Avant Garde

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.



Heddon Street is a small side-street and alleyway off Regent Street, close to Piccadilly Circus. Yet, the Handbook Guide to Rock and Pop (1997) lists the street as an historic London music site. The reason is David Bowie. His 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was based on a story of a fictional rock star named Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy is the human manifestation of a ‘space invader’. He is also the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, hooked on drugs, but with a message of peace and love. He is destroyed by his own excesses and by the fans he inspired. A film of the same name, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, was released in 1973. The cover of the album shows Bowie posing as Ziggie in front of no. 23 Heddon Street. Photographer Brian Ward created the photograph for the cover. Originally shot in black and white, Ward tinted the photographs to achieve the storybook style of the album sleeve. More importantly, however, it was in the basement at no. 9 Heddon Street that in 1912 England’s first cabaret club opened its doors.


The concept of cabaret is a Continental one. The first modern nightclub, the Chat Noir, opened in Montmartre in 1881. The club presented itself as a ‘cabaret artistique’, a new kind of public meeting place for writers, poets and artists. In an obituary of its founder Louis Rodolphe Salis, the New York Times of 23 March 1897 specifically referred to the artistic clientèle of the Chat Noir: ‘Here Alfred de Musset, Alphonse Daudet, and the frères de Goncourt assembled to write verses and eat their dinners, including wine, for twenty sous. Here Guy de Maupassant came nightly, brooding alone, at a table apart from the others. Paul Verlaine wrote verses here, seated at a marble table, with ink and a bottle of wine before him, and a quill pen in his hand’. The Chat Noir staged the integration of the artist as a social outcast, the ‘poète maudit’, into the gallery of criminals, revolutionaries, and libertines long associated with the shady underworld of pubs and clubs.

This, the first modern nightclub, was both a place of adversarial culture and a shrewdly planned commercial venture. Almost as soon as the Chat Noir opened in 1881, Salis turned the club into a money making enterprise, in part to advance the careers of writers and artists associated with the club. The Chat Noir exploited the medium of print to disseminate its brand of bohemianism. The club published its own weekly journal in tabloid format, with a print run that grew from 300 to 20,000 copies per week in a matter of seven years. Other publications included the Chat Noir Guide, a brochure listing art works that were for sale at the club; the Album du Chat Noir, a portfolio of drawings to be sold by subscription; song sheets of lyrics recited or sung at the club, and collections of stories concerning the club. Bohemianism was good business.

A significant aspect of the new nightclub was the design of its interior. Again, the Chat Noir had set a precedent. Its rooms were decorated seemingly at random. In reality, the cabaret’s environment had been carefully planned. It featured furniture and artifacts of the Louis XIII period, but arranged in such grotesque settings as to make them incongruous. Walls were covered with green paper or drapes. Panels were made with glazed doors of Louis XIII design. On all available wall space were hung paintings and prints created by the cabaret’s resident artists (the ‘artist-in-residence’ was also a new concept). Pots, plants, plates, and antiques hung from the ceiling or were stacked in corners and niches. The deliberate attempt was to mix the ancient and the modern, to blend the rococo and the commonplace, to combine the luxurious and the obnoxious, to fuse style and kitsch. Many clubs adapted themselves to specific themes.

One of the more outrageous attempts was made at the Cabaret du Ciel. Waiters were dressed as angels with wings and wigs. As guests sipped on the ‘ambrosia of the gods’, they were treated to ‘mystical illusions and celestial music’ while beholding burlesque religious rites (striptease in other words). Heaven was situated on the second floor of the house. The 1903 Pleasure Guide to Paris describes this abode in the following terms: ‘It is a vast grotto, in which hang stalactites of a golden colour. Here Saint Peter is represented by a robust mulatto, armed with a long key, with which he opens the door for the elect … Gorgeous transformations now take place in a mysterious manner, so as to favour the illusion that it is no longer this sad earth of ours, but a region ethereal and serene where all the angels are represented by women’.

At the Café du Néant visitors entered a dark chamber lit only by wax tapers suspended on a chandelier composed of human skulls and arms. Customers were welcomed by waiters dressed as undertakers and seated at tables made of coffins, from where they could ponder images of death, carnage and assassination that adorned the walls. After drinking ‘les microbes de la mort’, clients would be directed to the Hall of Incineration where they could enjoy a spectacle of death and decay. A chosen member from the audience was placed in an upright coffin. Using a projected image, glass and mirrors an illusion was cast to make it appear as if that person was slowly decomposing into a skeleton.

In 1885, Aristide Bruant opened a club called Le Mirliton. Its famous owner – the man in the red scarf and black cape featuring on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters – composed and performed accusatory songs in Parisian slang about the fate of the poor and downtrodden, and about crime and violence in the city. His mix of song, satire and entertainment was popular with the affluent classes slumming in the Montmartre district. The ‘chanson réaliste’ made an instant impact and became part of the repertoire of most cabaret performers in the European capitals. This repertoire consisted of poems of loss and hopelessness. It listed songs that dealt with the struggle for life in poorest parts of the city, and with the thugs, pimps, and tarts that called them home. Its themes were poverty, abandonment, deprivation, combined with socio-political commentary. Novelists had been a major influence on the development of the genre which had been preceded by such literary movements as Realism and Naturalism. Later, the art form was performed mainly by female vocalists. It was brought to perfection by Édith Piaf.


Once the madness of the Great War was behind them, Parisians rebounded in a carnival of cosmopolitan hedonism known as ‘les années folles’. There was a new aspect to this particular orgy of pleasure: the influx of American youngsters who were sick of prohibition and puritanical small-mindedness back home. Some of them had plenty of dollars in their pockets taking advantage of the strong exchange rate, while others arrived with the sole ambition of making it as an artist. Many nightclubs cultivated a deliberately coarse and promiscuous atmosphere. In Berlin, these were known as ‘Tingeltangel’ clubs.


The sleazy atmosphere of such establishments is captured in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film Der blaue Engel (based upon a novel by Heinrich Mann) with lusty Marlene Dietrich as the chanteuse Lola Lola.

The story line was inspired by clubs such as Zum hungrigen Pegasus (opened in Berlin in October 1901 by artist Max Karl Tilke), where one could enjoy performances by a poet named Dolorosa (real name: Maria Eichhorn) reciting erotic and sadomasochistic verses, or artists performing ‘niggersongs’.
The identification of jazz with the ‘spirit of the times’ formed the essence of many articles and essays during the 1920s. When in May 1938 Hans Severus Ziegler organized the ‘Entartete Musik’ exhibition in Düsseldorf, he included work by Schönberg, Kurt Weill, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Mahler, Krenek, and many others. He specifically turned against the Berlin craze for jazz. Ernst Krenek had incorporated jazz influences into his opera Jonny spielt auf (1926). Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill were interested in the means of expression found in jazz, but in the Nazi interpretation of German high culture there was no place for ‘Niggermusik’.


