19 September 2017

Brave New World - Australia in the 1930s

Brave New World: Australia 1930s is a special exhibition at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV in Melbourne until mid Oct 2017. The 1930s was a turbulent time in Aus­tralia’s history.  Major world events, includ­ing the Depression and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe, shap­ed our nation’s evolving sense of identity during this decade.

See a multitude of art­istic styles, both progressive and reactionary, which were practised during the 1930s: fash­ion, commercial art, architecture, industrial design, film and dance. The exhibition presents a  detailed picture of this dynamic time and reveals some of the social and political concerns that were pertinent then.

The life saver and the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Celebrating the bridge's opening in 1932

The exhibition charts the themes of technological pro­g­ress and its antithesis in the nostalgia for pastoralism; the emer­gence of the New Woman; nationalism and the body culture movement; mounting calls for Indigenous rights and the increasing interest in Indigenous art; the devastating effects of the Depress­ion and the rise of radical politics; and the arrival of European refugees. During the very turbulent 1930s high-rise buildings, fast trains and engineering marvels like the Sydney Harbour Bridge were up against the Great Depression, con­ser­vatism and a looming WW2.

The Brave New World Exhibition is accompanied by a top quality, fully-illustrated hardback publication, featuring essays by leading writers on each of the exhibition themes.

Artist and Designers
The exhibition presented 200+ works spanning photography, painting, printmaking, sculpture and décor­at­ive arts as well as design, fashion, film and dance. Abstraction, Surrealism and Expressionism emerg­ed, and women artists arose as trailblazers of modernism. Consider modernist artist Grace Cossington Smith with her flat colours and abstracted forms. And Hilda Rix Nicholas.

Modernism in architecture, interior design, industrial design and advertising was becoming fashionable. In Melbourne a group of designers was the first to pioneer modern design in Australia eg furniture designer Fred Ward at his home-furniture workshop in Eaglemont. In 1932 Ward opened a shop in the City, selling furniture, linens and Scandinavian glass. Fabrics for curtains and upholstery were printed by Australian designer Michael O’Connell with bold designs.

When Robert Menzies (later Prime Minister) proposed the form­at­ion of an Australian Academy of Art, Melbourne modernists were con­cerned that their departure from conventional art would be marginalised. Especially when Menzies opened the Victorian Artists' Society show in April 1937 and singled out for attack a wall of modernist art.

It took time before design and architecture became closely integ­rated with the changing realities of contemporary life... when the last vestiges of the conservative art establishment were unpopular.

Fashioning the modern woman
In the 1930s the new Modern Woman emerged as a more serious version of the dizzy 1920s flapper. A working woman, she often lived alone in a new block of flats, vis­ited night clubs and show­ed less interest in traditional marriage and child rearing. And she valued loved urban living, freedom and equality. With clothes introduced by French cout­urier Jean Patou in 1929, her lean body type was enhanced by leng­th­ened hemlines and defined waists. In addition to the clothes, the Modern Woman was fashioned through her gestures, behaviours, beliefs and self presentation (eg smoking casually).

The Modern Woman became one of the most potent images of  1930s life, being celebrated in women’s magazines like "Australian Women’s Weekly", launched in 1933. Such magazines congrat­ulated the Modern Woman and promoted new con­sumer goods to her, yet at the same time she was criticised by conservative comment­ators.
Portrait of modernist artist Peggie Crombie, 
painted by Sybil Craig
1932, NGV.

Sun and Surf 
The beach was a complex location in the Australian creative imagin­ation. It was a democratic site in which the trappings of wealth were abandoned as people stripped down to their bathers. It was a place of hedonistic pleasures that offered sensuous engagement with sun and surf, where natural forces restored exhausted city bodies.

Note artist/photographer Max Dupain’s iconic depictions of the Australian body and beach culture. It was a tourist play ground that was considered distinctively Australian. Male lifesavers were used by artists in promoting Australia to tour­ists: a poster commemor­at­ing the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening in 1932 cited the lifesaver as the quintessential representative of Australian manhood and virility. His muscles were as strong as the steel girders above.

The lifesavers that helped protect the beach-going public were reg­ularly praised as physical exemplars who could build the eugenic stock of the nation. As WW2 approached, the conn­ection of these trained lifesavers to military servicemen bec­ame painfully apparent.

