Gareth Stedman Jones on Marx and 1848

Having just read Karl Marx’s two great works of political analysis about the ill-fated French Second Republic (1848-52), I thought I’d reread the hundred or so pages of Gareth Stedman Jones’s masterly intellectual biography of Marx which cover the same period – to remind myself of the wider European political and intellectual context, and to have Jones explain the development of Marx’s thought to me.

The Communist Manifesto

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in January 1848. According to Jones, Marx was:

  • the first to evoke the seemingly limitless powers of the modern economy and its global reach
  • the first to chart the staggering transformation unleashed by the productive powers of modern industry
  • the first to describe the restless, unfinished nature of capitalism, which must find new needs and ways to satisfy them
  • the first to describe how capitalism disrespects all previous boundaries and hierarchies, dissolving all conventional relationships, turning all humans into objects for sale, reducing all human relationships to the cash nexus

There is no doubting the innovativeness and power of much of Marx’s thought.

The creation of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’

Karl’s writings of the earlier 1840s had used concepts inherited from the Hegelian tradition: ‘the Christian state’, ‘the philosopher’, ‘the rational state’, ‘civil society’, ‘the peasantry’, ‘the Germans’, ‘the Philistines’. From about 1845 these were replaced by a new ‘cast of characters’, as Jones describes them – ‘the modern state’, ‘the class struggle’, ‘the bourgeoisie’, ‘the proletariat’.

Karl borrowed ‘bourgeoisie’ from contemporary French radicals, notably Louis Blanc. Blanc wrote about the banking industry enthralling trade and commerce, enforcing competition in all sectors, pushing small businesses and traders to the wall, undermining those of middle stature and creating ‘an oligarchy of bankers’. That sense of conquering dynamism would become familiar in Marx’s writings. But whereas in France the word ‘bourgeois’ referred to individual fat cats satirised in contemporary cartoons, Marx greatly expanded the idea to become identical with the great impersonal historical force of Capital itself.

The words proletarian and proletariat derive from the Latin root meaning ‘child’. they also were widely used in French radical writing of the 1840s to refer to the lowest order of society who have no property and so nothing to offer the state except their children. Again Marx adopted the word and vastly increased its meaning by using it to denote the entire working class population, not just of one, but of all the European nations, indeed of the whole world.

On the plus side, this drastic simplification enabled the stirring rhetoric of The Communist Manifesto which paints the contemporary world as a titanic clash between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat; on the down side, it led Marx to lump together all kinds of disparate groups under his new master terms -for example the mill owners of Lancashire with the financiers of Paris and the ruling elite of Berlin, groups which, in actuality, had very little in common and were acting in completely different situations.

Similarly, despite superficial similarities, factory workers from Wigan, the unemployed of Paris and conscripts in Berlin, were all described by Marx as ‘the proletariat’ but once again, were thinking and acting in completely different societies and political systems.

This Great Conflation and Conceptual Simplification encouraged Marx and his followers to minimise or just plain ignore, the very real differences between actually existing social groups which sometimes came into active antagonism to each other, as well as the very real differences in the economic situations and of the political systems of Britain, France and Prussia.

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The Battle at the barricade in the Rue Soufflot, Paris, on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet

The revolutions of 1848

Jones gives detailed accounts of the revolutions which broke out in France in February and in Germany in March 1848, as well as the parallel uprisings which occurred across the continent in countries like Austria, Italy and Poland.

Karl was expelled from Brussels for his political activities in March 1848, and went to Paris (arriving 4 March) where he witnessed first hand the early developments in the French Republic created when King Louis Philippe had been forced to abdicate only a few weeks earlier.

These were heady, euphoric days when radicals thought the final workers’ revolution had arrived. But Karl had barely settled into digs in Paris before news came of anti-government disturbances in Germany, specifically in the Prussian capital Berlin, as well as other cities like Frankfurt and Dresden. Karl decided to return to his homeland, arriving in Cologne on 10 April, and remaining there for the next eight months.

Along with fellow communists, Karl set up a radical newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung which quickly established itself as the leading radical journal in Germany, with a circulation of 5,000. However, Jones cautions that it never had any influence because of ‘its dogmatic tone and its reductive conception of politics’ (p.295).

The problem Karl and his journal created for themselves was they had a schizophrenic position created by their split worldview. On the one hand Karl believed the Great Proletarian Revolution was inevitable and that he needed to support whatever events were pushing the situation to extremes which seemed likely to spark insurrection: so from this grand historical point of view he was often in favour of governments taking repressive actions; the more repressive, the more they will hasten The Great Uprising.

But, on the other hand, as a journal claiming to represent the working classes, he had to give some kind of practical advice about what to say, write, who to support, what to campaign for, as events unfolded day by day, so he was forced to take part in the messy business of actual politics.

In Jones’s view the flip-flopping between these positions not only made the Neue Rheinische Zeitung an unreliable guide for working class readers, it looked to many like indecisiveness, and led some on the left to ridicule it (and Karl) for his mock heroic visions.

Karl’s political commentaries

Over the next eight months Karl wrote intense and furious commentary on political developments, but this is where – for Jones – it starts to go wrong, for a number of reasons.

1. Jones says that Karl and his circle thought the 1848 revolution would follow the pattern of the Great French Revolution i.e. there would be an initial bourgeois phase dominated by guff about the rights of man and democracy (1789-1792), followed by the True Proletariat Revolution – which is how Karl interpreted the rise of Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety, and the Terror of 1792-3. This was the part of the French revolution which executed the king, declared a republic, universal suffrage, abolished church land and took far-reaching radical steps which Karl admired. It all fit into his pre-ordained schema: first bourgeois revolution, then proletariat revolution.

But Karl was wrong.

Jones says that the strength of the Communist Manifesto is its weakness. It appeals because of its simplicity: the wicked bourgeois grow richer but numerically smaller and smaller; the impoverished proletariat grow poorer, but more and more numerous. The result is as inevitable as a simple maths problem = Proletarian Revolution which – in a mystically inevitable way which Karl derived, ultimately, from Hegel’s philosophy – will bring human history to an end in a peaceful utopia.

But the world wasn’t and isn’t that simple, never has been.

One of the undoubted strengths of Karl’s analysis is that it enabled him to look behind the scenes of politics to identify the class-based interests of different political groupings in a way that more conventional commentators couldn’t. But this led to what  Jones sees as Karl’s greatest mistake: which was to underestimate the messy and unpredictable realm of actual politics.

Karl’s conviction that History proceeds along an unavoidable course, moving through inevitable stages (industrial revolution, the economic then political triumph of bourgeoisie, the rise of proletariat, the communist revolution) led him and his colleagues in the Communist League and on the Neue Rheinische Zeitung to underestimate the complexity of the societies they were commentating on (Britain, France and Germany) and to ignore the complexity of the actual political manoeuvring in the here and now.

It led them to overlook the massive differences between all three countries (for instance, Prussian liberals and radicals had no republican tradition whatever to look back to, unlike the French radicals who had the 1789 revolution and the 1830 revolutions to refer back to and invoke). it led them to make mistakes in the history they claimed to be so fond of (the French state of 1789 was bankrupt and tied to a moribund church, whereas the French state of 1848 was relatively well off and backed by the richest parts of society, the industrial and financial bourgeoisie: no wonder the two revolutions unfolded in completely different ways).

The opening of Karl’s essay on French politics, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is one of the most quoted things he ever wrote:

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The clarity, the sweep, the confidence, the shiny brilliance of this insight are misleading. It may well be true that politicians drape themselves in the costumes, postures and words of their predecessors, particularly at times of stress. But rereading Marx this time round has made me realise that one clever insight is not enough. While Karl was elaborating the parallels between the actors of 1848 and their predecessors in 1789 (or, elsewhere in the text, to figures in classical Rome, or Biblical times) real politicians were getting on with their plotting.

Americans have an irritating phrase – ‘If you’re so clever, how come you ain’t rich?’ You can apply a variation of this to Marx and his followers: ‘If you’re so clever, with all your scholarly comparisons between 1848 and 1789 — how come your cause lost?’

Because it did lose. In Britain, the Chartist agitation which looked like producing a real change of the political scene in early 1848, fizzled out. In Germany, Jones shows how the King cleverly manoeuvred his way through the revolutionary turmoil, until he finally outwitted the National Assembly, carried out a coup and imposed a new constitution, retaining all his powers. In France, it took three years of very complex political chicanery until the preposterous figure of Louis-Napoléon managed to make himself emperor (December 1851). The Polish uprising of 1848 was crushed by Russia. The January rising in Sicily was defeated with the return of its Bourbon rulers. An uprising for independence in Hungary was eventually crushed by Russian and Austrian armies. And so on.

By 1853, Queen Victoria (Britain), King Frederick William IV (Prussia), the emperor Louis-Napoléon (France), the emperor Francis Joseph (Austria) were all secure on their thrones.

Karl underestimates the importance of politics

In all his political analyses, Karl can’t hide the tone of contempt and sarcasm (the ‘contemptuous tone’, the ‘derision and condemnation’ p.283) directed at the politicians he regards as mere puppets fronting various conflicting ‘class interests’.

The assumption in all of his writings is that he and his communist group alone in all of Europe understand the true nature of technological, economic and social change.

This, in fact, may have been true: his economic and class-based analyses are fascinating — but they ignore the reality of politics, which is that victory goes not go to the virtuous or to ‘the vanguard of History’ – it goes to the cunningest and most Machiavellian.

Karl is too in thrall to ‘the histrionics of revolution than to its actuality’; ‘he underestimated the ability of the leaders of the reaction’ (p.284). His ‘hostility towards the modern representative state’, his ‘consequent belittlement of the significance of manhood suffrage and the democratic republic’, his ‘disregard of political and legal forms’ (p.307) led Karl and Engels to systematically underestimate the importance of these goals for the working classes of their time, and explains the way their predictions for all the 1848 revolutions (and indeed for the rest of the century) turned out to be diametrically wrong.

Jones’s critique of The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850

Jones says it is the difficulty of reconciling the great global Hegelian vision of two vast world historical categories lumbering towards the Great Day of Revolution with the day-to-day confusing and messy manouevrings of political factions, which gives The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 its ‘strangeness’ of tone and content.

For a start it omits a surprising amount of basic information:

1. There is very little mention of the political causes which the left and radicals were fighting for, almost nothing about the actual political platforms of workers’ leaders like Blanqui and the radicals, next to nothing about the actual mechanics of the ‘right to work’ movement which inspired many of the workers throughout the revolution. It was rhetoric around the ‘right to work’ which mobilised huge numbers of the unemployed in Paris. The opening of National Workshops for the unemployed was the central issue in working class politics: the June riots weren’t the result of some abstract confrontation between Proletariat and Bourgeoisie, they were sparked by the government’s threat to close the workshops and were the mass protests of the thousands of men who stood to lose the dole. By always moving to the most abstract level, Karl consistently misses the importance of the quotidien, of practical details.

2. There is surprisingly little detailed economic analysis. Karl followed French socialist theorists who thought that capitalist crises were the result of periodic overproduction which flooded markets and produced slumps. This is what Karl attributes the 1847 economic crisis to. But Jones says it was caused by entirely different factors: the potato blight of 1846, poor wheat harvests – which both produced hunger – and a poor cotton crop which led to lack of work (mass unemployment). The collapse of linen production across much of northern Europe was part of a turning point in European history, which resulted in the de-industrialisation of the countryside of northern Europe, the increase of population of cities, the migration to America. None of this is in Karl’s account.

3. Karl is always itching to represent every confrontation as that between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, but this forces him to overlook or distort all kinds of inconvenient facts: for example the government of the Republic which did all the repressing, was mostly not made up of employers, industrial or otherwise; the Paris insurgents included just as many small employers as helpless wage earners; and the armed forces which confronted them, the Mobile Guard, was just as working class as the workers they were trying to control. To save his theory Karl invents the concept of the lumpenproletariat, consisting of drunks, crooks, thieves, prostitutes and so on to explain the behaviour of the Mobile Guard. In reality they were from the same ‘class’ as the marchers, but had simply decided to take the government’s shilling and wear a uniform. The entire concept of the lumpenproletariat can be defined as ‘the elements of the working class which don’t behave in the way Karl Marx’s theory says they ought to behave and so he has to call by a different name and go out of his way to abuse and discredit’.

4. Karl takes no time to analyse the central problem the young republic faced, which was what to do with over 100,000 unemployed working class men and their families. Paying some to join the newly established Mobile Guards solved part of the problem. Setting up the National Workshops for the unemployed solved the rest, but cost the government a fortune. Where was the money to come from? The republic decided to tax the peasants (which resulted in the peasants hating the new republic and voting for the first person who promised to reduce taxes – Louis-Napoléon).

So much for key elements of the revolution which Karl ignored. But Jones says that at a much deeper level, Karl’s entire analysis was wrong.

It was hardly rocket science to notice that 1848 saw insurgencies against almost every established government in Europe; other people did notice this too, not least the governments in question. But Karl made two cardinal mistakes in his analysis of these events:

1. He couldn’t escape his own blinkered interpretation of the insurgencies in terms of the French Revolution of 1789. Having just read Karl’s text, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850, I can confirm that Karl is much more haunted by 1789 (and especially by the rise of the Jacobin party in 1792) than the workers and middle class liberals he’s describing. Having interpreted the French Revolution as in fact two revolutions taking place in sequence – the ‘bourgeois’ revolution of 1789 and then the Jacobin or radical revolution of 1792 – Karl time and time again describes the political actors of 1848 as repeating, invoking, walking in the steps of and generally copying their great predecessors.

Only they weren’t. They were reacting to completely different situations, economic pressures and political realities, in completely new and unpredictable ways.

2. Karl’s philosophical position had been developed in the early 1840s, where a central tenet was that modern life in a capitalist system alienated people from traditions, customs, from themselves. Of nobody was this more true than of the industrial proletariat, who were reduced to the status of ‘hands’, to mere appendages which tended the genuinely valuable items in factories, the machines. Alienated from their work, from the products of their labour, from the value of their labour, Karl saw this class as being subjected to such an extreme of dehumanisation, that it would eventually – by a kind of law of physics – rebound, retake the earth, reclaim the means of production and distribution, overthrow its oppressors, and institute a new era of history in which all men and women live alienation-free lives, in touch with themselves, enjoying the fruits of their labours in harmonious associations.

You don’t need a degree in politics and economics to see that this is a pitifully simple-minded fairy tale.

What Jones specifically nails Karl for is placing his own ideologically-blinkered philosophy over the actual facts. Karl thought the proletariat had to be pushed right to the brink, to be ground into utter misery, before the world-shaking transformation could come. Actually, the working classes of Europe turned out not to be so keen on being ground into the mud in order to prove the theory of an obscure German philosophy student; what they wanted was work, shorter hours and more pay

And most of the radical leaders in Britain, France, Germany, Austria and beyond thought this could best be achieved not by overthrowing the existing political system but by being granted entry into it. The central demand of the Chartists wasn’t to abolish property and overthrow the bourgeoisie: it was to have the vote. Similarly, the issue of male suffrage was central to the 1848 revolution in France. The ‘class consciousness’ of workers in Britain or France was caused less by the notional stage of development of capitalist technology, than by the fact that they wanted the vote so that their representatives could fight their cause in Parliament and the National Assembly.

Jones’s point is that the central issue of the 1848 revolutions was not Karl’s ‘class consciousness’, it was ‘political exclusion’.

When Marx and Engels ridicule the whole notion of parliamentary politics, when they pour scorn on the English Constitution as ‘a tissue of lies’, when they mock moderate socialist leaders in Britain and France – they are denying the voices of the working classes themselves. Thoroughly bourgeois themselves, Karl and Friedrich project onto working class people their own theories and ideas about how the working classes ought to think and behave – doctrinaire ways of thinking, talking and behaving which Stalin and Mao would go on to enthusiastically demand entire nations conformed to in the 20th century.

Is there any way of proving these conflicting interpretations of events? Yes. By seeing what happened subsequently: Did the working classes of Britain, France and Germany turn out to want violent revolutionary overthrow, or did they just want more say in existing political systems?

The fact that exclusion and lack of recognition rather than exploitation were the prime precipitants of the insurrectionary sentiments of the peoples of 1848 was borne out by the subsequent history of Western Europe. With manhood suffrage and a representative system established in France after the fall of the Second Empire, and renewed talk of Reform in England, the working classes were progressively re-incorporated back into the political system. Thus the political and extra-constitutional significance of the ‘class struggle’, as it had been invoked by the Communist Manifesto, faded away. (p.313)

Karl superimposed over the actual stated aims of working class radicals in 1848 an arcane schema derived from the Idealist philosopher Hegel, which bore little relation to economic, social or political realities, and which has bedazzled restless intellectuals ever since.

Workers didn’t want to overthrow the system; they wanted more of a say in the system, and a fairer distribution of the spoils. The proof is the way that, as the century progressed, the ‘proletariat’ didn’t rise up against the ‘bourgeoisie’ of England, France or Germany – it was step by step co-opted into the system and running of those countries, which all avoided revolution and became social democracies – the precise opposite of what Karl and Engels predicted and never gave up hoping for.

Jones’s critique of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

In the summer of 1849 the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV, introduced a new cabinet of his reactionary supporters, who implemented counter-revolutionary measures to expel leftist and other revolutionary elements from the country. The paper Karl had been editing and writing for, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung was soon suppressed and Marx was ordered to leave the country on 16 May.

He returned to Paris, which was then under the grip of both a reactionary counter-revolution and a cholera epidemic and was soon expelled by the city authorities, who considered him a political threat. With his wife Jenny expecting their fourth child and unable to move back to Germany or Belgium, in August 1849 Karl arrived as a refugee in London, where he was to live for the rest of his life.

It was in Dean Street, in London’s Soho district, between December 1851 and March 1852, that Karl wrote his analysis of the rise of Louis-Napoléon, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which went on to be published in 1852 in Die Revolution, a German monthly magazine published in New York City.

On pages 334 to 343 of his biography Jones analysises this essay. Apparently it was Engels’s idea that the grand history of 1789 was repeating itself as farce in the 1848 events, and that the coup by which Louis-Napoléon seized power in December 1848 echoed the coup by which his uncle, Napoléon Bonaparte seized power on 9 November 1799. We know this because we have the letter in which he suggests the idea to Karl.

At the time of Bonaparte’s coup France was at that time still living under the fanciful calendar dreamed up by the first revolutionaries, according to which November was known as Brumaire and the 9th of November translated as the 18th of ‘Brumaire’. Thus Bonaparte’s coup was known as the 18th Brumaire; and so the title of Marx’s long article is a direct reference (once again) to the events of the first French Revolution, jokingly referring to the coup of the nephew by the term previously used for the coup oft he uncle.

As with his critique of Marx’s writings about the 1848 revolution, Jones heavily criticises Marx for being trapped and blinkered by his own theory. His hermeneutics of interpreting everything as part of the great struggle between the abstract categories of Capital and Proletariat, and his obsession with the revolutions of the past, completely blinded him to the novelty of the situation in 1848.

This consisted in the fact that the Second Republic had consciously created the role of president, something which had never existed in France before, modelled on the role of the American president. It seemed like a good idea, but in practice nobody in France knew how to manage the resulting political situation, specifically the confrontation between president and National Assembly, both claiming the authority of having been elected.

It was Louis-Napoléon’s wisdom (or luck or good advice) to realise he could appeal over the heads of both the liberals and the so-called ‘Party of Order’ in the National Assembly, and even of the radical socialist leaders of ‘the street’, to the largest element in the Paris population – the petit bourgeoisie – and by far the largest section of the population of France – the peasants – to secure power.

Far from being a pygmy reincarnation of his giant forebears, a retread of old formulae, Jones claims that Louis-Napoléon was in fact a talented pioneer of an entirely new politics – he was arguably the first European populist politician, happy to ignore the entire political class and appeal directly to ‘the people’.

Once again, Karl’s dismissal of democratic politics as a mere smokescreen concealing the ‘reality’ of class conflict, and his obsessive interpreting of every twist and turn in the complex story solely in terms of his wished-for conflict between Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, completely blinded him to the novelty of this situation and to the actual power politics on the ground, which led to an outcome exactly contrary to what he predicted.

As a result Karl’s reading of the sequence of events which had culminated in the implementation of universal suffrage, Bonaparte’s massive electoral majority and finally his coup d’état was wilful and perverse. He claimed that these events signified the ripening of the ‘party of insurrection’ into ‘a really revolutionary party’, and the establishment of the Second Empire was not a defeat of the bourgeoisie, but a new form of bourgeois rule. But he had little to say about what was to be its more obvious consequence – that, as a result of the political demand for universal male suffrage in France in 1848, and again in Germany in the 186os, both the liberals and the more traditional parties of order found themselves defeated, not by radical democrats on the left, but by the demagogic manoeuvres of maverick post-Legitimist leaders on the right – Bonaparte and Bismarck. (p.341)

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte aka the Emperor Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Conclusions

Marx developed a way of interpreting society and history which is simultaneously powerful, persuasive and deeply misleading. Societies are driven forward by technological innovation. Capitalism does suck all societies into its vortex of trade and banking. Political leaders are often the puppets of big business and finance. Culture as a whole, and even individual artists or writers, can very usefully be thought of as expressing class interests, and reflecting the stage of development of their society. All of these ideas have gone on to have brilliant careers in sociology, literary and wider cultural theory.

BUT the fundamental teleology, the view that History is inevitably and unstoppable heading in a particular direction, turns out to be completely unfounded. And the idea that that direction amounts to the ‘Bourgeoisie’ becoming a tiny class of all-powerful capitalists grinding the faces of an enormous class of propertyless ‘Proletariat’ turned out to be completely wrong.

