Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton (2017)

Executive summary

Born in 1727, eighteenth century portrait and landscape artist Thomas Gainsborough was far less ambitious and canny than his main rival and the dominating artist of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Early in his career Gainsborough was fairly happy churning out portraits of local worthies in his nearest large town, Ipswich until he was encouraged to go to Bath to seek a higher class of client. Unlike Reynolds (a lifelong bachelor) Gainsborough married young – aged just 19 – the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat who had settled a £200 annuity on her for life. The earnings from his portraits supplemented this basic family income.

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774 – 1788)

In his letters we have Gainsborough’s own testimony that he didn’t really like painting portraits, and he actively disliked the ‘ugly’ aristocrats who were his clients. But he was good at it and by the 1760s found himself renting a big town house in Bath, with a coach and horses and servants to run, and paying for tutors for his two beautiful daughters. By 1769 he calculated his annual expenses at £1,000. He didn’t like his clients, he would have preferred to spend his life painting idyllic landscapes. But he was trapped.

By the 1760s Gainsborough was established as one of the best portrait artists of the day and so was invited to join the new Royal Academy of Art set up in 1768, but he repeatedly argued with the hanging committee about the placing of his works in the annual exhibitions, and in other ways kept his distance from the kind of elite London circles which his frenemy, Reynolds, moved in.

Handsome and attractive, Gainsborough had a reputation among his friends as a womaniser and party animal, which he acknowledged in his letters. His wife had to put up with a lot. But the real sadness of his biography is that, although he lavished love and attention on his two beautiful daughters things didn’t turn out as he hoped – one divorced within weeks of her wedding and the other suffering premature dementia.

Detailed review

Far less authoritative and comprehensive than Ian McIntyre’s life of Joshua Reynolds, for at least two reasons. The main one is Gainsborough’s life was far more fleeting and elusive. Reynolds led an active social life among leading figures of the day who all kept records of their dinners and conversations, dedicated their books to him, plus one of his pupils kept notes and wrote a detailed biography soon after his death, plus the minutes and accounts of the clubs and societies he was a member of, not least the Royal Academy of the Arts which he helped found and was the first president of. Reynolds kept a detailed appointments book which recorded all his sitters, the dates and times of their appointments. In other words the biographer if Reynolds has a mass of paperwork and evidence to work with.

Gainsborough is an altogether more fleeting character. He left relatively few letters (150 in all), no diary or journal or accounts book. He didn’t even own many books at his death. He didn’t cultivate the best circles or make sure he was mentioned in their books by the best writers. He painted the rich and famous but didn’t like them very much, unlike super-sociable Reynolds.

For the biographer who requires a constellation of dates to steer by, Gainsborough supplies thin pickings. (p.6)

Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 into a large extended family based in the Suffolk town of Sudbury. His father was a weaver with ambitions to be a businessman, which got him into financial trouble – he only escaped debtors’ prison because of a family whip-round. A benevolent uncle – also named Thomas – left some money to help young Tom to pursue ‘some light handy craft trade’, and the family decided to send him to London at the tender age of 13 in 1740,

Here he trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot, of Huguenot extraction. Hamilton goes into some detail about the expanding print market of the mid-eighteenth century and the dominating figure of William Hogarth, whose moralised pictures had created a sensation in the 1730s – A Harlot’s Progress (1732), A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), A Rake’s Progress (1735), Four Times of Day (1738). Gainsborough probably came into contact with Hogarth, but mainly worked for an established painter named Francis Hayman, although details about the period are sketchy.

[During his early years in London] whoever it was that nurtured him, Hayman or Hogarth or Canaletto or Hudson or other painters such as Arthur Devis who took assistants and apprentices, they all gave him something of what follows. (p.59)

The second reason this is not such a compelling book as McIntyre’s is that Hamilton makes an editorial decision to roll with the relative lack of information about Gainsborough and to make his approach a bit more impressionistic. Thus the opening sentences don’t tell us much about Gainsborough, but tell us everything about Hamilton’s style:

Thomas Gainsborough lived as though electricity shot through his sinews and crackled at his finger tips. There is a fire in Gainsborough: it lights up his paintings…

He is going to embroider and speculate – based on facts for sure, but a fairly thin picking of facts meringued up with many a fluffy turn of phrase.

Landscape, however, hovered around him like an old flame (p.84)

Like a family of cats jumping off a ledge, the Gainsboroughs had landed on their feet (p.160)

Whole pages pass wherein we learn a lot about mid-century Sudbury or Ipswich or Bath, embroidered and elaborated from contemporary accounts by diarists and commentators – but where Gainsborough himself doesn’t make an appearance. Other pages pass in speculation and guesswork and Hamilton is fond of drawing comparisons between aspects of Gainsborough’s society and our own.