With an audience consisting of artists, scholars, writers, financiers, well-connected ladies, prostitutes, and criminals, the nightclub was a place where middle-class citizens could pretend to be bohemians and, for one night at least, release themselves of all shackles of respectability. These weekend bohemians introduced the recreational practice of ‘slumming’. Middle-class city dwellers visiting naughty clubs in marginal neighbourhoods became an ingredient in the allure of modern European urban nightlife. The OED dates the first use of the word ‘slumming’ to 1884. Social commentators and reformers visited London slum neighbourhoods in order to observe social life in those parts. Once Oscar Wilde incorporated the theme of ‘slumming it’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray the idea became fashionable and held a fascination for authors and artists alike. Nocturnal club life added spice to the concept.


Outside France, the authorities looked at such developments with a degree of concern. The presence of cabaret performer Hans Hyan, the owner of Zur Silbernen Punschterrine (The Silver Punchbowl) which had opened in Berlin in November 1901, was closely watched by the police. After all, Hyan had a criminal record. In 1891 he had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for aggravated burglary; ten years later he was (unsuccessfully) investigated for robbery. He was fined for libel and suspected of writing and publishing pornography. For a while, Hyan was the talk of the town. He was celebrated as Berlin’s counterpart to Aristide Bruant.

Like his French model, he used local slang, sang songs about criminals and outcasts, and verbally insulted the curious audience that came to see his cabaret. To be treated rudely and abused aggressively was all part of the fun of slumming. Hans Hyan was a master of this game. He had the skill to imitate the speech of various social groups in the city, in particular the slang of the criminal fraternity. His command of the Berlin dialect was masterful. No one less than Kurt Tucholsky remembered Hyan for his capacity of capturing phonetically the ‘Berlin manner of thought, the Berlin soul’. Hans was Berlin, Berlin was Hyan. The relationship with the authorities worsened when Dolorosa started to perform regularly at the Punschterrine. Her list of explicitly erotic and masochistic songs, of which ‘The Song of Songs of Pain and Torture’ was a particular favourite of the club’s clients, became morally intolerable to many respectable observers. Cabaret had become a celebration of immorality. The club was finally shut down in 1904.


Frida Strindberg was very much a product of the European avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Born in Austria as the daughter of the editor of the Wiener Zeitung, Frida Uhl worked as a writer and translator in Vienna. In 1893, at the tender age of twenty years, she met forty-three year old Swedish writer and dramatist August Strindberg, who had achieved fame as the author of more than twenty plays, several novels, autobiographical works and collections of stories, poems and essays. He was a controversial figure whose sexually frank works had incurred the intervention of Swedish and German censors. Fame was not accompanied by money. At the time Strindberg proposed to Frida, the writer was heavily in debt and being pursued by his first wife for child support payments. Friedrich Uhl opposed the marriage, doubting the author’s ability to support his daughter.


Frida and August married soon after their first meeting in spite of her father’s disapproval. Strindberg’s reputation allowed her access to the bohemian circles he frequented, and make lasting contacts with some outstanding artists of her day. In marrying Strindberg, a morose misogynist if ever there was one, she sacrificed not only the relationship with her family but also her career as a writer and critic. Taking his financial affairs in hand, she at once tried to organize a production of his work in England. However, Strindberg did not approve of the active role Frida was taking in his business affairs, and the marriage in which one daughter was born ended in divorce in 1895. It has been suggested that their stormy relationship inspired Strindberg’s tirades against women in general and against married women in particular. Frank Wedekind, the German playwright who in his work laid bare the shams of sexual morality in his time, was the father of Frida’s second child. She sent both her children away to be cared for by her parents.


Fin de siècle Vienna was a major centre for arts and culture. It was the most exciting period in the capital’s cultural history. The literary and artistic movement known as ‘Jung Wien’ (Young Vienna) was composed of such remarkable artists as Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, and others. Frida was closely involved with several writers of the Young Vienna movement, such as the poet Peter Altenberg for whom she organized a subscription, and the journalist and outstanding satirist Karl Kraus whom she convinced to sponsor a reading of Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Her affair with the writer Werner von Oesteren was particularly problematic. She threatened him on two separate occasions with a revolver. Details of this relationship were made public in 1905 when she sued Werner for harassing a detective she had hired to follow him. In 1908, on New Year’s Day, she fired a gun in a Viennese hotel. This may have been an attempt to take her life.

The event caused such publicity in her native town that she decided to move to London where, in 1912, she opened the Cave of the Golden Calf (named after one of the rooms in the Parisian Chat Noir) at no. 9 Heddon Street, off Regent Street, England’s first ‘Cabaret Club’ housed in a large basement below a warehouse. She intended her club to be a meeting place for writers and artists, an avant-garde rival to the nearby Café Royal where Oscar Wilde once was one of the regulars. The club offered a cheap meal and reduced admission to young artists. The Cave served as a kind of avant-garde soup kitchen. For better-off clients, of course, there was lobster salad on the menu.

The Continental inspiration for the club, apart from the Chat Noir, was the Kaberett Fledermaus in her native Vienna. In her ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to the opening of the club, issued in April 1912, Frida proudly announced that the interior of the establishment would be ‘entirely and exclusively’ decorated by ‘leading young British artists’. The ‘Prospectus’ was illustrated with woodcuts by Wyndham Lewis. It claimed that the cabaret would do away with the necessity of crossing the Channel in order ‘to laugh freely and sit up after nursery hours’. As this comment suggests, the Cave of the Golden Calf looked to the Chat Noir for inspiration. Moreover, the Cave opened only three months after Marinetti’s notorious first visit to London, which gave an added Futurist impetus to Frida’s plans for her club. Among its ‘resident’ artists were Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Wyndham Lewis. Frida insisted that the club presented itself properly in print, from its ‘Preliminary Prospectus’ to programs, announcements and menus.


Typography was essential. All printed materials were designed by Wyndham Lewis according to the latest Continental styles. Sculptor Jacob Epstein transformed the cellar’s structural columns into plaster female figures described by Ford Madox Ford in his 1923 novel The Marsden Case as ‘white caryatids with heads of hawks, cats, and camels picked out in red’. Opening night saw performances by Norwegian cabaret singer and founder of the Oslo Chat Noir Bokken Lasson, shadow plays by Wyndham Lewis, an actor reciting Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and, in true cabaret fashion, a young cockney shouting foul mouthed abuse at the audience.


Ezra Pound admired Frida’s achievement. Other luminaries who frequented the establishment included Katherine Mansfield, Ford Madox Ford, and – of course – Augustus John. The Cave attracted London’s bohemian set, the mad, bad and decadent. It contributed to the erosion of class identities in the capital. Here guests could enjoy the full cabaret repertoire, plays and poetry, jazz and ragtime music, song and dance, with champagne served until dawn. The Cave went bankrupt in 1914, but not before Strindberg herself had become disappointed by its failure as an artistic experiment. It proved nevertheless to be an influential venture and became the model for a number of nightclubs of the 1920s. The Cave of the Golden Calf had certainly made a contribution to modernism in Britain. The club had served as the after-hours headquarters for what would become the vanguard movement of Vorticism. London’s first avant-garde movement was born in Frida Strindberg’s nightclub. After closure of her club, Frida left for the United States, where she secured a job with Fox Film.


