Sunday 29 January 2012

Josef Herman - Warsaw, Brussels, Glasgow, London 1938-44

Polish born artist Josef Herman is best known in this country for his paintings of Welsh miners, having lived in Ystradgynlais, South Wales from 1944-1955. The current exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in north London covers the years 1938-44 which he spent moving from Warsaw to Brussels to Glasgow and then London, to escape virulent anti-semitism in Warsaw and then the invading Germans in Brussels.

Herman was from a poor background, his father was a cobbler and the family's living conditions are known to have been difficult. This is reflected in his life long interest in and representation of working people in his art. "The cobbler, my father" from 1943 shows the older Herman at work at his bench in a sparse, ill-lit and cold looking room whilst other works depict poor musicians playing for money and the seemingly Chagall influenced "The organ grinder" from 1940-41 with the sallow, sunken cheeked player accompanied by a wise owl adding a strange note of comedy.

One of very few works to have survived from his time in Brussels, "The Gambler" from 1938 shows two intense looking men playing dice in the foreground of the picture with serious drinking going on in the background. Again, the room is sparsely furnished and the drinkers are shown as being small, sad and stooped. Herman was also keen to show more joyful aspects of working class life and the picture "Jews dancing" from 1940 shows a group of shtetl Jews - men and women - dancing to the music of a bearded violinist, one moved to dance on the hastily cleared table.

A number of his paintings have been compared to Chagall's works. Herman was very conscious of this comparison, did not want it and came to dislike it, at a later date, going so far as to destroy several works that he felt were too "Chagall-esque". It is interesting that many of these pictures came in the early 1940's at a time when he would have had little real news of his family still in Poland. Perhaps he was trying to recreate a world that was in the process of being destroyed forever - including, he would come to learn, his entire family. This also sparked the series of works included in the exhibition called "A memory of memories" in which he recreates his childhood and the pre-war Jewish Poland he remembered.

During the first half of the 20th century, a number of artists produced sets or designed costumes for theatre and ballet. Goncharova, Bakst and Rodchenko spring to mind in particular, their work for and with the Ballet Russes. Herman was no exception, but went a step further, conceiving the decor, costumes, set and narrative for a short ballet called "Ballet of the palette". The palette which he described as a "fantasy" focuses on two paint brushes, one large and lazy and the other small and energetic.

Other characters include the colours pink, blue, white and green with the stage acting as a palette. The ballet was performed by the Celtic Ballet Club and surviving photographs show references to the purimspiel that Herman would have been familiar with from his childhood. The ballet was last performed in 1945. With the Ben Uri exhibition, it would be timely for a revival - the ballet is only 30 minutes long, any takers?

Like many emigrees, Herman sought the company of his countrymen during his early days in Britain. In Glasgow he became friends with the Estonian born Jewish sculptor Benno Schotz and was reunited with Jankl Adler, whom he had known in Warsaw. Several Yiddish writers were also in his circle including Itzik Manger who he painted in 1940. This expressionist portrait is my favourite work in the exhibition and fits well Herman's description of Manger - "His face was green, his black eyes shone out from his red eyelids. But his nervous vitality was undiminished. He could be offensive, tender, spiteful, amusing and exciting, but never a solvable as his poetry suggest him to be".

Later on, during his time in London, he became involved in the Ohel cultural organisation which was based in Gower Street in the West End. Ohel (meaning "tent" in Hebrew) sought to provide cultural opportunities and expression for Polish, Yiddish and German speaking refugees and provided a library, meeting rooms, cafe and an impressive programme of concerts, readings and exhibitions. It is likely that Herman would have come into contact here with Bomberg, Bloch and Meidner and it is known that he was familiar with the writer Avraham Stencl, producing his portrait in 1946.

The exhibition records a key period in this artists life and development, recreating a world now lost forever. He went on to live until February 2000, having coped with yet more tragedy in his life with the early death of his daughter in 1972. He was much honoured in his adopted country, being awarded an OBE for his services to British Art and was elected as an Honorary Senior Royal Academician in 1990. Several of his works are held in the Tate Britain gallery.

