29 May 2010

Luxury travel and Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton (1821 – 92) was born in regional France. In 1835 he moved to Paris and although this trip was 400+ kilometers, he travelled the distance by foot according to his own mythology. En route the very young lad picked up a series of odd jobs to pay for his journey, including being an apprentice box maker to wealthy families.
Orient Express train

This young malletier or luggage maker was apprenticed to Monsieur Marechal, the man who helped Vuitton get work as a box maker for Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugénie. Throughhis involvement with French royalty, Louis Vuitton developed an understanding of quality travelling cases. And after 17 years with the master,  Vuitton began to design his own travelling cases.

Louis Vuitton's portrait

Louis Vuitton married Amélie Clémence Baglivo in 1854 and their son was born after three years later. 1854 was also the year that the Louis Vuitton label was founded, in Rue Neuve des Capucines in Paris. In 1858, Monsieur Vuitton introduced his flat-bottom trunks with trianon canvas, making them light weight and airtight. Before the introduction of Vuitton's trunks, rounded-top trunks had been favoured, but they suffered from not being stackable. It was Vuitton's grey Trianon canvas flat trunk that allowed stackability, thus making it useful for ships and trains. If people weren't sure how suitcases could be stacked, contemporary advertising made it crystal clear.

Once Vuitton was both successful and prestigious, other luggage makers began to imitate LV's style and design.

Vuitton itself grew too big for its original location and moved to Asniéres in North West Paris in 1860. Timing was everything, as in all historical events. That decade was important in the Company’s success story since the company participated in the fabulous Paris World Fair of 1867 and won its first international medal for excellence. If Vuitton had not burst onto the scene at a time of increasing luxury travel and of gorgeous World Fairs, would have been half as successful? Possibly not.

To protect against unscrupulous people copying the Vuitton image, he changed the Trianon design to a beige and brown stripes design in 1876.
His trunks were an almost compulsory requirement for those people wealthy enough to go on luxury train and ship trips to exotic locations. When the first Orient Express train left Paris for Constantinople in October 1883, we can be fairly certain that Louis Vuitton luggage was carried on board by teams of footmen and coach drivers. Steamer wardrobes, courier trunks, cabin trunks, suitcases, hat boxes and beauty cases would have been bought by royalty, the nobility and wealthy business people.

My favourite piece was the innovative malle Armoire whose interior design offered more spacious and versatile storage options than does my clothes cupboard at home. The largest piece in the company’s vintage collection, the wardrobe measured 100 (h) x 65 x 65 cms and included hanging space and hangers, many drawers and at least two storage boxes.

The cabin trunk was just as embellished with leather and brass as the wardrobe, but it was flatter for convenient storage on board a ship. Most were fitted with a removable tray. This one has beech wood slats on the exterior was 43 (height) x 72 x 30 cm.
By 1885, the company opened its first store in Oxford Street in London. Due to the continuing imitation of his look, the Damier Canvas pattern was created by Louis Vuitton just a couple of years later, bearing a logo that said "marque L Vuitton déposée," the L Vuitton trademark. This only increased the product’s international recognition, further boosted by a gold medal at Paris' 1889 World's Fair.

cabin trunk

In 1892, Louis Vuitton died, and the company's management passed to his son Georges. His son didn’t hang around idly watching the business look after itself. Within one year, Georges Vuitton began a campaign to build the company into a worldwide corporation, exhibiting the company's products at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. To this day, the label is well known for its LV monogram which is featured on most products, starting with luxury trunks and leather goods and later covering other objects. For the best photos from the LV Company's own archives, see Zoot.

It was under Louis' son's stewardship that the company invented soft bags. The first to be introduced in 1901 was the steamer bag, a big rectangular bag originally designed to store dirty linen during long ocean crossings. Just as well Louis had died 9 years earlier. He may not have liked the idea of his gracious products becoming softer, more casual and more modern.
I saw the Louis Vuitton vintage luggage collection displayed in the Ballarat Mining Exchange in the first week of May 2010. One fascinating item from after WW1 was a cigar trunk or humidor. The trunk was refitted by the artisans at Louis Vuitton to house 500 cigars in Spanish cedar boxes, inset with decorative burled walnut panels. If the show moves on to other cities, I warmly recommend a visit.
cigar case, c1925
 A new boutique hotel is opening in Paris next February called then Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Hotel, Paris Trocadéro. Housed in what was once the 18th century residence of the Dokhan family, this 16th arrondissement building was the site of Paris’ first champagne bar. Appropriately the hotel will still have a champagne bar on site. But for this particular post, there is something more interesting than sensational French champagne. The Dokhan house became the Louis Vuitton building, which was the largest travel-goods store in the world when it opened in 1913. The hotel, when it opens, will proudly display an elevator made from a single, vintage Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk.
Louis Vuitton lift in the new Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Hotel, Paris

I am indebted to The Devoted Classicist and Mr. Rothschildt for pointing out the importance of  François Goyard (1828–90) and his Maison E Goyard, another luxury brand of Paris luggage makers. In 1853, a year before Louis Vuitton was founded, François took over a trunkmaking workshop from his father and went on to be the outfitter of choice for royals and aristocratic families. Goyard's and Vuitton's birth and death dates, geographic locations and product ranges are almost identical.

