I shall be speaking at the event Where Do We Go From Here? The Paths to Liberty and Heritage, 27-9 August 2021 at a venue in the Midlands. The topic of my talk will be about preserving traditions and heritage in a time when academia, heritage and culture organisations, elected politicians and the press support the increasing politicisation of the arts. I will be presenting some alternative ways of thinking and ways to form networks and systems that will encourage greater intellectual and artistic independence from the state. The text will be entirely new; there are no plans to publish it or to record the talk. A limited number of copies of my books “Culture War” and “Iconoclasm” will be available for purchase at the event and I can sign copies. I’m happy to meet and talk with attendees.
Find details, general information and booking details here.
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Before Billy Wilder was Billy Wilder of Hollywood, feted director of Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Lost Weekend, he was a jobbing journalist in Germany and Austria. He filed copy on entertainment, celebrity gossip and popular culture, all the while honing his keen humour and sharpening his critical eye.
Born Shmuel Vildr (Samuel Wilder) in 1906 in Poland, Wilder’s family was in the hospitality trade. During the Great War, the family moved to Vienna. Circulating in the demimonde of Vienna, as a teen, Wilder frequented bars, cafés and cinemas. He hustled at pool, attended boxing matches and people watched. At hotels where prostitutes took client, Wilder daydreamed about the life stories of the clientele. His family’s unclear national status in a fragmented inter-war Europe meant that Wilder relied on his wits rather than (as a non-citizen resident of Austria) entering a prestigious career that required qualifications. He fell in with journalists socially and his familiarity with the worlds of theatre and cinema put him an ideal situation to take work as a freelance journalist and critic.
Inter-war Vienna and Weimar-era Berlin were exciting tumultuous places, pulsating with creativity and risk. Modernism in the arts, the expansion of cinema and the movement of artists, writers and musicians across Europe made the artistic fertility palpable. Art Deco, jazz and the rise of the New Woman (economically and sexually liberated) declared a rapid and seemingly irreversible change in city life. Political violence – including street violence and assassination – was common and added heightened intensity to daily life.
Starting in September 1925, Wilder wrote for Die Stunde, Berliner Börsen Courier, Berliner Zeitung am Mittag, Der Querschnitt, Die Bühne and other publications. In 1926 he got an assignment to cover an American big band (roughly, the rock bands of that era) touring Germany and Austria, which took him to Berlin. He would stay in Berlin until 1933. The young journalist quickly realised that the key to his craft was treating his reporting as stories, “classically organized in three acts […] never boring for the reader”. Editor Noah Isenberg describes Wilder’s feuilletons (cultural essays). “Wilder’s feuilletons often took the form of jaunty, mordant, self-stylized personal essays; on occasion they read a bit more like the pointed writing we find on today’s op-ed pages.”
Billy Wilder on Assignment (adroitly edited by Noah Isenberg and vividly translated by Shelley Frisch) covers Wilder’s six years as a journalist/critic and is organised thematically. It includes theatre reviews and social commentary. One piece describes the nascent commercial flights industry. He covered musical performances and tours of pop celebrities such as the Tiller Girls dance troupe. His opening line was “This morning, thirty-four of the most enticing legs emerged from the Berlin express train when it arrived at the Westbahnhof station.”
“Waiter, a Dancer, Please!” is a description of Wilder’s stint as a paid ballroom dancer. The author’s sardonic attitude shines through the terse prose. “In the ballroom. Packed, Cigarette haze. Perfume and brilliantine. Preened ladies from twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mamas with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families. The jazz band on the upper level is slouching over their instruments and bobbing to the rhythm. Aside from the banjo player, who is looking down, bored and mouth agape, at the couples as they jump, grind, chuff, and hop.” Paid dancers act as companions to strangers, drinking and dancing for hours on end in a blur of boredom, exertion and alcohol. “I dance with young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than I […] with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savor the tango with eyes closed in rapture […] with ladies who are there every day and no one knows where they’re from and where they’re going.”
His interviews are of the famous and humble: actors, musicians, tycoons, statesmen and the oldest woman in Berlin. He interviewed Grock, the Swiss clown, and a self-proclaimed witch who was hired to perform spells to promote commercial products and reassured Wilder that (in relation to her curses) “criminal charges would never stick”.
Wilder flew to Venice in an early commercial flight in winter 1927. “Americans are bent over newspapers as big as bedsheets, a newlywed couple is eating whipped cream with a spoon, young Venetians with wavy hair are playing Briscola, two others are playing Italian billiards.” He is underwhelmed by the shabby Genovese birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Wilder also experienced the innovation of a night-time passenger flight on a three-engine aeroplane at a time when zeppelins were offering my sedate and expensive journeys.
Wilder’s gift of the humorous insight sparkles in these short texts. He writes of a dry cleaner “embalming” his coat. He laments the eradication of a coffeehouse’s history when a woman decides to redecorate. “Women, with their horribly deficient sense of history, which manifests itself in such a blessedly disastrous manner as a love of tidiness and cleanliness.” He notes how the French buy books because they are cheap but “Germans buy a book with the same seriousness used to buy something like a shirt. Durability is the key.”
The brief notices of theatre performances and films that appear in this collection show the future director scrutinising and judging a field he would later master. Pointed criticism indicate that Wilder was already imagining how to solve technical deficiencies. Sadly, most of subjects are too obscure for the non-specialist reader to evaluate his critiques from first-hand knowledge. He describes early developments in talking pictures.
In 1929 Wilder co-wrote the film Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), a silent film shot in Berlin. “We worked on our film for nine months. It was a rotten time. It was a lovely time.” Made on a low budget with first-time actors and one camera, it was based on Wilder’s observations of Berlin life. It captures the brief window of Weimar Germany, with all its modernity and romantic hedonism, including many passages of documentary footage of street scenes and working life. Back in 1927 he had written of being camera shy and disliking his appearance on film. (“My legs seemed somewhat overly crooked – most likely a problem with the lens.”)
Menschen am Sonntag proved to be Wilder’s ticket out of journalism. He started writing and directing films and abandoned journalism in 1930. With the ascension of Hitler in 1933, Wilder departed Germany, first for Paris and then for Hollywood, already with numerous cinematic credits to his name. The editor notes how some of Wilder’s written assignments made tangential appearances in his later films. Readers will have fun picking out elements, traits and incidents in these lively witty texts and attempting to match them with Wilder’s later cinematic masterpieces.
