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123 posts categorized "Visual arts"

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
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.

SchreyerProfile
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.

What the reader must know
‘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.

Symbols
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.

Man&beloved
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.

Wounded feet
‘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)

Saviour
‘Saviour!’ (All together)

The End Awake
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”.

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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]

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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”.

Lalla Romano 3
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).

Lalla Romano 4
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.

Wodehouse Dutch 1

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.

Wodehouse Dutch 2

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?

Wodehouse German

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.

Wodehouse Russian 2

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.

Wodehouse Russian 3

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.

Wodehouse Italian 3

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

Wodehouse Italian 1

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).

Wodehouse Swedish 1

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.

Wodehouse Swedish 4b

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.

Wodehouse French 1

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.

Wodehouse French 2

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.

Wodehouse Dutch 3Of 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

Wodehouse Swedish 2
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”.


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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Image 13
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.

Hundertwasser Title 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. […]

Hundertwasser Insert 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

07 December 2018

Russian Cats 2: The Hermitage Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image 3a

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

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

30 November 2018

From Culinary Staple to Prophetic Symbol: More on the Herring

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Regular readers of our blog may have noticed something of a herring theme this year, from the significance of the herring in Nordic culture to its symbolic and celebratory consumption at the Dutch festivals of Flag Day and the anniversary of the Relief of Leiden. But so far we have not yet looked at the herring in Germany and on the Southern Baltic shore, particularly as imagined and lived by Günter Grass

In Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Agnes Matzerath develops an unhealthy compulsion to eat fish, following the horror of seeing a horse’s head used to catch eels, consuming and force-feeding herself the very thing that has become monstrous to her. Set against the backdrop of rising National Socialism, Agnes’s eventual death by fish-poisoning cannot be separated from the social and familial mutations she experiences in 1920s Danzig.

Elsewhere, however, fish is dealt with far more fondly by Grass, while always remaining focal. In his autobiography, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion), Grass’s memories often carry the odour of fried herring, a staple during his time at the School of Fine Arts in Berlin, much to the disapproval of his teacher Karl Hartung, who ‘[took] offence at the smell of fried herring wafting through the door connecting his studio to ours’. Even his description of the first months with his then girlfriend, Anna, includes, alongside the sentimental, the intimate and the erotic, the memory of showing the uninitiated cook ‘how simple it is to remove the flesh from the bones of a fried herring.’ Romance Baltic-style…

Grass - Der Butt dustjacket
Dust Jacket of Der Butt, with Grass’s own design

But it is in his Der Butt (The Flounder) where the herring—and essentially all Baltic peasant food from the Neolithic to the 20th century—gets a platform. It contains, woven into the epic history of women and food, recipes and other gastronomic tips, because for Grass, who thought the planting of potatoes in Prussia ‘did more to change society than the Seven Years’ War’, this was a people’s history that had not yet been written.

Grass here is on one level writing the anti-‘Babette’s Feast’. Karen Blixen’s/Isak Dinesen’s 1958 short story introduces an exceptional Parisian chef into the remote Norwegian town of Berlevåg (or the west coast of Jutland, if you’re watching the 1987 film), who wins a lottery, enabling her to create an exquisite French menu without a herring in sight. However, most of the local guests—refined as they are—react indifferently to the meal, which is perhaps another implicit win for the herring.

Grass - Kuß
Grass’s sketch Kuß (‘Kiss’) ,reproduced in Gertrud Bauer Pickar, Adventures of a Flounder: Critical Essays on Günter Grass’ Der Butt (Munich, 1982) X.0909/1118(3)

The second book of Der Butt contains a chapter entitled ‘Skåne Herring’, in which the domestic hell suffered by the husband of the mystic and visionary (not yet Saint) Dorothea von Montau, brings about a visit from the religious and political powers that be. Dorothea serves the four visitors Scania herring (Scania was dominant in the herring market in the 14th century) but not before Grass’s omniscient narrator cuts in to detail the variations of prepared herring: ‘They can be used fresh, salted, smoked, or marinated. They can be boiled, baked, fried, steamed, filleted, boned and stuffed, rolled around gherkins, or placed in oil, vinegar, white wine, and sour cream.’ Grass details how each of the women cooks he follows in his epic would have prepared the herring before telling us that Dorothea ‘bedded twelve Scania herrings on ashes strewn over the coals, so that without oil, spices, or condiment of any kind, their eyes whitened and they took on the taste of cooked fish.’ The authorities—Abbot, Commander, Doctor of Canon Law and Dominican—all approve.

