Archive

20th century

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Art dealer and gallery owner Heinrich Robert [Harry] Fischer was born in Vienna on 30 August 1903. By the mid-1930s he was running one of the city’s largest bookshops. The Nazi annexation of Austria forced him to flee to Britain. In 1946, he opened his first art gallery on Old Bond Street with fellow Viennese refugee Frank Lloyd (born: Franz Kurt Levai). They named it Marlborough Fine Art for its aristocratic connotations. Between 1960 and 1970 Marlborough Gallery expanded into an international force with branches in New York, London, Rome, Zurich and other cities.

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Lloyd and Fisher dissolved their partnership in the early 1970s, after which Harry Fisher established Fisher Fine Arts in London. He died in London in April 1977. In 1996 Elfriede Fischer donated his collection of books and catalogues to the V&A’s National Art Library. The collection (sixty-nine books in total) includes works by George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oscar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Kurt Schwitters, among others.

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The Fischer Collection holds the only known copy of a complete inventory of ‘Entartete Kunst’ confiscated by the Nazi regime from public institutions in Germany, mostly during 1937 and 1938. The list of more than 16,000 art works was produced by the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda around 1942. The inventory was compiled as a final record after the sales and disposals of the seized works of art had been completed in the summer of 1941. The inventory’s two typescript volumes provide crucial information about the provenance, exhibition history, and fate of each artwork.

04

The painter George Grosz suffered badly from the Nazi madness. Their officials confiscated nearly three hundred of his works in museums and galleries, some were looted, some sold, and others burned. About seventy paintings vanished without a trace. One of the paintings labelled ‘degenerate’ was Grosz’s stunning portrait of his friend, the poet Max [Macke] Herrmann-Neisse.

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The latter was born Max Herrmann in 1886 in Neisse (in Polish: Nysa), Silesia, into a family of small innkeepers. He was a physically disabled and deformed child. A continuous sense of otherness was part of his intellectual development and he started writing at a young age. He studied literature and history of art in Munich and Breslau, then turned to journalism and writing. He created mainly poetry and, influenced by Expressionism, contributed to avant-garde periodicals such as Die Aktion, Pan, and Die weissen Blätter.
In 1914 S. Fischer Verlag published his first collection of poems entitled Sie und die Stadt. The poet’s future looked bright, but the First World War brought disaster. It ruined the business of his parents. His father died in 1916 and his mother drowned herself shortly after.

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Herrmann-Neisse married a local girl named Leni Gebek in May 1917 and the couple settled in Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm where they involved themselves in the city’s vibrant mix of artistic, socialist and anarchist movements. From that time onwards he added his place of birth to his name. He and his wife were a very visible and often photographed couple in bohemian Berlin. Herrmann-Neisse was known in most cafés, bars, studios, theatres, seedy cabarets and brothels in town. He was the Toulouse Lautrec of Berlin. He shared the same radical politics, sense of humour, and cynical outlook as his friend George Grosz. At the same time he created an ever growing number of poems, stories, essays and cabaret pieces. He was awarded the Eichendorff-Preis in 1924 and the Gerhart Hauptmann-Preis in 1927.

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Five years later his situation changed dramatically. Grosz’s portrait of the poet with his hunched back and bald head had first been shown at the Neue Sachlichkeit Exhibition in Mannheim, 1925. The Nazis confiscated the portrait from the Flechtheim Gallery in Berlin in 1933 and displayed the work as a prime example of degenerate art. Two days after the Reichstag fire in February 1933, Max and Leni fled Berlin. Via Switzerland and the Netherlands they arrived in London in September that same year. A few months later, the Nazis burned his books.

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Unable to speak English, living in the poorest of conditions, and deprived of his German citizenship in 1938, his poetry soon became an expression of utter isolation. Sometimes one may detect a tone of defiance like that in the poem ‘Ewige Heimat’: the homeland will live on ‘in the song of its banished sons’ (‘in dem Lied verstossner Söhne’). He applied for British citizenship, but the request was refused. In 1936 he published a collection of poems in Zurich entitled Um uns die Fremde (with a preface by Thomas Mann), but by then his personal life was becoming increasingly bizarre and intolerable. From 1936 onwards, he and his wife lived in a ménage à trois with Leni’s lover, the Greek-born Jewish jeweller and diamond dealer Alphonse Aron Sondheimer, who supported the three.

