Consider subscribing to the journals I most regularly write for. They are The Jackdaw (“independent views on the visual arts”, featuring journalism, news, artist profiles, exhibition and book reviews and contributor letters, six issues per year), The Salisbury Review (“the quarterly magazine of conservative thought”, featuring discursive articles on politics, culture, history and biography, with art, book and media reviews, four issues per year) and Bournbrook Magazine (a traditionalist-minded website of news, views and culture). The websites are here: The Jackdaw and The Salisbury Review and Bournbrook Magazine. The pieces that I publish in these outlets appear nowhere else, so you will be receiving unique content. You will also be supporting independent journalism.
Consider purchasing my books. Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism (2019, Societas/Imprint Academic), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History (2020, Societas/Imprint Academic) and Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism (2022, Societas/Imprint Academic) are available via the publisher’s website here. Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View (2022, Academica Press) is available via the publisher’s website here. Degas and Magritte (both 2022, Prestel) and all the other books mentioned are available via bookshops and book-selling websites. Other books by me include fiction, verse and art published by Aloes Books, Golconda, Bottle of Smoke Press and Pig Ear Press. These books can be bought here https://www.bournbrookmag.com/books/.
Sharing my online articles. I write regularly for the websites Spiked Online,The Critic and Bournbrook Magazine. I also publish articles on this site. Please consider liking and sharing these articles. Even small efforts like this raise my profile and make websites and publishers more likely to commission future articles and books.
Rating my books on Amazon, Goodreads and other websites.
“When the movement we recognise under the name “the Impressionists” first exhibited together, they called the 1874 exhibition, Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (“Co-operative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers”), held at Nadar’s photographic studio in Paris. They gave themselves no title, agreed no core principles, signed no manifesto. They came together in common cause in rejection of the Académie and opposition to hanging jury of the annual salon, where France’s most talented professional artists exhibited, sold and were awarded prizes. Many of the exhibitors at the subsequent exhibitions had been rejected by the Académie and the salon juries, but some had not. It was Degas who insisted artists choose: henceforth they could exhibit as independents or choose the salon; they could not do both. In one respect, the motivation for the series of annual exhibitions was pragmatic or prosaic: a group of artists wanted to exhibit and sell art that official channels blocked. They wanted to advance their careers and earn money. Discrediting the state bodies was secondary; for some, perhaps it was not their intention at all, just simply an inference that others made.
“When one examines the list of exhibitors at the Independent exhibitions of 1874-86, one is struck by the indisputable heterogeneity of styles, attitudes and schools. There are some artists who conventional to a T, including some sculptors of portrait busts. Some were quite established; ages spanned from the young to elderly. While all were competent, not all were original or distinguished and have lapsed into deserved obscurity. Yet, in retrospective, we separate and elevate those we call “Impressionists” because of their unfinished surfaces, rejecting the glassy varnished surfaces of the salon painters, proclivity towards the non-narrative, tendency to work plein air, painting on light grounds, committing to realism above idealism and centring petit bourgeois and working-class people as subjects for art. These shared aspects make the Impressionists stand out and retrospectively form the style of the school. The process of evolution (or at least change) was so accelerated at the time that the last exhibitions included artists such as Gauguin and Seurat who are classed as Neo-Impressionists or Post-Impressionists – the second generation of Impressionists who had developed significantly enough to be classed as successors to the exhibitions of an older generation who had started the Independent exhibitions.
“What happened with the emergence of these “Impressionists” may be the case for our movement, where our style can be classed and described discretely only later, not by ourselves. It is important for us, as dissidents, to recognise that we can bond in opposition, perhaps only later coming to discern common aesthetic ideals, subjects or practices within the dissenting body. In this initial phase, it seems unwise to apply stylistic or technical criteria to those who might wish to describe themselves as part of the dissident arts movement…”
A new book by Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of Fine and Decorative Arts at the Rijksmuseum, makes new claims about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Only Rembrandt is more acclaimed than Vermeer among Dutch Golden Age painters but very little is known about Vermeer, whose surviving output consists of 37 paintings and no drawings. We know that at least five of paintings were lost before modern times, but, because how slowly Vermeer painted meant that in his 23-year career, he did not have the opportunity to make many more.
No letters, diaries or contracts survive, so indirect circumstantial evidence is often the best we can get for this elusive figure. Every so often research sheds new light – for example, when a historian discovered the exact location for the painting Little Street – but there have been no big discoveries. This book contains no big revelations. It comes ahead of a large retrospective exhibition of Vermeer’s painting at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (10 February-4 June).
Vermeer was born into a Protestant family in Delft and had one sister, who married a picture framer. Vermeer probably converted to Catholicism to marry Catherina Bolnes in 1653. Baptismal records are absent for the period, so confirmation for his conversion is lacking. The couple lived with her mother and a rapidly growing number of children (ten surviving at the time of his death). The one fragment of testimony we have is that the strain of supporting his family following the economic depression of 1672 drove him into “a frenzy” and a sudden death. (Commentators have speculated about alcoholism and depression, associating it with a drop off in quality of the last paintings.) The painter joined the minority community of Catholics around a Jesuit centre in Protestant northern Holland, trading pictures (like his father) but also painting his own. Weber’s case is that the Jesuits played more of a part in Vermeer’s working practice and iconography than hitherto recognised.
The lavishly illustrated book shows the art that Vermeer made, the art he owned and pictures he would have seen and sold as picture merchant. Pictures by contemporaries show how close Vermeer was to his contemporaries. Work by the Utrecht Caravaggisti were a formative influence and one at least appears as a background of a Vermeer picture. Weber cannot confirm whether Vermeer trained with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), who died in a massive gunpowder explosion that devastated Delft, so it is still unclear who Vermeer’s master was. Art owned by Jesuits may have been accessible to the young Vermeer, who made a copy of an Italian painting of saint.
