The Good Soldier Švejk – the life of Jaroslav Hašek

The Penguin edition of The Good Soldier Švejk features a fascinating introduction by the translator Cecil Parrot, which includes an outline of the life of its author, the Czech journalist, agitator and scapegrace, Jaroslav Hašek.

Hašek’s life is arguably more exciting and improbable than the plots of most novels, and it helps that Parrott tells it in a deadpan way which brings out its Švejkian improbability.

Early years

Hašek was born in 1883, the son of an impoverished school teacher who proceeded to drink himself to death, setting the tone for the little boy’s life. At the tender age of thirteen Hašek was sent out to work in a chemist’s and began to develop a taste for dissipation. By the age of 16 he had also taken a liking for vagrancy, taking long trips through Moravia, Slovakia, Hungary and Galicia, supporting himself by begging and hanging out with gypsies and vagabonds and beggars.

In 1902 he got a job at the Slavia Bank but soon lost it for going AWOL on more of his long, penniless hikes. He then tried to make a living by writing but from 1900 to 1908 only got slight newspaper articles published, not enough to live on.

He had early shown signs of being an anti-social trouble-maker. In 1897 (aged 14) he’d enthusiastically taken part in the anti-German riots in Prague, tearing down police posters, wrecking symbols of the Hapsburg Monarchy, helping set fire to the yard of a German civilian. In 1906 he joined an anarchist group and went on demonstrations and agitations, which led to regular arrests and short spells of imprisonment.

In 1907 Hašek became editor of the anarchist journal Komuna and gave lectures to audiences of workers. He was put on a watchlist by Austrian police informers, until he was arrested and sentenced to a month in prison for assaulting a policeman during a protest.

True love

Meanwhile, he’d fallen in love with Jarmila Mayer, the daughter of a Prague decorator, but her father insisted that if he was to win her hand, Hašek better change his ways. In 1908 he was arrested a mere twice but Jarmila’s family continued to think him unsuitable husband material and removed her from Prague. Hašek took a train to her country hideaway to try and see her, but had no money for a return ticket and, characteristically, walked the 60 miles back to Prague.

In 1909 Hašek made a renewed attempt to earn his living by writing and produced 64 short stories (!), most of them published in Karikatury, a magazine edited by Josef Lada, who was to create the famous illustrations for The Good Soldier Švejk over a decade later. Hašek succeeded a friend as editor of a magazine called Animal World, though he was soon sacked for making up invented animals – an incident attributed to the one-year volunteer, Marek in Švejk (pp.323-328).

In 1910, amazingly, having worn her and her family down, Hašek finally married his Jarmila – and also managed to write 75 short stories. In 1911 Hašek published in Karikatury the first of his stories about the Good Soldier Švejk. In 1912 a set of them was collected in a volume, The Good Soldier Švejk and Other Strange Stories.

Hoaxing and politicking

Meanwhile, Hašek took his practical joking and hoaxing to a new level when he pretended to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river at Prague. After he was fished out, he was sent to a lunatic asylum, which presumably forms the basis for the asylum episode in volume one of Švejk.

Hašek then set about setting up a ‘cynological’ institute, having stumbled across this grand-sounding word in an encyclopedia, the institute being not much more than a pet shop specialising in dogs. Again, no coincidence that in the novel Švejk is a dog seller by trade.

Hašek then set up his own political party – The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within The Limits of the Law, a name which is clearly satirical in its po-facedness – and stood as a candidate in a general election, although in his public speeches he ridiculed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and all its works.

In 1913 his marriage to Jarmila ended. They had a baby son, Richard, who Jarmila took back to live with her parents. Left to his own devices, Hašek reverted to hard-drinking, losing a job at a Prague newspaper for attacking the political faction which ran it. Slowly he abandoned all attempts at respectability and eventually went underground, off the grid. For a while he lived with his friend Josef Lada, writing stories and cooking. He was, by all accounts, an excellent cook.

At the start of the war Hašek carried out another notorious hoax, checking into a famous brothel-cum-hotel in Prague under an assumed Russian name and putting it about that he was spying on the Austrian General Staff. The police surrounded the hotel and moved in to nab this high-ranking spy – only to realise they had only captured the hoaxer and ‘notorious hooligan’ Hašek. He was given five days in prison.

By this stage anyone familiar with Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk will recognise in Hašek’s biography not only specific incidents (the dog selling, the animal magazine) but, more tellingly, the fundamental rhythm of the novel, in which the dim and incorrigibly innocent hero is repeatedly arrested and interrogated by all manner of authorities, civil and military, all across Bohemia and Austria, sentenced to short spells in the clink, released, meets,drinks and chats with friends until he gets into trouble again, is hauled up by more authorities, questioned, and sentenced to another brief spell in the cells. And so on.

Hašek in the Great War

In 1915 the 32-year-old Hašek was drafted to the 91st Infantry Regiment, the same regiment to which his creation Švejk is assigned. And just like Švejk, Hašek was sent with the regiment to České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, then via the outskirts of Vienna to Királyhida in Hungary, and so East to the Front in Galicia (southern Poland).

Like the name of the regiment and its itinerary, Hašek barely bothered to change the names of the real-life people he served with. Thus a Lieutenant Lukáš, who Hašek knew in the regiment appears in the novel as… Lieutenant Lukáš, and his company commander Captain Ságner appears as…Captain Ságner, while Švejk shared an office with one Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vanék who turns up in the novel as… Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vanék 🙂

Hašek wasn’t long at the Front before he was captured, on 23 September 1915 after the Russians overran the 91st regiment’s position. The Russians treated their captured fellow Slavs worst of all the different ethnic groups of prisoners of war. Hašek was sent to a POW camp near Kiev, and then on to another one in the Urals.

The Czech Legion

But when Hašek learned that the Russians were supervising the formation of a volunteer unit recruited from Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Germans, he immediately applied and was accepted. His journalistic experience meant he naturally gravitated towards a job in the propaganda unit. The Czech Legion also published its own journal and it was in this that Hašek published a second series of stories about Švejk titled The Good Soldier Švejk In Captivity. It was published as a book in Kiev in 1917.

Characteristically, however, Hašek soon got into trouble for his outspoken opinions, and for lampooning the leadership of the Legion. Nonetheless he continued in anti-Austrian and pro-Czech stance, and was also a strong Russophil, supporting the Romanov dynasty right up until it was overthrown in the October 1917 revolution.

The Czech Legion had an odd history, the powers that be deciding to send it East to Vladivostok with the plan that it would take ship across the Pacific, then train across America, then ship across the Atlantic, to join the French fighting the Germans on the Western Front. In the event, nothing like that happened, the Czechs becoming caught up in the Bolshevik revolution, and ended up fighting the Red Army and among themselves.

Hašek had always though travelling round the world to get to the war was bonkers, and so had headed to revolutionary Moscow where, in a surprising move, he joined the Bolshevik Party. Thus when the Bolsheviks signed a peace with Germany in March 1918, the Czech Legion declared them enemies to Czech independence and Hašek, for his alliance with them, a traitor. The Red Army sent Hašek to Samara in Central Asia where he agitated among the soldiers of the Legion and set up a recruiting office for the Czechoslovak Red Army. But when Samara fell to the Legion – which at one stage controlled large areas surrounding the Trans-Siberian Express – he had to flee his fellow countrymen in disguise.

As the Red Army stabilised the military situation and the Bolsheviks cemented their hold on power, Hašek set out to make a career within the party. In December 2018 he was appointed deputy Commander of the town of Bugulma. Based on this experience, he wrote a series of humorous stories about a small town in Russia.

In 1919 Hašek was appointed Secretary of the Committee of Foreign Communists in the town of Ufa, then Secretary of the Party Cell of the printing office of The Red Arrow magazine, then next year Head of the International Section of the Political Department of the Fifth Army. What had happened to the drunken wastrel and ne’er-do-well? Astonishingly, he gave up drinking and led a sober, responsible and orderly life for the thirty months of his Bolshevik membership.

Back to Prague

Towards the end of 1920, however, a visiting delegation of Czech Communists asked him to come and help the party in his homeland, and he was allowed to leave, turning back up in Prague in December 1920. Here he started writing articles for Rudé právo, the newspaper of the Left Wing of the Social Democratic Party, which was to become the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Hašek had brought a wife back from Russia, Alexandra Lvova, some said a relative of a Russian royal, though she was in fact a print worker he met at one of the Bolshevik papers. It proved difficult to get a job. Now he was considered not only a notorious hooligan and anarchist, but a deserter, a traitor and a Bolshevik. He started drinking heavily again.

The Good Soldier Švejk

But he had returned from his adventures with a plan for a novel, a big novel, and in 1921 he started writing The Good Soldier Švejk, a huge comic novel about an unsinkable simpleton who floats through life getting into endless scrapes with authority without ever losing his cheerful optimism.

Hašek planned the book to be in six volumes (each of the existing volumes is about 220 pages long in the Penguin translation) but, at least a first, no reputable publisher would touch it, and so Hašek was forced to publish the first volume privately.

However, to everyone’s surprise, it sold and a publisher committed to bringing out the second one, paying Hašek enough money to buy a modest cottage in the countryside east of Prague, where he dictated the following volumes. Dictated, mind.

Jaroslav Hašek and Alexandra Lvova, Lipnice, October 1922

But, alas, nearly thirty years of hard drinking and irregular living had taken their toll. Hašek fell ill and died of heart failure on 3 January 1923. The only mourners at his funeral were his 11-year-old son Richard and a few friends. He’d had got half way through the fourth volume when he was struck down.

A friend, Karel Vanek, gamely completed this fourth volume, but his continuation is never included in definitive editions. Three and a half volumes is all we have, although they make a whopping 750 pages in Parrott’s Penguin translation.

Themes

So what themes emerge from Hašek’s life that are relevant to his great novel?

  1. vagrancy – living life on the move, constantly coming to new locations, into new situations
  2. alcohol – the universal solvent and social glue – all good chaps naturally bond and unwind over a glass of beer or a bottle of wine
  3. police – continual trouble with the police resulting in arrests, detetntions in custody and short prison sentences
  4. army – life in barracks training, then war, then being a prisoner of war
  5. Josef Lada – the friend for most of his adult life, who published his stories, who he lived with for a while, and who went on to create the illustrations for The Good Soldier Švejk which helped seal its popularity

Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel (2)

The doubts and misgivings fought back, locked his head in a vise grip, kept him from sleeping, and once again drove him to the edge of madness.
(The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel, page 346)

Pawel’s enjoyable 466-page biography of Franz Kafka falls roughly into two parts. Part one deals with the deep historical roots of the Jewish communities in Austro-Hungarian Bohemia, explaining Kafka’s father, Herrmann, as part of the generation of Jews from poor often rural communities who migrated to the cities, adopted modern urban dress and manners, and tried to make a go of various business ventures. Their children grew up alienated from traditional Jewish culture but not accepted by, in fact often fiercely rejected by, the Germanic minority in Bohemia and the growingly nationalistic Czech majority.

It was into this fraught political and cultural situation that young Franz Kafka (born 1883) grew to adulthood, part of an entire generation of young Jewish writers and artists and composers who lived in an embattled position, between two worlds (between their abandoned Jewish heritage and the Germanic culture they were trying to assimilate to), feeling at home in neither, feeling:

the infinite loneliness of the Western Jew adrift on hostile seas, with no land in sight and neither hope nor faith to sustain him. (p.249)

This big historical fact explains why such a disproportionate number of the fathers of Modernism in the arts and sciences were Germanised Jews, heirs to two great traditions, but outsiders to both, at home nowhere.

The list would include father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (b.1856 in Moravia), the father of Zionism Theodor Herzl (b.1860 Budapest), Gustav Mahler (b.1860 in modern-day Czech republic), the father of the atonal music Arnold Schoenberg (b.1874, Vienna) and, in the succeeding generation, a rush of talent including the novelists Max Brod (Prague 1884) and Hermann Broch (Vienna, 1886), the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Vienna,1889), and so on.

In Pawel’s view, they all inherited the Jewish tradition of extremely scrupulous attention to language and meaning, heirs to generations of rabbis and teachers who had devoted their lives to poring over the meaning of the Torah, the Talmud and practicing Midrash:

a Jewish mode of interpretation that not only engages the words of the text, behind the text, and beyond the text, but also focuses on each letter, and the words left unsaid by each line. (Vanessa Lovelace quoted on Wikipedia)

Except that, having largely been deprived of the actual teachings and content of that religious worldview, they applied the same fanatical attention to the conditions of modern life, and to language itself.

In the final analysis, the novel is language, and language has been a matter of life and death among Jews ever since the errant desert tribe smashed its idols and enshrined instead the word as its God. (p.323)

Thus the paradox that Kafka, born in Prague, surrounded by ethnic Czechs, from a strong Jewish tradition, nonetheless developed into what most experts agree was the greatest writer of German prose in the twentieth century.

So much for part one. It also, of course includes detailed accounts of Kafka’s father, mother, sisters, of his junior and high school career and his interest in contemporary political and social movements (Zionism and communism being the two most distinct and powerful), as well as fascinating pen portraits of Kafka’s contemporaries, friends, and many of the key writers, thinkers and journalists, the ‘Prague litterateurs‘, of the time.

Part two

However, about half way through the book everything changes: very quickly, Kafka simultaneously gets a serious girlfriend, writes his breakthrough piece of prose, begins to hobnob with literary circles, and first starts to get short pieces published in magazines. With this dramatic change in plot and tone I found the book becoming distinctly less interesting.

Take the girlfriends. We know that Kafka was an astonishingly regular visitor to brothels, and had sex with a large number of serving girls and waitresses, because he says so in his diaries (and he told his friends and girlfriends; and also, because all the men he knew did the same). In the classic style of his day, however, he struggled to form relationships with ‘nice’ girls. The key ones were:

  • Felice Bauer (1912-17) to whom he got engaged – ‘a woman whom he desperately wanted to love but seldom even liked’ (p.393)
  • Julie Wohryzek (1919) to whom he got engaged
  • Milena Jesenská (1919-20) tough Bohemian, rebel, and translator of his works into Czech
  • Dora Dymant (1923-24) devoted carer for the last year of his life, as Kafka wasted away and died

The thing is, the stories of his relationships with them are boring. Or, more precisely, they are interesting and surprising and sometimes shocking – but in a normal kind of way. They sound like the troubled relationships between any famous writer and his girlfriends. With a few changes we could be reading about John Keats and Fanny Brawne, or George Orwell and Sonia Brownell. They meet, they sort of fall in love, they write numerous letters to each other, there are disagreements and hesitations and fallings out. It’s boring, it’s everyday. It’s like reading the Daily Mail describing Kim and Kanye’s ups and downs. It’s like every other literary love affair you’ve ever read. They belong to the world, our kind of world.

Whereas, the whole point about Kafka is the off-the-scale weirdness of his writings, a strangeness and intensity which can make a critic like Walter Benjamin conceive of him as creating fragments dragged from the primordial experiences of proto-humans, from a dark prehistory before writing or maybe even stories existed.

That is how some of his texts make you feel, a:

primordial awe of the mystery of things, of the miraculous and the enigmatic inherent in every facet of what others took for granted, source of his genius and agony… (p.282)

Reading the pathetic letters in which Kafka spent five years coming up with every excuse in the book not to marry Felice Bauer, sort of interesting and occasionally funny in itself, nonetheless feels like a crashing descent from the giddy heights of his actual works.

Same goes for the major new theme which enters the biography, which is close attention to the chronology of his works, to explaining what was begun when, where it was continued, when it was broken off, and so on.

Two days after writing his first letter to Felice (who he had been introduced to at a soiree held by Max Brod), Kafka had a massive creative and psychological breakthrough, staying up all night on 22 September 1912 to write The Judgement (p.270). Within weeks he had written another short story, and was also writing letters to Felice at a phenomenal rate (he was eventually to write her no fewer than five hundred letters). From this point onwards the biography becomes increasingly cluttered with the dates and times of his innumerable letters, cross-referenced against the dates when he wrote, dropped, picked up, published or returned to his numerous stories and fragments.

It has a sort of trainspotter level of interest but I couldn’t get that excited to learn that, for example, he wrote so and so chapters of The Trial on such and such dates, pausing to knock off so and so story (he wrote In The Penal Colony in three days in October 1914), or that in November 1914 his on again-off again relationship with Felice hit yet another snag because in a letter dated 26th she asked him x and in his reply he …

The deep historical and social background which lay behind the artistic flowering of his entire generation, now that was riveting. And the role of the Jewish tradition that lay behind much of Kafka’s mindset, that was riveting. But the fact that when his relationship with Felice hit a low point she despatched a girlfriend to Prague (she lived throughout their relationship in distant Berlin) to try and intercede with Kafka on her behalf… this seemed like silly shopgirl gossip. It doesn’t have anything like the same weight and significance as Pawel’s earlier insights.

Girlfriend trouble and the fear of marriage

Well, when I say normal, nothing about Kafka was normal. The agonising five-year relationship with Felice was characterised by astonishing anxiety, self-pity, hypochondria, alienation, complaining and proclamations of despair on Kafka’s part.

Unmarried, he was neither a man nor a Jew – a non-Jew, non-German, non-Czech, none but his own naked self adrift in a cold and hostile world. (p.289)

Felice, by contrast, came from a sensible successful family, and was solid and straightforward. She thought his ailments could be cleared up by fresh air, exercise and the tender loving care of a woman like herself. What on earth did she see in him?

The mismatch between her stolid bourgeois spirit (epitomised by the revolting heavy, stuffed Biedermeyer furniture she wanted to buy to fill their apartment with, once they were married) and the world-class anxiety, terror, dread and super-sensitivity of her boyfriend, tips over from being pitiable and tragic, into becoming almost funny.

In fact Pawel does eventually begin to satirise Kafka’s unrelenting self-pity, mocking the absurd lengths Kafka went to in order to avoid meeting his ‘fiancee’. And indeed, as the reader ploughs through the stream of excuses and self-criticism and the endless, whining hypochondria, it’s hard not, eventually, to lose patience and start smiling:

  • ‘I am just barely healthy enough for myself, but not healthy enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood.’ (quoted page 285)
  • ‘What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’, that would not be sufficient, but like the dead.’ (p.295)
  • ‘I am desperate like a caged rat, racked by headaches and insomnia…’ (p.341)
  • ‘I wake after bad nights with my mouth wide open and my abused and tortured body like an alien and disgusting presence in my bed.’ (p.313)

(You don’t have to be a genius to connect this last quote, a description of himself waking after troubled nights to be disgusted at his own physical presence in bed, with the mindset of The Metamorphosis.)

Above all, Kafka didn’t want to ever actually meet Felice, developing a huge list of reasons why it would be a bad idea. And, indeed, on the few occasions when they did actually meet in the flesh, it was a catastrophe of sullen silence and misunderstandings..

Kafka was drawn to marriage yet terrified by it. He needed someone to look after him and yet, like every writer, wanted to be left utterly alone with the complete freedom to create. He had a horror of intimacy, of the invasion of his private space, of the disgusting rituals of copulation (p.265).

His repeated likenings of marriage to death, Death, DEATH, eventually become ludicrous. ‘The request threw him into a panic’ Pawel writes on page 395 and this could refer to just about any request any of his women made to meet him, let alone the terrifying possibility of one of them actually marrying him. And the mortifying possibility of having to live with a woman!

It is entirely characteristic that when Kafka had his first major pulmonary haemorrhage in 1917, coughing up blood in his apartment, he was relieved! Now he didn’t have to marry Felice, and he was so relieved at the thought that, after the bleeding died down, he had the first good night’s sleep he’d had in months!

