Saturday, 25 April 2015

Picture Post 42 - Boris Anrep's mosaics at the National Gallery


It's good to look up when strolling through cities as often the  most interesting sights are above street level. When entering London's National Gallery in Trafalger Square you should do the opposite and look down. Every day thousands of visitors walk across some of London's most beautiful mosaics - the work of Russian emigree Boris Vasilyevich Anrep, born in St. Petersburg in 1883 and who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1910.

The National Gallery commissioned Anrep to produce and lay two mosaic floors in the vestibule of its main hall based on the themes The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life. He completed this task between 1928 and 1933. The Gallery must have liked the results as in 1952, he was commissioned to produce a third mosaic entitled The Modern Virtues.  

Anrep was associated with the Bloomsbury Group and a number of its members appear as characters in his work as did a number of other prominent people of the time. Examples of this include Winston Churchill as Defiance and Great Garbo is the muse Melopeme, whilst in the pictures featured here, we can see ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn as Delectation, poet Edith Sitwell as the Sixth Sense and my favourite astronomer Fred Hoyle as Pursuit. I particularly like Pursuit with its image of a young Hoyle, climbing his way up towards the stars, wearing glasses that would make him extremely fashionable today and carrying what looks a little like a laptop! Anrep was clearly forward thinking.

Originally studying to be a lawyer, he abandoned this for art and studied in Paris before enrolling at the Glasgow School of Art for the year 1910-11. He met British artist Augustus John whilst in Paris and soon  became familiar with other British artists including Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. His Russian background also helped open doors for him in London and in 1912 he was asked to take charge of the Russian section in Roger Fry's second post-impressionist exhibition. Exhibitors in this section included Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Nicholas Roerich. He also maintained a life long friendship with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova is the subject of the current exhibition at London's Pushkin House, part of which examines her links with Anrep.

It is possible to see more of Anrep's work in London by visiting Westminster Cathedral in Victoria where he designed the mosaics in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel or Saint Sophia's Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater. He also completed commissions at the Church of Christ the King in Mullingar, Ireland. Its free to see the mosaics in the National Gallery, but remember to look down!




Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ella Leya - The Orphan Sky, a brilliant first novel


One of the hits of this year's Jewish book week, Ella Leya is an accomplished musician playing both jazz and classical music. The Orphan Sky is an excellent first novel capturing the complicated manoeuvrings of life in the final decade of the Soviet Union through the experiences of Leila Badalbeili, a talented young pianist from Baku, Azerbaijan.

The book captures the atmosphere of Baku's old city with its narrow lanes, sites and smells, and most of all its iconic Maiden Tower. The Tower is the source of many stories, some of which overlap with Leila's own experiences as she navigates her way through her teenage years, discovering art, music and even love - much of which is forbidden during the Soviet period in which the story is set. 

Leila is a committed member of the Komsomol, the Communist youth organisation, but becomes disillusioned after meeting Tahir, a young man from the once prominent Mukhtarov family who introduces her to a world beyond that permitted by the authorities. Gradually, she begins to see and understand the deceit, corruption and hypocrisy inherent in the Soviet regime with party officials lining their own pockets whilst others live in poverty. This extends all the way to her beloved father, who moves in the upper levels of Soviet Azeri society, and who she realises is not above receiving bribes in return for favours. Her awareness of how deceitful those in authority are grows until she discovers her father's ultimate betrayal, which I won't reveal here (!), but which results in a series of catastrophic events leading all the way to the final denouement and a kind of deliverance.

The Orphan Sky has a wonderful cast of characters. Our heroine Leila wins our support, respect and sympathy but, happily, is no angel herself, making mistakes and compromises as she struggles between the urge to survive and the desire not to compromise herself. Her best friend Almaz is both survivor and victim whilst Sonia, her mother, is a brilliant surgeon but turns a blind eye to her husband's indiscretions even when they come very close to home. I especially liked her music teacher, Professor Sultan-zade, initially drawn as a cold, stern character but who is developed through the course of the story as considered, capable and eminently human and who also has emotions. The female characters demonstrate very clearly the position of many women in Soviet society who had to live up to the requirements of both the regime and more traditional roles assigned to women in some cultures and communities. 

