European studies blog

154 posts categorized "Visual arts"

15 March 2022

Swedish Bird Books

Many of us would have taken part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, the much-loved annual mass participation birdwatch at the end of January. At the Library, we were delighted to catch a rare sighting ourselves. Colleagues in our Collection Audit team rediscovered a volume of collected booklets of bird illustrations, shelf-marked but hitherto unavailable in the catalogue. Magnus and Wilhelm von Wright’s Svenska foglar (Stockholm, 1828-38; 74/781.k.31) is one of the finest examples of bird illustration in a long history of Scandinavian ornithological literature.

A great tit by Wilhelm von Wright

A great tit by Wilhelm von Wright

The brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright were pioneers of Finnish painting, who early on developed a passion for depicting birds on their hunting trips with their father Henrik Magnus von Wright. While Magnus would go on to develop a reputation as a landscape painter as well, the brothers are well known for their work on birdlife in service of both art and science. Having moved to Stockholm to begin his artistic training, Magnus was given the opportunity by Count Nils Bonde, the master of Hörningsholm manor on the island of Mörkö, to illustrate an ambitious work on Swedish birds, Svenska foglar. Efter naturen och på sten ritade af M. och W. von Wright. So overwhelming was the commission, Magnus brought in the help of his brother Wilhelm, and by the end of the project, Ferdinand, who later painted the iconic The Fighting Capercaillies, would also be involved, despite his young age. Svenska foglar became a hugely popular series.

A song thrush drawn by Magnus and lithographed by Wilhelm von Wright

A song thrush drawn by Magnus and lithographed by Wilhelm von Wright

Between 1828 and 1838, 30 booklets were published, each containing up to six plates of hand-coloured lithograph birds, with 137 species represented across the 186 birds. In the early 19th century, one of the ways to catch a good enough look at a bird was to shoot it, a skill the von Wright brothers regularly deployed, as well as buying specimens and studying others in the natural science museums in Helsinki, St Petersburg and Stockholm (Lehtola, Lokki and Stjernberg).

Wilhelm would go on to concentrate his artistic efforts on scientific illustration, taking on another commission from Count Bonde to illustrate a guide to butterflies, Svenska fjäriler, before eventually undertaking his greatest achievement, Skandianviens fiskar (Scandinavian Fish), with Bengt Fries, also in the library (BL 727.l.26.).

The brothers made substantial contributions to zoology beyond offering these precise and captivating illustrations. They travelled extensively, making trips to the far North to places such as Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic and Aavasaksa in Finnish Lapland, where they kept journals and made drawings that furthered ornithological knowledge. They were at the heart of what Björn Dal has called the Swedish ‘Zoological Golden Age’. Of course, the von Wrights, while figuring prominently in Swedish zoology, were Finnish, and Magnus’s unfinished work on his homeland’s avifauna was issued posthumously as Finlands foglar in 1873 (BL Ac.1094.4.).

A Eurasian Jay from Olof Rudbeck’s Book of Birds

A Eurasian Jay from Olof Rudbeck’s Book of Birds

The brothers entered the ornithological picture when the discipline was burgeoning, a few decades after Linnaeus had pioneered zoological nomenclature and at a time when global exploration proliferated knowledge, interest and possession of the natural world. This handy list of Swedish bird books is comprehensive, locating the first mention of birds in Olaus Magnus’ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, the classic work on the history and culture of Scandinavia originally published in Rome in 1555 (152.e.9 and two other copies). Illustrated copiously with woodcuts, it contains plenty of insights into our relationship with birds, including a not-so-faithful image of two men hauling a net full of swallows out of a muddy lake.

The next major contribution we might mention is Olof Rudbeck the Younger’s bird book, a set of astonishing illustrations that some say were unrivalled until the age of Audubon. Rudbeck’s work helped him deliver lectures on ornithology and his images and classifications form the basis of some of the species listed in the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (956.e.6.7), the accepted starting point of zoological nomenclature. Rudbeck was Linnaeus’s mentor and patron. The watercolour birds, which were the artistic work of Rudbeck himself, Andreas Holtzbom and potentially others, were accomplished around 1693-1710 but were not published until 1985, with a monumental English edition appearing in 1986 (HS.74/99). The editor’s introduction suggests that had the planned book materialised in its own time, then ‘eighteenth century ornithology, at least as far as Sweden is concerned, would have received an impetus towards unprecedented achievements.’

A golden eagle from Wilhelm von Wright

A golden eagle from Wilhelm von Wright

One of Linnaeus’s disciples, Anders Sparrman, would produce the ‘earliest monumental pictorial work on ornithology published in the North’ (Anker), known as the Museum Carlsonianum (Stockholm, 1786-89; 32.g.8), a bird book based on the collection of Johan Gustav von Carlson. It is the first large illustrated work to use the Linnaean naming system and the birds are from around the world, making it of significant scientific interest. Some of these plates, the work of Jonas Carl Linnerhielm, would make it into Sparrman’s subsequent ambitious compilation Svensk Ornitologi (1806), published the same year as another important work, Johan Wilhelm Palmstruch’s Svensk Zoologi (Stockholm, 1806; 454.b.20.).

