Zarathustra reconsidered

Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Hulse (trans.), Notting Hill Editions, 2022, pb., 312pps + xiv, £12.99

Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul S. Loeb, David F. Tinsley (eds., trans.), Stanford University Press, 2022, pb., 576pp + xii, US$30

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

Keith Ansell-Pearson, Paul S. Loeb (eds.),Cambridge University Press, 2022, hb., 277pps + xiv, £75
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees new sides of Nietzsche

Apparently, at one stage of World War I, every German soldier deployed was given a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, apparently to fortify their will. It is in some ways an odd choice. Nietzsche subtitled it “A book for all and none”, realising that many readers would be baffled by the messages. Although few would have been perplexed at the presentation of moral-philosophical issues in the form of fables – for what are fables, if not moral-philosophical issues rendered in colourful narrative form? – many would wonder what exactly those messages were. Initially, that was not a problem because there were so few readers. A long, fabulous narrative, featuring a protagonist barely known in modern Europe, split over multiple volumes, written by a little-known retired professor of philology had few takers at the time. It is hard not to think that while it might have been undervalued on first appearance, it was equally overvalued soon afterwards.

No philosopher had greater influence on the development of modern history and Modernism in the arts than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Of his writings, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5) is unique in that it is written from the perspective of a fictionalised character, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It became the book Nietzsche was most pleased with, even though it has been criticised as verbose and overwritten. His later, aphoristic style, written in the manner of Heraclitus, is easier to follow and considered more effective as prose; as rhetoric, Zarathustra maybe carries more impact. A new translation of this, perhaps Nietzsche’s most popular book, has just been published. It joins two other related books, one a critical analysis of the text and another being a previously unseen fragment written at the same time as Zarathustra not included in other publications. This review will discuss all three.

A mid-nineteenth century Indian depiction of Zoroaster/Zarathustra

Nietzsche presents his thoughts through the voice of Zarathustra, acting as religious-philosophical counter to the Gospel narrative of the teaching of Christ. He wanted to bypass scholars and reach readers directly, although he had no pretensions to populism or accessibility (remember – “A Book for All and None”). For those seeking the evidential arguments of The Birth of Tragedy or the late aphorisms written in Heraclitus’s style, Zarathustra will prove a trying book. Not that it is hard to read, but rather its indirectness and intrusive imagery prove an impediment to understanding Nietzsche’s reasoning, even if it is effective rhetoric.

A fifteenth-century Flemish depiction of Zoroaster/Zarathustra

Nietzsche’s book, originally published in four volumes, has been characterised as the resolution to a crisis reached in the preceding book The Gay Science, which included the dramatic passage in which a truth-saying madman declares that God is dead, killed by modern society, one in the throes of scientism and humanism. In Zarathustra Nietzsche explores a way out of this spiritual dead-end. He concluded that the Übermensch (German: superman), the man who embodies truth and will to power were the solution to the derangement of values and the death of trust in religion. The nihilism that consumes deracinated, scientific, rational man can only destroy and cannot produce – at least in the long-term, outside of art as “the sum of destructions” pace Picasso – and must be countered by a conscious transubstantiation of all (received) values. The Übermensch will master first himself and then the world, through the exertion of the will to power, which overcomes fear. Not every man will be capable of that; only the superior man will be capable. The normal man must be led by these self-actualised Übermenschen. This is clearly the part that was meant to stimulate German soldiers in the muddy trenches towards heroism.

Image: Talmoryair. Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche is scathing of many movements and grand figures of his time. The most striking fable is of socialists (“preachers of equality”) as tarantulas:

Revenge sits within your soul; a black scab grows wherever you bite; your venom makes the soul giddy with revenge! […] ‘What we call justice shall be precisely this: the world shall be filled with the storms of our revenge’ – that is how they talk among themselves. ‘We shall practise revenge and abuse against any who are not as we are’ – that is what the tarantula-hearts pledge to each other. […] Vengefulness sounds from every one of their complaints, and all of their praise is hurtful; and to be judges seems a blessed thing to them.[i]

This is related to Nietzsche’s thoughts on ressentiment, the system of behaviour springing from recognition and reaction against a person’s weakness and inferiority and reacting by projecting anger upon others as a way of evading self-knowledge and self-correction. Self-overcoming is one of the main themes of the book. The mass adoption of mindful self-overcoming will see the rise of the Übermenschen on a civilisational (epochal) level. 

The figures who appear in part 4 are often seen as disguised responses to individuals and types. These have been seen as follows: the soothsayer is Schopenhauer, the conscientious man is the scientist (Darwin?), the sorcerer is Wagner, the ugliest man is the atheist, the shadow is the freethinker, the voluntary beggar is Buddha or Tolstoy. This interpretation is omitted from the new translation. Likewise omitted are textual notes on features of the original text, which includes some untranslatable puns and wordplay. The translation of the new edition is by Michael Hulse, former academic at Warwick University and translator of W.G. Sebald, Rilke and Elfriede Jelinek. He is also an acclaimed poet and therefore in an ideal position to capture the sweep and precision of Nietzsche’s mannered style in English – not least the passages of verse. Hulse has chosen to strike a middle path between directness of speech and the language of the King James’s Bible, eschewing the archaic but retaining something of the stiff rhetoric of the ancients. This is effective and never attempts to conceal the deliberately florid style Nietzsche adopted for this book. 

In terms of fluency and potency – accuracy is something that I cannot aver – Hulse’s version is excellent. The awkwardness one encounters is deliberate and reflects Nietzsche’s deliberate stylistic choices. Hulse’s version reminds us that Zarathustra is written in a portentous, high-spirited manner, while never favouring fluency over exactness. This translation is slightly less of an easy read than others because it forces you to notice and does not slip into a manner. So, although it might seem paradoxical, the granularity of the Hulse translation directs one’s attention to the meaning rather than (more passively) imbibing the prose style or becoming attached to the atmosphere.

Editors Keith Ansell-Pearson and Paul S. Loeb assert in their introduction  to Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”: A Critical Guide:

…recent philosophical scholarship tends to marginalize TSZ and to downplay its significance in our engagement with Nietzsche’s thought. […] The aim of this volume is to remedy neglect of TSZ by highlighting its importance for a fuller understanding of Nietzsche’s contribution to philosophy…TSZ needs to assume a central role in any informed appreciation of his style of philosophical practice as well as of the fundamental content of his core ideas.[ii]  

Ansell-Pearson and Loeb observe that Nietzsche wished to detach himself from professionalised philosophy by taking up a persona and writing in fables:

Nietzsche knew that the philosophical texts he wrote in his own voice could be easily assimilated into this bloodless academic culture, so he deliberately designed a new kind of philosophical text that would resist any such assimilation. His fictional protagonist actually practices philosophy as a way of life and this is shown by the narrative of his transformative travels […][iii]

Nietzsche intended Zarathustra to be a return to the Greek model of lived philosophy.

Benedetta Zavatta discusses the controversy about the composition of the book. The first three parts were published in separate volumes and the author considered them complete. He then published a fourth part, which was part of an intended further three volumes. Whether this last part is a new book, or an extension, is an open question, made all the more pointed by the fact that the author later wanted volume IV retracted. Other essays by specialists consider Zarathustra as ecological warning, because of Nietzsche’s naturalism (contra Schopenhauer’s metaphysics), as well as the book’s treatment of moral philosophy, politics and transhumanism. Ansell-Pearson and Marta Faustino’s essay on the quest to embody philosophy in a text for living is particularly effective at unlocking Nietzsche’s intentions. Christopher Janaway refutes the common correlation between the soothsayer character in Zarathustra with Schopenhauer, going on to argue that Zarathustra’s teachings do indeed reject Schopenhauer’s urge to combat ubiquitous ceaseless will.

Zarathustra is sometimes partitioned from the main body of Nietzsche’s philosophy as fiction. Likewise, the Nachlass (German: estate) papers, currently being published in a critical edition (translations published by Stanford) are considered by some illegitimate, as working materials that were not deemed suitable for publication (or even preservation). As such, some writers will not consider them as part of Nietzsche’s oeuvre.

That is what makes so contentious the Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spake Zarathustra (Spring 1884-Winter 1884/5), the 15th volume in the series The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche published by Stanford University. Each volume comes with extensive notes and commentary. Summaries guide our general understanding of themes, while translators’ comments on the most important terms allow non-German-speakers to gauge Nietzsche’s text, making us aware of linguistic subtleties, as well as adding extra thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s sources, influences and intentions. An index is included. It comes as a surprise to encounter Nietzsche writing so much on fine art, especially painting, about which he never published. Nietzsche’s view of history is both linear and cyclical, with cycles unable to repeat exactly due to linear characteristics of historical development. He is a pessimist – “The dumbing-down and homogenization of Europe on the rise, / Ever-increasing enmity of the progeny of the nobility toward l’homme supérieur. / […] The lack of any moral practices: feelings instead of principles.”[iv]

In response to the deterioration of Europe following the French Revolution, Nietzsche toys with the idea of selective breeding to counter racial decline.[v] However, once work starts in earnest on Zarathustra, he returns to the nature of morality and moral exemplars. He is insistent on the destruction of Christianity, as an impediment to development.

Most of the fragments are aphorisms only a sentence or two long. The drafts for Zarathustra are the only sections longer than a page. There is a section of verse – verse forms a significant part of Zarathustra – which has more merit as a distillation of thought than as poetry. The lists of images in the notes reach the level of Surrealist poetry inadvertently and top the verse. “– thistle-heads, scrupulous saps – hasty, like jumping spider monkeys – between coffins and sawdust – dizzy dogs and sickly breeds all around me – a cold bath […]”[vi] The Fragments are a terrific read – pithy, cutting, stark, playful, grand. It is like being in the company of the philosopher at his most expansive and garrulous. It is, of course, not the same as a considered conclusion or articulated argument, which is why anyone seeking enlightenment and information about Nietzsche’s philosophy must be extra wary of these seductive writings.


[i] Pp. 89-90, Hulse

[ii] P. 1, Cambridge

[iii] P. 10, Cambridge

[iv] p. 20, Fragments

[v] p. 59, Fragments

[vi] P. 356, Fragments

Kafka revealed

Kafka, self portrait. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

The Diaries

Franz Kafka, Ross Benjamin (trans.), Schocken/Penguin, 2023, hb., 670pp + xxiv, US$45
ALEXANDER ADAMS welcomes an overdue and sensitive English-language edition of Kafka’s journals

There could hardly be a better paradigm of existential modern man, locked within his psyche, struggling to making meaning of a brutal and mechanical world, than Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The most interior form of writing is the private diary. Thus, Kafka’s Diaries should be the epitome of angst – and indeed they are – and of self-conscious fashioning of literary forms – and that is also true. But they stubbornly explain little about what drove the writer.

In 1909 Kafka – doctor of law, employee of an insurance company, lifelong resident of Prague and aspirant writer – opened a quarto notebook and began writing a series of short entries before describing watching a Russian dancer who had recently performed in Prague. This was the beginning of a diary that he kept on and off until his death in 1924 from tuberculosis. The diaries would be his laboratory for writing. Aside from describing his day, notable events in his life and thoughts that had occurred to him, he would draft letters, test out poems, summarise plays he had seen and write fiction. He would also make some fetching faux-naïf drawings patterned on those in the German literary-satirical journal Simplicissimus (1896-1967).