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They occupied an exclusive flat owned by Sondheimer at no. 82 Bryanston Court, George Street in Marylebone (another apartment in the block was occupied by the American socialite Mrs Wallis Simpson: it was here at Flat 5B, first floor, that the love affair between her and Edward VIII had started in 1933). The arrangement lasted until Herrmann-Neisse’s death from a heart attack on 8 April 1941. He was buried at East Finchley Cemetery in East End Road. There he rests in a lonely grave, a soon forgotten immigrant, far from his beloved Berlin. Leni subsequently married Sondheimer (who became a British citizen in June 1947) and committed suicide when he died in 1961.

During his years of exile Hermann-Neisse continued to write poetry. Some of the poems are counted among his best. Shortly before his death he wrote ‘Litanei der Bitterness’, which is both a reflection on his life in exile and the painful awareness of the affair of his wife and his dependence on the goodwill of her lover:

Bitter ist es, das Brot der Fremde zu essen,
bittrer noch das Gnadenbrot,
und dem Nächsten eine Last zu sein.

The old anarchist lived a total paradox in later life. Not capable of earning a living and deprived of any outlets to publish his work, he resided amidst the decadence and senseless wealth of one of London’s most exclusive residential areas. Consumed by bitterness, the poet suffered all the pains of physical and linguistic exile. As a young man he had touched virtually every brick of every bar within reach while staggering through the streets of Berlin. Socially and psychologically he was inextricably bound up with the city as any of the stones in any of its buildings. Without the architecture of that structure, its use and meaning completely changed. For Herrmann-Neisse the building had collapsed completely. Death may have come as a relief. The psychoses dubbed ‘bacillus emigraticus’, the virus of homesickness, hits every exile at some time to a varying degree. It broke Hermann-Neisse.
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001
Photographer and collector Felix Hans Man was born Hans Felix Sigismund Baumann on 30 November 1893 in Freiburg im Breisgau. His father had been born in Riga, then in imperial Russia, where he was a music critic for the Rigaer Tageblatt. Felix enjoyed a musical background, but graphic art was to dominate his artistic life.

It was not until 1927/8 that he turned to photography changing his name to avoid confusion with another photographer called Baumann. In 1929 he met Simon Gutmann, owner of the photographic agency Dephot (Deutscher Photo Dienst). Gutmann was one of the first to understand the nature of the ‘picture story’ which was to revolutionise magazines worldwide. Man became Gutmann’s chief photographer providing numerous photo-stories for Ullstein’s Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and other publications during the period between 1929 and 1933. He also formed a long-lasting friendship with Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian Jew like Gutmann, who became editor of the Münchener Illustrierte Presse.

In 1933 the Nazis took over the Jewish-owned Ullstein Press. Lorant left for London and although not Jewish himself, Man too emigrated to England. The change in Man’s career came in 1938 when Lorant persuaded newspaper proprietor Edward Hulton to start the Picture Post. The successful magazine was produced at no.43/4 Shoe Lane. Man became a major contributor. He was interned briefly on the Isle of Man in the early days of the Second World War and became a naturalised British subject in 1948.

Between 1945 and 1948 he took few photographs, concentrating on his fine collection of lithographs. The climax of his collecting career came in 1971 when the Victoria and Albert Museum staged the exhibition ‘Homage to Senefelder’ entirely from his collection. In this masterly lithographic portrait (1969), David Hockney captured the personality of this passionate collector. Felix Man died in January 1985. He was one of the first photo-journalists and to many critics he remains the greatest.