With vast pictorial works on birds and fauna abounding across Europe and America in the early 19th century, Sweden was no different. Soon the von Wrights’ booklets would appear followed two decades later by Carl Sundevall’s impressive Svenska foglarna (Stockholm, 1856-1886; Cup.1256.aa.18) with illustrations by Peter Åkerlund and Paulina Sjöholm. Sweden’s contribution to zoology and botany in the 18th and 19th centuries is often confined to the (albeit immense) influence of Carl Linnaeus and his disciples. However, through its ornithologist-artists, whose work is distributed in a host of epic illustrated bird books, we get a sense of its wider contribution to our understanding of birds, not least through the plates of the von Wright brothers.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic collections 

Further reading

Björn Dal, Sveriges zoologiska litteratur : en berättande översikt om svenska zoologer och deras tryckta verk 1483-1920 (Kjuge, 1996), YA.2003.b.2445

Erkki Anttonen and Anne-Maria Pennonen, The von Wright Brothers: Art, Science and Life (Helsinki 2017), YD.2018.b.404

Anto Leikola, Juhani Lokki and Torsten Stjernberg, ‘The von Wright brothers and bird research’, in Anttonen and Pennonen (above)

Olof Rudbeck, Olof Rudbeck’s Book of Birds: A Facsimile of the Original Watercolours [c.1693-1710] of Olof Rudbeck the Younger in the Leufsta Collection in Uppsala University Library (Stockholm, 1986)

Jean Anker, Bird Books and Bird Art: An Outline of the Literary history and Iconography of descriptive Ornithology (Copenhagen, 1938), LR.106.a.8

Claus Nissen, Die illustrierten Vogelbücher: ihre Geschichte und Bibliographie (Stuttgart, 1953), 2731.y.1

21 January 2022

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

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

Portrait of Jože Plečnik

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

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

Hunting lodge in Kamnik designed by Jože Plečnik

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

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

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

Obelisk designed by Plečnik on the Moravian Bastion of Prague Castle

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

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

Interior of the Sacred Heart Church in Vinohrady

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager

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

References/further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 January 2022

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

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

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

Cover of Valtatiet (1928) by Sylvi Kunnas

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

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

Black-and-white image of a stlylised human figure

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

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

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli

From Fun Primavera by Elsa Tölli (awaiting shelfmark)

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

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

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

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

Cover of Art of Welfare

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

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

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

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

References

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

29 December 2021

Occupied City, 1921-2021

Paul van Ostaijen wrote his poetry collection Bezette Stad (‘Occupied City’), with art work by Jesper Oscar and René Victor, in 1921. It was published by Sienjaal, set in Antwerp and written in Berlin. The Great War is the topic, and stream of consciousness is the style. The original manuscript was recently bought by the Flemish government for €725,000, and has been made available online.

In honour of the centenary of this work, I have made a visual version of the brief information above, inspired by Ostaijen’s Dada-esque style, as well as offering a bibliography of works by and about Ostaijen from the British Library’s collections.

The text of the first paragraph in Dada-inspired style with different fonts, typefaces, alignments and colours

Images of a drum and a 'boom' sound, echoing a famous phrase from Ostaijen's work, with titles of two theses and an online project cited in the bibliography below

References/further reading

Paul van Ostaijen, Bezette Stad (Antwerp, 1921), Cup.503.p.5 (Online edition of the manuscript at https://consciencebibliotheek.be/nl/pagina/blader-digitaal-door-het-handschrift-%E2%80%98bezette-stad%E2%80%99-van-paul-van-ostaijen). English translation by David Colmer, Occupied City (Ripon, 2016). YK.2017.a.540

Paul van Ostaijen, De feesten van angst en pijn  (Nijmegen, 2006) YF.2008.a.12964. English translation by Hidde Van Ameyden van Duym, Feasts of fear and agony, translated by Hidde Van Ameyden van Duym (New York, 1976). X.950/45770

Paul van Ostaijen, The first book of Schmoll: selected poems 1920-28, translated by Theo Hermans, James S. Holmes, and Peter Nijmeijer, ([Amsterdam], 1982) Cup.935/283

E.M. Beekman, Homeopathy of the absurd: the grotesque in Paul van Ostaijen’s creative prose. (The Hague, 1970), W19/5382

E.M. Beekman, Patriotism, Inc. and other tales ([Amherst], 1971), A71/5805

Gerrit Borgers, Paul van Ostaijen. (The Hague, 1971), X.909/24106.

Geert Buelens, Van Ostaijen tot heden. (Antwerp, 2001), YA.2002.a.37134

Frances Bulhof (ed.), Nijhoff, Van Ostaijen, “De Stijl” (The Hague, 1976), X:410/6582

Wright, Edward, Paul van Ostaijen, ([S.l., 196-?), YA.2003.b.2422

On the web: 

On the fringes of Dada in Berlin (Blogpost)

Besmette Stad (A multimedia  project inspired by Ostaijen’s work) 

From Occupied City to Infected City (Blogpost)

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

 

17 December 2021

Vaclav Havel’s Pokouseni - Temptation of a bibliophile

I am sure that every bibliophile can recall the feeling of excitement that accompanies us when we take a new book into our hands. The sensation of moving fingers along the surface of the cover, flipping through pages, the distinctive scent of a new book. However, what is even more rewarding and satisfying, is to find a book that has lived well and aged beautifully bathed in genuine interest and love received from its readers.

