Issue 173 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Tate Gallery, London
|Picasso: an artistic rebel|
It says a lot about the current state of art criticism that a major new exhibition about the artist Pablo Picasso has been greeted with trivia and silly jokes. On television we have had programmes like 'Picasso and his Women', 'Who was better, Picasso or Mattisse?', and 'Picasso and the FBI'. In the papers we have had helpful hints like this one from the Observer's John Sweeney, 'Much of the stuff looks as though he knocked it up smashed out of his mind'.
Even more considered critics tend to describe rather than try to understand Picasso, detailing the formal qualities of his work without explaining much at all. What drove him to his artistic vision? What is the impact of his work, and why is he so influential? Picasso continues to be popular around the world and thousands are going to see this exhibition at the Tate.
Critics have a number of difficulties with Picasso. He refused to explain or interpret his work himself, and the sheer scale and variety of his output makes him hard to pin down. What they find hardest to come to terms with is that he was an artistic rebel.
There is a widespread myth that he developed a completely private artistic language, that he was not trying to communicate about the real world. Picasso's art was not a retreat from the world but, as he said himself, an attempt to create a visual poetry.
His first rebellion was against the conventional 'academic' artistic style of the day. For him and many contemporaries, realist art was no longer adequate in a world that was changing fast and furiously. Industrialisation and the triumph of city life had torn apart traditional societies, and, as the 19th century came to an end, mass production was invading everyday life. This process caused misery and dislocation for millions, and was a profound shock to Picasso, who came originally from relatively backward southern Spain.
The spread of new technologies like printing and photography posed a specific challenge to the role of artists in society. In what is called his second Cubist period, mass produced objects begin to find their way onto Picasso's canvases. On the one hand, the world of mass production was a threat--hence the strong sense of nostalgia of many of the paintings that feature clowns and jesters or semi-mythical figures from pre-capitalist Spain. On the other hand, Picasso looked forward to a new world and talked of working towards the future. The Cubist paintings are so exciting partly because of their sense of mastering chaos.
There is a brutal and angry side to a great deal of Picasso's work. His famous 'Demoiselles d'Avignon' shocked even his most Bohemian friends with its savage portrayal of a group of prostitutes. This anger and anguish is often traced to intense relationships he had with a number of women in his life. His artistic approach to sexuality was shockingly honest and complex, recording sexual ecstasy, as well as the agony of jealousy and deteriorating relationships. He wanted to 'give form to the terrors as well as the desires'. Such sexual openness was a challenge to the art establishment. His paintings were a tirade against what he saw as the 'beauty of the museum', which seemed to him an emotional lie.
Picasso is often regarded as being above politics, and the fact that he joined the French Communist Party in 1944 is presented as a contradiction. But he was keenly aware of the suffering inflicted by a brutal world. He was outraged at different times by the crushing of strikes in Spain, the arrest on political charges of his anarchist friend Apollinaire, and by the bombing of Guernica.
His work rarely descended to the level of propaganda, but that is not to say he was not personally political, or that politics did not influence his art. Years before he joined the Communist Party, socialist texts appeared in his Cubist collages, he painted portraits of Spanish Republican fighters, and his famous painting 'L'Aubade' marked the defeat of the Spanish Republic in 1939.
As his friend Zermos put it, 'His life was spent challenging aesthetic legality,' and Picasso was quite clear that there were constant links between the artistic radical and those struggling for social change. That is why his work is full of the sense of suffering and alienation experienced by so many under capitalism, but also full of a sense of hope.
The Age of Innocence
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese is one of the most intelligent and accomplished film makers alive. So when he directs an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence you can be sure it won't be the kind of elegant coffin in which Merchant-Ivory films suffocate the novels they are based on.
In its way, the story of how the passion Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) develops for the unsuitable Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is subtly but effectively thwarted by the New York high society of the 1870s is as brutal a tale as any of the films Scorsese has made about low life in the city a hundred years later--Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, GoodFellas. Only here the weapons through which a closed and repressive society enforces its rules are not the gangster's fist or knife or gun but the placement of guests around a table, or notes refusing an invitation, or an after dinner conversation over cigars. The scene where Archer's wife May (Winona Ryder) reveals to him that she has used a chat at tea with Olenska to separate the lovers forever is a brilliant example of this kind of refined brutality.
Scorsese uses the techniques he learned from the avant guarde French film makers of the 1960s and from his other heroes like the British director Michael Powell--jump cuts, crane shots, the sudden enveloping of the screen in one colour--to reveal a society tightly bound by elaborate ritual.
The Age of Innocence is a superb and fascinating film, whose opening scenes especially carry a terrific punch, which had me often laughing with exhilaration. The three principal performances are excellent. Nevertheless, I found the second half of the film, which concentrates on Archer's and Olenska's doomed love affair, less successful than the first.
One reason for this is that though Scorsese is a very passionate film director it doesn't seem as if sexual passion really engages his imagination. Sex and love have generally played a fairly peripheral part in his other films, which usually have been about conflicts among men. This doesn't mean Scorsese is a sexist director--on the contrary. Olenska's plight as a woman is depicted with great sympathy. It's simply that he isn't at his best handling desire.
