Zarathustra reconsidered

Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Hulse (trans.), Notting Hill Editions, 2022, pb., 312pps + xiv, £12.99

Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul S. Loeb, David F. Tinsley (eds., trans.), Stanford University Press, 2022, pb., 576pp + xii, US$30

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

Keith Ansell-Pearson, Paul S. Loeb (eds.),Cambridge University Press, 2022, hb., 277pps + xiv, £75
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees new sides of Nietzsche

Apparently, at one stage of World War I, every German soldier deployed was given a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, apparently to fortify their will. It is in some ways an odd choice. Nietzsche subtitled it “A book for all and none”, realising that many readers would be baffled by the messages. Although few would have been perplexed at the presentation of moral-philosophical issues in the form of fables – for what are fables, if not moral-philosophical issues rendered in colourful narrative form? – many would wonder what exactly those messages were. Initially, that was not a problem because there were so few readers. A long, fabulous narrative, featuring a protagonist barely known in modern Europe, split over multiple volumes, written by a little-known retired professor of philology had few takers at the time. It is hard not to think that while it might have been undervalued on first appearance, it was equally overvalued soon afterwards.

No philosopher had greater influence on the development of modern history and Modernism in the arts than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Of his writings, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5) is unique in that it is written from the perspective of a fictionalised character, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It became the book Nietzsche was most pleased with, even though it has been criticised as verbose and overwritten. His later, aphoristic style, written in the manner of Heraclitus, is easier to follow and considered more effective as prose; as rhetoric, Zarathustra maybe carries more impact. A new translation of this, perhaps Nietzsche’s most popular book, has just been published. It joins two other related books, one a critical analysis of the text and another being a previously unseen fragment written at the same time as Zarathustra not included in other publications. This review will discuss all three.

A mid-nineteenth century Indian depiction of Zoroaster/Zarathustra

Nietzsche presents his thoughts through the voice of Zarathustra, acting as religious-philosophical counter to the Gospel narrative of the teaching of Christ. He wanted to bypass scholars and reach readers directly, although he had no pretensions to populism or accessibility (remember – “A Book for All and None”). For those seeking the evidential arguments of The Birth of Tragedy or the late aphorisms written in Heraclitus’s style, Zarathustra will prove a trying book. Not that it is hard to read, but rather its indirectness and intrusive imagery prove an impediment to understanding Nietzsche’s reasoning, even if it is effective rhetoric.

A fifteenth-century Flemish depiction of Zoroaster/Zarathustra

Nietzsche’s book, originally published in four volumes, has been characterised as the resolution to a crisis reached in the preceding book The Gay Science, which included the dramatic passage in which a truth-saying madman declares that God is dead, killed by modern society, one in the throes of scientism and humanism. In Zarathustra Nietzsche explores a way out of this spiritual dead-end. He concluded that the Übermensch (German: superman), the man who embodies truth and will to power were the solution to the derangement of values and the death of trust in religion. The nihilism that consumes deracinated, scientific, rational man can only destroy and cannot produce – at least in the long-term, outside of art as “the sum of destructions” pace Picasso – and must be countered by a conscious transubstantiation of all (received) values. The Übermensch will master first himself and then the world, through the exertion of the will to power, which overcomes fear. Not every man will be capable of that; only the superior man will be capable. The normal man must be led by these self-actualised Übermenschen. This is clearly the part that was meant to stimulate German soldiers in the muddy trenches towards heroism.

Image: Talmoryair. Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche is scathing of many movements and grand figures of his time. The most striking fable is of socialists (“preachers of equality”) as tarantulas:

Revenge sits within your soul; a black scab grows wherever you bite; your venom makes the soul giddy with revenge! […] ‘What we call justice shall be precisely this: the world shall be filled with the storms of our revenge’ – that is how they talk among themselves. ‘We shall practise revenge and abuse against any who are not as we are’ – that is what the tarantula-hearts pledge to each other. […] Vengefulness sounds from every one of their complaints, and all of their praise is hurtful; and to be judges seems a blessed thing to them.[i]

This is related to Nietzsche’s thoughts on ressentiment, the system of behaviour springing from recognition and reaction against a person’s weakness and inferiority and reacting by projecting anger upon others as a way of evading self-knowledge and self-correction. Self-overcoming is one of the main themes of the book. The mass adoption of mindful self-overcoming will see the rise of the Übermenschen on a civilisational (epochal) level. 

The figures who appear in part 4 are often seen as disguised responses to individuals and types. These have been seen as follows: the soothsayer is Schopenhauer, the conscientious man is the scientist (Darwin?), the sorcerer is Wagner, the ugliest man is the atheist, the shadow is the freethinker, the voluntary beggar is Buddha or Tolstoy. This interpretation is omitted from the new translation. Likewise omitted are textual notes on features of the original text, which includes some untranslatable puns and wordplay. The translation of the new edition is by Michael Hulse, former academic at Warwick University and translator of W.G. Sebald, Rilke and Elfriede Jelinek. He is also an acclaimed poet and therefore in an ideal position to capture the sweep and precision of Nietzsche’s mannered style in English – not least the passages of verse. Hulse has chosen to strike a middle path between directness of speech and the language of the King James’s Bible, eschewing the archaic but retaining something of the stiff rhetoric of the ancients. This is effective and never attempts to conceal the deliberately florid style Nietzsche adopted for this book. 

In terms of fluency and potency – accuracy is something that I cannot aver – Hulse’s version is excellent. The awkwardness one encounters is deliberate and reflects Nietzsche’s deliberate stylistic choices. Hulse’s version reminds us that Zarathustra is written in a portentous, high-spirited manner, while never favouring fluency over exactness. This translation is slightly less of an easy read than others because it forces you to notice and does not slip into a manner. So, although it might seem paradoxical, the granularity of the Hulse translation directs one’s attention to the meaning rather than (more passively) imbibing the prose style or becoming attached to the atmosphere.

Editors Keith Ansell-Pearson and Paul S. Loeb assert in their introduction  to Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”: A Critical Guide:

…recent philosophical scholarship tends to marginalize TSZ and to downplay its significance in our engagement with Nietzsche’s thought. […] The aim of this volume is to remedy neglect of TSZ by highlighting its importance for a fuller understanding of Nietzsche’s contribution to philosophy…TSZ needs to assume a central role in any informed appreciation of his style of philosophical practice as well as of the fundamental content of his core ideas.[ii]  

Ansell-Pearson and Loeb observe that Nietzsche wished to detach himself from professionalised philosophy by taking up a persona and writing in fables:

Nietzsche knew that the philosophical texts he wrote in his own voice could be easily assimilated into this bloodless academic culture, so he deliberately designed a new kind of philosophical text that would resist any such assimilation. His fictional protagonist actually practices philosophy as a way of life and this is shown by the narrative of his transformative travels […][iii]

Nietzsche intended Zarathustra to be a return to the Greek model of lived philosophy.

Benedetta Zavatta discusses the controversy about the composition of the book. The first three parts were published in separate volumes and the author considered them complete. He then published a fourth part, which was part of an intended further three volumes. Whether this last part is a new book, or an extension, is an open question, made all the more pointed by the fact that the author later wanted volume IV retracted. Other essays by specialists consider Zarathustra as ecological warning, because of Nietzsche’s naturalism (contra Schopenhauer’s metaphysics), as well as the book’s treatment of moral philosophy, politics and transhumanism. Ansell-Pearson and Marta Faustino’s essay on the quest to embody philosophy in a text for living is particularly effective at unlocking Nietzsche’s intentions. Christopher Janaway refutes the common correlation between the soothsayer character in Zarathustra with Schopenhauer, going on to argue that Zarathustra’s teachings do indeed reject Schopenhauer’s urge to combat ubiquitous ceaseless will.

Zarathustra is sometimes partitioned from the main body of Nietzsche’s philosophy as fiction. Likewise, the Nachlass (German: estate) papers, currently being published in a critical edition (translations published by Stanford) are considered by some illegitimate, as working materials that were not deemed suitable for publication (or even preservation). As such, some writers will not consider them as part of Nietzsche’s oeuvre.

That is what makes so contentious the Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spake Zarathustra (Spring 1884-Winter 1884/5), the 15th volume in the series The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche published by Stanford University. Each volume comes with extensive notes and commentary. Summaries guide our general understanding of themes, while translators’ comments on the most important terms allow non-German-speakers to gauge Nietzsche’s text, making us aware of linguistic subtleties, as well as adding extra thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s sources, influences and intentions. An index is included. It comes as a surprise to encounter Nietzsche writing so much on fine art, especially painting, about which he never published. Nietzsche’s view of history is both linear and cyclical, with cycles unable to repeat exactly due to linear characteristics of historical development. He is a pessimist – “The dumbing-down and homogenization of Europe on the rise, / Ever-increasing enmity of the progeny of the nobility toward l’homme supérieur. / […] The lack of any moral practices: feelings instead of principles.”[iv]

In response to the deterioration of Europe following the French Revolution, Nietzsche toys with the idea of selective breeding to counter racial decline.[v] However, once work starts in earnest on Zarathustra, he returns to the nature of morality and moral exemplars. He is insistent on the destruction of Christianity, as an impediment to development.

Most of the fragments are aphorisms only a sentence or two long. The drafts for Zarathustra are the only sections longer than a page. There is a section of verse – verse forms a significant part of Zarathustra – which has more merit as a distillation of thought than as poetry. The lists of images in the notes reach the level of Surrealist poetry inadvertently and top the verse. “– thistle-heads, scrupulous saps – hasty, like jumping spider monkeys – between coffins and sawdust – dizzy dogs and sickly breeds all around me – a cold bath […]”[vi] The Fragments are a terrific read – pithy, cutting, stark, playful, grand. It is like being in the company of the philosopher at his most expansive and garrulous. It is, of course, not the same as a considered conclusion or articulated argument, which is why anyone seeking enlightenment and information about Nietzsche’s philosophy must be extra wary of these seductive writings.


[i] Pp. 89-90, Hulse

[ii] P. 1, Cambridge

[iii] P. 10, Cambridge

[iv] p. 20, Fragments

[v] p. 59, Fragments

[vi] P. 356, Fragments

Kafka revealed

Kafka, self portrait. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

The Diaries

Franz Kafka, Ross Benjamin (trans.), Schocken/Penguin, 2023, hb., 670pp + xxiv, US$45
ALEXANDER ADAMS welcomes an overdue and sensitive English-language edition of Kafka’s journals

There could hardly be a better paradigm of existential modern man, locked within his psyche, struggling to making meaning of a brutal and mechanical world, than Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The most interior form of writing is the private diary. Thus, Kafka’s Diaries should be the epitome of angst – and indeed they are – and of self-conscious fashioning of literary forms – and that is also true. But they stubbornly explain little about what drove the writer.

In 1909 Kafka – doctor of law, employee of an insurance company, lifelong resident of Prague and aspirant writer – opened a quarto notebook and began writing a series of short entries before describing watching a Russian dancer who had recently performed in Prague. This was the beginning of a diary that he kept on and off until his death in 1924 from tuberculosis. The diaries would be his laboratory for writing. Aside from describing his day, notable events in his life and thoughts that had occurred to him, he would draft letters, test out poems, summarise plays he had seen and write fiction. He would also make some fetching faux-naïf drawings patterned on those in the German literary-satirical journal Simplicissimus (1896-1967).

This hybrid character proved an impediment to his editor and friend Max Brod, who took it upon himself to alter the diary text for the first edition, published in 1951. He tidied up the style into plain Hochdeutsch, removing Bohemian Germanicisms, and correcting slips. He cut all of the fiction published elsewhere in the novels and stories, which substantially shortened the text. He also sought to protect his friend’s reputation by removing critical remarks (including about Brod) and any mention of sex, pornography, and visits to brothels. This had the effect of making Kafka seem more unworldly and abstemious than he really was.

The new version translated by Ross Benjamin, based on the Fischer Verlag Critical Edition of Kafka’s complete works, removes these interventions. Reading this edition is not like reading a new book, it is reading a new book. The text has been radically altered, the character changed, and many new aspects have emerged, all of which make it feel fresh. Benjamin has been unable to render into English Bohemian German deviations from standard Hochdeutsch, wisely not trying, but the inclusion of slips in spelling (“Newyork”, “Newyort”) and capitalisation gives the text a much more fluid, impromptu character. We see a tired writer making mistakes and changing his mind as he wrote the only draft of this text. Included in this translation are the notations from the Fischer complete text, adding a great deal by way of context and identification.

Kafka (left) photographed at an amusement park ride

We encounter a handful of notable figures Kafka met personally – an audience with polymath eccentric Rudolf Steiner, a letter from novelist Robert Musil, a description of Alfred Kubin’s pornography collection. But Kafka’s diaries are not a glittering rollcall of intellectuals. Kafka lived in Prague rather than Vienna, after all. The few writers he knew well (Franz Werfel, Willy Haas, Brod) have all been eclipsed by Kafka himself.

