Tuesday 8 January 2013

Journey Into A Fog - London in the 1950's

The Inspiration of Decadence - last year's Ben Uri Gallery exhibition of the work of Dodo Burgner was  my favourite art show of the year. As well as focussing on the wonderful Dodo, a number of her contemporaries were referred to or had works included in the exhibition. When I visited, I picked up a catalogue for an Honor Oak Gallery exhibition from 2005 of the works of Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag (pictured above) called Beyond The Jiving. Rather annoyingly I can't find this small but excellent publication at the moment(!), but I have just finished reading her book Journey Into A Fog - a record of her time as an art tutor in a youth club in Hammersmith.

The book was published in 1956, just two years before her untimely death from cancer. It is almost 60 years old now, but the issues it tackles are more alive than ever and demonstrate that young people with  social and behavioural problems are not a new phenomenon. Berger-Hamerschlag was from an assimilated Viennese Jewish family and left Austria before the second world war. An extremely cultured woman and an accomplished artist, her initial shock at the behaviour, disposition and views of her working class charges features strongly at the beginning of the book.

They disappoint her with their obsessions with their appearance - cheap, glitzy uniformity supposedly imitating their favourite Hollywood stars. They shock her with their causal approach to crime - several of the young people have been "bound over" for theft and for casual violence whilst others have served time for varying offences. She despairs of the young women - most of whom only come to the youth club to meet boys and don't want to do or learn anything other than the words to their favourite pop songs and on the rare occasions they do become interested in something, they invariably do not see it through.

But, as her story progresses, we see her make strenuous efforts to broaden the horizons of these young people. They try lino-cutting, life drawing, sculpture, sewing, weaving and making their own clothes - with varying levels of success and participation! She learns more about these children - many of whom are only 14 or 15 years old and are responsible for their families where parents have left, died or are too sick to work.  Many of them work in factories, cafes or shops for very little money before coming home to cook, clean and look after siblings. Few of them  believe they will ever accomplish anything else. Change a few of the details and you could be reading about today. But unlike several of the other tutors at the club, Berger-Hamerschlag does not give up on the young people, she perseveres with those who show little interest, winning over one or two, often to be disappointed when they later let her down or disappear. She buys materials from her own pocket when the local authority is unwilling or unable to provide the money. And she intervenes with other agencies to try to get help for the young people at greatest risk or in most need.

There are also moments of humour, several in relation to use of language. She shows them a picture of Botticell's Primavera, only to be told they don't thin se is much of a looker, and wondering why he thought this Vera was "prima" - prima being a term for all things marvellous amongst young people at that time.

Journey into a Fog is an eye-opener for those who hark back to the 1950's as a time of innocence. Times were different that's true - National Service is mentioned for example, as is capital punishment. But times weren't that different with concerns about crime, unemployment, poverty and young people being preyed on by adults. With a little modernisation, the press reviews and other comments on the back cover of the book, written in the 1950's could also easily appear in today's press. The Times Educational Supplement said "How our civilisation has produced this residue layer in which all its disbelief in itself is somehow deposited is a question for those who can answer such conundrums. But how to help the individual boy or girl out of it is a practical question which can be answered..." It seems that we are still looking for the answers.

Journey Into A Fog is a little difficult to get hold of - its out of print but is sometimes available on Amazon. The illustrations are by the author. The illustration reproduced above is not from the book but is clearly inspired by the author's experiences at the youth club.

UPDATE - The wonderful staff at the Ben Uri Gallery have contacted me to let me know you can still get copies of the "Beyond The Jiving" catalogue. It is full of examples of Maragareta's work as well as additional information about her life and career. I am very happy to have a new copy! It is well worth picking up on your next visit to the Ben Uri!

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