The body beautiful
The terrible physical losses and psychological traumas of WW1 changed Australian society and prompted anxiety about our strength. For some this meant an inward-looking isolat­ionism, a desire that Australian culture should develop untouched by the degenerate influences of Europe. The search for rejuvenation involved explorations of the vulnerabilities of the human body. For artists, corporeal forms came to symbolise nationhood, often expressed via Classical Greek art. So the evolution of a new Australian type was proposed – a white Australian drawn from British stock, but with an athletic and streamlined shape honed by years spent swimming and surfing on local beaches.

Enthusiasm for body culture with its undesirable fascistic overtones is now seen as problematic.

Dance in Australia
Modern dance embodied the 1930s’ restless vitality and the quest for a different kind of subjectivity and expression. To many, modern dance was the pivotal art form for a mid C20th concerned with plast­icity, the expressive body and tensions between the individual and its collective formation.

The 1930s were framed by the 1928–29 tour of Anna Pavlova’s Dance Company and the three tours of the remnant Ballets Russes companies (1936–40) that excited many aspiring modernist art­ists. These tours predicted subsequent ballet narratives in Aust­ral­ia, because the eruption of war in 1939 meant that Ballets Russes dancers, including Helene Kirsova and Edouard Borovansky, stayed here and established ballet companies.

Aboriginal Art and Culture
During the 1930s the Australian Government continued to enforce a divide and rule assimilationist policy. Determined by eugenics, this entailed removing Aboriginal people of mixed descent from their families and reserves, and absorbing them into the dominant Anglo society. Increas­ingly, Aboriginal people formed their own organisations and agitated for full citizenship rights.

The exhibition explores artists’ responses to the call for Indig­enous rights during the 1930s. Albert Namatjira astonished Melbourne audiences at his first solo exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1938. His 41 watercolour paintings sold in three days! The following year South Aust­ralia’a Art Gallery purchased one of Namatjira’s works. Indigenous art also in­spired non-Indigenous artists like Margaret Preston, who appropriated design elements in their works, to travel to the outback to appreciate Indigenous history.

Australia tuned into the world by radio
Radios in the 1930s at a time when this new method of communication became an integral part of every home. They reflect the rapid spread of the streamlined style to Australia from Europe and the USA, where industrial designers applied machine-age styling to everyday house­hold appliances. The use of new synthetic plastics (Bakelite) and mass production helped to make radios affordable for ordinary people, even during the Dep­ression, and radio transmission brought the world into every Aust­ralian home.

Colourful and elegant radios of the 1930s are now loved as core examples of Art Deco styling, and one of the first expressions of art meeting industry. Alas the exhibition’s radios were too high for my grandchildren to see, to change channels and to listen to an old news broadcast.

The Great Depression and the brave new world of cities
Unemployment rate rose to 32% by 1932, second only to Germany in awfulness. The photographer F. Oswald Barnett displayed powerful images of impoverished inner Melbourne suburbs, with hungry children and decrepit houses. In paintings we see similar images, firstly in the works of emigres Danila Vassilieff and Yosl Bergner. Then Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker became committed to depicting Australia’s unemployed workers and destitute families.

The towering Manchester Unity Building emerged in Melbourne
in 1932, giving employment to Depression-hit workers.

Efficiency and speed depicted modernity. Many artists celebrated the city and technological advancements in works utilis­ing hard-edged forms, flat colours and dyn­amic compositions. The engineering marvel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, opened in 1932, fascinated artists, as did city buildings, industry and modern transport.

The skyscraper was THE powerful symbol of modernity, once the Great Depression seemed to stop progress. In 1932, as the Depression hit rock bottom, Melbourne’s tallest building was opened: Man­chester Unity Build­ing. With its ornam­ental tower and tall spire, the building became a new symbol of enterprise and confidence, and provided much-needed employment during the Depression.

Efficiency, speed and great design depicted modernity
Poster of The Victorian Railways, 1937

Australia's pastoral cult
A national myth evolved around the Australian bush. Although most Australians lived in cities, the post-WW1 nation learned that the bush was a nostalgic touchstone of trad­itional values. The classical pastoral ideal of a land in which only sheep and cattle roam became a dominant theme in landscape art. Elioth Gruner depicted the Aust­ral­­ian bush as a respite from the frenetic pace of modern city life.

Pastoral landscapes were admired above all as representing the ant­ithesis of decadent modern life. Conservative gallery director JS Macdonald said such art would point the way in which life should be lived in Australia, with the maximum of flocks and the minimum of factories. Of course such works affirmed white landownership.