Billy Wilder, Noah Isenberg (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, Princeton University Press, 1 June 2021, cloth hardback, 212pp, £20, ISBN 978 0 691 1 94943
Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) was a wealthy Russian textile merchant who is best remembered today for his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist art. In this biography, Russian art historian Natalyam Semenova seeks to resurrect the man who made the collection. Morozov is often spoken of in conjunction with his famous compatriot, businessman and supporter of the French avant-garde Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). In many ways, their fates were intertwined. Both were Muscovites who made their income from manufacturing and trading, both visited Paris and met avant-garde artists personally and bought their art at the start of their careers. Both had their collections and properties confiscated by the Soviet government upon the 1917 Revolution without compensation. Both men died in exile in Paris.
Shchukin has been honoured and understood better (not least with a big exhibition of his collection 2016-7 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), now this biography fleshes out the elusive figure of Morozov. (Semenova previously wrote a biography of Shchukin.) Evidence is that Morozov was deliberately reticent about his private life, giving only a single interview towards the end of his life. (It is reprinted in full here.) He seemed camera shy and averse to publicity. This biography coincides with an exhibition of the Morozov collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (22 September 2021-22 February 2022).
The Morozovs were descended from an Old Believer family of serfs who had made their fortune making and selling fabric over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Ivan’s mother was Varvara Khludova (1848-1917) of another wealthy cloth manufacturing family, the Khludovs. She married Abram Morozov (1839-1882) in 1869. Ivan was born in 1871. The marriage was cut short by Abram’s death through tertiary syphilis, a painful, humiliating and untreatable death. With a considerable legacy, the widow Morozov immersed herself in charity and philanthropy, especially for educational causes and treatment of the insane. Semenova paints the life of immense wealth, Russian Orthodox observance and civic duty in late Tsarist Russia, using quotes from the memoirs, diaries and letters of the participants. The benefits of wealth were attended by the duties of arts patronage and social fixtures.
Mikhail Morozov, Ivan’s older brother, was a noted biographer and critic. He was also an enthusiastic collector of new Russian painting and the first prominent supporter of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), a Symbolist who made paintings on historical, literary and religious subjects. A voracious glutton and drinker – as well as an impetuous collector – Mikhail Morozov died in 1903, but his legacy as a collector was taken up by his brother Ivan. The third brother Arseny, died in 1908 following a drunken shooting accident.
Ivan Morozov studied chemistry at Zurich University (1892-4) and painted landscapes to relax. He took classes from Konstantin Korozov (1861-1939), Impressionist landscapist. Ivan worked in the family’s mill (Tver Textile Mill Company) but art collecting became his overriding passion and pastime. Following his brother’s example, Ivan started buying paintings in 1900. It seems Morozov was influenced in his collecting by connoisseur of modern painting, Sergei Vinogradov, a landscape painter. Unlike Shchukin, Morozov purchased art by Russians. These included famed Russian Modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Chagall, who need no introduction to Western art lovers but other figures are less familiar, some of whom belonged to the Wanderers Group (Peredvizhniki). Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), whose landscape paintings can best be described as tonalist in character, died young. Valentin Serov (1865-1911) was one of Russia’s great realists, capable of painting truthfully and with panache. He was a famed portraitist who developed a bravura manner, inflected by realism. His portrait of Morozov is on the book cover. Vrubel was also another artist Morozov collected.
However, it is for his collection of Ecole de Paris that Morozov is best remembered. He bought art by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh (Night Café (1888)), Renoir, Cézanne, Maillol, the Independants (Post-Impressionists) and the Fauves. Morozov bought La Grenouillère (1869) by Renoir, an outstanding early Impressionist painting. He paid a very hefty 200,000 francs for a total of six Renoirs. He developed a passion for Gauguin paintings of Tahiti. He even progressed (cautiously) to freshly made and aesthetically challenging paintings by Vuillard, Bonnard, Picasso (the Rose-period Young Acrobat on Ball (1906)) and Matisse (still-lifes and Moroccan scenes). Profits from manufacturing uniforms for the catastrophic Russo-Japanese War of 1905 gave Morozov vast wealth to spend.
In total, Morozov bought 486 paintings and 30 sculptures. The sculptures included ones by Rodin, Maillol and Matisse. However, not all his collecting was of the highest discernment. His (early) taste for bar scenes of the demi-monde led to the acquisition of a large number of scenes by forgotten non-entities of voguish Cosmopolitan Realism (Guignet, Lempereur, Lissac, Morrice). To house this collection, he built a mansion in Moscow and commissioned Maurice Denis to paint mural panels. Denis travelled to Moscow to install the work, which proved a disappointment as the artist had not properly assessed the setting. Shchukin weekly opened his home to art lovers, allowing them a glimpse of the most advanced paintings that Paris had to offer. These experiences would help form the outlook of the Russian avant-garde. Morozov, in contrast, kept his mansion closed and his personal life secret.
“Can we see Shchukin and Morozov as competitors? Hardly. There were no instances of one poaching a painting from the other, although in respect of some artists their tastes coincided almost entirely. The main difference was in their approach to collecting. Morozov preferred to ‘wait, rather than rush in and make mistakes’, as Boris Ternovets put it. He was incredibly discriminating and thorough, carefully considering which work of each artist he would choose as representative, where exactly he would hang the canvas, and how it would fit in with the others. Sergei Shchukin gave not a moment’s thought to such matters.”
The Great War led to disruption to Morozov’s business and the general society. Travelling to Paris was out of the question. Come the 1917 revolution, Morozov’s mansion was occupied and his art confiscated by the state. Not that the state was sure what to make of the non-realist art – partly a daring strike against convention and partly bourgeois degeneracy. But it was property that had, at least, monetary value. Gangs of Communists and Anarchists stole, defaced and destroyed valuable art, books and furniture, ostentatiously demeaning the property of their former social superiors. Morozov initially stayed on, attempting to protect the collection which was no longer his. For whatever reason, he fled the USSR in 1919, travelling with his wife and daughter. He died in 1921, his (unwilling) contribution to Russian (and Soviet) culture went unrecognised.
Semenova narrates the crude and capricious treatment of the collection in the Soviet era. Morozov’s mansion was turned into a museum, with one floor converted into flats. The collection was later split up and moved. The Tretyakov Gallery got the best of Morozov and Shchukin’s collections. In 1933 a number of paintings were sold to provide valuable foreign currency, leading to the sale of Van Gogh’s Night Café, eventually to join the collection of Yale University – a matter of recent litigation.
The book includes an index, family tree and endnotes. The book is well illustrated with period photographs and a colour-plate section shows some of the masterpieces of Morozov’s collection. This book is a tribute to the commitment of a patron of the arts and a timely warning about the arbitrary power of the state to destroy and mishandle material that would have been better protected by a private owner.
