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17 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay and Tristan Tzara

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The Sonia Delaunay exhibition which opened this week at Tate Modern shows her prodigious output over some seven decades. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) worked in a variety of media – paintings, drawings, prints, fashion and fabric designs, posters, mosaics, bookbindings, and book illustrations. She is best known as the creator, with Blaise Cendrars, of one of the greatest livres d’artiste, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, for which she provided pochoir illustrations to Cendrars’ poem.

This famous book, published in 1913, has tended, however, to overshadow similar collaborations with other poets, especially the two books she produced with Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism.

Tzara moved to Paris from Zurich in 1919 and it was apparently one of his manifestos that made Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who had lived in Spain and then Portugal since 1914, aware of the renewed artistic vitality of Paris after the end of the war and determined their return to France. Tzara first met the Delaunays soon after their return to Paris in 1921. Their apartment at 19 Boulevard Malesherbes quickly became a fashionable gathering point for the literary and artistic avant garde, its walls covered with multi-coloured poems and other works of art by Philippe Soupault, Vladimir Mayakovsky, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean  Cocteau, and René Crevel. As well as embroidering waitcoats for her friends, Sonia also decorated the interior of Au Sans Pareil, the Dadaist and Surrealist bookshop.

Tzara soon became a close friend of the couple and in 1923 Robert painted his portrait in which he is wearing a scarf designed by Sonia A monocled Tzara also features in one of Robert Delaunay’s best-known paintings, Le Manège aux cochons, painted in 1922. 

CM DELTZA Retrato_de_Tristan_Tzara_(Robert_Delaunay)Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara took various forms. It included robes poèmes, dresses with texts from Tzara’s poems woven into their fabric, all made in 1922, and Sonia’s bookbinding for Tzara’s De nos oiseaux in 1923. Sonia had by then become well known for her textile designs, the main focus of her work over the next 15 years, and it was in that year that Tzara asked her to design the costumes for his play Le Cœur à gaz, a three-act absurdist provocation described by its author as “la plus grande escroquerie en trois actes” (“the biggest swindle in three acts”).

The play had already had a single, disastrous performance during a soirée dada in 1921 with a cast that included Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Philippe Soupault, and Tzara himself. It gained lasting notoriety, however, by the circumstances of this 1923 revival, when it was included in Le Cœur à barbe (“The Bearded Heart”), another soirée dada organised by Tzara and Iliadz. The evening marked the culmination of the ongoing conflict between Tzara and Breton and finally split the Dadaists and led to the foundation of Surrealism by Breton and his followers. It also included first performances of new compositions by Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as films by Charles Sheeler and Hans Richter. The two groups came to blows during the performance of the play. Several people were injured and the actors, encased in Sonia’s heavy cardboard costumes, found themselves unable to move. A photograph showing René Crevel (Oeil) and Jacqueline Chaumont (Bouche) has survived, and their costumes can be compared to Sonia’s original designs.

CM DELTZA Coeur Costume 2  CM DELTZA Coeur Costume 3
Sonia Delaunay, Costume designs for Le Cœur à barbe, 1923: Left, Bouche; right, Oeil (British Library  C.108 aaa.14.). A copy of the photograph can be seen here.

The text of the play had been first published in Der Sturm on 5 March 1922 but did not appear together with Sonia’s costume designs until 1977, when they were published in association with the exhibition La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris  by the art critic and publisher Jacques Damase, a close friend of Sonia who promoted her work in the last 16 years of her life. The volume includes ten lithographs, seven of which are full-page, colour reproductions of the gouaches of the 1923 costume designs; the others comprise an additional title-page and two decorations in the text. 125 copies were printed, all signed by the artist. An additional set of the full-page lithographs, individually signed by the artist, was issued with each of the first 25 copies.

CM DELTZA Coeur t.p.
Additional title page of  Tristan Tzara Le Cœur à barbe (Paris, 1977)

The friendship between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara lasted until Tzara’s death in 1963, although they grew apart in the 1930s, when Tzara joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and Sonia was for several years busy with the mural paintings commission for the 1937 International Exhibition. They were next brought together, with other ‘undesirables’, in Toulouse in 1944, three years after the death of Robert Delaunay. After the war Tzara once again became an habitué of Sonia’s studio, now at Rue Saint-Simon on the Left Bank.

