12 October 2015


"Baroque excess" is a tautology, but the glorious silver tomb of St. John Nepomuk by Fischer von Erlach in the Cathedral of St Vitus in Prague cannot be described without tautology. I took a few pictures with a poor camera in the low light of the church, but they give some idea of it.

21 September 2015


When the iron curtain came down, western businesses were quick to invest in eastern Europe, but almost a generation later many interesting eastern European artists are still unknown to us. We discovered Pál Molnár-C by chance when we were traveling on the Danube from Budapest to Szentendre. There was a heatwave and we were trying to find somewhere cool to sit. Out of the sun on the lower deck we saw about thirty framed drawings - including the one above - topical, witty, well observed, obviously old and not what you would expect to find on a river boat. The only clue was the signature MCP, which was not much to go on.

Google soon turned up Pál Molnár-C (1894-1981), not an obscure artist as the large number of images on the web witness, but new to me. His studio in Budapest, in a middle-class, tree-lined street on the Buda side, was kept by his family as a museum and couple of days later we visited it. We were told through the entryphone that it was closed for the summer, but as we were there we were allowed in, and Molnár-C's great granddaughter Maria kindly showed us round.

First, an explanation of his odd surname, Molnár-C. Molnár was very close to his mother, Jeanne Contat (whom he conflated with the Madonna in his paintings) and he added the C in tribute to her.

Maria told us that the drawings on the riverboat were put there on the initiative of her father, who had contacts in the company. These graphic works were originally published in the evening paper Est in the 1920s and were so popular that readers complained on days they didn't appear.

The title on the drawing at the top of this post, Főzőcske, isn’t easy to translate. Kati said it’s “cooking”, like preparing a chicken for the pot. Beguiling? Leading him up the garden path? A book about the artist translates it as "Softening". The nicely characterised portraits are of actual people, the socialite Baby Becker (below left), who had worked in silent films with Alexander Korda, and the playwright  Ferenc Molnár (below right), whose play Lilliom was adapted for the musical Carousel. The gossip columns avidly followed Baby Becker's affairs, and the readers of Est must have got the reference.
Below you can see three more of his drawings of Budapest life from Est.

 There is a full account of his life on the museum website. He was born in Battonya, a village in the far south east of Hungary, trained for three years at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School and then studied in Switzerland and Paris. His daily illustrations in Est started in 1924 and quickly brought him recognition.

At the same time as he was doing these little satirical drawings he was making religious paintings (above). He was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, where he lived from 1928-31, still continuing his drawings for Est.
Tuscan Landscape
He loved Paris and Rome but he missed Hungary - a country he described as "horizontally small but vertically large." In 1931 he married Alice Gstettner and moved to the house in Ménesi street, where he lived and worked (below) until his death in 1981. “I wake up every morning as excited as the groom who is about to meet his love,” he said. “For me, reuniting with the palette, the paintbrush, the canvas, and the constant challenge that art represents, is a feeling of reviving happy excitement every single day.”
Pál Molnár-C in his studio
He was both a colourist and an accomplished graphic artist in black and white. He painted landscapes, portraits, religious and allegorical works and church murals, and designed posters, made woodcut illustrations and drew in a highly original way. His portraits and landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s are in the
St. John the Baptist
neo-classical current of the time. The portraits of his daughters (which you can see in this video of the studio) are warmly felt and beautifully executed. Molnár-C's subject matter and style made him unpopular with the regime after the Second World War: he was on the Communists’ banned list and struggled to make a living from private work and church commissions. (He's an interesting contrast with another Hungarian religious artist, Margit Kovács, who cleverly adapted her work to socialist themes in the 1950s and so secured her career.) After his death, his daughter was able to buy back many of his paintings at reduced prices; now he is so popular that his work is being forged.

Ménesi út 65, Budapest 1118, Hungary
Phone Number: +(36)302011073

Opening hours
Thursday: 10.00 - 18.00
Friday: 10.00 - 18.00
Saturday: 10.00 - 18.00

Ticket prices
Adults:1500 HUF (5 EUR)
Children/student/senior: 750 HUF (2.5 EUR)
With foreign language guiding.

