How to Support my Work

For those of you who appreciate my writing, please consider five ways of indirectly assisting me.

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  4. 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
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Basil Beattie: Seething with Invention

[Installation view of Basil Beattie, Recalling Echoes, Hales London, 19 May – 1 July 2023. Image courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023 L-R: Beyond the Ladder, In the Ascendancy, Outreach.]

Recalling Echoes (19 May-1 July 2023, Hales Gallery, London, E1) is the current exhibition of art by Basil Beattie (b. 1935). It is his third solo exhibition at Hales, his London representative. The large works, all made over the last ten years, display new elements as well as familiar ones. The floating steps, rudimentary ladders, roads, caverns and simple tower blocks come from the last 25 years. They show no sign of tiredness nor complacency; the retain their freshness because they are so primal and universal, notwithstanding the personal significance the artist attaches to the motifs. There is plenty of risk here; the exhibition is seething with invention, motival and technical.  

The exhibition consists of seven large canvases and 18 untitled charcoal drawings, made over the period 2020-3, using wash, arranged in a block six sheets high and three wide. This assemblage of identically sized sheets (all 14” x 10”/35.5 x 25.5 cm) acts as a treasury of compositions and motifs already established, as well as recording new ones, such as pseudo-hieroglyphs. There are new leads and (perhaps) the promise of firmer, more complicated drawings of definite things in the world, as indicated by the largest canvas in the display. There are also foreboding hints. Ladders here have broken rungs or appear ramshackle; one ladder has split completely asunder. These sturdy primal frames become catastrophically unreliable imply awareness of bodily frailty and ultimate mortality.

A drawing with a meandering, looping heavy line recalls Brice Marden; the buildings echo the paintings of the Metaphysical artists and Guston’s termite-built slabs. Beattie is an admirer of Guston and may be taking from his own memories of a residency in New York City. Other drawn forms stand more aloof, ur-images of steps, ladder, buildings, passages, caverns, roads, grids. In one drawing, a set of stairs enters a welter of dashes, which hangs like a cloud. At least three drawings relate directly to Ladder Red (2021), which is, along with In the Ascendancy (2015), are the most powerful and satisfying paintings here. Ladder Red features grey over painting on a diagrammatic frame, similar to sprues designed for casting. It recalls the paintings Beattie was making in the late 1990s.

Painted over two large canvases placed together, the large In the Ascendancy features a platform – for hunters or perhaps as one finds in railway signal boxes. (The artist’s father worked in the railways.) That structure surmounts a network of bricks/mesh, recalling sturdy constructions, lushly painted, tactile; they are the sorts of forms that the mind’s imaginary hand can reach out and grasp firmly. The tightness of the draughtsmanship of the platform is counterpointed by the janky, skewed outlines of bricks below. The crisp asperity and confidence of the tight drawing makes one wish to have more of such drawing in the paintings. Beattie is such a fluent master of the cursive description that he never needs to be literal or pedantic; however, In the Ascendancy shows that when he chooses to be, he can build wonderful linear structures.

[Basil Beattie, In the Ascendancy (2015). Image courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023]

Steps over Fiery Waters (2022) has his sequence of ascending (descending?) grey steps crossing an aerial view of magma-like pools of orange and red. This was perhaps created under the influence of reports of extreme summer weather of high temperature and drought, broadcast last year. The psychedelic light show of puddles of acrylic soaked into the cotton duck links to Beattie’s past – he used colour-field technique in the 1960s and 1970s, with its ethos of soaking, organic forms and absence of distinctive brushwork.

The gestural space-filling scribbles in oil stick (of Close to Beyond (2014)) seem a nod to Pollock’s Stenographic Figure (1942). Beattie was greatly excited to encounter American Abstract Expressionist painting when it reached London in the 1958-62 period, something that would see him begin the first half of his career as an abstract painter working on a large size. Top Up (2013) is a classic example of Beattie juxtaposing fields of a single colour, repeated motifs and outlines. The interaction between solid and hollow forms, recognisable images and abstract elements provides a clear demonstration of Beattie’s pictorial thinking.