There are many special books in the British Library collections. However, for me there is one which evokes the very feeling of joy I felt as a child visiting a bookshop or a library. It is Vaclav Havel’s Pokouseni (‘Temptation’). Havel, Czech writer, dissident and former president, who passed away ten years ago this month, wrote this play inspired by the story of Dr Faust.

Photograph of Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, black-and-white photograph of the author mounted on the cover's verso of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

His intellectual interest in the tale was ignited by Goethe’s and Thomas Mann’s literary adaptations that he read while being imprisoned. This prompted him to consider philosophical questions on the relativity of truth and how it can be transformed into a lie. Olga Tokarczuk once said that to write a book she needs to get obsessed with the story first. It was definitely the case with Vaclav Havel and Pokouseni. In published letters written from prison to his wife Olga, Havel explains: ‘As you know, I’m a man obsessions, and I hate giving anything up before I’ve exhausted all (my) possibilities. And so, in fact – though at a distance – I remain with the theatre.’

Cover of the samizdat edition of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech

Cover of the samizdat edition of Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Eda Kriseova in her authorised biography of the Czech writer describes the creative process that lead to the birth of Temptation. It took Havel ten nights to finish the work. He was physically and mentally exhausted and ended up falling down the stairs and hurting his head. He was staying in his country house in Hradecko at the time. Feverish, hurt, trembling the playwright was cut from the world by a sudden snow storm without any food and no way out. Once Havel came back to the world he felt like he had got away from the devil himself. This strenuous yet cathartic creation process resulted in a play that many found disturbing. Presenting the clash of a metaphysical view of the world with a rational one – inflated to surreal and absurd – the play reflected a contemporary Czechoslovakian existence.

Title leaf designed by Viktor Karlik, Pokouseni

Title leaf designed by Viktor Karlik, Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Havel wrote Pokouseni in 1985, after he had been released from prison. He was imprisoned three times for a total of almost five years under the communist regime. Following his incarceration, Havel became an even more internationally recognisable public figure. His works, banned in Czechoslovakia, were smuggled out of the country to be read around the world. Pokouseni was promptly translated to German and premiered in Vienna in 1986.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

It is actually fitting that the literary work whose conception took such a toll on Havel’s body and mind was published as samizdat. The physicality of the copy we are lucky to have almost mirrors the process the writer went through to create it. It is not the clinical, perfectly cut and immaculately bound product of a mass manufacturer, but rather a raw body of paper turned with love and care into an artefact testifying to the tender effort of a craftsman. Every little detail adds to the story. Were it not for it, the book would look like a plain, boring file folder. Original and unique tape binding has the author’s name typed directly into the fabric before it was closed. What makes this edition exceptional is a collage on the cover and hand-printed linocut illustrations by another Czech dissident Viktor Karlik. Both the artist and the writer were a part of a close-knit circle of friends forming anti-regime opposition in Czechoslovakia. Although Karlik later fell out with Havel over his engagement in politics, his illustrations to Poukuseni complement and enrich the story. The linocut technique fits perfectly Havel’s imaginary universe achieving it through the otherworldly look, stark lines and abstraction. Rarely in samizdat publications that relied on fast printing can we find such a beautiful companionship of imagery and text – the book is a work of art itself.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

Vaclav Havel’s most prolific years as a writer came before his presidency. Although his political legacy is sometimes contested, he was committed to all the roles he came to play in his life. One may speculate that he was able to achieve this thanks to his very personal understanding of hope, which according to Havel’s conviction is ‘this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed’. See the book Disturbing the peace: a conversation with Karel Hvizdala (London, 1990; YC.1991.a.1826)

When I hold the Havel-Karlik copy of Pokouseni in my hand, I am taken back to this place of hope once occupied by those who wanted to change the world by the sheer power of words and art.

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

An illustration to Pokouseni by Viktor Karlik

Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and East European Collections

References/further reading:

Vaclav Havel, Pokouseni. Hra o deseti obrazech (1985). Awaiting shelfmark

Vaclav Havel, Letters to Olga: June 1979-September 1982 (London, 1988). YC.1989.a.2933

Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the peace: a conversation with Karel Hvizdala (London, 1990). YC.1991.a.1826

Eda Kriseova, Vaclav Havel (Prague, 2014). YF.2015.a.17320

 

26 November 2021

Two new fine editions of Georgia's national poet

Shota Rustaveli is the most admired poet in Georgia and an iconic figure in Georgian national literature. He is the author of the medieval epic poem Vepxistqaosani (The Knight in the Panther's Skin). The poem was composed during the reign of Queen Tamar and is dedicated to her. The poem exemplifies the medieval knightly ideals of chivalry, friendship, courtly love and courage, and yet has contemporary relevance as its humanistic values are timeless. It is recognised internationally as a masterpiece and has been translated into many languages in both verse and prose. It was first published in Tbilisi in 1712 at the printing press established by King Vakhtang VI of Kartli at his initiative. Several manuscripts exist, written both before and after that date.

