Monument to Syria in a Divided Dresden

The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.

On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.

The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.

In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.

Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.

Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.

Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:

Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden;  Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.

Sakiet Remembered: Painting the Algerian War of Independence

Twenty-one years after Picasso created his iconic contemporary history painting, Guernica – to memorialise the obliteration of the small Basque town by united Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War – a similar event in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence inspired two French-born artists to express their outrage at their country’s actions.

The little town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef in northern Tunisia is situated just a few kilometres from the country’s border with Algeria. Since the start of the War of Independence in 1954, aimed at freeing the country from its French colonial masters, guerrilla fighters had been operating out of border towns including Sakiet. Even after France constructed a 2.5-metre high electric fence between the neighbouring countries, its generals still suspected that Sakiet was harbouring a large number of Algerian revolutionaries (who were at the time designated terrorists). On 8 February 1958, during a crowded market day, the French air force unleashed a sustained bombing campaign against Sakiet’s 3,300-strong population. The bombardment left over 148 civilians injured and some 70 dead, including a dozen children when a primary school was hit.

The event was a defining moment in the war, leading to international outcry and hastening Algerian independence. Yet though the bombing of Sakiet is jointly commemorated each year in Tunisia and Algeria, this “colonial Guernica” is now largely overlooked in the West. However, thanks to two heart-wrenching paintings held in London’s Tate Modern, the events in Sakiet have been immortalised.

Despite the establishment of the Cold War, the French artist André Fougeron remained a committed Communist and continued to create socialist realist paintings throughout the latter half of the 20th century. He often used his work to criticise Western imperialism and the injustices of capitalism, and the bombing of Sakiet inspired him to create one of his most well-known paintings. Massacre at Sakiet III (Massacre à Sakiet III) shows the piled corpses of men, women and children, swathed in dark blankets and appearing as disembodied heads. The pale blue ribbon in the hair of a little girl at the centre of the painting draws the eyes of the viewer and delivers a powerful shock with its simple message of childhood innocence, snatched away. The half-closed, clouded eyes of the man below her give a nauseating view of death, while the naked body of a young woman, with her dead child still clinging to her, heightens the sense of violation. In stark contrast, the row of army boots and rifle stocks that are glimpsed towering over the pitiful scene indicates where the viewer should direct their anger. When the painting went on public display in a Parisian salon just two months after the attack on Sakiet, Fougeron was criticised for clearly assigning blame to the French military, which had yet to accept responsibility for the bombardment of the Tunisian town.

The following year, Fougeron’s compatriot Peter de Francia, now living in London, used a very different artistic style to depict the despair and suffering in Sakiet. In contrast to Fougeron’s austere palette and sombre, reflective tone, The Bombing of Sakiet by de Francia mixes vibrant colours to give a sense of the noise that ripped through the bombed town, filled with the screams of survivors. While Fougeron’s painting is formed from soft curves and strong, clear lines, de Francia’s expressionist vision of the dead and the injured, thrown together among the twisted ruins of smashed buildings, uses sharp, jutting angles and colours bleeding into one another to convey the terror and confusion. At the centre of this sea of muddled limbs and detritus, three anguished survivors take in the catastrophic scene, seemingly oblivious to each other: while one surveys a lifeless body next to her, another weeps with eyes closed and a pained expression, and a third reaches out, perhaps searching for a missing friend or her stolen child.

 In 2005, the James Hyman Gallery in London chronicled the development of this epic painting in the exhibition Peter de Francia: After the Bombing. The large number of pencil and charcoal sketches and studies in oil show how the artist was absorbed with the subject and painstakingly created the monumental testament to a country torn apart by the aggression of a dying colonial power. De Francia’s painting is on long term loan to Tate from the Tunisian Embassy, ensuring that Sakiet will be remembered for many years to come.

Images: André Fougeron, Massacre à Sakiet III (Massacre at Sakiet III), 1958. Oil on canvas, 97 x 19.5 cm; Peter de Francia, The Bombing of Sakiet, 1959. Oil on canvas, 189.8 x 365.3 cm; courtesy Tate. Peter de Francia, Woman with Dead Child (study for the Bombing of Sakiet), c.1959. Charcoal on paper, 35.7 x 25.5 cm. Private Collection.

Henry Moore in Albania: From Persecution to Celebration

This snapshot of a man posing next to one of Henry Moore’s reclining figures appears unremarkable and similar to thousands taken every year across Britain, where the artist’s modernist bronzes are a common feature in sculpture gardens and public parks. But this image records a momentous and moving visit to the Henry Moore Studios & Gardens in Hertfordshire, England for Maks Velo, an Albanian artist imprisoned for his appreciation of Moore’s work.

