Plutarch’s lives of Marius and Sulla (translated by Rex Warner)

Now the generals of this later period were men who had risen to the top by violence rather than by merit; they needed armies to fight against one another rather than against the public enemy.
(Doleful reflections of the Amphictyons of Delphi upon being ordered to hand over all their treasure to the Roman general Sulla who was besieging Athens: Life of Sulla, chapter 12)

1. Plutarch’s Life of Caius Marius (157 to 86 BC)

Plutarch’s life of Marius is divided into 46 brief sections. Rex Warner’s translation of Plutarch in the Penguin edition is relaxed and chatty. Very clear, very readable. However it is not available online whereas the 1920 Loeb Classical Library edition is. So, for practical purposes, I’ll quote Loeb.

As for the personal appearance of Marius, we have seen a marble statue of him at Ravenna in Gaul,​ and it very well portrays the harshness and bitterness of character which were ascribed to him. For since he was naturally virile and fond of war, and since he received a training in military rather than in civil life, his temper was fierce when he came to exercise authority.

Plutarch brings out very vividly the successive rivalries during the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC) between Metellus, Marius, and his quaestor Sulla. The Roman army comes over as an engine of fierce rivalries. But although Plutarch describes some of Marius’s military victories, in Numidia (112 to 106 BC) and then against the Cimbrian and Teutons who threatened to invade Italy from Gaul (113 to 101 BC) what really impresses is the second half of the life, and especially the final years when Marius fell from military and political favour and was eventually outlawed from Italy and had to go on the run, in disguise.

These final sections of his adventures on the run (35 to 45) read more like a boy’s own adventure story than history. The modern histories I’ve read refer to Marius’s brief exile only in general terms whereas in Plutarch we meet the captains of the ships which smuggle him out of Ostia, then dump him further down the Italian coast, the peasants who take him in and try to hide him, his betrayal and arrest to the authorities. We meet the Cimbrian soldier who is ordered to kill him but can’t bring himself to do so because, in the darkened bedroom, he sees Marius’s eyes darting fire and hears the voice of a god warning him against such a wicked deed. And so on. It’s like something out of the Arabian Nights more than history, more even, than biography.

Superstitions

Rex and other commentators emphasise Plutarch’s focus on the individual, on character, and call him ‘the first of modern biographers’ (p.9). None of them mention the ubiquity of superstition, prophecies and the uncanny i.e. the irrational, in his narratives. Thus in Marius alone:

  • as Marius prepares to sail back from Africa to Rome a soothsayer predicts great things (8)
  • in the campaign against the Cimbri and Teutones Marius has a Syrian prophetess named Martha accompany him in a litter (17)
  • the story that his army was accompanied everywhere by two vultures (17)
  • over the Italian cities of Ameria and Tuder flaming spears and swords are seen in the sky moving as if in actual battle (17)
  • from the massed ranks of the enemy arose an unearthly wailing (20)
  • heavy rain often follows a major battle because the supernatural powers want to hallow and cleanse the earth (21)
  • Fortune or nemesis or natural necessity, call it what you will, some force always ensures the enjoyment of any great success is never unalloyed or pure (23)
  • the incident of Fannia’s donkey who ran out to drink water from a spring near where Marius was being held by his escort, stopped directly in front of him, let out a tremendous bray, then went frisking past him – from which Marius drew the conclusion that his escape would be by sea

And:

When he was quite young and living in the country, Marius had caught in his cloak a falling eagle’s nest, which had seven young ones in it; at sight of this, his parents were amazed, and made enquiries of the seers, who told them that their son would be most illustrious of men, and was destined to receive the highest command and power seven times. (36)

  • when a Cimbrian soldier went into Marius’s bedroom to kill him he saw a pair of mighty eyes darting flame at him and a voice as of a god saying: ‘Man, does thou dare to slay Caius Marius?’ (39)

The grotesque

A sprinkling of what must surely be grotesque exaggerations, notably the wildly improbable description of the mass suicides of the Cimbri civilians once their menfolk were defeated

The fugitives were driven back to their entrenchments where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the wagons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the wagons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a wagon-pole with her children tied to either ankle, while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. (27)

In their hurry to claim for Plutarch all kinds of proto-modern interests in character and psychology, Rex and others simply ignore the much more prominent traits of primitive superstition and a garish, vulgar fascination with grotesque violence.

Thus Plutarch dwells lovingly on the scenes in Rome once Marius has returned from exile, seizes power along with Cinna, and unleashes a tidal wave of vengeful violence:

Headless trunks thrown into the streets and trampled under foot excited no pity, though everybody trembled and shuddered at the sight. The people were most distressed however, by the wanton licence of the Bardyaei, as they were called, who butchered fathers of families in their houses, outraged their children, raped their wives, and could not be checked in their career of rapine and murder until Cinna and Sertorius, after taking counsel together, fell upon them as they were asleep in their camp, and transfixed them all with javelins. (44)

Gory enough for you?

The ludicrous

And then incidents which are so wildly improbable as to be ludicrous. Take the incident of the faked diarrhoea. Marius fell in with a rabble rousing demagogue who didn’t hesitate to murder his political opponents, Saturninus. Marius attempts to keep the respect of the senate but also stay in with Saturninus, a balancing act which is epitomised one night:

For when the leading men had come to him by night and were trying to incite him against Saturninus, without their knowledge he introduced Saturninus into the house by another door; then, pretending to both parties that he had a diarrhoea, he would run backwards and forwards in the house, now to the nobles and now to Saturninus, trying to irritate and bring them into collision. (30)

2. Plutarch’s Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC)

Sulla served as captain of cavalry under Marius in the Jugurthine War. To his bravery was attributed the final negotiations which led to the capture of Jugurtha and Sulla was embittered when Marius received the credit and triumph for it. Sulla was tasked with fighting the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and when Marius, in Rome, managed to manoeuvre Sulla out of leadership of the army set to head off to deal with Mithradates in Turkey, Sulla rejected the senate’s decision, let his men kill the senate’s envoy and marched on Rome.

