Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus (1960)

I loathe none but executioners.

This is a selection of 23 essays from Camus’s entire journalistic and speech-making output chosen by the man himself in the year of his death, 1960. By then Camus had published three big collections bringing together all his journalism, in 1950, 1953 and 1958 – this is a selection from those books.

The three collections were titled Actuelles I, II and III. ‘Actuelle’ is a French adjective which can be translated as ‘current’, ‘contemporary’, ‘relevant’ and it is straightaway noticeable that almost all the pieces address pressing contemporary political and social issues of his day. Collected essays by a novelist and playwright might be expected to include some studies of favourite forebears, of Racine or Zola, say. Not here. The pieces are nothing if not engagé, as the contemporary catch-phrase had it. For example, Actuelles III is entirely devoted to Camus’s collected writings on Algeria, from 1939 to 1958.

The pieces are short

The most obvious thing about the pieces is that they’re all very short. Half a dozen of them are from Combat, the underground Resistance paper Camus helped to produce during the Occupation and for a few years afterwards, often only three or four pages long. Others are ten-minute speeches, short addresses, brief replies to critics of his plays, and so on. By far the longest piece is the essay on the guillotine, a hefty 60 pages long, which brings together a career of thought to argue vehemently against the death penalty.

They cluster round two active periods

Then there’s their dates. Very roughly there are two active periods – the War (1944-45) and the late ’50s (1955-58). The speeches to Christians and the freedom pieces from the early 50s appear as interludes between these two main clusters of productivity, which obviously reflect moments when France was actually at war, with Germany, and then in Algeria.

The War

  • Letters to a German Friend (1943, 1944, 1945) [summarised below]
  • The Blood of Freedom (Combat, 24 August 1944) Short editorial exhorting his comrades to victory during the Liberation of Paris. This and the next one are, apparently, of historic importance.
  • The Night of Truth (Combat, 25 August 1944) Short editorial on the night before the German surrender of Paris.
  • René Leynaud (Combat, 27 October 1944) Short piece commemorating the execution of his friend.
  • Introduction to Poésies Posthumes by René Leynaud (1947) Longer piece giving potted bio and memories of his resistance friend.
  • Pessimism and Courage (Combat, September 1945) Irritation at bourgeois critics attacking the alleged pessimism of Sartre, Malraux and the existentialists, arguing that absurdity must be faced because it is the climate of the time.
  • Defense of Intelligence (speech given to L’Amitié Française, 15 March 1945) We must not give in to hatred; we must descend to insult; we must debate with respect. ‘There is no freedom without intelligence.’

Speeches to Christians

  • Speech given at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg (1948) He admires them for their Christian faith but honestly disagrees. ‘the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds.’
  • Why Spain? (Combat, December 1948) An article replying to criticism of Camus’s play State of Siege made by the Christian existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, who asked why it was set in Franco Spain and not Communist East Europe? Because we have still not expiated France’s sin of collaborating with Franco, Camus replies.

It seems to me there is another ambition that ought to belong to all writers: to bear witness and shout aloud, every time it is possible, insofar as our talent allows, for those who are enslaved. (p.83)

Freedom

  • Bread and Freedom (Speech given at Labour Exchange Saint-Etienne, May 1953) Intellectuals and workers must be united: if either is attacked, it is by the forces of oppression and injustice; if both stand together, they can bring freedom closer.
  • Homage to an Exile (Speech given to honour President Eduardo Santos, driven out of Colombia by the dictatorship, 7 December 1955) Really fulsome praise in his role as newspaper editor who defended other people’s rights to speech, in which he explains that those who ‘bear witness’ to oppression decrease the solitude tyranny depends on, and increase the sense of common cause and solidarity among the oppressed.

