Wednesday 21 December 2022

"We have three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got" - Baazi and the last Bollywood poster painter


"We have about three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got"

I stood in Poster Stuff, a tiny shop in Mumbai's Chor Bazar, trying to decide which of two vintage Bollywood posters to  buy, Baazi or Albela  While I struggled to make my choice, Kaleem, whose grandfather started the business 22 years ago explained that only a tiny proportion of the collection is held in the store. The remainder of it is kept outside the city in Badlapur. I asked him if the shop has a website or a catalogue. "No, he said "We have about three million posters, but we don't really know what we've got". Putting off my decision a little longer, I asked him how his grandfather had managed to acquire so large a collection. He said "He would get to know when a cinema was closing and then ask if they would give him their old posters. Most of them did not appreciate their value and were happy to hand them over. Sometimes he was too late and found that they had already been destroyed".

Kaleem is extremely knowledgeable about old films, although he said he prefers modern cinema. I ran through my list of 1940's, 1950's and early 1960's movies, and he was able to either locate a poster for me or to tell me that it had been sold or sent for auction. "A lot of our business is with overseas dealers" he explained. "We've even sold some at the big art auction houses in London. We also get approached by dealers and collectors to verify that posters are originals and not copies. The National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai recently asked for our advice". 

Chor Bazar is undergoing major change. Many of the old shops have been demolished and replaced by  new structures with residential units above. Some businesses will not reopen when the re-development is complete. I asked Kaleem about the future of the store. He said "If this part of Mutton Street is demolished, we have been promised a new store on the same spot". I hope that promise is kept.

"It's the work of Sheikh Rehman, the last of the hand-painted poster artists"

I made my mind up and chose the poster for Baazi, a Hindi film released in 1951. It was the first crime noir film to be made in India and is acknowledged as a classic of the genre and influenced many films in later years. It was directed by Guru Dutt, who also starred in, wrote, produced and choreographed many classic Hindi films from this period. Baazi, which means "gamble" starred Dev Anand, Geeta Bali of Albela fame, and Kalpna Kartik. It was the second highest grossing Indian film of 1951. At least two other Hindi films, made in 1968 and 1995 bear the same name but tell different stories.

While I arranged to have the poster delivered to my hotel, Kaleem said "actually this is not a poster, but a painting. It's the work of Sheikh Rehman, the last of the hand-painted poster artists", and pointed to the artist's signature. I had heard of Rehman before, but enamoured with the deep reds, blues and downward brush strokes of his work, I hadn't picked up on his name. 

Sheikh Abdul Rehman - better known as S. Rehman - began helping his poster painting father at the age of ten and has continued with this work for more than 50 years. His painting led him to establish friendships with Mother India director Mehboob Khan and Bollywood superstar actor Shashi Kapoor. He also worked with artist MF Husain, one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group who was later forced to leave India following controversy over his depictions of female Hindu deities. A 2015 documentary film,  Original Copy, showed Rehman at work in his studio right behind the screen at the Alfred Talkies cinema. The German made film showed various aspects of his personality - a bit prickly, fond of robust language but with a good sense of humour.

Alfred Talkies was open for business but there was no warm welcome

Kaleem confirmed that Alfred Talkies still existed and was not too far from Chor Bazar,  so with my friend and guide, Ranjana, I made my way to the cinema in Grant Road. This area was once an entertainment hub with many single screen cinemas attracting large audiences for the latest Hindi films. Today few remain and those that do, tend to show re-runs of old movies rather than the latest hits. This part of the city also has a long history of prostitution. As we walked along the road in the early afternoon, many women were on the street looking for customers.  SM Edwards, noted in his 1924 book Crime In India,  that the Ripon Theatre, the precursor of the Alfred, charged a special rate to prostitute patrons - one rupee. This was four times the amount charged to other women. The writer Saadat Hasan Manto lived in this neighbourhood before Partition, writing screenplays and working as a columnist for various film magazines. No doubt several of his characters were inspired by the people he met in these streets.

The cinema stands at the end of Grant Road East, and before we reached it, we passed New Roshan Talkies, another single screen cinema. It is now closed, and at least externally, in poor shape. Despite this, it was easy to imagine its former splendour as the brightly coloured detailing and Art Deco influenced metalwork of the ticket windows has survived. 

Alfred Talkies was open for business, but there was no warm welcome. Just inside the lobby, three grim faced men, arms folded, sat on wooden chairs and told us we couldn't come in, take any pictures or make any films. This was backed up by a series of "don't..." notices displayed on the walls of the once very grand lobby. Stained glass, wooden panelling and several less off-putting vintage notices have survived, but unfortunately I have no photographic record of them. Ranjana explained we were interested in the story of the cinema and would like to have a peep inside the main hall. Despite her best efforts she received a firm "no". She tried again with the ticket sellers, one of whom eventually gave in and allowed us to look into the hall from the doorway, but once again warned us against photography and filming. Inside, the all male audience were watching the 1989 film Ram Lakhan. Tickets are priced at just 20 rupees, about 20p. Unfortunately this was reflected in the poor print and the appalling sound quality. All of the house lights were on, and the restless audience called repeatedly for them to be turned off, which they eventually were. We asked about seeing the balcony but were told it was closed because there were not enough customers.

