THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

22 August 2014

Postcards and Photographs from the Eastern Front

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The current exhibition in the British Library Folio Gallery “Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour”  starts with a multimedia display of postcards written by soldiers on the Western Front to their loved ones. A group of British actors read their messages while visitors look at the screen.  It is a very touching experience.

Postcards played an extremely important role for soldiers on the Western and Eastern Fronts during the war. Less well known are postcards of the time from the Eastern Front, since narratives about the Second World War overtook historical research during Soviet times and later. However, in recent years Eastern European publishers have started to pay attention to the collections of postcards kept in private archives of enthusiastic collectors.  Amongst the most recent acquisitions in our Ukrainian collections is the album Svitova viina y poshtovykh lystivkakh z kolektsii Ivan Snihura (‘World War in Postcards from the Collection of Ivan Snihur’; Chernivtsi, 2014; awaiting shelfmark; cover image below from Wikimedia Commons).

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Postcards were extremely popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the territory of modern Ukraine (part of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires), postcard publishers in Lviv (known also as Lemberg and Lwów), Czernivtsi (known also as Czernowitz), Uzhhorod (known also as Ungwar) and smaller places such as Kolomiya were very productive. Visitors to modern Ukraine will notice proud displays of old postcards in many lovely decorated coffee houses, especially in Lviv.

Our Ukrainian and Polish collections hold a dozen colourful albums of old postcards from these vivid cosmopolitan places, for example Nasz ukochany Lwów na dawnej karcie pocztowej 1896-1939 (‘Our beloved Lwów in old postcards 1896-1939’; 2000; YA.2001.b.2435); Lwów na dawnej pocztowce (‘Lwów in old postcards’; Kraków, 2006; YF.2008.b.1023), Posztówki lwowskie i kresowe "Książnicy-Atlas" (‘Postcards from Lwów and Kresy by Książnica-Atlas’; Katowice, 2006, YF.2008.a.41284); Zolota doba kolomyiskoi lystivky (‘The Golden Age of Postcards from Kolomea’; Kolomyia, 2010; YF.2012.a.10282); Lviv u starykh lystivkakh (‘Lviv in old postcards’; Kyiv, 2011; LF.31.a.3729). 

During the First World War Ukrainians, being members of a stateless nation, fought in several armies:  in the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in the Russian army, and in the Canadian army. This photograph of Ivan Konoval, a Ukrainian who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1919 and was awarded the Victoria Cross, is now digitised in the project “Europeana 1914-1918” (image from the Imperial War Museum).

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Photo of Corporal Filip Konoval (© IWM)

Most of the postcards sent by Ukrainian soldiers are to be found in Western Ukraine and relate to the Ukrainian unit in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Sichovi Striltsi (Ukrainian Sich Riflemen). The British Library holds a lovely book about the Sich Riflemen in postcards, Ukrainski Sichovi Striltsi – lytsari ridnoho kraiu (Kolomya, 2007; YF.2007.b.3418).

UKRAINIAN CHILDRENEUROPANAimageMany postcards were sent home from the Eastern Front by German and Austrian soldiers. Often they depicted Ukrainian landscapes or villagers in their colourful costumes. Soldiers loved to take photographs with local people, especially with beautifully-dressed Ukrainian girls and children. Some of these photographs held in various European libraries have been digitised in “Europeana 1914-1918” (left: Ukrainian Girls dancing; below right, Ukrainian girls from the Kalush region, photographs from the Austrian National Library)

UkrainianGirlsKalushimageMore than 160 painters, amongst them some Polish and Ukrainian artists, were involved in creating propaganda postcards in Germany and Austria. Their postcards depicted the same subjects as those created by Western artists and displayed in the exhibition: soldiers fraternizing, crimes committed by enemy forces, the invincibility of their own forces, acts of heroism, etc. Ukrainian painter and graphic artist Olena Kulchytska (1877-1967) painted the  sufferings of the civilian population and refugees. Her works were reproduced as postcards by the Ukrainian Women's Committee to Aid Wounded Soldiers in Vienna. We hope that one day the postcards published by this Committee will be collected and published.

