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

Manga @ the British Museum

Wow! The British Museum sure knows how to put on an exhibition! This comprehensive overview of the history and variety of Japanese manga comics, characters and stories, is the largest show on manga ever staged outside of Japan, and an all-singing, all-dancing feast for the mind and imagination and the senses!

Higashikata Josuke, a hero from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (1987 to the present) by Araki Hirohiko. Photo by the author

The long Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries at the back of the Museum’s main courtyard have been turned into lowlit funfair and phantasmagoria of all things manga, absolutely packed with a riot of ways of displaying, showing, highlighting, explaining, animating and enjoying all things manga. There are:

  • bookshelves packed with manga books (tankôbon) to take down and read
  • blow-ups of favourite manga characters in striking poses stuck to the walls
  • frames from manga books blown-up onto big canvases hanging from the ceiling
  • animated manga adventures (anime) projected onto screens all over the place
  • display cases examining scores of aspects and elements of the manga style
  • wall labels explaining the history and origins of manga
  • an long, painted theatre curtain covered with traditional Japanese characters from the 1880s, showing manga’s roots in theatrical costume and caricature
  • a huge model of a human head flayed of its skin to become a looming, muscled menace (a manga character, not an anatomical model)
  • footage of the enormous Comiket convention which attracts tens of thousands of manga fans every year
  • footage of a typical ‘cosplay’ festival where thousands of Japanese and foreigners dress up as their favourite manga characters
  • clips from some of the classic animated films produced by the famous Studio Ghibli projected onto a couple of big screens hanging from the ceiling
  • TV monitors which show interviews with famous and venerable practitioners of manga art
  • and all the way through, countless wall labels giving an enjoyable overload of information – either long ones giving you the history and development of the form, or shorter ones giving brief explanations of the huge variety of genres and subject matters which manga has covered

The press release explained that the exhibition is actually structured into six sections but it didn’t feel like that at all, and this review reflects the random, scattergun and sometimes repetitive experience of wandering around the big exhibition hall attracted to this or that image or TV interview or display or information label, sometimes several times, as I tried to get the facts and history and varieties of manga clear in my head.

Information panel early on in the exhibition. Photo by the author

Manga – a quick overview

To quote Wikipedia:

Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan or by creators in the Japanese language, conforming to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century.

The term manga in Japan is a word used to refer to both comics and cartooning. ‘Manga’ as a term used outside Japan refers to comics originally published in Japan.

In Japan, people of all ages read manga. The medium includes works in a broad range of genres: action, adventure, business and commerce, comedy, detective, drama, historical, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, erotica, sports and games, and suspense, among others.

Since the 1950s, manga has steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry. By 1995, the manga market in Japan was valued at $7 billion, with annual sales of 1.9 billion manga books and manga magazines in Japan (equivalent to 15 issues per person per year [the population of Japan is 127 million]).

Manga stories are typically printed in black-and-white, although some full-color manga exist. In Japan, manga are usually serialized in large manga magazines, often containing many stories, each presented in a single episode to be continued in the next issue.

A manga artist (mangaka in Japanese) typically works with a few assistants in a small studio and is associated with a creative editor from a commercial publishing company. If a manga series is popular enough, it may be animated after or during its run.

Nowadays Manga has expanded way beyond printed magazines and books to include animated films (anime) and a huge gaming industry.

Icaro by Moebius and Jirō Taniguchi (1997) describes the mind-bending adventures of a young man, Icaro, with the ability to fly and a young woman, Yukiko, who risks her life – and more – to help Icaro achieve his dream. Photo by the author

Modern origins

Manga developed from serialised cartoon strips in newspapers in the late 1800s. Political and satirical artists Kitazawa Rakuten (1876-1955) and Okomoto Ippei (1886-1948) are considered the first manga artist. Their work inspired the next generation, including manga legend Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astro Boy.

Osamu’s first manga book was New Treasure Island published in 1947, which blended influences of earlier manga, Disney cartoons and movies. It sold a sensational 400,000 copies, not bad for an 18-year-old and just after the war when the country’s economy was in ruins. Osamu went on to pioneer various manga ‘looks’, not least in his use of cinematic page layouts, casts of recurring characters, and imaginative stories.

Osamu produced manga aimed at both male and female readers, The Mighty Atom (1952) for the former, Princess Knight (1953) for the latter.

Some young visitors enthusiastically copying details about one of the many manga characters blown up and painted on the wall. Photo by the author

Visual techniques of manga

Manga has evolved a set of signs and symbols (manpu) which manga artists use to suggest actions or emotions.

Reading direction Like Japanese writing manga is read from top to bottom and from right to left. The action is contained within frames called koma, which divide the page.

Fukidashi Speech bubbles. The shapes of speech and thought bubbles change to reflect mood and content.

Gitaigo / giseigo Sound effects are used to convey drama and to involve the reader in the action.

Screen tone (tōn) The colour and texture and ‘tone’ of the background, or of the entire image, can be varied to reflect the mood of a scene.

Two characters from the women-only Princess Jellyfish series (2008-17). Photo by the author

The profession of manga

There are about 5,000 professional manga artists in Japan and the number continues to grow. There are many routes into the industry: some up-and-coming artists submit manga ideas to publishing houses, some are spotted at fan conventions, some get work as editorial assistants and work their way up.

There’s a monitor showing footage of manga artists and scriptwriters working away in a modern studio, in almost factory, mass production, conditions. The books and magazines and stories are certainly churned out on an industrial scale.

Typical manga stories progress through fixed stages, from sketches and drafts, to a script and storyboard (neemu), to final pages approved by an editor for publication. Many artists write and illustrate their own manga, some use a scriptwriter. Others rely heavily on their editors for content and drawing.

Shelves packed with manga books and a bench to sit and read on. Note the nationality and age of the visitors. Photo by the author

The manga industry

Manga is big business. The total income of the Japanese manga industry in 2016 was about three billion dollars. Four of the top manga publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – dominate the market. They are in constant competition, publishing new stories and characters, striving to keep popular manga artists on their books, and running regular competitions to discover new artists, while any new innovation is quickly copied.

Alongside many other audiovisual displays, the exhibition includes half a dozen TV monitors showing interviews with current leading practitioners of the art, including:

  • Nahuma Ichirō, born 1963 and now editor-in-chief of Big Comic
  • Suzuki Haruhiko (b.1955) co-creator of the popular series Captain Tsubasa (1981-8) and now Managing Director of Shueisha
  • Torishima Kazuhiko (b.1952) now chairman of Hakusensha, but who, as editor of the weekly Shōnen Magazine helped to create the popular Dragon Ball series (1984-95)

Visitor demographics

The exhibition was heaving, absolutely packed. There were a lot of Japanese here, and I heard French and Italian being spoken. But what really impressed me was the age of the visitors. At Tate Britain’s Frank Bowling exhibition, which I went to last week, most of the visitors were the traditional older, grey-haired types — and, after soaking myself in manga, I popped upstairs at the British Museum to see the Edvard Munch show which was rammed with really old people, including at least three old men who were using sticks and moving very slowly – the oldest of the old – barely mobile.

The contrast between those shows of ‘fine’ art, and the crowd in the Manga show couldn’t have been more dramatic. Manga was packed with kids and teenagers and – mirabile dictu – even non-white people!

At the end of the show there’s an interactive gimmick where you stand on a white circle that’s been painted on the floor and a camera up on the wall captures you and projects it onto a computer screen where you can select a variety of manga backgrounds and even, I think, change your own appearance to become a manga character.

The point is there was a whole cluster of black kids doing it, pushing and joking with each other and clustered round the screen giving each other ridiculous appearances. From visiting well over 150 art exhibitions I can tell you that you never get groups of black kids at art exhibitions. Isolated black individuals or couples, maybe.

I smiled as I watched them larking about, genuinely having fun, and it crossed my mind that, if art galleries and museums are sincere about ‘reaching out to all sectors of the community’ and ‘promoting diversity’, the obvious way to do it is to put on shows on popular subjects. Trying to attract the street people I see everyday in Streatham and Tooting to an emotionally and intellectually challenging exhibition of woodcuts by the late-Victorian and chronically depressed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is always going to be an impossible challenge.

Putting on a fun, interactive show, with plenty of moving pictures, animations, cartoons, TV clips and things to do, on a subject which lots of kids and teenagers can immediately relate to – that’s the secret of attracting more diverse and varied (and younger) audiences.

