Tuesday 26 November 2013

Dianne Reeves - jazz superstar on London's South Bank

The applause started when she walked onto the stage, before a single note was sung. It continued to the very end of the show and beyond the encore. Dianne Reeves' concert at the South Bank must surely be one of the jazz events of the year and a if not the highlight of this year's London Jazz Festival.

Her extremely accomplished band opened up with a lengthy workout of Summertime before Dianne herself joined them, going straight into Dreams, the old Fleetwood Mac number given a new arrangement. One of the tracks on her recently released album Beautiful Life, it was greeted with cheers just a few bars in. She really did have them eating from her hand! We were treated to a number of songs from the new album - several of them covers including jazz standard Stormy Weather sung slightly behind the beat and a reggae influenced version of the Bob Marley classic, Waiting in Vain - both with a Dianne Reeves stamp on them, making them her own as she has so many other classics over the years.

Then there was Tango, her own composition and something she described as an homage to "all of the songs I have purchased but never been able to understand". Completely improvised with references to both Latin and African music, it was so convincing that non-Spanish speakers (like me) could well have been fooled into thinking there were real lyrics to this piece! It reminded me a little of Buena Vista Social Club but mixed with West African music too - something a little different from Dianne!

I don't think there is anything that Ms. Reeves cannot sing, but for me, she is at her best singing classic jazz standards. She treated us to her version of I'm In Love Again, written (with Cy Coleman) and made famous by Peggy Lee, although I love Blossom Dearie's version best. It was just perfect. Big sighs of contentment from me and I am sure from many others in the audience as she worked her way through the lyrics to my favourite verse - "I'm alive again, I can wake up and sing. Nothing bores me now, I enjoy everything" . I wanted her to sing it again straight away. Dianne recorded this on her When You Know album. She also performed the heavily gospel influenced Today Will Be A Good Day from the same recording. 

Ms. Reeves was supported by a quartet of world class musicians. Peter Martin shone on piano, especially on I'm in Love Again, demonstrating a real intimacy between instrument and voice. Romero Lubambo on guitar, Reginald Veal on bass and the wonderful Terreon Gully on drums completed the line-up that made this a very special occasion.

Despite suffering from the extreme heat in the concert hall, Dianne and the band were tempted back to the stage at the audience's insistence and closed with a haunting performance of  I Want You, made famous by Marvin Gaye and written by the great Leon Ware. Once more rapturous applause from an adoring crowd and she was gone, but promising to come back soon. Don't leave it too long Dianne. I keep reminding myself how lucky we are in London - Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater, for me the best two contemporary jazz singers in the world have both been here this year. And we also have great new artists like Zara McFarlane a young British vocalist who performed a short set with her band. She was fabulous according to Dianne Reeves, and I have to agree. She gave a confident performance which included her version of reggae classic Police and Thieves and the self penned Woman in the Orange Grove. Great vocals, a nice manner and real jazz. Watch this woman - and buy her new album which comes out soon! 

Sunday 24 November 2013

Picture Post 21 - Hungarian art nouveau...in Venice!

Venice by Yekkes
Historical scene, Hungarian pavilion, Venice biennale
In 2010 I visited Venice to attend the Architecture Biennale. As you would expect I saw the major sites - San Marco, the Ghetto, the Rialto and many others, all of them beautiful and all known. I also managed to fall into one of the canals whilst taking a photograph. I saved the camera but ruined my favourite coat and had to walk through the streets of Venice, past the Guggenheim Collection building covered in you know what on the way back to my hotel to get washed and changed. So much for being a sophisticated traveller.

Its a good thing I saved the camera from the water as it contained my pictures of one of Venice's less well known treasures- the Hungarian pavilion from the Biennale site built in 1909. It was one of the first foreign pavilions to be built (Belgium got in first in 1907) and was designed by architect and sculptor Geza Maroti. It is instantly recognisable as a Hungarian design from the beginning of the twentieth century with its arched entry, beautiful multi-coloured ceramic tiles and art nouveau representations of historical events. Following the success of his design for the pavilion, Maroti secured a commission in 1912, to design the glass curtain and dome of the Opera House in Mexico City. Tiffany undertook the manufacture of his curtain design demonstrating the prestige of the commission and the prominence of Hungarian artists during this period. Maroti's also designed the very beautiful and recently restored Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.

