Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare.

 

Anti-war and anti-fascist German art: Otto Dix and George Grosz
Monday, 01 July 2019 09:19

Anti-war and anti-fascist German art: Otto Dix and George Grosz

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell remembers Otto Dix and George Grosz, two German artists whose work was dedicated to the fight against fascism and war

The painters Otto Dix and George Grosz died fifty and sixty years ago respectively this month, almost eighty years after the outbreak of World War II.

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Otto Dix (1891-1969) was an uncompromising fighter against the inhumanity of imperialism. Even before the outbreak of war in 1913, he had painted “Sunrise”. Black death-birds fly over an icy landscape; the rising sun resembles an exploding bomb – with dark clouds of smoke in the background.

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It is a dark, ironic contrast to van Gogh's “Cornfield with Crows”.

Between 1929 and 1931, Dix created his main work “The War”. It was in triptych, an old masterly painting technique and form originating in Christian art. Three painted panels are attached together, usually as an altarpiece depicting the crucifixion in the centre panel, with secondary figures in the wings. Dix’s triptych is an urgent warning of the horrors of annihilation.

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On the left side panel of “The War”, an endless row of soldiers march into battle in the early fog, under a blood-red morning sky. The light of the “sunrise” is reflected in the helmets. Only one face can dimly be made out; the others remain anonymous and thus stand for all. Hundreds come from a great distance towards the observer, turn and move away again into the distance. This V-shape with the reversal point at the viewer is extraordinarily effective in its use of space to convey an infinite number of helmets and weapons. The two men at the centre of the picture carry kitbags, one turns to the other and one eye is recognisable. In addition, a shoe and a water bottle are clearly visible, which helps to individualise these soldiers.

Using the triptych’s inherent reference to Christ’s crucifixion, the left panel alludes to the scene of Jesus carrying the cross. Like him, the soldiers carry their own weapons of death. However, unlike the middle section, the left scene has a certain order, and the soldiers are distinctly human.

This contrasts sharply with the frightening depiction of the central panel. Nothing human is perceptible anymore. The viewer expects Christ on the cross at the centre top of the picture, but instead is an impaled skeleton, with its gaping mouth and pointing finger, as if attempting to warn us. The boot preserved on the skeleton links it to the soldier, and to the boot hanging from the kitbag in the left panel.

The bony finger points to a crater-like landscape and lifeless ruins. People, town and vegetation are all destroyed. The finger of the skeleton also points to the dead man, whose perforated legs protrude and clearly allude to the crucified Christ. He is turned upside down, thus ironically reinforcing the image's indictment. Most of the central panel depicts intestines and dismembered people. Neither sandbags nor a gas mask were able to prevent death. This central scene of horror inexorably reveals the nature of an imperialist war.

On the right panel, a soldier whose face bears the features of the painter, drags a wounded man from the murder zone, another survivor also crawls out of the inferno. They no longer wear helmets or uniforms; they do not notice the corpse over which they move. A charred tree trunk crosses this panel, echoing the taking down of Christ from the cross. Again, Christ is identified with the soldiers.

The burial of Christ is often depicted in the predella, the lower part of the triptych. In the interpretation of this picture by Dix, opinions differ as to whether the soldiers depicted are asleep or dead. In my opinion, bearing in mind the clear allusion to the depictions of Jesus on winged altars, these soldiers are dead. The one in the foreground with his blond moustache resembles the barely visible soldier's face in the left panel. It seems he is sleeping, his head resting on the kitbag, but his uniform has two bullet holes in the chest. So, despite his calm appearance we must assume he is dead.

The eyes of those lying next to him are bandaged, which de-individualises them. The last soldier has no shoes - dead soldiers often had their shoes removed by the living soldiers for further use. This had already been hinted at in the left panel with the single shoe hanging from the kitbag as well as the shoe on the skeleton in the middle picture. Additionally there are already rats at the feet of the dead. A blood-red shroud is attached to a very low ceiling, evoking a claustrophobic, sarcophagus-like box containing the dead. The straw in the front right corner of the predella is a final reference to the barn where Jesus was born. Here now lie the victims of “The War”.

The art of Dix' contemporary George Grosz (1893-1959) was also of great importance in the 1920s. The Soviet revolutionary and writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote about George Grosz:

Germany at that time found its portraitist in George Grosz. He depicted the racketeers with sausage like fingers. He showed the heroes of a past and a coming war, haters of humans draped with iron crosses ... Yes, he dared to show privy councillors naked at their desks, dolled up fat little dames, gutting corpses, murderers carefully washing their bloody hands in a basin ... In 1922 it appeared like fantasy, in 1942 it became routine.

George Grosz's milieu was the city of Berlin in the 1920s. Here, he observed the world of parasites, war profiteers and racketeers, whores and drunks. He painted the amorality of an obsolete society, as well as the victims of the ruling class.

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One example is his painting “The Agitator” (1928), in which Grosz warns against the rising Nazis. The heart of the agitator is emblazoned in the colours of the empire – black, white, and red. He is decorated with medals and the Iron Cross. The swastika on the tie knot looms ominously right in the centre of the picture. While the applauding bourgeois men with their well-fed faces and hands are still relatively realistic on the lower left side of the picture, they become increasingly grotesquely distorted and gaudy on the right side. Central to the painting is the ridiculous agitator himself, with a truncheon over his arm, a distorted face, his right hand raised as if taking an oath, and surrounded by the tools of his “trade”: the megaphone, a sports rattle in his left hand, the marching drum and the gramophone all provide background noise.

Even bigger is the sabre, which hangs from under his little coat. Above his head is a black, white and red dunce’s hat with German oak leaves. Beside his spurred foot is a poster bucket. Above the agitator floats the male Promised Land of roasted chickens, wine and faceless naked women. On the upper left, the oversized laurel crowned soldier's boot and a dark fortress form a contrast to this paradise. The former soldier, decorated with the Iron Cross, seamlessly transforms into a Nazi to the applause of the bourgeoisie. Grosz recognized this early on and communicated it.

Grosz's art is fed from many sources, one of which was futurism. The kaleidoscopic simultaneousness of objects in the visual world of George Grosz uses futuristic pictorial techniques for satirical social criticism. Grosz composes his works in such a way that the space develops vertically, from the bottom to the top. His metropolitan milieu pictures are not abstract but make drastically visible the rot of an obsolete social order.

Grosz made disorder visible, as the essence of bourgeois society. Together with John Heartfield, George Grosz developed political photomontage, a new art genre, which was later perfected by Heartfield. Like Heartfield, Grosz anglicized his name from Georg Groß, in protest against German chauvinism.

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In 1933, when the fascists succeeded in seizing power, George Grosz emigrated to New York. There was no doubt that his life was under great threat. Although the climax of his social satirical art was in Germany, his theme remained the indictment of fascism, as for example in his 1936 visionary work “Apocalyptic Rider”, in which the horrors of war are anticipated.

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In 1949, he painted a series of surreal stick men drawings, eerily scrawny creatures in a destroyed world – an appeal to the consciences of people not to allow new wars. In the landscape of this picture, a figure carries a burnt painting in his hand. It has been destroyed, and yet it is the only thing that remains for them and therefore somehow worth preserving. George Grosz returned to Berlin in 1958 and died there on 6 July 1959.

Gustave Courbet: the working class becomes the subject of art
Thursday, 16 May 2019 14:57

Gustave Courbet: the working class becomes the subject of art

Published in Visual Arts

On the 200th anniversay of Gustave Courbet's birth, Jenny Farrell looks at his revolutionary choice of theme and form, called 'socialist propaganda' by his critics

A constant feature of any news programme in the capitalist world is “Business News” and reports from the stock markets.  Those who toil to create the profits are always absent from the story. This is particularly apparent to me because I grew up in the German Democratic Republic, and at school even our literature books always included paintings with a working-class or socialist subject matter. Some of these left an indelible impression on me, so much so that I still think of them and occasionally look at them even all these decades later. One of these paintings is Gustave Courbet’s Stone Breakers.

Let me put this painting into its context. The French July Revolution of 1830 ushered in the July Monarchy and coincided with increased industrialisation. Actual state power was in the hands of those elevated socially by this industrial upheaval - in the hands of the financial aristocracy, the owners of coal and ore mines. Dissatisfaction fermented in the French proletariat and spread to other large sections of the population. In February 1848, the bourgeois democratic revolution broke out, overthrowing the Monarchy and proclaiming a Republic.