Why Sulla failed

Rex gives admirably brief, one-page introductions to each of the lives (generally pointing out how Plutarch ignores the profound historical importance of this or that event in order to focus on trivial anecdotes or shallow moralising). Therefore it is Rex who sums up Sulla’s political agenda, once he’d become dictator (82 to 78 BC) and why it failed, more briefly and better than any other account I’ve read.

After marching on Rome to seize power twice, with an intervening period of anarchy and bloodshed under Cinna (87 to 84 BC), Sulla set out to make the republic safe by ensuring the situation which led to the anarchy could never happen again. These he took to be:

  • the ability of the tribunes of the plebs to veto laws suggested by the patricians and senate, which sounds fine in theory, but in practice tribunes were all too often bribed by powerful interests to derail senatorial rule
  • the struggle between senate and equites for control of the courts, which again unravelled into political powerplays
  • the consecutive consulships of overmighty rulers (in the recent past the consecutive consulships of Marius in 107, 104, 103, 102, 101, 100)

So Sulla:

  • abolished the legislative powers of the tribunate and debarred those who held it from higher office
  • restored the courts to full control of the senate
  • revived the lex annalis which set minimum ages to hold each of the magistracies in the so-called cursus honorum and required fixed periods between people holding each post

It was a valiant effort but, as Rex points out, it was blind to the fact that the chief threat to the republic came not from any law or aspect of the constitution but from a reality which transcended them, which was the advent of proconsuls appointed for long periods of time to prosecute distant wars whose armies came to owe more allegiance to them than to the state – the conversion of Roman armies into something closer to private armies answerable to charismatic warlords.

The obvious examples were Marius, Sulla himself, Pompey then Caesar, then Mark Anthony and Octavian and the era of instability and collapse exactly matches the rise of this new phenomenon.

Plutarch’s Sulla

Predictably, Plutarch focuses on gossip and anecdote:

  • Sulla had a famously bad complexion, covered in blotchy spots.
  • Though he came from a patrician family, it was very down at heel and he spent a dissolute young manhood with dancers and actors and cross-dressers and comedians. Throughout his life, strict and stern in public, once he sat down at a banquet he reverted to a monstrously debauched and bohemian character.

And, once again, a blizzard of superstitions, omens and prophecies:

  • A certain man in the retinue of Orobazus, a Chaldaean, after looking Sulla intently in the face, and studying carefully the movements of his mind and body, and investigating his nature according to the principles of his peculiar art, declared that this man must of necessity become the greatest in the world, and that even now the wonder was that he consented not to be first of all men. (6)
  • Sulla himself relates that when he was dispatched with an army to the Social War, a great chasm in the earth opened near Laverna, from which a great quantity of fire burst forth and a bright flame towered up towards the heavens; whereupon the soothsayers declared that a brave man, of rare courage and surpassing appearance, was to take the government in hand and free the city from its present troubles. And Sulla says that he himself was this man, for his golden head of hair gave him a singular appearance, and as for bravery, he was not ashamed to testify in his own behalf, after such great and noble deeds as he had performed.
  • When Sulla had set out for his camp on unfinished business,​ he himself kept at home and contrived that most fatal sedition, which wrought Rome more harm than all her wars together had done, as indeed the heavenly powers foreshadowed to them:
    • for fire broke forth of its own accord from the staves which supported the ensigns, and was with difficulty extinguished
    • and three ravens brought their young forth into the street and devoured them, and then carried the remains back again into their nest
    • and after mice had gnawed consecrated gold in a temple, the keepers caught one of them, a female, in a trap, and in the very trap she brought forth five young ones and ate up three of them
    • but most important of all, out of a cloudless and clear air there rang out the voice of a trumpet, prolonging a shrill and dismal note, so that all were amazed and terrified at its loudness. The Tuscan wise men declared that the prodigy foretokened a change of conditions and the advent of a new age (7)
  • While the senate was busied with the soothsayers about these prodigies, and holding its session in the temple of Bellona, a sparrow came flying in, before the eyes of all, with a grasshopper in its mouth, a part of which it threw down and left there, and then went away with the other part. From this the diviners apprehended a quarrelsome dissension between the landed proprietors and the populace of the city and forum; for the latter is vociferous like a grasshopper, while the former haunt the fields (like the sparrow). (7)
  • After he had offered a sacrifice, Postumius the soothsayer learned what the omens were, and stretching out both hands to Sulla, begged that he might be bound and kept a prisoner until the battle, assuring him that he was willing to undergo the extremest penalty if all things did not speedily come to a good issue for him. (9)
  • It is said, also, that to Sulla himself there appeared in his dreams a goddess whom the Romans learned to worship from the Cappadocians, whether she is Luna, or Minerva, or Bellona. This goddess, as Sulla fancied, stood by his side and put into his hand a thunder-bolt, and naming his enemies one by one, bade him smite them with it; and they were all smitten, and fell, and vanished away. Encouraged by the vision, he told it to his colleague, and at break of day led on towards Rome. (9)
  • Mithridates, who was staying at Pergamum, was visited with many other portents from Heaven, and that a Victory with a crown in her hand, which the Pergamenians were lowering towards him by machinery of some sort, was broken to pieces just as she was about to touch his head, and the crown went tumbling from her hand to the ground in the midst of the theatre, and was shattered, whereat the people shuddered, and Mithridates was greatly dejected. (11)