And when the diagnosis of tuberculosis was confirmed by specialists, Kafka was thrilled to be able to finally break up with Felice definitely, after five long years of self-torture and recrimination. He went to stay with his sister in the countryside for what he later thought of as the happiest period of his life.

Chronology of the works

It is interesting up to a point to learn about the conditions under which he wrote various works. It is a little bit interesting to learn about the origins of the plot for Amerika. It is incongruous to learn that he began writing The Trial as the First World War broke out and continued writing it up till January 1915. Sort of.

It is quaint to learn the the bulk of the short stories published in his lifetime (in the Country Doctor volume) were written in a little old cottage on a thoroughfare improbably named Golden Lane, built up behind Prague castle by order of King Rudolf II in 1597, so poky he had to bend over to get in the doorway, but which he found blessedly quiet (p.352).

Quaint in a tourist itinerary sort of way, but it doesn’t in the slightest help you appreciate the works. On the contrary, gossipy titbits like this tend to short-circuit the mental energy which really entering into the worldview of Kafka’s fiction requires of the reader.

My point is that knowing precisely when he wrote a particular story or chapter doesn’t at all help you understand or penetrate deeper into its meaning. The rough order, especially of the novels – America 1912, Trial 1914, Castle 1922 – probably helps.

It’s certainly interesting to learn that the big spurt of writing The Trial took place in a prolonged lull in his relationship with Felice Bauer (August – December 1914) and that, when she finally got back in touch and they started corresponding towards the end of 1914, this threw him into such emotional turmoil that he lost concentration and that is why writing of The Trial got weaker and then fizzled out altogether.

But these facts don’t help you enjoy or understand The Trial, though, do they?

So a lot of the second half is taken up with nailing down on precisely which days, weeks or months he wrote, or probably wrote, or started or abandoned this or that story, and it’s sort of interesting in a Sudoku, jigsaw sort of way. But not as interesting as the big ideas in the first half.


Highlights and notes

Hypochondria In the second half of the book Kafka’s hypochondria and mental disturbance become acute. Almost every letter to Felice is filled with accounts of his misery, unhappiness, the torture of work, his unhappiness at home and so on.

‘My life has shrunk horribly and will go on shrinking.’ (Letter to Felice, 1914)

In 1917 he had his first massive pulmonary haemorrhage. But his doctors weren’t wrong to point out that most of the population of Prague had traces of the tubercle bacillus in their lungs and that, with good food and complete rest, he stood every chance of overcoming it. According to Pawel, it was the flu epidemic of 1919 which did for Kafka. He spent weeks in bed with a fever and struggling to breathe. The flu severely exacerbated the underlying TB and probably made his death inevitable.

Certainly he never recovered enough to return to work at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. Pawel chronicles the a complicated series of leaves of absence and sick leaves which went on for the next three years, until he was finally moved to the inactive list with a company pension in July 1922.

Thus his next major girlfriend after Felice, Milena Jesenská can write to Max Brod, within weeks of meeting Kafka in 1920, that Franz will never get better – and he never did.

In various places Pawel refers the notion that Joseph K is a walking sense of guilt looking for a crime: he has been charged, but he needs to find out why he is guilt. The same thought can be applied to Kafka and his TB. From adolescence onwards he is convinced he is ill, life is a disease, he flirts continually with thoughts of death, sometimes of suicide. The dagnosis of TB came as a huge relief, because the sense of illness – his morbid hypochondria –  finally found its cause, found an objective fact in the real world which justified it.

At some point – after working through all the letters and diary entries and analyses of his mounting illness through the last seven years of his life – it dawned on me that Kafka’s fiction is the way it is because he tried to live outside life for so long, for decades. He was someone who was ‘incapable of living’. He permanently lived in a state of terror and fear and anxiety far beyond what normal people can cope with or imagine, and the writing comes from that place.

  • ‘When you speak to her about me, speak as of someone already dead.’ (letter to Max Brod re. Milena)
  • ‘The chase drives me outside humanity’ (1922)

Švejk Joseph K. is the antithetical twin brother of Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk. Joseph feels guilty about everything; Švejk feels guilty about nothing. Joseph (and K. and Gregor Samsa) sink down, down, down to a inevitable death; Švejk floats happily through the world, surviving the worst the Great War has to throw at him, with a bland smile on his face.

Prose king Every critic seems to agree that Kafka was arguably the greatest prose stylist in German of the entire 20th century. Pawel refers to his ‘classically simple yet highly charged prose’ (p.321). But they also all agree that almost nothing of this superhuman control of language comes across in translation.

This is more than frustrating. It makes you realise that however much of Kafka you read in translation, you are missing the lion’s share of his achievement, which was to craft the purest German prose of the century. Damn! Damn.

And also makes you realise the huge limits placed on all our attempts to understand ‘literature’. If most of us can’t even appreciate the literary excellence of one of the most famous writers in Europe, how can any of us hope to achieve anything more than a partial, restricted, limited and ultimately provincial view of the entire global situation? (Can you read Russian? Mandarin? Urdu? Well then.)

Kafka and the novel

Kafka quietly, and without fanfare, without stylistic extravagance or verbal excesses, demolished the solid, taken-for-granted certitudes of nineteenth century realism with its black-and-white contrasts and sharply defined outlines… In fact, he all but demolished the structure of the novel itself as he pursued guilt into the realm of the universal… (Ernst Pawel p.322)

The Trial Not only was pursuing his case all the way up to the highest court and to the final arbiter beyond the ability of Joseph K. – it was beyond the ability of his creator, Franz Kafka. It is beyond the ability of any of us! This is what the fragmentary and abandoned state of the novel’s manuscript itself tells us about the condition of the universe.

Kafka’s work Despite the war, Kafka continued to be an invaluable senior manager at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute of Prague. He was continually exempted from conscription during the Great War because his work was literally irreplaceable. Not only that, but Pawel describes how he selflessly worked to create new processes to deal with the astonishing number of wounded and maimed soldiers returning from the Front. Kafka played a key role in the establishment of a hospital for soldiers with traumatic shock in 1916 (p.333). In fact the Veterans Association nominated him for a medal for his war work.

This is all so at odds with the neurasthenic who writes that he can barely get out of bed in the morning without doubling up in disgust and/or terror, that it seems like a different person. It’s one of the oddest things about this spectacularly odd man.

Czechs versus Germans I had no idea that the Czechs and the Germans who lived in Bohemia were at such daggers drawn. In the early part of the biography, Pawel describes the communal riots which broke out occasionally in the last years of the nineteenth century, and makes it clear that both communities harboured a seething dislike, fear and hatred of the other. But this really comes into its own during the last year of the Great War, as Austria’s fortunes visibly sank.

When he describes the way the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian empire simply disappeared almost overnight (well, within the course of a few weeks in October and November 1918) I was reminded of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc: similarly sudden and complete, vanishing like morning fog (p.373).

Very quickly a Czech nation was proclaimed (on November 14 1918) and the eminent nationalist leader Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk declared president, installing his administration in Hradčany Castle. Within days all Germans were removed from the administrative, civil service, army, and even commercial positions which they had held, in some instances, for decades, and were replaced across the board by ethnic Czechs. Kafka’s employer, the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, changed its name into Czech overnight, as did all other public institutions (p.375).

In November 1920 Prague erupted into a three-day orgy of anti-German and anti-Jewish rioting, during which the mob sacked the offices of German-speaking newspapers, attacked anyone who looked Jewish in the streets, broke into the German Theatre and the Jewish Town Hall and burned ancient Jewish manuscripts and holy books in front of the synagogue.

Kafka is quoted observing this at first hand.

Judaism Kafka was fascinated when a troupe of travelling Jewish actors arrived in Prague in 1911, and spent several weeks putting on performances of traditional Jewish folk stories. He commented to friends that this was the real Jewish thing, not the dessicated bookish tradition which lingered on among the intelligentsia.

Similarly, when the Russians advanced deep into Austro-Hungarian territory they prompted a flight of refugees from the East, many of them Jews, who arrived in Prague, and Kafka was, again, delighted by the ‘authentic’ traditions, dress and speech of these Ostjuden (pp.334-339). In fact, observing a group of East European Jews who had been put up in the Jewish Town Hall in Prague while they waited for their US visas, Kafka wrote:

‘Had I been given the choice to be whatever I wanted, I would have chosen to be a little Eastern Jewish boy in the corner of that room, without a care in the world.’ (Letter to Milena, quoted page 339)

In 1917 he began teaching himself Hebrew, in one among many attempts to reconnect with the lost Jewish tradition (p.356). Pawel repeatedly emphasises that, deep down, Kafka never abandoned the hope of visiting Jerusalem.

‘I had to do something quite radical, and so I decided to emigrate to Palestine.’ (letter to his sister, October 1923)

After teaching himself the basics, Kafka began to take Hebrew lessons from a young woman named Puah Ben-Tovim (1903-1991, who went on to become an accomplished and celebrated educator in Israel) (p.428).

In the last year of his life, Kafka received a generous invitation from his old schoolfriend Hugo Bergmann to go and live in the latter’s home in Palestine (p.430). But by then he was too ill to even climb a flight of stairs let alone contemplate a train and boat trip to a different country.

Hypochondria become real I had no idea Kafka was so very ill for the last four or so years of his life. It is a distressing litany of symptoms caused by tuberculosis and exacerbated by the 1919 influenza pandemic, which meant he had to give up work, and was cared for by a succession of close ones, his indefatigable sister Ottla (who emerges as a tower of strength) and, for the last year of his life, by the fiercely devoted and protective Dora Dyment.


The Holocaust

Personally, I find it difficult to read much contemporary literature because I am mesmerised by the catastrophe of the twentieth century, which began with the First World War, spawned the disastrous Bolshevik Revolution, led to the ruination of Europe through the 20s and 30s, rise of Stalin and Hitler and then the inferno of the Second World War, and on into the long Cold War, with its miserable litany of conflicts, dictators, insurgencies and civil wars all round the world until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

And at the pitch black-heart of the filthiest century in human history lies the wriggling inhuman bestial horror of the Holocaust. I’ve written fairly extensively about it in reviews of the following books (they’re all important, but This Way For The Gas sticks most in my mind).

Anyway, Pawel’s biography introduces us to a wide array of contemporaries of Kafka’s, not only friends and family, but many of the Prague or Vienna writers, thinkers, journalists, activists and so on whose path crossed his, or who he read, or heard lecture and so on.

With a large number of them, as and when they exit from Kafka’s story, Pawel gives a thumbnail portrait of their later lives. And quite a few of them, seeing they were Jews like Kafka, ended up being arrested by the Nazi authorities and murdered in concentration camps.

Not to mention the numerous girlfriends and women in his life, including his three sisters, who were all sent to Terezin concentration camp and died there, and Milena Jesenská, murdered in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

This is all very harrowing and I’m not sure it’s a good idea. On the one hand it means that the book builds up into a sort of memorial to an entire generation of European Jewry and I can understand the piety and honourableness of such a motive.

On the other hand, nobody knew this was going to happen, least of all Kafka who died in 1924. This repeated leaping forward to the Holocaust creates a teleological feel to the narrative, a sense of inevitability, as if everything was fated to head in this direction.

And above all, the huge blunt fact of the Holocaust tends to blot out and eclipse the reader’s responses to the subtler twists and turns in Kafka’s biography, let alone to the subtle themes and details of his fiction.

I realise it is meant to pay respect and act as a baleful warning, but the continual reminders of the looming Holocaust risk deadening our responses to Kafka the very-much-still-alive hero of his own life story in 1912 or 1917 or 1922.

Conclusion

The Nightmare of Reason is a long book packed with facts about Kafka, his times, his relationships, his obsessions and his writings.

For me the single most important thing I learned about Kafka was his off-the-scale, self-centred, tortured, self-obsessed solipsism. Of course he notices things like the war or the ethnic riots or his family’s ups and downs: but all of this is constantly being pushed aside so he can focus on his One Great Subject which is himself, and his endless tortured guilt and fear and paranoia and hypochondria.

I am constantly trying to communicate something incommunicable, to explain something inexplicable, to tell about something I only feel in my bones and which can only be experienced in those bones. Basically it is nothing other than this fear which we have so often talked about, but fear spread to everything, fear of the greatest as well as of the smallest, fear, paralysing fear of pronouncing a word, although this fear may not only be fear but also a longing for something greater than all that is fearful. (Letter to Milena, quoted page 96)

Fear spread to everything. Kafka carried this tortured investigation of himself to unparalleled lengths and, in doing so, found words and phrases and ways of thinking about himself, and about what it is to be a self, which approached the intensity of religious revelations. When he writes:

What I need for my writing is seclusion, not ‘like a hermit’, that would not be sufficient, but like the dead

he really means it.

He is obsessed with death as an escape from the intolerable burden of his guilt-stricken and terrified daily consciousness. And the extremity of his psychology led him to devise mental frameworks and forms of expression, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, and situations (as in the situation of the investigating dog, or the terrified burrower, or the mouse academic, or the ape who becomes a man or, most famous of all, the man who changes into a beetle), which express this deranged sense of detachment from the ‘real life’ which most of us experience, to an unparalleled degree, to an almost incomprehensible degree.

And it is the extremity and yet at the same time the purity of the mental worlds he created in his fictions which allows so many critics to rush in and impose whatever system of values they are promoting: from psychoanalytical interpretations about his father, the Oedipus complex or buried homosexual fantasies, to sociological interpretations about the faceless bureaucracies of the modern world; from existential interpretations – the Sartrean notion of the individual adrift in a godless universe and crushed by the weight of their freedom – to Max Brod’s view that he was a saint and a holy man; from Marxist claims that his work portrays the soul of man alienated by capitalism, to Walter Benjamin’s notion that Kafka’s work drills down so deeply into the Jewish tradition that it draws on feelings and visions which are in fact prehistoric and preliterate.

Quite obviously the fact that so many different – and completely opposed – ideologists and critics can all claim to be the authentic interpreters of Kafka’s works points towards the conclusion I’d prefer to make: that his work was so utterly about himself and about his deepest feelings and fears – ‘an obsessive self-scrutiny that drove him beyond the self’ (p.322) – so utterly bereft of external details about contemporary society or conventions or manners, as to achieve a kind of uncluttered purity rarely found in literature.

As Auden comments, Kafka was the greatest modern writer of parables and the point of a parable is that it is so clean, so devoid of distracting detail or contemporary references, so focused on the essentials of the situation – that more or less anyone can apply it to themselves, project their reading onto it – it is this combination of extremity and conceptual purity which gives them their universal appeal and power.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

The Nightmare of Reason: The Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel – part one (1984)

‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.’
(Franz Kafka, 8 January 1914)

This is a hugely enjoyable biography of Franz Kafka, chiefly because it is itself so unKafkaesque, so informative and logical and entertaining.

Although the subject matter and settings of Kafka’s novels and short stories vary, what all Kafka’s works have in common (well, apart from the really short stories) is the long-winded and often convoluted nature of his prose which seeks to reflect the over-self-conscious and over-thinking paranoia, anxiety and, sometimes, terror of his protagonists, narrators or characters.

Pawel’s book, by contrast, is a wonderfully refreshing combination of deep historical background, penetrating psychological insights, fascinating detail about the literary and cultural world of turn-of-the-century Prague, and hair-raising quotes from Kafka’s diaries, letters and works, all conveyed in brisk and colourful prose. Pawel is about as variedly entertaining as prose can be, which came as a huge relief after struggling through the monotone grimness of a story like The Burrow.

Three ethnicities

If you read any of Kafka’s works it’s difficult to avoid blurbs and introductions which give away the two key facts of his biography – 1. his lifelong fear of his father, Herrmann, and 2. how he spent his entire working life in a state insurance company, itself embedded in the elephantine web of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia was an integral part of the pullulating Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy that, like a giant net of near-epic intricacy, covered the entire Hapsburg domain. (The Nightmare of Reason, page 183)

Between them these two facts can be used as the basis of entry-level commentaries on Kafka’s stories, interpreting them as being about either:

  1. anxiety and dread of some nameless father figure who inspires an irrational sense of paralysing guilt
  2. or (as the two famous novels do) as unparalleled descriptions of vast, impenetrable bureaucracies which the helpless protagonists can never understand or appeal to

So far, so obvious. What I enjoyed most in this biography was all the stuff I didn’t know. First and foremost, Pawel gives the reader a much deeper understanding of the history, the politics and, especially, the ethnic make-up of Bohemia, where Kafka was born and lived most his life, and of its capital city, Prague – and explains why this mattered so much.

What comes over loud and clear is the tripartite nature of the situation, meaning there were three main ethnic groups in Bohemia, who all hated each other:

1. The majority of the population of Prague and Bohemia was Czech-speaking Czechs, who became increasingly nationalistic as the 19th century progressed, lobbying for a nation state of their own, outspokenly resentful of the Austrian authorities and of their allies in the German-speaking minority.

2. A minority of the population, around 10 to 15%, were ethnic Germans. They regarded themselves as culturally and racially superior to the Czechs, who they thought of as inferior ‘slavs’. The Germans were bolstered 1. by their proximity to Germany itself, with its immense cultural and literary heritage, and 2. because they spoke the same language as the Austrians who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most schools in Bohemia taught German as the official language, resulting in a state of civil war between the two languages and low level conflict between the two cultures – Pawel describes it as an ‘abyss’ (p.140).

Kafka, for example, although he was complimented on his spoken Czech, never considered himself fluent in it, and was educated, preferred to speak and wrote in German. In reference books he is referred to as a master of German prose.

3. And then there were the Jews. Pawel goes into great detail and is absolutely fascinating about the position of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bohemia in particular. He goes back to the Emperor Joseph II’s 1781 Patent of Toleration, which allowed Jews and Protestants for the first time to practice their religion in the Empire, and the charter for religious freedom granted the Jews of Galicia in 1789. From these statutes dated a series of other laws enacted throughout the nineteenth century designed to ’emancipate’ the Jews from a range of medieval laws which had placed huge restrictions on how they could dress, where they could go, what jobs they could hold.

But this so-called emancipation was a double-edged sword, because it also abolished the communal autonomy which the Jews had enjoyed, it forbad the wearing of traditional Jewish clothes, and it enforced the Germanisation of Jewish culture.

The effect of all this was that, through the 19th century, successive generations of Jews tried to break out of the squalor and poverty of their predominantly rural settlements, emigrated to the big cities of the Empire, dropped their traditional clothing and haircuts, learned to speak German better than the Germans, and in every way tried to assimilate.

Both [Kafka’s] parents belonged to the first generation of assimilated Jews. (p.54)

Unfortunately, this ‘aping’ of German culture mainly served to breed resentment among ‘true’ Germans against these cultural ‘impostors’, with the net result that, the more the Jews tried to assimilate to German culture, the more the Germans hated them for it.

Thus, in a bitter, world-historical irony, an entire generation of urbanised, secular Jews found themselves in love with and practicing a Germanic culture whose rightful ‘owners’, the Germans, hated them with an unremitting anti-semitism (pp.99, 149).

And these hyper-intelligent Jews were totally aware of the fact, bitterly reminded of it every time another anti-semitic article was published in their newspapers or anti-semitic ruit took place in their towns. And so it helped to create a feeling that if only they weren’t Jews everything would be alright. It helped to create the phenomenon known as Jewish self-hatred, a condition Pawel thinks Kafka suffered from, acutely, all his life (p.108).

