‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’

What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!

– Bertolt Brecht, ‘To Those Who Follow in Our Wake‘, 1939

During the Christmas break, while reading Fiona Stafford’s engrossing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I was also hearing the news from Sheffield, where residents were outraged when private contractors, hired by the city council under a cost-cutting PFI, began cutting down hundreds of trees lining city streets. Now, luminaries such as Jarvis Cocker and Chris Packham are fronting a campaign to save Sheffield’s roadside trees. In the Guardian the other day, Patrick Barkham was writing about the pensioners being prosecuted under anti-trade union legislation for peacefully opposing the felling of trees in their street. His report included this striking statement by furious local and one-time member of Pulp, Richard Hawley:

This hasn’t got anything to do with politics. I’m a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. I was on picket lines with my dad. I don’t view protesting against the unnecessary wastage of trees as all of a sudden I’ve become fucking middle class. I know right from wrong and chopping down shit that helps you breathe is evidently wrong. We’re not talking about left or right. We’re talking about the body. It boils down to something really simple. Do you like breathing? It’s quite good. It’s called being alive. What we exhale they inhale and what we inhale they exhale. The end.

Continue reading “‘In times like these, it’s necessary to talk about trees’”

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany: Memories of a Nation at the British Museum

Germany British Museum

Flag of the German Confederation, 1850

After listening to Neil MacGregor’s outstanding radio series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, a visit to the linked exhibition at the British Museum was considered essential.  But, you might ask, was it worth it, having heard the radio version?  Yes, absolutely.  In the radio programmes, Neil MacGregor focussed on one particular object, and very few items he discussed are illustrated on the BBC website.  The exhibition, on the other hand, features 200 objects selected to reflect on a number of key themes that offer an impressionistic, but richly detailed, account of 600 years of German history, from the Renaissance to the present day.

Like the radio series, the exhibition sets out to investigate the complexities of German history.  For British visitors it poses two key questions: How much do we really understand Germany, and how do its people understand themselves?

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

Wir sind ein Volk placard, East Germany, 1990

When you enter the exhibition you see three things. The first is a quote from the painter Georg Baselitz: ‘What I could never escape was Germany and being German’; then your attention is drawn to a video of the joyous crowds of East Germans pouring through the hastily-opened Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.  Finally, displayed nearby is a home-made placard made for a demonstration in East Berlin a few weeks later: cut in the shape of the united Germany and with the colours of the German flag it bears the words: ‘Wir sind ein Volk’ –  ‘we are one people’.

The point being made is how recently the Germany of today – the Germany on the placard, and the one unification created in 1990 – came into existence. The boundaries  of today’s Germany are less than a quarter of a century old, the result of the merging of the German Democratic Republic with the German Federal Republic  in 1990.

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

Model of Strasbourg cathedral clock

How this new Germany echoes and recalls older forms of Germany is the story told by the exhibition. It is a story of shifting borders and jigsaw pieces of German history, some of which are found in cities which are no longer German. Take, for example, Strasbourg, now a French border city, but for centuries a centre of German culture and industry.  In the cathedral there, Goethe thought he had found the essence of German art and history.  The exhibition illustrates the city’s key place in German history with a model of the cathedral clock, made in 1574. As well as dials to show the time, the clock strikes the hours and the quarters. On the hour, figures emerge on a revolving dais – first Death to strikes the hour, then the figure of Christ appears to banish Death. It’s a remarkable piece of intricate engineering.

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1904

Next, a reminder that Königsberg, once home to Immanuel Kant and later to the German painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz, is now Kaliningrad, a Russian city.  Here is one of Kathe Kollwitz’s intense, searching self-portrait, this one from 1904.  Kollwitz was  born in Konigsberg  when it was a Prussian city. By 1945 her home town had been destroyed by Allied bombing and, renamed Kalingrad, was under Soviet control. (For more about Kathe Kollwitz, see ‘Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story‘ on the British Museum blog.)

In this opening section of the exhibition, the theme is ‘Floating Frontiers’; the aim is to show how the geographic home of the German-speaking peoples has fluctuated widely, from an enormous swathe of princely states, loosely united  within the Holy Roman Empire, then smashed apart by Napoleon, and then re-forged under Prussian leadership.

Franz Kafka by Hans Fronius. 1937 Woodcut

Franz Kafka: woodcut by Hans Fronius, 1937 

A superb woodcut of Franz Kafka is here to remind us that the Czech city of Prague was once home to a large German-speaking community, which included Kafka, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language. Today, however, neither Russian-speaking Kaliningrad nor Czech-speaking Prague are in any sense German.

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Holbein, Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523

Nearby is this portrait of Erasmus, painted by Holbein in 1523 while he was based in the university at Basel. Throughout the medieval period Basel was a thoroughly German city – one of the first centres of the German printing industry.  Its university attracted renowned scholars such as Erasmus. In 1501, however, Basel elected to become part of Switzerland.

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling

Holbein, Lady with Squirrel and Starling, 1526

Holbein appears again with this portrait painted during his first visit to England in 1526.  His career – and the painting – both reflect the extent of German-speaking cultural and commercial links across Europe at the time.  The lady is English, her squirrel is German, and she wears Russian-cut furs that would have come to England through a Hanseatic League merchant operating in the Steelyard, the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London, located on the north bank of the Thames roughly where Cannon Street station now stands. As this article from History Today suggests, the Hanseatic League was effectively the first Common Market. Holbein went on to paint portraits of several prominent members of the Steelyard community

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

Casper David Friedrich, Der Mittag (Noon), 1821

This painting by Casper David Friedrich illustrates how the German landscape has had a profound impact on German identity. The work of 19th century Romantics like Friedrich, with their focus on wild places, mountain ranges, remote lakes and deep forests, gave new focus to the German landscape as a symbol of German identity (even today, one-third of Germany is covered by forests). The early and continuing influence of the Green Party reflects this aspect of the German identity.

Pen and ink drawing of the rhinoceros, by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

Albrecht Dürer, pen and ink drawing of a rhinoceros, 1515

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Johann Gottleib Kirchner, Meissen porcelain Rhino, 1730

Durer’s famous rhinocerous print and a copy of it made from Meissen porcelain two centuries later have been chosen to represent two of Germany’s earliest artistic and technological achievements.  The invention of modern printing in the mid-1400s allowed Durer to become the first leading artist to gain fame for his mass-produced works.  Though he never actually saw a rhinocerous, his print – with its inaccuracies – was copied for centuries. It was such an obvious example of great German art that when porcelain was reinvented by scientists in Dresden in the early 1700s it was transformed into this example of an industry which allowed Europe to equal China’s earlier achievements.