 Maks Velo was born in Paris in 1935 and raised in Korçë in Albania, which at the time was a conservative and authoritarian republic that had recently claimed independence from the Ottoman Empire. By 1939, in the approach to World War II, Albania was invaded by Fascist Italy, and during the war it was occupied by Nazi Germany. The end of the war brought little relief, as the country was absorbed into the Soviet sphere of influence, and ruled over for forty years by the increasingly erratic and despotic dictator, Enver Hoxha. Despite these challenges, Maks Velo successfully trained as a civil engineer and architect in the Albanian capital of Tirana, before beginning a precarious career as an architect, artist and writer.

Hoxha was suspicious of intellectuals from the outset of his regime. Many of those who did not flee soon after he took power in 1944 were executed during a post-war witchhunt, while artists and writers continued to risk imprisonment and exile throughout Hoxha’s reign. The persecution was focused in particular on intellectuals who had travelled abroad, thereby stripping Albania of wider cultural references and forcing it into an artistic vacuum. In 1949, Socialist Realism was adopted from the USSR as the official creative style of Albania. Despite Hoxha’s acrimonious break in relations with the USSR in 1961, a rift that precipitated the dictator’s bizarre programme of bunkerisation, Socialist Realism continued to be enforced – although artists risked harsh punishments to test its boundaries.

 Maks Velo first saw the work of Henry Moore in 1969. By this time, organic forms reminiscent of Moore’s modernist outdoor sculptures were already appearing in Velo’s paintings and applied artworks, and it is unsurprising that the Albanian artist recognised Moore as a soulmate. In an interview with the British Council in April 2014, Velo recalls that three years later, a friend gave him an English exhibition catalogue containing pictures of Moore’s drawings and sculptures – a publication that was strictly forbidden in communist Albania. This gift, and Velo’s dedication to the work of Moore and the Romanian modernist sculptor, Constantin Brâncuși, would have dire consequences for the artist.

In 1978, Maks Velo was arrested for showing “modernist tendencies” in his work. The book of Henry Moore pictures was found in his possession, and used as evidence for his subversive behaviour. For the next six months he was interrogated, before being found guilty and imprisoned for a further eight years. Most of his paintings and sculptures were destroyed and his beloved Henry Moore book was confiscated. After his release in 1986, Velo was sent to work in a factory in Tirana. From there, he was able to make it back to his birth city of Paris. A landmark exhibition of Henry Moore’s outdoor sculptures in Paris’s Parc de Bagatelle in 1992, finally gave Velo the opportunity to come face-to-face with the work that had so deeply affected his life. And despite the tragedy it had caused him, Velo’s love of Moore continued to thrive.

This story came to public attention in September 2013, when Moore’s prints and sculptures were finally publicly displayed in Tirana at the Albanian National Gallery of Arts, in an exhibition organised by the British Council. Two years later, Velo himself would enjoy a major retrospective in the same gallery, opening just days before his 80th birthday. As well as Paris and in England, Velo has now travelled to Cleveland in the United States and Düsseldorf in Germany to see Henry Moore’s work. For him, Moore’s sculptures “embody gentleness” and are “full of harmony, tranquillity and perfection.” Asked whether the work is revolutionary, Velo commented: “The term ‘revolutionary’ evokes terror. Communism destroyed many meanings. But any great art is revolutionary, is a step forward – and these steps have brought the world to a higher level. This includes Henry Moore.”

You can find out about Henry Moore’s importance as a Cold War artist in an earlier feature article on Espionart, and see more of Maks Velo’s work on his website.

Image: Maks Velo at Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, with Reclining Figure: Angles by Henry Moore, 1979. © The Henry Moore Foundation; Photo of Maks Velo in his studio; Maks Velo, Overlapping Forms (Forma Te Intersektuara), 1964; Installation shot of Maks Velo: Ekspozitë Retrospektivë (Maks Velo: Retrospective) at the National Gallery of Arts, Tirana, 2015. Courtesy Tirana Times; Maks Velo at Henry Moore Studios & Gardens, with Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae by Henry Moore, 1968–9. © The Henry Moore Foundation. Unless noted, images courtesy Maks Velo.

We the People: Shepard Fairey’s New Pictures of Hope

Back in 2013, Espionart showcased the work of American illustrator Shepard Fairey, exploring his debt to the aesthetics of the Cold War. Fairey’s 2008 ‘Hope’ poster, bearing the image of Barack Obama, has become perhaps the most iconic political illustration of the 21st century. Since then, the poster has been widely imitated and parodied by both Fairey and his admirers, to support causes such as the Occupy movement, and to shame a variety of politicians. The Women’s March on Washington and in cities around the world on 21 January 2017 revealed an imaginative range of appropriations, satirising the new president.

