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.

 

USSR stamp, 1956
Monday, 01 January 2018 19:36

Our common humanity: Robert Burns and For A' That

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell discusses the focus on our common humanity in Robert Burns's For A' That, and the way it foretells the 'programme which will govern the world of liberated humanity'.

Every so often, history presents us with an amazing affirmation of our common humanity, a sense of continuity, the passing on of the torch. This applies supremely to Robert Burns’s song For A’ That.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. He lived in an age of revolution: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in Haiti and an agrarian revolution in Scotland, to name some landmark events. The capitalist modernisation of agriculture brought with it financial gain on the one hand, and social polarisation on the other – wealthy tenants versus a rural proletariat.

JF Dean Castle in 1790 Ayrshire 3

Dean Castle, Ayrshire, 1790

A class struggle in the modern sense ensued. Those owning the means of production, providing food to the battlefields and the industrial centres, made enormous profits. The poor had too little to live on, and financial crisis, hunger and tuberculosis swept over Scotland.

The dispossessed of Scotland, among them Robert Burns, warmly welcomed the new ideas coming from across the Atlantic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, was joined a few years later by the French declaring a new era of liberty, equality and fraternity. At this time, in 1795, not long before his early death aged 37 in 1776, Burns wrote his most famous song For A’ That, a song celebrating and affirming the idea of the universal brotherhood of the dispossessed:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,  = we pass by the coward who is ashamed of his poverty
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,  = aristocratic rank is only the face stamped on a coin
The Man's the gowd for a' that.        = gold

At the heart of all of Burns’s poetry are the concerns of the ordinary people of Scotland. By addressing the specifics of their lives, Burns achieves a universality that applies to all working people. He gives voice to milkmaids and ploughmen, weavers and farmers’ wives, soldiers and travelling musicians, creating a cosmos in which ordinary folk can recognise themselves as part of a whole community. Such complete and realistic portrayal of the people asserts their common humanity and engenders pride in themselves, and a hatred for their enemies. Depictions like these help Burns’s readers to feel the conflict between their humanity and the misery they endure.

Ultimately, this portrayal of ordinary people points to the need for revolutionary change. This prophecy of communism – in the sense of a common cause, expressing the essential commonality of working people – lies at the core of Burns's poetry, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in For A' That. It reflects a sense of dignity, a scorn for the rich and a longing for universal brotherhood. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are no abstract slogans, but already extant, rooted in the lives of the people, logical projections of their humanity.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.                = take the prize
For a' that, an’ a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Ferdinand Freiligrath, a poet of the German bourgeois revolution of March 1848 to July 1849 (later a renegade), first translated For A’ That into German (Trotz Alledem) in 1843. Freiligrath, who knew Marx and Engels, was a member of the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League - founded in London in 1847), and a member of the editorial board of the revolutionary daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Marx and Engels between 1848 and 1849.

Freiligrath picked up Burns’s torch of revolution.He changed the text of Trotz Alledem to suit the German situation, whilst retaining the title, rhythm, and main idea, and it was printed in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 6 June 1848. This text survives in the German political song movement to this day.

JF Rheinische

The final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, printed in red ink. Its editors were threatened with arrest or exile. Marx emigrated to London.

On 8 November 1918, the German sailors’ mutiny in Kiel sparked revolutionary revolt across the country. When it reached Berlin, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic of Germany. On the 9 November, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new daily revolutionary paper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) as the paper of the Spartacus League, of which they were the leaders, and shortly afterwards of the Communist Party, founded on 1 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 15 January 1919, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.

Liebknecht wrote the editorial for 15 January the previous day. It is his final public statement, and his legacy. The article, seizing the torch of revolution, is entitled Trotz alledem (For all That) and ends:

The defeated of today will be the victorious of tomorrow. (…) The German working class’s way to Golgotha is not over ... we are accustomed to being flung from the peak into the depths. Yet our ship keeps a straight course firmly and proudly to its destination. And whether we will still be alive when this is achieved - our programme will live; it will govern the world of liberated humanity. For All That!

 JF window


This window can still be seen in the former GDR Council of State building in Berlin

For A’ That

by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

The Aleppo Room: a lost world of cultural harmony
Saturday, 23 December 2017 21:23

The Aleppo Room: a lost world of cultural harmony

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell shows the poignant seasonal relevance of the wonderfully inclusive art in the Syrian Aleppo House.

With everything that is happening in the world at the moment, it might seem facile to think of this season as one of good will. And yet Christmas is as good a time as any to reflect on a magnificent piece of art, exhibited in the Berlin Museum of Islamic Art. It is a wood panelled interior of the reception room from an in early 17th century Aleppo House, which expresses supremely good will to all. What makes this so special and poignant is its cultural and religious inclusiveness.

A prosperous Christian citizen, the Armenian merchant Isa ibn Butrus (Jesus, son of Peter), in the town of Aleppo, commissioned the painted panels of the walls of the reception room in his house in 1600. This was the room into which his guests would first arrive, so it had a representative and expressive function.

