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9 posts from December 2018

31 December 2018

A Look Back

As another year ends, it’s time to look back again at our blogging activity in 2018 and to remind ourselves and our readers of what we got up to during the year and of the wonderful contributions of our colleagues within and outside European Collections and of our guest bloggers. And if any of you are grumbling about ‘typical seasonal repeats’, we’ve sprinkled this post with some festive and wintry images from our collection of Russian postcards which we hope are new to you.

Postcard with a painting of a cottage in a snowy forest

2018 was a year of many anniversaries. The end of the First World War loomed large, but we looked less at the end of the conflict itself than at some of its consequences, such as the establishment of the Belarusian Democratic Republic or the Dutch revolution-that-wasn’t. We also organised a study day looking at the legacy of 1918 in European film, part of a series of events which culminated in a performance of ‘Contagion’, a piece by the Shobna Jeyasingh Dance Company commemorating the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which killed more than the War itself.

As well as the centenary of end of the First World War, 2018 was the 400th anniversary of the outbreak of another destructive European conflict, the Thirty Years’ War, deemed to have started with the second Defenstration of Prague on 23 May 1618. Other anniversaries we marked were the 200th birthdays of Ivan Turgenev, Karl Marx, who was also the focus of an exhibition in our Treasures Gallery, and Emily Bronte, whose Wuthering Heights set many challenges to its translators.

Painting of a Russian village in the snow

Talking of translation, we welcomed our second Translator in Residence, Rahul Bery, in July. Other newcomers attached to the department included PhD Placement student Phoebe Weston-Evans and Collaborative Doctoral Student Hannah Connell, who wrote about their work on French First World War posters and the Russia in the UK Web Archive respectively, and our first ever Chevening Fellow, Sanja Sanja Stepanovic-Todorovic, who is working on our rich collections of 19th- and 20th-century publications from Balkan Academies

Picture postcard with a painting of two girls leaning on a fence in the snow

As ever, we kept up with the Library’s exhibition programme. In the last weeks of ‘Harry Potter, a History of Magic’ we featured posts on witches and the mediaeval History of Merlin. When ‘James Cook, the Voyages’  opened, we looked at the Icelandic trip taken by Joseph Banks when he dropped out of Cook’s second expedition, and also at the life of one of the naturalists who replaced him on that expedition, Georg Forster. The exhibition celebrating the anniversary of the Empire Windrush prompted a post on the relatively unknown history of Swedish colonization in the Americas, and the accompanying series of events included a study day on history, literature and migration in the French Caribbean. Our current free exhibition ‘Cats on the Page’ has already prompted posts on Russian cats and a mummified Italian cat, and we can promise you more cats in the new year!

But not everything was anniversary or exhibition related. We explored the little-known languages Sart, Gagauz and Vilamovian, and remembered J.R.R. Tolkien’s enthusiasm for Esperanto. A series of guest posts teased out the fascinating story of Polish and Russian works that prefigure  George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and speculated on whether Orwell himself could have been aware of these. There was another British connection in two posts about redoubtable British women with a passion for the Balkans – nurse and humanitarian Louise Paget and mountaineer Fanny Copeland.

Picture postcard with an image of a Christmas tree and a child on a rocking-horse

For sporting types we had posts on a Spanish cricket fan and a day at the races with Victor Hugo’s daughter Adèle. If you prefer more artistic pursuits, we celebrated World Ballet Day and dipped our toes into the world of contemporary fashion. And for the cooks among you, we developed a curious fascination with herring

Of course we always try to make our own collections central to our posts, and we celebrated the acquisition of, among other things, a French Revolutionary periodical and an Italian Futurist work. A recent Spanish antiquarian acquisition, meanwhile, offered a novel way to memorise the Bible.

Picture postcard with an image of a Russian woman outside a church

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading and following our blog this year, and that we’ve picked some of your favourite posts or some you may have missed for this review. If you’re here for the first time, we hope you’re tempted to visit us again! Meanwhile, we wish you all a Happy New Year and a wonderful 2019.

European Collections Blog team

28 December 2018

Two Distinguished Women and a Seasonal Greetings Card Mystery

While I was looking for a nice seasonal picture (preferably, with lots of snow to compensate for another grey Christmas) to tweet @BL_European, I found this postcard from our collection of Russian Imperial postcards.

Picture postcard of a Russian village in the snow

Address on the reverse of the postcard illustrated above

Just a standard greeting card in French. The postcard was sent from Kharkiv to Paris on 31 December 1902 and signed by ‘Christine Altchevsky’. The name looked vaguely familiar. Having looked at it more carefully, I realised that the postcard must have been written by either mother or daughter Alchevska on behalf of both of them since they bore the same first name – Khrystyna – and were distinguished women in their generations.

Khrystyna Danylivna Alchevska (1841-1920) was an educator, teacher and a prominent activist for national education in Ukraine and the Russian Empire, vice-president of the International League of Education in Paris.

Photograph of Khrystyna D. Alchevska
Khrystyna D. Alchevska (image from Wikimedia Commons)

She created and promoted a training methodology, implemented in many schools, established the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School, the first free girls’ school in Ukraine, which remained in existence for 50 years, and published articles on adult education. Khrystyna Alchevska wrote and taught in Russian and Ukrainian, promoting her native language and culture.

