Saturday, 29 June 2013

Milan Zlokovic's Modernist Bank in Sarajevo

National Bank of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo
In September this year I will visit Serbia and Montenegro. One of the main reasons for my visit is to track down some of the remaining modernist buildings that have survived from the 1920's and 1930's when the former Yugoslavia was one of  Europe's developing democracies and could boast a significant artistic avant-garde movement.

Many of those buildings have been destroyed in the various wars that have been played out in the Balkans or have been damaged beyond recognition by later "renovations" sometimes referred to as "improvements". Whilst the modernist architects of Germany, Austria, France and other European countries are still remembered and celebrated, much less is known about the great Yugoslav architects of this period. Last year I visited Sarajevo, now the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina and although I didn't know it at the time, I took a picture of the former National Mortgage Bank of Yugoslavia (pictured above), now the National Bank of Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tito Boulevard.

The bank is an extremely large building taking up a whole block and it has some nice art deco touches - especially the two figures guarding the main entrance and holding up lights to guide the bank's customers up the short staircase to the main door. The facade also features gold lettering over the entrance and sculpted panels over the side doors at each end of the building. Little did I know that this building was designed by the architect Milan Zlokovic, a Serbian born in Trieste in 1898 (now in Italy but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). 

The bank is one of the few remaining buildings that Zlotkovic designed during this era, the first being his own house, a cubist style villa in Belgrade built between 1927 and 1928. The villa was arranged over several levels with a series of external staircases, balconies and outward balconies giving the otherwise undecorated exterior a striking appearance. A number of photographs of the villa still exist, my favourite being the one of the architects wife looking into the distance from the balcony whilst their little son, Dorde, stands outside the house clutching a hoop and clearly considering what to do with it! I haven't been able to track that particular picture anywhere on the internet, but there is a great book called "Modernism in Serbia: the elusive margins of Belgrade Architecture 1919-1941" where you can see it together with many other photographs from this period. There are also some references to this period on an interesting architectural website called Nothing Against Serbia. Both of these rae proving extremely helpful in planning my trip which will take in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Subotica in Serbia before spending time in Budva and Kotor in Montenegro.

I am planning some more detailed posts on Zlokovic and his contemporaries once I am in Serbia. And I am counting the days...
Villa Zlokovic, 1927-28
Read more about Bosnia-Herzegovina here and here. See more pictures from Sarajevo here.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Art Deco...in Fiji!


Art deco reached parts of the world that you might not expect. Three years ago I visited Fiji to attend my daughter's wedding. Whilst there, my son and I took the opportunity to spend a day in Suva, Fiji's small but busy capital city, which boasts wonderful views across its bay to the mountains. It also has an interesting museum and the little gem pictured here - the former Regal Cinema on the city's main street.

Grade B listed by Fiji's National Trust, and probably built in the late 1920's or early 1930's it was one of a number of cinemas popular in Suva during this period. I have found it difficult to uncover much in the way of information about the building but understand that it screened Hindi films from the 1930's onwards and also Chinese films more recently. This is somehow appropriate as the Regal, no longer operating as a cinema, is now home to the Ming Du Chinese restaurant. It also reflects the diverse nature of Fiji's population which has large Indian and Chinese communities as well as the indigenous Fijians and people from other Pacific islands - a diversity that has sometimes proved uncomfortableThe Regal together with another formerly popular cinema, the Phoenix, closed around the year 2000 and Suva's film fans are now served by the Village 6 Cinema Complex. 

I noticed one other deco building during my day in Suva. The Government buildings complex (pictured below) was built on the site of a drained swamp. This necessitated reinforced concrete pilings to support the large building that took two years to construct and was completed in 1939. The complex, which also boasts a great art deco clock tower, houses the courts and several government departments and is very close to the Fiji National Museum, a little further along Victoria Parade.
Fiji by Yekkes

Both the Regal and the Government complex feature the decorative curves, symmetry and "fans" common to the style during the 1930's and both make an important physical contribution to Suva's urban landscape. I would be delighted to receive any further information readers might have about either the Regal or the Government buildings, especially details about the architects and any interesting stories or memories connected with the former cinema. 

Another Suva building that has many stories and memories attached to it is the Grand Pacific Hotel, just a short step from the Government building. For many years just a shadow of its former glory, this beautiful colonial style hotel is in the process of being restored with a plan to re-open in 2014. Built by the Union Steamship Company and opened in 1914, famous guests included writers Somerset Maugham and James A. Michener. Michener mentioned the hotel in his memoir, The World is my Home, describing the Grand Pacific as "...a haven to all who crossed the Pacific on tourist ships...It was the Grand Pacific Hotel, famed G.P.H. of the travel books, a big squarish building of several floors, with a huge central dining area filled with small tables, each meticulously fitted with fine silver and china, bud vases and a porch leading out to the lawn that went down to the sea..."

But, perhaps the most famous visitor was a very young Queen Elizabeth who stayed there in 1953 on her first visit to the islands. The then governor, Sir Ronald Garvey staged a great ball in her honour and the evening culminated with the Queen and Prince Philip appearing on the balcony of the hotel to greet thousands of candle bearing Fijians. The balcony is to be a key feature of the hotel's restoration. Not art deco, but another beautiful and important part of Suva's built heritage that has either stood empty or been used as a military barracks for more than 20 years following two violent coups that finally drove the tourists away. Democracy is scheduled to return to Fiji in 2014 - the centenary year of the hotel, the reopening of which will be an important milestone in a year of transition.
Fiji by Yekkes

You can see more pictures from Fiji here.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Art in Riga - Janis Rozentals artist of the art nouveau age

I first visited Riga in 2005. One of my must see items was the Latvian National Museum of Art. Unfortunately most of the rooms were closed to allow the collection to be re-hung. I returned to Riga in March this year and found the entire museum closed for reconstruction until June 2015, incidentally missing Riga's year as European Capital of Culture next year. Maybe next time...

