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: situationist

Drifting with Guy in Gay Paree

debord“Guy Debord? La Societé du Spectacle? Superbe!” enthused the young man at the till (who bore a remarkable resemblance to D H Lawrence) as I handed over a wadge of euros for my copy of Guy Debord. Un Art de la Guerre, the catalogue of the Debord exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. La nostalgie continue, then. But twentieth century radicalism has long since passed into an antiquarian realm, and the purchase by wealthy benefactors of Debord’s archive as a “national treasure” does rather seem like the definitive act of recuperation.

The book is (inevitably) dense, though full of interesting snippets. I was curious to see if there would be anything new relating to the remarkable Ralph Rumney, son of a Halifax vicar and pioneer English psychogeographer. Rumney was a founder member of the Situationist International in 1957, but was promptly expelled for not completing a dérive (drift) in Venice, under the headline “Venice has beaten Ralph Rumney!” There is not much. He does not appear in the photographs taken at the founding conference, it seems, because he was the man behind the lens.

Rumney's disappearance, from 'Internationale Situationniste' 1, 1958

Rumney’s disappearance, from ‘Internationale Situationniste’ 1, 1958

One coincidental snippet was that from 1987-91 Debord rented a flat in the same Left Bank street where we were staying for the week. The bar a few doors down looked pretty much unaltered since the late ‘eighties, so I may well have occupied the very stool used by the intractable old rebel as he drank and drifted his way towards suicide.

But the character of French activism has certainly altered over the last forty five years. That evening, the side streets near our hotel were barred by police, as isolated “pro family” demonstrators wandered by. All appeared to be white, middle class, neat and anxious, and all carried the affectedly dainty flags in pink or blue of the Manif pour Tous, bearing a cute nuclear family (Dad, Mum, boy, girl) in silhouette – a logo so archly contrived that anyone not in the know might take it for a parody. This is the kind of thing that gives Christianity a bad name.

One is gobsmacked at their sense of priority. These days, beggars with babies are bedded down on the boulevards, and television news reports worry about the “desertification” of the provinces as unsustainable filling stations evaporate from the map. France is drifting towards financial breakdown.

After the main rally had dispersed, the entryists on the fringe took over, and as darkness fell the sounds of sirens and chanting filtered through our hotel window as les fascistes threw things at les flics. The following day, the first same sex marriage was safely celebrated in Montpellier, but the single men punctuating the hedgerows in a particular corner of the Tuileries were looking more than usually apprehensive. Gay Paree? Not quite yet, it seems.

‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’ and a pint of gin

Another find from an old folder – my original of the Englished version of the Internationale Situationniste poster of late 1967 by Raoul Vaneigem and André Bertrand. By “original” I mean offset-litho’d on two separate pieces of foolscap in 1968, though I have no idea how many generations of copies that might represent.

posterThe French original can be seen neatly archived here, just over half way down. It’s observable that some captions are rather freely translated, and the “extra” after “supermarket” at top right was removed for some reason. As for who did the English version, I’ve no idea, but it found its way speedily onto the front of International Times 26 of February 1968, dressed up in red and blue (visible at – click on “1968” as the direct page link doesn’t seem to work). IT 27 contained a follow up letter on this signed by a pseudonymous “Random Banana”, who may or may not have been the translator.

I see that Guy Debord’s archives are now officially a French “national treasure”, and to be the focus of a massive exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale this spring. I ebayed off some situationist ephemera myself a while back. The most eager purchasers turned out to be a collector of rock T-shirts and a radio DJ. Under post-modernism we are all now pro-situ’s, and the internet is littered with situationist graphics – mostly, Lord help us, on sites hosted by design companies. (Surely the deadly ideology of “design” should be top of the bonfire list for today’s cultural revolutionaries?) Despite this, only isolated panels of this poster pop up on Google, so it seemed like a public service to post it whole.

The original has been described as a détournement of a comic strip, but it’s not. Bertrand’s artwork looks as if it was assembled from tracings of magazine photos. The offsetting of outline against solid black lends it a pleasing style, so that the whole thing has now assumed huge retro-Pop appeal. Very commodity, in fact.

However uncomfortable I may feel these days with some of the sentiments expressed, I still admire their absolute intransigence. But the subjectivist, survivalist, almost mystical direction of Vaneigem’s thought of that era has long since been recuperated by the marketeers of “free choice”. The refusal to pay may save a few bob but beyond that it doesn’t get us very far. Freedom from choice, as Devo pointed out, is what we want.