Natalya Semenova, Arch Tait (trans.), Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, Yale University Press, 17 November 2020, hardback, 288pp, 29 col./27 mono illus., $32.50/£25, ISBN 9780300249828
“The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus…”
Humour is one of the things that is difficult to judge and transmit, especially across cultures and eras. Consul, rhetorician and sceptic, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was also famed as “one of the two funniest men in history”[i]. Both in the Senate and the law court, Cicero was notorious for being hardly able to contain his wit and hold back his barbs when it would have prudent so to do.
Michael Fontaine, editor and translator of this selection of Cicero’s texts relating to humour, presents comedian Mark Saltveit’s assessment of stand-up comedy. Improvised spoken comedy is dependent on context – exploiting a mood or spiking a person’s transitory attitude – and that comic sensibility cannot be taught, even if turns of phrase, delivery, timing and so forth can be imparted and improved upon. Fontaine has gone for a deliberately broad translation (rather than a literal or detailed one) in order for us to get the mood and meaning.
Cicero wrote that he thought humour was hard to analyse and impossible to teach. He divides spoken humour into – on one hand – quips and retorts and, on the other, prepared routines. The quickness of quips dazzles and that in itself adds to the delight of listeners. “In general, our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs, for two reasons: (1) the quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and (2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”
In oratory, making the audience laugh is advantageous because (1) people side with you, (2) “Everyone admires a zinger”, (3) “It crushes an opponent: trips him up, ridicules him, deters him, defeats him”, (4) “It shows you that the orator himself is sophisticated, that he’s educated, urbane” and (5) “It eases hurt and breaks the tension”. He writes about adopting the manners and argot of the city or country to make a humorous point.
As for boundaries, Cicero says the only rule is “THOU SHALT TELL NO UNFUNNY JOKE”. Even deformities can the subject of ridicule, according to Cicero. The sort of humour he admires can be cruel. “When a friend was wailing that his wife had hung herself from a fig tree, the Sicilian said, “Any chance I could get a few cuttings from that tree to plant?””
His examples are – regrettably – not very funny, notwithstanding the difficulties in cultural and linguistic distance from us. “A: What are you crying for, dad? B: What, I should be singing? I just lost my case in court!” (Sound of crickets here.) I guess it’s the way you tell them.
The best is as following: “[…] Soldier, Titius, liked to kick a soccer ball around at night ad was suspected of breaking some important statues. When his friends why he hadn’t shown up for his platoon’s morning workout, Terentius Vespa quipped, “Oh, it’s okay – he said he broke an arm.”” “A: In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? B: A slow one.” Not bad.
How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor is not a source book for best-man speech jokes. However, it is a useful reminder that while wit – and admiration for wit – is constant, jokes are rarely as durable. Wit can also be dangerous, as Cicero found to his cost. “Cicero was hunted down and murdered twelve years after publishing this treatise […] by Mark Anthony, a politician-turned-warlord that Cicero had roasted in a merciless series of political speeches.”
Sextus Empiricus (fecit c. 200 AD) was a sceptic of the Pyrrhonist Empiric school. Sextus is an important writer because of the extensive body of his writings which not only survived but also influenced founders of the Enlightenment. Sextus followed the teachings of Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BC), who supposedly travelled to India on Alexander the Great’s campaign to the Indus, where he met Buddhist and Ajñāna holy men. There are no claims to Sextus being an originator but of being a notable late exponent of Pyrrhonistic thinking, which was known for its radical scepticism in place of advocating a positive worldview. Although the Pyrrhonist school is not considered Stoic, its ataraxia (imperturbability) is a detachment common to Stoicism, Ajñāna and Buddhism.
Richard Bett has selected some of Sextus’s writings in How to Keep an Open Mind, mainly consisting of extracts from Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Sextus presented scepticism not a philosophy but as a method of questioning knowledge and received wisdom. “The skeptical ability is one that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of the equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment, and after that to tranquility.”
The weakness of the setting up of a series of oppositional propositions in order to establish equilibrium is that it allows the sceptic to excuse himself from taking a qualified position in favour or opposing a proposition that has a predominance of evidence undermining it. It can become a system to insulate the sceptic from committing and – in a sense – even engaging fully. However, Sextus was aware of this trap and advised using the technique to question theories of reality and knowledge, rather than applying such analysis to matters of daily life. In a similar way, we can see Post-Modernists ignoring their own principles when it comes to living life and only applying deconstruction of language in the fields of politics, philosophy and intellectual pursuits and then only when advantageous.
Bett offers Sextus as a model for detachment in an age of polarisation. “[…] if we don’t try to go all the way with Sextus, but still take his method seriously where we can, we may find something useful. To conclude: if Sextus can serve as a model for us, it is perhaps as a model of willingness to look at all sides of any question and not to judge things too quickly – something we could probably use more of in the present state of the world.”
Sextus outlines the method of scepticism and why it is used. “We say up to now that the skeptic’s aim is tranquility in things to do with opinion and moderate reactions in things that are forced on us.” “Arguments to Have up Your Sleeve” is a section dedicated to 15 modes or approaches that allow sceptics to undermine claims to certain knowledge. Sextus warns against inductive reasoning because it is not inclusive of all examples, which allows a degree of uncertainty about the universality of conclusions drawn from induction. Sextus provides a touchstone for the sceptical position generally in late antiquity.
As is usual in the series, extracts of text in the original language faces an English translation, with introduction, glossaries and footnotes in English. These handsome little hardbacks continue the series in a set format with attractive designs and thereby extending Princeton’s library of the ancients.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, Michael Fontaine (ed., trans.), How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, Princeton University Press, March 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 292pp + xxxiii, English/Latin text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6165
Sextus Empiricus, Richard Bett (trans.), How to Keep an Open Mind, Princeton University Press, April 2021, hardback, 225pp + xlviii, English/Greek text, £13.99, ISBN 978 069 120 6042
Livres d’artiste should (theoretically) be the most available of art, being more common than artist’s prints and cheaper than a drawing or painting, at the time of the book’s publication. Paradoxically, artists’ books are actually art works that are the least accessible and most difficult to understand. The high price of the books, their rarity and difficulty of access make artists’ books some of the least familiar of art works. Individual drawing, prints and paintings are exhibited and reproduced frequently; artists’ books are displayed partially, usually without accompanying text. It is rarely possible to exhibit a whole book and it is almost impossible to handle an expensive artists’ book. This is especially true for the books of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). With some Matisse volumes selling for over $500,000, there is virtually no chance for anyone other than a rich collector or a privileged researcher to handle such books.
