The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. It’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really. it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed.

All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence may have been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, supposedly ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and is also the setting of almost daily mass shootings, quite apart from the fact that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 dead on D-Day. Gray’s point is homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive liberal nirvana.

More to Gray’s point, most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I may think that these leaders are not going to provide the meaning and security they promise, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives.

Our lives are demonstrably in the grip of umpteen impersonal suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that they’re fighting back at them, the nameless forces which seem to control us.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years give us a deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s main themes is a brief and allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the blare about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves. We don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seem so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, alongside trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. To foment small wars around the world in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were cyclical not progressive, based on the rhythm of the seasons plus astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. They have, in fact, been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and the past and so had ‘progressed’ and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war… and on and on it goes, the roll call of atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies, if you put your mind to it.

As a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Grays approach – it is easy-peasy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us a really entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all of it goes to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

A short novella, 128 pages in the Gollancz paperback edition, this is a furious satire on the arrogance, ignorance and grotesque violence of colonialism, fired by Le Guin’s anger against American behaviour in the Vietnam War. It is cast in the shape of a science fiction story which slots into the ‘Hainish’ universe and so it set on a planet far away and in the future. But the despicable behaviour of the marauding human colonists clearly reflects media coverage of the American army in Vietnam.

Athshe

Le Guin invents a planet from her ever-expandable range of planets set in the so-called Hainish universe. This one is named Athshe and consists mostly of warm ocean, but has one archipelago of islands covered in rainforest. Hidden away in burrows and primitive villages in the forest live the metre-tall, furry Athsheans, who spend a lot of their lives in ‘dreamtime’.

[As with all the planets in the Hain cycle or universe, the idea is that the humanoid Hain achieved space travels hundreds of thousands, maybe a million years earlier – and colonised or populated a range of habitable planets across the galaxy. These varieties of human have evolved in sometimes striking different directions but are, genetically, all part of one genus. Thus, despite their physical differences, the Athsheans are, at bottom, human and, in their own language, refer to themselves as ‘men’ every bit as much as the humans who arrive on their planet.]

Men, yes, men, because, alas, four years before the story started, colonists from Earth arrived on Athshe (known to Terran explorers as Planet 41 and named by the settlers ‘New Tahiti’). They immediately set up logging camps in all the forests of all the main islands, and proceeded to chop down all the trees, strip & shape them and ship them back to Earth, which is a sterile world of concrete in this (characteristically) dystopian future.

The colonists call the natives ‘creechies’. The natives call the colonists ‘yumans’.

Le Guin makes these human invaders as blunt and gung-ho, Yankee, big-swinging-dick, macho shitheads as she can, led by one Captain Davidson, head of the ‘Smith’ logging camp.

We watch Donaldson beating and berating the little furry Athsheans, getting them to fetch and carry and slave for the white man. In case we don’t get that he’s a prime slab of toxic masculinity, Davidson is shown swaggering around the camp fnah-fnahing with his logger mates about the new consignment of womenfolk who’ve just arrived on a spaceship from earth, prime meat, get it while you can boys, yee hah! And all that’s before we learn that he raped and killed one of the Athshean females.

Attack on camp Smith

Captain Davidson flies to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, for a little R&R but, upon his return, is astonished to find Camp Smith a heap of smouldering ashes. The Athsheans have risen up and wiped out the 200 or so men there and burned everything to the ground.

A couple of them then jump Davidson, take his gun off him and let him loose to go and tell the other men that the Athsheans are having their revenge. Just to rub in what a toxic slab of male cowardice Davidson is, Le Guin has him whining and mewling that it’s not fair that he doesn’t have a gun anymore.

Sometime later he returns in a helicopter from the nearest surviving camp which is, characteristically, equipped with machine guns and flamethrowers, and ravages the entire area, in mad psychopathic anger – a sci-fi equivalent of the ship Marlow sees off the coast of Africa firing its canon into the forest out of blank, hopeless rage and frustration in Heart of Darkness.

Selver and Lyubov

Then the scene cuts to follow the Athshean who confronted Davidson, Selver, making his way through the vast tropical rainforests to the nearest native village. He jumped Davidson alright, but not before the big white man got off a shot on his blaster which badly burned his shoulder.

Selver comes to a native settlement which seems to be made of burrows in the ground. He is greeted by an old man of the dreamtime, who introduces himself as Coro Mena of the Whitethorn. Our guy replies that he is Selver of the Ash – for these people are organised into clans named after species of tree.

From that point we are taken deeper and deeper into Athshean society, culture and customs: the novel is, in other words, another of Le Guin’s anthropological exercises.

Something which is made unmistakable by the way that, as so often, the lead (human) character is an anthropologist – in this case described as a ‘hilfer’, a professional student of Highly Intelligent Life Forms, the only Terran who has made the effort to half-understand the Athsheans and their strange mystical relationship with a) the all-encompassing tropical rainforest and b) the dreamtime.

His name is Raj Lyubov. Before the narrative started he had befriended Selver and learned some of the natives’ language and beliefs from him.

But it’s very characteristic of Le Guin that this fragile understanding and cross-cultural friendship is doomed to be crushed under hard, not to say cruel, events. For now we learn that the trigger for all the events is that, before the story started, Davidson had plucked Selver’s furry little wife from the pen where the ‘yumans’ locked up the creechies every night, and he raped her, and she died during the experience.

At the first opportunity afterwards, Selver tried to kill Davidson by attacking him in the street of Camp Smith. Davidson, at twice Selver’s height, was defending himself, in the centre of a circle of cheering, jeering jock humans, when Lyubov pushed through and pulled Selver free, carrying him back to his house. Here Lyubov washed Selver’s wounds and tended him back to health, the other colonists too ashamed to intervene.

Selver and Lyubov form a friendship of sorts, Selver helping the hilfer understand native language and, above all, the central importance of dreaming, of being able to go off into dream states, to Athshean culture.

But Selver is still driven by bitter anger and it is this, compounded by other horrors which are casually mentioned (for example, we learn that one of the colonists, Benton, likes to castrate ‘uppity’ creechies in front of the others), which lies behind the creechies’ massacre of the settlers at Camp Smith.

The cycle of violence

Just when you thought Davidson couldn’t get any more loathsome, he leads a group of gung-ho soldiers on a retaliatory attack on a totally innocent Athshean village. They napalm the burrows and burn alive the furry little natives as they run out. They stamp on them to break their backs, they shoot them and burn them alive. In a bitterly satirical aside, Le Guin says they didn’t even reserve a few of them to gang rape, they were that consumed with blood lust.

There is a plot of sorts, but I found it hard to read because by this time I was feeling pretty sick. As I commented about City of Illusions, Le Guin can, when she wants, write extended descriptions of the natural world but…rarely a page goes by without it being ruined, spoilt, desecrated, by horror, terror, violence, beatings, killings, rapes and, as in this novel, castrations. The cumulative effect isn’t insightful or evocative, I just find it grim and depressing. Depressing because this is fiction. She could write about anything – but she chooses to write about burning people alive and raping and castrating.

The authorities intervene

Back in the plot, the spaceship from Terra which arrived with the women colonists also carried two humanoid aliens, a Cetian and a Hainish, and the unexpected massacre at Camp Smith compels them to jet down for a conference with the military leaders of the colony.

As it emerges out that the colonists are using the locals for slave labour and raping their women, the two officials are not impressed. The meeting/conference is described in some detail, and especially the role of Raj Lyubov who tries to respectfully disagree with his military masters and make the truth known to the ambassadors, painfully aware of how the soldiers look at him with growing hatred, Davidson in particular.

Now these ambassadors are carrying an example of a new invention, the ansible, which they had been tasked with taking on to another colonised planet. Now they decide to leave it here so that the colonists can be in instantaneous communication with the Administration back home. They point out that in the years since the colonists arrived, the Earth has joined the League of Worlds, and has moderated its rapacious demands on other planets. Now instructions start being conveyed from the home planet Administration via the ansible, live, in real time.

Of course the military, especially numb-nuts Captain Davidson, not only reject this but suspect it is a hoax, a con, the ansible is a fake and the strict new, native-friendly rules being sent through it and imposed on the military are some kind of alien coup cooked up by the pallid Hainish and the hairy little Cetian.

Davidson is painted as such a cowardly, murderous, psychopathic rapist – and the Athsheans such lovable tree-hugging, green furry dreamers – and Raj Lyubov so much the sensitive man-in-the-middle who ends up alienating both sides – that I couldn’t help have a sneaking liking for Davidson. In free indirect speech Le Guin lets us overhear his thoughts and share his worldview, and captures the big swinging dick, macho bullshit of testosterone-overdrive American culture so well. Monsters are often thrilling. That’s one of the most obvious findings or discoveries of literature.

That said, there is a running stream of feminist comments throughout the book, a counterblast to Davidson’s appalling macho mindset.

The Athshean communities are run by headwomen. Casually we are shown female Athsheans being messengers and doers. I was particularly struck by the idea attributed to the thoughtful Lyubov, that what the colonists really needed was not big-breasted dolly birds but more old women. Old women have a special wisdom. Old women speak their minds and (though it isn’t expressed) old women can shame full-grown men into half-decent behaviour.

Lyubov is spurned by the Athsheans

Once the ambassadors or administrators from Terra have moved on, leaving a chastened military leadership reluctantly following its new orders from the home Administration back on Earth via the ansible – Lyubov ventures out to the nearest Athshean village. Here he is shocked to find the headwoman and other elders no longer talk to him or even look at him. He is the most sympathetic and understanding of the yumans but the days of peace are gone. Lyubov encounters Selver, who is recovering from leading the attack on Camp Smith. The other Athsheans look on him now with awe, as a human who can wreak such devastation in the ‘real’ world.

From Lyubov’s memories of rescuing and helping Selver we gather a lot more information about a) the Athsheans’ culture and language and especially about their ability to dream with their eyes open and remember and in some sense live by their dreams, and also b) more of the backstory about how Lyubov rescued Selver from probably being beaten to death by Davidson, nursed him, and in doing so struck up an intense relationship in which they taught each other their languages. But the violence has severed that link. Now Selver can barely talk to him. Devastated, Lyubin returns to the main human settlement, which they call Centralville.

The cycle of violence continues

That night Lyubov wakes from ominous and fateful dreams to discover that Centralville is under ferocious attack from the Athsheans. Later we get the detail of how about 5,000 Athsheans, organised by Selver and others who had been slaves at Camp Smith, launched a carefully planned attack, cutting off the water supplies, surrounding the base, planting a huge pile of dynamite in the central HQ then waiting with flamethrowers (!), some guns and plenty of knives and laces for the terrified yumans to emerge into the night.

Later we learn that the Athsheans knew the human women had been sent for safety from all the remote colonists’ settlements to Centralville and took special care to target the women’s dormitories and – annihilate them – mostly by burning them to death inside their buildings, or as they tried to escape, or slitting their throats or stabbing them with knives or lances.

