The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.


Related links

Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals by Linda Bank Downs

[Rivera] has built up a powerful narrative style of painting, which makes him, it is safe to say, the only man now working, who adequately represents the world we live in – wars, tumult, struggling peoples, hope, discontent, humour and speeding existence.’
(Edgar P. Richardson, one of the directors of the Art Institute of Detroit)

Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals

In April 1932 the Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, arrived in Detroit to fulfil a commission from the city’s Art Institute. Rivera had already painted two sets of murals in San Francisco and was coming fresh from being the subject of an immensely successful one-man retrospective at New York’s (new) Museum of Modern Art.

Chief patron of the Art Institute and sponsor of the murals was Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, founder of the famous automobile company. In fact Ford, by this stage, was no longer just running a successful car company, he had created the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in the world. This industrial city within a city not only contained all the manufacturing elements required for the production of cars, it included factories turning out steel, cement, glass and electricity. The site had its own canals and railways, and had developed ship, tractor and airplane manufacture so that it could control the delivery of all the raw materials necessary to car production.

Like many visitors, Rivera was awe-struck at what he saw. He spent three months visiting every part of the works, having the engineering and machines explained to him, and developing his designs. He made hundreds of sketches and studies as well as commissioning photographs by the company photographer.

The murals were to be painted on the two long, tall, facing walls of what was, at that point, the garden courtyard of the Art Institute. There were to be two main murals, giant paintings in which Rivera captured the thrilling complexity of factory production – the construction of the interior of an automobile on the North Wall, the manufacture of the exterior of the car on the South wall.

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Above these giant paintings ran two horizontal bands in which Rivera painted less cluttered, more monumental figures depicting the races of the world and the raw materials lying under Detroit’s soil (on the North Wall [above] you can see the figures representing the Indian and African races; on the South Wall [below] figures representing the white and Chinese races.)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

And running along beneath the main panels were a series of smaller, rectangular spaces into which Rivera painted different aspects of the worker’s day – arriving at work, lunch break, and different perspectives on the works.

The East and West walls contained doors and windows so Rivera had less space to play with and so, again, painted symbolical rather than naturalistic subjects – on the East wall a long thin band with a foetus lying in the soil, on the West wall [below] two depictions of shiny, tubular machines flank the main door while directly above them is a black and white painting designed to look like a relief frieze showing a Ford transporter ship bringing raw materials from abroad, while above that is a set of paintings depicting the latest Ford airplanes.

The West wall murals

The West wall murals

In all there were 27 separate panels.

Rivera began painting on 25 July 1932 and finished work in March 1933. Despite vocal criticism from right-wing journalists, politicians and preachers attacking him for being foreign, an atheist and a communist – and attacks from the other end of the political spectrum, from communist writers and officials accusing him of selling out to the Yankee dollar – the murals were opened to tremendous critical acclaim, and became an instant hit with visitors.

The images were reproduced in papers and magazines and art books around the world and consolidated Rivera’s reputation as Mexico’s greatest artist with one of the most recognisable visual styles in the world. It is telling that when the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for bang up-to-date artists to decorate the lobby of their new skyscraper in New York, they approached Matisse, Picasso and Rivera. He was in that league.

This book

This book is a joy to behold and handle. It’s a large-size and hefty hardback (31.5 cm tall by 20.5 cm wide), the paper is beautiful, the print is lovely and crisp, and the quality of the photo and painting reproductions are first class.

The USP of the book is that it was only during the 1990s that a whole world of cartoons, sketches and photographs which had been involved in the making of the murals first came to light.

Linda Bank Downs helped to direct investigations into the archives of not only the Art Institute but the Ford Company Museum and Detroit’s other archives, so that researchers were able to slowly assemble a massive collection of preparatory works, sketches, cartoons, notebooks, plans, designs, as well as official and private photos which record and document every stage of Rivera’s researches, preparations and painting.

These are now all gathered together and explained in this book. The result is fabulously presented and absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on the origin and development of the commission itself, and then an absolutely riveting description of exactly how the murals were prepared, which includes a precise recipe for each of the five layers of plaster required, and detail on the painstaking preparation of each of the colours to just the right fineness and density.

We learn the biographies of the half dozen assistants who were required for the project (including the unlikely figure of Lord Hastings, an English aristocrat who wanted to help the working classes), and a portrait of life in broader Detroit – in reality, a grimly rundown city with mass unemployment, hunger, riots and endemic racism.

A chapter describes ‘the Cosmology of Technology’ i.e. explains the multitude of manufacturing processes which Rivera depicted, and the next chapter presents the surprising variety of art scholarly interpretations the murals have been subjected to.

The book ends with an entertaining account of the ‘controversy’ surrounding the paintings which Downs, after extensive research, now thinks might actually have been created by the Ford Company’s own press and PR people – and was a spectacular success.

All the way through there are excellent, top quality photos – of Detroit, of the factory, of Diego at work, of his assistants hard at work, of him mingling with his American hosts in embarrassed group shots, even of the great man sneaking a secret snog with his wife, Frida Kahlo, who dutifully brought him a cooked meal of vegetarian Mexican food, just the way he liked it every day at lunchtime.

Diego Rivera having a cheeky snog with Frida Kahlo on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo having a snog on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932)

There are extensive reproductions of Diego’s preparatory sketches and drafts and plans – and then the book goes on to present wonderfully panoramic views of each panel alongside extensive close-ups of details, explaining the function of each piece of equipment, the names of many of the men depicted, and also the cameo appearances Rivera painted in to the murals of his patron, the Institute’s director and a cheeky self-portrait, among many more.

This is a wonderfully intelligent and beautifully produced book about a major twentieth century work of art.


Related links

Related reviews – Diego and Frida

Related reviews – Mexico

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


Related links

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Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!

Conclusions

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.


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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (3) by James M. McPherson (1987)

This is a long book. It takes McPherson about 280 pages before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, just to paint in the complicated political, economic, legal and social background to the American Civil War. This build-up section is absolutely fascinating, giving insights into a number of deep and enduring aspects of American history and culture.

Cuba

I had no idea that freelance forces raised in the southern states repeatedly tried to invade and capture Cuba (this was after President Polk offered Spain $100 million for it and Spain haughtily refused). The so-called ‘Ostend Manifesto’ of 1854 declared that Cuba was as vital for American interests as any of the other American states. Invasion attempts were led by Narciso Lopez among others. Cuba was attractive because it had a slave population of some 500,000 i.e. annexing it to America would create a) another slave state, thus giving the existing slave states more political clout, b) add a big new territory in which slaves could be bought and sold i.e. where slave traders could make a profit.

