Thursday 29 August 2013

Chagall Modern Master at Tate Liverpool

Chagall Modern Master, currently showing at Tate Liverpool is the first major exhibition of this most Jewish of artists to be held in the UK for fifteen years. Chagall just happens to be my favourite artist and I have been fortunate enough to see two exhibitions of his work this year - the first being at the Mane Katz Museum in Haifa in April.

The Tate exhibition brings together works from various periods of Chagall's long and prolific career including his early years in Vitebsk, then in the Russian Empire, now in Belarus; his responses to cubism and other movements and the centrality of his Russian-Jewish identity to his work.

Born  as Moshe Segal, in Vitebsk in 1887, into an observant Jewish family he was educated first at a local Jewish school. When he reached 13 his mother had to bribe an official to allow him entry to the Russian High School which at that time did not admit Jewish children. During his time at this school he became interested in drawing eventually confiding to his mother that he wished to become an artist. In 1906, he managed to convince his parents to allow him to study at the Vitebsk studio of realist artist Yehuda Pen. Pen also numbered El Lissitzky and Ossip Zadkine amongst pupils. 

In 1910 Chagall moved to Paris to widen his experience and to develop his style. This was the first of many moves to Russia, back to France, the United States and finally back to France. However, throughout all of these moves his work constantly referred back to his home city with Vitebsk's church spires, synagogue, small painted houses and various characters appearing in many of his paintings. Over Vitebsk, featured in the current exhibition is a wonderful example of this. It shows an itinerant Jewish peddler literally "over" the city, floating or flying as so many of Chagall's subjects do. The term "over" has a double meaning in this sense as it was also used to refer to going from door to door, begging or peddling. As ever, an onion domed Orthodox church features prominently and on this occasion the city is covered in snow, adding to the poignancy of the peddler's poverty. I especially like this picture as it combines the two key and inseparable elements of Chagall's identity - Jewish and Russian.

Over Vitebsk, 1922
In later life Chagall spoke about his work capturing the memory of the destroyed life of the shtetls - small Jewish settlements wiped out during the Holocaust. It is possible to see some of these characters in his very early paintings. His Jew in Red from 1915 has always struck me as showing a feeling of foreboding. The picture is dominated by the image of an elderly looking Jew, with one eye open and one eye closed, perhaps referencing the struggles then going on amongst European Jews between those who wished to preserve tradition (the closed eye) and those advocating modernity (the open one). His expression and slightly slumped posture also suggest the many problems and persecutions faced by Jews in the Tsarist Empire, confined to particular areas and forbidden access to further education and to a range of professions. Behind him are a series of wooden, shtetl shouses with cubist overtones and strong reds and pinks, reflecting the colour of his beard, the redness being an uncanny prophesy of the flames that would consume most of European Jewry just a few decades later.

Jew in red, 1915
There was also a lighter side to Chagall's work and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the celebratory panels he produced for the Yiddish Chamber Theatre in Moscow. Produced in 1920, this series of panels depicting literature, music and drama, dance as well as an extremely large panel entitled Introduction to the Jewish Theatre are magical and for me, the highlight of the exhibition.

Following the 1916 Russian Revolution, Chagall was appointed a Commissioner of Fine Arts and became involved with the Vitebsk Theatre of Revolutionary Satire (TEREVSAT), designing both sets and costumes on a regular basis. He also undertook theatre design work in Moscow during this period. In 1920 he left his home town for good, moving to Moscow where he was recruited by art critic Abram Efros to design for the State Yiddish Chamber Theatre. His first commission was to design sets and costumes for three one act plays of Yiddish literary legend Sholem Aleichem. He also decided to decorate the entire room in which this very small theatre was located with a complete set of wall and ceiling murals on canvas in addition to a stage curtain. The curtain and the ceiling murals are lost but the remainder survive and are on glorious display at Tate Liverpool.

Chagall's theatre panels celebrate not only the Yiddish theatre, but also the richness of Russian Jewish cultural achievement. The panel to music shows a violin player with his beloved shtetl in the background. (I have to admit a large scale poster of this picture has been in my possession for many years - purchased at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 1995!) The panel to literature shows a bearded Jew writing Hebrew letters onto a scroll. These and the other works in this series show an inextricable link between the two cultures and Chagall's commitment to both. He makes an appearance himself in the main panel complete with his palette and in the company of vaulting violinists, tefillin wearing acrobats and the occasional goat. Just wonderful! 

