Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: anarchism

Satan meets Cinderella: two anarchist dramas of the ‘forties

Satan disguised as an engineer, a madman in the attic, an army of radioactive Welsh miners, plus Cinderella … Yes, it’s British anarchist drama of the ‘forties! This post will be a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so be patient. First, a quick recap on the origins of all this in the poetic dramas of the previous decade.

The new poetic theatre

dance-of-deathPlenty has been written elsewhere about the ‘thirties heydays of the “new poetic theatre,” and in particular the plays, more or less political and Brechtian, of W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood, staged by Rupert Doone and the Group Theatre with the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, the sets of Robert Medley, and Faber to publish the scripts – quite a back-up! The first of these, The Dance of Death (1931), an Auden solo effort, is somewhat clunky but finishes splendidly with a brief guest appearance by Karl Marx:

Announcer. He’s dead.

[Noise without]

Quick under the table, it’s the ‘tecs and their narks,
O no, salute – it’s Mr Karl Marx.

[Enter Karl Marx with two young communists]

KM. The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated.

[Exeunt to a Dead March]

THE END

img_0001Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) is my favourite of the series; their fascist-infected English rural idyll of Pressan Ambo, closely related to the nightmare delusions of Edward Upward’s extraordinary 1938 novel Journey to the Border, blends banality with menace, and is a fine satiric invention.  In comparison The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) seem to lose a little sparkle.

Not surprisingly, other McSpaunday personnel get in on the act: Louis MacNeice’s witty Out of the Picture (1937) or Stephen Spender’s execrable “tragic statement” Trial of a Judge (1938), both also realised by Doone and Faber. Somehow Spender manages to write an anti-fascist play in which the fascists are the only interesting characters. One can almost forgive them for locking up opponents who go on like this:

TWO RED PRISONERS.
Your days in dark, our dark that wakes,
Across the centuries and the waves
Will join to break our chains and break
Into the nobler day which saves.

And so on. And on. John Piper’s scenery was wasted on it.

The coming of war and the dissipation of that particular political-poetical consensus might appear to mark the end of these theatrical experiments. So it’s interesting, a decade on, to come across their minor progeny under the colours of anarchism, which in more or less individualist or philosophical shades had become the ideological flavour of ‘forties neo-romanticism. Here are two examples.

The Last Refuge

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

The more slight, but no less interesting, is Wrey Gardiner’s The Last Refuge, a single act affair that pops up in the 1945 edition of New Road, an annual neo-rom anthology published by Gardiner’s own Grey Walls Press, and edited at the time by Fred Murnau. Charles Wrey Gardiner was most active as a poet and autobiographer, but is better remembered for Grey Walls and for his sustained editorship of Poetry Quarterly. Whatever the strength of his sympathies, The Last Refuge seems to be an unusual instance of his nailing his black flag overtly to the mast.

The play must have been written a few years before it saw the light in 1945. Despite some minimal stage directions it’s maybe better considered as unperformable, a drama on the page in the manner of Gervase Stewart’s The Two Septembers, or Robert Herring’s “pantomime” of the Blitz Harlequin Mercutio, to give two others from the same period and sampled on this blog. Virtually the entire script is versified. The action (or conversation, mostly) is set in a bombed-out house deserted by its owners, emblematic of Blitzed England, and squatted by a selection of archetypes: an Old Woman, her earth-daughter Cinderella, a Lunatic (her traumatised son in the attic), and an Anarchist who ascends from the cellar. A Voice in the Air from a wireless interjects occasional propaganda and inane dance music. Visitors comprise a Poet, in love (inevitably) with Cinderella, and an Inspector, the embodiment of authority, come to arrest the squatters on a charge of “living dangerously.”

The few moments when Gardiner tries a satirical touch are uncomfortably clumsy: “Silvery Sid and his Sauntering Saps” is not a great mickey-take name for a radio dance band, and Cinderella’s unsophistication at times has a cor-luv-a-duck touch – “Did ever anyone have such funny men as come my way?” The writing is far happier when Gardiner goes with his usual (and rather likeable) overstrained earnestness. The central tension here is between the writer’s twin, dialectical self-projections, the Poet and the Anarchist, the Poet being apt to rhapsodise in gloomy symbols, provoking the Anarchist’s denunciation:

Your song is vague and indecisive, Poet.
What the poor people need is freedom,
Not the undying words of a dyspeptic dream
But a bitter marching song that none can stem,
A rising tide, a rousing fire,
An anthem for the world’s despised.