The Print Collector (Portrait of Felix Man) 1969 by David Hockney born 1937

The Print Collector (Portrait of Felix Man) 1969 David Hockney born 1937 Presented by Curwen Studio through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P06289

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Picture frame maker Abdon Ercolani was born Sant’Angelo in Vado (in the province of Urbino) in 1853/4. He moved to London around 1897 in search of work, and was joined by his family in 1898. He settled at no. 27 Claremont Road, Walthamstow. Given that his death has not been traced in Britain, it is possible that he retired to Italy, leaving his sons to continue the business as cabinet manufacturers until the eve of the Second World War.

His son Lucian Randolph Ercolani, furniture designer, was born in St Angelo, Tuscany, on 8 May 1888. Lucian Ercolani attended a Salvation Army school in East London. By 1906, he was working in the Salvation Army joinery department, producing staircases and handrails. In 1910, Frederick Parker employed him at his furniture workshops in High Wycombe (the ‘furniture capital’ of England). In 1920, he joined a local consortium there known as Furniture Industries. In the late 1940s, Ercolani developed a range of mass-produced which became a household name in post-war Britain (and which continues today). Lucian died in June 1976.

1897-1976

01

Durex is the world’s best-selling condom brand. The history of the term may remain obscure but, over time, condoms have been given interesting euphemistic names such as Johnnies, French letters (purses, ticklers), English raincoats, and a range of slang words that fill page after page of the Urban Dictionary. Such exotic references obscure the fact that the first branded sheaths came from Germany. The initial promotion of condoms was a matter of the military. The German army was the first to encourage its use among soldiers, beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. German manufacturers would become the main producers of condoms and exported their products to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the rest of Europe. World War I interrupted the trade, but even its continuation elsewhere had a German dimension. Julius Schmidt was born on 17 March 1865 in Schondorf and moved to New York in 1882, changing his name to Schmid. He founded Schmid Laboratories in New Jersey in 1883 and later became the main supplier of condoms to the European Allies. By the early 1920s, however, most of Europe’s condoms were once again made in Germany.

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Syphilis was the urban scourge of the late nineteenth century and yet a taboo subject. Ibsen’s treatment of the subject in his play Ghosts was judged to be shocking and indecent. It sparked an outcry of moral indignation. In London the play was performed by Jack Grein’s Independent Theatre at the Royalty Theatre, at no. 73 Dean Street, Soho, on 13 March 1891. More than 3,000 people applied for tickets, and the production became a cause célèbre. In the press it was considered to be repulsive, coarse, and vulgar (The Daily Telegraph referred to the play as an ‘open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly’), but amongst the audience were literary figures such as George Moore, Oscar Wilde, John Gray, and artists such as Charles Shannon and Reginald Savage – all of them standing in the vanguard in the battle against oppressive Victorian values and hypocrisy. The pressures of war swept all secrecy and concealment aside.

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Family planning was one aspect of consideration in the debate about the use of condoms, but to the authorities the physical health of soldiers was a more urgent issue. During the First World War, venereal disease caused over 400,000 hospital admissions among British troops. Roughly five percent of all the men who enlisted in Britain’s armies became infected. In 1918, there were over 60,000 hospital admissions for VD in France and Flanders alone. By contrast, only some 74,000 cases of Trench Foot (caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions) were treated by Franco-Flemish hospitals during the whole of the war. Venereal patients required on average a month of intensive hospital treatment which caused a huge drain on the army’s resources. It was not until 1905 that the causative organism was first identified which led to more effective forms of treatment. Until the advent of penicillin in 1943, ‘cures’ for syphilis were based on the use of heavy metals such as mercury or, as the saying goes, ‘a night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury’. Safe sex and sexual wellbeing were burning issues at the time.