The Ben Uri Gallery was founded in 1915 by Russian emigre artist Lazar Berson at a Whitechapel Restaurant. Its current home is in Boundary Road, St. John's Wood. It has an extensive and extremely important collection of works by Jewish artists. In its current location it offers a programme of world class temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition, which has an excellent catalogue, runs until March 22nd. For more details check the Gallery website or the Josef Herman Foundation website.

Thursday 26 January 2012

My Holborn

I had lived in London for many years before I discovered the many delights of Holborn. It always seemed a bit of an indefinite place to me, stretching from Chancery Lane up to Bloomsbury, but without a real centre and pretty much dead at weekends. That may have been true once, but Holborn is now a rising star, having reinvented itself as "Midtown" and I have recently discovered some hidden treasures in this corner of London.

The area has a long association with London's Italian community and this is referenced in the aptly named "Sicilian Avenue" a short pedestrian thoroughfare running between Southampton Way and Bloomsbury Way. The avenue was designed by architect R. J. Worley and was completed in 1910. It is entered at either end through an arch emblazoned with the legend "Sicilian Avenue" and has a run of shops and cafes at ground floor level with accommodation above.

The avenue is a little faded these days with a several vacant units, but there are still a number of eateries, ranging from the popular Spaghetti House that arrived in 1955, to the more recent, but retro styled branch of Patisserie Valerie and a couple of London "caff" style places too. Al fresco eating and drinking is available in the summer. The empty units are a shame - let's hope that they are taken soon and hopefully by some quality independent businesses. A nice niche book shop would be good! A number of chains are just around the corner on the main road...

Holborn is well known for its many squares and small parks. Red Lion Square is one of the most interesting of these squares and lies between Theobalds Road and High Holborn - or through a narrow lane leading from Red Lion Street.

The park at the centre of the square features a statue of Fenner Brockway and a bust of philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brockway was an early member of the Fabian Society and of the Independent Labour Party - forerunner of the current Labour party. He was twice elected to Parliament - in 1929 and again in 1950. A conscientious objector, he served two months in Pentonville Prison in 1916, as well as one night in the Tower of London(!). His views didn't prevent him from recruiting for the anti-fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War - although he didn't go himself.

The Square has a number of historical and political links. There has long been a belief that Oliver Cromwell was buried in the square after being disinterred and dragged through the streets following the restoration of the monarchy, although there appears to be no proof of this. If he is there, it is believed he is not alone and that John Bradshaw, judge and Henry Ireton, juror at the trial of Charles 1st are also there having been "posthumously executed" along with Cromwell.

There are two architecturally significant buildings in the square. Summit House is a caramel coloured art deco/ modernist building, dating from 1925 when it opened as the headquarters of the Austin Reed clothing company. The architects were Joseph Emberton (also responsible for the former Simpson's Department Store on Piccadilly - now Waterstones) and Percy James Westwood. High profile legal firm Mishcon de Reya acquired the building in 2002.

On the other side of the square tucked away in the corner is a beautiful arts and crafts building - the Conway Hall. The Hall which dates from 1929 and was designed by Frederick Mandsford hosts excellent classical music concerts and is owned by the South Place Ethical Society whose aims are "the study and dissemination of ethical principles based on humanism and free thought

As well as the main hall, there is a library of humanist books and information on the upper floor of the building and a number of small meeting rooms. I was able to wander in recently and take photographs freely despite a notice saying that "unauthorised" people should not come in! A couple of years ago, the Hall displayed a notice in one of its windows looking onto Theobalds Road that offered "de-baptism" as a service!

My Saturday morning routine involves a visit to the gym on Lambs Conduit Street around the corner from Red Lion Square. As well as the gym and a brutalist piece of architecture - the police station, this street has some good shops including Folk(men and women), Persephone Books, cafes, bars and a small but good design and home style store - Darkroom. Darkroom sells soft furnishings as well as trendy magazines, hand bound stationary and a range of objects for the home. I bought a "De Stijl" styled notebook!