Sgraffito incisions in the black overpainting of Outreach (2017) creates a neon effect by revealing pink-and-ochre underpainting, making a wire-like drawn form to balance the impasto. Elsewhere in the painting, black spray paint is used extensively. The qualities of aerosol paint (diffuse, flat, matt) make it often disappointingly insubstantial and difficult to integrate into the facture of an oil painting on canvas. It is best used sparingly (a la Bacon) or used delicately in very controlled compositions (a la Pasmore). Beattie does not seem to have overcome (or at least harnessed it) the void-like effect of black aerosol paint in two paintings where it is deployed (the other is Beyond the Ladder (2022)), as it tends to drain the paintings’ surfaces of liveliness and tension.

[Basil Beattie, Ladder Red (2021). Image courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery. © Basil Beattie. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2023]

A third canvas, Close to Beyond (2014) has less intrusive use of spray paint, not noted on gallery label. Artists often use their corpus as a larder from which they take liberally. Beyond the Ladder is perhaps the only misfire in the show – it is not bad in itself but a recollection of the Circus series of the 1980s. That series, full of geometric forms and primary colours, often floating untethered, always seems less weighty, less profound and irksomely jaunty compared to the art that followed, with its muted colours and earth hues. The floating dab of cadmium yellow and the black triangle feel applied to the surface, not animating or directing the rest of the elements. The playfulness of the Circus paintings is adjacent to arbitrariness and Close to Beyond comes perilously close to that.    

The only disappointment is that this exhibition is limited by the relatively modest confines of Hales Gallery and is not the full retrospective at a major venue that the artist’s stature deserves. Given the politics and blind spots of administrators of major metropolitan public galleries today, this is sad but unsurprising. Beattie’s achievements have long been denied the respect and exposure they are due. In any other European country, a painter as great as Beattie would a towering public figure. The urgency, rawness and plangent poetry of Beattie’s images are too potent for apparatchiks who direct our public art spaces – which is exactly what commends his powerful art to all who have eyes to see.

This exhibition – a masterclass in invention and vigorous execution – is highly recommended.

History as a battlefield

In a previous review of another title in the Lost Civilizations series on the Phoenician civilisation, I praised it as “a  clear, up-to-date and balanced assessment”. Sadly, I cannot say the same about either The Sumerians by Paul Collins or Egypt by Christina Riggs.  Both titles share similar approaches and failings.

Paul Collins sets out the difficulty of apprehending who the Sumerians are. As a sequence of overlapping civilisations, with different religions and main cities, inside fluctuating borders and speaking different languages, the people we call Sumerians may not even have been one ethnos. Collins explains how Sumerian civilisations – of the Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, Agade, Lagash, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian phases – were investigated by modern European scholars, with a major achievement being the decipherment of cuneiform script and subsequent translation of Sumerian. Partly due to the investment of European colonial administrators, collectors, savants and scholars, Europeans took up as the origin of Aryan civilisation as a key stage in European history. Debates raged about whether or not the Sumerians were a Semitic people. In the Nineteenth Century, anthropometrists measured skulls and statue heads in order to determine the genetic lineage of Sumerians. Sumerian historiography thereby became a political counter in the racial interpretation of culture. It was generally concluded that the Sumerians were not a Semitic people, although the definition who was classed as a member of the Sumerian nation is unclear.

For centuries, scribes were from childhood were trained in writing the Sumerian language. It seems that the Sumerian language, found in cuneiform (or arrow script) writing, was preserved as the language of officials, rulers, priests and administrators even as it faded as the vernacular language of the people. “The region’s ancient Sumerian language was now used by scribes of the royal court in the composition of inscriptions and hymns that honoured their royal masters.”[i] It was precisely the use of an ancient language that linked a ruler to previous eras and added legitimacy to later dynasties.     

The phases of Sumerian civilisations became a source of pride for the modern state of Iraq. Collins explains the use of Sumerian imagery, artefacts, sites and structures in Iraqi statecraft, including the erection of art work during the Ba’athist era of independence. Conversely, when Saddam Hussein saw the Marsh Arabs as a source of sedition, resistance and allyship with Iranian fellow-Shias, he embarked on a campaign to drain the marshes and eradicate the culture of the Marsh Arabs. The buildings and way of life of this group goes back (in part) to Sumerian times; reed bowers similar to those of the modern day have been detected in ancient imagery.   

