French artists during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870)

I have written elsewhere about:

These combined calamities seared the minds of a generation of Frenchmen and marked a watershed in the lives and careers of many of France’s most famous writers, artists and composers. Considering who and how and why is like taking a snapshot of an artistic generation, an X-ray of a nation’s soul:

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) Best-selling author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Hugo had spent the Second Empire period (1852-70) in exile in Jersey. Now he returned to be elected a member of the National Assembly, make impassioned speeches, write windy pamphlets and publish bombastic poems. When the Commune was declared, he wisely went back into exile (in Brussels) where he wrote the moving poem, Sur une barricade, on June 11, 1871.

Honoré Daumier (1808-79) Satirical cartoonist under the Second Empire, Daumier stayed in Paris throughout the siege and continued to publish bitter and highly political images. He was drafted onto Courbet’s Federation of Artists in September 1870, then onto the Commune’s Committee of Artists in April 1871, though never a Communard.

Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) An established poet and critic, Gautier made his way back to Paris upon hearing of the Prussian advance on the capital. He remained with his family there throughout the invasion and the aftermath of the Commune.

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (1819-77) A notorious radical and freethinker, Courbet was the hugely influential ‘Father of Realism’ in Art in France. He established a Federation of Artists when the Empire fell, and went on to set up a Committee of Artists under the Commune. Although he managed to save Paris’ art museums from looting mobs, Courbet was a moving force behind demolishing the Vendôme Column in the square of the same name. Once the Commune was crushed, Courbet was sentenced in September 1871 to six months in prison and a fine of 500 francs. When it was proposed to recreate the Vendôme Column Courbet was condemned to pay the exorbitant costs. He fled to Switzerland where he continued to paint, and died of liver disease just as the cost of the re-erection was settled as 323,091 francs. Surprisingly, he didn’t leave any paintings or sketches of the war or Commune.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-80) The most famous literary novelist of his day, during the Franco-Prussian War Flaubert’s home was occupied by Prussian soldiers and he suffered a nervous breakdown.

Maxime du Camp (1822–1894) Literary journalist and travel writer, du Camp was elected a member of the French Academy in 1880 mainly due to his history of the Commune, Les Convulsions de Paris (1878–1880).

César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck (1822–1890) Organist and composer, Franck and his family suffered during the siege and Commune. Afterwards he was a leader of the movement to create a truly French art, an Ars Gallica which explains the tone of much of his music. In part this was a patriotic reaction against the heaviness of the music of the invader.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) At the outbreak of war the painter Pissarro moved his family to Norwood, then a village on the southern edge of London. His early impressionist style did not do well but he met the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in London, who helped sell his art for the rest of his life. Durand-Ruel put him in touch with Monet, who was also in London during this period.

(In the spring of 2015 the National Gallery put on a blockbuster exhibition of Impressionist art as a tribute to Paul Durand-Ruel – the man who invented Impressionism.)

Monet and Pissarro both went to see the work of British landscape artists John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, which confirmed their belief that their style of open air painting gave the truest depiction of light and atmosphere, an effect that couldn’t be achieved in the studio alone.

During his stay Pissarro painted scenes at Sydenham and Norwood at a time when they were semi-rural and had only just been connected to London by railways. Twelve oil paintings date from his stay including The Avenue, Sydenham (now in the London National Gallery), Norwood Under the Snow, and Lordship Lane Station.

Pissarro is often credited with inventing Impressionism – the rough use of paint to capture plein air affects. He had produced some 1,500 paintings over the preceding 20 years, works which amounted to documentary evidence of the birth of Impressionism. But, tragically, when he returned to France after the Commune, Pissarro discovered that out of this huge oeuvre, only 40 had survived! The rest had been damaged or destroyed by the soldiers, who used them, among other things, as door mats or to wipe their boots with.

Back in Paris Pissarro got back in contact with the other artists of his generation – Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Degas – and helped establish a collective called the ‘Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs’. In 1874 Pissarro was the driving force behind the group’s first Exhibition, at which the critics ridiculed them for their ‘impressionism’ – and the name stuck.