Khrystyna D. Alchevska teaching a reading class at the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday Schoo
Khrystyna D. Alchevska teaching a reading class at the Kharkiv Women’s Sunday School (image from Wikimedia Commons)

She also initiated, edited and, as we would call it now, ‘project managed’ a fundamental three-volume annotated bibliography Chto chitat’ narodu? (‘What should people read?’ 1888-1906), to which she contributed 1150 articles and annotations. It is difficult to call this work simply a bibliography, as it is really an interesting combination of bibliographic, encyclopaedic and pedagogical knowledge. The book is divided into subject sections, such as History, Science, Fiction, Religious and Moral literature, Biographies, Geography, etc., and each book is fully described, annotated with certain critiques, and supplied with methodological instructions for teachers, including questions and suggestions for lesson planning. There are also several indexes and tables, including those that recommend texts according to levels of difficulty and suitability for adult and young learners. It is interesting to note that the core contributors to the work were fellow women teachers and educators.

A volume of "Chto chitat’ narodu?" in a blue gold-tooled binding
A volume of Chto chitat’ narodu? (St Petersburg, 1888) 11907.g.32

Khrystyna Alchevska left very interesting memoirs about her life and the people whom she had met, and corresponded with Leo Tolstoy, Fedor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev.

A talented and creative woman herself, Khrystyna Danylivna brought up five bright and creative children, among whom were an entrepreneur, a composer, a singer, and a theatre critic. The youngest in the family was Khrystyna (or Khrystia) (1882-1931), who became known as a distinguished Ukrainian poet, translator and educator.

Entry for Khrystia Alchevska from a biographical dictionary with a photograph
Khrystia Alchevska, from Ukrains’ka literatura mezhi XIX-XX stolit’. Khestomatiia (Kyiv, 2016) YF.2016.a.19260.

1902 was the year when Khrystia’s poems were first published in Ukrainian magazines and almanacs. In 1907, her first book of poems appeared in Moscow and was noted by the maitre of Ukrainian literature of that time Ivan Franko. Later, Khrystyna translated Franko into Russian and French, but he was not the only author that she was interested in. She translated Pushkin and Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Voltaire and Alexey K. Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Nikolai Ogarev into Ukrainian, and Taras Shevchenko and Pavlo Tychyna into French. In the 1920s she was friendly with Henri Barbusse, under whose influence Krystyna created two verse dramas.

Title page of the poetry collection "Moemu kraiu" (1914)
A collection of poems ‘To My Land’, K. Alchevska, Moemu kraiu. (Chernivtsi, 1914) 20002.a.9

Unfortunately, I could not find who Madame and Monsieur de Namur (?) of 30, Boulevard Flandrin were and how both Khystynas could have known them. But if someone knows the link between the Alchevskas and this family in Paris, please let us know. But I still like this story with an open ending that old Christmas cards can tell.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading:

K.D. Alchevska. ‘K russkim zhenshchinam’ (To the Russian Women), Kolokol, 8 March 1863, No. 158. C.127.k.4.

K.D. Alchevska. Peredumannoe i perezhitoe. Dnevniki, pis’ma, vospominaniia. (Moscow, 1912) X.525/82

The Book for Adults (written by the teachers at the Kharkow Sunday school, under the direction of Mme. Christine Altchevsky), and the surroundings which inspired it ... Translated from the French by Mme. Auguste Serraillier. (Paris, 1900) 4193.h.62

Sava Zerkal’. Clematis. [About the Alchevsky family]. (New York, 1964) X.909/5465.

A fairly comprehensive bibliography relating to works by and about the Alchevsky family can be found here: http://mtlib.org.ua/ukazateli/34-semya-alchevskikh.html

24 December 2018

A Bioluminescent Christmas

Christmas is associated with sparkling lights that lift the eyes up to the stars in motionless awe. On Christmas 1875, a curious traveller wrote about a less-known yet equally magical light that drew his eyes below the horizon, a light that flared up with the breaking waves: sea sparkle.

Photograph of the phenomenon of sea sparke
Sea sparkle (Photo by Sander van der Wel from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0])

The traveller, count József Zichy, a politician of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, was on a semi-official Asian tour to expand trade and political relations, and to learn about the world through personal experience, a practice not uncommon among members of the aristocracy.

Title page of József Zichy’s manuscript diary (1875-6)
Title page of József Zichy’s manuscript diary: “From 1875 November 22 to 1876 September 22 | Diary of my travels in Asia | original manuscript: I.-XVII. notebooks ‘Nulla dies sine linea’” Reproduced in Zichy József, Zichy Mihály (ed), Gróf Zichy József utazásai, Volume 1 Ázsia 1875-76 (Budapest, 2013) YF.2014.6057

Map of Zichy’s travel in Asia in 1875-1876
Map of Zichy’s travel in Asia in 1875-1876, from Gróf Zichy József utazásai

En route from Aden, Yemen to Pointe de Galle, Sri Lanka, in the Arabian Sea, , Zichy described his encounter with sea sparkle in a few words but with great precision:

December 22. Lat. 12.16 - long. 46.20
We are on open sea again […]. […] - In the evening we can’t help but staring at the sea’s phosphorescence, which is much stronger here than anywhere else. We are leaving behind a pretty fiery trail and gazillions of sparks are scattered when the waves brake on the side of our huge ship’s hull. - The weather is splendid, a mild breeze makes the heat more tolerable than it was in the Red Sea.