Like Sonia, Tzara had a strong interest in illustrated books and worked with numerous artists – including Matisse, Kandinsky, Léger, Mirò, Arp, Giacometti, Villon, Klee and Ernst – on illustrated editions of his poems. There were two collaborations with Sonia: for Le Fruit permis (1956), her first book since La Prose du Transsibérien, Sonia contributed four pochoir compositions, and for Juste présent (1961), a collection of 11 poems written between 1947 and 1950, she made eight full-page colour etchings  and an additional colour etching for the slipcase, printed in the right sense on the front and upside down on the back cover.



Above: Two of Sonia Delaunay’s etchings for  Juste présent ([Paris], 1961).; Below: etching for slipcase cover of Juste présent

CM DELTZA Juste Slip 

140 copies of Juste présent  were printed, all signed by the poet and the artist. The British Library’s copy is no. 124. In both publications Sonia’s colours are strong and pure, with a predominance of vermilion, indigo and black. The compositions, with their interplay between flat colour and black, hatched areas, are typical of her post-1945 output (for example, her various Rythme-couleur paintings).

Jacques Damase, who did so much to promote Sonia Delaunay’s art, did not live to see her final consecration: he was tragically killed in an accident in July 2014, just three months before the opening in Paris of this major exhibition of her work, now at Tate Modern. Perhaps the exhibition should be dedicated to his memory? 

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance collections


Tristan Tzara, Juste présent  [Poèmes]. Eaux-fortes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1961).

Tristan Tzara, Le cœur à gaz; costumes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1977). C.108 aaa.14

La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara. Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, avril-juin 1977 / [commissaire: Danielle Molinari].  (Paris, [1977]).  YV.1987.a.344

Annabelle Melzer, Dada and Surrealist Performance. (Baltimore & London, 1994) YC.1994.a.3134 & 98/01171

Sonia & Robert Delaunay [the catalogue of the Delaunay donation to the Bibliothèque nationalede France]. (Paris, 1977). j/X.415/2418. 

Sonia Delaunay, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil.  (Paris, 1977).  X.429/7809

Sherry A. Buckberrough, Susan Krane, Sonia Delaunay: a retrospective. (Buffalo, NY, 1980) f80/8227.

Sonia Delaunay [the catalogue of the exhibition at Tate Modern].  London, 2015.

Chris Michaelides, ‘Robert and Sonia Delaunay’, review of the exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, The Burlington Magazine,  February 2015.  P.P.1931.pcs.    


15 April 2015

Günter Grass (1927-2015)

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Günter Grass, who died this week aged 87, is best known for his first novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), published in 1959, never out of print since, and memorably filmed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1979. When Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the Nobel Foundation described the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist Oskar Matzerath as “an intellectual whose critical approach is childishness, a one-man carnival, dadaism in action.”

Günter Grass in 2006 90px-CC_some_rights_reserved_svg
Günter Grass in 2006. (Picture from Blaues Sofa on Wikimedia Commons) 

Much of the action of Die Blechtrommel takes place in Grass’s native Danzig, then part of Germany, now Gdansk in Poland. The city remained central to his imagination: two further novels Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse) and Hundejahre (Dog Years) make up what is known as the ‘Danzig Trilogy’, while his 1992 novel Unkenrufe (The Call of the Toad) revisits the city after the fall of Communism. Visitors to Gdansk today can follow guided tours around sites from his life and work.

Although he was best known as a novelist, Grass was a man of many parts: poet, playwright, artist, political activist and occasional jazz musician. He initially studied sculpture and graphic arts, and his work in these genres continued throughout his life, alongside his writing. A catalogue rasionné of his etchings and lithographs, published in 2007, runs to two hefty volumes and lists nearly 40 exhibitions of his work. His pictures often reflect themes and symbols from his literary works, and certain subjects and images recur over the years (most enduringly fish, especially the flounder that gives its name to his novel Der Butt).

Grass Butt Göttingen
Sculpture by Grass in Göttingen, showing a hand holding a flounder (photo: Susan Reed)

Grass always drew the cover illustrations for his novels, and also produced illustrated collections of  poetry. His poetry is less well-known (and more uneven) than his novels, but his first published work was a collection of poems and pictures, Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (‘The advantages of the weathercocks’) and he continued to write poetry throughout his life, in particular causing controversy in 2012 with the long poem ‘Was gesagt werden muß’ (‘What must be said’) which was highly critical of the Israeli government.

