“Burroughs Unbound”

S.E. Gontarski (ed.), Burroughs Unbound: William Burroughs and the Performance of Writing, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, hardback, 456pp, mono illus., £95, ISBN 978 1 5013 6218 7 (paperback available)

Professor S.E. Gontarski writes in the introduction to Burroughs Unbound, how a massive archive of WIlliam Burroughs (1914-1997) almost came to Florida. François C. Bucher, an art-history professor, collection and Burroughs fan, negotiated for Florida State University to acquire the Vaduz Archive twice but was stymied by a lack of finances and appreciation by authorities. Bucher was in correspondence with Burroughs and set up a foundation, which invited him to Florida to lecture.

Gontarski’s chapter proper is a discussion of Burroughs through the Post-Structuralist lens of Deleuze and Guattari. Allen Hibbard discusses the fluidity of Burroughs’s text(s) and provides a very clear summary of the issue that has preoccupied scholars in recent years. Alex Werner-Colan writes about digitisation, as an analogue to the author’s famed word hoard. The scrapbooks (many in the Berg archive at New York Public Library) require digitisation or more extensive publication to make them more widely accessible. Recent attention to Burroughs’s art and his collages as visual material have expanded interest and scholarly engagement.

Nick Sturm’s article explains Burroughs’s antipathy towards Time magazine. Burroughs took umbrage at a derogatory review of Naked Lunch in an issue of Time in 1962. He drew up a battle plan with Brion Gysin to discredit the magazine – an experimental anti-Time collage publication called TIME, featuring cut-ups, new text, images and subversions. It was printed in black and white in an edition of 1,000 copies in 1965. (Read it here.) Sturm argues that Ted Berrigan, New York poet and publisher of TIME, has been unfairly neglected, particularly by Barry Miles, who was dismissive. Sturm shows that Berrigan’s collaboration with Burroughs and interaction with his writing. Tomasz Stompor and Rona Cran also write about Burroughs’s appropriation of Time, the former in relation to illustrations from the cut-up pages and latter in relation to food. Blake Stricklin refers to the Luce publishing empire of Time, Life and Fortune, but centres his chapter on the 1978 Nova Convention.

Barry J. Faulk’s essay on Burroughs and Bowie sets the author firmly in the counter-culture of London in the early 1970s, mentioning a visit Burroughs made to Bowie’s flat in Beckenham. That meeting (in October 1973) was arranged by Rolling Stone magazine. Burroughs tactic of recording ambient noise and speech, then playing it back covertly from portable tape recorders was a way of disrupting and disturbing the status quo by spreading confusion and disquiet. Nathan Moore’s piece compares the paranoia we find Burroughs ideas to the notion of systems of control, which Burroughs developed explicitly from the early 1960s onwards. Burrough’s way of seeing hidden coercion and manipulative deception is equivalent to a method of deconstruction that we can find in some Post-Modernism.

Ash Connell-Gonzalez approaches Ah Pook is Here, explaining the story of the ill-starred collaboration between Burrough and illustrator Malcolm McNeill. The story was an adventure set in the Mexican jungle featuring the Mayan Codices and a virus. Produced at a time when the late 1960s boom in counter-culture comics had opened new possibilities, the book was planned to have been a comic or graphic novel but owing to financial restrictions and myriad complications and changes of plan, the work was never finished. Published in text-only form in 1979 and cannot be published in full, as it had never been finished and some completed artwork had been damaged in storage. A substantial sequence of McNeill’s art was published in 2012 without text in a large book.

The disdain with which the novel Dead Fingers Talk (1963) has been treated betrays a certain snobbery that Burroughsians generally claim to eschew. It is formed of texts from Naked Lunch (1959), Soft Machine (1961) and The Ticket That Exploded (1962). For followers who entertain notions of a single body of text and present the important Post-Modern innovation of the author rewriting himself in subsequent iterations, the neglect of the book seems revealing of rather more conventional outlooks on the part of Burroughsians. I have previously reviewed the new edition of Dead Fingers Talk with editor Oliver Harris’s introduction which is reproduced here complete with its numerous illustrations and concordance of textual sources for Harris’s new edition. The essay is fascinating, informative, witty and passionate, as Harris’s writing always is. Rather than summarise that review, I link it here.

Jed Birmingham investigates the disappearance of the footnotes from the 1959 Olympia Press first edition of Naked Lunch. These footnotes were incorporated in the main body of later editions, sometimes as parenthetical text.   

Overall, Burroughs Unbound gives a cross-section of current Burroughsian scholarship, extensively sourced and footnoted. The inclusion of the original archival materials and transcripts makes the volume of extra interest to Burroughs fans and researchers. Like Burroughs’s expansive and heterogenous published material, spreading out like a riotous and startling rhizome, is now mirrored by this expanding network of secondary scholarship, editorial commentary and publication of transcripts. This is both fitting and necessary and this volume takes a primary place in that profusion.