All this we discover later, but at the time the scene of carnage, explosions, burning and screaming is described through Lyubov’s terrified perceptions, right up to the moment he goes to the help of a screaming woman running out of a building, just as the building topples forward and crushes them both, smashing Lyubov into the mud.

Next day, amid the smouldering ruins, Selver wanders dazed at what they’ve done. All the women, some 500, were massacred, as planned, to prevent the colonists breeding like locusts. The surviving men have been rounded up and placed in a pen, a lager, a camp. Wandering the smouldering streets Selver is dismayed to come across Lyubov’s body, crushed under the beams of the fallen building. He cradles the hilfer’s head but Lyubov can’t move because his back is broken and after a few words he dies. Or, as Selver perceives it, passes into the dreamworld.

See what I mean by hard and unrelenting and callous and cruel? I found it a struggle to finish this short book, not because it reflects the brutality of Vietnam – it doesn’t particularly – for me it felt like a continuation of the callous, heartless violence I’ve experienced in all of Le Guin’s novels. Remember the helicopters hovering over the protest meeting in The Dispossessed and suddenly opening fire with machine guns and massacring hundreds. All seven of the novels I’ve read have been characterised by wilful, hard, unbending, unsentimental, bleak, cruel violence.

The colonists at bay

The surviving men colonists are rounded up and kept in a pen. I kept envisioning this as like the camp in Bridge On The River Kwai. Selver has by now established himself as leader of the Athsheans, who have no central organisation or government or leadership in our sense. We are shown younger creechies watching in awe as he passes by. He is regarded as a ‘god’ because he has brought something from the dreamworld into the real world – namely war and death.

Now he negotiates with the remaining leadership among the colonists.

Cut to Davidson who hadn’t been at Centralville when the big attack took place, he was at a different settlement called New Java. Now he gets radio messages from his superiors inside the camp, telling him they’ve made peace with the Athsheans and he must cease any engagement with them.

The novel really becomes about Davidson now: it emerges as the portrait of a military psychopath because Le Guin takes us inside his head, hearing all his rationalisations and justifications for disobeying military discipline, for ignoring direct instructions to ceasefire. He decides his superiors have gone soft, and leads the more gung-ho elements on a series of helicopter attacks on nearby villages, once again, carpeting them in napalm and bombs, watching entire settlements – of sweet organic burrows mostly buried in the ground amid the roots of the great rainforests – going up in flames and watching the little creechies run around on fire.

Another Athshean attack

As you might expect, after some days of this there is a massive Athshean attack on Davidson’s camp. Amid all the explosions and confusion, Davidson and a few others make it to a helicopter and take off. In the dark night Davidson orders the pilot to return and strafe their own camp.

What I haven’t really brought out is the extent to which Davidson has gone nuts. From a technical point of view, one obvious interest in the narrative is the way Le Guin plots Davidson’s progression from gung-ho soldier, to disobedient officer and then onto crazed killer.

Davidson argues with both the other colonists in the chopper, including the one flying it. He gun-punches one of them, knocking him out and then, in a mad moment, turns out the cabin lights in the chopper – the aim being to see the lights of the flames from the camp so they can return and strafe it.

It’s only for a moment but it’s long enough for the chopper to lose enough height to crash into tress and then topple down through the treecover crashing down to within a few feet of the ground, in a way we’ve all seen in umpteen action movies. Davidson comes round from concussion, falls the few feet to the ground, realises that he’s slithering around in the sticky remains of the pilot’s body (yuk), has all kinds of delusory thoughts about flying back and killing everyone but…

Instead he regains consciousness and is confronted with his nemesis, Selver. Selver says he is mad. (There is a lot of rhetoric about madness and sanity in the book.) And so they’re going to do what they do with natives who go insane – take him to a desert island, in this case, one of the ones the humans have utterly devastated. Dazed Davidson feels a rope noose being lowered over his neck and capitulates.

Coda

The spaceship which dropped off the women colonists at the start? It’s back from its mission to some other planet bringing with it the only two grown-ups in the story, the Hainish and the Cetian representatives of the League of All Worlds.

They apologise to Selver (who has emerged as the leader of the Athsheans) for the behaviour of the colonists, and explain that the entire colony is shutting down. All the humans and all the equipment will be removed. No more humans will arrive or disturb them. Athshe has been made subject of a League Ban, and will be protected.

The last thought is Selver explaining how his culture considers new inventions or discoveries to originate in the dream world and be brought from there into the real world, and how those who bring them about are considered ‘gods’ (in their local language; in fact different from what we consider gods).

Anyway, the last thought is that his people consider him a god because he has brought forth organised fighting on a scale his world has never known. Now, sadly, he thinks his discovery of killing will not go away…

In this excerpt of the novel’s last page, Lepennon is the name of the Hainishman, Lyubov – although dead – continues to haunt Selver’s consciousness and Davidson – as we’ve seen – is alive but isolated on an island for the mad (something Lepennon and all the other Terrans are [ironically] unaware of.)

‘Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’

Lepennon laid his long hand on Selver’s hand, so quickly and gently that Selver accepted the touch as if the hand were not a stranger’s. The green-gold shadows of the ash leaves flickered over them.

‘But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason,’ Lepennon said, his face as anxious and sad as Lyubov’s face. ‘We shall go. Within two days we shall be gone. All of us. Forever. Then the forests of Athshe will be as they were before.’

Lyubov came out of the shadows of Selver’s mind and said, ‘I shall be here.’

‘Lyubov will be here,’ Selver said. ‘And Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.’

Conclusion

This book should have thrilled me since a) I am interested in, and have read fairly extensively about, the Vietnam war:

and b) I like science fiction.

But, although it has some elements which showcase Le Guin’s characteristic Deep Thought (the sleep/dream culture which she invents and ascribes to the native species, as well as their cultural tradition of holding singing contests instead of fighting) – nonetheless, I was disgusted and repelled by the unrelenting, sickening violence of the story which simply, for me, had no redeeming feature.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Edith Tudor-Hart and Wolfgang Suschitzky @ Tate Britain

This is a one-room, FREE display of the wonderfully evocative 1920s and 1930s black-and-white photos of the Jewish émigrés, Edith Tudor-Hart and Wolfgang Suschitzky.

In fact, despite the name difference, they were sister and brother, two Austrian Jews born and raised in Vienna (Edith born 1908, Wolfgang born in 1912), who fled the Nazis, settled in England, and made a major contribution to documentary photography and film in mid-20th century England.

Their father was a social democrat who was born into the Jewish community in Vienna, but had renounced Judaism and become an atheist. He opened the first social democratic bookshop in Vienna and the family home was a meeting place for left-wing intellectuals.

Edith Suschitzky trained in photography at Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus in Dessau by which time she had become a fervent socialist, eventually a communist, and vowed to dedicate her art to documenting the lives of the poor.

A child stares into a Whitechapel bakery window (circa 1935) by Edith Tudor-Hart

In 1933 Edith was jailed for a month in Vienna after acting as a courier for the Communist Party. Upon release she married a British medical doctor, Alexander Tudor-Hart, who left his wife and two children to be with her. (Tudor-Hart was himself an active member of the British Communist Party who would volunteer to serve as a doctor on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39). And so the couple fled Vienna where she was in jeopardy twice over, for being a communist and a Jew.

Demonstration outside the Opera House, Vienna (about 1930) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Once settled in London, Edith continued her photography, photographing the working class in the East End and then undertaking trips to depict poor communities all round England – from the south Wales coal miners, to the unemployed in Jarrow, to working families in London’s East End.

Gee Street, Finsbury, London (1936) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Scottish National Portrait Gallery

She worked for several British magazines – The Listener, Picture Post and Lilliput among others – and earned a modest income as a children’s portraitist. There was always a completely separate strand to her work which was about health and education, especially of small children, something that dated back to her early enrolment, aged just 16, in a course with Maria Montessori in London, where she at one stage planned to become a kindergarten teacher.

Later, in England, alongside her photos of the poor and deprived, she also took numerous photos of children in clinics and health centres and exercising healthily outdoors. As if contrasting the misery and poverty and deprivation of 1930s England with what might be if only we could organise society’s resources rationally.

Ultraviolet Light Treatment, South London Hospital for Women and Children (c. 1934) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Wolfgang Suschitzky

Edith’s younger brother, Wolfgang, fled Vienna a little after Edith (in 1935) and although he, too, settled in England, his photography was strikingly different in style and approach. He too took mostly street scenes of ordinary people, but his work is more consciously poetic, carefully arranged and lit.

Backyard, Charing Cross Road (1936) Wolfgang Suschitzky

Light and shade and shadow, and the glimmer of dust in sunlight or fog and mist attracted him.

Westminster Bridge, London (1934) Wolfgang Suschitzky

Whereas Edith’s work focuses relentlessly on the day to day poverty of the working classes, Wolfgang’s, as the wall label puts it, ‘displays an affection for the city in which he found freedom and safety’. Probably his best-known photos are from a series made on the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. They can be interpreted as a) street scenes from the London he came to love b) a memorial to his bookseller father (who took his own life in 1934 in despair at the collapse of Socialism in Austria) c) a tribute to books and their readers as symbols of intellectual and imaginative freedom which need to be treasured and defended.

Charing Cross Road/Foyles (c.1936) by Wolfgang Suschitzky

Spies

In fact Edith’s story has an extraordinary extra dimension: she was a Soviet spy. And not just any old spy but played a key role in the recruitment and management of the Cambridge Five spies including Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

She was instrumental in recruiting members of the Cambridge Spy ring, which damaged British intelligence from World War II through to its discovery in the late 1960s.

During the early 1930s Edith’s former lover Arnold Deutsch was teaching at the University of London, but was also an active Soviet spy, recruiting British students to spy for Russia. When, in 1934, Kim Philby and his Austrian wife Litzi Friedmann arrived back in London from Vienna, Tudor-Hart – who had met and got to know them in Vienna – suggested to Deutsch that the NKVD recruit them as agents. After some vetting, a direct approach was made to Philby and he became the KGB’s longest-serving and most damaging British spies.

Entwined lives: Kim Philby and Edith Tudor-Hart

Edith had been placed under surveillance by Special Branch soon after her arrival in Britain, but despite this she was able to carry on espionage activities. In addition to Philby, she also helped to recruit Arthur Wynn for the Soviets in 1936. In 1938–39 Burgess used her to contact Russian intelligence in Paris. When the rezidentura at the Soviet Embassy in London suspended its operations in February 1940, Edith acted as an intermediary for Anthony Blunt and Bob Stewart, passing on their messages to the Soviets.

In 1950 Edith was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to take a series to be titled Moving and Growing, showing children undertaking healthy music-and-movement style exercise, often outdoors.