Nollendorfplatz is a square in the Schöneberg district, one of Berlin’s oldest gay neighbourhoods, colloquially called ‘Nolli’. It is dominated by the ornate Metropol Theatre which started life in 1906 as the Neue Schauspielhaus. The adjacent area in the south around Motzstrasse is the city’s most prominent pink village. Already the camp capital of Europe by the late 1920s, Berlin had at least 160 gay bars and clubs. Uncertainty of the future, at an era suspended between the hedonism of the waning Weimar era and the ominous shadow of Nazism, created a ‘so what’ atmosphere. Berlin was an extraordinary place in an extraordinary time.


In Schöneberg, theatres, cabarets, and clubs catered to homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, and sadomasochists of Berlin’s liberated sub-culture. The Nazis attempted to eliminate all traces of that sub-culture, but today the district is once again a centre of gay life. A small memorial plaque near the south entrance of Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station commemorates homosexual victims of the Nazi era.


Photographs from the early twentieth century show Nollendorfplatz as a bustling urban square filled with people on parade. It was this kind of libertine atmosphere that enticed gay novelist Christopher Isherwood. On 29 November 1929 he had packed two suitcases and a rucksack and set off for Berlin on a one-way ticket, rejecting his upper-middle-class background and the social values to which his mother, widowed in the First World War, was desperately clinging.


Isherwood had dramatized the family quarrel in his first novel, All the Conspirators, published in 1928. In Berlin he would work on a second novel, The Memorial, which further explored the gulf between the generations caused by the war. It was, however, the novels he wrote about Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), that made his reputation as one of the leading writers of his generation, providing an indelible tragic-comic portrait of a city teetering on the brink of catastrophe as Fascism gained in popular support.

To Isherwood, ‘Berlin meant boys’. Boys he could find aplenty in bars such as the Eldorado, on the corner of Motzstrasse and Kalckreuthstrasse, haunt of a demi-monde that included Marlene Dietrich and chanteuse Claire Waldorff. The Kleist Casino, between Nollendorfplatz and Wittenbergplatz, just a stone’s throw away from Isherwood’s lodgings, was perhaps the oldest gay bar in Europe, and remained in operation until a decade ago. Isherwood was attracted to Berlin by the ready availability of homosexual partners, but he also communicated a strong sense that he was experiencing historical changes around him. In Berlin he observed ‘a brew’ of history in the making. This brew seethed with unemployment, hunger, prostitution, stock market panic, hatred of the Versailles Treaty and other potentially explosive ingredients. With his portrayal of Berlin between the late 1920s and early 1930s Isherwood has left us images that are still associated with this period. The Berlin novels look at history at street level, showing how ordinary people were affected. His eye for physical detail and human oddity means that his characters are never merely representative of their class or condition. Many of them live on in the memory.


In the feckless cabaret singer Sally Bowles (on whose story the stage musical Cabaret was later based) Isherwood created one of literature’s lasting figures. Her character was based on Jean Ross, the young British actress whom Isherwood met in 1930, when he moved into a boarding house at no. 17 Nollendorfstrasse, owned by Fräulein Thurau. The apricot-coloured house still stands.

07Depictions of the city in the paintings of German Expressionists employ abstract formal elements such as distortions of perspective and unnatural colour in order to convey the artist’s emotional reaction to the city. The treatments of urban subjects project a sense of the speed, energy and vitality of the city, but also express fear of the effect of urbanization upon individual city dwellers.


Depictions of the city in the paintings of German Expressionists employ abstract formal elements such as distortions of perspective and unnatural colour in order to convey the artist’s emotional reaction to the city. The treatments of urban subjects project a sense of the speed, energy and vitality of the city, but also express fear of the effect of urbanization upon individual city dwellers.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1912 oil painting ‘Nollendorfplatz’ shows a busy junction with converging trams. Its composition is filled with stark tensions. The painting features a crowd of people, but the lack of individuation of these small figures (many of them are nothing more than a single brush stroke) brings out the anonymity of urban living. Kirchner’s city-dweller has lost his identity. The urban area the figures inhabit causes a feeling of unease by its colouring and distorted perspective. The image suggests speed, motion, and congestion – but trams and people seem to be running in circles lacking any purpose or direction.


The Spiegelgasse, a narrow street in the Old Town of Zurich, has been home to a number of fascinating figures – most of them immigrants. Switzerland is the last country one would associate with revolutionary thinking, but this street proves differently.

‘Die Revolution muss aufhören, und die Republik muss anfangen’ (The revolution must cease and the republic must begin), is a famous sentence taken from Georg Büchner’s 1835 political play Dantons Tod (act i, sc. i). Büchner, a young German doctor and dramatist with revolutionary sentiments who had made a spectacular appearance on the literary scene, is often viewed as a sort of proto-Marxist. His writings are filled with premonitions of class struggle. Late 1836, the author was appointed as a lecturer in anatomy at the University of Zurich. He settled at no. 12 Spiegelgasse where he spent his final months writing and teaching until, in 1837, he died of typhus aged just twenty-four. In 1916/17 the house next door (no. 14, second floor) was home to Vladimir Iljitsch Uljanow, better known as Lenin. The authorities were not particularly concerned about the Russian refugee and allowed him to read, write, and speak (in good German) unhindered. They did not consider him a threat.

In London, printers Francis Meynell and Stanley Morison established the Guild of the Pope’s Peace in 1916. Pius X had died in 1914 and was succeeded by Benedict XV. The latter was apalled by the war and condemned the continuation of the slaughter. The Guild was set up to print and distribute Benedict’s political appeals and his attempts to end the bloodshed. The world, including the Catholic world, did not listen. People preferred to lend their ear to the jingoïsm of Lloyd George Kitchener or the Kaiser. The situation was symptomatic for the rest of Europe. Sensitive minds tried to escape from the collective madness. Zurich was a gathering place for European refugees, a place where people came to find peace and stability. It was also a relatively permissive environment that enjoyed a history of allowing the expression of revolutionary ideas by Europe’s disillusioned intellectuals. Artists, activists, intellectuals, and other refugees swarmed to Zurich and met in bars and cafés, discussing the precarious future of Europe, and planning political or artistic revolutions. Romanian Jews escaping ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies, German and French citizens escaping conscription, they all gathered in neutral Switzerland. Pacifist poets such as Schickele, Leonhard Frank, and Franz Werfel lived in the city. Among the refugees were German poets Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara and painter Marcel Janco, the Alsiatian painter Jean Arp.

