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December 13, 2007

Hitler, the Rosenbergs, Fox Hunting, the American Freeway, the stressful tedium of working in a Factory or Primary School - the Hayward paintings reveal modern life in unique ways: The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now
Hayward Gallery, London
4th October - 30th December 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays & Saturdays until 9pm)

The exhibition at the Hayward is a delight. All of modern life is there from Thomas Eggerer's National Geographic style Sweet Valley High, 1998, of the gallant foxhunters of Virginia advancing on horseback through the greenery of that happy state to Liu Xiaodongs Watching, 2000, where pensive Chinese workers on a dangerous construction site think about or wait for news of a fatal accident to their fellow-worker.

Here is David Hockney's Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970-71, one of the finest ever portraits of a cat, wonderfully highlighted by being placed on the knee of ugly Ozzie, then a dressist now a winer. It gives a whole new meaning to "pointing Percy". There is also the horrid irony of the ideal American Family Portrait, 1968, by Malcolm Morley.

The painting of modern life is an attractive idea in and of itself. Much as I love the art of earlier times, I do sometimes wonder about the point of all those tedious gods and goddesses from Classical mythology. There is more interest in everyday scenes of Dutch peasants getting sprawling drunk, the landing of a fishing boat's catch, the velocity of a steam train, a wagon in Suffolk, French ballet dancers, whores and bar-maids (to name just one category) or the enjoyments of a beach. At the time this was modern life as later were Whistler, Monet, Derain, looking at the Thames or Sickert at the music hall.

They are not snaps of everyday life but they capture it and once you have seen them, everyday life takes on a new freshness, gives you an awareness of shape, colour, depth and how to changed and rearrange the scene in your mind.

It was all spoiled by the excesses of abstract expressionism. Expressionism fine. But if I want abstraction, I shall go back to my old analysis and geometry textbooks. I will see if I can find how I once integrated y = 1 divided by 1 + tan x which was difficult for an amateur like me, indeed now impossible, though easy for the computer and for mathematicians with their silicon chip brains.

It had an aesthetic greatly superior to the painterly nonsense of the 1950s, when the external world disappeared from painting leaving us with only the artist's "inner life", which is of necessity incomprehensible. Our "inner life" is not abstract and many artists don't have one anyway, a real nullity of personality like the moksha escape from the wheel of suffering lives, not the attractive abstraction called zero invented by the subtle Hindus. A modernist called Greenberg (an unfortunate name for someone turning his back on nature) wrote,

…a work of art must try, in principle, to avoid communication with any order of experience not inherent in the most literally and essentially construed nature of the medium…Among other things this means renouncing illusion and explicit subject matter.
In other words, exclude life. Fine for doing experiments in optics… but for a painter?

Fortunately we were rescued from this trivia by the painters in the exhibition at the Hayward, many of whom use as their starting point a photograph. Photographs are a large part of the way we see everyday life. Most of the time people think they are reproducing a scene in their happy snaps but they are not, they are seeing it through a filter of convention as well as one on the camera. Then you put it on the wall and in and of itself it becomes part of your everyday life.

Looking down on me as I write is a criss-cross of vague girders with two shadowy figures and a single bright fish. It is the reflection on the surface of a river of my wife and I standing on a Bailey bridge in Spain. The fish alone is in the sun. I can no longer remember anything about the place itself. The blown up photo alone is part of my everyday life; it is a wonderful Whistler pattern of light and very dark greens, though not from any skill on my part.

What the artists in The Painting of Modern Life have realised is that such everyday photos, whether personal, professional, on post-cards or in newspapers or magazines are a new starting point for painting. Why start from scratch? Why not alter the ready-made? Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward, has commented perceptively:

Ultimately rather than receiving a death sentence from the camera's invention, painting encompassed photography to redefine and extend its conceptual reach.
Photos are quick and flat but the slow and layered work of the painter turns it into something quite new. These artists are not copying photos; they are "reinventing" them in other terms.

It is then an exciting exhibition. The rooms are arranged in a rather strange way, so let me just indicate some of the highlights. There are many more.

Marlene Dumas' The Teacher, 1987, began life as a banal photo of a school class with the taller ones at the back and the smallest on chairs in front, their feet unable to touch the floor. Only the teacher sitting in the centre manages that. There she is - bigger, grimmer, more worn out than her bland charges.

