Unsettling art for unsettling times
Tuesday, 25 April 2017 06:41

Unsettling art for unsettling times

Published in Visual Arts

Sanjiv Sachdev reviews Exhibit A, a witty and politically subversive exhibition of mask images of celebrities by Hugh Tisdale and Dan Murrell.

‘Fame, puts you where things are hollow’

- David Bowie

Celebrity masks of the likes of Simon Cowell, Princess Diana and Robbie Williams, are a familiar sight in tourist sites and seaside resorts. ‘Exhibit A’, a new show by Hugh Tisdale and Dan Murrell, converts this commonplace tourist trinket to witty, subversive and sometimes disturbing effect.

A rich seam of political caricature runs through British art; from Hogarth, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson to modern day equivalents of Peter Kennard, Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, the wealthy, privileged and powerful are interrogated, scrutinised and savaged.

‘Exhibit A’ stands in this tradition. The legacy of John Heartfield’s coruscating photomontages, that foretell and depict the savagery of the Third Reich, is also evident. There are also echoes of that notorious inquisitor of fame, Warhol, the presence of Mao and Monroe inevitably invite comparisons. Fame, benign or malign, is weighed and questioned. In an era where fame is no longer seen as a by-product of achievement, but a pre-eminent value in its own right, these questions are worth posing.

MP Malcolm X for reviews

Masks have a long history in culture and art, enabling the concealment of individual identity and the assertion of others. Greek theatre masks enabled transformation into an array of roles, be it satyr or god, young or old, man or woman; Venetian masks were a subversive response to one of the most rigid class hierarchies in European history; African masks hugely influenced Picasso’s revolutionary ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’; ‘V for Vendetta’ Guy Fawkes masks were a ubiquitous feature of the Occupy era. Today’s Facebook age has social media ‘masks’ that portray cheery pictures of full lives of contentment and achievement concealing mishaps, setbacks or flaws.

Fifty mask images, of mostly twentieth century figures, line the gallery walls. Appearances are deceptive – what initially appear to be photographs actually use a range of techniques including intricate drawing, crayon, watercolour as well as deft photo-shopping. Some are black and white, others in colour. The punched out eyes in the masks vary in size and character and produce a dead eyed, glassy glare, removing human warmth with blankness.

 MP Orwell for reviews

Despite this, some of the pictures retain a benign aspect, including Orwell - sans eyes, Big Brother isn’t watching you? – the Dalai Lama, Stalin, in ‘Uncle Joe’ mode rather than that of murderous despot, and an avuncular Nixon, a mask of whom was used in a bank heist scene in the film ‘Point Break’. Without eyes, Pele and Frank Zappa take on a decidedly belligerent air. Marie Curie appears to assume X-ray eyes. Very apt!
Some themes are apparent, such as Artists as Art. Duchamp, one of these, would surely approve. Sometimes, the techniques used are associated with that artist, such as watercolour for Hockney. Damien Hirst, has ‘PRODUCT’ scrawled graffiti-style on his face and his lips appear sewn together, a critique of one whose artistic integrity is corrupted by Mammon. The cold, menacing image of Myra Hindley seems to allude to Marcus Harvey’s infamous portrait. Musicians are a prominent presence. The biro-blue of William Burrough’s picture reflects Burrough’s shambolic writing method. Many of the pictures are of iconoclasts who are now icons - Wilde, Malcolm X, Dylan, Picasso, Simone.

MP Simone for reviews

Some juxtapositions are particularly striking. A coarse, Super-8-textured image of JFK, with an extra bullet hole added, is near a black and white one of the last images of Lee Harvey Oswald, shortly to be assassinated himself. Nixon smiles near the terrified face of a Vietnamese child. A saccharine, almost kitsch, Christ stands close to Lennon, bringing to mind that latter’s then controversial remark that “We’re more popular than Jesus”. Some iconic fictional figures are present – the pared down Clockwork Orange is especially effective and memorable.

MP Clockwork Orange for reviews

One of the most disturbing images is that of Jimmy Saville, whose ghoulish black and white face, redolent of an almost fairy tale evil, wears rose-tinted glasses to chilling effect. Another horrific image is that of 2nd Lieutenant Henry Lumley, whose grievous first world war wounds still shock and appal.

The exhibition is one of unsettling art for unsettling times. Trump, in all his orange, poisoned open-mouthed glory, is, with grim inevitability, one of the 50, and was selected before his shock victory. With its thoughtful blend of reflection, comment and protest the show merits a wide audience.

