Wednesday 29 January 2014

El Manisero (the peanut vendor) - a Cuban classic

El Manisero, or the Peanut Vendor will be familiar to many people of my age who were taken to the cinema as a child. It was used as the jingle to advertise, well, peanuts before the film began. It was one of a number of adverts that included Kia-ora orange juice and Frankie's hamburgers (the biggest burger under the bun). It was usually followed by those terribly old fashioned adverts for the local taxi company, the undertakers (!) and my home town's only Indian restaurant.

There are more than 160 known recordings of the song which originates from Cuba and is based on the cry of a street seller. Hugely popular over several decades, El Manisero was the first million selling 78rpm recording of Cuban music and also sold over one million copies of sheet music. Both words and music were written by Moises Simon, the Havana born son of a Basque musician. He started early in the music industry, becoming both organist and choirmaster at his church at the age of nine. At 15 he undertook more technical studies, later becoming a concert pianist and director of musical theatre. Establishing a band, playing piano himself and recruiting several leading Cuban musicians, he toured Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Central America during the 1920's. He formed his own jazz band in 1924 and played in the roof garden of Havana's Plaza Hotel. Simons played piano and Julio Cueva was hired to play trumpet whilst the drummer, Enrique Santiesteban also covered vocals. In the 1930's he lived and worked in France, returning to Cuba in 1942 and then moving to Spain  where he died in 1945 aged just 55.

First recorded by Rita Montaner at the end of the 1920's and you can hear her perform the song by clicking on the panel at the top of this post. The lyrics are based on the Cuban street vendor calling style known as pregon with a son rhythm, incorrectly identified on the record label as a rhumba-foxtrot(!), rhumba becoming a general label for Cuban music during the 1930's. Although officially credited to Simons, there are stories that identify one Gonzalo G. de Mello of Havana as the lyricist , although these are generally discounted.

The 160 plus recordings of the song include two versions by iconic jazz musician and band leader Stan Kenton, first in 1947 with his band and later as a piano solo. El Manisero has featured in several films including Duck Soup in 1933 where Groucho Marx whistled the tune. Cary Grant sang it in Only Angels Have Wings in 1935 and Judy Garland sang a catch from the song in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born.

As well as bringing back childhood memories of going to the cinema, listening to El Manisero transports listeners to Havana in the 1920's with its bars, clubs and wonderful music and the heyday of the Afrocubanismo cultural movement. You can find many versions of the song on CD, vinyl or on-line but listen to the very cool Anita O'Day giving it her take in the panel below. And if you want to sing along you can find the English lyrics here.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at London's GRAD

The Three Million Case, 1926, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
 film directed by Aleksander Talanov
On Friday, I visited the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design (GRAD) in London's Little Portland Street. Stepping inside, I found myself in a world of striking, bold, colourful images from the 1920's as I viewed the 30 posters that constitute the current exhibition - Kino/ Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen.

Cinema was extremely popular in the Soviet Union during the 1920's. Lenin nationalised the film industry in 1919, saying "the art of film is for us the most important of all the arts" recognising the cultural and educational value of the medium and above all, its potential for propaganda purposes. An organisation called Sovkino was established to control the distribution of foreign films - included American films - with profits being used to subsidise local film production. This included films aimed at the non-Russian speaking populations in the eastern Soviet Union and the Caucasus.

Sovkino included a department called Reklam Film, responsible for the production of posters for both foreign and domestic films. Reklam was directed by designer Yakov Rukevsky who sought out and engaged several young artists to create pioneering designs, using strong colour blocking and experimenting with typography to communicate the message of each film. This contrasts with the films themselves which were of course silent and made in black and white.

This period of Soviet cinema which saw the production of classics such as Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and October and Vsevolod Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg also saw the development of techniques such as cinematic montage, repetition, asymmetric viewpoints and dramatic fore shortenings. These techniques were used in producing both the films and posters. The posters were designed for one use only and once the film had been shown, the vast majority were disposed of. Very few remain which makes the current exhibition all the more important.   