Venice by Yekkes
Homage to Balissa Balint, Hungarian pavilion, Venice biennale
Venice by Yekkes
Detail ceramic tiles, Hungarian pavilion, Venice biennale
As well as history, literature is referenced in the decorative elements of the pavilion. Poet, Balint Balassa is commemorated in one of the mosaics. Proficient in at least nine languages he was also quite prolific producing love poems, hymns, martial songs and translating works from other languages into Hungarian.

The mosaics were by none other than Miksa Roth who left an enormous legacy in stained glass in Hungary as well as further afield. Amongst other things he was responsible for the stained glass in the synagogue at Subotica, now in Serbia but formerly in Hungary, as well as the cupola in Mexico City's Opera House, working with Maroti. His Venice mosaics were based on drawings by the artist Aladar Korosfoi Kriesch. Budapest born Korosfoi-Kriesch worked in the art nouveau style and was heavily influenced by Hungarian folklore and history. A key member of an artists colony founded at Godollo in 1903, he was instrumental in reviving the art of weaving in Hungary.

The pavilion was damaged during the Second World War and remained closed until 1958 during which time it was partially reconstructed under the supervision of artist Agost Benkhard but was not fully restored until 1984. The Hungarian is perhaps the most beautiful of all the biennale's pavilions with its exquisite decorative features possibly outshining some of the contemporary items displayed inside. Also worth a look is the modernist pavilion of the former Yugoslavia, now used by Serbia and the Bauhaus influenced Israeli pavilion

Detail, ceramic tiles, Hungarian pavilion, Venice biennale
Venice by Yekkes
Historical figure, Hungarian pavilion, Venice biennale 
For more information on Hungarian art and architecture of this period it is still possible to pick up the beautifully illustrated A Golden Age: Art and Society in Hungary 1896-1914. There is also an excellent website called Budapest Architect which is well illustrated and offers guided architectural walks of the city.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Soviet posters of the 1920's and 1930's - Visions of Utopia at the Pushkin House

We defeated the enemy with weapons. We will get bread with work. To work comrades! Nikolai Kogout, 1920.
The Pushkin House in Bloomsbury is the venue for Visions of Utopia - an exhibition of 25 Soviet posters from the 1920's and 1930's, on loan from the Marx Library collection. The posters tell a story of a brave new world as the Soviet Union asserted its identity in the two decades following the revolution of 1917. 

As with many other ideologies, the Soviet Union made use of art to influence, inspire and intimidate the general population into supporting, or at least complying with the regime. The Soviets had the advantage of access to some of the world's greatest artists to create visual propaganda for them, carrying simple but effective messages in a visually stunning format. Furthermore at least for the early years of the Soviet Union, many leading artists were supporters of the regime, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Of course this was to change during the Stalinist period as creativity was largely suppressed and man artists murdered or exiled.

A number of artists chose to devote themselves to the poster format. Perhaps the most influential of these, and the focus of the current exhibition, was Gustav Klutsis. A committed communist, Klutsis had  been a member of the Latvian Red Rifles and even acted as a guard to Lenin at the Kremlin in 1918. He studied at VKhUTEMAS as did many of the leading constructivists, working alongside such luminaries as Kazimir Malevich, EL Lissitzky and architect Vladimir Tatlin. Whilst at VKhUTEMAS he had joined the Communist Party as well as meeting and marrying long time artistic collaborator Valentina Kulagina. 
Komsomol to the shock work of the seasonal sowing. Gustav Klutsis, 1935.
Much of his work was joyful and utopian as witnessed by his 1931 poster Komsomol to the shock work of the seasonal sowing with the young Soviet pioneers on their way to the fields, armed with the technology of the tractor, the red flag and their smiling enthusiasm. But even at this stage the Soviet Union had entered a much darker, more repressive time and just four years later the artist's talents were being used to deify Stalin and not the workers. Long live our happy socialist  homeland. Long live our beloved great Stalin from 1935 takes a very different approach to the 1931 poster. The focus has completely changed from the achievements of the workers to the cult of Stalin on whom everyone and everything has become dependant, hence the adoring gazes of the children, workers and the military salutes. By 1935, the atmosphere in the Soviet Union had deteriorated significantly ahead of the great purge of 1937-38 when thousands of artists, intellectuals and those deemed opponents of the regime - including some of its leaders - were executed or simply disappeared. 