Edouard Manet (1832-83) Godfather of the Impressionists, the thirty-eight-year-old Manet was in Paris during the Prussian siege and conscripted to be a member of the National Guard. As soon as the siege ended (in January 1871) he left town. In his absence his friends added his name to the ‘Fédération des artistes’ of the Paris Commune but he stayed away from Paris until after the semaine sanglante. He published some harrowing sketches of scenes from the war.

Edgar Dégas (1834–1917) At the outbreak of the War Dégas enlisted in the National Guard, where his duties left him little time for painting.

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) The organist and composer Saint-Saëns was relieved from fighting duty as a favourite of a relative of the Emperor Napoleon III. He fled to London when the Commune took power, as his fame and Society connections made him a possible target. Later that year he co-founded with Romain Bussine the ‘Société Nationale de Musique’ to promote a new and specifically French music. After the fall of the Commune, the Society premiered works by Fauré, César Franck, Édouard Lalo and Saint-Saëns himself, who became a powerful figure in shaping the future of French music.

Émile Zola (1840-92) Father of literary Realism, Zola published his only historical novel, Le Debacle, about the war, in 1892.

François-Auguste-René Rodin (1840–1917) When the war started Rodin was called up for the National Guard but he was soon released due to his near-sightedness. At the time he was working as a decorative sculptor and, as work dwindled due to the war, he took up an offer of work in Belgium where he lived for the next six years. None of his work refers directly to either the war or Commune.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) On the outbreak of the war Monet and his friend Pissarro fled to England. While there he studied the work of Constable and Turner and met the art dealer Durand-Ruel, who was to become one of the great champions of the Impressionists.

After the Commune had been suppressed (May 1871) Monet went to Holland for a spell, and then returned to France at the end of the year, settling in Argenteuil, a village on the Seine near Paris. The next year he painted Impression, Sunrise (depicting Le Havre) which was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. When critics used the title to deride him for his ‘impressionism’, he and his colleagues adopted the term as the name for their movement.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) During the Commune some Communards found Renoir painting on the banks of the River Seine, thought he was a spy and were about to throw him into the river when one of the most bloodthirsty leaders of the Commune, Raoul Rigault, recognized Renoir as the man who had protected him on an earlier occasion. Rigault intervened and vouched for him. By this slender thread, Renoir was saved to go on to become one of the giants of Impressionism.

Paul Verlaine (1844-96) At the proclamation of the Third Republic the poet Verlaine joined the 160th battalion of the Garde Nationale, turning Communard on 18 March 1871. He became Head of the Press Bureau of the Central Committee of the Paris Commune. He escaped the deadly street fighting and went into hiding in the Pas-de-Calais. Verlaine returned to Paris in August 1871 and, in September, received the first letter from Arthur Rimbaud with whom he was to have his passionate and ill-fated affair.

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845–1924) On the outbreak of war Fauré volunteered for military service and saw action at Le Bourget, Champigny and Créteil, for which he was awarded a Croix de Guerre. During the Commune Fauré escaped to Rambouillet where one of his brothers lived, and then travelled to Switzerland, where he took up a teaching post. Though some of his colleagues – including Saint-Saëns, Gounod and Franck – produced elegies and patriotic odes affected by the events, Fauré’s compositions from this period don’t overtly reflect the conflict. However, according to his biographer, his music does acquire ‘a new sombreness, a dark-hued sense of tragedy…evident mainly in his songs of this period including L’Absent, Seule! and La Chanson du pêcheur.’

Guy de Maupassant (1850-93) On the outbreak of war, 19-year-old Maupassant abandoned his law studies to volunteer for the army. He served first as a private in the field, and was later transferred through his father’s intervention to the quartermaster corps. Many of the short stories he published throughout the 1880s describe brutal or haunting episodes in the war.

The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune (1870-71) by Alistair Horne makes a perfect companion to Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War (see my review of the latter). Both were published in the early 1960s and so are themselves historical artifacts, belonging to an old-fashioned school of history, more interested in good storytelling, drama and character than their modern, more professional equivalents.

And Alistair takes over where Michael left off: Michael goes into great and enlightening detail about every military encounter of the war with useful maps of every battle – and ends with the signing of peace; Alistair recaps the same military events, but from the point of view of the embattled government in Paris, going into much greater detail of the Prussian siege with numerous eyewitness accounts and continuing the story into the blood-curdling details of the Commune and civil war.