Weber goes on to give examples of where the Catholic order produced theory and practical devices that explored the power and nature of light. Vermeer worked meticulously, using an optical device called a camera obscura (which uses a lens to project light on to a flat surface) to design his paintings. The author suggests that the artist was introduced to this machine by the Jesuits, perhaps inheriting one in 1656. Weber writes that Vermeer’s painting Allegory of Faith (c. 1670-4) follows Jesuit iconography. Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) – a painter personally known to Vermeer – painted an allegory of faith similar to Vermeer’s, produced a few years earlier. There is a resemblance but the treatment and iconography is quite different.
More Jesuit influence is detected in paintings of women with jewellery. Again, this is plausible, without being more than a possibility. Vermeer’s art has sufficient depth and ambiguity to leave it open to more lines of interpretation than more obvious paintings by his contemporaries, Gerrit Dou, Metsu, Pieter der Hooch and others. Certainly, Weber’s case should be entertained, though one would need to be very well versed in Dutch theology and iconography to make a decisive case pro or contra.
Gregor J.M. Weber, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, Rijksmuseum, 2023, 168pp, fully illus., paperback, €25, ISBN 978 94 6208 758 3
Daniel Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993) and James Birch’s Bacon in Moscow (2022) together form the Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon, comprising (respectively) the first and most recent of books posthumously recounting the life and actions of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
Re-reading Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, first published one year after the artist’s death and in preparation during his lifetime, reminds me of my first reading. I was at Goldsmiths College, studying fine art. I bought the first paperback edition as soon as it came out and read it quickly, hungrily searching out new facts about the painter. It is hard for people today to remember how little one knew about Bacon in 1993. His date of birth was vague, he was hard to pin down socially and politically. He had spiked the lengthy explanatory notes in his 1985 Tate retrospective catalogue, leaving the illustrated paintings commandingly inscrutable. All one knew was from The Brutality of Fact, his famous book of interviews with David Sylvester, and newspaper articles. Some of the latter recounted details such as the timing of the deaths of his lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, and a 1970 court case when Bacon was prosecuted for possessing cannabis. (Likely left by a visitor or planted by George Dyer, who tipped off the police as an act of revenge against the artist.) Although Bacon’s life and character were fairly well known within his circle and the drinking circuit of Soho, the average person who read books on his art up to his death would have known almost nothing, other than a few dispersed comments in memoirs.
Then, within months of Bacon’s death in April 1992, came Farson’s memoir – a treasure chest of personal first-hand memories and unknown data. It was the first time we encountered Bacon’s celebrated toast “Real pain for your sham friends, Champagne for your real friends!”, his cutting remarks about rival painters, his arrogance and generosity. We learned about his friendship, then later rivalry, with Lucian Freud. For years all one knew was that the pair were close and had painted each other; now one found out about how close they were originally and how estranged they became. We discovered that he owned Bacon’s celebrated painting of wrestlers. A similar fate befell Bacon’s closer working relationship with Graham Sutherland. What came as revelatory in 1993, has now become established points in any biographical sketch of Bacon.
It Farson’s memoir of Bacon, we find confirmation of how strictly he controlled the authorised disclosures about his art and life. The tale of how the painter first consented to collaborate with the author, then later withdrew permission, has been confirmed as a pattern, according to the experiences of other authors. Farson published his private letters for the first time. The biggest revelations came in descriptions of Bacon’s affairs with Lacy, Dyer and Edwards. Farson with either more discreet – or less informed – with regard to José Capelo, Bacon’s last lover.
The tales of Bacon in the 1950s – Farson first met him in 1951 – give us a snapshot of Soho when few but bohemians lived to excess in post-war austerity Britain. “Soho was a revelation, with the discovery of people who behaved outrageously without a twinge of guilt and drank so recklessly that when they met the next morning they asked each other if they needed to apologise for the day before. Friends who had fought the previous night returned to the pub arm in arm. The camaraderie of the morning after has never been better.”
Gilded Gutter Life became a bible for the Young British Artists. Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and many other luminaries in their 20s and 30s lived through the 1990s acting out Bacon’s big-drinking, high-living, fine-dining, partner-swapping, hard-swearing bonhomie, fuelled by easy money during the bubble of Cool Britannia and the attitudes of Loaded. The Colony Room was their unofficial headquarters and became incorporated into their mythos. One could not read an account of bacchanals held at gallery private views or Soho public houses without the shadow of Bacon looming as the paterfamilias of hedonistic excess. Hirst bought Bacon’s classic 1933 Crucifixion and later started painting in Baconian style. On the Way to Work, Hirst’s book of interviews with Gordon Burn, apes The Brutality of Fact.
How is it as an account? It is extremely lively and the fact that Farson moved in the same circles of Soho and the London homosexual demi-monde imparts a great deal of familiarity and intimacy. It is particularly telling in the description of the immediate post-war period, as death had already claimed many of the painters’ early confreres before his death, curtailing the potential of published memoirs by them that might have revealed more about Bacon. Farson was no painter, so we get few insights into Bacon’s techniques and ideas. We do find out about Bacon’s engagement with others’ art and his subjects. Farson’s exposure of Bacon’s catty barbs (delivered in private) regarding living artists and abstract painting show Bacon’s surprising jealousy and insecurity regarding recent art. Was this the legacy of a self-trained artist, one worried that his absence of art education and his technical unconventionality would be surpassed by the expertise of others? Was Bacon concerned to conceal his debt to abstract painters (such as Rothko) behind blanket dismissals? His library showed how much attention he paid to artists he never acknowledged. Not that Bacon was under an obligation to provide an apologia for his art and his inspirations, however, it is fascinating that he was so active in covering up and dismissing influences and mentors, which does betray – or at least imply – Bacon’s sensitivity towards his debts.
