The Korean War by Max Hastings (1987)

This book

This account of the Korean War (1950-53) is thirty years old this year, and so dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, although there are several shorter accounts on the market, this seems to be the only lengthy, in-depth, narrative history of the Korean War in print – an indication of the general lack of interest in the war, both at the time and since (compare and contrast the number of books which come out every year about WW2 or Vietnam).

Why the neglect? The Korean War lacked the scale of the Second World War, so only a relatively small number of soldiers’ families were involved. Around 100,000 British troops were posted to Korea in total, but the British population was more concerned with its own problems – ongoing food rationing, a general election – or the Soviet threat on the continent of Europe. Who cared whether Korea was partitioned along this line or that line?

a) The war was on the other side of the world and
b) After the dramatic reverses of the first year of the conflict, the latter two years dwindled down to a grinding stalemate, demoralising and inglorious. In the end there was no Allied victory (as in WW2), merely a ceasefire which created a border not very much different from the pre-war line. So it turned out to have been a boring, faraway war which achieved nothing.

Background to the partition of Korea

A newcomer to the subject might ask, Why was Korea partitioned between north and south at the 38th parallel in the first place?

To go back a bit, Japan had interfered in Korea’s affairs since the late 19th century. In 1905 Japan made Korea a protectorate; in 1907 the Japanese took control of Korean domestic affairs and disbanded their army; and in 1910 Japan formally annexed Korea.

In the following decades Japan forced some 100,000 Koreans to join the Imperial Japanese Army, and up to 200,000 Korean women were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese soldiers in Korea and Japanese-occupied China.

Then in 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria, the huge block of territory between northern China and Russia, and in 1937 attacked the rest of the coastal regions of China (as well as into Indochina, Malaya, Burma and so on). Korea was the earliest conquest of Japan’s Far Eastern empire.

Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions  and wholesale imprisonment were commonplace, and all dissent forbidden. (p.16)

When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Stalin was careful to remain at peace with Japan. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Japanese did not declare war on Russia or attack in Siberia, which they could easily have done from their base in Manchuria. Stalin, for his part, maintained Russian neutrality even after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941 thus provoking war with America, and Japan and Russia remained at peace right up to the closing days of the war.

In February 1945, at the Yalta conference, Stalin promised Roosevelt and Churchill that he would enter the war against Japan but he delayed till the last minute. (This, among other things, meant that the Japanese government held out the vain hope right into August 1945 that ‘neutral’ Russia would somehow stand up for them and negotiate good surrender terms with the Allies – a delusion.) So Stalin’s Soviet Union only abandoned its policy of neutrality and declared war on Japan on 9 August 1945. A huge Soviet army crossed the border from Siberia into Japanese-occupied Manchuria and swept south.

A glance at the map shows that the southern border of Manchuria is mostly sea, the Sea of Japan to the east and the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula, which dangles down from the Chinese mainland like an Asian Scandinavia. So, with the goal of attacking the Japanese wherever they found them, it was natural that the invading Soviet army crossed the Chinese-Korea border (formed by the Yalu river) and headed south into the peninsula, defeating Japanese forces as they went.

‘Suddenly’ the Americans who, according to Hastings hadn’t really considered the strategic significance of Korea, realised they didn’t want Stalin to occupy the entire peninsula create a communist stronghold so close to soon-to-be-defeated Japan. So the Americans requested Stalin to halt his forces and informed him that American forces would invade Korea from the south.

Two American officers were put in charge of figuring out where the dividing line should be between the uneasy allies. Poring over a map, they reached the ‘hasty’ decision that the 38th parallel was a handy dividing line: it more or less divided the country in two, with the capital Seoul, the best agriculture and industry, and most of the population, to the south i.e. in the American sector.

President Roosevelt duly contacted Stalin with the request that he stop his forces at the 38th parallel and, to the Americans’ surprise, Stalin readily agreed. Stalin didn’t want to risk confrontation with the ally he was working so closely with in Europe, and was also very aware of the atom bombs the Americans had just dropped on Japan. Yeah, sure, you can keep half of Korea.

(There is a nice irony here, that the Americans from Roosevelt down were vehement opponents of the European empires, and actively tried to sabotage the return to European imperial rule of Burma, Malaya or Indochina. But quite quickly they found themselves dragged into drawing precisely the kind of arbitrary lines and borders which they had criticised the Europeans for making in Africa and the Middle East. The existence of separate states of North and South Korea and the fates, the life chances and premature deaths of tens of millions of Koreans, were determined by this hurried decision made in the last gasp of the Second World War.)

North and South Korea

So Stalin stopped his troops at the 38th parallel, when he could easily have pressed on and seized the entire peninsula. American forces landed at Incheon on September 8 and liberated southern Korea from their Japanese occupiers. In time both countries put their own regimes in place in their sector, the Soviets basing their government in the northern city of Pyongyang, the Americans in the traditional capital, Seoul, permanently crystallising the distinction between communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea.

While the Russians proceeded with their standard process of step-by-step managing the local communists into government and then picking off the opposition one by one to create a mini Stalinist state, Hastings describes the Americans as making a number of important mistakes in the South.

For a start, the Americans found the native Koreans completely unused to governing their own country. Thus, against their intentions, in the early days they ended up being forced to work closely with the now-defeated Japanese authorities, for the simple reason that the Japs had the experienced men in place to carry on carrying out the function of the state. Only slowly were these replaced by native Koreans, and then the Americans had the devil of a time selecting which of the many groups of clamouring Korean politicians to choose to run things.

As the threat from Soviet communism became more palpable into 1946, the Americans found themselves setting up a government run by the smooth-talking, right-wing émigré Syngman Rhee. Hastings recounts how left-of-centre Korean groups were too quickly marginalised because of the taint of communism and how the Americans, despite their best intentions, found themselves installing Rhee, and then coming to regret the choice of such a corrupt, brutal figure. Rhee ended up being president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960 and was an early example of the kind of brutal, repressive and corrupt right-wing regime which the Americans would find themselves supporting again and again throughout the Cold War.

This had the result of fuelling left-wing and communist agitation against his government, which led to a spiral of repression, and left many Americans feeling ambivalent and uneasy in their support for Rhee. This was epitomised by a reluctance to arm his air force, artillery and infantry with more than a token minimum of equipment, since there was good evidence that arms were mainly used against his own civilian population.

Meanwhile, throughout the late 1940s North Korea kept up a steady stream of propaganda broadcasts to the south, designed to appeal to all Korean patriots, calling for the reunification of the country, as well as predictable calls for the overthrow of Rhee and his unlikeable clique. In the spring of 1950 this rhetoric became steadily more heated and experts in the U.S. State Department warned of the growing threat of some kind of attack by the North on the South. The American government, under President Harry Truman, had its hands full coping with crises in the more obvious cockpit of the Cold War, Europe, beset by a sequence of crises including the Berlin Airlift from June 1948 to May 1949, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and so on.

The Korean War

1. The North invades Thus it came as a complete surprise to the world when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean army invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The United Nations immediately voted it an illegal act and sent forces to stop the advance. These were at first mostly American, but in time came to consist of a coalition including other Western countries and eventually 20 nations from round the world. But before this could be organised, the North Koreans succeeded in storming through the south, pushing the under-equipped demoralised Republic of Korea’s army back until it and its American support were, by September 1950, pinned into a pocket in the south-east of the peninsula, the Pusan area.

2. Landing at Inchon Not only did the Americans reinforce their troops who fought bravely to hold the line at Pusan but General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific War, who had been ruling post-war Japan as American Vice-Consul, now conceived his last great strategic coup, which was to organise a massive American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September 1950, on the coast near Seoul, thus attacking the North Koreans in their rear, and threatening their supply lines.

The Americans broke out of the Pusan pocket and drove north, pushing back the demoralised and exhausted North Koreans, back across the 38th parallel and further north. At this point Hastings’ account dwells on the massive disagreements within the American administration on whether or not the Allies should halt at the parallel or press on to take the entire peninsula. This latter view prevailed and the American, ROK and other UN national forces (British and Commonwealth as well as a large contingent from Turkey) pressed north.

3. China enters the war Allied forces had come within sight of the Yalu river which forms the border between Korea and China when they were horrified to learn that a vast contingent of the People’s Republic of China had crossed the border and was attacking along the line. Briefly, sheer weight of numbers overran Allied positions, creating confusion and panic, and it is chastening to read accounts of Allied troops dropping their guns and equipment and running in panic fear. The Chinese routed the Allies, pushing them relentlessly southwards back towards the 38th parallel.

Hastings excels, in this book as in his later one about the War in the Pacific, at combining at least three levels of analysis:

  • Carefully chosen eye witness accounts (from letters, diaries and reports made at the time along with highlights of the scores of interviews with veterans which he conducts for each book).
  • Detailed descriptions, with maps, of specific battles and the broader military situation.
  • But what I enjoyed most is Hasting’s ability to pull out of this narrow focus to explain in detail the strategic and geopolitical issues behind the war. Thus there is a lot of analysis throughout the book of the conflicting aims and strategies of the Allies, and particularly within the US administration and armed forces. It is riveting to read how war aims a) can be so contradictory and fiercely debated within a set of allies b) change over time according to all sorts of pressures, like domestic opposition, political attacks from opponents, looming elections, threats elsewhere.

4. Shall we bomb China? The largest issue raised by the Chinese victories and our troops’ humiliating defeats was whether to broaden the war to attack China itself i.e. why only fight the Chinese forces inside Korea, why not bomb mainland China, as we did Germany and Japan? 1. The scattered terrain of hilly Korea, lacking main roads and railways, and the methodology of the communists, moving across country, made it difficult to attack enemy formations in Korea. 2. All their supplies were coming from factories in China, and Chinese MiG jets were flying from airfields in China – why not attack those?

The highpoint of this point of view, strongly espoused by senior figures in the US army and air force, was MacArthur’s request that the Allies use the atom bomb against Chinese forces not only in Korea, but against Chinese cities. The army drew up a list of twenty possible targets. Imagine!

Within Truman’s own cabinet there were – as always – hawks and doves, with some supporting broadening the war, others strongly against. In the event, Truman took the cautious line, and posterity has to agree. If both sides, by tacit consent, limited their confrontation to within the peninsula, it was containable and manageable. In February 1950 Russia and China had signed a defensive alliance committing each to go to war if the other party was attacked, so if the UN forces had bombed Chinese cities, would Russia have been forced to come to China’s defense? Would it have triggered World War III? Was it worth taking the risk?

