31 March 2020

Edward Hopper (died 1967) and coronavirus (2020)

An important influence on American Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was Robert Henri; he taught the young artist at the New York School of Art from 1900. Robert Henri was part of the Ashcan School of American realist painters, and was dedicated to an unsentimental depiction of New York.

Hopper’s paintings created a space in which the viewer’s own inner life could be examined. Hopper’s paintings invited the viewer to ask: When we look at someone, what exactly were we looking at? Reflections of ourselves, our desires, dreams and worries? Hopper’s work cont­inued to mesmerise because it explored these fund­amental questions.

Modern life was not sociable, Hopper said. Cold plate-glass wind­ows, tall buildings where people lived in self-contained flats, isolated petrol stations – the fabric of modern cities created solitude. With his quiet cityscapes and isolated figures, this New Yorker made solitude his theme. In the 1920s, while the flap­p­ers danced and drank, Hopper painted people who probably had never been invit­ed to a party. While weekday shops were busy, Sunday (1926) shops and streets were empty.

Automat, 1927
Des Moines Art Center in Iowa

Girl at Sew­ing Mach­ine, 1921

The Hotel Room, 1931

Sunday, 1926
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Now Jonathan Jones suggested that the ongoing cor­ona­virus pand­emic has given Hopper’s work a new significance. I wish I had thought of this connection myself. In 2020 our TVs and news web­sites have presented views of mandated isolation at home, closed shops and largely empty streets. In a time of world pand­emic, we now all exist “as if we were inside an Edward Hopper paint­ing”. The current pandemic has carefully distan­ced each of us from each other, sitting at our lonely windows over­look­ing a very quiet city.

Unlike in the pre-modern world, inter-war images of solitude were rarely und­erstood as “serene”. Hopper’s message was that life in the inter-war years could be very lonely, and not at all serene. In the early 1920s, Hop­per painted his first so-called Window Paintings: Girl at Sew­ing Machine (1921), New York Interior (1921) and Moonlight Interior (1923). They showed a figure near a win­d­ow, viewed as gaz­ing out onto the street or from the outside looking in. Hopper's solitary figures were mostly women, semi-clad, reading, staring out a window, or keeping busy.

Everything in a Hopper’s interiors was full of meaning that pushed the narrative. Even small details, like a simple suitcase, book or bed, were really important. Hopp­er’s figures were often peer­ing in windows or out to the land­scape. So the window created the possib­ility of another existence outside, showing both alienation and hopefulness.

What was it about Hopper’s melancholy that seemed so familiar? Notice that none of the people in Hopper’s art seemed capable of smiling. The subject of the painting Automat (1927) depicted a lone woman staring into her coffee in an automat at night. Despite the vivid colours, the painting Automat re-emphasised her solitude.

A painting like Night Windows (1928), which put the viewer in a flat looking across at a woman bending over in the room opposite, might have been seen as naughty. But Hopper un­derst­ood it as depicting the difficulty of connecting with others. It was as much a picture of our own sense of isolation (and Hopper’s) as it was a picture of a vulnerable lone woman.

The Hotel Room (1931) re-em­ph­asised the solitude. The spare vertic­al and diagonal bands of colour and sharp electric shad­ows created a concise, intense drama at night. 

Nighthawks, 1942
Art Institute of Chicago

Social isolation in the time of a pandemic,
Canberra Times, 2020

Examine Nighthawks (1942), one of Hopper's group paintings that showed customers sitting at the counter of an all-night eatery in Greenwich Village. The images of lone individuals in imper­sonal spaces, with eyes gazing from windows or down at their drinks, reminded us that isolation was human­ity’s default state. The view­point was from the footpath, as if the viewer was approaching the restaurant. The diner's harsh electric light set it apart from the dark night out­side, enhancing the mood. Despite the longing that appeared in Hop­per’s paintings, his relevance endured. Even in 2020.

Even an exciting city didn’t remedy is­ol­ation; rather it heightened it. The apparent simplicity of the paintings, the very lack of details, invited the spectator to comp­l­ete the image by speculating on past and future, on the relation­ships between the characters and on the anx­ieties provoked. Perhaps this was why voyeurism was an overused term in Hopper critic­ism.