These have been just glimpses of a wide-ranging and complex exhibition.  Inevitably, it’s the objects that represent the devastating and tragic events of the first half of the 20th century that linger in the memory. The exhibition reflects these events through the works of artists and objects of the time. There are Otto Dix prints reflecting on World War I, banknotes issued during the period of hyperinflation in the 1920s, an etching by Käthe Kollwitz created in response to the assassination of Communist leader Karl Liebknecht during the abortive socialist revolution of 1919.

Otto Dix, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain

Otto Dix, Der Krieg: Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain, 1922

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

Kathe Kollwitz, Memorial sheet of Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920

In 1937 the Nazis mounted a large travelling exhibition of antisemitic propaganda under the title Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). The exhibits, which included photographs, documents and charts, repeated mediaeval myths about the Jews, accused the Jews of usury, dishonest business practices, and alleged an international Jewish conspiracy that controlled both capitalism and Communism. The exhibition blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for wars and financial crises in general.  The exhibition drew large crowds. The poster for the exhibition, displayed here, emphasized supposed attempts by Jews to turn Germany into a communist state, portraying an ‘eastern’ Jew holding gold coins in one hand and a whip in the other. Under his arm is a map of the world, with the imprint of the hammer and sickle.  Kristallnacht followed one year later.

poster for 'The Eternal Jew' exhibition, Dresden 1937

Poster for ‘The Eternal Jew’ exhibition, Dresden 1937

sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers 1939

Sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, 1939

A sheet of cut-out figures of Hitler and German soldiers, produced for children in 1939, shows how the Nazis attempted to embed the cult of Hitler and symbols of Nazism throughout German society, especially in the minds of the young.

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

KDF-Wagen sales brochure, from 1938

On the way into the exhibition, one of the most emblematic icons of German industrial success, a post-war VW Beetle is on display. The Beetle, or KDF-Wagen as it was initially known, could trace its origins back to the late 1930s, when this brochure was printed, offering the chance to own a Volkswagens ( or ‘people’s car’), by collecting saving stamps. A large factory was built in the new town of Wolfsburg. Civilian production was interrupted during World War II with military vehicles being assembled there, mainly by forced workers and POWs. Production of the Beetle resumed shortly after the end of the war, initially thanks to the efforts of the British Army to get production back on track.  By 1955 the one-millionth VW Beetle was being manufactured in Wolfsburg, symbolizing the German ‘economic miracle’.

refugee cart 1945

A refugee cart from East Pomerania (now Poland) c 1945

Alongside a loan from the Buchenwald concentration camp – a replica of the camp’s gate with its inscription in elegant Bauhaus lettering stating ‘to each his own’ – is a simple refugee cart.  The former is testimony to the annihilation by the Nazis of the Jews of central and eastern Europe, while the cart speaks of the largest organised deportation in history – the expulsion of around 12 million Germans, forced to migrate after 1945 from areas of centuries-old German settlement across central and eastern Europe.  Using family farm carts like this to carry what belongings they could, the migrants fled before the advance of the Soviet army or were expelled after the German defeat.

Stage Set model for “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht

Stage model for ‘Mother Courage’, made for first German production, Berlin, 1949

Next to the cart is a model prepared for the first German production of Brecht’s play Mother Courage in Berlin in 1949. Brecht had written the play in Sweden in 1939 in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.  Set during the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 (an earlier age of self-inflicted German devastation), a traditional family cart was central to the staging.

The final, searing section of the exhibition is prefaced by these words from the curators:

The Nazis left a dark memory that can neither be avoided nor adequately explained.  After 1945 a once more divided Germany had to engage with this past and create a present that could accommodate it.

Here is one of the most powerful artistic statements made in Germany in the last 25 years.  In 1980 Anselm Kiefer began a series of works inspired by Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he lived in exile in Paris until his suicide in 1970.

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980 watercolour

Anselm Kiefer, Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1981

His poem deals obliquely with the horror of the Holocaust, stating ‘Death is a master from Germany’.  In this watercolour version of the enormous canvas of the same name which is currently on show at the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy, Kiefer places the words ‘Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete’, used by Celan to represent the Aryan ideal of blonde beauty, over sheaves of golden corn.  Her blonde hair is contrasted in the poem with the ‘ashen’ hair of Jewish Shulamith, the favourite wife of King Solomon.

model of Jewish synagogue Offenbach

Model of the new Jewish synagogue in Offenbach, 1946

But the exhibition concludes with three exhibits which offer the hope of renewal and are suggestive of the way in which the German people have attempted, in the last thirty years, to come to terms with their past, openly and with honesty.

After concentration camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz, it seemed that the story of Jews in Germany must come to a full stop at the end of the war. Over 90% of Jews living in Germany died in the Holocaust.  Most survivors in exile decided to remain abroad. Why would any Jew, in 1945 or after, see any part of their future in Germany? But remarkably Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe.

By 1948 there were already nearly 100 Jewish communities in Germany again, and new synagogues were being built.  In 1946 the town of Offenbach offered to build a new synagogue.  On display is the model design by Herman Guttman for a synagogue and community centre that would provide protection and refuge for every member of the community: ‘Nach au Auschwitz’ (After Auschwitz).  The synagogue was built and is now much enlarged to accommodate the large number of Russian Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

Ernst Barlach, The Floating One

Ernst Barlach, The Hovering Angel, 1927 bronze replica from Gustrov Cathedral

The end of the exhibition is dominated by the hovering figure of Ernst Barlach’s Der Schwebende, a mourning figure in solid bronze designed for Güstrow Cathedral, initially as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Its subsequent fate has meant it has become a distillation of Germany’s 20th century history and a powerful symbol of the strength of reconciliation. It has been generously lent to the Museum by the congregation in Güstrow – the first time it has left the cathedral.

Detached from earth and time, with folded arms and closed eyes, the figure expresses an internalised vision of the grief and suffering of war. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Barlach’s works were among the first to be declared Entartete Kunst (‘degenerate art’) and confiscated and removed from public display. Sadly, Barlach died in 1938, knowing that his masterwork had been taken down to be melted and probably made into war munitions.

However, some courageous friends had managed to hide a second cast, which was then hung in the Antoniter Church in Cologne after the end of the Second World War. This time, the sculpture commemorated two World Wars. During the time of the Cold War in the 1950s, the parish of Cologne made another cast of the Angel and presented it in a gesture of friendship to the parish of Güstrow cathedral. For the next few months this cast is displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition.

