Refugees or Immigrants? Migrant Art at the Ben Uri Gallery

The Ben Uri Gallery have just opened two new exhibitions looking at the contribution of German migrant artists to Britain.

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Credit: Eva Frankfurther Estate

The Ben Uri Gallery may not be on your radar if you’re used to trekking around the likes of the National or the TATE. Of course, these iconic institutions with their hundreds of masterpieces have their place, but sometimes visiting a smaller, more niche, and often more thought-provoking gallery is worthwhile.

Housed in North London, the Ben Uri Gallery is dedicated to art and migration; a small but perfectly formed gallery with regularly changing exhibitions addressing questions of movement and visual arts. Their latest exhibition, ‘Refugees: The Lives of Others’ looks at the various ways German refugees have contributed to Britain’s 20th century art scene. Of course, the reasons for coming here were not just for our tea and our incredible weather – the majority of the artists came here because of the Nazi situation in Germany: anti-Semitic laws in 1933 meant many Jewish artists were forbidden to practice, and so they fled abroad in order to continue to do what they loved: create art.

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Ben Uri’s newest exhibition is particularly relevant today, given our current refugee crisis: I attended the opening night of the gallery’s German-centred feature and it is stunning. The ground floor is dedicated to a young lady called Eva Frankfurther, who escaped to London with her Jewish family in 1939. After studying at St. Martin’s School of Art, Eva found that she wasn’t all that excited about the London art scene, and she moved to Whitechapel to work in Lyon’s sugar factory. The East End in the 50’s was a hub of various migrant communities: these West Indian, Cypriot and Pakistani people were the inspiration for Frankfurther’s artwork, which she completed during the day after her night shifts at the factory.

Often dark in colour, Eva Frankfurther’s sketches and paintings depict people at work or rest, going about their daily lives in the smog of the city and interacting with friends, families and fellow refugees.

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Frank Auerbach. Credit: Ben Uri Collection

Downstairs in the basement gallery, a whole host of German artists are on display. There are the more well-known names such as Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, as well as sculptors, sketchers and painters you’ve probably never heard of. It’s not just the varied works that is inspiring though; the artists’ stories are as  important here as the art on show. Many of the artists were interned, so a lot of the paintings are those which were completed in a camp.

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Sculpture by Margarete Klopflesich contrasts with the abstract, graphic style of Elisabeth Tomalin’s ‘Head’; Frank Auerbach’s textural images are even more exciting alongside Hans Scheleger’s lithographic prints for London Transport. What brings all these incredible artists and works together is their shared identity as German refugees in our country, a place of safety away from the horrors of Hitler, and one where they could continue to thrive with their artistic talent.

We did it once, and we can do it again. Let’s hope that Britain supports, embraces and nurtures the art of all the diverse people who are coming to call our home theirs.

 

 

 

42nd Street Is A Toe-Tapping Success

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There’s a new show in town, and it comes from the bright lights of Broadway. 42nd Street, the dance-heavy musical set in 30s New York is now showing at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and is the perfect performance for anyone who likes toe-tapping, stunning costumes and a lot of glitter.

42nd Street follows the story of Peggy Sawyer, a young hopeful keen to get a foot in the door of the theatre world. Peggy is played by the talented Clare Halse, a former Hairspray, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Gypsy performer.  She may be small, but she is certainly mighty: indeed what Halse lacks in height, she makes up for with her incredible tap dancing.

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And there is a lot of dancing. Expect fantastic formations, uber-quick footwork and beautiful costumes. All gets messy when we meet Dorothy Brock, Peggy’s rival in terms of nabbing the top spot in the upcoming production. The role of Dorothy is played by the utterly amazing Sheena Easton –she may be best known for her Bond soundtracks (For Your Eyes Only)  but she is stunning as the one-time star and surefire primadonna Brock in 42nd Street.

