Nick Moss

Nick Moss

Nick Moss is an ex-prisoner, published poet, reviewer and playwright. His book "Swear Down" is published by Smokestack Books, see here.

Great art exhibition, shame about the politics: 'Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider' at Tate Modern
Thursday, 30 May 2024 17:45

Great art exhibition, shame about the politics: 'Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider' at Tate Modern

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Expressionists: Kandinsky, Münter and the Blue Rider, at the Tate Modern, London, to 20 October 2024. Image above: Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau – Johannisstrasse from a Window of the Griesbräu, 1908. 

The first thing that should be said is that this is a vital and stunning exhibition. It is also, though, a frustrating one. The art is allowed to stand on its own terms, but the politics of the Blue Rider group and their associates are not adequately represented.

The artworks are stunning.....

To deal with the art first. The show draws on the collection of Expressionist masterpieces at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, and loans from public and private collections, including works never previously seen in the UK. Its primary focus is the works produced by the Blue Rider group (Der Blaue Reiter) and it features works by Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc and Paul Klee, alongside neglected works produced by Wladimir Burliuk and Maria Franck-Marc.

The Blue Rider group did not work in isolation and their best work draws on the experiments in form and colour by Picasso and Matisse over the same period. The group, which was formed by Marc and Kandinsky in Munich in 1911, saw their art as representing a ‘spiritual awakening’. Kandinsky in particular, searching for a language of colours and shapes which would allow him to communicate more dramatically and dynamically with the viewer, moved towards a level of abstraction which served both as a symbolic language and a joyous celebration of the dance of colours and shapes as expressions of imagination. It is this that gives Expressionism its name – and it is what this exhibition brings home so brilliantly.

All too often the art on display here gets lumped into a historical mix of barely connected works, running from Kafka via Munch to the films of Murnau and Lang. But here, we grasp as we take in the wild riot of reds, yellows, blues, and greens that rush out to us that the Blue Rider Group used their work as a blazing torch to burn away the dread and alienation that scarred their times – to cut through the darkness.

It is certainly the case that the Die Brücke group, which preceded Der Blaue Reiter in pursuing the Expressionist style, channels a similar mood to that captured in films such as Nosferatu. Ernst Kirchner, for instance, in his 1908 work The Street, Dresden, evokes a sense of dread immediately recognisable from works by Schiele and Munch, with his distorted figures and contorted street furniture, premonitory to the mood of disorientation we find in, for instance, Wiene’s 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

However, there is little of that here. More often, the works show the influence of Henri Matisse on the group, eg his 1907 The Blue Nude, the rainbow palette of The Woman With the Hat, or the sensuous clash of psychedelic hues of his orgiastic Le Bonheur de Vivre. “What counts most with colours are relationships”, Matisse said, and unleashed the imagination of Der Blaue Reiter and painting as an attempt to capture pure feeling, and thereby resist the grey drag and grind of pre-war bourgeois European society.

Macke Promenade 1913

If we look for instance at August Macke's 1913 Promenade (above), the two male figures are thrown on a lurching carpet of browns and yellows to the balcony edge, and the central couple, elongated, lugubrious, are caught up in swirls of green, with an umbrella glowing white like a half-moon. And maybe we’re already seeing the essence of what Der Blaue Reiter represented.

Most people can paint the moon if they’ve seen it – but to paint an umbrella that’s a half-moon in a way that’s instantly recognisable as both at the same time is the essence of what Macke, Kandinsky and their comrades sought to do. As Kandinsky put it:

'Not everything is visible and tangible; or – to be more explicit – under the visible and comprehensible lies the invisible and incomprehensible.'

For the Expressionists, the point was to make the incomprehensible graspable again, but through a language of colour and shape, and  instinctively. The aspect of Expressionism that stands out most vividly here, though, is joy – and joy as a kind of sensory overload. Marc's 1912 Tiger is an assemblage of blocks of colour that show us the coiled, tensely muscled animal with a watchful yellow eye. Marc had a deep interest in Buddhism and a consequent fascination with animism – other artists in the group followed the esoteric teachings of the Theosophical Society, mixing European occult traditions with appropriated elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, ancient Greek philosophy and modern science.

cows yellow red green 1912.jpgLarge

Marc's fascination with animism gives us his stunning, playful Cows – Red, Green, Yellow (1911, above) which combines love of colour with celebration of simple bovine joie de vivre. It also carried a grim portent of its era. By 1913, his empathic engagement with animal esprit had turned to a painterly agony – the butchery of all life forms in his stark, blood-red The Fate of the Animals, on the back of which he scrawled ‘and all being is flaming suffering.’

Expressionism is a movement which existed within an interregnum, between the second Moroccan crisis and the outbreak of the First World War. It was a time of horrors brought about by the clash of imperialisms, nationalisms and feudal aristocracies from 1914 onwards, and Expressionism treated painting as a way of holding on to a belief in something better. It stood for beauty, as against death. We can see this in works such as Kandinsky's extraordinary Riding Couple 1906/07 – the sheer romance of it, the night chill, the shimmer of lights on water. And Kandinsky was always on the verge of abstraction, wanting to dispense with  painting as illusion in favour of paint as language, freed to be itself.

The real revelation here is in the works displayed by Gabriele Münter. The importance of the Blue Rider group and its earlier participation in the formation of the NKVM (New Artists’ Association of Munich) was partly that it encouraged (and the association admitted) women artists such as Marianne Werefkin and Elisabeth Epstein, enabling them to exhibit and sell their work.

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nter, though, emerges as a key figure in the group. We see the photographs she took in Tunisia in 1904-5, on a trip with Kandinsky, and the experiments in reverse glass painting, after the groups' relocation to Murnau. We have her 1912 painting of Kandinsky and Erma Bossi at the Table (above), which captures them at ease, as equals, in discussion, and we have her 1909 Murnau Farmer's Wife with Children , which is more than anything a portrait of poverty and unease. It shows that Münter was fully aware that what was a rural idyll for the group was no paradise for the Murnau peasantry.

nter, just as much as Kandinsky, appears as the driving force of the group. Similarly, on show is Werefkin's 1909 The Dancer. Werefkin stated: “I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am I.” The painting of the androgynous dancer/performer Alexander Sacharoff, then, is a gesture of solidarity mapped out in large brush strokes of deep blue.

Ultimately, though, it is Kandinsky who sets the pace, who pushes the painting of light and colour to the point of a magnificent abstraction. Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert) and his Improvisations are attempts at synaesthesia as art form – colour as musical note. Ultimately though, they are colour as defiance in the face of war.

...but it's not so good on the politics

It is at the level of politics, though, that the exhibition falls short of the aims it sets itself. The Blue Rider Almanac draft preface is quoted:

‘In our case the principle of internationalism is the only one possible … The whole work, called art, knows no borders or nations, only humanity.’

We are told that:

‘the transnational network of contacts and affiliations included artists with similar experiences of migration or displacement, as well as those seeking new approaches towards spirituality and artistic expression.’