We were soon bustled outside again and crossed the road to get a better view of the exterior. The cinema was built in 1880, originally as the Ripon Theatre, and the old name can still be seen, engraved on the windows at the upper level. It was one of the first theatres in the city to put on plays in local languages. In the 1930's, in line with changing tastes, it was modified to become a cinema and the name was changed to Alfred Talkies. It is now one of very few single screen cinemas in the city. Many of the older buildings on the opposite side of the road have been flattened and replaced with large, often ugly, "developments" that seem to threaten, rather than to attract. How long will it be before the art works from the Alfred become part of Poster Stuff's collection? 

Alfred Talkies - 174-180, Pathe Bapurao Marg, Grant Road East, Khetwadi, Girgaon, Mumbai.

Poster Stuff - 113 Mutton Street, below Qutbi Masjid, Ajmer, Kumbharwada, Mumbai

Friday 9 December 2022

"The landowner refused to pay us...we had barely enough to live on" - Delhi's Sri Ram refugee colony

The narrow alleys of Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi are full of businesses catering to the long established Tibetan refugee community. Both local and foreign tourists come to visit the Buddhist monastery and to eat in the many Tibetan, Korean and north-east Indian restaurants. A short distance from here, there is a group of less-well known refugees. The Sri Ram colony is home to Hindus who fled Pakistan, not during Partition, but in 2010.

I came upon the colony by chance when visiting a neighbouring Akhada, where traditional Indian wrestling is practised. As I left I noticed an alley leading into a cluster of buildings resembling a village. I went in and although the residents were at first surprised to see a foreigner, they were welcoming and community leader Rajesh Solanki was sent for.  He looked to be in early middle-age and wore the brown kurtha-pyjama typical of rural Sindh in Pakistan. He explained that the people living here had come on a religious pilgrimage in 2010, and then refused to leave. They cited discrimination and religious intolerance in Pakistan, as their reasons for wanting to remain in India, and staged demonstrations at Delhi's Jantar Mantar to draw attention to their plight. 

The Colony is a hotchpotch of solid, brick buildings owned by better-off families and less permanent  structures consisting of metal sheets, tarpaulins and twigs. All of the homes have been built by the residents themselves. Several are unfinished, as many residents lack the resources to complete them. Despite this, there is evidence of ongoing construction and a group of women were laying down a courtyard outside their house. Most homes lack electricity or running water and toilet provision consists of communal male and female blocks. As the colony stands on the floodplain of the Yamuna River, there is a risk of flooding during the monsoon. There are also potential health hazards from mosquitos and from  sewage regularly pumped into the river.   

Some of the more entrepreneurial residents have established small shops selling snacks and sweets. Some of the houses have small shrines attached to them. These are referred to by the residents as "temples". There are displays of religious piety throughout the colony. The Hindu greeting "Ram Ram" is given in preference to the more secular "namaste" and symbols and pictures of various deities are displayed on the exterior of the buildings. Even the name of the colony is that of Ram Ji, the central character of the   Hindu epic,  The Ramayana. 

Chander's Hanuman temple

"The landowner refused to pay us the agreed amount. We had barely enough to live on"

Badal is 39 and from the Kotri district of Sindh. Solanki asked him to show me around and answer my questions. I asked what had caused him to leave the place where he was born and to remain in India.  He said" I owned eight acres of land in Pakistan. It was not enough to support my family and I entered into agreements with a larger landowner. The contract said that we would share the expenses of seeds, fertiliser and other items 50/50 with the landlord, and that we would also share any profits in the same way. We paid our share of expenses but when there was a good profit, he refused to pay us. We had barely enough to live on". Badal also lost his eight acres of land when they were seized by local gangsters. "There were too many of them for us to resist" he said "they were armed and had friends amongst the politicians. No-one would help us".

He used to sell telephone covers and other accessories, but now has insufficient funds to buy stock. He works occasionally as a day labourer but this pays little and is unreliable. His home is in very poor condition - only partially built - and all eight residents sleep in one small room. The situation was made worse by the death of one of his five children at the age of 20, leaving behind a widow and a small child, now being cared for by Badal and his wife. Despite this, he says he feels safer in India and is happier there.


