Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.3

Our next stop in the Winter, 1939 issue of PR is a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That,” one of two that make up the set of Stevens’s contribution to this issue.   It is mid-summer here in London, 35 degrees, and its too hot to do much in the way of research or anything else, and the pavements are burning, but its a perfect day to think about thirst, water and the sea…and about Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, and W.B. Yeats, and the poetic consideration of Nature’s barriers.

An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.

Many of you will hear in the first verse paragraph of what Harold Bloom calls Stevens’s  “wild poem”  murmurings of what had become “The Idea of Order at Key West” in his 1936 volume, Ideas of Order. That force of the ocean’s tides is a machine not an organic form, or rather, it has an organic infrastructure of a machinic repetitive activity.  It might also make you think of William Carlos Williams’s repeated cry against Nature in Paterson IV, “Thalassa, Thalassa, the Sea is not our home.” Both Stevens and Williams are in struggle against the claims of Nature’s authority and  instead seek the articulations of speech. For Williams, invention wins:  making rather than growing, on and off rather than more or less, these days, digital rather than analogue.  This argument between the natural organic and the humanly made poetic belongs to William Blake’s tradition as well.  “Where Man is Not, Nature is Barren.”

So we begin this poem with its evocation of the romantic waters, ‘the rising and the swell’ of the waves, at first evoking its beauty and in the pun of ‘the first line’ of both the border etched by the retreating water, and the first line of poetic invention, but soon separating out into an antinomy between flow and articulation.  ‘The woman who has had more babies than that,’ repeats the machinic and regular movements of the water, and which is grating and wearing away the fullness of the oceanic roar in itself.

But she becomes humanised, a mother,  not blind, not machinic,  who knows that her ‘children need more than that’. She protects those who question the repetition on the shore. Like the poet-acrobat, she  listens ‘to the whole sea for a sound’; and the poet-acrobat perceives/The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.’

You may have read, studied, memorised ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ and if you read it again now you can hear the movement, the motive to utterance of that more polished poem being formed in this one published in 1939.

Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.

Now, to the sound of the ‘Transatlantic lullaby (Berceuse)’ Stevens walks on the land, among the ‘central men,’  Emerson’s ‘man of good will and speech and morality, who performs the work of authorising the human as an articulating transformation of natural repetitions in their barrenness into aesthetic form.  And, here, the question which Stevens answers, has been written earlier, by  Yeats, in his 1933, “Among School Children”.

“What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?”

Yeats’s youthful mothers are first in the grip of the pains and tidal movements of birth, but Stevens brings the old men, ‘breathed on by a maternal voice, Children and old men and philosophers,/ Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears,’ to the continuity and transformation of the maternal sound into its voice, ‘The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech’.

And the old men speak with the voice the ideas that come to them.

If her head
Stood on a plain of marble, high and cold;
If her eyes were chinks in which the sparrows built;
If she was deaf with falling grass in her ears—
But there is more than a marble, massive head.
They find her in the crackling summer night,
In the Duft of town, beside a window, beside
A lamp, in a day of the week, the time before spring,
A manner of walking, yellow fruit, a house,
A street. She has a supernatural head.
On her lips familiar words become the words
Of an elevation, and elixir of the whole.

We can see here how Stevens attributes the power of speech to the nurturing mother, but reserves its transformative ‘thesis’ for the articulations of the Emersonian “Central Man,” and there are some who have complained about that… , but for today, a hot sunny one, in which I am wearing my complacencies in the boudoir, I say,  ‘That was in another era, and besides, the poet’s dead.’

Next Week:  Wallace Stevens, ‘Life on a Battleship’





This Quarter, Dwight Macdonald…end

images-7 Macdonald turns now to the failure of the New Deal to solve the problems of American Capitalism – unemployment, not enough social welfare, etc.—resulting in Roosevelt’s Administration turning to the European conflict:

“It is true, says the President with his famous smile, ten million of you are unemployed and we have had to cut relief payments, but just think what social progress we’ll make once we have rid ourselves of those monsters in black or brown shirts three thousand miles across the Atlantic!”

“Whatever side wins will impose it’s Versailles on the loser, and the Third World War will begin to grow before the ink is dry on the treaty. Imperialist aims are still of major importance but modern warfare must also be regarded as the chief instrument whereby the obsolete bourgeoisie maintain their death-grip on the social order.”

