The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Central ideas

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Last thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

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