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.

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.

From Disintegration to Silence: Drawing the Hungarian Revolution

Although the revolutions of 1989 are commemorated as marking the fall of the Soviet Union, many consider that the beginning of the end was 33 years earlier, in 1956. At the start of that year, on 25 February, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered the ground-breaking speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What became known as the Secret Speech condemned Stalin for brutal mass repressions and accused the late dictator of having distorted the ideals of Communism for personal gain. By early June the full text of the Secret Speech was leaked by the CIA to the world’s media and broadcast into the Soviet bloc by Radio Free Europe, setting off a chain of rebellions among citizens of countries remotely controlled by the Kremlin.

The most dramatic of these rebellions was in Hungary, where protests raged from 23 October until 10 November 1956. The contents of the Secret Speech had inflamed an already smouldering power struggle between Mátyás Rákosi and Nagy Imre, who had enraged the old guard and inspired a younger generation with his liberal reforms. The spirited student uprising that initiated the Hungarian Revolution rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt. But after nineteen days, it was cruelly crushed beneath Soviet tanks, leaving thousands of demonstrators dead and leading to the exodus of up to 200,000 Hungarian citizens. These events would provoke and inspire Hungarian and international artists both in 1956 and for years to come.
jozsef-stalin-dove

One such artist was József Jakovits, a modernist sculptor born in Budapest in 1909. In 1945, Jakovits had been one of the leading Surrealist sculptors to found the Hungarian avant-garde group, the European School. But when a repressive Communist government took power in 1948, this and other modern art groups were banned, as the Soviet artistic policy of Socialist Realism was imposed on Hungary’s artists. That same year, Jakovits’s studio was confiscated and several of his statues were destroyed by the authorities. In 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Jakovits made clear his disgust at Soviet influence in Hungary in his ribald effigy Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace).

Three years later, during the heady days of the Hungarian Uprising, Jakovits produced a series of ten pencil drawings, entitled Revolution. Using his distinct style of biomorphic abstraction, Jakovits chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching Soviet army.

Art historian Gary van Wyk of the Alma on Dobbin gallery in New York has described the progress of the series as follows:

“In the first few images of the Revolution Series, a unified biomorphic form coalesces but then fractures into an image of fratricide, Brothers Fighting Brothers [top row, middle]. The identity of the opponents takes form in Battle between the Devil and the Angel [top row, second from right]. Poet Stefánia Mándy described the scene in Before the Tanks [bottom row, left] as a horned “hero” or “totem”, representing the revolutionaries and “the universal power of the human spirit”, confronting rows of tanks. In Soul of Heroes [bottom row, middle], an ominous black force evolves as the dead revolutionaries vaporize. In Last Breath [bottom row, second from right], the evil victor becomes a bird of prey, gets the upper hand, and imposes a rigid order. In the final print in the series, Silence [bottom row, right], this bird is hieratic, its wings reduced to a closed circle, charged with zigzagging lines like an electrified circuit. Now, however, the bird appears to be possessed by one of the beings it has subsumed. Its panoptic eye, surveying all, is also the artist’s eye, a motif that recurs in Jakovits’s self-portraits. From the eye of this apparently electrocuted being emerges a tear so large that it reads like a tear in the paper.”
[Ref: Gary van Wyk, ’56: Artists and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (New York: Alma on Dobbin, 2015)]

Under Hungary’s new puppet regime, Jakovits was informed that his art would never again be publicly exhibited in the country. After toiling in obscurity for several years, the artist was finally granted permission to emigrate to New York in 1965. There he remained until 1987, when Hungary finally began to break free from Soviet influence and Jakovits was invited to resettle in Budapest. Upon his return, Jakovits used his revolutionary drawings from 1956 to produce a portfolio of lithographs which served as a timely reminder of one of the Soviet Union’s most shameful moments just prior to the nation’s dissolution.

Images: József Jakovits. Upper: Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace) [Békegalamb (Sztálin békegalambja)], 1953. Aluminium, 44.5 x 32 x 24 cm; Lower, top row, L–R: Disintegration [Bomlás], Unfolding [Kibontakozás], Brothers Fighting Brothers [Testvérharc], Battle Between the Devil and the Angel [Ördög és angyal harca], Warrior [Harcos]; Lower, bottom row, L–R: Before the Tanks [Tankok előtt], Conquering the Devil [Ördög legyőzése], Soul of Heroes [Hősök lelke], Last Breath [Utolsó lélegzet], Silence [Csend]. Each 1956/1989, etching on white paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm. All works courtesy Müller-Keithly Collection of Hungarian Art, New York.