The British Library holds a number of editions of The Knight in the Panther's Skin including translations into English and other languages. Unfortunately, we do not hold any manuscripts. Recently, however, our collections have been enriched by generous donations from the Art Palace of Georgia - Museum of Cultural History.

We have received two beautiful facsimiles of manuscripts of The Knight in the Panther's Skin. Both have been recently published in limited editions by Bakmi Publishing in Tbilisi. The originals are preserved in the Korneli Kekelidze National Centre of Manuscripts in Tbilisi.

Cover of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2018)

Cover of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2018) HS.74/2506

The first of these manuscripts was created in 1680 at the behest of King George XI of Kartli by his secretary, Begtabeg Taniashvili. For this reason, the manuscript is generally known as ‘Begtabeg’s manuscript’ (Begtabegiseuli khelnatseri = ბეგთაბეგისეული ხელნაწერი). Each page of this manuscript is enriched with stylized, gold-plated decorations consisting of images of animals, birds and flowers. Every page is unique as none of the designs is repeated in the 523 pages. The facsimile of the manuscript is bound in navy blue leather and decorated with gold lettering.

Page 19 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 19 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 113 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 113 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 391 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 391 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

The other manuscript was created between the 17th and 18th centuries and is known as ‘Tsereteli’s manuscript’ (Tseretliseuli khelnatseri = წერეთლისეული ხელნაწერი). It bears the name of its owner, the Tsereteli family. Among the many manuscripts of the poem, it is the most richly illustrated. It contains 87 miniatures. Some of them appear to have been influenced by Persian miniature painting, while others reflect national Georgian traditions. The different styles present in the manuscript suggest that they were executed by several artists, all of whom are unknown.

The slip-case of the facsimile is handmade and has been decorated using cloisonné enamel. Very expensive materials, including silver, gold-plated brass and enamel, were employed. It was designed and created by the traditional Georgian jewellery company, Zarapxana.

Slip-case of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Slip-case of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019) RF.2021.a.20

Page 22-23 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Page 22-23 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani

Page 83 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Page 83 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani 

Page 381 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani (Tbilisi, 2019)

Page 381 of Shota Rustaveli, Vepʿxistqaosani 

The donation of this book has been made possible by a contribution from Tamar Latsabidze, Zarapxana, Giorgi Kalandia and the Art Palace of Georgia.

The British Library is enormously grateful to Giorgi Kalandia and the Art Palace for the substantial donations to the British Library collections made during recent years. This has resulted in an improved supply of contemporary publications and has also filled some significant gaps in our collection.

We are also very grateful to Tamar Latsabidze and to Zarapxana, the Georgian jeweller, for their support. It has been important for us to establish and develop closer contacts with our partners in Georgia.

The generosity of all who have contributed is very much appreciated. They have evidently taken heed of the well-known quotation from Rustaveli: “That which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost”.

Anna Chelidze, Curator Georgian Collections

References/Further reading:

Shota Rustaveli, The Man in the Panther’s skin: a romantic epic … a close rendering from the Georgian attempted by Marjory Scott Wardrop. (London,1912) 14003.bb.16.

Kʿartʿuli xelnaceri cigni V-XIX saukuneebi = Georgian manuscript book 5th-19th centuries (Tbilisi, 2012) YF.2014.b.2472

Šalva Amiranašvili, Vepʿxistqaosnis dasuratʿeba: miniaturebi šesrulebuli XVI-XVII saukuneebši (Tbilisi, 1966) YF.2015.b.2110

S. Qubaneišvili, Vepʿxistqaosnis bečdvis istoriidan (Tbilisi, 1975) YF.2017.a.2371

08 November 2021

Tove Jansson’s illustrations for Carroll and Tolkien

Naturally, we tend to focus on the Anglosphere legacies of English-language literary classics, but when it comes to fantasy fiction, like the works of Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien, their international reception and illustrated editions are very much part of the phenomena. The worlds evoked transcend age- and language-barriers, with illustrations often inflected by specific geographical, cultural and historical contexts, given the genre’s endless capacity for reinterpretation.

Mosaic of covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

Covers of new acquisitions of works illustrated by Tove Jansson

The Library has recently acquired a number of books illustrated by the genius that was Tove Jansson - the Finnish-Swedish creator of the Moomins, and also ‘novelist, short-story-writer, memoirist, painter, illustrator and cartoonist’, as the volume Tove Jansson Rediscovered importantly underlines. These acquisitions include translations of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, Alice in Wonderland, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as well as a 1946 issue of the short-lived journal Litteratur, Konst, Teater.

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’

Image accompanying Roger Richard’s poem ‘The Sleeping Woman’ / Den sovande kvinnan in Litteratur, Konst, Teater 1946, RF.2021.a.10

Jansson’s work never departs from view for too long in the UK’s cultural events landscape, as evidenced by the recent exhibition and walking trail at Walthamstow Wetlands and The William Morris Gallery, or by the big-budget Moomins animation, or the 2017-18 Jansson retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This goes alongside the stream of reissues, biographies, edited scholarly volumes and translations, including Letters from Tove and Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, both translations published by Sort Of Books in the last decade. Unattributed quotations in this blog are taken from the latter.

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey)

Tove Jansson’s illustration for the cover of Solveig von Schoultz’s Nalleresan (Teddy Bears’ Journey), originally 1944, here the 2007 facsimile reprint, YF.2008.a.5876

While Jansson illustrated a dozen or so books early in her career, she would devote most of her illustrative output to her own iconic creation. That is, apart from when the opportunities to illustrate Carrol and later Tolkien were presented to her. Unable to resist collaborating with publisher and translator, Åke Runnquist, and co-translator, Lars Forsell, on a book of ‘pure modern nonsense verse’, Jansson accepted the commission for The Hunting of the Snark (Snarkjakten) in 1958 and it was published a year later.

Jansson’s illustration for ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten

Jansson’s illustrations for the sections, ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jakten’) and ‘The Beaver’s Lesson’ (‘Bäverns läxa’) from Snarkjakten, RF.2021.a.7

While it wasn’t reprinted, the publishers deemed the collaboration a success, with the illustrations considered of the ‘highest class’. Jansson had not seen the original illustrations by Henry Holiday and their respective styles could not be more different, evident in their interpretations of ‘The Landing’ (‘Landstigningen’), the first “fit”, or part of the poem (rendered frossbrytning in the Swedish, almost a fit of shivering, or chill).

Henry Holiday’s original illustration of ‘The Landing’

Tove Jansson’s illustration of ‘The Landing’

Henry Holiday’s original illustration (above) and Tove Jansson’s (below) of ‘The Landing’

Jansson depicted a cast of large-eyed, long-snouted moominesque figures in contrast to Holiday’s caricatured, large-headed humans, both bringing the absurd to life in their own ways.

The year after the publication of Snarkjakten, Jansson received a letter from the author of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, who aimed to entice her fellow author to illustrate a new Swedish translation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (Bilbo: En Hobbits Åventyr, RF.2021.a.8). Much has been written on Jansson’s illustrations by Tolkien fans and much of it critical of her inventive departure from the author’s descriptions. For Jansson, it was a chance to move away from the Moomin figures, while building on affinities between her own world and Tolkien’s landscape, what she describes as ‘Forests of living horror, coal-black rivers, moonlit moors with fiery wolves – a whole world of catastrophe […]’.

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Bilbo surveys the Misty Mountains

Indeed, Tove’s hopes to capture the dark immensity of Tolkien’s world were slightly clipped by Lindgren and the publishers, as they wanted it to be situated firmly within children’s literature and for it to make Bilbo more prominent and therefore less awed by his environment. The world of catastrophe had to be seen as navigable to the book’s young readers.

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

Gollum according to Tove Jansson

One particular bone of contention for Tolkien fans is the depiction of Gollum, who is nothing like the later film’s rendering. Jansson shows us a friendlier, perhaps more human figure, twice the size of the Gollum we can all picture. All in all, as Westin puts it, many readers ‘saw Jansson, where they would have preferred Tolkien’. The book was no success by any objective measure and only one edition appeared.

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Bear vignette from The Hobbit

Whatever superfans make of the fidelity of the illustrations, they are undoubtedly fine achievements, down to the small vignettes used to head chapters, figures which Jansson drew iteratively ’20, 40, 60 times till it looked fairly free’ and then glued them together, giving them a real dynamism.

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

Alice down the Rabbit-Hole

The lack of reception for her Hobbit illustrations might have stunted the desire to collaborate on works that were not her own. Jansson was however drawn back to Carroll in 1965, this time Runnquist’s translation of Alice in Wonderland (Alice I Underlandet, RF.2021.a.9), Carroll’s original manuscript of which we hold here at the BL. Like what she found compelling in Tolkien, Jansson read Alice as a ‘horror’, telling Runnquist, ‘the story is terrifying and can in no way be seen as an idyll, but it causes shivers of pleasure’. The translator however could not agree and sought something altogether more pleasant.

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

Alice, cat and bats in the tall grass

The horror is still there in Jansson’s illustrations, in the uncanny, magnified or magnifying underworld, as the artist gives pictorial life to Carroll’s inherently uneasy and confounding fantasy. Jansson’s use of colour, often rendered quite light on the page, makes them almost dreamlike.

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Alice encounters a blue caterpillar on a mushroom

Runnquist hailed the work as a masterpiece. As Mikiko Chimiori writes, Jansson captures the ‘the transitional period between childhood and adolescence’, often proving ‘even more imaginative and fantastic than the original’. To understand that comment, we should bear in mind that the ‘original’ was illustrated by Carroll himself, with engravings by John Tenniel for the published first edition, illustrations which Jansson herself thought definitive.

