Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


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Ed Ruscha: Course of Empire @ the National Gallery

Room one

Room 1 of the National Gallery is just that, a normal-sized room, not a massive gallery. They use it to host smallish displays of work brought together on a common theme or by a niche artist, and the exhibitions or displays on here are generally FREE. The most recent one was a compact survey of lake paintings by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

This summer, room one is hosting a display of ten big paintings by the American artist Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha

For a start you pronounce his name ROO-SHAY. He was born in 1937.

Since the 1960s Ruscha has been producing paintings and prints depicting the American urban landscape in a highly simplified and stylised way. His subject is the modern American landscape of petrol stations, highways and industrial units, all depicted in a semi-abstract manner which emphasises cool lines, streamlined design, and dispenses with human beings altogether.

Initially associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Ruscha often incorporates commercial art elements into his paintings, prints and photography – from the 1980s onwards they have included typography, graffiti and billboards.

All this can be grasped in a glance at what is probably his most famous work, Standard Station from 1966.

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Standard Station by Ed Ruscha (1966)

Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire

In 1992 Ruscha created a number of black and white urban landscapes of Los Angeles, focusing on highly simplified views of purely architectural structures, reduced to almost cartoon simplicity, taken from below looking up, in order to remove any evidence whatsoever of street life, traffic or people.

The look like simple, box-like, utilitarian structures with no pretension to beauty, although their stark simplicity itself bespeaks a kind of urban economic power.

In 2005, Ruscha was asked to represent the United States at the 51st Venice Biennale. Ruscha had long been a fan of Thomas Cole’s great cycle of five big oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary empire, Course of Empire, on view in a gallery in New York.

Inspired by this idea of a rise and fall, a before and after, Ruscha decided to take five of his 1992 black and white paintings and revisit their locations, painting how they looked after the passage of 13 years.

And so Ruscha presented at the Biennale five of the black and white urban landscapes made in 1992, hung next to five new colour versions of these same sites, and gave the series the same title Cole had used, Course of Empire.

And this is what’s hung here in room one at the National Gallery – five massive black and white paintings of industrial units in urban L.A., each one hung above the colour view of the same location 13 years later.

Top row - Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Top row – Blue Collar Tool & Die (1992) and Blue Collar Trade School (1992), bottom row – The Old Tool & Die Building (2004) and The Old Trade School Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

The tool and die shop has been taken over by what looks from the signage to be a Korean business. The trade school has been closed down, its windows filled with plywood, locked behind a barbed wire fence which is itself showing signs of wear. The tyre shop has now become what looks like a storage facility.

You can see how simplistic the depiction of the buildings is. The complete absence of human warmth or emotion. The lack of detail. The looming presence of the sky in the top left picture, in particular.

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tires (1992) and Expansion of the Old Tires Building (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Ed and the curators made the fairly obvious decision to hang the paintings in two rows, the older ones directly above their respective partners from the later series, for the simple reason that this is a small room – the paintings are so enormous they simply wouldn’t all have fit if placed in one row.

The most puzzling thing – which wasn’t explained anywhere in the notes – is why the old paintings are black and white and the new in colour. Does it mimic the change from black and white to colour photography which took place in the 1960s? Was the blue collar world which they seem to lament a world of black and white, contrasted with the funky digital colours of our new, smart phone culture?

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Telephone (1992) and Site of a Former Telephone Booth (2005) by Ed Ruscha

It’s impossible to say that the passage of time has somehow dehumanised the landscape because there were never any humans in the landscape to start with.

And the paradox is that, although the contrast between working buildings and now empty buildings is presumably meant to convey a sense of loss or abandonment, the use of colour in the 2005 pictures actually makes them feel much more warm and welcoming.

In fact, the before and after of the telephone booth is pretty much a ‘sight gag’. Where there used to be phone booths there is now nothing at all because everyone has mobile phones. no need for the expensive-to-maintain old booths. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I was also puzzled the way the old phone booth had been replaced by a tree because trees are good, aren’t they? That sort of suggests a positive change, which goes against the gloomy declinism of most of the others.

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992) and The Old Tech-Chem Building (2003) by Ed Ruscha

So is it all a tale of woe, a snapshot of American economic decline? Or a little more complicated than that?

Certainly, all five of the 1992 paintings have the words ‘blue collar’ in the title which are absent from the 2003/4/5 titles. Is the series a lament for the passing of the traditional working class world?

Who knows. The paintings offer no more information than their straightforward content and their blankly factual titles. It’s for us to respond and interpret.

The tie-in with Thomas Cole

Why are they here in the National Gallery, now? To coincide with the big exhibition downstairs covering the career of the American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, which includes the epic five-painting cycle The Course of Empire (1834–6) which Ruscha has acknowledged as a major inspiration for his series.

It is the first time that Cole’s source set of paintings, and Ruscha’s response to them, have ever been exhibited at the same time, in the same institution.


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Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Superhero movies

‘Who are you?’
‘Someone like you.’
(Batman Begins)

‘Not all heroes wear masks’ (George Clooney as Batman in Batman and Robin)

Obviously, hundreds of millions of people have seen the superhero movies of the last two decades, bought the related dvds, games, books and merchandise, and many millions of these consumers are also experts and aficionados about every aspect of the films, as well as of the original source superhero comics.

I’ve taken my son to occasional blockbusters at the cinema, but to humour him (and understand half his conversation) I recently watched as many of these superhero films as I could easily get hold of. Originally watching just for pleasure, eventually I found myself making notes and asking questions about the tropes and ideas which recurring in so many of them.

New York

  • All six modern Spiderman movies are set in New York because that’s where the hero, Peter Parker, lives.
  • Matt Murdock /Daredevil is born and bred in New York, the emblematic Chrysler building featuring in many of the film’s set-up shots
  • The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the Baxter Building, is very obviously in New York
  • Batman’s ‘Gotham City’ is a noir version of New York and is the setting of all 11 Batman movies, including Batman Forever, in which the face of the Statue of Liberty is blown up by Two Face’s helicopter
  • Superman’s ‘Metropolis’ is transparently New York, featuring as backdrop to all eight Superman movies, and getting seriously destroyed in 2013’s Man of Steel
  • The X-Men movies travel adventurously all round the world but almost all of them gravitate back to Professor Xavier’s school for the gifted in Westchester, New York State – indeed the climax of the first X-Men movie is set right at the top of the iconic Statue of Liberty
  • Days of Future Past conveys its vision of the earth in a world desolated by war by opening in… which American city, do you think?
  • Iron Man 2 opens with a grand Stark Expo in Flushing, New York, which then becomes the site for a superbattle between Iron Man and a new breed of flying robot warriors
  • Captain Marvel starts in New York because that’s where the captain – real name Steve Rogers – grew up and, coincidentally, it’s the city the evil baddie, Red Skull, is planning to blow up at the film’s climax
  • Avengers Assemble builds to a spectacular climax in the streets and skies of New York as an army of aliens does battle with the six Avenger superheroes

If you watch any number of the films it’s impossible not to end up asking, Why are so many superhero movies obsessively set in New York City?

1. Because Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Julius Schwartz and many of the early and most influential comic-book editors, writers and artists were born and bred in New York City, loved New York and knew it very well. And since their ethos was to create superhero characters who lived in realistic places and had realistic problems, these writers set them in the place they knew best.

2. Both Marvel and DC, publishers of the leading hero comics, were originally based in New York.

3. In terms of population, New York is head and shoulders above all other American cities, with a population of 8+ million more than double its nearest rival, Los Angeles with 3.9m, and then Chicago 2.7m, Houston 2.2m, Philadelphia 1.5m, Phoenix 1.5m, San Antonio 1.4m, San Diego 1.39m, Dallas 1.3m, San Jose 1m. So a threat to New York City is a threat to the biggest population centre in America. New York means big, it means lots.

4. Also, New York is packed with iconic sights and cinematic opportunities:

  • the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Central Park – New York has lots of iconic locations and sights which we’re all familiar with from countless other movies and TV shows
  • it has a huge bay and rivers running either side of Manhattan, which allows for the creation of spectacular water effects, things to crash into causing tsunami waves, or for monsters to emerge from
  • there’s a number of tunnels for car chases to happen in, or for monsters to run along the ceilings of
  • massive bridges whose cables can be snapped or cars be pushed off
  • and, of course, New York is home to a lot of very tall buildings, good for Spider-man to sweep through or planes or missiles or monsters to fly between, or General Zod to turn into enormous toppling packs of cards

Think of the massive wave sweeping through the jammed streets of New York in The Day After Tomorrow. Film makers love destroying New York. Other American cities simply don’t have the population density, let alone the iconic buildings or the variety of natural features. They’re just not nearly as much fun to blow up.