Despite the many interesting and surprising facts that the author presents, there is such an emphatic denial of the possibility that the Sumerians viewed themselves as a single people and that their collective achievements were considered the fruits of their social unity, so much so that we suspect the author dismissed such possibilities a priori. Indeed, the index crystalises the author’s position: “race misunderstandings and prejudice, etc.”. There were deliberate distortions and omissions in modern archaeology and histories of Sumerian dynasties during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. However, who is Paul Collins to imply that he and his cohort are free of similar prejudices? Who is to say that his political positions do not colour his handling of evidence and task of summarisation? The Sumerians is a signal from one scholar to his colleagues and a general readership regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable; this is politically determined and tribal in basis. As such, those in search of a more impartial overview may consider the author more concerned with political approval than description of archaeological data, which has interfered with the task of narrating what is securely known about the subject.     

Professor Christina Riggs (Durham University) goes even further in her book, Egypt. This is made clear from the start. The second paragraph of the book includes the words “the horrific experience – and long legacy – of [North American] slavery” and the third paragraph “white police shooting unarmed black men”. In a book on ancient Egypt, we learn more about British academics’ attitudes towards to the North Atlantic slave trade than the reality of slavery in ancient Egypt. The book is more a sociological critique of the historiography of Egypt than a history of Egypt. There is much here that is useful evidence regarding the debates over the cultural appropriation of ancient Egypt by black Americans in search of a cultural touchstone. However, for those in search of a more direct description of the functions and reality of religion, warfare, agriculture, language and physical culture of ancient Egypt, this book will be frustrating.

The most illuminating parts are the contentious struggles between Western archaeologists and Egyptian authorities regarding the release of information and retention of artefacts. This dates back to the victory of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798-1801 and the consequential reversal to the British control, opening up the antiquities to scientific examination by outsiders. Westerners led the discovery and analysis of finds, deciphered hieroglyphics (with the aid of the Rosetta Stone) and applying scientific method to study of buildings, artefacts and the preserved bodies of Egyptian dignitaries. However, Egyptians did the labouring and claimed priority in preserving and keeping as much as possible of what was found. The politics of post-colonialism caused friction in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Carter, who believed he should had more control of the announcements. He sold exclusive rights to photographs and reports to The Times, which antagonised the Egyptian government and rival newspapers.

At the core of the book is an argument advancing a non-racial reading of history, stripping from the Egyptians attribution of their civilisation to anything uniquely Egyptian in racial terms.

“[N]o culture exists in isolation. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to think in terms of ‘types’ or ‘races’ of peoples who developed in bounded geographic locations and displayed character traits. […] Although these essentialist categories have long been debunked, their stereotypes lurk just under the surface of contemporary society, and the idea that a group ‘belongs’ to one, delimited territory, has proved difficult to shake.”[ii] “Debunked”? By whom? How conclusively? What the author means is that Western liberal academics (in the post-1945 political world) have dismissed the idea of character, race and culture being linked as too dangerous, too powerful and too persuasive to be given credence by an elite founded on the unarguable tenets of the absolute fungibility of all humanity, no exclusivity, no borders, no links to ancestral privileges, no possibility of defending one’s culture as unique and as claiming it as springing from one’s people and place.

The championing of globalism and multiculturalism of this nature sounds like technocratic Western liberal colonialism. I cannot imagine Professor Riggs looking into the eyes of African, Canadian First Nations or Aboriginal historians and telling them that any conception of a people belonging to a land and land belonging to that people is fallacious and that their culture is not rooted in race. This is the sort of thing that a Western academic can get away with if the subject is a lost civilisation (where no ancient Egyptian can retort) or an indigenous European culture, where disagreement is dismissed as chauvinism or racism.

What we come to books such as Egypt for is information on what the Egyptians saw as true for themselves and how this manifested itself in their society. These conceptions may not fall along the our understanding of ethnos or the borders of a state; instead, the vision of Egyptians (or at least those recorded in the religious texts and kingly proclamations, which is all we have access to) may be vastly different from the way we see; it is those differences (however alien or “wrong”) that we yearn to understand. It is the job of a historian to present this information or the documentary absence of this information. Even accepting the inevitable blind spots and preferences of any historian, most of us wish to have an overall understanding of ancient Egypt as best the experts understand it now, not a commentary on how black creators in the Harlem Renaissance saw Egyptians and Ethiopians in the 1920s. Although there are occasional facts and some images of wonderful treasures, there is no way of responding to this book without having to engage with the political assumptions of the author.     