December 26. Lat. 9o12’, long. 63 o55’
[…] The evenings are not so beautiful any longer because the sea’s phosphorescence is much weaker here than it was in the Gulf of Aden; the weather remains good.
[Translation: Andrea Deri]

What Zichy observed was bioluminescence, generated by high concentration of tiny planktonic organisms, probably Dinoflagellates (δίνη, Greek, refers to whirling, swirling; flagellates, Latin, refers to the flagellum or flagella on the surface of the algae). However, a wide range of species of several taxonomic groups may bring about similar phenomena.

The cold glowing white-blue light of sea sparkle is the result of biochemical reactions within marine organisms. The light flares up with wave action that may be produced by walking, swimming or vessel movement. The light is assumed to deter the Dinoflagellates’ predators or act as a ‘burglar alarm’, which may attract secondary predators to prey on the primary ones.

Sea sparkle can occur in coastal and shallow waters of tropical and temperate seas. Current blog posts and daily newspapers document sea sparkle from India’s western coast to Anglesey

Mariners have known bioluminescence for long time. Fishers and traditional navigators of South India’s Malabar coasts and around Bombay ‘have reported a luminous sea surface and at times a milky sea invariably during dark nights following calm or sultry weather and during overcast monsoon periods’ and glowing sea surface like fireflies in Bengal.

Bioluminescence is now even used as a tourist attraction to small islands off the south Indian coast. While Zichy mentioned some of them, Lakshadweep and the Maldives, the distance from the atolls and the time of the night did not allow him to record any further observations:

December 27. Lat. 8o 15’, long. 68o 34’
[…]Tonight we are going to pass between the Lakedires and the Maldives. To see these islands we will barely do because their shores are rather low. […]
[Translation: Andrea Deri]

Zichy did not have the public in mind when he wrote his diary. Yet, its publication by the Hungarian National Széchenyi Library and the publisher Széphalom with the editorial scholarship of Mihály Zichy, a member of the same family, adds great value to history, linguistics, anthropology, arts and sciences.

József Zichy’s entries also demonstrate the significance of personal diaries in environmental change research, especially when the traveller’s environmental and cultural observations include metadata such as longitude and latitude coordinates. Mapping Zichy’s observations shows that he was able to observe sea sparkles in deep sea also: an occurrence that may be of interest of current long-term and large-scale studies.

Map showing Zichy’s positions on 22 December 1875

Map showing Zichy's position on 26 December 1875
Map of Zichy’s positions on 22 Dec and 26 Dec

Zichy embodied the qualities of what we would call today a citizen scientist. He was keen to learn about the world through first-hand experience and use his insights for the public good. His guiding principle for keeping a diary features on the title page of his manuscript: Nulla dies sine linea (‘No day without a line’, that is no day should pass without a line written).

While Zichy was ‘only’ interested in the aesthetics of sea sparkle, he may have unwittingly made an important contribution to environmental history of the Arabian Sea in light of current studies on the possible nexus between increasing bioluminescent algal blooms and unfolding environmental change. Even if this is not the case, his observations certainly offer opportunities for interdisciplinary research, bridging humanities and environmental studies, a dynamically growing field of environmental humanities.

If you cannot frolic with luminous fellow creatures this Christmas, you may still dive into watching and recording (so easy with mobile phones!) a natural spectacle, inspired by Zichy, our fellow citizen scientist from the 19th century. Who knows where your Christmas diary might end up in the history of science?

Andrea Deri, Cataloguer

References/Further reading:

R. Santhanam, Marine Dinoflagellates (New York, 2015) (B) 579.81776

Therese Wilson, J. Woodland (Woody), Bioluminescence: living lights, lights for living (Cambridge, Mass., 2013) YK.2013.a.10980

Balsubramiam Arunachalam, ‘Traditional Sea and Sky Wisdom of Indian Seamen and Their Practical Applications’ in Himanshu Prabha Ray, Jean-Francois Salles, Tradition and Archaeology - Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean (New Delhi, 1996) ORW.1997.a.1626

Balsubramiam Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2003) YA.2003.a.26499

Ismael Vaccaro, Eric Alden Smith, Shankar Aswani, Environmental social sciences: methods and research design (Cambridge, 2010)

University of British Columbia, Phyto'pedia - The Phytoplankton Encyclopaedia Project: Noctiluca stintillans (UBC, 2012)

iSpot: Share Nature - an Open University platform where today’s citizen scientists can upload their sightings (photo, text) and request identification

21 December 2018

The ‘Artist Maks’: The Ukrainian Disciple of Aubrey Beardsley

2018 has marked 120 years since the death of Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), the British master of Art Nouveau who has been repeatedly named an emblem of Victorian Decadence. Born into the age of quick photomechanical reproduction of images, he exploited this new technology to circulate his black-and-white designs worldwide. ‘No artist of our time’, noted the poet Arthur Symons in his tribute to Beardsley, ‘has reached a more universal, or a more contested fame; […] none has had so wide an influence on contemporary art’.

Figure 1 (Beardsley portrait)
Above: Frederick Hollyer, photograph of Aubrey Beardsley, 1890s. Below:  Aubrey Beardsley, ‘The Dancer’s Reward’, illustration from Salome, 1893. Both images reproduced in Arthur Symons,
Aubrey Beardsley (London, 1898) L.R.269.a.2/3.