Klutsis himself was to become a victim of the purge, disappearing in 1938 when preparing to attend the New York Worlds Fair. It was not until 1989 that it became known that he had been executed on Stalin's instructions.
Long live our happy socialist homeland. Long live our beloved great Stalin! Gustav Klutsis, 1935.
Posters have long been used to promote a specific issue or event. The Soviets also recognised this and chose to tackle a number of social issues through this medium. The exhibition includes some examples of this - promoting the new rapid transport metro system (one of the Soviet Union's major and lasting achievements), encouraging the miners to work harder and most intriguingly, an undated poster by an unknown artist bearing the legend Anti-semitism is deliberate counter-revolution. The anti-semite is our class enemy. How very true. What a shame that such honourable words were never enacted and that anti-semitism was state orchestrated in different ways for most of Soviet period. It would be interesting to know more about the artist and what happened to her or him.

Gender equality was also depicted through propaganda posters. An example of this from the exhibition is Nikolai Kigout's We defeated the enemy with weapons. We will get bread with work. To work comrades from 1920 (see the top of this post). The poster shows male and female workers contributing equally to building the state, with the hammer wielding women to the foreground. Little is known about Kigout, but he was a prolific artist and you can see more of his work here.

Another one of the earlier posters, from 1925 is stylistically different to the other works. Luke Emelianov's Fight the vermin shows a traditionally dressed peasant threatening a caterpillar and a rat with a book entitled Co-operation. In the early years of the Soviet Union, a small degree of private enterprise was allowed in order to stimulate the economy, but by the mid 1920's this was already being discouraged. The caterpillar represents the kulaks - peasants with small private holdings who became the focus of state persecution resulting in the deaths of millions, whilst the rat represents capitalist private trade. The building to the rear of the poster is a collective farm, shown as the way forward and a way for the equitable distribution of resources. Unfortunately the forced collectivisation of farms also proved disastrous for many.

Fight the vermin. Luke Emelianov, 1925.
My final illustration does not form part of the exhibition but is featured in the book, the Art of the Revolution which is illustrated by posters from the Marx Library collection. Odessa: A Tourist's Paradise dates from 1935 and features the famous Odessa steps, scene of a Tsarist massacre of peaceful protestors in 1905 captured for all time in Sergei Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin. I include it because it shows the possibility of a healthy, happier life during Soviet times, although by 1935 this possibility was limited to very few people and many of those would die in the great purge just a few years later. I also include it because the colours and the optimism of the image remind me of my visit to Odessa in 2009 and of the city's relaxed, seaside feel.
Odessa, a tourist's paradise. Artist un known, 1935.
The Marx Library collection was built up by a number of political activists who visited the Soviet Union in the 1920's and 1930's returning with copies of then current art and propaganda posters with the intention of inspiring the British working class to action. The collection also has posters from Weimar Germany, France and the former Czechoslovakia.

The Pushkin House has an extensive programme of exhibitions, readings, recitals and other Russian cultural activity - much of it free. Visions of Utopia continues until 5th December.

You might also like Moscow avant-garde and constructivism and Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at London's GRAD

Monday 18 November 2013

Besa - a story of honour from Albania

Besa is an Albanian word meaning "faith" but which is sometimes translated as "to keep the promise" or "word of honour". It is also the title of a documentary film screened on the last day of this year's UK Jewish Film Festival which tells the story of how the application of Besa saved the lives of perhaps 2,000 Jews during the Second World War.