Often, we detect a reluctance of modern authors to address issues such as the ancient peoples’ attitudes towards authority, kingship, religion, empire, war, death, slavery, suffering, social structures, women and education; these are not described honestly and directly by modern historians because of the fundamental suspicion and disapproval they seem to harbour regarding past beliefs. To describe seriously and clearly value systems that are contrary to the Western academia would be to offer today’s readers ancient wisdom, powerful truths and independent ways of thinking. Any direct contradiction to the hegemony of liberalism, humanism, atheism, feminism, egalitarianism and so forth would implicitly open the door to dissent today. This is why some academics seem more content to engage in the sociology of history than actual history.

These authors will see their textbooks as considered assaults on the civilisation-from-race understanding of culture, which they are. As such, they seem prime examples of deracinated Western academics unwilling to describe foreign ways of living, thinking and believing, due to a (liberalist) superiority complex, just as overweening and imperious as the Victorians and National Socialists, whom they so readily condemn. These titles cannot be recommended as history but are valuable insights into the academia of today.

Christina Riggs, Egypt, Reaktion Books, London, 2022, 216pp, 31 col./15 mono illus., paperback, £12.95

Paul Collins, The Sumerians, Reaktion Books, London, 2021, 214pp, 37 col./15 mono illus., hardback, £18

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

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[i] P. 165

[ii] Pp. 44-5

First AA exhibition in London for a decade: July 2023

I am pleased to announce that my art will be exhibited in London for the first time in a decade. From 3 to 9 July, my paintings will be included in a group exhibition in central London. The paintings and a new lithographic print will be available for purchase. There will also be catalogues and other books by me available there. To get details visit the exhibition website here:

“John Constable, English Reactionary”

“When Just Stop Oil decided to seek out publicity, The Hay Wain was an easy target. They printed out warnings about environmental armageddon and stuck them over the painting, damaging it in the process. Little did they know that their actions were following in the footsteps of Peter Kennard. In 1980, he lampooned the siting of US Air Force nuclear warheads in rural British air bases by grafting cruise missiles onto the painting in a ham-fisted political collage.

The Hay Wain (1821) embodies the deep understanding that John Constable (1776-1837) had of the links between the peasantry and the countryside. Depicting the industry and ingenuity of individuals who benefit from nature as they harness it, this classic pastoral landscape has been highly celebrated by artists since his lifetime and praised as the ultimate embodiment of England’s “green and pleasant land.” If you are of the political Left and wish to challenge the status quo, then the nation’s most cherished painting is the perfect symbol of complacency and patriotism, degraded by mass commercialisation.

For those not closely familiar with British art criticism, it may come as a surprise that the nation’s most popular landscape painting is a political battlefield. For once, Marxist critics may in fact be correct—Constable was the reactionary he is accused of being…”

Read the full article for free here:

“Georgian and Soviet”

In March 1956, while the USSR went through a period of de-Stalinisation and adjustment to the change of leadership – with its associated campaign of strategic and partial openness that would become the Khrushchev Thaw – there was a gathering at the statue of Stalin in Tbilisi, marking the third anniversary of leader’s death. Tbilisi was the capital of the Georgian Socialist Soviet Republic (GSSR) and Stalin was Georgian, which (along with the prominence of Georgians within the leadership in Moscow) contributed to Georgians having a somewhat privileged status among the peoples of the USSR. Many Georgians felt loyal towards Stalin, a proud affinity political, national and ethnic in character. The protestors were defending the honour of Stalin, which was an act of defiance against the post-Stalin regime. Over the next five days, crowds swelled to 70,000; the city virtually ground to a halt as workers stayed away from work, public transport was disrupted and clashes between protestors and police turned violent. Soldiers were summoned on 9 March to disperse the demonstrators and restore order, which was done by firing on protestors, killing 21.

Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood & the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus is a new book on Georgian nationalism within the lifespan of the USSR (1917-1991), which Georgia joined in 1921 following a rapid military defeat to the Red Army. Author Claire P. Kaiser, an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, has examined Soviet and Georgian sources to construct this overview of Georgian political and social culture in relation to the Soviet Union.

Georgia under Stalinism

In the Soviet Union, politics would be “national in form, socialist in character”, which allowed a degree of latitude in how socialist doctrine would be implemented, permitting the shaping of policy to reflect the existing conditions of individual nations in the USSR. Georgia, an ancient nation, with a long-established ethnos, religion and language, which was of a relatively fixed ethnic make-up, without a history of significant outward migration, was a culture and nation that was both distinct and stable. However, Georgians identifying as a solely Georgian (and not a member of a sub-group or resident foreign ethnicity/nationality) was only 60%, with the capital being mainly non-Georgian. (By 2014, the census returned data that the population of Georgia was 86.8% Georgian. This was in part due to the exclusion of regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and emigration of non-Georgians.) As Kaiser points out, by 1921 Georgian national identity was already established and a thriving high culture and intelligentsia had developed over the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, which complemented a vibrant folk culture. When Soviet administrators of Marxist political science looked at Georgia, they saw a developed and cohesive nation within relatively stable borders, rather than the primitive, unfixed and liminal nations found elsewhere within the boundaries of the USSR.

