The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith (1986)

Martin Cruz Smith is best known for the series of eight novels he’s written about Moscow-based police detective Arkady Renko, which kicked off with the international best-seller Gorky Park. Having read all eight I was dazzled by Smith’s ability to create memorable characters, to conjure up eerily powerful scenes, and to make the English language dance and shimmy like a sand snake. He is a marvellous, magical writer. Before during and after writing the Renko series, however, he has written over 20 other novels, in a variety of settings.

This one is set in 1945 in New Mexico at the famous Los Alamos facility, which was built to house the hundreds, and then thousands, of scientists and military personnel involved in the creation of the world’s first atom bomb.

It’s a third-person narrative but it’s told very much from the perspective of Sergeant Joe Peña, a ‘huge, attractive’ native American. Joe left his parents’ pueblo, or village, young and headed to the big city where he made a name for himself as a boxer, but also as a mean jazz pianist in the era of swing and stride piano. (There are several extended descriptions of what it feels like to play jazz piano, with technical descriptions of Joe changing tempo, melody, how he syncopates left and right hand, in the styles of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and so on.)

One drunk night he and his band-mates broke into a nearby US Army base with the cack-handed idea of entertaining the troops. But they were caught, arrested, and given the choice of gaol or enlisting. He enlists. After basic training, Joe found himself packed off to the Philippines, shortly before the Japanese invaded (December 1941). Joe is wounded but his squad of Filipinos managed to get him into a rowing boat, which they pushed off from a remote bay, and he was eventually picked up by an American submarine and repatriated to the States.

Here he recovered from his wounds and was on garrison duty when he made the bad mistake of sleeping with the colonel’s wife, who finds out about the affair and has Joe sent to prison on a trumped-up charge. The novel opens with Sergeant Joe Peña locked in solitary confinement at the Military Corrections Complex, Fort Leavenworth, in Texas.

Ten days of solitary confinement have given Joe hallucinations, visions – we later discover – related to his Indian heritage. To his surprise he is visited by Captain Augustino, head of security at the top secret Los Alamos facility. Augustino reminds him that, years before, Peña’s father had worked on the old ranch out at Los Alamos (which is near Joe’s pueblo) and that Peña often helped out. It was a ‘dude ranch’, offering a taste of desert living, horse-riding and so on, to city slickers and their families. Among the many urbanites Peña had taught to ride, to hunt a little, and so on, had been a scrawny, sickly kid from New York named Oppenheimer.

Now that very same J. Robert Oppenheimer is all grown up and head of the top secret ‘Manhattan Project’, leading a team of top physicists (mostly European emigrés) working to build the world’s first atom bomb. Augustino says he can spring Peña from the hole on one condition – that he goes to work for Oppenheimer as his driver and fixer and – spies on him; that he reports back to Augustino everywhere Oppenheimer goes, everyone he meets and every conversation he has.

OK says Joe, and the novel begins.

Plot

A lot happens in this novel and Cruz Smith is an expert at intertwining half a dozen different plot strands in a deliberately demanding, teasing way. The reader struggles to keep up sometimes and Smith likes springing surprises with no warning.

Driver for Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer (who everyone calls ‘Oppy’) is delighted to be reintroduced to Joe as his driver, a man who knows the local country intimately, can liaise with the various Indian staff and locals, and can reminisce with Oppy about happier days.

Joe sleeps with Augustino’s wife

At a party for the faculty Joe plays jazz piano and, to his horror, finds Augustino’s bored wife flirting with him. That night he returns to his room to find her already stripped naked in bed waiting for him. They have sex. Bad idea. Augustino is not the forgiving type. In an eerie scene, the next day Augustino takes Joe hunting up into the snow-covered hills and then suddenly turns the gun on Joe. Joe scarpers through the snow just in time to throw himself behind the body of the deer they’ve just shot, pulling out his army Colt .45. But as quickly as he got angry, Augustino relents, puts his gun up and they return to the base; but Joe realises the man really hates him and, when his usefulness is up, won’t be merciful.

Augustino thinks Oppenheimer is a Soviet spy

One of the central threads of the novel is that Augustino is convinced that Oppy is a Soviet spy, taking as evidence the fact that Oppy’s wife, brother and girlfriend are communists, and he has hired lots of dubious Europeans to work on the project. Augustino has taken his suspicions to the ultimate head of the Manhattan project, General Groves, who overruled Augustino – for the time being.

We see and hear a lot from Oppy, who gets progressively more emaciated and tense as the deadline for testing the bomb (in July 1945) approaches. He is, of course, a real historical personage, so it’s fascinating, as it always is, to see a novelist imagining the character and dialogue of someone we know was a real person. Similarly we also introduced to a number of the other key scientists on the project who were real people – the Italian Enrico Fermi, the Englishman Foote, the Hungarian Edward Teller, and so on.

Joe and Indian culture

But Joe’s role in the novel is not only player in the Oppenheimer-spy plot, but as doorway to alternative cultures. He hangs out with some of the common soldiers assigned to guard this and that, and sympathises with their gripes, so that we get the ordinary soldier’s perspective on the grandiose ‘project’.

Most obviously, Joe is part of the local native American culture. He grew up not far from Los Alamos and he returns frequently to the pueblo of Santiago where he still owns the family house. His mother, Dolores, was a stern taskmaster. She never forgave him for setting a macho example to his kid brother, Rudy, who enlisted in the Army and never came back from the Philippines. Dolores always blamed Joe. She was also a leading maker of native-style clay pots, one of the staple products of the local Indians, who make money selling them to tourists.

It is through this connection with neighbours and kin that Joe finds himself getting drawn into a strange sub-plot about two old Indians, Ben Reyes and Roberto (who is blind). This odd couple carry out traditional ceremonies at some of the remoter canyons which surround Los Alamos. Joe is tasked with escorting a new arrival at the facility, the attractive female German émigré mathematician, Anna Weiss and the aloof and arrogant physicist Klaus Fuchs, on a trip into the surrounding countryside, when the latter gets lost. Joe comes across steps to some kind of cave and discovers Fuchs being held at gunpoint by blind Roberto. Fuchs is petrified and Roberto seems inclined to shoot him for intruding on a native ceremony. Slowly, calmly Joe talks Roberto round and extracts Fuchs to safety.

This incident snowballs into a major plotline for it triggers the arrival on the scene of two goons from the Indian Service, who have been tasked with tracking down Roberto and Ben Reyes and arresting them. Joe finds himself forced against his better judgement into helping the fugitives hide and eventually escape to Mexico, which brings him into conflict with both the Indian Service toughs and his ever-vigilant boss, Augustino.

The lightning wands

Along the way Joe discovers that the Indian pair are also indulging in some kind of voodoo. they have carved a set of native wooden lightning ‘wands’ and are getting collaborators inside Los Alamos to scatter them at the sites of mysterious fires in the facility. It’s not quite clear to this reader whether one of them is starting the fires or whether they are just taking advantage of a sudden rash of bolts of lightning which have come with the hot summer weather and seem to be triggering random acts-of-nature fires, and which they drop the wands at to give the impression that they are somehow controlling the weather.

Anyway, they’re doing it because they believe the work going on at Los Alamos is blasphemous and should be stopped. There’s a conversation with Joe where they quote Hopi Indian prophecies about a gourd of ashes being spilt from the sky which will burn the earth – they suspect this is an ancient prophecy predicting the super-weapon being built at the facility, and they’re doing their little bit to discourage it…

The wands are found at the sites of various outbreaks of fire. When Augustino finds a few wands which had been stashed in a hiding place by the conspirators, it gives him the opportunity to plant them on Joe with a view to framing him for arson. He doesn’t necessarily want to get Joe, he just wants to have him completely under his thumb in order to achieve his obsessive goal of getting Oppy arrested.

The real spy is Klaus Fuchs

The irony of Augustino’s spy obsession is that there is a Red spy at Los Alamos (in fact we know from the historical record that there were actually three) but the most important one is arrogant, creepy Klaus Fuchs. Joe stumbles across Fuchs meeting his go-between, Harry Gold, in Santa Fe, sees them swap newspapers (presumably Fuchs is passing secrets to Gold folded in his newspaper) and then latches onto Gold and is about to question him when Oppy and Anna suddenly emerge from a hotel right in front of them. There have to be polite introductions and Joe is powerless to prevent Gold leaving.

Joe and Anna Weiss’s affair

Meanwhile the prim German mathematician, Anna Weiss, who we have seen accompanying the equally severe Fuchs, who Oppy obviously fancies (as is made clear at a party the Oppenheimers host and where his wife, Kitty, gets drunk and indiscreet with Joe) starts to flirt with Joe. Joe is, after all, a big handsome Indian, previously a prize fighter – ‘Big Chief Joe Peña’, as various characters mockingly or affectionately refer to him.

Joe and Anna end up having an affair. Cruz Smith describes them having sex in front of the fire, sex on the bed, sex when they go out skinny dipping under the stars, sex up against the wall – quite a lot of big-dark-Indian-on-white-skinned-German-blonde sex. As always, detailed descriptions of sex in a novel run the risk of making the reader squirm with embarrassment.

Once they are an item, Anna finds out about the help Joe is reluctantly giving to the two old Indians who are on the run. In the end she gets so involved that she offers to drive them hidden in an old pickup truck to the Mexico border, at the novel’s climax.

Joe is offered ownership of a jazz nightclub

Things speed up towards a climax in the last fifty pages or so. An old black guy Joe knows, Pollack, is the owner of the only decent jazz club in all New Mexico, the Casa Mañana. But he’s selling up and moving to the East Coast. Pollack laments, over a drink and a cigarette with Joe, that the buyers are going to knock the club down and turn it into flats. As jazz fans, both are appalled.

In a separate development a local hustler-turned-politician, Hilario, had been needling Joe from time to time about going back in the ring to make some bucks in one last big prize fight. Quite blatantly, Hilario is only interested in the huge winnings he can make by organising the gambling on such an event.

The two plotlines come together when Pollack, on the spur of the moment, offers Joe the freehold of the nightclub for half what he’s selling to the property developers – $50,000 – in order to save it for jazz. Joe doesn’t have that kind of money but realises that, if he accepts Hilario’s offer to do one last fight, the prize money combined with betting everything he possesses on the result, will just about scrape together the required sum. He says, ‘Yes, I’ll buy it,’ to Pollack. He tells Hilario, ‘Yes I’ll fight – but has to be in the next 7 days.’

