Albert Oehlen @ the Serpentine Gallery

Albert Oehlen

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954) is a German painter based in Switzerland. He has been a key figure in contemporary art since the 1980s.

“By bringing together abstract, figurative, collaged and computer-generated elements on the canvas, he continues to explore an inventive diversity of artistic approaches. Through Expressionist brushwork, Surrealist gestures and deliberate amateurism, Oehlen engages with the history of painting, pushing the components of colour, gesture, motion and time to new extremes.”

John Graham

The absolutely vital piece of information you need to know in order to understand this FREE exhibition of Oehlen’s work at the Serpentine Gallery is that ALL the pieces reference a much older painting by American artist John Graham, titled Tramonto Spaventoso (‘Terrifying Sunset’) (1940-49).

Tramonto Spaventoso by John Graham (1940 – 49)

Graham is a fascinating figure, having been born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky in Kiev, fighting in Russian cavalry during the Great War, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution to Warsaw and then emigrating to America, where he took a new name, found a job and developed an experimental interest in art, trying out various forms of modernism and abstraction, and serving as a mentor to the young Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

As you can see from Tramonto Spaventoso there was also a lot of Surrealism mixed up in his style, along with a refusal of being afraid to look amateurish and cack-handed. The terrifying sunset consists of a roughly drawn portrait of a man with eyeglasses and caricature moustache, the picture behind him divided into four quadrants showing (from top left) four golden circles which might be suns but also have lions’ faces drawn in them; two black classical pillars between which you can see a ploughed field leading off to the horizon and a sky with clouds; a mermaid with a curlicue tail whose breasts appear to be spurting milk at the central figure, and with blood pouring from a wound in her side; and at the bottom left another yellow lion face, this one with three legs appearing around its mane.

The John Graham remix

Oehlen has taken this obscure work by a now-largely-forgotten artist and subjected it to a whole series of remixes, mash-ups and distortions. He’s been doing this for at least ten years and this exhibition brings together about twenty of the results, small, medium-sized, large, and absolutely enormous in scale.

Sohn von Hundescheisse by Albert Oehlen (1999) Private Collection, Photo: Archive Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris © Albert Oehlen

So in each of the twenty or so mashups you are looking for those elements: face in the middle with a huge moustache; suns with faces; columns in the upper-right corner, with a series of lines going to the horizon, a mermaid at bottom right.

These figures or symbols are submitted to all kinds of distortions of shape and colour and position. The pain is applied in violent haphazard way, using extremely bright and vibrant colours with no regard for creating a consistent palette or tone (in real life the pink line along the top of this one looks almost fluorescent).

Oehlen’s aim is obviously to reference and recreate the original in the most random, attacked and disrespectful way possible, chucking out all guidelines of taste and decorum to see what happens. This makes it difficult to like. My initial reaction was visceral repulsion and anthropological amusement at what, nowadays, in the 2010s, comprises successful contemporary art.

However, once you have grasped that every single one of the works is referencing the Graham painting, it introduces a childish Where’s Wally aspect to trying to identify in each work the deeply buried mermaid and moustaches etc. And this activity ends up drawing you into his visual world, wild and deliberately scrappy, garish and amateurish though it is.

Vorfahrt für immer by Alber Oehlen (1998) Private Collection. Photo by the author

The Mark Rothko chapel

This is most obvious in the big central room of the Serpentine Gallery which has a circular cupola to let light in. Here Oehlen has created a new work especially for the Serpentine, a site-specific work which takes the remix approach to the Graham original to new heights and absurdities.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo: readsreads.info

This space is now the location of two overlapping re-interpretations of other artists’ work, because the layout, the size and hang of these enormous Oehlen works is deliberately based on the layout and hang of the paintings which American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko made for what became known as ‘the Rothko Chapel’ in Houston, Texas.

The Rothko Chapel, Texas

But whereas Rothko’s paintings are carefully composed and co-ordinated to create a shimmering meditative effect, and promote a spirit of serious meditation, Oehlen’s works rip up any idea of respect and decorum, consisting of wild hand-drawn cartoons, massive sketches, garish washes and caricature figures and faces.

It’s almost as if he’s doing everything he can think of to undermine the idea of ‘art’ as a serious activity worthy of respect. He has apparently given interviews throughout his career discussing the influence on him of Surrealism, but I think you have to go a step further back to DADA, with men on stage shouting nonsense poetry through megaphones while someone attacks a piano with a hammer to find artistic cognates of Oehlen’s works.

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

This resolutely iconoclastic approach explains a lot about what you’re actually seeing, but there’s a bit more going on as well. It was an excellent Serpentine visitor assistant who explained the importance of the John Graham original to me. But he then went on to explain other things Oehlen has done with these huge works.

  1. Charcoal is usually used by artists to do sketches and drawings. But some of these works are done in charcoal on canvas primed and painted white i.e. given the status of paintings. (See image on the left, above)
  2. By contrast, watercolour is usually employed in lightly figurative work to create delicate washes and effects, but here Oehlen uses it (or a very watery acrylic) to create huge and very rough lines or areas of pure colour (see image above, right)
  3. In other, smaller works you can also see that Oehlen has got a spraycan and simply sprayed reasonably crafted works with spatters of cheap, dayglo, spraycan colours, such as ginger.

Above and beyond these technical mashups, there are also two obvious visual references. One is to the notorious moustaches of Salvador Dalí, exaggerated into schoolboy cartoons (see above).

The other is the references to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which features heavily in the current Dora Maar exhibition at Tate Modern. Here’s Guernica: look at the heads at the far left and far right. In both instances the head is depicted side-on, face-up, at an unrealistic angle from the ‘neck’ supporting it.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Compare and contrast with this, one of the enormous panels in the Oehlen show. Clearly he is channeling the Guernica neck and head (along with the Dalí moustaches and the Graham composition).

Installation view of Albert Oehlen at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Conclusion

So, it is good to be informed: having been told that the Graham painting underpins everything in this exhibition is crucial to understanding the show.

Knowing that the Graham painting itself showed heavy Surrealist influences, feeds through into feeling the Surrealist undertones of the Oehlen works, and you can have a laugh at the Dali moustaches, you can congratulate yourself at spotting the Picasso reference.

Knowing that the big central room is a parody or pastiche or riff on the Rothko Chapel also helps to explain its layout and the sheer scale of the paintings Oehlen has filled it with.

And I did like some of the images he’s come up with – like the one I opened this review with, whose sheer bloody-minded, cack-handed, over-coloured exuberance achieves a kind of Gestalt, a totality of awfulness which is sort of impressive.

But no, at the end of the day, despite all the extenuating circumstances, and the intellectual interest of all this background information, no, I found them horrible.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Dora Maar @ Tate Modern

This is the most comprehensive retrospective of photographer and painter Dora Maar ever held.

Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray (1936)

Brief synopsis

  • Maar was a successful fashion and commercial photographer in the early 1930s
  • a social documentary photographer in the mid-1930s, as well as being a left-wing political activist, signing manifestos, going on marches
  • she developed into a dazzling surrealist photographer in the mid to late-1930s
  • Maar was introduced to Picasso in 1935 and was his mistress for nine years, documenting the creation of his 1937 masterpiece Guernica, providing the model for thirty or so many paintings and many drawings on the theme of the Weeping woman, and under his encouragement taking up painting again
  • 1944 saw the break-up with Picasso, and the start of years struggling with depression – she never returned to photography
  • 1940s to her death in 1997: experiments with a range of painting styles from her home in rural France

Dora Maar

Born in 1907, Maar was encouraged and supported by her father to study art, but became more attracted to photography. Living in Paris, by the late 1920s she had become proficient at photography and made contacts in the Paris artworld, She studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian, and frequented André Lhote’s workshop where she met Henri Cartier-Bresson. She became friends with the surrealist Jacqueline Lamba, who went on to meet the godfather of the surrealist movement, André Breton.

At the beginning of 1930, she set up a photography studio on rue Campagne-Première (14th arrondissement of Paris) with Pierre Kéfer, photographer and decorator. Though many prints during their collaboration were signed ‘Kéfer–Dora Maar’, Maar was usually the sole author. When their partnership ended around 1935, Maar established her own studio in central Paris and took independent commissions.

Through the early 1930s she undertook a wide range of commercial photography for advertisements and fashion magazines, travel books and some erotic magazines. All the photos from this period are crisp and clean and attractive, several shots of men and women in sporty poses reminding me of glamour photos from 1930s Hollywood of the likes of Gary Cooper or Jean Harlow.

Model in Swimsuit (1936) by Dora Maar. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The exhibition has nine rooms and the room of fashion photos and nudes is arguably the most enjoyable, for their variety and their tremendous evocation of 1930s glamour, Paris-style.

But what’s also interesting is you can see the logic of a sort of progression from fashion photos, sports photos, through tasteful nudes, and then increasingly experimental commercial photos, promoting shampoo etc, and then, suddenly…

Surrealism

A severed hand holding a bottle. A fashionably dressed woman in a long backless dress with… a star for a head… Suddenly Maar is a surrealist!

A very successful surrealist. She was one of only a handful of photographers to be included in the big surrealist exhibitions of the 1930s (in Tenerife, Paris, London, New York, Japan and Amsterdam), her work appearing alongside that of Man Ray (for me, maybe the greatest photographer) and Hans Bellmer (very disturbing chopped-up mannequins).

Interestingly, the early surrealists couldn’t quite see how photography fit into their idea of foregrounding the imagination and above all, the unconscious mind, because photography was associated, up till then, with documentary recording of portrait, landscapes or cityscapes. It took the development of photomontage – the cutting and pasting of several photographic images over or on each other – which persuaded the surrealists that photography could, indeed, be a hugely powerful disruptor of ‘bourgeois reality’.

Room five shows photos by her, alongside photos of the leading lights of the surrealist movement, friends ad fellow activists, male and female, including: Man Ray, Ren Crevell, Paul Eluard, Leonor Fini, Christian Berard, Lise Deharme – she was right in there, in the thick of the movement and the contemporary arts scene, and alongside photos of her famous friends, the exhibition displays catalogues and invitations to the surrealist exhibitions where her work was shown.

Anyway, the main thrust of the surrealist room is to showcase a range of experiments with surrealist photography, from fairly basic ideas of cutting and pasting one image onto another photo, to more interestingly experimental.

Several tropes recur:

  1. Cut out a naked woman and stick it on almost any other image and it looks surreal/silly. Eyes.
  2. Cut out eyes and put them anywhere, or create a flock of eyes with wings, or eyes on a beach with legs like crabs.
  3. Shop-window mannequins. Stick them in any window and take a photograph and – hey presto! – poundshop surrealism

But a handful of the images are world class, as good as anything any of the men ever dreamed up.

Untitled (Hand-Shell) (1934) by Dora Maar Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Far more troubling was a set she made where she took the curved vaulted ceiling of a church somewhere, turned it upside down and then superimposed figures on it, on one version a street boy bending his body unnaturally backwards is a genuinely disturbing image (see end of this review).

My point being that a lot of her surreal photographs are relatively smooth and acceptable (like the shell-hand above) – extensions of her fashion shot style. But just a few of them are genuinely chilling and disturbing…

Social documentary

Another big room (room 3) is filled with Maar’s social documentary photographs from the 1930s. She took bleak, honest photographs of the terrible poverty to be found in ‘La Zone’ – a sprawling shanty town on the outskirts of Paris that was home to around 40,000 poverty-stricken Parisians and immigrants.

In 1933 she travelled to the Catalonia and took photos of street people in Barcelona.

