Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Käthe Kollwitz @ the British Museum

This is a really brilliant exhibition. Kollwitz is a genius and this is a searing, dazzling, breath-taking exhibition of 48 of her best prints – and it is FREE! You should go see it.

Biography

Kollwitz (1867–1945) was the fifth child of Karl Schmidt, a radical Social democrat, and Katherina Schmidt, daughter of a freethinking pastor. She was born and raised in Koenigsberg in East Prussia. Two key points: her family were committed socialists who exposed her to the social realist novels of Zola et al, as well as discussing the social issues of the day – supported her through her art school studies.

The result was that her work, throughout her life, was devoted to the suffering of the poor – especially poor women – and a particular interest in moments of rebellion and uprising and social conflict.

Plate 2 Death from A Weavers Revolt (1893-97) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Berlin

After studying art in Berlin and Munich, in 1891 Kollwitz moved permanently to Berlin, when she married Karl Kollwitz, a doctor. They lived near his practice in a poor working class district of the rapidly growing city. They were both politically committed special democrats, and it shows, God it shows, in a series of dark, raw and intense prints showing the harrowing poverty and squalor of working class life.

Between 1908 and 1910 she made fourteen drawings in this realist style for the satirical magazine Simplicissimus, on social realist themes such as unemployment, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy and suicide, including this one.

Unemployment (1909) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the captions refers to the plasticity of her style, the superb modelling of faces and bodies. In a work like Unemployment this comes over in the dramatic contrast between the faces of the two toddlers and the baby on the bed, and the sparseness and vagueness of other areas of the composition, notably the hard troubled faces of the two adults. These key areas are soft and sensitive, while the surroundings – and the brooding figure on the left – feel harsher, darker, rebarbative.

As early as 1888, aged 21 and at the Women’s Art School in Munich, she had realized her strength was not as a painter, but a draughtswoman, and the strength and shape and depth of all the compositions here is wonderful. Thus her increasing focus on the techniques of etching, lithography and woodcuts.

Series

Paintings are often one-off affairs which can be sold at a premium (especially if commissioned by a rich patron), but the effort required in making prints, etchings and woodcuts has meant that artists often conceive of them as series, to be produced and sold in limited runs, and maybe collected into books.

The Weavers – Six prints, 1897-8

Kollwitz based her first series on a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, The Weavers, which dramatized the oppression of the Silesian weavers in Langenbielau and their failed revolt in 1844. She produced three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings with aquatint and sandpaper (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). See the grim image which opens this review. When they were exhibited in 1898 they made her name.

The Peasants War – Seven prints, 1902-1908

Kollwitz’s second major cycle of works was the Peasants War which occupied her from 1902 to 1908. This was another rebellion of the workers, in this case the maltreated peasants who rose up against their feudal lords in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, in 1525, and were eventually defeated in a bloodbath.

Plate 5 Outbreak from The Peasants War (1902-3) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

At first sight there is a tremendous dynamism in this image, with the figure of the woman rousing and encouraging the men dominating the foreground. Looking closer I was struck by the ape-like clumpiness of many of the peasants – look at the man on the right. This heaviness, this simian Neanderathal appearance, seems to bespeak their status as oppressed serfs, as people who are in fact, barely human, so low have they been degraded.

All the images are tremendous but I was thrilled by Arming in the vault where she uses dark and light to convey the sense of a great horde of proletarians emerging from the underworld, armed to the teeth, ready to cause havoc.

And there is a detailed and devastating print titled simply Raped which shows the foreshortened body of a woman lying amid dead leaves in an orchard or garden, wearing a skirt but her hard peasant’s feet and calves and knees towards us, while lost in the overhanging trees, her young son looks down at her ravaged body. Note how the woman’s head is set at an unnatural angle, lying back into the leaves.

Sensuality

But alongside the historical-political series, Kollwitz also produced images of startling sensuality. They date from the early 1900s after she had made several trips to Paris and been amazed at the colourfulness and vivacity of its streets and social life as well as its brilliant Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. The experience inspired experiments in sensual and also with colour. This female nude is stunning. I found the pinpoint accuracy of the draughtsmanship breathtaking.

Female nude seen from the back with green shawl (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

Self portraits

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography, of which about 50 are self-portraits. The wall labels tell us that she also kept extensive diaries and wrote many letters describing and analysing her own feelings, her art and career.