And so on and very much on. And The Grotesque:

Nearby is Apollonia, and in its vicinity is the Nymphaeum, a sacred precinct, which sends forth in various places from its green dell and meadows, streams of perpetually flowing fire. Here, they say, a satyr was caught asleep, such an one as sculptors and painters represent, and brought to Sulla, where he was asked through many interpreters who he was. And when at last he uttered nothing intelligible, but with difficulty emitted a hoarse cry that was something between the neighing of a horse and the bleating of a goat, Sulla was horrified, and ordered him out of his sight. (27)

Fairy tales

At Fidentia, when Marcus Lucullus, one of Sulla’s commanders, with sixteen cohorts confronted fifty cohorts of the enemy, although he had confidence in the readiness of his soldiers, still, as most of them were without arms, he hesitated to attack. But while he was waiting and deliberating, from the neighbouring plain, which was a meadow, a gentle breeze brought a quantity of flowers and scattered them down on his army; they settled of their own accord and enveloped the shields and helmets of the soldiers, so that to the enemy these appeared to be crowned with garlands. This circumstance made them more eager for the fray, and they joined battle, won the victory, killed eighteen thousand of the enemy, and took their camp. (27)

Fortunate Sulla

Plutarch emphasises the Sulla himself was happy to attribute much of his success to Fortune rather than his own personal merits or achievements. So in the matrix of opinions about what constitutes a Successful Man which the Parallel Lives amount to, Sulla stands at one extreme of the spectrum, a superstitious man who attributed much to Fortune. Hence his own insistence on the agnomen (‘a fourth name occasionally given as an honour to an ancient Roman citizen’) ‘Felix’, superficially meaning ‘happy’ but at a deeper level meaning ‘lucky’ – more than lucky, in the deepest sense of the word, fortune-ate. Fortune rich. Fortune full.

Slaughter in Athens 86 BC

Apart from the civil war and street fighting in Rome, what comes over more vividly from this account than others I’ve read, is the unmitigated slaughter Sulla inflicted on Athens after a prolonged siege in which he had devastated the surrounding territory. ‘There was no counting the slain’. The blood flowed under the city gates (14).

Proscriptions in Rome

The mass murder in Rome of Sulla’s enemies who he included on lists of ‘proscriptions’ brings to mind Stalin sitting up late into the night going through long lists of names, putting a tick or a cross next to who should live or die.

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city…He also proscribed anyone who harboured and saved a proscribed person, making death the punishment for such humanity, without exception of brother, son, or parents, but offering anyone who slew a proscribed person two talents as a reward for this murderous deed, even though a slave should slay his master, or a son his father. And what seemed the greatest injustice of all, he took away the civil rights from the sons and grandsons of those who had been proscribed, and confiscated the property of all. Moreover, proscriptions were made not only in Rome, but also in every city of Italy, and neither temple of God, nor hearth of hospitality, nor paternal home was free from the stain of bloodshed, but husbands were butchered in the embraces of their wedded wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. (31)

Mass murder at Praeneste

Meanwhile Marius the younger, at the point of being captured slew himself; and Sulla, coming to Praeneste, at first gave each man there a separate trial before he executed him, but afterwards, since time failed him, gathered them all together in one place — there were twelve thousand of them — and gave orders to slaughter them all. (32)

Metrobius

Plutarch’s life ends where it began, with comments on Sulla’s private behaviour and liking for louche, lowlife, bohemian company. Despite having a series of respectable wives, in the usual Roman fashion, Sulla also:

consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long. For these were the men who had most influence with him now: Roscius the comedian, Sorex the archmime, and Metrobius the impersonator of women, for whom, though past his prime, he continued up to the last to be passionately fond, and made no denial of it.

Mass murderer, sacker of Athens, failed attempter to restore the Republic, and lifelong lover of a female impersonator.

A grisly end

Then comes the kind of moralising conclusion which delighted the ancients and then the Christians, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Plutarch claims that in his final illness Sulla was literally eaten alive by worms.

By this mode of life [his decadent lifestyle] Sulla aggravated a disease which was insignificant in its beginnings, and for a long time he knew not that his bowels were ulcerated. This disease corrupted his whole flesh also, and converted it into worms, so that although many were employed day and night in removing them, what they took away was as nothing compared with the increase upon him, but all his clothing, baths, hand-basins, and food, were infected with that flux of corruption, so violent was its discharge. Therefore he immersed himself many times a day in water to cleanse and scour his person. But it was of no use; for the change gained upon him rapidly, and the swarm of vermin defied all purification. (36)


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus

John Hassall @ the Heath Robinson Museum

In the early twentieth century John Hassall was one of Britain’s best known commercial artists. Starting his career in 1895, he quickly developed an impressive reputation as a book illustrator, a humorous cartoonist for postcards and magazines, an art school founder and teacher, a painter in oils, consummate clubman, and a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery decor. But it was through his commercial illustrations, and especially his posters – for travel companies, political causes, theatre and panto, and a host of well-known brands – that he made his name in an age when advertising hoardings were known as ‘the poor man’s art gallery’.

In the course of a hard working career Hassall designed some 600 posters, illustrated some 150 books and much more. By 1905 one magazine could dub him ‘the King of Posters’.

Skegness is SO Bracing – the famous poster featuring the jolly fisherman designed for the East Coast seaside town by artist John Hassall. Hassall was paid £10 (1908)

The small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum up in Pinner is hosting an excellent exhibition showcasing the full range of Hassall’s work, along with loads of photos, caricatures and paintings of the great man at work, and correspondence, brochures and whatnot relating to his many additional activities as art teacher and founder member of the of London Sketch Club and of the Savage Club.

Potted biography

John Hassall was born in Kent in 1868 but, when he left school at 18, art wasn’t his first choice. After twice failing entry to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1888 to begin farming with his brother Owen. The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence describing, and a set of sketches depicting, the tough life of rural Canada, as well as a couple of wonderful illustrations of well wrapped-up children hunting wildlife in the snow (a moose and a walrus).

Boys hunting moose by John Nassall

It was only when one of his illustrations of daily life in Canada was published in the London Graphic magazine that he decided to return to England and try his luck with an artistic career in 1890. On the advice of friends, he went to study on the Continent, first in Antwerp, then in Paris. He met a fellow artist, married and moved back to London in 1894, when a couple of paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

But it was only in 1895 that he was given an introduction to the firm of David Allen and Sons, leading printers of theatre poster. At the interview he was asked to demonstrate his abilities and quickly knocked out a sketch for a poster of the fashionable hit, The French Maid. He was hired on the spot and, over the next four years, went on to produce almost 600 posters.

Poster promoting Pontings department store in Kensington High Street by John Hassall

The range and variety of posters (and postcards and book illustrations) on display in this exhibition allows you to trace Hassall’s development as a commercial artist, and his deployment of different styles for different purposes.

Early influences

The very earliest posters, including the fully worked-up version of The French Maid design, included here, very clearly demonstrate the influence of the French style of posters. In fact the 1890s was by way of being a golden age of poster art, technological advances in printing allowing for an explosion of colours and styles, exploited by artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. This in turn triggered a craze among connoisseurs to collect poster art and Hassall had arrived back in London just as the craze arrived with him, partly triggered by a major exhibition in 1894. Here he is, in the early days, very much channeling the elongated, exotic and semi-abstract feel of Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau designs.

The Daughters of Babylon by John Hassall 1897

But as the exhibition shows, after just a few years Hassall had moved a long way from his Continental origins and developed his own, very distinctive style. The exhibition curator usefully defines this as consisting of:

  • bold outlines
  • flat colours
  • minimal letting
  • large areas of negative space

which Hassall combined to produce ‘an engagingly cheery style.’

I think that phrase about ‘negative space’ refers to the way that the use of shading to indicate perspective and/or light sources is dropped in order to produce flattened and simplified images. Probably the most extreme example of this is this almost surreal poster promoting the joys of Morecambe. Flat colours, bold outlines, minimal lettering, large areas of negative space. Look how far he’d come from his languid and cluttered, fin-de-siecle, Mucha phase!

Poster promoting Morecambe as a holiday destination by John Hassall

Hassall produced posters promoting a number of seaside destinations, of which the one for Skegness (at top of this review) became iconic. In 1936 the town invited him for a VIP day to celebrate its success and awarded him a vellum certificate, displayed in the exhibition! The town now boasts a statue of the jolly fisherman.

The Skegness poster became so iconic that it is occasionally riffed on by later cartoonists: the exhibition features two examples, including a very funny one by Peter Brooks where the figure of the jolly fisherman is replaced by a swivel-eyed Jeremy Corbyn.

Book illustration

In 1899 Hassall took on his first book illustration project. In total he illustrated some 143 titles, not including jacket and spine designs. As you can imagine, many of these were for children’s books, some for older readers, such as the adventure stories of G.A. Henty, but most collections of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Making use of flat colours enclosed by thick black lines, his poster style was very adaptable for children’s books, and he produced many volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy stories, such as Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes (1909).

Cinderella enters the coach by John Hassall

In 1900 Hassall was commissioned by Laurence and Bullen of Covent Garden to design a range of nursery wallpaper friezes and lithographic prints for children. He produced a frieze of seven prints of children with their toys designed to be mass produced, sold and installed as a literal frieze around nursery walls. They were retailed by Libertys and other upmarket stores. You can see a slideshow of these on the Hillhouse antiques website.

The exhibition points out that J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, became an overnight sensation, generating piles of merchandising and spin-offs. As one of the leading illustrators of his day, Hassall contributed to the sensation with a series of six panels illustrating scenes from the play which are, to the modern eye, oddly flat and stylised. They resemble the stark simplifications of his toy friezes and in this particular scene, as Peter enters the children’s bedroom, you can see how it is liberally decorated with examples of Hassall’s own posters and friezes, a pleasing example of self-referentiality. In fact Hassall was deeply involved in the production: he drew the official poster and designed the cover of the programme, which also advertised these large-scale panels for two shillings each (10p in modern money).

Illustrated panel of Peter Pan by John Hassall (1907)

Also magazine covers: by this time his strikingly simple but effective designs made him a popular choice to provide cover illustrations for a wide variety of magazines such as the Scout magazine, and many others, on display here.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a form of theatre for children so his ability with cartoon and caricature was well suited to produce reams of posters for each season’s pantos.

Original antique theatre poster for the Drury Lane production of Babes In The Wood by the playwrights J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins. Poster by John Hassall (1907)

In fact the exhibition includes the complete set of 26 illustrations from a book titled The Pantomime ABC projected as a slideshow up on the gallery wall, with humorous and sometimes genuinely funny poems for each letter by Roland Carse.

The Great War

The First World War was actually the busiest time of Hassall’s career. He continued his commercial work but added a whole new stream of patriotic content, ranging from recruitment posters, to illustrations for patriotic pamphlets and songs, as well as personally touring the front in 1915, and working as a special constable.