The paintings in what is now known as the Aleppo Room are the oldest collection from a Syrian residential house from the Ottoman period. The Christian owner engaged craftsmen from the best workshops of the time to paint a variety of themes. (The name Halab Shah ibn Isa, one of the craftsmen, appears on the cornice.) These are based on Islamic book illustration of that time, floral and geometric designs, and are executed in the best Ottoman tradition. Christian themes from the Old and New Testaments, including a depiction of Mary with Child, have their place alongside courtly scenes based on Persian book illustrations. The selection of decorative Psalms, Arabic proverbs and Persian principles which frame these scenes deepen the impression of a community of different religious beliefs living together peacefully. The room is a visual expression of this harmonious diversity.

JF the aleppo room

The central panels are located at the back of the room’s main section, to both sides of a wooden cabinet door set into the wall. Middle Eastern courtly scenes are painted on the left-side panel, including a royal sitting on a throne, a hunt and a hunting party with a prince holding a falcon. Old and New Testament biblical themes portrayed on the right-side panel involve Salome’s dance in front of King Herod, the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Isaac. What adds to the interest of these images is the fact that they reflect the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity and the natural inclusion of this religion into the regional culture. It makes complete historical and cultural sense to the Aleppo artist to depict the characters in the paintings in Middle Eastern dress. 

Other panels inside the room display more individual illustrations from either Middle Eastern courtly and hunting scenes, or Christian subject matters. They also show illustrations of the Arab love story of Leila and Majnun of Nizami (1141–1202) from the Haft Paykar, or the Virgin Mary and Child, or Saint George. Fantastic and real animals are depicted alongside these.

JF AR 2

The inclusivity of the themes of these paintings make these earliest surviving wall panels such a significant collection. They are evidence of a peaceful plurality of culture that could perhaps only have arisen in the Syrian trading town Aleppo.

In a world of growing economic inequality and exploitation, and the inevitable cultural accompaniments of suspicion, xenophobia and downright racism, it does not take a cynic to point out that such cultural inclusivity and harmony has been utterly lost, in a time when it is so badly needed for the survival not only of Syria, but of all of us.

 

Swift's satires of English colonialism
Monday, 11 December 2017 09:52

Swift's satires of English colonialism

Published in Fiction

On his 350th anniversary, Jenny Farrell outlines how Jonathan Swift's books expressed and strengthened Ireland's cultural struggle against English colonialism.

Jonathan Swift was born 350 years ago, on 30th November 1667.

Swift belongs to both the literature of Ireland and to that of England. Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal formulate and express a radical Irish position inside an English-dominated literary culture. They express the resistance and criticism of a literary oppositional culture, and so is part of Ireland's cultural struggle, intertwined with its political struggle against English imperialism.

Modern Irish literature in English begins with Swift, and Gulliver's Travels is its first work. It is Swift's 'Irish point of view', his concern with Ireland, particularly with Ireland's colonial status and with Irish liberation, which defines Swift's literary radicalism.

The dominant culture in eighteenth-century Ireland - that of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, to which Swift belonged - was not a specifically Irish culture. It was a culture that had more in common with English eighteenth-century culture than with that of the ordinary Irish people. It was an English-controlled culture, and its function was to ensure English hegemony in Ireland.

JF Jonathan Swift satire master proposal w636 h600 high

Swift’s commitment to the cause of Irish liberation and his passionate sympathy with the common people of Ireland developed over time, after moving to Dublin when he became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in June 1713. Sixteen years later, with A Modest Proposal (1729), he had become the champion of the common people of Ireland, the masses of the Irish poor. A Modest Proposal is among the most vehement indictments of a ruling class in all literature, literally suggesting that the rich are cannibals - that they eat the children of the poor.

In his earlier book, Gulliver's Travels, too, Ireland's colonial status and the relationship between Ireland and England is paramount. In Part III of this book Swift describes a visit to the flying island of Laputa ('the whore') and its enslaved neighbouring continent and capital Lagado and in chapter 3, he discusses "insurrections".

The king has three ways of dealing with insurrection: either to "inflict the inhabitants with Dearth and Diseases", or to "pelt them from above with great Stones", or to let the island "drop directly upon their Heads which makes a universal Destruction both of Houses and Men". However, this latter measure would destroy the King's own "Demesne", and the foundation stone on which it rests might "crack" or "burst" and "the whole Mass would fall to the Ground". Swift suggests that resistance and insurrection are commonplace in colonies and that such colonial war might end either with the de-struction of the oppressor, or with the annihilation of both sides.

The reader is also presented with the parable of a successful Irish revolution. The inhabitants of Lindalino (Dublin) who "had often complained of great Oppressions" successfully rebel. The resistance they offer is so effective that the king, though "determined to reduce this proud People", "was forced to give the Town their own Conditions". "I was assured by a great Minister", the parable comes to a close, "that if the Island had descended so near the Town, as not to be able to raise itself, the Citizens were determined to fix it for ever, to kill the King and all his Servants, and entirely change the Government".

Swift's sympathies lie clearly with the "proud People" of Lindalino. There is nothing in the text that would imply a criticism, or even a 'distancing', of their methods and intentions. Unsurprisingly this whole section was omitted from all editions (including the first) until 1899.