All of this might have been apparent in the original but we probably would not have noticed it. Now it is a painting with the children's faces unnaturally coloured and almost featureless - the very essence of what really happens when we look at such a photo on the wall of a strange school. All school classes, like all football teams or wedding guests, look the same, unless we know someone. Only the teacher has character; she has been shaped by a harsh life from her greying hair to her shadowed shins. Her eyebrows, eyes and mouth are compressed into horizontal lines. Age and stress have squashed her, as they squash us all.

A schoolteacher was trying to persuade her reluctant pupils to buy a copy of the class photograph - she said:

Just think you'll be able to look at it in twenty years time and say, "That's Jack, he's a sailor and that's Minnie, she became a nurse and married a builder".
One of the pupils then says:
Yes, and we'll be able to say, "And that's teacher, she's dead".
Both that little tale and Marlene Dumas' painting of The Teacher convey a certain uncomfortable truth. So does her other painting here, The Visitor, 1995, of Mustang Ranch, a whorehouse in Nevada whose 38 girls get through 600 customers a day. It won a productivity award from President Jefferson Clinton, equivalent to the Queen's Award to Industry. A gong for Westward Ho! but Charles Kingsley was a bit strange.

Marlene Dumas has taken a photo from a book Great Bordello's of the World and transformed it. The girls are all facing away from us in a dim light, distinguished from one another only by the colour of their hair and the colour of their tights. They all look towards a golden door, through which the money will come with a client. Whom will he choose? How does the girl feel who never gets chosen? Will it mean back to hustling on the streets of Milwaukee or Pumpkinville Vermont, population 283. The Visitor began life as a photo but now it is worthy of Toulouse-Lautrec as are many of her other related works.

Look out too for the wonderful landscapes of stations rail and gas by Wilhelm Sasnal and his Factory, 2000, all of them masterpieces of shape in blocks of hard black and white. They contrast with the strongly detailed fine grey lines of Richard Artschwager's Fabrikhalle, 1969 and Office Scene, 1966, yet all three of these paintings of workplaces capture the routine uniformity of modern work better than the original photographs would have done.

Likewise Artschwager's two-panelled Destruction, 1972 (acrylic on Celstex) is akin to a grainy photograph, all dots and dashes and Xs that were done a square inch at a time, but it isn't the original photograph nor any kind of photograph. This painting of an old building being demolished by explosives haunts you in a way the earlier photograph would not. How else could he have done it except from a photo? If you're on the spot, it all happens so quickly and there is the distraction of the bang and the dust and the police officer shouting "stand back please. We don't want someone getting hurt".

Painting from photographs is about catching the feel of things as in Vija Celmins Freeway, 1966, where you are looking through the windscreen as you overtake a truck and are heading towards a far sky but as if stationary, frozen in time. It captures all the freedom of America, that wonderful moment when you have just picked up a hire-car and can go for ever wherever you want in that land of limitless opportunity and forget all about global warming as you hit the gas pedal.

It is sad to learn that the painter took the photograph on which she based the painting on her way to work, the great American iron-cage and worse still that the camera was balanced on her steering wheel. She must have nearly become a theme for Andy Warhol, also present here.

In a curious way there is also history painting in the exhibition as in Luc Tuymans' De Wandeling, 1991, a German romantic picture in the Casper David Friedrich tradition of two men in greatcoats, seen from behind, one in a military officer's peaked cap, heading out along a remote snowy road beneath a mountain. It is a wonderfully conceived scene. Then you check the notes and realise it has been taken from an old photograph of Hitler going for a walk with what looks like his bodyguard. The light, colour, composition are perfect but it is….er Hitler and with that hat! As a German critic put it far better than I ever could:

Hitler selbst, in Begleitung, einen Spaziergang im "Caspar-David-Friedrichschen" Berchtesgadener
How dare Hitler appear normal and sympathetic. He ought to be corralled forever as a madman on a podium haranguing a rally. It is too late for such an unKantian view, since you have already admired the painting.

In a different sense Andy Warhol's Big Electric Chair, 1967, in green and pink is also history, part of his big historic death series. If the freeway is American opportunity, the electric chair, where murderers used to fry and may do so again if lethal injections are judged unconstitutional, is American justice, something that sets that country apart from all the other societies that have emerged from European culture.

You can just imagine typical cute American youngsters looking at such a chair in a museum, chuckling and going "sizzle-sozzle". The Americans do so love their executions. I do not myself believe in capital punishment but surely we must respect other countries' ways of life. A circuit diagram of an ordinary American pulling the switch that connects a murderer being Westinghoused is as much an icon of a society based on law, as an image of Lord Chief Justice Goddard passing sentence in his black cap or the foreman of a jury in a Scottish rape-guess saying "not proven".