After the gym, it's Ted's Cutting Room, an authentic Turkish barbers owned by fashion icon Ted Baker. For just twenty quid, I have a close crop, head massage, hot towel, threading (ouch) and a cup of Turkish coffee replete with lokum (Turkish delight). I then head back to Sicilian Avenue...well, there's a branch of Patisserie Valerie...

Friday 20 January 2012

Cecil Court London WC2N

Cecil Court, a tiny thoroughfare between Charing Cross Road and St. Martin's Lane in the heart of the west end is one of my favourite London streets. It transports me back several decades to how I imagine Charing Cross Road was in the 1950's and 1960's, with its selection of specialist book shops, art shops and antique dealers.

The street has quite a history. There is a blue plaque informing the passer by that Mozart lived here for a few months in 1764, renting from a barber, his family paying twelve shillings a week for three tiny rooms with no cooking facilities. The street was a bit of a gathering place for European Jewish emigrees in the 1930's and 1940's as illustrated in Kitaj's painting "Cecil Court". But this little gem goes back much further than that. The street  was established towards the end of the seventeenth century and was owned by the Cecil family, descendants of Robert Cecil, created the first Earl of Salisbury by James 1st.

Despite its links to the aristocracy, Cecil Court was not immune to the occasional scandals that Londoners love so much. In 1735, one Elizabeth Calloway, keeper of a shop in Cecil Court over insured her goods and set the place alight. She was accused of going off for the evening to drink beer with friends a few streets away leaving her lodgers to their own devices. Although no-one was killed it was a near miss and Calloway was tried for arson. She had bought kindling shortly before the fire but appears to have deflected suspicion to a neighbour storing particular items in her adjoining cellar and was acquitted.

The mistress Calloway had a bit of a reputation and it was said that in her shop people could be found "drinking, smoking, swearing and running up and down stairs till one or two in the morning". She sounds like my kind of girl. Also prosecuted at this time was one Eleanor Pickhaver who had taken advantage of the fire to rush into one of the adjoining properties and carry off a bed and three paintings. She pleaded that she thought they were hers (!) and was also acquitted. Court records show several other Cecil Court residents prosecuted at about this time for petty crimes but also for highway robbery, forgery and arson!

The Court has many links with the film industry. The 1961 Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Sims film "Victim" included a bookseller called Harold Doe who had a shop here and was blackmailed due to his homosexuality during the days before the Wolfenden Act. In 1987, several scenes of Helen Hanff's "84 Charing Cross Road" were also shot here.

Today the Court is highly respectable with its selection of independent, specialist shops. My absolute favourite is the interestingly named Witch Ball at number 2, owned and run by Rosslyn Glassman. The shop has been in Cecil Court since 1983 having located from Brighton where it opened in 1967. The name came from the original shop in Brighton where many shops had (and still have) bohemian names, especially in the lanes. Rosslyn reports that she often receives "interesting" phone calls as a result of the name!

She has a wonderful collection of antique posters, prints and paintings from all over the world. Many of the items are rare and Rosslyn travels the world sourcing them herself. The last time I visited she had posters from the 1950's from Mexico, Peru and Brazil as well as a large collection of works from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

She is extremely knowledgeable and friendly and can give fascinating background information to the items in her collection. The highlight of my last visit was a Mexican Tourist Board poster from the 1950's showing a little boy pondering whether or not to break into his piggy bank so that he could visit the fair shown in the background. Unfortunately for you, you won't see it if you visit now. That's because its hanging in my home as I am the proud new owner!

Other favourites of mine include David Drummond's shop at number 11 which sells all kinds of ephemera relating to the theatrical world (after all, Cecil Court is in the heart of theatre land). I also like Storey's Limited at numbers 1-3, where you can browse beautiful antiquarian prints and maps as well as delightfully camp old movie mags from the 1930's onwards - I was very tempted by one with a special feature on Esther Waters. And then there is the famous Italian Bookshop at number 5. This shop is extremely popular with London's many Italian residents, selling books both in Italian and translations of Italian writers into English. Nice to browse, but also great to just listen to so many people speaking Italian in a tiny shop in the centre of London.