‘Exhibit A’ by Hugh Tisdale and Dan Murrell, is on at Rich Mix, Shoreditch, London, till Saturday 28th January 2017.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017 06:41

Animal Farm: a powerfully written allegory but an untruthful, gender-blind analysis

Published in Fiction

Following her appearance on the In Our Time radio programme discussing Orwell's Animal Farm, Professor Mary Vincent reflects on its powerfully written but fundamentally untruthful and simplistic analysis of Soviet Russia, based on Orwell's mistaken interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and his blindness to gender issues.

When I picked up Animal Farm to reread it before taking part in Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time the other week, I did so with some trepidation. Going to discuss it with colleagues who are more expert in Orwell’s life and works than I am seemed a daunting task, particularly as I had first read the book as a schoolgirl. But it took only a few pages for the power, and simplicity, of the allegory to take hold. The importance of Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War in the shaping of the narrative leapt out from almost every page. The new society that the animals create remains a source of hope even as it is being gradually dismantled. This was the ‘state of affairs worth fighting for’ that Orwell had glimpsed when he arrived in revolutionary Barcelona in December 1936 and that had later been betrayed by Moscow. Paradise, briefly glimpsed, is slowly and inexorably lost.

It is this sense of inevitability that gives Animal Farm its power. The allegory is of the totalitarianism of the left, which Orwell believed had destroyed the Spanish revolution. There are, though, many other echoes of his Civil War experiences. The set-piece battles, the struggles to defend the windmill, the ‘victory’ declared when a piece of ground has simply been regained, all come from his time in the trenches on the Aragón front, where illiterate soldiers were taught to read. For the Republican government, literacy was emancipatory, rather than the tool of power it becomes for Orwell’s pigs. With the other animals, they establish a collective form of social and economic life on the farm, just as the villages of Aragón were collectivized. As a collective, Animal Farm is very like its Spanish forerunners: surrounded by agricultural land and so, in some senses, cut off; self-sufficient in food but with no means of making petrol, medicines or many manufactured goods; heroic but not necessarily efficient.

These drawbacks are clearly shown in Animal Farm but there is no sense that they contributed to the final outcome. The socialist utopia is betrayed by the pigs just as the Spanish workers were betrayed by Stalin’s henchmen. Any wider complexity or contingent circumstances are omitted or ignored. This may be an unfair criticism of the ‘fairytale’ of Animal Farm but it’s a significant issue with Homage to Catalonia. The relationship between the two is close. After all, Spain was where Orwell saw what he profoundly believed to be the truth of Stalinism when the POUM, whose militia he belonged to, was suppressed. This was, to him, the truth of experience; he and his fellow POUMistas were witnesses to the real nature of Stalinist power. He was thus compelled to reveal it. Animal Farm is a way of bearing witness.

As with all Orwell’s later writing, its power lies in its prose. This is plain, clear, and deceptively simple. It is the result of great skill and much craft, honed by his years of filing journalistic copy and informed by his audience. Orwell wrote for the ordinary man. His disdain for the literati led to some odd alliances—for example with the bombastic and reactionary fantasist, Roy Campbell—and his romanticized belief in the ordinary worker never wavered. The plainness of his prose conveyed a common sense approach to history and politics, determined, more than anything, by his own experience. Orwell always operated from first principles, with little background research or wider investigation. He lived his truth; as witness, he was the hero in his own narrative. He spoke out about the suppression of the POUM—a nasty, unnecessary skirmish that followed the reassertion of control by the central Republican government—and reinterpreted it as the central struggle in not only the Spanish Civil War but also the wider history of the European left.

He also spoke up for the innate goodness of the common man, the ‘crystal spirit’ he wrote of in the poem ‘The Italian solider shook my hand’. In Animal Farm, it is the animals themselves who play the role of the workers, who are also the people of England. As with the Italian militiaman—about whom Orwell knew absolutely nothing—it is an idealized picture rather than an analytical one. The pigs are a caste while the other animals are distinguished by occupation with very little, if any, differentiation between them. There is no complexity to the social world of Animal Farm.