"There was no violence, no threats, but the pressure to convert was always there, every day, in every conversation"

One of Badal's neighbours, Chander, also from Kotri district, tells a similar story. He owned no land in Pakistan and worked as an agricultural labourer to support his family. Again, the landlord refused to pay the contract share and Chander felt he had nowhere to turn for help. The colony's overt religiosity made me curious about faith-based discrimination, or pressure to convert in Pakistan.  Chander said, "There was no violence, no threats, but the pressure to convert was always there, every day, in every conversation. Even in the market. People we thought of as friends would say to us 'why don't you convert? Things would be better for you' ". Chander also has problems in India. He showed me the small Hanuman temple he built at the side of his house. It is collapsing as the land subsides, possibly caused by the sewage being pumped into the Jamuna River just a few metres from his home. "I can't afford to repair this and I'm worried the house will collapse too" he said. 

Two of the women residents told similar stories about pressure to convert. Janaki sat playing with two of her grand-children whilst she prepared a chick-pea dish for their lunch. "They would always talk about converting" she said. Janaki lives in one of the better quality houses. She still has family in Pakistan. Megha, perhaps in her sixties, stood outside her house, cuddling one of her granddaughters. She has ten children of her own - five in India and five in her home town,  Mirfazal Pakistan. She was worried about her daughter-in-law. "She had an accident six months ago and is still in ICU in the government hospital. They won't let me see her. I want to give her soup and nurse her back to health" she said. 

Janaki and her grand-children

Megha and one of her ten grand-children

" assistant often has to go from door to door and bring the children here herself"

Most of the children go to school outside, but there is some teaching goes on inside the colony. A single, windowless room is used for pre-school learning. When I visited, the children were enjoying snacks. I'd seen food provided in a village school in West Bengal, as a way of encouraging attendance. I asked the teacher if this was the case here. "Yes" she said "It's to encourage them to come. Not all of the parents are committed to pre-school learning, and my assistant often has to go from door to door and bring the children here herself". Resources appeared limited but she spoke enthusiastically and was clearly committed to delivering the best for the children. The teacher's and assistant's salaries are paid from Central Government funds allocated to supporting the welfare of women and children.

The older children have access to additional learning in a community hall built with funds from overseas donations. Teaching is provided by NGOs and volunteer university students. The room was clean and tidy. Charts with tricky algebraic formulations and maps of India and the world were displayed on the walls. There was also a row of sewing machines, provided by a charitable organisation and used for teaching tailoring skills.  Although not a formal school, many of the children come here for tuition. I asked some of them what their favourite lessons were. Jalram, aged 11 said, in English, "I like mathematics and Hindi".  Others gave maths as their favourite subject while one said "English". Some of them gathered around the maps, locating different cities and countries. 

More than a decade after their arrival, the situation of the Sri Ram residents remains uncertain. Solanki said "We are hopeful that the new law to assist victims of religious persecution will help us". He refers to the 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act that provided routes to Indian Citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis who arrived in India before December 2014 are eligible for consideration under the Act. Muslims are not included in its provisions. The application of a religious test resulted in sometimes violent demonstrations in various parts of India.

Despite their troubles, many of the people I met spoke about feeling happier in India than they had in Pakistan, and no-one expressed regret at having left. There may yet be a brighter future for Jalram, his friends and their families.

Jalram (hiding) and friends

Where did my dog go?

Some of the residents have opened small shops

Thursday 18 August 2022

Kaunas Modernism

Kaunas in Lithuania has been designated European Capital of Culture for 2022, together with Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia. This post which draws on my earlier articles about Kaunas' extensive collection of modernist architecture and appears in the current edition of Spirit of Progress - the magazine of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia.

Until the 1920’s Kaunas was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920’s and 1930’s changed this and left many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish apartment blocks. This was partly due to the city acting as temporary capital for Lithuania from 1918-1940. Today’s capital, Vilnius, was under Polish rule and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, this new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as the 1940 Soviet invasion, and then the German occupation of 1941-45, preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Independence was not regained until 1990. In the intervening period, many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered, or even demolished. Despite this, Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this about ten years ago and managed to visit the city in 2017. 

Former Post Office, Laisvés 102

Although examples of modernist architecture can be found all over Kaunas, several of them cluster on Laisvės, a tree-lined avenue pedestrianised during the Soviet period and today a place where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. The former Central Post Office at Laisvės 102, was built in 1931. Feliksas Vizbaras’ design combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism, including wide modern windows, convex glass on the façade’s corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet occupation, some of the original stained-glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors also reference folk art. The façade features curves, a flat faced clock in the central section and squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights. The building currently stands empty. Discussions have been held about using it for a museum of architecture but no date has been set for this.

Laisvés 53


Laisvės 53 is another Vizbaris designed building, designed for the Pažanga (progress) publishing company and was completed in 1934. It was owned by the then ruling National Union Party who produced their newspaper, books and journals here. It also had a second-floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift and a roof terrace. The upper floors were accessed by a lift and the large basement contained a meeting room with natural light from skylights made from glass bricks.


