Picasso among the Non-Entities
Alex Danchev is wrong to suggest that the only evidence of Braque’s reactionary political tendencies is Douglas Cooper’s table talk, as relayed by John Richardson (Letters, 3 April). Others said the same thing. Max Ernst complained to his son that the world was full of the ‘pimps of fascism’: ‘Poor Dalí, he pretends that he is insane and that this entitles him to see mystery in royalty and Franco. And poor Braque, he dreams of the Croix-de-Feu and keeps painting the Tricolore.’ Roger Roughton, writing in the Criterion in 1936, criticised Marxists for underestimating ‘the importance of present-day bourgeois artists such as the Spanish Picasso, [and] the French Braque (now an ardent supporter of the fascist Croix-de-Feu)’. Whether Braque was actually a card-carrying member of the Croix-de-Feu, a popular nationalist movement, is uncertain, but that is clearly where his contemporaries thought his sympathies lay.
T.J. Clark wants to have things both ways (Letters, 6 March). He surrounds Picasso with a protective phalanx of leftist Surrealists, and then claims that he ‘belonged to his times, not to his (or anyone else’s) miserable art-world’. But if Picasso’s exceptional ‘negative capability’ meant ‘exposure to the movement of history’, how could he remain untouched by the most powerful political and cultural force of the 1930s, the radical right? He hardly needed to be ‘dragged down among the fascist non-entities’; a polite invitation sufficed, both in San Sebastián in 1934 and, as Genoveva Tusell García’s recent archival discoveries have revealed, in 1957, when he was approached by Franco’s representatives about showing his work in Spain.
I had thought that comparing Clark’s rhetoric to that of the Italian fascist Julius Evola might be pushing it a bit, but the talk of ‘higher beings’ at the end of his otherwise magnificent essay on Veronese makes me wonder (LRB, 3 April). Higher than what? Non-entities, presumably. What is the political complexion of a society so divided?
A Word from Miss Triggs
Mary Beard’s study of the silencing of women through the ages reminds me of another tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (LRB, 20 March). Phoebus (better known as Apollo) is overcome with lust – the word he uses is ‘amor’ but the description is of sexual pursuit – for the bare-armed nymph Daphne. To his great surprise (‘Don’t you know who I am?’ he cries), Daphne is not up for it. As he pursues her through the brambles, Daphne, in desperation and exhaustion, calls on the gods to intervene. She is duly turned into a tree, both silenced and saved from Phoebus’ desires. But he doesn’t stop there. As in Miss Triggs’s case, the man must have the last word. Phoebus surveys her new form and sees her leafy head nodding. Reading this silent gesture as consent, he plucks her leaves to make a laurel wreath and places it on his head. This wreath becomes a symbol of prowess and victory in Augustan Rome.
Mary Beard might like to listen to a few speeches by Angela Merkel, and to note the style and presentation. Rhetoric and political oratory in general have a bad name in Germany, and politicians since 1945 have gone to great pains to present their arguments in unvarnished, unemotional terms. Konrad Adenauer’s style was austere to a fault; Ludwig Erhard tried the jovial paternal approach but was torpedoed by Adenauer at every turn. Willy Brandt is the only postwar German chancellor who has been able to appeal to the emotions and win support by the strength of his rhetoric.
Angela Merkel has a remarkable gift for public speaking. At the beginning of her career she was derided as an East German bluestocking, but she showed great skill in dealing with the men who pawed the ground waiting to succeed Helmut Kohl as party leader. Her contributions to debates were concise and clear, her sentences simple and short. Her voice is a clear contralto and she avoids flights of rhetoric. She uses humour very sparingly, and all the more effectively for that, and has a very downbeat way of dealing with hecklers, quick-witted but never sarcastic. (Sarcasm was Gerhard Schröder’s major tool.) You never forget that Merkel is a woman, but this has seldom led to discrimination, diminution or the kind of dismissal that Mary Beard has experienced in her public appearances.
Unfair to Geertz
Thomas Meaney grossly distorts Clifford Geertz’s approach to development when he says that ‘Geertz’s scholarship lent an aura of expertise to US imperial projects in the 1960s’ (LRB, 6 March). Geertz did not argue that the ‘backward, obstructive values’ of the Javanese would ‘never allow them to produce the necessary surplus that would lead to industrialisation’: he was describing a historical period when the Javanese adapted to the brutal policies of the Dutch by subdividing jobs so everyone had at least some support – the resulting ‘shared poverty’ was anything but their preferred choice. In Peddlers and Princes Geertz makes clear his opposition to the ‘take-off’ theories of the 1960s and his reasons for attributing to colonialism, and not to some inherent failure of those affected, the policies that Meaney mistakenly assumes he supported.
