Sunday, 20 January 2019

Antoine Wiertz

A door to another world

In Brussels recently I visited 62 rue Vautier in the Leopold district, housing a museum dedicated to Antoine-Joseph Wiertz (1806-65).  While mainly known as a painter, he was also a sculptor and writer.  It is the enormous canvases in the main gallery, however, which make the greatest impression on entering the building.  Having read about Wiertz in Fortean Times a few months ago I had some idea what to expect regarding his themes, but walking into the cavernous gallery was still a surprise.  I found the pictures remarkable, and think their creator deserves to be better known.

Driven by pride in his achievements, he was keen future generations should enjoy them as well, to which end he made a deal with the Belgian government that his work should be kept intact in perpetuity and available for public display, despite his contemporaries not being universally enamoured by it.  He was unbothered by their indifference, claiming it takes a couple of centuries for an artist’s reputation to bed down and a definitive verdict to be reached.  In exchange for undertaking to donate his creations to the state, in 1850 the Belgian government, looking to cement the identity of the new nation, financed construction of the building which became his final studio.  As well as the large gallery there are three smaller rooms (‘salons’) added after his death.

According to the brochure produced by the museum, written by Brita Velghe, there are some 220 works in a variety of media on display.  Pictures are crammed together in the sort of hanging style prevalent during Wiertz’s lifetime.  The end salon houses a large display case containing smaller artefacts associated with him, and his death mask is on display in the main gallery.  There are two maxims written in charcoal by Wiertz himself, translating as: ‘Pride, a virtue which inspires great works and wounds the vanity of others’; and ‘Modesty, a mask which flatters the vanity of others in order to attract praise.’  Clearly he did not feel the need for modesty, feeling it would be a dishonest pose.

Main gallery

 Self-confidence was necessary for the young man to improve his prospects.  Born into very modest circumstances, his father encouraged his talent and he was lucky enough to acquire benefactors who assisted his development.  Through them he was exposed to a number of old masters, particularly Rubens, who became a major influence, and with whom he eventually considered himself on a par.  After training at the Antwerp Art Academy he was further submerged in art history by stays in Paris and Rome.

He achieved early success and made a reputation for himself, in the process becoming critic-proof, a profession for which he had little time.  Nor did he care much for Paris, a city that had snubbed him, and he published a pamphlet foreseeing a time when Brussels would become the capital of Europe and Paris a provincial town.  In a way the EU returned the compliment, as rue Wiertz runs through the European Parliament complex nearby.

Rue Wiertz

 As if to answer his critics, the canvases got bigger and grander, but it is in his smaller paintings, with their often morbid subject matter, that his view of the world is most clearly expressed.  If his reputation had rested on the large pictures, it is doubtful whether he would be as well remembered.  While he became imbued with the values of the Romantic movement, often in tension with formal academic tendencies, he is also seen as a precursor of the Symbolists and Surrealists, offset by a marked gothic sensibility.  As the list suggests, he can be hard to pin down.

His oeuvre encompasses the large paintings, on classical and religious themes, self portraits, and nudes.  The last includes La Liseuse de romans (The Reader of Novels), 1853, who obligingly has stripped completely and lies recumbent to peruse her tome, oblivious to a hand reaching in to steal one of the volumes lying next to her on the bed (perhaps symbolising the self-indulgence and escapism of reading).  The most interesting paintings, at least to my mind, are those dealing with macabre themes, though the categories are not mutually exclusive.  Les Deux jeunes filles ou La Belle Rosine. (Two Girls, or The Beautiful Rosine), 1847, combines nudity and the macabre by depicting a naked woman staring at a skeleton, no doubt pondering on the way of all flesh, while La jeune sorcière (The Young Witch), 1857, has a naked young woman suggestively astride a broom with an old crone and other shadowy figures watching her.

One virtue of Wiertz knowing his own mind and not having to worry about the marketplace was his indifference to what others thought.  In his contemplation of suffering his pictures may not be on the same level as Goya’s horrors, but there is still a power to shock.  The titles of many of these speak for themselves: in L'enfant brûlé (The Burned Child), 1849, a terrified woman pulls a baby from a brazier, alas too late.  L'Inhumation précipitée (The Hasty Burial), 1854, shows a terrified face peering out of a coffin in a vault as the prematurely interred individual attempts escape.  Le suicide (The Suicide), 1854, shows a man shooting himself in the head, the smoke from the pistol thankfully obscuring his face.