Where the poet sees the traumatised son as “a caged animal” the Anarchist hails his insanity as a liberation:

He has had that little jolt
That brings a man to know
His own will’s the source and fountain
Of his own world.
The second bomb would give him the full knowledge
Of one who walks and lies down at will,
Accepts and refuses the snags of fate,
Free in a world where mass suggestion has no power.

The Anarchist brings proceedings to a sort of conclusion when, in a moment of Stirnerite resistance, he grabs the poker from the fireplace and brains the Inspector, leaving the Lunatic to pontificate –

All you poor crackbrained fools who disdain desire
Are but the slaves of a crawling cesspool
Some call sanity.

– the Poet to ruminate –

Truth is still stranger than we know,
Like light falling in a chaotic dream
In the twisted corridors, suddenly upon the wall,
Haunting the mad, the suffering, the chosen few.

– and Cinderella to round it all off with a nice bit of bathos:

Love as a woman’s tear will always fall
Sure as the gentle rain upon us all.

It’s all agreeably heady, and very much of its moment.

Cities of the Plain

cities-of-the-plainIf the class solidarity of “the world’s despised” is only alluded to in The Last Refuge, it’s up front, with marching boots on, in our second contribution, Alex Comfort’s “Democratic Melodrama” Cities of the Plain, published by – who else? – Grey Walls Press in 1943. As poet, novelist, literary critic, anarchist theoretician and conscientious objector, Comfort was remarkably busy during the ‘forties, with a literary reputation later eclipsed by his Joy of Sex fame. (Cities had been preceded in 1942 by Comfort’s “mystery play” Into Egypt; as this is currently unobtainable, I can’t say anything about it.)

If Last Refuge was not designed for performance, Cities most certainly was. A slightly pompous permissions note states that the author “wishes to repudiate in advance all the ideological constructions, of whatever complexion … placed upon this play. Ideological theatres will apply unsuccessfully.” Whether any theatre, ideological or not, applied successfully to stage it, is an open question. Directions insist that it is to be acted “with the maximum of gusto.”

A remarkably schoolboyish Alex Comfort faces up to the shadows of the mid-forties

The play, closer to its Auden-Isherwood predecessors, is set in a parallel society. The title references the Sodom and Gomorrah of Genesis, but the narrative involves a single unnamed city in thrall to a ruthless capitalist corporation that mines the neighbouring mountain. (For some reason best known to Comfort, the miners have Welsh names: Iorwerth, Dai etc.) Facing imminent bankruptcy, the directors sell out to a proposal by two mysterious and unscrupulous “Engineers” to mine the mountain for radium; though many miners will die from radioactivity, this is presented to them as a noble and necessary sacrifice. Dissent is encouraged by the principled doctor, Manson (man’s son, presumably), who leads back from the mountain an army of scorched, ulcerated and mutated miners who tramp off into the future, members of the audience joining them, to lead the revolution.

While the majority of characters are believable to degrees, the two Engineers operate on a different level. The Black Engineer, so called for the colour of his clothing – black shirt, velvet dungarees and biretta – is revealed as something beyond human when he encounters the sherry quaffing Bishop of Sodom and Gomorrah (a “pillar of Conservative-Churchmanship”), who recoils in horror, crying: “I don’t believe in you! I’m not a Manichee! You’re a heresy!”

This odd disjunction is a deliberate dramatic contrivance. In a discussion on Shelley’s The Cenci in “The Critical Significance of Romanticism,” later collected in his 1946 Art and Social Responsibility, Comfort notes that in that play, as in those of Ford and Webster:

img_0002The human players pass through a tragic conflict, but their opponents are not persons – they are naked, animated symbols. The impulses and powers of evil and of infatuation which in tragedy operate through imperfect living people are here made external and come to occupy whole persons, elevated to the same status of identity and reality as the protagonists … [Cenci] is a mask, as if the Devil had inspired a dummy or a suit of armour and made it walk.

Here is the Black Engineer’s offer to the Directors, in return for the mountain:

I offer you the price of your living, to drink the wine of this plain and to sit at this table – to sleep with your wives and to keep your names out of the papers; to make the sun and the moon stand still in the sky, and to sanctify the status quo. I offer you a new grip on the reins, a new leg for your broken chair. You shall not become bankrupt but be rich, and you shall die and lie in gold coffins …

It’s remarkable that the atheist Comfort, in order to personify and animate corporate evil, is obliged to fall back on this Faustian religious supernaturalism.