As in many Hopper paintings, the interaction between models in Nighthawks was min­imal. I have lived in my house since 1982 (38 years) and say hel­lo to everyone on the street each day. Today, as I walked on my routine path, people crossed over to the nature strip, to avoid accidental closeness. Not a single smile or hello en route!

Of course Hopper couldn’t have predicted our current worldwide pandemic, but he described the social consequen­ces of our virus a century ago. The loss of direct human contact is not easy today – our elderly parents are at risk of not getting nursing care, uni­versity and high school stud­ents are missing lectures, and marr­iages are put under stress.

Nowadays, if we sit alone in cafes, we’ve at least got mobile phones to make us feel connect­ed. Since retiring from work 15 months ago, I too used that tech­nique. But the truth is that modernity has thrown up urban life­styles that are totally cut off from normal sociab­il­ity. When the pleasures of modern life are removed, for any reason (eg retirement, divorce, pand­em­ic), loneliness remains.

 In the coronavirus era, we all hope to defy Hopper’s hard vision of alien­ated individuals and instead survive “as a community”. But how ironic is it that we have to survive by self-isolation!

"We're all in this together, we're all in this together...." Probably not (:

28 March 2020

Lady Nancy Astor, Cliveden Set and nasty appeasement plans

After their marriage in 1906, American expats Nancy and 2nd Vis­count Wal­dorf Astor moved in­to Cliveden, a large country estate in Bucks on the River Thames. There Nancy became a wealthy, prominent hostess for the upper class. Or in their London home in St James Square. Her hospitality showed her deeply felt, if poorly exercised noblesse oblige. The passionate ex-American was driven by a mania to do her Christian duty as she saw it.

The Astors were very well connected. Oswald Mosley met Lady Cynthia Curzon, daughter of George Curzon, former Conservative Par­ty MP and Viceroy of India, while helping Nancy during her 1919 election campaign. Rem­ember Nancy Astor was the first seated female MP in Brit­ish hist­ory! And Waldorf Astor owned the influential Ob­ser­ver Newspaper!

Lady Nancy Astor was the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, 1919

From 1926 on they held regular weekend parties at Cliveden. Guests included Lionel Curtis (British official, Royal Instit­ute of Inter­national Aff­airs, Paris Peace Conference 1919), Philip Henry Kerr (Marq­uess Lothian, emissary to Hitler), Edward Wood (Earl Halifax), Geof­frey Dawson (editor The Times), Samuel Hoare (Secr­etary of State, For­eign Aff­airs), Nevile Hend­erson (British Am­bassador to Berlin), Robert Brand (Baron Brand, director Lloyds Bank) and Edward Algernon Fitzroy (Speaker of the Commons). They formed a close-knit group, on intimate terms with each other for years.

Nancy Astor was anti-black, anti-Semitic and increasingly pro-German, as were most of her powerful coll­eag­ues in the Cliveden Set. Most of her group supp­orted governmental attempts to reach agree­ment with Hit­ler's Ger­many and she was connected to influent­ial people like Philip Kerr.

On the other side, Claud Cockburn resigned as NY corr­es­pond­ent from The Times in 1933 and founded The Week, a radical anti-Fascist news­letter. Its aggressive style and content meant MI5 was keeping a close eye on Cockburn’s activities, checking his mail and phone calls (but did MI5 check Lady Astor and her group as closely?) In June 1936 he wrote “The Best People's Front” in his Week news­letter, arguing that the Astor net­work was having a strong influence over the British govern­ment’s foreign policies. They control­led The Times and The Observer, and had become an important source of pro-German influence.

Cliveden, Bucks.

One weekend in Oct 1937, the Astors had 30 people to lunch, including Sir Al­ex­ander Cadogan (Permanent Under-Secretary, Foreign Office). They were happy that Neville Chamb­er­lain , a strong supporter of ap­p­easement, was now Prime Minister and that this would mean pro­motion for people like Lords Lothian and Halifax. Lord Lothian gave a talk on future relat­ions with Adolf Hitler, defining what Britain would NOT fight for eg the League of Nations! He explained that Britain had no primary interests in eastern Europe, areas that fell within Germany's sphere. To be dragged into a conflict not of Britain's making and not in defence of its vital interests would bedevil the Empire.