I was anxious to see the museum's collection for a number of reasons - the collection of works by the avant-garde Riga Artists Group that was active from 1920-1940; the symbolist works of Latvian heroes including Vilhelms Purvitis and Rihards Zarins and the expressionist works of Jazeps Grosvalds. Well, it was not to be, but I still saw some great art from these genres whilst in the city including from Latvia's best known artist from the turn of the century - symbolist and art nouveau painter, Janis Rozentals.

Symbolism was a style that developed at the end of the nineteenth century, originating in France, Belgium and Russia. The style was adopted by writers, musicians, the theatre and philosophers as well as by visual artists. In painting the style was to some extent a revival of the romantic tradition and some of its more mystical elements. The style had practitioners in many countries - the Armenian Matiros Saryan, Russian Mikhail Vrubel, Norwegian Edvard Munch and Dutchman Jan Toorop. The style varied between artists although most made use of mythological and dream imagery.

Riga, Latvia by Yekkes
Staircase to the Rozentals apartment
There is a small museum to Rozentals in his former apartment at Alberta Iela 12-9. The apartment is located on the top floor of a renovated art nouveau building, the ground floor of which is home to a small Museum of Art Nouveau with reconstructed rooms from the turn of the twentieth century. The Rozentals museum has a couple of pictures of the artist on view, some of his furniture and artists paraphernalia but is a bit thin on exhibits. Its still worth a visit, not least for the staggeringly beautiful staircase but also to get an idea of the environment that Rozentals would have worked in during those creative and turbulent years at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Rozentals was born in 1866, the son of a blacksmith and was educated at an elementary school in Saldus. At the age of 15 he left for Riga before being accepted at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art where he graduated in 1894 with a first class degree. Rozentals was inspired by the Latvian countryside and its people and returned often to work there. In 1899 he acquired the plot of land where the museum to his name now stands, whilst in 1902 he met the Finnish singer, Elli Forselli, marrying her just three months later in February 1903. Together they had three children but their happiness was to be short lived. The First World War interrupted their family life and in 1915 they moved to Finland. Rozentals died suddenly in December 1916, at fifty years of age.  He was buried in Helsinki but was later re-buried in Latvia where an art high school is named after him.

His oeuvre was wide and included drawing and painting, portraits and landscapes as well as works inspired by biblical themes and by the Latvian countryside. He also produced altar pieces for churches, designed book and magazine covers, theatre sets and applied graphic art. However, painting was his preferred form  of expression and it is for his symbolist/ art nouveau style works that he is best known. The most prominent of these are the works he produced for the decorative frieze on the Riga Latvian Society building of 1910, consisting of seven compositions reflecting the main activities of the society. These can still be seen from the street. 

During the time he spent in his wife's homeland, Rozentals was influenced by the work of Finnish artists Akseli Gallen-Kallela and his devotion to the cause of Finnish nationalism. He became enchanted with Finnish culture and significantly influenced in this by his wife, became knowledgeable enough to write on the subject. This influence is reflected in the Riga Latvian Society frieze but also in our subject's participation in the Latvian national movement as a signatory of the "Demand of the Latvian intelligentsia for civil rights in Latvia" and a longing for freedom from Tsarist Russia.

Much of his work shows folkloric influences, including Legende and La vierge des cygnes (pictured below) and Small Hours from 1905 which depicts a family of devils rushing back to hell as the cock crows for a third time. Devils appear in many Latvian folktales but usually as incompetent figures of fun, easily fooled by the clever peasants. The symbolists made extensive use of mythological and dream imagery and these works are particular examples of that.


Janis Rozentals - La legende by Yekkes

Janis Rozentals - La vierge des cygnes by Yekkes

As well as symbolist paintings, Rozentals also produced art nouveau style works. One of his most well known is Princess and monkey, which he exhibited at the Munich Secession of 1913. The painting includes various classic  art nouveau features including the s-shaped female form, the ornamental carpet in the background, the thickly ringleted hair of the princess, her jewellery and the flow of her dress. This picture, which would not look out of place in an exhibition of Austrian secessionist art from the same period, demonstrates the interest in the east that was prevalent amongst many artists of this genre, as well as echoing the folkloric approach of Gallen-Kallela.   

Rozentals' versatility can be seen by comparing the mystical imagery of the Princess and monkey with the symbolic lithograph Archer, pictured below. Produced in 1914, this may well have been influenced by the events then unfolding across Europe that led to the First World War and ironically to a short period of the much longed for Latvian independence which Rozentals would not live to see. 

I have never understood why he is not better and more widely known - perhaps the long period of Soviet occupation meant that his work and that of his Latvian contemporaries fell from view. On the other hand he may have been lucky not to have been working during the Soviet period given the suppression of individualism, the strict "rules" of socialist realism and the terrible fate of many leading artists. I know of few publications detailing more of his life and work, but the art nouveau shop opposite the apartment building that houses his museum sells postcards of some of his works together with a small but well illustrated book about his life. The National Museum of Art of Luxembourg produced an excellent catalogue in English and French for its exhibition The Age of Symbolism in Latvia, and this can sometimes be found on Amazon. 

Princess and monkey, Janis Rozentals, 1913
Archer - poster by Janis Rozentals, 1914
You can read more about Riga here and here and browse photographs of this beautiful city here.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Sweet Bird of Youth - Tennessee Williams at the Old Vic

File:SweetBirdOfYouth.jpg


Tennessee Williams' play Sweet Bird of Youth is set in segregationist small town Florida in the 1950's. First performed in New York in 1959, it deals with themes of jealousy, ageing, gender, sex and race in a direct way that must have been ground breaking at the time and yet many of the issues raised still simmer today.