One wall of the show is devoted to half a dozen or so self-portraits which showcase her tremendous draughtsmanship and accuracy, along with a deep brooding gaze, and the ability to capture mood and personality to a spooky extent. She is as harsh and unforgiving on herself as she is on her grim peasants and mourning mothers. What technique! What a godlike gift for capturing the intensity of the human soul!

Self Portrait (1924) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Great War

Then Europe went to war and her youngest son, Peter, aged 18, volunteered, marched off, and was killed in October 1914. The suffering of poor mothers had been a constant topic of her social-realist work, and – eerily enough – a decade earlier she had created this haunting image of a mother cradling a dead son, for which she had herself modelled, holding the self-same Peter as a seven-year-old boy.

Woman with dead child (1903) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

In fact the exhibition contains three of the eight working versions of this work, which demonstrate how she created, modelled and evolved her way towards the final image, a fascinating insight into her technique.

The War series – Seven woodcuts, 1922-23

The loss of her son, and the slow strangulation of Germany caused by the Allied blockade, the loss of so many sons and husbands, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the entire nation, burned and purified her art to its essence, resulting in the scathing series of woodcuts she titled simply War.

God! How searing and blistering are her stark woodcut prints of mourning mothers and starving people, carved out of what look like blocks of coal, or ancient fossilised trees, images which reach right down into the roots of the earth, deep into the lineage of human experience.

All the light and shade, the modelling and depth and (sometimes brutal) sensuality of the earlier works has been burnt away in the fires of war. Now Anguish speaks in stark flat images dominated by lignite black, from which lined and haggard faces emerge like nightmares.

Plate 7 The People from the War series (1922) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

All seven of the War prints are here – The Sacrifice, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow I, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People – ranged along the opening wall, bringing a new visual intensity to her approach.

It’s that emotional intensity and the stark black and white of the images which leads some histories to group her with the German Expressionists, except that the Expressionists were mostly a pre-war movement, and Kollwitz’s pre-war images had been much more smooth and naturalistic, as we have seen.

In fact Kollwitz went on producing work into the 1930s and indeed up till her death, in 1945. Her last great series of prints was the Death cycle of the mid-1930s.

Death Cycle, Eight prints, 1930s

Her last great cycle rotated around the figure of Death and consisted of: Woman Welcoming Death, Death with Girl in Lap, Death Reaches for a Group of Children, Death Struggles with a Woman, Death on the Highway, Death as a Friend, Death in the Water, and The Call of Death.

It marks a return to lithographs, with their ability to give depth and shade, unlike the medieval starkness of the war woodcuts. And also a return of the Neanderthal or simian quality which recurs throughout many of the harsher works, gaunt images of creatures who are barely human, with thick, knotty hands and feet. Big, clunky hands and especially feet, bony feet, huge knuckled feet, used to carrying burdens and long days of physical labour, are a trademark feature of her work, even in so ‘tender’ an image as Woman holding a dead child, the knees and feet are prominent and brutal.

Plate 8 Call of Death from the Death series (1937) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum

This one, Call of Death, reminded me of Holocaust or Gulag or prisoner of war imagery. Homo redux, reduced by the crimes and the atrocities of the twentieth century to a bare minimum, barely human rump. And of the great poem, Death is a Master from Germany, written at the end of the war by Paul Celan.

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

Summary

All of the images in this exhibition are brilliant. I honestly can’t think of another exhibition I’ve ever been to where the quality of all the works is so uniformly high. The images of peasants pulling ploughs in muddy, wet fields, with harnesses round their necks are searing.

The barely human, half-apes sharpening their scythes from the Peasants War series are terrifying.

The woodcut she made commemorating the funeral of Communist agitator Karl Liebknecht is a great piece of popular art, albeit in a dubious cause (Liebknecht wanted to bring Leninist rule to Germany, but was murdered by right-wing militias in 1919 during the chaotic street fighting which followed the collapse of the German Empire. Same year Kollwitz was the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. In letters she is recorded as explaining she had no sympathy for his cause, but was moved by the huge crowds of working class mourners who attended his funeral, the class she had been depicting for decades.)

Even before the Great War she was a well-established artist in her genre, which was acknowledged by her receiving the position at the Prussian Academy immediately it ended. But between the wars she developed a reputation not only in America (land of the rich collector) but, amazingly, in inter-war China, riven by civil war and Japanese invasions, where her blistering images of the poorest of the poor peasants working the land influenced the Woodcut Movement among socially conscious artists in that vast, peasant-based country. Her Peasants War work was seen by, and directly influenced, the Chinese artist Li Hua, who founded the Modern Woodcut Society at the Guangzhou Art School in 1934.