As with the Post Office, the façade has varying depths and heights. The central part features three balconies with decorative metal railings that combine folk art with art deco motifs. It is flanked by curved and sectioned windows leading to loggias running the length of the building. The ground floor has large shop windows reflecting its use as a retail space and mirrors the curved elements of the upper floors. Some original features have been lost, including the skylights. In 2017, the upper levels were occupied by Vytautas Magnus University, but today the building is unoccupied.


Vizbaris was born in 1880 and is known to have lived in Ukraine from 1909-1918 where he worked as a construction engineer and an architect. From 1922-25 he headed the construction department of the Kaunas municipality. He later worked on the extension of the port of Klaipėda before emigrating to Germany in 1944.

Former headquarters of milk processing company, Laisves


The building next door to Pažanga was the former headquarters of Lithuania’s milk processing company. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. The exterior is defined by its interactions between vertical and horizontal elements. Each level is marked by uninterrupted panels running the length of the building. The rounded corner has convex glazing descending to the ground floor and main entrance, which is shaded by a wide illuminated ledge, reminiscent of Parisian department stores. This may have helped it to win the Bronze Medal at the 1937 International Exposition des Arts et des Techniques in the French capital. The entire structure is built around a reinforced concrete frame. As with the Pažanga building, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse. 


The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a café, milk bar and the rather fabulous sounding, Muralis men’s hairdressing salon, which extended over two floors. A few pictures of the salon’s interior have survived and show a crisp, functionalist environment with barber’s chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas, a prominent architect of the period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at upper levels – three units to each floor. Several prominent people lived here, including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vincė Jonušaitė, his opera singer wife.  


Romuva Cinema, Laisves 54

During the 1930’s cinema design was heavily influenced by modernism. The Romuva cinema at Laisvės 54 was completed in April 1940. At the time, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitted from the most modern technology including mechanical ventilation and state of the art screen equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. A circle was omitted from the auditorium for the same reason.


The tall, glazed tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time construction was completed and the device needed to provide this feature was held up en-route and so this design element was not realised. The main part of the façade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan was to use the upper level for advertising, but instead, windows were installed to light the office spaces. Numerous changes have been made to the original structure including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. 


Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikūnas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen’s Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Mačiulskis to design their cinema which is still in use today. Kaunas’ other modernist cinemas have not fared so well. The former Daina cinema at Savanoriu 74 is in very poor condition. When I visited the main entrance was bricked up and the façade covered in grime. It was operating as a “gentleman’s club” and scowling security staff stood guard at the entrance. 


Resurrection Church,  Žaliakalnis Hill

The Resurrection Church on Žaliakalnis Hill is one of Kaunas' best known buildings. In 1928, a competition was held to design a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival. The entry from Karolis Reisonas, head of the city’s construction department, was chosen, despite his only placing third in the competition. His original proposal included an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit, but was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost, and a simpler plan adopted. The church is an imposing white structure, supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars. It has towers of differing height, a roof top chapel and can hold more than 5,000 people. For a small fee visitors may take a lift to the roof terrace and enjoy views across the city. Most construction took place between 1933 and 1940. The church was nationalised after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 and during the German occupation it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952, but worse was to come. Stalin demanded demolition of the taller tower and chapel – fortunately this was not followed through. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuania’s regaining independence.

Jonas Jablonski Primary School, Ausros and Žemaičiu streets


The Jonas Jablonski Primary School is opposite the Resurrection Church on the corner of Ausros and Žemaičiu streets. It was the first school in Lithuania to make use of functional zoning, with the sports hall and auditorium located in an inner yard away from the classrooms. It was also the first school in Lithuania to have a swimming pool. Four handicraft classrooms were used to help children acquire skills for working in the craft industries and for managing their future households. The inclusion of these specialist rooms may also have been part of a general commitment to preserving traditional Lithuanian crafts. There was also a large canteen and a private apartment for the head teacher.


The school has an asymmetrical, rectangular configuration with one wing substantially longer than the other. The main junction has a stepped projecting turret – emphasising the corner location – as well as a small balcony above the main entrance which acts as a canopy. The façade is interrupted by a series of wide, red framed windows, contrasting with the blank rear wall of the auditorium. New sections were added during the Soviet period. Today the building is known as the Jonas Jablonski Gymnasium, serving an older age group than the original primary school which was completed in 1932 and designed by architect Antanas Jokimas.

Donelaičio 63


The once elegant apartment building at 63 Donelaičio Street looks a little faded today. It was built in 1932, to the designs of Jewish architect, Geršonas Davidavičius, who was responsible for designing several residences in Lithuania. The block was commissioned by the brothers Dovydas and Gedalis Ilgovskis, who were also Jewish and had a successful construction business.