Music, 1920
In 1909 our hero met Bella Rosenfield, the daughter of a well to do Jewish family and another native of Vitebsk. According to him it was mutual love at first site and they married in 1915, their daughter Ida being born in 1916. Bella and Ida appear in the exhibition in the painting that bears their names, sometimes also called Strawberries. His early paintings of Bella, many of which he also appeared in, show a passionate love affair but he also painted calmer, more domestic scenes including Strawberries. Painted in 1920 it shows a more relaxed side of life in Vitebsk. I love Bella's consideration of the plate of strawberries nearest to her and the way the crimson of the fruit is mirrored in her dress. Little Ida is safely in her child's chair, fastened in and unable to reach the table. The hint of red around her mouth suggest she might already have sampled the fruit which may explain the suggestion of contentedness on her face!

Their marriage lasted until Bella's untimely death in 1994. by this time they were living in New York, having escaped Europe by the skin of their teeth having been arrested by the collaborationist French  Vichy Government in Marseille in 1941. It was only due to the efforts of Righteous Among the Nations Varian Fry, that the Chagall family were released and avoided the fate of so many others.

The Strawberries or Bella and Ida at the table, 1916
The exhibition also includes a number of works from 1914, mainly using pen and ink and illustrating ordinary Vitebsk residents and the impact of the first year of the First World War on their lives. This includes scenes of husbands departing for battle, refugees displaced by the conflict and a wounded soldier being stretchered away from the railway station. The starkness of pen and ink emphasises the fear and pain of those pictured. This period represents a much less symbolic approach than is often associated with Chagall but this section of the exhibition also leaves a lasting impression. Another of my favourites is displayed with this group. Peasant eating from 1913, another monochromatic work shows a Jew eating from a bowl marked כשר - the Hebrew letters spelling "kosher".

Peasant eating, c 1913
And speaking of eating, it is only possible to give a small taste of this wonderful exhibition here, but rest assured it is well worth a visit to Liverpool before it ends on October 6th. An excellent catalogue featuring all of the pictures on show together with a series of essays. And as I wrote here Liverpool is worth a visit at any time!

You might also like Boris Aronson and the Yiddish Theate at the Ben Uri Gallery and Jewish Moscow

Friday 23 August 2013

Liverpool - another take

I spent last weekend in Liverpool. The main purpose of my visit was to see the Chagall exhibition at Tate Liverpool and that will be the subject of a separate post. For many people Liverpool is the city of the Beatles and a rather good football team, but it has many other attractions and they will be the focus of this article.

Arriving on the Friday evening, I decided to eat in Liverpool's Chinatown - the oldest in the UK. The city's shipping connections brought many Chinese sailors and workers to Liverpool from the 1850's onwards and over time, some began to settle and establish homes and businesses. There was also a significant degree of inter-marriage between Chinese men and local women which we will pick up again a little later.

Liverpool's Chinatown has the tallest Chinese ceremonial gate in Europe leading to a number of restaurants offering different styles of Chinese cuisine. I ate at the New Capital which was cheap and cheerful with large portions of vegetables, rice and the not very traditional lemon chicken that I embarrassed my dinner partner by ordering. Well, I like it. Liverpool's Chinatown is less bustling than London's and has a much more "local" feel to it, with people popping out for dinner rather than making the effort to travel a long way. 

Walking back to the hotel I got a taste of Liverpool's night life when I heard a woman singing with a loud nasal whine the old Lyn Anderson song (I never promised you a)"Rose Garden" . It was the voice of a public house singer but she was ably accompanied by what sounded like the entire pub who were singing along. I was sorely tempted to go in...but Saturday was going to be a busy day.