The background Alistair sets the scene with a luxurious description of the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1867, taken as the high point of the reign of the Emperor Louis-Napoleon. But the Emperor’s regime was crumbling, faced with radical criticism from inside and the failure of foreign adventures abroad. The Emperor was increasingly unwell and under the influence of his unbending Spanish wife.

The pretext Thus, when an opportunity presented itself out of the blue in July 1870 to assert France’s power – the ‘insulting’ episode of the Hohenzollern candidature and the Ems telegram – Napoleon seized it to declare war on Prussia. Europe was incredulous: over a matter of trivial protocol one of the most shambolic regimes in Europe went marching to war against one of the most efficient and well-organised nations the world had ever seen.

The Siege of Paris After crushing one of France’s two armies at Sedan (and capturing the sick and depressed Emperor) and bottling the other one up in the fortress city of Metz, the Prussian armies encircled Paris and began the siege on 19 September 1870. 130 punishing days later, after all hope had been lost, all the food eaten, and all the French armies raised in the provinces to help Paris had been comprehensively defeated, the city authorities finally capitulated on January 28 1871. On February 26 a preliminary peace treaty was signed. The Prussian army was allowed to march through the defeated and humiliated city between 1st and 3rd of March. Then they left – or more accurately, withdrew their forces to the east of Paris while beginning the deployment of troops back to the Fatherland. And now the real trouble began…

The Third Republic Louis-Napoleon’s regime had collapsed as soon as news of his defeat and capture at Sedan had reached Paris, back in early September. The Empress and Court had fled abroad; the Second Empire was over. Within days a new republican regime declared itself – France’s Third Republic – and nominated a new President, General Louis Trochu. This pessimistic man – Alistair calls him the Hamlet of the siege – organised several futile attempts to break out before resigning himself to the inevitable defeat.

Once the peace was signed and the siege ended, Trochu resigned and elections led to the formation of a new republican government, led by veteran statesman Adolphe Thiers. But before the 1 March Prussian march-through – on February 26th to be exact – some of the mutinous National Guards seized cannons from around the city and wheeled them to the working class stronghold of Montmartre, an act of military disobedience and political rebellion.

The National Guard The peace treaty had left Paris with just one division of the regular French army. But during the siege the authorities, in their unwisdom, had created a National Guard, arming an estimated 400,000 men. These untrained, poorly led, frequently drunk working men had shown consistent cowardice in the handful of sorties against the Prussians they had attempted during the siege. If they didn’t like an order, they disobeyed it. If they didn’t like a commander, they voted in a new one. If they really didn’t like a commander, they shot him. Now they were to show themselves masters of shooting other Frenchmen…

Thiers, realising he couldn’t afford to leave radicals in possession of so much artillery, sent detachments of regular Army troops to seize the canon. But this attempt broke down, regular army units went over to the Reds and two generals were seized by the mob and executed. An inflamed mob marched on the Hotel de Ville and Thiers and his cabinet were forced to flee out the back door and high tail it to Versailles. In their absence, out of the power conflicts between various red groups and leaders, a Commune of Paris was constituted.

Interpreting It’s at this point that contemporary and later interpretations begin to vary, and quite widely. For those on the political left – including Karl Marx who supported the Commune, sent agents of his Communist International  to help it and wrote a definitive pamphlet about it – the Commune represented the first genuine effort in human history to establish a communist proletarian regime – and was a good thing. To conservatives, the Communards – as they became known – were drunken terrorists. For a historian like Richard Cobb (who writes the preface to the Penguin edition of this book) the Commune was yet another example of Paris’s arrogant and dictatorial attitude to the rest of France.

Horne relates the events in a clear and compelling fashion. If he has a line or interpretation, it’s that the uprising and then the chaotic administration of the Commune reflected a mood of hysterical frustration resulting from Paris’s siege and humiliating defeat. Most of the National Guardsmen had never got the opportunity to fight the Prussians but were armed to the teeth. And so they took out their pent-up aggression on their own political masters. On his interpretation, the entire sorry sequence of events with all its political rhetoric, is simply a psychotic episode, an example of the madness of crowds. And he has compelling eyewitness accounts which support this theory, showing how the blood lust was initially whipped up before spreading out of the control of any one political leader or faction.