Just as a salesman or marketing person or builder must drive an expensive car in the twenty-first century to reassure the world that he or she is doing all right, so in the eighteenth century a portrait painter had to look neat, confident and successful to attract the custom he needed. Fine clothes were very expensive indeed, and much aspired to: flash car and flash waistcoat are probably equivalent as status signifiers, if not in monetary terms. (p.120)

Or he quotes a letter where Gainsborough brags about owning 5 viola da gambas, three Jayes and two Barak Normans:

Today, a star of the art world might tell a friend, My comfort is I have 5 Lamborghinis, 3 Ferraris and two Aston Martins’ Their value as status symbols is roughly similar. (p.262)

Hamilton’s relentless urge to give eighteenth century people and customs a 21st century comparison can get pretty annoying, and sometimes offensive. After half a page giving a reasonable enough analysis of Gainsborough’s great portrait of the young women musician Ann Ford, Hamilton concludes:

With Ann Ford, Gainsborough added extra titty to the fluctuating city. (p.188)

Key learnings

Jack the Lad The biggest surprise, which Hamilton announces early and then refers repeatedly is that Thomas Gainsborough was a bit of a lad, a roaring boy, one for wine and the ladies. Hamilton routinely refers to Gainsborough as a lad, to his laddish behaviour, and to his ‘mates’.

There are distinct Jack-the-Lad tendencies about Gainsborough the young man… The 19th century song about Jack-the-Lad ‘swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting’ had echoes in the young Gainsborough…(p.133)

The idea is that although Gainsborough mixed professionally with numerous aristocratic sitters – ‘the Quality’, in the contemporary term – his tastes remained those of a country boy who came to London in his teens and was introduced to a dizzying world of booze and broads (Hamilton has a section describing the delights of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens) and what letters we have contain rather oblique references to regretting being led astray, particularly on his visits to London.

This is a striking claim but I don’t think he actually backs it up with that much evidence, mostly hearsay collected after his death, for example Joseph Farington quoting the artist’s daughter as saying he ‘was passionately fond of music… and this led him much into company with musicians, with whom he often exceeded the bounds of temperance & his health suffered from it, being occasionally unable to work for a week after’ (quoted page 111). Fine, but she was a small girl at the time and this report comes from decades later. Reliable?

Hamilton asserts that one his visits to London from Bath he had ‘the casual sexual encounters that punctuated his life’ but immediately goes on to say:

How many or how regular these were is impossible to tell. (p.199)

Well, if it is ‘impossible’ to tell how many ‘casual sexual encounters’ Gainsborough had, how come Hamilton is confidently telling us that they ‘punctuated his life’? Throughout the book I had the uneasy feeling that Hamilton was bending or interpreting the evidence to suit his vision of a freewheeling Jack the Lad. The more he asserted it, the more reluctant I felt to acquiesce, the more doubtful I felt of Hamilton’s opinions.

Hamilton quotes the daughter of an Ipswich friend describing him as ‘very lively, gay and dissipated’ (p.118) which fits his Jack the Lad thesis, but then goes on to explain that ‘dissipated’ might have its 18th century meaning of ‘spendthrift, an simply indicated that he spent beyond his means in order to dress his wife and growing daughters appropriately.

In autumn 1763 Gainsborough was very ill, laid up for three months unable to work, and a Bath newspaper even reported that he had died! Hamilton interprets the handful of letters we have to mean the illness was associated with a sexually transmitted disease because Gainsborough describes feeling guilt and regret. But then, to my surprise, Hamilton concedes:

It may be the case that Gainsborough’s long near-fatal illness had nothing to do with his sex life… (p.200)

So Hamilton’s entire speculation about the illness being related to an STD is just that – speculation. This kind of building castles in the sky and then, reluctantly, admitting the castles may all speculation, slowly and steadily undermined my trust in Hamilton as a guide and interpreter to Gainsborough’s life.

Making it up It’s a feeling compounded by the amount of sheer invention which appears on every page.

Now, in his late thirties, he was active, busy, in demand. His sitters’ book in Bath, assuming he had one, would have bulged with the names of old clients, new clients, their friends and relations and their various requirements. (p.203)

‘Assuming he had one’. Hamilton did warn us in his introduction that he would be weaving a certain amount of fantasia around the very thin documentary evidence which survives, and I wouldn’t mind if I thought his spinning were justified, but… his relentless habit of inventing things and then commenting on them didn’t agree with me and I came to dislike reading this book.

Destroyed letters We learn that part of the reason that so few of Gainsborough’s letters survive is because a surprising number were in Hamilton’s view ‘filthy’ – presumably sexually explicit – and so Gainsborough’s executors destroyed them – for example, the cache of letters sent to his friend Samuel Kilderbee and destroyed by Samuel’s heirs because of their ‘obscenity’.

But if they have been destroyed… how can we know what they contained? The generations after Gainsborough’s were not only more puritanical about sex but about religion too, and about family values. I.e. there could be a number of grounds why the letters gave offence to later generations and it was considered best to destroy them.

Spirited What is believable – because we can read it in the letters and in many diary accounts and memoirs of the period – is that Gainsborough was very high spirited. Good-looking, cutting a graceful figure, lively and talkative, he said whatever was on his mind, a fountain of lively observations, so much so that surviving letters and memoirs agree that, next morning, on sober reflection, he often regretted things he said. But being over-talkative and shooting from the hip is very different from being sexually promiscuous.