Busy and immersive

This is a terrible photo but it shows you how busy and visually immersive the exhibition is. At bottom is a huge video photo of a typically packed manga bookshop (it is in fact Comic Takaoka, in Jinbôchô Tokyo, one of the oldest continually operating manga bookstores in Japan).

Above it is one of several screens hanging from the ceiling on which are projected an animated version of Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure which the British Museum commissioned from leading manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu and which has gone on to be animated.

You can see loads of other blown-up images hanging like a forest in the background.

And off to the left, there is the enormous plastic sculpture of a flayed head, the Colossal Titan, maybe ten feet tall, from a manga story called The Attack on Titan (2012-13). It’s like a fair.

Installation view of Manga at the British Museum. Photo by the author

Historical precursors

Manga as we know it emerged in the late 1800s, building on Japan’s long tradition of visual storytelling. Precursors of manga include narrative handscrolls and woodcut prints and cheap illustrated novels. The exhibition goes way back to display a picture handscroll dating to 1100, the so-called Handscroll of Frolicking Animals, which shows cartoon animals wrestling, playing and, well, generally frolicking.

Other examples of historical precursors are scattered through the exhibition but the most striking example of manga’s historical roots is the 17-metre-long Kabuki theatre curtain from the Shintomiza theatre in Tokyo which dates from the 1880s and depicts traditional Japanese folk characters and monsters. This repays some study and a slow stroll along it taking in the garish and grotesque characters and animals.

Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain (1880) by Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889). Photo by the author

Style and gender

During the 1950s two styles of manga emerged:

  1. shōnen and seinen aimed at boys and young men, respectively and focusing on action and adventure
  2. shōjo aimed at girls and women, focusing on romance and relationships

In fact these gendered genres were created by, and read by, either sex indistinguishably. Around 1970 a pioneering group of women, named the Year 24 Group, brought a new stylishness and sophistication to shōjo stories.

Genres

In the latter half of the exhibition are loads of displays, each one highlighting the wide range of subject matter manga stories can cover. Each of them was accompanied by a couple of examples of storylines around that particular subject.

  • Sport Packed with passion, competition, rivalry, and dramatic physical activities which forge lasting friendships, sport is a natural subject for manga and has even been credited with making certain sports like soccer more popular in Japan
  • Sci fi An obvious area is science fiction, not least because the cartoon style gives scope for drawing any number of futuristic spaceships, gadgets and gizmos. An example is Toward the Terra (1977-80) set in a future where computers controal all aspects of birth, life and death. Only the Mu, a mutant breed of humans with telepathic powers, question the oppressive status quo.
  • Horror Arising out of traditional Japanese horror stories, the clever use of frames means the horrifying thing can be ‘off screen’ or only hinted at, while the reader only sees the characters’ terrified reactions
  • Religion Japan has two belief systems, Buddhism and Shinto. the example given here was of a manga comic which imagines what would happen in Jesus and the Buddha were modern flatmates, an idea which made me burst out laughing
  • Love and sex This is a huge area. Some titles are sexually explicit and so veer into pornography. Others are squeaky clean romances for younger schoolgirls. And everything in between, including high school romance, maternal love, and Boys Love, an odd term which apparently refers to gay love affairs. As with everything to do with sex – a basic element of human behaviour which no society has ever been able to understand or police – there are, apparently, ‘concerns’ about some of the depictions of sex, and the United Nations, no less, has apparently listed some manga stories and threads as violent pornography. Should it be banned in order ‘to protect women and children’? Discuss.
  • Transformation Adventure stories are full of people or things which can transform shift shapes – think of all the superheroes who pop into a phone box to change from boring salarymen into saviours of the world. Then multiply that idea by a thousand themes and variations. They give the example of Cyborg 009 which ran from 1964 to 1992 and concerned nine cyborgs, forced to transform into weapons by the evil Black Ghost Corporation, but who gained superhuman powers and escaped to run off and have thirty years’ worth of colourful adventures. Cyborgs creator – Ishinomori Shōtarō (1938-98) currently holds the world record for manga output, having created 770 titles and 550 volumes.
  • Education Manga is incorporated into educational texts, to produce simplified introductions to all manner of subjects from Marxism to sex education.
  • Current affairs Manga can be produced on current political affairs or traumatic national history. The curators give the example of Kōno Fumiyo’s moving story about a family living with the after effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which won international praise.

Among the scores of snippets from various manga plotlines and heroes which I read, the most memorable was The Willow Tree, created by Hagio Moto in 2007. The entire story was displayed in its entirety in a long glass case. A woman stands by a tree and a boy passes by, growing older in each passing scene. As the seasons pass the willow tree grows and the boy becomes a man. On the final page the man approaches the woman under the tree, and we learn that she is his dead mother who has been watching over him all this time. When he tells her that he knows she is there and that he is fine, she disappears. The changing appearance of the tree, and its falling and regrowing leaves, symbolise not only the passage of time, but the evolving nature of maternal love.

Willow Tree by Hagio Moto (2007)

Comiket

Twice a year there’s a Comiket convention-event which lasts three days and attracts hundreds of thousands of participants and visitors. A big screen shows a speeded-up video of the hordes of visitors arriving outside the convention hall and then circulating round the vast arena of displays and stands, intercut with interviews with fans explaining why they attend.

Lots of fans bring along their own manga comics which they’ve created, known as dōjinshi, often using well-known characters, the manga equivalent of fan fiction. There are about 35,000 dōjinshi groups in Japan.

Cosplay

Short for ‘costume play’, this simply refers to dressing up as your favourite manga characters. Another massive video display shows a montage of mainly young people dressed up as all manner of manga characters and fooling around for the cameras, some acting out entire scenes, some going as far as staging entire storylines.

The annual World Cosplay Summit began in Nagoya in 2003. Cosplayers attend from round the world and the event includes a parade and a competition to be crowned world cosplay champion.

A still from the film about the World Cosplay Competition. Photo by the author

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio based in Koganei, Tokyo. The studio is best known for its anime (or animated cartoon) feature films. It was founded in 1985, after the worldwide success of the anime, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).

Six of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the 10 highest-grossing anime films ever made in Japan, with Spirited Away (2001) the second highest, grossing over $290 million worldwide, and winning that year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

Two big screens suspended from the ceiling play a montage of clips from the Studio’s greatest hits, and down at floor level there are monitors showing interviews with some of the studio’s leading animators, explaining their approach and how anime differs from manga.

Still from The Wind Rises (2013) directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli. Photo by the author

The frame

In among this bombardment of information and entertainment, I came across one information panel which struck me as saying the most interesting thing about manga as a visual art form. Inoue Takehiko was commissioned by the Museum to create a manga triptych to conclude the exhibition, and has contributed large, blown-up portraits of three of the tough urban heroes from his series REAL. These are accompanied by clips from an interview with him in which he says:

For me it is all in the frame (koma). I think frames are set to take you beyond, and at the same time to confine, infinity within their confines…a good manga is composed of human figures drawn as if alive defined within an artificial environment defined by the frame.

The second part of this statement is not necessarily true. The human figures of manga are most notable for not looking remotely lifelike, but having highly simplified, open, innocent facial features (characterised by unnaturally large, doe eyes), and for being improbably athletic and dynamic.

But the first half touches on something really profound about all art, which is the power of the frame in limiting and defining the image. This is true of one-off paintings, drawings and prints. But is immensely important in the creation of all manner of cartoon strips, from manga to the French tradition of bandes dessignées through to Anglo-American comic strips.

It is not about the individual picture – although these can often be of stunning impact and beauty – but fundamentally it is about the dynamic experience of reading through a series of framed pictures. And, as Takehiko points out, the framing is vital in creating the mood and tone of each image; and the way successive frames are defined, creates a kind of visual narrative energy, over and above the logical content of the pictures, of their narrative.

It would be really interesting to learn more about the psychology of reading comic strips – how they affect the eye and the mind in a way that static individual images don’t. Wonder if anyone’s researched this subject.

In fact, now I reflect on it the day after visiting, I realise that the exhibition gave a lot of information about the various subject matters of manga, but maybe not enough analysis of that look. All the characters and stories have the same simplified cartoon style and all have the supersize eyes with big catchlights in them.

And, reviewing all the photos I took, and manga online, I realise another fact which is so obvious no-one comments on it. Which is that manga characters don’t look very Japanese. Here’s a photo of a typical Japanese young woman picked at random off the internet, after googling ‘Japanese girl.’

A random Japanese young woman

And here’s a manga of a young woman, from the Wikipedia article.