Algeria

  • Preface to Algerian Reports (March-April 1958) Actuelles III was a book-length collection of all Camus’s writing on Algeria from 1939 to 1958. This is the introduction to that volume. It is convoluted and mealy-mouthed, dutifully condemning extremism on both sides but you feel he knows in his heart of hearts that his suggested solution – Algeria to be split into federal units, some European, some Arab, along with a lot of reform and investment from France – was hopelessly impractical.
  • Letter to an Algerian Militant (to Aziz Kessous, Algerian socialist, October 1955) On 20 August 1955 FLN militiamen massacred 37 Europeans in the Algerian coastal port of Philippeville, gang-raping the women, hacking the babies to pieces. In reply, French paratroopers massacred Muslim peasants at nearby El-Halia, while surviving colons lynched hundreds of Muslims in Philippeville. Just two months later, Camus, in anguish, writes to support his friend Aziz Kessous who has set up a newspaper to try to create a space where the opposing sides can meet and debate. Forlorn hope.
  • Appeal for a Civilian Truce (Lecture in Algiers, February 1956) A speech Camus gave to a mixed audience in Algiers hoping to launch a movement to get both sides to agree at least not to target civilians. It is pitiful  to see how ineffective the stirring rhetoric of his essays and books is when it comes to the real world. And makes you realise how Eurocentric his rhetoric is. The FLN wanted their own country back; no amount of fancy rhetoric about liberty or terror or man had any hope of changing that.
  • Algeria (A personal statement, 1958) Camus thinks the FLN demand for full-blown independence is ludicrous. 1. What would happen to the 1.2 million French living in Algeria? 2. It’s all part of a conspiracy to create a pan-Islamic empire. 3. Algerians alone don’t have the economic know-how. 4. Insofar as the FLN are supported by Russia it would amount to a communist takeover of the southern flank of Europe. And so on. Camus proposes a federal structure like Switzerland, with the Muslims having one part of government, the French another. The more he elaborates the details of this complex scheme, the more unrealistic it becomes. After this final intervention, Camus retired into hurt silence and the war escalated.

Hungary

  • Kadar Had His Day of Fear (Franc-Tireur, 18 March 1957) In October-November 1956 the Hungarian people spontaneously rose up against their communist leaders. After some hesitation, the Soviet Union sent in tanks and troops to put down the revolution, killing some 3,000 civilians during days of street fighting, and sending tens of thousands of the country’s best and brightest to forced labour camps in the months that followed. Camus writes with searing anger at the naked totalitarian tyranny of the Soviets and with disgust at the hypocrisy and self-hatred of French communists who supported the Soviet intervention.
  • Socialism of the Gallows (Interview published in Demain magazine, February 1957) An equally angry and disgusted repudiation of communist totalitarianism and its supporters in the West. Totalitarianism means above else a state with only one party in it. This will inevitably crush all debate, all art, all possibility of criticism and improvement. It guarantees repression, secret police, the gulag. It also guarantees that there can never be any change or progress. By contrast, the only form of society which can guarantee at least some progress is one which allows multiple parties and viewpoints. Liberal democracy. — The anti-Marx section of The Rebel should certainly be read alongside these two pieces which unambiguously convey Camus’s violent anti-communism.

The death penalty

  • Reflections on the Guillotine (A long excerpt from a book-length symposium organised by Camus and Arthur Koestler, 1957) Anyone who’s read this far should realise that Camus is against the death penalty. Vivid description of the effect of the guillotine drive home how disgusting it is. If the aim of capital punishment is to deter, it would be on prime time TV. But most murders aren’t pre-meditated, are committed on the spur of the moment – so capital punishment cannot be a deterrent. Capital punishment degrades the executioners, as memoirs testify. Replacing it with hard labour gives the opportunity for rehabilitation. Only God has 100% knowledge; capital punishment is a hangover from the time of Christian faith in an all-knowing God, but the justice system is far from all-knowing: a steady stream of innocent men have been executed. Even one miscarriage should invalidate it forever. Most profoundly, man’s deepest virtue is revolt against the human condition, meaning death. The death penalty undermines human solidarity and community at its most vital place; this is why so many modern people feel degraded because it attacks our deepest, most animal instinct – for life.

The writer in our time

  • The Wager of Our Generation (Interview in Demain, October 1957) Back in those days ‘the writer’ had a prophetic role and authority which has completely vanished. Camus says the writer is caught between immersion in the history of his time and duty to his art, and this is a ‘dangerous’ situation. Not really.
  • Create Dangerously (Lecture given at the University of Uppsala, December 1957) A sustained 20-page expression of his view of the role of the artist, the lecture emphatically conveys Camus’s sense that a) there is such a thing as Grand Art, Art Which Matters b) the Artist has some kind of Special Responsibility to engage with his Society c) this makes Art dangerous for repressive societies and potentially for any Artist who takes them on. In other words, all the premises, conclusions and rhetoric come from a pre-Post-Modern world, the grey decade of McCarthyism, Kruschev, Hungary and Suez. 1957 was the year the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, and the first Aldermaston March took place the following year. Nuclear weapons haven’t gone away, nor various tyrannies around the world, but the sense that the world is perched on the brink of a vast catastrophe and that Artists and Writers and Intellectuals play a privileged role in explaining it all to us lesser mortals, and leading us to Freedom – this has gone for good. Five minutes after Camus died people started getting colour televisions, Andy Warhol making silk screens of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles dropped acid, and the gadget-driven consumer paradise started up which we still live in. The core of the speech gives a history of the development of art in 19th century France leading up to the irresponsible doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, and contrast this with the aggressive doctrine of Socialist Realism, demanded in the Communist Bloc and supported by many Western intellectuals. In other words, this is an interesting analysis of the position of the European writer in 1957, but it is 60 years old and shows it.