The diaries dwell on Kafka’s fraught responses to his body. His vegetarianism and constipation were related to his fastidiousness. These were also a reaction against the gruff uncouthness of his portly father; it was a torment for Kafka to spend time with his family, especially his father. It must have been equally trying for his family in return. (For much of his adult life, Kafka lived with his parents.) The pathology of Kafka’s food obsession appears in the entry of 30 October 1911:

This longing I almost always have, once I feel my stomach is healthy, to heap up in myself fantasies of taking terrible risks with food. I satisfy this longing especially in front of smokehouses. If I see a sausage labeled as a an old hard Hauswurst, I bite into it in my imagination with all my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and heedlessly like a machine. The despair that this act even in the imagination has as an immediate result increases my haste. I shove the long rinds of rib meat unbitten into my mouth and then pull them out again from behind tearing through my stomach and intestines. I eat dirty grocery stores completely empty. Fill myself with herrings, pickles and all the bad old sharp foods. Candies are poured into me like hail from their tin pots. In this way I enjoy not only my healthy condition, but also a suffering that is without pain and can pass immediately.[i]

On 13 August 1912, Kafka accompanied Brod on a social call, where he met a young woman. “Bony empty face, which wore its emptiness openly. Bare neck. Thrown-on blouse. […] Almost broken nose. Blond, somewhat stiff charmless hair, strong chin.”[ii] Not a flattering description of Felice Bauer, who would become his fiancée. Indeed, it turned out to be (how could it not?) a tortured relationship, which resulted to two breaking-offs of the engagement, and ultimate estrangement. Relatively little of Kafka’s doubts made it into the diary, at least, not directly. He did write a list of pros and cons of marriage, conceived in the abstract and somewhat detached from the specifics of Felice.

1) Inability to endure life alone […] 3) I must be alone a great deal. What I have achieved is only a result of being alone. 4) I hate everything that doesn’t relate to literature, it bores me to carry on conversations (even if they relate to literature) it bores me to pay visits, sorrows and joys of my relatives bore me to my soul. 5) The fear of connection, of flowing across. 7) Alone I could perhaps one day really give up my job. Married it will never be possible.[iii]

If she had seen the list, it would have filled her with foreboding. This mood would not have been leavened by another observation. “Coitus as punishment of the happiness of being together. To live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that’s the only way for me to endure marriage.”[iv]

To be fair, in his letters to Felice, Kafka did repeatedly write of his doubts about his suitability as a husband. It was not as if they were unprepared for Kafka’s fastidious selfishness – which did encompass concern regarding Felice’s marital happiness – to ultimately doom their plans. When a diagnosis of tuberculosis finally intervened (in 1915), it simply proved correct Kafka’s comment “I lack any propensity for family life except that of the observer at best.”[v] Fate had intervened to confirm the correctness of his path of literary solitude. In his last year, Kafka did wish to marry the teacher Dora Diamant, whom he would live with in Berlin, but let us overlook that untidy fact. The diaries end a month before Dora’s arrival in his life; or rather the notebooks mentioning her were later confiscated by the Gestapo and have never reappeared.  

The inclusion of drafts of Kafka’s fiction transforms the nature of the diaries. No longer a ‘pure’ journal, it comes the laboratory and workbook for a writer always looking to turn observation into fiction. There are versions of stories “The Judgment”, “Memories of the Kalda Railway”, “Wedding Preparations in the Country” and short pieces from his first book of short pieces Betrachtung (Meditation) (1913), as well as sections of his three novels The Man Who Disappeared (1911-4), The Trial (1914-5) and The Castle (1922). There is an aborted opening to The Trial, in which Josef K. is accused of theft, which he has committed unconsciously. “’Thief!’ he shouted and sprang out of the office. ‘I haven’t stolen anything’ was the first thing I said, but the five-gulden bill was in my hand and the till was open.”[vi] (Tellingly, Kafka thought of Karl Rossmann (protagonist of The Man Who Disappeared) as innocent, and Josef K. (of The Trial) as guilty.[vii]) There are attempts at story beginnings that never developed and patient rewritings of texts that never took on independent life. Some paragraphs were reworked although they never seem to amount to more than asides, without potential for publication. This is Kafka testing the veracity of his thoughts, clarifying his expression, practising his craft.

Letters loom large in Kafka’s thoughts. He frets over letters unsent and ones he cannot reply to. He drafts letters to Felice and his publisher. Letters to Milena and Felice are at first lifelines, then they constrict him, binding him into relationships and promises that impede him, that force him to compromise his work and deplete his time. Another drain on his attention – his work duties – does not come up much, other than as passing observations on colleagues. As the Office Writings revealed, his work life was actually very varied and meaningful; it took him across Bohemia as he attended conferences and inspected factories. Far from being a lowly clerk, as we sometimes casually imagine him to be, Dr Kafka was a serious and respected professional. We lose out from not hearing more about this part of his day, although one can hardly blame him for wishing to escape into literature when free.

Metamorfosis, 2013. Wikimedia Commons

As so often observed, acting as places of emotional expression without the speaker encountering moderation, reproof or reason, diaries frequently become repositories for anger and private score-settling. They can be ugly places, where we see a person at their most selfish and unbalanced. One can hardly blame an editor, especially one such as Brod, who knew the author, for taking off the edges. The diaries lack continuity, with breaks of many months, and suffer as a narrative from having figures mentioned only fleetingly. We do not get a feeling for recurring characters. As expected, Kafka explains little, as he was writing for himself.

We might ponder on the ethics of publishing not only anything by Kafka, bearing in mind his instructions to Brod to destroy all his writings, but particularly this journal. Ultimately, if an author is great enough and demand great enough, then everything will be published and gathered into complete editions. Kafka is no exception. He read such editions; he read the letters and journals of the Russian novelists, German Romantics and Gustave Flaubert. He would have understood the impulse to publish everything available and knew that everything he had not personally destroyed was liable to reach the public to some extent. He himself had committed to flames unsuccessful work. (March 1912: “Today burned many old disgusting papers.”[viii])

Do not think that the Diaries are tough reading. Although there is plenty of despair – at his writer’s block, his family, his inability to escape the office – Kafka’s humour flashes through most poignantly when he makes fun of himself.

When the Doktor, reading the contract aloud, came to a passage that dealt with my possible future wife and possible children I noticed opposite me a table with two large chairs and a smaller one around it. At the thought that I would never be capable of filling these or any 3 chairs with me, my wife and my child, I was overcome by a longing for this happiness so desperate from the very start that in this agitated state I asked the Doktor my only remaining question during the long reading, which immediately exposed my complete misunderstanding of an extensive section of the contract that had just been read.[ix]

As tuberculosis made inroads into Kafka’s stamina and expectations, the entries do grow tersely short. Sometimes they are little more than the name of a person or book or the recording of the temperature of a fever bout. What the diaries (dwelling as they do on inactivity, dissatisfaction and anxiety) fail to convey is how much Kafka did achieve despite the demands on his time: three unfinished novels, a body of brilliant short stories, some parables and a large quantity of letters, aside from the diaries themselves. This does not include lost or destroyed papers nor the technical reports written for work, which cannot be counted as creative work, despite its value and quality.

The Diaries are an essential addition to the Kafka canon in English, but we still await two major additions: The Fragments (a group of unfinished stories, parables and dialogues) and the collected correspondence. Both contain many texts that have never appeared in English. Those Anglophones who love Kafka cannot rest easy until these two bodies of work are added to the already translated critical editions of the novels, stories, parables and (now) diaries.


[i] P. 107

[ii] P. 226

[iii] P. 298

[iv] P. 301

[v] P. 304

[vi] P. 351

[vii] P. 400

[viii] P. 209

[ix] P. 121

High treasures of the Low Countries

KMSKA: The Finest Museum

The Holy Family by Rubens. KMSKA

Patrick De Rynck (ed.), KMSKA, 2022, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., €45

KMSKA: The Finest Hundred

Patrick De Rynck (ed.),KMSKA,2022, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., €45

Bruegel and Beyond: Netherlandish Drawings in the Royal Library of Belgium, 1500-1800

Daan van Heesch, Sarah Van Ooteghem, Joris Van Grieken (eds.), Hannibal/KBR, 2022, hardback, 392pp, fully illus., €64.50

ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in the Low Countries

When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.

KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Photo: Ad Meskens. Wikimedia Commons

Claus en Kaan Architecten initially expected the work on the museum would take place in stages that would allow the museum to stay open. That changed once a thorough inspection was undertaken. The building was in a much worse condition than had been expected, with large amounts of asbestos to be disposed of, and the climate-control system needing to be replaced completely. In order to provide new gallery space under the old building, a nuclear fallout shelter was dismantled. Care was taken to use as much natural light as possible, even on the new lower-floor galleries. The architects recognised the brilliant perfection of the original design, which had fine sightlines and so much natural light that electric lights were not added until 1976. The later addition of divisions for offices, depot and conservation studio complicated the layout and reduced space for art, so were removed.

The façade was repaired, using stone more frost-resistant than originally used. All the time, the new architects consulted the archives. A major alteration to the museum in the renovation was the use of internal courtyard patios for new galleries. These are starkly contemporary, with the old galleries restored to their 1890 state. Pompeiian-red and olive-green walls with gilded stucco detailing in ceilings and cornices. The minimalist settings for Modernist art are very sterile.

Of more concern is the thematic hanging of art. This new trend places pieces of art of ostensibly similar topics and themes beside one another so that they can permit cross-era comparison. This (initially) seems well meaning and stimulating; actually, it displays indirect hostility. The idea of curatorship as the placing of items of similar periods, places and makers in proximity is one where comparison of closely related items build a cohesive depiction of the attitudes, practices and mediums of the time. It is the bedrock of connoisseurship. That is why modern curators hate it. They seek to disrupt expertise by suggesting such a quality is merely the air of fusty museum denizens and narrowly focused specialists. It is allied to the trend of political programming, globalisation and cross-disciplinary studies – those justifications for disrupting networks of established knowledge and values. 

KMSKA Curators here note that the museum cannot display an encyclopaedic story of European art because of the limited range of the collection. This seems insufficient grounds for breaking up a canonical presentation in terms of period, style and geography. In one photograph, a Rubens Holy Family is juxtaposed with a recent painting by Luc Tuymans. The large, richly coloured, emotionally inflected masterpiece next to the tiny painting of a face, drained of emotion, depth and colour, rather points out the futility of the experiment – unless it was done to demonstrate the weakness of today’s art.

I concede I could be wrong about the KMSKA hang but all previous such displays I have encountered have had an air of a curator intrusive buttonholing the visitor to comment ‘Have you noticed?’, in comparisons that are either obtuse or superficial. KMSKA curators seem to have been let off the leash in limited circumstances. Let us hope thematic foolishness – which does a disservice to a specialist and anyone seeking to understand an art work from context – is reversed promptly.

Jean Fouquet: Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, 1450s

To find out what is in the KMSKA permanent collection, one can consult The Finest Hundred, which offers a selection of highlights, starting in the late Gothic period, with Simone Martini, through the Renaissance and the Golden Age of Low Countries art. Masterpieces of this period include an unfinished Jan Van Eyck panel (that somehow evaded a common tendency to finish or tidy up incomplete paintings), Jean Fouquet’s famed Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (c. 1452-8) (that chilly classic, part maternity, part erotica), a Cranach nude and a handsome early Titian. Other South Netherlandish paintings are by Van Eyck (again), Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Quinten Massys. The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1554) by Frans Floris shows Archangel St Michael slaying nightmarish monsters. Naturally, the home city of Rubens houses a fine collection – mainly of large religious works. There are Dutch still-lifes and Flemish religious paintings. Portraits record important figures in Antwerp’s history, including the period under Hapsburg rule.

James Ensor at his easel. Self-portrait, 1890

There is a historical revival painting by Henri de Braekeleer (1840-1888) of a man seated in a seventeenth-century interior, with a fabulously ornate wall hanging behind him, as richly foliated as a forest. The KMSKA’s great collection of 39 paintings and over 600 drawings by the brilliant individualist James Ensor (1860-1949) is represented by six examples, including two of his ground-breaking and influential mask paintings. The museum’s policy of buying good examples of contemporary art from local exhibitions has paid off in the form of a strong collection from the inter-war period of Flemish Expressionism, Fauvism and Post-Cubism. There is a scattering of more foreign art by Ingres, Modigliani, Fontana and others.

The Finest Hundred contains a chapter explaining the renovation project, including some of the same photographs illustrated in the previous book. The book contains full works and some details, with a page of commentary and details for each painting or sculpture. For the average reader wanting to know about KMSKA’s art, The Finest Hundred is the best book; for architects, designers and those in the museum field, The Finest Museum is the best choice.

Bruegel and Beyond: Netherlandish Drawings in the Royal Library of Belgium, 1500-1800 presents 98 drawings by Dutch and Flemish artists born before 1800, now in the collection of the Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels (KBR). (The term ‘Netherlandish’ in art history usually means from the Low Countries, before 1500; after that point, a distinction is usually drawn between Dutch, Flemish, Luxembourgish and Walloon, except when they are referred to as ‘Low Countries’.) Although the catalogue has 98 entries (each with a full-page illustration, facing commentary and data, sometimes with details and comparative figures), it contains many illustrations of related graphics and paintings. Bruegel and Beyond is more of a thorough academic catalogue than The Finest Hundred, with an emphasis on scholarship and detailed description and discussion.

