Thursday, 24 November 2011

Book Review – 1911: Art and Revolution in Liverpool by David Bingham

David Bingham's book covers much more than Liverpool in 1911. Primarily it is a biography of – as the subtitle suggests – the life and times of Albert Lipczinski.

Born just outside Danzig in 1876 Lipczinski's early years are a matter of speculation though he had begun his artistic studies. The twenty year old Lipczinski then made his way to Liverpool to continue these studies.

Much of the book is taken up with these Liverpool years; mostly because these years were the most eventful but also because they are the ones most documented. Here Lipczinski met the remarkable 16 year old Elizabeth Milne; a girl of Irish descent who became his muse and he eventually married. In many ways Elizabeth contributed as much to the limited success that Lipczinski had throughout his life.

With Elizabeth's help he was on the fringes of a number of social groups. He mixed with the early academicians in what was becoming Liverpool University. He dabbled in gypsy life. He was a student at the Sandon Studios, a rival, freer, more adventurous, artistic body to the official art institutions. And later he became more involved with exhibiting at these Studios.

Most remarkable of all was his association with and witness to the growing syndicalist movement in Liverpool. These were times of the great transport strikes and the near rebellion in 1911. He painted the syndicalist leaders Tom Mann and Jim Larkin; though these portraits do not appear to have survived.

Given Lipczinski's association with socialist/syndicalist ideas in the pre-first world war period Bingham does not seem enquire about Lipczinski's politics in other periods of his life; other than to suggest he was an 'internationalist' – a somewhat vague term. This is an oversight; albeit a small one.

The first world war interrupted Lipczinski's promising career; as it did for so many. First he was held in a detention camp as a foreigner. Intervention by his friends led to, what was effectively, house arrest. The remainder of the war was a matter of waiting and surviving. It was difficult for Lipczinski to work and he was dependent on Elizabeth and friends.

With the first world war over it must have seemed that Lipczinski's artistic career could resume from where it had been interrupted. Instead in 1919 he was deported to his home town Sopot now inside the Danzig Free State. This seems especially vindictive as he had a British wife and numerous influential friends. Elizabeth eventually followed him but his artistic career never seemed as promising from then on. It did pick up enough for the couple to establish a reasonably comfortable existence. Poland, however, was to prove the location for a new trauma.

From the Nazi period there are some cute and skilful images produced for German exhibitions and some appearing in Nazi publications. It's difficult to assess these impartially knowing the horrific outcome of this hateful ideology. Hopefully they were just someone attempting to survive in traumatic times. Poland after all was the stage for some incredible barbarity as it was fought over by first the Germans and then the Russians; both sides persecuting both Jews and Poles.

Another war ended and again what should have been a time of optimism resulted in more privation. The new Polish state had to contend with shifting populations and reparations; both resulting from the new states controlling interest in Russia. The Lipczinski's once comfortable accommodation was reduced and his part German ancestry made them second class citizens. They were dependent on Elizabeth's work teaching English to a few private students and occasional help from old friends abroad. Lipczinski's art became more commercial; it was simply a matter of survival. This is a great loss as he was capable of so much more. This period dragged on, with some minor improvements, until Elizabeth died of a heart attack in 1969 aged 86. Albert survived her a few more years dyeing in 1974.

An equally remarkable person was Lipczinski's wife Elizabeth; a vibrant and self confident woman; and Bingham's biography is, quite rightly, as much about her. A woman of Irish descent, her family owning a pub just outside Liverpool which she later inherited. She gave up a relatively comfortable life to endure the privations of living with Albert; an decision that must have seemed less glamours with the passing years. It would be intriguing to have another book based on her letters; possibly centring on the correspondence between her and their friend Elizabeth Yates. Maybe a suggestion for Bingham's next project?

Bingham has done well to construct this biography from second hand sources; and often from third or fourth hand sources. Lipczinski seems to have written nothing himself and there are no letters in his hand. Though there are the letters from his wife Elizabeth. However this paucity of material does encourage Bingham to indulge himself occasionally, with somewhat unbelievable stories based upon poor or unverified sources. For example (page 19) we have a youthful Albert, around 1897, having enlisted in the German army. There he saw much brutality; including an incident where his section was forced to watch a recruit being tortured on the training ground. Lipczinski, apparently, broke ranks and struck the officer. I am not doubting the brutality within the German army. Just that if Lipczinski had committed such an act of bravado he'd have been beaten to a pulp and punished; something that's also memorable. He would not have been allowed to slip away unnoticed.

Then again (on page 46) there's the story of the Lipczinski's dog trained to steal meet from butchers in Liverpool city centre. Nice story but totally unbelievable. These stories raise a question that I cannot answer: how does the historian distinguish between oral testimony and gossip that's been embellished years later? Pushing that impossible question aside; these slips are rare and do not detract too much from the biography.

The question remains: have some neglected masterpieces been newly discovered among Lipczinski's work? Certainly there are some interesting pictures and it's well worth rediscovering his work. Good technically as Lipczinski was there's something wooden about many of the subjects; something just that bit too stuffy. As Lipczinski got older his less obviously commercial work seems, as you would hope, to have become freer and better; overall I prefer the later work. There are a few pictures that stand out like the self portrait from his Liverpool period. But the existing art establishment isn't going to be rocked by his posthumous bursting onto the scene. His work also demonstrates that: having a fascinating life or intriguing politics does not automatically guarantee churning out artistic masterpieces. A lesson for the politicly inclined artist.

Still, lets end on a more positive note. Lipczinski is an good artist who is well worth discovering. And Lipczinski is well served by Bingham's biography.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to do a review of the book Tim. It was very interesting and informative for me to understand your encounter with this story.

    Kind regards,

    David Bingham


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.