov and Mykola Zalizniak.

The Union’s first attempt to reach out to the West is held in a collection of printed ephemera at the British Library. The four page leaflet is entitled ‘To the Public Opinion of Europe’ and details their views on the need for Ukraine to be liberated from the rule of both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian governments.

First page of typewritten address 'To the public opinion of Europe'

 D. Donzow [et al.] To the public opinion of Europe: on behalf of the ‘Bond for the Freeing of Ukraine’. ([Vienna], 1914) Tab.11748.aa.4.(15).)

Second page of typewritten address 'To the public opinion of Europe'

The leaflet was dated 25 August 1914 and it appears that the Union began to distribute them immediately. The New York Times commented on this, saying:

The Ruthenian inhabitants of Galicia, one-half the population of the country, founded a League for the Release of Ukraine and flooded Europe from the 25th of August with notifications and descriptions hostile to Russia.

In actual fact this report is a little misleading, there were not very many employees of the Union (only 42) and it was not particularly well supported by the public. What it does indicate is that the Union, and its publication, reached the ears of far-flung America.

Although this foray into printing was successful, their next attempt, a manifesto that was to be signed by the rulers of both Germany and Austro-Hungary was rejected by both countries, and the half a million pre-printed copies they had made to distribute among the public had to be destroyed. Neither Germany nor Austro-Hungary wanted to support an independent Ukraine openly, at the risk of making the political situation with Russia worse. Although the countries would not sign the manifesto, both sent the Union money to help spread the message about an independent Ukraine. After this failure to be officially recognised by the two countries, the Union moved to Berlin, and the members limited themselves to printing propaganda leaflets and distributing them along the Eastern Front. The Union had offices in neutral Switzerland, as well as Romania, Sweden, Norway, Britain and the United States, to help pass along information about their cause.

Title-page of 'Znachinnie samostiinoi Ukrainy dlia ievropeiskoi rivnovahy'Title page of Oleksander Skoropys-Ioltukhovskyi, Znachinnie samostiinoi Ukrainy dlia ievropeiskoi rivnovahy [The Importance of independent Ukraine for European stability]  (Vienna, 1916). 8095.ff.86.

In 1915 the Union began to fight for the rights of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Originally these prisoners were detained with people from other countries, but the Union fought for separate, Ukrainian, camps. These Ukrainian prisoner of war camps were established, and captured soldiers could choose whether they wanted to move into these special camps with their countrymen. The Union went around the camps delivering citizenship classes, in order to try and win sceptical soldiers over to support for an independent Ukraine.

Page of a Ukrainian song-book, with the stamp of the Union of Liberation of Ukraine
From: Sim pisen’. Hostynets dlia ukrainskykh voiakiv vid “Soiuza vyzvolennia Ukrainy [‘Seven Songs. A Present for Ukrainian soldiers from Union of Liberation of Ukraine’], with the stamp of the Union on the left-hand page (Vienna, 1915), and available online.

But in March 1917 the Ukrainian Revolution began. It was begun in Ukraine, by people who lived there, and the Union (still in Berlin) had no connection to the revolution. In actuality the Union had little, if any, connections in Ukraine during the years 1914-1917. Despite the Union fostering national pride among prisoners of war, and gaining some (financial) recognition from the Austrian and German governments, the revolution has overshadowed their efforts, and they have largely been forgotten in the history of Ukrainian independence.

Ann-Marie Foster, PhD Placement Student in the British Library

Further reading:

Oleh S. Fedyshyn, Germany’s Drive to the East and the Ukrainian Revolution, 1917-1918 (New Jersey, 1971) X.800/7830.

Georg Brandes, “Fate of the Jews in Poland” (From The Day, Nov 29, 1914) in The New York Times Current History: the European War, February, 1915, by Various. ([New York], 1915). (Available online via Project Gutenberg)

Ivan Pater, Soiuz vyzvolennia Ukraïny: problemy derzhavnosti i sobornosti.  (Lʹviv, 2000). YA.2002.a.27084

Soiuz vyzvolennia Ukraïny 1914-1918 Videnʹ (New York, 1979). YA.1987.a.2971

Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: a history.  (Toronto, 1994).  95/11578

Ann-Marie Foster is a PhD placement student at the British Library cataloguing the First World War Ephemera collection. Her research examines the ways in which families used ephemera and memorial objects to remember loved ones who died during war or in a disaster.