This hybrid character proved an impediment to his editor and friend Max Brod, who took it upon himself to alter the diary text for the first edition, published in 1951. He tidied up the style into plain Hochdeutsch, removing Bohemian Germanicisms, and correcting slips. He cut all of the fiction published elsewhere in the novels and stories, which substantially shortened the text. He also sought to protect his friend’s reputation by removing critical remarks (including about Brod) and any mention of sex, pornography, and visits to brothels. This had the effect of making Kafka seem more unworldly and abstemious than he really was.

The new version translated by Ross Benjamin, based on the Fischer Verlag Critical Edition of Kafka’s complete works, removes these interventions. Reading this edition is not like reading a new book, it is reading a new book. The text has been radically altered, the character changed, and many new aspects have emerged, all of which make it feel fresh. Benjamin has been unable to render into English Bohemian German deviations from standard Hochdeutsch, wisely not trying, but the inclusion of slips in spelling (“Newyork”, “Newyort”) and capitalisation gives the text a much more fluid, impromptu character. We see a tired writer making mistakes and changing his mind as he wrote the only draft of this text. Included in this translation are the notations from the Fischer complete text, adding a great deal by way of context and identification.

Kafka (left) photographed at an amusement park ride

We encounter a handful of notable figures Kafka met personally – an audience with polymath eccentric Rudolf Steiner, a letter from novelist Robert Musil, a description of Alfred Kubin’s pornography collection. But Kafka’s diaries are not a glittering rollcall of intellectuals. Kafka lived in Prague rather than Vienna, after all. The few writers he knew well (Franz Werfel, Willy Haas, Brod) have all been eclipsed by Kafka himself.

The diaries dwell on Kafka’s fraught responses to his body. His vegetarianism and constipation were related to his fastidiousness. These were also a reaction against the gruff uncouthness of his portly father; it was a torment for Kafka to spend time with his family, especially his father. It must have been equally trying for his family in return. (For much of his adult life, Kafka lived with his parents.) The pathology of Kafka’s food obsession appears in the entry of 30 October 1911:

This longing I almost always have, once I feel my stomach is healthy, to heap up in myself fantasies of taking terrible risks with food. I satisfy this longing especially in front of smokehouses. If I see a sausage labeled as a an old hard Hauswurst, I bite into it in my imagination with all my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and heedlessly like a machine. The despair that this act even in the imagination has as an immediate result increases my haste. I shove the long rinds of rib meat unbitten into my mouth and then pull them out again from behind tearing through my stomach and intestines. I eat dirty grocery stores completely empty. Fill myself with herrings, pickles and all the bad old sharp foods. Candies are poured into me like hail from their tin pots. In this way I enjoy not only my healthy condition, but also a suffering that is without pain and can pass immediately.[i]

On 13 August 1912, Kafka accompanied Brod on a social call, where he met a young woman. “Bony empty face, which wore its emptiness openly. Bare neck. Thrown-on blouse. […] Almost broken nose. Blond, somewhat stiff charmless hair, strong chin.”[ii] Not a flattering description of Felice Bauer, who would become his fiancée. Indeed, it turned out to be (how could it not?) a tortured relationship, which resulted to two breaking-offs of the engagement, and ultimate estrangement. Relatively little of Kafka’s doubts made it into the diary, at least, not directly. He did write a list of pros and cons of marriage, conceived in the abstract and somewhat detached from the specifics of Felice.

1) Inability to endure life alone […] 3) I must be alone a great deal. What I have achieved is only a result of being alone. 4) I hate everything that doesn’t relate to literature, it bores me to carry on conversations (even if they relate to literature) it bores me to pay visits, sorrows and joys of my relatives bore me to my soul. 5) The fear of connection, of flowing across. 7) Alone I could perhaps one day really give up my job. Married it will never be possible.[iii]

If she had seen the list, it would have filled her with foreboding. This mood would not have been leavened by another observation. “Coitus as punishment of the happiness of being together. To live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that’s the only way for me to endure marriage.”[iv]

To be fair, in his letters to Felice, Kafka did repeatedly write of his doubts about his suitability as a husband. It was not as if they were unprepared for Kafka’s fastidious selfishness – which did encompass concern regarding Felice’s marital happiness – to ultimately doom their plans. When a diagnosis of tuberculosis finally intervened (in 1915), it simply proved correct Kafka’s comment “I lack any propensity for family life except that of the observer at best.”[v] Fate had intervened to confirm the correctness of his path of literary solitude. In his last year, Kafka did wish to marry the teacher Dora Diamant, whom he would live with in Berlin, but let us overlook that untidy fact. The diaries end a month before Dora’s arrival in his life; or rather the notebooks mentioning her were later confiscated by the Gestapo and have never reappeared.  

The inclusion of drafts of Kafka’s fiction transforms the nature of the diaries. No longer a ‘pure’ journal, it comes the laboratory and workbook for a writer always looking to turn observation into fiction. There are versions of stories “The Judgment”, “Memories of the Kalda Railway”, “Wedding Preparations in the Country” and short pieces from his first book of short pieces Betrachtung (Meditation) (1913), as well as sections of his three novels The Man Who Disappeared (1911-4), The Trial (1914-5) and The Castle (1922). There is an aborted opening to The Trial, in which Josef K. is accused of theft, which he has committed unconsciously. “’Thief!’ he shouted and sprang out of the office. ‘I haven’t stolen anything’ was the first thing I said, but the five-gulden bill was in my hand and the till was open.”[vi] (Tellingly, Kafka thought of Karl Rossmann (protagonist of The Man Who Disappeared) as innocent, and Josef K. (of The Trial) as guilty.[vii]) There are attempts at story beginnings that never developed and patient rewritings of texts that never took on independent life. Some paragraphs were reworked although they never seem to amount to more than asides, without potential for publication. This is Kafka testing the veracity of his thoughts, clarifying his expression, practising his craft.

Letters loom large in Kafka’s thoughts. He frets over letters unsent and ones he cannot reply to. He drafts letters to Felice and his publisher. Letters to Milena and Felice are at first lifelines, then they constrict him, binding him into relationships and promises that impede him, that force him to compromise his work and deplete his time. Another drain on his attention – his work duties – does not come up much, other than as passing observations on colleagues. As the Office Writings revealed, his work life was actually very varied and meaningful; it took him across Bohemia as he attended conferences and inspected factories. Far from being a lowly clerk, as we sometimes casually imagine him to be, Dr Kafka was a serious and respected professional. We lose out from not hearing more about this part of his day, although one can hardly blame him for wishing to escape into literature when free.

Metamorfosis, 2013. Wikimedia Commons

As so often observed, acting as places of emotional expression without the speaker encountering moderation, reproof or reason, diaries frequently become repositories for anger and private score-settling. They can be ugly places, where we see a person at their most selfish and unbalanced. One can hardly blame an editor, especially one such as Brod, who knew the author, for taking off the edges. The diaries lack continuity, with breaks of many months, and suffer as a narrative from having figures mentioned only fleetingly. We do not get a feeling for recurring characters. As expected, Kafka explains little, as he was writing for himself.

We might ponder on the ethics of publishing not only anything by Kafka, bearing in mind his instructions to Brod to destroy all his writings, but particularly this journal. Ultimately, if an author is great enough and demand great enough, then everything will be published and gathered into complete editions. Kafka is no exception. He read such editions; he read the letters and journals of the Russian novelists, German Romantics and Gustave Flaubert. He would have understood the impulse to publish everything available and knew that everything he had not personally destroyed was liable to reach the public to some extent. He himself had committed to flames unsuccessful work. (March 1912: “Today burned many old disgusting papers.”[viii])

Do not think that the Diaries are tough reading. Although there is plenty of despair – at his writer’s block, his family, his inability to escape the office – Kafka’s humour flashes through most poignantly when he makes fun of himself.

When the Doktor, reading the contract aloud, came to a passage that dealt with my possible future wife and possible children I noticed opposite me a table with two large chairs and a smaller one around it. At the thought that I would never be capable of filling these or any 3 chairs with me, my wife and my child, I was overcome by a longing for this happiness so desperate from the very start that in this agitated state I asked the Doktor my only remaining question during the long reading, which immediately exposed my complete misunderstanding of an extensive section of the contract that had just been read.[ix]

As tuberculosis made inroads into Kafka’s stamina and expectations, the entries do grow tersely short. Sometimes they are little more than the name of a person or book or the recording of the temperature of a fever bout. What the diaries (dwelling as they do on inactivity, dissatisfaction and anxiety) fail to convey is how much Kafka did achieve despite the demands on his time: three unfinished novels, a body of brilliant short stories, some parables and a large quantity of letters, aside from the diaries themselves. This does not include lost or destroyed papers nor the technical reports written for work, which cannot be counted as creative work, despite its value and quality.

The Diaries are an essential addition to the Kafka canon in English, but we still await two major additions: The Fragments (a group of unfinished stories, parables and dialogues) and the collected correspondence. Both contain many texts that have never appeared in English. Those Anglophones who love Kafka cannot rest easy until these two bodies of work are added to the already translated critical editions of the novels, stories, parables and (now) diaries.


[i] P. 107

[ii] P. 226

[iii] P. 298

[iv] P. 301

[v] P. 304

[vi] P. 351

[vii] P. 400

[viii] P. 209

[ix] P. 121

Parnassus, and patria

Tumuli at Revesby in Lincolnshire

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry

Various authors, edited by Alexander Adams, foreword by William Clouston, London: Bournbrook Press, 2022, pb, 55pps, £12.50

Bournbrook Press is an offshoot of Bournbrook Magazine, founded in 2019 to offer a “primarily British audience with traditionalist, socially conservative argument and entertainment”. This venture’s newest publication is something unusual, and unlikely to be financially profitable – an anthology of original poetry put together specifically to appeal to small-c conservatives, a subset of the population not noted for their interest in new verse.

Poetry written for political purposes always runs a risk of being bathetic, just as other arts can easily become ‘artivism’ – a point amply understood by this collection’s editor-contributor, who has written an informative book on this subject. I have a 1900 anthology on my shelves, Heroic and Patriotic Verse, and while much of the verse is excellent (it includes Byron, Goldsmith, Gray and Shakespeare), some has dated less well, including ‘Of old sat Freedom’ (one of Tennyson’s windier effusions) and the frankly indigestible ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’. The verse in Sunken Island is similarly uneven, but when it is good, it is, as Social Democratic Party leader William Clouston notes in his Foreword, “both serious and enjoyable”.

Clouston also points out that this book’s eight contributors are not “blind to the country’s flaws”, and this gives this collection both muscle and a certain wryness of outlook notably absent from some patriotic poets, like Rupert Brooke or Henry Newbolt. There is no bombast to be found in Sunken Island, nor sentimentality, nor Patience Strong-style platitudes. The two prevailing emotions are love, plus loss – an odd echo of Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (1988), which concluded that “there’s no longer an English literature”. 

Kenner’s gloom is to some extent gainsaid by the poets in here, who suggest that a kind of distinctively English literary sensibility may still be discoverable – or at least a British one, because one of the poets included (the pseudonymous ‘Columba’) is Scottish, while another (Rahul Gupta) is a noted exponent of traditional alliterative verse. This does not mean that the other six contributors are stodgily suburban, nor even a hundred percent English. Alexander Adams is a justly well-regarded artist whose work is in the V&A (several of his drawings are used in Sunken Island). Benjamin Afer calls himself an “authentic reactionary”, but authors futuristic novels. Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual (Swedish) doctor of philosophy, as well as a highly-regarded poet. A. Robert Lee taught in America and Japan, and lives in Spain. Nicholas Murray is a biographer of Kafka and Chatwin, and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. S. D. Wickett is an aficionado of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick, and affianced to digital media.