By teaching his followers to belittle and ignore the complexities of the political sphere, dismissing democracy, constitutions, the vote and the law as ‘bourgeois fictions’, and instead to rely on completely fictional ideas of ‘historical inevitability’, goes a long way to explaining why Marxist parties have repeatedly failed in industrialised and developed countries, have always been defeated, in the end, by parties which understood the realities of power in complex societies much better.

Where Marxist tenets were to triumph was in the backward, economically more simple states of Russia and China and, even then, only under the chaotic conditions created by devastating wars. These essentially military seizures of power led to state dictatorships which were able to export or impose their ideologies on their neighbours by force (Eastern Europe in Stalin’s case, South-East Asia in Mao’s).


Related links

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Communism in Poland

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

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

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

Communism in England

Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constant expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of rhetorician, of techniques of rhetorical persuasion, in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal ale suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Colourful, imaginative expressions of abuse.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of a modern stand-up comedian.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, e, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as a stage, on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the congnoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


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Communism in Poland

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

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party during the Spanish Civil War turned on its left-wing allies, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was a mamber of, and how he only just escaped arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile 1848-1863

Back in the left-wing, strike-ridden 1970s, Penguin launched a standard edition of the works of Marx and Engels. It was produced in collaboration with New Left Review magazine (founded in 1960 as a forum for new left cultural and political debate, and still going strong in 2018 – New Left Review).

Marx wrote a lot: he was, after all, a freelance journalist by trade. Articles, pamphlets, books, historical studies, economic theory, introductions to other people’s books, political commentary, speeches, as well as a copious correspondence poured from his pen.

Penguin assembled some of this into three volumes devoted to Marx’s ‘political writings’ i.e. the shorter, more ephemeral pieces combined with the handful of book-length commentaries he wrote on contemporary events.

This is Volume Two of the political writings, covering the years from 1848 – after Marx was forced to flee the continent in light of the failed revolutions in Germany and France of that year – through to 1863, half way through the American Civil War. Fifteen years of writing and thinking.

The shorter pieces are: a book review and eight articles about politics in Britain, four articles about India (specifically the Indian Mutiny of 1857) and one about China, two about the American Civil War, a speech celebrating the anniversary of The People’s Paper, and a ‘proclamation’ on Poland for the German Workers Educational Association.

But the lion’s share of the book (250 of its 370 pages) is taken up by Marx’s two seminal works of contemporary political analysis, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 (four separate newspaper articles published in Germany in 1850 and spliced together into book form by Engels) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (written as newspaper articles between December 1851 and March 1852).

These works represent Marx’s most sustained attempts to apply the theories about class conflict and the ‘inevitable’ triumph of the industrial proletariat over the capital-owning bourgeoisie, which he had laid out in The Communist Manifesto of early 1848, to specific contemporary historical events in France.

The book benefits from a very focused, densely intellectual introduction by the Marxist scholar David Fernbach.

Five levels

Marx is always very readable, and often a very enjoyable read (unlike, say, almost any 20th century French intellectual). However, assessing the validity / importance / relevance of what he wrote is very difficult, for a number of reasons. As I read through the book, I realised that there are are least five distinct levels at play, or five areas to be aware of:

  1. Historical facts All the texts refer to historical events. You can’t really understand the essays unless you have a good grasp of the actual events he’s analysing. Wikipedia is the obvious first stop.
  2. Marx’s interpretation Clearly the essays themselves present Marx’s interpretation of historical events, an interpretation which sees them all in terms of the struggle between the industrial proletariat and the capitalist bourgeoisie (in western countries) and interprets events further afield (in India or China) insofar as those countries are ruled or dominated by western imperialist nations and are being dragged into the international capitalist system.
  3. Fernbach’s interpretation Fernbach is a very knowledgeable Marx scholar. His introduction gives the context to each piece before going on, very candidly, to assess their strengths and weaknesses. In other words, as you read them, you should bear Fernbach’s comments in mind (or frequently refer back to them, as I did).
  4. Stedman Jones I have just finished reading Gareth Stedman Jones’s vast and hugely erudite biography of Marx. The difference between Fernbach and Stedman is the difference in perspective between 1973 and 2016. Jones gives a more thorough account of the actual historical events than Fernbach has room to do, and also presents Marx’s texts in the context of his other writings and with regard to the controversies he was involved in with other, rival, socialist writers and thinkers. I deal with Stedman Jones’s interpretation of this period and these essays in a separate blog post.
  5. A rhetorical reading Marx was a very rhetorical writer. In his student days he wanted to be a poet (who didn’t?) and in his adult prose he deploys quite a range of rhetorical devices, from biting satire, to crisp antitheses, to sprawling lists, to withering personal abuse – all of which which make his prose surprisingly fun to read, or at least, a pleasure to analyse. I deal with Marx’s prose style in a separate blog.

Levels 1, 2 and 3 in more detail

1. Historical facts

The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte give Marx’s interpretation of the extremely complicated sequence of political events in France between early 1848 and December 1851, the period of the ill-fated Second Republic.

Briefly, in February 1848 popular discontent reached a head when King Louis Philippe banned the ‘banqueting clubs’ under cover of which, for several years, radicals had been taking the opportunity to lambast the ineffectiveness of the king’s economic policy which, combined with a depression of 1847, had led to poverty and unemployment.

A particularly provocative banquet had been planned in a working class part of Paris for 21 February and, when it was banned, on 22 February Parisians took to the streets and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Guizot. Guizot did in fact resign the next day but, as a large crowd outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate, it was fired on by soldiers, leaving over 50 dead.

Parisians erected barricades, lit fires, marched on the royal palace with vengeance in mind. As a result of the escalating chaos, Louis Philippe abdicated and fled to England.

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Louis Philippe was replaced on 26 February by a provisional government which announced the formation of the ‘Second Republic’. (The First Republic dated from when the French revolutionaries deposed King Louis XIV in 1792, until Napoleon declared himself emperor, in 1804.)

This led to a very complex sequence of events: the provisional government scheduled elections for March and declared universal male suffrage, creating nine million voters. National Workshops were set up to provide work for the urban unemployed, the brainchild of the socialist Louis Blanc. Taxes were levied on rural voters in order to subsidise these workshops, alienating them from the republic. When the national elections went ahead in April, the nine million voters elected a mainly conservative administration.

As 1848 progressed, the early hope of radicals were crushed as the elected government showed itself to be surprisingly reactionary, banning free association and introducing draconian press laws, etc. In May a crowd of Parisian workmen invaded the National Constituent Assembly and proclaimed a new Provisional Government. They were quickly suppressed by the National Guard and the leaders of the revolt imprisoned.

As you might expect, this attempt at a coup united the factions of the bourgeoisie into a ‘Party of Order’ which decided to close the much-hated National Workshops on 21 June. This threatened to pitch over 100,000 unemployed Parisian working men onto the streets, and so the decision sparked the ‘June Days’, when up to 170,000 working class people set up barricades all across Paris. This led to pitched battles all across the city with the army, the Mobile Guard and the National Guard led by General Louis Eugène Cavaignac, fresh back from the conquest of Algeria.

The working classes were defeated: up to 3,000 were killed and in the months that followed some 15,000 were sent to prison, including the main leaders of the proletariat. The June Days marked the exit of the working classes from the political activity of the Second Republic.

The political forces in the National Assembly realigned to maximise the Party of Order and isolate any radical or working class factions. Cavaignac was appointed head of state, a position he held from June until 10 December 1848, when a full presidential election was held. Cavaignac was one of the four candidates, but to everyone’s surprise the winner was a complete outsider, the semi-comical figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of the great general, Napoleon) who got 5,587,759 votes as opposed to 1,474,687 votes for Cavaignac, and 370,000 votes for Ledru-Rollin (the candidate of the left).

Louis-Napoléon was a comic figure because he had wandered round Europe promoting himself, doing odd jobs (working for a while as a police constable in London) and had tried a few ridiculous coups before, such as the attempt to take over Strasbourg in 1836, which failed and he fled to Switzerland.

Marx’s two long essays detail the convoluted political manoeuvring which took place throughout 1849, 1850 and 1851, two years leading up to Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte staging a coup in December 1851, declaring himself sole ruler of France, a position he consolidated when he formally took the throne as Napoleon III in December 1852.

This historical period in France thus saw a huge narrative arc from the revolutionary optimism of February 1848, through the bloody insurrection of June 1848, on to the surprise election of Louis Napoléon, and then to three years of cynical manoeuvring and backstabbing, which led to the nadir of radical hopes, the seizure of power by a comic-book character whose empire represented the triumph of all the reactionary forces in French society.

Three things are going on in these two long essays.

1. Actual history It is impossible to understand them unless you have read a very good account of the actual historical events elsewhere because, although Marx descends to day-by-day analysis, he assumes the reader already knows the story, so he is constantly alluding to historical characters, twists and turns in the story, which you have to know already.

2. Applying theory to reality From the point of view of understanding Marx’s theory, the obvious thing about both these long texts is that in them Marx was trying to apply the purely theoretical principles of his abstract texts, like The Communist Manifesto, to actual contemporary history.

To the reader who is not an expert in Marxist theory, the most obvious result of this is that, whereas in the Manifesto, and elsewhere, Marx and Engels confidently write about just two classes – the fiendish bourgeoisie which is reducing an ever-growing number of the population to utter poverty as part of the industrial proletariat – in the two French essays Marx is forced to concede that there are in fact lots of classes or political groups or factions or interests.

The immensely complicated squabbling of the Assembly and its deputies, the turnover of different administrations, the management of violence in the streets between mob, militia and army, the numerous newspapers and pamphleteers supporting all sides – in order to make sense of it Marx has to create a raft of new ‘classes’ or class interests, including:

  • the financial bourgeoisie – the bankers and stock market speculators, who were the ultimate seat of power
  • the industrial bourgeoisie – whose wealth and income are dependent upon the production and sale of goods, and weren’t numerous enough to seize power
  • the petty bourgeoisie – shopkeepers, teachers, generally conservative in tendency
  • the Montagne (or the Democratic Socialists) named after the a similar group in the 1790s revolution, in 1848 this faction of the National Assembly came to represent the petit bourgeoisie
  • numerous types of royalist:
    • legitimists, or Bourbonists – who wanted the return of Louis XVIII, overthrown in 1830
    • Orleanists – who wanted the restoration of Louis-Philippe, descended from the Orleans branch of the royal family, hence their name

Marx has to account for the fact that a lot of the ‘street’, the rough elements of the Paris working classes, voted against their own interests when they voted for – and defended in street fighting – the ludicrous Louis Napoléon. So Marx categorises them as a lumpenproletariat (a term which Marx, apparently, invented), worthless drunks and wastrels, as distinct from the ‘heroic’ true proletariat which he lauds in all his more theoretical writings. Unlike them, the lumpenproletariat will follow anyone who offers them free beer and cigars, which Louis-Napoléon does, especially if they join an organisation he sets up specially, called the December 10 Club – members eventually become known as the ‘Decembrists’.

To the list above should be added the large ‘agrarian interest’, itself divided into two great factions:

  • the wealthy landowners who had dominated French society from the Middle Ages down until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, small in number, big in power, but being squeezed out of representative assemblies by the urban bourgeoisie
  • the peasants – the largest single group in French society, who gave the decisive support to Louis Napoleon in the 1848 election

Giving the vote to all adult males may have sounded progressive to Paris radicals but they forgot, like so many radicals in so many countries down to our own time – that the majority of the population does not want a violent and drastic overthrow of all existing social structures and values. They just want a return to prosperity, jobs and security, and will vote for whoever promises it (from Louis-Napoléon to Donald Trump).

The net effect of this proliferation of names and factions is that Marx is sometimes in danger of sounding like just any other historian, simply describing a complex world of multiple factions and interests. He is at pains to continually remind the reader of the various groupings’ relationships to types of capital (the distinction between the industrial and the financial bourgeoisie, for example), although this often gets very confusing.

Whether he convinces you that his fine-sounding socio-economic theories can be applied to complex contemporary history, is a judgement call every reader must make for themselves.

3. Wrong predictions As Both Fernbach and Stedman Jones point out, all Marx’s predictions in these texts turned out to be wrong. The revolutionary hopes triggered by the events of 1848 proved utterly illusory. Louis-Napoléon consolidated his grip on power and there followed ten years of relative prosperity, from which peasants and workers, as well as the bourgeoisie, industrial and financial, all benefited (there was an economic slump in the late 1850s which caused discontent but the emperor managed to weather it). A slow legalisation of trade unions allowed them into the power structures of the state. In fact, was to be 22 long years before a situation remotely like it reoccurred, when the workers rose up in the Paris Commune of 1871 – and that only happened because of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, and itself only lasted a month or so before being brutally crushed.

2. Marx’s interpretation of French politics 1848-1852

1. Truth and reality

Putting to one side the difficulty he has in matching simplistic theory to complex reality, and the fact that history was to prove all Marx’s predictions wrong – nonetheless these two books are rich in ideas, some of which only make sense within the realm of Marxist-Leninist discourse, but others which are open to anyone regardless of political orientation, and are very thought-provoking.

Take the opening page of The Eighteenth Brumaire:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. The tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem involved in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never before existed, it is precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis that they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow names, battle cries and costumes from them in order to act out the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language. (p.146)

This is a richly metaphorical language: conjuring up spirits, costumes and disguises, it invokes a world of theatre and drama. But the actual idea expressed is simple and profound: we humans are free but not completely free; we are able to make our own lives and times, but that freedom is massively constrained by the accumulation of all the human history leading up to us.

This short passage also introduces an idea which is central to the Brumaire in particular which is the distinction between mask and reality, disguise and true identity.

Previous historians had tended to take politicians, kings and diplomats at their word, or to point out where they were ‘lying’, by contrasting their words with other versions of events, other people’s statements and so on. For Marx all this is skating on the surface of things; he envisions a much bigger, much deeper sense of the notion of masks or disguises.

For throughout his work Marx develops the notion that human culture is the contingent product of a particular stage of economic and technological development: it doesn’t float freely as the beautiful thoughts of ‘great’ thinkers and artists; human culture is profoundly influenced, determined and constrained by the social arrangements of the society which produces it, which are in turn dictated by the technological and economic base of that society.

A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations of a people.

Note the word ‘illusions’. Especially in the modern bourgeois society of his time, maybe more than ever before, the ruling class is at pains to conceal the reality of their power and their program beneath high-sounding ideals. The mask isn’t a small, trivial thing which some individual politicians hide behind – it is the huge facade of fake ‘values’ and ‘morality’ which an entire class hides behind in order to conceal its control of production and distribution, which is in turn based on the exploitation of the proletariat.

This is why Marx is dismissive of parliamentary democracy: it is a smokescreen, a facade of high-sounding verbiage which conceals the economic i.e. class-based realities of society. It gives the population the ‘illusion’ of having some kind of control over events, when events are controlled behind the scenes by the ruling class. Class struggles cannot be solved in the parliamentary arena. He dismisses the belief that they can, with characteristic brusqueness, as ‘parliamentary cretinism’.

Similarly, in the writings about India and China, Marx points out that the entire rhetoric of imperialism, all the crap about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the French mission civilisatrice were humbug, cant and lies designed by the imperialists to hide from their own peoples (and even from themselves) the brutal reality of the conquest and rape of far-off lands.

This explains the consistent tone of irony & sarcasm found throughout Marx’s writings, because it is so obvious to him that everything a king or ruling politician or their pet journalists say or write is a lie designed to conceal the true basis of their rule in a system which methodically exploits the labour of the working poor (or foreign peoples). Marx’s attitude is that of course they would say that, publish that, declare that – all lies lies lies to distract from their real economic and financial interests.

And this is why his sarcasm rises to such heights of vituperation whenever he describes the impostor Louis-Napoléon, because his rise and rule is a kind of climax of lies and deceptions. Louis-Napoléon claimed to rule ‘for all the people’, hence his success with the peasantry who were largely responsible for voting him onto power – but Marx almost bursts with frustration at the obviousness of the way this preposterous fraud ruled solely to protect and promote the interests of the bourgeoisie.

To some extent it may be due to the relatively limited number of metaphors available to a writer in the 1840s, but nonetheless it is striking how consistently Marx applies metaphors of the stage, of the drama, of acting, of masks and disguises and conjuring, to all the reactionary elements in society – to the crown, the various elements of the bourgeoisie, their paid lackeys in the press and so on.

For the entire duration of its rule, for as long as it gave its grand performance of state on the proscenium, an unbroken sacrificial feast was being staged in the background – the continual sentencing by courts–martial of the captured June insurgents or their deportation without trial.

Bonaparte, on horseback, mustered a part of the troops on the Place de la Concorde; Changarnier play-acted with a display of strategic maneuvers; the Constituent Assembly found its building occupied by the military.

In this great comedy of intrigues the Montagne showed its lack of revolutionary energy and political understanding…

June 1849, was not a bloody tragedy between wage labor and capital, but a prison-filling and lamentable play of debtors and creditors.

And Louis-Napoléon especially is seen as an arch actor.

An old, crafty roué, Louis Napoleon conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery. (p.197)

At a moment when the bourgeoisie itself played the most complete comedy, but in the most serious manner in the world, without infringing any of the pedantic conditions of French dramatic etiquette, and was itself half deceived, half convinced of the solemnity of its own performance of state, the adventurer, who took the comedy as plain comedy, was bound to win. Only when he has eliminated his solemn opponent, when he himself now takes his imperial role seriously and under the Napoleonic mask imagines he is the real Napoleon, does he become the victim of his own conception of the world, the serious buffoon who no longer takes world history for a comedy but his comedy for world history. (p.198)

All these groups and factions in society are associated with play-acting, because the only class which can strip away the lies and confront the economic and power realities of the day, is the proletariat.

The proletariat is the cure for the disease of endless amateur dramatics which characterised the brief Second Republic (1848-1852). Quite apart from all the economic, social and moral benefits which the revolution will bring, the triumph of the proletariat will also be the triumph of Truth over acting.

France now possessed a Napoleon side by side with a Montagne, proof that both were only the lifeless caricatures of the great realities whose names they bore. Louis Napoleon, with the emperor’s hat and the eagle, parodied the old Napoleon no more miserably than the Montagne, with its phrases borrowed from 1793 and its demagogic poses, parodied the old Montagne. Thus the traditional 1793 superstition was stripped off at the same time as the traditional Napoleon superstition. The revolution had come into its own only when it had won its own, its original name, and it could do that only when the modern revolutionary class, the industrial proletariat, came dominatingly into its foreground.

2. Marx’s political analysis

So Marx’s analysis is based on the idea that all of the jostling factions which contested power in France after the fall of Louis-Philippe in February 1848 represent class interests which can be defined by their economic and commercial situations.

The ordinary ‘liberal’ historian analyses the clashing parties of the Second Republic according to their stated aims and values: the radicals want ‘equality’, the royalists talk about ‘legitimacy’, the financial bourgeoisie and the industrial bourgeoisie for a while ally together to create ‘the party of Order’ which wants precisely that, and so on.

Marx spend 100 densely-written pages showing that they are all living a lie. Whatever airy values, customs and traditions they invoke (he singles out ‘property, family, religion and law’ as the siren call of the hypocritical bourgeoisie), each of these groups represents its own financial interests: the royalists want a return of the king so they can get back their cushy jobs in the administration; the industrial bourgeoisie wants better terms of credit and trade; the financial bourgeoisie is happy to see a kleptocratic president elected since he has to borrow off them at high interest rates.

And, when the republicans made the fateful decision of instituting universal suffrage, they effectively handed power to the peasants, the largest single group in France, and they (in their rural ignorance – Marx doesn’t like peasants) voted for the most deceitful idea of all, for simple-minded conservative values and the gloire they associated with the venerable name of Napoleon.

Marx digs deeper into the broader economic and trade context, to point out that the late 1840s saw an agricultural crisis caused by the potato blight, a financial crisis caused by the end of Britain’s railway boom, and an industrial crisis caused by temporary over-production of cotton goods. All these added urgency to the motivation of the differing elements of the bourgeoisie in 1848 and 1849.

Marx highlights the way that France’s economy (as the economies of most of Europe) were dependent on Britain in its role as workshop and financial centre of world capitalism: Britain sneezes, Europe catches a cold, and that was certainly among the causes of the initial unrest in France in early 1848.

Marx interprets the Second Republic as maybe the most suitable form of government for the French bourgeoisie, because it allowed the varying factions within it to thrash out their differences without violence. But nothing in Marx is that straightforward; he rarely makes a formulation without going on to turn it into a paradox – something Fernbach takes to be the application of ‘dialectical’ thinking. For although the republic created a safe environment for business to proceed, untampered with by the often unpredictable monarchy, it also (alas) let other classes of society into power (the petty bourgeoisie and the working classes) thus creating a new set of problems and power dynamics for the bourgeoisie to manage.

Universal suffrage had allowed the backward peasantry to elect Louis-Napoléon president, as a result of which universal suffrage was promptly repealed by the conservative National Assembly, but too late. His huge mandate added to an unstable economic and political situation by creating with two centres of power, a National Assembly clothing itself in the rhetoric of liberty (which in fact wanted to restrict the suffrage and close down the National Workshops and make France safe for business) and a president who clothed himself in the rhetoric of empire and grandeur, but in fact relied on the arms and support of the lumpenproletariat in Paris and the conservative peasants beyond it.

It’s the instability of this situation which makes for a very complicated story, as all of the competing sides put forward laws, made political moves, tried to redraft the constitution, called their supporters out onto the streets, and so on, for the three years from Louis-Napoléon’s election in December 1848 to his coup in December 1851.

At a deep, psychological level, the chancer and trickster Louis-Napoléon was able to gain power because he represented everything to everyone.