The period opens in 1520, when Bosch was working. One drawing is after (or perhaps even by) Bosch. It is a collection of figure studies of fantastic cripples, beggars and rogues. There are two very detailed ink drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526-1569); one is of a Boschian landscape relating to the sin of lust, another depicts an allegory of the virtue of justice. Some of the early drawings are unattributed; a dearth of comparative material and documentation means that authorship, locations and dates are all provisional. Rubens, Jordaens, Adriaen van Ostade, Hans Bols and other major artists are also represented.

The selection provides a great span of techniques: metalpoint (metal stylus on prepared paper), ink, pencil, line and wash, chalk and watercolour. There are not just pieces of artistic interest; the topographical watercolours of Adrien de Montigny border on the artistically naïve, but are good examples of a type of art we do not see much discussed by art historians; such depictions are more the province of historians. There are drawings for anatomy treatises, decoration for book title pages, book illustrations and mural designs. Overall, the high standard of the scholarship, attention to detail, large reproductions and clear production design make Bruegel and Beyond a very suitable book for any extensive library on Old Master drawings and history of art in the Low Countries.

Kafka: oracle and artist

Franz Kafka, Der Denker

The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, Reiner Stach (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Princeton University Press, 2022, hb, 230pp + XXII, 9 mono illus., £20/$24.95

Franz Kafka: The Drawings

Pavel Schmidt, Andreas Kilcher (ed.), Kurt Beals (trans.), Yale University Press, 2022, hb, 368pp, 240 col. illus., £35/$50
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees different sides to an arch-dystopian

While he was writing The Trial, a novel that remained unfinished and unpublished during the author’s lifetime, Franz Kafka would read aloud chapters to his friends. Closest friend and Kafka’s future biographer Max Brod recalled that as Kafka read, he would be convulsed with laughter. The novel commonly considered the epitome of existential despair and implacable authoritarianism, was viewed by its creator as a black comedy. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is seen as the prophet of the totalitarian modern society operating through a labyrinthine bureaucracy. It is easy to overlook Kafka’s sense of humour, penchant for absurdity and taste for farce. What continues to attract readers is the brilliance of his ideas and the visionary quality of images. Kafka’s fondness for the paradox and ironical gives even his bleakest work a touch of levity.

Two new books present Kafka at his most playful and wry – also at his most oracular and obscure. The Drawings reproduces all surviving drawings by the author. The Aphorisms publishes Kafka’s most impenetrable and oracular pronouncements.  

Kafka’s drawings have been one of the great unknowns of his output. Although a few (showing stylised, simplified single figures) had been reproduced in Brod’s biography and on the cover of a few editions of the 1950s, exactly how extensive and how various his drawings were was unclear. Not least, the obscurity came from the fact Kafka destroyed almost all his own drawings and only a few survived in letters and scraps that Brod preserved from the time they were law students together in Prague. Brod was enthusiastic about the drawings and attempted to interest publishers in hiring his friend as an illustrator, to no avail. After Kafka’s death, Brod published a few drawings then went cold on a proposed exhibition and substantial catalogue. The drawings disappeared into obscurity. Brod had given them to his partner-secretary, Esther Hoffe. After Brod’s death in 1968, the Kafka manuscripts and drawings were shuffled between a Zurich bank vault and Hoffe’s Tel Aviv apartment.

Publishers and scholars were antagonised by Hoffe’s unwillingness to make the manuscripts accessible. (In 1983, she would not let a publisher into her apartment, saying that it would cost him the equivalent of $150,000 even to see the drawings. The publisher demurred and departed. No book was published.) When her daughters continued the obstruction after her death, the Israeli state took legal action to claim possession of Kafka’s manuscripts. The state argued that the sheets were being kept in humid and dirty conditions and in danger of deteriorating; there was the threat of the works disappearing into hands of private collectors. In 2019 the state won, the Hoffe sisters lost possession of the manuscripts, and the National Library of Israel acquired relics of a Jewish titan of culture.

With the newly available originals accessible, plus all the other few Kafka drawings in other collections photographed, The Drawings presents all of Kafka’s surviving drawings. Essays cover aspects of Kafka’s drawing and the history of the manuscripts; a catalogue raisonné documents 163 pages of drawings.

Kafka took art classes, attended lectures on art history and visited museums. He personally knew some artists. Long after his university course on art history, he remained interested in differing art styles, including Renaissance art, Expressionism and Japanese colour wood-block prints. Kafka claimed that art education had ruined his ability to draw and that whatever he had done in terms of drawing had been achieved despite that constraint. Most of Kafka’s drawings are caricatures and fantasy cartoon figures, in exaggerated clothing and adopting parodic positions. On the evidence of comparative illustrations in The Drawings, it seems Kafka was an admirer of cartoons published in the German and Bohemian presses.

Around 1901, when Kafka was 18, he began a small sketchbook. He filled it with drawings, mainly of figures. As many of the personages are walking and seen in profile, they invite the comparison with a parade (or promenade) of eccentrics. There are curving jockeys riding improbable horses, angular men slumped at desks, striding gentlemen with walking sticks. Strong ink lines and solid black bodies are influenced by line-block illustrations, common to journals and books of that era. Kafka seems not have specific plans or projects in mind for his drawings; the figures are drawn at random on the pages, in every orientation, out of order and without accompanying writing.

There are similar ink figures in his letters, also reproduced. Figures appear in diary pages, often relating to the subjects of the day’s entry. On separate sheets of writing paper, portraits (including self-portraits) were drawn in pencil from life and photographs. These reveal Kafka’s art training. They are lightly worked fragments, with no settings indicated, but have realistic shading and the proportions are faithful to life, except where deliberately exaggerated. In artistic terms, they are slight and unfinished but the best of them have a magnetic pull to them – not least a self-portrait with haunted eyes. He did little drawing after 1908, with the majority of surviving drawings dating from his youth.

Kafka, Self-Portrait. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

Did Kafka take his drawings seriously? Fairly so, on this evidence. Although he was self-effacing and reluctant to publish or exhibit them, Kafka took care over making them. He developed forceful images that were crisp and striking. Overall, in The Drawings we find Kafka at his most playful and relaxed; the best of the drawings are really fine and we might wish that more drawings of this type had been saved from Kafka’s wastepaper basket by Brod. Kafka might have been amused at a scholarly cataloguing of his drawings, doodles and elaborate crossings-out.

The Aphorisms collects 108 statements by Kafka, written over the winter of 1917-8, which he copied out into two small exercise books. At the time he was staying with his sister Ottilie in a village called Zürau. On sick leave from his office job, he was attempting to stem the progress of pulmonary tuberculosis by escaping the smoke of Prague, eating well and doing some farm work for exercise.

Part religious parables, part philosophical propositions, part distilled observations, entirely literature, the aphorisms still baffle even the most serious readers of Kafka. “From a certain point on, there is no turning back. This is the point that needs to be reached.” “Like a path in autumn: no sooner has it been swept clean than it is once more covered with dry leaves.” The most famous is, “A cage went in search of a bird.” These are the shortest, but none run longer than half a page. The final sentence of the collection is unusually pungent and vivid. “The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

The aphorisms are gnomic and elusive. The reader gets the impression that he is being told something true and important, but also something unclear, even deliberately obscured. Although these sayings have been published before (sometimes incorporated into collections of short stories), they are the probably the least read of his works. As the editor notes,

In comparison with Kafka’s other writings, his aphorisms have been overlooked by researchers and even more by his general readership. The aphorisms, like everything Kafka wrote, require interpretation, but in contrast to his fictional prose, for example The Trial, they do not reward the reader with the sensory and aesthetic pleasure of a story.

This new edition supplies commentary written by Reiner Stach (author of an excellent recent biography), with English translation by Shelley Frisch, who did a fine job on Stach’s biography. There has been no shortage of complicated interpretations of the aphorisms; wisely, Stach avoids committing himself. Commentaries include Kafka’s original draft, so we can note the revisions and follow the author’s thinking a little. Rather than offer explanations, Stach’s commentaries relate the aphorisms to comparable phrases or ideas from writings by Kafka and mention what he was known to have read at the time.

The aphorisms are as tricky to decipher as anything Kafka wrote. If you fancy giving yourself food for thought, then The Aphorisms are ideal. If you prefer something playful, then The Drawings is for you. Both publications serve to broaden our knowledge of one the greatest authors of European literature. What would expand that knowledge even more would be a first translation of the new German editions of Kafka’s letters, including texts inaccessible to non-German readers. When will Princeton University Press commission Shelley Frisch to translate Kafka’s letters into English?

The epistolary Eliot

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 8: 1936-1938

T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2019, 1,100pp + li, illus., £50

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 9: 1939-1941

T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2021, 1,072pp + lxix, illus., £60

ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in a great litterateur’s letters

In the ongoing Faber & Faber publication of T.S. Eliot’s letters, the project has reached the late 1930s and the wartime years. These were years in which Eliot was involved in writing Four Quartets (1936-42), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Family Reunion (1939); this was in addition to his work as a director of Faber & Faber. Devotion played an important part in Eliot’s life, never less than in the dark years when his wife was confined to an asylum. The confinement was something for which Vivienne’s family were responsible and with which Eliot acquiesced, and that weighed on Eliot’s conscience. The punishing routine of work between early-morning prayer and late-night fire-watching during the Blitz seem at least in part a form of penance. Eliot’s engagement with the place of Christianity in a secular society is frequently the prompt for letters and solicitations for book reviews.  

These letters cover Eliot’s private life, professional correspondence and publishing business. We get his letters to James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read and John Betjeman. Most are cordial and unrevealing. His long-standing correspondent Ezra Pound is ever present, mainly writing about publication matters. Eliot approves of a critical review of a collection of Pound essays, anticipating Pound’s reaction: ‘a furious letter, which I shall have to suppress in his own interest.’[i] In these volumes, Eliot seems wearied by Pound’s relentless passion, quixotic changes and prickliness.

A more regular correspondent was John Hayward, the brilliant and difficult English-literature scholar and editor, who would play a significant part in Eliot’s life. Hayward would become a housemate of Eliot’s in the 1940s and 1950s, an arrangement that lasted until Eliot’s second marriage. Hayward was assiduous in collecting letters, books and other Eliot material, which he later bequeathed to King’s College, Cambridge. In that case, Eliot was aware that his playful badinage was being preserved and would be read by others. Hayward consulted Eliot about bibliographical rarities and letters that appeared in booksellers’ catalogues.

Among numerous letters tactfully declining volumes of poetry by obscure writers and evading explaining ‘The Waste Land’, there are some more weighty letters. He declines publishing Céline’s anti-Semitic Bagatelles, while appreciating the inventiveness of the prose. An internal memorandum from Eliot to fellow Faber director Geoffrey Faber puts the case for publishing Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

Lesbianism merely happens to be the variety of the dis-ease that Barnes knows the best, so it is through that form that she has to get at something universal (she has obviously a great deal of the male in her composition). […] And as for her style, it has what is for me the authentic evidence of power, in that I find myself having to struggle, directly after reading, not to ape it myself: and very few writers exercise that pull.[ii]

There are numerous letters displaying Eliot’s tireless support for poet George Barker. ‘[…] I believe in your genius, so far as one is ever justified in believing in genius except in retrospect, and I believe that it is genius if anything and not talent.’[iii]

There are flashes of wit and acerbic commentary. ‘[…] what horrifies me is that your young people should actually be set to study contemporary verse in qualification for the degree of B.A. They ought to be reading Aristophanes.’[iv] He includes general rules for poets. ‘Nobody ought to attempt free rhythms until he has served an apprenticeship in strict ones.’[v] Eliot states that poets must continually develop. Unlike a novelist, who can produce books that conform to a successful formula, a poet ought not to publish books too similar to previous ones, lest he bore his readership. His pragmatic business side took over when he recommended winding up the quarterly journal The Criterion, which he had edited for sixteen years. Facing a drop in subscriptions and the storm clouds of war, the journal was closed in 1939.

We get a few insights into Eliot’s verse writing during a period when he was moving to verse plays. He posted sections of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to the children of the family he stayed with in the countryside. Eliot never had children, and these children – and the children of his fellow director Geoffrey Faber – became his surrogate offspring. Enclosed is a pre-publication report from one reader of the manuscript of Practical Cats, damning it as ‘Personally, I find them pretentious, and cannot recommend publication.’[vi] There are mentions of visits to Little Gidding, East Coker and Burnt Norton, but these are arrangements rather than reflections. Even if he enclosed verses and composed nonsense verse to amuse recipients, Eliot was not given to poetic flights in his letters.

By and large, politics and current events go undiscussed in Volume 8. The abdication is mentioned but the events in central Europe cause barely a ripple in the volume. During the war, Eliot lived a peripatetic lifestyle, staying with Geoffrey and Enid Faber and others. He often travelled by train and bus, laden down by manuscripts and reference books, as he worked on the last of the Four Quartets. He joined the A.R.P. as a fire warden, seeing relatively little action in his allotted sector. We encounter little description of the impact of the Blitz, outside of the ways in which it disconcerted people and disrupted daily life.

The introduction of Volume 9 approaches discussion of the poet’s anti-Semitism. While it is true that Eliot published poems with disagreeable portrayals of Jewish characters and wrote in 1934 ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’, Eliot was solicitous of the safety of Jews he knew personally. The volumes contain many letters of recommendation supporting the candidacies of Jews (including refugees) for employment positions. He also was unable to allow Pound’s anti-Semitic screeds being included in Faber’s editions of the Cantos. Eliot preferred for Pound to rewrite the parts but Pound made a point of leaving the censorship apparent. The intensity of Jewish condemnation of Eliot seems to be due to the potency and prominence of his negative depictions of Jews. Eliot’s dislike of Jewish material success and cultural influence seemed a strong instinctive aversion rather than malevolence.   