Surprisingly, there’s an extended set of photos she took of street people in London, including pearly kings, blind musicians, and all manner of beggars, from the smartly dressed to the really worn-down and impoverished.

And there is a whole room devoted simply to every day scenes, the oddity or strikingness of sudden moments in the city, the kind of moments which the surrealists’ godfather, André Breton, tried and – in my opinion – miserably failed to capture in his self-important and banal ‘masterpiece’, Nadja, which photography, as a medium, is much better equipped to capture than prose.

Girl Blocking the Doorway by Dora Maar (1934)

To be honest, a lot of these are not classics, nothing like the images of the Depression being create by Dorothea Lange at the same time in America, and not as brilliantly composed and framed as the social documentary photos of Edith Tudor-Hart, both of whom have had exhibitions devoted to them recently.

The first five rooms, then, have shown us an extensive selection of photos across a number of genres – commercial, fashion, erotic, nudes, social realism and art-surrealism – that really make the case for Maar being a very significant figure from the time, and a handful of really outstanding surrealist images she created.

Then it all goes pear-shaped.

Picasso

In 1935 she asked a mutual friend to introduce her to Picasso, who fascinated her and, she became his mistress. Unfortunately he already had one mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, mother of his daughter Maya. Between 1936 and 1938 they spent summers at Mougins in the South of France, with a group of other artists that included Paul and Nusch Eluard, Man Ray, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller and Eileen Agar, and their relationship lasted until 1946.

I suppose the curators couldn’t avoid this big chunk of her life, but it has a very negative effect. The two rooms which deal with it unavoidably bring out that Picasso was a genius, and seemed to indicate (the narrative was a little unclear) that she more or less abandoned photography.

As to his genius, one entire room is devoted to the masterpiece Guernica, for the slender reason that Maar took a series of seven photos showing the progress of its creation during May and June 1937. Her photos are projected onto the wall and are nearly as bit as the original. This ought to have been fascinating, but wasn’t. They show us that Picasso’s initial pencil composition changed as he painted but beyond that…

Installation view of Dora Maar at Tate Modern showing the projection of Maar’s photos of the progress of Guenrica

The displays also tell us more than once that Maar was the model for the image of the Weeping Woman, an image which is included in Guernica and which he made about thirty versions of. This story is undermined a bit when we read Maar denying it, and claiming all these weeping women were nothing to do with her, but Picasso’s own invention.

‘You need to know that I never really modelled for Picasso. He never painted me “from nature”. One or two drawings, maybe, that’s all, although he did hundreds of portraits of me.’

The exhibition includes one of the Weeping Women (the one, in fact, owned by Tate) and this has a deleterious effect on the rest of the show because it is so brilliant.

Weeping Woman (1937) by Pablo Picasso. Tate

The exhibition includes an experimental series of portraits they made together, combining experimental photographic and printmaking techniques, and one big figurative painting she did during this time. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the relationship was a catastrophe for her.

In the late 1930s she was a photographer at the top of her game, firing on all cylinders, experimenting and developing. Then it all grinds to a halt. She helps Picasso with his work, she gets fed up with being excluded from his circle.

Why did she do it?

After Picasso

Picasso bought Maar a house in Ménerbes, Vaucluse, where she retired and lived alone. She turned to the Catholic religion, met the painter Nicolas de Staël (who lived in the same village), and turned to abstract painting.

The final two rooms give us a cross-selection of her paintings. These come in a bewildering variety of styles.

In the 1940s, hugely under the influence of Picasso she made still life oil paintings, which were well received when she exhibited them in a joint exhibition at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher, alongside those of Georgian artist Vera Pagava.

Still Life by Dora Maar (1941)

She painted semi-abstract landscapes of the countryside around her house in the Vaucluse, some of which are very pleasant. La Grande Range was included in Maar’s last exhibition, held in the Leicester Galleries, London, in 1958 and the curators quote the Times’s art critic, John Russell, praising their sensitivity and feel for large, open rather lonely places.

La Grand Range (1958) by Dora Maar

Another wall shows experiments with very small oil abstract paintings . The fourth wall displays a series of larger abstracts, often with black lines drawn over turquoise colour washes. I liked these more than the rather washed-out landscapes.

Untitled abstracts from the 1970s

And the final room shows her experiments with taking photographs without a camera, camera-less photographs or photograms. A photogram is made by placing an object on photo-sensitive paper and exposing it to light. Where the light strikes the paper, it darkens, where the paper is covered by the object it remains lighter. Maar experimented with household objects with differing degrees of transparency to control the amount of light let through to the paper.

Installation view of Maar’s late photograms

Paintings of the landscapes around her house in Ménerbes,[23] showed locations dominated by wind and clouds, strongly revealing the struggle of an artist with the ghosts of her past.[24]

Conclusion

Well, if the exhibition’s purpose was to pull Maar out from Picasso’s shadow and rehabilitate her as a photographer and artist in her own right, then it certainly succeeds.

However, the effort to rehabilitate her as an artist and painter is, I think, a failure, especially after the curators dazzled us with the Picasso room: nothing from the 40 or so years of painting in the second half of her life comes anywhere near matching the genius and intensity of the Master. Some of it’s attractive, some of it is competent enough cubist still lifes, or a certain type of washed out 1970s abstraction, but…

No, it’s back to the multitude of photos which fill the first five rooms that the visitor has to go to catch the range and inventiveness and technical competence and restless inquiring mind which made Maar such a presence in the world of photography in the 1930s, and which is surely her lasting legacy.

A handful of the images are quite stunning (this is not a subjective view, as the same three or four images – the shell-hand, the face with a spiderweb projected on it, the woman in evening dress with a star for a head – appear on all the posters, on the front of the catalogue, as postcards and associated merch in the Tate shop).

And many of the social documentary photos are good, if lacking the bite of Edith Tudor-Hart.

But scattered in among these 60 or so images are a handful which, as I mentioned above, I thought penetrated to a deeper level, were neither ‘acceptable’ images of poverty or slickly-made surrealism – but took us somewhere quite different, deeper and more disturbing.

Though not reproduced on book covers or postcards or posters or mugs or fridge magnets or tote bags or t-shirts, I thought this small handful of genuinely creepy images captured something genuinely profound and chilling, something which gestures towards real greatness.

The Pretender by Dora Maar (1935) Photograph © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019


Related links

Surrealism reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978)

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. We anxiously follow what we suppose to be important, while what we suppose to be unimportant wages guerrilla warfare behind our backs, transforming the world without our knowledge and eventually mounting a surprise attack on us.
(The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, page 197)

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is divided into seven parts, each of which is a self-contained story although, as the recurring titles suggest, with recurring themes:

Part One – Lost Letters
Part Two – Mother
Part Three – The Angels
Part Four – Lost Letters
Part Five – Litost
Part Six – The Angels
Part Seven – The Border

Short sections

And each story is itself broken up into numerous, very short, numbered sections, often as short as a page long. For example, the first story, Love Letters, is 22 pages long and is divided into 19 sections.

The reading experience is dominated by this fragmentation of the narrative into short sections. Kundera uses the ‘short section technique’ for a number of purposes.

One is to continually change perspective on events, shedding ironic light on his characters’ mixed motives and misunderstandings. The most obvious way is to describe a piece of dialogue or event, and then devote separate sections to the speakers’ often wildly differing interpretations of what they just said or meant.

It also allows him to switch from close-up description of actions carried out by the protagonists, to higher-level reflections, about human nature, the character of irony or comedy, generalisations about men women and love, or about fate and destiny – and especially about Czech history, and of course, focusing on the most traumatic event of his lifetime, the communist coup of 1948 and its consequences.

The ‘short section technique’ allows Kundera to set off a train of events and then to step right outside them and present them from the perspectives of the different characters, revealing – more often than not – that they completely misinterpret each other’s motives. This has been the bedrock of his authorial approach since his first novel, The Joke – the basic premise that people really, really don’t understand each other, and that pretty much all our intentions and aims and plans turn out to be wildly miscalculated, and consistently backfire.

I read all Kundera’s books back in the 1980s when he first became very fashionable, and I had remembered Laughter and Forgetting for being lighter and funnier than its predecessors – but this, I think, was a misleading memory. Although the text is much more broken up and ‘bitty’, more interrupted by digressions and ideas – the actual content is just as grim as its predecessors. The opening story, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

1. Lost Letters

It is 1971 and Mirek is a dissident who played a prominent role in the 1968 Prague Spring, then, after the Russian tanks and half a million Warsaw Pact soldiers invaded Czechoslovakia, was thrown out of his job and became an unperson. Since then he’s religiously kept all his diaries and journals and the records of meetings of him and dissident friends, despite them all advising him to burn or destroy them. But:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. (p.3)

When we read that grand opening sentence back in the early 1980s (the book was published in English in 1980) we all thought it said something profound and beautiful about human nature and politics and society, and the need to resist the ever-growing forces of oblivion (as well as being a good example of Kundera’s straight-out, intellectual, almost academic style. No long paragraphs setting the scene or describing dawn over Prague or an unmarked car drawing up outside a house, none of the normal conventions of fiction. Instead Kundera goes directly to the beliefs and ideas of his main characters.) Anyway, rereading the story today, I realise this simple interpretation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The main event in the story is Mirek driving out to the village to meet up with an old flame of his, his first love in fact, Zdena. Why? Because she has a big cache of all the letters he wrote to her and he wants to secure, protect and guard his archive. Also, there is a deeper psychological reason. He wanted:

to find the secret of his youth, his beginnings, his point of departure. (p.18)

The body of the short story concerns Mirek’s thoughts and reflections about Zdena, for example the fact that, back when they were going out, she was plain and ugly, his friends, and even she herself, were surprised that he was going out with her. Nobody knew that he was timid and shy and a virgin.

As he drives, Mirek realises that his car is being followed, by a car driven by a couple of security goons who make no attempt to hide. When Mirek stops at a friend’s mechanic shop to get the car tuned up, the goons stop too, and watch him, with a smirk.

So that when he finally arrives at Zdena’s house, and is reluctantly invited in, and makes his pitch to ask for his letters back, and she surprises him by saying a categorical NO… Mirek is convinced it’s because she is in league with the security men, and is keeping the letters to hand them over to the authorities, preparatory to his arrest and trial etc. She always was a communist die-hard, a party fanatic, even when they were going out together, as he now remembers bitterly.

But the narrator has told us otherwise. He has explained that Zdena was not a party fanatic but simply clove to the party after Mirek dumped her. After he dumped her, she needed to have something she could trust and base her life on, and this became an absolute faith in the Party. It was Mirek who made her what she is.

And, we learn, she is not at all in league with the security men, who she doesn’t even know about. She is simply scared – scared witless, scared of how it’s all got too big and scary, how they’re arresting people, how he might be bringing trouble into her life. She is simply too paralysed by fear to hand the letters over.

Demoralised, Mirek gets back into his car, the security men get back into theirs, and they tail him back to Prague, despite a small interlude when he throws them off in a village and sits parked by the railway station, dazed, pondering his past and future.

The narrator now picks up the theme about memory and forgetting which was announced at the beginning, reflecting that Mirek’s true motive in seeking the letters wasn’t because he never loved Zdena, or regretted loving Zdena. It’s because he loved Zdena so much and is now embarrassed about being associated with such a plain, if not ugly woman, that he wants to erase her from his past. Which leads us up to the author’s message, a characteristically jaundiced view:

By erasing her from his mind [by finally repossessing the letters] he erased his love for her… Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. the past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. (p.22, italics added)

So 1. that grand opening statement turns out to be a lie. Mirek is lying to himself. His grand claim to want to preserve the past from forgetting is completely contradicted by this analysis of his motives. According to his creator, Mirek is every bit as mendacious and controlling as his enemy, the Communist Party.

