Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

In May 1977 young Rosemary Elizabeth ‘Posy’ Simmonds MBE (born 9 August 1945 and so aged 32 at the time) started to draw a weekly comic strip for the Guardian newspaper. It was initially titled ‘The Silent Three of St Botolph’s’ as a jokey reference to the 1950s comic strip ‘The Silent Three’ by Evelyn Flinders, and consisted of parodies of jolly hockeysticks public schoolgirls’ adventures.

However, the strip soon evolved to focus on the stories of three girls in particular, showing how they had grown into middle-class, middle aged adults. They were:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse married to polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, and mother of a large exhausting brood of children
  • Jo Heep, married to whisky salesman Edmund Heep, mum to two rebellious teenagers
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, mother of a young baby

The strip soon dropped the St Botolph’s title and used ad hoc titles for specific strips or episodes, eventually becoming known simply as ‘Posy’. In the end the strip ran for ten years, until 1987, and was periodically collected into books. Mrs Weber’s Diary was the first of these collections. It was published in 1979 and is a slender 64 pages long.

Mrs Weber’s Diary

Diary format

The first thing you notice is that, for the book version, Simmonds embedded the original cartoon strips into mock-ups of Wendy Weber’s diary entries. These consist of shopping lists, lists of chores, notes and doodles, and occasional longer entries which comment on, or explain, the strip below.

January entry from Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

I’m sure George Weber would have a field day discussing the hypertextuality and interplay of discourses thus created, but I found the diary entries read a lot like, well, diary entries. ‘Cleaned out lint from tumble dryer’, ‘Lunch with the Whites’, ‘must get new guinea pig litter- it’s not riveting stuff. More a kind of ‘phatic’ text which helps to extend – and so further enfold you – in the imaginative world of the cartoons.

And like Bridget Jones’s Diary (which started in 1995) the diary format, apart from anything else, fills up space. It is an easily repeatable filler idea. (This diary format is dropped in the succeeding books, but is revived big time in the 1993 collection, Mustn’t Grumble, which collects the large-format calendar pages made for the years 1988 and 1989, each month represented by a full-length profile of a representative figure of the day.)

Wordy

The next impression is how very wordy the strip is. Everything requires a lot of talking. The strips are packed with speech bubbles. Dialogue is absolutely crucial because the humour – such as it is – lies in the nuances of what people are thinking and saying, rather than in anything they actually do. It lies in satirising the modish, liberal, left-wing views and attitudes of the comfortable middle-middle-classes (and their children), and these have to be expressed in order to be lampooned.

The Silent Three by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wordiest of all is George Weber who struggles to maintain his earnest feminist, environmentalist and socialist views in a world which obviously doesn’t give a damn. He is supposed to be writing a vast book which will be the last word in structuralism and semiology – a theory of how meaning is constructed in cultural artefacts – which was all the rage in the late 1970s, but which will obviously never be published or even completed, while his long-suffering wife Wendy, a part-time illustrator of childrens books, is the one who keeps the household together. In an early strip, Wendy changing the kitchen curtains triggers a characteristic outburst of Georgian rhetoric: ‘the blind translates the window into a mirror of attitudes totalisantes.’

From Mrs Weber’s Dairy by Posy Simmonds

Variety of font and style

In the strip above you can see – before you even read the words – that they are arranged in a striking variety of fonts and sizes and formats. A lot of words are in bold, symbols are used to replace swearwords, a lot of dots indicating pauses, there’s the alternation of sentence case with capitalised words – generally there is a lot going on in the text. In fact arguably more goes on in the speech bubbles than in the actual ‘world’ of the images, and this is entirely characteristic. The strips are about what people are saying and thinking, often at great length, rather than what they do – which is often little or nothing. (In its way a typographic satire on bien-pensant liberals’ concerns with what people say, to the complete neglect of what people actually do.)

The most common variation is to use bold and/or capitals to bring out the simply adorable emphases which the unbearably twee and posh middle-classes give to words, to make everything sound so simply super and marvellous. Thus the exchanges in this picture: ‘Wendy! You DIDN’T make ALL those!’ ‘Yes, I did… but QUICHES are MARVELLOUS! They’re all out of my freezer.’

