Heavy Melodies: The Quiet Existence of Herman Bang

Born in Asserballe on the Danish island of Als on 20thApril 1857, Herman Bang came from a family with a long history of eccentricity, tales of which his paternal grandfather delighted in telling him. After graduating from the Sorø Academy, a boarding school that had once been a monastery and dated back to the twelfth century, in 1879, Bang made his literary début with the collection of essays, Realism and Realists. The volume’s positive reception saw its author drawn towards the Modern Breakthrough, a Scandinavian movement founded by the critic Georg Brandes in 1870, to promote naturalism – a theory influenced by Darwin and espousing the notion that environment and social situations had the most profound influence of all upon human behaviour. Therefore, even the most disturbing aspects of human existence were to be embraced.

Bang’s first collection of short stories, Heavy Melodies was published in 1880, followed by his first novel, Generations Without Hope. The book told the tale of William Hawk, the last surviving male descendent of an aristocratic family who becomes embroiled in a torrid love affair with the much older Countess Hatzfeldt. Generations of Hope was banned after its romantic descriptions resulted in it being classified as pornographic by an outraged Danish press. In July 1881, Bang was tried for obscenity and faced a hefty fine or fourteen days imprisonment; he chose the former.

Nevertheless, the scandal propelled him into the public eye and he moved to Copenhagen. Living in the Danish capital, he produced works such as At Home and Out (1881), Phaedra: Fragments Of a Life History (1883) and Eccentric Short Stories (1885). From 1885 to 1886, he lived in Prague, Vienna and Berlin with the German actor Max Eisfeld, who was also his lover, and wrote the novel Quiet Existences. Separating from Eisfeld, Bang returned to Denmark, where he penned several poems about their relationship, including Night and New Year, and completed the novels Stucco in 1887, Tina in 1889 and Two Tragedies in 1891. Continue reading

The Crystal Stair: Lorraine Hansberry’s Gifts

In spite of her privileged background, Lorraine Hansberry’s all too brief life was devoted to fighting prejudice and the injustices suffered by many on account of their gender, sexuality, or the colour of their skin. Born in Chicago on 19th May 1930, Hansberry came from a prominent African American family; her father Carl Augustus Hansberry, was a prosperous real-estate broker and her uncle, William Leo Hansberry, a highly respected academic at Howard University. In 1938, the Hansberrys moved to an area of Chicago where there was a restrictive covenant on African American property owners, and in 1940, Carl Augustus Hansberry went before the U.S. Supreme Court to contest the discrimination in a case known as Hansberry v. Lee. The family were also subjected to shocking and bigoted attacks from some of their neighbours, with bricks being frequently thrown through their windows.

Her father’s experience was to have a lasting impact upon Hansberry and following his death in 1946, she became more politically-minded and socially aware, involving herself with campus concerns after starting a course in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she joined the Young Progressives of America as well as the Labor Youth League. Spending the summer of 1949 in Mexico, studying at the University of Guadalajara, Hanberry decided to quit her formal education and dropped out of university in 1950, leaving for New York with dreams of becoming a writer.

In New York, Hansberry enrolled at The New School for Social Research and worked as the associate editor for Freedom, a radical newspaper founded by the singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, who had been a friend of her father’s.  Whilst participating in a protest against racial inequality, Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, and the two were married in 1953. Only a few years after her marriage, Hansberry began to question her sexuality and in 1957, wrote several letters which were published in The Ladder, a national magazine with a predominantly lesbian readership. However, Hansberry remained cautious about revealing her identity and signed the letters using only her initials. Continue reading

Never Clothed: The Windmill Girls

Famous for its proud boast that, out of the forty-two London theatres open during the Second World War, it alone ‘Never Closed,’ even as bombs rained down on the city during the Blitz, the Windmill Theatre is one of the most renowned landmarks in Soho and has hosted performances by some of Britain’s best-loved entertainers. It began as the Palais de Luxe cinema in 1909, but as grander picture houses cropped up across London, it struggled to attract sufficient audiences and eventually shut its doors.

Nevertheless, the building caught the eye of Laura Henderson, an affluent and well-connected widow who saw its potential and purchased it in 1930. Following extensive renovations, the Windmill reopened in 1931. Yet like its predecessor, it failed to achieve notable success as a cinema. After employing Vivian Van Damm, a shrewd and experienced theatre manager, he decided that instead, the Windmill should show live acts, which he called ‘Revudeville.’

Inspired by the likes of the Moulin Rouge and the Ziegfeld Follies, and including female nudity as a part of the acts; Van Damm managed to attract unprecedented numbers of spectators. At that time, the Lord Chamberlain had the authority to decide what could be shown in theatres, thus, with the generally accepted understanding that ‘if it moves, it’s rude,’ but knowing that nude statues were permitted, Van Damm ensured that the girls on stage, who were commonly referred to as ‘Windmill girls,’ and with an average age of 19, remained absolutely motionless, and could not even smile, posing as tableaux vivants based upon various exotic and fantastical themes. Continue reading

So Far And Beyond: The Style Of Til Brugman

Mathilda Maria Petronella Brugman, known as ‘Til,’ was born on 16th September 1888 in Amsterdam, the eldest of nine children. The Brugman family were strict Roman Catholics and their first-born daughter’s assertiveness and sexuality would become a source of domestic conflict. At the age of 11, Brugman was sent to a Catholic girl’s boarding school, having already shown an aptitude for languages, encouraged by her mother. In 1911, Brugman found her own apartment in Amsterdam, taking a job as translator.

Always acknowledging that she was attracted to her own sex, Brugman fell in love with the opera singer Sienna Masthoff in 1917, and the couple moved to The Hague, where Brugman worked as a foreign languages tutor. At the same time, Brugman started to write poetry, inspired by her friendship with the avant-garde painter Piet Mondrian.

By 1917, Modrian had become affiliated with the recently formed collective of artists and architects, known as De Stijl. Founded by the designer and painter Theo van Doesburg, the group considered that art should be stripped down to the bare essentials, favouring simple bold lines and mainly black and white colour schemes. Others associated with the movement included the Hungarian painter, Vilmos Huszár and architect and furniture designer, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld. Additionally, a journal of the same name was produced in order to publicise De Stijl’s abstract notions and concepts, with the first edition proclaiming, ‘There is an old and a new awareness of art. The former focuses on the individual. The new focus on the universal.’ Continue reading