We are then also told:

‘At the same time, the artists experienced Bavarian society as it integrated into the German Empire. Founded in 1871, the empire quickly developed into the world's third largest economy. The government pursued imperial and colonial ambitions including the exploitation of people and resources overseas. Public fascination with world cultures was underpinned by racist narratives and cultural and ethnic hierarchies of imperialism. These biases are visible in the display of cultural objects from colonial territories, in particular those collected anonymously and attributed to unknown artists.’  

It is unclear how both statements can be true. How is the internationalist collective of the displaced to be at one and the same time carriers of the biases of their time, except in the most banal sense in which all of us have to battle against the doxas of our age in order to maintain a critical consciousness?  

What is at work here is a kind of revisionist fear – all work produced within the culture of Western Europe has to be qualified by reference to the prejudices of that general culture –even when it has been produced in opposition to it. The danger of this is that effective oppositions within the arts (and within revolutionary movements more widely) get airbrushed out, treated generically as part of the culture they opposed and thereby lost as a resource for us.

Far from treating the works and their specific culture within and against the historic developments of their time, we end up with ahistorical judgements which fail to adequately recognise the politics of critical and theoretical movements of the past. Thus, re the Blue Rider Almanac: the almanac featured:

‘tribal art from the Pacific Northwest, Oceania and Africa, the art of children, Egyptian puppets, Japanese masks and prints, medieval German sculpture and woodcuts, Russian folk art, and Bavarian devotional paintings.’

 - Foster/Krauss/Du Bois/Buchloh: Art Since 1900, p. 85

As such, it was intended as a celebration of a universal folk art – about as far from the racist narratives of the ‘cultural and ethnic hierarchies of imperialism’ as the group could get. It was in fact produced to undermine exactly those hierarchies.

It is impossible to fully understand the Blue Rider group without seeing it as a project which stood explicitly against the spirit of its age. As Benjamin Buchloh says:

‘...in the early part of the twentieth century, some of the major figures of the historical avant-gardes had aligned themselves with strong articulations of internationalist Utopian thought...In other cases, when abstraction was not explicitly associated with the universalism of socialist politics (the work of Kandinsky or Klee for example) it wanted to be at least aligned with the universal enlightenment and progress of science and technology or...it wanted to be linked with a spiritual Esperanto and secularised forms of transcendental thought.’

- Benjamin Buchloh, Neo-Avant Garde and Culture Industry, 2003, p. 307.

The Blue Rider painting by Marc, and its reworking by Kandinsky for the Almanac cover, substantiate this – the rider as symbol meant, for Marc and Kandinsky, the ability to move beyond, to surpass, to overcome.

Moreover, not only did the group itself function as an avant-garde collective, committed to experimenting with new forms of art and living, but it actively sought out others with similar commitments to challenging the norms and hierarchies of the pre-World War 1 era. It particularly sought out the group around Herwarth Walden's Der Sturm magazine, where the Blue Rider group worked and exhibited alongside others such as Sonia Delauney, Oscar Kokoschka and August Macke, and also alongside writers such as Karl Kraus and Alfred Doblin and where the ideas of the Expressionists were presented alongside those of the Dada-ists and Surrealists.

This is a stunning exhibition. However, when Blue Rider artists like Franz Marc said in 1914 that "renewal must not be merely formal but a rebirth of thinking”, we should remember they were not celebrating the culture of their times. They were relentlessly opposed to it and calling for a renewal of a society that was otherwise  about to hurl itself into a four-year quagmire of trench warfare, poison gas and famine.

Dar Al-Shifa
Friday, 05 April 2024 11:38

Dar Al-Shifa

Published in Poetry

Dar Al-Shifa

by Nick Moss

'Genocide enablers: Gaza and the corporate media'

Like a war scripted by Asimov on crystal meth
Squads of quadcopter drones
Shooting children in the head,
Patrolling the wreckage of the hospital.
The shrill scream of the blades,
Waiting to target anyone left.

Dar al-Shifa. House of healing.
Hopital. Shelter for the needy.
Just more debris now.
Concrete dust
Blown-out windows
Blood on the walls.
Blood on the floor
Bodies of surgeons
Piled on bodies of patients
Piled on bodies of parents
With the bodies of their dead kids
All meat now
For the feral dogs.

If the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health
Is one of the fundamental rights of every human being
And if the IDF “follows international law”
When it turns a hospital
Into a boneyard
Tell me the one-drop rule
That makes Palestinians
Then, all somehow
Not-quite human

And you wait for condemnation
From the elected guardians
Of “international law”
And their lockstep oppositions
Who nod through the arms sales
And the Horizon Europe tech funds
That put legions of quadcopters
Up high in Gaza skies,
And democracy shrivels and fails,
And little by little it dies.

Lenny Bruce has hit the crystal meth.
Satire is tragedy plus time.
There is a bunker and tunnel network
Under al-Shifa
At Building Number 2
But it wasn’t hard to find
As it was built by Israeli architects
In 1983.

Lenny said in ’67
That if they killed Christ today
Catholic kids would be wearing
Electric chairs around their necks
Instead of crosses.
Anyone know how to make
A quadcopter pendant?

Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison
Monday, 25 March 2024 10:16

Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry, edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, Smokestack Books 2024 

“Palestinian poetry, including from within Gaza and outside it, but engaging with the plight of Gaza and the Palestinians more widely, stands as voices of resistance , remembrance and commemoration of lives lost and humanity repeatedly targeted.” 

In his introduction to this extraordinary collection, Atef Alshaer reminds us of what ought to be an almost banal point. However, the simple humanity of Palestinians appears still to be a matter of dispute.

When in October 2023 Israel stated that it intended to cut off water, food, fuel and medicines to Gaza, its right to do so was not immediately challenged, despite Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stating that he had ordered the complete siege of Gaza because Palestinians are “human animals and we are acting accordingly.” At the time of writing, the death toll of ‘human animals’ in Gaza following Israel’s incursion stands at 31,988, with 74,188 injured.

This volume of responses by fifteen Palestinian poets to the current crisis is thus necessary, because it seems we still need to be told what it feels like to live under the constant threat of death, to live in a set of circumstances where your sovereignty is curtailed by the brutality of those who control the borders of your pseudo-state, and your personhood is equally curtailed by their bullets, gun butts and the bombing of your hospitals, mosques, churches and schools. All of the poems here speak urgently of the existential experience of watching your homeland become a graveyard, of how that feels, what it does to you.

It is not possible in the space of a short review to do justice to the work of all the poets assembled in this collection. What I want to do here is simply draw out some of the themes common to most of the poems and try to let them give voice to the suffering that is the essence now of the Palestinian experience.

Two of the poets anthologised – Refaat Alareer and Hiba Abu Nada-have been killed in the Fifth Gaza War. Refat Alareer was killed on 6 December 2023 in a targeted bomb attack by the IDF. As Alan Morrison notes in his Introduction, this is part of an ongoing cultural genocide. As a result, most of the poets are of the Palestinian diaspora.

Ali Abukhattab gets to the heart of it when he writes of being “bigger than an illusion/And smaller than a fact.” That is, essentially, the crux of Palestinian existence – to be Palestinian, to desire the restoration of statehood, is not an illusion – but Palestine is not either any longer a fact, and “facts” are written now only with the pen of the powerful.