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds

No continuous narrative

Within each individual strip there is a strong narrative with a (sort of) punchline or payoff, but between strips there seems to be no overarching narrative. In fact, as well as the ten or so regular characters who we get to know (based around the three women, their husbands and the kids) Simmonds sometimes introduces completely unrelated characters and stories.

Some strips abandon the format of a series of pictures to focus on, say, just two large ones, or even one very big one, for example as in the scene above which depicts a street party in the street where the Webers live.

The ‘joke’ of this piece is that all the well-meaning mums and dads spend ages agonising over preparing all the food themselves, making sure it is vegetarian and organic and home-made and all the other Guardian reader shibboleths all in the name of keeping it as simple and ‘authentic’ as possible – with the result that the street party is a pretentious, urban, middle-class pastiche of a peasants’ meal. Witness the man at the bottom left offering his daughter, Sasha (such a nice middle-class name) a glass of mead. Yes, mead.

But the picture contains another joke, for the composition of this large final frame in the strip is based on a 1567 oil painting, The Peasant Wedding, by the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel (1567)

This is learnèd and witty, but not what you’d call funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny. It typifies the way more than half the pleasure of the strips comes from ‘getting’ the references, not the jokes. When George starts droning on about Nathalie Sarraute or the nouveau roman or Roland Barthes or hypertextuality, the reader is not meant to laugh out loud. It is, after all, not particularly funny. It’s more that the reader is meant to nod wisely to themselves and think, Nathalie Sarraute, yes I’ve hear of her; the nouveau roman, I tried reading an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel once.

Although the strip satirises a certain type of 1970s pretentious intellectuality (almost all the thinkers and film-makers referred to are, of course, French) you have to be pretty familiar with the subject matter to ‘get’ the references. Later in the series she plays the same joke, where Jocasta the art student and several other young women go out to the country for the day with their tutors who criticise something they’re wearing prompting the girls to take off all their clothes – but the point, the purpose and the ‘punchline’ of the strip is that the final picture is a Simmonds version of the famous Manet painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Aha, the cultivated reader is meant to nod sagely to themselves. ‘Of course. Very funny.’ I am reminded of the comic tag which dates from around this period, where some preening clever clogs is meant to exclaim: ‘Pretentious?? Moi???’

Thus there is a kind of cosy self-referentiality going on, where readers of the Posy strip can congratulate themselves on being as well-read and culturally in the know as their creator and – presumably – all the Guardian‘s other clever, with-it, intellectuals.

The same is even more true of so many of the ‘situations’ Simmonds depicts – mums in the playground blaming each others’ kids for an outburst of nits, George’s acute embarrassment at being deputed to make the farewell speech to the extremely unpopular serving lady at his polytechnic’s canteen, George agonising over the morality of having a vasectomy, George and Wendy being berated by their teenage daughter’s punk boyfriend, Wendy’s chagrin at her little boy not getting involved in the perfect party and party games and party spread laid on by a perfect mother (Pippa – ‘I don’t know HOW she does it!’)

These are all very mundane everyday subjects and that’s the point. The humour, if humour it is, comes from the familiarity, from recognising the situations, from thinking, ‘Oh God, yes, that happened to me.’

Sexism and feminism

Two consistent threads are a) the draining harassment of being a mother and b) the permanent atmosphere of harassment endured by women at work, in pubs and bars or even walking down the street. The cartoons accurately convey exactly the kind of angry, embattled feminism expressed by the young women I met at university in the early 1980s.

From Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Wendy’s glasses

Many of the greatest cartoon characters have one or two tell-tale motifs. Arguably the entire Posy strip is signified by Wendy Weber’s enormous glasses in which the black pupils of her eyes roll around like marbles.

Although she is just as liable to say or think silly things as any of the characters, there is a deeper sense in which the whole world is seen, caught and captured through Wendy’s eyes. Wendy Weber sees all and knows all, particularly in this book, where the initially rather random cross-section of subject matter, is all rolled up into – caught and contained within – the format of being from Wendy’s diary.

Frontispiece to Mrs Weber’s Diary by Posy Simmonds (1979)

Cartooning

Study of all the examples I’ve chosen will show you how very carefully all the strips are drawn. Each frame is packed with detail. Take the two cars parked in the first frame in the January picture, or the detail of the piano keys in the punk strip, or the scaffolding, sack of cement and traffic cones in the one about workmen wolf-whistling the girls.