Gotterdammerung While the newly formed Commune found its feet, issued reams of irrelevant proclamations and argued among itself about what to do next, Thiers mustered all the forces of the regular French Army and commenced a second siege of Paris. (The poor inhabitants had to endure two sieges in less than 6 months.) Just like the Prussians, Thiers eventually resorted to bombarding the capital, doing more damage than the Prussians ever did and with equally as little effect. Finally – on May 21 – the Versailles forces broke through one of the gates in the Paris wall and there began two weeks of house-to-house fighting more reminiscent of Stalingrad than the home of the Folies Bergeres (which had been established just the year before, in 1869).

The killing Now it was under direct attack, the Commune began in a chaotic fashion to execute some of the hostages it held. This immediately sparked outrage among the bourgeoisie and objective observers, but quickly paled into insignificance next to the horrific reprisals carried out by the conquering Versailles forces. Like the army of some African dictatorship the French Army – egged on by the Prussians – turned out to have a real flare for lining hundreds, then thousands of their own countrymen, women and children up against the nearest wall and executing them. Eye witnesses testify to a policy of bloodthirsty massacring. During what became known as the semaine sanglante some 25,000 Parisians were killed! In one week! By their fellow Frenchmen! An order of magnitude greater than the 2,500 or so executed during the 15 months of the notorious Terror of the Great Revolution of 1794. As the avenging French Army swept east into the working class bastions of Belleville the massacring reached Pol Pot or Nazi heights.

The burning And the fires. The fires started by the attackers’ artillery were soon eclipsed by a deliberate scorched earth policy espoused by some of the Commune’s leaders. Women were seen everywhere throwing packets of petroleum into houses to burn them – and acquired the name of petrolleuses. Lunatic Commune leaders deliberately set fire to the Hotel de Ville, the Tuileries Palace and innumerable other buildings. A huge pyre was built inside Notre Dame which was only saved at the last minute because hundreds of Commune injured were sheltering in a hospital next door. The Louvre was only saved by a change of prevailing wind. The French, the French themselves, tried to burn Paris to the ground.

The bitter end Eventually, even the most reactionary newspapers and commentators called for an end to the bloodshed. Eventually the last barricades in the working class Belleville neighbourhood were stormed and the last resisters shot on the spot. Although criminal trials were to continue for years, the fighting ended on the evening of May 28, and a sudden rainstorm, after weeks of drought, did more to douse the flames than the characteristically shambolic Paris fire brigade ever could.

Repercussions

  • France ceased to be top dog: from the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to Napoleon – for some 150 years – France’s army had been feared – and had regularly wreaked havoc – throughout Europe. Now the nations of Europe looked nervously to the newly unified Germany as the emerging European superpower.
  • And yet the conflict between the old superpower and the new one hadn’t really been settled. Although the peace held for 43 years (not bad, all things considered), contemporaries felt the tension; things hadn’t been resolved; France’s injured pride smouldered; German High Command lived in permanent fear of an attack and made plans for a pre-emptive strike, plans they were to put into effect in August 1914…
  • Within France the tensions unleashed during the Commune dogged national politics for at least a century. Communist and Socialist forces remained strong throughout the Second Republic, and were to play a key role in dividing and emasculating France in the lead up to WWII. Even les evenements of 1968 looked back to the Commune for inspiration (and were just as fatuously unsuccessful).
  • And Russia. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was born a few months before the Franco-Prussian War began. He wrote and thought extensively about the Commune – the largest-scale attempt by proletarian Red forces to overthrow a government and create a new society which had occurred in world history. And he drew two key conclusions: the Commune failed due to lack of a unified leadership – and because of its failure to act immediately and with overwhelming force to quell its enemies. These were mistakes he and Trotsky were not to make 46 years later.

The biggest legacy of the Commune was to inspire the strategy of the Bolsheviks who – in the context of another Franco-Prussian War (the ‘Great’ War) – carried through the first successful communist revolution anywhere, who acted with a strong centralised leadership and with overwhelming and unrelenting force (aka Terror) against all their opponents.