To read the full version of this review (including a discussion of Burroughs’ theories of virus, language and cut-ups) become a paid subscriber on Substack here: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/

Goya and the Enlightenment

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is typically seen as supportive of the Enlightenment in terms of his scepticism about religion, monarchy and hierarchy. He is held up as a member (or at least fellow traveller) of the reformist liberals of Spain, who sought to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church and supported the French Revolution. It was this group that was riven by mixed responses to the Napoleonic occupation and the French-imposed client kingship of Joseph Bonaparte (r. 1808-13). Although Goya decried the sadism of the Peninsular War (1808-14) and protested the deaths of Spaniards at the hands of the French and their supporters, he also served that regime. Nonetheless, despite Goya’s late pessimism and apocalyptic visions, he is seen as aligned with the Enlightenment.

Professor Anthony J. Cascardi of University of California, Berkeley discerns contradictions in the way Goya is viewed in the context of the Enlightenment. “I take exception to the standard view that relies predominantly on Goya’s darkest images to establish his relevance for modernity, and I suggest instead that his work invites us to consider the critical role of art with respect to the modern social and historical worlds, worlds of which it is nonetheless a part.” In Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, Cascardi argues, “Goya’s position was one of distance both from the superstitions and backwardness of the Spanish past and from the promises offered by the Enlightenment. It seems quite plausible that the project of critique that runs throughout his work was informed by the need to maintain a distance from both these alternatives.” Cascardi detects this distance in the way Goya complicates and contradicts pictorial conventions, most particularly in the forms within which Goya worked. Cascardi takes one definition of Modernism as the critical distancing of the art from the ”social and material bases on which it is made.”

There is implicit criticisms of men who become foolish by attempting to be what they are not and cannot become – found in images of people acting in foolish ways and animals adopting pretensions to humanity. Goya’s exposure of their foolishness is an implicit rejection of the Enlightenment’s assertion that men are equal in potential and that their natures are formed by circumstance. To aspire to a station and nature that is not assigned by birth is worthy of mockery, Goya’s art asserts. While Goya may condemn the excesses of superstition and human fallibility, he recognises that they are unavoidable and not elements that can be left behind following sufficient advances in knowledge, education and social change. He is sceptical about the power of social restraint to alter man; he sees dark, destructive potential for violence latent in man, perceptible in his nightmares and his responses to crime, war and chaos.

Goya has a tragic view of man, as inherently flawed by sinfulness, weakness and mortality, doomed to fall short, never perfectible. So although Goya may have been troubled by what he characterised in his art as the excesses of religion, his outlook is closer to that of a religious person than an atheist humanist. It must be admitted that his partiality to the liberal faction situates Goya as a natural sceptic rather than a man of faith. Suspicion of the rationalisation of existence and desacralisation of human life that the Enlightenment brought may have led Goya to paint his History paintings The Second of May, 1808 (1814) and The Third of May, 1808 (1814). In the former, madrileños rise up against the mameluke cavalry supporting the Bonapartist regime and, in the latter, these rebels are executed by a firing squad by night the following day.

[Image: Goya, The Third of May, 1808, oil on canvas]

Once the human being is no longer a child of God and an ensouled being, rationalism finds no bar to the greater good being used to justify selective brutality by authorities (in these paintings), just as the absence of charity and mercy allows the savagery of extra-judicial killings and torture (in the Disasters of War).

Goya’s criticism of mindless adherence to tradition can be found in many areas of Goya’s output. In the Caprichos suite, a supercilious donkey studies a family genealogy, finding other donkeys like him. He seems to condemn corporal punishment in a an etching of a child being beaten, with a comparison between the ugly mother and the innocent boy, who (in this eternal chain) will become ugly in turn, beating his own children. Insensibility to evidence and logic leads to ignorance and baseless fears. As the title states, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, people are prey to instincts when conscious thinking is absent. This view can be both an endorsement of Enlightenment values (man must be educated and liberated from irrationality) and in conflict with them (man will never be free of ingrained fears and untrammelled imagination). Goya sees lack of self-knowledge as a key trait distributed throughout society, even in the educated classes. As critics have observed, this is perhaps more sceptical of the Enlightenment than an outright rejection of the validity of its project. As Cascardi notes, the Enlightenment itself had unresolved contradictions, so support for the Enlightenment is fraught with ambiguities. Not least, “Goya was aware of the grim irony of a situation in which the forces of “Enlightened” France were the perpetrators of bestial violence [during the Peninsular War specifically].”