San Francisco

San Francisco with a population of only 880,000 isn’t even in the top ten American cities population-wise, but it is a popular second choice because of the visual recognition and the mayhem potential afforded by the San Francisco bridge.

The apes rampage across the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is lifted and bodily transported by Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. All those cables to run up and down, to snap and whiplash down onto the roadway, slicing cars and trucks in half!

And a bridge also means things can hang or dangle at their peril over the edge of it. Often these are buses. If you think about it, you need something long to dangle over an edge, like the coach at the end of The Italian Job.

A good choice is a fire engine, which is both long in itself and also has extendable ladders which can unravel right to their limit, with someone hanging off the end, yelling for help, as happens twenty minutes into Fantastic Four (2005).

Maximum points if you use a school bus full of screaming children, as at the climax of Superman: The Movie (1978).

(Screaming schoolkids never go out of fashion. Captain America and the other Avengers have to save a bus full of them at the climax of Avengers Assemble, 2012, and young Clark Kent saves a school bus which goes off the edge of a bridge and is sinking in a river, in 2013’s Man of Steel. Listen to those kids in jeopardy scream!)

Skyscrapers smashed up

In these movies an incredible number of high rise buildings get damaged. They’re blown up, smashed up, hit by spaceships, meteors, flown into by jet planes, punctured by superheroes throwing each other through them, devastated by General Zod’s terraforming machine, and so on.

But there is one particularly stylised way of damaging buildings which recurs again and again. This is where the building is raked along one floor, ripped open along the same storey, as if with a tin opener – by flying debris, girders, missiles, superheroes, silver surfers, giant monsters and so on.

This ‘horizontal rip’ allows the viewer to see into the building and gives a more terrifying sense of the vulnerability and terror of the people one minute working in a humdrum office, the next minute clinging to the walls as shattered glass, office furniture and other people come tumbling out and plunge to the ground hundreds of feet below.

Every time I see these sequences I think of 9/11 – tall buildings hit along one floor, debris and people falling into the streets of New York.

The reference is obvious but still repressed when the two jumbo jets which come close to crashing into each other, but ultimately miss, at the climax of Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014). It is out in the open at the end of 2014’s Man of Steel, and even more so at the start of its sequel, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where we are actually with someone inside a skyscraper which is blown up and collapses, spewing that terrible grey cloud of debris over Bruce Wayne running helplessly towards it. It is 9/11 by any other name.

Freud developed the idea of Repetition Compulsion. This is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again, re-enacting the event or putting themselves in situations where the event is likely to happen again, repeating it over and over in an effort to assimilate it.

The obsessiveness with which these superhero movies (as well as the gamut of modern science fiction films) destroy tall buildings, over and over again, and so frequently in New York, seems to me like a compulsive attempt on the part of an entire culture’s collective unconscious to heal the trauma, to repair the wound, of 9/11.

I thought of this all the way through the last half hour of Man of Steel in which the systematic destruction of New York by a Kryptonite ‘world-maker’, and the extraordinarily prolonged fight between Superman and General Zod which destroys countless buildings, vehicles and New York landmarks, has to be seen to be believed.

So many shiny New York skyscrapers, slowly toppling to the ground, so much concrete wreckage and grey ash, so many 9/11s – again and again and again.

Car crashes

In American action movies the narrative expresses its seriousness via car crashes and traffic pile-ups. After the climax of the Blues Brothers back in 1980, with deliberately absurd excess, piled up 100 police cars in the central plaza in Chicago, you’d have thought that car pile-ups would have gotten pretty tired and old, a raddled empty cliché, but no – even though it is a really hoary cliche of these superhero/sci fi movies, they just keep on coming:

  • Superman II (1980) features an extended destruction of cars and buses by the three criminals from Krypton
  • the Penguin-guided Batmobile trashes a load of police cars in the awful Batman Returns (1992)
  • the multi-police car chase in Batman Begins (2005)
  • the Times Square power outage in The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2012) in which scores of police cars, buses and so on crash into each other
  • the multi-car pile-up caused by The Thing in the first Fantastic Four movie
  • the host of police cars which congregate on the White House in X-Men: Days of Future Past only to be shredded and blown up by the superguns of the flying robot Sentinels
  • the impressive slow-mo action car chase at the start of Deadpool with plenty of big black vans (a very popular type of vehicle in blockbuster chases and crashes) cartwheeling and shattering along the freeway
  • the high speed chase after an armoured truck carrying Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
  • the climax of The Incredible Hulk (2008) in which the Hulk and the Abomination fight it out mainly by throwing cars and buses at each other in the streets of Harlem
  • the spectacular blowing up of a car park full of vehicles by flying assassin robots in Iron Man 2
  • there’s a car pile-up in a tunnel in the first half of Avengers Assemble but that’s nothing compared to the amount of cars, buses and police cars blown up in the climactic battle in New York

And so on.

It’s as if American film-makers just can’t conceive of damage, can’t really take the idea of damage seriously, unless it’s expressed through a multi-vehicle pile-up. It’s as if the movies, lacking scale and power from the actors alone, have to call in energy from other sources – from destroying things – and from destroying the thing which is closest to most Americans’ hearts and imaginations – their cars.

Apparently, there are some 270 million vehicles licensed in the USA (trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes), making it top of the world league table for motor vehicles per capita, with 910 vehicles per 1,000 people.

America is the most carred nation in the world.

Put it this way: although there are plenty of scenes of pedestrians fleeing from carnage and explosions, nothing really says TROUBLE like a whole load of New York cars, taxis and buses all piling into each other, whether because of Godzilla, the Sandman, the Silver Surfer, Electro or General Zod.

The impotence of the police and army

The smashing-up of police cars is closely related to another familiar trope – the notion that the police and/or army are completely ineffective.

How many times have we seen the cops turn up in scores of cop cars, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and some dope with a loudhailer thinks they can stop whichever radioactive mutant superbeing is the star of this particular flic, by a) asking him to and then b) firing off their puny handguns.

Sure enough, they then fire hundreds of bullets from pistols and machine guns against the baddie(s) with no effect at all. For example, when scores of cops armed to the teeth are easily beaten by the teenage X-Men in X-Men First Class, or when a small army of New York cops unleash a storm of bullets at Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with zero effect. Or:

  • the 14 police cars and trucks and scores of armed cops which are no use at all against Magneto in the first X-Men film
  • the street full of cop cars and the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the church in Daredevil and – completely fail to capture Daredevil
  • the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the building housing the drug dealers in Batman Begins and completely fail to capture anyone
  • neither the American SWAT team in Chicago nor the Chinese SWAT team in Hong Kong can prevent Batman doing just what he wants in The Dark Knight
  • in The Dark Knight Rises the entire police force and all the SWAT teams of Gotham City are tricked underground and trapped there… for three months!
  • in all three big action sequences in The Incredible Hulk the army – starting with machine guns, then mounted guns, then helicopter gunships, then a secret sonic weapon – completely fail to quell the green beast
  • as soon as you see fighter jets, helicopters and marines going in against the rogue Kryptonians in Man of Steel, you know they are going to be annihilated

SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics team.

In the United States, SWAT teams are equipped with specialized firearms including submachine guns, assault rifles, breaching shotguns, sniper rifles, riot control agents, and stun grenades, plus specialized equipment including heavy body armor, ballistic shields, entry tools, armored vehicles, night vision devices, and motion detectors.

It’s a long way from Dixon of Dock Green, isn’t it? For decades, now, U.S. TV and film makers have been depicting urban America as a war zone.

And yet, in all these superhero movies, whenever you see a whole host of SWAT men in their black uniforms, wearing bullet proof helmets with glaring head-lamps, holding their automatic rifles to their faces, crashing into some building – it is absolutely guaranteed that they are going to be massacred or humiliated by the superhero or supervillain.

In film after film the conventional police, SWAT teams and even the army are shown to be impotent and dumb. They never get their man.

Cumulatively, this begins to have quite an undermining effect on the viewer, and begins to bleed into your perception of the highly armed American police, special forces and SWAT teams you see so often on the news. Are they really this gormless? Really this useless? Nothing we learned about the American presence in Iraq contradicts this impression.

American violence

Which brings us to the whole issue of violence, the central theme of all superhero movies. Fighting.

To the grown-up viewer is liable to notice about these scenes is the extraordinary level of everyday violence in the contemporary American imaginative universe, and how it feeds off the actual violence of everyday American life.

25 years ago I remember then-president Bill Clinton pointing out that America is a far more violent country than most Americans themselves realise. These films depict the way that that everyday violence seems to have fed down into the most basic relationships in society.

Even within the close-knit groups of ‘friends’ or comrades, even within the Fantastic Four or among the X-Men or between Peter Parker and his best friend Harry, there seems to be an endless tendency to argue, arguments which swiftly escalate to bristling standoffs, then fisticuffs, and then the guns.