Joe’s big fight

In the event, the fight is arranged for the very evening of the test of the first atom bomb at the Trinity test site in the New Mexico desert. And the very night that Anna has volunteered to drive the two raddled old Indian renegades to safety in Mexico.

The fight goes ahead in the car park of a motel in a town to the south of Santa Fe. There is an extended description of the four brutal rounds, which is fought in an impromptu ring, with knuckles bandaged not gloved, and time called erratically by the crooked Hilario, based on stopping at dramatic points to provoke more betting (and maximise his cut). Joe takes a lot of punishment from an angry youth half his age, but the kid fades in the fourth and Joe suddenly finishes him with a fierce attack.

Augustino’s deal

Joe takes his money but Augustino is there – turning up as he always does when least expected – having watched the whole thing. He tells Joe he knows Anna is taking the Indian runaways to the border; he’ll tip off the Indian Service toughs so that Ben and Roberto get arrested and Anna along with them as an accessory, unless Joe does what he tells him i.e. plants decisively incriminating evidence on Oppy, namely Harry Gold’s business card, which Augustino has got hold of. This would link Oppy with Gold who the authorities know is a spy.

This is the crux at the climax of the novel: what should Joe do? Save his lover by incriminating the man he likes and respects? Sacrifice his lover and the Indians (by extension his heritage) and betray his friend?

Joe tells Augustino he’ll do it and drives back to the test site. He had covered his absence for the fight by claiming to be policing the perimeter of the test site for Indians – based on the notion that only he would know where they would hide or break in. After all the local Indians have not been told anything about the bomb (no-one has) and just think it’s another example of the U.S. Army fencing off their ancestral lands. Oppy accepts this excuse but is glad to see him back just before the test explosion.

Climax at ground zero

The climax of the novel comes when Joe returns to Ground Zero, to be in attendance on Oppy as the final hours tick down to the test of the prototype atom bomb.

Throughout the novel we’ve met some of the more technical scientists, the ones responsible for building and assembling the prototypes. Now we watch them assemble an actual live bomb, with much back chat and jokes about ‘Don’t drop it!’ Oppy is a bag of nerves, emaciated as a walking skeleton, convinced – like some of his colleagues – that the wretched thing won’t work.

Joe knows that, if it fails, Augustino will present the failure as proof to General Groves that Oppy is a spy and that the ‘meeting’ between Oppy and Gold in Santa Fe – which Joe was present at and knows was purely accidental – was in fact Gold passing on Soviet instructions to ensure the test fails.

For the first time in months it starts to rain, jeopardising the test. Oppy is devastated. Should they abandon the test? A pessimistic Oppy is persuaded simply to delay it. Joe is tasked with guarding the bomb itself which is located in a kind of shed on top of a hundred foot tall scaffolding tower. He’s in the shed right next to the device when Oppy trips over some ropes where Joe had temporarily hidden the wretched lightning wands which he’s been carrying round trying to find a definitive hiding place.

Oppy recognises them and leaps to the conclusion that Joe is the arsonist who seems to have been sabotaging the base. He accuses Joe, they have a brief scuffle, then Oppy climbs down the ladder to his car and drives off to the security of the bunker seven miles away.

Last fight with Augustino

Out of the darkness appears Captain Augustino, Joe’s nemesis, like the proverbial bad penny. Augustino He asks whether Joe planted the incriminating evidence – Gold’s business card – on Oppy then. But in a melodramatic flash of lightning, Augustino sees the card lying on a desk where Joe had left it. So Joe has rejected the deal. They fight. Augustino pulls a gun and shoots Joe in the chest. Despite this, big strong Joe grips Augustino by the throat and dangles him over the edge of the platform. Augustino gets a few movie-like last words, then Joe lets him drop to the ground a hundred feet below.

The end

Joe climbs painfully down the ladder, bleeding. Augustino’s car is there, he limps over to it but – there are no keys in the ignition! Not under the floormat nor behind the sunscreen, nowhere! He tries to jimmy open the nearby tool-shed to see if there are any tools he could use to jump start the car but it is chained and padlocked shut. In the distance he hears the hooter announcing the start of the countdown, and he starts to run. 25 minutes. Run, run, run with blood dripping from his wound. The prose becomes a kind of dazed prose poetry: Come on, old fighter. Come on, old jazz pianist. Come on, lover of Anna Weiss and lithe Mrs Augustino. Come on, helper of crazed, old Indian men. Come on, the man who saved Oppy from Augustino. Run run run.

Joe hears the countdown reach its climax. He sees a culvert just a few yards ahead. Throws himself towards it and –

From the eye of the new sun, a man diving.
(p.341 – last sentence)

Scenes

So – a fairly convoluted plot with numerous different strands. But it’s not the plot, it’s the characters, the taut and evocative  poetic prose and above all, the weird, eerie, memory-tickling scenes, which you read Cruz Smith for. A day after finishing it I remember:

  • Joe and Anna skinny dipping under the stars
  • the strange native American dance with clowns, put on for the tourists in Santa Fe, in which Joe has to take part to take the place of blind Roberto who the Indian Service toughs have come to arrest
  • the duel between Joe and Augustino in the mountains in the snow which is suddenly interrupted when two local Indians emerge from the trees, walk slowly across the clearing where our two guys are shooting, and just as calmly disappear into the trees on the other side
  • Joe bare knuckle fighting in the parking lot of a backstreet motel
  • the fight with Augustino at the top of the Trinity test scaffold

Conclusion

Like the Renko series, this novel is packed with information and characters. Cruz Smith has clearly set out to provide a panoramic overview of the key players at Los Alamos, as well as a cross-section of the other classes and cultures caught up in this historical moment. Above all, he goes very heavy on Joe’s Indian background and the beliefs, customs, economic plight and so on of his Indian family and friends.

Nonetheless, for some reason it doesn’t have quite the same bite as the Renko books. Maybe this is because we know too much about 1940s America from countless movies – and we also know a lot about the atom bomb project from general knowledge and histories. Therefore it doesn’t have the frisson which all the Renko books have, of introducing us to a completely alien culture (the underworld of Soviet Russia, with its complicated cross-currents of power and corruption.)

And it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise to take us into its setting: it isn’t really a novelisation of life among the physicists – they only really provide a backdrop to Joe’s story – but simultaneously, it isn’t quite enough about Indian life, because Joe left it in his teens and is more a New York jazzman than believer in any of the old magic, which he thinks is horsecrap.


Related links

Reviews of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Don McCullin

This is a beautifully produced book, a huge coffee-table format feast of Don McCullin’s very best photographs, along with a generous helping of many less well-known ones.

War photos

McCullin is well known as one of the great war photographers of the second half of the twentieth century, having been close up to conflict across the world from the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 through to the Iraq War in 2003, taking in conflict in Vietnam, Belfast, Beirut, Cambodia, Congo, Biafra and Israel along the way.

More recent projects

But over the past twenty years, his war years behind him, he’s built a second reputation, as it were, bringing his acute and intense visual sense to a series of peaceful projects –

  • taking darkly expressive black-and-white shots of the winter landscape around his farmhouse home in Somerset
  • making vivid still lifes which often juxtapose souvenirs from his trips abroad with conventional English props like apples and flowers
  • traveling to remote places to meet native tribes and peoples
  • and finally to the book of which, according to his autobiography, he is most proud, a three year project to photograph Roman ruins around the Middle East and North Africa

This overview of his nearly 60 years as a photographer includes generous and beautifully produced prints from all these aspects of his long life’s work (McCullin will turn 82 this year). It also features his abiding interest in the rougher side of (peacetime) life in England, which he has criss-crossed over the length of his career, taking photos of working class areas all around the country and which resulted in the book In England.

Sympathy for the underdog

If there’s one thread to almost all the pictures – to his sensibility – it’s a grim sympathy for the underdog. He himself attributes this to his very deprived childhood in rough working class Finsbury Park, compounded by some nightmare experiences with cruel foster homes during his evacuation from the wartime Blitz – to which was added the daily hurt of witnessing his father, severely ill with asthma, decline to his early death aged just 40 and when McCullin was just 14. All of this is described in his autobiography and also in the Shaped by War book.

In the latter book, McCullin that he finds it ‘hurtful’ when critics say his Somerset photos somehow reflect his war experiences. I agree, I think it goes deeper. His decision to photograph the Somerset landscape only in the depths of winter, when it is at its bleakest, the trees are bare and there isn’t a scrap of vegetation in sight, and the fields and tracks are rutted with glacial puddles – this reflects his deeper sensibility which is consistently drawn with unsparing regard to the bleak, the cold, the alienated.

Same with the England photos – photos of the London homesless, the desperately poor of numerous grim northern cities – and – surprisingly – even with the Roman ruin shots. These latter are formally beautiful but McCullin himself points out that after a while he couldn’t help reflecting they were built by slaves in a slave culture based on brutal domination. In the desert silence of some ruin in Jordan, he says he could hear the screams of the slaves and the crack of the whip.

So I don’t think the later work is affected by the war experiences – I think his entire oeuvre is deeply marked by his terrible childhood and his lifelong compassion for the downtrodden and suffering.

Favourites

I thought I could select a few standout images from each genre, but there are so many, so many stunning photos, that it becomes impossible:

Towards the end I realised what the late works – the Somerset landscapes, the still lifes and the Roman ruins – have in common: no people. In almost every photo up to the turn of the millennium, the focus is on people – soldiers, guerrillas, police, the poor, refugees, the sick and dying.

It’s as if the only way to exclude the pain of humanity, the pain and suffering which humanity seems to inflict on itself without end – is to erase people and their tears from the photos altogether, to completely remove them from the careful compositions of clouds and trees, the juxtapositions of exquisite statuettes and bowls of fruit, the ancient columns in the desert.

But even then, are they still weeping from the wintry puddles? Are they still crying out from the silent stones? Can the sound of the suffering ever be silenced?

Documentary by Jacqui Morris

In 2012 McCullin was the subject of a feature-length documentary film, directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris, which tells his life story in chronological order, with lots of contemporary newsreel footage giving the background to the conflicts he covered, along with his understated, insightful reflections on his career and on the troubled role of ‘war photographer’. The steady accumulation of horrors becomes, by the end, unbearable.