Knight's Move, 1924, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
film directed by Raymond Bernard (France)
Outstanding amongst the designers of these works of art, were Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, sons of a Swedish painter who emigrated to Russia in 1896. Both studied decorative arts at the Stroganoff School from 1912-1917. During this time they also worked in the theatre and organised exhibitions. Influenced by the Futurist poets led by Vladimir Mayakovsky, they produced stencils for propaganda posters during the Civil War, including for the liquidation of illiteracy. Can't argue with that!

From 1918-1922 they worked closely with Aleksander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova and the Working Group of Constructivists, further developing their style and carrying out experiments in the use of texture, surface and colour constructions. Throughout the 1920's they worked in theatre design as well as producing a huge body of work across many media from sculpture to architecture and from designing railway cars to women's shoes! However, their most significant achievements were in graphic design, especially film posters. Their wide knowledge of various media was drawn together in the production of about 300 posters, making use of vibrant colour, geometrical shapes and distorted portions and perspectives. Georgii died in a road accident in 1933, whilst Vladimir continued working until 1963 when his sight began to deteriorate.  

The exhibition includes the simultaneous screening of some of the most important films from the era, including Storm Over Asia, made in 1928 and set in Mongolia ten years earlier. It tells the story of a young Mongolian cheated out of a valuable fox fur by a nasty European capitalist. Our hero goes on to joint the Soviet partisans, helping them to force the occupying British troops out of Mongolia. Note the historical inaccuracy - the British were never in Mongolia. Of course, accuracy and propaganda do not necessarily go together and it is interesting that several films were set in Soviet Asia as a way of indoctrinating the local population to the Bolshevik world view. You can watch the whole two hours and five minutes of it, complete with English captions, here. Another example of this genre is Turksib. Made in 1929 and directed by Viktor Turin, it celebrates the construction of the Turkestan-Siberia railway. The poster which was designed by the Stenberg brothers is featured in the exhibition.

Turksib, 1929, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
fim directed by Viktor Turin
Heroes of the Blast Furnace, 1928, poster by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg,
film directed by Evgenii Ivanov-Barkov
The importance of labour and the duty for all to contribute to the economy was a key theme of Soviet cinema. The exhibition includes a number of posters from this genre, including the Stenberg's poster for the prosaically named Heroes of the Blast Furnace. Made in 1928, the film was based on a novel by Nikolai Liashko which revolves around the lives and loves of steelworkers. yes, even here there was space for a spot of romance, as long as it was in the cause of glorifying socialist labour. I have to say, the dramatic images of the Stenberg's poster and the shifty eyed "baddie" in the corner would certainly have persuaded me to purchase a ticket!

Similarly, Mikhail Dlugach's poster for Cement, with its silhouetted figure, eerie red face and dramatic staircase immediately grabs our attention and no doubt helped win audiences for another movie in an industrial setting. Dlugach was born in Kiev and studied at the local art school between 1905 and 1917. He joined Reklam Film in 1924, going on to become a member of the Association of Revolutionary Artists, designing pavilions for exhibitions as well as propaganda posters during the Second World War. In 1958 he was involved in producing the Soviet pavilion at the Brussels International Exhibition. He lived to the age of 95 - surviving many changes in the Soviet Union including the many vicious purges of the Stalinist period.

Cement, 1927, poster by Mikhail Dlugach,
film directed by Vladimir Vilner
2014 has been designated UK/ Russia year of culture. This exhibition is one of the first events in the year long festival. If the rest of the programme meets this standard, it will be a year to remember. Host gallery, GRAD is gaining a reputation for high quality exhibitions - including the recent show of Soviet era travel posters. Londoners are extremely lucky to have small galleries such as GRAD and my favourite, Ben Uri so easily accessible to them. The posters in the current exhibition are the property of Antikbar, dealers in antique posters. Their website is a show in itself!