American rudeness and incivility

Americans, as depicted in these movies, just can’t be civil, polite or restrained to each other.

All the little acts of politeness, the ps and qs, the common courtesies of life, have, in these films, disappeared from American life. Instead, young Americans, in thrall to a debased idea of slangy, ‘cool’, ‘street’ style, seem to operate in a mood of permanent anger, becoming furious at the smallest slight, and then resorting to extreme violence within seconds of being triggered.

Watching the inarticulate violence of many of the young people in these movies, the quickness with which they resort to bullying confrontations – at Peter Parker’s high school, or between the quick-tempered younger generation of mutants in the X-Men films – watching the way the ability to be calm and polite and well-mannered and to turn the other cheek has utterly disappeared from this culture; the way noone is capable of irony and nonchalance but immediately, upon the slightest disagreement, resorts to red-hot anger, to fists or, if they’re available, knives or guns – is terrifying.

Vide the first scene of X-Men: Apocalypse where some high school jock decides to flatten Scott/Cyclops for allegedly winking at his girl. I wonder if American high schools really are this unpleasantly confrontational and violent.

Nobody seems able to say ‘come off it guys, let’s go and play football’, or to make a joke to defuse the confrontation. Instead, square-jawed, buff, young Yanks seem to be constantly squaring up to each other while some skinny model is pulling the bully’s arm, wailing ‘Don’t do it, Brad.’

And rudeness is portrayed as prevalent at every level of American life. When Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises rudely tells the hundreds of upper-crust guests he’s invited to a glamorous ball to shove off, it is, admittedly, for a purpose (to save their lives, since bad guys have infiltrated the party and are threatening to blow it up) – but is done with the core incivility and lack of style which characterises every character in all these movies.

Almost the only person who is genuinely polite or considerate is Clark Kent and he is universally regarded as a harmless bumbling buffoon, whether played by Christoper Reeve in 1978 or  Henry Cavill in 2013.

#everydayrudeness

Screen violence

The scale of the fighting is quite staggering. I started watching these movies with my wife but she gave up along the way because she just couldn’t stomach the non-stop, stomach-churning super-violence.

If you desensitise yourself to the endless physical assaults, then it’s possible to be impressed at the skill and imagination of the fight choreographers for coming up with so any variations on what are, essentially, a small number of tropes.

My favourite is where one character seizes another by the neck and lifts them clean off the ground, generally as an interrogation technique. For example, when one of the Kryptonite baddies lifts Clark Kent’s mom simply with one hand round her throat, in Man of Steel. The camera always pans down the victim’s body to show their feet lifted clear off the ground. Wow! Ain’t he strong!

In the more advanced form, the seizer then throws the seizee right across the room, with the roughneck violence characteristic of all these films. If they’re a superbaddy, they throw the victim clear through the nearest wall.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s hometown of Smallville is more or less obliterated in his epic fight with the bad Kryptonites, and I lost count of the number of walls Superman throws them through or they throw him through, at supersonic speed.

Violence as sick humour

As the past two decades have progressed, the violence of these films has become more cruel and cynical.

When I saw the opening of The Dark Knight in the cinema I was disgusted by the nihilistic cynicism of the opening ‘joke’, namely that the gang of a dozen crooks who break into a bank have instructions to shoot dead each of their colleagues once he’s done his job. Bang bang bang, people are just shot dead at point blank range. In the olden days they’d have been tied up or knocked out. Now American crims just shoot anyone who gets in their way. And the script makes wisecracks about it. Ha ha ha.

Later, the Joker does a magic trick when he’s intimidating a roomful of crime lords. He blu-tacks a pencil to make it sticking upright on a table, and says his magic trick will be to make the pencil disappear. A thuggish goon comes up to threaten him, and the Joker in one swift movement, grabs the man’s head and baps it down into the table, the pencil entering the baddy’s eyeball and into his brain – so that when the Joker lifts the dead goon’s head and pushes his body away to collapse onto the floor, the pencil goes with it. He has made it disapear. Ta-dah! Funny, eh?

The first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies contain, I think, the most sickening violence of all the movies listed below. They don’t just ‘glamorise’ violence, they glamorise a particular type of sick, twisted, black humorous attitude towards violence.

Aware of the climate of sick, amoral, super-violence which these movies promote and revel in, it comes as no surprise to outsiders like us to read about incidents like this:

On July 20, 2012, during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman wearing a gas mask opened fire inside the theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Police responding to the shooting apprehended a suspect later identified as 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes shortly after arriving on the scene. Initial reports stated that Holmes identified himself as ‘the Joker’ at the time of his arrest. (Wikipedia)

Does the continual, full-spectrum broadcasting of sick super-violence influence the epidemic of mass shootings in America which just seems to be getting worse and worse – or does it just accurately reflect a culture awash with guns which has completely lost all moral bearings?

A  few seconds’ searching on the internet quickly tells you that:

  • a 2015 report by The Economist magazine found that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985
  • there’s a Hollywood room at the National Rifle Association museum where guns used by stars like Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone are on display
  • if you’re in the gun-selling business, the best way to make a gun a best-seller is to pay to have it showcased in a big Hollywood movie

Gun crime, gun murder, gun massacres, are a big and pressing problem (for America) but whether there’s any causality between hyper-violent, super-cynical, mass murder in movies and in ‘real life’, or it’s just a coincidental correlation, as defenders of the films claim – either way, it’s not a healthy culture, is it?

Kill all opposition

Admittedly, a small handful of characters preach what you could call ‘humanistic’ or even Christian values – like listening to each other, talking over problems, jaw-jaw is better than war-war or even, in wild moments, the notion of forgiving each other and moving on.

But these are momentary blips in a great ocean of violence. Instant anger between anyone who disagrees about anything quickly escalates to standoffs, insults, then punches, then knives, guns and – these days – Uzi machine guns. The extended ten-minute Uzi shootout with Yakuza mobsters in The Wolverine can stand as emblematic of a world of super-armed hyper-violence.

But the extraordinary level of armed violence is just a symptom, or surface symbol, of the deep structure of all these films, namely:

There is a good guy. There are one or more bad guys. The good guy can try to talk to the bad guy for a while, or have sarcastic wisecracking dialogue with him. There will be encounters of growing menace and threat. But sooner or later all this chat and phoney politeness can lead to only one thing – an intense fight, which itself can only end with the death and eradication of the antagonist.

Ultimately, you cannot talk to the enemy – all talk proves to be pointless – ultimately, all you can do is exterminate the enemy.

‘There’s only one way this ends, Cal – either you die or I do.’ (General Zod in Man of Steel)

From school corridors to outer space, these multi-million dollar blockbuster movies promote the same lesson again and again and again – that talking is a waste of time, reasoned argument is waste of breath, that the only solution to even a mild conflict of opinion, is obliterating your enemy. Shoot them. Kill them all.

American high school

In these movies American high schools all look the same and appear to be populated by either stunning models or tough-guy bullies.

The rudeness, roughness, the bullying and intimidation, the lateness and sloppiness and disrespect for the teachers which is universal in these films paint a dismal picture of America’s education system.

The bullying of nerdy outsider Peter Parker goes a long way to conveying to the detached viewer a culture of bullying and outsiderness which appears to be the seedbed for all the high school shootings that have become such a regular feature of American schools.

The movies depict a teen culture which is completely homogenous, in which everyone is a jock or a babe, drives cars, hangs out, strives to be ‘cool’ – and strongly convey that not to be part of this stiflingly conformist culture is to be lost.

The films convey such a stiflingly conformist ‘cool’ culture of jocks and babes, it comes as no surprise to learn that the real-life high school shootings are almost always carried out by the loners, the outsiders, the stiffs who are rejected and mocked by the bullying, laughing world of ‘insiders’, the good looking handsome jocks and babes.

They may also just be deranged, with a history of mental problems, like Nikolas Cruz:

But whatever the causation, you’d have thought a culture which produces billion-dollar entertainments glamorising epic violence and psychotic mass killers might pause and reflect on the fact that its products are produced and consumed in a culture characterised – like no other culture in the world – by mass killings by psychotic killers.

Schools

In fact schools feature heavily in many of these films. The X-Men plots rotate around Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted (i.e. mutants). All six Spider-Man movies rotate around the tiresome high school which Peter Parker attends.