Credit

Don McCullin (Revised edition) was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases of a single colour (red, yellow and blue) which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alxander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary but they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971)> it is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


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Shaped by War by Don McCullin (2010)

I felt I was in the right place at the right time. I had an almost magnetic emotional sense of direction pulling me to extraordinary places. (p.37)

In 2010 the Imperial War Museum held an exhibition of the war-related photos of Don McCullin. This is the large-format, coffee table book of the exhibition. It features a lot of his best-known work but also a number of previously unpublished photos, alongside some of his less well-known colour photos, and documentary records of his numerous trips, including passport photos and the covers of the magazines the work ended up appearing in. The final pages feature a selection of the powerful black-and-white photos he’s been taking more recently around his home, a renovated farmhouse in Somerset.

Many of the wars are introduced with explanations of the situations Don flew into and what he observed there, and so this handsome book amounts to an autobiography told through pictures of war. It’s divided into five sections:

  1. Early years 1935-1957
  2. Discovering photojournalism 1958-1966
  3. The Sunday Times 1967-1978
  4. Changing Times 1976-1983
  5. A new direction 1983-2009

The photos are printed large and on good quality glossy paper. They come across much powerfully than in his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour. The bigger pages, and gloss shine, makes a surprising difference.

I’ve read criticism of this book about the way that many of the photos are shown in the context of the original newspaper or magazine pages where they were first published. But, for me, seeing the yellowed pages of old Sunday Times magazines, and the words that journos and sub-editors have put round them, vastly increases their impact. Plus there’s an element of nostalgia for me, as I began to read newspapers in the early 1970s and so the layout and typefaces and picture quality reminds me of my youth.

The inclusion of the original magazine spreads also reminds you that McCullin was a jobbing photographer, going to sometimes extraordinary lengths to get the shot that conveyed a situation, a plight, a crisis. Not an artist. He is very insistent about this. Commenting on his single most famous image, the shell-shocked American soldier at Hue in Vietnam, he comments:

There’s an iconic look about it and you have to be careful about icons, because they can border on art. I have to be mindful about playing that card because I don’t want to be associated with art. I’m a photographer. I’m a photojournalist or whatever you want to call me. But I don’t belong to the world of art. (p.82)

Below are links to some of the images in the book. After an opening sketching out McCullin’s very tough, deprived childhood in squalid Finsbury Park, each section of the book has introductory text explaining the background to the war in question, as well as anecdotes about how he got to the scene, what he witnessed, the struggle to get the defining shot. There are also memories of colleagues he worked with, quite a few of whom died along the way, highlighting how many times he just made it, was lucky, avoided bullets, shells and grenade while those about him were not so lucky.

Another notable thing about the book is the number of colour photos, from a man known mainly for his preference for black and white. The coloured ones are just as good.

The photos are grim and powerful but what comes over most from the text is how much he is now ashamed, embarrassed and even disgusted at the way he sometimes behaved, at the situations he found himself in, at the continual nagging feeling that he was exploiting people and their terrible suffering.

I’m ashamed of it, of all the things I’ve seen in my life, all the blood, all the burnt children. I’m disgusted with the whole business. (p.160)

Which begs the question – How should we feel? The people who buy and look at these photos for ‘pleasure’?

The short last section concludes with a few of his landscapes and still lifes: louring photos of the Somerset countryside around his farmyard home, and still lifes he has carefully arranged, unique combinations of traditional English flowers and fruits with artefacts brought back from his travels.

He only photographs the landscapes in winter. He likes the skeletal structure of the trees and the spareness of the landscape. Also, he dislikes it if people compare the landscapes to war photos or imply they contain the psychological damage of his war experiences.

I like my landscape photographs to have the most perfect composition, because I want them to be kind on the eye. I want you to fall in love with them. You’re not going to love one of my war photographs, because they were never made for that reason. But my landscapes are for you to enjoy. (p.185)

As with the autobiography, the book ends with a hymn of appreciation to the beauty of the landscape around his house. It is very moving, after all the mayhem he has witnessed and described, for him to end the book watching the trout dance in the nearby stream, and for us to learn that he bought the land on the other side of the stream so that no-one could hunt and shoot the deer who sometimes cross it.

Enough of killing.


Credit

Shaped by War by Don McCullin Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2010. All references and quotes are to the 2010 hardback edition.

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Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite (2011)

Sir Rodric Quentin Braithwaite, GCMG, Bedales School and Christ’s College, Cambridge, was born in 1932, so he’s 86 now and was 79 when this book was published. From 1988 to 1992 he was ambassador in Moscow, first of all to the Soviet Union and then to the Russian Federation. Subsequently, he became chairman of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee from 1992 to 1993.

Braithwaite was in Moscow during most of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89), knew many of the people involved on the Russian side, and saw at first hand the impact it had on Soviet society and politics. He also knows his way around the Russian archives, which allows him to carefully weigh the evidence of precisely who said what, when, and why, at key moments of the story.

Afghanistan is not really a country

Afghan is more a territory carved out by competing empires and squabbled over by a kaleidoscope of violently opposing interests. This has resulted in an almost unceasing sequence of coups, revolutions, civil wars and local uprisings.

The people of Afghanistan are divided by race into Pashtuns [40% of the population], Tajiks [27%], Uzbeks [9%], Hazaras [9%] and other lesser ethnic groupings. Each of these is subdivided into clans defined often by accidents of geography, as so often in mountainous regions. And each clan is further divided into often mutually hostile families. All are ruled by an ethic of fierce pride, martial valour, honour, and hospitality, mediated by the institution of the blood feud. At all levels, from the local to the central, politics and loyalties are defined by conflicts and deals between these same groups, and even between individual families. There is thus little sense of a national entity on which to build a functioning unitary state. (p.12)

Probably the most important paragraph in the book.

Fighting, feuding violence is the Afghan way of life

It is entirely typical that the communist party of Afghanistan – the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) – which arose out of the new university set up with the help of the Soviets in the 1960s, immediately split into two violently opposed factions – Parcham (Banner) with its main support in the cities, and Khalq (People) with its main support from the peasants in the countryside.

This was the trigger to the invasion since it wasn’t the communist coup in 1978 which got the Russians involved, it was the inability of the Afghan communist party’s two leading figures, Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, to get along together, which gave the murderous communist regime its fatal instability.

The Russians are drawn in against their will

The Russians had a long-established relationship with Afghanistan, stretching back to the 1920s, well before the end of the British Empire and the independence of neighbouring Pakistan (with which Afghanistan has had a very troubled relationship).

Trade deals and support were offered throughout the century and up into the 1970s. The Soviets helped support the small and fractious communist party, continually trying to get the two factions to stop their feuding.

When the Afghan communists seized power in spring 1978 the Russians were obviously gratified, but worried by the violence of the coup itself and then by the tremendous bloodshed the PDPA unleashed on their backward country. (After executing his rival in September 1979, Amin published a list of 12,000 people the regime had liquidated since coming to power 18 months previously. Up to the time of the Soviet invasion, the communists executed an estimated 27,000 in Kabul prison alone (p.76), maybe 50,000 in the country as a whole. All in order to build the socialist utopia. It was a holocaust.)

The first chapter lays out in detail the opinions of Head of the KGB Yuri Andropov, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, Foreign Secretary Andrei Gromyko, Defence Minister Dmitri Ustinov, as well as other senior Soviet politicians and the military, that intervention in Afghanistan would likely be a disaster.

Instead, the Soviet leadership encouraged the Taraki regime to ‘broaden its support base’ to include industrial workers and the urban bourgeoisie. Braithwaite shows how out of touch the Moscow Politburo was – since Afghanistan had no industrial workers and only a tiny urban, middle class.

Both Russian and Afghan communists completely underestimated the scale and depth of the opposition they faced from the overwhelmingly rural peasant population who cleaved to a deeply conservative, primitive Islamic faith and time-honoured cultural practices. Braithwaite opens the book with the general uprising against the communist regime in March in the city of Herat. It appears to have been a spontaneous outbreak of revolt at the harshness of communist rule but also at the imposition on the tribal culture of the blasphemous practices of infidel atheists. In one incident, peasants in an outlying village, infuriated by the diktat to force their daughters to school, rose up, killed the Communists, killed all the girls, and marched on Herat, there to join other insurrectionaries.

The war begins

Despite all these analyses of the risk, the uprising in Herat in spring 1979 forced the Russians to get more involved, not least because the Kabul regime was begging them for help through the Kabul embassy. Reluctantly Moscow found itself sending advisers, arms and other support to put down the rebellion.

In the first third of the book Braithwaite details the fateful sequence of events, mainly driven by the poisonous rivalry between communist bosses Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, by which the Russians stepped into the quagmire. On several visits to Moscow President Taraki was guaranteed his personal safety, so that when Amin’s men kidnapped and murdered him in September 1979, Moscow leaders took it personally. Amin declared himself president and immediately instituted a rule then even more bloodthirsty than Taraki’s, with the immediate arrest, torture and execution of the former leader’s supporters and dependents, and stepping up the persecution of recalcitrants around the country.

In addition to fearing chaos on their southern border, the Russian leadership heard rumours that Amin would take Afghanistan over into the American camp – or might even have been a CIA agent! The broader background to all this was that the policy of détente with the USA – which had characterised the early 1970s – as fading, as the Americans developed and deployed a new generation of missiles, Congress refused to ratify a previous weapon reduction treaty, and the general atmosphere became more confrontational.

All these arguments began to crystallise into the decision to intervene quickly in Afghanistan to topple the unreliable and maverick Amin and replace him with a reliable Soviet stooge to secure the Soviet Union’s southern border.

It took until December for Moscow to have enough troops on the ground in Afghanistan (where there were already plenty of military advisors). They then undertook the operation to take Kabul, laying siege to all the key ministries, storming the Presidential Palace and – inevitably – killing Amin. Braithwaite describes these events in detail, with precise maps of the city centre and opposing forces.

The Soviet-Afghan War

Maybe the biggest surprise of the book is how featureless the war was. The Russians installed their own man as president, Babrak Karmal and then deployed troops to all the major cities. Immediately they faced resistance which never went away and slowly ramped up in terms of organisation and violence. The mujahideen were never a unified force – the opposite, they were highly fragmented into as many as fifty different bands of various sizes. Only slowly did they coalesce into seven distinct ‘armies’ or groups, but still very much divided along geographic, ethnic, religious and tribal lines.

