It’s been a while since we toured Nash and it’s back on the road so I thought I’d write a few words about the fable that it is and what inspired it to be unpicked as one might an arcane painting or map i.e. what the hell is that about?!
The Kingdom of Paul Nash was inspired by letters given to the Tate by Eileen Agar which revealed an intense and short-lived affair she had with Paul Nash in 1930s Swanage which was not short-lived for him as it was truly profound and was in part his voyage into an English surrealism that would – with his Trench paintings – define his life’s work.
They gave each other gifts from the beaches and coves – painted shells and strange objects imbued with personalities. Through his encounters with the Purbeck coast and the wider megalithic world of the South of England, Nash could finally fuse together the Blakean animism he loved with the avant-garde – the surrealism of the continent- the stone circles, megaliths, serpentine hills of Maiden Castle, described by Thomas Hardy as a great cephalopod – all rearing up and transmogrophying within the de Chirico coves, hills and even beach town-scapes of Dorset. For him the Isle of Purbeck was alive- the fossils rising up as snakes, the seaweed bulbous and alien.
But Nash was also experiencing a form of rehabilitation. He had been treated for shell shock in 1921 after a week of collapsing unconscious, having witnessed with an artist’s eye the horrors of Passchendale in the drowning mud of 1917.
We started with their relationship and decided to explore how we might depict this encounter less as a conventional narrative and more as a surreal or magic realist fable. In this Nash is seen washing up on a magical island – Tempest like. A totemic bird – possibly a cormorant – ushers him on his journey and soon he discovers a quarry leading to a headland chapel based on St, Aldhelm’s Head. There he meets an incarnation of William Blake, proto-anarchic artist who guides him into a tunnel which will lead him back to his lost memories. The tunnel leads to a stone circle where resides a further reincarnation – that of Thomas Hardy – a soothsayer cartologist who knows where Nash can rekindle his repressed trauma. On the clifftop at Winspit, where a ship ran aground, he sees the full horror of his repressed memories, that of Passchendale, 1917. He plunges into the water and there meets the siren-like Agar, who ushers him back to land from the forests of kelp where she resides.
So that’s what it all means!
Kieron Chissik, July, 2019.
“I now recall / the paths we scored / across the Purbeck moon” (Purbeck Moon, The Cabinet of Living Cinema).
Through the Spring of 2016 we begin writing ballads to tell the tale of Paul Nash and fellow surrealist Eileen Agar’s love affair with each other and with the Purbeck landscape, using voice and traditional folk and orchestral instruments. In tandem we begin filming a “voyage” along the sea-cliffs of Purbeck, capturing the hidden limestone coves, tinted purple by seawater, the forests of seaweed and found objects or’objets trouves’ including a rusting old engine tucked into a cliff crevasse, some of which we will ultimately incorporate into the live performance. This is the part of the Jurassic Coast – from Swanage to Kimmeridge – which ushered in a new era of Nash’s art. His and Eileen’s affair was intense and in the end Nash was left forlorn, but ultimately it was an inspirational encounter, setting him on the path to his very English version of Surrealism.
Nash’s fascination with the natural world was always there, but it was after trips to the megalithic ruins of Southern England that he first began to paint the ancient world as alive and enveloped within the dream-world of surrealism. Less interested in the past as past, it was the past as present that beguiled Nash.
In Purbeck, we find these landscapes, both ancient, geological, elemental, curved, carved and crashed by wave, quarried into cubist caves by years of industry. These are “objet trouve” landscapes – discarded objects of accidental rather than ‘deliberate’ beauty.
Nash’s extensive photographs of ‘objets trouves’ – many found on beach-combing trips with Eileen – became the foundations for pieces such as ‘Event on the Down’ and ‘Landscape from a Dream’, a painting pronounced by Andre Breton as a truly great Surrealist work. But his English take on the art-form is found within the more mythical, Blakean world he integrates into his paintings – siren-snakes coiling from fossil nests above Kimmeridge Bay, a hawk on a Purbeck cliff presiding over a series of balls like planets of hay – strange yet resonant of the stone beasts found in English churches. These mythical elements combine with contorted images of megalithic relics – stone circles and barrows – to create an ancient and modern aesthetic that echoes the Jurassic, manufactured world of Purbeck.
Nash died in a guest-house in Boscombe on the 11th July, 1946, having spent his last ten days revisiting the places of Dorset that had inspired his surrealism: the dream-like landscapes and inanimate objects he had found in and around Swanage earlier in his life, what he would call, shortly before his death, his “kingdom”.
