The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

March 26, 2016

March 26, 1935

Yolanda Sonnabend (March 26, 1935 to November 9, 2015) designed stage sets including for the ballet. According to her Guardian obit:

Yolanda Sonnabend’s professional career as a stage designer was blessed with success from the outset. She had her first design commission at the Royal Ballet while still an undergraduate, in 1958. Then, through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, most often working for the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, with whom she developed a special relationship, Yolanda, ....designed a string of works, many at Covent Garden, but some also in Europe, that made her reputation.

Her most acclaimed ballet designs included Symphony (1963); My Brother, My Sisters (1978); L’Invitation au Voyage (1982), her own favourite; Different Drummer (1984); and Swan Lake (1987). At the same time, she worked in opera (at Sadler’s Wells and elsewhere) and for the theatre (for productions from Genet to Othello to the Messiah).

All her drawings for the stage demonstrated precocious gifts, a facility of touch and a palette of singing colours. This was paralleled in her career as portrait painter by a sensitive gift for likeness. Her striking depictions of MacMillan, Stephen Hawking and Patrick Wall hover in the memory from public collections, but perhaps the strongest are those – like the image of Steven Berkoff, 1983, in the National Portrait Gallery collection – in which likeness is edged by characterisation. She spoke entertainingly of her sitters – “dancers do exactly what you want … actors want to be like something … captains of industry always sit the same way, glancing sideways”. She contrasted design for ballet (“about the body in movement, no voice”) and for theatre (“all character, and about what a director wants to do”).

Yolanda was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to highly cultured German-Russian parents, Heinrich and Fira Sonnabend, who shared strong moral instincts for social and racial justice. He was a sociologist, she was a family doctor. Arriving in Europe from Rhodesia around 1950, Yolanda studied art in Geneva, and then, in London, painting and stage design at the Slade (1955-60).

Yolanda’s memory of her childhood home was of a house full of art objects, good design and music. This seemed to set a pattern for the studio (or houseful of studios) in which she later lived and worked in north London, which was alive with objects, pictures, maquettes, masks, costumes, lay figures, coloured drawings – a “potting shed” full of work-in-progress and of memories of a life’s work.

Something of this showed through, too, in another, less-known branch of her art, the often large imaginative paintings that covered her studio walls and were much in evidence in a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery, east London, in 1975, and a vast retrospective at the Serpentine, 1985-86. These were often peopled less by figures than by things, such as architectural details, animated by the same life she gave to people. ....

All Yolanda’s talented digressions into various media were just a part of one art, to a degree that if not unique is certainly rare in an artist. She spent a lifetime inventing characters, in two and three dimensions, and manipulating them within the space of her art’s stage.

Yolanda once ...
[said] that she’d never had “the fundamental things I’ve always wanted: marriage, children and a yellow Maserati”. She was vivaciously attractive and sociable, and drew around her a circle of devoted and generous friends. But at times she was prone to approach them from positions of almost total self-absorption, which probably contributed to a dearth of long-term partners in her life. Although she did share her house with a man for one or two sustained periods, it was never with quite the same attachment as to her several Burmese cats.

This wonderful photo of Sonnabend I found in the Telegraph; it is widely reproduced.

Yolanda Sonnabend: she was awarded the Garrick/Milne Prize for theatrical portraiture Photo: ABBIE TRAYLER-SMITH

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