Warhol's painting is based on a photo of the chair used in Sing Sing justly to execute in 1953 a truly evil man, Julius Rosenberg, a convicted spy for the KGB who stole America's atomic secrets. Appropriately enough the KGB gave him the code-name LIBERAL.

In the Britain of that time, where mere impulsive murderers and mentally defective murderers were being hanged, why did we not execute our own atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, on the grounds that the Cold War was real war and the Soviet Union had never been a "friendly" nation? Had it not been for scoundrels like these there would probably have been no Korean war, since without an atomic bomb, and not knowing how small the American arsenal was, Stalin would have been afraid to unleash his North Korean rotweiler. As Judge Kaufman put it when sentencing Rosenberg:

I consider your crime worse than murder. I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country. No one can say that we do not live in a constant state of tension. We have evidence of your treachery all around us every day.
The consequences of Rosenberg the traitor were not only worse than any murder but his motives were vile, for he was a spy not just for another country but for the Soviet empire of death, something he must have known. Look at him through a glass greenly. He had given his soul to the devil and he never tried to get it back by confessing and revealing details of the Soviet spy network. He must be down there in Antenora deep in Cocytus.

The exhibition's blurbist speaks of an

anti-communist witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy [which] had reached fever pitch.
Yet the USA only ever executed two civilians for being Soviet spies, Rosenberg and his wife, in the latter case against the wishes of prosecutor Roy Cohn. Cohn, McCarthy's side-kick was an utter scoundrel but he was no Vyshinsky for there is no role for a Beria or a Vyshinsky in America land of the free. Two executions all told! Some hysteria! Some witch-hunt! Salem it wasn't. In the witch trials and in Soviet ones, most confess under torture. Strange that in McCarthy's America Rosenberg was allowed to keep silent, even in court.

Witches of course do not exist and never did. Soviet agents did and the publishing of the Venona transcripts and the opening of the KGB archives have revealed that men like Rosenberg or Alger Hiss, who were proclaimed innocent by the professional progressivists were guilty as charged and indeed more guilty still. The hysteria was on the part of their supporters, not the American courts that gave them a properly constituted trial with an independent defence counsel and jury, something no Soviet dissident ever enjoyed.

It is time that those who arrange art exhibitions stopped spouting myth; indeed they are culpably negligent if they mislead the public like this and unwittingly keep alive this false version of history. Denying the truth about the evil Soviet Union is on a par with denying the Holocaust.

Absurdity prevails even today . There is even a Rosenberg Fund for the children of those convicted of acts against society, provided that like the crimes of Rosenberg and his wife they are of a progressive nature. In the Gulag they used to laugh when getting news of such nonsense.

At the Hayward you can see the painting of modern life in all its variety from the joy of foxhunting and the freeway to the vileness of Hitler and Rosenberg. Go and enjoy it all..

Dr Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.


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Davies writes a nice turn on art, but is as ignorant as a fence post when it comes to atomic espionage. Julius Rosenberg never handed anything to the Soviets that might remotely be termed the "secrets of the atomic bomb." We know exactly what he turned over and it was a partial list of who was working there and a crude map, both acquired by his brother-in-law, who never had more than 10th grade education and was working at a low level at Los Alamos. It was Klaus Fuchs and several other scientists (several of them American, but none of whom were ever even arrested) - the only ones capable of the act - who provided crucial aid to the Soviets, not the Rosenbergs. The US Gov't knew this at the time, but did not wish to compromise the VENONA program, so the Rosenbergs died. The quote from Judge Kaufmann is sheer nonsense. The Korean war had nothing to do with the Soviets having the bomb, and the US Gov't had long held and publicly stated that the Soviet's would have a bomb by 1950. Soviet espionage efforts gave them a two-year advantage over developing one on their own - that's it. The truth is there were no "secrets" as such, there were only technical details to work out. All theoretical aspects had been well-known since before the war; the USSR had very competent scientists quite capable of working the problems by themselves. In fact, the second bomb tested by the USSR was the one they'd been designing entirely on their own. One might also remember that all this espionage took place during the War when the Soviets were fighting nearly 85% of the entire German army on their own, an effort that kept England safe and allowed the Normandy Landing. These misguided espionage efforts were committed on behalf of what was at the time a beleaguered ally in the war against Hitler. It's time to put away this Cold War hysteria, and blood lust. If the Soviet Union had never developed the bomb does Davies really believe Stalin would have turned into a Swede? That the US would have invaded and "liberated" the Masses? Please . . .

Posted by: Grif at December 14, 2007 07:50 PM
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An interesting blog. Regarding the “nice Mr Hitler” picture, I recommend Man or Monster? about a current trial in Cambodia.