Refaat Alareer said that he would “throw my pen in the faces of the soldiers”. At issue here always is whether art can be resistance enough – can it overcome, or help in the overcoming of, the facts on the ground that are written by tanks and bombs? A further question is whether art produced in solidarity can serve a purpose beyond the self-sanctification of those who produce it.

Abukhattab tells us that the Palestinian experience is the building of “the kingdom of crying.” Hala Alyan, in Heirloom, captures the relentless sense of insecurity and dread that comes from knowing that the simple fact of a home is always contested space: “The abandoned buildings had black graffiti in Hebrew I couldn't read . Shoshanna asked what it meant, memorised we will come back you cannot keep us out we will return this is ours.”  

Vengeance is their calling

The obvious reading is that this is graffiti left by IDF soldiers in the ruins of someone’s trashed home. The opening lines of the poem though tell us that “My grandfather learned Hebrew because they learn Arabic.” The possibility that the graffiti might have been authored by a Palestinian in Hebrew as a message to those who would deny the right to return is left open –the possibility then of language as a means of resistance alongside  other  means of resistance.

Learning Hebrew as a learning of the language of the occupier also opens a possibility of hospitality in a different set of circumstances, a meeting of equals, however lost to the future that might seem to be. The optimism that runs through all these pages, at a time which feels to an onlooker as a time of utmost despair, is in the flicker of ambiguities that pass through the pages, that there is always another possibility, a way forward, another reading, albeit a barbed one: “The newspaper says truce and C-Mart /is selling pomegranate seeds again. Dumb metaphor./I’ve ruined the dinner party. I was given a life. Is it frivolous?” (Naturalised - Hala Alyan.) 

Misery, though, remains the unrelenting norm – whether the misery of war or the turgid misery of poverty, shortages, reliance on UNRWA, a kind of internationally-facilitated beggary. As Farid Bitar puts it “I keep screaming for the bombs to stop dropping...And when I awake/Everything/From the previous day/Is just the same.” (- Unexplained Misery)  

The importance of the poems in this collection is that they do not flinch from using poetry as a means of raising the most uncomfortable questions – the ones we are supposed to avoid raising in polite company for fear of a kind of excommunication .Farid Bitar puts it succinctly:-

Watching hundreds of naked men
Ordered to kneel down blindfolded
In the carnage of destroyed streets
Stripped of their dignity
This enemy is insisting to relive
Days of Warsaw ghettos of WW11
Vengeance is their calling.

(- The Journalist)

And this is what has become unsayable. Because to condemn the Zionist project as a bloody settler-colonialist enterprise stuck on repeat is not to condemn the victims of the Holocaust. It is to say that the people without a land took a land which was already  the homeland of a (Palestinian) people, and sought to wash those people away with blood. That what was done to one people does not give them a permanent excuse to ignore the rights of others. No one would argue that the brutality of German colonialism, or their enrolment of Tutsis to maintain order over the Hutu, gave the Hutu any justification for the genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994.

The world can’t seem to stop this “moral army”
Till they are satisfied of spilling so much blood
Till they keep killing the children of the future.

(- The Journalist.)

Refaat  Alareer (targeted for death) states that

The victim has evolved, backward
Into a victimizer.

(- I Am You.)

There is a terrible irony to this situation – that the army of a people mocked as “rootless cosmopolitans” and “passportless wanderers” has reduced another people to the condition that Zionism sought to overcome.

To quote Alareer again:

I am just you
I am your past haunting
Your present and your future.
I strive like you did
I fight like you did
I resist like you  resisted
And for a moment,
I’d take your tenacity
As a model
Were you not holding
The barrel of the gun
Between my bleeding eyes.

(- ibid)

Dareen Tatour tells us that the essence of the Palestinian experience is this:

We live our lives, our nights and our days, in a prison
And in a graveyard
Weddings die, funerals take place:
There is nothing new in the news
Other than the lack of bread.

(- When Gaza Was Killed.)

Deema K Shehabi despairs that “nothing is ever limned/a baby on top/of the mother’s dried up/corpse in broad daylight.” (- Gaza Renga)

Perhaps these poems are renga with the second stanzas written by the daily brutality of occupation? We should pause and focus on that “limned” though – because all of these poems do in fact illuminate a particular lived horror, and there should be a due recognition of the courage and clear sightedness needed to be able to do that.

For those of us who march and write in solidarity, it is a reminder that such art represents a duty for us to live up to. These are not easy times. The sheer size of the demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and their repeated presence on the streets have clearly caught the British establishment by surprise – hence the evermore shrill descriptions of “hate marches”, “extremist disruption”, and calls by the Prime Minister to “not merely manage these protests but police them”.

For the sake of genocide

We are close to the proscription of particular forms of political speech, if a group such as CAGE, which offers support to prisoners of the “war on terror” can be described as “extremist.”

We are equally close to the possibility of a resurgent anti-imperialism.  In such circumstances we have a duty to speak out, to write against, to resist. The poets in Out of Gaza show us how, in far worse circumstances, this can be done. We can choose to follow our bootlicking Poet Laureate in penning purposeless verse, or retreat to obscurantism, or we can follow the lead given here.

Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism that the risk of nationalism is the swallowing up of civil society by political society, whose main form is the state. We should note that the poets here also represent that conflict between homogenization and liberation that is essential to an independent  critical space within any future Palestine and therefore deserve our support all the more.

As Tatour has it:

All the bullets they fire to silence language
To kill our memory, to kill
What is old and what is new
For the sake of genocide
Will stoke our resilience and our will
And therein will be salvation.

(- A Moment Before Death)

For those of us outside Palestine, we should be prepared to use our words to say, truthfully, what is. History will not thank us if we neglect to confront what is being done now because earlier generations failed to challenge what was being done by Europeans to the Jewish people in the name of fascism.

To turn away from what is being done, to bow to Netanyahu when he talks of blood libels, is to allow a moral relativism that means the Palestinian people will be left always to “cultivate life/Every single day/ Inside death’s cradle.” (Samah Sabawi - Questions the Media Should Ask the People of Gaza.)

Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry, edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, Smokestack Books 2024, is available here. A percentage of sales will be donated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign

PREVENT
Thursday, 14 March 2024 08:32

PREVENT

Published in Poetry

PREVENT

by Nick Moss, with cartoon above by Martin Gollan

“They promote ideologies that go against our shared values;
that encourage intolerance.”
  - PREVENT guidance

“...in recent months we’ve seen an unacceptable rise in extremist activity, which is seeking to divide our society and hijack our democratic institutions” - Downing Street press office, 11 March 2024/ The Guardian, 12 March 2024

“Britain is a patriotic, liberal, democratic society with a proud past and a bright future. We are a reasonable country and a decent people.” - PM's address on extremism, 1 March 2024

“On too many occasions recently, our streets have been hijacked by small groups……who are hostile to our values and have no respect for our democratic traditions” - PM's address on extremism, 1 March 2024

“When they tell children that the system is rigged against them or that Britain is a racist country…This is not only a lie, but a cynical attempt to crush young dreams, and turn impressionistic minds against their own society.” - PM's address on extremism, 1 March 2024

“We need to overcome the fear of being labelled Islamophobic and speak truthfully. Enough of the hand-wringing and apologies. Turning a blind eye to fanatics has got us into this terrible situation: it needs to stop.This is a crisis. And the fightback must start now, with urgency, if we are to preserve the liberties we cherish and the privileges this country affords us all. If we are to have any chance of saving our country from the mob.” - Suella Braverman, 'Islamists are Bullying Britain into Submission', The Telegraph, 22 February 2024

“He’s given our capital city away to his mates. I don’t actually believe that the Islamists have got control of our country, but what I do believe is they’ve got control of Khan, and they’ve got control of London.” - Lee Anderson, GB News, 23 February 2024

The air is soupy and miasmatic, congested; catarrhal with fascist bombast.
We are at that point where politicians take a chance on Mosleyite posturing,
See if they can call a mob to heel and hunt,
And the arch-chameleon sheds another skin,
Adjusts his Cutler and Gross glasses,
And peddles his gentle bigotry.
McCarthy in designer frames.

