Archive for February, 2019|Monthly archive page

Art Vandals 4: A kiss is not just a kiss

Weapon: Spray paint, red

Reason: Political, gender politics

George Mendonsa iconic photo by Alfred Eisenstadt sailor kissing WW2

V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstadt (14th August 1945)

This iconic image marking the end of the Second World War for the USA looks different in the cool light of 2019. From a celebratory V-J Day image adorning a full page of Life magazine it takes on a more problematic dimension in that it is unclear what the kissee feels about the moment.

The sailor caught in the kissing a stranger act in Times Square, New York died on Sunday, aged 95, in Rhode Island. George Mendonsa was 21 when he grabbed the kiss. He was home on leave from the Pacific theatre.

George Mendonsa

George Mendonsa

He was kissing 21-year-old Austrian-born American dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman. She died on 8th September 2016 at the age of 92. The photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt withheld the names of the kissers. Greta Friedman said (unlikely though it seems) she had not been aware of the photo until the 1960s.

Greta Zimmer Friedman - Austrian-born American grabbed kissed

Greta Zimmer Friedman

Interviewed for the Veterans History Project in 2005, Greta Friedman confirmed it wasn’t her choice to be kissed and that the sailor “grabbed” her, but also that the kiss was a “jubilant act” and “just an event of ‘Thank God the war is over’. ”

Eisenstadt said he watched the sailor running along the street, grabbing any girl in sight.

“I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture.”

Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt

A sculpture based on the photo is to be seen in Sarasota, Florida, entitled Unconditional Surrender. The original version was made by J. Seward Johnson II in 2005 – he went on to create a series of them in different locations across the USA and beyond. In 2019 that punning title doesn’t play so well.

Sarasota, Florida Unconditional Surrender by J. Seward Johnson II 2005

Unconditional Surrender by J. Seward Johnson II

On Monday, the day after George Mendonsa’s death, the statue was vandalised with the hashtag #MeToo painted in red on the dental assistant’s bright white leg.

unconditional surrender sculpture statue vandalism metoo

By Tuesday the civic authorities had it back looking ship-shape and Bristol fashion. The cost of the damage was estimated at $1,000 (£765).

unconditional surrender sculpture statue tweet vandalism

Good as new (how good it was new is debatable)

It’s not the first time Unconditional Surrender has succumbed to unwanted assault. It was accidentally hit by a car on 27th April 2012 and removed for repairs.

There have been issues around the possible copyright infringement by the sculpture of the photo. But Seward Johnson claims his source was another simultaneous photograph by a different photographer:

Kissing_the_War_Goodbye photograph by Victor Jorgensen

Kissing the War Goodbye by Victor Jorgensen – same moment as in Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Times Square

Greta Zimmer Friedman and George Mendonsa in photo taken by a Life Magazine photographer, at Times Square, New York

Greta & George back at Times Square years later

Times Square Unconditional Surrender sculpture at the site of the historic LIFE Magazine cover photograph by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt August 14, 2010 in New York. The sculpture is commemorating the 65th anniversary of V-J Day, DON EMMERT

Unconditional Surrender at the site of Eisenstaedt’s photo in Times Square – 14th August 2010 [Photo: Don Emmert]

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Art Vandals 3: From suffragette to fascist

Weapon: Meat cleaver

Reason: Political, gender political

venus-and-cupid-diego-velazquez Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery painting slashed vandalised

Venus and Cupid by Diego Velazquez

Today I went on a guided historical walk around the East End of London entitled ‘Anti-Fascist Footprints’ led by David Rosenberg, a specialist in East End history, husband of a former colleague of mine at Channel 4. During the tour we walked right past the offices of Little Dot Studios in Whitechapel’s Plumbers Row where I have been working since the company moved from Shoreditch towards the end of last year. David and I recently co-interviewed a veteran of the 43 Group anti-fascist group out of the East End. A (to me) surprising connection came up on the walk this afternoon – one of the photos David showed of a group of women BUF (British Union of Fascists) members included a certain Mary Raleigh Richardson who was on my radar from a completely other angle – as an Art Vandal.