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

The Mock-Turtle’s Story

Tove Jansson was a prolific and multitalented writer and artist rightly best known for her Moomins but quickly becoming so much more than that in our cultural landscape, such is the richness and continued relevance of her oeuvre.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

Further Reading:

Tove Jansson, Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson, translated by Sarah Death, 2019, ELD.DS.463620

Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: life, art, words: the authorised biography, translated by Silvester Mazzarella, 2018, YK.2018.a.7552

Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull, The art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (London, 2011), LC.31.a.13046

Maria Popova, ‘Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World’

Mikiko Chimori, ‘Tove Jansson’s Alice Illustrations’, in Tove Jansson Rediscovered, ed. by Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lindström Brock (Cambridge, 2007), m08/.23195

29 July 2021

Inheritance Books: Annelies Dogterom, Cataloguer West European Languages

This post is part of our 'Inheritance Books' series, where colleagues choose an 'inherited' item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to 'pass on' to future users, visitors and colleagues, and explain why they're important to us.

When I started as a cataloguer, the debut novel De avonden by Simon van het Reve, pseudonym of Gerard van het Reve, was already in the collection. The subtitle ‘een winterverhaal’ (a winter’s tale) suggests sitting around a warm fireside telling stories of legends. Instead of being set in homely surroundings, the novel is set against the cold of winter outside and characters forever lighting a stove inside. The protagonist is called ‘de held van deze geschiedenis’ (‘the hero of this story’) but he is not heroic. The tone of the novel would have been much darker if it was not for the irony and humour as expressed by the subtitle and continued throughout the novel.

Cover of De avonden by Simon van het Reve showing a person entering a building

Cover of De avonden by Simon van het Reve (Amsterdam, 1947). YA.1991.a.15442

The story describes ten days in the life of Frits van Egters, a 23 year old office clerk, during December 1946. These ten days are written in ten chapters and are also the last ten days and evenings of the year. The strength of the novel lies in how it has been written rather than what happens. Ironically the ‘narrative’ of the story is that nothing happens: there is no action, everything is static ‘de lege uren’ (empty hours) and expressed for instance by constantly checking clocks and watches that hardly seem to move. It is static because the focus is on the introspection and self-analysis of the protagonist. This leads to a sense of entrapment, disillusionment, loneliness and is exaggerated by Frits’s cynicism. Much of this negativity is expressed in his relationship to animals and his parents but also in disturbing dreams. What makes the novel interesting is the way it has been written with a clear focus on realistic detail.

Portrait of Van het Reve

Portrait of Van het Reve (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Although De avonden has much to offer to any reader in any language, it took nearly 70 years for the novel to be translated into English. Tim Parks, novelist and translator, ends his review of the translation: “So, huge respect to Pushkin Press for finally doing the business, and in particular to Sam Garrett for a translation that avoids a thousand pitfalls to give us this enfant terrible of Dutch genius in an entirely convincing English.”

In the 15 years that I have been cataloguing Dutch books, there is one publication that stands out in particular. It is a six volume work of the complete letters by Vincent van Gogh: De brieven: de volledige, geïllustreerde en geannoteerde uitgave. This edition is the product of 15 years of research by the Van Gogh Museum  and the Huygens Institute.

There is also a freely available web edition of Van Gogh’s complete letters. All letters have been translated into English and are extensively annotated and set in their biographical and historical context.

Van Gogh regularly embellished a letter with a small drawing or enclosed a freehand sketch. “The value of the sketches lies in the fact that they forced him to depict the essence of a drawing or painting. He usually drew them with ordinary writing ink, and in some cases he added colour notations, which can be compared to the actual paintings.”

In a letter of 6 April 1885, addressed to his brother Theo, he wrote, “I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life … I plan to make a start this week on that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes”. In a letter written 3 days later, he includes a small drawing of the ‘Potato Eaters’.

Sketch of Potato Eaters in a letter

Sketch of Potato Eaters in a letter of 9 April 1885

The scene is set in Nuenen in his home country of the Netherlands. The colours are dark and earthy unlike the bright canvases that most people are familiar with and that belong to his later works. In this same letter, Van Gogh shows an awareness of characteristics of his work that will come to define in particular his later works. He writes: “I see a chance of giving a felt impression of what I see. Not always literally exactly — rather never exactly — for one sees nature through one’s own temperament”.

A good example of a ‘felt impression’ of what Van Gogh saw is the painting of his bedroom. Vincent was living in Arles, France at the time. In a letter to Theo of 16 October 1888, he gave a very detailed description of his bedroom in particular of the colours used and also included a detailed sketch:

The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The blanket scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.

Sketch of bedroom by Van Gogh

Sketch of bedroom in a letter of 16 October 1888

Vincent van Gogh died on 29 July 1890. In the last few years before his death, the range and intensity of colours in his paintings increased dramatically confirming what he had stated five years earlier: “for one sees nature through one’s own temperament.”