The symmetrical main façade is animated by rounded corner windows, a long central balcony at first floor level and two smaller balconies with metal railings at the next level up. Towards the summit there is a decorative cornice topped by a parapet. Each floor originally contained two apartments with corridors separating private and common areas. The apartments contained built-in wardrobes as well as servants’ quarters located beside a rear staircase. It is believed that the Ilgovskis brothers maintained a construction office in the building.


Davidavičius, who was also known as Gerson Davids, escaped the fate of most Lithuanian Jews by leaving for South Africa in 1935. Shortly after arriving, he had a serious accident that resulted in the loss of an eye, but he continued working and designed several residential and commercial buildings before emigrating again, this time to Canada in 1959.

A programme of events has been designed to celebrate Kaunas' European Capital of Culture status, offering visitors from all over the world the chance to discover and enjoy the city's busy cultural life and architectural heritage.  Visitors may wish to obtain a copy go the superb book, “Kaunas Architectural Guide” edited by Julia Reklaitė, published in 2017 by Architektūros Fondas, which includes many outstanding modernist buildings. 


I would like to note my thanks to Kastytis Rudokas for his help, support and advice in 2017 and with this article. 

Thursday 28 July 2022

Fré Cohen - the Dutch artist who turned ordinary objects into things of beauty

 “Fré’s work is so interesting. She was skilled in a range of techniques at a time when there were few women in her field and was able to not only promote her beliefs but also to make a living from her work Our exhibition concentrates on her social ideals, feminist views and Jewish inspiration,” says Alice Roegholt, founder and director of the Het Schip Museum in Amsterdam, which is showing an exhibition on the work of the recently rediscovered Dutch graphic designer Fré Cohen.

Fré Cohen at work in her studio, 1934

Frederika Sophia Cohen, known as Fré, was born in Amsterdam in 1903, the oldest daughter of diamond workers, Levie and Esther Cohen. When she was still very young, the family moved to Antwerp in search of work only returning to Amsterdam in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I.


Fré showed skill in drawing at an early age and wanted to be a cartoonist. She also developed an early interest in left-wing politics, perhaps influenced by her father’s connections to Netherlands’ social democrat movement. She attended youth camps organised by the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale, a Social Democrat movement, where she took part in hiking, sports and cultural activities. An image has survived of her at one of the camps, smiling and drawing and surrounded by friends. 

Giro booklet


Despite her artistic promise, it was not until she was 21, in 1924, that she began studying at Amsterdam’s Quellinusschool, first on a part time-basis and later, as a full-time student. She graduated with a Medal of Honour – the first to be issued in the school’s history.  


In 1921 she was hired to design advertisements for the Draka wire and cable factory and later found work with a publishing firm with strong links to the Social Democratic Party. She produced many designs for the party’s printing office, Vooruitgang (progress), and received commissions from trade unions, socialist youth movements and the magazine The Proletarian Woman. She depicted workers in a positive way, showing them as strong and capable, rather than downtrodden victims.


She went on to work for the Amsterdam municipality’s printing firm but left in 1932 to become freelance. She was so successful that by 1933 she was living in her own studio. Her nephew, Ernst Waltemathe, who later became a leading Social Democrat politician in Germany, recalls visiting “my rich aunt” in her studio and receiving gifts from her. 

Brochure for the Social Democrat Party's youth organisation, 1925

Postcard for Amsterdam city cleaning department, c1931

Ex-libris for actress Marie Hamel, 1932


Her work was varied and included book bindings, ex-libris, illustrations, postcards, calendars, playing cards, posters and pamphlets, as well as woodcuts and linocuts. Examples of all are included in the exhibition and show a range of influences including art deco, art nouveau and the Amsterdam School. 


The Amsterdam School movement had been founded by Jewish architect Michel de Klerk at the beginning of the 20th century with the aim of improving the living conditions of the working class. The Het Schip Museum, which is devoted to preserving and promoting the work of the movement, is one of his buildings. Fré not only shared his politics but was one of the leading graphic designers associated with the movement. 


Many of the artworks and objects she designed found their way into the homes of ordinary people, where they have survived until today. “When we announced the exhibition, many people visited us, bringing items that she had designed. We thought they wanted to donate them to us, but no, they just wanted us to see these things that they have treasured for so long,” said Roegholt.


City of Amsterdam coat of arms, 1930

Cohen was not afraid to work in different mediums or new formats. In 1934 she wrote “Each new technique is welcome: book print and lithography, offset and rotogravure. It’s just a matter of choosing the right technique suitable for the product we wish to create.” She exemplified this by making three-dimensional works including boxes and scale models. She also pioneered statistical graphics, in which data is presented with icons rather than numbers. This work included brochures for Schipol Airport and the Amsterdam port, using pictograms to show the growth in passenger numbers and cargo. 


Her reputation spread, and in 1934 the Midlands Master Printers Association invited her to give a series of lectures in the UK. Her subject was ‘Modern Lay-out in Holland,’ and she designed an invitation card especially for the lectures. The December 1934 edition of the Association’s magazine reported that “The lectures were both interesting and helpful and everywhere well attended”. In her presentations, she outlined the history of Dutch printing and spoke about new technology within the industry. 


