Wednesday 30 May 2012

Dee Dee Bridgewater - Fine and mellow live!

New York New York - super jazz with Dee Dee Bridgewater and Yaala Ballin

17 years after my first visit to New York, I am here again. I intend to complete a couple of posts from here, but first a couple of great jazz performances from the last few days.

I am just back from the Blue Note and Dee Dee Bridgewater's birthday concert. This the third time I have had the privilege of hearing Miss Bridgewater live and I have to say its the best so far. On the previous two occasions (Ranana in Israel and Ronnie Scott's in London) she was of course fantastic and performed songs from her Eleonora Fagin album - a tribute to Billie Holiday. She included a song from this album tonight -  a mean and dirty version of "Fine and mellow" that began with some humorous interplay with bass player Kenny Davis who she featured in this number. Her voice sounded better and stronger than ever as she worked her way through a lengthy version of this classic with great contributions from Craig Handy on sax and from young find - Theo Croker on trumpet (more about him later).

The divine Miss Bridgewater is indisputably one of the all time greats as a performer, but she is also a nice lady - interacting with the audience, joking, encouraging more and louder applause and performing an encore for another Dee Dee in the audience who claimed today to be her birthday too! Her career has been long and sometimes difficult but tonight we saw an artist at the pinnacle of her career (so far of course!).

The programme was an eclectic mixture of ballads and more upbeat numbers as she treated us to a cool version of "Besame Mucho" (slight stumble over the Spanish lyrics, but we loved her enough for it not to matter - and she is confident enough to draw attention to it and carry on!), an uptempo "Compared to what?" from her Malian Journey project, "Music is the magic" from a forthcoming project of now deceased jazz vocalist, song writer and civil rights activist, Abby Lincoln's songs (look out for a new album) and an outrageously bluesy version of the old Aretha Franklin song "Doctor Feelgood".

All great, but for the me the absolute highlight was her rendition of Nancy Wilson's "Save your love for me". This one featured the aforementioned Mr Theo Croker on trumpet. He was also a bit of a star, invited to join the band for this number and then staying on for the rest of the evening, Dee Dee told us that he arranged this one and that it will be on his first album which is coming soon. I seriously hope she is guesting for him on this track as I had to hold my chest during the performance and if I hadn't had my hair cut earlier in the day, the hairs on the back of my neck would have been standing up. Phew!

I seriously think our Dee Dee is the best live jazz vocalist around at the moment  - fearless, innovative, great range and very happy to feature the band as well as herself. Edsell Gomez as ever was great on piano and as musical director and watch out for one Gabe Durand, also introduced to the Blue Note this evening and a talented guitarist. He has a famous mum - Dee Dee Bridegwater. Thank you Miss B - my best night in New York so far!

This was my second concert of the week having been to Smalls in Greenwich Village on Saturday night to hear Yaala Ballin, a young Israeli vocalist. Yaala has been living in New York for eight years now, has recorded two albums (I've got them both - nice mixtures of standards and a couple of new songs) - and has clearly built up a following during her time in the Big Apple as there was standing room only on what was a Memorial Day weekend and a hot rainy night too.

Her style is very relaxed, she tells a good story to introduce songs. I liked the idea that her grandfather insisted they were related to Irving Berlin (they aren't) and also the obvious delight she displayed at discovering some great songs from days gone by. Her song choices for the evening included "I cried for you", "Baby get lost" (my favourite of the evening), "Change partners" and a couple of bluesy versions of Dinah Washington's "Evil gal blues" and "I could write a book". Her second album "On the road" is well worth a listen...or even to buy!

Two great sets and great value - just $20 entrance fee and no minimum bar charge unlike several other New York venues. Speaking of venues, Small's and the Blue Note couldn't be more different. Smalls is an intimate basement bar with super friendly bar staff (Erin and Rebecca on the night I was there), an obvious regular clientele and a really welcoming atmosphere. The Blue Note is bigger, draws an older audience and is not cheap, although to be fair the price of entry at $35 was excellent value and cheaper than Ronnie Scott's for a top line act. The food and drink is over-priced though and of questionable quality - I have never understood why so many of the top jazz clubs around the world offer such poor quality dining at such high prices. Can't be because they want to take advantage of their guests, can it?

But nothing takes away from a fantastic birthday celebration with Dee Dee Bridgewater and a very 'cool' evening with Yaala Ballin. New York, New's good to be back!

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Last night at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue I saw what my friend Matthew described as "a journey into the depths of human misery". He wasn't joking. Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night", completed in 1941, is a torturous visit into the darkness of an Irish-American family, based to a large extent on O'Neill's own experiences.

The play centres on the Tyrone family; father James one time great actor haunted by the shocking poverty of his childhood; his wife Mary, in the terminology of the day is a "dope fiend" addicted to morphine after being treated by a quack doctor during childbirth; older son James Junior a heavy drinking womanising spendthrift and Edmund the younger son, also a heavy drinker and suffering from what was then known as "consumption".