The war aims of both parties were simple: The mujahideen needed to cut off the Soviet supply lines from Soviet Tajikistan to the north via a couple of well-travelled roads – so they deployed mines and roadside bombs along them and staged periodic attacks on Russian convoys. The Russians needed to cut off mujahideen supplies coming from the south, across the border with Pakistan. The Soviets developed the technique of travelling in large convoys protected by helicopter gunships; the mujahideen made use of remote passes known only to them and travelled in small groups and mostly at night.

And so both sides failed in their war aims. In fact, as Braithwaite points out, the Russians never lost a major engagement and never lost a single post or stronghold or city in the entire war.

But, like the Americans in Vietnam, they learned the hard way that victory in a guerrilla war depends not on hardware, or firepower, or manpower – it depends solely on Endurance, which means the resolve of a country and its civilian population to put up with an unending stream of casualties. If the American war in Vietnam started in 1965 it only took 3 years for opposition to peak in 1968, forcing the president not to seek re-election and his successor (Richard Nixon) to win an election campaigning to end the war. In Afghanistan the casualties weren’t so severe and there weren’t the large-scale engagements of Vietnam (nothing like the battles for Khe Sanh or Hue, no nationwide Tet Offensive), but Soviet soldiers began dying almost from day one and carried on at the rate of 150 to 200 per month.

In a tightly censored society there was nothing like the same groundswell of opposition as in America, but sooner or later every town and city became aware of the coffins returning and the steady trickle of burials of young men. While the soldiers on the ground had a growing sense of futility. Braithwaite describes several massive operations to clear out the Pandsher Valley in the east of the country of the mujahideen under the leadership of the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Russians sent in over 10,000 troops, accompanied by tanks and helicopters only to find – the insurgents had melted away into the mountains. There were some small firefights, some losses, some ‘wins’. Then, after a tactful period, the Soviets withdrew their forces and the mujahideen reoccupied the valley, and began to use it once again as a base to attack isolated strongholds and Soviet convoys. This happened year after year and bred a sense of futility even in quite senior officers.

Voices from the Soviet-Afghan

One of the distinctive features of Braithwaite’s book is the deliberate effort to include the testimony of a huge range of participants. He has gone out of his way to include letters, diaries and interviews with the widest possible range of participants – not only soldiers, from generals down to foot soldiers, sergeants and quartermasters, but lots from doctors and nurses, political commissars, the numerous advisers who worked in Afghanistan including agricultural, scientific and medical advisers, interpreters and security guards, intelligence officers and helicopter pilots, tank drivers and sappers, engineers and youth advisers – with lots of women featured from all walks of life – mujahideen leaders and fighters…

It’s like those ‘Lost voices from….’ series about the Great War or WW2, except we very rarely hear the voices of a cross-section of ordinary Russians. This aspect alone makes this a fascinating and valuable book.

In fact, although it refers to the fighting in the relevant places, there’s a case for saying this is more a social history of the war which pays attention to the experiences of a large cast of characters.

For example, there’s a long and detailed section about the physical process of gathering the remains of killed Russian soldiers, with eye-witness accounts from the morgue of how body parts were scooped into lead caskets by very drunk morgue assistants, on the shipping home and then on the generally bad reception any soldier accompanying a dead colleague’s body to his home was likely to get from his grieving relatives. Thorough explanations are given of the process of the draft which the Soviet authorities introduced, again with interviews from soldiers involved. And there is a fascinating section about the small number of Russian soldiers who went over to the side of the mujahideen, taking Muslim names and sometimes wives. Where possible Braithwaite follows the entire careers of some of these defectors and their colourful adventures, right up to the time of writing (2010) 20 years later.

It feels like no aspect of the war is left unexamined, making this read like a very rounded, comprehensive account.

Phases of the Soviet-Afghan war

  1. December 1979-February 1980 – the initial invasion and overthrow of Amin.
  2. March 1980-April 1985 – the mujahideen improved their guerrilla tactics of hit and run attacks, the Russians learned how to protect convoys and strongholds better. 9,175 Soviet soldiers killed: average of 148 per month.
  3. May 1985-December 1986 – Mikhael Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. He immediately ordered his generals to find ways to wind down the war and offensive operations were scaled back. Still, 2,745 soldiers were killed, average of 137 a month.
  4. November 1986-February 1989 – The Soviets replaced Babrak Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai who was instructed to initiate a policy of National Reconciliation. The Soviet withdrawal took place in two phases – between May and August 1988, and November 1988 to February 1989, when the last tanks were filmed trundling back over the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Uzbekistan.

The end of the Soviet-Afghan war

The Soviets didn’t lose a single battle or control of a single town or city but they lost the war. The last section of Braithwaite’s book describes the long drawn out process of negotiating a withdrawal, started by the new Mikhail Gorbachev almost as soon as he came to power in March 1985, but which took an inordinate period of time to square with interested parties like Ronald Reagan’s America, Pakistan, the Najibullah regime in Kabul, and the United Nations who were called on to supervise the withdrawal.

In total some 14,500 Russians died, while anywhere between 1.5 and 2 million Afghans were killed with up to 5 million fleeing as refugees outside their country.

But, as Braithwaite points out, this must be compared to the slaughter of Afghan by Afghan in the civil war which broke out, or came into the open, after the Soviets left. By 1996 some 40,000 inhabitants of Kabul alone were estimated to have died in the fighting.

Soldier-bards

I had no idea that the war led to the flourishing of songs composed by the soldiers themselves, many of whom took guitars or harmonicas – handily portable instruments – with them. Braithwaite refers to them as ‘bards’ and many of the songs became very well known, not only among the veterans – who are known as the Afgantsy (plural of Afganets). Here’s a well-known example, ‘Black Tulip’ by Alexander Rozenbaum. Quite a lot different from the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix which were the soundtrack to Vietnam.


Modern Afghan history – thirty years of war

At one point Braithwaite makes the simple but powerful point that the Soviet war was in fact an intervention in an ongoing Afghan civil war. The communist ‘revolution’ (coup) was itself a result of the fractured nature of Afghan society, was characterised by extreme violence against its opponents which promoted uprisings and revolt. I.e. the Soviets walked into an existing civil war situation and, long before they left, the various mujahideen organisations were positioning themselves for the civil war which was to continue after the last Soviet left. Only the rise of the Taliban which was formed around 1994 as a reaction to the endless warring of the corrupt mujahideen warlords, eventually brought the civil war to an end, with the Taliban installed as the de facto rulers of the country by 1996.

So the civil war could be said to have lasted from 1978 to 1996 with a nine-year intervention by the Russians.

Of course, the Taliban government was then overthrown in 2001 by the Americans who invaded and installed their man in power, President Hamid Karzai, hoping that free and fair ‘elections’ would rally the population to a peaceful democracy. Lols.

But the Taliban regrouped and began a deep insurgency against American and allied forces. It is during the 2000s that the British were assigned peace-keeping duties in Helmand Province in south-west Afghanistan, with some 454 deaths to date. As and when the UN forces withdraw, it is an open question whether Afghanistan will return to civil war or whether the Taliban will return to power.


Timeline

1. 20th century background

1901 1 October Habibullah Khan, son of Abdur Rahman, becomes emir of Afghanistan.
1919 20 February Habibullah is assassinated. His son Amanullah Khan declares himself King of Afghanistan.
1919
May – Third Anglo-Afghan War: Amanullah leads a surprise attack against the British.
19 August – Afghan Foreign Minister Mahmud Tarzi negotiates the Treaty of Rawalpindi with the British at Rawalpindi.
1929 Amanullah forced to abdicate in favor of Habibullah Kalakani in the face of a popular uprising. Former General Mohammed Nadir Shah takes control of Afghanistan.
1933 8 November Nadir is assassinated. His son, Mohammed Zahir Shah, proclaimed King.
1964 A new constitution ratified which institutes a democratic legislature.
1965 1 January The Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) holds its first congress.
1973 17 July Mohammed Daoud Khan declares himself President in a coup against the king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

2. Build-up to war

1978
27 April the ‘Saur Revolution’ – Military units loyal to the communist PDPA assault the Afghan Presidential Palace, killing President Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family.
1 May The ‘Saur Revolution’ – The PDPA instals its leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki, as President of Afghanistan. Once in power, the communists…

started a massive reign of terror: landowners, mullahs, dissident officers, professional people, even members of the Communist Party itself, were arrested, tortured, and shot in large numbers. (p.6)

July – A rebellion against the new Afghan government begins with an uprising in Nuristan Province.
5 December – Treaty signed which permits deployment of the Soviet military at the Afghan government’s request.
1979
March – rebellion against communist rule in Herat.
14 September – President Nur Muhammad Taraki murdered by supporters of Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin. Braithwaite describes in detail how he was abducted, separated from his wife, and smothered with a pillow (p.73). The murder of a man they promised to safeguard spurs the Soviet leadership to plan to replace Amin.
24 December – The Soviet army invades Afghanistan to overthrow the very unpopular Amin regime and restore a more friendly client ruler.
27 December – Operation Storm-333: Soviet troops storm major governmental, military and media buildings in Kabul, including the Tajbeg Palace, and execute Prime Minister Amin. The Russians instal Babrak Karmal as president.

—The Soviet occupation turns into a war and lasts nine years and 56 days—

1988 14 April – The Soviet government sign the Geneva Accords, which include a timetable for withdrawing their armed forces.
1989 15 February – Last Soviet troops leave the country. Civil war breaks out immediately between rival mujahideen groups.