This high-spiritedness is a quality Gainsborough readily admits in himself, indeed actively promotes in some of his letters, writing:

I am the most inconsistent, changeable being, so full of fitts and starts… (quoted p.257)

or describing himself as:

a Long cross made fellow [who] only flings his arms about like threshing-flails without half an Idea what he would be at. (p.258)

Joshua Reynolds Later memoirists, notably Ephraim Hardcastle, give colourful accounts comparing and contrasting Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Hardcastle paints Reynolds in conversation as pursuing ‘a steady philosophic course’, while

the lively Gainsborough was a skipping and gambolling backwards and forwards from side to side… none for enthusiasm and vivacity could compare with he. (p.199)

Now this is the aspect of Gainsborough which is most consistently reported – his unbuttoned liveliness and spontaneity.

Margaret Aged 19, Thomas married a local woman Margaret Burr. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who acknowledged her and had settled a £200 annuity on her. Thus Thomas was marrying into what counted, in Sudbury, for money. It was to be a difficult marriage. Both were faithful, there was no divorce, Thomas had no mistresses, but Margaret owned and managed her own money, and there is plenty of evidence that she took a strong-willed approach to Thomas’s income, too (from his own letters and the accounts of others). He sometimes felt too much under her thumb. It was an effective working relationship but he writes on a couple of occasions that he didn’t feel worthy of her and the cumulative sense is that it was not a very loving marriage.

A life in five acts The trajectory of his life is indicated by the five parts of Hamilton’s account:

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774-1778)

Landscapes He knew he was better at landscape than at portraits, and enjoyed painting landscapes more, but portraits paid the bills (in fact, Hamilton tells us that during his time in Ipswich 1752 – 1759, Gainsborough painted so many landscapes that he ended up giving them away, p.108).

Gainsborough’s landscapes are indebted to the style of Dutch landscape painting crossed with his own immersion of the Suffolk countryside around Sudbury. His early landscapes are already a joy to look at. This one was painted when he was only 20 years old. Pretty impressive.

Cornard Wood by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)

Doll paintings Whereas most of his portraits before the 1750s are embarrassingly bad. They look like skinny children’s doll’s with empty dolls’ faces plonked in lovely landscapes. In fact, Hamilton explains that the bodies really were painted from so-called ‘lay dolls’, wooden mannekins with jointed bodies which could be arranged in  different postures. Later, from the 1760s, he pained bodies and clothes from life, but not from the actual sitters, from much cheaper models brought in and made to wear the sitters’ clothes (p.218).

Sarah Kirby and Joshua Kirby by Thomas Gainsborough (1751-1752)

Music Gainsborough was very musical, unlike Reynolds. He was proficient on the violin and a member of the Ipswich Music Club which held regular concerts. He was easily distracted by invitations to play music, and portrayed musicians, with their instruments e.g. Johann Christian Fischer, Carl Friedrich Abel, Ann Ford,

Hamilton quotes the letter to William Jackson, well-known to Gainsborough buffs, in which the artist declares he is sick of painting portraits and wishes he could go off somewhere quiet in the country, just him and his viola da gamba, and live a quiet life of music and paint Landskips (p.260). However, Hamilton marshals the evidence of friends that he wasn’t, actually, that good at music and also that he was very impulsive, taking up a string of different instruments each time he heard one being played, and never becoming proficient on any of them (p.266-270).

Style transformed Hamilton doesn’t really identify how and why Gainsbrough’s depiction of human figures and faces changed, but change it did, drastically, between the early 1750s (when, to be fair, he was still only 23, 24, 25) and the later 1750s. But it amounts to a revolution in style, which allowed him to create depictions of human faces and figures of transcendent grace and beauty, such as this, the famous unfinished portrait of his two young daughters, Mary and Margaret.

The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-1761)

Bath Bath was hectic with social life and also with artistic competition. Over the 18th century as a whole some 160 artists worked in Bath, the majority portrait miniaturists. The most successful, like Gainborough, provided life-size portraits in oil on canvas and had a permanent show room as well as a ‘painting room’ (the Italian word studio was only introduced in the 19th-century).

Until Gainsborough arrived the most successful portrait painter in Bath was William Hoare (1707 – 1792) who Gainsborough quickly eclipsed, though the two men became friends. A flick through his work shows that it is very capable at catching a likeness, but a bit dead and, above all, set inside.

People in landscapes A glance at one of the largest and most ambitious (double portraits) Gainsborough painted at Bath, The Byam Family (1764) instantly shows you how placing his sitters outside, in a kind of generic gentle south-of-England wooded countryside immediately transforms the subjects, giving them a lordly sense of style and movement as well as a sense of ownership of the land they walk through. And gives the viewer a similar sense of breadth and ease

Gainsborough’s painting method The younger painter Ozias Humphrey observed Gainsborough painting on numerous occasions and left detailed descriptions (pp.217-218).

  1. Surprisingly, Gainsborough painted by candlight in a room kept perpetually dark.
  2. He painted the sitter’s face in chalk and arranged the canvas so it was only inches from the sitter’s face.
  3. He was very restless, stepping back from the canvas to size it up, then quickly right back up to it to paint more, in an endless round of fidgety movement.
  4. All he needed was the face; the costume was painted afterwards, worn by a model (often his wife or one of his by-now grown-up daughters was dragooned in).
  5. He painted for 5 or 6 hours a day continuously, quite a physically demanding regimen (although this is from the account of the unreliable witness, Philip Thicknesse, quoted page 339).

