Quotes from Proust XXVIII: A book we read years ago is conjoined with what was around us then and what we were then

A thing which we have looked at in the past brings back to us, if we see it again, not only the eyes with which we looked at it but all the images with which at the time those eyes were filled.

A thing which we saw, a book which we read at a certain period does not merely remain for ever conjoined to what existed then around us; it remains also faithfully united to what we ourselves then were and thereafter it can be handled only by the sensibility, the personality that were then ours.

My personality of today may be compared to an abandoned quarry, which supposes everything it contains to be uniform and monotonous, but from which memory, selecting here and there, can, like some sculptor of genius, extract innumerable different statues.

Paula Rego: painting her life

For Paula Rego, one of the world’s leading living painters, every painting must be a story—and usually she is in that story. The documentary made about her by her son intercut interviews with her at different ages, paintings and drawings from throughout her 80 years of life, and home videos and photographs to show how her life and her work are entangled. She was also explicit with her son that work was the most important thing in her life, more important than him and his sisters, her husband, and her lovers. (The same goes for Picasso and perhaps all great artists.)

She was born in Portugal into a wealthy family. The society was Catholic and conservative, and from the beginning she kicked against it. Fairy stories were important to her, and they have featured in her paintings throughout her career.


At 18 she left Portugal to go the Slade School of Art in London. All the women there, she said, had abortions, and later in her life she produced a series of paintings, drawings, and etchings of women undergoing abortions. She felt passionately that women should be able to have abortion on demand, and the pictures had an explicit political purpose: in 2007 Portugal finally voted to allow abortion. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/abortion-successful-art-for-political-ends/

All her life she has suffered from depression, and she found that work was more helpful than anything else in beating off depression. She produced a series of pictures of depressed women, but for many years she was too ashamed to show these. In the documentary she show showed them to her son for the first time, and just this year they have been exhibited. I was interested that she felt more comfortable with pictures of abortion than of depression.

Depression 1

At the Slade she took up with Victor Willing, the star of the class. Although he was already married, she became pregnant by him more than once. Initially she had an abortion (or abortions) unable to face the wrath of her mother. Eventually, however, she decided to keep the baby despite Willing saying that he would stay with his wife. She moved back to Portugal and eventually Willing joined and married her.

They painted together in a building in the garden of their house, but he couldn’t paint while she was enormously productive—and always has been. She was always, however, completely subservient to him, doing whatever he wanted her to do. This seemed to be the result of her strict upbringing where her mother and grandmother told her that women must always give way to their husbands. Her paintings are filled with subservient women.

Their marriage was stormy, with both of them being unfaithful. When her father died Willing took over his business and soon bankrupted it. The family moved back to London and lived in poverty. Willing then contracted multiple sclerosis Perhaps because of their poverty, his unfaithfulness and illness, her inclination, or some combination of these she became the mistress of a picture dealer. She produced a series of pictures where she is the monkey, Willing the dog, and her lover the bear (or do they switch around?). She didn’t confess this at the time but does now. At least one of the paintings seems be a picture of castration, although perhaps of the tongue rather than the genitals.

dog monkey bear2


The dance

When Willing died she painted a picture The Dance that shows couples dancing, as we saw them dancing on the terrace in Portugal in a home movie. Willing dances with another woman (in yellow), and Rego (dressed perhaps in a confirmation dress but with a brown apron) is larger than all the others, ready to face whatever the future will bring. She also painted Dog Woman, one of her best known pictures which shows a contorted woman howling with grief.

Dog woman

Willing died in 1988, and since then she has become steadily more successful. We saw an auction where one of her paintings sold for £800 000. A painting that particularly struck me and is important to her is her Guardian Angel, a woman that looks like her holding a sword. The picture could almost be by Velasquez, Goya, Titian, or any of the Old Masters and be of St George or the Archangel Michael. It is both her angel and her fairy godmother.







Quotes from Proust XXVII: A frivolous theme will serve as well as a serious one for a study of the laws of character

A work in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price-tag on it. (And as to the choice of theme, a frivolous theme will serve as well as a serious one for a study of the laws of character, in the same way that a prosector can study the laws of anatomy as well in the body of an imbecile as in that of a man of talent, since the great moral laws, like the laws of the circulation of the blood or of renal elimination, vary scarcely at all with the intellectual merit of individuals.)

People who lack the artistic sense, who lack, that is to say, the faculty of submitting to the reality within themselves,

When one reads, one likes to be transported into a new world, and working men have as much curiosity about princes as princes about working men.