Regarding the mathematics part, I can vouch for that myself. If the Pythagoreans were alive today, they might sing:

Do you believe in rock’n’roll?
Can mathematics save your soul?

Regard Grif’s comment, I don’t buy into the “Kute Kommies” line. But he does raise a few points:

Regarding scientists being spared on the Venona program, there might be a parallel here:

In a 1927 agreement, Standard agrees to cooperate technically in the development of the Bergius (synthetic rubber) Process in the United States and to build and operate a plant with the capacity to produce 40,000 tons of hydrogenated oil products per year. I. G. Farben will keep all of the patents and licensing rights, but Standard will receive 50% of the royalties. If Standard makes any new developments, they will keep the patents and licensing and I. G. Farben will receive half of the royalties.

The Nazis got practically everything, but the Americans next to nothing. When it all came to a head in the early 1940s, heads didn’t roll at Standard because they were needed for the war effort.

Also, scientists and mathematicians seem to have easily been taken in by the Commies. It’s galling to think that Emmy Noether, who took algebra to the point where one has to begin carrying oxygen, was probably regarded by them as a “useful idiot”.

Finally, David Kaiser has shown how quite innocent activity by scientists can be misinterpreted by the legal profession, because they are alleged to have given away the formula (which even scatterbrained I might have been able to look up in a text book).

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 18, 2007 01:47 PM
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I have to take some issue with Grif. You are quite right that the Rosenburgs were small fry in the atomic spy case. Klaus Fuchs should certainly have been more harshly delt with, as should Sam Nunn May, and those various Americans involved. That is the real issue with the Rosenberg case - namely that they were executed whilst others, far more guilty, didn't get punished.

That said, it wasn't through virtue that the Rosenburgs were small fry. Nor is the excuse of the Russians fighting Nazism much of an argument for these various traitors. Stalin kept things from the Allies, including his peace overtures to Hitler in later 1941 where he offered the Germans the Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and other areas. It is also a fact that Stalin's Russia was a land of terror and mass murder - something which only the most ideologically blinkered would try to deny these days. Remember as well that many of the Rosenburgs ideological fellow travellers would have refused to oppose Nazi expansion, and indeed refuse to cooperate in any way with Britain's war against Nazi Germany between the outbreak of War and the invasion of Russia. Russia did not fight Germany due to fears of a Nazi controlled Europe, or to crush an evil ideology, far less to protect Britain, but because the Germans decided to attack them whilst the odds were still felt to be in Germany's favour!

It was known in the 1930's that Stalin's regime was murderous - far more so than both Hitler and Mussolini combined before the war even if you include the dead and injured in Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia and the campaigns in Libya. But his country was the "hope of the world". Even now he still has his apologists who are given far more mainstream respect than fans of Hitler like David Irving. Why should Communism retain that level of intellectual respectability that it still possesses? The main fact of the matter is that the McCarthy era in the US was far better than the contemporary USSR for any dissident. The Rosenburgs really did spy. Their sentence was excessive in view of the fact that others, far more guilty, were not even punished, and it was certainly really political (but we don't engage in that sort of thing now do we?). But they weren't dragged before show trials to confess to crimes they could never have committed as happened in Russia at the time. By American standards, what happened to them was wrong (and by our standards of course). But that is surely the point, we must remember that our standards were very different to that of Stalin's Russia.

As for the effect of the spying. It saved the Russians a lot highly expensive experimentation, and enabled them to concentrate their industrial development on those parts of process that were best suited. The Manhattan Project was vast, and much of this was in experimentation and building the industrial infrastructure. Russia in the late '40's was devastated. Being able to concentrate on building the most important plants, and not having to waste time and resources on blind alleys was a huge advantage for them. The absence may have delayed them getting the bomb until after Stalin's death. As for the Korean War - it is endlessly speculated as to why Stalin allowed Kim to invade the south in 1950 when he'd previously forbidden him to. As Stalin is now dead, we probably can't say for certain, but the fact he now had a bomb is certainly regarded as a possible reason for him to take the risk, believing that the Americans may be deterred. They were certainly deterred from using the bomb themselves, or in carrying the war to China when the latter intervened. I dare say it had something to do with his decision, even if it was only one factor of many he considered.

Posted by: PT at December 18, 2007 05:17 PM
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Addressing myself to the author now, I do wish he wouldn't talk flippantly about Cocytus, etc. All of us are sinners by nature, and Christmas is fundamentally about facing death (not the process of dying) without fear.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 19, 2007 08:01 AM
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