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.

 

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)

 

A worker reads and asks questions
Sunday, 25 June 2017 21:18

A worker reads and asks questions

Published in Poetry

The recent election results showed a stunning level of support for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s anti-austerity policies. Working people are clearly starting to ask more questions about who exactly produces the wealth in class-divided societies, including our own. Jenny Farrell’s father made this brilliant translation of one of Brecht’s most famous poems.

A worker reads and asks questions
by Bertolt Brecht
translated by Jack Mitchell

Who built seven-gated Thebes
In the books you’ll find the names of kings.
Was it the kings that lugged those hunks of rock?
And what of Babylon, so often demolished?
Who rebuilt it time and again? In which
Of golden Lima’s houses lived its builders?
On the day the Chinese Wall was finished where
Did the masons go in the evening? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who raised them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium of the songs
Palaces only, for its inhabitants? Even in fabulous Atlantis,
The very night the sea swallowed it,
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
All alone?
Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Didn’t he have so much as a cook with him?
Phillip of Spain wept when his fleet
Sank. Did no others shed tears?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year War.
Who else?

A victory on every page.
Who cooked the victory feast?
A great man every ten years.
Who paid the bill?

So many accounts.
So many questions.

Not the Feelies
Thursday, 22 June 2017 19:50

Not the Feelies

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell explains how Leviathan reveals the nature of capitalism.

The dystopias of the mid-20th century, Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), described with astonishing accuracy the world we live in today: thought police, news speak, genetic engineering, escapist drugs and a cinema that conditions people not to think about the kind of society they inhabit. Their films, in Brave New World, are aptly called ‘The Feelies’.

Anybody with a passing awareness of our own mainstream cinema realises that this is exactly what we have today. The ‘movies’, as opposed to ‘thinkies’, which dominate all our screens present us largely with private, relationship issues, mainly either set in or seen from the middle class perspective, and most definitely resolvable within existing society. Where issues of race or gender are addressed, from the safe distance of historical perspective, we the audience are reassured that we would have acted in an ethical, in fact radical way, if only we had lived at that distant time. And of course all is well now, we are assured and can leave the cinema affirmed in our self-righteousness.

Not so with some recent Russian films – rarely screened in Western cinemas. One of these is Leviathan, by Andrey Zvyagintsev. Its title brings to mind two things. First, the Bible’s Book of Job, where Leviathan is described as an enormous, all-consuming sea monster. Secondly, the title evokes Thomas Hobbes’s 17th c treatise on the State, ‘Leviathan’, advocating the need for a strong State at the time of the English Revolution, including the alliance between State and Church as the best and most reasonable form of government for the people.

Zvyagintsev adds to this equation the story of US Marvin John Heemeyer, who in 2004, frustrated over a failed zoning dispute, ploughed his bulldozer into the town hall, a former mayor's home and other buildings in small-town Granby, Colorado. Zvyagintsev, however, sets the film in the culture he knows best – Russia. He changes details of the plot, while revealing the nature of a Leviathan society.

This film was gleefully hailed in the West as a film about corrupt Russia. It was even awarded the Golden Globe. It was condemned in Russia as anti-Russian. Both angles miss the point. The film exposes the mechanisms of capitalist society and its destruction of ordinary people, their lives, and their happiness. It exposes how little power, what scant hope for justice working people have when faced with the combined power of politicians, the judiciary and the Church. It is difficult to think of a recent Western film, outside of Ken Loach’s work, that presents the very nature of capitalism with such radical honesty and incredible cinematography. In that sense, the film is not only about Russia but at the same time about the inhuman system that is capitalism – anywhere.

Of course, its detail is Russian, no film can or should be made in abstractions. Films, like all artwork, deal in individual lives. Zvyagintsev’s film associates the greater context through its title. He also uses the landscape on the edge of the world: the Barents Sea bordering on the Arctic Ocean, frozen landscapes, wrecked boats and the skeleton of a blue whale to emphasise this more encompassing scope. Yet, the story is rooted deeply in the everyday minutiae of ordinary, working people’s lives. The film shows how the monster devastates this. There seems to be little hope for humanity. Perhaps some slight courage may be taken from the fact that a friend of the protagonist has the potential to challenge the beast. In Leviathan, this path is thwarted and seems unlikely, yet it is there. The fact that the film itself makes a statement about the Leviathan, too, is important.

Leviathan struck close to the bone in Russia, where despite everything, art is clearly still understood as a serious comment on society. The cultural ministry was outraged and indeed censored its ‘profanities’, amputating the film. It also questioned the right of such a film to taxpayers’ financial support. (Films clearly still receive state subventions!) Zvyagintsev himself called on people to watch the illegally copied film online in places where it was not shown in cinemas. The film’s impact was such that civic leaders and Orthodox priests and bishops of Samara called on the Minister of Culture to sack Valery Grishko, the actor who plays the bishop in the film, from his position in the state-sponsored theatre. The “image created by this actor is a cynical and dirty parody on Russian orthodox bishops, it offends the believers and in its essence is nothing else other than blatant mockery of Russian State and the principal religious confession of our country — The Holy Orthodoxy.”

To turn to ‘real life’: at the time of writing, there is an ongoing, growing truck drivers’ strike in Russia (since 27 March 2017). It demonstrates an awareness and readiness to fight against the insatiable appetite of the Leviathan. Leviathan and other recent Russian films help their viewers identify those who would rather send them to ‘The Feelies’ and remain hidden. By describing present day Russia, however, they reveal the nature of capitalism. Understanding this, is a prerequisite to change. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “the first revolutionary act is to call things by their true names.” We need films like this.