And Nicaragua. In 1855 adventurer and mercenary leader William Walker managed to get himself appointed head of the Nicaraguan army, from where he usurped the presidency, ruling as President of Nicaragua for a year, 1856-57, before being defeated in battle by an alliance of other Central American states. (Walker had previously ‘conquered’ La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, with a force of 43 men, and concocted various plans to seize territory from Mexico. McPherson’s book conveys a wonderful sense of this era of bandits, adventurers, filibusters and mercenaries.)

Plenty of southern ideologists thought that, blocked by the free states in the north, their destiny was to seize and conquer all the nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Mexico, all of Central America, all the Caribbean islands), institute slavery in all of them, and corner the market in all the world’s coffee, sugar, cotton and other tropical goods, establish a new slave empire.

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ suspicion of America’s boundless arrogance and her thinly veiled ambitions to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

Many southerners wanted to renew the slave trade, and some went as far as commissioning private ships to go buy Africans and ferry them back to America e.g. Charles Lamar, although Lamar was arrested (and released) and no sizeable trade was, in the end, established.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

In McPherson’s opinion the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was ‘the most important single event pushing the nation towards civil war (p.121).

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states since 1820.

Douglas inserted such a repeal into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the bill’s supporters then forced a meeting with President Pierce (1853-57) during which they threatened him: ‘Endorse repeal or lose the south’.

Pierce caved in, the act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, whose northern and southern wings increasingly struggled to find common ground. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

Immigration quadrupled after the great potato blight in Ireland of the mid-1840s. Immigration in the first five years of the 1850s was five times higher than a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants were Catholic Irish fleeing the famine or Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848. They tended to be poor peasant labourers who crammed into urban tenements, driving up crime, squalor, disease and drunkenness.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) helped stoke anti-Catholic feeling among liberals and the American Protestant establishment by making the Catholic Church a beacon for reactionary beliefs – declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility and publishing a Syllabus of Errors which forbade Catholics from praising or practicing liberalism, socialism, public education, women’s rights and so on. American Catholic archbishop Hughes published an inflammatory book declaring that Protestantism was declining and would soon be replaced by Catholicism in America.

Unsurprisingly, in reaction, spokesman arose for a movement called ‘nativism’, which promoted the Protestant virtues of sobriety and hard work. There were riots and fights in cities between nativist mobs and Catholic groups.

Nativism overlapped with a growing temperance movement, which sought to close down bars and ban hard liquor – an anticipation of the Prohibition of the 1920s.

Secret societies grew up dedicated to keeping America Protestant by organising their members to only vote for Protestant candidates. There may have been up to a million members of these societies who were told that, if anyone asked about the name or membership of their local branch, they were to say ‘I know nothing’. As a result they became known as the ‘Know-nothings’, and in the few years up to the Civil War knownothingness became a sort of political craze.

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the Irish vote which played a key part in preventing blacks from being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum and Catholicism (p.137)

Abraham Lincoln

The trigger for civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on 6 November 1860. The less well-known of the two candidates for the Republican party, it wasn’t so much him personally, as the sweeping triumph of the essentially northern antislavery Republican party running on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery to any more U.S. states, which prompted southern slave states to finally carry out the acts of secession they’d been threatening every time there was a political clash or controversy for the previous decade or more. (For example, South Carolina had threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California’s statehood).

Indeed, it was South Carolina which first seceded from the United States as a result of a political convention called within days of Lincoln’s election, the official secession declared on December 20, 1860. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), Texas (February 1, 1861), Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861).

The seceding states joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). In April 1861 President Lincoln made a speech saying the seceded states did not form a separate country, and that he would take steps to protect Union property and assets in the so-called Confederate states.

Almost immediately a flashpoint arose at Fort Sumter built on a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour of Charleston, capital of South Carolina. Reports that the Union navy was planning to resupply the small Union garrison in the (unfinished) fort prompted the South Carolina militia to make a pre-emptive strike and bombard the Fort into surrender on April 12, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the Civil War and Lincoln had been astute in managing to ensure it was a rebel state who fired them.

A political war

It was a political war. From start to finish the aims of both sides were political – broadly speaking the survival of their respective political, economic and social systems (one based on slave labour, one not) i.e. it was not a war fought about land or conquest.

Although it quickly escalated (or degenerated) into a total war, mobilising the resources of both sides, and leading to terrible casualties, the political aspect of the struggle was always pre-eminent.

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln held out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to northern ‘constitutionalists’ by emphasising that the southern states’ cause was a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy. They were merely fighting for their rights under the Constitution to govern by their own laws.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – the central or the states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution back in the 1780s and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focused on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

We must settle this question now: whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.

But the south didn’t think it was a matter of this or that law – they thought the Republicans’ stated aim of stopping slavery from spreading and, in time, forcing it to wither and die, represented an existential threat their entire economic and cultural existence. As the South’s reluctant president, Jefferson Davis, said, the Confederate states had been forced:

to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and state sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.

Length and complexity

This is why the first 300 pages of McPherson’s book are so important. They need to paint a really thorough picture of the confused and contradictory political scene right across American society in the decades preceding the conflict:

  • explaining the arguments over slavery which tore both the pre-war Whig Party and that Democrat Party apart
  • explaining the rise of the new antislavery Republican party; describing the importance of nativist and racist movements in the north (not only anti-Catholic and anti-Irish but also anti-negro)
  • describing in detail the sequence of political crises which flared up over the admission of each new state to the union, the blizzard of arguments on both sides about whether each the new state should be slave or free
  • and detailing the complicated compromises which just about papered over the cracks for decades until the election of Lincoln.

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet several of his major political rivals – even from other parties – in order to build the widest coalition.

Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan as head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him even though he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage.

Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside as many as possible of the Democrat (i.e. slave-friendly) politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border states of Missouri and Kansas.

The American Civil War really is a classic example of the old saying that war is politics by other means as, throughout the conflict, both leaders, Lincoln and Davis, had to manage and negotiate unending squabbles on their own sides about the war’s goals and strategies. McPherson notes how both leaders at various points felt like quitting in exasperation – and how both sides found their war aims changing and evolving as political feeling changed, and as the value of various alliances also changed in importance.

Killers

Meanwhile, as in any war, some men discovered that they liked killing.

You need the background and build-up in order to understand why the border states between north and south (for example, Missouri and Virginia) found themselves torn apart by opposing political movements and descending into their own mini civil wars, which generated gangs of raiders and freelancers beholden to neither side, degenerating into tit-for-tat bloodbaths.

One of Quantrill's Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James.