Friday 17 January 2014

Picture Post 22 - 5 Frug Street, Tel Aviv

Beit Shami, 5 Frug Street, Tel Aviv
Earlier this week I booked my annual Israel visit. As usual, I will spend most of my time in Tel Aviv, my favourite city in the world, and the site of the world's largest collection of Bauhaus buildings. To keep me going until then, and to get through the cold London winter, here is a little reminder of Tel Aviv's architectural heritage.

Tel Aviv has a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for its Bauhaus buildings Frug Street has a number of interesting buildings, but Beit Shami, an apartment block at number 5 is outstanding and forms part of the UNESCO listing. It has a stairwell that stops passers-by in their tracks with its extraordinary external concrete fins that cover the steel framed window behind. The fins are cut diagonally away from the main structure, ensuring that number 5 draws the attention of all visitors to the street, as well as protecting the interior from the strong middle eastern sunlight. I am told that at certain times of day this produces interesting shadows inside the building, thus being both a decorative and functional design element. They also give the building its nickname, the thermometer. I have never yet been able to see inside…maybe next time I am there?

Built in 1936 and designed by architect Yehuda Liolka, the house has stood up well to the extreme humidity, strong sunshine and salt-laden atmosphere of Tel Aviv and has clearly been well maintained - much more so than several of the other Bauhaus buildings in the city.

In addition to the fins (or thermometer depending on your preference!), Beit Shami also has those wonderful Bauhaus balconies designed to give residents some outdoor space and the communal roof area. When these apartment blocks were being built in the 1930's, shared space was provided in order to encourage some degree of communal living, not unlike that practised in the Soviet Union. House committees were set up to make decisions about maintenance and care of the building and to deal with disputes between residents. Today some of these spaces are disappearing, being sold off to allow an additional floor to be built in order to fund much needed renovation and repair to the original buildings. There are strict regulations relating to this, with new build being recessed from the facade of apartment blocks in order to maintain the original streetscape.

The Bauhaus Center at 99 Dizengoff organises weekly guided Bauhaus tours on Friday mornings, several of which include the exterior of 5 Frug Street. For the more independent traveller, or for those who can't make a Friday, you can hire a headset from the Center and take a self-guided tour. So, ticket booked…I just have to wait until June now! 

The thermometer!
You might also like Back to Tel Aviv - Bauhaus, Bialik and Blumenthal and Tel-Aviv top ten 

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Dorel Livianu - a Jewish Romanian musical interlude

Youtube has to be one of the best things about the internet, giving free access to film and sound recordings from all over the world, both current and historical, and enabling serendipitous discovery of cultural treasures. From time to time I like to trawl youtube using random search terms and when looking recently for some information on Romanian Jewish music I chanced upon several recordings by the singer Dorel Livianu.

I have written about Jewish music from Romania before, but Livianu was new to me. Born in Bucharest in 1907 he was something of a child prodigy playing the part of the little trumpet boy in Verdi's Aida at just 7 years of age. He went on to study with Massini at the Bucharest Music Conservatory before being snapped up by Columbia Records and His Master's Voice (HMV). There is a rich archive of his many recordings - the Dorel Livianu Virtual Museum of Audio Recordings also accessible on youtube by searching under his name. I particularly like this recording of Ce face asta sear tu? (What are you doing tonight?), a romantic, tango influenced song recorded in the 1930's in Romanian (you can here it by clicking on the embedded file above). The interplay of the violins with the other instruments and Livianu's phrasing take the listener back to a more elegant time, but one which was drawing to a terrible close.

Although enjoying success in the 1930's with a number of recordings, he was restricted to performing at Bucharest's Jewish Theatre Barasheum  (later the Jewish State Theatre) during the war years when Jewish artists were debarred from other theatres. Things deteriorated further for Livianu when he was deported to a camp in Transnistria for a period of eight months and where he survived due to his fame. Transnistria is a little known part of Europe but one to where more than 130,000 Romanian Jews were deported during the Second World War. The vast majority were either murdered or died due to the appalling conditions whilst the same fate befell man thousands of the Ukrainian Jews who lived there.