(Though not as much as the journalist Karl Kraus. In a typically fascinating digression, Pawel devotes an excoriating passage to Kraus, a secular Jew born into a wealthy industrialist family, who became a leading satirical writer and journalist, and devoted his flaming energies to protecting the ‘purity’ of the German language, and – according to Pawels – castigating ‘the Jews’ for importing provincial jargon and Yiddishisms. Kraus was, in Pawel’s view, ‘the quintessential incarnation of Jewish self-hatred’ (p.226).)

And don’t forget that, all the while they were the subject of German anti-semitism, the Jews also got it in the neck from the other side, from the nationalist Czechs, the more Germanic the Jews strove to become, the more the Czech nationalists hated them for sucking up to their oppressors. The Jews got it from both directions.

I knew about Austrian anti-semitism, not least from reading biographies of Freud. But I didn’t know anything about the distinctive dynamic of Czech anti-semitism.

The emancipation of the Jews

Pawel describes all this in such depth and detail because it explains the impact on Kafka’s own biography – namely that Franz’s father, Herrmann, was one of that generation of Jews who, in the mid-nineteenth-century, escaped from the grinding poverty of the rural shtetl, migrated to the city, and finagled the money to set himself up in business, to try to rise in the world.

One of the best-known things about Kafka is how he lived in abject fear of his father, who instilled a permanent sense of terror and anxiety in him, but Pawel explains brilliantly how Kafka senior was a highly representative figure, just one among a great wave of Jews of his generation who escaped rural poverty, migrated to the city, became more or less successful businessmen and… sired sons who despised them.

He wasn’t alone. Pawel shows how it was a pattern repeated across educated Jewry (p.98).

Seen from this historical perspective, Sigmund Freud (born 1856 in Příbor in what is now the Moravian province of the Czech Republic) is a kind of patron saint of his and the slightly later generation (Kafka was born in 1883) for Freud’s father, Jakob, was the son of devout Hasidic Jews, who, in the classic style, moved from his home district to the big city of Vienna where he struggled to run a business as a wool merchant, rejecting along the way all the appurtenances of the rural Judaism which were so associated with poverty and provincialism. It was as a result of Jakob’s deracination, that his son decisively broke with any religious belief, and became the immensely successful and highly urbanised founder of psychoanalysis.

Same or something similar with a whole generation of Jewish-German writers artists and composers – Kafka, Brod, Hermann Broch, Wittgenstein, Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and so on (pp.98, 99). It was a world of staggering artistic brilliance – this was the generation which contributed to and helped define the whole idea of Modern Art. But it was all built on a volcano, the fierce hatred of ‘genuine’ Germans for the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews who (they thought) were appropriating their culture.

This was the atmosphere of Kafka’s world, dense with hate. (p.44)

Judaism is replaced by literature

A further consequence emerges from Pawel’s historical approach which is that this generation, the first generation of truly urbanised Jews, which had largely lost its religious faith in the process, nonetheless continued, like their rabbinical forefathers, the Jewish obsession with the written word.

Only instead of devoting their lives to interpreting the Holy Scriptures as their Hasidic forefathers, rabbis and holy men had – these largely irreligious urbanites now nagged and worried about secular types of writing – namely literature and philosophy and criticism and aesthetics. God may have been declared dead and words no longer used to pray and worship – but instead, the endless finagling of rabbis and commentators was now applied to existence itself, to a scrupulous cross-examination of modern life in the hurly-burly of hectic cities.

The Jewish intelligentsia on the whole remained isolated, inbred and inward looking…Theirs was a paradoxically communal shtetl of cantankerous individualists huddled in the warrens of their self-absorption, with literature as their religion and self-expression their road to salvation. (p.153)

As Pawel puts it with typically colourful rhetoric:

Kafka’s true ancestors, the substance of his flesh and spirit, were an unruly crowd of Talmudists, Cabalists, medieval mystics resting uneasy beneath the jumble of heaving, weatherbeaten tombstones in Prague’s Old Cemetery, seekers in search of a reason for faith. (p.100)

The same intense scrutiny the forefathers paid to every word and accent of the Talmud, their heirs now devoted to the production of texts exploring the experience of the modern world which boiled down, again and again, in the hands of its most dogged exponents, to an investigation of language itself.

And so we find Kafka in December 1910 making one of the hundreds and hundreds of diary entries he devoted obsessively to the subject of writing, of words, of prose, of literature:

I cannot write. I haven’t managed a single line I’d care to acknowledge; on the contrary, I threw out everything – it wasn’t much – that I had written since Paris. My whole body warns me of every word, and every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me. The sentences literally crumble in my hands.

‘Every word first looks around in all directions before it lets itself be written down by me’! In Kafka’s hands, even language itself is gripped by fear.

Kafka’s diet

Kafka was a lifelong hypochondriac who also happened to suffer from actual illnesses and conditions. From early in adulthood he experimented with a variety of cures from surprisingly silly quack doctors. He became obsessed with diet, first becoming a vegetarian, and then implementing an increasingly complicated regime of diets, which Pawel describes in detail.

But once again Pawel uses this to make the kind of socio-psychological point for which I really enjoyed this book, when he points out the following: In the Jewish tradition, strict adherence to kashrut or traditional Jewish dietary law linked the individual to the community, made him one with a much larger people and their heritage – whereas the dietary rituals Kafka made for himself completely cut him off not only from the Jewish tradition, but even from his own family, and ultimately his own friends. Later in life Kafka:

gradually got into the habit of taking all his meals by himself and intensely disliked eating in anyone’s presence. (p.209)

Like everything else in his life, even eating became a source of anxiety and dread and shame.

Hermann Kafka and his family

Although Pawel records the lifelong terror and feeling of humiliation which Herrmann inculcated in his over-sensitive son, he injects a strong dose of scepticism. As you read Franz’s Letter to his Father, the sustained thirty-page indictment of Herrmann which poor Franz wrote at the age of 36, you can’t help beginning to feel sorry a bit sorry for Herrmann. It wasn’t his fault that he emerged from grinding poverty all but illiterate and had to work hard all his life to support his family. Whereas Franz enjoyed 16 years of education and wangled a cushy job at the Workers Insurance Company thanks to a well-connected uncle. From one point of view, Franz is the typically ungrateful, spoilt son.

And in a subtle reinterpretation of the traditional story, Pawel wonders if it wasn’t Kafka’s mother, Julie, who did most damage to her son. How? By being totally aware of young Franz’s hyper-sensitive nature, but doing nothing about it – by effectively ignoring his hyper-sensitive soul in order to suck up to her bullying husband.

Because, as Pawel points out, Kafka gave the notorious Letter to His Father to his mother to read and then pass on to the family ‘tyrant’. She certainly did read it but never passed it on, returning it to Franz after a week and, well… Franz could easily have handed it over to his father by hand – or posted it. But he chose not to. That, Pawel speculates, is because the letter had in fact achieved its purpose. Not to address his father at all, but successfully implicating his mother in his childhood and teenage trauma. After all:

All parents fail their children, and all children weave their parents failure into the texture of their lives. (p.82)

As this all suggests, Kafka’s story was very much a family affair, a psychodrama played out in the claustrophobic walls of the Prague apartment he shared with his mother, father and three sisters.

Indeed it is a little staggering to read Pawel’s description of the apartment the family moved to in 1912, whose walls were so thin that everyone could hear everyone else cough or sneeze or open a window or plump a book down on a table – let alone all the other necessary bodily functions. What a terrible, claustrophobic environment it was (and we know this, because we have hundreds of diary entries made by Franz moaning about it) and yet – he didn’t leave.

More than once Pawel suggests there is something very Jewish about this smothering family environment and the way that, although he could easily have left once he had a secure job, Kafka chose to remain within the bosom of his smothering family.

It’s aspects of Kafka’s psychology and life like this which drive Pawel’s frequent comparisons and invocations of Freud, dissector and analyst of the smothering turn-of-the-century, urban, Jewish family, investigator of the kind of family lives that the young women of his case studies made up hysterias and neuroses, and the young men made up violent animal fantasies, to escape from.

But here, as in other ways, Kafka stands out as taking part in a recognisable general trend – but then going way beyond it – or moulding it to his own peculiar needs – because at some level, deep down, he needed to be smothered.

Anti-Semitism and Zionism

And all around them, surrounding the anxieties of family life, were the continual ethnic tensions which regularly broke out into actual violence. Sometimes it was Czech nationalists rioting against their Austro-German overlords in the name of Czech nationalism – as they did in the so-called Prague Pogrom of 1897 when Czech nationalists started off by ransacking well-known German cultural and commercial establishments, but ended up devoting three days to attacking Jewish shops and synagogues and anyone who appeared to be a Jew.

Slowly, over his lifetime, Kafka noted the situation getting steadily worse. Fifteen years later, the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Emperor Franz-Joseph led to violent attacks organised by the Czech National Socialists on German properties, which led to troops being sent in and the imposition of martial law (p.298).

But whether it was the Germans or the Czechs, and whether it was the journalistic or bureaucratic attacks of the intelligentsia, or crude physical attacks on the street (and street fighting occurring on an almost weekly basis, p.205):

The extremist demagogues prevailing in both camps were equally vocal in their common hostility to the Jews.

This pervasive fearfulness among Jews helps explain the origins of Zionism, first given theoretical and practical expression by Theodor Herzl, another urbanised and ‘assimilated’ Jewish son of poorer, more rural parents, from the same generation as Freud (Herzl was born a year later, in 1860).

In 1896, deeply shocked by the anti-semitism revealed by the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906), Herzl published Der Judenstaat, in which he argued that anti-semitism in Europe couldn’t be ‘cured’ but only avoided altogether, by leaving Europe and founding a state solely for Jews.

The theme of Zionism looms large in Kafka’s life. Many of his school and university friends became ardent Zionists – including his good friend and literary executor, Max Brod, who managed to escape Prague on the last train before the Nazis arrived, and successfully made it to Palestine. Zionism it was one of the big socio-political movements of the time, along with socialism, anarchism, and Tolstoyan pacifism. (pp.61, 290)

And it was a practical movement. The Bohemian Zionists didn’t just campaign for the establishment of a foreign homeland; closer to home they organised the community, publishing a weekly magazine named Self Defence edited by Kafka’s friend Felix Weltsch (one of the many writers, journalists, critics and poets who Pawel tells us about).

Above all, they preached the idea that all the Jewish hopes for ‘assimilation’ were a fantasy: the Jews who worshipped German culture were adulating their abuser. There could never be full assimilation and the sooner the Jews realised it and planned for their own salvation the better. Tragically, the Zionists were to be proved entirely right.

So from Kafka’s twenties onwards, Zionism was one of the half dozen cultural and political themes of the day. Late in life Kafka encouraged his sisters to develop agricultural skills preparatory to emigrating to Palestine. It was a constant possibility, or dream of his, mentioned in diaries and letters although, being Kafka, he knew it was not a dream he would ever live to fulfil.

Multiple reasons to be afraid

Thus it is that Pawel’s book brilliantly conveys the multiple levels or sources of Kafka’s terror.

  1. He was born over-sensitive and anxious and would have had a hard time adapting to real life anywhere. He was painfully shy and morbidly self-aware.
  2. His father was a philistine bully who ridiculed his son’s weakness and intellectual interests, exacerbating the boy’s paranoia and anxieties in every way.
  3. In newspapers and even in lectures at the university he attended, Kafka would routinely read or hear the most blistering attacks on the Jews as enemies of culture, emissaries of poverty and disease from pestilent rural slums, Christ-killers and followers of an antiquated anti-Enlightenment superstition.
  4. And then, in the streets, there would be periodic anti-Jewish riots, attacks on individual Jews or smashing up Jewish shops.

In the midst of explaining all this, Pawel makes a point which it is easy to miss. He notes that in Kafka’s surviving correspondence with Max Brod or with his three successive girlfriends, Kafka rarely if ever actually alludes to anti-semitism, or to the street violence, clashes, public disorders and growing power of the anti-semitic nationalist parties in Prague. Pawel makes what I thought was a really powerful comment:

It was only in his fiction that he felt both safe and articulate enough to give voice to his sense of terror. (p.204)

An insight I thought was really worth pondering… something to do with the way fiction, or literature, can be a way of controlling and ordering the otherwise chaotic and overwhelming, the personally overwhelming and the socially overwhelming…

Anyway, that’s a lot of sources of fear and terror to be getting on with, before you even get into Franz’s more personal anxieties – not least about sex and everything sexual, which sent him into paroxysms of self-disgust.

Sex

I had no idea that Kafka was such an habitué of brothels. I mean not now and then. I mean routinely and regularly, as well as having sexual escapades with all sorts of working class girls, serving girls and servants and waitresses and barmaids and cleaning women in the many hotels he stayed at on his business trips. We know this because it is all recorded in the copious diaries he kept, and in his extensive correspondence with Max Brod and he even mentions it in letters to his various fiancées.

The subject prompts another one of Pawel’s wide-ranging cultural investigations which I found so fascinating, this time a lengthy description of the way the madonna-whore dichotomy experienced a kind of ill-fated, decadent blossoming in turn of the century Austro-Hungary – in the Vienna we all know about with its Klimt and Schiele paintings, but also in Germanic Prague.

Sex… was the sinister leitmotif dominating literature, drama, and the arts of the period. And beyond the poetic metaphors loomed the brutal real-life affinity of sex and death – botched abortions, childbed fever, syphilis, suicides. (p.77)

All his friends were at it, they all slept with prostitutes: we learn that Max Brod’s marriage got into trouble because he simply refused to carry on sleeping with every woman he could. The women – we learn – came in different grades, from professionals in brothels, to semi-pros in doorsteps, to amateurs – cleaners and suchlike – who would give you a quick one for cash.

All of which exacerbated the aforementioned Madonna-Whore complex, whereby women were divided into two categories – the generally working-class whores you paid to have dirty sex with – and the pure, high-minded and chaste young ladies you accompanied to concerts and were expected to marry (p.180).

To an astonishing extent, Kafka was a fully paid-up member of this club and had an extraordinary number of casual sexual partners – innumerable encounters which he then followed up with the predictable paroxysms of self-loathing and self-hatred. In this respect he was surprisingly unoriginal.

There is a lot more to be said about the relationship between Kafka’s intense but guilt-ridden sex life and the peculiar relations his two key protagonists have with women (in The Trial and The Castle) but that’s for others to write about. I’m interested in history, and language.

The Workmen’s Accident and Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia

It is a revelation to discover that Kafka was good at his job in this insurance company. Not just good, vital. His quick intelligence and pedantic attention to detail were just what was needed. He was tasked with auditing safety regulations about a whole range of industrial processes, a job which required him to travel extensively around the country, staying in hotels (shagging chambermaids if possible) and visiting a huge range of factories and workplaces.

His annual reviews still survive and glow with praise from his superiors and colleagues. He started work at the company’s offices in 1908, was promoted within a year, given full civil service tenure in 1910, advanced to Junior Secretary in 1913, to Secretary in 1920, and senior Secretary in 1922. His immediate superior, Chief Inspector Pfohl, wrote that without him the entire department would collapse. He was a model employee, prompt, intelligent, diligent and polite, as all the testimony from his colleagues confirms.

Fourteen years of following bureaucratic procedures in an institute which was itself part of the wider bureaucratic Empire. And of writing official reports in the tone and style of a senior bureaucrat. You’d have to be quite dense not to link these factors with a) the visions of a vast topless bureaucracy which form the core of the two great novels, and b) with the parody of official, academic-bureaucratic style which is so omnipresent, especially in the later stories.

Kafka’s officialese

Commenting on the contradiction between Kafka the florid hypochondriac and Kafka the smartly turned-out insurance inspector, a contemporary Prague’s literary circle, Oskar Baum, is quoted about how the mental or intellectual structures of the workplace, of its official and stern prose, mapped very handily onto Kafka’s intensely personal obsessions with writing.

By nature he was a fanatic full of luxuriating fantasy, but he kept its glow in check by constantly striving toward strict objectivity. To overcome all cloying or seductive sentimental raptures and fuzzy-minded fantasising was part of his cult of purity – a cult quasi-religious in spirit, though often eccentric in its physical manifestation. He created the most subjective imagery, but it had to manifest itself in the form of utmost objectivity (quoted on page 133)

It’s easy to overlook, but this is a profoundly distinctive aspect of Kafka’s art which is easy to overlook: that all these delirious and often visionary stories are told in very formal and precise prose, and in a style which, in the later stories, becomes really heavily drenched in bureaucratic or academic or official rhetoric.

Pawel’s lurid style

So I found the way Pawel’s factual information about the social, economic and political changes in Bohemia leading up to Kafka’s birth – specifically the changing role of Jews in Bohemian culture – and then his detailed account of Franz’s family life and how that was woven into the complicated social and intellectual currents of the time, really built up a multi-layered understanding of Kafka’s life and times.

But curiously at odds with all this is Pawel’s own very uneven style. One minute he is describing statistics about industrial production or the percentage population of the different ethnicities in the tone of a government report or Wikipedia article:

Prague’s German-speaking minority was rapidly dwindling in proportion to the fast-growing Czech majority, from 14.6 percent in 1880, when the first language census was taken, to 13.6 percent in 1889, Kafka’s first school year. The city’s population totaled 303,000 at the time; of these, 41,400 gave German as their first and principal language. (p.31)

Or:

Between 1848 and 1890, Bohemia’s share in the total industrial output of the monarchy rose from 46 to 59 percent. By 1890, Bohemia and Moravia accounted for 65 percent of Austria’s industrial labour force. (p.37)

The next, he is writing wild and extravagant similes which seem to belong to another kind of book altogether. Here he is describing one of Kafka’s teachers:

Gschwind, author of several studies in linguistics, was rightfully regarded as an eminent classicist, and one can only speculate on the reasons that led him to waste his scholarly gifts and encyclopedic knowledge on a gang of recalcitrant teenagers who, as a group, progressed in classical philology with all the speed and enthusiasm of a mule train being driven up a mountain. (p.73)

Here he is describing Kafka’s anxiety about his end-of-school exams:

The prospect of those apocalyptic trials turned the final school years into a frenzied last-ditch effort to shore up the crumbling ramparts of knowledge, retrieve eight years of facts and figures, and prepare for a bloodbath. (p.76)

Once he starts engaging with Kafka’s stories, Pawel often adopts their phraseology, or at least their worldview, in over-the-top descriptions which could have been penned by Edgar Allen Poe.

Kafka’s impulse was basically sound – that of a trapped, starving animal wanting to claw its way out and sink its teeth into a solid food. (p.114)

Here he is describing the ferociously competitive literary world of Edwardian Prague:

In their panic it was every man for himself, a wild stampeded of gregarious loners grappling with monsters spawned in their own bellies. (p.155)

Or describing the detailed and self-punishing diaries Kafka kept all his adult life.

These so-called diaries assumed many forms and functions, from the writer’s version of the artist’s sketchbook to a tool for self-analysis; they were a fetishistic instrument of self-mutilation, a glimpse of reason at the heart of madness, and an errant light in the labyrinth of loneliness. (p.213)

In fact you can watch Pawel’s style go from sensible to overblown in just that one sentence.

I’ve read criticisms of the book which ridicule Pawel’s purple prose and certainly, from a po-faced academic point of view, much of his writing can sound a bit ludicrous. But as a reader I found it deeply enjoyable. It made me smile. Sometimes it was so over the top it made me laugh out loud.

I liked it for at least two reasons: after struggling with the long-winded and often very official and bureaucratic prose of late Kafka, reading Pawel’s juicy similes and purple paragraphs was like going from black and white to colour.

Secondly, it matches Kafka’s own hysteria. Kafka really was a very, very weird person. His letters abound in the most extreme language of paralysing fear and inchoate terror and crippling anxiety.