“ ‘The real error of nearly all studies of war,’ writes Simone Weill in a remarkable article published in International Review last year, ‘ an error into which all socialists have fallen, has been to consider war as an episode in foreign politics, when it is really an act of interior politics, and the most atrocious act of all.’ Her development of this idea seems to me to open novel perspectives on the war question. ‘Marx has shown forcefully’, she writes, ‘that the modern method of production consists essentially of the subordination of the workers to the instruments of labor, which are disposed of by those who do not work. He has shown competition, knowing no other weapon than the exploitation of the workers, is transformed into a struggle of each employer against his own workmen and, in the last analysis, of the entire class of employers against their employees’.”

“‘In the same way, war in our days is distinguished by the subordination of the combatants to the instruments of combat, and the armaments, the true heroes of modern warfare, as well as the men dedicated to their service, are directed by those who do not fight. And since this directing influence has no other way of fighting the enemy than by sending their own soldiers, under compulsion, to their death—the war of one state against another state resolves itself into a war of the state and the military apparatus against its own army.’

‘War, in the last analysis, appears as a struggle led by all the state apparatuses and their general staffs, against all men old enough and able to bear arms.’”

SImone Weil

At the end of Macdonald’s presentation of Weill’s Marxist analysis of  how wars  serve the ‘interior state,’ he turns back to the issue of why contemporary  intellectuals have backed away from Marxism:  “Why should a Marxist analysis [like Weill’s] be so alien to the way of thinking of our intellectuals?”

“Their moral indignation is turned against a scapegoat fascism across the ocean, to defeat which they are making common cause with the class and the economic system which in this country right under their very noses is preparing the next world slaughter. The explanation is to be found in the peculiar relationship of the intelligentsia to the class struggle. They conceive of their own thinking as being disinterested, free from class loyalties, taking as its referent ‘society in general.’ In a sense this is true. They have not the direct economic interest in one side or the other of class war which the proletariat and the big bourgeoisie have. But in a deeper sense they deceive themselves.  Like the petty bourgeoisie which produces most of them, the intellectuals shift back and forth between the two polar antagonists, attaching themselves to which ever at the moment seems to be the stronger. But since the bourgeoisie is usually very much in the ascendant, the intellectuals generally think in its terms. So today, they follow along after the bourgeoisie towards war.”

Macdonald’s pessimistic warning to the intellectuals concludes his essay: “The American intellectuals are off again on another moral spree. They will come to their senses in the cold grey dawn of a war-torn world, and they will experience again what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1916:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands, not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics, but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilence devastating culture and humanity — so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”


Next Week: Wallace Stevens, “The Woman who had more babies than that”


“This Quarter,” cont’d. Dwight Macdonald

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Frankline Delano Roosevelt
    Part II: Words, Words, Words. 

After Macdonald discusses more fully the  steps leading to entry of America into the Europe of WWI, including  the floating of “vast loans in the country, for the Allies, and that our industrial boom was based on the huge Allied purchases of goods and munitions,”  he returns to the present approach of another war in 1939:

“Today, as in 1917, the intellectuals have one set of war aims, and the Administration they support, another. The intellectuals would rescue Western Civilisation from Fascism and restore it to the ways of progress and democracy.  Their government however as a serious capitalist enterprise, of necessity takes a less romantic view of the affair. Its aims are the destruction of a threatening competitor in world markets and the defence of a status quo, both international and domestic, which is greatly to the advantage of the ruling bourgeoisie. The intellectuals in a word, want to crush fascism, the State Department thinks rather of Germany.

“The intellectuals are very articulate about their war aims, which are idealistic and inspiring. When the State Department, for that very reason, publicly echoes these aims,  the intellectuals conclude that they are leading the world  towards the light… For if the intellectuals provide their government with fine sentiments, the process also works the other way around. One might think that a group whose chief occupation is writing would offer resistance to the wiles of language.  It has not been so. As the savage hopefully calls the dreaded volcano, ‘the blessed source of all good things,’ so the intellectual bathes in the power of the verbal formulae to sweeten the ghastliest realities. … Now once more, we have in the White House a statesman who knows well how to use the rhetoric of heart-warming abstractions and moral earnestness which attracts the intellectuals. The President speaks their language.

The great objection to the program of the intellectuals is not so much that it will get us into a war — the bourgeoise will decide that question for themselves… but that it is diverting us from the main task: to work with the masses for socialism; which alone can save our civilization.  And so in all the current discussions nothing is ever said about the revolutionary alternative to capitalism, and its product, war. Social  revolution is no longer thought about. The Lady has Vanished. 