Livianu appears to have been more fortunate than many as his wife, Mella Silberstein who he married in 1939 also survived and together they had a child, David Bogdan, born in 1955. After the war, he spent time in both Israel and the United States, but his heart appears to have remained in Romania, hence the creation of the vocal archive which includes recordings in both Yiddish and Romanian. His repertoire was wide and included pop and folk music, tango, foxtrot and romanta - a Romanian genre sung in a poetic or sentimental mood, often to piano and guitar. Another Romanian singer, Marin Teodersecu, known as Zavaidoc, made this form popular between the First and Second World War.

Livianu also recorded a version of the famous yiddish song Romania Romania. This is one of the most widely known yiddish popular songs of the period. You can read more about the song and its history here, as well as hearing some other versions of it. He guested on several top US radio shows, eventually settling there in 1967. The man Colombia Records labelled the golden voice of Romania died in 1997, aged 89.

Dorel Livianu.jpg

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Casa Barragan and Casa Gilardi - architectural masterpieces in Mexico City

Casa Barragan, the former home and studio of architect Luis Barragan was one of the many reasons that drew me to visit Mexico City. I had seen many pictures of the house at Calle General Francisco Ramirez 14, with its pink, red and white roof pillars and cool quiet interiors. I contacted Casa Barragan a long time in advance to reserve a place on one of the guided tours and pored over my map of Mexico City working out how to get there from my hotel in the city centre. Finally, on December 12th last year, I made my way there via the metro and a short walk through the streets of the Colonia Ampliacion  Daniel Garza. 

Casa Barragan is in a quiet, not particularly affluent street, but it is a place of pilgrimage and one group of visitors was leaving as I arrived. There is a small entrance fee and visitors are allowed to take photographs in return for a further payment of 500 pesos, which is about 23 pounds sterling. I gladly paid and am happy that I have a photographic record to remind me of my visit. The money goes to the upkeep of the house.

Coloured pillars on the roof of Casa Barragan
Luis Barragan, perhaps Mexico's most well known architect was born in Guadalajara in 1902. He studied engineering at the Free Engineering School and in 1927 built his first houses in the city. In 1925, he visited Europe and became acquainted with and inspired by the work of Ferdinand Bac. This influence generated references to Latin-Mediterranean influences in Barragan's early work that can be seen in the two houses of his that I visited in Mexico City. He relocated to Mexico City in 1935 and designed several private houses and gardens.

Casa Barrragan was built from 1947 to 1948, on a rectangular plot of land measuring 700 square metres. The house is a compact block with an undecorated and closed facade, intentionally projecting an air of anonymity and acting as a boundary to the external space. The interior is the opposite of this with unusual and interesting visual and spatial relationships as well as sometimes stunning use of light. The house has clear divisions between public and private spaces with a very "public" entrance area and lobby from which the visitor must wait to be invited into other parts of the house. The living areas of the house also have "public" and "private" divisions, with for example a spacious dining room for when guests were invited to dine but also a small, simple, even spartan dining space for when Signor Barragan dined alone.

Screens, stairs and light are used to define spaces and to give opportunities for spaces to serve different functions or have a different feel throughout the course of the day. The ground floor library includes screens (and furniture) made from pig skin that close off areas for study and quiet contemplation as well as a staircase without a bannister leading to the mezzanine level. The rich brown wood, the yellow carpets and the white walls play with the light, changing the mood throughout the course of the day.

A view into the library, Casa Barragan
Dining room and garden, Casa Barragan
Barragan was also an accomplished landscape gardner and Casa Barragan's garden is an important part of the house. Accessed through large windows at the rear of the communal dining room, it is semi-overgrown with tall trees providing shade and again playing with the light. The garden would have been used during dinner parties, the proximity to the dining room allowing guests to stroll in and out, whilst a hidden speaker in the external wall would have allowed them to enjoy music at the same time. Barragan clearly had a passion for music and there are turntables in several of the rooms viewed on the tour.