Hastings brings out how US hawks saw the conflict in terms of the global Cold War against communism. The gruesome way Soviet-backed regimes were established across Europe and the victory of Mao Zedong’s communists in China in 1949, gave a very real sense that communism was advancing on all fronts. The North Korean attack fitted right in with that view of the democratic West being under sustained attack, and revelations of the extent of Soviet spies inside the atom bomb programme and throughout the US establishment, go a long way to explaining the mounting hysteria epitomised by the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee. Truman had to stand up against a great deal of pressure, within the military establishment, from the McCarthyites, from some sections of the media and public opinion, in refusing to widen the war. 60 years later we pay him credit.

Only very slowly, did some parts of the US administration come to realise that China’s motives stemmed at least from simple nationalism as from world communist conspiracies. A captured Chinese soldier is quoted as saying, ‘How would you like your enemies armies, complete with atom bombs, parked just across your 450-mile-long border?’ If the Americans hadn’t pushed on north beyond the parallel, maybe the Chinese wouldn’t have been prompted to invade. Maybe a lot of lives could have been saved.

5. Stalemate Of course, the decision not to widen the war i.e. attack the Chinese mainland – condemned a lot of American, British Commonwealth and UN troops to ongoing slog, battle, injury and death. In December 1950 Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over command of the US Eighth Army and began to turn it around. Retrained, re-equipped and remotivated, his forces held the Chinese and then began to press northwards, retaking Seoul in March 1951, and pressing forward to the parallel.

Throughout this period General MacArthur, in overall command of US forces in the Far East, had given interviews and communicated to representatives of other governments his wish to expand the war, often in direct conflict to the stated aims of the US administration. Eventually, President Truman felt compelled to relieve him of his command on 10 April 1951. This caused a storm of protest within the military, in Congress and among the general public, for whom MacArthur was a great American hero. Truman’s popularity fell to the lowest ever recorded for a US President. And without it being the immediate intention, MacArthur’s sacking sent out a strong message to America’s allies, to China and Russia, that the United States did not intend to attack China, did not even intend to seize the whole Korean peninsula, but would settle for the much more limited aim of returning to the status quo ante.

As spring 1951 turned to summer, the front line advanced and receded around the parallel, slowly settling into a stalemate. A year after the initial invasion, the armies were back more or less where they had started. The North Koreans reluctantly agreed to open ceasefire talks and protracted armistice negotiations began on 10 July 1951 at Kaesong, before moving to the neighbouring village of Panmunjom. Due to the intransigence of the North and the Chinese, these talks dragged on for two long years, while on the ground there was a steady stream of offensives and counter-offensives, none of which really changed the strategic picture, but in which a lot of soldiers died pointlessly on both sides.

The narrative pauses at this point for a series of chapters looking at specific aspects of the war:

  • The war in the air, where the West learned for the first time the limits of air power – something which was to be repeated in Vietnam – and for the first time jet fighter fought jet fighter, Soviet MiGs against US Sabres.
  • The creation more or less from scratch of a U.S. intelligence operation, which featured a number of gung-ho operations behind the lines but precious little usable intelligence. I was tickled to read that the CIA’s Seoul station had 200 officers, but not a single speaker of Korean, an attitude of uninterest in local cultures and languages which the Americans repeated later in Vietnam and the Middle East.
  • The issue of communist prisoners of war, whose numbers had risen to some 130,000 by the end of the war and whose repatriation back to the North became one of the big stumbling blocks of the peace negotiations.

The mounting frustration at having to fight and die in bloody, futile engagements while the diplomats at Panmunjom, just a few miles away, drew the peace negotiations out with unbearable delays, is well depicted in this 1959 movie, Pork Chop Hill. It illustrates the brutality and heavy losses incurred for insignificant hilltops, the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda broadcast to Allied troops by loudspeaker across the front line, and the widespread demoralisation of the American soldiers with many, perhaps most, of them expressing intense doubt about what they were fighting for and whether it was worth it.

Hard not to see foreshadowings of the irresolution and crushing sense of futility which were to bedevil the Vietnam War.

6. Ceasefire Josef Stalin died in March 1953 and Soviet policy went into a shadowy period of uncertainty. Meanwhile, Republican President Eisenhower replaced Democrat President Truman. Part of his campaign had included the pledge to bring the war to an end. These final stages include the unnerving plans made by the new administration to: massively boost South Korean armed forces; bomb China north of the Yalu; deploy the new artillery-fired nuclear weapons the US had developed; and to transport Chinese Nationalist fighters from Formosa to the Chinese mainland to carry out guerrilla operations (p.473). These aims were communicated to the Soviets and Chinese and at last broke the logjam. In April the communist delegates at Panmunjom began to respond to suggestions.

Ironically, the final stumbling block turned out to be the obstinate dictator of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, who was refused by America’s decision to ‘abandon’ his nation and refused to agree to a ceasefire or sign the agreement. The Americans, not for the last time, found themselves struggling to contain a right-wing leader of their own creation, but by immense pressure managed to prevent Rhee actively sabotaging the negotiations. It is rather staggering to learn that they developed a plan for kidnapping Rhee and overthrowing his government if he refused to play ball (plan EVER-READY p.479).

On 27 July 1953 a ceasefire was finally declared and a demilitarised zone (DMZ) created either side of the ceasefire line. Legally, the war has never ended and this, along with the belligerent rhetoric which has continued to pour out of Pyongyang, along with the occasional terrorist atrocity and a trickle of shooting incidents across the DMZ, explains why South Koreans have lived in a state of tension and high alert for the past 64 years.

And now that Kim Il-sung’s son and successor as Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, has developed nuclear weapons and is testing long-range missiles to deliver them, who knows what further trouble this barren peninsula might cause.

Stats

  • 1,319,000 Americans served in Korea, of whom 33,629 were killed and 105,785 wounded
  • The South Korean army lost 415,000 killed and 429,000 wounded
  • The Commonwealth lost 1,263 killed and 4,817 wounded
  • The Americans estimate that 1.5 million Chinese and North Koreans died, but this is an educated guess
  • Wikipedia reports that some 2.5 million Koreans, north and south, were killed or wounded

This huge loss of civilian and military lives is captured in Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War from 2004, a phenomenally violent Korean film directed by Kang Je-gyu, and saturated with blood-spattering special effects.

The lessons of history

The Korean War is interesting for a number of reasons:

  1. as a dramatic and very hard-fought war in and of itself
  2. as the first armed confrontation between two superpowers in the Cold War
  3. as a template for the Vietnam War

It’s the latter which is, at this distance of time, maybe the most resonant. Their convincing win against Japan gave the Americans the sense that overwhelming might on land and sea and in the air guaranteed victory. Korea disabused them of this confidence. In Korea the Americans stumbled upon issues which were to plague them 15 years later in Vietnam:

  • the difficulty of supporting an unpopular native regime
  • the problems of creating a native army to support an unpopular regime, in a corrupt and inefficient society
  • the cost of underestimating an Asian army
  • the difficulty of using air power, no matter how overwhelming, against a peasant army with no identifiable infrastructure – this wasn’t like bombing German or Japanese factories
  • the difficulty of deploying a highly mechanised army in broken country against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy (p.xvi)

This is an excellent, thorough, well-written and gratifyingly intelligent account of an important war which, paradoxically, makes it clear why it has been so often overlooked by historians in the Allied countries which fought in it, namely America and Britain. It powerfully explains why fighting a pointless war in a faraway country for an ugly regime was so unpopular at the time and has been neglected ever since.

P.S. Japan

Big strategic history like this is full of ironies. I was delighted to learn that the Korean War helped to set Japan on its feet again and kick-started its astonishing post-war economic recovery, helped along by the vast amounts of money poured into the country which served as ‘aircraft carrier, repair base, store depot, commissariat, hospital, headquarters and recreation centre’ for the UN forces in the Far East (p.444). Every cloud has a silver lining.


Credit

The Korean War by Max Hastings was published in 1987 by Michael Joseph. All quotes and references are to the 2010 Pan Macmillan paperback.

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Australia’s Impressionists @ the National Gallery

This is a very enjoyable, relaxing, easy-going exhibition. It’s small, with fewer than 50 works on display and a relatively short audioguide with only 15 items, meaning there is time to read and look and absorb all the works and then to stroll back through picking out favourites and re-examining them closely.

Australia’s impressionists

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together paintings by three late-Victorian artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – who used new European ideas of painting in the open air to capture the urban and rural landscape of Australia. Their open air practice and the often quick, blurred finish of the works led to them being called ‘Australia’s impressionists’. They are joined here by a fourth Australian artist, John Russell, who spent most of his adult life in France, where he became friends with leading artists such as Monet and van Gogh, developing a genuinely European impressionist style and was even mentor to the young Matisse.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Roberts was in fact born in England – in Dorchester, Dorset to be precise. His family emigrated to Australia in 1869. He returned to England to study art from 1881 to 1884 before returning to establish himself in ‘marvellous’ Melbourne in 1885. The wall label explains that Melbourne was an economic and social phenomenon, having grown from a few shacks in 1800 to become the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1880s, with bustling docks, warehouses and busy streets teeming with soldiers, shopkeepers, sheepfarmers and well-dressed ladies.

Thus one of the most arresting images in the show is Roberts’ Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West, an immense panorama of one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. The palette of duck egg blue for the sky overwhelmed by the sandy orange of the streets and buildings makes a tremendous impact as a depiction of an authentic Australian urban scene. But the title is important and symptomatic, too. Roberts had just returned from 4 years in London where he was much influenced by the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, the pioneering American painter who gave his paintings titles from musical terminology like ‘Symphony’ and ‘Harmony’.

Although they were determined to paint the Australian scene, all three of these artists saw it with eyes conditioned by the latest developments in European art.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West by Tom Roberts (1885-6, reworked 1890) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-6, reworked 1890) by Tom Roberts © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

While in London Roberts painted the city in a kind of foggy, blurry style which recalls Monet’s London paintings (e.g. The Thames at Westminster (Westminster Bridge) 1871). These made a big impression on his contemporaries and several examples are included here. (My favourite one dates from a later visit to London but is a splendidly evocative miniature of the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – all the more so since the visitor to this exhibition has just walked past this very scene.)