Fré also explained her design philosophy saying, “My task is to create solid books, to make beautiful printed matter. The ordinary articles we use every day should be things of beauty”. She managed to provoke a minor controversy. The same article reported on her, “…friendly criticism of William Morris’ work, that the decoration tended to become more important apparently than the text” and how this provoked questions about her own use of white space within designs. 


Although Fré enjoyed work, she also liked to have fun and in 1934 took her first holiday in an artists’ village in Ascona, Switzerland. She wrote to a friend describing the town’s bohemian atmosphere saying “…there are vegetarians of all kinds (and) don’t be shocked…principled nudists”. She enjoyed the town’s café culture and painted watercolours there, some of which feature in the exhibition.

Greetings to eternity - watercolour by Fré Cohen

Anscona landscape by Fré Cohen

In the 1930’s her work increasingly showed Jewish influences. Hebrew letters appeared on her ex-libris, magazine covers and political posters. In 1933 she began working with an organisation assisting Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. It was there that she met writer, journalist and poet, Joseph Gompers. She designed two ex-libris for him. One, from 1934, shows a ploughman and Hebrew text which translates as, ‘the day is short, and the work is much’. The other, produced in 1936, shows a body crushed by a swastika and the words, ‘Ex-libris antisemitism’ in Hebrew.  It was intended for Gompers’ collection of books on antisemitism. The two friends would sometimes go for walks in Amsterdam’s Jewish neighbourhoods. Gompers wrote about these walks in the Nieuw Israeliëtsch Weekblad magazine, under the title Wanderings in Little Jerusalem. Fré contributed the illustrations. 


In 1940, Germany occupied the Netherlands and in October of that year, legislation was passed dismissing Jews from government employment. Fré’s commissions from the municipality ceased but her private commissions continued, including some teaching work at the WH Van Leer Jewish Applied Arts School above the Hollandse Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre). 


In the summer of 1942, the theatre began to be used as a holding point for Jews before deportation. The exhibition includes a photograph taken that year, showing her with a group of the students, and wearing a large Star of David on her coat. 


Life became increasingly dangerous for Dutch Jews, and in 1942, Fré went into hiding, staying at various houses in Amsterdam, Diemen, Rotterdam, Winterwijk and Borne. She continued to keep a busy routine, working on private commissions under the pseudonym ‘Freco’. The exhibition includes playing cards and illustrations for children’s books produced during this period. She also went for walks – running the risk of being recognised and arrested. This troubled her friend, Rie Keesje-Hillebregt, who hid her in Diemen. In a video recording in the show, Rie says, “She dyed her hair red…but she still looked very Jewish.” 


Fré still had hopes and ambitions but was clearly aware of the danger she faced. In 1942, she wrote, “I still have plenty of plans, sketches, and drawings at the ready, for after the war, if we ever live to see the end of it. You sometimes begin to doubt it.” She was right to doubt. On  9th June, 1943, she was captured in Borne and quickly took the poison she had been carrying for such an occasion. After two days in a coma, she died in hospital in Hengelo on June 12th. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery there.


After the war, she was largely forgotten, but in recent years interest in her work and life has grown. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum has a large collection of her graphic works, some of which are included in the Het Schip exhibition which is being enthusiastically received and attracting crowds. Perhaps, more importantly, many of those ‘ordinary articles’ that she designed as ‘things of beauty’ have survived, and are treasured, in the homes of people all over the Netherlands.

Fré Cohen, outside Amsterdam Central Station, c1935

Fré Cohen, Form and Ideals of the Amsterdam School runs until 30th October 2022 at the Het Schip Museum.

An edited version of this article, with additional illustrations, appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Jewish Renaissance Magazine.

All images are reproduced with the kind permission of Het Schip Museum.

Tuesday 12 July 2022

"We are the last generation" bringing in the catch at Angeiras

"We are the last generation" said Dona Fatima. She was perhaps 70, quick to smile and happy to talk. I noticed her as I passed by the fishermen's cottages of Angeiras, a small town just 15 kilometres from Porto. She sat in the open doorway of her family's storage unit, waiting for her husband to return with the catch. Her family have fished here for generations but as she explained "The young people don't want to do this work. It is hard and dangerous, they want to do other things".

Dona Fatima

The grey, sea-fretted morning reminded me of my home town on England's north-east coast, where there was once a thriving fishing fleet, but where today there are only a handful of boats. It also reminded me that there is no guarantee of sunshine on Portugal's Atlantic coast during June. The importance of fishing  to Angeiras is emphasised by the paraphernalia stored along the pathway at the edge of the beach. Nets, baskets and flags used to mark the pots left at sea are piled up waiting for use or repair. A black and white cat roamed the nets, looking for tasty scraps and grew angry when one of the locals stroked her tail. Other less active (or maybe less hungry) felines dozed, waiting for the boats to return, knowing they would be thrown the rejected fish from the early morning catch.