Contempt for sitters Gainsborough was fairly open about not liking most of his sitters: he described portrait painting as ‘my dam’d business’ and a ‘curs’d face business’, of the clients as ‘damn gentlemen’ and ‘confounded ugly creatures’ (quoted page 275).

Royalty Ironically, for all his focused ambition, Joshua Reynolds had a troubled relationship with King George III (ascended the throne in 1760) not least because Reynolds associated with writers and politicians associated with the Whig i.e. anti-royal faction. Whereas Gainsborough who was far less professionally and socially ambitious than Reynolds, was asked to do portraits of the king and queen in 1780 and ended up getting on famously with both of them, invited back to do portraits of their large brood of children and individual portraits.

Models No, not that sort. Later in his career, Gainsborough enjoyed making models for landscapes which could fit on a table and were constructed from broccoli, moss and stones.

Prices At the height of his fame, in the 1780s, Gainsborough charged for a three-quarters portrait 40 guineas, for half-length 80 guineas, and for a full-length 160 guineas.

Religion Hamilton describes Gainsborough as ‘a devout Anglican’, though there are almost no references to him going to church and only the most generic religious references in his letters, which are strewn with swearing (lots of ‘Damns’). It was a religiously tolerant family. His older brother, Humphrey, was a non-conformist minister, and his sister Mary, was a Methodist.

Kew Gainsborough is buried, not back home in Suffolk, in fashionable Bath, or in mercantile London, but in the graveyard of St Anne’s Church, Kew. I used to go and sit by his tomb and eat my sandwich lunch, when I worked at Kew.

Concluding image

There are a lot of Society ladies and gentlemen to choose from, but I think one of Gainsborough’s greatest paintings is this portrait of his wife, Margaret, done in the late 1770s. It is an extremely subtle, sensitive, sensuous depiction of his spouse of 25 years, a brilliant portrait of any middle-aged woman, honest and frank and a universe away – not only in terms of art, but of experience – from the silly doll-figures of the 1740s. It is a triumph of technique but also of human wisdom.

Portrait of Mrs Gainsborough by Thomas Gainsborough (1778) @The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


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Blog posts about the 18th century

Joshua Reynolds: The Life and Times of The First President of the Royal Academy by Ian McIntyre (2003)

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was one of – if not the – leading English painter of the 18th century. He specialised in portraits, painting about 2,000 of them during a long and busy professional career, as well as 200 ‘subject pictures’, and over 30 self-portraits.

Self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1780) Note the bust of Michelangelo, the Rembrandtesque hat, and the text of one of his Discourses folded in his hand © Royal Academy of Arts

Reynolds promoted a ‘Grand Style’ in painting which was less interested in visual or psychological accuracy to his sitters than in placing them in idealised and heroic poses and settings. He was known – and criticised – for pinching aspects from the Old Masters – poses, tints, props, tricks of lighting and so on.

So when you look at this painting – of Reynolds’s lifelong friend, the successful actor David Garrick – you see that not only is he caught between the two allegorical figures representing Comedy and Tragedy, but that the figures are each painted in different styles – the figure of Comedy on the left in a flirty rococo style of Correggio, the figure of Tragedy is done in a consciously ‘antique’ or neo-classical style reminiscent of Guido Reni, dressed in Roman robes with a stern profile – and Garrick in the middle, is wearing a historical costume reminiscent of van Dyck but his face is done in an unashamedly realistic or figurative style.

David Garrick Between Tragedy and Comedy by Joshua Reynolds (1760)

Reynolds was a founder and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. He gave an inaugural lecture and this soon settled into an annual – later, biannual – lecture or ‘discourse’. At the end of his life these were published together as 20 or so Discourses about art, which were influential for decades afterwards.

The biography

Ian McIntyre’s biography of Sir Joshua Reynolds is a big book, weighing in at 608 pages, including index and notes (542 pages of actual text). What makes it hugely enjoyable is the way McIntyre very deliberately widens its scope to become a portrait of the age. Not a page goes by without entertaining and often amusing digressions away from the basic chronology of events.

For example, before we’re ten pages in we’ve had a whistlestop history of Devon and the town Reynolds was born in, Plympton, from Roman times to his birth in 1723. There’s an interesting explanation of the medieval and Renaissance tradition of Emblem Books and in particular the work of Jacob Cats, little known in this country but hugely influential on the continent. A little detour into the life of a well-known gypsy of the early 18th century, Bamfylde Carew. And so on.

The book is packed with footnotes, often as many as six on a page, giving biographical snapshots of every single person Reynolds comes into contact with, reads or meets or writes to or mentions, often with a bit of background about their achievements in art or literature – Reynolds cultivated friendships with the leading writers of the time – or, quite often, the wars or battles they were involved in, as a) Reynolds painted a large number of military and naval personnel and b) Britain was almost continually at war throughout the 18th century.