Not exactly in Cecil Court, but on the corner of the Court and Charing Cross Road you can find Lipmans. For more than 75 years this shop has been hiring dinner suites and other formal wear to gentleman customers. The shop window features top hats, cravats, dinner jackets and tailcoats and although little changed since it opened, is still busy with customers with a special event to attend.

Cecil Court has no cafes or places to eat. However, the wonderful Gaby's Deli is just around the corner in Charing Cross Road and has been there since 1965. Owner Gaby Elyahou still does brisk trade in falafel, salt beef sandwiches, humous, salads and a range of other heart warming foods not easy to find elsewhere in the west end. Sadly Gaby's is under threat of closure as the building owner wishes to sell to a developer which will almost certainly mean closure. Always popular with actors from local theatres, a campaign is running to save this little piece of history. It would be sad to see another old friend disappear from the centre of our city. What would Elizabeth Calloway think?

Sunday 15 January 2012

Eritrean Omelettes - Eritrea 2

Eritrea by Yekkes
Gate of Asmara's synagogue
Asmara was once home to a community of around 500 Jews. Now there is only one - Sami Cohen. Sami continues to look after the 1905 built synagogue in 176-21 Street. The former vibrant community included Jews fleeing persecution in Aden at the beginning of the 20th century, Italian Jews during the colonial period and a smattering of Jews from other backgrounds.

All have now died or left for Italy, Israel and other places, but there are still signs of a Jewish presence in the city. There are at least two stores that may still be in Jewish ownership - Kanzen (pictured below) and Banin, whilst Magen Davids can clearly be seen in the windows of a building that formerly belonged to the community. Most poignant is the large Jewish cemetery a little way out of town that tells a story of several generations of Jewish families having lived out their time in Eritrea.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Kanzen store, Asmara
My guide - Thomas - took me to meet Sami and to view the beautiful interior of the small synagogue. As soon as I saw him, I recognised him from the flight I had made from Cairo to Asmara just a few days earlier. I had noticed someone reading Hebrew and had almost asked him if he was Sami Cohen.

I asked him if it was lonely to be the last member of a once vibrant community. His reply was that it is a "mitzvah" to look after the synagogue. He spends his time between Eritrea, Italy and sometimes Israel and had been a key player in getting the Asmara exhibition staged at Tel Aviv's Bauhaus Centre in 2007. It turned out we have friends in common in Israel.

Sami was extremely welcoming, happy to allow photographs and to show me the small exhibition on Eritrean Jewry that he keeps in a room off the main part of the synagogue. He kindly drove my guide and I to the Jewish cemetery (pictured below) and told us some of the stories of those who had passed away, as well as hosting us to dinner at his modernist style villa in the city centre.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Entrance to Asmara's Jewish cemetery
Food and drink figured largely on my visit to Eritrea. A couple of days in to my trip, I came down with a terrible stomach problem - for the first time ever when travelling. I am pretty sure it was the side effects of the anti-malaria medication I was taking and it put me out of action for a whole day. I spent most of the morning and afternoon running from the bed to the bathroom.

In the late afternoon my telephone rang and the receptionist asked me if I wanted coffee. I misunderstood and thought it would be brought to my room so said yes. This resulted in her asking me to come downstairs where I found several of the hard working hotel staff preparing the Eritrean coffee ceremony just for me! This is quite an experience and follows a set pattern.

The coffee is always made by a woman who washes the green beans and then roasts them in a pan over a little burner called a "fumello". Some of these are very ornate whilst other, simpler ones, can be purchased at the Medaber recycle market. When the beans darken they are ground and placed on a small rush mat which is used to pour the coffee into its pot or "jebena". Water is then added and the coffee brought to the boil, before sugar is put into tiny cups and the coffee strained into it. The coffee is often served with popcorn and incense is burned to keep away mosquitos and to add to the pleasant aroma of the coffee. It is considered poor form not to drink at least three rounds of the coffee. It is good to allow plenty of time if invited for coffee as its both an honour and treat and shouldn't be rushed. 