25 May 2010

Alfred Stieglitz and the art of photography

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was born in the USA to German speaking parents. In 1881, all the Stieglitz children were shipped off to Germany for their education and while a university undergraduate, Alfred learned to love two great pastimes: travel and photography. Amazingly, for a rank amateur, he had some of his photographic writing published in German magazines and had some of his photos accepted in German competitions. Even more amazingly, Alfred began to collect the first books of what would become a very large library on the art of photography.

Stieglitz sailed to the USA in 1890 and went into partnership in a photo engraving business. Five years later, he became editor of American Amateur Photographer and became a founding member of the Camera Club of New York. It must have seemed like a fascinating new career for the young man. His own photographs were soft-focus, atmospheric studies that he called Pictorialist. For a modernist, these soft-focus images must have seemed rather traditionalist and backward yearning.

Alfred Stieglitz, Spring Showers: The Coach, 1902

The Camera Club published a quarterly journal called Camera Notes, with Stieglitz as editor. The journal's readers might well have expected the exhibition reviews and technical articles, but I wonder if they were expecting academic essays on art and photography as well.

In 1902, Stieglitz was asked to prepare an exhibition of American Pictorialist photographers but the show was not backed by the Camera Club of New York. This split in the photographic world caused a new group, called the Photo-Secession, to emerge. The show opened in March 1902 under the banner of the new group. I suppose the world was well and truly aware of Secessionist art groups in Germany and Austria already, so Photo-Secession was merely another break-away group that linked photography to the art world. At some stage, the Photo-Secession had 120 photographers as paid up members.

Alfred Stieglitz, Steerage, 1907

Soon he established a new journal called Camera Work, from 1903 on. This journal specifically dedicated itself to the study of aesthetics, so Stieglitz sought essays and poetry from European writers like George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde who might not have been noted for their work on the art of photography. The photogravures were produced so beautifully that images from Camera Work could be framed up and shown in photographic exhibitions in the USA and Europe.

The Photo-Secession didn’t have rooms for its exhibitions until 1905. It was then that Edward Steichen gave up his own photographic studio and offered it as a gallery and headquarters for the organisation. The Little Galleries of the Secession opened in Nov 1905. To make the connection with the Secession in Vienna even clearer, Edward Steichen designed the interior of the New York gallery to match the look of his Viennese hero, the architect Josef Hoffmann. The Little Galleries, at 291 Fifth Ave NY, looked uncluttered and modern. Obermeyer Force blog called "291" one of the most progressive art galleries of its time and called Stieglitz the patron saint of photography.

A 1906 exhibition of photography at "291"

Stieglitz certainly included avant garde European artists in The Little Galleries exhibitions eg Rodin and Matisse, even though I doubt that they would have been popular in the USA in the first decade of the century. As untitled at the moment noted, Picasso was even awarded his first US show there! Luckily the magazine Camera Work didn't worry about critical popularity as Little Galleries had to; it could include the works of modernist artists, and did.

While he was enjoying significant artistic successes, money remained a constant problem. Most months the Little Galleries cost far more to operate than the income they achieved from print sales and from exhibition entry fees; membership in the Photo-Secession was declining and even subscriptions to Camera Work began to drop off. His father had left him a substantial amount of money in his will (in 1909) but it could not last forever. Wife Emmy’s inherited money was also running out.

City of Ambition, 1910

Susan van Wyk showed that Stieglitz played a critical role in the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Allbright Art Gallery in Buffalo. The City of Ambition exhibition in 1910 showed a modernising, constantly changing New York and I suppose Stieglitz was changing his views at the same time.  Note the strong contrasts in City of Ambition, particularly in the foreground. The background became more muted with distance and from atmosphere.

After 1910, the shows put on at “291” started to be dominated by American and European painters; it was a meeting place for artists, writers and critics, rather than just for photographers. However it did continue to be a venue that supported artists through the sale and exhibition of their work. In January 1916, Stieglitz was shown a portfolio of drawings by a young artist named Georgia O'Keeffe. He loved her art, and without meeting O'Keeffe, he made plans to exhibit her work at 291.

A 1914 exhibition of Brancusi’s sculpture, at "291"

By 1917 young American men were being taken into the armed forces. The good times were over and Stieglitz left New York. He also sought a divorce from his wife, Emmy.

WorthPoint asked who were the 30 most influential American visual artists of the 20th Century? He thought Alfred Stieglitz was the seventh most important American in that 100 year period. I was well impressed, not only because Stieglitz was a fine photographer but also because he was one of the great sponsors of 20th-century modernist movements.

