Volume 6, No.2 Letter from Leon Trotsky to André Breton.

Trotsky by Diego Rivera

Trotsky as a youth Prophetic — Leon Trotsky

I had thought to give readers the entirety of Leon Trotsky’s letter of support to the FIARI, but reading it I find that the greater part of it is to focus on the betrayal of André Malraux, which I have written about in this blog earlier in the year; I am instead using some passages from it to clarify Trotsky’s position on the relationship between politics and art, particularly in this last statement of Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.2, Winter 1939.

Trotsky, Rivera, Breton
Rivera, Trotsky, Breton

Opening with a comradely greeting to Rivera and Breton (remember that Trotsky wrote a good part of the manifesto of the FIARI, though he didn’t sign it — Rivera did): “With all my heart I congratulate Diego Rivera and yourself on the creation of the FIARI — a federation of truly revolutionary and truly independent artists.”   even as the government of France tries to ‘ape’ the heroes of fascism.

“The duller and more ignorant the dictator, the more he feels called upon to prescribe the development of science, philosophy, and art. The sheep-like servility of the intelligentsia is, in turn a not unimportant sign of the rottenness of contemporary society.” 

“The unhappy Soviet press evidently on orders from above, complains bitterly in these latter days of the ‘impoverishment’ of scientific and artistic production in the USSR, and reproaches Soviet artists and writers with lack of sincerity, courage and vitality.”

One can’t believe one’s eyes: the boa constrictor delivers to the rabbit a homily on independence and personal  dignity. Hideous and ignoble picture, but how worthy of our time!

The end of the letter is the affirmation of values that preceded this period and will continue to describe the  work of the artist: 

The struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. WITHOUT THIS, THERE IS NO ART. “YOU SHALL NOT LIE! THAT IS THE  FORMULA OF ALL SALVATION.”

Trotsky doesn’t melt politics into the work of art; it was the failures of the Soviet Union, with both its programmatic positions about art, and its bad investment in Popular Frontism, that has led to a state of deterioration of the Communist movement, and its art.

So Trotsky turns back to this new organisation — the FIARI —  he opens the last part of the letter by suggesting that, “Properly understood, the FIARI is not an aesthetic or political school and cannot become one.  But FIARI can oxidise the atmosphere in which artists breathe and create.”  It will be the works of art that will change EVERYTHING.

In our epoch of convulsive reaction, of cultural decline and return to savagery, truly independent creation cannot but be revolutionary by its very nature, for it cannot but seek an outlet from intolerable social suffocation.  But art as a whole, and each artist in particular, seeks this outlet in ways proper to himself — not relying upon orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn upon all who submit to them. To encourage such attitudes among the best circles of artists — this is the task of the FIARI, I firmly believe that its name will enter history.”

For many who have been reading and writing about politics and art over the past 25 years, Trotsky’s position may seem old-fashioned, pious, and tangled in the web of over- determinations, constructions, ideological mistakes and traps….the suffocating fabric of Deconstructive and Foucauldian arguments for how it has all come to be as it is. (Baudrillard, I’d say makes the better case,  for the spectacularisation that substitutes for reality).  But Trotsky’s sense that there is an urge toward freedom, above all, that makes art revolutionary and that revolutionises art, is one that can still be recognised as inspiration, as the call to create, as the voice of a Muse, as the search for Truth, and as newly born over and over from our desire for freedom:


Ruaschenberg Inspired — Robert Rauschenberg


Next Week: Dwight Macdonald– “Our Quarter” Vol.6.NO.3

Paris Letter: Sean Niall, Vol. 6, No. 2, Partisan Review, Winter, 1939.

Part II: The ways forward.

Now Niall turns to the case of IFARI — You may remember from the discussion posted about the IFARI earlier this year — which I reprint here to state the  basics of this organisation founded by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera and also attributed to Leon Trotsky:

“Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the  Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left.  Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.” — editors, Partisan Review,

The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917.  Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.

Naill introduces the first issue of Cle, IFIRA’s  journal as  a recalibration of the Leftist support of surrealism as a revolutionary weapon:

“The purely politically minded might cavil somewhat at a violence of language, a personality of invective, that smacks a trifle of literary ultra-leftism; but those who have been nauseated by the dead-level Stalinization of French liberals, the careerist degeneration of such once brilliant writers as Aragon, and the general sickliness of the whole politico-artistic situation in France, will understand and sympathize with the desire of Cle’s directors to have its opening blast utterly unequivocal and violently purifactive.”