Fairey’s work has also been back in the news – and in the public consciousness – this week, as the artist released a new set of illustrations reaffirming the rights of American citizens from a range of ethnicities. At a time when many fear the divisive rhetoric of the incoming administration, the ‘We the People’ series (a nod to the opening line of the US constitution) offers a confident vision of the American people and supports Fairey’s belief that compassion and unity is the best antidote to the politics of hate. In red, white and blue – the same US flag colours of the ‘Hope’ design – Fairey’s three new posters feature bold images of American citizens, their cultural backgrounds indicated by their styling. A Hispanic woman wears a red flower in her hair and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Mexican golden eagle, taken from the country’s coat of arms. Beneath her image, the phrase ‘Defend Dignity’ points to Trump’s recent demonisation of America’s Latino population. Above the phrase ‘Protect Each Other’, an African American boy with long dreadlocks looks downwards, inverting Obama’s triumphant upward gaze and indicating the risks posed to young Black men, as highlighted in the Black Lives Matter movement. But of the three, the poster that has been most visible and had the greatest impact is that of a woman wearing an American flag in the style of a Muslim hijab. The rallying cry of ‘We the People … are Greater than Fear’ urges American citizens to resist the rise of Islamophobia.

Fairey’s posters are part of a group project, organised by the Amplifier Foundation, which works with street artists and illustrators to commission and distribute social campaign posters. The Colombian American muralist Jessica Sabogal and Mexican American illustrator Ernesto Yerena also contributed posters entitled ‘We the Indivisible’ and ‘We the Resilient’, with all five designs now available to download free of charge from the Amplifier Foundation website. The foundation also released five additional posters in celebration of the Women’s March on Washington.

The success of Fairey’s new designs is such that, this week, the Guardian newspaper devoted part of its front page to announcing an exclusive interview with Munira Ahmed, the Bangladeshi American woman who was the inspiration for Fairey’s hijab poster. Ahmed in fact modeled for the photo on which Fairey’s poster is based a decade ago. Since then, the picture, by New York photographer Ridwan Adhami and taken in front of Manhattan’s Ground Zero, has been widely shared online. In an ironic twist, a building owned by Donald Trump can also be seen in the background.

For Munira Ahmed, the poster is “about saying, ‘I am American just as you are’. I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both”. Shepard Fairey also recognises the particular cultural resonance of his hijab poster, calling it “very powerful, because it reminds people that freedom of religion is a founding principle of the United States and that there is a history of welcoming people to the United States who have faced religious persecution in their homelands”.

Raúl Martínez and the Ambiguous Art of Post-Revolutionary Cuba

The Cuban Revolution came to an end in January 1959, as the guerrilla revolt led by Fidel Castro swept from power the US-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The subsequent transformation of the Caribbean island into a Communist state, aligned with the Soviet Union, would give rise to an uneasy relationship between Cuba and the United States that exists to this day, and which in the 1960s threatened to ignite World War III. The paintings of Raúl Martínez (1927–1995) are today celebrated as some of the most iconic images created in the decades following the Cuban Revolution. And yet, the artist had a complex relationship with a regime that at times rejected and persecuted him.

Before the revolution, Raúl Martínez had briefly lived in New York and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As with many young artists in the United States during the late 1940s, Martínez was inspired by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Once back home in Cuba, Martínez became one of eleven abstract artists known as ‘Los Once’, who showed their work together from 1953. Although the group disbanded after a couple of years, Los Once is still remembered as the first and most significant association of Cuban abstractionists. During these years, Martínez also began to hone his skills as a graphic designer, mirroring the career of Andy Warhol by likewise working in the advertising industry.

For Raúl Martínez, the Cuban Revolution brought hope and fear. From the mid-1960s, Martínez and his partner, the playwright and poet Abelardo Estorino, were victimised as part of a government-sanctioned campaign against homosexuals. During this period, Martínez was expelled from his position as professor of design at the University of Havana, going on to forge a career as a freelance designer. In his memoirs, Yo Publio: Confesiones de Raúl Martínez, the artist recalls that many of his friends were sent to “rehabilitation” camps, in reality harsh labour camps that held homosexuals as well as artists and intellectuals, political dissidents, and religious minorities.  This era of repression triggered an abrupt change in Martínez’s artistic style. While the influence of the Soviet Union simultaneously brought Socialist Realism to Cuba, Martínez instead took his cues once more from the art of the United States.