One of Quantrill’s Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James (pp.292 and 303)

It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Every room in the British Museum

A friend’s son comes to stay from Spain. He’s studying art and culture and so we spent two days, from 10am till chucking out time at 5.30pm, on a mission to visit every room in the British Museum. And we did it.

The British Museum owns some 8 million artefacts, of which fewer than 1% are on display, amounting to around 50,000 objects. It is the most popular tourist attraction in the UK with nearly 7 million visitors annually. Before the doors even opened at 10, the crowds flocking into the main forecourt reminded me of the crowds heading for the turnstiles at a football match.

Confusing layout

  • The official floorplan gives 95 numbered rooms, but closer examination shows several are missing. For example, I couldn’t find mention of the 80s, whereas some numbers are used two or three times: eg 18, 18a and 18b are the rooms dedicated to the Elgin Marbles – or 33, 33a and 33b, sound like one number but turn out to label the long hall running along the north wing of the building, the room at the end and a long narrow hall running south from it, which between them contain all of India and China: two distinct and massive subjects/areas, covering a profusion of sub-subjects – all contained by one innocent sounding 33.
  • The collection is spread vertically between levels -2 to level 5, so there are lots of floors and lifts. But not all the stairs give access to all the levels ie some stairs only go from one level to another, or only to one or a few room: like the steps which only go from room 21a down to rooms 77 and 78 (devoted to Greek and Roman architecture, an interesting collection of just the tops of classical columns which allow you to get close to the various decorative styles and patterns, and to classical inscriptions). Or the one staircase (the North stairs) which are the only way to get up to the Japan displays (rooms 92 to 94).
  • The way some rational sequences of numbered rooms are suddenly interrupted or require a detour up or down back stairs, give the place a pleasing element of chance or randomness eg the way room 67 (the Korea Foundation Gallery) continues seamlessly into room 95 (the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies). But overall, the visit prompted two big questions:
  • Why are the Egyptian and Roman and Greek collections split up? The massive long hall-type room 4 contains a wonderful collection of Egyptian sculptures and next to it are rooms displaying the similarly huge Assyrian sculptures (rooms 6 to 10) and then loads of rooms – 11 to 23 –  displaying the development of Greek sculpture (including the vast Duveen Galleries showing the Elgin Marbles). But then you have to go across the Museum and up to level 3 to visit the completely separate suite of rooms – 61 to 66 – displaying Egyptian mummies and sarcophaguses, in carefully explained chronological order. Why are the Egyptians split up like this? Why not have everything Egyptian all together? Similarly why, after you’ve done the evolution of Greek sculpture, do you have to go across and up to level 3 (rooms 69 to 73) to see more Greek pots and find out about the Greek colonies in the south of Italy before the rise of Rome?
  • Why is the chronological account of civilisations sometimes done in rooms numbered sequentially, but sometimes done against the order of the rooms? For example, rooms 11 to 23 on the ground floor take you through the history of Greek art in a nice logical sequence, from the earliest, primitive cycladic figures through to the artistic heights of the Parthenon, then on to Alexander the Great and the Romans. Whereas on the third floor, rooms 52 to 59 have to be visited in reverse order to experience the chronological progression, with 59 introducing the Levant ie Mesopotamia, Persia, Turkey – and then rooms moving forward in time as the numbers decrease (room 56 Mesopotamia 6000-1500, room 55 Mesopotamia 1500-539 and so on). Similarly, the history of Europe starts in room 51 (Europe and Middle East 10,000 to 800) then proceeds through rooms which count downwards: room 50 for Britain and Europe 800BC – 43 AD, room 49 for Roman Britain. Just when you’re getting used to this backwards progression, you have to leap straight to room 41 (Sutton Hoo and Europe 300-1100) and room 40 (Medieval Europe 1050-1500), because the missing rooms in between – rooms 46, 47, 48 (admittedly off to one side) turn out to contain rather unexpected and rather odd displays of Europe 1400-1800, Europe 1800-1900, and Europe 1900 to the present, respectively (mostly made up of ceramics, pottery, vases and plates).

In other words, finding your way around the British Museum is neither logical nor intuitive, making the visit of anyone with a limited amount of time really quite demanding. Especially if you’re trying to please impatient hectoring children. Don’t give up! It’s not you, it’s the museum.

On the other hand, if you do have the time or the opportunity to visit more than once, then the quirky layout, with countless unexpected and hidden treasures to stumble upon, maybe adds to the mystery and romance of the place…

Highlights

Obviously, not any kind of official highlights, this is a list of things that made me stop and think or want to make a note:

