Cindy Sherman @ the National Portrait Gallery

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

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

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

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

Chronological order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled Film Stills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bigger

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

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

Later series

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

Rear Screen Projections (1980-1)

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

Centrefolds (1981)

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

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

Pink Robes (1982)

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

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

Fashion (1983)

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

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

Vogue Paris (1984)

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

Fairy Tales (1985)

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

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

History Portraits (1988-90)

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

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

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

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

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

Sex Pictures (1992)

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

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

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

Office Killer (1997)

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

Clowns (2003-4)

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

Society Portraits (2008)

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

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

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

Balenciaga (2008)

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

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

Chanel (2012)

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

Flappers (2016-18)

Sherman dresses up as flappers from the 1920s.

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

For completists

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video

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


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Lee Krasner: Living Colour @ Barbican Art

‘I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.’ Lee Krasner

On 11 ‎August 1956 the world-famous artist and leader of the school of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, crashed his Oldsmobile convertible while driving drunk. His wife of 11 years, Lee Krasner, also an accomplished artist, heard the news while away in Europe, and hurried home to New York to sort out the arrangements for his funeral and Pollock’s affairs.

Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, New York City, where she was working on a WPA commission (c. 1940) Photo by Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c.1905-1984

She moves into the big barn

Ten years earlier, and soon after marrying (in 1945), the couple had moved to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island, and bought a wood-frame house and barn, which they converted into studios.

Of the buildings at their disposal, Pollock had early on nabbed the biggest available space – the barn – as a studio, and it was here that he created many of the masterpieces that made his name in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Sometime in 1957, the year after his death, Krasner moved Pollock’s paints and equipment out of the big barn and her own stuff in, and began to paint in the largest space she’d ever had at her disposal.

The result is a decade’s worth of quite extraordinarily powerful and enormous abstract paintings which make up the core of the major retrospective of Lee Krasner’s art, which is currently being held at the Barbican Centre in London. They are absolutely stunning. Breathtaking. Wonderful. Huge!

Installation view of Another Storm (1963) by Lee Krasner at the Barbican. Photo by the author

A light and airy space

For this exhibition the Barbican has removed some of the partitions which usually divide up the main ground floor exhibition space, and also removed some of the temporary walls which previously concealed wall-sized windows in the exhibition shop and at the end of the main gallery. The combined effect of this decluttering is to make the big central space (technically ‘room 10’ of the exhibition) feel long and bright and airy. From the moment you arrive at the ticket desk, the new lighter, brighter space feels like the perfect environment in which to hang Krasner’s huge and awe-inspiring works.

It is a genuinely uplifting and life-affirming experience to wander among these paintings, I felt like a mortal wandering dazzled through a mansion of the gods.

Siren by Lee Krasner (1966) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver

Her early years in self portraits

The exhibition is arranged in broadly chronological order, and you are directed to start on the upper floor of the Barbican galleries, which houses eight living-room-sized spaces. These eight rooms take us from Krasner’s birth, in 1908, in New York, into a family of Orthodox Jewish Russian émigrés, and onto the early art school training she got (at the Women’s Art School at Cooper’s Union, Art Students League, National Academy of design. From her student days there’s a room of self-portraits in oil, which are OK.

Nudes classical and modern

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (when she was 21) Krasner began training as a teacher and attended life school classes. On one wall of room four are the extremely accomplished nude studies she did in the style of the Renaissance Masters in 1933 – very accomplished, very traditional. On the opposite wall is a selection of charcoal nudes she did just six years later, in 1939, which are completely different in style, riven by big abstract angular lines, showing a complete assimilation of European modernist trends.

By 1942 she was a respected member of New York’s artistic community. She had been included in an exhibition of contemporary painting in New York alongside friends Willem de Kooning and Stuart French. Piet Mondrian admired her work. As a result she was given a number of commissions by President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, including a job to oversee the design and execution of twenty department-store window displays in Manhattan advertising war training courses. She adopted a cut-up-and-paste collage approach, and room five shows blow-ups of photos of these wartime artworks. Well, sort of interesting as a) social history b) if you really a completist looking for evidence of every step of her artistic development.

The Little Images

She knew most of the exhibitors in that 1942 show except one, a guy named Jackson Pollock, so she dropped round to his Greenwich Village studio to seek him out and say hi. One thing led to another and they were married in 1945. They moved to the farm on Long Island and, in the winter of 1947, Krasner embarked on what became known as the ‘Little Images’ series, abstract paintings made up of tightly meshed squares and shapes which some critics described as ‘hieroglyphic’. Rooms one and two kick off the show with some fine examples of these ‘Little Images’ and it’s amazing what a variety of design and visual effect you can achieve from such a seemingly simple premise.

Composition (1949) by Lee Krasner © Philadelphia Museum of Art

The collage paintings

Krasner was given her first one-woman show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in October 1951. The work didn’t sell and, although she began a new series soon afterwards, she quickly became despondent and ended up tearing some of the new work to shreds in frustration.

Weeks later, returning to the studio, she realised that the torn strips lying about on the floor got her juices flowing. Quickly she began incorporating them into a new series of collages. She layered pieces of fabric over the paintings shown at the Betty Parsons show, adding pieces of burlap, torn newspaper, heavy photographic paper and some of Pollock’s discarded drawings. The resulting ‘collage paintings’ were exhibited in another gallery show in 1955, and there are several rooms of them on display here.

Blue Level (1955) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Diego Flores

Strikingly different from the ‘Little Images’, aren’t they? The very tightly-wound hieroglyphs of the Images are completely different from the violently torn strips of the collages.

Prophecies

In the summer of 1956 Krasner began work on a new series. The dominant tone of pink made me think of human flesh and nudes, but nudes severely chopped up and filtered via Demoiselles d’Avigon-era Picasso.

The first example of this new style was on Krasner’s easel when she left for France that summer. In the first half of their marriage, her husband’s career had gone from strength to strength, peaking around 1951, as he became world famous for his ‘drip paintings’, getting on the front cover of Time magazine, promoted by the American government as a home-grown genius, snapped up by collectors. But when, after 1951, Pollock tried to change this winning formula, he met with incomprehension and sales slumped. Pollock lost confidence, his drinking increased, he began an affair, which Krasner knew about, in early ’56.

That was the troubled background to the first of these flesh paintings and then – mid-way through her visit to Europe, she got the call that he had died in the car crash. Just weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to the style and quickly made three more big, torn-up flesh paintings which she titled Prophecy, Birth, Embrace and Three In Two.

In the last room of the first floor of the exhibition, these four paintings are reunited, one hanging on each of the four walls, and it is impossible not to be powerfully affected by their eerie, agonised power.

Prophecy (1956) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Christopher Stach

The night journeys

So Jackson dies and Lee moves into the big barn studio and she is afflicted with insomnia and can only work at night, and she decides not to use any colour in her new paintings because she prefers to judge colours by daylight – and so, from the late 1950s, Krasner began to make a series of paintings combining just black and umber and creamy white onto huge, unstretched canvases.

Wow! These are great swirling, turd-coloured pieces, full of energy and despair. A poet friend of hers labelled them ‘Night Journeys’ and to follow any of the angled, curved or circular lines which strike across the surface is, indeed, to go on a churning, bitter journey though a landscape in torment.

Polar Stampede (1960) by Lee Krasner. Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Krasner exhibited these big brown works in 1960 and 1962 to critical praise, and half a dozen of them dominate the first half of the enormous ground floor space in this show. You can stand in front of them, or there are benches where you can sit down, meditate on them, and be drawn into their drama and action.

Primary series

But the jewel in the crown is the Primary series. In the early 1960s Krasner replaced umber with a range of vivid primary colours. When she broke her right arm in a fall, she taught herself to work with her left, squirting paint directly from the tube, using her right hand to guide the movements.

Critics often use the word ‘gesture’ or ‘gestural’ but in this case it really is justified. As you follow the great sweeping arcs and patterns of paint, and note their dribbles and dynamic interactions, you can almost feel and see the great sweeps of the arm they must have required, the leaning of the whole body, the straining, the movement from one zone of focus to the next. They are extraordinarily vibrant and exciting paintings.

Icarus (1964) by Lee Krasner. Thomson Family Collection, New York © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Diego Flores

I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. I wandered up and down the central room, enjoying all the views of the works offset against each other, glimpsed behind the one central supporting wall of the main exhibition space, addressed front on, strolled past, studied up close, looked at from the other side of the room.

