THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

132 posts categorized "Visual arts"

26 December 2019

One of the very best Danish bookplate artists: two recent Ebba Holm acquisitions

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According to Otto Wang, author of niche publications in defence of the reputation of Danish ex-libris, and writing in 1927, no one had received more praise for their bookplate artistry than Ebba Holm. A painter, engraver and illustrator, Holm became most famous for 108 linocut illustrations to a 1929 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in Christian Knud Frederik Molbech’s translation. Otto Wang sees Holm as belonging ‘to the not too many Danish artists who have really been interested in this special little art [of ex libris] and realized that it is necessary to cultivate it and subject it to a special study’.

In Wang’s survey of Holm’s ex libris art, he suggests the artist has given us two of the greatest Danish bookplates, one being for Harald and Karen Abrahamsen (answers on a postcard) and the other being Ebba Holm’s own. Recently, the library acquired L’Opinion et l’amour, a 1830 French book belonging to Holm herself, so we are lucky enough to be in the possession of this famed ex libris. Sadly we don’t know much about Holm’s personal library, and whether she had chosen the book because it was a historical novel written by a woman, Madame de de Saint–Surin, who had also written about the Middle Ages, or for its pretty binding by Janet, a Parisian bookbinder known for his decorative tastes. In any case, it is exciting to see her choice for this most personal design:

Ebba Holm’s ex libris featuring a knight on a horse

Ebba Holm’s ex libris from Madame de Saint Surin, L’Opinion et l’amour (Paris, 1830), awaiting shelfmark

Holm’s love of medieval imagery, or of all things medieval, is expressed in her own bookplate, which features a knight (or could it be Joan of Arc?) holding a spear from which floats a banner displaying her name.

The library has since also acquired a copy of Johannes Jørgensen’s Dantestemninger (‘Dante moods’), a limited edition from 1928, which features a quartet of poems first published in Jørgensen’s collection Bag alle de blaa Bjærge (1913) here in large format alongside four striking woodcuts by Ebba Holm. Our copy has a small book label designed by the illustrator and stuck on the inside back cover. It bears her initials and is adorned with what looks like a heraldic eagle.

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Ebba Holm’s initials underneath an eagle

Jørgensen and Holm were both Italophiles. Jørgensen (1866-1956) lived in Siena from 1914 and wrote the lives of St Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and St Bridget of Sweden after his conversion to Catholicism around 1895.

The Dantestemninger were written at the time he was composing his work on Catherine of Siena and his research into the period allowed Jørgensen to explore an interest in Dante. As Jørgen Breitenstein has written, the poems often explicitly recall Molbech’s translation of Dante, as we see at the end of Jørgensen’s first poem’s reference to Inferno III, 1: ‘og fører ind til Staden, fuld af Jammer’ (‘Per me si va ne la città dolente’ / ‘Through me the way into the suffering city’). That said, Jørgensen portrays a wet, foggy, autumnal forest that has no real parallel to Dante’s Inferno, and Holm depicts a lost forest-bound protagonist in the first woodcut.

Jørgensens Inferno

Jørgenson’s Inferno in a Northern European sylvan mood

Holm might be said to deviate from Jørgensen’s second poem as she depicts the protagonist’s encounter with Beatrice. Holm’s scene might be based on Dante’s Florence but the city is also simple and industrial, the encounter itself without any of the symbolism of Jørgensen’s (and Dante’s) association of Beatrice with fire and flames.

Woodcut depicting the meeting of Dante and Beatrice

Dante meets Beatrice

The third poem deals with Dante’s exile from Florence and the fourth with Dante and Beatrice’s ascension in Paradiso.

Woodcut of Dante in exile. He is sitting under a tree and his hand is resting on a book. Florence is depicted far in the background.

Dante in exile

Woodcut depicting Dante's ascension to heaven

Dante in paradise

Holm’s illustrations here are accomplished without being remarkable but they can also be seen as preparatory for the more lavish, impressive and ultimately prize-winning linocuts for the later Divine Comedy edition. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a copy of this but we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for a fine edition!

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections, and Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Johannes Jørgensen, Dantestemninger (Copenhagen, 1928) LF.31.b.13902

Otto Wang, Ebba Holms Exlibris (Kolding, 1927), 2708.g.23

17 December 2019

Beautifully meaningless: Codex Seraphinianus

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Despite what title of this book might suggest, there is no need for Latinists or philologists: the Codex Seraphinianus is not a medieval manuscript, nor a translation from Latin, it is not written in an undiscovered or secret language either. All the scholarly efforts to decipher the text were dismissed by the author himself who revealed that the writing is asemic, therefore no hidden message to discover. And I guess this is the beauty of his work (the beauty of art in general): the trick can be exposed but the mystery remains, the mystery of creativity.

Codex Seraphinianus text
Pages of text from Codex Seraphinianus (New York, 1983) f84/0685

We look at “…those minute, agile and (we have to admit) very clear italics of his”, as Italo Calvino finely put it, and “we always feel we are just an inch away from being able to read”.

The art book by the Italian artist, designer and architect Luigi Serafini – an imaginary encyclopedia of an imaginary world – was first published in a two-volume edition in Italy in 1981, followed by a single-volume edition in 1983 published in New York, which is the edition held by the British Library. The limited editions and the value attributed to them make the Codex a rare item, sought-after by collectors. Paul Fisher Davies in his article gives an overview of the studies on the text: as he rightly points out, there is a narrative in the sequence of the images and in the way the text connects to them. Even though, the readability of narrative Davies refers to is still imaginary in that the text itself remains undeciphered, the connection between text and images has a powerful impact. Serafini says it himself in an interview: “There is no a written message or something to decode. There are other aspects. There are beauty, the relationship between the images and writing.” (You can see video of Serafini being interviewed here: https://www.the-mag.org/codex-seraphinianus-il-favoloso-mondo-immaginario-di-luigi-serafini/).

Certainly the book does not lack of the systematic division we expect from a science book, and this is marked by what can be assumed is the title, followed by an introduction and table of contents, before the beginning of each of the 11 “chapters” of the 1983 edition, as the photo above shows. However, even the illusory systematicity of the first chapter, which can be safely interpreted as dedicated to “botany” from beginning to end, does not seem to be applied in the second chapter. This begins with an illustrative catalogue of individual light particles, each with different shapes and names, and in the image below it the same light particles are shown as a swarm flying out from the head of a street lamp. This and the bigger catalogue of individual rainbow particles which comes after, tell us that the second chapter is dedicated to “light”.

Image of a rainbow and rainbow-coloured particles from Codex Seraphinianus
Rainbow particles from Chapter 2 of Codex Seraphinianus

But the chapter changes pattern and shows images impossible to interpret, even though, the text below them gives us a sense of reconciliation, an explanation which cannot, does not need to be put in words. And it makes me wonder: can attempting to read asemic writing echo back as a liberating asemic thinking? As Calvino observes “Serafini’s writing has the power to evoke a world where the syntax of things has been distorted, it must contain, hidden beneath, the mystery of its indecipherable surface, a deeper mystery still regarding the internal logic of language and thought.”.