Figure in manga style by Jez (2016)

The real woman has brown or lightly tanned skin, the manga has pure white skin; and the Japanese has the characteristically narrow eyes of the Far East, while the manga figure has those alarmingly big, round catchlit, cartoon eyes.

It would have been good to have had it explained just how that look came about. Why – for over fifty years – it has stayed essentially the same. And why it denatures the ethnic Japanese appearance in favour of something more…generic and, often, more white and western-seeming. (I may be wildly wrong about this, I’m just going on the impression gained from studying the examples of manga on display here, in this particular exhibition. For example the lead figure in the still from The Wind Rises could be Harry Potter, there is absolutely nothing Japanese about his appearance. Why?)

Golden Kamuy (2014 to the present) is set in early 20th century Hokkaido, where young Sugimoto Sa’ichi leads a ragtag band on a dangerous quest to locate a stolen golden hoard belonging to the Ainu people

Anyway – this is a fabulous and hugely enjoyable exhibition. If you or your friends or kids are remotely interested in manga, this is a must-visit experience.

The Guardian review

The next day I read the review by the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones.

Jones savages the exhibition, raising two issues, the unnecessary comparison with Old Masters, and the omission of the filth and the fury associated with Japanese art.

Manga versus the Old Masters

Seems like whoever took Jones round, knowing he was a critic of high or fine art, tried to justify the show by comparing manga with classical Japanese art. This leads Jones to dismiss the exhibition we have as unworthy of the British Museum’s purpose and to wish it had been a completely different show –

I’ve rarely seen a show whose catalogue is so much more interesting than the display in the gallery. Not only are the drawings in the book dirtier, but there are far more illustrations of classic Japanese art. Surely this is what the exhibition should have been. It should have used the contemporary allure of manga to draw us into a huge survey of Japan’s art history.

I think he’s wrong. An exhibition of classic Japanese art should be that, and just that, and not need any gimmicks. This is an exhibition of a worldwide visual and commercial phenomenon. It needs no other justification. Jones accuses the museum of pandering to popular tastes. As I discussed above – if you want to attract kids and young people to museums you have to reach out to where they are. If, on the way to the manga show, the walk past Egyptian mummies and Assyrian lions and Viking helmets, all the better. They are acquiring the museum-going habit, the air of elitism and snobbery which I know – from personal experience – puts so many people off visiting art galleries and museums, is being dispelled. Once they’ve been to this, it’ll be easier (less intimidating) to go to something a bit more recherché.

Manga and pornography

Jones’s article also mentions the fact that lots of manga is ‘dirty’ (an oddly old-fashioned choice of word) by which he means pornographic. This confirms a nagging feeling I had that associates manga with random pornographic images I’ve come across in years of surfing the web. Even googling just the word ‘manga’ produces results which include topless or bottomless manga schoolgirls, some with a variety of sex aids. And some of the comments at the bottom of Jones’s article go into greater detail, giving the types of pornographic manga that are readily available, along with the Japanese terminology defining them (for example hentai, which refers, apparently, to ‘any type of perverse or bizarre sexual desire or act.’)

Having read those comments, and looked up some of the images, two obvious points emerge, for me. One is that Japanese erotic taste is different from ours. They are casually explicit about some things we are shocked by, and, as anyone who’s met a Japanese knows, quite easily shocked and even insulted by the casualness of our Western manners.

Yes, folks, it’s almost as if they come from a strikingly different culture and tradition (something which is so easy to forget in our 24/7, internationalised, global culture). Having read all the Guardian comments, collected the pornographic terminology, and looked up some of the examples, there is a second easy point to make.

Which is that the Museum and its curator obviously set out to attract the widest audience possible, to attract visitors of all ages – I saw plenty of teenagers, and families with kids, sometimes toddlers, excitedly looking at the cartoons or filling in the Children’s Trail handout they’d be given. I stood by one wall label while a girl about 7-years-old read out the label to her sister who was too young to read. Should the curators have included hard-core manga pornography in the exhibition? Should that little girl have found herself spelling out the precise meaning of pornographic terms to her young sister?

Obviously not. As Jones points out, some of that stuff can be found in the catalogue, all exhibition catalogues generally going into more detail than exhibitions can, and no child is going to buy the catalogue.

So it was the right call. You or I can explore porno manga on the internet to our heart’s content, if we wish. It would have been a disaster to include any in this show, thus created an X-rated zone kids couldn’t go into and probably causing shock horror stories in the press.

This exhibition is about creating a family-friendly, child-safe environment in which a) to enjoy yourself b) to learn lots about manga c) to inspire kids and the museum-averse to coming more often. It’s a success in every way.

Curator

Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, founding Director of the Sainsbury Institute and Professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the University of East Anglia.


Related links

  • Manga continues at the British Museum until 26 August 2019

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002)

It is Tokyo, December 1941, and Harry Niles is a fast-talking, streetwise American nightclub owner, one-time American movie importer, gambler and fixer with friends in low – and high – places. He was brought by his parents (Roger and Harriet Niles) to Japan soon after the First World War. They were Southern Baptist missionaries who came to convert the Japanese and left young 10- and 11-year-old Harry in charge of drunk Uncle Orin while they went off for long journeys around the country.

So while uncle was off drinking, Harry grew up speaking fluent Japanese and running wild in the red-light district of Asakusa. The book opens with a scene of the boy Harry being chased by his Japanese schoolboy friends as they re-enact an ancient Samurai legend (which requires an inordinate amount of fighting with bamboo sticks), running through the streets till they tumble through a building, and up against a closed door which, under pressure of their fighting bodies, springs open and lands Harry and the most aggressive of his native Japanese pursuers, Gen, suddenly into the dressing room of a small theatre, the Folies.

Harry and Gen become friends with the manager, with a camp artist Kato who hangs around the theatre and draws and sketches the clientele, and some of the showgirls at the theatre, and are quickly running errands for them and gaining all kinds of new insights into adult life. He develops a crush on the beautiful actress and sometime geisha Oharu, who is fond and kind to him in return.

This is all set in 1922 in the opening chapter of the book, and the narrative for the first half of the book alternates chapters between grown-up Harry, ‘now’, in 1941, and boy Harry, ‘then’, back in 1922, giving us more of Harry’s childhood memories, which explain his character, and also relationships with some of the central adult characters.

But the ‘now’ of 1941 is where most of the narrative takes place and which entirely takes over the second half of the story. It is December 1941, in December. Tension between Japan and America is becoming intense. America has long since imposed an oil ban on Japan, along with a ban on a wide range of modern textiles and produce, but it’s the oil ban that’s hit hardest, with the result that all cars are having to be propelled by charcoal-burning stoves set up in their rears.

All the talk is of conflict, and most of the Americans who can leave Tokyo have already done so. But Harry remains, a puzzle to his acquaintances, happy-go-lucky, blessed with an intimate knowledge of Tokyo, not so lucky in his mistress, Michiko, a fervent communist who he rescued from being beaten up by the ferocious Tokyo police after a protest march some two years earlier, and who latched onto him ever since. He has installed him as the Record Girl in his bar, standing by the jukebox, changing records and mouthing along to the words, dressed in a dinner jacket and sexy stockings. Give the place sex appeal. Encourages the male clientele to buy more drinks. Unfortunately, Michiko is fiercely almost insanely jealous, continually threatening either to shoot Harry or kill herself. Yes, she is quite a strain to be with.

The last plane to leave Tokyo is scheduled to take off on Monday December 8. Unfortunately, as we the readers know, the Japanese launch their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, so we know the plane will probably be cancelled and Harry trapped. Ooops.

So the book follows Harry through three or so days of feverish, against the backdrop of mounting war hysteria, as half a dozen or more complicated plotlines meet and clash to provide a complex plot and mounting tension. Among these are:

Eight months earlier Gen, now a lieutenant in the Japanese Navy, introduced Harry to a man in the back of the geisha house opposite Harry’s Bar who turns out to be Admiral Yamamoto. As a notorious con-man Harry is taken to see the experiments of a certain Dr Ito to turn water into oil. These are impressively staged with lots of electric arcs and sparking, but Harry immediately sees it is a confidence trick and helps Gen expose it.

Now, eight months later, Harry repeatedly makes it clear to anyone who will listen that any coming war will be entirely decided by access to oil. America has vast supplies of it, not least from its own Texas oil ranges. Japan has no oil in its territory but will have to invade and conquer the oil-producing islands of the Dutch East Indies. Hence the willingness of the desperate High Command to believe in the ridiculous Dr Ito and his experiments.