3. Post-Soviet civil war

1992 24 April – Warring Afghan political parties sign The Peshawar Accord which creates the Islamic State of Afghanistan and proclaim Sibghatullah Mojaddedi its interim President. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezbi Islami, with the support of neighbouring Pakistan, begin a massive bombardment against the Islamic State in the capital Kabul.
28 June – As agreed in The Peshawar Accord, Jamiat-e Islami leader Burhanuddin Rabbani takes over as President.
1994 August – The Taliban government begins to form in a small village between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar.
1995
January – The Taliban, with Pakistani support, initiate a military campaign against the Islamic State of Afghanistan and its capital Kabul.
13 March – The Taliban torture and kill Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the minority (and Shia) Hazara people.
1996
26 September – Start of another civil war in Afghanistan, which lasts until the U.S. invasion in 2001. The forces of the Islamic State retreat to northern Afghanistan.
27 September – The Taliban conquer Kabul and declare the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Former President Mohammad Najibullah, who had been living under United Nations protection in Kabul, is tortured, castrated and executed by Taliban forces.
1998
August – The Taliban capture Mazar-e Sharif, forcing Abdul Rashid Dostum into exile.
20 August – Operation Infinite Reach: Cruise missiles fired by the United States Navy into four militant training camps in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

4. 9/11 and after

2001
9 September – Resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud killed in a suicide bomb attack by two Arabs disguised as French news reporters.
20 September – After the September 11 attacks in the United States, U.S. President George W. Bush demands the Taliban government hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and close terrorist training camps in the country.
21 September – The Taliban refuse Bush’s ultimatum for lack of evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11 attacks.
7 October – Operation Enduring Freedom The United States and the United Kingdom begin an aerial bombing campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
5 December – The UN Security Council authorize the creation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help maintain security in Afghanistan and assist the new administration of Hamid Karzai.
20 December – International Conference on Afghanistan in Germany: Hamid Karzai chosen as head of the Afghan Interim Administration.
2002 July Loya jirga – Hamid Karzai appointed as President of the Afghan Transitional Administration.
2003 14 December Loya jirga – A 502-delegate loya jirga held to consider a new Afghan constitution.
2004 9 October – Hamid Karzai elected President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan after winning the Afghan presidential election.
2005 Taliban insurgency begins after a Pakistani decision to station around 80,000 soldiers next to the porous Durand Line border with Afghanistan.
2006 1 March – George W. Bush and wife visited Afghanistan to inaugurate the renovated Embassy of the United States in Kabul.
2007
13 May – Skirmishes between Afghan and Pakistani troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama sends an additional 33,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan, with the total international troops reaching 150,000.
2011
– After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, many high-profile Afghan officials are assassinated, including Mohammed Daud Daud, Ahmed Wali Karzai, Jan Mohammad Khan, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, and Burhanuddin Rabbani.
– Afghanistan National Front created by Tajik leader Ahmad Zia Massoud, Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq and Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum.

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The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Related links

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Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

‘… the madness, the bitterness, the horror and doom of it…’ (p.87)

Types of history

There’s a vast and ever-growing factual historiography of the Vietnam War, which for the past twenty years has been able to take advantage of the post-communist opening up of archives in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi to present a fully-rounded history of the Indochina conflict, setting it in the long perspective stretching back to the Great War and forwards past the collapse of Russian communism in 1990.

These accounts are now able to analyse the course of events from the perspective of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese and Chinese, and can bring the same detachment historians have been used to applying to the Great War or the Crimean War.

But then, and quite separately, there is the mythology of the American War in Vietnam – a whole cultural complex, a mood, a movement, like a fashion, whose most enduring features at this distance in time are the classic movies it produced – Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and so on – and the powerful pop music of the late 1960s – from the Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix – which provided a soundtrack to the conflict.

All of this has been mixed and mashed with contemporary TV news footage and documentary clips of jungle mayhem, urban bombings, the last helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy in Saigon, cut and edited into sequences readily available on the History Channel or YouTube. A ‘myth’ as instantly recognisable as montages of flappers and jazz recall the Roaring Twenties or bomb blasts illuminating the night-time sky over Baghdad recall the Iraq War.

New journalism

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is one of the classic accounts of the Vietnam war but from a very particular, unconventional, mythopoeic perspective. The late 1960s saw the birth of ‘the New Journalism’, epitomised by the wacky reportage of Tom Wolfe and later taken to the limit in the ‘Gonzo Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson.

In this new approach the ‘reporter’ identified powerfully with the counterculture of the day, especially its openness to drugs and pop music. Their ‘pieces’ abandoned traditional journalistic attempts at objectivity in order to present personal, subjective accounts and to freely deploy literary devices like stream-of-consciousness, different points of view, florid imagery and so on. And the ‘reporter’ more often than not became the hero, the dazed centre of the report, struggling to make sense of the crazy world around him.

Herr was in at the start of this movement and a 1965 piece by him about Vietnam is included in the 1973 book-length anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, which gave the ‘movement’ its name.

Dispatches’ prose and attitude is very much of its time, it’s the kind of knackered paperback you found lying around your elder brother’s room along with Zen and the Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970) among the butts of old joints and Leonard Cohen LPs. It is the high-tide of the new journalism approach to reporting Vietnam, it is a landmark, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Dispatches

So Dispatches isn’t a work of history but neither is it conventional journalism. It consists of six titled sections (themselves made up of shorter numbered section), some of which appeared in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, which are copyrighted 1968, 1969, 1970, and which report on events the author witnessed from 1967 through 1968.

1. Breathing In (pp.11-61)

The first section opens in late 1967. The tone is hip, knowing, cool. Herr’s prose is always wearing shades and three days of stubble. His gift for phrase-making and capturing the mixed-up street slang-cum-war jargon of the Army in Vietnam to try to convey the mind-bending experiences offered in so many ways by the war, is frequently breath-taking.

In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. (p.16)

Long looping sentences clotted with nouns, he also turns and twists the language to give familiar phrases new meanings in new contexts. He has a fantastic gift for vivid phrase making.

It was the same with your ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturated strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. (p.19)

1960s slang and Nam slang, street slang, American slang, drug slang, black slang, war slang all meet on top of a sustained attempt to define indefinable sensations, pin down evanescent ideas, track down fleeting emotions:

At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long raggedy strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and travelling towards it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. (p.20)

This first section is the most trippy and poetic, pushing you in the deep end of deranged military activities and manic thoughts, offering up a smorgasbord of anecdotes, insights and reflections punctuated by manic moments under gunfire, contributing to the overwrought, druggy vibe.

2. Hell Sucks (pp.62-73)

Just one of the blasphemous mottos all the Marines were allowed to paint on their helmets – Born to Kill, Far from Fearless, Mickey’s Monkey, Avenger V, Born to Raise Hell (p.65).

Once Herr has established his recklessly anecdotal, prose poetic, wigged-out style in the first section, this second one is a relatively short burst describing the intense days Herr spent in the city of Hue during the Battle which raged around the Viet Cong-held Citadel in January 1968 – many mangled bodies, death-eyed G.I.s (uniformly referred to as ‘grunts’) telling him their Zen stories, hiding behind the huge Citadel wall from NVA snipers and everywhere terrified and injured civilians.

(Compare and contrast Don McCullins’ account of his eleven days in the same place and time, in his gripping autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour.)

3. Khe Sanh (pp.74-133)

The longest section, this gives an impressionistic account of the time Herr spent inside the American camp at Khe Sanh up near the Demilitarised Zone, during part of the epic siege which took place between 21 January and 9 July 1968. There’s more factual information here than in any of the other sections, explaining where Khe Sanh was, the layout of the camp and surrounding hills, information about the U.S. military units and the suspected North Vietnamese Army units which were surrounding and bombarding it, reporting on the progress of the ‘battle’ i.e. the enormous tonnage of bombs the U.S. Air Force dropped on the Viet Cong, as well as sections giving the ‘official’ version of U.S. strategy and events, including an interview with a half-deaf and totally out-of-touch colonel back at HQ.

But much more than that, this section gives a sense of how it felt to be there, numb with terror or awed by the beauty of incoming rounds or outgoing tracer fire, laced with insights about the bitter rivalry between the Marine corps and the Air Cavalry, the anxiety every correspondent felt about the next chopper that can take you out of harm’s way.

It also has the most extended portrait of specific U.S. soldiers – an odd couple comprising skinny blonde Mayhew and huge black ‘Day Tripper’, describing their arguments and confusion and unspoken solidarity.

This section contains a great one-page account of a VC sniper secure in a bunker a few hundred yards from the camp, who survives so much shooting and bombing and even napalming of his position that the Marines end up cheering him and nicknaming him ‘Luke the Gook’.

It has the one-page story of mean Southern redneck Orrin who gets a letter from his girl back in Tennessee telling him she’s pregnant with another man’s baby and describing Orrin’s hard-core vow to survive the war and get home in order to kill her. And, so ubiquitous is superstition among combat troops, that from that moment on, Orrin’s vow made him ‘lucky’, so that other soldiers sought out his presence, as if his vendetta would preserve him.

There’s the story of the voodoo black grunt who uses an M-79 grenade-launcher to ‘take out’ a wounded VC who’s lying out in the perimeter barbed wire screaming, without even looking, from the sound alone, to everyone’s awe. A scene lifted entire and used in Apocalypse Now, presumably by Herr himself who worked on the script for that epic film. (He also co-wrote the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s Nam movie, Full Metal Jacket.)

Eventually, after the six month siege ended with the VC melting away from Khe Sanh, the U.S. Army secured its perimeters, cleared up and after a few months completely abandoned the entire camp, removing all assets then blowing up the bunkers. Herr doesn’t invent the air of crazed futility about the whole enterprise, it is there in the actual facts, in the historical record, in the universal sense of pointlessness and absurdity.

Postscript: China Beach (pp.134-136)

Short description of China Beach facing the Bay of Danang where lucky troops get to go for a few days rest and recuperation (R&R). Its main point is that a few weeks later Herr bumps into some soldiers from the division he was with at Khe Sanh, and asks after the skinny joker, Mayhew, who we’d got to know in the previous section – only to learn he’d been killed, a direct hit from a  VC rocket-propelled grenade.

4. Illumination Rounds

These are short snippets, satoris, epiphanies.

  • The time he was riding in a Chinook which was under VC fire and the trooper next to him was hit and bled to death.
  • The bad reputation of the overpaid civilian construction engineers drinking and whoring in Saigon.
  • After a massacre of VC the U.S. captain had twenty or so VC corpses loaded into helicopters and then dropped on the centre of nearby villages to make a not-so-subtle point.
  • A pen portrait of Davis, a grunt shacked up down a back alley in Saigon with a local hooker, getting stoned with the boys and his unhappiness at the trap he’s caught himself in.
  • Meetings with the officer who claimed to have invented the phrase ‘Dink’ for VC, shortened from Rinky-Dink, because he didn’t like the common nickname ‘Charlie’.
  • How he first heard Jimi Hendrix on a tape deck switched on by a black grunt while they were all pinned down by VC fire in a paddy field. Jimi Hendrix – Fire (May 1967)
  • The Army surgeon in the provincial hospital at Can Tho a few days into the January 1968 Tet Offensive, who had been operating on wounded men for twenty hours without a break and ‘could not have looked worse if he’d lain all night in a trough of blood’ (p.150).