Like Auden and Isherwood, Comfort keeps his verse passages for key moments and uses far more vernacular conversation than Gardiner, though this can be a bit overdrawn and heavy handed at times. With the possible exception of the miners’ songs, which have a passing touch of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs (“With a will, ho!”), the verse is effective. Comfort was, in fact, a pretty decent poet. Here’s some of Manson’s big speech at the end of Scene II, pleading for the healing of the sick earth:

Now in the night, when continents
like tables cool and creak, and each tap’s timbrel
flickers invisible, constellations rise
westward on Europe moving carefully.
Out of Orion’s cockpit with no noise
the white aseptic stars watch blind earth tossing,
clawing the mask, going under; see the rivers’
reflexes quietly fade, the body grow quiet.
Between the hems of night the inflamed cities
throb in the flank; the finger in wise pity
probes the soft coils – as the stars’ gloved hands
draw up the wounded countries with small stitches.
You of the lancets, Sirius, Betelgueuse,
scanning the festered cities, plotting the fever,
cut to the permanent bone. This sickness is mortal.
Incise the will. Restore the healthy granite.

As a bit of a contrast, here’s the feverish, apocalyptic dance of the revelling shareholders, sung as the miners march to their fate, with a touch of Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”:

The hills are tumbling round our ears,
The stars crash down from the night;
But the bonds are good and the wheels go round
And there’s wind in the bagpipe yet.

Seven red madmen dance to the moon,
Seven pale horses rode,
But spades are trumps and the sun stands still,
And there’s wealth on the turn of the card!

Their wheels are broke and their bones are dry –
Their hammers bang for the coffin;
But all we see is a five-pound note
And a Union seat in the offing.

And grey death hides behind the door
With a rattle of shot in his throat,
But the wheels go round and the people roar
To keep the bastard out.

Can you hear the crash of the steeples, boys,
And the guns go crack in the trees?
The world shall burn to warm our hands –
It makes a lovely blaze!

There is more of value in this play, and much more could be said about it. But I will return at some point in these posts to Comfort’s poetry. He wrote two further plays. The first act alone of The Besieged appeared in Life and Letters Today for April 1944, but it was never published entire. Gengulphus is also listed as unpublished; some sources give a date of 1948, suggesting a possible publication, though I can find no trace of that.

The quick fade to these experiments in anarcho-drama is probably attributable to the same factors that saw off neo-romanticism in general. The verse speeches, the heightened, symbolic characters, the open calls to political action, the almost expressionist intensity – these are worlds away from the kitchen sink social realism of ‘fifties theatre.

It would be interesting to know if either of Comfort’s two published plays was ever staged. My ex-library copy of Cities (Croydon Public Libraries) sports a fully clean borrowing label; clearly Croydon Rep didn’t jump at the chance to put on this “Democratic Melodrama.” Which is rather a pity.

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‘NUTS’: Julian Symons annotates Stephen Spender

Having in my time bought a few too many second hand books that turned out to disappoint, it’s rewarding when the reverse happens.

img_0001Some years ago, I forget where, I picked up for a quid a damp-buckled copy of Stephen Spender’s Life and the Poet, 1942, in which Spender attempts to reposition the role of the progressive artist and intellectual post-Spain, post-Popular Frontism. This was published by Secker & Warburg as Searchlight Book No 18, a series edited by George Orwell and T R Fyvel, billed as broadly popular, patriotic and anti-fascist. (Of the 17 projected titles listed here, only ten actually appeared before the printer’s paper stock ran out.) Searchlight Books were hardback with a dust jacket, but mine has paper covers, so must be a review copy.

And indeed, a reviewer has made his or her reactions known in some enjoyably bad tempered annotations, summarised inside the front cover:

Mr Spender wrote but apparently never went “Forward from Liberalism”. This is a wretchedly poor book, illogical, disconnected, apologetic & generally unsound.

Life and the Poet does indeed seem hastily shoved together, sloppily thought through and in places just badly written. Spender dedicates it to “Young Writers in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence and the Pacifist Organisations of Democracy”, which by covering all options avoids offence, but indicates something of the hand wringing equivocation he feels obliged to deliver.