Again, this isn’t exactly humour, but it is the transformation of the world of reality into a gentler, rounded, somehow mollified and more reassuring cartoon format. Everything is just so, everything is just as you would expect it, but nicer.

Simmonds the feminist may be mad as hell about street harassment and everyday sexism, but the viewer’s eye, while taking the point, also takes in the myriad details including, for example, the care with which she’s drawn the metal clips on Jocasta’s dungarees.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the famous modernist poet T.S. Eliot said that the ‘meaning’ of a poem is a bit like the raw steak a burglar throws to a guard dog to keep him distracted while he goes about his business of nicking stuff; the ‘meaning’ of a poem is the bit which engages the conscious mind while the actual poetry – the euphony of sounds, the metre and rhythm, the alliteration and assonance and so on – do their infinitely subtler work of conveying unconscious or preconscious feelings and impressions. Of changing your mood and, maybe, perceptions.

Same here: each strip has an ostensible subject – childrens’ parties, old drunks down the pub, meeting an architect to discuss an extension, visit from an American friend the Webers knew back in the heady 60s – but I didn’t find any of them funny, and not many of them even amusing. Often they lack any kind of recognisable punchline, or the punchline – instead of being a shock, surprise, which triggers laughter – is more like a confirmation of everything about the situation which you had already recognised.

Take the strip in which a too-perfect househusband Adrian Smythe, and his adorable daughters Amy and Saffron, drop in on their neighbour Trish Wright, and while she rushes round flustered and harassed by her one child, young Willy, he coolly, calmly sorts everything out and – without meaning to – shows off what a perfect father he is, growing vegetables with his kids, having set up a Nature Table for them to study insects and flowers, and so on and so on – and all the time, of course, writing his next book, which, in the last frame, Trisha, pushed to the limits of chagrin and frustration, thinks should be titled ‘One Woman’s Sink Is Another Man’s Swimming Pool’. I recognised the general situation, having been a househusband myself. I recognised Trisha’s irritation at Adrian’s calmness and effortless superiority. But I didn’t think it was funny, and certainly the punchline – Trisha’s alternative title for Adrian’s book – didn’t strike me as either funny or clever.

The point – as far as I could tell – was in the reader’s recognition of the situation – and in this transformation I am describing, the transformation of the harsh unpredictable world into the warm, cosy and predictable set of stereotypes and caricatures with which she populates the cartoons; and in the essentially softening effect of the visual style.

Credit

All images (except the Bruegel) are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism.


Related links

Other Posy reviews

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it. (p.48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data  from hundreds of experiments, which show just how prey the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which the supposedly rational human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes. By the end he claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read it in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of reading medieval history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

 

Reading it now, 20 years later, having brought up a couple of children and worked for a while in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children – and then so many examples of the corporate conformity, avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement to be found in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise, more a confirmation of what I’ve witnessed at first hand.

But to have the errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty of these. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes. Far harder to acknowledge, in many cases, very hard to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment: acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

More seriously people can be alcoholics, drug addicts, and prey to a wide range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data, and b) the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. People irrationally believe they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions Sutherland tricks the reader no page one by asking a series of questions and then pointing out, that if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since they don’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in patients who don’t have it. The diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, to be – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit, it is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the effect is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they were presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although of course there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. Clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks despite identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes 1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions. 2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection People project onto neutral phenomena patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. Compounded by –

Obstinacy Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. Exacerbated by –

Group think People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one what you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience The Milgram experiment proved that people will do any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment. You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75%! of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see, know is wrong – because people are that easily swayed.

Sunk costs fallacy The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and to try to disprove your own position. The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor -Observer Bias Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves, we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the greatest errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Not in Sutherland’s book, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, “the liberal fallacy”: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true. People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

The trouble with this and Paulos’s books is that the entire area of statistics is separate and distinct from errors of thought and cognitive biases. I.e. you can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make howling mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics…

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they’re so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume. Briefly, common mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

This is even more true of gambling. It is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games which have been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. Some points that emerge:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3 – 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively  misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with varied and sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on is very slow and laborious. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility. Humans are just tremendously suggestible.

Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave extrovert to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. The initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underling many of them is this simple-or-garden observation, that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour he quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help make wonder how the digital age has changed or added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking he gives, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

Grumpy

But it also has passages where Sutherland extrapolates out to draw general conclusions and some of these sound more like the grumblings of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging. He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

He thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185). He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle and upper middle class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186). He criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215). In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

He really has it in for psychoanalysis which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

On the other hand it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar?

He also states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

And finally, these are the mistakes made by the most intelligent and best educated among us, people trained to assess and act on evidence.

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are stupid. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

which all adds to the general festival of idiocy.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


Related link

Reviews of other science books

Cosmology

Environment / human impact

Genetics

  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Post-Soviet Visions @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation was set up about ten years ago to celebrate the culture and creativity of the once-communist nations of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. The term they use to cover all these countries is ‘the New East’, meaning the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

Calvert 22 is a not-for profit organisation which aims not only to promote art, film, photography, fashion and other cultural activities from the region, but also to stimulate debate and discussion. Hence the busy schedule of screenings, talks and debates (details on their website).

As well as the London headquarters and exhibition space (Calvert 22 Space) they publish the Calvert Journal (an online magazine of New East contemporary culture) and organise the Calvert Forum (a think tank for the New East, focused on research and policy for the creative industries).

Oh, and the name? it comes from the address. It’s located at 22 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP.

Post-Soviet Visions: Image and identity in the new Eastern Europe

This is a group show of photography by a young generation of artists from the former USSR and communist countries, namely Russia, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Most of them were either born or came to maturity after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and grew up amid the ruins of their grandparents’ communist dreams. Now they were no longer members of the socialist vanguard but teenagers and young people just like anywhere else, except poorer, living amid the crumbling infrastructure of impoverished states, and above all completely disillusioned with their heritage and culture.

Kids in America or Britain or France, for all their complaints, have a history of democracy and high ideals which can certainly be mocked, but do have some basis in fact. We do live in relatively affluent societies which respect human rights, women’s rights, LBGT+ rights (compare and contrast with Putin’s Russia).  And teenagers here have money and jobs and fashion and records to spend it on.

What did the USSR achieve to be proud of, apart from get invaded by Nazi Germany and then fight him back at gigantic cost in lives and treasure? But after the slow declines of the 1960s and 70s, after Brezhnev and Andropov, after the years of stupid war in Afghanistan, after drunk Boris Yeltsin and the sell off of state industry to a new generation of utra-rich oligarchs  – where has all this left its children? Those not fortunate to be born into the nomenklatura or mafia families, have been chucked on the scrapheap.

The result is that the photos of all the young people here, no matter which country they’re from, convey the same sense of aimless futility. It’s all high rise alienation – teenage vodka parties, tacky tattoos, bad attitude, and cheap rip-offs of American music and clothes.

The photographers

Jędrzej Franek (Poland) is the executive editor of Stacja Poznan, a cultural, architectural and design web platform. He is project manager of the Poznan Design Festival. He’s represented by three big colour photos of buildings, the best of which (below) has a strongly romantic vibe, giving his stranded high rise buildings the glamour once associated with mountains in the mist. That said, these high rises could be anywhere – Brooklyn, Gdansk  or Sheffield. It represents an international style of alienation.

Jędrzej Franek

Jędrzej Franek

Dima Komarov (21) Born in 1997 in the Mari El Republic, in Russia, Dima is a self-taught photographer and Post-Soviet Visions is his first major exhibition. He’s represented by eleven roughly A4 size colour pics of his mates, a gallery of poor, pissed-off teenagers. What struck me is how 70s and 80s their clothes were. If the New East is meant to be at the ‘forefront of fashion’ (as the introduction to the show optimistically claims) it’s going to have to try a bit harder than this. I think I had a tartan-lined windcheater like the one below way back in the 70s, and there’s a great shot of a surly skinhead wearing a Ben Sherman shirt straight from the 1980s. These could be early photos of provincial youth by the English photographer Martin Parr.