This blizzard of contextual information is partly explained because, as McIntyre candidly points out, we don’t actually know all that much about Reynolds’s life. We know he went to Italy to study the Old Masters for an extended stay from ages 25 to 27 (1750-52). Then he returned to London, set up a studio, and quickly became very successful. We have annual business ‘pocketbooks’ he kept, and these are packed full of appointments with sitters, practical notes about rents and paints and canvas and shopping (p.94). We have the accounts and minutes of the Royal Academy which he set up and ran from 1768 till his death in 1792, the Discourses he published to the world – the written version of the lectures he delivered at the Academy – and numerous descriptions of him in the diaries and letters of contemporaries – but not much more.

Reynolds didn’t keep a diary or interesting notes and thoughts about art which contain breath-taking insights and ideas. He never married, and so didn’t have either a wife or children to write memoirs about him. He doesn’t appear to have had affairs, or if he did they were kept very secret (the issue is discussed on p.85). His sister, Fanny, was his housekeeper for 25 years, followed by a niece.

Er, that’s about it in terms of a ‘personal’ life.

`So in a way McIntyre’s strategy of padding out the story with reams and reams of information about pretty much everyone else alive at the time was a necessity – a factual account of just Reynolds’s life would be quite sparse. Still, McIntyre’s encyclopedic approach makes for a highly enjoyable account.

As does his rangy, slangy style. He is at pains to emphasise that he is not a stuffy art critic, he’s one of the boys:

  • Then, brushing away a crocodile tear, he [an anonymous critic] put the boot in. (p.319)
  • Reynolds was taking a fair amount of stick in the press… (p.320)

18th century artists

Thus McIntyre doesn’t just place Reynolds in the 18th century art world – he introduces us to quite an intimidating number of 18th century artists, starting with Reynolds’s predecessors in Britain, referencing leading contemporary painters in France and Italy, and then a host of other contemporary painters – the famous, the not so famous, and the downright obscure. They include – and this list excludes all the many sculptors:

  • Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646 – 1723) leading portraitist of his time
  • Francesco Solimena (1657 – 1747) leading Italian painter of the Baroque
  • Jonathan Richardson (1667 – 1745) whose book, An Essay on the Theory of Painting inspired young Reynolds
  • Joseph Highmore (1692-1780)
  • William Hogarth (1697-1764) leading English artist, caricaturist and printmaker
  • Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699 – 1779) ‘the other great middle-class painter of the century’ specialising in quiet domestic scenes, in contrast to either grand historical paintings, or pink and blue rococo
  • John Shackleton (? – 1767) Principal ‘Painter in Ordinary’ to George II and George III
  • Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) Reynolds was apprenticed to him
  • Francesco Zuccarelli (1702 – 1788) Italian landscape painter from Venice
  • Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702 – 1789) French portraitist working mainly in pastel
  • Francis Hayman (1708 – 1776)
  • Arthur Devis (1712 – 1787) started as landscape artist, then portraits of members of pro-Jacobite Lancashire families, then portraits of London society
  • Allan Ramsay (1713 – 1784) rising star arrived in London from Rome in 1738, painted the definitive image of the coronation of King George III and a stream of royal commissions
  • Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714 – 89) landscape and marine painter
  • Richard Wilson (1714 – 82) ‘the classic master of British 18th century landscape painting’
  • Henry Robert Morland (1716 – 1797) Young woman shucking oysters
  • Richard Dalton (1720 – 91)
  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • John Astley (1724 – 1787) portrait painter
  • George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) English painter of horses
  • Francis Cotes (1726 – 1770) pioneer of English pastel painting
  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788)
  • Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779) German artist, precursor of neo-classicism
  • Charles Catton (1728 – 98) coach painter to George III
  • George Barrett Senior (1732 – 1784) Irish, leading contemporary landscape painter
  • Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) late Rococo painter of remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism
  • Robert Edge Pine (1730 – 1788)
  • George Romney (1730 – 1802) portrait painter in the Reynolds / Ramsay league
  • Sawrey Gilpin (1733 – 1807) English animal painter, illustrator and etcher who specialised in painting horses and dogs
  • Johann Zoffany (1733 – 1810) German neo-classical painter
  • Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797) to become Wright of Derby
  • Jeremiah Meyer (1735 – 1789) Painter in Miniatures to Queen Charlotte, Painter in Enamels to King George III
  • John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England
  • Benjamin West (1738 – 1820) first American artist to visit Rome, settled in London as a painter of historical scenes, early pioneer of neo-classicism
  • Nicholas Pocock (1740 – 1821) master of a merchant ship aged 26, he became a noted painter of naval battles
  • Ozias Humphry (1740 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Ozias Humphrey (1742 – 1810) a leading English painter of portrait miniatures, later oils and pastels
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Philip Reinagle (1749 – 1833) pupil of Allan Ramsey, specialised in hunting pictures – Members of the Carrow Abbey Hunt
  • Robert Smirke (1753 – 1845) English painter and illustrator, specialising in small paintings of literary subjects
  • James Gillray (1756 – 1815) British caricaturist and printmaker
  • Thomas Rowlandson (1757 – 1827) English artist and caricaturist of the Georgian Era
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist
  • John Opie (1761 – 1807) English painter of historical subjects and portrait, took London by storm in 1781
  • Thomas Phillips (1770 – 1845) leading English portrait painter of the day, notable for portraits of William Blake and Lord Byron
  • Benjamin Haydon (1786 – 1846) British painter who specialised in grand historical pictures,

As with many of McIntyre’s digressions about contemporary figures, I found it well worth taking a few minutes to look up each of these painters. I was particularly drawn to some of the pictures of Jean-Étienne Liotard who I’d never heard of before.