I spent a very interesting hour with these wonderful women (pictured below), all of whom managed to exchange a few words of English with me and who smiled at my terrible attempts at Tigrinya. They were very interested in where I lived and what I did. I asked to take their photograph and they spent several minutes primping and attending to hair and scarves before assenting and only then after extracting a promise that I would send them a copy. I hope they liked it.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Staff of the wonderful Albergo Hotel in Asmara
Another culinary episode involved the preparation of an omelette in a tiny cafe in a small town called Ghinda on the way back to Asmara from the Red Sea. Stopping for breakfast, my guide asked the elderly Orthodox Christian woman owner to prepare me an omelette.  Like many Orthodox women in Eritrea she had a cross tattooed onto her forehead and wore long flowing white garments.

She disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with an extremely runny, very lightly fried egg that was to say the least unappetising. She smiled at me and asked if it was "tsebuk", meaning "good". Not having the heart to say no, I said it was and picked up my cutlery - at which point my guide picked up the plate and rushed into the kitchen where there were raised voices and several minutes later he emerged smiling saying "all will be OK".

Another ten minutes passed and a beautiful omelette appeared, surrounded by neatly sliced tomatoes and onions arranged in a perfect circle around the plate, with small pieces of soft bread. The owner appeared again and proudly accepted my thanks and "tsebuk". I don't know if omelettes are popular in Ghinda, but I know where I can get one if I ever return.

I also had the honour of being invited to have dinner in the home of relatives of John, who drove me from Asmara to Keren, on to Massawa and back to Asmara. I was treated to a reprise of the coffee ceremony as well as a tasty stew accompanied by the ubiquitous injera, a slightly sour tasting flat bread used to mop up the food. Yet more evidence of the kind hospitality of Eritrea's people.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Remains of Haile Selassie's palace at Massawa
Massawa is a very different city to Asmara. Sitting by the Red Sea and with a strong Arabic feel, the city was in poor shape when I visited with the extensive damage of the long battle for independence still being visible. It is possible to see the remains of the former palace of Haile Selassie with its striking blue and white colours. The highlight of my time was being taken to the old city in the heat of the afternoon when the streets are completely empty. I am sure that John thought I was slightly bonkers when I said I wanted to get down from the car and walk through the streets. I remember soaking up the complete silence, but feeling many eyes on me as the Massawans peeping from behind their blinds must have wondered who the mad man with the camera was, walking in 45 degrees of heat! Returning in the evening, Massawa was very different. As the sun goes down the city comes alive with cafes and shops opening and people pouring water on the ground to soak up the dust as they bring seats and beds into the open air to enjoy the cool of the evening. What a difference in just a few hours.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Massawa - all shuttered up from the heat in the middle of the day.
Massawa mosque

Friday 13 January 2012

Adventures in Asmara - Eritrea 1

Back in August 2007, I attended an exhibition entitled "Asmara, Africa's Secret Modernist City" at the wonderful Bauhaus Centre in Tel Aviv. Being a fan of both modernist and art deco architecture, this was a real treat. The fantastic images in the exhibition and the accompanying publication made me want to get on the next plane to Asmara to see it for myself. Unfortunately, the cost of flights was prohibitive at that time and I had to wait until late 2010 when I was able to see not only Asmara but also Keren and Massawa, the other major cities in Eritrea.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Modernist villa in Asmara
Asmara has a wonderful collection of about 400 modernist and art deco buildings dating from the 1920s and 1930s, part of the legacy of the colonial period when Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia was under Italian rule. The Italians believed they would be there for hundreds of years and so their architects, and of course, African labour, filled Asmara with beautiful modernist villas, shops, cafes and cinemas, many of which and many which still survive, although some have fallen into disrepair. This is hardly surprising given that the Eritreans fought for thirty years to gain their independence from Ethiopia, finally achieving this in 1993.

Like many capital cities around the world, Asmara boasts some impressive government buildings. Two that particularly stand out are the Municipality and the Ministry of Education both on Harnett Avenue. The Municipality is one of my favourite buildings in Asmara. Built from 1951-1971 in a simplified art deco style it stands out due to a central green tower with its clock and crowning disc displaying the symbol of Eritrea - the camel. The central tower also has a balcony for addressing the public and elongated windows on each wing. The green facade is made from mosaic tiles whilst the window frames are marble. Amazingly the architect is unknown, but what is known is that the state assembly hall in the rear of the building was inaugurated by our own Queen Elizabeth in 1965 during the Ethiopian period.