And 2. when Mirek arrives home he discovers the police are already there, have ransacked his apartment, and read through all the diaries and journals in which he recorded meetings with other dissidents, their criticism of the Party, their analysis of its tyranny after the crushing of the Prague Spring. In other words, they have seized all the documents in which he foolishly implicated and betrayed his closest friends. The last sentences of the ‘story’ are bleak and unforgiving.

After a year of investigatory custody he was put on trial. Mirek was sentenced to six years, his son to two years, and ten or so of their friends to terms of one to six years. (p. 24)

So let us return to that ringing opening line – ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’: it now appears to be contradicted in at least two ways.

  1. Although it’s Mirek’s own line, we have seen that, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t believe it; his quest to reclaim Zdena’s letters is, according to his creator, a quest to erase and rewrite the past as completely as the Communists want to.
  2. Worse, it turns out to be a ludicrously selfish and self-serving position and one which ended up condemning his best friends – and his own son – to years and years in prison.

Could it be that the opposite is true? That maybe the past ought to be forgotten? Certainly I think so. I completely disagree with the old cliché “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s the other way round. Those who obsessively remember the past, are doomed to walk within the confines and categories it imposes on us. In Northern Ireland throughout my life and in Yugoslavia during the 1990s, there were groups of people who clung on to the past, cherished and nurtured their grievances, thirsted for revenge, determined to re-enact the past (the freedom struggle of the Irish people, the freedom struggle of the Serbian people) but this time to win. it seemed back then that it is precisely those who remember the past, who are doomed to repeat it.

Maybe the content of the story proves the complete opposite of that ringing opening declaration.

2. Mother

Marketa and Karel are married. At first they lived with his parents, but Marketa and his mother had daily run-ins, which became so intense that they eventually moved to the other end of the country to be as far as possible away. Then Karel’s father died and Mother was left alone, and Marketa, as she got older, softened. It is Easter and Marketa invites Mother to come and stay for a week, Saturday to Saturday, because they’ve something planned for Sunday.

This is an orgy, well a ménage à trois. Marketa knows Karel has a high sex drive. Early on in their marriage it became clear that he would be the unfaithful one and Marketa would suffer, although she would enjoy the perks of an unassailable moral superiority.

Then one day, in a sauna at a spa (the Czechs and their spas!), Eva walks in, naked, beautiful and confident, and starts chatting to Marketa. Soon they are good friends and it makes Marketa feel in control when she introduces Eva to Karel and they become lovers.

The irony is, we learn a few pages later, that Eva and Karel had been lovers for years before this. Their first meeting and love-making is very erotically described. It had been Eva who suggested that she approach Marketa. And so the three of them have settled into having periodic three-way sex. Sunday evening has been set aside for one such session.

But Mother mischievously declares she will only leave on Monday and both Karel and Marketa fail to argue her out of her decision.

On the fateful Sunday evening, the girls have slipped off to the bedroom to change into their sexy outfits (a negligee so short it reveals her pubes, for Eva, a pearl necklace and garter belt for Marketa) and are about to return to the living room, where they’ve been chatting and drinking for Karel, for the erotic entertainment to begin… when Mother comes in!

Now, the saving grace is that Mother has gotten pretty short-sighted and so doesn’t even realise the girls are wearing next to nothing (Marketa scampers out to throw on a raincoat). In fact Karel maliciously welcomes her untimely visit because he’d been getting irritated with the girls. And the story is unusually sympathetic to Mother – unusual in the sense that almost all Kundera’s narratives focus on horny men. She has stumbled back into the living room because she is troubled by the memory of reciting a poem which she had described earlier, over dinner, to Marketa and Karel. She had told them it was a poem about the Austro-Hungarian Empire which she recited at the end of the war. But Karel points out that she left school well before then. Alone in her bedroom, it dawns on her that he is right, and that it was a Christmas poem, not a patriotic one, and that she had recited it years earlier. And now she blunders back into the living room – just as the orgy is about to begin – to set them all right. And, in this odd, ludicrous setup, proceeds to recite the poem again, reviving the distant memory of her girlhood.

And then she goes one further by pointing out that Eva reminds her of Nora, a friend of hers when she was a young woman. And all of a sudden Karel has a flashback, remembers being four years old, in some spa town, and being left in a room, and a little while later the tall, statuesque naked body of Nora entered the room and took a nightgown off a hook. The memory of being four, of being small, and looking up at this huge naked Amazon, has stayed with him ever since.

Having said her piece and fussed around a bit more, Mother goes quietly back to her room. Immediately, Karel arranges Eva as he remembers Nora standing in that distant boyhood memory, and kneels down so that she is towering over him. Fired with lust, Karel proceeds to make love to both women furiously.

But, as with all Kundera, there are other perspectives. While he is tupping them, Marketa is miles away, trying to reduce Karel’s fornicating body to a headless machine. And afterwards, as the girls are lying on the couch, Eva quietly invites Marketa to come away with her and have a threesome with her husband. And Marketa quietly accepts.

Karel may be lost in his childhood reveries, but this doesn’t stop the other characters – his wife and mistress – carrying on living their own lives, pursuing their own goals and agendas.

3. The Angels

The angels are those who believe the world is full of order and rationality. They are humourless imposers of order and pattern and meaning. They are terrifying because they want to abolish all the muddy, confused, speckled, mongrel mixedness of the actual world and real people. Kundera identifies them with the Communist Party, Soviet tyranny, feminists, modern literature teachers, and with hypocrites like the French surrealist poet Paul Éluard, who wrote inspirational poems about Freedom while at the same time supporting the Czech regime which sent poets to their deaths.

To begin this assault Kundera creates a pair of earnest and utterly humourless American feminist literature students who don’t understand that a play by Ionesco is meant to be absurd and funny. And when they do grasp this basic fact, he satirises the funny little choked breathy noise they make. He is referring to their laughter.

The students have a narrow, dogmatic literature teacher, Miss Raphael, who is lonely. She is looking for a circle of like-minded believers to dance with. She has tried the Communist Party, the Trotsykists, the anti-abortionists, the pro-abortionists (this pairing is included to show that she has absolutely no moral underpinnings or beliefs, but is just looking for a gang she can join).

Then Kundera describes the way the idealistic young people, students and writers and artists, danced in the street after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, danced and laughed, even as innocent politicians and poets and artists were being executed in prisons just a few miles away.

Thus they danced in circles, the high-minded angels, laughing their laughter of joy because the world is so ordered and rational and just. And – in a touch of magical realism – their dancing bodies slowly lifted off the ground till they were dancing in the air.

Similarly, when the two humourless feminist students give their humourless interpretation of Ionesco to their class, their humourless teachers joins hands with them and they, too, rise up into the sky.

But not everyone can join a circle. Circles, in fact, can’t be broken. Unlike ranks. Anyone can slip into the ranks of an army, they are designed to allow any number of new members to fit right in. But getting into a circle is hard, if not impossible, without momentarily breaking it. Circles are exclusive.

Kundera very forcefully emphasises how he doesn’t belong to the flying circles of dancing angels, sublimely convinced of their own rectitude. He was once a Communist, he once danced in those circles, but he was unwise and tactless and expelled from the party, and forbidden to work. He was kicked out of the circle and he has been falling ever since (for nearly 30 years, by the time this book was published) falling falling falling like a meteorite broken loose from a planet (p.66).

Then he gives us an extended example of how his misplaced humour prevented him from ever dancing with the angels.

Forbidden to write for any official outlet, friends got Kundera a job writing an astrology column in a popular magazine for young socialists. It was harmless work, and not particularly well paid. But after a few years, the intelligent young woman editor – known only as R. – who had given him the job was called in for questioning by the security police. Does she realise she is ridiculing socialist youth? Does she realise she is mocking the people? Does she realise she has been associating with notorious enemy of the people Kundera?

She is promptly sacked from her job and when she turns to others in the media, they all cold shoulder her as well. Her career is through. Her life is over. She meets Kundera in a borrowed apartment and she is so terrified by what is happening to her, that she has to keep going to the toilet, her bowels are that upset.

And as he listens to her repeated flushing of the toilet, Kundera realises he has become a curse to those he knows and loves. He really cannot go on living in his homeland, bringing bad luck down on everyone he knows. He will have to go into exile. He will have to carry on falling, falling, falling away from the circles of the angels, the laughing angels, laughing because they know the Truth about a world which is orderly and rational and for the best, rejoicing in how:

rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was. (p.62)

4. Lost Letters

The title makes you think it might return to the character Mirek, who we met in the first story. Not at all.

It concerns Tamina. She is a Czech exile, working in a café in an unnamed Western town. She and her husband fled Czechoslovakia illegally, pretending to go on holiday. Thus she never brought all her belongings. Her husband got ill once they were abroad, sickened and died. Hollow and sad, she works at the café, listening to every customer who wants to bend her ear.

One day one of the customers, a tiresome wannabe writer named Bibi, mentions that she and her husband are thinking of going on holiday to Prague. Suddenly Tamina wakes from her sleep. Back in Prague, in a drawer in a desk in her mother’s flat, is a bundle of all the diaries she kept during her eleven-year marriage to her husband.

Suddenly Tamina is fired up and wants them back. She has been living like a ghost. The prospect of repossessing them promises to fill in her life, colour it in, give it detail and background and depth. The rest of the story details her struggles, first of all to get her mother-in-law to unlock the desk and get out the notebooks (every phone call to Prague costs her an arm and a leg), then to persuade her father to take it from the provincial town where they live to Prague where he can hand it over to Bibi.

Just about everything which could go wrong does go wrong, but the ‘story’ is really a peg for Kundera to hang miscellaneous thoughts on. One of these is an extended disquisition about graphomania, namely that back at the beginning writing promoted mutual understanding. But in our current state of graphomania, the opposite is true:

everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without. (p.92)

and again, a bit later:

The proliferation of mass graphomania among politicians, cab drivers, women on the delivery table, mistresses, murderers, criminals, prostitutes, police chiefs, doctors and patients proves to me that every individual without exception bears a potential writer within himself and that all mankind has every right to rush out and into the streets with a cry of ‘We are all writers!’

And then:

Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and misunderstanding. (p.106)

This was written over forty years ago. How prophetic of the age of Facebook and twitter.

Another theme of the story is how fatuously stupid Westerners are. Several scenes and characters exist solely to satirise the West.

For example, Bibi dreams of being a writer but comes over as a narcissistic fool. They do contrive a meeting with a real published author, Banaka, who comes over as a pompous bore. One day he turns up in her café drunk and on the verge of tears because he was the victim of a poor review in a newspaper. Pathetic.

In another scene, a professor of philosophy holds forth about the nature of the novel. On a separate occasion, Tamina is with Bibi, her husband and a Japanese woman, watching TV on which two authors get irate. One of them is insisting that the fact that he spent his entire childhood in the village of Rourou is important, very important, vitally important if you are to understand his work. A new character, Joujou, tells everyone in the room, straight-faced and humourlessly, that she rarely used to have orgasms, but now she has them regularly. Bored, Bibi remarks offhand that what they really need round here is a revolution to shake things up.

Since all Kundera’s work up to this point describes what a revolution really looks like in practice i.e. the repression, the arrests, the executions, and the systematic humiliation of the entire population, it is difficult to think of anything she could say which would be a more damning indictment of her empty-headed idiocy.

