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126 posts categorized "Visual arts"

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

28 May 2019

Lalla Romano (1906-2001): from painting to writing

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The novelist Graziella Romano, known as Lalla, began her artistic journey as a painter in 1922 when she was 16; in 1929 she taught Italian and History at the Teachers’ College in the northern Italian city of Cuneo while studying in Turin, and in 1930 she taught History of Art in Cuneo’s high school. Her paintings were shown in various exhibitions in Turin – later in her life Lalla said: “I consider my paintings and my drawings a personal matter, as if they were my personal diary, my book … some of my drawings are not compositions, but just notes. They could be some poetical verses”. Even though the artist discourages us from drawing any parallel between her literature and her paintings, affirming that “Each art has its language”, she also said: “Self-portrait means face, and the face must be ambiguous, intense and mysterious as a novel”.

Self-portrait of Lalla Romano seated in a red dress
Self-portrait, ‘Autoritratto con le trecce e il vestito rosso’ (1922), reproduced in Lalla Romano e La Valle d’Aosta (Milan, 2009) YF.2012.a.32506

In 1932 Lalla was the Director of the Civic Library in Cuneo where she compiled the catalogue of Incunabula. Without abandoning painting, by the end of the 1930s, she began writing short stories and poetry: between 1938 and 1940 she wrote three short stories about art and artists during that time in Turin (published only in 1993 in Lalla Romano pittrice), and in 1941 she published a collection of poems titled Fiore.

The poems are characterised by secluded inwardness and visual capture of remote/internalised landscapes.

Vuoto è il mio letto,                                    Empty is my bed
quando a malincuore vi ascendo,            when withdrawn in my heart I ascend to it
ed è notte;                                                     at night time
e geme per la campagna                            and over the land outside
l’ululo solitario dei cani.                            echoes the solitary howling of dogs.
E ancora deserto è il letto,                        And it’s still a desert my bed,
quando, invani attesi,                                when, awaited in vain,
non giunsero lo sposo e il sonno             sleep and husband never came
e già l’alba i galli salutano                        and already dawn
con rauco grido                                          the roosters greet with their raucous cry.
                            from Fiore, in Poesie (Turin, 2001) YA.2002.a.29511 [My translation]

The colours in her poetry were already present in her paintings, as Lalla herself said in the title of the introduction to her paintings: “My paintings were already writing”.

Già si posavano ombre                     Silvery shadows lay already
argentee su le biade;                         on the forage;
simili a cupi fiumi                             the meadow shaped into dark rivers
erano i prati
                            from Fiore [My translation]

Painting by Lalla Romano of a country road
Painting entitled ‘Strade di sera’ (Evening paths) c 1935, reproduced in L’esercizio delle pittura (Turin, 1995) YA.1997.a.15004

In 1932 Lalla married, and in 1933 Pietro was born, the son who, growing up during the period when the youth counter-culture was shaping up, would have a deep impact on her as a woman and as a writer.

In 1943, during the Second World War, Lalla was living and teaching literature in Turin, but when her accommodation was damaged by bombing she was forced to go back to Cuneo with her son and her parents in order to be safe while carrying on teaching in Turin. The following year she was transferred to teach in Cuneo, where she joined the Partito d’Azione and the anti-fascist resistance movement, taking charge of the women’s defence groups.

The year 1944 marked a new chapter for Lalla, when Cesare Pavese asked her to translate Trois Contes by Flaubert: it was a decisive moment as she fully appreciated the skill of writing prose and motivated herself to make the definitive transition from painting to writing novels. In fact Lalla reached popularity as a novelist, she won the Italian literary award Premio Strega in 1969 for Le parole tra noi leggere (‘The light words between us’), an autobiographical novel about the difficult relationship between a mother and her maverick son, which soon became controversial as it deeply shook conventional thinkers unable to tolerate such a brutal analysis of this type of relationship. In an interview published in 1984, when asked how their relationship changed now that her son was 50, Lalla said: “When he divorced his comment was ‘Now my mother will write a new best-seller called The heavy words between them”.

Phtotograph of Lalla Romano
Photograph of Lalla Romano in 1984, from Sandra Petrignani, Le signore della scrittura (Milan, 1984) YA.1990.a.18448

Lalla’s initial determination to maintain a clear distance between painting and writing changed radically and the intimate intersection between textual and visual became the unique style in some of her work: the book titled Lettura di un’immagine (‘Reading of an image’), a collection of family photos taken by her father and “framed” with her words, begins with: “In this book images are texts and texts are images”. The book was in fact later revised and enlarged with the new title Romanzo di figure (‘Novel in pictures’; Turin, 1986; YA.1987.a.3405).

