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.

‘The Currency of Communism’ and the role of money under Socialism

Albania 3 Lek - 1964

Albania 3 Lek – 1964

The British Museum is currently hosting a small exhibition under the title ‘The Currency of Communism’ – which is running until the 18th March 2018. It’s hardly a huge exhibition, barely more than a half a dozen (small) display cabinets in a room where you can swing a cat – but only just.

In such a tiny space you’re not going to get a lot but what is there is quite interesting in the sense that many of the notes are from countries where the construction of Socialist is no longer in vigour. But it does give the visitor a chance to see some of the images that have been used on coins and notes in the last hundred years – since the Great October Revolution in Russia in November 2017.

Although I haven’t mentioned coinage or notes in my discussions about Socialist Realist Art they are another area where the different socialist societies sought to present the values of collectivity and to promote labour as something to celebrate and honour.

As it mentions in this exhibition the images on the notes were part of the propaganda battle that all socialist societies have to wage against the insidiousness of the capitalist past in a particular country and the capitalist present in a hostile world.

But when the word ‘propaganda’ is used in most circumstances in Britain it’s always in a negative context. THEY, i.e., the enemy, use propaganda WE, the good guys in all this (although the country is constantly invading other countries and killing people in their millions) don’t stoop to such perfidy.

For some reason in Britain it is not accepted that having the head of a Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on all British coins and notes has nothing to do with the promotion of a monarchy. That having the face of a bloated, drunken, racist and class warrior for his class – the aristocracy – doesn’t also promote the values that he believed in to his core and carried out with total disregard to the harm he might cause to ordinary people both in this country and abroad. The values of the monarchy and Churchill are those of the perpetuation and promotion of a society of oppression and exploitation.

But then, as they don’t get challenged by enough people they can get away with their lies. That’s OK, they fight for their class the problem is that too few of us fight for our class. And, what’s worse in some respects, don’t even know their own history to be able to challenge the idea that the aristocracy are parasites on the body politic and their destruction is necessary for our freedom.

Back to the currency.

There were a few things of interest in the handful (literally) of notes and coins on display.

One was the innovative manner in the manner in which all kinds of materials were used as a stop-gap when the old currency became useless after a revolution. You can’t allow the old currency to remain in circulation as the old rich will be able to remain rich. One example following the February Revolution in Russia was of a small sheet of postage stamps over printed with the declaration of the abdication of the Tsar. Other examples were simple printed pieces of paper that gained their value from the trust that people placed in them or the over stamping of coins with a hammer and sickle – which soon became the symbol of Soviet Communism and an integral part of the coat of arms of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics.

When financial stability had been achieved the new states started to produce notes as are recognised throughout the world. Now they used the skill of proletarian artists and engravers to reproduce the story of the building of Socialism as was seen in art galleries throughout the socialist world as well as in that most extensive of all Socialist Realist Art galleries – the Metro systems, primarily Moscow but also Leningrad and other major cities, in the Soviet Union.

But what grated with this exhibition was the ignorance of the curator/s and their total lack of understanding of what Communism is all about. Obviously they haven’t read any Mao Tse-tung as they write (giving the impression of authority – after all it’s the British Museum) about something they know absolutely nothing.

Not only do they not know anything about the ideology of Marxism-Leninism (the overriding theory that has been behind all the socialist revolutions of the last hundred years and will be the ideology of those revolutions to happen in the future) they know nothing of history.

The curators state: ‘Communism proposes that money has no role in a utopian society. To date though, no communist state has successfully removed money from its economy.’ Here they create a false premise just so that they can then attack it and add to the propaganda battle of capitalism against those who aim to construct a better society free from oppression and exploitation.

The existence of a Communist Party as the ruling party in any particular country doesn’t mean that the country has achieved the ultimate aim of the establishment of Communism.

No Marxist-Leninist of the 20th century ever argued that Communism had been established in any country. Socialism had been established, the first and necessary stage of Communism, but that would exist for an indeterminate time until the conditions for the establishment of Communism arose. And they were unlikely to arise when so much of the world was still under the yoke of capitalism and imperialism.