In Matisse: The Books, Louise Rogers Lalaurie outlines the contents of each Matisse’s eight artist books, designed and published over a period of 18 years. The following books are described, analysed and reproduced (in part): Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies, 1930/1932; Dessins, Thèmes et Variations, 1942/1943; Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours, 1942/1948; Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes, 1943/1950; Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, 1943/1944; Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, 1947; Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises, 1946; and Jazz, 1947.
The books were published by gallerists and art publishers, such as Albert Skira, Martin Fabiani and Tériade, always designed to be sumptuous productions offered to art collectors and bibliophiles. Matisse was very closely involved in the production of the books, offering guidance and criticism to master printer Roger Lacourière (for Jazz, Edmond Vairel, Draeger Frères and Angèle Lamotte) and publishers. The delays between Matisse finalising the designs and art and the publication dates were due to the exacting technical demands of working with high-specification printing, sourcing suitable materials and the difficulties of production during wartime. (Only two of his books was printed during the Occupation of France.) In each chapter, Rogers Lalaurie describes the book, discusses the contents and selection of text, explains the personal significance of the text to Matisse and leads us through the production process. The covers and selections of pages of each book are illustrated.
Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies (created 1930, published 1932)was illustrated with flowing arabesque lines in etching (black ink). It is redolent of the Nice period of languid nudes and women in elegant clothing. Matisse’s recent Tahitian journey and the design for the Barnes mural La Danse appear in two designs. His Baudelaire is drawn close up – forceful and intense; Poe is withdrawn, melancholic. The text is reproduced in part, allowing us to appreciate the care put into the whole production. “Unlike Picasso, Matisse was determined to avoid any hint of a frame, even using copper plates larger than the page size in the final book, so that no indented plate mark would be left on the paper during printing.” The success of the book aesthetically must have encouraged artist and publishers to return to the field.
Regarding Poésies, an error of authorial approach is evident. Once again, I caution authors against imposing their current sensibility on speech of the past. Translating Matisse’s word nègre as “a Black man” (rather than the historically accurate “negro”) makes the artist writing in the 1940s sound like a progressive prig; misrepresenting the speaker does both the speaker and readers a disservice. If the word was good enough for Ralph Ellison (a black author, writing in the 1940s and 1950s), it is good enough for a translation of Matisse’s contemporaneous comments. Authors and publishers, trust readers to have the worldly sense not to view historical subjects as racist on the basis of the language of their times.
Dessins, Thèmes et Variations (created 1942, published 1943) is a selection of linocut, lithograph and photo-lithographic reproductions from Matisse’s art and is something of an exception in the artist books in that consists of material that was essentially pre-existing re-made for the purposes of inclusion in the book. It was made as defiance against the Nazi Occupation of France and the Vichy regime, containing Modernist art, decadent themes and a text by Louis Aragon, prominent Communist intellectual. Themes are the reclining woman (Lydia Delectorskaya, his assistant), portraits and still-lifes; the drawings in charcoal, pencil and ink-line, were photographed and reproduced through lithography. This is more of a portfolio summarising Matisse’s artistic position in 1942 than it is a genuine livre d’artiste, especially considering the pre-existence of illustrations as standalone works. The definition of an original artist’s print is that it should come into existence through the making of the print and not be a reproduction or transcription of an existing art work.
Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours (created 1942, published 1948) was published with 126 lithographs, in an edition of 360 copies. The drawings are elegant and pleasing and some – especially p. 187, “je veux…”, a woman’s profile woman as the closing image – are gracefully beautiful. Flowers and leaves dance around the typed text. The elegance of the text and images do not undercut the seriousness of author and artist.
Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes (created 1943, published 1950) marks a departure. Matisse handwrote the texts of Charles d’Orléans’s poems, which he had selected. The poems were printed on unbound folded sheets with drawings in lithography, some with drawn cartouches around texts. The designs include heraldic fleurs-de-lys. The print format on single sheets suits poems of 12 to 17 lines. The book was made in 1943 but not printed until 1950, using multi-colour lithography. Matisse apparently identified with Charles, who had been given up for dead upon a battlefield before being recovered from the bodies. Matisse had a brush with death in 1941 when he survived an operation for cancer. Charles subjects of exile and ostracization also struck a chord for the artist, who had been condemned by Nazi occupiers, Vichy collaborators and French traditionalists.
Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, (created 1943, published 1944) was a play and a prefatory text by the author. The linocuts present the simplicity of Matisse’s designs within blocks of black. The illustrations were in black, as were the bandeaux; the lettrines (initial capitals) were in scarlet. The author – a patriot and war-hero of the Great War – came to Matisse’s studio to sit for portraits. It was the only time Matisse engaged with an existing text by a living author for the production of a livre d’artiste.
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, (created 1944-6, printed 1947) is the only book by Matisse that misses the mark. It is a failure of tone, as Alfred H. Barr noted. Matisse lacks the intensity, the power and the ability to produce material that is scabrous, sordid, dirty and ugly. The degradation of the Spleen section is completely outside Matisse’s range. Matisse selected only less rebarbative and pungent poems, providing each with a portrait (29 female, four male) and some abstract tailpieces. By selecting in order to match his outlook and capacity as an illustrator, Matisse effectively seems to misrepresent Baudelaire’s scope and intentions for Les Fleurs du Mal, deliberately avoiding the more difficult verse.
Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises (created 1945, published 1946) is a set of letters ascribed to a Portuguese nun, written to her distant lover, a French diplomat. These passionate letters have been considered to be an epistolatory novel, so well do they present a narrative of desire, loss and grief. Matisse’s lithographs (printed in dark purple) are portraits of the nun (a 14-year-old local girl modelled) and designs of leaves and fruits work effectively. The natural forms add drama and punctuate the gradual changes in emotional register of the portraits.
Jazz (created 1943-6, published 1947) is unique among Matisse’s livres d’artiste in that is composed entirely of his words and images. Matisse’s handwritten text outlines his outlook, technique and aesthetics. The striking 20 colour planar prints – made by the pochoir (stencil) method – mirrored Matisse’s advances with the cut-out method, which consisted of colouring sheets of paper or card with gouache and cutting them with scissors, “drawing with scissors”, as Matisse put it. The motifs broadly relate to dance, music and performance (circus, trapeze acrobat, knife-thrower, sword-swallower, cowboy, swimmer, lion) but include natural forms of leaves, ripples, explosions and those that seem to be of sculpted women. The edition was 250 bound copies and 100 loose copies, the latter which were ideal for framed wall display. Matisse was initially disappointed by the print quality of the illustrations but eventually was reconciled to the book once he heard of its positive reception. Jazz remains the most famous and distinctive of Matisse’s books and its illustrations have become famous, commonly reproduced in books and as posters. Fittingly, it was his final book.
