European studies blog

3 posts from January 2022

21 January 2022

“Only your work will be remembered”: the 150th anniversary of Jože Plečnik’s birth

On 21 July 2021, UNESCO added four new cultural sites to its World Heritage List. One of these four was the work of the architect Jože Plečnik on Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana in the years between the world wars, transforming it from a provincial town into a celebrated example of modern, “human centred design” that nevertheless maintained a “dialogue” with the older elements of the city centre.

Portrait of Jože Plečnik

Portrait of Jože Plečnik by Alenka KhamPičman. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist. 

A few months later, the Slovenian government declared that 2022 would be considered “the year of Plečnik”, emphasising this honour and the 150th anniversary of his birth. There will be exhibitions, tours and new publications focusing on his oeuvre, which extends far beyond Ljubljana and can be found in every corner of the country. It will kick off with a series of events in the historic yet industrious town of Kamnik, where among other things he designed a memorial chapel to soldiers of both world wars, renovated the station, and – in the forest nearby – erected a hunting lodge for the first King of Yugoslavia, Alexander.

Hunting lodge in Kamnik designed by Jože Plečnik

Hunting lodge in Kamnik designed by Jože Plečnik for the first King of Yugoslavia, Alexander. Photo: Janet Ashton 

Slovenia is justly proud of Plečnik as the architect of a very recognisable national style, but he was also a true son of Central Europe, born in 1872 as a subject of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and educated also in Graz and Vienna, where he studied under Otto Wagner. To Vienna he contributed the immediately noticeable Zacherlhaus in the city centre, and enjoyed a certain measure of favour in highest quarters, working on a fountain in honour of the mayor Karl Lueger, and collaborating with Lueger and the ill-fated Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg on building a church in the district of Ottakring, whose working class inhabitants they hoped to inspire with religious feelings that would immure them against radical activities. Plečnik had instinctive sympathy for the Christian Social movement Lueger represented, and throughout his life was interested in popular expressions of Catholicism and their links with national identity.

Given his success and his position in the political mainstream, he even hoped to succeed Wagner as professor of Architecture at the School of Fine Arts, but the style of the Holy Ghost Church fell foul of the heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, whose tastes were far more conservative and who likened the church to a stable crossed with a sauna. Plečnik found his appointment blocked.

Obelisk designed by Plečnik on the Moravian Bastion of Prague Castle

Obelisk designed by Plečnik on the Moravian Bastion of Prague Castle. Photo: Janet Ashton

Convinced that his career in Vienna was over, he moved to Prague at the invitation of Jan Kotěra, another of Wagner’s pupils, and took up a post at the college of arts and crafts. He was teaching in Prague when the Habsburg empire split apart and the cities in which he had made his life and career found themselves in three separate countries. On a personal level, this was a traumatic experience for many people, never again sure to which nation they belonged, but for Plečnik it also afforded new opportunities in developing national styles with specific political overtones. His first major project for the successor states was to renovate Prague Castle, transforming the dilapidated and forbidding Habsburg fortress into a “democratic” residence for the new President of the Czechoslovak Republic, a seat and symbol of the liberal, middle class nation its leaders aspired to create. Whereas his contact with hereditary royalty was always awkward, he developed a great rapport with both the President, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and with Masaryk’s daughter Dr. Alice Masaryková, who shared a profound involvement in the project. Symbolic of their complex national history, he and Alice corresponded in German, the language of the vanished empire, because despite his years in Prague Plečnik lacked confidence in his own Czech-speaking abilities.