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889 Roberts helped to organise an exhibition of works by himself and colleagues in Melbourne. It was titled the ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ because many of the works were painted on the 9-inch by 5-inch lids of cigar boxes, an easy resource for poor artists. Although small, the sheer number of works (180-plus) in such a consistently shaky, blurry, swift, impressionistic style, made a big impact on critics (who didn’t like it) and fellow artists (who did). In some accounts the show is credited with marking the start of a genuinely Australian art. It was also distinctive for its fin-de-siecle and Aesthetic trimmings, with the walls of the gallery swathed in Liberty silks and the works bordered by large blocky frames, often painted a kind of modernist metallic tint.

Roberts brought back from Europe this taste for painting en plein air and did much to encourage friends and colleagues to do likewise, and to consciously depict the Australian scenery and life. He set up artists’ ‘camps’ in rural locations a train ride from Sydney or Melbourne (just as the French impressionists used the new suburban train network to go out to the suburbs of Paris to paint semi-rural scenes) although the commentary wryly points out that they weren’t exactly primitive, the one at Box Hill near Sydney having a separate ‘dining tent’ and even a piano installed.

As you explore the exhibition more you understand why the 9 to 5 works are placed right at the start – small, fleeting ‘impressions’ of urban scenes they may be, but they soon give way to large and sometimes enormous works depicting the countryside near Melbourne and Sydney.

Given that sheep farming was one of the fundamental activities in Australia it’s striking how few images of it there are in the exhibition. A Google search shows that Roberts did do many sheep-related paintings, including ones of herding and shearing, but there’s only one here, a big and dramatic composition, Break away! in which the mounted farmer is trying to stop sheep bolting for a dried-up waterhole during a drought.

A Break Away! by Tom Roberts (1891) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This is a strikingly naturalistic work, concerned to give a realistic depiction of every detail, for example of the horse’s sweating coat, the cowboy’s lean, his braces, every detail of the fence. It’s great fun but it isn’t really impressionism.

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Conder was also born in England, in Tottenham, north London. After a boyhood in India he was sent to Australia in 1884. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne where he met Roberts and Streeton. A notable early work is Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay. Note the high vantage point, as used by Roberts in the Bourke Street painting, the smudginess of the clouds and smoke from steamships, the sheen of rain on the dockside. But I saw more of L.S. Lowry in this work than Monet.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

In fact Conder went back to Europe in 1890, never to return to Australia, and became deeply involved in the Aesthetic movement, mixing with leading artists and writers of the day including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Critics consider his later period less convincing than the earlier Australian paintings. Conder took part in the rural painting camps organised by Roberts outside Sydney or Melbourne. Towards the end of the show there’s a sequence of works by all three artists depicting beaches outside Sydney. Conder produced this work which became quite famous.

Points of interest include:

  • the text on the building at the right being cut off, as in contemporary photographs or the paintings of Degas who enjoyed chopping off objects mid-frame
  • the image is dominated not by a long sweeping beach but by the man-made walkway or bridge – bridges loom large in the works of the French impressionists and Whistler did a series depicting bridges of London in different moods
  • the (to us) absurd formality of these Victorian ladies and gents. The commentary picks up on Conder’s characteristic use of pink in the discarded parasol, ladies’ hat and newspaper held by the lying figure – I was more struck by the intense blackness of the top hat and the couple behind one of the bridge supports
A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

Streeton was actually born in Australia, unlike the previous two who migrated there. The paintings of his here are among the largest, and the most evocative of rural Australia. This dramatic depiction of a mine works on what looks like a blisteringly hot day is initially striking for its scale, for the portrait format and for the brilliance with which he creates the slabby effect of hard rocks. It takes a while to focus on the small humans down at the entrance of the mine, and to realise that they are bringing out of an injured miner on a stretcher.

Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton (1891) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Fire’s On (1891) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Streeton’s work is possibly the most accessible and enjoyable of the three. The second room of the show features a number of his really large paintings of rural Australia which make it look like paradise. Golden Summer was painted when he was just 21! painted at the artists’ camp at Heidelberg, outside Sydney, set up by him and Roberts. It was the first painting by an Australian-born artist to be exhibited at both the Royal Academy in London, in 1890, and the Paris Salon the following year, where it won an award. A reproduction can’t convey the size and the sheer sensual pleasure of this astonishingly assured masterpiece.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton (1889) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nationalism

The commentary points out that the states of Australia only came together to form a nation in 1901. The late 19th century was a great era of nationalism in politics, an interest or concern or issue which spilled over into art, music and literature. And so, for Australian politicians, commentators and artists, there was a lot of debate about what made it a nation, what was ‘Australian-ness’ etc. The commentary points all this out but it would have been good to have more from the artists or maybe contemporary commentators on what they thought Australian-ness consisted of, what they thought the distinctive features of the Australian landscape, or light, or flora consisted of.

A handful of beach paintings are brought together later in the exhibition to show the distinctive white sand of beaches outside Sydney. But in fact one of the most striking things about the show is how European most of these paintings looked to me. My early impressions of Australia were formed by movies, specifically Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), or the TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70). Desert and drought and hard red rock, or lush sub-tropical suburbia.

Works like Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (painted when he was just 22) are lovely but don’t look anything like the Australia I grew up seeing. It could be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The fact that the title is a quote from Wordsworth emphasises the Englishness of the imagination which is creating it.

'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Naturalism

The entire exhibition is premised on identifying these artists as impressionists but I wondered. They remind me less of their French contemporaries and more of late-Victorian English naturalistic painters, as can be seen at the wonderful Guildhall Gallery. A painting like Golden Summer is not unlike some of George Clausen’s bucolic scenes of rural England.

How much these paintings are not really that impressionist is highlighted by the fourth member of the show –

John Russell (1858-1930)

Russell left Australia when he was 22, travelling to France where he made friends with the major painters of the day, including Monet and van Gogh. The section of 10 of his paintings here are completely unlike the preceding three artists.

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes by John Russell (1890-1) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes (1890-91) by John Russell © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Now this has the full French impressionist feel, vague and blurry blobs of very light and bright colours used loosely to create an impression of a scene. Also no people – unlike all the examples above. Streeton, Roberts and Conder also depicted people-less landscapes, but they are concerned with accurately depicting it, whereas Russell seems much more interested in playing with the possibilities of oil paint and colour – pushing, stretching and experimenting.

This can be seen in his many paintings of the Breton coastline where he settled and lived for decades. Here he used Monet’s tactic of painting the same scene multiple times at different times of day to capture different light and mood, in this example the cluster of rocks off the Breton coast named Aiguille de Coton.

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

As might be expected from a friend of van Gogh’s, Russell experiments with oil paint to express not what he literally saw in front of him but the psychological impact of colour. Similarly the big crude super-obvious brushstrokes are designed to emphasise the paintwork itself rather than the ‘subject’.

Russell’s bold colour experiments led to his work being included alongside those of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck in the 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. A critic wrote that the works looked like they had been painted by ‘wild things’ or fauves in French, and this nickname was quickly applied to the movement which became known as Fauvism.

Russell’s section of the exhibition shows us hard-core French impressionism morphing into post-impressionism. One of the curators makes the case – in the very informative film which accompanies the exhibition and runs in a projection room off to one side – that Russell deserves to be better known and included in our accounts of late impressionism. Without doubt. But if you then walk out of his rather dazzling section and back past the restrained realistic works of Streeter, Conder and Roberts it makes you question the label ‘impressionism’ as applied to them. Plein air naturalism might be closer.

Ariadne

One of the most evocative images in the show is Streeton’s fabulous Ariadne (1895). For once this feels like a landscape which is impossible to confuse with England or even Europe. It could be a Mediterranean sky but the red rocks on the horizon and the mottled eucalyptus trees clearly indicate the Antipodes. No reproduction can convey the intimacy and power of this painting.

The commentary points out that it is typical of the French symbolism of the 1890s to deploy a mysterious, generally female, figure to point and focus a landscape, as is done here. But it’s only if you get really close to the painting’s surface that you can see details like the way the sandy beach is achieved by broad horizontal brushstrokes whereas the woman’s figure is made by vertical brushstrokes, as is the white of the tumbling surf. Or the way the vertical sweeps of the dress merge into the beach. The branches of the tree on the left are achieved with just one or two confident strokes. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and no surprise that this image was chosen for the posters and publicity for the exhibition.

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Conclusion

This is a lovely exhibition, full of what’s-not-to-like images of turn-of-the-century Australia, urban and rural, and shedding light on a quartet of artists who are well worth knowing about.


The video

Most galleries nowadays produce at least one video about their exhibitions.

Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought. The centrepiece is the book about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated. Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who considered the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another. Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element, bourgeois, bourgeois idealist, bourgeois sentimentalist, capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek roader, counter-revolutionary, degenerate, decadent, deviant element, exploiter, go-it-aloner, hoarder, hooligan, humanist, hypocrite, individualist, kulak, lackey, landlord, middle-of-the-roader, reactionary, rightist, right deviationist, running dog of imperialism, saboteur, schemer, servant of imperialism, speculator, spy and swindler.

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)


Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

Related links

Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

Related links

Picasso’s Portraits @ the National Portrait Gallery

‘All portraits are caricatures.’ Picasso

Somewhere in the Royal Academy’s massive show of American Abstract Expressionism, there’s a quote from Jackson Pollock sometime in the 1950s yelling, ‘That **** bastard Picasso, he’s done everything.’

Picasso’s longevity (1881-1973) and prolific output (50,000 works – comprising 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 2,880 ceramics, roughly 12,000 drawings, many thousands of prints, and numerous tapestries and rugs) and feverish changes of style and vision from early Fauvism through cubism to postwar neo-classicism and on and on – presented a massive challenge to his contemporaries, to up-and-comers in the 50s and 60s, and even to modern-day artists. He did so much, he tried so many things, he invented so many styles.

This exhibition presents a rich cross-section of Picasso’s styles and approaches by bringing together an impressive 80 portraits by the artist in all media. It is the largest exhibition of Picasso’s portraits in a generation, and it is full of riches, treasures and insights.