19 August 2016


As the 2016 Olympics draw towards their close, in the spirit of Olympic internationalism and respect between nations, we thought we’d pay a BL European Studies homage to the successes enjoyed by Team GB with images from our historic collections showing some of the sports in which British athletes have won gold this year.

Britain’s very first medal in Rio was a gold – for swimmer Adam Peaty. Clearly he didn’t learn from the clumsy figures in Melchisedech Thevenot’s manual L’art de nager, first published in 1696, some of whom appear to be drowning rather than swimming successfully:

A swimmer doing a form of breaststroke A swimmer kicking one leg in the air

A swimmer spreadeagled in the water A swimmer in a kind of crouching position
Melchisedech Thevenot,  L’art de nager ...Quatrième édition (Paris, 1782)

The last of these looks as if he might have just executed a rather clumsy dive – not something you would find synchro diving winners Jack Laugher and Chris Mears doing. Diving developed as a sport in Sweden and Germany in the early 19th century, and was linked to the development of gymnastics, a sport where Britain won Olympic gold for the first time in Rio. In honour of Max Whitlock’s two winning disciplines, here are some 19th-century German pommel horse and floor exercises:

Examples of 19th-century pommel horse exercises Three examples of 19th-century floor gymnastic exercises
Illustrations from Hermann Robolsky und Adolph Töppe, Abbildungen von Turn-Uebungen (Berlin 1845)

It’s been a good year all round for British tennis, with Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon singles title and successful defence of his 2012 Olympic one. In 18th-century France, his sport would have been jeu de paume, illustrated here, with some of the tools involved in racquet making, from an encyclopaedia of arts and professions:

Pictures of a game of 'jeu de paume' and the necessary equipment
François Alexandre de Garsault, Art du Paumier-Raquetier, et de la paume, from Descriptions des Arts et Métiers, vol. 7 (Paris, 1767) 1811.c.20.(7.)

Tennis is a rather stereotypically British sport, as is anything to do with horses, which brings us to dressage. Many of our books on ‘horse dancing’ are more haute école than modern Olympic dressage, but we think Charlotte Dujardin might recognise these moves from an 18th-century Spanish manual: 

A horse and rider performing the 'half pass' dressage move A horse and rider performing the 'passage' dressage move
Salvador Rodriguez Jordan, Escuela de a cavallo dividida en tres tratados… (Madrid, 1751) 7907.e.

Equestrianism has long been seen as the sport of kings, but if there’s one discipline where Britain has ruled in Rio, it’s cycling. This illustration from a late 19th-century German book suggests that this too was once the pastime of princes, here Ludwig Ferdinand and Alfons of Bavaria, though Britain’s lycra-clad winners – too many to name individually – with their lightweight, high-tech machines, might find it harder going with tweeds, bow ties, boaters and heavy bikes.

Photograph of Princes Ludwig Ferdinand and Alfons of Bavaria standing beside their bicycles
Two Bavarian princes and their bikes, from Der Radfahrsport in Bild und Wort (Munich, 1897) YA.1989.b.4724

Finally (and with apologies to all the wonderful medallists whose sports we’ve had to miss out) a reminder that the modern Olympics were the brainchild of a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, and that the first modern Games in 1896 were held, like their ancient predecessors, in Greece – although in Athens, not Olympia, as this souvenir album, with Coubertin’s likeness on the cover, makes clear.

Souvenir album from the 1896 Olympics showing a statue of Coubertin and a view of the stadium
Cover of Anamnēstikon leukōma tōn Olympiakōn Agōnōn tou 1896 (Athens, 1896) 1788.d.3.


17 August 2016

Umberto Boccioni 1882-1916

On 17 August 1916 the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni, who was stationed in an artillery regiment near Verona, died from the injuries he suffered after he was trampled by his horse in a riding accident.

Photograph of Boccioni in military uniform and on horseback
A photograph of Boccioni taken shortly before his death. Reproduced in Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria, Edited by Francesca Rossi. (Milan, 2016) LF.31.b.11722.