Niall is very hard on Paul Nizan, novelist and member of the Communist Party in France, who he describes as one of the ‘literary stooges’ of the party, whose recently published novel, La Conspiration, “gives the ‘ Communist’ quotation of the season: “Revolution is all. very well, but its just pure romanticism.”

In fact, Nizan was in conflict with the Popular Front position, and Nizan was a friend ad early exponent of Sartre’s Existentialism, exploring modern alienation, conflicts that faced petits-bourgeois radicals caught between contending class forces.  When the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the non-aggression pact in 1939, Nizan left the Communist Party, though he didn’t become a revolutionary or a member of IFIRA.

The last parts of Niall’s “Letter from Paris” are harsh and in places vaguely anti-semitic — the German Jewish refugee musicians are satirised for turning the concert halls into Temples, where they sigh and breathe heavily into their hands and handkerchiefs. He also criticises Cocteau for being morbid and perverse in his new work. Niall details his complaints of decadence, but participates in them as well. He ends by proposing a bottle of bad Champagne with his ‘pals’ as the best antidote to what’s going wrong in Paris.

And so the War begins.


Next Week: Letter from Leon Trotsky to Andre Breton.


Paris Letter: Sian Niall,PR Vol. 6,No. 2, Winter 1939

This is a two-parter again. Part I: The Spectre of Fascism.

The next substantive essay in the Winter, 1939 Volume of Partisan Review  is a second letter from Paris by Sean Niall (Sherry Mangan): it was written in the late autumn of 1938 and it, along with the letter from Leon Trotsky that ends the volume, conveys the tension of those months  opening on to the start of the War.   You might recall from his “Paris Letter” written in the late summer of  the same year that he was 34 at the time. He was a long-time Trotskyist activist in North and South America, closely tied to the Fourth International, as well as working for those sources of regular pay checks for men such as Dwight Macdonald and other PR writers — at Time, Fortune, and Life magazines.

Sherry Magnan

He opens with a look at the art world in Paris in late 1938 –against the background of the Munich agreement with the signature of French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier — on the  Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938. The French galleries are hesitant to put on new shows:  ” Paris’s autumn season has proved to be a rickety child, timid, cranky, and ready at the least alarm to give up the ghost entirely. The galleries will still plan no more than one show in advance; publishers’ lists are, to put it politely, not exactly world-shaking; and as for really striking novelties on the concert-programmes, they can practically be counted on the fingers of one thumb.”

He goes on to foreground the political and cultural crisis at hand: It is the “spectre,”  not of Communism,but of Fascism, that is haunting  France: “To a pedestrian meditating on, say, the new establishment in France of concentration- camps for “undesirable foreigners,” the sight of the Greco-vegetarian figure of  Raymond Duncan, suddenly sandal-flapping from his preposterous “Akademia” in the rue de Seine, seems literally a sheer hallucination.”

images-5 Raymond Duncan

In his political/artistic critique, Niall addresses the journal Beaux-Art, a directory of what was going on in the arts. But now, late in 1938, it has taken on a programme for a ‘truly’ national art, meaning a return to academic painting, and an art “purified of cubism, surrealism, abstractionism, and everything else of interest that has occurred since impressionism.”  This is much like the approach of the pre-Nazi German art world. He goes on to link this reactionary move within art with racism: “the latest report from Pere Lachaise Cemetery is that, sure enough, some racial puritan has repeated the castration of the figure on the Epstein tomb of Oscar Wilde.”   Niall explains this general atmosphere  is that the cultural world “is haunted by the jittery feeling that someone or something called war or fascism is constantly looking over its shoulder when it works,” but he finds as well that people haven’t drawn the right conclusions from what this all means: it is is the result of the ongoing betrayals of the Communist Party’s participation in the political and social life of Europe, including stealing Trotsky’s archive of papers, the assassinations of  Ignace Reiss and Rudolf Klement, and the death of Leon Sedov — all Trotskyists.

The decay of the internal life of the Soviet Union has also had a pernicious effect on the left of centre writers and activists within France. Romain Rolland  left the CP with the Moscow Trials,  but now appears to cling to aspects of popular frontism that offer liberal rather than revolutionary prospects.

Niall is a straightforward confident explicator of the complexity of the Left and because of that he is able to flavour his expositions with humour and irony. So, for example, he describes the various literary-political movements and groupings as the “flesh-pots (or rather ink-) pots of literary Stalinism in a country where literary movements live usually an amoeba-like life of perpetual self-divisions and fusions, unamoeba-like enough, however in the violence of diatribe that usually attends them.”