Struggle (1947) by Li Hua © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Campbell Dodgson collection

Kollwitz made a total of 275 prints, in etching, woodcut and lithography. This exhibition features 48. Why these 48 and no others? Because these prints were collected by Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings (1893–1932) who then bequeathed them to the British Museum in 1948. Dodgson was influenced by his colleague Max Lehrs of the Dresden and Berlin Print Rooms – Kollwitz’s first and greatest champion – and acquired as many of her works as he could.

And then donated them to the museum. And now all 48 are on display here, along with generous picture captions and labels which give full explanations of her life and work and the motivation and process behind each one of these wonderful works. She is a really great, great artist. This exhibition is FREE. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Death and woman (1910) by Käthe Kollwitz © The Trustees of the British Museum


Related links

Germany between the wars

Art and culture

History

Victorian poverty and violence

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Turkey: A Short History by Norman Stone (2012)

I picked this up in the library to shed more light on the very early years of Anatolia, specifically on the Seljuk Turks who stormed into the old Persian Empire in the 1050s, seized the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad, in 1055 and went on to inflict a seismic defeat on the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the equivalent – for the region – of our Battle of Hastings, which marked the decisive shift of control of Anatolia i.e. modern Turkey, away from the Christian Greeks and towards the Islamicised Turks.

On reflection it was foolish to expect much on just this one era from a book which is only 165 pages long, only claims to be a short history, and which has reached the origin of the Ottoman Turks (the 1250s) by page 23 and the fall of Constantinople (in 1453) by page 32.

The Seljuk period is skimmed over in a few brief pages and the Battle of Manzikert in a couple of brief sentences. I’m glad I had read the long, detailed account of the build-up, the battle itself, and its historical repercussions, in John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee.

Odd tone

This is an odd book. All the important dates and ideas are here, but Professor Stone comes across as a rather grumpy and capricious older fellow, who makes dated attempts at humour, and is easily distracted by historic trivia.

He takes a dismissive tone to much historical debate, a kind of urbane, pooh-poohing lofty tone. For example, he jocosely points out that Iranian schoolchildren learn that Turkish barbarians came and stormed their civilised empire, while Turkish schoolchildren learn that effete, decadent imperial Persia was revived and renewed with the strong, virile blood of the Turks. Similarly, discussing the influence of Asian tribes on the early state of Russia (in the 1500s), he writes,

The Russian princes eventually copied the Tatars, Moscow most successfully, and in 1552, Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatar capital, Kazan, on the Volga. Nineteenth-century warhorses then presented Russian history as a sort of crusade  in which indignant peasants freed themselves from ‘the Tatar yoke’. (p.20)

‘Nineteenth-century warhorses’? I’m still not totally sure what he means by that phrase. Does he just mean boring schoolmasters, or is he also referring to the wider culture of Russian writers and journalists and thinkers etc.

He mentions the many areas or issues where the early history of the Turks is contested by historians, where there are conflicting theories – but rarely without being pretty casual, sometimes rather dismissive, or even facetious.

There is a twentieth-century claim that the early Ottomans (which is a westernisation of Osmanli) were bright-eyed fighters for the cause of Allah, itself the answer to a rather Christian-triumphalist claim that they were noble savages who had to learn everything from Byzantium, but the evidence either way is thin. (p.23)

Jocose

So all the right dates are here, along with nodding references to the main cruxes or issues of Turkish historiography – and the book does give you a good quick overview of the entire history from the Seljuks to the glories of the great Ottoman Empire (at its peak in the 1550s) and then its long decline down to the death agonies in the First World War, and then the rebirth of modern Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

But all conveyed in a deliberately jocose, facetious way.

The Turks had a modern army, whereas the Christians were still fighting pre-gunpowder wars, in which heavy cavalry, imprisoned in armour, charged off pretentiously after quarreling leaders had windbagged away as to who would lead. (p.27)

‘windbagged away.’ Presumably Stone thinks – or his editors suggested – that he could make the knotty and complex history of medieval and Renaissance Turkey more palatable if he slipped in wrote it in a jokey and irreverent tone.