Several of these themes are played out in the relationship between the play's two main characters - small town gigolo Wayne Chance and former star come on hard times - Alexandra del Lago, the latter the subject of a cracking performance by Kim Cattrall. Both use each other - she uses him in order to feel young, beautiful and desirable again, whilst he uses her in a vain attempt to secure access to break into the film world. Cattrall shines in the scenes where she laments the judgement of the world on an ageing female star. It doesn't matter how good her performance as an actress is because the screen shows a woman past her prime in a world where youth is everything. She describes the terror of exposure, saying "The screen's a very clear mirror. There's a thing called a close-up. the camera advances and you stand still and your head, your face, is caught in the frame of the picture with a light blazing on it and all your terrible history screams while you smile..."

The much younger Chance is also concerned about the passage of time - pushing 30 and nowhere near achieving his ambition of stardom, he concentrates all of his efforts on winning back his former girlfriend - the wonderfully named Heavenly Finlay, daughter of local corrupt and racist politician Boss Finlay. Chance believes Heavenly to be his redemption and his future. And here lies another key theme of the play - the danger of illicit sex. Chance and Heavenly are former lovers. Boss is obsessed with "purity" and blames Chance for his daughter's "ruin". This obsession extends to racial purity and the play drives home the often terrifying, virulently racist atmosphere of much of this period. 

Williams describes sex in interesting terms - as connected to illness, as being threatening and as a commodity to be bought and sold. Even Boss is not exempt from concerns about sex when he hears that there is gossip in the town about his decline in prowess as he grows older. Williams himself 

There are no sympathetic characters in this play. The leads rely on drugs and alcohol to cope with their inadequacy. Boss's interest in purity is a sham. All of the characters use each other in different ways. Director Marianne Elliott and designer Rae Smith have created an atmosphere at the Old Vic that transport the audience back to the period in which the play is set. The hotel room scenes are particularly convincing and the claustrophobia of the room and of small town America (or anywhere) during the period is palpable. A great deal of the play takes place in that hotel room - that's almost three hours, but the performance is so gripping that this considerable amount of time slips away very quickly - further illustrating Williams' theme about the passage of time. 

Despite the darkness of the play, there are moments of humour. Cattrall's change of mood from hopeless, defeated monster to monster resurgent is both convincing and hilarious - demonstrating very nicely the shallowness of the world in which her character operates. And look out for a nice performance from Lucy Robinson as Miss Lucy who also produces a few laughs in her early scenes. Excellent performances also from Owen Roe as Boss Finlay and Seth Numrich as Chance Wayne. The play runs until the end of August. It was a full house last night so don't leave it too late and miss it!

Incidentally, the theatre is looking beautiful and he auditorium truly stunning. What a shame to spoil things somewhat with inadequate toilet provision. There was even a queue for the men's toilets last night whilst the queue for the women's stretched across at least half of the downstairs bar. London theatre is not cheap...how about sorting the comfort facilities?

Friday, 14 June 2013

London's best bits - my top ten!

I recently posted about my favourite ten  places in Tel Aviv - my favourite city. Since then I have been giving some thought to what my London list would be. Having limited myself to just ten places, I have left out some real gems - and have been very strict about book shops and patisseries - as I could easily include six or seven of each! Here goes.


Having mentioned book shops, let's start with one. For the best book shop experience in London, I have to choose Foyles on Charing Cross Road. Established in 1904 and continuously in the hands of the Foyle family, this former dinosaur reinvented itself about a decade ago with a complete refurbishment, a total overhaul of the stock and a new approach to selling that was long overdue.

There are many stories about the strange regime of Christina Foyle, the former owner and matriarch of the Foyle family and her opposition to modern ways of working. This included the strange method of payment where having found a book you wanted, you took it to one of the staff who gave you a chit, which you then took to the ground floor, made your payment and then returned to the floor where you found the book to collect it and take it home.  I once heard one of the family members speak about the history of the shop and he explained that once a week, Christina Foyle, the former owner and matriarch of the family, would drive to London from her home in the country, collect all of the chits for the week and take them back to her home. Each chit bore the name of the member of staff who had sold the book and the week's collection was then divided out by four old ladies working in a barn. This system was used to pay the staff according to their sales - in cash the following week when Ms. Foyle made her return journey to London. Thankfully things have changed and as well as a fantastic book stock, you can buy music and films, have a snack and a coffee and attend an exhibition, concert or music event - usually for free.

Maison Bertaux - Greek Street, Soho by Yekkes

Maison Berteaux is just around the corner from Foyles, in Soho's Greek Street. Founded in 1871 this tiny but much loved patisserie has one of London's best window displays and as well as attracting tourists, has a devoted and often eccentric clientele. Sit in the downstairs room of the main part of the shop if you can and watch the drama unfold as people come and go in this tiny space, but for goodness sake remember to order before you sit down as otherwise you run the risk of incurring the wrath of some of the longer established staff! The selection of patisserie is excellent. My favourites include the meringues, coffee eclairs and various cheese cakes. There are also savoury pastries - the cheese dijon is spectacularly good. In addition to the staff and customers, the theatrical theme is played out with the eclectic display of handbills, photographs and well, tat, as well as occasional theatrical performances in the second room on the upper floor.

From Maison Berteaux, you can follow your nose to the best coffee shop in London which is less than a minute away from Maison Berteaux - the Algerian Coffee Stores in Old Compton Street. A relative newcomer compared to Berteaux, the shop opened in 1887. Unfortunately, you can't sit and drink coffee here but you can buy 80 different coffees from all over the world. The staff offer expert advice on what coffee will best suit your taste, including different blends and if like me, you don't possess your own grinder they will grind the beans for you. I like very strong coffee and usually buy either a super strong Bolivian or a coffee mixed with spices that reminds me of my travels. You can also buy over 120 kinds of tea as well as hot chocolate (including all the best Dutch brands) chocolates, sweets and mints whilst there are coffee mills and other paraphernalia indispensible to the serious coffee drinker. 