The war posters are interesting because they feature iron-jawed, cleancut young men who are quite distinct from his commercial cartoon-style work. They’re the clearest proof that he could adapt his style quite drastically to suit the client and the need.

First World War recruitment poster by John Hassall (1916)

There are quite a few of the smaller cartoons, postcards, sheet music, pin badges and so on in a display case, the highlight of which, for me, is a copy of a satirical work he wrote and produced called Ye Berlyn Tapestrie a parody of the Bayeaux Tapestry featuring numerous examples of the perfidy of the beastly Hun.

Something the exhibition doesn’t include is any of the wonderfully realistic oil paintings depicting machines of war which Hassall made during the conflict. In these he applies all his skills he’s acquired over 20 years in the art of clear, striking composition, but infused with a wonderful ability to depict light and shade and depth. Its presence in stunning works like this (not in the exhibition) highlight how very much he excluded all these elements and abilities in his commercial work.

Short Seaplane by John Hassall (1915) The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

This section of the exhibition also showcases his broadly ‘political’ works, satirical cartoons about contemporary politics. These include a little sequence of cartoons produced in support of the little-known Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an excellent cause which I think some brave and foolhardy souls ought to revive in our day.

Anti-suffrage cartoon by John Hassall (1912)

Pick a favourite

I loved all of it, I loved everything I saw. Hassall was a commercial artist who aimed to please, whose works are designed to make the viewer feel good, to associate a positive feeling with the product being sold, whether play or panto, shop or product, book or story – and it works. This is a hugely enjoyable, interesting and uplifting exhibition. I defy any visitor not to come out with a broad smile on their face.

Pick a favourite? Well in the midst of his immense productivity and hard work, Hassall found time to create uncommissioned art works which he submitted to serious exhibitions and competitions. These were generally storybook in style and took as their subject classic moments from English history, such as the morning of the battle of Agincourt.

I found them very appealing because they remind me, I think, of some of the long distant children’s books about history I read when I was very young. They are packed with crowds, soldiers or raiders, they have a rugged Edwardian masculinity and vividness which I really enjoyed. Here’s a photo I took of a detail of the painting ‘The morning before Agincourt’, which was exhibited in 1900. (Apologies for the terrible quality, the exhibition is held in a darkened room and I have a terrible camera. I include it to demonstrate what I mean by the ‘manliness’ of the figures in his ‘serious’ art works.)

Detail from ‘Morning before Agincourt’ by John Hassall (1903)

In these historical paintings Hassall took the opportunity to reintroduce those elements he so rigorously excluded from his commercial work. There is deep perspective, there are complicated crowds instead of a handful of isolated individuals, and, when you look closely, there is a deliberate blurring or mistiness about the faces which gives them a strange dignity, which somehow implies that you are seeing them through a time machine, their faces flickering and blurring through the distance of 500 years. In every way except for the patriotic storybook subject matter, as unlike the minimalist clarity of his posters and commercial work as can be.

Procession by John Hassall (1901)

But if I had to choose one out of all the works on show here, it would be a classic example of Hassall’s commercial poster art, a clear composition, limned with bold black lines in the style of a newspaper cartoon, all background detail kept to a bare minimum in order to focus your eye on the main character which is drawn with affectionate humour.

It’s titled ‘Treasure Trove’ and is an original artwork for a brand of whiskey but, intriguingly, nobody seems to know which one.  I think I was partly attracted because the fish look the dead spitting image of the fish which feature in the Tintin adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure (and because both feature a man in an old-fashioned diving suit). I wonder whether Hergé knew and was influenced by Hassall’s work, by its clarity of composition, solid outlines and blocs of bare or negative space…

Treasure Trove by John Hassall (date unknown)


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release, Cindy Sherman is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. This is a massive retrospective of Sherman’s entire career, from the mid-1970s to the present day. It includes over 190 works from international public and private collections, some of them never seen in public before, some of them reunited after decades apart.

What is Sherman famous for? For dressing up as fictional characters and types, and taking photos of herself.

She stumbled across the idea as an art student in the mid-1970s and – in an impressive example of an artist hitting a style, establishing a brand, and then sticking to it through thick and thin – she has followed the same practice for the past 45 years.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chronological order

The exhibition is arranged in a straightforward chronological order allowing you to see how Sherman’s art has evolved and developed from the mid-1970s to today. It opens with rarely exhibited photographs and films created while she was still an art student at the State University College at Buffalo from 1972 to 1976.

One early set, from 1976, is titled Unhappy Hooker where Sherman depicts herself as a prostitute waiting for a client.

In Murder Mystery (also 1976) she made a series of black-and-white photos of herself, in each one dressed up in the outfit of a character from a fictional murder mystery play (which she herself wrote) – the butler, the waitress, the rich old lady, the detective etc. Note the stereotyping of the characters.

In November 1976, shortly after she graduated from art school, Sherman created a series titled Cover Girl, in which she takes the covers of five fashion or ‘women’s’ magazines (CosmopolitanVogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle), and transposes her own face (generally pulling a yucky, silly expression) onto the face of the glamour model on the cover. Each work accomplishes the transformation from sensible to satirical in three images, and the five sets of three images are displayed here together for the first time since that heady summer of 76!

In Line-Up (1977) made just after she graduated and just before she moved to New York City, there are thirty-five black and white photos, in each of which Sherman appears, on her own, dressed in costume with make-up, playing thirty-five different characters.