In 1981 Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany, met Erich Honecker in East Germany, and they visited Barlach’s Angel in Güstrow cathedral. On this occasion, Schmidt said to the bishop in Güstrow: ‘I would like to thank you very much for your kind words of welcome. As you said, Barlach is indeed part of our common memory of the past. May I add, that Barlach could also stand as a representative of our shared and common future.’ Schmidt was right. Eight years later, in peaceful demonstrations, East Germans brought the wall between East and West down.

The facial features those of Kathe Kollwitz, kindred spirit of Barlach who shared his pacifist views.

Neil MacGregor recently made this comment on the meaning of Barlach’s Hovering Angel:

In Britain we have monuments to things in our past that we are very proud of.  The Germans put up monuments to their own shame, and that makes them very different from almost any other country.  They do that as a reminder of how they ought to behave in the future.

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1991 (lithoprint from 1988 painting)

The last object we see before the exit is a painting by another contemporary German artist, Gerhard Richter.  It’s based on a photo of his daughter, taken as she turned to look at one of his paintings.

The young girl may be turning away from the artist – her father – or, perhaps, turning towards something else.  Fraught with ambiguity, the painting suggests conflict between generations, the interplay of past and present, and ideas of acceptance and guilt.

Richter was born Dresden in 1932 and grew up in what later became the GDR.  He escaped to the West two months before the Wall was built in 1961.

See also

Dead Dog In a Suitcase: ‘We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office’

Dead Dog In a Suitcase: ‘We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office’

Martin Hyder and Rina Fatina in Dead Dog in a Suitcase

Martin Hyder and Rina Fatina in ‘Dead Dog in a Suitcase’

Through all the Employments of Life
Each Neighbour abuses his Brother;
Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife:
All Professions be-rogue one another:
The Priest calls the Lawyer a Cheat,
The Lawyer be-knaves the Divine:
And the Statesman, because he’s so great,
Thinks his Trade as honest as mine.

In the 1720s, when John Gay wrote his timeless and fantastically successful The Beggar’s Opera, trust in politicians was almost non-existent, men had been ruined, and the national economy weakened, by the collapse of the South Sea Company.  The parallels with our own time need little elaboration; as Paul Crewe, the producer of Dead Dog in a Suitcase, the Liverpool Everyman and Kneehigh re-creation remarks in the production’s programme:

We’re still confronting a world in which there is no trust in politicians; where bankers wreck economies and lives, yet collect huge bonuses; in which the power of wealth and celebrity is celebrated, the law is often found to be corrupt, but where millions live in poverty and degradation. What is the world coming to?

engraving by Hogarth shows a burlesque of John Gay's popular ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. The engraving shows the actors in the middle of one of the songs, sending up the characters by using animal masks.

An engraving by Hogarth shows actors wearing animal masks performing a song from Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’.

Dead Dog, seen this week, is a kaleidoscopic rewrite and update of John Gay’s original in which writer Carl Grose has returned to the spirit, if not the text, of the source, ignoring Brecht’s  better-known re-interpretation.  The characters’ names have not, however, been changed to protect the innocent.  We still have the contract killer Macheath (later transformed into Mack the Knife, in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera), hired by the Peachums to murder the town’s mayor  as the prelude to a fixed mayoral election. It’s an old story of power, corruption and lies.  Les Peachum is a businessman who fears that the incumbent mayor knows too much about his shady dealings (buildings made of his shoddy concrete, and a business selling pilchards poisoned by the toxic waste poured into the bay by another of his operations.

Grose doesn’t use Peachum’s line from Gay’s original, though it fits:

No Gentleman is ever look’d upon the worse for killing a Man in his own Defence; and if Business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a Gentleman do?

Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum

Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum

With the run drawing to its close, I don’t think I’m giving anything away in revealing that the truly evil Peachum is the missus (a standout performance by Rita Fatania as Les Peachum’s domineering and scheming spouse).  This Mrs Peachum has no need of Mr Peachum’s advice in the original; she knows it already:

But Money, Wife, is the true Fuller’s Earth for
Reputations, there is not a Spot or a Stain but what it can take out.
A rich Rogue now-a-days is fit Company for any Gentleman; and the
World, my Dear, hath not such a Contempt for Roguery as you imagine.

A lot of money changes hands – in suitcase-sized portions.  Identical suitcases change hands, too: it’s a running gag throughout the show.  There’s the one with the money, one with the mayor’s evidence that could ruin the Peachums – and the one with the dead dog (the unfortunate pooch was being taken for a walk by its owner, the mayor, when both were assassinated; ‘it was a witness’, remarks Macheath, the killer).

Patrycja Kujawska As Widow Goodman

Suitcase mix-up: Patrycja Kujawska as the mayor’s widow

It’s hard to do justice in a few words to the energy and inventiveness of this production.  Director Mike Shepherd has the tale unfold against the backdrop of a vast, scaffolded set across which characters clamber and leap.  There is a Punch and Judy, there are hand puppets, choreographed dance numbers,  atmospheric lighting effects, a lot of physically-demanding  performance – and lots of music, a great deal of it performed by the actors themselves, most notably by Patrycja Kujawska on violin.

Music director Charles Hazlewood has retained the sense of Gay’s original which subverted the popular operatic tradition of its day by incorporating songs and tunes that were familiar to ordinary people.  His ebullient score embraces rap, disco, ska and dub, with set pieces that reference – amongst many sources -Ian Dury, Madness  and Tom Waits, as well as  incorporating, as did John Gay, variants on ‘Greensleeves’ and airs by Handel and Purcell.  The Polly Peachum wedding scene, in which the entire cast restage a Madness routine wearing long, black overcoats and pork pie hats, is priceless.

Madness 2 Madness

 Madness: the cast with Carly Bawden as Polly Peachum

The acting is uniformly strong in this ensemble performance, though Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum and Dominic Marsh as Macheath deserve special mention.  The whole thing works its way inexorably towards a truly stunning conclusion that brings home just how marvellous a box of tricks this theatre now has at its disposal.  It’s an apocalyptic ending that must leave the Everyman staff with a lot of clearing up to do every night. If I have one criticism, though, it is that the show is too long and a little uneven.  For example, there’s a scene towards the end where, with Macheath on the gallows awaiting execution, his two wives sing a song of devotion.  It’s not a particularly good song, and the rest of the cast are left standing motionless, watching.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase Everyman 1

 The Slammerkin

The production retains John Gay’s focus on ‘Gaming, Drinking and Whoring’.  In the original, Macheath frequents a tavern where he is waited on by women of dubious virtue.  In Dead Dog, writer and director have updated the concept with The Slammerkin, a nightclub staffed by gyrating pole dancers and transsexuals. There’s a hilarious scene (perhaps to be avoided by those of a nervous disposition who are uneasy around babies) in which the many babies fathered by Macheath surround him, bawling and crawling with menace.