As settings, schools have the advantage that:

  1. They relate directly to the films’ target audience – teens or those mentally in their teens
  2. They’re an excuse for lots of characters to live, work and face jeopardy in the same space
  3. There’s no need for the workaday world of jobs, work, parenting or any of the responsibilities that tie down real people and would get in the way of a lot of plot- all accommodation and food is taken care of, there’s no commuting, no babies crying etc, just teenagers running round screaming ‘We have to save him’ or ‘We have to find them’

Scenes of supernatural fighting in these schools inevitably bring to mind the eight Harry Potter movies (2001 to 2011) which take advantage of many of the same features:

  • a teen audience
  • a confined space with lots of dramatic potential
  • no adult responsibilities

Adults pretending to be young and models pretending to be ordinary people

On the subject of depicting school children –

I found the two Amazing Spiderman movies insufferable because of Andrew Garfield’s stuttering, inarticulate portrayal of the central character. When he has dinner at his girlfriend’s house, he picks a fight with the parents; when he argues with his aunt in Amazing Spider-Man 2 I think it’s intended to be funny but his character comes over as inarticulate, rude and ill-mannered. He comes over as a graceless dick.

But I found a more profound problem with the films was the glaring discrepancy between the ages of the actors and the ages of the characters they’re meant to be playing.

In both Amazing Spiderman movies Parker has the same love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by actress Emma Stone. In AS1 both Parker and Stacy are meant to be 17 years old. In fact, the actress who played her, Emma Stone, was 23 and Garfield was 28. In AS2 they are both meant to be graduating from high school aged just 18, but were in fact 25 and 30, respectively.

It’s not just implausible but… a touch creepy, watching grown adults play children.

The same problem afflicts Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). In this version Peter Parker is meant to be even younger (15) but the actor playing him was 20. Worse, Parker’s love interest, Liz, is played by Laura Harrier, who was 27.

27 playing 15?

Not only that, but Harrier is a model who has done a fair share of ‘glamour’ modeling i.e. wearing only her underwear or less. She has the lean, muscular body of a young woman, not a girl of 15. Maybe I’m being way too serious, too much the middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter myself, but I find it creepy that a woman who’s nearly 30 years old and has modeled half-nude, is cast as a 15-year-old in a wildly popular teen movie.

Do 15 year-old girls need to feel under any more pressure than they already do to conform to soft-porn, adult fantasies of what women should look like – impossibly skinny, half-dressed, thrusting boobs, pouting towards the male viewer? Is this helping or making things worse?

You have to trust me

In almost every movie there comes a moment where one character asks another to trust them. In the audience we’re all screaming ‘Just tell him what goddamm happened,’ but that’s not the point. They never explain. They’re always in too much of a hurry, the cops are coming, the bad guys are only seconds away. ‘You have to trust me.’

As a trope it maximises tension. Instead of non-stop chasing, it creates a kind of crux or tipping point, it creates a mini-climax. And in terms of character ‘development’, often it’s two characters who haven’t got on very well, now being forced to bond.

If movies are designed to serve up thrills and spills, this is a classic moment of tension and suspense. That said, I can’t think of a single occasion when the character didn’t trust the one asking.

  • The Gambler to Wolverine: ‘You need to trust me. We have to go.’ (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 1:34:20)
  • Quicksilver to Wolverine: ‘How do I know I can trust you?’ (X-Men: The Days of Future Past, 0:38:40)
  • Magneto to his wife: ‘I trusted you then. I need you to trust me now.’ (X-Men: Apocalypse 0:29:50)
  • Tony Stark to James Rhodes: ‘You got to trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.’ (Iron Man 2 0:44:00)

‘Trust’ or lack of, is the central issue coming between George Clooney’s Batman and his new sidekick Robin, in 1997’s Batman and Robin, repeated in almost all the dialogue between them.

Rogue government agencies

In how many of these kinds of movies does it turn out that there’s a secret government agency carrying out illegal experiments or a top secret scientific programme, generally to build the ultimate weapon?

The X-Files TV series was based on the idea that the government was concealing its knowledge of alien activity and – and this is the point – was prepared to go to any lengths – which meant murdering anyone – to keep it secret.

The premise of the Jason Bourne movies was that Bourne had volunteered to be turned into the supreme killing machine, a perfect assassination machine, by a top secret government programme, but had then been badly wounded and lost his memory. The entire suite of movies is dominated by the homicidal determination of the agency doing this research (Operation Treadstone) to murder anyone who stands in its way.

The backstory of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a classic example of the trope: Wolverine (original name Logan) was experimented on to create a super-human killing machine. In that movie this program progressed to develop an even more violent super-killer, X11, which becomes known as Deadpool.

Rogue corporations

‘Sir, we have a situation.’
(Line used by a flunky to the evil CEO in both Daredevil and Batman Begins)

And if it’s not a rogue government department, it’s a rogue corporation. How many of these are there?

  • Cyberdyne Systems is the private corporation which devises the technology for the Terminator robots
  • Oscorp Industries is the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation which develops the technology responsible for Spider-Man and his enemy the Green Goblin
  • It’s Von Doom Industries headed by the bullish Victor von Doom which transports four scientists to its space station to observe a mysterious power source passing close to earth and which instead gives the Fantastic Four their superpowers, while also mutating von Doom into the imaginatively named Dr Doom.
  • William Stryker appears in several of the X-Men movies running rogue programmes – In X-Men Origins: Wolverine he runs the ‘Weapon X’ project which embeds Wolverine’s body with the indestructible metal, adamantine, before going on to create an even more lethal human weapon, Weapon XI, who will go on to become known as Deadpool.
  • In Deadpool the movie, the plot is changed to that the ‘hero’ acquires his superpowers after being subjected to horrific treatments at a private facility run by ‘Ajax’.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past is centred on a rogue programme being run by scientist Bolivar Trask at his Trask Corporation to create anti-mutant robots, or ‘sentinels’.
  • In Logan the Transigen Corporation has bred a cohort of test tube children made from captured mutant DNA with a view to breeding them as weaponised soldiers, supervised by creepy ‘doctor’ Zander Rice.

Corporate-level science is depicted throughout these movies as hi-tech, evil and sadistic.

This trope is taken to a new level when the rogue corporation in question happens to be owned by the very hero of the story.

  • In Iron Man Stark Industries is taken over behind Tony Stark’s back by evil Jeff Bridges who creates a super-evil robot man.
  • In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne’s own corporation (the imaginatively titled Wayne Enterprises) is not only taken away from him by the scheming CEO but used to fund his enemies

Broadly speaking, anybody functioning above a high-school romance level of existence – whether they be lawyers, doctors, scientists or businessmen – is portrayed as wicked and corrupt. This makes sense when you reflect that the comics were always targeted at nerdy teenagers.

Heterosexual

These movies are crashingly heterosexual, in a number of ways.

1. Romances They involve lots of romances, good, clean, heterosexual romances. Half the narrative of the Spider-Man movies is made up of Peter Parker’s endlessly on-again off-again romance with Mary Jane Watson (in the Toby Maguire trilogy) or Gwen Stacy (in the couple of Amazing Spider-Man films) or Liz (in the MCU reboot). The Wolverine character falls in love with a Canadian teacher in X-Men: Origins but this can’t eclipse the strength of his love for Jean Grey, played by the unreally beautiful Famke Janssen. It is disappointing that Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Tony Stark’s secretary in the Iron Man trilogy, inevitably falls in love with him.

These movies teach that all people are heterosexual and randy, so that any man and woman working closely together will end up ‘falling in love’, or be compelled to notice each other as potential partners / sex objects. Not a good attitude, is it?

2. Marriage The Fantastic Four movies (2004, 2007) are among my favourites because they grasp from the get-go that these films have to be funny to survive (a comedic tone successfully copied in the Iron Man series). Thus the Silver Surfer movie is punctuated by the comedic attempts of the stunningly good-looking Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd to get married, the ceremony continually being interrupted by threats of the end of the world which only they can avert – and we all know how distracting that can be.

3. Models A dismaying number of modern American ‘actors’ – male and female – started their careers as models. I.e. despite all the feminism and political correctness to the contrary, looks looks looks are what count in Hollywood. ‘Acting ability’, second. As a selection from the movies I’ve watched recently.

  • Jennifer Connelly – model then actress (Hulk)
  • Nick Nolte – model then actor (Hulk)
  • Chris O’Donnell – model then actor (Batman Forever)
  • James Marsden – Versace model then actor (The X-Men)
  • Kirsten Dunst – model then actress (Spider-Man)
  • Tom Welling – model then actor (Smallville)

4. Buff The men in these movies are impossibly buff and toned. As the X-Men films progress, Logan – played by Hugh Jackman – goes from being fit and hunky to superhumanly muscular and ripped. Any other male character who gets his top off similarly displays an awesomely defined set of musculature (e.g. Christ Evans who spends half the Fantastic Four films topless in order to showcase his awesome six pack). Even supposedly 15-year-old Peter Parker in Spider-Man: The Homecoming pulls his shirt off to reveal an impressively ripped, toned, hyper-muscled, super-athlete body. Henry Cavill gets to be topless early in Man of Steel, revealing a quite awesomely ripped torso.