Other outside spaces play an important part in the feel or emotion of the building. Barragan's studio is accessed though a courtyard which has a small pool, besides which he displayed many ceramic pots, whilst the roof (possibly my favourite area) fulfilled his theory that it should be possible to see the sky and nature from one's home. The roof has been described as a facade looking skywards and is a real symbol of his architectural philosophy. Completely enclosed and hidden from the street, it is an extremely quiet and peaceful space brought alive by the clear view of the sky, the natural sunlight and their effect on those pink, red and white columns. The effect of this had me letting out a deep sigh and thinking I would be happy to stay up there forever. Just imagine spending an afternoon there with a book and a pot of strong coffee (or something even stronger if you prefer).

Window of the studio, Casa Barragan
Barragan complemented his architectural design with careful collection and display of possessions.  The house contains many works of art including pieces by Mathias Goeritz, Jesus "Chuco" Reyes and Miguel Covarrubias. His strong religious commitment is demonstrated by a number of religious paintings including crucifixions. There are books in almost every room and even the careful placing of two vases in the window of his studio is carried out to produce an effect or emotion. 

The house is run as a museum and is the property of the regional government of Jalisco (Barragan's home area)and the Fundacion de Arquitectura Tapatia Luis Barragan. My tour was led by an extremely knowledgeable member of staff who was able to advise me of another Barragan house just a short distance away. Casa Barragan also has a small shop where books, cards and other Barragan memorabilia can be purchased. The house was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004.

Casa Gilardi from Calle General Leon.
Casa Gilardi is a short distance away at Calle General Leon 82. It is a private house but visitors are welcome with an appointment. There is a small entrance fee of 200 pesos. Not only did the staff at Casa Barragan tell me about the house, they also called ahead and put me in a taxi to make sure I got there! Now that's what  call service.

I was met and welcomed at the door by one of the current residents who happily showed me around the areas of the house open to visitors - which is almost all of it as only the bedrooms are kept private. He answered my many questions knowledgeably and thoughtfully and spoke about the wonderful privilege of living in such a beautiful house. He is training to be an architect!

Casa Gilardi was Barragan's final residential project and was built between 1975 and 1977 on a plot measuring just 10 by 35 metres. It contained a jacaranda tree which the client Francisco Gilardi wished to retain in addition to his wanting an indoor swimming pool. Barragan managed to deliver both requirements and as with his own home made use of light and colour to surprise and delight both the resident and visitors. 

One of the highlights of my entire Mexico trip was seeing the small but deep indoor swimming pool at the rear of the house, accessed by a corridor leading from the street entrance. The corridor itself stops the visitor in his or her tracks as a series of vertical apertures filter bright Mexican sunlight onto the yellow painted interior walls and window frames, creating extraordinary effects. And then there is the pool itself with its blue, red and white painted walls and the spectacular effects of the light filtering in from the ceiling. My host allowed me to take pictures and I couldn't believe my luck in capturing the light bouncing on to and along the water, creating a solid white line on the wall and along the surface of the pool. Imagine being able to swim here every morning. If the door from the lobby is left open it is possible to see both the light in the corridor and the swimming pool walls at the  end of it. The residents get to see this every morning!

A trip to the external upper level gave me a view of the courtyard and the jacaranda tree that Francsico Gilardi was so anxious to preserve. And he was right. The tree illustrates Barragan's philosophy of integrating the internal and the external and of bringing nature into the living spaces. It is also visually pleasing with its green leaves contrasting with the pink, white and blue of the adjacent walls.

The narrowness of the building must have challenged Barragan in his efforts to accommodate all of his client's requirements over the three floors of the house. He struggled somewhat over where to place the dining room before deciding on putting it beside the swimming pool. This makes it a focus of the ground floor and also enables the residents and guests to easily move outside to the adjoining patio and the jacaranda tree.  