All are haunted by childhood experiences. The father, convincingly played by David Suchet cannot escape the fear of returning to the poverty of his childhood and despite declaring "I am not a miser", he is one. His miserliness is the root of many of the family's problems, opting for the cheap doctor to treat his wife with a morphine "cure" and choosing to send Edmund to a state hospital rather than a more expensive better equipped facility. James Junior is haunted by the childhood experience of seeing his mother inject morphine for the first time and the realisation of what was wrong with her.

Mary is also deeply troubled. She can't forgive herself for the death of a child that came between her two sons but also blames James Junior for the child's death from a childhood disease passed between the children. Mary is also resentful of her younger son as the morphine "treatment" followed his birth and she openly says that if he hadn't been born she would not be an addict.

The characters veer from vicious, violent, hatred towards each other to deep affection and reconciliation, often in a very short space of time and all seem trapped in a cycle of recrimination and blame. There is much symbolism in the play. The father refuses to have more than one light bulb burning at a time  - "why make the electricity company rich?" he regularly asks. The darkness is real and physical but also symbolic of not wishing to see things as they really are and of hiding from the truth. His need to constantly acquire additional property is symptomatic of his fear of being made homeless again as he was twice in his childhood. His being trapped into continuing his destructive and isolating behaviour is referred to in his comments about playing the same role night after night for many years, telling Edmund that no-one wanted to see him in any other role. In life as on the stage. 

Isolation and loneliness are key themes in the play. Both James Senior and Mary speak of being lonely. Mary combats the loneliness through drinking with the maid Cathleen, cheekily played by Rosie Sansom, before casting her off once the effect of the morphine kicks in telling her she doesn't need her anymore. James tells Edmund he has been lonely sitting up waiting for his sons to come home once Mary has gone to the spare room to roam about through the night as she drifts further away from them. James Junior visits a brothel and chooses the fattest prostitute threatened with dismissal for being unpopular so that he can have company and because she too is lonely. There is no end to or escape from loneliness for any of them.

The play follows a single day in the life of the family. It does not resolve any of their issues and the final scene sees the four of them looking into the audience each with their own pain, loneliness and fears. Perhaps Mary best sums up their weaknesses in the second act she when she says "None of us can help the things life has done to us. They're done before you realise it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be and you've lost your true self forever''.

O'Neill never intended the play to be performed and also gave express instructions that it should not be published until 25 years after his death. He died in 1953 and his estranged third wife, Carlotta Montery inherited the rights to his works. She chose to disregard his wishes and eventually had the play published by Yale University press in February 1956. The first production of the play took place the same month in Stockholm, performed in Swedish at the Royal Dramatic Theatre which had already staged several of his other works. The Swedes apparently felt his work was similar to that of Strindberg and knew him well enough from his Nobel Prize for literature awarded in 1936. Perhaps they liked the constant references to the fog outside the house! The first English production took place on Broadway in 1956.

O'Neill described Long Day's Journey Into Night as a " of old sorrow, written in tears and blood". Much of the play relates to his own and his family's experiences. Like James Senior, he purchased the rights to a play "The Count of Monte Cristo" and became typecast, unable to escape the role, was no longer offered classical roles and slipped into regret and bitterness. It is believed that Mary Tyrone was partly based on Carlotta Monterey who liked to regale friends with love-hate tales of her relationship with O'Neill in the same way Mary veers from love to hate in her feelings for her sons.

Good performances from the already mentioned David Suchet and from Kyle Soller in the role of Edmund, the only "hope" for the future - but even this is lost when his consumption is confirmed. Not for the feint hearted or the easily depressed, but this is a great and moving play. Three hours in length (including the interval) it demands concentration but quickly draws the audience into the web of the Tyrone family and involves us in their journey into darkness. 

Sunday 13 May 2012

Bauhaus Women

When the Bauhaus School first opened in Weimar in 1919, it received more applications from women than it did from men. This was no doubt due partly to the attitude of founder Walter Gropius who promised "No difference between the beautiful and the strong sex. Absolute equality, but also absolute equal obligation to the work of all craftsmen".

The context for this statement, (which would probably be considered not quite "correct" in today's discourse) is that until this time women's access to higher education, and especially to universities and academies was extremely limited. Those who wanted to undertake any kind of formal arts based education were channelled into women only establishments and in some cases where co-educational learning was available, were required to pay higher fees than men.

The Bauhaus was something of a pioneer in this as in many other fields and in turn reaped many rewards with some of the 20th Century's best craftswomen and artists working and studying at the school. However, very few of these women are known or written about today. The current exhibition at the Barbican, "Art as life" highlights some of these women, including  Gunta Stolzl, Marianne Brandt and Anni Albers. These and many other women made a very significant contribution to the Bauhaus and to 20th century design.