And then there’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor:

Bloody hell.

5. Hot The women in these movies are impossibly ‘glamorous’, meaning – young, thin and buxom. A dismaying number of them started their careers as models and many still do modeling gigs i.e. looks looks looks is what counts – the ability to be able to walk and speak at the same time, a lot less important.

Thin, slender women with model good looks and ample busts

Cat-eyed models

There’s a noticeable sub-type of ‘buff’ or ‘hot’, a distinctive ‘look’ which is unusually common in these films. The actors are slightly cat-looking, with eyes far apart and cat-like.

Possibly, it’s more noticeable in the men:

It’s a look pioneered by David Keith, who came to fame in 1982’s An Officer and A Gentleman – a square face with a strong jawline and wide apart, narrow, slit-like eyes.

Of course, not all the actors in all the movies look like this – but enough of them do for it to be a noticeable trend.

And it’s even more obvious in the TV spin-offs. In the same shops where I bought second-hand superhero movies I kept seeing covers of the TV vampire series Angel (1999-2004) which starred the hunky, square-faced, lynx-eyed David Boreanaz.

Or box sets of the popular show Smallville which features model-turned-actor, moody and magnificent Tom Welling.

You don’t have to have model good looks to be a Hollywood star – but it certainly helps.

Feminism and superheroes

In this respect it’s amazing that feminists appear to support and encourage this preposterously unreal world of skinny, busty, youthful models posing as actors. I genuinely don’t understand why this image on the London Underground sparked such a storm of protest:

for being a degrading, objectifying, sexist and sexualised way of portraying women, which adds to the oppressive culture of body perfection and body shaming which afflicts so many young women (my daughter included)… and yet pretty much the same impossibly thin and airbrushed-to-perfection, sexy body shape as demonstrated by model-turned-actress, former Miss Israel 2004, Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman in 2017 –

was praised by feminists as ’empowering’.

Slender model in figure-hugging skimpy clothes is a) degrading b) empowering. Which?

And it’s a little mind-boggling that, in 2018, the Wikipedia articles for all of these superhero movies consistently describe the lead women in them as the ‘love interest’ of the men.

In the deep conception of these films, in their stories and characters, the men are always the focus of the narratives, the centres of strength, integrity and endurance, the only ones with characters worth undergoing crises and development.

The ‘love interests’ only exist as bolt-on extras.

It’s almost surprising that the ‘love interests’ even bother to have names, since their role is mostly to pout and be skinny enough to attract the hero – after a bit of resistance, to give in and kiss him – then to get captured and placed in jeopardy by the super-baddie – and then to be rescued by the hero leading up to the cheesy Happy Ending.

I’ve just watched Thor in which the creators probably thought they were ’empowering’ Natalie Portman’s character by making her a clever scientist who understands long words – but her actual behaviour is a rehash of any 1950s brainless dolly bird.

First, she’s portrayed as a comically useless woman driver who keeps running the hapless Thor over in her camper van. She thinks he’s weird until she catches sight of him topless, flexing his awesome musculature, at which point she is abruptly smitten like a hormonal schoolgirl.

Then, when Thor kisses her hand like a perfect gent, she realises she is in lurv with him, like a bimbo out of Clueless.

And then, when this enormous, tall, ripped gentleman turns out to be a superhero capable of battling a giant fire-shooting metal monster – she succumbs to full-on, helpless hero worship.

Thor was released in 2008. Surely, from a feminist point of view, in its characterisation of the breathless man-worship of the central female character, it might as well have been 1958?

The changing American accent

The American accent seems to have changed during my lifetime i.e. the past 50 years, in terms of sound and speed.

1. More gutteral The sound has become more gutteral and strangulated, making it often difficult to understand what characters are saying. Compare and contrast the full articulation of a British actor like James McAvoy, with the strangulated articulation of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, in the second trilogy of X-Men films. Younger Americans seem to create consonant sounds right at the back of the throat as if they’re swallowing them rather than projecting them outwards. It’s related to a speaking style which was identified as ‘Valley Speak’ back in the 1990s and seems to have spread, at least throughout films.

In this clip listen to the way actress Anne Hathaway moves between fully articulated voice and strangled voice at points like 2:20 (‘Don’t condescend Mr Wayne, you don’t know [and here she begins to strangle the words] a thing about me’) and 2:46 (‘Once you’ve done what you had to [switching to strangled] they’ll never let you do what you want to’).

Is it just the way movie actors and young Americans speak now? To my ear it denotes an attitude of cynicism or nihilism. She strangles her words in order to convey a don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Along with a strong, exaggerated emphasis on the ‘r’ sound, this strangulated style of speaking conveys a ‘who gives a shit’ mindset, perfectly in tune with the prevailing violence and wanton destruction of the films.

2. Fast The other element of American English’s ongoing evolution, is the speed with which young Americans speak. I found it difficult to understand much of what Jennifer Lawrence (27) was saying in the X-Men films, but almost impossible to understand what Jacob Batalon (20) was saying in Spiderman The Homecoming, because he just speaks so fast.

Here are three ‘young’ actors from Spider-Man: The Homecoming trying to express themselves. My point is not about them and the interviewer coming over as idiots – which they do – and more about their manner of speaking: the speed and strangulated articulation seem to be turning American English into a new language in front of our ears.

Surely there are academic studies about the ways young American English is mutating away from its British source.

Money

Movies make a lot of money. In 2017 Hollywood’s domestic turnover was $11.1 billion, with global revenues of $39.9 billion – giving a neat total of $51 billion.

Below is a list of the most high profile superhero movies of the past twenty years, along with budget each one cost to make, and each one’s gross revenue.

Maybe fashion, in its widest sense, taking in every element of popular style, as well as hair styles and cosmetics, is the most far-reaching cultural influence on the world.

But arguably nothing has the same high-profile impact on global culture as American films. And, among films in general, these high-profile ‘blockbuster’ movies surely have the biggest reach of any films, in terms of marketing, hype, merchandising and viewers.

And they teach two fundamental lessons:

  • worship of an unattainable Body Perfection, for both men and women
  • worship of the most confrontational hyper-masculinity imaginable, again and again promoting the idea that the only kind of dialogue which men with even slightly differing views can have must consist of hard-ass confrontations swiftly leading to super-violence

Superhero movies mentioned in this review

1978 Superman: The Movie ($300 million gross on a $55 million budget)

1980 Superman II ($190 million gross on a $54 million budget)
1983 Superman III ($80 million gross on a $39 million budget)
1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($37 million gross / $17 million budget)

1989 Batman ($411 million gross / $35 million budget)
1992 Batman Returns ($267 million / $80 million)

1995 Batman Forever ($336 million / $100 million)
1997 Batman & Robin ($238 / $125 million)
1998 Blade ($131 million / $45 million budget)
1999 The Matrix ($464 million / $63 million)

2000 X-Men ($296 million / $75 million)
2002 Blade II ($155 million / $54 million)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million / $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million / $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million / $125 million)
2003 Hulk ($245 million / $147 million)

2003 The Matrix Reloaded ($742 million / $150 million)
2003 The Matrix Revolutions ($427 million / $110 million)

2004 Blade Trinity  ($129 million / $65 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million / $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million / $200 million)
2004 Hellboy ($99 million / $66 million)

2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2011 Green Lantern ($219 million / $200 million)

2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers Assemble ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)

2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Avengers: Infinity War

A Brief History of Superheroes by Brian J. Robb (2014)

Robb has previously written biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. This volume is one of a series titled ‘A brief guide to [or history of] …’ which includes guides to Stephen King, ghost-hunting, the Roman Empire, Star Wars and any other topics they thought would sell.

No illustrations

At 340 pages, including notes and index, it’s quite a long book, but its most obvious feature is that there are no illustrations, none, nada, zip – which is a big drawback seeing as comic books are a largely visual medium. When it gives descriptions of the early artwork for Superman, or how Batman’s look was refined over time, or the visual makeover of many comic book heroes in the 1960s, the reader is crying out for illustrations to show what he’s talking about. But you have to turn to the internet to do your own research…

So the book is solely prose, made up of thumbnail profiles of the writers, artists and publishers who created comic book superheroes, along with a dense account of how they developed and evolved over time.

Superman 1938

Comic Superhero history starts in May 1938 when Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1. In other words, Superman is 80 years old this year, in fact this month!

He was the creation of two schoolfriends from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Everything before this date is the pre-history of superhero comics; everything afterwards is the complex unfolding of superhero comic history.