At a practical level, Marx’s hundred pages are devoted to cataloguing the excruciatingly long, drawn-out sequence of political manouevring which created the conditions for Louis-Napoléon to carry out his coup in December 1851 (basically all his opponents fought themselves to a stalemate, leaving Louis-Napoléon as almost the only centre of viable authority left standing).

But at the beginning, middle and end of these essays Marx has continually to explain away the fact that the proletarian revolution which he and Engles expected any day, not only didn’t happen, but that its polar opposite – a capital-friendly empire – was put in place.

Marx’s basic excuse is that France wasn’t economically advanced enough. The industrial proletariat was in a distinct minority, outnumbered in the cities by the petit bourgeoisie (shop-keepers,teachers, junior lawyers and so on) and in the countryside by the peasants, who made up the vast majority of the French population. In a nutshell, France wasn’t ready.

The struggle against capital in its developed, modern form – in its decisive aspect, the struggle of the
industrial wage worker against the industrial bourgeois – is in France a partial phenomenon, which after the February days could so much the less supply the national content of the revolution, since the struggle against capital’s secondary modes of exploitation, that of the peasant against usury and mortgages or of the petty bourgeois against the wholesale dealer, banker, and manufacturer – in a word, against bankruptcy – was still hidden in the general uprising against the finance aristocracy.

Marx claims that the confusing and short life of the Second Republic was a ‘necessary’ stage on the pathway to revolution:

  • It was necessary for the various elements of the Party of Order (the two types of royalists, the two types of bourgeoisie) to fall out with each other and help make the National Assembly so ineffectual that almost everyone was relieved when Louis Napoleon stepped in and dissolved it in December 1851.
  • It was necessary for the proletariat to be politicised in the street fighting of June 1848 (which they very bloodily lost) but which taught them that they needed greater numbers and strength to win eventual victory.
  • It was necessary for the peasants to vote for Louis-Napoléon so that they could become bitterly disillusioned by his inability to solve the deep structural problems of the French rural economy, disillusioned with the essentially bourgeois political system, and so prepared to make an alliance with the urban proletariat when the great day comes.
  • It is necessary for the whole of French society, in other words, to be simplified into the primal antagonism which Marxist theory requires, between the vampire bourgeoisie and its countless helpless victims.

Marx claims that all the tortuous political manouevring of these four years is has ‘cleared the stage’ for the next development – The Red Revolution.

The only problem with this entire reading being, of course – that it didn’t. We know that nothing of the sort occurred and that, apart from the historical accident of the Commune, France was never to experience a proletarian revolution, even during the darkest days of the Great War.

Thus, clever though they generally are, Marx’s arguments and analyses often sound like special pleading. His incisive association of particular groups with particular economic and commercial interests is totally persuasive; but his argument that the squabbles among these groups is leading in a pre-determined direction, towards the inevitable victory of the proletariat now reads like science fiction.

The preposterous chancer Louis-Napoléon would in fact remain in power for 19 more years, longer than his famous uncle, and wasn’t toppled by any social revolution from within France but by the completely contingent actions of the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, who wanted to seize Alsace and Lorraine in 1870 as part of his campaign to create a unified Germany.

3. Fernbach’s interpretation of the other essays

Fernbach’s extremely knowledgeable introduction to the book explains the context to each piece before going on to candidly assess the strengths and weaknesses of Marx’s essays. He lists the insights of Marx’s writings, but is also clear where Marx glossed over areas of theory which he and Engels had not yet found a solution for – or where he was just plain wrong.

For example, Fernbach brings out the shortcomings of Marx’s essays about India and China (later in the book). Marx regarded both these vast nations as history-less blank slates on which the European colonisers could write. It was left to Lenin, in his writings about imperialism, to really explain the relationship between metropolis and colonies in the imperialist capitalist countries. (Fernbach says Marx has a ‘Europocentric’ perspective, presumably writing before the expression ‘Eurocentric’ became commonplace on the left.)

Marx regarded the European colonising of India and China as a good thing because a) they had no history beforehand b) they were trapped in rural idiocy, in the strait jacket of the caste system and poverty c) Marx insisted that these countries had to develop according to his pre-ordained schema (the ‘textbook course of development’, as he called it, p.150). They had to have bourgeois industrialisation before they would be ready for the revolution of the proletariat, and this was the only way they could move forwards.

Thus, paradoxically, although he was a vitriolic critic of the brutal exploitative rule of European empires, Marx thought the technological and commercial nature of British imperial rule had produced ‘the greatest and, to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia’, while its profit-seeking urges had destroyed the ‘solid foundation of Oriental despotism’ that had ‘restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass’. England may have been ‘actuated only by the vilest interests’ but these were essential for ‘mankind to fulfil its destiny’.

Marx was confident that the modernising forces of empire would end up undermining its own rule: by creating an Indian army, education system, press, and industrial base (with its growing proletariat), the imperial rulers would lay the ‘material premises’ for their own downfall – they really would become their own grave-diggers.

The British Empire was, for a Marx, a kind of cruel necessity, which would drag non-European countries into the world system of capitalism, and thus push them quickly towards the promised land of proletarian revolution.

The first part of Marx’s prediction did indeed come to pass i.e. the oppressed Indian nation did rise up to seize the imperial infrastructure of its oppressors, albeit 90 years after Marx was writing about it (1857-1947). However, the Indians did not then proceed to have a proletarian revolution and create a communist society. Very much the reverse.

Pondering these short essays about India from a modern perspective makes you wonder, yet again, at the central paradox of Marx: he was wonderfully insightful about the dynamic power of capitalism, an acute analyst of the way it restructured the means of production and social relationships in industrialised countries, and was completely right to see it as the agent of change and modernisation right around the world, dragging every single nation into the network of capitalist trade and finance – a vision which is as thrillingly global as it is excitingly insightful.

You only have to compare Marx’s writings with those of contemporary ‘thinkers’ – especially in philistine England – like Thomas Carlyle or John Stuart Mill or even Benjamin Disraeli to be embarrassed at the obtuse stupidity of their ideas, their plain stupid vapourings about ‘the superior national character of the British’ or ‘the moral duty of the aristocracy’, and a thousand and one other formulas which all concealed the real commercial and power relationships, between classes and between countries, which Marx makes so dazzlingly clear.

But Marx proved to be entirely wrong in predicting that all these developments must inevitably lead to proletarian revolution. It’s 160 years since he wrote these essays about France, a long, long time. Reviewing those 160 years of history, and the events of our day – how ‘capitalism’ has survived two catastrophic world wars and the 70-year opposition of a huge communist bloc of countries, and continues to survive major global banking crises and depressions – makes you suspect that maybe the world will just stick in capitalist mode for the foreseeable future, until environmental calamity rewrites the rules of our tenure on planet earth.

Maybe there only is a capitalist mode; maybe there simply isn’t any viable alternative. Corrupt and cruel though ‘capitalism’ routinely, is, maybe this is the only way humans can manage to have industrialised societies. All the evidence of the past 160 years points that way.

The same thought is prompted by the gaggle of shorter pieces at the end of the book. Take his optimistic piece on the Chartists which predicted that the extension of universal suffrage would be the precursor to ‘the political supremacy of the working class’. Well… no.

Or the piece entitled Agitation Against the Sunday Trading Bill, where Marx optimistically describes a now long-forgotten mass protest in Hyde Park as the moment when ‘the English revolution began’. Er… nope. As Fernbach candidly comments:

Marx was never able to get to the root of the peculiarities of the British state (p.20)

an admission which arguably undermines his entire achievement, since Britain was the leading economic and technological power in the world.

What Marx couldn’t understand is why the most advanced capitalist nation on earth had no standing army and a relatively small bureaucracy, so that power was diffused to a thousand localities and actors – so very unlike the militarised Prussian state of his youth, and the centralised government of France.

Fernbach explains that the settlement of 1688, after the Glorious Revolution, established a closer connection, a collaboration, between landed aristocracy, merchant adventurers, and (100 years later) industrial factory owners, than existed anywhere on the continent. In Germany and France the new industrial bourgeoisie had to fight hard to win any power from the obstructive feudal landowners and an aristocratic reaction. In England, the Glorious Revolution prepared the way for a century of agricultural, commercial and imperial growth: new money slotted seamlessly into old, no bourgeois revolution (such as fizzled out in France in 1848 and never had chance to take place in Germany) was required.

After the failure of the Chartist campaign of 1848, labour leaders put their energy into developing model trade unions and settling disputes on a case by case basis. When it became clear that these unions presented no threat to the powers-that-be, the franchise was widened in 1867 and again in 1884 and the English working classes proceeded to dutifully elect the existing political parties, the Tories or Liberals.

Instead of growing into an unstoppable opposition to the bourgeois state, the English proletariat assimilated (fairly) smoothly right into it. Fernbach quotes Engels writing rather despairingly to Marx:

The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie! (quoted on page 26)

Hopefully, this brief summary shows that Fernbach’s introduction is in many ways more useful than the rest of the book in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Marx as political analyst, and in going beyond Marx to give some really useful insights into British and European history.

Fernbach’s worldview

If Fernbach has a shortcoming it’s that he doesn’t write as an objective outsider, but as a devout follower of Marx, one who has drunk deep of the faith and is every bit as doctrinaire as the Master. He takes sides. He is as much against the capitalist and imperialists as Karl himself. This is Fernbach’s own voice, picking up on Marx and taking him further, teaching us, lecturing us:

Since every propertied minority must rely on the exploited masses to fight its battles for it, it can only exert political power by presenting its own particular interest as the interest of society in general. It is thus always necessary for the propertied classes to appear on the political stage in ideological disguise. (p.12)

While the worst years of reaction saw the steady maturation of Marx’s general theory, and his critique of bourgeois economics, his political theory made little progress compared with the heady developments of the 1848 period. Revolutionary political theory can only develop in response to the new problems and tasks raised by mass struggle, and this was completely lacking in Marx’s England. (p.19)

Fernbach clearly himself thinks that Marxism (or ‘dialectical materialism’) is the Truth and the Way. This makes his own explanations – such as the page explaining Marxist-Leninist thinking about imperialism (page 27) – very useful and informative. But it does result in some controversial moments which pull you up short.

In the most glaring example, Fernbach thinks that Czechoslovakia and East Germany were fortunate to have carried out their ‘socialist revolutions’ under the protective umbrella of the Soviet Union, and so managed to avoid being dominated by the capitalist West.

After the socialist revolution in Russia it became possible for countries that made anti-imperialist revolutions to escape from the tyranny of the world market, and industrialise within socialist relations of production. (p.27)

Compare and contrast this doctrinaire Marxist view with the detailed description of the takeover of East Germany by the Soviets in Anne Applebaum’s history, Iron Curtain, and the wretchedly repressive, Stasi-ruled society which resulted. I wonder if Fernbach is still alive. I wonder if he has repented his devoutly Marxist defences of the Soviet Union.

In summary, Fernbach lucidly explains what is important about the development of Marx’s theory as shown in these political writings from the 1850s, clarifies what is enduring about Marx’s insights and highlights their shortcomings – but we are constantly aware that his own perspective comes from a now antediluvian world.

Marx and his followers are:

  • too clever and right about some things (the economic base of any society, the technological innovativeness, the radical cultural and political impact of capitalism) to dismiss
  • but too profoundly wrong in all their ‘scientific’ predictions (Britain teetering on brink of communist revolution in 1860) to take seriously
  • and their social theories proved so catastrophically wrong when put into practice in Russia, China and the rest of the communist world, that is is impossible not to feel periodic bouts of nausea and horror at the casual way Marx dismisses entire classes and groups of people

Sixty years later entire classes and groups of people would start to be dismissed with bullets and mass starvation by the tyrants he had directly inspired.


Related links

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Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

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

Communism in France

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

Communism in England

Surrealism by Cathrin Klingsöhr-Leroy (2004)

SURREALISM. Noun: Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, or otherwise, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral considerations. (First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924)

One of German publisher Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ movement series, this 95-page, mid-size art book starts with a handy ten-page introduction, complete with funky timeline of historical events (e.g. 1913 – world’s first domestic refrigerator sold in Chicago!).

The main body of the text consists of 34 double-page spreads, each one displaying a major Surrealist painting on the right, and a page of commentary about the artist – with their biography, photo and interpretation of the work – on the left-hand page.

The artists are presented alphabetically, not chronologically, so the commentary on them and their pictures jumps about a bit in time and space, in a pleasantly random, surreal kind of way. They are:

  • Hans Arp (1 painting)
  • Hans Bellmer (1)
  • Brassaï (1 photo)
  • Giorgio de Chirico (2)
  • Salvador Dalí (5)
  • Paul Delvaux (1)
  • Max Ernst (4)
  • Alberto Giacometti (1)
  • Paul Klee (1)
  • Wifredo Lam (1)
  • René Magritte (4)
  • André Masson (1)
  • Matta (1)
  • Joan Miró (3)
  • Meret Oppenheim (1)
  • Pablo Picasso (4)
  • Man Ray (1 photograph)
  • Yves Tanguy (2 paintings)

From which Dalí emerges as the single biggest contributor to the Surrealist ‘look’.

Like other books on the subject, the excellent introduction has problems defining precisely what Surrealism was, because its definitions, ideas and embodiments changed and evolved over the key years between the First Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and the outbreak of war in 1939.

From this account I took that Surrealism is ‘a philosophical and artistic approach which vehemently rejects the notion of the Rational Mind and all its works’. For Surrealists, the True Mind, true human nature – ‘the true function of thought’ – is profoundly irrational.

The Surrealists thought the Rational Mind formed the basis of ‘bourgeois’ society, with its moral and sexual repressiveness, its worship of work and money, its fetishisation of capitalist greed which had led both to the stifling conformity of Western society and to a series of petty wars over colonies which had led up to the unprecedented calamity of the First World War.

In their opinion, this entire mindset had proved to be a ghastly mistake. The Surrealists thought we had to reject it lock stock and barrel by returning to the pure roots of human nature in the fundamentally irrational nature of the human mind, liberating thought from all censorship and superficial, petty morality, seeking to capture ‘the true function of thought’ and creativity through the exploration of the fortuitous and the uncontrolled, the random and the unexpected, through dreams and coincidences.

The first Surrealist magazine was titled La Révolution surréaliste (1924 to 1929) not because it espoused a communist political line, but because it thought that Surrealist writing and art would, by its very nature, reveal to readers and viewers the true nature of unbounded thought and lead to a great social transformation.

Strategies of Surrealist writers

The writers who initiated the movement (André Breton, Louis Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos) tried to get at and reveal ‘the true function of thought’ using a number of strategies.

Free association In 1919 Breton and Soupault spent days taking it in turns to free associate words and sentences, while the other scribbled down the results – producing monologues ‘without any intervention on the part of the critical faculties, a monologue unencumbered by the slightest inhibition’. The results were published in 1920 in a work of ‘fiction’, The Magnetic Fields, the first Surrealist text.

Automatic writing Later, in the mid-1920s, they experimented with the ability to go into a sort of trance or half-asleep state and then write the mind’s thoughts, similarly ‘unencumbered by inhibition’. The poet Robert Desnos turned out to be the best at this – he could put himself into a trance-like, sleep-like state but nonetheless write reams of text – to everyone’s amazement. There are photos of him doing it.

Transcribing the mad Breton was a trainee doctor and towards the end of the war worked with shell shocked soldiers, some of whom had gone completely mad. With this experience and training, it’s odd that he didn’t pursue the ravings of the mad in greater detail during the 1920s. Even Freud was forced to amend his theories in light of the universal incidence of shell shock, post traumatic stress disorder and so on among Great War soldiers. So it’s genuinely surprising that there isn’t more about war and madness in Surrealism (certainly as I’ve come across it). Compare and contrast with the war art of the Germans Otto Dix or George Grosz.

Paranoiac-critical method It was left to Salvador Dalí, who only joined the movement in the late 1920s, to undertake a (sort of) exploration of madness. Dalí exploited his own florid psychological issues – hysteria, panic attacks, delusions – into a system he grandly titled the ‘Paranoiac-critical method’. It was never exactly clear what he meant by this, but one definition he gave defined it as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.’

In practice this meant cultivating a state of mind in which he was open to the multiple meanings of objects, receptive to visual puns, where one object turns into another object which turns into another object, presenting a kind of vertigo of endless transmutations.

Maybe the most famous example is the image of melting clocks. This came to him at the end of a dinner as he sat watching the cheese board and some super-ripe camembert cheeses drooping and oozing over the edge of the plate. In a flash he saw clock faces, melting clock faces, in the round cheeses, and rushed home to paint them. (At least, that’s the story he tells in his often unreliable memoirs.)

(I hadn’t realised till I read this book that the slug-like thing on the floor of this famous painting is a self-portrait. If you rotate the image through 45 degrees you can see Dalí’s big nose pointing to the left and that the fringe of hairs are the eyelashes of his closed eye. This ‘self-portrait as a slug’ appears in a number of early paintings – look out for the eyelashes.)

Strategies of Surrealist painters

We know that the artists who joined the group at first struggled to compete with the ‘pure’ automatism of  their writer colleagues. After all the ability to free associate words and text is a pretty cheap and easy technique, difficult to replicate with oil paints and palettes and brushes.

Automatic drawing Early member André Masson simply free-associated his drawings, letting his pen wander over the surface of paper or canvas, drawing inconsequential lines, dots and squiggles. Many of these were saved and recorded but it’s hard to get too excited by them.

Interesting up to a point but you can see how after a certain number of these, you might get bored. Is this all the Unconscious had to say?

Collage Max Ernst was a member of the Cologne Dada group when he discovered the hallucinatory power of cutting up graphic elements from newspapers, magazines, adverts and so on and sticking them together in strange combinations.

A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

Illustration from A week of kindness by Max Ernst (1934)

More than letting the pen or brush wander at random, it is this idea of the bizarre yoking together of elements from different spheres, realms or discourses, the notion of strange and unexpected combinations, which lies at the heart of Surrealist art. (The art of jarring juxtapositions is a technique Dalí would bring to a kind of cartoon, fluent perfection in Surrealist objects like the famous lobster telephone (1936)).

Max Ernst emerges as the most prolific innovator among Surrealist artists: he went on to develop a number of other techniques designed either to remove the artist from the process of creation, or to fully incorporate elements of chance and randomness – both with the aim of getting at ‘the true function of thought’:

  • frottage – The technique of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art. In frottage, the artist takes a pastel or pencil or other drawing tool and makes a rubbing over an uneven surface. The drawing can be left as it is or used as the basis for further refinement.
  • grattage – Laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping the paint off to create an interesting and unexpected surface.
  • decalcomania – Applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern, then turning the resulting patterns into landscapes and mythical creatures. A kind of Rorshach diagram, with elaborations.

Biomorphic shapes Much Surrealist art uses existing objects and motifs from the real world, albeit placed in unexpected combinations, but there developed a whole sub-set of Surrealist art which explored shapes and patterns for their own sake, creating a whole new visual vocabulary of the strange and uncanny. Klingsöhr-Leroy says this type of exploration distinguishes the first wave of Surrealist painters – Masson, Miró, Arp and Tanguy.

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Azure Day by Yves Tanguy (1937)

Dreamlike serenity Although the writers often invoked ‘revolution’, ‘overthrow’ and ‘violence’, there is a whole strand of Surrealist art which is the exact opposite, creating a dreamlike sense of stasis. Think of the mysterious empty cityscapes of de Chirico, the somnambulistic people in Paul Delvaux or the apparently relaxed way the figures in Magritte paintings blankly accept the oddest apparitions.

Klingsöhr-Leroy Cathrin says dream paintings are more characteristic of the painters who joined the movement later on, like Magritte and Dalí. And contrary to all Surrealism’s revolutionary rhetoric, many of these works were, by the time I was growing up in the 1970s if not before, best-selling posters, calm and bright and pretty on the walls of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The ‘Second Surrealist Manifesto’ of 1929 was a lot fiercer in tone. I’ve read various reasons for this, including Breton’s growing involvement with Communism or his own personal life being in disarray. It notoriously accompanied the expulsion of a number of writers from the movement, angrily denouncing them for abandoning the cause.

But, on the positive side, it also expanded the movement’s terms of reference by namechecking medieval alchemists, drawing a parallel between their arcane quests for knowledge and the Surrealist investigations. And it introduced a distinct new idea, that of exploring ‘the Surreal object’ – using art or writing to reveal ‘the remarkable symbolic life of quite ordinary, mundane objects’.

Hence Magritte’s apples. What could be more normal? Or, in the way he deploys them, more disturbing?

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte (1946)

Naked women Coming from the generation born around 1900, all these men had been brought up in a traditional Roman Catholic society which was staggeringly repressive about sex.

When they looked for the aspect of ‘bourgeois’ society which would be easiest to provoke, or when they delved into themselves to try and identify their deepest unconscious urges, or when they read any of Freud’s numerous writings about the Unconscious – everywhere they looked, the Surrealists tended to find sex sex sex.

Hence, the most tiresome element of Surrealism, which is the endless images of naked women. I thought sex-mad Dalí would be the most guilty party, until I came across a trove of beautifully executed nudes by Magritte.

For all of them the female body, depicted realistically, or chopped up, or morphing into abstract shapes, was a constant source of inspiration. Should it be? If feminists had their way, would male artists be allowed to charge the female body with all kinds of ‘profound’ meanings, as the repository of ‘fertility’, ‘sensuality’, ‘sexuality’, ‘mystery’, ‘consolation’, ‘depravity’ – all the hackneyed attributes of the famous madonna-whore complex, plus many more?

It’s partly the tedium of looking at yet another pair of bare boobs which draws me to more abstract artists like Paul Klee. He had a vast amount of beautiful, strange ideas to express, and not a bosom in sight.