Self-portrait by Pablo Picasso ( 1896) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Self-portrait by Pablo Picasso ( 1896) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

The works are arranged in chronological order but are grouped into themes. Thus there is a room devoted to depictions of his first wife, the Ballets Russes dancer, Olga Khokhlova – a room of photographs he had taken of himself in his Paris studio – or of his earliest caricatures of the gang of Bohemians, artists and poets who assembled at the El Quatre Gats café in Barcelona.

Caricatures

This early emphasis on the cartoons and caricatures he drew of fellow artists in the cafe at first seems a bit eccentric or of historical interest only – but in fact as the exhibition proceeds you come to realise that there was something of caricature – the quick, impressionistic throwing off of outlines, the exaggeration of features – which in fact endures throughout his entire career. Compare the early caricature of art critic Maurice Utrillo with the caricatures he knocked off of poets and composers in Paris after the war, and then again in another wave of line drawing caricatures in the 1950s.

The famous peace doves are just the most famous of the hundreds of later prints, etchings and lithographs he did, many of which use the lightest of lines, for example the famous Vollard Suite of images produced from 1930 to 1937.

Much later, in the 1950s, Picasso knocked off a series of ‘humorous compositions’ where he took pinups of glamour girl movie stars and quickly sketched onto them the figure of his friend, the poet and writer Jaime Sabartés – in reality, apparently, a fairly chaste and happily married man – as a short, tubby, bespectacled buffoon, hopelessly making up to these impossibly burnished screen idols.

Humorous Composition: Jaumes Sabartes and Esther Williams by Pablo Picasso (1957) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Humorous Composition: Jaimes Sabartes and Esther Williams by Pablo Picasso (1957) Museu Picasso, Barcelona © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Note the schoolboy crudity of the hair drawn under her arms and crotch. There are three or four of these ‘humorous compositions’ in the show, a selection of the scores Picasso apparently knocked off. They bring together several features of his approach: 1. Humour – obviously they’re for fun. 2. Caricature – exaggerating the serious bespectacled intellectual Sabartes into a ludicrous parody. 3. It’s a close friend, one of the gang, a member of his circle. 4. It’s rude i.e. sexual in broad outline and in pubic detail. 5. It’s subversive of an ‘official’ image. 6. It’s quick quick quick, a hastily knocked-off jeu d’esprit.

By starting with a selection of Picasso’s caricatures, and showing their recurrence throughout his career, the exhibition suggests that speed, and exaggeration, are a kind of fundamental approach which underlay many works which superficially appear so very different in style.

Self portraits

The exhibition tells us that his first ten years or so featured the most self portraits, as Picasso used himself as subject matter, restlessly trying out styles. The one above was done when he was just 16. 10 years later comes the amazing Self-portrait with a palette, with its use of a primitive mask-like face, its emphasis on the image of the artist as working man, with brawny bulging muscles. But it is the tan-and-grey colour palette which also impresses. The commentary points out the debt to Cezanne, who died when Picasso was 25, and of whom he later said, ‘We are all his children’.

Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso (1906) Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016

Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso (1906) Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016

Individuals

Unlike most painters in history, Picasso didn’t paint from commissions. He painted who he wanted to, generally friends, fellow artists or patrons. In a sense he created ‘circles’ like that original circle in the cafe in Barcelona, wherever he went, and then subjected them to intense investigations through the style of the moment.

Thus, only four years after the primitivism of the Self-portrait with a palette, comes this high point of analytical cubism, a portrait of the German art historian and collector, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Apparently the poor man sat for it on over 20 occasions. On reflection, this suggests the effort Picasso put into his cubist compositions. Later works don’t often match this amount of labour.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso (1910) Art Institute of Chicago © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso (1910) Art Institute of Chicago © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Olga Khokhlova

It’s a very good idea to have grouped the works into themes; it brings structure to what sometimes threatens to become an overwhelming inundation of images. Even in the final, very big room, containing maybe thirty-plus works, they have been carefully arranged into pairs or trios which the (excellently informative) audioguide compares and contrasts, to bring out Picasso’s use of different approaches for different subjects. I think the show has been excellently curated, arranged and displayed.

An obvious place where this grouping pays dividends is in the room devoted to Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife. She was a dancer with the Ballets Russes when Picasso met her in Rome in 1917, on a commission to create the set and designs for a production of Eric Satie’s ballet, Parade. (It is fascinating to learn that dwelling among Italian architecture for a few months had a classicising effect on Picasso’s style and that this was well-suited to Olga’s own classical, symmetrical good looks and her litheness and elegance as a trained dancer.)

The room contains several busts of her, as well as photos. In a darkened side room 4 minutes of silent black and white home movies of Pablo, Olga and their dogs play on a loop. But it is three major paintings which dominate.

My favourite is Olga in an Armchair, painted in 1917. In fact it was based on a photo (in the show). I like the way it is realistic but unfinished. I like her doll-like expression. Five years later, this portrait of Olga in a brown dress is recognisably the same person, but with something of the blankness of the eyes from the 1906 self-portrait.

Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso (1923) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Portrait of Olga Picasso by Pablo Picasso (1923) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

None of these pretty traditional depictions prepare you for the leap to this 1935 portrait. The commentary goes heavy on a biographical interpretation, pointing out that by this stage the marriage was on the rocks and Olga had become withdrawn and depressed, anxious not only about her philandering husband, but about her family who were suffering badly in Stalin’s Russia.

Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso (1935) Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d'art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Woman in a Hat (Olga) by Pablo Picasso (1935) Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Just as interesting or valid, is to see it through the prism of Picasso’s attempts to find a semi-abstract style adequate to the troubled times, with Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin in power. The following year the Spanish Civil war would break out and the strangely childish, half-abstract depiction of the human (and animal) figures would reach its apotheosis in the famous political painting, Guernica.

The very first wall label explains that Picasso’s main subject for most of his career was the human figure and that the majority of portraits are of single figures, not groups.

Women as muse

The big room at the end of the exhibition contains works from the 1930s to the 1970s and is a bit overwhelming. the grouping methodology works well to introduce and compare works on a similar theme or of the same person.

Most if not all the portraits in this final room are of women. The internet supplies a handy list of the main women in his colourful love life, and the dates of their involvement:

  • Fernande Olivier (1904 to 1911)
  • Eva Gouel (1912 to her death in 1915)
  • Olga Khokhlova (married 1918, to her death in 1955, mother of Paulo)
  • Marie-Thérèse Walter (1927 to 1935, mother of Maya)
  • Dora Maar (1936 to 1944)
  • Françoise Gilot (1944 to 1953, mother of Claude and Paloma)
  • Geneviève Laporte (during the 1950s)

Marie-Thérèse was ‘the first blonde’ he’d had an affair with and his works of her are full of a golden yellow. This last room opens with

Having closely inspected a dozen or more caricatures, cartoons and comic sketches tends to bring out the cartoonish elements in this painting: the cartoon eye and face, the half-hearted attempt at the hands (more like cats paws), the two breasts thrown in, just in case. As the commentary says this is one of countless brightly coloured works which draw comparison for its emphasis in colour and design with his great contemporary and rival, Matisse.

Dora Maar and the war

But, in this selection at any rate, it’s Dora Maar who makes more of an impression. She was his inspiration from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936) to the Liberation of France (1944) and the images of her accentuate nerviness, worry and anguish. She is represented in many works of the time which show a woman weeping.

I assume there’s a word for this style – the style of weeping woman and Guernica, but I don’t know what it is. Here is Dora with her face contorted into a corkscrew of anguish, and the brilliant detail of her blood red nails gripping the chair rests like a harpy.

Woman in a Hat, 9 June 1941 by Pablo Picasso (1941) Musée Picasso, Paris. © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée Picasso de Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

Woman in a Hat, 9 June 1941 by Pablo Picasso (1941) Musée Picasso, Paris. © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée Picasso de Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016

In the creative and thought-provoking manner of this exhibition, this painting is hung next to a contemporaneous one of Nusch Éluard, performer, model and wife of the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard.

Apparently she was thin and lithe to begin with – she had at one time been a street performer. But the commentary emphasises that the grey palette and flat chest are emphasising the grim atmosphere and privations of wartime Paris under the Nazis, a time of collaboration, fear and torture. The commentary compares the expressionist angst of the first image with the more romantic pathos of the second; but neither word really seems adequate to describe the mood of each painting.

Again, the ideas of caricature and simplification, so firmly established at the start of the exhibition, seem more useful reference points.

Dialogue with tradition

Towards the end the exhibition focuses on works in which the ageing Picasso consciously engaged with the tradition of Western art. There’s a series of painting based on the Las meninas of Spain’s greatest artist, Velasquez, and etchings which evoke or depict Raphael, and Rembrandt.

Raphael is referenced in cartoonish spoofs of Ingres’ painting Raphael and La Fornarina (1814). This shows the great Renaissance painter Raphael (well known, apparently, for his love affairs) with his mistress on his lap. In 1968, at the age of 87, Pablo Picasso created a series of twenty five pornographic etchings inspired by the legend of Raphael and La Fornarina.

We know from his biography that Picasso was a virile, highly sexed man, with a string of wives and mistresses, strongly inspired, in fact almost exclusively devoted to depictions of the human body in countless styles and ways. But only in his old age did he either feel confident enough, or was society finally ‘liberated’ enough, for him to create images of the penis, and they abound in these etchings.

An embarrassment of riches

This is a brilliant, well organised, informative and beautiful exhibition. Everywhere you turn there is something new to laugh at or marvel at. What a giant! With a subject as rich as this there are numerous ways to slice through it, to analyse it, countless threads to follow:

  • to go chronologically and watch him evolve through his styles
  • to take each piece in its own right and judge them on their use of colour, composition, lines and angles
  • to dwell on the biographical context – on the soap opera of his numerous lovers and muses
  • to catch references to earlier painters who Picasso revered such as Velázquez and Rembrandt, and enjoy the jokes and variations on themes
  • to focus on the self-portrait as a distinct genre, with reference to the traditions’ great masters and how Picasso twisted it out of recognition – Picasso self portraits aged 18, 25 and 90

Sex and style

At several moments the commentary mentioned the ‘mystery’ of a work and its impact. Although I appreciated the breath-taking brilliance of many of the works here, I wasn’t moved by many. In fact I think the mystery of Picasso’s art is the way there is no mystery about it. Because it is so rooted on the human figure and on private individuals there is little or nothing to say about the depiction of history or politics in them, there are no landscapes and little or no wildlife or plants or flowers. All these really is is his biography, which often boils down to an account of the women in his life, pretty logically, since so many of his works are portraits of the current woman in his life.