We get a few retrospective glimpses of the poet in earlier years. Eliot wrote to his brother Henry of his early life in London:

I was of course too much engrossed in the horrors of my private life to notice much outside; and I was suffering from (1) a feeling of guilt in having married a woman I detested, and consequently a feeling that I must put up with anything (2) perpetually being told, in the most plausible way, that I was a clodhopper and a dunce. Gradually, through making friends, I came to find that English people of the sort that I found congenial were prepared to take me quite as an ordinary human being, and that I had merely married into a rather common suburban family with a streak of abnormality which in the case of my wife had reached the point of liking to give people pain.[viii]

He goes on to comment that the only blasphemous poem that he ever wrote was ‘The Hollow Men’. ‘[…] this is blasphemy because it is despair, it stands for the lowest point I ever reached in my sordid domestic affairs.’[ix]

The shadow of Vivienne’s instability looms large in Volume 8. Eliot apologises to Henry for her sending a Christmas card from her and her husband. He notes that (even though long separated) she has put his residence as hers, in the telephone directory.[x] Her letters are included here. She wrote to the Faber office about her husband’s health and offered herself as an illustrator for one of his poems. Her communications are odd and inappropriate, mainly. Sometimes there are glimpses of darker thoughts, such as when she announces to a Faber employee that she is being followed. 

Printed in full is a letter from Vivienne’s brother, dated 14 July 1938.

V. had apparently been wandering about for two nights, afraid to go anywhere. She is full of the most fantastic suspicions & ideas. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded. She says she has been in hiding from various mysterious people, & so on. It would be deplorable if she were again to be found wandering in the early hours & taken into custody.[xi]

As a result of a pattern of alarming behaviour, Vivienne was committed to a secure residential home, Northumberland House. Eliot did his best to punctiliously sort out her financial and legal affairs, as discretely as possible. Even though he did not visit her – such an encounter would have been too distressing and destabilising – Vivienne was never too far from Eliot’s conscience.

This review is written in the shadow of the impending publication of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale (on 1 June 2023, by Faber & Faber), which seems set to be a publishing sensation. That collection of 1,131 letters was deposited by Hale at Princeton University and was only unsealed on 2 January 2020. That book promises to show the most intimate side of Eliot, that which was so carefully hidden by the poet. It was during the late 1930s, while Eliot was living in London and Hale was teaching in Massachusetts, that they corresponded most often. In a rather defensive statement of 1960, Eliot wrote of the difficulty of marriage for him as a poet. After explaining that his marriage to the unstable Vivienne would inevitably seem inexplicable, he conceded that the tensions of an unhappy marriage provided inspiration for poetry.

Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Viviennene nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Viviennene seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.

He went on the state that Hale did not understand or love his poetry, even though it seems they discussed his poetry at length and that ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936) of Four Quartets was written as a coded love poem to her. It should be noted that when Eliot wrote this statement he was defending his decision to marry his second wife, Valerie, and aiming to downplay his commitment to Hale and hers to him. Hale does appear indirectly in the letters in Volume 8. She visited Eliot in England and there are comments from him about her arrival, departure and activities during her time with him. In his statement of 1960, Eliot affirmed that he had never had sexual relations with Hale.

The publication of this separate volume will be significant in its revelations about the life and ideas of a great poet, showing him at his most unguarded. The ethics of publishing such letters is redundant. As the letters were deposited at Princeton University and due to be the subject of study, it is the correct decision to publish them in full, annotated, rather than allowing salacious snippets from circulating out of context.

The preceding review does not do full justice to the pleasure of having to hand such first-hand testimony of such a major figure. Being presented with such a huge body of letters – not even all of them, apparently – is a sort of treasure store, one unavailable for most cultural figures. One is impressed at Eliot’s indefatigable diligence; writing to colleagues and strangers, editing, reading, publishing, serving his church, not to mention finding time for his own writing, Eliot’s work rate is formidable.

We get an understanding of Eliot the man – driven by a moral core of Christianity, passionate about culture (especially literature), a loving godfather, cautious in his romantic attachments. Being such a prominent figure – author, publisher, cultural commentator, public intellectual – Eliot knew that his most private and informal communications would be bought, sold and scrutinised. Although Eliot bore the burden relatively lightly, there remains the suspicion that Eliot was curbing his most cutting comments for the sake of his posthumous legacy.   

The editing is exemplary. I spotted only one error (in footnote numbering, on p. 626) in over 2,000 pages. There are notes on recipients, context provided and often extensive quotes. These quotes are of letters that Eliot was replying to or extracts of books and journals. The editors have dug through archives of journals and newspapers and long-forgotten books. Letter text not in English is translated and many passing references tracked down. The only failing is omitting to indicate the place of writing. That sort of information seems more pertinent than the location of the letter manuscript. Unfortunately, this seems Faber policy regarding letter publication, so there seems no hope of the publisher revising its practice. Great care has been taken in the printing and binding. This series provides an unparalleled view of multiple aspects of the greatest poet in the English language of the Modernist era and gives us a glimpse of history as it was being made.


[i] Vol. 8, p. 585

[ii] Vol. 8, pp. 151-2

[iii] Vol. 8, p. 665

[iv] Vol. 8, p. 83

[v] Vol. 8, p. 676

[vi] Vol. 8, p. 871

[vii] Vol. 9, pp. 517-8

[viii] Vol. 8, P. 10

[ix] Vol. 8, P. 11

[x] Vol. 8, P. 52

[xi] Vol. 8, p. 91

Modernism seen now

RICHARD GERSTL (1883–1908), Self-Portrait in front of a Stove, 1907. Oil on canvas on board. Neue Galerie New York

Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940

Renée Price (ed.), Prestel/Neue Galerie, 2021, 656pp, $75/£55

ALEXANDER ADAMS is transported to a thrilling time of artistic experimentation

The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection. One by Olaf Peters discusses Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (1892), which became (posthumously) his most influential book. We should not see those opposed to degeneracy solely as representatives of traditionalism. Many critics of decadence were liberals, who took a progressive view of society. As a social Darwinist, Nordau saw degeneracy as an aspect of evolution, which would lead to the atrophying and extinction of those urban populations which succumbed to its lure, driven by circumstance and genetics towards behaviour that would not sustain reproduction of healthy individuals. He cited art as a symptom of the degeneration of culture and genetic stock.

Nordau imagined a dramatic result as the consequence of this evolutionary process for art. In his view, art would cease to exist, since those who support it would have to make room for an increasingly rational humanity for whom art would no longer be a relevant form of expression. For Nordau, art would become an atavism, and only women and children – the more intensely emotional members of the population – would still pursue it. He favoured science over art, which he judged to be an irrational symptom of psychological illness. It had to yield to the advancing process of rationalisation.[i]

Another essay by Peters discusses the splintering of arts organisations in Germany and Austria in the Jugendstil/Secession period, as artists sought to gain more control over the selection, exhibition, publication and sale of their art works. A proliferation of artists groups ran alongside the desire to distance the avant-garde from state- and royalty-sanctioned bodies, academies and established professional organisations. Opposing approaches to ornamentation within Modernism are exemplified by architect Adolf Loos (anti-ornamentation) and Gustav Klimt (pro-ornamentation). This shows that there were very different aesthetic criteria supported by members of the avant-garde, just as we find contrary strands within reactionary and traditionalist camps. The influence of collector Karl Ernst Osthaus is appraised (his collection of Expressionist art is housed at a dedicated museum in Hagen, Westphalia).

The various displays and fairs including applied art, decorative art and diorama/installations accelerated the acceptance of Modernism into daily life, as well as high culture. The influence of the Arts & Crafts movement paved the way for patrons and creators. Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1903 and flourished as a company that produced high-quality, expensive furnishings, clothing and housewares until 1914. The advent of war severely impaired WW’s output. Limited by material and manpower shortages, and the unwillingness of the affluent to invest in luxuries during a period of upheaval, business slowed dramatically. It was revived in the inter-war period but never regained its pre-eminence, closing in 1932. WW is remembered now often in terms of the contribution of female creators and for the influence of female customers, who generally made decisions regarding the decoration of family homes. Interestingly, no less than Adolf Loos gave a lecture called “Das Wiener Weh: Die Wiener Werkstätte” (“The Viennese Woe: Wiener Werkstätte”) in 1927, condemning the decline of WW. The turn to super-luxury goods was attributed to the women who dominated the management and product design of WW in the post-1914 era.

JOSEPH URBAN (1872-1933). Mantelpiece clock for Paul Hopfner Restaurant, 1906. Private collection

The excellent collection of WW in the museum’s collection – surely the best collection outside Vienna – includes works by leading lights of the company. The extensiveness of the Vienna design scene is amply represented by a series of striking designs of silverware, glassware, furniture, clocks, jewellery and ceramics by Dagobert Peche, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, (Belgian) Henry van de Velde and others. The designs range from the refreshingly simple and starkly unornamented to the ostentatiously impractical. Hoffmann’s cutlery services go beyond function into objets d’art. Geometrical patterns, plain checks, straight lines and elongated or square proportions are constants. Lines that echo Art Nouveau are found mainly in early, pre-war pieces. There is a silver coffer given by Klimt to the young Alma Schindler (later Mahler), when he was courting the young beauty in 1902. Another gift from Klimt is a necklace given to Emilie Flöge the following year. Both were made by Moser. Vintage photographs of other pieces in the collection show the furniture in trade shows or the homes of the original owners.  

One photograph shows the star of the museum’s collection, Klimt’s gilded Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The painting was displayed at an exhibition of art and crafts in Mannheim in 1907, and appears to show the painting before the artist made minor modifications to it. The painting is once again displayed flanked by stone statues of kneeling youths made by George Minne, as it was in that Mannheim display. (There is a useful essay on Minne and the Germanic sculptors as precursors to the individualism of Schiele and Kokoschka’s art.) The Neue Galerie has a fine collection of Klimt drawings from all periods of the artist’s output. The square landscapes of Klimt are revolutionary. Not only is the square format (developed by Klimt in the 1890s) anti-traditional, Klimt’s flatness and decorative treatment of foliage was a radical departure from convention. Park at Kammer Castle (1909) is a typical late landscape, disorienting through the presentation of dappled surfaces that only minimally model trees, grass and water; sky is reduced to a few patches at the edges of the picture.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918), Park at Kammer Castle, 1909. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder
and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder

The rise of Expressionism is understandable as a reaction against the emphasis on style over substance present in the Secession. The preoccupation with distinctive visual branding – something that reached a high pitch with the opening of WW – and the targeting of the super-affluent by artists (who supposedly disdained the status-conscious administrators and participants of established salons and academies) became anathema to ambitious young artists. The prevarication of the Secession between serving the wealthy and wanting to change the lives of everyday people left little space for the emergence of the exceptional individual – the much-discussed Übermensch of Nietzsche – and the man of heroic will. What was the role of the genius under Secession? Neither designing clothing for rich heiresses nor chairs for factory refectories seemed the calling of the true artist. The development of Art Nouveau in Germany and Austria was just one manifestation with a relentless drive towards Modernist ways of living.

This development was flanked by the Lebensreform (life reform) movement, which along with the housing colony and garden city movement, the land reform movement, vegetarianism, the naturopathy movement, and the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) or nudist movement, was aimed less at the sphere of aesthetics than at everyday lifestyle. Taken together, they formulated a fundamental critique of the scarcely controllable consequences of the rapid industrialization of the German Empire in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.[ii]

In the face of the deracinating effect of modern urban life – identified by nascent social science and criminology – and the increasing artificiality and superficiality of Secession, young artists who formed the Expressionists sought authenticity and rawness. They were inspired by Edvard Munch, whose 1892 exhibition in Berlin was closed as an affront to the professionalism of the artists’ organisation that staged the exhibition. The artists association Brücke (“bridge”) was founded on 7 June 1905 in Dresden, comprising Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It later included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. The artists (some of them architecture students) were committed to make an art free of pretension and artifice. Their idols included Munch, Gauguin, Dostoevsky, Freud, Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and Nietzsche. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that exponents of Expressionism later found points of commonality with National Socialism. The admiration was reciprocated by some senior Nazis. However, it was the supporters of traditionalism among the Nazis who won out, consigning Expressionism to the category of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) when it came to the selection of official art styles after 1933.  

Brücke was dissolved in Berlin in 1913. Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) functioned as a Munich-based avant-garde group from 1911 to 1914. The Great War shattered the utopian aspirations of these artists; in some cases, the artists were killed in combat. We find in the Neue Galerie collection the proto-abstraction of Franz Marc and the cross-over art of Vasily Kandinsky of the 1910-3, which blends symbolism and abstraction. Blaue Reiter is discussed in the light of theosophy and spiritualism, which would become a lesser-considered strand of art teaching in the Bauhaus, particularly under Johannes Itten. An essay assesses the responses of artists to the Great War. These varied greatly, ranging from absolute pacifism to militaristic chauvinism. The post-war art of George Grosz and Otto Dix blends fierce satire with a seeming appetite for degradation; the impact of their work comes from that combination, which betrays a crucial ambiguity. As more perceptive critics of the time noted, an artist could not lavish so much care and time on art that was wholly condemnatory.      