After struggling to get through to her bloody family in Czechoslovakia, Tamina finally gets through to her brother and persuades him to travel to the provincial town and gather her diaries and notebooks from her mother-in-law. He reports that he’s done so, but found the drawer unlocked and the notebooks ransacked. Her mother-in-law has been through them, maybe read everything. Suddenly they don’t feel so precious…

Bibi abruptly announces she is not now going to Prague so Tamina shifts her attentions to Hugo, a young man with bad breath who regularly visits the café and is in love with her. Torpidly, she lets herself be taken out for a date, then back to his place, and stripped naked and penetrated, all without any excitement or interest, solely because Hugo says he will go to Prague and get her things. But he is irritated at her complete passivity. In subsequent meetings she just sits there dumbly while he craps on about his big plans to write a book, yes a book! a book all about power and politics. And then he tells her he has published an article about the Prague Spring which means he will not be allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia. He is sure she understands, he had to, he owed it to the world to share his article.

And suddenly she is so revolted by him, and the memory of him penetrating her, that she runs into the toilets and copiously strenuously throws up. And her vomiting seems, to this reader, to also be a reaction to the self-deception, narcissism and superficiality of the spoilt West.

There was only one thing she wanted, to preserve the memory of her husband and their time together untainted. And just about everyone she knows has conspired to foil that endeavour and desecrate his memory.

She went on serving coffee and never made another call to Czechoslovakia. (p.115)

What this story has in common with the first Lost Letters is how bleak it is.

Part Five – Litost

Kristyna is in her thirties. She lives in a small town with her husband, a butcher, and their little boy. She is having an affair with a mechanic who she allows to penetrate her in the locked security of the garage tyre bay. Then she meets the student, home from university for the vacation, and is seduced by his ways with big words and poetic quotations. He is desperate to make love but she wants him to remain on the level of poetry and ideas. Saying yes would drag him (and her) down into the world of the mechanic. So she meets with him in out-of-the-way places and lets him kiss and touch her but always refuses to go all the way. Finally the holidays end and they make a last-minute pact: she will come up to Prague and stay the night in his accommodation. They both know what this means.

Litost is a Czech word which combines grief, sympathy, remorse and an indefinable longing (p.121). It is ‘a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one’s own miserable self’ (p.122). Kundera gives us some stories from the student’s past to flesh it out.

The night Kristyna is coming to stay, the student’s professor, who Kundera wittily names Voltaire, tells him the greatest poet in the land is having a get-together that night and he’s invited. The student is thrown into a quandary: sex or literature? He is young. He chooses sex.

When Kristyna arrives in Prague she is horrified at the seedy little restaurant he’s arranged to meet her in, the kind of place the butcher takes her to. It’s dirty and full of drunks and they give her a table by the toilets. By the time the student arrives, she’s ready to give him a piece of her mind. But he also is chagrined: she is wearing the most embarrassingly provincial clothes imaginable, including heavy strings of pearls and black pumps.

He tries to mollify her and they go out into the streets. She had dreamed of nightclubs and theatres and glamour – but he is only a poor student, after all. He takes her to his garret; it is small and shabby. Suddenly he has a brainwave. He tells her about the evening of poets, and says he’ll go (he can’t take her, it’s men only) but he’ll take a book and get it autographed by the greatest poet.

She willingly agrees, chooses a book off the poet’s shelf and settles down while he hurries off.

Kundera, with the airy candour which has become second nature, tells us that he’s writing all this in 1977. He eventually couldn’t put up with life in communist Czechoslovakia and drove west, as far west as he could till he stopped in the Breton town of Rennes. Now he is setting this passage fifteen years earlier, in the happier days of 1962. He paints a charming eccentric portrait of an evening’s drinking and squabbling among a variety of poets he humorously names after famous poets in the Western tradition, namely Goethe, Verlaine, Petrarch, Yesenin, Lermontov, and the cynic and anti-poet Boccaccio.

This extended depiction of a bunch of boisterous drunken poets is mildly entertaining but I was struck by the echoes of his novel, Life is Elsewhere, about a lyric poet, in which we met Lermontov quite a few times. And by the way Lermontov, in this book, dismisses all the rest of the poets as ‘Mama’s boys’ (p.141) – exactly the accusation Kundera threw at lyric poets as a class in the earlier novel.

Eventually the party breaks up and all the poets group together to help carry Goethe downstairs because he is very old and can’t walk without crutches. Then Lermontov gets in the taxi and volunteers to take him home and handle Mrs Goethe, who is a dragon and always cross when her husband stays out late.

The student walks with Petrarch who tells him lots of things about love, for example love and laughter are opposites. Then rushes back to his garret where Kristyna is awaiting him. He presents her with the book of poetry which he got Goethe to sign and indeed write a long personal message for her, and she is genuinely thrilled. He tears off his clothes and jumps into bed with her and she kisses him back but then, when he tries to part her thighs, refuses. And refuses and refuses and refuses. All night long, For hours. He is fired up and hard as rock. But she still wants to preserve the student on a different plane from the rest of her life. (Also, the delivery of her son was so difficult the doctors told her she must never again get pregnant or it would endanger her life.)

Eventually the student rolls off her body and onto his back and, for some obscure reason, Kristyna reaches out and grasps his rigid member, but doesn’t move it or do anything to relieve the pressure. Just holds it. Like a mother, like a sister, passionlessly.

Litost!

Part Six – The Angels

This begins as a literary-political essay about Prague which Kundera calls a city of forgetting. In the works of Kafka, Prague is a city which has forgotten its own identity, full of unnamed streets and houses, and even the characters have forgotten their own names – Josef K. of The Trial declines to become just K. in The Castle.

Kundera then moves on to discuss T.G. Masaryk, seventh president of Czechoslovakia, who was installed by the Russians in the aftermath of the crushing of the Prague Spring, and who is known as ‘the president of forgetting’ (p.158). Among other things he sacked some 150 Czech historians, as part of a repressive policy of obliterating the past and writing a new official version.

Tamina reappears, she of Part Four. She is sad because she has forgotten so many details about her husband, not least after making love to the despicable, smelly Hugo. Her plight reminds Kundera of his father, whose dementia meant he slowly lost the power of speech until finally all he could say was one phrase: ‘That’s strange!’

Kundera’s father was a musicologist and had been working on a study of Beethoven’s variations. With the airy confidence with which he slips so much factual content into all his books, Kundera proceeds to stop the narrative while he writes a page or two about the profundity of the variation form, ‘the form of maximum concentration.’ Indeed:

This entire book is a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey toward a theme, a thought, a single situation, a sense of which fades into the distance. (p.165)

And the figure of Tamina is at its heart, the faithful lover who struggles to remember her beloved.

The rest of the story is odd, and reminds us that, although we remember the sex, and the politics and the philosophy, dreams and fantasy are also a recurring theme in Kundera’s work.

A nice-looking man named Raphael comes into the café, knows Tamina’s name, and asks her to leave with him. They go outside and get into his sports car, and drive off, drive into the country, the green landscape turning sandy, then ochre. It reminds Tamina of the landscape her husband was forced to work in, when he was kicked out of white collar jobs and ended up working a digger on building sites.

He parks by a river and points down towards where a boy is holding the painter of a boat. As in a dream she gets into the boat and he starts to row, but she takes over, rows and rows, they arrive at a strange strand, are greeted by children, she disembarks and is shown the way to a dormitory where she’ll be sleeping, the children tell her that only children live on the island (she walks along the shore and ends up back where she started), and are divided into ‘squirrels’ and ‘tigers’, they are fascinated by her mature breasts and black pubic hair, and she finds herself at night being touched and stroked so she achieves a strange kind of climax, until one day one little urchin twists her nipple hard and she throws them all off, she tries to join in their games, like hopscotch, but gets things wrong, they chase her, catch her in badminton nets, a little like other outsiders in science fiction scenarios, finally she runs down to the seashore and swims, while they yell at her from the shore, she’s a strong swimmer and swims all night imagining she must reach the other side, but when dawn breaks she realises she’s only a few hundred yards from the island and is overcome with fatigue.

Some of the children come out in the rowing boat to watch her curiously, they make no offer to help her, and watch, while she goes under, once, twice, and then drowns.

Part Seven – The Border

This appears to be a whole-hearted satire of life in the West. Jan is from the East and observes the people round him like a zoologist. Jeanne likes to sit cross legged like the Buddha while she traces the outline of the coffee table before her, drawing attention to herself and her asinine comments. Jan drops in on the Clevis family. They are card-carrying liberal progressives, who subscribe to all the best liberal opinions and when he drops in they’ve just finished watching a TV programme on which representatives of all the schools of thought debated one of the big issues of the day, which is whether women should go topless. Jan listens to their fourteen-year-old daughter shout that she’s not going to be anybody’s Sex Object, while her mother cheers her on. The narrator reflects that millions of women across the west have burned their bra and now go about their days work wobbling as Nature intended.

They remind me of the right-on, vegetarian, socialist feminist family, the Webers, in the Posy Simmonds cartoon strip. And any number of other right-on families who were mocked and satirised in the 1970s.

The Clevises point out that poor Jeanne has gone through tragic times because her son ran away for a few days. Jan reflects on what the term tragic means in his country and how trivial it is in this country.

Jan is seeing a girl from a sports rental company. She is an orgasm fanatic. She is determined to have as many as possible, and gives him a running commentary when they’re making love, telling him just what to do when, and where to put his hands and whether to speed up or slow down. She’s like the cox of a rowing eight.

There’s a lot more discussion of sex. Jan speculates there are three kinds of erotic history: all the women you’ve had; all the women you could have had but let slip; and then all the women you could never have had. He is alarmed that more and more women seem to be slipping into this category. Is it because they have ‘begun to organise and reform their perennial fate?’ (I take it he’s referring to feminism).

There’s a passage about the male gaze (presumably Kundera was introduced to all these ideas, along with humourless feminist students, only once he’d arrived in France, in 1975), which he takes for granted as already being a well-known concept. This was forty years ago. Less well known, he asserts, is the fact that the object can look back. The object can cease to be an object, open its eyes, and unsettle and unnerve the gazer, and his protagonist goes on to discuss about various examples of women who bite back, with his girlfriend Edwige, the feminist.

For example, their friend Barbara is known for giving orgies (who are these people? how did he get to know so many women obsessed with sex? how come I never met or heard of anyone like this when I was a young man?) One day she invites their friend Ervin who arrived to find two pretty women and Barbara. Barbara got out an egg timer then the three women stripped naked. Then she told Ervin to strip naked which he quickly did. Then she set the egg timer and said he had precisely one minute to get a hard on or they’d throw him out. And all three women stared at his crotch laughing. Then they threw him out.

Then Jan and Edwige discuss rape. Jan sees rape as integral to eroticism, whereas castration is its negation. Edwige says if rape is integral to eroticism, then we need to develop a new form of eroticism. He defends women who say the word ‘no’ when they don’t mean it. She gets angry and says ‘no means no’. He trots through a repertoire of sexual scenes – the woman acting coy, having to be brought round, concealing her charms, the man having to talk her round, persuade her to reveal herself, and so on. He calls them time-honoured images. She says they certainly are time-honoured – and idiotic! Time to change them all!

And so it goes on, the never-ending ping-ping game between men and women.

Meanwhile, the notion of the border is applied to several situations. A friend is dying of cancer. Jan reflects how very close death is all the time to each of us. The border is an inch away. Ten years ago he used to be visited by a woman for sex. They both stood and stripped in the same hurried way each time. One time she caught his eye and smiled a sad sympathetic smile. Jan was inches away from bursting out laughing, which would have ended their sexual affair. The ‘border’ was there filling the room. But he stifled his laughter, stayed this side of the border. Another time he chatted up a young woman on a train but it just wouldn’t click, despite taking her to the dining car, then out into the corridor and lifting her head into the light as he had done a thousand times before. There was a border of seduction, but he just couldn’t cross it.