  • A dentil is a small block used as a repeating ornament in the ‘bedmould’ of a cornice. Picture of dentils.
  • African wooden fetishes contained the spirits of gods, ancestors or spirits. Banging nails or bits of metal into them activated the god, woke up the spirit. Photo of African fetish
  • Porcelain was invented around 600AD in China and was a practical cheap new way of making dishes, pots, cups etc.
  • In a traditional Korean house the male area or sarangbang, was prized for its simplicity and clarity: here the man of the house studied, worked, wrote poetry. The woman’s room, or anbang, was highly decorated, painted, adorned and ornamented.
  • Ganesh, the Hindu god, has the head of an elephant because his father, Shiva, cut off his human head in a fit of anger and said he’d replace it with the head of the first thing he saw.
  • The Buddhist chant Om mani padme om means ‘hail to the jewel in the lotus’.
  • The hands of the Buddha in statues can represent a number of meanings, in fact they are broken down into categories. The palm raised towards the viewer is the abhayamudra, which symbolises reassurance. (The right hand in this image.)
  • Many of the Indian statues are posed in the traditional tribhanga posture where the body is slightly bent at the neck, waist and knee, giving it a sensuous S shape. Tribhanga Wikipedia article
  • The Egyptian cat god was named Bastet. Epitomised by the famous Guyer-Andersen cat. The udjat-eye hieroglyph on its chest is a symbol of protection.
  • Egyptians were buried on the west bank of the Nile (eg the Valley of the Kings) right on the edge of the desert. They were buried facing east, facing back towards the living.
  • No-one knows who the mysterious figurines found in earliest cycladic sites represent or why they were nearly all female. Cycladic figure.
  • King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (685-627 BC) held lion hunts, where caged lions were brought to an enclosure and released so the king could chase after them on his chariot. He is depicted with one lion leaping up into the chariot and, while two soldiers hold it back with spears, Ashurbanipal in person leans forward to deliver the coup de grace with a short sword. Ashurbanipal killing a lion 640BC.
  • Egyptians believed the scarab beetle symbolised the sun, because each day as the sun rose beetles emerged from their dung balls or holes. Egyptian scarab statue.
  • At the temple complex of Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, where crocodiles were worshipped as symbols of caring and nurturing, but also images of fear (?), over 300 mummified crocodiles have been found. The mummies include mummified versions of their tiny baby crocodiles, placed along the mother croc’s back. The crocodile god is Sobek.
  • My favourite thing in the Japanese gallery wasn’t the magnificent Samurai armour, it was the painted screen, ‘Pine trees at Maiko-no-hama beach‘, by Mori Ippo (1847).
  • Farming was invented about 12,000 years ago. Writing was invented about 5,000 years ago. Money was invented around 600AD.
  • The Queen of the Night dates from 1800BC in Mesopotamia.
  • The walls of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC, are now cheek-by-jowl with the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, which is currently held by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
  • The most beautiful statue I saw was of Antinous, the young man beloved of the Roman emperor Hadrian.
  • I learned that it was during the Hellenistic period after the death of Alexander the great (323BC) that Greek art became more individualised. When Greek statues reached their peak in the Athens of Pericles (495-429 BC) they depicted idealised images of power which reflected the communal values of the city state. After Alexander the Great (died 323 BC) effectively unified the Mediterranean world in one cosmopolitan culture, the rich became more individualistic, collecting rare and precious objects, and wanted to be depicted as they actually appeared. So by the time the Roman republic reached its peak and then became the Empire (27 BC), although bodies were still depicted with the Greek idealism – the super-defined muscles and bone structure etc – the faces had become the faces of individuals. Hence the faces of the Roman emperors, which are so individualised and evocative.
  • The invention of the pendulum clock in 1656 by Christiaan Huygens was a massive step forward in accurate measure of time and therefore of all kinds of processes, from the movement of the planets to new industrial or chemical processes. The super-accurate telling of time was one of the foundations of the industrial revolution and of the West’s dominance over the rest of the world.
  • When wound up this Mechanical Galleon, made in Germany in the 1590s, played music from a little organ as it trundled over the dinner table until it came to a stop and the model guns fired little puffs of gunpowder.
  • The Ram in a Thicket is one of a pair of figures excavated in Ur in southern Iraq. They date from 2600 to 2400 BC.
  • I’d heard of most of the other cultures mentioned here, but never of Urartu, a kingdom in the east of Turkey near Mount Ararat. This is a bronze winged bull’s head from the handle of a large cauldron, 8th to 7th century BC.
  • King Ashurbanipal established the world’s first library (as far as we know) consisting of thousands of clay tablets from the 7th century BC. The British Museum is embarked on a large project working with the University of Mosul to digitise the original texts and translations, making the entire library available online.
  • The double headed snake was important in Aztec mythology. The Museum houses an elaborate sculpture of a double headed snake covered in hundreds of tiny fragments of turquoise. What interested me is that this nearby mosaic skull also has snake motifs curling around the eyes of the nose and down to the lips.
  • A cabinet of curiosities is a display case an Enlightenment or Victorian collector might use to display his collection of interesting and unusual objects. It is in stark contrast to a ‘treasure room’ (exemplified by room 2, the The Waddesdon Bequest, donated by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild MP (1839–1898)) which contains objects of exquisite beauty and craftsmanship designed to highlight the owner’s refined taste. I preferred the cabinets.

Room one

Room 1 runs the length of the ground floor, along the right hand side as you enter the courtyard. The entry, opposite the east part of the bookshop, looks like a dusty old library, but don’t be put off: room 1 is dedicated to a permanent exhibition, in seven themed sections, showing why the Enlightenment period (roughly the 1700s) saw a new fashion among the rich and educated for collecting everything – stones, flints, flowers, trees, books, manuscripts, languages, paintings, sculptures, machinery, statues – you name it, someone somewhere, rich aristocrat or modestly funded vicar, was collecting it.

And how it was from the urge to collect and assess and categorise and compare all these innumerable specimens, that many of the disciplines we know today emerged – most notably archaeology, the science of dating and naming and categorising and understanding all the objects from the human past.

It may look a bit unexciting, but room 1 not only contains many objects which are fascinating in their own right, but provides just the right introduction, not just to the museum but to the whole ‘idea’ of a museum and what museums are for. And since the British Museum was founded with the bequest of one such personal collection, that of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane, in 1753, room 1 is the ideal place to begin to understand the urge to collect and the urge to view, see and understand, which underlies the whole place and explains why you’re there.

Related links

Mexico Set by Len Deighton (1984)

‘That bloody Werner has been seeing Stinnes,’ said Dicky. He was pacing up and down chewing at the nail of his little finger. It was a sign that he was agitated. He was often agitated lately. Sometimes I wondered that Dicky had any nails left.
‘So I hear,’ I said calmly.
‘Ah,’ said Dicky. ‘I thought so. Have you been going behind my back again?’
I salaamed; a low bow in a gesture of placation, ‘Oh, master. I hear this only from Harrington sahib.’
‘Cut out the clowning,’ said Dicky. (p.173)

Mexico Set is the hugely enjoyable second volume in the Bernard Samson trilogy, following immediately on from Berlin Game, what seems to be a matter of weeks or a month or so later, and with almost all the same characters. In the first novel Samson exposed his wife as the senior ‘mole’ in the Department, a part of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), forcing her to flee to the East (arranging his release from East Berlin Stasi headquarters in the process).

The continuity of plot and the familiarity of almost all the characters makes it seem a little like a soap opera or long-running TV series like Friends or Scrubs. It feels like Deighton himself is confident and at ease enough with the characters to muck about, to play, to experiment with their behaviour, to explore their hinterlands more.

Bernard Samson’s private life

Samson’s private life is a mess. He is now single, in charge of two school age children and living in a sizeable house in West London with a nanny and a Portuguese cook. On his SIS salary he can’t afford to keep this up any more without Fiona’s income and trust fund, as his wealthy father-in-law is quick to brutally remind him (chapter 10), threatening to take him to court for custody of the children. the threat of a court case would bring Samson’s bosses into the picture, leaning on him to reach a settlement (ie cave in to his father-in-law) in order to avoid publicity about Fiona’s defection, which they have so far successfully suppressed.

Berlin childhood

Worth emphasising again that Samson’s big selling point, his distinctiveness as a character, comes from the fact that his father before him was in British Intelligence, based in Berlin – and that his dad didn’t send him back to England to a pukka public school. Instead Bernard went to school in Berlin a) making friends with a number of Berlin boys, many of whom have turned out to be handy contacts in adult life, b) coming to know Berlin like the back of his hand c) speaking German like a native and with an acute awareness of different accents and dialects.

We are told that he left school at 16 and didn’t go to university, hence the other consequence, d) his ingrained contempt for his public school and Oxbridge-educated colleagues in the Department, an amused contempt which is identical to the attitude of the narrator of Deighton’s early Ipcress novels.

