Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


From the dystopian chaos of the free market to the solidarity of co-operative communism: the Maddaddam trilogy
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 17:20

From the dystopian chaos of the free market to the solidarity of co-operative communism: the Maddaddam trilogy

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell discusses Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy

Margaret Atwood, who turns 80 in November 2019, has written several novels that explore dystopian situations or circumstances where people are subjected to control and violence. Arguably, the most famous of these is The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). However, what distinguishes Atwood’s work is that people resist such coercion, not just in individual acts but most successfully as part of a secret group or illicit organization. This might be considered a leitmotif of her work. We encounter such resistance not only in The Handmaid’s Tale, but also elsewhere, for example in the deeply disturbing The Heart Goes Last (2015), or in her contemporary take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hag-Seed (2016).

Oscar Wilde, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, had this to say about hopes for a positive future:

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Utopia, according to Wilde, is the hope of a better possible life, one where humanity will feel at home. Thinking about what will define such an ideal, and that progress towards it, occupied writers from Thomas More to William Morris. With the Industrial Revolution and the appearance of more hidden forces at work in society at the beginning of the 19th century, the arts increasingly reflected the experience of horror, the experience of extreme violence over people and nature. The old, visible powers of feudal society (God, king, law) enter into an alliance with the invisible powers of capital, and everyday life becomes a world in which the ghostly terror of an anonymous, dominating and oppressive power is omnipresent, and which can break out at any time. Examples of such horror are the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Goya’s Caprichos and Desastres de la Guerra, and Schubert’s Winterreise. Towards the end of the 19th century, further manifestations are Stoker’s Dracula and Munch’s The Scream.

the scream

These visions of horror become the dystopias of the 20th and 21st centuries, many leaving little hope for liberation. Continuing wars with their displacement of people, the ever increasing anonymity of domination and accompanying loss of control, as well as environmental disaster are all valid factors feeding into this pessimism.

Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy imagines an all but post-human world. She explores a world where the free market has led to global anarchy. A technocracy of enormous corporations has destroyed national governments, communities, the ecosystem and almost extinguished life on the planet. Apart from a very few humans, there are left genetically engineered animals such as pigoons, wolvogs and rakunks, and artificially created creatures called Crakers, produced by Crake in his top-secret Paradice project.

Oryx and Crake is the first of the trilogy, Year of the Flood the second, and Maddaddam concludes it. Oryx and Crake sets the scene. The time is in the future, however, the elements making up this future have their recognizable roots in our present. The world is divided into the haves and have-nots. The haves are the corporations, and their employees live in corporation compounds. They are given better lifestyles than the working-class pleebland inhabitants. The raison d’être of the companies is to produce, in competition with others, products promising eternal youth, vitality, sexual prowess and the promise of resulting happiness: AnooYoo, HelthWyzer, OrganInc and RejoovenEsense. OrganInc created pigoons to grow organs for transplant. AnooYou "preys on the phobias and voids the bank accounts of the anxious and the gullible." HelthWyzer manufactures pills for profit, not for health, indeed health is one of their last considerations. In the race for profits, they introduce viruses into their ‘health’ products, to which they can then develop and sell antidotes. Wars over markets are commonplace.

The compounds are policed by private Corporation Security, CorpSeCorps, who control their populations’ movements, by violence and murder, if they deem it necessary. Opposition is not tolerated. A hierarchy exists between the corporations, some being rather less successful and thereby poorer than others. The wealthiest ones still provide real food to their workers; the less successful ones seem to be sliding into the artificial food and conditions that are imposed on the outside world. This setting is the profit-making class, with its more or less bribed employees.


The outside world is called Pleebland (plebeian land, desolate neighbourhoods, where the poor live). The pleeblands still contain cities like "New New York" and San Francisco and hold some attraction for the corporation employees as, while dangerous and diseased, places of entertainment and ‘time out’. Permission and passes are required to go there. This is where the poor live, those at whom the sale of products is aimed.

The story is told from the point of view of Snowman from the novel’s current time, with flashbacks to his past when he was still Jimmy. His best friend at the time, Glenn, is referred to as Crake, a name he picked as a character in an online game the two played called Extinctathon, controlled by the enigmatic Maddaddam.

Both characters have parents who have disappeared. Crake’s father died in a car accident when Crake was very young. Crake believes his father was eliminated for objecting to the practice of introducing disease into the population in order to profit from then selling the remedy. Jimmy’s mother, whom the reader gets to know better, runs away from the compound and protests against their practices. Such defection is dangerous and she knows she needs to disappear without a trace. The corporation tries to locate her, follow her surreptitious messages to Jimmy and interrogate him occasionally regarding her whereabouts. It is likely, although not certain, that Jimmy and Crake witness her execution online.

These two people are not the only examples of resistance to corporate rule. During the coffee war, there is mention of "Union dockworkers in Australia, where they still had unions, refused to unload Happicuppa cargoes". While Crake’s father’s protest is an individual one, these dockworkers act in unison, and they are supported: "in the United States, A Boston Coffee Party sprang up." Jimmy’s mother, too, has clearly joined opposition groups. When Jimmy hears from her or sees her online, she is always part of broader movements.