The poems vary greatly in style. Nicholas Murray’s six short contributions feature everyday vexations, from standing on a train station concourse to being bitten by someone else’s dog (for which he apologises, the most stereotypically ‘English’ moment in the book). He notices small things, and honours the 19th century clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert, who did too – “…the man of God whose fine gift / for seeing things lights the day / As sunshine after sudden rain”. He looks into a painting of a Lancashire landscape, and remembers its departed artist. He is abashed by the force of nature, in the form of a night wind which blew away rooftiles, and “glib proposals”. He then eavesdrops on an imagined conversation between James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis, as verbose Irishman and Vorticist Englishman consider quantity, and the urgent need to stir things up, to dissolve “the solid shell”. 

A Robert Lee’s contribution, ‘From…’, addresses Englishness, coherent but complicated, encapsulated by the “multi-there” and “multi-then” of his own odyssey from 1950s Manchester via London, America, and Japan to 2022’s Spain. “The initial from takes on lengthening distance…” while everything changes and he changes with it, but remains in some ways strangely the same. ‘From…’ is more impressionistic jottings than verse, yet it ably conveys diverse textures and odd connections – between Manchester, Lancashire and Manchester, New Hampshire – between London periods and London postcodes – between the Kents of Chaucer and supermarkets – between the island mentalities of Britain and Japan, and the “inside outsider” status of being a Spanish-speaking Englishman in Spain. In him, national nostalgia seems in permanent tension with what Germans call Fernweh – ‘farsickness’, a wish to see far-off places – and perhaps he needed to get away to understand where he had come from. As Kipling asked, “what should they know of England who only England know”? Lee at least has come “to relish the from and the to: England’s away-day, England’s away-life”.

Adams’ poem ‘Roadside Diner, Shropshire’ is less sanguine, a contrast between the heartbreaking hills of Housman, and the plastic-bottle spotted county Adams and companion view from a bleary café window, downing terrible food while “vital, indifferent” traffic dashes by, heading nowhere purposefully. This England is, he repines, “an absent people, a civilization surrendered”, and sometimes he feels like a “lone journalist remembrancing a defeated land”. Lack of legacy nags and nags at him, as he sees sunning girls arising and going “back to life, leaving nothing of themselves” – fewer traces than even the evanescent, underestimated flowers of May.

Daniel Gustafsson’s ‘Bulbs’ strikes a brighter botanical note, reminding us that even the gnarliest corm in the coldest ground pushes green spears upwards each spring, offering potential for beauty and self-realisation. His work is rhizomed in Yorkshire, a county whose notoriously crumbling Holderness coast offers plentiful metaphors for erosion of substance. “The guards have let us down”, Gustafsson warns, political leaders and opinion-formers mere “architects of entropy”, letting everything slide into the abyss out of sheer carelessness. “We’ve seen our footings fall / to sludge… have seen, through slurred decrees and sleights of hand, / a state of blank forgetfulness / usurp the patterned sand.” Spurn Point at the northern tip of the Humber could be nationally emblematic, a sandy spur soon to be an island, near where the great port of Ravenspur once saw kings land, and monks build monumentally. The East Riding’s erosion is symbolic to him of a country’s “great diminishing”, as a former “common ground” is washed across by shallow sloganeers, who impose their views on others like some postmodern Morality Police.   

Gustafsson’s lyrical wistfulness is given a more combative edge by Benjamin Afer, whose ‘Lines on an English Street’ express feelings of inner exile, the author feeling alienated from his ancestral domain by demographic changes as symbolized by ethnic restaurants – “a surfeit of whiffs”, from an alphabet soup of eateries in High Streets that have somehow become Grand Bazaars. “It’s a solitary walk the Englishman beats / In the swelling crowds of the English streets”, he insists bleakly, notwithstanding possible economic upsides: “The happy ringing of tills and drumming feet / Make a merchant at home on the English street.”

The collection closes on an unexpected crescendo, with four extracts from larger works by Rahul Gupta. The author, who holds a doctorate in alliterative verse, and is undertaking a major translation project from Old Norse, is alive with logophilic intensity, pouring torrents of words onto pages as if upending some wonderfully capacious cornucopia. Familiar words are deployed in unexpected ways, unfamiliar ones summoned from OE word-hoards where they have lain too long asleep, and new ones are smithed – and all are marshalled to striking mythopoeic purpose.

Gupta’s chief area of operations is the post-Roman, pre-English world, when Angles, Celts, Jutes, Saxons and Scandinavians moved across claimable spaces between downfallen towns, where horse-masters could be kings and stones sacred, and ravens battened on bodies at real battles whose locations we have lost, and which we barely now remember even as names. This is ‘Matter of Britain’-territory, Gog Magog-country, the Logres that lies under even the ugliest parts of everyday England, giving the least imaginative modern Englishman some vague sense that he belongs in some continuum. This epic subject – so liable to be conventionalised and sentimentalised – gains vastly in vitality at his hands.

‘A Norse Étude’ is a combat scene condensed from all the hyperboreal epics, from Heimskringla and Orkneyinga to Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, imagining “horny-nebbed” hooded crows descending on men falling under a hail of “Flanged arrows as flinder- / fledges leapt from edges / over shields, bows shrilling, / when shank-deep was dankness / of gore”.  Poems were – and are – also weapons in these wars of all against all, as tribal minstrels interpret and invent legends, weaving words “from that web of swords”, trying to forge the future by capturing the past.

‘The Turn and Fall of Leaf’ could be a title from Tolkien (to whom Gupta has been likened), a lambent disquisition on autumn, its colours and significances, its glories and sadness, as the glowing greenwood goes glorious, then brown and blighted. Winds pick up and shiver the timbers, and their chlorophyll clothes weep to the far-below floor. Secret glades are shockingly made naked, and rides are mounded deep in dry detritus – “pathways choked, by parched masses: / crinkled chamoisy, crunched underfoot / as shuffling drifts. With shift and ruffle / They enswathe the sward”.

Time for ‘The Onset of Winter’, with clouds and winds as “sky-skirmishers, obscure armies / of ill omen”. The Wild Hunt passes, baying and foaming hounds headed by Herne, antler-masked “wood-warlock of the warrior-band”, in elemental pursuit of white harts from heraldry, while berserkers and whippers-in howl and scream and “chew the shieldedge” in frenzy. And then – the chase passes and the thrumming hoofbeats recede into infinity. Nature exhales, and all is suddenly motionless. Overhead, “Hunter and Hound are hovering still” in a sky diamonded with stars and a moon of mother-of-pearl.

At other times, winter deals harsh hail and sleet to punish the patient earth – “gravel-grain that grows no harvest”. Yet other days, snowfall hushes all noise, subdues all striving; a giant Cold Genius walks the whitening land with his finger to his lips, casting crystals of infinite variety indifferently over the quick and the dead, obliterating boundaries, ivorying all the colour-fields. “All wear his harness: / ironhardened earth” and “The ice tightens / Wonderfetters”.

But there is release at last, as even in winter there is the possibility of warmth. In ‘The Midwinter Sun’, the “all-tending orb” suddenly rides high and reaches down with effortless sensuality. He “…drives the spore: he inspires the bud, / as the twig whitens, to untwist her whorl: / he parts her petals; the pollen to smoulder / from flaunting catkins”. Blinking, yawning animals emerge from hibernation, hungry for the starting grass, conscious of urgent impulses that make the male hen harrier seek out multiple mates, send hares careering across champaigns, adders intertwine Gordianally, and unsettle cattle in crew yards. The poet tracks Phoebus lovingly through his golden ascents, then Wheel of Fortune downturns, as the “traitor-barons…eclipse the glory of his lion’s mane”, as so often before. The uncertain sun sinks into the sea, and troubled men set out in tiny boats, “travailing westward /… on benighted tides, / In search of the dawn.” Like all his others, this is a virtuosic performance, a welcome reminder that there is still blood in the tradition.

The contributors to this volume could all be seen like Gupta’s metaphorical sailors, navigators of unknown waters, seeking Sol-ace in a gathering dark, reaching for verse to reverse eclipse. If sometimes their reach falls short, at other times it does not, and always they are honourably-intentioned. This public-spirited Parnassian project can be judged a success if even a few of the many other anxious among the English are inspired to poetry in their turn.

High treasures of the Low Countries

KMSKA: The Finest Museum

The Holy Family by Rubens. KMSKA

Patrick De Rynck (ed.), KMSKA, 2022, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., €45

KMSKA: The Finest Hundred

Patrick De Rynck (ed.),KMSKA,2022, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., €45

Bruegel and Beyond: Netherlandish Drawings in the Royal Library of Belgium, 1500-1800

Daan van Heesch, Sarah Van Ooteghem, Joris Van Grieken (eds.), Hannibal/KBR, 2022, hardback, 392pp, fully illus., €64.50

ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in the Low Countries

When the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, KMSKA) reopened on 24 September 2022, it had been closed for 11 years for a massive renovation that involved every part of the building and grounds. Two of three recent books cover the KMSKA as a museum, and highlights from the museum’s collections; the third covers Flemish and Walloon drawings from the Royal National Library of Belgium, in Brussels.

KMSKA: The Finest Museum is an overview of the renovation, including extensive photographs and plans relating the work done, including photographs of the renovated museum complete with art works. The museum was established in 1810; it expanded over the centuries and moved location from the academy to a purpose-built museum in 1890. It now houses 5,882 works, with prints by and after Rubens amounting to 714 prints.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Photo: Ad Meskens. Wikimedia Commons

Claus en Kaan Architecten initially expected the work on the museum would take place in stages that would allow the museum to stay open. That changed once a thorough inspection was undertaken. The building was in a much worse condition than had been expected, with large amounts of asbestos to be disposed of, and the climate-control system needing to be replaced completely. In order to provide new gallery space under the old building, a nuclear fallout shelter was dismantled. Care was taken to use as much natural light as possible, even on the new lower-floor galleries. The architects recognised the brilliant perfection of the original design, which had fine sightlines and so much natural light that electric lights were not added until 1976. The later addition of divisions for offices, depot and conservation studio complicated the layout and reduced space for art, so were removed.

The façade was repaired, using stone more frost-resistant than originally used. All the time, the new architects consulted the archives. A major alteration to the museum in the renovation was the use of internal courtyard patios for new galleries. These are starkly contemporary, with the old galleries restored to their 1890 state. Pompeiian-red and olive-green walls with gilded stucco detailing in ceilings and cornices. The minimalist settings for Modernist art are very sterile.

Of more concern is the thematic hanging of art. This new trend places pieces of art of ostensibly similar topics and themes beside one another so that they can permit cross-era comparison. This (initially) seems well meaning and stimulating; actually, it displays indirect hostility. The idea of curatorship as the placing of items of similar periods, places and makers in proximity is one where comparison of closely related items build a cohesive depiction of the attitudes, practices and mediums of the time. It is the bedrock of connoisseurship. That is why modern curators hate it. They seek to disrupt expertise by suggesting such a quality is merely the air of fusty museum denizens and narrowly focused specialists. It is allied to the trend of political programming, globalisation and cross-disciplinary studies – those justifications for disrupting networks of established knowledge and values. 