The Pope staged a great conference in Rome in 1490 and, as in Cold War days, it attracted all manner of bores, adventurers and braggarts – poor Cem [the Ottoman sultan’s exiled brother], some stray Byzantine pretenders, a fake Georgian prince or two, men wanting money to print unreadable tracts, Portuguese waffling at length, Hungarians going on about their woes… (p.43)

Hence the ho-ho tone of much of his commentary (‘Portuguese waffling at length, Hungarians going on about their woes’) – except that it itself is heroically out of date. It reads like the jokey slang of the Just William stories, or Geoffrey Willans’ Down with Skool! books from the 1950s. Looking it up I see that Professor Stone was born in 1941, so is now 78, was around 70 when this book was published. On one level, then, it feels a bit like a repository of naughty schoolboy attitudes from the 1950s.

Turkish trivia

Not only is the tone odd, but Stone is easily distracted by eccentric factoids and historical trivia. For example, it is odd that the prelude to this short book, where space is surely a premium, spends five pages describing the German academic exiles from Nazi Germany who came, settled in Istanbul, and helped set up the world-class university there. All very well and interesting, but not really the first or most important thing which readers ought to know about Turkish history.

Once we get to his swift outline of the Turks’ obscure early history in Central Asia, it is dotted with odd explanations, for example the fact that the Italian word pastrami derives from a Turkish original which he uses to illustrate some key aspects of the Turkish language – the way it includes preposition, tenses and other information by making changes to internal vowels and adding prefixes and suffixes and structural changes (although this brief paragraph is not really very useful).

He is particularly fond of the way medieval crowns and titles have descended by historical accidents to the most unlikely descendants. Thus he tells us that, after the last crusaders had been kicked out of the Holy Land in 1291, some took refuge in highly fortified islands, such as Cyprus, the ruler of which called himself ‘King of Jerusalem’ for generations afterwards, the title eventually passing to… the Courtenay family in Devon!

Similarly, he describes the machinations by which the Sultan Bayezid (1360 – 1403) kept his brother Cem detained by various Christian powers far from the throne, until Cem died – at which point Bayezit had all Cem’s descendants murdered – except for one, who fled to the Knights of St John on Rhodes, converted to Christianity, acquired a title from the Pope and… has a chief descendant in Australia!

The book is packed with trivial pursuit factoids such as:

  • on the Bosnian-Serbian border there were silver mines Srebrenica, the town which saw massacres during the Yugoslav wars, derives from the Slavonic name for ‘silver’
  • in the Middle Ages the Black Sea was the high road for the Russian trade in furs and slaves – the present-day Turkish name for prostitute, orospu, is medieval Persian, and the central part of it denotes ‘Rus’
  • Turkish rulers hit on the idea of recruiting young boys from occupied lands (especially Greece) to the court, converting them to Islam, giving them an education and training. Some formed the nucleus of elite units within the army known, in Turkish, as the yeñi çeri (meaning ‘new soldiers’) who, over time, became known to Westerners as the Janissaries
  • The Topkapi palace in Istanbul is laid out in courtyards with elaborate pavilions known as köşk, the Turkish word for an ornate wooden mansion, smaller than a palace – which is the source of the English word ‘kiosk’

And there are lots more distracting and diverting factoids where they came from.

Contorted style

Another major feature of the book is the odd, garbled prose style. On every page he phrases things, well, oddly.

To what extent was the success of the Ottomans based on Islam, or would you read this the other way round, and say that the Ottomans were successful when their Islam was not taken too seriously? (p.7)

His prose is not incomprehensible, just oddly laid out. Stiff. Ungainly.

There is a line in Proust, to the effect that someone looks on history as would a newly born chicken at the bits of the eggshell from which it had been hatched. (p.8)

You can see what he’s getting at, but can’t help noticing how inelegantly it has been phrased.

By the mid-fifteenth century Byzantium had shrunk to the point that it consisted of just Constantinople and its hinterland. (p.29)

Or:

The Mameluks had made endless trouble for Constantinople and with their fabled riches from trade they provided an obvious target for Selim, who trundled his gunnery and Janissaries to effect against them. (p.49)

I think he means that Selim trundled his guns and Janissaries off to fight the Mameluks, with (or to) great effect i.e. his guns and Janissaries were very effective. Odd phrasing though, isn’t it? And these oddities crop up on every page. After a while I began relishing the book, not only for its ostensible subject, but also for its car-crash prose.

As early as the eighth century, Turkish mercenaries had made their appearance in Persia, in the then capital of which, Baghdad, the Caliphate reigned over all Islam. (p.18)

A personal history of Turkey

Maybe you could turn my critique on its head by simply describing this book as a personal history of Turkey, one in which Professor Stone felt released from the corsets of formal, academic history writing, to air his opinions about everything – from penpushing bureaucracies to partisan school teachers, from the absurdities of the old Eastern Europe through the tastiness of Turkish tea – all served up in an idiosyncratic style which is continually reaching for the droll and the whimsical, rather than the serious or profound.