Crake’s highly valued academic science and maths skills ensure his speedy progression in corporation hierarchy. Jimmy’s verbal skills land him in advertising. Eventually, Crake brings him to the most powerful RejoovenEsense corporation, in which he is a very senior operator. Jimmy’s job here is to run the ad campaign for BlyssPluss, a product to increase sexual performance, protect against STDs, extend youth and function as male and female birth control to reduce global population. Secretly, Crake works on the creation of humanoids, the Children of Crake. These are ‘grown’ in an artificial dome.

Jimmy and Crake both love Oryx, whom they first see in a child pornography film. She is Asian by birth and was sold, as was common practice in her village, to a white man. Her odyssey brings her to North America and Crake later hires her to be a teacher for his Crackers: to explain simple concepts and communicate with them. She also markets BlyssPluss around the world.

When the catastrophe strikes, both Crake and Oryx die violently, and Jimmy takes the Children of Crake to a safe place by the sea. Just how safe this place is, is debatable, as the environment is badly damaged and they need to seek food and other essentials for survival. The children of Crake have been programmed to live on plants only.

This first volume of the trilogy ends as first the Children of Crake, later Snowman, encounter other human survivors. Perhaps playing on a set of fossilized early human footprints discovered on the shore of Langebaan Lagood, South Africa, in 1995, Snowman traces the whereabouts of the humans by following their imprints on the beach. He finds "Two men, one brown, one white, a tea-coloured woman". He is uncertain as to what to expect, knowing his own species, and considers different scenarios of how to relate to them. In the end, he leaves them without making himself known and returns to the Children of Crake, who he knows are naïve, friendly, peaceful, and care for him.

While Oryx and Crake (2003) is set in the Compounds, the second volume in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood (2009), is set contemporaneously in the violent and disease-ridden pleeblands. This is where the novel’s central female characters live, Toby and Ren, relating the stories of their lives and individual survival of Crake’s pandemic. The narrative shift from compound to pleebland is echoed in that from individual narrator to two narrators, from male to female, from isolation to group.

The two women had been members of a religious sect (albeit themselves not terribly religious), the pacifist and ecological God’s Gardeners, who had predicted the apocalyptic Waterless Flood brought about by environmental destruction. As they see it, Crake’s pandemic is this flood. God’s Gardeners is a dropout group, which is not idealized by Atwood, but shown with its own weaknesses. A disagreement over tactics, causes Zeb to leave the pacifist Gardeners and engage in active bioterrorist opposition to the Corporations’ security police. As the narrative draws towards the present, surviving Gardeners are forced into hiding and are hounded by dehumanised criminals (“painballers”), who murder and kidnap.

Echoing the ending of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood concludes as the main characters find other survivors, including Jimmy, and the two painballers, along with their kidnap victim. They do not kill their criminal captives, but tie them up and feed them. The closing paragraph announces the arrival of Crake’s Children approaching them: “many people singing. Now we can see the flickering of their torches, winding towards us through the darkness of the trees.”

The final book in the trilogy, Maddaddam (2013), is written from the perspective of Zeb and Toby, who were both introduced in The Year of the Flood. Their stories are told in the wake of the same biological disaster. They eventually meet up with Jimmy (Oryx and Crake) and other survivors. Together with the Crakers, they start remaking civilisation, but are still troubled by criminals. Some humans mate with the Crakers, but eventually die out. The end part of the story is told by the human-like the new race. They are peace-loving and environmentally aware.

Atwood’s outlook is cautiously, if thinly, optimistic for the survival of life on the planet. Despite an impending, profit-driven environmental catastrophe, wars, and cynical disregard for human beings, it is the ordinary human beings who have the greatest potential for survival. Very few do survive, but they realise that continued existence can only be achieved in solidarity with one another, not in competition, rivalry, exclusion, and individualism. While the danger is by no means defeated, a return to the awareness our tribal ancestors had of community, the state that Marx and Engels called primitive communism, is essential. And perhaps humankind will only live on in a new, more co-operative version of itself.

The Architects: a film about the reasons for the GDR's collapse
Friday, 08 November 2019 14:26

The Architects: a film about the reasons for the GDR's collapse

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell discusses The Architects, a film made in 1989/90 which traced the reasons for the collapse of the GDR 

30 years ago, on 9 November 1990, the inner-German border was opened, West Berlin was flooded with shoppers, and over the next few days and weeks the East German state toppled and collapsed. Why did it happen?

“The Architects” was one of the last films to be made in the GDR: the shoot began five weeks before the border opened, on 3 October 1989, and continued through to January 1990. It reached the cinemas in June 1990, as the currency union paved the way for the political joining of the two German states. Due to the turmoil of the times this film was viewed by very few; yet it is an interesting artistic document detailing – from the perspective of its artists – the reasons that led to the collapse of the socialist system, as it existed in the German Democratic Republic.