Cascardi takes Kant as his exemplar of Enlightenment thought, with particular focus upon Kant’s centring of reason as essential to value judgments, specifically in art and morality. For Goya too, reason was central to his views of humanity, with a more pessimistic outlook distancing him from Kant’s idea of the primacy of rational autonomy. Goya is not only sceptical but also unruly, disrupting what is expected. His narratives often contradict the ostensible subject of the picture, not least in the way the depicted people fall short of their roles as noble, judge, priest and so forth. Cascardi notes that Goya’s sense of reason is not simply related to his social criticism but to his distanced responses to the conventions of Renaissance art, which were grounded on rationality, reason, clear narrative and illusionism.

To explain this, here is a passage on the technique distances viewer from subject:

“[C]onsider The Third of May, 1808 and some of the Disasters of War […] Through a technique that uncannily anticipates the ways in which mechanically reproduced images are cropped or cut in the photographic and cinematic fields, the effect of the frame in such works is to implicate art itself in the very violence it helps disclose. Because the perspective of the unseen perpetrators of the violence is as compelling as the perspective of the viewer external to the image the viewer is implicated in the violence of these images in a remarkably unsettling way. Thus, rather than read Goya’s efforts in The Third of May, 1808 and the Disasters of War solely in moral terms – as claiming secure access to a universal perspective on good and evil that would allow him to criticize the atrocities of history from the “outside,” it is more promising to consider the ethical challenges they pose and especially to consider those challenges as epitomized in the vexed relationship between the external spectator and the implicit violence that the exercise of any autonomous framing power seems to create.”

[Image: Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1821-3, oil on plaster]

For Cascardi, Goya is either the first modern artist or an analogue or prototype of the same, something he shies away from stating plainly, instead asserting this indirectly by writing, “Goya may not be described not as the first modern artist, but as an artist engaged in refusing to adopt an independent ethics for painting or, indeed, for art in general. […] A certain self-consciousness is of course integral to this effort.” The author thinks that the Black Paintings – murals made by Goya at La Quinta del Sordo, his private farmhouse outside Madrid, notable for their dramatic, brutal and pessimistic content – may have been inspired by a viewing of an early magic lantern projection device. The series may also have been painted by the artist after meditating on Burke’s treatise on the sublime, translated into Spanish in 1807. The book concludes with thoughts on Goya’s treatment of beauty, a subject much less pressing or dominant in the literature than that on ugliness. Cascardi relates Goya’s art of beauty to that of sympathy, linking Goya to Enlightenment philosophy David Hume.

The author is well informed, thoughtful and writes with the minimum of jargon. Although the ideas are perhaps a little too complex and philosophically-based to resonate with all readers (that is, the casual Goya enthusiast), readers not conversant with the ideas of the Enlightenment and later will gain more understanding of the depth and ambiguity of Goya’s art. The illustrations are plentiful, the book (with fine paper and a cloth binding) a pleasure to handle. Overall, this book can be recommended to anyone intending to investigate Goya beyond the common facts and landmark events of his times.  

Anthony J. Cascardi, Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, 2022, Zone Books, Brooklyn, distr. Princeton University Press, 368pp, mono/col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 1942 130697 

Zarathustra reconsidered

“Apparently, at one stage of World War I, every German soldier deployed was given a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, apparently to fortify their will. It is in some ways an odd choice. Nietzsche subtitled it “A book for all and none”, realising that many readers would be baffled by the messages. Although few would have been perplexed at the presentation of moral-philosophical issues in the form of fables – for what are fables, if not moral-philosophical issues rendered in colourful narrative form? – many would wonder what exactly those messages were. Initially, that was not a problem because there were so few readers. A long, fabulous narrative, featuring a protagonist barely known in modern Europe, split over multiple volumes, written by a little-known retired professor of philology had few takers at the time. It is hard not to think that while it might have been undervalued on first appearance, it was equally overvalued soon afterwards.

“No philosopher had greater influence on the development of modern history and Modernism in the arts than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Of his writings, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5) is unique in that it is written from the perspective of a fictionalised character, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It became the book Nietzsche was most pleased with, even though it has been criticised as verbose and overwritten. His later, aphoristic style, written in the manner of Heraclitus, is easier to follow and considered more effective as prose; as rhetoric, Zarathustra maybe carries more impact. A new translation of this, perhaps Nietzsche’s most popular book, has just been published. It joins two other related books, one a critical analysis of the text and another being a previously unseen fragment written at the same time as Zarathustra not included in other publications. This review will discuss all three.