Algerian Coffee Stores - Old Compton Street, Soho by Yekkes

Many of my favourite places are in Soho, including Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club in Frith Street, again all of three minutes walk from Berteaux or the Algerian Coffee Stores. Established in 1959, for many people, me included, this is the best jazz club in the world. Until he died in 1996 aged just 69, Mr. Scott ran the club himself including introducing many of the acts, telling bad jokes, playing and sometimes throwing people out who wouldn't keep quiet during the acts. Come back Ronnie - there's too much talking during the performances these days.

I first went there in 1982 when as a student I came to London for a week as part of my course. Four of us made our way to Ronnie Scotts, scraped together the entry fee and ordered one bottle of the cheapest white wine between us - Laski Riesling. We made it last for a couple of hours whilst listening to the Buddy de Franco quartet. The waitress asked us several times if we needed more drinks and wasn't impressed with our request for a jug of water. We scraped up enough to order a burger and chips between us before the night ended. These days I am a regular. The music is always great. The drinks are still expensive, but where else over a few months could you here the likes of Lonnie Liston Smith, Avishai Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Mario Biondi and countless other leading jazz musicians perform? Its the best night out in London!


A little further west in Great Marlborough Street you can find my favourite London department store - Liberty. Now that's saying something. Remember this city is home to Selfridges (which I also love), Harrods (which for me is overrated) and Harvey Nichols so we are not short of fancy stores.

The store was founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty and opened in 1875 selling ornaments, fabric and objects d'art from the Far East. Liberty had been working for another retailer for ten years and borrowed the then enormous sum of two thousand pounds from his future father-in-law to set up by himself. Much loved by Londoners and tourists alike and still famous for its Liberty print, the store has excellent ranges of both designer and mainstream fashion for men and women, a wonderful art shop, soft furnishings - including the Svenskt Tenn range from Sweden with some of Josef Frank's original designs, stationery, chocolates, jewellery and lots more. There is an annual sale of original arts and crafts furniture which is one of my highlights of the year - despite never having been able to afford any of the items - although I do have  a very nice reproduction Svenskt Tenn tray in my lounge! Even if you don't want to buy anything, its a great place to spend an hour or so just browsing.

I am not one for pampering - no fancy massage or spa treatments for me, but I wouldn't miss my weekly visit to the Ted's Grooming Room for anything. This Turkish barbers shop owned by fashion design mogul Ted Baker. Following a visit to Istanbul some years ago and a haircut and shave in a traditional Turkish barber shop he established one of his own on Theobalds Road in London's Holborn district. I pondered for some time before my first visit - attracted by the smells of balsam and lemon coming from the open door as I passed on the way to my gym which is just across the road. Finally plucking up the courage to go in a couple of years ago, I am now addicted. Once a week for a little over twenty quid I have my (not very much) hair cut off - a neat "zero" and my neck shaved.

But that's not all, you also get the flame treatment, where the barber lights what resembles a cotton wool bud dipped in alcohol and sweeps it across the ears singeing off little "unwanted" hairs. Remember not to move while he does this. It might be best to close your eyes if you are of a nervous disposition. A woman I once worked with told me that she had been to a hamam in Beirut and when relaxing after her massage, jumped off the slab when she saw the masseuse coming towards her with a similar flame. Terrified and not knowing that she was going to sweep it across her upper lip as many Lebanese ladies do, my friend's screams were greeted with hysterical laughter from the local women. After the fiery bit, things calm down with a bit of a head massage when they rinse your hair (in my case, head), then rub lemon into your scalp before covering it in a hot towel and giving a rigorous arm, neck and shoulders massage. This is one of my highlights of my week.



London has some of the world's best museums and galleries. Just think of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery and all of those specialist museums we have in our city. Regular readers will know I have a weakness for the Ben Uri Gallery in north London. Founded in 1915 and originally located in the East End, the Ben Uri is today housed in a small shop unit in St. John's Wood. The premises are inadequate and the location not central but the collection and the exhibitions programme are world class and easily put the gallery into my top ten of London's best bits! The permanent collection concentrates on Jewish art and has many highlights including works from the likes of David Bomberg, Simeon Solomon, Jankel Adler, Mane-Katz, Jacob Epstein and many more. In the last few years the gallery has also acquired works by Chagall, Soutine and Grosz. I have written about a number of the  temporary exhibitions here. The gallery is looking for a new, larger and more central home so that more of its unique collection can be displayed. In the meantime you can still visit the current Boris Aronson exhibition.

Whilst Foyle's is my favourite, I have to include at least one more book shop in my top ten. I am a pushover for travel books -  guides, maps, travelogues, the lot. London has two excellent travel book specialists. Daunts on Marylebone High Street has an amazing church-like interior with old wood panelling and literally thousands of books covering every part of the world. The breadth and depth of the stock is excellent with many books here that you would rarely see elsewhere. This includes histories and fiction from and about each country shelved together with the travel guides. Its another place to spend a very long time, drifting from one shelf to another and collecting lots of books to take home! Stanfords on Long Acre in Covent Garden takes the same approach to display, has slightly less stock than Daunts but is especially good for maps. They also have a small cafe. Both stores also have other branches. Its very hard to choose between the two but for the wider stock and unique atmosphere, Daunts is tops for me and makes it into my top ten.

I haven't listed any buildings yet. There are so many to choose from. I love the Gherkin and the Shard but as regular readers will know, modernism and art deco are my special interests. Again, London has some great examples of these genres but I have limited myself to just one and that's the wonderful Ibex House  near Tower Bridge. Completed in 1937 and designed by Fuller, Hall and Foulsham who were also the architects for the lovely Bonhams building just off Oxford Street, it is probably the largest surviving example of this style in the UK. Designed as an office block, it is still home to a number of companies and has a great Italian caff (yes caff, not cafe) on the ground floor, where behind the beautiful curved windows they serve "full English breakfasts" and other delicacies. I love the curves, layers and colour of this beautiful building that brings a touch of class to this part of Aldgate.


