A Belgian at the Bodley

The Victorian establishment preached that art and literature fulfilled crucial ethical roles in society. If a creator dared to stray from the moral code, he was taken to court to be punished for his audacity – and so was his publisher. Critics of Émile Zola despised his ‘lavatorial’ literature and he felt the full power of repugnance when his novels were rendered into English. In 1888/9 publisher Henry Vizetelly of Catherine Street, Strand, was twice convictedof indecency for issuing two-shilling translations. The issue of ‘Corrupt Literature’ was discussed in the House of Commons in May 1888. Zola was rejected as an ‘apostle of the gutter’. To politicians and press barons, the moral health of the nation was at stake. The establishment was shocked when authors and artists of the Aesthetic Movement challenged the status quo by celebrating artistic, sexual, and socio-political experimentation. Having separated art from morality, they demanded an art for its own sake, that is: the disinterested pursuit of beauty. 

Our textbook narrative runs as follows: by the 1890s the term decadence had become fashionable and was used in connection with aestheticism. It originated from Paris and was used to describe the poetry of Baudelaire or Gautier with connotations of refinement, artificiality, ennui, and decline. Decadence was the complex literature of a society that had grown over-luxurious. From France, the movement spread to England thanks to the intervention of figures such as Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde. For a literary movement driven forward by foreign inspiration, however, a number of conditions have to come together. First and foremost, there is a simultaneous emergence (a ‘generation’) of talented representatives; then there is the essential support of a publisher prepared to take risks; and finally, there is the need for publicity (a ‘succès á scandale’ if possible). For such a movement to find wider acceptance and lasting significance in a hostile environment, the presence of a foreign ‘ambassador’ is of particular value. All these elements came together at a property in Vigo Street, Mayfair. Running between Regent Street and the junction of Burlington Gardens and Savile Row, this street was named after the Anglo-Dutch naval victory over the French and Spanish in the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay during the War of the Spanish Succession. 

In 1887 Exeter bookseller Elkin Mathews and Devon-born John Lane formed a partnership in London to trade in antiquarian and second hand books. They established themselves at no. 6B Vigo Street, Mayfair. Over the shop door was a sign depicting Rembrandt’s head, which had been the insignia of the previous business on the site. Its new owners decided to replace the sign with that of Thomas Bodley, the Exeter-born founder of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and call their business The Bodley Head. Initially, Lane was the silent partner, but by 1892 he became actively involved in the running of the firm. From dealing in antiquarian books the partners changed direction and began to publish contemporary ‘decadent’ poetry. The Bodley Head became a sign of modernism. Nowadays, the house is associated with Ernest Dowson and The Book of the Rhymers’ Club (1892), with Aubrey Beardsley and the cover design of Oscar Wilde’s Poems (1892), and in particular with publication of the stunning Yellow Book series (1894/7; edited by Beardsley and Henry Harland). A contributor to the periodical was George Egerton (real name: Mary Chavelia Dunne). Her Keynotes (1893) caused a sensation by tackling controversial themes including sexual freedom, alcoholism, and suicide. In the public mind, whipped up by the popular press, Vigo Street smelled of immorality. When details about Oscar Wilde’s trial became widely known in April 1895, the premises of The Bodley Head were attacked by a stone-throwing mob.

Disagreements about the running of the firm led to the partnership to be dissolved in September 1894. Lane took the sign of The Bodley Head and moved to new premises in the Albany, Piccadilly. Mathews remained in Vigo Street and published the first editions of a number of important literary works, including Yeats’s The Wind among the Reeds in 1899, and James Joyce’s Chamber Music in 1907. Lane now concentrated mainly on publishing fiction. When he died in February 1925, control of the company passed to Allen Lane, a distant cousin who had learned the book trade from his uncle. He would become the founder and creator of Penguin Books. John Lane’s ‘ambassador’ was a man whose aesthetic outlook and artistic practice were formed by avant garde movements in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris. The Bodley Head helped push the career of a Belgian poet and illustrator and, in doing so, integrate Continental modernism into mainstream British art and literature. 

Jean de Bosschère was born on 5 July 1878 in Ukkel (Uccle) in the Brussels region. He spent his childhood in Lier and studied art in Antwerp during the late 1890s when the city’s cultural scene was dominated by Art Nouveau. He began writing essays and monographs on (Flemish) art. He published his first collection of poetry Béâle-Gryne in 1909 to which he added his own illustrations in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. He also drew inspiration from Paul Claudel’s spiritual (Catholic) writing and the (French) symbolist poetry of his friend Max Elskamp. The theme of his first ‘poem-novel’ Dolorine et les ombres (1911) is the opposition between life and dream, between divine and profane love. Its content provoked an accusation of Satanism. The book was printed by Paul Buschmann (the ‘house printer’ of the Antwerp Society of Bibliophiles) in a limited edition of 250 copies. His approach was inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in its ambition to create a perfect harmony between page, typography, and illustration. The Antwerp-based artist René Leclercq provided the novel with a portrait of the author. The impeccable presentation of this novel, aimed at a limited audience, set a precedent for all his later publications.

When World War I broke out, De Bosschère fled to London and settled in Hampstead. John Lane recognised his talent as a poet-illustrator and appreciated the hothouse temperature and erotic sophistication of his creative endeavour. In 1917 The Bodley Head published a collection of his poems under the title of The Closed Door. The translator of these poems was a significant figure. Frank Stuart [F.S.] Flint was a prominent member of the Imagist group. A poet and translator with a sound knowledge of French modernist literature, he ‘competed’ with Ezra Pound for being the brains behind the Imagist movement. The collection made an impact and the poet was admitted to the London elite of modernists. He influenced T.S. Eliot and befriended Pound, Joyce, Huxley, and others. In 1922, tribute was paid to his work by the American translator and Romanist Samuel Putnam in The World of Jean de Bosschère, published in an edition of 100 luxurious copies (with a letter of introduction by Paul Valéry). It cemented his place in the English-speaking world. 

