Film by Samuel Beckett (1963)

I’ve commented many times on the tendency of Beckett’s later works to feature increasing amounts of increasingly precise and pedantic stage directions, until some of the works consist more of stage directions than content.

This tendency span off in a number of directions, into works which lack words altogether and are effectively mimes, into others which consist entirely of very precise physical movements, like Quad, which are more like modernist ballets.

Yet another experimental outlet was film. Having written half a dozen radio plays by the early 1960s, engaging with the medium of film was in many ways the next logical step for Beckett. In the event the experience was not a happy one, as the impressively long and thorough Wikipedia entry on Film makes clear.

The two products of the project are the 17-minute film itself and the characteristically obsessive screenplay Beckett created for it. The screenplay is divided into sections.

Ontology

Probably the most striking element is the GENERAL section which begins with general philosophical statements about the nature of perception and being. Most screenplays do not start with a philosophical disquisition.

Esse est percipi.
All extraneous perception suppressed, animal, human, divine, self-perception maintains in being.
Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception.
No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience.

‘No truth value attaches to above’ so we can ignore it. More important is that the one and only protagonist is ‘sundered’ into Eye (E) and Object (O).

Until end of film O is perceived by E from behind and at an angle not exceeding 45°. Convention: O enters percipi = experiences anguish of perceivedness, only when this angle is exceeded.

For me the important part of this is the phrase ‘anguish of perceivedness’. Beckett seems to be repeating a core idea of Sartrean existentialism which is that: to be perceived is to be reduced to the status of an object, to have one’s humanity abolished. It is this which causes ‘anguish’. The dynamic interplay between feeling like an autonomous perceiving consciousness and suddenly realising that for everyone around you, you are in fact a mute object of their gaze, is a core dilemma of Sartre’s stricken, anguished fictions, many of which I have reviewed on this blog.

The stuff about the angle of perception is repeated with Beckett’s characteristic obsessive fastidiousness, most of which was abandoned in the actual filming, but however it’s phrased the core idea was obviously to try and exploit the medium of film to somehow capture the doubled nature of human consciousness: as self-aware agent but simultaneously operated-on object.

I worked in TV as a producer and director. None of this is necessary in a screenplay or shooting script. This prolegomena is quite obviously aimed at the scholars and commentators who Beckett knew were, by this stage, paying detailed attention to everything he wrote and said.

Tone

Of more practical use is the brief description of the tone and style intended, namely

The film is entirely silent except for the ‘sssh !’ in part one. Climate of film comic and unreal. O should invite laughter throughout by his way of moving. Unreality of street scene.

So it’s a silent movie (apart from the shhh) which, obviously, implies no dialogue. More like his mimes. The other noteworthy point is that it mixes comedy and unreality, the latter perhaps interpretable as surreal.

Structure

This grand masterpiece is meant to be in Three Parts:

The street (about eight minutes). 2. The stairs (about five minutes). 3. The room (about seventeen minutes).

As usual the text gives six pages of very, very, very detailed description of precisely what happens, how, at what speed and angle, and so on, an obsessive iteration of the sole protagonist’s mechanical movements, the same kind of obsessive description of the minutiae of human physical activity which characterises all his prose works but especially the super-obsessive-compulsive text of Watt.

Notes

As you might expect, the ‘screenplay’ itself is then followed by almost as many pages of ‘notes’, detailing, with mathematical precision and accompanied by 19 diagrams, the precise physical movements of the protagonist throughout. Monomanic attention to physical movement doesn’t begin to convey the obsessive attention to precise movements, one of the central Beckett attributes, present in all his works.

The actor

It’s a piece for one actor who has no dialogue at all but has to perform the exact sequence of Beckett’s obsessively detailed actions. According to Wikipedia, both Beckett and the director Alan Schneider originally wanted Charlie Chaplin, Zero Mostel or Jack MacGowran but couldn’t get any of them and so eventually settled on the great genius of the silent era, Buster Keaton.

Beckett was set throughout the filming (the only time he ever went to America, apparently) getting progressively more disillusioned by what is actually required in film-making i.e. the immense amount of time setting up each shot and shooting multiple takes. You can’t just boss the camera round like you can an actor onstage. There’s a whole crew and all the heavy equipment of camera and lights which have to be moved every time you change something or want to shoot a new shot. In other words, you have to be crystal clear what you want before you start, and even then plenty of movies go awry because things don’t end up looking as the scriptwriter envisioned.

The film

Thankfully, the film itself is available online but, very irritatingly, only in a version which someone has decided to overlay with a ridiculously twee and sentimental pop song. Beckett’s skinny skeleton must be spinning in his grave at such a desecration. Here it is. Watch it with the sound turned down.

Much was changed between script and shooting, as anyone who’s shot a script knows is common. Some things work, some don’t, you can never be completely sure till you try.

As to the content, as so often much of it is trite and hackneyed and very familiar Beckett tropes. The shabby old man. The battered hat. The mechanical gestures. Isolation, loneliness. Trapped in a room which, the script says, is his mother’s room (Beckett’s obsession with parents, it especially recalls Molloy’s return to his mother’s room/womb/tomb to die).

A view

Well, if you start from a consideration of the long tradition in Western Philosophy which pitches Being against Perception, from Plato to Sartre via Berkeley and many others, then it is possible to spin an extended essay out of the text Beckett has written and probably never stop.

But if you come to it as a viewer, as a cinema-goer, well, it’s a tough 17 minutes to watch. It doesn’t exactly come over as ‘comic’, just weird and disturbing. Why is the figure running along by a wall? Why is he wearing a hankie on his head? When he bumps into the couple, why are they dressed as Edwardians on a day trip? Why does he pass an old lady on the stairs in similar period costume? Why does she grimace into the camera and then collapse?

Once he has arrived in a grim, barely furnished room (natural habitat of all anguished existentialists) the way he takes stock of all its fittings only makes sense if you’ve read the screenplay i.e. he covers every source of gaze or watch, anything which can observe and objectify him.

The screenplay suggests that when we are looking at the protagonist the lens is clear, but when we see his point of view, the lens is blurred. The thing is: a) ten thousand other film-makers have been aware of the difference between the objective camera view and the individual’s point of view, which has been conveyed in thousands of other movies, much more effectively; b) I could only access the film in a poor quality copy on Vimeo so the entire thing looked blurred and degraded, thus destroying at a stroke the supposed distinction between objective view and subjective view.

Above all the film, as a film, seems hackneyed and clichéd. The theme of a nutcase who behaves oddly and obsessively in his room is a common subject of umpteen movies, from shoestring budget student films – picking this topic because mental deviation is cool and because they’ve no budget for props or actors – to Hollywood or German Weimar movies about loner, oddball killers. The protagonist’s need to cover up paintings, close the curtains, hide the parrot with his blinking eye, the goldfish with his haunting eye, and throw out his cat and dog don’t seem remotely novel or interesting, but are par for the course for all manner of movie psychopaths and weirdos.

And the deeper theme of the perceiving eye and the eye of the camera, the camera moving to observe the subject, the switch to point of view, all these are themes or techniques which have been explored to death in film, the correlation between the organic eye of people or animals and the eye of the camera, my God, it’s the stuff of a million GCSE media studies essays, it’s tediously entry level. As every single commentator has pointed out the extreme close-up of the eye reminds everyone of the eye scene in Bunuel’s Chien Andalou of, er, 1929.

Beckett’s assaults on the conventions of theatre had real bite because they were unprecedented, inventive and often thrilling. Three characters in urns, speaking only when the spotlight clicks onto them, still feels unusual today, whereas a ‘film’ about a shabby obsessive alone in his room, scared of anything he thinks is ‘looking’ at him, is the stuff of thousands of psycho movies.