The parable of an Irish Revolution anticipates a successful rebellion. Swift envisages complete national freedom and, by implication, the destruction of the oppressing island, the killing of the king, and an entire change of "Government". Historically, the parable anticipates the ideological position of the United Irishmen, i.e. that of revolutionary Republicanism at the end of the eighteenth century.

Colonial oppression and exploitation are major themes of the Travels, commenting on the condition of England. The most bitter indictment of the colonial system, is at the end of the book, after Gulliver's return to England. Gulliver gives the reasons for his hesitation to deliver "a Memorial to a Secretary of State" concerning his journeys. It is a passage of savage irony, anticipating the sarcasm of A Modest Proposal:

To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with relation to the distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For Instance, a Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither; at length a Boy discovers Land from the Top-mast; they go on Shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for the King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a Couple more by Force for a Sample, return home, and get their Pardon.

Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity; the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust; the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: and this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

Swift’s satire is first and foremost aimed at the condition of England. Part I criticises English society in dystopian terms: England seen as ruled by an oppressive, unjust, and "ambitious" royal family, assisted by a vain, selfish oligarchy, implicitly opposed to the idea of "a free people".

JF gulliver winter houyhnhnm yahoos

 This is further developed in Part II where the satire gains considerably in depth and sharpness, in the ironic dialogue between the King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, which reads as utterly relevant to our own times. Take, for example, the theme of war. Gulliver is the ironic spokesperson of progress - in truth the point of view of an aggressive, expanding bourgeoisie - when he informs the king of the tremendous "Progress" made in Europe by the invention of gunpowder. He offers him the "Secret" of this invention. The king, however, is "struck with Horror" at its barbarity.

The condition of England question is revisited in Part IV. In chapter 5, Gulliver informs the rational horse of the "State of England", the "Causes of War among the Princes of Europe" and begins to "explain the English Constitution". Swift's criticism is devastating - its principal object is the existence of war. The 'civilized' world is presented as permanently at war, ruled by the wolfish principles of selfishness, lust for power and profit, and aggression - the true motives and causes of war. The reference to Ireland again is obvious:

If a Prince sends Forces into a Nation, where the People are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to Death, and make Slaves of the Rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous Way of Living.

JF Gulliver u Hvajninimů Grandville

Any satire implies or presents some kind of ideal norm. Gulliver's Travels, too, contains a number of positive values Swift believed in. There are positive characters, e.g. the rational horse in Part IV, the farmer's daughter in Part II and the kind captain who rescues Gulliver at the end of Part IV. They are demonstrations in terms of practical living of how humans should act. The most radical statement of humanist political ethics is in in chapter 7 of Part III, where Gulliver sees Alexander and Hannibal, Caesar, Pompey and Brutus. Here, Swift lists positive moral and political qualities, which have lost none of their importance today.

Thus, Swift's radicalism is expressed in his devastating satire and total rejection of ruling-class culture, and in his passionate quest for a society free from exploitation and domination. Behind the attack on aggressive English colonialism is a vision of a society in which human liberty is a reality, and a social order exists that deserves the name of humanity.

 This article is based on Thomas Metscher, The Radicalism of Swift (2015), Connolly Books Dublin.

 

Patrick Kavanagh_monument at Grand Canal, Dublin
Thursday, 30 November 2017 16:25

Patrick Kavanagh

Published in Poetry

On the 50th anniversary of Patrick Kavanagh's death, Jenny Farrell draws out some of the political meanings of Patrick Kavanagh's poem Epic. 

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967), who died fifty years ago, is not as well known internationally as he should be. He has been declared the greatest Irish writer after Yeats.

Kavanagh was born in a small village in the Irish countryside, his parents and his people were poor peasants. He left school at 13. He can be compared to John Clare in England and Robert Burns in Scotland. Like them, he wrote about the reality of peasant life, about the poverty of rural life, and the reality of a country dominated by the Catholic Church.

He writes an anti-pastoral, setting reality against a sentimentalised version of country life imagined by the educated city dwellers, or by influential figures such as Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Eamonn de Valera, whose romantic vision was expressed in a famous speech given in 1943, where he states:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

This was not the kind of Ireland that corresponded with reality. Kavanagh was the first writer to oppose this view and one of his great works, where he openly presents a realistic picture of rural Ireland is THE GREAT HUNGER.

It’s an ironic title as this is the Irish phrase for the Famine, a time of starvation, a huge national trauma that occurred in the mid-19th century and caused the unnecessary death of a million Irish and the emigration of many more. Kavanagh, however, does not refer to this Famine but to the starvation of the rural population and one farmer in particular, Maguire, of sex and the right to have a wife and a family.

It is a satire in a way, because nature will have its way and not everybody in Kavanagh’s home place lived by the rule of Catholic teachings. Kavanagh’s depiction of rural Ireland was anti-pastoral.

The poem I want to look at here, though, is a much shorter one. It emphasises the fact that if art is honest, unromanticised, unblinkered about its subject, and set in a specific time and place, then it will contain contact points for other people, in other places and times.

EPIC

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

The title creates the anticipation of a long poem about the deeds of legendary or heroic figures in the past history of a nation. Instead, we have before us a fourteen line poem, a sonnet. It is loosely based on a Shakespearean sonnet, which comes in three sections of four lines each and a two-line conclusion, the couplet.