From the series Moving and Growing (1951) by Edith Tudor-Hart

But they were to be among her last photographs. Following Kim Philby’s first arrest in 1952, Edith was brought in for interrogations by MI5 agents and her apartment was searched several times. She burned many of papers, notes, journals and many of her negatives in order to protect herself. What a loss!

Despite the searches and interrogations MI5 were unable to prove evidence of her espionage, so she was left at liberty. However, Edith’s mental health was not good. She had divorced Tudor-Hart in 1940, and had to cope with the fact that their only child, a son, Tommy, born in 1936, was severely autistic, and was placed in mental institutions from the age of 11, never to be fully released.

How hard that must have been for a woman who had taken so many life-affirming photos of happy little children at innovative health centres or playgroups or dancing in the sunshine.

So later in the 1950s Edith abandoned photography altogether and moved to Brighton, where she opened a tiny antique shop on Bond Street and lived in the flat above it in genteel poverty until her death in 1973. It was only 20 years later, after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, that files about her were released and a newspaper article first revealed her role as a Soviet agent and spy.

And that her relatives, namely her brother Wolfgang’s children, first learned of their aunt’s scandalous double life. This led to research, the writing of a biography, and last year a documentary was released about her double life. This is the trailer:

Conclusion

So this modest one-room display of 49 photos by just a brother and sister ends up unfolding a story of huge historical, artistic and psychological complexity and poignancy.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Käthe Kollwitz @ the British Museum

This is a really brilliant exhibition. Kollwitz is a genius and this is a searing, dazzling, breath-taking exhibition of 48 of her best prints – and it is FREE! You should go see it.

Biography

Kollwitz (1867–1945) was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a radical Social democrat, and Katherina Schmidt, daughter of a freethinking pastor. She was born and raised in Koenigsberg in East Prussia. Two key points: her family were committed socialists who exposed her to the social realist novels of Zola et al, as well as discussing the social issues of the day – supported her through her art school studies.

The result was that her work, throughout her life, was devoted to the suffering of the poor – especially poor women – and a particular interest in moments of rebellion and uprising and social conflict.

Plate 2 Death from A Weavers Revolt (1893-97) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Berlin

After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 Kollwitz moved permanently to Berlin, when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor. They lived near his practice in a poor working class district of the rapidly growing city. They were both politically committed special democrats, and it shows, God it shows, in a series of dark, raw and intense prints showing the harrowing poverty and squalor of working class life.

Between 1908 and 1910 she made fourteen drawings in this realist style for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, on social realist themes such as unemployment, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy and suicide, including this one.

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

One of the captions refers to the plasticity of her style, the superb modelling of faces and bodies. In a work like Unemployment this comes over in the dramatic contrast between the faces of the two toddlers and the baby on the bed, and the sparseness and vagueness of other areas of the composition, notably the hard troubled faces of the two adults. These key areas are soft and sensitive, while the surroundings – and the brooding figure on the left – feel harsher, darker, rebarbative.

As early as 1888, aged 21 and at the Women’s Art School in Munich, she had realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draughtswoman, and the strength and shape and depth of all the compositions here is wonderful. Thus her increasing focus on the techniques of etching, lithography and woodcuts.

Series

Paintings are often one-off affairs which can be sold at a premium (especially if commissioned by a rich patron), but the effort required in making prints, etchings and woodcuts has meant that artists often conceive of them as series, to be produced and sold in limited runs, and maybe collected into books.

The Weavers – Six prints, 1897-8

Kollwitz based her first series on a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844. She produced three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). See the grim image which opens this review. When they were exhibited in 1898 they made her name.

The Peasants War – Seven prints, 1902-1908

Kollwitz’s second major cycle of works was the Peasants War which occupied her from 1902 to 1908. This was another rebellion of the workers, in this case the maltreated peasants who rose up against their feudal lords in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in 1525, and were eventually defeated in a bloodbath.

Plate 5 Outbreak from The Peasants War (1902-3) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

At first sight there is a tremendous dynamism in this image, with the figure of the woman rousing and encouraging the men dominating the foreground. Looking closer I was struck by the ape-like clumpiness of many of the peasants – look at the man on the right. This heaviness, this simian Neanderathal appearance, seems to bespeak their status as oppressed serfs, as people who are in fact, barely human, so low have they been degraded.

All the images are tremendous but I was thrilled by Arming in the vault where she uses dark and light to convey the sense of a great horde of proletarians emerging from the underworld, armed to the teeth, ready to cause havoc.

And there is a detailed and devastating print titled simply Raped which shows the foreshortened body of a woman lying amid dead leaves in an orchard or garden, wearing a skirt but her hard peasant’s feet and calves and knees towards us, while lost in the overhanging trees, her young son looks down at her ravaged body. Note how the woman’s head is set at an unnatural angle, lying back into the leaves.

Sensuality

But alongside the historical-political series, Kollwitz also produced images of startling sensuality. They date from the early 1900s after she had made several trips to Paris and been amazed at the colourfulness and vivacity of its streets and social life as well as its brilliant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. The experience inspired experiments in sensual and also with colour. This female nude is stunning. I found the pinpoint accuracy of the draughtsmanship breathtaking.

Female nude seen from the back with green shawl (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Self portraits

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography, of which about 50 are self-portraits. The wall labels tell us that she also kept extensive diaries and wrote many letters describing and analysing her own feelings, her art and career.

One wall of the show is devoted to half a dozen or so self-portraits which showcase her tremendous draughtsmanship and accuracy, along with a deep brooding gaze, and the ability to capture mood and personality to a spooky extent. She is as harsh and unforgiving on herself as she is on her grim peasants and mourning mothers. What technique! What a godlike gift for capturing the intensity of the human soul!

Self Portrait (1924) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Great War

Then Europe went to war and her youngest son, Peter, aged 18, volunteered, marched off, and was killed in October 1914. The suffering of poor mothers had been a constant topic of her social-realist work, and – eerily enough – a decade earlier she had created this haunting image of a mother cradling a dead son, for which she had herself modelled, holding the self-same Peter as a seven-year-old boy.

Woman with dead child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

In fact the exhibition contains three of the eight working versions of this work, which demonstrate how she created, modelled and evolved her way towards the final image, a fascinating insight into her technique.

The War series – Seven woodcuts, 1922-23

The loss of her son, and the slow strangulation of Germany caused by the Allied blockade, the loss of so many sons and husbands, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the entire nation, burned and purified her art to its essence, resulting in the scathing series of woodcuts she titled simply War.

God! How searing and blistering are her stark woodcut prints of mourning mothers and starving people, carved out of what look like blocks of coal, or ancient fossilised trees, images which reach right down into the roots of the earth, deep into the lineage of human experience.

All the light and shade, the modelling and depth and (sometimes brutal) sensuality of the earlier works has been burnt away in the fires of war. Now Anguish speaks in stark flat images dominated by lignite black, from which lined and haggard faces emerge like nightmares.

Plate 7 The People from the War series (1922) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

All seven of the War prints are here – The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People – ranged along the opening wall, bringing a new visual intensity to her approach.

It’s that emotional intensity and the stark black and white of the images which leads some histories to group her with the German Expressionists, except that the Expressionists were mostly a pre-war movement, and Kollwitz’s pre-war images had been much more smooth and naturalistic, as we have seen.

In fact Kollwitz went on producing work into the 1930s and indeed up till her death, in 1945. Her last great series of prints was the Death cycle of the mid-1930s.

Death Cycle, Eight prints, 1930s

Her last great cycle rotated around the figure of Death and consisted of: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

It marks a return to lithographs, with their ability to give depth and shade, unlike the medieval starkness of the war woodcuts. And also a return of the Neanderthal or simian quality which recurs throughout many of the harsher works, gaunt images of creatures who are barely human, with thick, knotty hands and feet. Big, clunky hands and especially feet, bony feet, huge knuckled feet, used to carrying burdens and long days of physical labour, are a trademark feature of her work, even in so ‘tender’ an image as Woman holding a dead child, the knees and feet are prominent and brutal.

Plate 8 Call of Death from the Death series (1937) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

This one, Call of Death, reminded me of Holocaust or Gulag or prisoner of war imagery. Homo redux, reduced by the crimes and the atrocities of the twentieth century to a bare minimum, barely human rump. And of the great poem, Death is a Master from Germany, written at the end of the war by Paul Celan.

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

Summary

All of the images in this exhibition are brilliant. I honestly can’t think of another exhibition I’ve ever been to where the quality of all the works is so uniformly high. The images of peasants pulling ploughs in muddy, wet fields, with harnesses round their necks are searing.

The barely human, half-apes sharpening their scythes from the Peasants War series are terrifying.

The woodcut she made commemorating the funeral of Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht is a great piece of popular art, albeit in a dubious cause (Liebknecht wanted to bring Leninist rule to Germany, but was murdered by right-wing militias in 1919 during the chaotic street fighting which followed the collapse of the German Empire. Same year Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. In letters she is recorded as explaining she had no sympathy for his cause, but was moved by the huge crowds of working class mourners who attended his funeral, the class she had been depicting for decades.)

Even before the Great War she was a well-established artist in her genre, which was acknowledged by her receiving the position at the Prussian Academy immediately it ended. But between the wars she developed a reputation not only in America (land of the rich collector) but, amazingly, in inter-war China, riven by civil war and Japanese invasions, where her blistering images of the poorest of the poor peasants working the land influenced the Woodcut Movement among socially conscious artists in that vast, peasant-based country. Her Peasants War work was seen by, and directly influenced, the Chinese artist Li Hua, who founded the Modern Woodcut Society at the Guangzhou Art School in 1934.

Struggle (1947) by Li Hua © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Campbell Dodgson collection

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. This exhibition features 48. Why these 48 and no others? Because these prints were collected by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) who then bequeathed them to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson was influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms – Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion – and acquired as many of her works as he could.

And then donated them to the museum. And now all 48 are on display here, along with generous picture captions and labels which give full explanations of her life and work and the motivation and process behind each one of these wonderful works. She is a really great, great artist. This exhibition is FREE. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Death and woman (1910) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum


Related links

Germany between the wars

Art and culture

History

Victorian poverty and violence

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical sense

The World This Week

From 1987 to 1990 I worked on Channel Four’s international current affairs TV programme, The World This Week, initially as a researcher, then an assistant producer, researching and producing discussion items about the end of the Iran-Iraq War, perestroika and glasnost, the Tiananmen Square protests and many more of the major international events of the period. Right at the end of my time there I produced weekly discussion items about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and then the First Gulf War (August 1990 to February 1991).

I specialised in political events in Asia – from Baghdad to Beijing – so it was my colleagues who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I watched with informed interest, and was occasionally drafted in to help research and produce news and discussion items as events unfolded.

