Above: live performance of Wholly Cats, c 1940 with the Benny Goodman Sextet inc Count Basie and Charlie Christian
There is some doubt about Charlie Christian’s date of birth, but most informed opinion now puts it at 29 July 1916.
Charlie was a very important and influential musician, revered in jazz circles as a pioneer (though not the inventor) of the electric guitar and a precursor of the bebop revolution, though he died in March 1942 (of TB, like many other great African American musicians of that generation), before Parker and Gillespie put bebop (or just plain ‘bop’, as it became) on the jazz map.
But his influence goes far beyond jazz, and continues to permeate all of popular music right up to the present day, due to his mastery of the electric guitar. I think it’s fair to say that Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and George Benson are Charlie Christian’s children just as much as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.
Christian’s big break came in 1939, when an initially unenthusiastic Benny Goodman was persuaded (by John Hammond, Goodman’s socialite brother-in-law and a keen champion of racially-integrated jazz) to recruit him for the Goodman Sextet.
Goodman’s biographer James Lincoln Collier (in Benny Goodman And The Swing Era) gives a good account of how Charlie’s influence and musical ideas developed from there:
Although Christian eventually played with the [Benny Goodman] big band for a brief period before his death, for the most part he played only in the Sextet, and it was with the small group that he made an enduring mark on jazz. Aside from bringing the electric guitar to national attention, he is best known for having contributed ideas to the bop movement which would begin to coalesce around 1942. For one thing, Christian was using some of the upper notes of the chord — ninths and elevenths — more frequently than other jazz players. He was also prone to substitute a diminished chord for the dominant seventh in places. The boppers would eventually develop these practices to the point where chromatic alterations and the upper-chord notes would be a major characteristic of the music.
For a second thing, Christian liked to use long lines of unaccented eighth notes. This was in part due to the nature of his instrument. It cannot be made to accent notes with anything like the subtlety of a wind instrument. But it was also a matter of taste — Charlie Christian liked to run long lines. There is a surprising lack of syncopation in his work. The use of long lines of relatively uninflected notes also became a characteristic of bebop.
Christian habitually phrased against the grain of the tune. Jazz musicians have always played asymmetrical phrases, but there is nonetheless a tendency to design a solo to match the two-, four- and eight-bar segments most tunes are constructed of. Christian persistently played phrases of odd lengths — one of three-and-a-half bars, followed by another of five, and then one of two — interjected at irregular points in the chorus. This use of disjunctive phrasing was also typical of bebop.
Finally, Christian frequently ended phrases on the second half of the last beat of a measure. This is the weakest point in a measure, and in most standard music, ranging from the operas of Mozart to the worst material from Tin Pan Alley, phrases are ended at stronger points, often at the first beat of a measure. But this inclination to plunk down at a weak point also became a characteristic of bebop.
(from Benny Goodman And The Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier, pub: Oxford 1989).
But, as it turned out, Charlie Christian didn’t live to see or hear the musical revolution he’d set in train: in 1941 he contracted TB and died in March 1942 from associated pneumonia in a Staten Island sanatorium. He was buried in Harlem in the cheapest coffin available. His advocate, John Hammond, wrote, “He was a sweet loving man with few defences against the world. His only resource was his music and when he was unable to play he was unable to live.”
[NB: I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Digby Fairweather’s entry on Charlie Christian in the Rough Guide To Jazz, by Carr, Fairweather and Priestly, 1995]
Jim Denham writes:
A born-again Christian semi-Stalinist folk musician may seen a strange friend for Shiraz Socialist and for me in particular. Karl Dallas and I never met in person, but had a number of exchanges by email and via below-the-line comments here at Shiraz. We had some especially sharp disagreements over the saxophonist Gild Atzmon, who Karl continued to defend -and, indeed, to promote in both senses of the word – long after it should have been obvious to him that Atzmon was a vicious antisemite and dangerous reactionary. Mind you, Karl was far from being alone on the left in his softness on Atzmon, and at least (unlike, say the SWP) seems to have been motivated by naivety rather than cynicism and sectarianism.
But for all of that, Karl remained courteous and friendly. I never doubted his fundamental decency, his often personally courageous commitment to what he understood to be socialism and the self-evident sincerity he demonstarted in every aspect of his life. He was living proof of something I’ve long believed: that it’s possible (on the broad left, at least) to have sharp political differences with people, yet still like and respect them. Our shared love of music certainly helped maintain friendly terms. Karl was a frequent contributor to the Morning Star (and its forunner, the Daily Worker), and it only seems right and proper to reproduce that paper’s tribute to him (NB: we’ve only republished the main obituary; it’s worth following the link for several other appreciations):
KARL FREDERICK DALLAS, who died on June 21 at the age of 85, will go down in history as the father of British folk-rock journalism.