16 September 2017

Escape from Berlin; Thank you Shanghai!

Once Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany’s 572,000 Jews faced catastrophe as was made perfectly clear in Peter Nash's book Es­cape From Berlin (Impact Press, 2017). So how did some European Jews receive visas to the Far East? Just as the German industrialist Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 1200 Jews in Poland, three less-known diplomats helped Jews to get to Shanghai.

In 1940 Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul general in Lithuania. He issued visas to 6000 Jews, against his Tokyo sup­eriors’ instructions, allowing Jews to transit through Japan. When he ran out of authentic visas, Sugihara threw signed sheets of paper stamped with his consular seal to the Jews as the train left Lithuania to take him back to Japan.

Ho Feng-Shan was Chinese consul general in Vienna. After the Ansch­luss in 1938, the only way for the 200,000 Austrian Jews to escape was to get an entry visa from a foreign nation. Against the orders of his superior in Berlin, Ho issued thousands of visas for refugees going to Shanghai. Until he was ordered to return to China in 1940.

Tadeusz Romer was the Polish ambassador to Japan. When many of Sug­ihara's Jews reached Japan, they could still have been sent back to Nazi-occupied Poland. So Romer intervened, granting them new pass­ports and visas to neutral countries. When the Polish embassy was shut down in 1941, “his” Jews were sent to safety in Shanghai.

Nachemstein/Nash family
Born in Berlin in 1936, three-year-old Peter Nachemstein and his parents were forced to escape Nazi Germany by fleeing to Shang­hai. The SS Scharnhorst was a German liner that they boarded in Genoa in April 1939. They almost missed the boat. When the Nachem­steins were served with an eviction notice straight after the inf­amous Kristallnacht destruction in Nov 1938 Herbert and Ingeborg wanted tickets to Argentina. When that failed, Ingeborg's father saved them.

The voyage took Peter (aged 3) and his family through the Suez Canal with stops at Colombo, Manila and Hong Kong before the ship finally docked at Shanghai. Despite their fine surroundings on the Scharnhorst, the Nach­emsteins were in fact "boat people". They were persecuted refugees who had fled their homeland with little more than their clothes. And they were disem­barking, without visas, funds or language, at a Chinese port that had been invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937. Fortunately in those final few months before Hitler invaded Poland in Sept 1939, Shanghai was an open treaty port, a haven that accepted refugees without an entry visa.

Peter's friends, the Witting family, fled Berlin and arrived in Sh­ang­hai in May 1939 on the SS Conte Verde. The Wit­tings were met by Jew­ish repres­ent­atives and taken to the Heime/-former refugee camps military barracks. Although 30 people packed into double bunk beds, the Wittings were fortunate. Relatives in South Africa sent money, allowing them to rent a single room in Hongkew, for eight years.

Today this massive Chinese city is glamorous for tour­ists. In WW2, less so. Shanghai was divided into four distinct zones along the north­ern banks of the Yel­low River: a] Old Chinese City, b] Fren­ch Concession, c] International Settlement and d] Chinese Districts which had most of the city's 4 million population.

New arrivals were issued with a blanket, sheets, tin dish, cup and spoon, and access to a soup kitchen. There were var­ious Shanghai Relief Aid Commit­tees which received funds from over­seas donors, especially the American Joint.

The trickle of European refugees that began in the mid 1930s had become a flood by late 1939. Meanwhile thousands of impoverished Chinese were pouring into Shang­hai, seeking work. Beggars were everywhere. Death was every­where; coolies pushed carts around, picking up Chinese bodies.

The Jewish Designated Area, 

A Jewish coffee shop, White Horse Cafe
Hongkew 19139-49

The small room had 2 beds, sink, stove, table and cupboard. The Nachmensteins shared an unsewered toilet and a bathtub with two oth­er families. Every morning Chinese workers arrived and cleaned out the toilets. The tap water had to be boiled.

Fortunately the women could collect food each day from the Heime kitchens. Survival in Shanghai was risked by poor diet, bad sanitation and low resistance to tropical diseases, but it was much better than any alternative. Comp­ared to Eur­ope’s death camps, Shanghai was a haven of safety.