Stalin’s cult of personality, in part curated by head of the security services and fellow Georgian (Megelian) Lavrenti Beria, downplayed the leader’s national identity. Stalin was the leader who had transcended the internecine conflicts of the Caucasus to become the guide for the socialist peoples of Russia and central Asia. Although Stalin’s mother lived on in Georgia until her death in 1937, Stalin rarely visited Tbilisi. He spent summers in Georgia near the Black Sea and took a keen interest in the region, without making his Georgian origins prominent in his public biography.

As Stalin himself noted in an early text, the patchwork of micro-nations in the Caucasus presented challenges that made “national in form” a challenge, as these groups lacked certain characteristics that made nations viable as discrete unions within the overall brotherhood of Soviet republics. “What is to be done with the Megrelians, Abhazians, the Adjarians, the Svanetians, the Lezgins, and so on, who speak different languages but do not possess a literature of their own? To what nations are they to be attached? Can they be “organized” into national unions? Around what “cultural affairs” are they to be “organized”? […] To what national union should one attach the Adjarians, who speak the Georgian language, but whose culture is Turkish and who profess the religion of Islam? Shall they be “organized” separately from the Georgians with regard to religious affairs and together with the Georgians with regard to other cultural affairs?”

These divisions played havoc with the 1926 census, which had to use (and, conversely, exclude) particular categories of data, such as ethnicity, nationality and language. The overlapping and unclear nature of some categories allowed for a ambiguity that could be (as demographers at the time noted) could be dangerous or valuable, depending on how they were framed. For example, should Adjarians (Muslim Georgians) be classed as Georgian or not? When offered the choice between categories, self-definition fell to personal affinity and the persuasiveness of the census-taker. The 1937 census, which was intended to demonstrate the progress of sovietisation of the population, turned out to be troublesome as it showed a decrease in population due to the Holodomor and dekulakisation, making the data “politically incorrect” and requiring a corrective census in 1939. This 1939 census reduced the 191 categories of nationality (native and foreign) of the 1926 census to 92, peremptorily reducing the profusion of identities to a managed consolidation.   

Repatriation policies were applied to the GSSR, as to all republics. Stateless individuals or resident non-Georgians were moved to Siberia or Central Asia. In their place, Georgian families were given their properties to live and their farms to manage. Ethnic minorities suffered disproportionately in Operation Volna, when 31,606 people on 14-5 June 1949. With an additional round of deportations, 36,705 people in total were removed. Also targeted were alleged Dashnaks (Armenian nationalists) and those with family ties to Turkey – both being viewed as politically unreliable. “In Georgia, purported ties with (geopolitically) Western-leaning Turkey, Greece, and Iran or the Armenian nationalist diaspora overrode Soviet citizenship, military service, party membership, or other key markers of belonging in the Soviet collective.” The actions have widely been interpreted as nation-building, not solely politically motivated.     

The period of de-Stalinisation was used and interpreted in different ways. For GSSR leaders, transferring blame for the excesses of the 1930s and 1940s to Beria allowed a degree of exculpation for Stalin; it allowed for nationalist pride in Stalin whilst admitting systemic errors. However, the Abkhaz interpreted the purges and Georgification of schooling as a definite Georgian-led Stalin-endorsed nationalist programme, targeting minorities, including themselves. Kaiser concludes that it was the 1954-85 period, when no major position of power in the USSR was held by a Georgian, was precisely the period when Georgian nationalism flourished. Having no significant influence – indeed, actually reduced influence – led Georgians look inward and make their republic more definitely nationalist in character. It was during this period that Tbilisi went from being a majority-minority capital city to being a majority-majority capital city, i.e., Georgians went from being a minority in their own capital to being a majority.