My fear… is my substance, and probably the best part of me.

He describes not being able to stand up for fear, not being able to walk for fear, not being able to face people or say anything because of the terror it caused him.

This craving I have for people which turns to fear the moment it reaches fulfilment (letter of July 1912)

– all symptoms of what Pawel calls his ‘near-pathological sensitivity’.

Kafka describes the way words crumble at his touch, his heart is going to explode, his head is too heavy to carry. He talked and wrote regularly about suicide (except that, in typical Kafkaesque fashion, he wrapped it round with paradoxes and parables).

Always the wish to die, and the still-just-hanging on, that alone is love (Diary, 22 October 113)

In other words, much of Pawel’s lurid and melodramatic writing, while not in the same league as Kafka’s, while much more obvious and pulpy and sometimes quite silly – nevertheless is not an unreasonable way to try and catch the permanent atmosphere of extremity and hyperbole which Kafka lived in all the time. I thought it was a reasonable attempt to translate Kafka’s own worldview from Kafkaese into phraseology which is easier for you and me to process and understand.

Fear, disgust, and rage were what this recalcitrant bundle of taut nerves, brittle bones, frail organs and coddled flesh had aroused in him from earliest childhood.

And sometimes Pawel’s phrases are so colourful and exaggerated that they’re funny. And humour, real laugh-out-loud humour, is in short supply in this story.


Related links

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Dates are dates of composition.

Rivera by Andrea Kettenmann (1997)

The German art publishers Taschen recently repackaged their Basic Art range into a standardised, large, hardback format, retailing at £10. Each volume in the series focuses on one famous painter or art movement.

The attraction of Taschen editions is that the text is factual, accurate and sensible, and the books have lots of good quality colour reproductions. Even if you don’t bother to read the text, you will be able to skim though plenty of paintings, alongside photos where relevant, of the artist or movement being discussed. The text of this one was written (as usual) in Germany, back in 1997, then translated into English.

Rivera’s life story is brilliantly told in the imaginative, sardonic and whimsical Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by journalist Patrick Marnham, published in 1998, so not much in the text surprised me, although, being much shorter, it had the effect of making the sequence of government buildings which Rivera created murals for a lot clearer, and it also explained the last decade or so of Rivera’s life (he died in 1957) a bit better.

What I wanted was a record of Rivera’s paintings. I’ve read and seen a lot about the murals, but they generally overshadow his easel paintings. I wanted to see more of the latter.

Rivera was immensely gifted, started drawing early (the earliest work here is a very good goat’s head, drawn when he was 9) and enrolled at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico when he was just ten, quickly hoovering his way through late academic styles. He went to Spain in 1907, aged 21, and studied Velasquez and El Greco. And then onto Paris in 1910, where he quickly discovered the avant-garde and was an early adopter of cubism.

For the first 20 years of his life, he was an omnivore, a chameleon, and I am impressed by the ability,and variety, of these early works.

French impressionism

The House on the Bridge by Diego Rivera (1909)

The House on the Bridge by Diego Rivera (1909)

Psychological realism

Head of a Breton Woman by Diego Rivera (1910)

Head of a Breton Woman by Diego Rivera (1910)

Cubism

Adopting the cubist style wasn’t just a fad. From 1913 to 1917 Rivera painted solely in the cubist style, completing some 200 works, took part in impassioned debates about various types of cubism, was friends with Picasso and Juan Gris. When he exhibited some of the works in Madrid in 1915, they were the first cubist paintings ever seen in Spain.

Zapatista Landscape by Diego Rivera (1915)

Zapatista Landscape by Diego Rivera (1915)

Futurism

Futurism is different from cubism because whereas the latter started out as a new way of seeing very passive objects – landscapes, but particularly Parisian still lifes, wine bottles and newspapers on café tables – Futurism uses a similar visual language of dissociated angles and fractured planes, but in order to depict movement. Also, if this makes sense, its angular shapes are often more rounded, a bit more sensuous (it was, after all, an Italian movement).

Woman at a Well by Diego Rivera (1913)

Woman at a Well by Diego Rivera (1913)

Russian modernism

Rivera experimented with a brighter, more highly coloured, more nakedly geometric types of modernism, a style that reminds me of Malevich. Maybe influenced by conversations with Russians in Paris, including Voloshin and Ilya Ehrenburg. And the fact that Rivera’s mistress, Angelina Beloff, was Russian. This is her suckling their baby.

Motherhood by Diego Rivera (1916)

Motherhood by Diego Rivera (1916)

Mural style

In 1917 Rivera definitively broke with cubism. He studied Cézanne, and the earlier Impressionists. Deprived of the sense of belonging to a communal avant-garde he was at a loss, stylistically.

Toying with returning to Mexico after 13 years in Europe, in 1920 Rivera gained funding to go on a long tour of the frescos of Italy.

In 1921 he finally arrived back in Mexico, and was one of several leading artists taken by the new Minister of Education and Culture, José Vasconcelos, on a tour of pre-Columbian ruins, studying the carvings of men and gods.

At last Rivera felt he had come ‘home’. The Italian frescos, but especially the pre-Colombian art, and the encouragement of the left wing populist minister all crystallised his new approach. He would completely reject all the stylistic avant-gardes of Europe, and melding everything he had learned into a new simple and accessible art for the public. He wanted to:

‘reproduce the pure basic images of my land. I wanted my painting to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.’

The Mexican revolutionary government wanted to commission public murals to educate a largely illiterate population. Rivera received a commission to create murals depicting Mexican art and culture and history and festivals at the Mexico City Ministry of Education, and thus began his long career as a public muralist, and as one of the leaders of what was soon a Mexican school of mural painting.

Mural of exploitation of Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

Part of the mural titled Exploitation of Mexico by Spanish conquistadors, in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

But he was surprisingly badly paid ($2 per day) and so had to continue selling sketches, drawings and paintings to tourists and collectors. Often they were sketches or trials for individual subjects which would then appear in murals.

Bather of Tehuantepec is well known because it marks such a radical break with the immense sophistication of his earlier work. It is highly stylised but not so as to make it almost unreadable (as in cubism). The opposite. It is stylised to make it simple, ‘naive’, peasant, and accessible. Note the child-like simplicity, the primal colours. And the child-like use of space, the plants at the bottom simply giving structure and space to the bending body. It points to the mural style which incorporate elements not for any ‘realism’ but subordinated to narrative and message. Here the message is the primal simplicity, the utter lack of pretension, of the Mexican Indian washing.

Bather of Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera (1923)

Bather of Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera (1923)

Lilies

Rivera liked flowers. Calla lilies are, in a way, highly schematic plants. Big, tall and simple, with simple bold flowerheads, Rivera featured them in a whole series of paintings. This picture uses an immensely sophisticated grasp of perspective, colour and volume to create a strikingly ‘simple’ picture.

Flower Day by Diego Rivera (1925)

Flower Day by Diego Rivera (1925)

After looking at it for a while I noticed the compact, squarely arranged feet of the peasants at the bottom of the picture. Showing the way Rivera’s interest in cubes and angles and blocs of paint, was transmuted into the semi-cartoon simplification of the mural style.

Mexican realism

Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party after a difficult trip to the Soviet Union in 1927. In the early 1930s he went to America and painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, but these commissions came to a grinding halt when he fell out with the Rockefellers in New York after painting the face of Lenin into a mural in the new RCA skyscraper in 1933. He was fired and the mural was pulled down.

Back in Mexico in the 1930s, Rivera found government commissions hard to come by and developed a profitable sideline in a kind of Mexican peasant realism. He painted hundreds of pictures of Mexican-Indian children, sometimes with their mothers – selling them by the sackful to sentimental American tourists. They kept the wolf from the door while he tried to get more mural commission but… it’s hard to like most of them.

Modesta and Inesita by Diego Rivera (1939)

Modesta and Inesita by Diego Rivera (1939)

Surrealism

I know from the Marnham book that André Breton, godfather of the Surrealists, came to stay with Rivera and Frida in 1938. I didn’t know that Rivera made an excursion into the Surrealist style and exhibited works in a major 1940 exhibition of Surrealist art.

The Hands of Dr Moore by Diego Rivera (1940)

The Hands of Dr Moore by Diego Rivera (1940)

Society portraits

Right to the end he made important and striking murals, such as the striking Water, The Origin of Life of 1951, an extraordinary design for the curved floor and walls of a new waterworks for Mexico City.

But at the same time – the late 1940s and into the 1950s – Rivera also produced commissions, usually portraits, for rich people, especially society women, which are surprisingly at odds with his commitment to the violent rhetoric of the Stalinist Communist Party.

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera (1943)

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera (1943)

Obviously, the striking calla lilies a) echo the slender elegant shape of the svelte millionaire’s wife b) echo their use in quite a few earlier paintings. But there’s no getting round the contradiction between this kind of rich society portrait and the intense engagement with the poor, with landless Indians, with the conquered Aztecs, of so many of his murals.

Having slowly trawled through his entire career, I admire the murals, and am often snagged and attracted by this or that detail in the immense teeming panoramas he created – the Where’s Wally pleasure of detecting all the narratives tucked away in a panoramic work like the Exploitation of Mexico, above.

But, given a choice, it’s the early cubo-futurist, or futuro-cubist works, which give me the purest visual pleasure.

Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (1913) by Diego Rivera

Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (1913) by Diego Rivera


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Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (1940)

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was one of mid-twentieth century’s great literary journalists and critics. (In her biography of Somerset Maugham, Selina Hastings describes Wilson as being, in 1945, ‘America’s most influential critic’ p.482)

Friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many other authors from that generation, he wrote extended essays on the French Symbolist poets, on T.S. Eliot, Proust, James Joyce and the classic Modernists, on Kipling, Charles Dickens, a study of the literature of the Civil War, memoirs of the 1920s and 30s, a book length study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much, much more.

Edmund Wilson in 1951

Edmund Wilson in 1951

His style now seems very old-fashioned, a leisurely, bookish approach which was long ago eclipsed by the new professionalism of academia and the blizzard of literary and sociological theory which erupted in the 1960s.

Most of Wilson’s books are not currently in print, and many passages in this book demonstrate the relaxed, belle-lettreist, impressionist approach – often more in love with the sound of its own rolling prose than with conveying any clear information – which shows why.

Though Marx has always kept our nose so close to the counting-house and the spindle and the steam hammer and the scutching-mill and the clay-pit and the mine, he always carries with him through the caverns and the wastes of the modern industrial world, cold as those abysses of the sea which the mariner of his ballad scorned as godless, the commands of that ‘eternal God’ who equips him with his undeviating standard for judging earthly things. (p.289)

That said, Wilson was an extremely intelligent man, more of a literary-minded journalist than an academic, capable of synthesising vast amounts of information about historical periods, giving it a literary, bookish spin, and making it accessible and compelling.

Some themes or ideas

To The Finland Station is Wilson’s attempt to understand the Marxist tradition, and its place in the America of his day i.e. the angry left-wing American literary world produced by the Great Depression of the 1930s. He began researching and writing the book in the mid-1930s as well-meaning intellectuals all across America turned to socialism and communism to fix what seemed like a badly, and maybe permanently, broken society.

Like many guilty middle-class intellectuals who lived through the Great Depression, Wilson went through a phase of thinking that capitalism was finished, and that this was the big crisis, long-predicted by Marxists, which would finish it off.

He was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the psychological extremism and religious fervour of communism. Even after actually visiting Russia and seeing for himself the poverty, mismanagement and terror as Stalin’s grip tightened, Wilson couldn’t eradicate this feeling. He tried to analyse its roots by going back to the intellectual origins of socialism – then reading everything he could about Marx and Engels – and so on to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. This book is a kind of diary of his autodidactic project.

The myth of the Dialectic As Wilson prepared the book he realised that to understand Marx and his generation you need to understand Hegel – and he couldn’t make head or tail of Hegel, as his chapter on ‘The Myth of the Dialectic’ all too clearly reveals. He ends up comparing Hegel’s Dialectic to the Christian notion of the Trinity (Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis as a kind of modern version of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in a way that’s superficially clever, but ultimately wrong. To understand Hegel’s importance for Marx and the German thinkers of that generation you should read:

More telling is Wilson’s point that Marx invoked his version of Hegelianism to give a mystical, quasi-religious sense of inevitability, a pseudo-scientific rationale, for what was simply, at bottom, the burning sense of moral outrage (i.e. at poverty and injustice) shared by so many of his contemporaries.

Aesthetics in Marx A later chapter dwells at length on Capital Volume One, pointing out that it is an aesthetic as much as an economic or political text, before going on to point out the ultimate inaccuracy of Marx’s Labour theory of Value.

The Labour Theory of Value Marx thought he had invented a new insight, that the value of a product is the value of ‘the labour invested in it’ – and that because the bourgeois owners of factories only paid their workers the bare minimum to allow them to live, they were thus stealing from the workers the surplus value which the workers had invested in the finished products.

This theory appeared to give concrete economic basis for the moral case made by trade unionists, socialists and their allies that capitalists are thieves. 

The only flaw is that there are quite a few alternative theories of ‘value’ – for example, as I’ve discovered whenever I’ve tried to sell anything on eBay, the ‘value’ of something is only what anyone is prepared to pay for it. In fact ‘value’ turns out to be one of the most tortuously convoluted ideas in economics, deeply imbricated in all sorts of irrational human drives (what is the ‘value’ of a gift your mother gave you, of your first pushbike, and so on?).

Wilson is onto something when he says that both the idea of the ‘Dialectic of History’ and the ‘Labour Theory of Value’ are fine-sounding myths, elaborate intellectual schemas designed to give some kind of objective underpinning to the widespread sense of socialist anger – but neither of which stand up to close scrutiny.

And although socialism or communism are meant to about the working class, Wilson’s book about Marx and Lenin, like so many others of its ilk, is a surprisingly proletarian-free zone, almost entirely concerned with bourgeois intellectuals and their highfalutin’ theories, with almost no sense of the experience of the crushing work regimes of capitalist industry, which were at the heart of the problem.

I’ve worked in a number of factories and warehouses (a Dorothy Perkins clothes warehouse, a credit card factory, the yoghurt potting section of a massive dairy) as well as serving on petrol pumps in the driving rain and working as a dustman in winter so cold the black binliners froze to my fingers. As in so many of these books about the working classes, there is little or nothing about the actual experience of work. The actual experience of actual specific jobs is nowhere described. Everything is generalisations about ‘History’ and ‘Society’ and ‘the Proletariat’ – which may partly explain why all attempts to put Socialism into action have been so ill-fated.

To The Finland Station

Wilson’s book is more like a series of interesting magazine articles about a sequence of oddball left-wing thinkers, often throwing up interesting insights into them and their times, always readable and informative, but lacking any theoretical or real political thrust. The book is divided into three parts.

Part one – The decline of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition

I was deeply surprised to discover that part one is a detailed survey, not of the pre-Marxist socialist political and economic thinkers – but of the careers of four of France’s great historians and social critics, namely:

  • Jules Michelet (1798-1874) author of a massive history of the French Revolution
  • Ernst Renan (1823-1892) expert on Semitic languages and civilizations, philosopher, historian and writer
  • Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893) critic, historian and proponent of sociological positivism
  • Anatole France (1844-1924) poet, critic, novelist and the most eminent man of letters of his day i.e. the turn of the century and Edwardian period

Why? What’s this got to do with Lenin or Marx? It is only in the very last paragraph of this section that Wilson explains his intention, which has been to follow ‘the tradition of the bourgeois revolution to its disintegration in Anatole France’ (p.68).

Scanning back through the previous 68 pages I think I can see what he means. Sort of.

The idea is that Michelet came from a poor background, taught himself to read and study, and expressed in his sweeping histories a grand Victorian vision of Man engaged in a Struggle for Liberty and Dignity. He was heavily influenced by the memory of the Great Revolution, which he dedicated his life to writing about. Thus Michelet is taken as a type of the post-revolutionary intellectual who espoused a humanist commitment to ‘the people’. He provides a kind of sheet anchor or litmus test for what a humanist socialist should be.

Renan and Taine, in their different ways, moved beyond this humanist revolutionary vision, Renan to produce a debunking theory of Christianity in which Jesus is not at all the son of God but an inspired moral thinker, Taine embracing Science as the great Liberator of human society. Both were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 French Revolution and its ultimate outcome in the repressive Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon.

Anatole France, 20 years younger than Renan and Taine, was a young man during the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. This turned him completely off revolutionary politics and steered him towards a dandyish appreciation of art and literature. France represents, for Wilson, a disconnection from the political life around him. He continues the trajectory of French intellectuals away from Michelet’s humane engagement.

Anatole France

Anatole France A Corpse

During the 1890s the Symbolist movement in art and literature continued this trajectory, moving the artist even further from ‘the street’, from the deliberately wide-ranging social concerns of a Michelet.

The Paris Dadaists moved even further away from the Michelet ideal, choosing the day of Anatole France’s funeral in 1924 to publish A Corpse, a fierce manifesto excoriating France for representing everything conventional and bourgeois about French culture which they loathed.

And the Dadaists morphed into the Surrealists who proceeded to turn their back completely on politics and the public sphere – turning instead to ‘automatic writing’, to the personal language of dreams, to the writings of people in lunatic asylums.

So Wilson’s point is that between the 1820s and the 1920s the French intellectual bourgeoisie had gone from socialist solidarity with the poor, via sceptical Bible criticism and detached scientific positivism, to dilettantish symbolism, and – in Dada and Surrealism – finally disappeared up its own bum into art school narcissism. It amounts to a complete betrayal of the humanist, socially-conscious tradition.

Now all this may well be true, but:

  1. It would have been good manners of Wilson to have explained that describing all this was his aim at the start of part one, to prepare the reader.
  2. It is odd that, although he takes a literary-critical view of the writings of Michelet, Taine et al, he doesn’t touch on the most famous literary authors of the century – for example, the super-famous novelists Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, to name a few.
  3. And this is all very literary – there is next to nothing about the politics or economics of the era (apart from brief mention of the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1870 as they affected his chosen writers). There is no historical, social, economic or political analysis. The whole argument is carried by a commentary on the literary style and worldview of the four authors he’s chosen, with no facts or figures about changing French society, industrialisation, wars, the rise and fall of different political parties, and so on.

So even when you eventually understand what Wilson was trying to do, it still seems a puzzling if not eccentric way to present an overview of bourgeois thought in the 19th century – via a small handful of historians? And why only in France? What happened to Britain or Germany (or Russia or America)?

Having made what he thinks is a useful review of the decline of bourgeois thinking of the 19th century, Wilson moves on to part two, which is a review of the rise of socialist thinking during the 19th century.

Part two – The origins of socialism through to Karl Marx

You might disagree with his strategy, but can’t deny that Wilson writes in a clear, accessible magazine style. The opening chapters of this section present entertaining thumbnail portraits of the theories and lives of some of the notable pre-Marxist radical thinkers of the early 19th century, men like Babeuf, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.

Wilson’s account of the large number of utopian communities which were set up across America in the first half of the century is particularly entertaining, especially the many ways they all collapsed and failed.

The Mormons It is striking to come across the Mormons being described as one of the early American utopian communities. They were pretty much the only idealistic community from the era to not only survive but thrive, despite fierce opposition. As Wilson reviews the fate of the various utopian communities set up during the early nineteenth century, it becomes clear that the key to survival was to have a strong second leader to succeed the founding visionary. For example, all the communities which Robert Owen founded failed when he left because they were only held together by his strong charisma (and dictatorial leadership).Hundreds of Fourieresque communities were set up, flourished for a few years, then expired. The Mormons were the exception because when their founder, Joseph Smith, died (he was actually murdered by an angry mob) he was succeeded by an even stronger, better organiser, Brigham Young, who went on to establish their enduring settlement of Utah.