Lord Lothian was prepared to turn Central-Eastern Europe over to Germany; and Nancy Astor always supported Lothian on foreign pol­itics. Geoffrey Dawson also agreed with Lothian, reflected in the editorial in The Times that he wrote. Lionel Curtis was the only groupie with doubts. The term "Cliveden Set" was first used by the Sunday Reynolds News in 1937, arguing that the Cliveden-ites were sym­p­at­hetic to Fascism.

From May 1937, the new Prime Minister was Neville Chamb­er­lain. In Nov 1937, Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax to secretly meet Hit­ler, Goebbels and Goering in Germany. Lord Hal­if­ax told the Germans that much in the Nazi sys­tem profoundly offended British opinion, but he knew what Hit­ler had done for Germany, especially eliminating Communism. Re Danzig, Austria and Czech­osl­ov­akia, the British certainly had no desire to block reasonable settlements.

Anthony Eden, Earl Avon was a Conservative politician who ser­v­ed 3 terms as Foreign Secretary. When Eden resigned as Foreign Secret­ary in Feb 1938 and was replaced by Lord Halifax, left-wing newspapers argued that the appeasement coup had been organised by the Cliveden Set. The story spread to the USA. Nancy believed she was be­coming a victim of Jew­ish Communistic propaganda in both countr­ies!

Note that letters between Nancy Astor and Joseph P Kennedy (US Ambassador to Britain 1938-40)  showed her to be violently anti-Semitic, viewing the Nazis as a solution to the world’s prob­lems i.e Judaism and Commun­ism. And she accused the Foreign Office of being manipulated by Catholics, people she also loathed.

The Evening Standard reported Hitler was ready to offer Britain a 10-year truce. In return Hitler expected the British Government to leave him free in Central Europe. In The Week Cock­burn reported that the deal had been “first moulded in­to usable diplomatic shape at Cliveden”, and that Lord Halif­ax was the “representative of Cliveden”.

Amy Johnson, Charlie Chaplain, Nancy Astor, George Bernard-Shawat Cliveden

Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini and Ciano
after signing the Munich agreement, Sep 1938

On a U.S visit, Eden discovered the impact on public opinion about the Cliveden Set, perhaps created by articles in The Week. An anxious Eden told Stanley Bal­dwin that “Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and most of the US believed that the Tories were Fascists in disguise”. 

In spring 1937, Sir Vernon Kell head of MI6 complained that The Week was full of gross errors and was written from a left-wing perspective. And Kell was concerned about rep­orts in The Week about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Chamberlain met Hitler in Berchtesgaden in Sept. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After negotiating with Edouard Daladier (France) & Eduard Benes (Czech­os­lovakia), Chamberlain rejected Hitler’s prop­osals. But Hitler knew that Britain and France were unwilling to declare war and he thought it unlikely that Britain and France would unite with the unloved Soviet Union.

Mussolini and Hitler held a conference in Munich in late Sept 1938 between Germany, Britain, France and Italy. By excluding Czech­os­lovakia and the Soviet Union, they’d increase the possibility of signing the ag­reement. Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to losing Sudetenland and in return, Hitler prom­ised to make no further terr­itorial demands in Europe. The Munich Agreement was signed!

The Cliveden-ites were delighted with the Munich Agree­ment; Lord Lothian said Chamberlain had pulled off a masterly coup. Not all the community agreed.

In Oct 1938 Claud Cockburn reported in The Week that American hero Charles Lind­bergh spoke to the Cliveden Set, noting that the German air force could take on and single handedly defeat the Allied air fleets. Pravda denounced Lindbergh as a liar. I would have too.

Conclusion For the decade ending in 1939, the Cliveden Set was identified as a secret political group that manip­ulated British foreign policy, even neg­­otiating a dishon­our­able settlement with Nazi Germany. But was the Cliveden Set a trait­orous cabal or simply an influential right­wing think-tank? Not easily discerned in 2020, as you will see in the excellent Tweedland Blog.