There seem some questionable judgements. “Though he was personally a masochist, his art had little to do with physical violence or the violence of war as so many assume.” He goes on to say that the violence of life is what Bacon intended to evoke through his vigorous technique. We should remember that Farson did not have access to the photographic material in the studio relating to crime scenes, boxing, mob murders and war journalism. Had he subsequently had such access, Farson may have qualified that observation, if not entirely retracted it. Also the comment about Bacon dying in Madrid when “he had the love of a young Spaniard” seems an incomplete reading of the situation by April 1992. I noticed some slips, such as “James Land” for biographer James Lord, “Manuria” for Hotel Muniria, Tangiers and “Sundlea” for Sundela boards. How many more mundane ones escaped fact checking at the time? Regardless of these quibbles, Gilded Gutter Life stands up as an entertaining and indiscrete memoir of mid-century Soho that vividly and unsparingly captured Bacon’s character.
James Birch is a gallerist and curator who was the catalyst to one of the most remarkable exhibitions in recent history: the 1988 Bacon exhibition in Moscow. Birch grew up in Wivenhoe, Suffolk, where his family knew local artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. They were artists who left London in 1940s and were friends with Bacon. Bacon was a frequent visitor to Wivenhoe, even purchasing a small house there, which he rarely used, and so the young James became the honorary godson of the three artists. Birch had established his own gallery by the early 1980s and by the end of the decade was searching for a way to promote his artists. A contact recommended he contact Russian fixer Sergei Klokov, who could arrange to take Birch’s artists to Moscow. No new Western art had been exhibited in the USSR for 40 years. Although the exhibition would not sell, it would cause a sensation. As it turned out, the exhibition would be purely of Bacon’s paintings. Bacon in Moscow is the story of that exhibition.
Birch’s recounts the unending bureaucracy and obscure protocols of Russia in the last years of the Soviet Union. He describes touring galleries where avant-garde was not welcome and artists were unwilling to speak unguardedly in the presence of KGB-informant translators. He writes of the poverty and shabbiness of the people and the streets; his hotel room had a fridge that did not work and a bathtub with no plug. He was aware that everything he said and did was being monitored and reported to the security services. He sees the thawing of the communist cultural ice, as Perestroika led to the first auction of contemporary art in Moscow. Old systems of control were breaking down and the influence of capitalism rapidly changing people made miserable and poor by communism. The Bacon exhibition came to be seen as indicative of that watershed that would usher in a new age.
Although the exhibition has formed part of biographies, Birch is able to give us unexpected information. The Russians had initially wanted an exhibition of Andy Warhol. Birch was unable to get past Warhol’s entourage to put the proposal to the artist. Most fascinating of all is more information on the estrangement that had developed by 1987 between Bacon and Marlborough, his long-standing dealer. Bacon had been approached by a number of galleries looking to tempt him away from Marlborough, the star of which was somewhat faded by this time. Dealings involving paying off the artist’s gambling debts and paying him advances and been balanced by Bacon selling work privately, contrary to verbal agreements with Marlborough. Other transactions may have compromised both artist and gallery, which may have been the deciding factor that kept the two parties together until his death. The Estate of Bacon parted from Marlborough on acrimonious terms not long after Bacon’s death.
Birch explains that the negotiations over the Moscow exhibition nearly foundered because of ill feeling between artist and Marlborough. The exhibition could only proceed with the gallery’s co-operation, as well as the gallery potentially underwriting the cost of insurance and transport – a tidy sum that neither Birch’s gallery nor the Central House of Artists/Union of Artists, Moscow could pay. Eventually, Marlborough paid the costs and the British Council advanced its prestige by claiming more of a part in the planning than was due to it. The introduction of British cultural diplomats was to add further murkiness and complications to the circumstances. Birch found himself manoeuvred out of the credit for an event of which he was the main organiser. He was never sure how much to trust Klokov and wondered about the veracity of everything he was told by Russians. He found himself smitten with Elena Khudiakova, a beautiful model and fashion designer, who accompanied Klokov. He gradually comes to the realisation that Elena was a compulsive liar, someone who was desperate to escape the Soviet system but (when she moved to London) unable to properly live outside it. Birch was later told that Elena was a KGB informant.
The exhibition, which opened in September 1988, was a sensation. Thousands queued to gain entry. The 5,000 catalogues sold briskly and over 400,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which attracted worldwide attention. Soviet artists and art enthusiasts, who had never expected to see Bacon’s art (or any modern Western art) in person, were electrified by the paintings. Bacon never visited the exhibition, despite planning to do so. He wanted to attend the vernissage and then visit the Rembrandts at the Hermitage. Chronic asthma was cited as the reason in the official announcement for his absence. Birch reveals more of the story. It seems that David Sylvester, piqued at having been overlooked to write the catalogue essay, made Bacon so nervous regarding his security that the artist changed his plans. The combination of worries over safety and health decided Bacon’s mind against going, a decision he apparently later regretted.
Birch is honest about his shortcomings and mistakes, which renders him a sympathetic narrator. We see the story through his eyes, never being quite sure of where he stood with inscrutable Russians, uncommunicative bureaucrats and fickle imperious artist. In that immediacy, Birch’s account is very similar to Farson’s and the comparison is favourable to both accounts. The many photographs taken during the event and preparations give a strong flavour of how Birch experienced Moscow in 1987-8. A valuable service is the inclusion of colour images of the paintings included in the exhibition and some of the comments in the visitors’ book. Bacon in Moscow provides an amusing, revealing and frank account of a historic event and will be welcomed by historians, Bacon fans and casual readers.
Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage Books, London, 1994 (1993), paperback, mono illus., 279pp + viii, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 099 30781 5
James Birch, Michael Hodges, Bacon in Moscow, Cheerio/Profile, London, 2022, hardback, col. and mono illus., 204pp, £17.99, ISBN 978 1 788 16974 5
In April 1934, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany made a surprise visit. He was on a German battleship which visited the fjords of Norway. It was not an official visit and no one, including naval officials, knew quite why he was there. Perhaps Hitler himself did not know. He seemed approachable and serious, treating ratings and officers equally courteously, admiring the scenery and pleased with the performance of crew and ship. Few could have guessed that six years later, Hitler would be de facto ruler of Norway.
Despina Stratigakos’s book Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, recently issued in paperback, explores exactly what the Nazis occupiers did in Norway and what they had planned. In relative terms, much of it was benign compared to what happened to other occupied lands. As with Austria, Norway was seen as Germanic and a natural part of the Reich. The military capitulation of Norway in 1940 was seen by the Nazis not as a nation admitting its military inadequacy and geographic isolation in the face of an overwhelming force, but rather as Norwegian admission of an inevitable unification of the Aryan people. The Nazis saw the future of Norway as part of a Germanic racial destiny, with a number strategic advantages for the German leaders of this group.
[Image: Lebensborn nurses]
One German race expert (Hans Friedrich Karl Günther) estimated “Norwegians possessed more than 70 to 80 percent pure Nordic blood, while Germans themselves retained only 50 to 60 percent in their veins.”[i] So, mingling of German and Norwegian genetics would lead to an over increase in the Nordic character of future generations of Germans. To that end the Lebensborn project was established, to encourage Norwegian women and German soldiers stationed in the country to have children. Hotels around the country were commandeered to house any unwed Norwegian women pregnant by German men. Norwegian orphans possessing distinguished Nordic characteristics were moved to Germany for adoption. This project was semi-secret, not publicly announced and not openly approved of by Norwegian authorities. It continued until the last month of war, even as Soviet and German troops were engaged in scorched-earth warfare in northern Norway.
[Image: German soldiers in occupied Oslo]
Settlement of Norway by Germans, who could connect with their ancestral roots in new rural colonies, were planned but (unlike Eastern Europe) this would not displace the native population and no genocide was not considered. There were plans for an extensive series of barracks and settlements; so grand were the plans that they would have required the importation of wood from Sweden. The author describes the architecture of the few buildings erected and explains the internal wrangles between Albert Speer, the Labour Front (which erected and commissioned the buildings) and Norwegian architects (centrally Sverre Pedersen). Photographs show the National Socialist style sculpture and murals adorning the soldiers’ home (barracks-cum-settlement) in Kristiansand. The subjects of the art are patriotic staples, executed in a rather lifeless monumental manner.
[Image: a mural in the Kristiansand soldiers’ house]
The architecture (Nordic, wood-based) is both traditional, functionally modern and executed with a degree of skill (carved figurines standing on a ceiling-mounted light fitting) – all befitting a pioneering showcase. The communal spaces included canteens, pub-restaurants, reading rooms, craft rooms, a billiard hall, bowling alleys and auditoria. The auditorium of the Narvik soldiers’ home was described in the German press as “the largest hall in northern Norway”. Soldiers’-home designs were typological in approach and therefore were not generally modified to reflect the landscape and were not integrated into the local town. Commenters describe these are non-places: buildings designed to shield and detach residents from their non-German surroundings and their cultural alienness.
More building was planned, as 14,000 buildings has been destroyed during the conquest of Norway – much of it collateral damage due to the burning of wooden houses in town centres. This created an opportunity for Nazis to build entire towns, starting from street layout and reaching as far as the architectural details. This revealed the Nazis inconsistency towards architecture – a reverence for Nordic authenticity but a determination to refine that into a consistent science of National Socialism that would surpass the buildings of the past. As such there was no plan to restore or reconstruct these notably Nordic settlements with similar buildings but to build anew, with modern designs and private motorcar in mind. The English garden-city movement and Le Corbusier’s functionalism influenced calculations regarding the sizes of open spaces, greenery, sunlight, distribution of amenities, distances between dwelling and provision of a road beltway in Pedersen’s plans for rebuilding Molde. The rebuilt church would no longer have such a prominent position, as this was a political issue, Speer deferred decision on this to Reichskommissar Terboven. The Nazis – like the inter-war functionalists – saw little place for houses of worship in their conurbations. Terboven confirmed that Parteihausen (German: (Nazi) party houses) would replace churches in Nazi-designed towns. Reichsbauen (German: state buildings) would act as town halls, post offices and telegraph offices, combining service and communication surveillance and censorship.
[Image: auditorium at Kristiansand soldiers’ home]
New designs would “help lead Norwegians away from the previous era’s “emphatic individualism” toward the new communal ideal.”[ii] The Volksgemeinschaft (German: community of people) reminds us of the socialistic aspects of nationalism, with “a process of social inclusion that was supported by promises of equality, economic prosperity, and symbolic recognition.”[iii] Nationalism has implicit in it a degree of socialism different from traditionalism. National Socialism of Germany is exactly the embodiment of Enlightenment humanism in scientific form, hardly different from the International Socialism of the USSR in the pre-1935 era.
Norway’s reliance on the importation of basic goods and fuel left it politically dependent on other countries and open to foreign influence. Nazis and their supporters argued that the urbanisation of Southern Norway was allowing architectural Modernism to gain a foothold, city-based “Jewish-Marxist” birth-control clinics were reducing the Norwegian birth rate and the anglicisation of the population (especially young female Norwegians) was undermining the essential Nordic character of the country. Young Norwegians were dancing the black American music, following foreign fashions and pursuing all the activities that deracinated the population now that they had escaped tradition and the oversight of their families in small villages. Afflicted by urban anomie, just as had been seen in 1920s Paris and Weimar Germany, Norwegian “swing kids” were succumbing to multi-culturalism, consumerism and hedonism.
The Germans planned for an entirely new city Nordstern, near Trondheim, which would showcase German architecture and urban planning, with Speer in personal charge of designs. It would provide a deep-water harbour for the German navy, as well as serving as a German colonial settlement, giving the naval base suitable independence from the native inhabitants. Like the ambitious Germania plan, this classified plan was never started in earnest. Demands for resources from the Eastern Front from 1941 onwards and the constant drain presented by the requirement to build coastal defences prevented meaningful implementation of civil construction. The sole exceptions were the building of a coastal autobahn and a railway to link northern settlements to the existing (very limited) railway network of the south. This railway would then be linked via occupied Denmark to Germany. The vision was of a Reich-spanning railway from Austria to the Arctic Circle.
The Germans, needing to build quickly, devised new techniques to build in the cold and dark that startled the Norwegians. The projects were given to the Todtamt, an engineering-architectural bureau charged with high-profile building projects, which also handled many of the defence installations dotted along Norway’s coast. Todtamt used prisoners of war in forced-labour camps. In Norway, most of these came from Poland, the USSR and Yugoslavia. The attrition rate among these workers was very high, due to infectious diseases, exhaustion, malnutrition, dangerous work and the harsh climate. The construction projects therefore made Norway more modern, economically productive and militarily defensible, while at the same time reducing the Slavic and Asiatic population.
Hitler’s plan for a continuous railway from Oslo to the Arctic Circle was partly prestige, partly democratising, but also a backbone for military supplies and troop movements. The motive given to top level German officials was to allow land transport for ore to foundries in Southern Norway or Germany, yet anyone who examined the economics of the project could see that sea transport was more efficient. Even in the last year of the war, as the Allies encroached on multiple fronts, Hitler was fixated on this hugely expensive and demanding project.
Interestingly, aesthetics were an important consideration for Todtamt and their Norwegian colleagues. Although the bridges, roads and railways were to be functional and modern, using steel and concrete, vistas were to be considered. Despite extra cost and danger, the more dramatic views were always preferred when routes were planned. The excitement of travel through a wild landscape was a component of the project and (in some respects) one of its purposes. Hitler spoke of German citizens being able to drive north on autobahns and experience the remarkable scenery. Stratigakos notes that due to military priorities and the late development of the Volkswagen, few ordinary citizens got to experience the pleasure of driving on the German autobahns. In 1935, private car ownership among Germans was 16 per 1,000 persons; in the USA it was at 204 persons.
Stratigakos’s book draws upon much research and original sources, with over 60 pages of footnotes and bibliography. Plentiful illustrations, many taken from contemporary German-language periodicals covering occupied Norway, help us understand the few concrete achievements of the period. Most of these buildings were lost in the last months of the war and the few surviving have since been demolished or converted. The book provides a thorough and informed appraisal of what was done and what might have been done in occupied Norway and provides a case study in totalitarian town planning and civic aesthetics.
Despina Stratigakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway, Princeton University Press, 2022, paperback, 313pp + x, mono illus., $19.95, ISBN 9780961234137
“When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.
KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints…”
While reviewing a book on Käthe Kollwitz’s art – which features prominently images of labourers, the poor and the socially deprived, with a view to eliciting sympathy with the plight of the urban poor in the era of industrialism – I was struck once again by the multivalent political character of Social Realism. Social Realism needs to be distinguished from Socialist Realism. Social Realism is the use of naturalism to depict the life of the poor, working class and social outcasts, specifically with the intention of effecting social, legal and cultural change in favour of the depicted subjects. Socialist Realism is the political conformity of artists to the cause of advancing and consolidating the policy and ideals of Socialism and Communism, usually within the structures of states pursing such political goals. So Kollwitz, Jules Bastien-Lepage and Marie Bashkirtseff are Social Realists; Vera Mukhina and Isaak Brodsky are Socialist Realists.
To complicate matters, Kollwitz may not have been a Socialist Realist but she was definitely a Socialist. Her close family members were members of the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), expressed support for it and she made posters for SPD causes. She accepted commissions from the SPD and the pro-Communist Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung newspaper. She was twice a signatory to a petition for left-wing parties to unite against the Nazi Party in 1932 and 1933. One essential feature of Socialist Realism is idealisation; Kollwitz did not idealise her subjects, though she did simplify and turn living subjects into types. Her art (even the political posters) criticises inequity rather than celebrates the success of Socialist action and organisation.
A curious fact about Kollwitz’s Socialist iconography and messages is that they are equally amenable to the politically left and right…”
“In November, the Horniman Museum returned Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (as announced in August) and Cambridge University pledged to return human skulls to Zimbabwe. Last week, Egypt requested the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and there have been reports of a discussion between the British Museum and Greek authorities regarding the Elgin Marbles.
Barely a week goes by without news of repatriation of artefacts. So, why is this happening now?
Repatriation of items from one country to its supposed country of origin has been a hot topic for five years, since President Macron sent items from the French national collection to Burkina Faso. This is a form of deaccessioning, which is when a museum removes an item from its permanent collection. This can be by sale, exchange or destruction. The latter only usually for an object so deteriorated it is now worthless or dangerous.
Although public museums in the UK rarely deaccession – it is effectively prohibited by legislation except in very limited circumstances – the practice is common in American museums…”
Käthe Kollwitz née Schmidt (1867-1945) was born in Königsberg and went to study painting in Munich. She aspired to follow the informality and liveliness of Max Liebermann’s Impressionism, combining this with the social-realist trend, current in the 1870s and 1880s. The movement came largely from the elevation of the peasant by Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. This became inflected by the dramatic symbolism of Max Klinger, whose example dominated the German art world in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century. The young artist married physician Dr Karl Kollwitz in 1891 and moved to the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin. This brought her into frequent contact with the working-class poor, labourers, the elderly, children and pregnant women.
These types formed the basis of her art works, sometimes illustrating scenes from Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Gerhart Hauptmann. Narrative is generally eschewed in favour of the impact of the isolation figure or pair of figures. The subjects are often women who are suffering or supplicating. Children (sometimes the artist’s sons) are usually young and poor, sometimes accompanied by mothers. Mother’s grieving over the death of infants is a recurrent subject. This was a staple of not only social realists but of book illustrators and Victorian academic painters. Without a belief in religious redemption and certainty of an afterlife – Kollwitz seems (as a socialist) to have been an areligious materialist – her scenes have a powerful bleakness.
Kollwitz soon expanded her media to graphics, which became her primary means of working, something that allowed her to exhibit widely, sending her art by post. It also corresponded with her increasingly socialist outlook, which advanced the idea that art should be cheap enough for even labourers to purchase. Her work in woodcut is not as effective, as it loses most of it corporeality. This book includes posters, drawing attention to poverty and opposing war. They were noticed at the time and considered provocative. The artist commented on her dissatisfaction with the lettering done by typographers on the final printing of the posters. Editor Hannelore Fischer selects quotes from the artist’s journals, memoirs and letters that give us Kollwitz’s personal testimony. Comments by contemporaries tell of how her art was received during her lifetime.
She also studied sculpture at the Académie Julian, Paris and visited Rodin. She built respect and won awards for her art over the next decade. In 1914, one of her two sons, Peter was killed in Great War. The despair and anguish of her grief drove Kollwitz to commemorate his death in the statue group Mourning Parents (1932), erected in the Belgian cemetery where her son is buried. The experience turned her into a pacifist. War themes and maternities dominated the late work she made. Kollwitz opposed the Nazi government, using her pacifist work to implicitly criticise the militarism of the regime. She died a few weeks before the end of World War II.
This book is published under the guidance of Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Cologne, which holds a large collection of the artist’s drawings, prints and sculptures, as well as personal documents, which come primarily come from the artist’s family. The book acts as a generous introduction to the artist’s world and the range of her oeuvre. There are thematic chapters covering the artist’s output, with bibliography, exhibition list, chronology and index. This catalogue publishes 15 newly authenticated drawings by Kollwitz, not included in the 1980 catalogue raisonné. The reproductions are pin sharp and tonally rich. Most of her art is monochrome.
Kollwitz’s drawings are very close to the prints. Kollwitz started with etching but soon moved to lithographs, often made with transfer sheets. That where, rather than drawing directly on a stone, the artist draws in crayon on a special paper, which is then mechanically transferred to the stone. It requires less involvement from the artist and is more convenient. The drawings are mainly in charcoal, of faces and half-length figures, usually set in a dark, non-descript surrounding. The detachment from specifics of place and time are deliberate; they stress the universality of the situations and amplify the emotions of both the depicted and the viewer. There is no relief, no incidental detail, no anecdotal aside, no attractive colour. There is nothing except the subject of the art and the subject-as-viewer. Kollwitz’s drawing may have been influenced by the realism of Adolph von Menzel’s studies from life and Seurat’s conté drawing on textured paper, which created monochrome analogues to his Pointillist paintings. Her exhibitions with different societies of avant-garde art would have brought her into contact with a great variety of art. Two artists she knew from Paris was Eugène Carrière and Théophile Steinlen. Following his example, she made smoky drawings of women workers. Some of the newly found drawings are of Paris workers, sleeping or in drunken stupors in cellar bars. Social critiques of poverty, alcoholism and working conditions are frequent topics. Kollwitz’s tableaux of mothers with sick or dead children is one that we can find throughout Symbolist and Secession art of the 1890-1918 period.
The graphics are in no way supplementary to unique works. Kollwitz was ideally suited for prints, especially the lithographs that are drawing facsimiles, and we do not miss oil paintings. It is the absence of such paintings that mean that Kollwitz’s art is not discussed in overall surveys of realist art of the period. In 1910s and later, we find a degree of expressionism; not the Expressionism of Die Brucke or Edvard Munch but that of Daumier or Van Gogh – exaggeration rather pure Expressionism of primitivism and schematic treatment. The fold-out pages allow readers to view the sequence of two print suites: A Weavers Revolt (1893-7), The Peasants’ War (1902/3-8) and Seven Woodcuts on War (1921-2). The account of the 1524-5 Peasant’s Revolt was written Wilhelm Zimmermann, who was a source for Babel and Engels as a template for a workers’ Socialist revolution. Kollwitz included scenes of a raped-and-murdered woman, workers arming themselves and the march of the mob, selecting the most rousing scenes.
While Kollwitz’s maternities and lamentations are well known; less reproduced are her drawings of lovers embracing. She kept them secret during her lifetime. They are as tender and urgent as scenes of sad emotion. More detached are her drawings of herself. She drew workers and children from life but did not make many portraits made for fee-paying subjects. She had a gift for portraiture, as seen in some character heads. She sometimes wishes that she had described more specific physiognomies and record something of their life experiences. One of the greatest blind spots of socialists is indifference to the individual, in preference to the abstract masses. Kollwitz is relatively free of this failing but too often we encounter the general in her art when the specific would have been more piquant and engaging. She was invited to draw the body of Communist Karl Liebknecht after the failed revolt of 1919.
It seems that the English edition is currently sold out. Let us hope that a reprint makes this attractive volume available again to Anglophone readers.
Hannelore Fischer (ed.), Käthe Kollwitz: A Survey of her Works, 1888-1942, Hirmer, 2022, hardback, 304pp with 6 fold-out pages, 259 illus., €45, German version available, English version ISBN 978-3-7774-3079-9
A substantial exhibition of paintings by School of London painter Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) is now reaching its last days. (23 September-16 December 2022, Piano Nobile, 96/129 Portland Road, London, W11 4LW, www.piano-nobile.com.) This review is from the catalogue only.
Auerbach was born in Berlin and arrived in England in 1939. He studied painting at Borough Polytechnic by David Bomberg (1947-53, alongside Leon Kossoff), St Martin’s Art School (1948-52) and the Royal College of Art (1952-5). He became friends with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and R.B. Kitaj who became the nucleus of the School of London, which upheld the engagement with traditional painting techniques, figuration and the primacy of the human body (especially in the form of portraiture) as the prime subject of art.
Like other painters in the London School, Auerbach left many of his sitters unnamed. As with other artists, in their last years and posthumously, identities and biographical details emerge about the sitters. This comes with the process of historical, biographical and archive research that accompanies the elevation of the art to the status of classic. Also, as sitters die, pictures they owned enter the secondary market. Researchers make a point of asking for memoirs by and interviews with sitters. Biographers also seek out primary information from sitters.
Auerbach’s approach is to create a picture over multiple sessions from life, sometimes reworking the entire painting or drawing each time. He would often scrap a panel clean of paint and work from scratch in a following session. Over 40 or so sessions, a sheet of paper might be erased of its charcoal or graphite marks so often that is becomes rubbed right through, then patched be before the drawing is finished. The sprezzatura finish to the paintings belies the concentration put into each over a prolonged period, although the visible surface paint maybe indeed have been applied in one session. The impasto is so thick that it takes months to dry to state in which it can be hung vertically without slipping. An oil painting sometimes takes many years to dry, sometimes taking on a shrivelled appearance. A more schematic approach using encaustic wax would eliminate paint shrinkage, but Auerbach is not that type of painter.
The notes here relate to known portraits subjects of Auerbach, whether or not their pictures are among the exhibits at Piano Nobile. Some – such as Kossoff and Freud – are famous; others – such as curator and author Catherine Lampert – are known associates of the artist. Other initials reappear in exhibition listings over years without viewers knowing the identities. Julia is Auerbach’s wife and E.O.W. is Stella West, one of Auerbach’s lovers. Is usual, the reason artist’s conceal the identities of sitters and models is because exposure brings to light the tangled skein of personal affairs, failings in fidelity and awkward chronology. Is it any wonder that artists prefer to keep such information concealed for as long as possible. Auerbach’s determination is also shown in his loyalty to sitters; he has worked with some for decades.
Another sitter was Sandra Fisher, artist, muse and wife of Kitaj. Kitaj produced a memorable pastel of Sandra and Auerbach seated at a table (illustrated here). Sandra also sat to Auerbach, here in one drawing and one painting. Naturally, Auerbach’s sitters have been taken from individuals in the art world. Stephen Finer and Laurie Owen are painter colleagues; James Kirkman was an art dealer; David Landau is an art collector. Michael Podro the painter met before he began his career as an art historian, when they were both art students. Podro and his wife Charlotte collected Auerbach and were painted and drawn by him; Podro wrote about Auerbach – the essay is reprinted here. There is are discussions of the Podro-Auerbach friendship by Natasha Podro, Michael’s daughter, and by Luke Farey. The introductory material is a short foreword, a brief essay by art critic and portrait subject William Feaver and an interview with the artist by Martin Gayford; the latter are both old pieces (dating from 2009 and 2001 respectively), although the interview includes unpublished parts. There are commentaries that accompany the 41 paintings and drawings by Auerbach. There are new comments and information about sitters and their experiences of posing for Auerbach.
There also are eight photographs of Auerbach in his studio, shot by Nicola Bensley in one morning in 2015. The studio is famously small and spartan, situated in the Mornington Crescent (near Euston) and was previously occupied by (consecutively) Kossoff, Gustav Metzger and Frances Hodgkins. Auerbach’s studio is not as famous as Bacon or Freud’s but is an important part of the creation process. He has worked in the studio almost every day since moving there in 1954. As with Freud, sitters mention the powerful impression the studio makes upon them. The small, paint-encrusted cell is the site of most of his painting. Like Freud, Auerbach wrestles with paintings, displaying signs of frustration and tension as the image (usually) fails to cohere.
What of new art? There is a self-portrait drawing from 2020 – very light in touch and tonality – and we are promised further unpublished works in an updating of Feaver’s catalogue raisonné of Auerbach’s paintings, published this year. There is also a new head, which is daring; the black calligraphy seems quite detached to the slurred yellow brushwork below. The self-portrait drawings have a degree of liberation and dignity, as if the artist had freed himself of his previous penchant for Rembrandtian gloom and dramatic chiaroscuro.
The book gives a good overview of the artist’s achievements, presenting new information and publishing unseen art. It provides thorough provenances and exhibition/literature history for each piece; a chronology is also included. The production quality is very high. Getting the full intensity of the colour range is often tricky with Auerbach and this catalogue gets commendably close to the originals. Although the price of this book is high, it will become a coveted treasure for Auerbach connoisseurs.
William Feaver, Martin Gayford, Luke Farey, et al., Frank Auerbach: The Sitters, Piano Nobile Publications, 2022, cloth hardback with paper-band wrapper, 176pp, fully illus., £100, ISBN 978 1901192629
New exhibition “Post-Vandalism” blends Street Art and fine art in a vigorous, discordant blend.
As Matt McMurry shows me around the gallery he co-founded, he speaks passionately and eloquently about the art around us, which blend fine-art detachment and Street-Art attitude. McMurry talks about the boldness and grasp of colour that graffiti artists acquire and says this is what excited him about the work he chose for Post-Vandalism (Omni Gallery, 56-7 Eastcastle Street, London, W1, 20 October-12 November 2022).
“These artists have gone beyond the street. They’ve left that behind but you can see it even though these are definitely gallery pieces.” We are standing in front of Moses & Taps’s spraypainted tarpaulin concertinaed over a metal footstep that you would find on a van. It has the appearance of a graffer’s intervention in a haulage yard but after contemplation seems more of a knowing reference to John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculptures of the Sixties.
Occupying territory, promoting personal brands
McCurry talks about Street Artists occupying territory and promoting personal brands. In his previously gallery (in Seattle) he collaborated with Street Artists; in Omni, located just north of Oxford Street and split over two floors, he sees the opportunity to display art that is more ambitious and considered than what is usually found on the street.
The artists selected here carry a punchy no-holds-barred attitude but apply it to work that is more reflective and allusive than what is limited by temporary surface or hasty execution. Openness to material is apparent in the use of found objects and repurposed grounds. Most of the work bridges the space between sculpture and painting. Bram Bram has taken a slice of wall with bathroom tiles and applied paint and stickers; the printed text has degraded to the equivalent of visual static or Francis Bacon’s meaningless Letraset characters. In this piece – as in many of the others – there is a wilful distancing effect. The artists do not hit you with messages or theses, preferring to remain indirect. There is as much obscured, scoured and eroded on these surfaces as there is assertive paintwork.
When political references come, they are oblique. Ricardo Passaporte’s spraypainted scene of politicians fighting in parliament takes the specificity out of the situation, laconically reducing the struggling figures to fuzzy flat shapes. This instance of sordid degeneration of civic life acquires a comforting decorative quality. His painting of cartoon children dancing in a circle appears like a food dye sprayed on to cake icing. Distanced by not diminished, it still has the charm of an illustration of an idealised childhood. A ceramic bust of a Putin-like figure sports a Pinocchio liar’s nose. Perhaps an understandable swipe – the artist is a Ukrainian refugee, now based in France.
Alexandre Mosa Bavard’s Double Goose (2019) is a cement and resin cast of a puffer jacket, part-horror-movie effect, part rococo ceramic. The rococo comes to the fore in Stephen Burke’s freestanding painting-sculpture This Guy Loves His Job 2 (2022), which is equally playful and aggressive. A simple geometric painting is mounted in a section of railing; around the outside are different repelling devices (spikes, hooks, bladed wheels) that act like decorative flourishes one can find in rococo panels or picture frames. McMurry could have easily named this exhibition “Industrial Rococo”.
In another wall piece by Bram Bram – chain-link and tubular steel enlivened with applied stickers – seems a raffish take-off of 1980s Neo-Geo abstraction. More patterning comes in Bavard’s Auber (2022), which has sprayed paint recording where a (now absent) mesh had been draped as a distorted stencil over the canvas surface. Christopher Stead (part of a South London collective) appropriates Jackson Pollock’s spatter in an assemblage that affixes swatches of linen to the support canvas with eyelets. It is as if the artist is making survival raft out of the revered wreckage of Abstract Expressionism, not at all mocking.
Matt McCormick’s 2001 short film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal presents us with a proposition more outright humorous. The film follows the work of municipal workmen overpainting graffiti in Portland, Oregon. The simple effacement of vandalism is presented as an art movement, which – in its deployment of rough, floating patches of paint – echoes the High Modernism of Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann and the Russian Constructivists. It is thought-provoking in its thesis that the creative drive emerges unconsciously even in the act of covering vandalism and that these blocks of colour have their own muted poetry.
Abstract Expressionism echoed
A more involved engagement with the Abstract Expressionism (in particular, Willem de Kooning’s black period of the 1940s) comes in Nils Jendri’s Ying Ying (2022). Jendri has used areas of black-and-white spray paint, partially masked to introduce unsettling optical effects. The patches, similarity of marks and consistent palette of black and white combine to fool the mind and eye. The calligraphic tautness and austerity make this the most rewarding picture in the exhibition.
Moritz Neuhoff’s large canvas of gestural space-filling is the least successful piece here, precisely because it seems preoccupied with the abstract painting of the 1990s and 2000s. It fills space rather than occupying it.
Post-Vandalism gathers a very wide array of artists from many countries, including Germany, France, Italy, the USA, Ukraine and the UK. It may not be a movement but it has real vitality and edge and that alone is valuable. On top of which, the art itself is playful and striking. It makes a strong overall impression, one not of unity but of shared attitudes. Omni is a gallery to keep an eye on.