Dima Komarov

Dima Komarov

David Meshki (39) was born in 1979 in Tbilisi, Georgia. After gaining an academic degree in photography, he worked as a photographer for major Georgian cultural magazines. His first solo show consisted of photographs of skaters and athletes taken in his native country and he went on to co-direct the award-winning documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light, based on these photographs. He’s represented here by five photos (2 black and white, three colour) of skater dudes with their trademark long hair and cut off jeans. The photo below – probably the best in the exhibition – which has been blown up to fill an entire wall. Way to go, Georgia dude.

David Meskhi

David Meskhi

Apart from being spectacular photo, it’s also an obvious symbol, showing unstoppable youth with, all energy and fearlessness, transcending the crumbling concrete infrastructure of the junk countries they’ve inherited.

Patrick Bienert and Max von Gumppenberg have been working together since 2007. Travelling between Germany and New York, they ‘explore concepts of culture and identity’ grounded in the heritage of street and documentary photography. The nine black-and-white and five colour photos here, of sullen youths and crappy townscapes, are described as ‘a love letter to the rave scene in Kiev’. The best of them show a really rotted, decaying urban environment.

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Genia Volkov (37) was born in the Crimea (then still part of the Ukraine) back in 1981, and educated at the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. He became a self-taught multimedia artist. He’s represented by three big colour photos, highly stylised, two of them taken at night of hands reaching out or a scattering of star-like fireworks. His use of unnatural lighting effects sets him distinctly apart from the overwhelmingly naturalistic photorealism of all the other snappers.

Genia Volkov

Genia Volkov

Armen Parsadanov (36) Born in Baku in 1982, Armen has lived and worked in Kiev since 2013. He’s represented here by thirteen black and white prints, unframed and taped to the wall so that they look like the results of a photo shoot with fashionably wasted youths and blonde models, taped up to be selected by a magazine editor. Tatts, tacky t-shirt, most importantly heroine-chic skinny, if you goggle ‘alienated youth’ you get articles from the 1990s, 25 years ago. The ‘new’ East is just catching up.

Armen Parsadanov

Armen Parsadanov

Masha Demianova studied journalism and creative writing before turning to photography. She’s represented by two neat rows of three A4-sized black and white photos. Apparently, she is ‘a pioneer of the female gaze photography movement in Russia’, ‘challenging prevailing notions of female sexuality and desire’. So the shots are of naked women in non-sexy poses, standing on a jetty or squatting on a tree.

Masha Demianova

Masha Demianova

The most striking one for me was unrelated to female desire, a shot of multiple car headlights on a motorway in a thick fog, although cars looked at by the female gaze obviously look completely different from cars looked at by the male gaze.

Grigor Devejiev ‘is a photographer with over a decade of experience working in fashion, whose atmospheric, gritty pics have been included in international fashion magazines including i-D and Metal’. He’s represented by three big, A3-sized colour photos of shabby-looking people in threatening poses in really run-down horrible buildings. The full crappiness is brought out by the use of flash which projects cheap shadows behind the dodgy-looking characters. Note the horrible grey plastic macs.

Grigor Derevjiev

Grigor Derevjiev

Hassan Kurbanbaev (36) Born in 1982 in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, Hassan was educated at the Tashkent State University of Arts. He began his career as a cinematographer, producing short films focusing on social and youth issues. He’s represented here by a series of colour photos of pissed-off Tashkent teens, part of his Tashkent Youth project. Apparently, Tashkent is one of the youngest cities in the world, with 60% of the population under 25. This young lady doesn’t look too thrilled about it.

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Ieva Raudsepa Born in Latvia, Raudsepa is now based in Los Angeles. Her photographic work has been exhibited and featured internationally, including in i-D, YET, Latvian Photography Yearbook, FK Magazine. She’s represented here by 13 colour and two black-and-white photos, all of different sizes and arranged higgledy-piggledy so that some are overlapping. (I enjoyed the way the photos of each of the different photographers were hung, placed and arranged differently on the walls.)

Raudsepa is the only photographer who takes photos of landscapes. Most of her snaps still feature the same cast of gangly, alienated youths, but they tend to be taken on mossy banks or by lakes. One or two feature no people at all, so I’ve chosen a misty morning landscape for the sake of variety.