One of the best things about travel is the occasional unexpected opportunity to see or do something that you hadn't planned on and which proves to be one of the highlights of your trip. My tour of Casa Gilardi falls into that category. And this was my first day in Mexico City!

The jacaranda tree and a rear view of Casa Gilardi.

You can see more pictures from Mexico City here

Sunday 5 January 2014

Villa Seurat - a Parisian secret

I visited Paris in December to see the excellent 1925 quad l'art deco seduit le monde exhibition at the Cite Chaillot. As well as seeing the exhibition I managed to squeeze in a look at some more of the city's wonderful art deco and modernist buildings. Tucked away in the 14th arrondissement, there is a little cul-de-sac, Villa Seurat, full of examples of this architectural style. Built between 1924 and 1926 as homes and studios for artists, and named for the artist George Seurat (1859-1895) Villa Seurat is associated with some of the twentieth century's leading cultural figures.

Maison Double de Frank Townshend,  1Villa Seurat
If you are not in the know, Villa Seurat can be a bit tricky to find. It wasn't listed in the index to either of the Paris maps I have and I must say a very big merci to my flickr friend Yvette Gauthier who not only helped me to pinpoint its location but also provided me with some useful background information. The cul-de-sac is entered at 101 Rue de la Tombe Issoire where the imposing number one Villa Seurat also known as the Maison Double de Frank Townshend stands. A large, corner building, the cement clad Maison has a number of classic art deco portholes as well as what appears to be a double height atelier and a roof terrace. It is the work of architect Andre Lurcat who was also responsible for numbers  3,4 (his own home),5,8,9 and 11. Lurcat was an artist of international standing and was responsible for the design of the iconic apartment block in the Werdbundseidlung in Vienna.

I especially liked number 7a, which was designed by Brussels born Auguste Perret and Israeli modernist architect Ze'ev Rechter and was the home and studio of sculptress Chana Orloff. The building is very striking with its red doors, decorative upper facade and small, recessed windows. It is possible to see some of Orloff's sculptures through the ground floor windows.  I understand that it is possible to visit with an appointment. Next door, number 7, is also interesting. The facade is very simple and completely devoid of decoration, but just look at those recessed windows on the first floor with those blocky surrounds. Great! There is also a slight curve to the left of the door, with just a hint of some of those delicious modernist curves found elsewhere in the city. Incidentally, Rechter also designed one of my favourite buildings in my favourite city - the home of photographer Soskin in Lilienblum Street.

Former home and studio of Chana Orloff, 7 Villa Seurat
7a Villa Seurat
Number 18 also has a history of illustrious residents. Artist Chaim Soutine lived there in the late 1930's before fleeing during the German occupation in the Second World War. The occupiers turned up looking for him to find him gone, instead finding and confiscating the letters of one Henry Miller who had also lived and worked there. The house belonged to Lithuanian born American writer, Michael Fraenkl who rented it to Miller. Miller had a special affection for Villa Seurat, writing "…the whole street is given up to quiet joyous work…every house contains a writer, painter, musician, sculptor or actor…"  He was living at number 18 in 1934 on the day his Tropic of Cancer was published.

Number 11 was home to sculptor Arnold Huggler. This is another favourite with a glazed porthole over the main door, first floor atelier and narrow balcony overlooking the street. It was a dark, overcast day when I visited but it was easy to imagine Huggler and some of his artist friends and neighbours enjoying a summer's evening on this balcony. Other famous artists who lived or spent time in the street include Dali, Derain and Gromaire.

I have been coming to Paris for many years. In 2012 I saw Rue Mallet-Stevens for the first time. A year later I discovered Villa Seurat. I wonder what 2014's treat will be...

Former home and studio of Arnold Huggler, 11 Villa Seurat

Entrance to Villa Seurat at 101 Rue de la Tombe Issoire

 You might also like A tale of three architect part two - Rue Mallet Stevens or Paris a tale of three architects part one

For more pictures of Paris look here and here.