Good surveys of his graphic works are available from the museum: The Good Old Days in Drawings by Pál Molnár-C; and Pál Molnár-C. Graphic Artist.

9 September 2015


I'm a fan of The Good Soldier Schweik, but then everyone is, aren't they, because it's the most translated novel in the Czech language, and that sly idiot Schweik is known all over the world. Like all fans, I was a sucker for Schweik's pub in Prague, U Kalicha, The Chalice. In the book, The Chalice is haunted by Brettschneider, a police spy, who arrests the landlord and gets him ten years because flies soiled the Emperor's picture.

The pub is now a restaurant with a wooden floor and rough simple furniture, and it serves traditional Bohemian dishes with a lot of meat, potatoes, cabbage and dumplings. (The Bohemian Diet is one where you start thin and end up fat.) We looked in in the afternoon, when a few locals were having a drink, and imagined it was still, a hundred years after Schweik, a local dive. Not so: the evening clientele comprises tourists of every nationality except Czech, Schweik fans all, and the staff play up to them in a cheerful, bogus manner. That includes music in costume and loudly banging your glass of beer down on the table. The food is good and seems authentic, though it's not cheap. (That was goose giblet stew with dumplings, above left.) There are extracts from the book all over the wall, and, of course, a portrait of Franz Joseph spotted with fly shit.

7 September 2015


I wrote in an earlier post about the Hungarian ceramist  Margit Kovács (1902-77), who made narrative and sculptural pieces depicting religion, Hungarian culture and family life. She was popular and was feted by the Communist regime. Many older Hungarians remember her world map, c.1950, (above) in the Pioneer Department Store, the Úttörő Áruház, even if they didn't know the artist. It was in the foyer, at the bottom of a fountain pool (below left) in which, to the delight of children, goldfish swam. The Pioneer store was demolished several years ago but the world map has been preserved in a courtyard of the Hotel Budapest Center, Kossuth Lajos utca 7-9. On a visit to Budapest last month I went to see it.

No-one who visits the Hotel Budapest Centre seems to have an interest in it, and I imagine that technical problems, money and politics explain why it hasn't been removed to the Margit Kovács museum in Szentendre. As it is, it's under a glass tent (above right) which makes it difficult to see and impossible to photograph.

At the Kovács museum, the room devoted to her religious ceramics contain nothing after 1950 and the museum captions explain why. After the war Kovács joined the Communist Party, and her depictions of village life, of weddings and apple harvests, were a type of socialist realism that satisfied the Communists' cultural expectations.

A close view of the world map reveals a different Margit Kovács from the Kovács of family tableaux or the figures of saints. The first thing you notice is that the Americas are omitted, the second is that more than half the world is red. The map centres on the Soviet Union and the only city depicted is Moscow, attended by a Young Pioneer. Even Hungary is not delineated. Western Europe is squashed into a corner. Another Young Pioneer strides across the world with a red flag. From Korea a figure comes bearing a message for him. Africa, India and Australia are populated by poor people with primitive technology waiting to be liberated by the Soviets. Around the edge are pretty sea creatures and over it all shines a red star. The children throwing coins into the fountain pool, after getting their hair cut and being fitted for shoes, were being given a great big dose of Communist indoctrination. Kovács must have kept her head down in 1956 because in 1959 the regime gave her the Distinguished Artist Award.

1 September 2015


Life in Squares, the BBC TV adaptation of Amy Licence’s book, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles, gave a - shall we say - one-side view of the Bloomsbury Group. By the end of it we knew who did which and to whom and with what, we saw Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant dabbing away at canvases and we understood that Virginia Woolf went mad, but we hadn’t learned much about the art and literature that they created. OK, I suppose the Clive Bell/Roger Fry theory of significant form doesn’t make prime time television; and the series has been a great fillip to Charleston, the Bloomsbury home in Sussex where much of it was filmed - visitor numbers are up, which is welcome because the Charleston Trust has a major improvement programme.