What struck me then, as I watched the wall come down and thousands then hundreds of thousands travel into the West, and has stayed with me ever since, was how, in just a few days, the entire era of the Cold War into which I’d been born and come to political consciousness, was made redundant overnight.

The Cold War atmosphere

My generation had worried about nuclear Armageddon, about the siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, about Reagan with his finger on the button. We had protested on behalf of umpteen dissidents in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. How we celebrated when the dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was allowed to leave for the West, or signed petitions to free Andrei Sakharov. How Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brave example shone to us like a beacon of integrity.

Suddenly, at a stroke, that entire world with all its braveries and defiances, vanished. Suddenly, they in the East could travel over here and/or enjoy Western freedoms and lifestyles to their heart’s content. And they did. Cars, TVs, fridges, rock music, drugs and prostitution flourished. Within a month MacDonalds had opened branches in Moscow and had plans for all the other capitals of Eastern Europe. Mediterranean beaches were suddenly packed with newly rich Russians, covered in bling, trophy wives on their arms, arriving on vast super-yachts as vulgar as any Greek millionaire’s.

The Cold War made stars of dissidents

The cruel oppressions of the communist system had given its writers and artists a peculiar prominence. The best of them could hardly help becoming involved in human rights movements or writing poems and plays and novels which dealt with Weighty Issues of Freedom and Human Dignity. For us in the West, they were not only Nobel-Prize-winning symbols of protest, but their writings had a Seriousness and Weightiness unavailable to us in the West, who were drowning in the thousand lifestyle choices of consumer capitalism. While we lay on some Greek beach worrying about our tans, Václav Havel or Andrei Sakharov were defending Human Dignity.

But when the wall came down, at a stroke ‘they’ turned into ‘us’ – just more people adrift in the vast lifestyle choices of consumer capitalism. The privileged platforms they’d enjoyed by virtue of their persecution evaporated. They stopped being Representatives of their Oppressed People, and turned into old bores.

The fall of Solzhenitsyn

This had all been anticipated in the fate of Solzhenitsyn, who was the Nelson Mandela of his day, a world-bestriding symbol of One Man Standing Up To Tyranny. Except that when he was booted out of the Soviet Union in 1974, and arrived in leafy Vermont, he turned out to be far from the enlightened progressive his Western supporters had hoped for. He turned out to be a deeply conservative Russian nationalist, of a rather scary kind. He turned out to be a grumpy old man who hated mini-skirts and pop music and fast food and 24-hour TV, loathed it, despised everything the West had to offer, and wanted to be left alone in his remote forest to get on with writing his multi-volume epic about the Russian Revolution.

So when the Berlin Wall came down, I realised the entire political structure I had been brought up in was disappearing before my eyes. In a generation’s time every book produced between 1917 and 1989 was going to require footnotes or an introduction explaining what the Cold War was, why there had been this permanent looming sense of fear about nuclear Armageddon, why the fear of your country turning into a police state was no empty rhetoric because there were police states just a few hundred miles away, and who these heroes from the East were. All of it would rapidly stop making any sense, meaning anything or, ultimately, mattering…

The indifference of children

And I was right. My children (born 1997 and 2000) have no idea what I’m on about, no sense of what communism really meant, no sense of how creepy and numbing a real surveillance society really was, no sense of what human rights mean.

It isn’t even ancient history to them – that would imply that it means something, they learned it at school maybe, and all it needs is a bit of digging up and refreshing. It’s worse than that. It just doesn’t exist for them. It’s nothing. The history and politics and endless arguments about communism, socialism and capitalism which I engaged with throughout school and university, which won me awards for political essays or debating society prizes – it’s all gone, vanished as if it never was.

When I reread Solzhenitsyn or Kundera it is like revisiting the lost world of my childhood, the houses where I grew up and which have been demolished to make way for estates or blocks of flats, the grammar school which became a comprehensive and then an academy, where everyone who taught me is long retired or dead.

And I feel like my entire past has disappeared, has turned to smoke and been blown away, and that I am a ghost, still applying the old categories – communism, capitalism, police state, human rights, dissident – to a world which has moved on. I feel like I have been run over by History.

How history works

Maybe that sounds too dramatic. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, that now I feel I know how History works. It confirms something I’d observed before, in other contexts – that old political or cultural or philosophical ideas are rarely decisively disproved – they just become irrelevant to the needs of contemporary society and so disappear from sight.

The student in Foyles

Decades ago, around 2000, I had a project to reread the French theorists of the 1960s and 70s. I ploughed through all of Roland Barthes, tried some Deleuze and Guattari, struggled with Jacques Derrida. I was in Foyles bookshop in London which was still, in those days, a disorganised rabbit warren staffed by poor students, and I came across a typically hairy, bearded student supervising the POLITICAL THEORY section and I asked him if they had any books by Louis Althusser, the notorious French Marxist philosopher. And he replied: ‘Why do you want to read him? He’s just a boring old Marxist,’ – which obviously wasn’t any kind of intellectual rebuttal of Althusser’s elaborate structuralist rereadings of Marx but which made an eloquent point. Old political and philosophical theories are rarely disproved or rebutted; they just become unfashionable, and then irrelevant, and then are forgotten. Until, decades, or sometimes centuries later, when they may be rediscovered and revived, given a shower, a shave and presented in a new suit, if some or other aspect of them seems, now, to address current concerns.

The past is an antique shop

The past – the intellectual and cultural past – is like a vast antique shop, an enormous old curiosity shop, in which hundreds of thousands of obsessives and collectors are rummaging through vast piles of dusty rubbish. In among all the tat and kitsch, and broken furniture, you occasionally find real gems, treasures which suddenly spring to life and explain current problems or anxieties. No-one can predict how or why.

I remember when the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Havel and Kundera were telling us urgent truths about our present. Then all of a sudden they became irrelevant. What help could Charter 77 or Solidarity or Ivan Denisovich give us in a world where state monopolies were sold off to a new class of post-communist oligarchs, where East European mafias established networks of people and drug smuggling across Europe, and where the Eastern nations became prone, not to left-wing tyranny but to the right-wing nationalism which has become more and more powerful?

None. Their individual bravery may remain inspiring. And their writings have historical interest and, in the case of the best literary writing, enduring beauty i.e. psychological penetration and beauty of composition and shape.

But even as I watched the joyful crowds smash down the Berlin Wall with hammers and then with big industrial diggers, I knew I was watching the destruction of an entire mindset, and entire culture, an era of cultural history, and that at the same time as opening up political and economic freedoms from hundreds of millions of oppressed people, it was also demolishing the framework which gave meaning and urgency to so many of the books and films and conversations of my youth, and not only mine – of hundreds of millions of other people. All those urgent thoughts and discussions became ashes overnight.

And then those ashes became invisible, and my children don’t even know they’re there. And that is how History works. By the obliteration of the past.

What historians miss about the past

Officials paid by the state or, at one remove, by universities, are continually categorising and measuring and recording events political and cultural. They create headings and sub-headings as in a thousand official documents and PowerPoint slides and web pages. Anyone can google ‘Berlin Wall’ and read all the facts.

But the atmosphere, the mood, how it felt, the pressure of ideas and issues as presented day-in, day out by TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and films and conversations with friends (and enemies) and as they bore down on all of us – the real lived experience, of the external world and inside our imaginations – that is what has been lost, that is what is gone for good, that is what no amount of introductions and footnotes and scholarly exegesis can ever recover.

The historical sense

And it is an understanding of this sense – this sense of how events create a mental atmosphere which bears down on everyone living at a particular time – which I try to reconstruct, which I try to understad, which I try to feel, in my own reading of history.

Understanding that people did not act in 1939 or 1918 or 1870 or 1848 or 1789, with our sense of priorities and rights and expectations, and certainly with no knowledge of what the future held. They acted in the light of the imaginative and cultural atmosphere which made up their entire world.

And I think the true historical sense is the ability to feel your way back into those mindsets or moods or atmospheres, and try to understand what they felt to be at stake. Not what we, now, know to have been at stake. And above all, not to judge them by what we pride ourselves on being our own vastly superior liberal progressive politically correct views.

Back then, there, in Rome in 44 BC, what was at stake when the conspirators decided to assassinate Julius Caesar? What was it that forced some of them to do it, against their wills? What were the forces bigger than their individual lives which they thought were compelling them?

What mattered most to rulers who organised the first crusade? What forces were they struggling to master, what goals were they striving to achieve? What cultural and religious and political assumptions did they all share – assumptions and values which have since evaporated and are so hard to recapture and re-imagine.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that, having lived through the utter evaporation of a huge, global, political and cultural mindset – and appreciating it for what it was – has helped me understand how quickly and how totally other mindsets have a) dominated their age, to the suppression of all other possibilities – and then b) suddenly evaporated overnight, leaving the survivors blinking in amazement.

The collapse of the English Republic

Something very similar must have happened with the swift collapse of the English Republic after Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. A series of events was set in motion which gathered speed till nobody felt in control – his son Richard succeeded to the role of Protector, prompting rebel groups to rise up, while political factions began conspiring with renewed hope for the return of the king. Political chaos at the centre (London) led General Monck, head of the Parliamentarian army in Scotland, to march south in order to restore order and issue an invitation to Charles II to return. And within a few months Charles was back, marching triumphantly from Dover to London. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Bishops were all restored, amid scenes of rejoicing and jubilation. Just like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Puritans, the Roundheads, the revolutionaries, must have looked on not just in horror but in bewilderment. The enormous cause, justified by God, to which they had devoted their lives, for which they had fought two English civil wars and countless campaigns in Ireland and Wales, had not just been defeated, it had evaporated almost overnight.

Die-hards lingered on, and the consequences of the revolution played out in unexpected ways for the next thirty years or so, but the core of the Good Old Cause disappeared like dew in the sunshine, and their children grew up without a clue what their parents got together to furtively discuss late into the night – the tribulations of the 1620s, and Charles I’s suspension of Parliament, and the arguments over Ship Money, and the heroism of John Hampden blah blah blah.

The whirligig of time

All swept away in the whirligig of time, overnight shunted off to become part of the vast Curiosity Shop of History, where antiquarians and collectors of curios get on with their quiet fossicking, harmless rummagers, not bothering anyone, until, now and then, some previously neglected part of the past, some gem from its vast array of ideas and theories, once again becomes useful, is dusted off and presented to the world to help explain this or that contemporary issue and anxiety, becomes part of the living fabric of contemporary debate and imagination.


P.S. Milan Kundera on the withering of communism

After writing the above I came across this passage in Milan Kundera’s novel, Ignorance:

Josef recalled a very old idea of his, which at the time he had considered to be blasphemous: that adherence to Communism had nothing to do with Marx and his theories; it was simply that the period gave people a way to fulfil the most diverse psychological needs: the need to be non-conformist; or the need to obey; or the need to punish the wicked; or the need to be useful; or the need to march forward into the future with youth; or the need to have a big family around you.