The reappearance of the Man of Sorrows

On recent hols in Norfolk, we discovered the extraordinary Binham Priory, having somehow managed not to notice it before – a historical collage, an architectural palimpsest, part ruin, part living place of worship, a real survivor of a building.

For me, the most extraordinary survival is the mediaeval rood screen, or what’s left of it. The original rich paintings of saints were whitewashed out by iconoclasts at the Reformation, and replaced by texts in heavy black Gothic lettering from the Cranmer Bible of 1539. The iconoclasts have had a bad press in recent times. But one needs to see where they were coming from. It’s a bit like the anecdote mentioned in the 1962 Situationist text “Theses on the Paris Commune” by Guy Debord, Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem:

The story of the arsonists who during the last days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find themselves confronted by an armed battalion of Communard artists [intent on defending it], is rich in meaning: it is a fine example of direct democracy.

But I digress. The amazing thing about the rood screen is that with the passage of time the obliterated paintings have reasserted themselves. Through the crumbling inferior whitewash have re-emerged the faces of the defaced saints. Here, as an example, is the figure of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. (Or perhaps intended as the Risen Christ?)

Even more remarkable is that the painter who lettered on the text filled in the odd gap at the end of his lines with decorative curlicues of red. Now that both layers are visible together, it can be seen that these red shapes continue and elaborate the drops of blood that flow from Christ’s wounds in the original painting.

A miracle. And I use the word carefully.

Incidentally, the text painted over the figure of Christ is from 1 Timothy 6, 10-12:

For coveteousnes of money is the roote of all evyll whych whyll some lusted after they erred from the fayth, and tanglyd themselues with many sorowes. But thou man of God flye soch thynges …

One couldn’t ask for a better text. All the rood screen images are shown on this excellent page from the Priory website.

King Mobster in Bloomsbury: T J Clark, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis

As the memorable Jonathan Richman song asserts,

Well some people try to pick up girls
And they get called an asshole
But this never happened to Pablo Picasso

Well perhaps not, but it’s certainly happened to Wyndham Lewis, if only in T J Clark’s review of the Picasso and Modern British Art show at Tate Britain. (“False Moderacy”, London Review of Books, 22 March.) TJ, among many, seems quite unable to resist Picasso’s stare, as the song puts it. For these Picasso-olaters (his own term), their man is the default reference point. So works with a perceived degree of resemblance must be, by definition, versions of Picasso-ism –  lesser followings, whose authenticities shade from the worthy to the damnable. (This assumption could be said to underlie the Tate show itself, which in this respect may have been unwisely conceived.)

So, according to TJ:

“There is a scare-quotes ‘Picasso’-ism, all rending and tearing and leering and terribilità, at the heart of the pseudo-culture of art from 1910 on; and off to one side there is Picasso-ism for real. Wyndham Lewis is a good example of the first …”

But in no sense was Lewis a “Picasso-ist”. The alleged “leering and terribilità” may be a confused reference to the hilarious but disturbing mannequins of Lewis’ pre-Vorticist “wild body” period, which could be said to indicate understanding and awareness of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but do not follow its agenda. (If anything, they are closer to the primitivism of Larionov, with which they are contemporaneous.) So Lewis is damned for failing to achieve something he didn’t even attempt. (In fact, as we shall see, he declined on principle to attempt it.)

This is a very skewed view. The skewing seems to be informed by TJ’s preoccupation with the authentically revolutionary, whose focal point is manifestly Parisian, from Courbet and Manet to Pissarro and Picasso, with nods along the way to others on the boulevards. But how has he acquired such values?

In 1967 Timothy Clark was excluded from his brief membership of the British section of the Paris-based Situationist International, along with Christopher Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith, on account of their unwanted closeness to the Americans Ben Morea and Abbie Hoffman. (“The falsifier and his mystical acolyte”, as Internationale Situationniste 12 put it. For anyone who cares, Ken Knabb’s translation of the episode is here.) Excluded from their revolutionary Eden, the three co-pro-situ’s went on to publish King Mob Echo, and Timothy Clark morphed into TJ, the academic mandarin. One can only surmise that the trauma of his expulsion must have imprinted on Clark a disproportionate anxiety about Parisian revolutionary authenticity from which he has never recovered.