In a Cabinet Voyage conducted to coincide with the 70th anniversary of his passing, we collect video footage of the half-mechanised, half-prehistoric world of the Purbeck cliffs from caves accessible only by sea. From the coast path, Dorset photographer Ellie Maguire captures the bent frames of trees which Nash cites as having particular affinity with.
Objects found on explorations of Purbeck are collected by artist and foley musician Robert Parkinson to create soundscapes ushering in this secret world of colour and unearthly sound. The graphic novel animation is created by Tom Brown animator (Magnetic Foragers) and illustrator James Edwards (http://www.jamesedwardsillustration.co.uk), inspired by Nash’s art.
Completing the voyage are excerpts from work by Japanese animator Nozomi Hokoshawa and American avant-garde filmmaker, Maya Deren, integrated into the piece to explore the artistic and philosophical ideas shaped by Nash’s encounter with the Purbeck landscape.
Amongst the visual experiments conducted with Tom Brown arise a part of the performance in which the found objects are buried in water, as if to trigger memories from the water of the intense feelings Nash had for his lover. This sense of objects containing memories is something that fascinated Edwardian spiritualists, including Conan Doyle in his search for contact with his deceased son.
The conclusion of the piece finds Nash in the guesthouse of his final days, close to where Dorset members of the Cabinet spent their youth – here and in Purbeck beloved by Nash – recalling the paths him and Eileen scored across Purbeck: she, the siren washed up on his beach, both muse but also someone he could ultimately, never contain or possess.
“If I have arrived at having a stage, I want it to be a school for you… Laugh heartily if I amuse you with my jokes, while I, watching you, feel my heart crying. Then, brothers, I’ll give you a drama, a tragedy drawn from life, and you shall also cry — while my heart shall be glad.” Abraham Goldfaden – founder of the Yiddish Theatre.
“Yesterday her body was more beautiful than her face…[it] did not belong with her face yesterday, and she reminded me vaguely of hybrid beings like mermaids, sirens, centaurs. When she stood before me…I felt as though I was speaking to a statue in a circle of pitiless onlookers.”
“She pulls invisible trains around her in the folds of the dress…”
Kafka describing Millie Czyżyk/ Chissik.
In 1911, Kafka encountered a Yiddish theatre troupe at the Café Savoy in Prague. He became intrigued, though not always enamoured, by the melodrama, the pantomime and the exaggerated pathos of the performances and the richness of the spoken Yiddish. He also becomes obsessed with one of the company, an actress, Mania Tschissik (aka Millie Chissick). He describes her movement and gestures in forensic, infatuated detail: here she pulls “invisible trains around her in the folds of the dress”, there her curved hands move as if playing with a slowly flying ball. In another passage Mrs Tschissik is lauded by the writer for keeping an entire performance together, singing and prompting from the wings and even holding up pieces of collapsing set, such was the lot of the travelling actor.
Arguably, Kafka’s literary form takes shape over the period he visits the theatre, whether by coincidence or because of something he takes from their melodramatic, satirical fables. Despite this and his avid support of the actors in their stay in Prague, Kafka’s diaries confess something of an ongoing ambivalence to the Jewish culture on offer in the theatre, and his own sense of Jewish identity remains confused by the encounter, rather than ascertained.
Theatre of the Wandering West elaborates on the little known background of Millie and her husband, Emanuel, through family stories and archive (they are the great-great-grandparents of Cabinet founder, Kieron Maguire) in order to explore the origins of the Yiddish theatre in traditional forms of Ashkenazi entertainment: the wedding minstrel: badhkonim’ and festive player ‘purimspiler’, who were required to perform multiple roles as actors, singers, and bards.
Charting an interweaving historical arc from Emanuel’s boyhood as travelling wedding minstrel to the Prague café, the piece devised by Kieron with illustrations and animation by brothers Tom and James Brown illuminates the journey of Jewish fable-telling, theatre and comedy as it is reinvented for an increasingly secular, Western European and American audience and how this theatre may have inflected Kafka’s writing.