I visited Azerbaijan in 2012 and The Orphan Sky took me back there, especially to Icheri Sheher, the old city of Baku. Indeed, it made me want to visit again. Ella Leya's love for music is displayed throughout the book, through her descriptions of Leila's performances, immersing the reader in emotional journeys through pieces by Mozart and Rachmaninov using references to art, the elements and to the music of Billie Holiday in order to convey her feelings. This is no surprise given her own jazz background and that rhere is a bit of a jazz tradition in Azerbaijan.  During the Soviet period it was seen as the music of dissent. The great Azerbaijani jazz pianist Vagif Mustafazade who suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime is now revered and his former home is a museum. The book also contains many references to traditional Azeri poems and lyrics and to the traditional Azeri mugham form of music. 

Ella Leya was born in Baku and received asylum in the United States in 1990. She lives between Laguna beach in california and London-  where she is the wife of a rabbi! You can find out more about her music here.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Lisbon art deco - three cinemas, a church and some communists!

I planned to visit Lisbon in 2001 but for various reasons wasn't able to go. It took me until this year to get there and now I can't believe I waited so long. The city has an easy, relaxed atmosphere as well as some of  Europe's most beautiful art deco and modernist buildings. This came as a surprise as Lisbon does not immediately spring to mind when thinking about art deco in Europe. The Portuguese version of this architectural style is one of Europe's best kept architectural secrets.

Eden Theatre, Praca dos Restauradores
As with many cities, Lisbon boast a number of cinemas in the style, some of which now serve other functions whilst retaining some of their original features. The most prominent of the city's art deco cinemas is the former Eden Theatre on Praca dos Restauradores. Designed by Cassiano Branco and Carlo Florencio Dias, it opened in 1931. Branco is a name to which we will return. The cinema had a large, double tiered hall which, sadly, was demolished in 2001 when the building was converted into an apartment hotel. It had ceased to operate as a cinema in 1989 but had a brief moment of glory in 1991 when part of Wim Wenders' Until the End of The World was filmed there. 

There have also been some changes to the exterior as two enormous film poster boards were removed to open up the front and to reveal an atrium at the upper levels. The ground floor originally housed shops with stairways leading to the first floor where the auditorium was located but now appears to be empty. Despite this, the Eden still cuts an impressive figure at the very heart of Lisbon. 

Eden Theatre, Praca dos Restauradores
Teatro Cinearte at Largo dos Santos 2 operated as a cinema from 1938 to 1981 when it closed. Nine years later, the building reopened under the management of Shack - a theatre company. Shack added a second room in 1993, so as with the Eden, the interior is not as it was originally designed. 

Standing in a quiet square and opposite a small park, it is a striking example of Portuguese art deco with its portholes, glass bricked stairwell, stylised lettering, ocean liner curves and of course, its green facade. Located between the popular waterfront area of Belem and Baixa in the historical centre, it is a little off the beaten track for tourists but is well worth a bit of a walk from one or the other or if its too hot for that, a cheap taxi ride from the centre.

The Cinearte was designed by Lisbon born architect Raul Rodrigues Lima who was responsible for a number of cinemas in Portugal including the art deco influenced cinemas, Cinema Messias in Aveiro and Cinema Micaelense in San Miguel in the Azores. He later went on to work in the more classical influenced "Portuguese Smooth" style that became popular in the 1950's.

Teatro Cinearte, Largo dos Santos
Teatro Cinearte, Largo dos Santos
Teatro Cinearte, Largo dos Santos
Espaco Espelho d'Agua
One of the best things about traveling is the thrill of stumbling upon places you didn't know about. I had this experience in Belem after visiting some of the better known tourist sites when strolling along the waterfront I came across the absolutely stunning Espaco Espelho d'Agua, a huge modernist single storey structure built in 1940 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. Designed by architect Antonio Lino, the Espaco is today an arts centre with a cafe and restaurant set in what appears to be a former dock. 

The white exterior glimmered in the bright Portuguese sunshine and of course I couldn't resist sampling the cafe's coffee and ice cream whilst admiring the building's many deco and modernist features. The clean white exterior is decorated with fins, portholes, speed lines and protruding pillars whilst a minimalist approach has been taken to decorating the interior - with the exception of more portholes around the light fittings! It was not hard to imagine the Espaco being frequented by fleeing artists, musicians, writers and other refugees from central Europe during the 1940's, together with the more fashionable elements of Portuguese society. A real find.