Art, colonialism and change: 'Entangled Pasts' at the Royal Academy
Monday, 19 February 2024 14:20

Art, colonialism and change: 'Entangled Pasts' at the Royal Academy

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Art and Colonialism: Entangled Pasts 1768 - Now, Royal Academy of Arts to 29 April 2024

The premise of this exhibition is, according to the paper guide, to “explore connections between art associated with the Royal Academy and Britian’s colonial histories.”  In fact it does this only at the most superficial level, if at all.

We are told that “Today, the legacies of colonial histories continue to form part of the fabric of everyday life, physically and emotionally, across social, economic, cultural and political fields both national and global.” The commentary fails to proceed from that banality to anything more incisive. We are simply invited to find in the visual and conceptual resonances between art and colonialism “a space for contemplation, inquiry, acknowledgement, reflection, imagination and ongoing conversations.”  Which is nice, as Bill Murray once put it, in Caddyshack.

If you want more by way of banality, we then are told that “poetry and painting are sometimes called ‘sister arts’ ” and that RA summer exhibition artists sometimes selected excerpts of poetry or prose to frame the interpretation of their works. So “for this exhibition the RA has invited contemporary poets to respond to the works on display.”

All of which implies a lack of trust in the capacity of painting to speak for itself, and the ability of viewers to think for themselves. This isn't to denigrate the poetry – the poems by Imtiaz Dharker and Malika Booker in particular are powerful, and engage strikingly with the works on display, but the exhibition fails by trying to say at once both too much and too little.

There is surprisingly little engagement with the histories of the works on show, beyond brief biographical information about artist, and sometimes, the subjects. The wider history of the period when each work was produced is passed over, when more detail would have aided viewers in active engagement with the works. It is not sufficient to simply say the works are products of colonialism, as if the relations of production encompassed within the term are not varied and complex – including slavery, peasant labour, industrialism and post-abolition imperialism. Moreover, all of these were met with resistance, yet there is little of that resistance on display here.

Benjamin West 005 

The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West, 1770

I want to focus first on the works from the RA collection and then look at the works produced /exhibited by contemporary artists that respond to these. One of the most powerful works from the collection is Benjamin West’s The Death of General James Wolfe, which depicts a scene from the 1759 Battle of Quebec. The work features a First Nations (Delaware) figure, kneeling on the left side of the canvas – and we are told that this is “an idealised and exoticised representation of Indigenous people that helped shape viewers’ ideas about Indigenous peoples in North America.”

But West’s relation to the Native American subject is more complex than this allows. An autodidact, he at one point claimed that when he was a child, Native Americans showed him how to make paint by mixing some clay from the river bank with bear grease in a pot. West held that “Art is the representation of human beauty, ideally perfect in design, graceful and noble in attitude.”

The Death of General Wolfe tore up the rulebook of the day by having its subjects dressed in contemporary clothing – history paintings generally sought to idealise their subjects by dressing them in classical garb. We can assume therefore that West wanted his viewers to recognise the level of idealisation incorporated into the scene as no more than was required to draw out the tragic element at its core.  The Native American mourner (is he in fact mourning at all, or simply observing?) is presumably, by virtue of inclusion, seen as part of the tableau of grace and nobility West sought here to represent, and the pose he has the figure adopt is thoughtful, pensive.

So is this really an idealised and exoticised representation of an Indigenous subject? Given Wolfe’s death scene is represented as a martial variant of a Christian pieta, and that West sought to portray his subjects per se as “ideally perfect in design”, we can say that by idealising the Indigenous figure West includes him within his tableau of human beauty, all here faced with a battlefield tragedy . Thus, while the role of the Indigenous guide/warrior is one produced by a particular set of colonial power relations, West’s painting may document those relations, but it does not appear to reproduce them at the level of representation. The figure is included within the circle of mourning subjects. If he is idealised, then he is so as part of a similarly idealised group. This is a point I want to argue for throughout the exhibition.

head of a man 1777 78 john singleton copley 

I want to look now at John Singleton Copley’s 1777/78 Head of a Man (above). The person portrayed is unidentified, but what is apparent is the care taken to bring the subject to life on canvas, the seeming commitment to accuracy and, again, representational dignity and integrity.

We see a similar approach in David Martin’s 1779 Portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Belle was the illegitimate child of an enslaved woman and a Royal Navy officer. She lived alongside her second cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, in the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, at Kenwood House, London.

Lord Chief Justice from 1756 to 1788, Mansfield’s ruling in the 1772 Somerset Case – which ruled on the right not to be forcibly removed of an enslaved person on English soil, determined  that slavery had no legal basis in England. Mansfield ruled

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.” – (1772) 98 ER 499.

There was no positive law of enslavement on UK soil – therefore the former slave could not be removed to Jamaica. In the overseas territories of the British empire, slavery was positively endorsed by law. In a sense then, the portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray as equals, engaged in playful activities together, is the embodiment in oil on canvas of the implications of the Somerset case for social relations in England.

There is reference by the curators to art as part of the process of the construction of whiteness, and while a case can be made for that to a degree, it cannot properly be made on the basis of the works on display here. The institutions and relations of slavery were necessarily prior to any representation of the distorted social distinctions slavery required – the construction of white subjectivity was a product far more of the creation of distinctions and separations by law.

“Whiteness” was a product of the systematisation and industrialisation of slavery. In a sense, as WEB Du Bois had it, “whiteness” was less the ideology of slavery than its ex-post-facto ideological justification:

“The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” – The Souls of White Folk.

My point is that the majority of those artworks here that were produced in periods coterminous with the enforcement of slavery as a practice of exploitation show the institution as it appeared to the painter – ie Agostino Brunias’s black slave women washing and bathing in a river on a plantation, Johann Zoffany’s  black servant attending a white family etc. but, whether the painter be Copley, Martin or Thomas Gainsborough, in his portrait of Ignatius Sancho, the Enlightenment artist’s fidelity to what was real and thereby rational meant that non-white subjects were documented with as much care and attention to detail as their white masters.

Thus, to reiterate, social relations were documented without distortion, but subjects were painted also as they were – such that their humanity could be portrayed in a way that outweighed their social status and undermined the ideology which formed and performed the common sense of slavery. This would, necessarily, be the case whether or not the painter was committed to upholding the institutions of slavery and Empire. If the times required that slavery be portrayed as a natural outcome of the difference between races and yet a portrait such as that of Head of a Man portrayed a black subject as no more or less dignified/intelligent/ aesthetically pleasing than a white, then the “natural outcome” would be (whether intentionally or not) undermined.