Figure 2 (Salome)

Among the histories of Beardsley’s extraordinary international influence, his Ukrainian reception is among the most surprising ones. Thus, a single look at the works by Vsevolod Maksymovych (1894–1914) justifies the artist’s nickname of the ‘Ukrainian Beardsley’. Like Beardsley, Maksymovych was a prodigy. At 19, he produced most of his paintings that shared the period’s preoccupations with exoticism, mysticism, and sexuality. At 20, he committed suicide. His short life did nevertheless overlap with key cultural events of the early 20th century, including the fading of the Art Nouveau style, the birth of the Futurist movement, and the earliest avant-garde experiments in film.

Figure 3 (Masquerade)
Vsevolod Maksymovych, Masquerade, 1913, Oil on canvas, reproduced in Ukrains´kyi modernizm 1910-1930 = Ukrainian Modernism, ed. by Anatolii Mel´nyk and John E. Bowlt (Kyiv, 2006), LF.31.b.3196

Maksymovych was born in the city of Poltava in 1894. In the West, it was the year of the Beardsley Boom, when the volumes of the Decadent almanac The Yellow Book and Oscar Wilde’s drama Salome disseminated Beardsley’s notorious designs. After Beardsley’s premature death in 1898, the international circulation of his images persisted through fashionable periodicals. In Eastern Europe, his drawings were popularised by the St Petersburg aesthetic journal Mir iskusstva (1899-1904; P.P.1931.pmb.) and the Moscow review Vesy  (1904-1909; Mic.F.430). The Kyiv magazine V mirie iskusstv (1907-1910) dedicated an illustrated essay to Beardsley in 1907.

Figure 4 (V mirie iskusstv)
Cover of V mirie iskusstv, 1 (1909). ZA.9.d.620

At the beginning of the 20th century, a Ukrainian art lover such as Maksymovych would have inhabited a world permeated by Beardsley’s visual language and imagery. While it was common for the artists of the 1910s to adopt Beardsley’s stylised line and black-blot technique, Maksymovych stood out among the imitators. The painter transferred the intricate graphic lace of Beardsley’s black-and-white illustrations to his colossal – up to four-metre-wide – oil canvases. As the art historian John Bowlt observes, ‘if certain esthetic ideas did bloom late on Ukrainian soil, they tended to assume luxuriant, hybrid proportions’.

Figure 5 (002)

 Vsevolod Maksymovych, Self-Portrait, 1913, Oil on canvas, National Art Museum of Ukraine, reproduced in Ukrains´kyi modernizm 1910-1930 

Maksymovych’s life-size Self-Portrait is an example of such luxuriant blooming. The picture centres on the immaculately-dressed figure of the artist who, like Beardsley, posed as a dandy. Even more fascinating than Maksymovych’s self-depiction is the backdrop which incorporates familiar details from Beardsley’s Salome designs: the dramatic peacock patterns formed of curvilinear tails and foaming crescents. Those Beardsleyesque backgrounds dominated the responses of contemporaries to Maksymovych’s work. In the words of the Futurist writer Boris Lavrenev: ‘His canvases consisted of circlets and rings, tangled and intertwined, […] which resembled a pile of soаp bubbles’. 

Lavrenev and Maksymovych met in Moscow in 1913 during the filming of The Drama in Cabaret No 13. This film is considered the first cinematic experiment of the global Avant-Garde. Directed by a pioneer of abstract art, Mikhail Larionov, it featured Futurist celebrities such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and David Burliuk. Although the film itself has been lost, surviving frames allow the identification of the male lead. It was, undoubtedly, Maksymovych, or the ‘artist Maks’ as he was called within the Futurist milieu.

Figure 7 (002)
A scene from The Drama in Cabaret No 13 featuring V. Maksymovych and N. Elsner, reproduced in M. L. Polianovskii, Maiakovskii-kinoakter (Moscow, 1940) YA.1997.a.3234.

The ‘artist Maks’ lived through the clash of the languorous Art Nouveau aesthetics with the revolutionary Avant-Garde. Despite Maksymovych’s prominent position in the Futurist networks, the style of his work was sadly out of date by the standards of 1914. When his one-man Moscow exhibition of that year failed, the ‘Ukrainian Beardsley’ overdosed on drugs.

Figure 8
A scene from
The Drama in  Cabaret No 13, from M. L. Polianovskii, Maiakovskii-kinoakter

After the painter’s suicide, his works did not stand much chance of entering official Moscow art collections. Maksymovych’s mother and the art collector Fedir Ernst eventually succeeded in bringing his works back to Ukraine. Ideologically incompatible with official Soviet culture, the paintings reemerged from the cellar of the National Art Museum of Ukraine only at the turn of the 21st century. Today, as we celebrate the international legacy of Aubrey Beardsley, it is time to look closely at his Ukrainian disciple and examine the transformations of art works, styles, and myths when they travel across national borders.