Any Jewish refugee who could raise enough money would leave the Heime. Most hoped to settle in Hongkew in the Internat­ional Settlement, which had been partially destroyed by 1937 bombs. As streets were cleared and houses rebuilt, Hongkew offered the Nachem­st­eins one single, subsidised room in a terraced house in Hongkew.

By Nov 1940, the Shanghai authorities were trying to stem the tide of refugees by issuing entry visas. Just in time, Inge­borg's sister and brother in law took the only escape route - they caught the train from Berlin to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok and a boat to Shanghai. Then Hitler declared war on Soviet Union and escapes ended.

The Shanghai Jews did not have to face anti-Semitism. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese, Con­fucianist or Bud­dhist, treated Jews any differently to other foreigners. Life was stable until Dec 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. Suddenly Shanghai was swamped with Japanese military and civilian per­sonnel searching for housing. A very polite Japanese family moved into the Nash’s terrace house, occupying the entire first floor. The Jap­anese only target­ed American and British nationals. Some Sephardic Jews from the Mid­dle East or India had British passports and were treated brutally, but only because they were British!

The real change didn't come until Mar 1943. Under pressure from senior Nazis, the Japanese agreed to move all the state­less refugees into a Designated Area i.e Shang­hai Ghetto in Hongkew, patrolled at night. The one villain was the brutal Japanese commander of the Designated Area, Kanoh Ghoya.

At its peak, Shanghai had a Jewish community of c35,000 people with a school, synagogue, hospital, refugee hostels and bakeries. Both Nash and Witting attended the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, established by the famous Kadoori family, Middle Eastern Jews who’d had a commercial base in Shanghai.

Shanghai was liberated by US troops in Aug 1945. Peace freed 3.5 million Chinese residents in this city, 6,000+ foreign cit­izens interned in the Civil Assembly Centre and 23,000 Jewish refugees in the Shanghai Ghetto. Most of the Shanghai Ghetto residents re-applied to the countries where they had orig­inally wanted to go, back in 1939.

Shanghai had been the Nash family’s sanctuary, albeit a chaotic one. They left Shanghai for Australia in Feb 1949, as soon as their application for entry was finally accepted. For 60 years, the Shanghai survivors in Australia shared regular Hongkew newsletters and reunions.

In 2015 the People’s Republic of China and the World Jewish Congress commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Shanghai Ghetto and the end of WW2. The photo credits belong to WJC. Jewish Refugees in Shanghai was displayed at Sabes Jewish Community Centre in Minnesota in 2015. The Prague Jewish Museum opened an exhibit on the Jewish Refugees living in Shanghai ghetto in 2016. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is always worth visiting.

Peter Nash, now 82, retired after a successful career in the textile industry. He launched his book Es­cape From Berlin at the 2017 Sydney Jewish Writers Fest­ival. Thanks Australian Financial Review for some of the details in this post.

The Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne had a fine exhibition in the 1990s called The Story of a Haven: The Jews in Shanghai. To read of the earlier waves of émigrés, see a] Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia who arrived just before WW1, settling in Shanghai's French Concession and b] German speakers who arrived after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.

12 September 2017

Arts precincts and the City Beautiful in Melbourne and Philadelphia

Melbourne has become renowned as Aus­tral­ia’s cultural capital. Note Southbank’s Arts Prec­inct located next door to Southgate, stretching from the Yarra to the end of Sturt Street. Over the years it has become home to perform­ing arts com­p­anies, venues and galleries. This pedestrian-friendly Arts Precinct includes Sid­ney Myer Music Bowl (1959), the newest National Gallery Victoria building (1968), the city’s premier con­cert venue Hamer Hall (1982), Arts Centre Melb­ourne (1984) and its spire, Malthouse Theatre (1990), Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (2002), Melbourne Recital Centre (2009) and Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank Theatre (2009).

The Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint 2014 is a co-ordinated app­roach to the future devel­op­ment of the precinct. The study has been co-ordinated by the key arts stakeholders: City of Melbourne, Arts Victoria and State Government. Whilst each individual org­anisation has its own plans for the future, the Blueprint sees the precinct as a coordinated plan for this part of the city. A vibrant South­bank precinct needs mixed-use act­ivities with a strong arts focus, vibrant street activity and energy. And as ever, tree-lined streets and beautiful Victorian buildings were/are well preserved.

Was Melbourne’s Art Precinct based on the ideas of the City Beaut­iful Movement, imported from an overseas city? In the C19th, I might have examined the Vienna’s Ringstrasse. But in the C20th, I would be looking instead at Benjamin Franklin Parkway Philadelphia.