The second chapter continues with images of fishes, snakes, birds, dogs, deer, horses, and ends with this:

Images of rhinoceros-like beasts from Codex Seraphinianus

The third chapter does not even try to make us believe it’s focusing on anything in particular, yet it does not stop overwhelming us with surreal shapes and wonderful colours. And again in the following chapters, until chapter 7: this opens with a catalogue showing the profile view of human heads, which, after so many surreal images, we find ourselves absorbing with the same puzzlement.

The beautifully meaningless journey continues and ends with a page tightly and tiredly written (with a couple of words crossed out, and a couple of others inserted in between, in different parts of the text) and partly lifted as if it accidentally detached itself and, pulling up like a curtain, shows what was not meant to be shown: the broken bones of a hand laying on the floor of a tiny grim room.

In the end what Serafini asks us to do is nothing but immerse ourselves in his magical, often disconcerting world. I find interesting that Serafini decided to give his art book – a book which celebrates freedom from the rules of interpretation and meaning – a title in Latin, which seems to impose a certain historicity based on those rules. I like to think that he does this to make us feel a contraction of time which propels us to a world where, dare I say, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Pliny’s Historia Naturalis meet. As Serafini says in the same interview mentioned earlier, his work could be open to artists of the future, “ … every 5/6 years I could add a chapter and even in the future, I would imagine it as an open work which can be continued by other artist maybe for two or three centuries…”.

Images of fantastical machines with human hands from Codex Seraphinianus
Fantastical machines from Codex Seraphinianus

Giuseppe Alizzi, Acquisitions Support Manager

References/Further reading

Paul Fisher Davies, ‘On the comics-nature of the Codex Seraphinianus’, Studies in comics, Vol. 6:Issue 1 (2015) ZK.9.a.12040

Italo Calvino, ‘The encyclopedia of a visionary’, in Collection of Sand. Translated by Martin L. McLaughlin (London, 2013). ELD.DS.180656

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the European Studies team

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Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

The British Library has, for the third year running, worked with the British Fashion Council on the Research Collaboration Project. This year Glaswegian radical designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year, followed in October by a Masterclass organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition. Charles Jeffrey, considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the BL resources. The show and tell, being the interactive part of the Masterclass, gave curators opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of the visually intriguing collection items.

Image 1

‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – The British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

In this blog post the European and Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’, as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief.

 

Picture of marble pavements in St Mark's basilica, Venice

Ferdinando Ongania, Dettagli del Pavimento ed Ornamenti in Mosaico della Basilica di San Marco in Venezia, Venice, 1881 (74/tab.1283)

Ferdinando Ongania and his Venetian workshop spent more than 10 years (between 1881 and 1893) publishing the 18 volumes of La Basilica di San Marco in Venezia. Inspired by John Ruskin’s work, Ongania commissioned studies to historians, architects, and archaeologists, and put together an exceptional body of photographs and illustrations. His work depicts every single detail of the exterior and interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica, from the architecture to the sculptures and the decorations. The British Library owns the full set, but the volume I chose for the show and tell focuses solely on the mosaic floors, whose drawings I find particularly inspiring for the kaleidoscopic richness of the details and beauty of the colours.

Valentina Mirabella – Curator, Romance Collections

Abstract floral designs

Abstract floral designs

G. Darcy, Or et Couleurs, Paris, A. Calavas, [n.d.] Probably 1920/1921? (fF5/3743)

The designs in the albums contain a variety of geometric motifs, flowers, plants and birds typical of the Art Deco style. Art Deco fashion, which started in France in the 1920s, and took its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, was inspired by new artistic movements, most notably Cubism and Fauvism, by the bright colours of the Ballets Russes, and by the “exotic” styles of Japan, Persia, ancient Egypt and Maya art, among others.

The technique of “Pochoirs”, or stencils, used here, was at the height of popularity in France during the 1920s. It was frequently used to create prints of intense colour and the brilliant effects of gold and silver, as expressed in the title of these collections of plates. The full title explains further that the plates were made in the “new taste” for use by “Fabric makers, Decorators, and ornaments designers” – it was for sale at the bookshop of the Arts Décoratifs.

A particularly interesting feature of this item is that it comes from Nottingham Public Library, which acquired it very soon after its publication. It was quite successful, and was borrowed 25 times between 1922 and 1930.

I chose this item because of my interest in the Art Deco movement and the pochoir technique. The plates are very beautiful of course, and the colours are still incredibly vivid, but most of all I think it is fascinating to have a real proof of interest from readers (presumably amateur decorators and fashion lovers) in the 1920s.

Sophie Defrance – Curator, Romance Collections

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January 2020 when during the reverse show and tell students will reveal their work inspired by the British Library collections.

For featured American collection items please see the parallel American Collections blog.

14 November 2019

Recreating the Lost Sculptures of Umberto Boccioni

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Of the many groundbreaking sculptures Umberto Boccioni created between c. 1913 and 1915, only a handful remain in existence today – most of them were accidentally disposed of on a rubbish dump in 1927. However, using a combination of vintage photographic material taken from books, and cutting-edge 3D printing and milling techniques, four of Boccioni’s destroyed works have now been reconstructed by two digital artists: a volumetric study of a human face titled Empty and Full Abstracts of a Head, and three of the artist’s iconic striding figures. Modern audiences can now ‘see’ these lost masterpieces for the very first time at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London.

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Estorick Collection)

Boccioni’s best known surviving three-dimensional work is undoubtedly Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). One of the most instantly recognisable of all modernist sculptures, it represents an aerodynamic figure – part man, part machine – racing energetically towards the brave new world envisioned by the Futurist movement, a world ‘multiplied’ by technology, speed and industrialisation.

Portrait of Boccioni

Portrait of Boccioni, from Roberto Longhi’s Scultura Futurista Boccioni (7875.dd.31.): 

This work was in fact preceded by three sculptures on the same theme: Synthesis of Human Dynamism, Speeding Muscles and Spiral Expansion of Muscles in Movement. Until today, all that remained of these earlier works were a number of photographs taken in Boccioni’s studio and at three exhibitions around the world between 1913 and 1917. More clearly than ever before, the reconstructed sculptures reveal the evolution of Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, enabling us to perceive the progressive refinement of Boccioni’s ideas and the streamlining of his sculptural forms.

Images showing Umberto Boccioni with Synthesis of Human Dynamism

Images showing Umberto Boccioni with Synthesis of Human Dynamism, from Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece, The Avant-garde in Milan and Paris, New York, 2004 (LD.31.b.256).

Why attempt to recreate long-lost works of art? Surely, only their creator could know how they looked. Projects such as this depend on the quality and quantity of the surviving visual documentation. In the case of Boccioni’s sculptures, sufficient photographic material existed to make reconstruction feasible and worth pursuing. Roberto Longhi’s detailed 1914 essay Scultura Futurista Boccioni concerning Boccioni’s works also provided many important clues as to their appearance. It is crucial to note that the reconstruction process was not undertaken as a mere technical challenge; rather, it is hoped that the resulting pieces will offer new interpretative opportunities for both specialist art historians and the general public, providing fresh insights into Boccioni’s sculptural practice. In this particular instance, the project also represents a fusion of art and technology that would have doubtless appealed to the Futurists.