“Nietzsche presents his thoughts through the voice of Zarathustra, acting as religious-philosophical counter to the Gospel narrative of the teaching of Christ. He wanted to bypass scholars and reach readers directly, although he had no pretensions to populism or accessibility (remember – “A Book for All and None”). For those seeking the evidential arguments of The Birth of Tragedy or the late aphorisms written in Heraclitus’s style, Zarathustra will prove a trying book. Not that it is hard to read, but rather its indirectness and intrusive imagery prove an impediment to understanding Nietzsche’s reasoning, even if it is effective rhetoric…”

To read this review in full for free on The Brazen Head visit here: https://brazen-head.org/2023/03/29/zarathustra-reconsidered/

“Kafka Revealed”

“There could hardly be a better paradigm of existential modern man, locked within his psyche, struggling to making meaning of a brutal and mechanical world, than Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The most interior form of writing is the private diary. Thus, Kafka’s Diaries should be the epitome of angst – and indeed they are – and of self-conscious fashioning of literary forms – and that is also true. But they stubbornly explain little about what drove the writer.

“In 1909 Kafka – doctor of law, employee of an insurance company, lifelong resident of Prague and aspirant writer – opened a quarto notebook and began writing a series of short entries before describing watching a Russian dancer who had recently performed in Prague. This was the beginning of a diary that he kept on and off until his death in 1924 from tuberculosis. The diaries would be his laboratory for writing. Aside from describing his day, notable events in his life and thoughts that had occurred to him, he would draft letters, test out poems, summarise plays he had seen and write fiction. He would also make some fetching faux-naïf drawings patterned on those in the German literary-satirical journal Simplicissimus (1896-1967).

“This hybrid character proved an impediment to his editor and friend Max Brod, who took it upon himself to alter the diary text for the first edition, published in 1951. He tidied up the style into plain Hochdeutsch, removing Bohemian Germanicisms, and correcting slips….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2023/03/27/kafka-revealed/

Victor Brauner, Romanian Surrealist

[Image: Victor Brauner, Totem of Wounded Subjectivity II , 4 August 1948 Oil on canvas 91,5 x 72,7 cm Legacy of Mrs. Jacqueline Victor Brauner in 1986 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1987-1205 Copyright of artwork: © Adagp, Paris Filename : 4F00059 Photo credit : (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Jean-François Tomasian/Dist. RMN-GP Copyright of artwork : © Adagp, Paris]

To mark the 120th anniversary of one of Romania’s most important artists, Timisoara is currently staging a retrospective of Surrealist painter-sculptor Victor Brauner (1903-1966): Victor Brauner: Inventions and Magic (National Museum of Art, Timisoara, 17 February-28 May 2023). This review is from the catalogue. Brauner’s life as an exile in Paris mirrored that of other Romanians, who were unwilling or unable to live under the Communist regime. Brauner’s aversion to totalitarianism and his commitment to follow his imagination, wherever that was, made him incompatible with the values of the government. It just so happened that he had left his home country before World War II to be part of the Surrealist group under the guidance of André Breton.


Born into a Jewish family in Moldavia, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Victor Brauner was influenced by his father’s occult Hassidic practices of Kabbalah. The family believed in spiritualism and conducted seances. This would become a significant influence on his art, increasingly from 1938 onwards. His younger brother Théodore (1914-2000) became a photographer and designer. Victor became an amateur artist while a schoolboy, when his family lived in Bucharest. He went on to study at the School of Fine Arts, Bucharest (1919-22), including one year of in the sculpture studio, before being expelled for his anti-authoritarian attitude.

[Image: Man Ray, Victor Brauner (c. 1933) Silver bromide gelatin negative on flexible support 8,7 x 6,2 cm Caption : Positive image obtained by inverting the values of the digitization of the original negative Filename : 4H20453 Photo credit : (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP Copyright of artwork : © Man Ray Trust / Adagp, Paris Donated by Mr. Lucien Treillard in 1995 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1995-281 (453) Copyright of artwork : © Man Ray Trust / Adagp, Paris]

Contact with Modernism was not strong outside of Vienna, Prague and (to a lesser extent) Budapest within the Hapsburg Empire. Whether or not Bucharest’s reception of Modernism was impaired by the independence of Romania in 1918-9 is an open question. Certainly, Romania’s backwater situation regarding Modernist art dissatisfied many of its intellectuals. In 1924 Contimporanul, an exhibition including leading Modernist artists alongside ex-patriate Constantin Brâncuşi and other Romanian artists, was held in Bucharest. The 21-year-old Brauner participated and later that year held his first solo exhibition, also in Bucharest.  