Now we discover that Harry has been involved in falsifying the shipment papers of American oil tankers coming to Japan, to the harbour of Yokahama. He makes it look as if they set off with ten thousand barrels of oil and arrive with only one thousand. Where do they stop off? Hawaii and the naval base of Pearl Harbour. So Harry’s fiddling with the accounts seems to imply that the Americans are building up stocks of oil in secret oil storage tanks somewhere at the harbour. But are they?

Why is Harry bothering to do this? We learn that nobody is paying him to. In fact, he is definitely persona no grata with the American authorities, a position he consolidates by making an outrageously anti-American speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, the club for Tokyo’s most important businessmen and politicians. Here Harry makes a big speech explaining why there is no need for a war. This is because he genuinely doesn’t want there to be a war, but it has the effect of setting both the American and powerful British community against him as a traitor.

As a sideline, there is the thread of Willie Stauber, a German emigre, fully paid-up Nazi, but who Harry worked with in Nanking four years earlier, and who returned from China with a Chinese bride in tow. He is desperate to get out of Tokyo but to make sure his Chinese bride can accompany him. At odd moments, in the midst of his other concerns, we see Harry purposefully working to try and help Willie, eventually by securing faked official documents, into which he, Harry, writes an official text declaring Iris a fit person to travel, sealed with an official seal which he himself makes and stamps, using one of his many underworld skills, this time as a forger.

Colonel Ishigama 1

But the central driving force of the narrative is definitely is the fact that, right from the start of the book, Harry is being hunted by a certain Colonel Ishigama, who has vowed to kill him. Why?

Their paths have crossed twice before. Once, back in 1922, the artist Kato had asked Harry to deliver a fine print to a client. Harry had already taken several to the tall severe figure inside an opulent-looking house. This time he wants to see a new movie so asks his friend Gen to take it. Bad mistake. Hours later, when Gen has not returned, Harry goes to the house and is invited in by the forbidding owner. He finds gen lying sideways on a large pillow with an odd look on his face, while the owner proceeds to show Harry his collection of antique swords, and then to demonstrate samurai moves with it. Eventually, he ushers both boys out of his house, giving Gen a white chrysanthemum as he leaves.

Back at Kato’s studio, the artist explains that this is because Colonel Ishigama (for this is the man’s name) has deflowered Gen, taken his homosexual virginity. This is why he had wanted Harry to take the print; Harry is too ugly for a connoisseur like Ishigama to be attracted to. Now he has spoilt everything.

Kato and Oharu

In fact Kato is so disappointed with Harry that he decides, on the spot, to sever friendship with him, to see him no more. Harry is devastated. the past few months have given him a wonderful insight into art and adult life, and wonders and mysteries. But Kato is unbending and Harry is kicked out to wander the streets in tears.

That night boy Harry tracks down Kato to a walled garden. Sneaking over the wall Harry is transfixed to discover that Kato is sketching Harry’s beloved actress Oharu being fucked in various positions by one of the comedians from the Folies theatre. Having become drenched in Japanese aesthetic values Harry is able to appreciate the subtlety of the positions, and the rapid way Kato sketches lines and form, writing scribbled notes in the margins indicating what colours later to use when he works them up to prints in his studio.

But a sudden flash of lightning reveals Harry standing in the garden watching the scene. Quick as a flash he turns and leaps back over the garden wall, scampering way through the alleyways of Asakusa in the pouring rain back to the house where he’s meant to be supervised by drunk Uncle Orin, but where he is, as usual, alone, and hunkers down into his bed cold and wet and miserable. Except that, a few minutes later, Oharu knocks meekly at the door, comes sits by the bed and apologises. ‘It was only sex, Harry,’ she says, voicing the very different attitude the Japanese take to copulation from us shame-filled Westerners. it was just poses and positioning for her friend the artists, Kato, nothing more. She strokes his head. He is cold and feverish. She insists on getting him out of his wet things. She climbs in behind him and Harry feels her nipples hardening. She takes his hand and guides it between her legs. In short, she guides him through the mysteries of sex, and takes his boyish virginity.

All novels are, at some level, wish fulfilment. The wish fulfilment and fantasy is nearer the surface in ‘genre’ fiction. What man reading this could not be transported and wish this was how he lost his virginity.

Unfortunately, Harry is just falling asleep in Oharu’s arms when the light is brutally turned on to reveal Harry’s parents standing over them, unexpectedly returned from a long missionary tour, accompanied by the bleary-eyed and mortally embarrassed Uncle Orin.

Harry’s father brutally yanks Oharu by the hair out of Harry’s bed and when Harry protests belts him so he reels across the room. He would have pushed Oharu naked out into the street, except that his wife points out the neighbours will see, the humiliation etc, so they let her hurriedly dress in her kimono before kicking her out then Roger Niles takes his belt to Harry and beats him till he bleeds.

Suffice it to say this experience crystallises Harry’s love for everything fine, refined and Japanese and his contempt for everything big, blundering and brutal about America. Within days they are on a boat sailing back to the States. A few months later Tokyo is devastated by the vast earthquake and firestorm known as the Great Kanto earthquake, an appalling disaster in which some 144,000 people lost their lives in the unimaginable holocaust of out of control firestorms. Harry later learns that Kato died trying to protect his prints, and nothing was heard of Oharu: like so many other she simply disappeared, burned without trace.

Colonel Ishigama 2

Anyway, it is only two-thirds of the way into the book that we discover the cause of Ishigama’s ire and why Harry has been trying to evade him for the first 300 pages, in a prolonged flashback. The story is actually told by the German Willie Staub. Four years earlier Willie had been in China when the Japanese invaded. He had been in the capital Nanking when the Japanese arrived and began their reign of fear. They gang raped all the women they could find. they rounded up men and shot them in squads of up to a hundred. NCOs arranged for the still raw recruits to use live Chinese as bayonet practice in order to perfect their technique.

In the midst of this holocaust Willie and the handful of other Europeans tries to set up a safe quarter of town to protect the Chinese fleeing there. From nowhere appears an American who can speak fluent Japanese and becomes Willie’s driver. He tells several stories about how Harry used his con-man confidence to interrupt executions and gang rapes.

Best technique was to muscle through the Japanese soldiers holding down the woman, take out a stethoscope and examine her groin (having first gotten the Japanese penis removed) and announce confidently that she had venereal disease, reminding the soldiers that they don’t want to infect themselves and bring this pollution back to their wives and sweethearts. The Japanese desisted. Harry and Willie took the traumatised woman to their lorry, to join all the others, and, once the lorry was full, be driven back to the (relative) safety of the European zone.

Anyway, one day on their tour of the atrocities, they come across a crowd of soldiers surrounding a line of ten Chinese civilians who have their hands tied behind their backs and have been made to kneel in a line. At the end of the line is Colonel Ishigama. Harry recognises him instantly. And recognises the beautifully crafted, infinitely sharp samurai sword he is holding. He is about to see if he can behead ten people in a row in under 60 seconds. As he flexes his wiry forearms, and as his aide de camp prepares the bucket of water and cloth with which he will wipe the sword between strikes, Harry grabs all the cash he and Willie have in the cash box in the lorry, jumps down and walks confidently into the ring of soldiers, yelling that he will give Ishigima 100 yen and every man in the watching soldiers ten yen each, if Ishigama can behead them all in under thirsty seconds, those left unbeheaded to walk free. The soldiers cheer for the money and Ishigama reluctantly agrees (refusing would lose face) and Smith then describes the grisly decapitation of the first five civilians, with Ishigama losing time because he’s flustered, because the aide de camp drops the wiping cloth, accidentally hitting his own aide de camp on one backswing: the upshot is that Ishigama only manages five before the thirty seconds is up.

The crowd of soldiers roar, Harry gives them the huge bundle of yen to distribute and hustles the surviving five civilians – including a 13-year-old boy who has pooed and peed himself – into the back of the lorry alongside the raped women, and they carefully reverse, through the cheering soldiers and drive off before Ishigama can do anything.

This is why, when Harry hears, right at the start of the story, that Ishigama is back from China in Tokyo, it fills his mind with anxiety and drives the narrative.

Ishigama’s revenge

There are a lot of other plot strands. Harry meets with his mistress (Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, the British ambassador), tries to hide the fact from Michiko, runs his bar, the Happy Paris, makes his speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, meets other friends Japanese and American, for drinks and gossip, is present at the small group for drinks where Willie tells the story about Ishigama, meets his schoolboy friend and nemesis Lieutenant Gen, now in the Japanese Navy, for conversations about oil or lack thereof for the Japanese war effort.