There is, however, a deeper difficulty with the film, which can be brought out by comparing it with two of the films which inspired Scorsese in making it--Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and Luchino Visconti's The Leopard. Both of these are insider's views of the decline of an aristocratic society. This gives these films a note of elegy, the occasional echoes of which in The Age of Innocence--which seeks to revive a dead world from the outside--are rather artificial.
More importantly, Welles and Visconti were dealing with big subjects. Ambersons is about the impact of industrialisation on American society, symbolised by the rise of the motor car. Visconti's reconstruction of Sicilian aristocratic life in the 1860s is even more elaborate than Scorsese's--the ball scene in The Leopard lasts for an hour in the full version of the film. But he uses this scene, and the film as a whole, to explore in great depth a gigantic historical process--Italy's reunification through a combination of revolutionary struggle from below and compromise at the top between the old aristocracy and new bourgeoisie. There is a kind of disproportion, by comparison, between the technical brilliance of Scorsese's film and the sad little love story it tells.
But, for all that, The Age of Innocence fails only by the very highest of standards.
The Pelican Brief
Dir: Alan J Pakula
We live in an age of corruption and scandal. In the US one of Clinton's top advisers, who knew the truth about Clinton's corrupt dealings, was killed in mysterious circumstances recently. A film like The Pelican Brief, with a plot based round the assassination of two Supreme Court judges in an attempt to fix a trial, should cut with today's events.
A rich college student, Darby Shaw, played by Julia Roberts, writes a brief pointing the finger at the killer. When the highest levels in Washington find out, Darby Shaw's life is put in danger.
Relentlessly pursued, Shaw contacts an investigative journalist, Gray Grantham, who with her seeks to expose the truth over the assassinations.
The film is good at portraying Darby Shaw as a terrified woman on the run and at pointing to the cynical use of power in Washington.
However, there is something dissatisfying about it. The plot is taken from the book by John Grisham but the political background is left out. So there is no feeling of the struggle between liberals and neo-conservatives over which way America should go. There is very little explanation of why two Supreme Court judges should be killed, or their pivotal role in American politics.
I had the impression that if you had not read the book the film would be extremely confusing. And the end of the film pulls its punches.
For a pleasant Sunday evening the film is good enough, but if you want something that fits this age of sex and financial scandals read the book. It's much better.
Derek Jarman obituary page 34
The Life of Galileo
by Bertolt Brecht, adapted by David Hare
Bertolt Brecht completed the original version of this play in 1938, as the shadow of Nazism was spreading over Europe. The play's backdrop is the turmoil caused in Italy in the early 17th century when Galileo Galilei, the famous scientist, says he has proved that the sun, not the earth, is at the centre of the universe. With one stroke Galileo had 'abolished heaven' and threatened the very core of the church's teachings.
The rising merchant class wants to encourage science and exhibit products, but is afraid of the potential social unrest if reason takes over from blind faith. The church is desperately trying to preserve the blind faith.
It is a marvellous play and this production does it proud. Brecht's Galileo is burning with indignation at the suffering of the masses and is aroused to fury by injustice, oppression and the denial of reason. He is also, in the beginning, full of hope that science has set society moving towards a new and better age.
The authorities explain to Galileo that only with free trade can free science be developed. He realises what they actually mean is that science is only tolerable if it boosts profits. When he presents them with his telescope they immediately see its value in naval warfare.
As Galileo's work wins support and notoriety, the authorities become increasingly alarmed. They are particularly incensed by his insistence on publishing his ideas in Italian, the language of the people, rather than Latin.
The play hinges on the confrontation between Galileo and Rome, which ends with Galileo recanting. In Brecht's 1938 version the recantation is a wily move by the scientist to outwit the Inquisition. Galileo spends years in isolation completing his Discourses and has them smuggled out of Italy. The world knows what he has discovered. The end has justified the means.
David Hare's adaptation is based on Brecht's rather more pessimistic version which was completed soon after the Second World War. In this Galileo admits that he recanted out of sheer cowardice. The scientist has sold out to the ruling class.
Moreover, as he explains to his student, his recantation at that moment in history went far beyond one man's betrayal of his principles. It was a decisive blow for the forces of reaction. He was a leader. The masses, the scientists, the free thinkers, the forces of progress, all looked to him. And at the vital moment he let them down.
Brecht's rewrite was inspired, it seems, by the dropping of the H-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz. He had also, possibly, re-evaluated the Moscow trials.
But Brecht's post-1945 version is not entirely pessimistic. The final scene is ambiguous. The key point appears to be Galileo's ruthless self-condemnation. However, the powerful speech he makes about the liberating potential of science and the fact that he has made a secret copy of his work show him as a sympathetic character.
Hare has trimmed several scenes and abandoned some altogether, mostly with great effect. In the final, vital, scene he retains its ambiguity but in a new way. Galileo's sympathetic nature comes out dramatically in the stunning performance by Richard Griffiths.