Full-page illustrations (including page edges), double-page spreads and cover images give readers a sense of handling and reading the books. The text is informative and explains the significance of the texts. The design and production quality of Matisse: The Books is high, with the best examples of the artist’s books being used to furnish illustrations. This book is highly recommended for fans of Matisse and livres d’artiste. For mere mortals, other than getting access to facsimile editions (themselves not cheap) Matisse: The Books is the closest we can come to handling Matisse’s books.
It would be a great service to enthusiasts of classic Modernism and artists’ books if Thames & Hudson were to publish Picasso: The Books, probably as a multi-volume work.
Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Matisse: The Books, Thames & Hudson, 2020, cloth hardback, 320pp, 237 illus., £65, ISBN 9780500021682
[Image: (right) John Craxton, 1997. (c) Matthew Thomas]
The recent biographies of Bacon and Freud return us to the post-war milieu of Soho and Fitzrovia. A significant artist from this period was John Craxton (1922-2009). He was a luminary of the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and early 1940s, which sought to depict not so much the events and characters of heroic myths – and the pastoralism of historical past – as to evoke an atmosphere of a pre-industrial age, at times bucolic and primeval, by using milder forms of pictorial Modernism. Like Freud (with whom he had a close but short friendship), Craxton was another well-connected boy wonder in London’s constricted wartime cultural scene.
According to Ian Collins’s new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts (not to be confused with a separate 2011 monograph on Craxton by Collins), Craxton had an unsettled childhood and a patchy education, spending time in Sussex, Dorset and elsewhere. He visited Paris in 1939 in search of contact with modern art and attended the Louvre. He took a few classes at the Académie Julian but was essentially self-taught. He was picked up by a publisher in 1940 and his Neo-Romantic illustrations provided him with an entry into the art world. Influenced by Samuel Palmer, Craxton’s early works are monochrome drawings and graphics on paper with paint in muted colours; they feature figures in densely drawn landscapes.
Craxton was part of the (not exclusively homosexual) circle around millionaire collector Peter Watson in that setting that included Freud, Cyril Connolly, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton and Kenneth Clark. Craxton was homosexual himself and – like many in the Fitzrovia/Soho sets – did not disguise the fact. Craxton fell in with Freud, a contemporary misfit and another enfant terrible of the Fitzrovia set. They met in 1941 and became inseparable until 1947. Both were engaged by pastoral landscapes and the figure, made portraits, admired realism but produced faux naïf art. Collins recounts with élan the pair’s hijinks in bombed London. They worked side by side in their shared Abercorn Place flat, sometimes working on pictures together, sometimes drawing each other. Their styles and subjects overlapped noticeably and it is hard to distinguish a leader and a follower. Later, some of the works in Craxton’s possession were sold as Freuds, much to the latter’s displeasure.
Watson paid for Craxton to attend life-drawing classes at Goldsmiths College. When he taught there unhappily and unsuccessfully, for only a term. The future art forger Tom Keating responded badly to being corrected by him. Craxton and Freud worked alongside Sutherland on the South Wales coast. Craxton’s range was expanding from ink drawing to conté-and-white-chalk on tinted paper (animal still-lifes, very close to Freud’s) and oil paintings. These have slightly less intensity and detail than Freud’s but have better overall composition and cropping and are slightly more pleasing as pictures.
The Greece that Craxton first visited in 1946 had not begun recovering from war, occupation and civil war. There was a civil war between nationalists and communists ongoing at the time, which would eventually see the communists defeated. Craxton had already acquired an affinity for Greek cuisine in Soho and thought that a hot dry climate would help his health. (Unbeknownst to him, he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in London, the cause of constant weakness and inability to put on weight.) The sunshine and good food of Greece inspired Craxton the man, restoring him to health. His new surroundings were immediately evident in his paintings of coastal views, still-lifes, landscapes and figures (mainly sailors, objects of attraction). His landscapes are heavily derived from early Miró.
Craxton went to Poros – lauded by Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis and Henry Miller – where Freud joined him in September 1946. “Lucian would remain in Greece for five months during which he produced the most beautiful work of his life. John never really left, in every sense finding himself in Greece.” Freud painted Craxton and himself, largely deprived of portrait subjects, and made still-lifes of fruit. Craxton was painting simplified townscapes, using the smooth surfaces and subtle brushwork the pair liked. They tapped Lady Norton, wife of diplomat Sir Clifford Norton, in order to sustain themselves in necessities.
Planning a joint exhibition of their Greek art, the pair returned to London in time for the severest winter of the century in Britain, exacerbated by a chronic fuel shortage. Craxton went to Crete in autumn 1947 and responded strongly to the mixture of Greek culture and Minoan art and architecture. Craxton mingled with shepherds and lived in the mountains; he also courted danger by seeking out bandits. Crete would become the centre of his imaginative world and he would henceforth live and work in Crete and London.
The London Gallery showed Craxton and Freud together and separately. Craxton sold well and was more prolific than Freud. Craxton’s scenes of Mediterranean life offered the deprived, ration-bound residents of Great Britain a sunny escape. Wyndham Lewis thought his pictures to be lightweight: “a prettily tinted cocktail, that’s good but does not quite kick hard enough.” While Craxton’s Picasso-inflected art of scenes and people of the sunny South struck a chord and found collectors, they came be viewed as increasingly out of step with the age of Existentialism and the Geometry of Fear.
In 1951 Frederick Ashton invited Craxton to design the set for the Covent Garden production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloë. Craxton formed a close but short-lived friendship with lead ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who visited Crete, accompanied by Ashton. The production was considered cutting edge for its modern dress and décor, only receiving full appreciation after it had closed.
Craxton settled in Chania, a port on the coast of Crete. In 1955, Craxton’s penchant for sailors caught him out. He was accused of being a spy who had informed on a gun-running operation to Cyprus. As a foreign bohemian who travelled to London frequently, had links to the British Embassy and caroused with Greek naval men, Craxton was an obvious suspect. It was not true but the suspicion lingered even after his death. Craxton came to speak demotic Greek well and became involved in preserving Cretan heritage, which was disregarded by locals, especially when buildings dated to the Muslim occupation. Once he was suspected of harbouring antiquities. Craxton announced, “I have absolutely nothing Greek (ie antiquities) in the house except men and wine.”