In the limited ‘explanation’ given in the text in this small room there was constant reference to the fact that many things that are paid for by money in capitalist societies (such as health, education, housing, leisure, transport and social services) are included as part of a worker’s social wage. However, this does not mean that ALL that people need in their daily existence in a Socialist society is there for people to take without some sort of cash transaction taking place.

It is true that the vestiges of the old order, that are demonstrated by the existence of money, means there are opportunities for the unscrupulous and corrupt to take advantage of that ‘weakness’ in Socialism and attempt to use that weakness for their personal benefit. Realising that the taking of State power was only the first act along the road to Communism and that all could be sabotaged by such rotten elements Stalin declared: ‘The Party becomes strong by purging itself of opportunist elements.’ For it was in the ruling party that such opportunists saw their best chance of success.

No Socialist society has existed for more than 46 years (in Albania) so even the best of Communists is more than likely to be tainted by the venom that has been bred into people’s attitudes over the millennia of various systems of exploitation and class differentiation. The construction of Socialism, aiming for Communism, is both a struggle to create the material level to satisfy the needs of the whole of the population but it is also a struggle of ideas to temper their desires to a level that the is sustainable for the whole of society.

Save for the Future

Save for the Future

‘Consumerism’ that developed, principally after 1945, in the capitalist countries was a serious problem for the war damaged Socialist countries. An increasing number of ordinary working people were seen as being able to surround themselves by ‘luxuries’, a term used in the past for items that are now considered the norm. But this consumerism is, and has always been, fed by debt. It started out with Hire Purchase and is reaching its nadir at the moment with credit card debt where people are buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have and, in many cases, won’t ever have.

Perhaps the people in socialist societies were asked for too much of a sacrifice, working for the future without getting something over and above the necessities today. This idea is represented in the exhibition by the reproductions of posters which encouraged workers and collective peasants to save rather spend all they earned on goods for the present. This is one of the many aspects of the first period of Socialist construction that will need to be considered during the start of the second.

The opposite is the case in capitalist countries where all the State and capitalist propaganda is geared to encourage workers to live only for the now, only for consumerism. How else is it possible to explain the inane concept of ‘retail therapy’? All the debt is being pushed into the future, for later generations to deal with – which will almost certainly lead to a military conflict – as has been the solution so many times in the past.

Because money under capitalism leads to regular economic crisis. It creates the conditions for the innumerable ‘bubbles’ that have plagued capitalism from the start and which are growing in various aspects of present day society. Even staunch supporters of the capitalist system talk of ‘when’, not ‘if’, the crisis will occur when referring to the future.

Capitalism concerns itself only for gratification now and to maintain its control of society does all that it can to instil such a narrow-minded, short-term attitude in their populations. This can be seen in the manner that the system has cut a swathe through cultures, nature and the lives of countless millions of working people. They are prepared to destroy the world if it means they can accumulate more and more wealth, more ‘money’.

This is why all past Socialist societies have argued for the gradual diminution of the importance of money and its eventual abolition – but only when the conditions are right.

In the village of Nanjiecun, in central China, a small community of a few thousand have been able to reduce the amount of cash transactions but not all. But it’s a small, isolated community, an oasis in a vast ocean of capitalism, in China itself as well as the rest of the world. In such a situation it will never be anything more than an aberration, however admirable the effort might be.

Under conditions of Socialism the slogan is: from each according to his ability; to each according to his work. Money will cease to exist when the slogan, under conditions of Communism, is: from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs. (‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Karl Marx, 1875.)

When that time arrives ‘intellectuals’ will work for the betterment of society in general and won’t be the self-important, self-congratulatory, self-aggrandising bunch of self-serving sycophants they are now. Is it a surprise they had a hard time in the past in those countries where the construction of Socialism was taking place?

This is probably the smallest exhibition the British Museum has ever presented but brings up some of the biggest questions.

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.