In good spirits, the dog barked and Josef said to himself: the reason people are quitting Communism today is not that their thinking has changed or undergone a shock, but that Communism no longer provides a way to look nonconformist or obey or punish the wicked or be useful or march forward with youth or have a big family around you. The Communist creed no longer answers any need. It has become so unusable that everyone drops it easily, never even noticing.
(Ignorance by Milan Kundera, page 154)

Pure Posy by Posy Simmonds (1987)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian newspaper gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse, married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, trying to attend night school while being mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Pure Posy is the fourth and final in the series of collections (given that 1981’s True Love wasn’t a collection but a one-off ‘graphic novel’, following the schoolgirl crush of a naive young woman, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright).

Historical context

Pure Posy brings together 75 Posy cartoon strips from 1985 through to 1987, a period of great historical change. In Britain the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 tore the country apart and polarised political and social opinion, while Mrs Thatcher’s harsh monetarist economic policies saw unemployment continuing at record highs in many parts of the country. And yet those who had jobs, especially nice jobs in the City and service sector, had never had it so good, and thrilled to all sorts of new fashions, big shoulder pads, big hair, jogging, health food etc.

On the international scene the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 was soon followed by the launch of his new policies of glasnost and perestroika which, although nobody suspected it at the time, would lead to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and the collapse of socialist ideology all around the world.

But for the first few years, the ones covered by this strip, all most of us saw was a continuation of the worsening relations between the world’s superpowers and the escalation of tensions which terrified everyone that there might be actually a nuclear war, and which was symbolised, in England, by the ongoing protests by thousands of women at the Greenham Common airbase.


Pure Posy

In general the Posy strip formed a haven away from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported elsewhere in the Guardian newspaper, focusing, as it does, on the domestic concerns and foibles of the Weber, Wright and Heep households, with occasional forays off to meet new, unnamed characters to make other points about middle-class, white, heterosexual, well-meaning liberal Londoners.

As in the previous books the strips are deliberately not placed in the chronological order of their publishing but arranged to create a sort of seasonal progression through one notional year, opening with Christmas-themed strips, and in-between progressing through spring, summer holidays, autumn, and back to Christmas again.

The triumph of Thatcherism

That said the general cultural spirit of the times does hang heavy over many of the strips, depicting the extinction of the old 1960s values of caring and concern, in a welter of greed and materialism.

This is epitomised by a very telling strip from 1986 which depicts a local working-class couple commenting on the changes they’ve seen in their neighbourhood, namely that, in the later 1970s/early 1980s, posh middle-class nobs moved in, all called Gemma and holding dinner parties and hiring au pairs but… they spoke as if they were genuinely concerned about unemployment and the need to invest in infrastructure and the NHS and so on. They were nobs, but they were also ‘sort of middle-class socialists’.

Nowadays a new breed of nobs are moving in, who show all the signs of middle-class gentility i.e. obsession with wine, interior furnishings, hiring au pairs and nannies and having a pretty little place down in the country, BUT… they have abandoned their soft-left scruples: Now they say we’ve got to be realistic about unemployment, they choose private medicine over the NHS, they unashamedly send their children to private school.

In other words, this strip epitomises the success of Thatcherism in making middle-class people across the country feel unembarrassed about making money and spending it selfishly.

This one strip shows how the cosy, rather smugly liberal, soft socialist and feminist and environmentalist worldview of George and Wendy Weber became old hat, old fashioned, musty, irrelevant, marginalised, swept away by a new generation of thrusting young entrepreneurs and money-makers.

This theme is further demonstrated by the ‘Ox and Tiger’ strip in which the Webers are at a dinner table – but no longer accompanied by other bearded sociologists and dungareed feminists – now it’s being hosted by a coiffured chap in stripey shirt and red braces, who looks like a banker out of an Alex cartoon.

The world was moving on around the Webers and they were not moving at all, they were being outflanked and outnumbered, even by their own children (notably their go-getting materialist daughter, Belinda who is given several strips despising their useless, woolly old-fashioned values).

Themes

Changing times / the Weber values becoming passé (9)

  • Pot-head revisited The Webers hire Crispin Naylor, a young fogey down from Oxford to tutor their daughter Beverley. He is astonishingly old-fashioned, dressed in a tweed suit and smoking a pipe, he berates the 1960s generation as the ones who undermined the fabric of society. (The ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was broadcast in 1981. The expression ‘young fogey’ was coined in 1984.)
  • The ox and tiger The middle-aged, middle classes have no idea how they’ve screwed up the world for the unemployed young, who bitterly resent them.
  • W.O.T. For some reason Simmonds coins the expression Wifully Over-Tasked for people who choose to over-work or use work as an excuse not to face relationships or parental responsibilities.

W.O.T. A doctor warns (1986) by Posy Simmonds

  • Fortress Britons Simmonds quotes the famous John of Gaunt speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II (‘This other Eden, demi-paradise..) contrasting the jingoistic words with the reality of a society in which everyone’s afraid of everyone else, has burglar alarms on their cars, persons and multiple locks on doors and windows.
  • Gingerbread without guilt At a very swanky private party given for Stanhope Wright a kind of strippergram arrives, except that she has an odd role, which is to assuage Stanhope’s guilt at revelling in such luxury and persuade him that the party is giving employment and jobs to all sorts of people. She is a ‘guilt-o-gram’.
  • Weights and measures Another strip depicting the fad for jogging, exercising and losing weight, depicting a party of bright 1980s people dominated by a smart woman who shows off how much weight she’s lost… until a very ‘big’ woman joins the conversation at which point they change the subject.
  • Toujours la politesse Belinda Weber’s rich City boyfriend is struggling to write a thank you note to George and Wendy for letting him stay over, and describes the evening to a work colleague, ridiculing George being a househusband, them letting the kids stay up and their general liberal permissive household. Maybe Guardian readers were meant to sympathise with the Webers but the thing is… City boy won.
  • Babaware A balding, paunchy middle-class chap goes to a Mothercare type shop pushing a buggy with a very small child in it and asks an assistant about an item of clothing for it, and the assistant makes the mistake of asking, Is it for your grandson? No my son says the man. So the strip is addressing the (middle-class) trend for men to become fathers older and older.
  • Lunch break An office meeting attended by four men and two women who all appear to be equals discussing business, turnover, profits etc. they break for lunch and the men go to a bar where they’re served by scantily-clad young women, while the two women go to an Italian restaurant where they enjoy being fawned over by handsome young Italian men. Then they reconvene and carry on business. Is this strip making a comment on feminism, or equality, or real gender differences? To a modern reader the most striking thing is that they go to a restaurant for lunch break. Or that they have a lunch break at all.

Women and feminism (7)

  • Rough winds do blow On Bank Holiday the Webers drive down to the countryside to visit friends, but after a stroll through the fields and a drink in a pub, George snaps at his host, and we see him worrying and fretting about his work. Don’t worry, explains Wendy, he’s always like that when it’s his turn to look after the kids. Maybe that’s funny but I thought it just insulted men.
  • The house-keeping A wife suggest to her husband that she stops working (as the dogsbody in an art gallery), they stop employing a nanny, she’ll be able to shop properly and have good hot meals ready, iron his shirts and everything properly washed… then she pulls his nose and says ‘April Fool!’ Presumably this is meant to be funny, because in Posy Simmonds’s view, all men’s deepest wish is to have their wives at home looking after the kids, keeping a good house and so on.
  • A mother’s plea Hand-written in dancing script, this is a letter from the statue of a suckling mother perched high on a plinth over some busy street, about how she is ignored, isolated, mute, passive, and only notice her to call her a single-parent family and a threat to society.
  • Always in the news George is in the front room watching telly with Wendy and two of their older daughters, as the news reports a succession of violent and sexual crimes perpetrated by men, while George – cartoon-style- gets smaller and smaller and smaller until, as the three women tut, ‘Tsk, men eh?’ he makes his excuses and leaves. I guess that’s because all men are rapists, paedophiles and child-murderers.
  • Pictures of the ages Like the Seven ages of women and the Seven ages of men cartoons she drew, this wordless strip shows the progress of a woman in twelve pictures from baby to old lady (dressed all in black in a parody of the painting Whistler’s mother [full title ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler]).
  • Long in the tooth Stanhope is in bed with his wife, Trish and for the first half dozen pictures is flossing his teeth which makes a peculiar tic and toc sound. Suddenly his wife says, ‘Stanhope, I want to have another baby before it’s too late’. ‘What’s brought this on?’ asks Stanhope, continuing to make the tick tock tick tock sound of her biological clock.
  • The world turned upside-down My wife remembers reading this strip back in 1987 in its original Guardian context and laughing out loud, it was so true! A harassed secretary, being leered over by her boss, dreams of a world in which women are in charge and men are patronised, touched up and made to do menial tasks, leered at by security guards and building workers etc.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (4)

  • Who worries about the worriers? Looking miserable and exhausted, Wendy walks home with a mum friend and explains how she gives all her energy to supporting her husband, her mother, Benji and Tamsin and Sophie and the babysitter and the bloody car and even the cat… ‘No one ever worries about ME!’

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • An inspiration to us all Having given the kids their tea, Wendy Weber reads an interview in a women’s magazine with a successful globe-trotting woman writers, whose smug patronising tones make Wendy screw the mag up and chuck it in the bin.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum Another ironic reversal: for ten pictures a youngish mum tells Wendy how wonderful it is to finally have her kids off her hands, as they are starting full-time school, painting a vivid picture of what hell it is to be sole carer for young children, and Wendy supportively asks what she’s going to do next, get a job, do a PhD? And the mum dreamily says… ‘Thing is… I thought I’d have another baby.’
  • Cheerful thoughts George and Wendy are in their garden with a heavily pregnant mother, but the conversation soon takes a pessimistic turn as George in particular rants against the horribly violent aggressively materialistic society the new baby will be coming into. Result: general depression.

Childhood and small children (4)

  • The ratings Two youngish children are watching a TV soap in which the characters are shouting and criticising each other, until the voices of their parents in the kitchen get louder and we realise the parents are having a row (she’s accusing him of being selfish and being out every night and leaving her to do all the housework) and so the kids turn away from the TV to watch the squabbling shouting soap which is their parents’ marriage, until the parents quieten down and the bored children return to the TV.
  • Little ones’ lunch A busy strip divided into 4 to six boxes each depicting the various stages of children playing with, putting in their mouths, spitting out, mixing with uneaten food or spitting at their neighbours one of: fizzy drinks, jelly and ice cream, noodles with sauce, chocolate digestive biscuits, stew mash and peas.
  • Men’s talk Two little girls come into a room where two little boys are falling about laughing and eventually find out it’s because one little boy has looked at another boy’s willy. So the girls ask to look at the boys’ willies and themselves fall about with laughter, at which the little boys are aggrieved: ‘S’not funny.’