Briefly, the storyline is that a team of young architects is commissioned by the state to design the infrastructure for a vast estate of apartment blocks. They have to contend with the state and party apparatus, economic requisites, a fear of innovation and a lack of imagination. The architects are in their late thirties, the exact age of their country. They studied in Weimar, with all its associations of modern social housing during the Bauhaus and indeed, as referenced in the film, in the GDR itself.

The film follows their struggles to implement their dreams to design a habitable estate, one that does not merely provide the material conditions for survival like accommodation, transport and supermarkets. Their vision is a departure from prefabricated architecture. It is based on non-standard, imaginative elements, ecological construction, a cinema, a Vietnamese restaurant, and recreational facilities. In short, a place where people will be happy to live and stay. It is a metaphor for a society needing to live up to its own vision.  

The political critique could hardly be more obvious. Director Peter Kahane said that the screenplay described his own experience as a filmmaker, and the officials deciding on whether or not the film could be made appeared in their own roles in the film itself. Yet despite containing stark criticism of the state, tracing reasons for its collapse, the film was given the go-ahead and given the necessary state funding.

In the film the young team charged with the radical architectural design are cautiously hopeful that they can implement their plans. This is especially true of the team leader, Daniel, who puts up a heroic fight. The arguments used against the team are unconvincing and smack of fear of innovation. Hope is maintained almost to the end, and uncannily continues as everything collapses around them. But it comes too late for the team, and their belief in the project falls to pieces.

Why is this film of interest to us today, 30 years on? Perhaps because the socialist society depicted here shows people who have work and pleasant housing, at least indoors. There is neither poverty nor unemployment or homelessness. There is no evidence of social difference in terms of incomes. From this understanding, from this reality, people wish for more: individuality, imagination, variety. Their main complaint is boredom, paternalism, and an absence of trust. And here they come up against the political powers of the state.

The film is made from a position of achievement. The fact that full employment, cheap social housing for all, free education and medical care, all this social security is not enough, is a statement about the maturity of the society. After our basic human needs are fulfilled, we need cultural centres in the locality, cinemas, restaurants, and architectural art in every neighbourhood. People expect this, and not to have it is rightly seen as deprivation. This is another reason why so many leave the country. What expectations they have for the West and how this pans out is not the focus of the film.

The shoot coincided with people leaving the country in droves, and this is reflected in the film itself. However, Daniel’s Swiss friend, who had studied architecture in Weimar with him, visits because he wants to see the place again. When asked what he is working on, he says refugee accommodation, adding: “We from Weimar are architects with a social conscience.” He has not made money building wacky villas for the wealthy. As it happens, Daniel has the better prospects at that stage of building wacky designs for the working people of the estate. 

However, it was not to be, and Daniel loses hope and courage to continue his project, he loses the belief in himself and his ability to change things. The film was overtaken by history in the making, it documented the GDR’s reality as it became history. For me the interest lies not only in its awareness of what went wrong, but also in its lack of awareness of what had gone right.

“The Architects” is available on DVD with English subtitles.

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'
Monday, 07 October 2019 14:38

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews Walk with Gandhi, Bóthar na Saoirse, by Gabriel Rosenstock (Author) and Masood Hussain (Illustrator)

Bóthar na Saoirse (Road to Freedom) Walk with Gandhi is a beautiful book to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth on 2 October 1869. The book is a collection of haiga – a style of Japanese painting often accompanied by a haiku poem. The artists are the watercolourist Masood Hussain, from Kashmir, and the Irish poet and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock. Hussain’s exquisite watercolours are a re-interpretation of historical photographs taken of Gandhi. Rosenstock’s haiku are in Irish and English. This is significant, as one of the main themes of the book is colonialism and Gandhi’s awareness and opposition to it, including the colonising function of language.

colder than all the prisons

you’ve been thrown into …

Downing Street railings

In addition to the amazing interplay of the two art forms, the book is interspersed with fascinating insights into Gandhi’s life and philosophy. These reveal that the book is designed to make Gandhi accessible for the younger generation. They invite readers to consider historical events, forms of protest, the effects of colonialism, and relate them to the present.

Gandhi Poster Suite 2 ok

The information put together for the readers is not designed to turn Gandhi into a saint. It relates aspects that surprise us, for example, that “He achieved much for the status of his fellow Indians in South Africa … but native Africans – such as Zulus – do not hero-worship Gandhi today. Au contraire! Gandhi took the side of the British in the Zulu uprising of 1906.” It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s journey began, when he was thrown off a train for sitting in a “whites only” carriage. This awakening was the beginning of his lifelong quest for freedom and justice. Mandela said about him later, in India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.” Many of the tactics Gandhi first used in South Africa, he employed again in India.