Gunta Stolzl, born in Munich in 1897 joined the Bauhaus in 1919 after submitting a portfolio from her studies at the Munich art school, which also included drawings of her experiences as a Red Cross nurse during the First World War. She threw herself into her new life, writing enthusiastically about the many parties that took place and which were considered an important part of the Bauhaus experience.

In later years Stolzl would find herself at the centre of the increasingly vicious political conflicts that affected the school, but as early as 1920 she noted in her diary "I arrived in Weimar just in time for some tough fights. It began with the first evening at the Bauhaus for Elsa Lasker-Schuler (a Jewish artist and poet), the evening itself was wonderfully pure eastern Jewish. The challenging behaviour of Jews incited some pupils that evening to spoil for a fight. At first it looked as if the conflict would degenerate into anti-semitism but the danger passed. The racial issue remains of course centre stage, but the Bauhaus ideal must rise above it".

The early Bauhaus workshops were sometimes lacking structure. Stolzl began as a glass painter but found it a "stale old craft", switched to scene painting which at first consisted of helping to renovate the Bauhaus building before moving, in 1920, to what became the weaving workshops. Again, initially very unstructured, the students were left to their own devices, before organisation tightened, a six hour working day was agreed and saleable work was produced to contribute to the running of the school.

In 1921, Paul Klee arrived as a master and heavily influenced Stolzl who was particularly inspired by his approach to form, relationships and colour values. Recovering from a broken relationship with and short lived marriage to painter Werner Gilles, she became completely immersed in her work, writing that she "...could no longer separate my life and destiny from the Bauhaus..." She became the mainstay of the weaving workshop, working with Marcel Breuer to develop seat coverings and in 1922 overseeing the production of the first large scale pictorial wall hanging (since lost). She followed this in 1923 with a twenty foot long knotted carpet with abstract motif which was shown at the Bauhaus Exhibition. Her success continued, being promoted to journey woman in 1924 and when the school relocated to Dessau in 1927 she took over the running of the workshop. Demand for products from the weaving workshop increased significantly with commissions being awarded for fitting out the theatre cafe in Dessau with curtains and wall coverings, furniture fabrics for Breuer's tubular steel chairs and for the Trade Union School in Bernau as well as for selling exhibitions in Leipzig.

In 1928 she travelled to Moscow for an international symposium where she met, fell in love with and went on to marry Arieh Sharon, a Jewish architect living in pre state Israel. Sharon went on to design some of Tel-Aviv's most notable Bauhaus buildings, but the marriage caused Stolzl many problems. She was forced to give up her German nationality and subjected to attacks on her capabilities and character from some of the right wing students. When director Hanes Mayer was expelled from the school in 1930 several left wing students left with him and Stolzl became politically isolated. The complaints against her became more absurd, such as she " unable to distinguish wool from cotton..." or that she " absolutely unsure and ignorant on all technical points...". Vindicated in January 1931, but still subjected to outrageous criticism and regularly having a swatstika placed on her office door , she chose to resign in July after the Mayor of Dessau, a pro-Nazi had the expelled vexatious complainants re-instated at the school. It is worth noting that all of this took place before the Nazis were elected nationally in 1933.

She left for Switzerland where she developed her own successful fabric business over many years although never quite reaching the level of success she enjoyed in her early years at the Bauhaus. She divorced Sharon, married again and died in 1983 aged 86.

Marianne Brandt was born in Chemnitz in 1893 and is today remembered for her work as an early female industrial designer. Her lamps, ashtrays and teapots can still be purchased and have inspired many other designers from the 1930's onwards. Married to Norwegian painter Erik Brandt, she herself trained as a painter until coming to the Bauhaus in 1923. Here she became a student of Hungarian modernist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in the metal workshop, excelling enough to become workshop assistant and then succeeding her teacher as director in 1928. As director she was responsible for negotiating key and lucrative contracts to supply industry with Bauhaus designs and under her guidance the workshop became one of the few turning a profit and helping to fund the school.

From 1926 onwards she experimented with photomontage although most of this work did not come to light until the 1970's, long after the Bauhaus experiment had ceased. Much of this work focused on the position of women in the inter-war years and the tensions between their new found freedoms and the lingering barriers and prejudices that still prevented many from reaching their full potential. Brandt is also remembered for her photographic work - especially her self-portraits which show determined young woman, often distorting the image or "ghosting" her image so that she appears more than once in the same photograph, perhaps to illustrate the continuing challenges faced by women in art and design during this period.