References:

Gerard Reve, The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (London, 2016). Nov.2018/1916

Tim Parks, “The Evenings by Gerard Reve review – a masterpiece, translated at long last” (The Guardian, 9 November 2016) 

Vincent van Gogh, De brieven: de volledige, geïllustreerde en geannoteerde uitgave, onder redactie van Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten en Nienke Bakker (Amsterdam, 2009). LF.31.b.6957

 

28 May 2021

The Fiery End of the Paris Commune

This is the third in a series of blog posts marking the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, a radical, popular led government in power between 18 March and 28 May 1871. Discover the first two posts (A Burglarious Attempt to Declaw the Lion and The Toppling of the Vendôme Column) on our blog. 

On the evening of 21 May, Versaillais troops climbed over the tattered south-western fortifications of Paris, and the week which would define the Commune began. Known as la semaine sanglante, or Bloody Week, Paris would suffer a ferocious bloodletting.

By the next morning, the Arc de Triomphe flew a tricolour rather than the Commune’s red flag. While the communards had hastily built hundreds of poorly-constructed barricades in the boulevards, some 110,000 troops marched through the city, amongst which were thousands of prisoners of war released by Prussia.

The communards grew disillusioned with the situation. Attempts to trade prisoners with Thiers had been repeatedly denied. The Parisians sought Auguste Blanqui, a legendary figure of French radicalism through the nineteenth century, in exchange for all 74 prisoners held by the Commune, including the liberal archbishop of Paris, Georges Darboy. The repeated rejections, as well as continuous reports on the brutality of the Versaillais troops, saw Darboy and five fellow clerics killed on the night of 24 May. These executions provoked outrage.

The death of Darboy is a key point of anti-Commune propaganda, but it was far from the only one. A slew of reports and images followed the Versaillais march through Paris, as myth-making began to efface the thousands who were killed by the encroaching troops.

Fires which could be seen for miles around engulfed Paris and accompanied the march. Historians generally believe the initial fires to have been started by the missiles launched into Paris by the Versaillais, as well as some being set by Parisians to cover their retreats further into the north-western arrondissements as the army slowly took the city back. They left the city in ruins, with several of the city’s key cultural sites including the Tuileries Palace, the Hotel de Ville and Louvre, partially or completely destroyed.

Anti-Communard print depicting a Petroleuse

‘A Pétroleuse: Ah! If her man saw it’, Paris: Imprimerie J. Moronval, (1871)

The denigration of the Commune rose from the ashes of la semaine sanglante. After the final conflicts around Belleville in the north-west of the city, a wave of conservative imagery made clear who they thought were responsible for the fires. Laying the blame of the destruction of Paris on the so-called ‘pétroleuses’, the image above captures the essence of this discourse. We see a woman with almost pig-like features, almost certainly an artistic device to dehumanise her. She carries a torch and a can of petrol, presumably looking for some cultural asset to destroy or some aspect of natural order to subvert.

The caption further indicates the double crime these women were accused of committing – first, the crime against the state and the status quo, and secondly, the crime against her family, her husband and the natural order. The pétroleuse is amongst the most prominent devices of anti-Communard prints, and she is repeatedly invoked to remind viewers of the supposed horrors of women who did not conform to gendered expectations.

Anti-Communard print

‘After the Prussians… My sons with the stranger’ By Emile Gogny, Paris: Imprimerie Lemercier et Cie (1871)

The crimes of the Commune are made clear in this wonderfully macabre print. An aghast female warrior grasping her broken sword looks down at the ground in front of her, to see a range of incendiary devices. Around her, a deluge of destruction emphasises the various aspects of the Commune’s sins.

To the left, we see a communard about to use a holy relic to smash Jesus on the crucifix. Above this morbid scene are soldiers in combat on the boulevards of Paris. To the right we see the corpses of clergymen, punctured by bayonets. In the top right, we see the infamous pétroleuses, setting fire to the buildings of Paris. At the top, we see Death, looking down upon all that is his, scythe in hand. This is a powerful image that reminds us of the forcefulness of anti-Commune propaganda, and that the caricature and print collection at the British Library (14001.g.41, Cup.1001.i.1, Cup.648.b.2 and Cup. 648.b.8) does not just contain humorous lampoons of political figures, the public, and their idiosyncrasies.

Absurd bloodshed marked the end of the Commune. The remaining embers of resistance were routed on 28 May, and thousands of prisoners were executed in public sites which today remain, often without a trace of this barbarity. One of the few memorials is at Père Lachaise cemetery, resting place of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde, where a simple plaque commemorates 174 National Guard members shot against the wall, and the rest of the deaths through la semaine sanglante. The four thousand who survived were transported across globe to live in France’s penal colony, New Caledonia, before a general amnesty in 1880.

The Commune did not die on 28 May, 1871. The myth of the female fire starters fuelled fears of social revolution across the globe for decades after the fires of Paris, and the pétroleuse is still synonymous with 1871. The Commune itself has a complex role in the French memory. Through this year, Paris’s municipal government has controversially staged events to commemorate the Commune. It remains prescient that people will die for a cause they believe in while others prioritise of cultural and social losses over the losses of human life. Far beyond dying, 150 years later the Commune still leaves no one neutral.