“It is hard to realise how our thinking has changed. How distant they seem, those early  years of the depression, when the bourgeoisie was demoralised and discredited, when the Soviet Union and socialism were in the forefront of every intellectual’s consciousness? There has been a change in the weather. The success of fascist foreign policy, the unsuspected depths of decay and corruption in the Soviet Union, the failure of the New Deal’s reformist program and its replacement with business ‘appeasement’ and armaments, and above all, the right-wing reaction that is still gaining ground throughout the nation — all this has struck dismay into the hearts of the intellectuals. In the hot blast of such world events, the tender shoots of socialism have withered. As those who suffer some great psychic shock sometimes develop amnesia, so the intellectuals, retreating to the solid base of bourgeois democracy, have forgotten the very idea of socialism.

Macdonald’s essay now asks what would the defense of the Soviet Union mean in the event of this  new World War?

“As a means of lining up the left intelligentsia, the Communist Party has manipulated the left with its usual skill. But are we to defend the present regime in the Soviet Union? Or the October Revolution, to the extent that it is still symbolised by the Soviet Union? It seems to me that the corrupt dictatorship that has arisen under Stalin is proof the correctness of Lenin and Trotsky that the holy spread of the October Revolution to more advanced countries could preserve its gains inside Russia….The problem of social revolution is an international one.

‘The major force that is pulling the intellectuals into the orbit of war, however, is not their sympathy for the Soviet Union, but their fear and hatred of fascism. For the next war, as for the last, Lenin’s: the only possible slogan for all who pretend to be o the side of the masses: “Turn the imperialist war into civil war!”  This war is a purely defensive action.  Far from being a crusade for a new world order, the coming war is at best an effort to turn the clock back and restore that fine old world order which the last war was fought to abolish.

Next Week: Final part of Dwight Macdonald’s discussion of the approach to a new war.




“This Quarter,” Dwight Macdonald on the past and current political situations: Partisan Review, Vol. 4, No.3, Spring, 1939

The third issue of Partisan Review for 1939 opens with Dwight Macdonald’s editorial survey of the role of intellectuals at the start of America’s entry into World War I, in 1917 and the current positions of the intellectual community on the  brink of World War II, in  the spring and summer of 1939. Its a depressing read, the mistakes of 1917 are being repeated in 1939, and the values of intellectual life, except for a very few circles of writers and political activists, have been shredded and compromised.

1: War and the Intellectuals: ACT TWO

Macdonald begins by recalling an article written by Randolph Bourne in 1917, a year before his death, and at the time of the Russian Revolution. Bourne, along with Waldo Frank, and James Opphenheim, founded an important American literary journal called The Seven Arts, which, under Opphenheim’s editorial lead, took an anti-war position to American entry into WW I. Waldo Frank was a political activist and though he had supported the Communist Party in its early days, broke with it in 1937 when he met with Leon Trotsky, who was at that time living in exile in Mexico.Bourne Randolph Bourne

Portrait_of_Waldo_Frank Waldo Frank.


Macdonald begins by showing how Bourne castigates American intellectuals for their support for, and pride over the US’s entry into WWI: “Twenty-two years ago, 1917, The Seven Arts printed Randolph Bourne’s article, “The War and the Intellectuals.” Bourne wrote: “A war made deliberately by intellectuals!… A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalise the world!… Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? …Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalisations float like bubbles? …Numbers of intelligent people who have never been stirred by the horrors of capitalistic peace at home were shaken out of their slumbers by the horrors of the war in Belgium… Never having felt responsibility for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe.”

Macdonald uses the Bourne quotation to match the present moment: “If ‘Belgium’ be changed to ‘Czechoslovakia’, these sentences apply as closely to American intellectuals in the spring of 1939 as they ever did in the spring of 1917.”   The American intellectuals are supporting the New Deal, the Communist Party (and its Popular Front organisations) offer space for ‘leftish’ intellectuals to promote a war.

“And Van Wyck Brooks [also an editor of The Seven Arts] proposes in a letter to Time that our reply to Hitler’s book burnings should be a series of public bonfires of things Made In Germany.”