His untimely death – he was only 33 – deprived the Futurist movement of one of its key members. To mark the centenary of Boccioni’s death a major exhibition, “Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria”, was organised in Milan earlier this year, accompanied by a remarkable catalogue.

Cover of the catalogue 'Umberto Boccioni' with the name Boccioni in large coloured letters
Cover of the catalogue Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria

It was worthy tribute paid to the artist by the city he celebrated in some of his greatest paintings, making it the symbol of the modern metropolis. The rapid transformation and expansion of Milan can be seen in a series of works Boccioni painted between 1908 and 1911, which include his famous self-portrait showing him on the balcony of his apartment in Via Castel Morrone, in the Porta Venezia area.

  Self-portrait of Boccioni on a balcony overlooking a suburban street
Boccioni, Self portrait (1908) Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera.

In the background can be seen, in what were still the outskirts of city, several recently-erected buildings, one of them still under scaffolding. A similar urban landscape also features in two works painted in 1909 and 1910, Twilight and Factories at Porta Romana.

Painting of a landscape with building works at twilight

Above: Twilight (Crepuscolo) 1909. Private Collection; Below: Factories at Porta Romana (Officine a Porta Romana) 1909-10. Milan, Gallerie d’Italia –Piazza Scala.

Painting of a suburban landscape with ongoing construction work

Sharing an identical viewpoint, this time from the balcony of the apartment in 23 Via Adige, in the Porta Romana area, where Boccioni now lived with his mother and sister, but painted a few months apart, they show the rapid changes in the city. “The city rises” (to mention the title of one of Boccioni’s most famous paintings) so to speak in front of our very eyes. By the time Boccioni painted The Street enters the House (1911), showing his mother looking from the balcony into the the street below, the area has been even more dramatically transformed. The mood of this celebration of the modern city, full of dynamism, movement and activity, is not unlike that of several early Impressionist depictions of Baron Haussmann’s Paris.

Painting of a woman on a balcony overlooking a busy street
The Street enters the house
(La Strada entra nella casa), 1911. Hanover, Sprengel Museum. 

The exhibition in Milan demonstrated the enormous variety of Boccioni’s output both before and after he joined the Futurist movement in late 1909 or early 1910 becoming, with Marinetti, its major theorist. It also showcased two major recent discoveries of Boccioniana, both of them among the papers of Guido Valeriano Callegari, Boccioni’s brother-in-law, bequeathed to the Biblioteca Civica di Bologna in 1955 by his widow, Boccioni’s sister Amelia. Callegari was a noted scholar of Pre-Colombian America and the Boccioni material had remained unnoticed and uncatalogued among his papers for over half a century until it was discovered in 2009 on the occasion of a small exhibition the library organised to commemorate the centenary of the first Futurist manifesto. As well as books from Boccioni’s own library, it also includes a group of 22 large sheets pasted on cardboard, on which were mounted 216 cuttings from illustrated magazines reproducing works of art.

Page of Boccioni's 'Memory Album' with cut-outs of woodcut initials
A sheet from the ‘Memory Atlas’, reproduced in Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria

The images in this compilation – now called ‘Atlante della Memoria’ (‘Memory Atlas’) and reproduced in their entirety in the catalogue of the exhibition – a range from Medieval and Renaissance works of art to contemporary paintings and show the variety of visual influences on Boccioni between 1899 and 1909. Several works featured in the Atlas were included in the exhibition, where they were juxtaposed with works by Boccioni. After 1909 the compilation of the Atlas stopped and was replaced by a collection of cuttings of hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles about Futurist events, similarly pasted on large cardboard sheets. They were kept in three folders, the third of which was compiled after Boccioni’s death perhaps by his sister and brother-in-law.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections


Chris Michaelides, ‘Umberto Boccioni, Milan and Rovereto’, The Burlington Magazine, July 2016, CLVIII, pp. 578-80. P.P.1931.pcs.

Maurizio Calvesi, Ester Coen, Boccioni (Milan, 1983). LB.31.b.279.

Roberto Longhi, Umberto Boccioni (Florence, 1914). 7875.dd.31.