Babeuf François-Noël Babeuf was a French political agitator during the French Revolution of 1789 who vehemently supported the people and the poor, founding a Society of Equals, calling for complete equality. As the bourgeois class which had done very well out of the overthrow of the king and aristocracy consolidated their gains during the period of the Directory (1795-99) Babeuf’s attacks on it for betraying the principles of the revolution became more outspoken and he was eventually arrested, tried and executed for treason. But his idea of complete equality, of everyone living in communes with little or no property, no hierarchy, everyone working, work being allotted equally, everyone eating the same, was to endure as a central thread of 19th century communism and anarchism.

Robert Owen ran a cotton factory in Scotland, and focused in his writings the paradox which plenty of contemporaries observed – that the world had experienced a wave of technological inventions which ought to have made everyone better off – and yet everyone could see the unprecedented scale of misery and poverty which they seemed to have brought about.

Young Karl Marx was just one of many thinkers determined to get to the bottom of this apparent paradox. The difference between Marx and, say, most British thinkers, is that Karl was drilled in the philosophical power of Hegel’s enormous Philosophy of World History.

Marx arrives in chapter five of part two and dominates the next eleven chapters, pages 111 to 339, the core of the book. Wilson gives us a lot of biography. Karl is the cleverest child of his Jewish-convert-to-Christianity father. He rejects advice to become a lawyer, studies Hegel, gets in trouble with the police and starts work as a newspaper editor.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels Through this newspaper Karl meets Friedrich Engels, who sends him articles to publish. Two years younger, handsome and full of life, Engels is sent by his father to supervise the family factory in Manchester, north-west England. Here Engels is appalled by the staggering immiseration of the urban proletariat, several families packed to a damp basement room in the hurriedly-built shanty towns surrounding Manchester, enslaved 12 hours a day in the noise and dirt of factories and, whenever there was a depression, immediately thrown out of work, whole families begging on the street, boys turning to theft, the girls to prostitution, in order to survive.

And yet when Engels talked to the factory owners – and he was a man of their class, an owner himself – all they saw was profit margins, capital outlay, money to be made to build big mansions in the countryside. Questioned about the lives of their workers, the owners dismissed them as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothings. Engels was disgusted by their greed, selfishness and philistinism.

Traipsing the streets of the city, shown into the homes of hundreds of workers, awed by the scale of the misery produced by the technological marvels of the industrial revolution, Engels could see no way to reform this society. The only way to change it would be to smash it completely.

The hypocrisy of classical economists As for contemporary British political and economic writing, it was a con, a sham, a rationalisation and justification of the rapacious capital-owning class. Adam Smith, David Ricardo and the rest of the so-called ‘classical’ economists merely provided long-winded rationalisations of exploitation. Smith said that the free market worked with a kind of ‘hidden hand’, a magic force which united people all over the globe in common enterprises, like the cotton pickers in America who supplied factories in Manchester to manufacture clothes which were then sold in India. Smith predicted that this ‘hidden hand’ of capitalism would, as if by magic, mean that, although everyone in society pursued their own interests, they would ineluctably be brought together by ‘the market’ to work together, to improve the lot of all, to create a balanced and fair society.

Well, Marx, Engels and anyone else with eyes could see that the exact opposite of these predictions had come about. British society circa 1844 was full of outrageous poverty and misery.

Marx meets Engels These were the thoughts Engels brought when he met Marx in Paris in 1844. His ideas and his practical experience electrified the brilliant polymath and provided Marx with the direction and focus he needed. He set about reading all the British political economists with a view to mastering classical economics and to superseding it.

Although Wilson periodically stops to summarise the development of their thought and give a précis of key works, I was surprised by the extent to which this middle section about Marx was mostly biographical. We learn a lot about the squalid conditions of Marx’s house in Soho, about Engels’s ménage with the Irish working class woman, Mary Burns, and there are entertaining portraits of rival figures like Lassalle and Bakunin.

All this is long on anecdote and very thin on theory or ideas. Wilson tells us a lot more about Lassalle’s love life than the reason why he was an important mid-century socialist leader. I learned much more about Mikhail Bakunin’s family life in Russia than I did about his political theories.

Wilson is at pains to point out on more than one occasion that he has read the entire Marx-Engels correspondence – but makes little more of it than to point out how Engels’s natural good humour struggled to manage Marx’s bitter misanthropy and biting satire.

Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels

Swiftian insults Wilson is happier with literary than with economic or political analysis, with comparing Marx to the great Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, than he is trying to explain his roots in either German Hegelianism or economic theory. He repeatedly compares Marx’s misanthropy, outrage and sarcasm to Swift’s – passages which make you realise that bitterly anti-human, savage invective was core to the Marxist project right from the start, flowering in the flaying insults of Lenin and Trotsky, before assuming terrifying dimensions in the show trials and terror rhetoric of Stalinism.

Failures of theory In the last chapter of the section Marx dies, and Wilson is left to conclude that Marx and Engels’s claim to have created a scientific socialism was anything but. Dialectical Materialism only works if you accept the premises of German idealist philosophy. The Theory of Surplus Labour doesn’t stand up to investigation. Their idea that the violence and cruelty needed to bring about a proletarian revolution will differ in quality from the violence and cruelty of bourgeois repression is naive.

There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at it. (p.303)

The idea that, once the revolution is accomplished, the state will ‘wither away’ is pitiful. For Wilson, their thought repeatedly betrays:

the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx (p.295)

the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature (p.298)

In a telling passage Wilson shows how happy Marx was when writing about the simple-minded dichotomy between the big, bad exploiting bourgeoisie versus the hard-done-by but noble proletariat in The Communist Manifesto and to some extent in Capital. But when he came to really engage with the notion of ‘class’, Marx quickly found the real world bewilderingly complicated. In the drafts of the uncompleted later volumes of Capital, only one fragment tries to address the complex issue of class and it peters out after just a page and a half.

Marx dropped the class analysis of society at the moment when he was approaching its real difficulties. (p.296)

Larding their books with quotes from British Parliamentary inquiries into the vile iniquities of industrial capitalism was one thing. Whipping up outrage at extreme poverty is one thing. But Marx and Engels’ failure to really engage with the complexity of modern industrial society reflects the shallowness and the superficiality of their view of human nature. Their political philosophy boils down to:

  • Bourgeois bad
  • Worker good
  • Both formed by capitalist society
  • Overthrow capitalist society, instal communist society, everyone will be good

Why? Because the Dialectic says so, because History says so. Because if you attribute all the vices of human nature to being caused by the ‘capitalist system’, then, by definition, once you have ‘abolished’ the ‘capitalist system’, there will be no human vices.

At which point, despite the hundreds of pages of sophisticated argufying, you have to question validity of the Marxist conception of both the ‘Dialectic’ and of ‘History’ as anything like viable explanations of what we know about human nature.

Marx’s enduring contribution to human understanding was to create a wide-ranging intellectual, economic and cultural framework for the sophisticated analysis of the development and impact of industrial capitalism which can still, in outline, be applied to many societies today.

But the prescriptive part of the theory, the bit which claimed that capitalism would, any day now, give rise inevitably and unstoppably to the overthrow of the capitalist system, well – look around you. Look at the device you’re reading this on – the latest in a long line of consumer goods which have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of ‘ordinary’ people around the world (the telephone, cheap cars, fridges, washing machines, tumble dryers, microwaves, radios, televisions, record players, portable computers, smart phones) invented and perfected under the entirely capitalist system of America which – despite a century of hopeful prophecies by left-wingers – shows no signs of ceasing to be the richest, most advanced and most powerful nation on earth.

As so many people have pointed out, the Great Revolution did not take place in the most advanced capitalist societies – as both Marx and Engels insisted that it inevitably and unstoppably must. Instead it came as, in effect, a political coup carried out in the most backward, least industrialised, most peasant state in Europe, if indeed it is in Europe at all – Russia.

Part three – Lenin and the Bolsheviks

The final section of 123 pages goes very long on the biography and character of its two main figures, Lenin and Trotsky. (It is strange and eerie that Wilson describes Trotsky throughout in the present tense because, in fact, Trotsky was alive and well, broadcasting and writing articles when Wilson was writing his book. It was only later the same year that To The Finland Station was published – 1940 – that Trotsky was assassinated on Stalin’s orders).

Thus I remember more, from Wilson’s account, about Lenin and Trotsky’s personal lives than about their thought. Lenin’s closeness to his elder brother, Alexander, images of them playing chess in their rural house, the devotion of their mother, the family’s devastation when Alexander was arrested for conspiring with fellow students to assassinate the Tsar, Lenin’s exile in Siberia and then wanderings round Europe – all this comes over very vividly.

I was startled to learn that Lenin lived for a while in Tottenham Court Road, where there was a longstanding centre for communist revolutionaries. Wilson also quotes liberally from the memoirs of Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, about their trials and tribulations.

What comes over is that Lenin was good at lending a sympathetic hearing to working men and women, quick to make friends everywhere he went. Unlike Marx he didn’t bear rancorous grudges. Unlike Marx he didn’t have an extensive library and lard his books with literary references. Lenin was totally focused on the political situation, here and now, on analysing power structures, seizing the day, permanently focused, 24/7 on advancing the revolutionary cause.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by the alias Lenin

Hence his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement addresses the practical problems of the communist movement at that specific moment.

I know a reasonable amount about the Russian Revolution itself. What fascinates me are the dog years between the death of Engels in 1895 and the Great War broke out in 1914. These were the years in which the legacy and meaning of Marxism were fought over by a floating band of revolutionaries, and in the meetings of the Second International, right across Europe, with factions splitting and dividing and reuniting, with leading communists bitterly arguing about how to proceed, about whether there would ever be a workers’ revolution and, if so, where.

Wilson brings out the constant temptation to so-called ‘bourgeois reformism’ i.e. abandoning the hope for a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society, and instead forming a democratic party, campaigning for votes and getting into the national parliament (in Britain, France, Germany, wherever).

This was the position of Edward Bernstein in Germany, who pointed out that the Social Democratic Party was having great success being elected and introducing reforms to benefit the working classes, building on the establishment of a welfare state, old age pensions and so on by Bismarck.

Reformists could also point to the way that the middle classes, far from being removed by the war between monopoly capitalists and an evermore impoverished proletariat, were in fact growing in numbers, that the working classes were better off, that all of society was becoming more ‘bourgeois’ (p.382).

This, we now know, was to be the pattern across all the industrialised countries. A large manufacturing working class, frequently embittered and given to strikes and even the occasional general strike, was to endure well into the 1970s – but the general direction of travel was for the middle classes, middle management, for ‘supervisors’ and white collar workers, to grow – something George Orwell remarks on in his novels of the 1930s.

The vision of an ever-more stark confrontation between super-rich capitalists and a vast army of angry proletariat just didn’t happen.

Lenin was having none of this bourgeois reformism. Wilson calls him the watchdog, the heresy hunter of orthodox Marxism. He turns out pamphlets attacking ‘reformism’ and ‘opportunism’. In Russia he attacks the ‘Populists’, the ‘Legal Marxists’, in books like Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) (p.384).

His 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement attacks Bernstein and bourgeois opportunists. What is to be done is that the working classes can never get beyond trade union level of political activity by themselves – they need to be spurred on by a vanguard of committed professional revolutionaries. People like, ahem, Comrade Lenin himself.

The same thinking was behind the creation of the ‘Bolsheviks’. At the Second Congress of the Social Democrats in summer 1903 some delegates brought forward a motion that the party should let concerned and sympathetic liberals join it. Lenin vehemently opposed the idea, insisting that the party must remain a small, committed vanguard of professional revolutionaries. When it came to a vote Lenin’s view won, and his followers became known as the majority, which is all that Bolsheviki means in Russian, as opposed to the Mensheviki, or minority. But over time, the overtones of majority, the masses, the bigger, greater number, would help the Bolsheviks on a psychological and propaganda level in their forthcoming struggles.

Throughout his thought, Lenin also dwells on the special circumstances of Russia, namely that:

a) 999 in a 1,000 of the population are illiterate peasants
b) even educated intellectuals, liberals and socialists, had been demoralised by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, reinforced by the recent decades of anti-socialist repression (all the revolutionaries had been arrested, spent time in prison even – like Trotsky – long periods in solitary confinement, as well as prolonged stays in Siberia)

The vast gulf in Russian society between a handful of super-educated elite on the one hand, and the enormous number of illiterate peasants sprinkled with a smaller number of illiterate proles in the cities, meant that the only practical way (and Lenin was always practical) to run a revolution was with top-down leadership. Lenin writes quite clearly that Russians will require a dictatorship not only to effect the revolutionary transformation of society, but to educate the peasants and workers as to what that actually means for them.

While even close associates in the communist movement such as Bernstein and Kautsky criticised this approach, while many of them wrote accurate predictions that this approach would lead to dictatorship pure and simple, others, like Trotsky, were energised and excited by the psychological vision of a ruthless and cruel dictatorship. The only thing the Russian people understood was force, and so the revolutionaries must use force, relentlessly. Amid the civil war of 1920 Trotsky found time to write a pamphlet, The Defense of Terrorism, refuting Kautsky’s attacks on the Bolshevik government and defending the shooting of military and political enemies.

What this all shows is how difficult it is for liberals and people with moral scruples to stop revolutionaries who eschew and ignore moral constraints, particularly when it comes to revolutionary violence and terror. The most violent faction almost always wins out.

At the Finland Station

In his chapter on Marx’s Capital Wilson had pointed out (rather inevitably, given his belle-lettrist origins) that the book has an aesthetic, as well as political-economic-philosophic aspect – i.e. that Marx had crafted and shaped the subject matter in order to create a psychological effect (namely arousing outrage at the injustices of capitalist exploitation, then channelling this through his pages of economic analysis into the climactic revolutionary call to action).

Wilson’s book is similarly crafted. Having moved back and forth in time between the childhood of Lenin and Trotsky and their actions in the 1920s and 30s, even mentioning Trotsky’s activities in the present day (1940), Wilson goes back in time to conclude the book with a detailed account of Lenin’s train journey.

In April 1917 Lenin and 30 or so supporters were provided with a train by the German Army High Command which took them from exile in Switzerland, across Germany to the Baltic, by ferry boat across to Sweden, and then on another train through Finland, until he finally arrived in St Petersburg in April 1917, into the political turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a very shaky provisional government.

Lenin was welcomed by pompous parliamentarians but it was to the workers and soldiers present that, with typical political insight, he devoted his speeches. He knew that it was in their name and with their help, that his small cadre of professional revolutionaries would seize power and declare the dictatorship of the proletariat. Which is what they finally did in October 1917.

‘All power to the soviets’ would be their catchphrase. Only time would reveal that this meant giving all power to the Bolshevik Party – leading to civil war and famine – and that, a mere 15 years later, it would end with giving all power to Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time.


Related links

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Marx and Engels

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to foment revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, leading to street fighting in Barcelona and then mass arrests which Orwell only just managed to escape arrest, before fleeing back to England.

Communism in England

Napoleon III A Life by Fenton Bresler (1999)

Fenton Bresler, who died in 2003, was a barrister, newspaper columnist, television pundit and author of many books. He was a popular author rather than a historian, so the tone of this book isn’t scholarly but very much focuses on the personalities, the experiences and feelings of the people involved.

Occasionally this leads the tone to drop into sentimentality or cliché, but for the most part it makes for an entertaining, easy-going and often very illuminating read.

I’m especially glad that Bresler dwells at such length on the origins of Napoleon III’s family: it makes Napoleon III’s relationship with his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, much clearer, and also, in the early pages, amounts to a touching portrait of Napoleon himself and his family circle.

The Napoleonic background

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in post-revolutionary France emerging as the Republic’s ablest military leader in its war against its European enemies which had broken out in 1792.

In 1799 Napoleon carried out a coup against the so-called Directorate, the five-man government of France, and had himself declared First Consul. He had married Josephine de Beauharnais, a divorcée, in 1795. Josephine came with two children by her first marriage – Eugène born in 1781 and Hortense born in 1783. As Napoleon grew in power, declaring himself Emperor of the French in 1804, it became more pressing that he have a male heir, but Josephine failed to give him one. Thus, in 1810, he divorced her and married an Austrian princess, who soon bore him the much-wanted male child, who Napoleon appointed ‘King of Rome’.

Napoleon had four brothers and, at the height of his power, allotted all of them positions of power on the thrones of the various European countries he had conquered. He also arranged marriages for them with European princesses, in order to expand the family’s reach and power.

One of these plans was to arrange the marriage of his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, to Hortense, daughter of his first wife, Josephine, in 1806, when she was 23 and he was 28.

The couple didn’t get on but managed to have three children, all boys – Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte who died at the age of four, Napoléon Louis Bonaparte (1804 – 1831), and Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873)  – who was to become Napoléon III, the subject of this book.

After Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated in 1814, Hortense and her two surviving sons returned to Paris where she was protected by Alexander I of Russia. However, when Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba and returned to rule France for 100 days before being finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Hortense loyally supported her step-father during his brief resumption of power, and was punished for it when the Allies re-occupied Paris for the second time.

Amid a White Terror, in which aristocrats settled scores with defenders of the old regime, amid a climate of lynchings, murders and executions, Hortense and her two sons – the future Napoleon III being just six years old – fled to Switzerland and began years of exile, moving from country to country around central Europe.

Within a few months of their flight Hortense’s estranged husband, Louis, by now the ex-King of Holland, demanded custody of the eldest son, Napoléon Louis. From then on it was just Hortense and Louis-Napoléon, wandering Europe for six years before finding a semi-permanent home in Switzerland. Mother and small son formed a very close bond, Louis’ wife later complaining that he never stopped venerating his mother, even long after her death.

Hopefully, the diagram below makes things a bit clearer. it shows how Napoleon’s parents Charles and Letizia had five sons and three daughters, their dates and who they married. It shows how Napoleon (second from left) married Josephine, who already had Eugène and Hortense, how he persuaded his younger brother Louis to marry Hortense, and they had two sons, the younger of which (and the only one shown here) became Napoleon III. Napoleon divorced Josephine and married Marie of Austria by whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon, ‘King of Rome’, later referred to as Napoleon II, who died aged only 21 in 1832.

Napoleon III's family tree

Napoleon III’s family tree

Years of exile

Young Louis-Napoléon spent the 1820s subject to a string of overbearing tutors. He grew into a handsome man, a bit on the short side, but dashing in his army uniform, more intelligent than the other men in his family and, as this book shows in some detail, a great seducer of women. All through his life he seduced and bedded almost every woman he came into contact with.

The family tree I gave above may seem like unnecessary detail but it turns out to be vital in several ways.

By focusing on the ambience and influence of Napoleon on all his family Bresler really conveys the sense of entitlement to royal treatment and to a grand destiny which shaped Louis’ life. By giving all his siblings such exalted roles and royal marriages Napoleon I had created an extraordinarily complex web of relations across European royalty and aristocracy. These uncles and aunts and cousins didn’t just disappear when Napoleon fell from power, but their sense of imperial entitlement continued to exert an influence on Louis right up to the end of his life.

Bresler’s vividly written book does what more academic histories often fail to do – it powerfully conveys the real sense of conviction and motivation which fueled Louis. For Mike Rapport or Gareth Stedman Jones or Karl Marx, Louis-Napoleon was a joke, an empty man who believed nothing and was pushed to the surface by the failure of all the other factions of society and politics, a faute de mieux man.