EGON SCHIELE (1890–1918), Stein on the Danube, Seen from the South (Large), 1913. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder. Photo: Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

Austrian Expressionism – in its best in Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl, all of whom are represented by good examples – are marked by their engagement with the psychology of the subject rather than meditations on urban life or the condition of primitive man. There are few extant paintings by Gerstl, because Gerstl destroyed most of his paintings and drawings before committing suicide. The Neue Galerie owns four canvases by Gerstl, two of which (a self-portrait and a portrait of a seated man) are very fine pieces. We should mourn the loss of an artist, at the age of 25, capable of such work. The multiple nails in the coffin of German Expressionism were the advent of Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit and the scientific abstraction of the Bauhaus. Dada and photo-montage is represented in less depth than other movements in the collection.

It is instructive to compare WW designs with those of the Bauhaus, founded in Germany in 1919. Bauhaus extended the line of stark Modernism but without the influence of Art Nouveau, substituting the influence of strong unmodulated colour forms found in De Stijl abstract art. Bauhaus sacrificed functionality for style sometimes. The seats are often cruelly uncompromising for the human anatomy. Although the director Walter Gropius sought to fuse architecture, fine art and applied art – including clothing – in a manner that would be harmonious and pleasing, the Bauhaus never managed to balance its stated aims. The subsequent director, Hannes Meyer, deliberately steered the Bauhaus towards a more overtly socialist end, citing “the needs of the people rather than the requirements of luxury”. Meyer later moved to the USSR to teach, putting his socialist views into practice. 

There are chapters covering Expressionist cinema, photo-montage, Klee teaching at the Bauhaus, the decline of artistic freedom in Germany and persecution of artists under the Nazis. This last includes the story of Felix Nussbaum, which is becoming better known over recent decades. Nussbaum was an artist of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who was imprisoned in France as an enemy alien in 1939. He later left the camp and went into hiding in Brussels, but he was ultimately captured by the occupying Germans and sent to a death camp. His wartime art portrays the artist in the French camp and gives an idea of what Jewish artists might have painted in the concentration camps, had they had access to materials.  

The collection is wonderful but incomplete. Without the work of some traditionalist, National Socialist and Communist artists, we get an uneven view of art of Germany and Austria from 1890 to 1940, even of Modernism. Art of National Socialism and (pre-war) Communism were reactions against Jugendstil and Weimar-era Modernism. The Neue Galerie is a private collection and therefore subject only to the taste of the owner, who determines what is part of his conception of this history, but the story of Germanic Modernism cannot be properly understood without the inclusion of art that has hitherto been dismissed, seemingly without due aesthetic and historical consideration.     

Preconceptions surface in the catalogue essays, mainly to do with the politics of today being applied to a period now a century past. The translation of völkisch as “racist-populist” is not accurate; it means “of the people or kinfolk”. Affinity for the company or culture of one’s own race does not necessarily imply sentiments of racial superiority, contrary to the translator’s assertion. Berating of individuals for sexism (as found in the essays by Janis Staggs) is unhelpful. The history of the operation and circumstances of WW and Bauhaus do have a sex dimension, but Staggs is not the author to apply a dispassionate eye. 

Modern Worlds is an excellent, serious and lavishly illustrated survey of Modernism in Germany and Austria, forming an ideal counterbalance to art histories that prioritise the French lineage of the Impressionism-Pointillism-Fauvism-Cubism line. This book is a fitting tribute to the vision and commitment of Ronald S. Lauder (and Serge Sabarsky) and provides a fascinating slice of cultural history.  


[i] Olaf Peters, “Degeneration and Empire”, p. 33

[ii] Olaf Peters, “Brücke”, p. 235

John Wyndham, genius and prophet

The Wyndham Collection

John Wyndham, three vols. (Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids), Folio Society, 2022, 704 pps, £125

ALEXANDER ADAMS finds 1950s classics have troublingly modern messages

The publication of a clothbound boxset containing the classic novels Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1903-1969) by the Folio Society, prompts the question, ‘How much is Wyndham a man of his time?’ In this review, we will look at the novels, these illustrated editions and how much 1950s England influenced these stories.

Wyndham had a difficult childhood. His parents were involved in a high-profile divorce case, at a time when divorces were rare, and must have been aware of the consequent press coverage. The family moved around the country, and the young Wyndham attended a number of schools, including the famously progressive Bedales School. He had a number of different professions before deciding to pursue fiction writing. While he had some success as a writer of science fiction and pastiching American detective stories during the inter-war era, he did not seem to have found his metier. Although he did not know it at the time, his background and writing had set him up for spectacular success in the post-war period.

It was the catalyst of the war which seemed to bring Wyndham new introspection and a wider view of human nature. He was attached to a corps which saw heavy fighting in the advances through western Germany. Seeing the effects of wartime barbarity first hand – and the related crimes, atrocities, despair and vengeance – gave his vivid thoughts immediacy. Seeing exceptional events occurring in ordinary towns and houses, and the tide of history demolishing the certainties that complacent lives generate, meant the clichés of science fiction and crime noire (however clever) no longer seemed adequate.

The result of this transformed – or perhaps condensed – outlook led to Day of the Triffids (1951), the first book in this set. It is set in an alternative 1951, where a bio-engineered plant has become cultivated across the world for its rich oil. This ‘triffid’ plant can eat meat, stings animals, and can walk. Possessing a rudimentary form of intelligence, this plant is kept under control by docking the stings in ornamental individual plants or by penning undocked crop plants. In this alternative timeline, weaponised satellites orbit the Earth. A shower of meteors arrives, or an accident triggers weapons satellites; whichever it is, the result is that lights in the night sky blind almost the entire human population. Survivors have to struggle against gang warfare, disease, starvation and the threat of the triffids, which come to dominate the land.

In Triffids, Wyndham’s interests and skills form a glorious combination in his most successful and popular book. His progressive schooling and multiple careers gave him insight into the problems of farming and food supply; his wartime experiences sharpened his imagery of social breakdown and casual brutality. Wyndham’s sci-fi-writing origins allowed him to think through the plot; his experience of writing detective thrillers gave his prose a clipped asperity and punchy impact. He wrote strong characters and a compelling plot, yet Triffids is actually more of a novel-of-ideas than it seems. The excitement of the plot, believability of the characters and emotional appeal of the situations combined to make Triffids an ideas book that gets readers to think about issues organically, as we see characters deliberating options or forced to live out the consequences of their circumstances. Added to which, the astonishing imagery and haunting atmosphere make Triffids one of the best novels of the century. It far transcends science fiction, thrillers, dystopias and sociologically oriented examinations of the human condition and – I would say – functions as literature of the highest level. For the issues-driven, it includes discussion of environmentalism, disarmament, geo-politics, ethics and self-sufficiency. It has elements of thriller, romance, dystopia and social commentary, blended in a manner that is seamless.

Well, almost. There is a single chapter that is devoted to the backstory of the development of the triffids, which, while necessary, is rather dry on first reading. It is an obligatory exposition dump. On subsequent readings, it answers some of thoughts of readers now familiar with the titular antagonists of humanity. This chapter is the creakiest in terms of prose. Palanguez, the South American intermediary who smuggles triffid seeds from their point of origin in USSR laboratories, has a ‘sleek, dark head’ and addresses his interlocutor as ‘señor’. Wyndham’s pulp-fiction apprenticeship shows through a little. We have to sit through a bit of global politics, which is something that mars Wyndham’s follow-up novel The Kraken Wakes (1953 – not included in this set). However, if you can make it through chapter 2, the rest of Triffids is a terrific read – gripping, memorable, moving, thought-provoking. The contemporary film version was a wretched traducement, as was an embarrassingly updated 2009 television mini-series. A television version, co-produced by BBC Television in 1981, is excellent and well worth seeking out. 

© Patrick Leger from The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection – The Midwich Cuckoos

Wisely, for its new edition, Folio Society commissioned illustrations by Patrick Leger that are firmly in the 1950s style. The limited colours, bold blocking and strong line work all point back to the classic illustrations of comics and pulp fiction from the 1920s-1950s era. The speckling and deliberately loose registration imitate the printing of the time. Leger brings a cinematic eye to scenes, viewing protagonist Bill and young Susan from an aerial viewpoint. My favourite is the view of Bill in his hospital bed, with a swatch of sunlight illuminating his sheets. Folio Society, because it markets directly, rather than through bookshops, does not have to put text on its cover to inform browsers. This gives Folio Society designers a freer hand than otherwise. (Producing volumes for a boxset also allows book covers to remain text free.) Leger has illustrated all three books, including the covers.

Like Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is infused with Cold War anxiety. Midwich, a village in southern England (based on Midhurst, Sussex), is suddenly isolated by an inexplicable forcefield and the residents rendered unconscious. When the barrier is lifted and people revive, they soon discover that all the women are pregnant. The human-seeming babies turn out to be uncanny cuckoos, planted into the wombs of women by aliens. Once born, the cuckoo children develop fast, act in a disciplined collaborative way and have powers of telepathy and limited mind control. This makes them an inscrutable and dangerous enemy. The hosts find themselves being held hostage by the parasite children, who threaten to grow strong enough to destroy the community that (warily and fearfully) cares for them.

Wisely, Wyndham does not dilute his story by introducing the aliens as other than prime movers. He has no interest in aliens. The science-fiction premise is merely a device to allow Wyndham to explore how communities (and civilisations) respond to the knowledge that they have in their midst forces that wish to supplant them and that are ruthless. From inter-species rivalry, Wyndham has moved to in-species rivalry. Of course, what must have been obvious to more observant readers of the time, was how this was an allegory for Communist infiltration of the West. The Midwich cuckoo-children, like Communists, form a tightly knit group working in concert to overturn the current order and advance to the next level of development, using any means necessary to overcome opposition. What seems so troublingly prescient, is how this scenario could act as a parable of multiculturalism. When a foreign group cannot be integrated, conflict for resources and status arises. If the organised minority overcomes the disorganised majority – as Mosca’s Law tells us – the numerical inferiority of the foreigners is no bar to them consolidating themselves and even coming to rule the hosts. So, while Midwich may seem dated sci-fi tosh set in a rural England of the past – Brian Aldiss will be forever remembered as the writer who damned Wyndham’s novels as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – it is actually a novel of ideas that is vitally relevant in a multicultural society facing a crossroads.

Likewise, The Chrysalids (1957) gives us another brilliant novel with exciting action, suspense and vividly drawn characters in a unique world, and one with a deeply troubling ethical conundrum. Chrysalids is a coming-of-age story set in a post-nuclear-war rural community in Canada, where millenarian Christianity holds sway. The society is obsessed by genetic stability, considering it a moral issue, which they police by destroying produce and animals if they genetically deviate from the norm, and exiling abnormal children. David, the protagonist, becomes aware that he has the power of telepathy. Living in fear that his psychic deviancy will come to light and lead to his expulsion, David forms a bond with the few other children of his age who also have this rare power. Eventually discovered, David and his friends have to flee into the wilderness to escape torture and (potentially) sacrifice.

Perhaps inadvertently on the author’s part, Chrysalids presents us with a question that is even more pointed than the one in Midwich: How far would you go to preserve your values and culture? What would you do if your children joined an extremist political group, or converted to a radical religion? Would you exile (even kill) relatives or your own children, knowing that if you did not, their values would supplant your own? I cannot think of any novels of ideas that are more pertinent today. Engaging with the novel’s issues honestly will result in readers doing some painful self-assessment about his/her limitations and the robustness of his/her values.

Wyndham, like every author, wrote in and of his time. In Triffids, a character drains the petrol from a car’s reserve tank. I don’t think I have ever travelled in a car with a reserve tank, although the concept is decipherable enough from the name. Perhaps the youngest of readers might need a reminder of what a corkscrew is; the idea of vacuum-packed cigarettes is rather neat, although today’s cellophane wrappers perform an inferior but cheaper alternative.

The language and social mores are of their time – which is a strong recommendation to readers of today – and this is particularly so in Triffids. When Wyndham presents the debates between pragmatists and Christians about whether or not sighted men should have multiple blind wives (who could give birth to seeing children), we encounter a slice of 1950s Britain, the last time Christian traditionalism had social hegemony. Today, I suppose many people would consider the matter merely one of avoiding partner jealousy rather than the breaching of a moral commandment.

The illustrations have a strong period flavour, with clothes, interiors and vehicles in Triffids and Midwich being contemporary with the period within which they were written. The retro quality of the illustration style suits the texts. If I had to venture one minor reservation about the illustrations in the Folio Society Wyndham boxset, it is that Leger tends to place us close to the actions, with main figures reaching the page edges. That means we are immersed in an event depicted, rather than viewing a scene at a distance. We are inside a motif, rather than outside a picture. This has some advantages – immediacy, engagement, impact, energy – but also reduces detached artistry, complex composition and contemplative reserve. On balance, it is well that Leger remains stylistically consistent within each volume and across the set.

Designers have taken care to co-ordinate the cover colours with the front and end-papers. The production quality is high and the margins and bindings make reading easy. This boxset with pictorial slipcase and hardback books with cloth spines (a reissue of the editions originally published in 2010) is a handsome set, and an ideal way to enjoy key novels of one of the greatest post-war British novelists.