16 August 2016

The Spiritual Jewel of Kyiv

This year marks the 1020th anniversary of the completion and consecration of the first stone-built church in the state of Ukraine-Rus', the Church of the Dormition (better known as the Church of the Tithes) in Kyiv. This church was built by Grand Prince Volodymyr  to replace the principal pagan sanctuary – the shrine of Perun – and symbolised the transition of Rus' to Christianity and the consequent recognition of the Kyivan state by the Christian world.

Painting of the baptism of Prince Volodymyr
Baptism of the Holy Prince Volodymyr.  Fragment of the fresco by V.M Vasnetsov, St. Volodymyr's Cathedral in Kyiv (From Wikimedia Commons).

The official conversion of Kyivan Rus' took place in 988, and imparted an exceptionally high status to the Grand Prince. The baptism of the people of Kyiv was followed by extensive building work. A fortified stronghold, known as the ‘City of Volodymyr’, was constructed on the Old Kyiv Hill, dominated by the magnificent Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The Tale of Bygone Years (also known as the ‘Primary Chronicle’) dates the foundation of the church to 989.

The building of the church was the culmination of Volodymyr’s Christianisation of Rus', which helped establish close relations with Byzantium, and brought his people to acknowledge Graeco-Roman culture. The church took seven years to build and was consecrated on 12 May 996. Much of the building work was carried out by craftsmen from Byzantium. Although its official name was to be the Church of the Dormition, it soon became popularly known as the Church of the Tithes (Desyatynna Church), because to celebrate its opening, Prince Volodymyr held a great celebration and set aside one tenth of his revenues for the maintenance of the church.

Title page of 'Tserkva Bohorodytsi Desiatynna v Kyievi' with an image of the Church of the TithesTitle page of Tserkva Bohorodytsi Desiatynna v Kyievi, (Kyiv, 1996).  LB.31.c.9576, with an image from the 15th-century Radziwill Chronicle showing the Consecration of the Church of the Tithes 

The church was relatively small (22 x 31 m). Its roof was supported by two rows of six columns, and three semicircular apses extended from the east wall. The interior was lavishly adorned with icons, crosses and precious stones which Volodymyr had brought from Chersonesus, where, the Chronicle tells us, he himself had been baptised. The floor of the church was made of glazed terracotta tiling. Some fragments, made of marble, porphyry and other coloured stones, have survived. The walls were decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Because so much marble and carved stone was used in the interior, the Chronicle describes the church as ‘marmoreal’.

The church contained the relics of saints – Pope Clement I and his disciple Phoebus – which Volodymyr had also brought from Chersonesus. Here, too, he brought the sarcophagus of his grandmother, Princess Olha. In front of the church there was a square, where Volodymyr placed four ‘copper shrines’ (possibly ancient altars) and copper figures of horses which had formerly adorned Chersonesus. Situated in the very heart of Volodymyr’s seat of power, the Church dominated not only the Upper City of Kyiv, but also the lower area, known as the Podil, and enhanced the ancient capital by its remarkable beauty.

Artist's reconstruction of the 'City of Volodymyr' with the Church of the Dormition                         Central part of the 'City of Volodymyr', with the Church of the Dormition. Reconstruction from the Museum of the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine.

The church contained the tombs of seven princes, and  also became the final resting-place of Volodymyr himself and his wife, the Byzantine princess Anna. Their sarcophagi, according to the 11th-century Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg, stood side-by-side in the church.

The end of the statehood and power of Kyivan Rus' came suddenly, with the Mongol-Tatar invasion. During the 1230s, Batu Khan moved through the Slav lands, destroying everything in his path. After laying waste to large territories of Rus', and bloody battles resulting in the capture of Pereyaslav  and Chernihiv, the hordes, led by Batu’s cousin Mengu Khan, reached Kyiv. Only the River Dnipro/Dnieper lay between them and the city. The splendid city of Kyiv made a great impression on the Mongols, and Mengu Khan was reluctant to storm it, instead offering its people terms of surrender. But the Kyivans did not surrender the city.