Repelled by the utter madness with which the young were rushed to trenches of senseless slaughter, these artists had lost their faith in European bourgeois culture. The copying of external reality and the creation of a self-contained work of beauty no longer seemed to make sense to them. They were united by a conviction that the horrors around them were rooted in outdated morals and values. Throwing overboard all conventions and traditional sentimentalities, they sought an alternative unity of art and life. In order to do so, they aimed at establishing – in the words of Hugo Ball – a ‘playground of crazy emotions’. With that ambition in mind, Hugo Ball contacted Jan Ephraim, an elderly Dutch sailor and patron of the Holländische Meierei (Dutch dairy inn) who made a backroom available for a cabaret with singing, theatrics, music, visual art exhibitions, and all sorts of other performances that would disturb bourgeois feelings.

On 15 February 1916 Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors for the first time at no.1 Spiegelgasse. The press release – dated 2 February 1916 – which announced the opening of the nightclub is rather tame. It reads: ‘Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has formed with the object of becoming a centre for artistic entertainment. In principle, the Cabaret will be run by artists, permanent guests, who, following their daily reunions, will give musical or literary performances. Young Zurich artists, of all tendencies, are invited to join us with suggestions and proposals’. Ball took as his model the cabaret tradition of Paris and Berlin before the war. Voltaire, the philosopher who in his time was at war with the ‘spirit of the age’, was chosen as the godfather for the new movement. Refugee artists from all over Europe quickly besieged the new establishment.

Emmy Hennings, Hugo Ball’s partner, sang her own songs as well as many from the repertoires of cabaret legends such as Aristide Bruant, Erich Mühsam, and Frank Wedekind. A spirit of mockery soon took over. Each evening at the Cabaret included a succession of spectacles, dance, song, plays, a balalaika orchestra, etc. The French or Russian evenings were occasions for readings of poems by Max Jacob and Jules Laforgue, of extracts of Ubu Roi, as well as texts by Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov. This was the age of manifestos – at times some twenty people read out declarations of various sorts simultaneously.

All visitors were welcome to take part in the performances which were presented to a noisy, mainly young audience. On 15 June 1916, with a print run of 500 copies, the only edition of the magazine Cabaret Voltaire appeared, edited both in French and German. In thirty-two pages, it included a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire, texts by Kandinsky, ‘Parole in libertà’ by Marinetti, the reproduction of a poster by Marcel Janco and a drawing by Arp (on the cover). Ball and Tzara took the opportunity to announce the future publication of a magazine entitled Dada. Thus the word Dada appeared here for the very first time in print.

The Cabaret closed in June 1916, but Dadaïsm was just beginning. The Dadaists rented a room for one night at a guildhall named Zunfthaus zur Waag where they held their celebrated 14 July Dada Soirée which officially launched the movement with Ball’s now famous manifesto. In French, he explained, dada means hobby horse. What the poet did not mention is the fact that the word dada appears in a bawdy French song performed on various occasions by Eça de Queiroz’s marvellous creation of the shameless concubine Genoveva in his novel A tragédia da rua das Flores (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers; written between 1877 and 1878, but published many years after the author’s death). All three nouns here are synonyms, although dada in this context would be best translated as stud-horse or stallion:

Chaque femme a sa toquade,
Sa marotte et son dada.

In German dada means good-bye, be seeing you sometime. In Romanian: yes indeed, you are right. With that declaration Hugo Ball launched Dadaïsm. The legend goes that the name was adopted by randomly sticking a knife into a dictionary and finding under the blade the noun dada. That night, Tzara read aloud his own first manifesto, Richard Huelsenbeck performed a phonetic poem, there were absurdist literary readings, works of art on display, and general chaos. Every gesture and every move was calculated to shock the audience with the aim of destroying traditional understanding of art and aesthetics. Dada was anti-art, and these performances were meant to be hideous, like horrors of war.

That same year, Tristan Tzara’s La première aventure céleste de M. Antipyrine, with coloured wood-cuts by Marcel Janco, was published in the ‘Collection Dada’. By 1917 the excitement generated by the Cabaret Voltaire had fizzled out and artists moved on to other places in Zurich such as the Galerie Dada at no. 19 Bahnhofstrasse (an initiative by Tzara), then later to Paris and Berlin. Politically, many of the personalities involved, and Ball in particular, were admirers of Russian radical Mikhail Bakunin who, in 1843, had also spent time in Zurich. Bakunin’s anarchism, to Hugo Ball, was ‘Dada in political disguise’. But it was another Russian political thinker who, in physical terms at least, found himself much nearer to the Cabaret Voltaire.

When Lenin arrived in Switzerland in 1914, he informed the authorities that he was neither an army deserter nor a coward, but a political exile. He had little difficulty gaining entry to the country. With his wife Nadia Krupskaya, he settled in bourgeois Bern. Politically, he did not win over any friends or comrades. In February 1916 he was granted permission to move to Zurich where he had access to the central library. The couple rented a two-room flat at no. 14 Spiegelgasse. It was here that he finished his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (the study was influenced by John Hobson’s thinking on the subject) – in spite of bad smells. Nadia wrote in her memoirs that the yard was filled with the stink of a nearby sausage factory. Did Lenin visit the Cabaret? Hugo Ball does not mention Lenin amongst the people attending the performances, but Huelsenbeck claims to have encountered Lenin in Zurich (ironically, the local police were more suspicious of the Dadaïsts than of the revolutionary thinker). Marcel Janco circulated stories according to which the shows were attended by Lenin and by another famous inhabitant of the city, Carl Jung. Self-promotion has always been one of the stronger aspects of the movement. In his Lénine Dada (1989) French writer Dominique Noguez imagined Lenin as a member of the Dada group and suggests how the meeting of minds influenced and transformed his vision of society. Leninism is a product of Dada. Noguez based his book on this intriguing question: could Lenin have been Dada incarnate? In 1917, with the help of Swiss representatives of the political left, Lenin received permission to return to St Petersburg. In April of that year he left the Spiegelgasse for good. Six months later, following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks seized control.

This then is the remarkable chain of events. In February 1916 Lenin and his wife settled at no. 14 Spiegelgasse. Cabaret Voltaire opened its doors at no. 1 Spiegelgasse on 15 February of that same year. In Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) Lenin and Tzara stand opposed. The name of Spiegelgasse (the German ‘Spiegel’ means mirror) functions as structural and thematic base for the play which opposes two revolutionary characters, one who transformed the political, the other the artistic status quo. The mirror image postulates sameness and difference. One can look at this mirror image from a different angle. In one street, in the same month of the same year, two contrasting personifications of the idea of ‘avant-garde’, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin, stand shoulder to shoulder, staying virtually next door to one another, the one representing the artistic, the other the political interpretation of this controversial concept.

Henri de Saint-Simon was a leading social theorist in the post-Revolutionary period. In his vision of society, scientists play a dominant role. It was in this context that Saint-Simon introduced the notion of avant-garde. In a Mémoire sur la science de l’homme (1813), the author encourages contemporary scientists of rendering their services to the elevation of mankind, thus functioning as a ‘scientific avant-garde’. From the outset, Saint-Simon regarded the arts as a crucial part of his social system. Writers had to develop the poetic part of his new social system and influence public opinion. The anonymously published Opinions littéraires, philosophiques et industrielles (1825) concludes with a dialogue between an artist and a scientist in which the former pledges that ‘we, artists, will serve you as your avant-garde’. The political use of the military metaphor preceded the artistic one which can be traced back to the 1790s. The word was adopted in left-wing utopian ideology. In the progression from Saint-Simonian to French socialist thinking, avant-garde became solely related to the historic task of ‘working class parties’. A number of newspapers adopted the word in their title. Lenin applied the word avant-garde in his account of What Is to Be Done? (1902).