Madrid and Ankara are both artificial capitals, without economic activity between pen-pushing and boot-bashing. (p.54)

Conclusion

So, if you’re looking for a short history of Turkey written in idiosyncratic English, which certainly covers all the bases but also includes an entertaining selection of odd anecdotes and Turkey trivia – then this is very possibly the book for you!


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


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Moments of Silence @ the Imperial War Museum, London

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. This promotional video gives a flavour:

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from Renewal and Voice is a door leading into a sequence of rooms which make up the immersive installation Moments of Silence. This installation was commissioned by IWM and created by the Tony and Olivier Award-winning artists 59 Productions,

The premise

A wall label explains the basis of the artwork: At the end of the First World War, plans were floated around Whitehall for a national Hall of Remembrance. A number of architects’ plans were drawn up and submitted but in the event nothing was built. The memorial at the Cenotaph in Whitehall is the nearest thing to a central, national focus for commemoration, scene of the annual televised Ceremony of Remembrance – alongside the thousands of memorials at the heart of every English village and town.

This installation is divided into three parts and intended to ‘explore’ a) the hall that was never built b) the moments of silence we share and c) how memorials are becoming increasingly digital.

Room one – the hall that was never built

The first room is relatively small and pitch black. As you enter you can see that in the corner of the walls opposite the entrance there’s what looks like a kind of mini-beach made of… when you look closely you realise it’s made of plastic.

On the ceiling above and behind you there’s a projector. It projects onto the two walls which you’re facing shapes and patterns and images which have been carefully designed to take account of the ‘beach’ shape. When I walked in the projection looked like a kind of waterfall of those small plastic shapes you get surrounding bulky goods in cardboard crates, thus creating a ‘pile’ of thousands of little multi-coloured plastic filler pellets. I watched as the flow of plastic bits spread across both walls as if it was snowing plastic packaging. Maybe this was meant to represent the sands of time.

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

Room two – moments of silence

This room is pitch black. Nothing was happening. It was only when I read up about it on the Museum’s website that I learned that the room hosts:

a series of twelve atmospheric ‘silences’, a number of which were recorded at 11am on 11 November 2017. Predominantly collected from around the UK, the recordings include a wide-ranging variety of two minute silences, from the first ever recorded silence at the 1929 Cenotaph Remembrance Service to present-day silences at Everest Base Camp and HMS Ambush, an Astute Class Submarine.

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

Room three – how memorials are becoming increasingly digital

This final room was dazzlingly bright and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust from the darkness to the fierce light. I had the space to myself, which is always a good thing in an installation.

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

I wandered round the walls and suddenly realised they were not as plain white as I had at first thought. Rows of names were moving down them in that juddering, flickering way I’m familiar with from countless science fiction movies which feature digital printouts or information.

Looking closely I saw that the rows were made up of names of soldiers and the places where they served. And, as I watched, a kind of credit section came up, explaining that I’d just been looking at something to do with Iraq and something to do with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of Moments of Silence at the Imperial War Museum, London

I didn’t really understand the meaning of the names which flickered by on the wall-sized screens although I’m guessing they were simply a list of names of soldiers who served in the British Army. Maybe the list is limited only to those who served in Iraq. Maybe it’s about the First World War campaigns in the area, maybe it’s something to do with British involvement in the region since the First Gulf War. Hard to tell. I left this cold, brightly-lit empty room puzzled.

18 months ago I visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. No amount of digital trickery can compare with the commitment of visiting such a place and the psychological impact of walking along row after row of beautifully maintained gravestones, each with the name of a dead soldier carefully engraved on it, and soaking in the sheer scale of the death and devastation caused by war. Then, maybe, finding a bench to sit down on and reflect on the enormity, and the waste. Some things can’t be digitised.

Part of the Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey

Part of the Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. Photo by the author


Related links

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World War One-related book reviews

Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

I Was There: Room of Voices @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I reviewed the biggest and most conventional of the four exhibitions – Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs – yesterday. Next door to it is a ‘room of voices’ which does exactly what it says on the tin.

I Was There: Room of Voices

Quite obviously the sudden end of four gruelling years of sacrifice, austerity and loss was a major moment for the nation (the exhibition focuses solely on British voices). But people experienced and reacted to it in many different ways.