Men’s Talk by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good sports Little Katie’s birthday party, where the bien-pensant liberal parents are determined to give everyone who takes part in the games presents – although ironically this creates lots of upset and unhappiness because those who genuinely won something are aggrieved that children who didn’t get exactly the same as them.

Divorce

Divorce featured strongly in the previous collection; for some reason it doesn’t feature at all in this one.

Ironies of love (2)

  • Live-in-love Young woman takes her cat to the vet. The cat is furious because after five years of living alone together, the woman’s fiancé has moved in so now the cat is pooing everywhere and generally misbehaving.
  • Moon flush A middle-aged woman is reading a romantic novel (the text of which is given in an unusual font, a type of Courier) and the cat is fidgeting with boredom so she shoos her out into the garden where the cat proceeds to re-enact the ‘romantic’ scene depicted in the novel, with a female cat, till their caterwauling prompts George Weber to throw a shoe at them and the cat scampers inside back to her owner’s lap just as the latter burst into tears at the sad love story she’s reading and the cat sobs at the missed opportunity for a shag.

Sex and adultery (5)

  • Forbidden fruit An ironic reversal of the reader’s expectations, for we find dedicated philanderer Stanhope Wright chatting up a dishy old flame at a Christmas party, and asking whether they can have a quick one for old time’s sake, but, when they sneak outside, it is revealed that they’re both being furtive and ashamed because they’ve nipped out… for a smoke!

Forbidden fruit by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good timing One of the pastiche cartoons Simmonds is so good at, five rows of pictures which depict the four phases of a casual sexual encounter, namely: well before, before, during, and after – and on the left of the rows a bunch of Rococo cherubs hassling one of their number to intervene with an important message. It’s only at the very last picture that you realise they are encouraging him to prompt one or other of the participants to ask: WHAT CONTRACEPTIVE PRECAUTIONS ARE YOU TAKING?’ (Given that this dates from 1986 it’s surprising Simmonds isn’t satirising the Safe Sex / use a condom message, which first appeared in British journalism in 1984.)
  • Just past it That said, this strip from 1987 is about AIDS, featuring Belinda Weber sitting at dinner with her parents and some friends complacently discussing AIDS and how difficult sex is going to be for young people today… until she burst their complacency by suggesting that the AIDS virus has been about longer than people think, like back into the 1960s… at which the smug middle-aged people start panicking.
  • Where there’s a will A long ironic strip wherein inveterate philanderer Stanhope Wright chats up an old flame over lunch and they agree to have a shag, but there’s a snag: wife? au pair? STD!? No, it’s the new neighbourhood watch scheme and the snooping neighbour Primula Stokes. To evade her ever-watchful gaze Stanhope outlines a plan of Byantine complexity and the would-be shagee politely declines.

A writer’s life (3)

  • Nine till five Satire on a woman writer who has to produce a weekly column showing how she puts off all her other chores and social engagements yet still manages to leave it to the last minute and have a massive crisis the night before.
  • J.D. Crouch As far as I can see this is the first appearance of the tubby, middle-aged, bearded writer J.D. Crouch, who will go on to become a regular feature in post-Posy strips (in 1992 Simmonds commenced a year-long strip solely about him and a writer’s life). Here he is in his natural habitat – the book signing – when unexpectedly his ex-wife appears and asks him to sign a copy of the book for: herself who he beat up in 1975, one each for the writer’s she saw him plagiarise (Kingsley Amis, John Updike, Alan Sillitoe, Gunther Grass), one each for the children he has never bothered to visit, one for his former researcher who he was knocking off while his wife lay in hospital… during which recitation Crouch shrinks smaller and smaller until he is hiding under the table. Men, eh.
  • The pleasure of their company A literary party at which a load of writers mill about gossiping about new books, are jealous of more successful writers, criticise book deals and publishing execs and publicity people and generally bitch and backstab, ending with the ironic conclusion that they don’t know why they bother attending them. A strip like this just makes you despise book luvvies even more.

Academia (3)

  • George retires? In the poly canteen George’s colleagues speculate that he’s retiring and in a chorus tell him about the pitiful perks he’s amassed in 17 years working there (a small parking space, use of the Xerox machine, he can claim for cassette tapes on expenses), all of them tending to how pitiful and puny his rewards are, except that… in an ironic reversal… they all reveal that they are madly jealous of these huge perks and tell him he’d be mad to quit.
  • The absent-minded professor George has a nightmare in which he actually really kicks an insufferable colleague he’s dreamed about kicking for years.
  • To whom it may concern George is angry that he’s been asked to provide a reference for one of his pupils without the student asking him first, also that the boy was lazy and rude. At first he types out the truth, but then we see the debate in his wooly liberal conscience as the figure of the student asks what right George has to ruin his life and, slowly, reluctantly, George goes back through his draft revising it and systematically lying.

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (10)

  • Year of the tiger A dinner party where most of the guests are lamenting how awful 1985 (the year of the Ox) was but how they’re looking forward to 1986 (year of the Tiger) and proceeding to chunter on about the new vintages of Bordeaux and champagne and so on – leading to an outburst by the posh host’s son. An unshaven man who points out that he and his girlfriend are unemployed. They represent the new year and the anger of the tigers.
  • Union Jakes In the Brass Monk pub the Weber’s are discussing Britain with some Americans and the conversation somehow gets onto toilets and toilet humour and the assembled Brits make fools of themselves by trotting through the amazing gamut of slang expressions we have for toilets and crapping.

Union Jakes by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • New minorities A comment on the spread of health food shops and jogging, Edmund Heep is in a cheap corner shop where his punk sons spot him and encourage him to buy a selection of crisps and buns and lollies, but when they go out onto the street we see all the other shops have become gentrified (‘Croissant Neuf’, the Natural Food Store, the Grainery, Herbalism) and it is they who are regarded as oddballs and cranks.
  • Senses and sensibilities A very structured strip in three rows of five pictures, the top row showing three high street shops, including clothes, burgers and records: in the next row pedestrians experience the five sense of sight (nice looking clothes), smell (of fired burgers and chips), taste (people munching burgers on the street), hearing (sounds from the record shop), touch (two women feeling nice clothes). And in the third row is the reaction of passersby to a tramp (unsightly, smelly, distasteful), a busker (unheard) and some vagrants who tell passersby to fuck off (untouchable). This is the kind of strip my daughter (aged 17) read and asked me, ‘So? What’s it meant to be about?’ Maybe Posy’s strips are an early example of ‘virtue signalling’ and reading them was meant to make you feel that, somehow, you more sensitive and caring about the homeless and squalid high streets than anyone else… all without the effort of putting down your newspaper.
  • The Age of REASON A television commentator reports that inhabitants of gentrified Balaclava Road are up in arms because one new incomer has stripped away all the chintzy facade of his house and restored it to being the Victorian artisans’ dwelling (which, we then learn, the entire street, despite their facades, actually consists of).
  • School steps Two teachers at parents’ evening discuss how there’s been a lot of them this evening, them being the parents who fuss about giving their beloved kids extra coaching and tutoring and support and so on and the punchline is that… these are all the signs of over-concerned step-parents. (This 1986 strip is notable for having a non-white person speaking, an apparently Asian male teacher.)
  • What Monet can buy At a house party that posh woman with the big blonde hair and twin pearl necklace we’ve met at her second home and running the Society for People With Second Homes, ribs Wendy because she’s heard Wendy is sending Bev to a private school. No no no no no insists Wendy, however can we expect to tackle inequality and improve the state system if the middle classes abandon it etc etc? But then the daughter in question reveals that she does have a private tutor and Wendy turns bright red with embarrassment.
  • May Day The Webers and children drive through wretched Bank Holiday traffic, the children requiring stops to throw up, everyone getting tired and angry… all to visit George’s mother in her rest home, whereupon she is subtly dismissive of all the presents they’ve brought and moans and complains. Maybe this is meant to prompt ‘the wry smile of recognition’ but I found it simply depressingly accurate.
  • French impressionists A funny strip in which the Webers take some French friends to the Royal Academy and, to the Webers’a amazement, the French rave about the foggy, grey, dull English climate. Really? Yes think of the great masterpieces it has produced and then… they point at some of the shops along Piccadilly showcasing the great names of British art, namely… Harris Tweed, Burberry and Barbour!
  • Smoke signals Bonfire night and three London neighbours have fires which pinpoint their social class: the posh Belpers are burning wood they brought back from the countryside, admittedly with one or two disposable nappies in it; the Timmises are burning an old settee and some shag pile carpet, the Webers are burning old books and magazines and theses (in a symbolic bonfire of so much of the late 60s / early 70s French intellectual content they valued and went out of date like old fruit).

Pastiches and parodies (5)

  • The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas is retold with the king giving a poor collector of wood in the snow ‘Take this sovereign and this tie / This clever bar utensil / And this stilton and this pie / This matching pen and pencil’… and then the strip cuts to some moustachioed club bores telling a silly joke at a modern party.
  • A second cartoon features Good King Wenceslas and his rich party-goers besieged in their castle by four million unemployed for whom they have zero sympathy: ‘Don’t bore us with talk of strikes / Or your whingeing blather / Off your bums and on your bikes / And pull yourselves TOGETHER!’
  • Pilgrimage An extended skit which takes the opening verses of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…’) but applies it to middle-aged, middle class people going on pilgrimage to sanctuaries and health spas.
  • Spring song The text is written in Simmonds’s trademark chintzy hand-written script (technically, dancing script, I think) which tells a jingle (‘As I awoke this morning, I heard a funny thing…’) which is ironically set against poor student Jocasta Wright waking, crunching around in her dingy student flat, and suddenly realising she’s late handing in her dissertation.
  • Household tips from the household gods Not sure it’s really a parody, but the strip is dominated by the Greek gods who give spring cleaning tips on how to clean various dirty areas round the house, like the kitchen floor or the toilet, but give up when – unexpectedly – this includes nuclear waste! A reflection, maybe, of the Chernobyl disaster (26 April 1986).

Second homes (3)

  • Arcadia Also a parody, two large pictures, the first showing an 18th century gentleman and wife admiring a winsome country cottage, the second in the present showing a coachload of tourists turning up to photograph the same cottage, now the second home to rich Londoners.

Old Arcadia by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Different species Rich London family enjoy walking round the cliffs near their second home identifying plants and species until, in the final frame, they enter a packed pub of locals and we are shown the latter’s thoughts, assessing their worth, calling them a blight, and figuring out how to mulch them for money doing repairs and gardening.
  • Turning an honest penny Tresoddit is the fictional seaside Cornish village Simmonds has invented to take the mickey out of the way the countryside is colonised by rich Londoners buying up second homes. The strip concerns Kevin Penwallet, one-time lecturer in anthropology who gave it up to open a shop in Tresoddit but has been forced to abandon all his socialist principles and reinvent it as an emporium of revoltingly twee knick-knacks for posh London mums to coo over and pay extortionate prices. Again, this isn’t funny so much as depressingly accurate.