A period of intense activity would follow. He illustrated classic works by Aristophanes, Ovid, Strato, and Apuleius, but he was very much involved with contemporary literature too. In 1927, he illustrated the Boni & Liveright edition (New York) of The Poems of Oscar Wilde. In 1928 he produced the plates for Baudelaire’s Little Poems in Prose, translated by Aleister Crowley, and published in a limited edition of 800 copies. Two years later, he enriched Richard Aldington’s translation (from the French) of Boccaccio’s Decameron with fifteen full-page colour plates. His distinctive, often grotesque style of fantasy illustration (with reminders of Jeroen Bosch) fitted children’s books as well. He authored and illustrated The City Curious (published by Heinemann in 1920), a masterpiece that rivals the achievements of Lewis Carroll. The choice of material indicates that his work was marked by a fascination with the erotic, the obscure, the child-like, and the occult. The pioneering technique of chromolithography as a method of colour printing which was developed in Paris by Godefroy Engelmann and refined by his son Godefroy II during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, did lend itself very well for his work and he applied the technique with great skill. It made him was one of the great colour-plate artists of the early twentieth century.

Apart from The Closed Door, John Lane published four more of books in which Jean de Bosschère participated:

1922: 550 copies of De Bosschère’s Job le Pauvre with fourteen illustrations by the author; frontispiece by Wyndham Lewis; text in French & English.

1923: 3,000 copies of The Golden Asse of Lucius Apuleius; translated by William Adlington; introduction by Edward Bolland Osborn; illustrated by De Bosschère. 

1924: 3,000 copies of Gustave Flaubert’s The First Temptation of Saint Anthony; translated by René Francis from the 1849/56 manuscripts; illustrated by De Bosschère.

1925: 3,000 copies ofThe Love Books of Ovid; a translation of Ars Amatoria by J. Lewis May; illustrated by De Bosschère.

The author and illustrator himself was back in continental Europe by then. His love affair with the translator Vera Anne Hamilton had blossomed in 1920, but she died two years later. He left London towards the end of 1922, spending the remaining years of his life in Paris, Brussels, and Sienna, where he worked on his novels and poetry collections. He remained a prolific artist, but his days of glory were gone. With the darkening socio-political atmosphere of the 1930s, modernist artists came under attack. The general movement was away from individual vision towards joined values. Contemporary society was attacked for the disintegration of principles and decline of moral authority. The brutality of Nazism, the fury of Fascism, and the emergence of Bolshevik realism, dealt a mortal blow to modernist exploration. De Bosschère’s work sunk into relative obscurity. He died in January 1953 in France. From 1946 onwards, he kept a diary titled Journal d’un rebelle solitaire (as yet unpublished). Jean de Bosschère’s work deserves a catalogue raisonné – urgently.

A Café Named Exile – Lancaster Court (Bayswater)

With its introduction into Europe from the Middle East in the seventeenth century, the coffeehouse transformed many areas of social, intellectual, and commercial life. In London, the coffee habit became associated with the dissemination of news and information (Richard Steele, editor of the Tatler, gave its postal address as the Grecian coffeehouse, which he used as his office), the sharing of science and knowledge (‘penny universities’), with trading and auctioneering, and a range of other activities. From the outset artists, writers, and intellectuals frequented cafés. It was here that movements were formed and aesthetics formulated. Discussion demands freedom of speech and expression, one of the more contested aspects of human rights. On 23 December 1675 Charles II issued a ‘Proclamation for the suppression of coffee houses’. His edict banning the sale of coffee, chocolate, sherbet, and tea was motivated by the suspicion that coffeehouses provided a meeting place for the disaffected to spread rumours about court and government. Charles II sensed the dangers of what would later be called ‘public opinion’. The outcry against the draconian ban was such that the king decided to back off and no further mention was made of his edict. Open debate was born in a coffeehouse.

The first successful coffeehouse in Paris was Café Procope, established in 1676 by Sicilian immigrant Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. In 1689 the nearby Comédie Française opened its doors and the café became associated with actors and acting. The first literary café was established. Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire frequented the café and heightened its reputation as a cultural hub. The Enlightenment is associated with the genius of these individuals, but alongside them there was a host of coffee-drinking pamphleteers, journalists, and popular novelists at work. Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 forced large numbers of Huguenot scholars, publishers, and printers out of France. Many of them settled in London. They brought the coffee culture with them. The Rainbow Coffee House in Lancaster Court, off St Martin’s Lane, was in existence from 1702 to 1755. Until about 1730 it was known as a meeting place of French intellectuals. They swapped books and ideas and engaged in discussion on political and theological topics. With close links to Paris and to the Low Countries, its members formed part of a pan-European network for the free exchange of ideas in science and philosophy. Situated close to Huguenot communities in the Strand and Covent Garden, with their chapels at the Savoy and in Leicester Fields, the Rainbow was located near to the French bookshops established by Paul Vaillant and Pierre du Noyer.

Religious questioning was at the centre of philosophical discourse at that period, with long-held beliefs being undermined by recent scientific developments. Knowledge was on display in the public forum which removed the religious shackles of old. Pierre Coste’s translations of John Locke and Isaac Newton facilitated the circulation of their work throughout Europe. Pierre Baylewas educated at Geneva and Toulouse, but spent most of his life in Holland as the leading member of an active intellectual community in Rotterdam. He published the first edition of his astonishing Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) with Reinier Leers, Rotterdam’s most prominent publisher.English translations were issued in 1709 and 1734/41. This work has been called the ‘Arsenal of the Enlightenment’. Michel de la Roche was a journalist and translator who worked on the first English translation of Bayle’s Dictionnaire. He played a major role in the dissemination of English science and philosophy abroad, and conducted a campaign in favour of religious toleration. Exile was an exercise in Enlightenment.