And sex. One of the earliest private caricatures is a pretty explicit depiction of one of his Barcelona friends and a courtesan, and the notion of virility and masculinity runs beneath all these depictions of women until it emerges in the pornographic etchings late in life. It’s not difficult to associate the sexual act with the creative act, or the sexual urge with the creative urge.

Since the post-structuralist turn in critical theory around 1970 (in the work of French writers like Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault) sex – and especially its academically respectable form, ‘desire’ – have invaded large parts of critical and aesthetic thought. And feminist theory’s focus on the wrongs of men and the injustices suffered by women have given rise to plenty of ‘revisionist’ accounts of Picasso’s often brutal and manipulative relationships with women. Fine.

These are just some of the ways critics attempt to give a meaning to Picasso’s work, to kind of ground or root it in something apart from itself. But although I think this is a major and very successful exhibition, and confirms the extraordinary breadth and range of Picasso’s styles and visions, for me, ultimately, it confirmed the sense that there is no ‘mystery’ about Picasso’s art because there is no depth.

It is pure art in the sense that it is about the style itself. The restless moving from one style to another, the countless variations and iterations of new methods and approaches – and the hurried lack of completion of so many of the works, particularly the slapdash late works – these all bespeak a lack of concern about ‘truth’, or ‘finish’ or ‘completeness’ or ‘depth’ or ‘meaning’.

The art works may well be, at a superficial level, ‘about’ this or that man or woman in this or that mood or setting – and scholars can flesh out each piece with background information, biographical context and so on. But these works seem to me to be much more ‘about’ the act of creation, about being an artist, about ‘arting’. More than any other artist I know Picasso’s art is ‘about’ the act of creating art, it rejoices in the endless fecundity of its own creativity.

Videos

The National Portrait Gallery has produced some useful introductory videos:

In this one critic Sarfraz Manzoor picks his five highlights from the show.

Related links

The Perfect Theory by Pedro G. Ferreira (2014)

On page three of this book, astrophysicist Pedro G. Ferreira explains that part of what enthralled him as a student studying the theory of relativity was the personalities and people behind the ideas.

I felt that I had entered a completely new universe of ideas populated by the most fascinating characters. (p.xiii)

This is the approach he takes in the 14 chapters and 250 pages of this book which skip lightly over the technicalities of the theory in order to give us an account of the drama behind the discovery of the theory. Ferreira describes relativity’s slow acceptance and spread among the community of theoretical physicists, many of whom went on to unravel unexpected consequences from his equations which Einstein hadn’t anticipated (and often fiercely opposed). He shows how the theory was eclipsed in the middle years of the century by the more fashionable theory of quantum physics, then underwent a resurgence from the 1960s onwards, until Ferreira brings the story right up to date with predictions that we are trembling on the brink of major new, relativity-inspired, discoveries.

This book isn’t about the theory of relativity so much as the story of how it was devised, received, tested, studied and expanded, and by whom. It is ‘the biography of general relativity’ (p.xv).

Thus the narrative eschews maths and scientific formulae to focus on a narrative with plenty of human colour and characters. For example, early explanations of the theory are dovetailed with accounts of Einstein’s opposition to the Great War and the political attitudes of Sir Arthur Eddington, his chief promoter in Britain, who was a Quaker. A typically vivid and grabby opening sentence of a new section reads:

While Einstein was working on his theory of general relativity, Alexander Friedmann was bombing Austria. (p.31)

Some reviews I’ve read say that – following Stephen Hawking’s example in his A Brief History of Time (1988) – there isn’t a single equation in the book, but that isn’t quite true; there’s one on page 72:

2 + 2 = 4

is the only equation in the book – which I suspect is a joke. For the most part the ideas are explained through the kind of fairly simple-to-describe thought experiments (Gedankenexperimenten) which led Einstein to his insights in the first place – simple except that they are taking place against an impossibly sophisticated background of astrophysical knowledge, maths theories, weird geometry and complex equations.

Timeline

In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote a number of short papers based on thought experiments he had been carrying out in his free time at his undemanding day job working in the Berne Patent Office. The key ones aimed to integrate Newtonian mechanics with James Clerk Maxwell’s force of electromagnetism. His breakthrough was ‘seeing’ that space and time are not fixed entities but can, under certain circumstances, bend and curve. (It is fascinating to learn that Einstein’s insights came through thought experiments, thinking through certain, fairly simple, scenarios and working through the consequences – only then trying to find the mathematical formulas which would express essentially mental concepts. Only years later was any of it subjected to experimental proof.)

The book gives a powerful sense of the rivalry and jostling between different specialisms. It’s interesting to learn that pure mathematicians often looked down on physicists; they thought physicists too ready to bodge together solutions, whereas mathematicians always strive for elegance and beauty in the equations. Physicists, for their part, suspect the mathematicians of coming up with evermore exotic and sometimes bizarre formulas, which bear little or no relation to the ‘reality’ which physicists have to work with.

So the short or ‘special’ theory of relativity – focusing on mechanics and electromagnetism – was complete by around 1907. But Einstein was acutely aware that it didn’t integrate gravity into his model of the universe. It would take Einstein another ten years to integrate gravity into his theory which, as a result, is known as the general theory of relativity.

Ferreira explains how he was helped by his friend, the mathematician Marcel Grossman, who introduced him to the realm of non-Euclidean mathematics devised by Bernhard Riemann. This is typical of how the book proceeds: by showing us the importance of personal contacts, exchanges, dialogue between scientists in different specialities.

For example, Ferreira explains that the ‘Hilbert program’ was the attempt by David Hilbert to give an unshakable theoretical foundation to all mathematics. Einstein visited Hilbert at the university of Göttingen in 1915, because his general theory still lacked complete mathematical provenance. He had intuited a way to integrate gravity into his special theory – but didn’t have the maths to prove it. Eventually, by the end of 1915, in a process Ferreira describes as Einstein dropping some of his ‘intuitions’ in order to ‘follow the maths’, Einstein completed his general theory of relativity, expressed as a set of equations which became known as the ‘Einstein field equations’.

In fact the field equations were ‘a mess’. A set of ten equations of ten functions of the geometry of space and time, all nonlinearly tangled and intertwined, so that solving any one function by itself was impossible. The theory argued that what we perceive as gravity is nothing more than objects moving in the geometry of spacetime. Massive objects affect the geometry, curving space and time.

Almost before he had published the theory (in an elegantly compact three-page paper) other physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists had begun to take the equations and work through their implications, sometimes with results which Einstein himself strongly disapproved of. One of the most interesting themes in the book is the way that Einstein himself resisted the implications of his own theory.

For example, Einstein assumed, on the classical model, that matter was spread evenly through the universe; but mathematicians pointed out that, if so, Einstein’s equations suggested that at some point the universe would start to evolve i.e. large clumps of matter would be attracted to each other; nothing would stay still; potentially, the entire universe could end up collapsing in on itself. Einstein bent over backwards to exclude this ‘evolving universe’ scenario from his theory by introducing a ‘cosmological constant’ into it, a notional force which pushed back against gravity’s tendency to collapse everything: between the attraction of gravity and the repellent force of the ‘cosmological constant’, the universe is held in stasis. Or so he claimed.

Ferreira explains how the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter was sympathetic to Einstein’s (gratuitous) cosmological constant and worked through the equations, initially to support Einstein’s theory, but in so doing discovered that the universe could be supported by the constant alone – but it would contain very little matter, very little of the stars and planets which we seem to see. Einstein admired the maths but abhorred the resulting picture of a relatively empty universe.

In fact this was just the beginning of Einstein’s theory running away from him. The Russian astronomer and mathematician Alexander Friedmann worked through the field equations to prove that the perfectly static universe Einstein wanted to preserve – and had introduced his ‘cosmological constant’ to save – was in fact only one out of many possible scenarios suggested by the field equations – in all the others, the universe had to evolve.

Friedmann explained his findings in his 1922 paper, ‘On the Curvature of Space’, which effectively did away with the need for a cosmological constant. His work and that of the Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, working separately, strongly suggested that the universe was in fact evolving and changing. They provided the theoretical underpinning for what astronomers had observed and named the ‘de Sitter effect’, namely the observation, made with growing frequency in the 1920s, that the furthest stars and nebulae from earth were undergoing the deepest ‘red shift’ i.e. the light emanating from them was shifted down the spectrum towards red, because they were moving away from us. Even though Einstein himself disapproved of the idea, his theory and the observations it inspired both showed us that the universe is expanding.

If so – does that mean that the universe must have had a definite beginning? When? How? And could the theory shed light on what were just beginning to be known as ‘dwarf stars’? What about the bizarre new concept of ‘black holes’ (originally developed by the German astronomer Karl Schwarzchild, who sent his results to Einstein in 1916, but died later that year)?

What Einstein called ‘the relativity circus’ was well underway – and the rest of the book continues to introduce us to the leading figures of 20th century physics, astrophysics, cosmology and mathematics, giving pen portraits of their personalities and motivations and describing the meetings, discussions, conferences, seminars, experiments, arguments and debates in which the full implications of Einstein’s theory were worked out, argued over, rejected, revived and generally played with for the past 100 years.

We are introduced:

  • To Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who proposed a sophisticated solution to the problem of white dwarfs and how stars die – which was rejected out of hand by Eddington and Einstein.
  • To the Soviet physicist Lev Davidovich Landau who proposed that stars shine and burn as a result of the radioactive fission of tremendously dense neutrons at their core (before he was arrested for anti-Stalin activities in 1938).
  • To J. Robert Oppenheimer who read Landau’s paper and used its insights to prove Schwarzchild’s wartime idea that stars collapse into such a dense mass that gravity itself cannot escape, and therefore a bizarre barrier is created around the star from which light, energy, radiation or gravity can emerge – the ‘event horizon’ of a ‘black hole’.

These are the main lines of research and investigation which Ferreira outlines in the first quarter or so of the book up to the start of World War Two. At this point, of course, many leading physicists and mathematicians of all nationalities were roped into the massive research projects run in America and Germany into designing a bomb which could harness the energy of nuclear fusion. This had been thoroughly investigated in theory and in observations of distant galactic phenomena – but never created on earth. Not until August 1945, that is, when the two atom bombs dropped on Japan killed about 200,000 people.