She left the Bauhaus in 1929 and worked for Gropius in his Berlin studio before becoming head of metal design for the company Ruppel. This lasted until 1932 when she lost her job during a financial crisis. Divorcing Brandt in 1935, she attempted to find work overseas during the early Nazi period but returned to Chemnitz for family reasons.  She found it difficult to obtain regular work during the war years but was accepted into the Riechskulturkammer - the official Nazi organisation of artists, in 1939. It is believed that she applied to join in order to obtain artists materials. However, she was never a member of the party. After the war she continued to live in what became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) where the communist regime dismissed the Bauhaus as a decadent capitalist institution, demonstrating how much this new creed had in common with the one it replaced. However, she was able to earn a living and worked as a teacher of design.  She died in 1983, just a few months short of her 90th birthday.

Anni Albers was born Anneliese Fleischmann, in Berlin in 1899 to a Jewish mother and a Protestant father. Her mother Toni belonged to the Ullstein publishing family whilst her father was a furniture manufacturer. Anni was baptised into the Protestant faith. She developed an early interest in art and at 17 began training with the impressionist painter Martin Brandenburg. She also had some lessons with one Oscar Kokoschka but these did not go well and he was of the opinion she lacked talent.

Undeterred Anni spent two terms at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg studying embroidery but found it uninteresting, before hearing of the Bauhaus and moving on to Weimar. Turned down at first application, she persevered and was accepted at the school in April 1922, completing the compulsory "basic instruction" course before progressing to an introduction to artistic design and then landing in the weaving workshop in her third semester. In the meantime, she met and fell in love with Josef Albers who had arrived at the Bauhaus in 1920. She was eleven years younger than him and described him as "a haggard half-starved ascetic from Westphalia, with irresistible blonde hair". It was the beginning of a lifelong alliance.

Weaving also failed to appeal to the then Fraulein Fleischmann and she echoed the opinion of Stolzl and others that the workshop was extremely disorganised in its early days saying "there was no proper teacher" and "we learned absolutely nothing at the beginning". However, she began to use this freedom to her advantage, experimenting with materials, colour, structure and texture and learning much from her fellow student Stolzl. It was during this period that she created many of her trademark works - large wall hangings with abstract motifs. Also at this time, she developed an interest in technical possibilities, assisting in the dye works and writing  about her theories.

She married Albers in 1925 and they moved to Dessau, where he had become a master having completed his studies. He also continued to create works in glass. From 1925-27 Anni studied design techniques under Wassily Kandinsky and continued these studies under Klee during 1927-28. Like Stolzl she was heavily influenced by Klee describing him as her "god". Completing her studies in 1929 she took on an acting leadership of the textile workshop, securing her diploma in 1930 with an exam piece of a soundproof light reflecting wall hanging which doubled as a curtain. The piece later graced the walls of the aforementioned Trade Union School in Bernau. The piece included an interesting mix of materials - cellophane and chenille.

She went on to work as a teacher at the school and took over the running of the weaving workshop in 1931 until the appointment of Lily Reich. By 1933 and the forced closure of the school, Anni's Jewish background had become a source of increasing danger and so together with Josef, she left for New York. The couple went on to enjoy an extremely successful career in the States with Anni working on for many years both as a freelance weaver and a professor at Yale University, publishing two books on textile design and producing a Holocaust memorial work for the Jewish Museum in New York. After leaving Germany, she undertook extensive travel in Latin America, developing a collection of historical artefacts from Mexico, Peru and Bolivia, fascinated by Aztec and Maya designs. Josef died in 1972 but Anni lived on until 1994 and the age of 94, one of the very last of the Bauhaus greats.

Stolzl, Brandt and Albers all studied at the Bauhaus before going on to teach. Although from different backgrounds and with different life experiences, all three were trail blazers for women in industrial design.   Despite Gropius' speech on equality, most of the Bauhaus women were pushed into the weaving workshop as were Stolzl and Albers, but both found ways of expressing their talents and creativity in this and other fields. Brandt went a step further being one of very few women to make her mark in the metal workshop at the school and her products are still in heavy demand today. It is interesting that these two workshops were amongst the most successful in terms of generating income to support the whole Bauhaus project. Make of that what you will.

They are just three examples of the extraordinarily talented women students of the Bauhaus, but the real heroine of the Bauhaus for me, was the supremely talented but desperately tragic Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A unique and accomplished artist, her work in teaching the children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp may be her most enduring achievement, but like many Jewish artists of the time she was unable to develop her full talents. Unlike Anni Albers and others who managed to escape, Friedl was deported and gassed at Auschwitz in 1944. The same fate befell Otti Berger, another leading weaver. They are worthy of a separate article - which will be coming soon.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Art as life: Bauhaus comes to London

What a treat! Just back from Tel Aviv (see here, here and here), Bauhaus buildings capital of the world, only to find the Barbican mounting a major Bauhaus exhibition. The focus of the exhibition is the work of the Bauhaus school itself, tracing its development and migration from Weimar in 1919, to Dessau and then Berlin before eventual closure in August 1933.