As the acknowledged capital of culture in the inter-war period, Paris drew artists from around the world. This was true for Romanians such as Constantin Brâncuşi, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco (Iancu), Arthur Segal, Jacques Hérold and others. Brauner stayed in Paris during 1925-7 and 1930-3, however, the dates are deceptive. From 1927 until late 1929, Brauner had to undertake national service in Romania, hence we should think of the entire as one during which Brauner was committed to both Paris and Surrealism, although it seems the rise of the nationalist parties in 1930 that pushed Brauner to leave. Poverty forced him to return to Bucharest in 1933, where he became increasing involved with the Communist underground opposition to the government (by this time evolving towards Fascism) and the monarchy. One of the catalogue essayists suggests Brauner intended to establish a Bucharest branch of the pro-Soviet A.E.A.R. (Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires). He did less painting and more left-wing caricatures and book illustration. However, he distanced himself from the Communists after the Soviet show trials of 1937 and, when faced with new legislation that forced Jews to apply for Romanian citizenship, he left Romania in early 1938 for Paris.[ii] This time it was permanent. He would never return to Romania. In 1947 he signed the Inaugural Rupture statement, rejecting the Marxism that dominated the Parisian cultural and intellectual elite.

[Image: Victor Brauner, Self-portrait (1931), Oil on wood 22 x 16,2 cm Legacy of Mrs. Jacqueline Victor Brauner in 1986 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1987-1196 Copyright of artwork : © Adagp, Paris]

On the night of 27-8 August 1938, while intervening in a fight between Esteban Francès and Oscar Domínguéz (in the latter’s studio), Brauner an lost eye. This would have a deep impact on his art. It was also seen by the Surrealists as proof of Brauner’s uncanny foresight, as years earlier (1931) he had painted a self-portrait with disfigured eye. The incident is one of the most repeated anecdotes relating to Surrealism. This perhaps pushed the artist to reconsider his family’s occult spiritual beliefs. Whatever the exact cause, throughout the 1940s there is an increased presence in Brauner’s art of religious symbolism.

Following the invasion of France in 1940, Brauner and his first wife fled to Marseille, with numerous other Surrealists. His vicious painting of Hitler (1934) was a death sentence, should the Gestapo have become aware of it and apprehended Brauner. In 1942, he moved to the Hautes-Alps region and lived undercover for three years, returning to Paris after the end of the war. He began making sculpture seriously in late 1945. In 1961 Brauner moved from Paris to Normandy (where he had holidayed in recent years). Brauner received increasing recognition nationally and internationally, particularly in Venice Biennales. He died on 12 March 1966 in Paris.


All periods, except pre-1923, are represented in the selection. The earliest works in the exhibition are from 1923 and give us an idea of what was shown in his first group and solo shows of 1924. The works are influenced by Blaue Reiter and Cubism and are highly stylised renderings of figures and verdant landscapes. This is the common path that most young painters of the time followed, working out what it meant to be “modern”. The first Surrealist painting in the exhibition is from 1928. Brauner soon took up the oneiric/veristic line of painting in Surrealism, with a collage sensibility, that places him beside Dalí, Magritte, Fini and Carrington.

The political cartoons of the 1930s (featuring a Pere Ubu-like character, called “Monsieur K”) are not so different to cadavres exquis or Brauner’s drawings of fantastic figures, also displayed. There is a painting of a head with paintbrushes extruded from eyes and mouth. There are other inventions that are similarly striking but banal. The deadening effect of a rather simplistic technique, an indifferent palette and a lack of engagement with the mise en scene combine to produce works we would expect from a bright juvenile painter.

Curators have included large numbers of drawings and prints, as well as Brauner’s best-known paintings. The famous self-portrait has travelled from Centre Pompidou, Paris, looking lighter and less ominous than it has in other reproductions. Items are from French and Romanian collections, public and private. His early Surrealist paintings are hit or miss, depending on the strength of the imagery. The technique is conventional and not especially appealing per se. The 1938-1945 works show more time taken with each picture, a strengthening ability to enter an imaginary world and a lessening of the jejune tendency to give us the image raw. The post-1945 paintings are more integrated in terms of the technique and imagery being fully congruent, so they are better as art than the earlier two periods, even if one might not warm to the pictographic character.  

The engagement with sculpture, the use of impasto through encaustic painting and the flattening of pictorial depth could be attributed to Brauner’s monocular vision from 1938 onwards. No doubt this did play a significant part in this activity, but we should not overlook the wider cultural situation. Surrealism post-1945 became increasingly attached to these currents, marking a divergence from its highly political and anti-religious pre-war stance. Brauner was one of the artists who paralleled this broad Surrealist trajectory, albeit due to personal reasons. Evidence here is that from 1938 to 1945 or so, Brauner maintained his volumetric modelling of figures and objects and his pictorial space remains as deep as previously. It is only later that we get the radical flattening of space and linearity; profiles and outlines dominate.

Non-European art (particularly North American natives) and the drawings of children come to mind when viewing the art of the 1960s. The drawing from November 1964 has heads, profiles and animals combined in a naïve manner. In 1965 Brauner was experimenting with shaped and painted frames, some up to 2 metres wide. These are particularly successful and it is a shame that this line of work was curtailed by Brauner’s illness and death the following year. Did his art improve as he took on a shamanic role? Perhaps so. Remember that shamans are also tricksters and Brauner never abandoned the comic combination, so if Brauner was a shaman-painter, he never rejected the power of absurdity.  