Sasha Dovzhyk, Birkbeck, University of London

References/Further reading

R. M. Iangirov, ‘Smert´ poeta: Vokrug fil´ma “Drama v kafe futuristov No. 13”’, in Tynianovskii sbornik: Sed´mye Tynianovskie chteniia, ed. by M. O. Chudakova, E. A. Toddes, and Iu. G. Tsiv´ian (Riga, 1995) YF.2004.a.14913

Linda Gertner Zatlin, Aubrey Beardsley: a catalogue raisonné (New Haven, 2016) LC.31.b.15403

V. N. Terekhina, ‘Vsevolod Maksimovich sredi moskovskikh futuristov’, in Russkoe iskusstvo: XX vek, Vol. 3 (Moscow, 2009), pp. 147–156. ZF.9.a.7176

18 December 2018

Russian cats 3: Muri in Search of his Kingdom

Although this cat was created by a Russian author who made him live in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, this is a universal cat, because what can be a more cat-like name than Muri? Muri, invented by Ilia Boiashov is quintessence of cathood. The title of this book, Put’ Muri, can be translated as ‘Muri’s Way’ or ‘Muri’s Path’. Published in 2007, this is not the first book by Ilia Boiashov, but it is the one that brought the author the National Best-seller award.

Put Muri
Ilia Boiashov, Put’ Muri (St Petersburg, 2007) YF.2008.a.8579

The publisher marketed Boiashov as “Russian Kusturica”, probably because of the Yugoslav and cats connections. I would also say that this book will probably appeal to Paulo Coelho’s fans.

The story is a classic example of a philosophical and allegorical travel novel. We first meet Muri as a young imprudent cat from a Bosnian village who thinks that he is a master of the world (or at least the house, the garden, the barn and the storehouses) and the universe revolves around him. As his peaceful life comes to an abrupt end due to the war, the cat starts its quest for “his armchair and warm blanket”. Muri travels around Europe in search for his owners, or rather his servants in his own view, a family of father, mother and two children. On his way Muri, as prescribed by the genre, meets other characters – people, sprites, and animals – who are either on the move too or static. Unlike other travel stories this one is not interested in the characters as such, but in their destiny.

Apart from Muri and the characters that he meets, there are quite a few other stories illustrating different scenarios of personal paths in life. A sheikh makes several attempts to circle around the planet in a small plane; a whale travels around oceans; a Serbian driver is on his way to his dream home. All the stories are framed by an academic argument between two rival groups of scholars divided by their attitude to the philosophical concept of movement and their views whether animals are capable of conscious decisions. While the philosophers debate the question of Super-significance of the True Being, Muri circles around Europe and through Austria, Belarus, Russia and Finland finally reaching Goteborg, where his universe has been preserved by his Bosnian family who are staying in a barrack for refugees in the outskirts of the city. Neither Muri, nor his servants-masters are surprised to see each other. Muri takes his milk as given and goes to sleep planning to explore this new kingdom tomorrow.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

14 December 2018

Hundertwasser’s 90th and 35 Days In Sweden

The Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser would have been 90 on Saturday. Functionality was not his priority and his thought might deserve to be re-thought unevenly, uninhabitably, uselessly. But, to quote Hundertwasser’s ‘Mouldiness Manifesto’, it’s hard to get away from the ‘straight-edged ruler’ of the page, to bend the blog format ‘with giant steps’ to approach ‘impractical, unusable and ultimately uninhabitable [literary] architecture.’ But let’s at least exercise the freedom to forego a straightforward biography of an artist whose work was anything but straightforward, and simply re-join him during the end of his 35 days in Sweden, an account published in 1967 following an exhibition in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Title Page of 35 Tage Schweden with a labyrinth-like design on the facing page
Title Page of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 35 Tage Schweden (Stuttgart, 1967) X.808/5043, number 276 of an edition of 500 copies

In the summer of 1956, Hundertwasser received a letter from his friend Hans Neuffer in Stockholm. Six days later the artist was there himself to begin a brief adventure. He moves from flat to flat, tries unsuccessfully to promote his artwork and the account culminates in two entries: ‘Als Tellerwäscher’ (‘As a dishwasher’) and ‘Als Matrose’ (‘As a sailor). Here are partial translations of these entries:

As a dishwasher
Then my friends said to me: why aren’t you working? Everyone works here. Us too. You should become a dishwasher. Actually, every Viennese student washes plates here. So I joined them. […]
I worked diligently in a restaurant on the Kungstgatan. But I soon noticed that the other dishwashers didn’t work too hard. They were up to their ankles in shards of broken dishes. Out of displeasure or maybe pleasure, they let nearly every third plate crash to the floor when they washed up, especially if there was a plate that seemed particularly dirty. Rarely, a dangerous supervisor would venture over the mountain of shards to check whether the glasses and plates were washed and dried well. She wasn’t too concerned about the mass of shards on the floor. Sweden is a rich country, I thought to myself. Only cleanliness is important. There were white plates like snow fallen from the sky and scrunching underfoot. […]

Coloured abstract design by Hundertwasser from '35 Tage Schweden'
Picture insert by Hundertwasser from 35 Tage Schweden