Mexico

Why Mexico? For the slender reason that Werner Volkmann, Samson’s ‘oldest and closest friend’ (p.16) from his Berlin childhood, is on a second honeymoon there with his gimlet-eyed wife, Zena (the cynical 22-year-old who was briefly the mistress of Frank Harrington, the ageing head of the Department’s Berlin office, in the first novel). While there they spot the Berlin-based KGB officer who interrogated Samson at the climax of the first novel, one Erich Stinnes, in the club frequented by the German emigré community. This is enough, apparently, to prompt Samson and his boss, Dicky Cruyer, to fly to Mexico City where Cruyer – in the usual way of characters in this book – takes some time getting round to explaining to Samson that the Department want Samson to invite Stinnes to defect.

Volkmann has found out that Stinnes is connected to a well-off German businessman, Paul Biedermann. Samson schlepps out to Biedermann’s mansion by the ocean, only to find it deserted, to break in, and then a few hours later hide when Stinnes and a goon arrive. He (conveniently) overhears their conversation which amounts to an explanation that Biedermann is working for the KGB, before they get impatient and leave.

Based on all this, a few days later, Samson arranges via Biedermann to meet Stinnes again, at his seaside mansion, before the two men take drive out to sea in Biedermann’s luxury boat, and it is here that Samson makes his offer to Stinnes – money, a house, a new identity, what does he think? Stinnes says Yes, give him a month to round up the kind of information he knows London will want him to bring, and which will ensure his VIP treatment.

Back in Mexico City Samson’s shallow boss, Dicky, is well pleased with this result and goes sight-seeing and shopping for presents before they both fly back to London. But Samson, as ever, has misgivings. It was – as in the previous novel’s quick identification of the traitor Giles Trent – too easy.

In fact a third of the way into the book (p.132) the characters leave Mexico never to return and the action returns to the familiar office and home locations in London, and the guest house and various bars in Berlin which we are familiar with fro the first book.

Dramatis personae

Personal life

  • Bernard Samson – 40-something intelligence agent, sardonic, clever, tough.
  • Fiona – his wife who also worked in the Service and was revealed, in Berlin Game, to be a KGB agent, fled behind the Curtain.
  • Tessa – Fiona’s younger sister, posh, feisty, her marriage to George an art dealer is on the rocks, she fancies Bernard like mad.
  • George – Tessa’s husband, a self-made Polish immigrant used car salesman who Tessa has been serially unfaithful to.
  • Gloria Kent – luscious young secretary who Samson gets transferred to his office, as a joke takes to a dinner party at Dicky’s, who is initially very cross that she’s been manipulated but when Samson carries on being strictly professional over the following weeks, well, she falls in love with him 🙂

The Department

  • Richard ‘Dicky’ Cruyer – Controller of German stations, Oxford man, Samson’s immediate boss, fussy, self-interested.
  • Frank Harrington – pipe smoking, 60-year-old head of the Berlin Office (the job Bernard’s father had), in this novel we are told he regards himself as a kind of guardian to Samson.
  • Bret Rensselaer – mid-fifties, confident American (an American high up in MI6?), head of the Economics Intelligence Committee of SIS, sleek, suspicious. His plans took a knock with the defection of the agent called Brahms Four in the previous novel, upon whose steady flow of economic intelligence about the Russkies Bret had built a little empire within SIS.
  • Henry Tiptree – contemporary of Dicky’s at Balliol college, Oxford, and now SIS’s man in Mexico where he lends Dicky and Samson a notably clapped-out car, before mysteriously appearing 150 pages later in the Berlin boarding house Samson routinely stays in. Is he following Samson? Is he investigating him?
  • MacKenzie – the probationer in the Department, tasked by Samson with finding out who the nurse was who hijacked him, and who is discovered dead in the safe house in Bosham.
  • Sir Henry Clevemore – Director-General of the Department, who Samson thinks is more or less gaga.

His room was dim and smelled of leather chairs and dusty books that were piled upon them. The D-G sat by the window behind a small desk crowded with family photos, files, trays of paperwork and long-forgotten cups of tea. It was like entering some old Egyptian tomb to chat with an affable mummy… I suppose everyone had the same protective feeling when talking with the D-G. That’s no doubt why the department was something of a shambles. (p.323-324)

Sir Henry is made to be such a clapped-out figure of fun it slightly risks derailing the novel altogether into Carry On Spying territory. Odd.

Other characters

  • Werner Volkmann – Samson’s oldest friend from his Berlin childhood, big, bearlike, he runs a successful if unofficial import-export agency into East Berlin but is keen to work for (and be paid by) the Department.
  • Zena, Werner’s wife, young tough, ambitious. Show me the money.
  • Erich Stinnes – thin professional KGB man who was itching to ‘interrogate’ Samson in Stasi headquarters in Berlin in the first novel, but was restrained by the defecting mole, obviously his superior who, in the big revelation scene, turns out to be Samson’s wife, Fiona.

The plot

Like a game of chess the plot revolves around this key move of getting Stinnes to defect and what it would mean. We only actually meet him and hear him speak briefly. The vast majority of the narrative is given over to different permutations of characters discussing at great length whether: Stinnes is genuine KGB; whether he genuinely wants to defect; whether he is genuinely alienated by Fiona taking over as his boss in the East Berlin KGB, or whether Fiona is arranging for him to defect and take with him a load of misleading information.

While the will he/won’t he debate goes on, another layer of meaning opens up as colleagues suggest to him that Stinnes might defect and incriminate him, Samson, as in some way supporting and collaborating with his wife. He might be framed. Assuming he is innocent. Samson is shocked to realise that almost the whole department suspects him. In fact, it is obvious that Fiona’s defection will contaminate him; during 14 years of marriage, surely he suspected something. Samson is shocked when Frank Harrington, the man who keeps telling him he feels like a father to him and has tried to protect him – nakedly offers him encouragement to go now, leave from his Berlin house now, to the other side, before London traps him. Even Frank thinks he is a traitor.

But then the whole tenor of the book, the whole experience of reading it, is to be immersed in this wilderness of mirrors where absolutely everyone suspects everyone else all the time, and Samson is wandering through it, lying and deceiving like the others, simultaneously trying to read his colleagues multiple motives.

There are a handful of colourful events.

1. Samson offers a pretty young nurse struggling with her broken down car a lift to her hospital when she pulls out a hypodermic syringe full of poison and orders him to drive to Heathrow where he is astonished when Fiona gets into the back of the car. She offers him a deal: keep his hands off Stinnes and she will leave the children be, and not try to contact or snatch them (something which has been worrying Samson ever since her departure). When nurse and Fiona exit the car he is so stunned he needs time to work out the implications and so fails to report the incident to his bosses. Big mistake.