Abortion: successful art for political ends

When artists set out with the primary purpose of making a political point the art usually fails. The artists may feel passionate about the politics, so there is emotion as well as thought–but still they fail to make good art. I remembered this when I tried to get creative friends to create Act III of the story of climate disruption: none even tried. But Paul Rego succeeded with her abortion pictures.

abortion two

All the girls at the Slade in the 50s had abortions, said Rego in the documentary about her life and work made by her son and shown on television in March. She had several, terrified of what her strict Portuguese mother would think of her having a baby by a married man. Her abortions were, of course, illegal, “backstreet abortions.” Tens of thousands of women around the world die every year through illegal abortions. Rego described how fishwives in Portugal would perform them on the beach. The abortions Rego and her friends had were performed by doctors and seemed not to be so risky, although even the safest abortion can be an awful experience.

Rego believes passionately that women should be able to have safe abortions, but they remained illegal except in extreme circumstances in Portugal after a referendum in 1998. She contributed to a second referendum in 2007 by producing a series of paintings and etchings showing graphically the experience of abortion. In the documentary Portuguese politicians said that her pictures had contributed to abortion becoming legal.

The pictures are both politically and artistically successful.

How extreme poverty can create a demi-god in a way that nothing else can (another argument for immigration)

I read the quote below today in Les Misérables. It makes me think of the ideas of “positive psychology” that certain admirable characteristics are achievable only after surviving desperate circumstances, of which extreme poverty is the most common. Most people in modern Britain have not had the experience but many immigrants have, which is another argument–beyond the familiar economic argument–of how immigrants ring great benefits to a society.

“Extreme poverty,” writes Victor Hugo in , “ [is] a stern and terrible trial which brings the weak to infamy and the strong to nobility; the crucible into which Destiny casts a man, to make of him a ne’er-do-well or a demi-god….

Poverty in youth, when it is mastered, has the sovereign quality that it concentrates the will-power upon striving and the spirit upon hope. By stripping our material existence to its essentials and exposing its drabness, it fosters in us an inexpressible longing for the ideal life. The well-to-do young man is offered a hundred dazzling and crude distractions – horses, hunting and gambling, richfood, tobacco, and all the rest – occupations for his baser nature at the expense of everything in him that is high-minded and sensitive. The poor young man struggles to stay alive; he contrives to eat, and his only solace is in dreaming. His only theatre is the free show that God provides, the sky and the stars, flowers and children, mankind whose sufferings he shares and the created world in which he is trying his wings. He lives so close to humanity that he sees its soul, so close to the divine creation that he sees God. He dreams and feels his own greatness; dreams again and feels tenderness. He progresses from the egotism of the man who suffers to the compassion of the man who meditates, and an admirable sentiment is born in him, of self-forgetfulness and feeling for others. Reflecting on the countless delights that nature showers on minds open to receive them, and denied to those whose minds are closed, he ends, a millionaire of the spirit, by pitying the millionaire of nothing but money. All hatred disappears from his heart as enlightenment grows in him. Indeed, is he really unhappy? No, he is not. A young man’s poverty is never miserable. Any youngster, poor as he may be, with health and strength, a buoyant stride and clear eyes, hot-flowing blood, dark hair, fresh cheeks, white teeth and clean breath, is an object of envy to any aged emperor. And then, he gets up every morning to earn his livelihood, and while his hands are busily employed his backbone gains in pride and his mind gains in ideas. His day’s work done, he returns to the delights of his contemplative life. He may live with feet enmeshed in affliction and frustration, hard-set on earth amid the brambles and sometimes deep in mud; but his head is in the stars. He is steadfast and serene, gentle, peaceable, alert, sober-minded, content with little, and benevolent; and he blesses God for having bestowed on him those two riches which the rich so often lack – work, which makes a man free, and thought, which makes him worthy of freedom.”

Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables (Classics) (p. 591). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Socialist realism in Minneapolis

By chance less than two weeks after visiting the Royal Academy’s exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/russian-art-from-celebration-to-tragedy/ I visited the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. The message of the Royal Academy exhibition was that Russian art flourished between the revolution and 1932 and then died when Stalin insisted on Socialist Realism and exterminated many of the artists. The Minneapolis museum, in contrast, celebrated Socialist Realism pictures of children. http://tmora.org/2016/12/18/born-in-the-ussr-paintings-of-childhood-and-youth/


“Celebrate” is not the right word in that the exhibition does make clear that the artists had to show healthy, sporty, hardworking children being turned into good communists. But “celebrate” is the right word in that many of the pictures were good–not ground-breaking and original but good to look at, clearly influenced by Impressiinism; I’d be more than happy to have many of them on my wall. I’d been led by the Royal Academy exhibition to expect drab, lifeless pictures. But they weren’t. Many of them may have been “lies” in that they were hiding the hunger and terror of the Stalin years, but they were filled with colour and well painted and composed.


I kept looking at the dates of the pictures, and I saw only one from before 1932. Many were painted during Stalin’s rule, and the rest came from the years of Khrushchev’s “thaw” and Brezhnev’s rule. None were from after Glasnost. I read too about the artists, and many of them held positions in the artists’ unions created by the government; none were imprisoned, tortured, or shot like many of the artists in the Royal Academy exhibition. They “towed the line,” as most of us would have done, but I didn’t detect them kicking against the system, something I think I hear in Shostakovich’s music.