Exhibitions at Mayor and Leicester galleries met collector demand. His art developed modestly. The curvilinear style that Picasso and Braque used was also found in Minoan murals. The mixture of Modernism and ancient art turned to decorative ends also incorporated Pop Art. The Butcher (1964-6) shows the influence of Patrick Caulfield, Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction, with its emphatic straight outlines and planes of uninflected strong colour. Breaking up surfaces into parallel lines of alternating colour (such as Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67)) the appearance of a tapestry. It is not coincidental that at this time Craxton was examining Byzantine mosaics.
[Image: John Craxton, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67), oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm. (c) John Craxton Estate.]
His apparently impressive retrospective in 1967 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery confirmed his ability and the pleasure-giving capacity of his art and also his definitive distance from the critical consensus and fashion. During the Greek military junta (1967-74) Craxton went into exile, considered an undesirable by the regime. He wandered the ports of the Mediterranean in search of a substitute utopia. In 1973 a compensation came in the form of Richard Riley, who became his romantic partner for the rest of Craxton’s life.
When a group of drawings by Craxton and Freud surfaced, Freud disputed them, claiming they had been tampered with. He threatened the gallery with a lawsuit but the exhibition went ahead in 1984. The friendship, which had become distant over the years, was now dead. Freud’s capacity for grudge-bearing and feud-starting was legendary. Although the exhibition was a success, Craxton was hurt by Freud’s anger and Freud’s cutting remarks lingered in his mind until he died, according to friends.
However satisfying the art from the 1940s and 1950s is, one might find a lack of development in Craxton’s production disappointing. He was ultimately somewhat conservative in nature and timid. In his Neo-Romantic work, we see Samuel Palmer resuscitated with Miró and Picasso – all of whom laid out the styles and devices Craxton would use. It is true that not all artists must be original to be dazzling or wonderful, but greatness requires an essential forcefulness and daring, which Craxton lacked. Anyone painting in the 2000s as he did in the 1950s is someone who has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist.
Another travail of old age was the incident when Craxton was drugged and thieves stole art from his house – including a Miró and a Sutherland. The thieves did not take any Craxtons. “Never losing a sense of humour, he claimed to have been not only robbed but insulted.” His final years were spent in London, where he died in 2009. His ashes were taken to Crete. Shortly before his death, he consented to be interviewed by Ian Collins for this biography and a monograph on his art. Collins has done well to search out personal acquaintances and track down photographs of the art, artist and his circle.
Elements of Craxton the painter remain a little elusive. Did Craxton write statements about his art, have a diary or pen useful letters? How productive was he? Did he destroy much? Did he disavow or criticise any of his work? What was his taste in art made by others? Although Collins adds a little near the end about Craxton’s routine and practices, readers may wish for more time inside the artist’s studio and his head. Yes, the art is enjoyable but did Craxton have strong ideas about what art – specifically his art – should do and not do?
These cavils should not deter anyone interested in Craxton and his art from reading this thoroughly researched, attractive and vivid biography.
Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press, 11 May 2021 (UK)/22 June 2021 (USA), hardback, 384pp, 160 illus., $35/£25, ISBN 9780300255294
Jonathan Freedman is a professor at the University of Michigan, who has published critiques of literary Modernism, high and low culture and the role (and perception) of Jews and Judaism in Anglo-American culture. The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity is a study of Jewish creators played a role in fin-de-siecle Modernism and the Decadent Movement, in the process coming to be identified with vanguardism and all the connotations of formal progressivism and moral turpitude. Freedman appears to agree with Potolsky’s suggestion that “[…]“decadence” is perhaps the first transnational, cosmopolitan literary/cultural formation in the West […]”.
“As Jews entered European and Anglo-American cultures in the long fin-de-siècle, they faced a vexing dilemma. When they confronted decadence the cultural movement, they also encountered decadence the cultural smear: the claim that Jews were themselves exemplars, if not bearers, of cultural and social decline. With roots in German philosophy and support from the burgeoning eugenics movement, with an impetus from reactionary political movements and from established medical authorities, the identification of Jews as decadent took two opposing forms. On the one hand, they were seen as decayed representatives of a declining race, atavistically clinging to their outmoded rituals and superseded faith. On the other, they were identified as citified, hystericized, sexually dysfunctional avatars of a degenerate futurity.”
The author takes the fin-de-siècle to be 1870-1920, somewhat broader than purists would prefer, but it does permit the inclusion of Jewish precursors and retardataire followers of Decadent movements. It also allows him to include early cinema and Proust.
How much importance Jewish people have as instigators or participants in the avant-garde is a very open question that will never be fully answered. Is a Jew as an outsider (if we are to accept that Jews are indeed outsiders, which is a thorny issue) naturally more open to the unusual, the strange, the disturbing or the extreme? Why should that be? Is it just a matter of timing, with the influx of Jews into civil society and wider Western European culture dating to the series of emancipatory acts of the 19th Century, coinciding with the decadent phase of culture pre-1914? The deracinatory effect of expansion of the suburbs, industrialisation, mass mobility, dwindling religiosity and social emancipation, combined with relative civil stability and improving prosperity, necessarily gives rise to the pleasure-seeking phase for the urban elites – the anomie that Durkheim writes of in Suicide – and the degree to which Jews contributed to that (rather than simply following the trend and embodying the zeitgeist) is something that Freedman cannot answer. To be fair, such a vast question is not even formulated by Freedman.
“Decadence was, to be sure, largely a high-cultural phenomenon; indeed, its promotion of art t a near-cultish status may be said to have served as a powerful reaction-formation to the rise of mass culture.” Although, Freedman goes on to note that the sensation value of creators such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Moreau made them figures of popular currency and allowed them to reach audiences through non-high-cultural means. Much of that knowledge was second hand and indistinct – along with the understanding of Decadence and related movements as a whole – but it was clearly not secret or forbidden knowledge. One could say that such high-art forms as atonalism or automatism did not reach a mass audience at the time, even though the material was nominally accessible to anyone who wished to acquire it. It is the sensational quality of Decadent art and the moral peril to consumers and producers – and by extension to society more broadly – that fired the imagination of the general population at a distance.