“Before finishing the last chapter of this book,” he confesses, “and while revising the first five chapters, I have already been called up into the Fire Service. Yet I may stimulate in the minds of a few people the urgent necessity of a faith in poetry, or, rather, the poetic attitude …”

Our reviewer is not impressed by this excuse. Here are a few passages he/she found objectionable, with his/her reactions transcribed in italics:

Spender: 'Generally unsound'

Spender: ‘Generally unsound’

Without saying that Tolstoi, Turgenev or Henry James were socialists, one might draw revolutionary political conclusions from the life which they describe in their novels. Yet to believe … that the true picture of life in fiction today would inevitably have a socialist political implication is entirely different from preaching that … novels should preach socialism and see everything through red-coloured spectacles.
NUTS

In the case of a really great novelist or poet there might even be no difference, because his observation and his conclusions would be indivisible. But in the case of those lesser artists, there is a tremendous difference.
If the political conclusions were sound then the Novel will be too. The rest of Spender’s thesis is nonsense.

Listening to these [Left Wing] lectures on literature, it seemed to me that the principles were right, but their application was always wrong.
Well what the hell?

The ultimate aim of politics is not politics, but the activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State. Therefore an effective statement of these activities – such as science, art, religion – is in itself a declaration of ultimate aims around which the political means will crystallise.
Aim? Politics has no aim, any more than evolution has. 

So the political agitator is driven to deny that there is anything in life outside the struggle for power … Therefore you must pretend that everyone on your own side who is killed is a hero gladly giving his life for your cause without indulging in any feelings as a separate individual which might be irrelevant. Indeed, you go on to deny that anything in the nature of an individual really exists or has ever existed.
Oh do I?

Politics then become the only reality, and … [Artists, thinkers and scientists] make a merit of stifling the light that is in them: to become scientists who deny that scientific enquiry can ever be objective, poets who deny their own individuality, who show no curiosity about man’s situation in the whole of life and the universe, novelists who have no interest in human beings except to prove that one race or class is superior to others.
Mr Spender appears to have all the intellectual’s concern for his own piddling little individuality. What does he mean by superior? Dominant? Obviously no class is “Better” – No one suggests any one is.

Political evils must be met by other, greater political evils until the war is won. Yet, just because of this, it is all the more important that the “happy few” who uphold values of art, poetry and science should state as clearly as they can what the function of those values in life is, in order that new social patterns may grow around such an understanding.
Ha! Ha! Spender & Co, world-lovers & leaders.

Politicians establish a Sabbath of institutions which petrify, until at last they are shattered by revolutions. Yet to the revolutionaries, who are also politicians, Man … is still only made for their new Sabbath, which, they are determined, differs from the old Sabbath in that it will never be destroyed.
Nonsense. If Mr S will tilt at Marxists he should get to know some Marxism, which denies the possibility of a fixed, static, immutable policy.

What is important is Man. The creative mind must never entirely subscribe to any kind of Sabbath – Pharisaic, Jewish, Christian, Roman, Communist or British Imperialist.
How nice for the creative mind.

Part way through chapter two our annotator loses patience with the chore of annotation, but has made his or her position pretty clear. The book’s owner did not think to add a name, so who was this irascible Marxist?

As it happens, the sentiments chime rather well with “A Poet in Society,” a review of the book by Julian Symons in the first issue (1943) of the second series of Now, the anarchist political-literary review edited by George Woodcock at Freedom Press. (See here for another aspect. As it also happens, the handwriting of the annotations is not incompatible with the very few samples of Symons’s writing I can see online, though I can’t pretend that the similarities are absolutely conclusive.)

Symons: acerbic

Symons: acerbic

Symons is best known as a writer of crime fiction in later life, but was then the founder of Twentieth Century Verse, an independent Marxist (usually tagged a “Trotskyist”), and a reviewer of clinical and acerbic penetration. While Woodcock aimed to align the new series of Now with an “anarchist point of view,” contributors did not necessarily “subscribe to anarchist doctrines,” and in an editorial intro he carefully separates himself from the “hard things” that Symons has to say, defending “a certain virtue” in Spender’s “doubt of the value of politics as a means of social action.” Maybe he was anxious to avoid offending Orwell, later a contributor to the magazine.

In his review Symons tackles both Life and the Poet and Spender’s latest poetry collection, Ruins and Visions. The poems he finds “fine” and “moving”, but with Life and the Poet he finds himself “in violent disagreement,” denouncing it as “a high, thin and cloudy view of the poet’s nature and function,” marked by “the confusion of thought and frequent clumsiness of phrase which we have learned to expect and regret … Sometimes,” he adds, “this leads him into sentimental rubbish … It is impossible to comment usefully upon writing at this level.”