Finally, a touch of style. For my favourite shopping experience in London...or maybe the world...I go to the Yohji Yamamoto shop in Conduit Street just off Regent Street. Yamamoto designs ultra modern but totally timeless clothes for both men and women. His almost architectural garments are exquisite, usually black and always expensive. But worth every penny. The esteem in which Yamamoto is held is measured by the fact that his designs were the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum a few years ago. Best of all, his clothes can be worn by people of all ages including those of us no longer able to wear tight t-shirts! As well as selling great clothes, the shop has great staff who are friendly, helpful and extremely knowledgeable about the collections.

So that's it, my ten best bits in London - and that's without any of the theatres, cinemas or major museums. I have stuck to places that are still open or standing. Some of my all time favourites are no longer with us - the Astoria on Charing Cross Road, Jones men's clothes shop in Floral Street and most painful of all Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. Perhaps the subject of a future post...

You might also like these...

My Soho

Cecil Court London WC2N

And for more London pictures look here.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Boris Aronson and the Yiddish Theatre at the Ben Uri Gallery

Two Hasids, costume design, 1926
Boris Aronson designed scenes, costumes and lighting for some of Broadway's most successful musicals including Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. He also designed the sets for for Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of the Nutcracker and picked up numerous awards over his long theatre career in the United States. However, his career started long before most of these musicals were written and included success as a writer, painter and costume designer. He was also a leading light in the hugely influential Kultur Lige, a Jewish artists' organisation founded in his home town of Kiev in 1918. His achievements in New York's Yiddish Theatre in the 1920's and 1930's are the subject of the current exhibition at my favourite London gallery - the Ben Uri in St. John's Wood. 

I first saw this exhibition "Ben Aronson and the Yiddish Theatre" at  the Tel Aviv branch of the Minotaur Gallery a few years ago.  The exhibition covers his early years in the Ukraine as an apprentice to the designer and avant-garde artist Aleksandra Exter, as well as a sojourn in Berlin before arriving in New York in 1923. Exter had a lifelong influence on him and recognising his desire to design stage scenery, invited him to assist her in the design of sets for the Moscow premiere of Romeo and Juliet in 1920. 

The Kultur Lige was established to promote Yiddish culture. It drew membership and support from writers, artists and various cultural figures with branches being established in almost 100 towns and villages in the Ukraine. The Lige established schools, childcare centres, evening classes for adults and children, music clubs and drama classes with the objective of developing a "new Jew" who could easily combine the qualities of universal and Jewish culture. Over the period of its lifetime it included amongst others Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, Josef Tchaikov, Nathan Altman, Issakhar-Ber Ryback and Sara Shor - many of whom were Aronson's friends and fellow students of Exter. Aronson managed the committee that organised the Lige's first exhibition in Kiev in early 1920. The exhibition included two of his own works which unfortunately have not survived.

At the end of 1921 he moved to Moscow, continued studying and painting and frequenting the theatre, being particularly impressed and influenced by the experimental work of Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov. More importantly he studied closely the sets and costumes of their productions including those designed by Chagall, describing Chagall's mural in the Jewish Chamber Theatre as "the best of his works". Together with Exter, they had a lasting influence on Aronson - not least their devotion to Constructivism. This is reflected in his 1927 design for the cover of Der Hammer, a socialist magazine in New York.

Costume for Baruch Agadati's oriental dance, 1923
In 1922 he moved again, this time to Berlin which was by then host to a large emigre Russian and Jewish artistic community. During his year in Berlin he published two books - Contemporary Graphic Jewish Art and a work on Marc Chagall. So, by the age of 24 he was an accomplished artist, writer and organiser, but more was to come. In Berlin he met and worked with the dancer Baruch Agadati, a pioneer of avant-garde choreography (and who went on to be a pioneering Israeli film maker!) who attempted a synthesis of ancient folk dances and modern ballet. Aronson produced various sketches for Agadati's dances as well as designing costumes for him. 

In November 1923, Aronson arrived in New York with what he described as "awkward luggage...some drawings, two books, a pair of socks, a membership in a union of German artists, paintbrushes, crowded emotions, little money and less English". Being fluent in Yiddish enabled him to quickly find work - New York being one of the world centres of the language during the 1920's. His initial work involved book cover design, illustrations for children's books and covers for Der Hammer. His work during this period exhibits his continuing commitment to Jewish content and also to the principles of Constructivism. Several items from this period are included in the exhibition including some of the books and magazines - one of the highlights for me.
Cover design for Der Hammer magazine, 1927
He also continued to write in Yiddish magazines including articles about theatre design and when the Jewish Theatre Society opened "Unzer Teater" (Our Theatre) in 1924 he was appointed principle stage designer. The theatre was housed in a small building in the Bronx - then heavily Jewish. Aronson later wrote that "Out of seventy Yiddish theatres in New York, I ended up in a tiny theatre in the Bronx...(where) no-one knew for sure if they would be paid or not, but they had an adventurous spirit and were concerned with the experimental". They were indeed and his work for the costume and stage designs of two of the theatre's three productions "Night and Day" and "The Last Result" are on display at the Ben Uri and show just how experimental those times were. Strapped for cash, Aronson made use of different fabrics and colours in the actors' costumes to create a mood or to highlight the personality of a character. For example, the costume for "the devil" is dominated by grey and black for mood whilst the crimson lining of his coat is a reference to the fires of hell. The plays were well received including by non Jewish American critics.