Dead Dog logo

Dead Dog: Kneehigh/Everyman publicity

John Gay achieved his greatest success with The Beggar’s Opera which had its debut in London in 1728  and became an immediate success, performed more than any other play during the 18th century. Alexander Pope wrote of the play that its ‘vast success was unprecedented and almost incredible’.  It was popular, not just in London, but in all the major towns of Britain, and as far afield as Jamaica.

The play’s popularity was due in part to its satiric subversion of Italian opera, the passionate interest of the upper classes at the time – but mainly, perhaps, to the manner in which it lampooned politicians and commented excoriatingly on social inequity, primarily through Gay’s comparison of low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic superiors: ‘There is such a similitude of manners in high and low life that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen’.

Gay was not alone in making the comparison, as Vic Gatrell observes in City of Laughter, his superb history of sexual attitudes and satire in 18th century London which I read recently.  At around the same time as Gay’s play was being premiered, Henry Fielding wrote:

Great whores in coaches gang,
Smaller misses
For their kisses,
Are in Bridewell hang’d;
Whilst in vogue
Lives the great rogue,
Small rogues are by dozens hang’d

While Daniel Defoe observed caustically, ‘How many honest gentlemen have we in England, of good estates and noble circumstances, that would be highway men, and come to the gallows, if they were poor?

The theatre programme features a number of pertinent quotations along the same lines, including this one from Aesop some 2500 years ago (confirming that nothing is new under the sun):

 We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.

While to Eddie Vedder is attributed the observation:

Give a man a gun, he’ll rob a bank.  Give a man a bank, he’ll rob the world.

Threepenny Opera Original German poster from Berlin, 1928

Threepenny Opera: original German poster from Berlin, 1928

In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production of Gay’s play, The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht (who wrote the words) and Kurt Weill (who devised the music) updated the story for the Depression years.  By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany by Hitler’s policies, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performedacross Europe. Songs from The Threepenny Opera have become standards, most notably, of course, ‘Mack the Knife’.  It is absent, however, from Dead Dog in a Suitcase.

Art Turning Left: a doctoral thesis on the gallery walls

Art Turning Left: a doctoral thesis on the gallery walls

Je participe

Je participe … Ills profitent: Atelier Populaire poster, Paris, May 1968

Visiting Art Turning Left, the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, feels more like being asked to read a doctoral thesis that has done its darnedest to impress by referencing a wide range of esoteric sources alongside the obvious ones.  The exhibition subtitle – How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 – provides a hint that this will not simply be a display of left-wing art, rather that it is more concerned with questions about how socialist artists have tried (and still try) to change the way art is made and distributed in order to match their political and ethical principles.  A fair amount of the art on display is of dubious merit, some of it ephemera of only historical interest or curiosity value.  Nevertheless, there is much here to stimulate and intrigue.

Reinforcing the sense of attending a seminar, the exhibition (actually co-curated with Liverpool John Moores University) is not arranged chronologically, but thematically – divided into several sections that each begin with a question. The primary purpose of the art on display is to illustrate seven existential and philosophical questions about the relationship of art (and the artists who make it) to the struggle to change capitalist society.

At the outset the curators identify three core values common to left-wing ideologies: the belief in equality rather than hierarchy, the quest for social progress over the status quo, and the conviction that the benefits of collectivism and solidarity outweigh the advantages of competitive individualism.  The purpose of Art Turning Left is to explore how these values have affected the way that artists committed to them have approached the way in which they make their work.

So … let’s begin the seminar.

Banner for The Worker’s Union -  Solidarity of Labour, after Walter Crane c. 1898

Installation view: banner for The Worker’s Union, Holloway branch, ‘Solidarity of Labour’, after a design by Walter Crane, c 1898

Can art affect everyone?

Can art really be for everyone? The first thing you see as you enter the exhibition is an installation – dominated by a huge trade union banner – that suggests possible answers to this question.  Like the rest of the exhibition it creates incongruous juxtapositions of media, time and place.  Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of Art Turning Left, has explained how this particular installation attempts to show how the value of equality has led artists to utilise approaches like the:

Extraordinary use of public space (such as in the reproduction of Walter Crane’s images on union banners), by bringing art to a larger group of ‘users’ (for instance in the Bauhaus’ use of industrial production …), or using live performance and publications to stimulate the viewer as an active reader of art, as with Bertold Brecht’s theatre and poetry.

Walter Crane, whose design Solidarity of Labour’ is incorporated in the banner for The Worker’s Union that dominates the opening installation, was born in Liverpool and was famous in the late 19th century for his illustrations for children’s story books.  But he also illustrated socialist pamphlets and produced political cartoons for publications such as The Clarion.  Like his friend William Morris he was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Walter Crane, Solidarity of Labour, 1889

Walter Crane, International Solidarity of Labour, 1889

Crane used his art for the advancement of socialist values and placed it at the service of the trade union movement.  Crane’s design ‘International Solidarity of Labour‘, depicting workers of all continents united, was adopted as a symbol of international unity and the power of collective action, and – until the onset of war in 1914 – was incorporated widely into trade union banners, such as the one displayed here.

Bertolt Brecht is well known for his theatrical technique of alienation, designed to encourage the theatre-goer to become an active participant rather than a passive viewer of a stage spectacle. Alongside examples on video, this installation also features from several collages from The War Primer,  a work which Brecht compiled during World War 2 and published in 1955. As in the theatre, Brecht aims to break the illusion of a standard photo collection by juxtaposing war photographs with poetry and captions that encourage readers to do more than glance at the images and to reflect on the brutality of war and its connection to capitalism.

Brecht Liverpool

Bertolt Brecht: collage from ‘The War Primer’

Among the selection from ‘The War Primer’ the curators have aptly chosen one collage in which Brecht has combined a photo of Liverpool, presumably taken from a German bomber during the wartime raids on the city.  The caption reads: ‘Liverpool harbour, England’s second biggest, is well-known to be the target of many German aerial bombardments and took many direct hits.  This photograph gives a clear picture of the harbour – the smoke at the top shows that it has just been visited by German bombers’. Beneath photo and caption, Brecht has added a few lines of poetry:

I am a city, but soon I shan’t be –
Where generations used to live and die
Before those deadly birds flew in to haunt me:
One thousand years to build.
A Fortnight to destroy.