Interior of the Sacred Heart Church in Vinohrady

Interior of the Sacred Heart Church in Vinohrady designed by Jože Plečnik. Photo: Janet Ashton

In 1921 he was invited to return to Ljubljana and take up a post at the School of Architecture at the new University. He was reluctant at first, fearing that he was moving to a backwater, but he also felt a patriotic obligation to the Slovenian people, and in the end he accepted. This post would lead to his celebrated impact on the whole of the Slovenian capital, where he remodelled bridges, built churches, and designed the national library, city stadium and cemetery. But at the same time, he also worked on projects in far more modest locations, renovating a church in the tiny north-eastern town of Bogojina, for example, simply in the hope of inspiring its townsfolk. He had limited impact on the wider Yugoslavia of which Slovenia was a component part, but did undertake two projects for the Yugoslav royal family for their visits to Slovenia. His relationship with the military-minded King Alexander was as awkward as that with Franz Ferdinand had been, however, and nothing ever came close to the rapport he had enjoyed with Masaryk and Alice.

Drawing of the National/University Library and Napoleon memorial in Ljubljana

Drawing of the National/University Library and Napoleon memorial in Ljubljana by Alenka KhamPičman. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist. 

Jože Plečnik lived an ascetic and fairly reclusive life according to his own motto, “Minljiv si, le tvoja dela so tvoj spomin” (“only your work will be remembered”) at his home in Ljubljana (which is now a museum). He survived the occupation of the city by first Fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany, and continued to teach until the last days of his life. Alenka KhamPičman, now an artist who often paints her tutor’s buildings, recalls that he came on foot to the University every day and sat all morning marking projects and sketching out ideas for his students to take up. She admired him for his “imagination, knowledge, perseverance and discipline” and for his strict commentary on his pupils’ work.

Plečnik died aged 85 in 1957. Under Communism his architecture was unfashionable and often ignored (“he was pushed away by the modern world” says Alenka KhamPičman sadly), but from 1991 the independence of Slovenia brought a new focus on his work and the national spirit he had tried to embody, elevating him to the status of a national hero and symbol of his country.

Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager

With particular thanks to Alenka KhamPičman for her memories and permission to use her paintings

References/further reading:

The British Library holds a very large number of books and journals in various languages that throw light on Plečnik’s life and work. They range from beautifully illustrated city guidebooks and exhibition catalogues to critical academic studies to facsimiles, memoir by associates, and biographies. A mere sample is as follows:

Maja Avguštin, Saša Lavrinc. Plečnik na Domžalskem in Kamniškem, [fotografije Drago Bac]. (Ljubljana, 2010). YF.2012.a.19139

Noah Charney. Eternal architect: the life and art of Jože Plečnik, modernist mystic. (Ljubljana, 2017). LD.31.b.4492

Great immortality: studies on European cultural sainthood, edited by Marijan Dović, Jón Karl Helgason [includes studies on the cultural and Catholic admiration for both Gaudi and Plečnik]. (Leiden, 2019). YD.2019.a.5108

Andrej Hrausky. Plečnik’s architecture in Ljubljana (Ljubljana, 2017). YF.2019.a.8928

Andrej Hrausky. Jože Plečnik: Dunaj, Praga, Ljubljana. (Ljubljana, 2007). LF.31.b.8502

Ivan Margolius. Church of the Sacred Heart. (London, 1995). LB.31.b.24563

Josip Plečnik: an architect of Prague Castle. [compiled by] Zdeněk Lukeš, Damjan Prelovšek, Tomáš Valen. (Prague, 1997). LB.31.b.17345.

O plečniku: prispevki k preučevanju, interpretaciji in popularizaciji njegovega dela. Tomáš Valena ; prevod iz nemščine Marjana Karer, Špela Urbas ; prevod iz češčine Nives Vidrih. (Celje, 2013). LF.31.b.10948

Plečnik na Loškem: Galerija Loškega muzeja Škofja Loka, 8. 6.-31. 10. 2007. besedila Damjan Prelovšek et al.; uvod Jana Mlakar; fotografija Damjan Prelovšek ... et al.. (Skofja Loka, 2007). YF.2011.a.12830.

Jože Plečnik, Jan Kotěra. Jože Plečnik--Jan Kotěra: dopisovanje 1897-1921, uredil, komentiral in prevedel Damjan Prelovšek. (Ljubljana, 2004). YF.2010.b.2359.