In this immersive sound installation, 32 people who fought and lived through the First World War share their personal stories of the Armistice. Their voices were recorded by IWM between 1973 and 2013, and form part of the larger IWM archive, which contains a staggering 33,000 recordings relating to the conflict.

The ‘immersive sound installation’ amounts, in practice, to a darkened ‘room’ dominated visually by space age, vertical, fluorescent white tubes embedded in the black walls, a little like a set from Star Wars. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you realise there are also several big black metal columns containing loud speakers, and it is from these that the disembodied voices emanate.

A school trip of 10 and 11 year old girls was in the room when I visited, notebooks scattered across the floor as they listened to these voices from a distant age.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

The selection of 32 voices tries to present a cross-section of society, featuring personal testimonies from people who in 1918 were soldiers, civilians or children, who all had different reactions to the end of the First World War, from the solemn to the celebratory.

There are benches so you can sit and close your eyes and really pay attention to the voices. Listening to the variations in recording quality, in the confidence and education of the voices, made me think less about the specific event and more about the yawning inequalities in 1918 Britain, and the way people accepted conventions of class and deference which we have long since abandoned.

Beyond the dark room, is another, more conventionally lit, space whose wall is dominated by a grid of photos and squares of card. Some of these are photos from the era, but some of them are blank cards inviting you to fill them in with any family memories you might have of the war. A surprising number had been written on by people recalling their grandparent or great-grandparents’ experiences.

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of I Was There: Room of Voices at the Imperial War Museum. Photo by the author

There’s also information about a website which has been set up so that people can contribute their own stories – via photos, texts or audio recordings – to ‘the First World War digital memorial’.

Reflections

I couldn’t help reflecting that, from all that I’ve read, many soldiers in both the first and second world wars returned home and never spoke of their experiences. They came from cultures which respected reticence and restraint. The thing that gave their lives meaning was not to be publicly shared.

And then reflecting on the enormous contrast with our own times, in which absolutely everyone is encouraged to speak out and speak up and have their voices heard and share their experiences, to like on Facebook, to tweet their opinions, to call out, to name and shame, to take a video of it, take selfies in front of it, instagram it, pinterest it, to text and sext it and leave no stone of our passing thoughts unshared and unpublished.

That’s what these voices from the past made me think about – about the events they were describing, of course – but also about the immensely different mindset, culture, conventions and values with which they conceptualised and processed these events.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs @ Imperial War Museum London

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

The four are presented under the overarching title of Making A New World, a major season which has also included a programme of live music, performances and public debates, all addressing aspects of the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Here’s the promotional video of the season as a whole.

The biggest of the four exhibitions is titled Renewal: Life after the First World War in photographs. Over the next few days I’ll review the other three exhibitions.

Renewal: Life after the First World War in photographs

In the years after the First World War, countries, cities and individuals had to regenerate and rebuild themselves on an extraordinary scale.

The exhibition uses poignant and evocative photos, diagrams, posters and objects from IWM’s vast collections to convey the challenges and experiences of peace which were faced by soldiers, societies, and Europe as a whole.

Armistice celebrations in Birmingham, 1918 IWM (Q 63690)

Armistice celebrations in Birmingham, 1918 IWM (Q 63690)

Each individual photograph or object comes with an informative wall label, which is well worth reading and pondering.

There are about 130 objects in all, covering a wide range of subjects and formats, from a big map of Europe, black-and-white footage of the ruined town of Ypres, a wall-high reproduction of architects’ designs for new homes fit for heroes, through to recruiting posters for the army, an example of a prosthetic leg made for an amputee, photos of demobbed soldiers, diplomats, abandoned munitions, and – isolated and forlorn – a broken ceremonial sword once belonging to a German officer.

Room one – Reconstructing the individual

More than 70 million fought in the First World War, some 16 million died, tens of millions were displaced. In Britain, many soldiers wanted to return home as soon as possible, although many were injured and condemned to spend the rest of their lives in care homes. There was suddenly a crying need for houses and jobs for all the demobilised men.

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in photographs © IWM

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs © IWM

Topics in this room include:

Returning Home

Including photos of demobilisation offices, crowds of soldiers being demobilised. Sometimes the hold-ups led to frustration and there demobilisation riots in some places.

Regaining Freedom

Around eight million soldiers became prisoners of war during the conflict. Allied prisoners were released immediately upon the Armistice but were often given little help. One poignant little case contains a pair of wooden clogs given to a returning British POW who had no boots by a Belgian peasant, which the Brit obviously kept to the end of his days and donated.