21 May 2010

Anton Sauerwald and Sigmund Freud, 1938

The Escape of Sigmund Freud, by David Cohen (JR Books, 2010) is an exploration of Sigmund Freud's dramatic escape from Vienna to London in June 1938.

Freud's home in Vienna, now a museum

Following the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, the Nazi Party made it clear that “all Jewish assets are assumed to have been improperly acquired”. Orderly in their business dealings, the Nazis appointed an official  truehandler-trustee to every Jewish business. Anton Sauerwald, a man I had never heard of until the Cohen book came out, was appointed trustee over the estate of Sigmund Freud, specifically to expropriate the psychiatrist’s assets.

Why hadn’t the most famous man in Austria fled to a safe haven abroad, before the German Austrian Anschluss of 12th March 1938? Worse still, Freud had to cope with the Anschluss in terrible post-operative pain. Perhaps he thought his fame would save him. Eventually the imminent catastrophe must have become clear, even to Freud, when the Gestapo men took the passports of all the family. His family now had no official papers in a city where not having official papers was a death sentence.

Safely in Paris, New York Times, June 1938

Anton Sauerwald was no unemployed thug. He had published four learned papers in Chemical Monthly, one of the leading journals in the world in the field of chemistry. He had a doctorate from the University of Vienna and was a member of the Nazi party in good standing, an officer and technical expert in the Luftwaffe.

And Anton Sauerwald was no Nazi flunky. He discovered that Freud’s publishing house owed money to its suppliers. Since Jews were not allowed to leave Austria until their companies had paid all their debts. Freud would have needed to find considerable sums of money to pay the company’s debts, as well as the flight tax for his entire family.

Sauerwald’s behaviour was unexpected from a Nazi. I suppose he saw that Freud was a very sick old man and had sympathy for him. But there may have been a more intellectual reason for Sauerwald softening his attitude towards his charge. The trustee had always been a dilligent professional and it was now his job to administer the Verlag (International Psychoanalytic Press). He wanted to read everything the company had ever published by Freud.

Freud's house in Hampstead, 
turned into a museum in 1986.
Note the two blue plaques, one for Sigmund and one for Anna

Young Sauerwald (aged 35) decided to give visas to Freud and his family because a] Freud was a man of international standing and b] Freud was a friend of Sauerwald’s own beloved professor. The trustee didn't tell his superiors about Freud's foreign assets. And importantly he didn't oversee the destruction of Freud's papers; instead he and a friend hid them in the Austrian National Library, where they remained until the end of the war. Disobeying a Nazi directive to have Freud's books on psychoanalysis destroyed was the greater of Sauerwald's two crimes since the Nazis loathed and feared Jewish psychiatry more than any other aspect of Jewish life.

Finally in March 1938, when daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982) was arrested, Sigmund prepared a list for the British consul in Vienna of those family members he hoped the English would rescue. A psychiatrist in Britain (what was his name?) worked tirelessly over the next three months to effect the escape.

Another tireless worker for the Freuds was Princess Marie Bonaparte, great grand daughter of Napoleon's younger brother and wife of the Prince George of Greece. Maria had been a grateful patient and disciple of Freud. Apparently she paid for exit visas for Freud and his extended family, and brokered a deal that enabled him to salvage many of his most precious possessions. Freud travelled on the Orient Express train and spent his first day of freedom in 1938 in Marie's gardens in Saint-Cloud, before crossing the Channel to London.

An elderly Freud, working at his London desk

Freud's architect son Ernst, who had been living in London for five years before the family arrived, found the house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead. The original couch, that he brought from Vienna, is still in place. Freud's desk is still filled with antiquities from Egypt, Greece and Rome. The library, which had been his pride and joy in Vienna, still contains a healthy array of titles from the original collection.

Against all the odds, Freud died with dignity in his own bed in London in Sep 1939.

After the war, Sigmund’s nephew Harry insisted that Anton Sauerwald had to be located. Harry believed that Sauerwald had robbed his family and destroyed the family publishing business that his grandfather had started in 1919. Harry got into Sauerwald's old flat to seek out documents that would prove the man’s guilt. At the end of October 1945, at Harry Freud’s insistence, Sauerwald was arrested and the police started to investigate every aspect of his past.

This decent Nazi (sic) was charged with war crimes and was sent to be tried in the new People’s Court, which was set up as soon as Germany surrendered in June 1945. The Allies wanted to show that the Nazis had been defeated by civilised people who followed rules.

The iconic couch, in Freud's house-museum

By the time Anton Sauerwald went to trial on charges of absconding with Freud’s secret wealth after the war, Sigmund himself was long dead. Sauerwald’s wife wrote to Anna Freud in London, begging her to explain to the court what Sauerwald had done to help Sigmund back in 1938. Only Anna could intervene in the court case to protect Sauerwald – and she did.