So right from the beginning we can see the patterns emerging in Sherman’s work which will hold true for the rest of her career:

  1. She works in projects or series, all addressing a particular theme or taking a similar approach
  2. All the photos are of herself. There is never anyone else in the photos. But she is always ‘in character’, playing a role.
  3. None of her photos has ever had a title. They are all called Untitled and then given a number. Thus the final photo in the exhibition is named Untitled #549. (They may have brackets added after the number indicating the particular series the image belongs to.) One of the intentions of this is to ‘universalize the particular’, and leave the images open to the widest possible range of interpretations by the viewer.

Untitled Film Stills

Her breakthrough piece was Untitled Film Stills. Building on the previous series but going one big aesthetic step further, Untitled Film Stills is a series of 70 black-and-white photos which Sherman started creating soon after she arrived in New York City in 1977, and which, when they were exhibited, made her reputation. They are also – to give away the plot – in my opinion, by far and away the best thing in the exhibition.

They’re fairly small, portrait-shaped prints, about 18 inches high by a foot wide. In each of them Sherman dresses and poses as a completely different character. So that’s 70 female characters going about their business in the big bad city. Each of the figures is caught in different setting, in apartments, out on the street, in a suburban garden, several appear to be set in a swimming pool.

If there’s a consistent ‘look’ to the photos it derives from 1950s and 60s Hollywood – from film noir, B-movies and, maybe, from European art-house films. Some could be papparazzi shots of unknown celebs. The most obvious vibe they emit is a sense of suppressed anxiety or, in some of the long lens photos of blurred figures, a sense of mystery. Though all that makes them sounds too dark and indoors-y. Many of the best ones are outdoors or in full sunlight.

Untitled Film Still #7 by Cindy Sherman (1978) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

A number of things make them great. As compositions, they are all top quality, imaginatively posed, full of detail and interest.

But the really obvious thing is how dramatic they are. They are like stills from a wider drama. You feel the presence of other people just out of the shot, who are about to walk in and say or do something, or else have just left the frame after saying something explosive. They suggest all kinds of possible backstories – who where what why how? – and prompt an incredibly rich response in the viewer, making you imagine all kinds of films and stories and plots of which these are decisive moments and fragments. Each one is like a short story in itself.

The Untitled Film Stills are given a room to themselves early on in the show and – in my humble opinion – it is by far the best room, the one I came back to at the end, once I’d reviewed the entire exhibition, and sat on the bench conveniently provided for visitors, and let my eye wander over the images and my mind – not exactly work out a complete story for each image – but respond to the mood and vibe and possibilities contained in each one.

This idea, of a kind of photo pregnant with meaning, struck me as a wonderful achievement. And doing them as a set hugely contributes to the cumulative effect, creating the sense of an entire world set in this one but, because of the demonstrably false and made-up actor Cindy Sherman featuring centre stage in each photo, both this world and vividly artificial, fake and created.

Bigger

From this point onwards, the remaining eight or so rooms show three things happening to Sherman’s work over the succeeding decades:

  1. the photos go from black and white to colour
  2. they get bigger and bigger until, soon they are four or five foor tall, in the work from the 1990s they are horribly, oppressively huge and, in the final room, have become photo-murals covering entire walls
  3. and, as a result, I felt that – as the photos became more technically adroit in colour and saturation, and evermore grandiose in size – the viewer, and the viewer’s imagination, gets progressively more and more squeezed out of the photos and, eventually, instead of leaning forward and entering her imaginative world, I felt I was cowering backwards and being harangued

Later series

Each of the remaining rooms hangs samples from Sherman’s major series, namely:

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

The first series she made in colour, the Rear Screen Projections are also noticeably larger than the Film Stills, about five times bigger. The camera is closer up to her face, which is more subtly made-up to create different characters. The commentary says this greater close-up creates more psychological depth, but I felt there was more imaginative depth in the Untitled Film Stills.

Centrefolds (1981)

In the new larger size, and in the new full colour, Centrefolds are cast in a wide, landscape format which is deliberately reminiscent of the centrefolds of men’s magazines i.e. soft porn. But instead of scantily-clad women arranged to titillate ‘the male gaze’, Sherman’s personas look ill at ease and troubled, women in trouble or some kind of extreme situation. Though referencing magazine culture, some of the images very clearly derive from the aesthetic of film posters or the kind of dramatic stills used to promote movies.

Untitled #92 by Cindy Sherman (1981) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Pink Robes (1982)

A series of big colour photos in which Sherman dresses as an artist’s or photographer’s model, who wraps herself in a pink robe between shots. So the idea is these are off-the-cuff casual moments in a photographer’s studio, with Sherman posing as the bored model.

For the first time in these photos Sherman stares directly at the camera, which led some critics to get over-excited about how we were ‘seeing the real Cindy Sherman for the first time’! This strikes me as taking a strikingly naive view of what constitutes ‘reality’.

Fashion (1983)

In 1983 Sherman was commissioned by New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce advertising images to promote clothes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Sherman responded with photos of herself – in different personas – wearing the clothes alright, but in characters which are obviously abject and neurotic. This was intended as a satirical critique of the shallow superficiality of the fashion world.

The trouble is you cannot satirise fashion. There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which the inhabitants of the fashion world are not completely aware of, but still love. Thus the client loved the photos, so new, so original daaahling.

Vogue Paris (1984)

Sherman received another fashion commission from a French fashion house to provide photos for a shoot for Vogue Paris. She created images of herself made-up to be the models, again wearing the designer clothes alright, but again shooting them in a subversive style, making her look deliberately gawky, clumsy and unhappy. The client loved them. And a glance at her Wikipedia article shows that she has had a long and extensive engagement with the world of fashion, receiving numerous further commissions, designing jewellery and other accessories etc. ‘There’s nothing you can say about the frivolity and shallowness of the fashion world which…’

Fairy Tales (1985)

In this series Sherman dresses up as ‘types’ from fairy tales, in enormous colour photos, heavily made-up to create some really aggressive, scary images. The lighting is (inevitably) more dark and in most of these shots, the settings looking like the forests and gravelly soil of the Germanic Grimm stories – a visual departure for Sherman most of whose photos – you realise – have been set in city streets or urban interiors. In some of them the Sherman personas looking like they’re undergoing real physical ordeals.