Bresler’s book – personal and sentimental though it often is, wearing its amateur status with pride – nonetheless embeds you right at the heart of this extraordinary family and has you seeing the world from Louis’ point of view, as a theatre onto which he was irresistibly destined to rise to glory and to lead France.

The extraordinary thing is – that it happened just as he dreamed, exactly as he was so convinced that it would.

Death of the other heirs

Louis-Napoléon’s first political involvement was with the Carbonari, the secret society dedicated to achieving unity and independence for the then-fragmented Italy. His brother joined him in the cause, but caught measles on campaign and Bresler paints the affecting scene where Louis-Napoléon holds his elder brother in his arms as he died. It was 1831.

After Waterloo, Napoleon I’s one legitimate son, Napoléon François Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the so-called ‘King of Rome’, had been taken by his mother back to Austria. Here he was raised as a prince of the royal blood but in virtual house arrest, given the new name Franz, Duke of Reichstadt. Although he just about remembered his father before he went off to fight at Waterloo and never returned, the young prince was forbidden to speak French or even to mention his father’s name.

When Napoleon died in 1821, in exile on the island of St Helena, he bequeathed his son a load of priceless memorabilia but the Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, prevented any of it from reaching the boy. As an Austrian prince Franz was raised to join the army and in 1832 given a battalion to command, but soon afterwards he caught pneumonia and died, aged just 21.

The significance of the early deaths of these two young men was that their removal made Louis-Napoleon the heir to the Napoleonic throne (there were two remaining brothers of Napoleon I, who lived in affluent retirement, but neither had any interest in returning to public life). So from this point – 1832 – onwards, through thick and thin, Louis was convinced that it was his destiny to one day rule as his grandfather had. Everyone who met him reported that he had an unalterable conviction that his destiny was to restore the Napoleonic name and rule France.

Napoleonic writings

Napoleon I spent his years of exile on St Helena dictating his memoirs. These are famously economical with the truth, tending to gloss over the fact that his rule saw Europe wracked by 15 years of bloody warfare, and preferring to position himself to posterity as a champion of the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

His grandson followed in the Emperor’s footsteps and, once he was the heir apparent, published the first of what became a series of political pamphlets, starting with Rêveries politiques or ‘political dreams’ in 1833 at the age of 25. This was followed in 1834 by Considérations politiques et militaires sur la Suisse (‘Political and military considerations about Switzerland’) and in 1839 by Les Idées napoléoniennes (‘Napoleonic Ideas’).

Wordy and pompous, Louis’s books boil down to two central ideas:

  • the primacy of a national interest which transcended all particular class or factional interest
  • and universal (male) suffrage which would allow ‘the people’ to vote for a strong ruler who would implement ‘the advantages of the Republic without the inconveniences’

Napoleonic referendums

I hadn’t realised that the first Napoleon felt it necessary to call a plebiscite in 1804 to approve his move in status from First Consul to ‘Emperor of the French’. Nor that the vote was so overwhelmingly positive, with 99.93% (3,521,675) in favour and only 0.07% (2,579) against.

This was to be Louis’s strategy: it was universal (male) suffrage which got him elected president in 1848, and which he then appealed to again to support his declaration of himself Emperor in 1852. Both times he won by huge majorities.

So one of the fascinations of Bresler’s book is to learn that government by plebiscite, or referendum, was a well-established reactionary strategy for appealing over the heads of the metropolitan (liberal and bourgeois) elite, to the generally more conservative, and uneducated, population at large.

Quite thought-provoking, given the pickle Britain is in following the 2016 EU Referendum…

The advantage of Bresler’s in-depth accounts

The outline of Louis’ biography in the 1830s and 40s is simply stated: he attempted two ‘coups’ designed to raise the army behind his legendary name and to overthrow the then-king, Louis-Philippe – one at a barracks in Strasbourg in 1836, then again in Boulogne in 1840.

Whereas other histories dismiss both these events in a paragraph or so, Bresler goes into as much detail as possible, describing the elaborateness of the preparations, and then how they both unravelled into farce. He drills right down to descriptions of how the conspirators entered the barracks, what Louis said and did, how they tried to persuade the head of each barracks to join them, the misunderstandings, the retreats, the squabbles between the conspirators. He tells us that he has visited the exact sites of both events and walked through the action. Bresler makes it feel like a thriller.

Same goes for all the other key moments in Louis’ career. You might not get the kind of detailed socio-economic or political analysis which you might get from academic history books, but Bresler’s more personal approach not only makes a welcome change, it puts you right there, right on the spot at some of the crucial turning points in French history.

Louis-Napoleon goes to prison

After Louis’ first coup attempt, the government of King Louis-Philippe indulgently exiled Louis to the United States, from where, in fact, he quite quickly returned to be with his dying mother, Hortense, in Switzerland. After the 1840 attempt, however, they lost patience and Louis was tried and sentenced to prison in perpetuity.

Bresler’s account of this imprisonment is absolutely fascinating. He was held in a run-down chateau in the town of Ham in the Somme district of north-east France, along with his loyal doctor and valet. He was kept in a small room at the end of a corridor, with holes in the floor and ceiling and only paper flaps to cover the window, with primitive toilet facilities down the hall. Here he built himself shelves to hold up his books, and spent a lot of time reading.

Louis and the loyal friends who had assisted at the coup and so been sentenced alonside him (General Montholon and Doctor Conneau) were the only inmates. A garrison of 200, of whom 60 soldiers were on duty at any time, was devoted just to oversee them.

One of the most flabbergasting things Bresler tells us is that Louis and the general were both allowed to have their mistresses move in and live with them. How very French! Louis’ mistress, Alexandrine moved in and, over the course of the six years, bore him two illegitimate children, Eugene and Louis, both of which were farmed out to the Cornu family in Paris to look after.

The size of the garrison guarding Louis makes it all the more amazing that in 1846 he managed to escape. Builders had arrived to finally do up the crumbling chateau and Bresler gives a characteristically detailed and nail-biting description of the plan the General, the doctor and the valet concoct, to have Louis disguise himself as one of the workmen and simply walk out the main gate. Which is what he did.

1848 to 1852

I have described the events in France of 1848 to 1852 in my reviews of:

Briefly, King Louis-Philippe of France was overthrown by a popular uprising in February 1848 and a Republic was declared, but there was then a prolonged period of chaos and uncertainty. Liberals tried to form a national government but, when they shut down the workshops which had given work and a dole to the unemployed of Paris, the working men set up barricades which led the government to appoint a general to retake the city which he did during a week of merciless violence in June 1848. Not only were thousands slaughtered but the entire far left / socialist leadership was rounded up and imprisoned.

This helped the drift in both practical politics and the national mood towards the right. His prison sentence having lapsed with the abolition of the old regime, Louis-Napoleon managed to find a new home, and his supporters raised the money for him to stand for election to the new Chamber of Deputies. To everyone’s surprise but his own, he was elected.

In the debates that ensued, Louis was wisely understated and restrained but – in line with his writings – supported the idea of universal (male) suffrage. As the action-packed year of 1848 drew to a close, Louis-Napoleon stepped up from his modest activity in the assembly, to stand in the election for France’s first ever president, running against General Cavaignac, the man responsible for the massacre of the ‘June Days’, and various liberals.

To everyone’s amazement Louis-Napoleon stormed home, with five and a half million votes compared to his nearest rival, the general, who got only one and a half million.

Louis spent the next three years conspiring to convert the four-year presidency to ‘rule for life’, succeeding in December 1851, when he staged a coup against the National Assembly. He followed this up by holding a plebiscite to appeal of the entire male population of France in December 1852, which approved of him declaring himself Emperor Napoleon, taking the number III in memory of Napoleon’s only son who, although he never ruled a country, was now given the posthumous title Napoleon II.

The great strength of Bresler’s book compared to conventional political histories is that they all start from the present – they start from a modern perspective in which the liberal opposition, or even the French socialists – are taken as standard bearers for what we now know ended up happening over the long term i.e. the development of parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, limiting the power of the rich and aristocracy, introduction of the welfare state, right to work, right to strike, trade unions, pensions and so on.

From this perspective Napoleon III was a freak, an inexplicable anomaly, an apparent step backwards to the pomp and trappings of Napoleon I.

But Bresler shows you the world from a completely different perspective, from the perspective of the extremely upper-class sections of French society, not to mention the very cream of European royalty, and the world of privilege and entitlement they inhabited.

What mattered in this world was not the press or the horribly common deputies in the National Assembly: it was the opinion of Louis-Napoleon’s mother or wife or his cousin the arch-duke and so on, an extremely small, closely-knit society. And within this world there was always the expectation that royalty or imperial values would ultimately triumph. It was God’s will. It was inevitable. And Bresler helps you really appreciate how this fondness for Empire, pomp and grandeur, was shared by millions of ordinary Frenchmen.

What, to the secular liberal writers of history appears a freakish accident appears, from the perspective Bresler gives us, quite natural and almost inevitable.

He also makes the point that Louis-Napoleon was good with people. He may have been a poor public speaker – he had a flat metallic voice and a pronounced German accent – so he came over badly in the National Assembly and among the metropolitan elite of journalists and commentators.

But he had a highly developed sense of the importance of people out there and Bresler describes Louis’ very modern campaigns or ‘charm offensives’ in which he toured virtually all of France, getting on easily with crowds and individuals of all stations of life, in towns and villages the length and breadth of the land. Having been an exile on the run and a prisoner himself living in very reduced circumstances, Louis may have insisted on imperial protocol, but as a person was always modest and approachable. Queen Victoria expected to dislike him but was charmed on their first meeting. Everyone was.

Thus, in 1851, while the deputies and political theorists squabbled in Paris, Louis-Napoleon toured the country and was rewarded with a plebiscite confirming his claim to the title Napoleon III – 7.4 million in favour to 641,000 against.

The Empire of Napoleon III

Domestic

I hadn’t realised that the 1851 coup led to such violence and repression. The population of Paris brought out the barricades (again) which the army quickly stormed with the loss of up to 400 lives. But it was the political repression afterwards which surprised me. About 26,000 people were arrested, mostly members of the left-wing opposition, some 4,000 in Paris alone. The 239 inmates who were judged most severely were sent to the penal colony in Cayenne, 9,530 political opponents were sent to Algeria, 1,500 were expelled from France, and another 3,000 were given forced residence away from their homes.

Louis-Napoleon – painted by Bresler as essentially a mild man – set up a commission to review the sentences and some 3,500 were eventually reprieved.

Imprisonment of the left opposition was accompanied by strict press censorship: No newspaper article dealing with political or social questions could be published without the permission of the government, fines for breaches were increased, and the list of press offenses was greatly expanded. After three warnings, a newspaper or journal could be suspended or even permanently closed.

On the plus side, the 18 years of the Second Empire are remembered for the growth of the French economy and boom times, especially in Paris. Having spent time in exile in Britain, Napoleon III had seen the power of the industrial revolution and he encouraged the expansion of the French railway network and the diversification of the French economy into iron and steel works.

Probably the most famous development of his time was the extensive remodelling of Paris by the architect Hausmann, responsible for creating the broad, straight boulevards which cut through Paris’s squalid slums and created the airy, sunny Paris which survives to this day. Bresler shows how closely Louis followed these plans for a new imperial capital.

The Emperor selected the Elysée Palace as his Paris residence and the palace remains to this day the official seat of the French President. He inaugurated a calendar of weekly balls and concerts at which all the great and good could meet and mingle, intrigue and do business.

A new Opera House was built, amid an outpouring of fine arts and gilded decoration. The Second Empire almost exactly corresponds with the output of Offenbach, creator of witty entertaining operettas such as Orpheus in the Underworld and the Tales of Hoffman.

The Emperor Napoleon II in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

The Emperor Napoleon III in his pomp by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Foreign Policy

The Crimean War 1853-56 Napoleon III supported Britain and Turkey in their bid to halt Russian expansion into the Balkans, the reason war broke out. After the long grinding war, horribly mismanaged on the Allies’ side, the conference which agreed the peace was held in Paris, a diplomatic coup for Napoleon.

Mexican adventure Less successful was the scheme Napoleon III was persuaded to support, of sending a European monarch to rule over chaotic Mexico. France along with Britain and Spain had invaded the Mexican Republic in the winter of 1861 in order to reclaim the foreign debts which the Republic had inherited from the monarchy it had just overthrown. Once the money was paid Britain and Spain withdrew but the French decided to stay on and, though his contacts with the Austrian royal family, Napoleon managed to persuade Maximilian, younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis, to take the ‘throne’ of Mexico, as Emperor Maximilian I.

This bizarre situation was only possible with the backing of the most reactionary elements of Mexican society and due to the simple fact that Mexico’s neighbour, the United States, was bogged down in its own brutal civil war (1861-65).

But:

  1. Maximilian turned out to be a ‘modern’ ‘liberal’ emperor, much to the disgust of the Catholic, landowning autocracy who, therefore, never gave him the unstinted support he required
  2. Even with the backing of over 30,000 French troops, Maximilian was never able to defeat the Republican forces of the republican President Benito Juárez
  3. Once the American Civil War was over, the Americans began to actively support Juárez

Facing increasing opposition at home, Napoleon withdrew the last of France’s army in 1866. Maximilian’s ’empire’ collapsed, and he was captured and executed by the Mexican government in 1867.

True to form, Bresler concentrates less on the international power politics of the tale and more on the personal experiences of those concerned. Before the end, Maximilian’s wife, Carlotta, sailed to France and insisted on an audience with Napoleon III, by this time a sick man, and begged for military help to be sent to her husband. She apparently broke down in front of Napoleon and his wife, before travelling on to see the Pope to beg for help, in front of whom she began raving that everyone was trying to poison her. By this stage seriously unhinged, Carlotta was committed to a lunatic asylum in Belgium where she lived for a further sixty years.

Here, as in so many other places, Bresler really brings history alive by going beyond the dates and geopolitical events to show you the characters and suffering and personalities of the people involved.

The Franco-Prussian War and overthrow

I’ve covered the events of the Franco-Prussian War in other blog posts:

Bismarck tricked Napoleon III into declaring war on Prussia. This was just the patriotic war which Bismarck had been seeking in order to persuade the still-independent states of southern Germany to unite with the North German Confederation which Bismarck had forged under the leadership of Prussia.

It worked beyond his wildest dreams. Not only did Napoleon III declare war on Prussia but the French Chamber of Deputies rose to their feet acclaiming the war, and mobs marched round French provincial towns singing the Marseillaise.

What idiots. Within weeks the main French Army was surrounded and neutralised at Metz and the army marching to their relief was cornered and annihilated at Sedan. The Germans had better weapons, better logistics and better leadership. Many French soldiers were still trying to figure out where they were being deployed to when the decisive engagements of the war were over.

Napoleon, now quite ill with very painful bladder stones, made the quixotic decision to go to the front and lead by example like his grandfather. Except he was nothing like his grandfather. Bresler quotes the accounts of exasperated generals that Louis made and reversed judgements, confusing everyone until he eventually handed over authority to the general on the spot just in time to be captured along with the wreckage of his army at Sedan.

Once peace was made, Louis was accompanied through the lines to parley with his former colleague, the German King Wilhelm I. Must haven been an embarrassing conversation. Bismarck, who Napoleon had entertained at the French court only a few years earlier, was there with his army, and also spent some time condoling with the tired old man.

Napoleon III was moved to a castle in Germany, before being sent into exile in England. He wasn’t in France to see the catastrophe which followed, namely the French government refusing to capitulate and fighting on from Bordeaux while the Germans surrounded and besieged Paris. They eventually broke the siege, fought their way into the capital and the government finally capitulated.

The Germans marched about the place with characteristic arrogance and the German leaders assembled in the Palace of Versailles where King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser of the new German Empire which had been created by Bismarck. The new German Reich was built on the humiliating defeat of France.

And then, when the Germans withdrew, Paris collapsed into chaos as far left socialists declared a socialist republic and started executing the rich and Catholic priests. The new national government responded by embarking on a second siege of Paris – this time by French forces – who, after more privation and hunger, themselves finally broke into the city, the cue for vicious street fighting, in which the enraged government forces were encouraged to take revenge on the ‘communards’ for all the atrocities they were said to have committed, including executing the archbishop of Paris. It is still stunning to read that French forces killed 20,000 of their own people in just one week.

Napoleon III missed all this. He was in England, at Chislehurst. Bresler shares with us his entertaining investigations which tend to suggest that as far back as 1860, Louis – who had spent his entire childhood in exile and six years in prison – had been making plans in case the same thing happened again. Thus a British agent probably acting for him had used a large amount of money to buy Camden Place, a fairly modest (for an emperor) mansion in Chislehurst overlooking a wide expanse of grass and woodland (now home of the Chislehurst Gold Club).

Here he joined his wife, Eugénie, who had fled Paris with their son before the Prussians arrived, and here he was to live for the last three years of his life until his death in January 1873 from complications after an operation to remove his painful bladder stones.

 The Empress Eugénie and her son by James Tissot (1878)

The Empress Eugénie and her son in the grounds of Camden Place, five years after the death of her husband, by James Tissot (1878)

A medical indictment

The last chapter in the book is a surprisingly fierce indictment of the British doctors who, in Bresler’s opinion, killed Napoleon III. The Emperor had suffered from stones in the bladder for some years, which caused him a lot of pain. This ailment flared up severely during the height of the Franco-Prussian War so that even as he attempted to guide the army he was sweating with pain.

Bresler goes into full barrister mode to marshal evidence for the prosecution from two modern specialists in ailments of the bladder – James Bellringer and Sir David Innes Williams.

Bresler met, interviewed and corresponded with these witnesses and uses their testimony to assemble an argument that the procedure to destroy the stone in the bladder – inserting a device down the urethra which grasps and attempts to crush the stone so that the minuscule fragments can be passed in urine – should never have been carried out. What happened was his English doctors carried out a first procedure, but less than half the stone was destroyed and passed. After a few days’ recovery, another procedure took place in January 1873, but again the stone proved bigger than anticipated.

All was in readiness for a third procedure when the Emperor suddenly flagged, weakened, and died of heart failure. According to the modern doctors this was almost certainly due to sepsis i.e. the bladder was infected by the blockage and the medical procedure the English doctors carried out dislodged some infected bladder tissue which got into the circulation and infected the heart, causing it to fail.

Apparently, the Emperor’s death at the hands of ‘incompetent’ British doctors was a source of bitterness among French doctors and a subject of dispute between the two nations’ medics for years afterwards.

All this is fairly interesting but the revelation for me was that Napoleon submitted to these painful operations because he was planning another coup. Elaborate arrangements had been made; he was to join a cousin in Switzerland then ride with supporters to Lyon, recruiting support along the way, raising the Imperial flag and so on., just as he had tried in 1836 and 1840.

But the crucial element in raising the troops was that Napoleon should be able to ride a horse. Over the previous few years this had become pretty much impossible because of the acute pain in his bladder caused by the horse’s jogging movement. So the immediate cause of his death might have been medical ‘incompetence’. But the ultimate cause was his relentless, obsessive refusal to be denied what he saw as his pre-destined fate, to rule France and to hand on the Empire to his son.

This is not quite so completely bonkers as it sounds because Bresler explains how the Third Republic, created after Napoleon’s fall, remained deeply unpopular for years, so much so that there was even talk of restoring the grandson of Charles X, the king who had fled the throne back in 1830, the 60-year-old Comte de Chamborde.