Pair of clogs given by a sympathetic Belgian to a shoeless British prisoner

Pair of clogs given by a sympathetic Belgian to a shoeless British prisoner

In contrast, prisoners from the defeated nations were only slowly released, some being kept in captivity for up to two years after the war ended. France, in particular, was tough on the Germans, forcing German POWs to help rebuild all the villages and towns the war had ruined. There is a photo of German POWs rebuilding the Basilica of St Quentin in 1919, and many other photos showing the complete devastation of northern France and Belgium

Horses and men of 1st Anzac Corps on their way past the ruins of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall in Ypres © IWM E(AUS) 1122

Horses and men of 1st Anzac Corps on their way past the ruins of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall in Ypres © IWM E(AUS) 1122

Starting Again

The theme of rebuilding runs through the show. Many photographs show citizens who had fled the fighting returning home and setting up house again amid the rubble. There are photos of the new wooden houses built among the ruins of Ypres, and the first tobacconists shop blossoming among the rubble.

Apparently, Winston Churchill had suggested that Ypres be left a rubble-strewn ruin as testimony to the men who lost their lives there, but the people -as the commentary wryly puts it – didn’t go along with his suggestion, and soon began rebuilding.

Soldiering On

Many soldiers found it hard to adjust to peacetime, both psychologically and, in practical terms, found it hard to get work. There was a major economic slump after the war. By late 1919, with most of the British forces demobilised, many men decided to re-enlist in the new, smaller, more professional British Army, Navy and Air Force, since it offered the best hope of steady work, plus opportunities to travel and ‘see the world’ which were not available to most of their working class peers. Thus the exhibition contains some colourful 1920s posters singing the praises of a career in the forces.

See the World 1919 recruitment poster

See the World 1919 recruitment poster

Restoring Independence

Many men had been blinded in the war. They couldn’t return to their old jobs and risked poverty and isolation if left to themselves. A section of the show is devoted to the work of St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park, a charity devoted to helping blind ex-soldiers. The photos belonged to Dorothy Irving-Bell, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse who worked with blind patients and whose album amounts to a social history of the charity.

The black and white photos of rows of smartly dressed young man, every one of whom has been blinded for his country, some with bandages over their eyes, others wearing dark glasses, was quite upsetting. But something snapped in me when I saw the colour photos of blind men being shown how to weave tennis nets and fishing nets, from which they could eke a living. God, the waste. The waste on a scale we just can’t conceive today. It’s what makes John Singer Sargent’s painting, Gassed, almost unbearably moving.

The charity still exists and supports blind veterans of the services.

Repairing the body

Not just eyes, every conceivable part of the human body had been eviscerated, gouged, melted and burned during the war. A section documents the advances in medical techniques which helped soldiers survive at the front, and then took care of them at home. This included a sequence about the doctors, nurses and patients at Roehampton which specialised in men who had lost a limb. Over 41,000 men lost limbs during the war.

Roehampton, patients being taught to use their new artificial limbs © IWM (Q 33690)

Roehampton, patients being taught to use their new artificial limbs © IWM (Q 33690)

Rejoining Society

Disabled soldiers received state pensions but most others needed help registering for work, and claiming other benefits. This section displays some of the forms and documents required by the state or the many private charities which were set up to help soldiers.

Room two – A country fit for heroes?

Rebuilding society

British servicemen returned home to find a country short of houses (when has Britain not been short of houses?) The British economy almost immediately went into a slump. Fearing discontent on a large scale might trigger a Bolshevik-style revolution, the authorities move quickly, pledging to build thousands of homes for for heroes, and introducing a generous new unemployment benefit scheme.

There is a fascinating sequence of photos showing land being cleared at Becontree in Dagenham, and then a huge new estate being built, using new materials and modern (though not Modernist) designs.

Rebuild or preserve

Of course the problem of building in Britain was as nothing to the challenge facing the authorities in those parts of northern France and Belgium which had been devastated by the war. Here the authorities had to decide whether to rebuild a city like Ypres, brick for brick, or start again from scratch. The French did, in fact, leave a couple of villages in utter ruins, as a reminder of the pointlessness of war, and we are shown photos of them, Omes and Fleury, ‘the villages that died for France’.

A refugee family returning to Amiens, 17 September 1918 © IWM (Q 11341)

A refugee family returning to Amiens, 17 September 1918 © IWM (Q 11341)

This room contains a slideshow on a big monitor showing photos taken by Louise Briggs, a British traveller who visited Belgium many times after the war, photographing the ruins then the rebuilding of Ypres, along with nearby villages and war cemeteries.