There is a statue of Freud on the corner of Fitzjohn's Ave and Belsize Lane in Hampstead, in front of the Tavistock Centre for mental health care. Oscar Nemon, another refugee from Nazi Europe, sculpted the work in London in 1938, not long before Freud’s death in 1939.

I remembered the London County Council's blue plaque for Sigmund that was unveiled on the site by Anna in 1956, at a time when she was still living in the home. Exploring London had to remind me of the second blue plaque, for Anna, that was placed on the Hampstead house in 2002.

17 May 2010

Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, Margate - sun, sea water, fresh air

I had already read Dr Richard Russel (1687-1759)’s Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands, published in 1752. He focused on scurvy, jaundice, leprosy and consumption, and was seen as one of the people who built up a passion, based on science, for healthy living. Apparently referred to as “Sea-Water Russel”, the good doctor described the recreational and therapeutic advantages of sea water, sunshine and fresh air. Dr Russell could not have known that people would embrace healthy seaside holidays, only a few decades after his death.

Dr Russel's dissertation, 1752

The attraction of the beach was popularised amongst wealthier families when King George III recovered from one mania or other in Dorset in 1789. In the 1790s, the royal family’s annual holidays were always taken at Weymouth, thus making the town one of the first seaside “resorts” in the country.

Brighton had to wait a little longer. During the early C19th, the Prince Regent popularised Brighton as a fashionable alternative to the wealthy spa towns. Even later Queen Victoria's long-standing patronage of the Isle of Wight and Ramsgate in Kent ensured the ongoing attraction of classy beach towns.

But what of ordinary working families who might have also benefited from fresh air, sea water and sunshine. Dr John Coakley Lettsom (1744-1815) was a well known London doctor. Lettsom achieved some important breakthroughs in his career but none as important as the founding of the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary in Margate Kent in 1791.

Abandoned Britain noted that The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital was founded using funds donated by Prince regent to create a specialist hospital for treating Tuberculosis. Perhaps that is why the building was given such a grand entrance and imposing columns.

Sea Bathing Hospital, posh front entrance

Historic Hospital Admission Records Project provides us with vital information. The infirmary’s specifically stated purpose was to be a ‘receptacle for the relief of the poor whose diseases required sea-bathing’, a practice which in the past had been possible only for families who could afford the substantial costs. This hospital was to house patients in open-air shelters so they could benefit from the sun and sea breezes, in addition to sea bathing. The infirmary opened (after a long contest between Margate and Southend to be the host for the institution) in Spring 1796. The new hospital was situated close to the beach and had a ‘bathing machine …built for the patients sole use’.

The Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary would have been flooded with customers, had there not been some sort of queuing system, and some costs to the referring agencies. In the early days, patients were accepted into the hospital under recommendation by subscribing governors. And they also had to be examined by a medical board either at London Workhouse or St George’s Hospital. The Radcliffe Infirmary at Oxford paid to maintain beds for its own clients. The St Pancras Workhouse also used the Margate facility. The Hospital for Sick Children started sending its first patients to Margate in 1855.

Sea Bathing Hospital, backing onto the sand

The hospital admitted both adults and children, male and female, although by early Victorian times, children were beginning to predominate. From the start, the majority of patients were suffering from some form of tubercular infection. Dr Sakula noted that scrofulous children from squalid London slums appeared to benefit most from Margate’s lovely lifestyle.

Clearly the hospital pioneered the use of sea bathing as a treatment, at least during the summer months when the service stayed open. But it took another 50 years before indoor salt water baths were installed; only then could in-patient treatment continue all year round.

What a shame that this grand old institution was closed in 1996 and was left to fall into decay. Abandoned Britain has amazing photos of the relic, before rebuilding commenced.

What an even greater shame that the building, which once served ordinary working families, was to be converted into 272 luxurious flats exclusively for very wealthy families (although as discussed in the comments section below, the plans were not successful). I am certain Dr Lettsom’s Quaker values would have been outraged. At least the hospital building and original chapel are Grade II listed and will be preserved.

F.G St Clair Strange wrote History of the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital Margate: 1791-1991, published by Meresborough Books in 1991. Alas the vandalism to the building didn’t start until 1996, after the book was in the bookshops. Many thanks to LondonGirl for sharing her knowledge.

Sea Bathing Hospital, sun treatment programme

13 May 2010

Ballarat Synagogue 1861 - working and elegant

Ballarat is Victoria’s third biggest city, its establishment being largely based on the gold rush of the 1851. The first Jewish services were held in a hotel in busy Lydiard St (Clarendon Hotel), as early as 1853. So within two years after gold was discovered in the area, a fledgling Jewish community in Ballarat could already be identified. The numbers grew until a permanent synagogue was required.