Wow! What a space, and what works of staggering brilliance to fill them with!

Later works

The Umber paintings and the Primary series cover the decade from the late 50s to the late 60s. What a brilliant decade it was for her.

Then, in 1968 Krasner discovered a stash of handmade paper in the farmhouse, and decided to make a new series of works, on a much, much, much smaller scale. She decided to experiment by making each of these small, crafted works from just one or two pigments. A dozen or so of them are in a room off to one side (room 11).

They require a completely different way of looking. Much more conventional in size they require the viewer to step forwards and examine the detail, rather than step back and admire the scale, as with the Primary series.

The dozen or so examples on display here are all lovely – free-spirited dances of colour, and interplays of defined brushstrokes against broader washes, all given a wonderful background texture by virtue of the expensive paper they’re painted on.

Untitled (1969) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York

In the early 1970s, Krasner made a significant step change in style. Still completely abstract, her works changed from soft biomorphic shapes to hard-edged abstract forms. I found them a shock to the system after the huge works in the central hall.

I liked even less the works in the final room, dating from 1974. In that year she stumbled across a portfolio of work from her art school days, the kind of angular nude studies which we saw examples of way back in room four.

Now Krasner took a pair of scissors to these early studies and cut them up into jagged shapes. Most of the source material was black and white drawings, but she interspersed some coloured strips into the collages, and also left other areas blank, apparently ‘echoing the empty space around the nude model’ which had served as the subject for many of the original drawings.

They were exhibited in 1977 under the title Eleven Ways To Use The Words To See. I didn’t warm to them.

Imperative (1976) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

No, I went back up to the first floor and walked back through the eight rooms soaking up the evolution of those early works and admiring, in particular, the ‘Little Images’ series. And I revisited the rooms holding these later 1970s works, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — but all the time I just wanted to go back into the massive main gallery space and be swept off my feet and ravished all over again by the huge, vibrant, dancing works of the 1960s.

Summary

This is the first European retrospective of Lee Krasner’s career for over 50 years. It brings together nearly 100 works from some 50 galleries, institutions and  private collections. It must have been a labour of love to assemble them all, and was totally worth it.

The exhibition ends with a 15-minute video made up from various interviews with Krasner towards the end of her life. She was one tough lady, and she told it like it was, still, in her 70s, harbouring a bitter resentment at the sexism of the New York art world which she had to combat all her career.

If you start reading up about her life you quickly find people claiming that, far from being overshadowed by her famous husband, Krasner was in fact the driving force behind his career. And, from some of the interviews, you get the impression that, having seen what really high-profile high pressure publicity did to an artist (Pollock), she was quite content to avoid that level of scrutiny, and just get on with what she loved doing.

The publicity material accompanying the exhibition quotes the playwright Edward Albee commenting at her memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that in both her life and her work, Krasner ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’.

That seems a perfect description of both a tough lady, and of her extraordinarily resolute, exuberant and unsentimental art.

A short film about Lee Krasner


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Frank Bowling @ Tate Britain

‘Just throw the paint, Spencer!’
(Frank Bowling to his assistant, Spencer Richards, as told by Richards on the exhibition’s visitor audioguide)

This is a really good exhibition. Bowling isn’t a genius – this show doesn’t compare with the van Gogh exhibition downstairs at Tate Britain – but he is a consistently interesting and experimental artist, who has produced a steady stream of big, colourful and absorbing paintings. I found it hard to finally leave, and kept going back through the rooms to look again at the best paintings in the show.

Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling is a black British artist. He is still going strong, painting every day at the ripe old age of 85.

Frank Bowling. Photo by Alastair Levy

Bowling was born in Guyana in 1934 and moved to England with his parents in 1950, when he was 15. After experimenting with poetry, and doing his National Service, Bowling decided to pursue a career in art and studied at the Royal College of Art. His contemporaries were David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Peter Phillips. In fact, at graduation in 1962, Hockney was awarded the gold medal while Bowling was given the silver.

Back in those early years he was caught up in the expectation that he would be a ‘black’ artist and concern himself with colonial and post-colonial subjects – an expectation, he admits in modern interviews, that he at first played along with, doing a painting of African politician Patrice Lumumba and in 1965 at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senegal, winning the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts.

It was only when he moved to New York in the mid-1960s that Bowling discovered the light and space and artistic freedom of contemporary American art. Encouraged by American critics, he changed his style, adopting the prevailing mode of abstract art, alongside the likes of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

As Bowling’s assistant, Spencer Richards, tells us on the visitor’s audioguide: ‘he didn’t want to be hemmed in by race and origins and that kind of stuff.’

This is the first major retrospective ever held of Bowling’s work in Britain. The gallery says it is ‘long overdue’ and seeing that he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005 and awarded an OBE as long ago as 2008, it does seem extraordinary that this is the first major retrospective devoted to his work.

Nine rooms

The exhibition is in straightforward chronological order. It is divided into nine rooms each of which addresses a particular phase or style. But as I’ll explain later, in fact the show can be divided into two halves – flat surfaces, and gunky, gooey, three-D surfaces.

Room 1 Early work

This selection of early paintings includes works heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, the number one British artist in the early 1960s. Blurred figures trapped in cages look as if they’ve just been blasted by radiation.

Other early works use geometric patterns, referencing the Op Art (i.e. the playful use of geometric shapes) of Bridget Riley.

This room features some examples from a series he did using the motif of a swan, its neck and head realistic, but its body exploding, as it were, into abstraction, set against neat geometrical figures – note the orange and green concentric circles which have kind of melted, to the right of the swan’s body. If you look closely you can see that Bowling has mashed real bird feathers into the bloody, messy splurge of pain on the right. Unsettling.

Swan 1 (1964) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Room 2 Photographs into paintings

It was the Swinging Sixties. The room contains the original Observer magazine front cover of a Japanese model in a Mary Quant dress typical of the period.

Cover Girl (1966) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Very reminiscent of David Hockney’s kind of ‘wrecked Pop Art’ of the period i.e. taking images from fashion and pop culture and kind of smearing and subverting them. More obvious is the ghostly outline of the house at the top. What is that? It is based on a photo of the big house which contained the Bowling family business (Bowling’s Variety Store) back in his home town of New Amsterdam, Guyana.

A friend sent Bowling the photo (the original is on display in one of the several display cases devoted to notes and letters and magazines and other ephemera which shed light on his career) and he used it obsessively in a whole series of paintings which contain the house motif superimposed on maps and abstract shapes. We can guess that this obsessive repetitiveness derives from a psychological need on the part of the artist to revisit the house, and by extension, the land of his parents. On the other hand – maybe it is just a powerful image or motif which he was interested in placing in different paintings, juxtaposing with other images to create the dynamism and energy of any collage.

Room 3 The map paintings

These are enormous. Suddenly we are in a huge white room on the walls of which are hung some truly enormously huge paintings. They are made of acrylic paint on flat canvas. In the second half of the 1960s Bowling was in New York and liberated by the scale and ambition of American painting, especially the abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.

Just like them, the works are enormous and almost abstract, covered in great washes of paint, to create dynamic forcefields of colour.

Installation View of Frank Bowling at Tate Britain. Photo by Matt Greenwood

The gallery guide points out that almost all of them contain maps and that they mark ‘Bowling’s rejection of the western-centric cartography of many world maps’. I think this is wrong, and a typical attempt to shoehorn politically correct sentiment into the art. It stands to reason that many of the paintings feature a map of South America. Bowling is from Guyana which is in South America. And some of the others feature the ghostly stencilled outline of Africa. Ultimately he is of African heritage.

But quite a few of the others – like Dog Daze (1971, on the left in the photo above) feature a map of the entire world, laid out according to standard convention, exactly as you see it in any atlas or poster – with the Americas at the left, then the Atlantic, then Eurasia with Africa dangling down. Not subverting or rejecting anything in particular. I bought the audioguide to the exhibition and this contains quite a few quotes from the man himself, and Bowling makes it perfectly clear time and again, that his art is not about a ‘subject’.

Art is to do with painting colour and structure

If there are maps in the huge map paintings it is not to make the kind of politically correct, left-wing, political point which the curators want him to make. It is because they offer a motif around which the art can constellate and come into being. It enables the art. Its force is not political, it is imaginative.