Primitivism In a way it’s surprising that there isn’t more evidence of ‘primitivism’ in Surrealist art i.e. the use of images and motifs from the supposedly more ‘primitive’ cultures of Africa or Oceania. According to Sue Roe’s book In Montmartre, there’s some debate about who introduced it, but the taste for African and Oceanic fetishes and statues appears to have appeared around 1905.

So by 1925 it was a very well established genre, with most artists having ‘primitive’ masks scattered about among the other bric-a-brac in their studios. But looking at some of the images in this book the main conclusion is that the cult of weird faces and masks had become so diverse that, by the 1930s and 40s, it is difficult to tell where ‘primitivism’ ended and a kind of science fiction weirdness began (the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in 1926).

The Surrealist Revolution?

How tiresome modern artists and modern art experts are with their persistence in thinking that modern art ‘undermines’ or ‘subverts’ ‘bourgeois’ values.

It’s hard for us, nowadays, to recreate just what the ‘bourgeoisie’ ever meant. The word derives from mid-19th century France. Are we to think of the narrow-minded townsfolk in novels by Flaubert or Zola? Men who shave, dress ‘correctly’, have sensible jobs as doctors and lawyers and bankers?

Looking at all the photos of Surrealist artists in this book, one of the main visual impressions is how very smart and shaved and formal they themselves look, often in a nice suit, with white shirt and dark tie. Living in 2018 London packed with stubbly dudes with nose piercings carrying huge backpacks, it’s difficult to imagine these ancient respectable looking men ever subverting anything.

It’s very hard to recapture ‘the shock of the new’ so long afterwards. The 1930s when Surrealist artworks began to be widely exhibited, were 20 years after Cubism had ‘shocked the world’, getting on for 30 years since the Fauves scandalised Paris, 40 years since Symbolist and decadent art upset newspaper columnists. Way back in the 1860s Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe ‘scandalised’ Paris.

You have to wonder who these people are, who keep on being scandalised by modern art. Hadn’t they read about the previous scandal? And the one before that? And the one before that?

Klingsöhr-Leroy tells an anecdote about when the Surrealist gang broke up a literary banquet being held in honour of the rather conventional poet Saint-Pol-Roux at the Closerie des Lilas bar on 2 July 1925. Tables were overturned, crockery broken, the gang chanted ‘anti-bourgeois’ slogans, blows were exchanged. She goes on to comment:

The incident is characteristic of the Surrealists’ anarchic and anti-bourgeois attitudes. Their actions were an attack on the established bourgeois order, designed to undermine all that was generally accepted and revered by respectable society. (p.17)

Really? A punch-up in a café? Undermining the whole of bourgeois society? I don’t think so, and the fact that, 80 years later, Klingsöhr-Leroy thinks this, undermines your confidence in her sense of history or perspective. Choosing a punch-up in a bar as an outstanding example of their ‘anarchic and anti-bourgeois’ values somehow reduces the whole movement to a set of schoolboy pranks.

In fact the the Surrealists’ ‘anarchic’ and ‘anti-bourgeois’ behaviour and attitude sound like basic, standard undergraduate high jinks to me, precisely the kind of ‘wild’ behaviour that is expected of upper or upper-middle-class ‘rebels’ and bohemians, wild and crazee artists (all men, of course) who, in the final analysis, depend on money and connections (or in the Surrealists’ case) on rich patrons and rich buyers, to bail them out.

The connection between money and art was one of the messages of Sue Roe’s gossipy book about Picasso and Matisse, In Monmartre, set in the 1900s and explaining how the competition between the two Great Men of Modern Art was not only to find new artistic avenues of expression but, just as importantly, to curry favour with rich collectors and influential dealers. By 1910 both Picasso and Matisse had good working relationships with both and began to flourish.

In her book, Surreal Lives, Ruth Brandon writes a simple and devastating sentence which ought to be inscribed at the entrance to every modern art gallery in the world and tattooed on the forehead of every modern art scholar and curator.

Art is a luxury product, and artists rely for their living on rich patrons. (p.326)

I’ve known about Luis Buñuel’s ‘subversive’ early films Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or for forty years or more, but it was only when I read Brandon’s book that I learned about the key role played in funding them by the wealthy French aristocrat Arthur Anne Marie Charles, Vicomte de Noailles. According to Wikipedia:

Charles financed Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929), which centers around Villa Noailles in Hyères. He also financed Jean Cocteau’s film Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s L’Âge d’Or (1930). In 1930 Charles made possible the career of Dalí by purchasing in advance a large work for 29,000 francs, thus enabling Dalí and Gala to return from Paris to Port Lligat and devote themselves to his art.

The take-home from these books is that art – no matter how ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ – depends on rich patrons to make it possible. Radical art may upset conservative newspapers and, through them, the great philistine middle classes. But it doesn’t ‘subvert society’; the opposite: it is the plaything of the rich.

There is more ‘radical’ art about than ever before in the history of the world, and yet finance capitalism has never been more entrenched and powerful.

Because their art revelled in images of sex and death, because they behaved like spoilt schoolboys, because they were sponsored by aristocrats, and because they had absolutely no understanding of the fatal consequences of revolutionary politics, it is difficult to disagree with the Soviet Commissar who pointed out that Surrealism itself represented ‘the ultimate degeneration of the French bourgeoisie’ i.e. the complete opposite of the values Breton claimed for it.

 

In any case, the Surrealists soon recognised the essentially luxury nature of their output. Just six years later, in 1933, the group launched a new, glossy Surrealist magazine, Minotaur. It was limited to 3,000 copies, intended for connoisseurs and collectors only and, as the Hungarian photographer Brassaï put it, was priced far

beyond the reach of proletarian purses and could only serve a milieu of rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works. (quoted page 23)

‘Rich, titled snobs, the first patrons and collectors of Surrealist works.’ Precisely. Dalí grasped this from the start and went to America to become rich – which is why the others came to loathe him. Like Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in later generations, he realised that the best art is business. In fact art is a form of business, it’s just another specialist provider of luxury objects to the rich.

The artistic legacy

Surrealist art didn’t overthrow anything, but its explorations and experiments opened the way for an entirely new visual language to be created, for loads of individual masterpieces, styles and looks to be developed, which filtered through into all aspects of design, fashion, advertising, film and TV.

It became an imaginative climate where we still, to a large extent, live, strangely appropriate for the increasingly disjointed and technology-driven lives of the 20th century Western world.

Having read so much about the earnestness and seriousness with which Breton set up his Institute of Surrealist Research, with which he and colleagues carried out their automatic writing and painting and so on – I wonder if the movement made any lasting scientific discoveries. Are psychologists, linguists or experts in perception and cognition aware of any lasting scientific facts which came out of this explosion of ideas and researches into the unconscious workings of the mind, about language and images and the unconscious?

Or was it all an enormous, delightful, argumentative and hugely influential but, in scientific terms, inconsequential game?


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Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917-45 by Ruth Brandon (1999)

Surrealism is not a new or better means of expression, not even a metaphysic of poetry; it is a means of total liberation of the mind. (Surrealist declaration, January 1925, quoted page 233)

Born in 1943, Ruth Brandon will turn 75 this year. She’s written four novels and seven biographies of figures from the turn of the century (Houdini, Sarah Bernhardt). This big book (524 pages) is a long, detailed and very accessible account of the origins, rise and spread of the Surrealist movement, from its sources in the Great War through the 1920s and 30s when it was, arguably, the dominant art movement in Western Europe.

However, Surreal Lives is, as the title suggests, more a story about the people than about their writings or art. And when it does touch on the latter, it’s mostly about the writing than the paintings. Around page 325 Brandon briefly refers to the core Surrealist painters – Jean Arp, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, Joan Miro – and I realised that we’d heard almost nothing about them in the preceding pages.

No, the central thread of the book is the life and career of the ‘pope’ of Surrealism, the writer, poet, critic and organiser, André Breton. Each of the nine longish chapters focuses on a key figure in the history of Surrealism – the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire who first coined the word ‘Surrealism’, joint founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara, inventor of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp, Breton’s partner in crime the poet Louis Aragon, the Catalan phenomenon Salvador Dalí – but the text always reverts back to their effect on Breton, their threat to Breton, how Breton managed them, alienated them, dismissed them from the movement, and so on.

Along the way we meet plenty of colourful characters, such as the the experimental writer Raymond Roussel, Breton’s close friend Jacques Vaché who committed suicide aged just 25, the American photographer Man Ray, the millionaire socialite Nancy Cunard (who had an affair with Aragon), the domineering Gala Eluard who became Salvador Dali’s lifelong muse and protrectress, the young psychiatrist Jacques Lacan whose collaboration with the Surrealists made his name and who went on to become one of the most influential French intellectuals of his day. All these and many more.

The book is full of stories of scandalous behaviour, passionate affairs, casual sex, drug addiction, madness and suicide, in the best bohemian manner (I was particularly struck by the ‘open marriage’ of Paul and Gala Eluard, both of them enjoying multiple partners. It blossomed into a ménage à trois with the painter Max Ernst, and I enjoyed the anecdote of the three of them travelling to Rome to lure the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico into the Surrealist camp, using Gala as bait. All four of them went to bed together, though de Chirico later said he didn’t enjoy it, and he didn’t join the movement.)

But, as I’ve mentioned, in its focus on the writers, on their manifestos, questionnaires, articles and reviews, their letters and diaries, Surreal Lives tends to be very text-based and so doesn’t shed much light on the art of Surrealism (the first Surrealist exhibition, La Peinture Surrealiste, was held at Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1925 and I don’t think Brandon mentions it.)

This reflects the historical reality, since Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement, founded by three poets (Breton, Aragon and Philippe Soupault) and dedicated to writing volumes of verse, manifestos, publishing a succession of magazines (La Révolution surréaliste 1924-29, Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution 1930-33, Minotaure 1933-39), and so on.

It was only towards the end of the 1920s that the Surreal painters came to prominence – in 1928 Breton wrote Surrealism and painting to reflect this. But it was especially with the arrival of Salvador Dali in their midst in 1929 that the visual arts side of the movement began to vie with the writing and then, arguably, dominate it.

So Brandon’s focus on the writers doesn’t really reflect the Surrealist legacy as we experience it today. Most of the Surrealist writings have disappeared, a lot was ephemeral anyway, a lot was never translated into English.

Instead Surrealism’s enduring impact has been via the bizarre and striking paintings of Dali, Max Ernst, Magritte and many others. The Surrealist heritage is almost entirely visual and Brandon doesn’t have a lot to say about the visual arts (or sculpture). The only visual artist she describes in any detail is Dalí (although the chapter about him is actually about the trio of talented Spaniards, Dalí, Luis Buñuel the film-maker and the poet Frederico García Lorca).

I can imagine a completely different book which would cover the exact same period of time, but focus on the relationships between Arp, Miro, Masson, Tanguy and so on, trying to clarify their relationship to the artists who came before them and how they thought of and interpreted ‘surrealism’. None of that is here.

For this reason, and because the influence of Surrealism becomes considerably more diffuse in the 1930s, with a bewildering cast of hangers-on, artists and writers all showing its burgeoning influence – I felt the first half of the book was the most compelling. I particularly enjoyed the detailed description of the character and importance of Apollinaire, of Duchamp’s trips to New York and his early friendship with Man Ray, and the riveting account of Dadaism which, for the first time, really explained the origin and history of that movement to me, made it real in terms of the people and personalities involved.

I’ve known the names of many of these people – Tzara, Aragon – for decades. Brandon’s book for the first time brought them vividly, fascinatingly, to life. It’s a great read.

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray

Left to right: Tristan Tzara, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Hans Arp, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Crevel, Man Ray (Paris, 1930)

I made brief notes on the first four chapters or so, before my review began to feel too long. For what it’s worth, here they are:

1. A bas Guillaume

We start with Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, writer and art critic who was gifted with an uncanny sense for the new and important, who had championed cubism in the early 1910s and is here because of his role as patron to the young and ambitious André Breton, the humourless bully who would become the pope of Surrealism. Apollinaire encouraged Breton and introduced him to the other ‘musketeers’ of the movement, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault. And it was Apollinaire who coined the world ‘Surrealist’, in a review of Parade, an avant-garde show put on by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, premiered in May 1917, based on a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau set to music (and experimental noises) by Erik Satie. Cocteau had himself described the ballet as ‘realistic’ but, with its experimental music and highly stylised costumes, Apollinaire described Parade as sur-realistic, the French word ‘sur’ meaning on or above. Above-realism. Beyond-realism.

This new alliance – I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds – has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress.

As with all the other characters in the story – Duchamp, Tzara, Dali and so on – this is a very personal history and Brandon gives full descriptions of the characters’ height and build, their faces, eyes, mannerisms, ways of speaking, their charisma and presence. The aim is on getting to know these people, feeling as if you were being introduced to them at a party. Brandon deals with their theories about literature and art as they emerge from the personalities, but is thankfully lacking in the jargon-heavy theoretical interpretations of an art scholar like the feminist, Whitney Chadwick. It’s a people-first account.

The most remarkable event in the remarkable man’s life was that, despite being the doyen of the avant-garde, he made strenuous attempts to volunteer for the French Army (despite being Polish by birth) and surprised everyone by loving the Army and fighting bravely. He was invalided out in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head, but died suddenly of the Spanish flu which swept the world in 1918.

2. The death of art

The next chapter focuses on the life and early career of Marcel Duchamp. Since reading the World of Art account of Duchamp by Dawn Ades and Neil Cox I have a much better sense of the overall shape and purpose of Duchamp’s career. It’s very interesting to have loads of details added in about his time in New York during the War, how he made fast friends with the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Emmanuel Radnitzky, soon to be known as Man Ray, and also the bull-like connoisseur of fast living and high life, Francis Picabia.

They got to know the circle around the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his art gallery and magazine, titled ‘291.’ Duchamps was invited to stay in the vacant apartment of business millionaire Walter Arensberg, who became a lifelong patron and sponsor. The descriptions of the drunken parties they attended, of drunken debauchery, through which shine Duchamp’s icy detachment, his addiction to chess and bad puns, are all super-readable.

Brandon takes the incident when Duchamp’s wonderful Nude descending a staircase was rejected by the organisers of the 1912 Cubist Salon des Indépendants as the moment when Duchamp decided to abandon painting with oils on canvas (which he didn’t enjoy doing, anyway). Duchamp vowed to abandon ‘retinal art’, which appeals only to the eye, and try and evolve an art of the mind, founding – in the process – the idea of ‘conceptual art’.

3. The celestial adventure of M. Tristan Tzara

Next we jump to Zurich during the Great War where I found Brandon’s account of the birth of Dada extremely illuminating. She describes how a disparate gang of emigre artists (Emmy Hennings [Germany], Tristan Tzara [Romania], Jean Arp [Alsace], Marcel Janco [Romania], Richard Huelsenbeck [Germany], Sophie Taeuber [Switzerland] and Hans Richter [German]) crystallised around the tall blonde figure of Hugo Ball, who founded the Cabaret Voltaire in February 1916.

Here they staged their epoch-making anarchic, nonsensical performances, shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones or to the accompaniment of a bass drum, wearing cardboard costumes, playing random instruments, packed with schoolboy pranks and silliness. The Cabaret had been going for several months before they came up with the word Dada, precisely who was responsible and what it means continuing to be a subject of argument to this day. Anti-art, anti-reason and logic, anti-bourgeois, anti everything which had led to this slaughterous war.

While Zurich was a kind of playground of irresponsible émigrés, Berlin at the end of the war witnessed the collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire (November 1918) leading to street fighting between Communists and police and army militias to decide the future of the country (featuring the notorious murder of the Communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919). Berlin Dada was founded by John Heartfeld, the inventor of photomontage, and the satirical painter George Grosz.

The fiercely political Richard Huelsenbeck had argued with Tzara back in Zurich – Tzara saw Dada as a new movement which would propel him to superstar status in the European art world, whereas Huelsenbeck saw it as a tool in the life or death struggle for Europe’s political future. ‘Dada is German communism,’ he said, simply.

Tzara proved himself the most feverishly active of the Zurich Dadaists, pouring out provocative manifestos, sending out invitations to contribute to Dada magazine to all the avant-garde artists he’d heard of anywhere in Europe, so that Duchamp, Picabia et al got roped in. His invitations found their way to Apollinaire, and so on to his acolyte Breton, along with wartime pals Louis Aragon and his closest friend Soupault. The ‘three musketeers’ invited him to Paris.

Brandon gives a hilarious account of the anticipation on both sides as they waited for the Great God of Dada to make his pilgrimage to Paris – only to be seriously disillusioned by the short, dark, nervous figure who materialised.

4. Dada comes to Paris

The three very young friends, Breton, Aragon and Soupault, had already published the first number of their magazine Littérature, in Paris in March 1919, with financial help from the grand old man of letters, André Gide. In 1920 they published a joint work by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), the result of days of ‘automatic writing’, unfiltered and set down just as it came to them.

Although they tried to muster enthusiasm for madcap Tzara and his notion of Dada happenings, the Parisians are depicted as more intellectual, detached and sceptical than the original Dada gang.

It turned out that Dada was a product of the unique war-time conditions in Zurich, of a mood of hysteria amid the bloodshed. Post-war Paris on the contrary, quickly returned to being a battlefield only of avant-garde sophisticates, determined not to be impressed. Jean Cocteau, refused a place on the editorial board of Littérature, complained in his new journal that the Dada events were boring. He complained that ‘not a single Dada has killed himself or even a member of the audience.’ Dull, eh.

It began to be clear that Paris Dada might shock the bourgeoisie – or those members who bothered to turn up to their rather tame happenings – but not many of the over-sophisticated Paris élite. What next?Brandon pinpoints this as the crux: Dada didn’t lead anywhere because it wasn’t meant to lead anywhere, it was against the whole idea of leading anywhere. But the Paris contingent thought it should lead somewhere.

They had been experimenting with ‘automatic writing’ just before Tzara arrived, and Brandon gives a fascinating account of what that meant in practice, namely the poet Robert Desnos, who had the ability to be put into a trance or half sleep and then write, actually write poems, while in this dream state.

Tzara’s arrival led to several years of Dadaist outrages, performances and feverish manifestos, few of which had the drive to really épater les bourgeoisie. It was after one particularly disappointing performance in 1923 that the group and its various hangers-on and associates made the decisive split which led to the founding of a new movement, named by Breton ‘Surrealism’, after the word Apollinaire had introduced seven years earlier.

And so, in June 1924 the final edition of the Dada-era Littérature appeared; and in December 1924, the first edition of La Révolution surréaliste was published, inaugurating the first phase of Surrealism (p.229).

The word ‘revolution’was used right from the start but, as Brandon points out, at this stage none of the Surrealists were politically revolutionary; the revolution they had in mind was purely cultural and all they really knew about it was that it would involve dreams.

‘Only dreams offer man real liberty’ (quoted page 230).

They set up a ‘Bureau de recherches surréalistes’ at 15 Rue de Grenelles, opening hours 4.30 to 6.30, in order to ‘gather all the information possible related to forms that might express the unconscious activity of the mind’. Breton liked questionnaires. Littérature contained many, La Révolution surréaliste even more.

Other themes

That’s a thumbnail summary of the first 230 or so of the book’s 458 pages of text, taking us up to about 1925. The rest of the book continues in the same vein: introducing new characters as they arrive on the scene, with long chapters devoted to Louis Aragon, Buñuel and Dali, and so on.

Apart from the lengthy excursions into the private lives and writings of these lead figures (the chapter on Aragon was particularly interesting in explaining the appeal of his early lyrical poetry and prose [Paysan de ParisTraité du style 1928, and Irene’s Cunt] and how this airy fluency was squeezed out of him by Breton’s fiercely policed movement – Breton banned novels and lyrical writing from the movement, two things Aragon excelled at – in September he made an attempt at suicide) I’d say three big themes emerge in the rest of the book:

1. The pope of Surrealism

The steel grip Breton exerted in ‘his’ movement in a whole host of ways, including kangaroo courts which held ‘trials’ of anyone accused of betraying Surrealist values or bucking Big Breton’s authority. The first of many were his old colleague Philippe Soupault and radical dramatist Antonin Artaud, expelled after a ‘hearing’ into their crimes, in November 1926. In 1929 a dissident group of Surrealists based round the writer Georges Bataille began publishing a rival magazine, DOCUMENT. In its nihilism Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1929 reflects the bitterness of these schisms, plus the turmoil in his own personal life. This is the one which contains the notorious line that the most Surrealistic act conceivable would be to run out into the street with a loaded gun and start firing at passersby (p.265).

Writers who were expelled from the ‘movement’ and who often took their revenge in vituperative criticism of Breton, included Robert Desnos (him of the automatic writing experiments), the pornographic fantasist George Bataille, experimental writers Raymond Queneau and Michael Leiris and, in the deepest cut of all, his closest compadre, Louis Aragon. In 1931 Breton went ahead and published criticism of the way French Communist Party officials had given Aragon the third degree over a piece of pornography by Salvador Dali which was published in the fourth number of the magazine Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Aragon had begged him not to include criticism of the Party, to which he was becoming passionately attached. Breton did so anyway, and the one-time musketeers never spoke again.

2. The impact of Dalí

How the arrival of Dali, and to a lesser extent Bunuel, at the end of the 1920s, was a much-needed shot in the arm to a movement which was running out of steam. Dali not only crystallised his own peculiar style of painting in the early 1930s but helped to cement a Surrealist visual identity, the one posterity now remembers it by. Brandon’s extended chapter about Dali, Buñuel and Lorca is absolutely riveting on everything from the backward culture of 1920s Spain, through their collaboration on the famous Surrealist movies Le Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to the collapse of Buñuel’s fortunes during the Second World War just as Dali was rising to fame and fortune in America.