In the first four lines (quatrain), Kavanagh creates a sense of irony: I have lived in important places, times/ When great events were decided: This is the stuff of an epic poem, we think, until we read on, as Kavanagh seems to joke with us, contradicting that expectation: who owned/ That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land/ Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims. Is this an incident of national importance? It would appear to be the opposite – a petty if at times deadly serious feud over an eighth of an acre (a tiny, tiny piece) of barren land.

In the second quatrain, the focus moves in on the parties ‘at war’; we visualise them and hear what they are shouting. The language the poet employs takes on a military tone: no-man’s land, Surrounded, armed. At the level of sound, the phrase Rood of rock is echoed in Surrounded, reinforcing the connection between the piece of land in question and its military defence. Pitchfork-armed suggests the deadly earnest and aggression accompanying the feud.

These people are prepared to kill for their claim. This evocation of  aggression and militarism is continued over the next 3 lines: I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’/ And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen/ Step the plot defying blue cast-steel - / ‘Here is the march along these iron stones’. The Duffys and McCabe are the two parties to the feud.

However, the line I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’ suggests other Duffys as well – Eoin O’Duffy’s supporters who in the 1930s were Ireland’s own would-be fascists, and extreme Catholics. They too could have been shouting ‘Damn your soul’ in Dublin around the time this poem is set. This connotation subtly introduces a national dimension to the local scene of rural aggression and threat.

It is developed even further in the image of McCabe marching around this tiny piece of land (plot): Step the plot defying blue cast-steel, the word step suggests goose-stepping Nazis and blue cast-steel surely evokes guns as well as describing the pitchforks, indeed the word plot is commonly used to refer to a grave.

Just like the Duffys before, McCabe is also quoted Here is the march along these iron stones. March means both border and to walk in a military fashion or indeed a military tune. And in this line, the stones are no longer simply rock, they are made of iron, just as cannons are.

All these references to warfare do not simply apply to the local row. They are suggestive of the situation in Europe in the 1930s, when O’Duffy’s men were around, and Hitler and Mussolini on the rise, preparing for war. The Spanish Civil war was being waged by anti-fascist republicans from Spain and around Europe against General Franco, who was supported by Germany and Italy. While Eoin Duffy fought on Franco’s side, there were also Irishmen fighting in the International Brigades on the Republican side against Franco.

In this way, the farmers’ readiness to kill reflects the atmosphere in Europe. And, as if to confirm what the reader has been thinking, the opening of the third quatrain confirms the year: That was the year of the Munich bother.

Kavanagh is referring to the Munich Agreement signed in September 1938, where Hitler, Mussolini and the prime ministers of Britain and France agreed to let Germany annex a part of Czechoslovakia - the Sudetenland) in an attempt to avoid a war. Why does Kavanagh describe this agreement as a bother? Because it was treacherous (it excluded Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union from the decision) and because it was simply a trick by Hitler.

While the poet on one level simply describes the feud between two farmers and then says that this happened in 1938, on another level he has given a sense of the increasing militarism of the 1930s in both Europe and Ireland.

In that sense, the question that follows the full stop in line 9 and goes on to the next line: Which/ Was more important? is not perhaps as simple as it may seem. Important refers back to epic and the poem’s opening lines about important places and great events. The images of the farmers have shown that they reflect their times even if their feuds and behaviour seem at first glance to be unconnected to the momentous events in Europe. But Kavangh continues to play with the ambiguity of the very local, the national and the international: I inclined/ To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin.

Interestingly, he continues the sentence without a full stop and says on the next line (to allow the reader to contemplate this choice for as fraction): Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind. This line brings the reader right back to the notion of epic as Homer is the author of two of the world’s greatest epic, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The final two lines in a Shakespearean sonnet sum up and comment on the twelve lines that go before. Kavanagh does the same here as he ‘quotes’ Homer: He said: I made the Iliad from such/ A local row. This is perfectly true. The battle of Troy, the story of which the Iliad tells, raged for ten years and was ostensibly over the minor event of Helena’s ‘abduction’ from Greece (Sparta) by the Trojan Paris (she went along with him of her free will). However, what makes Homer’s Iliad an epic is the way he writes about it, not the cause of the battle. The poem’s final statement could be uttered both by Homer or Kavanagh: Gods make their own importance. 

This is another reference to the Iliad where the Greek gods all take sides in the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is the fact that Homer fills the poems with the legends of the Greeks that makes this epic poem such a central piece of Greek and indeed European culture.

In other words, even if a poet writes about a local row, the way he writes about it can give it greater political significance, make it important to the way a nation sees itself. Kavanagh is thus not only giving us a sense of the general political situation in Ireland and in Europe, but showing us how poetry itself has a political function in the way it connects the personal and the political.

Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio before the Gravediggers, 1843
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 11:04

Shakespeare’s Gravediggers – the first appearance of working people on the world stage

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses the prophetic politics of the Gravedigger scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which class-based justice and fundamental human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' by revolutionary upheaval. The scene is the first appearance of working people on the world stage.

There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with Shakespeare’s name. His poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other. How can this enduring and all-encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?

Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is, it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.

Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.

The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).

This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam. He advocated social equality for all, and the gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.” 

The working people in this scene are given more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.

The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.

The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.

Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger. But he is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.

The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness, a kind of emotional communism, is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.

At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.

When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death. Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person - a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.

When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.

In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, which are historical and linked to class forces as well as personal, even if their time has not yet come. It is clear that in this episode social inequality and human equality are being discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' - by revolutionary upheaval. In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which was the first successful take-over of state power by representatives of workers and peasants (including gravediggers), the episode is more relevant than ever.

Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction (2016), published by Nuascéalta, is available online.

 

The Art of Revolution
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:39

The Art of Revolution

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation?

Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities.

The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and ‘the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for all’. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.

The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.

 JF 1 nathan A

Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918)

Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement.

The ‘poster and meeting period’

Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture.

Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language.

The ROSTA windows

In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.

JF7 Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky 2

Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky

In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words.  Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.

JF 2 Vladimir Lebedev

Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920

In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page:

My most respected
                            comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among
                             these days’
                                             petrified crap,
exploring the twilight of our times,
you,
      possibly,
                    will inquire about me too.

And, possibly, your scholars
                                           will declare,
with their erudition overwhelming
                                                     a swarm of problems;
once there lived
                        a certain champion of boiled water,
and inveterate enemy of raw water.

Professor,
             take off your bicycle glasses!
I myself will expound
                                 those times
                                                   and myself.

I, a latrine cleaner
                          and water carrier,
by the revolution
                         mobilized and drafted,
went off to the front
                              from the aristocratic gardens
of poetry.

Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences.

Imagery and tradition

Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular.

JF8 AGC F 001439 0000 209x300

Marc Chagall’s ‘Peace to the Shacks, War on the Palaces’ (1918-1919)

Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’

Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.

Red memorials

JF9

Obelisk to the Revolutionaries

When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its pre-revolutionary form.)

Revolutionary tableware

Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional delph, constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky or Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.

JF4 Red ribbon

Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919)

A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. Representing individuals not as separate but as part of their people, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.

 

 

The Art of Revolution
Sunday, 12 November 2017 19:12

The Art of Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation?

Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities.

The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and ‘the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for all’. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.

The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.

 JF 1 nathan A

Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918)

Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement.

The ‘poster and meeting period’

Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture.

Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language.

The ROSTA windows

In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.

JF7 Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky 2

Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky

In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words.  Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.

JF 2 Vladimir Lebedev

Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920

In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page:

My most respected
                            comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among
                             these days’
                                             petrified crap,
exploring the twilight of our times,
you,
      possibly,
                    will inquire about me too.

And, possibly, your scholars
                                           will declare,
with their erudition overwhelming
                                                     a swarm of problems;
once there lived
                        a certain champion of boiled water,
and inveterate enemy of raw water.

Professor,
             take off your bicycle glasses!
I myself will expound
                                 those times
                                                   and myself.

I, a latrine cleaner
                          and water carrier,
by the revolution
                         mobilized and drafted,
went off to the front
                              from the aristocratic gardens
of poetry.

Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences.

Imagery and tradition

Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular.

JF8 AGC F 001439 0000 209x300

Marc Chagall’s ‘Peace to the Shacks, War on the Palaces’ (1918-1919)

Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’

Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.

Red memorials

JF9

Obelisk to the Revolutionaries

When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its pre-revolutionary form.)

Revolutionary tableware

Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional delph, constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky or Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.

JF4 Red ribbon

Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919)

A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. Representing individuals not as separate but as part of their people, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.

 

 

The sinful greed of the rich: Bosch's painting of The Haywain
Thursday, 19 October 2017 07:16

The sinful greed of the rich: Bosch's painting of The Haywain

Published in Visual Arts

On the 500th anniversary of Luther's revolt, Jenny Farrell gives us a critical appreciation of Hieronymous Bosch's famous painting The Haywain, a coded criticism of the ruthless extortion by the ruling religious and secular elites in mediaeval society.

Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch Renaissance painter, died in 1516. A year later, on 31 October 1517, 500 years ago this month, Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses against the widespread practice of selling indulgences, clerical corruption. He attacked the Church’s claim to be the sole interpreter of the word and intentions of God and defended ordinary human entitlement to God’s grace without Church involvement.

The Roman Church was the greatest landowner and represented the central force of European feudalism. Its increasing greed, the ruthless extortion of everybody including the poor, caused discontent. The sale of indulgences, claiming to ensure clear passage to heaven, were used to finance the upper clergy’s affluent lifestyle and ever more splendid Church buildings. Such plundering deprived all territories of their financial resources and became an obstacle to early capitalist development.

It is in this context that Bosch’s painting must be understood. One of his very famous pieces is a triptych entitled The Haywain. In it Bosch breaks the conventions of the religious triptych at the time. A triptych comes in three parts, with a main, large picture in the middle, in those days usually with a religious scene, flanked on either side by smaller panels depicting more pious images. When the two side panels were closed over, this front usually displayed yet another religious picture.