Images showing the reconstruction process of Synthesis of Human Dynamism 

Images showing the reconstruction process of Synthesis of Human Dynamism 

The reconstruction process went as follows:

1. High resolution photographs of Boccioni’s sculptures were scanned from books or acquired from different museums, publishers and institutions. In total, 21 photographs were used for the four reconstructions. Two books were primarily used:

Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni Pittore scultore futurista (Milan, 2006; awaiting shelfmark) and Laura Mattioli Rossi, Boccioni’s Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece, The Avant-garde in Milan and Paris.

2. Using image software, the contrast of the images was adjusted, and areas in shadow were lightened in order to bring out as much detail as possible.

3. Each of the sculptures was extracted from its surrounding space, effectively producing ‘cut-outs’ from different angles.

4. Using 3D sculpting software, these cut-outs were imported, then set as reference views.

5. The starting point of the 3D model was a ‘blob’ of digital clay which was moulded to fit the contours of the sculpture in all of the reference views. This semi-transparent form made it possible to trace the shapes of the underlying image, just as transparent paper can be used to copy a picture placed below it. The digital moulding tools mimic their real world counterparts and allow easy shaping of the ‘clay’.

6. By taking into account overlapping and receding forms, the time-consuming sculpting process eventually produced a form that was very close to how the actual sculpture must have looked. The mesh resolution was increased when all of the basic shapes were in place, and further enhanced with the addition of increasingly smaller details.

7. Light sources were adjusted in the rendering software to simulate the shadows cast in the original photographs as closely as possible. This helped to establish the size of the protruding and receding shapes, and the work’s overall proportions.

8. The finished 3D model was printed or milled.

Photograph showing visitors looking at the reconstructed statues shown at the Estorick Collection

The reconstructed statues shown at the Estorick Collection. (Reproduced by kind permission of the Estorick Collection)

The reconstructions can be seen at the Estorick Collection until 22 December, and you can see a video detailing the reconstruction process below:

Anders Rådén and Matt Smith, digital artists responsible for recreating four of Boccioni’s destroyed works

References/Further reading:

Umberto Boccioni, Pittura scultura futuriste: dinamismo plastico (Milan, 1914) 7859.de.1. (English translation by Richard Shane Agin and Maria Elena Versari, Futurist painting sculpture: plastic dynamism (Los Angeles, [2016]) YC.2017.b.2375)

Maurizio Calvesi, Alberto Dambruoso, Umberto Boccioni: catalogo generale delle opere; con la collaborazione di Sara De Chiara (Turin, 2016) LF.31.b.14033

John Golding, Boccioni: Unique forms of continuity in space (London, 1985) YV.1986.b.1014

05 November 2019

‘The Ark of Unique Cultures’: the story of a remarkable handmade book

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The British Library recently received an unusual donation from the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Tallinn: a handmade book – The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls – celebrating the history and culture of the Hutsuls, an ethnic group from the Carpathian Mountains. It is one of a limited series of 35 books, which were donated to major libraries around the world. As well as poems in the Hutsul dialect and English translation, the book includes postcards, photographs and even specimens of Carpathian plants. Slavonic curator Katie McElvanney spoke to Eric Johnson, a volunteer at the Centre, to find out more about the project.

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls

Copies of The Ark of Unique Cultures: The Hutsuls (Tallinn: Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 2014). (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre)

How did the book project come about and what was its aim? 

The Ark of Unique Cultures is one of the many creations of Anatoli Ljutjuk, a Benedictine friar born in Western Ukraine who has been a resident and citizen of Estonia for decades. Anatoli’s greatest creation is Tallinn’s Church of the Virgin with Three Hands, who is the protector of all living beings who have been falsely accused or unjustly persecuted. The church is affiliated with the secular Ukrainian Cultural Centre (UKK to use its Estonian initials). From the beginning, Anatoli’s conception for the small Eastern-rite Catholic church included the natural world around it. As a result, the UKK’s first book project focused on those vanishing plants and animals that we humans have unjustly persecuted. And so The Poetics of Endangered Species was born (both books in this series were kindly donated to the British Library by the UKK. See YF.2017.b.1281 (Estonia) and YF.2017.b.1282 (Ukraine)).

After the first edition of The Poetics of Endangered Species appeared, Anatoli soon realized that not just plants and animals are in danger of disappearing from our world but also entire human subcultures. As it happens, Estonia became the new home to a fair number of Hutsuls who speak their own dialect and observe many distinct traditions. Known for their forestry skills, Hutsuls were hired in Soviet times to help manage Estonia’s forests. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some of those who chose to remain in Estonia helped Anatoli build his new church.

So Anatoli first came up with the idea of The Ark of Unique Cultures as a way to honour all those ethnic groups whose traditions are in danger of being overwhelmed by the larger groups around them. The goal of this Book Ark is to document and preserve each culture’s unique features for future generations. In the case of the Hutsuls, it also serves as a 21st-century update to Sergei Parajanov’s landmark film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965).

BL copy page

The British Library’s copy of the book. Awaiting shelfmark.

What can you tell us about the poems included in the book?

Ukrainian Poet Mariya Korpanyuk is widely regarded as the best poet writing in the Hutsul dialect. Although she had already written a short series of poems about the life and customs of the Hutsuls, she agreed to expand her series after meeting Anatoli. Each poem is dedicated to a unique feature of Hutsul culture that was in danger of disappearing.

Because many unique Hutsul words are unknown even to Ukrainians — or a seemingly familiar word may hold a different meaning — Anatoli decided that the poems should be translated into English to help tell the Hutsul story to the world. The UKK is working to secure funding to print a facsimile edition of The Ark of Unique Cultures so that the book and its wonderful cycle of poems can reach an even wider audience.

Hutsulka page

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

How and where did you collect the plants, postcards and photographs?

The plants were collected by Anatoli and his friends on one of his ‘expeditions’ up into the Ukrainian side of the Carpathian Mountains. They were then dried and used as inclusions in the handmade paper made at the UKK’s hand paper mill in Tallinn.

The postcards, designed by Anatoli, were hand printed on the UKK’s press by Labora — as the UKK’s paper, print, and other workshops are known in distinction to the church (Ora). On another trip to the Carpathians, Anatoli and friends distributed the postcards in Hutsul villages and asked the villagers to send the postcards back to the UKK in Tallinn with their comments on the Ark’s poems or any other aspects of Hutsul life they wanted to highlight. Thanks to the postcards, the Ark became a real community-wide project.

The pre-Second World War (and in many cases pre-First World War) photos were selected by the wonderful National Museum of Hutsulshchyna & Pokuttya Folk Art — the UKK’s partner for this book project — located in the town of Kolomyia and dedicated to preserving and promoting all things Hutsul. Kolomiya is the largest town on traditional Hutsul territory, in the foothills of the Carpathians.

Bride and groom page from book

Pages from the book featuring postcards, photographs and Mariya Korpanyuk’s poems.