As a sailor
So a few days went by. Suddenly Hans Neuffer came to my apartment all agitated to say that I had to go with him to Casablanca straightaway. As a deckhand on an Estonian ship under a Liberian flag. […]
I put down the coffee spoons and went along. To the Estonian Seamen’s Company. They didn’t want me though. But then they didn’t want to engage Neuffer alone. I was supposedly too old to be a deckhand. But then they phoned around and sent me to the doctor for examination to see whether I was fit for service. […] But they didn’t look at me and just asked for a urine sample. I had suffered from jaundice before and I feared that they would notice this in the analysis. I managed, in an unobserved moment, to chuck away half the sample and replace it with tap water. […] I was deemed fit and received my train ticket to Söderhamn.
The ship, the “SS Bauta” was close to the station. […] To my surprise, all the seamen had to go and pick wild berries every day. After a week, we went out to sea. I was at the helm twice a day for two hours, 4am till 6am and 4pm till 6pm. I had never done it before and completely messed up the ship on the first day. Then I got better at it. I also had to wash dishes and turn the oven on at 6am to make coffee for the first mate. Everything had the addition of “FACKING”. For example, I once spoke to someone who was limping. He said: “I went to get the FACKING butter, I fell on the FACKING stairs, I got this FACKING wound. Here is no FACKING doctor on this FACKING ship.”
The stokers argued over whether the war was over yet. Some said yes, but the majority thought that Goebbels had taken over and the war had continued. I didn’t dare contradict them. […]
On board the SS Bauta, I painted the watercolours 274, 275, 276, and 277 , and wrote the novel “BLAU BLUM” together with Hans Neuffer. […]
I was witness to the fact that I really am a very good sailor.

Avoiding a progressive line through the Hundertwasser biography to home in on a scene and a limited edition of that scene might do justice to the anti-linear freedom of an ‘automatist’, 90 years old today.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Further reading:

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Schöne Wege: Gedanken über Kunst und Leben (Munich, [1983]) YA.1986.a.6708

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Hundertwasser architecture : for a more human architecture in harmony with nature (Hong Kong; London, 2007) LC.31.b.4874

Wieland Schmied, Hundertwasser, 1928-2000: Persönlichkeit, Leben, Werk (Cologne, 2005) YF.2007.b.2545

Walter Koschatzky, with Janine Kertész, Friedensreich Hundertwasser: the complete graphic work, 1951-1986, translated by Charles Kessler (Zurich, 1986)

Pierre Restany, Hundertwasser (London, 2010) LC.31.b.9497

Friedensreich Hundertwasser: Gegen den Strich: Werke 1949-1970, herausgegeben von Christoph Grunenberg und Astrid Becker ... Anlässlich der Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle Bremen 20. Oktober 2012 - 17. Februar 2013 (Ostfildern, 2012) YF.2013.b.1960

11 December 2018

A Mysterious Linguistic Enclave in Southern Poland

Wilamowice, a small town in southern Poland in the Silesian voivodeship, is the home of speakers of one of the most endangered languages on the linguistic map of Europe according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the world’s languages in danger (Paris, 2010; fm10/.1073). The language is known under a few names: Wymysorys, Vilamovian or Wilamowicean. Linguists tend to consider it one of the West German dialects, though the origin of the speakers is not clear.

Wilamowice postcard
An early 20th-century postcard of Wilamowice, reproduced in  Antoni Barciak (ed.), Wilamowice : przyroda, historia, język, kultura oraz społeczeństwo miasta i gminy  (Wilamowice, 2001) YF.2005.a.19308

In the 13th century, during the Mongol invasion the native Slavic population of the area was greatly reduced. It was later colonised by German, Scottish and Flemish settlers. In the course of a few centuries the foreign colonists blended into the local communities, with one exception, i.e. Wilamowice. The inhabitants of this town have always considered themselves to be people of Flemish descent preserving their distinctive language, costumes and customs.

Wilamowice women 010291i.38
Women from Wilamowice in the 1930s. The two on the right wear traditional costumes, the two on the left wear a more modernised variation. From Viktor Kauder, Das Deutschtum in der Wojewodschaft Schlesien (Plauen, 1937) 010291.i.38

After the partition of Poland in the late 18th century the area was under Austrian rule until the end of the First World War. German and Polish were the dominant languages. To sort out the linguistic issue of Wilamowice, in 1875 the authorities introduced Polish as an official language. This was the first step towards the polonisation of the town. Although education was offered both in Polish and German, most parents chose to send their children to Polish-language schools with German and the local dialect also taught. The only period when German became compulsory was during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the years 1939-1945. The Polish language was abandoned and, in some cases, forbidden from the official use, whereas Vilamovian, viewed by the Nazis as the local dialect of German, was even promoted. However the slow decline of the dialect had already started at the end of the 19th century, and apart from this short revival in the Second World War, it got almost extinguished in the Polish People’s Republic.

The Vilamovians were regarded by the post-Second World War communist authorities as Germans despite the fact that they stressed their Flemish origin. During the war the majority of the Vilamovians had been forced to accept the Volksliste and as a result they were subject to a harsh treatment in communist Poland. In the postwar period many people were arrested and their property was confiscated; some families were persuaded to relocate to the “Recovered Territories”. A decree issued in 1946 banned the use of the dialect and costumes. Soon people stopped speaking and teaching Vilamovian to avoid severe punishment. The social structure of the town also changed and many newcomers mixed with the native population. The ban was eventually lifted, but by that time no young people could speak or understand the language. The postwar period was the most traumatic in the long history of Wilamowice.

Vilamovian has seen a revival of interest among young members of the community in the last decade. Academics have also engaged in language revitalization, and Vilamovian can now be studied at the University of Warsaw. Nowadays about 300 people can understand it and approximately 60 people have the ability to speak it with varying degrees of fluency. It has been recognized as a separate language by a number of international bodies, but in Poland it has not yet been given the official status of a regional language.

You can read some poems in Vilamovian (with Polish and German translations) here, and listen to the language being spoken by a native of Wilamowice in this YouTube clip.

