Realism made a come back in Edinburgh – Autumn 2017

The Moon Goes Round the Earth - Keith Henderson

The Moon Goes Round the Earth – Keith Henderson

Having some knowledge of Socialist Realist Art from the erstwhile Socialist countries it was a pleasure to be able to visit the exhibition in Edinburgh, in the autumn of 2017, on British Realist Painting of the 1920s and 1930s to see what was shared – and what wasn’t. After all the style fell out of favour here and became a victim of the Cold War – collateral damage in the propaganda war against Communism.

In the main, these examples of British Realism compared to Socialist Realism are as different as chalk and cheese. In Socialist Realism context is everything, the period in which a picture is painted, the reason for its creation, who or what is depicted and the audience at which the image is aimed are all important .

With the British paintings what is most obvious from the start is the difference in the subjects. British Realism was fine art in its most literal sense. Some of the painters used single sable hair brushes in their work. Some of these paintings took years to complete. There’s no doubting the skill and draughtsmanship of such creations but they were, in many ways, products of their time and the social relations that existed in the decades between the two world wars.

With few exceptions the principle of ‘art for art’s sake’ prevailed. They were vanity products of a privileged minority, who had private incomes, who came from ‘old’ wealth. Even those from working class backgrounds rarely reflected their heritage in the subjects and themes they chose to paint.

Many of the male painters had direct experience of the First World War – although a few were pacifists or conscientious objectors and one, Maxwell Armfield, even went to the US to avoid conscription. Their rank during the conflict indicated their class background but most bullets and gas don’t respect class and many returned from the war scarred physically or mentally. Instead of reacting against the carnage most chose to retreat into an idealised past, or a beautiful present, rather than use their art to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated in the future.

This is especially obvious in an idealised view of the countryside, harking back to a time of innocence, before mechanisation, which had, as a corollary, produced the weapons of the early 20th century which had turned once fertile farmland in France into a murderous quagmire. Their countryside is idyllic, the sun always shines and all is good with the world with happy workers bringing in the harvest or tourists enjoying the countryside in their spare time. In their pastoral images there is no reference to the almost feudal working and living conditions under which most agricultural workers existed. As a result they created paintings which included horse drawn rakes and workers harvesting with scythes – backbreaking and low productivity labour.

British Realism included no drama, narrative, or anecdote. It doesn’t really tell a story. It’s more like a photo of a specific time, location or individual but it’s a photo that doesn’t have a back story. It’s an image frozen in time but without any indication of a past or a future.

But ‘Realism’ doesn’t mean real.

By the Hills - Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills – Gerald Brockhurst

By the Hills (Brockhurst),

Woman Reclining - Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining – Meredith Frampton

Woman Reclining,

A Game of Patience - Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience – Meredith Frampton

A Game of Patience (both by Frampton) and

Pauline Waiting - Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting – Herbert James Gunn

Pauline Waiting (Gunn) are images of incredibly beautiful women, perfect in every way. But no one’s that perfect. All of them oil on canvas, the style which results in a ‘brushless, flawless finish’ is used to produce an impossibly flawless image.

The paintings look the same as they do in the catalogue – like large, blown up (and retouched, or, perhaps I should say Photoshopped) photographs. The only difference with the originals is that when close up you can actually see the small hairs on these women’s faces and arms. Their perfection is what gives them away as paintings – such technologies in retouching weren’t available at the time. The artists aimed for, and achieved, perfection before the ravages of time would take that away forever. Standing in front of these portraits you know Oliver Cromwell, with his ‘warts and all’, would not have been a welcomed sitter in these technicians’ studios.

Some artists during this heyday of British Realism also played around with materials, reverting to tempera (using egg yolks, the norm before the invention of oil based paints) which produces a much softer, watercolour effect. What had, half a millennium ago, restricted artists in their desires to depict the world around them was reinvented to depict contemporary society – the medium not as restrictive as once thought. They rejected oil for the previously rejected egg.

British Realism came closest to Soviet Socialist Realism with the works of Branson

Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works - Clive Branson

Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works – Clive Branson

(Selling the ‘Daily Worker’ outside Projectile Engineering Works) and Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop - Clifford Rowe

The Fried Fish Shop – Clifford Rowe

(The Fried Fish Shop). This is not surprising. Both were Communists and used their art to comment on the capitalist society that had just come out of the worst economic crisis (to that time) and was rushing headlong into the worst and most destructive conflict so far known to mankind. In depicting ordinary working people, even in the mundane act of eating fish and chips, they were referencing those who could take society along another, more prosperous and peaceful road.