The involvement of all democratic forces in this social upheaval led to a great flourishing of realism in art and literature. Like Balzac in his novels, so too did painters try to represent this new reality in their work. The proletariat became a very real subject in art. As soon as it had emerged, the working class suffered ruthless exploitation and rebelled against it. Workers’ uprisings in Lyon in 1831 and 1834 echoed throughout France and led to a powerful socialist movement. The life of the proletariat increasingly attracted the interest of many artists. The working class, fighting for its physical survival, had very little visual art of its own in the 19th century. Bourgeois painters at best looked on workers with compassion and sentimentality. Only the most important realists, artists of the people, like Courbet, recognized the power of this new class as early as the 19th century.

C The Desperate Man

Self portrait: The Desperate Man, 1844/45 (private collection)

Gustave Courbet, born 200 years ago on 10 June 1819, programmatically demanded the objective portrayal of reality in art, unconditional truth. In 1851, he exhibited two paintings at the Salon, the great annual art exhibition in Paris, which were to revolutionise art. They were his paintings Stone Breakers and A Burial at Ornans. No one before him had shown labourers at work so forcefully and honestly. No one before him had depicted peasant faces so realistically. No one before him had portrayed ordinary people at such a large scale, at a time when genre painting was small and history painting large. Courbet was painting history, in a new sense of the word.

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A Burial at Ornans, 1849-1850, centring a confident gravedigger. (Musée d'Orsay)

Courbet’s art shocked the bourgeois viewers. Some were enthusiastic, but most were outraged. Courbet, however, firmly believed in the historic importance of his realism. At the 1855 Salon, he exhibited his paintings in an improvised wooden cabin. Above the entrance door, it read “Realism, G. Courbet”. The catalogue of his exhibited paintings was an artistic programme committed to reality. This exhibition made Courbet famous. He said that to “translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch according to my own appreciation; in a word, to create living art, that is my goal.”

Stone Breakers was a revelation. Critics accused him of socialist propaganda. Courbet, however, proudly stood by his work. In the catalogue of the 1855 exhibition, he wrote “The title Realist was given to me, in the way the painters of 1830 were called Romantics.” His statement “Realism is essentially democratic art” applied supremely to Courbet. He was the great democrat of painting and became the leader of the Realist movement.

Participating in the Paris Commune, Courbet was responsible for the protection of Parisian art treasures. Later, the bourgeoisie accused him of destroying the Vendôme Column. He was imprisoned, the State seized his property, and put his friends and family under surveillance. In bad health and fearing further repercussions, Courbet emigrated to Switzerland. There he died, aged 58.

C The Stone Breakers

The Stone Breakers, 1849, destroyed.

Courbet painted Stone Breakers in his hometown of Ornans, in eastern France, in 1849. He was 30 years old. Marx and Engels had published the Communist Manifesto the previous year, stating as its opening fanfare “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” and “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” This is the defining insight of the mid-19th century.

Stone Breakers was the first of Courbet’s great realistic works. It was destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. It depicts two roadside labourers, in almost life-size: 170 cm × 240 cms. The labourers take up the greatest part of the picture, emphasising the fact that they are the central figures and protagonists. With the very recent proletarian uprisings of 1848, Courbet’s focus on the common people was radical. This image of two men, one only starting out in a life of hard labour and the other towards its end, expresses unrelenting hardship. Despite their arduous toil, these men just barely survive. Their clothes are badly torn and patched. The colours in which they are painted blend with their place of work – the palette is dominated by shades of greys, bleached blues, earthy whites and browns. Rough brushstrokes translate the coarseness of the men’s clothing and their surroundings into tangible reality. There is no attempt to prettify the image by giving it a polished appearance, as would have been the painterly norm at Courbet’s time. This is a radical new departure, in theme and form.

The older man’s red striped waistcoat near the centre of the picture stands out. It is a statement of dignity and suggests the colour of the working class. However, apart from that, combined with his white shirt and blue socks, this worker subtly displays the colours of the tricolour, the French flag as it emerged in the Revolution of 1789. These colours once represented liberty, equality and fraternity. What have they come to mean 60 years later, in this bleached and torn form? This is without doubt a deliberate irony on the part of Courbet, especially as they adorn the older man, aged about 70, according to Courbet. Courbet’s grandfather had been a sans-culotte in 1789.

The two figures are etched sharply against a dark background, themselves throwing shadows that nearly merge with that of the low hill. Only in the upper-right corner of the picture is there a patch of blue sky. The maturity of the corn behind them indicates early summer, as does the heat of the blazing sun. A large pot and a single spoon directly next to their work place tells us that their whole life revolves around their labour. It also suggests that they are related. They eat on the side of the road; there is no private space.

We cannot make out the face of either man. The older man’s face is in profile but only the lower part of it is visible under the straw hat, which casts a shadow over it. The younger man, lifting the broken stones, has his back turned. By not showing the faces clearly, Courbet focuses the viewer on the labour and its conditions, not appealing for sympathy but insight, in an almost Brechtian de-individualisation which prevents unreflective emotional involvement. 

C The Winnowers

The Winnowers, 1855 (Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts)

Courbet uses a similar technique in his great painting of women at work, The Winnowers. Here too, earthy reds, off-whites and blue dominate the palette. As in Stone Breakers, the central figure is adorned in red – here much more obviously so. Again, faces are either turned away, as in the main figure, looking down, or obscured by shadow, preventing eye contact with the viewer and thereby individualisation.

Once more, the workers are shown at work, in the workplace, surrounded by the produce of their work. And once again, we see the lunch vessel in the picture – here at the centre back with a ladle, and another one beside the sacks. The pots, plate, bowls, sacks echo the shape of the sieve, held up by the central figure in an energetic movement that contrasts with the more weary impression of the woman on her left. This tool is at the centre of the picture. Similarly to Stone Breakers, the workers toil in close proximity, but there is little connection or communication between them. All focus is on the labour. The unity of the composition is achieved by earthy colours, underlining the characters’ relationship with the soil, and by the many elliptical or round shapes uniting them.

The figures in both paintings express the lifelong toil of the working class, and its impoverished condition. Their anonymity allows us to generalise, to see them as a class. There is no sentimentality, and no idealisation. The artist conveys his sympathy for the workers, their dignity and his disgust for a system that thrives on such poverty and exploitation. Gustave Courbet was one of the first painters to make the life of workers the subject of realistic art.

Happy 100th birthday, Pete Seeger
Friday, 19 April 2019 08:01

Happy 100th birthday, Pete Seeger

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell honours Pete Seeger as we near what would have been his 100th birthday 

There are few people more famous in the political song movement than Pete Seeger. Along with his contemporaries Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and others, Seeger represented the might of song in highlighting the common cause, strengthening courage and inspiring resistance. For these singers, song was a weapon in the struggle for a fair, equal and peaceful society.

Pete grew up in a musical family – his father Charles was a musicologist and lecturer who lost his job when he opposed US involvement in the First World War. His mother Constance, a violinist, also held socialist and pacifist political views. His parents divorced when Pete was still a young child. Charles remarried and joined the Composers Collective, who performed their songs for strikers and the unemployed. The family travelled the country, playing music and attending folk festivals on many occasions. It was in this context that Pete encountered the banjo, and made it his instrument.

Aged 17 in 1936, Pete Seeger joined the Young Communist League and in 1942 he became a member of the Communist Party of the USA, leaving it in 1949. In 1938, Seeger enrolled for a course in sociology in Harvard, in the hope of becoming a journalist, although he did not finish it. He went to New York where he met Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Lead Belly and others, deeply involving him with traditional American music. They jointly founded the “Almanac Singers” in December 1940. With their pro-union songs and singing against racism and war, the band propelled Seeger into an active political folksong scene. The band performed for strikers, with songs such as “Talking Union”, and about the struggles for the unionisation of industrial workers.

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Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and Pete Seeger (left to right)

“I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”:

The Unites States had entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The Almanac Singers now focused on anti-fascist songs. In June 1942, Seeger enlisted in the US Army to fight fascism. He worked on aeroplane engines in Mississippi and later transferred to Saipan in the Western Pacific Ocean, to entertain troops. Military intelligence deemed him unfit “for a position of trust or responsibility” due to his “Communistic sympathies, unsatisfactory relations with landlords and his numerous Communist and otherwise undesirable friends” and described “Almanac Singers” as “spreading Communist and anti-Fascist propaganda through songs and recordings”.