There’s also a border when it comes to repetition. Every time something is repeated it loses part of its vital force. Every action therefore has a border, this side of which it retains meaning, that side of which it has become meaningless automatism.

Similarly, many of Jan’s fellow exiles initially felt great attachment to their old country and fiercely vowed to fight for its freedom. But that passion faded, and now many are scared to admit they have passed beyond a psychological border where they realise there is no cause and no fight. And no purpose.

Their friend Passer dies of cancer. At his funeral the hat is blown off the head of Papa Clevis and in successive gusts blown to the feet of the solemn funeral orator. Everyone strains to contain their laughter. Then it blows into the grave itself. When the orator bends to throw the first earth into the grave he is stunned. The watchers strain every sinew not to burst out laughing.

Jan attends one of Barbara’s legendary orgies and is appalled to discover what a bully she is, pushing and arranging and goading and forcing everyone to have a good time. Jan buddies up with a bald man who quips ‘Major Barbara’ and comments that she’s like a coach training her team for the Olympics. Barbara spots them chatting and separates them, taking the bald guy off to a corner where she starts masturbating him, while Jan finds himself being handled by the clumsy provincial stripper who had started proceedings. He finds himself looking over at the bald man, and coming up with more jokes and references and ludicrous metaphors, and suddenly both he and baldie burst out laughing. Barbara is furious. She expels Jan from the party.

Sex is a serious business. It cannot stand being mocked. Now, as Jan moves into his forties (Kundera was nearly 50 when this book was published) he finds himself more and more aware of all these borders: death just inches away; absurdity underlying all our behaviour; sex just a facial flicker away from guffaws.

In the last sequence in the book, just before he goes abroad for good (to America, I think), Jan takes his feminist girlfriend to an island which is a nudist colony. In their rented cottage they strip off, then walk down to the beach to join grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers, all stark naked.

Here his misunderstandings with Edwige – and the entire novel’s theme of misunderstandings – reaches a kind of climax. She is obsessed with ‘the Western Judaeo-Christian’ tradition of shame of the body. But Jan is thinking about something quite different. More and more he has been dreaming of a state of bodily arousal which is pleasure but innocent of climax; a pre-sexual state, which he associates with the Greek myth of Daphnis and Chloe.

They sit on the beach in the sun, watching all the naked people around them, and Jan murmurs ‘Daphnis’. Edwige hears this and pounces on it, convinced he shares her feelings about a feminist escape from the Judeao-Christian sexist tradition. He nods agreement although he is sick to death of her trite, stupid obvious ideas, the way she feeds everything into the same half dozen, half-baked ‘issues’. Instead he is consumed with a sense of the sheer absurdity of human existence, and this conviction – so similar to the recurring obsession of his author and creation – is cemented in the vivid image which ends the book.

A group of Edwige’s nudist friends has just come up and been introduced to Jan, and Edwige has mentioned Jan’s throwaway idea that they should name the anonymous little island Daphne.

Everyone was delighted with the idea, and a man with extraordinary paunch began developing the idea that Western civilisation was on its way out and we should soon be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought – statements Jan had heard ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand times before – and for the time being those few feet of beach felt like a university auditorium. On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. (p.228)


Thoughts

Are these stories continually interrupted by multiple digressions into interesting topics? Or essays on interesting topics into which ‘characters’ and their slender narratives are occasionally inserted?

Of the five books by Milan Kundera which I’ve read so far, this one has by far the most ‘interruptions’ and digressions; it feels the most finely balanced between narrative and editorial, between story and lecture.

For example, the story titled Litost, with its rhetorical questions and technical explanations (of foreign words and their etymologies) keeps reverting to the nature of an academic essay, a quality demonstrated by one of the last sections which is titled Further Notes for a Theory of Litost. 

Or take the section about the two types of laughing, the demonic which celebrates chaos, and the angelic which celebrates order, which underpins the sections about Angels i.e. that their laughter is repressive.

Or Kundera’s touching memoir of his senile father, and the way he (Kundera) came to understand his father’s scholarly fascination with the variation form.

In fact Part Six has an extended passage remembering much more about his father the musicologist: how he explained to the young Milan the structure and purpose of the key system, before Kundera himself goes on to give his account of the collapse of that system, as overthrown by Schoenberg, the reluctant revolutionary, who ushered in the twelve-tone system, which was to dominate international classical music after the Second World War.

There’s a lot lot more topics like this: on the nature of absurdity and human intention; on the nature of love; on the nature of political and cultural forgetting.

A cultural conservative?

Although he is a striking radical in the technique he brings to the novel, in chopping it up into these bite-sized sections, and inserting all kinds of authorial asides, and with the brisk no-nonsense way he gets straight to the gist of a character’s thoughts… in other ways, when you look at what his discussion values, Kundera can come over as a surprisingly cultural conservative.

In this book he thinks ‘beauty’ is a thing of the past which has been buried under a deluge of pop music and public announcements. He thinks Schoenberg murdered music and, as with the three-hundred page diatribe against lyric poetry which is his second novel, Life Is Elsewhere, he did it with the best of intentions. His innovation represented the death of classical music, but he made it with excitement and daring, and his post-war devotees were zealots and extremists of the kind Kundera deplores.

Bleakly, he says that everyone who spouts the big word Progress, imagines it means progress towards a bright new future. They don’t realise that what they are moving towards is death (p.179).

He hates pop music. There are a couple of pages comparing the Czech pop singer Karel Gott with the president of forgetting, T.G. Masaryk, in the sense that both want to bury the past. Pop music is ‘music without memory’, music deprived of the legacy of Bach to Beethoven, music reduced to the stumps of its basic elements, mindlessly repeated over a nightmareishly amplified totalitarian beat.

Towards the end of the book he rubbishes the entire notion of ‘progress’.

Jan had never shared Passer’s enthusiasm for observing how things change, though he did appreciate his desire for change, considering it the oldest desire in man, mankind’s most conservative conservatism. (p.215)

Pessimistic stuff, isn’t it?

Lost in the West

In this the book represents Kundera’s uneasy transition to the ‘free’ society of the West. In a sense, it was easy to write in the East because art, poetry and literature were taken seriously, especially by the regime, which paid artists and writers the great tribute of locking them up and, in the Soviet Union, of murdering them.

In the communist East there was not only a shortage of food and consumer goods (cars, fridges), which meant you made do with a much more threadbare lifestyle – but a shortage of types of lifestyle. At its simplest, you were either for the regime or against it, and everyone trod a very careful path so as not to put a foot wrong and be dragged off to prison.

This was Kundera’s first book published since he defected to the West (in 1975) and although his technical achievement (the chopping up of narratives into micro-sections and their interleaving with meditations on all kinds of subjects) has reached giddy heights, it seems to me that he is struggling with the sheer profusion of narratives available in the West.

Put simply, there’s so much crap. Radios are on everywhere blaring out idiot pop music, muzak in lifts and supermarkets, so much cheap food the inhabitants make themselves sick and fat, shiny adverts bombard you from radio, TV, cinema and huge hoardings.

And people fuss and fret about such trivia – epitomised by the monstrous superficiality of the would-be novelist Bibi in Part Two, or the ludicrous self-centred ‘tragedy’ of Jeanne in Part Seven, or the stupid television debates about whether women should or should not go bare breasted on beaches. Is this it? Is this what thousands of years of human civilisation dwindle down to? An endless froth of trivia?

Maybe this is what he means when he says that the entire book is about Tamina, protagonist of the fourth and sixth stories, which is at first a puzzling statement, since a number of the other characters (Mirek and Karel spring to mind) are well defined and memorable. But:

It is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina is absent, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its main character and main audience, and all the other stories are variations on her story and come together in her life as in a mirror. (p.165)

And who is Tamina? She is an exile in the West. She loves her country and feels she left her soul there. But all her attempts to reclaim it are foiled. She is appalled by the superficiality (Bibi) and selfishness (Hugo) and pretentiousness (the writers bickering on TV) of ‘cultural’ life in the West. And what happens to her in the end? She drowns.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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

Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is a really wonderful exhibition. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a struggle dragging myself away. And it’s FREE!

Luchita Hurtado has had the most extraordinary life and career. She was born in 1920, in Maiquetía, Venezuela, and is still working and painting, 98 years later! In fact the last section of the exhibition features a dozen or so works from just the past twelve months. But let’s start at the beginning…

The 1940s

Untitled (1949) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Private Collection. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

This is Hurtado’s first solo exhibition in a public institution, which seems amazing given the quality of everything on show.

The 95 or so works featured here are arranged in a straightforward chronological order to help the visitor make sense of the astonishing range and variety of styles and approaches to making art which have characterised her career.

Very broadly her career seemed to me to break down into two parts: in the 1940s and 50s she experimented with the type of abstraction which was very much in the air, a kind of post-war, atom-bomb modernism.

I can’t put into words how attractive I found many of these works, which are dated but in a good way, deeply evocative of the period, and executed with just the right quality of roughness and exuberance. The oil paint which is applied roughly, in dabs and swathes barely filling in the angular abstract compositions, so you can see the canvas through it, with a casualness which bespeaks its own process of creation, which captures the post-war mood of ruins and survival.

Joropo (1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Moving to California

Hurtado moved from Venezuela to the United States in 1928, first freelancing as a fashion illustrator for Condé Nast in New York, before relocating to Mexico City, where she joined a group of renowned artists and writers who had emigrated from Europe in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and who were working under the banners of Surrealism and Magical Realism. By the late 1940s, Hurtado had moved to Mill Valley, California, where she was closely associated with the Dynaton Group.

The work from this early period reminds me of the artists featured in a book about Mexican artists of the 1940s and 50s which I reviewed a few months back, particularly the work of Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

These first couple of rooms reek of the visual world of the soft-modernist 1950s, but in a good way. I found lots of paintings to really like here, I really liked the combination of abstraction with the rough, pastel-sketch kind of finish. In 1951 Hurtado moved to Santa Monica, California, where she has lived and worked ever since.

Untitled (c. 1951) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Genevieve Hanson

Strip paintings

It’s in the next section, titled ‘Experimentation’, that you see her start to flex her wings, ready to establish her own identity. I especially liked a number of works where she painted an abstract design then cut it up into ‘strips’ and rearranged it. The effect is compared by the curators to a film strip, which is not untrue, but doesn’t convey what I felt to be the terrific dynamism and energy of some of the results.

Untitled (1967) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a little further along this gallery that Hurtado suddenly springs beyond abstraction with a series of paintings which incorporate depictions of the body – in a kind of rough, naive style: sometimes chopped up, sometimes reduced to Matisse-like cutouts silhouettes, sometimes morphing into Georgia O’Keeffe-style landscapes. There’s one (Untitled, 1965) where two sandy-brown mountain peaks run smoothly down to a mound which has three or four blue rivers flowing out of it, and between the peaks is descending an equally sandy-brown protuberance, which you don’t have to be an art critic to see as a pair of parted legs, revealing a mound of Venus which is being approached by a male member. It was the 1960s, after all, and sex was bold and new.

The ‘I am’ works

By about 1970 this interest in the body had led her to totally abandon the complex abstraction of the previous decades in favour of a highly simplified and figurative depiction of her own body. To be precise, she produced a whole series of works as she looks down over her own naked body.

Her body appears as a highly simplified, Caramac-brown pair of breasts, with the tummy and tummy button beneath and maybe the thighs or knees or feet also peeking out. What a complete change of style from the dirty expressionism of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s!