Hare's redrafting of the play's final moments adds a subtle twist. As the old scientist sits slumped in the foreground, in the background his student arrives at the border to smuggle out the Discourses. The guard lets them through--because they are written in Latin. Was this a clever ploy to get them safely out of the country? Or was it proof that Galileo had sold out by writing in the language of the censors and purely for his own gratification?
Perhaps not surprisingly for a playwright who has written most of his plays against a background of victorious reaction, the more pessimistic version seems to be the one Hare favours.
The Life of Galileo plays at the Almeida Theatre, Islington, London N1 through March
The Edgar Broughton Band reformed recently, as their publicity puts it 'in answer to a nation's cries'. The band established itself in the 1970s, playing uncompromising political songs at all the major festivals of that decade. Here, Rob Broughton talks to Lee Humber about music and politics
Why have you decided to get the band back together now?
Fourteen years ago my son was born and I didn't want to miss out on him growing up.
Politically the world has changed so much since then. Now there are bands out there doing stuff but if they're with a major record company they're tied. There are tremendous pressures on bands to compromise once they've signed. We never did, perhaps to our cost in terms of big money backing.
Today there's a whole industry which a band with our politics can drop into. We want to unite a few people to oppose what's happening politically. If you're going to do a gig you might as well also start a debate about why are we fighting on our own, why don't we do things together?
When the band first started we had similar sorts of ideas. Musically we were very primitive and kids came along and said, 'Hey, we could do that,' and they could. We were very like punk in that respect. In fact we've often been described as proto-punks.
How would you characterise the band politically and musically?
We're very much left of centre but tinged with a slight disillusionment, from disappointment with the official opposition to what's happened over the last few years, with the Labour Party. That's where I'd like my political home to be, but it's a long way from that.
Musically, I'd describe the band as a mix of grungy, heavy metal and old fashioned English folk. Some of the stuff is very serious and tries to tackle important social issues. We do a song called ICI, for example, about the Olaf Palme scandal in Sweden some years ago. One of our posters has on it, 'What's the connection between Olaf Palme, Margaret Thatcher, Bofor's, ICI, England, Iran, Iraq? Answers on a postcard to MI5, Vauxhall.'
What originally got you into music in the early 1970s?
We were working class lads in the car belt, near Coventry. We were drawn by anything from Hank Marvin to the young Buddy Guy. We were purists originally, into the 'real' down home rural blues before we got into the more urban Chicago electric sound. Pretty soon after we got started, and especially after Hendrix, we got into writing our own material. We've never lost the blues roots.
Were you affected by the political developments?
Definitely. During the 1974 election we did this tour where we had this red and blue poster with the words 'kiss my arse'. On one cheek there was Heath and on the other was Wilson. We did so many benefit gigs it wasn't true.
We had all this paid work so we thought we should put something back. The first gig of our free tour in 1976 was in Redcar where about 3,500 people turned up, largely through word of mouth. The cops said we couldn't come into the town, so we pulled on to a football pitch. People came out to listen, but the cops ended up bundling us into a van and arresting us. Exactly the same thing happened in Brighton and we spent another night in the nick. It was like being in America in some deep south state.
Our first taste of that sort of thing was in the wake of the killing of four students by US state troopers at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. We were invited to play at a protest at Keele University. Students were in parts of the building they shouldn't have been, communicating with American students via computers they shouldn't have been using. It was a real fun day. We used to carry boxes of spray paint to give out to the audiences and they'd spray 'Out, Demons Out', the title of an early song of ours, or 'Its All In Your Mind', or anything they wanted. The students graffitied out the new refectory, so we ended up in court again.
What is the main difference between the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, and today?
People did things and protested with an optimism and a naivety which is now gone. But it's important to remember those protests and how they affected people. The hippy revival today tends to write out that edge to those years, just leaving the 'peace and love' image which is only half the story.
Some of the most openly political comments in music today come in rap music. What do you think of it?
Rap is like modern day folk music. I have my criticisms of some of it--the misogynist, homophobic stuff--but the bulk of it is really interesting and exciting, and it gives people a voice. A lot of it is bedroom produced stuff which is also exciting. I'm working with a rapper called Shadow at the moment. His music is good and he's got really good politics.
What were your impressions of the punk era?
I loved a lot of it. I worked with punk bands early on. One band had a lyric that included the line 'coshing old ratbags' and I thought no, that's not for me. But then there was the much better stuff attacking the queen and hypocrisy. When punk started it was all over the place in its attacks. It was just full of hate. But as the music took off, more and more people got drawn into the melting pot, all sorts of people no longer felt excluded from making music. That mix of ideas can be incredibly creative, so that you get people coming in saying, 'You know when you're talking about an old ratbag--don't you think they've got enough to deal with? Let's attack the monarchy or the government.'
And that happened only because punk was totally open. Rock Against Racism had a massive influence on the type of stuff the bands produced.
The Edgar Broughton Band is playing at venues throughout the country in March