And so on…

5. Colleagues (pp.152-199)

This, the most thought-provoking section, begins as an account of the community of photographers and correspondents in Vietnam, which he estimates topped 700. His closest buddies were the photographers Tim Page, Sean Flynn, Rick Merron and Dana Stone (the ‘lapsed logger from Vermont’). They each get pen portraits, descriptions of their looks and attitudes and abilities, but the star of the show is Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, who worked hard to live down his parentage but earned his chops as a fearless photographer.

This could have got a bit pally about his heroic mates, but Herr takes it deeper, with a number of anecdotes examining the odd relationship between the correspondents and the grunts. For example, the soldiers can’t believe the journos are there by choice.

And Herr moves on to ponder just what it was that drove him and the others to volunteer, to be there at all, to chopper out to wherever the ‘action’ was. To test themselves? To see if they measure up as men? And for the rush, the unparalleled adrenaline rush which comes from being under fire, running, shit-scared – which at the same time is the most exciting thing in the world and the most gut-churningly, pant-wettingly terrifying thing in the world – but which they become addicted to. Thus they come to understand not only the sick-to-death despair of the grunts who just wanna go home, but also the inexplicable compulsion of the soldiers who extend their tours, sign on for more. And also the terrible alienation of those who finish their time, ‘rotate back to the World’ – but discover they just don’t fit in any more; nothing makes sense or is so intense or meaningful as what they’ve just been through; who miss their comrades; who have to come back.

And then this section goes deeper still to consider the strengths and failures of media reporting on the entire war and Herr emerges from the stoner prose to make some really strong, sober points.

  1. His generation, he says, were saturated with TV and films – they experienced the war even on the ground in terms of movie scenarios, expecting people to get up after the firefight, adopting poses they’d seen in the movies – all of which prevented them, for a while, from realising this was ‘real’.
  2. The official version of events given out by the Army at their daily press conferences (nicknamed by the press corps the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’) was ludicrously detached from events on the ground, which correspondents had often witnessed for themselves that same day (‘most of what the Mission wanted to say to the American public was a psychotic vaudeville’, p.173). But the correspondents still had to report it, the official view. And since they all reported the same Official Version then – compared to the scattered, disorganised, highly personal nature of each of their alternative views – the Official Version tended to dominate the media and create the strongest impression on the Great American Public, simply by nature of its repetition and its consistency.
  3. Also militating towards the Official Version was the fact that most photographers and journalists worked for daily newspapers or TV stations and so were always in a tearing hurry to file a ‘story’, some – any – pics and words to send back to their agency or paper or channel, and the Official Version was always the easiest, the readiest-to-hand. This was another factor in its predominance, even though almost all the correspondents in the country knew it was horse shit.
  4. And another element of its dominance was the sheer amount of information the officials gave out, using a bewildering and evergrowing set of metrics, data and statistics – ‘kill ratios’, ‘tonnage of bombs dropped’, ‘enemy casualties’, ‘territory seized’, ‘light losses’, ‘moderate losses’, ‘heavy losses’ – to lie, lie and lie again, to hide the bitter truth that they were losing and ‘the Mission’ was failing. These blizzards of stats were easily printed and broadcast, they filled space and sounded impressive – they reassured the public that everything was under control.

Only slowly did Herr realise what a privileged position he was in because he was not a correspondent – he was a writer sent with an open-ended brief from the monthly men’s magazine Esquire, which he interpreted as the freedom to skip around, catching choppers to wherever sounded ‘interesting’, wherever the ‘action’ was, which gave him the time to really get to know the grunts, to get under their skin, to see the war from their point of view.

All of this leads up to what I take to be the credo or manifesto or thinking which lies behind Herr’s deliberate adoption of the common soldier’s point of view, language, drugs and spaced-out attitude. Which is that –

The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which is of course what it was all about. (p.173)

So on one level the entire book can be seen as an experiment in trying to create a prose style which can report meaningfully about death. Not facts or history, though some are required to give context. Instead a turbo-charged attempt to capture the incredibly intense emotions of bewildered, confused soldiers under fire in a chaotic, incomprehensible war.

In interviews Joseph Heller claimed that his World War Two classic, Catch-22 was actually more a satire about corporate America, about project management and management theory and management speak than about the  actual war. In Vietnam the ghastly wedding of management speak and grotesque carnage reached new heights – Herr contemptuously refers to the more senior officers who asked the press corps to

… get with the programme, jump on the team, get in for the Big Win. (p.184).

But Herr was blissfully free of the straitjacket of daily reporting which tied up most of his comrades, free to understand the crucial central fact, that:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it. (p.175)

And hence, quite simply, the rationale for his new journalism approach – for his stoner, tripped-out, grunt-level view of the madness. And that’s why his book is still a classic. 50 years after the event, 40 years after it was published, it still captures and describes in the gaudy poetry of American street slang the unbelievable intensity, horror and beauty of modern armed combat, as no straight journalism, military reports, or sober histories ever could.

This section winds down with very personal reminiscences of his gang of buddies as the legendary Tim Page returns to Nam, and Herr, Page and Flynn enjoy wacky, frat-house adventures, getting stoned, playing the Mothers of Invention real loud, winding up Army Press Officers – he makes it sound like a swell life, like one long mad party, driving down to China Beach to catch some rays, then travelling back to Hue, now completely pacified and cleaned up, incapable of believing all the pain and carnage he witnessed there.

From what I can make out, Herr was only in Nam for about nine months, from the end of 1967 through the Tet Offensive (Jan-Sep 1968), the Battle of Hue (Jan-Mar 1968), the siege of Khe Sanh (Jan-Jul 1968) and leaving in September 1968.

The end of the book is desperately sad, like coming down after a great party. Herr is back in the States when he hears that Tim Page has received his final, almost fatal, head injury, and flies back to see him. Page has definitely retired, has a girlfriend, slowly recovers the use of his legs and even his left arm. They get stoned with Flynn and other friends, laugh about the old times, cry about the old times. It’s all over. Time to go back to ‘the World’, where they will never quite fit in or feel at ease.

6. Breathing out (pp.200-207)

A few last pages struggling to make sense of 1968 and the way the war and the rock music fused in that year and then short-circuited the decade. Then came the awful 1970s and Herr watched on TV the choppers he had loved cadging lifts across war zones on, being pushed off U.S. aircraft carriers into the South China Sea after the final American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973.

And then, finally, in spring 1975 the North Vietnamese Army fought their way south to conquer and unite the country after thirty years of struggle. Herr poignantly reports seeing pictures of victorious Viet Cong soldiers sitting on the banks of the Danang River, exactly where the U.S. Press Centre had been and where Herr and his pals had sat smoking and joking and laughing. All gone now.


Analysis

The fantastically powerful and evocative trippy, stoner prose and the ‘attitude’ it describes can be analysed out into distinct strands:

Meaningless chaos – coming under fire in ‘random contacts’ – the GI who points his gun at Dana and, they all felt, could easily have pull the trigger. The whole war effort ‘out of control’ (p.45) all mirrored by the deliberate sense of getting-out-of-control created by the drugs of choice, pot and acid.

The risibility of the official version handed out at the daily 4.45 news conference, also known as ‘the Five O’Clock Follies’ – the man handing out press passes ‘thought it was all a fucking circus’ (p.177), and the actual troops on the ground often seemed lost souls in a demented fantasy.

Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to the source. (p.50)

To Herr and his stoned contemporaries the entire conduct of the war seemed like a very bad dream, irrational, insane.

Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming out of the Command psyche. (p.55)

That phraseology is not a rational analysis of a military strategy, but Herr has thought it through and the insanity didn’t call for a sane response. ‘(Who’s crazy? What’s insane?)’ (p.61), the only ‘answerable style’ for the madness is a mad style.

Drugs Dope is referred to openly throughout, the evening sessions with joints passed round, the household fuelled by booze and grass, the widespread smoking of joints among the troops. As to stronger drugs, Herr refers  once to the powerful hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’) but surprisingly rarely to the other great 1960s drug, LSD or ‘acid’.

And yet the prose reeks of acid, of the way LSD strips your sense of their blinkers and protection and exposes your nervous system to massive sensory overload. Indeed that concept of too much information, of the brain, nervous system and mind being subjected to more than it can cope with, is mentioned throughout the text as a metaphor for the experience of combat when the adrenaline shock, and the rush of terrified awareness, is experienced as just ‘too much’ to process or handle.

Once your body was safe your problems weren’t exactly over. There was the terrible possibility that a search for information there could become so exhausting that the exhaustion itself became the information. Overload was such a real danger, not as obvious as shrapnel or blunt like a 2,000-foot drop, maybe it couldn’t kill or smash you, but it could bend your aerial for you and land you on your hip. (p.58)

Even when Herr quits the war and ‘rotates back to the World’, Page gives him a small ball of opium to float him through the flight home (p.200).

Pop culture is all around them, every unit has tape cassette players and either in bunkers or even out on patrol are liable to click Play and the room or trail or trench would echo to the sounds of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix or the latest single by the Rolling Stones.

Prose poetry

The rangy, slang, street poetic prose owes a lot to the Beats, to Allen Ginsberg’s poetic rants and William Burroughs’ cut-up prose, but also to the eloquence of American slang, a can-do attitude to the English language which creates openings and expressions from a recalibration, a special angling, of even the most ordinary words. During the 1960s the drug-cum-Zen-cum-Beat poetry language of a small sub-section of 1950s Bohemian culture, along with Black street slang and the argot of the urban jazz world, all mixed and went feral, spreading across street culture and into the songs and films and eventually official channels of the media and even the Army itself.