This foray into film tends to demonstrate the medium’s intrinsic limitations: it all looks the same, projected up there into a flat, passive screen, whereas the human voice – onstage or broadcast over radio – is capable of infinite inflections and moods. That is why his plays and radio plays are so vastly superior to this effort. You can see why Beckett only tried film once.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Acts Without Words I and II by Samuel Beckett

Act Without Words I

Act Without Words I (a mime for one player) is a short mime piece written by Samuel Beckett. It was originally performed after Beckett’s major play, Endgame, during the latter’s first run in London. It was Beckett’s first attempt at the genre and dates from a period when he had just experimented with his first play, Waiting For Godot, and his first radio play, All That Fall. You can view a modern production of it on YouTube.

The scene is a desert on to which a man is abruptly ‘flung backwards’. Mysterious whistles draw his attention in various directions. A number of more or less desirable objects, notably a carafe of water, are dangled before him. He tries to reach up to the water but it is out of reach.

A number of cuboid boxes, obviously designed to make it easier for him to reach the water, descend from the flies, each one’s arrival signalled by a blast on the whistle. But however ingeniously he piles them on top of one another, the water is always moved to be just out of reach.

After ten or so minutes of painfully frustrated efforts, in the end the protagonist sinks into complete immobility. The whistle sounds – but he no longer pays attention. The water is dangled right in front of his face, but he doesn’t move. Even the palm tree in the shade of which he has been sitting is whisked off into the flies. He remains immobile, looking at his hands.

The meaning(s)

With its figure abandoned in a desert and subject to endless frustration, Act Without Words I feels like a variation on the theme of Godot except with one protagonist instead of the four we meet in the play.

Tragic

If you take a bleak and nihilistic view of Beckett, then the mime depicts a man flung on to the stage of life, at first obeying the call of a number of impulses, drawn to the pursuit of illusory objectives by whistles blown from the wings, but finding peace only when he has learned the pointlessness of even trying to attain any of these objective, and finally refusing any of the physical satisfactions dangled before him. He can find peace only through ‘the recognition of the nothingness which is the only reality’.

Actually a number of Beckett critics including Ruby Cohn and Ihab Hassan have dismissed it as too obvious and too pat. ‘Oh dear, life is meaningless, what shall I do?’ When stated that bluntly, it is a cliché.

Comic

That said, the putting of a man through a number of humiliating tasks which he can never achieve, in a wordless mime, is strikingly similar to the early, black-and-white, comedy films which Beckett loved. Take the 1916 short film One am written, directed and starring Charlie Chaplin. In its 34-minute duration a posh man in a top hat who is very drunk is dropped off outside his house by a taxi and then spends the next 30 minutes trying to find his key, get into the house and then taking an awesome amount of time getting up the stairs.

Or take the Laurel and Hardy comedy short, The Music Box, in which the hapless duo are deliverymen tasked with delivering a big, heavy piano up the longest flight of stairs in California.

The point is that both these movies are about protagonists facing a series of frustrations and setbacks exactly as the protagonist of Act Without Words I does. Viewed through this lens, and if you watch the Beckett on Film version, it feels like the protagonist is reduced not to philosophically noble, nihilistic despair, but to childish, sulky refusal to take part in this stupid game. Much more like the comic protagonist of a silent movie.

Portentous

In The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, C.J. Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski suggest that the protagonist’s final refusal to play, to be tempted by the water dangling in front of him, is not a childish sulk, but represents his rejection of purely physical needs and his rebellion against his fate as a human. In refusing and rising above purely physical needs, he is enacting the psychological process described by Albert Camus in his lengthy and popular sociological work, The Rebel (1951).

From a deluge of words to wordlessness

What strikes me most about this piece is the fact that a mime, in effect, consists entirely of stage directions.

In this respect Beckett’s work presents an interesting trajectory, from the vast solid cliffs of prose in The Beckett Trilogy via the light and fast-moving dialogue of his main plays (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape) to the abandonment of the written or spoken word altogether and the reduction of the dramatic event to action, pure and simple, of wordless mime consisting solely of stage directions. In this it anticipates a number of Beckett’s later works which will be wordless mimes.

Beckett’s stage directions

It also reminds the viewer of the extreme precision and pedantry of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett was always obsessive about the physical behaviour of his characters, regarding humans as closer to automata than people, as evidence in the numerous obsessively detailed descriptions of physical options and behaviours in the novel Watt.

He carried this obsessive attention to the minutiae of physical action over into his plays and became notorious among directors and actors for the extreme precision of his stage directors and his inflexible insistence that they must be followed to the letter, precisely as he had written them.

As you read through the plays, as you come across more mimes and musical movements and so on, you realise that the composition of the stage directions was every bit as precise and detailed and calculated for effect as the actual prose and dialogue and speeches.

And of course no member of the audience is aware of this but the reader of the piece sees that it ends with the four-times repeated stage direction He does not move, reminding us of the famous stage direction at the bitter end of Godot – They do not move.

Suicide

Speaking of Waiting For Godot at one point in Act Without Words the protagonist takes the length of rope he’s been given and obviously plans to hang himself from the palm tree which is more or less the only feature in the desert landscape.

This reminds us of Estragon’s throwaway suggestion in Waiting For Godot that the two tramps hang themselves and, of course, both suggestions turning out to be fruitless. You don’t get out of it that easy, this thing called life.

Act Without Words II

Act Without Words II is another short mime, written a few years after the first one. It, also, was composed in French before being translated into English by the author although, being a mime, there was no dialogue to translate, just the stage directions. The London premiere was directed by Michael Horovitz and performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 25 January 1960.

Even more than the first one, number II is another work which depends entirely on the precision of the choreography. Two men are in sacks. A long stick enters from stage right and pokes one of the sacks. Character A struggles out of his sack and elaborately gets dressed before picking up the second sack and placing it further from the stick, before undressing and getting back into his sack. The same procedure is then applied to the other sack containing Character B, who is poked, struggles out of his sack, does callisthenics, cleans his teeth, gets dressed and so on. His job is to move the other sack, containing Character A further along the stage, before he, too, undresses and gets back into his sack. And so on, Forever.

Anyone who’s read Watt or Molloy will recognise the helpless, Aspergers syndrome-like obsessiveness of the repeated behaviour, of numerous apparently pointless repetitions carried out with minute variations and exasperating precision. This, the work says, is how utterly pointless our lives are with all the gettings-up and breakfasts and showers and dressing and going to work. All variations on the same bloody pointless and endlessly similar actions. Is this it? Is this all?

To emphasise the precision he wants and the clinical emptiness of the actions, Beckett includes a diagram of the changing positions of the sacks relative to each other.

The Goad

At the height of the Swinging Sixties, in 1966, photographer Paul Joyce (the great-grand-nephew of James Joyce) saw Act Without Words II as part of a Sunday evening performance at the Aldwich theatre and thought it would make a fun short experimental film. Joyce approached the cast, Freddie Jones and Geoffrey Hinscliff, and they said okay, so, after a little thought, Joyce transposed the production from the theatre to a rubbish dump in Rainham, Essex.

The way there are two characters who fuss about their clothes, and wear silly outfits, and both wear bowler hats, reminds us of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot – just as Character A eating a carrot reminds us of Vladimir offering Estragon a carrot, who proceeds to make such a palaver about eating it, in act one of Godot.

Having started to think about silent comedy classics, it’s hard not to miss the suggestion that Character A’s ill-fitting suit and round hat is at least in part a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character, while Character B’s skinny physique, bony face and pork pie hat is strongly reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

It is an absurdist reductio ad absurdum, but it is telling us something less about Life, than about literature and film – namely that the comic and the bleakly nihilistic are very closely allied. If you slip on a banana skin and band your nose it’s a tragedy; if someone else does, it’s a comedy.