Back in India, in 1915, his friend the poet Rabindranath Tagore gave him the name title “Mahatma”, Great Soul, a name Gandhi never warmed to; it deified him in some way. Tagore makes several appearances in this book. One of these connects him to the Irish anti-colonial struggle: Pádraig Pearse was in correspondence with Tagore and his play The Post Office had its world premiere in the Abbey Theatre in 1913.

Gandhi Poster Suite 5 ok

The Book “Bóthar na Saoirse” explores many facets of Gandhi’s life. For the younger readers it could well be a first introduction to exploring ideas of colonialism. For example, the following haiku echoes Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth:

are there hats enough

to go round …

the wretched of the earth

In the following haiku, Rosenstock gently hints at India’s own discrimination of the ‘Untouchables’, not without a reminder that “many societies have their own forms of class discrimination, snobbishness and exclusiveness, often based on dress, accent, schooling, money, property and other outer distinctive markings”.

a hand

like any other hand …

the untouchables

A fascinating insight Rosenstock provides in this book is linguistic links between Irish and Indian languages. Readers of this book discover that the “Irish word for a cow is bó and the Sanskrit is go…. The Celtic name Bovinda (White Cow) is the same as Govinda, another name for the Indian deity Krishna. A little clue to the cradle of Indo-European civilisation!”

This book is a gem. It is beautiful, a wonderfully enriching pleasure in terms of aesthetic appreciation and engaging the mind. It quotes many people on the significance of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, such as Albert Einstein’s: “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”

To finish with a quote from Gandhi himself, one that struck a particular chord with me is: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

The book is published by Gandhi 150 Ireland, 5 October 2019 Paperback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-0-4 Hardback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-2-8 Ebook: ISBN 978-1-9162254 -1-1

Gandhi Poster Suite 8 ok

Self portrait, 1630
Thursday, 26 September 2019 18:35

The revolutionary painting of Rembrandt van Rijn

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell marks the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt van Rijn with a discussion of some of his dynamic, democratic and deeply humane paintings

Rembrandt’s Times

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Flemish cloth trade had developed into the strongest competitor of Florentine cloth makers and traders, giving rise to a growing Dutch bourgeoisie. Early capitalism developed quickly in Flanders and Brabant, with the trading centre of Antwerp, while the provinces in the French-speaking area remained agricultural and mainly dominions of the nobility.

The conflict between bourgeoisie and aristocracy became an expression of national interests, reflected in the struggle against Spanish domination. The bourgeoisie was the leading force in the national liberation struggle of the Dutch people.

Only the northern provinces of the Netherlands succeeded in 1648 in freeing themselves from Spanish rule, giving power to the bourgeoisie. Awakened national pride, love for the homeland as well as pride in bourgeois prosperity were all expressed in painting. Dutch artists painted everyday life and ordinary people at work. They raised genre painting to the level of great art, and for the first time in history, ordinary people were painted in all their diversity. Dutch art was the first to develop secular genre painting.

Cheerful aspects of life dominated the arts. The peasant world was included, however, mainly for amusement. Soldiers and beggars completed the range of subjects. The only painter who expressed a warm humanity for beggars was Rembrandt. His genius was unrecognised in patrician Holland, yet only Holland could produce such an artist. Only the Republic that had a plebeian history linked to the struggle for independence could be his historical ground.

Rembrandt’s Art

The young Rembrandt’s paintings are full of joyful energy, as his Self-portrait with Saskia (1635) shows. Towards the end of the 1620s, his art had grown – in warm, gold tinted coloration, and in its ability to dramatise space through light-dark contrasts.

R Self portrait with Saskia 1635                        

Self-portrait with Saskia, 1635                                                                                                   

The Night Watch (1642) represents a new departure. Group portraits had become a special achievement of Dutch art and expressed proud community spirit. People wanted to see the members of a guild or a corporation represented together. The civic militia, organised in militia guilds, played an important role in the wars of independence, making such paintings artistic expressions of the bourgeois revolution. Rembrandt broke with the traditional style of a fairly stiff group portrait, by subjecting all participants to dynamic action and a dominant light-dark contrast.

R The Night Watch 1642

The Night Watch,1642

Instead of an impressive company of admirable officers and disciplined men, Rembrandt paints a rather disordered assembly. Each guard seems to be looking and pulling in a different direction, doing his own thing impervious to the others. Lance and flag point in opposite directions. In the midst of it, a diminutive golden figure, with Rembrandt’s recently deceased wife Saskia’s features, holds the company’s emblems.

In this way, Rembrandt subverts what had been a heroic genre. There is liveliness, sound and motion, with a man loading his musket, the commander giving orders, a drummer drumming, a flag swung, a barking dog and the boy – carrying a powder horn and dashing off to collect more powder for the three musketeers – all adding to the commotion. Two areas of bright gold on either side of the captain focus the eye on him, as do the diagonal lines of the flag, rifle, and lance, all pointing towards him. Nevertheless, the captain and his lieutenant in the centre foreground do not impose order. This animated, energetic movement was so new that it must have perplexed both guild and viewers. It is so powerfully forward-moving that the viewer feels a need to get out of the way. It is a truly revolutionary painting.