When the war commenced, Albania was home to about 250 Jews. By the end of the war, and despite being occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans, this number had increased several times as Albanian citizens took in both fellow countrymen who happened to be Jewish and refugees fleeing from other countries. I was familiar with this story to some extent due to having read Irene Grunbaum's Escape Through the Balkans some years ago, which tells the story of how she fled Belgrade and was given refuge with a number of different families in Albania and so survived the war. However, the rescue of the Albanian Jews is one of the less well known stories of the Holocaust, which no doubt helped attract a sell out audience at the Tricycle.

Besa refers to various rescuers and rescued but focuses on the efforts of Rexhep Hoxha to locate the  Jewish family who they had sheltered during the War and who had left behind three religious books for safe keeping. Rifat Hoxha had expected them to return after the war to collect the books, but when the iron curtain descended on eastern Europe in the late 1940's, the Albanians found themselves cut off from the outside world and no contact was possible. The film shows how with the help of various intermediaries, Rexhep finally manages to track down the son of the rescued family to fulfil Besa and hand the books back - with many challenges along the way. 

The Albanian ambassador spoke before the screening and explained that Besa is an Albanian concept and not peculiar to a specific religion. In the Q@A afterwards, one of the film's producers, Jason Williams, reinforced this saying that Albanians describe themselves as just that - Albanians - not as Muslims, Catholics or Orthodox Christians. He also reinforced how different the behaviour of ALbanians was to most other Europeans during the course of the Holocaust citing Thessaloniki, just one hundred miles from Tirana as an example. Thessaloniki lost almost 98% of its Jews - with many locals happily participating in the roundup.  

Norman Gershom, a photographer who played a significant part in the film's story photographed many of the rescuers and rescued and you can see his work in his book Besa. Many of those involved have passed away since the film was made but together with Gershom's book, it acts as a lasting legacy. A great finale to this year's UKJFF - how did it pass so quickly?

Tuesday 12 November 2013

When Day Breaks - Serbian cinema at the UK Jewish Film Festival

Regular readers will know that I have recently visited Belgrade and that I am extremely fond of both the city and its friendly and welcoming people. So when I discovered that a Serbian film was showing at this year's UK Jewish Film Festival, I was intrigued. It was interesting to recognise Kralja Petr Street and the interior of the Belgrade synagogue in the film - both of which were used as locations. And that recent familiarity with the city added to the experience of watching this excellent film.

Misha Brankov, the central character, is a retired music professor who by chance discovers that he is not who he thought he was. Workmen repairing a water pipe at a former concentration camp in Zemun within the Belgrade city boundaries discover an old tin box containing an unfinished musical score composed by Misha's father and enough information for his true identity to be revealed. His parents, Belgrade Jews, had been amongst the 4,000 gassed within the city itself and had hidden him as a small child with a non-Jewish family who brought him up as their own.

The film, based on a true story, follows his journey of self-discovery and also his determination to honour his father and the other victims from the camp, which had originally been built as a fairground. Questions of identity and belonging run throughout the film. We meet a Serbian woman on the site of the camp and learn that she is a refugee driven out of another part of the former Yugoslavia twenty years earlier and still living in appalling conditions with no help, forgotten. We see a broken former opera singer whose son had been killed during the wars of the1980's and we meet a group of gypsies who are also on the outside of mainstream society. And of course the central character struggles with his "new" identity as well as the prejudices and exclusions faced by older people. His wife is dead, his son has little time for him and so he seeks the company of other outsiders - the lonely, the forgotten, the gypsies.

I do not intend to reveal the outcome of the story, but I will say that this is probably the most moving piece of cinema I have seen in many years. The soundtrack, the dark interiors and the overcast Serbian winter combine to draw the viewer in and it is entirely possible to feel yourself walking in those Belgrade streets and like Misha, seeing people being loaded into the killing vans which were driven from the camp to the city whilst gas was pumped into the van until all were dead. 4000 Serbian Jews were murdered in this way before at least another 32,000 Serbs, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats, Greeks and Albanians were murdered in the camp itself during the German occupation. To this day there is no real memorial to the victims and the film is partly a protest about continued official indifference.

There is an excellent lead performance from Mustafa Naderervic as Misha Brankov (Weiss) whilst the two young men who play the part of the gypsy violinists taught by Misha also shine. Interestingly the many reviews on the internet do not seem to carry their names. Director Goran Paskalejevic has been making films since the late 1960's and has won a number of awards. This film should introduce him to a much wider audience.