Jews played a prominent role in the art trade, involved in the promotion of avant-garde art. Berthe Weill, Charles Ephrussi, Paul Cassirer, Alfred Flechtheim, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Wilhelm Uhde, Murray Marks and the Bernheim, Durlacher, Wildenstein and Rosenberg families are just a few of the most successful Jewish dealers who played a part in the marketing of Modernist art. Likewise, Jewish collectors heavily bought in the field. Regrettably, Freedman does not dig deeper into what it meant to be a Jewish vanguardist in the visual fine arts.
The question of what a people with a strong visual tradition but lacking a distinct school of pictorial art will do when they move into a secular society causes us to consider the neophilia of the more adventurous members of the vanguard who were also Jewish. Is it unreasonable to see Jewish neophilia in secular culture as an attempt to shape and claim a portion of a new territory as a response to a notable absence of Jewish influence in a long-standing national culture? This situation is separate from (though it is undoubted related to) the issue of the difficult negotiation of the loss/reward balance that comes with assimilation into host societies.
We should not overlook the drive of the Westjuden to distinguish themselves from their Ostjuden cousins. There was an ambivalent attitude of the urban dislocated Westjuden in Western and Central Europe towards the rural Ostjuden with long-standing links to the land and traditions, whom they viewed with a mixture of sentimental religious reverence and repulsion at the crudity and poverty of their lives. For the Westjuden, the prohibition against image-making had been loosened, whilst (famously) painter Chaïm Soutine fled his Lithuanian shtetl because he was beaten for making images in his youth. One freedom and way of distinguishing the sophistication of the Westjuden was art making.
Freedman devotes a chapter to support by Jews for Oscar Wilde, including the commissioning (by William Rothenstein) and execution of his tomb (Jacob Epstein). Wilde proposed to Charlotte Montefiore (a Jewess) after the death of her brother (Leonard), to whom Wilde felt particularly close. Wilde would patronise the disgraced Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), who had to retreat from public life after two prosecutions for homosexual acts and ended up an alcoholic inhabitant of a workhouse. (Freedman suggests an affinity between homosexuals and Jews as outsiders in the Victorian period, although without overstressing the point.) Wilde’s American theatrical tour and admiration for socialism brought him into contact with Jews in both fields. The Leversons, who took in Wilde during his trial, were steadfast supporters. Reggie Turner (an acculturated Jew) who was one of Wilde’s closest companions and was with Oscar’s deathbed. Freedman notes Turner’s ambivalence about his Jewish ethnicity and absence of Judaic belief; identified as Jewish by others, he oscillated between an adopted Anglicanism and anti-Semitic remarks and a passionate defence of the Dreyfusard.
However, despite Wilde’s admiration for certain Jewish writers and artists, one cannot detect anything in his writing or outlook as specifically Jewish, with the sole exception of the selection of Salome as a subject. It seems Salomé was translated into Yiddish, published and performed on stage by 1907. “When Salomé was finally performed in English, critics saw it as a creaky anachronism, and it is The Importance of Being Earnest that lays his claim to theatrical immortality. But Jewish literary culture responded with equal enthusiasm to Wilde’s incandescently vengeful Salomé, with her over-the-top desires for mutilation and necrophilia.”
According to Freedman, by the last decades of the 19th Century “pervert” and “Jew” were virtually interchangeable in the discussions of sexologists and criminologists. Both Jewish men and women were seen as predatory and unnatural, not least because of the powerfully strong endogamic tradition of Judaism made sexual relations between gentiles and Jews taboo. This context made depictions of Salome, a prominent Jewess who used her sexual allure to procure the death of John the Baptist, particularly potent at the time.
[Image: Romaine Brooks, La Venus triste (1917), oil on canvas, 150 x 271 cm, Musees de la Ville de Poitiers, copyright Jean Pierre Prevost/Pascal Legrand]
Salome became a favoured character for Jewish actresses and dancers, from Sarah Bernhardt, Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova, Bessi Thomashefsky, Ida Rubinstein to Fanny Brice, who were (when young) strikingly slim and slight – contradicting the stereotype of Jewish women as zaftig or matronly. The character was an Orientalist costume, to be donned in order to perform sexual provocation, comedic lasciviousness, neurotic narcissism or unearthly beauty, forming an ideally malleable role for Jewish actresses seeking to exploit their ethnicity, be that due to reasons as negative as absence of other roles or as positive as an opportunity to take a starring role and expand their range. For the abovenamed performers, it was a chance to use their apparently atypical appearance in a starring role, which was one of few Jewish characters commonly known in Christian societies. Bernhardt’s thinness became a raging fashion among women of the 1880s, even though it was also mocked in caricature as being unhealthy. (Freedman puts the case that Bernhardt was the first vamp-goth-style archetype in popular culture.) Ida Rubinstein was a link from Bernhardt to the Modernist age in dance and Alla Nazimova’s flapper costume and vamp make up in Salomé was the actress’s own design, done to exploit her taut physique.
Studying the Western press, a Jewess could be forgiven for thinking that she could not win: she was either a zaftig temptress (of unnaturally strong libido) or a starkly slim waif (harbourer of tuberculosis or syphilis), either way a malevolent threat to gentile normality. (Read my review of E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women here.)
For painters such as Klimt and Moreau, Salome became a topic in which could be invested all the eroticism and Orientalism that they could conjure. Freedman notes that Moreau turned to the subject of Salome at least 70 times in his career. (One might posit a psychoanalytical reading of a never-married painter of notoriously opaque sexual taste becoming obsessed by the story of a beautiful woman symbolically castrating the object of her spurned desire by having him publicly beheaded.) In Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), the tattooed character displays her slender, almost androgynous physique, in a hieratical pose. Moreau never conveyed movement in anything like a persuasive manner; each of his pictures (respectively) benefits or suffers from a quality of Byzantine stillness.
[Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), oil on canvas, Musee Moreau, Paris]
Freedman gives a chapter to Proust – an equivocal half-Jew – and depictions of Jews in his À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s tangled attitude towards his Jewish inheritance was tied into his other hidden identity as a homosexual. Freedman notes that Proust dedicated one volume to Léon Daudet, a virulent anti-Semite. “Decadent culture, sexuality, and Jewishness were conflated in Proust’s own life as well as in the public sphere of his moment,” the author comments before quoting a letter from Proust (of 1888) disavowing decadence. Proust notes “the religious belief in beautiful forms of language, a perversion of the senses, a sickly sensibility that finds pleasures in exotic occurrences, in musics more suggestive than real….”, which seems an ideal definition of decadence.