Cover of Lalla Romano's book 'Lettura di un'immagine'
Cover of Lettura di un’immagine (Turin, 1975) X.909/35463

In 2014, thanks to the generous donation of the Lalla Romano Fund, all the author’s autograph papers, her correspondence, her library of 12,000 volumes and paintings were placed in the room named after her (Sala Lalla Romano) at the National Braidense Library (Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense) in Brera (Milan).

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections

21 May 2019

P. G. Wodehouse under Continental Covers

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Some time ago our Translator in Residence, Rahul Bery, wrote a post for the BL English and Drama blog about translations of the works of P.G. Wodehouse. As an unexpected but welcome response to this we were contacted by Wodehouse expert Tony Ring, who asked if we would be interested in a donation of Wodehouse novels in various European languages. We were of course delighted to accept and recently the collection of 100 books, in Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Russian and Swedish, arrived in the Library.

Unpacking them I was fascinated by the range of different cover designs. I always associate Wodehouse with the gently humorous drawings of ‘Ionicus’ (J.C. Armitage) which adorned the British Penguin editions for many years. but readers abroad would encounter Wodehouse under many different covers, some of them quite surprising.

To start with some straightforward ones, in the 1970s and 80s, the Dutch publisher Spectrum issued a number of Wodehouse novels in its ‘Prisma’ series with covers by the well-known political cartoonist Peter van Straaten and there are nine of these in the collection. Straaten’s lively drawings clearly represent characters and situations from the books – not as common as you might think! Here are two, from Summer Lightning (De ontvoerde zeug), translated by W. Wielek-Berg, and Something Fresh (Nieuwe Bezems), translated by W.N. Vandersluys.

Covers by Peter Straaten for Dutch translations of two P.G. Wodehouse novels

Van Straaten’s illustrations show the characters dressed more or less appropriately for the period when the books were set. However, this is not always the case. This 1962 cover by Georges Mazure for Dokter Sally, translated by Henriëtte van der Kop, reflects the fashions of the day rather than of its original publication date thirty years before.

Cover of a Dutch P.G. Wodehouse translation showing characters in 1960s clothing

Likewise, Ulrich Lichtenhardt’s cover for this 1980 German edition of Spring Fever (Frühlingsgefühle) bears all the hallmarks of the late 1970s rather than of 1948 when the book first appeared. Incidentally, all seven German translations in the collection bear the rider ‘Heiterer Roman’ (‘light-hearted novel’) on their covers – playing to a stereotype of an earnest German reader needing to be assured that laughter is allowed?

Cover of a German P.G. Wodehouse translation with characters in 1970s clothing

If the Germans want to emphasise humour, some of the Russian covers seem to imply a darker side to the tales. The Angler’s Rest and its regulars have surely never looked as louche as on the vaguely expressionistic cover of this 2011 translation by I. Gurova of Mulliner Nights (Vechera s misterom Mullinerom). This is probably my favourite cover in the whole collection.

Cover of a Russian Wodehouse translation showing two men drinking in a bar and an abstractly drawn cityscape

Two other Russian Mr Mulliner collections also use expressionist artwork on the cover, to rather angst-ridden effect, but most worrying is this bleak 2002 cover for A Damsel In Distress (Deva v bede), which to my mind looks better suited to Tess of the d’Urbervilles than to the world of Wodehouse. I can only think that the designer was given nothing to go on but the title.

Cover of a Russian Wodehouse translation showing a straw hat and flowers on an empty chair

I find there’s also something slightly threatening about this Italian cover by Stefano Tartatrotti for Adriana Motti’s translation of Uncle Dynamite (Zio Dinamite) from 1998, but as with the Russian Mulliner Nights, the humour wins out.

Cover of an Italian Wodehouse translation showing a man standing in front of a sculpture of himself

Another Italian cover is very literal: a 1966 edition of Young Men in Spats (Giovanotti con la Ghette), translated by Zoe Lampronti.

Cover of an Italian Wodehouse translation showing two pairs of feet wearing spats

To my mind one of the most attractive covers in the collection is this Swedish dust-jacket by Björn Berg for Birgitta Hammar’s translation of Full Moon (Fullmåne), one of a number of Wodehouse covers that Berg illustrated in 1984. He also includes a brief portrait sketch of Wodehouse on the back of the jacket (and one of the Empress of Blandings on the title page).