KMSKA Curators here note that the museum cannot display an encyclopaedic story of European art because of the limited range of the collection. This seems insufficient grounds for breaking up a canonical presentation in terms of period, style and geography. In one photograph, a Rubens Holy Family is juxtaposed with a recent painting by Luc Tuymans. The large, richly coloured, emotionally inflected masterpiece next to the tiny painting of a face, drained of emotion, depth and colour, rather points out the futility of the experiment – unless it was done to demonstrate the weakness of today’s art.

I concede I could be wrong about the KMSKA hang but all previous such displays I have encountered have had an air of a curator intrusive buttonholing the visitor to comment ‘Have you noticed?’, in comparisons that are either obtuse or superficial. KMSKA curators seem to have been let off the leash in limited circumstances. Let us hope thematic foolishness – which does a disservice to a specialist and anyone seeking to understand an art work from context – is reversed promptly.

Jean Fouquet: Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, 1450s

To find out what is in the KMSKA permanent collection, one can consult The Finest Hundred, which offers a selection of highlights, starting in the late Gothic period, with Simone Martini, through the Renaissance and the Golden Age of Low Countries art. Masterpieces of this period include an unfinished Jan Van Eyck panel (that somehow evaded a common tendency to finish or tidy up incomplete paintings), Jean Fouquet’s famed Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (c. 1452-8) (that chilly classic, part maternity, part erotica), a Cranach nude and a handsome early Titian. Other South Netherlandish paintings are by Van Eyck (again), Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Quinten Massys. The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1554) by Frans Floris shows Archangel St Michael slaying nightmarish monsters. Naturally, the home city of Rubens houses a fine collection – mainly of large religious works. There are Dutch still-lifes and Flemish religious paintings. Portraits record important figures in Antwerp’s history, including the period under Hapsburg rule.

James Ensor at his easel. Self-portrait, 1890

There is a historical revival painting by Henri de Braekeleer (1840-1888) of a man seated in a seventeenth-century interior, with a fabulously ornate wall hanging behind him, as richly foliated as a forest. The KMSKA’s great collection of 39 paintings and over 600 drawings by the brilliant individualist James Ensor (1860-1949) is represented by six examples, including two of his ground-breaking and influential mask paintings. The museum’s policy of buying good examples of contemporary art from local exhibitions has paid off in the form of a strong collection from the inter-war period of Flemish Expressionism, Fauvism and Post-Cubism. There is a scattering of more foreign art by Ingres, Modigliani, Fontana and others.

The Finest Hundred contains a chapter explaining the renovation project, including some of the same photographs illustrated in the previous book. The book contains full works and some details, with a page of commentary and details for each painting or sculpture. For the average reader wanting to know about KMSKA’s art, The Finest Hundred is the best book; for architects, designers and those in the museum field, The Finest Museum is the best choice.

Bruegel and Beyond: Netherlandish Drawings in the Royal Library of Belgium, 1500-1800 presents 98 drawings by Dutch and Flemish artists born before 1800, now in the collection of the Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels (KBR). (The term ‘Netherlandish’ in art history usually means from the Low Countries, before 1500; after that point, a distinction is usually drawn between Dutch, Flemish, Luxembourgish and Walloon, except when they are referred to as ‘Low Countries’.) Although the catalogue has 98 entries (each with a full-page illustration, facing commentary and data, sometimes with details and comparative figures), it contains many illustrations of related graphics and paintings. Bruegel and Beyond is more of a thorough academic catalogue than The Finest Hundred, with an emphasis on scholarship and detailed description and discussion.

The period opens in 1520, when Bosch was working. One drawing is after (or perhaps even by) Bosch. It is a collection of figure studies of fantastic cripples, beggars and rogues. There are two very detailed ink drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526-1569); one is of a Boschian landscape relating to the sin of lust, another depicts an allegory of the virtue of justice. Some of the early drawings are unattributed; a dearth of comparative material and documentation means that authorship, locations and dates are all provisional. Rubens, Jordaens, Adriaen van Ostade, Hans Bols and other major artists are also represented.

The selection provides a great span of techniques: metalpoint (metal stylus on prepared paper), ink, pencil, line and wash, chalk and watercolour. There are not just pieces of artistic interest; the topographical watercolours of Adrien de Montigny border on the artistically naïve, but are good examples of a type of art we do not see much discussed by art historians; such depictions are more the province of historians. There are drawings for anatomy treatises, decoration for book title pages, book illustrations and mural designs. Overall, the high standard of the scholarship, attention to detail, large reproductions and clear production design make Bruegel and Beyond a very suitable book for any extensive library on Old Master drawings and history of art in the Low Countries.

Art-icles of war

Photo: Ivan Radic. Wikimedia Commons
Artivism – The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism
Alexander Adams, Societas – Imprint Academic, pp 215, £14.95
GUY WALKER welcomes a spirited sortie onto the cultural battlefield

One function of placing fine paintings in ornate gold frames or sculptures on marble plinths is to demonstrate the special status accorded to fine art in human affairs. These objects earn this status by virtue of their ability to furnish us with some of the most sophisticated pleasures in the hierarchy of human pleasure. The treatment of the pulling down of statues from their plinths to serve baser ends (rather than for reasons of historical guilt) is, therefore, a cultural matter. As a result, it is in no way demeaning to say that the latest book by artist and art critic, Alexander Adams, fires an impressive salvo in what have become known as ‘Culture Wars’.

‘Artivism’ is the pressing of art and resources for art into the grubbier service of political protest and campaigning. It is also the displacement of fine art by what is no more than political activism. This is antithetical to the uplifting precepts of Emmanuel Kant, whose ‘Categorical Imperative’ made human beings ends in themselves in his ‘Kingdom of Ends’, never to be used as mere means to ends. The ability to produce representative art is a pleasure-giving end of this kind, one which appeals to deep human needs rather than shallow political outlooks. The greatest artists of the past understood this intuitively, and underwent long technical apprenticeships in order to fulfil this role properly.

Adams’ survey of the phenomenon and origins of artivism is comprehensive in its breadth. Although the book begins with the Athenian Parthenon and references Leonardo and Michelangelo, he finds the real philosophical origins of it in the rational Enlightenment begun by Bacon and Descartes. Their mathematical and “scientific method….encouraged the collection of data”. This led directly to Jeremy Bentham’s anti-Kantian, utilitarian approach which emphasised the best mathematically calculated ‘outcomes’ for the largest number above all things; there are echoes here of the impersonal big data approach and equality by outcome or ‘equity’ that plague modernity. Adams underscores an essentially conservative allegiance later, in his conclusion, by writing “….every institution established ( or substantially reshaped) according to Enlightenment liberalism has fallen to progressive subversion.”

Rather than Kant, Adams uses other big guns to underpin his art-for-art’s sake, pro-formalism, pro-connoisseurship, pro-objectivity and pro-canon thesis – first, Benedetto Croce,
“[Art] has its own object, the Beautiful, that stands independently on equal terms with the other three (Logic, Economics and Morality). […] true poetry must have no utilitarian, moral, or philosophical agenda.”

Equally weighty support comes from George Orwell:
“…many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed – or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer.”

Goya’s images of war might be “if not a cry for passivism, a call for pity and restraint”, but they only survived to be in the canon (if one remains) in the twenty-first century by placing artistic execution above political executions that could have been recorded by a plethora of lesser artists.

The author studies the aetiology of the disease of ‘cultural entryism’ that demotes fine art and promotes activism, that has colonised our public museums. This occurred in stages. First was the movement, demanded by Enlightenment universalist and utilitarian principles, from private, monastery or university-owned art collections to public libraries, galleries and museums: “The modern state encroached on the functions of monarchy, aristocracy and church, so noblesse oblige was replaced by the duty of an enlightened bourgeoisie, industrialists and landed gentry.”

This inevitably led to a symbiotic relationship between corporate business and the state, incarnated in bodies such as the Arts Council of England (ACE) and the American National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the emergence of a variously located ‘managerial elite’ whose progressive, Whiggish ideas involve a desire for “..homogenisation, globalisation, technocracy, atomisation and planned economies…”. To these can be added a desire for increased immigration and anti-capitalism. Once in control this elite effected a “territory grab of resources earmarked for art without any consideration for the wishes of the public…” and it is these resources that are used to commission and fund artivism.

Having explored this historical pathology and its philosophical origins, Adams unpicks economic and psychological strands. The funding of artivism by public bodies and corporations has created an underclass of artistically emasculated ‘artists’ subject to “no aesthetic competency threshold” and reduced to a kind of dependent serfdom. Some are real artists reduced to penury and dependency, others have no talent at all. Adams encourages pity for these latter“…a generation of non-artists (produced by universities) doomed to redundancy, deliberately left unskilled, chockful of abstruse theory and puffed up with self-regard, for whom the art world (and wider society) has no use whatsoever. Where else could these graduates have gravitated to except artivist quasi-social work?”

In the face of this, a return of old-style patronage of artists by wealthy patrons which guaranteed that only the excellent survived and thrived while the untalented withered from the field, might be welcomed, to put this deluded underclass out of the misery of its unrealistic artistic aspirations. It might also remove a “client class” of minorities cynically and exploitatively created by “…corporations wishing to improve their images, pressure groups wishing to make an impact, charities needing to disburse sums periodically and state agencies with annual budgets to be allocated.”

Psychologically, Adams detects a vengeful totalitarian predilection within the ‘managerial elite’ who run the arts show. In a further echo of a modernity where the BBC uses our licence fees to admonish and sermonise us on our lack of virtue, this elite uses tax pounds and dollars extracted from the populace to remind them how despicable they are. This is one of the abounding ironies and paradoxes Adams indicates. He also shows how potentially dangerous activist renegades are tamed by the “ruling class” to the extent that they become establishment “foot soldiers” – and how foreign artivist migration advocates are often in conflict with the wishes of the local populations they visit. The managerial elite use the tactic of making us pay for our own humiliation as a “power play” intended to reinforce and signal the subjugation of the populace, the desire for which may derive from the “Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy)”. It’s that sombre and that pathological for Adams. As in much climate activism, a profound anti-humanism is in play, as well as a depersonalisation where ‘collectives’ refers to persons as ‘bodies’ and ‘voices.’

This is an excellent publication doing fine work in identifying, naming and recording a phenomenon which Adams describes as “a predatory pike released into a carp pool” and “an invasive species”. If I have any quibbles, they are as follows.

He makes it clear in the body of the book that real “artistic merit” and “artistic endeavour” must trump everything in the art world and complains, for example, that “Feminists state that all art must be political because there is no division between art and politics.” Orwell and Croce seem to back this up. However, the beginning of the book is a little confusing on this point. He writes, “Drawing lines between art, artivism and political action is not always possible. This ambiguity (and precedents set up by art of older eras) allows overt political action cloaked as artivism to enter the area we set aside for public arts, allowing artivism to assume the status and resources of art.”

He illustrates this ambiguity with examples of artistic resources being used in the creation of the “political statement” of the Parthenon and the lending of their talents by Leonardo and Michelangelo to the political projects of their patrons. He also cites the socialist content of Millais’ and Courbet’s work. A writer and critic of Adams’ undoubted firepower should be able to make the fine but real distinctions between the passing contemporary content and the brilliant artistic execution that makes it survive amongst a welter of similar material or between artivism – and also between an artist lending his talent in return for remuneration to projects that aren’t his, and prototype artivism. He seems to make exactly this distinction in the rest of the book.