And the stories about their bizarre sex lives. According to Dali Lorca was in love with him and tried to sodomise him on two occasions. However, Dali was not gay although he was not exactly a ‘normal’ heterosexual, being obsessed with masturbation and voyeurism. The closes Lorca could get to having sex with Dali, who he was obsessed with, was by hiring a (flat-chested and therefore boyish) woman, who he had sex with while Dali watched. It’s worth buying the book for this extraordinary chapter alone.

Dalí dominates the story till the end of the book. the final chapter relates the opposite fortunes of Dali and Breton who were both compelled to spend the Second World War in new York. Dalí thrived, gaining enormous publicity through a series of ever-giddier publicity stunts. He was on the front cover of Time, he sold everything he painted and began to get seriously rich. Breton, in sharp contrast, refused to learn English, refused to give interviews, struggled to make a living delivering broadcasts on the French-language part the Voice of Liberty radio service.

Breton was disgusted that, for Americans, Dalí did succeed in becoming the face of Surrealism. The final pages in the book are devoted to a thought-provoking debate about who, in the end, had the most lasting legacy, Dalí the showman, or Breton the thinker and doctrinaire.

3. Surrealism and communism

In the later 1920s and then throughout the 1930s Breton’s rule became more dictatorial and more overtly political.

Breton’s relationship with the Communist Party of France was troubled (he was formally expelled from it in 1933) and fraught with paradox. He decided he wanted to put his movement at the service of the Party and the proletariat at precisely the moment – the late 1920s – when Stalin was cementing his grip on the Soviet Union, expelling Trotsky in 1928 and introducing the doctrine of Socialist Realism (in 1932).

Insisting that Surrealism was a revolutionary movement, and larding his manifestos with references to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but excluded from alliance with the official Soviet Party line, Breton sought out the leading exponent of World Revolution, travelling with his wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, to Mexico to meet Trotsky (staying as the guest of Diego Rivera’s former wife Guadalupe Marin), though even here, as Brandon shows, he couldn’t stop himself from lecturing Trotsky (of all people) just as he harangued all his colleagues back in Paris.

Surrealism’s relationship with Communism is a vast topic, the subject of countless books. It of course varied from one Surrealist writer and painter to another, and also varied with individuals over time. What comes over from the book is that their vexed and troubled relationship with Communism became more central to the movement in the 1930s. Whenever Communist commissars or officials of the French Communist Party appear in the narrative, it’s hard not to sympathise. Compared to the fratricidal stresses they were having to negotiate and the fraught power politics at the end of the 1930s, the Surrealists must have seemed like spoilt schoolboys.

Footnote – surreal suicide

Early in the Second World War Albert Camus wrote his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus to address what he saw as the most pressing issue facing intellectuals, the issue of suicide. The immediate context was France’s catastrophic defeat and occupation by Germany which, for many ordinary people, had overthrown all their values and made them wonder if there was any meaning or purpose in the universe.

But reading this book about often quite hysterical artists made me realise that quite a lot of Continental artists and writers were afflicted by suicidal thoughts between the wars. In fact Breton included the question ‘Suicide: Is It a Solution?’ in the very first issue of La Révolution surréaliste in 1925 (to which the Surrealist writer René Crevel had answered ‘Yes, it is most probably the most correct and most ultimate solution.’)

Later on, the writer Jacques Rigaut said: ‘Suicide should be a vocation… the most absurd of acts, a brilliant burst of fantasy, the ultimate unconstraint…’ (quoted page 375) before he, also, killed himself.

It sheds light on Camus’ work to read it against the wave of artistic suicides in the previous twenty years.

  • January 1919 Andre Breton’s bosom buddy Jacques Vaché takes an overdose of opium
  • December 1925 Russian and Soviet poet Sergei Yesenin hangs himself
  • July 1928 Greek poet Kostas Karyotakis shoots himself
  • September 1928 Louis Aragon takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but survives
  • November 1929 Surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut shoots himself through the heart
  • April 1930 Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky shoots himself through the heart
  • December 1931 American poet Vachel Lindsay poisons himself
  • March 1932 English artist Dora Carrington shoots herself
  • April 1932 American poet Hart Crane jumps overboard an ocean liner
  • December 1935 German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer Kurt Tucholsky takes an overdose
  • February 1937 Uruguayan playwright and poet Horacio Quiroga drinks a glass of cyanide
  • October 1938 Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni drowns himself
  • August 1941 Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself
  • September 1940 German literary critic and culture theorist Walter Benjamin took a morphine overdose
  • March 1941 English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, drowned herself
  • February 1942 Austrian novelist and playwright Stefan Zweig takes a barbiturate overdose

Read in this context, Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ seems like a belated attempt to catch up with and define a mood of nihilism which began during the Great War itself and became more oppressive during the 1930s well before France’s humiliating defeat.


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Nadja by André Breton (1928)

What was so extraordinary about what was happening in those eyes? What was it they reflected – some obscure distress and at the same time some luminous pride? (p.65)

Reading Ruth Brandon’s group biography of the Surrealists, Surrealist Lives, prompted me to track down this, the most famous work by the group’s domineering leader, the writer, poet, critic André Breton. It is, according to the blurb, ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’.

It is also a huge disappointment. After only a few pages I wanted it to hurry up and finish and was relieved to realise there are quite a few illustrations (44 in fact) which mercifully reduce the length of this tedious book, only 150 or so pages in the Penguin paperback edition, to under 110 pages of text.

It is not shocking or revolutionary or subversive. Nadja is characterised by:

  • a contorted prose style which makes it hard to understand
  • an inability to gather its thoughts into a coherent order
  • triviality and irrelevance of its examples
  • a dismaying heartlessness towards the young woman at its centre
  • Breton’s astonishingly humourless self-absorption

Part one

Nadja is in three parts. Part one jumps straight in with the most important subject in the world – Breton himself – in its opening sentence:

Who am I?

The answer relies on a French proverb which is not quoted in full or explained in a note, so we never learn what it is exactly, but which apparently involves the word ‘haunt’. This linguistic accident gives rise to a long disquisition on how the ghost of dead selves ‘haunt’ the current self, about how the ‘self’ can’t be defined in existing categories and so on – Breton rewording ideas about identity that had been discussed by Arthur Rimbaud 60 years earlier (‘je est un autre’, as Rimbaud famously wrote) and far more systematically by Sigmund Freud a generation earlier, in fact by lots of other writers.

Breton’s style is dry and airless, without any colour or (as mentioned) humour, convoluted and contorted, evincing a kind of academic self-importance. To say that Breton is a man who gives himself airs is an understatement.

Such reflections lead me to the conclusion that criticism, abjuring, it is true, its dearest prerogatives but aiming, on the whole, at a goal less futile than the automatic adjustment of ideas, should confine itself to scholarly incursions upon the very realm supposedly barred to it, and which, separate from the work, is a realm where the author’s personality, victimised by the petty events of daily life, expresses itself quite freely and often in so distinctive a manner. (p.13)

It’s all like that. It’s like reading concrete. It’s like drowning in a giant vat of glue. He means the artist’s personality is more important than the work – pretty much the opposite to the current point of view.

Part one moves on to a list of works which have moved Breton, with a predictable jog-trot through the accepted canon of proto-Surrealist writers – Rimbaud, de Sade, Lautreamont. It seamlessly moves on to discussing places in Paris, particular streets or statues or shop signs, which have strangely indefinably moved him, along with (to him) odd coincidences, like being able to predict where shops with particular names will be along a street, or bumping into someone at a theatre and later receiving a letter from them without realising it was the same person (Paul Eluard).

Only very slowly does it become clear that this section is ‘about’ what Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’. Apparently (and it’s only by reading the introduction to the book and the Wikipedia article about it that you can really understand this) the notion of significant coincidences was a key element in early Surrealism, along with ‘automatic writing’ and the importance of dreams. For the Surrealists they were all strategies or techniques for evading the mind’s rational ‘bourgeois’ constraints and tapping directly into our unconscious, into the true and deepest sources of human creativity.

Here’s an example of such a ‘petrifying coincidence’: On one of his dates with Nadja, she and Breton walk from the Place Dauphine to a bar called ‘the Dauphine’ and Breton points out that, when he and friends play the game of comparing each other to animals, more often than not he is compared to a dolphin (‘dauphin’ in French)! Not, maybe, that utterly earth-shattering.

It would be easier to understand what Breton was on about if he explained it lucidly – if there were some sentences early in part one describing what he’s trying to do (list spooky places and strange coincidences designed to help you appreciate the non-rational Surrealist worldview) – or if he could write simple clear declarative sentences. But he can’t.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who has a really bad stutter – quite quickly you find yourself willing them to just spit it out; you can see what they’re driving at and you just want to help them get over their crippling debility, which is obviously causing them agonies of frustration. Reading Breton is like that. He has got something to say but he seems cripplingly unable to express it.

And instead of the fluency he so sorely lacks, his prose displays a kind of roughshod, domineering quality, a determination to make himself heard, no matter how incoherent what he’s saying.

I must insist, lastly, that such accidents of thought not be reduced to their unjust proportions as faits-divers, random episodes, so that when I say, for instance, that the statue of Etienne Dolet on its plinth in the Place Maubert in Paris has always fascinated me and induced unbearable discomfort, it will not immediately be supposed that I am merely ready for psychoanalysis, a method I respect and whose present aims I consider nothing less than the expulsion of man from himself, and of which I expect other exploits than those of a bouncer. (p.24)

What?

The pope of Surrealism

Breton became known as the ‘pope’ of Surrealism for the iron control he exercised over the movement. He regularly staged trials and inquisitions into members who had in any way strayed from what he defined as the True Faith, which in practice meant dropping writers, poets or artists, if they disagreed with him (which almost all the other Surrealists did at one stage or another). This self-centred self-importance is on ample display in this book:

  • I must insist…
  • Which leads me to my own experience…
  • Nantes: perhaps, with Paris, the only city in France where I feel that something worth while can happen to me…
  • I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her…
  • Meanwhile, you can be sure of meeting me in Paris, of not spending more than three days without seeing me pass, toward the end of the afternoon, along the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle between the Matin printing office and the Boulevard Strasbourg. I don’t know why it should be precisely here that my feet take me…

Paradoxically, the technique of recording every dream, every strange coincidence, every funny feeling you have about a statue or a narrow alley somewhere in Paris, it all runs the risk of seeming very inconsequential. For example, Breton goes on to inform us that his favourite film is called The Grip of the Octopus, giving us several scenes from it which haunt his imagination – and then, unbelievably, by far the longest section of part one (six pages) is devoted to retelling the entire plot of a play he once saw, a thriller which leads up to the discovery of a child’s corpse in a cupboard, which was accompanied by a piercing scream which riveted him to his seat.

Similarly, we learn that reading Rimbaud in 1915 gave him an ‘extremely deep and vivid emotion’. That one day, years later, he was walking in the countryside in the rain when a strange woman fell into step beside him and asked if she could recite a Rimbaud poem to him. And then again, just recently, that he was at the Saint-Ouen flea market when he came across a copy of Rimbaud’s poems amidst the bric-a-brac, which had some hand-written poems among the pages. The book, and the poems, turn out to belong to the stall-keeper, a pretty young woman, who he namechecks. That’s it. It takes half a page to describe.

It’s only towards the end of this first part that Breton explains (in his convoluted way) that he has been trying to give us examples of what the Surrealists called ‘petrifying coincidences’ and explains a little about the non-rational world he thinks they open up for us.

I imagine he intended this to be a dazzling insight into his and the Surreal worldview. But instead it seems thumpingly banal and ineffectual. If this is it, if this is the basis of the entire Surrealist movement in art and literature – some places give you a spooky feeling, some coincidences feel eerie – then you can see why so very little of Surrealist literature has survived or been translated into English. It seems crushingly boring.

Part two – Nadja

This ham-fisted and disappointing insight into the worldview of Surrealism out of the way, part two is finally about the woman of the title. On page 63 Breton finally meets ‘Nadja’, bumping into her in the street. She’s an attractive young woman, who immediately engages him in intense conversation – about her work (about work in general, and ‘Freedom’), about her lover who jilted her, about her family. He is entranced by her candour.

If part one has done anything it has shown how Breton in effect melodramatises quite humdrum events and feelings into Great Insights Into the Unconscious. So it’s prepared us for the fact that Breton reacts to every tremble and hesitation from this strange young woman as if it physically touches his oh-so-precious sensibility.

She carried her head high, unlike everyone else on the sidewalk. And she looked so delicate she scarcely seemed to touch the ground as she walked. (p.64)

I met lots of young women like this at parties in my 20s and 30s, fey, sensitive and spiritual souls, bruised by the hard world, treated badly by beastly men, cramped by horrible jobs – women who are too good for this world, women quick to tell you how spiritual they are, how much they care about the environment, how they only live for their cats.

She is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvellously, for life! (p.90)

Breton presents his idealised portrait of a hauntingly sensitive young woman as being somehow new, when it struck me as being incredibly old, really really ancient, a timeworn Romantic cliché. 115 years earlier Lord Byron had written:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

and this story of a sensitive poet falling under the spell of a delicate young woman struck me as the opposite of innovative, new and interesting.

I’ve recently read descriptions of the Futurist Marinetti in 1912 yelling through a megaphone at tourists in Venice to burn the gondolas – that was funny and original. I’ve been reading about the madcap provocations of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists in Zurich, dressing up in cardboard costumes and reciting poetry to the beat of a bass drum. I keep reading about Marcel Duchamp exhibiting his famous urinal in 1917. All these are still startling, new and entertaining.

André Breton sitting in a café in Paris listening to a slightly unhinged young lady telling him about her boyfriend problems…. well… it just seemed incredibly dull and ordinary. And sentimental, Christ! he sounds like a puppyish teenager scribbling in his diary.

She told me her name, the one she had chosen for herself: ‘Nadja, because in Russian it’s the beginning of the world hope, and because it’s only the beginning.’ (p.66)

As you might well imagine it turns out that Nadja’s health is delicate, exactly like any number of beautiful poor young women in 19th century novels or Romantic operas. Nadja loves her mother (‘I love mother. I wouldn’t hurt her for anything in the world’). And – surprise – she’s no good with money.

In other words, Nadja comes across as more stupefyingly dull than words can convey. And yet the stolid humourless Breton seems to be endlessly moved by her tedious vapourings.

  • More moved than I care to show…
  • I am deeply moved…
  • This is one of the compliments that has moved me most in my life…

I couldn’t really believe the tone of fatuous self-importance which dominates the text and, for me, was epitomised when, towards the end of their first chat, strolling through the streets:

About to leave her, I want to ask one question which sums up all the rest, a question which only I could ever ask, probably, but which has at least once found a reply worthy of it: ‘Who are you?’ (p.71)

I have read and reread this, but Breton really seems to think that asking a stranger who he’s just met who she is, is a mark of genius, is ‘a question which only I could ever ask’.

Of course, he means it in a more poetic sense than you or I could ever mean it, because he is a POET. He is driving at a deeper enquiry into her soul and identity than just her name (which she’s already given us) and I suppose is referencing the ‘discussion’, if you can call it that, of identity with which he opened the book.

And she answers as only the sensitive young woman in a POET’s life could ever answer:

I am the soul in limbo. (p.71)

This is sentimental horseshit, and I am staggered at its sub-Romantic, pimply, teenage clichédness. Who would ever have predicted that ‘the most important and influential work to emerge from Surrealism’ would be so tiresomely ‘sensitive’ and boring.

The novels of Jean-Paul Sartre are infinitely more weird and disorienting than this. Nadja feels like the work of an immensely boring, utterly normal person trying to force himself into being interesting and sensitive and spooky – and the best he can come up with is ‘odd coincidences’ and an encounter with a slightly bonkers young woman. Really?

The encounters start as a diary of a sequence of days in October, going into detail about their meetings, conversations, wanderings round Paris over the course of a week or two.

Without any explanation the narrative then breaks into scattered memories of Nadja’s increasingly disconnected sayings, random phrases, fears of underground passages and of people watching her. It includes a series of pictures she scribbled on the back of postcards and scraps of paper which Breton takes as signs of uncanny genius, but which look like exactly the kind of pictures you or I might scribble on the back of postcards.

And then, suddenly, the narration pulls right back from Nadja. With sudden detachment Breton reports that he was told, ‘several months ago’, that Nadja was found raving in the hallway of her hotel and sent to a sanatorium.

You might have thought this would elicit quite a lot of concern about her, maybe a visit to the sanatorium, letters to get her released and so o. But no, instead it prompts a lengthy diatribe against psychiatry, Breton ranting against the power doctors have to deprive people of their freedom, in which he loses sight of Nadja altogether and instead imagines the fight that he, the Surrealist poet André Breton, would put up in an insane asylum, taking the first opportunity to murder a doctor and being locked up in solitary.

Brave words from bully boy Breton.

Part three

Part three is short, at just ten pages or so with a few photographs. It starts with characteristic self-absorption and bewildering lack of clarity, making it quite difficult to figure out what it’s about.

I envy (in a manner of speaking) any man who has the time to prepare something like a book and who, having reached the end, finds the means to be interested in its fate or in the fate which, after all, it creates for him. (p.147)

So it’s a passage at the end of a book about how difficult he finds it to imagine someone who can end a book. After struggling to express himself on the subject of how difficult he finds it to express himself, there are a few last scattered memories of Nadja – one particularly hair-raising one where they are driving along and she puts her foot over onto the accelerator pedal, making the car suddenly jerk forward, till he manages to get her to take it off again.

But then, in the last four pages, the entire narrative completely changes tone altogether. Out of the blue it suddenly addresses someone referred to only as ‘You’, a ‘you’ who, apparently, is a bringer of huge emotional turmoil to our confused author, addressed in Breton’s usual rambling manner.

That is the story that I too yielded to the desire to tell you, when I scarcely knew you – you who can no longer remember but who, as if by chance, knowing of the beginning of this book, have intervened so opportunely, so violently, and so effectively, doubtless to remind me that I wanted it to be ‘ajar, like a door’ and that through this door I should probably never see anyone come in but you – come in and go out but you. (p.157)

Confusingly, the entire story of Nadja suddenly seems a thing of the distant past, completely eclipsed by this sudden inexplicable obsession with this mysterious ‘you’.

Since you exist, as you alone know how to exist, it was perhaps not so necessary that this book should exist. I have decided to write it nevertheless, in memory of the conclusion I wanted to give it before knowing you and which your explosion into my life has not rendered vain. (p.158)

This incoherent finale to the book only made any kind of sense when I read then turned to read the introduction.

The introduction

The introduction to this Penguin edition of Nadja is by Mark Polizzotti who is a biographer of Breton.

To my surprise he quotes some of the tritest, most sentimental passages about Nadja with apparent approval, which at first dismayed me. But then he goes on to give a fascinating account of what actually happened – what Nadja is actually about – which is far more interesting than Breton’s bombastic bragging.

Polizzotti explains that ‘Nadja’ was actually Léona-Camile-Ghislaine D., last name unknown to this day, born in 1902, who Breton met in the street in October 1926, and then met again and again obsessively over the period of a month or so. Breton introduced her to his Surrealist colleagues (impressed by her intensity) and his long-suffering wife Simone Kahn (intellectual collaborator, sounding board but not, apparently, sexual partner).

Breton the big-talking poet entranced Léona just as much as she beguiled him – it was a short sharp affair which climaxed in a train ride out of town to a rural hotel where they had sex. This physical act Breton, apparently, found unsatisfying, and soon after he began withdrawing himself from her. She continued to try to meet him, bombarding him with letters and drawings – and it’s these increasingly desperate messages which account for the way the middle part of the book changes from distinct diary entries to a haphazard set of fragmented memories, notes, sayings, and photos of the drawings she sent Breton.

One day Léona was found raving and hallucinating in the hallway of her cheap hotel, reported to the police who called the medics who took her off to an asylum. According to Polizzotti, some of the Surrealists she’d been introduced to visited her there, but Breton didn’t. Léona was transferred on to another hospital in 1928 (just about the time Nadja was published), where she remained incarcerated until her death from cancer in 1941.

Breton using Léona

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Breton, desperate to write something, anything, in the mid-1920s to assert his control and leadership of the Surrealist movement – desperate to compete with the outrageous pronouncements of the Dada provocateur Tristan Tzara or the fluent lyricism of his friend, Louis Aragon – used his chance encounter with Léona, her intensity, insights and ultimate madness, to create a text notable for its self-aggrandisement and self-promotion.

You don’t have to be a feminist to find this rather despicable, as despicable as the fact that he had his sexual way with her, then dumped her to return to his wife, letting her go mad and be locked up without once visiting her.

Suzanne

And according to Polizzotti, this was at least in part because Breton had by now fallen madly in love with the statuesque mistress of a fellow writer (Emmanuel Berl), one Suzanne Muzard.

Having met her only a few times Breton persuaded Suzanne to run off to the South of France with him (from where Breton wrote long letters describing every development in his infatuation to his long-suffering wife, Simone).

But when Suzanne insisted that Breton leave Simone and marry her, Breton didn’t know what to do; Suzanne insisted they return to Paris; her former lover Berl got back in touch offering her a secure home and money, so she rejoined him and they set off abroad. Breton got wind they were departing from the Gare de Lyon and rushed there to confront her as she left, but she chose money and comfort over passion, love (wise woman).

So it takes quite a lot of explaining to get to the point of realising that it is Suzanne who is addressed as ‘you’ in the final pages of Nadja.

Without the long and thorough factual explanation given in Polizzotti’s introduction the reader would have no way of making sense of the way this ‘you’ supersedes Nadja in a firework display of schoolboy gush.

All I know is that this substitution of persons stops with you, because nothing can be substituted for you, and because for me it was for all eternity that this succession of terrible or charming enigmas was to come to an end at your feet. (p.158)

Pathetic.