In an 1888 letter to Engels, Marx wrote of Balzac:

his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply – the nobles.”

Such is equally the case with much of the work here; whether or not the painters sympathise with a society based on the institution of slavery, by portraying without distortion and thereby preserving the humanity of  those who are of the enslaved , the paintings cut against  the doxa of slavery. Edward Said noted in relation to Joseph Conrad’s writing that:

“since Conrad  dates imperialism, shows its contingency , records it illusions  and tremendous violence and waste ...he permits his readers to imagine something other.” – Culture and Imperialism p28.

It is the possibility of that recognition of contingency that Entangled Pasts dismisses. The pre-20th century works are simply seen as relics of an Empire style that require poetic commentary by 21st century poets to preserve us from contagion.

As a result, the exhibition passes over a real opportunity to engage with its own history. The first decades of the 20th century saw clashes between Academicians and the younger artists influenced by Impressionism, who formed the core membership of the New English Art Club. There were 4,184 women painters, engravers, and sculptors in England and Wales in 1921, and one female Academician – Anne Swynnerton.

In 1924 Ebenezer Wake Cook published Retrogression in Art and the Suicide of the Royal Academy, which decried the election of younger and more progressive NEAC artists to the Academy – Augustus John in particular – and opposed expanding the number of women artists in the Summer Exhibition. Cook argued against a pernicious “barbarism” which drew on traditions of  “Bolshevism” and “Anarchism” that had corrupted British artistic traditions.

The Breakdown Painting 

In 1926, against the background of the General Strike, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition exhibited The Breakdown by John Bulloch Souter (above). The New York Times described the painting as follows:

A broken statue of the Goddess Minerva is shown lying on the ground. On her gigantic helmet there sits the familiar figure of the negro jazz musician playing a saxophone. Before him there dances the nude figure of a white girl with an Eton crop and a fashionable boyish figure. A wisp of flesh-colored stocking hangs over the statue’s broken arm and there is also the hint of silk lingerie hastily discarded, and in the foreground a rejected green leather evening shoe. As a protest against the jazz age the picture seems undoubtedly effective.”  

Thus, in the revolutionary decades that heralded the possibilities of genuine social change at the start of the century, the RA was caught up in the cultural battles over who should be the subject of art, and how the artist should approach both the subject and medium of art. The exhibition tells us that there was some discontent at the time and displays a portrait of a nasty-looking committee of white, male Academicians, but otherwise, these debates are passed over.

Opening up the archives to the debate inside and outside the RA, at a time of revolutionary and anti-imperialist upheaval, after the carnage of the First World War, would have been of genuine value and enlivened an otherwise somewhat by-rote exhibition.

There are some works that appear here for no obvious reason at all. There are two JMW Turner “whaling” paintings, which are wonderful in and of themselves – as representations of that point in Turner’s art when a focus on weather, wildness, wind and steam – that combination of maritime rapture  and industrial ferocity – was crushing and then expanding his art to a point at which it tumbled into abstraction – but which seem out of place here, when his  terrifying 1840 Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (which was originally exhibited at the RA) would have been an ideal locus for the exhibition. All the themes of colonialism and its representation (or the turning away from representation) as a system of brutality, through art which touches both the horrific and the sublime, coalesce in that work.

The contemporary works from Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Sonia Boyce, Karen Maclean, Mohini Chandra, Yinka Shonibare and Shazia Sikander are all wonderful in their own right, but they deserve to be exhibited as such, not thrown into the midst of an exhibition that wants them to serve as secondary commentary on works that are not themselves critically examined by the curators.

 It’s great to see the Singh Twins here, but having one work on show doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity, wit and political sharpness of their work. The fact that all the contemporary artists here are expected to serve primarily as providing a critique of earlier white artistic practice rather than being simply celebrated in their own right, shows what a missed opportunity this exhibition is.

Again, there is a battle that’s missing, the way in which the British artistic establishment excluded a generation of artists who were too proudly black and militant for them to be given a platform is, if not quite erased, then passed over – and that battle took place within and against the RA, and could again have been brought to light here. The early works of Sonia Boyce, which rage brilliantly against racism and cultural exclusion, and invent their own medium through chalk, pastel and text, and righteous anger, could have been shown as ferocious examples of how to fight against the denial of an artistic space and voice.

There are video works by John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien here which demand rigorous contemplation and are entirely lost in the churn of exhibits. Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea – to which the Turner paintings relate – looks at environmental destruction and the whaling industry and the battle to come against fires, famine and floods, and should not be left to be just something that we walk through towards the exit.

Entangled Pasts contains enough great art to make it worth seeing but it represents a missed opportunity to properly take on the issues it seeks to engage with.

 I also think that not all of the RA’s history of clinging to classicism and landscape as representing the best of artistic tradition is a product of the ideological weight of Empire and colonialism. The art market pre-20th century harked back to a mythical golden age as a sign of value and taste – and to position themselves within that market, artists paid stylistic homage to that golden age, to obtain brand approval from the RA and access to collector purchasing power. There was always an avant-garde that fought against this. The RA’s function though, as described by a 1913 Summer Exhibition reviewer, was straightforward:-

“...the mission of the Academy – and a mission, it may be said, which it fulfils very efficiently – is to show us the results of art movements which have passed definitively beyond the experimental state, and to deal with types of effort which have been proved by experience to have in them the possibilities of permanence. In this sense it must always be behind the times; it cannot commit itself to speculative encouragement of activities which may or may not have come to stay; it cannot assume a prophetic role and profess to foretell what the art of the future may be. What it really has to do is to sum up the art history of the last few years and to exhibit what the men who have made history have produced and are producing,”

There is then a contradiction intrinsic to an exhibition such as this, and one we should seek to draw out. If there is to be a genuine attempt to do away with the function of the RA as gatekeeper of “permanence” then it has to do more than stage exhibitions like this once in a while.

It needs, from within and without, to argue for ditching the “royal” once and for all. It needs to open up the summer show  selection to art colleges, schools, prison art departments, prison art charities, community-based mental health trusts, art activist groups etc., so that the summer show doesn't simply reflect the taste of Home Counties amateurs, and democratise the academy election process so that it does not simply represent a self-selecting elite.

If none of this happens, then what we will have is shows that purport to critique, but in fact only represent the recent claiming for itself the possibility of permanence, a changing of the gatekeepers.

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.
Tuesday, 13 February 2024 09:16

Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Barbara Kruger: Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You., at the Serpentine South Gallery to 17 March 2024. Above image: Installation view, photo by George Darrell

Barbara Kruger’s work has been exhibited surprisingly infrequently  in the UK. However, the success of her interventions in relation to abortion rights and the struggle for women’s rights more generally – the early billboard works carrying texts stating  “Your gaze hits the side of my face”, “Your body is a battleground”; the New York magazine cover that reads “Who Becomes a “Murderer” in Post-Roe America ?” – means there is a resonant familiarity to these works.