His critique follows the annotations at a distance while, naturally enough, losing some of the immediacy of his anger. One or two of our annotated passages in particular are fastened on.  Spender, who believes in no absolute, is criticised for setting up “the creative mind” (see the final passage above) as a kind of absolute. The fourth annotated passage above, on the “ultimate aim of politics,” comes in for particular scrutiny:

Man is a social animal: and his creative activities – “activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State” – are part of his social life. It follows that to talk about a statement of artistic aims round which political means will crystallise is to talk nonsense. A new view of society must precede a new view of art: society fashions art, art does not create a society. It is therefore a delusion to believe that any artistic aims are ultimate, since no state of society is ultimate: artistic aims are instead fashioned out of the social life of the time, which is in turn influenced by the tradition of social life and art which it has accepted as a heritage. “Eternal aspirations,” loneliness, and yes, the “creative mind” itself vary in form with the society that contains them. A society gets the art it deserves.

The heavy stress placed on “life” in this book is occasioned by an irrational dislike for the logic which binds the poetry written today inside our routine of living; a routine which exists as much for those who try to be “free” and who write from a position of freedom which is in fact false, as for those who are consciously and even willingly bound.

This is all excellent common sense, and seems to me highly relevant to today’s facile, commodified and over-valued art scene, still lubricated by persistent notions of art and poetry as magical, “alternative,” special or visitation from without.

Symons was surely one of the sharpest minds at work on the Left during this period. In a contribution to Now 5 on “The End of a War: 8 Notes on the Objective of Writing in our Time,” he references, interestingly, Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art, making entirely valid use of the perceptions of a writer working “from an attitude very different from mine.” (Symons knew Lewis well, and respected him.) In Now 6 his demolition of Cyril Connolly (“The Condemned Playboy”) is a pleasure to read.

img_0003

Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?

 

Graphic dreams of Utopia

red virginAs a quick post, here’s a link to my review of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s recently published graphic novel on the life of Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. Review now up on the Kate Sharpley Library site, with thanks to John at KSL. It occurs to me that utopianism is a form of displaced nostalgia. And that nationalism is a form of displaced utopianism. And that nostalgia … Anyway …

No disrespect to Louise Michel in any of this – a remarkably courageous and principled woman. It’s graphic novels that I find a little worrying these days.

Anarchism to Personalism: Henry Treece and the New Apocalypse

I’ve moved my recent post on Henry Treece, his poetry, his anarchism and the New Apocalypse movement, to a new page here (or press the Pieces of Apocalypse tab above), given that (a) it was a bit lengthy and everything else was scrolling off the bottom, and (b) it will be joined by other short pieces on the New Apocalypse and related topics.

Humphrey Spender’s ‘Atomic Flower’ and the New Apocalypse

(Since this was first posted, a larger image of this painting has become available at the ‘Your Paintings’ site, here.)

The release of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s (PCF) volumes of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership, and the development of the “Your Paintings” website, gives us all, at long last, a chance to see just what’s hidden away in the vaults of our local galleries that rarely or never comes out into the daylight.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery (my local) devotes whole furlongs of wall space to its unrivalled collections of Georgian and Victorian sepia mediocrities (the Fuseli excepted), justified by a display policy focused around social and historical content, a policy which also drives their recent purchases and contemporary collection. This doesn’t allow too much of an airing for the very decent 20th century material they mostly keep under the carpet.

A thumb through the PCF Staffordshire catalogue reveals quite a bunch of modernist and English surrealist items at Wolves: John Armstrong, John Banting, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, John Selby Bigge,  Duncan Grant, Tristram Hillier, Thomas Esmond Lowinsky, Augustus Lunn, John and Paul Nash, John Piper, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, John Tunnard, Anthony Twentyman (six canvases), Edward Wadsworth, Alfred Wallis and, last but not least, Christopher Wood. Most are not often seen on the walls, and some never. They would make a good roomful, and a nice change from all those dull Georgian worthies and Victorian farm girls.

And in the Wolverhampton basement there is also this: Atomic Flower by Humphrey Spender. (This small image here will have to do for the time being.) Yes, that’s Spender the photographer, Mass Observationist, textile designer and brother to poet Stephen. His paintings (a bit of a sideline) tended to follow prevailing styles, which in the late ‘thirties for him meant surrealism, though Michel Remy carefully excludes him from his 1991 study, Surrealism in Britain. This canvas is dated to 1939-40, and is not among his most technically accomplished, even for that relatively early date. But to me it seems of unusual interest.