For sure maps can be given meanings. I can paint an outline of Africa and declare it is ‘about’ slavery. Or empire and colonialism. Or oppression. Or poverty. Or the fight for independence. or about war. Or about dance and music. Or about anything I want it to ‘mean’. Then again, maps may just be shapes and patterns which are interesting and stimulating, as shapes, as a well-remembered shapes from schooldays, but which carry precisely as much freight and meaning as the viewer wishes to give them.

Some of these works are stunning, comparable to the Rothko room at Tate Modern, big enough for the visitor to fall into, to meditate on, to create a mood of profound calm and wonder.

At one end of the room is a stunning work titled Polish Rebecca, dating from 1971. You can make out the stencilled shape of South America at the centre and the wall label tells us that the Rebecca in question was a Polish Jewish friend of Bowling’s, and that the work is a meditation on the shared history of the African and Jewish diaspora – revealing ‘Bowling’s interest in the way identities are shaped by geo-politics and displacement’.

To me this is reading the liberal political concerns of 2019 back into a painting from 48 years ago. Maybe it is so. Maybe not. What’s not in doubt is that it is a stunning composition, dominated all the tints and shades of purple, the strange beguiling white feathering effect spreading up the west coast of South America, and the random swishes of green, blue and orange paint. In the flesh this enormous painting is utterly entrancing.

Polish Rebecca (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtest of the Dallas Museum of Art © Frank Bowling

Room 4 The poured paintings

As if to prove that Bowling is more interested in art than in bien-pensant, liberal, progressive political theory, the next room is devoted to paintings with absolutely no figurative content. He set up a tilting platform that allowed him to pour paint from heights of up to two metres. As the paint hit the canvas it cascaded down in streams of mingling colour.

Ziff (1974) by Frank Bowling. Private collection, London, courtesy of Jessica McCormack © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Structured accident, not unlike the spatter paintings of Jackson Pollock and then the hundreds of random spurting spattering throwing flicking shooting artists of the experimental 1960s and 70s. The titles also became less meaningful, more accidental, referencing people who were in his thoughts or events during the day, totally random.

Room 5 – Cosmic Space

Each new room has been marked by technical experimentation. In this once are works from the later 1970s where he began a set of further experiments. He began using ammonia and pearlessence, and applied splotches of paint by hand, producing marbling effects. He embraced accidents, which sometimes hardened into mannerisms. For example it was at this time that he took to leaving buckets of pain on the surface of the wet canvas, creating a circular ridge.

In Ah Susan Whoosh Bowling added water, turpentine and ammonia to the acrylic paint to create complicated chemical reactions. He poured the paint directly onto the canvas and then manipulated it with a squeegee. The technique forced him to work quickly, making strategic decisions to exploit the random combination of elements. It’s testimony to his skill that so many of these works, created under demanding conditions, with little or no planning, come out looking so haunting and powerful.

Ah Susan Whoosh (1981) by Frank Bowling. Private Collection, London

No reproduction can convey the shiny metallic tint of many of the colours, the sparkle on the surface of the paintings, which changes as you walk around them.

Three D

This brings me to the big divide in Bowling’s career which I mentioned at the start. The first four or five rooms are full of works where the paint lies more of less flat on the canvas. But in latter part of his career, from about 1980, and certainly in the last four rooms, Bowling’s canvases become thick and clotted three-dimensional artefacts.

He started using acrylic gel to create waves and ridges of colour and goo. And he started embedding objects in the paint. At first he used acrylic foam, cut into long strips, creating zoomorphic swirls and spirals.

In fact the ribbed nature of this foam reminded me a bit of fish skeletons, and the way some of these skeletal ruins emerge from a thick goo of paint, reminded me sometimes of the movie Alien. According to the wall labels:

Bowling also started to use a range of other materials and objects in his work. He applied metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, beeswax and glitter to his densely textured surfaces. In several works, found objects such as plastic toys, packing material, the cap of a film canister and oyster shells are embedded within the paint. These items are rarely fully visible but add to the complexity and mysterious quality of the work.

Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984–6) by Frank Bowling. Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Spreadout Ron Kitaj is so named because the artist Ron Kitaj saw an exhibition of Bowling’s works in 1986 and got in touch. Bowling describes the strips of acrylic foam he embeds in the surface of works like that as ‘the ribs of the geometry from which I work.’ The painting also includes shredded plastic packing material, plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells. It’s not one of the best works here – its effect is too dark and dingy for me – but it’s very typical of his modus operandi.

Room 7 – Water and Light

In 1989 Bowling went back to his childhood home in Guyana, accompanied by one of his sons. He immediately noticed the quality of the light in South America.

‘When I looked at the landscape in Guyana, I understood the light in my pictures is a very different light. I saw a crystalline haze, maybe an East wind and water rising up into the sky. It occurred to me for the first time, in my fifties, that the light is about Guyana. It is a constant in my efforts’ (1992).

As you might expect, the trip resulted in works which try to capture the effect, using Bowling’s (by now) trademark effects of acrylic gel swept into ridges, themselves arranged in very loose box or square shapes.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams 1989 Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

From the later 1960s Bowling had studios in London and New York. His London studio is in East London and here he has made a series of paintings titled Great Thames which do just that – reference the mighty river Thames, invoking the long line of landscape painters who Bowling is well aware of – Gainsborough, Turner and John Constable.

In the way they adapt his by now trademark use of gel to create boxes and ridges, scattered with metallic pigments, scored and indented with all manner of objects found around the studio and pressed into the surface – nonetheless, the Great Thames paintings on display here prompt comparisons with Monet – not so much in technique or even in aim, but in the shimmering evocativeness of the finished product.

Great Thames IV (1989-9) by Frank Bowling. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Room 8 – Layering and stitching

In the 1990s, Bowling continued to work with acrylic paint and gel and continued to experiment with incorporating different materials and objects into his paintings. he experimented with stitching canvases together and attaching the main canvas to brightly-coloured strips of secondary canvas, to create a distinct border to the work.

 

He took this further by cutting up earlier canvases, and stapling sections together, juxtaposing different paint applications and colours. Like the many found objects embedded in the gloop, this stitching is very evident and all tends towards emphasising the materiality of the work of art. And, in some sense, its contingency. It is like this. But it needn’t have been like this. Meditate not only on the work. But on the arbitrariness and contingency which leads to the work.

Girls in the City (2017) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Girls in the City was made by stitching together seven individually stretched canvases. You can still see the vaguely square, ‘brick’-like shapes he creates using raised ridges of acrylic gel. But to that element of boxness, is added a more literal boxiness created by the piece’s assemblage from smaller parts. He is quotes as saying the works from this period were ‘organised in the way people structure themselves, in the way we are’ – presumably, assembled from lots of disparate elements.

Room 9 Explosive experimentation

This last room is devoted to works made over the past ten years. My first reaction was I didn’t like them so much. Nowadays confined to a sitting position, Bowling has used assistants to help him, and has continued his experimentation. He uses washes of thin paint, poured paint, blotched paint, stencilled applications, the use of acrylic gels, the insertion of found objects, and stitching together of different sections of canvas.

This results in what, for me, are rather a departure from the work of the previous three or so rooms. In a work like Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton the stitching is very much on display, in the sense that the canvas with the great pink crescent on it has been roughly chopped in half and stitched onto another canvas underneath, which appears to consist of a regular pattern of coloured stripes which provide a striking ‘interval’ between the top and bottom halves, and also, when you come to look at it, a frame around the ‘main’ canvas. And that’s before you get round to processing the complicated imagery, the vibrant colours and the scoring and striking into the surface, which characterise the ‘main’ image.

Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton (2017) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2018

I think that I was still too in thrall to the box or square gel ridge shapes of the earlier works, still processing the effect of them, to really appreciate these more recent works. Maybe you need to visit the exhibition several times to really absorb Bowling’s variety and inventiveness. These last works seem to be going somewhere completely new. I hope he lives long enough to show us where.

Summary

The works in the first part of the show are interesting and good, but often feel very much of their time like the Swinging Sixties cover girl and other works which feel like mash-ups of Hockney, Bacon, Kitaj with patches of Op Art thrown in.

The enormous map paintings – some of them over seven yards long – riffing off the abstract expressionists, are very powerful and absorbing in their own right.