The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection, three-volume set, with three novels by John Wyndham, illustrated by Patrick Leger, is available exclusively from: https://www.foliosociety.com/uk/the-wyndham-collection.html

Dreaming of utopias past

Henry Wrong, first administrator of the Barbican Centre, overlooking the build. Credit: Barbican Archive

Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre

Nicholas Kenyon et al, Batsford, 2022, 288pp, fully illus., £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS acknowledges a modernist monument’s coming of age

My first exposure to the Barbican Centre came obliquely. In the children’s science-fiction drama The Tripods, when the producers for the (somewhat cash-strapped) BBC programme had to come up with a futuristic city-cum-biosphere in 1985, they selected the Barbican as one filming location. The palm-filled Barbican conservatory was suitably modern and exotic – at least for a child in the provinces. Years later, I worked in an office adjacent to the Barbican and walked its disorientating aerial walkways daily by rote, knowing that any clever shortcut would lead me inevitably and inconveniently astray. Barbican library became my local library.

Isometric drawing of the Barbican Arts Centre as built, by John Ronayne, August 1982. Credit: Barbican Archive

When it was built, between 1972 and 1982, the Barbican Centre was the UK’s most ambitious urban-planning project to reach construction stage. It houses cinemas, concert halls, exhibition galleries, conference rooms, a theatre, restaurants, shops, cafés, a library and car park in an estate that consists of 2,000 residences, mostly in high-rise towers, all built in a Brutalist style. The new hardback Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre marks the 40th anniversary of the Barbican Centre’s completion, the 50th anniversary of its commencement and (approximately) the 65th anniversary of its conception. Multiple specialist writers cover the origins of the project, the politics and development of the building process and outline the highlights and remit of the cultural activities of the centre. A plethora of photographs capture the centre throughout its operation, from construction up to today, with some shots of classic performances and memorable events. 

The site of the Barbican Centre is Aldersgate, next to Silk Street, Beech Street and Whitecross Street, close to St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London. The site had been bombed almost completely flat during the Blitz and thus the location presented itself for wholesale redevelopment – on a grand scale, integrating accommodation and facilities. It was already served by Moorgate Station (Northern line underground and mainline) and was within walking distance of the offices and banks of the City. There was little residential consultation – following wartime devastation, Cripplegate district had a residential population of 58. The photographs of the flattened district, with St Paul’s in the background, is a stark reminder of the state of British cities in the post-war aftermath. 

It seems the impetus behind having so many residences was partly political. Sir Nicholas Kenyon, former Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, writes:

The vanishing residential population of the Square Mile posed an existential threat to the survival of the Corporation [of the City of London], with its independent governance and long traditions, for there was a serious possibility in the post-war years that, without residents and voters, there might be a move to incorporate the City into London County Council.

Hostility from LCC and the Arts Council caused friction with the Barbican Centre and led to tussles over funding and control. LCC wanted greater commercial development; the Corporation wanted residences and arts. The Corporation won out and architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon were appointed to design the centre and estate buildings. An initial costing of £10m was eventually to balloon to £150m by the time of completion.  

The Lakeside Terrace of the newly completed Barbican building in 1982, with Frobisher Crescent behind. Credit: Peter Bloomfield

The scale of the project is still – in our age of mega-structures – impressive (‘the largest single building for the arts in the Western world.’) The over thirty lifts include one that can transport a twenty-tonne lorry. The distinctive unpainted pitted concrete surfaces of walls were originally smooth before they were pick-hammered by men with pneumatic drills. This was time-consuming and thus expensive. Some aspects were flawed in design. The sculpture courtyard was rarely used because the weight of pieces was considered a potential structural danger to the building below. The gallery space has always been disappointing – a reflection of its late inclusion in the design – and has never lived up to the other facilities of the venue.   


The opening of the Barbican Centre on 3 March 1982: the Queen unveiling the plaque in the foyer, accompanied by The Rt Hon the Lord Mayor Sir Christopher Leaver. Credit: Barbican Archive

When the centre was opened by the Queen on 3 March 1982, the building seemed anachronistic – both behind the times and ahead of them. The building seemed ponderous and unsympathetic, alien in its stylistic unity; cultural tourism was not as developed and streamlined as it would become so there were many doubts about the viability of a costly arts hub. The architecture seemed heavy and uncompromising in a time when Post-Modernism was jettisoning concepts of “truth to materials”, Brutalism and stylistic conformity. Its broad walkways and windswept courtyards seemed too ambitious and forbidding; its thick brass railings seemed passé. More than anything, Brutalism’s intimidating size and lack decorative concession seemed anti-human and indicative of failed visions of Communistic Eastern Europe and corner-cutting city councils. Today, attitudes to Brutalism are changing. Brutalism is an Instagram favourite topic and subject of photo essays and coffee-table books. The high aspirations and unapologetic futurity of Brutalist concrete structures exhilarates the young urban crowd.

The London Symphony Orchestra has been resident at the Barbican since it opened.  The Royal Shakespeare Company acted as consultants as the theatre was designed. However, organisational politics and wrangles over income and subsidies caused Barbican to lose the RSC in an acrimonious parting in 2002 (‘The RSC were reluctant tenants. We were grumpy landlords.’) A transcription of a discussion between senior insiders notes that ‘the Corporation saw the conferences as money generators, and orchestras as money spenders.’ Balancing artistic considerations against commercial one is a constant negotiation, as is that of high culture versus experimental programming. (Although apparently the BBC-funded 1985 Stockhausen festival turned into a sell-out success.) Views on the acoustics of the concert hall were mixed; the acoustics noticeably improved once the Perspex hemispheres were removed from the ceiling. The opinions of performers, conductors and critics are summarised.   

Barbican Cinema brochures from the early 1980s. Credit: Barbican Archive

Most of the fittings are bespoke, which added to the cost but were congruent and effective within the overall design. (There is a great shot of Robin Day’s strongly coloured concert-hall seats.) The signage was considered inadequate from the beginning, leading to notorious navigation difficulties. A Barbican poster announced, ‘If Helen Mirren can find the new Barbican Centre before it opens in March, she will be appearing in Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The book has many photographs of these details, as well as plans, maps, images of construction, aerial views and vintage shots. A selection of posters shows the breadth of programming over the last 40 years, reminding readers of memorable experiences. The authors are either specialists in their fields or they are individuals who have worked at a high level in Barbican Centre management. Short testimonies by knowledgeable figures (including performers, managers and users) intersperse longer narratives, which show palpable affection but address faults. Subjects include the Barbican’s architecture, theatre, music, art, cinema, typefaces and branding and plentiful insights into the management.

Building Utopia: The Barbican Centre presents a comprehensive and sympathetic presentation of one of modern Britain’s most iconic buildings. Not universally loved as a building – indeed, still disliked by many – the Barbican Centre continues to act as an important centre for high culture. Most importantly, the Barbican is largely an independent enterprise, with relatively low and indirect tax-payer subsidies. Today, the Barbican’s distance from the interfering hand of government is more vital than ever.

Fernando Pessoa – shadow of a ghost

Pessoa: An Experimental Life

Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 2021, 1,088pp, £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS applauds a comprehensive study of a complicated writer

If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity.

Pessoa claimed to be descended of ‘a mixture of aristocrats and Jews’ although neither predominated nor were proximate to him. His family was largely agnostic (or non-practising) Catholics, more devoted to music than God, who earned a living serving the state. His maternal grandfather was a civil servant and his paternal grandfather was a senior general. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa (1850-1893), the poet’s father, was a civil servant. He was an opera fanatic and (anonymously) wrote music criticism for a newspaper. In 1887, he wed Maria Madalena Nogueira (1861-1925), the Azorean-born daughter of a civil servant. She was intelligent, well-educated and a keen reader.

Fernando António Noguiera Pessoa (1888-1935) was born on 13 June 1888, in Lisbon. He was delicate, introverted and passionate about literature. He was a voracious reader and writer at a young age. He was encouraged by his cultured family. In 1893, his father died of tuberculosis. The following year, Pessoa’s infant brother died of a fever. In 1895, the widow Pessoa married João Miguel Rosa, another civil servant, this one a diplomat.

Rosa was appointed Portuguese Consul in Durban, South Africa; his new wife and stepson followed in 1896. They would stay (increasing the family with three surviving children) until 1905. They lived through the Boer War and saw rural refugees camped in Durban’s public spaces and outskirts. Pessoa’s schooling and first year of university were in English. The young Pessoa won prizes for English. Winning the Queen Victoria Memorial Prize in 1903 for an original essay (beating 898 other entrants) was one of his proudest achievements, something he cherished until his death. Although Pessoa’s English was fluent, it was unidiomatic and airy, influenced by his reading of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and the bookish Pessoa spent more time reading Carlyle and Keats than bantering on the school playing fields. Pessoa would use his English to good effect in later life and wrote verse and prose in both English and Portuguese.   

II

‘I am astounded whenever I finish anything. Astounded and distressed.’

– Pessoa writing as Bernardo Soares

When he was an adolescent, Pessoa began his own newspaper for his family, filling it with fictional news, jokes and poems. The authors were numerous and all pseudonyms. Over his lifetime, Pessoa published under multiple names and wrote under others, over 100 in all. The degree to which he actually inhabited these ‘heteronyms’ is debatable. It seems to have freed him creatively and allowed him licence to intellectually position himself outside of his life experience. There is the question of whether or not these Borgesian alter egos were part of a meta-fiction, additional to the text. Pessoa stated that these were the real authors of his writings. Each had a distinct style and character. Pessoa published verse under pen names Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, as well as under his own name, plus others. Like Kafka, who is a useful point of comparison, Pessoa published a fair amount of creative writing and non-fiction prose during his lifetime, but left a sizeable unpublished legacy. In his lifetime, he was best known as a political and cultural commentator. Only in the last year of his life was his stature as a poet generally realised. His unpublished manuscripts were found in a wooden trunk after his death.

‘The trunk indeed existed, and some ten years after Pessoa’s death more than three hundred of the poems it contained found their way into a handsome edition of his poetry, with separate volumes for Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Since each of the three heteronyms boasted a large and exquisite body of work stylistically unlike the poetry of his fellow heteronyms or of Pessoa himself, one could say that Portugal’s four greatest poets from the twentieth century were Fernando Pessoa.’

Pessoa – and his alter egos – submitted poems, stories and criticism to publications in Portugal and Great Britain. Hungry for success and recognition – hence the decision to often write in English – Pessoa was afflicted with chronic doubt, lapses of confidence and changes of heart. In this biography and editions of Pessoa’s writing, the adjectives ‘unfinished’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘fragmentary’ are commonplace. One could conclude that Pessoa’s use of heteronymic personae is a double-edged sword. It permitted him freedom to develop diverse and distinct bodies of writing but it left him without a core body of writings. The decision to write short texts also allowed him the opportunity to drop projects unfinished without too much investment. Without the impetus to write a novel and publish it, Pessoa could afford to bounce between ideas. His only substantial book published in his lifetime was one year before his death and consisted of poems. Pessoa may have been temperamentally unsuited to write a novel but his propensity to write short, often and under different identities exacerbated his weaknesses of prevarication and detachment. His trunk was filled with unfinished plays, poems, stories, translations and letters.  

‘The human author of these books has no personality of his own. Whenever he feels a personality well up inside, he quickly realizes that this new being, though similar, is distinct from him – an intellectual son, perhaps, with inherited characteristics, but also with differences that make him someone else.’

It is possible that – with regard to the legion of heteronyms – readers will experience alternating intrigue and boredom. When Zenith devotes paragraphs to investigating the recurring signature of ‘Gaveston’ – remarking that this is the sole case of an alter ego appearing persistently over time in Pessoa’s jotting without being credited with a single text – how is one supposed to react? It is curious but is it a matter for curiosity for anyone other than a scholar who has spent countless hours poring over Pessoa’s manuscripts? It is a true fact and (presumably) a new fact, but does it mean anything and do we care? The principal heteronyms have bodies of work attached, some of it now published in English, but discussion of peripheral heteronyms (associated with mere jumbled fragments, inaccessible to all except researchers) is more distracting than illuminating.

Zenith diligently hunts down seeds of heteronyms in the writings of past authors, great and forgotten alike. Pessoa’s favourite authors included Thomas Carlyle, Poe, Keats, Milton, Ruskin, Wilde and Baudelaire. A less obvious influence was Max Nordau’s Entartung (Degeneration) (1892), a book identifying and condemning degeneracy. According to this account, it was Nordau’s passages on mania and mental degeneration that fascinated Pessoa most. His grandmother had suffered from severe and atypical dementia, diagnosed as intermittent. He was worried that he too might come to be afflicted. (One also thinks here of Lovecraft’s narrators fearing for their sanity. Lovecraft lost his father to madness, albeit tertiary syphilis, with which Lovecraft himself was not infected.) ‘Pessoa’s fascination, it turns out, was restricted to the relationship that the writer posited between exceptional intellectual or creative activity and psychological deviation from the norm.’

‘It surprises us that Pessoa could have been so enthralled by Nordau – a fluent, effectual writer who was well read but intellectually rigid, priggishly moralistic, and aesthetically reactionary.’