Further along Harnett Avenue, the Ministry of Education building dates from 1928 with an extension from 1940. Only the architects for the extension is known - Bruno Sclafani - more of whom later. Somewhat austere externally, this pink painted building was once home to a stunning set of paintings in the local style including depictions of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, the serpent of Eritrean and Ethiopian legend that is said to have shaped the land, other local fauna, St. George and the Dragon and several allegorical figures. Sadly this has all been destroyed in the period following independence. I was able to  have a quick look inside this building - although not to take photographs. The main staircase retains echoes of a former grandeur with a decorative metal bannister which carries fascist symbols. The interior is painted in green and yellows.

Municipality, Harnett Avenue
Ministry of Education, Harnett Avenue
A stroll through Asmara in the late afternoon and early evening is perhaps the time to see it at its most interesting. The main thoroughfare - Harnett Avenue is the venue for the evening passagiata of hundreds of young Eritreans, dressed in their best clothes, promenading or talking in small groups. Many people will smile and say hello, buona sera or good evening to European visitors they pass in the street.

The Italian penchant for cafe culture - strong coffee and sweet pastries and patisserie - lives on amongst the Eritreans, as does a taste for good pasta and pizza. The many cafes fill up in the late afternoon and stay full until almost 10pm, when most people go home - this is not a party town. Royal Bar was my favourite serving great ice cream as well as the ubiquitous coffee and cakes. The customers are mainly groups of local young people, who come to drink, talk and look.

Many of the most ornate of the cafes are located within cinemas, including the wonderful Cinema Roma on Semtat Avenue. The cinema was originally to be called Cinema Dux but was refused planning permission because the name was judged to be too close to the title Il Duce  (Mussolini). Building work started in 1937, originally under the direction of Italian architect Roberto Capellano and then Bruno Sclafani and it began life as the Excelsior. The interior was restored in the 1990's and features a selection of reds, ochres and oranges inside and out with marble on the exterior. For a few nakfa (the local currency), you can have a peak inside the auditorium outside of  screening times. An enormous old projector is displayed in the lobby, surrounded by old Hollywood posters and many ardent smokers and serious coffee drinkers.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Cafe in Cinema Roma, Semtat Avenue
Another real landmark and further down Semtat Avenue is the stunning Fiat Tagliero Service Station. It's hard to believe that this beautiful building was a petrol station. It resembles an aircraft with massive, unsupported wings. Legend has it that the municipal authorities demanded that there be pillars to support the wings before granting permission to build and that the architect Guiseppe Pettazzi complied by using wooden pillars. At the building's unveiling he held a pistol to the head of the building contractor and ordered him to remove the supports. True or not, the original plans for the building, rediscovered in 2001 showed 30 poles propping up the wings. They are not there now! Restored in 2003, the building now belongs to the Royal Dutch Oil Company. It benefits from the highest level of protection in terms of listed building status meaning no changes can be made to the original.

Another wonderful deco style industrial building is the former silicon factory originally known as Agencia Lancia on Tegadelti Street designed by Carlo Marchi and Carlo Montalbetti and built in 1938. Built for wealthy Italian Santo Falletta it housed a service station, workshops, showroom and car exchange for the Lancia car company. Beautifully symmetrical with trademark deco portholes it has retained its wonderful projecting glazed central tower that once housed a water tank and was illuminated at night. In good condition at the time of my visit, the building is now all but hidden from the street by a wall and is easy to miss. Its definitely worth searching out and taking a peek.

Eritrea by Yekkes
The Fiat Tagliero service station, Semtat Avenue

Agencia Lancia, tower of former silicon factory, Tegadelti Street

Eritrea by Yekkes
Apartment building in Asmara - the caption on the front promotes family planning.
Eritreans have learned to be extremely resourceful, through many years of war and a number of economic difficulties. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at the recycling market called "Medaber" - not to be confused with the Hebrew word medaber מדבר, meaning speak. Here you can see all kinds of materials - plastic, old oil drums, pieces of cloth - being used to create new and useful things. I especially liked the set of suitcases constructed from cardboard and cloth and the recycling of old tyres for water carriers.  During the struggle for independence the Eritreans had a saying that "everything has its use and then another use". This is very clearly demonstrated at Medaber which provides employment to many local people.