The message

Having now read all of Camus’s main works, I think I can summarise his position as killing people is always and everywhere wrong. The foundation text in this respect is the Letters to a German Friend. In these Camus admits that he and his Nazi friend both shared the same pre-war sense of the complete bankruptcy of traditional bourgeois values and the utter meaninglessness of life in a world bereft of God or any transcendental values – but they drew very different conclusions from it.

The Nazi concluded that the only value in the world is the animal virtue of power and, like so many of his countrymen, submitted to a leader and an ideology devoted to the worship of power. Apart from the obvious consequences (invading and devastating the rest of Europe) this led to an instrumentalist point of view which saw Europe solely as a larder of oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories and so on to be used in the relentless conquests of the Master Race, and its population, similarly, as objects to be used for the Master Plan.

Camus, by contrast, saw that there is a fundamental, irreducible value in the world, and that is man’s revolt against his destiny (i.e. an arbitrary death).

Man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. (p.39)

We are the only animals to be aware of our condition and to seek to rise above it. This is a value, a position, a basis for appealing to justice and against the wanton mutilation of ‘life’ and the murder of millions represented by the Nazis (and, later, the Communists). Taken collectively, or read on the social plane, this revolt becomes man’s rebellion against oppression.

I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man, and our task is to provide its justifications against fate itself. And it has no justification but man; hence he must be saved if we want to save the idea we have of life. With your scornful smile you will ask me: what do you mean by saving man? And with all my being I shout to you that I mean not mutilating him and yet giving a chance to the justice than man alone can conceive. (p.29)

As to proof of the existence of these things – Art, culture, civilisation is the collective record of the revolt of individuals against the limits of the human condition; and rebellions in the name of justice are an undeniable fact of history, and were in train all across Europe as Camus wrote, no matter how confident the Nazis were of their total power.

These fundamental values – revolt and rebellion – are the seeds which will grow into The Rebel, Camus’s enormously long attempt to devise a philosophy or worldview which starts in the post-war waste land and works its way upwards towards a viable basis for a world of humane values, of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. (p.73)

The image of the individual having to decide whether to acquiesce in the triumph of tyranny or whether to stand against it, at the risk of their own lives, is obviously derived from his experience working with the French Resistance against the Nazi Occupation and is made very real in his account of the capture and execution of his friend, fellow resistant and would-be poet, René Leynaud.

But it is an image, a pose, an attitude Camus carried on into the post-war era of the Cold War, when a new tyranny dominated Eastern Europe, as Communist governments in the Eastern Bloc set up new secret police forces, torture chambers and slave labour camps. Hence the two pieces here about the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

It is Camus’s misfortune that his most famous and most accessible texts – The Outsider and The Myth of Sisyphus – stem from his early, ‘nihilist’ period; both were drafted around 1940. To really understand his thought, it would be better to focus on his later, far more humane works – The Rebel, the late short stories, and these essays – which move towards a whole-hearted support for a liberal democratic society which enshrines competing parties, voices, and freedom of speech.

In the later essays and speeches references to his personal theory of ‘the Absurd’ disappear and, although ‘revolt’ still crops up occasionally, really the final period of Camus’s life was devoted to the ideas of Justice and Freedom, and the need to speak out against Oppression and Injustice wherever they are found.

Europe and colonialism

It was Camus’s consistent opposition to Soviet tyranny which brought down on his head the wrath of the communist-minded Paris intellectual élite but which now, of course, make him look like a hero. Except the image is troubled because of the darkness shed over his later years by the outbreak of war in Algeria, his homeland. The four pieces on Algeria bring home his inability to agree with the colonial wish for independence; he just refuses to accept it as a possibility because it implies the exodus of 1.2 million French from Algeria (which is what in the end happened).

They also shed light on another limitation of Camus’s thought. It is very Eurocentric. In the Letters to a German Friend he discusses Europe’s histories and values in a way which remains very much within the European arena. The Algerian tragedy is a violent reminder that there is a very big world outside of Europe, its tragedies and civilisation, and it is a world where European philosophy, rhetoric, political and cultural values, may simply be irrelevant.

In fact, the more I’ve read about Camus’s position on Algeria the more I’ve been disappointed by his complete silence about Vietnam. For eight long years from 1946 to 1954 the French tried to put down the Vietnamese struggle for independence, as described in histories like The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow.