Cover of a Swedish Wodehouse translation showing a man and woman in a garden at night

The back cover is also put to good use in Birgitta Hammar’s 1956 Swedish translation of French Leave (Fransysk visit), describing the characters and outlining the plot of the story on a ‘menu’ from the Hotel Splendide in the fictional French town where the story is set.

Back cover of a Swedish P.G. Wodehouse translation listing the characters as if on a menu

As for the French themselves, this 1947 translation of My Man Jeeves (Mon valet de chambre) has a vignette by J. Jacquemin which I think nicely captures Jeeves’s imperturbability.

Cover of a French P.G. Wodehouse translation showing Jeeves carrying a tray

A later series of Jeeves stories in French all use the same cover image of British actor Arthur Treacher playing the role, but change the colour of his cravat and buttonhole for each cover. I’m not sure Jeeves would really have approved of this sartorial frivolity; perhaps that’s why he looks rather troubled here.

Covers of three French Wodehouse translations showing actor Arthur Treacher in the role of Jeeves

But for sheer oddity, I think the prize goes to the Dutch for this 1974 cover for Jan Wart Kousemaker’s translation of Plum Pie (Plumpudding) which at first glance looks more like a cheap thriller than a collection of humorous stories.

Cover of a Dutch Wodehouse translation showing a jelly heart pierced by a dartOf course, we should never judge a book by its cover, and there is much more to say about this wonderful donation and the ways in which translators have tackled Wodehouse’s distinctive style. For now the books will go to be accessioned and catalogued so that they can be available for students of literary translation and reception – and for interested Wodehousians – in our reading rooms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Vignette portrait of P.G. Wodehouse
P.G. Wodehouse, ‘the world's most popular humourist’. Sketch by Björn Berg from the dustjacket of Fullmåne  

26 March 2019

Fairytales on trial: the Good and the Beautiful in early Soviet children’s literature

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“Education means evoking a revolutionary spirit” wrote Maxim Gorky in 1933 – an uncompromising statement uttered in an uncompromising environment. The 1920s in the newly-born Soviet Union, however, were still quite different. There still seemed to be room for discussion, to explain and convince people. Only two years after the October Revolution, Gorky had expressed his opinion on children’s education more elaborately in a well-known programmatic statement ‘Slovo k vzroslym’ (‘A word to grown-ups’) in the first issue of the first Soviet journal for children, Severnoe Siianie (The Northern Lights), founded by Gorky himself. There he advanced the importance of exploiting children’s stories to shape the new Socialist Man, by instilling “an active spirit, an interest in and respect for the power of reason, the discoveries of science, and the great mission of art, which is to make man strong and beautiful”.


Image 1
Severnoe Siianie
no. 10-12 October-December 1919, P.P.1213.ad

Sadly, the artistic quality of the journal was far from being able to fulfil such an ambition. Grey social realism always prevailed. It was mostly concerned with instructing children of the proletariat in basic practical scientific and technical knowledge, or about the harsh living conditions in Russia before that glorious October of 1917. In a regular section called ‘Klub liuboznatel’nykh’ (‘Club of the Curious’) one can, ironically, find some of the most uninspiring titles. In the October-December 1919 issue, for instance, ‘Club of the Curious’ opens with a brief piece of ‘fiction’, entitled ‘Polchasa v sutke’ (‘Half an hour a day’), aimed at raising awareness of the importance of chewing one’s food thoroughly for at least the stated period to aid healthy digestion for a healthy and strong body. This provided what the Narkompros sought in terms of acceptable educational methods: useful, practical knowledge that contributes to raising stronger citizens.

Image 2
‘Club of the Curious’ in Severnoe Siianie, no. 10-12 (October-December 1919)

The fact that a culturally influential figure like Gorky was behind such publications as Severnoe Siianie does not mean that the early Soviet era was devoid of fine literary works addressed to the smaller ones. On the contrary, it was an extraordinarily rich age for children’s literature in terms of experimentation. While the endeavours of Gorky and his circle contributed to a surge in literacy in the first decades after the Revolution, the efforts of talented authors such as Korney Chukovsky and Samuil Marshak resulted in the creation of a distinct artistic and literary current, a true Golden Age of Russian children’s literature.