The Chocolate Girl by Jean-Etienne Liotard (1744)

Provenances

An interesting aspect of Reynolds’s career is the number of portraits which have gone missing or are disputed. That the authorship of works of art can be disputed is significant: it shows you that, when the provenance of a painting is crystal clear, then the experts can confidently pontificate about its distinctive composition and style; but where there is no signature of clear history of ownership, where the authorship is disputed, then style and composition are not enough to determine the identity of the painter. Take this portrait of a black man.

Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay (1757-60)

It is instructive to learn that it was once thought to be a portrait of Olaudah Equiano and painted by Joshua Reynolds, but is now generally accepted to a portrait of the young Ignatius Sancho painted by the Scottish painter, Allan Ramsay. The point being that the ‘house style’ of 18th century portrait painters was so similar, overlapped at so many points, that even experts can’t tell them apart.

Destructions

McIntyre’s book is extremely thorough. He documents the sitters and the painting sessions for what seems like every one of Reynold’s nearly two and a half thousand paintings. But a theme which emerges is the dismayingly large number of paintings which have been lost or destroyed, by Reynolds:

  • Portrait of Lady Edgcumbe – destroyed by bombing during Second World War
  • Portrait of Thomas Boone – untraced
  • Portrait of Jane Hamilton – untraced
  • Portrait of Mrs Baddeley – untraced
  • Portrait of Alexander Fordyce – untraced
  • Portrait of Elizabeth Montagu – untraced

No fewer than nineteen works by Reynolds were destroyed in a disastrous fire at the family seat of the Dukes of Rutland, Belvoir Castle in Grantham, Leicestershire, in 1816 (in which also perished works by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck).

Or other artists of the day:

  • Benjamin West’s Cimon and Iphigenia and Angelica and Medoro – untraced

Which gives rise to a meta-thought: I wonder what percentage of all the paintings ever painted, still exist? Half? A quarter? To put it another way – how much of all the art ever created has been ‘lost’?

[The beginnings of an answer are given in Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War where he writes that Dutch artists produced several million paintings in the 16th and 17th centuries combined – ‘of which perhaps 10 per cent survive‘ (p.816). 10% – is that a good working guesstimate?]

Miscellaneous notes

Reynolds’s first studio was at 5 Great Newport Street, in London’s West End. It was on the edge of the country, with a good sized garden both behind and in front (inconvenient in rainy weather since rich people’s carriages couldn’t park right outside the door, p.119). His rival, Allan Ramsay (1713 – 84) lived round the corner in Soho Square.

In 1760 he moved to a house on the west side of Leicester Fields, later Leicester Square. The Prince of Wales kept a big house dominating the north side. Hogarth had lived since 1733 in a house on the east side.

Reynolds’s style is considered ‘more masculine and less ornamental’ than that of his main rival, Allan Ramsay, who was therefore generally thought to be the better painter of women portraits (p.117).

Penny-pinching Reynolds was careful with money. Anecdotes abound. He got up early to visit the fishmarket to select the best value fish then returned home with detailed instructions to his servant about which ones to buy. He made a fuss about the value of an old mop (p.122)

Vandal Reynolds was fantastically disrespectful of old paintings. Apparently, he stripped back layer by layer of paint to see how they had been painted, a number of Venetian paintings and one by Watteau – stripped them right down to the canvas until he had utterly destroyed them (p.239).

Factory production None of your romantic waiting-for-inspiration nonsense, 18th century painters painted to order and commission and on an awesome scale. Allan Ramsay’s portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte dressed for his coronation (1761) was so popular that his studio i.e. assistants, produced no fewer than one hundred and fifty pairs of the paintings to meet the market; buyers including members of the royal family, sovereigns, heads of state, colonial governors, ambassadors, corporations, institutions and courtiers.

Knock ’em out, pile ’em high was the watchword. When one aristocratic sitter offered to come for an additional sitting so that Reynolds could have a session devoted to her hands (of which she was very proud) Reynolds casually told her not to bother as he normally used his servants as models for hands (p.137). (This chimes with the revelation in James Hamilton’s book that Gainsborough generally painted the entire body of his sitters from models, often his wife or grown-up daughters.)

Anti-romanticism

It has been the fate of arts to be enveloped in mysterious and incomprehensible language, as if it was thought necessary that even the terms should correspond to the idea entertained of the instability and uncertainty of the rules which they expressed.

To speak of genius and taste as any way connected with reason or common sense, would be, in the opinion of some towering talkers, to speak like a man who possessed neither, who had never felt that enthusiasm, or, to use their own inflated language, was never warmed by that Promethean fire, which animates the canvas and vivifies the marble.