He raises a very interesting idea early on:

There is more than a touch of the religious rite about artivism. The activist- shaman-priestess prescribes the place and time of communion, her assistants prepare the space and provide necessary materials. The tribe gathers to attend the publicly announced rite, respectfully assisting by witnessing and participating as directed.

My regret is that he didn’t pursue this line later in the book. He writes very well, but there is a strange stylistic tic whereby he frequently omits the definite article as in “…but it is worth bearing in mind that progressive artivism of today is complementary to….” This sometimes gives a clunkiness to the prose.

Stuckist demonstration. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

But excellences by far outweigh the quibbles. I could add to the former a welcome practical prescription for resisting artivism in the chapter of that name, under the headings of “1, Ethics, 2. Exclusion, 3. Defunding, 4. Reduction, 5. Education, 6. Enforcement”, and the pages devoted to the true dissidents known as the ‘Stuckists’ after Tracy Emin’s derogatory term. I also enjoyed the pace-changing of the entertaining and colourful insertion of Case Studies between chapters, especially the swingeing take-down of Banksy.

The book ends on a pessimistic note. Adams feels our arts establishment has an “inherent foundational flaw” deriving from its roots in the Enlightenment’s rationalism. He suggests, root and branch: “…maybe it would be better to lose trust in that system.” One senses, perhaps, a longing for the more Darwinian days of the Renaissance.

Kafka: oracle and artist

Franz Kafka, Der Denker

The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, Reiner Stach (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Princeton University Press, 2022, hb, 230pp + XXII, 9 mono illus., £20/$24.95

Franz Kafka: The Drawings

Pavel Schmidt, Andreas Kilcher (ed.), Kurt Beals (trans.), Yale University Press, 2022, hb, 368pp, 240 col. illus., £35/$50
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees different sides to an arch-dystopian

While he was writing The Trial, a novel that remained unfinished and unpublished during the author’s lifetime, Franz Kafka would read aloud chapters to his friends. Closest friend and Kafka’s future biographer Max Brod recalled that as Kafka read, he would be convulsed with laughter. The novel commonly considered the epitome of existential despair and implacable authoritarianism, was viewed by its creator as a black comedy. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is seen as the prophet of the totalitarian modern society operating through a labyrinthine bureaucracy. It is easy to overlook Kafka’s sense of humour, penchant for absurdity and taste for farce. What continues to attract readers is the brilliance of his ideas and the visionary quality of images. Kafka’s fondness for the paradox and ironical gives even his bleakest work a touch of levity.

Two new books present Kafka at his most playful and wry – also at his most oracular and obscure. The Drawings reproduces all surviving drawings by the author. The Aphorisms publishes Kafka’s most impenetrable and oracular pronouncements.  

Kafka’s drawings have been one of the great unknowns of his output. Although a few (showing stylised, simplified single figures) had been reproduced in Brod’s biography and on the cover of a few editions of the 1950s, exactly how extensive and how various his drawings were was unclear. Not least, the obscurity came from the fact Kafka destroyed almost all his own drawings and only a few survived in letters and scraps that Brod preserved from the time they were law students together in Prague. Brod was enthusiastic about the drawings and attempted to interest publishers in hiring his friend as an illustrator, to no avail. After Kafka’s death, Brod published a few drawings then went cold on a proposed exhibition and substantial catalogue. The drawings disappeared into obscurity. Brod had given them to his partner-secretary, Esther Hoffe. After Brod’s death in 1968, the Kafka manuscripts and drawings were shuffled between a Zurich bank vault and Hoffe’s Tel Aviv apartment.

Publishers and scholars were antagonised by Hoffe’s unwillingness to make the manuscripts accessible. (In 1983, she would not let a publisher into her apartment, saying that it would cost him the equivalent of $150,000 even to see the drawings. The publisher demurred and departed. No book was published.) When her daughters continued the obstruction after her death, the Israeli state took legal action to claim possession of Kafka’s manuscripts. The state argued that the sheets were being kept in humid and dirty conditions and in danger of deteriorating; there was the threat of the works disappearing into hands of private collectors. In 2019 the state won, the Hoffe sisters lost possession of the manuscripts, and the National Library of Israel acquired relics of a Jewish titan of culture.

With the newly available originals accessible, plus all the other few Kafka drawings in other collections photographed, The Drawings presents all of Kafka’s surviving drawings. Essays cover aspects of Kafka’s drawing and the history of the manuscripts; a catalogue raisonné documents 163 pages of drawings.

Kafka took art classes, attended lectures on art history and visited museums. He personally knew some artists. Long after his university course on art history, he remained interested in differing art styles, including Renaissance art, Expressionism and Japanese colour wood-block prints. Kafka claimed that art education had ruined his ability to draw and that whatever he had done in terms of drawing had been achieved despite that constraint. Most of Kafka’s drawings are caricatures and fantasy cartoon figures, in exaggerated clothing and adopting parodic positions. On the evidence of comparative illustrations in The Drawings, it seems Kafka was an admirer of cartoons published in the German and Bohemian presses.

Around 1901, when Kafka was 18, he began a small sketchbook. He filled it with drawings, mainly of figures. As many of the personages are walking and seen in profile, they invite the comparison with a parade (or promenade) of eccentrics. There are curving jockeys riding improbable horses, angular men slumped at desks, striding gentlemen with walking sticks. Strong ink lines and solid black bodies are influenced by line-block illustrations, common to journals and books of that era. Kafka seems not have specific plans or projects in mind for his drawings; the figures are drawn at random on the pages, in every orientation, out of order and without accompanying writing.

There are similar ink figures in his letters, also reproduced. Figures appear in diary pages, often relating to the subjects of the day’s entry. On separate sheets of writing paper, portraits (including self-portraits) were drawn in pencil from life and photographs. These reveal Kafka’s art training. They are lightly worked fragments, with no settings indicated, but have realistic shading and the proportions are faithful to life, except where deliberately exaggerated. In artistic terms, they are slight and unfinished but the best of them have a magnetic pull to them – not least a self-portrait with haunted eyes. He did little drawing after 1908, with the majority of surviving drawings dating from his youth.

Kafka, Self-Portrait. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

Did Kafka take his drawings seriously? Fairly so, on this evidence. Although he was self-effacing and reluctant to publish or exhibit them, Kafka took care over making them. He developed forceful images that were crisp and striking. Overall, in The Drawings we find Kafka at his most playful and relaxed; the best of the drawings are really fine and we might wish that more drawings of this type had been saved from Kafka’s wastepaper basket by Brod. Kafka might have been amused at a scholarly cataloguing of his drawings, doodles and elaborate crossings-out.

The Aphorisms collects 108 statements by Kafka, written over the winter of 1917-8, which he copied out into two small exercise books. At the time he was staying with his sister Ottilie in a village called Zürau. On sick leave from his office job, he was attempting to stem the progress of pulmonary tuberculosis by escaping the smoke of Prague, eating well and doing some farm work for exercise.

Part religious parables, part philosophical propositions, part distilled observations, entirely literature, the aphorisms still baffle even the most serious readers of Kafka. “From a certain point on, there is no turning back. This is the point that needs to be reached.” “Like a path in autumn: no sooner has it been swept clean than it is once more covered with dry leaves.” The most famous is, “A cage went in search of a bird.” These are the shortest, but none run longer than half a page. The final sentence of the collection is unusually pungent and vivid. “The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

The aphorisms are gnomic and elusive. The reader gets the impression that he is being told something true and important, but also something unclear, even deliberately obscured. Although these sayings have been published before (sometimes incorporated into collections of short stories), they are the probably the least read of his works. As the editor notes,

In comparison with Kafka’s other writings, his aphorisms have been overlooked by researchers and even more by his general readership. The aphorisms, like everything Kafka wrote, require interpretation, but in contrast to his fictional prose, for example The Trial, they do not reward the reader with the sensory and aesthetic pleasure of a story.

This new edition supplies commentary written by Reiner Stach (author of an excellent recent biography), with English translation by Shelley Frisch, who did a fine job on Stach’s biography. There has been no shortage of complicated interpretations of the aphorisms; wisely, Stach avoids committing himself. Commentaries include Kafka’s original draft, so we can note the revisions and follow the author’s thinking a little. Rather than offer explanations, Stach’s commentaries relate the aphorisms to comparable phrases or ideas from writings by Kafka and mention what he was known to have read at the time.

The aphorisms are as tricky to decipher as anything Kafka wrote. If you fancy giving yourself food for thought, then The Aphorisms are ideal. If you prefer something playful, then The Drawings is for you. Both publications serve to broaden our knowledge of one the greatest authors of European literature. What would expand that knowledge even more would be a first translation of the new German editions of Kafka’s letters, including texts inaccessible to non-German readers. When will Princeton University Press commission Shelley Frisch to translate Kafka’s letters into English?

The epistolary Eliot

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 8: 1936-1938

T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2019, 1,100pp + li, illus., £50

The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 9: 1939-1941

T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2021, 1,072pp + lxix, illus., £60

ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in a great litterateur’s letters

In the ongoing Faber & Faber publication of T.S. Eliot’s letters, the project has reached the late 1930s and the wartime years. These were years in which Eliot was involved in writing Four Quartets (1936-42), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Family Reunion (1939); this was in addition to his work as a director of Faber & Faber. Devotion played an important part in Eliot’s life, never less than in the dark years when his wife was confined to an asylum. The confinement was something for which Vivienne’s family were responsible and with which Eliot acquiesced, and that weighed on Eliot’s conscience. The punishing routine of work between early-morning prayer and late-night fire-watching during the Blitz seem at least in part a form of penance. Eliot’s engagement with the place of Christianity in a secular society is frequently the prompt for letters and solicitations for book reviews.  

These letters cover Eliot’s private life, professional correspondence and publishing business. We get his letters to James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read and John Betjeman. Most are cordial and unrevealing. His long-standing correspondent Ezra Pound is ever present, mainly writing about publication matters. Eliot approves of a critical review of a collection of Pound essays, anticipating Pound’s reaction: ‘a furious letter, which I shall have to suppress in his own interest.’[i] In these volumes, Eliot seems wearied by Pound’s relentless passion, quixotic changes and prickliness.

A more regular correspondent was John Hayward, the brilliant and difficult English-literature scholar and editor, who would play a significant part in Eliot’s life. Hayward would become a housemate of Eliot’s in the 1940s and 1950s, an arrangement that lasted until Eliot’s second marriage. Hayward was assiduous in collecting letters, books and other Eliot material, which he later bequeathed to King’s College, Cambridge. In that case, Eliot was aware that his playful badinage was being preserved and would be read by others. Hayward consulted Eliot about bibliographical rarities and letters that appeared in booksellers’ catalogues.

Among numerous letters tactfully declining volumes of poetry by obscure writers and evading explaining ‘The Waste Land’, there are some more weighty letters. He declines publishing Céline’s anti-Semitic Bagatelles, while appreciating the inventiveness of the prose. An internal memorandum from Eliot to fellow Faber director Geoffrey Faber puts the case for publishing Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

Lesbianism merely happens to be the variety of the dis-ease that Barnes knows the best, so it is through that form that she has to get at something universal (she has obviously a great deal of the male in her composition). […] And as for her style, it has what is for me the authentic evidence of power, in that I find myself having to struggle, directly after reading, not to ape it myself: and very few writers exercise that pull.[ii]

There are numerous letters displaying Eliot’s tireless support for poet George Barker. ‘[…] I believe in your genius, so far as one is ever justified in believing in genius except in retrospect, and I believe that it is genius if anything and not talent.’[iii]

There are flashes of wit and acerbic commentary. ‘[…] what horrifies me is that your young people should actually be set to study contemporary verse in qualification for the degree of B.A. They ought to be reading Aristophanes.’[iv] He includes general rules for poets. ‘Nobody ought to attempt free rhythms until he has served an apprenticeship in strict ones.’[v] Eliot states that poets must continually develop. Unlike a novelist, who can produce books that conform to a successful formula, a poet ought not to publish books too similar to previous ones, lest he bore his readership. His pragmatic business side took over when he recommended winding up the quarterly journal The Criterion, which he had edited for sixteen years. Facing a drop in subscriptions and the storm clouds of war, the journal was closed in 1939.