In a separate plotline he is being investigated and followed by Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police, also known as the Thought Police, and his goon assistant Corporal Go. They have been tipped off about his involvement in the Magic Oil experiments of Dr Ito, and turn up at the Yokohama dockside offices of one of the oil companies whose books Harry is fiddling to make it look like oil is being offloaded in Hawaii.

Also we run into several of Harry’s small gang of boyhood Japanese friends, and discover how they’ve turned out. One is a sumo wrestler, Taro, twin of Jiro, who had joined the navy and been killed and who, in a series of scenes, Harry promises to accompany to the office where they collect his ashes and official war box (containing the ashes, military citation and so on) to be given to the dead hero’s family.

Plus involvements with various local gamblers and a strand where Harry swaps all the cash he has for gold from a friendly pawnbroker.

Altogether, these intertwining plotlines and strands form a wonderful fabric, a tapestry of stories and adventures and scams, each of them shedding light on different aspects of Japanese culture, and tradition, building up a persuasive sense of life in Japan of the period.

But it is only in the last 100 pages or so that Ishigama finally catches up with Harry. It is in the willow house, a geisha house opposite his bar. Harry has returned from various meetings and adventures to discover his own bar dark and locked up. Unusual. He didn’t give instructions for this. And the willow house opposite is strangely quiet. It is unlocked. He takes his shoes off and tiptoes along the hall until he hears a voice calling his name.

In a genuinely bizarre scene, he discovers Colonel Ishigama quietly kneeling at a traditional Japanese table with his immense super-sharp samurai sword lying on it, attended by an immaculately painted geisha girl. Harry knows everything about Japanese culture and so this scene is stuffed with facts about geishas and the intricacy with which they are painted, their social and cultural role, as well as lots of information about Ishigama’s background.

Ishigama is infinitely polite and solicitous. He asks the geisha for hot sake. They drink each other’s health. Harry knows that if he makes one false move or says something wrong, Ishigama will whip up the sword and behead him faster than he can move.

It is the standout scene in a novel full of strikingly vivid, beautifully imagined scenes. Ishigama calmly and politely informs Harry that he (Harry) owes him (Ishigama) five heads, the five heads he never got to take off back in China. Of course Harry’s will be last, but he, Harry, will select the identities of the other four. Harry’s mind races…

At which point one of Harry’s acquaintances, Al DeGeorge, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, knocks on the door. He is drunk as a skunk. He stumbles inside shouting Harry’s name wanting to know why his bar isn’t open. He makes it right up to the entrance of the back room when Ishigama abruptly swoops to his feet, with one stride is at the doorway, and with one enormous sweep of the sword cleaves DeGeorge from shoulder blade to belly button. the dying man grunts a last syllable and falls in two halves.

Neither Harry nor the geisha has moved. As I say, powerful scene. In the event it slowly dawns on Harry, to his amazement, that the geisha is none other than his fierce lover, Michiko. All kinds of speculation goes through his mind. Was she always a geisha on the side. Who painted her so elaborately, every geisha needs an assistant? Was it Ishigama, a psychopath famed for his aesthetic abilities? In which case, did she service the brutal sadist?

Harry’s mind is swimming while he all the time makes no movement as Ishigama ritually cleans his sword and returns to the kneeling position opposite Harry at the low table. More sake! And the three toast each other as if nothing had happened. Then suddenly Michiko has a small dagger at Ishigama’s throat. She makes him put down the sword and Harry grabs both it and the smaller ceremonial sword from Ishigama’s sash.

Ishigama is neutralised. He smiles. Now he knows Michiko’s true relationship with Harry. Then he stands up and, of course, Michiko can’t bring herself to stab him. Before they can stop him he leaps through the paper wall of the room and is into the garden and beyond. Harry collects up the swords, grabs Michiko’s hand and they run back across the road towards his bar, letting themselves in, locking the door, Harry fumbling for the pistol he has hidden under the floorboards.

Then Harry is picked up by the Thought Police and taken to a prison where he sees the manager of one of the oil companies whose records he had faked, bound to a table and beaten senseless with bamboo rods. Sergeant Shozo is very polite, offers him a cigarette, says this will happen to him unless he tells them what he knows about the secret oil tanks at Pearl Harbour. They only beat Harry a little and eventually (and a bit inexplicably, to me) they let him go.

Harry makes his way back to central Tokyo and spends the remaining 100 or so pages of the book in increasingly desperate attempts to inform the American ambassador, and then his mistress, Lady Beechum, that he is now convinced a Japanese attack is coming very soon. The ambassador, cornered at a swish Japanese golf course, simply pretends to ignore him. Lady Beechum tells him noone will believe him; he is the most discredited man in Tokyo.

Then there is another encounter with Ishigama, in the street which is interrupted by news announcers blaring from every streetside loudspeaker – that Japan has launched a surprise attack on the American fleet and utterly destroyed it. People stream out of their houses, cheering. Ishigama is lost in the torrent of people. All the plotlines come together. Harry drives through the throng to the American embassy only to discover, amid scenes of panic as all the embassy staff gather and burn all their secret information, that Harry’s name is not on the list of Americans who will be repatriated. His old schoolboy friend Hooper explains it is partly because he is persona non grata with both the American and British ex-pat community. But more because the Japanese want him.

Finally Ishigama catches up with him, helped by his oldest schoolboy frenemy, Gen, giving rise to a prolonged chase through shops and back alleyways until Harry finds himself, unwittingly, tumbling once again through the door into the dressing room of the Theatre Folies, where he had tumbled all those years ago. Now it is dusty and abandoned and now, on its empty stage, the last gruesome scene of the novel takes place.

You will not be surprised to learn that heads roll. But I think you should read this immensely enjoyable to find out whose.

Dramatis personae

Whites

Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, British ambassador, Harry’s sexually athletic mistress, who has also worked in the British code room for two years, very well informed about international affairs

Sir Arnold Beechum – purple faced blimp who knows full well Harry is having an affair with his wife and, late on in the novel, ambushes Harry with a cricket bat, knocking him unconscious, as if Harry didn’t have enough to worry about already

Willie Staub – member of the Nazi Party, former managing director of China Deutsche-Fon – who was with Harry back in Nanking, China, then married Iris, a Chinese woman, who he is desperate to help get away with him back to Europe

Al DeGeorge – sceptical journalist for the Christian Science Monitor

Japanese

Agawa – keeper of a local pawnshop who exchanges Harry’s cash for small gold ingots

Corporal Go of the Thought Police, a grinning sadist

Goro – reformed pickpocket friend of Harry’s, gone straight and married the owner of a stationery shop he once tried to rob

Haruko – waitress at Harry’s bar, the Happy Paris

Ishigami – the young army officer who deflowers the boy Gen, and gives him and Harry a display of samurai swordsmanship, who Harry cheats out of his Chinese beheadings in Nanking, and then pursues Harry implacably through the second half of the novel like an avenging Fury

Kato – artist and printmaker, who teaches Harry (and the reader) the aesthetics of Japanese prints and design; after Harry lets Gen take a print to Lieutenant Ishigama – who seduces him – Kato drops Harry as unreliable

Kondo – bartender at the Happy Paris

Michiko Funabashi – young woman communist who Harry saves from a riot, sleeps with and thereupon becomes  his fiercely jealous mistress, she serves as the Record Girl in his bar, and pops up unexpectedly painted as a geisha girl in the central scene with Colonel Ishigama

Oharu – actress in the theatre who wipes the boy Harry’s face when he tumbles into the changing room, and becomes his muse, and who later takes his virginity: lost in the great earthquake of 1922

Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police – thoughtful and playful officer who unwaveringly pursues Harry to find out if he was lying about the oilfields at Hawaii

Taro – sumo wrestler, twin of Jiro, who joins the navy and is killed, whose ashes Taro receives on the main day

Tetsu – one of their boyhood gang who becomes a yakuza and is covered in tattoos

Gen – the leader of their gang when they were boys, now a lieutenant in the Japanese navy

Admiral Yamomoto – head of the Imperial Japanese Navy who Harry is introduced to by a nervous Lieutenant Gen eight months earlier, whose trust Harry wins by playing poker with him, and who then asks for Harry to come and watch the conman Dr Ito perform his fraud of supposedly turning spring water into oil

Cruz Smith’s prose

Cruz Smith’s writing has two obvious pleasures: one is that he really transports you to his locations, making you feel and smell and breathe them. The bustling, noisy cityscape of 1940s Tokyo is vividly conveyed, from the pomp of the British Embassy, via the top businessmen at the Chrysanthemum Club, to the umpteen bars and pawnshops and sumo training gyms and artists studios which Harry’s numerous interests take us to.