Seeger was a fervent supporter of Republican Spain against Franco and in 1943 recorded several Spanish Civil War songs with like-minded musicians. The album was entitled “Songs of the Lincoln Battalion”:

“Viva la Quince Brigada”

After the war, Seeger established “People’s Songs Incorporated” (PSI) saying:

I hope to have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of union choruses. Just as every church has a choir, why not every union?

Soon, the PSI had two thousand members and was growing fast. An FBI file was opened on the organisation.

In November 1948, Seeger co-founded the folk group, “The Weavers”. The group took its name from a German drama about the Silesian Weavers’ uprising by Gerhart Hauptmann, “Die Weber”, containing the lines, “I’ll stand it no more, come what may”. The group recorded “Goodnight Irene”, a song written by Seeger’s friend, Lead Belly. Censorship threats dictated the chorus be changed from “I’ll get you in my dreams” to “I’ll see you in my dreams”. The record topped the charts in 1950. The band also popularised Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and other left-wing songs such as “If I had a Hammer”.

Inspired by Woody Guthrie, whose guitar declared “This machine kills fascists”, Seeger’s banjo was inscribed “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”.

Seeger’s support of civil and workers’ rights, racial equality, international understanding and peace made him suspicious in the eyes of the State from about 1940. During the McCarthy witch-hunt, Seeger and fellow Almanac singer Lee Hays were identified as Communist Party members in 1955, and summoned to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities. Seeger refused to answer, on First Amendment grounds, the first to do so after the conviction of the Hollywood Ten in 1950. The House found Seeger guilty of contempt, but had to overturn this conviction in 1961 on technical grounds.

However, anti-communism was rampant since the beginning of the McCarthy era, and the band suffered from a total boycott by the establishment. Right-wing groups sabotaged their concerts, ultimately leading to the group’s dissolution in 1952. For 17 years, the U.S. media ostracised Seeger. He performed at high schools and on college campuses, and for minor trade unions, and this meant smaller audiences. Nevertheless, Seeger reached a lot of people, some of whom later found jobs in the trade union movement, were involved with festivals, with Hollywood, on the radio or Broadway. Famous bands popularised Seeger-authored songs from this time including “Where have all the flowers gone”, a song that came to him when reading Sholokhov’s “And quiet flows the Don”.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”,

In 1957, Pete met another victim of FBI surveillance and intimidation, Martin Luther King, at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Here began what would become the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome”, for which Seeger slightly changed the hymn “I Will Overcome”. In 1963 Seeger sang it on the 50-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, along with 1,000 other marchers.

“We Shall Overcome”

Seeger, co-founder of the music magazine “Sing Out!”, was a senior figure in the 1960s folk revival. The urban folk-revival movement, which Seeger called “Woody’s Children”, after Guthrie, adapted traditional songs for political purposes. The Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) had pioneered this in their “Little Red Song Book”. This book was compiled by legendary union organizer Joe Hill, and was a favourite of Guthrie’s.

Like King, Seeger was a vocal critic of the US war in Vietnam, writing very popular anti-war songs like “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” and “If You Love Your Uncle Sam (Bring ‘Em Home)”. On 15 November 1969, the Vietnam Moratorium March on Washington took place. Seeger led half a million protesters in singing John Lennon’s peace song “Give Peace a Chance”, calling on Nixon at the White House “Are you listening?”. Seeger visited North Vietnam with his family in 1972.

15 November 1969

Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi Ohta lived in a log cabin overlooking the Hudson River. Disturbed by the river’s pollution, they co-founded the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and started the Great Hudson River Revival, the Clearwater Festival, along with others. In this way, they were instrumental in rallying public support for cleaning the Hudson River. The Clearwater Festival now attracts over 15,000 people each summer, highlighting and improving the river and surrounding wetlands.

Seeger remained politically active into his 90s. In 2012, he performed with Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne and others for Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement, who has been in prison for over 40 years.

Pete Seeger died on January 27, 2014, aged 94. He played an active role in all tof he important struggles of the 20th and early 21st centuries – for peace, for the environment, for civil and workers’ rights. His memory is inscribed indelibly in all those who are part of the same movements, when they sing “We shall Overcome”.

“This Land is Made for You and Me”, with an introductory quote from Woody Guthrie on the kind of songs he (and Seeger) wrote.

 

Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa and the dialectics of nature
Friday, 19 April 2019 07:19

Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa and the dialectics of nature

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell presents the historical background and the art of Leonardo da Vinci, who died 500 years ago, on 2 May 1519.

New trends in art do not only emerge when a new social order is consolidated. Rather, they begin within the old, arising along with the new social forces that will determine the future.

This applies particularly to the Renaissance in Italy, where early capitalism had developed sooner than in northern Europe. As a result, Italian culture and art took on a bourgeois character earlier than these countries.

The historical background

The Lombard and Tuscan cities were the most advanced. Here, trade and industry developed in the 13th century, due to their trade routes to the Orient. Venice benefitted in particular. It was the capital of the Adriatic, and it had possessions in Greece, Crete, Cyprus and the Dalmatian coast. The countries of the eastern Mediterranean depended almost exclusively on Venice for their trade. Venetian ships sailed to European ports, all the way to Holland and England. Venetian ducats became an international currency, and with 200,000 inhabitants, the city had an astonishingly large population.

The social order of the Venetian state was determined by its economic interests, which was dominated by the nobility – therefore its constitution remained aristocratic. The situation was different in Florence, Italy’s second most powerful city. Since 1293 it had had a constitution, which excluded the nobility from government and was administered solely by the patricians — a small group of very wealthy upper-class families. Its council did not include small artisans or the common people. Nevertheless, the Florentine constitution was more progressive than the Venetian. At that time, Florence was singular in Europe, for its constitution based on bourgeois democratic principles.

The Medici came to power and by the 1430s, Cosimo de Medici was the richest man in Europe. This dynasty is inseparably linked to the history of Florentine art. Under the Medici, patricians became the main patrons of the artists. So, the art and culture of the Renaissance flourished based on the Italian bourgeois republic.

Renaissance Italy produced great thinkers, outstanding poets and other artists, whose thirst for knowledge took the shape of artistic knowledge. Modern science began its journey in close association with the arts.

Because of their struggle against feudalism, the new bourgeoisie had to direct all its thinking towards reality – reality was at the heart of its artistic theories. Nature was seen as the perfect guide in all matters of art, a concept that runs through all Renaissance thinking.

The emerging natural sciences regarded humankind a part of nature, connected to natural and earthly things and yet as a rational being. Personality and individuality became important notions, and portraiture emerged in art.

All this was the result of the increased importance of patricians in the Italian cities. A popular patriotism added to these developments in the fine arts, especially in the period of the High Renaissance. This patriotism was fuelled by the citizens’ willingness to defend state independence and democratic rights. Thus early capitalist development, patriotism, and relative wealth were the conditions for the flourishing of the Renaissance in Italy.

The High Renaissance covers the short period between 1500 and 1530. When Renaissance art reached its peak, Italy's economic decline had already begun and the Italian states faced difficult economic and political situations. New geographical discoveries dealt a hard blow to the Italian trade with the Orient. The patricians withdrew to banking, money lending and capital investment in land, and Italy saw a re-strengthening of feudal absolutism.

Contrary to these increasing anti-democratic tendencies, the progressive thinkers and artists of the 16th century continued to defend the people’s achievements. Humanist thinking, originally limited to a small Latin-educated elite, now spread through the national language. National and democratic ideals were preserved, and they defined the High Renaissance, which produced three great artists – Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was the oldest of the High Renaissance artists, and was born on 15 April 1452 near the village of Vinci, from which he took his name. His mother Caterina, the daughter of a poor farmer, worked as a servant. She was not married to Leonardo’s father, a professional notary, with whom he was living by 1457, then later with his paternal grandfather. It was during the seven years with his grandfather that Leonardo learned to read, write and calculate.

Leonardo’s grandfather died when the boy was twelve, at which time he returned to his father. As he was not the legitimate heir, Leonardo was not sent to further his education in a secondary school, and he never learned Latin, Greek or higher mathematics. Instead, he took up an apprenticeship and ended up in the workshop of a master painter in Florence. This is where his career really began.