Later, Rembrandt develops a lyrical intimacy that infuses family scenes with a humanity that constitutes Rembrandt’s timeless significance. The moving painting Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656) uncovers depths of the human psyche, and finds its greatness in love and forgiveness. Colour and light interweave, creating an inner glow. Rembrandt focuses on the gentleness and warmth of Jacob’s blessing, not showing the disagreement between Joseph and Jacob regarding this blessing. Also, the inclusion of the children’s mother, Asenath, in this scene, is a deliberate departure from the Bible, and reflects the growing status of women in 17th century Holland as well as the importance of love in marriage. Asenath is shown to be involved and an important figure in the family setting. Her presence illustrates Rembrandt’s realism and the ingredient of doubt that he brings to his art. The painting’s colours underline the warmth and tenderness of the scene, and the perspective from which it is painted heightens the sense of the viewer surreptitiously witnessing a momentous family moment.

R Jacob

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656

In the course of Rembrandt’s lifetime, the bourgeoisie had aligned their standard of living with that of the nobility. They became mainly interested in the outwardly beautiful and representative. Rembrandt’s incorruptible artistic honesty, shaped by the democratic spirit of republican Holland, inevitably came into conflict with the ruling class. From the middle of his life, his work was no longer valued.

Rembrandt anticipated a democratic culture that was yet to come. He was the first to place modern knowledge, understanding – and therefore doubt – at the centre of his art. This places him among the ranks of the great Enlightenment artists and thinkers, and connects him with the ideas of the French Revolution.

All but forgotten in old age, he died in poverty and alone, on 4 October 1669.

The revolutionary realism of 'Peasant Bruegel'
Saturday, 31 August 2019 13:14

The revolutionary realism of 'Peasant Bruegel'

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell discusses the life and work of 'Peasant Bruegel', unearthing the radically subversive protests and criticisms of political domination which are expressed so beautifully in his paintings

The greatest of the 16th century Dutch realists is without doubt Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Born around 1525, Bruegel died 450 years ago, on 9 September 1569. His lifetime coincides with the Netherland’s struggle against Spanish domination. The Netherlands, which at that time included the territory of the present Netherlands as well as Belgium, Luxembourg and part of northern France, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and was dominated by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs. Into Bruegel’s lifetime fall: an escalation of the Inquisition, the persecution of Protestants, and Calvinist iconoclasm.

Bruegel was the first of a large family of painters. He became known as “Peasant Bruegel” due to one of the main features of his work, the centrality of the Dutch peasantry. However, his art reflects Dutch reality in many more ways. Not only did it draw inspiration from popular expressions and proverbs and put the people of the Netherlands at its centre, his paintings for that very reason contain many hidden attacks on Spanish imperial domination. In this way, works such as The Procession to Calvary, Census at Bethlehem, The Massacre of the Innocent and many others, sometimes cloaked in religious guise, helped to prepare the Dutch Revolution by putting on canvas the realities of life for ordinary people, and thereby supporting the Dutch quest for independence:

brueghel procession to calvary

The Procession to Calvary – detail

In this painting, Jesus is wearing the same blue clothes as the peasants, who are coming to his aid, both women and men. The red-coated mercenaries, all on horseback, are clearly depicted as their common enemy.

brueghel Census at Bethlehem

Census at Bethlehem

Domination of the Dutch peasantry by the Spanish oppressor is also very apparent in the two paintings Census at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents. Both are set in freezing landscapes. Both carry a political comment about the Dutch/Flemish under this Habsburg branch of the Holy Roman Empire. In Census at Bethlehem, the people clearly suffer from the financial and military yoke of the foreign power. They queue to register, and to pay taxes to the Empire. Tellingly, the tax collectors sit next to the Habsburg coat of arms (a black eagle on a golden shield), painted on the wall beside the window. Mary and Joseph are shown heading towards the tax collectors. They too are depicted as Dutch people in subjugation.

brueghel hunters in the snow

Hunters in the Snow

Bruegel’s sequence on the seasons have their roots in the book of hours, but they have come a long way. These paintings mastered seasonal atmospheric values of nature for the first time, and organically integrated the ordinary working people into the landscape. In his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow, the hunters and their dogs return from work. They are bent over with tiredness, on their way home to the village. In this painting, Bruegel’s training as a miniature artist is spectacularly clear in the amount of life going on in the distance. The viewer sees the expansive landscape through the hunters’ eyes, following their footsteps across the snow-covered ridge. Villagers skate, a woman crosses a bridge carrying brushwood. Even a chimney fire can be detected in the village’s farthest cottage, with villagers working hard to extinguish it. An icy cold wind blows towards the observer, and one senses the shelter that the huts offer their inhabitants.

