European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library


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

20 August 2014

The Drama of Marinetti by Mikhail Karasik

Add comment Comments (0)

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).

Russian title page 002
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.

Marinetti is met 004
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.

At the Barber's 003

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.

Marinetti and Venus 005
 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.

Soundnoises 007

 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)

THe Studio of Kulbin 008

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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.


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.

St. Helen4
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







15 August 2014

'Pfui, der Struwwelpeter!' British Adventures of a German nursery classic

Add comment Comments (0)

In 1844 the German doctor and writer Heinrich Hoffmann was looking for a book to give his three-year-old son for Christmas. Fed up with the dull, moralising tales on offer, he decided to create his own book, telling the stories of children who meet various – often exaggeratedly brutal – fates as a result of their bad or foolish behaviour. The stories are written in lively rhymes with cartoonish illustrations, in many cases integrated into the text and telling the story visually alongside it like a forerunner of the modern comic book. Hoffmann was encouraged to publish the result the following year and so Der Struwwelpeter was born. It was an instant success and, when an English translation appeared in February 1848, became a bestseller in Britain too, aided by clever and catchy translations of the original verses.

The eponymous Struwwelpeter/Shock-headed Peter, left in Hoffmann's original illustration, from an early English edition (London, 1848; British Library 11645.f.42.) and right from the 100th German edition (Frankfurt am Main, 1876; 12389.i.13.)

 The  book was soon established as a nursery classic in Britain and to those brought up in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, a reference to ‘Harriet and the matches’ or ‘Johnny Head-in-Air’ would have been instantly familiar. The characters, stories and accompanying pictures formed an easily recognisable basis for political or social comment and caricature, much as the Alice books with Tenniel’s illustrations still do today. A German Politischer Struwwelpeter appeared as early as 1849, and an English Political Struwwelpeter  50 years later.

Political Struwwelpeter cover
Harold Begbie, The Political Struwwelpeter, illustrated by F. Carruthers Gould. (London, 1899). 12315.k.22. The cover shows ‘The Neglected [British] Lion’

On the outbreak of war in 1914 both German and British writers reached again for Hoffmann’s book as a basis for satire. The German Kriegs-Struwwelpeter replaces the naughty children with representatives of the various anti-German allies, while the poems in E.V. Lucas’s Swollen-Headed William all describe the misdeeds of Kaiser Wilhelm II. You can read more about both books and see digitised images on our World War One webpages. The Second World War also produced a British parody, Struwwelhitler, ascribed to ‘Dr Schrecklichkeit’ (‘Dr Horror’; the real authors were Philip and Robert Spence).

Struwwelhitler: a Nazi story book by Doktor Schrecklichkeit.
(London, 1941). YA.2002.a5749.

Struwwelpeter also seems to have developed the kind of cult status among Victorian and Edwardian adults that classic children’s television programmes enjoy among their modern descendants; a review of a stage version in the London Times of 23 December 1912 speaks of ‘the childish stories which bearded men have been known to shout at each other across dinner tables’. The Marlborough Struwwelpeter, written and illustrated by a pupil in his last year at Marlborough College, turns the stories into tales set around the school and is full of in-jokes about its traditions and characters. It is no doubt just one chance survivor of many such local parodies.

Marlborough Struwwelpeter cover
Arthur de Coetlogon Williams, The Marlborough Struwwelpeter (Marlborough, [ca. 1909])  X.525/1299

Today, however, Struwwelpeter is generally out of favour as a children’s book. It is still in print in Germany, but probably intended more for nostalgic adults or collectors than for children. In Britain it has been out of print for many years and is generally only mentioned in articles such as this one about the ‘most shocking’ (or ‘nastiest’, ‘most horrific’, etc.) children’s books ever. Since the 1960s those who read it as children have, with some exceptions, queued up to say how it terrified and traumatised them. Stories usually picked out as particularly gruesome are those of Harriet (Paulinchen in German) who plays with matches and is burnt to death, and Conrad/Konrad, whose punishment for thumb-sucking is to have both thumbs cut off by a tailor with giant scissors (‘the great, long, red-legg’d scissor-man’ in the English version).

  Harriet and the matches
Harriet’s terrible fate from The English Struwwelpeter

There is a tendency now to describe Struwwelpeter as a sadistic and authoritarian attempt to frighten children into obedience and make them conform to a rigid social code. But in fact Hoffmann wrote it as a reaction against books which he thought were overly moralistic or blandly accepting of social norms. Some tales even challenge contemporary attitudes: a huntsman is shot by his intended prey, and three boys who mock a black man are punished. Even in the most ‘horrific’ tales, the very exaggeration of the children’s fates, both in the stories and the accompanying illustrations, was intended for comic rather than frightening effect. This tradition has continued in Britain through Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales and Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes to the works of Roald Dahl and the focus on ‘all things wicked, weird and woeful’ in the highly successful Horrible Histories books. Struwwelpeter was also successfully reinvented for new audiences in the late 1990s as the ‘junk opera’ Shockheaded Peter.

Looking at the book in this context, and especially considering its design, it is perhaps not unjust to place it also in the tradition celebrated in our current exhibition Comics Ummasked – that of the subversive and anarchic comic book, that ‘challenge[s] categorisation, preconceptions and the status quo’. Like many of the comics in the exhibition, Struwwelpeter has been loved and hated, treasured and condemned in equal measure, and its legacy and influence will continue to be debated.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies