Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

<em>Life and Fate</em>: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
– Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman

It is difficult to know where to begin when responding to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, such is the sweeping, panoramic vision contained within its covers. What I can say at the outset is that Life and Fate has to be the first place to go in order to understand the horrors of the 20th century. Here is a novel which ranges from the Stalinist purges and the Ukraine Famine during collectivisation in the 1930s to the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3 and the lost souls of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag; a novel whose characters debate good and evil, totalitarianism and individual freedom, and in which the author dares to take the reader beyond the sealed doors of the gas chamber. Written by a journalist who was witness to many of the events which form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, Life and Fate is utterly essential. Continue reading Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’”

Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)

Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)

Leviathan, the latest film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, opens with waves beating upon a barren shore where rocks as old as the earth face an implacable, slate-grey sea.

Tracking inland across barren wastes to an insistent Phillip Glass score, the camera encounters signs of human imprint on this unforgiving landscape: power lines, the hulks of wrecked and abandoned boats, a settlement of worn clap-board houses. Continue reading “Leviathan: politics, religion, and vodka (lots)”

I shall be released…

I shall be released…

Nelson Mandela released

February 1990: Nelson Mandela walks to freedom

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

It was one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen surprisingly often. The last few days have brought the news that the British Greenpeace activists are back in the UK after their incarceration in a Russian jail on charges of ‘hooliganism’ following the Arctic oil drilling protest – and that Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had also walked free from prison, pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons. At the same time, I reached this moment reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – his own account of the afternoon of his release from prison on 11 February 1990:

By 3.30, I began to get restless, as we were already behind schedule. I told the members of the Reception Committee that my people had been waiting for me for twenty-seven years and I did not want to keep them waiting any longer. Shortly before four, we left in a small motorcade from the cottage. About a quarter of a mile in front of the gate, the car slowed to a stop and Winnie and I got out and began to walk towards the prison gate.

At first I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within 150 feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.

Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic 5easts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting, chaos. […]

When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town. Although I was pleased to have such a reception, I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good bye to the prison staff. As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.

It’s pertinent to recall Mandela’s release at this time; it was he, after all, who wrote (also in Long Walk to Freedom):

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Speaking to the Guardian soon after her release from prison, Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina said that she and  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system:

I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies.  Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us. Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it’s important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia.

Alexandra Harris

Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris

Meanwhile Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris spoke about how the Arctic 30 had been treated in jail. Prison conditions in Murmansk had been difficult – they were held in a cell for 23 hours a day and shared a toilet without a cubicle with three others. But, she said, they were treated better than Russian prisoners:

Because the world’s watching us and they’re scared of what we’re going to say now. There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture – we spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn’t commit. It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia, and we should never have been there.

Fellow-activist Anthony Perrett said:

It was worth it. I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail.

I’d like to salute these ‘unharmful, gentle souls misplaced inside a jail’.

Robben Island prisoners break rocks, 1964

Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, break rocks, 1964

Mandela returned in 1994 after being elected president.

Mandela returned to Robben Island in 1994 after being elected president.

See also

Chagall: Modern Master at Liverpool Tate

Chagall: Modern Master at Liverpool Tate

‘When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is’
– Pablo Picasso

Well, yes: colour, but also a deep sense of spirituality, of his Jewish heritage and the suffering of his people, a rootedness in Russian folklore and primitive art; an openness to love and joy, the magical, and the ‘logic of the illogical’.  All these aspects of Marc Chagall’s work are on display at Tate Liverpool’s superb exhibition, Chagall: Modern Master, which I’ve only just caught up with, near the end of its run. Continue reading “Chagall: Modern Master at Liverpool Tate”

Fukushima and Chernobyl: why worry?

It’s notable that, since the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, the most visited post on this blog has been one I wrote a couple of years ago about the film Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl.  You’re searching, I guess, for information about that previous nuclear disaster in the Ukraine in 1986, anxious about the likely effects of the Japanese disaster and looking for facts.

Recently a torrent of condemnation has poured down on the head of George Monbiot who used his Guardian column a couple of weeks ago to present the astonishing argument that Fukushima had caused him to change his mind about nuclear power: in his piece – Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power – Monbiot wrote:

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation. […]

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

The best response to Monbiot’s strange lapse of reason comes today from John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor.  In Nuclear’s green cheerleaders forget Chernobyl at our peril, he writes:

Every day there are more setbacks to solving the Japanese nuclear crisis and it’s pretty clear that the industry and governments are telling us little; have no idea how long it will take to control; or what the real risk of cumulative contamination may be.

The authorities reassure us by saying there is no immediate danger and a few absolutist environmentalists obsessed with nuclear power because of the urgency to limit emissions repeat the industry mantra that only a few people died at Chernobyl – the worst nuclear accident in history. Those who disagree are smeared and put in the same camp as climate change deniers.

I prefer the words of Alexey Yablokov, member of the Russian academy of sciences, and adviser to President Gorbachev at the time of Chernobyl: “When you hear ‘no immediate danger’ [from nuclear radiation] then you should run away as far and as fast as you can.” […]

Five years ago I visited the still highly contaminated areas of Ukraine and the Belarus border where much of the radioactive plume from Chernobyl descended on 26 April 1986. I challenge chief scientist John Beddington and environmentalists like George Monbiot or any of the pundits now downplaying the risks of radiation to talk to the doctors, the scientists, the mothers, children and villagers who have been left with the consequences of a major nuclear accident.

Vidal notes that, though a great number of studies into the health effects of radiation from Chernobyl have been carried out, only a very few have been accepted by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, and estimates of the damage to health from Chernobyl vary wildly.   A study by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that only 57 direct deaths and 4,000 expected cancers could be attributed to Chernobyl.  But the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), estimate that more than 10,000 people had been affected by thyroid cancer alone and a further 50,000 cases could be expected. Vidal continues:

Moving up the scale, a 2006 report for Green MEPs suggested up to 60,000 possible deaths; Greenpeace took the evidence of 52 scientists and estimated the deaths and illnesses to be 93,000 terminal cancers already and perhaps 140,000 more in time. Using other data, the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences declared in 2006 that 212,000 people had died as a direct consequence of Chernobyl.  … [Another study]… factoring in the worldwide drop in births and increase in cancers seen after the accident, estimated … that 985,000 people had so far died and the environment had been devastated. Their findings were met with almost complete silence by the World Health Organisation and the industry.

Vidal concludes:

So who can we trust when the estimates swing so wildly? Should we believe the empirical evidence of the doctors; or governments and industrialists backed by their PR companies? So politicised has nuclear energy become, that you can now pick and choose your data, rubbish your opponents, and ignore anything you do not like. The fact is we may never know the truth about Chernobyl because the records are lost, thousands of people from 24 countries who cleaned up the site have dispersed across the vast former Soviet Union, and many people have died.

Fukushima is not Chernobyl, but it is potentially worse. It is a multiple reactor catastrophe happening within 150 miles of a metropolis of 30 million people. If it happened at Sellafield, there would be panic in every major city in Britain. We still don’t know the final outcome but to hear experts claiming that nuclear radiation is not that serious, or that this accident proves the need for nuclear power, is nothing short of disgraceful.

The latest news from Fukushima seems to bear out Vidal’s case – radioactive water has been found leaking into the sea through a crack near the sluice gate of one of the damaged reactor units at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

Also in The Guardian today is an article by Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author of the first book to warn of climate change back in 1989 – The End of Nature. In his esssay, ‘Natural disasters?‘ (the question-mark is significant), McKibben argues that, after a an era of relative stability, the earth is now moving into a new geological epoch:

a world remade by man, most obvious in his emissions of carbon dioxide. That CO2 traps heat near the planet that would otherwise have radiated back to space – there is, simply, more energy in our atmosphere than there used to be. And that energy expresses itself in many ways: ice melts, water heats, clouds gather. 2010 was the warmest year on record, and according to insurers – the people we task with totting up disasters – it demonstrated the unprecedented mayhem this new heat causes. Global warming was “the only plausible explanation”, the giant reinsurer Munich Re explained in December, of 2010’s catastrophes, the drought, heatwave and fires across Russia, and the mega-floods in Pakistan, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere were at least plausibly connected to the general heating. They were, that is to say, not precisely “natural disasters”, but something more complex; the human thumb was on the scale.

McKibben concludes on a positive note:

Not every natural disaster is unnatural now, and we may be able to fool ourselves a little longer. But these days it’s the climate deniers who act like the pious of yore, unable to accept the truth. I was surprised, and impressed, to read a poll of Americans taken recently. By healthy majorities, this most religious of western citizenries said natural disasters were more likely to be a sign of climate change than of God’s displeasure.

Which is good news, because for the first time in human history we can prevent a great deal of unnecessary cataclysm in the years ahead. Not all of it – there will always be earthquakes and hurricanes. But every bit of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere is that much less extra energy we add to the system. It’s that much less disaster waiting to happen.

Returning to Chernobyl: sometimes we need poetry as well as science to help us understand.  Lyubov Sirota was director of a writing project for children in the city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  On 25 April 1986 she went out on to her balcony seeking a breath of fresh air in the night and saw the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explode in front of her. In the days that followed, she and her son grew gravely ill from heavy doses of radioactive contamination. To express her grief and rage, she turned to writing poems, and collected them in a small book entitled Burden.  As the months went by, Lyubov developed cataracts and a brain tumor as a consequence of her exposure to radiation.

Burden

How amazing
in my thirtieth year
not to live
but instead
stumble along –
all bygone years
both happy and deadly,
heavy, wet, like logs,
crowd in the soul
as if in a tomb!

The soul does not sing
but rather becomes mute;
ails
rather than aches . . .
So it is harder to breathe.

I am not to fly!
Though the shallow edge
of heaven is over my porch.
Already the roads have tired me,
hobbled me so –
I can no longer soar!

Faces reflect in the heavens.
faces of those
to whom I have said farewell.
Not one can be forgotten!
No oblivion!

The soul, it seems –
is a difficult memory.
Nothing can be erased,
nothing subtracted,
nothing canceled,
nothing corrected!

Even so, the burden is sacred,
the heavier
the dearer!

To Pripyat

1.
We can neither expiate nor rectify
the mistakes and misery of that April.
The bowed shoulders of a conscience awakened
must bear the burden of torment for life.
It’s impossible, believe me,
to overpower
or overhaul
our pain for the lost home.
Pain will endure in the beating hearts
stamped by the memory of fear.
There,
surrounded by prickly bitterness,
our puzzled town asks:
since it loves us
and forgives everything,
why was it abandoned forever?

2.
At night, of course, our town
though emptied forever, comes to life.
There, our dreams wander like clouds,
illuminate windows with moonlight.

There trees live by unwavering memories,
remember the touch of hands.
How bitter for them to know
there will be no one for their shade
to protect from the scorching heat!
At night their branches quietly rock
our inflamed dreams.
Stars thrust down
onto the pavement,
to stand guard until morning . . .
But the hour will pass . . .
Abandoned by dreams,
the orphaned houses
whose windows
have gone insane
will freeze and bid us farewell! . . .

3.
We’ve stood over our ashes;
now what do we take on our long journey?
The secret fear that wherever we go
we are superfluous?
The sense of loss
that revealed the essence
of a strange and sudden kinlessness,
showed that our calamity is not
shared by those who might, one day,
themselves face annihilation?
. . . We are doomed to be left behind by the flock
in the harshest of winters . . .
You, fly away!
But when you fly off
don’t forget us, grounded in the field!
And no matter to what joyful faraway lands
your happy wings bear you,
may our charred wings
protect you from carelessness.

Links

The Art of Russia

The Art of Russia is another absorbing art history series on BBC 4 in which Andrew Graham-Dixon tells the story of Russian art.

In the first programme Andrew Graham-Dixon explored the origins of the Russian icon from its roots in Byzantium and the first great Russian icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, to the masterpieces of the country’s most famous icon painter, Andrei Rublev. He visited the monastery founded by Ivan the Terrible, where his favourite forms of torture found inspiration in religious art.  The programme continued by examining the impact of Peter the Great, inspired by the time he spent in Deptford in south London, and determined to bring European culture to Russia.

In the second part Graham-Dixon explored how Russia changed from a feudal nation of aristocratic excess to a hotbed of revolution at the beginning of the 20th century and how art moved from being a servant of the state to an agent of its destruction. He traced the journey through Russian art history from monuments that celebrate the absolutism of the tsars to the epic Russian landscape as inspiration; from the design and construction of gold and glittering palaces to the minutiae of diamond-encrusted Faberge eggs; and eventually to the stark and radical paintings of the avant-garde.

A good part of the programme was devoted to the Wanderers, an important group of Russian artists who broke away from the St Petersburg Academy and focused on Russian landscape, contemporary social issues, scenes from traditional peasant life and Russian history.  Andrew Graham-Dixon looked at works by Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoy, Isaak Levitan, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Nesterov.  He visited the image of Jesus Christ painted by IIya Repin (1844-1930) inside the church of the Saviour at the Abramtsevo estate (above). This brought back memories of the wonderful From Russia exhibition that we visited in London last year.

The final part examined political revolution and how art was at the forefront of throwing out 1,000 years of royal rule, from its earliest revolutionary days of enthusiasm and optimism when painting died, the poster was king and the machine-made triumphed over the handmade to the dead hand of Socialist Realism. Andrew rooted out portraits of Stalin now hidden in museum storerooms and never on public view, looked at the transformation of the Moscow metro into a great public art gallery and visited the most stunning creation of post-war Communist rule, the Space Monument.

Finally, he considered the confusion and chaos of Russia today and how it is producing some of the world’s strangest art – from heroic sculptures of Russian leader Vladimir Putin to the insides of a giant erotic apple; from the recreation of the Imperial royal family facing the firing squad to sculpture in liquid oil; from Russia’s embrace of the commercial art market to a return to Socialist Realism. Russia seems to stand on another brink of revolution.

Links

Art in London: from Russia, Doig and Munoz

Art in London: from Russia, Doig and Munoz

We’ve been in London this week, taking in some great art exhibitions: From Russia (at the Royal Academy), the Juan Munoz Retrospective (Tate Modern) and Peter Doig at Tate Britain.

From Russia

This exhibition at the Royal Academy aims to explore the interchange between French and Russian art the first two decades of the 20th century. It was a rare opportunity to see paintings lent by the four major Russian museums: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and The State Hermitage Museum and The State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. This was the first time works from these museums have been gathered for a single exhibition.

Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga
Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga

The exhibition was divided in four sections:

French and Russian realists

The Wanderers were an important group of Russian artists who broke away from the St Petersburg Academy and focused on Russian landscape, contemporary social issues, scenes from traditional peasant life and Russian history. Works by Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoy, Isaak Levitan, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Nesterov and others are shown with paintings by French artists of the Barbizon school such as Théodore Rousseau, Charles Daubigny and Jean-François Millet as well as the Salon painters Jules Bastien-Lepage and Albert Besnard.

Henri Matisse, The Dance
Henri Matisse, The Dance
The great collectors Shchukin and Morozov

This section was the stunning highlight of the exhibition, displaying masterpieces from the two great Moscow collections, those of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. These two Moscow textile merchants were the most brilliant and daring Russian collectors of their day. They scoured Paris for paintings by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and accumulated works by Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Shchukin became Matisse’s greatest patron, commissioning the celebrated The Dance as part of a bold scheme to decorate the grand staircase of his Moscow mansion. The Dance is the sensational highlight of the exhibition.

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914 by Natan Altman
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914 by Natan Altman
Diaghilev and the World of Art movement

The third section of the exhibition is devoted to the theatrical impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was at the forefront of the World of Art movement. He played a vital role not only in presenting modern French art in Russia but also in taking Russian art to the West, particularly in Paris. Artists presented in this section of the exhibition include Alexander Benois and Leon Bakst, Boris Kustodiev, Nochiolas Roerich, Alexander Golovin and Valentin Serov as well as a selection of portraits of great figures of Russian cultural life such as Vsevolod Meyerhold, Feodor Chaliapin and a superb one of Anna Akhmatova. This extract from the current issue of the RA Magazine explains the portrait’s significance:

Its story encapsulates that of the exhibition – namely, that the cultural cross-currents between France and Russia from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s helped to create a revolution in art.

Few people outside Russia have heard of Altman, who, like Akhmatova, was 25 in 1914 when he painted her portrait. Both seemed to have flowering careers ahead of them. She had recently published an acclaimed volume of poetry. He had returned from a sojourn in Paris, where, with other Russian artists, he had felt the fresh wind of Cubism, so visible in this painting. But, despite its veneer of modernity, his portrait’s real character comes from the wintry blue tones and Akhmatova’s inward gaze, away from the viewer, conjuring the spirit of a poet celebrated for the purity and restraint of her verse.

Within three years, their worlds would be turned upside down. After the October Revolution, Altman painted revolutionary propaganda, of the kind discussed by Eric Hobsbawm in his article on the avant-garde , ultimately rising to become director of Russia’s first museum of contemporary art in the 1920s. Akhmatova, on the other hand, was accused of links with counter-revolutionaries and her poetry – today ranked among the finest of the twentieth century – became unpublishable.

While Akhmatova famously stayed in Russia, others emigrated when faced with the prospect of becoming ‘non-persons’. Among them were the pioneering collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, early patrons of Matisse and Picasso. Hilary Spurling brings to life this pair of Moscow merchant princes, whose nationalised palaces of art have endowed Russia with some of the greatest modern art in the world. While she was researching her award-winning biography of Matisse, Spurling uncovered the astonishing story of how their art was sent to Siberia by Stalin and only gradually came out of exile in Soviet Russia.

A witness to those days is Irina Antonova, the indomitable director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow for over four decades. In a telephone interview , she told me about how the Shchukin and Morosov paintings were divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage museums after the War. Since such modern art was then ‘out of fashion’, she was only able to display all of the Pushkin’s holdings in 1974.

Today Russia’s art scene is rising in prominence, with super-rich collectors buying back their scattered heritage – at record prices – and inflating the market for contemporary Russian art, as Helen Kirwan-Taylor describes . But is there a Shchukin or Morosov among them? So far, such collectors appear thin on the ground, and not only in Russia. As Madame Antonova notes, Shchukin and Morosov ‘were true phenomena’. Without their vision this exhibition, and much of modern art, would not be possible. We salute them.

Modernism

Cross-currents between Russian and French art were particularly fertile in the early twentieth century. The final section of the exhibition illustrates the sequence artistic developments in this period. Wasily Kandinsky drew on the imagery of Russian fairy tales and combined it with Fauvist colour as a starting point for moves towards abstraction, while Marc Chagall adapted elements of French Cubism to his individual and poetic distillation of Russian-Jewish folklore. Bold reinterpretations of Cubism, as well as Italian Futurism, resulted in the brilliant Cubo-Futurist works by artists such as Natalia Goncharova. Suprematism, the radical, abstract style pioneered by Kazimir Malevich, was the culmination of these experiments and the exhibition closes with his celebrated Black Circle, Black Cross and Black Square that seemed to reject all forms of pictorial tradition.

Juan Munoz Retrospective

Juan Munoz, Wasteland

This was a powerful and moving exhibition of some of Munoz’s most striking works. We first encountered Munoz in the summer of 2001 when he had installed in the Turbine Hall strange groups of grey-suited figures involved in some unexplained drama in a network of balconies and corridors. Now we were able to see an extraordinary collection of his figures: alone, in small groups, or – as in Many Times, the work that fills the central gallery – a great mass of figures, a hundred virtually-identical Chinese men, all bald, all grinning, in urgent conversation. As the reviews below suggest, I’m not the only one who senses an affinity with Beckett in these works.

Juan Munoz, Many Times

From the exhibition guide:

Juan Muñoz came to international prominence in the mid-1980s with sculptural installations that place the figure in architectural environments. He described himself as a storyteller, and often arranged his figures and objects in carefully staged configurations that hint at unsettling and ambiguous scenarios. The way that the viewer encounters a work of art was important to Muñoz. He was fascinated by the tension between the illusory and the real, using tricks of scale and perspective to choreograph the viewer’s experience.