The poured paintings reminded me a bit of school art projects. An interesting idea but the results weren’t that great.

It is only when Bowling starts working with acrylic gel and metallic tints, and embedding foam and then all kinds of objects into the surfaces of his paintings, that something weird and marvellous happens to his works.

Words cannot convey the rich and strange results of these experiments. The dense gloop, the metallic tints, and the strange clotted surfaces, alive with all sorts of half-buried objects, create enticing effects. I walked back and forth through the show half a dozen times or more and each time one particular painting stood out more and more strongly – spoke to me.

Philoctetes’ Bow (1987) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery © Frank Bowling

This reproduction in no way conveys the richness of the colour of this huge painting (it is 1.8 metres tall by 3.6 metres wide; it would cover most of the wall of an average sitting room).

And also doesn’t convey the way the long curve along the bottom which dominates it, actually sits proud of the surface. It is a characteristic slice of acrylic foam which also looks like a long, thin strip of corrugated cardboard. It not only creates the composition, but it projects it forward off the wall, and into your imagination. I kept being drawn back to look at it again and again, to sit in the bench placed in front of it precisely so the visitor can let it permeate every cell of your imagination.

Wow! What an amazing body of work.

Demographics

When I arrived at 10.30 the exhibition was almost empty. When I walked slowly through it at 12.30, there were 38 visitors, including me – 12 men and 26 women. There were no black or Asian people at all. The only two black faces belonged to two of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’. There were half a dozen or so teenagers who seemed to be on a school trip, and one or two 20-somethings. The rest of us were white, middle-aged, grey-haired old dudes. Which reinforces the impression I’ve gained from reviewing some 150 art exhibitions: the gallery-going public in London is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, old or retired, and two-thirds female.

Curators

Frank Bowling is curated by Elena Crippa, Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art and Laura Castagnini, Assistant Curator.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes @ the Photographers’ Gallery

‘The fact that I never had a family, a place or a story that defined me, inspired a need in me to join the community of mankind. I did so by inventing a poetic form linking this community, at least symbolically, in my imagination, through this form.’ (Dave Heath)

This is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the work of American photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016).

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath started taking photos towards the end of his stint in the Korean War (1950-53). All his photos from Korea ignore battlefield heroics, firefights, explosions and hardware – instead showing the average grunt as isolated individuals caught in moments of thought, looking down, looking sad.

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

And this is the sensibility he brought back to civilian life. Of the 109 photos on display here, I only saw three where the subject is smiling or laughing. The other hundred and six show individuals or couples looking moody, intense, sullen, lost in thought. Inhabitants of solitude. Aficionados of introspection.

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Even the handful of photos which aren’t of people, but of buildings or the sidewalk, manage to make them look lost in thought and downbeat. The result is tremendously atmospheric if, on occasion, a bit samey.

Biography

The downbeat tone was set early in Heath’s life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to very young parents who abandoned him at the age of four after which he was sent to a series of foster homes before being placed in an orphanage. From then on he carried a sense of loss and abandonment which he projected, very successfully, onto everything around him.

Heath became interested in photography as a teenager, and joined an amateur camera club. He read the photo essays in Life magazine and cites one in particular as having a decisive impact on his future. Bad Boy’s Story by Ralph Crane depicted the emotional experiences of a young orphan not unlike young Heath.

In a flash Heath realised that photography could be a means of self-expression, a way of shaping the external world to fit his experiences, and a way of connecting to others.

In his early twenties he set about becoming an expert in photographic techniques, taking courses in commercial art, working in a photo processing lab, and studying paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His stint in the army as a machine gunner interrupted his career for a few years, but crystallised his approach to subject matter, his skill at capturing a wide range of people in moments of thought and vulnerability.

On his return, Heath developed this aptitude for capturing an ‘inner landscape’, seeking out the lonely and lost and fragile on the streets of big city America. Most of the photographs on display here were taken on the streets of Chicago and New York (where he moved to in 1957).

Heath’s subjects seem eerily detached from their physical context, shot either singly or in couples, but always intensely aware of – almost physically projecting – their isolation.

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath is quoted as saying:

My pictures are not about the city but from the city. I’ve always seen it as a stage and I’ve always seen the people in the streets as being actors, not acting out a particular play or story, but somehow being the story itself…

It would be wrong to think that all his photos are close-ups of alienated individuals or couples. There’s more variety than that. At the busy end of the spectrum there’s a photo of a crowd gathering round a policeman in Central Park guarding the spot where a suicide has been discovered. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes he picked out just details, lost property, street detritus, close-ups of parts of people’s bodies, which manage to convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment.

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath’s photos capture that eerie moment in American history just before the 1960s exploded, just around the time JFK was assassinated and Civil Rights began to become an enormous, society-sundering issue and then, of course the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

He had always been interested in exploring how individual photos could be tied together into sequences which created something larger than the sum of its parts. Heath once wrote that ‘the central issue of my work is sequence’ and thought that the rhythm of images arranged in collages or montages created a deeper and more complex psychological state than a single image.

A master printer – so good that other photographers asked him to make their prints for them – Heath also crafted handmade books and experimented with multimedia slide presentations. All this thinking and experimentation culminated in the book which is considered his masterpiece, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965.

A Dialogue With Solitude

A Dialogue with Solitude was conceived in 1961 but not published till 1965. Heath chose 82 of his best or most characteristic photographs taken between 1952 and 1962 and grouped them into ten chapters dedicated to variations on the theme of solitude, being: violence, love, childhood, old age, poverty, war, race and death.

Each one is preceded by a short quote from a literary giant including: Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, William Hazlitt, Herman Hesse, Rilke, Yeats and so on. In other words, all the names you’d meet in a basic undergraduate course in comparative literature – or at least before the explosion of feminist and black and queer studies added a lot more women and marginalised writers to the canon.

The book is commemorated here by a wall-seized display which places scores of photos next to the bookish quotes, to create a sort of immersive visual and literary experience.

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitude at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

In the opinion of the writer whose wall label accompanies this display, Francesco Zanot:

The primacy of montage and sequencing in Heath’s work is made obvious. The result has nothing to do with linear narration, but rather resembles a vast poem, rhapsodic and tormented. Heath merges together on the space of a page references as refined as they are distant from one another. The book, then, becomes the ideal medium by which to carry out a reflection both through and upon photography.

Thoughts

I liked the Korean War photos best. Soldiers in a war really have got something to be pissed off about. Guys lying on their bunks or sitting on a crate smoking a fag reminded me of all the crappy labouring jobs I’ve had, and how it feels when you get a break and five minutes to just sit staring into space, too tired to think about anything, too tired or too mind numblingly bored to say or do or think anything.

The photos of sad people in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York are undoubtedly atmospheric and poignant, beautifully composed and printed with a grainy effect that carries the viewer back back back to a historic era.

And yet… and yet…. I think I’ve seen too many photographs of unhappy Americans recently – the hundred or more photos by Diane Arbus currently at the Hayward Gallery, or the long career of Dorothea Lange devoted to documenting American misery and injustice, celebrated at the Barbican last summer, or the enormous brightly coloured images of alienation and being lost in the crowd created by Alex Prager.

Upstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery, right now, the works of Mark Ruwedel don’t feature any people but they, also, convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment via pictures of run-down shacks in the desert or the abandoned sites of military tests.

Abandonment, loneliness, isolation, solitude, unhappiness. These seem to be the default subjects of American art photographers.

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Independent movies

Off to one side of the main display rooms is a dark room where you can watch clips from cult independent films from the 1960s, contemporary with Heath’s works, which also focus on theme of solitude. These include:

1. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1966), Jason being ‘a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer’.

2. Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Mitchell Zwerin (1968) a creepy depiction of slimy American salesman.

3. The Savage Eye by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick (1960)

Interview with Senior Curator, Karen McQuaid

Curators

  • Curated by Diane Dufour, Director of LE BAL.
  • Senior Curator for the Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Dorothea Tanning @ Tate Modern

This is the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work to be held in the UK for 25 years.

It brings together 100 pieces from her seven-decade-long career (she lived to be an astonishing 101 years old, 1910 – 2012) across a range of media, including oil paintings, pencil drawings, ‘soft’ sculptures, lithographs, a massive installation, and a film about her. It is as comprehensive a survey of her artistic achievement as you could wish for.