There was also a similarity to the Soviet example in the works of Matania

Blackpool - Fortunino Matania

Blackpool – Fortunino Matania

(whose Blackpool was used as a poster advertising the seaside town) and that of Taylor

Restaurant Car - Leonard Taylor

Restaurant Car – Leonard Taylor

(whose Restaurant Car was used to advertise luxury rail travel). In this way they paralleled the work of Soviet artists who were producing public information posters in all fields of Soviet life at exactly the same time.

Flawed but illuminating, museums and art galleries should hunt out further treasures of British Realism and present them to the public. Let the people decide what is ‘art’ and not leave it to the Turner Prize jury.

The National Galleries of Scotland produced a wonderfully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition, True to Life – British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s, by Patrick Elliot and Sacha Llewellyn. Apart from the reproductions of the paintings that were in the exhibition the text puts the Movement into its context.

Frederick Engels in Manchester

Frederick Engels in Manchester

Frederick Engels in Manchester

Frederick Engels – revolutionary fighter, philosopher, close comrade-in-arms of Karl Marx – has returned to Manchester. Almost 150 years since he worked in the city (and thereby being able to support Marx in his development of the theory of the working class that later became known as Marxism) and almost 125 years since his death in 1895 a statue now stands in a pedestrianised square in the city which is considered to be one of the ‘cradles of the industrial revolution’.

Life and work

Engels first went to Manchester in 1842 – and stayed for two years. During that time he produced the unique and seminal work The Condition of the Working Class in England which was published in 1844 – but only in German. It was not available in an English translation until the end of the 19th century in 1885.

But Engels was not an armchair revolutionary – something that is very often forgotten when his role in revolutionary Socialism is discussed. To confine Engels’ role in the development of Marxism to that of someone who; bank-rolled Marx during his (many) times of penury; was able to write penetrating and interesting studies on a diverse range of subjects such as the living conditions of the poor and the role of dialectics of nature; and the only person who could have brought Marx’s most important work (Capital – in all its four volumes) through to publication is to deny what made him able to do all that. Engels was first and foremost a revolutionary fighter, prepared to place his life on the line with other revolutionaries on the barricades of Europe when the workers rose up against oppression and exploitation in 1848.

That revolution ended in failure but Engels and Marx were two of the few who considered what had happened and attempted to work out the lessons of that failure to avoid them in the future. What was later to become the book Germany: Revolution and Counter-revolution first appeared as a series of articles in 1851. Mainly written by Engels (in Manchester), but in close collaboration with Marx (in London) this was an analysis of the failed German revolution which is a companion piece to Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte about that situation in France, which was published at around the same time. And in the 1860’s he refined some of his military ideas and tactics in a series of articles that were published in the Manchester Guardian – something which wouldn’t happen now in such a ‘liberal’ newspaper.

It was after the defeat of the revolutions in Europe – Britain had seen some scuffles but never on the scale that ran through many European countries in 1848 – that Engels returned to London and then, the following year, to Manchester where he spent the best part of the next 20 years, working in a family owned textile mill. The monies from this work, and the proceeds of the eventual selling of his part in the partnership in 1869, helped pay for Marx’s living expenses as well as supporting various proto-revolutionary organisations existing in Britain at the time.

After Marx’s death in March 1883 it was Engels who ensured that the culmination of all of Marx’s life and study was to see the light of day, with Engels organising Marx’s notes into a coherent structure and then publishing them as the various volumes of Capital. No one but Engels could have done that work.

By this time Engels had moved to London and he died there in August 1895.

The Statue

The statue was originally erected in the town of Mala Pereshchepyna, in the Poltava region of Eastern Ukraine, in the 1970’s. Sometime in the 1990s it became a victim of the nationalistic counter-revolution and after being vandalised (by being daubed in blue and yellow paint – the colours of the Ukrainian nationalists) it was taken from its plinth, in a central location, and eventually found itself, in two parts, laying in a farmer’s field on the outskirts of the town.

There it lay for a couple of decades before being ‘discovered’ by British artist Phil Collins who was looking for a piece of Socialist Realist sculpture to be placed in Manchester, at the end of the city’s International Festival in August 2017, to stand as a celebration of the city and its people’s radical past – and future? A statue of Frederick Engels was ideal for this due to the time he spent in the city in the 19th century and the input he was able to make towards Marxist ideology through the knowledge he gained from studying the struggle and conditions of the industrial working class in the north-west of England.