"Bauhaus stage, the building as a stage" Photograph by T. Lux Feiniger, 1929
Bauhaus literally means "house of building" and although the first Bauhaus School in Weimar lacked an architectural faculty, its founder was leading architect Walter Gropius . The underlying philosophy of the movement throughout its short life was the creation of a total work of art, in which all arts and architecture would be brought together - a concept similar to that of the Amsterdam School in the Netherlands.

Gropius claimed that the Bauhaus was apolitical but from the beginning it attracted many left wing students, which partly led to its demise in 1933 and the Nazis declaring it "un-German". During its time in Weimar, the school was generously funded by the state government of Thuringia as part of the post First World War effort of making Germany economically competitive - training artists in new techniques to produce high quality goods for export. This source of funding was under constant political pressure from the governing Socialists but in 1924, the Nationalists came to power in Thuringia, halved the budget and introduced temporary contracts which led to the closure in 1925 and relocation to Dessau. Communist Hannes Mayer took over the directorship in 1928 and interestingly helped the school to move into profit for the first time. A radical constructivist he had little time for the aesthetic elements in the school and forced the resignations of long time lecturers including Marcel Breuer and Herbert Bayer - whose work still sells worldwide today. He went on to quarrel with and was dismissed by Gropius in 1930.

Berlin was the third and final home of the school from 1930-33. Several left wing students left in support of Mayer following him to the Soviet Union but the school remained under constant pressure from the growing Nazi movement and when it finally came to power in 1933 the school closed. The director for the last three years of the school's existence was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Like many before him, he too moved abroad, settling in the United States although this did not prevent him from submitting designs for bridges to be built by the Todt organisation during the early years of his exile.

"Art as life" is big, beautiful and beguiling. It includes examples of painting, theatrical design, toys and games, graphics, photography, fabrics and all of the other products designed in this short but hugely significant and still influential period. With so much to see, its difficult to take everything in during one visit, so I will concentrate on a few favourite items.

The Studio Window, Lyonel Feininger, 1919
The exhibition starts on the upper level of the gallery. The first room includes Lyonel Feininger's oil on canvas work "The Studio Window". Painted in 1919 with distinct cubist influences, it shows a dark and forbidding city scene with the only light coming from the "studio window" perhaps indicating the value and potentially enlightening impact of art. Born in New York in 1887 to a German father and an American mother, Feininger was Gropius' first faculty appointment in 1919, becoming head of the printmaking workshop and lecturing for many years. Declared a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis, he fled Germany with his wife in 1936, settling in New York and going on to create many more works until his death in 1956. An early exponent of what is now know as the graphic novel, he was associated with the Berlin Secession in 1909 and later on the Die Brucke and the Blaue Reiter groups, all of which exerted great influence on the development of European expressionist art in particular.

The philosophy of the Bauhaus combined crafts and fine arts, branching out to embrace many different forms and into many different fields. Like many artistic movements of its time, the Bauhaus experimented with theatre. This included costume and set design but probably peaked with the production of Das Triadische Ballet (the Triadic Ballet), a complete dance performance created by Oskar Schlemmer before joining the Bauhaus in 1921, but premiered in Stuttgart in 1922. The piece consists of three sections, the first on a lemon-yellow stage set is described as a serve burlesque; the second on a pink set is festive-carried whilst the third on a black stage set is described as mystical-fantastic. There are three performers, one male and two female and each dance 12 dances.

The uniqueness of Das Triadische Ballet is that the costumes dictate movement rather than the dancer. The heavy, sculptural costumes and masks severely inhibit the dancers' range of motion but at the same time stimulate and introduce new movements. The costumes include metallic elements and can be seen in all their glory in this exhibition. This work reminds me of the dance elements of the constructivist movement in Russia as well as the Ballet of the Palette, referred to in this post about Josef Herman.

Costume for the Turkish dancer, Das Triadische Ballett, Oskar Schlemmer, 1922
Still on the subject of theatre, one of my favourite exhibits is the 1924 stage and costume design for "Circus" by Xanti Schawinsky. Swiss born Schawinsky was an accomplished designer, photographer and member of the Bauhaus jazz band. He left Berlin in 1933 for Milan and worked on iconic poster designs for Cinzano and Olivetti amongst others. "Circus" is a simple, childlike image of an asymmetrical ringmaster/ mistress leading a lion in a dance set against a solid black background. Displayed adjacent to puppets and toys designed by Bauhaus members, I like the ambiguity of the ringmaster/ mistress and the childlike innocence of the friendly but fierce looking lion.

Circus, Xanti Scawinsky, 1924
In 1923, under the direction of Gropius, the school staged a major exhibition to demonstrate what Thuringia was getting for its money. The Barbican exhibition has several items from the 1923 event, including some wonderful promotional items such as Fritz Scheliefer's ultra modernist poster and a series of postcards by Herbert Bayer. The exhibition included painting, interior design, performances of the Triadische Ballet, architectural designs and plans as well as toys and games for children. The exhibition is credited with ensuring the continuation of the school as well as introducing its work to a mass audience. Gropius himself gave a keynote speech on the subject of "Art and technology: a new unit" further demonstrating his belief in the total work of art but one constructed using modern techniques.

Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition, Fritz Schleifer, 1923
I am particularly drawn to graphic design of the 1930's and the Bauhaus movement made a major contribution to this discipline with the work of Herbert Bayer being particularly significant. Austrian Bayer had been trained in the art nouveau style, but became interested in Gropius' manifesto and studied at the Bauhaus for four years before being appointed to direct the printing and advertising workshop opened at the new Dessau location. In 1925 Gropius commissioned him to design a house typeface for all Bauhaus communication which resulted in the simple, geometric sans-serif "universal" font.

Bayer developed his own philosophy for type design based on three fundamental principles - that typography is shaped by functional requirements; that the aim of typographic layout is communication and is most effective in its shortest and simplest form, and that for it to serve social ends, typography must have both ordered content and be properly related. Bayer's approach to simplicity included a belief that there was no need for upper and lower case letters, interestingly something that has been revived in 21st century advertising and communications.

The exhibition carries some great examples of Bayer's work. I love his  "Design for a cigarette pavilion" and "Design for a news kiosk". Both are thrilling with vibrant colour, the former using a cigarette as a chimney on the roof of the matchbox or cigarette packet pavilion and the latter playing similar tricks with newspapers. The cigarette pavilion image is still widely in demand in poster format almost 90 years after it was designed. Equally inspiring and modern looking are Bayer's catalogues and sales brochures for a range of Bauhaus and other products.

Design for a cigarette pavilion, Herbert Bayer, 1924

One time art director at Vogue's Berlin office, Bayer remained in Germany for longer than many of his Bauhaus colleagues after the closure of the school, even designing a brochure for use at the 1936 Olympics extolling the virtues of life in the Third Reich and the authority of Hitler. This didn't save him from being included in an exhibition of "degenerate art" in 1937 which provoked his flight to Italy and then to the USA in 1938.

Which leads us to the troubled relationship between the Bauhaus School and the Nazi state. The school was considered subversive by the Nazis and eventually closed because of this but not before the final head of school, Mies van der Rohe had attempted to bargain with the regime in order to continue. To his credit he refused to agree to their conditions and closed the school himself. This ambiguous relationship is reflected in the experiences of individual Bauhaus artists. Franz Ehrlich had strong communist sympathies and was sent to Buchenwald in 1937. Released in 1939 he worked for the new regime as part of the conditions of release and was even involved in the design of the Sachsenhausen camp. At the same time there is anecdotal evidence that he was also involved in resistance work.

For others there was no ambiguity. Graphic designer Kurt Kranz did design work for the Todt company that benefited from mass slave labour during this period and Herman Gretsch, crockery and tableware designer was a fully signed up member of the Nazi party and worked throughout the war.

Jewish artists Otti Berger and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis worked in the weaving workshops. No ambiguity for them, they were both murdered at Auschwitz. Other Jewish artists fled whilst they still could include Marcel Breuer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Anni Albers, Nahum Slutsky and Xanti Schawinsky. Other "German" artists, including iconic lamp designer Wilhelm Wagenfeld remained in Germany and later expressed regret for not having done more to resist. At least they had the option of regret.

A great exhibition, but I have a few quibbles. It was a bit poor that at the first weekend the Barbican wasn't able to offer the full range of merchandise associated with the exhibition and had to resort to taking names and numbers to let people know when items arrive. Chaos in the cloakroom, not because of the staff, but because its too small to cope with so many people - but then I suppose they could have expected less coats in May!

The catalogue is excellent and contains several thought provoking and enlightening articles, but can we get one very important thing right? The foreword refers to a period "after the National Socialists seized power". Let's be clear - there was no "seizure" of power. They were elected. Germans voted for them in their millions. Re-writing history does no-one any favours and its not something that would have been difficult to get right.

One wonders what achievements the school might have made had it continued in a different environment. It is possible to see what those results might have been in many of the products people buy from design stores today which clearly show Bauhaus influences, whilst in the streets of Tel Aviv we can see what many European cities might have looked like if things had turned out differently.

The Bauhaus Band (from the top, Oskar Schlemmer, Werner Jackson, Xanti Schawinsky,
 Clemens Roseler). Photograph  by T. Lux Feininger, c1928.

Thursday 3 May 2012

The Golden Age of Dutch Design part 2...The Amsterdam School, de Klerk, Berlage, Toorop and more

I wrote earlier about Dutch design in the first part of the 20th century, focusing particularly on graphic design, advertising and the wonderful Wendingen magazine. This was one aspect of the creative explosion in Dutch design during this period and one which rivalled developments across Europe. At the same time, the Netherlands saw significant and unique developments in architecture.