More from this year's UK Jewish Film Festival here and here.

Interior, Belgrade synagogue

Saturday 9 November 2013

Fill the Void - a Haredi Jane Austen?

This film was screened earlier this year as part of the Seret Israeli Film Festival. I had a ticket but was ill and could not go. The film was screened again this evening at the Tricycle in Kilburn as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival and I am happy to report good health because I wouldn't want to have missed this a second time.

Directed by Rama Burshtein, it tells the story of Shira Mendelman, a young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) woman who looks set to be married when her older sister dies in childbirth causing the wedding to be postponed as the family is plunged into grief. The child survives and Shira's mother not wanting baby Mordechai to be lost to her begins to think that Shira could marry the widower. The film plays out the struggles each of the leading characters has with this idea.

It is important to note that Director Burshtein is herself a member of a Haredi community and although we have seen other films about the Haredim (Ushpizin, My Father My Lord, Eyes Wide OpenKadosh), this is the first one to have been directed by a member of that community - and a woman at that. Her insights are without doubt the reason that the female characters are so interesting and engaging. We see Shira's mother steering day to day practicalities in the household as well as taking the lead in potential marital arrangements. We also see her aunt, a disabled woman who does not have arms, forcefully putting her point across and playing a formidable part in a key moment. 

Anther interesting character is the rabbi. He is shown to be many things to his community - an advisor, a source of occasional financial help, a listener to those in distress and to be astute enough to not direct his congregants into taking actions that they are not ready for. There is a particularly touching scene when a distressed old woman arrives at his court whilst he is dealing with the problems of the films's main family. When she won't take no for an answer from his assistant he asks her to come in, interrupting the meeting. Her request for help with a domestic matter may seem small but he realises she has no-one to help her and adjourns to provide advice. This is an extremely (and unusually) sympathetic portrayal of a haredi rabbi. Interestingly he does not seem to need to refer to his books to solve people's problems!

For me, the film is about belonging - belonging to a family, to a community and to each other. There are characters who although part of the community are on the outside - the disabled aunt, a widower who has been alone for nine years, an attractive young woman whom no-one wants to marry. All challenge the community in some quiet way. All show that although they are part of one of the most tight-knit and even inward looking communities with an accepted way of doing just about everything, it is still possible not to belong and to feel adrift. Interestingly, it is this that has drawn comparisons between the world depicted in Fill the Void and that shown in Jane Austen novels where there are also clear, fixed and firm rules for everything but where women are also able to have subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) influence on events. Burshtein has said that she is a fan of Jane Austen.

There are many good performances in the film but Hadas Yaron as the central character Shira is outstanding and deservingly picked up an Ophir Best Actress award (Israel's version of the Oscars) for this role. I also liked Irit Sheleg as Rivka Mendelman, Shira's mother and Razia Israeli as Aunt Hanna. The screening was followed by a panel session and Q&A with the film critics of the Times and the Telegraph who made some interesting points. I do think they might need to get out more though. The comments about Israeli films being primarily action movies showed a disappointing lack of awareness for such a prestigious role at the Telegraph.

Fill the Void is to have a UK release before the end of the year. Go and see it.

You might also like Israeli TV drama takes the world by storm and Czech Film Noir at the UK Jewish Film Festival

Friday 8 November 2013

Art nouveau, Ethiopian coffee and a fabulous risotto - a bit more Brussels

Lobby ceiling, Generali Building, Rue Baron Horta
Brussels is just two hours by train from London. Well known for beer, chocolate and sea food, this is a city with much more to offer than those and one which is seriously under-rated. It is an architectural treasure house especially for devotees of art nouveau and art deco, is home to some world class museums and makes a mean cup of coffee too! 