Untitled #153 by Cindy Sherman (1985) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

History Portraits (1988-90)

the fairy tale series represents a conscious departure from the urban setting of most of her photos hitherto,

At the end of the 1980s Sherman took a conscious break from dissecting / analysing / subverting contemporary culture and immersed herself in the world of Old Master paintings, including a trip to Rome to see the real thing.

The result was a series of thirty elaborately staged, huge, richly coloured photos in which Sherman appears in a range of costumes and uses prosthetic noses, breasts and other accessories to drastically change her appearance and parody the appearance of male and female royalty and aristocrats, even a madonna and child.

Untitled Film Still #216 by Cindy Sherman, 1989. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

I didn’t like these at all. I thought they were a bad joke in poor taste. I thought they showed a complete lack of empathy with the Middle Ages, Renaissance or Old Master painting. You can’t really dress them up as a feminist ‘reclamation’ of the images as – unusually – half the images are of Sherman dressing up as late medieval men.

Sex Pictures (1992)

In a room by themselves – with a warning that it contains ‘adult content’ – is a set of huge, garishly coloured and disturbing photos of what look like plastic mannequins, cut up and reassembled to emphasise their (generally female) genitals, which – presumably – were specially created for these photos. The general aim is to produce disturbingly transgressive rewrites of porn tropes, and the handful of massive images here certainly are disgusting, showing cobbled-together bits and pieces of fake plastic human bodies, featuring not only vulvas but anuses, penises made of plastic, in one image a string of sausage-like turds proceeding from what looks like a vulva.

As far as I can see, these are the only series in which she does not appear. A very great deal has been written about these pictures, by critics who, apparently, do not understand what pornography is or who it is for. By which I mean they imagine that disassembling the human body into surreal conglomerates of chopped up pieces will act as a once and for all, decisive ‘subversion’ and undermining of the male gaze and pornographic imagery.

How pitifully, it seems to me, they underestimate the baseness of human nature, and woefully underestimate the ubiquitous power of pornography. A few repellent art photos change nothing, nothing at all.

Office Killer (1997)

In the later 1990s Sherman got involved in making films, directing an art movie titled Office Killer released in 1997. One critic called it ‘sadly inept’, others ‘crude’ and ‘laugh-free’. Having produced and directed TV myself, I know there is a world of difference between taking one inspired photo and creating a plausible and effective series of moving shots.

Clowns (2003-4)

Sherman dresses up as a variety of clown types. Obviously all looking miserable and forlorn. The sad reality behind the clown strikes me as being one of the more exhausted, clichéd tropes of all time.

Society Portraits (2008)

A series satirising rich women in high society. The ageing female characters created in these huge colour photos are all using make-up and cosmetics to try and mask the ageing process and, failing in that, emphasise their wealth via fashionable dresses, expensive accessories and to-die-for houses.

Untitled #466 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Presumably these are meaningful if you in any way read about, or are aware of, rich American society ladies – from magazines and high society and gossip columns in newspapers, or from the publicity surrounding fashion houses, or at the openings of new operas or plays or art exhibitions at the Met or New York’s fashionable art galleries. Not engaging with any of this content or people, I saw them less as satire than fictionalised portraits of a social type I’ve been aware of for decades – the swank American millionaire wife – who has been lampooned and satirised for centuries, going back to the so-called Gilded Age (1870s to 1900) and before.

Balenciaga (2008)

Balenciaga is a luxury fashion house, originally from Spain. Echoing her repeated engagement with the world of fashion, and mixing it with the ageing heroines of Society Portraits, Sherman created a series of six enormous, colour digital photos of herself playing the character of an ageing fashion doyenne, a bit like Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Like I say, this is maybe hilarious or relevant if you give a damn about the world of high fashion or rich-bitch society women – but I don’t.

Untitled #462 by Cindy Sherman (2008) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

Chanel (2012)

Sherman was then commissioned by the perfumier Chanel to record some of their dresses and outfits. Sherman chose to create her biggest works to date, a set of absolutely enormous, wall-sized photos depicting more-than-life-sized women standing alone in enormous landscapes. On closer inspection these landscapes appear to have been either painted in, or digitally altered to have a painterly feel. The landscapes were from both Iceland and the isle of Capri, and I found them, artistically, the most interesting part of the compositions.

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

Untitled #574 by Cindy Sherman (2016) Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York

For completists

If you are a Sherman completist then I can imagine you will be thrilled by the digital version on display here of A Cindy Book, a private album of family photographs that Sherman began compiling when she was eight or nine-years-old, which has never been seen before, and which reveals an early fascination with her own changing appearance.

Similarly, one whole room (in fact it’s the ‘transition’ space between the galleries at the front and the galleries at the back of the building) has been given over to a recreation of Sherman’s studio in New York, with wall-sized photos of her bookshelves, posters and collections of photos torn from glamour magazines and pinned to the wall, and shelves and cupboards full of masks and make-up and prosthetic attachments – all designed to provide ‘an unprecedented insight into the artist’s working processes.’