 As the war raged these small works of art were sent back and forth to families, friends and loved ones, bringing joy and sorrow. The picture of World War One would be incomplete without these testimonies of “grief, grit and humour”. As Ukraine prepares to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of its independence on Sunday 24 August amid new turmoil, memories of both World Wars are vivid there as never before.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies

20 August 2014

The Drama of Marinetti by Mikhail Karasik

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The British Library has recently acquired the rare Russian artist’s book Drama Marinetti v odinnadt︠s︡ati kartinakh  (‘The Drama of Marinetti in eleven pictures’)  by Mikhail Karasik (St. Petersburg, 2008; shelfmark HS.74/2177).

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Russian title page as a post card (Sheet 0). Reproduced with kind permission of Mikhail Karasik.

The book is one of a limited edition of 15 signed copies and consists of 12 sheets in the form of large postcards. On one side of each appears a lithographic illustration made with reworked old photographs. On the reverse side appears the offset text of the drama composed from contemporary newspaper and literary sources. The text inside the book is printed in Russian; an English version is designed as a newspaper – The Drama of Marinetti, special issue – and inserted into the book. For a full description see Mikhail Karasik: catalogue raisonné 1987-2010 (Nijmegen, 2010), p.157.

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Marinetti is met (Sheet 4)

Bearing the sub-title “The Story of How the Leader of World Futurism Flopped in Russia”, it graphically evaluates Marinetti’s  legendary visit to Russia in 1914. Highlighting the differences between Italian Futurism which as Karasik suggests “promoted urbanism, the cult of technology and machines, the destruction of tradition and old culture”, and Russian Futurism which “focused on folk culture, and the Russian icon”, it will complement the British Library’s outstanding collection of Italian and Russian Futurist books.

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At the Barber's (Sheet 3)

One particularly interesting feature of the book’s graphics is the way in which works of Russian Futurists are referenced in the collaged lithographs. For example sheet no 3 At the Barber’s clearly refers to Larionov’s painting The Officer’s Barber (1910) with the heads of the officer and barber being replaced by those of Marinetti and Larionov; and later in sheet no 5 Marinetti and Venus, Marinetti appears in his car with a figure of Venus familiar from Larionov’s painting of Venus from 1910.

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 Marinetti and Venus (Sheet 5)

There are several heated debates in the Drama of Marinetti about the nature of Futurist poetry. The Italian approach embodied in Marinetti’s idea of “Words in Freedom” is contrasted with the Russian idea of Zaum’ (transrational or trans-sense language). Whereas Marinetti in scene 7 sees them as essentially the same, Benedikt Livshits sees the Italian approach as maximizing chaos “so as to minimize the intermediary role played by reason” and tries to explain the experiments of Russian Futurists, in particular Khlebnikov.

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 The Studio of Kulbin (Sheet 8)

Marinetti finally, in an aside in the same scene, concludes that “Russian Futurism has little in common with Western Futurism” though he does admit that “when it comes to Futurist music then Russia has to be recognized as taking the lead”. He continues: “In 1910 Kulbin was the first to proclaim the principle of free ‘music of noises’ and now we Italians are merely following in his footsteps”. In recognition of this remark sheet no. 9 Soundnoises (see picture below)  is based on a photograph of the Italian Futurist composer Russolo and some of his sound and noise machines or Intonarumori out of which emerge the heads of Kulbin, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh and Marinetti. Kulbin’s theories on Free music, Colour music (synaesthesia) etc are set out in Studio of the Impressionists [Studiya Impressionistov, 1910], the cover of which is used as a backround for the superimposed heads of Russian Futurists in sheet no. 8 The Studio of Kulbin (see picture above). For a description of Kulbin’s theories on music see my article on Studiya Impressionistov in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. III, Part II, pp.1260-4. (Oxford, 2013; YC.2013.b.1128)

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Soundnoises (Sheet 9)

Karasik’s book will be an invaluable addition to an already large number of his works held by the British Library. A list of works written and illustrated by him as well as works of others published by him are included in Hellyer, Peter, A catalogue of Russian Avant-Garde Books 1912-1934 and 1969-2003 (London,  2006; YC.2006.b.2068 ). More recent items can be found on the webpage for Russian Avant-Garde Artists’ Books 1969-2010 in the British Library. 