Hindsight is easy. I’m being unfair. Taken altogether what these essays show more than anything else is what an extraordinarily troubled era he lived through. Foreign invasion and humiliation, the threat of violent revolution bringing the utter loss of freedom and human dignity, the collapse of European empires all round the world, the real risk of nuclear armageddon – it was a difficult time to understand, to grasp, and in which to hang on to fundamentally humane, decent values. Camus did his best, despite his flaws.


The comedy of being French

These essays are intensely serious. You’d think smiling had been banned, let alone laughing. The British ridiculed Hitler (who only had one ball, the other was in the Albert Hall). By contrast, the French invoked the long history of their grandeur and prestige and their gloire. In this respect – obsessing about France’s special destiny, invoking its unique civilisation, and so on – Camus is no different from the grand rhetoric of de Gaulle. I couldn’t help smiling at Camus’s Frenchness i.e. his conviction of his country’s invincible superiority to all other nations, despite the rather prominent evidence to the contrary.

For history is the record of what actually happened, not of what writers and philosophers would like to think happened. And having recently read Alistair Horne’s massive history of the Battle of France I know that France fell to Germany in 6 quick weeks because French society was ruinously divided, demoralised and defeatist (as described from the inside in Jean-Paul Sartre’s great Roads To Freedom trilogy).

In this respect Camus’s Letters to a German Friend perform a prodigious feat of philosophical prestidigitation. They explain that France’s bad management, lack of preparation, appalling military and political leadership, defeatism and swift surrender turn out all to be indicators of France’s spiritual and moral superiority. France wasn’t ready to fight because it was too dedicated to the noble arts of peace. It was too good to fight. Ha!

More – by losing the actual battle France turns out to have won the moral war, because it took her four long years to overcome her natural repugnance to warfare, her superior preference for happiness and civilisation, in order to fight back. Sadly, of course, the Germans never had these superior moral qualities. And so, announces Camus, with a Gallic flourish -the German victory in 1940 was in fact an indication of Germany’s spiritual defeat. Voilà!

Camus goes on to give a quick overview of European civilisation (which in fact turns out to be largely based on French achievements) in order to show how the Nazis only regarded Europe as a collection of resources – oil wells, wheat fields, arms factories – to be exploited, whereas the superior French – naturellement – see Europe as a glorious repository of civilisation and intelligence. At which point Camus rattles off some characteristic landmarks of European civilisation, such as the cloisters of Florence, the gilded domes of Krakow, the statues on the bridges over the Charles River, the gardens of Salzburg. And then tells his German friend:

It never occurred to me that someday we should have to liberate them from you. (p.24)

‘We’? ‘We’ would have to liberate them? The French?

Did the French ‘liberate’ Florence, Cracow, Prague or Salzburg? No. Did the French even liberate France? No. On D-Day 73,000 American, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadian soldiers landed in Normandy, 4,400 of whom died on the first day.

And the Russians. They helped defeat the Nazis a bit.

Many of the Combat essays read as if they should be sung by Edith Piaf at her most histrionic:

We know this fight too well, we are too involved through or flesh and our hearts to accept this dreadful condition without bitterness. But we also know too well what is at stake to refuse the difficult fate that we must bear alone. (p.35)

You’d think the Spanish republicans, the Czechs, the Poles, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, the Finns and Danes and Dutch and Belgians, let alone the Russians at Leningrad or Stalingrad, none of them had experienced anything like the French, who alone knew the tragedy and, oui, mon brave, the nobility of suffering!

The Paris that is fighting tonight intends to command tomorrow. Not for power, but for justice; not for politics, but for ethics; not for the domination of France, but for her grandeur. (p.36)

a) Camus’s French arrogance – his complete omission of the vital role played by the Anglo-Saxon countries in standing up to Hitler and then overthrowing the Nazi regime – his sublime confidence in French exceptionalism, matches the haughty grandeur of de Gaulle, and is just as ludicrous.

b) On a more serious note, this willful omission mirrors his neglect of the colonial issue, the post-war problem of France’s Empire – and specifically the massive war in Vietnam which kicked off as soon as the World War ended  – until he was absolutely forced to confront it when his own homeland went up in flames.

If Camus’s notions of French grandeur and prestige and gloire turned out to be a fatal dead end, nonetheless his championing of human freedom and dignity against Nazi and Communist tyranny remain impressive and inspiring to this day. It set the tone and helped spread the language of resistance to communist tyranny – of being a ‘witness to truth’, of art’s capacity to unite people against oppression – which echoed on in the writings of, for example, Václav Havel and Polish Solidarity. 


Credit

The English translation by Justin O’Brien of Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus was published by Alfred Knopf in 1960. All quotes & references are to the Vintage paperback reprint of this 1960 translation.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

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