The Truth about Jellyfish
Theo Tait gives a compelling portrait of the jellyfish, and the threats posed by their increasing numbers (LRB, 6 March). However, his account of the jellyfish fossil record is inaccurate. The arrival of predators with hard parts occurred during the Cambrian, which was preceded by the Ediacaran. The Ediacaran fossil record is dominated by disc fossils, which were originally thought to be jellyfish owing to their shape, pliability and perceived evolutionary simplicity. This interpretation has since been shown to be incorrect for three reasons. First, the disc fossils have all been preserved showing the same side, which means that if they were jellyfish, they must all have been killed (or beached) perfectly face down, in contrast to modern beachings. Second, Ediacaran discs show no signs that they were capable of movement, and many possess rooting structures that indicate they grew in sediment.Third, possible tentacle-like structures in the fossils are symmetrical, in contrast to the interlocking tentacles observed when jellyfish are killed. As a result, Ediacaran discs are variously interpreted as rooting structures, microbial colonies or traces of the movement of other organisms – but never as jellyfish. While the Ediacaran may contain some cnidarian (the jellyfish phylum), there are no known medusae until the Cambrian, 60 million years after the age mentioned by Tait. Jellyfish do pose a problem for the future oceans, but their dominance of the oceans is not a return to the past.
Home on the Range
Because I operate a cattle ranch, I read Bee Wilson’s piece about the meat industry with particular interest (LRB, 20 March). But I do not accept that beef sold in any British supermarket can be ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’, unless it is supplied by a wealthy hobbyist, because in order to be ‘organic’ cattle should eat only grass, for which several acres per head are needed. As pure herbivores bovines need vets and medicines if they are to survive on a diet of high protein alfalfa, maize or grains. Moreover, I do not believe that the alfalfa, maize and grains are grown without non-organic fertilisers. My own cattle, which eat only grass and are truly organic, take much longer to be ready for sale (two and a half years as against one and a half), and have much lower sale weights. Yet it all works out economically because land is very cheap around here. Bovines should be raised where good grassland costs less than a hundred pounds an acre. I cannot sell my organic beef in Europe because the meat trade is anything but globalised, and my beef is kept out by arbitrary, pseudo-health regulations.
Rancho Cotoca, Bolivia
‘There are few signs that we genuinely want to eat less meat’, Bee Wilson writes. Actually, there are plenty – not least Defra’s most recent data, which show that UK meat consumption has fallen by 13 per cent since 2007.
In her review of Ruin Lust – an exhibition at Tate Britain that I curated with Emma Chambers and Amy Concannon – Rosemary Hill writes: ‘Among the most recent works … there is … little direct engagement with ruins’ (LRB, 3 April). It’s a shame she doesn’t mention Rachel Whiteread’s photographs of the demolition of a tower block in Hackney, Laura Oldfield Ford’s drawings and paintings of decayed housing estates or Tacita Dean’s photogravures based on postcards depicting the aftermath of war and disaster in the early 20th century. Perhaps Hill doesn’t think these ‘direct’ enough. She might in that case have touched on Keith Coventry’s sculptural casts from vandalised trees, or the Inventory collective’s use of a modified estate sign as a ruinous readymade.
It’s unclear why such works – or any of the later art in the show, which Hill mostly ignores, or dismisses as ‘sarcastic’ – should be considered less direct than the earlier drawings, paintings, sculptures and photographs. But neither is it obvious why being direct would be a good thing in an artist. It might be a good thing in a curator, but surely not to the extent, as Hill wishes, of our insisting any more than we do on such connections as Ian Hamilton Finlay’s with Piranesi, whose work is just metres away across the gallery. Of course visitors may still miss things. The photographs of prisoners’ drawings and inscriptions at Saddam Hussein’s ‘Red House’, which so trouble Hill, are by Oliver Chanarin (whom she leaves out) as well as Adam Broomberg.
Stories of the Flood
The lines ascribed by Marina Warner to the god Enlil from the Epic of Gilgamesh in fact come from the god Ea (LRB, 6 March). Enlil, who wanted the flood to wipe away all traces of humanity, was furious that Ea had whispered to Uta-napišti that he should build an ark to save the earth’s creatures. Ea explains that he cannot allow indiscriminate slaughter, and that only ‘evildoers’ or ‘trespassers’ should be punished.
Oliver Miles cites Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak as one possible source for the phrase ‘the zest is gone,’ which Anna Karenina utters in English (Letters, 3 April). The phrase also appears in the ‘overture’ to The Newcomes, Thackeray’s anthropological novel of Victorian popular culture, where he speaks of a time ‘when the sun used to shine brighter than it appears to do in this latter half of the 19th century; when the zest of life was certainly keener’. Anna is said to read novels that are in vogue, and orders every book praised in the foreign press. R.F. Christian, in a critical introduction to Tolstoy from 1969, notes not only that Tolstoy read The Newcomes but also that its impact can be seen in the similarities between this passage from Thackeray’s novel and the opening lines of Two Hussars, which preceded Anna Karenina by nearly twenty years.