Front entrance

A first synagogue was built in Ballarat East, but in 1859 the Town Council requisitioned the land for its own town hall. In compensation, the Town Council granted the congregation a replacement site at the corner of Barkly and Princess Streets, and paid for the new building.

The synagogue was designed by an English architect, TB Cameron, and was consecrated in 1861. Documents from that consecration ceremony are held in the University of Sydney archives.

The Ballarat newspapers were delighted that such an elegant building had been completed. They felt it gave Ballarat, so recently a tatty mining town of tents and cheap pubs, the cachet of refinement and learning. The city’s main street, Sturt St, was planted with blue gums in the 1860s and gardens down the centre. The beautiful Ballarat Mechanics' Institute in Sturt St, was opened in 1860. Walter Craig bought the magnificent Craig’s Hotel in 1857. His guests included Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Clarence, the Duke and Duchess of York and Dame Nellie Melba. Opened as the Academy of Music in 1875, Her Majesty’s Theatre attracted the cream of the industry to Ballarat. Beautiful churches in bluestone attracted as much attention as the synagogue.

Reading desk and ark

According to the Heritage Council, the Synagogue is a single storey rectangular building designed in a renaissance style with pedimented portico fronting a parapeted main hall. Paired Tuscan squared columns and pilasters support the portico, the tympanum of which contains the Hebrew name of the congregation. Tuscan pilasters support the deep cornice of the main parapet and divide the side facades into bays. Simple, tall round-headed window openings flank the front portico, along the sides of the main hall.

Remodelling was undertaken in 1878, including the extension of the women's gallery along the sides of the hall (instead of just along the back wall), and the addition of a second staircase to the gallery and ante-rooms towards the front of the building. Externally the latter are in a style consistent with that of the building. The Synagogue was originally constructed in face brickwork, with contrast provided by rendered pilasters and columns. Since then, the entire building has since been rendered.

The interior of the synagogue is largely intact with its original furniture and fittings, including a cedar bimah-reading table and cedar-fronted ark. The cast iron balustrading on the women’s gallery comes as something of a surprise. The building was designed to accommodate 350.

Women's gallery

It is difficult to know how many Jewish people lived in Ballarat during the heyday of the community. The 300 identified members of the congregation only included the men, so perhaps there were 1000 people altogether in the 1870s and 1880s. On the whole, the Jewish men were not themselves gold miners; rather they were shop keepers and tradesmen, servicing the miners. But the Jewish population of Ballarat fell away with the collapse of the banking system in 1891 and never recovered its earlier importance.

The Paul Simon Hall behind the synagogue was the original Jewish school house for Ballarat; and noone seems to have any information about this small building.

This regional city has one of the few surviving C19th synagogues in Victoria, so the building was quickly put on the Victorian Heritage Register of significant sites. Today it is only used for services on holy days, weddings and when Jewish tour groups arrive from Melbourne and Sydney.


The Ballarat Synagogue is not hemmed by tall buildings, nonetheless it is not as light and airy as it might have been. Examine the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue /Kehillas Ya'akov, in the East End of London, which was founded in 1903. Totally hemmed in between the adjacent buildings, the Congregation of Jacob's glass roof allows natural light to flood into the nave.

09 May 2010

1939 exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art

Contemporary British art had definitely been seen in Australian exhibitions in the 1920s and 1930s. Edwin Fuller curated and organised two shows, both called The Exhibition of Contemporary British Art, in 1928 & 1932. They had 368 fairly conservative paintings that included Laura Knight, Mark Gertler and Frank Brangwyn. Alleyne Zander’s Exhibition of British Contemporary Art took 184 works to Melbourne and Sydney in 1933. She offered paintings by Edward Wadsworth, Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer for sale. But the galleries were feeling the Great Depression badly. And Jacob Epstein’s modernism outraged some of the critics.

C Soutine, Madeleine Castaing, 1929, Metrop NY

It was not until Joseph Goebbels ordered a total purging be done of all of Germany’s public art collections, that people in Australia started to take notice of modern art, other than British. The art that had been selected out for destruction was to be shown to the German people for the last time. And as we saw, millions turned up for a special Exhibition of Entartete Kunst, held in 1937 in Munich as a farewell tour.

Then a similar show was brought to Australia in August 1939. How did Australians react to modernist European art, just weeks days before WW2 broke out?

In 1938 newspaper baron Keith Murdoch, a NGV trustee and avid art collector himself, sponsored the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art. Murdoch told the Herald board ‘Gallipoli has given us one kind of maturity. This exhibition will give us another’. Murdoch’s personal taste in art was actually traditional in that he generally preferred understandable art. But he was brave.

Exhibition curator Basil Burdett, the Melbourne Herald’s art critic and a former gallery owner, assembled the show during a whirlwind 5-month visit to Europe in 1938. The choice of Burdett was a good one since his overseas contacts were astonishing. He counted Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein among his friends. He was able to secure loans from curators and scholars, artists and dealers.