He went on to work at two more Yiddish theatres - the Schildkraut and Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre, achieving particular fame at the latter where he designed the revival of the Yiddish classic The Ten Commandments in 1926. Aronson's time in the Yiddish theatre ended soon afterwards with his desire to appeal to a broader audience taking him to Broadway in 1932 and to several decades of success.

Design for The Circus 1926
This son of a rabbi from small town Ukraine ended up a very long way from home but always acknowledged the influence of his formative years. Born in a time and place that produced many outstanding artists, significant numbers of whom were Jewish, Boris Aronson was one of those occasional figures that are able to excel in many fields, in his case painting, writing, costume and set design. This incredible set of skills is something rarely seen today. The exhibition runs until June 30th - go and see it! The Ben Uri Gallery, still looking for a home worthy of its collection, is also exhibiting some of the treasures from its permanent collection including works by Soutine, Grosz and London's own "Whitechapel Boys" including Mark Gertler, Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg. All the more reason to visit. 

Stage design for Bronx Express, 1925


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Friday, 7 June 2013

Vienna - art nouveau, coffee and cakes!

To some people Vienna brings back memories of Carol Reed's film adaptation of Graham Greene's story The Third Man. You can even take a guided tour of the Vienna sewers where the closing scenes of the film were shot. To others its the waltzes of the Strauss family or if you grew up in the 1980's it might be the memory of the 1981 Ultravox hit song named after the city - and said to be based on Reed's film. To me its none of these, although I did read and enjoy Greene's story shortly after my recent visit. For me Vienna is about three things. Art nouveau. Coffee. And cakes. And not necessarily in that order. 

The city has one of the largest surviving collections of art nouveau any where in the world. I have already posted about Otto Wagner's stunning Majolica House and will write about a few more of my favourites here.  Staying with Otto Wagner, a short walk from the Majolica House brings us to Karlsplatz and the famous pavilions designed by our man for the Vienna metro system.

The pavilions, built in 1898, were part of the work Wagner was commissioned to do in designing the city's stadtbahn or railway system. As well as working on the large construction elements of the project, he devoted detailed attention to the railings, lamps and signs - a total design concept for the work. The advent of the u-bahn (metro) in the late 1960's meant that the pavilions were threatened with destruction. Thankfully this was staved off and the pavilions were dismantled and then re-constructed above the new Karlsplatz u-bahn station.

Today, one of the pavilions forms part of the Museum of the City of Vienna as the Otto Wagner Documentation Centre (pictured below). It houses a small exhibition of photographs of his work, architectural drawings and models and details of projects that were never realised. There is also a small shop with books, postcards and souvenirs specialising in Wagner's achievements as well as more general guide books for the city. You can buy a combination ticket that will get you access to the main part of the City Museum which is just across the square and amongst other things features a reconstruction of a room in the home of Adolf Loos, another Viennese architectural icon. The other pavilion contains a cafe and restaurant. The metal and wood iconic apple-green structures share the original colours of the Vienna stadtbahn and have white marble and gold detail exteriors.


Vienna by Yekkes


The Vienna Secession was an artistic movement founded in 1897 by Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann and others to challenge the staid, classicist approach to art that was the norm for Vienna in the late 19th century. The building to which that movement gave its name lies between the Karlsplatz pavilions and the Majolica House and it is very easy to visit all three in succession as well as taking in some of the other sites including the baroque Karlkirche, the Naschmarkt and the City of Vienna Museum in half a day.

Designed by Olbrich and built from 1897 to 1898, the Secession (pictured below and with detail) was originally intended to be a temporary structure but despite undergoing serious damage during the Second World War, happily, it is still with us. The bronze leaf cupola set above the crisp white, angular, almost cubist building is a well known image in the city and quite early on attracted the nickname the "cabbage head" from the irreverent Viennese.

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes


Vienna by Yekkes

Nowadays, the building continues to host contemporary art exhibitions but the main draw for visitors from around the world is Gustav Klimt's partially restored Beethoven Freeze in the basement. Klimt has other connections with the Secession building. It is said that Olbrich's designs were based on a drawing of his whilst Ernst Klimt, the artist's brother designed the bronze doors of the entrance. At first glance the Secession appears to be a relatively plain white building with a bronze crown, but in reality it has a great deal of decoration from the golden details on the sides to the lovely mosaic vases by the entrance - each of which are supported by bronze turtles (pictured below). The slogan above the entrance which means"Arts for the time freedom for the arts" came from the art critic Ludwig Hevesi.

Vienna by Yekkes

One of the joys of re-visiting a city like Vienna is discovering little treasures that you had missed on previous occasions - sometimes quite by accident. On the day I visited the Werkbundieslung, a collection of modernist buildings from the 1930's I decided that rather than take a taxi to my destination, I would walk from the nearest metro station and have a look at a part of Vienna I was not familiar with. As well as seeing some more modernist architecture on the way, I fell upon the Galilei Hof, a large art nouveau building on Lainzerstrasse (pictured below). Built in 1905 as an apartment block by architect Emil Reitman, who also owned the site it commands attention on a corner lot. There are fairly ordinary shops on the ground floor of the Galilei Hof, reminding us to "look up" to see the more interesting things in life!

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

In an earlier article I confessed that the Majolica House is my favourite of Vienna's many art nouveau buildings. It still is, but it has a rival. Despite having visited the city several times before, I had never seen the Engel Apotheke at Bognerstrasse 9, in the city centre. How can I have managed to reach my advanced age without having admired the beautifully preserved facade of this building?

The Apotheke was designed by Oscar Laske who studied under Wagner  but later gave up architecture for painting. Built from 1901-1902, the structure is not especially outstanding but the facade (pictured below and with detail below) with its rich decoration is striking, surprising the casual passer by as witnessed by the many cameras and telephones being pointed at it each time I passed! The glass mosaic images show two angels on columns holding up healing potions with the snake of aesculapius circling their arms in reference to the purpose of the store. Further up the facade there is a sunflower frieze above a large rectangular window which itself has wrought iron bars decorated with a leaf motif. 