24 March 2020

Nikolaus Pevsner - greatest architectural historian ever?

Susie Harries’ Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life is an interesting book because it focuses on my hero’s personal life rather than his lecture notes. Nikolaus Pevsner (1902–1983) was born in Leipzig into a com­fortable and cultivated Jewish family. Father Hugo (1869-1940) was a fur merchant and mother Annie Perlman (1876-1942) was a pianist. Pevsner attended Leip­zig, Munich, Berlin and Frank­furt Universities.

It was clear in his diary that Nikolaus Pev­sner wanted to be a real German and was embarrassed by his parents’ Judaism and his father’s association with trade. In 1919 his bril­l­iant brother Heinz committed suicide, so Nikolaus aband­oned Judaism and con­verted to Lutheran­ism that same year.

Receiving his PhD in 1924, Pevsner married Karola Lola Kurlbaum, daughter of the respected appeal judges in Germany. It was a life­­­long, sometimes unstable marriage, with 3 children. Lola was al­so Jew­ish but considered herself 100% Prussian and hoped to raise her husband up to her own cultural standard.

Pevsner's doctoral thesis, Leipziger Baroque (1925) was a study of It­alian man­n­erist and baroque painting. Soon he was working as As­s­istant Keeper at Dresden Gallery (1924–8), assisted the dir­ec­t­­or of the Dresden International Art Ex­hibition in 1925 and became lecturer at Göttingen University in art and architectural history (1929–33). Loving English art, he travelled widely in England in 1930.

Back in Germany Pevsner found elements that were admirable about the Nazis, indicat­ing how much his outlook on art history matched theirs. And he really DID support Goebbels in his drive for pure, non-decadent German art. Apparently he said of the Nazis in 1933 "I want this movement to succeed. There is no alternative but chaos".

Yet to the Nazis, Jewish-born Pevsner’s 1921 conversion to Prot­est­antism was nothing; he would always would be a Jew. And his passion for med­iev­al Saxon sculp­ture, the glory of German art, didn’t prove his Germanness either. The young man was caught up in the ban on Jews being employed by the Nazi state and lost his job at Göttingen in May 1933.

In 1934 the family emigrated and friends found Nikolaus a research post at the University of Birmingham. In 1936 he est­ablished his name by publishing Pioneers of the Modern Design, the single most widely read book on modern design.

He had no social life and little sleep. After a day looking at buildings and taking endless notes, Pevsner worked on his notes at night and planned the route for the following day.

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life 
by Susie Harries
Random House, 2013

Isle of Wight
one of Pevsner's Architectural Guides

He wrote mostly about English architecture, yet what he really admired was the modern functionalist German style. Pevsner traced the evolution of the C20th architect­ure from sev­eral sources, from William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movementArt Nouveau and Victorian architecture, to Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues who broke with the past! Be still, my beating Bauhaus heart!

During WW2, Huyton Liverpool was an internment camp for prisoners of war. “Enemy alien” Pevsner was imprisoned there in 1940 and was not released until the Director Gen­eral of the Minis­try of Information intervened. Then Pevsner settled in London and caught up with the other German speaking refugees: Walter Neurath who founded Thames & Hudson art pub­lishing, and art historian Ernst Gombrich.

I agree that architecture was the most important of the arts because it was the most closely connected with family life. Sad­ly Pevsner found that the study of archit­ect­ural history did not win as much academic in­terest in Britain as it did in Europe. Social changes, the power of the Church and the Nobility, the rise of the estate of burgesses and eventually the emergence of the urban pro­letariat, underpinned his Outline of European Archit­ec­ture (1943).

By war's end, Pevsner was established as an art-historian who loved “soothing, civilised” England, becoming a British citizen in 1946. But it was not until the UK was safely post-war that Pevsner told his children about their Jewish Russian-German heritage. Or that the grandparents had been killed in Leipzig in WW2.