But hang on, haven’t we been here before – long before? Isn’t this just a brush-up of the Francophile camp-following of Clive Bell and Roger Fry? Here is Bell:

“English painters appear to have preferred being pygmies amongst cranes to being artists amongst artists. Aurons-nous change tout ca? Qui vivra verra. The league exists; its permanent headquarters are in Paris …”

“Picasso’s is the paramount influence in Europe … The younger and more intelligent foreigners, within and without the gates of Paris, know well enough that Picasso is still their animator.”

This snobisme, this displaced chauvinism in which travel away from the Left Bank is a journey into the “suburban” and “provincial” (two of Bell’s favourite insults), is the Bloomsbury agenda which Lewis fought during his entire career. As Bloomsbury shaped the primacy of Paris for British taste, so conversely it funnelled to the Continent its own value judgements on British modernism. As Picasso is reported (by Ben Nicholson) to have remarked: “Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?” To the end of his days Lewis opposed the reactionary effect and deadening legacy of Bloomsbury. And he never shrank from identifying the weaknesses of Picasso. As early as 1915, in Blast 2, he had made the highly perceptive critique that

“The Cubist, especially Picasso, founds his invention on the posed model, or the posed Nature-Morte, using these models almost to the extent of the Impressionist … HOWEVER MUSICAL OR VEGETARIAN A MAN MAY BE, HIS LIFE IS NOT SPENT EXCLUSIVELY AMONGST APPLES AND MANDOLINES … The placid empty planes of Picasso’s later “natures-mortes”, the bric-à-brac of bits of wall-paper, pieces of cloth, etc., tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency. These tours-de-force of taste, and DEAD ARRANGEMENTS BY THE TASTEFUL HAND WITHOUT, not instinctive organisations by the living will within, are too inactive and uninventive for our northern climates, and the same objections can be made to them as to Matisse DECORATION … The whole of the modern movement, then, is, we maintain, under a cloud. That cloud is the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso. We must disinculpate ourselves of Picasso at once.”

Lewis put his finger astutely on the essential banality of the form-content of the School of Paris, preoccupied with “the debris of their rooms” rather than “changing our common life”. (It was essentially the same criticism he would make of James Joyce: revolutionary technique, but wrapped around Victorian content.) To the end of his days he maintained and elaborated this critique, identifying Picasso as a pasticheur, but technically impressive to the extent that he threatened to become “a stultifying obsession”.

And what an obsession! The far-sightedness of Lewis’ position is evidenced by our need, even today, to query Clark’s unthinkingly hand-me-down narrative of Modernism. But that narrative moved on. If Lewis, in his “safe Soho Bohème”, exemplifies for Clark a phoney Picasso-ism, where is the real stuff, the “serious engagement”? Why, with Gorky, de Kooning and the New York School, he informs us. In this so-familiar construction, the torch of authenticity is handed across the Atlantic circa 1939, and we slip from Modernism according to Bloomsbury to Modernism according to Clement Greenberg.

What a very passive and old fashioned account this is! Strikingly so from such a reputed Bad Boy of Art History. This is the canon of the Cold War, and an imperialist canon. It’s about time we were Leaving the Twentieth Century, and in particular leaving behind the art-historical orthodoxies of the ‘sixties.

The return of the repackaged

Googling recreates the world as a fine, serendipitous conspiracy, with its own pleasing coherence. But then you stumble against the frankly shocking. Wasting time recently fumbling through sideways associations between the abstract painters Richard Smith, Robyn Denny and Ralph Rumney, the Situationist International, the ICA and the CIA, I landed on this:








Yes, at Heart Fine Art dot com you may become the owner of a creased copy of King Mob Echo, the inflammatory broadsheet put out in 1968 by Chris Gray and other British SI rejects, for a mere £395. The price tag announces that it has been redefined as Art. And therefore as an investment. I sold a bunch of situationist ephemera a while ago on eBay and was moderately surprised by one or two high bids, so I suppose we should have seen this coming. Do the revolutionary instruments of one era always become the pricey collectibles of the next? With a bit of luck, the idiot who wastes his money on this will be a hedge fund manager. That would be a kind of potlatch, after all.

While he’s at it, he could add to his basket a blank sheet of Art & Language headed letter paper for just £45. Its blankness will speak volumes.