Thursday, 20 February 2020

Anti-war Art

The creation of art that attempts to convey the sterile horror of war has a long history indeed.

Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904) was a Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century and, for a time, an official war artist for the Russian army. His paintings often reflect his own direct experiences. 
He is often categorised as an anti-war artist because of the devastated landscapes he painted drew closely upon his own direct experiences, and were depicted in his distinctive crisp, unflinching classical realism. These paintings are like a "morning after" image, displaying the sterile destruction of life and civilisation that remains once the heat of battle has died down.

Vereshchagin dedicated 'The Apotheosis of War,' to "all great conquerors, past, present, and to come." It can be found today in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which houses a great deal of his works. 'The Ruins of the Theatre in Chuguchak' (below) can be found in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.
What makes paintings like these so powerful and disturbing to me is how often images like these have been repeated and recreated in the real world in the century and a half that has elapsed since their creation.

The lifelessness of Vereshchagin's landscapes are echoed by those of the British war artist of WW1 John Nash. The hideous mound of skulls in 'The Apotheosis of War' has been seen in the twentieth century too many times to count, perhaps most infamously and presciently in Cambodia of the 1970s.
In the last century we have seen the power of photography replace painting to convey the reality of war to the public. Think of those photographs of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who defied a ban on western reporters visiting the cities following the US atomic bombing, described as "a warning from history".
In the twenty-first century independent journalists like the British photojournalist Guy Smallman have produced similarly stark images on landscapes in Afghanistan. 
Others increasingly rely more on video, which can be easily distributed via social media to anyone with an Internet connection. For example, this footage shot by the British independent journalist Vanessa Beeley of Daraa al Balad in Syria I feel captures the same spirit of Vereshchagin's unblinking vision, which bears witness to our own inhumanity.

Today some of the best anti-war reportage is that which is created by the perpetrators themselves, and it is merely left to conscientious individuals to alert the general public to its existence, as US Army Private Manning did back in 2010.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Theo Schumann Formation

Getting into the groove with some cool jazz from the GDR, this track is taken from Schumann’s 1977 album, which can be purchased on

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Historietas y Tebeos - Comics in Mexico

Since the Spanish-speaking world covers everything from Spain itself to the whole of South and Central America that isn't Brazil or French Guyana, I am going to focus on the comics of one country for starters: Mexico.

When looking for the roots of Mexican satirical cartoons one place to begin may someone like the nineteenth century political lithographer Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). Posada's influence was of course not just confined to cartoonists but also extended to the wider culture, perhaps most notably to the muralists that emerged after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. 

Figures like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Fernando Leal, not mention the iconic surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, often referenced some of the same cultural iconography that Posada had popularised years earlier, and they certainly shared similar politics. 

One of Posada's iconic characters

A later artist to draw upon the political radicalism of Posada and the muralists was the cartoonist Eduardo del Rio (better known by his pen name Rius) (1934-2017). "Rius" created satirical comic strips in the 1960s like 'Los Agachados' as well as many books that reflected his left-wing sympathies and critique of the Catholic church, of which he was a member for many years. His 1981 book El manual del perfecto ateo (The Handbook for the Perfect Atheist) even got him excommunicated, while his history of the Catholic Church probably didn't help things either. Its called Pope Puree (which I understand is a kind of play on words of the Spanish term for "mashed potatoes"). 
Rius also carries the curious distinction of being the first author outside of the Soviet bloc to be published by Izvestia.

"Drugs: The U.S.A's Big Business"
(a cover for Los Agochados de Rius)

One of his most widely read books is Marx para principiantes (Marx for Beginners) which helped launch the whole "for beginners" genre.
Rius remained active for most of his life, helping launch the magazine El Chamuco in 1996 with other creators like El Fisgon, although sadly this version of the magazine folded in 2000 before its eventual re-launch in 2007. 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Bandes-dessinees: the Rich World of French Comics

I have always been aware of the respect that the French hold for the arts. More to the point, since learning, in the mid-1990s, that the two most famous names of 1960s U.S. underground comix - Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton - had both chosen independently to emigrate to France, I have also been conscious that this high regard also extends to that form of graphic storytelling and social commentary so frequently dismissed in the English speaking world as "comics" or "cartoons" (I imagine this is because no one has yet coined a more succinct term, meaning the endless confusion with fields like animation and stand-up comedy persist).
Growing up in the UK I found that only a thin slice of French talent was ever translated and published in English. I had heard of the work of the science fiction illustrator Moebius (pen name of the late Jean Girard), for instance, or the humorous slice-of-life cartoons of Claire Bretecher, and of course books like Asterix and Iznogoud figured prominently in my reading habits from a young age (certainly as much as MAD magazine), but that was about it. 
As i grew up and found myself wanting to seek out newer or more different work I soon found that unless you read Heavy Metal magazine avidly (this being the US version of France's sci-fi/fantasy magazine Metal Hurlant, nothing to do with the music genre), there were very few opportunities to find work by French artists short of actually learning some French and going there.
One of the interesting things you find when you do go there is how mainstream the French love of comics and satirical magazines is. It extends well beyond the walls of comic shops, as here you will find that they grace the shelves of most newsagents in the country. It reminds me of that brief renaissance in the late 80s-early 90s when British newsagents's shelves were filled with VIZ imitators.