The main reason for my recent visit was to see the Henry Van de Velde exhibition at the Cinquantenaire Museum. Van de Velde was one of those multi-talented individuals that abounded in the 1900-1930 period. He was a painter, an architect, designed furniture and textiles and also turned his hand to writing. Not only was he enormously skilled in these areas, he had received no formal training in most of them and was a self-taught architect. Despite that the boy did well and his legacy is on glorious display in the current exhibition which includes his paintings, furniture, architectural drawings and reconstructions of some of the interiors of his various homes. Born in Antwerp in 1863 he worked in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland throughout his long life. The exhibition also features works by his contemporaries including a couple of interior design pieces by Josef Hoffman and some rather wonderful pointilist paintings by Paul Signac.

Van de Velde's early architecture was in the art nouveau style. One of his contemporaries was Paul Cauchie, who designed the art nouveau masterpiece - Maison Cauchie which stands in Rue des Francs, just five minutes away from the Cinquantenaire. Maison Cauchie was built as a private home, which explains the legend Par nous pour nous (by us, for us) on the building's facade. The facade advertises his sgraffito capabilities in addition to his architectural talents. Incidentally, his wife, Carolina Voet was also an accomplished artist. The couple met when studying at the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The house can be visited once a month - see the website for details.

Facade, Maison Cauchie, Rue des Francs, 1905, Paul Cauchie
Another art nouveau favourite of mine is the Maison de Saint Cyr in Square Ambroix. Built in 1902 and designed by architect Gustave Strauven, this beauty is just four metres wide but is the most striking building in this pretty square. The house is rich in lines, curves and geometric shapes, many of which are provided by the ironwork on the balconies - all of which are different. Just about every inch of the building is covered in decorative detail, colour or ornament. I love the large windows and the circular feature on the uppermost floor. Rather incongruously, a bus stop stands right outside the house, juxtaposing the elegance of fin de siecle Brussels with the busy modern city and people waiting to go to work. The house was completely restored in 2010 and appears to be in excellent condition. What a wonderful place to live!

Maison de St. Cyr, Square Ambroix, 1902, Gustave Strauven
Art nouveau architecture can be found throughout Brussels, including many fine examples in the Ixelles district. The house in Rue du Lac designed by Leon Delune and built in 1904 is an especially beautiful example. In need of some restoration, it still shines with its enormous stepped, glazed facade, which follows the staircase. The glazing is covered in floral motifs as is the "P" shaped glazing on the main door. Delune was responsible for a number of art nouveau buildings in Ixelles in the streets surrounding the ponds, notably Rue de la Vallee and Avenue General de Gaulle.

Maison in Rue de Lac, 1904, Leon Délune.
Maison in Rue de Lac, 1904, Leon Délune
For me, no trip is complete without some quality cafe time, strong coffee and good cake being my not very secret and certainly not guilty pleasure. On this visit I discovered something very special - the Aksum Coffee House in Rue des Eperonniers. Housed in a small and beautiful art nouveau building which sports a huge vintage advertisement painted on the outside wall, this Ethiopian owned and run cafe sells great Ethiopian coffee and a rather marvellous lime cream pastry. Not to mention the pistachio crumble! The smell of coffee permeates the cafe and several types of bean and blend are on offer as is hot chocolate and speciality tea. Although tiny, the cafe packs customers in and also manages to stage interesting art exhibitions. At the time of my visit a series of works from Senegal were on show. A real find and a place to return to.

Aksum Coffee House, Rue des Eperonniers
Still on food, I had the possibly best vegetarian risotto of my life to date in the Bozar Brasserie in the Palais des Beaux Arts - the large Victor Horta designed cultural centre on Rue Baron Horta. A bit of a find - a Brussels restaurant with a really good vegetarian option, my dish was deliciously peppery with sweet potato, artichoke and other interesting vegetables - a cut above what passes in many cities as risotto and great for those of us not fond of meat. The dining room has been lovingly restored to what I assume resembles its original 1928 look with dark wood, steel, hat stands and period lighting and is now in the capable hands of David Martin - a local superstar chef (think Ottolenghi, Stein, etc). He also has a restaurant in Cambodia near Angkor Wat! The Palais itself has a world class programme of music, art and theatre and it is possible to sneak in during the day to view and even take pictures of the public areas.