Florence in the 15th century, like much of Italy, was a violent place, where rival merchant dynasties fought each other for power. It was one of the largest cities in Europe, and it was the centre of the Italian Renaissance. As a man of the people, rather than an aristocrat, Leonardo had to seek employment with princes in order to earn an income all his life. In the course of working for these various princes he designed weaponry, acted as a political advisor, designed costumes, devised various entertainments, played music and recited verse.

Leonardo was also a scientist. Modern science was emerging, based on experiment and experience. Leonardo wrote in the Introduction to his Treatise on Painting:

To me it seems that those sciences are vain and full of error which are not born of experience, mother of all certainty, first-hand experience which in its origins, or means, or end has passed through one of the five senses. And if we doubt the certainty of everything which passes through the senses, how much more ought we to doubt things contrary to these senses, such as the existence of God or of the soul or similar things over which there is always dispute and contention.

He pioneered this empirical approach in his anatomical drawings, which gave him, for example, an understanding of blood circulation centuries ahead of his time. Other interests included the cardiovascular system, the head and the eye – he realised that light enters the brain through the eye, the opposite to medical thinking at the time. Visual records of dissections were rare at the time, and Leonardo’s drawings were unprecedented in their detail and accuracy. Leonardo composed these depictions at some considerable danger to himself: not only was he exposing himself to bacteria, he was also violating church laws carrying severe punishments.

Leo was also              Leo was also 2

Leonardo was also an architect and town planner. He was an engineer who thought about linking rivers via canals, came up with plans to build tunnels through mountains, and developed war machines. He discovered laws governing optics, light and gravitation, closely observed the flight of birds, and made plans for building a flying apparatus.

Leo was also 3

Leonardo was one of the first artists to make extensive use of paper. The demand for paper had increased dramatically following the invention of the printing press, and the printing of books. Before this, writers and painters had used parchment. The arrival of cheaper paper meant that artists could draft and discard many ideas. Another Renaissance innovation that Leonardo made use of was oil paint, rather than the previously favoured fast-drying egg tempura.

The Mona Lisa

But of course Leonardo is best known for his painting, and in particular the Mona Lisa, or in Italian, La Gioconda. The portrait is not very large, 77 x 53 cm painted on poplar wood.

                                                                       Portraits of women, painted by Leonardo

Leo La Gioconda             Ginevra de Benci          Leo Cecilia Gallerani

                 La Gioconda                                              Ginevra de’ Benci                                             Cecilia Gallerani

With his mid-1470s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, Leonardo had broken with the traditional genre of female portraiture in Italy – the sitter is not painted in profile, as was then standard, but like a man, in a three-quarter pose. She is capable, intelligent and outdoors. This is also true for La Gioconda. However, comparing the features of the two women, it becomes apparent that by the time Leonardo paints the Mona Lisa, he has a far more developed understanding of anatomy.

La Gioconda is a woman of means. Slight hints of columns on the painting’s edges and a balustrade indicate an aristocratic country villa, as does the elevated balcony. This house overlooks a landscape of water and the mountains, emphasised by towering clouds. A road to the viewer’s left, and a bridge across a river on the right mirroring the road, indicate human activity, although no other human form is present. The suggestion is that the countryside belongs to this woman’s family.

Different to his portraits of Ginevra de’ Benci and Cecilia Gallerani, Leonardo now softens the facial outlines and contours, using his technique of sfumato (smokiness). Slower-drying oil paint enabled him to blur edges and create a lack of definition that suggests movement to the viewer’s eyes. Similarly, the landscape is hazy. Leonardo developed this technique through close observation and scientific thinking about how the eye perceives things, based on the filtration of sunlight through particles in the air, affecting the reflection of light by objects.

Sfumato enabled Leonardo to produce a very vivid, apparently moving image of a living thing – person, plant or animal. His treatment of atmospheric light creates an impression of infinite changeability. In the case of the Mona Lisa, this movement and energy is particularly apparent in the facial muscles. And here lies the secret of her smile: sfumato shading and slight blurring creates an uncertainty around her mouth and lips, a subtle transition between smile and no smile. Leonardo’s smokiness captures supremely and scientifically the way the eye sees living nature, in continual movement and change. We might call it the dialectics of nature.

Sfumato is used for everything around the Mona Lisa. Not only could she be ‘living’, but so could her natural surroundings. Her image and the countryside in the background are not ‘photographic’ images. They are depicted as the human eye perceives them – a person and external nature as seen by a human being. This is a truly revolutionary standpoint. The painting enacts everything that Leonardo knew about life – as an engineer, a scientist and as an artist. The painting expresses the very essence of Leonardo’s dialectical understanding, all of his insights into nature and humankind. It captures perfectly the spirit of the High Renaissance.

Leo as Plato

Leonardo as Plato in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’

A vision of the world to come: Liam O'Flaherty's 'Hollywood Cemetery'
Monday, 08 April 2019 15:24

A vision of the world to come: Liam O'Flaherty's 'Hollywood Cemetery'

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Liam O’Flaherty’s re-issued novel,“Hollywood Cemetery” 

Published in London in 1935, but never re-issued until now, “Hollywood Cemetery” is one of five novels by O’Flaherty banned by the Irish State under the Censorship Act. In the 1930s, O’Flaherty was one of Ireland’s most censored authors – in fact, his Galway novel “The House of Gold” was the very first book banned there in 1929.

“Hollywood Cemetery” departs from his more familiar Irish settings of the rural West of Ireland or Dublin’s slums. It is O’Flaherty’s fictionalised satirical account of his encounter with an industry that embodies the American Way of Life and exposes the core of Hollywood film-making.

As the reader is reminded in “Hollywood Cemetery”, the American film industry had similar ‘decency’ stipulations to those of the Irish Censorship Board, under its new Production Code Administration. Both bodies attacked realist representation. Predictably, this resulted in antirealistic idylls that had nothing whatever to do with the reality of people’s lives. While the rest of Hollywood was staggering under the clerical attack on indecent films, Mortimer, the fictional film producer of Flaherty’s “Hollywood Cemetery”, had hurriedly produced a picture called “Little Virgin”, which was a colossal success:

Within three months it had flooded all the capitals of the world, outside of pagan Moscow, with the tears of the multitude. It had poured a profit of four million dollars into the bank account of World Films Inc.

Into this general context, O’Flaherty sets his satire. Based on his observations in the filming of his novel “The Informer”, he exposes how Hollywood operates, the allure of incredible salaries and resulting prostitution of its employees for money. O’Flaherty appears of sorts in the character of Brian Carey. This modern Irish author is part of a beauty-spotting operation in Ireland along with a US film crew, to seek out a glamour girl suitable for the filming of his story “The Emigrant”. This achieved, the idea of a realist film about poverty in Ireland is speedily relinquished in favour of Hollywood illusion. “Hollywood Cemetery” is both hilarious and frightening.

Hollywood acts as coloniser. Just as American slave owners, or British Anglicisers of Irish names, adapt the names of their underlings to perceived US, or British, tastes. Thus, Biddy Murphy becomes Angela Devlin. Such use of US-friendly aliases for actors/musicians from Mexico, Puerto Rico etc., continues to this day. In fact, O’Flaherty unerringly pinpoints such cornerstone aspects of the Hollywood way, then in its infancy. Apart from the imposition of Hollywood-friendly names and appearances, he exposes the use of cosmetic surgery, drugs, screenplay factories, power battles and sexual harassment as intrinsic to Hollywood. While these are now slowly becoming more obvious to the public, along with their toll on the mental health of those involved, O’Flaherty recognises them clearly and exposes their early roots.

Here, it is a struggle to hold on to one’s own identity and integrity. Power and money swallow everything, without regard for human life. Apart from the narrator, who frequently ironises himself, only the Communist Party newspaper, “Proletarian Power” reveals this:

Hollywood is a cemetery where the remains of present-day bourgeois intellectuals are buried, after being fattened like the sacrificial victims in ancient Mexico on enormous salaries, only to have their hearts plucked out and eaten by the moguls of modern Mammon.

This is what O’Flaherty must have experienced with the filming of his own novel “The Informer” by his distant cousin John Ford. Instead of staying true to his original, set in the slums of Dublin, Hollywood’s celluloid manifestations of his two central female characters are sophisticated, elegant and photogenic, mocking their originals. Instead of making a film based on the Dublin working-class experience, Ford and his scriptwriter Dudley Nichols, along with the entire machinery, cleansed the novel of its deeper political texture to make a film that presents stereotypes as seen by those who have no interest in the inhabitants of tenements beyond their monetary value.