Increasing ethnic homogeneity in the capital

Kaiser describes the celebrations in 1958, when Tbilisi marked 1,500 years of its existence. Tbilisi was lauded as a uniquely Georgian achievement, with speeches being made, books published and new public sculptures erected. This came at a time when the capital was still had a majority-minority populace at the time. A large part of the change came about due to an expansion of the city’s population, with a disproportionate increase in native Georgians and minorities increasing less so. Historically, Tbilisi had been dominated by three groups. “Russians in politics and administration, Armenians in business and trade, and Georgians in the nobility and intelligentsia.”

The 1876 census records the following distribution of nationalities/ethnicities: Georgians 24.2%, Armenians 41%, Russians 22%). By 1926 Georgians were largest group (38.2/34/15.6%). This trend continued in 1939 (44/26.4/18%) and 1959 (48.4/21.5/18.1%) and in 1970 Georgians finally comprised a super-majority (57.5/17/14%). Over this period, Tbilisi doubled in population. By 2014, the figures are 89.9/4.8/1.2%. (Kaiser’s figure depart a little from others, perhaps due to the inclusion of sub-groups.) What factors contributed to this? There was an organised campaign of house and apartment building and renovation, improving old domestic buildings and creating whole suburbs. Many of the new dwellings were low-rise apartment blocks, which allowed a greater population density. This was in addition to extensive unpermitted construction and conversion of dwellings, some facilitated by corruption. New buildings would house domestic migrants, with the influx of rural people being predominantly Georgian in nationality. There were sporadic efforts to restore historical structures in the 1970s and 1980s, but Kaiser points out that the majority of decision-makers and the most influential residents lived in the new suburbs, so had little personal, daily stake in the subject.

While old buildings did not impinge of socialist living – or could not be remedied quickly, cheaply and universally – the persistence of Georgian customs, religious observance and tribal loyalties vexed Soviet planners more. The Church was a concern because it played a role in baptisms, weddings and funerals, gaining income and status from maintaining its customary roles in those social events, aside from the religious aspects of its teachings. The stubborn survival of old practices fed primitive attitudes that were incompatible with a modern GSSR. This book establishes how conflicted and variable the approach that Soviet authorities followed. On one hand, they appealed to patriotism and exploited nationalism and (on the other hand) they roundly attacked the obstacles of feudal observances and bourgeois attitudes.

The relatively privileged position of Georgians in the USSR quelled agitation for independence. On balance, the advantages Georgians enjoyed as part of the USSR outweighed the benefits of national independence – even if it was to be had. As long as the GSSR was compliant and quiescent, it could exercise relative internal autonomy for the benefit of its leaders and population. Kaiser explains the 1978 protests about placing Russian on an equal footing with the Georgian language – which led to the Communist Party backing down – and the Abkhazian conflict. Following another massacre of nationalist protestors, most of them young women, in 1989, Georgian independence was de facto granted, with even Georgian communists acknowledging that rule from Moscow was no longer defensible or viable. The following year, an overwhelming majority of the population voted for independence, which was eventually granted by the break-up of the USSR in December 1991.     

Georgian and Soviet is an excellent primer on the Georgian experience of relative (and fluctuating)  political and social autonomy within the USSR. Clearly written, modestly illustrated and with copious sources and annotation, this title can be recommended to anyone interested in Georgian, Caucasus and Soviet history.

Claire P. Kaiser, Georgian and Soviet: Entitled Nationhood & the Specter of Stalin in the Caucasus, Cornell University Press, Ithaca/London, 2022, hardback, 275pp + xv, mono illus., £39, ISBN 978 1 5017 6679 4

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

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Publication: “Dali”

I am pleased to announce publication of my new book “Dali”, published by Prestel. It presents an overview of Dali’s career, integrating his films, performances and writings into the story of his life and presenting the best of his paintings, including iconic works such as “The Persistence of Memory”, “The Christ of St John of the Cross” and “The Madonna of Port Lligat”, it includes extracts of his writings. In French-fold covers, 112pp, 50 col. illus., $14.95/£9.99. A German-language edition is also available.

Page on this book on the Prestel website:

Baudelaire: Scandalous and Impoverished in Belgium

“By 1864 Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) was at the end of his tether. Depressed, humiliated, full of spleen, he was in Brussels – a place he despised. He had come to give lectures, having lost inspiration for writing poetry, tired by illness and poverty. As he struggled to gain contracts for his verse, he wrote notes venting his spleen about the Belgians. The glory and notoriety of his early years seemed long behind him. A new volume of translations brings us Baudelaire’s fragmentary ideas, full of anger and bitterness.