We get a few insights into Eliot’s verse writing during a period when he was moving to verse plays. He posted sections of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to the children of the family he stayed with in the countryside. Eliot never had children, and these children – and the children of his fellow director Geoffrey Faber – became his surrogate offspring. Enclosed is a pre-publication report from one reader of the manuscript of Practical Cats, damning it as ‘Personally, I find them pretentious, and cannot recommend publication.’[vi] There are mentions of visits to Little Gidding, East Coker and Burnt Norton, but these are arrangements rather than reflections. Even if he enclosed verses and composed nonsense verse to amuse recipients, Eliot was not given to poetic flights in his letters.

By and large, politics and current events go undiscussed in Volume 8. The abdication is mentioned but the events in central Europe cause barely a ripple in the volume. During the war, Eliot lived a peripatetic lifestyle, staying with Geoffrey and Enid Faber and others. He often travelled by train and bus, laden down by manuscripts and reference books, as he worked on the last of the Four Quartets. He joined the A.R.P. as a fire warden, seeing relatively little action in his allotted sector. We encounter little description of the impact of the Blitz, outside of the ways in which it disconcerted people and disrupted daily life.

The introduction of Volume 9 approaches discussion of the poet’s anti-Semitism. While it is true that Eliot published poems with disagreeable portrayals of Jewish characters and wrote in 1934 ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’, Eliot was solicitous of the safety of Jews he knew personally. The volumes contain many letters of recommendation supporting the candidacies of Jews (including refugees) for employment positions. He also was unable to allow Pound’s anti-Semitic screeds being included in Faber’s editions of the Cantos. Eliot preferred for Pound to rewrite the parts but Pound made a point of leaving the censorship apparent. The intensity of Jewish condemnation of Eliot seems to be due to the potency and prominence of his negative depictions of Jews. Eliot’s dislike of Jewish material success and cultural influence seemed a strong instinctive aversion rather than malevolence.   

We get a few retrospective glimpses of the poet in earlier years. Eliot wrote to his brother Henry of his early life in London:

I was of course too much engrossed in the horrors of my private life to notice much outside; and I was suffering from (1) a feeling of guilt in having married a woman I detested, and consequently a feeling that I must put up with anything (2) perpetually being told, in the most plausible way, that I was a clodhopper and a dunce. Gradually, through making friends, I came to find that English people of the sort that I found congenial were prepared to take me quite as an ordinary human being, and that I had merely married into a rather common suburban family with a streak of abnormality which in the case of my wife had reached the point of liking to give people pain.[viii]

He goes on to comment that the only blasphemous poem that he ever wrote was ‘The Hollow Men’. ‘[…] this is blasphemy because it is despair, it stands for the lowest point I ever reached in my sordid domestic affairs.’[ix]

The shadow of Vivienne’s instability looms large in Volume 8. Eliot apologises to Henry for her sending a Christmas card from her and her husband. He notes that (even though long separated) she has put his residence as hers, in the telephone directory.[x] Her letters are included here. She wrote to the Faber office about her husband’s health and offered herself as an illustrator for one of his poems. Her communications are odd and inappropriate, mainly. Sometimes there are glimpses of darker thoughts, such as when she announces to a Faber employee that she is being followed. 

Printed in full is a letter from Vivienne’s brother, dated 14 July 1938.

V. had apparently been wandering about for two nights, afraid to go anywhere. She is full of the most fantastic suspicions & ideas. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded. She says she has been in hiding from various mysterious people, & so on. It would be deplorable if she were again to be found wandering in the early hours & taken into custody.[xi]

As a result of a pattern of alarming behaviour, Vivienne was committed to a secure residential home, Northumberland House. Eliot did his best to punctiliously sort out her financial and legal affairs, as discretely as possible. Even though he did not visit her – such an encounter would have been too distressing and destabilising – Vivienne was never too far from Eliot’s conscience.

This review is written in the shadow of the impending publication of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale (on 1 June 2023, by Faber & Faber), which seems set to be a publishing sensation. That collection of 1,131 letters was deposited by Hale at Princeton University and was only unsealed on 2 January 2020. That book promises to show the most intimate side of Eliot, that which was so carefully hidden by the poet. It was during the late 1930s, while Eliot was living in London and Hale was teaching in Massachusetts, that they corresponded most often. In a rather defensive statement of 1960, Eliot wrote of the difficulty of marriage for him as a poet. After explaining that his marriage to the unstable Vivienne would inevitably seem inexplicable, he conceded that the tensions of an unhappy marriage provided inspiration for poetry.

Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Viviennene nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Viviennene seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.

He went on the state that Hale did not understand or love his poetry, even though it seems they discussed his poetry at length and that ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936) of Four Quartets was written as a coded love poem to her. It should be noted that when Eliot wrote this statement he was defending his decision to marry his second wife, Valerie, and aiming to downplay his commitment to Hale and hers to him. Hale does appear indirectly in the letters in Volume 8. She visited Eliot in England and there are comments from him about her arrival, departure and activities during her time with him. In his statement of 1960, Eliot affirmed that he had never had sexual relations with Hale.

The publication of this separate volume will be significant in its revelations about the life and ideas of a great poet, showing him at his most unguarded. The ethics of publishing such letters is redundant. As the letters were deposited at Princeton University and due to be the subject of study, it is the correct decision to publish them in full, annotated, rather than allowing salacious snippets from circulating out of context.

The preceding review does not do full justice to the pleasure of having to hand such first-hand testimony of such a major figure. Being presented with such a huge body of letters – not even all of them, apparently – is a sort of treasure store, one unavailable for most cultural figures. One is impressed at Eliot’s indefatigable diligence; writing to colleagues and strangers, editing, reading, publishing, serving his church, not to mention finding time for his own writing, Eliot’s work rate is formidable.

We get an understanding of Eliot the man – driven by a moral core of Christianity, passionate about culture (especially literature), a loving godfather, cautious in his romantic attachments. Being such a prominent figure – author, publisher, cultural commentator, public intellectual – Eliot knew that his most private and informal communications would be bought, sold and scrutinised. Although Eliot bore the burden relatively lightly, there remains the suspicion that Eliot was curbing his most cutting comments for the sake of his posthumous legacy.   

The editing is exemplary. I spotted only one error (in footnote numbering, on p. 626) in over 2,000 pages. There are notes on recipients, context provided and often extensive quotes. These quotes are of letters that Eliot was replying to or extracts of books and journals. The editors have dug through archives of journals and newspapers and long-forgotten books. Letter text not in English is translated and many passing references tracked down. The only failing is omitting to indicate the place of writing. That sort of information seems more pertinent than the location of the letter manuscript. Unfortunately, this seems Faber policy regarding letter publication, so there seems no hope of the publisher revising its practice. Great care has been taken in the printing and binding. This series provides an unparalleled view of multiple aspects of the greatest poet in the English language of the Modernist era and gives us a glimpse of history as it was being made.


[i] Vol. 8, p. 585

[ii] Vol. 8, pp. 151-2

[iii] Vol. 8, p. 665

[iv] Vol. 8, p. 83

[v] Vol. 8, p. 676

[vi] Vol. 8, p. 871

[vii] Vol. 9, pp. 517-8

[viii] Vol. 8, P. 10

[ix] Vol. 8, P. 11

[x] Vol. 8, P. 52

[xi] Vol. 8, p. 91

Images of Bacon

Francis Bacon, by Reginald Gray. Wikimedia Commons

After/Après Francis Bacon

Alexander Adams, Bristol: Golconda Fine Art Books, 2022, 60 pages, £10. English and French (French translation by Peggy Pancini)

LIAM GUILAR follows an influential artist’s flamboyant trajectory through verse

Some years ago, the Canadian critic, Hugh Kenner, in conversation with Charles Tomlinson, lamented the disappearance of the ‘documentary tradition’ in poetry. He was referring to poetry where the verse functions primarily as a carrier of information. He was not making the false distinction between form and content, but describing a type of poetry that could be read for information the way one would read a newspaper, text book or biography. In Kenner’s view, such poetry had all but disappeared by the mid-nineteenth century, to be replaced by the egocentric poetry of the Romantics, and the poetry emptied of significant content written by those who followed. Alexander Adams’ new book, his seventh, After/Après Francis Bacon, proves the book length documentary poem is still being produced, despite its unfashionable nature.

Adams, an artist as well as a poet, takes as his subject the life of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).  The poems follow the trajectory of Bacon’s life, from his early years in Ireland, via his time in Paris and London, to his death in Madrid. There is a facing page French translation by Peggy Pancini.

The book’s twenty-one numbered but untitled sections read like stills from a documentary film. The sequence begins in Ireland, appropriately with colours:

Surrounded by duns, olives, sages,

grey browns of trampled paddocks

the alcohol blue flame of asphyxia

burns with all the vignetting of unconscious

darkening and diffusing the periphery. (p.4)

Moving to London in the blitz:

Down from the ruin [Sic] ramparts

men grey with dust pass bundles

and expressionlessly scrape up

former people with their shovels. (p.14)

To Tangiers:

Sweet mint tea on the terrace,

hashish smoke wafts over.

Sea is flat as a strip of paper.

Endless warmth, dry air.

Paint dries fast but ideas come slow. (p. 34)

The writing evokes place and time, and like any biography contains snippets of social history: Paris after the Occupation; London rebuilding after the war, later a lost world of dilly boys, when homosexuality was still illegal, and where, in the saloon bar of The Grapes, ‘where men commune’:

The only woman is Marie,

behind the counter, beehive hairdo,

artificial nails, counting shillings,

menthol cigarette at the

corner of painted lips. (pp. 47/48)

The artist’s development is sketched into this trajectory. From his first excitement at seeing Picasso in Paris, which ‘broke you out of Edwardian airs/-dainty portraits, potted ferns-/and shaped you modern’ to an early exhibition where the punters, faced with ‘ostrich bodied, Buchenwald cadavers’, walked out in disgust ‘glad to be out of/their unwholesome presence’. To fame, drink, drugs, and finally death in Madrid.

The danger inherent in a poetry where information is the focus is that the writing can read like notes for a story that hasn’t been written. Details accumulate, but without context or effect and the possibilities of rhythm and sound are sacrificed. Section ten begins:

Men bending, lifting a heavy weight

Paralytic child crawling

Mastiff walking slow

Woman throwing a stick, three quarter view (p.28)

and continues like for this for the rest of the section’s mostly unpunctuated seventeen lines. It could be an exhibition catalogue, a summary of works produced, or it could be a young artist noticing the world around him, or all three. As information it is confusing; as poetry it’s flat.

Adams usually avoids this trap. His clipped declarative style keeps the story moving and creates deft images. The blank canvas is

-a mute mirror to perfect order

refuting the composite imagery

that grows so richly elsewhere.