Mary Richardson was the Suffragette who slashed the so-called Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in 1914.

The Rokeby Venus is the nickname of The Toilet of Venus aka Venus at her Mirror aka Venus and Cupid painted by Velázquez between 1647 and 1651. It resides in London’s National Gallery. It is the only extant female nude by the Spanish artist. It reached these shores in 1813 when it was purchased by the MP John Morritt for £500 and hung in his home, Rokeby Park, Yorkshire. In 1906 the newly created National Art Collections Fund acquired it for the National Gallery, its first significant campaigning win.

Eight years on, on 10th March 1914, Mary Richardson marched into the National Gallery and slashed the canvas seven times with the distinctly domestic weapon of a meat cleaver. Her action was prompted by the arrest of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst the day before. There had been earlier warnings of an attack on the National Gallery collection, so the plan may already have been in place. Richardson’s slashes were deepest between Venus’ shoulders but covered her back and buttock too. The attack earned her the nickname Slasher Mary in the press. The London Times described a “cruel wound in the neck” and feminist commentators have remarked that the contemporary reports sound more like injuries to an actual body rather than a pictorial representation, indicating that both the incident and the painting have come to take on an emblematic dimension.

Why did Richardson do it? She told the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant suffragette group led by Emmeline Pankhurst, shortly after the incident: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” The WSPU endorsed the destruction of property as a tactic to draw attention to women’s suffrage. Years later (in a 1952 interview) she added that she didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long”.

Richardson’s statement explaining her actions to the WSPU:

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a Government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.”

It’s interesting to note that Venus is not looking at herself in the mirror as we see her reflected face front on – the implication is she is looking at us, the male viewer. This may have inspired Manet’s similar mirror trick in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, also in a London gallery – the Courtauld – which I wrote about as a Picture of the Month in 2010. In that painting the female gaze defiantly and directly challenges us the male observer. It is worth noting that Richardson did not go for the eyes.

mary Richardson slashed the rokeby Venus velazquez

The cuts were successfully repaired by the gallery’s chief restorer Helmut Ruhemann and the painting was soon back on display.

Mary-Richardson-and-Policemen-national gallery rokeby

Mary Richardson at the National Gallery straight after the attack

Richardson was sentenced to a six month stretch in  prison, the maximum for destruction of an artwork.

Richardson was born in 1882 in Ontario, Canada. She made her way to Bloomsbury via France and Italy.

She bore witness to Black Friday on 18th November 1910 when a march of 300 women to Parliament was violently set upon by the police (much as the anti-fascists were at the Battle of Cable Street we were discussing on site this afternoon). The march started from Caxton Hall near Channel 4 HQ. A certain Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, rejected calls for a public enquiry after the event – interesting in view of the debate about whether Churchill was a goodie or baddie this last week precipitated by John McDonnell’s comments about Churchill being a villain over the Tonypandy miners’ riots in the very same year (1910).

Black-friday suffragette march attacked by police

Black Friday violence on women marchers

Richardson was also present at the Epsom races on Derby Day, 4th June 1913, when Emily Davison was trampled by the King’s horse. Richardson was chased and beaten by an angry mob but given refuge in Epsom Downs railway station by a porter.

Slasher Mary already had form by the time of the Rokeby attack. She had committed a number of acts of arson; smashed windows at the Home Office; and bombed a train station. She was arrested nine times and received prison sentences totalling over three years. She was one of the first two women force-fed under the 1913 Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act, in Holloway Prison. I wonder whether it all drove her a bit crazy…

In 1932 Richardson joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Oswald Mosley. She had come to the conclusion – a real-life Miss Jean Brodie – that fascism was the “only path to a Greater Britain”. She explained that “I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service and the ability to serve which I had known in the suffragette movement”. The “Iscariot politicians” comment in her post-art vandalism statement may have been a bit of a giveaway. Richardson rose rapidly through the ranks of the party and within two years (1934) she was Chief Organiser for the Women’s Section of the party. Mosley, in contrast to Hitler’s view that women were fit for Kinder and Küche only, encouraged them to play an active role in the BUF. However Richardson left within two years because she felt disillusioned about the sincerity of Mosley’s policy on women. (Two other prominent suffragettes who took high office in the BUF were Dublin-born Norah Elam and Cardiff-born Mary Sophia Allen.) The BUF, inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists and the whole Italian Futurist vibe, sold itself as a movement of action, youth and dynamism. Its official newspaper was called Action. It is probably in the notion of Action that Richardson’s suffragette and fascist careers meet.