Royal Liver Building, Pier Head
I had a full programme for Saturday beginning with the wonderful Chagall exhibition which I followed with a walk around nearby Pier Head which forms part of Liverpool's World Heritage status, listed by UNESCO in 2004 as "The supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain's greatest global influence". The highlight of the docks area, Pier Head boasts three magnificent buildings, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board(NDHB) built from 1903 to 1907, the Royal Liver Building (1908-1911) and the Cunard Building (completed in 1916). All three are a testament to Liverpool's former standing as a port of world importance. My favourite is the Royal Liver Building designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas, a magnificent office block claimed to be the tallest in the world when built. It defies stylistic definition but includes traces of baroque, byzantine (according to Pevsner), references to Hawksmoor's churches and to early Chicago skyscrapers. Far too big for the needs of the Royal Liver Friendly Society for which it was built, the building provided a great deal of lettable space. It displeased the owners of the smaller, older neighbour which had wanted a complementary structure rather than the attention grabber this is.
George's Dock Ventilation and Contro Station
Just behind this architectural ensemble stands another Liverpool landmark - the George's Dock Ventilation and Control Station. Designed by Herbert J. Rowse and built in the 1930's it served the first Mersey road tunnel. Having sustained damage during the Second World War it was rebuilt in 1951.  Its Portland stone face features sculptures by Edmund C. Thompson has figures representing speed, day and night (an allusion to the ever-open tunnel) and four panels illustrating civil-engineering, construction, architecture and decoration. I love its quiet elegance and I especially love that central tower, visible from some distance.

Pier Head has become a popular location for monuments and memorials to various individuals. These include the Memorial to the Heroes of the Marine Engine Room by William Goscombe John, completed in 1916. Paid for by international subscription and originally conceived as a memorial to the engineers on the Titanic who remained on the ship to the end, it is a granite obelisk topped by a gilded flame. It also has figures representing earth, air, fire and water and pairs of engineers on two sides. An early monument to ordinary working people it is a wonderful tribute to unsung heroes. 

Detail, Memorial to the Heroes of the Marine Engine Room, Pier Head
The Museum of Liverpool is just a few steps from Pier Head and it is easy to combine a visit. The   Museum tells the story of the city and its development as a major port, its many communities and the lives of its citizens. I especially enjoyed the top floor which includes the memories and lives of ordinary Liverpudlians. It includes a focus on the struggle for decent housing that has gone on (and continues today) for many years, the city's often difficult political history, its long association with music of many kinds and a number of videos of its citizens talking about their lives. 

The ground floor of the Museum includes a section on the history of Liverpool's Chinese community including the until recently untold story of the round-up and deportation of hundreds of Chinese men at the end of the Second World War, many of whom were tricked into boarding ships thinking they had signed up to work on them. Many of these men were married to local non-Chinese women and had families with them who until very recently did not know what had happened to their husbands, fathers and grandfathers. The testimony of women who spent years searching for their husbands and wondering if they had been deserted is one of the most poignant elements of the Museum and a little known part of history.

On a lighter note, a series of video interviews about Liverpool style and fashion includes an amusing contribution from a local man who refers to some of the many young women in the city with extreme tans or the "orange" look. He says "seeing ten Liverpool girls coming towards you on a night out looks like the terracotta army in stilettos". This sense of humour and tendency to self-deprecation is one of many reasons to love Liverpool. 

No visit to another city is complete for me without searching out examples of art deco architecture. I spent Saturday evening enjoying my best theatrical experience for some time at the final performance in the run of John Godber's"Bouncers" at the Royal Court Theatre. This art deco building dates from 1938 and was designed by James B. Hutchins of Wainwright and Sons. A more subdued style of art deco, it has a red brick facade which makes use of different types of brick to break the solid face as well as numerous art deco motifs and a beautiful curve at one end of the theatre. Originally built to face Queen Square, the square itself has not survived and today the Royal Court faces a row of bus stops and neighbours a very ugly shopping precinct. 

The play was excellent - a look at the lives of ordinary Liverpudlians working in or frequenting a Liverpool nightclub in the 1980's. Filled with local, often dark humour that had me laughing more than I have in a theatre for ages, there were also moments of amazing poignancy as the sad, darker side of the lives of some of the characters and their communities were alluded to. There is a Royal Court Theatre in London too - in Sloane Square, frequented by the bien pensant frightfully PC brigade. Liverpool's Royal Court has a different audience, largely working class  and able to laugh at and with itself at things the Sloane set might struggle with. Give me the Liverpool lot any time. All four actors gave good performances each with three roles - a bouncer, a Liverpool man on the pull and a Liverpool woman similarly engaged. However, the star of the show was former Brookside actor, Michael Starke. His "plain Elaine" was fantastic and he surprised us with his skills as a "mover" too! Nice one.

Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool

The other art deco lovely I found was the former Forum Cinema just opposite Lime Street Station. Dating from 1931 with the exterior designed by E. A. Shennan, the cinema is also a somewhat subdued example of art deco with an almost plain Portland stone facade, interrupted by vertical windows in threes set in panels and by simple motifs. The interior was by W. R. Glen and has a flat auditorium with a central rosette feature. There are also ornamental boxes and a range of other art deco features. The cinema closed in 1998 and was acquired by a brewery. Proposals in 2007 to turn it into a boutique hotel were eventually withdrawn and so, rather shamefully, it stands empty on this very prominent spot - one of the first things visitors see as they leave Lime Street station.
Former Forum CInema, Lime Street/ Elliott Street
On Sunday morning I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Walker Gallery to see the amazing Alive in the face of death exhibition of photographer Rankin and a look at the Gallery's excellent collection of British art from the first half of the twentieth century which includes ceramics and other crafts as well as paintings. Right next door to the Walker Gallery stands the City Library which has recently been partially demolished, rebuilt and the Victorian special collection rooms lovingly restored. It is a spectacular achievement and what a city library should look lie. Heaving with customers at midday on a Sunday - studying, browsing, using the IT, relaxing in the cafe or on the roof viewing platform - it is clearly the heartbeat of the city. Some readers will know I work in this field. I want a building like this!
And I suppose this revitalised library sums up the very best of Liverpool - preserving the history, building a future, and everything based around the people. 

And I didn't mention football or the Beatles once!
Entrance and atrium to the City Library
New developments on the Docks - the white box in the background is the Museum of Liverpool

Tuesday 13 August 2013

150 years of poster art on the Underground

1933, Christopher Greaves
2013 is the 150th anniversary of London's Underground transport system - the tube. The Transport Museum in Covent Garden is staging an excellent exhibition of 150 of the posters that have been used to promote the Tube, to advise passengers of rules and regulations and to promote a whole range of activities to Londoners over a century and a half. I finally managed to see this exhibition last week on my third attempt. On my two previous visits the queue for the exhibition snaked out of the museum door and into the piazza. This time not only did I not have to queue, I had the exhibition almost to myself. Great.

The poster is a very simple, an amazingly effective and relatively cheaply produced marketing tool. A striking image with just a few key words to convey an idea can capture the attention and guide the behaviour of millions of people if it is designed well. Just think of the impact of Alfred Leete's image of Lord Kitchener on the World War One recruitment poster - Your country needs you, known and remembered by millions of people born long after the conclusion of that war. As well as serving the practical use of message, the best posters are also works of art. It was this dual purpose that Frank Pick, London Transport's Chief Executive may have had in mind when addressing the Royal Society of Arts in 1935 when he said

"...underneath all the commercial activities of the Board, underneath all its engineering and operation, there is the revelation and realisation of something which is in the nature of a work of is, in fact, a conception of a metropolis as a centre of life, of civilisation, more intense, more eager, more vitalising than has ever so far obtained".

This was a philosophy Pick implemented both in the design of new stations and through commissioning artists to produce posters with the dual purpose of communicating information and acting as works of art. You can read more about Pick and his work here.

The exhibition covers different decades and also different themes. Some of those themes seem to be for all time.  I was especially taken with a series of posters from 1944, demonstrating the etiquette expected on the Tube, encouraging passengers to have their ticket ready at the gate, to let passengers off before trying to get on and to move down once you are in the carriage so that others can board.  Things don't change much. These were the work of cartoonist Cyril Kenneth Bird who was a regular contributor to Punch the humorous magazine and who signed his work as Fougasse. Fougasse used minimalist designs to convey a simple, effective message without talking down to those it was aimed at. His skills were used extensively during the Second World War including by Government agencies who produced a plethora of public do and don't notices that ran the risk of being ignored if produced in the (then) normal dull and wordy municipal style.

1944, Fougasse

The theme of passenger etiquette on the Tube is something that has continued to feature - remember the posters that asked us to keep our "personal stereo personal" - that is, not to blast other passengers with our choice of music? And then there were the posters asking us not to eat "smelly" food on the trains.

The 1930's saw the world wide popularity of the "modern" style in the arts and whilst Pick embraced this style whole heartedly in the design of new stations, he took more convincing about the posters produced during that period. Some of the century's greatest artists were commissioned to produce posters, including Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Ray's 1938 poster Keeps London going makes clever use of the distinctive London Transport logo, transforming it into the planet Saturn on a black background. The epitome of modernism, the poster was designed in 1936 but didn't hit the streets until 1938. Pick was not keen on Moholy-Nagy describing him as a surrealistic pasticheur but allowed himself to be persuaded resulting in a series of posters with highly stylised technical imagery and dense text showing the inner working of stations. A couple of these, and Ray's Saturn are on display as part of the exhibition.