Jože Plečnik, Dunajske risbe =The Vienna drawings. text by Peter Krečič. (Ljubljana, 1994). HS.74/1194

Damjan Prelovšek. Josef Plečnik, 1872-1957: architectura perennis, aus dem Slowenischen von Dorothea Apovnik. (Salzburg, 1992). LB.31.b.17818

Lukeš Zdeněk. Jože Plečnik: průvodce po stavbách v České republice; současné fotografie Jiří Podrazil. (Prague, 2012). YF.2013.a.1546

11 January 2022

When Wagner 'met' Beethoven

The Bayreuth Festival was founded by the composer Richard Wagner as a showcase for his own works of music drama. However, the first piece of music heard at the inaugural 1876 Festival was not by Wagner himself, but a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a piece Wagner had also conducted at a ceremony in 1872 to mark the laying of the foundation stone of his Festival Theatre. Beethoven’s 9th remains the only work not by Wagner himself to have been performed at the Bayreuth Festival.

Wagner conducting

Wagner conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth in 1872. Reproduced in Wagner: sein Leben, sein Werk und seine Welt in zeitgenössischen Bildern und Texten ed. Herbert Barth, Dietrich Mack, Egon Voss (Vienna, 1975) X.435/359

Opening a festival of his own works with a Beethoven symphony was not entirely an act of uncharacteristic modesty on Wagner’s part. He was also positioning himself as Beethoven’s musical and cultural heir and his work as the logical continuation of the synthesis of orchestral and vocal music pioneered in Beethoven’s 9th.

Wagner’s veneration of Beethoven went back at least to his teenage years. Early on during his formal musical studies he made a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony, and in his autobiography Mein Leben (My Life) he claims that the symphony “became the mystical lodestar of all my fantastic musical thoughts and aspirations”.

It was while trying to make his name in Paris between 1839 and 1842 that Wagner expressed his fascination with Beethoven in fictional terms in the novella ‘Ein Pilgerfahrt zu Beethoven’ (‘A Pilgrimage to Beethoven’). This was first published in French translation in the journal Revue et gazette musicale de Paris between 19 November and 3 December 1840 under the rather less hagiographical title ‘Une visite à Beethoven’, and was the first of three stories featuring a composer called ‘R’ from a central German town called ‘L’.

Wagner Gazette

Opening of he first instalment of ‘Une visite à Beethoven’ in the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris of 19 November 1840. P.P.1948.u.

‘Ein Pilgerfahrt’ begins with R resolving to travel to Vienna to visit his idol, Beethoven. To pay for the trip he is forced to compose popular but lucrative ‘galops and potpourris’, work he finds degrading. Once on his journey he meets a group of travelling musicians who similarly debase themselves by performing trivial crowd-pleasing works to earn money but play Beethoven privately for their own pleasure. R joins them in a rendition of Beethoven’s Septet, but their serene mood is spoilt by an Englishman who stops his carriage to throw them money.

Later R meets the Englishman at an inn and learns that he is a wealthy musical dilettante who is also travelling to visit Beethoven. Although R refuses the Englishman’s offer of a lift, preferring his own ‘holy and devout’ journey on foot, the two men later find themselves in the same hotel in Vienna. To R’s horror, the Englishman decides to use him as a means to gain an interview with the elusive Beethoven, and various farcical episodes ensue. When R finally receives the desired invitation, the Englishman follows him, clinging to his coat-tails in Beethoven’s doorway in order to gain admittance. At last he is ejected, and R is able to enjoy a long and sympathetic private conversation with Beethoven, with particular mention of the 9th symphony which Beethoven is working on. His goal achieved, R leaves Vienna ‘exalted and ennobled’.