More explicitly gruesome, in Le soufflet d’une dame Belge (The Outrage of a Belgian Woman), 1861, a nearly-naked woman defends herself against a soldier about to rape her by shooting him upwards through the bottom of his head, causing his face to explode.  (Apparently Wiertz’s wanted to promote training in the use of firearms by women, and proposed the setting up of a rifle range for ladies.)  In Faim, Folie, Crime (Hunger, Madness, Crime), 1853, a woman driven insane by starvation, though actually looking in rude health, has cut off the leg of her baby and put it in a cooking pot, the wrapped corpse held on her lap with a stain from the amputated limb seeping onto the material.  Her exposed breast contrasts the nurturing maternal attitude with the monstrous act she has committed (but the salaciousness of the exposure undercuts the horror).

There is still more maternal agony in La civilisation du XIXème siècle (The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century), paired with Le soufflet d’une dame Belge on the wall, the two in identical frames: a terrified woman clutching a baby flees soldiers who are shooting at her at close range, a box with jewellery spilling out at her feet.  Now we are not only talking about Belgium, we are talking about civilisation generally, or the lack of it.  Wiertz was acutely aware of and sympathetic to the vulnerability of women and children, while leaving himself open to the charge he was willing to use nudity to titillate the viewer, employing classicism as a fig-leaf.

The cover of the Penguin edition of Maldoror and Poems, by Comte de Lautréamont, has a detail from L'Inhumation précipitée, and unsurprisingly a detail appears on the cover of Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, by Jan Bondeson.  Bondeson, who regularly appears in Fortean Times, contributed an article to the July 2018 issue, extracted from his book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, which in part discusses Wiertz.  After a general biographical sketch, Bondeson uses Wiertz’s remarkable triptych Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée (Last Thoughts And Visions Of A Severed Head), 1853, to discuss speculation about the length of time a decapitated head can maintain consciousness.  (Clearly fascinated by decapitation, Wiertz also painted Une tête coupée (A Severed Head), 1855, exhibited nearby, showing a guillotined head in close-up on straw.)

L'Inhumation précipitée

In 1848 Wiertz had had the idea of being mesmerised in order to enter the mind of a convicted murderer as he was guillotined.  This Wiertz did while standing on the scaffold, and he wrote an elaborate and frightening account of the condemned man’s final moments until extinction, which by the calculation of witnesses lasted three minutes (Bondeson points out that in reality, with blood flow to the brain terminated, it would be a matter of seconds).  The three panels of Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée show the stages of the execution as a whirl of action, losing form as the dying man’s thought processes decay.  Wiertz included his account as a légende in the triptych’s trompe-l’oeil frame (a form he was fond of), and it was published posthumously in his collected literary works in 1869.  Despite stating that Wiertz’s description of his mesmeric rapport is given in full, the version in FT is abbreviated.

A fuller, though still not complete, translation by Walter Benjamin and originally published in German in 1929, can be found in the English-language collection of his writings The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility.  In addition, the editors provide a description of the three panels, which is useful as they are rather murky.  Benjamin had an interest in Wiertz’s work and there are numerous references to him in The Arcades Project, including to Wiertz’s writing on photography: Wiertz penned an article about the subject after seeing an exhibition in 1855, and was one of the first to recognise both photography’s own artistic potential and the impact the new medium would have on painting.  Elsewhere Benjamin refers to the ‘panoramic tendency’ of Wiertz’s paintings, though it does not seem he visited the museum to see the large-scale canvases for himself.

Benjamin describes him as ‘progressive’ and a precursor of montage (doubtless thinking of Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée).  Less positively, he quotes Baudelaire’s unflattering assessment of ‘that infamous poseur named Wiertz, a favourite of English cockneys,’ actually a fairly mild beginning compared to the foam-specked invective following.  Baudelaire refers to Wiertz’s notion of Brussels as capital and Paris as province, which one suspects was what got him riled.  Baudelaire asks what Brussels will ‘do with all this after his death?’  Doubtless he would have been grinding his teeth to see the Wiertz museum still in existence, giving the ‘poseur’ the last laugh.