Anthony Chapman, CDP Student at the British Library and Royal Holloway, University of London

Further reading:

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’, Electronic British Library Journal, (2005), pp. 1-19, 

Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune, (Ithaca, 1996), YC.1997.a.1077

John Milner, Art, War and Revolution in France, 1870-1871: Myth, Reportage and Reality, (New Haven, 2000). Document Supply m00/44939

David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune, (Basingstoke, 2005). YC.2006.a.16941

Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune, 1871, (London, 1999). YC.1999.a.3641

 

22 April 2021

The Toppling of the Vendôme Column

This is the second in a series of blog posts marking the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, a radical, popular led government in power between 18 March and 28 May 1871.

Following Adolphe Thiers’s botched attempt to neutralize Paris as detailed in our first blog, by the middle of April, 1871, the Paris Commune was in full swing. The municipal government, elected on 26 March, almost immediately cancelled rent arrears accumulated during the Prussian siege, proclaimed the separation of church and state, and imposed a maximum salary of 6,000 francs for public employees.

However, the communards were not satisfied with attempts to redress only economic and social inequalities. Seeing itself as a vehicle to remold the space of the city in its own image, on 12 April, the Commune decreed that the Vendôme Column, raised in 1810 as a celebration of Napoléon’s victory at Austerlitz five years earlier, was to be pulled down. Living with the destructive legacies of Haussmann’s glittering metropolis, the Commune’s decree was to be one of its most emotionally resonant for both those it infuriated and those it amazed.

Topped by a statue of Napoleon dressed in the robes of Caesar, for the communards, the column represented an intolerable history of imperialism, false glory and a perpetual threat to international fraternity. In short, the Commune’s decision to remove the statue is reflective of its attempts to restart history, a history not born in blood and brutality.

Photograph of the statue of Napoleon I after the Fall of the Vendôme Column

Statue of Napoleon I after the Fall of the Vendôme Column, Picture by Bruno Braquehais, from Wikipedia Commons

The column was taken down on 16 May. It was a day of spectacle for the communards, who organised music and speeches following the toppling of the monument. For those who were infuriated by the destruction of the monument, the event was repeatedly used as a reference point of loss, considering it an attack on the heart and soul of their France. On the eve of leading his troops into Paris the following month, General MacMahon made clear that not even the Prussians, who had spent the winter bombarding the city with shells, had dared to take the column down.

The toppling constituted one of the most symbolic moments of the Commune, and artists from various disciplines used it as a touchstone for their work. This is particularly true for caricaturists, who employed their skills as polemicists to great effect in a moment that emphasised the great divide.

Gustave Courbet, realist artist and member of the Commune government, was neither the first to suggest that the column should be pulled down, nor was he the most strident supporter of the decree. Nevertheless, this did not save him from the pencils of the anti-Communard caricaturists who savaged him repeatedly.

Anti-Communard caricature of Gustave Courbet

Signs of the Zodiac, by Nerác, from Morna Daniel’s eBLJ article

This piece drawn by Nerác is located in Volume 5 in the largest set of the British Library’s collection of caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (14001.g.41). It is part of a set which depicts famous communards as various signs of the Zodiac, with others including the Commune and Prussia as the twin evils of Gemini.

Courbet, le Taureau (the bull, Taurus), is dressed in garb reminiscent of a circus performer, while balancing the inverted Vendôme Column on his thumb. On his other arm, he balances an expensive-looking home equipped with a fountain, entitled Place St. Georges. This is most likely a reference to the home of Adolphe Thiers, ceremonially destroyed a day before the toppling of the monument as a reprisal for the shelling of the city by the Versaillais army.

The bottom text similarly reads like an enticing advertisement for the circus, willing us into paying attention to the very dangerous acts being performed in front of us. The caricature warns us to beware of not only Courbet, but also of the courbatures (body aches) involved in such balancing acts.

These caricatures are ironically juxtaposed to acts of wanton destruction the Versaillais committed to both property and, more importantly, on the thousands of people they massacred when taking back the city. The communards did not have a monopoly on destruction of public space for their own ends. A new column on Place Vendôme was raised in 1874, for which Courbet was charged the fee of 323,000 francs – a fee he obviously could not pay, and thus he fled to Switzerland, dying in alone and in poverty in 1877.

Another permanent reminder came when the founding stone of the Sacré-Cœur was laid on Montmartre in the summer of 1875. The basilica, still overlooking the city almost 150 years later, was intended as a constant reminder of the so-called ‘crimes of the Commune’. In a time where people are once again rightfully questioning aspects of the public space they exist within, we are reminded that there are brutal remnants of the past everywhere we look.

Anthony Chapman, CDP Student at the British Library and Royal Holloway, University of London

Further reading:

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’, Electronic British Library Journal, (2005), pp. 1-19, Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune - Morna Daniels (bl.uk)

Gay Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris: Images of the Commune, (Ithaca, 1996), YC.1997.a.1077

John Milner, Art, War and Revolution in France, 1870-1871: Myth, Reportage and Reality, (New Haven, 2000). Document Supply m00/44939

David A. Shafer, The Paris Commune, (Basingstoke, 2005). YC.2006.a.16941

Robert Tombs, The Paris Commune, 1871, (London, 1999). YC.1999.a.3641

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