The literary career of Maty underlines the close Anglo-French-Dutch circle. In 1740, Utrecht-born Matthieu Maty, a multi-lingual descendant of Huguenot refugees, obtained degrees in medicine and philosophy at Leiden University after which he settled in London. Mixing with journalists and intellectuals in London coffeehouses, he gained a contract with the publisher Henri Scheurleer at The Hague to act as the sole editor of the ‘Journal Britannique’ (1750-1757: 24 parts) and introduce aspects of English social and cultural life to Dutch and French readers. Maty would eventually rise to the position of Principal Librarian of the British Museum. Refugee publishing lies at the heart of Europe’s intellectual history. The driving force behind the Rainbow group was the journalist and editor Pierre Des Maizeaux. He promoted the circulation of English scientific and philosophical ideas on the Continent through his contributions to French-language periodicals published in Holland, and maintained an impressive network of contacts with regular correspondents in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and The Hague. Rarely before (and certainly not after) had Britain been so open to the ‘universality’ of research. Without a café culture, cosmopolitan Enlightenment would have been unthinkable.

There are parallels with the rise of the modernist movement in Europe. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the École des Beaux Arts was in control of all aspects of artistic life in France. Art academies regulated cultural production, but protests were raised against its dictatorial position. Basic questions were asked. Can art be taught? Should art be regulated or supervised? Is there a tenable theory of absolute beauty? To those queries modernists replied in negative terms. Frustrated by the establishment, they rejected academic art as bourgeois, conservative, and lacking in style. The overbearing rule of the Academy was dismantled in Parisian cafés. Formal discipline was replaced by a free flowing coffee and absinthe culture. The café symbolized modern urban lifestyle. The Café Guerbois and La Nouvelle Athènes played a major role in an emerging modernist movement. Impressionism was the first artistic grouping entirely organized in cafés. Movements such as Symbolism, Decadence, Impressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, Existentialism, Surrealism, and Vorticism were all rooted in a café culture. It was in these settings that the issue of modernity was first articulated. Modernism arrived in sips.

In 1928, Jewish-born author Herman Kesten settled in Berlin to take up the post as editor with the left-wing publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer. That same year he published his first novel Josef sucht die Freiheit. Two more novels followed in quick succession. In 1933, when Hitler came to power Kesten left Berlin for the Netherlands. There he was employed by Allert de Lange’s publishing house to run its German department. Amsterdam was a centre of expatriate German book-publishing in the 1930s, being the home of two outstanding publishers of exile literature: Querido and De Lange. Kesten was actively involved in the preservation of the grand tradition of German writing, editing the work of authors from Heinrich Heine to Max Brod, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, and Bertholt Brecht. De Lange published ninety-one books written by exiled authors. With the occupation of the Netherlands Kesten fled to New York and later acquired American citizenship. In 1970, Kesten looked back in gratitude by publishing a Hymne für Holland. In 1959 he published Dichter im Café in which he looked back at the experience of banishment and its effect upon the creative process. In exile, the coffeehouse is home, church, parliament, desert, place of pilgrimage, cradle of illusions and their cemetery. Exile provokes isolation, but also regenerates. Wherever he arrived on his travels as a refugee, Kesten sought a coffeehouse to withdraw from his woes and write – ‘Ich sass im Kaffeehaus des Exils und schrieb’.

A metropolis without immigrants would be unthinkable. The history of the modern movement coincided with multiple waves of migration in which large numbers of people fled poverty, injustice, censorship, or the ravages of war and revolution. Modernism is associated with flux, exile, and alienation. The café was a haven of permanence in the lives of displaced artists and writers. For James Joyce or Ezra Pound expatriatism and freedom were synonymous. They stressed the intellectual necessity of being abroad, presenting exile as a vehicle for individuality and liberation. To George Steiner, modernism meant extra-territoriality. In practical terms, the café offered drink, food, newspapers, heat, light, and companionship. Emotionally, a seat at the table was of deeper significance. For itinerant artists the café was at the centre of lived experience. It was their cultural homeland. Exclusion turned them into cosmopolitan figures, citizens of several cities, fully at home in none but capable in all. The experience of exile functioned as a release mechanism. Migration meant a loosening of conventional values and customs and as such became a vital source of creative endeavour.

Migrants of the Mind (Cecil Court – London)

At the beginning of the 1880s, Barcelona was a rapidly expanding city of about 350,000 people. Its medieval walls had been knocked down only twenty years earlier. Catalonia developed into Spain’s economic dynamo. Prosperity mushroomed. A self-confident region strove to re-establish its identity by invigorating local culture and language. Barcelona was the engine of change and modernity. The embellishment of the city was ambitious. Having been selected to host the 1888 World Exhibition, the authorities were willing to consider unconventional views of young architects and designers. The period from 1880 witnessed the flowering of ‘La Renaixença’ (the Catalan Renaissance). Identified by a flair for innovation, it was driven by a passion to make Barcelona distinct from Madrid in every conceivable manner.

Catalan modernism was a coalition across the artistic spectrum, although primarily associated with architecture. Nowhere else in Europedid Art Nouveau leave and equally strong building legacy. The movement was pushed forward by Lluis Domenech i Montaner, director of the Barcelona School of Architecture (where he taught Gaudi). His essay ‘In Search of a National Architecture’ (1878) is a seminal text in the history of the modernism. The challenge was to create a peculiar style that would set Barcelona apart from other world cities. Catalan architecture came to be characterized by a preference for the curve over the straight line, a disregard of symmetry, a passion for botanical shapes and motifs, as well as a return to Arabic patterns and decorations. The style is both colourful and ostentatious. It stands in contrast to the minimalism of modernist construction in northern Europe.