The Generali Insurance Company stands just across the road from the Palais des Beaux Arts and after looking at it for a few minutes and feeling it to be familiar, I realised it is similar to the Generali building  in Jerusalem's Jaffa Street. The lobby door was ajar and I peeped in to discover the beautifully decorated ceiling pictured at the top of this post. Sporting mermaids, boats, a lion and striped decorative features it was a very lovely surprise. I can't seem to find any details about this building, so as usual any information will be most welcome!

Several European cities have managed to keep their grand shopping galleries from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In Brussels most visitors will find the opulent Galeries St. Hubert a short step from the Grand Place and filled with enticing, if expensive chocolatiers. Dating from 1847, the Galeries also has a great book shop specialising in art and architecture where many a happy hour (and Euro) could easily be spent.

Much as I like these Galeries, they are not quite my favourite - that accolade has to go to the Galerie Bortier in Rue de Madeleine. Opened one year after Galeries St. Hubert, this much less glitzy arcade with its wood panelled walls and glass roof is crammed full of second hand booksellers, antique print shops and a tiny shop selling old maps. It is a browsers paradise and another place where serious money could be spent! Rue de Madeleine has several contemporary art galleries, so after browsing the books, you can browse the art work too.

Galerie Bortier looking on to Rue de Madeleine
One of the best things about traveling is happening on something interesting just by chance. Well, I had one of those experiences in Brussels. Wandering around the centre of the city, I came across an exhibition called the Chocolat Show.  Housed in an old shop unit, it was a temporary exhibition of chocolate tins dating back over many decades. The tins were all from the collection of Yvette Dardenne, who apparently has over 56,000 of them in total! It was a step back into a more stylish time with tins designed to commemorate important events or to appeal to different markets. The collection includes items from Switzerland, Germany and France and even a couple of items from good old Cadbury's. The exhibition will now be closed but you can read more about Ms. Dardenne's obsession here.

Window display of Chocolat Show
You might also like Brussels Art Deco

You can see more pictures from Brussels here.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Czech film noir at the UK Jewish Film Festival

This evening, despite the best (worst?) efforts of London Underground, I reached the Tricycle just in time to catch the beginning of Czech movie In The Shadow (Czech title - Ve Stinu). In the Q&A session that followed, director David Ondricek said he was inspired by film noir, naming Hitchcock as a particular inspiration. That noir influence was obvious throughout the movie with clues, diversions and twists in the tale occurring to the last minute.

Set in Prague in 1953 during the time of a currency devaluation and just five years after the coup that brought the communists to power this detective story makes reference to real historic events. In a very grey 1950's Prague, police captain Jarda Hakl investigates what appears to be a routine robbery with some routine suspects until he uncovers what appears to be an effort by state security agents to frame, detain and eliminate Jewish citizens.

Hakl is an interesting character, played by Ivan Trojan who turns in a terrific performance as a cop with a conscience. The scenes with his young son are particularly touching. Equally impressive is German actor Sebastian Koch in the role of former Nazi officer Zenke who is brought in to help with the case, perhaps demonstrating the easy accommodation Communism was able to make with its former sworn enemy - Fascism. Koch will be familiar to those who enjoyed the excellent German film The Lives of Others from 2006. 

The film makes direct reference to the infamous Rudolf Slansky show trial of 1952 at which eleven people, nine of them Jews were accused and convicted of participating in a "zionist conspiracy" and subsequently executed despite there being no evidence to support the charges. Just five years after the German occupation of Prague was over, Jews were again being hunted and in this case hung in the Czech capital.

The film communicates very clearly the climate of fear that pervaded communist societies - something the director spoke about both before and after the screening  - and how the propaganda vehicle was all pervasive from the slogans of the newspaper seller in Wenceslas Square to the anti-Kulak poems taught to Czech children in school. Equally effective were the efforts of ordinary Czechs to maintain some form of dignity and inner life, shown in the film through the Hakl family listening to classical music on their rather elegant radio, reading Jules Verne aloud to their son and valuing art when money loses its value. 

In The Shadow was screened as part of the first weekend of this year's UK Jewish Film Festival as well as being part of the current Made in  Prague, Czech-O-Slovak film series. It has already picked up a number of awards at film festivals and will hopefully get a wider UK release. If it does - go and see it. A great start to this year's festival.