Both these mimes strike me as having next to nothing to say about ‘Life’ – what a ridiculous idea! – but do make you reflect a bit about the thin line which separates tragedy from comedy, the humdrum from the absurd, the serious and po-faced from the farcically hilarious.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953)

ESTRAGON: Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!

Beckett dashed off Waiting For Godot in just four months, October 1948 to January 1949. It was written in a break between the second novel of the Beckett Trilogy, Malone Dies (written November 1947 to May 1948) and the third and final instalment of the trilogy, The Unnamable, which Beckett laboured over from March 1949 to January 1950.

Godot was, therefore, written during the Berlin Airlift (June 1948 to September 1949) when many people thought Europe was on the brink of a Third World War, when nuclear apocalypse was on a lot of people’s minds.

All these books were first written in French, as was Waiting For Godot, whose original French title is En Attendant Godot.

Waiting For Godot was first produced at a tiny French theatre, the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris, starting in December 1952. It was an immediate critical success, moved to a larger theatre, and at a stroke established Beckett in the front rank of contemporary theatre, aligning him with the movement called Theatre of the Absurd. The English-language version premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1955.

It’s odd to consider that Godot came at the end of such a sustained run of prose writings. It’s not as if it was the glorious conclusion of a lifetime spent in the theatre, the exact opposite; with the exception of a minor play, Eleutheria, which wasn’t published in English till 1996, Godot was the first proper play Beckett wrote and certainly his first staged play. I wonder how many other playwrights achieved such international fame on the basis of their first play?

Roots in the Beckett Trilogy

The prose of its immediate predecessors in Beckett’s oeuvre, Molloy and Malone Dies can be characterised in lots of ways, but among these are that it is:

Dense

Molloy only has two paragraphs, the second one being well over a hundred pages long. The point being the reader is confronted with a solid, uninterrupted, dense and clotted wall of prose which is very difficult to parse and make sense of it. Reading blocks like this makes you realise how hugely important it is that most texts (novels, poems, newspaper or magazine articles) are chopped up into bite-sized chunks, into paragraphs, sometimes with headings, into chapters, sometimes with titles, and in a conventional novel, when there’s dialogue each new speech from different characters generally starts a new paragraph. Not in the Beckett Trilogy texts.

Episodes

This explains one of the most salient but little-noticed aspects of the three novels, which is that, when they are presented, for example in readings, dramatic productions, on the radio or on TV they are broken up into episodes. This indicates both that it is very hard to process the novels as one continuous block, but also indicates that, despite the appearance of a wall of text, they are in fact composed of discrete sections, up to a point anyway.

Comedy

If you have the stamina to read them closely, you also notice there’s actually quite a variety of styles in the prose. A high-level categorisation might suggest about four approaches.

There’s the main, core Beckett style in which characters bemoan their fate – ‘no hope, I don’t know, I don’t understand, was it he, am I me, I can’t go on, I must go on’ – that kind of thing. In the play Vladimir is fond of repeating ‘Nothing to be done’.

There’s the learnèd style, when the character, on the face of it a tramp or derelict or senile hospital inmate, surprises you with a learned disquisition, begins to talk about hypotheses, and let us consider the evidence, and on the one hand this but on the other hand that – and slips into Latin and makes learned references to Greek myths or the arcane mysteries of astrology or uses rare and obscure terminology.

The ‘academic’ style reaches a deranged apogee in Lucky’s long, dementedly learned soliloquy in act 1.

There’s the swearing. Not many of the commentators I’ve read mention the fact that Beckett’s characters from time to time drop the pretence of being university lecturers and just say fuck it, balls to all that, what a load of ballocks, and go on to dwell at length on their ability to have a good shit, piss against a tree, masturbate with a good hard prick and gain entry now and then to a cunt.

In Waiting For Godot the tramps suggest hanging themselves on the basis that at least it will give them erections, and half-way through act one, Vladimir runs offstage to have a pee. Elsewhere, swearwords are freely used.

VLADIMIR: That seems intelligent all right. But there’s one thing I’m afraid of.
ESTRAGON: What?
VLADIMIR: That Lucky might get going all of a sudden. Then we’d be ballocksed

And there’s the moment towards the end when Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky are in a heap and Estragon asks, ‘Who farted?’ It doesn’t get more crude or Rabelaisian than that?

Lastly, there’s the comedy. Some is broad physical farce, as when the characters fall over as when Moran and his son fall off their overloaded bicycle. Some derives from the demented precision with which his autistic characters describe physical processes in autistic obsessive detail, as when Molloy takes a page to describe all the ways he can arrange sixteen sucking stones in his four pockets. Some could almost come from a character-based sitcom, as the couple of pages describing the romance of mad Malone and senile old Moll.

Othertimes there’s sly comedy, as when the unnamable says he’ll stop asking questions and immediately goes on to ask four questions in a row. And there are other, more elusive moments of humour, which depend on the switch from one register to another as when, after a prolonged learned lecture about something, the narrator might make a very blunt, down-to-earth Irish comment (and this is where a lot of the swearing comes in).

Differences between the monologues of the Beckett trilogy and a stage play

So, quite clearly, I am not considering Waiting For Godot as a standalone play, but considering it as situated, almost embedded within, the writing of the Trilogy, which took place around it, before and after it, and with which it shares almost all its themes and style.

From this perspective, there are four standout features about the play – its brevity, dialogue, action and the present.

The qualities of a monologue

Part of the reason the novels are so dense is because Beckett cast them all in the form of monologues. Now the thing about a monologue – as Beckett and his readers find out, to their cost – is you can’t have an intermission. In a novel, characters can come together and have an important scene but then you can cut away, to anything you want, other characters, description of the setting, philosophical musings, whatever. But a monologue, by its nature, has to carry on.

By contrast, Waiting For Godot is broken up into dialogue, true dialogue, dialogue which doesn’t have to explain everything (as a monologue tends to have to), which can be supplemented by the actors’ physical gestures, and so can be brief, incredibly brief, sometimes just a few words, sometimes no words at all, just a look or gesture.

So someone like me, who has just struggled through the 400 or more dense pages of the Beckett Trilogy, can hardly believe how empty Waiting For Godot is. There’s more empty space on the page than text.

And, as mentioned, you also realise what an enormous amount of information is conveyed when two characters converse. As any human knows, the real meaning of an exchange need not be at all what is said in the words. It can be the opposite of what is said, or fractions of the overt meaning which are refracted through sarcasm, irony, tone of voice and the situation, such as saying ‘Oh great’ when the wings fall off your airplane.

Dealing in dialogue creates entire new dimensions of meaning which were unavailable in the monologues.

Physical activity

Third aspect is physical activity. Characters can do things onstage which are just as eloquent as any words they say, such as shoot someone, kiss someone and so on.

Now the characters in the Trilogy monologues often remembered incidents and conversations, such as Jacques Moran’s arguments with his maid Martha and his endless bullying of his son. But these dialogues or conversations, such as they are, are always viewed through the narrating consciousness and this, in all three books, is mad, weird, demented, gaga, deranged, so highly biased. Everything is perceived through the same rather grim, grey spectacles.

In the real world

Lastly, it happens before our eyes. It’s difficult to over-emphasise what a difference this makes from the huge, leviathan monologues. In those vast swamps of prose, each word or phrase potentially brings to mind other incidents or characters or phrases we have read about earlier, creating a hyper-complex polyphonic texture of references and echoes, which Beckett works hard to make sometimes unbearably dense and heavy.

Now, human beings are predatory mammals and we are designed to watch, monitor and assess all the activity in our surroundings for threat or promise. So by startling contrast to the book-bound monologues, there is a huge sensory and psychological pleasure to be had just from watching people move about on stage. We are designed to always be fascinated by what other people are doing.

And the vital corollary of this is that it is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much easier to watch a couple of guys pottering about onstage and, at long intervals saying a few words to each other, sooooooooooooooooooo much easier than it is reading the monologues. It feels like Friday night down the pub after a very hard week’s work. Waiting For Godot is an almost physically easier, lighter, more understandable and pleasurable read than the Trilogy.