Can you talk us through the book-making process?

The book’s illustrations and overall design are the work of Anatoli. All of the UKK’s original books are made pretty much entirely in its Labora studios, which employ a small group of calligraphers, printers, artists, and bookbinders who can create handmade books — or indeed illuminated manuscripts — in similar ways to a medieval monastery. The UKK and Labora are actively involved in teaching book-related crafts, from ink-making to bookbinding, to future generations through workshops, classes, and various partnerships.

The handmade paper — usually made from a combination of cotton, linen and rag — is beaten in a Hollander Beater before each sheet is hand-pulled by one of the UKK’s paper makers using handmade molds and deckles. The smaller plants are added right into the pulp or slurry. Larger ones are added onto the wet sheets of paper before they are pressed and dried.

Paper sheets before pressing

The paper making process (Reproduced by kind permission of the Ukrainian Cultural Centre and Labora)

What other book projects is the UKK currently working on?

In addition to publishing a facsimile edition of The Ark of Unique Cultures: the Hutsuls, the UKK is working on several other book projects including Sanctuarium: The Story of the Church of the Virgin with Three Hands and Horse Tales, an illustrated picture book by Anatoli Ljutjuk about goodness during wartime which will be released around the same time as a new Ukrainian documentary film about Anatoli and his travels with his wooden horse.

Of course, the UKK is also always on the lookout for new country partners to create new volumes — beyond the current two about Estonia and about Ukraine — for its two series The Poetics of Endangered Species and The Ark of Unique Cultures, dedicated to ethnic groups in danger of disappearing.

With kind thanks to Eric Johnson, and to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre for donating a copy of The Ark of Unique Cultures: the Hutsuls to the British Library. A digitised copy of the book is available via the National Library of Estonia. 

29 October 2019

UNOVIS – the Bauhaus of the East

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This year is the centenary of the Bauhaus, prompting worldwide celebrations from Brazil to the UK, from Germany to China. The Bauhaus as a school of art and architecture is long gone, but as a marketing and PR campaign it has not yet run out of steam. The history of art has put it on a pedestal, and for decades it has been widely recognised as the undisputed primary source of inspiration for Modernism, but is it?

The almost fanatical reverence for the Bauhaus in the West certainly overshadows its most influential contemporary, the People’s Art School, which was located in a small provincial town in modern-day Belarus called Viciebsk (Vitebsk), hundreds of miles from any major cities.

Professors at the People's Art School in Viciebsk

Teachers at the People’s Art School in Viciebsk, July 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)

The school was the brainchild of Viciebsk’s most famous son, Marc Chagall. It was approved in August 1918 by Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the People’s Commissariat for Education, and officially inaugurated in January 1919, just over two months before the Bauhaus and amid the upheaval of the Russian Civil War. But it was what happened next that actually cemented Viciebsk’s place in the history of modern art. The following year in November 1919, Chagall invited the maverick of 20th century modern art, Kazimir Malevich to teach in his humble art school in Viciebsk.

Title page of O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve with Malevich's black square

Kazimir Malevich, O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve (Viciebsk, 1919), C.114.n.46.

2019 therefore marks the centenary of Malevich’s arrival in Viciebsk, and under Malevich, the People’s Art School became a completely different breed with a singular voice. Malevich was in fact persuaded to move from Moscow to Viciebsk by a young teacher who was already teaching there, El Lissitzky, who would later become a celebrated artist worldwide in his own right. With Malevich came his Suprematism, and a clash with the pluralistic approach to styles preferred by Chagall was inevitable. Lissitzky very soon was won over by Suprematism and created his famous/ infamous pro-Bolshevik propaganda poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919), a powerful image that graces the floor of the art school (now a museum) today.

El Lissitzky  ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919)

El Lissitzky, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919) (Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will be the centenary of another significant event in modern art history: the emergence of UNOVIS, and this warrants separate mention. The group was first founded by students from the People’s Art School on 19 January 1920 under the Russian acronym MOLPOSNOVIS, meaning ‘Young Followers of the New Art’, but within days, the group was joined by the teachers and was renamed POSNOVIS, meaning ‘Followers of the New Art’.

On 14 February 1920 it was renamed again, this time UNOVIS, meaning the champions, or the affirmers of the New Art – not followers any more. The architect of this cult-like group was Malevich, and it counted many future superstars among its converts, including Lissitzky, Vera Ermolaeva (who was also director of the School for a time), Nina Kogan, and Lazar Khidekel. The transition of the school from the influence of pluralistic individualism championed by Chagall to collective, impersonal and non-objective art was now complete – all the works created by UNOVIS were signed with Malevich’s iconic black square for anonymity.

Title page of Suprematizm. 34 risunka with Malevich's black square

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematizm. 34 risunka (Viciebsk, 1920). Wikimedia Commons. The British Library holds two facsimiles of this work in Russian and English (X.419/3137 and YA.1997.a.15443).

The whole town of Viciebsk soon became their testing ground as members decorated it with Suprematist art in all its forms, but the group’s ultimate goal was to apply Suprematism to the largest and most permanent art form with a more lasting impact on society: architecture. Although the group did not actually realise any architectural projects during its ephemeral existence, its Suprematist aesthetics inspired and continue to inspire many architects, even its antagonists, throughout the 20th century and up to this day, including the late Zaha Hadid, one of world's most sought-after ‘starchitects’ of recent decades.

The Bauhaus as a school is famous for its short life-span which ended in 1933, but UNOVIS was even more short-lived, it lasted just over 2 years and was dissolved in May 1922 for various reasons including financial ones. Nevertheless, UNOVIS had announced its presence to the world and had a far-reaching impact on 20th-century art and architecture beyond its very short life. The legacy of Viciebsk was re-affirmed by a major exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris last year (the catalogue is available at the British Library, LF.31.a.6493). The Viciebsk Centre of Modern Art is also planning a series of UNOVIS centenary publications and events next year, including exhibitions, a conference, and a poster competition.

Issue of Supremus newspaper

Issue of Supremus, a newspaper dedicated to Malevich and the legacy of Suprematism (Moscow/Zurich, 1991-2001). HS.74/803

There are a number of additional items related to this intensely creative period in Viciebsk in the collections of the British Library. Most notably, they include an original copy of Malevich’s manifesto Bog ne skinut: iskusstvo, tserkov', fabrika (‘God is not cast down: art, church, factory’; Viciebsk, 1922; C.114.n.33.). The Library also holds the first issue (1919) of the Viciebsk journal Revoliutsionnoe iskusstvo (‘Revolutionary Art’; C.191.b.6), which includes articles by Chagall and Malevich, as well as a facsimile of Almanakh UNOVIS 1 (Moscow, 2003; LF.31.b.1837), which was originally published in 1920. In addition, there is a strong collection of works by and about individual members of UNOVIS, as well as a wealth of secondary literature on the group.

Tszwai So, co-founder of Spheron Architects, is a London-based artist and architect

 

23 August 2019

Raymond Roussel’s strange book

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Where to start with the eccentric French poet Raymond Roussel? He was born into fabulous wealth, which he used to indulge his many idiosyncrasies. He threw lavish banquets just for himself. He more or less invented the modern electrified caravan, in which he travelled the world. Oh, and there’s a childhood photograph of him astride a swan.