brueghel the wedding dance

The Wedding Dance

Bruegel celebrated the rich traditions of Dutch culture, highlighting the threat to it posed by the Spanish ruling class. Most famous of all are of Bruegel’s depictions of peasant life, as for example The Wedding Dance. This very this-worldly picture would have been frowned upon by the Church, as it disapproved of dancing and any obvious sensuality and joy-in-life. At this picture’s centre we see the joined hands of bride and groom dancing in the open air. The bride is the only woman without a white scarf and a working woman’s apron, her red hair is loose, and she is wearing a black dress (white dresses only became fashionable in the 19th century). The entire village is invited and it is a joyous community occasion. The dynamic movement within the picture is stunning, expressing the people's enormous energy, and one can almost hear the bagpipe music. Aside from the dancing, there is sexual freedom among the villagers too. The bagpipe itself is a sexual symbol, apart from it being a folk music instrument. The unrestrained enjoyment of life, the energy, the dancing, music and sexual freedom are all a clear statement of resistance to the attempt by the Spanish ruling class at political and religious control of the Dutch people.

brueghel fish etcjpg

Big Fish Eats Small Fish

Bruegel also produced more directly socially critical allegorical works such as Big Fish Eats Small Fish or the not so allegorical pair The Rich Kitchen and The Poor Kitchen. These are still enjoyable, recognisable and true to this day:

Brueghel kitchen 1    brueghel kitchen 2

The Rich Kitchen and The Poor Kitchen.           

Bruegel captured his time, from the point of view of subjugated people in his country, and he did it in a remarkably realistic and humane way. His art represents the early stages, the progressive, indeed revolutionary, element of bourgeois realism. For this reason, viewers today can easily understand and identify with Bruegel’s partisanship with the ordinary, exploited and oppressed folk, and their rebellion against their condition.

Peterloo: the socialist poetry of Shelley, Brecht and Kinsella
Friday, 26 July 2019 15:52

Peterloo: the socialist poetry of Shelley, Brecht and Kinsella

Published in Poetry

In the run-up to the anniversary of Peterloo, Jenny Farrell discusses political poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Kinsella

On 16 August 1819, tens of thousands of working men and women demonstrated in St. Peter's Fields near Manchester demanding reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The yeomanry attacked, injuring over four hundred and killing eighteen. This slaughter went down in history as 'Peterloo'. Shelley reacted with one of the earliest works of socialist literature, his famous ballad The Mask of Anarchy.

Shelley’s lifetime was defined by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and severe political repression in England and elsewhere in Europe. In contrast to other European countries, the power of the bourgeoisie in England had been consolidated in their own revolutionary period in the seventeenth century. Therefore, the ruling class in England had little sympathy for revolutionary France as it could potentially rouse the growing working class, which had been so far effectively suppressed.

The more violent the revolution in France became, the more alarmed the English bourgeoisie grew. Jacobinism was a threat to the ruling class, and this in England was the bourgeoisie, not the aristocracy. So, while in every other European state the deadly line was drawn between the nobility and the bourgeoisie, in England this confrontation took place between the bourgeoisie and the radicalised lower and working classes.

These times of both great political hope ignited by the French Revolution, and unprecedented social unrest among the dispossessed fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, produced radical leaders who came under attack and were imprisoned by the government in a campaign of repression and violence. Prime Minister William Pitt unleashed a crusade of ‘white terror’ and throughout the 1790s held treason trials, suspended habeas corpus, issued a Proclamation against Sedition, passed the Treason and Sedition Act, the Unlawful Oath Act and banned Corresponding Societies. However, the government attempt at silencing protest only led to further strife and the increase in rebellion, including nonconformist religions and atheism.

Until Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle at Waterloo in 1815, Britain was involved in a prolonged state of war. The first result of the peace was a severe political and economic crisis. A new, more political quality enters the riots and protests and the 1817 ‘Gagging Acts’ (the Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act) served to further suppress radical agitation and publications. The political unrest of 1817 and the government’s silencing tactics culminated in the Peterloo Massacre.

peterloo peterloo

Shelley had left England for Italy in March 1818, and news of the massacre only reached him on 6 September. He set to work almost immediately, writing the 91 stanzas of The Mask of Anarchy inside a few days. It is rightly considered one of the greatest political protest poems written in English.

On the 200th anniversary of these events this month, let’s consider Shelley’s great poem and the effect it had on two other poets – Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Kinsella.

The Mask of Anarchy opens with a gruesome parade of the government’s key players: Murder (Castlereagh - Foreign Secretary), Fraud (Eldon - Lord Chancellor), Hypocrisy (Sidmouth - Home Secretary), and other Destructions (bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies):

I met Murder on the way-
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw-
‘I am God, and King, and Law!’

The poem continues, outlining Anarchy as the true ruler of England. On his rampage, he comes across Hope, looking like Despair, and Time running out:

… a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:

‘My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

Hope then lies down before the horse’s feet, in an act of passive resistance, and a vapour like shape appears that inspires the multitude with hope – and thought. The effect of this is announced in the next stanza, Anarchy, the ghastly birth,/ Lay dead upon the earth. There follow two stanzas, that are indelibly written into English socialist awareness:

‘Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.