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Jewish Law has traditionally opposed the practice of birth control. The first mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is to ‘be fertile and increase’. Condoms are unacceptable, because they block the passage of semen. That did not stop Jewish merchants from getting involved in the profitable rubber trade. Chemist Julius [Israel] Fromm, born on 4 March 1883, was an immigrant of Polish-Jewish descent into Germany. He invented the process for making condoms of liquefied rubber. Launched shortly after the First World War in Berlin, so-called ‘Fromms’ (synonym for condom) came to dominate the market. Mass production started in 1922; his invention of the condom vending machine followed later. Crown on the Condom Empire was his commission in 1930 of a flagship factory designed by avant-garde architects Arthur Korn and Siegfried Weitzman in the Berlin suburb of Köpenick – condoms in the style of Neue Sachlichkeit. In 1938, on the grounds that his supplies of rubber were needed for the war effort, Fromm was forced to sell his business at a fraction of its value to Baroness Elisabeth von Epenstein, Hermann Göring’s godmother. Fromm ended his productive life as a religious refugee in Hampstead Gardens Suburb where he died days after the collapse of the Reich.

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Hairdresser and tobacconist Siegmund Jacoby was born around 1835 in Berlin into a Jewish family. He married Henrietta [Jetta] Meyers and the couple moved to London at some time in the 1860s. His son Daniel followed him in the same profession. A year after the death of his father in September 1885, Daniel and four others were charged with violent robbery at the Euston Road business of the elderly Jewish diamond merchant Julius Tabak. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He was released and, a reformed character, set out to build a career and start a family. The 1891 census shows him living at no. 95 High Street, St Pancras. His son Lionel Alfred Jacoby was born in 1894, and he too took up the same line of work. In 1915, having his name changed to Lionel Alfred Jackson, he founded the London Rubber Company, selling condoms and barber supplies that were imported from Germany and America. He operated the firm from his father’s hairdresser and tobacconist shop. By 1920, he had opened a shop at no. 3 Mincing Lane and a wholesale surgical rubber business at no. 183 Aldersgate Street. There is some irony in the name of the first location: it is a corruption of Mynchen Lane, so-called from the tenements held there by the Benedictine ‘mynchens’ (nuns) of the nearby St Helen’s Bishopsgate church.

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Why a barber/tobacconist? Condoms could be openly marketed as birth control devices in Britain, but there were social factors that inhibited sales. Condoms were available at local chemists that usually had female shop assistants. Many men were embarrassed by asking a young woman for a packet of condoms and bought them at the barber shop. They were generally requested with the euphemism ‘a little something for the weekend’. Boots, the largest pharmacy chain in Britain, stopped selling condoms altogether in the 1920s, a policy that was not reversed until the 1960s. Business was brisk, in spite of opposition to the product – and there were some prominent critics of condoms. Moralists rejected all methods of contraception. At the 1920 Lambeth Conference the Church of England condemned ‘unnatural means of conception avoidance’. The Bishop of London complained of pollution, because of the huge number of condoms discarded in alleyways and parks, especially after weekends and holidays. Feminists resisted all ‘male-controlled’ contraceptives. Freud disapproved of birth control methods on the grounds that failure rates were high and that their use diminished sexual pleasure. Concerned about falling birth rates after the First World War, the French government outlawed all contraceptives, including condoms. Contraception was also illegal in Spain and Ireland. European militaries nevertheless continued to provide condoms to their members for disease protection, even in countries where they were illegal for the general population.

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Jackson was greatly helped by the 1930 Church of England ruling that birth control could be used by married couples. London Rubber’s first latex condom for sale in Britain was an export from the American Youngs Rubber Company in 1929. By 1932, London Rubber had become Europe’s first manufacturer of such condoms using the latest liquid latex dipping technology. These were made at their factory in Shore Road, Hackney, and branded Durex. The name was formed from the first two letters of the words DUrability, REliability, and EXcellence. Lionel Jackson died in 1934 and his brother Elkan (born: Maurice Elkan Jacoby) became Managing Director of the company. In 1937 the London Rubber Company moved to Chingford. At this time the company had about fifty percent of the British condom market. With the outbreak of World War II, it became impossible to acquire condoms from Germany. London Rubber Company expanded at enormous pace to meet the high demand for Durex condoms that were issued by the government to British servicemen. In 1968, the company was the largest manufacturer of dipped rubber goods (balloons, rubber gloves, paint brushes, surgical footwear, toothbrushes, soaps, and other products) in the world, employing over 2,000 people. In 2007 its last remaining condom factory was closed and production moved to China, India and Thailand. From the East End to the Far East – Durex has stretched itself from one end of the globe to the other.