Burdett selected the 217 paintings and a few sculptures, negotiated with British and European galleries and organised transport of the collection, which arrived in Australia just before WW2. His assumption was that modern art may have been rejected as not conforming to the political/ideological needs of Nazi Germany, but that Australian art critics would not influenced by German politics.

However two Australian art critics DID influence the outcome for the Herald Exhibition across Australia and negatively. The first was the director of Australia’s biggest state gallery, the NGV, James S McDonald. He feared the exhibition had a corrupting influence: "There is no doubt that the great majority of the work called Modern is the product of degenerates and perverts. If we take a part by refusing to pollute our gallery with this filth, we shall render a service to Art. As owners of a great Van Eyck, if we take a part by refusing to pollute our gallery with this filth we shall render a service to Art." He resented the deluge of publicity Murdoch organised "to urge us to swallow this putrid meat".

Fernand Léger, La Femme au chat, 1921, Kunsthalle Hambourg

Modern art and leftist politics went together, he believed, and neither should be supported by state patronage. McDonald contrasted the decadence of modern tendencies with the “timeless virtues and verities which appeared to be found for all time in the canvases of Arthur Streeton and Hans Heysen”. Modernism was ‘gangrened stuff which attracts the human blowflies of the world who thrive on putrid fare”.

McDonald believed that the success of Australian art relied in the fact that our artists come from stout British Protestant stock. Yet some of Australia's most prominent painters were neither British nor Protestant eg Girolamo Nerli, Datillo Rubbo, Louis Abrahams, Emmanuel Phillips Fox, Elioth Gruner, Hans Heysen, Danila Vassilieff, Yosl Bergner. JS McDonald's moral outrage against modern art seems ridiculous to us now. The cubist paintings of a Fernand Leger may have been modernist and challenging, but they were hardly a Total Insult to a Decent Christian Nation. Yet his views carried power.

The second attacker was Lionel Lindsay, trustee of Australia’s second biggest state gallery, the Art Gallery of NSW. Plus he was a member of one of Australia’s most famous families in art & literature. He wrote about the Australian Public being duped by Jew dealers in Paris, as I have cited before in this blog.

Works by Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Chagall, Dali, Modigliani etc may have been not to everyone’s taste, but could modern art have brought down Australian civilisation? Of course not. Yet in 1937, the Attorney-General Robert Menzies had proposed the establishment of a Federal Art Society to arbitrate healthy taste and promote sound, realistic painters.

Robert Menzies’ vision for an Australian Academy of Art eventually failed. The academy proposal caused such division among the Australian arts community that the organisers disbanded in 1946 from lack of support. Still, the ideas espoused by Menzies and the hard-core advocates of the academy continued to influence views concerning the nature of an Australian art tradition. The anti-modernism stance of Lionel Lindsay in NSW and JS McDonald in Victoria attracted significant support from advocates of the Australian Academy of Art.

Menzies later wrote to Lindsay that he had recently read the latter’s book Addled Art with supreme joy. Menzies regarded 90% of the artists as rank impostors: refugees had discovered an art racket SINCE their arrival in Australia as “victims of oppression in Europe”.

Duncan Grant, The Dancers, c1911, The Tate

You might have thought that artists are paid to innovate, investigate, push boundaries & challenge traditions. You also might have thought that the director of a national gallery would have been interested in the aesthetic & intellectual developments of modern art. Apparently not. I would not have minded had the Australian critics said they did not enjoy the modern art, or they thought it was untalented. I object to the language that they had borrowed straight from Goebbels, language of disease, degeneracy, anti Semitism, racism and perversion.

Note that McDonald and Lindsay WERE successful. They prevented the Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art from being shown in state galleries; they cut off normal advertising revenue and they blocked almost all the paintings from being sold to Australian collections.

Anyhow 217 art objects went into the Herald exhibition. While art patrons in New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Berlin and other major cities had ready access to these modernist works, a show of this artistic range and size had never been held in Australia before.

As well as leading British painters Stanley Spencer, Victor Pasmore, Walter Sickert, SJ Peploe and Edward Wadsworth, it included post-impressionists Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne; early moderns Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall; and other contemporary pioneers like Fernand Léger. Despite the title of the exhibition, French and British Contemporary Art, many artists were neither French nor British: Amedeo Modigliani, Kees van Dongen and Vincent van Gogh, Osip Zadkine, Adolph Milich, Georges Kars, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

The exhibition premiered at the Adelaide State Gallery in Aug 1939 and ran for 3 weeks, attracting 7,000+ people and making a reasonable profit. Note, dear reader, that the South Australian gallery was the only major state-funded art museum to host the show and they presented the art objects very nicely.