JF Haywain by Hieronymous Bosch latest

In The Haywain, Bosch goes with convention in depicting the Garden Eden on the left hand panel, illustrating the fall of angels from heaven and their changing into insect-like demons, the creation of Eve from Adam, her temptation by the snake and Adam and Eve's rejection from Eden. In Bosch's painting, however, Adam seems to challenge the Angel over their dismissal. The centre image is very unconventional indeed, as it is dominated by an enormous Haywain.

There are different theories concerning the symbolism of the hay. In the context of the painting, I think it represents money: The mountain of hay on the cart is too even and smooth to be 'real' hay -compare it to the real hay in the foreground of the picture, where mendicant nuns stuff a sack with hay for the gluttonous monk. Also, there is a German saying for the very rich, that they have money like hay.

Behind this high, laden cart follow leaders of Church and State. They have stacked the cart with the hay (monies) from high taxes and indulgences. It is pulled towards hell by demons, who physically move from the main 'earth' panel into the right-hand 'hell' panel: it is an uninterrupted image – the ‘walls’ between earth and hell are not fast. We know the cart is pulled by demons as they are creatures that are half animal and half people, it is the way Bosch painted demons.

Over the middle 'earth' section we can spot a rather helpless looking Christ, displaying his wounds, looking down on a sinful population, who do not look up to him. All kinds of folk, including monks, women and men, old and young, also suggestions of non-Europeans (see the turbans) are all clamouring to get what they can from the load with their hay forks from all sides. Some kill and deceive. Others get caught under and crushed by the cart wheels.

This image of greed and sin is continued in the foreground of the main middle section. One man may be a kidnapper, a quack pulling teeth has ‘hay’ in his purse and a nun offers more hay to a bagpipe player, dressed in a blue garment, echoing the demon atop the hay cart. Bagpipes alluded to promiscuity in Bosch’s day as did the jug tied to the pole.

Only on top of the hay are some lovers, the only people not engaged in sinful behaviour, albeit depicted ironically with a demon and a voyeur on either side of them - only one lost angel looks up at Christ. 

Echoing the division into three of the triptych, there are three horizontal levels, with the unobserved Christ at the top, the hay cart, pulled into hell by the demons in the centre and then smaller scenes in the forefront of further impious activity.  The demons pulling the cart into hell, are accompanied by more symbols of sin, but these double as indications of violence and war: the carrying of pikes, bodies pierced by arrows, a severed, blindfolded head.

My suggestion that the hay probably represents money is underlined by the fact that there is something constructive going on in hell: the building of a tower – most probably an allusion to St Angelo's Castle, which was being built in Rome at the time, paid for by the indulgence monies extracted from people across Europe. The torched city in the background would have been a familiar sight in the Netherlands of the day, as wars were an ever present reality, including the hanged man amid the blaze and a sliced open, disembowelled body on a pike in the foreground.

Is Bosch cynical of humanity? The panels of the Haywain triptych could lead the viewer to a degree of dismay regarding life and the predominance of greedy and sinful behaviour. However, when the triptych is closed, we do not see the expected religious scene, but the depiction of a wayfarer. Images behind him illustrate his perilous life: his path has taken him past the gallows, a bagpipe player, a woman, outlaws and now threatened by a dog with a spiky collar and images of death and decay. There is no allusion to Christ or heaven here, nor is there to hell. This picture presents the hapless life of the dispossessed in the world that unfolds when the panels are open.

JF Haywain by Hieronymous Bosch

Bosch’s date of birth is presumed to be around 1450. He was born into a family of painters called van Aken, after the German town of Aachen. Bosch in all likelihood attended the same school as Erasmus of Rotterdam, the famous humanist scholar of European standing. Both Dutchmen employed irony when commenting on the Renaissance society of their day.

Perhaps it is a sign of Bosch's attitude to the hegemony of German Kaiser Maximilian that he changed this name to that of his Dutch hometown, 's-hertogenbosch, or as the Dutch call it, den Bosch, the (pine) Forest.

Bosch's paintings are intriguing and partly obscure at the same time. Many symbols, easily understood in his day, have now become less readable. Nevertheless, we can still look at Bosch's paintings today, enjoy them and understand his overall meaning, reflecting the time just before one of the greatest upheavals in European history, the Reformation and the event this inspired – the Peasant War in Germany.

Never again war: the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz
Monday, 02 October 2017 19:02

Never again war: the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell introduces the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz, one of Germany’s greatest artists and sculptors, who produced unforgettable images of the violence, injustice and crimes against humanity perpetuated by the capitalist econmic and political system.

Käthe Kollwitz's artistic work reflects the events of the first half of the 20th century - yet she continues to stand tall among anti-war artists and champions of the dispossessed of our time. 

Kollwitz broke completely with bourgeois aesthetics and made the subjugated, humiliated working class her sole artistic subject. In her work, she expresses eloquently the force, the resistance and the humanity of this class. Very often, she focuses on individuals, or small groups, who exemplify the fate of thousands, balancing their misery with dignity and human kindness.