During the recent big exhibition at the NPG of photos by Martin Parr (which I found much more interesting and fun than Sherman) this space was converted into a working model of a transport caff which actually sold hot tea and cake. It would be funny if, for every exhibition they hold in these galleries, the National Portrait Gallery created a themed eaterie. A Giacometti pizzeria would have been good – imagine how thin the crusts would have been! Or a Cézanne café, with French peasants smoking pipes and playing cards, and a view of Mont Saint Victoire in the distance…

Thoughts

First of all, it is a striking achievement to have made a career out of what is basically one idea.

This is because Sherman has been able to come up with a succession of subjects and topics to each of which she can apply her distinctive, dressing-up approach and each of which are susceptible to rich and stimulating critical interpretation.

Then there’s the quality of the photographs themselves. The wall labels don’t go into as much detail about this as I’d like, but you get the impression that, as digital photography has evolved over the past forty years, Sherman has kept well abreast of all the developments and been able to incorporate each new wave of technology into her trademark concept. The sheer size of prints which modern digital photography enables, with pinpoint focus at every part of the image, becoming the most obvious one, as the exhibition progresses.

To keep mining the same vein and consistently coming up with apparently new and innovative variations on more or less the same theme deserves respect, especially in the shark pool which is the New York art scene.

However, at about this point questions of personal taste begin to intrude. All of the series certainly contained at least several highly impactful and striking photographs. And, unlike me, readers of this post may well like the fairy tale or Old Master or Flapper photos more than the earlier ones. Different people will have different responses.

All I can say is that, as the exhibition advanced through the decades and series, I was less and less engaged and attracted, and slowly became repelled by the sheer size and garish colouring of some of the photos. Way before the porn room I was actively shrinking from these big, shouty images, and I had certainly had enough by the end, and was relieved when I got to the final room with its overpowering wall-sized murals of vague landscapes with a modern woman plonked in front of them. Phew. Duty done, I could stroll back to the early room and enjoy again the marvelous Untitled Film Stills.

As well as feeling more and more repelled by the images, I also quickly disliked the ideas and subjects. Satirising the world of New York fashion, while making a lot of money from working within the world of New York fashion, just struck me as hypocritical and typically… American. If you are American, an American artist or photographer or film-maker, it appears to be very difficult to escape from the vast money-making machine which is American culture.

When it came to the society photos, taking the mickey out of vain, rich, wrinkly old American millionairesses is something I grew up watching the great Alan Whicker do on his TV documentaries back in the 1970s. It just seemed such a very…. old idea.

And lampooning Old Master paintings seemed to me a rather pointless thing to do, particularly when it’s done in such a grim and humourless way. Strapping on a fake plastic boob and spending hours dressing up to look like a madonna and child seemed a peculiarly futile exercise. If you’re going to mock them at least be funny, in the manner of Monty Python or the Horrible Histories. Just pointing out that the real-life kings and queens of that time were probably not as smooth-skinned and luminously handsome as their portraitists depicted them strikes me as being, well, not the most original or interesting idea.

The notes to the porn room made the point for me that her photos heavily referenced the disturbing sexualised mannequins the Surrealist sculptor Hans Bellmer was making back in the 1930s. Well, quite.

The curators suggest that Sherman’s work has never been more relevant than here and now, in the age of the selfie and the internet and Instagram and social media – but I disagree.

Watching my teenage kids and their friends has shown me that all my ideas about images and how they should and shouldn’t be used, assessed and consumed, belong in the Stone Age. The speed and sophistication of modern teenagers’ attitudes to movies, TV shows, stills, photos, ads and selfies is light years ahead of the kind of mainstream, dad culture represented by this exhibition.

For this exhibition – like most of the exhibitions I go to – was mostly populated by mums and dads, mostly filled, as usual, with grey-haired, older, white people, the majority of them women. No doubt some of the visitors have done courses in Critical Theory and Feminist Studies and are conversant with the numberless theories of gender and identity and performance which have been generated over the past fifty years, all of which can be liberally applied to Sherman’s work.

But a) Cindy Sherman’s basic idea – dressing up as ‘characters’ contemporary or historical or from fairy tales, and photographing herself – seems so old-fashioned, so pre-digital, as to be sweet and naive.

And b) I didn’t really believe anything I read in the wall labels about gender and identity and subverting this or that stereotype. In most of the photos she looks like a woman. When she was a young woman, she looks like a young woman, sometimes dressed and posed as a noticeably attractive young woman, pink towel about to fall off her lissom body as in a Kenny Everett sketch.

As she’s grown older, Sherman’s subjects have changed and, for example, the series of photos depicting fictional American women using cosmetics to appear younger than they are… well… that’s actually what millions of ageing American women do, isn’t it? I didn’t see that it was subverting any stereotypes. On the contrary, I thought almost all of her images reinforced the stereotypes so actively produced and disseminated by the mainstream American bubblegum culture which she so constantly refers to (all those compositions which look like scenes from movies) or which she has herself, personally, contributed to (all those fashion shoots).

For me the Untitled Film Stills series was the best series. It was the most modest in aim and so, somehow, the most effective. It had the most mystery and each one of the shots created an imaginative space for the viewer to inhabit and populate as they wished.

You may well disagree and find her later work funny or disturbing or inspiring or bitingly satirical, and I can see how different people – old and young, gay and straight, men or women – might get very different things from her work.

The one thing which is unquestionably true is that this is as definitive and complete an overview of a figure many critics refer to as ‘one of the most important and influential artists of our time’ (the Observer) as we are likely to see in our lifetimes.

So if you want to find out for yourself whether you like some, all, or none of Cindy Sherman’s work, you should definitely go along and check it out for yourself.

Video

This short video by Divento.com gives a good feel for the variety and layout of the exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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