Charleston has been open to the public for almost thirty years and it's a window into the lives of the Bells, Grant, Woolf and their friends. It’s preserved pretty well as they left it, decorated in their idiosyncratic style and frozen in time from before the Second World War, after which they were getting old, were poor and liked things much as they were.

Virginia Woolf said that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed", referring to the Post-Impressionist exhibition organised by Fry at that time. Artistically, the Post-Impressionists shaped the style of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and also to some extent that of Vanessa and Clive's son Quentin, who was a talented decorator of pottery. (The picture at the top of this post shows one of his tile decorations.) Bell and Grant were among the standard bearers of Post-Impressionism but they did not play a major role in the development of modernism in Britain. In literature and intellect Bloomsbury led. Woolf was central to modernist literature and in art theory Fry exercised an important influence through the The Burlington Magazine and his Slade professorship, though in  the practice of painting and design it might be said that in 1910 Bloomsbury discovered the Post-Impressionists and from that point on never looked forward. Grant said that the painting he would most like to be remembered by is "The Tub" (c.1913) (left), but even in traditional old England he and Vanessa were soon overtaken by the young rebels at the Slade, one of whom, David Bomberg, was only five years younger than Grant. Olivier Bell said of Vanessa, "She had the intelligence and self-awareness not to be seduced by the pioneering experimentalism of her brilliant post-impressionist period into a sterile extremism." Dorothy Parker was more acerbic: Bloomsbury lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles.

Charleston became what the Germans call a Gesamptkunstwerke, a total work of art. Bell's and Grant's talent was recognized and they were commissioned to create interiors for their friends. They designed fabrics commercially. Stoke-on-Trent commissioned designs for plates, which worked well in production. At Charleston, beds, doors and cupboards were decorated with figures and natural motifs. They laboriously block-printed the walls instead of papering them. Quentin made pottery lampshades with holes in that projected pretty lights on to the ceiling. Their painting and pottery are everywhere. Colours are muted - grey, buff, mustard yellow, brown, faded pink, black - in an original and effective palette they developed in the 1920s. All this is set against old English furniture, Staffordshire figures, tin-glazed plates, chintz and worn oriental rugs. The style is anti-Victorian but romantic, 20th century but traditional, Bohemian but English, with a dash of the neo-Classical and redolent of upper-class taste. It is out of the mainstream of 20th century design, which came not from Bloomsbury but Germany.

Charleston is charming in the summer and a good gardener has created wonderful views through the windows. But everything has to be packed and put in store in winter because the house is cold and damp. The reason was probably a combination of poverty and a horror of anything so bourgeois as comfort. Its physical isolation and indifference to contemporary movements in art and design makes Charleston unique – or should I say “unusual”, because Voysey's interiors from the time were comparable. It has a strong appeal to those who like its mix of the rural, the artistic and the quirky. It has probably influenced taste in the last thirty years and the Charleston shop sells the work of modern designers whose work (including my decorated pottery) chimes in with Bloomsbury style.

26 August 2015


Romantic Prague: Baroque Palaces in the Little Town, the broad Vltava, fairy-tale spires, palace gardens, accordionists playing sentimental melodies in the restaurants.

One of the most popular locations for visitors is Jewish Prague in the Old Town, which comprises mainly its ancient cemetery and its six synagogues (Pinkas, Klausen, Spanish, Maisel, High and Old-New (above)), the ghetto having been cleared around 1900 in the wake of Jewish emancipation. Emancipation allowed a major Jewish contribution to German and Czech culture - Mahler, Freud, Husserl, Kafka and Čapek to name but a few. Now gaggles of tourists follow their leader, umbrella aloft, stopping at salient points to be hectored like idiot children.