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Jeweller and watchmaker Mosheh Oved was born in 1885 in Russian Poland. He settled in London around 1902 where he became involved in the jewellery trade and founded his own shop, Cameo Corner (originally Good’s Cameo Corner). Cameo Corner was the principal centre for the sale of jewellery in London for the first half of the twentieth century. It was located first at no. 1 New Oxford Street and after the Second World War in Museum Street – always within easy reach of the British Museum.

 

1987-294Mosheh Oved (alias Edward Good) was a well-known figure in London’s Jewish community and a founder member of the Ben Uri Jewish Art Society. He designed and made his own jewellery and metalwork, and was also interested in sculpture; he was a friend of Jacob Epstein, whose work he collected. He wrote several books on aspects of his life and Jewry in Europe, and especially a series of memoirs, assembled in a single volume Visions and Jewels published first in Hebrew, then in an English translation (1952).

His wife Sah Oved was born Gwendolyn Ethel Rendle in 1900. She served her apprenticeship with the Arts and Crafts jeweller John Paul Cooper until 1923 and subsequently created some of the most original and striking jewellery designs before the Second World War. In 1961 a collection of her jewellery designs was shown in the First International Jewellery Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Mosheh had died three years previously.

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Gauden Road (Clapham)
Chess player Vera Menchik was born on 16 February 1906 in Moscow. Her father was Bohemian and the manager of several estates owned by the nobility in Russia. His English wife Olga worked a governess. After the Revolution her father lost his livelihood.

The marriage broke down and in the autumn of 1921 Olga and her two daughters returned to Hastings to live with her mother. Vera joined the Hastings Chess Club in March 1923. In January 1926 she won the first Girls’ Open Championship at the Imperial Club in London with her younger sister Olga coming third. She won the first Women’s World Championship in 1927 and successfully defended her title six times in every other championship held during her lifetime (losing only one game). She was a member of the West London Chess Club.

In 1944 Vera still held the title of women’s world champion. On 27 June of that year Vera, Olga, and their mother were killed in a German bomb attack which destroyed their home at no. 47 Gauden Road, Clapham. The trophy for the winning team in the Women’s Chess Olympiad is now known as the Vera Menchik Cup.

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01

The twin approach to this blog is to track the development of the street- and cityscape through the history of Western painting and identify as many urban themes in art, literature, photography and film as can be managed within the structure of this undertaking. As is clear from the sequence of previous entries, the cosmopolitan nature of the metropolis provided a wide variety of images for artists. Themes of urban entertainment for example are rooted in French nineteenth century art. Circus, theatre, ballet, cabaret and café-concert became part of a rich patchwork of subjects ranging from Manet’s interest in the audience and spectators to Toulouse- Lautrec’s obsession with outcasts such prostitutes, clowns and bohemians. By the 1920s, Berlin had become the entertainment capital of the world and mass culture played an important role in distracting a society traumatized by war and humiliation. Artists depicted scenes of leisure, entertainment and city life at night. By portraying the city’s seedy underbelly, they broke down the wall between serious art and popular culture. Cityscape and urban entertainment are beautifully fused to be discussed in this wide-ranging overview.

02

Broadway equals showbiz. The avenue runs through almost the entire length of Manhattan Island and continues northward through the Bronx. It is the oldest north-south thoroughfare in the city. Broadway was originally the Wickquasgeck Trail which, mapped out by Native Americans, snaked through swamps and rocks. Upon the arrival of the Dutch, the trail soon became the main road through the island from ‘Nieuw Amsterdam’ at its southern tip. The name Broadway is a literal translation of ‘Breede Weg’. Today, a stretch of Broadway is known worldwide as the heart of the theatre industry. The name of the avenue appears in an endless number of poems and songs.