French military deaths squads - rubbish at fighting Germans, excellent at executing their unarmed compatriots

French military deaths squads – rubbish at fighting Germans, excellent at executing their unarmed compatriots


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The Franco-Prussian War by Sir Michael Howard (1961)

Distinguished military historian Sir Michael Eliot Howard, OM, CH, CBE, MC, FBA published his definitive history of the Franco-Prussian War in 1961. In the foreword he apologises for adding to the enormous literature on the subject. This is ironic since nowadays it’s quite hard to find books about this conflict, compared with, say, the endless flood of books about the two world wars. While many of the other texts he refers to seem to have disappeared, his has emerged as the best one-volume history, even fifty years after publication.

Howard sets the tone on page 57:

Thus by a tragic combination of ill-luck, stupidity and ignorance France blundered into war with the greatest military power that Europe had yet seen, in a bad cause, with her army unready and without allies.

Background Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, engineered wars with Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866) in order to unify as many German statelets as possible under Prussian leadership. Tension had been growing for some time between Prussia and France and Bismarck, convinced war was inevitable anyway, seized the opportunity provided by a squabble about the vacant crown of Spain to trick France into becoming the aggressor. The Spanish government had invited a German prince to become king of Spain; this was the so-called ‘Hohenzollern candidature‘. The French government of Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the famous French general and emperor Napoleon I) protested. Bismarck made the German prince back down, but then engineered a situation where France felt so insulted at the way she had been treated that Napoleon III – his regime shaky and counting on the boost a quick victory would bring him – declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870.

Bad idea. The Prussians had been busy harnessing their rapid mid-century industrial development to an efficient military machine; they were ready. They had a strategic plan to use their railways to carry troops to the border, they had better-designed artillery, they had been grooming an élite General Staff capable of providing everything necessary for big campaigns – food, uniforms, ammunition – their mobilisation plans were in place.

French military organisation was the opposite in every respect: chaotic, lacking guns and ammunition and uniforms, with no defined central authority, topped off with a lamentably poor standard of generalship.

The War – Part One Having declared war the French mobilised and  invaded Prussian territory at Saarbrucken.  After an initial victory they were halted, repelled and from that point never stopped retreating. Outside the fortress of Metz the Prussians divided the French armies: General Bazaine’s army was bottled up inside Metz for what turned into a two-month long siege, while General MacMahon’s army found itself pushed back towards the Belgium border until it was comprehensively defeated in the hills north of the town of Sedan. The Emperor Napoleon III was himself taken prisoner. In France the name ‘Sedan’ became synonymous with national humiliation for a generation.

Napoleon III went into exile in England, settling in Camden Place, Chislehurst (which can still be visited today) where he died in 1873. His last words were about Sedan.

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The War – Part Two The Prussians expected the war to end with these military victories. But although the Imperial administration of Napoleon collapsed when he ran away, a new administration arose in Paris, declared itself the Third Republic, and pledged to continue the fight. The Prussians had to invade a lot more of northern France, surround and besiege Paris, and fight big battles around Orleans and to the east in the Vosges to secure their victory. December was a month of catastrophes for both armies which continued attacking and retreating through deep snow. The suffering was immense.

The End One of the most interesting parts of the book is how long it took to end the war. Howard sheds fascinating light on how difficult it was for the various conflicting elements on both sides to line up to any kind of agreement, with extremists in both countries calling for a continuation of guerre a l’outrance or to ‘the bitter end’. In fact, there had to be a succession of temporary agreements starting with negotiations in January and passing through various vicissitudes until the final Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 10 May 1871.

Consequences

  • All Europe observed France’s fall from top military force in Europe, replaced by Prussia.
  • The remaining southern German statelets now joined the North German Confederation which Bismarck had set up, creating for the first time a unified German state, under the rule of Kaiser William. Bismarck arranged for it to be called not just a country, but the German Empire or Reich and for a reluctant King William to be crowned emperor – or Kaiser – Wilhelm, on January 18, in the conquered Palace of Versailles.
  • Germany annexed from France the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, thus creating an enduring cause of resentment among the French.
  • France was left humiliated and demoralised. The psychological impact lasted a generation.
  • Howard identifies the biggest consequence as the widespread realisation that small professional armies were a thing of the past; the future belonged to states which could mobilise entire nations for war, harnessing their industrial strength, educated classes, the practical intelligence required for planning and logistics. All the nations of Europe saw and learned this lesson. The Treaty of Frankfurt led to 43 years of peace in Europe, but it was an uneasy peace haunted by the new ways of warfare, and kept in uneasy balance only by the clever diplomacy of Bismarck. After the next Kaiser, Wilhelm II, sacked the ageing Bismarck in 1890, he inaugurated a more reckless and aggressive German foreign policy which was to lead to disaster 24 years later (the First World War).