Different musicians and composers have been suggested as the inspiration for R, and Wagner apparently drew on the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s account of Vienna, but surely ‘R’ from ‘L’ is primarily a projection of Richard Wagner from Leipzig. Although Wagner never visited Beethoven (he was only 14 when Beethoven died), R shares many of Wagner’s views and the Beethoven of ‘Ein Pilgerfahrt’ expresses opinions on opera and on the importance of the voice in music which are unlikely to have been those of the real Beethoven but were very much those of the real Wagner. Nicholas Vazsonyi has described the story as “a fictionalized Wagner [meeting] an imagined Beethoven”. Wagner here depicts his fictional alter ego as Beethoven’s natural successor who instinctively understands the older man’s true intent, the same connection he would make with the 9th symphony performances at Bayreuth over three decades later.

Both R and the Englishman reappear in Wagner’s second short story, ‘Ein Ende in Paris’ (‘An End in Paris’). Although more directly autobiographical, using episodes from Wagner’s  life as a struggling composer in Paris (including the loss of his beloved Newfoundland dog, abducted in the story by the perfidious Englishman), it is narrated in the third person and ends with R’s death and funeral. His dying speech begins, “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven”. The third story ‘Ein glücklicher Abend’ (‘A Happy Evening’) features a conversation between R and the same unnamed narrator where Beethoven is again discussed. The stories were later published in a single volume, prefaced by a short introduction in which the narrator of the second two describes the first as R’s surviving account and the others as his own recollections.

Decorative paper cover of 'Ein Deutscher Musiker in Paris'

Cover of an early 20th-century edition of Ein deutscher Musiker in Paris, collecting Wagner’s three Parisian short stories (Leipzig, ca 1920)  YA.1994.a.12223

The three Paris stories are unique in Wagner’s large prose output as works of fiction. Although he returned to the subject of Beethoven many times in other prose works, programme notes and a dedicated longer study, he never again expressed his admiration in fictional form and never returned to the short story as a genre.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections 

References/Further reading:

Richard Wagner, Mein Leben: erste authentische Veröffentlichung (Munich, 1963) 07902.h.8. English translation by Andrew Gray, My Life (Cambridge, 1983) X.431/12251

Richard Wagner, Beethoven (Leipzig, 1870) 7891.bbb.12.(3.). 

Richard Wagner, Wagner writes from Paris: stories, essays and articles by the young composer , edited and translated by Robert L. Jacobs and Geoffrey Skelton (London, 1973) X.439/3176.

Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Vertraute Briefe, geschrieben auf einer Reise nach Wien und den Oesterreichischen Staaten zu Ende des Jahres 1808 und zu Anfang 1809 (Amsterdam, 1810) 10205.a.18.

Nicholas Vazsonyi, ‘Marketing German Identity: Richard Wagner’s “Enterprise”’, German Studies Review 28/2 (2005) 327-346. 4162.157400

Thomas S. Grey, ‘Wagner Introduces Wagner (and Beethoven): Program Notes Written for Concert Performances by and of Richard Wagner 1846–1880’ in Richard Wagner and his World, edited by Thomas S. Grey. (Princeton, 2009), pp. 479-520. YC.2010.a.15744

04 January 2022

Art, poetry and social action – some of 2021’s less conventional Nordic acquisitions

In European Collections, where we focus on printed books post-1850, many of our acquisitions come through regular contracted suppliers. These suppliers are equipped to provide the breadth of publications the Library needs to stay relevant as an international research organisation. Occasionally, however, we acquire by different means, perhaps when the publication is more niche, or second-hand, or when we have a connection to a publisher or author, amongst other reasons. As we enter a new year, I wanted to reflect briefly on the quirkier material that has entered the BL’s Nordic collections in just such ways in 2021.

Valtatiet (‘Highways’) is an early example of the Finnish avant-garde, an illustrated poetry collaboration between Mika Waltari, Olavi Lauri Paavolainen and the artist Sylvi Kunnas, who provided its striking front cover.