When the Exhibition moved on to Victoria and New South Wales, the Directors of the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW forbade the exhibition from being shown in THEIR state galleries. Instead the exhibition was held in Melbourne’s Lower Town Hall. Crowds were so large that on the first day 2,000 people were turned away, even though opening hours were until 10 PM. Such was its popularity that it had to be extended for another week. In total 48,000 Melbournians saw the show, an extremely large number that further infuriated MacDonald.

In Sydney, a floor of the giant retail shop David Jones was used for the exhibition, attracting 15,000 people. The public was clearly excited to view major works by modern masters, despite the fact that leading representatives of the local art world vehemently denounced the show and worked to undermine it. While the Sydney attendances were not as high as those in Melbourne, the exhibition produced heated debate on modernism.

Of course Murdoch’s Sun News Pictorial newspaper gave great coverage to the event. A record total 70,000+ people saw the exhibition in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, when Australia’s total population in 1939 was only 7 million.

When the Sydney exhibition ended, the paintings were loaned to the AGNSW, which agreed to take them for 5 months. But instead of displaying them, the trustees put the paintings in storage. Despite letters from hundreds of artists and gallery patrons, who begged to see the works, the trustees claimed that there was not enough space to display them. Such was the hostility to the AGNSW trustees that when one of them turned up at a public meeting, he was heckled by 200 artists. The gallery board was gobsmacked.

The outbreak of WW2 meant that the collection, instead of being returned to its European owners, remained in Australia for the duration of the war. Writing about this exhibition in his book The Art of Australia, Robert Hughes noted: "A door had opened briefly. But then it shut; the war broke out and, although the paintings could not be returned to Europe, they were kept in their crates until 1946." This wasn’t quite so. Most of the pictures from the exhibition remained available throughout the 7 years, 1939-46. Smaller versions of the show were mounted in Brisbane, Hobart and Launceston. And many of the works were eventually included in separate exhibitions at the NGV and AGNSW, in 1942 and 1943.

Perhaps the most revealing example of the narrow-mindedness of those dominating the local art scene was their failure to purchase any of the exhibition’s most important works. The majority of the paintings were for sale and with the war starting in Europe, they were being offered at fire-sale prices. There was the possibility of buying major works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Bonnard and others. Yet the NGV, with the vast Felton Bequest resources (an annual income of £23,000 in 1939), managed to acquire only one Van Gogh and one small Derain.

The anti-modernists had won the battle but the tide was turning. Art 21 showed how Dali's Memory of the Child-Woman remained in Australia for several years, giving the continent an extended viewing of Dali’s brand of Surrealism. No viewer fainted; no critic foamed at the mouth.

For a wonderful analysis of the entire exhibition, read Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art by Eileen Chanin, Steven Miller and Judith Pugh, Miegunyah Press, 2005 (see front cover above).

05 May 2010

Beautiful Bucharest

I have been fascinated by Romania ever since mum's sister married a Romanian. And since then I have read something of the country's exotic, if eventful history. Here is what I know. Its capital was first mentioned by name when it was recorded in a document of Vlad III the Impaler, ruler of Walachia. The three regions that now make up Romania were Transylvania, Walachia and Moldavia/Bessarabia. Although the language sounds Italian, the main religion is Eastern Orthodox, not Catholic. Now I am delighted to have a guest blogger writing about beautiful Bucharest architecture. Welcome Paul.

The city of Bucharest (Bucureşti) sits on the banks of the Dâmboviţa River, in the Eastern European country of Romania. People have inhabited this area of Romania since prehistoric times; it was first home to the Dacian Kingdom, and then it saw the Roman, Mongolian and Ottoman Empires, among others, come and go. Today Bucharest is the capital of Romania, and has a population of 2.5 million people.

Remnants of the city’s historic architecture, which date back to the mid C15th, are being unearthed today and can be seen around the Lipscani area. In the year 1459, the city was first mentioned in documents; in the year 1462 Vlad Ţepeş (the real Count Dracula) lost his life while fighting the invading Ottoman Turks on the outskirts of the city. Mircea Ciobanul (Mircea the Shepard), who was the grandson of one of Vlad Ţepeş’s brothers, built the oldest structure that is still standing in Bucharest and it is named the Old Princely Court (Curtea Veche, from the early C16th).

Old Princely Court, early C16th

In the C18th, while the Ottomans controlled Romania, many Orthodox Christian churches were allowed to remain; fortunately Stavropoleos Church is one of them. The Greek monk Ioanichie built the church in 1724 during the rule of Phanariot Prince Nicolae Mavrocordat, using the Brâncovenesc style. That is a type of architecture developed in Wallachia during the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu.