Failure to communicate

According to Polizzotti, Breton had intended to close Nadja with a final section which would be ‘a long meditation on beauty, a kind of beauty consisting of “jolts and shocks” as represented by Nadja and her unsettling presence’. You can see how this might have worked – how the uncanny moments and strange insights of Nadja could be associated with the opening section about coincidences and spooky locations, all drawn together to put forward a case for a new aesthetic, an aesthetic of the irrational, the accidental, the uncanny, the inexplicable.

Unfortunately, Breton found himself simply unable to do it. All he managed was a few last pages about Nadja, into which suddenly erupt a handful of pages of fifth-form gush about Suzanne, and then, abruptly, one page (one page!) which in a half-baked way leads up to the most famous thing in the book, its last sentence:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will be nothing at all. (p.160)

What a shame, what a real shame that he didn’t have the wit or intelligence to go back over his own text and summarise the findings of a) his general thoughts about coincidence b) the specific case study of Nadja, and produce a systematic and blistering defence of the Surrealist aesthetic.

Instead, the preceding 160 pages amount to a badly organised ragbag of subjective impressions, silly premonitions, pretentious conversations with a fragile young woman, crappy hand-drawn sketches, boring photographs of Paris streets, gestures towards an aesthetic which in no way really build a case.

You could be smart and argue that the text’s very failure to make much sense or mount a coherent argument enacts the Surrealist aesthetic of fragments and the anti-rational, but that’s not very persuasive. There’s a difference between the artful placing of fragments – as done by countless modern artists, collagists and photomontagists, done with wit and style – and this spavined text, which so overtly struggles with Breton’s own lack of style and inability to write clearly or coherently.

Breton comes across from this book as a humourless, pompous and self-important prig, and this is exactly the impression you get reading Ruth Brandon’s 450-page long account of the Surrealists. One of the colleagues he expels from the group describes him as a schoolboy bully. Exactly.

And why is he talking about ‘beauty’, like some 18th century connoisseur or some 188os dandy? In the age of Duchamp’s anti-art, Tsara and Arp and Ball’s Dada, Grosz’s searing satirical paintings, Heartfield’s photomontages or Man Ray’s solarised photographs, it seems almost unbelievably retrograde, reactionary and obtuse to be crapping on about ‘beauty’. Beauty? What has beauty got to do with anything?

In every way Nadja seems to me an extravagantly feeble, badly written, pompous, sentimental, self-centred failure of a piece of steaming, putrid donkey dung.


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In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910 by Sue Roe (2014)

Roe’s previous book – The Private Lives of the Impressionists  (2006) – gives a chatty, anecdotal overview of the Impressionists’ lives and loves (and poverty, lots of poverty) blended with lashings of pop social history, ending with the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886.

This one skips 14 years (neatly avoiding the complex decade of the 1890s when Symbolism and Art Nouveau became the new thing). Instead Roe starts with the dawn of the new century in 1900, and launches her account with the enormous Exposition Universelle which was held in Paris from April to November, built and designed in the dominant Art Nouveau style to house a vast array of innovative machines, inventions and architecture.

The decadence and darkness of the fin-de-siecle didn’t disappear immediately, but there was a widespread sense of hope and optimism, that the new century was going to bring marvellous advances in science and medicine and society and, accompanying this optimism, there was in the arts a palpable thirst for something new, for the next big thing.

A group biography

The book is mostly about the artists, specifically Picasso and Matisse, their lovers and wives and children and mistresses, their struggles simply to survive, find somewhere to live, and their relationships with the growing number of collectors and dealers. The book details the slow-burning rivalry between Matisse and his young rival, explaining how and why it began and grew (for example when the two artists exchanged paintings, Picasso hung his up and encouraged his mates to use it as a dartboard).

Around them cluster other important artists – Derain, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Braque – given their own potted biographies who then weave in and out of the plot, for example the appearance of le douanier Rousseau, the naive painter of jungle scenes who Picasso organises an elaborate celebration dinner for.

Several characters I found it hard to care about. Roe has a particular fondness for the master couturier Paul Poiret. I have a blind spot for fashion so I didn’t really care that among his customers was Margot Asquith, the fashionable wife of the British Prime Minister, who apparently wore violet satin knickers, or that his design for skirts slashed open to the knee caused the sensitive to faint and the outraged to write letters to the press. After a while I skimmed through these chapters.

Similarly, Gertrude Stein was an important early collector and supporter of both Matisse and Picasso, and it’s certainly interesting to read about her own avant-garde experiments with a kind of radically decentred prose in the context of what the painters were doing. But the intricacies of her relationship with fellow lesbian Alice B. Toklas, let alone other lovers and friends called Nancy and Alice, and how they all corresponded with Fernande, Picasso’s lover and muse, descended – for me – into pointless tittle-tattle, and I skipped these parts too.

Social history

Her social history is patchy. The disastrous Dreyfus Affair which dragged on to 1906 and bitterly divided France into pro- and anti-Dreyfus camps, is not mentioned and isn’t in the index. On the other hand, she has a good couple of pages (162-163) about the political chaos of 1906, specifically the record number of strikes and the ubiquity of anarchist agitation. Characteristically, this is mentioned mainly in order to introduce us to a person, namely the thin, witty journalist and art critic Félix Fénéon, who had coined the term ‘neo-Impressionism’ to describe the Divisionist paintings of George Seurat and Paul Signac.

Similarly, the rise of cinema is an interesting thread running through the book, from the very first film made in 1896 to the fact that by 1902 ten minute movies with elaborate special effects, dialogue captions and so on were being shown. Indeed, some French newspaper dubbed 1907 ‘the year of the cinema’ (p.192). But again, Roe’s interest is in relating it to the location of her title, to the fleapits and even open waste ground, where films were projected in run-down slummy Montmartre.

By introducing the notion of ‘cuts’, movies invented the method of showing the same scene from multiple points of view, wide shot, mid-shot, close-up, different angles. It’s not difficult to make links between these new ways of seeing and Cubism which also presents multiple points of view of the same object.

More interesting to me was the detail that cinemas were so dirt cheap – entry often a few centimes – that they quickly became the preferred venue of entertainment for the really poor, and this change went hand in hand with the cabarets and vaudeville theatres going up-market, charging more for entry, cleaning themselves up, becoming more ‘respectable’. That was an interesting insight into social history.

Late in the book we are given a brief history of manned flight (the Wright brothers made the first manned flight in 1903) because Picasso and Braque visited the new aerodrome at Issy les Moulineaux to watch the earliest French airplanes. Alongside Futurists hymning the car (‘a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace‘), the rapid evolution of cinema and the introduction of the telephone, Cubism was part of the new technological excitement of the times.

And – it’s difficult to sum up in a paragraph – but the book is drenched in the mechanics and economics of selling pictures. As a professional artist, if you don’t sell, you don’t eat. Competition was fierce because it was competition to get money to pay rent, get studio space, to buy food.

The noughties saw the further rise and complexification of the networks of collectors and dealers who bought and sold modern art, and we learn almost as much of their biographies, backgrounds, motives for collecting, and economic ups and downs, as we do about the painters. Ambroise Vollard in particular emerges as a predatory buyer, repeatedly swooping on the studios of Picasso, Derain or Vlaminck and buying everything in sight – not once but several times we are told that passers-by gawped in wonder as Vollard loaded a horse-drawn cab to overflowing with colourful canvases and then trotted it off to his gallery (for example, buying 30 paintings off Picasso for 2,000 francs, p.270).

Private collectors – like the Stein family, Michael, Sarah and Gertrude who arrived in Paris in 1902, and whose adventures we follow in some detail – pale in comparison with the professional activities of Vollard, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and the growing band of professional art dealers.

As a result of the growing interest of the dealers – and of wealthy collectors and patrons like the Russian Shchukin – we watch Picasso and his fellow painters in particular go from starving in garrets (specifically, the ramshackle building in Montmartre known as the Bateau-Lavoir) trying to flog paintings for 15 francs a pop to – in the last few chapters of the book, by 1909, 1910 – being paid two or three thousand francs per consignment, huge sums which allow Matisse to give up the burden of teaching and move out of Paris altogether, and Picasso to rent a swanky apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy.

Lots of addresses…

Above all In Montmartre is – as its title suggests – the biography of a place, the ramshackle alleyways and slums, vacant lots, little squares, scattered windmills and allotments which made up the prominent hill of Montmartre, to the north of central Paris. Still, in 1910, the haunt of the real working class, not to mention a floating population of performers who worked in cheap, tatty circuses and cabarets, it was so ramshackle that you could not only rent apartments and studio space dirt cheap, but on the northern derelict face (the so-called Maquis), you could simply find abandoned shacks and move in, rent-free, as Modigliani did when he first arrived in 1906.

Maybe it’s because the publisher commissioned it as the biography of a place as much as of any specific artists, that Roe pays such fanatical attention to addresses. If you want to know which famous artist was living where, which road or boulevard was home to which dealer’s gallery where so-and-so’s studio was, the precise locations of the top cafés and cabarets – Roe is your woman.

Much more even than descriptions of the art, Roe’s text is absolutely stuffed with addresses, precise directions how to get there, and which floor to clamber up to, to discover Picasso or Matisse or Derain daubing away.

  • In 1900 Picasso is living in Nonell’s studio in the rue Gabriel while Braque was living two streets away in the rue des Trois Frères.
  • Matisse’s studio in February 1901 was at 19 quai Saint Michel.
  • Marie Laurencin, painter, printmaker and later muse to Apollinaire, lived at 51 boulevard de la Chapelle, an extension of the boulevard Rochechouart.
  • In 1904 Picasso was staying at the Hôtel Poirier at the corner of the rue des Trois Frères and the rue Ravignan. The Place Ravignan (since renamed the place Émile Goudeau) was just below the place du Tertre.
  • In 1904 Braque moved into a rented studio at rue d’Orsel, near the offices of the anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, a couple of hundred yards from the place Ravignan.
  • By the time she met Picasso in August 1904, Fernande Olivier (destined to become his first muse) was living at the ramshackle building known as the Bateau-Lavoir ‘on the ground floor, in room number three, on the rue d’Orchamps side’ (p.88)
  • The cabaret artistique, the Lapin Agile, was ‘a dark little two-roomed cottage nestling between the trees at the corner of the rue Corot and the rue des Saules’.
  • Maurice Utrillo lived at 12 rue Cortot from 1906 to 1914, Raoul Dufy shared an atelier there from 1901 to 1911. It is now the Musée de Montmartre.
  • The circus Medrano was in a large building at the foot of the Butte (the hill or ‘mound’) at the corner of the boulevard Rochevcouart and the rue des Martyrs, once site of the Circus Fernando where, in 1879, Degas painted Miss Lala hanging by her teeth from a rope, a painting now in the London National Gallery.

And so on. No one goes anywhere or does anything without Roe nailing down precisely where it was, with the street, the number, the floor and – if you’re lucky – the precise room number given. The digital version of the book ought to have a deal with Google Maps so that each address links through to a map with, ideally, archive photos of what the place looked like then, next to photos of what it looks like now.

… but not so many illustrations

I annotated the book with a line by each address that was mentioned, and an asterisk by each painting that was mentioned. Flicking back through the book makes me realise that a) that there are nearly as many addresses as paintings b) the book only contains eight full-colour illustrations of paintings.

Since the point of the book is (at least partly) about the evolution in style of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque and so on, you want to see the works which are liberally mentioned throughout, and sometimes analysed in considerable detail (e.g. the three or four pages devoted to analysing Picasso’s breakthrough work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). But since hardly any of them are illustrated in the text, I ended up spending quite a lot of time on the computer googling the images mentioned in the text, but not shown. In other words, it’s not a very visual guide to the period.

Instead it does what it says on the tin – provides an enjoyable romp through who lived where, bumped into who, organised such and such an exhibition, started painting this or that famous work, went holidaying and painting in Normandy or the South, arrived in Paris from abroad and stayed at the so and so hotel before moving into studios at such and such address, and was bought up by such and such a dealer who had just moved into new bigger premises on the Boulevard thingummy.

It’s in this respect that the book is as much the biography of a place as of the avant-garde artists or art of its time.

Timeline of the avant-garde 1900s

So, the book begins with a pen portrait of the 1900 Exposition Universelle and how the last few weeks see the arrival of a nineteen-year-old Spanish artist in town, come to seek his fortune and try his luck – Pablo Picasso.

1900

  • April to November the Exposition Universelle is held in buildings erected in the open ground around the Eiffel Tower
  • October – Pablo Picasso arrives in Paris aged 19.
  • Winter – Picasso heads back to Barcelona for Christmas with his family.

1901

  • Cézanne paints his portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which allegedly took 115 sittings and still wasn’t finished.
  • February – Picasso’s friend Casagemas commits suicide by shooting himself in front of the woman who was spurning him. This really affects Picasso who sinks into a prolonged depression and starts doing paintings of down and outs, sad people, outcasts, in a monochrome blue, the so-called ‘Blue period‘ which last into 1904.
  • March – 71 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, his first solo exhibition anywhere. Here Matisse (aged 31) runs into André Derain (21) and his tall, burly friend, Maurice Vlaminck (25), all three of whom would become the core of the ‘Fauves’.

1902

  • The first narrative movie – A trip to the moon – is shown (the first ever film had only been shown in 1896).
  • September – Émile Zola, boyhood friend of Cézanne, dies, possibly murdered by his opponents in the long-running Dreyfus Affair.
  • October – Back in Barcelona, Picasso’s uncle pays for him to avoid Spanish military service.
  • Leo Stein arrived in Paris in 1902 and took rooms at 27 rue de Fleurus, close to the Luxembourg Gardens where he was joined by his sister, Gertrude (b.1874) that autumn. In 1904 Michael Stein arrived with his wife and child and took an apartment at rue Madame, just round the corner from rue de Fleurus. They began collecting contemporary art.

1903

  • February – Matisse is living at his parent’s home in Bohain, northern France.
  • May – Paul Gauguin dies
  • October – The first Salon d’Automne shows 990 works

1904

  • April – Picasso is back in Paris. He paints Boy leading a horse epitome of his ‘Rose period’
  • Matisse spends the summer staying with neo-Impressionist or Divisionist artist, Paul Signac, at St Tropez in the south of France, discovering the bright white light of the Mediterranean and paints the pointillist Luxe, calme et volupte
  • July – Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi arrives in Paris. Born in 1876, he is 38 years old.
  • October – the second Salon d’Automne features 2,044 works and featured a Renoir room (35 works) and a Toulouse-Lautrec room (28 rooms)

1905

  • March – as part of the annual Salon des Indépendants, organised by Signac, Matisse helped put together a display of 45 works by van Gogh (who had committed suicide as long ago as 1890). Matisse later said this was a turning point in his career, van Gogh helping him turn away from Signac’s Divisionism towards a more expressive style.
  • Early summer Matisse’s wife discovers the picture-perfect fishing village of Collioure near Perpignan, and Matisse goes there to start painting fiery bright paintings of the landscape and people. He writes to all his friends in Paris to join him but only André Derain replies and arrives, tall, dressed in a white suit with a red beret, and they both spend the summer feverishly painting. By the start of September Derain had completed 30 canvases, 20 drawings and 15 sketches
  • 5 September – Fernande Olivier moves in with Picasso thus starting their tempestuous relationship, during which he painted more than 60 portraits of her. He paints performers from the nearby Montmartre circuses, including Boy with a pipe (which, in 2004 was sold for $104 million to the head of an Italian food processing conglomerate).
  • October – the third Salon d’Automne has a room devoted to the brightly coloured works of Henri Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy. Their visual violence leads art critic Louis Vauxcelles to nickname them all wild beasts, or ‘fauves’. And so an art movement was born.
  • Michael Stein buys Matisse’s Madame Matisse in  a green hat for the full asking price of 500 francs, massively relieving Matisse’s financial straits.
  • November – dealer Ambroise Vollard buys Derain’s entire stock of paintings, 89 paintings and 80- watercolours,for an unprecedented 3,300 francs (p.134). Then buys a 100 francs-worth of work from Vlaminck.
  • November – Vollard commissions Derain to travel to London to paint city landscapes, such as Charing Cross bridge, following in the footsteps of Monet (as explained by the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain).
  • December – Kees van Donger, his wife and little girl move into the Bateau-Lavoir and become close friends of Picasso and Fernande. Picasso is painting a portrait of Gertrude Stein – she claims she had to do 99 sittings for it. Gertrude is working out her revolutionary new prose style. She notices that what she calls Picasso’s ‘harlequin’ phase is played out.

1906

  • January – Amedeo Modigliani arrives in Paris, aged 21. He moves into a derelict shack on the Montmartre hill and establishes a reputation as a dissolute womaniser with phenomenal draughtsmanship.
  • 19 March – Matisse’s one-man show opens at the Galerie Druet, displaying 60 paintings hardly any of which sell.
  • Juan Gris arrives in Paris from Spain, at first supporting himself by doing satirical illustrations.
  • April – Vollard gives Picasso 2,000 francs in exchange for all his recent paintings, enough to fund Picasso to take Fernande on a holiday to Spain, specifically to the village of Gosol where he painted the locals and himself in a chunky new ‘primitive’ style. – Picasso self-portrait (1906)
  • October – Paul Cézanne dies.
  • October – the fourth Salon d’Automne opens with
    • a vast display of the entire history of Russian art collected and arranged by Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev (b.1872 and so 34), marking the start of Diaghilev’s artistic and musical adventures in Paris
    • the Salon also shows a big retrospective of Gauguin including drawings, ceramics, 227 paintings and his totemic carvings.

1907

  • April – Matisse leaves Paris to paint at Collioure.
  • Spring – Picasso visits the Ethnography Museum and is bewitched by the power of African fetishes. All his work now shows angular human figures with harsh, stylised shapes and blank eyes, completely different from the naive figuratism of either the blue or rose period. – Dance of the Veils, 1907
  • August – Matisse starts writing Notes of a painter, published in 1908.
  • Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler opens his gallery at 28 rue Vignon. He will become one of the greatest supporters of Cubist art and will have his portrait painted by Picasso just three years later.
  • Autumn – Picasso cautiously unveils Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (originally just titled The brothel) to close friends and a fellow artists. Nobody likes it and he puts it away for 16 years.

1908

  • By the spring Picasso’s gang or bande had crystalised into Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and Braque. Picasso (25) formed a particularly close working relationship with Braque (26), reading the same pulp paperbacks, going to the same clubs, to the cinema, thinking about the next step in their odyssey away from traditional painting.
  • August – Picasso spends a month painting in the country at La Rue des Bois, a tiny hamlet near Creil, north of Paris.
  • November – Braque holds a one-man show at Kahnweiler’s gallery. It was here that the same critic who coined the expression ‘fauve’ described the content of many of Braque’s landscapes with houses as containing ‘petits cubes’. Cubism was born – or at least, named.

1909

  • February – Matisse is in Cassis, studying seawaves as preparation for La Danse, a major commission for a mural from the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin. This year Shchukin opens his collection of French avant-garde art (Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, Derain, Matisse) to the public in St Petersburg.
  • February – the first Futurist manifesto was published in Italy.
  • May – the Ballets Russes give their first performance in Paris, at the Theatre du Chatelet and become wildly fashionable.
  • May to September Picasso is in Spain, visiting relatives in Barcelona, but mostly at the village of Horta where he had spent time when he was ill as a teenager, accompanied by his mistress Fernande, who was herself severely ill with a kidney infection.
  • September Vollard pays Picasso 2,000 francs for thirty paintings and Picasso can at last afford to leave the slums of Montmartre and move into a swanky apartment on the boulevard Clichy.
  • The Bernheim-Jeune brothers become Matisse’s sole dealers, guaranteeing to buy everything he paints, with a sliding scale depending on size. This is the first reliable income Matisse, now aged 40, has ever had.

1910

  • February-March Matisse holds a retrospective at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, including sixty-five paintings and twenty-five drawings.
  • May – the Ballets Russes return with a new repertory of ballets, featuring the great dancer of the era, Nijinsky.
  • Juan Gris moves into the Bateau-Lavoir and beings to paint cubist paintings.
  • October – First cubist works show at the Salon d’Automne. Matisse displays La Danse and La Musique which are both greeted with howls of criticism.
  • November – Roger Fry organises an exhibition bringing together works by French artists from the previous thirty years under the title ‘Post-Impressionism’ at the Grafton Gallery in London.

Holidays or whores

In The Secret Lives of the Impressionists I noticed Roe’s fondness for describing women’s boobs and busts and lingering on the opportunities for a titillating glimpse of female flesh given by, for example, holiday trips to the seaside in the 1870s to watch bathing beauties.

In this book I really noticed her fondness for the word ‘whore’. I won’t bore you with a string of quotes, but she uses it a lot to describe the prostitutes who thronged around Montmartre (and who the artists alternately used and painted).

I find ‘whore’ a tough, blunt, mannish word; in fact I tend to associate it with male writers who want to convey a show-off sense of their own man-of-the-world toughness. There is available to writers the much more neutral word ‘prostitute’ – and these days I thought we were all meant to use the non-judgmental phrase ‘sex workers’.

In Roe’s hands (pen, keyboard or discourse) the prolific use of the word ‘whore’ seems to me to epitomise the drastic change in atmosphere from the sunlit world of the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s to the much more intense, night-time, bars-and-cabarets-and-circuses world of the noughties, the world of late Toulouse-Lautrec, to the beggars and street people of Picasso’s blue period, to van Dongen’s brutal depictions of naked women with splayed legs, to Matisse and Derain’s terrifyingly intense portraits.

It is a harsher world. Thus, for example, Roe writes – harshly, I think – that the five women depicted in Picasso’s epoch-making painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, are ‘not only whores but whores with attitude’ (p.220).