But for those who worked with him at the Morning Star or assisted him organising gigs to raise awareness and funds for numerous movements and for those who stood next to him as human shields in Iraq, joined his hunger strikes or even watched him don donkey ears to keep our community swimming baths open, he’ll be remembered for his solidarity wherever human injustices and inequalities prevailed. He was one with us, the people.
Dallas was brought up in a socialist family and was named after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. From the age of seven, he was a peace activist. It was then that he accompanied his mother, a single parent, on a demonstration against Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.
From an early age he set his heart on a career as a poet and lyricist. He understood the value of the arts, specifically the protest song, as a cultural unifier.
Describing his most political songs as “love songs with a universal message,” Dallas summed this up in an encouraging declaration of hope: “People survive despite everything.”
Via a stint as a publicist for Billy Smart’s Circus, he came to journalism and his work was informed by his own considerable skill as a musician. Dallas had a knack of scouting out the best talent around.
At first using the name Fred Dallas, it would be the mid-’60s before he became widely know as Karl Dallas, having established himself as the most influential music journalist in Britain.
He was a contributor to Melody Maker from the 1950s to the 1970s and continued his political interests by writing for the Daily Worker — later the Morning Star — and self-published the magazines Folk News, Acoustic Music and Jazz Music News among others.
Dallas was a popular figure, gaining interviews from even the most elusive of all artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Davey Graham and he was known to gain access to Pink Floyd when no other journalist could.
Throughout his career, he kept his professional integrity by writing what he thought was important and never allowed friendship to influence what he would write.
At some point, he came to the conclusion that “music was a murderous business,” having seen too many creative sensibilities destroyed by a capitalist industry and those controlling it.
Dallas was a rock and folk survivor. A recovering alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since the early 1980s, he never forgot October 9 1979, the day he had his last drink. It was this personal struggle with his own demons that, perhaps, made Dallas so akin to those whom he affectionately called “the walking wounded” who “soldiered on.” Having considering himself an atheist with an inclination towards paganism, Dallas converted to Christianity in 1983.
He retired from full-time journalism in 1999. Even so, he continued to work ceaselessly, celebrating the multicultural richness and diversity of Bradford where he made his home — he had left London and moved there with his wife in 1989.
Speaking out against the EDL, he assembled crowds in peaceful, multifaith opposition to racism and fascism. Having had his songs recorded by the likes of Ewan MacColl and The Spinners, Dallas ran songwriting workshops and he was a regular at Bradford’s Topic venue, where his composition Hamba Khalie, Sala Khalie, with its lyrics: “Go well, stay well, safe journey home” became the folk club’s signature finale.
He wrote plays, novels and poetry like there was no tomorrow, along with online music reviews and he remained a loyal contributor to the Morning Star. His work for Bradford Radio included weekly debates, a jazz show and film reviews and he was at times a quirky broadcaster. His marathon eight-hour Midsummer Night’s Radio Madness Show — at Midnight is remembered with particular fondness.
He was a regular guest at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention and set up his tent there for the last time in 2013, meeting briefly with old friends and enthusing over the raw energy of the Yorkshire band The Dunwells. The most poignant moment of that weekend for me had to be sitting next to him when Fairport sang Who Knows Where the Time Goes. He had seen so many bright lights cut down in their prime but it was the loss of Sandy Denny that seemed to haunt him most.
Back in 1981, on the occasion of Dallas’s 50th birthday, folk-rock musician Roy Harper predicted: “Karl Dallas will outlive us all.” With a massive backlog of writing, published and unpublished, he leaves enough of a mark to ensure his voice will live on.
He lives on also in the most vulnerable and would-be silenced of society to whom he gave his support, at times risking his own safety and even his life. A man of words, a maker of songs and verse and a teller of tales, he embraced new technologies and was an eager advocate of the selfie-broadcast.
Shortly before his death Dallas announced on Facebook: “I’m living one day at a time and planning a fun-filled funeral. Try and be there.”
A lifelong activist and comrade, he will be sorely missed. But it is a small comfort to know he remained with us for the summer solstice, when the tilt of the earth was most inclined towards the sun.
Our kind thoughts and condolences are with his wife Gloria, his children Molly and Steven and their families.