Training at the Women's BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

Training at the Women’s BUF HQ. Mary Richardson is standing at the back.

 

 

4 reasons to love Albert Finney

A friend of mine (whose artwork sits below where I am writing) is a close relative of Albert Finney so it was with a bit of a jolt that the news of the actor’s death caught me yesterday. I had last watched him on the obscure Channel 81 on Freeview (which is my favourite, random old movies from the 50s and 60s) in the somewhat bizarre (but very interesting) Gumshoe a few weeks ago.

Last night Erin Brockovich felt like the right celebration for a Friday night of a distinctive and charming actor. I’d forgotten that the movie was one of Steven Soderbergh’s, adding to the alignment as the sad news came in on the same day as posting this new article which brackets Soderbergh’s latest movie with my commission Missed Call and Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

1. Tom Jones (1963) as Tom Jones

TOM JONES (1963) albert finney actor

From the year of my birth, derived from one of my favourite books, characterised by a youthful cheekiness.

2. Under The Volcano (1984) as Geoffrey Firmin

albert finney under the volcano actor 1984 movie

From my university days, watched at the Arts Cinema Cambridge (also sadly missed), I remember it as a deeply disturbing performance and movie.

3. Erin Brockovich (2000) as Ed Masry

erin brockovich albert finney julia roberts

Avuncular, great chemistry with his shining co-star Julia Roberts, still that cheekiness.

4. Skyfall (2012) as Kincade

albert finney skyfall kincade poster

Shot by my first boss (Roger Deakins), with the immortal line:

Welcome to Scotland!

as he shotguns two of Bond’s assailants. Cheeky and irresistible to the end.

 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a 1960 British drama film directed by Karel Reisz and ... Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) as Arthur Seaton – bridging 50s Angry Young Men (here) and 60s Swinging England (Tom Jones)

Jeremy Hardy was and has left

I first met Jeremy through work, and then a little later through my sister-in-law Deirdre who had become a friend of his working together on Irish political causes. I spent an enjoyable evening sitting beside him and Uncle Pat at a family event in Carlingford, Co. Louth and last chatted with him at the bar in BAFTA a few months ago. I was shocked to hear on Friday that he had died at the age of just 57.

Jeremy hardy comedian addresses a CND march in Trafalgar Square

Jeremy addresses a CND march in Trafalgar Square

Early on in my time at Channel 4 I commissioned a website for a Paul Greengrass drama about the Omagh bomb. I asked Jeremy for a contribution, asking whether there was any silver lining to the Omagh bombing five tears [oops, Freudian slip – years] after the event, and this is what he had to say:

Jeremy Hardy

Jeremy Hardy is a comedian and campaigner.

Omagh was such a sad, stupid, pointless atrocity, committed by people refusing to look at another way forward.

It was an attack on a largely harmonious town – a town which stands as a symbol for what Northern Ireland could be like.

It’s also time that people who want to investigate what happened look not only at the perpetrators but also at the failure of the RUC.

As uncompromising and committed as ever. We had not that much in common politically – nuclear disarmament, the Guildford 4, that’s probably about it – not least because he was so much more politically oriented and committed, but I always enjoyed spending time with him and talking when we crossed paths.

He was a very funny fella (in particular on Radio 4’s The News Quiz). And he wore a cardigan.

His friend and fellow lefty comedian Mark Steele perhaps captured the sad news best and most concisely, in a tweet:

My dearest friend left us early this morning. I was so lucky to have spent 35 years arseing about with him. Knowing him as I did, I know he wouldn’t want you to be sad, he’d want you to be bloody devastated x

10:02 AM – 1 Feb 2019

 

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