The most distinctive of these idiosyncratic self-portraits also feature one or other of the native American rugs which Hurtado collected. And, adding a peculiar, Surrealistic touch in almost all of them, there is a fruit – most often an apple or a pear – floating in this hyper-real, abstract space.

The result is highly distinctive and visually impactful and extremely beguiling.

Untitled (1971) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

‘Sky skin’ paintings

In the mid-1970s she took this same stylised figurative approach and turned it outwards and upwards, into a series which feature skyscapes, blue blue sky and clouds, but framed by simplified rocky terrains which may, or may not, refer to the human body. Just as the downwards ‘I am’ paintings often feature a fruit incongruously floating in mid air, so the Sky skin paintings more often than not feature bird feathers, floating in almost identifiable patterns.

The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon (1977) by Luchita Hurtado © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Jeff McLane

The way a vista of objects gives on to a startlingly blue sky suddenly reminded me of Magritte and his stylised use of the sky. And then I thought of the famous painting of the man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face, and saw a strong connection between this series and the work of the earlier Surrealist. (In fact that painting by Magritte, Son of Man, is from as late as 1964.)

Word paintings

Meanwhile, in a separate room, is displayed a series of canvases from 1973 and 1974 which are BIG and which return to a language of abstraction, but radically simplified from her 1940s and 50s work. You wouldn’t guess it if the wall label hadn’t told you, but in all these works, the abstract compositions, the expressive lines and the geometric shapes are in fact fragmented lettering.

First of all she chose a text. Then she generated an abstract composition from the word or words. And then she cut the canvas up and rearranged the sections into a new pattern, which deliberately disrupts the original composition.

Thus Self Portrait from 1973, actually conceals the words ‘I live’, rendered in a half abstract style, then cut up.

Self Portrait (1973) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

It’s a simple enough approach, but one which grows organically out of all her earlier interests, from the 1950s abstracts, through the 1960s strip paintings and then her growing sense of her ‘self’, and her subjective consciousness, as the subject of her art. It also confirms – if it wasn’t obvious already – her interest in seriality i.e. in making series of works which systematically explore a new idea or approach.

This serial approach gives each individual work added resonance and interest, and because the curators line up half a dozen or more works in each series, it lets you a) share the sense of fun and experimentation and trial and error which has gone into them b) gives you the simple pleasure of deciding which one from each series you like best.

White word paintings

In the next room along is another recognisable series, this time crated by applying white acrylic paint to raw, unprimed canvas, with the focus of each work being one or two resonant, highly meaningful words. Thus entire works are made out of the words EVE, ADAM, WOMB or WOMAN.

I have a soft spot for art works which are still fragmentary, unfinished, minimalist 1970s art or Italian Arte Povera, made from industrial leftovers, art where you can see the canvas, or is rough and unfinished. I think it’s partly because I warm to the fundamental idea that artworks only emerge from a troubled world with great effort. I like to see the sculpture emerging from the stone, a few lines beginning to create volume and shape, sketches and half-finished artifacts.

Anyway, that might be one reason why I really, really liked all the works in this room.

Untitled (WOMAN/WOMB) (c.1970s) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

Feminist art

Obviously there are vast tracts to be written about Hurtado’s feminist consciousness, and about her feminist journey from the early entirely abstract work which (possibly, arguably) was made in the shadow of the more famous American Abstract Expressionists and male Mexican artists of her day – through the breakthrough in the mid-1960s where she suddenly dropped abstraction in order to produce a series of very simple self-portraits – then all those simplified paintings looking down at her own boobs and tummy – through to these works of the feminist 1970s, which use big female concepts, rallying cries and credos, as the basis for artworks.

Or, in the words of American art writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer:

Hurtado’s word-subjects tend to foreground a woman’s subjectivity (at least partly self-referential as verbal self-portraits) and echo her figurative strategies in the pulsation of line, pattern, and evocation around the perimeter, once again expressing an allegiance to looking at and living in relation to the periphery, the margin, the recesses, the acute edge of things.

Eco art

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to a series of new paintings produced by Hurtado in the last twelve months and displayed here for the first time. These are deliberately rough and ready placards, poster art, protest art, political art, devoted to raising awareness about the environment and the world we are destroying.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

To be honest, I liked these the least of all the works on display. I joined the World Wildlife Fund in the 1980s. My flatmate became a leading figure in the green movement, campaigning to save the rainforest in the 80s and 90s, another friend works for the European Development Bank, channeling Western investment to environmentally-friendly development schemes, Mrs Books and Boots helped to launch the Forest Stewardship Council in the mid-1990s, and I myself worked for the UK Department for International Development from 2008 to 2009.

In other words, I’ve been plugged into environmental activism for over thirty years and have got pretty tired of people crapping on about global warming and the environment and doing absolutely nothing whatever to improve the situation.

Become a vegetarian, sell your car, never fly again, review all your investments and divest from any which are involved in carbon industries – these are just the basic steps everyone needs to take, but I know no-one who, in the past 30 years since we first started hearing about global warming, has made any of these elementary changes to their lifestyle.

We were told that Luchita Hurtado had flown to London specially to attend this exhibition, as had at least one of the curators, who was American, accompanied by who knows how many assistants, PR and gallery people. And the pictures themselves, of course. Which were all shipped to London. In airplanes.

This is why we are doomed. Everybody talks the talk, everybody agrees this is a world-shattering crisis, everyone paints placards, wears t-shirts, goes on marches – but nobody, nobody at all, is prepared to get out of their car and walk away and never use it again. To forswear meat and dairy for the rest of their lives. To vow never to catch another airplane, never to take another foreign holiday. Nobody.

Pretty much everyone attending the press launch was tapping away on their mobile phones, mobile phones which contain rare and irreplaceable metals, are manufactured in the suicide factories of China, and then shipped half way round the world in gas-guzzling super-tankers, and which use a global digital infrastructure which now produces more greenhouse gases than the entire aviation industry.

How easy to give a Facebook ‘like’ to Luchita Hurtado’s worthy eco-art, or to retweet about it. How impossible to give up your mobile phone, all your other hi-tech gadgets, your car, your barbecue, and your next foreign holiday.

Which is why we’re going to burn the world.

That’s what I feel about the subject of environmental art. But I also just didn’t like Hurtado’s eco art as art, that much. The sentiments seemed to me trite and obvious and the execution, although I can appreciate that it is deliberately rough and home-made and in the style of handheld placards, just didn’t pull my daisy.

Installation view of Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn showing some of her environmental placards and art works © 2019 Luchita Hurtado. Photo by the author

All that said, on the upside, don’t you think it is absolutely remarkable that a person can be this engaged with a very contemporary issue at the age of ninety-eight!

Although these pieces didn’t do it for me, I was still awestruck by her ability to be open to the modern world, and engage with it, this vividly and vehemently, at such a very advanced age. The sentiments and the handmade placards perfectly chime with the activism of Greta Thunberg and all the other schoolchildren who’ve come out on strike against climate change, holding home-made banners and placards very like Hurtado’s.

If not as actual art, then as tokens of Hurtado’s lifelong commitment to being alert and alive and exploring and expressive, I couldn’t help being deeply touched by this final display.

Conclusion

This is a fabulous exhibition. There are lovely works to savour and enjoy from every part of her long and varied career – from the 1950s abstractions, through the 1960s film-strip pieces, the floating apple and caramac boob period, the sky paintings, the abstract hidden word paintings, and then the white feminist word works, as well as several other series I don’t have space to describe.

But it was, on reflection, the late 1940s, early abstract work which rang my bell most. As you walk in the door of the Sackler Serpentine Gallery this is the first work you see, and this is the work I found it hard to tear myself away from, a classic example of her early abstract period which I just found beautiful beyond words.

As usual, a photographic reproduction doesn’t do it justice. In the flesh you can go right up close and appreciate and enjoy the supreme confidence with which she has painted and etched and scratched and roughed in the colours of the wonderfully weird and evocative sci-fi, Juan Miro-esque, zoomorphic design, in order to create something which I found utterly compelling and persuasive.

Untitled (c.1947-49) by Luchita Hurtado © 2019 Luchita Hurtado


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Dorothea Tanning @ Tate Modern

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrealist paintings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prismatic style

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

Installation photograph of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

It is like the work of a completely different artist.

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

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

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

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

To quote the wall label, these works mark:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

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

Soft fabric sculptures

And then – something completely different, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promotional video

Women curators

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


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (2001)

This is the large-format, floppy paperback catalogue of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001. The exhibition featured paintings by 20th century Mexican artists collected (and sometimes commissioned) by the wealthy art collectors, Jacques and Natasha Gelman. The book contains:

  • The Director’s Foreward – by Brian Kennedy
  • The Curator’s preface – by Robert R.Littman, exhibition curator
  • Frida and Diego – by Gregory O’Brien, curator
  • ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – by Anthony White, curator
  • ‘A pact of alliance with the revolution’: art and politics in Modern Mexico – by Barry Carr, Institute of Latin American studies
  • Jacques and Natasha – by Anthony White
  • ‘My mother, myself and the universe…’ – by Anthony White
  • Catalogue of the works
  • Artist biographies

Modernism

For a start, I’m surprised they call it Modernism. I thought that’s exactly what it wasn’t. I thought Modernism was cubism, futurism, suprematism, constructivism, vorticism and so on, mainly from the 1910s. I thought Rivera’s art was part of the international reaction against the abstraction of the 1910s, and back towards various forms of realism – called neo-classical realism in France, or the Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, or the narrative realism of the Mexican muralists.

That said, once you start flicking through this book and taking in its bewildering range and variety – with Surrealist works next to abstract expressionism, light-hearted caricature next to Frida’s earnest self-portraits – you realise that maybe ‘Modernism’ is the only label which works as a hold-all term.

The Gelmans

Jacques Gelman was born into a rich Russian Jewish family in 1909. His family fled the Russian Revolution to Germany. Twenty years later, Gelman fled Nazi Germany on the eve of the Second World War, making his way to Mexico – which was more open to European refugees than America.

In America Gelman became a successful film producer and, along with his wife Natasha, also a keen collector of contemporary Mexican art, building up an impressive collection and commissioning portraits from leading artists.

Upon Mrs. Gelman’s death in 1998, their collection was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Highlights were loaned to the National Gallery of Australia for this exhibition in 2001. And hence this book, the catalogue of that exhibition.

Saint Frida

Frida Kahlo dominates the title and the exhibition and this catalogue.

Even in 2001 the curators write about Frida as having achieved cult status. And as the recent exhibition at the V&A showed, it wasn’t just her paintings, but her entire self-presentation – the dresses and costumes and jewellery and hair, the whole look – which make Kahlo so visually attractive, so iconic.

To a historical materialist like me, what would be interesting would be an analysis of Frida Kahlo’s rise and rise which asked why she has become such a superstar cultural icon and attempted to answer in terms of cultural history and political change.

After all, during their lifetime her husband, Diego Rivera, was much the more famous of the two, up there with Picasso as an internationally recognised synonym for modern art. And Rivera pioneered a uniquely public form of art – his educational murals – which were commissioned by the Mexican state and millionaire American patrons. He could hardly have been more high profile and public.

So what has changed in our culture to lead to the fact that this politically committed, socialist visionary is now almost entirely overlooked in favour of his preening, self-obsessed, young wife?