The new Catalan style proved perfectly suitable for an Iberian graveyard. Lloret de Mar is an unattractive coastal resort on the Costa Brava. It once was a ship building hub and a centre of trade with the New World. Many youngsters left the town for Cuba or elsewhere in the Americas to make their fortune. On their return, they became known as ‘Indianos’. On 25 April 1898 America declared war on Spain following the sinking of the battleship ‘Maine’ in Havana harbour. Hostilities ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. As a result Spain lost the last remnants of its colonial Empire – Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and other islands. The remaining Indianos returned home. Wealthy, cosmopolitan, and often closely related to the Barcelona social elite, they strove to mark their status. They put up the money to create a grand cemetery. In 1892, the project was commissioned to Joaquim Artau i Fàbregas, a disciple of Gaudi. The architect transferred the latest urban planning trends to the interior of the ‘city of the dead’. Avenues, promenades, and squares were lined with modernist tombs and sculptures. The new cemetery opened in November 1901: Catalan funerary art had come alive.

Three decades later death arrived with fury in Catalonia. General Francisco Franco was a devout Catholic, but as commander of Spain’s Foreign Legion in Morocco he permitted his troupes to commit atrocities. In 1936 he led the insurrection against the government. During the Civil War intellectuals, photographers, and artists travelled to Spain offering support to the Republicans. Robert Capa, Langston Hughes, André Malraux, Willy Brandt, Emma Goldman, John Dos Passos, and many others joined the international brigades. Never before had an armed conflict been reported in such detail. Ernest Hemingway arrived in 1937 to cover the war. Three years later he completed For Whom the Bell Tolls, the greatest novel to emerge from the battle. Global participation proved fruitless. Following the fall of Tarragona on 15 January 1939, a mass exodus started on the routes leading from Catalonia to France. Some 465,000 people crossed the border. By the end of March, Franco declared victory and received a congratulatory telegram from the Vatican. Once established Head of State, Franco’s propaganda machine praised him as a crusader. Ecclesiastical support convinced him of a divine mission to eradicate liberals and left-wingers from the country. Committed to a policy of institutionalized revenge, Franco rejected any idea of amnesty. As late as 1940 Spanish prisons held countless political inmates waiting for execution.

Numerous Republicans sought refuge in Britain. In the late 1930s, after the German blitzkrieg of Guernica, refugees from the civil war began settling in North Kensington, close to the Spanish Republican government in exile which remained active until 1945. Anti-Franco meetings were held at El Hogar Español (the Spanish House) in Bayswater. Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove were centres of Hispanic settlement: London’s ‘barrio Español’. There is some irony here. Known prior to 1740 as Green’s Lane, the name Portobello is derived from Puerto Bello, a harbour town situated near the northern end of the present-day Panama Canal. The port was captured by the English Navy from the Spaniards in 1739 and victory over a maritime rival was met with jubilation throughout the country. George Orwell lived in a grotty flat atno. 22 Portobello Road before he set out to join the Spanish Republicans. In 1938 he would pay Homage to Catalonia.

One of the permanent settlers in Britain was Barcelona-born bookseller, publisher, and scholar Joan Gili. His father Lluís Gili Roig was the founder of a publishing house which became known for its elegant books on art and architecture which included Pablo Picasso’s Tauromaquia (1959). Young Gili had a passion for English literature which led to his correspondence with author and broadcaster Clarence Henry Warren who invited him to England in 1933. He settled permanently in London in October 1934 and went into partnership with Warren to open a bookshop at no. 5 Cecil Court. Known since the 1930s as Booksellers’ Row, the court had a proud cultural history. It was Mozart’s initial London address where he, arguably, composed his first symphony. Long-term residents included T.S. Eliot and John Gielgud amongst others.

When the partnership with Warren was dissolved Gili, now sole owner, filled the shelves with Spanish textbooks imported from Barcelona. Gili was a mediator between London and Barcelona. From Cecil Court flowed articles and commentaries on English literature, there were also regular ‘Letters from England’, and occasional translations into Catalan of pages from D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and other contemporary writers. He then began to publish on his own account. After meeting Miguel de Unamuno during his visit to England in 1936, he obtained the philosopher’s permission to issue his works in Britain. The first public edition of his Dolphin Bookshop Editions was a collection of Unamuno’s writings selected by Gili himself (1938). This was followed by Federico García Lorca’s Poems, jointly translated by Stephen Spender and Gili, with an introduction by Lorca’s close friend Rafael Martínez Nadal. During the Spanish Civil War the Dolphin Bookshop became a hub where supporters of the Republic met and mingled.

Late 1938 Gili secured the contract to transport from Paris to London the fine library of manuscripts and books collected by the French Catalanist Raymond Foulché-Delbosc. This bibliographical coup made him the outstanding Hispanic antiquarian bookseller of his generation. When the Second World War began in September 1939, Gili was registered as an alien in London. Cecil Court seemed a dangerous place to keep priceless books and manuscripts, and the collection was moved to Cambridge first, and from there to a Victorian mansion in Fyfield Road, Oxford. Having settled there, Gili again took pleasure in hosting numerous Spanish Republican exiles.

On 29 July 1940 a National Council of Catalonia was created in London demanding self-determination for the region within a federal Spain. Gili actively promoted the cause by publishing the first edition of his Catalan Grammar in 1943, when the language was banned by Franco’s fascists. In 1954, Josep Maria Batista i Roca conceived the idea of an Anglo-Catalan Society, of which Joan Gili was a founding member and later President. He became known as the ‘unofficial consul of the Catalans in Britain’. Of the seventy-three titles published under the Dolphin imprint between 1936 and 1996 no fewer than twenty-five were Catalan works, forty were Spanish or Latin-American, five were on art, and three were English works. Joan Gili died in Oxford in May 1998, a passionate Anglo-Catalan to his very last day. Critics of immigration fail to understand that it is perfectly possible for an exile to integrate into a host society without sacrificing one’s identity. In fact, those who succeed in doing so tend to be the most creative and productive of newcomers. At best, resettlement is an extension, not a reduction of individuality.