The book At 450 pages in my old, library, hardback copy, this is a long, meaty, thorough and detailed account. Howard gives very good descriptions of individual battles, and the hundred and fifty pages which describe the French army’s fighting retreat from Metz until it is annihilated at Sedan have a nightmareish quality, a continual chase which erupted into messy and bloody battles at a score of locations across eastern France before the final debacle.

He adds to these detailed accounts a sparing selection of judicious and interesting reflections. For me the most striking learning was the way the technology of primitive machine guns and breech loading rifles had changed the nature of battle from everything which preceded it. Cavalry was rendered obsolete; every use of cavalry in the war was a pointless bloodbath. The power of the new guns meant that neat advancing lines of infantry were mown down in massacres. Clever generals (ie the Germans) realised they had to delegate authority down to unit officers to advance in ragged sections, using initiative and cover. It seems barely conceivable that these lessons were forgotten by the time the Great War broke out 24 years later, and had to be heartbreakingly relearned at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

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Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s @ the Barbican

9 November 2012

To the Barbican to see the ‘Everything Was Moving‘ exhibition.

Instead of uplifting shots of the swinging 60s we’ve all heard about, this show focuses on 12 photographers from around the world whose pics show in pitiless detail the exploitation, fear and the violence of our world 50 years ago. I chatted to another visitor who described it as ‘hard core’. Only visit if you’re feeling pretty tough-minded. The exhibition continues until 13 January 2013.

The ground floor is dominated by black and white photos of racism in apartheid South Africa and the American deep South.

1. Ernest Cole (1940-90) was a black South African who managed to evade the apartheid laws to get trained as a photographer and take wideranging photos of the black experience. Forced into exile in 1967 he published  his photos in a harrowing book, House of Bondage, and died in poverty.

Black and white close-up photo of two black men's hands handcuffed together

Ernest Cole (1940 – 1990) Handcuffed blacks were arrested for being in white area illegally. From House of Bondage Period: 1960-1966 © The Ernest Cole Family Trust Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden

2. David Goldblatt (b.1930) a white South African who has investigated his strange country through photographs for fifty years. His candid pics of the white community all too often reveal the brutality and crudeness of the Afrikaans ruling class.

Black and white photo of four white young women on stage at a beauty pageant

David Goldblatt. Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition. 1979-1980. Courtesy of the photographer and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. © Copyright 2012 David Goldblatt

3. Bruce Davidson (b.1933) an American and member of the famous Magnum company. In 1961 he joined the Freedom Riders making a terrifying journey by bus from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson Mississippi, the start of a 4-year project to document the Civil Rights movement and portrayed in his book, Time of Change.

Black and white photo of a black woman and a white woman eating in a 1960s American diner

Bruce Davidson (b. 1933) Black Americans, New York City. From the series ‘New York (Life)’ From New York, 1961-65 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

4. William Eggleston (b.1939) another white American, born in Memphis and so who grew up in the troubled South. He puzzled critics with his lack of references to the social turmoil of the Civil Rights movement all around him, preferring to take oblique and elliptical images, as part of his “war on the obvious”. I liked his photos. They capture for me that sense of alienation and gritty oddness which I like in the independent American movies of the early 70s.

Photos by William Eggleston on Google Images

5. Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) Mexican and the only woman in the exhibition, Graciela identified strongly with the native peoples of Mexico who she photographed against the backdrop of the vast desert, and with the urban poor whose grim but often surreal lives she documented.

Black and white photo of a Mexican woman wearing a bizarre hat made of lizards

Graciela Iturbide. Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitan 1979 © Graciela Iturbide

6. Boris Mikhailov (b.1938) lived and worked in Kharkov at the height of Soviet domination of the Ukraine. So repressive was the regime that Mikhailov lost his job as an engineer when the KGB found photos of his naked wife at their flat. The exhibition shows disturbing multi-image compositions from a series called ‘Yesterday’s Sandwich/Superimpositions’, deformed images of a society deformed by repression and fear and crushing poverty, often dwelling on the naked human image which was so feared and banned by the authorities.