Although many of the children looked serious rather than smiling (and many of them reading books or studying), I saw only two pictures that might be construed as negative. One showed a typical strong and muscular but attractive woman holding a child who could possibly have been dead. But I saw that the picture was painted during the war and could have had the message that Russian mothers remained strong even if their children were killed. (Downstairs the museum had a bleak exhibition of the horrors of the Leningrad siege. The image that sticks in my head were of corpses bund up like parcels being hauled through the snow on sledges.)

The other picture was undoubtedly negative, showing an alcoholic father slumped on a table, a weeping mother, and a boy pulled between the two. It was painted in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death–and perhaps it was testing Khrushchev’s thaw, as some artists undoubtedly did.

But my main impression was that it was entirely possible to paint strong and attractive pictures under a harsh regime. Creativity did not die in 1932, rather it was tightly channeled.

Russian Art: from celebration to tragedy

The Royal Academy exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32 is a brilliant but tragic exhibition rather like the Russian Revolution itself. The exhibition tells the story through art of how a tremendous experiment to try and improve humanity went horribly wrong. The beginning of the exhibition is colour, excitement, and optimism; the end is a roll call of artists and intellectuals murdered by the state.


As everybody knows, the revolution began in 1917, and 1932 is significant both because of the of the exhibition Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russia Soviet Republic, which inspired the present exhibition, and because that was the year that Stalin declared that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable form of art, so ending the creativity that had burgeoned since 1917.


The exhibition begins with Lenin, portraits showing the intellectual he was, designs for his mausoleum in Red Square, and film and a painting of his embalmed body. I’ve been reading about the Immortalisation Commission, which had the job of preserving his body forever, and I learnt, which the exhibition didn’t make clear, that the Bolsheviks were not just about changing Russia but about changing humanity and defeating death. With such an ambitious aim millions of deaths didn’t matter, could be easily justified.

Dead Lenin

Lenin, in contrast to Stalin, was interested in art only as propaganda: “I’m no good at art. Art for me is a just an appendage, and when its use as propaganda – which we need at the moment – is over, we’ll cut it out as useless: snip, snip!”

The second room, Man and Machine, shows how the Bolsheviks needed to ramp up industry to make Russia a world power, celebrating the muscular power of workers as they did so. One picture shows workers defending Petrograd against the White Russians under the command of Trotsky, being sent to the front line and then returning with their injuries.


The avant garde flourished in the early years of the Revolution and the 1932 exhibition devoted a whole room to the paintings of Malevich, the Suprematist, and one of the best known Russian painters. The Royal Academy has recreated that room in the exhibition, and it’s bright with colour and geometric designs.


Almost three quarters of Russians were peasants in 1917, and the Bolsheviks didn’t have the same support among them that they had among industrial workers. After the revolution agriculture fell apart, and people starved. Stalin introduced Collectivisation, causing the deaths of millions. Again there is the gap between the heroic pictures of workers and the awful reality, but Malevich, trying to reinvent himself, painted the anonymity of the peasants.


The next room celebrates Eternal Russia, the Russia of sleigh rides, onion shaped domes, samovars, and singing and dancing peasants. In this context is painfully ironic.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the recreation of Vladimir Tatlin’s Letatlin, a flying machine whose name combines the artist’s name and the Russian word for flight. Tatlin, fitting with the spirit of the times, believed that people would soon be able to fly, and he built his machine after dissecting many large birds. It never flew, but it shows the spirit of the times—imagination was set free, everything was possible.

During the Civil War, which lasted three years, Lenin introduced War Communism, outlawing private enterprise. It collapsed, and Lenin then allowed a period of some private enterprise, which led to a temporary reappearance of cafes and city life. But then Stalin shut it down. A divided room in the exhibition shows the art of the two periods.

A whole room is devoted to the works of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, as was the case in the 1932 exhibition. The curators of the exhibition feel that he is not as well known outside Russia as he should be and hope that he might be a “discovery” for us. His paintings were appealing but not arresting. Perhaps one of the reasons that he is not well known outside Russia is that he went along with Stalin. Did he, like Shostakovich, have to sacrifice his self-respect?


The last room shows Stalin’s Utopia with pictures of great sporting achievements, but in the middle of the room is a huge black box which contains a cinema showing an endlessly roll call of those Stalin murdered. Stalin did care about art: he looked at the paintings, read the poems, and listened to the music. It was he who declared Shostakovich’s music “noise” and who rang him later and asked him to represent Russia in the US, debasing himself when he did so by having to condemn Stravinsky, his musical hero. Stalin knew that in the end he could not defeat art, and that it would define his legacy.

I came away from the exhibition inspired but sad, hoping that neither me nor my children and grandchildren would be caught up in a hubristic attempt to recreate humanity, establish Utopia.