Napoleon exercised an enormous influence on the arts. Balzac was dazzled by Bonaparte and so was Charles Augustine Sainte-Beuve, the greatest French critic of his age. What makes Sainte-Beuve’s jargon intriguing is his intimate knowledge of military matters. In a letter to Hugo (5 May 1845), he compared the early Romantics to the officers of the ‘Corps of Engineers who are sent ahead to clear the way, to lay a road for the army following behind’. Sainte-Beuve, biographer of Napoleon’s strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini (published in 1869), was well-read into military textbooks. His 1854 Stendhal essay reads like a lecture on military tactics, describing the author as some hussar in the vanguard who gallops up to the enemy’s position, but who also, no sooner has he got back to his own lines, needles the other troops to speed up their advance. When the critic refers to Stendhal as a ‘cheveau-léger d’avant-garde’, he used the metaphor in a well-considered manner. The cultural meaning of the term avant-garde originates in Sainte-Beuve’s critical imagery.

In aesthetics, the military metaphor of avant-garde gradually came to overshadow earlier metaphors of poetic exploration or artistic gamesmanship. The shift from explorer or athlete to soldier underlines the changing conditions under which the artist committed himself to his task. The first metaphors are part of Classicist thinking, as much as the latter constitutes an integral aspect of modernist attitudes. Contemporary critics have interpreted avant-garde in terms of a breach between artist and public, as a ‘tradition’ of heterodoxy and resistance. During the 1970s historians tended to confuse the political with the artistic use of the term. Avant-garde in art was judged to be left-wing, disruptive and anarchic. In the final analysis, the avant-gardist, like the colonist or athlete, metaphorically represents the mobility of the creative mind. The metaphor of avant-garde has been fertile in a sense that both artists and political utopians found a way of integrating the term in their belief-systems. One root, different branches. Two apartments, same street.

ImageThe Oosterpark is the first large park laid (in 1891) out by the municipality of Amsterdam. It was designed on the principles of an English garden by Leonard Springer. The ‘Oosterparkbuurt’ in its current shape was constructed at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1926, a corner of the park was used to house a newly built museum. The Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (Royal Tropical Institute) was established in Haarlem in 1864. It was then known as the Colonial Museum, founded to house the collection of artefacts brought back from the Dutch colonies in the East. Its mission included the scientific study of plants and products derived from the colonies. Today, the collection is housed in the Tropenmuseum with its entrance on the Linnaeusstraat, one of the main streets in the district.


‘De Linnaeusstraat in Amsterdam, gezien vanaf de Middenweg’ produced by Heertje van Doornik, a painter who had settled in the capital in 1891, supplies a fine image of the street.


Impressionist painter and photographer Willem Witsen lived in the area. His house at no. 82 Oosterpark is now a museum (Witsenhuis) – it was here that Paul Verlaine stayed during his brief visit to the Netherlands.

There is one Dutch author whose work is closely associated with the East of Amsterdam. Nescio (Latin for ‘I don’t know’) is a pseudonym for Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh who made a professional career for himself at the Holland-Bombay Trade Company in Amsterdam and was a talented author at the same time. He hated his job, but felt unable to fully commit himself to his creative endeavours. The Nescio corpus includes stories, unfinished compositions, a nature diary and correspondence, but the works for which he is remembered consist essentially of three extensive prose-poems: De uitvreter (The Freeloader, 1911), Titaantjes (Young Titans, 1915) and Dichtertje (Little Poet, 1918). The translation of a collection of stories by Damion Searles was published in the New York Review Books Classics series under the appropriate title of Amsterdam Stories. Aptness of title, and quality of the first sentence, are crucial aspects of any novel.


In his 2011 study How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, Stanley Fish devoted an entire chapter to memorable English opening sentences. If his approach had been multi-lingual, he would certainly have included the start of De uitvreter which announces the author’s unique style and idiosyncratic manner of storytelling. As a story this is an evocative mix in which dreams and youthful rebelliousness are beaten down by an indifferent world. Although set in the city, there are lyrical descriptions of the Dutch landscape, often triggered by author’s fascination with water (a Dutch theme if ever there was one). Nescio stresses the Dutch dichotomy of money-mindedness with the visionary wealth of Jeroen Bosch, Multatuli, or Vincent van Gogh. The dominating tone is one of an aching melancholy. Grönloh himself was careful to keep his business and creative identities separate. He only revealed true name in 1933, over twenty years after the publication of De uitvreter.


Samuel Sarphati was a physician and city planner. He descended from Portuguese Sephardi Jews who had settled in Amsterdam during the seventeenth century. Having qualified in medicine at the University of Leiden, he became a practitioner in the capital where he initiated projects to improve the quality of hygiene in the poorer parts of the city. The Sarphatistraat is named after him and runs between Frederiksplein and Oostenburgergracht. To many locals the name Sarphati means little nowadays. It is just an ordinary Amsterdam street. However, to those familiar with Dutch literature, the Sarphatistraat has made an indelible impression. Why? Because of Nescio first sentence in De uitvreter: ‘Behalve den man die de Sarphatistraat de mooiste plek van Europa vond, heb ik nooit een wonderlijker kerel gekend dan den uitvreter’ (Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader). To me, as an utterly biased reader, this remains a classic opening.


Tramline no. 7 connects the short distance between Sarphatistraat and Linnaeusstraat. From 1735 to 1739, young Carl Linnaeus lived in the Netherlands. This was an important period in his life. He defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Harderwijk in 1735 and met with many Dutch scientists during his visits to the Amsterdam botanical gardens. Among them was one figure who took a central place in the development of the young Swedish botanist. George Clifford III was a wealthy Amsterdam banker and one of the directors of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). He was known for his interest in plants and gardens.


His estate the Hartekamp had a rich variety of plants and he engaged Linnaeus to write the Hortus Cliffortianus, a masterpiece of early botanical literature. Many specimens from Clifford’s garden were also studied by Linnaeus for his two-volume study Species plantarum (1753), a work that laid the foundation for plant nomenclature as we know it today. The Clifford dynasty originated from East Anglia. The first recorded member of the family was Richard Clifford who studied at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, which at the time was an important training-institution for Anglican clergy. In 1569 he was appointed rector of Landbeach, a fen-edge village near Ely, just north of Cambridge (beach most likely means ‘shore’ here: both Landbeach and nearby Waterbeach were at one time situated at the edge of the estuary named The Wash).


Henry Clifford was born in Landbeach. Like his father, he studied at Corpus Christi. He named his son George. Somewhere between 1634 and 1640 George Clifford I moved to Amsterdam and lived the rest of his life on the Zeedijk. Six of his children were baptized in Amsterdam’s historical Presbyterian Church at the Begijnhof, and two in the Oude Kerk. He established the family business in the city and, in 1664, is recorded as owning a sugar plantation in Barbados.