2. Samson tasks a keen young colleague to track down the nurse. This he does too well because Werner calls him from a safe house in Bosham, Sussex, where Samson arrives to find various female paraphernalia – definitely connected with the nurse (the syringes) possibly a place where Fiona has hidden and altered her appearance – and the corpse of the young apprentice who has been brutally and repeatedly shot.

3. Just after Frank Harrington makes his sheepish suggestion to Samson that he defect, now, while he still can, Harrington receives an official call that Biedermann has been stopped at Orly airport, Paris, carrying top secret NATO documents. Samson flies there and is allowed to see Biedermann and begins to realise it is a set-up. Bidermann had never seen the documents, the driver of the taxi which took him to the airport for a normal domestic flight to his Italian holiday home, came running after him and said Monsieur you left these in the taxi, thrusting them into Biedermann’s hands and he was going to turn them over to the cops or someone when he was himself arrested ‘on a tip-off’. Samson is pondering all this when a junior cop gives him sandwiches and a coffee to take into Biedermann which he does, then returns to the French inspector’s office who yells, sandwiches? coffee? for a suspect? And when they race down to the cell Biedermann is very dead from cyanide poisoning.

Prime suspect

Samson is recalled to London where he is subjected to a prolonged grilling by Bret, with Cruyer and Harrington and others in attendance. Their accusation is that he knew about Fiona. He is a fellow KGB spy. He has deliberately slowed down ‘enrolling’ Stinnes to in fact make it fail because Stinnes would incriminate him. Similarly, Biedermann knew too much about him which is why he murdered him. This long chapter airs all the possible permutations, all the ways of interpreting events up to this point though Samson eventually wriggles free by shouting them all down, shouting his innocence, and asserting the rule that a case officer continues with his case until formally dismissed. He is going to bring Stinnes in, and he gets up and walks out.

Mexico two

On page 345 (of the 380-page novel) we arrive back in Mexico City for the finale ie the planned defection of Stinnes. First Samson rendezvous with Werner and Zena: he is worried by how they both refer to Stinnes by his first name, Erich and Zena in particular seems fond of him. Then he meets up with Henry Tiptree, the upper class desk johnny who infuriates Samson by saying that he, Tiptree, has been given authority to manage the defection. To his horror he’s changed the rendezvous with Stinnes from busy Garibaldi Square to a private bank nearby.

Up rickety backstairs and through a steel door into a setup which is more a money-laundering racket than a bank, go Tiptree and Samson, the latter not at all surprised to find Zena there, assuming she’s come to get her claws on the money. This is counted out by the crooked owners of the bank as per Tiptree’s instructions but things go wrong with the sudden appearance of the big hood who accompanied Stinnes to Biedermann’s oceanside house all those weeks previously and has appeared by his side periodically, the brute Moskvin.

He and a sidekick pull out automatic weapons and tell everyone to put their hands on their heads. He is KGB and he has been ordered to execute Stinnes when he walks in. Is this Fiona’s doing, reaching out to kill her deputy all the way from Berlin? Zena reveals her part in the betrayal by pleading with Moskvin, saying they promised not to harm Stinnes. So it turns out she has been reporting back to the KGB all along. Steps slowly and ominously mount the stairs towards the steel door but Zena flips and attacks the kid with a machine gun like a wild cat. Moskvin steps over to punch her which gives Tiptree the opportunity to pull out a Browning pistol and shoot him in the leg.

The ominous footsteps turn out, comically, to be those of a little boy sent by Stinnes to find Samson and tell him he is waiting at the place they arranged. Samson grabs the money, leaving Tiptree pointing a gun at the others and with some explaining to do as and when the police arrive. He hops over the back wall ducks along an alley and finds Stinnes waiting in a taxi, and off to the airport they go, job done.

As this is the middle instalment of a trilogy, I imagine the full implications of this will become clear in the next book (as many of the implications of the first book only unfolded in this one).


Describing Mexico

Deighton’s descriptions of the sights and sounds and smells of Mexico City are full and persuasive: the oppressive humidity, the surrounding mountains and melodramatic scenery.

From [the balcony of Werner’s flat] was a view across this immense city, with the mountains a dark backdrop. The dying sun was turning the world pink, now that the stormclouds had passed over. Long ragged strips of orange and gold cloud were torn across the sky, like a poster advertising a smog-reddened sun ripped by a passing vandal. (p.15)

Or his impression of the jungle as he drives through it to Biedermann’s ocean front mansion.

The jungle stinks. Under the shiny greenery, and the brightly coloured tropical flowers that line the roadsides like the endless window displays of expensive florists, there is a squelchy mess of putrefaction that smells like a sewer. (p.30)

But dominating everything is the size and noise of the vast metropolis, the appalling smog, the vast tides of people, the canned music spurting from a hundred cheap radios, the garish street markets and the appalling food: Samson the foodie has an amusing prejudice against hispanic cuisine with its countless ways to recycle the same boring tacos and awful reheated bean sludge (in London Match he says: ‘my dislike of Spanish and Portuguese cooking is exceeded only by my dislike of the fiery stodge of Latin America’ (p.185)) , though even here he is never at a loss when it comes to food facts.

[Dicky] read the sign. ‘What are carnitas?’
‘Stewed pork. He’s serving it on chicharrones: pork crackling. You eat the meat, then you eat the plate.’ (p.61)

He may not have realised his wife was a KGB spy, but about food – as about German accents, the map of Berlin, guns, computers and the minutiae of KGB and wartime Nazi organisations – Samson is never wrong.

Expertise

Man of the world As pointed out in my review of Berlin Game, the thriller writer or his protagonist, need to show us he is a man of the world, an expert in many forms of knowledge, and so the text is dotted with offhand insights and knowing asides.

She had that chin-up stance that makes so many Mexicans look as if they are ready to balance a water jug on their heads. (p.23)

Paul Biedermann had become unreservedly American in a way that only Germans are able to do. (p.49)

It was, of course, that sort of evasive temporising that armchair psychologists call ‘displacement activity’. (p.51)

He stubbed out his cigarette. He had that American habit of stubbing them out half smoked. (p.294)

They all kept their hands on their heads, and they all had that patient and passive visage that makes the people of Latin America so recognisably different from the Latin people of Europe. (p.375)

Foodie We know Deighton has special knowledge and expertise when it comes to cookery and cuisine because of his successful cook books. No surprise, then, that his narrator is a knowledgable guide to the food of Mexico, and even more so, the tastes and aromas of Europe.