Another chapter deals with Jewish responses to Schopenhauer, a giant figure in Germanic thought, deeply pessimistic, with a tragic outlook. Freedman summarises the responses of Freud, Italo Svevo, Isaac Bashevis Singer and (somewhat anachronistically) Saul Bellow to Schopenhauer. Another chapter considers Walter Benjamin as a critic of French anti-Semitism. Freedman’s discussion of An-Sky’s The Dybbuk (1914) (dybbuk is a malevolent possessing spirit) includes an illuminating discussion of Count Dracula as a stereotypical Jew. A final chapter mentions Claude Cahun (a subject covered by me here and here). Claude Cahun (Lucie Schwob) was the niece of Wilde’s French translator Marcel Schwob. Freedman deals with the Jewish dance of adopting and dropping their religious/ethnic identity through necessity and choice.
Overall, The Jewish Decadence is a richly rewarding read, blending deep knowledge, provocative insight and unsparing honesty to the role Jews have played in fin-de-siècle culture of Europe and the USA. Barely a page goes by with an insight into cultural production and consumption and unexpected links between creators, places and ideas. This book will be of value to anyone wishing to under early Modernism and Jewish contribution to vanguard art.
Jonathan Freedman, The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity, April 2021, University of Chicago Press, paperback, 304pp, 41 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 0 226 58108 8 (cloth edition available)
A recent book by Park Books explores the oeuvre of Italian architect Quirino De Giorgio (1909-1997). De Giorgio career spans the Fascist era to the 1990s. The majority of the photographs of his 90-odd buildings were taken for this book; they are complemented with photographs of the buildings in their newly completed states.
De Giorgio is associated with the Futurists in their post-war phase and counted Marinetti as his friend. While he is designated a Futurist, this cannot be detected in the plastic qualities of his realised buildings, other than their modernity. A 1931 drawing shows his ambitious fantasy of an upward thrusting vertically-orientated building, as do other included prints. He started designing buildings in 1928. His earliest constructed buildings – the first made in 1931 – were modest and facilitated by the construction boom of the Fascist regime.
The architecture of Fascism in Italy has certain common characteristics. It is assertive and does not deploy either pastiche or outright historicism. It uses colonnades, square columns, Roman arches and other forms in ways that are identifiably new. It includes modern materials (concrete, steel girders, sheet glass) and can include Modernist forms, such square windows, non-stucco brickwork, absence of architraves, column bases and column capitals and so forth. Civic buildings often had inscriptions and bas relief sculptures displaying civic virtues, martial prowess and the leadership of il Duce. Fascism has a tendency toward giganticism in architecture and town planning. De Giorgio’s projects took on these characteristics from time to time, appropriate to the setting and purpose.
De Giorgio was responsible for designing some of the 5,000 casa del fascio, mainly in his home Veneto region. His simplified style drew on the Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. The colonnades with square columns, Roman arches and open unadorned balcony colonnades seem directly lifted from the atmospheric inventions of his compatriot. His Fascist buildings can definitely be described as both highly pictorial (memorable simplicity and starkness) and with a strong plastic presence (due to their easily comprehensible geometric morphology).
[Image: ; (left) Quirino de Giorgio, casa del fascio, Vigonza, 1936; (right) Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Hour (1911), oil on canvas]
The dramatic unimpeded verticals and horizontals, the presence of quadratic forms and the radical lack of ornamentation give De Giorgio’s casas del fascio an invigorating simplicity and purity. Later interventions have only reduced that. The addition of a handrail to the swooping staircase of Sede del gruppo rionale fascista Nicola Bonservizi (1937-8) was a necessary addition to prevent dangerous falls on to a marble-tiled floor, albeit an aesthetically detracting one. De Giorgio was commissioned to design 56 buildings during a prolific 1936-40 period.
[Image: Quirino de Giorgio, casa del fascio, (Brenta, 1939-43)]
The casas del fascio were decommissioned after World War II and the dissolving of the Fascist party and given to regional authorities. They were converted into schools, gyms, libraries and similar civic venues. This has led to the alterations to the structures we see today. Due to the relative lack of appreciation for De Giorgio, many of his buildings have fallen into disrepair, been unsympathetically altered and even demolished. The greatest loss is the Diecimila (Padua, 1938-9), an open-air theatre, demolished in the 1960s. Its simple geometry and evocation of the Roman antecedents made it a striking, though not intimidating structure.
Art Deco can be detected in the horizontal strips of windows, port-hole windows and the curving profile of the interior staircase of Sede del gruppo rionale fascista Evaristo Cappellozza (Padua, 1937-8). Although the building has been substantially expanded – altering its height and changing its external character – the 1930s Art Deco style is evident in De Giorgio’s remaining original design and fittings. The cantilevered canopy of a petrol station (Rovigo, 1948) demonstrates De Giorgio’s taste for drama and high Modernism. He could have supported the end of the canopy on the curving front wall of the building but he chose not to, keeping the structures separated vertically by about two feet of space. The authors comment on De Giorgio’s keen interest in modern design of cars, trains, aeroplanes and cruise liners, indicating a potential source for his streamlined interiors and use of simple panels and metallic surfaces.
De Giorgio was commissioned to design residential buildings – villas, houses, apartment blocks. Cinemas were De Giorgio’s principal area of activity. The foyer of Cinema Altino (Padua, 1946-51) has the appearance of a cruise liner ballroom. He designed a hotel (Abano Terme, 1965), a school (Colle, 1969), offices (Camisano Vicentino, 1965-6) and a number of shops. Later designs introduced geometric shapes in windows, glazed doors and fittings. His typical cleanness benefited the highly trafficked common spaces of school corridors and cinema foyers. This playfulness is used to good effect without these aspects ever becoming flippant or obtrusive. Advances in the development of plate glass allowed De Giorgio’s buildings to become increasingly airy.
The book documents all De Giorgio’s 90 or so surviving buildings, the last built in 1988. This monograph is photograph-led and hence the text is sparing. However, explanation is largely unnecessary for us to get an understanding for the buildings and settings, with the inclusion of multiple views, interior photographs and layouts and street plans. Some architectural drawings are reproduced. The authors note that almost nothing has been published about De Giorgio’s work, despite its high standard and its historical significance. De Giorgio contributed to this situation somewhat due to his aversion to expounding a personal theory of architecture. His records have been preserved and are in chaotic state, making research difficult. Let us hope that this book, acclaimed one of the ten best architectural books of 2019 by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, is the first of a number on this serious and inventive architect.
Michel Carlana, Luca Mezzalira, Curzio Pentimalli, Quirino de Giorgio: An Architect’s Legacy, Park Books, 2019, flexicover, 400pp, 429 col./252 mono illus., €38, ISBN 978 0 386 01760