Four of the synagogues are run by the museum service and illustrate the history of Czech Jewry. In the Pinkas the walls are densely covered with the names of every known Holocaust victim. The Spanish has interesting case displays about emancipation under Joseph II, the Jewish enlightenment, the Jewish contribution to the arts and sciences, the Nazi destruction, Communist persecution and revival post-'89. The displays in the Maisel are more scholarly. The Klausen has a good collection of ritual objects explaining Jewish life. The old cemetery is a higgeldy-piggeldy pile of ancient tombstones, including those of venerable figures like Judah Loew ben Bezalel (associated with the Golem in literary myth). I saw a visitor place a pebble on his grave in the Jewish tradition, then cross herself.

It's right that the victims of Nazism should be rescued from anonymity but the huge quantity of names numb, and what shocked me more was a large box of discarded phylacteries, their straps tightly wound by neat and tidy killers. They reminded you that most of Jewish Prague is in the past tense, a tourist attraction about the dead. Hitler wanted the items looted from synagogues in the east to form a museum of an extinct race. Well, this is it. Because Nazism was defeated and democracy restored, we forget how successful Hitler was. The deep-rooted Jewish cultures of Vilna, Warsaw and Prague were wiped out and most of eastern Europe is now Jew-free. In 1930 there were 357,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia, in 1946, 55,000. Now there are fewer than 8,000.

For that reason I didn't include the Old-New synagogue in my museum tour; it's under the control of the Prague Jewish community and I joined their Sabbath morning prayers instead. The service is orthodox and traditional, entirely in Hebrew with no guidance for participants, no sermon and very brief announcements.  If you're not familiar with the liturgy you won't have much idea what's going on, but there's a good cantor and parts of the service are moving. Typical of traditional synagogues, it's chaotic and informal, with a mixture of intense prayer and men chatting. Women are out of sight in an upstairs gallery and can't see much. This and the other active communities are the real Jewish Prague, not the Prague of dead Jews.

31 July 2015


How many times have you read that, only to be told by the company when you ask them to mend your doorbell, “Sorry, it’s too small to be economic”? Well, I found the perfect engineering firm for which it was true: no job really was too small.

My second hand Fitzwilliam potter’s wheel required a modification, just a block with two holes in it and two retaining bolts. In the old days, Mervyn Fitzwilliam, the designer and maker of this Rolls Royce of potters’ wheels, would have done the job for me, but sadly he died, too young, a couple of years ago. Then I found a little company that was willing to have a look at it. “We’re very busy, I’ve got someone just had a baby and two guys on holiday, but I’ll try and fit it in.”

They're at the blind end of a narrow lane, all the other buildings are Victorian cottages, you can hardly get your car down and wonder how the hell you’ll get out again. The factory is also old, small and crammed tight with machinery, swarf everywhere, odd shaped parts being cut, turned and drilled. Tinker, tailor, potter, engineer – stick to what you’re good at and do it well.

The boss told me to have a word with Peter.  Peter is about eighty and comes in two days a week. The younger guys wear t-shirts, Peter has a collar and tie and a long grey coat. He fiddles with the piece I have brought for him to copy, “Hm, that fits when it touches, I suppose", he says disapprovingly. I immediately have confidence that he will make a good job for me. “But I probably won’t be able to do it till next week.”  “Fine!” I say.

The next afternoon Peter phones to say that my job is finished. It's perfect, of course. The prototype was made of mild steel with a painted finish. I told him my part would be used in a wet environment, so he made it out of stainless steel.

I went to pay the boss. When I asked for a VAT receipt he gave me an old fashioned look. I explained that I couldn’t record it as a business expense if he didn’t.  “Ah,” he said, “You’re very naughty. I slipped it in for you and now you want the paperwork. In that case you should have issued a purchase order, then the book-keeper could deal with it properly.” He made an exception for me. What a wonderful combination of informality and bureaucracy.

30 July 2015


William Rothenstein (left) was principal of he Royal College of Art from 1920 to 1935. It's hard to believe it now, but when he took over, the RCA was a pretty poor art school and its reputation was low. Rothenstein revolutionized it. He thought it was stuck in an Arts-and-Crafts time warp, and although he had little time for the modern movement (he called Cézanne's followers "ces ânes", these asses) he wanted to bring the college up to date by hiring top artists who would have studios there and teach part time.