03

Born in the Dutch provincial town of Amersfoort in 1872, Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan grew up in a strict Protestant household. His father often neglected his family in favour of service to the church. His mother was sickly, and it fell to Mondrian’s elder sister to take charge of her four brothers. His miserable childhood and unstable life at home made the future artist introspective and bitter. Art became for Mondrian a way to escape day-to-day reality and immerse himself in the world of his imagination. Young Mondriaan (between 1905 and 1907 he changed the spelling of his name into Mondrian) painted traditional subjects in an increasingly non-representational style. In 1911, he attended a Georges Braque exhibition. The work of the Cubist painter impressed him greatly, as it paralleled much of what he had been experimenting with on his own. Fascinated by the artistic innovations being introduced in Paris, he decided to pay a visit to the French capital. However, arriving there in the winter of the same year, the artist made no attempt to contact any of the local modernists. Though he followed the development of their art and theory, he had no wish to enter their circles. Instead, Mondrian rented a small studio and went on with his experimentation in private. He was and remained an outsider. Socially, Mondrian tended to distance himself from other people and he enjoyed few lasting relationships. He did make one attempt to settle down. In 1914, he became engaged to Greet Heybroek and the two married soon afterwards. The relationship lasted only three years. Mondrian was not made for marriage.

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The Dutch review De Stijl was founded in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, and the name has come to represent the common aims and utopian vision of a loose affiliation of Dutch and international artists and architects. Mondrian soon became one of the central figures of De Stijl. The idea underlying De Stijl’s utopian program was the creation of a universal aesthetic language based in part on a rejection of the decorative excesses of Art Nouveau in favour of a style that emphasized construction and function, one that would be appropriate for every aspect of modern life. It was posited on the fundamental principle of the geometry of the straight line, the square, and the rectangle, combined with a strong asymmetricality; the predominant use of pure primary colours with black and white; and the relationship between positive and negative elements in an arrangement of non-objective forms and lines. Mondrian adopted a totally abstract motif, employing an irregular checkerboard drawn with black lines, and with the spaces paints mostly white or sometimes in the primary colours of blue, red and yellow. Between 1917 and 1944 he created some 250 abstract paintings. He named his style ‘neo-plasticism’ (from the Dutch ‘nieuwe beelding’ meaning new image). In 1938, as the political situation in Europe began to grow tense, Mondrian abandoned the Continent for London where he stayed with the British artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. In 1940, with France fallen to Nazi Germany, and England suffering daily air raids, the artist took a ship to New York, despite the risk of U-boats.

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Mondrian settled in New York where he spent the last four years of his life. He held a number of exhibitions together with other European abstract artists who had escaped the war and the brutal Nazi regime that viewed modern art as an aberration. The metropolis, its size, scale and exuberance, fascinated him and inspired his ‘New York, New York’ (1941/2). His subsequent creation ‘New York City I’ (1942) can be read as an elegant abstraction of the Manhattan gridiron whereby streets are represented in primary colours (red, blue, yellow) and blocks in white. Another interpretation of this painting is an abstracted ‘snapshot’ of built form in Manhattan, whereby primary colours represent vertical construction elements (post, beams and/or floors) and white represents the space or window framed within these load-bearing elements. In his final painting ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1943) the checkerboard lines, previously black, are now painted blue, gray, red and yellow (inspired by New York’s Yellow cabs).

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The craze for boogie-woogie (the etymology of the term is unclear) in New York had reached fever point in those years. In 1938 and 1939 producer John Hammond promoted the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts at Carnegie Hall. The success of these events inspired many swing bands (Tom Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Will Bradley) to incorporate the boogie-woogie beat into some of their music. The Andrew Sisters sang boogies. The floodgates had opened. Every big band included boogie numbers in their repertoire, as the dancers were learning to jitterbug (derived from the slang term ‘jitters’ or delirium tremens – an American critic of the exploding jazz scene had made the observation that ‘just when they made delirium tremens unconstitutional, jazz came along and gave us dancing tremens’) and do the Harlem inspired Lindy Hop.