Photo of Raymond Roussel, aged 3, sitting astride a swan

Photo of Raymond Roussel, aged 3, with a swan. Picture by Wilhelm Benque (1849-1903) & Cie (Paris) from Wikimedia Commons

He also produced a book with peculiar, unturnable pages, called Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique. There’s a first edition in the British Library’s collections, and it has quite a story attached to it. You can listen to a podcast I made about it here, featuring Dr Dennis Duncan of University College London, and Dr Sophie Defrance, Curator of Romance Collections at the British Library.

Nouvelles Impressions is a long poem written in rhyming couplets, which Roussel published in 1932 after spending over a decade writing it. Convinced it was a masterpiece, he wanted to it to be his lasting literary monument. The problem was that it wasn’t very monumental in length and so, possibly to turn it into a longer, more impressive looking tome, he decided to include some illustrations. But here’s where it starts to get weird: Roussel hired an illustrator using a private detective agency, keeping his own identity a secret and providing only a series of captions or one-sentence instructions. And so the artist, Henri Zo, produced a set of line drawings without ever seeing the actual poem, or even knowing whose book he was illustrating. What’s even weirder is that Roussel then instructed his printer to produce the book in such a way that the illustrations would be partially concealed, hidden in the folds of uncut pages.

Books with uncut (or ‘unopened’) pages used to be very common. They were a by-product of the way books were produced in the era before industrial printing. Handpress production involved printing several pages at a time on a single larger sheet, which was then folded, usually into quarters or eighths, depending on the format and size of the volume. When these folded sheets were then stitched together into a book, some of the pages would still be joined together at the top or along the fore-edge. (Try this with a sheet of paper and you’ll see what I mean). Often the first thing you would need to do as a reader is to slice open the pages in order to read.

Roussel turned this quirk of book production into a feature of his Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique. He made sure that the text and illustrations appeared on alternate leaves, and whereas the text is easily readable by turning the pages conventionally, the images could be seen only with difficulty, by prising apart two pages which are joined at the top. He even seems to have included an instruction to readers in later editions not to slice the pages, but to leave them joined. There’s something not only awkward but quite voyeuristic and intimate about this mode of reading, as Dennis Duncan has observed.

Roussel’s text itself seems well aware of this, and one of the illustrations depicts a man who is reading in exactly this way, looking rather furtive as he prises apart the leaves of an uncut book. It creates a funny kind of regression, placing us in the same position as the man in the illustration, even as we look at him.

Illustration of a man reading an un-opened book

An illustration of the art of reading an unopened book, in Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique. (Paris, 1932) 11397.aaa.2. 

Except that in this British Library copy, it doesn’t work in quite the way Roussel intended. He might have been meticulous in planning what the book would look like, and how readers would have to navigate it, but his plans were derailed once it was out in the world. At some point, possibly as late as 1983, the pages of this edition in the British Library were sliced open and disbound, so that they could be coated in a peculiar protective tissue layer that conservators were once fond of, in a process called lamination, or the ‘technique/process of manufacturing a material in multiple layers, so that the composite material achieves improved strength and stability’. Lamination was used to conserve very fragile or acid paper and was rather a common habit in libraries that cared about conservation from the 1950s to the early 1980s.

Not only were the pages of the British Library edition cut, but it was rebound wrongly, so that Roussel’s masterpiece was interrupted mid way through by the accidental inclusion of some publishers’ blurb and critical endorsements, including a glowing review of one of Roussel’s previous works, La poussière de soleils by the Daily Mail

Pierre Bazantay’s study on Roussel’s aesthetics describes how this booklet, or “cahier” of praises to Roussel was prepared by his editor, Lemerre, in the 1930s (certainly at the request of Roussel himself) and inserted in all the re-editions of his works. For the modern reader, it is ever so slightly poignant to read these reviews, which were not always clearly laudatory, but were cut just the right amount to almost look so. As a point of comparison, the booklet was correctly inserted in a now digitised edition of another of Roussel’s works, Chiquenaude

A promotional booklet produced by Roussel’s publisher, Lemerre, wrongly inserted in the rebound book in Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique.

La critique et Raymond Roussel, a promotional booklet produced by Roussel’s publisher, Lemerre, wrongly inserted in the rebound book in Raymond Roussel’s Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique. (Paris, 1932) 11397.aaa.2.

Poor old Roussel tried so hard to control how his poem would be encountered and read. But the British Library copy is testament to the fact that books just don’t work like that. How they are preserved depends on the vagaries of conservators, collectors and readers. Subsequent publishers have also largely ignored his original design, taking all kinds of liberties with the layout of Nouvelles Impressions, and even bumping all the illustrations to end of the book. Laurent Busine’s study, Raymond Roussel: contemplator enim, described the composition process, Roussel’s relationship with his publisher, and reproduced and discussed the 59 images created by Zo. If you want to read the book as Roussel envisaged, you need to get hold of the 2004 English translation published by Atlas Press. It’s the only edition to scrupulously replicate its unopened pages and give you the original, peculiar reading experience. It even includes a stern warning note to its readers: ‘You are advised to cut only the pages containing the introduction, and to read it before deciding whether to cut the remaining pages’.

Gill Partington, 2018–2019 Munby Fellow in Bibliography at Cambridge University (with Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance collections).

References/further reading

Pierre Bazantay, 'Roussel: une esthétique de la crise?' in Cahiers de l'Association internationale des études françaises, 2004, no. 56. pp. 113-126. W.P.d.475.

Laurent Busine, Raymond Roussel: contemplator enim: sur les «Nouvelles impressions d'Afrique», ouvrage orné de 59 illustrations d’Henri-Achille Zo. (Brussels, 1995). YA.1996.a.1668.

Raymond Roussel, La poussière de soleils. Pièce en cinq actes et vingt-quatre tableaux. (Paris, 1926) C.104.dd.30.

Raymond Roussel, New impressions of Africa; with 59 illustrations by H.-A. Zo; translated & introduced by Ian Monk with the assistance of Henry Matthews. (London, 2004). YK.2007.a.15117.

16 August 2019

‘C’est un détournement’: Mezioud Ouldamer’s copy of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s Mémoires

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In 1959 Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, ‘a work entirely composed of prefabricated elements’ with ‘supporting structures’ by Jorn. In the jargon of the Situationist International (SI), the avant-garde anti-authoritarian movement they helped form in 1957, it is a work of détournement:

Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation — a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework. Détournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 208)

Double-page spread from Mémoires featuring fragments of text and photographs with red splodges

Double-page spread from Mémoires (Copenhagen, 1957; RF.2019.b.63), section 2, bright red indicating Debord’s creative energy

Double-page spread from Mémoires with fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge

Double-page spread from Mémoires section 3, fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge

Wrenched from their original contexts, fragments of texts and isolated images are linked and obscured by roughly applied, bright inks. Not always ‘supporting structures’, Jorn’s paintwork draws connections between fragments, but ‘then Debord’s words and pictures change Jorn’s avenues into labyrinths […] A connection is made, a connection is missed, the reader is lost, the reader enters another passageway, then another’ (Marcus, p. 128).