Learnings

Some of the several fascinating things to learn from this mesmerising account are:

  • How often Einstein was wrong and wrong-headed, obstinately refusing to believe the universe evolved and changed, refusing to believe (therefore) that it had an origin in some ‘big bang’, and his refusal to accept the calculations which proved the possibility of black holes.
  • That although a great genius may devise a profound theory, in the world of science he doesn’t ‘own’ it – there is literally no limit to the number of other scientists who can probe and poke and work through and analyse and falsify it – and that the strangeness and weirdness of general relativity made it more liable than most theories to produce unexpected and counter-intuitive results, in the hands of its many epigones.
  • That after early successes, namely:
    • predicting the movement of the planets more accurately than Newton’s classical mechanical theory
    • showing that light really is bent by gravity when this phenomenon was observed and measured during a solar eclipse in 1919
    • inspiring the discovery that the universe is expanding
  • the theory of relativity was increasingly thought of as a generator of bizarre mathematical exotica which had little or no relevance to the real world. We learn that ambitious physicists from the 1930s onwards preferred to choose careers in the other great theoretical breakthrough of the 20th century, quantum physics. Quantum could be tested, experimented with and promised many more practical breakthroughs.

Almost everyone’s attention was elsewhere now, enthralled by the triumph of quantum physics. Most of the talented young physicists were focusing their efforts on pushing the quantum theory further, looking for more spectacular discoveries and applications. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, with all its odd predictions and exotic results, had been elbowed out of the way and sentenced to a trek in the wilderness. (p.65)

  • And so that Einstein, now safely ensconced in the rarefied atmosphere of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, dedicated the last thirty years of his life (he died in 1955) to an ultimately fruitless quest for a ‘Grand Unified Theory’ which would combine all aspects of physics into one set of equations. He was, in the 1940s and 50s, an increasingly marginal figure – yesterday’s man – while the world hurried on without him. He died before the great revival of his theory in the 1960s which the second part of Ferreira’s book chronicles.

Visualisation

Again and again Ferreira shows how the researchers proceeded – or summarises the differences between their approaches and results – in terms of how they visualised the problem. Thus Schwarzchild’s vision of a relativistic universe described a spacetime that was perfectly symmetric about one point; whereas 40 years later, in 1963, New Zealander Roy Kerr modeled a solution for a spacetime that was symmetric about a line (p.121). A different way of visualising and conceiving the problem, which led to a completely different set of equations, and completely different consequences.

Other scientists take an insight like this, a new vision with accompanying new mathematics, and themselves subject it to further experimental modeling. The Soviet physicists Isaak Khalatnikov and Evgeny Lifshitz took Oppenheimer and Snyder’s 1930s model of a star collapsing – which assumed the shape of the star to be a perfect sphere – and modeled what happened if the star-matter was rough and unequal, like the surface of the earth. In this model, different bits collapsed at different rates, creating a churning of space time and never achieving the perfect collapse into a singularity modeled by Schwarzchild 60 years earlier or by Kerr more recently. This Soviet model was itself disproved by Roger Penrose, who had spent years devising his own diagrams and maths to model spacetime, and submitted a paper in 1965 which proved that ‘the issue of the final state’ always ended in singularities (pp.123-125).

And that is how the field progresses, via new ways of seeing and modeling. One revealing anecdote is how, at a conference in the 1990s on the newly hot topic of ‘dark matter’, one presenter put up a slide listing over one hundred different models for how dark matter exists, is created and works (p.192), all theoretical, derived from different sets of equations or observations, all awaiting proof.

It is not only the complexity of the subject matter which makes this such a daunting field of knowledge – it is the sheer number and variety of theories, ancient and modern, which its practitioners are called on to understand and sift and evaluate and which – as the first half makes plain – even the giants in the field, Einstein and Eddington, could get completely wrong.

The 1960s and since

In Ferreira’s account the 1960s saw a great revival of the theory of general relativity to explain the host of new astronomical phenomena which were being discovered and named – joining black holes and dwarf stars were pulsars, quasars and so on – as well as new theoretical micro-particles, like the Higgs boson. Kip Thorne called the 60s and 70s the Golden Age of Relativity, when the theory provided elegant solutions to problems about black holes, dark energy and dark matter, singularities and the Big Bang.

Over the past forty years or so new theories have arisen which take and transcend general relativity, including string theory (which rose to prominence in the 1980s but has since fallen into unpopularity) and supersymmetry (which invokes up to six extra dimensions in its quest for a total theory), loop quantum theory (where reality is comprised of minute loops of quantum gravity which bind together like chainmail), spin networks (frameworks like a children’s climbing frame, devised by Roger Penrose), Modified Newtonian Dynamics (or MOND) or a new theory to rival Einstein’s named the Tensor-Vector-Scalar theory of gravity (TeVeS).

When Ferreira and colleagues undertook a review of theories of quantum mechanics they discovered there are scores of them, ‘a rich bestiary of gravitational theories’ (p.221).

The great ambition is to incorporate quantum gravity into general relativity in order to produce a grand unified theory of everything. Although clever people bet this would happen before the end of the 20th century, it didn’t. 17 years later, we seem as far away as ever.

Thirty years after Stephen Hawking predicted the end of physics and then unleashed his black hole information paradox on an unsuspecting world, there isn’t an agreed-upon theory of quantum gravity, let alone a complete unified theory of all the fundamental forces. (p.205)

Ferreira draws together various developments in theory at the sub-atomic level to conclude that we may be on the brink of moving beyond Einstein’s vision of a curving spacetime: the real stuff of the universe is, depending on various theories, a bubbling foam of intertwining strings or structures or membranes or loops – but certainly not continuous. Newtonian mechanics still work fine at the gross level of our senses; it is only at extremes that Einstein’s theories need to be evoked. Now Ferreira wonders if it’s time to do the same to Einstein’s theories; to go beyond them at the new extremes of physical reality which are being discovered.

Notes

The deliberate non-technicality of the text is compensated by 18 pages of excellent notes, which give a chatty overview of each of the chapter topics before recommending up-to-the-minute websites for further reading, including the websites and even Facebook groups for specific projects and experiments. And there is also a detailed bibliography of books and articles.

All in all this is an immensely useful overview of the ideas and debates in this field.

Related links

Malick Sidibé @ Somerset House

‘For me photography is all about youth.’ Malick Sidibé

Somerset House is a rabbit warren of attractions with at least two cafes, several art shops, and a number of exhibition spaces. In the terrace rooms in the South Wing (i.e. overlooking the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge) are three rooms currently devoted to African photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016).

Sidibé was born in Mali. During the 1950s, using a lightweight Kodak camera, he cycled the countryside around the capital Bamako taking photos of weddings and other family occasions, establishing himself as the country’s only travelling photographer.

As the country was winning its independence from France in 1960, Sidibé set up a studio in Bamako and began making scores of studies of Malians, which capture the youthful enthusiasm, creativity and cool of the young nation. The exhibition brings together 45 high quality prints into three rooms arranged by theme:

Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako

Contrast of the formal 1960s black and white suits with the exuberance of party

Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River

Le Studio / The Studio

Why do they work?

  1. Black and white is always better than colour.
  2. It makes the images crisp and well-defined. All the photos are clear and well lit, he’s not interested in shadows, grey or mystery. Everything stands out in clarity.
  3. They’re all of people, there are no landscapes or objects. And young people. Young, vibrant, energetic people, dancing or goofing by the river or pulling poses in the studio. This spirit of youth and energy comes over infectiously. They’re happy pictures.
  4. There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
    1. The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
    2. They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
    3. Style. The 60s dancers could be white, the lads and lassies by the river could at a pinch be white – but the studio shots could only be African, in the super-confident brashness of their clothes and poses, the clashing styles and big shades and surreal accessories, the stripes and checks and leopard skin patterns of the wild pants and jackets. Much emphasised when he used a strong striped background, to give the sitters even more visual energy.

These explosions and clashes of geometric designs have something in common with the Op Art of the 1960s, for example the work of Bridget Riley. Except that it is real, walking, talking, singing, dancing art, created by the incredible disparate taste and confidence of Sidibé’s sitters and captured again and again in these wonderful photos.

African tracks

Playing on a loop are 31 tracks by African artists selected by DJ Rita Ray, including Miriam Makebe, Boubacar Traoré, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré. It isn’t in the show, but my favourite Boubacar track is Adieu Pierrette.

This is a video prepared for a different exhibition, but which is very informative.

And here’s a full length documentary about Sidibé by Cosima Spender.

Related links

Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement @ Courtauld Gallery

The exhibition space at the Courtauld Gallery is relatively small, just a little ante-room and a larger hall-shaped room. In these two spaces the gallery is hosting a scholarly exhibition devoted to a series of small sculptures of dancers created by the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin and titled Mouvements de Danse (Dance movements).

Room one

From around 1900, Rodin (1840-1917), by then the most famous and successful sculptor in France, became interested in the new wave of dance styles which were coming into fashion. A bit later this was to include the Ballets Russe around 1912, but the first room focuses on the 1906 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, which featured the first ever appearance in Europe of the Royal Cambodian dancers.

Photos and postcards show what appear to be children in ornate Cambodian costume, but it was their postures and movement which captivated Rodin. The exhibition includes Rodin’s eloquent prose descriptions which make clear that he was fascinated by their new ways of posing the human figure – knees bent, arms bent with hands folded back, to create strange expressive patterns. Combine this with an odd staccato way of moving, and an odd rippling wavelike motion of their limbs, and Rodin (and fellow Parisians) were taken by storm.

These highly stylised poses and movements are reminiscent of Indian sculpture and another display case contains photos of statues of the Hindu god Shiva, which also fascinated Rodin. Here and elsewhere the inclusion of Rodin’s written descriptions of the body and of these dance poses testify to his technical, anatomical interest in the design and dynamic, the posture and flexing and movement of the human body and how to capture it on paper or sculpture.

The first room also explains the new, more expressive dance styles, breaking free of traditional Western ballet styles, which were being introduced by pioneers like Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller and Ruth St Denis. There’s a photo of each of them (Duncan photographed dancing at a party given for Rodin, in his garden). The best one is of Loïe Fuller who, apparently, used bamboo canes to ‘extend’ her arms and support great swathes of dress material so that she looked like a dervish in movement.