They are works as often encountered outside the gallery space as within – and outside the gallery space is where their subversive intent is perhaps most effectively realised. For me, I first encountered her work when she designed the sleeve for the industrial/hip-hop band Consolidated’s album The Business of Punishment.

The Serpentine exhibition continues her attempts to reach beyond the gallery. Three London taxis have been decorated with texts from the works here. Obviously, these will serve to promote the exhibition, but the chance encounter with Kruger’s work is when her art of subversion has its real impact. These are what Kruger calls “moments of recognition” -when the slogan twisted against itself captures something about the way your life can be twisted against its own interests:

When my work is seen in public spaces, it’s not important that people know it’s me or my work – it's just the meaning that they’re seeing and the connections that they might make between image and text and sound. That’s more important to me. I don’t care if it’s identified as an artwork or if my name is on it.

Kruger uses the visual language of advertising to “to try to detonate some kind of feeling or understanding of lived experience.” She worked as a graphic designer and picture editor for Conde Nast’s Mademoiselle magazine in the 1960s, then as freelance picture editor for House and Gardens.

Coming from a working-class Newark, New Jersey background, she improvised an artistic style from her background in graphic design. As she states in the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that accompanies the exhibition:

I just had to figure out what it might mean to call myself an artist – I needed to understand what really engages me. I had to figure out what really struck a match in me, rather than just a stylistic choice that would become my art.

In common with contemporaries like Jenny Holzer and Art & Language, she became fascinated with type – primarily with sans-serif – and the way “they made a strong overture to the viewer and reader” and with the way the language of advertising and its use of direct address, establishes what might be called value claims, and how these value claims might be subverted.

Kruger’s art, as she puts it, is “about how we are to one another, and that means how we respect one another, how we detest one another, our adorations , our contempt, the centuries of worship and subjugation, of brutality and kindness.” 

But the works are about more than that – they are about how human relationships, dialogues between peoples, become pervaded and polluted and distorted by a kind of institutional language – a toxic, miasmatic emanation of a kind of non-language (if language is a bridge from one person to another) which is really a series of commands – to shop, to dress, to obey.

 Kruger has for years now been waging a permanent war against all this, and this exhibition shows how in the process she adapts, revises and revisits works to meet technological changes and challenges.

The Serpentine exhibition gives many examples of how these adaptations are worked through. Your Body Is a Battleground – originally created for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington, is presented as a video where a woman’s face is split and re-assembled into a divide of contrasting colours – the body as a frontline.

The newest work, No Comment, is a three-screen video installation compiled from found video and audio drawn from TikTok, YouTube, Fox News et al, with Trump, cats, hairstylists and acrobats combining to present a cacophony of hostile banality which Kruger periodically interrupts with statements from Voltaire and Kendrick Lamar among others, which derail and disrupt the ranting, tumbling, hurtling procession.

Kruger has said that one of the reasons she thinks her work has an impact is because it capitalises on:

what I think is predominant in the world and something that I share, which is a short attention span. I believe it’s possible to make work and meanings that engage those short attention spans, that encourage them to linger a little bit.

One of the ironies Kruger has scathingly embraced is the attempt by hipster skatewear label Supreme to appropriate her signature white-on-red Futura Bold Italic text in its graphics. In response, her original “I shop therefore I am” is reworked here through a number of variations ending with “I die therefore I was.”  Elsewhere, a skateboard carries the graphic ”Dont Be a Jerk.”

Kruger’s work has an obvious link back to Situationism’s practice of detournement, but whereas Situationist practice was rooted in an attempt to stimulate anti-system activity, Kruger’s work – at least as it exists now – lacks that revolutionary kernel. The subversive joy of her work has, in the face of the rise and resurgence of Trump, taken a didactic turn.

One piece here, The Work Is, runs through a description of the intended purpose of her work:

The work is about...audience and the scrutiny of judgment...fashion and the imperialism of garments, community and the discourse of self-esteem, witnessing and the anointed moment, spectacle and the enveloped viewer, narrative and the gathering of incidents, simultaneity and the elusive now, digitals and the rush of the capture.

You keep waiting for something to happen to mock the sanctimony, for a YouTube cat to pounce or a turd emoji to float across the screen, but it just scrolls on and on. I know Kruger has the best intentions, but this spelling-out implies a lack of faith in both her best work and in her audience. 

The Serpentine education room, the window of which looks out onto Hyde Park, is covered with black and white text, Orwell’s “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.” (1984) and Virginia Woolf’s “...women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”, from A Room of One’s Own.

Having the two texts facing out and catching the happenstance glance of strollers in the park is a good example of Kruger’s “game of the event” but the Orwell quote reminded me again of what appears to be missing from her current work. There is no Utopian element –the Women’s March that greeted Trump’s inauguration, the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight for abortion rights in the US, Poland, Latin  America are nowhere here.

SerpKruger 006.3 Loser

Installation view, photo: George Darrell

None of these achieved their aims , but they, as also the various iterations of Occupy, and the surge of protests across the Middle East before them, held ground and refused to be silent in a time of reaction, and they have no presence in Kruger’s latest works. The didacticism of The Work is About has replaced the possibility of subversion, and Orwell’s future has trampled on any revolutionary hope.

I doubt Kruger is really as despairing as all of this suggests and I wonder if the real problem lies with the fact that the “direct address” of advertising is now, as the text accompanying the exhibition, accepts, “the dominant way of communicating”.  It therefore becomes impossible to work outside and against such a form of communication on its own terms, in its own form, as it drowns out every voice but its own.

We speak the shorthand of advertising even in non-commercial space, such that we commodify ourselves via language. Kruger’s response to this is to dial up the volume, at the expense of the satire that was key to her earlier work – it is not enough to hate a culture, to begin to overturn it you have to show its weak spots.

The early works here show how Kruger accomplished that. The later works appear to suggest she no longer believes it’s possible to achieve that double-take of recognition that was at the core of her work. The best of her work was in a sense a collision/collusion between artist and viewer – “a detonation” she called it. The hope inherent in that is at times lacking here.

Barbara Kruger has been a pioneer – a committed, working-class  feminist who maintained a resolute militancy in an artworld devoted to selling tat to oligarchs. She remains challenging, vital, reworking and trying other ways to keep on “stopping people” in their tracks and telling them:

GIVE YOUR BRAIN AS MUCH ATTENTION AS YOU DO YOUR HAIR AND YOU’LL BE A THOUSAND TIMES BETTER OFF.

Sean Fitzgerald
Sunday, 04 February 2024 12:33

Sean Fitzgerald

Published in Poetry

Sean Fitzgerald

by Nick Moss

The jakes told a passerby
"We're just executing a warrant".
There was an execution, for sure.
January 4th 2019.
Sean Fitzgerald, aged 31.
Burnaby Road.
Coventry.
No mention of firearms on the warrant.
No firearms found.
Drugs as the justification.
No drugs found.
West Midlands cops
Staged their theatre of death anyway.
With chainsaw, hammers, flashbombs, guns
Lots of guns.
If in the first act you have cops with Glocks
In the second act a working-class lad will be dead.
It's the golden rule of UK policing.
Sean Fitgerald, 31.
Shot in the chest.
Unarmed.
Sean Fitzgerald
Killed by police.
But it's not a crime.
Apparently.
To shoot him dead.
Lover, brother, uncle, stepson,
Friend.
The laugh they'll miss
At every wake, every communion
Every wild-for-the-night party to come.
The funeral dirt bike ride-out
Brought the noise
For a family that
Refused the silence .
Standing firm for Seany
Lover, brother, uncle, stepson,
Friend.
Shot dead at 31.
Another name on a too-long list.