While in Hollywood, O’Flaherty began thinking about his masterpiece, the historical novel Famine. This novel is the first major artistic grappling in Ireland with the nation’s 19th century colonial holocaust. O’Flaherty presents a well-differentiated panorama of the starving peasantry, famine-profiteering gombeen men, clergy with and without a spine, and the deeply inhuman British colonialists.

O’Flaherty hoped that Ford would make “Famine” into a film after it appeared in 1937. Had Ford taken on this material, and resolutely portrayed this liquidation of a large part of the Irish nation, along with its resistance, it could have made a significant contribution to a cultural acknowledgement of colonialism in all its inhumanity. This did not happen and “Hollywood Cemetery” is partly an answer as to why not.

Fightback – humanity’s struggle against great adversity – is always a theme in O’Flaherty’s work. Significantly, the two Irish characters in “Hollywood Cemetery” rebel. The novel also features women whose intelligence flies in the face of the gender role assigned to them by Hollywood. A gender-fluid character is another aspect to the novel, in which O’Flaherty seems to anticipate our own times and is surely far ahead of his own.

O’Flaherty had started the book while still in the US and finished it in France during the summer of 1935. His first draft was returned to him by his London publisher Gollancz as too outspoken. Following its revision, it was finally published on 18 November 1935. Nuascéalta’s republication of “Hollywood Cemetery”, over eighty years later, is a major cultural event.

“Hollywood Cemetery”is available here.

Traven (alias Ret Marut, born Otto Feige), police photo, London 1923
Sunday, 31 March 2019 11:13

Exposing the exploitative nature of capitalism: the life and writings of B. Traven

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell introduces B. Traven, a writer who stood consistently and unreservedly on the side of the working class and the oppressed. Like Robert Tressell, his novels and writings relentlessly expose and protest the exploitative nature of the capitalist system.

The writer Otto Feige, alias B. Traven, died fifty years ago. He was German, born on 23 February 1882 in Świebodzin (now Poland). He was a trained machine fitter and an active social-democratic agitator and trade union official, with sympathies for anarcho-syndicalism. Aged 25, he adopted the fictitious identity of a native Californian named Ret Marut and worked as an actor, director and writer.

From 1917 to 1921, he published the pacifist magazine “Der Ziegelbrenner” (The Brick Burner) from his one-man Munich publishing house. He was active in the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic during the German Revolution of 1918-19. He managed to escape before being court-martialled and went underground, continuing to publish his magazine. After travelling through half of Europe, he was arrested as an illegal alien in London at the end of 1923. Originally, he had hoped to emigrate from London to the United States, but his entry failed due to the lack of identity papers.

Instead, in the summer of 1924, he took the boat to Mexico, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Here, he called himself Traven, or Traven Torsvan, and did his utmost to remain as invisible as possible.

Traven farmed some land north of Tampico in the agricultural settlement Columbus (today’s Cuauhtemoc, Altamira). He also earned some money taking temporary jobs in the nearby oil field, or at the cotton harvest, learning more about the country and its people. This experience fed into Traven’s writing and gave it a sense of authenticity and truth.

In early 1925, Traven sent the German Social Democratic paper “Vorwärts” (Forward) a novel that “describes the life of cotton pickers in the tropics from personal experience”. He stated in his pencilled cover-note that he not only worked as a cotton picker, but also as an “oilman, farm worker, cocoa worker, factory worker, tomato and orange picker, jungle harvester, muleteer, hunter, and merchant” among Indians. The editors believed the manuscript to be genuine and that the unknown author was a gifted migrant labourer. Traven never revealed his identity.

His success story as the author B. Traven began with the acceptance of the novel “The Cotton-Pickers” by “Vorwärts” and soon afterwards also by the newly founded Book Guild Gutenberg, a community of readers founded by the Book Printers’ Union, as an alternative to profit-oriented book publishers. By the time of his death in 1969, Traven had written twelve novels and four volumes of short stories, which were translated into 33 languages and reached a total circulation of about 30 million copies, including “The Death Ship” (1926), “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1927), “The Bridge in the Jungle” and “The White Rose” (both 1929).

death ship

“The Death Ship” made Traven famous around the world. The novel depicts a system that sacrifices the lives of the dispossessed for profit. Traven’s sailors without passports, proletarian farm and oil field workers, bakery employees, lumberjacks and other in wage slavery are trapped by fraudulent employment contracts. The employers exploit them ruthlessly, by paying them only a small part of the value they create, while retaining most of it as profit. In contrast, Traven advocates a just, classless society whose subjects lead a self-determined life.

What made Traven such a resounding success with the workers’ press and the book guild, and then with a reading public, was his depiction of the proletarian struggle for emancipation, which was so familiar to the readers, together with his defiance, his rebelliousness and his vision of freedom, justice and cultural participation. His main theme was the suffering of the exploited in the capitalist society and their revolt against it, usually set in an exotic location. Over and over, Traven emphasises the factual reality of his texts, the purpose of which is to enlighten and uncover the truth.

Traven evaded all contact with readers, editors, later even filmmakers. There is only one authenticated photograph of him, even giving his actual name as Otto Feige. The British police took it in 1923. In this police record revealing his actual identity, Traven states his true place of birth and his parents’ occupation (textile worker and brick burner). After that, he consistently denied his German origins, claiming to be American by birth, despite his German accent.

Traven died on 26 March 1969 in Mexico City, aged 87 years. Authorised by Traven, his widow Rosa Elena confirmed that he had been an actor and writer in Germany and published the magazine “Der Ziegelbrenner” under the name Ret Marut. But even she did not know who hid behind Ret Marut.

Will Wyatt of the BBC revealed in 1978 that two living siblings both recognised their lost brother Otto on photos of Traven in Mexico, the actor Ret Marut in Düsseldorf and the prisoner in London. Wyatt also commissioned Graham Rabey, a specialist in biometric facial recognition at the University of Manchester, to compare two photos of Otto Feige and Ret Marut. Rabey came to the conclusion that they were definitely one and the same person.

Traven is one of the most widely read working-class writers of the 20th century.

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing
Thursday, 14 March 2019 15:29

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews a new anthology of working-class writing

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, edited by Michael Pierse (CUP 2017) is a book to be greatly welcomed. It is the first study of such scope, attempting to present and analyse the entire body of Irish working-class literature. It begins with the first writings of rural workers in the 18th century and brings the reader right up to the present day.

The study of working-class literature was a significant field of Marxist research in the socialist countries, beginning in the Soviet Union, where the works of such authors were translated, analysed and published from early on. It is left to the German expert Gustav Klaus, author of the Afterword, to state this.

Twenty-two chapters examine various aspects of this seriously under-researched field of literature, ranging across three centuries and three continents. The book attempts to give as comprehensive an overview as possible. Its publication coincides with similar companions to the working-class literature of Britain and the United States. 

There is of course always a degree of reservation when working-class literature comes under the scrutiny of largely middle-class academics. In parallel to the militancy with which the gender of authors acceptable to writing about women is scrutinised, one might ask: How familiar are these academics with the working-class experience? How much of this experience will be grasped? What do they see, and what not? How high-handed will they be in commenting on the literary production of the working class? These are valid concerns.

In antagonistic class society, the working class comprises of those people who possess nothing but their labour power. They are in an exploitative relationship with the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, and participate only marginally in the fruits of their labour. As producers of surplus value, they create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. The rural proletariat must be included among working-class writers. Small farmers are a periphery group of the rural proletariat, who often hardly exist above subsistence level, while contributing to the national wealth. Equally peripheral to the working class are the ever-increasing number of people in precarious employment, and the unemployed.

Working-class authors must be read not merely in terms of their origins but also of how central this experience is to their writing, how aware they are of the inhuman and war-hungry system that exploits them, how their characters envisage their own emancipation and a better, more humane and peace-loving world.

One of the most striking omissions in the book is any recognition of working-class writing in the Irish language. There is no dedicated chapter on this, nor is there any meaningful inclusion of writers in Irish.