2.The Road to Hell:

Macdonald returns to the present:

“Let us grant the good intentions of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the laws of motion of monopoly capitalism work themselves out, with brutal disregard for intentions, much the same under a Roosevelt as under a Coolidge. How can an Administration act in important matters contrary to those class interests of the dominant bourgeoisie  which have shaped the American state, the American law and constitution?  Their enormous mass throws its inertia against following new paths, impelling the republic along the historical path destined for it. The good intentions of Roosevelt simply make him the more dangerous, since he is the unwitting prisoner, along with his intellectual following, of capitalist necessity.,

“The contradiction between the concept of a war for democracy and what is actually taking place under that slogan has already begun to appear. The closer the second great crusade for democracy draws near,  the feebler grows the forces of democracy inside the country; the more battleships, the lower the relief standards; the bolder the President’s utterances against Hitler, the more conciliatory his attitude towards our own business rulers. The intellectuals will open their eyes some day, but not until it is too late. ….  The liberal weeklies, which once devoted their main energies to exposing and protesting social injustice at home have become more interested in demonstrating how much inferior fascist capitalism is to democratic capitalism. Left intellectuals are rallying to the defense of the British Empire, on the grounds that India is better off under British than it would be under German rule. But why shouldn’t the Indians rule India? The intellectuals take such positions, it is true, with all sorts of mental reservations. Once the fascist menace is destroyed, then they will take up the old fight again.  In politics, however, the mask holds the face. You become what you do and say; you don’t become what your reservations are.

Next week: More of  Macdonald’s “This Quarter”



Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1939. Cover design: Theodore Roszak


1939 Spring cover

The front cover of Partisan Review, designed by Theodore Roszak ( 1907 –1981) was an invitation to the themes and style of the journal as a whole. Roszak, who I mentioned before {in this blog’s first post}, was a friend of my parents, and they collected quite a number of his paintings as well as a small sculpture that scared me, with its twisted shapes of not quite human ruins of reptilian contours, and sea creature bodies with varied lumps and declivities that made it very difficult to avoid finding in these masses and shards the very lineaments of ungratified desire.

What I mean is that I tried, but couldn’t avoid the way Ted Roszak’s drawings and sculptures of demon appearances made me feel frightened of what might come to be in my life.  48.6.vw1

As a little girl, I wasn’t as frightened of Theodore Roszak himself as I was of his sculpture,
While his work was openly disturbing and hostile, he was very kind to me as a small child, and later when I was going through some of the horrors of teenage self-doubt and embarrassment, he told me, that while I might be a mess at 15, I was certain to be ‘quite something’ when I reached my thirties — that kept me going for a couple of decades.

Roszak was born in Poland in 1907 and was brought to the USA by his parents a few years later. He was excited by and worked within the strategies of constructivism in his early works throughout the 1930s, including this “Self Portrait with Tower Construction’


Roszak worked in the sculptural arts of Modernism for two decades, beginning with his post-WWII metal constructions of severe and futuristic versions of buildings and birds, the kind of tortured shapes I found scary as a child.


Roszak’s textured surface for the MIT Bell Tower and Spire, whose architect was  Eero Saarinen, was one photo we had on the wall which intrigued me as a child, and which I just found again while looking for Roszak’s works online:

Bell   IMG_0296  img_0294.jpg

That MIT Bell Tower was done in 1955-1956; and again in 1960, architect Eero Saarinen commissioned Roszak to create an Eagle for the US Embassy building in London. Saarinen and Roszak were close friends and collaborated on many architecture-sculpture projects together. The Economist magazine defended the modernist style of the building in 2009, when the US Embassy announced it would move from Grosvenor Square  to a ‘more secure’ site,  south of the Thames: “Though [Roszak’s Eagle] sculpture was much derided at the time for its warlike or imperial connotations—Roszak depicts the bird poised on the edge of the building ready for flight, as if to hunt—it is an angular, jagged take on the national emblem.”


In 2018, Roszak’s Eagle  with its terrifying wing span and lowered beak seems a fitting emblem for America’s hallucinatory dream of world domination and control. The violence in many of Roszak’s pieces are distilled in the sculpture.

In the later 1960s and 1970s, Roszak’s softer and vaguer drawings and paintings remain both alluring and rebarbative. Ted gave my father a large drawing of a flaccid penis draped across a reclining woman’s belly, the erotic and mythic elements are very much part of his last shift in representation, moving out from the reality of the “Unknown Political Prisoner” of 1952 to a fantasised mythic nowhere.

The Unknown Political Prisoner (Defiant and Triumphant) 1952 by Theodore Roszak 1907-1981
“The Unknown Political Prisoner” 1952



So now you know something about the man who designed the style for Partisan Review.

Next week: Dwight Macdonald on “This Quarter.”



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