This simplicity enhances the power of the fable, but make it impossible to use it as an analysis. Take, for example, the way gender is treated—or rather not treated—in the book. Interestingly, Napoleon is the only virile male in the book, at least the only one to sire children. The female pigs are simply breeders; the dogs are bitches but only so they can provide Napoleon’s vicious canine defenders. Clover is a mare but her gender isn’t important; Molly, the pony, leaves for another farm, seduced by sugar lumps and ribbons, a caricature of a silly girl. The association of masculinity, power, and violence is never explored. As with other forms of complexity, gender is simply absent. We can identify Stalin and Trotsky behind the characters in Animal Farm and the vision of Marx or perhaps Lenin. But don’t bother looking for Kollontai or Luxemburg or even Pasionaria.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017 06:41

Communism in the gunsights

Published in Fiction

Graham Stevenson reviews the recent In Our Time radio programme about George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Melvyn Bragg's discursive radio series, In Our Time, recently considered Orwell's Animal Farm with comment from Steven Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge, Mary Vincent, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sheffield, and Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University.  The usual response of the liberal-minded intelligentsia to Orwell, awe-filled exaggeration of his `timeless’ importance was there, as was to be expected. But it was refreshing to hear Professor Vincent openly judge Orwell as being completely wrong about Spain, as perhaps befits the author of original research in the social basis of Franco's support, particularly that provided by the Catholic Church, as evidenced in her “Catholicism in the Second Spanish Republic” (1996).

Much of the programme was a well-travelled rehearsal of the events of Animal Farm and of Orwell’s own life. A staunch critique of publishers’ reluctance to publish the text is made, hindsight-driven as it is an expected justification that publishers were fearful was focused on the assumption that it was merely the fact of the prestige of the Red Army and Commander-in-Chief Stalin that worried people who spend their lives sending out rejection slips!

Sloppy historical facts abounded; for example, it was said the Cold War had more or less started in August 1945, so it was “alright” to publish Animal Far then but not a year or two earlier. In fact, it was the British government’s announcement that it could no longer afford to prop up the right wing anti-communists in Greece as late as February 1947 that promoted US President Truman to announce a global programme of funding of such projects that was the trigger for the Cold War.

The truth is that Orwell’s book wasn’t (isn’t) very good and it only makes sense as a tongue-in-cheek fable about Communism. The 1941 drawings by Gertrude Elias for a storyboard for a cartoon film featured Nazi hoodlums as pigs – and the allegory rooted in personal experience. She mooted the idea for a cartoon to the Ministry of Information and the imagery and ideas were known to Orwell, who briefly worked there as a BBC Talks Producer. He and Elias knew each other and she was later very firm in that the core of his Animal Farm was effectively plagiarised from her, after the mischievous inversion of Nazi pigs into Soviet ones.

In 1946, the New Republic book reviewer, George Soules, panned Animal Farm with disgust: “the book puzzled and saddened me. It seemed on the whole dull. The allegory turned out to be a creaking machine for saying in a clumsy way things that have been said better directly. And many of the things said are not instantly recognized as the essence of truth, but are of the sort which start endless and boring controversy.”

Such a view of the work was common; indeed, it was not uncritically or well received at any point until the CIA heavily popularised it. Orwell wrote a preface to a 1947 Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm in which he makes it clear that this is an anti-Soviet work, designed to undermine the Soviet Union. One moment’s thought – a Ukrainian edition in 1947 – should make clear the malevolence with which this book was promoted. Amusingly, Melvyn Bragg comments that for a work slating propaganda this is “an irony”. Perhaps there is a more cynical explanation?
In terms of substance, its value is over-rated by the process of filling its gaps with belief that they are intended. It is helped in this by being written with great speed and little skill (the original work was sub-titled “A Fairy Tale”) and the fact that it isn’t very long. Supposedly, it is full of laconic irony and is a humorous satire, as critics of Orwell and his sources have long stated, his work is almost entirely at odds with the two famous anti-communist pieces.

Frustratingly, the radio discussion speeds past the 1930s and 40s, almost missing the Spanish war. Yet it is noted that Orwell’s contrary nature seemed always to start with opposing one thing and ending up against another. Although, the canonisation into a “saintly and heroic” figure in the 1950s is touched on, that he doesn’t see any contrariness in Nazism is passed over almost without comment. It is communism that is in the gunsights.

Seemingly, it is the rewriting of history that is the strongest motivator of Orwell; the “fragility of memory”. Yet, frustratingly, it is only as the broadcast programme is about to end and the off-air (intriguingly available on the web) discussion emerges that the expert of the piece, Professor Vincent is able to stress her view that “Orwell got it all wrong about Spain”. Defeat was not down to Stalin but to the military aid given by the Fascist powers that was not stopped by French or British politicians.

An account of how Orwell’s creative output, as opposed to his journalistic production, seems uncomfortably too well informed by material produced by women is available online here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1451:orwellian-mischief&catid=36:articles-and-reviews&Itemid=135

A short account of Gertrude’s life can be found here:
http://www.grahamstevenson.me.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1446:elias-gertrude&catid=5:e&Itemid=20

A pamphlet containing an extract from Gertrude’s encounter with Orwell is now available:
http://www.marx-memorial-library.org/shop/shop-books/item/674-gertrude-elias-pamphlet