It was an old German custom to offer schnapps with the eel and use the final drain of it to clean the fingers. But like lots of German customs it was now conveniently discontinued. (p.240)

[The coffee] had that bitter smell of the high-roast coffee that the French like so much. (p.295)

War knowledge And as we know from his deeply researched histories of World War Two and the novels based on them, Deighton has an extraordinary knowledge of WWII history, weapons and hardware and, especially, organisational structures.

[The Russians had] gathered together the scattered remnants of SS unit Amt VI F, which from Berlin’s Delbruckstrasse – and using the nearby Spechthausen bei Eberswalde paper factory, and forgers housed in the equally nearby Oranienburg concentration camp – had supervised the manufacture of superb forgeries of everything from Swedish passports to British five-pound notes. (p.260)

Bureaucracy There are countless references to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Whitehall, to the endless delays of Civil Service bureaucracy, references to characters being worried about their pensions, and so on – the same humorous, long-suffering attitude of the Ipcress narrator.

Then there is the permanent thread of resentment Samson has against public school desk men, and the Oxbridge mafia – ‘those stony-faced Oxbridge men in London Central’ (p.298). There are frequent references to the nepotism and string-pulling which got a lot of their colleagues their jobs (unlike him, of course). It’s not a pose – Samson really doesn’t like these guys.

Morgan was a white-faced Welshman whose only qualification for being in the department were an honours degree in biology and an uncle in the Foreign Office. He looked at me as if I were an insect floating in his drink…. On the day I leave the department I’m going to punch Morgan in the nose. It is a celebration I’ve been promising myself for a long time. (p.309)

And office politics Almost more fatal than anything the KGB can pull is the complex backstabbing, alliance making and breaking, the manoeuvring and manipulation within his own little department, which is going on all the time and which actually makes up a lot of the text. In a sense very little happens in these novels, apart from a few florid scenes – kidnapping by the nurse, the dead body in the safe house, Biedermann poisoned in the cell. Only at the end is there a shootout and positively no car chases.

It is much more psychological than that. The book, both these books, are almost entirely about the rotating ever-shifting relations, the mistrustful probing and evasive conversations between Samson, Cruyer, Rensaeller and Harrington – all the rest is local colour or the minimum amount of events necessary to create a satisfying sense of conspiracy and skulduggery.

And cutting through it all is Samson’s resolute non-Oxford attitude, his contempt for the pipe-smoking, donnish desk jockeys who rule over him, and his sometimes comically crude assessments of what is really going on in the innumerable meetings, conversations and interrogations which the book is full of.

Good old Dicky… He’d realised that this might well turn out to be the opportunity he’d been waiting for; the opportunity to dump a bucket of shit over Bret’s head. (p.311)


Related links

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

Granada paperback edition of Mexico Match

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (1940)

This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven. (p.125)

In 1938 Greene was commissioned by the publisher Longman to go to Mexico to report on the revolutionary government’s repression of the Church and anti-clerical pogroms. The trip produced the factual travel book, The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, and the novel The Power and The Glory, in 1940.

A worldview finds a home

God, Greene must have been thrilled to bits when he saw Mexico. In London or Brighton, in a sensible well-organised civilised and boring country, Greene’s bleakly pessimistic worldview combined with his fondness for an atmosphere of menace and fear often seem more than a bit ludicrous.

In revolutionary Mexico, on the other hand, the sense of life’s futility, its cheapness, squalor and poverty, along with a constant menace from the revolutionary authorities, streaked through with a melodramatic heroism of the repressed Catholic church – this is the world he had been looking for, had been expressing in fiction for a decade – and it actually existed!

I’ve argued that his previous books had been themes and worldviews in search of a plot which could justify them – the bitterness, the horror and the menace expressed by characters and narrator in his first half dozen or so novels never really being justified by the small-scale, petty and often silly plot structures.

Here, in the brutal, poverty-stricken, violent, repressive, godforsaken south of Mexico, he found the living embodiment of everything he imagined, everything he loathed and feared and hated and which his fiction revels in: life at its most squalidly cheap and nasty; a cast of vicious, pathetic, defeated human animals set against a pitiless and abandoned landscape.

The Power and The Glory is routinely described as Greene’s first great novel. I am arguing it is ‘great’ because he has finally found a subject which justifies his obsessions and the bleak, cold-eyed style he had developed to express them.

As a small example: in these early novels the characters often feel uniquely cursed, as if they carry a blight, an evil fate around with them, like Pinkie in Brighton Rock or D. in The Confidential Agent who, as I’ve noted in a post on that novel, repeatedly uses the word ‘infection’ and typhoid to refer to himself. But the whisky priest is finally a character who can really justify the solipsistic self-pity so many Greene characters feel, for the army starts taking hostages from the poor villages where he passes and shooting them if no-one will betray him.

Nobody would stop him, saying a woman was ill or a man dying. He was a sickness now. (p.64)

He alone carried a wound, as though a whole world had died. (p.68)

A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him… Evil ran like malaria in his veins. (p.176)

Plot

There is no plot. The unnamed whisky priest has been hiding for ten years (!) while his colleagues are either shot by the authorities or give in and marry, abandoning their vows. The army, led by the unnamed lieutenant, are after him but not very hard.

For most of the novel there is no sequence of events linked by meaningful interactions, or unfolding of a plot. It is not even a chase, more of a trudge or traipse or godforsaken stumble through the jungle and landscape of southern Mexico in which the priest has encounters with various people. He covers hundreds of miles from the banana port where he tangles with Mr Tench the dentist, to his home village of Concepcion where the peasants are desperate to get rid of him, to some place where he sees the child (Coral) he fathered illegitimately – thus, oooh, placing himself in a state of mortal sin – then crossing some river, getting latched onto by a probably criminal half-breed, then on to the capital where he buys wine only to see it drunk by idiots and gets thrown into a squalid prison cell stuffed with crims, then back to the mud village.

Maybe it’s intended as a kind of parody of the Stations of the Cross but it’s more like Waiting For Godot in that, at every one of his stopping points he loses a belonging: his missal, his smart clothes, his wine, finally the last scraps of writing he has. He staggers blindly scores of miles accompanied by an Indian woman he can’t communicate with, who’s carrying the corpse of her three year-old son, murdered by some Yankee gunshooter. Slowly, steadily the protagonist is humiliated and stripped of all dignity until he is reduced to a bestial level, sucking the moisture from his wet trousers, fighting with a crippled dog about a bone with some raw meat still on it.