The age of political muscle during the 1930s led to artistic suppression. The tragedy of modernism became evident with the expulsion of writers and artists from their native countries; and with the migration of books and works of art to be safeguarded from the burning eyes of zealots. During Franco’s regime, modernist ideas were perceived as a threat to the country’s moral fabric. The authorities censored all writing that was at odds with its political and religious stance. Literature went into exile. In Britain, Joan Gili had promoted Spanish/Catalan modernism both as a publisher and a translator of Lorca. His son Jonathan Gili, a documentary film-maker and small-press publisher, was a collector of Iberian printed ephemera. He rescued many first editions and rare examples of Art Deco style in print form. In 2014, a decade after his death, Cambridge University Library acquired seventy titles from his collection. It is a tribute to the Gili family that some of their exiled books – migrants of the mind – have found a niche in one of the world’s prominent libraries.

Litany of Bitterness: George Street (Marylebone)

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Nollendorfplatz (Berlin)


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.


Spiegelgasse (Zurich)

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.

Boulevard de Rochechouart (Paris)


The Boulevard de Rochechouart is situated at the foot of Monmartre and named after Marguerite de Rochechouart de Montpipeau, Abbess of Montmartre. The street has a rich cultural history. No. 72 was the former site of the Elysée Montmartre which was a popular ballroom originally dating back to 1807.

Twelve doors down the road was the original location of the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir opened by the painter Rodolphe Salis on 18 November 1881. Hungarian painter Francois Gall became an impressionist painter in the French tradition after he moved to Paris in 1936. He admired the first generation of impressionists and adopted their concepts for his own interpretations. Parisian scenes and boulevards – of which his ‘Boulevard de Rochechouart’ is one – were among his preferred subjects.

Pleyel and Company is a French piano manufacturing firm founded by Austrian-born French composer Ignace Joseph Pleyel who had moved to Paris in 1795. In 1797 he set up a business as a music publisher, which among other works produced a complete edition of Haydn’s string quartets in 1801. The publishing business lasted for some forty years and published about 4,000 works. In 1807, Pleyel became a manufacturer of pianos. His firm also ran a concert hall, the Salle Pleyel.

It was there that Chopin performed his first and his final Paris concerts. By 1834 the company had purchased a construction workshop and sale room in the Rue Rue Rochechouart. At that time, it boasted 250 employees and an annual production of 1,000 pianos. Pleyel pianos were the choice of composers such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, Stravinsky, and many other outstanding musicians. The Salle Pleyel opened its doors in December 1839 at no.22 Rue Rochechouart. It became central to nineteenth century concert life in the capital. Chopin, Liszt, Thalberg, Rubinstein, César Franck had all appeared there by the mid-1840s. Over the years it saw the premieres of many important works, including the second (1868) and fifth (1896) piano concertos by Saint-Saëns, and Ravel’s ‘Pavane pour une infant défunte’.

In 1927, a new Salle Pleyel was opened at no. 252 Rue du Faubourg St Honoré. Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel both conducted their own works as part of the inaugural concert on 18 October of that year. For the occasion, André Devambez painted a charming 1928 oil painting of the ‘Salle Pleyel’ for the magazine L’Illustration.

The Boulevard de Rochechouart has a noble reputation in the history of music. In literature however the street was known for its noise levels. To young French romantics of the late 1820s art meant protest. Protest involves noise and agitation. Artistic evolution from the nineteenth into the twentieth century is one of ever increasing noise and loudness. Blast was the perfect title for a literary magazine. The Italian futurists went a step further. Noise is art. This development from public posturing to poetic expression can be shown in a set of contrasting anecdotes involving the intervention of neighbours. Closeness is a dominating feature of city life.

Contemporary historians, in their grand designs, have not been kind to the anecdotal tale. Like Voltaire before them, they have been dismissive about including anecdotes in their narrative. The anecdote comes into play when emphasis is put on ‘couleur locale’ and physiognomy, an approach that focuses on the characters, customs, and habits particular to a country (region), period in time, or movement in art. If one takes a wider overview of historical accounts, the anecdote has often stood in a close relation to more elaborate narratives of history, sometimes in a supportive function, as examples and illustrations, sometimes in a challenging role, as the ‘petite histoire’ that is all too often ignored by authors. Prosper Mérimée was a dramatist and historian, best known for his novella Carmen which inspired Bizet’s opera.

In 1829 he published La chronique du temps de Charles IX, a historical novel set at the French court at the time of the St Bartholomew massacre. In his introduction to the story the author wrote: ‘Je n’aime dans l’histoire que des anecdotes, et parmi les anecdotes je préfère celles où j’imagine trouver une peinture vraie des moeurs et des caractères à une époque donnée.’ [I like nothing in history but its anecdotes; and of all anecdotes, I prefer those, which strike me as presenting a correct picture of the manners and characters of any given period]. The use of anecdote may no longer be considered a scholarly method, but it can nevertheless by an effective way in characterizing the tone of a period. After all, every age speaks its own language, creates its own music, and makes its own noise.

The Romantics were the first to raise the noise level in art and literature. Artists and poets were young, loud and disrespectful. Being young was a critical value in itself. In a society in flux youth seemed to be called upon to play a decisive role. Poet Pétrus Borel was spokesman for an eccentric group of Parisian students and artists, known as Le Petit Cénacle, who were dedicated to the fight against Classicism and artistic stagnation. Among its members were Célestin Nanteuil, Philothée O’Neddy, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and others. As was the case for so many Bohemians, Borel’s lodgings were poor and small. In 1831, he and his followers moved from the Latin Quarter to the corner of Boulevard de Rochechouart. Since they could not afford the cost of an entire house, they rented a room which opened into a garden and named their base ‘Le Camp des Tartares’. They changed their group name as well and proudly called themselves Les Jeunes France, suggesting that they were the nation’s future. They intended to fight all forms of philistinism that symbolized the regime of Louis Philippe.