Image 3
A passage from Korney Chukovsky’s Krokodil illustrated by Re-Mi (Nikolai Remizov). ([Petrograd, 1916-1919?]) 12833.dd.27. Krokodil Krokodilovich swallows up a policeman who tried to get in his way.

Chukovsky’s famous Krokodil (Crocodile) is one of the most exhilarating pieces of literature ever written for children. In this old, very old fairytale (as the subtitle ironically goes) traditional fairytale anthropomorphism is reenacted in a typical Futurist setting. Krokodil was one of the most discussed pieces of children’s literature in the 1920s and 1930s. In a 1928 article in the newspaper Pravda, Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaia, discouraged parents from reading the story to children, “not because it is a fairytale, but because it is a bourgeois nonsense [‘burzhuaznaia mut’]”. Obviously, it was not Chukovsky’s artistic audacity and mind-blowing stylistic virtuosity that were under attack. Quite simply, there was no acceptable educational content in the poem: a cigar-smoking, Turkish-speaking crocodile called by his first name and patronymic was certainly funny, but had nothing to teach about crocodiles as a species.

Image 4
Korney Chukovsky, Telefon, illustrated by Vladimir Konaschevich. (Leningrad, 1935) Cup.410.e.89.

It was first published in 1926 with drawings by Konstantin Rudakov.

Chukovsky’s Telefon (‘Telephone’) takes anthropomorphism to the extreme: the narrator’s telephone keeps ringing and an elephant, crocodile, gazelle and hippo each call to tell him about their needs and problems. Although this tale can be said to “teach children the art of communication” or telephone etiquette, as а scholar pointed out, its central features are the overwhelmingly nonsensical, whimsical plot and absurd humour.

Image 5
Above: Chukovsky’s Malen’kie deti, first edition (Leningrad, 1928). Cup.410.g.176.; below: The third edition (Leningrad, 1933), retitled Ot dvukh do piati ('From two to five’). 12975.ccc.11.

Image 5b

An ideologically more suitable work by Chukovsky, and one fully appreciated by Krupskaia, is the collection of articles, observations and reflections on pre-school age children’s communication, Malen’kie deti (‘Young children’). Every passage in this book oozes Chukovsky’s sincere marvel at and interest in children’s psychology and his effort to unveil the complexity behind a child’s apparent simple-mindedness to adults (to whom the book is addressed).

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Image 6b
Cover and two-page spread from Samuil Marshak, Master-Lomaster, first edition with drawings by avant-garde artist Alexei Pakhomov (Leningrad, 1930) YA.1992.a.7157.

The British Library also holds many early editions of Samuil Marshak’s works. Master-Lomaster is a poem satirizing the disastrous consequences of self-confidence and self-reliance in an individual’s work attitude, instructing children to grow up collective-minded instead. The title, an untranslatable pun, often rendered as ‘Master of disaster’, is also an example of Marshak’s skillful wordplay.

Image 7
Above: Cover of Samuil Marshak, Pozhar 3rd edition (Leningrad, 1925) Cup.408.r.18. Below: Kuzma and the fire brigade fighting their way through the flames

Image 7b

In Pozhar (‘Fire’) the main theme is again one’s attitude to work, but this time Marshak provides a positive example in the heroic fireman Kuzma and the team spirit of the fire brigade. Kuzma, like the Soviet version of an Old Russian bogatyr is outstanding for his courage and collective-mindedness, which lead him to save little Lena, allured and trapped by the evil fire.

Tsirk 3
Collaborations by Samuil Marshak and Vladimir Lebedev. Above: Tsirk 2nd edition (Leningrad, 1928) Cup.408.r.24. Below: Vchera i Segodnia, 3rd edition (Moscow, 1928) Cup.408.r.23.

Image 8b

Marshak’s collaboration with the talented graphic artist Vladimir Lebedev fuelled what was to become the trademark of children’s poetry in the early Soviet Union: a balance between drawing and text, so that the former was not a mere illustration of the latter. Their works often resemble the Soviet propaganda posters that people were familiar with, making each individual page a potential artistic object in itself.

Image 9

Image 9b
Illustrations from Vchera i Segodnia

In Vchera i Segodnia (‘Yesterday and Today’) Marshak and Lebedev introduce children to new technologies. A kerosene lamp, candle, bucket and quill pen lie unused in their old home, faced with intruders from the new world: a cheap electric lightbulb, water pipes, and a typewriter. This short fairytale enables the reader to see how the new inventions have made the old ones redundant, while also sympathizing with the old objects’ baffled and nostalgic sense of loss.