The text is divided into four parts, the first and longest two describing his steady deterioration on the run. In part three there is an interlude: he stumbles over a civilised plantation run by two German Lutherans, where is is fed and rested and recuperates. He is given money and food and is actually on the mule which will take him north to the city in the next state, to safety and lights and civilisation, when the mestizo from earlier in the novel appears like an evil daemon to tell him the Yankee gunshooter is lying dying and has asked for confession. He knows it is a trap, but the whisky priest goes, nonetheless.

It is a trap – the Yankee is there but dies absurdly without giving confession or receiving the last rites. In every possible way Greene makes his priest a failure. The army lieutenant, who was lying in wait, takes him back to the capital, they have some pseudo-philosophical discussions, but then the priest is locked in a cell to drink the last of the brandy and cry with fear.

Part Four uses the same technique as the final part of A Gun For Sale, namely it’s a short round-up of the fate of all the minor characters in the text: which has the modishly distancing affect of showing that life goes on (in what Greene sees as its silly tawdry way): Captain and Mrs Fellows bicker about whether to go back to England; the unnamed peasant mother finishes reading the life of a young martyr to her impressionable children. The heart of this alienation or distancing technique, is that Mr Tench the dentist who we met on the first page, is doing dental work of the chief of police at the moment the whisky priest is executed, and we witness the execution through his eyes, as he looks down from the chief’s office into the courtyard.

And in the final paragraphs, late one night, to the house of the believing woman, arrives in the final sentences of the novel – another anonymous priest. The Church’s work goes on! Although I didn’t enjoy a lot of what went before, the sheer theatricality of these final passages and the boom boom ending give a rewarding sense of completeness.

Characters

Greene is skilled at creating vivid characters with deft pen portraits of their physical appearances.

The lieutenant walked in front of his men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol-holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city. (p20)

The Chief of Police came breezily in, a stout man with a pink fat face, dressed in white flannels with a wide-awake hat and a cartridge-belt and a big pistol clapping his thigh. He held a handkerchief to his mouth: he was in distrees. ‘Toothache again,’ he said. (p.21)

The old man sat [the renegade priest] on a packing-case in the little dry patio. He was very fat and short of breath; he panted a little as if after great exertion in the heat… He wore only a shirt and trousers; his feet were bare, but there remained something unmistakably clerical in his manner. Forty years of the priesthood had branded him. (p.28)

[The mestizo] was wearing a shirt, a pair of white trousers, and gym shoes through which one big toe showed – plump and yellow like something which lives underground. He scratched himself under the armpits and came chummily up to the priest’s stirrup. (p.86)

On the first floor a man dressed in formal dark trousers and a white skin-tight vest came out of a bedroom with a towel over his shoulder. He had a little grey aristocratic beard and he wore braces as well as a belt. (p.106)

Theology and existentialism

I’m not interested in the Catholic ‘theology’. In Greene’s hands it’s mostly morbid self-pity dressed up as principle. Eg:

Why should anyone listen to his prayers? Sin was a constriction which prevented their escape; he could feel his prayers weigh him down like undigested food. (p.151)

‘Theologically’, I think this is meaningless. Dramatically, it is yet another of the thousands of ways, of phrases, Greene uses to make the priest feel sorry for himself.

I was more struck by the way the novel creates an archetypal landscape, a symbolic landscape, depicting man’s abandonment in a godless universe etc, a very existentialist notion, very of its time, very dated. And an idea, like many of the others in the book, which is rammed home by repetition.

He bellowed after [the departing boat], but it wasn’t any good: there was no sign of a [anaesthetising] cylinder anywhere on the quay. He shouted once again, and then didn’t trouble any more. It didn’t matter so much after all: a little additional pain was hardly noticeable in the general abandonment. (p.18)

He knew what it meant: the ship had kept to timetable: he was abandoned. (p.19)

Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star. (p.30)

There was a sense of abandonment, as if he had given up every struggle from now on and lay there a victim of some power…(p.96)

It was an odd thing that ever since that hot and crowded night in the cell he had passed into a region of abandonment… (p.147)

It was loneliness he felt now – even the face had gone, he was moving alone across thatblank white sheet, gong deeper every moment into the abandoned land. (p.157)

His head drooped between his knees; he looked as if he had abandoned everything and been abandoned. (p.205)

Greene manufactures characters by giving them a handful of fictitious memories which the text then adverts to again and again to create a spurious sense of personality. Something similar might be said of the ‘themes’ of the novel: that repeating them is an attempt to deepen them, to give them more meaning. Not for me. They remain outdated clichés, like Dickens’ sexless heroines or Fielding’s hearty squires: they are sociological constructs of the era – the conflicted 1930s – which we look back at with interest and detachment.

The Greene Creeps

Greene is never happier than when nosing out pain and suffering and humiliation and shame and embarrassment and squalor and seediness and sexual failure and bitten fingernails and balding scalps and bad teeth and then recklessly using these as ‘proof’ of the whole universe’s beastly heartlessness.

[His father’s dental cast] had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tries to tempt him with meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere. (p.12)

It infuriated [the lieutenant] to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew. (p.25)

The novel gives hundreds of instances, great and small, of people’s shabby physical appearance and sordid behaviour. A high/low point in Greene’s love of the squalid is when the priest is stuffed into a prison cell crammed with people and reeking from the overflowing bucket of faeces, and he hears the unmistakable moaning of a woman as somewhere in the filthy stinking darkness a couple have sex.

Details

I don’t much like the lengthy theological self-pity, and find a lot of the dwelling on squalor so pathological as to be unintentionally funny. But what I enjoy most about Greene’s novels is the attention to detail: the deft character creation from a few strokes, the handful of details which create a locale, the steady stream of arresting details. Details expressed in clear, uninflected language, details which leap from the page carrying complete conviction, details which indicate how deeply Greene has imagined the scene.

Suddenly, out of the forest, a hundred yards away, an officer rode. In the absolute stillness you could hear the creaking of his revolver-holster as he turned and waved. (p.72)

A rout of pigs came rushing round the corner of a hut, taking no notice of anybody. The soldier finished his puttee and stood up. The sunlight coming up above the forest winked on the bottles of the gaseosa stall. (p.77)

The mestizo watched the mules pick their way along the narrow stony path with a look of wistful greed; they disappeared round a shoulder of rock – crack, crack, crack, the sound of their hooves contracted into silence. (p.184)

As Evelyn Waugh pointed out: Greene has a very unsensual use of language, no particular use of symbolism, no unusual vocabulary. All is plain and blunt and limpid. It is the arrangement of the aperçus, of the detailing, their quick juxtaposition, the lack of linking passages, almost like cuts between shots in a movie, which give Greene’s prose its imaginative power.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory: illustration by Paul Hogarth

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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