Second is the way he can make language jive and shimmy. I’ve just read a couple of thrillers by the Englishman Robert Harris, which are written in clear efficient journalistic prose, the text’s ‘grip’ deriving from the mounting tension implicit in the increasingly fraught situations he describes. the prose is meant to be transparent as a reporter’s and let the fraught scenarios snag the reader.

By contrast Cruz Smith is a poet. He can make the language jive and shimmy in totally unexpected ways. You know the old archive footage where an artist like Picasso draws a couple of lines onto paper and… it is a bull! Same with Cruz Smith. A couple of ordinary words are arranged in a novel combination which opens up an entirely new idea or sensation.

In this way, not only are the novels exciting and informative but they supply a steady stream of moments when the prose leaps up and performs tricks for you. I’m not saying he’s Shakespeare. Just that he can do in a phrase what other authors need a paragraph to do, and then injects something extra.

For example, here is Tokyo as the loudspeakers at every road corner blare the news that Japan has launched and won the Pacific war.

Each radio report began with the opening bars of the ‘Warship March’, and with every account, Tokyo seemed to rise farther above sea level. (p.407)

When Harry is planning to ditch Michiko in order to be on the last plane out of Tokyo sitting next to his mistress, Lady Beechum, he thinks:

He’d garb his betrayal with small decencies… (p.233)

Lady Beechum is all-too-aware of Harry’s crooked shortcomings, as she sums up in a Wildeish paradox:

‘Harry, it’s a fantasy. You and I were not meant to be with anyone. it’s sheer incompatibility that keeps us together.’ (p.172)

Sometimes it’s more in the zone of American street smarts, descended from a long line of pulp writers, and crafted to reflect Harry’s own rueful self-awareness.

A crow trudged up the road and shared a glance with Harry, one wiseguy to another. (p.330)

It was one of those moments, Harry thought, when your life was put on the scale and the needle didn’t budge. (p.342)

But at others, it’s poetry, moments when you see a new aspect of human behaviour.

The man spoke with such intensity that it took Harry a moment to find the air to answer. (p.191)

Sometimes it’s the poetry of description.

Every few minutes a fighter plane would pass overhead, towing its shadow across the baseball diamond and up over the slope to the airfield across the road. (p.130)

This immediately and vividly made me recall all the times an airplace shadow has passed over or near me. I was there.

Maybe my favourite is the moment when the boy Harry pops over the wall into the garden of the house where he is to discover Ohasu having sex and being sketched by Kato, in a heavy summer downpour of rain, and:

The house was larger than it had appeared from the street, with a side garden not of flowers but  of large stones set  among raked pebbles. In a brief illumination of lightning, Harry saw the garden as it was meant to be contemplated, as small islands in a sea of perfect waves. The pebbles chattered in the rain. (p.250)

‘The pebbles chattered in the rain.’ Not show-offy, witty or paradoxical. Only six common little words. But which convey the moment perfectly, the garden of Japanese pebbles glistening and minutely jostled by the heavy downpour. You are there. With Harry. At the heart of the story. And Cruz Smith does this again and again with acute details and snappy phrases. His books are not only gripping and thoroughly researched, but deliver a really verbal, literary pleasure.


Related links

Other Martin Cruz Smith reviews

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’

Also:

1986 Stallion Gate

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

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

Klimt / Schiele @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is much more varied and interesting than the Royal Academy’s promotional material suggests. The main poster shows two female nudes with prominent nipples and, of the eight images further down the page, all but one are nudes, leading you to expect a festival of bottoms and boobs.

There certainly are plenty of nudes in the show, but there’s considerably more to it than that, and it’s the fuller, broader context which makes it so interesting and rewarding.

The pretext

Both Gustav Klimt (born July 1862) and Egon Schiele (born June 1890) died in 1918, Klimt 27 years older and much the more famous and successful figure, having developed a style which combined beautiful draughtsmanship with a fin-de-siecle and semi-symbolist fondness for placing his human figures within two-dimensional sheaths of glittering colours, most famously in 1908’s The Kiss. (Be warned: there is nothing this finished and this glamorous in this exhibition.)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Schiele was much under the older man’s influence throughout the 1900s (they first met in 1907) until around May 1910, when he himself realised he had broken through to find his own voice and style – basically Klimt unplugged, the same addiction to the human figure, to sensuous depictions of nudes, but with a ferociously modern, twisted, angular, abrasive sensuality.

To some extent, as the gallery notes make clear, this was the sensuality of poverty. Whereas Klimt ran a successful studio which won public commissions – painting complex ceiling schemes for grand buildings of Vienna’s Ringstraße, did a series of commissions for Vienna’s high society ladies and was married to Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge who ran a successful fashion business, and so had access to all manner of sumptuous fabrics, in the latest designs, for his drawings and paintings – Schiele was barely 20 when he hit his stride, and lived in poorly furnished flats with a succession of ‘companions’, most of them even poorer than him, which is why so many of his women are wearing basic kit, stockings, a blouse, and not much else.

To mark the coincidental centenary of their deaths the Royal Academy has arranged to borrow 100 or so portraits, allegories, landscapes and erotic nudes by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, allowing visitors an amazing opportunity to see these powerful, skilled and stimulating works.

Six rooms

The exhibition is upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Academy, and is divided into six rooms.

Room 1 Photos, early sketches and the Secession

Photos of Klimt as a middle aged man, in his trademark blue smock, early and very Victorian realist drawings. Next to early photos of Schiele adopting one of his art school poses.

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

This rooms explains Klimt’s rise to dominance of the Vienna art scene and his leadership of the ‘Secession’ of new young artists set up in 1897. There’s a Secession poster which Klimt designed, with a graceful image of Athena in 1903, next to the bitingly Expressionist picture of the selection board around a table which Schiele created for the 1918 Secession exhibition, after Klimt’s death.

Room 2 Klimt’s drawing process

This room is devoted to several sets or series of drawings Klimt made for grand allegorical projects. In 1894 he was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna and chose the subject of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. On display are a series of preparatory drawings for ‘Medicine’ which he conceived as a naked woman floating in space, feet towards us.

In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the Fourteenth Vienna Secessionist exhibition, and there are a number of sketches here for female figures. And several preparatory sketches for his 1905 oil painting, Three Ages of Woman, including a strikingly drawn naked middle-aged woman.

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

The most obvious thing about all the pieces in this room is none of them are coloured: they are literally just pencil drawings on paper. They allow you to examine and admire Klimt’s technique, and to understand better his interest in the surfaces and folds of the dresses his figures (almost all women) are wearing. But they lack all the exquisite finish and colour and golden luxuriance of his paintings.

It is, therefore, quite a shock and a pleasure to walk into the next room, which is packed with Egon Schiele’s vibrant colourful paintings.

Room 3 Schiele’s drawing process

You immediately notice that all the drawings in this room are coloured, very carefully and fully coloured. And I noticed that the strong angular outlines of Schiele’s figures are emphasised by often being drawn in black crayon as opposed to weak pencil. As if this wasn’t enough some of the most striking figures are outlined with a rough swathe of white gouache, which really makes them leap off the page. Exemplified in this nude.

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female nude also epitomises other Schiele traits:

  • the angularity of the anatomy – look at the painfully pointed hip and shoulderbone
  • the uncomfortableness of the pose – what’s happened to her right arm?
  • the attention to the hand which is long and heavily jointed, looking like a four-legged spider crawling up her side
  • the unashamed bluntness of the loins with their pubic hair
  • and the use of colour not so much to describe as to highlight and bring out the composition

The guide makes a central point:

Schiele frequently used watercolour and gouache in his works on paper, but rarely to create three dimensional modelling. Colour is employed expressively or as a graphic compositional device, similar to Klimt’s division of decorative surface pattern in his paintings.

Not all, but a number of the Klimt sketches in the previous room sketched in the face and body shape merely in order to allow him to create the characteristic series of whorls and geometric shapes across the fabric of women’s skirts and dress which obviously fascinated him. By contrast Schiele’s colours don’t even and smooth out, but create dramatic highlights which leap out of the image.

Not only is the shock of walking into this room like watching colour TV after black and white – it is also by far the most varied in subject matter.