This is the ultimate ‘lights of Broadway’ spectacular – if you need a bit of glitter in your life, heading to see 42nd Street is a no-brainer. Whilst it may be humanely impossible for your eyes to keep up with the speed of all those feet tapping away, watching the pros at work will definitely make you want to take up dancing. That, or get some really noisy shoes.

Photos thanks to 42nd Street: The Musical’s media.

Fairy-tale Photography: Dennis Valdez at the Talented Art Fair

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Right in the heart of London’s hipster centre, the Truman Brewery has to be the ultimate venue for markets, events and pop-ups that are on the cutting-edge of what’s new. From 17-19 March, the Talented Art Fair set up shop in this warehouse-style space, showcasing some of the globe’s most innovative and exciting emerging talent. Amongst ceramicists, painters and sculptors, creative genius Dennis Valdez was one of only four photographers exhibiting at the Truman Brewery, presenting his breath-taking other-worldly photographs amongst the world’s best talent.

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The atmosphere for any show or exhibition is arguably as important as what is being exhibited. The Friday night private view of the Talented Art Fair certainly did well on this front, with chilled tunes courtesy of a cracking DJ, a fizz-filled bar, and a host of inspiring creatives wherever you looked. The relaxed yet exciting vibe was the perfect setting for the photographs of Dennis Valdez, a London-based photographer whose images immediately transport you to a fairy-tale world.

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Think Marie Antoinette and Narnia’s White Witch and you get a feel for what Valdez achieves. With locations including Epping Forest and former sanatoriums, the outfits, models and the impeccable composition of each image combine to create an intensely magical aura – some could say over the top, but this is extravagance done very well.

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With fairy-tale-like outfits embellished with all manner of sequins, pearls and feathers, the models in Dennis’ images could quite easily have just stepped out of a film. Headwear, in the form of elaborate and opulent crowns, coupled with lace and ruffled dresses created an ethereal vibe, and the setting of Epping Forest certainly added to the fantastical theme.

Styling of the models ranged from dreamlike 1920’s-esque feathers and lace to sultrier red-lipped, and fiery-haired looks: a palate of blacks, whites, silvers and creams enabled striking designs to really stand out. 

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The beauty of Valdez’s images, aside from the utter beauty of the models he used, is the ability to completely remove you from the greying fog of London, and take you to a fantastical place right out of a storybook. Snow Queens, fairies and historical heroines immediately spring to mind when looking at Dennis’ work, each photograph complimenting the next. Both ethereal, yet completely grounded, there is a definite weight and substance to his work. 

Surrounded by Valdez’s epic fantastical work, I am convinced that if his photography exhibition were a fairy-tale, it would be one which you just have to keep reading.

Photographs by David Meehan. Check out Dennis’ work here.

A German Author in London: Barbara Honigmann at Senate House

Recently the Institute of Modern Languages Research, based at Senate House Library,  hosted an evening with one of Germany’s best contemporary women’s writers titled ‘A Conversation with Barbara Honigmann’.

Barbara Honigmann, 2014

To define Barbara Honigmann is a difficult task: she is, yes, a woman writer. She is also a German writer, and at the same time a Jewish writer. But rather than see her as a Woman German-Jewish writer, we should simply see her as a writer. Fitting into multiple ‘boxes’ means that to certain interested parties, she has several identities: but giving a voice to Jews, Germans or women, in whatever part she is required to be at the time, can leave her feeling that she has – rather than a rich and multifaceted identity -an utter lack of concrete identity.

Born in east Germany in 1949 to parents who spent many years exiled in London, Barbara Honigmann left the GDR for Strasbourg in 1983, where she still lives. Honigmann is best known for her largely autobiographical fiction, and is currently the writer in residence at Queen Mary University of London.

Senate House Library is a rather imposing looking building smack bang in between Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road. This 1920s-feel white brick structure may look bleak from the outside, but as the University of London library, and home to the School of Advanced Study, this is one knowledge-filled place; the perfect location, then for a discussion with one of Germany’s most prominent authors.