Sean Fitzgerald, unarmed, was shot dead by police during a raid on a property in Burnaby Road, Coventry on 4th January 2019. The purported justification for the raid was to search for drugs, and drug-related materials. The warrant made no mention of firearms but West Midlands firearms officers were deployed. No drugs or firearms were found and no one was charged with any offence. On 4 January 2024, five years after Sean's murder, the IOPC stated that the officer who shot him dead would face no criminal charges. The IOPC has still to reach any conclusion about Sean's killing, and his family continue their fight for justice, see here and here.

Dahiya Doctrine
Saturday, 16 December 2023 11:39

Dahiya Doctrine

Published in Poetry

Dahiya Doctrine

by Nick Moss

Bibi and Yoav banging on the table, demanding
Ashes, dust, blood.
The IDF playing moksha patam with groups of the displaced.
"Move south of Wadi Gaza";
So Khan Younis must be safe
Until it isnt.
Plenty of snakes. No ladders.
Bombs land on the square
At the same time you do.
Ashes, dust, blood.

A line of refugees walking through
A topography of ruin
Beit Hanoum razed
Jabalia razed
Gaza City razed
Khan Younis razed.
Al-Mawasi
Is "the humanitarian zone."
After that, the sea.
Let the human animals drown...
Ashes, dust, blood.

Outside the "humanitarian zone"
Is given over to inhumanity
The peculiar , debauched genius
That can turn a hospital or a school
Into a mass grave.
"We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba."
Revenant families caper in the wreckage
Of the Dar al-Shifa death zone
Ashes, dust, blood

Article 51(5)(b) of 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions
(and the Statute of the International Criminal Court )
Ashes, dust, blood
“intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack
Ashes, dust, blood
will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects … which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct
Ashes, dust, blood
overall military advantage anticipated” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts
Ashes, dust, blood
Major-General Gadi Eizenkot: “What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on"
Ashes, dust, blood
“We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. ”
Ashes, dust, blood

A group of half-naked Palestinian men
Illuminated by the light of an IDF jeep
Single file, blindfolded, hands bound,
Linked together by flex.
Due process ceased long ago.
All of this land of ashes, dust and blood
Is a permanent black site.
Min an-nahr ʾilā l-baḥr

Angels of Light
Thursday, 07 December 2023 12:42

Angels of Light

Published in Poetry

Angels of Light

by Nick Moss

Eichmann’s first day at the International Criminal Court
Checks his in-tray, prepares a list.
Sets down the journal he’s bought from Aspinalls.
Traces his fingers across the surface of the cover
The softness of full-grain leather.
Places the Montegrappa pen alongside. One of 888.
A limited edition. Where it came from, best not ask.
Stretches. Makes a fist. Straightens his hand again.
It may be a long day. He already hates the building.
All the pompous waffle about transparency,
Mosa Terra Maestricht tiles and a garden because
"Gardens are an element common to all cultures."
It looks like a Dusseldorf shopping centre. Yet still
There is justice to allot. Opens the Rules
Of Procedure and Evidence on his screen.

Another Cape Town four seasons day.
Craig Williamson and Clive Derby-Lewis step out of their taxi
Having chosen to travel together to save on expenses.
Chair and vice-chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee
They are steeled for another day of trauma-sharing and
Reaching for those momentary possibilities of amnesty.
Clive left Walus at the hotel, discomfited by what he'd
Already heard about the lengths to which soldiers of the racial war
Would go to draw their sticky carmine lines between black and white.
Craig is stroking his grey goatee, remembers MLK's sermon
About how we change society with forgiveness.
Clive, pensive, rubs absently at a blazer button.
He wonders how much of such horror his heart can hold.
His Citizen Force medal will serve to reinforce
His will at another day of urgent, vital unburdening.

Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber unwinds in the December warmth.
Chairing the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties
Is no small thing. He's already sent a letter to the Parties
Pledging that the Conference will be "a defining milestone
To accelerate action and deliver real results." The international
Lexicon of shared non-commitment. As CEO of
The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company he hopes
The Parties will enjoy the 32-field flare-off he's arranged
As a spectacular for them to see as they fly into Al-Bateen.
He fidgets the ADNOC insignia cufflink in the left sleeve
Of his white cotton Zegna shirt (worn instead of his thobe
To demonstrate easy familiarity and, he hopes, a beguiling openness).
Looks out at a sea of (how many was it? Check the list of passes)
Two thousand four hundred and fifty-six fossil fuel lobbyists.
Touches the bridge of his glasses. Smiles.

Here is a start, please carry on! 'Women in Revolt' at the Tate Britain
Wednesday, 06 December 2023 10:04

Here is a start, please carry on! 'Women in Revolt' at the Tate Britain

Published in Visual Arts

Nick Moss reviews Women In Revolt - Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990, at the Tate Britain until 7 April 2024. Image above: Houria Niati, No to Torture (After Delacroix 'Women of Algiers') 1982-83 

The national women’s’ liberation conference, held at Ruskin College in 1970, was held at a time when wives could still be lawfully raped by their husbands, when there was no statutory maternity pay, no sex discrimination protection, when sex assigned at birth could not be changed, and prior to the establishment and effective funding of domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centres.

The 1970 conference began what Sally Alexander (activist, a founding editor of the History Workshop Journal and one of the founders of the Night Cleaners Campaign) called “a spontaneous , iconoclastic movement whose impulse and demands reached far beyond its estimated twenty thousand activists.” 

Red Women resized

Red Women’s Workshop, 1974-1990, 7 Demands, 1974

This inspiring exhibition focuses on how feminist protest used art as a form of activism and how feminist artists looked to organize outside and against the commercial art market. The exhibition serves both as evidence of a new world coming into being through struggle, and an alert to us, to show how the gains we make can be reversed.

The refusal to separate art and politics – the refusal to surrender to the idea that aesthetics and aesthetic judgement can be divorced from the political or the culturally contingent – distinguishes much of the art shown here from that which fills galleries today. Just as importantly, much of the art was a product of a collective ethos – See Red Women’s’ Workshop, the Hackney Flashers, Format Photography Agency, BLK Art Group, Autograph-Association of Black Photographers, and Panchayat.

 Alison Lloyd SUPPORT THE MINERS Solidarity will win 1984 resized

Alison Lloyd, SUPPORT THE MINERS, Solidarity will win! 1984

Much of the art was produced as a contribution to ongoing struggles –  Wages for Housework, Women Against Pit Closures, Greenham Common Women’s’ Peace Camp/Women for Life on Earth, Gay Liberation Front. The photographer and Autograph founding member Ingrid Pollard sets out the animating character of the artists as “We weren’t expecting to get exhibitions at the Tate; in the 1980s, people set up things of their own. We did shows in alternative spaces –community centres, cafes, libraries, our homes. We occupied spaces differently.”