JF Lithograph City Shelter 1926

City Shelter, 1926

This year marks the 150th year since Käthe Schmidt’s birth in Kaliningrad, daughter of a bricklayer who recognised his daughter’s artistic talent early on. Barred from studying art as a woman in her hometown, she moved to Berlin and Munich to pursue her education. There, she met radical artists of her time and married the socialist Karl Kollwitz, a medical doctor who lived among and treated the poor of Berlin. Together they dwelled in the then impoverished working-class (and now gentrified) Prenzlauerberg district for most of their lives. Here, she gave birth to two sons and created her substantial oeuvre.

Kollwitz’s breakthrough work, which defined her artistic signature, was the cycle The Weavers, inspired by witnessing in 1894 the premier of Gerhart Hauptmann’s drama of the same name, about the 1844 uprising of Silesian weavers. Over and above connecting present misery with that of the past, Kollwitz focuses on resistance against social injustice. Reflecting on this early experience, Kollwitz noted in her autobiography, that the play, research and work on the weavers’ rising was a key event in her artistic development. The cycle consists of three lithographs (Poverty, Death, and Conspiracy) and three etchings (March of the Weavers, Riot, and The End). The Weavers became Kollwitz's most well-known work.

Stirred by her working class surroundings and involvement, Kollwitz’s second cycle The Peasant War, going back to the German uprising of the 1520s, also centres on the rebellion of the exploited and suppressed against social injustice. Peasant War is worked in a variety of techniques: etchings, aquatint, and soft ground and are counted among Kollwitz’s greatest achievements: Plowing, Raped, Sharpening the Scythe, Arming in the Vault, Outbreak, After the Battle and The Prisoners. After the Battle depicts a mother’s night-time search through the dead, looking for her son.

Loss and grieving became a central theme in Kollwitz’s work after the death of her son Peter in the early days of WWI. From now on, mothers protecting their children, fighting for their survival, grieving their death, are an ever-present motif in Kollwitz’s work. She conveys a profound sense of unspeakable tragedy and of human responsibility to fight against death-spawning militarism and war. The people, the victims, are also those where humanity is found and the only source of resistance.

JF The survivors 1923

The survivors, 1923

In 1919, Käthe Kollwitz began work on the woodcut cycle War, responding to the tragedies of World War I. Seven images reflect her unspeakable pain. Stark, large-format woodcuts feature the anguish of war: among them, a mother sacrifices her infant (The Sacrifice), in The Volunteers Kollwitz depicts her son Peter beside Death, who leads a group of young men to war in a frenzied procession. Once again eliminating specific references to time or place, Kollwitz created a universal condemnation of such slaughter.

KK from the cycle War The Volunteers 1921 22

From the cycle War, The Volunteers, 1921/22

The assassination in January 1919 by right-wing militias of Karl Liebknecht, sole German parliamentarian to vote against further war loans in the summer of 1914, occasioned her famous woodcut In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht. It is a moving tribute to this communist leader, mourned by the people he represented, who pay their final respects in a shocked, yet gentle fashion.

JF In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht 1920

In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht, 1920

In 1924, Kollwitz created her three most famous posters: Germany's Children Starving, Bread, and Never Again War. After the Nazi rise to power, in the mid nineteen thirties, Kollwitz completed her last great cycle of eight lithographs, Death.

JF never again war 1924

Never again War, 1924

More heartbreak was wrought on her in 1942, when her grandson Peter fell victim to Hitler’s war. This death came after that of her husband Karl, who had died of illness in 1940.

JF Last lithograph Seed corn must not be ground 1942

Seed corn must not be ground, 1942

Käthe Kollwitz died on 22 April 1945, just a few days before WWII ended. She has left us with unforgettable images of the horrific events and epic struggles of her lifetime. Kollwitz’s images remain profound indictments of the capitalist economic and political system, a system that perpetuates such terrible violence, social injustices and crimes against humanity.

Guernica
Sunday, 06 August 2017 06:00

Guernica

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell takes us through one of the greatest political artworks ever, Picasso's Guernica.

There are a handful of pictures that may be said to be almost universally known. They include Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Picasso’s Guernica.

Eighty years ago, on 26 April 1937 the small Basque town of Guernica was annihilated by German bombers. Picasso heard of this act of terror on 28 April and began initial sketches in response to this atrocity on 1 May. It became the painting Guernica.

Despite its familiarity, or perhaps because of it, it is interesting to take a closer look at this iconic painting and discover more about what is says, exactly, and why it has the effect it has on the viewer.

The title is as terror-filled as the images displayed. In February 1936, the popular front had won the democratic elections in Spain. In July, a putsch by fascist generals took place under the leadership of Franco, supported by Hitler, Mussolini and international capital. A three year long civil war was unleashed, which ended in the crushing defeat of Spanish democracy.

Picasso had been commissioned in January 1937 to produce a mural sized painting for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life. At a time, when the second world war had already begun in Spain, the German and Soviet pavilions stood across from each other on the exhibition grounds – the German eagle facing hammer and sickle. The Spanish pavilion aimed to highlight the just cause of the Spanish Republic and call for international support. It, too, represented the forces of humanity and culture against fascism barbarism. Picasso’s Guernica was exhibited in the open lobby.

Picasso began work on this painting in May 1937 and installed it in Paris in mid-June.