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas, awaiting shelfmark

Waltari and Paavolainen were prominent members of the Tulenkantajat (‘Torch Bearers’) group of artists and writers, who introduced the trending movements of European modernism to Finland. Valtatiet was itself inspired by Filippo Marinetti’s Futurism in its manifesto-like poetry of ‘machine romanticism’ (Kaunonen), while Kunnas’s cover certainly betrays an interest in Cubist style. Both poets increasingly became more politically engaged, despite their early preference for the aesthetics and experience of modernity and modern life, and both visited Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with Paavolainen producing perhaps his most famous work as a result, Kolmannen Valtakunnan vieraana (‘Guest of the Third Reich’, 1936). This acquisition complements an extensive European avant-garde collection at the Library and importantly expands it to incorporate an example of its unique Finnish expression.

Black-and-white image of a stlylised human figure

Illustration by Sylvi Kunnas accompanying the poems entitled ‘Credo’ by Olavi Lauri Paavolainen

Our Finnish collections also recently welcomed a much more contemporary literary work, Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli, which we kindly received directly from the author. Elsa won this year’s Tanvissa karhu (‘Dancing bear’) prize for poetry, the first time it has gone to a self-published work. Thrilled to be asked for a copy by the Library, Elsa sent us a beautiful note along with the book, which she described as her “wild and extravagant poetry explosion”. Thank you, Elsa! And for those of us still needing to hone our Finnish, an English translation by Kasper Salonen is available. 

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli (awaiting shelfmark)

Reaching out to creators has been an interesting way to learn about contemporary publishing in the region. I came across the work of Johannes Samuelsson through conversations around Swedish art books and projects centred on social action. Samuelsson, an artist and photographer, has developed an art practice that is directly concerned with uplifting his community in Umeå, making books that document but also form part of that social action. Johannes generously sent his work to the Library and I was particularly struck by the book Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet: En bok om kampen för en korvvagn (‘Reasonable claims for neatness: A book on the fight for a hot dog stall’).

Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm

Cover of Johannes Samuelsson’s Skäliga anspråk på prydlighet, featuring hot dog stall owner, Helmer Holm

When the Umeå authorities introduced new regulations for the design of hot dog stalls, Helmer Holm fought to retain his stall, which contravened the new rules. Samuelsson documents what he calls the “hot dog war”, amplifying Holm’s campaign, which was eventually successful, and the project is brought to life in the photobook. Attempting to represent the cultural life of the Nordic region, our collections need to be broad and relevant, identifying projects that also speak to universal issues and therefore that cut across the Library’s collections. With this Swedish perspective on local activism, on gentrification of common urban space, on art as social practice, we are hopefully adding richness to collections that interrogate similar ideas.

Cover of Art of Welfare

Cover of Art of Welfare, (Oslo, 2006) YD.2021.a.1210

We are always keen to incorporate independent publishing and smaller presses, especially where the publications complement the collections we already hold and the themes central to them. Art publishing tends to be produced with an international market in mind, with many books from the Nordic region appearing in English. After acquiring the Office for Contemporary Art Norway’s recent trilogy of new Indigenous writing, following a survey of contemporary publishing related to Sámi culture, we were fortunate to receive all outstanding issues of the publisher’s Verkstad series from them directly. Exhibition catalogues are often the place for leading thinkers to be creative, and there are unique essays throughout this series. Take, for example, Art of Welfare, produced for Elmgreen & Dragset's exhibition, ‘The Welfare Show’ – initially produced by Bergen Kunsthall, – at the Serpentine Gallery in London in January 2006.

As we constantly shape our collections to reflect the worlds they represent, working with authors, artists and independent publishers is an indispensable way to get at the heart of these cultural landscapes and to broaden the perspective of our own. We hope to continue to supplement our Nordic collections in this way, developing this unofficial “acquisitions through conversations” approach.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

References

Leena Kaunonen, ‘Avant-Garde Moments in Nykyaikaa etsimassa by Olavi Paavolainen’, in A Cultural History of the Avant–Garde in the Nordic Countries 1925–1950 (Leiden, 2019) Avant-garde critical studies; 36. pp. 746-760. 1837.116580