Following Grass’s imperative to (re-)collect food history in his ‘narrative cookbook’, we find that two years after the publication of Der Butt the British Library felt compelled to acquire an actual herring cookbook from Sweden, Strömming och Sill. Both words in the title refer to herring, strömming to the smaller, less fatty herring caught in the Baltic, and sill to the Atlantic and North Sea varieties. Strömming might be more familiar with its prefix sur- which describes the debatably edible fermented variety. Sur- means sour in this case, although we can’t help but think of French preposition meaning ‘over’: for many, fermented herring is indeed a step or two beyond.

Strömming och Sill
Ulli Kyrkland, Strömming och sill ([Stockholm, 1979) L.42/578. The book includes over 100 herring recipes

We’ve somehow managed to talk about Der Butt without mentioning the presence of a talking flounder… but Grass’s penchant for rendering fish either monstrous, as in Die Blechtrommel, or magical, as in Der Butt, recalls another literary oddity which deserves mention. The herring was also the protagonist in a number of 16th- and 17th-century works within Rosicrucianism and numerology. In 1587, like Grass’s omnipotent flounder, a few miraculous herring began to communicate.

Faulhaber - Herring
Signifying herrings, from Johann Faulhaber Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen (Augsburg, 1632) C.29.f.1.

Johann Faulhaber’s Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen attempts to describe the significance of a miraculous deer and some even more miraculous herring and other fish through the secret numbers of the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse. Following the descriptions of Raphael Eglinus’s Prophetia Halieutica nova et admiranda (Zürich, 1598; 1020.f.1.(3.)), Faulhaber tells us of two herring caught on the same day, one in Denmark, one in Norway, on both of which appeared strange coded markings, ‘as if imprinted by God’s finger.’ We can’t help but agree with his assertion that this is a miraculous occurrence.

Faulhaber - Greifswald fish
More tattooed fish from Vernünfftiger Creaturen Weissagungen

The book was written in 1632, halfway through the Thirty Years’ War and, crucially, two years after Sweden’s King Gustav Adolph, to whom the book is dedicated, joined the conflict. Faulhaber sees correspondences in all the mystical fish, the dates of comets, the secret numbers in the Bible and the political situation in Northern Europe. The markings are decoded to show swords, sickles, and other signs that correlate with historical events. Faulhaber’s deer somehow comes to represent the entry of Gustav Adolph into the war, while the herring might spell out the spilling of more blood.

Four centuries later, something about these miraculous herring of Faulhaber and Eglinus is caught in the fish-paintings of Paul Klee. 

764px-Paul_Klee _Swiss_-_Fish_Magic_-_Google_Art_Project
Paul Klee, Fish Magic, Philadelphia Museum of Art (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Klee’s Fish Magic or Around the fish, suspend the fish (although we can’t identify a herring, we can forgive Klee as a landlocked Swiss, no doubt used to freshwater fish) amidst a set of enigmatic symbols that gesture towards signification without the finality of Faulhaber’s correspondences. In herring-art, we see the full range of depictions that is also encapsulated in academic and literary attempts to understand both the sheer facticity of the Northern armies of herring and the idea of herring, their potential meaning.

Joachim Beuckelaer- Fish Market
The sheer facticity of fish in Joachim Beuckelaer, The Fish Market (1568), Bonnefanten Museum, Maastricht (image from Wikimedia Commons). Herring can be seen bottom left.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Günter Grass, Die Blechtrommel (Darmstadt, 1959) 011421.p.86. English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Tin Drum (London, 1962) X.909/2060.

Günter Grass, Der Butt (Darmstadt, 1977) X.989/71159. English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Flounder (London, 1978) X.989/76027

Günter Grass, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Göttingen, 2006) YF.2007.a.1517. English translation by Micahel Henry Heim Peeling the Onion (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.14122

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Anecdotes of Destiny (London, 1958) 12655.r.2.

