Life & Culture

Art: Tonight the World

Returning to grandmother’s dream world


To visitors, it’s a handsome Czech Modernist villa But to Susi Stiassni it was a place that haunted her dreams — the family home in Brno, from where she fled the Nazis as a child, later used as a residence for a Gestapo officer. She never forgot it in 80 years.

Now life at Villa Stiassni before the war been reimagined by Susi’s granddaughter, Daria Martin, in an exhibition opening next week at the Barbican. “The family didn’t get their house back after the war, although overtures were made, but I did get permission to film there,” explains Martin.

The Stiassnis, whose wealth was built on textiles, lived in the villa designed by noted Jewish architect Ernst Wiesner for just nine years before taking flight in 1938. They landed in London, dispatching Susi, then 13,to Battle Abbey boarding school in Sussex. “She was the only Jewish girl and spoke no English; it must have been a huge adjustment, yet she was the top student,” says American-born Martin, who is professor of art at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford as well as a film-maker.

The Stiassnis lived in the UK for three years, then settled in California. Art brought grandmother and grand daughter together during Martin’s childhood. “I used to draw in the studio where she painted and we became close; she was almost like a second mother.”

Martin’s show, Tonight The World, combines film and computer technology to create an atmospheric environment, evoking the world of Susi’s dreams. The source material is 20,000 pages of dream diaries Susi kept for 35 years from 1969 for the purpose of psychoanlaysis, around the same time she started painting. “I was aware of the diaries, though I didn’t read them until after my grandmother died, and saw so many involved the house in Brno,” explains Martin, who last year won the prestigious Jarman Award. for her work.

Visitors entering the Barbican’s Curve gallery will first encounter a rendering of the villa as it was when the Stiassnis lived there: “My great-grandmother recorded the way many of the rooms looked in watercolour,” explains Martin, recalling somewhat Victorian furnishings in stark contrast to the Modernist exterior. A second film, starring actors, is a reimagining of five of her grandmother’s dreams set in the house.

Martin visited the ancestral home in person a few years ago, when the cultural institution which now owns the house held an event in Brno, They brought together the descendants of three wealthy Jewish families who had had to leave their grand homes to escape Nazi persecution. Martin says the event left her “conflicted and confused,” and haunted by the many who perished.

Nevertheless, she returned months later, driven by a need for “reparation”. She sought permission to film in it and funding to make her project possible, using five of Susi’s 200 recorded dreams as her source material: “Filming there, inhabiting the house myself, was a form of artistic reclamation,” she explains. “My grandmother had looked into reclaiming it physically, but that was not on the cards.”

Martin believes Holocaust trauma is passed down to a third, as well as second generation and is glad her father and grandmother nurtured her creativity. “Perhaps it was no coincidence they actively fostered my creativity and artistic exploration as a child as well as pursuing their own artistic journeys,” she says, recalling her father’s own densely-drawn graphics. “They must have instinctively felt that art can be a form of repair.”


Tonight the World runs at the Curve at Barbican Art Gallery until April 7.


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