The recycle market was just one example of the hard work on constant view in Eritrea as people strive to improve their lives and the position of their families and despite the difficulties faced by many people, the Eritreans I met were unfailingly helpful, friendly and generous. This included extending invitations to dinner in their home and even learning how to cook an omelette for me. You can read more about that here.

Eritrea by Yekkes
Young worker at the Medaber recycle market
"Everything has its use and then another use"
For more pictures from Eritrea including Asmara, Keren and Massawa, look here.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Eve Arnold April 12th 1912 - January 4th 2012

Eve Arnold, legendary photographer and pioneering woman died on January 4th this 2012, just a few months short of her one hundredth birthday.

Marilyn Monroe with Arthur Mills on location for The Misfits, Nevada, 1960
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Russian immigrant parents, she started photographing in 1946. She was a pioneer in all senses of the word. She was the only woman member of the Magnum group, joining formally in 1957 but working with them from 1951. Magnum included such giants as Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Herbert List, Elliott Erwitt and Werner Bischoff. 

She went to the Soviet Union in the mid-1960's when it was still closed to outsiders and managed to take photographs in a Moscow psychiatric hospital, including of political prisoners receiving "hydrotherapy". She spoke of constantly being aware of being monitored during the Soviet Union trip, relating a particular story about sitting on her bed in her hotel room in Sukhumi talking out loud about how dirty the room and the windows were and then ten minutes later two maids turned up with mops, brooms and cleaning cloths. It seems the bugging was more effective than the cleaning.

She visited South Africa and exposed the excesses of the apartheid regime, including the separation of families due to fathers having to work many miles away from their homes and being unable to move the families with them, She photographed children suffering from malnutrition long before this became a regular sight on television screens.

She famously photographed Malcolm X and members of his Nation of Islam organisation, ironically being on the receiving end of racism herself during this assignment. She reported that as she wandered amongst the crowd at a meeting there were shouts of "kill the white bitch" and she discovered at the end of the evening that her wool sweater was polka dotted with cigarette burns where members of the crowd had stuck burning cigarettes into her clothing as she had moved amongst them. She seemed to develop a good relationship with X and reported that he would tease her and make jokes with her.

Working with Malcolm X was not the first time she had worked in Harlem. In the early 1950's she had covered the only recently re-discovered black fashion scene of the period, including photographing the famous model Charlotte Stribling, also known as "Fabulous".

Charlotte Stribling, a.k.a. Fabulous, fashion show Harlem 1952
As well as visiting the Soviet Union, Eve Arnold visited other closed societies including China and Mongolia in 1979 and in 1971 Dubai and Abu Dhabi where she won the confidence of the local royalty enough to be allowed to take photographs of several women in a Dubai harem. 

In 1969, Eve spent several months in Afghanistan. When asked how she had set up a studio there, she replied that she hadn't, saying "I just would walk up to whoever I fancied would look good on film and click. My subjects enjoyed it almost as much as did I. The men were friendly; they didn't mug, just looked directly at me". It is hard to imagine being able to do this now.

Folk song group, Inner Mongolia, 1979
She also photographed the rich and famous - Monroe and Miller, Taylor and Burton, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher and Joan Crawford, not to mention less mainstream work such as photographing transvestite nuns or Mexican prostitutes.

The Barbican staged a retrospective of this unique artist in 1995. The award winning book from the exhibition "In Retrospect" concentrated almost entirely on her photographs of people. Her feelings about photographing people are interestingly summed up in her famous quote "If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument".The photographs attached to this post were included in the 1995 Barbican exhibition. It must now be time for another.

A scribe and his client, Afghanistan, 1969
Bar girl, Havana, 1954

Tuesday 3 January 2012

A cold Sunday in Spitalfields

Princelet Street, Spitalfields by Yekkes

A view along Princelet Street, Spitalfields

Spitalfields was once a regular haunt for me on Sundays - a visit to the market, something to eat from a stall or in nearby Brick Lane and maybe a drink in the Ten Bells before going home to prepare for another week at work.