Next, Shelley asks: ‘What is Freedom? - ye can tell/ That which slavery is, too well -
He then goes on to outline in a savage and empathic way the condition of the working class in England and how they are killed at whim: ‘And at length when ye complain/ With a murmur weak and vain/ ‘Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew/ Ride over your wives and you-/ Blood is on the grass like dew. This is an allusion to the protests over the recent years.

Shelley then, before giving his own view of what Freedom means, concludes:

This is Slavery - savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do-
But such ills they never knew.

The attributes of Freedom that Shelley outlines are: food, clothing, heating, true justice for all (ne’er for gold), wisdom, peace and love. Freedom is guided by science, poetry and thought, spirit, patience, gentleness.

Shelley’s understanding of the fundamental clash between the propertied class in power and the working class, led Eleanor Marx to conclude in Shelley and Socialism:

More than anything else that makes us claim Shelley as a Socialist is his singular understanding of the facts that to-day tyranny resolves itself into the tyranny of the possessing class over the producing, and that to this tyranny in the ultimate analysis is traceable almost all evil and misery.

Shelley goes on to say that the working people, the oppressed should meet the tyrants calmly, thereby shaming them. The poem however ends on a note not of passivity, but of action, returning to the stanza in the middle:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.’

Shelley's Influence on Brecht

The Mask of Anarchy has not only become an early part of the canon of socialist English working-class literature; it is also an integral part of the international socialist literary heritage. Brecht uses this poem as an example of realism in his 1938 essay Breadth and Variety of the Realist Mode of Writing. In this he writes: 

If (Shelley’s) great ballad ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, written immediately after the bloody upheaval in Manchester (1819), suppressed by the bourgeoisie, does not correspond to the common description of realist writing, we must ensure that the definition of realist writing is changed, expanded, and made more comprehensive.

A famous example of the survival of Shelley's tradition is Brecht's own poem of 1947 The Anachronistic Procession, or Freedom and Democracy. Brecht, who follows Shelley’s ballad form of four beat lines, describes in his poem a procession through the ruins of Western Germany after the war. A ragged procession carries two old boards, one bearing the faded inscription ‘freedom’, the other ‘democracy’: At the head a featherbrain. He is followed by Two in monkish garb from under which emerges a jackboot. They hold up a flag with the swastika’s hooks removed. And there are others: company directors from the arms industry, teachers, doctors, academics, “de-Nazified” Nazis in high offices, “stormtrooper” editors, a judge exonerating all of “Hitlerism”, and many more:

Then the faceless trust directors
Those men’s patrons and protectors:
Pray, for our arms industry
Freedom and Democracy

Keeping step, next march the teachers
Toadying, brain-corrupting creatures
For the right to educate
Boys to butchery and hate.

Then the medical advisers
Hitler’s slaves, mankind’s despisers
Asking, might they now select
A few Reds to vivisect.

Three grim dons, whose reputation
Rests on mass extermination

Next our whitewashed Nazi friends
On whom the new State depends:
Body lice, whose pet preserve is
In the higher civil service. 

Brecht’s succinct and apparently detached voice is similar to Shelley’s. Like Shelley, this results in vicious satire. However, Brecht targets the essentially unchanged society in the West of Germany, then under Western Allied control. He takes from Shelley the form and the idea of a procession of the perpetrators of inhumanity. While in Shelley’s poem, these represent government and power, Brecht shows how both the ordinary and the powerful Nazis of a few short years ago are not only whitewashing themselves, they have retained, thinly disguised, their posts of influence. De-Nazification is shown to be a meaningless façade in this part of Germany. Now their chant has changed to a deceptive and hollow cry for US style “Freedom and Democracy”.

Peterloo Hitler


As the procession reaches the “Capital of the Movement” (Munich), six Vices emerge from the ‘brown house’. They are Oppression, the Plague, Fraud, Stupidity, Murder, and Robbery.

Bony hand grasping a whip
First OPPRESSION takes a trip
In a half-track furnished free
By our heavy industry.

In a rusty tank, much greeted
Next comes PLAGUE. His breath is foetid.
To conceal his flaking skin
He wraps a brown scarf round his chin.

After him see FRAUD appear
Brandishing a jug of beer.
You will get your glasses filled when
You have let him take your children.

Older than the hills, an yet
Still out for what she can get
STUPIDITY staggers on board
Riveted she stares at Fraud.

Lolling back, as at a play
MURDER too is on his way
Perfectly at ease as he
Hums: Sweet dream of liberty.

Shaken by the latest crises
ROBBERY materialises
In Field-Marshal’s uniform
With the globe beneath his arm.
Each of these six grisly figures
Firmly based, with ready triggers
Says that there has got to be
Freedom and Democracy.
… great rats

Leave the rubble in their masses
Join the column as it passes
Squeaking ‘Freedom!’ as they flee
‘Freedom and Democracy!’