A page from from Mémoires featuring fragments of text, including a 'Guinness is good for you' advertisement. There is a large red splodge covering some of the fragments

‘Guinness is good for you’: détourning advertising as the slogan is placed next to the fragment ‘in the daily struggle’

Through his creative reinterpretation of the autobiographical genre, the author enacts the process by which the ‘society of the spectacle’ and the commodification of experience might finally be blown apart to uncover again the unique everyday amidst the alienating capitalist superstructure. As Mémoires’ final fragment puts it, ‘I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’.

Final page of Memoires featuring the words 'I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time' (in French) and a large red splodge.

Final page of Mémoires

The British Library’s copy of Mémoires has an inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer (1951-2017), an Algerian political activist and author of a number of works inspired by the Situationists and his friendship with Debord.

Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in Mémoires

Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in Mémoires

Ouldamer writes: ‘It is a détournement | It was in Ecclesiastes. | And even in Proverbs. | There is still a belief in this rotten “God”. There is nothing, Evy. I love you. | Le Singe [the monkey or the imitator]’. It isn’t clear when Debord gave Ouldamer the copy, of which there were perhaps one thousand in small circulation amongst associates, but their friendship appears to have flourished in the early 1980s. Ouldamer’s presence in our copy shifts the frame of the work and provokes us to think about race, ethnicity and the Algerian crises that were part of the context of both the original publication and Debord’s subsequent gift to Ouldamer.

Algerian intellectuals were already part of the Lettrist International, the SI’s forerunner, including Hadj Mohamed Dahou, who continued into the SI. Compatriot Abdelhafid Khatib wrote a fragmentary first example of a psychogeography in 1958. Thus the Algerian Situationist context was well established when the next generation came to maturity. Between 1953, the year of ‘The Manifesto of the Algerian Group of the Lettrist International’, and Ouldamer’s early activism came Algeria’s hard-won independence in 1962. From this point onwards, the violent suppression of native Algerian rights by French colonists transformed into the suppression of Berber rights by the single-party leadership Front de liberation nationale (FLN) with their exclusive focus on Arabization. This eventually led to the Berber mass activism and strikes of 1980, known as the ‘Berber Spring’.

Ouldamer, a native of the largest Berber region, Kabylia, co-edited a pamphlet entitled L’Algérie brûle! [‘Algeria is on fire’], attributed to ‘un groupe d’autonomes algériens’. In it, they pay homage to the activists for restoring to millions of Berber people a long-restricted freedom of expression. They reveal the illusion of Algeria being the standard-bearer for third world revolution, when it has reproduced ‘all the mediocrities and ignominies shared across all the world’s police states’. The incendiary pamphlet then evokes our inscription as it continues, ‘Les insurgés de Tizi-Ouzou n’ont fait que cracher sur toute cette pourriture’ [the insurgents of Tizi-Ouzou have done nothing else but spit in the face of this rottenness].

Cover of L’Algérie brûle!

L’Algérie brûle! (Paris, 1981) X.809/55238

L’Algérie brûle! was published by Debord’s longstanding publisher and friend Gérard Lebovici at éditions Champ Libre, Paris. It appeared early in 1981, by which time Ouldamer had been arrested, ultimately to serve one year in prison for breaking article 144 of the Algerian penal code, which is cited on the back flap of his next book, Offense à President. The law forbids citizens to attack the honour of authorities ‘by words, gestures, threats, […] even by writings or drawings not made public’. This book was written in Paris, Ouldamer’s new home following his release, where his friendship with Debord developed. In March 1984, Lebovici was assassinated. Debord rigorously investigated the circumstances of his friend’s death, all the while encouraging Ouldamer to publish his work with the same publisher, now run by Gérard’s widow Floriana under the name éditions Gérard Lebovici.

Cover of Offense à President

Mezioud Ouldamer, Offense à Président (Paris, 1985), YA.1987.a.18728

The success of Offense à President led Ouldamer to work on the book that would spark the most reaction, Le Cauchemar immigré dans la decomposition de la France [‘The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France’]. Debord again offered advice throughout. One letter from Debord on 9 May 1985 invites Ouldamer to the small hamlet of Champot, adding that his girlfriend would also be welcome. Is this the ‘Evy’ mentioned in Ouldamer’s inscription in Mémoires?

Cover of Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France

Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France (Paris, 1986), YA.1987.a.3700

Le Cauchemar immigré inspired Debord to pass his own comments on the politics of immigration that had risen to the surface, especially since 1983’s March for Equality and against Racism. Debord’s ‘Notes on the “immigrant question”’ were written in response to Ouldamer’s ideas and are probably more famous today than the work that inspired them. Ouldamer’s matter-of-fact delivery is similar to Debord’s as he writes ‘the spectacle of a nightmarish immigration dominates every mind, to the extent that immigrants themselves have begun to give in to this image’. The last lines of Le Cauchemar immigré are indeed taken from Debord’s last lines of his notes to Ouldamer. The gist is, will the earth’s future inhabitants emancipate themselves from the current hierarchical and repressive system, or ‘will they be dominated by an even more hierarchical and pro-slavery society than today?’ Sharing a militancy, Debord and Ouldamer close by saying, ‘we must envisage the worst and fight for the best. France is assuredly regrettable. But regrets are useless.’

Ouldamer’s inscription in the BL’s copy of Mémoires arguably offers a détournement of its own to Debord and Jorn’s détournement. At the very least, this contextual history reinserts global and racial dynamics into a work of the European political avant-garde, in which the Algerian crises of the 20th century arguably often only played a sub-textual role. If Mémoires ‘wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’ then that language was surely not just the fragmented artistry of Paris, but also the Arabic and the Berber languages of Algeria.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1994), YC.1994.b.6105

Guy Debord, Correspondance [vol. 6, Janvier 1979 – Décembre 1987] (Paris, 1999-2010), YF.2008.a.37298

Nedjib Sidi Moussa, ‘In Memoriam Mezioud Ouldamer’, in Textures du Temps

Erindringer om Asger Jorn, ed. by Troels Andersen and Aksel Evin Olesen (Silkeborg, 1982), X.425/4198

Greil Marcus, ‘Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Siutationist Primer’, in On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, ed. by Elisabeth Sussman (Cambridge, MA: 1989), YC.1992.b.1936

Boris Donné, Pour mémoires: un essai d’élucidation des Mémoires de Guy Debord (Paris, 2004), YF.2004.a.15028

Tom McDonough, ‘The Beautiful Language of my Century’: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, MA: 2007), YK.2007.a.9440

Bart Lans and Otakar Mácel, ‘The Making of Fin de Copenhague & Mémoires: The tactic of détournement in the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’ (Delft, 2009) 

Ella Mudie, ‘An Atlas of Allusions: The Perverse Methods of Guy Debord’s Mémoires, Criticism 58 (2016), pp. 535-63

19 July 2019

Love, Art and Rejection: Mayakovsky’s Pro eto

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Today marks the birthday of the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. To celebrate, we’ve dug into the history behind our edition of his poem Pro eto. Ei i mne (‘About This. To Her and to Me’). Completed in early 1923, Pro eto is a lyric love poem dedicated to the poet’s lover Lilya Brik, a writer, actor, artist and the wife of his publisher, Osip Brik, following a two-month separation. Their relationship was tumultuous to say the least, and the poem expresses Mayakovsky’s feelings of jealousy and emotional insecurities. It also has a political slant and can be viewed as ‘a reflection on life in conditions of revolutionary transformation’ (Day, 328). 