Cultural forebears of superheroes

The prehistory is entertaining because Robb (like many others writing on the subject) feels compelled to give a brisk popular history of the wide-ranging role of ‘the hero’ in myth, legend, history and folklore (the word ‘hero’ is itself of Greek derivation).

Thus a man gifted with magic powers to protect his people can be made to include Moses and Aaron and the Biblical hero Samson. It can include the pantheon of Greek gods and mortal heroes like Heracles, Perseus and Theseus. Robb quotes Joseph Campbell on the importance of ‘the Journey’ in numerous ancient stories about heroes, and references the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and the Mahabharata as cultural forebears of Batman and Robin. This is both fun and a little pompous.

Folklore forebears of superheroes

More persuasive is the notion of a lineage from more folklore elements of ‘the hero’ through to the popular fictions of the late 19th century. Robin Hood and Dick Turpin are two prime examples. Robin Hood is not only an epitome of schoolboy morality (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) but he wears an early version of the superhero costume: tights and a distinctive cap, all in bright primary colours (Lincoln green with some red thrown in). Dick Turpin concealed his face behind a neckerchief and a pulled-down hat, and wore a cloak or cape.

Pop culture forebears of superheroes

But in fact, historians have no idea what Robin Hood or Dick Turpin wore. The images I’ve described above derive from movies, and it is Hollywood which is probably the prime factor in the origin of the superhero look.

Superheroes didn’t derive from scholarly study of ancient mythology and folklore: they came out of the extraordinary rich, bubbling swamp of popular and pulp culture of the 1920s. If Jerry and Joe knew about Sherlock Holmes or the Scarlet Pimpernel it wasn’t from reading the books about them (Sherlock had debuted in 1887, the Pimpernel in 1905). It was from paying a few cents to sit in the cheap seats of the local movie house, chomping on popcorn and watching the adventure films of a movie star like Douglas Fairbanks, who starred in a movie about Zorro (created 1919, turned into a movie in 1920), Robin Hood (1922) or the Black Pirate (1926).

In a sense superheroes began in the movies before, in our time, returning to the movies.

Like other historians of the subject, Robb pays special attention to characters with dual identities, a standard feature of most comic book superheroes – the classic example being Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(Although if you stop and think about it for a moment, a dual identity is a basic element of almost all detective, spy and crime fiction of the kind that was growing more and more popular at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th. Many thousands of detective stories take their time working up to the grand ‘reveal’ of the ‘true identity’ of the criminal, of the dope dealer or jewel thief or murderer etc caught by Sherlock Holmes or any one of the hundreds of copycat detectives invented in the 1890s and 1900s. (See my review of The Shadows of Sherlock Holmes a collection of stories about fictional detectives inspired by Holmes.) Spy stories, are by their very nature, about people concealing their true task and intentions.

Anyway, Robb’s book becomes really interesting when it gets to the extraordinarily dense jungle of popular culture which flowered in the 1890s and then just got denser and denser in the decades that followed, proliferating in penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers, pulp magazines, newspaper supplements and then in the new format of moving pictures and related magazines and merchandising.

Robb dwells on two Edwardian doers of good deeds who hid their true identity:

  • the Scarlet Pimpernel (real name Sir Percy Blakeney) who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine, leaving a calling card with a picture of the pimpernel flower
  • Zorro, who wears a black face mask and cape, protects the poor of California, and leaves a distinctive ‘Z’ carved into various objects with his stylish swordplay

Just as important for a superhero is the fiendish villain, and these were prefigured by – among many – Holmes’s opponent, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty, or the diabolical criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (1913).

British hero fiction included John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay who debuted in 1915, followed by the more thuggish Bulldog Drummond, who appeared in 1920. Lesley Charteris’s crime-fighting hero, the Saint, first appeared in 1928. Biggles the heroic fighter pilot first appeared in 1932. All these heroes were morally unambiguous fighters against Crime and Fiendish Plots.

In America the spread of radio gave rise to a florid variety of heroic fighters against crime: the Shadow, a masked crime-fighting vigilante (1930), the Spider (1933) and Doc Savage (1933), a kind of ‘peak human’, reared to have perfect abilities, who had a base in mid-town Manhattan and a rich armoury of state-of-the-art gadgets, funded by money from a secret Mayan goldmine, to help him fight crime.

In 1936 the Green Hornet, another crime-fighting, masked vigilante was created specially for radio. Also in 1936 appeared The Phantom, who wore a skin-tight bodysuit and a ‘domino’ eye-mask to fight crime.

Off in another part of the rich jungle of popular and pulp culture which exploded around the time of the Great War, was the more unrestrained world of science fiction and fantasy. Important forebears were John Carter of Mars (1912) and Tarzan (1912), both created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Francis Nowlan’s hero Buck Rogers (1928) and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian (1932), soon joined by Alex Raymond’s newspaper strip hero Flash Gordon (1934).

What these numerous figures have in common is that they are modern, pulp versions of ‘the hero’, who always outwit their fiendish opponents after a string of exciting adventures, and that they appear in series or serials: once invented they can appear in almost limitless numbers of adventures (as Conan Doyle, who came to hate his invention, Sherlock Holmes, knew all too well).

By now you might share the feeling I had that the first appearance of Superman in 1938 was maybe not quite the dazzling innovation I thought it was; in fact reading about this proliferation of heroes might make you wonder why it took quite so long to come up with what seems to be the logical conclusion of all these trends.

Robb tells the story of how two teenagers from Cleveland conceived the idea, developed it over many years, were repeatedly rejected by newspapers and comic publishers, and were forced to work on other characters and projects, until finally given their big break in 1938.

I found the two most interesting things about Superman were:

1. His descent not so much from all these detectives and crime fighters, but from the Victorian circus strongman. These popular performers generally wore tights and pants, a figure-hugging suit to highlight their musculature which was strapped in with an impressive belt, and often stylised boots.

Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the 'superhero look'

A Victorian circus strongman, whose shiny boots, tight pants, utility belt and stylised vest all anticipate the ‘superhero look’

2. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the exclusive rights to their then-new character, Superman to DC (short for Detective Comics) Publishing for just $130 (split between the two of them). Superman was an instant hit and not only went on to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the publisher and the film company that eventually bought it, but to inspire an entire genre of superhero fiction across all media.

As they watched this happen Siegel and Shuster continued to work as a comic book writer and illustrator, respectively, but made repeated attempts to sue for a share of the vast revenue generated by their invention. In fact their heirs are still locked in litigation with DC’s parent company, Time Warner, to this day.

The development of the comic strip

Robb gives a brief and fascinating recap of how the comic strip itself evolved. As far back as the record stretches, human beings have always told stories. Bas-relief carvings on Greek and Indian temples capture moments from religious or legendary narratives. (Robb doesn’t mention it but I’d have thought the 12 Stations of the Cross which appear in tens of thousands of Catholic churches are an early example of a story told through snapshots of key moments.) He does mention the use of ‘scroll speech’ in medieval and Renaissance art work, where a scroll unfolds from a figure’s mouth, containing their speech (something I’m familiar with from my readings of the British Civil Wars).

17th century cartoon with speech scroll

17th century Civil War cartoon with speech scroll

Robb says the next step forward was marked by the popular engravings of the 18th century artist William Hogarth, famous for the series of pictures which depict The Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. These popular engravings showed the decline of the eponymous rake and harlot with plenty of humorous detail. They gave rise to similar pictorial sequences by Rodolphe Töpfler later in the century, and by the Victorian artist Gustave Doré, among others. Throughout the 19th century Punch in Britain and similar magazines across the Continent used cartoons, often with speech captions, to convey narratives with punch lines.

Capitalist competition creates comics

But all these sometimes dubious historical antecedents are there simply to pave the way for the real start of popular comic books which, as with most things American, came out of ferocious competition to make money.

Starting in 1887 a newspaper war was waged between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empires. One among many fronts in this war was the innovation of cartoon strips with catchy titles and populist characters. In 1892 The Little Bears was created by Jimmy Swinnerton for Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, probably the first cartoon strip anywhere which featured regularly recurring characters.

In 1895 Pulitzer debuted a strip titled The Yellow Kid for his paper The New York World, drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, which pioneered the use of speech text to indicate dialogue. In 1897 the paper added a supplement featuring just Outcault’s strips and expanding it to describe an array of characters from the yellow kid’s neightbourhood – titled McFadden’s Row of Flats – and a new term, ‘comic book’, was invented to describe it.

As a direct response to all this, Hearst’s New York Journal commissioned their own strip, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks. Dirks developed Outcault’s device of speech balloons and invented the ‘thought balloon’, indicated by a series of bubbles leading up to the text balloon itself. The same year saw the first use of colour printing (as the name, The Yellow Kid, indicates).