George Clifford II was born in 1657. He continued in the trade his father had started. Business prospered and, in 1709, he was able to buy the Hartekamp (for the substantial amount of 22,000 guilders), an estate with a formal garden and conservatory in Heemstede, just outside Bennebroek, near to the coastal dunes and close the famous Dutch bulb fields. The original house had been built by Johan Hinlopen in 1693. The latter had been in charge of running the lucrative postal route between Amsterdam and Antwerp. Hinlopen designed the basic garden and built the orangery. His grandfather had been of Flemish origin, one of the countless cosmopolitan merchants who left Antwerp after the Spanish suppression of the city. A trader in cloth and Indian ware he was a co-founder of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. His son Jan Jacobszoon expanded the business and became an important art collector and supporter of Rembrandt, Gabriel Metsu, and others.


George Clifford III was born in 1685 into by what at that time had become an extremely wealthy Anglo-Dutch merchant dynasty. The family business entered banking at the start of the eighteenth century and established an international reputation lending money to royalty, the Vatican, and to the English and Danish governments. George III also was a Governor of the Dutch East India Company (but not, as is often stated, at any time Burgomaster of Amsterdam) and a keen botanist. On the Hartekamp he accumulated a famous living- and dried plant collection. He gave the garden its international reputation, acquiring specimens of new species from all over the world. He acted as patron of the young Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus whom he employed in the double capacity of ‘hortulanus’ (supervisor) of his collection and of physician (the master of the house was somewhat of a hypochondriac).


Linnaeus had been introduced to Clifford by Johannes Burman, Director of the Amsterdam Botanic Garden and Professor of Botany, who was a supplier of tropical plants to the Clifford collection through his close connections with the East India Company. Linnaeus named after him the Burmannia, a family of chiefly tropical herbs with basal leaves and small flowers. The meeting between the two men turned out well for both of them. Linnaeus was overwhelmed by the botanical riches of the gardens and in particular by the ‘houses of Adonis’ (hothouses) where he encountered a bewildering variety of plants from Southern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Clifford on the other hand was impressed by Linnaeus’s effortless ability to classify plants that were new to him. Clifford offered Linnaeus free board and lodging, and a financial allowance of one ducat a day, or 1,000 florins per annum. The young scientist was overjoyed. By the time he took up his employment in 1735 the estate contained in addition to the garden, a large collection of animals, an orangery and four heated greenhouses. Through the activities of eminent botanists such as Herman Boerhaave, Adriaan van Royen and others, many exotic plants were added to Clifford’s collection and dried plants were exchanged as herbarium sheets. International cooperation between collectors and scientists contributed to the rapid development of plant systematic, both in terms of taxonomy and of practical knowledge of the world’s botanical wealth and variety.


The herbarium played an important role in the development of scientific botany. The preparation of herbarium specimens goes far back to the Egyptians, but the systematic technique for keeping plants as dried reference specimens began in Tuscany during the sixteenth century. Luca Ghini, founder of the first botanical garden in the world at Pisa, introduced this method to his students at the University of Bologna. Initially herbaria were bound together to form books, such as that of the apothecary Petrus Cadé, the oldest herbarium known in the Low Countries.

In the eighteenth century botanists started to keep the individual herbarium sheets separate which allowed systematic ordering rearrangement according to developing systematic ideas. Thus it became possible to lend individual herbarium sheets and exchange duplicates. Because of such exchanges it was no longer immediately clear who the owner of a particular specimen actually was. This is perhaps the reason – apart from mere aesthetics – why ornamentations such as pots, medallions, pennants, or cartouches were printed onto the sheets and thus acted as a kind of ex libris for the owner. The tradition of using ornamentations in herbaria is of Dutch origin. It dates back to the 1720s and had gone out of fashion by the end of the century. Clifford’s herbarium consists of 3,461 sheets. Many of the specimens are mounted in such a manner that they appear to be growing out of engraved paper urns, and are held down by ribbons and their names inscribed on ornate labels. In 1791, Clifford’s herbarium was acquired by botanist Joseph Banks, Director of Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, and President of the Royal Society of London, at the sale of the collections. It is now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum.


At the time of Linnaeus’s inventory, the garden at Hartekamp had 1,251 living plant species in the greenhouses, gardens and woods. Linnaeus catalogued the family’s complete collection of plants, herbarium and library. The result was his book Hortus Cliffortianus, whose publication was paid for by George Clifford III. Linnaeus compiled his study with astonishing speed. It took him nine months to prepare the manuscript. Until this time the individual herbarium sheets owned by Clifford were arranged according to the system applied by Boerhaave in his Index alter plantarum. Linnaeus ranked the plant species according to a sexual system which he himself had designed. The system is based on the number and shape of both male and female reproductive parts which determine the class into which the plant species is placed. Within this system every species is placed in a genus and given its own unique Latin adjective. The Hortus Cliffortianus formed the basis for all of Linnaeus’s subsequent work. Many of his plant descriptions are repeated in the Species plantarum which appeared some fifteen year later. In this book Linnaeus introduced the consistent use of the binomial nomenclatural system with a genus name and a species epithet. The many samples taken from the Clifford collection were type specimens for Linnaeus’s new systematic ordering.

The Hortus Cliffortianus came into existence through the collaboration of a brilliant scientist and an outstanding botanical artist. In 1735 German painter and draughtsman George Ehret had travelled to England with glowing letters of introduction to patrons including Hans Sloane and Philip Miller, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden. In the spring of 1736 Ehret spent three months in the Netherlands and stayed for several weeks at the Hartekamp where he made the majority of the illustrations. He then returned to England to settle in Chelsea from where he sent the remainder of the illustrations. His efforts proved indispensable for the rapid dissemination of the underlying concepts of Linnaeus’s new systematic ordering. Through his famous illustrations, Ehret made Linnaeus’s new system more intelligible. Ehretia, a genus of flowering plants in the borage family (Boraginaceae – containing some fifty species) was named in his honour. Ehret’s plates served as the basis for the etchings of Jan Wandelaar who made the final prints for the book. The latter also produced the outstanding baroque cover, the symbolism of which includes a young Apollo with Linnaeus’s features who brings light into the darkness (of ignorance). Jan Wandelaar – literally: Johnny Walker – is perhaps best remembered for his cooperation with the surgeon and anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus. Teaching anatomy at Leiden University, Albinus was famous for his studies of bones and muscles, and for his attempts at improving the accuracy of anatomical illustration. He used Wandelaar’s considerable artistic talent to achieve that aim. The artist’s earlier involvement with Clifford and Ehret had established his reputation. Clifford used the Hortus as a splendid gift for his contacts within the plant-exchange network. Boerhaave and Van Royen were the first to receive a copy.