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes


Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Just a few steps away from the Engel Apotheke I made another discovery - the patisserie and chocolate shop of Zum Schwartzen Kameel (the black camel) restaurant. The reflection from the glass onto the wooden exterior of this tiny shop gave it a golden glow that attracted my attention - as did the word "patisserie" under the name board.  The Zum Schwartzen Kameel is one of Vienna's oldest restaurants dating back to 1618. Beethoven is said to have been a customer. The patisserie offers jars of sweets, cakes, biscuits and hand made chocolate - all presented in beautiful boxes and packaging. I was easily persuaded to part with 12 euros for a small box of chocolates. I ate them all within two days of returning to London...

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Which brings us to the coffee and cakes. There are hundreds of coffee houses in this city ranging from extremely old, extremely authentic to the chains you can find in almost any city in the world, including Starbucks. I have nothing against Starbucks - but I find it hard to understand why in a city like Vienna with its excellent coffee houses anyone would want to go to a chain cafe? Each to their own I suppose.

I have a couple of favourite cafes in Vienna. Opened in 1876, Cafe Central in Herrengasse was once the second home for many artists, writers and assorted Bohemians who spent there time there arguing, discussing, working and running up tabs that may still be unsettled. Jewish writer Peter Altenberg spent so much time there that he gave the cafe as his postal address and a figure representing him sits at the first table guests see when entering the premises. Kafka is also said to have used the cafe as a place to write in. Today Cafe Central is largely the preserve of tourists and is somewhat expensive, but I still like to visit, to look up at the vaulted ceilings (pictured below) and to enjoy some strong coffee with the obligatory glass of water served in central European cafes (why not in London?). And of course, its a great place to savour the delights of an apple or cherry (or apple and cherry) strudel, cheesecake or some other delicacy brought to the table by the smart, black suited waiting staff.


Cafe Hawelka has a different ambience.  It originally opened in 1906 as the Chatham Bar. The wood panelled interior is believed to be the original and no renovation or remodelling has ever taken place. It was acquired by Leopold Hawelka in 1939 who together with his wife Josefine ran the cafe until her death in 2005 and his in 2011 - some months after his 100th birthday. The place still attracts students, artists and "real" Viennese to drink coffee and read the papers as well as tourists from all over the world. My choice here is a slightly different take on the strudel - a cheese strudel made of four different kinds of sweet cheese wrapped in filo pastry. Delicious. The service here is less formal but efficient and its OK to linger for a long time over a book, newspaper or laptop - perhaps the only concession to modernity.

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

All of the best and most interesting coffee houses are listed in The Vienna Coffee Guide 2012 which is well worth investing in if you are unfamiliar with the city. A word of warning. Smoking is still legal in Austrian cafes and restaurants. Larger establishments might provide a separate room for smoking, or designate a space, but smaller places can remain as "smoking cafes". 

I like Ilona Stuberl, a very small Hungarian restaurant established in 1957 to cater for refugees from the failed Hungarian uprising. Named after the Hungarian lady who founded the restaurant with her husband, it is a friendly, charmingly old fashioned place where even the flower vases match the crockery. Old fashioned heavy (and meaty) Hungarian food is the rule, but I had a good tomato and mozzarella salad starter and then a tasty(and filling) mushroom  goulash with gnocchi. I was impressed that the waiter noticing my meat free order told me that one of the breads contained small pieces of bacon so I might like to avoid it! I might have stayed longer but found the smoke too much, primarily from a table of older people celebrating a birthday. The smoke was annoying but they were interesting to look at. At least in their seventies, the women still had ornate "big" hair dos.  The men sported  amazingly combed monstrosities with their remaining locks wrapped around and over their heads in Daliesque, gravity defying styles, or perhaps as a tribute to the sweeps and swirls of art nouveau decoration.  Astonishing. Perhaps I am only jealous.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Jewish Vienna


I spent last weekend in Vienna. Whilst checking into my hotel, I heard two other guests speaking Hebrew. Later on I walked along Taborstrasse to reach the centre of the city and heard two market stall holders speaking Hebrew. On my way back to the hotel I noticed a restaurant called "Bahur Tov" which in Hebrew (בהור טוב) means the good fellow.

I stayed in Leopoldstadt, Vienna's second district which was once home to many of the more than 200,000 Jews who lived in the city prior to the 1938 Anschluss or union of Austria and Germany and is now home to many of the city's approximately 15,000 Jews. About half of this number belong to the official community. On the last day of my visit, I took a guided tour of today's Jewish Vienna with tour guide Daniele of Milk and Honey Tours and saw much evidence of a small but thriving community.

Our walk began on Praterstrasse, the main thoroughfare of Leopoldstadt and once home to many cafes and theatres that were frequented by Viennese Jews. Today there are fewer cafes and only one theatre still operating on the Nestroyplatz, halfway down Praterstrasse. The Nestroyhof Theatre (pictured below) carried a banner with the word "Hamakom", Hebrew (המקום) for "the place". Daniele explained that the ground floor of the building had been used as a supermarket that was now closed down. After it closed a beautiful art nouveau theatre was discovered within the building and brought back into use. The theatre had special meaning for Daniele - it was the venue for his wedding!  

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

A little further down the adjoining street, at Praterstrasse 25, is the house that Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism lived in after moving from his native Budapest, until 1882. The house is not open to the public.