Waiting For Godot, the plot

So a couple of tramps, Vladimir (‘Didi’) and Estragon (‘Gogo’), are onstage, representing outdoors somewhere, fussing with their boots, squabbling about trivia, and tell each other (and thereby the audience) that they can’t go anywhere or settle to do anything because they are waiting for Godot.

Now whether you want to interpret the poverty of their language, physical decrepitude and mental abilities as a comment on the human condition or just take them as a pair of tragi-comic tramps, and whether you want to interpret Godot as referring to God or Death or some other factor which brings meaning to human life but which is always just out of reach or unattainable – all this is entirely up to you.

The play is in two parts. Now, given that Beckett’s central theme is decline and fall and entropy and collapse and deterioration, if you think about it, the minimum number of parts he’d require to dramatise this theme is two – one before and one after, or, more accurately, ‘Now’, followed by ‘A little later’.

Beckett could have used more parts, but a third or fourth part would simply have demonstrated even more decline and collapse. It is more tactful – it says enough – just to have the two. Thus in part two we meet the two tramps exactly where we left them, except worse off, degraded in clothes and attitude.

Then there’s the other two characters, Pozzo and Lucky. Coming to it cold, it feels very much as if the play, as well as the characters, are killing time a bit before Pozzo and Lucky arrive. Pozzo is a fountain of energy. He is leading Lucky (ironic name) by a thick heavy rope, Lucky being little more than an exhausted slave who he abuses, whips and insults.

And it is entirely predictable that, when they reappear in act two, this pair also will be significantly degraded – most strikingly, and cruelly, in the fact that the once-ebullient Pozzo is now blind.

Details

Bowler hats

All four characters in Waiting For Godot and several characters in the Trilogy wear hats, specifically Gaber when he comes to give his ‘mission’ to Moran. On an obvious visual level, Vladimir and Estragon with their bowler hats and their incessant repartee can easily be made to appear an absurdist Laurel and Hardy.

There’s a small tic or trope which combines the comedy of their repartee with the more ‘serious’ theme of the way they’re blocked, the way their conversations, their language – like them – gets nowhere. This is when their conversation turns a bit lyrical and they try to outdo each other with comparisons or analogies:

VLADIMIR: It’s only beginning.
ESTRAGON: It’s awful.
VLADIMIR: Worse than the pantomime.
ESTRAGON: The circus.
VLADIMIR: The music-hall.
ESTRAGON: The circus.

The point being the way that in these little passages, Estragon always repeats his comparison definitively and aggressively with an air of finality, bringing the pair’s little flight of imagination to a roadblock halt.

VLADIMIR: It’d pass the time. (Estragon hesitates.) I assure you, it’d be an occupation.
ESTRAGON: A relaxation.
VLADIMIR: A recreation.
ESTRAGON: A relaxation.

Maybe it’s a tiny symptom of their lack of imagination, or maybe Estragon’s refusal to let the flight of fancy fly… but either way, it’s a small symptom of the way they are trapped, cabined and confined by themselves.

Comedy

Obviously everything depends on your definition of comedy or your sense of humour, how dark or light it is. The notion that they suggest hanging themselves (‘well, it’d pass the time’) is funny. When Estragon comes to the front of the stage, looks out over the audience and declares ‘Inspiring prospects!’, that’s funny, and like lots of tricks is repeated in act 2 when they contemplate escaping in the direction of the auditorium, but then recoil, as if in horror of the audience!

Or when at the start of act 2, Vladimir tries to lift Estragon’s mood by persuading him to say ‘I am happy’ and then, after a pause, Estragon dolefully says, ‘What shall we do now we’re happy?’

Godot

Estragon says he’s Vladimir’s friend. Vladimir says Godot said he’d be along for them on Saturday. At least he thinks it was Saturday. Godot has a horse. Pozzo knows that Godot has the tramps’ immediate future in his hands. Estragon asks why they don’t just drop waiting for bloody Godot and leave?

VLADIMIR: He’d punish us.

Inconsequentiality

I identified the central role played by inconsequentiality in the monologues, the way subjects often crop up with no relation, or the narrator says something, rejects it, moves on as if it doesn’t matter, in fact all the monologuists continually repeat the notion that ‘it doesn’t matter’.

Similarly, when you look at the dialogue in Godot you realise Vladimir and Estragon move from one subject to another with no link or thread. Their arbitrary disconnectedness is part of the so-called absurdity.

For example, Estragon suggests they hang themselves which sounds quite tragic, but then goes onto undermine any sense of seriousness by commenting, ‘After all, it would pass the time’. Nothing matters. Or only the trivial matters, like who’s wearing whose shoes, or hat. That’s what I mean by the play’s studied inconsequentiality.

Lucky’s monologue

It may seem deranged to the average theatre-goer, but it is a small excerpt of the kind of thing you encounter in the Trilogy by the hundreds of pages.

One of the thieves

Vladimir points out to Estragon that one of the thieves was saved, a ‘reasonable percentage’. Now, the story of the thief who was saved (Christ was crucified in the middle of two thieves undergoing the same punishment; one of them said he believed in Jesus and Jesus promised he’d see him that day in Paradise) occurs not once but twice in the trilogy (once in a particularly grotesque satire, because the decrepit old lady Moll has two ear-rings which depict the two thieves, and one massive canine in her mouth which has been ingeniously carved to depict Christ on the cross).

The extended and comically pedantic explanation of the theological problems this story throws up are reminiscent of the comically pedantic episode of Molloy and the sucking stones and its avatars in the other novels. The elaborate swapping round of inanimate objects anticipates the comic business with the hats in act 2.

Passing the time

Basically the play is about the activity of waiting. It consists of the two characters wondering how to pass the time before Godot arrives. This is more or less the same plight as Malone in Malone Dies who spends some 150 pages telling himself stories to pass the time until he, well, dies, and, in a much more confused way, in The Unnamable where the narrator talks interminably about making time pass and creating an endless discourse to fill time.

Vladimir asks Estragon if ‘they’ beat him, certainly they did, Estragon replies. This interested me because an omnipresent and menacing ‘they’ dominate the long text Beckett went on to write immediately after this, The Unnamable. What’s notable about this little exchange – as so many aspects of Beckett – is how inconsequential it is. The characters don’t seem to care much and the subject doesn’t recur.

At one point in act two Estragon remarks ‘that wasn’t such a bad little canter’, referring to a patch of conversation they’ve managed to rustle up, to pass the time. In act two they have the bright idea of abusing each other (‘it’d pass the time’). This is exactly the mentality of Malone, who tells the reader he is going to try out different subjects, and tell entire stories, to while away the time until he dies.

Estragon says they’ve been trying to pass the time like this for half a century.

Philosophy

Obviously Godot was premiered just as the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and to some extent Albert Camus was sweeping the cultural strongholds of the Western world i.e. art, literature, theatre and universities. Everyone wanted to live in Paris, wear black polo-necked jumpers and shades, smoke Gauloise cigarettes, and talk smoochily about the pointlessness of life, the futility of existence, and outdo each other’s expressions of Despair.

Beckett’s novels were little known because they are so damn difficult to read, but Godot, for the reasons I’ve explained above, is a masterpiece of simplification and dramatisation. It’s almost like an advert for the Existentialist movement, with the ‘why are we here? what is it all about?’ existentialism of Gogo and Didi, supplemented by what could easily be interpreted by communist and Marxist critics (ten a penny in Paris – France had the largest Communist Party in the free West) as the searing indictment of the Master-Slave relationship in the characters of Pozzo and Lucky.

It had the lot.