Image 10b
Image 10
Images from Tsirk

With Tsirk (‘Circus’), Marshak and Lebedev produced one of the most outstanding picture books, appealing not only to children. The poster-like layout of each page, the short and memorable text and the clever rhymes make it one of the most representative and original of their works. Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was reportedly impressed by the line “po provoloke dama | idet, kak telegramma” (“along the wire the lady | goes like a telegram”).

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Cover of Samuil Marshak, Usaty-Polosaty (Leningrad, 1930) RB.23.b.4211,
.

Usatyi-Polosatyi (‘The Whiskered-Tabby’), is the clear product of a long-standing oral composition process. It is a simple, humorous story about a tabby kitten and its child owner who repeatedly tries (and fails) to make it behave like a human – hence the repeated line “Vot kakoi glupyi kotenok!” (“What a stupid kitten!”). The story ends with the child growing up and the cat “becoming” clever – a subtle move which children would likely only understand and laugh at when looking back at it as adults. This edition contains drawings by a different Lebedev.

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Images from Usaty-Polosaty. Above: The child wants the kitten to say ‘grandma’, ‘horse’, ‘teacher’, ‘electricity’, but the kitten only replies ‘meow’. Below: The kitten has “become a clever cat”

Image 12b

These publications represent only a small portion of Marshak’s great contribution to Soviet children’s literature in the 1920s and 30s. But, like Chukovsky’s works, they were far from immune to ideological criticism. Master-Lomaster, for instance, lacked propaganda value. In Pozhar, Lena’s fear of death was a private not a collective concern. While Chukovsky’s creative force was soon to be crushed by constant ideological attacks, Marshak turned to editing work and became the chief editor of the children’s journals Ëzh (1928-) and Chizh (1930-). These were for many years virtually the only magnet for talented writers, first and foremost Daniil Kharms and the Oberiuty, who would not have been able to publish freely elsewhere, due to the stricter censorship imposed on adults’ literature.

Image13b
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First and last issues Chizh (1937, No. 1 - 1940, No. 7-8). RB.31.c.774. The title, meaning ‘siskin’, is also the acronym of Chrezvychaino Interesnyi Zhurnal (‘Extremely Interesting Journal’), indicating the humour at the very core of these publications and of most high-quality children’s literature of the period.

The British Library’s holdings of Chizh span from 1937’s first issue to 1940. These are representative of a new stage in Soviet children’s literature, one where a previously very fortunate symbiosis between the Good and the Beautiful faded into a series of more and more exclusively politically committed works.

Nilo Pedrazzini, Graduate Student, University of Oxford

Further reading

Ben Hellman, Fairy tales and true stories: The history of Russian literature for children and young people (1574 - 2010) (Boston-Leiden, 2013). YD.2013.a.2535

Marina Balina & Larissa Rudova (eds.), Russian children’s literature and culture (New York, 2013). YK.2008.a.24810

Julian Rothenstein & Olga Budashevskaia (eds.), Inside the rainbow: Russian children's literature, 1920-35: beautiful books, terrible times (London, 2013). YC.2014.b.1207

25 January 2019

‘Tom Puss, conjure up a trick!’

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Our ‘Cats on the Page’ exhibition features several items on clever and cunning cats. It is probably fair to say that the most famous amongst them is Puss in Boots. He is represented in a charming pop-up book by Vojtěch Kubašta,  published in London in 1958 (W.E.d.692)

But did you know that the Dutch cherish an equally clever, cunning and cool cat? His name is Tom Poes, created by Marten Toonder (1912-2005)

TomPoes2MToonder Portrait of Marten Toonder by Kippa, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Toonder may never have guessed that the doodles of various animal figures he made one day out of sheer boredom would lead to 45 years of newspaper cartoons, cartoon strips, books, films, merchandise, illegal copies of his works, as well as to a statue of his little cat hero in the Rotterdam street where he was born.

TomPoes3shapes The first incarnation of Tom Poes, reproduced in Marten Toonder Heer Bommel en ik (Amstelveen, 2017) YF.2018.a.15780.

The doodles were filed away in a drawer where they lay forgotten, until a Dutch national newspaper, De Telegraaf, asked Toonder to write and illustrate a daily cartoon. Looking for inspiration he found the drawings and decided to give the little cat a try. His wife Phiny Dick, pen name of Afine Kornélie Dik, suggested the name ‘Tom Poes’ and it was she who wrote the first Tom Poes story, Het Geheim der Blauwe Aarde (‘The Secret of the Blue Earth’), which was published on 16 March 1941. However, she soon handed the whole enterprise over to Marten.