The statue is made of a sandy coloured limestone and stands about 3 metres tall. There’s evidence of a join just about waist height. This is so precise it would seem to indicate that the original statue was made in two parts and then cemented together on installation in Mala Pereshchepyna. (It’s too precise a join to have happened when the statue was dismantled by the counter-revolution – there would have been no care used at that time.) Engels stands on a base about 10 cms thick of the same coloured stone.

Ф ЭНГЕЛЬС

Ф ЭНГЕЛЬС

The statue is raised above the ground by a plinth about 1.5 metres high which is faced with grey limestone and on one face, that in the direction where Engels is looking, is his name in Cyrillic, Ф ЭНГЕЛЬС = F Engels. Whether the name came from the original location is unlikely – finding the statue was one thing also finding a large piece of worked stone which would have other uses at the same location seems to stretch credibility somewhat. But it doesn’t look new so I assume from another deposed statue of Frederick.

Generally the stone is in a good condition. There are some indications of lichen but considering how it was ‘stored’ nothing serious. Apart from signs of blue and yellow paint around the lower legs, and on the lower edge of his coat on the left, there doesn’t appear to be any other structural damage. Once taken down from its original site it just seems to have been ignored.

Frederick Engels - vandalism

Frederick Engels – vandalism

Engels is depicted when he was in his mid to late 50s – he has a full beard and moustache and a full head of hair. He’s dressed in the typical dress of someone with a certain amount of affluence in the late 19th century – formal trousers and a waistcoat over which is a knee-length frock coat with a high collar.

He stands upright, feet slightly apart and is looking straight ahead. His arms are folded across his chest (right arm under the left) and in his left hand he holds a small book, with the forefinger inside the closed book which rests against his right upper arm.

Frederick Engels

Frederick Engels

Here we get the impression that he has just read something that had caused him to pause, to think of what it might mean, of how important it might be to the project he is currently pursuing. This is reinforced by the pensive look on his face. The finger in the book is to ensure that he doesn’t lose his place when he returns to reading.

The present location is somewhat incongruous. All the buildings around the square are glass and steel monstrosities and something made out of ancient stone does clash with its surroundings. But better here than nowhere.

Frederick Engels - location

Frederick Engels – location

It will be interesting to see how the statue is accepted as it spends more time in its new location. Some will know of Engels’ relationship with the city, others will walk by and not even notice any statue there. Matters aren’t made any easier as there is no explanation (not that I think there should be) and for those who don’t understand the Cyrillic alphabet the letters on the plinth don’t offer any help.

(For those who might have been following the posts on Albanian lapidars they might be interested to know that there were never any open air public statues to either Marx or Engels in Socialist Albania. Capitalist Britain now has one of each – Engels in Manchester and the bust of Marx over his grave in Highgate cemetery in London.)

Other Works of Frederick Engels

Here are links to versions of some other of the works produced by Engels over his life time – but it’s important to remember that this list is not definitive.

Principles of Communism – the precursor to the Manifesto.

Communist Manifesto – the general principles of Marxism published in 1848

The Housing Question – the impossibility of the lack of adequate housing for workers being resolved under capitalism

The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man – Engels’ contribution to evolutionary theory with an emphasis on the part that labour played in that evolution

Anti-Duhring – an attack on early revisionism of Marxist theory

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific – a re-statement of the revolutionary aspect of Marxism

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – a look at how society arrived from tribalism to capitalism

Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy – an account of how Marxism found inspiration in Hegelian philosophy, but then left it behind

Location:

Tony Wilson Square, (outside the main entrance to the Home Arts Centre), Manchester, M15 4FN.

GPS:

53.473403

-2.246982

Mayas: revelation of an endless time

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - pottery figure

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – pottery figure

I don’t know how they did it but the curators of the World Museum Liverpool have pulled off something of a coup by getting the exhibition: Mayas: revelation of an endless time. Such an impressive and extensive display from Pre-Colombian America normally gets grabbed by London, where you have to pay a fortune; book months in advance; and then the experience is as much pleasure as fighting your way on the Tube during a hot summer’s Friday afternoon.

There’s no point going into any great detail of the Mayan civilisation here, that’s a task too great to do it justice. It’s earliest beginnings can be traced back to about 2000 years BC and they eventually ceased to exist as a dominant force with the arrival of the Spanish in the early fifteen hundreds and by the end of that century the Mayan Civilisation, that had produced such magnificent and impressive cities and artefacts, was effectively destroyed.