1938, Man Ray.

The Tube is at the centre of London life, getting us across the city quickly and efficiently (for the most part) to work, to sporting events and to other important activities that make life in London so special. This is also reflected in the Transport Museum's exhibition. In the 1930's as the then outskirts of the city were developed as sleeper suburbs, poster art was used to encourage this exodus to what became known as Metroland. The name came from the fact that the Metropolitan Line served places in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex where Londoners were told they could enjoy the pleasures of country life, just a short and cheap ride away from the city and their work. I really liked the  Gardening by Underground poster from 1933, designed by Stanislaus S. Longley. It shows a Metroland dweller with one foot in his garden, mowing the lawn and wearing casual clothes on the right hand side, with the other foot in the busy Metropolis influenced city and wearing much more formal clothes on the left hand side, emphasising the easy journey between the two made possible by the Tube.

1933, Stanislaus S. Longley

My other favourite is a poster designed by female artist Herry Perry for the 1935 FA Cup Final which lists trams and buses as well as the nearest underground stations for the fans making their way to Wembley Stadium. The poster is a collage with three figures in different footballing actions using bus tickets to construct the figures. She also designed posters to direct sports fans to other major events including Wimbledon. Perry was one of a number of women working in the advertising industry in the 1920's and 1930's. She also designed posters for the Great Western Railway and London Midland and Scottish Railway as well as being a book illustrator, designer of playing cards and pub signs! 

1935, Herry Perry.

I may have had a long wait to see this exhibition but I am very glad I kept trying. A poster shop at the 55 Broadway headquarters of the Underground opened in 1933 selling copies of the posters to the traveling public. The shop closed during the Second World War due to the impact of purchase tax and paper shortages. The exhibition offers a similar facility with reproductions of many of the posters available for purchase from the museum shop. I have many posters at home that I do not have space to exhibit. That said, I couldn't resist a copy of the Man Ray...

The exhibition continues until 27th October.

You might also like London art deco part one

Saturday 10 August 2013

Incognito live at Ronnie Scotts

Incognito had the audience on its feet at Ronnie Scott's last night, treating us to a selection of their biggest hits, some new songs and a musical tribute to George Duke who died this week. It's 34 years since the first Incognito recording was made and yet their sound remains fresh and appealing to both long standing fans as well as to a younger audience.

This is a big band, with bass guitar, keyboards, a trio of horns, drums, percussion and no less than four vocalists. Band leader and founder, Bluey has been constant throughout the years but Incognito has always been a band that musicians come in and out of and perhaps this has ensured the continued freshness. One of the leading exponents of what is sometimes known as "Brit-funk", Mauritian born Bluey was originally a member of another band from that genre - Light of the World but told the story of how he was displaced by another, younger guitar player which led to him forming his own band, Incognito.

The set began with Expresso Maduereira, an excellent and lengthy instrumental work out of a track originally recorded by Banda Black Rio but a regular track in the Incognito repertoire. This was followed by a number of more recent tracks before the real business of the night began with a fantastic rendition of Parisienne Girl - the band's first recording from 1979 and the track that first brought them to my attention. I have this track on 12 inch vinyl. It is still as sophisticated today as it was in 1979 and is at the jazzier end of Incognito's oeuvre. Their biggest hits - the Stevie Wonder number Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing brought the audience to their feet whilst their version of another Wonder song As kept them there. And of course, Always There which served as the finale brought the house down, with terrific vocals from Vanessa Haynes so memorably performed by Jocelyn Brown on Incognito's recording of this Ronnie Laws track back in 1990.

Ms. Haynes had also impressed earlier with her lead vocal on Ain't It Time You Went Home, described by Bluey as his version of a New York disco track from the 1970's - and this one had them dancing too. Whilst on the subject of vocalists, Natalie Williams, current darling of Ronnie Scott's was also on terrific form and new band member, Katie Leone took the stage to lead on one number and managed to win over the audience with a very big voice from a very petite frame! Lots more to look forward to from her. And it wasn't just the vocalists that shone. Francesco Mendolia and Joao Caetano played a stunning duet and the horns trio of Sidney Gauld, Jamie Anderson and Alistair White were also outstanding. Loved the footwork too boys!