In 1760 Pieter Clifford, the oldest son of George, inherited the Hartekamp, but he lacked his father’s passion for plants and the importance of the garden declined. After his death the estate was auctioned on 2 June 1788, probably due to financial problems relating to the bankruptcy of the Clifford Bank in 1772. It was the final chapter in what had been a grand Anglo-Dutch-Swedish undertaking in which natural beauty, science and art had been harmoniously merged. Linnaeus in the meantime became a legendary figure in the Netherlands. In 1853, Hendrik Hollander painted the scientist in Laponian costume. The painting is part of the Hartekamp Estate, but a replica is in possession of the University of Amsterdam.


Rue Lepic is an ancient winding road in Montmartre, climbing the steep hill from the Boulevard de Clichy to the Place Jean-Baptiste-Clément. Having been given various names previously, in 1864 the street was renamed after General Louis Lepic, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars (and of the Polish Campaign in particular). The street is famous for its steep hill. Louis Renault built his first car in 1898, calling his car the ‘Voiturette’. On 24 December 1898, he won a bet with his friends that his invention was capable of driving up the slope of Rue Lepic. As well as winning the bet, Renault received twelve orders for the vehicle.


From 1886 to 1888, Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo lived on the third floor of the property at no. 54. In the spring of 1887 he painted an image of Paris as seen from his room in the Rue Lepic. It was during this period that Vincent changed his painting style from the dark Belgo-Dutch browns and blacks to bright impressionist colours.

For much of his live novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline lived for much of his life at no. 98 Rue Lepic, opposite the Moulin de la Galette. He mentions the street in several of his novels.


Yves Montand dedicated to this road his charming song ‘Rue Lepic’ which features on the 1974 album Yves Montand. It ends with the lines:

Et la rue
Monte, monte toujours
Vers Montmartre, là-haut,
Vers ses moulins si beaux
Ses moulins tout là-haut
Rue Lepic.


Since the Middle Ages there have been windmills on the hill of Montmartre and in the seventeenth century there were at least thirty. The mills were used to grind the corn grown on the plain of Saint Denis, north of Montmartre (now the location of the Stade de France). At the time of Claude Renoir’s death in 1919 nearly all the windmills had disappeared as Paris expanded and the old cornfields were sold off as building plots. The few remaining mills were turned into cabarets and restaurants. Its more recent past saw Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian and others calling Montmartre their home. Around the same time the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur rose from its highest point, memorializing losses suffered during the 1871 Franco-Prussian war and the end of the Paris Commune. This white basilica has dominated the Parisian skyline since 1914. It was dedicated to the 58,000 who lost their lives in the conflict.


For many Parisians a trip to Montmartre was an escape, a place to have fun out of sight of relations and enquiring neighbours. The main attraction was the Moulin de Galette, a windmill situated near the top of Montmartre. The name is based on a popular brown bread or galette that was produced by the nineteenth century miller family of Debray. Initially it was sold with a glass of milk. As the nearby fields were replaced with housing and factories, Nicholas Charles Debray sought commercial opportunities to remain in business. One of the mills was turned into a viewing tower and a dance hall was opened adjacently. People came to the Moulin for entertainment and dancing. It became an outlet for Parisian pleasure-seekers to enjoy a glass of local wine (rather than milk), freshly baked bread and a terrace view of city and Seine below. A number of artists have immortalized the Moulin de la Galette.


The earliest and most notable image was was Renoir’s atmospheric 1876 oil on canvas painting ‘Bal du Moulin de la Galette’, one of the masterpieces of early Impressionism. This painting is his most important work of the mid 1870s and was shown at the Impressionist exhibition in 1877. Though some of his friends appear in the picture, Renoir’s main aim was to convey the vivacious Sunday afternoon atmosphere of the dance garden on the Butte Montmartre. This snapshot of the moving crowd, bathed in natural and artificial light, is depicted with brightly coloured and fluid brushstrokes.


Van Gogh completed his version of the Moulin in 1886 whilst living in the Rue Lepic. Painting outdoors encouraged him to explore the effects of natural light and the result is a luminous palette that departs from his usual sombre tones. Toulouse-Lautrec painted the Moulin de la Galette in 1889, thirteen years after Renoir, but he adopted the same angle of people sitting at tables enjoying the music and dancing in the background. He however uses darker colours and does not focus on the faces of the people, whereas Renoir painted almost every figure looking directly at the viewer. Renoir’s work seems more staged. It seems as if the company of revellers is posing for a photographer.


Picasso created his image of the mill in 1900. His depiction of lamps burning in darkness and women wearing lipstick and striking outfits portray a different ambience than Renoir’s. But in his case too, the painting resembles a stage performance. Looking towards the viewer, his figures pose as if they are keen to give their identity away. One year earlier, Dutch painter Kees van Dongen had settled in Paris and became a resident of the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.


In the early years of the century the poet Max Jacob had the name Bateau-Lavoir to a conglomeration of artists’ studios in Montmartre, at the top of the steps leading to no. 13 Rue Ravignan. They were situated in a shaded square which later took the name of the singer Émile Goudeau. It was a gloomy heap of dark and dirty premises made of beams and planks. On stormy days they swayed and creaked so dangerously on their uncertain foundations that they reminded one of the washing-boats on the Seine – hence the name. Between 1904 and 1914 an extraordinary number of outstanding artists, poets and authors settled here.


The list of occupiers of the building is like a comprehensive index of modernist artists in the years preceding World War I, extending from Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, to Apollinaire, Jarry, and Cocteau. It was in this milieu that Picasso first discussed Cubism. Picasso’s studio was next to Van Dongen, and the two became close friends. Van Dongen painted ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’ in 1904. He participated in the controversial 1905 exhibition Salon d’Automne, in a room featuring Henri Matisse amongst others. The bright colours of this group of artists led to them being called Fauves (‘Wild Beasts’).


Vlaanderenstraat is a street in the Flemish coastal town of Ostend (Oostende). Originally a small fishing village, the town acquired something of a reputation in 1834, when King Leopold I made his summer residence there, and went on to become a fashionable seaside resort in the following decades.

It was in Ostend that Englishman James Frederic Ensor met local girl Marie Catherine Haegheman. He was probably an alcoholic and a bankrupt. The family’s main income came from the shop owned by Marie’s family, an antiques and souvenirs emporium selling china, taxidermic specimens and grotesque carnival masks. James Ensor was born in 1860 and the future painter grew up in this setting of ‘shells, lace, rare stuffed fish, old books, engravings, weapons, Chinese porcelain, an inextricable jumble of miscellaneous objects’ (letter to Louis Delattre, 4 August 1898). Ensor himself lacked interest in academic study and left school at the age of fifteen to begin his art training with two local painters. From 1877 to 1880, he attended the Académy Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where Fernard Khnopff, Theo Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, and other future members of L’Essor and Les Vingt were among his fellow students. In Brussels, he met poet and art critic Théo Hannon who introduced him to the liberal circle of Ernest Rousseau, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and his younger spouse Mariette. The home of the Rousseau couple was a meeting place for the artistic, literary and scientific elite of the time. Here he met Félicien Rops, Eugène Demolder and others who stimulated his artistic and intellectual development.