The book is alive with slang terms from all these sources, mashed together:

  • ‘believer’ – a dead Viet Cong (p.41)
  • ‘dig’ meaning to ‘get’, to ‘understand and enjoy’ – ‘can you dig it?’
  • ‘dink’ meaning ‘Vietnamese’ (92)
  • ‘gook’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese fighter’
  • ‘greased’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘grunt’ meaning infantry soldier (15). According to the online etymological dictionary the term originates from the Vietnam war and is first recorded in print in 1969.
  • ‘hip to’ meaning ‘up to speed with’ (86) as in ‘hip to…the sound, the trip, the mission, the attitude’
  • ‘jag’ meaning ‘prolonged bout’ as in ‘a crying jag’
  • ‘jive’ – routine, schtick, can be negative or positive – ‘don’t jive me, man’
  • ‘luck out’ meaning ‘get lucky’ (69)
  • ‘Slope’ meaning ‘Vietnamese opponent’ (86)
  • ‘spade’ meaning ‘Afro-Caribbean’ (98)
  • ‘tightly wrapped’ meaning ‘uptight, tense’ (97)
  • ‘tough shit’ meaning ‘bad luck’ (86)
  • ‘totalled’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘wiggier’ from ‘wiggy’ meaning ‘weird, freaked out’ (p.52), ‘wigged-out crazies’ (p.189) ‘the wiggiest goof of them all’ (p.197)
  • ‘zip’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese’

Beyond individual words, Herr records slang phrases which capture the alternative realities opened up by drugs and war and the lethal combination of both:

  • ‘Well, I’ll be dipped in shit.’
  • someone looks like ‘ten thousand miles of bad road’
  • ‘get some’ can refer to sleep, or just ‘action’, hence a demented chopper machine gunner can fire randomly into the jungle yelling ‘get some, get some’ – in a cracking throwaway Herr refers to this phrase as ‘the American banzai’ (p.184)
  • ‘have a pair’ (p.53) or ‘grow a pair’, as in a pair of testicles, to prove you are a man
  • the ‘thousand yard stare’, a vivid description of the distant look in the eyes of soldiers fresh from action – ‘Hill 861 was the home of the thousand-yard stare…’ (p.101)
  • ‘it’s hotter than a bastard’ (p.164)

But it’s the way often fairly simple vocabulary is stacked together in spaced-out ways designed to capture the fleeting moment, the psych, the thereness of the impression, you had to have lived it, you had to know it, which transcends the context of Vietnam to become a series of experiments in time-encapsulating language, and helps give the book its enduring sense of life and weirdness.

Sitting by a road with some infantry when a deuce-and-a-half rattled past with four dead in the back. The tailgate was half lowered as a platform to hold their legs and the boots that seemed to weigh a hundred pounds apiece now. Everyone was completely quiet as the truck hit a bad bump and the legs jerked up high and landed hard on the gate. ‘How about that shit,’ someone said, and ‘Just like the motherfucker,’ and ‘There it is.’ Pure essence of Vietnam, not even stepped on once, you could spin it out into visions of laughing lucent skulls or call it just another body in a bag, say that it cut you in half for the harvest or came and took you under like a lover, nothing ever made the taste less strong. (p.203)

Tracks referenced in the text

‘Whenever one of us came back from an R&R we’d bring records, sounds were as precious as water.’ (p.187)

The text is littered with references to contemporary pop songs. One of the things which made the war seem so special was the way that pop music evolved incredibly quickly into more adult (pretentious) rock over precisely the same period (1965-70), and so seemed to be directly commenting on the escalation and spiralling insanity of the conflict. Thus Herr can comment on the Beatles track, Magical Mystery Tour – ‘That was a song about Khe Sanh; we knew it then, and it still seems so.’ (p.91).

I began making a list of tracks as I came across them mentioned in the text and listening to them off the internet. Taken together, they evoke a vivid revolutionary world, which is immensely evocative even though it is all at least 50 years old, having gone through nostalgia, into obsolescence, been revived, and now becoming history. I remember some of these songs from my boyhood – my kids have never heard of any of it.


Credit

Sections of Dispatches by Michael Herr were published as articles in American Review No. 7Esquire and Rolling Stone in 1968 through 1970. It was published in book form in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf. All quotes and references are to the 1982 edition of the 1978 Pan Books paperback edition.

Related links

David Hockney @ Tate Britain

This is a comprehensive and awe-inspiring 13-room overview of David Hockney’s 60-year-long career, starting with works created while he was still an art student at the Royal College of Art in 1960 and concluding with depictions of his California home which he was still working on as the exhibition was being finalised.

Hockney – arguably England’s greatest living artist, certainly its most popular, and recognised by the Establishment as a member of the Order of Merit, a Companion of Honour, a Royal Academician – will be 80 this July (he was born 9 July 1937), and he still hasn’t finished – both creating and commenting insightfully and humorously on his own work.

Sometimes curators can arrange an artist’s work by theme, but in Hockney’s case it makes more sense to arrange it in bog standard chronological order, because the different experiments and ways of making occur very much at certain times and are best understood a) when taken together, so you can savour his experiments with a new look b) when viewed in sequence since you can see the underlying continuities and the ways ongoing interests and ideas recur in new ways, new investigations.

There are hundreds of books and essays about the man, including the many he’s written himself, several biographies, numerous documentaries and countless charming interviews; there is no shortage of comment and analysis on Hockney’s career, so I’ll try to keep my summary of his oeuvre as displayed by this exhibition, brief.

Periods and styles

  • Art school scrappy – very early 1960s – deliberately scratchy, dark and cranky like the English weather. Right from the start his works are BIG but I find the early stuff unappealing and very art school studenty.
    • Play within a play (1963) The commentary goes on about playing with perspective so the tassles at the bottom of the screen, along with the chair and the floorboards are meant to indicate perspective and vanishing point i.e. artifice, while the handprint is of a real hand pressed against the glass Hockney wanted to cover the whole painting with. Fair enough, but it’s not nice to look at.
    • Flight into Italy (1962) Note the combination of Pop-style use of a geological diagram for the silhouette Alps, with the blurred semi-skull heads in the manner of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s horror smears are a big and unpleasant presence in the first few rooms.
  • 1962 Hockney’s work appeared in the Young Contemporaries exhibition – and you can see in it all the influences of the time – Abstract Expressionism with hints of Pop Art, suggestions of Francis Bacon. It was followed by a 1963 show, named with deliberate fake naivety, Paintings with people in:
    • Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) In Hockney’s own words, this is the closest he got to Pop, an object-shaped canvas portrayal of a commercial product (a box of Typhoo tea) – but note the insertion of the blurred humanoid into it, like a Francis Bacon figure trapped in a cage, as if he feels the product itself wouldn’t be enough, that it needs some kind of extra layer of meaning – unlike Warhol’s sublime confidence.
    • The First Marriage, (A Marriage of Styles I) (1962) This is a mysterious image which the commentary deflates by explaining that Hockney was in a museum looking at the Egyptian objects when his friend came and stood by an ancient statue wearing a modern suit. the main features are the big sandy hessian canvas, and the deliberately scrappy badly drawn figures. Image the possibilities for sensuous play here, imagine the look of actual Egyptian statues, their smoothness and infinite depth. Here everything is scratchy and cack-handed, the amateurishness is the ethos.
  • 1964 Hockney moves to Santa Monica, Los Angeles, inaugurating the era of the classic swimming pool paintings and depictions of lots of fit young naked men. The commentary, rather banally, says that to young David, Hollywood represented ‘the land of dreams’ and, well, it turned out to be ‘the land of dreams’. More importantly, the move signifies a transition in his work to a more conventional use of perspective and more traditional compositions of actual scenes.
    • Medical Building (1966) This reproduction doesn’t do justice to the size of the image, and its cartoon simplicity. He liked the clean lines of the buildings against the clear Californian sky, as thousands had before him.
    • Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964) The scrappiness of the human figure – a consistent approach or vision, is contrasted with the almost mathematical precision of the tiles and the brightness of the curtain, the pink carpet, the shiny chairs in the background. Note the shower curtain. The commentary makes much of the frequent inclusion of curtains in many of these early paintings to indicate ‘the artifice of theatre’.
    • A Bigger Splash (1967) Bright colours, geometrically straight lines, subverted or complimented by a spurt of curves or sudden scratchiness. Hockney’s many images of Los Angeles swimming pools are maybe his signature image.
    • Sunbather (1966) Pop colours, simple human figure, wiggly lines capturing the play of water.
    • Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966)
  • From the mid-60s Hockney began using photography to help composition. In the later 1960s Hockney used his new figurative style to create some massive double portraits and the guide shows many of the still photos he took first to help him create these enormous compositions.
  • The exhibition then shows a room of Hockney’s generally very persuasive drawings from the late 60s and 70s. I liked these ones:
  • The commentary very usefully explains that by the end of the 1970s Hockney felt a little trapped by the restrictions of conventional perspective and figuration. It came as a great liberation when he stumbled on the idea of creating works composed of multiple Polaroid photos of the same scene, but often capturing the same detail numerous times and even in different states, assembled in what could loosely be called a cubist style. He first arranged many of these in mathematical grids, but then went one step further to arrange the Polaroids in shapes which themselves captured the action, the subject. He called this second series the ‘Joiners’. Both capture in a static flat image what are both multiple points of view, and multiple moments of time. Quite a huge amount of discourse can be woven out of this experiment by skilled curators and art critics and the images themselves are very effective, imaginative and well made but somehow, I didn’t find compelling.
    • Kasmin (1982) Example of a grid.
    • Pearlblossom Highway (1986) A more overlapping affect.
    • The Scrabble Game (1983) Maybe the best example of capturing multiple perspective and events in one static image. I found it clever, well-made, interesting, thought provoking, but… but… lacking the oomph, the shattering radicalness the commentary claims for it.
  • In the 1980s Hockney moved to a house up the windy road of Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles, and was commissioned to design sets for a series of opera productions. He found the size and boldness required by theatre design to be another liberation. The scale and high colour of the sets fed back into his paintings, which now display a newly bold, thick and saturated palette, completely different from the deliberate airiness of his 1970s paintings.
    • Large interior, Los Angeles (1988) How different from the flat geometry of the pool paintings, this picture explodes in multiple perspectives, as well as a new much richer palette, and the transformation of so many previously realistically depicted objects into semi-abstract decorative elements. Compare the mad cartoon chairs with what now look like the very restrained chairs in the backdrop of Man in a shower.
    • Small Santa Monica – The Bay From The Mountains (1990) It is as if he’s been introduced to a whole new set of colours.
    • Nichols Canyon (1990) The airless geometry and very tight flat finish of the 1970s has been completely abandoned in favour of a super-bright, deliberately slapdash, and curved, organic shapes of these works.
  • From 1992 onwards Hockney took the new colours and the curves and lines he’d been playing with to a new level in a set of works which are entirely abstract, or in which only the ghost of a possible landscape remains underpinning images of a surreal, neo-Romantic, almost science fiction world. With characteristic understatement he titled these the Very New Paintings:
  • A room is devoted to works from the late 1990s, mixing depictions of Yorkshire and with big paintings of the Grand Canyon. These works are often made from an assemblage of separate canvases, in the words of the commentary to ’emphasise the articifiality of art’ (in case you were at risk of thinking you had stepped through a space-time portal from rainy Pimlico onto the brink of the actual Grand Canyon). What comes over is the super intense brightness of the colours and the almost deliberately childish simplicity of the detail. Looked at one way, some aspects of them could be illustrations from children’s books. Elsewhere in Tate Britain, the big retrospective of Paul Nash is still on, and for me there seem to be obvious similarities in the way a love of landscape has met the will to abstraction.
  • In 2006 Hockney returned from the States to live in Yorkshire full time, in order to be near a close friend who was dying in York. Now he bedded down to apply the super-bright and naive style he’d been developing over the previous decade, to an extended series of works depicting his native Yorkshire landscape. Many of these paintings are enormous and up close, have a very unfinished, childlike quality to them. Some people love them because they capture the often bleak English countryside in an immensely happy brightly coloured way; some critics think they’re appallingly simple-minded. Whatever your opinion, there are masses of them.
  • In 2010 Hockney fixed nine video cameras all facing forward to his Land Rover and drove slowly along a road at Woldgate near Bridlington. The resulting videos were projected onto nine screens arranged in a grid (reminiscent of the more gridlike Polaroids or the grids of canvases to make, for example, the larger Grand Canyon paintings). He made one film for each of the four seasons. The exhibition screens them onto the four walls of one darkened room, producing ‘an immersive environment’, ‘an exploration of the way a subject is seen over time’ and ‘a celebration of the miracle of the seasons’.