Templegasse runs along the side of the Nestroy Theatre and is the site of the former Leopoldstadt Temple. Opened in 1858, the synagogue symbolised the growing confidence of the community which was gradually acquiring civil rights. Unlike other large Jewish buildings it faced directly on to the street and was not hidden behind a wall. Damaged by fire in 1917 it was restored and re-opened in 1921 only to be destroyed again during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9th and 10th 1938 which left only the north wing standing. However, Tempelgasse is symbolic of the renewal of Jewish life in Vienna and the site of the former synagogue is now home to the Agudas Israel Talmud Torah school and various community organisations. The school is well attended and as we passed there were many children running, shouting and having fun in the playground. Viennese architect Martin Kohlbauer designed four columns that show the size and extent of the original structure (pictured below) and which act as a memorial to the losses of 1938. There is also a large image of the former Leopoldstadt Temple painted on to the wall of Tempelgasse at the end of the street. 

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Another short walk leads to the Karmeliterplatz, site of the Karmelitermarkt and home to a surprising number of kosher shops and Jewish owned businesses, several of them owned by Israelis. Many of the bakeries, grocery stores and small cafes in the square and surrounding streets are owned by Jews from the former Soviet Union, primarily from Bukhara and Georgia some of whom also have interests in the city's main Naschmarkt in the first district. There are also several small synagogues, unrecognisable as such from the street other than for the police security box that stands outside them. Walking through this part of the city it is not unusual to see Orthodox Jews dressed in Haredi or Hassidic clothing, giving just an idea of how Leopoldstadt must have been before the Second World War. Whilst it is unlikely the community will ever reach pre-war proportions when it accounted for 9 or 10% of the city's population, it is currently being enlarged by a steady trickle of immigrants fro neighbouring Hungary where anti-semitism is again rearing its head with the Jobbik party having a strong presence in government.

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Leaving Leopoldstadt, it is yet another short walk to the jewel in the crown of Vienna's built Jewish heritage, the Stadttempel in Seitenstettengasse. This was the only synagogue in Vienna to survive Kristallnacht but only due to its proximity to non-Jewish houses and businesses and the attendant risk of fires spreading to them. That's one surviving building from 94. The synagogue has an interesting history. Built in 1826, the then Emperor Franz allowed its construction on the understanding that its facade was not recognisable a place of Jewish worship. Strangely, he also wanted to be able to stand on  the roof of St. Stephen's Cathedral and not see the dome of the synagogue and so the architect Joseph Kornhausel, had to build a special chimney like tower to shield the dome and prevent offence to the Emperor. Kornhausel also built himself an apartment within the tower, accessed by an intricate system of staircases. The apartment is no longer there. 

The interior of the synagogue (pictured below) is beautiful. Designed in the Biedermeier style of the time in an oval shape, it has a beautiful blue painted ceiling decorated with golden stars and two women's galleries supported by 12 ionic columns. Daniele told me that the organ is not real. Emperor Joseph demanded an organ be installed and when he visited the synagogue shortly after its opening, a real, smaller organ had to be brought in and played from behind the fake one to sustain the facade. There are regular tours of the synagogue, but visitors must bring their passports and go through rigorous security checks. This began after a palestinian terrorist attack in 1982 that resulted in the murder of two people attending a barmitzvah with a further thirty being injured.

Vienna by Yekkes

Although the Jewish community of Vienna is tentatively renewing itself, the darker past is never very far away. There are many memorials to the Jews killed during the Holocaust, the most well known being the Rachael Whiteread sculpture in Judenplatz  (pictured below) which commemorates the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were unable or unwilling to leave before being deported and murdered. Unveiled in the year 2000, the structure represents an empty room whose doors have no handles and with the outer walls made up of a library of books representing the lives of the lost. The names of the camps to which the victims were deported are engraved on the plinth.

The Judenplatz is a quiet Viennese square with large scale buildings dating back several hundred years. Turning the corner into the square for the first time, the sculpture presents a shock to visitors, immediately taking their attention and interest. The sculpture is not the only tragedy commemorated in this square. There is also a branch of the Jewish museum in the Judenplatz in which it is possible to see below ground, the remains of a medieval synagogue where 200 men and their rabbi committed suicide and set the building on fire rather than undergo forced conversion during a 1421 pogrom. This did not stop many more Jews being burned alive outside of the city and the exclusion of all Jews from Vienna until the seventeenth century.

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

There are several other Holocaust memorials in Vienna, but I was particularly moved by two of the smaller ones. As in Berlin, there is a trail that visitors can follow with small plaques fixed to the ground otuisde of the homes of deportees, listing their names, dates of birth and death (where known) as well as place of deportation. This not only keeps their memories alive, but links them forever to their former homes. Aron Menczer was a young man who helped look after the many Jewish children either orphaned or left to fend for themselves when their parents were deported. Despite having the necessary papers to emigrate to Eretz Israel,  he did not take this opportunity to escape, preferring to remain with his young charges to the end, which eventually came with their deportation to Auschwitz in October 1943 where together with Menczer they were gassed on arrival. His memorial is a simple free standing stone block that stands in Marc Aurel Strasse outside of the former orphanage. Apparently the current owner of the building did not want it fixed to the walls. Simon Weisenthal once had his Holocaust Documentation Centre in the same street.

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Viennese Jewry has a long and often troubled history. However, it must be remembered that this was the community that gave Austria and the world the genius of Sigmund Freud the pioneer of psychoanalysis, composers Gustav Mahler, Erich Korngold, Arnold Schoenberg and Fritz Kreisler; writers Joseph Roth, Felix Salten and Stefan Zweig, the vocal brilliance of Richard Tauber, architect Josef Frank and countless others whose legacy lives on today. It would be unrealistic to expect what is now a very small community to regain such prominence, but there is again Jewish life in the streets of Vienna and Hebrew can be heard in its streets - not just from the many Israeli tourists who come here to  look for their family history or to enjoy the amazing cultural scene - especially art and music - that Vienna still offers. It doesn't take a great deal to sit in Cafe Central, the favourite coffee house of many of Vienna's most prominent Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to be able to conjure up just what a wonderful community this must have been. Thanks again Daniele!

Vienna, May 2013 by Yekkes

Read more about Vienna here and here. More photographs here.