It comes as a shock to learn from the captions to several of these photos, that immediately the war ended the tourists started to arrive. Obviously not quite ‘tourist’ in the way we think of today, but plenty of British people wanted to come and see the sites where their sons or brothers or husbands had fought and died or been wounded. Some of the first buildings erected in post-war Ypres were makeshift wooden hotels for just such a clientele. Postcards were quickly manufactured showing views of famous battlefields, along with maps and other merchandising. Hard not to find this ghoulish.

Rudyard Kipling, much condemned now for his racism and imperialism, wrote a number of powerful stories about the Great War and its shell-shocked victims. And one really haunting story about a British woman who makes the pilgrimage to the grave of her dead son.

New Opportunities

When the war ended all sides found themselves with vast amounts of munitions and arms and equipment on their hands. The tens of thousands of cars and lorries could be quickly converted for civilian use, but what about the primitive airplanes of the war?

A fascinating little sequence is devoted to explaining the rise of the Handley Page Transport Co which built its first plane in 1909, was commissioned to make heavier ‘bombers’ during the war, and then very impressively converted these to carry passengers, and thus became one of the first manufacturers of long-range passenger planes. Photos show the cramped interiors of these earliest passenger plans, alongside altogether more glossy and stylish 1920s posters for Imperial Airways, formed in 1924.

Room three – Reshaping the world

The world which emerged from the war was shaped by the peace conference of 191-20 and the series of treaties which emerged from it and continued to be negotiated into the 1920s. Thousands of books have been written about the compromises, haste and bad decisions made at the conferences. Most controversially, the defeated nations didn’t have representatives present and so were forced to sign to all kinds of conditions which they would have rejected, and which caused lasting resentment among their populations, such as the massive reparations Germany had to pay France, as well as the big chunks of territory Germany lost to France in the West and Poland in the East.

Peace treaties

One wall of this room is dominated by huge photos of the leaders of the victorious allies, Lloyd George of Britain, Woodrow Wilson of America, Clemenceau of France.

Continuing Conflict

But it is often forgotten that the Armistice did not end the fighting across huge swathes of Europe and Asia Minor. The Russian Revolution led to a civil war which raged across that huge country until 1922. In 1920 Russia invaded Poland and it was only the Poles stopping the Russian advance at the great Battle of Warsaw which prevented the Bolsheviks reaching and helping the communist uprisings in Germany. Street violence continued in Germany for years after 1918. A bitter civil war erupted in Ireland when the southern part of the island was given independence from Britain. Hungary became a communist republic under Bela Kun in 1919, which was eventually overthrown by a militaristic regime. A terrible war broke out between Greece, egged on by the Allies to take advantage of Turkey’s defeat, and Turkey which surprised the West by driving the Greek forces into the sea in scenes witnessed by the young reporter Ernest Hemingway.

Occupation

All across Europe occupying forces moved in to administer civil authority and oversee the transfer of power to peaceful regimes. British forces were involved in the occupation of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey. Photos show our boys fraternising with locals, chatting about horses and, in one vivid photo, toboganning in the snows of Austria

Disarmament

Stunning photos showing the vast, vast piles of abandoned rifles, artillery, shells and so on. What a breath-taking, awe-inspiring waste of raw materials and industrial resources, epitomised by the pile of 32,000 rifles awaiting destruction by British forces in Cologne.

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photograpsh at the Imperial war Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs at the Imperial War Museum, showing the huge pile of rifles at Cologne (middle right) and Allied ships anchored at Istanbul (top left). Photo by the author

Thoughts

The three ‘rooms’ have actually been created for this exhibition out of grey cloth stretched across wooden frames. They have windows so you can look into them from the corridor between. And there’s audio, a continual mix of ambient doodling over which we hear voices, crashes, military sounds. I couldn’t decide whether this was irritating or inspiring. But certainly by the end I felt moved, moved to tears by the pointless suffering of so many people, and then horrified, wanting to run away from the scale, the unimaginable size of the catastrophe, the end of the world.

It is to the exhibition curators’ credit that from this vast holocaust they manage to identify clear threads and themes to give the horror shape and meaning, and have selected 130 black and white photographs, documents and objects which really bring home the impact of something so inhumanly vast on individual human beings, whose stories we can approach and understand.

German sword taken at the end of the war in Cologne. Photo by the author

German sword taken at the end of the war in Cologne. Photo by the author


Related links

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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