Ms 97

Decorated initial by Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, 1821

We mention some of these here to indicate the seriousness of this exclusion. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, born when the role and prominence of Gaelic scribes was all but lost, eked out an existence, working as a wandering labourer, and living in poverty for most of his life. Neither is there any discussion of the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin.

Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote the finest (only) no-holds-barred novel Deoraíocht (Exile) dealing with the raw reality of the Irish working class and Gaeltacht diaspora in early 20th century London, and a plethora of short stories in which his identification with the working class is made clear. 

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a left republican who spent the 2nd World War years in the Curragh prison camp, is arguably the finest 20th century Irish-language prose writer. His collections of short stories and novel Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) reflect the grinding poverty and hopelessness of his people, the small farmers and fisher folk of the West Galway Gaeltacht, on whose behalf he agitated all of his adult life.

The prose writing of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a building labourer in Northampton and the English Midlands, especially his Dialann Deoraí (An Emigrant’s Diary) – express the life and feelings of mid-20th c fellow Gaeltacht labourers in England. A member of the British Labour Party, his writing breathes his socialist sensibility. 

Máirtín Ó Direáin

Máirtín Ó Direáin is the best 20th c Irish-language poet. His childhood in a poverty-stricken household in Inis Mór, Aran, instilled in him a lifelong sympathy for all oppressed, by the capitalist order which finds full expression in his poetry. His fine lament for James Connolly mirrors that of Somhairle Maclean, the leading 20th century Scottish Gaelic poet, of marked communist sympathies, remembered also for his poetic celebration of John Maclean and the Red Clyde.

In the early chapters, there is also a surprising sense of insularity. Although the popularity of the radical Scottish poet Robert Burns among the working class in 18th and 19th century Ireland is mentioned several times, there is no exploration as to why that might have been the case. Indeed, the epochal upheaval of the American and French Revolutions, their unprecedented and hope-inspiring effect on the working classes of all of Europe with the promise of equality, comradeship and liberty, are not part of the picture. Yet these events, along with the anti-colonial revolution in Haiti, were major factors in the development of the United Irishmen, who had mass support in Ireland and in their later years increasingly attracted working-class members. Without such a contextual, historical context, the writings of the working class lose the meaning they had at the time.

Robert Tressell Cover resized

Occasionally, the tone of an author towards the writer discussed comes across as slightly patronising. Dublin-born Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is the first major working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Tressell (Robert Noonan) found no publisher and no editor, and the abridged versions removed his socialist ideas from the novel. Its full text only appeared, exactly as he first wrote it, in 1955. The working class has widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience and written from their own point-of-view. It is not merely about the working-class experience – it also reflects on ways out of it.

The Tressell-like main character Owen is a Marxist, and tries to explain to his fellow house-painters how the system works, the Great Money Trick, and how to change this life-denying system. Never before in the English realist novel, had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/ her humanity.

This novel is discussed at different points in the study, but not always in full recognition of its achievement. For example in Michael Pierse’s own chapter, he generalises to a degree that devalues the differentiated image of the working class presented by Tressell. Paul Delaney on the other hand goes into deeper analysis in his chapter on early 20th c working-class fiction.

In chapters on working-class writers from the North of Ireland, there are glaring exclusions of just such authors. For example, the chapter entitled ‘Poetry and the Working Class in Northern Ireland’ focuses almost exclusively on the not so working-class in subject matter: poets Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Such emphasis on the existing canon occurs in several chapters and in a way misses the point. There is no reference to Ciaran Carson, bilingual (Irish and English) son of a postal worker and highly regarded writer and translator of poetry in both languages. There are other omissions, including again the Irish language tradition, for example Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Equally, the names of Northern working-class fiction writers do not appear in this book: Danny Morrison, poet Ciaran Carson’s novelist brother Brendan Carson, Sam McAughtry or Ian Cochrane. Nor, strikingly, Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns’s novels. They are not even listed in the many lists of writers that appear (without much comment) throughout this book.

However, despite these shortcomings, A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is a very good starting point for anybody seeking to discover something about this vital tradition. It highlights the stature of Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan and other titans of Irish working-class literature. The authors have collected many names and writings of Irish working-class writers in Ireland, Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand. For this reason alone, this book is an invaluable resource. Some of the better chapters discuss the literature they present in detail and analysis, making for more interesting reading.

rita ann higgins 2

Rita Ann Higgins

Two chapters that stand out for me in this respect are chapter 11 on ‘Solidarity and Struggle in Irish-American Working-Class Literature’ and chapter 14 on ‘Early 20th century Working-Class Fiction’ both of which look at their texts in terms of socialism and internationalism as well as offering more in-depth analyses. In other chapters, such engagement with the actual texts would have enriched them. For example, Heather Laird writing about working-class Irish women writers, comments about Rita Ann Higgins that she is one of the few female writers whose poems “feature female speakers with a strong grasp of the part state institutions play in consolidating the power dynamics that underpin the prevailing socio-economic and gender status quo”. After such a statement, the reader expects to be presented with the text and the evidence. Surely, one of the questions we have about working-class literature is not simply the setting but about in what way the writers’ understanding of their class within capitalist society is forged into an awareness of how to bring about a change to their lives.

This book proves that an independent archive of working-class writings must be set up to collect documents and manuscripts often deemed unworthy of publication by commercial publishers and unrecognised by mainstream academics. A great example for such an undertaking is The Working Class Movement Library, founded in Manchester by Ruth and Edmund Frow. Only in this way will important records of working-class lives, such as their autobiographies, but also their other writings be collected as the aesthetic statement of what the lives of so many were and are like.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is an academic publication. Priced at £79.99, it is ironically well beyond the means of the working class. However, despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable reference book. Everybody with an interest in working–class writings, as the voice of those who are marginalised and silenced in the writing of history, literary and art criticism, should ensure that their local library owns a copy for their readers.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, CUP 2017, is available here

Butcher's Dozen: Bloody Sunday, 47 years on
Thursday, 14 March 2019 14:46

Butcher's Dozen: Bloody Sunday, 47 years on

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell protests the decision only to charge one paratrooper, and introduces extracts from Thomas Kinsella's poem, Butcher's Dozen

Shock and disbelief is the reaction of most people in Ireland to the decision of the N. Ireland Prosecution Service (NIPP) only to charge one British paratrooper, “Soldier F” in connection with the murder of 14 innocent civil rights marchers on Derry’s “Bloody Sunday”, 30th January 1972. 

This morning relatives and friends of the Bloody Sunday victims had marched to Derry’s Guildhall in anticipation of the NIPP’s announcement.

The NIPP’s decision reflects the arrogant stance of the British establishment to these crimes committed in Ireland. Indeed, it echoes the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley’s statement last week that all killings by the British army and police during the Troubles were “not crimes”.

Her statement and today’s legal decision only to prosecute one soldier stand in direct contradiction to the findings of the Saville Inquiry and to the apology made by former British PM David Cameron in parliament, stating that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. 

Lord Saville’s public inquiry into Bloody Sunday ran for over 10 years.  Lord Saville found those killed and injured were innocent, and that the killings were unjustified and those killed posed no threat. It overturned the first, discredited report into the killings, by Lord Widgery, in 1972, which said British soldiers were fired on first and some of those killed had been armed.

Its report, in June 2010, identified 22 former British soldiers who could be charged with murder, attempted murder, causing grievous bodily injury with intent, or perjury. It has now taken almost 9 years for the NIPP to whittle that number down to one anonymous scapegoat, “Soldier F”. Saville linked him to the killing of 4 people on Bloody Sunday. According to the brother of victim Michael Kelly, what stood out about the evidence “Soldier F” gave to the Inquiry “he showed absolutely no remorse for what he did”.

Today, one of the solicitors for the Bloody Sunday families praised their tenacious 47-year campaign for justice that had resulted in the historic public inquiry and the prospect of actual prosecutions.

Alas, their campaign for justice is not yet over. The families will study this decision very carefully and look for legal possibilities to challenge today's decision before the High Court. They will seek to have the number of soldiers prosecuted increased as well as ensure the accused are named rather than they remain anonymous, as was the case at the Saville Inquiry. 

“Bloody Sunday” was a watershed in the North of Ireland conflict. It was to result in the decline of the powerful civil rights movement and the rise of the Provisional IRA. The peaceful demonstrations demanding equal rights for Catholics in the late 1960s exposed internationally the sectarian, repressive and gerrymandered regime operating in Britain’s backyard, “Northern Ireland”. 