[Victor Brauner, The Mother of Myths (1965) Oil on canvas and painted wood on plywood 144 x 200 x 3 cm Purchase from the arrears of the legacy of Jacqueline Victor-Brauner, 1993 In storage since 1996 : Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix (Les Sables-d’Olonne) Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1993-86 Copyright of artwork: © Adagp, Paris]

Although Brauner is called a painter-sculptor, there is little sculpture here, even including the two carved frame. The exhibition includes only two sculptures proper and mentions five being made in 1945. So, what was the extent and nature of Brauner’s sculptural output? This goes unanswered. The famous Loup-table (1947), an assemblage which has a table converted into a fox, is absent from the exhibition and not even illustrated in the catalogue. However, the exhibition does a good job of giving a thorough overview of the artist’s output.

Reception and response

It seems reception of Brauner’s art in Romania was impeded by the double barriers of anti-Modernism and anti-Semitism. Posthumously, Brauner was rehabilitated (or actually introduced) for Romanian audiences by the nationalist reclamation by Ceauşescu’s culture ministry. The street of his birthplace was named after him. Yet his first major retrospective in Romania only took place in 2003, marking his centenary. However, he is arguably still more a part of the French cultural landscape than that of Romania.  

What are we to make of Brauner now? The wave of research into Surrealism that has continued unabated for the last 30 or 40 years has centred on marginal creators, especially women, and dissident groups (the Documents-Bataille group) and foreign arms of the movement. Brauner was a core member of the Paris group from early days. He has not been neglected but he seems only to have failed to spark excitement. Several writers in the catalogue make a push for Brauner as relevant as a trans-national artist, yet another figure legitimising the current drive in museums to embrace and promote migrants. This will not wash. From Mondrian to Picasso, from Holbein the Younger to Van Dyke, Western art is full of great artists who worked in countries other than those in which they were born and they have been amply lauded. However, in contrast to today’s tokenism, no museum ever promoted Van Gogh primarily because he was a migrant.

So, does Brauner’s art hold up as art? In parts, yes. There is some feeble stuff and that is not due to poor curation or lack of availability of sufficient works. One cannot tell the story of Brauner without including awful pictures because he was often an awful painter. There is a degree of repetition in the later pictographs but as art, they function at a higher level than the early (pre-1938) pieces, perhaps with the exception of the 1931 self-portrait. Viewing the catalogue, my opinion of him is slightly raised. I wish I had the chance to see the art in person to find out how that might alter my understanding.  

Camille Morando (ed.), Victor Brauner: Inventions and Magic, Arta Graphica/Art Encounters Foundation, Bucharest, 2023, hardcover, 208pp, fully illus., Romanian/English text, 199L/€39

“Grandmaster of Bad-Taste Art”

“There is a certain finality to the catalogue raisonné. It seals an artist’s activity, fixing it into a form that will likely never be altered. From this point on, there will be few or no revelations or chance encounters with unseen works. Once you have studied the catalogue raisonné, the pleasure of discovery in curtailed by the alternative pleasure, that of the completist, the ambiguity-averse person who seeks to pin down the exact nature of a field. Like most those seriously interested in art, these two competing traits war in me whenever I peruse a catalogue raisonné.

“Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is commonly identified as an artist and writer associated with the Pointillism and the Orphist, Dadaist and Surrealist movements, but who is mainly uncategorisable, who worked alongside these groups for a time. The fourth and final volume of Picabia’s catalogue raisonné has just been published. There is quite a lot to see. Not only was Picabia a productive artist, there is a degree of repetition in his output, so there is no reason a monographic exhibition would have included a broad selection of paintings of the same group.

“What are those groups? In Picabia’s last 13 years, he painted pin-up nudes and female heads (1940-5), followed by an abrupt volte face, when he began painting semi-abstractions that resemble carvings, which we might call paleo-painting (1945-9). His final period was Points (1949-52), a sequence of abstract paintings that resemble constellations, with coloured dots on plain or very simple grounds.   As in the previous volumes, which I reviewed for The Art Newspaper, the final volume has a chronological narrative of the period, followed by some essays on different topics. Next comes the catalogue section, with full bibliography and exhibition list…”

To read the rest of this review, become a paid Substack subscriber here: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/grandmaster-of-bad-taste-art

José Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays”

Princeton University Press has issued a reprint of a significant work of art history, “The Dehumanization of Art” and four other essays on culture by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). The titular essay was first published in 1925; it will be treated last because of its importance. All the essays were written in the late 1920s and p1930s; three of them were published in Partisan Review in translation in 1949-1952.