Next to the Brecht we find examples of the work of the Modernist graphic designer, Gerd Arntz who was a leading member of the Gruppe progressiver Kunstler Koln (the Cologne Progressives), a radical group of artists who were active in the Weimar years.

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

The Cologne Progressives were active in communist trade unions, making prints and posters (usually from woodcuts or linocuts) that promoted worker’s revolution by calling for workers to abandon parliament and form worker’s councils.  Their goal was to use art at the service of the revolution, and to that end Arntz and his fellow artists invented a visual language able to communicate ideas visually to everyone, avoiding art elitism and designed for mass distribution.

Later, in collaboration with Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath, Arntz developed Isotype, a universal, transnational visual language of repeatable pictograms that could be used to address issues such as social inequality, exploitation and war – the forerunner of modern infographics.

The Third Reich is a prophetic vision of the Nazi regime then in its infancy. Hitler is at the top of a pyramid, above capitalists, military and judges. At a lower level, SA guard the concentration camps and employees work in armaments factories where the Communists are trying to inform them. Produced in 1934, Arntz said of the print:

The fact that the whole composition is a bit crooked, gives a ‘falling’ impression, is on purpose. The Third Reich wouldn’t last very long, I thought then.

Several examples are displayed from Society and Economy, a series Gerd Arntz worked on with Otto Neurath from  1925 to 1949.  In Strikes, against an abstract background of factories, raised red fists illustrate the post-war strike statistics for Great Britain, France and Germany.

Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930

Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930

In the photo of this installation (above) a gigantic photo of a man’s face stares out across the room.  This is an image from a series made in the 1970s by Braco Dimitrjevic called Casual Passer By.  The artist took photos of anonymous people which were then enlarged to monumental proportions and displayed in public places, such as on hoarding on public buildings.  The idea was to give the common man a status normally accorded to celebrities of historical figures, and to highlight the fickle nature of a society which glorifies famous people.

Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011

Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011

Do we need to know who makes art?

Now here’s something I recall well! A left-wing student at Liverpool University at the same time as the May events in Paris in 1968, I was enthralled by the posters that came out of Atelier Populaire, established by art students and protesters in the Ecole des Beaux Arts on 16 May with the aim of producing bold, uncompromising graphic art that expressed the defiance of workers and students whose protests seemed to bringing France to the point of revolution.

Atelier 2

A display of Atelier Populaire poster art

Hundreds of silkscreen posters – ‘weapons in the service of the struggle’ – were created anonymously and distributed for free. No one was allowed to sign the work and the gallery was the street where the posters were pasted for everyone to see. This was self-consciously art produced collectively rather than by a single person. The Atelier promoted the principle that everyone could come and produce art work. The silkscreen machines were there for everyone to use to express themselves.

Atelier 1

A display of Atelier Populaire poster art

Just two years later, in our own struggle against Liverpool University’s links to South African apartheid, we used the same methods as the Atelier to get our message across.

Can art infiltrate everyday life?

This question is one that is uppermost in the minds of revolutionaries, especially after they have achieved power.  In an ironic parallel to the utilisation of artists in the service of consumer advertising in capitalist society, the curators offer a response from avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia. I must admit that Productivism was an ism that I hadn’t previously heard about – a movement of artists who advocated the move of ‘art into life’, arguing that the role of the artist was not to paint or sculpt, but to play an active role as co-workers in the factories helping to build a new world by designing objects which could be easily manufactured and which had a practical use in everyday life.

One such artist was Aleksandr Rodchenko who, in 1921, went into partnership with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to offer what was, in effect, the services of an advertising consultancy to state enterprises suddenly facing competition from private enterprises that Lenin, in a reversal of Bolshevik policy triggered by food shortages and famine, had announced in the New Economic Policy.

Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed posters or packaging for products such as cigarettes, bread, sweets and biscuits. Against those who condemned advertising as irredeemably capitalist, Mayakovsky argued that ‘it is necessary to employ all the weapons used by our enemies’. One example is displayed here: the design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria, produced in 1923.

Aleksandr Rodchenko

Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria 1923

A more interesting example of Rodchenko’s work was a series of posters illustrating the history of the Bolshevik party, incorporating archival images, excerpts from newspapers and other documents. Rather than imposing an overarching narrative, Rodchenko’s design encouraged viewers to immerse themselves in the historical material, sift the evidence and make their own assessment.

Curiously, though there many examples in the exhibition of artworks from the early years of the Soviet Union, the curators have made no mention of the fate of many of the avant-garde artists who at first enthusiastically supported the revolution.  No mention, for instance, that towards the end of the 1920s, Mayakovsky became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking under Stalin, finally killing himself in 1930.

Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926

Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926

Does participation deliver equality?

If the ideal of creating art anonymously and collectively represents the rejection of the romantic and bourgeois notion that art is the the product of individual genius and self-expression, it follows that projects which encourage the widest participation in the process of making art must represent a means of achieving that ideal.  Art Turning Left offers several examples of schemes from different times and situations that have pursued this goal – not all of them convincing.  There is William Morris rejecting of mechanised production and establishing methods of  producing beautiful things such as textiles and wallpapers which avoided worker alienation by fusing craft values and artistry with modern production techniques. And there’s the Worker Photography Movement which mobilised amateur worker-photographers to document the social evils of capitalism in the 1930s.

Art Turning Left offers several other examples of schemes that have aimed to widen public participation in the making of art. Judge for yourself how convincing they are.

Deller 1

Display of examples from Folk Archive, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, 2000-2006

Folk Archive is a mixed media presentation from an archive compiled over six years by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane documenting ‘the rich and varied visual culture that exists in the UK outside of the art world which would not normally be seen in a gallery context’. Items displayed here are from the sections of the archive relating to Home, Performance and Politics, and include graffiti, painted eggs, costumes for village festivals and protest images. The central banner was made by Ed Hall who made banners in his garage during the 1980s for trade unions and political protests.

Folk Archive was acquired by the British Council in 2007 and has been made accessible to the public in the form of a self-contained touring exhibition and through an online virtual exhibition.

Jukebox

Ruth Ewen A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2011

Ruth Ewan’s installation, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, consists of  a jukebox that contains an ongoing archive of protest and political songs.  It is presented as a participatory work in that visitors are invited to browse through the pages of the index and select and play the music of their choice (!) while, in addition, Ewan  welcomes suggestions for songs to be added to the collection.

Jukebox 2

There’s a lady plays her favourite records
On the jukebox every day.
All day long she plays the same old songs,
And she believes the things they say. (The Kinks)

Arranged in categories such as, poverty, feminism, peace, civil rights, ecology and slavery are songs by a wide range of performers from different cultures and traditions. All of the songs address social issues, some directly political and related to specific subjects or events, whilst others are vaguely utopian or carry a universal message. Ewan describes her practice as being ‘conceptually led but socially realised’  with ‘audience participation and engagement’ playing an important part in the creation of her work.