At night,  the canvas stands unchanging

like a locked door without a handle. (p.48)

The overall experience of reading After/Après Francis Bacon, is very similar to walking through a gallery hung with large pictures. Moving through them in their numbered sequence suggests they are related. However, the connections between the pictures are left unstated, and at times continuity and coherence are suggested solely by the fact that one picture follows the next.

It’s obvious that the Model Reader of this book knows as much about Francis Bacon as Adams does, and for that reader little will be obscure. Leaving aside the question whether the poems offer such a reader any new insight on Bacon’s life, what about the reader who knows nothing about Francis Bacon the artist?

It’s possible to enjoy the poems as poems. Adams provides enough information to suggest a biography. Relationships are hinted at. Names occur: Eric, Peter, George. However, there are sections where a lack of background knowledge makes the writing obscure.

Next day, the apartment was wrecked,

plaster gouged by chair leg at head height,

wine bottle dashed upon the tiles,

a canvas is rent open in a frayed V

lying on its side, cockeyed. (p.36)

Are we witnesses to a raucous drunken night or domestic abuse?

In passages like these, Adams makes no attempt to cater to the visitor to his exhibition who has strolled in out of curiosity. In section XV, if you don’t know who George was, then the seventeen lines listing some of George’s actions are just a list and the writing doesn’t make the list interesting.

George climbing a set of steps.

George cycling, double exposure

George seated on a stool

George seated on a chair, legs crossed (p.38)

However, even if, like me, a reader knew nothing about Francis Bacon before reading After/Après Francis Bacon, there is enough of his life in the poem and enough life in the poems to sustain and reward the reader’s attention. The writing, which is mostly vividly impressionistic, is guaranteed to make you want to know more about Bacon and his art.

Modernism seen now

RICHARD GERSTL (1883–1908), Self-Portrait in front of a Stove, 1907. Oil on canvas on board. Neue Galerie New York

Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940

Renée Price (ed.), Prestel/Neue Galerie, 2021, 656pp, $75/£55

ALEXANDER ADAMS is transported to a thrilling time of artistic experimentation

The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection. One by Olaf Peters discusses Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (1892), which became (posthumously) his most influential book. We should not see those opposed to degeneracy solely as representatives of traditionalism. Many critics of decadence were liberals, who took a progressive view of society. As a social Darwinist, Nordau saw degeneracy as an aspect of evolution, which would lead to the atrophying and extinction of those urban populations which succumbed to its lure, driven by circumstance and genetics towards behaviour that would not sustain reproduction of healthy individuals. He cited art as a symptom of the degeneration of culture and genetic stock.

Nordau imagined a dramatic result as the consequence of this evolutionary process for art. In his view, art would cease to exist, since those who support it would have to make room for an increasingly rational humanity for whom art would no longer be a relevant form of expression. For Nordau, art would become an atavism, and only women and children – the more intensely emotional members of the population – would still pursue it. He favoured science over art, which he judged to be an irrational symptom of psychological illness. It had to yield to the advancing process of rationalisation.[i]

Another essay by Peters discusses the splintering of arts organisations in Germany and Austria in the Jugendstil/Secession period, as artists sought to gain more control over the selection, exhibition, publication and sale of their art works. A proliferation of artists groups ran alongside the desire to distance the avant-garde from state- and royalty-sanctioned bodies, academies and established professional organisations. Opposing approaches to ornamentation within Modernism are exemplified by architect Adolf Loos (anti-ornamentation) and Gustav Klimt (pro-ornamentation). This shows that there were very different aesthetic criteria supported by members of the avant-garde, just as we find contrary strands within reactionary and traditionalist camps. The influence of collector Karl Ernst Osthaus is appraised (his collection of Expressionist art is housed at a dedicated museum in Hagen, Westphalia).

The various displays and fairs including applied art, decorative art and diorama/installations accelerated the acceptance of Modernism into daily life, as well as high culture. The influence of the Arts & Crafts movement paved the way for patrons and creators. Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1903 and flourished as a company that produced high-quality, expensive furnishings, clothing and housewares until 1914. The advent of war severely impaired WW’s output. Limited by material and manpower shortages, and the unwillingness of the affluent to invest in luxuries during a period of upheaval, business slowed dramatically. It was revived in the inter-war period but never regained its pre-eminence, closing in 1932. WW is remembered now often in terms of the contribution of female creators and for the influence of female customers, who generally made decisions regarding the decoration of family homes. Interestingly, no less than Adolf Loos gave a lecture called “Das Wiener Weh: Die Wiener Werkstätte” (“The Viennese Woe: Wiener Werkstätte”) in 1927, condemning the decline of WW. The turn to super-luxury goods was attributed to the women who dominated the management and product design of WW in the post-1914 era.

JOSEPH URBAN (1872-1933). Mantelpiece clock for Paul Hopfner Restaurant, 1906. Private collection

The excellent collection of WW in the museum’s collection – surely the best collection outside Vienna – includes works by leading lights of the company. The extensiveness of the Vienna design scene is amply represented by a series of striking designs of silverware, glassware, furniture, clocks, jewellery and ceramics by Dagobert Peche, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, (Belgian) Henry van de Velde and others. The designs range from the refreshingly simple and starkly unornamented to the ostentatiously impractical. Hoffmann’s cutlery services go beyond function into objets d’art. Geometrical patterns, plain checks, straight lines and elongated or square proportions are constants. Lines that echo Art Nouveau are found mainly in early, pre-war pieces. There is a silver coffer given by Klimt to the young Alma Schindler (later Mahler), when he was courting the young beauty in 1902. Another gift from Klimt is a necklace given to Emilie Flöge the following year. Both were made by Moser. Vintage photographs of other pieces in the collection show the furniture in trade shows or the homes of the original owners.  

One photograph shows the star of the museum’s collection, Klimt’s gilded Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The painting was displayed at an exhibition of art and crafts in Mannheim in 1907, and appears to show the painting before the artist made minor modifications to it. The painting is once again displayed flanked by stone statues of kneeling youths made by George Minne, as it was in that Mannheim display. (There is a useful essay on Minne and the Germanic sculptors as precursors to the individualism of Schiele and Kokoschka’s art.) The Neue Galerie has a fine collection of Klimt drawings from all periods of the artist’s output. The square landscapes of Klimt are revolutionary. Not only is the square format (developed by Klimt in the 1890s) anti-traditional, Klimt’s flatness and decorative treatment of foliage was a radical departure from convention. Park at Kammer Castle (1909) is a typical late landscape, disorienting through the presentation of dappled surfaces that only minimally model trees, grass and water; sky is reduced to a few patches at the edges of the picture.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918), Park at Kammer Castle, 1909. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder
and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder

The rise of Expressionism is understandable as a reaction against the emphasis on style over substance present in the Secession. The preoccupation with distinctive visual branding – something that reached a high pitch with the opening of WW – and the targeting of the super-affluent by artists (who supposedly disdained the status-conscious administrators and participants of established salons and academies) became anathema to ambitious young artists. The prevarication of the Secession between serving the wealthy and wanting to change the lives of everyday people left little space for the emergence of the exceptional individual – the much-discussed Übermensch of Nietzsche – and the man of heroic will. What was the role of the genius under Secession? Neither designing clothing for rich heiresses nor chairs for factory refectories seemed the calling of the true artist. The development of Art Nouveau in Germany and Austria was just one manifestation with a relentless drive towards Modernist ways of living.

This development was flanked by the Lebensreform (life reform) movement, which along with the housing colony and garden city movement, the land reform movement, vegetarianism, the naturopathy movement, and the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) or nudist movement, was aimed less at the sphere of aesthetics than at everyday lifestyle. Taken together, they formulated a fundamental critique of the scarcely controllable consequences of the rapid industrialization of the German Empire in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.[ii]

In the face of the deracinating effect of modern urban life – identified by nascent social science and criminology – and the increasing artificiality and superficiality of Secession, young artists who formed the Expressionists sought authenticity and rawness. They were inspired by Edvard Munch, whose 1892 exhibition in Berlin was closed as an affront to the professionalism of the artists’ organisation that staged the exhibition. The artists association Brücke (“bridge”) was founded on 7 June 1905 in Dresden, comprising Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It later included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. The artists (some of them architecture students) were committed to make an art free of pretension and artifice. Their idols included Munch, Gauguin, Dostoevsky, Freud, Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and Nietzsche. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that exponents of Expressionism later found points of commonality with National Socialism. The admiration was reciprocated by some senior Nazis. However, it was the supporters of traditionalism among the Nazis who won out, consigning Expressionism to the category of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) when it came to the selection of official art styles after 1933.  

Brücke was dissolved in Berlin in 1913. Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) functioned as a Munich-based avant-garde group from 1911 to 1914. The Great War shattered the utopian aspirations of these artists; in some cases, the artists were killed in combat. We find in the Neue Galerie collection the proto-abstraction of Franz Marc and the cross-over art of Vasily Kandinsky of the 1910-3, which blends symbolism and abstraction. Blaue Reiter is discussed in the light of theosophy and spiritualism, which would become a lesser-considered strand of art teaching in the Bauhaus, particularly under Johannes Itten. An essay assesses the responses of artists to the Great War. These varied greatly, ranging from absolute pacifism to militaristic chauvinism. The post-war art of George Grosz and Otto Dix blends fierce satire with a seeming appetite for degradation; the impact of their work comes from that combination, which betrays a crucial ambiguity. As more perceptive critics of the time noted, an artist could not lavish so much care and time on art that was wholly condemnatory.      

EGON SCHIELE (1890–1918), Stein on the Danube, Seen from the South (Large), 1913. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder. Photo: Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

Austrian Expressionism – in its best in Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl, all of whom are represented by good examples – are marked by their engagement with the psychology of the subject rather than meditations on urban life or the condition of primitive man. There are few extant paintings by Gerstl, because Gerstl destroyed most of his paintings and drawings before committing suicide. The Neue Galerie owns four canvases by Gerstl, two of which (a self-portrait and a portrait of a seated man) are very fine pieces. We should mourn the loss of an artist, at the age of 25, capable of such work. The multiple nails in the coffin of German Expressionism were the advent of Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit and the scientific abstraction of the Bauhaus. Dada and photo-montage is represented in less depth than other movements in the collection.

It is instructive to compare WW designs with those of the Bauhaus, founded in Germany in 1919. Bauhaus extended the line of stark Modernism but without the influence of Art Nouveau, substituting the influence of strong unmodulated colour forms found in De Stijl abstract art. Bauhaus sacrificed functionality for style sometimes. The seats are often cruelly uncompromising for the human anatomy. Although the director Walter Gropius sought to fuse architecture, fine art and applied art – including clothing – in a manner that would be harmonious and pleasing, the Bauhaus never managed to balance its stated aims. The subsequent director, Hannes Meyer, deliberately steered the Bauhaus towards a more overtly socialist end, citing “the needs of the people rather than the requirements of luxury”. Meyer later moved to the USSR to teach, putting his socialist views into practice. 

There are chapters covering Expressionist cinema, photo-montage, Klee teaching at the Bauhaus, the decline of artistic freedom in Germany and persecution of artists under the Nazis. This last includes the story of Felix Nussbaum, which is becoming better known over recent decades. Nussbaum was an artist of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who was imprisoned in France as an enemy alien in 1939. He later left the camp and went into hiding in Brussels, but he was ultimately captured by the occupying Germans and sent to a death camp. His wartime art portrays the artist in the French camp and gives an idea of what Jewish artists might have painted in the concentration camps, had they had access to materials.  