Featured Artist: Stefan Constantinescu

The Romanian Revolution from 16 to 27 December 1989 swept Nicolae Ceaușescu from power and brought an end to 42 years of communist rule. While 25 years have now passed since that tumultuous fortnight a number of Romanian artists continue to explore their country’s struggles in the aftermath of revolution. Once such artist is Ştefan Constantinescu.

Born in Bucharest in 1968, Constantinescu experienced first hand the daily grind of life during Ceaușescu’s regime. He trained as a painter but has since worked predominantly in film. Much of Constantinescu’s work is autobiographical, such as his darkly ironic pop-up book The Golden Age for Children. The book interweaves text and photos from the artist’s biography with historical details of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Romania under Ceaușescu.

In one of his video projects – The Last Analog Revolution, a Memory Box – Constantinescu also led other artists in combining their personal experiences with episodes from Cold War history. The project brought together works by artists from Eastern and Western Europe to explore how technological developments in the twentieth century was both a catalyst for revolution and a means of uniting the divided continent.

Between 2009 and 2010 Constantinescu used his training as a painter to create a series of 22 paintings entitled An Infinite Blue. The artist appropriated the Soviet artistic style of Socialist Realism, which was also mandatory in communist Romania, and sourced content from propaganda images produced in the 1960s. In these canvases Constantinescu sought to convey the nostalgia felt by many Romanians for the pre-revolutionary era which they retrospectively regard as a time of economic stability and superior quality of life.

You can read more about how Romanian artists including Ştefan Constantinescu and Adrian Ghenie have confronted their country’s difficult past and present in the article Remnants: Socialist Realism in Contemporary Romanian Painting.

Images by Ştefan Constantinescu, courtesy the artist. Top – The Golden Age for Children, pop-up book, 2008. Bottom – Biology Laboratory, oil on canvas, 2009–10.

Iraq’s Modernist Monument to the 14 July Revolution

On 14 July 1958 a secret military group of Arab nationalists, known as the Free Officers, staged a coup d’état in Iraq. The revolution aimed to eliminate the Hashemith monarchy and the last vestiges of British colonial rule in the country. During the coup 23-year-old King Faisal II and his family were assassinated, removing a key ally in the West’s attempts to combat Soviet influence in the Middle East. Following the pattern of so many post-revolutionary countries, the Republic of Iraq rapidly descended into a militarised state controlled by an oppressive regime, which gave rise to the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

In 1959 the famous painter and sculptor Jawad Saleem was asked by the Iraqi government to design a monument to commemorate the 14 July Revolution. The El Haria (Liberty) Monument in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square is today one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and has overlooked many dramatic scenes during the republic’s turbulent history.

The frieze, which blends neo-classical design with modernist flair, comprises 25 human figures together with a horse and a bull, cast in bronze and welded together against a marble background. Although Saleem’s death in 1961 prevented his seeing the final construction, it remains a lasting tribute to Iraq’s history as a centre for modern art.

Images: Baghdad’s Tahrir Square by Ahmed Al Jrah

What & Where: Nixon Gets the Stalin Treatment

Several years before the Watergate scandal brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an undignified end, a grateful Hungarian émigré artist memorialised the politician in an altogether more favourable light.

Nixon at Andau was painted in 1970 by Ferenc Daday, who had emigrated to the United States along with many of his compatriots after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The painting recalls Nixon’s visit that year to meet displaced Hungarians in an Austrian refugee camp. As vice president to Eisenhower, Nixon had fought to relax immigration rules to allow Hungarians to move to the United States after their uprising was crushed by the Soviet Red Army.

NixonThe painting now takes pride of place in the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in the statesman’s birth town of Yorba Linda, California. As Daday was trained in the official Soviet artistic dogma of Socialist Realism, he depicted Nixon in the heroic style that was normally reserved for communist leaders such as Stalin and Lenin. This cultish portrayal of Nixon as ‘prophet and peacemaker’ has led the painting to be derided by some. Yet the monumental ten-by-six-foot canvas is a fascinating historical record of an alternative view of a divisive Cold War leader.

Images: Ferenc Daday, Nixon at Andau, 1970. Oil on canvas. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California. Photos by Jim Steinhart © 2011