For you can’t deny that Frida’s work is entirely, obsessively, unrelentingly about herself – it consists of literally hundreds of self-portraits, wearing various costumes, in bed, bound in barbaric medical equipment, crying, bleeding, suffering miscarriages.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo (1932)

The decline of radical politics and its replacement by grievance and victimhood

When I was growing up in the 1970s it was axiomatic that there would soon be a socialist revolution which would sweep away American imperialist capitalism. ‘Up the workers’, ‘Come the revolution’, ‘The workers. United. Will never be divided’, ‘One out, all out’ were just some of the radical slogans which people shouted on umpteen marches and picket lines. (I’m not saying I agreed with it, but these were the widespread assumption among lefties at the time, in universities, the media, film, theatre and so on).

Over the last forty years that hope – the hope for the ‘overthrow of capitalism’ – has, it seems to me, been completely abandoned and replaced by the notion of separate and specific ‘liberations’ to be achieved, in different ways, by distinct sections of the population.

Gay liberation. Women’s liberation. Black power. Over the past forty to fifty years each of these sectors or groups has developed its own discourses, narratives, lists of grievances and injustices. Each of them insists on being heard.

Women need to talk about women’s issues and be heard. #believewomen. #me too. Gays need to talk about the gay experience. Lesbians need to find their voice. Transgender people need to be listened to. We need to talk about mental illness. Black lives matter. Refugees must be given a voice. Muslim women must tell their stories. We need to talk about…. you name it.

The idea of a unified, mass working class movement seeking to effect a fundamental transformation of society has disappeared. It has been replaced by a fragmented landscape made up of millions of voices, all clamouring to be heard, all desperate to tell their stories of suffering and victimhood and exclusion.

In this completely different cultural and political climate, Rivera’s big, loud, working-class politics seems bullying, sexist, old-fashioned, toxically masculine, redundant, or disgusting.

(The art scholars in this book don’t miss an opportunity to accuse Rivera of toxic masculinity, pointing out his philandering and unfaithfulness and general feckless masculinity on pages 10, 14, 25, 26 and 27. The fact that Frida had a staggering number of extra-marital affairs is mentioned as only her due. She was an artist, you know, and a suffering woman in a man’s world. Of course she was justified in taking love wherever she could find it.)

By contrast with Diego’s discrediting as an epitome of discredited, male-dominated, socialist, trade union politics, Frida has become an emblem of our modern concerns, dominated by the Eternal Victimhood of Woman Under The Patriarchy – about the pity and the pain and the pathos of being a woman. (The story of the bus accident in which Frida was injured by a handrail is told on page 9, repeated on page 25, and then told again on page 27. The message is rammed home. Poor Frida. Beastly Diego.)

Injured as a girl (by a male bus driver, obviously), subject to endless medical operations (by male surgeons, of course), forced to wear painful corsets and prosthetics (by male specialists, the brutes), betrayed by her philandering husband (cheating, false and unfaithful Diego), ignored by the (male) art establishment during her lifetime, refusing to conform to (male) canons of female beauty – Frida ticks pretty much every box on the feminist checklist.

My point is that the definition of what is ‘progressive’ or ‘radical’ has changed out of all recognition in the past forty or so years.

Once it was someone who tried to unite the working classes, the poor and the dispossessed, in order to seize power and transform the economic basis of society. Now it is someone who has suffered greatly because of their gender or race. Once it was the semi-pagan idea of the active hero and revolutionary. Now it is much more like more Christian idea of the suffering martyr, the victim, the permanently injured, offended or abused.

And Saint Frida – along with Saint Sylvia and Saint Emmeline and Saint Rosa – is one of the patron saints of the new religion.

The cult of Frida

I had written the above simply as a response to the way Frida’s suffering and endurance and saintliness is so obsessively repeated in the preface and the introduction and the text of the book, and was congratulating myself on developing this little critique, when I came across the fourth essay in the book – ‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ – and was gutted to discover that everything I’d thought through for myself – is common or received opinion.

‘People are vying for shreds of her garments’ by Anthony White does precisely what had occurred to me – tries to account for the rise and rise of the Cult of Frida over a period when traditional class-based politics has declined and special-interest-group, identity politics has taken over.

White is far more scathing than I was prepared to be. He doesn’t hold back and he makes the link – which i was rather proud of – between the Cult of Frida and Christian ideas of sainthood and suffering:

Kahlo has become the exemplary modern cult figure, in the tradition of Christian saints and teenage pop stars…

Her legacy has grown into a multi-million dollar industry that crosses national and cultural boundaries….

One of the recent sources of Kahlo’s recent celebrity has been a narrative of suffering which feeds into a well-established, popular fascination with personal struggles with pain…

Her work connects to a pervasive tradition in western art that depicts the tribulations of saints

The figure of Frida Kahlo appeals especially to women… Kahlo’s rising popularity in the 1970s was paralleled by the growth in feminism… (Anthony White, p.13)

She was a martyr to pain, menstrual cramps, erratic periods, ill-fated pregnancy, tragic miscarriages, painful abortions, unfaithful men, establishment misogyny, the whole panoply of the evil patriarchy. What woman hasn’t experienced one, many or all of these grievances? Her story features them all, whipped up into a frothy intensity of pathos.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyr)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944) (or a portrait of the artist as a martyred woman in a man’s world)

Mexican Modernism

Having discussed Frida and her many martyrdoms (physical, psychological, artistic, social) at length, Anthony White then moves on to discuss the rest of the artists featured in the show. He distinguishes three branches of Mexican Modernism, as found in the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection:

  • Murals The politically motivated, accessible, murals for the masses made by Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.
  • Surrealism The Englishwoman Leonora Carrington, one-time lover of Max Ernst, is credited with spurring Mexican Surrealism after her arrival in 1942: André Breton had already visited Diego and Frida and declared Frida’s paintings masterpieces of Surrealism in 1938; another Mexican woman surrealist featured in the collection is María Izquierdo.
  • Abstraction – Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso.

The works

The book includes reproductions of 60 paintings and seven photos. It opens with the wonderful photos by Manuel Álvarez Bravo who was, apparently, ‘Mexico’s first principal artistic photographer and the most important figure in 20th-century Latin American photography’.

Bravo took portraits of Diego and Frida (of course) but also a huge range of subjects, from modernist architecture, street life, and women in various states of undress. Tut tut. Objectifying, misogynist, sexist pig. Great photos, though.

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Forbidden fruit by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

There is just one photo by his wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, who was also, apparently, a notable photographer in her own right – an interesting collage of black-and-white photos of ballet dancers stuck over images of the Mexican desert, which my daughter liked.

And then there are paintings by:

  • Leonora Carrington
  • Rafael Cidoncha
  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Jesús Reyes Ferreira
  • Gunther Gerzso
  • 10 by Frida
  • Agustín Lazo
  • Carlos Mérida
  • Roberto Montenegro
  • José Clemente Orozco
  • Carlos Orozco Romero
  • David Alfaro Siqueiros
  • Juan Soriano
  • Rufino Tamayo
  • Emilio Baz Viaud
  • Angel Zárraga

Apparently, the Gelman collection contained more works by Gunther Gerzso than any other painter, about 40 of them. I can see why. They’re big, bold, colourful abstracts (although Gerzso himself said that they were not purely abstract, but had their source or inspiration in the dry, sun-baked landscape of Mexico). Their existence also shows how the Gelmans continued collecting long after Frida and Diego had passed away (1954 and 1957, respectively), well into the 1960s and 70s, into a completely different cultural and visual world.

This example of Gerzso reminds me a bit of the kind of abstract prints my parents and their friends bought in Habitat and Heals and had on their walls in the 1970s.

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Figure in red and blue by Gunther Gerzso (1964)

Summary

This is an interesting book because it a) contains a handful of masterpieces by Diego and Frida, but more because b) it introduced me to a dozen Mexican artists I’d never heard of before.

On the one hand, Rivera and Frida emerge as head and shoulders the best and most distinctive of the artists here, with Diego’s painting of a Calla lilly vendor, and any of Frida’s amazing self-portraits, leaping off the page – for example the ones with monkeys, in a red and gold dress or with braids.

But it was good to also learn about Latin America’s premiere photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and about Gerzso and a few others. I took a shine to the crisp abstract works of Carlos Mérida, with their late-1950s, rather Festival of Britain vibe.

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)

Festival of the Birds by Carlos Mérida (1959)


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Rivera by Andrea Kettenmann (1997)

The German art publishers Taschen recently repackaged their Basic Art range into a standardised, large, hardback format, retailing at £10. Each volume in the series focuses on one famous painter or art movement.

The attraction of Taschen editions is that the text is factual, accurate and sensible, and the books have lots of good quality colour reproductions. Even if you don’t bother to read the text, you will be able to skim though plenty of paintings, alongside photos where relevant, of the artist or movement being discussed. The text of this one was written (as usual) in Germany, back in 1997, then translated into English.

Rivera’s life story is brilliantly told in the imaginative, sardonic and whimsical Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by journalist Patrick Marnham, published in 1998, so not much in the text surprised me, although, being much shorter, it had the effect of making the sequence of government buildings which Rivera created murals for a lot clearer, and it also explained the last decade or so of Rivera’s life (he died in 1957) a bit better.

What I wanted was a record of Rivera’s paintings. I’ve read and seen a lot about the murals, but they generally overshadow his easel paintings. I wanted to see more of the latter.

Rivera was immensely gifted, started drawing early (the earliest work here is a very good goat’s head, drawn when he was 9) and enrolled at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico when he was just ten, quickly hoovering his way through late academic styles. He went to Spain in 1907, aged 21, and studied Velasquez and El Greco. And then onto Paris in 1910, where he quickly discovered the avant-garde and was an early adopter of cubism.

For the first 20 years of his life, he was an omnivore, a chameleon, and I am impressed by the ability,and variety, of these early works.

French impressionism

The House on the Bridge by Diego Rivera (1909)

The House on the Bridge by Diego Rivera (1909)

Psychological realism

Head of a Breton Woman by Diego Rivera (1910)

Head of a Breton Woman by Diego Rivera (1910)

Cubism

Adopting the cubist style wasn’t just a fad. From 1913 to 1917 Rivera painted solely in the cubist style, completing some 200 works, took part in impassioned debates about various types of cubism, was friends with Picasso and Juan Gris. When he exhibited some of the works in Madrid in 1915, they were the first cubist paintings ever seen in Spain.

Zapatista Landscape by Diego Rivera (1915)

Zapatista Landscape by Diego Rivera (1915)

Futurism

Futurism is different from cubism because whereas the latter started out as a new way of seeing very passive objects – landscapes, but particularly Parisian still lifes, wine bottles and newspapers on café tables – Futurism uses a similar visual language of dissociated angles and fractured planes, but in order to depict movement. Also, if this makes sense, its angular shapes are often more rounded, a bit more sensuous (it was, after all, an Italian movement).

Woman at a Well by Diego Rivera (1913)

Woman at a Well by Diego Rivera (1913)

Russian modernism

Rivera experimented with a brighter, more highly coloured, more nakedly geometric types of modernism, a style that reminds me of Malevich. Maybe influenced by conversations with Russians in Paris, including Voloshin and Ilya Ehrenburg. And the fact that Rivera’s mistress, Angelina Beloff, was Russian. This is her suckling their baby.

Motherhood by Diego Rivera (1916)

Motherhood by Diego Rivera (1916)

Mural style

In 1917 Rivera definitively broke with cubism. He studied Cézanne, and the earlier Impressionists. Deprived of the sense of belonging to a communal avant-garde he was at a loss, stylistically.

Toying with returning to Mexico after 13 years in Europe, in 1920 Rivera gained funding to go on a long tour of the frescos of Italy.

In 1921 he finally arrived back in Mexico, and was one of several leading artists taken by the new Minister of Education and Culture, José Vasconcelos, on a tour of pre-Columbian ruins, studying the carvings of men and gods.