In August 1969, the British Labour government brought British troops onto the streets to stop the pogroms against the Catholic community by the armed, sectarian pro-British N. Ireland police force, the RUC.

The British Labour government disarmed the RUC and began to introduce democratic reforms. However, in June 1970 the role of the British state changed, when Edward Heath was elected Prime Minister. The Tories – or to give thei official title the “Conservative and Unionist Party” – were in power, and they sympathised with their fraternal party in the North of Ireland, the Unionist Party, that had controlled the sectarian state for almost 50 years.

Repression of the Catholic community rather than democratic reforms became the order of the day, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.

The demonstration in Derry on 30th January 1972 had been aimed against internment. The killings on “Bloody Sunday” were seen as a deliberate act by the British Tories and their Unionist allies to force the unmanageable peaceful protests for civil rights off the streets. Both at home and abroad it was more acceptable to fight “terrorism” than to deal with peaceful demonstrators demanding their civil rights. Besides, in N. Ireland the British army could perfect its anti-insurgency techniques.

So, while only one of the soldiers who fired the shots is to be prosecuted, the politicians, civil servants and army officers who pulled the strings are not. Of late, particular attention has been drawn to retired General Sir Mike Jackson. He was second-in-command of the army in Derry on Bloody Sunday.  During his evidence at the Saville Inquiry he suffered from severe memory loss.

This contrasts with his disputed account of another mass killing in Northern Ireland months before Bloody Sunday. In August 1971 during internment the Parachute Regiment shot dead 11 innocent people, including a mother and a priest, in what is now known as the “Ballymurphy Massacre”. Jackson was press officer for the Parachute Regiment, stationed in Belfast, and he briefed the media that those killed in the shootings were Republican gunmen. This view was contradicted on Monday last at the on-going inquest into the “Ballymurphy Massacre”, when the then commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment, Gen Sir Geoffrey Howlett, 89, admitted that of those killed “most if not all were not IRA”.

Jackson’s role in Northern Ireland did not hamper his career, which saw him involved in the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. On 1st February 2003 he became chief of staff of the British Army, a month before the illegal invasion of Iraq – another war where those who pulled the strings go completely unpunished.   

Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s poem “Butcher’s Dozen” was written in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, following the Widgery report which whitewashed the atrocities, and published on 26 April 1972.

Kinsella later said:

The Widgery report was a great insult. [My] response was instant; the poem itself was written and issued in seven days. … I debated with myself at the time whether to keep it anonymous, but that would have been wrong. Commitment is important when faced with wickedness and injustice. … The poem was some at some personal cost, however. There was a considerable loss of readership – a permanent chill in the atmosphere from readers of my work, and from friends. I received a letter from one friend who simply put an end to our friendship. They signed off, “No British person would behave in such a way.” This continued even after total vindication [in] the Saville report; and the apology [from prime minister David Cameron] in the British parliament. I stand over my decision to write [it].”

The poem opens in tone and rhythm reminiscent of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819:

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys - over all
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
"Once there lived a hooligan.
A pig came up, and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones,
Who lost his life for throwing stones."

It continues, commenting on British justice:

"The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where's the law that can't be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We'd be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
- All that's left; it's turning sour.

As various ghosts of the dead speak, one refers to the witches’ broth in Macbeth – only this pot is worse!

A joking spectre followed him:
"Take a bunch of stunted shoots,
A tangle of transplanted roots,
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests,
Some dried colonial interests,
A hard unnatural union grown
In a bed of blood and bone,
Tongue of serpent, gut of hog
Spiced with spleen of underdog.
Stir in, with oaths of loyalty,
Sectarian supremacy,
And heat, to make a proper botch,
In a bouillon of bitter Scotch.
Last, the choice ingredient: you.
Now, to crown your Irish stew,
Boil it over, make a mess.
A most imperial success!"

Kinsella’s concluding lines will stand for the way many in Ireland feel today:

I stood like a ghost. My fingers strayed
Along the fatal barricade.
The gentle rainfall drifting down
Over Colmcille's town
Could not refresh, only distil
In silent grief from hill to hill.

JF butchers dozen resized

For the full text, please click here.

 

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland
Thursday, 07 March 2019 15:22

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland

Published in Cultural Commentary

To mark International Women's Day, Jenny Farrell reviews Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland, by Priscilla Metscher

Since times immemorial, people involved in the struggle for a better world have given expression to their aspiration not only in political texts and deeds, but also in artistic ways. These artistic expressions are not mere decoration, but an integral part of understanding and changing the world.

As explored in a previous article, the United Irishmen (and women) made extensive use of literary satire, and published songs in their political publications. Mary Ann McCracken wrote insightful, emancipatory letters to her imprisoned brother, Henry Joy. James Connolly took time out to write two plays and over twenty songs, poems and ballads. The play "Under Which Flag?" was first performed by the Workers' Dramatic Company in Liberty Hall three weeks before the Easter Rising (March 26, 1916). To quote the Irish suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who reviewed it:

It is a play of country life in Ireland at the time of the Fenian Rising... the dramatic conflict is fought around the person of Frank O'Donnell, a farmer's son, who in the first act announces his attention of joining the English Army, but at the end of the third act, having been shown the right path by his parents and sweetheart, and the old blind patriot Brian McMahon joins the fighting forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood instead.

In the play, the farmer's wife Ellen replies to her eldest son Pat's intention to emigrate to America.

Far off hills are always green. Always slaving for other people, is it? And do you think you will get out of that by going to America? Faith then, you won't. The poor of the world are always slaving for other people, always going hungry that others may be fed, naked that others may be clothed, badly housed that others may live in palaces. 'Tis the way of the world in America as well as in Ireland.

In a short story discovered recently and attributed to Connolly, "The Agitator's Wife", another powerful woman character features at the heart of the piece. To quote Connolly: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression."

Priscilla Metscher’s study, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, 2018) focuses on the political thinking, activities and lives of eminent Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, from a Marxist perspective. The author examines in turn Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson and James Connolly.

Mary Ann McCracken’s (1770-1866) emancipative ideas concerning the lot of women in her day are revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic along the French model. Women were sworn into the Society and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising. Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late 18th century.

Next, Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848) and William Thompson (1775-1833). Both came from the Irish Ascendancy and had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly authored Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, which was first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights for all citizens.

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Anna Doyle Wheeler

Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland:

Of what use … can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state be if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.

Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, on request from the women workers, organised them as a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper the Irish Citizen stated:

Mr. James Connolly…is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.

This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them to the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short. In this sense, they were both ahead of their times and of their times. By reading about and understanding these pioneers of women’s emancipation, the relevance of their insights and activism becomes clear. Their lives and work are to be recognized, celebrated – and above all built on.

The booklet is published by Connolly Books and available from them for €7, see here.

Building for a society of equals: 100 years of Bauhaus
Saturday, 23 February 2019 21:20

Building for a society of equals: 100 years of Bauhaus

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell celebrates 100 years of Bauhaus, the German art school started in 1919 

Inspired by Germany’s November 1918 Revolution, which was ultimately crushed by the Social Democratic Party leadership and the military, artists and intellectuals, anti-militarists and pacifists hoped for a new society for the common good. Many however had no clear political orientation or a full understanding of the causes of the war. Yet, despite this lack of clarity, socialist visions of the future were formulated, oriented to a more just society.

During its short existence (1919-33), a number of designers and architects emerged from the Bauhaus whose work lastingly influenced 20th century visual arts. Their philosophy was that everyday objects achieve beauty through simple form, material and colour.

At the initiative of Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius, Adolf Behne and others, the Workers’ Council for Art – named after the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils – set itself the goal of bringing current developments in architecture and art closer to the people: “Art and people must form a unity. Art should no longer be the pleasure of a few, but serve the happiness and life of the many.” In Gropius’ words: “the more their class pride grows, the more the people will despise imitating the rich and independently invent their own style of living. This understanding by the people is the fertile ground for the art to come.”

What was new about the school was its attempt to integrate art and craft, to bridge the gap between art and industry. The unity of arts had of course been a central tenet of the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and influenced Gropius’s planning for the school. Nevertheless, the Bauhaus was different to the Arts and Crafts movement in fundamental ways. Its emphasis was urban and technological, and it embraced 20th-century machine culture.