  • In the penultimate room is a sequence of 25 lovely charcoal drawings celebrating the arrival of spring at five locations along a single-track road running between Bridlington and Kilham, the kind of thing you might find in a provincial art shop, accurate but simple, lacking depth or resonance.
  • In 2010 Hockney began drawing in colour on the new iPad device. The beauty, the uniqueness of this medium is that the iPad records the process, and so we can watch what are in effect films following each work line by line as it proceeds from outline to sketch, watching every detail being added in, all the way through to completion. The exhibition includes a dozen or so screens showing quite a few of the colour drawings he made this way (as he tells us, often from the comfort of his bed in the family home in Yorkshire). According to the commentary, Hockney ‘collapses time and space by emailing images to friends and family, removing distance between the pictures, its means of creation and its distribution.’
    • Sample iPad paintings Bright and skilful, the main thing about these is their sheer number. They seem to take five minutes or so to make and so there are hundreds, possibly thousands of them.

Thoughts

There’s no doubting Hockney is a major artist: to maintain such a turnover of inventiveness, and be so prolific of so many striking images, over such a long period, is an amazing achievement. Each of the periods and styles (London Pop, LA swimming, portraits, Polaroids, opera sets, new paintings, Yorkshire landscapes, videos, iPad art) could well be analysed in terms of its own distinct origins and performance. It is immensely useful and interesting to be able to review such an extraordinary oeuvre and come to understand the continuities but also the enormous breaks in style and approach.

Several themes emerged for me from the show as a whole:

Size Most of the works here are big, very big, many are enormous, whether it’s the early Typhoo work which is 6 or 7 feet tall, to the vast double portraits like Isherwood and Bachardy, from the imposing swimming pools of the 60s to the huge video screens of The Four Seasons.

Emptiness A lot of this space is empty. This is most obvious in the room of double portraits – static figures with big, often heavily pregnant spaces between them. But it’s also there in the room of smaller-scale, curiously vacant portrait drawings – none of them have any expression or are doing anything. And in the paintings of the Grand Canyon or the Yorkshire Wolds. Space. Emptiness. Blank.

a) As I noticed it, it crossed my mind that this absence of passion or even feeling, maybe explains the calming, restful quality of much of Hockney’s work and why it translates so well into posters. (In the exhibition shop you can buy one of the Los Angeles swimming pool images turned into a print, a poster, a mug, a towel, a t-shirt, a tray, a fridge magnet, and every other format devised by marketeers.) There’s a curiously static, undynamic quality to many of his images. All the portraits, the big landscapes, the empty Grand Canyon and – really brought to the fore in the slow-motion Four Seasons videos – are very calm, still, empty.

b) Into this space curators and art critics are tempted to insert hefty doses of critical discourse. All the way through we are told that Hockney likes to play with ideas of reality and illusion, that the motif of the curtain found in so many works indicates the theatricality of a composition, that he ‘interrogates’ how a two dimensional object can convey a three dimensional scene, that his principal obsession is ‘with the challenge of representation’, that the works are ‘playing with representation and artifice’ or highlight how:

‘all art depends on artificial devices, illusionary tools and conventions that the viewer and artist conspire to accept as descriptive of something real’.

‘Conspire’ is a typical piece of art critical bombast. When you look at a photo in a newspaper, are you aware that you and the newspaper editors are ‘conspiring’ to accept the convention that something not there is being read as if it was there? Or ‘conspiring’ to see a 3-D image on what is in fact a 2-D surface? When you watch TV or a movie, did you realise you are part of an exciting ‘conspiracy’ to accept a 2-D surface as portraying 3-D events? No. Acceptance of flat images is universal, it’s hardly something Hockney has invented or is the first to play with.

Banality What struck me about many of these critical comments is how simple-minded they are. The ‘artificiality of art’ has been the subject of conversations about art ever since we’ve had art: Plato was upset by figurative art and so is the Koran; the Renaissance is an explosion of self-conscious tricks and experiments with the 2-D/3-D game.

But there is also something unnervingly banal about the art itself. This is brought out by the disarmingly homely nature of many of Hockney’s own comments in the (excellent) audio-commentary.

  • For the portrait of his parents, he tells us that his mum sat very dignified but his dad got fidgety very quickly, which is why he ended up depicting him bending over a book. On the bookshelf between them, Hockney thought he needed something to add a bit of detail and there was something he liked about the word ‘Chardin’ so he painted that on the spine of one of the books. Fair enough but it’s so… prosaic.
  • Commenting on the early Typhoo painting he explains that he’s always drunk a lot of tea and there were lots of old Typhoo packs lying around the studio in among all the paint. So he decided to paint one. OK. But it’s crushingly banal and inconsequential.
  • You might expect the early painting The Hypnotist to have some kind of recondite or hidden meaning but no: it is based on a scene from a Vincent Price movie, The Raven, which Hockney liked. That’s it.
  • As explanation for the explosion of super-colourful paintings of Mulholland Drive in the 1980s Hockney explains that his house was at the top of the Drive while his studio was down in the valley and so every day he had drove the windy road between the two, sometimes several times a day. It was a very ‘wiggly’ road and so the daily commute got him interested in ‘wiggly lines’. Up to that point his LA paintings had had very straight lines, reflecting the gridlike layout of the city and its rectangular office blocks, not to mention the beautifully rectangular swimming pools and rectilinear architecture of the poolside houses. But this new commute made him think again about ‘wiggly lines’ and so he started to put more ‘wiggly lines’ into his paintings. That simple.
  • In 1992 Hockney made a deliberate decision to paint in a new very brightly coloured and much more abstract style than previously and he called the resulting series ‘Very New Paintings’. The titles of  his work have generally been very flat and deliberately unimaginative. The 1963 exhibition, Paintings with people in them kind of sets the low expectations.
  • Hockney read somewhere that the Grand Canyon was ‘impossible to paint’, took that as a challenge and so set out to paint it. Which he did in a number of oil paintings composed of separated canvases placed in grids. It’s almost like doing it for a bet. Maybe this explains the effective, big bright but curiously disengaged impact of the result.
  • One critic commented that the Four Seasons videos shot from the point of view of a car rumbling very slowly along a country lane in Yorkshire created an art work benefiting from a ‘hi-def post-cubist’ vision of the world. Maybe. But the room showing them has a nice comfy bench to sit on which, when I was there, was packed grey-haired old-age-pensioners watching in effect a really relaxing, slow motion travelogue through beautiful English countryside. It felt about as radical or challenging as BBC’s Springwatch programme.
  • Talking about his experiments with iPad art from 2010, Hockney explained that it was easy to create the works, especially the depictions of dawn, while lying in bed at his mother’s house. (The comments about the bed-bound nature of composition explain the number of window frames, curtains and vases of flowers which occur in these iPad works). It so happened that the sun came up on his bedroom’s side of the house first, which leads him to the insight that sunrise is ‘a rather beautiful thing’.
  • At the very end of the audioguide, the curators asked Hockney what he hoped visitors would get out of the exhibition and – admittedly put on the spot about defining a lifetime of work – Hockney says he hopes his art will bring visitors ‘some joy’… because ‘I do enjoy looking’.

I’m not intending to criticise. I’m just pointing out that the more we heard from the man himself the more mundane, domestic, homely and banal the inspiration, creation and naming of so many of the works were revealed to be.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Change and experiment

The exhibition blurb makes much of Hockney’s ‘restless experimentalism’ and enthusiastic ’embracing of new technologies’. Well, yes and no. I remember the press coverage when he exhibited the works made from collages of Polaroid photos back in the 1980s. Then the revelation of his iPad works at the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition, along with the stunningly high quality Four Seasons video.

But this keeping up-to-date seems, to me, always done in the name of a very conservative vision, a very tame and simplified view of the world. Thus the huge paintings of the Yorkshire landscape which dominated the 2012 Royal Academy show are stunning and striking, bold and simplified and colourful but – in their way – profoundly conservative and reassuring. It’s Britain with everything 21st century taken out – refugee crisis, Islamic terrorism, urban blight, housing crisis – all politics – even other art or cultural movements – all are weirdly absent from these big, confident, colourful and yet somehow strangely blank works.

Art doesn’t have to have anything to do with politics or anything the artist doesn’t want it to, and most of the work here is of a very high order of imaginativeness and execution, and the consistent reinvention over such a long period is impressive, awesome even. But for me much of Hockney’s work seems homely and decorative – depictions of his family and friends, his house, his drive to work, his boyhood landscape – lots of memorable, confident and stylish images – but it almost all lacks the urgency, excitement and dynamism which is what I most value and enjoy in art.

In the room devoted to drawings, in a corner, was my favourite image from the show. It is a typically relaxed and nicely executed detail from Hockney’s world, a very peaceful, modest world of friends and family, homes and pools and woods and fields, a very sedate, unthreatening essentially picturesque world. But how he captures it! With what a casually brilliant eye!

Videos

There are, of course, several videos promoting the show.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html

In their way as affable, well-mannered, reasonable and breezy as the work itself.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html

I also enjoyed this brief and enthusiastic critical overview.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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