In 1964, Martínez began to experiment with collage, to produce works that reflected the visual culture of post-revolutionary Cuba. In parallel with his American contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, Martínez combined photographs of famous faces, anonymous citizens and everyday objects, with the revolutionary slogans and graffiti style that had sprung up across the island in celebration of the revolution. Martínez subsequently returned to painting, combining elements of his collage work with contemporary street art and local folk traditions to produce a Cuban version of pop art.

While Martínez’s pop style had many of the hallmarks of American pop – strong colours, bold lines and repeated images – there were some marked differences which made the work distinctly Cuban. Rather than taking inspiration from the rampant consumerism in the United States, Martínez’s paintings reflected on the transformation of Cuban society and the prevalence of politics. Instead of media images of American film stars and celebrities, Martínez based his designs on unglamorised photographs of Cuban leaders displayed in state institutions. The national hero José Martí was a recurrent subject in Martínez’s pop works, while he also pictured national and global political figures including Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Lenin, and Ho Chi Minh. In contrast to the vast sums paid for American pop art, the isolationist, anti-commercial policies in post-revolutionary Cuba prevented Martínez from selling much of his work. And while the pop art movement in the United States saw screen printing brought to the forefront of artistic production, Martínez remained committed to working in paint.

Martínez’s pop art gives the illusion of propaganda, with its apparently optimistic scenes celebrating the Communist leadership. And yet his work remains ambiguous. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba’s anti-gay rules prevented Martínez from publicly displaying much of his work, and he was even ordered to cover his 1967 mural mourning the death of revolutionary hero Che Guevara. While Martínez’s paintings capture the widespread enthusiasm for change and the spirit of the Cuban people, the sombre palette and reflective mood of these works also suggest an artist struggling to reconcile his revolutionary convictions with his experience of being ostracised under the post-revolutionary regime.

Images: All Raúl Martínez. Untitled, 1962, mixed media on heavy paper, 15 x 20 inches; 26 de Julio [26 July], 1964, collage and oil on wood, 150 x 180 cm; Rosas y Estrellas [Roses and Stars], 1972, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 51 inches; Repeticiones Con Bandera [Repetitions with a Flag], 1966, oil on canvas, 127 x 147 cm.

Iran’s Hidden Art Collection

The inauguration of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) in 1977 would soon prove to be an untimely event. Less than a year later, the Iranian Revolution erupted on 7 January 1978, resulting the following spring in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the present Islamic Republic.

The plan to found a modern art museum in the Iranian capital was the brainchild of the last Empress of Iran, Farah Pahlavi. Her enthusiasm for the subject had been fostered while studying art in Paris, and was boosted by subsequent meetings with artists such as Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore and Salvador Dalí. In the mid-1970s, the Empress brought together a team of international curators and released government funds to purchase works for the new museum, taking advantage of a current dip in the value of the art market. Alongside examples of modern and contemporary Iranian art by celebrated artists such as Behjat Sadr, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Ghassem Hajizadeh and members of the Saqqa-khaneh School, the team amassed over 150 works of Western modernism. This collection, including pieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and Dalí, is now considered to be one of the finest of its kind outside Europe and North America. The works initially took pride of place in the museum’s new state-of-the-art building, blending traditional Persian architecture with a swirling staircase reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But the conservative government of new leader Ayatollah Khomeini, known for his hatred of Western influences, had other ideas. Not long after the revolution, the museum’s collection of European and American art was put into storage, remaining in the vault of the Tehran museum for the next two decades.

For some time, there were fears for the future of the collection. In addition to the new regime’s efforts to combat ‘Westoxification’, the sexual overtones of works such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Gabrielle With Open Blouse and Francis Bacon’s Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, were deemed to be unsuitable for display in the Islamic Republic. However, the collection’s ever-increasing price tag – today estimated to be over 3 billion US dollars and no doubt accelerated by its tempestuous provenance and rarity of display – made the works too valuable to be destroyed. The museum’s painting Mural on Indian Red Ground by Jackson Pollock, one of the American abstractionist’s largest paintings, is alone valued at over $250 million. As a result, the collection remains largely intact. Only two works are known to have been lost – a Warhol portrait of Empress Farah that was slashed in the aftermath of the revolution, and Woman III by Willem de Kooning, which was deaccesioned in 1994. Considered to be particularly offensive for its representation of female nudity, the painting was traded to a US collector for a beautifully decorated 16th-century Persian manuscript. Afterwards, de Kooning’s portrait entered the private collection of US entertainment magnate David Geffen and was recently sold on to hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen for 137.5 million US dollars, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever sold.