Pevsner joined the acad­em­ic staff at the Univ­ers­ity of London and also edited Architectural Review (1942-45) which ran until 1957. The Pelican History of Art, und­er Pevsner's general editorship, became one of the most authoritative works on the visual arts in English. From 1949 to 1955 he was Slade Prof of Fine Art at Oxford (1968-69), and a Fellow of St John's College Cambridge.

[Apart from Nikolaus Pevsner, my art history students were asked to read the brilliant works of Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, EH Gombrich, Adolf Katzenellenbogen, Otto Kurz, Fritz Saxl and Rudolf Wittkower. Note that they were all trained at German-speaking universities!]

Pioneers of the Modern Movement
by Nikolaus Pevsner, 1936

Nikolaus Pevsner and his books, in 1980

Pevsner was, and is best known for editing the monumental series, The Buildings of England (1951-74). Intending to cover every single building of architectural interest across Britain, he wrote 32 of the books himself and 10 with collaborators, personally visit­ing every building he described. A further 4 of the original series were writ­ten by others. This series became Pevsner Architectural Guides.

In 1958, Pevsner became founding chairman of The Vict­orian Society for the study and protection of Victorian and Edward­ian art and architecture, thankfully saving houses, churches, railway stations and other Victorian monuments.

In 1959 he became the first Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck College, University of London. He focused on A History of Building Types 1976, cov­ering national monuments, government build­ings, town halls, law courts, theatres, libraries, museums, hospit­als, prisons, hotels, banks, warehouses & offices, rail­way stations, market halls, exhibition buildings, shops and fact­or­ies.

This Mittel-European Jew of Russian descent became a Protestant Englishman, knight of the realm, lecturer at the BBC, academic and publishing phenomenon, founding-father of academic architectural history in Britain. Pevsner died in London in 1983, memorialised in Church of Christ the King, Blooms­bury. He was buried in St Peter Wiltshire churchyard.

21 March 2020

Hagia Sophia - beautiful church, mosque and museum

Byzantine Church
The Byzantine Empire was vast, powerful civilisation traced back to 330 AD when the Roman emperor Constantine I (272–337) dedicated a New Rome. Constantine I had been a pagan before he con­verted to Christian­ity and after he died, his son Constantine II saw Byzantine needed its own temple. Thus Hagia Sophia was consec­rated by Constantine II in 360.

The wooden-roofed basilica was damaged in 404 by a fire that er­up­ted dur­ing a riot. In Eastern Europe, where the Orthodox church flour­ished, the Greek Cross design(+) dominated. In contrast to the long nave crossed at one end by a tran­sept, Eastern churches had 4 wings of equal size, out of a central, square cross­ing.

The restored buil­d­ing was re-dedic­ated in 415 by a great orthodox bel­iever Emperor Theo­d­osius II. His architrave of 12 sheep rep­res­ented the 12 apostles of Christ, in front of the monumental entrance.

By 532, Emperor Justinian I had ruled the empire for 5 years. But people resented Justin­ian's high taxes and wanted him out of off­ice. When a riot spread across the city, the rioters chanted Nika-victory and besieged the Emperor in his palace. After moving loyal troops into the city Justinian brutally put down the rebellion.

A month after the 532AD Nika Insurrection, Justinian began re­building Hagia Sophia. In 537, he entered the completed build­ing saying Solomon, I Have Surpassed you!, a reference to Solomon’s Great Temple in Jerusalem. Rising along the shore of the Bosph­orus Sea, the cathedral was the most important Byzant­ine structure.

To build Hagia Sophia, Just­inian turned to Anth­emius of Tralles & Isidore the Elder. In time the men did get the magnificent domed roof to stand and it looked to be “susp­ended from heaven by that golden chain”. [It col­l­­apsed 2 decades later and an architect had to rebuild a roof].

The sunlight em­­anating from Hagia Sophia’s 40 windows surround­ing its lofty cup­ola, 
suffusing the interior and irradiating its gold mosaics. Magical!

Alas Hagia Sophia, finished in 537 AD, couldn’t survive the earth quakes of 557 and both arches and the main dome collapsed. It would not be the last earthquake.