This article appears in today’s Morning Star:
We need to talk about homophobia
LGBT education is needed now more than ever in the wake of the Orlando shootings, argues RABBIL SIKDAR
FIFTY people killed because of their sexuality in Orlando. It’s clear that though 21st century is here with increasing legislations in support of LGBT people, there is still an entrenched camp of bigots who have nothing but seething hatred for these people.
What struck me the most wasn’t the incident itself. Jihadist violence against innocent people is becoming increasingly common. The appeal of Islamic State (Isis) is far-reaching.
What particularly struck me was the grief and rage of Owen Jones later on Sky News when he was trying to explain this to two heterosexuals.
This wasn’t violence against humanity, as they blindly insisted. It was violence against one of the most viciously oppressed and marginalised groups in the world, who face varying degrees of discrimination, prejudice and violence.
What happened was a terrorist attack, but it was also an attack on LGBT people. The killer’s father would come out and say his son was openly repulsed by the sight of two men kissing.
With any terrorist incident there come the inquests. Why did it happen, the motivations, the factors, who to blame, who not to blame?
Muslims often find themselves dragged into that blame game as the far-right brigade come out in their numbers.
Atrocities become shamelessly hijacked for right-wing propaganda. With the attacks in Orlando, we had Donald Trump praising himself and the EU Leave rightwingers warning about Islamism.
The issue of gun control and the easy access that mentally deranged lunatics and terrorists have to weapons has not been addressed.
It’s a failure of Barack Obama that he has been effectively blocked from gun reforms by an NRA-backed Republican Party.
The country has shifted in its opinion, but Republicans remain firmly wedded to the free access to guns. Even as violence rips through the US, the second amendment is fiercely protected.
But those who place the biggest problem from this at gun reforms are wrong. The biggest problem is homophobia.
It’s still rampant. Within the US, the LGBT community faces immense prejudice and discrimination. The right to marry and adopt is fiercely contested.
Though many states have now legalised gay marriage, the US faces a battle with homophobia.
The Orlando killer was also a Muslim. That doesn’t automatically mark Muslims out as being uniquely homophobic, as many are claiming.
But people need to be honest: the stances towards the LGBT community within parts of the Muslim community are often extremely regressive and troubling.
It’s why gay Muslims rarely come out. In the Muslim world, the punishment for homosexuality is often death.
In Britain, polls have shown that over half of Muslims believe homosexuality is wrong.
And of course at the extreme end of the scale Isis punishes homosexuals by throwing them off towers.
This despite the Koran itself never prescribing a punishment. Homosexuality is often treated as some sort of sin that’s as morally corrupt as murder or rape.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have institutionalised and rationalised homophobia rather than showing tolerance.
Within Britain, it’s not talked enough about in households or in schools. LGBT Muslims face huge identity conflicts, fear of being marginalised and treated as freaks, unable to find mosques welcoming them.
Conservative Muslims have insisted that whatever their stance on homosexuality, murder is wrong. But it misses the point.
When you treat homosexuality as a sin and LGBT people as abominations, you strip them of their humanity and empathy and forge a scenario where acts of violence can be inflicted upon them because they are regarded as lesser beings who have strayed wildly.
When the media continuously demonises Muslims or black people, we immediately point out how the antagonist was radicalised by the social environment of hatred and poisonous bile and bigotry towards these people.
Homophobia isn’t exclusive to Islam and, indeed, polls show that overall Roman Catholics tend to be more negative towards homosexuality than ordinary Muslims.
Historically, it wasn’t always the case that Muslim society reacted like this to LGBT people.
Under the Ottoman empire, homosexuality was not treated as a crime. But right now religious authorities have to act.
Within the Muslim world, Muslims who are politically, culturally or sexually different from others are treated as deviants and heretics. Their punishment is often execution.
LGBT people still have to live in fear of being who they are. Homophobic attitudes are harder to defeat in later stages of life. So start early. LGBT education is needed now more than ever.
And acknowledging that there are huge swathes of the Muslim community that do not tolerate homosexuality, peaceful though they may be, is one of these tasks.
This is fabulous stuff: musician Dennis Rose’s amateur film of the jazz life (as lived by young professional musicians) in Soho of the early 1950’s, watched and commented upon thirty or so years later by participants Ronnie Scott, Benny Green, Laurie Morgan and (perhaps surprisingly) comedian Bill Maynard, amongst others. This went out in the 1980’s as part of a BBC2 jazz week, but hasn’t been seen since. Prepare yourselves for a lot of working class East End Jewish humour and political incorrectness:
Above: trailer for the 1961 film version
Review by Jean Lane (also published in the current issue of Solidarity):
A Raisin in the Sun was written in 1959 by Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway and the inspiration behind Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’.