Muñoz was born in Madrid in 1953. He studied in London and New York, and worked as a curator in Spain before he began to exhibit his own work. Although principally a sculptor, he was also an accomplished draughtsman and writer, and collaborated on performance pieces, some of which can be heard and viewed in the café outside the exhibition. His last major installation was Double Bind, the second Unilever commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which opened shortly before his tragically early death in 2001 at the age of 48.

The Wasteland (1987) was Muñoz’s first large-scale installation, taking its title from the poem by T S Eliot. The patterned surface simultaneously invites the viewer into the space and elongates the distance between the spectator and the small bronze figure sitting demurely on a shelf, its feet dangling in the air. Muñoz’s optical floor recalls antique Roman architecture, but also suggests a stage onto which the viewer has unwittingly stepped. The floor distinguishes an area and builds an expectation for some kind of exchange between the figure and the viewer to occur.

Many Times (1999) comprises 100 figures, identically dressed and with similar features, all modelled on an Art Nouveau ceramic bust of a head with Asian features that Muñoz discovered in a hotel. They form a dense crowd, closely interacting with each other, gathered in pairs or small circles and often apparently deep in conversation. Innumerable dramas seem to be played out among them as they appraise and respond to or sometimes ignore each other. The empty space of the gallery around and between individual figures is charged with the tensions created by the group. It is likely that Muñoz felt that these monochrome faces would have a quality of ‘otherness’ to European eyes. But rather than present them as specimens of the ‘exotic’, the scale of the work and the sheer number of figures means that the outnumbered viewer is more likely to feel his or her own sense of strangeness and isolation among them. As Muñoz once said, ‘The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view’.

Juan Munoz Seated Figures With Drums
Juan Munoz Seated Figures With Drums

Closed in a conspiratorial circle, the Seated Figures with Five Drums (1999) are as inward-looking as Muñoz’s works with standing figures. Oblivious to the presence of the viewer, they are wholly engaged with each other and with their drums. The drum was an important motif for Muñoz, appearing in works such as The Prompter, and he once inscribed a photograph of himself dressed as a drummer boy with the words ‘Self Portrait’. In his work, drums often carry a metaphorical association with the eardrum and the act of listening. In Wax Drum (1988), another work in this exhibition, a pair of scissors is plunged into the skin of a drum, evoking a violent stabbing of the eardrum, a wound that would result in deafness.

Peter Doig

Peter Doig, Reflection – What does your soul look like? 1996

At Tate Britain we saw a retrospective of the work of Peter Doig who made his name during the early 1990s with his distinctive approach to figurative painting. Spanning the last two decades, this major survey brings together over 50 paintings and works on paper, and includes many pieces which have never previously been shown in the UK, made since his move to Trinidad in 2002.

Peter Doig, Cabin-essence, 1993

This is one of several paintings prompted by Doig’s visit to the Unité d’Habitation apartments in Briey-en-Forêt, northeast France – one of several such visionary postwar projects designed by the modernist architect Le Corbusier.

Conceived as an ideal living space and opened in 1961, the apartment block fell into disrepair and was derelict by 1973, until subsequently reclaimed for habitation. In the early 1990s Doig was involved with a group of architects and artists who operated from the building. He used a handheld video camera to capture the disorientating experience of moving through the surrounding woods towards the building, and worked from the still images which he captured. In his paintings, the architecture appears and disappears within the screen of branches, so that foreground and background are held together in tension, opening up the drama within the surface of the painting.

Peter Doig, Pond Life, 1993

At various stages in his career, Doig has consciously sought to free up his approach to making paintings, often by tackling new subjects. Doig leaves behind any documentary value in the photographic sources he employs; instead, his pictures invoke a dream-like state. The artist had been working on Pond Life (1993) for three months before he added the reflection of the three figures, opening up the painting from a recognisable reality to something more magical.

Peter Doig, Blotter, 1993 (Walker Art Gallery)

See also