Despite her multiple identities, one March evening in the welcoming space of Senate House, it was Barbara Honigmann the writer who held the steadfast attention of the room. Facilitated by Robert Gillett, Honigmann discussed her life as well as her latest novel, Chronik meine Strasse to a gripped audience.

Interspersed throughout the talk of biography and language, the author read passages from her new book in German, followed by a translation read by Dr. Gillett. Essentially her latest book is, hence the title, the story of Barbara’s street. A novel dedicated to a single road has the potential to sound like a dull and overly simplistic affair, but in what we hear from Chronik meine Strasse, Honigmann’s street exists as a deep and detailed character.

Her street has a past, it has a personality, and it has people that each have their own stories living along it. Barbara’s atmospheric, and at times simplistic, writing creates an image of a street you eagerly want to explore, yet at the same time feel you already know. There are long, meandering sentences (that had to be split for the English version) amongst brisk statements and repeated sequences. Despite these instances of wanderings and explorations, the destination of the text is never far from sight.

We hear about the people she sees from her balcony. and how the street is changing. Neighbours and relationships, as well as the history of the road are discussed in detail: Barbara Honigmann’s street feels like a microcosm of today’s multicultural and varied cities. In fact, her text could have been transposed to right here in London, and the sights, feelings and people may not have been altogether that different.

For such an accomplished writer, Honigmann’s humble personality may have seemed at this event unequal to the lofty standards of her words. Her softness and approachability, however, meant Barbara could have gone beyond meine Strasse, further than meine Stadt and outside mein Land, and the audience would have still been hungry for more.  Barbara Honigmann’s discussion with Robert Gillett did not only instigate applause, but also those rare moments of silent thought; a sign, always, of a successful conversation

 

Berlin Walls: Street Art in the German Capital

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You no longer have to be in a gallery to see incredible art, neither know about everything from the Renaissance to Pop Art to be deemed an art critic. The great thing about street art is that there is no arrow pointing to where you should look, or a piece of card explaining the artist, name of the work and the materials that were used. You have to look and find these things yourself; an art treasure hunt, if you will.

London is well-known for its street art and graffiti; it’s clear you’ve entered the hipster hub of Shoreditch when you start to see quirky drawings on the side of buildings, and provocative words sprayed onto breeze-block walls.

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Berlin, however, takes the whole street art phenomenon to new levels. The sheer quantity of stunning designs on every street corner is obvious as soon as you get off the train at the main station. It somehow makes the city seem instantly more laid back, and gives you the sense that the graffiti police are not so fussed about stray spray cans in Germany.

Like a lot of outdoor ‘art’, a fair amount of Berlin’s arguable vandalism is just that – I’m not pretending that every wall is adorned with next year’s Banksy – but there is an awful lot of impressive stuff out there.

For the ultimate experience of wall art, the East Side Gallery is a no-brainer. This is a remaining part of the Berlin Wall which is still standing, a harsh reminder of the former divided city. However, in contrast to its previous life as a grey, stark symbol of the partition between East and West Berlin, the wall here is now a giant canvas. This is the biggest, most impressive, varied mural you have seen.

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Interspersed with messages about climate change and thought-provoking statements are reactions to the fall of the wall, and the union of the country. Pictures evoking the persecution of the prior years alongside the promise of newfound freedom distil the 1989 Berlin Wall collapse into hard-hitting realities.

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For incredible art as well as an education about what divided Berlin meant for society, forget the traditional galleries and museums. This art experience is completely free: it is street art as you’ve never seen it before.

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http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/east-side-gallery

 

ENO’s Madam Butterfly: a feast for the eyes and ears

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Take several Japanese screens, a fair few Kimonos, countless lanterns and fans, and an incredibly moving score, and you have all the ingredients for ENO’s latest offering, Madam Butterfly.

Puccini once again hits the London scene, and the mix of orchestral masterpiece with stunning minimalist Japanese theatre is a feast for the eyes and ears. American soprano Rena Harms takes the title role, and is a beautifully sincere Madam Butterfly.

