Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

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

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