The reality for UK mass market comics aimed at a more mature audience has consisted for many years now primarily of VIZ and Private Eye (both of which are really humorous or satirical magazines that also happen to publish a lot of comic strips or gag cartoons). This figure at least doubles as soon as you cross the Channel. For every VIZ you have a Fluide Glacial and (periodically) l'Echo des Savanes. For every Private Eye you have papers printed on equally cheap looking newsprint with names like Le Canard enchaine, Sine Mensuel or Charlie Hebdo.
It also impressed me that within just one French comic magazine you find a much wider diversity of drawing styles than I am used to seeing in either VIZ or more kid friendly fare from DC/Thompson. (This is one area in which the long-running science fiction mag 2000ad bucks the trend at least.) 
Perhaps it is just because I grew up with MAD and US underground comics more than Marvel and DC that I feel more invigorated by publishers that do not cultivate a "house style"? 
In just one edition of Fluide Glacial, for instance, I have seen artists as diverse as those with the loose cartoon-style of Fabrice Erre or Edika, to those with the detailed realism of Dominique Bertail.
And that's just on the news-stands. There is of course an equally dedicated array of specialist comic shops catering for people that enjoy longer, graphic novels. Rue Dante, in the area known as the Latin Quarter (on the south side of the River Seine), has long maintained a collection of different comics and speciality stores. Over the years, we have even seen this unique market developed and catered to by a science fiction-themes creperie.  
Almost makes me wish I could speak French more fluently!

Friday, 31 January 2020

Fumetto! - Discovering Italian Comics

When I first became aware of Italian comics and graphic novels (known as “fumetto”, for “picture-stories”, in Italian), I found that most of what has been translated for English-speaking audiences are books by the greats of Italian erotica: Guido Crepax’s adaptations of erotic classics like The Story of O and Justine, Milo Manara’s amusing and often thoughtful flights of fantasy and Paulo Serpieri’s buxom heroine Druuna. Hmm, I wonder what that says about the interests of English speakers?
When you start looking, you find that Italy has produced quite a number of notable comics in both the adventure and humour/satire genres, although sadly not many of them translated into English. For example, in 1968 the writer and artist Franco Bonvicini (better known as Bonvi) created the popular anti-war comic book Sturmtruppen, which is set in WW2 but (like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H) never had to refer directly to the conflict by name because it is obvious to the reader from the numerous German/Nazi caricatures.

There is also Benito Jacovitti’s hot-tempered, chamomile tea sipping gunslinger Cocco Bill, whose adventures in the Far West are accompanied by his cigarette-smoking, tequila-drinking horse Trottalemme (literally, “trot slowly”). Jacovitti’s style was reminiscent of Asterix co-creator Uderzo, or maybe the English underground cartoonist Hunt Emerson, although he pre-dated these artists by some years.

Then there is the satirical spy comic Alan Ford, first created by Luciano Secchi (writing as Max Bunker) and Roberto Raviola (drawing as Magnus) in 1969, which was laced with surrealistic black humour and sardonic references to contemporary Italian and wider western society. The book tells the story of a collection of spies called “il gruppo TNT” (literally, “the TNT group”) who operate undercover out of a flower shop in New York, and are perpetually broke. The characters are all incredibly smart but also incredibly lazy, and their struggle against people like the criminal Superciuk (“superhick”), who robs from the poor to give to the rich, I understand sometimes results in them defeating him purely by accident.
The books became very popular in Italy, but although editions appeared in French, Danish and Portuguese (primarily for Brazil), it never really caught on in the same way in those countries. It also never appears to have been published in English, despite the fact that Magnus modelled the main characters' appearance on the English actor Peter O'Toole. 

We can only wonder if the way the books were translated had something to do with it, as the only country outside Italy where Alan Ford caught on in a big way was across the Adriatic in neighbouring Yugoslavia, which at that time stood between the capitalist west and communist east with its unique commitment to market socialism and the Non-Aligned Movement it helped create.
When Alan Ford was picked up by the Yugoslavian daily newspaper Vjesnik (“Bulletin”) in 1972, its success appears to have been partly down to its translator Nenad Brixy, who inserted lots of uniquely Croatian references into the strip. The comics’ Italian writer certainly credited Brixy’s work as playing a large part in the books success in the Balkans, and it is clearly a testament to their combined skill that the Ford books remain a cult icon in a number of Yugoslavia’s successor states, primarily Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina.
The latter even hosted an exhibition “Alan Ford in BiH: yesterday and today” in 2014 as part of its Month of Italian Culture. For its curator Professor Daniele Onori of the Italian Embassy “in the characters and their behaviour, Yugoslav readers found something which spoke directly to them.” Perhaps it was because unlike Batman or James Bond the characters all lived in poverty on the floor of their flower shop, or because Yugoslavs saw in the leader of the TNT group, a man named Number 1, an unintentional caricature of Tito...who knows?
Although Alan Ford and the TNT group have proved most popular in the Serbo-Croatian speaking parts of the Balkans, the villain Superciuk is notable for having inspired the name of a Macedonian punk rock band, and despite the paper Vjesnik having come to an end a few years ago Alan Ford continues to appear in print thanks to the Croatian publisher Agarthi Comics.