In November 1240, the 140,000-strong Mongol army, led by Batu himself, crossed the Dnipro and besieged the city. The siege lasted for ten weeks and four days. Then, having breached the fortifications, the Mongols broke into the city on St Nicholas's Day (6 December). They plundered churches and monasteries and carried off the icons, crosses and all of the church ornaments. Palaces, homes and workshops of the people of Kyiv, books, manuscripts and works of art – all the precious cultural treasures of the state – went up in flames.

There was a valiant resistance by  Kyivan troops, led by the boyar Dmytro, the regent for Prince Danylo of Halych. The defenders were driven back to the ancient centre. There, in the princely court, beside the Church of the Tithes, where people had taken refuge, the final and bloodiest fighting occurred. The Church was packed with people, in the main body of the building, the galleries, and even in the sanctuary. When the storming of the church began, says the Chronicle, ‘the walls collapsed under the strain’. The siege-engines, which hurled rocks against the walls of the church, also played their part.

As the Mother-Church of the land of Rus', the Church of the Tithes was the principal spiritual jewel of Kyiv and the whole of Rus'. The fate of this church mirrors the fate of Kyivan Rus' itself. Built when the Kyivan state was first achieving international recognition, it was destroyed at the moment of that state’s downfall.

The church has been the object of research for almost 400 years and can still be seen today in graphic reconstructions and in the findings of archaeological excavations, continued today by the Institute of Archaeology at the National Academy of Science of Ukraine.

Covers of three books about Kyiv and Kyivan Rus'          Books about Kyivan Rus' and Kyiv from the British Library's collections.

Ludmila Pekarska, PhD, Curator, The Shevchenko Library & Archive in London

 References/further reading:

Povestʹ vremennykh let, podgotovka teksta, perevod, statʹi i kommentarii D.S.Likhacheva ; pod red.  V.P. Adrianovoĭ- Perett︠s︡. (Sankt-Peterburg, 1996) Ac.1125/225(351)

Ottonian Germany : the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, translated and annotated by David A. Warner (Manchester, 2001) YC.2001.a.8948

Iaroslav Pasternak, Arkheolohiia Ukrainy (Toronto, 1961) 7712.d.31

Natalia Polonska-Wasylenko, Ukraine-Rus' and Western Europe in 10th-13th centuries. (London, 1964)  X.709/12

IU. S. Asieiev, ‘Arkhitektura Kyivskoi Rusi X – pochatku XII st.’ In: Istoriia ukrainskoho mystetstva (Kyiv, 1966-1970), Vol. I. X.415/409 (1).

P.P.Tolochko, Kiev i Kievskaia zemlia v epokhu feodal'noi radroblennosti XII-XIII vekov (Kiev, 1980) X.805/2752

S.R. Kilievich, Na gore Starokievskoi (Kyiv, 1982) X.429/15964

Petro Tolochko. Kyivs'ka Rus' (Kyiv, 1996) YA.1997.b.4444

Tserkva Bohorodytsii Desiatynna v Kyievi : do 1000-littia osviachennia. (Kyiv, 1996) LB.31.c.9576


12 August 2016

Delacroix, Chassériau and Shakespeare

The popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in France in the 1840s can be gauged by the fact that two albums of Shakespeare illustrations, Eugène Delacroix’s Hamlet, and Théodore Chassériau’s Othello,were published within a few months of each other, in 1843 and 1844. Though now considered to be masterpieces, the initial critical response to both publications was generally negative. Delacroix’s work was compared unfavourably to his earlier Faust illustrations (Paris, 1828; British Library 1875.b.9.) while Chassériau’s volume was judged to be an imitation of the older artist’s recently-published album.

Delacroix’s lithograhic suite comprised 13 plates executed between 1834 and 1843. It had a print run of 80 and was published by the artist himself. Its commercial failure did not deter Paul Meurice, who acquired the lithographic stones of the work at the posthumous sale of Delacroix’s studio, from publishing a second edition in 1864, a year after the artist’s death. Meurice was a collector of Delacroix’s work and his personal association with Hamlet – he had co-authored an adaptation of the play with Alexandre Dumas père – may have contributed to this decision. The new edition incorporated three additional plates which Delacroix had left out of the 1843 edition.

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet: seize sujets.(Paris, 1864) 1872.c.28.