Here Niall turns to the elements of this period that suggest moves forward within the cultural struggle: he is pleased that Andre Breton has criticised the British group of Surrealists for wanting to withdraw from the art battles into “the cozy ambience of surrealist success and Popular Front  High-life”.  Niall applauds Breton for seeing the necessity, at time, to educate its troops when they wander off.  And not to spare exclusion if required.

Next week: Part II:  The Ways Forward, in which Niall discusses the work of the FIARI

Art Versus Method. Part 2. Juan Gris. George K.L.Morris


Unknown-7 Juan Gris (1887-1927)

This is our way into George L.K. Morris’s second half of his ‘Art Chronicle review of MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibition.  Here he turns,  by way of comparison, to the Jacques Seligmann ​Galleries,  to assess the work of Juan Gris (1887-1927). Gris was a Spanish artist who lived in Paris most of his career. He and Picasso and Braque created or invented the school of Cubism, and Picasso was said to have at times been very competitive with Gris. The lithograph in front of us hangs in the kitchen galley of our studio in the Barbican. My mother bought the lithograph, No.38 of a series of 50 of Jean Le Musician, in Paris, 1938 just before she returned to New York after a Carnegie Fellowship in Paris. I don’t know why, but I began to love him — Jean, that is — from the age of about 8, and over the decades, whenever I visited New York to see my parents, I made sure to spend time studying his face. London’s Tate Modern has No. 48 of the same series in its collection: the note that accompanies it explains its content and context:

“Jean the Musician depicts a young man named Jean-Claude Brune. Gris refers to him in a letter of 19 March 1921, describing him as ‘a young man from a family which is very important locally – he’s the son of a conseiller général of this department … he’s a good musician and a very intelligent boy who I think would like to own something by myself.”

“The concentration on likeness ….can be seen as part of a widespread return to realism in France and Italy in the early 1920s. The prevalence of a classicising style at this time reflected the desire of many artists, including Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966), Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), Gino Severini (1883-1966) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), for a ‘return to order” in the arts. This change in style has been understood in terms of a widespread desire for stability and tradition after the disruption and chaos of the First World War.”


Morris has moved from the modern, technological, and antiseptic Bauhaus to the classicism of Juan Gris. He upbraids the viewing public for ignoring the show of Juan Gris’s work by contrast to the popularity of the Bauhaus exhibition: and reads his work in comparison with the Cubists.  “Gris has never been easy to write about. He did not assault the public with anything comparable to Picasso’s sensational impasto, nor does he lure the spectator with the engaging succulence  of Braque. His work was always very reticent.”

Morris takes Gris as his example of the triumph of ‘art’ over ‘method’ and  carries into his analysis his programme for aesthetic excellence, and is grounded in his own participation in the world of the “Park Avenue Cubists”: Gris is praised for that ‘reticence,’ for ‘charm and. monumentality’ associated with the Spanish aristocracy, which he names as ‘an aristocratic suavity’ still unsurpassed. Morris shifts Juan Gris technique and execution of form back to his being: “Only years of culture and an inborn feeling for style can dictate what [that form] should be”.

Morris’s argument, in both parts of his commentary, manages to avoid giving any considered criteria by which to make either aesthetic or methodological judgments. He falls back on his own ‘inborn feeling for style.’ The enigma remains. Bauhaus and Juan Gris both win.


Next Week: Sean Niall,  PARIS LETTER





Art Chronicle: Art Versus Method George L.K. Morris. Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.2

Part 1: Morris on Bauhaus

George L.K. Morris, you may recall, was the chief financial backer of  Partisan Review,and served as art critic for the journal.  Morris was known as one of the “Park Avenue Cubists,” a group of abstract artists, born into  old American families with money and educational privileges. His wife, Susy Frelinghuysen, was an opera singer as well as another member of the “Old East Coast” elite.   Morris and Suzy created a life for themselves as advocates of abstract art. george_l-_k-_morris_and_suzy_frelinghuysen Another member of the PAC was the painter Charles G. Shaw, who trained for a time to become an architect, and  made the skyline of New York City an emblem of American abstraction.george-g-shaw new-york-oddly-enough Shaw was also a rich New Yorker, an heir to the Woolworth fortune, and a graduate of Yale.