Not at all. Just as Zenith points out that Pessoa had to wait until the end of the twentieth century for a receptive audience for his meta-textually ludic fiction; so Zenith should not be surprised that Pessoa then and others now search for the link between (on one hand) decadence, social atomisation and destruction of tradition and (on the other) liberalism, progressivism and materialism. Pessoa himself was not a traditionalist, but he was eager to understand the causes of social and personal decline. Nordau, Otto Weininger, Herbert Spencer, (later) Oswald Spengler and others advanced ideas that vary in insight and plausibility, but any intelligent open mind would have found such material to be thought-provoking, even if ultimately it disfavoured those authors’ conclusions. Decadence is appealing to vanguardists and the elite but it has characteristics of both pathology and poison.  

Images from NCultura.pt, with acknowledgements – https://ncultura.pt/15-fantasticas-curiosidades-sobre-fernando-pessoa/

III

Pessoa used his inheritance to establish Ibis Press in 1909, which would be a commercial printer but also published advanced literature (including Pessoa’s books). It folded almost immediately, due to debt and tough competition. He burned through his inheritance accrued debt in under a year. This put him at odds with his family, then still in South Africa, especially when he requested they pay off his debts whilst at the same time refusing to get a job. The most he would do was provide translations of poems for a giant library of world classics in Portuguese.

In 1914 Pessoa wrote as Álvaro de Campos, Portugal’s first Futurist poet. With author-friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa would act as shadow editor for the avant-garde literary journal Opheu. The journal was published in 1915 and lasted only two issues. Influenced by the Futurist Manifestoes and the British Vorticist Blast, Orpheu caused a sensation. Its radical sensibilities, taboo subject matter (sex) and Cubist collages, ignited debate in Portuguese cultural circles. Who were these madmen? At least three of them were Pessoa. Sá-Carneiro fled to Paris, where he committed suicide after a period of debauchery.  

Pessoa described himself as elitist, nationalist, imperialist (Portugal at this time still had a substantial empire) and (nominally) a republican, although one disillusioned with the corruption of the republican government established in 1910. He antagonised republicans in a newspaper letter and he had to evade a gang that came to assault him. It was one of the few physical escapades of this normally timid man. He was unenthusiastic about the Great War and critical of Portugal’s entrance into direct hostilities against the Central Powers on the continent, reasoning that war in France against the Germans did not contribute to protecting and ruling colonies in Africa. Pessoa’s unformed aspiration was the foundation of an aristocratic republic of Portugal, led by great men. He himself had no political aspirations. Zenith never mentions Pessoa delivering a public speech or broadcast.

At this time, Pessoa became involved with esoterica, mysticism, magic and spirit reading, all complementing an established commitment to astrological predictions. He was in the habit of gauging planetary alignments when submitting manuscripts to London publishers. The publishers were uniformly unreceptive to his submissions and proposals, though his chapbooks of poems won praise for the author’s accomplishment. He dabbled in secret societies, but (as a lover of mystery stories) Pessoa seemed more stimulated by the intrigue than the reality.

In 1930, Pessoa was Aleister Crowley’s companion on a visit to Lisbon. Pessoa, a native of Lisbon, steeped in occult knowledge and fluent in Portuguese and English, was the ideal choice. Crowley’s reputation as an indefatigable fornicator, Satanist and drug fiend put Pessoa on edge before Crowley’s arrival by ship. Crowley wanted Pessoa to head the Portuguese chapter of his spiritualist society; Pessoa wanted Crowley to publish his writings in England. They both assumed the other was richer than he actually was, which entailed mutual disappointment. Crowley departed after staging a hoax suicide, which Pessoa partially corroborated. This is one of the most amusing passages in a biography that makes an intelligent and lively read.

IV

‘I’m suffering from a headache and the universe.’

– Pessoa

In 1919, Pessoa started work at an import-export firm, using his knowledge of English and French. This was where (in 1920) he met the only woman he courted, Ophelia Queiroz.

Pessoa was averse to sexual intimacy. There is plenty of evidence in Pessoa’s writings of sexual attraction but also physical repulsion, perhaps linked to venereal disease. Love arises in the poems in an abstracted sense, derived from his reading. Zenith has good reason for assuming Pessoa died a virgin. Zenith also finds ample examples of misogyny in Pessoa’s writing and marginalia, provoked by fear (and disgust) regarding female libido. There are a number of sensitive and passionate homoerotic love poems ascribed to heteronyms, though Zenith (and others) do not believe this ever translated into carnal fulfilment.   

Ophelia was nineteen years old and employed to act as a secretary. Pessoa was thirty-two but youthfully unattached, respected by colleagues as a great poet yet one unaccountably unrewarded. She was strongly attracted to Pessoa. Pessoa kindled to the affection and they carried on a romance of trysts, walks and love letters. It was imbalanced, with Ophelia taking the lead and wanting commitment. Pessoa was too detached and cautious for the relationship to develop straightforwardly. Unusually for Pessoa, their letters survive and are quoted in this account. Ophelia is insistent and puzzled by Pessoa’s reticence. Pessoa is playful and affectionate but unwilling to translate that into an engagement. (Him writing as his heteronyms was an augury of a poor outcome.) The impasse led to estrangement, though they did resume writing over the period 1929-30. By temperament and choice, Pessoa was determined to remain unencumbered by the emotional or domestic burden of partnership. Ophelia married the year after the poet’s death.

Pessoa’s apparent support for homosexual men as men and as writers comes as no surprise considering the poems he wrote. Even if Pessoa was not himself homosexual, he displays empathy and must have gained some pleasure from imagining himself as a homosexual poet, modelled on Walt Whitman. He publicly defended two homosexual writers whose work was banned. This attitude aligns with the idea of an aristocratic elite heading a nation founded on excellence and spurning the distractions of materialistic progress. In Pessoa’s vague imaginings, it was priest-scholars rather than Spartan warriors. Women in politics was anathema to him.

In 1921, Pessoa planned to publish The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Portuguese. He did not do so. Instead, he wrote an essay about what he saw as the malign influence of Jews. ‘Without any perceptible animus toward Jews, writing as a calm analyst who happened to be informed by reactionary ideas, he noted that the three hundred members of the oligarchy allegedly plotting to overthrow the world order were not all Jews but were imbued by the spirit of what he called “sub-Judaism,” characterized by crass materialism and support of democracy and humanitarian causes.’ Later, he wrote about Jews in less charged terms, assigning to races ‘characteristics, however, [that] were neither genetic not altogether static; they depended on a complex web of historical, geographical, and sociological circumstances.’ Interesting lines of thought for an author who claimed Christianised Jews in his lineage to take.

Zenith criticises Pessoa for not being an egalitarian (while admitting that such an attitude was not incompatible with the poet’s outlook) and condemns Pessoa for wearing blackface as a prank (‘the inherent offensiveness of blackface’). What, a reader may wonder, is gained by wagging the measuring stick of American morality of 2021 at a Portuguese who grew up in Victorian-era colonial Africa? For the most part, such presumptions are not too intrusive.

Pessoa was both an artistic Modernist and a political reactionary; he was empathetic towards certain minority groups, indifferent towards others. He approved of the suppression of Communists and Socialists but was hostile towards Italian Fascism. (Perhaps he discerned within Fascism a core of Socialism.) Zenith thinks, ‘The “real Fernando Pessoa” was always someone else.’ I disagree. I see Pessoa as perfectly consistently himself in his apparent contradictions; he was honest enough to fully inhabit contradictory ideas. We have the concept of cognitive dissonance. However, there is no dissonance when there is no urge to harmonise contradictory ideas. Pessoa never believed he had to hold a consistent position. It seems he realised that a human being without contradictions is an impossibility.

V

‘An original, typically Portuguese literature cannot be Portuguese, because the typical Portuguese are never Portuguese’

– Pessoa 

In 1928, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) was appointed finance minister and he would remain the directing force in the technocratic Portuguese government until a brain aneurysm in 1968. He would see out the last two years of his life as only the nominal (rather than actual) head of government of Portugal. His dryness – a devout Catholic, private, personally reserved, not given to rhetorical excess – and his competence as a director of the state finances won him widespread support. Pessoa supported Salazar’s measures, which stabilised Portugal’s finances and curbed the hedonistic excesses of Lisbon’s nightlife.

Almost a decade after their split, Ophelia and Pessoa reconnected during 1929-30. They resumed their correspondence and meetings. Again, they fell into the old pattern of conflict. Ophelia wanted marriage and companionship; Pessoa wanted to write. She was worried about his heavy drinking. It would leave him severely ill in the summer of 1932. He evidently enjoyed the excitement and experience of being desired but perhaps he felt guilty for giving Ophelia (about whom he evidently strongly cared) false hope of matrimony. Maybe he suspected he was not a writer in love but a writer researching love.

His Mensagem (Message) (1934) collection of poems won a prize from the government for its contribution to patriotic renewal. Pessoa was ambivalent, appreciating the recognition and the cash, but wary of official honours. The following year, Pessoa opposed a bill to outlaw secret societies, specifically the Freemasons. Pessoa had an affinity for societies so he took the legislation personally and wrote in the press strongly opposing the law. It was a futile effort because the parliament would rubberstamp the legislation. In his last months, he turned definitively against the regime for restricting personal freedom, especially freedom of artistic expression. His anti-Salazar poems could not be printed, but they apparently were circulated in a limited form. Zenith discloses that in his last months, Pessoa was writing an essay against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Also, he was weighing up the merits of equality and humanitarianism. Death – intestinal obstruction (or possibly pancreatitis) apparently caused by alcoholism – intervened. Pessoa died on 30 November 1935, in hospital.  

VI

‘Everlasting remembrance, how briefly you endure!’

– Pessoa

Over the subsequent years, volumes of the erroneously titled Complete Works of Pessoa were published by colleagues, amounting to a fraction of the slew of 25,000 sheets. The verses can be a little abstract and diffuse but often deploy pleasing irony, cutting humour and mordant insights. The best poem by Pessoa I have read is one of the longer ones, 1928’s ‘Tobacconist’s’ (written under the heteronym Álvaro de Campos) – one of his most involved and most concrete poems, featuring the poet’s thoughts upon watching a tobacconist and his store from across the street. It combines melancholy, levity and grandiosity.

The only lengthy work of fiction that Pessoa brought close to completion was The Book of Disquiet, which is assigned to Bernardo Soares. It consists of over 500 entries written over 1913-35, and was only published in 1982. It comprised hundreds of pages in an envelope. (One is put in mind of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969). His famous ‘book in a box’ is composed of individual sheets and sheaves.) The ordering and transcription are debated and since the first publication there have been new editions, some dramatically different. One English edition has been edited and translated by Zenith. The entries range from single sentences to passages of many pages. They are meditative, alternately detached and intensely personal, forming what Pessoa called a ‘factless autobiography’. It has a detached quality, splenetic humour and despairing melancholy that presages existentialist literature and the internal monologues of Beckett.

In an age of Borgesian meta-narratives and Post-Modern playfulness – as well as a (sadly) reduced capacity to concentrate on more involved lengthy prose – The Book of Disquiet and Pessoa’s heteronymic transformations have found warm appreciation. There is no doubt he was a serious, world-class writer and richly deserves this handsome biography.

Zenith is adept at sketching the situation of Portugal during the Belle Époque, republican and Salazar periods. He knows his subject matter inside out and speaks the languages of his subject. On balance, Zenith’s assertion that Pessoa’s heteronymic alter egos (at least, the major ones) are genuinely felt expressions of different intellects with unique voices, and not gimmicks, carries weight and is eloquently argued, with evidence. Once one grants Zenith his ethical and political interjections, even the most negative of critics is left with mere cavils. The biography hits the rare sweet spot of being as comprehensive as one might wish for while not lingering too long on any point. The amount and depth of research is humbling. Pessoa: An Experimental Life is a grand achievement – thorough, thoughtful, insightful and generally sympathetic, it does what all the best literary biographies do: inspire us to seek out the writings of its subject.

The evolutions of revolutionary architecture

A 1934 competition project, Narkomtiazhprom – from Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism,1920-1980

Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930

Park Books, 2021, 624pp, illus., $65

Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital

Princeton University, 2021, 274pp + xii, illus., £34

Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980

Scheidegger & Spiess, 2020, 448pp, illus., £65

ALEXANDER ADAMS traces the neglected history of Soviet building design

The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus.  

The new school combined eight departments (fakul’tey): painting, sculpture, architecture, woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, graphics (poligrafiya), and textiles

There was a core curriculum which covered the basics of design and art, with additional topics: “Mathematics, Chemistry, Descriptive Geometry, Political Economy, History of Art, and Military Arts.” . The school offered free education and encouraged applications from poor students, many of whom had part-time jobs to support themselves.

While similar to the Staatliche Bauhaus in its “communistic” spirit, Vkhutemas was over ten times larger than its German counterpart in terms of the student body. With an enrolment of more than 2,000 students, it was an unprecedented modern undertaking, rivalled only by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which counted well over 1,000 students in the 1920s

VKhuTEMAS students with models

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a record of the school through its teaching material, archival sources and explanatory essays. It provides us with a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Soviet avant-garde in the brief window before Modernism was occluded by Socialist Realism. VKhUTEMAS was a cockpit of Constructivism and Functionalism. Constructivism was a Modernist movement which divided into two strands: a) a Cubist-inspired abstract school of art that deployed geometric forms and b) a utilitarian form of architecture favouring Euclidean forms and eschewing decoration. Functionalism is a principle that design must be ergonomic and pragmatic, subordinating aesthetics to function. There was a stress on modern materials, geometric forms and human psychology would aid design of structures, making them fully rational and determined by science. Architecture, unlike painting and sculpture, was not imitative and could thus be liberated from convention. Constructivism is avowedly Modernist in form; Functionalism is Modernist in form only by default. VKhUTEMAS taught both – inasmuch as they were distinguishable.