But 70 years later, in the post-modern era of identity politics and digital technology, a lot of the so-called philosophy of the piece has been superseded. For most students nowadays, the meaning of life is trying to find a job, somewhere to live and pay off their student debts. All of us are now caught up in the coronavirus pandemic and some of us were very worried about global warming before the virus hit.

In this content, I tentatively suggest that the philosophy of the play feels dated and contrived. The most famous moment in the play is when Pozzo, in the second act now blind, suddenly bursts out in anger at the endless questioning of Vladimir and says:

POZZO: One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.)

And then delivers the play’s Big Message.

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

In the Faber edition I have, and the online edition I used, this line is printed in bold, just to make it perfectly clear to the slow learners at the back of the class that this is THE AUTHOR’S MESSAGE. I couldn’t help finding that rather funny.

But also find it, how shall I be tactful – untrue. I was present in the operating theatre when they delivered my children, both times by Caesarian section, and my wife did not give birth astride the grave. My kids are now in their twenties and, believe me, their lives have not consisted of a brief gleam of light and then the grave, but an incredible number of nappies which needed to be changed, meals cooked, and school runs undertaken.

When I was 17 I could work myself up into hysterics about the fact that I was going to die, Oh my God! Die! Cease to be! Is there a God? An afterlife? Will I go to hell? What if there’s nothing? What if you feel the worms eating through your rotting flesh etc?

But you grow up. You have to get a job, find somewhere to live, maybe marry, maybe have kids, then find yourself on the treadmill of mortgages and schools. Nothing feels that dramatic, pure and intense any more.

To sum up, for me Godot resonates with not one but two kinds of nostalgia. Nostalgia for a Paris of the 1950s and 60s which I never experienced but read about and seemed so cool and ‘deep’ and intense. And nostalgia for myself at 17, when I found statements like this impossibly deep and meaningful, when they shook me to my core.

Now reading Godot doesn’t stir me in either of these ways, but it does impress me with the artfulness of its construction, the variety of tones and registers, the range of humour and comic styles from bleak nihilism to Charlie Chaplin slapstick. Now, I am impressed by its complexity and success as a work of art and for the way that, while you read it and a little afterwards, its stirring rhetoric and bleak vision is genuinely moving and disturbing… until the realities of the actual world reassert themselves.

Going on

The phrase ‘go on’, as in ‘I can’t go on’, ‘we must go on’ emerges as the key phrase and concept of The Unnamable and is given pride of place right at the end of that text.

… it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know. I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Two points:

1. This same phrase, about ‘going on’, is also used throughout Waiting For Godot. Both Vladimir and Estragon, at various points, wailing that they can’t go on.

2. But Beckett wasn’t a fool, he wasn’t going to use the same phrase to conclude two big works of art, and so Godot ends with another talismanic phrase, ‘Let’s go’ and the famous stage direction (They do not move).

What I’m getting at is the way Beckett a) very consciously ended these works with heavily meaningful and symbolic phrases, and b) that they are carefully prepared for by seeding the phrase (and idea) throughout the preceding text. Thus the simple words ‘let’s go’ have already appeared at least half a dozen times in the course of the play, meaning that by the time they’re used as the final words they have built up a poetic charge, a resonance, which strikes the imagination.

This careful preparation, this artful leading up to their final words partly explains why, for many people, the last words of both The Unnamable and Waiting For Godot are the best known. (And they share the word ‘go’ and the underlying thought that ‘going’ is impossible.)

Summary

Any reader of the Beckett Trilogy can see how Beckett took its themes and tricks of style and structure and reduced them, in Waiting For Godot, to an almost bare minimum. But by casting them in dramatic form, with undeniably ‘real’ physical characters, and tapping into all the energy and dynamism created by real dialogue and physical activity onstage (there’s a surprising amount of running about, falling over, whipping, dancing and so on in the play), created a completely new thing – a devastatingly brilliant, funny, terrifying, and linguistically powerful, varied and haunting work of art.

Godot may no longer have the impact it once had because social conditions and beliefs have changed so much. But it is still a work of genius.

VLADIMIR: That passed the time.


Credit

En Attendant Godot by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1953. The English translation by Beckett himself was published in 1958. Page references are to the 1988 Faber paperback edition.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art @ Barbican

This is a fabulous exhibition, packed with wonderful paintings, photos, films, drawings, posters and all kinds of memorabilia connected with a dozen or so avant-garde and trend-setting nightclubs around the world from the 1880s to the 1960s, And as well as all the lovely works and ideas and stories, it raises a number of questions, which I’ll address at the end of this review…

First the clubs and their stories. The Barbican exhibition space is laid out not as ‘rooms’ but as successive alcoves or spaces running off the first floor gallery, from which you look down onto the ground floor which can be divided up into various areas, or opened up to make one through-space (as they did for the Lee Krasner exhibition).

There are eight of these room-sized alcoves upstairs, and in this exhibition each one tells the story of one or two famous nightclubs which became a focus for artists, or was designed and decorated by artists, in various countries from the 1880s onwards…

Paris

The Chat Noir nightclub was the most famous of the new generation of nightclubs which opened in the Montmartre region of Paris in the 1880s. The darkened interior combined Gothic, Neo-Classical and Japanese features, in fact it contained so many artworks some people nicknamed it the Louvre of Montmartre.

Reopening of the Chat Noir Cabaret by Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1896) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1885 a shadow theatre was installed on the Chat Noir’s third floor in a room hung with drawings by Edgar Degas, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Here artist Henri Riviere and collaborators staged what ended up being a series of 40 increasingly elaborate shadow plays. The exhibition features photos and drawings of the Chat Noir, along with some fabulous posters, and a big display case of some of the elaborately designed zinc silhouettes used in the plays, explaining how they were made, what characters they represent, along with some of the books, kind of novelisations of the plays they staged, including music and illustrations

The shadow theatre’s owner Rodolphe Salis took it on an international tour in the 1890s, inspiring a generation if avant-garde artists.

Meanwhile, the strange and dramatic dances of Loïe Fuller staged at the Folies Bergère in the 1890s were trail-blazing experiments in costume, light and movement. Fuller held long sticks attached to swathes of fabric to enormously increase the swirling effects of her dances. She was a real innovator who set up a laboratory to experiment with spectacular effects.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured her performances in a series of delicately hand-coloured lithographs, she inspired early film-makers like Edison and Lumiere brothers, and the alcove devoted to her also has a set of huge and very evocative posters by the great poster-maker of the era, Jules Chéret.

Folies Bergers by Jules Chéret

Vienna

The Cabaret Fledermaus was opened in Vienna in 1907 by the Wiener Werkstätte. It is a total art work in which every element – chairs, tables, light hanging, stairs and the brightly coloured tiled walls – each tile featuring a unique fantastical motif – were designed to create an overwhelming effect. Joseph Hoffmann designed the overall concept and commissioned the Wiener Keramik workshop to produce the tiles.  The club hosted satirical plays, poetry readings, avant-garde dance and a variety of musical events, including a performance of The Speckled Egg by the 21-year-old Oskar Kokoschka, a puppet show based on an Indian folk tale – the exhibition includes the fragile, original hand-made puppets.

Postcard showing the Interior view of the bar at the Cabaret Fledermaus (1907) Collection of Leonard A. Lauder

London

Not to be left behind, some London artists banded together to set up The Cave of the Golden Calf in 1912, an underground haunt in Soho set up by Frida Uhl Strindberg. It was located in ‘a dingy basement below a cloth merchant’s warehouse just off Regent Street, where her artist friends Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and Eric Gill contributed to the futurist and Russian ballet-inspired art that covered the club’s interiors. It was also, apparently, possibly the first ‘gay bar’ in the modern sense and was certainly conceived by its creator, as an avant-garde and artistic venture.