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Tanning was born in provincial America (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1910. As soon as she was able to, she moved to New York, where she soon afterwards saw the famous Surrealism exhibition of 1936. It was a coup de foudre which changed her life. She began painting in a boldly Surrealist style and in 1939 set off to Paris to meet the leaders of the movement.

Unfortunately, Hitler had other plans, and the advent of the Second World War saw her coming straight back to New York but, happily, so did half the Surrealist artists, fleeing the Nazis. These fleeing artists included one of the leading Surrealists, Max Ernst (b.1891), who she fell in love with and married in 1946.

Surrealist paintings

The exhibition features a generous selection of the Surrealist paintings she made from the mid-1930s to the end of the 40s.

Tanning said she wanted to depict ‘unknown but knowable states’ and the pictures show humans in strange postures, or morphing into inanimate objects, or bursting into flames, or standing in deserts littered with incongruous objects, or standing in bedrooms among strange and Gothic figures, or staring into sunflowers which are changing into mirrors, or standing in front of doors opening onto other doors.

Some of these are really powerful images, although many felt to me like they were channelling existing Surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali, the man who had crystallised the Surrealist ‘look’ in the late 1920s, introducing an immaculate finish to his oil paintings which depicted random objects or events, melting watches, elephants on stilts, melting limbs propped up by crutches and so on.

In other works you can detect the influence of Giorgio de Chirico (b.1888) with his mysterious abandoned Italian squares and brooding neo-classical architecture. In some of them you can see the Magritte who painted a man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face.

For example the blue skyscape at the bottom of this Surreal image of a chess game, and its startling optical illusion it gives that the rest of the painting has been draped in front of a landscape, reminds me of the deceptively simple blue skies of Magritte paintings.

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

But all that said, many of Tanning’s paintings do have a unique and distinctive feeling.

The recurrence of women in the paintings is nothing special in itself, since the Surrealists as a movement thought of the female as being more instinctive, irrational, closer to the unconscious and an all-purpose muse figure – so Tanning’s depictions of women with bared breasts (or herself with bared breasts) don’t cover any new ground.

But I felt that her depictions of girls do capture something unique. Pre-pubescent girls are not such a common motif in male artists, who tend, all too often, to depict shapely, nude and nubile women.

I think Tanning’s depictions of pre-pubescent girls and the depiction of women not as sex objects but as individuals – I’m struggling to put this into words, but her depiction of girls and women – did have a different and distinctive feeling, capturing something genuinely strange about a girl’s experience of the world. I thought of Angela Carter’s retelling of fairy tales from a girl’s point of view.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Prismatic style

In the 1950s Tanning and Ernst moved to Paris and this marked a seismic, comprehensive reinvention of her visual language. It is signalled in the exhibition when you walk into the next room and are confronted with the massive and staggering painting, Gate 84.

Installation photograph of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, 2019

Admittedly this is from a lot later, 1984, but Gate 84 captures the massive change in style which happened in the 1950s. It depicts two girls drawn in vivid graphic style with the use of strong border lines, emerging from a background of violent flaming yellow. Dividing the painting right down the middle is part of an actual door and door jamb which has been embedded into the canvas and sticks out of the picture plane. Both the girls are wearing thigh-length dresses, the one on the left is performing an acrobatic leap so as to hit the door with outstretched hand and foot; the one on the right is more lazily sitting, with her right leg outstretched, her foot pressed flat against the door as if keeping it shut.

I visited with my wife who said this reminded her vividly of the fights she was always having with her own sister, when they were kids. And she got talking to another middle aged woman standing in front of it, who agreed that it reminded her of her childhood with two sisters, rampaging and fighting. A very female sensibility capturing something vivid and dynamic about girls’ experiences of the world.

What struck me more than anything was the chunky realism of the legs, the muscular thighs and the weight and tension in the calves and feet. The entire depiction of the human body is utterly utterly different from the rather attenuated, pallid, doll-like figures in the Surrealist paintings.

And this proved to be true of all her paintings from this point onwards. They become a) much larger and b) much much more abstract, great billowing shapes.

And yet, paradoxically, the graphic element becomes clearer. Faces and bodies and fragments of bodies appear as if out of a rampaging fog and, when they do, are often painted with strict anatomical accuracy, or even a kind of super-accuracy, a monumental accuracy. The arms and thighs and bottoms reminded me of Michelangelo.

It is like the work of a completely different artist.

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

In Dogs of Cythera, at bottom left you can make out what might be an arm going round a woman’s breast, in the centre something like the top of a shaved black skull, at bottom right another arm bent at the elbow, leading up to a hand with splayed fingers.

So there are people, or people-like objects in the painting, but quite clearly something radical and massive is going on that utterly eclipses them, or only uses them as raw material in a bigger and bewildering process.

To quote the wall label, these works mark:

a more abstracted ‘prismatic’ style of painting, and her brushwork and compositions became much looser. Where her earlier work used precise realism to present fantastical scenes, in these paintings it is colour and light that bring imaginary worlds into being. The possibilities of her medium became more important to her.

‘In looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.’

In Tanning’s Surreal works the human body, mostly female, is often stylised, thin, elongated – or given an eerie, science fiction otherworldliness, as in this disconcerting girl being covered in flowers. The subject is set in a recognisable space with perspective to create depth and often to draw the eye to some Surrealistically disturbing detail, such as the fireplace which opens onto clear blue sky.

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

In this later, ‘prismatic’ style, there is no depth or perspective, there is only a great storm of cloud happening right on the surface of the canvas from which parts of one or more bodies threaten to temporarily emerge into focus before disappearing again into the tumult. The paintings vary quite a lot in feel, some lighter and airier, others really dark and stormy – but all in the same immediately recognisable style.

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

There are over twenty paintings in this maner, it looks like most of her output after the mid-1950s was like this, and I loved them.

Many of the Surrealist works are wonderful, inventive and mysterious but I couldn’t help the nagging through that she was working – often to marvellous effect – but in someone else’s idiom. With the ‘prismatic’ paintings it seemed to me Tanning became completely free. I loved the tremendous sense of energy they convey, the sense of muscular, lithe bodies struggling, fighting, embracing, tumbling through clouds – as different as could be from the absolutely static, dream-like, frozen tableaux of the Surrealist works.

They reminded me of the last stanza of Yeats’s poem, Near The Delphic Oracle.

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,
Peleus on Thetis stares.
Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,
Love has blinded him with tears;
But Thetis’ belly listens.
Down the mountain walls
From where pan’s cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.

Bellies, shoulders and bums all appear momentarily our of the seething fog of these strange, visionary paintings. Some are sensual, even sexy. And in some the human figure entirely emerges to be given a surprisingly traditional and realistic treatment, like this one, Tango Lives, from 1977, which seemed to me to be channelling Degas’s studies of ballet dancers on a stage, strongly lit from below.

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

But many others convey bewilderment and confusion, and some of them seem genuinely dark and terrifying, visions of a weird hell where monsters are eating each other. More than one of the dark ones reminded me of Goya’s Saturn devouring his children in a swirling fog.

Soft fabric sculptures

And then – something completely different, again.

In the 14-minute film about her – Insomnia – which runs in the final room, Tanning herself explains that at some point in the mid-1960s she just got sick of the smell of turpentine and, by implication, of painting as a medium.

So she got a sowing machine (she is shown in the film using a classic black Singer machine) and began making soft sculptures.

She used the machine to sew together strange shapes which she stuffed with wool to become free-standing sculptures. Like the prismatic paintings they hint strongly at bodily parts – not least because many of them are made out of flesh-coloured fabric – with long tubes which could be arms flung around bulbous shapes which might be bodies. Take Nue Couchée which is made from cotton textile padded with cardboard and filled with seven tennis balls and a load of wool.

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

There’s one round pink shape with a wide crack open in the front which is lined with jagged pieces of wood, obviously a rather nightmareish face. And the biggest piece is a mysterious black pin cushion, studded with giant pins, containing strange pinnacles and spouts, as well as worrying orifices.

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Tanning made it when she was living in Seillans, a hill-top town in Provence. From 1965 to about 1970 she made about twenty of these cloth sculptures.