Hamlet was a constant source of inspiration for Delacroix who, to a certain extent, identified with Shakespeare’s hero. An early self-portrait is thought to represent the artist as Hamlet (although Walter Scott’s Edgar Ravenswood or Byron’s Childe Harold have also been proposed). During his stay in London in 1825 Delacroix may have seen Edmund Kean perform Hamlet. In the same year he painted one of his first works inspired by Shakespeare, Hamlet and the King. Delacroix saw the play again two years later when it was performed by Charles Kemble’s company at the Odéon theatre in Paris in 1827. Scenes from Hamlet would inspire several works over the following 30 years, the 1843 lithographic suite occupying a central position, some of its plates being reworkings of earlier compositions, while they themselves served for the elaboration of later works. Plate 3, for example, dated 1843, which shows the ghost of Hamlet’s father asking Hamlet to avenge his death, is closely based on the 1825 painting.

   Lithograph of Hamlet encountering his father's ghost  Painting of Hamlet encountering his father's ghost
Lithograph, ‘Je suis l’esprit de ton père’, Plate 3 from Delacroix’s Hamlet and the 1825 painting Hamlet and the King  (Krakow, Jagiellonian University Museum)

Likewise, the composition of Plate 13, dated 1843, showing the death of Ophelia had already been used in a virtually monochromatic 1838 painting, now in Munich, and was re-used in 1844 (Winterthur, Oskar Reinhart Collection), and, again (but in reverse), in the 1853 Louvre version.

Lithograph of Ophelia falling into the stream
: Lithograph; ‘Et d’abord ses habits étalés et flottants, la soutiennent sur l’eau pendant quelques instants’ (Plate 13 from Delacroix’s Hamlet). Below: Two painted versions of the same subject from 1838 (Munich, Neue Pinakothek) and 1853 (Paris. Musée du Louvre).

Painting of Ophelia falling into the stream

Painting of Ophelia falling into the stream

The composition of Plate 14, showing Hamlet and Horatio with the gravedigger holding Yorick’s skull (Act 5, scene 1), dated 1843, had also been used in a 1839 painting.

   Lithograph of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull  Painting of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull
‘C’est la caboche d’Yorick, fou du roi’ (Plate 14 from Delacroix’s Hamlet) and the 1839 painting Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (Paris. Musée du Louvre).

Delacroix’s last Hamlet work was the 1859 painting which combines the scene with Yorick’s skull with that of Ophelia’s funeral. On this occasion Delacroix went back even further, to his first Hamlet –inspired work, a lithograph he published in 1828

Painting of Hamlet holding Yorick's skull
Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard, 1859. (Paris, Musée du Louvre)

Like Delacroix, Théodore Chassériau (1819-56) was a great admirer of Shakespeare and produced a number of paintings inspired by Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. The originality and special qualities of his work were understood by few of his contemporaries; most saw his early works as imitations of Ingres (his teacher) and his later ones of Delacroix. Chassériau’s most important graphic work, his Othello prints, a series of 15 etchings published in September 1844, were naturally seen as an example of the latter tendency, even though they differ in both mood and technique. The contrast between the contemplative mood of Chassériau’s etchings with their emphasis on intense emotion, as opposed to the narrative action and dramatic power of Delacroix’s lithographs, was recognised by later critics.

The publication was commissioned by Eugène Piot, art historian, collector, antiquary, and publisher and editor of Le Cabinet de l'amateur et de l'antiquaire, an illustrated journal published between 1842 and 1846 (P.P.1916). Chassériau’s work was published in an edition of 25 copies as a separate album under the imprint of the Cabinet de l’amateur, not in the journal itself as is often claimed. 

    Painting of Othello and Desdemona sitting on a balcony  Lithograph of Othello and Desdemona sitting on a balcony
Théodore Chassériau, Othello and Desdemona in Venice, 1850. (Paris, Musée du Louvre), and the lithograph ‘Elle me remercia et me dit …She thanked me and bade me…’ (plate 2 from Othello, reproduced in Jay M. Fisher, Théodore Chassériau, illustrations for Othello (Baltimore, 1979). X.425/4729.