Cover of Pro eto featuring a portrait of Lilya Brik

Cover of Pro eto (Moscow, 1923). C.131.k.12.

Pro eto was initially published in LEF, the journal of Levy Front Iskusstv (‘Left Front of the Arts’), an association of avant-garde writers, photographers, critics and designers, in March 1923. Shortly after, it appeared as a separate edition and was accompanied by photomontages (often featuring Mayakovsky and Lilya) by the artist and central figure in Russian Constructivism Aleksandr Rodchenko. The image of the telephone features throughout and can be viewed as a metaphor for their separation and the complexity of their relationship. The cover also features a striking shot of Lilya’s face with staring eyes.

Page from Pro eto with a photomontage by Rodchenko. This includes a dinosaur, telephone and a portrait of Mayakovsky

Page from Mayakovsky’s Pro eto with photomontage by Rodchenko

Page from Pro eto with a photomontage by Rodchenko. This includes portraits of Lilya Brik and a telephone

Photomontage by Rodchenko from Pro eto (Moscow, 1923)

The edition held by the British Library was dedicated to Aleksandr Halpern, a Russian politician and lawyer, by Lilya Brik in Paris in 1924 (both Lilya and Mayakovsky spent time in Paris during this period). Halpern, who served as Kerensky’s private secretary in 1917, left Russia after the October Revolution, living first Paris and then Britain. From 1925 he was married to Salomea Andronikova, a Georgian princess who was an influential figure in literary and artistic circles in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg and later in emigration in Paris and Britain. During the Second World War Halpern allegedly worked as an MI6 agent in America as part of the British Government Mission. He returned to Britain after the war, where he counted Isaiah Berlin among his acquaintances, and died in 1956.

Title page of the British Library’s copy of Pro eto with a dedication from Lilya Brik to Aleksandr Halpern

Title page of the British Library’s copy of Pro eto with a dedication from Lilya Brik to Aleksandr Halpern

The British Museum Library acquired this copy of Mayakovsky’s poem from Halpern’s Russian collection in 1958, along with a number of other works including the 1923 book Lidantiu faram (‘Lidantiu as a Beacon’; C.145.b.15. and Mic.F.224) by Iliazd (Il'ia Zdanevich) and Naum Granovskii (which warrants a separate blog post!). While Pro eto is written from Mayakovsky’s perspective, it provides an important insight into the complicated relationship between the pair and Lilya’s influence on his work. So much so, that the Barbican Art Gallery borrowed the British Library’s copy for their recent exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

References and further reading

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Pro eto – That's what, trans. by Larisa Gureyeva & George Hyde (Todmorden, 2009). YC.2010.a.11273

LEF: zhurnal levogo fronta iskusstv (Moscow; Petrograd, 1923-1925). C.104.dd.51. Digitised copies of the journal are also available via the British Library’s electronic resources (reading rooms only).

Iliazd, LidantIU fAram (Paris, 1923). C.145.b.15. and Mic.F.224

Gail Day, ‘Art, love and social emancipation: the concept 'avant-garde' and the interwar avant-gardes’ in Art of the Avant-gardes, ed. by Edwards S and Wood P (New Haven, Conn.; London, 2004), 307-337. YC.2006.b.696 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde, ed. by Jane Alison and Coralie Malissard (Munich, 2018). LC.31.b.20507

05 June 2019

Transcending Text in Print: Lothar Schreyer’s Kreuzigung

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The term Bauhaus evokes functionality, social utopia, maybe even novel pedagogical thinking, but this is often associated with its role as a school of design. However, the Bauhaus developed out of a movement that was split between the rational and what Pádraic E. Moore refers to as the ‘cosmically-inclined’. This year’s Bauhaus centenary gives pause for thought to the contrasting utopianisms at the heart of the school, and to the esoteric elements, which have been given less attention in its historiography.

These elements are often reduced to the influence of Wassily Kandinsky, who articulated a ‘spiritual vision’ for 20th-century art. Kandinsky sought to unite form, colour, sound, and movement in ‘the gradual forming structure of the new spiritual realm’. Der gelbe Klang (‘The Yellow Sound’) is one such ‘symphonic composition’ that paved the way for a new theatre. It first appeared in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (Munich, 1912; C.107.h.16) and comprises six ‘pictures’ almost without dialogue, detailing elaborate staging and actor movements.

Kandinsky was a key influence on Lothar Schreyer, pioneer of expressionist theatre, who, according to David F. Kuhns, ‘built a whole theory of performance on the expressive process first suggested in The Yellow Sound’.

Title-page of Lothar Schreyer's, Kreuzigung
Title-page of Lothar Schreyer, Kreuzigung (Hamburg, 1920) C.180.cc.8.

Where Kandinsky offers lengthy stage directions as a surrogate for synesthetic art experience, Schreyer’s Kreuzigung: Spielgang Werk VIII attempts to represent a spiritual experience in a singular score, employing a distinct set of signs and symbols, colours and forms. Its publication triggered Walter Gropius to invite Schreyer to the Bauhaus, where he led the stage workshop between 1921 and 1923.

Photographic portrait of Lothar Schreyer
Lothar Schreyer  in 1918. (Picture from Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kandinsky was influential but Schreyer’s Bauhaus experience was shaped more by Johannes Itten and Gertrud Grunow, two less familiar names. Schreyer’s thinking around rhythm maps onto ideas simiular to theirs. Itten led the Bauhaus Preliminary Course [Vorkurs] and Grunow the course in ‘Practical Harmonization’ [Praktische Harmonisierungslehre], both forming the foundation of a student’s education. Itten’s devotion to Mazdaznan opened his practice to regulating physical exercises, including breathing and rhythmic drawing. Likewise, Grunow encouraged rhythmic breathing and a response to colours through movement. Both were committed to strengthening students’ ‘self-awareness in relation to both the corporeal and the spiritual’ (Linn Buchert). In the focus on fundamental words, tones, colours, forms, Schreyer also encourages in each of his practitioners an inner harmony, sound, or rhythm, which pushes to a limit the experience of ‘word’. This is more than the ‘transmission of a message’; it is the evocation of spirit.

Kreuzigung developed out of Schreyer’s work with Der Sturm, the most influential journal of German expressionism, an offshoot of which, Die Sturm-Bühne, he edited in collaboration with the Hamburg Kampfbühne, his parallel theatre project. Schreyer’s expressionism went against the overly literary dramatic tradition, which he declared defunct: in his 1916 essay ‘Das Bühnenkunstwerk’, he wrote: ‘It is necessary to forget theatre. […] A stage art [Bühnenkunstwerk] is necessary’. That stage art privileged performance over print, synesthetic experience over dialogue. Kreuzigung then returns to the print medium in order to explode the representative possibilities of literature.