That work here – the photography, the artwork produced for Greenham Common Women’s’ Peace Camp such as literature, Gee Vaucher’s works,  Thalia Campbell’s banner works, Margaret Harrison’s installation –  jolts us to reflect on the significance of the camp and the various links in the chain of solidarity that led to it and follow from it.

Without the inspiration from the 1970 conference and the networks of activism it generated, the forms of self-organization it gave rise to-it is unlikely that the women’s’ march from Cardiff to the Greenham base would have happened. Without the renewed awareness of the history of feminist militancy that the movement produced, it is perhaps also the case that the specific suffragette-inspired decision by the marchers to chain themselves to the fence would have occurred.

Today we are faced again with the possibility that the nuclear states may consider a first strike a risk worth taking. As Alison Assiter wrote in 1983:

The culmination of militarist thinking is militarist problem-solving: war.....(In a nuclear war) everyone becomes a combatan, in the sense of being a possible target, but also a non-combatant insofar as he or she plays no active role in military action or decision-making. - (Over Our Dead Bodies, Virago 1983)

Thus, we come full circle. Every gain can be reversed; every battle has to be refought. Now also we face the prospect that global warming will be the human-generated locus of our own extinction. To quote Kate Soper, from the same 1983 volume:

We have somehow to summon up within ourselves the will to confront this possible death of human existence. ...I do not think one can dwell on this impending disaster very long without awakening the need to rescue humanity from it. This at any rate is my ‘optimism of the will.’ 

Fiat 

Jill Posener, Fiat Ad, London, 1979, reprinted 2023. Courtesy of the artist

There is so much by way of optimistic resource that can be drawn on in Women in Revolt. The art here, and the political actions to which that art related, fearlessly and wittily challenged capitalism, patriarchy, rape culture, homophobia, militarism. From flour-bombing Bob Hope at the 1970 Miss World competition, via Jill Posener’s photographs of feminist, anti-consumerist graffiti, to Lubaina Hamid’s white, male, unicycling, carrot-dangling idiot in Carrot Piece, the oppositional culture here is not afraid to mock the enemy.

Alexis Hunter, in The Marxist Wife Still Does the Housework, captures the hypocrisy of leftist gender politics with a series of photographs of a woman’s hand wiping down a poster that shows a picture of Marx  with text that  reads “Karl Marx, Revolutionary Man, Thinker.” It reminds me of those left groups that failed to address the issues raised by feminist, gay liberation and anti-racist struggles, and then decried as separatist those who decided to organise around these issues anyway.

Linder Untitles 1977

Linder, Untitled, 1977

It’s worth noting the extent to which the artist groups represented here  recognized the necessity of fusing artistic /political theory and practice, as a means of challenging each other and pushing on and  developing their ideas. Debates took place in the pages of Spare Rib, Red Rag, and Peace News and also in local bulletins and journals devoted specifically to issues raised by artistic practice, such as Feminist Arts News, Feminist Review, Heresies, Autograph, Contra-Diction, In Print, Outwrite, Shakti Khabar, Square Peg,Ten-8, Woman’s Art Journal, and Women Focusing.

It was in these journals that what became adopted in academia as “critical theory” – Barthes, Foucault, Cixous, Kristeva, Derrida – was first put to effective use as a way of challenging/confronting  the ubiquity of  the male gaze. Here also, Juliet Mitchell and Laura Mulvey made use of psychoanalytic theory,Lacan in particular, to explore what Mulvey set out as “the realisation that biological difference becomes overlaid by a cultural concept of sexual difference suited to the needs of a particular social order.”

Not all of the artists here accept a primarily political understanding of their work. Mocica Sjoo, for example, insists that:

What I was seeking was a form which expressed what I wanted to say about my experience and women’s experience generally. Without that excitement and tension, an image does not convey the message you want to get across. Painting is holistic, it reaches different layers of consciousness. Painting is a shamanistic act.

Sjoo has used her work, which includes powerful images of  God Giving Birth, the Sheela-Na-Gig, and The Goddess of Avebury, to rescue a feminist mythology – The Ancient Religion of the Great Cosmic Mother of All:

Men want to see women as beautiful and sweet and lovely, as seductive and heterosexually alluring, a sort of Pre-Raphaelite image. To see powerful women who are not pleasing and sexually titillating to men is seen as aggressive.

 There is some brief focus on women in music and Rock Against Sexism, but this is probably the area where the exhibition is at its weakest. Gina Birch of the Raincoats is represented, with a video work of her 3-minute scream, and it is good to see Linder Sterling recognized for her work as a musician in Ludus as well as her wonderful collages. But despite the inclusion of Gee Vaucher’s collages, there is little reference to Crass, who, at their best, represented an assault on capitalist-patriarchal norms using sound, graphic art, text and video.

Cosey Fanni Tutti appears as performance artist but not as (anti) musician with Throbbing Gristle. It is also the case that the attempt to present the materials here chronologically means that the works produced by the Black Arts Movement, and by lesbian and gay artists, mostly feature separately from the earlier works produced by white artists, which inadvertently reproduces the fissures that black and LGBT artists had to organize against.

Throughout the exhibition, we encounter women using art as a weapon to respond to a constant ideological warfare intended to shore up the institutions of  patriarchal capitalism – section 28, anti-gay propaganda around HIV/AIDS , the constant battle to preserve abortion rights, the attack on militant trade unionism, the crackdown on black and Asian resistance. What all of this makes clear is that what we today call the “culture wars” is a constant. What Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses” include the visual representations across various media of capitalist relations of production in the workplace and reproduction in the home as normative. Women in Revolt shows that it is both possible and necessary to establish a constantly renewing counterculture in response.

As Supta Biswas and Marlene Smith state in the exhibition notes, in relation to the struggle against institutional racism:

We have to work simultaneously on many different fronts. We must make our images, organize exhibitions, be art critics, historians, administrators, and speakers. We must be the watchdogs of art establishment bureaucracies: sitting as individuals on various panels, as a means of ensuring that Black people are not overlooked. The list is endless.

The emotional weight of so many of these works hits hard. Susan Hiller’s poignant work, 10 Months, consists of shots of her pregnant belly taken over the duration of her pregnancy, and texts written at the same time. Amongst these she simply records that “It is easier to describe despair than joy.” Marlene Smith’s Good Housekeeping 111 is a protest at the 1985 police shooting of Cherry Groce that consists of a portrait of Cherry Groce and a family photograph, alongside a text painted onto the wall that reads  “My mother opens the door at 7am. She is not bulletproof.”

Sutapa Biswas’s Housewives with Steak Knives gives us Kali, with a garland of severed heads, wielding a steak knife and holding decapitated male head.  The painting is a reference to Hindu culture as originally matriarchal. It is also, simply, a painting of a woman who refuses to submit- like the women in the miners’ support groups, the women at Greenham,  and Jayaben Desai, leader of the 1976 Grunwick strike, whose photograph is shown in the exhibition.

The last words in the exhibition go to Kate Walker, whose “Feministo” postal art project began  in 1974 with  Sally Gollop, features. They are fitting to end (begin again) with here:

In the absence of a feminist art we must invent it as we go along. Here is a start, please carry on.

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