Colour photo of a couple in a field superimposed over faces in a crowd

Boris Mikhailov. Yesterday’s Sandwich / Superimpositions, Late 1960s – late 1970s. Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin © Boris Mikhailov, DACS 2012

7. Shomei Tomatsu (b.1930) the godfather of Japanese photography, Shomei became obsessed with America’s military occupation of Japan following the Second World War and was drawn to the army bases on Okinawa in the 1960s, where the B52s took off to bomb Vietnam. That said, tut there are plenty of quirky b&w photos of Japanese street scenes, too.

Black and white photo of a Japanese woman's head leaning over a table, her face hidden by her long black hair, as she shouts or screams

Shomei Tomatsu. Coca-cola, Tokyo, 1969 © Shomei Tomatsu Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery and Nagoya City Art Museum

8. Larry Burrows (1926-71) a white American, apparently the finest photographer to cover the Vietnam war, he died when a helicopter he was travelling in was shot down over Laos.

Colour photo of an exhuasted looking American soldier wrapped in a brown blanket

Larry Burrows. Khe Sanh, April 1968 © 2002 Larry Burrows Collection

9. Li Zhensheng (b.1940) took photos for a regional newspaper during China’s disastrous Cultural revolution, 1966-76. After completing his official assignments he always took a few extra ‘arty’ pics, experimenting with point of view, especially of the vast rallies of the time. At immense risk he buried these negative negatives under the floorboards to be discovered later by his family, thus creating the only complete visual record of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Three black and white photos overlapping to give a panoramic view of an enormous political rally in China

Li Zhensheng. Several hundred thousand Red Guards attend a “Learning and Applying Mao Zedong Thought” rally in Red Guard Square (formerly People’s Stadium), Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 13 September 1966 © Li Zhensheng. Courtesy Contact Press Images

10. Malick Sidibe (b.1935) took photos in his studio of the unofficial youth culture which flourished underground in Mali under the severe dictatorship of Moussa Traore, who ruled until 1992. Wearing a miniskirt could get you sent to a re-education camp, so Sidibe’s pics of kids determined to have a good time to the music of the Beatles, Stones and James Brown are all the more edgy and exuberant. And bizarre.

Black and white photo of a hip young black man wearing big sunglasses in a photographer's studio

Malick Sidibé. A Yé-yé posing,1963 © Malick Sidibé. Courtesy Fifty One Fine Art Photography, Antwerp

11. Raghubir Singh (1942-99) used colour as a deliberate counter to the monochromatic angst of fashionable American photographers like Diane Arbus. He’s quoted as saying: “The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt linked to death – from which black is inseparable. The fundamental condition of India, however, is the cycle of rebirth, in which colour is a deep inner source.” Hmm. Discuss. His images are certainly highly coloured and scrappily composed, busy, ad hoc, chaotic, like teeming India herself. Included on the Google Images page I link to is a famous image of a red car, shot from the side, probably his most famous image but uncharacteristically composed, as the others show.

Colour photo of a bright red car, from the side, with a poor Indian man squatting against it

Raghubir Singh (1942-1999) Pilgrim and Ambassador, Prayag, Uttar Pradesh, 1977 © 2012 Succession Raghubir Singh

12. Sigmar Polke (1941-2010), a German. Travelling the hippy route to Afghanistan Sigmar stopped to photograph a brutal village sport, a fight between two dogs and a bear. Polke deliberately spoilt the photos in the development stage, letting the colours run to create a visionary sequence, frayed images of chaotic conflict which seemed to foreshadow the ruinous invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army in 1979.  Later in his career Polke became a painter specialising in collage and superimposition.

Damaged sepia photo of a dog and a bear fighting in front of a small crowd of Afghan peasants

Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) Der Bärenkampf (The Bear Fight), 1974 Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart © The Estate of Sigmar Polke, Cologne, DACS 2012

The above sequence, listing these fascinating and inspiring photographers, makes the show seem much more varied and sparky than it actually is. The impact of image after image after image of the poverty, violence and exploitation undergone by blacks in South Africa or 1960s America have a battering affect on the soul, which is compounded by the atrocities of Maoist China and the explicit images of war and despair in Vietnam. If you go, expect to be upset and distressed by what you see.

Guardian review of ‘Everything Was Moving’

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