Espaco Espelho d'Agua
Espaco Espelho d'Agua
My next stop is back in the centre of the city on the Avenida Liberdade, perhaps the glitziest street in Lisbon and home to Prada, Armani, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It is also home to an art deco masterpiece,  the Hotel Vitoria, at number 170. This marble clad beauty completed in 1936 is the work of Cassiano Branco who we met earlier. It has quite a history. Originally built as an apartment block, it was expanded and transformed into a hotel during the Second World War, when it was used as a base by spies of Nazi Germany. Due to Portugal's official neutrality during the war, spies from both sides frequented the city, setting up home and base in various hotels and spending time listening in to conversations in cafes and hotels, shadowing some of the refugees mentioned earlier and in some cases working as double agents. There is an excellent book on this period, Lisbon, War in the Shadows in the City of Light 1939-45  by Neil Lochery, which is well worth a read.

Hotel Vitoria, Avendida de Liberdade
Back to Hotel Vitoria. Its architectural features are as interesting as its history. Most impressive is its column of circular balconies which reaches to all six levels, the uppermost sheltered by a disc resembling an umbrella or canopy. The roof terrace, sadly not open to the public has a pergola which may seem a little bourgeois to the current occupants - the Communist Party of Portugal! The impressive balconies are in stark contrast to the adjoining much flatter facade topped by a concave box. Hotel Vitoria is one of the architect's greatest achievements and it is surprising that he is little known outside of Portugal.

Branco had an interesting career. Born in Lisbon in 1897, he attended the School of Fine Arts but became disenchanted and left after two years to undertake a more technical and industrial education as well as helping his father to run a small factory and working in a bank. During the 1920's he visited Amsterdam and Brussels and attended the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. Perhaps inspired by the new styles seen on his travels, he returned to the Lisbon School of Fine Arts and completed his architectural training in 1927.

Interested in politics, he was an outspoken critic of the Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which resulted in him being excluded from large scale official commissions. However, this does not seem to have affected his ability to work too much as both the Eden and Hotel Vitoria demonstrate. He also designed buildings in Porto, Cascais and Costa da Caparica.

Hotel Vitoria, Avendida de Liberdade
Hotel Vitoria, Avendida de Liberdade
Branco was also responsible for some residential blocks, including the huge apartment building at Rua Nova de sao Mamedy 3-7, built in 1937 with shops on the ground floor and  flats above. The block features some great balconies with circular ends on each side of the facade and a flatter central panel with a single fin. Still in use as a residential block, the ground floor shops have now been replaced by a car park. The street has a number of other interesting buildings from this period, not exactly modernist or deco but with a look none the less.

Apartment building, Rua de sao Mamedy
The subtitle of this post refers to three cinemas and the third of them is the former Condes Cinema at Avenida de Liberdade 2. Completed a little later than its near neighbours, it opened in 1951 and operated until the 1990's when it closed. it then stood empty for a while before (sadly) the interior was almost entirely ripped out and Lisbon's branch of the Hard Rock Cafe was opened in 2003. Built on the site of an earlier theatre, it was designed by architect Raul Tojal in a simpler style than the cinemas of Branco and Rodrigues Lima.  It has retained its exterior features, which have been carefully restored, including the mythical figures on the front curve. Tojal was also responsible for the interior of Cafe Nicola, opened in 1929 in Rossio Square and still serving coffee today. Cafe Nicola is one of many cafes allegedly frequented by the greta Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa.

Condes Cinema, Avenida de Liberdade
So that's the cinemas and the communists dealt with, but what of the church? Lisbon has a single modernist church, Nossa Senhora do Rosario de Fatima, completed in 1938 and designed by Porfiro Pardal Monteiro. it towers over the lower level buildings in one of the side streets off Avenida Marques de Tomar, not far from the world famous Gulbenkian Museum. Built in white painted cement, it is all angles and lines, relieved only by Francisoc Franco's relief figures over the main entrance. The interior is quiet and peaceful and decorated by stained glass panels, the work of artist Sobral de Almada Negreiros. 

Nossa Senhora de Rosario de Fatima
Nossa Senhora de Rosario de Fatima
Nossa Senhora de Rosario de Fatima
Lisbon is home to many art deco and modernist buildings and its hard to visit them all in just a few days, so as ever, I will need to visit again! Portugal's second city, Porto also has architectural riches in these styles so I feel a wider tour of Portugal coming on...