Borel and his band of artists made a social nuisance of themselves. They gathered naked in the garden until outraged neighbours called in the police. The practice had to stop under threat of court action for outrageous behaviour. Garden concerts given by the artists were not aimed at evoking a sense of tonal harmony, but were staged for the purpose of making as much noise as possible. To them, music meant creating a cacophony of sound. In the end, their rowdy behaviour led to arrests (even a gentle soul such as De Nerval spent time inside). The landlord decided to terminate the lease. Neighbours had convinced him that the presence of these non-conformist youngsters lowered the prestige of the neighbourhood. Borel then found a tiny house in the Quartier Latin. Appropriately, the street was called La Rue d’Enfer. He celebrated the move with a house-warming party that may still count as one of the wildest orgies ever celebrated in the French capital. Once again, the physical move brought a new name to the group. A term of abuse in the press became a banner of pride (in much the same way as the label Impressionism was introduced some decades later).

The artists adopted the name of Bousingos (‘faiseurs de bousin’ = brawlers). As Charles Asselineau mentions in his Mélanges tirés d’une petite bibliothèque romantique (1866), they even planned to publish a joint collection of short stories under the title Les contes du Bousingo – par une camaraderie. The project never materialized, Gérard de Nerval being the only author who contributed a story. Borel and his circle of bousingo’s formed the link between Bohemia and Romanticism. Hugo naturally turned to him when recruiting his ‘Romantic Army’ on the eve of the performance of Hernani, the play that would prove to be the decisive blow in the battle between Classicists and Romantics (artistic relations at the time were described in military terms, indicating a sharpening of competitive relationships).

Futurist artists were a loud lot. Noise was their trademark. Excessive noise, they argued, is a by-product of modern industrial and technological society to which art has to respond. To them, it served both to shatter older forms of perception based on notions of order and harmony, and to instantiate the violence the Futurists believed was inherent in matter as well as in social life. L’arte dei rumori (The Art of Noises) is a 1913 manifesto written by Luigi Russolo. In it, the author argues that as the human ear has become accustomed to the speed and noise of the urban soundscape, musical instrumentation and composition has to adept itself to new technologies and create an intoxicating orchestra of noise. Futurism, of course, was rooted in poetry. From the outset, the renovation of language was its ultimate aim. In the process the notion of New Typography was developed. The initiative goes back to F.T. Marinetti who, since 1905, advocated in the pages of his magazine Poesia the idea of free verse (verso libero) which gradually evolved into the idea of words-in-freedom (parole in libertà). In 1913 Marinetti published his manifesto ‘Destruction of Syntax / Imagination without Strings / Words-in-Freedom’ where he argued that the futurist experiment was ‘grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility that has generated our pictorial dynamism, our anti-graceful music in its free, irregular rhythms, our noise-art and our words-in-freedom’. By an imagination without strings the poet meant the absolute freedom of images or analogies, expressed with unhampered words and without connecting strings of syntax or punctuation. Adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions were to be banished from poetry.


His theories were given shape and form in his masterpiece Zang Tumb Tumb in 1914. Marinetti’s efforts were central to subsequent typographical experiments in European poetry. Book-making would never be the same.

Marinetti visited London in 1910 as part of a series of lectures aimed at galvanizing support across Europe for the Italian avant-garde. In his presentation at the Lyceum Club, he addressed his British audience as victims of ‘traditionalism and its medieval trappings’. His attack on John Ruskin was devastating. Ruskin – Marinetti thundered – with his morbid dream of rustic life, his nostalgia for Homeric cheeses and legendary wool-winders, and his hatred for the machine, is like a man who, after having reached maturity, wants to sleep in his cradle and feed himself at the breast of his decrepit old nurse in order to recover his infancy. Marinetti electrified some of the assembled English avant-garde with his performance. Others were more reserved about, if not shell-shocked by the Italian’s cultural extremism.

One of those was young Richard Aldington. It is an irony of Aldington’s career that he is chiefly remembered for his involvement in a modernist movement he quickly disowned. Aldington was only twenty when Ezra Pound launched him as a leading light of the Imagistes, who fought Victorian poetics with the ideal of clear imagery and flexible rhythms. Hardness as of cut stone, as Aldington phrased the ambition himself. However, Marinetti confused him. He appreciated his artistic radicalism, but abhorred the Italian’s derision of traditional culture and civilization. In his memoirs Life for Life’s Sake (1941) Richard Aldington has left an amusing description of an evening that a party of poets consisting of Ezra Pound, Thomas Sturge Moore, Yeats, and himself, spent with Marinetti. Communication was difficult as Marinetti spoke no English and Yeats would not talk a language of which he was not a master. Yeats read some poems which Marinetti would have thought disgustingly passéistes if he had understood them. Marinetti was requested to recite something of his. He sprang up and in a stentorian Milanese voice began bawling:

Ivre d’espace,
Qui piétine d’angoise, etc.

Yeats had to ask him to stop his performance because neighbours were knocking in protest on the floor, ceiling and walls. In art and literature, England was slow to adopt modernist trends that were manifest on the Continent. Fear of neighbours maybe?

Friedrichstrasse (Berlin)


The Friedrichstrasse is a major business and shopping street in central Berlin, forming the core of the Friedrichstadt neighbourhood. It runs for three and a half kilometres through the heart of the city in north-southerly direction from the old Mitte to the Hallesches Tor in the Kreuzberg district. During the Cold War it was bisected by the Berlin Wall and formed the location of Checkpoint Charlie.


Since the nineteenth century the area has been renowned for the dense conglomeration of theatres. The options run from classical works at the Berliner Ensemble, founded by Bertold Brecht, to political cabaret at the Distel Theatre, to costume spectaculars at the Friedrichstadtpalast. The most northern section of Friedrichstrasse was a lively bar and club district. Almost every second building housed some sort of entertainment venue, including numerous brothels. Paul Boldt’s poem ‘Friedrichstrassendirnen’ dates from 1913/4 and deals with the street walkers of the famous street:


Sie liegen immer in den Nebengassen,
Wie Fischerschuten gleich und gleich getakelt,
Vom Blick befühlt und kennerisch bemakelt,
Indes sie sich wie Schwäne schwimmen lassen.