The book is not described as a playscript [Theaterstück], rather Schreyer prefers the neologism Spielgang. Whereas the usual term refers to a piece, the new term draws attention to the mobility of the text through Gang (path, walk, derived from the verb gehen, to walk or go). It is the only Spielgang to materialize from a workshop process that was usually reserved for the Kampfbühne’s community of artists. Schreyer only rarely allowed outsiders into performances and practically no reviews. Yet Kreuzigung became the exemplary work ‘to grant others the knowledge’ of this creative experimentation through, in Schreyer’s own words, ‘the system and sign, in which a stage work was given the stability of form [die Beständigkeit der Gestalt]’.

The text is evocative rather than wholly readable. It works in connection with the representation of movement, figures (as coloured forms), and sound. That is apparent from the title page, headed with the motto, ‘Sturm dir Sturm allen Sturm’, which might be translated as ‘Storm to you Storm to all Storm’ but also works on the level of sonic rhythm and visual symmetry, especially in the heightened artistry of the wood-block setting.

Text 'What the reader must know' from 'Kreuzigung'
‘What the reader must know‘, from Kreuzigung

The next page sets out what the reader, performer, and spectator ‘must know’. Schreyer writes in the essay ‘Bühnenwerk Spielgang und Spiel’ that ‘in order to learn the Spielgang system and its signs, no particular course of study is necessary’. Yet, the universal pretensions are qualified in the work itself as ‘Anyone can read the score who can hear word-tones [Worttone] internally and see the movement of coloured form’. Likewise, ‘The play can only be seen and heard with a circle of friends as a shared experience, as a shared act of devotion, as a shared work’. On one level, Kreuzigung acts as a representation of performance but, on another, it points to the impossibility of that very representation. It is at once readable by all and penetrable only by the initiated.

The system and symbols from Kreuzigung
The system and symbols from Kreuzigung

The system is unpacked on the following page. Three levels are represented on a stave: word sequence, tone sequence and movement sequence. A zigzag line on the tone sequence denotes pitch based on its position and on the yellow (high) or blue (low) lines. The bracket symbols refer to volume and the target signs to pauses in both sound and movement. Words are stretched and contracted as appropriate to the bar by way of the woodcut text. The cross-like symbol relates to the ‘Man’ character, the single red circle to the ‘Mother’ character, and the two red circles to the ‘Beloved’ character.

The figures of ‘Man’ and ‘Beloved’ from 'Kreuzigung'
The figures of ‘Man’ and ‘Beloved’ from Kreuzigung

These symbolic referents point to the ‘de-individuated “art-body” stripped of socially conditioned speech and movement patterns […] capable of expressing universal truths’ (Buckley). In fact, the Spielgang was a communal creation based on an original process of meditation and vocal practice to identify the performer’s ground-tone [Grundton], becoming word-tones [Wortton] when applied to language and Sprachtonspiele when in sentence combinations.

Schreyer glosses the play itself as a ‘desperate struggle for humanity against daemonic forces’. It evokes a post-war apocalypse, around which man wanders wounded in the company of two female characters in the conventional guises of mother and mistress, ultimately seeking escape through spiritual transcendence.

Page from 'Kreuzigung' showing the text and the symbols representing the characters and their movements
‘Man: Wounded feet of men carry us | Woman: My heart is blood’, from Kreuzigung (all translations by Mel Gordon)

Ultimately, while salvation is demanded, it does not arrive, as the figures are left to call for the world to wake, to realize itself beyond the material desperation. Yet, Kreuzigung is not just the representation of some failed transcendence; that would neglect the formal purity of a project less concerned with content. Rather, ‘the actual logic of the work of word art [Wortkunstwerk] is more of an artistic logic’. Spiritual transcendence is a process entered into in the performance and experience of such universal stage art.

Complex movements All tasks we perform
Complex movements: ‘Beloved: I am (Beloved alternately moves arms up and down four times) | Man: All tasks we perform. Flames break at midnight. (Mother quarter turn left, right arm horizontal sideways. Hand behind, then in front, opens left hand on breast; Beloved quarter turn right, right arm horizontal sideways. Hand behind, then in front, opens left hand on left breast; Man forearm on cross, straight in front; Mother right hand on right breast; Beloved right hand on right breast)

Page from 'Kreuzigung' showing the text and the symbols representing the characters and their movements
‘Saviour!’ (All together)

Page from 'Kreuzigung' showing the text and the symbols representing the characters and their movements
The End: ‘Awake. World. Awake.’ (All together)

Kreuzigung is an attempt to encapsulate the anti-literary in print, what Buckley terms the manifestation of Schreyer’s ‘anxious utopianism’, which enacts the tensions ‘between its knowledge and its hopes – between the Werk as commodity and the Arbeit of the community, between mediation and immediacy’. A contemporary of Schreyer, Robert Musil, articulated this negotiation between spirit and rationality a year after the publication of Kreuzigung, as ‘an abiding miscommunication between the intellect and the soul. We do not have too much intellect and too little soul, but too little precision in matters of the soul’. In the urge to leave something material, ‘out of which creative people in the future could understand what forces had moved and shaped our plays’ (Schreyer, Erinnerungen), Schreyer and the Kampfbühne showed their precision in works of the soul and underlined that tension at the heart of the Bauhaus. Kreuzigung is thus the result of precise printing craft and a meticulous pedagogical process that might just also tend towards the divine.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further Reading

Wassily Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, edited and translated by Hilla Rebay (New York, 1946), 7813.b.1.

Lothar Schreyer, Theateraufsätze (Lewiston, 2001), YC.2002.a.12966

——, Erinnerungen an Sturm und Bauhaus. Was ist des Menschen Bild? (Lewiston, 2002), YK.2002.a.21881

Robert Musil, Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses (Chicago, 1990), YC.1991.b.1058

Hans M. Wingler, The Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago (Cambridge, MA, 1979), f80/0186

Mel Gordon, ‘Lothar Schreyer and the Sturmbühne’, The Drama Review, vol. 24, no. 1 (1980), pp. 85-102. 3623.197000

David F. Kuhns, German Expressionist Theatre: the Actor and the Stage (Cambridge, 1997), YC.2002.a.15612

Jennifer Buckley, ‘The Bühnenkunstwerk and the Book: Lothar Schreyer’s Theatre Notation’, Modernism.modernity, vol. 21, no. 2 (2014), pp. 407-24. 5900.120000

Pádraic E. Moore, ‘A Mystic Milieu: Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan at Bauhaus Weimar’, bauhaus imaginista, edition 1

Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rössler (eds), Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School (New York, 2019), ELD.DS.381646

Linn Buchert, ‘The spiritual Enhancement of the Body: Johannes Itten, Gertrud Grunow, and Mazdaznan at the early Bauhaus’, in Bauhaus Bodies