The collection is wonderful but incomplete. Without the work of some traditionalist, National Socialist and Communist artists, we get an uneven view of art of Germany and Austria from 1890 to 1940, even of Modernism. Art of National Socialism and (pre-war) Communism were reactions against Jugendstil and Weimar-era Modernism. The Neue Galerie is a private collection and therefore subject only to the taste of the owner, who determines what is part of his conception of this history, but the story of Germanic Modernism cannot be properly understood without the inclusion of art that has hitherto been dismissed, seemingly without due aesthetic and historical consideration.     

Preconceptions surface in the catalogue essays, mainly to do with the politics of today being applied to a period now a century past. The translation of völkisch as “racist-populist” is not accurate; it means “of the people or kinfolk”. Affinity for the company or culture of one’s own race does not necessarily imply sentiments of racial superiority, contrary to the translator’s assertion. Berating of individuals for sexism (as found in the essays by Janis Staggs) is unhelpful. The history of the operation and circumstances of WW and Bauhaus do have a sex dimension, but Staggs is not the author to apply a dispassionate eye. 

Modern Worlds is an excellent, serious and lavishly illustrated survey of Modernism in Germany and Austria, forming an ideal counterbalance to art histories that prioritise the French lineage of the Impressionism-Pointillism-Fauvism-Cubism line. This book is a fitting tribute to the vision and commitment of Ronald S. Lauder (and Serge Sabarsky) and provides a fascinating slice of cultural history.  


[i] Olaf Peters, “Degeneration and Empire”, p. 33

[ii] Olaf Peters, “Brücke”, p. 235

John Wyndham, genius and prophet

The Wyndham Collection

John Wyndham, three vols. (Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids), Folio Society, 2022, 704 pps, £125

ALEXANDER ADAMS finds 1950s classics have troublingly modern messages

The publication of a clothbound boxset containing the classic novels Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1903-1969) by the Folio Society, prompts the question, ‘How much is Wyndham a man of his time?’ In this review, we will look at the novels, these illustrated editions and how much 1950s England influenced these stories.

Wyndham had a difficult childhood. His parents were involved in a high-profile divorce case, at a time when divorces were rare, and must have been aware of the consequent press coverage. The family moved around the country, and the young Wyndham attended a number of schools, including the famously progressive Bedales School. He had a number of different professions before deciding to pursue fiction writing. While he had some success as a writer of science fiction and pastiching American detective stories during the inter-war era, he did not seem to have found his metier. Although he did not know it at the time, his background and writing had set him up for spectacular success in the post-war period.

It was the catalyst of the war which seemed to bring Wyndham new introspection and a wider view of human nature. He was attached to a corps which saw heavy fighting in the advances through western Germany. Seeing the effects of wartime barbarity first hand – and the related crimes, atrocities, despair and vengeance – gave his vivid thoughts immediacy. Seeing exceptional events occurring in ordinary towns and houses, and the tide of history demolishing the certainties that complacent lives generate, meant the clichés of science fiction and crime noire (however clever) no longer seemed adequate.

The result of this transformed – or perhaps condensed – outlook led to Day of the Triffids (1951), the first book in this set. It is set in an alternative 1951, where a bio-engineered plant has become cultivated across the world for its rich oil. This ‘triffid’ plant can eat meat, stings animals, and can walk. Possessing a rudimentary form of intelligence, this plant is kept under control by docking the stings in ornamental individual plants or by penning undocked crop plants. In this alternative timeline, weaponised satellites orbit the Earth. A shower of meteors arrives, or an accident triggers weapons satellites; whichever it is, the result is that lights in the night sky blind almost the entire human population. Survivors have to struggle against gang warfare, disease, starvation and the threat of the triffids, which come to dominate the land.

In Triffids, Wyndham’s interests and skills form a glorious combination in his most successful and popular book. His progressive schooling and multiple careers gave him insight into the problems of farming and food supply; his wartime experiences sharpened his imagery of social breakdown and casual brutality. Wyndham’s sci-fi-writing origins allowed him to think through the plot; his experience of writing detective thrillers gave his prose a clipped asperity and punchy impact. He wrote strong characters and a compelling plot, yet Triffids is actually more of a novel-of-ideas than it seems. The excitement of the plot, believability of the characters and emotional appeal of the situations combined to make Triffids an ideas book that gets readers to think about issues organically, as we see characters deliberating options or forced to live out the consequences of their circumstances. Added to which, the astonishing imagery and haunting atmosphere make Triffids one of the best novels of the century. It far transcends science fiction, thrillers, dystopias and sociologically oriented examinations of the human condition and – I would say – functions as literature of the highest level. For the issues-driven, it includes discussion of environmentalism, disarmament, geo-politics, ethics and self-sufficiency. It has elements of thriller, romance, dystopia and social commentary, blended in a manner that is seamless.

Well, almost. There is a single chapter that is devoted to the backstory of the development of the triffids, which, while necessary, is rather dry on first reading. It is an obligatory exposition dump. On subsequent readings, it answers some of thoughts of readers now familiar with the titular antagonists of humanity. This chapter is the creakiest in terms of prose. Palanguez, the South American intermediary who smuggles triffid seeds from their point of origin in USSR laboratories, has a ‘sleek, dark head’ and addresses his interlocutor as ‘señor’. Wyndham’s pulp-fiction apprenticeship shows through a little. We have to sit through a bit of global politics, which is something that mars Wyndham’s follow-up novel The Kraken Wakes (1953 – not included in this set). However, if you can make it through chapter 2, the rest of Triffids is a terrific read – gripping, memorable, moving, thought-provoking. The contemporary film version was a wretched traducement, as was an embarrassingly updated 2009 television mini-series. A television version, co-produced by BBC Television in 1981, is excellent and well worth seeking out. 

© Patrick Leger from The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection – The Midwich Cuckoos

Wisely, for its new edition, Folio Society commissioned illustrations by Patrick Leger that are firmly in the 1950s style. The limited colours, bold blocking and strong line work all point back to the classic illustrations of comics and pulp fiction from the 1920s-1950s era. The speckling and deliberately loose registration imitate the printing of the time. Leger brings a cinematic eye to scenes, viewing protagonist Bill and young Susan from an aerial viewpoint. My favourite is the view of Bill in his hospital bed, with a swatch of sunlight illuminating his sheets. Folio Society, because it markets directly, rather than through bookshops, does not have to put text on its cover to inform browsers. This gives Folio Society designers a freer hand than otherwise. (Producing volumes for a boxset also allows book covers to remain text free.) Leger has illustrated all three books, including the covers.

Like Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is infused with Cold War anxiety. Midwich, a village in southern England (based on Midhurst, Sussex), is suddenly isolated by an inexplicable forcefield and the residents rendered unconscious. When the barrier is lifted and people revive, they soon discover that all the women are pregnant. The human-seeming babies turn out to be uncanny cuckoos, planted into the wombs of women by aliens. Once born, the cuckoo children develop fast, act in a disciplined collaborative way and have powers of telepathy and limited mind control. This makes them an inscrutable and dangerous enemy. The hosts find themselves being held hostage by the parasite children, who threaten to grow strong enough to destroy the community that (warily and fearfully) cares for them.

Wisely, Wyndham does not dilute his story by introducing the aliens as other than prime movers. He has no interest in aliens. The science-fiction premise is merely a device to allow Wyndham to explore how communities (and civilisations) respond to the knowledge that they have in their midst forces that wish to supplant them and that are ruthless. From inter-species rivalry, Wyndham has moved to in-species rivalry. Of course, what must have been obvious to more observant readers of the time, was how this was an allegory for Communist infiltration of the West. The Midwich cuckoo-children, like Communists, form a tightly knit group working in concert to overturn the current order and advance to the next level of development, using any means necessary to overcome opposition. What seems so troublingly prescient, is how this scenario could act as a parable of multiculturalism. When a foreign group cannot be integrated, conflict for resources and status arises. If the organised minority overcomes the disorganised majority – as Mosca’s Law tells us – the numerical inferiority of the foreigners is no bar to them consolidating themselves and even coming to rule the hosts. So, while Midwich may seem dated sci-fi tosh set in a rural England of the past – Brian Aldiss will be forever remembered as the writer who damned Wyndham’s novels as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – it is actually a novel of ideas that is vitally relevant in a multicultural society facing a crossroads.

Likewise, The Chrysalids (1957) gives us another brilliant novel with exciting action, suspense and vividly drawn characters in a unique world, and one with a deeply troubling ethical conundrum. Chrysalids is a coming-of-age story set in a post-nuclear-war rural community in Canada, where millenarian Christianity holds sway. The society is obsessed by genetic stability, considering it a moral issue, which they police by destroying produce and animals if they genetically deviate from the norm, and exiling abnormal children. David, the protagonist, becomes aware that he has the power of telepathy. Living in fear that his psychic deviancy will come to light and lead to his expulsion, David forms a bond with the few other children of his age who also have this rare power. Eventually discovered, David and his friends have to flee into the wilderness to escape torture and (potentially) sacrifice.

Perhaps inadvertently on the author’s part, Chrysalids presents us with a question that is even more pointed than the one in Midwich: How far would you go to preserve your values and culture? What would you do if your children joined an extremist political group, or converted to a radical religion? Would you exile (even kill) relatives or your own children, knowing that if you did not, their values would supplant your own? I cannot think of any novels of ideas that are more pertinent today. Engaging with the novel’s issues honestly will result in readers doing some painful self-assessment about his/her limitations and the robustness of his/her values.

Wyndham, like every author, wrote in and of his time. In Triffids, a character drains the petrol from a car’s reserve tank. I don’t think I have ever travelled in a car with a reserve tank, although the concept is decipherable enough from the name. Perhaps the youngest of readers might need a reminder of what a corkscrew is; the idea of vacuum-packed cigarettes is rather neat, although today’s cellophane wrappers perform an inferior but cheaper alternative.

The language and social mores are of their time – which is a strong recommendation to readers of today – and this is particularly so in Triffids. When Wyndham presents the debates between pragmatists and Christians about whether or not sighted men should have multiple blind wives (who could give birth to seeing children), we encounter a slice of 1950s Britain, the last time Christian traditionalism had social hegemony. Today, I suppose many people would consider the matter merely one of avoiding partner jealousy rather than the breaching of a moral commandment.

The illustrations have a strong period flavour, with clothes, interiors and vehicles in Triffids and Midwich being contemporary with the period within which they were written. The retro quality of the illustration style suits the texts. If I had to venture one minor reservation about the illustrations in the Folio Society Wyndham boxset, it is that Leger tends to place us close to the actions, with main figures reaching the page edges. That means we are immersed in an event depicted, rather than viewing a scene at a distance. We are inside a motif, rather than outside a picture. This has some advantages – immediacy, engagement, impact, energy – but also reduces detached artistry, complex composition and contemplative reserve. On balance, it is well that Leger remains stylistically consistent within each volume and across the set.

Designers have taken care to co-ordinate the cover colours with the front and end-papers. The production quality is high and the margins and bindings make reading easy. This boxset with pictorial slipcase and hardback books with cloth spines (a reissue of the editions originally published in 2010) is a handsome set, and an ideal way to enjoy key novels of one of the greatest post-war British novelists.

The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection, three-volume set, with three novels by John Wyndham, illustrated by Patrick Leger, is available exclusively from: https://www.foliosociety.com/uk/the-wyndham-collection.html