The sensible academic histories I read make history sound like an inevitable unfolding of socio-economic trends. Bresler’s book reinserts the element of populism and mass psychology which combine with the fanaticism or abilities of specific individuals to remind us just how weird and contingent history often is. These apparently anachronistic sentiments of both royalists and imperialists, were to play a role in helping bitterly divide France during the long drawn out Dreyfus Affair and beyond. Reading Bresler’s book helps you understand their strong and abiding emotional appeal to large sectors of the French public.

A personal history

Bresler wears his personal approach on his sleeve. Rather than quote the latest academic texts, he prefers to reference very old previous biographies of Napoleon III, including some he was lucky enough to find in second hand bookshops in Paris.

He tells us about his own personal visits to various key sites in the story, and the chats he has with the local tourist board officials. For example, he shares with us his surprise that the tourist chaps in Boulogne didn’t seem to realise the shattering importance of Napoleon III’s botched coup there. Why isn’t there some plaque or guide to the precise events and locations, things which Bresler recreates for us in dramatic detail?

At another moment he stands on the very same quayside where the Emperor Maximilian reluctantly took ship to set off for his adventure in Mexico and is as affected as a sentimental novelist.

I have stood on the landing stage at Miramar from which they embarked and it seemed as if an air of melancholy still lingers upon the scene. (p.314)

Bresler visits as many of the exact locations where Napoleon lived throughout his life as he can (including a trip to the remains of the Chateau d’Ham where he was imprisoned), and especially all the houses in London which he rented. Lastly of course he visits the grand Camden Place where Louis and the Empress spent their last years in exile – and which stands to this day, as the headquarters of Chislehurst Golf Club.

This is all rather sweet and endearing, a refreshing change from the earnest, statistical and geo-political accounts of history I’m used to reading. Much closer to the personalised way in which most people actually experience life.

A verbal tic or token of Bresler’s very personal involvement with his hero is his repeated use of the word ‘sad’. Academic historians rarely express emotion, and then it’s at most the cliché that this or that decision was ‘tragic’ – but Bresler again and again takes the kind of soft, sentimental and rather naive point of view epitomised by the word ‘sad’.

The two boys [the illegitimate sons of Napoleon III], then aged fifteen and thirteen, were taken away from her [their mother, Lizzie Howard] and sadly, with the callousness of youth, soon forgot her. (p.275)

In later years, Margot married a Prussian named Kulbach and died at the sadly early age of forty-five. (p.322)

As for Louis, he would be a prisoner-of-war (albeit in the soft comfort of the new German Emperor’s summer palace) soon to be released to his last sad exile at Camden Place, with his health so badly deteriorated that he had become a pale, indecisive and sad version of the witty, commanding and assured man he had once been. (p.323)

I believe that two other factors, apart from his ill-health, led to his sad deterioration. (p.328)

Sadly [these criticisms] also apply to Louis himself. (p.332)

The year 1865 began on a sad note for Louis. (p.334)

The sad news of Maximilian’s death was much more in keeping with the reality of French life and the circumstances of Louis’ rule than all the fine uniforms and magnificent spectacles.

Sadly, they were all living in a fool’s paradise. (p.353)

Mathilde’s entry in her diary for that day makes sad reading. (p.366)

And much more in the same ilk. The ghost of Barbara Cartland floats over many of these pages.

Imperial sex

Everything we were brought up to believe about the French is confirmed by this book. The amount of infidelity, adultery, prostitutes, procuring, pandering and debauching taking place among the French upper classes is mind boggling.

Napoleon I had many ‘flings’ and a number of illegitimate children. Josephine had a number of lovers. But their grandson and his peers far outdid the older generation. Louis loved sex and he had it with as many women as possible. I’ve mentioned the lover he had while imprisoned at Ham but she’s just a drop in the ocean. Soon after he became Emperor he realised he needed an Empress and so married the Spanish aristocrat, Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick, 16th Countess of Teba, 15th Marchioness of Ardales – Eugénie for short.

But that didn’t stop him having an ‘official’ mistress – Bresler relishes the way the French have a phrase for top mistress, maitresse de titre – who was for a while the Englishwoman Lizzie Howard, but also a steady string of other young ladies who were presented to him at the numerous balls and concerts which Napoleon arranged.

There was a well-established process. After (or even during) the ball, a flunky brought the potential victim into Napoleon’s private study at the Élysée Palace. The Emperor made a quick visual assessment. If he wasn’t interested, he chatted politely for a few minutes then said that his papers called him, the flunky reappeared, the young lady retired, presumably counting her blessings. But if Napoleon liked what he saw, he dismissed the flunky and then, after a bit of chat, took the young lady up some hidden backstairs to a bedroom. Here a servant was waiting who helped the lady disrobe and then led her into the Imperial Bedroom where Napoleon was waiting, also naked.

Bresler includes quite a few gory descriptions of Napoleon’s love-making which was quick and to the point, his point anyway. One young lady recorded that she had barely had time to make a few coy protestations before he grabbed her in an intimate place, manhandled her onto the bed and was in like Flynn. There were a few minutes of grunting noises and – one victim leaves a wonderful detail – the carefully waxed ends of Napoleon’s moustache began to melt and wilt with the heat of his exertion before, with a final grunt and grimace it was all over, the Emperor stood up and the lady was despatched back to the changing room, helped back into her upper class costume, and led away..

For a while the maîtress en titre was the slender, sexy Virginia Castiglione who, Bresler reveals, was very probably a spy sent to seduce Napoleon (not very difficult) and report back on his thoughts about Italian unification to the canny Prime Minister of Piedmont, the Count of Cavour. How novelish this all is!

A propos of Italy, Bresler gives an entertaining description of the surprising crudity of King Victor Emmanuel, who ended up becoming the first king of united Italy. He was once at the Paris opera as a guest of Napoleon’s and pointed out a particularly tasty ballet dancer. ‘How much for the little girl?’ he asked. ‘I’ve no idea,’ replied Napoleon. ‘For your majesty,’ quickly interjected Napoleon’s fixer and procurer, Bacciochi, ‘five thousand francs.’ ‘That’s damn expensive,’ grunted Victor. ‘Never mind,’ said Napoleon turning to Bacciochi. ‘Put it on my tab.’

There’s a strong flavour of Harvey Weinstein about Napoleon III.

From 1863 to 1864 Napoleon’s maîtress en titre was Marguerite Bellanger, a bouncing 23-year-old country girl who catered to Napoleon’s every whim, eventually giving birth to yet another illegitimate child, Charles Jules Auguste François Marie. But none of us get any younger. On one occasion Napoleon returned to the Imperial Palace so exhausted by a prolonged session with Margot that he collapsed and had to be carried to bed – at which point the Empress Eugénie stormed round to Margot’s house in person and shouted that she was killing the Emperor – to which Margot tartly replied that if he got enough at home he wouldn’t have to play away.

(Eugénie emerges as not exactly likeable but as a very tough, independently-minded woman. She caused lots of ructions among Louis’ advisers by insisting on sitting in on Cabinet meetings and, in some of the most fraught decisions, casting the deciding vote. She was, for example, all in favour of declaring war on Prussia in 1870. After meeting the French Cabinet in 1866, Bismarck had described Eugénie as ‘the only man in his Government’, though just as able as all the men to make a catastrophically bad decision – p.340).

But it wasn’t just Louis who was at it. Almost every French figure of note seems to have had a mistress, and quite a few of these were married women whose husbands didn’t mind because they had their own harem of lovers. The atmosphere was rampant with infidelity, and the text is cluttered with countless love children being farmed out or given away.

It all makes quite a contrast with the unimaginative faithfulness of the stiff Prussian Bismarck or the sweet uxoriousness of Victoria and Albert, and goes a long way to explaining the reputation for sexual licence which France, and especially Paris, enjoyed well into the period of my youth.

(In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Christmas Holiday, which I’ve just read, young Charley’s family assume that his main motivation for going to Paris to see his university chum will be to have the kind of sexual adventures i.e. sex, which were considered impossible and unacceptable in the England of the time – and that was published in 1939.)

La gloire

One last point. In accounts of the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War, and then of France’s colonial disasters in Algeria and Indo-China, again and again I’ve come across the obsession of the French military and political class with la gloire – glory.

Glory is an important part of French cultural history and political discourse. Again and again the French have behaved recklessly and stupidly because obsessed with retaining or winning la gloire for la patrie.

Bresler suggests this delusion started with the first Napoleon – within a decade of his fall, many Frenchmen had forgotten the misery of the non-stop wars he’d engaged in, let alone the fact that he was militarily defeated – twice – and become dazzled by the vague blurry memory of the ‘glory’ of the days when France had a land Empire which controlled most of Europe.

‘I swear to rule for the interests, happiness and glory of the people of France,’ said Napoleon as part of his Coronation Oath; and he had used that same vital ‘glory’ when accepting his earlier nomination as Consul for Life.

These two appeals to ‘glory’ are an indication of the psychological appeal of Napoleon I, and later of Napoleon III, to the French nation: it appealed to the average French person’s desire, above all else, for national glory; for France to be perceived as the finest, the best, in whatever context she is engaged. General de Gaulle trumpeted the same message in the 1960s. Even today’s French politicians use it as an essential part of their platform. By contrast, no British politician has ever promised glory to the electorate. It has never been part of a British sovereign’s Coronation Oath to swear allegiance to the achievement of glory as a sacred mission. No British sovereign or politician would dream of making a similar claim but to Napoleon I and Napoleon III such boasting came easily.

‘Boasting’. That’s the word. This will-o’-the-wisp gloire explains much of France’s preposterous pomposity and yet is so weirdly at odds with France’s miserable military record of the past 200 years.

  • Napoleon – defeated and exiled – twice, 1814, 1815
  • 1830 revolution overthrows Bourbon King Charles
  • 1848 democratic revolution – defeated, leads to constitutional chaos, then autocracy
  • Napoleon III – humiliating failure in Mexico 1867, crushing defeat in Franco-Prussian War 1870
  • The Commune – Red Terror then government reprisals lead to massacres in Paris 1871
  • Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906, twelve year long humiliating revelation of corruption and lies in the French army and government
  • First World War 1914-1918 – French narrowly escape defeat thanks to the British – epic mutinies at Verdun and elsewhere in 1917 shame the army
  • Between the wars – political chaos
  • Second World War – defeat and occupation by the Nazis, widespread collaboration, national humiliation
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Indo-China leading up to catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
  • 1950s – humiliating failure in Algeria, leading to French Army attempts to assassinate the French president
  • 1958 the French Army plans a coup d’etat against the government
  • 1968 – chaos leading to near revolution

A few years ago I took the kids to Paris and visited the traditional tourist sights. It was when inspecting the Arc de Triomphe really closely, reading the dates and names of battles, that it began to dawn on me – the history of the French Army for the past two hundred years, 1815 to 2015, is a history of unending defeats.

This is what makes the French obsession with la gloire, with boasting about their ‘achievements’, all the more amusing.

No one has ever lost popular support in France by reminding people of their eternal glory. (p.250)

Bresler’s book is a highly entertaining, insightful, emotional and personal account of the strange life and enduring legacy of this most unlikely of political figures.


Related links

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Bismarck: The Iron Chancellor by Volker Ullrich (2008)

Bismarck, a potted biography

Born in 1815, Otto von Bismarck completed university and began the tedious, exam-passing career path of becoming a Prussian civil servant, but rejected it as boring and went back to manage his father’s lands in Pomerania. He gained a reputation as a fast-living, hard-drinking, traditional Prussian Junker (‘minor aristocrat’), who loved hunting, drinking and sounding off about how the world was going to the dogs.

Local politics Because of his status as local landowner, during the later 1830s and early 1840s Bismarck became involved in local administration, local courts and land disputes, then in local parliamentary business, coming to the attention of local conservative politicians, one of whose brothers was a personal adviser to the king of Prussia. Useful connections. Steps up the ladder.

The Vereinigter Landtag In 1847 Bismarck stood in for a member of the Pomeranian provincial parliament, who was ill, and made his first speech on 17 May. He went on to make a mark as an arch conservative, an uncompromising ally of the Crown, and a vehement critic of all liberal ideas.

The 1848 revolution Barely had Bismarck come to the attention of the political classes than the Berlin insurrection broke out in March 1848 which threatened to overthrow Friedrich Wilhelm IV. The king’s advisors wanted him to flee the city and then let the army pound it into submission. The king wisely decided to stay and submitted to ‘shameful’ ordeals such as removing his hat when the victims of the street fighting of March were paraded before the palace. To his courtiers’ astonishment, he then went riding out among his citizenry to talk to them and apologise for the bloodshed. His personal bravery and appearance of compassion won him many converts.

Still stuck on his country estates, at one point Bismarck had considered raising an armed force from the farmers on his lands in Pomerania, to march on Berlin and overthrow the liberal parliament and to ‘liberate’ the king, but was talked out of it. Later in 1848, as the counter-revolution gained momentum, Bismarck set up a counter-revolutionary newspaper, the Neue Preussische Zeitung and also helped to set up a ‘Junker’ parliament of landowners in East Prussia, worried about the radical threat to property.

The counter revolution The liberal revolutionaries had set up a hopefully titled ‘National Parliament’ which, as the king’s forces re-established control, was forced to move from Berlin to Frankfurt and continued sitting and passing decrees, even as power returned to the kings and conservatives. In October 1848 Austrian troops retook Vienna from its rebellious citizens. By November 1848 the counter-revolution was victorious in Berlin, also. The Berlin National Assembly was first moved to Brandenburg and then dissolved. The king granted a new constitution which made a few concessions to liberal views, but kept himself and his army as the ultimate source of power.

MP to the new parliament In 1849 Bismarck was elected to the new Landtag as a prominent advocate of the ultraconservatives. He was then elected onto the ‘Union Parliament’ which sat in Erfurt and was supposed to advise on the constitution of what many hoped would become a federal Germany. Bismarck’s position was always simple and clear: Prussia first. Prussia, its king and power and traditions, must not be subsumed and diluted by absorption into a Greater Germany.

The renewed German Confederation In 1850, after stormy diplomatic exchanges which almost led to war, Prussia acceded to the Austrian demand to set up a new version of the pre-1848 German Bund or Confederation, to be based in Frankfurt. In 1851 Bismarck was appointed Prussian envoy to the Bundestag in Frankfurt – at just 35, a notable achievement over the heads of many older, more qualified candidates.

Prevents customs union with Austria The 1850s saw a sequence of events in which Bismarck emerged as a canny and astute exponent of power politics. The perennial dispute between Austria and Prussia crystallised into Austria’s wish to join a customs union of the north German states. Bismarck helped to exclude Austria, fobbing her off with a subsidiary agreement. Here presence would have diluted the power of  his beloved Prussia.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 showed how much Bismarck had learned and how far he had come from an unquestioning devotion to arch conservatism. Unexpectedly, the war pitched Christian Britain and France in support of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, against Christian Russia, in a bid to stem Russia’s annexation of the Balkans and creeping progress towards the Mediterranean. Arch conservatives, including the King of Prussia, had a lifelong sympathy for the most autocratic crown in Europe (Russia), and for the so-called ‘Holy Alliance’ which in previous decades had bound together the three autocracies of Prussia, Russia and Austria, and so wanted to go to Russia’s support. But Bismarck saw that Prussia’s best course lay in neutrality, which he managed to maintain.

Friendships with France Russia duly lost the Crimean War and was punished in the resulting Treaty of London. The France of Napoleon III emerged as the strongest power on the continent. Bismarck realised that, for the time being, Prussia should ally with France.

The New Era In 1858 Prince Wilhelm became regent for his brother the king of Prussia, who had had a stroke. Wilhelm showed himself much more amenable to liberals and German nationalists than his brother. It was the start of a so-called New Era. Bismarck surprised his right wing allies by showing himself remarkably open to the change. He had become well known for predicting that, sooner or later, Prussia would be forced into conflict with Austria for complete dominance of Germany. If liberals and nationalists contributed to Prussia’s strength and readiness for that battle, all the better. This is Realpolitik, you happily change alliances, friends and enemies and even principles – all in support of one consistent goal.

Diplomatic exile In the new atmosphere, Bismarck’s opponents had him despatched to St Petersburg as Prussian envoy. He was stuck there for three years but although he hated being torn out of domestic politics, he made many useful contacts in Russian circles. Bismarck lobbied hard to be given a high position in Prussia and was recalled in 1862, but Wilhelm disliked his crusty conservatism and despatched him on to Paris.

Appointed Prussian Prime Minister In 1861 the old king died and his brother ascended the throne as King Wilhelm I. In 1862 arguments between the liberal parliament and conservative administration about reforming the Prussian army led to a constitutional crisis. Bismarck was recalled from Paris and single-handedly persuaded King Wilhelm not to abdicate. Impressed by his staunch support, his parliamentary skill and his knowledge of foreign affairs, Wilhelm appointed Bismarck Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Prussia.

1863 Bismarck’s administration found itself embroiled in the ongoing arguments about army reform, as well as problems with the national budget, and sank to record unpopularity. Austria tried to renew the German Confederation on terms favourable to it, but Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm to reject the demands, and counter-demand Prussian parity with Austria, a joint veto on declarations of war and – in a bold coup – the calling of a new National Assembly based on universal manhood suffrage.

The unification of Germany

30 years ago in my History A-Level, I learned that Bismarck is famous as the man who unified Germany via three short tactical wars. These three wars remain central to his achievement.

1. War with Denmark 

A dispute with Denmark about the ownership of the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein in the Jutland peninsula had been rumbling on since the 1830s. A treaty had been signed in London in 1852. In 1863 the new Danish King, Christian IX, broke the terms of the accord by incorporating Schleswig into Denmark. Bismarck solved the problem by co-opting the Austrians to help, then declaring war and invading the provinces, defeating the Danish army at the Dybøl Redoubt on 18 April 1864. This patriotic victory silenced most of his domestic critics, solved the army problem in favour of substantial extra funding, demonstrated Prussia’s military superiority over Austria, and appealed to all liberal nationalists. Suddenly everyone was behind him.

Hostilities with Denmark rumbled on till October when Bismarck achieved complete control of the two provinces, to be shared between Prussia and Austria.

2. War with Austria 

However, this only delayed the final confrontation between Prussia and Austria for dominance of Germany which Bismarck had been predicting, and planning for, for years. Ever since a new map of Europe was drawn up in 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon, German-speaking populations had been divided up into 39 states and free cities, dominated by big Prussia in the north and the enormous Austrian Empire in the south. From Mike Rapport’s great book about the 1848 revolutions, I learned that German nationalists had for some time been fretting about two alternative solutions to the challenge of creating a ‘united’ Germany, namely to include or exclude the German-speaking population of Austria – the so-called ‘Greater’ or ‘Lesser Germany’ positions.

Bismarck cut through the problem by engineering a war with Austria in 1866, which the Prussians decisively won at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866. He had prepared the way by keeping the Russian Czar onside, liaising with his friend Napoleon III of France, and currying favour with liberals by, once again, proposing a new national Parliament.

After the crushing victory at Sadowa hotheads like Wilhelm I wanted to press on and take Vienna. Bismarck demonstrated his grasp of Realpolitik by refusing all such suggestions and engineering a peace treaty which left Austria with all its territory intact, but forced Austria to agree to the dissolution of the old German Confederation and the reorganisation of all Germany north of the river Main under Prussian control.

Thus Prussia annexed Hanover, Hesse, Nassau and the free city of Frankfurt. By making concessions to liberals at home on the budget issue, Bismarck secured widespread support at home as well as establishing the new North German Confederation under Prussian leadership, as the major power in central Europe. Extraordinary canny success.