As for me – I can’t see the difference between this and me making a playlist for my mp3 player and, like countless others, sharing it via social media.

My Room

 My Room, 1982, created at the Black-E community arts centre

My Room was created at Liverpool’s Black-E community arts centre in 1982 inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, and begun during a week long celebration of the centenary of Woolf’s birth.  Over the next six months, participants were invited to pick a space and create something to place in it which said, ‘This is my room!’

Hmmm… But then, I think, as I sceptically inspect this object, it was never intended to be an exhibit in an art gallery.  The same is true for a great many of the other exhibits here: their authors did not intend their work to be displayed in this way – indeed, in many cases, utterly rejected the idea on political grounds.  Which is what makes this exhibition such a curious experience, the thought constantly occurring that it would have made a better book.

Morris

William Morris, Rose and Thistle textile design, 1881

Can pursuing equality change how art is made?

From those pretty questionable examples, we move on to a more convincing set of exhibits that explore schemes to create equality of access to the means of artistic production and thereby increase the agency of ordinary people.

We’re on firm artistic ground with William Morris.  But, lest we forget, Morris was a Marxist and revolutionary. In How I Became a Socialist he wrote:

What I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.

Morris believed that the most critical problem in capitalist society was the alienation of workers caused by the division of labour.  Who can gain any pleasure from work if it involves the endless repetition of the same monotonous movements? How can a worker feel any sense of pride in the job if they have no sense of how their actions contribute to the final product?  Who can feel other than cheated when the wage the boss pays isn’t enough to buy the thing you’ve helped to manufacture?

I accounted the greatest of all evils, the heaviest of all slaveries, that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.
– William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1880

From the 1860s, Morris, at first in partnership with Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others, established his own company to create and sell hand-crafted stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and tapestries.  On display here is Rose and Thistle, a hand-printed design on cotton from 1881, and a wallpaper sample book from 1905, along with printing blocks.

The Morris Company was organised so that artists and craftsmen could work together with a common purpose, with every employee fulfilling their potential according to their level of ability.  Morris explained the political thought that underpinned Morris & Co in How I Became a Socialist:

The love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of the civilization which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequent nonsense, and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past, which would have no serious relation to the life of the present.

But the consciousness of revolution stirring amidst our hateful modern society prevented me, luckier than many others of artistic perceptions, from crystallizing into a mere railer against ‘progress’ on the one hand, and on the other from wasting time and energy in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root, and thus I became a practical Socialist. […]

Perhaps some … will say, what have we to do with these matters of history and art? We want by means of Social-Democracy to win a decent livelihood, we want in some sort to live, and that at once. Surely any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork (and there are some who do propose that) does not understand what art means, or how that its roots must have a soil of a thriving and unanxious life. Yet it must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence, that he scarcely knows how to frame a desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him, a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this except by mere opposition, which should be resisted to the utmost.

Morris’s ‘true ideal’ was set forth in the utopian vision of  News From Nowhere, the novel written by Morris and initially published by his Kelmscott Press in 1893.  There’s a copy here, open at the frontispiece to display its woodblock title page, ornamental lettering and typeface.

NFN Morris

News From Nowhere, Kelmscott Press edition, 1893

The Worker Photography Movement began in Germany and the USSR in the early 1930s before spreading across Europe and the United States.  The movement spread through Communist-affiliated groups, and encouraged worker-photographers to expose, in a ‘hard and merciless light’, the iniquities and social ills of capitalism:

Photography has become an outstanding and indispensable means of propaganda in the revolutionary class struggle.

AIZ Magazine, 1931

AIZ Magazine, no 38, 1931: 24 Hours in the life of a family working in Moscow

The display presents examples, from Germany and the United States, of the kinds of photo essays which the movement’s worker-photographers produced.  They reminded me of some of the best of the photo spreads in Picture Post magazine in the 1940s and early 1950s.  I’d like to see more of this work.

How can art speak with a collective voice?

The curators respond to this question with examples of projects which have sought to express or document the collective experience, rather than that of the individual.  The best-known example is that of Mass Observation, the British movement of the 1930s which aimed to produce a collective picture of British society which was ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The pioneering social survey organization was founded by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings (who compiled Pandaemonium, the documentary history of the Industrial Revolution that, decades later, was the inspiration behind Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games, crafted by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce) with the aim of producing an anthropology of the British people and giving a voice to the under-privileged and often ignored working classes.

On show here is documentation from the project which among a wide variety of methodologies, asked people to keep diaries of their daily routines, and employed teams of anthropological observers instructed to observe behaviours such as:

the behaviour of people at war memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; bathroom behaviour; beards, armpits and eyebrows; anti-Semitism; the distribution of the dirty joke; female taboos about eating….

Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937

Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937

There are examples of the photographs which Humphrey Spender took in Bolton for Mass Observation, including one of chalked graffiti in a wall, entitled This Is Your Photo. Mass Observation was interested in graffiti because it could be seen as a type of primitive art.

Then there are a couple of the paintings made by Julian Trevelyan while he was working for Mass Observation in Bolton.  Trevelyan was the first artist to be recruited by Mass Observation in 1937. In Bolton Trevelyan recorded his observations of ordinary people going about their lives in photographs, water-colours and collage. In his autobiography, he recalled carrying with him a suitcase of scraps and magazines, scissors and glue to his chosen site. He would work on the spot, battling with the elements and often attracting attention of inquisitive passers-by.

Rubbish May be Shot Here 1937 by Julian Trevelyan 1910-1988

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

The locals commented that he had caught the mood of current anti-litter campaigns in Rubbish May be Shot Here and accurately conveyed ‘the worker versus royalty feeling’ of Coronation year.  Most of the cut-out heads in this collage are taken from newspaper photographs of the coronation or represent successive generations of the royal family. The smiling child, however, is taken from a Shredded Wheat advertisement captioned ‘the food for general fitness’.  Trevelyan contributed three paintings to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London 1936, and this collage follows the classic surrealist technique of combining different realities. Rubbish May be Shot Here is, the curators suggest, ‘revolutionary in both form and content: hierarchies are subverted, pomp and pageantry ridiculed.