The play is set in an overcrowded Chicago slum apartment just before the emergence of the civil rights movement. The Youngers, a working class family comprising of grandmother Nena (Mama), her son Walter with his wife Ruth and child Travis, and Walter’s sister, Beneatha, are about to come into an insurance pay-out of $10,000, after the death of Nina’s husband. The potential opportunities that come with it, cause tension.
Walter wants to use the money to realise his dream of self-advancement by investing, along with his old street friends, in a liquor store business. His sister, Beneatha, is studying to become a doctor. She is experimenting with radical ideas new to her family such as atheism. She berates one boyfriend for his assimilation into white culture and is being drawn by another, a Nigerian medical student, into the ideas of black nationalism and anti-colonial independence.
Arguments over the money and the cramped conditions of the Youngers’ lives are exacerbated when Ruth discovers that she is two months pregnant. Her relationship with Walter reaches breaking point when Lena refuses to fund the liquor store idea. Instead, Lena puts a deposit down on a larger house in a solidly white neighbourhood. Eventually Lena relents and gives the rest of the money to Walter to use as he sees fit, with the proviso that he keeps back enough of it to pay for his sister’s education.
A representative of the white neighbourhood, Karl Linder, turns up with the message that they would far rather the Youngers did not move in as they would not fit in, and offers to buy the house from them. With righteous indignation from the family, Linder is sent packing by a Walter now imbued with a sense of confidence, as a young up and coming business man. However, Walter’s friend, Willy, runs off with all the money including that for Benathea’s education. Walter’s chance to prove himself a man deserving of respect again seems far away. To the horror of the three women in his life, he contemplates taking the money from the white man who says that they are not good enough to be his neighbours.
The dashing of the family’s dreams of a better life are reflected in Benathea’s loss of confidence in an independent future for black people. She asserts that nationalism is a lost cause which can only lead to the swapping of white masters for black. Walter finally proves himself to be a man in Lena’s eyes by telling the white man where to go with his money and the family prepare to move into their new home. The play ends leaving the audience aware that many of their troubles as a black family in 1950s America have only just begun.
The title for the play is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore – And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
All the emotions expressed in the poem are there in the play, in this production, directed by Dawn Walton, and electrically so. All the political ideas of identity, racism, gender roles and social consciousness are brought refreshingly within the sphere of working-class life.
• The play is on tour around Britain ending in Coventry on 28 March.
William McIlvanney 25 Nov 1936 – 5 Dec 2015: writer, thinker, poet of ‘Tartan noir.’
Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him. When the mood seeped into him, nothing mattered. He could think of no imaginable success, no way of life, no dream of wishes fulfilled that would satisfy.
Last night and this morning hadn’t helped. He had finally left Bob Lilley and the rest still on the surveillance in Dumfries. On the strength of solid information, they had followed the car from Glasgow. By a very devious route it has taken them to Dumfries. AS far as he knew, that was where it was still parked — in the waste lot beside the pub. Nothing has happened. Instead of catching them in the act of breaking in, three hours of picking your nose. He has left them to it and come back to the office, gloom sweet gloom.
It was strange how this recurring feeling had always been a part of him. Even when he was a child, it had been present in its own childish form. He remembered nights when the terror of darkness had driven him through to his parents’ room. He must have run for miles on that bed. It wouldn’t have surprised him if his mother had had to get the sheets re-soled. Then it had been bats and bears, wolves running round the wallpaper. The spiders were the worst, big, hairy swines, with more legs than a chorus-line.
Now the monsters were simultaneously less exotic and less avoidable. He was drinking too much — not for pleasure, just sipping it systematically, like low proof hemlock. His marriage was a maze nobody had ever mapped, an infinity of habit and hurt and betrayal down which he and Edna had wanered separately, meeting occasionally in the children. He was a policeman, a Detective Inspector, and more and more he wondered how that had happened. And he was nearly forty.
* Guardian appreciation here
Ten years on from Katrina, and New Orleans is still recovering. Great progress has been made (no thanks to the wretched initial response from the federal government under Bush), but it’s been uneven and problems remain – not least in working class black areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.
Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, though based in New York, has long regarded NO has his spiritual home:
“I was there playing at the Satchmo Summer Fest right before the hurricane … and then again at Jazz Fest (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival), nine months after the hurricane. A dear friend took me on a reality tour, from the ‘blue roofs,’ protective blue tarps on wind-damaged roofs, to the devastation of whole neighborhoods totalled by the flooding. The Ninth Ward looked like a war-ravaged ghost town. It broke my heart to see my beloved New Orleans in such a state’ (quoted by Michael Steinman, of the most excellent Jazz Lives blog, in his notes to Jon-Erik’s fantastic 2007 Arbors CD Blue Roof Blues – A Love Letter To New Orleans).
Now Jon-Erik has released a new CD/album celebrating the Crescent City’s partial recovery: it was recorded in NO in April and as well as Jon-Eric, features his New York pal, guitarist and vocalist Matt Munisteri and two New Orleanians – clarinetist Evan Christopher and bassist Kerry Lewis. The album is entitled In The Land Of Beginning Again, and Jon-Eric writes of the title:
“Why ‘In The Land Of Beginning Again?’ Louis Armstrong spoke of playing this song regularly in his early days as a member of Fate Marable’s band on a Mississippi Riverboat. It was their closing theme. This wistful, seldom-heard song is a fitting theme for this album … as it reflects New Orleans’ resiliency. It is a huge relief to see how this unique and wonderful Gulf Coast city has bounced back and reinvented itself since ‘the storm.’ It seems my hometown of Detroit is now being talked about as another ‘land of beginning again,’ with its ‘keep on keepin’ on spirit.”
NB: I have no commercial interest in this CD (on the Jazzology label), but can personally recommend it. As well as the fantastic music by Jon-Erik, Evan, Matt and Kerry, it comes with notes by the A.J Liebling of jazz writing, Michael Steinman and cover art by Cécile McLorin Salvant – a fine vocalist who turns out to be an equally excellent graphic artist.
Largely written by Comrade Matt C, edited by JD:
A number of prominent individuals from the British film and arts world have signed a letter, published in yesterday’s Guardian, calling on cinemas to boycott the London Israeli Film and Television Festival:
The festival is co-sponsored by the Israeli government via the Israeli embassy in London, creating a direct link between these cinemas, the festival screenings and Israeli policies. By benefiting from money from the Israeli state, the cinemas become silent accomplices to the violence inflicted on the Palestinian people. Such collaboration and cooperation is unacceptable. It normalises, even if unintentionally, the Israeli government’s violent, systematic and illegal oppression of the Palestinians.
The signatories – some of whom are Jewish – include Peter Kosminsky, Mike Leigh, John Pilger, Ken Loach and Miriam Margolyes.
The festival’s organisers reply:
“Our festival is a showcase for the many voices throughout Israel, including Arab Israelis and Palestinians, as well as religious and secular groups. These are highly talented film-makers and actors, working together successfully, to provide entertainment and insight for film and television lovers internationally.
“Freedom of expression in the arts is something that the British have worked so hard to defend. An attempt to block the sharing of creative pursuits and the genuine exchange of ideas and values is a disappointing reaction to a festival that sets out to open up lines of communication and understanding.”
There are, I would suggest, two problems with the boycott call. First, it is based on confusion between the Israeli government and the Israeli state. Clearly, the two are not entirely separate but a distinction can be made between the government (that is the policy making executive) and the state more generally. The state obviously includes some institutions that socialists would wholeheartedly oppose: the military (as we do that of any other state, including our own), Mossad and institutions that reflect religious particularlism.
The Israeli state prioritises the rights of Jewish Israelis over Arab Israelis (and many other states, including Britain, have racist biases), but there are many things that the Israeli state does that are not directly linked to this, such as arts funding. To a degree, arts funding reflects the character of the state which is often not good (and this includes the British state). Nonetheless, many of those on the list are happy to take funding from the British state. So looking down the list: Mike Leigh for many years made dramas for the state-funded and ultimately stated-controlled BBC, and currently has a production of The Pirates of the Penzance running of the English National Opera (state funded through the Art Council); John Brissenden works for the state (Bournemouth University) and presumably accepts its funding for his PhD; Gareth Evans works curates at the Whitechapel Gallery which receives state funding, again via the Arts Council. I am sure the similar points could be made about most of the signatories.