In the 1900s Rodin was particularly close to an artists’ model and dancer named Alda Moreno. He made scores of sketches of her. The exhibition displays nude shots of Moreno from a publication, Le Nu Academique.

Le nu académique Journal of 1905 showing the newly discovered photos of Alda Moreno in the pose of ‘Dance Movement A’.(30 June) 1905 © Agence photographique du musée Rodin - Pauline Hisbacq

Le nu académique Journal of 1905 showing the newly discovered photos of Alda Moreno in the pose of ‘Dance Movement A’. (30 June) 1905 © Agence photographique du musée Rodin – Pauline Hisbacq

This is just one of the Moreno poses which appear in the many sketches Rodin made and which line the second, larger room.

Standing Nude Holding Her Right Leg by Auguste Rodin (c.1903) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Standing Nude Holding Her Right Leg by Auguste Rodin (c.1903) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance movements

All this is by way of lead-up to the series of Dance Movements themselves. These are twelve relatively small (about a foot high) sculptures in plaster of a naked woman dancer in a series of poses. They have been placed in a display case in the centre of the room so we can see them fully in the round. They are ‘numbered’ from A to G. This is ‘the first complete presentation of the whole series in terracotta and plaster, including related drawings’ – a historic opportunity to see them all together.

A Dance Movement by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance Movement A by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

A separate case explains that Rodin made the figurines using a new technique. He modelled in clay two master poses, labelled Alpha and Beta. Then he dismembered these ‘bodies’ to produce a set of nine body parts, mainly arms and legs. Then he used the parts to assemble his set of 12. The commentary points out that he was experimenting with a new way of ‘assembling’ sculptures to reflect the new ‘experimental’ forms of dance which he was trying to capture. I found them a beguiling combination of the rough and read, and the highly expressive.

Dance Movement D by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance Movement D by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

The Dance Movements were among the most private and experimental of Rodin’s later works. He only showed them to visitors to his studio and patrons, who commented on their rawness and energy.

On the whole I think I didn’t like them, because overall I don’t really like the rough finish and blockiness of Rodin’s style. But the small size and unexpected detail of some of them overcame that prejudice, and I did warm to several of the little figures. In fact the more I looked, the more energy I found, packed into these rough, half-finished figures.

Dance Movement I by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Dance Movement I by Auguste Rodin (c.1911) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

The twelve little figurines are in the middle of a room are offset by thirty or so sketches, drawings and gouaches which hang around the walls. These were a very mixed bag ranging from the briefest of sketches, to pieces which were thoroughly worked over with multiple lines. Others – later works apparently – used heavy charcoal pencils whose lines he then smudged to create a sense of depth and dimensionality.

Seated nude folding forward by Auguste Rodin (1910/11) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Seated nude folding forward by Auguste Rodin (1910/11) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

And there were others where he’d used watercolour or gouache to simplify the outlines and create depth and contrast. In these I liked the way the colours bled over the pencil marks, creating a further level – a colour level – of discrepancy and dynamism – as in this painting of a Cambodian dancer.

Cambodian Dancer in Profile by Auguste Rodin (1906/7) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Cambodian Dancer in Profile by Auguste Rodin (1906/7) Musée Rodin, Paris, France

Nijinsky

Off to one side is a mini-display devoted to the famous Russian avant-garde dancer, Vassily Nijinsky. Rodin was taken to see the Ballets Russes production of L’Après-midi d’un faun in May 1912 (the show includes a brilliant photo of Nijinsky wearing the parti-coloured outfit created for that role, and in one of his weird hieratic poses). Afterwards Rodin invited Diaghilev and Nijinsky to his studio and then Nijinsky stayed on to be modelled by the great sculptor.

Sketches survived but the cast for a small figure of Nijinsky was only discovered after the sculptor’s death, and only finally cast in bronze in 1957. To quote the Guardian‘s Judith Mackrell:

In the bunched up force of the curving torso and lifted leg, in the torsion of the neck and in the feral, almost goatish cast to Nijinsky’s features, Rodin captured something of the explosive impact the dancer made when he first appeared on the ballet stages of Europe.

Arguably this is the best thing in the exhibition, maybe because it is the most finished. I also like it because it most obviously connects to the Futurist, Vorticist, Cubist and Modernist sculpture which was just about to burst on the world – for example, Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space from 1913 currently in Tate Modern.

By contrast with this one hyper-modern work, the Alda Moreno pieces still seemed to cling to an essentially 19th century idiom.

But they are, nonetheless, records of a fascinating experiment, and this rare opportunity to see them all lined up in sequence is a rare opportunity to enter the thinking and vision of a man fascinated by the shape and pattern and texture and movement and expressiveness of the stretching, straining, leaping, constantly moving human body.

Related links

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s there was a fashion for popular science books, and I read as many as I could, becoming better informed about the three major subjects which dominated the lists – cosmology, paleontology with an emphasis on human origins, and environmental biology.

Among them were a number of books by E.O. Wilson, particularly the brilliant Diversity of Life (1992), which gives an unparalleled sense of the wonder and diversity of the natural world, and Richard Leakey’s book, The Sixth Extinction (1995). This latter is an often quite technical account of discoveries and debates in paleontology and environmental biology which, taken together, suggest that the rate at which humanity is killing off species of animals, plants, fish and other fauna amounts to a holocaust, a global extermination, which ranks with the other Big Five mass extinction events that have punctuated the 500-million year story of life on earth – hence the title.

Now, 20 years later, comes a book with the same title by American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. I was interested to compare the books, not only in terms of what’s changed in our understanding and the plight of nature, but in style and approach.

The situation’s got worse, of course. One third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water molluscs, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed towards extinction. (p.17) (The radio news today informs me that 7 honey bees have placed on the US endangered species list, as colony collapse disorder continues to decimate hives.)

Kolbert approaches the issue through thirteen chapters, each devoted to a specific species, combining its history, her personal trips and visits to museums or rainforests, along with profiles of key contributors to the history of ecology, and ideas in evolution or conservation thrown up by each story.

The chapters

Thus she opens by visiting a research institute in Panama devoted to trying to save the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). It explains how the fungus Batrachochrytium dendrobatadis is wiping it out, along with scores of other frog species around the world – and so the chapter introduces and explains the notion of the historic mass extinctions.

The second chapter considers discoveries in the 1700s of large bones in America and Europe, specifically of what came to be named Mammut americanum, and how it led the French naturalist George Cuvier to develop and publish a theory of species being wiped out in sudden catastrophes (in an essay published in 1812) although the term ‘catastrophist’ (someone who believes the history of life on earth is marked by long periods of stasis broken by sudden catastrophes in which entire faunas are wiped out and entire new ones replace them) wasn’t coined until 1832, by William Whewell, president of the British Geological Society.

Kolbert contrasts Cuvier’s catastrophism with the ‘uniformitarianism’ of the great geologist Charles Lyell, whose epic work on geology inspired and underpins Darwin’s thinking. It was Lyell who for the first time gave a thorough sense of the profound age of the earth and showed how it had been formed over hundreds of millions of years by slow unrelenting forces. It was this rhythm and metaphor which helped the young Darwin grope his way towards a theory that life on earth had also changed in a slow but unrelenting way due to the process he called ‘natural selection’. The key to both is a nice steady uniform speed of geological and biological processes.

We learn this in chapter three, where it is tied into the history of the great auk (Pinguinis impennis) which went extinct in the 1840s. Kolbert takes a trip to Iceland to visit a nature centre and then go by boat out to the remote island where, supposedly, the last breeding pair of great auks were caught and killed before being sold for £9. This chapter is used to point out that Darwin must have known about man-made extinctions because he witnessed them wherever he went on his epic voyage round the world in HMS Beagle (1831-36).

Chapter four tells the story of Luis Alvarez’s discovery of a layer of iridium at the geological boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, the so-called Cretaceous–Tertiary (K-T) boundary about 66 million years ago. Along with other scientists he interpreted this as meaning that the end-Cretaceous extinction, which saw about 70% of species wiped out, was caused by an asteroid or meteorite hitting earth. This chapter recounts the fierce opposition from most paleontologists who were wedded to one form or another of Lyell and Darwin’s uniformitarianism, and so harshly criticised Alvarez’s findings when they were published in 1980. As usual, Kolbert ties this account into a trip she took with paleontologists to a secret location in New Jersey where the K-T boundary is easily accessible and where they hunt for ammonite fossils.

Chapter five explains how ‘neo-catastrophism’ has become the new orthodoxy – i.e. that long periods of uniformity punctuated by disasters, have shaped the story of life and the nature of the current biosphere. This is told via a visit to Dobb’s Lyn, a mountainside stream in Scotland in heavy rain to look for glyptolites, followed by a warm dinner at a local B&B. Here the fossil hunters accompanying Kolbert explain the history of the term ‘Anthropocene’, first suggested in 2000 and now widely used.

Just as organisms are divided into kingdoms, phyla, families, genera and species, so geologists divide the entire history of the earth into eons, themselves divided into eras, which are in turn divided into periods, epochs and ages. Thus we are in the the Phanerozoic Eon, which dates from the beginning of multicellular life some 530 million years ago. This eon is divided into three eras: the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic Era and the Cenozoic Era, where ‘zoe’ is Greek for ‘life’ and paleo means old (Old Life Era), meso means ‘middle (Middle Life era) and ceno is from ‘koinos’ which means new = new life era.

Each of these eras is sub-divided into periods: the Paleozoic into the Cambrian Period, Ordovician Period, Silurian Period, Devonian Period, Carboniferous Period and Permian Period; the Mesozoic into the Triassic Period, Jurassic Period and Cretaceous Period; and the Cenozoic Era into the Paleogene Period, the Neogene Period and the Quaternary Period. And these periods are further divided into epochs: thus the most recent period, the Quaternary Period, is sub-divided into the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, the Pleistocene dated 3 million years ago to around 13,000 years ago i.e. until the end of the last ice age; the Holocene dating from around 13,000 years ago to the present day.

Over the last twenty years or so there have been growing calls from some biologists, paleontologists and archaeologists to define the epoch we’re living in as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene epoch, because human interaction with the environment is creating unprecedented changes to the entire planet.