Year-round fishing began here at the beginning of the twentieth century  Prior to this, activity was seasonal and related to agricultural work. Small crabs and seaweed were gathered for use as fertilisers. Today's fishing activity includes the catch of pout, bass and octopus. According to a sign on the beach pathway, the sardines and shrimps caught here are considered to be the best in Portugal. The beach is known as Praia des Pescadores, or, the beach of the fishermen.

Dona Fatima was not the only one waiting for the boats. Small groups clustered around the cottages, talking, smoking and hoping that there had been a successful morning's work. Most of the people I met were in their sixties or older, all of them friendly, talkative and happy to be photographed (thank you Signors Salvador, Fonseca and José). Most of their families have been involved in fishing for generations but one young man said he had previously been a carpenter. Corsino Benjamin's uncle was a fisherman and he decided to join him some years ago. Since then he has remained working with the uncle, his aunt and his own wife, Eugenia, only occasionally practising carpentry. 

The boats come in one by one. They are first brought to the water's edge and then pulled along the beach by tractor. In the past this task was carried out by villagers who dragged the boats in by hand. One boat had recently been painted and left a colourful trail on the sand.  Once the boats were sited, the village women emerged and quickly began sorting and cleaning the fish, preparing it for sale at the nearby market. Meanwhile, the men checked and repaired the nets - there is a clear division of labour with "men's work" and "women's work".

Few of the men were happy and most reported a poor catch. Aurelio, also in his sixties said "the fish here were once plentiful but not today". He was removing the small fish that had become stuck in the net, rejecting most of them and throwing them to the waiting cats and seagulls who rushed forward to pick up the treats. From time to time squabbles broke out between the birds as one hungry gull tried to snatch food from the beak of another.

Signor Aurelio

Signor Salvador
Signor Fonseca

Signor José

Angeiras has several places to eat. The street behind the fishermen's cottages is lined with cafes and restaurants. Most of them specialise in fish and sea food but good coffee and the ubiquitous pastel de nata can also be found at the Doce Mar (sweet sea) cafe. On the day of my visit, numerous backpackers sat outside the cafes, some of them in pairs, most of them alone. All were participants in the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, heading for Santiago de Compostela in Spain.There is also has a small but busy indoor fish market where hoteliers, restauranteurs and local families come to make their purchases. The market boasts two delicatessens that sell local cheeses, meat and wine. 

Dona Olindina was selling shellfish from a tiny stall outside one of the restaurants. It's hard to believe she can make a living from this and I wondered if it's something she does in order to keep active and to remain in contact with other people. She nodded and called out "bom dia" (good morning) in response to my greeting. After asking me about my work and family she became philosophical "I'm 82 now. I've bought a plot for my burial. My husband is already there. I don't think we (humans) are really from here. Maybe we are from heaven and when we die we go back there". 

Dona Olindina

I don't often find myself in front of the camera, but I was accompanied in Angeiras by José of Picture Photo Tours in Porto. He assisted me in engaging with the people I met and also took a few shots of me, including the one below, in which I am a little directive! Details of his services are available here.

Monday 6 June 2022

Picture Post 73 - An Art Nouveau Warehouse in a Porto Alley

Last week in Porto, each morning at 10.30, I had coffee and a Pastel de nata at the C'alma Speciality Coffee Room on Rua de Passos Manuel. This small cafe is tucked away on the ground floor of the Porto Commercial Athenaeum gentlemen's club, established 150 years ago and which today hosts occasional concerts and group tours. On my last morning in Porto I took a different route to C'alma and discovered a piece of the city's history.

Just a few steps away from my morning coffee, I noticed a single storey building with an art nouveau facade. The Depósito de Sola e Cabedaes is the former warehouse of what was once once an extremely successful shoe parts supplier. The company was founded in 1887 by Adriano Vieira da Silva, whose name is inscribed on the decorative tiles at the top of the facade. These premises were inaugurated in 1917 and are an example of late art nouveau. The design features floral flourishes, classical references with small pillars and discs, and stained glass windows, the colours of which brighten when they watch the sun. The building incorporated modern design ideas including skylights that maximised the use of natural light and air circulation equipment which helped prevent deterioration of the stock. This approach was carried through into service and the staff were known to be polite and knowledgeable.

Da Silva was born in Santarém in 1869 and came to Porto at a young age, initially finding work as a clerk. He went on to establish a successful business and to have a career in politics. He was a member of the Portuguese Republican Party and a close friend of its leader, and three times Prime Minister, Afonso Costa. From 1919-1926, Da Silva served as administrator of the Gondomar municipality, just outside Porto. 