Office of Useful Art

The Office of Useful Art: rules to live by

In an adjacent small room is the Office of Useful Art which I learn promotes the new movement of Arte Util or Useful Art. The Office is not an art installation but a working room that acts as part of a long term campaign to develop a renewed understanding of art, as a process that plays a fundamental role in shaping the world; that has a real effect in peoples lives. The project is a collaboration with Grizedale Arts, based in the Lake District, and Liverpool John Moores University – part of a five year project with the Internationale Confederation of European Museums.  The Office will function as a recruitment centre for the Association de Arte Util (Association of Useful Art), with the aim of developing an active community of people committed to art that works to effect change and is valued for what it does.

Are there ways to distribute art differently?

In her review for the Observer, Laura Cumming notes that Art Turning Left ‘asks whether art can find alternative distribution systems outside the market and gallery circuit, and then presents a wall of almost parodically obscure artist-run newspapers as if this was any kind of answer’.

True, but that frustrating room also contains the exhibition’s one true masterpiece which is presented also as a convincing historical answer to the question, ‘Are there ways to distribute art differently?’

David, Marat

Jacques-Louis David and studio, The Death of Marat, 1793. ‘n’ayant pu me corrompre ils m’ont assassine’: ‘they could not bribe me, they murdered me’.

Painted in the months after Marat’s murder, David’s work has been described as the first modernist painting, for the way it ‘took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it’.

Not by pleasing the eye do works of art accomplish their purpose. The demand now is for examples of heroism and civic virtues which will electrify the soul of the people and arouse in them devotion to the fatherland.
– Jacques Louis David

Created in response to the murder of the uncompromising political theorist and journalist Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, David’s painting became an iconic image of the French revolution. With the artist’s permission, the painting was copied in oil and reproduced in engravings that were distributed throughout the land. It is probable that the painting on display in the Tate is one of the copies, and examples of the engravings made of Marat’s head are shown alongside.

Welcome

The Tate welcomes fellow socialists!

Seminar over and with my brain screaming, ‘Enough!’, I made my way down to the foyer where I noticed the Tate’s welcome sign. Has it been adapted specially for this show – or has it always had this radical edge?  A relaxing lunch followed, and then I went to one of the film screenings that accompanies this exhibition.  It was Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, directed by Alain Tanner and scripted by Tanner and John Berger in 1975.  I hadn’t seen the film  – which follows eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties, and affected  in some way by the events of May 1968 – since it first came out.  But – more about that in my next post.

See also

Coriolanus: war, politics, vengeance

Shakespeare’s least-performed play, Coriolanus was familiar to me only by reputation before I saw Ralph Fiennes’ new film adaptation of  the last tragedy.  It is a resounding success, having the same cinematic brio as Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet (1996), Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing (1993), and Richard Loncraine’s 1995 account of Richard III set in the fascist 1930s.

The screenplay by John Logan is faithful to the text, but compresses it significantly. The sizzling power of the film resides in the cinematic vision of  Logan and Fiennes (who place the action in a present-day world of riots, armed conflict, 24/7 TV news, cynical political manoeuvering and spin), the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, and superb performances by Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox.

Ralph Fiennes played the lead role of Caius Martius, the victorious Roman general who is proud and contemptuous towards the people on the London stage at the Almeida Theatre in 2000, and was afterwards determined to bring the play to the big screen.

The film was shot in Serbia (largely for financial reasons) – much of it in the capital, Belgrade.  The senate scenes of political machinations were filmed in the Serbian parliament building, and, ironically, areas of Belgrade still derelict after NATO’s 1999 bombing proved ideal for the film’s battle scenes.

The 19th century essayist William Hazlitt said, ‘anyone who studies Coriolanus may save himself the trouble of reading Burke’s Reflections, or Paine’s Rights of Man, or the debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or our own’. The play is overtly political, its subject matter the conflict between plebeians and patricians during and after the First Secession in Rome in 494BC.  There is a shortage of grain, and the starving plebeians rise in open revolt against the patricians. The rebellion is only suppressed when the plebeians are granted five Tribunes to represent them in the Senate.  Hazlitt wrote of Coriolanus: ‘The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left’.

Fascinated by the politics, Bertolt Brecht wrestled with an attempt to adapt Coriolanus for two years, from 1951 to 1953 (mocked, almost certainly unfairly, by Günter Grass in The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising.  Brecht’s aim was to rescue the play from various fascistic interpretations of the 1930s (it had been banned for that reason in France in the 1930s, and then by the American occupying forces in Germany in the  immediate aftermath of the war, while in Hitler’s Germany, the play served as educational propaganda preaching military bravery and heroism in the face of questionable democracy).  Brecht  felt that the play, written in 1605, spoke to the spirit of his time, too. The last entry entry in his working diary reads: ‘Couldn’t one do it just as it is, only with skilful direction?’. Indeed, this is pretty much what Fiennes and his team have done.

The film begins with nothing but the sinister sound of the rasp of a knife blade being sharpened on a whetstone.  Then, with no pause for opening credits, we are plunged into riot and rebellion. The plebeians are starving from high grain prices, and are plotting to kill Caius Martius: ‘a very dog to the commonalty‘.  They lay siege to a grain warehouse, and Caius Martius storms out from ranks of his armed soldiers to tell them they have no right to any say in the price of grain:

What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs? […]
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring.

After this professional soldier has been lionised by Rome’s ruling class for his attack on the threatening Volscian army, Martius receives the honorary name ‘Coriolanus’ for having destroyed the Volscian city of Corioli, and is nominated as a Consul.  But his refusal to submit to popular acclaim for the office and his inability to conceal his contempt for the plebeians ultimately results in his banishment from Rome.

By sensitive cutting of the text, Fiennes maintains the dynamic pace through the scenes of political manoeuvering in the Senate. Coriolanus resembles an unexploded bomb which the patricians attempt, unsuccessfully, to stabilise within the populist procedures of the Roman constitution.  As Brian Vickers  has observed, this is the political problem of the play:

The central sequence in Acts II and III of Coriolanus resembles a gigantic two-party election, fought according to the usual political rules of magnification of one’s own party and denigration of the other. Coriolanus is the protagonist on one side, organized and rehearsed by the patricians, while on the other the Tribunes groom their protagonist, the mob. (As well as resembling an election campaign, this sequence recalls two rival theatrical productions). Menenius acts as Coriolanus’s campaign manager. His mother handles the visuals, telling Coriolanus how to act humble in public: for in such business ‘action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant more learned than the ears’.

But, Coriolanus refuses to bow before the populace, and responds to the senators informing him that he is banished from Rome for being a traitor to the people with this tirade:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcases of unburied men
That do corrupt my air,- I banish you

Brian Cox (left) and Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus

There’s some truly impressive acting here.  Brian Cox is excellent as Menenius, the wily but exasperated ally of Coriolanus, while Vanessa Redgrave  is magnificent as Volumnia: a fearsome portrayal of an implacable and powerful woman who wants for nothing more than success for her son:

Had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius,
I had rather eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.