The Tschissiks, the Chiziks, the Chissicks, the Czyżyks, the Chissiks
When Millie meets jaunty-hatted Yiddish Theatre actor, Emanuel Tschissik (Chiziks in the Yiddish theatre archives, Czyżyk in Polish meaning siskin – a small colourful bird, Tschissik in Anglised Russian, Chissik in some spellings) in the inn of Millie’s father in Czestochowa around 1897 (Millie was in fact born Mania Fersztenfeld in Bedzin near Czestochowa) the theatre is in its infancy. Everything is possible and Millie and Emanuel seize the opportunity to escape the confines of shtetl life aloft this new and exciting adventure. Or at least that is the story we have postulated! Millie’s father follows in hot pursuit, chasing them across “half of Poland” until they eventually agree to return, Emanuel growing a beard and returning to a more respectable trade in the eyes of his new in-laws: the wedding comedian and all-round entertainer or badkhn . Son of Binem Badkhen from a family of badkhonim this is an act he knows well. Millie’s mother is reputedly pleased, but the road soon beckons the new couple back, and they return to the itinerant lifestyle of the Yiddish theatre pioneers, touring shtetls under the radar of the Czarist ban on Yiddish, or spanning the archipelago of European theatres that host performances for their Jewish communities.
In the late 1890s, Whitechapel, London is one of these islands where Emanuel’s equally theatrical brother and sister (Joseph/Yosl and Leah Tschissik) have established themselves in the Yiddish theatres. Emanuel and Millie join them but he is unable to secure work and is forced to sell cigars. They return to the continent in 1906 to more success – Paris, Belgium, Berlin and the soon to be fragmented Austro-Hungarian Empire – leaving child Sidney with Aunt Leah and taking Ana / Anne (who will herself become an established part of the Yiddish theatre of Whitechapel – Anne Ronin, wife of violinist / composer Sidney Ronin).
Prague, 1911, and Millie is seen performing by a Jewish writer, Franz Kafka with ‘the German-Jewish Company from Lemberg’ (the Klugs, Sami, Isaac Lowy and the Tschissiks), bequeathing an incredibly fortuitous historical document to the Tschissiks’ ancestors in the shape of his dairies, and for many academics interested in Kafka’s relationship with both the theatre and Jewish culture. Kafka mentions Anne in one moving passage: an innocent child of the Tschissiks, oblivious to the troubles her parents are experiencing finding meager hand-to-mouth income as itinerant actors. Kafka feels their plight and tries to offer suggestions for where they might next travel.
On the eve of war, 1914, Emanuel and Millie separate in Paris and Millie, for reasons unknown to us now, and she moves back to London for a second and final time. Emanuel never returns to the stage. After the war he performs alone, or writes Yiddish verse and lyrics which he sells in the corridors of the theatres, trading anecdotes with passing friends “from far-off times”. He remains sanguine despite recurring ill-health, described by S.J.Harendorf as “not one of those people who complain about their own tragedies”. He dies in 1947 in a Parisian refuge for Jewish elders, somehow escaping Nazi deportation.
Whitechapel, 1915-1965: Millie performs prolifically at the Pavilion Theatre, where the great Jacob Adler also played, and later at the Grand Palais, the last great Yiddish theatre in Europe. She leaves the stage in her 80s only when a foot operation prevents her wearing proper shoes. She dies in 1976, three years after her first great-great-grandson is born (Leonard, followed two years after by Kieron).
Like Kafka, the Yiddish speaking immigrants of Whitechapel had in more than a century of the Yiddish theatre found not only a celebration of their Jewish culture but also, in the words of Bernard Mendelovitch, Millie’s friend and fellow player, “a sense of belonging”. Theatre of The Wandering West is a performance by Kieron and the Cabinet which brings together graphic novel animation charting Millie’s journey as an itinerant actress and her meeting with one of the century’s most celebrated writers with a live score written by Emanuel and Millie’s ancestors, Jack Maguire and Kieron Chissik, including Yiddish ballads and klezmer.
Historical detail with the kind assistance of Guido Massino, the Museum of Family History and Kafka’s Diaries.
Over 2013 and 2014, The Cabinet of Living Cinema have embarked on a series of routes that seek to rekindle the exploration of the remote, wild and “hidden” stretches of Britain’s West coast first pioneered by the early sea-cliff climbers of the 1900s. These stretches are not only places of unparalleled natural beauty and home to fantastical formations – caves, blow-holes and arches- but they are also muses for writers, artists, musicians and poets, places of ship-wreck and supernatural dwelling.
In the summer of 2013, the first Cabinet Voyage of this kind was conducted to explore the life and love of Paul Nash, the English surrealist painter, along a stretch of the Dorset coast that had been his inspiration for exploring the notion of the “found object”.