This section included designs for the interior by British artists Spencer Gore and Eric Gill, as well as Wyndham Lewis’s highly stylised programmes for the eclectic performance evenings. I came across Wyndham Lewis at school and have never stopped loving his savage angular art, either satirising English society or brutally conveying the reality of the Great War, which he saw from the front as a bombardier. For me his programme designs were the best thing in this section.

Study for a mural decoration for the Cave of the Golden Calf by Spencer Gore (1912) © Tate, London 2019

Zurich

Zurich during the war is famous as the birthplace of the Cabaret Voltaire (1916), which in its short existence (February to July 1916) hosted far-out Dada events and happenings in a deliberately absurdist environment. The exhibition includes samples of absurdist sound poetry and fantastical masks that deconstruct body and language, as used in the anarchic performances of original Dadaists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings and Marcel Janco. Later Jean Arp recalled ‘pandemonium in an overcrowded, flamboyant room’ with works by Picasso or Arp hanging on the wall while Hennings sang anti-war songs there were puppet shows, improvised dances, African drums, and booming ‘poetry without words’ was yelled through a megaphone by people wearing silly costumes. This is a 1960s reconstruction:

Rome

The curators select two clubs from the post-war period in Rome which demonstrated the hold of the dynamic new art movement of Futurism in Italy in the 1920s.

In 1921 Futurist artist Giacomo Balla was commissioned by Ugo Paladini to create a Futurist nightclub and the result was Bal Tic Tac, which used Futurist angular design to create a wonderfully colour-saturated designs for the club’s interior. The exterior of the building was sensible neo-classical, the interior deliberately undermined this with brightly coloured interlacing shapes meant to capture the movement of dancers. It was one of the first places in Rome to promote the new American jazz music. A sign on the door read, ‘If you don’t drink champagne – go away!’

Also in the same room is a display devoted to drawings and furnishings for Fortunato Depero’s spectacular inferno-inspired Cabaret del Diavolo (1922) which occupied three floors representing heaven, purgatory and hell. Depero’s flamboyant tapestry writhes with dancing demons, expressing the club’s motto ‘Tutti all’inferno!!! (Everyone to hell!!!)’.

Black and White Little Devils: Dance of the Devils by Fortunato Depero (1922) © DACS 2019. Archivo Depero, Rovereto. Courtesy Mart – Archivio Fotografico e Mediateca

Weimar Germany

After Paris in the Belle Epoque, probably the most famous era of nightclubs was in Weimar Germany between the wars, the exhibition doesn’t disappoint, with a selection of paintings and drawings of decadent German nightclubs by the likes of George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, Grosz – as usual – for me at any rate, emerging as the star among the men.

But, living in the era when we do, the exhibition goes out of its way to promote the work of ‘often overlooked female artists’, such as Jeanne Mammen and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler.

Jeanne Mammen is really good. Her drawings and paintings are recognisably from the same time and place as the guys, but feel a little softer, more rounded, her figures are a little more like humans and less like the porcine animals of Grosz or Dix. Also her use of colour, particularly watercolour, the colours washing or dribbling or spilling over to create colour and life and action and depth. She depicted almost only women, many set in overtly lesbian nightclubs, in fact some of the wonderful pictures here were illustrations to a 1931 book titled A Guide To Depraved Berlin.

She Represents by Jenna Mammen (1928) published in Simplicissimus magazine Volume 32, Number 47

One of the most purely beautiful paintings in the exhibition is Karl Hofer’s iconic portrait of a couple of Tiller Girls, the Tiller Girls being dancers who did high-precision, high-kicking routines.

Tiller Girls by Karl Hofer (before 1927) Kunsthalle Emden – Stiftung Henri und Eske Nannen © Elke Walford, Fotowerkstatt Hamburg

Interestingly, a social theorist write in the same year this was painted, 1927, that the uncanny precision and interchangeability of the girls mirrored the large-scale mechanical methods of manufacturing which were then coming in and capturing people’s imaginations: ‘the hands of the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls’.

Strasbourg

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp worked together to create the L’Aubette (1926–28), conceived as the ultimate ‘deconstruction of architecture’, a highly modernist, strict, functional design, with bold geometric abstraction as its guiding principle. The vast building housed a cinema-ballroom, bar, tearoom, billiards room, restaurant and more, each designed as immersive environments.

The Ciné-bal at Café L’Aubette, Strasbourg, designed by Theo van Doesburg (1926-28) Image: Collection Het Nieuwe Instituut

Harlem

During World War One a Great Migration began of African-Americans from the Deep South to escape segregation, poverty and violent racism. They came north, to northern cities like Chicago and New York, and brought with them new music and sounds, specifically jazz. In New York many settled in the uptown Harlem district which underwent a great artistic flowering of music, poetry, dance, art and more, which eventually became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition includes a fascinating street map of Harlem (by E. Simms Campbell) which shows all the different nightclubs and the types of jazz to be found there. The most evocative thing here is the movie made around Duke Ellington’s jazz suite, Symphony In Black, which was intended to convey a panorama of African-American life.

All the static artefacts struggle to compete with the evocativeness of a) the music and b) some of the scenes from the movie. But what comes close is the fabulous silhouette art of Aaron Douglas who is represented by paintings and prints and illustrations to a book of blues lyrics by Langston Hughes. Vivid, beautifully crisp and rhythmic, it’s no wonder the curators chose one of his images as the exhibition poster.

Dance by Aaron Douglas (1930) © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

I’d like to know a lot more about Douglas, every one of the half dozen or so images on show here are excellent. They also made me realise the black and white silhouette art of Kara Walker, the contemporary Afro-American artists, is not as original as I thought it was.

So far all these settings and stories and artists have been European and American, part of a familiar narrative of Euro-American modernism which most of us are pretty familiar with. But this huge exhibition has a few surprises in store. First, the non-Western subjects.

Mexico City

Two and a half thousand miles south of New York City is Mexico City. Here, in the aftermath of the prolonged Mexican Revolution, in the early 1920s, a radical new art movement emerged named Estridentismo which sought to overthrow established bourgeois modes and create a new poetry which combined the folk fiction of the peasants with the reality of urban life in the big cities. How to unite rural peasants and urban workers – it was Lenin’s problem, Mao’s problem, Guevara’s problem, and the founders of the movement – Ramón Alva de la Canal, Manuel Maples Arce and Germán Cueto – discussed this and much more at the Café de Nadie (Nobody’s Café) in Mexico City.

One of them came up with the characteristically inane motto: ‘Chopin to the electric chair!’ (characteristic for the post-war era of anti-bourgeois rhetoric)

Well, the twentieth century was to send many poets, painters, composers and musicians to the gulag, to the death camp and the execution cell, so in a roundabout way they got their wish.

El Café de Nadie by Ramón Alva de la Canal (c. 1970) © DACS, 2019. Courtesy Private Collection

Later in the 1920s, some of the group plus new members set up the ¡30-30! group (named after a popular rifle cartridge) with a socialist agenda of bringing art to the masses, and they organised lots of exhibitions and events in 1928 to 30. In January 1929 they staged an ambitious interactive exhibition-cum-event in a large carpa or low-cost tent used for travelling circuses. The Carpa Amaro event featured many woodprints, a deliberately cheap, affordable form.

The exhibition includes photos of these young firebrands, alongside a case of handmade masks made by German Cueto, and then a wall of thirty or so of the woodcuts which featured in the carpa exhibition by artists such as Gabriel Fernandez Ledesma and Fermin Revueltas Sanchez, ranging in subject matter from revolutionary leaders to suckling pigs via many portraits of working people.

Viva el 30-30 by Fernando Leal (1928)

Nigeria

Then to my surprise there is a whole section about Nigeria, specifically about the highly influential Mbari Artists and Writers Club, founded in the early 1960s in Nigeria.