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space records school publications and course materials. These consist of montages, collages, photographs, diagrams and texts. These are reproduced photographically. The Russian text is partially translated into English for the first time. This large book reproduces pages from the archives at large size, most with translation facing. The syllabi are transcribed and translated. Some commentaries provide other information. Models in cardboard, wire, glass, plaster and string were made by students and were photographed as examples. The curriculum gives us information about the teaching methods, the ideas that were to be imparted and what students were expected to demonstrate. Examples are given of documents, fabric samples, clothing, furniture designs, posters, architectural plans and art work.

Although the foundations of the school’s teaching were doctrinal, the actual practice did allow for experimentation and personal expression. All tutors and students had to be members of the Party but it does not seem that the teachers were anything other than thoughtful, patient and responsive to their students. Teachers included serious artists already known in the West: Alexandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko. 

Konstantin Melnikov Kurochkin, Gosplan Garage, 1930s

VKhUTEMAS was closed in 1930, victim of the political struggles and the Party’s declining approval for Modernism, which would soon be denounced as ‘bourgeois formalism’. The solution to the unsatisfactory performance was to split up the school into different, specialised institutions. The fates of the tutors mirror the fate of the avant-garde under the Stalinist regime. Rodchenko moved from avant-garde design to documentary photography. Ladovsky was purged under Stalin, a fate that also befell Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky and other Modernist artists. Aleksandr Drevin and Gustav Klutsis were executed in 1938 as part of a purge of Latvians (partly overseen by Lavrentii Beria).  Vladimir Baranov-Rossine (a Jew) died in a Nazi death camp.  

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a fascinating insight into Soviet Modernism and design pedagogy. It is a somewhat specialised volume but a valuable addition to any extensive library on art education, design history and Soviet fine and applied arts.


The rivalry between the USSR and the USA dated back to the inception of the USSR. From the earliest days, ambitious Soviet officials and architects eyed the skyscrapers of New York with envy. For them, the logical development of the USSR would be to harness the capabilities of Soviet New Man, unleashed through the liberation of labour and freed from the shackles of bourgeois tradition, in order to build a new society that would surpass the USA’s lead. Socialism was a development of – and ultimately, replacement for – capitalism and this would be demonstrated through the creation of buildings grander than those of capitalism.

One of the great projects was Palace of the Soviets (designed 1931-3, head architect Boris Iofan). It would be a vast auditorium for conferences, with a giant library, served by 148 elevators, topped by the tallest building in the world, at 415 m (1,362 ft), with a 100 m tall statue of Lenin on the top of the tower. This would use techniques and materials innovated by the British, Germans and Americans to construct a palace dedicated to the people rather than to commerce. (Iofan led a delegation of engineers to New York to gain technical information.) It was seen as a direct riposte to the West, refuting the idea that Russia was technologically undeveloped and that Socialism could not match capitalist democracies. It had been barely started by the time the Great Patriotic War diverted the labour and materials into the war effort.

As Katherine Zubovich explains in Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, in the immediate aftermath of the victory over Germany, Stalin planned a group of eight tower blocks and completion of the Palace to show that the USSR was ready to enter the modern age and rival the world capitals. These would accompany completion of the Palace of the Soviets. Although the ill-starred Palace would never progress – the alarming amount of ground water flooding the foundations indicated the unsuitability of the location for the world’s tallest building – the tower blocks would be constructed. It turned out there would only be seven, built over the period 1947-53.

In the late 1930s, Stalin had effectively halted Soviet Modernism in all areas. The social, educational and – in some respects – the economic sovietisation of the USSR proved highly disruptive, slow and counterproductive. The Revolution would have to be stopped and (purely in an unannounced manner) reversed in select areas. A good example is the rise of Socialist Realism, which replaced the experimental Modernism of Suprematism and Constructivism with academic painting and sculpture depicting workers and party officials. In architecture, Stalinism entailed curtailing the excesses of Modernism and Rationalism, in favour of Historicism made at inhumanly large size. As always in totalitarian states (past and present) words were redefined. “небоскреб/neboskreby” (“skyscrapers”) was redefined to mean Western capitalist tall buildings; “Высокое здание/vysotnye zdaniia” (“tall buildings”) was the preferred term for tower blocks in the USSR.

The heroic experimentalism of the early revolutionary period of the Modernist period had never materialised. Construction on the Palace of the Soviets had stalled. Although the city had suffered aerial bombardment, it had not suffered as much as Leningrad, not to mention Stalingrad. The project of boulevardisation and the new metro system from the inter-war period was intact. In January 1947, with the USSR still gradually recovering from the ravages of war, the decree was issued to construct eight new skyscrapers. The plans were initially fluid.

In the early months of 1947, Soviet officials, construction managers, and architects themselves had little notion of the shape the project would take over the following months and years. The skyscraper decree of January 13, 1947 was impressionistic at best. The document gave little indication of the outsized role the buildings would come to play in Soviet life

The buildings were Hotel Ukrainia (the tallest building in the USSR), Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, Kudrinskaya Square Building, Hotel Leningradskaya, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow State University headquarters and the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry. Construction was staggered due to the potential strain on labour, logistic and management. Zubovich outlines the internal politics of the bureaucracy and the shifting responsibility for the project as it came to life. The internal manoeuvring was not just a question of personal advancement but of survival by denouncing rivals as insufficiently Communist, as officials lived under the shadow of the KGB removing individuals due to counter-revolutionary subversion.

The ‘Seven Sisters’ displaced tens of thousands of Muscovites, who were evicted without compensation, although the Moscow government was obliged to find or build accommodation. The author tells the stories of some of the residents who were resettled to the outskirts of Moscow. The process was administered by Lavrentii Beria, former head of the NKVD. Rehousing the displaced population became a project in itself. The influx of construction workers required temporary housing, which would expand the city boundaries of Moscow.  

Construction became an opportunity for propaganda. The presence of women doing some of the lighter labour was heralded by the press as a triumph of communal co-operation in the world no longer encumbered by custom. Press coverage concealed problems:

Postwar shortages resulted in intense competition over materials, equipment, and labor between managers working across Moscow’s different construction sites. Building materials often arrived late or not at all, and construction equipment and gear were in short supply. Managers at all skyscrapers sites complained about a shortage of skilled workers

Limitations in the conditions were obvious. Overcrowding in dormitories was commonplace. Internal Party reports noted

…workers’ housing was not only lacking mass-political activities and red [political] corners; living conditions in the material sense were abysmal ((Zubovich, ibid., p154)

Unrealistically high targets (motivated by arbitrary statistical ambition) pushed workers to breaking point. As with the pre-war metro construction, accidents were frequent. Pay was so low that there was even labour unrest. What was not made clear in the press was the amount of forced labour used. By 1950, 8,000 prisoners (including foreign nationals) were working on the Seven Sisters in zones segregated from the population and the (nominally) free workers.

The buildings were well-appointed and the décor restrained. The public spaces at the lower levels were Historicist, pastiching Romanov-era state buildings, replete with marble cladding and columns. The Party elite scrambled to petition high officials to secure apartments. As it was, the number of apartments did not materially affect the housing crisis in the city. Although more generous than average Moscow apartments, the tower-block apartments were not large, especially when occupied by multi-person households.

At the very moment Moscow’s skyscrapers were completed in the mid-1950s, they became symbols of Stalinist “excess”

Completion of the Seven Sisters coincided with the death of Stalin, soon followed by the era of the Great Thaw and de-Stalinisation of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. The untrammelled power and stylistic appropriation of the past were deemed indicative of the flaws of Stalin’s reign.

When Khrushchev spoke on the final day of the Builders’ Conference [in 1954], he called for greater efficiency in construction, increased use of industrialized and prefabricated materials, and an end to unnecessary decorations and embellishments in design that, as he stated, caused “unnecessary expenditures

According to the new guard, Stalinism’s stylistic anachronism betokened a system-wide culture of deception. In terms of financial and human costs, monumentalism was indicative of inhumane excess that could no longer be supported.

Administrators and architects fell from favour but the undeniably impressive aspects of the project appealed to Communist regimes elsewhere. Soon structures typical of Stalinist Historicist architecture would spring up in the form of the buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, the Presidential Palace in Bucharest and buildings across the Eastern Bloc. 


A third book joins the space between the VKhUTEMAS and the Stalinist years, then brings the story up the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 seeks to place Soviet furniture, clothing, interior design and architecture in a continuum that integrates them within the ideals and reality of the USSR over almost its entire existence. Soviet design is relatively little known compared to other Modernist movements such as Secession, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Minimalism and Italian and Scandinavian Modernism. The reasons are that the USSR exported relatively little and (aside from political sympathetic states) it had little cultural and technological exchange with other states.

Due to its relative isolation, the USSR had to produce everything. This was a precursor to the creation of a new rational world suitable for Soviet Man, then, later, independence demonstrated the viability of self-sufficiency of the Communism-in-one-country doctrine. Soviet Design includes everything from teacups to underground stations. As with all areas of life in the USSR, the 1920s were full of bold experimentation and radical ideas.

Space was at a premium, so efficiency was prioritised. The drive to make furniture compact and multifunctional chimed with reappraisals of ways of living. Leading designer and theorist El Lissitzky declared,

Salons, halls, boudoirs, living-rooms […] everything has been swept away – only the bare living space is left

New Soviet furniture could be folded away, rotated or reversed for different functions. Telyakovsky’s combination unit had a bookcase, desk and bed. Built-in storage was designed for new-build apartments. Soviet engineer-designers made a virtue of the limitations imposed by circumstances and, in doing so, their labours turned New Soviet Man’s domestic environment into something between factory cell, submarine berth and space-flight module.  

Soviet designs could be painfully uncompromising, with straight lines and flat planes more suited to showroom than living room – certainly not suited to human anatomy. Due to the severe restrictions (technical, material, financial, bureaucratic and political) many designs never went beyond drawing or prototype stage. Mismanagement, delays and lack of competition led to chronic shortages and compromises in all areas of Soviet life. Production targets were arbitrary and goods were often defective. Designers rarely saw their designs reach production in the quality they stipulated.

The earliest phase produced some attractive designs. A teacup and saucer from 1923 have spare geometric Suprematist forms on a white ceramic ground, crisp, dainty and assertively ant-traditional. The designer was Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954), a student of Malevich and one of the outstanding figures in Soviet ceramics. (Suetin designed Malevich’s coffin.) Some outstanding examples of suites or interiors were produced for public expositions.

The design of furniture models (in many cases never realized) taking their inspiration from Constructivist forms effectively ceased after 1934

By 1932, Stalinist policies decreed a return to order and convention – to a degree. Expressions of physical culture would become heavier, grander, more voluminous; traditional materials and forms would be adopted, although decoration would never become too elaborate. To give an impression of stability and continuity, the fine and applied arts would turn their backs upon “bourgeois formalism” of Modernism that distanced the proletariat from the products of their society.

This Historicism is evident in the submitted designs – reproduced in the book – of the Palace of the Soviets. Cinemas, theatres, department stores, hotels and other important spaces evoked the grandeur of the Romanov Empire period, complete with chandeliers, marble facing and dark lacquered-wood panelling. Rather than being challenged by Functionalist surroundings that asserted the dawn of a new age, Soviet citizens in the 1940s would be embraced by the stifling pomp of the belle époque, made available to all, not just the (now liquidated) capitalist class.    

Reverse engineering and copying formed part of Soviet design. The most notable example was the adoption of Art Deco for architecture, furniture and Metro stations. The use of crisp lines, simple forms, tubular metal supports and absence of ornamentation provided a counterpoint to the rival Stalinist Historicism. This Art Deco can be found in a showpiece ship that was used to ferry passengers to holiday resorts on the Black Sea.

All Union Competition entries, 1972 – from Soviet Design

Post-war reconstruction, advances in technology and the death of Stalin allowed moderate Modernist designs to reach production stage and dominate interiors from the late 1950s onwards. There was popular demand for domestic furniture that was informal and comfortable. We see curvilinear metal tubing, foam padding, slimline design and lightweight construction become commonplace – many of the products copied from Western examples. Electrical appliances became affordable. The communal canteens demanded by the communitarian ideals of the Revolutionary era – which had never been popular in domestic habitations – were abandoned in favour of fitted kitchens.

Significantly, the advent of the Eastern Bloc brought international trade on a large scale for the first time in Soviet history. Apparently, the USSR imported many interior fittings from Czechoslovakia. Despite advances, however, Soviet manufacturers were unresponsive to public demand, often unwilling to modify inferior designs. Lacking competition and the profit motive, manufacturing was deeply inefficient.

Soviet Design does much to familiarise readers with the origins, principles, limitations and unique circumstances that led to the designs produced in the USSR. The many large illustrations, explanatory narrative and concise biographies of major figures will make this book a primary introduction to one of the most neglected fields of design.