Thus Schiele was arrested in April 1912 when a thirteen-year-old girl who had sought protection in the house he shared with his unmarried partner and model Wally Neuzil, was tracked down by her irate father. He was arrested on charges of seduction and abduction and ended up spending 24 days in Neulenbach prison before the case was dismissed. The exhibition displays five of the drawings and paintings he made during this brief incarceration, one is a full-body self-portrait, but four are of the interior of the prison and his cell. I liked the one of a chair with some handkerchiefs and a green scarf (?) draped over it.

Beside these were two striking and dynamic architectural studies of houses, showing how well Schiele’s strong black lines bring out the architectonics of anything, be it body or building. Alongside these a set of landscapes. I never knew Schiele painted landscapes, they tend to be eclipsed by the explicit nudes.

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

This reproduction doesn’t bring out how bright and vivid the greens of the field are. And next to these landscapes was a set of three drawings of chrysanthemums. Again, I had forgotten that Schiele made many flower studies.

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

Klimt may, for all I know, be the finer artist of the two, but in this exhibition, in this selection of their works hanging side by side, Schiele comes over as vastly more colourful, inventive, varied and dynamic.

Room 4 Klimt portraits

By the 1890s Klimt was a sought-after portrait painter for society ladies. He made his rich women appear tall, statuesque, elegant, often with fashionable dresses buttoned right up to the chin, and a carefully styled bouffant haircut. In the ten or so pencil drawings and sketches for portraits presented here, Klimt is obviously interested in the overall shape and, in some of them, the potential of the dresses to be turned into his trademark fantasias of geometric shapes and mosaics. This approach is exemplified in this study for the sumptuous portrait he eventually painted of Frau Fritza Riedler. Note the absence of eyes. it is the patterns and shapes of the dress which take up most of the space, with just enough outline of face to make it human.

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

The curators have artfully hung this eyeless sketch next to a penetrating study by Schiele of his younger sister, Gerti Schiele. You immediately see the difference: the brim of the hat and the ruff around her chest are confidently sketched in, but the rest of the body, for example her right arm, just tapers away. Schiele’s real interest is obviously in the intense black eyes of the sitter, which are staring right out at you.

They are hung right next to each other and looking from one to the other you realise that The Klimt is a design, whereas the Schiele is an intensely felt portrait.

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Maybe the difference can be explained in terms of tradecraft – the Klimt sketches were never to be intended to be anything more than preparations, try-outs for what would be the very labour-intensive process of creating finished luxury paintings. By contrast, the Schieles are what they are, not many of them are preparations for paintings, they are pencil, crayon, gouache and watercolour works in their own right.

Maybe there’s a sociological explanation: Klimt could afford to make numerous preparations of expensive works for rich clients; Schiele never became that financially successful, so most of his portraits are of people he knew, models, lovers, friends and family, so they come out of more intimate and close relationships. Maybe that explains why almost all the Schiele knock you for six.

Room 5 Schiele portraits

This is really rammed home in the room devoted to Schiele portraits which, once again, demonstrates his versatility. There are one or two nudes but the emphasis is on his ability to capture the features and character of perfectly respectable, fully dressed citizens of Vienna. There’s a little set of portraits of middle-class men like Heinrich Benesch, the railway inspector who became an important collector of Schiele’s work.

One wall displays a set of portraits of his family, including touching portraits of his sister, his mother and his father-in-law. Set amid these is a staggeringly evocative face of his wife, Edith Harms, who he married in 1914. The guide tells us a bit of gossip about their marriage, namely that nice, middle-class Edith insisted Schiele cut off all contact with his working class mistress and muse, Wally Neuzil. Seems cruel. Needs must. But what remains of Edith is Schiele’s staggeringly evocative portraits of her, like the one featured here. A face, hair, a hand – and an entire personality is before us. It is a staggering testimony to what art can do.

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Yet another aspect of Schiele’s vision is displayed across two walls of this room – his numerous, inventive and varied self-portraits. Klimt never did a self portrait in his life, Schiele did hundreds. Maybe, again, partly out of poverty. But mostly because, whereas the Symbolist, fin-de-siecle art of the 1890s reached beyond itself to some secret realm trembling on the brink of revelation, the Expressionist art of the 1910s explored the self, and the fracturing of the self, into anguished fragments.

It’s an oddity or irony of the German Expressionists that so many of them considered themselves spiritual leaders, heralding a great spiritual awakening of humanity – and yet, to us, so many of their paintings look hard, heavy and anguished. Same here, with Schiele – the commentary tells us that he identified with Francis of Assissi, wrote about the artist being a spiritual leader, gave his self-portraits titles like ‘redemption’ – and yet to us they seem to anticipate the acute and anguished self-consciousness of the twentieth century, which didn’t decline after Schiele’s death, but achieved new heights of neurotic panic after the Holocaust, the atom bombs and the spread of nihilism and existentialism across mid-century Europe.

It is that tormented self-consciousness which Schiele’s countless experimental self-portraits seem to communicate to us today, not songs about birds.

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

By no means all of these self-portraits are nude; the one above is the most naked and explicit. In many others he’s wearing clothes but posing in one of his characteristically agonised, ungainly stylised positions. This angularity prepares us for the last room.

Room 6 Erotic nudes

Bang! the room explodes with some of the most erotic paintings and drawings ever made. They are erotic because they are so candid. You feel like you are in the room, with a good-looking young woman who is happy to share her body with you, no shame, no false modesty, no recriminations. For me, at any rate, it’s this spirit of complete, unashamed, naked complicity which makes them emotionally or psychologically powerful.

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

But having looked carefully at all the works which precede them it is also possible to set aside their erotic charge altogether and consider them as compositions. In this respect the most successful of them vividly bring together features we’ve already noted:

  • the stylised pose, deliberately not classical, not a nude woman carefully standing so as to conceal her loins, but a real woman squatting, lying back with her legs open, gazing at the viewer, completely unembarrassed
  • the angularity of the anatomy – note the weirdly pointed hips, the visible ribs, the jagged angles around the shoulder, the accurate depiction of the lines made by the tendons of the inner thigh just next to the pubic hair, the pointed chin – the human figure as sharp angles
  • the use of colour not to describe naturalistically, but as expressive highlighting – much earlier Klimt had coloured the nipples of his nude paintings, but they were set amid an entire composition of gleaming rich colours: Schiele repeatedly uses the trick of painting the labia, nipples and lips a bright orange colour, on one level highlighting the erogenous zones, but on another making the figures almost into painted puppets, marionettes, an unsettling ambiguity

Note, also, the use of the colour green. By her breast, and armpit, and under her eyes and, the more you look at it, the more you see that Schiele has used that very unhuman colour, green, just touches and flecks of it, which… which do what, exactly? They make this woman’s body look a bit more emaciated than it already is: but the sparingness with which it’s used also makes you look closer, lean in, get drawn in.

Once I started looking, I noticed a very fleeting use of green in many of the nudes, creating just a hint of a kind of heightened, floodlit, hyper-vividness. There’s even green in the self-portrait wearing a yellow waistcoat. I’ve read scores of articles about Schiele and nudes and pornography and the male gaze and so on. It would be interesting to read just one good article about his very sophisticated use of colour.

Schiele’s nudes, hundreds of them, were notorious in his day and now are widely known and admired. I had no idea that Klimt did quite so many nudes and that, in their way, they are more sexually explicit. The wall opposite Schiele’s green-flecked nudes is covered with the detailed pencil drawings Klimt made of nubile young women naked and very blatantly masturbating.

In 1907 Klimt provided fifteen avowedly erotic drawings for a luxury edition of the Roman classic, Lucian’s dialogue of the courtesans. The title of one drawing – shown in the original pencil version and then as an illustration in a copy of the book which is on display here – says it all: Woman reclining with leg raised. She is lying on her back on a bed with one leg pulled up and back by her left arm while she is masturbating with her right hand. Art doesn’t come much more explicit than this. Although even when he’s being as rude as an artist possibly can be, it’s amusing that Klimt can’t stop himself drifting off to think about the decorative spots and patterns on the fabric she’s lying on (her dress? a blanket?)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

The commentary suggests that, because Klimt’s nude women have their eyes closed they are somehow passive victims of the male gaze, whereas Schiele’s explicit female nudes generally have their eyes open and are often looking straight at the viewer – and so are therefore empowered, have agency etc – an issue of vital concern to female art curators.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple: it’s certainly not that a consistent rule, because some Klimt women have their eyes open and some Schiele women have theirs closed.