At last Rivera felt he had come ‘home’. The Italian frescos, but especially the pre-Colombian art, and the encouragement of the left wing populist minister all crystallised his new approach. He would completely reject all the stylistic avant-gardes of Europe, and melding everything he had learned into a new simple and accessible art for the public. He wanted to:

‘reproduce the pure basic images of my land. I wanted my painting to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.’

The Mexican revolutionary government wanted to commission public murals to educate a largely illiterate population. Rivera received a commission to create murals depicting Mexican art and culture and history and festivals at the Mexico City Ministry of Education, and thus began his long career as a public muralist, and as one of the leaders of what was soon a Mexican school of mural painting.

Mural of exploitation of Mexico by Spanish conquistadors in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

Part of the mural titled Exploitation of Mexico by Spanish conquistadors, in the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City by Diego Rivera

But he was surprisingly badly paid ($2 per day) and so had to continue selling sketches, drawings and paintings to tourists and collectors. Often they were sketches or trials for individual subjects which would then appear in murals.

Bather of Tehuantepec is well known because it marks such a radical break with the immense sophistication of his earlier work. It is highly stylised but not so as to make it almost unreadable (as in cubism). The opposite. It is stylised to make it simple, ‘naive’, peasant, and accessible. Note the child-like simplicity, the primal colours. And the child-like use of space, the plants at the bottom simply giving structure and space to the bending body. It points to the mural style which incorporate elements not for any ‘realism’ but subordinated to narrative and message. Here the message is the primal simplicity, the utter lack of pretension, of the Mexican Indian washing.

Bather of Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera (1923)

Bather of Tehuantepec by Diego Rivera (1923)

Lilies

Rivera liked flowers. Calla lilies are, in a way, highly schematic plants. Big, tall and simple, with simple bold flowerheads, Rivera featured them in a whole series of paintings. This picture uses an immensely sophisticated grasp of perspective, colour and volume to create a strikingly ‘simple’ picture.

Flower Day by Diego Rivera (1925)

Flower Day by Diego Rivera (1925)

After looking at it for a while I noticed the compact, squarely arranged feet of the peasants at the bottom of the picture. Showing the way Rivera’s interest in cubes and angles and blocs of paint, was transmuted into the semi-cartoon simplification of the mural style.

Mexican realism

Rivera was expelled from the Mexican Communist Party after a difficult trip to the Soviet Union in 1927. In the early 1930s he went to America and painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, but these commissions came to a grinding halt when he fell out with the Rockefellers in New York after painting the face of Lenin into a mural in the new RCA skyscraper in 1933. He was fired and the mural was pulled down.

Back in Mexico in the 1930s, Rivera found government commissions hard to come by and developed a profitable sideline in a kind of Mexican peasant realism. He painted hundreds of pictures of Mexican-Indian children, sometimes with their mothers – selling them by the sackful to sentimental American tourists. They kept the wolf from the door while he tried to get more mural commission but… it’s hard to like most of them.

Modesta and Inesita by Diego Rivera (1939)

Modesta and Inesita by Diego Rivera (1939)

Surrealism

I know from the Marnham book that André Breton, godfather of the Surrealists, came to stay with Rivera and Frida in 1938. I didn’t know that Rivera made an excursion into the Surrealist style and exhibited works in a major 1940 exhibition of Surrealist art.

The Hands of Dr Moore by Diego Rivera (1940)

The Hands of Dr Moore by Diego Rivera (1940)

Society portraits

Right to the end he made important and striking murals, such as the striking Water, The Origin of Life of 1951, an extraordinary design for the curved floor and walls of a new waterworks for Mexico City.

But at the same time – the late 1940s and into the 1950s – Rivera also produced commissions, usually portraits, for rich people, especially society women, which are surprisingly at odds with his commitment to the violent rhetoric of the Stalinist Communist Party.

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera (1943)

Portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego Rivera (1943)

Obviously, the striking calla lilies a) echo the slender elegant shape of the svelte millionaire’s wife b) echo their use in quite a few earlier paintings. But there’s no getting round the contradiction between this kind of rich society portrait and the intense engagement with the poor, with landless Indians, with the conquered Aztecs, of so many of his murals.

Having slowly trawled through his entire career, I admire the murals, and am often snagged and attracted by this or that detail in the immense teeming panoramas he created – the Where’s Wally pleasure of detecting all the narratives tucked away in a panoramic work like the Exploitation of Mexico, above.

But, given a choice, it’s the early cubo-futurist, or futuro-cubist works, which give me the purest visual pleasure.

Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (1913) by Diego Rivera

Portrait of Adolfo Best Maugard (1913) by Diego Rivera


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Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day.
(Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biographer, friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe, to produce an ‘official’ biography (published in 1963) in which he continued to perpetrate all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera’s imagination and, maybe, of Mexico more generally. The opening chapter is a wonderful description of Marnham’s own visit to Rivera’s home town during the famous Day of the Dead festival, in which he really brings out the garish, fantastical and improbable nature of Mexican culture – a far far better introduction to Rivera’s world than a simple recital of the biographical facts.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three aspects:

  • via its turbulent and violent politics
  • in its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, sharp cacti and brilliantly-coloured parrots
  • and its troubled racial heritage

As to the whoppers – where Rivera insisted that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasquez and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had only recently been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

So it was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, for the first time grasping the importance of the Cubism, which had already been around for a few years. For the next four years Diego painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, a friend of Picasso, and a fully paid-up member of the avant-garde – all mistresses, models and drinking late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up until 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And it is a compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that, in this world of bohemian artists, whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door. The artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and also intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – in one sitting! Whoever gave up, to full to carry on, had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the ‘Paintings’ section of the Wikipedia gallery of his art. First half is all homely realism and landscapes, then Boom! a dozen or so hard-core cubist works.

Rivera returned to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help the Mexican revolutionary bandit leader Zapata hold up trains. He simply wanted to see his family and friends again.

But upon arrival, he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of the corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture had organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910, soon after his return, to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

As it happens, this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s reactionary government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead supervising his art exhibition in Mexico City and spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and where he had established himself with his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War (rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso) while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, with a seemingly endless series of raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later…

Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, during which he progressed from being a talented traditionalist and established himself at the heart of the modern movement with his distinctive and powerful brand of cubism. Some of the cubist works showcased in the Wikipedia gallery are really brilliant.

But all good things come to an end. Partly because of personal fallings-out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. Faure’s arguments seemed to be backed up by history. Both the First World War and the Russian Revolution had brought the whole meaning and purpose of art into question and the latter, especially, had given a huge boost to the notion of Art for the People.

It was with these radical new thoughts in mind that Diego finally got round to completing the Grand Tour of Europe which his grant from the Mexican government had been intended to fund. off he went to Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters. Here was art for the people, public art in chapels and churches, art which any peasant could relate to, clear, forceful depictions of the lives of Jesus and the apostles and the saints. Messages on walls.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, Diego had been contacted by Vasconcelos in 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the same time that Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies of Renaissance frescos in Italy.

In 1921 Rivera returned to Mexico and was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

Rivera was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was as natural as the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Mexican Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives (basically, they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives). Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, also named Diego (1916–1918)
1918 affair with Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, aka ‘Marevna’, mother of a daughter named Marika in 1919, whom he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 Diego married Guadalupe Marin, who was to be the mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe; she modelled for some of the nudes in his early murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– possible affair with Guadalupe’s sister
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals including ‘Earth enslaved’, ‘Germination’, ‘Virgin earth’ 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic ‘art for the people’.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

There is an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest socialist murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists.

In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca (in Mexico) from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this, Diego went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the San Francisco School of Arts.

His argument in his own defence was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses – but there’s no doubt that these commissions also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 Diego helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic about this event, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich, American multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Mexican Communist’. ‘Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this publicity, Diego was then invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever painted, anywhere. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong.

Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, into the mural the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building.

A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair, was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1934, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’ as he called it. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

Diego was ill for much of 1934, and started an affair with Frida Kahlo’s sister. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he had abandoned when he set off for America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. That was a bad idea. They caused so much offence to the powers that be that, once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by José Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Thus he found himself being more or less forced out of mural painting – and forced back into painting the kind of oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals. They were relatively quick and easy to do (compared to the back-breaking effort of the murals) and so for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as yet another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 but left it in 1925. He went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing. During his visit he made some tactless criticisms of the Party and so was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, a separate organisation from the Communist Party, which was affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist.

Trotsky had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. For the next 8 years he wandered as an exile, with spells in Turkey, France and Norway. As this last refuge became increasingly difficult, Diego gave his support to a suggestion by Mexican intellectuals that Trotsky be given refuge in Mexico. They persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at Diego’s home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (at one point in the company of the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise the dictatorial turn which Soviet communism was taking, and the point was rammed home for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces than combating the common enemy, Franco) and then by the outrageous Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38.

Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida Kahlo had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger by hosting Trotsky. We now know that Stalin commissioned no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House (the home he shared with Kahlo), the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, were fixed up in a house only a few hundred yards away.

It was here that Trotsky was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom. Amazingly, the gunmen managed to miss Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run.

Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the endlessly violent Mexican Revolution, I was not at all surprised: McLynn shows that this was the routine method for handling political disagreements in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, also hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leaned down to read a letter Mercader had handed him, attacked Trotsky with a small ice-pick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky who fought back, and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically  toSan Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

Also, a new president had taken office in Mexico with the result that the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted. He returned to his home country and, in 1940, began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, running around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete and weren’t finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds? Who are the Mexicans? What is the nation and its true heritage?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of Diego’s life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham devotes his final pages to developing a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He starts from the fact that Frida’s illness limited her mobility and made her a world-class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her various miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations, prosthetic legs and other physical ailments.

But overlaid on almost all of Frida’s paintings was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which presents her as a a pure victim.

And yet she was a powerful victim. Biographical accounts and some of the paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship, Diego could become the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became Frida’s ‘baby’, the baby she was never able to have. Apparently, Frida often gave Diego baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women dismiss men as big babies: it can be a consolation for their (women’s) powerlessness. But it can also be true. Men can be big babies.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much that sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida apparently poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts.

Marnham shows how their early childhoods had much in common: both had close siblings who died young and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not to their boring white European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their very mixed feelings for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful dresses, and earrings and head-dresses which she largely copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when the couple divorced in 1940, Frida promptly cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian.

The conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress and symbolism – and his murals, which obsess about the native inheritance of Mexico – were both ingredients in a psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders which they jointly created.

Their mutual infidelities upset the other, but they also found that they just couldn’t live apart. Sex between them may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they had created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated but in its complexity prompted the core of the artworks, in particular the endless reworking of her own image which have made Frida more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband.

Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for a spurious clarity, where the whole point was the hazy, messy, creativity of very non-academic, non-Western, non-judgmental, very Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This despite the Moscow Show Trials, Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky had told them from his unparalleled first-hand experience of the corrupt dictatorship Stalin was creating. None of that mattered.

Because Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal and artistic mythology. Just as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than Frida – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forbears, and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican. Is being Mexican to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith, were, in other words, among the most reactionary elements in Mexican society.

Neither of them wrote clear, logical works of politics and philosophy. They both created fantasias into which their devotees and critics can read what they will. That, in my opinion, is how art works. It opens up spaces and possibilities for the imagination.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months later, one of Diego’s repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was successful.

He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says that after Frida’s death, he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – Diego was married his deceased wife’s art dealer while simultaneously having an affair with her principal customer.

In September 1957 Diego had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art, full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, strange and inspiring murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


Related links

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