The title of the poem also reflects an earlier controversy over politics in Grass’s work. In 1995 the magazine Der Spiegel published a highly critical review by the influential critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Grass’s novel Ein weites Feld (Too Far Afield), entitled ‘... und es muß gesagt werden’ (‘... and it must be said’). The novel voiced Grass’s criticism of German reunification, which he thought had been entirely driven by the agenda of a West Germany keen to grab what he called ‘ein Schnäppchen namens DDR’  (‘a bargain called the GDR’). The magazine’s cover fuelled the controversy by showing Reich-Ranicki apparently tearing apart a copy of the book.

Some of Grass’s works, includng his cover illustrations, from the British Library's collection

Controversy was in fact another constant in Grass’s life, most notoriously in 2006 when he admitted in his memoir Beim häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) that he had been a teenage volunteer in the Waffen-SS rather than a conscript as he had previously implied. This belated confession from an author considered by many as the conscience of the nation, renowned for confronting the past and encouraging others to do so, struck many as hypocritical, and there were even calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize and his honorary citizenship of Gdansk.

But, as many obituarists have pointed out, it is in the end for his novels rather than his political stance or personal failings (or indeed for his poetry or art) that Grass will be remembered. His often exuberant style and his fertile and original imagination were a rich addition to German letters and have impressed readers and influenced authors all over the world. In Die Blechtrommel he created what the Nobel Committee rightly predicted would be “one of the enduring literary works of the 20th century.”

To finish, an odd, and perhaps rather trivial, example of Grass’s cultural reach: I believe that he is the only German novelist (or Nobel laureate) ever to be affectionately plagiarised in the long running BBC Radio serial The Archers. In a 2002 episode, a visiting Eastern European agriculture student told the story of how his grandparents met – in fact a version of the first encounter between Oskar’s grandparents in Die Blechtrommel where Agnes  hides Joseph from the police under her voluminous skirts.  Archers fans who knew their German literature were no doubt relieved when, in a later episode, the student gave Grass his due and admitted that he had borrowed the story to amuse one of the Archer children.

Perhaps not quite what the Nobel Foundation had in mind, but nonetheless it may have won Grass a few more English readers.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic collections

Works by Grass referred to in the text:

Die Blechtrommel (Darmstadt, 1959) British Library 011421.p.86. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Tin Drum (London, 1962) X.909/2060.)

Katz und Maus (Neuwied am Rhein, 1961) 12520.pp.14.  (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, Cat and Mouse (London, 1963) 11769.w.5.)

Hundejahre (Neuwied am Rhein, 1963) 12521.m.12. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, Dog Years (London, 1965) X.909/5610.)

Unkenrufe (Göttingen, 1992) YA.1994.a.4374. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Call of the Toad (London, 1992) Nov.1992/1350.)

Günter Grass : catalogue raisonné / herausgegeben von Hilke Ohsoling (Göttingen, 2007). LF.31.b.6661.

Der Butt (Darmstadt, 1977) X.989/71159. (English translation by Ralph Mannheim, The Flounder (London, 1978) X.989/76027.)

Die Vorzüge der Windhühner (Berlin, 1956) X.909/1713.

Ein weites Feld (Göttingen, 1995) YA.2000.a.1568 (English translation by Krishna Winston, Too Far Afield (London, 2000) Nov.2001/1203.)

Beim häuten der Zwiebel (Göttingen, 2006) YF.2007.a.1517. (English translation by Michael Henry Heim, Peeling the Onion (London, 2007) YC.2007.a.14122.)

14 April 2015

“I want to go on living even after my death!” Anne Frank and her Diary

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15 April marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen by British forces. Today the British Library commemorates this event, in collaboration with The Anne Frank Trust’s #notsilent campaign, with public readings from Anne Frank’s diary. Anne and her sister Margot had died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen, only a few weeks before the camp was liberated.

Annelies Marie Frank (12 June 1929 - March 1945), known as Anne, became world famous for the wartime diary she kept while living in hiding from the rampant Nazi persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands.  From July 1942 until August 1944 the Frank family, the van Pels family and Dr. Pfeffer lived in the annex behind Otto Frank’s offices on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, now the Anne Frank House.