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies

18 August 2014

St Helen – imperial archaeologist

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As the holiday season reaches its height, it is salutary to reflect that solitary female travellers nowadays may face few of the hazards of earlier centuries. This did not prevent various intrepid ladies setting forth across the seas for a variety of reasons even in ancient times – the elderly St Monica, for example, who, when her wily son, the future St Augustine, gave her the slip and embarked for the fleshpots of Rome on the pretext of seeing off a friend at the harbour, promptly took ship alone for the express purpose of tracking him down – and succeeded.   

Many of the first women to undertake lengthy journeys overseas did so for religious reasons, in order to visit pilgrimage sites such as Rome, the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain, or Jerusalem; Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, a seasoned traveller, had ‘done’ all of these, and joining the Canterbury Pilgrims represented a relatively tame trip for her. In doing so, however, they were following a particularly illustrious example – that of St. Helen (or Helena), empress, mother of Constantine the Great, and legendary discoverer of the True Cross.

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St Helen, Cutting from an Italian Antiphoner (c. 1490 - c.1510).  British Library Additional 18197, ff.D, G and I. f.G

The precise date of St Helen’s birth is unknown, but the bishop and historian St Eusebius of Caesarea describes her as being around 80 years old on her return from her journey to Palestine, dated to 326-328. Little is known of her early life and even her birthplace is uncertain, though her son Constantine’s renaming of the city of Drepanum in Asia Minor as ‘Helenopolis’ in her honour makes it a strong possibility. However, in Britain a tradition soon developed, spread by the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, that she was the daughter of King Cole of Camulodunum (Colchester), who made an alliance with the Roman emperor Constantius to avoid further conflict, sealed by the marriage of his daughter to the emperor. After the birth of their son Constantine in Serbia in the early 270s, Constantius divorced Helena to make a more prestigious match; she never remarried, and lived a quiet and secluded life until, in 306, Constantine was proclaimed emperor by the troops on the death of his father. He had always displayed great loyalty and affection for his mother, and in 325 gave her the title of Augusta Imperatrix and unrestricted access to the imperial treasury in order to pursue her passion for what we would now term archaeology.

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Title-page of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Britanniae utriusque Regii…(Paris, 1517) 292.f.23

In 326-328 she set out for the Holy Land, intent on finding as many relics of the Judaeo-Christian tradition as possible. Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the devastation wrought by the Emperor Hadrian, the city was still being rebuilt, and Helen ordered the demolition of the temple erected by Hadrian of the site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary. During the preliminary excavations, according to the historian Rufinus, three crosses were discovered and their authenticity tested, a woman at the point of death recovering when she touched the third. Constantine had the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on this site, and on her return to Rome Helen brought with her many relics, including portions of the True Cross, earth from Golgotha and a rope allegedly used at the Crucifixion and preserved at the Stavrovouni Monastery which she founded in Cyprus.

The cult of St Helen rapidly became popular in Britain, where she became the patron saint of Abingdon as well as Colchester and is commemorated in many churches, her feast being celebrated on 18 August. The mediaeval Golden Legend, which includes an account of the finding of the True Cross, was instrumental in spreading her fame, especially when it began to appear in print in the 15th century and was translated into English by William Caxton; the British Library holds a copy of this translation (C.11.d.8.) among its many editions of this popular text.

In the Orthodox Church she and her son, the first Christian emperor, are commemorated on 21 May, the ‘Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helen, equal to the Apostles’. She inspired Evelyn Waugh’s only historical novel Helena (1950; NNN.948), as well as several mediaeval romances in which she embodied the ideal of patient endurance, living in seclusion and working on her embroidery, until ultimately vindicated. In 1947 the German-born British author Louis de Wohl published The Living Wood, a novel which, according the to 1959 American edition (011313.e.38), charts her progress ‘from worldly woman to inspired saint’, with a cover suggesting a certain disregard for historical accuracy.

Whatever the truth of the matter, St Helen impresses us across the centuries as a spirited and courageous woman prepared, even at an advanced age, to take risks in pursuit of her ideals. Fittingly, she is the patron saint not only of archaeologists, converts, difficult marriages and divorced people, but also of new discoveries – which it is never too late to make, in the British Library and the wider world.

Susan Halstead,  Curator Czech & Slovak Studies