Since the 1990s, individual works from the collection have been loaned to international museums. However, the first post-revolutionary exhibition of Western art would not be held at TMoCA itself until 1999, when Pop Art works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg were put on display. A larger exhibition opened in 2005, on the eve of the election of President Ahmadinejad, causing crowds to flock to Tehran. More recently, TMoCA has reinvigorated its public programme, and in 2015 many Western art critics travelled to Tehran for the first time to see works from the permanent collection displayed alongside a retrospective of the recently deceased Iranian abstract painter, Farideh Lashai.

 The gradual thawing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West has also seen the Iranian government dusting off the paintings and sculptures, with plans to send part of the collection overseas on a cultural diplomacy mission. However, the first of these exhibitions, planned to open at the Berlin National Gallery at the end of 2016, was sadly cancelled within the last few days, reportedly due to the Iranian president’s last-minute refusal to sign export permits. A larger exhibition, planned to open at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC later in 2017, now also looks to be in jeopardy, with the anti-Iranian rhetoric of the incoming administration unlikely to soothe President Rouhani’s jitters. In the meantime, most Western art lovers will have to be satisfied with reports on the collection from journalists who have been lucky enough to enter the TMoCA’s vaults (‘Picasso is Hiding in Iran‘, Los Angeles Times, 2007; ‘Iran Has Been Hiding One of the World’s Great Collections of Modern Art‘, Bloomberg, 2015).

Images: Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red Ground, 1950. TMoCA; Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1953. Private collection of Steven A. Cohen; Francis Bacon, middle panel of triptych Two Figures Lying on a Bed With Attendant, 1968. TMoCA.

Laughing at the President: Philip Guston Draws Richard Nixon

As the US presidential inauguration approaches, provoking revulsion and celebration in various quarters, an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s New York gallery is reminding visitors of a Cold War precedent for the current political turmoil. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 is devoted to the American artist’s satirical images of Richard Nixon, whose controversial presidency was brought to a premature end in 1974 following the infamous Watergate scandal.

Philip Guston’s art had always been influenced by contemporary politics. Early in his career, as a mural artist, Guston created works in support of the falsely imprisoned Scottsboro Boys and travelled to Mexico to learn from revolutionary Communist artists including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In the 1930s, Guston worked for the New Deal art programmes, before joining many of his contemporaries in the late 1940s to pioneer Abstract Expressionism, typified in the painting of his high school friend, Jackson Pollock.

Guston began his Nixon drawings soon after he had returned to New York from a prolonged stay in Italy. He had fled to Europe in 1970 following a savage response by the New York art world to his abandonment of abstraction in favour of a dystopian and comically vulgar figurative style. This imagery, for which Guston is now best known, was prompted by the divisive atmosphere in the United States as the country faced up to its failure in the Vietnam War, social unrest raged in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and neoconservatism began to  permeate government organisations. Guston later recalled, “What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything – and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? … I am weary of all this purity”.

As Guston adjusted to life after abstraction, he turned to drawing to express his anger at the Nixon administration, just as the ‘Pentagon Papers’ scandal was uncovering the lies told to the American public about the military campaign in Vietnam. Guston took inspiration from his conversations with the writer Philip Roth, whose own aversion to Nixon simultaneously resulted in the satirical novel Our Gang.

The 180 pen-and-ink drawings on display at Hauser & Wirth are surreal, cartoonish and at times juvenile. Guston’s highly unflattering portrayal of Nixon sees the president depicted as a monstrous phallic figure, that in turn morphs into other ridiculous characters including a cat, a cookie, a lost astronaut, and a stone monument. The display includes both the Poor Richard series of 1971 and the Phlebitis series of 1975. These series respectively pour scorn on Nixon’s self-mythologisation through exaggerated tales of his youth and use the physical ailments of the by-then-resigned president to allegorise his moral decay. [Watch the ‘Poor Richard’ series on YouTube.] The exhibition also features several paintings on a similar theme, such as San Clemente, as well as more contemplative self portraits of the artist, lying alone in bed, unable to sleep.

There is still a month left to see the exhibition that Hyperallergic describes as “a tool kit for satirizing loathsome presidents”. Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark, Drawings from 1971 & 1975 continues at Hauser & Wirth until 28 January 2017.

All images by Philip Guston. Untitled from the series Poor Richard, 1971, ink on paper; San Clemente, 1975, oil on canvas; Alone, 1971, oil on canvas. © Estate of Philip Guston/Courtesy Hauser & Wirth