When Hagia Sophia re-emerged, the longitudinal bas­il­ica had a 32-metre main dome supported on pendentives & semi-domes! The dimensions were imp­ressive for any structure not built of steel: 82 meters long and 73 meters wide.  There were 3 aisles separ­at­ed by columns with gal­l­eries above, and great marb­le piers rising up to support the dome.

32-metre main dome

The original decorations were originally very sim­ple. There were a number of mosaics that have been added over the centuries - images of the imperial family, of Christ and of diff­erent emperors. In the 8th & C9th, there was an Era of Icon­oclasm (726–87 and 815–43 when imperial legislation barred figural imag­es) that resulted in some mosaics being destroyed. Instead the cross was pro­m­ot­ed as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches.

When the decoration of the interior of Hagia Soph­ia resumed, each emperor added his own image.
Note the mosaic on the apse of the church showing a huge Virgin Mary with Jesus (867 AD).

Now to the C11th when the Byzantines suffered losses in both its West and East lands. At first the Byzantines coop­er­ated with Crusaders against Turks & Arabs. But after the 2nd & 3rd Crusades, Crusaders couldn’t recapture Jerusalem.

In 1204 the 4th Crusaders, led by Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo, invaded Constantinople with his giant navy. The Doge plund­ered the city for 3 days. Relics of the True Cross, gold art, plates, chal­ices and furn­ishings were sent to churches in Venice, Germany and It­aly. Venice’s four bronze Horses of Saint Mark came from Hagia Sophia.

Ottoman mosque
The next chapter in Hagia Sophia’s history began in 1453 when the Byzantine Empire ended and Constantinople fell to the armies of Mehmed II, the young sultan (23) of the Ottoman Empire (1444-46 and 1451-81). Hagia Sophia was looking tragic, yet the Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers. The last Christian emperor, Constantine XI, bid farewell to his peop­le, prayed in Hagia Sophia, rode into battle and died.

Sultan Meh­med entered the city, giving his soldiers 3 days to loot the churches and houses. In Hagia Sophia, he dest­royed the Christ­ian altar and converted the church into a mos­que by adding a minbar, mihrab, mad­rasa, chand­elier and wooden minaret. The Big Cross on the dome and the bell tower were of course remov­ed by The Ottoman Conqueror.

Hagia Sophia underwent many changes in the reigns of each Ottoman Sultan. Mehmed II’s first wooden minaret was rebuilt by Selim II (1566-1574). Sultan Bayezid II (1447–1512) erected a narrow white minaret with brick stone on the southeast side of the mosque min­ar­et. The other two identical minarets on the western side (60 ms) were built by Selim II and Murad III, both of whom commis­s­ioned Mimar Sinan the Grand Architect (1490-1588).

Four slender minarets, 60 ms tall

Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–66) put two candlestick beside the mihrab, taken in his Hungarian campaign. A marble muez­zin plat­form and al­abaster urns were added, in the reign of Mur­ad III (1566–95). Later Mahmud I (1696–1754) added a school for children-madrasa and a mosque lib­rary adorned with Iznik tiles and bronze grilles.

Mosaics were mostly covered with plaster. In 1847, a restoration was started by Swiss archit­ects Giuseppe & Gaspare Fossati (1809-1883), the men who had earlier been official arch­itects at the St Petersburg court. The broth­ers uncov­ered the hidden mosaics, show­ing all the gold to the Sultan. But the Sultan didn’t dare dis­p­lay Orthodox images.

Around the dome, a callig­rapher created 8 wooden green round­els 
bear­ing the names of God, Mohammed & grandsons; and four caliphs.

Present-day museum 
Throughout Byzantine and Ottoman history, the building served as the Imperial Church or Mosque where Emperors were crowned, vict­or­ies celebrated and Sultans prayed. The Turkish Republic was proc­laimed by Mustafa Kemal At­at­ürk in 1923. As a step en route to a secular country, the Turkish govern­ment “dereligionised” Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum in 1934. Research, repair and restoration work still cont­in­ues, as does tourism. Since 1985 Hagia Sophia became part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. For magnificent photos see here.