Dutch society is generally thought of as being socially conscious and somewhat egalitarian, but at the beginning of the 20th Century many working class Dutch lived in unhealthy housing, lacking basic amenities and suffering from the lower life expectancy, disease and social ills that come with inadequate housing. The organised labour movement campaigned strenuously on this issue resulting in 1901 in the Housing Act which legislated against construction of poor quality housing and made provision for major slum clearance. Also included in the measures identified by the Act were subsidies for not for profit housing associations to provide good quality housing for the poorest citizens and which led to detailed urban plans such as H.P. Berlage's "Plan Zuid" for South Amsterdam.

Although many architects were active and influential at this time, the two most outstanding practitioners were Michel de Klerk and the already mentioned Hendrik Petrus Berlage. De Klerk was born into a large, poor Dutch Jewish family in 1884. He was discovered by, and became apprentice to, the architect Eduard Cuypers at the age of 14. Whilst working for Cuypers he developed friendships with Piet Kramer and Jo van der Mey and together they laid the foundations for what became known as the "Amsterdam School". Kramer and de Klerk augmented this training with additional classes at the Industrial School for the Working Class, whilst de Klerk also spent some time in Scandinavia.

The Amsterdam School had ambitious political ideals, expressed through the use of strong colours, robust materials and extensive ornamentation. The School also attempted to determine the surroundings that their work was set in, including establishing elegant squares, secluded residential streets and beautiful outdoor areas.

Amsterdam by Yekkes

Perhaps the most famous example of this, and de Klerk's masterpiece is the De Spaarndamerbuurt (pictured above) neighbourhood in the Westpark district of Amsterdam. Designed in 1919 and built primarily for workers form the nearby docks, de Klerk presented a breathtaking design in brick and in striking colours, completely moving away from the earlier standard rows of small, bleak buildings. The star of the show is without doubt the third block, now known as Het Schip (the ship) and located on the Spaarndamerplantsoen. Containing 102 dwellings, a small meeting room and a post office and located on an extremely challenging triangular site, de Klerk produced a building of curves, angles, unexpected courtyards and unique ornamentation.

The former post office, located in the curved end of the building on the Spaarndamerplantsoen, now houses a museum, known as "Het Schip" or, the ship, in reference to the look and shape of the block. The museum offers guided tours which include a short walk around the exterior of the building with key and unusual features being pointed out as well as a visit to one of the apartments, restored to its original state as designed by de Klerk. The occupants would have been working class people with a regular, although low income and would have been members of the socialist housing association - Eigen Haard, who according to my guide on my last visit, still maintain an interest in the surrounding properties.

The interior of the apartment includes period furniture, kitchen equipment and utensils, items of clothing, books, children's toys and a range of ephemera from the 1920's. On the day I visited there was torrential rain and the home had an atmosphere of warm cosiness on a very dark and cold afternoon. It was easy to imagine the difference between living in this property and living in the former slum housing that many working class Dutch people had lived in prior to the Housing Act.

De Klerk also designed the former post office in the tip of the building. The interior is truly stunning with a grand private enclosure for local people to use the public telephone, adventurous colours including deep violet and lavender and an arched, rectangular ceiling above an irregular trapezoid office. This little postal palace was part of De Klerk's philosophy of providing the best quality services and facilities for the working class, is the hub of the museum and can be explored by visitors as well as forming part of the tour.

Across the road from the post office is a cafe from the same period. The cafe was a great place to take refuge on a very rainy day, sells good snacks, strong coffee and tempting cakes. I particularly like the understated decorative features including the door handles and building number. You can buy postcards, books about the museum and the Amsterdam School in the cafe although the museum has a larger selection of similar items for sale.

De Klerk's other most well known work and continuing legacy is the former Scheepvarthuis (Shipping House) on Prins Hendrikdadde opposite Amsterdam Central Station. Regarded as a masterpiece of the Amsterdam School, the lead architect was Jo van der Mey, but with major contributions from De Klerk, Kramer and sculptor Hildo Krop. Built in 1913 for Amsterdam's major shipping companies, the building now houses the Grand Hotel Amrath.

The building is entered through a narrow doorway up a short flight of stairs which gives on to a small reception area, dramatic staircase and highly decorated glass ceiling above the atrium. The hotel has stunning original interiors making extensive use of glass, wood and metal much of which shows art deco and art nouveau influences. You don't have to be a guest at the hotel to use the bar, coffee lounge or restaurant and all are worth a look. The hotel staff are welcoming and when I asked they were happy for me to walk upstairs and to take photographs. There is a weekly guided tour on Sundays - bookings can be made through Het Schip Museum.