If, in order to be intelligible, I appear to degrade art by bringing her down from her visionary situation in the clouds, it is only to give her a more solid mansion upon the earth.  It is necessary that at some time or other we should see things as they really are, and not impose on ourselves by that false magnitude with which objects appear when viewed indistinctly as through a mist. (Discourse 7)

No good at drawing Reynolds was acknowledged to be more interested in colour and tone than in drawing and design. He himself confessed he wasn’t too strong on anatomy. One of the hardest parts of pure figure drawing is hands and Reynolds’s sitters hands are often ungainly, stylised or hidden. He wasn’t too bothered about strict visual accuracy:

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (quoted on page 127)

‘Flying colours’ Throughout his career Reynolds experimented with materials that make an oil painting, incorporating at one time or another, asphalt, wax, charcoal, experimenting with non-traditional types of key colours such as incarnadine for red. This was often disastrous, as scores of anecdotes testify, the painter Benjamin Haydon just one who was sharply critical of his over-treatment of his paintings (quoted page 282).

One painting, being carried to its patron, was knocked in the street and the entire creation simply slid off the canvas and onto the street. Many others complained that the colours changed. The sky in Admiral Barrington’s portrait changed from blue to green within months of receiving it (p.362). Hence his reputation for ‘flying colours’ and many burlesques and parodies about them.

Rich As a result of his astonishing industry, Reynolds was by 1762 making £6,000 a year (p.141). By way of comparison, the homely parson in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village has a stipend of:

A man he was, to all the country dear,
And passing rich with forty pounds a year.

By about 1780 it cost 50 guineas for a ‘head’, 70 guineas for a ‘half length’, 200 guineas for a full length (p.361).

Reynolds’s deafness In Rome in 1751 Reynolds suffered a heavy head cold which left him partially deaf. For the rest of his life he carried about an ear trumpet. There are numerous humorous anecdotes of him pretending not to hear unflattering or critical remarks.

Reynolds’s height Sir Joshua Reynolds was five feet five and one-eighths of an inch tall (p.149).

Reynolds and the king Despite his prolific portrayal of the British aristocracy, Reynolds was disliked by King George III and never got the post of Principle Painter in Ordinary which he aimed for. This post went to Allan Ramsay in 1761. A number of reasons are given for this dislike, for example that when Reynolds was offered the presidency of the newly founded Royal Academy in 1768 but said he’d have to consult his close friends, Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke. Since it was a royal appointment which the king had personally agreed, he was offended that Reynolds hesitated, and particularly offended at the mention of Edmund Burke, a critic of the king. And his friendship with John Wilkes, a radical critic of the king and the Establishment as a whole (p.322).

Reynolds and Dr Johnson I’d like to like Dr Johnson more than I do. At the end of the day, his bluff English pragmatism comes close to philistinism. His rudeness was legendary, as was his greed (the story of a host setting out bowls of clotted cream, strawberries and a jar of cider for a party of guests and Johnson eating the lot, or asking for pancakes and eating 13 in a row) and his addiction to tea. And his depression: letters are quoted in which he describes his morbid fear of being left alone to his thoughts. Which is why it was difficult to get rid of him; he’d pop round for tea then stay, talking interminably, till past midnight. If he was ever left out of a conversation:

His mind appeared to be preying on itself; he fell into a reverie accompanied with strange antic gesticulations. (Reynolds, quoted page 210)

Reynolds and his sister Reynolds’s sister, Francis (1729 – 1807), acted as his housekeeper from when he moved to London in the early 1750s until 1779, when some kind of argument – still unknown – led to her leaving and her place being taken by their nieces. Fanny was an artist in her own right, of histories and portraits. She also wrote and won the support of Dr Johnson, who encouraged her and remained friendly and supportive even after the break with her brother. Mutual friends were critical of Reynolds’s treatment of her, e.g. Mrs Thrale (p.327).

Reynolds and Gainsborough The ‘Grand Style’ which Reynolds spoke about in his Discourses meant improving on nature, removing blemishes and imperfections, creating an idealised image.

The likeness consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature. (p.127)

And by ‘idealised’ he often meant aspiring to the style of Roman art and architecture, all pillars and togas. Thus Gainsborough and Reynolds disagreed about what their sitters should wear. Gainsborough, the more informal, casual and bohemian (p.338) of the pair thought it was an important part of capturing a sitter’s personality that they wore their own clothes; Reynolds, by contrast, kept a wardrobe of ‘idealised’ costumes and often painted his sitters in Romanised togas and tunics. The Dowager Duchess of Rutland complained that Reynolds made her try on eleven different dresses before settling on what she dismissed as ‘that nightgown’ (p.151).

Benjamin West, the American painter of historical scenes and second President of the Royal Academy, is quoted criticising Reynolds’s fondness for dressing his female sitters in antique robes, pointing out how much more interesting and useful for posterity it would be to see them in their actual everyday wear.

Technical terms

Conversation piece an informal group portrait, popular in Britain in the 18th century, beginning in the 1720s, distinguished by portrayal of a group apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity, very often outdoors. Typically the group will be members of a family, but friends may be included, and some groups are of friends, members of a society or hunt, or some other grouping.

Fancy picture Fancy picture refers to a type of eighteenth century painting that depicts scenes of everyday life but with elements of imagination, invention or storytelling. The name fancy pictures was given by Sir Joshua Reynolds to the supreme examples of the genre produced by Thomas Gainsborough in the decade before his death in 1788, particularly those that featured peasant or beggar children in particular. (Source: Tate)

Profile portrait The profile portrait ultimately derived from coins and medals from ancient Rome. It could be used as a commemoration of the dead, or as a tribute to the living great.