All good stuff but the highlight for me was George Duke's Brazilian Love Affair which sounded exactly like the original - really - with that tinkling percussive intro, hard bass and keyboards and soaring vocals taking my right back to 1980 when I first heard the original which included Flora Purim and Milton Nascimento on vocals. Duke, such a loss. A great evening that sent me home thinking I must buy a turntable so I can get my vinyl out again!

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Romania Romania - a yiddish musical memory of a disappeared world

"Oh Romania, Romania! Where can you find another place, a land as sweet, as nice, as beautiful? Living there was a pleasure, whatever your heart desired was within reach: mamaliga, pastrami, carnatzl sausage, and a glass of wine..."

Fond memories of a Romanian emigre? Well something like that. These are the opening lines of Aaron Lebedeff's celebrated yiddish paean to that land - his song "Romania Romania". Lebedeff wrote the words and the music and first recorded the song for the Vocalion record label in 1925. Born in Homel, White Russia in 1873 he had several years experience touring with Yiddish theatre companies before being pressed into the Tsarist army in the First World War and sent to Harbin, Manchuria in 1916 where he put on several shows for his colleagues. By 1920 he had made his way to America where he became a star of the American Yiddish theatre, with many successful productions well into the 1930's. He died in 1960.

Back to our song. Most people of a certain age can name at least one Yiddish song - even if they only know it in English. My Yiddishe Momme and Bei Mir Bist du Sheyn have been recorded by many of artists and often in English. But ask someone a little more familiar with this genre and chances are they will mention Lebedeff's Romania Romania. The song harks back to what was once considered to be the golden era of Romanian Jewry, the years between the first and second world wars. During this time the Yiddish theatre thrived, Jewish culture blossomed and despite continuing discrimination there was a degree of prosperity and progress for Romania's Jews.

Our song describes the simple pleasures of a less sophisticated, more rural Jewish world. The lyrics describe Romania as a land where everyone is drinking wine, eating delicacies and dancing. It is also described as an amorous land where "he who kisses his own wife is one who is crazy.." and where the cook may be dressed in rags but she is still pretty, makes great puddings and is quite partial to a kiss! Some of those delicacies are still on offer in Romania and indeed in Israel and old style Jewish restaurants today. These include mamalige - a porridge of yellow corn flour, karnatzl - a spicy beef sausage and patlazhele - an aubergine (or egg plant if you are not British!) salad. The song also mentions two cheeses - kashtaval which can refer to a specific cheese made from sheep milk as well as being a more generic term for yellow cheeses, whilst I am told (but can't find confirmation) that brinze is a kind of cottage cheese. The spellings may be unfamiliar to readers from Romania but please remember these are transliterations from the Yiddish which may have differed from the Romanian word or spelling! This is quite a list and I can almost imagine one of today's many trendy TV food shows "discovering" this style of cookery. Just reading the lyrics makes me feel hungry.
Aaron Lebedeff Sings Rumania, Rumania and other Yiddish songs - Aaron Lebedeff

In Memoires des Juifs de Roumanie (Memories of the Jews of Romania), the authors describe Romania Romania as a popular folk song sung by Romanian Jews who emigrated to Israel and felt nostalgic for the old country. The song was a means of passing on that nostalgia to their children and grandchildren who couldn't share the memories and who would could not speak Romanian. The song paints a rosy picture of their life in Romania and its popularity may have been partly due to the struggle many Romanians had when they initially arrived in Israel - at a time when the country was absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees from Europe and from North Africa and was faced with existential threat. Rina Frank's excellent novel "Every home needs a balcony" is an excellent description of this period - and a great story too.

There were once 800,000 Jews in Romania. Half of these were murdered in the Holocaust and most of the rest made aliyah to Israel after the war or through the communist years when Ceausescu allowed them to leave on condition that the Israelis paid him for each one. The Yiddish language came close to extinction at the end of Second World War - most of its speakers having been murdered and the re-established state of Israel having chosen Hebrew, Arabic and English as the national languages. The language lived on in the USA where a number of Yiddish radio stations attracted sizeable audiences and in the homes of the remnant of eastern european Jewry. Today it is undergoing something of a revival and is used by large numbers of Haredi Jews day to day whilst there are a plethora of Klezmer groups preserving the language through music.