The April 1917 edition of the Illustraçáo Portuguesa magazine marked the inauguration of the premises saying "we can consider today that this is the biggest and most complete (shoe parts supplier) of Portugal and all of the Peninsula". An extensive range of products was offered, including leather, suede, soles, glues, laces, buckles, waxes, polishes and insoles. The company was the main supplier for cobblers, leather workers, bag makers and other artisans. 

Over time low-priced competition from overseas and the decline of the tanning industry in Portugal impacted on the business and it closed its doors for the last time in 2016. The building appears to be well maintained with only a small amount of graffiti but stands empty, in a side-alley, waiting to be brought back into use. Similar premises in Porto are now serving as cafes, restaurants or cultural venues. I'd happily have my coffee and pastry in the old warehouse on my next visit.

Sunday 17 April 2022

"We slowly lose our hearing because of the noise" - Stories from Bangladesh

Much has been written about Chittagong's notorious ship-breaking yards. Their appalling safety record and working conditions have been the subject of numerous documentaries. The owners, not welcoming this kind of exposure, no longer admit visitors. Dhaka's Karaniganj ship-repair yard is less well-known and attracts little media attention. This may be why I was able to enter unchallenged, look around, take photographs and talk to the workers, despite the presence of several managerial staff. No-one seemed perturbed by my being there, and there were no problems with photography. One of the supervisors even asked me to take his portrait.

I noticed the noise from the yard well before I reached the gate. Hundreds of small hammers chip away the rust from the ships' sides, releasing toxic particles into the air and damaging the workers' hearing. Other hazards include chemical fumes and extreme heat. Some of the men wore hard hats but most  worked without protective gear. 

I asked some of the men (I saw only male workers here, unlike at Mirpur)  about the lack of safety equipment and the impact of the work on their health. Ripon, aged 32 and a Dhaka native, said "When I first came here I had a headache every day. I'm used to it now and I don't get them anymore, but we slowly lose our hearing because of the noise". Shahin, a welder, aged 30, said "I have goggles and a mask but I can't wear them. It's too hot and it gets difficult to see". Like several others, he also reported having respiratory problems and headaches. Shahin had dreams of a better life. "I wanted to work in Singapore" he said. "An employment broker asked for $4,000 to find me a job there. I took a course in welding and then borrowed the whole amount to pay him, but he disappeared with the money and now I have a debt. I have a wife and two small children and life is very difficult". 

Many Bangladeshis work overseas and send money back to their family to pay off debts, to improve their living conditions, or to educate their children. Unfortunately stories like Shahin's are not unusual including in the UK. Last year the British Government published a warning about employment scams that target Bangladeshi nationals.

Back in Karaniganj, the ships are drawn up onto the muddy banks of the heavily polluted, and in places, foul-smelling Buriganga river. A few hundred metres from the water, behind the ships, there are small houses where many of the workers and their families live. It is here that new propellers are made. Visitors venturing this far need to tread very carefully as they pass red hot metal and open fires, trying not to breathe in the steam, smoke and sulphurous air, while avoiding areas of soft, sinking ground. None of this seems to trouble the workers or the children, or the goats and dogs that live, play and wander around in this area.

Some of those children are themselves employed here. One 18 year old painter told me he started work in the shipyard when he was 12. He was one of very few wearing some kind of protection - a thin scarf covering his mouth and nose. He removed it and asked me to take his picture. There are reports of children as young as five or six carrying out some of the tasks but I did not see this when I visited.  

Amidst the mud, noise and noxious fumes there are occasional scenes of beauty. I saw a young man climb down from a ship, his movements delicate and precise, like those of a dancer. As he descended he made shadows and shapes on the freshly painted, vivid red ship. He swung and stepped from one narrow wooden platform to another, manoeuvring by the rope used to secure the wood to the ship. Elsewhere groups of three or four men stood on similar structures, removing paint or adding an extra coat. Like their workmates, they make about $5 per day. A little further on, water poured from the rear of one of the ships. A labourer waiting close-by, appeared to be standing under the water - taking a shower fully clothed. But this was a visual trick and no water touched him.

A couple of hours in the shipyard was enough for me. It was hot, my head ached, my eyes were itchy and I'd pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to block the dust and fumes. Just before leaving, I was offered a drink at a small tea stall near the exit. I joined a group of workers, taking a break, drinking chai and eating snacks to give themselves a little more energy to complete their shift. They wanted to know my name, where I am from and what I was doing there. I don't speak Bangla but was able to use some of my limited knowledge of Hindi, which surprised and amused those who understood it. Many of them were not from Dhaka but had moved there to find work. Most of them had left school aged 10 or 12. They joked with each other and we spoke about football, films and family before they went back to work and I went back back to my hotel. 

You might also like "There is no work without hard work"  or The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalpur from the Stories of Bangladesh series.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here

Follow me on instagram at @adrianyekkes