Here, Brecht both follows and varies Shelley. While Shelley conjures up Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, Destruction and Anarchy, Brecht lets Oppression, Plague, Fraud, Stupidity, Murder, and Robbery appear. Murder, Fraud and Anarchy emerge in both ballads. Destruction made an appearance in Brecht’s brain-corrupting teachers. He also castigates Hypocrisy mercilessly in the Vices of Capital’s chant for "Freedom and Democracy". Brecht places further accents, aspects which he also sees continuing in West Germany, and which were instrumentally involved in the catastrophe of fascism: Stupidity and a metaphorical Plague. Shelley depicts the vices that accompany the dictatorship of Capital at the beginning of the 19th century; Brecht, writing after the Holocaust – in the sense of the all-encompassing genocide – of the world wars, emphasises both the continuity and the development of these vices 128 years on.

Brecht offers no call to the German people that may be compared to Shelley’s “Men of England” verses. His insight into the merely cosmetic changes in the Western Allies’ part of Germany was remarkable in 1947, and its truth was borne out in the years that followed. Brecht’s poem (and thereby Shelley’s) lived on in the imperialist part of Germany. In 1980, a political street theatre took place in protest against Franz Josef Strauss, the rightwing CDU/CSU candidate for prime minister at that time. A procession was made up of pedestrians and vehicles. In the final vehicle stood mechanical dolls representing Oppression, Plague, Fraud, Stupidity, Murder and Robbery. All wore masks of former Nazi greats, who were firmly held in their seats by a performer wearing a Strauss mask. Brecht's daughter Hanne Hiob was centrally involved in this performance.

Another anachronistic procession, from Bonn to Berlin, took place in 1990, reiterating Brecht’s caution against fascist tendencies in a reunited Germany. Even today, more than 70 years after the The Anachronistic Procession was written, Brecht's warning has lost absolutely none of its validity, as Germany is involved in wars once again, and the fascist AfD is gaining in power at a fast and frightening pace.

Shelley's Influence on Kinsella

Finally, a further famous echo of The Mask of Anarchy is Thomas Kinsella’s A Butcher’s Dozen. Kinsella’s poem, again in four beat line ballad form, is about another British massacre, in this sense closer to the events of Peterloo. In Derry, on Bloody Sunday, 13 people died as Britain’s soldiers shot dead randomly unarmed civilians on a civil rights demonstration, one person died later of his injuries.

Peterloo Tk2

Like Shelley, Kinsella uses an ‘I’ who revisits the scene of murder:

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.

A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.

Instead of encountering the perpetrators, this speaker comes across the victims, who speak. These victims expose their attackers, who like in Shelley’s poem represent the British repressive state:

A harsher stirred, and spoke in scorn:
“The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where’s the law that can’t be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We’d be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.


Another ghost stood forth, and wet
Dead lips that had not spoken yet:
“My curse on the cunning and the bland,
On gentlemen who loot a land
They do not care to understand;
Who keep the natives on their paws
With ready lash and rotten laws;
Then if the beasts erupt in rage
Give them a slightly larger cage
And, in scorn and fear combined,
Turn them against their own kind.

Like Shelley, Kinsella offers a solution, albeit a different one – British withdrawal from Ireland:

If England would but clear the air
And brood at home on her disgrace

This is not an appeal to rise “like lions” against the oppressor, rather the speaker in this poem hopes that some kind of peace and reconciliation among those living in Ireland after British withdrawal might be achieved, perhaps in the way that Hope in Shelley’s poem puts an end to Anarchy.

The Mask of Anarchy was not published during Shelley’s lifetime, as Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, the paper Shelley had sent the manuscript to for publication in September 1819, justly feared persecution by the state. He recognised the poem’s inflammatory nature that it has kept to this day. Since its publication and to this day, lines from The Mask of Anarchy accompany and inspire people on their road to freedom.

In 1968, on the 150th anniversary of the massacre at Peterloo, the Trades Union Congress commissioned Arnold to compose what became the Peterloo Overture:

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Gustave Courbet: the working class becomes the subject of art

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

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

C The Desperate Man

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

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

C Burial at Ornans

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

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

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

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

C The Stone Breakers

The Stone Breakers, 1849, destroyed.

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

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

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

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

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

C The Winnowers

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 100th birthday, Pete Seeger

Published in Music

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

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

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

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

PS 1

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

“I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”:

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

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

“Viva la Quince Brigada”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”,

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

“We Shall Overcome”

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

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

15 November 1969

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

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

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

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


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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

The historical background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonardo da Vinci

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leo was also              Leo was also 2

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

Leo was also 3

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

The Mona Lisa

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

                                                                       Portraits of women, painted by Leonardo

Leo La Gioconda             Ginevra de Benci          Leo Cecilia Gallerani

                 La Gioconda                                              Ginevra de’ Benci                                             Cecilia Gallerani

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

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

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

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

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

Leo as Plato

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

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