In 1880 Ensor installed a studio in the attic of his parental home. Although he lived in Ostend until his death, he regularly stayed in Brussels and participated in the artistic life of the capital. With the exception of a few excursions to London, Holland and Paris, Ensor scarcely travelled. He was a loner who despised most cultural representatives and was convinced they hated him. He was both an aggrieved traditionalist and a sophisticated artist who helped shape early Modernism, not in a Paris studio but in an attic room over an Ostend novelty shop. His self-portraits tell their own story. Within the span of five years in the late 1880s he depicted himself as a cross-dressed dandy, a rotting corpse, a bug, a fish, Albrecht Dürer and a crucified Jesus. Between 1885 and 1888, Ensor’s attention went chiefly to drawing and etching. Under the influence of Rembrandt, Redon, Goya, Japanese woodcuts, and Brueghel, Ensor developed a highly personal iconography and design. He rejected French Impressionism and Symbolism and lent himself to the expressive qualities of light, line, colour and the grotesque and macabre motifs which he rendered in massive tableaux such as in the series ‘The Aureoles of Christ or The Sensibilities of Light’ (1885/6). While his early works depict realistic scenes in a sombre style, his palette subsequently brightened and he favoured increasingly bizarre subject matter. Such paintings as ‘The Scandalized Masks’ (1883) and ‘Skeletons Fighting over a Hanged Man’ (1891) feature freakish figures. Masks recall the strange atmosphere of the family shop as well as the local carnival tradition. They conceal a reality that the painter found unbearably cruel, while skeletons point to the vanity of the world. Ensor’s cityscapes of Brussels and Ostend offer a derisive view of contemporary urban renewal and the social transformations it enforced. His work is socio-cultural criticism in colour.

From his studio in the attic on the fourth floor of the house on the corner of Vlaanderenstraat and Van Iseghemlaan, Ensor had a splendid view over the rooftops of his hometown. There are several paintings and drawings on this topic, including the oil paintings ‘La Rue de Flandre dans le neige’ (1880/1) and ‘Boulevard Van Iseghem’ (1893). More relevant in the context of his oeuvre is the 1890 oil painting ‘Musique Rue de Flandre’ or ‘Muziek in de Vlaanderenstraat’ (he also made an engraving of the scene) in which, from a bird perspective, the festive passage has been recorded of a military band in the street, followed by a mass of people, approaching the observer and marching in the direction of the sea. The picture reflects Ensor’s intense preoccupation with the masses. In this case, the image is light-hearted rather than fearful. It is as if Ensor had painted the street and houses first and waited till later to add a seemingly endless stream of people. The marching musicians and their followers are all identical characters. Ensor seems to suggest that within the crowd all individuality dissolves. The single individual is becoming increasingly unable to have a meaning other than as a function of something in which he ceases to have a personality. By contrast, the buildings in the street are presented in an accurate manner, one of those being the Hôtel de Flandres (now Albert II). It was at the time one of the most important hotels in Ostend and had a central gate leading to a courtyard and stables. Nearly all of Ensor’s illustrations of city life include images of crowds and masks, elements applied to his work in order to evoke the horror of the modern metropolis. This is particularly evident in his masterpiece. In 1888, Ensor tackled the monumental ‘Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889’ which elaborates an earlier theme treated in his 1885 drawing ‘Les Auréoles du Christ’, a vast masked carnival mob advancing towards the onlooker. Ensor gave his own features to Christ entering Brussels, as if sacrificing his life and his peace of mind to painting. Ensor’s society is a mob represented by an ugly and dehumanized sea of clowns and caricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures along with the artist’s family and friends make up this mob. The haloed Christ at the centre of the turbulence is an isolated visionary amidst the herd-like masses of modern society. After rejection by Les Vingt, the association of artists that Ensor had helped to found, the painting was not exhibited in public until 1929. In 1917, Ensor moved to the house in the Vlaanderenstraat (no. 27) that he had inherited from his uncle. Today, the James Ensor museum is housed there.

Ensor’s macabre depiction of the masses is by no means exceptional in European culture. Fear of the masses dates back to the eighteenth century and was widely expressed, particularly in England. Lord Chesterfield may have been responsible for introducing the word mob in the English language (1751); Laurence Sterne spoke of the herd of the world (1768). The word ‘mob’ is derived from the Latin phrase mobile vulgus (the fickle crowd). It had its origin at the period of the Exclusion Crisis when the nation became divided into party and faction, Whig versus Tory. Elections for parliament, and other public meetings, resulted inevitably in riots, fights and other disturbances. Initially the word ‘the mobile’ circulated. It was soon shortened to ‘mob’ and became an increasingly loaded term encapsulating the growing fear of social upheaval. During the 1790s the imagery concerning the masses became more surreal. In English journalistic and literary iconography in response to the French Revolution a new image was introduced that would be worthy of James Ensor himself. The image is that of cannibalism.

After the massacres of September 1792, James Gillray portrayed a family of Paris sansculottes feasting upon dismembered bodies, and in 1793 he depicted the exiled revolutionary leader Charles Dumouriez about to eat the severed head of William Pitt. Radical Tory journalists associated with Fraser’s Magazine adopted this set of images and gave it new social resonance in the restless 1830s and 1840s. Social unrest, it was feared, would give rise to a new generation of bloodthirsty barbarians. Fraser’s pointed time and again to Paris in 1792/3 to warn its readers of the dangers at home. Thomas Carlyle was closely connected to this magazine in the 1830s. He made the cannibal and eating imagery his own. The myth of a self-consuming revolution was passed on virtually ready-made from Carlyle to Dickens, who incorporated it as the historical backdrop for A Tale of Two Cities. The fantasy of a cannibal-like insurrection persisted over the entire Victorian period: Carlyle’s ruthless Jacobins from the 1830s merely turned into H.G. Wells’s bloodthirsty Beast Folk and Morlocks from the 1890s. Yet, there is an interesting shift in application. By the end of the nineteenth century the fear of revolution had receded. The cannibal in society is given a different shape. It is no longer the revolutionary mob that drinks the blood of innocence, but the new industrial order is threatening to devour its workers. Capitalism, mechanism, and urbanism turn civilized man back towards a savage state of being. Wells’s oeuvre is catalogue of modern day barbarism, a never ending parade of cannibals fighting to consume one another.

Apart from his passion for painting, Ensor also placed great importance on his (mediocre) musical productions. In 1911, he wrote the libretto and composed the music for a ballet entitled ‘La gamme d’amour’. For this pantomime he designed the decor and costumes himself. In 1924, this ballet was performed in the Antwerp opera house. In that sense, it is appropriate that the artist is remembered in song. John Flansburgh and John Linell, founders of the Brooklyn-based American rock band They Migh Be Giants (TMBG), wrote the lyrics for a song for in which the painter is remembered. ‘Meet James Ensor’ and features on the 1994 album John Henry. Ensor would have appreciated the macabre lines of the refrain:

Meet James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand, appreciate the man.


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