In “Notes on the Novel”, the author considers the exhaustion of the novel form. “It has become practically impossible to find new subjects.”[i] In the essay considered last, Gasset takes up this theme with regard to painting. Familiarity blunts the originality and value of past novels, he writes. The highest purpose of literature and art is to present a heightened, more intense understanding of the world. Modern novels often fail because they are thinner, sparser, less original, less complete. For Gasset, Don Quixote, the earliest of Spanish novels is the best because it is the richest of novels.

“In Search of Goethe from Within” uses the centenary of Goethe to take the German novelist, playwright, poet and thinker as the complete polymath, taken in contrast with the inadequate figures of Gasset’s day. Goethe is a thinker who stepped out of himself and conceptualised a life as a man’s task – the result of conscious effort. (Does this prefigure Sartre and Camus’s existential man wrestling with the absurd?) Gasset sees Goethe as battling his own nature, “Hence his depressions, his stiffness, his distance from his surroundings, his bitterness. It was a life à rebours. […] But a man’s life is not the operation of the exquisite mechanisms which Providence put inside him. The crucial question is to ask oneself in whose service they operate. Was the man Goethe in the service of his vocation, or was he, rather, a perpetual deserter from his inner destiny?”[ii]“All our ideas are reactions – positive or negative – to the situations with which our destiny confronts us.” Goethe, Gasset decides, is fundamentally at odds with his own nature, hence his restlessness and awkwardness.

“The Self and the Other” functions as a companion piece to the Goethe essay, which explores the nature of working from within (that is, personally) and truth to one’s self. He describes the world in 1939 on the verge of war, when (in the Western world) the private individual is about to be temporarily abolished in favour of the patriotic citizen put in service of the defence of his country. “Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of mediating, or withdrawing into himself to come to terms with himself and define what it is that he believes and what it is that he does not believe; what he truly esteems and what he truly detests. Being beside himself bemuses him, blinds him, forces him to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.”[iii] A prime definitional characteristic of man is his capacity for interiority. Man becomes animalistic when he is faced with threats that demand he always be ready for fight or flight; he loses his capacity for detachment and inwardness. Gasset goes on to define thought as secondary to action in importance. In his evolution-influenced view, abstract thought arises only to support better action for survival and reproduction, although thought lifts man above the beasts.

As with all of these essays, there are persistent concerns between topics. The decline of culture is something that comes up in relation to fine art in the essays reviewed following. Gasset writes of “an overproduction of ideas, of books and works of art, a real cultural inflation. […] And, as occurs in capitalism, the market became saturated and crisis ensued.”[iv] Subsequent decline and stupefaction presage violent turmoil and war, when demagogues hustle men in unthinking action, preventing men from contemplation.

“On Point of View in the Arts” discusses the value and implications of distance and movement in art. Gasset nominates as significant proximate vision and distant vision “of which physiology speaks are not notions that depend chiefly on measurable factors, but are rather two distinct ways of seeing”.[v] At a distance “the structure of our hierarchized elements disappears. The ocular field is homogeneous; we do not see one thing clearly and the rest confusedly, for all are submerged in an optical democracy.”[vi]

Gasset notes that the object seen close up has greater corporeality through volumetric presence and the affect of stereoscopic parallax vision. When this close-up quality is removed through not just through simple distance but the expansion of the optical field through the inclusion of more legible forms. Gasset notes that concavity is the primary quality of proximate vision and convexity of the distant vision. In other words, close-up favours depictions of the solid object as volume; distance favours depictions of the hollow place as space. Gasset contends that Western art has developed from a depiction of the solid object to open space, with an ever-greater democratising flattening distance, notable in the development of the pure landscape. He sees multiple sources of attention but all treated with the same singular devoted fixation. The transition occurs in the Late Renaissance. The dematerialisation of form comes from Venice but first finds perfection in Velázquez and the transition to the triumph of the distance vision is achieved. From now on, the eye will be directed by the painter.

Gasset puts it nicely thus: “Proximate vision dissociates, analyses, distinguishes – it is feudal. Distant vision synthesizes, combines, throws together – it is democratic.” He applies a philosophical view to High Modernism. “Instead of painting objects as they are seen, one paints the experience of seeing. Instead of an object as impression, that is, a mass of sensations. Art, with this, has withdrawn completely from the world and begins to concern itself with the activity of the subject.”[viii] He reduces further. “First things are painted; then, sensations; finally, ideas. This means that in the beginning the artist’s attention was fixed on external reality; then, on the subjective; finally, on the intra-subjective. These three stages are three points on a straight line.”[ix]

  • “The Dehumanisation of Art”  