Im Strom der Menge, auf des Fisches Route.
Ein Glatzkopf äugt, ein Rotaug‘ spürt Tortur,
Da schiesst ein Grünling vor, hängt an der Schnur
Und schnellt an Deck einer bemalten Schute,
Gespannt von Wollust wie ein Projektil!

Die reissen sie aus ihm wie Eingeweide,
Gleich groben Küchenfrauen ohne viel
Von Sentiment. Dann rüsten sie schon wieder
Den neuen Fang. Sie schnallen sich in Seide
Und steigen ernst mit ihrem Lächeln nieder.


Some have called Friedrichstrasse Berlin’s own Champs-Elysées. The street may lack the grandeur of the Parisian boulevard, but it makes up for it in its history, its sheer variety and vitality that made recovery possible after the disasters of war and subsequent Communist neglect. Friedrichstrasse stops at the Oranienburger Tor, a gateway to another nightlife district that came into its own after the Wall tumbled. The history of the Friedrichstrasse station dates back to 1878. It was built adjacent to the point where the street crosses the Spree River. In Mr Norris Changes Trains, novelist Christopher Isherwood has William Bradshaw eating ham and eggs with Arthur Norris at the first class restaurant of the station. The atmosphere inside the station was captured by Georg Grosz in his 1912 ‘Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’ (pen and ink on paper). The city was buzzing at the time.


Politically, at the time, Germany was a unified nation. The economy was strong. By the beginning of World War I, industry was responsible for more than half of the nation’s gross national product and its industrial sector was the largest in Europe. The speed of change, the rapid modernization, industrialization and urbanization around the turn of the century, caused feelings of anxiety and alienation which were expressed in art and literature. The nature of this crisis feeling was not a war or catastrophe or economic depression, but the rapidity of change that took place within society. Such disquiet was not limited to the German artists. There was a mood of despair among intellectuals that infected popular opinion on much of the Continent at the beginning of the twentieth century. The machine has brought about change in habit and the circumstances of life at a rate for which we have no parallel, F.R. Leavis wrote in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930). Change has been so catastrophic that the generations find it hard to adjust themselves to each other, and parents are helpless to deal with their children. One prominent target of this reaction to modernity was urbanization. A mood of anxiety and images of cities are frequently paired in Expressionist art. Street scenes combine a feeling of unease with a suggestion of energy. This ambivalence is characteristic of Expressionism in general. Paintings or poems however do not represent a polemic against the metropolis. Expressionist art work does not simply embody or reflect ideas, but it provides an emotional attitude towards ideas that effectively interiorizes them.


For Kirchner, the street was an abstraction, a blur of buzzing anonymity. There are hints of architecture, but in general the streets are runways for prostitutes and their clients. In his painting ‘Friedrichstrasse’ the two women depicted pose with chilly hauteur whilst an ‘endless chain’ of mechanically moving men descend diagonally in their direction. These women are not the gross characters of George Grosz or Otto Dix. They are glamorous and aloof. Eroticism and fashion go hand in hand. Within his staccato style of painting, Kirchner details plumed hats, colourful scarves, fashionable jackets, transparent blouses, and slit skirts. In his work, women are – as it were – on display. In the midst of growing prosperity, Berlin had developed a passion for luxury. During the early decades of the twentieth century, art, fashion, consumerism, and the increasing sexualization of everyday life, were hotly debated. Moralists feared an excess of lust and luxury. The young had to be protected from immorality. Cultural critics called for legal action and increased censorship in order to combat an explosion of eroticism in art and advertising. The commercial aspect is intriguing. The focus of attention was on the ‘liberties’ taken by the display windows of the big stores in Berlin’s main streets – and on the appearance of mannequins in particular.


In March 1913 a new fashion house named Kersten & Tuteur had opened its doors to the public in the Leipziger Strasse (near to the Potsdamer Platz). The house took particular pride in their display windows as a cultivation of luxury at its lyrical best. The erotic element was pushed to a new limit by showing mannequins dressed in corsets or revealing negligees that attracted a whole new form of voyeurism. Other shops quickly followed suit in order to share in the enormous curiosity these windows attracted. The more suggestive the ‘tableaux’ on display, the more clients would enter the store. Kirchner was fully aware of this new development in consumer behaviour. Many of his images seem to refer directly to the current debate on corset and corruption, on commercial display and depravity, on fashion and frivolity. It made his paintings more controversial (he had his fair share of difficulties with the censor) and topical.


Charing Cross (London)


Charing Cross denotes the junction of Strand, Whitehall and Cockspur Street, just south of Trafalgar Square. It is named after the Eleanor Cross that once stood in the hamlet of Charing. In 1290, Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I had died at Harby in Nottinghamshire. The places where her body rested on the journey south to its tomb in Westminster Abbey were each marked by stone crosses. The site of the Charing cross is now occupied by an equestrian statue of Charles I.

There are countless paintings and drawings of Charing Cross and its famous bridge. The view produced by one artist, however, has become iconic. When Claude Monet visited London in 1870 he became intrigued by the metropolis. Capturing its muted colours and moisture-laden atmosphere became a challenge he was not ready to risk as yet. His desire to paint these distinctive effects of light and tonal nuance was rekindled three decades later when he travelled to London later to visit his son Michel in the autumn of 1899. The sight of the city’s buildings looming in the fog inspired him to return the following year. He painted boats on the Thames from a position on the Charing Cross Bridge as well as the massive silhouette of the Houses of Parliament in every conceivable weather condition. He struggled to capture what he saw, working on as many as fifteen canvases at a time. Monet painted his ‘Charing Cross Bridge’ in 1900. This view of the bridge, with its misty atmosphere and the merest suggestion of shapes for the boats on the water, recalls earlier and pioneering work. His ‘Waterloo Bridge’, painted in the same year, is an evocative portrayal of London’s infamous overcast climate in which the artist restricted his palette to a range of blues, modulated with yellow into green, in a dramatic expression of obscured light.