The the Arts and Crafts movement was the gateway to modernism and in sculpture it influenced the move away from modelling towards direct carving, as illustrated in Tate Britain's exhibition "Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World". (Hepworth and Henry Moore were RCA students under Rothenstein.) But in design it was overtaken by more forward looking movements. Rothenstein said,"It is important we should not fall behind the Continental industries, and the freshness of design, execution and subject matter which is characteristic of the best French, German and Austrian work has not been sufficiently encouraged and sought for at the College." The book accompanying the Hepworth exhibition has something about pottery at the RCA that I hadn't seen before. In 1920 Rothenstein was happy to go along withe the painted pottery taught there by Billington, and he wanted to help her by bringing in Alfred and Louise Powell as instructors; by 1924 he had discovered William Staite Murray, who was making big, sculptural vessels in a totally new way. One of Rothenstein's ideas for reform, as shown by a letter quoted in the book, was to bring together the woodwork and pottery studios. It didn't happen, but it was a good idea. When the Bauhaus-inspired Basic Design course was developed at the Central School of Arts and Crafts after the Second World War, that sort of cross fertilization really took off. Billington's pottery students there worked with sculptors William Turnbull  and Eduardo Paolozzi and the painter Alan Davie. Paolozzi, who had quite an influence in the pottery studio, was himself based in in the textile department.

12 July 2015


My article on Dora Billington, "From Arts and Crafts to Studio Pottery", has just been published in Interpreting Ceramics - you can read the full text by clicking the link here.

It traces her career before 1945, in particular her years at the Royal College of Art as a student and teacher and her innovations in teaching pottery at the Central School of Arts and Crafts before the Second World War. In the critical decade of the 1920s, the teaching of pottery in British art schools was revolutionized and she was part of the revolution.

In 1920, students were being taught pottery decorating in the style of Persian, Iznik and Italian maiolica. Alfred and Louise Powell, who hand-painted pottery for Wedgwood in a tight, floriated style (above, left), influenced Billington at the RCA, and pottery teaching at the Central was led by one of their studio assistants. In 1920, the principal of the RCA, William Rothenstein, wanted to bring in the Powells to teach pottery painting; but by 1925 he had taken a complete change of tack and wanted to propel the RCA forward by appointing the hottest property in studio pottery, William Staite Murray, who was making monumental, Chinese- inspired stoneware (above, right). Billington was pushed out of the RCA to make way for him, but at the Central, she quickly introduced his type of pottery, installing a high-temperature kiln and inviting him to teach classes there as well. By the early 1930s, Central students were all making the new stoneware, and decorated pottery in the Persian, Turkish and Italian styles was out of the window.

7 July 2015


We had good weather and a happy weekend at Art in Clay at Hatfield House. In the brief lull before returning to work, here's a few things that caught my eye from exhibitors who stood out from the traditional potters.

One of Vilas Silverton's Zen rogues (left, top) was featured on the show ticket. I liked them and I liked Vilas. He breaks the rules and he's an artist who happens to work in clay rather than a potter, sometimes like Richard Slee, whom some of his work (above) reminds me of.

Student work, unconstrained by the need to sell, is always interesting. From Cardiff, Sarah Statham did good things with tiles, with oblique, inconsequential images. Joanna Simmonds made faceted porcelain mountains (left, middle). Cardiff is one of the good ceramics departments that hasn't been closed. There was also innovative and cheeky work by students of Central Saint Martins: the pots with boobs were disapproved of. Central St Martins trains students to be industrial designers, but those who exhibited at Art in Clay wanted to be makers.

Independent schools have the resources to set up pottery studios that state schools don't, and Chris Sutherland, artist in residence at Bishop's Stortford College, brought an excellent group of A-level work, much of which is of degree standard.

Barry Stedman's ceramics become increasingly painterly with an assured use of colour (left, bottom), not always evident in ceramic art.