By far the most dramatic work along these lines was an enormous room-sized installation which is in fact a life-sized model of a room, complete with open door and fireplace, but which is infested with cloth sculptures looming out of the floor and bursting from the walls – a three-dimensional, if rather dingy, homage to the Surrealist nightmares which shook her imagination all those decades earlier.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Conclusion

There’s also a section devoted to her work for the stage, designing Surrealist sets and costumes for collaborations with the choreographer George Balantine – and a sequence of lithographs which, to me, smacked of the covers of 1950s science fiction novels, of the more abstract, harrowing, post-apocalyptic flavour.

But overall her career can be divided very broadly into these three threads

  1. Dali-like Surrealist paintings
  2. huge billowy ‘prismatic’ paintings
  3. mysterious and unnerving soft sculptures

In light of this, I think the curators have made an excellent decision which is to mix it up.

I suspect that if they’d hung the works chronologically it might have been a bit boring, each room would have risked being a bit samey. A couple of rooms of non-stop Surrealism, one of the strange 1950s lithographs and stage designs, a couple of rooms of just prismatic paintings, and then a room or two of just soft sculptures – each space would have been limiting and samey.

Instead the curators have mixed it up, with works from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s all in the same room, huge oil paintings next to lithographs, early drawings next to Surrealist classics.

The net result is to create thought-provoking connections and juxtapositions of subject matter and style – in short, to foment the kind of rather dreamy, disconnected, unsettling effect which I’m sure Tanning herself would have appreciated.

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The promotional video

Women curators

Dorothea Tanning is curated by Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Cambridge and Ann Coxon, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern, supported by Emma Lewis and Hannah Johnston, Assistant Curators, International Art, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Count Zero by William Gibson (1986)

He drank off the black bitter coffee. It seemed to him, just for a second, that he could feel the whole Sprawl breathing, and its breath was old and sick and tired, all up and down the stations from Boston to Atlanta…’ (p.286)

The setting

This is the second novel in what came to be known as Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy (because there ended up being three of them: his debut, Neuromancer, and the third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

It is the future. Vast urban sprawls cover half of America, housing estates and huge malls under enormous geodesic domes blocking out the sky. Japanese culture and cuisine is widespread and everyone uses the New Yen as currency. Computers and digital technology, chips and disks, fuel a digital economy. Oil appears to have run out – possibly because Russia took control of the global supply after a brief war which America and the West lost – to be replaced by hydrogen cells. Electricity is generated by the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority whose well-protected gleaming towers of data can be seen by hackers in cyberspace. The real power in the world lies with vast multinational corporations known as zaibatsus. At the other end of the food chain, down on the littered streets, cheap bars and derelict spaces are full of veterans from the war, damaged physically or psychologically, many of whom turn up as protagonists in the Sprawl novels and in some of the Sprawl-related short stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986) published at the same time as the novels.

‘Sprawltown’s a twisty place, my man.Things are seldom what they seem.’ (Lucas, p.205)

This setting – ‘the street’ – is characterised by two things:

  1. a Raymond Chandler film noir sensibility in which the world is entirely made up of crime and gangs –  especially the terrifying Yakuza gangs
  2. drugs, lots of drugs, everyone is on one type of drug or another, the hero of Neuromancer is off his face a lot of the time, and the drugs range from cheap street drugs like amphetamine (known on the street as ‘wiz’) to new, biochemically-engineered mind-enhancing substances (like ‘the most expensive designer drugs’ which the character named The Wig devotes himself to taking, p.173)

The result is a prose style which combines the basic mood of a thriller – the permanent edginess of protagonists on the run from threatening crime lords or criminal organisations or the cops or someone  – but soaked in slangy, hip, knowing references to the ho-tech, drug-soaked, street gang components of this louche futureworld.

The feel

All that said, Count Zero immediately feels much broader and lighter than Neuromancer. That debut novel was set mostly at night, in often claustrophobic settings, bars, clubs, hotel rooms, dingy back alleys. Also the prose was extremely dense, studded with references to arcane technology or drugs or street gangs. There was barely a run-of-the-mill sentence in the whole book.

Count Zero is much more relaxed and diffused in several ways: its prose style is a lot less hectic – there are plenty of straightforward, factual sentences in it – but also the settings are more varied, and some of them even take place in daylight!

In fact whereas Neuromancer stuck pretty closely to the adventures of its computer hacker hero, Case, Count Zero is a complicated and canny weaving together of what start out as several completely distinct plotlines, featuring completely freestanding characters. Only as the story progresses do we slowly discover how they are linked.

Turner

Turner is an experienced kidnapper of top scientists. In the future this is a recognised profession. The huge scientific multinational corporations which control the world are prepared to pay kidnappers like Turner to poach the star scientists of the rival corporations.

‘You took Chauvet from IBM for Mitsu and they say you took Semenov out of Tomsky.’ (0.68)

Turner is – like the protagonist of every thriller ever written – an outsider, a rebel, the man who doesn’t fit in. Oh how we all wish we could be like him!

Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a permanent outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics. (p.128)

‘A rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics’ – cool!

Strikingly, the novel opens with a chapter describing how Turner was blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb in India, and expensively fitted back together using future technology bythe clients who find him useful. Recuperating in Mexico, he hooks up with a pretty woman he meets in a bar and they have an idyllic romance, with sex on the beach, and sex in the bedroom.

Then – as with half the protagonists in the Burning Chrome stories and in Neuromancer – she walks away, leaving him devastated.

Turns out she was a therapist hired by the client to get Turner back into shape. The client now shows up and tells him this. Turner, super-tough guy that he is, accepts it without a flicker. (This opening reminded me of the idyllic Third World setting at the start of the second Jason Bourne movie, where Jason and his true love are enjoying idyllic times in a beach-front shack in India, till she is killed by mistake by an assassin sent to terminate Jason.)

These are rock solid, straight down-the-line, Hollywood-level, tough guy thriller clichés, and you can see the appeal.

  1. Every timid, shy, boring salaryman and commuter (like myself) thrills to the adventures of people like Turner – young (he is 24, p.131), super-fit, super-alert, super-trained, no-nonsense, super-brave, possessor of ‘a ropey, muscular poise’ (p.129): faces down men bigger and harder than him, immediately wins over the tough bitch in the team, wow, what a man! (it was, apparently, in a review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service published in the Sunday Times in 1963 that the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Nothing has changed in 56 years.)
  2. And yet, just as predictably, it turns out this tough guy has a heart of soppy mush — for the right woman he can be a perfect gent, picnics on the beach and cunnilingus in the bedroom. What a guy!

We follow as Turner is hired for a new job by his former partner, Conroy. He is to be in charge of setting up a base in the desert with a ragtag bunch of fellow mercs, ready to receive the absconding scientist, Christopher Mitchell, who will be escaping from Maas Biolabs’ high security research base in Arizona. Mitchell is a star science researcher who had developed the ‘hybridoma techniques’ on which much contemporary technology is based (p.127). A very important guy. the client is Hosaka Corp who want his brains and expertise. It’s a major assignment. You won’t be surprised to learn that things go disastrously wrong,

Marly

The Turner chapters are intercut with chapters following Marly Krushkhova, the pretty, rather naive ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’. She promoted a painting which turned out to be a forgery, so she was fired by the shareholders. Now she’s going for a job interview with a business owned by Josef Virek, rumoured to be the richest man in the world.

Marly is disconcerted to discover that Virek is not present in person, but that she is transported to a life-size hologram of a street in Barcelona, where she sits next to a hologram of him on a park bench and they chat.

In fact, the hologram tells her, the actual ‘Virek’ exists only as a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat in a him security compound in Stockholm.

He doesn’t want to hire her for some straightforward gallery job. Virek wants Marly to track down the artist who created a particular artwork which he once saw and was taken with – a Damian Hirst-style vivarium full of a random collection of detritus.

Virek will authorise money for her use to hire an apartment, planes, whatever she needs in her quest. ‘How long do I have?’ she asks. ‘The rest of your life,’ he replies. It takes a while for her to really understand that he is giving her an unlimited supply of money, over an unlimited period of time, to use all her contacts in the art world to track down the artist who made this one piece.

And, once she has staggered out of the hologram room to be met by Virek’s smooth-talking assistants and given the first instalment of money, she begins to realise that she is being followed and monitored at every step, not least by a suave Spanish man, Paco, who keeps appearing in the background whenever she meets contacts and begins her investigation.