Bismarck himself drew up the constitution of the new North German Confederation which was designed, at every point, to extend Prussian power. For example the ‘president’ was to be the King of Prussia, who had sole control of the army and power to appoint or dismiss the Chancellor. Bismarck instituted reforms of trade and freedom of movement, unified weights and measures, and published a new criminal code, which laid the basis for a renewed German economy. From a liberal point of view, these were all reforms they’d been calling for for a generation. From Bismarck’s point of view, that may or may not have been true, all he cared about was these reforms self-evidently made Prussia stronger – his undying goal.

However, the various southern states of Germany revolted against Prussian domination, electing liberal and anti-Prussian governments.

3. War with France

What Bismarck needed was war to prompt in the populations and nationalists of the south German states a sense of patriotic Germany unity which he could then exploit to suborn them into his confederation. For the next few years he closely monitored the situation in Europe for an opportunity.

It came when the throne of Spain fell vacant and a young prince from the Hohenzollern dynasty (the same dynasty as the King of Prussia) who happened to be married to a Portuguese princess, was offered the job.

Bismarck orchestrated both the offer and the timing of its release to the press and via ambassadors to the other nations of Europe, perfectly.

Already concerned about German encroachment into Denmark, political and public opinion in France was outraged at this ‘encirclement’ of France by the Hohenzollern monarchy.

But Bismarck cannily provoked the French government to go too far and demand that not only the young prince renounce the offer (reasonable enough) but that King Wilhelm himself renounce the offer, renounce the claim permanently (Prussia would never offer to put one of its royal family on the throne of Spain), and to apologise to France for any insult.

This demand was sent in a telegram to Bismarck while he was staying at the spa town of Ems. Bismarck was gleeful. He carefully doctored the text of the French demand to make it sound even more blunt, rude and threatening than it already was, and then had it widely published and distributed, ensuring outrage among German opinion at these extortionate demands.

Stung by the widespread publication of ‘the Ems telegram’, the french ruler Napoleon III found himself criticised at home for being weak, and let himself be goaded into declaring war on Prussia. The French Chamber of Deputies roared its approval. Patriotic men thronged to the local barracks all across France. Mobs sang the Marseillaise. The people rushed enthusiastically to war, confident that France had the strongest army in Europe.

Bismarck had achieved everything he wanted to. To the Prussian public, to all the south German states and to the world at large he could present himself as the victim of French aggression. A French army penetrated a few miles into German territory but was then halted and pushed back. Prussian forces quickly counter-invaded, surrounded the fortress at Metz and then massacred the army sent to relieve it, at the Battle of Sedan.

Napoleon III had rushed to the front to lead the French army himself, on the model of his glorious uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, but he was no Bonaparte and the French army turned out to be a shambles. Napoleon was himself captured and the Second Empire collapsed. Bismarck had achieved his goal.

However, the French elected a new government and fought on, compelling the Prussians to march on to Paris and subject it to a prolonged siege which dragged into 1871.

The Franco-Prussian War and the rising up of the revolutionary Commune in Paris in 1871, are two long stories in their own right. More important from Bismarck’s point of view, was that the southern German states did indeed a) come in in support of Prussia b) go further and sign up to the German Confederation – Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt in 15 November, Bavaria and Württemburg on 23 November.

This meant that Bismarck could announce the climax of all his ambitions – the declaration of a new German Reich or Empire, with the Prussian King Wilhelm I, as its Kaiser or Emperor.

Symbolically, this grand ceremony didn’t take place on German soil at all but in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France, occupied by the Germans for another four months until a final peace treaty was signed with France.

German unification – which so many nationalists and liberals had been hoping for throughout the nineteenth century, was only achieved thanks to the ruthless destruction of France. Germany was forged amid bloodshed and war. This key fact of modern European history has more than symbolic importance. It was to resonate on through the next 80 years of European history…

A map of German unification

This handy maps shows how extremely fragmented Germany was between 1815 and the 1860s. Note how even Prussia itself was splintered, with the sprawling eastern half separated from Westphalia in the west by tiny statelets like Hanover, Brunswick and Anhalt.

Black arrows show the route of Prussian armies a) north into Holstein and Schleswig in 1864, b) south-east into the province of Bohemia (part of the Austrian Empire) to the battle site of Sadowa in 1866, and c) west through the Palatinate and Alsace into France and towards the decisive battlefield of Sedan in 1870.

The unification of Germany 1815-71

The unification of Germany 1815-71

Preserving the balance of power

Given the unstintingly reactionary Prussian beliefs of the young Bismarck and the blunt brutality with which he was prepared to go to war three times to achieve his aims, I’ve always thought the most intriguing and impressive thing about him was the way that, once he had achieved his stated aims, Bismarck stopped war-mongering and had the wisdom to consolidate.

The European balance of power Admittedly this was partly a reaction to the response of the other powers to the arrival of a large unified new power in the centre of Europe. Britain, a recovering France, and autocratic Russia, all reacted with alarm.

From Bismarck’s perspective it was a gift when trouble erupted in the Balkans, namely nationalistic uprisings of Serbs and others against Ottoman Rule, which led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. THis distracted everyone’s attention away from Germany, and when the peace conference which ended the war was held in Berlin – the Congress of Berlin 1878 – Bismarck was able to present himself as a genially ‘honest broker’ between the various parties, with no vested interests in the area.

However, Russia was left aggrieved when it didn’t get all it wished, namely access to the Dardanelles (and so the Mediterranean) and felt badly rewarded for the policy of benign neutrality which it had adopted during the Franco-Prussian War.

As a result of this resentment, the ‘League of Three Emperors’ (Russia, Prussia, Austria) fell apart and Russia found herself being drawn into alliance with France.

This created the nightmare scenario, for Bismarck, of facing enemies on two fronts, east and west, and so he sought a rapprochement with Austria to the south, cemented in the Dual Alliance of 1879, and expanded to include Italy in 1882.

Thus this final third of Ullrich’s book shows how the seemingly innocent aims of German nationalism, which sounded so reasonable in the 1840s, led inevitably to a situation where Germany became permanently paranoid of being attacked on both its flanks, and led to the creation of the network of alliances which was to be triggered, with disastrous consequences, when Austria invaded little Serbia, in August 1914.

German colonies Initially Bismarck was dead set against Germany acquiring colonies as a distraction from the more important task of unification and consolidation. But he changed his mind.

He was motivated by a conscious desire to create enmity with Britain, who he was afraid would gain too much influence over the German state, seeing as the Kaiser’s heir, the young Crown Prince (Wilhelm II-to-be) had married a daughter of Queen Victoria.

Partly it would bring Germany into friendly collaboration with France in the South Seas and Africa where their colonies bordered each other.

With this new motivation, Germany took part in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s onwards, acquiring Togoland, Cameroon, German East Africa and German South-West Africa, where they proceeded to behave with genocidal brutality. But Bismarck wasn’t all that interested in the details. Europe was always his focus.

Domestic politics From the 1860s to 1890 Bismarck ruled Prussia, then the newly united Germany. It’s a long period and a lot happened, including:

  • A financial and economic depression starting in around 1873. This provoked anger, frustration, and the rise of modern anti-Semitism, the association of Jews in the popular press and among all classes with cosmopolitan capitalists, financiers, with the alleged bloodsuckers who were bleeding germany dry.
  • The southern states so recently joined to Germany were predominantly Catholic and banded together to form a Catholic party in the new Reichstag. The impeccably Protestant Bismarck saw this as a political threat and implemented a sweeping set of laws designed to restrict Catholic involvement in public life. These sweeping anti-Catholic polities became known as the Kulturkampf or Culture War.
  • Bismarck attacked Social Democratic movements by banning newspapers, political meetings and so on – but this policy rebounded. It hardened the resolve of social democrats and socialists, and created an embattled atmosphere in which radical theories like those of Karl Marx flourished.
  • On the other hand, Bismarck sought to undermine the appeal of radical politics by acceding to many of its policies. Between 1881 and 1889 Bismarck oversaw laws introducing sickness and accident insurance, old age and invalidity pensions – giving Germany the most advanced welfare state anywhere in Europe. Once again not because he particularly ‘believed’ in these policies; but because he saw them as an effective way of neutralising his enemies and retaining his grip on power.

For these next twenty or so years, from 1871 to 1890, Bismarck was the dominating figure in German politics, stamping his personality on the era in the so-called ‘Bismarck System’, and projecting it across Europe into the Concert of Powers.

During the 1880s, Bismarck’s policy of maintaining the status quo at any costs (including himself as Chancellor) came to seem more and more outmoded in a world where large-scale migration from the agricultural east to the industrial west was fuelling the runaway success of German heavy industry, leading to the growth of new cities and industrial areas, with the concomitant rise of working class militancy and new political demands. Economic, technological and social changes increasingly called for new policies.

In March 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm I died and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm succeeded him as Friedrich III. However, he had throat cancer and died after a reign of just 99 days. He was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, who took the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II – the same Kaiser Bill who ruled Germany during the First World War.

There was no love lost at all between the self-confident young ruler, aged 39, who wanted to change everything and the old Chancellor aged 73, who wanted everything to stay just the same.

The conflict quickly came to a head as Bismarck devised a new law solely designed, in his usual way, to create division among the centrist parties currently in power and keep them weak. The Kaiser refused to begin his new reign with strife and confrontation, and instead expressed a desire to extend the welfare system for the poor.

With typical thoroughness Bismarck worked through all the options available to him, including forming an unlikely alliance with an old bete noire, the leader of the Catholic party. He even, apparently, contemplated some kind of coup in which he usurped the Kaiser. But as his allies deserted him, Bismarck finally realised his time had come and, on 12 March 1890, tendered his resignation to the Kaiser in a letter which, characteristically, blamed the king for forcing him out and made ominous threats about the disasters which must inevitably follow when he had gone.

It was the removal of Bismarck which gave rise to the famous cartoon by Sir John Tenniel (illustrator of the Alice in Wonderland books) first published in the British magazine Punch on 29 March 1890, ‘Dropping the pilot’.

Image result for dropping the pilot

Most educated Germans were grateful that a long period of stagnation was over. Liberals looked forward to an era of reform. But the foreign powers regarded Bismarck most importantly as a man of peace, a lynchpin in the system of European stability, and worried about what would come next.

Bismarck went into disgruntled retirement where he dictated his memoirs in a hodge-podge manner until his death, aged 83 in 1898. He was a crude, blustering, reactionary bully, but cunning, clever and hard-working. By and large, countries get the leaders they deserve.

A liberal summary

Opinions about Bismarck are as divided today as they were at the time. One contemporary critic wrote that:

He made Germany great and Germans small.

Meaning that Bismarck’s policy of dividing and ruling his parliamentary opponents, of allying with particular parties when he needed them and then dropping them when he didn’t; of deliberately undermining any power bases or parties which threatened his own rule – all this conspired to keep German political culture immature, preventing the growth of a diverse and politically mature middle class, the key social element which is the sine qua non of democracy.

Instead, Bismarck acculturated an entire generation to deferring to a Strong Leader. His readiness to muzzle the press, undermine the civil service, ignore parliament, his cultivation of anti-Semitism, his use of foreign wars as a tool for maintaining domestic power, all these set a very bad precedent.

As did the extremist attitude and language he injected into German political culture.

He who is with me is my friend, he who is against me is my enemy – to the point of annihilation.

The violence of his language towards anyone who stood in his way – liberals, social democrats, Catholics, Jews, the French – set a toxic tone to German political culture which was to poison it for the next fifty years.

That Germany would be united sooner or later was probably inevitable. That it was united by such a reactionary, manipulative, authoritarian bully was not necessarily inevitable, and was to have terrible consequences.

Bismarck quotes

An eminent European statesman for such a long period, Bismarck had various quotes attributed to him, including:

Politics is the art of the possible.

Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided – that was the error of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood. (giving rise to the phrase ‘blood and iron’)

The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.

The best one of all is, alas, unverified:

Sausages are like laws: I enjoy them both, but it is best not to enquire too closely into how either of them are made.


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Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor @ the British Museum

The British Museum is a vast maze and labyrinth full of treasures – that is part of its charm. Part of the embarras de richesses is that, as well as the two big exhibition spaces (at the back of the courtyard and on the first floor of the Rotunda) where you generally have to pay quite a lot to see the blockbuster exhibitions – there are a number of other rooms and spaces devoted to ad hoc displays and exhibitions, most of which are free.

Thus if you turn left immediately on entering and walk through the long narrow cloakroom, packed with schoolkids, towards room 6 (The Assyrians), you’ll come across the entrance to a free and lovely exhibition currently on in room 5, about the lives and work of three influential writer-artists, who lived and worked and loved in post-war Greece and, to some extent, created many British people’s austerity-era image of this beautiful sunlit country.

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Study for a poster by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor examines the friendship between Greek modernist painter Nikos Ghika, English painter John Craxton, and English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

All three made homes in Greece, writing, drawing, painting, and socialising. Hence the show brings together not only their published writings and plenty of their paintings, but memorabilia from all aspects of their lives, including letters and personal possessions, and lots of wonderfully evocative black and white photos.

Nikos Ghika

Which one first? How about Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994).

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo by Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Nikos Ghikas was a leading Greek painter, sculptor, engraver, writer and academic. He was a founding member of the Association of Greek Art Critics. He studied ancient and Byzantine art as well as folk art. During his youth he was exposed in Paris to the avant-garde European artistic trends and he gained recognition as the leading Greek cubist artist. His inspiration was in the harmony and purity of Greek art, and he aimed to deconstruct the Greek landscape and intense natural light into simple geometric shapes and interlocking planes. Today in Greece he is celebrated as one of the most important modern Greek painters. His house has been converted to a museum and is run by the Benaki Museum.

The combination of French avant-garde influences with the sunlit environment of Greece resulted in the distinctive light and airy feel of his paintings immediately after the war.

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Chairs and tables by the sea by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1948) © Benaki Museum 2018

Nikos (as his friends, and we, shall call him) lived in a grand 18th century mansion built by his great-great-great-grandfather overlooking the town of Hydra, a hilly port town, which provided the subjects for hundreds of paintings and sketches. To this grand setting he invited numerous friends, including, among others, Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Craxton who he had met, separately, on visits to London.

Paddy was given a room of his own for an extended stay during which he wrote his successful travel book, Mani. And Nikos arranged a studio for Craxton, who gave him support and encouragement: Craxton acknowledges his enduring debted to the Greek. For fifteen years after the war this mansion was Nikos’s base and he made it a popular venue for artists, writers and performers in all the arts to meet and mingle.

Evocative black and white photos on display show some of the celebrity guests who came to stay, to enjoy the wonderful climate, the great view and the stimulating company, including ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, choreographer Frederick Ashton, critic Cyril Connolly, the poets Stephen Spender and Giorgos Seferis, the American novelist Henry Miller, and many more.

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny © Library and Archives Canada

There are lots of examples of Nikos’s work. Broadly speaking, he is a figurative painter, in that his pictures always have a real-world object, but he gives everything a strongly geometric stylisation.

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

The Black Sun by Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1947) Courtesy of Rosie Alison © Benaki Museum 2018

He himself said he was interested in ‘austere structures’, which he saw embodied in the higgledy-piggledy flow of white Greek houses down the hillside at Hydra, or in the stone walls zigzagging across the dry landscape. Where Craxton painted lots of people, Nikos tended to do landscapes; he is the more abstract of the two. His early works contain Picasso-like birds, and wibbly lines reminiscent of Miro. Later on his style gets thicker, as in 1973’s Mystras.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

There’s an excellent 8-minute long video in which the English and Greek curators of the exhibition (it’s a joint effort) explain the relationships between the three men and – since Craxton was gay – between the wives of Nikos and Paddy as well.

Aged just 18 Paddy impressed his friends by setting off to walk to Constantinople. In 1977 he published the account of his trek, A Time of Gifts, sometimes described as the best travel book in English.

Paddy was a dashing figure during the war, spending two years working underground on Crete, helping the Greeks resist the German occupation. The highlight was his capture (with a fellow Brit and partisan help) of a German general, who he smuggled off the island to a waiting British submarine. When his second in command, Stanley Moss, wrote up the story in his book Ill Met by Moonlight in 1950 it made Paddy famous, redoubled when the book was filmed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starring Dirk Bogarde as the dashing hero, and released in 1957.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika's house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens © Benaki Museum 2018

Having had such a heroic and glamorous war, Paddy was initially at rather a loss when it ended. Eventually he took up a post with the British Institute in Athens, and combined this with extensive tours of Greece. His extensive tours round the Peloponnese resulted in his travel book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958), which was followed by Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (1966). As mentioned, Paddy spent a lot of time at Nikos’s house, becoming close friends with the Greek painter and that’s where most of Mani was written.

Eventually, in the early 1960s Paddy and his wife Joan discovered a crumbling house in an olive grove near Kardamyli in the Mani Peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. He commissioned local builders to create a modern dwelling, and there are splendid black and white photos of him supervising and even dancing (!) with the builders, as well as happy snaps of himself writing, strolling round the garden with his wife, and of the dazzling view across pine trees to the rocky bay.

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

View of the house in Kardamyli. Photo by Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

Both Nikos and Craxton visited him here, painting the house itself and its beautiful view. Craxton shared with Paddy’s wife a love of cats, and in among all the letters and notes and postcards they sent each other, are some lovely sketches and paintings which Craxton made of Joan’s cats.

John Craxton (1906–1994)

Craxton first visited Crete in 1947 and was bowled over by the light, the clarity and also by the simple earthiness of the people. In his early years in Greece, he stayed regularly at Hydra with Nikos, meeting and becoming close friends with Paddy and Joan.

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky

The exhibition features a lot of paintings by both Craxton and Nikos and it’s natural to compare and contrast them, and also to notice how their styles changed over the long period of their friendship.

Craxton is the more naturalistic of the two. He painted lots of Greek people, cats and goats. Craxton learned peasant Greek and was attracted to young men, sailors, goatherds.

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954 by John Craxton. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Arguably his book illustration work from the 1950s is the most enjoyable, like the fabulous depiction of a fish market or of a carnival horse.

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers and Carnival horse by John Craxton

Installation view showing Fish market, Three dancers, and Carnival horse by John Craxton

He went through a phase of doing dark linear works in the 1960s, with a kind of harsh abstract horizon, epitomised by several paintings here, including Landscape Hydra 1963.

In 1960 Craxton discovered a crumbling house and studio on the Venetian harbour of Chania, Crete’s second biggest town. As with the other dwellings, the exhibition shows us photos of the house, the stunning view over the harbour, Craxton at work, and some of the paintings he made there.

The exhibition includes large-scale works from the 1980s which show how far his style changed and evolved in three decades. Compare two men in a taverna with works like Three sailors, Voskos or Reclining figure with asphodels (1983). They are much bigger, and often a bit more garish.

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Still Life with Three Sailors by John Craxton (1980-85) Private Collection, UK © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

The book covers

The friendship between Craxton and Paddy was crystallised when the writer asked the artist to do the covers for all six of his travel books, starting with Mani. The exhibition includes not only the original art works, but first editions with dedications to Paddy’s wife, to Craxton, to Nikos, to this close circle of friends which made his writing possible. (It even includes Paddy’s typewriter!)

The covers aren’t available to include here, so I’m linking off to the books’ Amazon pages, where you can see the Craxton’s cover art work which they retain to this day.

It’s a smallish exhibition but with quite enough to enjoy and admire. I kept going back round it to look at another atmospheric photo, to look closer at one of Craxton’s wonderful goat paintings, or Nikos’s geometric fields; to reread the snippets from Paddy’s clear evocative prose which are quoted liberally on the walls, to watch the video again, with its snippets of interviews by the three artists.

What wonderful lives they led! And what a privilege to share even at one remove their happiness and creativity.


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