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Critics consider ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ to be Mondrian’s masterpiece, and a culmination of his aesthetic. Compared to his earlier work, the canvas is divided into a much larger number of squares. The painting was inspired by the city grid of Manhattan, and the jazz music to which the artist loved to dance. New York painter and printmaker Robert Motherwell grasped the essence of this remarkable painting and its significance in the history of the cityscape: ‘The Modern City! Precise, rectangular, squared, whether seen from above, below, or on the side; bright lights and sterilized life; Broadway, whites and blacks; and boogie-woogie; the underground music of the at once resigned and rebellious’.

Mondrian was a man of complex contrasts. Artistically he was a precise technician and the creator of austere pictures, in life he was a chaotic dreamer and a withdrawn romantic. He was a lucid intellectual who, at the same time, was attracted to the mysticism of Mme Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1909. In Art and Act Peter Gay locates Mondrian’s creative impulse not in some rational aesthetic concept of pictorial form, but in the artist’s flight from sentiment and sensuality, in his dread of desire. For Mondrian – as was the case for Albert Einstein – creativity was partly motivated by a desire to escape from day to day reality in order to find a harmony and balance that he could not find in private life. Withdrawn, anxious, and fastidious to the point of obsession, Piet Mondrian painted cool geometric abstractions for intensely personal reasons. No sentiment, no curves, no touching – that is how he lived and that is what his abstract paintings proclaim. Beauty was wrested from anxiety. That gives such significance to the title and execution of Mondrian’s last painting which contrasts the square severity of Broadway with the nerve and restlessness of jazz as an expression of modern life.

 

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Mondrian’s boogie woogie supplies a rhythmic finale to this festival of street art. This does not mean that Mondrian stands at the end of a tradition or that the possibilities of further developing this genre have been exhausted. It certainly is a fact that during the twentieth century attention was largely focused on abstract and conceptual art. The interest in cityscapes declined as a result of that development. The revival of figurative art at the end of the century however heralded a revaluation of the urban landscape. Gerhard Richter’s townscapes – and those of Milan in particular – have been influential. An important contribution to the genre was made by photo-realist painters. An already classic example is the view of Madrid’s ‘Gran Via’ which Spanish artist Antonio López painted from life during innumerable sessions across a seven years period (1974/81). Since his arrival in 1980, Martin Kostler has produced some fine cityscapes of Washington DC. Richard Estes is based in New York. His 2010 painting ‘Broadway Bus Stop’ has given the genre a new impetus. Over the years, Leon Kossoff has produced a number of splendid London landscapes. Some of the most intriguing post-war cityscapes have been created by Frank Auerbach. As a youngster he was sent to England from his home city, Berlin, shortly before his eighth birthday and the outbreak of war. Both his Jewish parents were killed in the concentration camps and Auerbach made London his new home where from 1947 to 1952 he was an art student. The capital at the time was badly scarred by war wounds. The Blitz had levelled whole areas of the metropolis and left numerous buildings severely damaged. During the post-war years large numbers of workmen were involved in clearing the debris and excavating new foundations. Once again, London was in the process of transforming itself. For Auerbach, this changing urban landscape made the most compelling of contemporary subjects. He remembered London after the war as a ‘marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama’.

(c) Frank Auerbach; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

His uncompromising painting ‘Building Site, Earls Court Road: Winter’ is one of an extraordinary group of paintings of post-war London building sites. This series of fourteen works was created in the decade between 1952 and 1962 and are among the most profound responses made by any artist to the post-war urban landscape. The painful irony is that the Blitz – like the Great Fire had done previously – offered London the opportunity for renewed ‘planning’. It either had damaged poor districts and shabby property in need of redevelopment, or opened up hidden architectural treasures that once again could be made visible. Bomb damage was the spur to reconstruction. London’s post-war revival is not only proof of the urban resilience in overcoming disaster, but also of the creative potential to harness and maintain its distinctive character.

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