Stavropoleos Church, 1724

The Atheneum was built in the year 1888 in a neo-classical style, designed by the French architect Albert Galleron. Constantin Exarcu started the project, and the money for the completion of the building was gathered in a public collection in which people were asked to "give a leu (Romanian currency) for the Atheneum". Its beautiful facade is adorned with mosaics of five Romanian rulers, and its high dome and Doric columns give it a look of an ancient temple. On the inside of the Atheneum, there are scenes from Romanian history. Today the Atheneum is used as a place to hear classical music in Bucharest, and the resident orchestra is the George Enescu Philharmonic.

Roman Atheneum, 1888

Central University Library (Biblioteca Centrala Universitara) is a beautifully building, founded by King Carol I and designed by the French architect Paul Gottereau, who also designed the National Savings Bank (CEC) building. The building received heavy damaged during the December 1989 revolution and has since been restored. It is buildings such as this one, and Bucharest’s very own Arc de Triomphe, that are responsible for Bucharest once being called “The Little Paris Of The East”.

Central University Library, latter half of C19th

During Nicolae Ceauşescu’s communist rule of the country, a great number of historic buildings were replaced with government buildings throughout the city. One of those buildings is the Peoples House, now called the Parliament Palace. Many Romanians have mixed feelings about this building because 26 square km of homes, churches and other buildings were destroyed to build it. The Parliament Palace measures 270 m by 240 m, 86 m high and 92 m below ground, it has 12 levels, and holds 8 titles in the Guinness Book of World Records. It is the second largest building in the world next to the Pentagon building in the United States. It was from this building that communist leader escaped the revolution by helicopter, only to be caught soon after in Târgovişte Romania, with his wife Elena.

Peoples' House, now Parliament Palace, 1980s

I hope you enjoyed seeing some pictures from one of my favourite cities in the world. Bucharest has so many beautiful buildings and parks, and it would take a very long time to list them all here. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you visit and see them for yourself.

Paul Ketchum, guest blogger
The Romania Way

The map of central Bucharest has been added so that you can see the five main sites in relationship to each other, as well as the University and Cismigiu Gradina/Park. This central park is one of the most charming parks in eastern Europe.

02 May 2010

The Titanic and Liverpool

I wrote “In the hundred years before WW2 started, tens of millions of people left Europe in search of a better life in the New World. It was as though everyone was on the move, and no city did better out of this movement than Liverpool.” I was referring to The Empress of Ireland, but the point would have been made just as well about the Titanic.

The book, published 2009

Pool of Life read the first book dealing with the relationship between Titanic and her home port of Liverpool: Titanic and Liverpool. (Liverpool University Press and National Museums Liverpool, 2009).  Written by Dr Alan Scarth of Merseyside Maritime Museum, the book comes back to my theme of transatlantic migration from Liverpool to North America. The gorgeous White Star Line ship might have been built elsewhere, but she was the pride of Liverpool.

Scarth used contemporary material from the White Star line archives and from the holdings of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. He asked what did the sinking of the Titanic mean for Liverpool, arguably Europe's most important shipping centre. Since many of her key officers and crew were either from Liverpool or had strong links with the port, and since the ship's owners were based in the city, the city must have been totally devastated. Juliet Gardiner added that with the city’s long seafaring tradition, it was inevitable that many of the crew who went actually went down with the ship were working class Liverpudlians.

Historians have long noted that while the wealthy brought retinues of maids and manservants onto the Titanic, but most members of the crew earned only tiny salaries. Thus it would have taken years for a Liverpool labourer working on the Titanic to save the money equivalent to a single, 1st class ticket. The ship's crew was of course made up of the most lowly manual labourers, toiling away in the heat and grime of the engine rooms. How many Liverpool families were left fatherless when the labourers drowned as their ship went down?

the Titanic, 1912, in ? Liverpool docks

A very interesting show is now on at the Melbourne Museum, opened almost 100 years after the catastrophe, and called Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition. It is an incomparable insight into the grandeur, romance and the tragedy of the Titanic and her passengers and crew. By displaying extraordinary objects removed from the sea bed, visitors will be able to get closer than ever before to the passengers and crew. Note the exacting re-creations of the ship’s interior, delicate bottles of perfume, china bearing the logo of the elite White Star Line, even a piece of the ship’s hull.

Titanic relic, Melbourne Museum, 2010

As they enter the exhibition, each visitor receives a replica boarding pass of a real passenger on the original ship. See a journey through the life of Titanic, from construction - to life on board -  to its ill-fated voyage - tragic sinking and rescue mission. In the Memorial Gallery, guests can take their boarding pass to the memorial wall and discover whether their passenger and travelling companions survived or perished. The same exhibition has already been hugely successful in cities like Paris, London and Chicago.

Confessions of a Ci-Devant is a blog with the most detailed description of life in The Titanic for 1st Class passengers that I have seen. In a second post on the subject, Confessions discusses a memorial I was totally unaware of: to the Belfast engineers who gave their lives trying to keep the light and heat going for as long as it took the Titanic to sink. This memorial sits outside Belfast City Hall. I warmly recommend you have a look at Confessions.