It came as a complete revelation to me that Les demoiselles are in fact ‘whores’. All the commentary (not only in this book but in several online articles, once I came to read about it) take it for granted that the painting depicts a brothel with a bunch of naked women standing around, and that their harsh sexuality is part of the point.

I’ve known this painting for forty years or more and never given it a thought that it is set in a brothel. God knows there are thousands of paintings in the western tradition of a number of half-dressed women standing around, not least thousands of scenes from the classical world.

Certainly their supposed ‘sexuality’ is the last thing I notice when I look at it. Coming from a world awash with images of naked women (and from Western art awash with nudes) my first response to this painting isn’t shock at their ‘blatant sexuality’. It is dismay and difficulty at the aggressively unsensual and sexual depiction of the figures,their angular bodies and especially, of course, the blacked-in primitive masks of the right hand pair. I register it as a calculated assault on our visual conventions and norms which still, 110 years later, retains its capacity to shock and awe. Like a lot of Picasso, I don’t think I like it but I respond to its horrible power.

Roe’s book is a thoroughly researched, colourful and absorbing portrait of the world from which this weird and challenging art emerged.


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Modigliani @ Tate Modern

His name is pronounced Mod-ill-ee-arn-ee – the ‘g’ is silent.

This is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a really comprehensive range of portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes (12) to be shown in this country.

Modigliani

Modigliani

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Amedeo Modigliani died very young, on January 1920, aged just 35. By that time he had developed a look, a brand, a style, which was instantly recognisable and has made him one of the most valued of ‘modern’ painters, with two entries in the top twenty-five most expensive paintings of all time:

No. 9 – Nu Couché $170 million
No. 21 – Reclining Nude With Blue Cushion $118 million

Art capital of the world

In the 1900s Paris was the acknowledged capital of the art world, full of artists who’d flocked there from all over Europe (e.g. the Spaniard Picasso, the Romanian Brancusi). Modigliani moved from his native Italy to Paris in 1906, when he was 21.

The second room in this big exhibition shows an excellent five minute video montage of black and white photos and very basic movie footage of the Paris of the day, starting with grand scenes of the Eiffel Tower and the buildings left over from the Great Exhibition of 1900, then moving to the ramshackle buildings up the side of the hill of Montmartre, the white Sacre Coeur church still being completed, cabarets and theatres, the back alleys and tenements where the artists rented apartments and studios, and then shots of key figures of the time, Picasso, Brancusi, Gertrude Stein from the family of art collectors, Modigliani himself and some moving footage of workers manhandling lumps of the limestone he carved into sculptures.

Experiments in styles

With a good feel for the life and times of 1900s Paris we move on into a room which shows Modigliani experimenting with the variety of looks and styles on offer. Loose brushwork and abstracted figures testify to the pervading influence of Cézanne on everyone at the time. This is apparent in the very visible diagonal brushstrokes which draw attention to themselves of this early nude, or of his study of Brancusi, who soon became a good friend.

Sculpting

Between 1909 and 1911, heavily influenced by Brancusi, Modigliani went through an intense phase of sculpting. Like many others he was caught up in the fashion for exotic, non-European art, supposedly ‘primitive’ sculptures from ancient Egypt or from France’s colonial possession like Cambodia or the Ivory Coast. It had only been in 1906/7 that Matisse and Picasso both began to incorporate non-European masks and body shapes in their work. Two rooms are devoted to this phase, one showing the lovely preparatory sketches he made, showing Modigliani’s wonderful way with elegant curved but geometric lines, the other showing a dozen or so sculptures which are, without exception, faces, some squat square ones, but most a highly characteristic elongated, narrow face with a long pendulous nose ending in a little round pouting mouth.

The commentary tells the story that sometimes visitors to his studio at night found that Modigliani had placed lighted candles atop each of the sculptures. He told friends he planned to create a kind of pagan temple decorated with them. On a few occasions, at hashish parties, he was seen to embrace them.

In all, Modigliani made about 25 of these highly characteristic heads. A handful were included in the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the only time they were displayed in his lifetime. There are several theories why he abandoned sculpture in 1913 – possibly the constant dust of a sculptor’s studio exacerbated the childhood tuberculosis which he was always holding at bay. Possibly it was just too expensive compared to painting.

The Modigliani look

But the extensive sketches, and the really physical engagement with sculpture, had set in stone (as it were) what was now established as the Modigliani ‘look’ – elongated faces with swan-like necks and blank almond-shaped eyes were to characterise all his paintings from now to the end of his life.

This is already apparent in the many portraits he painted of fellow artists, mistresses, and the collectors and art dealers who were important in launching his career. The commentary gives a good deal of background information about each of them, for example about the several portraits of his dealer, Paul Alexandre, a leading promoter of African art. I particularly liked the ‘naive’ way Modigliani writes on the paintings: he writes the name of the subject (Picasso, Paul), his own signature, and then often writes a comment, for example writing ‘Novo Pilota’ – meaning ‘guiding star’ – onto his portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

The elongated, cylinder-like neck, the perfectly almond-shaped face especially the pointed chin, the simple one-line depiction of the nose and eyes and eyebrows and especially the slate grey or blacking out of the eyes to emphasise the impassive mask-like effect – all these are apparent in his several portraits of his mistress-lover Beatrice Hastings who, the commentary tells us, was a British-born writer and editor who covered the Paris art scene for British magazines.

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

There are three rooms devoted to his artistic peers, to colleagues, collectors and dealers, friends and lovers and patrons, featuring his portraits of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. By the time war broke out in 1914 Modigliani was very well-connected, an ‘insider’ in the Paris art world, friends with the leaders of the avant-garde, beneficiary of regular commissions from the cognoscenti.

A people person

What these three rooms really crystallise is the fairly obvious point that he only painted portraits – heads or busts or full bodies, but only individual people. Landscapes such as had obsessed the godfather of modernism, Cézanne? None. Still lives such as absorbed the Cubists, Picasso and Braque? None. Cityscapes such as dominated the Futurists from his own native land, Italy (the first Futurist manifesto was published in 1909)? None. On the strength of this exhibition it seems that he never sketched, drew, painted or sculpted anything but the human form and face. And although highly stylised, they are always recognisable, with recognisable clothes (or not), in chairs or leaning on tables in a recognisable space.

Compared to the wild experiments going on around him (Fauves, Cubism, Futurism) Modigliani’s art seems – well ‘conservative’ is the wrong word, a genuinely die-hard conservative style continued to be produced by academic painters – but understandable, assimilable, acceptable.

Modigliani’s nudes

It was with this in mind that I walked into the big room displaying ‘the largest ever group of Modigliani nudes to be shown in this country’, 12 of them, to be precise.

The commentary would have us believe that these are ‘shocking’ and ‘provocative’ works and tells the story that the one and only exhibition of them – held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 – was closed down by the police on the grounds of indecency. Apparently, this was specifically because Modigliani showed his models having pubic hair and underarm hair.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

To be honest, I found this a little hard to credit (not that the show was closed down, but that the works were particularly shocking or provocative). I’ve just read a book about the Fauves which included plenty of Fauvist nudes which a) are really wild pictures, sometimes difficult to make out amid the riot of colour; and b) where you can, quite routinely show depict pubic hair.

Compared with any of these works from at least ten years earlier, Modigliani’s nudes seem very tame – in terms of colour (which is very restrained and ‘realistic’ – the flesh is generally flesh-coloured), in terms of line (Modigliani’s nudes are all clearly defined by wonderfully crisp, curving outlines), in terms of facial features (which are stylised but not, actually, that much), even in terms of crudity, none of the Modiglianis are as in-your-face as that final nude by Camoin.

On the contrary – they all share a similar warm orange body, lovely curves, ample bosoms, pink nipples, all depicted with super-clear, well-defined black outlines. If they so show women’s pubes, they are as neat and geometric as their oval faces. Actual women’s pubic hair is a lot more unkempt and varied than Modigliani’s tasteful version.

No, what struck me about all of Modigliani’s nudes was their restraint, their tastefulness, and several of them really did strike me as deeply conservative, particularly the nudes where he is consciously referencing the European tradition, like this one which is based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

All four curators of this exhibition are women and so you have a strong feeling in the audio commentary that they feel duty bound to discuss how women’s bodies were a battlefield in the 1910s (prompting the thought, When have women’s bodies not been battlefields, according to feminist history?), but, at the same time, want to assert that the women Modigliani depicts are not helpless victims of ‘the male gaze’ – these women are strong independent women, as evidenced by their wearing lipstick, make-up and – in some of them – necklaces or ear rings.

The commentary compares the lot of the average model to the really grim lives of working class women slaving away in factories or as laundresses etc (Modigliani’s models earned about double the daily working wage for spending a day lying on a couch).

But none of this semi-political feminist interpretation really changes the fact that these are cartoons. The simple black outline, the stylised and fairly flat colouring – they could almost come from a Tintin cartoon, or from any number of subsequent comic strips. Compare and contrast with the genuinely experimental way nudes had been portrayed for at least a decade.

If the Berthe Weill show was raided and closed down it was, if anything, because the nudes were – in artistic terms – so conservative, so realistic, so figurative and so traditional in style – that they really did teeter on the brink of pornography.

No one could mistake the Matisse, Derain or Picasso nudes for soft porn, they are all very obviously far more interested in experimenting with new ways of seeing and new ways of painting than with titillation. You can’t really confidently say that about the Modigliani nudes. They are all pretty sexy and sexiness is their subject, although the curators prefer the more polite word ‘seductive’.

By this, room 8 of the 11-room exhibition, it seemed to me that Modigliani had progressed far beyond his earlier experiments, incorporated all the stylisation he’d learned from studying ‘primitive’ art and sculpting, and had emerged to produce a really consistent brand of very quaffable female nudes. Their naive simplicity makes them extremely enjoyable and explains, I think, the extraordinary prices they fetch at modern auction, tasteful, soft-porn works which any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to hang in his luxury apartment in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. (Nu Couché was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for $170 million, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $118 million.)

The curators can use feminist tropes all they like to try and defend these nudes but there seems no doubt that they are now, as they were then, designed for the visual pleasure of rich men.

The warm South

Towards the end of the war Modigliani was sent to the Mediterranean coast by his new art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as a precaution against increasing Zeppelin raids on Paris and also because of his worsening health. Modigliani was worried about leaving behind his well-developed network of friends and artistic accomplices, but in fact soon settled in to a new life, not least because he was accompanied by his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Again he painted nothing but portraits and, deprived of the network of professional models in Paris, took to painting local adults and then a series of children. He seems to have reacted to the far brighter light of the south by using warmed Mediterranean colours and also applying the paint much more thinly, both of which make these portraits seem light and airy.

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

Children and peasants. Is there not something a little, well, twee about some of these works? (Looking it up I see that ‘twee’ is defined as ‘excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental’.)

Again compare and contrast with his contemporaries or, in this case, with the Master, Cézanne. With the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in mind, we can see how Modigliani has learned the lessons of the old Frenchman – the patches of colour, the visible brush-strokes, the steep foreshortening of the subject and backdrop, the confrontational -full-on pose, but made it somehow, well babyish. Toy-like. Here’s a Cézanne.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Comparing the two it seems to me the main difference is in the face. Not only does Modigliani use his simplified mask design, but, by this stage, he’s often painting his faces in a unified flesh tone (true of almost all the nudes) which gives them quite literally a baby-faced freshness. Again compare and contrast with the complex brushwork Cézanne has applied to the face of his old bloke with a pipe, let alone the wild blues and greens which the Fauves used in their portraits. Compared to all of them, surely Modigliania is tame.

In fact it’s only really the use of the mask motif which prevents his works toppling over into kitsch. In particular I felt it was only the blacking out of the eyes of the portraits (which gives them a weird voodoo science fiction vibe) which prevents them from turning into the kind of Modernism light paintings you see being hawked on the streets of any tourist trap European city.

Last works

The final room shows his last works, painted back in Paris after the war, depictions of more rich patrons and commissions, alongside a suite of portraits of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant with their second child.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s notable that the flesh tones have moved away from the warm pinks of the nudes, back towards a more ‘experimental’ colouring. But the most striking thing about these last paintings is that the almond-shaped face and swan neck are taken to new extremes. Some of the people look like giraffes.

The colouring is richer and denser than in the South of France paintings. But each work, no matter how varied the subject, is now totally identifiable as a Modigliani. Who knows how his work would have continued to evolve and develop; he was half-way towards the kind of crisp neo-classical feel which so many French artists would adopt after the war.

But we’ll never know. Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis on 24 January in 1920. In a grim note we learn that just a few days later, his mistress Jeanne, nine-months pregnant, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of an apartment building.

This is a really enjoyable, carefully and thoughtfully curated overview of a wonderful artist, whose draughtsmanship is a joy to look at, from his earliest works, and whose mature geometric style produced painting after painting which fills the eye with pleasure.

Modigliani Virtual Reality

Towards the end of the exhibition is an ambitious innovation – a room where about ten visitors at a time can sit and have a visitor assistant clamp onto their head a kind of helmet with built-in 3-D goggles. These give you a virtual reality tour of a computer-generated recreation of Modigliani’s studio. It’s a bld new idea and a first for Tate.

Inevitably, there was a fairly long queue for this brave new digital experience, with an estimated waiting time of 25 minutes so I’m afraid I decided not to. Some of the content can be seen on the video screen outside the exhibition which is running a film about the making of the VR experience (which I’ve embedded, below).

So my advice would be to go the exhibition soon after opening (at 10am) and go straight to the queue for the VR, do it, and then go back to do the exhibition in order.

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Videos

Introduction to the exhibition by curator Simonetta Fraquelli.

Video showing how the virtual reality experience was made.


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Fauvism by Sarah Whitfield (1991)

‘What characterised Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colours and that with pure colours we obtained stronger reactions.’ (Matisse, quoted on page 62)

Fauve

Fauvism was an art movement in the first decade of the twentieth century. ‘Fauve’ is French for wild animal, wild beast. When the Parisian art critic Louis Vauxcelles attended the 1905 Salon d’Automne he came across the room hung with strikingly colourful and crudely finished paintings by Derain, Matisse, Vlaminck, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet, in the middle of which were some more traditional works of sculpture. Struck by the contrast, he wrote:

The artlessness of these busts comes as a surprise in the midst of the orgy of pure colours; Donatello at home among the wild beasts [les fauves]. (quoted p.82)

The artists concerned adopted this insult with pride, called themselves ‘les fauves’, and for a few years claimed to be carrying forward a movement called ‘Fauvism’.

But, as Whitfield shows in this excellent introduction and overview, Fauvism was more a restless search for a new style than a movement. As early as 1907 the leading figures were developing in their own ways and by 1909 Fauvism was over – making it, as Whitfield comments, possibly the shortest-lived art movement of the 20th century.

Matisse and Derain

At its heart Fauvism amounted to the works and attitudes of its leader Henri Matisse (b.1869) and his close companion in the decisive summer of 1905, André Derain (b.1880).

That summer the pair had worked side by side in the south of France painting works characterised by:

  • extremely bright colours, sometimes taken straight from the tube onto the palette with no mixing or moderating
  • deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour – green for the sea, blue for grass, red for shadow and so on
  • very broad dabs of colour – taking the Impressionist use of stroke and dabs to an extreme with really big strokes of paint often sitting in isolation

The effect of this third aspect in particular was to make the colours – no longer part of a smooth continuum of painted surface – instead stand out as isolated units. This created a tremendous vibrancy and shimmer – precisely the visual attack which Vauxcelles had responded to.

The final element in the style was the radical simplification of the subject or motif so that, sometimes, it is quite hard to make out what is depicted. Even when it is ‘readable’, the old idea that a painting was a window on a world which had a clear unified perspective, a depth, a sense of recession into the distance, is deliberately overthrown.

Fauvist art is designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the blunt fact that a picture is the deployment of paint on a two dimensional surface. The Fauves set art free from its requirement to paint ‘pictures’, it liberated art to become the free play of colours, patterns, shapes and designs.

In the two works above it’s not only the bright colour, it’s the gaps between the strokes or dabs, the way each stroke is isolated in space so that it rings and vibrates all the more powerfully.

Other members

Matisse had attended Gustave Moreau’s art class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he met Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet and Charles Camoin.

After Moreau’s death in 1898, Matisse began attending classes at the Académie Carrière where he met Jean Puy and the young André Derain.

Derain formed a close friendship with the Flemish painter Maurice Vlaminck, who he met in the summer of 1900.

The year after the 1905 exhibition, this loose group was joined by three painters from Le Havre – Emile-Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque.

Loosely associated with the Fauves were Georges Rouault, also a one-time student of Moreau, and Kees van Dongen from Holland.

Contemporary movements

Fauvism can be seen as an extreme extension of the post-impressionism of Van Gogh combined with the neo-impressionism of Seurat.

1. In 1904 Matisse went to stay with Paul Signac, heir to the neo-Impressionist innovations of Georges Seurat (who died in 1891) proponent of the theory of ‘dots’, of pointillism. Matisse produced a batch of works in this style before he realised that the isolated and detached bit of colour used to create a pointillist painting needn’t be dots – they could be isolated and detached strokes. – Luxe, Calme et Volupté is considered a pivotal moment in this history of art, as neo-impressionism gives birth to Fauvism.

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

2. Fauvism can also be seen as a form of expressionism in its use of brilliant colours and spontaneous brushwork. It is the French (and therefore stylish and joie de vivre) equivalent of the (tortured, angst-ridden) Expressionism which emerged in Germany a few years later, itself in its way another development of post-Impressionist discoveries, but given a characteristic Teutonic flavour.

Woman in a hat strikes me as being on the Expressionist end of the spectrum, eschewing the isolated strokes of the paintings done at Collioure or the thick impasto of the Open window in favour of the pure play of colour. Note the green and yellow nose or the sudden stroke of green across the forehead.

The contemporary critic Roger Marx described paintings like this as ‘lab experiments’ and you can see why. You can feel Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck – in particular – trying things out, suddenly liberated to use any colour in creating a portrait, setting about a wild profusion of experiments and tests.

It also explains why, although there is a common theme of super-bright primary colours in the 1905 paintings by Derain and Matisse, you can see why the movement was always pretty unstable. Even the core members were painting works which depart from the official ‘look’. It is more like a period of rapid experimentation focusing on experiments with brightly coloured isolated brush-strokes, creating form and shape with coloured rather than black outlines, thick impastos of paint then then – boom! – it was over.

After Fauvism

Some of the minor names mentioned above (Puy, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet) rejected the label Fauve even at the time, generally believing that more remained to be done in the avenues opened up by the Impressionists. Whitfield shows works which emphasise the way they stopped well this side of full ‘wild beastliness’.

Even for the most adventurous of the others, Fauvism was a very temporary phase, a stepping stone towards their more mature and individual styles.

In fact it is striking how many of them went on, by 1908 or so, to fall under the influence of Cézanne, with his much more muted palette and the artfully analytical approach he took to painting landscapes, people and objects.

Thus Braque, after a series of muscular landscapes shown and described by Whitfield, went on to develop cubism along with Pablo Picasso.

Derain rowed back from his garish experiments to adopt a more muted, grey and brown palette and a much more neo-classical, figurative approach as early as 1911.

Dufy was initially dazzled by the Fauvist outburst, but also moderated his palette by 1909, flirted with cubism and, after the war, developed an entirely new look based on clear draughtsmanship and light washes of colour depicting bright outdoors subjects, especially on the fun-loving Riviera of the 1920s.

Vlaminck was a grumpy outsider to the group, who pioneered the use of a thick impasto of vivid colours creating an expressionist swirl – the landscapes shown by Whitfield make me want to see more of  his work – but he, too, by 1909 had subdued his palette under the influence of Cézanne, and retreated to a more sombre figuratism.

Rouault’s style was always harsh and satirical, never really Fauvist, and he went on in later years to develop a highly stylised primitive style. – The Old King (1936) by Georges Rouault

Only Matisse continued his explorations of colour and design, always happy to remember and discuss his Fauvist roots, and evolving into one of the great master painters of the 20th century. In a late interview he summarised Fauvism as being

a revolt against the subtleties of Impressionism, it is a revolt against ‘mere charm’, against accidental aspects of illumination; a return to simplicity, directness, pure colours and decorative qualities. (quoted page 192)

I find that phrase ‘a revolt against charm’ very revealing, very indicative.

Later chapters

Later chapters of the book deal with landscape and the nude – I was particularly struck by Derain’s paintings of London, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament (three of these can be seen at the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain). Vlaminck emerges as a painter of great forcefulness and crude power; and Dufy is laying claim to the seaside idylls which were to become his forte.

There’s a really interesting chapter on the evolution of the art market, with the rise of a new cohort of upper-middle class professional collectors, and of new, entrepreneurial gallery owners and dealers willing to cater to them. Ambroise Vollard is probably the most famous of these, and forged close working relationships with Matisse in particular. Vollard is a pivotal figure: in 1895 he bought up almost all of Cézanne’s output, some 150 canvases, to create his first exhibition in 1895. This was followed by three other influential exhibitions devoted to Manet, Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. Vollard mounted the first ever exhibitions devoted to Picasso (1901) and Matisse (1904). You can see Cézanne’s sombre, proto-cubist portrait of Vollard at the current Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the national Portrait Gallery.

By 1900 these one-artist shows had become established as a good way for critics to assess the scene, other artists to catch up with new developments, and collectors to invest in the hot new thing. It was exhibitions marking Cézanne’s death in 1906, displaying his later, more ‘analytical’ works for the first time, which account for the influence he suddenly cast over so many painters in 1908 and 1909.

The final chapter traces the way all the main players reacted against their Fauvist phase. By 1907 they were expressing doubts about flaring colour, by 1908 they were copying Cézanne’s more muted palette and analytical approach – the search for the geometric in the object rather than the play of bright colour – and in 1908 Georges Braque painted the first cubist works – Houses and trees. The Fauvist moment was over.