 

12 November 2018

Signed by the artist: the free and honest life of Oscar Rabin

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On 8 November 2018, the exhibition ‘Two Ways’ presenting Oscar Rabin and Tatyana Lysak-Polischuk opened at the Florence branch of the St. Petersburg State Academic Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, named after Ilya Repin. From the news, we also learned that the 90-year old Oscar Rabin had died one day earlier in a Florence hospital.

Image 1- Painted life
Arkadii Nedelʹ, Oskar Rabin: narisovannaia zhiznʹ (‘Oscar Rabin: the life that has been painted’; Moscow, 2012) YF.2013.a.116

Rabin was born in Moscow to a family of doctors. Both of his parents had died before Oscar reached adulthood, so the teenager had to learn to provide for himself. Sometimes living in slums and earning money by hard manual and unskilled labour, Rabin kept studying fine art first at the art studio led by poet, composer and artist Evgenii Kropivnitskii and later at higher education institutions in Riga and Moscow. Although Rabin’s talent was recognised by his teachers and peers, he was soon expelled from the course, when started deviating from socialist realism. Having married Kropivnitskii’s daughter Valentina, who developed into an original artist in her own right, Oscar was also close to his first teacher and shared his ideological and artistic views. In the late 1950s, several young nonconformist artists formed the so called Lianozovo group with Kropivnitskii and his family, including Valentina, Oscar and his son Lev (1922-1994) at the heart of it.

Image 1a - Lianozovo
‘Lianozovo Kingdom’, reproduced in Oscar Rabine (St Petersburg, 2007) LD.31.b.4101

Fresh and naive pictures by Rabin were the first manifestations of Soviet pop-art.

Dustbin-Helicopters
Works of 1958. Reproduced in Oscar Rabine (2007)

In the 1960s, Rabin managed to earn his living by illustrating small books of poetry, but soon foreign art critics and collectors took interest in his works, which brought him financial benefit and international fame, but at the same time unwelcome and intrusive attention of the Soviet authorities. The first time Rabin’s pictures were exhibited abroad was in London in 1964. This show was followed by his first personal exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery. At the same time, at home his paintings were criticised for being ‘depressive’, ‘squalid’, ‘repulsive’ and ‘lacking positive socialist message’. After Rabin took part in the famous Bulldozer Exhibition, he was forced to leave the Soviet Union and from 1977 lived in Paris. In June 1978 his Soviet citizenship was revoked, which was a common practice exercised by the KGB toward dissidents. Passports and visas are re-occurring motives of Rabin’s pictures, telling the story of an individual and the country, which does not accept her most talented sons and daughters, only because they wanted to be free and honest.

Image 3 - Passport
‘Passport N 2’. Reproduced in Oscar Rabine (2007)

Free and honest, Rabin was all his life. After the collapse of the USSR, Rabin’s art was also mistreated as being too political and formal and only in the 21st century were his works given full acceptance in Russia. During his life, Rabin had nearly 30 personal exhibitions and his pictures are held in big state and private collections. In the British Library, we have catalogues of Rabin’s major exhibitions and books about him, which can be found in our online catalogue, including several copies signed by the artist himself just in 2016.

Image 4a

Image 4
Cover and signed title-page from Oscar Rabine (2007)

 Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Further reading and illustrations:

Interviews with and article about Oscar Rabin illustrated by his works:

https://www.izbrannoe.com/news/iskusstvo/oskar-rabin-ya-za-elitarnost-v-iskusstve/
https://loveread.ec/read_book.php?id=70741&p=40
https://newtimes.ru/articles/detail/144324

Poems by Evgenii Kropivnitskii: https://oloosson.com/yy/kropiv/kropiv.htm

Evgenii Kropivnitskii, Pechalʹno ulybnutʹsia...: (stikhi i proza) ([Paris], 1977) X.908/83734

Evgeniĭ Kropivnitskiĭ, Zemnoĭ uiut: izbrannye stikhi (Moscow, 1989) YA.1992.a.21972

Evgeniĭ Kropivnitskiĭ, Izbrannoe : 736 stikhotvoreniĭ + drugie materialy, [predislovie IU.B. Orlitskogo; sostavlenie i kommentariĭ I.A. Akhmetʹeva] (Moscow, 2004) YF.2005.a.21248