Redgrave gives us a terrifying woman, who has brought her son up to be a warrior, ‘was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame’, and who can say:

Blood is more beautiful than milk, the wound than the breast, warfare than peaceful feeding.

Volumnia has reared her son to serve as a model of a particular type of masculinity, and the film, high on testosterone with its war movie stylings, explores that to the hilt, particularly in a sequence involving a knife fight between Martius  and the Volscian general Aufidius.   The screenplay pounds and resounds to the reverberations of our time: riot, street warfare, nationalism, militarism, politics and spin, it’s all here.  Walls are covered with graffiti, grenade launchers replace swords, TV screens are everywhere relaying the latest events – we even get Jon Snow in his TV news anchor role, announcing the latest from the battlefront.

Banished from Rome, Coriolanus seeks revenge by forming an alliance with Rome’s greatest enemy, the Volscian  general Tullus Aufidius.  They march on Rome and begin their offensive.  A Roman senator remarks of Coriolanus:

I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature

TS Eliot regarded this play as Shakespeare’s greatest artistic achievement, and Fiennes certainly lifts it from its recent neglected status with this muscular adaptation. It’s a complex play, and Fiennes retains Shakespeare’s ambiguities. The people in Coriolanus are stupid and ignorant; the tribunes are petty and manipulative. Coriolanus is brave, great and noble, but a vengeful traitor to his country. The play is suspicious of both military heroism and the power of the people.  In the struggle between the arrogant patrician warrior and the people for whom he has no respect, Shakespeare exposes layers of complexity and contradiction on both sides.

If you have writ your annals true, ’t is there
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli:
Alone I did it.

See also

The Unknown Citizen: poetry and sculpture

I’m grateful to a friend for reminding me in an email this morning of a Brecht poem I haven’t read for ages:

A Worker Reads History by Bertold Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Greek triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.

Looking for the text of the Brecht poem, I chanced on this by Sahir Ludhianvi (1921 – 1980) a popular Indian poet and lyricist for Bollywood movies. It develops the same theme of timeless works of art crafted by nameless men and women hidden from history:

The Taj Mahal  by Sahir Ludhianvi

For you, the Taj may be a monument to love;
you may adore this lovely spot
but, darling,
let’s meet somewhere else!
In such royal places,
we – the poor?
Regal opulence seen every which way,
two poor lovers – here?
Really out-of-place!
Sweetheart, under this so-called symbol of love,
if only you’d seen the vulgar splurge of opulence.
Charmed you may be by royal mausoleums,
if only you’d thought
of our own dismal homes!
Countless millions are in love;
who can say their emotions aren’t real
just because they, like us, have no means
to put up an advertisement?
These mausoleums, these arrogant forts,
these pillars of royal eminence, these lush gardens:
In these very flowers and vines
runs the blood of our own ancestors, my love.
Don’t you think they must also have been in love,
the people whose art and skill
made this monument so beautiful?
They and their loved ones now lie nameless,
in unmarked graves,without a single candle
yet lit for them.
These gardens, by the Jamuna,
this palace, the embroidered doors, walls and niches–
that’s just how an emperor,
using his wealth and power,
mocks the love between us destitutes.
Could we meet somewhere else, darling ?

Translated by Riz Rahim

Reading these lines reawakened a memory of Shelley’s Ozymandias, his meditation on hubris and the transience of power and glory, which also has an anonymous sculptor carving the face of  the mighty ruler. Ozymandias was another name for Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. Shelley paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue: King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works. This statue of Ramesses in the British Museum may have inspired Shelley.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And then I stumbled on this poem by Ionna Warwick that continues the theme into modern times. Warwick was born in Poland and has lived in the United States since she was 17: “There’s no escaping the fact that I had history for breakfast. It was dramatic enough to be growing up under a Communist dictatorship; on top of it, I heard many stories of World War II. There was no getting away from history. I got to see the ruins of the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw – and I don’t mean in a photograph or a movie. I never sought out history; it was the stuff of nightmares I continued to have long into adulthood”.

These images are of the destruction of the Stalin Monument in Budapest, erected in 1951 and destroyed during the Hungarian Uprising in October 1956, when the statue was demolished, leaving only the boots.

Stalin’s Moustache by Ionna Warwick

In Warsaw near the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier,
in a treeless square,
there used to scowl a bronze
statue of Felix Dzierzhinski,
founder of the Cheka,
the Bolshevik Secret Police.
His nickname was
“Bloody Felix.”

Before the solemn unveiling,
someone had managed to paint
the statue’s hands blood-red.
When the string was pulled,
the dignitaries gasped:
the blood of his victims seemed to drip
from Bloody Felix’s hands.

The speaker on the podium
began to stutter.
The military band
struck up, then stopped;
feebly began again.
To patriotic chords,
the string was pulled back.

Fifty years later, ten thousand
people jammed into the square
to watch the demolition
of the statue of a mass murderer.

*

My cousin Ewa told the tale
of yet another fallen icon:
a giant statue of Stalin,
the tallest in the world.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty,
the dictator darkened the sky
at the joining of two great rivers:
the Volga and the Don of Cossack fame –
his “sneer of cold command”
staring down the starving Ukraine.
The empty
multi-story pedestal still stands.

Stalin was toppled into the water –
shallow enough, they say,
that from the cruise boats one can see
his colossal face.
Ewa was on one of those boats.
At the sight of the pedestal,
all rushed to the deck.
Ewa said, “From where I stood,
I only caught a glimpse
of Stalin’s moustache.”

She giggled. She must have told
this story countless times.
We sat around the table smiling,
sipping home-made hawthorn wine.

*

So many heavy statues.

Huge posters like holy icons
carried in May Day parades.
In store windows instead of goods,
portraits of Marx and Engels
draped in red flags.

Stalin’s moustache.

It stained the walls,
it used to grow in the streets.

Stalin’s Boots in Statue Park (Szoborpark), Budapest. This is not an accurate copy of the original but an artistic recreation by sculptor Ákos Eleőd.

The image of Stalin’s moustache reminded me of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip’, from this poem that has become known as The Stalin Epigram, written in November 1933, which led to his arrest by the NKVD :

We Live Without Feeling by Osip Mandelstam

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Translated by W. S. Merwin

And finally, returning to the theme of the anonymous citizen and the modern state, here’s Auden in 1939:

The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378: This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.