The collection catalogue describes it as an “open interior of a room in a landscape. Inside the room is a giant flower with a colourful fiery centre. There are scientific/mechanical objects placed in the landscape.” The “room” is perhaps better described as a box-like building with the near wall and roof missing. A front door is left hanging in space above the steps, and a window has clearly been blown out. The walls appear black and charred.

Distant mountains are fronted by a flat plain punctuated by receding poles or fence posts in the manner of Paul Nash etc. The foreground objects clearly owe a great deal to Edward Wadsworth’s semi-surreal marine still lives, a couple resembling ship’s screw propellers in a non-specific way. In the corner of the room sits a metal object composed of three elliptical loops around a central axis.

At the heart of the building, and of the composition, a huge dark textured flower unfolds, its five molten petals surrounding a centre of orange and blue flames – the atomic flower of the title. Despite the naivety of its execution, the image achieves a disquieting and threatening quality.

Given the dating, we are likely to take this for a Blitz image, a surrealist variant of the bombed street ruins made iconic, in a neo-romantic way, by John Piper, John Minton et al. On the other hand, given the title, this does look uncannily like a premonition of nuclear warfare – gleaming scientific instruments creating a mushroom-like exploding fiery form that devastates the landscape. And where is this landscape? (New Mexico? Los Alamos?) How likely is any of this for 1940?

Nuclear fission was discovered on the eve of World War two, and a practicable atomic bomb was still widely considered impossible in 1940, the Manhattan Project not getting under way until 1942. Could the dating of the painting be wrong? Or the title have been adopted at a later date?

The term “atomic flower” is now sometimes colloquially applied to the familiar stylised  “atom symbol” representing electrons circling the nucleus. Variants show either three or four ellipses, making six or eight “petals”. Remarkably, a three dimensional version of this symbol is present in the painting, in the shape of the scientific object on the corner of the floor. The symbol may have been known to Spender at this time in some diagram form, but the term “atomic flower” is a recent coinage, making his prescience even more striking.

The term has lately acquired a different connotation. As a contribution to the work of the US Human Interference Task Force, charged with devising “nuclear semiotic” warnings against contact with stored radioactive waste that will remain intelligible for the next 10,000 years, the SF writer Stanislaw Lem has proposed the development of “information plants” or “atomic flowers” that would grow only in the vicinity of terminal storage sites. Spender’s monstrous flower lends itself well to this scenario.

Though the fear of “nuclear apocalypse” was not born until 1945, the catchphrase “Apocalypse” or “New Apocalypse” was coined in 1940 as an umbrella for the vague coalition of philosophical anarchism, “personalism” and neo-romantic tendencies in the arts, loosely related to surrealism, promoted during the war years by Henry Treece, J F Hendry, Stefan Schimanski, Robert Herring and others in reviews such as Transformation and Kingdom Come. It seems ironic that at the end of the war, just as the coherence, such as it was, of the New Apocalypse movement was unravelling, the prospects for nuclear apocalypse suddenly drew terrifyingly close. A real New Apocalypse!

The poetry of the Apocalypse movement has since been largely discredited in critical terms, though British neo-romantic painting has enjoyed a re-evaluation over recent years. The quality of the Apocalypse poets and writers was variable, to say the least. But the movement is not without interest, and I aim to consider some aspects in the future on this site. Spender’s Atomic Flower would have made a fine poster image for the New Apocalypse.

the man who invented “New Labour”

My 1981 Cienfuegos Press comic book version of some of Bakunin’s anarchist writings, under the snappy title of A Critique of State Socialism, has recently been reprinted by ChristieBooks in a limited edition of 100, at £12 a throw. A bit of a collectable, really, but I’m flattered. More details on the site, http://www.christiebooks.com, though you may need to search a bit.

Stuart Christie suggested that  a new page or two, taking the analysis through the fall of the Iron Curtain and on to the present, might be a good idea. I tried, but wasn’t happy with my efforts, so we didn’t add anything. State socialism doesn’t seem much of a live threat these days …

If you click on the cover image above and take a careful look at the larger of the two tanks that are busy squelching the working people’s uprising, you’ll see that it’s emblazoned “NEW LABOUR PARTY”. Yes, this was drawn in 1981. I lay claim to the distinction that, with uncanny foresight, I invented the term “New Labour” two decades ahead of the reality. Should have copyrighted it …

The teeny tiny tank is marked “SDP”. Anybody remember them??