To understand the painting requires a degree of effort to decipher the abstract images. In its formal composition, Picasso combines the Christian triptych (traditionally an altar piece depicting Christ’ suffering on the cross on a large central panel, flanked by two narrower wings) with the classical Greek triangular pediment (a sculptured gable). In this way, Picasso’s combination distils highpoints of European culture and uses them against barbarism.

The painting shows two animals and five people. All of these have symbolic functions. The bull and the horse – are traditional symbols of Spanish popular culture, classical mythology, indeed any farming or nomadic cultures breeding horses and bulls. The clearest symbolic figures aside from these are the torch-bearer and the pieta.

In the painting, there are two sources of light: the torch and the electric bulb/ sun, positioned centre top of the picture. The woman carrying the flame, associates the entire tradition of enlightenment humanism to this day, albeit here illuminating the perversion of humanism – the destruction of life. The light-bearing woman is closely linked to liberty in the visual arts as well as in literature. One example is the New York statue of liberty, based on the Roman goddess Libertas, another famous case in point is Delacroix’s famous painting of the Liberty Leading the French Revolution.

Turning to the electric bulb/ sun, the cult of light is associated with Apollo in Greek mythology and in Christian culture, light traditionally represents God.

These two sources of light more or less at the top centre of the painting shed a triangle of light on what lies beneath – a scene of horrendous human pain and destruction. If you imagine lines drawn down from the flame to shape a triangle with the base of the painting, you have the pediment of the classical temple, coinciding with the central panel of the triptych.

What does the light illuminate? From right to left – this is the movement of the picture – a half-clothed woman is fleeing from a burning town. A human is trapped in the flames, screaming, about to be consumed. At the centre is the horse, fatally stabbed by a dagger in its back, writhing in mortal anguish. Underfoot are dismembered human body parts: an arm grasping a broken sword beside the faint outline of a flower. Another arm is stretched out in agony beside a severed head, engraved with horror. The outstretched hand reaches into the left corner of the painting and shows the effort made to protect the dead baby held by its grief stricken mother. Thinking of the painting as a triptych, the wailing mother and the burning person are in the wings, to either side of the centre panel. Both these characters and the horse are shown screaming, protesting and resisting in the moment of their destruction.

The powerful head of a female torch bearer, representing reason, civilisation and a democratic world public, sweeps through the picture from the right. She is witness, both seeing and revealing the horrors of Guernica. She embodies life, energy and hope.

Hovering over the mother in the left wing is the bull, a deep source of hope and resistance. The animal is not wounded, although its eyes and mouth express sadness and anger. It represents the power of indestructible, life-giving nature. Since ancient times, the bull has connotations of fertility. It represents the innate power of the people.

The horse, its stricken head, is at the centre of the triangular pediment and the triptych structure, just below the light. The horse has special significance in this painting. It distils the suffering of the people and becomes the essence of this. The horse’s head heightens the agony, the elegiac tone of the entire picture, becomes its symbol.

The horse, in its anguish, is positioned in between the torch bearer and the bull, reason and nature, which, combined, guarantee the regeneration of life. The frail but visible flower beside the fallen soldier also symbolises rebirth. The combined power of reason and nature engender optimism for new life, resistance and struggle to overcome such destruction. The movement of the head of reason is towards the bull. As the head is without a body, such merging is almost certainly part of the painting’s projected intention. Another factor that suggests the necessary joining of torch bearer and bull, of head and heart, of reason and body, is that these two figures alone in the painting, are not physically tormented in the same way as the humans are. The bull is distressed and the torch bearer horrified; together they embody ground for hope, for anger, the will to resist and fight back, for renewal.

Looking at the ‘language’ of the painting, its form, the questions arises: How can such horror be depicted appropriately? Is it possible to express profound and utter destruction in a naturalistic, ‘beautiful’ way? This painting is in black and white, creating a level of abstraction for the viewer on the one hand, adding the suggestions of a torn newspaper photograph on the other. The effect is distancing. The viewer is not drawn in, doesn’t totally identify with the images, but is put into a position of observer, thinking about what is presented.

The size of the painting also acts to physically distance the onlooker: it is 3.49 metres (11 ft 5 in) tall and 7.76 metres (25 ft 6 in) wide and cannot be seen properly close-up. The observer needs to stand at a distance to take in the whole, and make effort to understand. Grasping the message of the work parallels the effort to understand history. It isn’t presented beautifully on a plate, but needs grappling.

As indicated, the characters displayed are representative. They depict the collective experience of the Spanish people and beyond that, of the human race in a world at war. This is THE mother mourning her child, THE person fleeing from a burning city, THE human consumed by its flames, THE fallen soldier, THE world in flames. The composition furthermore suggests both indoors and outdoors, thereby making it a more universal space. Thus, the painting becomes a comprehensive statement against the inhumanity of war. It is both a condemnation and an appeal to fight for peace.

And so, as we commemorate the fascist attack on a small Basque town, as we remember and mourn its dead, our awareness of the ongoing wars, continuing crimes against humanity, human suffering and horror, perpetuated by the very same imperialist greed and inhumanity, is heightened when looking at Picasso’s masterpiece.

JF Guernica 2

Based on an essay by Thomas Metscher, published in: Thomas Metscher, Der Friedensgedanke in der Europäischen Literatur (1984)

 

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