“The complicated publishing history of Les Fleurs du mal (first edition 1857; second edition 1861), the primary volume of verse by Baudelaire, does not need to be elaborated much here. It was essentially the core body of his verse from his early maturity to close to his death, published in two editions, with a third one planned. The first version was prosecuted for blasphemy and outraging public morals. The judge ordered that six poems be banned and these had to be left out of the second (expanded) edition. The third edition was never realised (nor its contents fixed by the poet) in Baudelaire’s lifetime. His book of Belgian people and culture (under the title La Pauvre Belgique! (Poor Belgium!)) remained in note form only. Quite reasonably, without publication offers, Baudelaire had no incentive to write longer prose, so the Belgian material was not completed. Late Fragments: Flares, My Heart Laid Bare, Prose Poems, Belgium Disrobed brings together Baudelaire’s last writings in translation, with extensive commentary. This collection presents the late writing, omitting textual repetition that occurred in Baudelaire meandering stream-of-conscious notes. 

Baudelaire lived under the humiliating restriction imposed by a conseil judiciaire, who controlled his finances…”

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“Learn to Code, Artists”

““I’m incredibly anxious about the future of my career, more than ever before,” said Kelly McKernan, a successful painter, in a tweet a few months back. She is not alone. The rise of AI art programs like DALL-E, DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion has alarmed many artists. They aggregate digitised art and, with simple instructions, blend them to create unique combinations. Established artists worry that less-trained artists will use open-access AI to pilfer and process art by others. McKernan was shocked to discover that her artwork had been fed through the Stable Diffusion engine and had produced faithful variants of her style. “This is unethical. It feels like a violation,” she wrote.

“There are increasing calls from professional image makers to boycott the use of AI programs, citing concerns about copyright infringement and lack of credit for the original artists. The looming worry is that AI-generated art could lead to redundancy for human artists, raising questions about what will happen when AI programs can create art without any human guidance. While AI has been used in the rendering of digital animation for movies and video games for many years, the latest development is that programmes are now making decisions not just about technical aspects like texture, lighting, and physics, but also artistic motifs. This is considered a form of creative input by AI, rather than just technical processing. This is a significant shift; as McKernan bluntly states: “I’m concerned for the future of human creativity.”

“For the last year, anyone following public conversations among comic-book artists will have noticed two recurring subjects: artist poverty and AI art. The two are linked…”

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“Philip Guston, Dissenting Painter”

“Canadian-American painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) can be taken as a hero for dissenting artists. How so? Surely a Jewish member of the New York intelligentsia, friend of noted authors, supporter of unions, politically left in outlook and anti-war, could hardly be described as a dissenter in the New York art world. After all, looking at the direction of travel of political and social conventions in the USA in recent decades, it seems Guston’s liberal outlook won the day. I would not argue with that interpretation but it leaves out the most important part of being a painter – that is, the nature of the art one makes, endorses, shows and thinks about daily for most of one’s life. With respect to painting, Guston was a dissenter who risked his reputation and livelihood because he chose to revolt.

“Born in Canada, Guston studied painting in Los Angeles in the 1930s. He visited Mexico and painted an anti-Fascist mural. Like the Mexican Muralists, he was a socialist and saw his art in terms of the necessity of social engagement, both in subject and reception. When the WPA commenced, he took up a position in the Mural Department of the WPA. Paid to decorate buildings, Guston had a chance to experience the camaraderie of working in teams that art that would reach a wide public immediately, with a degree of security and social affirmation provided by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Later, like many young artists fostered towards a professional career by the WPA, Guston gravitated to New York, where he joined the scene in Greenwich Village and Union Square. He joined a group of competitive artists who shared common goals and spoke a shared language of Modernism. When Abstract Expressionism made inroads in commercial galleries and the press, Guston contributed his paintings, which were dubbed Abstract Impressionism. He won the Carnegie Prize for painting, the Guggenheim fellowship and Prix de Rome and went on to receive the honour of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1962. Much of his income came from teaching positions in art schools.

“All of this shows how Guston was respected by the cognoscenti, appreciated by his peers and firmly at the centre of his professional field. Although at outlier socially in the USA as dedicated liberal and Modernist, he was those respects perfectly standard with regard to his artist peers and appreciators of abstract art. He counted many poets, authors, photographers, painters and sculptors as not only colleagues but personal friends. When, in the late 1960s he started to play with inchoate forms, he was groping his way to figuration. Then, in 1968, at the height of Vietnam War, frustrated at the distance between the conventions of Abstract Expressionism and his compulsion to speak about real objects and actual events, Guston allowed the images back in. Guston rejected pure abstraction and began to paint figures, buildings, furniture, rooms, books, shoes, food. He was liberated from liberation and squalid reality intruded in the etiolated space of art. (This was no doubt also a reflection of his social-engagement of socialist mural painting in the 1930s.)