In his letters from London, Monet often complained about the English weather. The fog, the rain, and the damp all threatened to impede his progress, and he often worked in his hotel room, looking out the window. But the volatility of the weather also inspired him. He set out to capture every type of weather in paint, including his 1903 work ‘Pont de Waterloo, Jour Gris’. His 1903 foggy image of ‘Les maisons de Parliament’ was part of a series that had to be completed from memory rather than observation. Illness had cut short this, his third London campaign. In 1900, Claude Monet pushed himself to the point of collapse, and, in the following year, a severe bout of pleurisy forced him to cut his work short and return to Giverny. It was during this spell of physical recovery that he started his famous series (nearly 100 canvases) of water lilies floating in his pond.


Maintaining this Continental focus, Charing Cross appears in a significant manner in Ford Madox Ford’s modernist war poem ‘Antwerp’ (published in January 1915). Previously, just before entering World War I where he served as a Lieutenant until he was sent home following shell shock at the battle of the Somme, Ford had published his novel The Good Soldier. His Antwerp poem was inspired by the blackness of his experiences during the war. It was considered by T.S. Eliot to be the only good poem he knew on the subject of war. Ford, weary of English life, eventually settled in France where he founded The Transatlantic Review. He made Ernest Hemingway assistant editor, and they published authors such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys. Between the years 1924 and 1928, he published his four-volume novel, Parade’s End. The poet published ‘Antwerp’ under his real name of Ford Madox Hueffer. Son of a German journalist and music critic, he anglicized his name to Ford Madox Ford only after the war at the behest of his publisher.


An early episode in the war was the siege of Antwerp in the north of Belgium by the German Army. Ford’s poem deals with the desperation of Belgian resistance against the German invasion. It opens with these powerful lines:

An October like November;
August a hundred thousand hours,
And all September,
A hundred thousand, dragging sunlit days,
And half October like a thousand years …
And doom!
That then was Antwerp …

To describe Belgian heroism, Ford uses parallels with the heroes of Greek or Norse legend. The final verses of the poem move the reader from occupied Antwerp to Charing Cross and the nightmare spectacle of Belgian refugees. In September 1914 the British government had offered ‘victims of war the hospitality of the British nation’, accepting the responsibility for the reception, maintenance and registration of Belgian refugees, while at the same time sought out assistance in housing the refugees with local authorities. British Naval Brigades were sent to Antwerp to the relief and evacuation of the city. It meant the beginning of an influx of refugees from Belgium. Charing Cross was the station where these refugees arrived in large numbers, frightened women, childrenand elederly people in desperate circumstances carrying their tiny bundles belongings done up in handkerchiefs. Ford paints a painful picture of the conditions awaiting those who had fled their home and country:

This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud….
And now!… That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another….
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders:


There is another strong reminder of the unfortunate role Charing Cross played during World War I. John Hodgson Lobley was official war artist to the Royal Army Medical Corps. Nowadays we send photographers to the front. During the Great War artists were commissioned to leave their impressions to posterity. In his capacity as war artist Lobley created 120 paintings, many of which are owned by London’s Imperial War Museum. These include scenes of rehabilitation in Queens Hospital for Facial Injuries in Sidcup (opened in 1917 thanks to the initiative of otolaryngologist Harold Gillies: more than 11,000 operations were performed on over 5,000 soldiers with facial injuries from gunshot wounds) ; of the Royal Army Medical Corps in training; and of casualty clearing stations near battlefields in France, including Douai. Probably the most famous of Lobley’s images is the 1918 oil on canvas painting entitled ‘Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916: Casualties from the Battle of the Somme Arriving in London’.


Rhythmical Typography

During World War I Dada emerged as an anti-war art movement. Much of the early work from artists associated with Dada takes the form of a protest against the collective madness of war. Collage, confrontational performance art, guerrilla theatre were part of those who resisted the war. In an age of war-mongering artists had to find a means of being heard. Their work was created in order to confront the viewer or listener, to force interaction, to shatter expectations and well-established traditions. One of the means available to the poet was the use of experimental typography. To some authors (the case of Futurism is a different issue entirely) typography became synonymous with the battle against war, violence and intolerance.

Antwerp has been a centre of avant-garde experimentalism in the Low Countries, both in the pictorial arts and in literature. Paul van Ostaijen was a multi-talented artist who wrote poetry, prose pieces and literary criticism. He described poetry as word-painting. In his manifesto-like statements, he declared to search for a complete poverty of content. The mind should not be distracted by anything secondary. Poetry should work in the same way as music, without the deviousness of semantics. Words are not chosen for their meaning, but for their musicality. However, with every collection of his poetry there appeared another view on literature, new themes, and a different way of treating language. In proper avant-garde tradition, the experiment seemed the ultimate challenge, not the result. In 1916, Van Ostaijen published Music-Hall, a first collection of metropolitan poems that describe the nightlife of Antwerp. Two years later, his poetics had changed drastically. Het Sienjaal (‘The Signal’) shows him as a humanitarian expressionist. The poet acts as prophet. By the means of words he brings people closer together. With the publication of Bezette Stad in 1921 (‘Occupied City’) the tone of his poetry has become black and pessimistic. The poem evokes the capture and occupation of Antwerp during the First World War.

Written in Berlin, Bezette Stad is Van Ostaijen’s best known collection. It was here that he fulfilled the typographical and formal experiment that gives him a special place in literature, making full use of what he called ‘rhythmical typography’. Words are printed bold, in italics, in waves or vertically. The form supports the content. The word Zeppelin is printed in the form of a Zeppelin, an orchestra evokes a bombardment. Bezette Stad is one of the highlights of European avant-garde poetry. Yet, this collection has gone beyond the experimental. The typographical means were largely inspired by Dada and however stimulating they may be in themselves, they serve the purpose of highlighting meaning. The ‘message’ is the madness of war.