WilamowceBlog
A modern regional folk ensemble from Wilamowce  (Photo by Wymysojer from Wikimedia Commons
) 

Magda Szkuta, Curator of East European Collections

Further reading:

Tomasz Wicherkiewicz, The making of a language: the case of the idiom of Wilamowice, southern Poland, Trends in linguistics. Documentation; 19. (Berlin, 2003). YD.2005.a.3195

Józef Latosiński, Monografia miasteczka Wilamowic, (Kraków, 1910). 10292.s.8.

Zbigniew Rokita, ‘Kumże tu!’ in: Polityka, no. 13, 2017. MFM.MF1241D

Hermann Mojmir, Wörterbuch der deutschen Mundart von Wilamowice. (Kraków, 1930-1936.) Ac.750/109

07 December 2018

Russian Cats 2: The Hermitage Cats

I wonder whether you were suitably confused by the first post about Russian cats that didn’t make it to the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page. Now, I want to tell you a story about more Russian cats on the page. No, I’ll start again: they are not all quite Russian, but they live in Russia. And they do not live quite on the page or in libraries, because the heroes of this blog live in museums. To be precise, in one particularly important and beautiful museum – the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In 2009, curators who work in the Hermitage, published a book about the cats in their collection – cats on canvas, cats on lithographs and prints, in other words, all drawn, painted, photographed and sculptured cats.

Image 1
Cover of N. Gol’, M.Khaltunen, Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe (St Petersburg, 2009) YF.2011.a.360.

The book tells how cats were sacred in Ancient Egypt and how cats’ lives were worth more than human lives. Readers would also learn how Ancient Greeks smuggled cats in amphorae and how having a cat as a pet was a sign of wealth in the antiquity.

Image 2
Fragment of a red-figure vase, South of Italy, 4th century B.C., reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe
.

In mediaeval and early modern Europe cats were believed to possess demonic power and attributes. But later cats became just naughty. For example, they were portrayed numerously by a Flemish painter Frans Snyders to animate his game still lifes.

Image 3
Detail (above) from Frans Snyders, Cook at a Kitchen Table with Dead Game, 1634-37 (below), reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe

Image 3a

Cats in China are believed to be descended from the Sacred Tiger. While the Tiger was busy safeguarding good men by protecting them from evil, he found it very difficult to maintain his responsibility to protect fields from rodents. Once, accidently touched by a mouse, escaping from him, he sneezed a cat out of his nostril and thus – delegated his responsibilities.

Image 4
This Chinese picture from the Hermitage collections (late 19th/early 20th century) shows cats scaring mice who are enjoying a wedding procession. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

Cute Japanese okimono of waving cats bring luck. Legend has it that one poor woman said goodbye to her cat because she could not feed it any more. The loyal cat, instead, gave her a good advice to make a clay figurine of him waving his paw. And so she did! And her figurine sold well. And so were more figurines. So we can conclude: always listen to your cat and do what he says.

Image 5
 Okimono and netsuke from the Hermitage collections. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

The first cats came to the Old Rus’ and Muscovy in the 13th century and for the next 200 years remained an expensive curiosity. Since then cats in Russian folklore have occupied their place next to babies’ cots mewing lullabies, as ‘pioneers’ first entering newly built houses and showing the best and the worst corners, and in the kitchen forecasting the weather: curled-up cats mean frost the next day, while stretching cats predict a nice day ahead and pleasant visitors. And of course, like in many other countries, they are in confrontation with mice. One of the most popular stories presented on cheap prints sold for home decoration in the 19th century, shows a funeral procession where mice are taking their cat neighbour to the cemetery. We are still not quite sure whether the cat is dead or alive. We can treat this story as we feel fair and depending where our sympathies lie: the cat is trying to give the bothersome mice a lesson, pretending to be dead and then suddenly scaring them away (or worse, if you like!), or being naughty and greedy he indeed had fed on mice and died of surfeit (awful!).

Image 6
Russian popular print (lubok) showing mice burying a cat 
(1879), reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

And, of course, I don’t need to remind you about the pussy-cat who visited the Queen.  Some lucky Russian cats not only visited Tsars and Tsarinas, but were courtiers. The book tells us about the rules how palace cats were catered for. Catherine the Great imposed people’s social structure on cats, who were divided into two uneven categories: general palace cats (business class) and room cats (first class).

Image 7
Dasha Chernova made this picture when she was 8 years old. Reproduced in Koshkin dom v Ermitazhe.

 

Image 8
These well-fed cats eating asparagus in a palace garden came to Russia from France on Princess’s Dagmar of Denmark’s fan and settled down in the Winter Palace among other things that belonged to Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia.

The last chapter of this book is devoted to the cats who live in the Hermitage now. If you are to travel to St Petersburg and visit the Hermitage, say hello to Ksiusha, Dasha, Wonderful Prince, Vas’ka, Timur, Tishka, Katya, Lana, Vlada, Lera, Matilda, Liutik and Van Dyck.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.

04 December 2018

(Not?) Petrarch’s Cat

The last home of the poet and humanist Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374) in the small Northern Italian town of Arquà became a place of literary pilgrimage and tourism early on. Successive 16th-century owners of the house emphasized its connection with Petrarch, among other things by commissioning frescoes depicting his life and works, and welcomed travellers to see the home of the great man.