I recently walked around Spitalfields on a freezing cold Sunday before Christmas and discovered that a lot of my old favourites are still with us, although much is different, and inevitably some of the "character" has been lost or changed.

Beginning with the market, as many people will know, half of the original structure was demolished some years ago and has been replaced by an arcade of shops. There are a few goodies - Montezuma's Chocolates is welcome anywhere in my book, but some of the others - coffee chains, restaurant chains and dull clothes shops could be just about anywhere in any city, but I suppose they can pay the rent. I also have a confession - I had a drink and a cake in the Spitalfields branch of Patisserie Valerie. I am not ashamed - the quality of the patisserie seems to have survived the expansion of  the Old Compton Street original branch which opened in 1926.

The remaining market is also a shadow of its former self with far fewer stalls than before, but some pretty good bread, cakes (bit of a theme emerging) and olives on offer. You can still find clothes stalls, some good, others not so and a few really good stalls selling hand made children's clothing including one using Marimekko materials! Most of the old book and music stalls seem to have fled, but a couple of book dealers remain as well as numerous stalls selling prints and posters. 

Perhaps more interesting now are some of the shops built into the perimeter of the covered market. I especially like One Deko which sells interesting slightly deco influenced furniture and the small Fred Perry store (OK its a chain, but has enduring appeal and sells good hats, shoes and bags).

Back in the market itself, artist Jenny Rose, whose family has very long connections with the area is also well worth a look. Jenny uses old sheet music in her work as well as references to the history of the area - some of her art carries Hebrew lettering and "ghosted" images from the past over current street scenes. She's also very friendly and happy to talk about her work.

Of course, Spitalfields was also the setting for a major part of the Jack the Ripper story and the pub across the road from the market - The Ten Bells is said to have been one of the places where the murderer picked up his victims. It still has some of the original Victorian fittings including some pretty great tiles and gets uproariously busy at weekends with students, tourists and even a few locals. Its also a stop for the many Jack the Ripper tours on offer.

Christ Church and Ten Bells Pub, Spitalfields by Yekkes

Above - Hawksmoor's Christ Church and the entrance to the Ten Bells

Away from the market, there are some dark side streets with lots of history, some in better condition than others. Fournier Street, earmarked for demolition in the 1970's is now out of reach of most of us with properties exchanging for well over a million and artists Gilbert and George among the residents. The street is still mainly residential but has a couple of "niche" shops at the Commercial Street end and a large mosque that began life as a church before becoming a major synagogue in the late 19th century at the other end. It now has a minaret built on the Brick Lane side of the building.

Princelet Street is close but is still a little rough around the edges. Like the Brick Lane mosque, number 19 reflects the demographic history of the area.Once home to a Huguenot weaver, it contains a 19th century synagogue that was built over its garden as well as an exhibition on immigration to the area. Sadly the building is in poor shape and is rarely open. You can find out more about it here.

Princelet Street, Spitalfields by Yekkes

A bricked-up window in Princelet Street

19 Princelet Street was also home to one David Rodinsky, the former caretaker of the building who disappeared in the 1960's, his room remaining untouched for many years, down to the food being left on the cooker and the table. His story is the subject of the book "Rodinsky's Room" by Rachel Liechtenstein. Well worth a read for more about the building but also about the area. 

Rodinsky lived in Spitalfields at the very end of the once dominating Jewish community's presence. Only a remnant now remains, but there are still a couple of working synagogues in Spitalfields - Sandys Row synagogue, east of the market and the grand Bevis Marks synagogue (although technically in the City). There are other reminders of the Jewish past here - the former soup kitchen for the Jewish poor, now flats in Brune Street (pictured below) and the occasional name on an old shop sign.

Soup kitchen for the Jewish poor, Brune Street, Spitalfields by Yekkes

All of this in just a few streets...and this is only part of it!

Below - Artillery Row - a narrow back street in Spitalfields, reminiscent of Victorian times

Artillery Lane, Spitalfields by Yekkes