These kind of narrative cartoons featuring recurring characters proved tremendously popular (nicer, after all, than reading the depressing news) and spread like wildfire to every other newspaper which could find a decent illustrator. By 1912 Hearst was devoting an entire page of the New York Daily Journal to comic strips, a feature which became known as the ‘funny pages’, the ‘funny papers’, or simply ‘the funnies’.

It was quickly realised that the strips which appeared during the week could be repackaged into a bumper weekend supplement. Rather than broadsheet size, it made financial and practical sense to publish them in magazine format, which was easier for readers to handle and read. The comic book was born.

Superhero history

So much for the multi-stranded prehistory of the comic superhero.

The publication of Superman in 1938 transformed the landscape, inventing a whole new genre of superhero. From this point onwards Robb’s book becomes a dense and fascinating account of how numerous newspapers and publishers sought to cash in on the fad by creating their own superheroes. He describes the complicated evolution of the two publishing houses which would eventually become known as Marvel and DC, and reading his book gives you a good sense of the difference between them.

Basically, DC owned Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) who spawned hundreds of imitators but managed to remain ahead of the pack. Through the war years the superheroes performed their patriotic duty with a strong sideline in film noir-style violence against all manner of crime or fantasy baddies.

In the 1950s there was a moral backlash against comics, with a nationwide panic in America that they were one of many influences turning teenagers into ‘juvenile delinquents’. This resulted in 1954 in the establishment of The Comics Code Authority (CCA) which forced comic books to abandon much violence and all references to drugs and sex, tending to replace hard 1940s stories with softer, romance elements.

Marvel began existence in 1939 as ‘Timely Publications’, and by the early 1950s was generally known as Atlas Comics. The Marvel branding began 1961 with a rack of superhero titles created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. Robb describes the period 1961-62 as a kind of annus mirabilis, during which Lee oversaw the creation of The Fantastic Four and their nemesis Dr Doom (November 1961), Ant-Man (January 1962), the Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Spider-Man (August 1962), the Mighty Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the Avengers (September 1963) and the X-men (1963).

Even if you think comic books are rubbish, this is by any measure still an incredible outpouring of creativity, the creation of characters which would go on to have multi-billion dollar futures in popular culture.

Although other artists and writers were involved, Stan Lee is commonly associated with this outburst of imagination and the key element of it seems to have been his conviction that superheroes must be flawed – realistic characters who often struggle with their own superpowers. Thus Spider-Man is deeply confused about how to use his skills, the X-Men bicker amongst themselves, the Fantastic Four are riven by rivalries, and the Hulk considers committing suicide he is so upset by the scientific accident which has turned him into a monster.

It was this troubled psychology which set them completely apart from DC’s untroubled hero Superman and made them feel more contemporary than their older cousins (although, admittedly, DC’s Batman is a much darker creation).

In a second nod to contemporary concerns, Lee’s Marvel creations were nearly all connected to contemporary paranoia about the atom bomb and atomic energy. It is radioactivity which messes up the DNA of almost all these superheroes, a paranoia about the potentially damaging impact of modern science which remains relevant right down to the present day.

It is this more ‘modern’ way of conceiving superhero psychology, as well as the more modern concerns about science, which possibly account for the relative success of the Marvel characters in the movies, and the rather staid, static quality of the DC movies.

The difference between the Superman era and the Fantastic Four era is recognised by comic book historians who have divided the past eighty years into a series of ‘ages’.

The golden age of comic books was from 1938 to about 1950, when waning interest in superheroes was capped by the baleful influence of the Comics Code Authority.

The silver age of comic books is dated from DC Comics’ new character Flash, introduced in Showcase #4 in October 1956. This led up to the Marvel outburst in the early 1960s which spawned a great sprawling cast not only of heroes but of baddies and enemies. This era also another important Marvel innovation, which was introducing one set of heroes into the adventures or ‘universe’ of another set. As the 1960s progressed, the interactions of heroes from different narratives became not only more complex in itself, but led to the notion of parallel worlds in which the various characters might have different superpowers, fight each other and even die.

The bronze age of comic books runs from about 1970 to 1985. The bright, Pop optimism of the 1960s turned into a nitty-gritty concern with social ‘issues’, such as the environment, feminism, racism and drugs, along with more realistic depictions of alcoholism, addiction, urban decay and so on.

Alongside the two giants of Marvel and DC there arose a new wave of independent comic book publishers who took a whole new approach to the superhero genre. This was crystallised in the epoch-making Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, which set out to deconstruct the entire mythos of superheroes.

Superheroes in movies

Although Robb doesn’t quite make this point, his book ends where it began, with the movies. Not with the distant antecedents of Gilgamesh or Robin Hood, but with the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster loved the movies and were influenced by what they saw, by the sight of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way across the screen and that now, we in our time, queue up to watch the Amazing Spiderman, Thor and Iron Man swing across our multiplex 3D screens.

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Poster for Douglas Fairbanks in The Mask of Zorro (1920)

Radio Robb’s last few chapters give a bewilderingly dense account of the way superheroes were adapted to other media beyond comic books. Radio was the first, and it’s interesting to learn that radio developed catchphrases, plot lines and even new characters, which hadn’t existed in the original comics but which the comics then co-opted.

Television From the 1950s various television series portrayed superheroes, probably the most memorable being the camp classic Batman of the 1960s.

Animations Movies were slower to adapt superheroes because of the technical challenges of portraying superhero action. It was easier to do this in animations, so there have been scores of animated TV shows and movies about superheroes.

The Modern Age of Superhero Movies starts with Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman in the film of the same name, directed by Richard Donner in 1978. Although the special effects look creaky to the modern eye, they were a quantum step up from all previous attempts and made superhero film-making a real possibility. there were three sequels released in 1980, 1983 and 1987.

The next benchmark was the pair of Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton. Robb is great on the showbusiness gossip and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring which accompanied these films, for example the way that Keaton, previously known for light comic roles, was widely opposed by fans who mounted a campaign to prevent him taking the role. In the event, Burton’s two Batman movies (Batman, 1989 and Batman Returns 1992) were seen as a triumph.

Robb details the ongoing attempts to stage other superhero movies which met with mixed success, and a fair share of dazzling flops. Along with most fans he considers the last two Reeve Superman movies (Superman III, 1983 and Superman IV, 1987) and the Val Kilmer and George Clooney Batmen (Batman Forever, 1995, and Batman and Robin, 1997) to be disasters.

The modern age of superhero movies

The Current Age of Superhero Movies was launched with the X-Men directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000. With an intelligent script, with the steadying presence of two top class British actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) and with state-of-the-art, computer-generated graphics, X-Men inaugurated the modern age.

It cost a lot to make, but it:

a) made a fortune
b) spawned a host of sequels (there are now no fewer than 10 films in the X-Men series)
c) as well as numerous television spin-offs

And so helped to create the superhero cultural, film and TV universe that we now inhabit. This is a list of the main superhero movies of the last 18 years, excluding various flops and failures, with an indication of their costs and revenues.

2000 X-Men ($296 million gross on $75 million budget)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million on $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million on $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million on $125 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million on $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million on $200 million)
2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)
2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp
2018 Avengers: Infinity War
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Deadpool 2

Quite a few, aren’t there?

The first superhero movie to gross over a billion dollars was Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight and six other superhero movies have grossed over a billion since then. The X-Men movies between them have generated $5 billion.

In 2010 Marvel produced the first in a carefully planned sequence of movies designed to maximise revenue from their stable of characters, and which has become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is divided into ‘phases’ of six movies each, the first five of each phase devoted to individual Marvel heroes, the sixth bringing the previous five altogether into a grand finale which ties together plotlines from the previous movies.

As I write we are approaching the end of Phase Three, which has just seen the phenomenal success of Black Panther (phase 3, movie 5) which grossed over $1.3 billion, and paved the way for the sixth in this phase, Avengers: Infinity War which has just opened in the States to the usual mass marketing and hype.

Summary

VAST amounts have been written about every one of these movies, alongside the TV spin-offs, the comics which adopt their plotlines, the novelisations, as well as a world of merchandising, toys, t-shirts, video games, and so on.

Despite having no illustrations at all, Robb’s book is an eminently readable and very enjoyable overview of the entire history of the superhero comic book phenomenon, which puts it in the context of popular culture, twentieth century history, the evolving media of radio, TV and film, all told in a light, accessible prose style and a sure sense of the interesting anecdote and fascinating fact.

Great fun, and a very useful introduction to a cultural phenomenon which is bigger than ever, and set to dominate our movie and TV screens for the foreseeable future.


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Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power @ Tate Modern

Back to the 1960s, again

America again (after American Prints at the British Museum, America after the Fall at the Royal Academy, Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy, Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern, Alexander Calder at Tate Modern). Can’t have too much art from America.