Ieva Raudsepa

Ieva Raudsepa

Michal Korta was born in Poland and studied German philology and photography. He has been working in photography for more than 15 years, working with press, advertising agencies and international cultural institutions, and is a lecturer on photography in Poland and Switzerland. He’s represented by four lovely black and white photos of the weird, brutalist, concrete architecture of Skopje in Macedonia, from his Beautiful Monsters series. All four are marvellous. What extraordinary buildings!

Michael Korta

Michael Korta

Paulina Korobkiewicz (25) was born in 1993 in Suwalki, Poland and is now based in London. She gained a first class honours degree in Fine Art Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and has also attended the Warsaw School of Photography. In 2016 Paulina was the winner of Camberwell Book Prize. She doesn’t appear to do people at all. Instead she’s represented by five big colour photos of aspects of buildings – the serried balconies of apartment buildings, the locked door of a nightclub in the grim morning light, fog half hiding some local shops.

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Pavel Milyakov (30) Born in 1988 in Moscow, Pavel attended Moscow State Academy of Art and Industry, working with graphic design and then Moscow Film School. Post-Soviet Visions is his first exhibition. As far as I could see he was represented by one work, an enormous blow-up of a comedy photoshop he’s done of The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but with modern apartment blocks added in. Works amazingly well. It’s blown up onto an enormous scale which makes it all the wittier.

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

The videos

I nearly missed the fact that there’s a downstairs space, containing a few more photographers, a display case of photography magazines – but most importantly a projection room in which 11 videos from film-makers of the New East were playing on a loop. These are different from and in addition to the photographers.

Most of the films feature more shots and stories about alienated youths – in one, kids get drunk in a park, smoke fags and share vodka, before going along to a shabby disco where they throw up or snog and fondle each other. In another video, two skater boys skate through the wreckage of their crappy town, lie around in a cemetery, then end up having a fight in a graffiti-covered underpass.

One is a sort of mock documentary with a voiceover in Russian explaining the contemporary rave scene, how and why alienated youths go to big warehouses, deliberately don’t eat much, but smoke and drink to excess in order to encourage a sense of delirium, and dance all night to electronic music.

The standout film for me was Lake, directed by Vita Gareskina, in which several Iranian-looking women (actually from Georgia), dressed in dark robes and then wearing glittering masks, carry out some kind of ritual by a lake which involves torches and – as far as we can tell – the ritual drowning of one of them. This stood out by dint of being one of the few films with any aspiration beyond recording skater board, vodka-drinking, trying-on-trainers, teenage times.

That said, my favourite was this video – Jungle With Fiction by KayaKata. On reflection, maybe because – as a professional music video – it simply had higher production values than all the others and so was more watchable. But also because – although I think they’re taking themselves seriously – I found it hilarious the way these dudes in some crappy post-Soviet town copy the style, movements and attitude of black rappers from South-Central LA.

Like almost all the other kids, youths, skaters, rappers, party goers, drivers and fashion victims captured in this exhibition, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that – far from innovating or creating any kind of ‘new’ fashion, music or scene – all these young people trapped in dead-end towns in the former communist countries of the East are hopelessly copying every aspect of the wealthy Western lifestyle they can get their hands on, twenty years after it’s been and gone in the West.

The meaning of ‘post-Soviet’

For according to the exhibition blurb, the term post-Soviet ‘has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film’.

To those of us outside the bubble of fashion and film, ‘post-Soviet’ is also a byword for economic collapse, falling life expectancy, epidemic alcoholism, a tsunami of organised crime, the rise of billionaire oligarchs, and the triumph of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.

All fourteen photographers are interesting in different ways – some of their work is striking, all is to a high professional standard – but they all tend to gravitate towards the same central issues, of urban decay and youth alienation.

What is post-Soviet culture? It’s a big subject and one – with a newly re-elected Vladimir Putin continuing to goad and test the West – which requires investigation and understanding.

If the photos and videos focus overwhelmingly on youths with no apparent jobs and little apparent involvement in the social structures around them, if they offer no political or economic insights into the world of ‘the New East’ – they do at least put faces, voices and sounds to the younger part of the populations of this huge region, populations which are coming, in our time, under the control of a new generation of authoritarian and intolerant politicians.


Related links

The exhibition is FREE – but note that Calvert 22 is CLOSED on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesday to Sunday only from 12 noon (until 6pm).

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

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