Saturday, 23 July 2016

Golub:Masks of Power.

Leon Golub was born in Chicago. He studied in Chicago and he lived in Chicago. He was very much a Chicago man through and through. Alas, the artists from that city have not laid claim to such prominence as its economists. The National Portrait Gallery, with their current exhibition, are doing their bit to remedy that. Only a small bit though. The show's sandwiched into a mezzanine floor up a steep flight of stairs just before you enter the real galleries.

Golub is most well known for his paintings of riots, torture, and interrogation and, hopefully for him, some of the psychological tension and depth of those come through in his portraiture. Working on images from mass media he hopes to document both the arrogance and the venality of nominally powerful men. And they are all men.

He views his political portraits as skins, or rubber masks (early influence on Spitting Image?). Realistic but expressionless. He sees the powerful and how they act but also sees the powerlessness, the hopelessness, that resides as deep within these people as it does all of us. Does he feel some kind of sympathy for these devils?

All of the portraits in the show are acrylic on linen and they begin with a quartet of Francos. The Franco series were made in 1976, a year after the Spanish dictator's death. Francisco Franco Bahamonde created a vast network of terror and surveillance which oversaw ruthless oppression of any critics of his regime.

Fidel Castro is a more divisive character with many admirers on the left. After deposing Fulgencio Batista he's seen Cuba through various phases. Alliances with the Soviet Union, a tourist hotspot etc; Literacy and education are paramount across the island but, as with many of these 'guys', opposition is barely tolerated and a cult of personality has built up around him. Something, with the rise of Trump, Johnson, Corbyn etc;, we need to be very careful about.

Trump and Johnson are, obviously, without a shadow of doubt, bad men. Corbyn appears to be a very good man. Yet, it can't be denied there is a personality cult growing around him. Fed and watered by supporters who'll brook no criticism. If I'm gonna look at these things I'm gonna look at my own side too. One man very few will be annoyed at me for taking objection to is Augusto Pinochet. Very much a cunt's cunt and close ally of our own Margaret Thatcher who was quite happy to turn her back as he had women raped by dogs in football stadia. Better than those damn Argies, eh? This bulwark to communism presided over a regime that tortured dissidents and yet, or perhaps because of it, saw an economic boom led by a small coterie of Chilean economists who'd studied in Illinois and became known as the Chicago boys. I prefer the Chicago of Golub and the songs of Sufjan Stevens.

Hourari Boumediene, above, became president of Algeria after a 1965 coup d'etat. Whilst pursuing an official policy of non-alignment he also, furtively, strove to seek closer links with the dominant Soviet Union.

A country led, at that time, by the man above. Leonid Brezhnev served as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party between 1964 and 1982. Political expansionism and the build up of arms went hand in hand with the deterioration in the quality of life for ordinary citizens under his watch. The Brezhnev Doctrine (Soviet right to interfere in the affairs of any communist country not adhering to the Soviet model, hey! you! you're not doing communism properly!) saw the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and military action against the mujahideen in Afghanistan which helped pave the way for the rise of that country's Taliban. Bad guys aren't just bad guys in life. They leave a legacy of shit that affects us all.

Perhaps a more controversial choice in this chamber of horrors is Giovanna Battista Montini who was elected to the papacy as Pope Paul VI in 1964 and served until his death in 1978. Here we see him re-enacting the famous David Mellor/Antonia de Sancha toe sucking moment sans Chelsea kit. Epic bantz aside he was, in some ways, a reformer yet he unswervingly opposed birth control and ordination of women. Perhaps he was just an old fashioned misogynist using his 'faith' as an excuse or perhaps as a toe sucking infallible human birth control wasn't something he needed to consider. Either way in any gallery of nasties the catholic church, like all churches, should be represented so thanks, Leon.

The Pope may have, at least on the surface, opposed the Vietnam War, but Henry Kissinger certainly didn't. Supporting both that and our old rape friendly buddy Pinochet's overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende won him the Nobel Peace Prize. An event that caused Tom Lehrer to claim satirism had become obsolete. He worked for and/or advised presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford and thus played a crucial, though partial, role in the the history of the last century. An intellectual heavyweight by the standards of today's politics but as nasty as the stump orators that preside over our present debates. It's worrying to note that even when politics wasn't the preserve of dickheads that bad men still rose to the top.

One tick in Kissinger's credit ledger is that he opposed the apartheid rule of Ian Smith's Rhodesia and helped aid transition to black majority rule. The same could not be said for James Eastland. A white supremacist from Mississippi plantation owning stock (and make of that what you will). As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he ruthlessly obstructed all attempts at civil rights legislation.

Another massive racist was Philadelphia police commissioner Francis Rizzo, above. He specifically targeted black neighbourhoods and oversaw, personally probably, strip searches of members of the Black Panther Party. In some ways it's a pity he's no longer with us as there's, surely, a high ranking job in the St Louis force waiting for him right now. I wonder what The Wire's Clay Davis would have to say about this state of affairs but I'm lost for words....

John Foster Dulles, who I assume the airport to be named after, was Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower where he embarked upon an aggressive (and global) anti-communist foreign policy. His push for American support for the French forces in Indochina laid the foundations, set the table, and handed out the dirty chopsticks, for the later Vietnam War.

Hey! What's Michael Foot doing here? Totally out of place amongst these crooks, xenophobes, and exalted mobsters. An intellectual with great oratory skills he was considered too lefty and too scruffy to ever be elected. Remind you of anyone? Whilst undoubtedly being a highly moral man his idealism led to internal divisions within the Labour party that eventually caused a schism. The gang of four leaving to form the SDP. I still don't think Foot deserves his place with these other monsters though.

More comfortable in the company of bigots like Eastland and Rizzo is George Wallace, above. Four times presidental candidate and four times Democractic governor of Alabama (where my maternal grandfather comes from, fact fans). He did all this whilst campaigning for segregationist measures and against integration. An assassination attempt left him severely disabled. Towards the end of his life, in a glimmer of hope for humanity, he retracted many of his more extreme racist attitudes and his last term of governor was enabled through significant African American support.

Valery Giscard D'Estaing, French president from '74-'81, pursued a modernist approach he'd honed during his tenure of Finance Minister under both de Gaulle and Pompidou. On the plus side he strived for better European cooperation. Less positive was his support to Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic and, later on, his support for the coup that overthrew him. Sometimes the French have an attitude towards their former colonies that makes us Brits look enlightened. Sometimes!

So, what was it all about? What was Golub trying to say? I really don't know. I found it fascinating historically but as an art exhibition it didn't really go anywhere. The vacant stares of elderly men is something I can get any day, any place. Perhaps that's what it's all about. Hannah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil writ on linen with acrylic. Maybe a warning that men with good intentions still do bad things. Something Tony Blair may like to share from the dock of The Hague. But also a reminder that even ill intentioned men sometimes get it right It's all very confusing and though I left feeling I had more knowledge than I came in with I did wonder if knowledge really was power and, even if it was, if that was even a good thing.

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