Christmas (3)

  • The book opens with one big photo showing a Santa on top an open-top red bus yelling ‘Ho Ho Ho’ in the middle of an Oxford Street absolutely thronged with harassed shoppers, even the bus driver looks pissed off, and Wendy Weber is among the throng and yells up at Santa, ‘It’s NOT FUNNY.’
  • The book ends with a sequence of Christmas strips:
  • Thinking of you this Christmastide Notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright is slow coming to bed with wife Trisha. Being Christmas-time, she is thinking about all her relations, making a list of everyone she’s got to send a card to. Stanhope, by contrast, is weighed down by fears about his relations which are, of course, sexual in nature: He worries that he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, maybe even AIDS!!! and so runs through a list of all the women he’s had sex with – Helen after the D&AD awards, Vicki, Penny, you never know. It is typical of Simmonds to be really depressing at Christmas-time.
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page An oddity made up of two big pictures in which you’re asked to spot the difference – except I don’t think there were any differences. Another in which you’re asked to spot the four policemen – except I don’t think there were any policemen in it. Edmund asks three riddles, none of which I thought were funny or interesting. And then there’s a maze the reader has to navigate to help drunk Edmund back to his house.

Teenagers and the Generation Gap (3)

  • George and Wendy’s eldest, Belinda, is moping round the house leading the parents to worry what it could be – break-up with boyfriend? pregnant? herpes? other STDs? drink? drugs? debt? trouble with the police? general depression? But then she comes bouncing out of the loo happy and clutching a box of tampons: she’s had her period and she’s not pregnant.
  • Family planning Trish Wright is showing her step-daughter Jocasta photos of a family wedding tutting about the ghastly relatives. Jocasta says Don’t knock the family, it’s the cornerstone of society (echoing Thatcherite rhetoric), and then ironically goes on to point out how the young couple getting married in the photo will end up having to support a whole array of ageing relatives (as is coming true in our own time).
  • Hair today A young dud with stubble and a ponytail goes into a barber’s who presents him with a bewildering range of haircuts, until the dude says he needs one that will help when he goes home to see his parents to beg for money since he can’t survive on his grant.

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Good samaritans Heep is staggering home drunk in his sheepskin jacket and beer belly, and about to throw up, ignored by decent couples who pass by on the other side of the road when… he is accosted by two skinhead bovver boys who appear to be rifling through his pockets, finding £20 notes etc, but… it turns out they are looking for a 20p piece to open a nearby street lavatory. They find one, pay, help him into it, wait till he’s thrown up, then help him out and give all his money back, and walk off, two modern angels.
  • Giving up An ironic reversal where the appalling Edmund Heep is propping up the bar at some pub and showing off to friends how he’s cut back on smoking by making a cigarette log which he then shows them and reveals.. he’s smoked two packs already that day!
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page as above

Miscellaneous (4)

  • Live from the scene of the tragedy An odd strip devoted to satirising TV news, showing a reporter shoving his microphone in front of someone who’s just witnessed a terrible (unspecified) tragedy, asking how they feel, and the interviewee does what most of us wish they would do in these situations, which is knee the insensitive, crass reporter in the nuts, grab his microphone, and asks him how he feels now!

We bring you – live, from the scene of the tragedy… by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • To a tree Wendy gets furious with the council workmen who’ve come to prune the tree in front of the house, insisting they cut the bloody thing down as it is a magnet for dog poo.
  • A modern alphabet 26 acronyms, starting with AIDS and going through to the Zzzz of a homeless person in a cardboard box, via  CND, GBH, PLO, UB40, and VDU among others.
  • Two American tourists wonder just what it was that stood out most for them on their visit to Britain and trot through a set of clichés – was it the pub, the language, the history and culture, the healthy lifestyle – to each of which, as you might expect, Simmonds gives a typically depressing, downbeat ironic visual counterpoint (the language of Shakespeare is old codgers in a pub, the healthy food is sausage and mash and beans) until they conclude – depressingly – that whatever it was they sure are glad they don’t live here.

Animal liberation and vegetarianism (2)

  • Flying fur Unexpectedly, a strip showcasing ‘speciesism’ in the form of a selection of furry toys in a department store all complaining about how humans exploit them for food, fur, research and so on
  • Only connect Linked to this 1987 strip which has a straightforward vegetarian message, as the lamb joint Wendy Weber serves up to guest starts singing and dancing.

Homosexuality (1)

  • A kind of liberation The one and only strip about homosexuality in the strip’s ten year existence, this is an odd one about George going shopping with a gay friend and how the gay friend camping it up has ruined all the effort George has put in over the years to persuade the proletarian shopkeeper that it’s OK for men to do the shopping and the housework. I couldn’t work out if this is insulting or patronising, but I couldn’t see how it could be considered funny.

A kind of liberation by Posy Simmonds (1985)

Politics (4)

  • The game of happy families The one and only appearance of the dominant personality of the age, Mrs Thatcher, showing her playing a game of happy families with a vicar which is ruined when it’s revealed one of the cards has run off with his PA leaving a one-parent family to sponge on the state.
  • Heresies and blasphemies George and Wendy try to persuade their daughter Sophie to come on a march against nuclear dumping. the joke, such as it is, is that they present it as a duty, and Sophie resents it as a duty, which eerily echoes the pieties and sitting and standing and shuffling round which used to accompany attendance at church.
  • Suffering Compares the suffering of anonymous dark third World figures (war, famine, disease etc) with the suffering of the bien-pensant middle classes who read Guardian reports about it; and the real relief (food, medicine, money, water, clothes etc) is juxtaposed with the ‘relief’ felt by the Guardian-reading classes at how much they raised and donated to charity.
  • Consequences A surprisingly blunt and crude ‘political’ strip in comparing the fates of three drivers pulled over by the police. The rich white man talks his way out of it. The posh white woman gets off, although not without the policeman patronising her (‘Is this your boyfriend’s car?’). And then a black man driving an expensive car who doesn’t even wait for the police to ask if he’s stolen it but drives right out of the strip. Ending with the rhyme: ‘If you drive a motor car… You’ll get stopped, the chances are. But as a rule, you’ll be alright, If you’re male and posh and white.’ I found this crude, obvious and patronising, especially from a writer who includes no black or Asian or ethnic minority characters in any of her strips. In fact, the black man in this strip appears to be the only black person who speaks in any of the ten years of Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strips and his role is – to get into trouble with the police. Can’t help feeling Simmonds deals in stereotypes which are as patronising and clichéd as anything you’d find in the Sun or Daily Telegraph but just that they’re the patronising stereotypes of her tribe.

The end of the Webers (2)

  • Cutting the cord At a barbecue George sees his grown-up daughter Belinda in a huddle with notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright and thinks she must be propositioning him. In fact she is asking if he will ‘give her away’ at the big traditional wedding she’s planning to have, since her ‘principled’ feminist father refuses to.
  • Wedding party politics A strip describing Belinda’s marriage to options trader Mr Alistair Razer-Dorke, humorously profiling all the relatives and guests in terms of their party politics. In fact the wedding is an opportunity for Simmonds to review the key characters she’s created and whose company readers have kept over the previous ten years – and to say GOODBYE. The Posy strip’s time was up.

Thoughts

I showed my teenage, feminist daughter this book and she surfed through a dozen or so strips before handing it back saying she didn’t find anything in it funny in it, the opposite. She said she felt she was being nagged or scolded – a common enough feeling for readers of the Guardian, which after all is targeted at self-flagellating liberals who feel guilty because they’re not doing enough about sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia and the environment etc.

Some of the Posy strips are funny, but many of them rely on this mood or attitude – of taking a perverse pleasure in being told off or lectured or harangued. Of course the reader feels that, because they are being told off, they somehow rise above the guilt and responsibility for all the wrongs and injustice of the world. As if being nagged and lectured, cleanses and absolves you. As if, by reading a bitter comic strip about homelessness, and tutting and tsking about it, you have in any way whatsoever ameliorated the problem of homelessness.

It’s a peculiar psychological state, this state of recognition of some social ill, without any kind of proposal for what to do about it – and it is much the most frequent feeling you experience at the end of reading a strip, far more so than humour or comedy.

But the real story of the book is the way the Webers with their polytechnic-level, woolly soft liberal socialism and feminism and vegetarianism and permissive attitudes and touchy-feely concern about society and everyone less well-off than themselves had lived far beyond their sell-by date.

The strip had become stuck in that world, a world which had become a small island, a leftover of faded 1960s ideas, while the big wide world outside had moved on into a violent schizophrenic situation, caught between the millions thrown onto the dole, especially in the North of England and Wales, by the wide-ranging devastation of British industry, symbolised by the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (not referred to anywhere) – while down in London, the City and related service industries of advertising and TV and publishing had never had it so good, with money cascading out from bankers’ bonuses into holiday homes, and new fashions for clothes and music and foreign holidays, while the escalating tension between the superpowers gave even the most stoic sleepless nights.

Not much of this, the drastically changing national mood, could be captured in the Webers’ homely little world, which is why it was the right decision to kiss them goodbye. And why I admire the cleverness with which Simmonds did it, the book climaxing in the highly symbolic marriage between the Webers’ own daughter, go-getting daughter Belinda – who had repeatedly repudiated and criticised their narrow old views – and rich, posh, public school City banker, Alistair Razer-Dorke.

Simmonds did, in fact, return to writing a weekly cartoon strip for the Guardian for the year 1992-3, and the Webers and a few other characters do, in fact, make a few scattered cameo appearances in it – but it was entirely the right decision for her to end the Weber strip in 1987 and move on to other projects and new perspectives.

Credit

All Posy Simmonds cartoons are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now @ the British Museum

Last year the writer, curator (and sometime expert on The Antiques Roadshow) Jeremy Cooper donated his quirky collection of 1,000 postcards designed by artists from the 1960s to the present day, to the British Museum.

This FREE exhibition presents a selection of 300 works from the collection, and features a wide range of artists and artist collectives from the past five decades including Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whitehead and many more.

The collection – which took 10 years to assemble – now means that the British Museum has one of the world’s leading collections of this rather unexpected art form. I, for one, certainly hadn’t realised how widespread and flexible an art form ‘the postcard’ had become.

Dada Land (1975/1977) by Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi. Reproduced by permission of the artists

The idea is that, since the radical conceptual and political breakthroughs of the 1960s, artists have found the postcard to be a cheap, flexible, democratic, accessible and fun format to present a whole range of ideas, whether satirical, subversive, silly or surreal.

Hence, if only at the level of invitation to an art show, many of the most famous artists of the past years have used the format, while others have gone to town with whole conceptual explorations of its possibilities.