Like Delacroix, Chassériau re-used compositions from his etchings. Two paintings of 1849 and 1850, both now in the Louvre – Othello and Desdemona in Venice (illustrating Act 1, scene 3 of the play), and Desdemona (Act 4, scene 3) – are, respectively, variations of plates 2 and 8.

    Painting of Desdemona being prepared for bed by her servant  Lithograph of Desdemona being prepared for bed by her servant
Théodore Chassériau, Desdemona, 1849. (Paris, Musée du Louvre) and ‘Si je meurs avant toi … If I do die before thee…’ (plate 8 from Othello)

A complete reassessment of Chassériau’s work had to wait, however, until the last quarter of the 20th century, when the catalogue raisonné of his paintings and prints was published in 1974, followed by a remarkable catalogue of the Othello etchings in 1979, to accompany an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The great retrospective exhibition in Paris, Strasbourg, and New York in 2002-03, and its monumental catalogue, finally revealed the full range of Chassériau’s achievements – as a graphic artist, a painter of decorations for public buildings, an orientalist and an artist whose work is not only an amalgam of Ingres and Delacroix but also a prefiguration of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections


Lee Johnson, The Paintings of Eugène Delacroix: a critical catalogue. (Oxford, 1981-) YV.1987.b.591.(vols 3 and 4)

Lee Johnson, ‘Delacroix, Dumas and “Hamlet”’, The Burlington Magazine, vol.123, no 945 (Dec. 1981), 717-723. P.P.1931.pcs.

Arlette Sérullaz & Yves Bonnefoy, Delacroix & Hamlet (Paris, 1993). YA.1994.a.12419.

Paul Joannides, ‘Delacroix and modern literature’, in The Cambridge Companion to Delacroix (ed. Beth Wright). (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 130-153. YC.2001.b.973.

Marc Sandoz, Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856 : catalogue raisonné des peintures et estampes (Paris, 1974). X.423/2498

Chassériau, un autre romantisme, ed. Stéphane Guégan, Vincent Pomarède, Louis-Antoine Prat (Paris, 2002). LB.31.b.25724. (English ed. Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856 : the unknown romantic. (New York, New Haven, 2002). LC.31.b.161)


10 August 2016

‘Happiness for ten crowns’: Milena Jesenská (1886-1944).

The British Library possesses a mysterious book published in 1926 in Czechoslovakia. In keeping with its title, Cesta k jednoduchosti (‘Journey to simplicity’), its plain purple cover bears only the title and the author’s name – the single word ‘Milena’.

Cover of 'Cesta k jednoduchosti'
Cover of Milena Jesenská, Cesta k jednoduchosti (Prague, 1926) YA.1987.a.16955.

During her lifetime, the author bore three different surnames, but is widely remembered for her association with a man whom she met only briefly. Milena Jesenská  was born on 10 August 1896 as the daughter of Jan Jesenský, a prosperous doctor who alleged that he was descended from Jan Jesenius, the first professor of medicine at Charles University  and one of the Protestants executed in the Old Town Square in 1621. She was educated at the Minerva school, the first gymnasium for girls in Central Europe. After the death of her mother when Milena was 16, she became increasingly rebellious, purloining drugs from her father’s medicine cabinet, reading controversial authors and staying out all night. Dr. Jesenský insisted that she should enrol in medical school, but when she fainted during her first dissection class he allowed her to abandon her studies. A gifted pianist, she flirted with music, but lacked the application to make it her career. She became a well-known figure in café society during the First World War, when political tension was growing between Prague and Vienna and the Čapek brothers, Karel and Josef, and their friends were discussing new trends in literature and art.

Photograph of Milena aged 13 standing by a river
Milena aged 13, reproduced in Mary Hockaday, Kafka, love and courage: the life of Milena Jesenská (London, 1995) YC.2003.a.7796.

It was at the Café Arco in 1916 that Milena encountered two men who were to have a lasting impact on her life. One was a reticent young Jewish author who never stayed long at the café and initially made little impression on her. The second was Ernst Pollak, ten years older than herself. Her father disapproved of Milena’s association with a German-speaking Jew with no profession, and in 1917 he had her committed to a private psychiatric clinic. He finally capitulated, and in March 1918 Milena and Pollak were married and departed for Vienna.