This Quest will turn out to be the central driving force of the narrative, but the fact that Virek is so obscenely rich also gives Gibson plenty of opportunity to reflect on the nature of money, lots of money, super-money, and the effect it has on its owners and on those around them. In this futureworld where people routinely alter their consciousness either with mind-bending drugs or by encountering 3-D holograms or by entering the dizzying world of cyberspace, the rich can quite literally bend reality to their wishes.

‘The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit…’ (p.27)

How could she have imagined that it would be possible to live, to move, in the unnatural field of Virek’s wealth without suffering distortion? Virek had taken her up, in all her misery, and had rotated her through the monstrous, invisible stresses of his money, and she had been changed. (p.107)

Virek’s money was a sort of universal solvent, dissolving barriers to his will… (p.2420

Count Zero

Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’, still lives with his mom in a crappy apartment in the vast area of cheap, high-rise housing known as Barrytown, New Jersey. He is an apprentice computer hacker, a cowboy of cyberspace, a ‘hotdogger’, hanging round the estate’s chrome-lined bars, trying to be fit in with the local gang members, but keenly aware that he is only a beginner with only a basic, entry-level hacker’s view of cyberspace.

He was like a kid who’d grown up beside an ocean, taking it as much for granted as he took the sky, but knowing nothing of currents, shipping routes of the ins and outs of weather. He’d used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline. (p.62)

A local crime boss, Two-A-Day, hands Bobby a state-of-the-art console and asks him to hack into the financial records of some company. Things are going OK when Bobby suddenly experiences an enormous counter-surge of energy directed against him which stops his heart in the real world. Bobby starts to die, when some other undefined force leans in to cyberspace, releases him, and he regains consciousness on his mom’s carpet throwing up.

What the…?

He goes looking for Two-A-Day at the local crappy bar, Leon’s, where Gibson gives us florid descriptions of the drug-selling, computer-game-playing lowlifes. On the TV news he sees that his mum’s flat, indeed the entire row of apartments on that block, have been destroyed by a bomb. Christ! They’re after him.

Bobby goes and hides down a back alley by a dumpster which turns out be a bad idea because someone savagely mugs him. Whoever it is, slashes his chest open and also steals the console Two-A-Day gave him.

When Bobby comes round he is being sewn up using futuristic technology, and then delivered to Two-A-Day’s vast penthouse apartment where he meets a couple of soft-spoken, nattily-dressed and terrifying black men, Beauvoir and Lucas.

Beauvoir explains what’s happened: Two-A-Day had been given some new, high-powered anti-ice (ice being security software devised by corporations to protect their digital assets in cyberspace) program to by unnamed powerful agents. Unwilling to risk anything himself, Two-A-Day had sub-contracted the thing to Bobby – the idea being that, if it’s booby-trapped or dangerous it’ll only be worthless Bobby who gets wasted.

Well, something bad certainly happened to Bobby when he tried to use it. 1. Was that a failure of the program, or was it booby-trapped, or did it trigger a prepared defence mechanism in the corporation Bobby tried to hack?

But 2. and more importantly, whoever mugged him stole the console with the software inside. Now the very High-Ups who sub-contracted testing it to Two-A-Day are pissed off with him… and he is pissed off with Bobby, who needs to get it back.

Three mysteries

These are the three storylines which we follow in short, alternating chapters of Gibson’s over-heated, amphetamine-fuelled prose.

As the night came on, Turner found the edge again. It seemed like a long time since he’d been there, but when it clicked in, it was like he’d never left. It was that superhuman synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated. (p.126)

All the characters hover on the edge of mind-altering psychotropic drug highs, or mind-expanding plug-ins to the dizzying landscape of cyberspace, or are involved in terror-inducing chases by cops or all-powerful threatening powers. With the result that the prose, and even more the plot, has you permanently on edge. It is a fantastically thrilling, gripping and exciting novel but which can also, partly because of the permanent obscurity Gibson maintains around some of the key motivators of the plot, become quite wearing and draining.

Basically, the narrative hangs around three cliffhanging challenges:

  1. Will Turner’s handling of the defection of the high-level scientist work out as planned?
  2. Who made the artwork that Virek hired Marly to track down, and why is Virek so obsessed by it?
  3. Will Bobby ‘Count Zero’ manage to find the people who mugged him and stole his console, and what is the truth about the new super-program inside it?

Continuities with Neuromancer

I thought the book would be part of the Sprawl trilogy because set in the same futureworld, I hadn’t realised it would literally follow on from the first book, referencing many of the characters and incidents mentioned in Neuromancer and taking them further.

For example, you will remember that the climax of Neuromancer is set on a space station orbiting the earth, only much more than a space station, more like a miniature town set inside a vast offworld which rotates to give it gravity and includes luxury hotels, swimming pools and pleasure gardens. One whole end of this was sealed off and the home of the legendary Tessier-Ashpool family which are the richest in the world and built it.

The Quest in Neuromancer is that Case and the ferocious Molly Millions, she with the 4-centimetry retractable razor blades under each fingernail are hired to co-ordinate an attack on the heart of the Tessier-Ashpool stronghold – Molly has to kidnap the daughter of old man Ashpool, named 3Jane because the wicked old man has manufactured clones of his daughters, and drag her to a jewel-studded head, there to utter the codeword which activates it, at the same time as Case the hacker has hacked into the Tessier-Ashpool security system and disabled it.

Straightforward as this may sound the novel kind of crumbles or disintegrates into increasingly visionary prose as the goal of the Quest is reached and we learn, through welters of mystical-cum-hi-tech prose, that two separate artificial intelligences crafted by 3Jane’s mother, are, at the mention of the codeword, allowed to unite thus creating a sort of super-intelligence which, at that moment, becomes identical with all of cyberspace. In a sort of apocalyptic vision the matrix becomes self-aware, and although it doesn’t affect the material reality of humans out in the real world, it is a transformative event in the collective consensual hallucination of all the world’s data which we call ‘cyberspace’.

‘It’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, cyberspace…’ (the Finn, p.170)

What happens in Count Zero is this story continues. It is seven years after the events of the first novel (p.177) and the sharp-dressed spades Bobby has met are privy to what’s happened to cyberspace since that seismic event, namely that the One has split into a variety of entities which share the names of traditional voodoo gods and goddesses. Yes, voodoo. The latter half of the book is coloured by what Beauvoir and Lucas tell Bobby about the presence in cyberspace of these gods who represent primeval forces, though it is very hard to understand whether they existed before cyberspace, since the dawn of time and have infiltrated it, or are entirely man-made constructions, or what.

‘Jackie is a mambo, a priestess, the horse of Danbala…Danbala rides her, Danbala Wedo, the snake. Other times she is the horse of Aida Wedo, his wife…’ (p.122)

Beauvoir brings Bobby to a bar, Jammer’s, on the 14th floor of a high-rise block in New York.

The most important event in the Turner plotline is that, when the ultralite arrives at the reception site prepared by Turner and the other mercs, it is carrying not Mitchell, but his teenage daughter Angie. Even as she arrives a ferocious firestorm breaks out, presumably Maas Biolabs’ security people having followed its course and now attacking. Turner unstraps the girl from the ultralite and runs with her to a small, high-powered, self-steering jet which takes off at terrific speed just as Turner watches the campment and all the mercs manning it – who we have spent half the book getting to know – vaporised in some kind of semi-nuclear blast.

Bloodied and half conscious Turner steers to plane to crash land near the ranch of his long lost brother, Rudy, and his partner, Sally. Here they fix up the girl, whose name is Angie and have a couple of scenes reminiscing about the old days, about mom and pa and huntin’ and fishin’ in the unspoilt countryside.

This is precisely the kind of low-key interlude you get in Hollywood thrillers, a break after an over-tense fight/crash/conflict sequence. Then it is time to load up into a spare hovercraft (yes, hovercraft are a popular form of transport in this futureworld) and head off, with a vague plan of hiding out in the Sprawl, the name given to the vast urban conurbation stretching from Boston to Florida.

Meanwhile Marly’s investigations keep turning up the name of Tessier-Ashpool and her quest leads her to buy a ticket to the off-world satellite, named Freeside – exactly the place where Neuromancer climaxed. Now, though, the entire section of the satellite which contained the Tessier-Ashpool compound has been hacked off and set into a separate orbit.