I already knew from books and articles about the calls for our age to be named the Anthropocene – but I had never properly processed the full implications of the fact that, not only are we driving species instinct at an unprecedented rate now, in the present – but that all future life on earth will only be able to evolve and cope with changing conditions, from the smaller and smaller and smaller starting base that we are creating. It is not just the present or our children’s world that we are diminishing – but all future possibilities for life on the planet – forever.

Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. (p.269)

I had never grasped the deep historical implications of our greed and arrogance and destructiveness.

Chapter six records Kolbert’s trip to Kastello Aragonese, an islet near Ischia. The island is home to volcanic vents which release a steady stream of CO2 into the sea. Kolbert meets scientists who are researching the impact of rising CO2 levels in seawater: basically it prevents calcifiers, that is all animals which create shells, from being able to do so – starfish, barnacles, clams, oysters, and scores of thousands of other species. Never in the history of the Earth has so much CO2 been injected into the oceans so quickly. Sea life hasn’t time to adapt.

Chapter seven takes this forward via a trip to One Tree Island off the Great Barrier Reef. Here, in a rough and ready research centre, she meets an international team of scientists who say the future for all coral reefs in the world, and all the species they support is ‘grim’. By 2050 they may all be dead. The Chief Scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science has said, that he is

‘utterly humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for my children’s children.’ (quoted p.138)

She times her trip to observe the wonderful and weird sight of the annual ‘spawning’ of the corals. How many more years will it take place?

Chapter eight takes us to the rainforest of Manú National Park in southeastern Peru where scientist Miles Silman shows Kolbert around the 17 plots, each at a different altitude, which he and his assistants have marked out to explore different tropical communities. They were laid out in 2003. It incorporates the research done by Chris Thomas and colleagues from York Uni which estimate that, with worst case rates of global warming, up to 33% of Earth’s species will be exterminated. Back in Silman’s forest, Kolbert describes their research which shows that, as the climate warms up, species are in fact moving up mountains slopes to continue living in the temperature ranges they’re used to. But only so many species can even move (trees are not so mobile) and not many have mountain slopes to move up, but the real killer is speed – scientists think previous changes occurred over millions of years; we are changing the Earth’s climate in a matter of decades.

One of the defining features of the Anthropocene is that the world is changing in ways that compel species to move, and another is that it’s changing in ways that create barriers – roads, clear-cuts, cities – that prevent them from doing so. (p.189)

Chapter nine sees her in the Amazon, visiting some of the squares of rainforest left standing among areas decimated for farmland, as an ongoing scientific experiment. Lots of numbers. There are about 130 million square kilometres of land which are ice free. Of this around 70 million have been drastically remodelled by man; of the remaining 60 million three-fifths is forest. (Another study, by Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty divides the world’s surface into 18 ‘anthromes’, or types of human land-use, which says that 100 million have been altered by human hand, leaving 30 million of wildlands – Siberia, northern Canada, the Sahara, Gobi, central Australian desert.)

Kolbert is taken into the rainforest by her hosts to look for birds, incidentally observing the mad profusion of trees, plants and insects, including a huge column of soldier ants (learning that up to 300 species of animals are dependent on soldier ants and the changes they create). At the base she meets Tom Lovejoy, now in his 70s, credited with putting the phrase ‘biological diversity’ into circulation.

Chapter ten The separation of ecosystems on different continents, islands, archipelagos etc has been one of the key drivers of speciation i.e. diversity. Man began to mess that up with his ocean going journeys from about 2,000 years ago as humans sailed out across the Pacific islands, with the Maori arriving 1,000 years ago in New Zealand and devastating its wildlife. But the real ecological mixing began in the Age of Discovery, which was kicked off when Magellan sailed round the world and Columbus discovered America – the introduction of thousands of Old World species to the New World is now referred to as the ‘Columbian Exchange’.

Nowadays human transports are criss-crossing the globe in mind-boggling volumes, transporting flora, fauna and diseases to every last nook and cranny. Kolbert quotes the estimate that in any given 24 hour period some 10,000 species are being moved around the planet just in ships’ ballast water. So it’s no surprise that diseases once restricted to tiny parts of the world can now travel widely, for example the disease killing off the Panamanian frogs we met in chapter one, and the fungus killing bats in Massachusetts – white-nose syndrome – which we meet here. She follows the catastrophic decline in bat populations in Vermont which have collapsed since the fungus was first identified in 2007. In less than a decade bats have gone from flourishing to endangered, and will probably go extinct in the next decade.

Chapter eleven A visit to see Suci, a captive Sumatran rhinoceros at Cincinnati zoo, is the peg for a review of the catastrophic decline of big mammals (elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers, pandas) over the last century. This leads on to a visit to Big Bone Lick, where 19th century naturalists found fossils and bones of huge animals which once roamed North America but which were completely extinct by the 1800s.

It was American ecologist Paul Martin who popularised the Overkill Hypothesis, which is that megafaunas were hunted to extinction wherever prehistoric man went – in Australia 40,000 years ago, in America from 13,000 years ago, in New Zealand 700 years ago and so on. Kolbert presents the counter-arguments of scientists who are not convinced that handfuls of technologically primitive peoples could wipe out entire continents full of big dangerous animals; and then the counter-counter arguments educed from mathematical models, which show that, given enough time, even killing only one big beast a month could wipe out entire species in a few hundred years – which is what appears to have happened.

The conclusion of this line of thinking is that man has never lived in harmony with nature but has massacred large animals and triggered major ecological change wherever he has gone.

Chapter twelve Kolbert visits the centre in the Neander Valley in Germany where Neanderthal Man was discovered (though the cliffs and cave where he were discovered were long ago demolished for construction material). Neanderthal man (Homo neanderathlensis) existed as a branch of the Homo genus for at least 10,000 years from 130,000 to 30,000 years ago. All the evidence is that, wherever populations of the more ‘advanced’ Homo sapiens appeared, Neanderthal man soon after disappeared. As Chris Stringer discusses in his book, The Origin of Our Species, was he pushed or did he jump? Was it environmental change which did for the Neanderthals or some form of warfare with our ancestors or both which led to his extinction?

The chapter is titled ‘the madness gene’ because one scientist contrasts Neanderthals with Homo sapiens – particularly in regard to adventurousness. As far as we can tell Neanderthals made the same stone tools without any development or improvement for 100,000 years, whereas modern man’s culture evolved quickly. The cave paintings in the Dordogne region of France were made by modern man, whereas nothing comparable exists for Neanderthals. Above all, modern man spread far and wide, and the ‘madness’ idea comes in when you consider the urge, the adventurousness, the recklessness of the peoples who set off in primitive ships 2,000 years ago into the vast empty seas of the Pacific with no maps and no guides and no certainty of finding anything but ended up populating Hawaii and all the other Pacific islands, thousands of miles from the mainland. What is that if not reckless adventurism bordering on madness!

Chapter thirteen features the last trip, to San Diego Zoo which has a facility for deep freezing remains of nearly or extinct species – nicknamed the Frozen Zoo. Kolbert views vials full of deep frozen organic matter from various defunct species and wonders – is this what it will come to, will thousands and thousands of life forms survive only as sketches, photos and tubes of frozen gunk? And the reader who has followed her this far on her deeply depressing journey is forced to answer, Yes.

She pays lip service to the good intentions of the millions of nice people who support the Worldwide Fund for Nature or the National Wildlife Federation or the Wildlife Conservation Society or the African Wildlife Foundation and so on and so on. In this she makes what I regard as the classic liberal error of believing most people are like her, or us, educated middle-class, concerned, white people. As the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in Britain should have shown these kind-hearted liberals – most people are not like them. Most people in the West did not go to private school or attend university and didn’t study the humanities and don’t work in white collar professional jobs. Many are struggling to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads.

And that’s without going further afield into the Developing World where the majority of the population lives in dire poverty, without access to clean water, sewage facilities or nourishing food, and don’t give a damn about the future of the Panamanian frog or the greater mouse-eared bat or the black-faced honeycreeper, let alone the thousands of insect and plant and fungi species Kolbert’s scientists are so concerned about.

There is no great conclusion. Read it and weep. In the book’s last pages she gives a few token reasons for hope and briefly references those sad people who think it will all be OK in the end because humankind can always go off and colonise the moon, or Mars, or other solar systems. Right. She doesn’t even comment on such expensive fatuousness. a) All attempts to live in artificial atmospheres or biomes have failed because we underestimate the complexity of the ecosystem which keeps us alive. b) We can’t even run this planet, what gives anyone the idea we’d do better somewhere else. c) Are we all leaving for Mars, then? All 7 billion of us?

Words and ideas

  • Hibernacula – a place (cave, mineshaft) where creatures seek sanctuary from the winter, often to hibernate.
  • The Latitudinal Diversity Gradient – the closer to the Tropics, the more species are found in ecosystems, thus the tropical rainforest is the most varied and densely speciated environment on earth. There are some thirty different theories why this might be. The Latitudinal Diversity Gradient
  • Psychrophile – a cold-loving fungus.
  • The Signor-Lipps effect – since the fossil record of organisms is generally incomplete, this makes it hard to be confident about the ends or beginnings of taxa or families. In practice it makes what may have been sudden extinction events look long drawn out. The Signor-Lipps effect
  • The Species-Area relationship – the larger an area you sample, the more species you find. The Species-Area relationship

Summary

At first I thought it was a gimmick that each chapter focuses on one particular species and goes to one particular location (sometimes two) where she meets one or more scientists working on a particular aspect of the massive issues raised.

But after a while I realised how cleverly Kolbert was dovetailing into each chapter not only snapshots of current research, but also key moments in the history of the discipline, going back to explain the early theories of a Cuvier or Lamarck, a Darwin or Humboldt, to give her reporting a historical dimension and to explain how theories about life on earth arose and have developed over the past century or two.

And I ended up respecting and admiring the skill with which the narrative moves forward on these multiple levels at the same time – all leavened with a dry American sense of humour and an eye for evocative similes (the thin layers of slate at the K-T boundary which she is shown how to handle, fall apart like the pages of an old book; stroking the tough hide of Suci the rhino is like running your hand over tree bark, and so on.)

If you’re new to the subject, this is an excellent, very readable, fascinating, wide-ranging and first-hand account of work going on all around the world. That said, most of us are by now very familiar with this subject. And all of us know in our hearts that things will only get a lot, lot worse.


Credit

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2014. All quotes and references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

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