The exhibition is divided into the following categories or headings:

Richard Hamilton (1992-2011)

In an early work such as Whitley Bay 1996, Hamilton used details of commercially produced postcards in his pop collages. Two years later he produced a concertina, ‘pull-out’ postcard. You unclipped it and eight postcard-sized unfolded, each showing a commercial image of Whitley Bay, which was progressively blown up larger and larger until the image became just an abstract blur of dots and patches.

Dieter Roth (1930-1998)

Swiss-born Roth produced various postcard art. He collaborated with Richard Hamilton on paintings made in Spain, and then produced postcards depicting the paintings, but conceived of as artworks in their own right. In a series titled 120 postcards Roth overpainted and reworked a clichéd tourist image of Piccadilly, to create a set of independent artworks.

Fluxus

The Fluxus art movement drew in a large number of artists, composers, designers and poets during the 1960s and 1970s who engaged in experimental art performances. Japanese artist On Kawara made a series titled ‘I GOT UP’ in which he simply sent postcards to hundreds of friends around the world marked with a date stamp declaring ‘I got up at…’ and then the time and date. He continued the series from 1968 to 1979.

An example of the I Got Up series by On Kawara (1979)

These postcards now fetch extraordinary sums at auction. The one above, sent in 1979, was part of a lot of On’s I GOT UP postcards which sold for £162,500. Wish I’d known him and he’d sent me one! As with so much ‘subversive’ art which was going to change the world, it is now bought and sold by Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires for sums you and I can only gawk at.

Ben Vautier created a postcard titled The Postman’s Choice with an address box and stamp space on both sides, so you filled in two addressees. Who should the post office send it to?

I liked the extended-size postcard, Beached, by Lawrence Wiener (b.1942). It was made to publicise a video he made in five sections of himself throwing, pulling, lifting, dragging, and levering natural materials to make a sculpture on a beach in Holland.

Beached by Lawrence Weiner (1970)

Feminism

Postcard art was a way for women artists of the 1960s and 70s who felt excluded from the male art world to bypass the traditional gallery system.

From 1971 to 1973 American artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) sent fifty-one postcards of her hundred-boots project to a thousand people in the art world. During a two-and-a-half year roadtrip round California she placed the hundred boots in various incongruous settings and photographed them. What a brilliant idea!

Four details from 100 Boots (1971-73) by Eleanor Antin

Lynda Benglis (b.1941) and Hannah Wilke (b.1940) made postcards of themselves naked.

Lynda Benglis nude postcard

They were working to ‘challenge the idea of female objectification, often using their own bodies to explore sexuality in their work’.

Ponder-r-Rosa series by Hannah Wilke (1977)

Yes, I always find that pictures of naked young women help me to stop thinking about women in terms of their appearance or sexuality. Male gaze duly obliterated.

Performance

Stelious Arcadiou (b.1946) grew up in Melbourne, Australia, changed his name to Stelarc in 1972, and specialised in self-inflicted performances in which his body was suspended from flesh hooks. And his preferred way of promoting these performances was via photos on postcards distributed to other artists, galleries and critics.

Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension (1978)

In 1979 artist Chris Burden gave an art performance in which he described his relationship with a truck named ‘Big Job’, while clutching a gigantic wrench, and sent out postcards recording the event.

Big Wrench by Chris Burden (1979)

Conceptual I

This category includes Carl Andre – who made postcards of bricks or sections of concrete arranged in urban and landscape settings – landscape art by Richard Long, showing photos of places he’s visited and sculptures he’s made from natural materials in remote locations – and quite a few by Gilbert and George in a variety of settings and with text subverting their own status as artists and the whole point of art. Silly but oddly compelling, as usual.

Gilbert and George in a rural setting (1972)

Richard Long’s postcards of artworks he’d made as part of his long treks, in places as different as rural Devon and Mongolia, struck me as clever use of the medium. Some of  his artworks were temporary, made of mud or stones which would decompose or be assimilated back into the landscape. Some resulted in no tangible work whatever, just the record of the walk. Long’s postcards were, therefore, postcards from nowhere, mementos of things which never existed or would soon cease to exist. One of the things I’ve loved about Richard Long’s walking art since I first came across it is the way he captures the spooky, empty, vanishing nature of long-distance walks. You are intensely here, now, in this place. And yet half an hour later you are a mile away, over hill and dale, and the hereness and the nowness… are just memories… or photographs… or postcards…

Conceptual II

American artist Geoff Hendricks (b.1930) made a series of seven postcards depicting beautiful photographs of clouds. He styles himself a ‘cloudsmith’. Very relaxing.

Sky Post Card #7 by Geoff Hendricks (1974)

Endre Tót

Born in Hungary in 1937, Endre Tót trained as a painter but became involved with the Fluxus group. He is represented by possibly the best works in the exhibition, a 1974 series titled One Dozen Rain Postcards.

In these Tót made Xerox copies of photos from newspapers, printed them in purple, and then typed dots and dashes onto the surface of the copies in order to give the effect of rain. Each variation of the rain motif is deliberately humorous: some show heavy rain falling in just one place, or it raining indoors, and so on.

One of the One dozen rain postcards by Endre Tót (1971-1973)

These were all very witty – with other subjects including horizon rain (the dashes all running horizontally parallel to the horizon of a sea postcard) and new rain/old rain – but they also struck me as a genuinely innovative use of the size and shape of the postcard format.

Paradise regained

American photographer Duane Michals (b.1932) made a series of six postcards which starts out with a fully clothed couple in a modern office and, in each one, items of clothing are removed from the people while the office becomes more full of pot plants and foliage, until they are naked in an apparent forest.

Paradise regained by Duane Michals (1968)

Graphic postcards

Some of the most innovative postcard art comes in graphic form i.e. text only, or text over minimal imagery. Hence the bold declarative text The World Exists To be Put On A Postcard by Simon Cutts which gives the show its title. Personally, I liked the extreme minimalism of this graphic postcard, made all the funnier by that fact that it required not one but two modern artists to create it, Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs.

There’s a painting on the wall by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs (1996)

Postcard invitations

In a more traditional use of the format, artists often sent out invitations to art exhibitions (or happenings or performances) in the shape of postcards, detailing the location and time of the exhibition. Many of these were treated like ephemera and lost, only years later did collectors start to value them.

Invitation to Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! (1966) by Andy Warhol © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

There’s the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the (YBAs) (Young British Artists), and a funky 3-D postcard Julian Opie sent out as an invitation to his 1996 exhibition Walking Dancing Undressing Smoking showing the cartoon of a trim woman in his trademark strong black outlines, but done in that process where, if you shift your point of view, the figure appears to move.

Political postcards I

Because they are cheap and, by their very nature, designed to be distributed, postcards have been an appropriate format for all kinds of artists promoting their political agendas. Using the postal system they can easily be circulated thereby evading traditional gallery and museum networks, which is why many postcard artworks were often politically subversive or carried a social message. Images satirising and lambasting Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher abound.

Thatcher Therapy Dot-to-Dot Puzzle No. 1 (1984) by Paul Morton. Reproduced by permission of the artist. Courtesy Leeds Postcards

There’s a post-card designed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the simple text WAR IS OVER. Its optimistic innocence is counterpointed by a completely different pair of postcards by photo-montage artist Peter Kennard of a) some cruise missiles plonked on the back of the hay cart in Constable’s painting The Haywain and b) the super-famous montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of Iraqi oil wells going up in flames.

There’s another really vivid one with the big angry text I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT YOUR HOUSE IS WORTH (by Leeds Postcards, 1988).

Political postcards II – Feminism

Back  in the gritty 1970s artist Alison Knowles and composer Pauline Oliveros published a set of cards commenting on the outsider status of women in the world of classical music. The idea was to take photos of women composers and to attach a big text describing each classical male composer with the kind of derogatory comment they felt women composers were all-too-frequently dismissed with e.g. she’s a lesbian.

Beethoven was a lesbian by Pauline Oliveros with Alison Knowles (1974)

Similar outsider anger is the unique selling point of the Guerrilla Girls collective with their well-known poster slogans such as ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’

But best of all is the set of works by Jill Posener who, in the 1980s, sprayed witty graffiti ‘with political, feminist, lesbian and anti-consumerist themes’ onto billboards, defacing irritating, sexist and patronising advertising campaigns with hilarious jokes.

Saw his head off by Jill Posener (1981)

Altered postcards

Because they’re so cheap and cheerful artists have felt free to manipulate, transform, burn, cut up, deface, collage, paint over and generally muck about with postcards. Yoko Ono published a white postcard with a little hole in the middle for you to look through at the sky. Ray Johnson cut up, pasted and wrote over whatever printed material he could find. Genesis P/Orridge made a series of postcards in which the same black and white images of his mum and dad were positioned closer and closer to each other, until they merged.

In the 1980s Michael Langenstein (b.1947) made a series titled Fantasy and Surreal Postcards, collages of commercial postcards in which iconic images are made to do funny things, for example the Statue of Liberty is shown on her back in the Hudson River apparently dong the backstroke, or Concorde is shown having flown into and got stuck half-way through one of the great pyramids at Giza.

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Portrait postcards

Portraits often appeared on exhibition invitations, for example there’s one of David Hockney inviting to an exhibition in the 1960s. American artist Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019) and Anthony McCall made their own Christmas postcards. Again, the best of the bunch was, for me, the funniest one, which showed British artist Peter Hutchison (b.1930) being showered with foot-high letters in a work titled Struggling with language from 1974.

Struggling with language by Peter Hutchison (1974)

Recent postcards

Despite being overtaken by digital technology, emails, texts and numerous forms of social media, the postcard continues to thrive, in the real world out there, as well as in the art world. This last section showcases recent postcard art by Tacita Dean and Frances Alÿs, by Braco Dimitrijevic and Alison Wilding, Gillian Wearing and Jeremy Deller.

Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are pictured wearing scruffy anoraks and each holding a pair of big balls, in the tradition of the smutty seaside postcard. Meanwhile, Rachel Whiteread – an avid collector of postcards, apparently – has punched holes into innocuous scenic postcards thus turning them into miniature sculptures.

Untitled (2005) by Rachel Whiteread. Photograph © 2018 Rachel Whiteread

Thoughts

Who knew so much work existed in this area, who knew that ‘the postcard’ was a modern art genre in itself. Sceptical to being with, I am now totally converted. The categories I listed above aren’t exhaustive: there were quite a few one-off creative and experimental projects which come under no particular category but are also included.

A test of an exhibition is whether, at the end of it, you want to go round again, and I did. Having gone round once carefully reading the labels, I then went round again, just for fun, stopping at the ones which made me smile or laugh out loud (smiling at the rain postcards, guffawing at Jill Posener’s brilliant anti-sexist cards from the 80s).

It’s fun and it’s FREE. Pop along for an entertaining and enlightening experience.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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