The exhibition focuses on two of the club’s key locations, in Ibadan and Osogbo, describing how they were founded as laboratories for postcolonial artistic experimentation, providing a platform for a dazzling range of activities – including open-air dance and theatre performances, featuring ground breaking Yoruba operas by Duro Ladipo and Fela Kuti’s Afro-jazz; poetry and literature readings; experimental art workshops; and pioneering exhibitions by African and international artists such as Colette Omogbai, Twins Seven-Seven, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Uche Okeke.

There were some striking paintings here, I appreciated the swirling designs of Twins Seven-Seven but was drawn to the three works by Ibrahim (later discovering these are talismanic pieces of post-colonial African art).

Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi (1961) Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi

There was a very interesting film playing, Art In A Changing Society made back in 1964 by Francis Speed and Ulli Beier, which was a TV documentary-style introduction to the art and architecture, design and dance and music of post-colonial Nigeria but which I cannot, alas, find on the internet.

Tehran

Lastly, and most unexpected of all, we come to Tehran in 1966 where the club Rasht 29 emerged as a creative space for avant-garde painters, poets, musicians and filmmakers to meet and discuss. There were spontaneous performances and works by artists like Parviz Tanavoli and Faramarz Pilaram hung in the lounge while a soundtrack including Led Zeppelin and the Beatles played constantly.

Best of the works here were the three or four works by Parviz Tanalovi, who incorporated industrial leftovers and detritus into picture sculptures i.e picture sized and shaped objects, which hang on a wall, but which come out of the picture frame into three dimensions. Apparently many of his works incorporate a grille which looks to me like the symbol of a prison but apparently refers to the traditional design of a saqqakhaneh, the ‘sacred commemorative water fountains’ which gave their name to the artistic movement they all belonged to Saqqakhaneh.

Heech and Hands by Parviz Tanavoli (1964) Collection Parviz Tanavoli © Parviz Tanavoli


1. Including the non-Western clubs

As you can see, it’s a lot to take in. I find it hard to keep in mind all of the aspects of Modernism across Europe and the States – bringing in new non-Western countries is a brave and admirable move – it is good to  learn about Ibrahim El-Salahi and Parviz Tanalovi, in particular.

But it begs quite a few questions:

1. Why do we get to see so very little non-Western art in all our major art galleries. Mexico, Nigeria, Iran – these are all major countries with huge populations and long cultural heritages. Yet you only rarely hear anything about them.

2. Do they really fit into this exhibition? Not only was the Western stuff unified by coming from a common European artistic heritage, but it was unified in date as well, showing the flow of thought from the late-nineteenth century through the Great War and into the inter-war period: it covers the period roughly described as Modernism. Whereas the Nigeria and Tehran stuff suddenly leaps into the 1960s, a completely different period with a completely different vibe.

So not only do I know next to nothing about Nigerian or Persian traditional art, but I am not told anything about Nigerian or Iranian art of the 1900s, 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s to help put the sudden focus in the clubs of the 1960s in focus.

2. Recreating the nightclub vibe

There is one massive aspect of the show I haven’t mentioned yet – which is that, having processed through the historical exhibition and display up on the balcony, the visitor then goes back down to the ground floor and discovers that, in the central gallery space, the curators have recreated some of the art clubs which we’ve been reading about. Specifically, there is:

  • Chat Noir a white room with 7 or 8 of the big metal stencils fromt he Chat Noir hanging from the ceiling and slowly rotating in the mild breeze and throwing shadows on the wall, all to the contemporaneous music of Debussy and Satie – a very calm, peaceful, meditative room
  • Cabaret Fledermaus a striking reconstruction of the Viennese nightclub in which the walls and bar are studded with brightly coloured tiles

Recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, Vienna, 1907

  • L’Aubette a reconstruction of L’Aubette, the semi-industrial, architectural complex in Strasbourg, complete with cinema projection running a series of contemporary films, including Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin and Metropolis

Recreation of the cinema-ballroom L’Aubette by Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp

  • Mbari Clubs and a nice space set off from the corridor by a barrier or wall made out of sculpted patterns in a Nigerian style, inside which was playing a video of Nigerian youths dancing

You can see that a great deal or time, trouble and expense has gone into recreating each of these ‘zones’. But.. The most obvious thing about most nightclubs is, or was, that they were traditionally subterranean, smoky, often very noisy and very cramped and packed environments, in which people are drinking too much and laughing and joking and often having to shout over the very loud music, and laughing and going off to the bogs or stopping for a snog on the stars or chatting up the barmaid or barman, and asking someone for a light. They are/were places of intense hectic human interaction.

It was an ambitious, maybe quixotic notion, to try and recreate all that human bustle, noise, sweat and booziness in… the uniquely silent, white, perfectly scrubbed and essentially sterile environment of the modern art gallery. Nothing could really have been more dead than the Mbari Clubs little zone, completely empty when I walked in, admired the Yoruba wall paintings, and walked out again. Or the loving recreation of the Cabaret Fledermaus, beautiful coloured tiles and all, and utterly empty and utterly silent when I walked through it.

Conclusions

This is a fascinating insight into an enduringly interesting subject, a subject which has inspired all manner of artists across numerous countries and periods.

In fact, maybe you could think of The Nightclub as being an entire genre, a very twentieth century genre, as The Nude or The Landscape were for previous centuries.

And I admire the way the curators have made it so multinational, showing the same impulse at work across multiple cultures and continents.

Like previous Barbican shows it is so packed as to be overwhelming, bringing together over 350 works rarely seen in the UK, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, films and archival material.

And yet I was really perplexed by the recreations. The young woman who took my ticket explained that they have been having music evenings, with live bands playing. Maybe that helps, maybe that lifts it a bit. But it was eerie walking through perfect recreations of places which were meant to be temples to human interaction in all its smelly, sweaty, boozy, smoke-ridden, music-drowned glory but were now empty and silent – turned, quite literally, into museum pieces.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851. It is an all-male prison and can currently hold 1,628 prisoners, making it one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.

You can only visit the prison itself if you have professional credentials or official business, but out in the forecourt of the prison is what is basically a large garden shed which turns out to be the Prison Museum. This you can visit by appointment or on the occasional open day. Over the weekend of 2-3 June it was open to the public, so I went along.

Wandsworth Prison Museum

Although small, the museum contains over 400 separate items, packed, hung, arranged and displayed densely together to make a kind of Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia, ephemera, all sorts of documents, old photographs, prison equipment, warders’ uniforms and much much more, all with informative and interesting labels which shed light on the history of Wandsworth Prison in particular and, by extension, on the broader development and evolution of British prisons as a whole.

Bird's eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

Bird’s eye view of the Surrey House of Correction, as it was known when it opened in 1851

The free handout gives a useful overview so I’ll quote it verbatim:

Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction at Wandsworth. it was owned and run by the County of Surrey until 1978 when the prison was nationalised and became Her Majesty’s Prison, Wandsworth. The prison opened with both male and female prisoners. An original signature piece by the architect, D.R. Hill, a cast iron pillar with the maker’s name plate from the pump house and a letter to Parliament from the first Governor, Richard Onslow, covers the early period of the prison.

The First World War is covered with stories of military prisoners, conscientious objectors, spies, Irishmen of the Easter rebellion, their offences and treatment by the authorities.

The Second World War includes the bombing of the prison, rocket attack, the formation of the Prison Officers Association, spies, traitors and their executions. The conditions for the staff and their duties, including those called up for military service, especially the Deputy-Governor (later Governor) E.J. Paton-Walsh, who attended the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Notable prisoners have included the playwright Oscar Wilde (held at Wandsworth for five months before being transferred to Reading Gaol), James Earl Ray, the assassin of the U.S. civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The prison was also the location of the escape of the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, in 1965. Other prisoners have included Train Robber Bruce Reynolds, Reggie Kray, Eddie Richardson and Frankie Fraser.

Events such as the band Hawkwind playing a concert in the 1970s and a visit by musician Elton John are also illustrated with items on display.