Photograph of Anne Frank in May 1942. Image from Wikimedia Commons

On her 13th birthday Anne had been given a diary, which she filled with her thoughts and musings over a period of two years, from 12 June 1942 up to 1 August 1944.  Three days after the last diary entry the annex was stormed and those living there were arrested and deported. Only Otto Frank survived the war.

The diary reveals a strange normality within the horrific world Anne inhabited. Her observations on events ‘outside’ and the treatment of her community, as well as on events ‘inside’ - the people that surround her and her own emotions and feelings, her hopes for peace and her ambition to become a writer and publish her diary after the war are of a remarkable depth for a teenager.

Two secretaries at Otto Frank’s business, Hermine Santruschitz, better known as Miep Gies as she is called in Anne’s diary, and Elisabeth (Bep) Voskuijl saved the diary and most of Anne’s other papers  from the Germans and handed them to Otto Frank on the day he received the news that Anne and Margot were not coming back. The papers reveal that Anne had started writing a second version and Otto used both to compile Het Achterhuis: Dagboekbrieven 14 June 1942 -1 Augustus 1944 [‘The Annex: Diary notes 14 June 1942-1 August 1944’], published in 1947 in a run of only 1,500 copies (British Library ). The British Library’s copy of this first editi0n is even more special, because of the inserted newspaper clippings relating to the people around Anne Frank.

Above: Dustjacket of the first edition of Het Achterhuis (Amsterdam, 1957) British Library Cup.408.pp.29; below: some of the newspaper cuttings inserted in the book


Anne Frank’s diary remains one of the most widely-read books in the world; to-date more than 30 million copies in 73 languages have been sold.  It has been adapted for theatre, television and cinema and has maintained its status as an international best-seller and the most famous diary of modern times. 

The British Library holds copies of Anne Frank’s diary in various editions and languages, as well as scholarly material about the diary and its compiler, dramatizations, journal articles and musical scores.  The first English language edition, in the translation of Barbara Mooyaart-Doubleday appeared in 1952,(BL 012584.o.11)  followed by a second in 1954.  One of the British Library’s two copies of this (12585.a.47)  was conserved under the ‘Adopt a Book Appeal’  by Lakenheath Middle School in May 2009 (see below).


Translated from the Dutch by Shmuel Schnitzer, the first Hebrew edition of Anne’s diary, Yomanah shel ne’arah [Diary of a young girl], was published in Jerusalem in 1953, whereas the first Yiddish translation titled Tagbukh fon a Meidel [Diary of a young girl] appeared in 1958  in Tel Aviv  in the translation of Yehoshua HaShiloni.  No copies of these editions are held in our collections, but we do hold a copy of a 1961 Yiddish edition which was  published in Bucharest  under the title Dos Togbukh fun Ana Frank (17108.b.43; below left).

AFYiddish AFGoodrichGerman

One of the early dramatizations, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, was first published in 1956 (11791.t.1/1355). In a German edition of 1958, entitled Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank  (F10/1197; above right) the play is supplemented by photographs of performances in Berlin, New York, Rome, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, and elsewhere.

Allegations that the diary was a hoax started in the early 1950s and continued until the early 80s, when the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation  commissioned a thorough forensic study of the original manuscripts. The resulting 250-page report concluded with ‘high probability, bordering on certainty’ that the diary was genuine. This research formed the basis for the Critical Edition, compiling all known writings by Anne and an extract from the report. The Library holds the English translation from 1989, published by Penguin. (YC.1989.b.6954)

One of the latest scholarly  studies to appear is Anne Frank’s Diary of Anne Frank, edited by Harold Bloom, Professor at Yale University and published in 2010 (YC.2011.a.7024 ), proof of the unwavering interest in this talented young writer and her diary. 

Apart from the nearly 400 books, magazine articles, music scores and websites about Anne Frank in the British Library’s collections, there is the bust of Anne. Commissioned by Mr and Mrs Sherrington on the occasion of Anne’s 70th birthday and sculpted by Doreen Kern, it is a tribute to a remarkable Jewish girl and her diary. When you visit the British Library’s site at St. Pancras in London you will find her at the entrance to our Learning Centre.

Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries Collections & Ilana Tahan, Curator Hebrew  Collections

AFBustDoreen Kern’s bust of Anne Frank in the British Library