The aristocracy, priesthood and warrior classes were no more but the Mayan people, those upon whose backs the those three had always ridden, still existed and continue to exist to this day. They are marginalised and suffer repression and exploitation in the same way they have since the arrival of the Spanish – together with the added racism from those who trace their ancestry to the invader and the more ‘white’ city dwellers. In the southern part of what used to be the Mayan Empire, in present day Guatemala, they were the principal victims of the US backed death squads that would do anything and everything to prevent the country moving to the left (even a social democratic left) which might have threatened vested interests in the country and those of the United States – both political and economic.

One of the ways the exhibition brings the ancient Mayan culture to life is by showing how some of the traditions established hundreds of years ago still exist in the countryside and are a common aspect of local and national celebrations.

What we see in such exhibitions is often only a fraction of what had originally existed. The Europeans who arrived after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas were almost without exception murderers, rapists and thieves. The hunger and thirst for gold and silver was what drove them to face such hardships and in their search for the valuable metals many things of merely artistic or cultural value were either purposely destroyed (especially if they had any religious significance – which virtually everything did – and which was seen as pagan and a threat to the Catholic Church) or just allowed to decay – as happened to the cities which were soon reclaimed by the jungles.

Also we only are allowed a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. In their art, and for the Mayans this was mainly in pottery and stone carvings, they represent themselves and their world view. Of the peasants and the workers who provided the labour to sustain such a civilisation and who actually built it we get little – unless it’s a sketch on a brick, for example.

Mayan Exhibition, Liverpool - etched brick

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – etched brick

We can get an idea of how they lived, in what sorts of houses, wearing what sort of clothing, and even in what they believed. We know what the food they ate from its representation in the pottery, both in the shapes and in the designs painted on the finished article. We know what the rich surrounded themselves with as they had an idea of the afterlife and their tombs contain versions of what would have also been everyday objects in their palaces. But of the poor (if we discount the prisoners of war, many of whom would only have been ‘poor’ in the sense of being unfortunate enough to have been captured) we can get to know little.

Perhaps the only real representation that we see of the workers in this exhibition is in the three or four little pottery sculptures that show an aristocratic person being physically carried on the backs of the porters. As in all parts of the world the rich have always, through the millennia, considered it demeaning to actually have to touch the earth upon which they live. So from all corners of the world we can see examples of depictions of the rich being carried and transported around by those who were either paid or enslaved to do so. I don’t think that the information exists to say what of those two conditions existed at the time when the Mayan were at the height of their power and influence.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - rich on the back of the poor

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – rich on the back of the poor

What the exhibition also looks at in some detail, and tries to explain in innovative ways, is the Mayan system of the hieroglyphics (their writing) and the complexity of their calendar (which also played a role in their view of their place in the universe and their religion).

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - hieroglyphics

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – hieroglyphics

The intricate and stylised carvings, often representing their religious believes, are distinctive and very different from what can be found in the ‘Old World’, but it is possible to see the influences that travelled further down into Latin America and are replicated in the carvings of some of the Pre-Inca, Peruvian civilisations.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - stone carving

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – stone carving

Towards the far end of the room in which the exhibition is held are two sets of display cabinets containing various masks, made of semi-precious stones, some of which are remarkably modern in their look and in an amazing good condition.

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool - mask

Mayan Exhibition Liverpool – mask

There’s a limited amount of gold work on display, that’s possibly because gold didn’t play such a ceremonial role in Central America as it did further south, or it might be that the European looters were more successful in stealing vast quantities during their invasion of the area. Yes, it was the Spanish who carried out the looting on land but we, especially the British, should remember that it was the ‘Pirate’ Drake who stole from those thieves, thus paving the way for the development of capitalism, and eventually industrialisation, in England.

If nothing else, a visit to this exhibition provides the visitor with an idea of a sophisticated society which had a developed culture, a complex world view, a strictly hierarchical, religious (almost ‘fundamentalist’) society, which traded and learnt from peoples many hundreds of miles away and were not the ‘noble savages’ as they came to be depicted by the Europeans in their desire to justify their actions on the continent.

The exhibition: Mayas: revelation of an endless time is on display in the World Museum Liverpool, William Brown Street, in the centre of the city, just a few minutes walk from Lime Street railway station.

It will be in Liverpool until 18th October 2015.

Entrance is free and the museum is open every day from 10.00-17.00.

Events, talks and activities will be taking place during the course of the exhibition and details can be found at Mayas: revelation of an endless time – events.

The slide show below (and the pictures above) merely aim to give an idea of what’s on display but those pictures were not taken in the most ideal of conditions. If anyone is interested in better pictures there’s a well produced book to accompany the exhibition (it’s not cheap at £25.00) but well worth it for anyone with a real interest in this amazing and fascinating culture, available in the obligatory at-the-end-of-an-exhibition shop.