And backing them all was the patron of European and American Modernist art — collector, painter, philanthropist —  A.E. Gallatin, who created in  1927 The Gallery of Living Art, a few years later renamed The Museum of Living Art’  at NYU.   a-e-gallatin

In 1939, when the Moscow Trials were being discussed still in uncomprehending tones, and Trotskyism was a growing argument with the Stalinist Popular Front, Morris used his “Art Chronicle” to review an exhibition at MoMA on the Bauhaus Movement, as a counterpoint to a show at the Jacques Seligmann Gallery, on 57th street, near MoMA, of paintings by Juan Gris.  The political argument about the popular front was about the meaning of revolutionary activity: was an alliance, even temporary, with the ruling classes of Europe to defeat Fascism a road to the defeat of revolutionary socialism altogether, or the only way to secure Fascism’s end?

Bauhaus_University_Weimar_03440px-WalterGropius-1919 Walter Gropius 1883-1969.

Morris’s article doesn’t explicitly take up these issues, but his commentary on how MoMA understood its task in putting on the Bauhaus exhibition, compared with the Juan Gris show at Jacques Seligmann Gallery offers elements of a wider critique.

The Bauhaus project of refining and stripping away ornamentation in favour of a modern simplicity of form with straightforward and explicit functionality,  was the work of  many, but Walter Gropius, an architect and advocate of modern design along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others conceived of a site where architecture and design could be studied and reformed for the modern age.  The exhibition at MoMA was to honour the work of the Bauhaus, which had been shut down by the Nazis in 1932. The buildings were closed, but the impact of Bauhaus remains with us.  One of the more important slogans for the project was “Art and Technology” — a more forward-looking idea than the contemporary version inBelgium of — “Art and Craft”.

Alfred Barr, Director of MoMA at the time, wanted to make Bauhaus’s history and its achievements available to an American audience: He writes in the Preface:

“It is twenty years since Gropius arrived in Weimar to found the Bauhaus; ten years since he left the transplanted and greatly enlarged institution at Dessau to return to private practice; five years since the Bauhaus was forced to close its doors after a brief rear-guard stand in Berlin.

Are this book, then, and the exhibition which supplements it, merely a belated wreath laid upon the tomb of brave events, important in their day but now of primarily historical interest? Emphatically, no! The Bauhaus is not dead; it lives and grows through the men who made it, both teachers and students, through their designs, their books, their methods, their principles, their philosophies of art and education.”

Morris however, sees the show as an example of what MoMA always gets wrong:

“The current survey of the Bauhaus and its teaching methods is ideally suited to the policies of the Museum of Modern Art, for whom historical sequence has from the start been more interesting than the showing of good paintings. At any rate, the Museum found it difficult to spoil the odds and ends that found their way out of Germany into the present exhibition, as they were nearly all uniformly bad to begin with.”

Morris here draws the divide between aesthetics and method that gives the ‘Art Chronicle’ its sub-title, “Art versus Method.” In autumn 1939 issue of PR, Clement Greenberg will theorise this issue of aesthetics in his canonical essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch” but you can tell in Morris’s piece that he has either incorporated a popular frontist view into his review, or has decided that a work being avant-garde is not as compelling as its being ‘fine’ aesthetically.  His criticism of the MoMA staff impugns their aesthetic capacity, and being the child of rich collectors and Rockefellers, the Museum is accused of crass philistinism:

The insensitive touch is apparent in the work of pupil and master alike, in the painting, the sculpture, the pottery, the furniture, and in the peep-shows that the Museum evidently intended as a lure for the uninitiated.”

Morris also asserts us that it is really the German “temperament, so at home within the limits of tonal and musical structure, flattens out before plastic problems into a heavy slickness and bad taste,”as much as it is trouble with MoMA curators that renders the exhibition ‘a drag.’

Yet he also wants to insist on the importance of Bauhaus, and he devises a view of its work that is committed to the ‘life-affirming’ qualities of Bauhaus processes and products:

“Turning from the exhibition to the catalog we are confronted with something vastly more absorbing. Here are gathered all the enlightened devices for instruction and presentation that must have made life at the Bauhaus a joy for students and teachers alike.  Everyone was taught to be completely free with his hands, and this is certainly the essence of plastic creation.”

It is, of course, very difficult to judge Morris’s judgements about the Bauhaus exhibition because he doesn’t evince any criteria by which to assess the art in the show. It is when he then goes on to discuss the Juan Gris show, that we see what he has in mind for aesthetic success.


Bauhaus Masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer, photo: unknown 1926, reproduction 1998. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, with the courtesy of Société Kandinsky, Paris.

Next Week: Part 2. Morris on Juan Gris