Guston declared, in a private note, that “American Abstract art is a lie, a sham, a cover-up for a poverty of spirit….”

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“Ignacy Czwartos”, Zacheta, Warsaw

A weighty and disturbing exhibition is The Painter was Kneeling When Painting, a solo exhibition of paintings by Ignacy Czwartos (b. 1966) (24 January-28 May 2023). Czwartos works as both an abstract painter and as a painter of the figure using highly schematised settings for semi-realistic figures. The two areas use the same grounds and devices: muted colours, symmetry, geometric devices, smooth surfaces. The figures are generally taken from photographic sources, rendered accurately but without illusionism, the bodies generic. The first gallery is given to portraits of artists, friends and Czwartos and are modest in ambition and effect, but they prepare us for the following galleries.

The next gallery includes more complex allegorical paintings, again featuring artists such Malevich and Rothko. There are also figures from World War II and references to the German occupation and the death camps. There is a certain amount of queasy wit apparent, with disparate figures juxtaposed to create scenes the resemble Nineteenth Century folk art. Soldiers are painted with bases that are given to toy soldiers. Declarations in German in the Gothic script welcome viewers to the (death-camp) showers. Czwartos takes care with abstract elements to frame his paintings in the manner of devotional prints or altarpieces. It is as if Czwartos had unconsciously prepared himself to become a painter of the images in the final gallery.  

The culmination of the exhibition is where Czwartos hits his stride. In the newest paintings the artist blends strikingly stark imagery, Polish history and the iconography of saints, martyrs and Christ. The final room is dedicated to a set of recent paintings about the “cursed soldiers”. These were Poles who fought not only the Germans but also the Soviet and Polish Communists, seeking an independent non-socialist country. As it was, they were not only cursed by Polish Communists and Soviet occupying forces but also by history. So, Polish nationalists supportive of democracy, monarchy, Church and Polish nationhood, became “enemies of the people”. The last resistor was captured and beheaded in 1963; thereafter, all mention of them was deleted from Polish history. Only in recent years has action taken place to research the episode and inform the public about this history – this re-examination is facing entrenched opposition from Communists and descendants of Communists today.

The resistance fighters are painted from passport or service photographs, treated as family trees in a Nineteenth Century book, in oval frames with dates written below. The last fighter is shown carrying his own head, like a martyred saint, flanked by his executioners. Other fighters are depicted chopped into pieces; the faces are accurate depictions based on photographs the Communists took after the executions. These paintings relate to a history not yet absorbed by the population and involves the apparent rehabilitation of “enemies of the people” and so are tremendously controversial. It is in effect, history still in the making. No wonder the paintings, stark and vivid as they are, provoke strong reactions. The earlier paintings are perhaps a little too ludic and caught up in questions of art-world taste and the biographies of artists to be of lasting interest to the average viewer, but the last group is shocking and profound.

Has Czwartos solved the problem that faces any modern History painter in the era of irony? Namely, how can one paint a didactic and narrative account of a historical event in a language that is appropriate, effective, moving, articulate and not anachronistic? Assuming one cannot simply adopt the style of Rubens and start making a traditional narrative painting à la Paul Delaroche, one has to find a way of making art that is true to oneself and one’s time whilst dealing frankly with iconography and morals that conveys clear meaning. This is exactly what has been forbidden us by the norms of contemporary art, which dictate non-narrative art and lack of engagement.

Czwartos has made his History paintings frank it by not hiding his debt to photographic sources, his love of abstract art and his admiration for the effects of devotional painting. He can speak about history in ways that use historical devices (Nineteenth Century photographic presentation, religious art, folk art, documentary photographs) and these become part of the meaning; on top of which, he can push us towards pity, condemnation, curiosity, anger, sadness, all without falling into the trap of ironic distance. For no History painter can eschew the moral message, even if that message is just to enjoin the viewer to look, remember and consider an image. There is distance in Czwartos’s approach – a distance he acknowledges – but not one that makes his involvement with the subject and his whole-hearted engagement with the topics any less true.

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