Eighteenth century London courtesans

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of courtesans which he began to make from the late 1750s onwards.

I include this list not out of a conscious or unconscious wish to define women by their sexuality, but because these women’s lives are fascinating, and the niche they occupied in the society of their time so startlingly different from our day.

Eighteenth century women artists

  • Katherine Read (1721-1778) Scottish portrait painter
  • Angelica Kauffman (1741 – 1807) history painter and portraitist
  • Mary Moser (1744 – 1819) English painter specialised in flowers
  • Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838) Italian-English artist and educationalist

Those are the ones I noticed in the text, anyway. There’s a full list online:


Blog posts about the 18th century

Käthe Kollwitz: Portrait of the Artist edited by Frances Grady and Max Egremont (2019)

This is the catalogue to accompany the recent Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at the British Museum.

The two or three essays in the book include:

Käthe Kollwitz’s biography

Born Käthe Schmidt in 1867, left-wing upbringing, married a left-wing doctor (Karl Kollwitz) who practiced in the slums of Berlin, specialised in prints, devoted herself to left-wing subjects i.e. lives of the working poor, plus historic subjects e.g. a weavers’ rebellion, sent son off to the Great War and he was killed within weeks, decades of mourning and grief and obsession with death.

Detailed looks at Kollwitz’s major print series

  • A Weavers Revolt (1898)
  • The Peasants War (1902-8)
  • War (1922-3)
  • Death (1932-7)

A lifelong obsession with death

What comes over from the essays is Kollwitz’s obsession with death – possibly, as one essay suggests, as a result of the death of some of her siblings in infancy – definitely compounded by the poverty, sickness and death she saw all around her in the slums of Berlin.

She was unnaturally, morbidly attracted to the subject in the 1890s and 1900s, well before she made the fateful decision to help her beloved son Peter enlist into the army in the first weeks of the Great War, despite him being under age, only for him to be killed a matter of weeks later. The guilt must have been staggering.

From that point onwards, Death and the grief of mothers was to become her enduring subject.

The prints

The factual content of the book, then, is solid but not revelatory, and all the images are hedged around with an extreme of scholarly punctiliousness and accuracy. After all, this is a reference book for other scholars as much as an introduction to us lay people.

No, the reason for owning the book is not for the biography, detailed though it is – but for the quality of the reproductions, including close-ups of many of the key prints. These let you really savour the details, and make them even more powerful and moving.

Some of her images can be a bit clunky, some of the faces in the weaker pictures are less than persuasive, even though her figure drawing and composition are almost always powerful and commanding. But at her best, there’s a solid body of work of breath-taking power and depth which surely make Kollwitz one of the great artists of the twentieth century.

Self portrait 1912

Kollwitz did at least 50 self-portraits and no portraits of anyone else, hence the focus of the BM exhibition and of this book. They are no frills, no pretense records of a journey through a hard life and a gruelling era of history.

Black and white charcoal drawing of an old lady's face

Self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz (1912) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Woman with dead child (1903)

The most finished or prominent feature is the woman’s left knee and then, perhaps, her big left foot. This isn’t a dainty Rococo woman or an air-brushed sex object. This is a cave woman, Cro-Magnon Woman. No frills or make-up, no sexuality, just blunt primeval human feeling with extraordinary power.

Black and white drawing of a primitive, almost ape-like woman clasping the body of her teenage son

Woman with Dead Child by Käthe Kollwitz (1903) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unemployment (1909)

A large reproduction lets you see the fullness with which the baby and the children’s faces have been gently etched, and brings out the contrast between their soft child faces and the rest of the spare, scratchy, shadowy scene, the gaunt shadowed face of the exhausted mother.

Black and white drawing of an ill-looking woman tucked up in bed, holding a small baby, with several other small children asleep on the bedding, while the dark image of her husband sits and broods beside the bed

Unemployment by Käthe Kollwitz (1909) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Arming in a vault (1906)

From 1789 to 1989, the great theme of European history – terror of uncontrolled, violent revolution from below.

Very dark image of a hoard of people armed with axes and spears and halberds thronging catacombs and, on the right of the image, surging up a very steep staircase, presumably into the light of day

Arming in a Vault by Käthe Kollwitz (1906) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Call of Death (1937)

Here I come, ready or not.

Stark, primitive black and white charcoal drawing of a bald woman with an ape-like head, hear arms across her chest so you're not sure of her gender, and from the top right a veined and bony hand reaching down to touch her - the touch of Death

Call of Death by Käthe Kollwitz (1937) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the eighth and final image in Kollwitz’s final series of prints which was titled, simply, Death. 

In fact it’s also a self-portrait as a glance at the 1912 self-portrait confirms – but now without hair, without any attributes which identify her gender. Just raw, elemental human.

In the Death series, completed before the Blitzkrieg and Stalingrad and Warsaw, before the Holocaust and the camps, it is as if Kollwitz has plumbed the depths of human experience, not in the relatively superficial terms of despair or emotion, but reaching far deeper down than that, to a grunting, primeval, prehistoric stratum of human experience.

Tell me what you think





Related links

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

Related Kafka reviews

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.


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