On a side note, the paper Vjesnik actually had quite an interesting history. In the west the so-called “underground” press merely referred to newspapers and comics that were published and distributed quite openly, but generally marginalised to outlets like head shops frequented by mainly young people with left-liberal political leanings. They were sometimes targeted for obscenity, like Oz magazine in the UK was in 1971, but were generally allowed to publish unhindered.
Vjesnik however was started during WW2, when Croatia was under literal Nazi occupation/annexation, as a paper of the leftist Yugoslav Partisans (the anti-fascist resistance), only becoming a national newspaper-of-record after the Nazi defeat in 1945. Within this context, printing and distribution must have been quite a challenge.
It seems a shame to me that after the break-up of Yugoslavia the paper came under the control of the Croatian Democratic Union, which was at the time the country’s ruling conservative party, who even changed its name for a while to Novi Vjesnik (literally “New Bulletin”, which to an English speaker reminds me of the same kind of right-wing revisionism that led to New Labour). These moves only led to a terminal decline in readership and the papers eventual closure in 2012.
Fortunately, like most good comic strips, Alan Ford’s cult appeal seems to go far beyond his original platforms.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Hounslow Heath by Bike

In case anyone was wondering where I get my inspiration from, here's a short GoPro video from 2017 of a bike ride I made across Hounslow Heath, close to where we live in south west London. You can see one of the results in the new 'Paintings' section of my website.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

On Language Learning and the Many Meanings of a Quenelle

There are always different ways to learn a foreign language, and sometimes quite interesting ways of developing a deeper cultural understanding of a place than watching online tutorials or sitting in lecture halls.
Take French, for example. I have retained a very small amount of French from secondary school, which I have expanded slightly through a combination of personal study and multiple visits to France itself.
However, things like slang terms, colloquialisms, and often uniquely French insults, can often remain closed off to the student and tourist alike, so other sources must be found to develop a deeper understanding of the culture and sub-cultures of the country you are getting to know.
You might be able to deduce a few of these from perusing the pages of satirical newspapers and magazines like Charlie Hebdo or l'Echo des Savanes. Of course, mass movements can be a tremendous education too. The content of banners and placards must be short and punchy, which also makes them easier to key into an online translation website. The current Gilets Jaunes are no exception.
For example, in one video posted online I noticed a protestor with the words "Macron la sens-tu la quenelle?" written on the back of his yellow vest. Online translation tools can help with most of this sentence, but offer no alternative or explanation for that last word.
Roughly, it means something like "Macron do you feel the quenelle?"


With the abundance of information available on the Internet it is not hard to work out that a quenelle is a dish consisting primarily of elongated fish balls.
It gets better. Or worse, depending on your appetite.
Some people have likened the shape of the quenelle to that of a suppository, which explains the phrase "glisser une quenelle" (which means something like "to slide the quenelle").
To top things off, around 2005 the controversial comedian and political activist Dieudonne used the word to popularise a hand gesture some people see as a kind of inverted Nazi salute which has become quite popular in France as a gesture of protest, solidarity etc. Others argue that it is primarily an "up yours" (a British term) to the establishment, although I am still trying to understand if the accusations of racism are genuine or part of a smear campaign similar to the one currently engulfing the British Labour Party. Anti-semitism is real and needs to be challenged, but it would be foolish to ignore the weaponisation of anti-semitism in recent years as a tool to smear those who dare to criticise atrocities committed by the state of Israel.
Islamophobia in France is of course built on the foundations of that countries' unresolved colonial history, particularly in relation to those countries like Algeria that fought bitter struggles against their colonial masters.
Dieudonne, the son of a French mother and father from Cameroon, whose comedy in the 1990s had been defined by a sharp anti-racist sensibility, was an early victim of the extreme political situation in the early years of the War on Terror.
In a style that could be seen as somewhat quintessentially French, when faced with prosecution for alleged anti-semitism, and many of his performances banned, Dieudonne refused to back down or compromise the provocative nature of his comedy. Today he is a vocal supporter of the Gilets Jaunes, and any passing foray into French language social media channels (like his own) that are supportive of the movement reveals just how prevalent the term "quenelle" has become as a kind of rallying cry for its supporters.
I wanted to share these thoughts in relation to my own language learning because such linguistic terms as these will likely be completely lost on people who only follow English language coverage of the Yellow Vests.
It would seem that sometimes learning a foreign language really does promote greater inter-cultural understanding.