Here Marly discovers a mad old cyberhacker, Wigan Ludgate known as The Wig hiding out, guarded by a young crook on the run, Jones (‘me, I came here runnin” p.274) – both of them protective of the core of the complex which is a vast space in which great clusters of waste objects and detritus float in zero gravity. ‘The dome of the Boxmaker’ (p.312)

Attached to a wall is a multi-armed computer-driven robot which uses its arms to grab passing flotsam, cut and shape them with a laser, and then place them in vivariums. This is the robotic creator of the work of art which so entranced Virek.

But along the way, being sent messages from Virek in cyberspace, when she jacks into simstim, by couriers and agents, she’s slowly come to realise that the artist is in danger. Virek doesn’t just want an art work. And now, here in this gravityless dome, a screen flickers into life and his face appears, explaining.

He explains that for some time he’s known that a Christopher Mitchell working at Maas Biolabs has been fed information from some source in cyberspace, this being the real source of Mitchell’s astonishing tech breakthroughs. And his numerous agents and researches have led him to believe that the source of this information, the superbrain behind it, also made the vitrines he set her to track down. Now she has found the source, and is agents, having followed her all the way, are at the doors of the Tessier-Ashpool satellite.

Meanwhile, in the Jammers bar in New York, Bobby and his minder Beauvoir are joined by Angie and Turner. On his long journey – interspersed by attacks from various unnamed opponents (Maas? Hosaka? Conroy?) – Turner has had plenty of opportunity to learn that Angie’s brain has been laced with some kind of physical entity (‘a biosoft modification has been inserted in his daughter’s brain’). This may or may not explain her ability to see visions. While asleep she dreams of voodoo gods and talks to them and, sometimes, they speak through her mouth, as one possessed. At one point she retales to Turner the events at the climax of Neuromancer which we recognise though mean nothing to him.

By the time Turner and Angie meet up with Beauvoir and Bobby in the New York bar, all these characters have had quite a few conversations about what is going on in cyberspace, what the voodoo gods represent, and how they’re linked to the events in the Tessier-Ashpool offworld compound (which, of course, most of them only know about from confused rumour).

The result, for the reader, is to be in a state of sort of permanently confused tension. Turner is chased and attacked, the girl Angie has premonitions of disaster, Bobby is mugged and then on the run from Two-A-Day and whoever his bosses are, the New York nightclub is surrounded by threatening mobs who are under someone’s control, when they open the door laser guns are fired through it.

Only right at the end is Turner contacted by the man who hired him, Conroy, who explains at least part of the plot. According to him, Josef Virek, the world’s richest man, has heard about a new form of biosoft developed by Mitchell and his investigators were all over Mitchell’s attempt to escape Maas. But when he sent his daughter out instead – her head actually laced with the new biosoft invention) Maas’s own men pursued Turner and Angie, observed by Virek’s men, and complicated by the fact the corporation who was paying for Mitchell to be extracted, Hosaka, thought they’d been double crossed and were also tracking Turner.

By the end of the book I think that one of Beauvoir’s speculations may be close to the truth, that The One created at the end of Neuromancer has, for reasons unknown, split into multiple lesser entities and that these, having ranged through all mankind’s systems of signs and symbols, have settled on the voodoo gods as appropriate interfaces with mankind that humans will understand. The least incomprehensible, anyway.

In Jammer’s Bobby jacks into the matrix to find out why the club is surrounded and how to get rid of the mob and the attackers, when a series of things happens. He is sucked into a powerful programme and suddenly is sitting in the same park on the same bench next to Josef Virek as Marly had early in the novel. But the women he jacked in with, one of Beauvoir’s black associates, was killed almost immediately. Virek has no idea who Bobby is and orders his sidekick, Paco to shoot him but, just as Paco lines up a gun, another far bigger program and presence erupts out of the flower beds and chases Virek’s screaming figure down the path and obliterates him.

It is Baron Samedi, one of the voodoo presences and he is taking his revenge for one of their number being killed by a Virek programme. In his vat in Stockholm Virek’s life support fails. He is dead with the result that a) up in the dome of the Boxmaker his face suddenly disappears from the screen where Marly had been listening to his orders and b) outside Jammer’s the assassins and mercs who had assembled to grab Angie – which was the goal of them surrounding the place – are abruptly called off.

Conroy, the menacing merc who had hired Turner for the extraction job and who appears on a videocall right at the end explaining to Turner the combination of forces who’ve been pursuing him, well in the attack on the merc’s camp back at the moment when Angie’s ultralight touched down and which killed all the other mercs Turner had assembled – one of them (Ramirez) had a girlfriend, Jaylene Slide, a mean bitch who is plenty angry at Conroy.

‘I’m Slide,’ the figure said, hand on its hips. ‘Jaylene. You don’t fuck with me. Nobody in LA,’ and she gestured, a window suddenly snapped into existence behind her,’ fucks with me.’ (p.292)

Turns out she has been tracking him down to his current location in a hotel in New York, Park Avenue to be precise. And, as we and Turner are watching Conroy’s face on the screen, we hear her order her buddies to blow up the entire floor of the building where Conroy and his team are based. Conroy hesitates a moment and then there’s a loud bang then the picture flickers off.

Before being blown up Conroy had told Turner that Hosaka and Maas, the two giant corporations had reached a settlement about Mitchell’s death, a discreet payout with no publicity in the way of giant corporations.

And so, in the space of a few pages, all the baddies who have been chasing our heroes and fuelling the nail-biting narrative, disappear! Turner, Angie, Bobby – suddenly they’re all safe.

Loose ends

So once again, as in Neuromancer, the novel’s climax is an odd mix of the entirely worldly thriller element (Slide’s revenge against Conroy) and typical corporate cynicism (Maas and Hosaka making up) with a strangely mystical and difficult to understand element (the voodoo gods who destroy Virek). And I think that is a deliberate point – the point that the complexity of cyberspace has produced entities which are literally beyond human comprehension and with goals and aims of their own which interact and overlap with human motivations but are extra to them.

Anyway, most of the human characters survive and in a couple of pages at the end of the main narrative we are given a little of their subsequent careers. The teenager Angie, bloodied by some of her experiences, but unbowed, uses her access to the voodoo gods to establish a career as a simstim star for the global entertainment corp, Sense/Net.

If you remember, right back when Bobby jacked into Two-A-Day’s console and was being killed, it was she who stepped in to save him. Thereafter, for the rest of the book, they have a close psychic ink which neither can quite explain and becomes more important as Bobby jacks in in subsequent sequences. The upshot is that Angie hires Bobby as her ‘bodyguard’ in the new life she carves out for herself in California.

Marly returns to Paris unscathed by her adventures and ends up curating one of the largest art galleries in the city.

Turner returns to the ranch where he had briefly holed up with Rudy and Sally earlier in the book. It’s typical of the plot’s complexities that during those brief few days he managed to fall in love with Sally (his brother’s partner) and impregnate her (p.194). Rudy himself was, with the inevitability of a Hollywood thriller, killed by Turner’s pursuers when they tracked the crashed jet to their ranch – but they let Sally live and she gave birth to Turner’s child nine months later. He’s quit the kidnapping business.

But behind all this is the uneasy knowledge that the matrix of cyberspace has, apparently, become home to sentient beings, who take the shape of voodoo gods and can intervene in human affairs. Should we be worried? Is this all going to lead to some Terminator-style apocalypse? You have to read the third in the trilogy to find out.

P.S. the Finn

I should add that Beauvoir at one stage takes Count Zero to see the Finn, an outrageously foul-mouthed, dirty and senior hacker who, it turns out, was the man who passed on the dodgy console to Two-A-Day. It’s only right at the end of the book, and after reading the ending a couple of times, that I think I worked out that the console is one of many objects made by the machine in the Dome of the Boxmaker, which Wigan Ludgate, in his madness, sends off to an unnamed fence back on earth, who I think we are meant to deduce is the Finn. So the program inside the workaday-looking console is in fact an advanced product made by the voodoo AIs. And which explains why Angie, who is a separate creation of the voodoo AIs via her father, Mitchell, was able to lean into it when it began to overpower and kill the Count back in the early pages of the novel.

I mention all this a) because it ties up a loose thread, b) because it gives you a sense of the complexity – and the wacky characters – which the narrative delights in c) because the Finn will turn up in the next novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Credit

Count Zero by William Gibson was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1986. All references are to the 1993 Grafton paperback edition.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

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1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
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1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

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1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
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1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

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