St Kilda Rd, part of the Arts Precinct 

At first Philadelphia’s Parkway was a bold dream by the architects who want­ed urban planning that could make Philadelphia very special. Fort­unately some institutions were already in place. The Cath­­edral Bas­ilica of Saints Peter and Paul, head church of the Rom­an Cath­olic Archdiocese, had been built on Logan Square, as far back as 1846-64 (by Napoleon LeBrun). As had the Academy of Natural Scien­ces had opened in 1876 (architect James Windrim).

A formal Parkway plan was dev­el­oped in 1907 by Horace Trumbauer, Clarence Zantzinger and Paul Crét for the Fairmount Park Art Association. It was a region of educational activ­it­ies grouped around Logan Square as the central anchor, an art­istic centre developed around the Fairmount Plaza, at the entrance to Phil­ad­elphia’s best park. Work started in 1917, cutting a very wide (160’) corridor through Fair­­mount’s resid­ential housing. Philad­elphia had thus created a Champs Elysee-like boulevard that connected the centre city to Fairmount Park.

Fortunately Philadelphia celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876 with America's first World's Fair. And the Philadelphia Museum of Art was originally chartered in 1876 for the World Fair. The City Council funded a competition in 1895 to de­sign a new museum building, and by 1907 arch­itectural plans from Zantzinger and Charles Borie started const­ruct­ion in the Fairmount Parkway. The main museum building opened in 1928. Across from the Museum’s main building, a newly renovated and expanded building opened in 2007.

The Town Hall was completed in 1901. Designed by architects John McArthur, John Ord and Bleddyn Powell, it was the largest municipal building in the USA.

The main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia opened its main branch doors alongside Logan Square in 1927. The first section of the Pennsylvania Museum was opened in 1928 on the Parkway, designed by architects Borie, Trumbauer and Zant­zinger. It was renamed Philadelphia Museum of Art ten years later.

The Rodin Museum opened on Parkway in 1929. The architects were Crét and Jacques Gréber.

Designed by John Windrim, the Franklin Science Institute opened its new building on the Parkway in 1934-38, after 110 years in other Philadelphia locations. Note the imposing statue.

As much time was put into transforming the Parkway outside (sculp­ture, gardens) as was put into the individual buildings’ architect­ure eg Swann Memorial Fountain was designed by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder and comp­leted in 1924, as the centrepiece of Logan Square.

I wasn't very interested in the secure detention Youth Study Centre which was constructed on the Parkway in 1952 (by J Roy Carroll, John Grisdale and William Van Alen). But I was fascinated in 2009 when the youth centre was demolished to make way for the Barnes Foundation which had been in Merion for decades. It opened in 2012.

Moore College of Art and Design moved to its new campus on the Parkway in 1959. And was expanded in 2000.

Other American cities were planning similar projects during those years, creating Amer­ica's first important contribution to urban design, the City Beautiful Movement. The city planners wanted a model of an orderly, classical metropolis, crossed by boule­vards and dominated by contemporary Beaux-Arts and neoclassical buildings. Phil­ad­elphia could rightly claim it met the urban challenges of the new era, with a grand boulevard evoking the energy of the C20th.

Cath­­edral Bas­ilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Washington Monument Fountain, Philadelphia
facing down the Parkway.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

In 2009 critic Anthony Tommasini noted that if a sprawling multi-disciplinary performing-arts complex were proposed in a big city today, it would probably never be built. Talking about the Lincoln Centre for the Per­forming Arts in New York, he said the community assumed that orchestras, opera companies, ballet troupes and theatres would gain a lot by bec­om­ing partners in a centralised complex. But, he asked, is that still true? Firstly the promise of arts org­anisat­ions working together can become a daily grind of competing boards. Secondly such complexes tend to result in an arts ghetto, away from the broader community. He con­cluded that because an Arts Precinct allowed arts lovers to trav­el from their suburbs, dine, attend a performance and re­turn home, it plac­ed functional convenience above the desir­ab­ility for the arts to be owned by the community.  

I am not sure his arguments are valid in Melbourne or in Philadelphia, so now is time to read Richard Carreño's Museum Mile: Philadelphia's Parkway Museums, 2011. It tells how and why the Benjamin Franklin Parkway eventually hosted at least 12 major cul­t­ural institut­ions of national.