The essay “The Dehumanization of Art” is an approach to explain why High Modernism was so unpopular in 1925. While time, the canon and the subsequent general acceptance seems to have undercut the hostility towards High Modernism in the arts, Gasset’s points are well observed and worth raising, as they do seem valid and to persist. His argument runs thus: all new styles and schools have a period of lack of acceptance as they arise, challenging, as they do, the established styles and values. (Including, one might add, the vested interests of the dominant school’s practitioners, collectors and critical supporters.) In the case of High Modernism (which he does not describe with that term), Gasset says is different to other movements, for example Romanticism. The opponents of earlier vanguard art works were hostile because they understood the new art and realised how it defied conventions and promoted values inimical to the dominant ones; it consequently went through a phase of lacking popularity before finding a general audience. High Modernism, however, provokes actual hostility. “Modern art, on the other hand, will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular. […] It divides the public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favourably inclined towards it; another very large – the hostile majority.”[x]

“When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it; and there is no reason for indignation. But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated and this rankling sense of inferiority must be counterbalanced by indignant self-assertion.”[xi] This is the prompt for the blustering rebuttal to an abstract painting in a museum “my child could have painted that”; in other words, he does not even recognise what is in front of him as art. To this we must consider the later complication of the situation of Post-Modernism, after Duchamp’s Readymades. In that, what is not art may be nominated as art. At which point we lose all critical apparatus and become passive subjects to consume, being unable to scrutinise, qualify, rank, reject and offer counter proposals.

He writes of difficult high art being a status marker used by elites. “[T]he new art also helps the elite to recognize themselves and one another in the drab mass of society and to learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.”[xii] He sees accepting and conversing about difficult high culture as a mechanism as a way of separating the elite from the mass. It indirectly asserts an outlook that cannot be expressed plainly. We have been conditioned too much by the Enlightenment falsehoods of egalitarianism. “Behind all contemporary life lurks the provoking and profound injustice of the assumption that men are actually equal. Each move among men so obviously reveals the opposite that each move results in a painful clash.”[xiii] 

Gasset takes a cyclical view of art, repeating with unique elements arising. Certain forms get exhausted when the permutations and combinations become depleted through use and familiarity. Hence, new movements arise and seem vital, because the old movements have become tired. What did High Modernism mean to Gasset in 1925? “It tends (1) to dehumanize art, (2) to avoid living forms, (3) to see to it that the work of art is nothing but a work of art, (4) to consider art as play and nothing else, (5) to be essentially ironical, (6) to beware of sham and hence to aspire to scrupulous realization, (7) to regard art as a thing of no transcending consequence.”[xiv]

Gasset imputes antagonism to the artist, who is flaunting his distance from tradition and the common man. He detects a pervading irony which leaves the viewer wrongfooted. In a famous passage he identifies the problem of irony, which will poison so much art from the era of Late Modernism onwards.

“Madame Tussaud’s comes to mind and peculiar uneasiness aroused by dummies. The origin of this uneasiness lies in provoking ambiguity with which wax figures defeat any attempt at adopting a clear and consistent attitude toward them. Treat them as living beings, and they will sniggeringly reveal their waxen secret. Take them for dolls, and they seem to breathe in irritated protest. They will not be reduced to mere objects. Looking at them we suddenly feel a misgiving: should it not be they who are looking at us? Till in the end we are sick and tired of those hired corpses.”[xvi]

Organic forms have become repugnant to artists, who instead turn to crystalline mineral forms, flat facets and straight lines. As outlined in the previous essay, Gasset declares that Expressionism, Cubism and so forth are all attempts at painting ideas, detached from emotions and reality of lived experience. Gasset sees as indivisibly bound to the rise of Modernism “this negative mood of mocking aggressiveness”.[xviii] “Baudelaire praises the black Venus precisely because the classical is white. From then on the successive styles contain an ever increasing dose of derision and disparagement until in our day the new art consists almost exclusively of protests against the old.”[xix]

José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature, Princeton Classics, 2019, paperback, 204pp + xiii, $16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 19721 0

To read my follow-up piece, please become a Substack paid subscriber to read it here: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/was-jose-ortega-y-gasset-correct

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

To support my work, become a paid subscriber on www.alexanderadamsart.substack.com

[i] P. 59, José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture and Literature, Princeton Classics, 2019

[ii] Pp. 157-8

[iii] P. 178

[iv] P. 198

[v] P. 109

[vi] P. 110

[viii] P. 124

[ix] P. 127

[x] P. 5

[xi] P. 6

[xii] P. 7

[xiii] P. 7

[xiv] P. 14

[xvi] Pp. 28-9

[xvii] P. 48

[xviii] P. 44

[xix] P. 44

New Light on Vermeer

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

Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon

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

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Nazi plans for Norway, 1940-5

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 

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art