The Amsterdam School architects also delivered some smaller scale but equally beautiful projects. One of my favourites is the irresistible Holtkamp's Cake and Pastry Shop on Vijzelgracht, Amsetrdam. The shop was founded in 1885 but was made over in Amsterdam School style in 1928 by Piet Kramer. Small, but beautiful, I love this place which packs in a huge range of lovely things, has friendly ladies working there who allow visitors to take photos (and sometimes give them a CD rom about the history of the shop!) and also features artist Pieter den Besten's wave patterns and snail designs on the walls!

Den Besten is a bit of a hero of mine having been responsible for some of the murals inside the absolutely fabulous Tuschinksi Cinema on Reguliersbreestraat (detail pictured below). Founded by Polish Jew, Abram Icek Tuschinksi who on route for the USA in 1903 decided to remain in the Netherlands. He quickly became successful opening four cinemas in Rotterdam, with the Tuschinksi following in 1921 as his crowning achievement. Mr. Tuschinksi was very determined that his Amsterdam cinema would be a success and when it looked as if  it would be without an organ for its official opening he managed to persuade the owner of a Brussels cinema to dismantle a Wurlitzer organ and send it to Amsterdam!

Amsterdam by Yekkes

The cinema mixes art deco, art nouveau and Amsterdam School techniques and elements and was a resounding success from opening. Unfortunately the occupying Germans quite liked it too and took it over soon after occupying the Netherlands, renamed it and imprisoned Tuschinksi. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 where he was murdered. After the war the cinema had its original name restored and still draws in big audiences today keen to enjoy the atmosphere of this most beautiful building.

Another Amsterdam School gem is the Jacob Obrechtplein synagogue, designed by architect Harry Elte. The exterior of the synagogue is a typical brick Amsterdam School building, although much more angular than many of the other buildings - and almost brutalist in the solid and sheer external walls, but the interior (which I have only seen in photographs) is a very different story. Filled with beautiful glass features and with exquisite black and gold art deco style tiled features behind the bimah and over the ark, it is truly stunning.

On my last visit to Amsterdam I tried to gain entry on Friday afternoon and spoke at length with an Israeli yeshivah bocher in a mixture of Hebrew and English. He was waiting for the shammes to arrive for a meeting. The shammes was a grumpy looking elderly Russian immigrant who spoke neither English nor Hebrew but told my other new acquaintance that I could only come in for services. I couldn't come back on the Friday evening and knew I wouldn't be able to take photos on Shabbat so didn't get back - but I will certainly be trying again in future!

The synagogue (detail pictured below) is located in South Amsterdam, formerly a very Jewish area, was consecrated in 1928 and restored in 1997. Architect Elte suffered the fate of 90% of Dutch Jewry during the war, was deported and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. He also designed the former nursing home at 98 Nieuwe Keizersgracht and the Chewre Schul on Nieuwe Kerkstraat and several other buildings elsewhere in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam by Yekkes

Working at the same time as De Klerk and his colleagues, Henrick Petrus Berlage had a somewhat different philosophy. He believed that the use of ornament in architecture should not be a goal in itself. Working initially in an historical style, he changed tack and moved towards rationalism, using geometrical plans and shapes. This included incorporating elements of construction as decorative features. Examples of this are leaving strengthening iron bars or pillars uncovered and making them decorative features and using bands of different coloured bricks on the inner walls of buildings. He also had a philosophy of using materials in a pure form, for example not bending wood or dyeing it to change its colour and appearance.

As with Hoffman in Austria and Mucha in Belgium, Berlage also designed furniture for his buildings. This furniture was sold at the Het Binnenhuis store in Amsterdam, established by Berlage and his business partner J. van den Bosch. Numerous other leading designers came to make items for sale there and the store became a focus for the Dutch version of art nouveau.

Berlage's first major rational style project was the Beurs in Amsterdam - the former home of the stock exchange. The Beurs was built between 1898 and 1903, sits in the centre of the city on Damrak, and operates today as a conference and events centre. The interior of the building is more decorative than many of his later works and includes some wonderful symbolist mosaics in the cafe which is popular with both locals and visitors.

Amsterdam by Yekkes

The mosaics are the work of Jan Toorop, (one is pictured above) the leading Dutch symbolist painter born in Java in 1858. They were formerly located in the entrance to the Beurs and are wonderful examples of politically oriented art, following themes of female emancipation and workers progress.  Titled "Past" "Present" and "Future" they show working conditions developing from slavery through to modern day and on to a future utopia. Interestingly the political message is mixed with religious symbolism - probably because at the time he produced these works Toorop was renouncing anarchism and embracing Catholicism.

It is also possible to visit another famous Berlage building - the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag (pictured below). Although the exhibitions are interesting and the collection good, the building is the star of the show. The exterior still looks incredibly modern  with the green topped yellow bricks demonstrating Berlage's rationalist theories about decoration. The interior is equally inspiring with what might be described as "calm" art nouveau features including little recesses in the main ground floor hall where reds, whites and greens are used as contrasts on plain or tiled walls.

Den Haag by Yekkes