Despite their participation in the lively intellectual life of the Austrian capital, the marriage proved unstable. Pollak had little regard for fidelity, and Milena herself began an affair with the author Hermann Broch. Desperate to recapture her husband’s attention, she stole and pawned jewellery from a friend to buy new clothes, and ended up in court. It was not until, in 1919, she began to write for the progressive liberal paper Tribuna, edited by Arnošt Lustig, that she began to develop a sense of identity and purpose, giving readers in Prague impressions of life in post-war Vienna. From fashion articles and essays on the delights of simple pleasures such as fruit, flowers and cakes (‘Happiness for ten crowns’), she progressed to sharp-eyed portrayals of the black market and the privations which the Viennese suffered as they nevertheless kept the city’s traditions of cafés and culture alive.

Signed photograph of Milena in the mid-1920s
Milena in the mid-1920s. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

On a visit to Prague in October that year, she met up again with the man whom she had known slightly from her Arco days, and they began a correspondence. It was these letters, subsequently published as Briefe an Milena, that made her famous though her association with their writer – Franz Kafka.

Many of the books about Milena define her in terms of this association – for example, Margarete Buber-Neumann’s Kafkas Freundin Milena (Munich, 1963; X.908/2595), or Kafka’s Milena (London, 1992; YK.1994.a.904), the English translation of Adresát Milena Jesenská (Prague, 1991; YA.1992.a.2927), a biography by her daughter Jana Černá. Yet they only met twice, for four days in Vienna and one in Gmünd, during a correspondence which broke off abruptly in November 1920. The relationship, which began as a literary collaboration when she translated Kafka’s story Der Heizer (‘The Stoker’), the first of his works to appear in Czech, stood little chance of success because of Kafka’s poor health and timorous pessimism (‘We are both married, you in Vienna, I to my fear in Prague…’) and Milena’s inability to leave Pollak, whom she eventually divorced in 1925. Although it was Kafka who ended their association, he entrusted her with his diaries, and they corresponded sporadically until his death in 1924.

Cartoon of a family living out of suitcases in a sparsely-furnished modernist flatCartoon from the magazine Žijeme (P.801/132) showing Milena, her husband and daughter in a sparsely-furnished modernist flat

After her divorce Milena returned to Prague and developed her career as a journalist, translator and editor. She published Cesta k jednoduchosti, a collection of her articles which she dedicated to her father, and their reconciliation was strengthened by her marriage on 30 April 1927 to a man of whom he wholeheartedly approved – the modernist architect Jaromír Krejcar. He was a member of the Devětsil  group, and Karel Teige was one of the witnesses at the wedding. A daughter, Jana (Honza) was born to the couple in 1928, but a serious illness during the pregnancy left Milena with a permanent limp and an addiction to morphine. The marriage ended in divorce in 1934.

Cover of a collection of Milena Jesenska's journalism with a photograph of the author
A collection of Milena's journalism in English translation, The journalism of Milena Jesenská: a critical voice in interwar Central Europe, edited by Kathleen Hayes (New York, 2003) m03/21721

Two collections of Milena’s journalism make her work accessible to non-Czech speakers: The journalism of Milena Jesenská, edited by Kathleen Hayes, and Widerstand und Biografie: die widerständige Praxis der Prager Journalistin Milena Jesenská gegen den Nationalsozialismus, edited by Lucyna Darowska (Bielefeld, 2004; YF.2014.a.8107). These articles, originally published in Tribuna, Národní listy and Přítomnost, the political and cultural journal which she edited in 1938-39, provide critical insights into the rise of Nazism and its implications for Czechoslovakia. Her outspoken stance and the help which she provided to enable Jewish and political refugees to emigrate led to her arrest by the Gestapo in November 1939, imprisonment and deportation to Ravensbrück, where she died of kidney disease on 17 May 1944.

From the time when she stole flowers from graves to distribute as gifts to her last days in the concentration camp, Milena Jesenská’s life was characterized by an unquenchable zest for life and generosity of spirit. These qualities shine through her journalism, which is at last earning her the reputation which she won during some of the most turbulent times of recent Czech history.

 Susan Halstead Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences) Research Engagement