Very soon, during his third adventure (‘In the Magic Garden’, 1941) Tom Poes met the brown bear Olie B. Bommel, a ‘gentleman of standing’, for whom ‘money is of no importance’. Tom Poes and he become inseparable and Bommel became more popular than Tom Poes during their many adventures.

TomPoes4OBBommel Olie B. Bommel, detail from the cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Bas van der Schot compared the couple to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Was Tom Poes maar hier (‘If Only Tom Poes Were Here’), a homage to Marten Toonder, published in 2006, a year after his death.

TomPoes5YinYangTom Poes and Olie B Bommel as Yin and Yang, by Bas van der Schot, from Was Tom Poes maar hier (Amsterdam, 2006) YF.2008.a.18079.

Olie B. Bommel may be fantastically wealthy, but he is not very clever, nor is he in touch with the ‘real world’. It is Tom Poes who has the brains, always keeps his cool, and gets them out of many a pickle. ‘Conjure a trick, Tom Poes!’ is another phrase that has entered the Dutch vernacular, which almost literally means the same as Baldrick’s ‘I have a cunning plan’.

TomPoes6VerzineenList

Cover of Marten Toonder,Verzin toch eens een list (Amsterdam, 1973) X.990/6049

De Telegraaf insisted Marten Toonder used the format of the text cartoon by which the text is printed underneath the illustrations, rather than in speech balloons. This format had been invented by the Swiss teacher, author, artist and cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer, who was famous in the Netherlands for his Histoire de Monsieur Cryptogame, which was actually the very first cartoon to feature in Dutch newspapers. In Calvinist Holland speech balloon strips were frowned upon well into the 20th Century, but text cartoons were just about acceptable.

TomPoes7Textstrip2 Example of text strip in newspaper De Telegraaf. Reproduced in Marten Toonder, De Andere Wereld (Amsterdam, 1982) X.958/14755.

Toonder perfected Töpffer’s format by treating text and illustrations as equal, so the reader needed both to make sense of the story.

Right from the start Tom Poes was translated into various languages: Swedish and Czech were the first, published in 1941, soon followed by French, Spanish and some British titles. The Loch Ness Monster, published in Tom Puss Comics is one example.

TomPoes8TPComicsCover of Tom Puss Comics (London, 1949) 12831.g.31.

Over 45 years Toonder wrote 177 Tom Poes / Olie B. Bommel stories. The newspaper strips became known as the ‘Bommel Saga.’

A sign of its popularity is the Toonderstripkatalogus (‘Toonder cartoon catalogue’), meticulously detailing all manifestations of the Tom Poes stories; in newspapers, in weekly magazines, in book form, in translation and in other media, accompanied by a history of Toonder and his creations.

TomPoes9Bommelbibliografie Title page of H. R. Mondria, Bommelbibliografie. 2nd ed. (‘The Hague, 1974) X:908/80234

In his study of Toonder and the Bommel Saga, Henk R. Mondria discusses whether Tom Poes can be considered to be ‘Literature’. He answers in the affirmative. His arguments are that Olie B. Bommel is a rounded character, Toonder is a language virtuoso and the stories always have deeper layers than just the plot line. Furthermore, literary critics wrote polemics about this burning question, which is a sure sign of the literary value of Tom Poes.

Then, in 2008 the publisher De Bezige Bij embarked on a project of re-issuing all Tom Poes stories in a series Marten Toonder: alle verhalen van Olie B. Bommel en Tom Poes, plus commentary, in 60 volumes. The last volume was published in 2018: Als dat maar goed gaat (‘What could possibly go wrong?’). That settles the discussion once and for all; Tom Poes is well and truly part of the Dutch literary canon!

TomPoes10AlleVerhalenFront cover of a publisher’s flyer for Marten Toonder: Alle verhalen van Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

References / Further reading

Wim Hazeu, Marten Toonder: biografie (Amsterdam, 2012) On order.

Marten Toonder, Vroeger was de aarde plat: autobiografie. (Amsterdam, 2010) ZA.9.a.5120

Marten Toonder, Alle Verhalen (Amsterdam, 2008-2018). 60 vols. Individual volumes held at various shelfmarks.

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.

21 December 2018

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

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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

14 December 2018

Hundertwasser’s 90th and 35 Days In Sweden

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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