And the 1960s again (after The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern and You Say You Want A Revolution at the V&A). The 1960s are art curators’ favourite decade, a brief period when words like ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ actually seemed to mean something.

Let’s just take it for granted that the averagely-educated person knows that the 1960s were a time of ‘turmoil and change’, especially in an America racked by the escalating tragedy of the Vietnam War which led to an explosion of student activism and widespread popular unrest etc.

Various key figures were assassinated – John Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968) – adding to the sense of permanent crisis. The counter-culture of drugs, folk, jazz, poetry, experimental theatre and film which had existed in tiny beatnik enclaves in the 1950s went mainstream, reaching a heady climax in the summer of love of 1967 by which time free love, LSD, flower power and all the rest of it were widely publicised in music, film, newspapers, magazines, TV and on the streets.

There was an explosion of experimentation in all the arts and especially in popular music, which is more enduring and accessible than any other art form – the songs of the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, through Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream and hundreds of other groups and singers – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan – immediately recall for most people a decade and a time very few of us personally experienced, but which we have been exposed to again and again in celebratory documentaries, biographies, albums, movies and adverts as a kind of peak of creative endeavour.

Afro-American clichés

A major strand of the general outburst of popular culture and protest was the ongoing demand for equal civil rights by a wide range of Afro-American organisations, voices and artists.

As indicated above, it is pop music which endures longest in the collective imagination and so most of us are familiar with the brilliant achievement of countless black recording artists (and behind them the network of black writers, producers, agents, clubs etc) such as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Otis Redding, the whole Motown stable as well as the amazing array of great jazz artists, the obvious ones being Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Anyone with a TV will have seen the world-famous images of the Civil Rights movement as replayed over and over again in documentaries about the time (such as the video at the American Prints exhibition which gave a three-minute whistle-stop tour of America in the 1960s to a soundtrack of The Doors) – Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, black teenagers being hosed down by Alabama cops, and so on. (The ‘I have a dream’ speech is played on a loop on a bank of TV monitors positioned just outside the exhibition, alongside information panels about black cultural icons of the time like Malcolm X and James Baldwin.)

Here’s a clip from it, just in case you’ve never heard or seen it before.

Soul of a nation

So given our over-familiarity with the period and most of its obvious cultural products, it comes as a genuine surprise to realise the scale and breadth of black art during this period. For this exhibition turns out to be very successful at going beneath the popular images of the decade to exhibit the specifically Black art of the 1960s and 70s, and especially the work linked with the political movements for civil rights – from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers and so on.

No fewer than 65 black artists feature in the exhibition, working across a bewildering range of styles and media.

Rather than attempting to summarise it, you’d best take a look at Tate’s own room-by-room guide to the exhibition. (Realising the importance of contemporary black music, this walk through the show includes recommended listening from contemporary musicians.)

The 12 rooms of the show range from a number of movements, galleries and artists in New York, to the very different feel of West Coast black artists.

There’s a room of black-and-white photos by a range of photographers: apparently Roy DeCarava was the big daddy of black photographers but plenty of others are on show; I especially liked the shots of jazz musician John Coltrane and his drummer Elvin Jones, since I’ve been a big fan of both since discovering them as a student. But there are also evocative b&w shots by plenty of other black artists, the terrific street scenes of Beuford Smith and the more politically engaged photos of Herb Randall.

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

Couple Walking by Roy DeCarava © Courtesy Sherry DeCarava and the DeCarava Archives

There are icons of blackness in a room titled Black heroes. This includes a series of semi-naive figurative oil paintings by Barkley Hendricks.

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Icon For My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People-Bobby Seale) (1969) by Barkley Hendricks © Barkley K. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

There’s a room dedicated to the work of Betye Saar, an artist who works in wood, found objects and carving with a primitive vibe. The more I looked, the more I liked.

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Beye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

Eye (1972) by Betye Saar © Betye Saar. Courtesy of the Artist and Roberts and Tilton, Los Angeles, California

At the start of the show many of the works are directly political, referring to specific incidents of police brutality or discrimination. A good example is Dana Chandler’s powerful sculpture of a life-sized bullet-ridden door to commemorate the shooting of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in his Chicago apartment in 1969.

A number of photo-montages create a disconcerting sense of poverty, anxiety and dislocation, reminiscent in technique of similar cut-ups from the Weimar Republic back in the 1930s.

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Pittsburgh Memory by Romare Bearden (1964) © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017

Anger and political activism, a refusal to take any more white racism, violence and discrimination leap from many of the exhibits, which commemorate both specific outrages and negative events as well as celebrating positive moments, political heroes and speeches and gestures of resistance.

Did the bear sit under the tree by benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Did the bear sit under a tree? by Benny Andrews (1969) © Estate of Benny Andrews/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

There was a room of sculptures referencing Black African traditions, variations on the kind of wooden fetishes studded with nails which you can see in the British Museum. I liked the works of Noah Purifoy, including Totem and various untitled fetishes.

And hanging on the wall of room 4 (titled ‘Los Angeles Assemblages’) was a series of great twisted metal sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

I have nothing against political art – I enjoyed the exhibition of Peter Kennard‘s highly political art at the Imperial War Museum – and like a lot of the stuff here, but it’s also fair to say that looking at umpteen images of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X sometimes has the same effect as looking at the dusty old album covers in the V&A’s 1960s exhibition – it seemed to emphasise how long, long ago all this revolutionary fury was. And all this hope for change.

Repeated invocations in titles and works themselves of ‘the revolution’ and ‘revolutionaries’, references to the revolutionary writings of Malcolm X or the revolutionary activism of Angela Davis, all remind us just how dated hopes of some kind of social revolution along Soviet or Maoist lines now seem.

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

Black Unity (1969) by Elizabeth Catlett © Catlett Mora Family Trust/DACS, London/VAGA, NY 2017

For as with all exhibitions from the 1960s, we now view these works over at least two seismic historical dividing lines – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the start of the War on Terror in 2001. ‘Power to the people’ is a rallying cry from a long-distant time.

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

Revolutionary (1972) by Wadsworth Jarrell. Courtesy Lusenhop Fine Art © Wadsworth Jarrell

The curators raise, or mention, a number of ‘issues’ which were hotly debated at the time – ‘Is there a distinct Black aesthetic?’ ‘Should a Black artist’s work focus only on the Black struggle?’ ‘Should the Black artist address only a Black audience, or a universal audience?’ and so on. My son has just taken his A-levels and all these ‘issues’ have a kind of rounded, academic A-Level feel to them.

Certainly, many of the works here do focus on the Black experience, take Black people as subjects, try to create a Black art, an art of Black protest and an art of Black celebration, and so on…

But, on this visit, on a bright summer’s day, I ended up liking the far more abstract (and larger and more colourful) work to be found in room 7 (titled ‘East Coast abstraction’) and then room 10 (‘Improvisation and Experimentation’).

Some of these were huge and, if they had political or social undertones, they tended to be eclipsed by their sheer size and power as works of art. Very big, colourful works by Frank Bowling appear in both rooms 7 and 10.

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Texas Louise (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy of the Rennie Collection, Vancouver © Frank Bowling

Next to this one was an enormous work by Melvin Edwards (the sculpture whose Lynch fragments I liked earlier on). It is a huge curtain made from dangling strands of barbed wire, joined along the bottom by chains. A reference to slavery? Probably. But also just an awesome object in its own right.

Also in the same room was a huge canvas, painted abstract shapes and colours but designed to be knotted at the top differently everywhere it is hung. Doesn’t sound much but it is big, covering an entire wall.

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Carousel Change (1970) by Sam Gilliam © Tate. Image courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Nearby sits a huge lump of ebony-black smooth wood, a sculpture titled Self by Martin Puryear. Ominous, absorbing light, filling the space, a meditation on blackness, a threat, a calming influence – make of it what you will.

There’s a lot of anger, the reminders of horrible atrocities, racism, murders and violence in this exhibition. There’s a lot of defiance and pride and rejoicing in black icons and heroes. There’s a lot of fist-clenching and right-on rhetoric about the revolution — I think the average educated person will know about these ideas or issues already.

Where this exhibition scores is in showing the sheer diversity, range and imagination of all these Black artists, creating art for all occasions, impassioned and political, or cool photographs of street life and jazz musicians, or huge awe-inspiring abstractions. There’s something for all moods and all personalities. Go see which bits you like.

Maybe part of the reason I like the bigger abstract works is because they suggest that the response to racist atrocity needn’t itself be full of anger and hate. Alabama is a piece of music John Coltrane wrote in response to a terrorist attack which shocked America, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite and a timing device under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and injured 22 others. How stupid, wicked and evil racism is. What extraordinary beauty Coltrane – and many of the Black artists on display here – managed to extract from it.


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Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


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The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

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