In my opinion the scholars are over-explaining something which is more obvious: not only Schiele’s female nudes but the male nudes and most of the fully-dressed portraits as well, are simply more powerfully drawn and more vividly coloured than any of the Klimt drawings on show here.

Klimt’s masturbating women may have their eyes closed, but more importantly (for me, anyway) – although they are just as explicit, in fact in the way they are actively masturbating, they are more explicit than the Schiele – nonetheless, they are drawn with much finer and paler lines, lines which almost fade away into nothingness, as the left leg of the model, above, dwindles from the heft of her buttock and hip down to a small foot which is merely an outline.

In other words, in my opinion, it is not the model, the human being depicted – it is Klimt’s technique or style which is passive and mute. As pencil drawings, the Klimt nudes in this final room are probably better, more accurate draughtsmanship, than the Schiele. But the Schiele erotic nudes, with their strong black outlines, weird angularities, piercing black eyes, and coloured highlights, are incomparably the more powerful and bracing works of art.

Video introduction to Schiele

By Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy.

//player.vimeo.com/video/298238498


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Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art @ British Museum

Fear of sex in the Western tradition

The Positions (I Modi or The Sixteen Pleasures) a 16th century Italian book of engravings of various sexual positions, was for a long time notorious for being the most sexually explicit book in the tradition of European art. It was banned by the Pope in 1524 and its author, Raimondo, imprisoned. Discouraged by this example and the repressive laws of their various countries, few European artists made sexually explicit images until the dawn of the modern age – with notable pioneers including Aubrey Beardsley in the 1890s and Egon Schiele in the 1910s.

This wasn’t a consequence of one Pope’s diktat, but because fear of the body as one of the chief enemies of godliness, of holiness, of the individual’s hopes of getting to heaven, is deeply embedded in the Christian traditions which frame our culture. From the Church Fathers down to the 4th century theologian Augustine, the earliest Christian thinkers were repelled by the human body. They sought martyrdom as quickly as possible, or tried to starve and subjugate the bodies which they saw as the enemy of their immortal souls. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (731) is a list of the holy men of Ireland and Britain, all of whom starved or scourged their bodies to achieve holiness.

The exhibition

This stunning exhibition at the British Museum is a comprehensive overview of the amazingly graphic and explicitly sexual imagery produced in Japan between 1650 and 1900, known as shunga art. Shunga are beautifully crafted paintings of sexually explicit images of great delicacy and refinement, usually created in sets of 12. During that period, virtually all artists in the Japanese tradition were expected to produce shunga.

The sequence of 12 varied scenes could be taken as a guide to lovemaking or as an aid to stimulation, for solitary readers or for couples. Over the centuries, hundreds of artists made shunga images and the genre spawned scores of variations, including the comic, the satirical, the grotesque and so on.

Shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

A shunga by an artist of the Seitei School

The floating world

The earliest surviving examples come from the period 1600 to 1650. The high quality materials used in their creation indicate the artists were commissioned and patornised by the very richest in society. It wad during t his period, with the growth of cities, especially Edo, that the Samurai government presided over the growth of a so-called ‘floating world’ of pleasure-seeking, brothels and the immensely popular kabuki theatre. From around 1650 cheaper woodblock-printed shunga were produced in large quantities for townspeople, showing more ordinary folk in a wide variety of sexual activity, alongside the continuation of high quality painted items for aristocrats.

The exhibition covers all this and more, reaching back to earlier periods. Among the myths of Japan’s religion, Shinto, is the story of the Japanese gods of creation Izanagi and Izanami who learn lovemaking from a wagtail (!) and whose lovemaking produces the island of Japan itself.

I was riveted to read that Japan’s creation myths are recorded in histories dating from the 700s ie exactly contemporary with the struggle to bring Christianity to the illiterate Germanic pagan tribes of these islands which the Venerable Bede’s History describes.

Poem of the Pillow

Poem of the Pillow

There are 100 or more images and each one is labelled with detailed notes and an explanation of the artist, the date, the precise sub-tradition they were working in, the ways in which they were manipulating the genre. It is a lot to read and take in, a whole new world, an entirely new tradition.

Health, equality and homosexuality

The cumulative impression is that there was no Shame. Sex was for pleasure and for health. Some of the texts which accompany the images recommend sex as a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, to keep the heart and other organs functioning correctly, or as the key to eternal youth. In one image a man is stimulating a woman and catching the waterfall of her juices in a jar which he will later drink as the elixir of eternal youth.

And the Equality of Pleasure. Women are depicted as enjoying sex, as achieving climax, as being just as cheeky and naughty as the men. In some scenarios one or more women trick a visiting man to have sex with her or them. A man is conned into a sack from which his dangling penis protrudes so he can have sex with a succession of women, all shown with their very hairy vulvas exposed and without any hint of Western concealment or embarrassment.

Man with seven women

Man with seven women

And there’s a large amount of homosexuality – some lesbianism, but mostly a lot of men buggering each other. Again, despite our liberal times, I felt a frisson of concern or fear, at acts which in my lifetime were still completely illegal in Britain, being displayed so brazenly. But here they are, depicted openly, frankly and humorously. A scroll portrays with beautiful detail and humour, sex between Buddhist priests and their acolytes from the 1300s. Apparently it was known as the ‘way of youths’ or shudo.

The exhibition includes a medieval scroll in which a bathhouse full of men compare the sizes of their comically enlarged penises, which need tables to rest on. This is followed by a section where they compare farts in a contest. All reminiscent of Chaucer and Rabelais.

Gigantism

One of the most striking things throughout is the contrast between the perfectly white and perfectly unblemished skin of the Japanese figures, with their stylised eyes, noses and mouths, the cleanness and purity of line with which they are portrayed – and the exaggerated, donkey-size penises and violently red vulvas which they display. The figures are often shown in anatomically impossible poses to ensure the penis and vulva are blatant, the unmistakable core of the image.

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

Untitled shunga print by Kitagawa Utamaro (1752-1806)

After the initial shock wore off, after I became a little inured to so many penises and vulvas, I found myself noticing the beautiful kimonos and silk clothing of the protagonists, depicted in stylised folds and with loving attention to pattern and material. Also to the backdrops and settings, to the scrolls and wall hangings in the rooms, to the cherry trees outside with their immaculately rendered petals.

There was one whole type of books which started with sets of portraits of individuals, done with great elegance and solemnity, and which ended with big close-ups of their penis or vulva – the reader was expected to match the face with the genitals.

According to the wikipedia article on shunga ‘the genitalia is interpreted as a “second face,” expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal, and is therefore the same size as the head and placed unnaturally close to it by the awkward position.’

This is so far from Western ideas of decorum, or art, as to be quite bewildering, dazzling.

A brief history

Shunga existed in the Middle Ages, became widespread as high-class paintings in the 1600s, then as mass-produced woodcuts from the 1650s. There were attempts to ban them in the 1720s and periodically through the 1700s, but all indications are that they continued to circulate widely and be very popular. Only in the early 1900s, as Japan’s leaders embarked on a course of self-conscious modernisation, was shunga really systematically banned, and thereafter became a taboo genre for most of the 20th century.

It’s fascinating to see the influence of Western traditions intrude as Japan began opening up to the outside world from the 1860s onwards. Western Victorian gentleman begin to feature in the illustrations, with precisely the same engorged organs and hairy tufts as the Japanese, but wearing incongruously prim frock coats and hats.

The most regrettable western import is the total nude. All of the Japanese images portray their figures semi-dressed, with fabrics artfully falling away to reveal the genitalia, and the combination of lovingly depicted fabric with the raw genitals creates a wonderfully dreamy ‘floating world’ fantasy, a pornotopia of cost-free, riskless sexuality.

In the photographs which Westerners began to take in the late 19th century and which are exhibited here at the end of the exhibition, we see all too clearly the actual reality of Japanese women – prostitutes – stripped to the waist and exhibited like cattle. It’s impossible not to feel the heavy hand of Western sexual repression and its opposite – crude and exploitative pornography – crushing the delicacy and gorgeous detail of the native tradition.

Haiku

Many of the images were carefully designed to accommodate texts – poems, moral advice, spiritual quotes or jokes. Some of the shunga artists were also masters of haikus, the famous short verse form. Among many more explicit examples, one relatively restrained one caught my eye:

Onto his silent lap
she lowers
her eloquent hips

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (Hokusai)

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Hokusai)

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