The prison was the last to have an operational gallows that had been installed in 1878, re-built, located in three places and finally removed in 1993. An execution box, No.8, is on display and it contains original items including an execution rope. Details of executions including those of Jack the Ripper suspect, George Chapman, William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), the last man executed for treason, and John Haigh, the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’, are on display. The last execution at the prison (and in London) was in 1961.

Random highlights

There is a chronological order of sorts to the exhibits, but part of the pleasure of the place is the sense of unexpected juxtapositions, strange displays, odd stories, surprising objects and the general air of a Curiosity Shop of wonders.

Wandsworth was the site of 135 executions, between 1878 and 1961. This is an execution box containing some of the equipment required to set up a working gallows.

Execution box

Taking up one corners is a gallows frame complete with rope and tackle. In the background are photos of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last executioner (behind the rope on the right) and, obscured by the chain in the middle, Pierrepoint’s death mask.

The heavy chain suspended from the crossbeam was used to adjust the length of drop given to a prisoner during judicial hanging. The test bag at the bottom was filled with sand to the same weight as the prisoner, and used in pre-hanging tests to ensure the strength of the rope, the gallows trapdoor, and the cross-beam. The two single ropes with knots in were positioned so to allow prison officers to steady themselves while standing on plank bridges over the ‘drop’ during the execution.

Gallows, chain and ropes

Photo of the hanging room.

The execution room

An edition of the Illustrated London news showing the execution of Kate Webster in 1879, the only woman ever executed at the prison. She had been found guilty of the murder of her elderly employer, Julia Thomas, in Richmond.

The hanging of Kate Webster, 1879

British citizen William Joyce, known because of his radio broadcasts from Nazi Germany as ‘Lord Haw Haw’, was the last person to be executed in Britain for High Treason. The sentence was carried out at Wandsworth Prison on 3 January 1946.

William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw in the custody of British troops at the end of World War Two

This is a photo of anti-capital punishment campaigner Violet van der Elst, outside the prison in 1935, protesting the execution of Percy Anderson. Van der Elst used up her personal fortune campaigning to end capital punishment, and lived long enough to see it finally abolished in 1965.

The photo is crying out for a humorous caption in the style of a Private Eye front cover. ‘Oh not ‘er again. She’s always hangin’ round here.’

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

Anti-capital punishment campaigner, Violet van der Elst, outside Wandsworth Prison, 1935

 

There were other forms of physical punishment than execution. This is a photo of the last corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth Prison, with the punishment position being demonstrated.

Corporal punishment by either birch rod or cat o’ nine tails whip was a court punishment until 1948 and remained a prison punishment until 1967 when it was abolished under the Criminal Justice Act of that year. Its last use in Wandsworth Prison was in 1961.

The corporal punishment frame at Wandsworth prison

There’s lots to be shocked and outraged by here, if you’re of that turn of mind, starting with capital punishment itself and going on to deplore the whole concept of ‘hard labour’, explained here with a number of contemporary illustrations. There are tales of miscarriages of justice and some horrible examples of the very harsh punishment meted out, as so often, to the poor and hungry and uneducated.

For example, the case of Robert Davey, aged ten and sentenced to three months in Wandsworth for stealing rabbits, in 1874.

Photo of ten-year-old convict, Robert Davey

All this I sort of expected.

But one of the things that genuinely surprised me was the revelation of how much of the Victorian infrastructure of the prison endured right down almost to the present day. The very hospitable and informative curator of the museum (himself a prison officer) explained that after the Second World War Britain was bankrupt and forced to continue with its ageing infrastructure of Victorian prisons, despite calls to rebuild them all.

Then decade after decade went by with one Home Secretary after another continually putting off the enormous cost of rebuilding Britain’s prisons, with the result that many of the older ones, especially in London, continued to contain fixtures and fittings dating from their Victorian origins.

The blue door in the photo below, for example, is Victorian and was painted, repainted and painted again with shiny prison blue, managing to serve its function as a cell door until it was finally replaced in the 2010s. The 2010s!

(Next to it is a mannequin wearing prisoner issue denim jacket and blue striped shirt, a style introduced in the late 1970s, familiar to those of us brought up on the TV sitcom Porridge.)

Prison door and prison uniform

This is a cell card and prisoner information card holder of a design which also dates from the Victorian era, and was still in use as recently as the 1990s. The 1990s!

Prisoner information card holder

This is a blank escaped prisoner reward sheet. Probably the most famous escapee from Wandsworth was Ronald Biggs who escaped by scaling the wall with a rope ladder and dropping onto a waiting removal van. I wonder how much reward was offered for information leading to his arrest. This blank form from the Victorian era is offering a generous £5.

Escaped prisoner reward sheet

In 1932 the Governor of the day, Lieutenant Colonel Rich, invited the film star Charlie Chaplin to visit the prison. Chaplin was given a tour of the prison, including the still-working gallows on F wing. Chaplin had briefly known Jack the Ripper suspect George Chapman, from his boyhood days in Southwark.

Documentation surrounding Charlie Chaplin’s visit to the prison in 1931

James Earl Ray was accused of being the assassin of the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, shot dead on 4 April 1968. Immediately after the assassination, Ray fled to Canada, then used a fake passport to travel on to Portugal and, finally, to England.

Two months after the assassination he was arrested at Heathrow airport attempting to use a forged Canadian passport to board a flight to Belgium. He was held in Wandsworth prison while arrangements were made to have him extradited back to the US. During this remand period, Ray’s lawyer arranged a plea bargain where, in exchange for pleading guilty, he would avoid the usual sentence for murder, at that time, execution by electrocution – the electric chair.

So Ray was extradited, convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison without a trial and without the evidence against him being tested in court. Soon afterwards he changed his plea, and then spent the rest of his life (until 1998) trying to prove his innocence and that the murder had been the act of a widespread conspiracy.

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

Mugshot of James Earl Ray, on remand in Wandsworth prison

This is the view from a gallery of the central atrium of the prison at the centre of its famous radial design. On the right, on the ground floor against a wall, is the old wooden ‘central desk’, which is now in the museum.

The main prison centre

Prisoner food tray and cutlery.

Prison tray and cutlery

Prison issue shaving kit.

Prison issue toilet kit

Implements of restraint – handcuffs, belt, a whistle etc.

Handcuffs and other instruments of restraint

Prison officers’ equipment, including truncheons and radios.

Prison officer equipment

Modern helmets: from left to right an officer cap with Senior Officer’s badge (1990s), a Control and Restraint helmet (1990s), and an Officer issue baseball cap (2000s).

Prison officer helmets

I always imagined prisoners wearing jackets covered in arrows was a cartoon convention. Not so. Just such suits were worn until 1922. Apparently the idea stems from medieval heraldry where the image of the arrow denotes ‘government property’. It was conceived by Sir Edmund Du Cane in the 1870s after his appointment as Chairman of Convict Directors and Surveyor-General of Prisons. He intended the arrows to be a mark of shame and a hindrance to escape insofar as the characteristic outfit was immediately identifiable to anyone who saw an escaped convict. I was surprised to learn that the nails hammered into convicts’ boots were also arrow-shaped so that he left footprints in mud or sand which were also designed to show he was ‘government property’.

A convict wearing the characteristic arrow uniform

And, in amid the hundreds of factual artefacts and objects, what does it actually feel like to be locked away in prison for years? The museum has a number of examples of prisoner art, creative art, of course, being a technique increasingly used in prisoner rehabilitation.

For me this work stood out, not for any technique or sophistication, but for its simple eloquence. It seemed, to me, to be saying ‘Help’.

Prisoner artwork – Open hands, from the 2000s


To find out more about the museum, correspondence should be directed to:

Wandsworth Prison Museum
c/o POA Office
HMP Wandsworth
Heathfield Road
London SW18 3HS

wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk

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From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


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