Yesterday’s opening night performance at the Coliseum was a success on all fronts; the talented orchestra transporting the London audience to the The opera is a classic tale of unrequited love, and of one woman’s faith that her American husband will one day return to Japan to her. This lady is one patient individual, but her three years of waiting flies by in ENO’s production. Innovative use of lights and silks as well as effective instances of puppetry ensure that not only is the audience gripped by the stunning melodies and impressive vocals, but also the visual cinematic masterpiece that is the stage. Costumes and set were equally colourful, and utilisation of shadow was simple, yet stylish.

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The characters of Suzuki (Stephanie Windsor-Lewis), Madam Butterfly’s maid, and her absent husband Pinkerton (David Butt Philip) matched up to Harms’ near-perfect performance. One of the most effective characters, I have to say, was that of Madam Butterfly’s baby son – a puppet so lifelike and so ingeniously controlled that after being on-stage for a matter of minutes, I was completely sure that it was a real person. Forget CGI, this is special effects at its finest.

Being an opera, and a Puccini one at that, the ending is an emotional culmination of three years of patience and love. A visually stunning, and musically enchanting oriental performance, Madam Butterfly at the ENO is one that may require a pack of tissues.

 

images courtesy of ENO (www.eno.org)

 

You say you want a Revolution: a Cycle Spectacular at the Design Museum

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Call me a wimp, call me wise, but I have yet to cycle in the big bad city. Not a Boris Bike jaunt, nor a scenic riverside ride have I ever completed, which, admittedly is slightly embarrassing.

…Or sensible? The amount of cycle-related injuries and accidents is scarily high in London, although the new Cycle Super Highways that are being built around the city promise a safer way to ride around the capital.

This current obsession with bikes can’t be ignored – we’ve all been annoyed by those commuters who insist on travelling with a fold-up bike, or been narrowly missed by a speeding Santander. But the rise in popularity of the (not so) humble bicycle is clearly for a reason: a bike is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to use, and doubles up as a form of exercise. This is killing three birds with one stone. After the success of cycling in the London Olympics and the enthusiasm for the recent Tour de France, it seems apt that 2015 should be the year championing the Great Bicycle. Luckily, the Design Museum have got it covered.

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Cycle Revolution is a brand new exhibition at the Design Museum in Bermondsey celebrating the nations’ favourite two wheeled contraption. Bikes of all shapes and sizes are on display; from Bradley Wiggins’ super fast racer to a 1970s vintage Raleigh, this exhibition shows there really is a bike for everyone. The exhibition focuses on four subcultures of biking ‘tribes’; the High Performers, the Thrill Seekers, the Urban Riders and the Cargo Bikers, proving the diversity and variety in the jobs the bike can do.

Track the evolution of the bicycle throughout time, contrasting the 1888 Rover safety bicycle to the foldable Brompton bicycles now so familiar on the morning commute. Apparently the future of cycling could be the wooden bike, but there was also a huge number of modern collapsible contraptions that screamed innovation. . Biking attire and helmets (accessories are obviously important here) are featured, the most bizarre probably an inflatable helmet. I was pretty impressed with the cargo bikes which are rising in popularity; companies using them for deliveries or mums for the school run. Genius, I say – stick the kids in the bike.

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Admittedly, I entered Cycle Revolution with an overriding impression that a bike is a bike is a bike. How wrong I was. The Design Museum’s Cycle Revolution opened my eyes to the fact that bikes are stepping up a gear. Having never really considered the design and craftsmanship of the trusty bicyle, I now feel enlightened as to the capabilities of our two-wheeled friend, and despite not being an avid bike enthusiast, can now fully the complete variety and innovative craftsmanship of the bicycle. The Design Museum has triumphed again, as far as im concerned, and even though I still took the tube on the way home, I was wheely considering picking up a Boris Bike (pun completely intended).