No doubt the boycotters would reply that they are not “silent accomplices” of the state (as those participating in the London Israeli Film and Television festival are styled in this letter), and their work is not a form of “collaboration” with it. They would argue, I guess, their work is not compromised by this funding, or at least that they fight against the states restrictions: is a reasonable defence. The arts and academic research frequently rely on a degree of support from the state, and this is in many ways preferable to the being reliant on the free market. But it would appear that the boycotters are not prepared to extend the same arguments to Israeli film makers whose work would be unlikely to be seen in this country without the sponsorship of the Israeli arts establishment (which means state support). The boycotters accept the sponsorship of their own (racist, militarist etc.) state but do not think that others (or uniquely, those in Israel) have the right to do the same.
The second question is: what are these people boycotting? The point is not whether anyone who opposes the policies of the Israeli state in Gaza and the West Bank would agree with all of the films being offered here. A socialist and consistent democrat should never be a left-wing censor allowing only views that they endorse to be aired. The only possible grounds for a supporter of free speech to oppose a cultural festival such as this is that it constitutes propaganda that is the cultural front of oppression (and even then, calling for it to be boycotted would be questionable approach). Looking at the brochure for the festival it is clearly not such a form of propaganda – even Fauda, a drama about Israeli undercover commandoes targeting a Hamas militant, runs with the current fashion of moral ambiguity rather than being a gung-ho adventure.
Other items on the programme more obviously address the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestine conflict (Dancing with Arabs, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem) and the influence of religion on aspects of Israeli life, although many other offerings are more mainstream films and TV dramas.
It is certainly possible to criticise both the selection of material to be shown at the festival and the Israeli media industry behind it since there are no films, as far as I can see, made by Arab-Israeli film makers. But this is hardly the point. Rather, those who call for a boycott demand (it would seem, uniquely) that film makers from Israel should only be allowed to show their productions in Britain if they do so without any association with the state in which they live. Given the nature of cultural production and its reliance on state support, this is a call for a boycott of all but the most independent of film and TV producers and, in reality, amounts to a total boycott of all Israeli films and art. It is a ridiculous, reactionary stance that will do the Palestinian cause no practical good whatsoever, while alienating mainstream Jewish opinion in Britain and fuelling an insidious form of anti-Semitism that is becoming more and more “acceptable” in British liberal-left Guardianista circles. In truth, this boycott call (like the entire BDS campaign) only makes political sense if you wish for the ‘delegitimisation’ and, indeed, destruction, of the Israeli state: something that most of the signatories would, I’m pretty sure, deny they advocate.
Between now and June 20th you have the opportunity to see ‘The Big No’, an exhibition of work of one by the greatest left-wing satirical artists of the 20th century: George Grosz. It’s at the London Print Studio (W10) and admission is free of charge.
Grosz was a founder of the Berlin Dadaist movement who created hundreds of drawings that savagely depicted the corruption, injustice and decadence of the Weimar republic. Along with Helmut Herzfeld (who became John Heartfield) he introduced photomontage to the mainstream. Many of his his drawings are composed like photomontages.
The drawings use superb fine-pen draftsmanship while the paintings are composed of bold brush-stokes, to convey shocking images of extremes of wealth and poverty, sexual exploitation and the broken survivors of WWI.
The Big No (named after Grosz’s autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No) features two portfolios of his drawings: Ecce Homo (Behold The Man), published in 1923 and Hintergrund (Background) from 1928. Ecce Homo was the subject of a four year legal case, with Grosz and his publisher accused of both pornography and bringing the German military into disrepute. They were acquitted, but in 1933 the Nazis had all the plates destroyed and the drawings publicly burned. We are able to see the work now because in 1959, after Grosz’s death, his widow and sons licenced a facsimile edition of the portfolio.
The Nazis denounced Grosz as a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work (together with that of fellow modernists, Jews and leftists like Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix) featured in the notorious 1937 “degenerate art” exhibition organised by the Nazis. By then Grosz had fled with his family to the US, where he remained for the rest of his life and where his son Marty became a well-known jazz guitarist.
Grosz wrote, ‘In 1916 I was discharged from military service. The Berlin to which I returned was a cold and grey city. What I saw made me loathe most of my fellow men; everything I could say has been recorded in my drawings. The busy cafés and wine-cellars merely accentuated the gloom of the dark, unheated residential districts. I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon; men playing cards on the coffins of the women they had murdered. I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands… I was each one of the characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large…’
This exhibition is simply unmissable. I don’t know whether or not it’s going to appear anywhere outside London, so even if you don’t live in capital, I’d recommend a special visit. And how appropriate that it’s appearing in one of the less affluent parts of London, at studio whose stated mission is to “empower people and communities through practical engagement with the visual and graphic arts.”