The Bauhaus began in Weimar in 1919 as a state school for art and architecture. The guiding principles in the Bauhaus Manifesto were community, unity of art, practical education, cooperation between craft and industry, and a sense of belonging to the people. All artistic disciplines were to be reunited under the leadership of a new architectural art.

The name Bauhaus plays on the German word Bauhütte (construction/ building hut) – the workshop, where the builders of the great medieval cathedrals worked together: quarrymen, plasterers, mortar-makers, stone-cutters, masons, and others. Here, there were no strict dividing lines between artists and craftsmen, and the builders were both in one. This was an important concept for the Bauhaus school. As the word Hütte means hut, the term was modernised to Haus (house). In this way, the term Bauhaus refers to a workshop, the sense of community and the equality of art and craft under the guidance of architecture, as cultivated in medieval cathedral workshops. Painting, sculpture, applied art, music and dance were to combine in the building of the future.

With this commonality of craft and art in medieval cathedral construction in mind, the “Cathedral of Socialism” was understood as a utopian building and embodiment of a future social structure, intended to overcome the consequences of alienation, the causes of which were seen more in the division of labour than in wage labour.

Walter Gropius added this woodcut by Lyonel Feininger to the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus in 1919 as the title page. A triad surrounds the cathedral spire: the three arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, their rays flowing into each other. The choice of cathedral references the Bauhütte and underlines the centrality of architecture. The old-fashioned woodcutting technique combines with a futuristic cubist design.

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At the Bauhaus, painting and sculpture stimulated architecture, applied art and environmental design. In the visual arts, a certain affinity for the world of technology developed, while industry demanded a species-specific design of its products. The artists broke away from traditional forms; industry presented challenges with a multitude of new materials, products and devices. Form was to follow function, materials were to reveal the true nature of objects and buildings. Features of an object or building’s construction, such as steel or a beam, were to be highlighted rather than hidden as an integral part of the design, as part of its beauty.

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Bauhaus Dessau, built from 1925 to 1926 according to plans by Walter Gropius as a school building for the School of Art, Design and Architecture

The rectangular shape of the building, glass-curtain walls, and a distinctive vertical logo express the modern vision of the school. Glass walls create a bright interior and facilitate a view into the building’s inner purposes, transporting transparency and openness. These aspects, among others, reflect Gropius's vision of a more equal society.

At the heart of the Bauhaus philosophy was social living. A house should have a smooth, elementary form, as if it were industrially manufactured. The rectangular system and the Bauhaus signature flat roof were deemed equal surfaces with windows and doors. The aim was to achieve equality between front and rear, top and bottom, right and left. Every element of the building should be both supportive and supported. Architectural ideas reflected social perspectives - a society of equals.

One example of this is the Horseshoe Estate in Berlin. The Horseshoe Estate housed 3,000 members of a trade union building society set up in 1924. Bauhaus architect Bruno Taut, a committed socialist was asked to plan an affordable estate. The result were unpretentious, brick-built modernist flats in dramatic colours. They were then let or sold to trade unionists. The estate’s flat roofs led to a heated debate as the German right considered these un-German, “degenerate”. Indeed, in 1933, Taut fled Germany.

The suburban Horseshoe Estate expresses optimism for a new way of life and social equality. As with the school building, each part supports and is supported by the other and all look on to a green communal space around a small pool, fed by ice-age groundwater.

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                                               The Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) and its colourful doors

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Inside

Soviet artists provided inspiration for the Bauhaus: Malevich oriented his suprematist architects towards new architectural ideas of space, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International illustrated the synthesis between the “technical and the artistic”, and El Lissitzky’s Proun series (pronounced pro-oon), an acronym for “project for the affirmation of the new” in Russian) was conceived as “a transfer from painting to architecture”.

The Thuringian Weimar workers’ government (social democrats and communists) was dissolved in 1923 under pressure from the military. Following a decision by the new government, the Bauhaus in Weimar finally closed in 1924 with the declaration that Gropius had “designed it one-sidedly communist-expressionist”.

The school moved to Dessau in 1925 and against the votes of the right-wing parties there. Following the NSDAP’s success in Dessau’s local elections of 1931, the German fascists subjected the institution to reprisals such as raids, and the arrest of students, thus forcing it to dissolve in 1932. Its move to Berlin was short-lived and ended in 1933.

The Bauhaus produced an incredible range of disciplines including theatre design, typography, painting, furniture, architecture, household goods, stained glass and experimental film, photography, music and dance. Many significant 20th century artists, designers and architects studied and taught there including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer and Lyonel Feininger - who designed the cover for Gropius's Bauhaus manifesto.

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Marcel Breuer: Wassily chair

Its influence has been enormous: Herbert Bayer's sans serif typefaces, Gunta Stolzl's weaving and fabric designs and Marcel Breuer's famous tubular steel chair, to name a few iconic designs.

Bauhaus Women

Beginning with the Weimar Republic, women in Germany gained the right to vote and the freedom to teach. When Walter Gropius opened the State Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, he announced in his programme: “Every person of good repute is accepted as an apprentice, regardless of age and gender, whose talent and previous training is considered sufficient by the Master Council”.

But Gropius soon feared that the large number of women would damage the reputation of the school. He recommended that “no more unnecessary experiments” be undertaken, and demanded, “sharp segregation immediately after admission, especially in the case of the number of women who were too strongly represented”.

The fear was that female students would take valuable workshop places away from male students. Some women nevertheless conquered places in male domains, for example Dörte Helm and Lou Scheper in mural painting, while weaving was declared a “women’s class” from 1920.

The handloom was the only department managed by a woman, Anni Albers. The weaving mill soon became one of the most productive workshops. The ideas and innovations that the women weavers unleashed there were anything but traditional and led to a surge in development in industrial design and an artistic re-evaluation of textile art. In addition, they had such great commercial success that they became representative of the entire Bauhaus. When Bauhaus architect Meyer asked Albers to produce a wall covering for a new trade union lecture hall he was designing, she created an innovative hanging that joined the new material cellophane with cotton on either side respectively, to produce a surface that absorbed sound and reflected light at the same time.

The second largest area in which women excelled at the Bauhaus was photography. This modern medium offered artistically ambitious women not only opportunities to earn a living but also a field of experimentation for exploring themselves and their time. In their photographic works, these avant-garde photographers dealt with the “New Woman” and the images of women of their time.

In 1933, the Nazis banned many of the Bauhaus students from working. They were persecuted by the fascists because they were political, or they came from political “enemy territory”, or because of their Jewish origin. Their works were classified as “degenerate art”. They left Germany and spread their ideas around the world. When the Nazis built Buchenwald concentration camp, they required the former Bauhaus student and communist inmate Franz Ehrlich to designed the notorious camp’s gate, displaying the motto ‘Jedem das Seine’ (to each what he deserves) in Bauhaus typeface, in gruesome irony.

One of the most famous of the women students was Marianne Brandt, née Liebe. László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) became her mentor and teacher. On his advice, she joined the male-dominated metal workshop. There she gradually gained recognition and designed the first lighting fixtures for the Bauhaus building in Dessau. In 1928, she became head of the metal workshop – and made history as a Bauhaus designer. Moholy-Nagy called her his “best and most brilliant student” and said that she was the source of “90 percent of all Bauhaus models”.

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MT 49 tea extract jug

She became famous for the tiny tea infuser, the “MT 49 tea extract jug” made of silver and ebony, which is still an icon of Bauhaus decoration today - just like her lamp models. Brandt's infuser is distinctively Bauhaus. Rather like the infuser used with the samovar, it holds a concentrated extract, which may be combined with hot water to produce tea of any desired strength. Brandt recast the characteristics of a teapot as abstract geometric forms. The body hemisphere rests on crossbars. A tall ebony knob tops its asymmetrical round lid. The D-shaped ebony handle contrasts vertically to the pot's otherwise principally horizontal lines.

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Marianne Brandt Photomontage

Following their principle “No day without a search”, Brandt also discovered photography. She experimented with perspectives and light and devoted herself to photomontage. She captured themes such as big cities, film and expressive dance. She critically examined war and militarism and asked how much room for manoeuvre a “women’s movement” had in her time. Before the Nazis defamed her works as “degenerate”, she was known throughout Europe as a designer, and renowned companies produced her designs in series.

The artistic avant-garde assembled at the Bauhaus hoped to be a force that would change society and shape a modern human environment. It was an important counter-force to conformity, Prussianism and militarism.

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