In Whitfield’s summary, Fauvism was a kind of midwife to twentieth century art, fulfilling the legacy of post-Impressionism, and completing the mission to move Western art all the way from an art of representation to an art of abstraction.

Whitfield’s prose style

Writing about art – really describing what you see, conveying what the eye sees and processes so quickly, into slow-moving and clumsy words – is very difficult. Ways of not writing well about art include:

  1. giving yourself airs and graces – the very old-school way of declaring such a work ‘fine’ and ‘superb’ and a ‘wonderful example of the so-and-so school’ etc, an approach which turns art criticism into wine-tasting and mainly serves to convey how superior andsrefined the critic is
  2. giving in to a biographical approach i.e. telling us all about the artist’s life and loves, his mistresses and sex life, but conveying precious little about the actual look of their works
  3. giving in to generalised prose poetry about ‘vibrant’ use of colour and ‘bold’ design – phrases which could refer to anyone from Botticelli to Francis Bacon
  4. giving into art critical theory and interpreting works as ‘subverting traditional narratives’ or ‘engaging’ with ‘issues’ – all too often the same old ‘issues’ of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘identity’

Whitfield is a rarity in my experience, someone who can really express in words the specificity of particular works and the feel of a style.

Fauvism was the first movement to insist in explicit terms that a painting is the canvas and the pigments. The idea that a picture is the sum of the marks made on the canvas rather than a mirror held up to life, or to nature, or to literature accounts for the chief characteristics of the first true Fauve paintings being composed of briskly applied strokes, patches and dabs of brilliant colour. (p.9)

Describing Matisse’s very early work La Desserte she writes that it is ‘modern’ by virtue of

adopting the range of separately applied brush strokes with which the Impressionists invigorated the picture surface; the vibration of colour in their paintings was in total opposition to the smooth, ‘licked’ surfaces advocated by their teachers. (p.16)

The ‘smooth licked surfaces’ of the Salon painters is good, but I found the idea of the separately applied brush strokes invigorating the surface of a painting a really useful description of how many Impressionist paintings work. Here she is explaining the importance of Cézanne:

Matisse understood the manner in which Cézanne had unshackled painting from its representational role by making the paint itself the subject of the picture: the way in which every form in a Cézanne canvas is invested with equal weight regardless of its size came as a revelation to him. (p.23)

‘Equal weight’ is a great phrase, bringing out exactly the way a Cézanne painting is made of patches of colour constantly pressing towards a flat two-dimensionality. Late on she describes

The delicately crafted way in which Cézanne built up his paint, hingeing one brush-stroke onto the next… (p.200)

Reviewers of the book on Amazon all point out that only 24 of the 174 illustrations in the book are in colour, the rest in drab black and white, which is especially ironic considering the Fauves were all about colour, really strong, dazzling colour.

But so be it. The book is still well worth reading not just as a handy primer about the chronology, the artists and works which made up the movement – but for the continual flow of insights Whitfield gives into the working of specific paintings, her excellent ability to verbalise and articulate the hard-to-pin-down visual effects of oil paintings. That’s a rare gift.


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The Post-Impressionists by Belinda Thompson (2nd edition 1990)

Impressionist artists paint what they see; post-Impressionist artists paint what they feel

Post-Impressionism

The most important thing about ‘post-Impressionism’ is that the expression was coined in 1910, by an English art critic (Roger Fry), well after the painters it referred to were all dead. It is generally used to describe the principal French painters of the 1880s and 1890s, specifically Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, along with lesser artists of the period – but is an entirely invented, post hoc expression.

This large format book (30 cm tall x 23 cm wide) includes 180 illustrations (80 in dazzling full colour) so that, even without reading the text, just flicking through it is a good introduction to the visual world of the era.

The Impressionist legacy

Essentially, the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had broken with the constraints of the style of academic painting required to gain entry to the annual exhibitions at the official Paris Art Salon – and with it the traditional route to establishing a professional livelihood through sales to traditional ‘bourgeois’ patrons.

The Impressionists saw themselves as a group of ‘independents’ or ‘intransigents’ who broke various rules of traditional painting, such as:

  • most obviously the requirement that a painting depict grand historical or mythological subjects – the Impressionists preferred to depict subjects and scenes from everyday life
  • the requirement for each painting to be as realistic as possible a window onto an imagined scene by concealing brushstrokes – whereas the Impressionists foregrounded highly visible dabs and brushstrokes
  • the requirement to bring each painting to a peak of completion, with a high finish – whereas the Impressionists often let raw canvas show through, deliberately creating an air of rapid improvisation in pursuit of their stated aim to capture ‘the fleeting moment’

The Impressionists also established the idea of organising group exhibitions independent of the Salon, a new and provocative idea which placed them very firmly outside the official establishment – although the history of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, is complex and multi-layered.

Meanwhile, their great patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, developed the idea of holding one-artist shows organised in such a way as to show each artist’s evolving style and subject matter, itself a novel idea at the time.

And lastly, the Impressionists garnered from their various supporters a range of manifestos, pamphlets and articles defending them and explaining their artistic principles.

These, then, were the achievements and strategies which the post-Impressionists inherited and took full use of.

The weakness of post-Impressionism as an art history term

But Thompson’s book from start to finish shows the problematic nature of the term ‘post-Impressionism’ almost as soon as you try to apply it. Sure, many of the ‘post-Impressionists’ exhibited together at a series of exhibitions in the 1880s and 90s – but they were never a self-conscious group, never had manifestos like the Impressionists.

Far from it, during the 1880s Gauguin, who developed into a ‘leader’ of many of the younger artists, developed a violent dislike of the neo-Impressionist group which was virulently reciprocated. Yet they are both usually gathered under the one umbrella term.

The new young artists of the 1880s and 1890s worked amid a great swirl of artistic movements, which included Symbolism (Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau) and the would-be scientific neo-Impressionism (often identified with Pointillism) of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, as well as the influence of non-French artists such as Ferdinand Holder (Swiss) or James Ensor (Belgian) and of course the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh, all of whom came from different traditions and weren’t so in thrall to the Impressionist legacy.

Again and again consideration of the term breaks down into the task of tracking the individual careers and visions of distinct artists – with the dominating personalities being Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, but with lesser contemporaries including Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Eduard Vuillard also contributing.

If you can make any generalisations about the ‘post-Impressionists’ it is around their use of very bright, harsh garish colours (cf the Impressionists’ more muted tones) and their departure from, their flying free from, the constraints of a ‘naturalistic’ ideology of painting ‘reality’.

In summary

Thompson’s book is an excellent and thought-provoking account of the complex of commercial pressures, individual initiatives and shifting allegiances, characters, theories, mutual competition, individual entrepreneurship and changing loyalties which undermine any notion of a clear discernible pattern or movement in the period – but which makes for an absorbing read.

Four key exhibitions

The first half of the book gives a detailed account of a series of key exhibitions, which she uses to bring out:

a) the differences between so many of the artists
b) their changing ideas and allegiances

The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition (1886)

Of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition we learn that only Degas, Pissarro, Guillamin and Berthe Morisot of the original group exhibited, Renoir and Monet having cried off, partly hoping still to exhibit at the Salon. Degas created a lot of ructions by insisting that the show take place during the same weeks as the official Salon’s big annual exhibition – a provocative gesture – and insisting that a number of his figure-painting friends take part, who had little real affinity with Impressionism (namely Mary Cassatt, Forain, Zandomeneghi and the completely unrelated Odilon Redon).

It is useful to learn that the pointillists Seurat and Signac, along with the old-timer Pissarro and his son Lucien (who were both experimenting with pointillism), were given a room of their own. This explains why they gave such a strong vibe of being a new and distinct movement and so prompted the critic Félix Fénéon to give them the name ‘Neo-Impressionists’.

As mentioned above, Gauguin had a falling-out with Signac which led the followers of both to crystallise into opposing camps.

The Volpini Exhibition (1889) – ‘Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste’

To mark the centenary of the Great Revolution of 1789, the French government sponsored a huge Universal Exhibition, to be held in buildings erected in the grounds around the newly opened Eiffel Tower.

As part of the Exhibition the Salon/Academie of Beaux-Arts staged a big show designed to tell the story of French painting over the previous century, which included some but not many of the Impressionists, and only their early works.

Gauguin organised a rival show at the Cafe Volpini in the nearby Champs de Mars made up of artists he had met painting in Brittany, including Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Léon Fauché and Louis Roy. Later historians credit the show with the launch of a ‘Pont-Aven’ school (named after the French town where Gauguin had developed  his style) but Thompson shows just how varied in look and style these artists were, which tends to undermine the claim.

Notable were the absentees: Toulouse-Lautrec was considered but eventually debarred because he’d been exhibiting at a private club, and van Gogh, who desperately wanted to be included, was prevented from doing so by his art dealer brother, Theo, who thought it was a tacky alternative to the official Exhibition.

To the untrained eye the pieces shown here:

  • have gone completely beyond the Impressionist concern for the delicate depiction of light and shadow into a completely new world of vibrant colours and stylised forms – The Buckwheat Harvest by Émile Bernard
  • and, if they are depicting ‘modern life’, they do so with – instead of dashes and daubs of light – very strong black outlines and sinewy lines, very much in line with Lautrec’s work and the feel of Art NouveauAvenue de Clichy, Five O’Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin

The word ‘synthétiste’ appeared, applied to Anquetin’s work and meaning the combination of heavy dark outlines with areas of flat, unshadowed uninflected colour.

The art critic Fénéon wrote an insightful review where he singled out Gauguin as having found a new route past Impressionism which was also completely opposite to the pseudo-scientific approach of the pointillists, a style in which Gauguin

‘rejects all illusionistic effects, even atmospheric ones, simplifies and exaggerates lines’

giving the areas created by the outlines vibrant, often non-naturalistic colouring. – Breton Calvary, the Green Christ (1889).

During the late 1880s a young painter named Paul Sérusier, studying at the Academie Julian, had gathered a number of devotees who called themselves the ‘Nabis’ or prophets, and they decided that Gauguin was the vanguard of a new painting and set off to Brittany to meet and copy the Master.

Gauguin was also at the core of an essay written by the painter and critic Maurice Denis – ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionism’ – which claimed that:

  • Gauguin was a master of a new style which emphasised that a painting is first and foremost an arrangement of colour on a flat surface
  • therefore, it is futile trying to achieve illusionistic naturalism
  • and that the neo-traditionists (as he called them), having realised this, were returning to the function of art before the High Renaissance misled it, namely to create an art which is essentially decorative – which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is

The Fourth Le Barc de Boutteville Exhibition of Impressionists and Symbolists (1893)

This exhibition featured 146 works by 24 artists and displayed a bewildering variety, including as it did Impressionists like Pissarro, neo-Impressionists like Signac, the independent Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘school of Pont-Aven’ followers of Gauguin, and ‘Nabis’ like Bonnard and Vuillard. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is confusing.

The explanation for it being such a rag-tag is that it was one of a series put together by the thrusting new art dealer, Le Barc de Boutteville. The main beneficiaries were the ‘Nabis’ who fitted well with the contemporary literary movement of symbolism. – Nabi landscape by Paul Ranson (1890).

Thompson brings out the political differences between the pointillists – generally left-wing anarchists – and the Nabis, from generally well-off background and quickly popular with established symbolist poets and critics.

The Cézanne One-Man Show (1895)

Cézanne acquired the reputation of being a difficult curmudgeon. In the early 1880s he abandoned the Paris art world and went back to self-imposed exile in his home town of Aix-en-Provence. When his rich father died in 1886, Cézanne married his long-standing partner, Hortense, moving into his father’s large house and estate. To young artists back in Paris he became a legendary figure, a demanding perfectionist who never exhibited his work.

The 1895 show was the first ever devoted to Cézanne, organised by the up-and-coming gallery owner and dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The 150 works on display highlighted Cézanne’s mature technique of creating a painting by deploying blocks of heavily hatched colour built up with numerous parallel brushstrokes, his experiments with perspective, his obsessive reworkings of the same subject (countless still lives of apples and oranges or the view of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire).

It marked a major revaluation of Cézanne’s entire career and even prompted some critics to rethink Gauguin’s position, demoting him as leader of the post-Impressionists and repositioning him as the heir to a ‘tradition’ of Cézanne, placing the latter now as a kind of source of the new style.

You can see in the Vollard portrait something of the mask-like faces of Matisse, the angular browns of Cubism (Picasso was to paint Vollard’s portrait in cubist style just 11 years later), even (maybe) the angularities of Futurism. It all seems to be here in embryonic form.

Thompson’s analysis of these four exhibitions (chosen from many) provides snapshots of the changing tastes of the period, but also underlines the sheer diversity of artists working in the 80s and 90s, and even the way ‘traditions’ and allegiances kept shifting and being redefined (she quotes several artists – Bernard, Denis – who started the 1890s revering Gauguin and ended it claiming that Cézanne had always been their master).

Themes and topics

In the second half of the book Thompson looks in more detail at specific themes and ideas of the two decades in question.

From Naturalism to Symbolism

If one overarching trend marks the shifting aesthetic outlooks from 1880 to 1900 it is a move from Naturalism to Symbolism. In 1880 artists and critics alike still spoke about capturing the natural world. Symbolism was launched as a formal movement in 1886 with its emphasis on the mysterious and obscure. By the end of the 80s and the early 90s artists and critics were talking about capturing hidden meanings, subtle harmonies, penetrating the veils of nature to something more meaningful beneath.

Thus although Monet and Cézanne continued in their different ways to investigate their perceptions of nature, the way they were interpreted – by critics and fellow artists – shifted around them, influenced by the rise of an increasing flock of new art movements.

Thompson vividly demonstrates this shift – the evolution in worldviews from Naturalism to Symbolism – by the juxtaposition of Women Gleaning (1889)  by Camille Pissarro and Avril (1892) by Maurice Denis just a few years later.

The difference is obviously one of vision, style and technique, but it is also not unconnected with their political differences. Pissarro was a life-long left-winger with a strong feel for working people: his painting from start to finish has a rugged ‘honesty’ of subject and technique. Denis, by contrast, was a committed Catholic mystic who spent his career working out a private system of religious symbols, a personal way of depicting the great ‘mysteries’ of the Catholic religion.

Politically, thematically, stylistically, they epitomise the shifting currents especially of the 1890s.

‘Synthesis’

Synthesis/synthetism was a common buzzword of the Symbolists. It means the conscious simplification of drawing, of composition and the harmonisation of colour. Included in this general trend were the taste for Japanese art (liked by everyone from the 1870s onwards), the symbolist fashion for ancient art e.g. from Egypt, and for ‘primitive’ European art i.e. the Italian 14th century.

(This growing taste for exotica and the non-European obviously sets the scene for the taste for Oceanic and African art which was to come in in the early years of the 20th century.)

Interestingly, Thompson shows how this same line of interpretation – simplification, strong outline, unmediated colour – can be applied both to Seurat’s highly academic pointillist paintings and, in a different way, to the violently subjective works of Gauguin. On the face of it completely different, they an be interpreted as following the same, very basic, movement in perception.

Portraiture

Cézanne’s portrait of Achille Emperaire (1868) was contemptuously rejected by the judges at the Salon. 20 years later, hung at the back of the collector Père Tanguy’s shop, it was a subject of pilgrimage and inspiration to the new generation – Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard and Denis.

Thompson explores the differing approach to portraits of more marginal figures like Redon, van Rysselberghe and Laval, but the centre of the chapter compares and contrasts Gauguin’s virile ‘synthetic’ self portraits with van Gogh’s quite stunning self-portraits.

The examples she chooses show both artists as head and shoulders above their peers, with van Gogh achieving a kind of god-like transcendence.

Gay Paree

Thompson makes the interesting point that ‘Gay Paree’ was largely a PR, press and tourist office invention of the last decades of the 19th century, capitalising on the proliferation of bars, circuses and cabarets, epitomised by the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, and marketed through the proliferating medium of posters and adverts in large format newspapers and magazines.

Yet in reality it was a darker vision, a night-time vision. Thompson compares the lovely sun-dappled idylls of Renoir, who painted working class revellers at the Moulin de Galette cafe in Montmartre in the 1870s – with the much darker, sometimes elegant-sometimes grotesque visions of the dwarfish aristocrat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge (1892). The 1890s were a darker decade.

Politics

In the last few chapters Thompson brings in an increasing amount of politics. The chapter on Gay Paree had already brought out how life for the average working class Parisian, despite the tourist posters, still involved harsh long hours at poor pay (and she throws emphasis in particular on the exploitation of women as laundry women, washerwomen, shop assistants and the huge army of prostitutes).

This is all set against the increasing political turmoil in Paris, which saw a number of anarchist bombings in the 1880s and 90s leading up to the assassination of President Carnot in 1894, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. In the backlash some art critics were arrested for their left-wing sympathies and left-wing artists (Pissarro and most of the pointilists) kept their heads down.

Later the same year – 1894 – saw the beginning of the long, scandalous Dreyfus Affair, which started with the arrest of a Jewish army captain for supposedly leaking military secrets to the Germans. He was tried and found guilty on very shaky evidence then, after a long campaign to free him, another trial was held, which found him guilty again and sentenced him to hard labour on Devil’s Island.

(Although it’s a fiction book, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy gives a detailed account of the evidence and the successive trials.)

The affair dragged on for a decade, driving a great wedge between supporters of the establishment, of the law and justice system, of la patrie and of Catholicism – and liberal and left-wing politicians and sympathisers, who saw the whole thing as an embarrassing stitch-up, as the symbol of a fossilised reactionary order which needed to be overthrown. It also brought out a virulent strain of anti-Semiticism among anti-Dreyfusards, who used his supposed guilt to implicate the whole world of cosmopolitan culture, corruption, decadent art, sexual perversion and all the usual suspects for right-wing ire.

The case divided artists, with Degas in particular coming off very badly. As a conservative anti-Dreyfusard, he severed ties with all Jews of his acquaintance (including his old Impressionist colleague, Pissarro). Shameful.

The Dreyfus case brought into focus a parallel movement on the right, known as le Ralliement, which attempted to bring all the forces of ‘order’ into one unified movement in order to combat the perceived growth of working class and socialist movements.

Suffice to say that the artistic developments of the 1890s took place against a darker, more intense social background than that of the 1880s.

Thompson shows how this shifting political backdrop can be read into the art of the 1890s, with Catholic artists like Denis producing works full of Christian imagery, while the perfectly balanced and idealised visions of the neo-Impressionists (given that most of them were well-known left-wingers) can be interpreted as the depiction of a perfect socialist world of justice and equality.

In this more heavily politicised setting, the apparently carefree caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec gain a harsher significance, gain force as biting satire against a polarised society. (Certainly, the grotesqueness of some of the faces in some examples given here reminded me of the bitter satirical paintings of post-war Weimar Germany, found in Otto Dix and George Grosz.)

Meanwhile, many other artists ‘took refuge in’ or were seeking, more personal and individual kinds of spirituality.

This is the sense in which to understand Thompson’s notion that if there is one overarching movement or direction of travel in the art of the period it is out of Naturalism and into Symbolism.

At its simplest Symbolism can be defined as a search for the idea and the ideal beneath appearances. Appearances alone made up more than enough of a subject for the Impressionists. But the post-Impressionists were searching for something more, some kind of meaning.

In their wildly different ways, this sense of a personal quest – which generated all kinds of personal symbols and imagery – can be used to describe Cézanne (with his obsessive visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire), Gauguin’s odyssey to the South Seas where he found a treasure trove of imagery, Van Gogh’s development of a very personal symbolism (sunflowers, stars) and even use of colours (his favourite colour was yellow, colour of the sun and of life), as well as the journeys of other fin-de-siecle artists such as the deeply symbolic Edvard Munch from Norway – who Thompson brings in towards the end of the book.

Landscape

In the chapter on landscapes Thompson is led (once again) back to the masterpieces by those two very different artists, van Gogh and Gauguin. Deploying the new, politicised frame of reference which she has invoked, Thompson judges the success or failure of various artists of the day to get back to nature, specifically to live with peasants and express peasant life.

Judged from this point of view, Gauguin comes in for criticism as a poseur, who didn’t really share the peasant superstitions of the people he lived among in Brittany any more than he really assimilated the non-European beliefs of the peoples of Tahiti where he went to live in 1895.

He is contrasted with the more modest lifestyle of Pissarro, who lived in relative poverty among farmers outside Paris more or less as one of them, keeping his own village plot, growing vegetables, keeping chickens.

Or with van Gogh, who had a self-appointed mission to convey, and so somehow redeem, the life of the poor.

Conclusion

This is an excellent introduction to a complicated and potentially confusing period of art history. Not only does it give a good chronological feel for events, but the chapters on themes and topics then explore in some detail the way the various movements, artists, styles and approaches played out across a range of subjects and themes.

Paradoxically, the book is given strength by what she leaves out. She doesn’t mention the Vienna Secession of 1897, doesn’t really explore the Decadence (the deliberately corrupt and elitist art of drugs and sexual perversion which flourished in boudoirs and yellow books), she mentions Art Nouveau (named after an art gallery founded in 1895) once or twice, but doesn’t explore it in any detail.

Mention of these other movements makes you realise that post-Impressionism, narrowly defined as the reaction of leading French artists of the 1880s and 1890s to the Impressionist legacy, was itself only part of a great swirl and explosion of new styles and looks in the 1890s.

It may be pretty dubious as an art history phrase, but ‘post-Impressionism’ will probably endure, in all its unsatisfactoriness, because it helps mark out the three or four main lines of descent from Impressionism in France – neo-Impressionism, neo-Traditionism, and specifically the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat – from the host of other, related but distinct, movements of the day.

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin


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