And to prove the enduring attraction of Yiddish song and Romania Romania in particular, the song featured in the recent musical Paper Dolls where it was sung by a group of Filipino drag queens at a party for an elderly Orthodox Jew. No kidding. One of my favourite versions of the song is Yafa Yarkoni's which you can find here where you can also read about today's Yiddish theatre in Bucharest.

And finally, the Barry Sisters version...

You might also like Dorel Livianu - a Jewish Romanian musical interlude

Sunday 4 August 2013

Picture post 20 - Budapest's art nouveau treasure

Budapest by Yekkes
Stained glass cupola

Budapest is one of  Europe's most beautiful cities. Clinging to the banks of the Danube and really two cities with different characters, Buda and Pest, it boats a magnificent built heritage with many examples of art nouveau, modernist, classicist and soviet style architecture. The Museum of Applied Arts on Ulloi Utca is just one of the city's art nouveau treasures, designed by Odon Lechner and opened by Emperor Franz Joseph on 25th October 1896.

I discovered the museum on my first visit to Budapest in 1995 and have always made a point of going there whenever I return. In 1995, Hungary was still in the early stages of transition from the old political regime and the building was somewhat dusty but packed full of treasures including unexpected works by Joseph Hoffman, Margo McDonald McIntosh, Charles Rennie McIntosh and of course the work of Hungarian ceramics genius Vilmos Zsolnay. The approach to display was somewhat serendipitous with many items on display, some labelled some not and all under the watchful eye of a group of those elderly ladies you used to find in central and eastern European museums with perfectly coiffed hair, a cardigan worn over the shoulders and a stern look. Some of these ladies still survive and I have to admit I have found some of them to be extremely helpful and friendly once the protective outer shell is broken!

Budapest by Yekkes
Main dome with distinctive green tiles

Later visits saw the Museum taking a more modern approach to exhibiting its collection with fewer items on display, more information (including in English) and interesting themed approaches being taken. I have to admit though, to a little longing for access to the range of treasure on view in 1995 - ceramics, textiles, metalworks, chairs and other furnishings. 

But what of the building? The museum was the idea of one Floris Romer who was inspired by the establishment of the major museums in London's South Kensington and by those of Vienna. Romer must have been persuasive because in 1872 the government set up a fund to acquire objects for an applied arts museum and by 1890, the Ministry of Religion and Public Education felt strongly enough to announce an architectural competition for a National Royal Museum and a School of Applied Arts. 12 sets of designs were awarded and those of Odon Lechner and Gyula Partos were awarded first prize. 

The building sparked passion both for and against it. The competition judges praised the designs for adopting an individual, free architectural concept in keeping with its intended use and for its extensive use of Hungarian majolica. However not everyone loved it and as the art nouveau style receded in the 1920's some of the interior paintings of the museum were destroyed. During the Second World War, further damage was sustained to the main entrance, main cupola and attic. Yet more damage was done during the 1956 uprising. After the war some repairs were carried out although not all were faithful to the original designs. More sensitive restoration were carried out after 1989 but the building is in need of further work and in 2012 a European Union funded competition was launched to attract proposals for restoration.

The building still has a stunning green tiled roof with gold coloured decorations, the dome of which is visible from a considerable distance, but my favourite part is the dramatic entrance lobby pictured at the bottom of this post. The highly patterned ceiling, the regal bannister and low steps draw the visitor towards the relatively small main doors which then open up into a moorish style interior. The museum is arranged over terraced floors looking down into a central indoor courtyard which is used for music and performance as well as for exhibitions. And of course, some of the most stunning views can be had by looking up at the stained glass cupola. It is not exaggeration to say that the building gives the exhibits a good run for its money, ensuring that the memory of Lechner and his colleague Partos live on.

Budapest by Yekkes
Inner courtyard and upper galleries of the museum

Lechner was born in Pest in 1845 and is acknowledged as the leading Hungarian art nouveau architect. The esteem with which he is held is demonstrated by the opinion of leading architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner who compared Lechner to Gaudi. Other examples of his work can still be seen in Budapest including the Postal Savings Bank on Hold Utca and the tomb of the Schmidl family in the Kozma Street Cemetery. Partos, born in the same year as Lechner was also an accomplished architect. He worked with Lechner on the Town Hall at Szeged and the Kecskemet City Hall, both in Hungary.

My picture post series usually features just one photograph per post. I couldn't resist including more here. For more photographs of Budapest see here.

Budapest by Yekkes
Main entrance, restored in 2010