Travel accounts from the late 16th century onwards describe the house and its various artefacts associated with the poet. Alongside the things one would expect to see in such a place – Petrarch’s chair, the cupboard where he kept his books and so on – the accounts also mention the rather ghoulish exhibit of a mummified cat. In a mock epitaph inscribed beneath its body, the cat claims to have been dearer to the poet even than his beloved muse Laura because, while Laura inspired Petrarch’s verses, the cat ensured their survival by protecting the manuscripts from the gnawing teeth of mice.

Engraving of the memorial to Petrarch's cat with the mummified cat and inscription
The mummified cat, with epitaph, from Stephen Weston, Petrarchiana, or, Additions to the Visit to Vaucluse... 2nd edition (London, 1822) 1048.k.17.(2.)

The French traveller Nicholas Audebert (whose account is preserved in the British Library, Lansdowne MS 720) visited the house in 1575 and was told that the cat had belonged to Petrarch and used to accompany him everywhere. Accounts by Fynes Moryson and Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, published in 1617 and 1623 respectively, also mentioned the feline monument, and in 1635 the first picture of it appeared in a work by Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus. Here the poor creature is exposed on a plinth, rather than in a niche with the epitaph beneath as it is more usually shown and described, although Tomasini does reproduce the text of the epitaph.

Engraving of the mummified cat on a plinth
The cat as reproduced in Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Petrarcha Redivivus, integram poetæ celeberrimi vitam iconibus ære celatis exhibens. Accessit nobilissimae foeminae, Lauræ brevis historia. (Padua, 1635) 137.d.18

The cat continued to capture the attention of visitors. Byron – himself a keeper of many pets – was apparently delighted by it and the German poet August von Platen dedicated an epigram to it. The monument still features in modern tourists’ TripAdvisor reviews. The story of Petrarch’s beloved pet, the faithful companion and comfort of his last years has appealed to generations of cat-lovers. 

Illustration of Petrarch writing by candlelight with a cat at his feet
Petrarch and his cat, engraving by Jacob Wilhalm Mechau from a drawing by Christian Gottlieb Geyser, in vol. 4 of Johann Georg Zimmermann, Ueber die Einsamkeit (Leipzig, 1785)  8409.bbb.8.

However, there is one drawback to this touching tale: we have no evidence that Petrarch ever owned a cat. Although he makes some mention of his dogs in his letters, and a 2-line epitaph to a little dog called Zabot is attributed to him, there is nothing about any cat. This is surely particularly surprising if he owned a cat so dear to him that he chose to commemorate it after its death. Also, both the mummified cat and the inscription are thought to date from the 16th century, long after Petrarch’s death. So how did the association come about?

The most likely theory is that it originates from early depictions of Petrarch in illuminated manuscripts where he is sometimes shown with a small dog (a reference to little Zabot?) and occasionally with a cat. In one manuscript of ca 1420, held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (MS Strozzi 172), a cat is even depicted chasing a mouse in Petrarch’s study, the very job described in the epitaph of his supposed pet. But rather than a realistic depiction of Petrarch’s domestic life and pets, it is more likely that both animals are, in the words of J.B. Trapp, “in some sense a replacement for the lion that legend gave to St Jerome for a companion in his studies.”

Image of St Jerome writing with a lion at his feet
St Jerome and his lion, from the Prayer book of Sigismund of Poland, 1524, Add. 15281 f.3v

Nonetheless, it is credible that familiarity with such images might have inspired the 16th-century owners of Petrarch’s house to invent the story of the poet’s beloved cat. It has even been suggested by the author of the Shaping Sense blog that the monument was set up as a kind of mockery of the cult of literary pilgrimage and literary relics that its creators were simultaneously trying to encourage.

Whatever the truth, the cat’s story continues to flourish, especially in the online world. An internet search brings up both sober discussions of the story’s reliability and fanciful tales about the mutual affection of the animal and its master. Various German websites (such as this one) even attribute to Petrarch the words, “Humanity can be roughly divided into two groups: cat lovers and those who are disadvantaged in life”, and you can buy a variety of tote bags, fridge magnets and the like bearing this decidedly un-Petrarchan saying with its undoubtedly false attribution.

Illustration of Petrarch looking at a portrait of Laura while his cat looks onCaught between his two loves? Petrarch gazes at a picture of Laura while his cat looks on. Engraving by Bartolomeo Crivellari from a drawing by Gaetani Gherardo Zompini, from vol. 2 of Le Rime del Petrarca brevemente esposte per L. Castelvetro ... (Venice, 1756) 638.i.7.

Whether or not Petrarch truly owned and loved a cat, we can safely say he would have been astounded by the physical and literary afterlife of such a creature.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

Fynes Moryson, An Itenerary written by Fynes Moryson, Gent … Containing his ten yeeres travell through the twelve dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1617) 214.e.16.

Niccolò Franco and Ercole Giovannini, Li duo Petrarchisti dialoghi di Nicolo Franco, e di Ercole Giovannini … (Venice, 1623) 1161.d.10.

J. B. Trapp, ‘Petrarchan Places. An Essay in the Iconography of Commemoration’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 69 (2006), pp. 1-50. Ac.4569/7.

Achim Aurnhammer, Petrarcas Katze: die Geschichte des kätzischen Petrarkismus (Heidelberg, 2005). YF.2007.a.9350

The free British Library exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.