According to the museum brochure, when Wiertz died, in the museum, his body was ‘embalmed in accordance with Ancient Egyptian burial rites.’  Presumably they entailed submersion in natron for 70 days, having his brain removed through his nose, and his organs preserved in canopic jars.  One suspects it was in fact embalming light, but if he had gone the full Egyptian it would have been a fittingly bizarre end to a singular career.  He had wished to be buried in the garden, making him part of the museum and therefore an exhibit in his own right, but permission was denied and he was buried in the more bourgeois surroundings of the municipal cemetery at Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels.

The description in the Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg is sniffy about Wiertz and the museum, focusing on the morbid and the nudity, and overegging the yuck factor.  By saying he came to believe he was better than Rubens and Michelangelo, they invite the reader to dismiss him as a talentless egomaniac with a penchant for melodrama, which probably serves to put readers off visiting but is most unfair.  There are fans though: Olivier Smolders and Johan van den Driessche made a short film about Wiertz in 1991, Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée, though sadly it seems to have done little to raise his profile.  To its credit Dinant, the city of his birth, has a statue of him, even though he left to go to the Antwerp Art Academy at the age of 14 and did not look back.

Musée Wiertz was very quiet while I was there, and this is the common state of affairs I understand (Bondeson says that when he went in 2011 he was the only visitor).  One suspects the Belgian government would prefer not have to foot the bill for its upkeep, but I am glad they do as my time there was a highlight of my stay in Brussels.  I was surprised how brief the official brochure – at least the English-language version – is, and Wiertz surely merits a catalogue raisonné.  Entry is free, though opening hours are limited, and I urge anyone visiting Brussels to make the time to call in and experience this fascinating artist at first hand.


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press, 2008.

Bondeson, Jan. ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Severed Head’, Fortean Times, July 2018, pp. 36-43.

Lee, Phil and Trott, Victoria (eds). The Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg, 7th edition, Rough Guides, 2018.

Velghe, Brita. Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865), Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, n.d.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Terence Palmer and Spirit Release Therapy

In recent years Terence Palmer has built a reputation as a practitioner of Spirit Release Therapy (SRT).  This is a method that its advocates claim can be used to alleviate distress in individuals afflicted by entities which have attached themselves unbidden and are having a negative impact on sufferers’ lives.  Those in this situation may have tried more conventional therapeutic techniques, with no effect.

The field is mainly understood to involve discarnate spirits which are earthbound, though there is debate as to whether they are all objective, as some might be subjectively created by the experient; self-generated thought forms rather than spirits of the deceased (in effect tulpas).  Either way they have a ‘disembodied consciousness’ of some kind capable of communication and reason.  The object is to detach the spirit and move it into the light, thereby bringing relief to the victim.  SRT should not be confused with the religious rite of exorcism, thus ‘spirit attachment’ is often used in preference to possession, and malicious damaging spirits labelled ‘dark force entities’ rather than demons.

So how does SRT work?  According to Palmer’s website, Healing the Wounded Spirit with Dr Terence Palmer PhD, the first step ‘is to uncover the nature of the attached entity and ask it to reveal its objective,’ which is done psychically.  Then the practitioner acts as an intermediary to resolve the conflict between the entity and the person to whom it is attached, to their mutual benefit.  As well as the release itself there is the need to address the cause of the attachment and consider future protection.  This is all achieved by working with the spirit guide of the ‘patient’ through the ‘etheric field’ using telepathic and clairvoyant ‘methods’.

Palmer has contributed a lengthy article to the Society for Psychical Research’s Psi Encyclopedia which lays out the scope of SRT.  In it he says that ‘The treatment evolved from the pioneering clinical experience of practitioners who discovered the benefits of entering into dialogue with the “possessing entities”, bypassing preconceptions about whether they really existed, or their nature.’  Preconceptions may have been bypassed previously, but SRT’s efficacy is based on the assumption of attachment by earthbound entities having harmful consequences.  He rightly notes that SRT’s claims have yet to be substantiated by rigorous empirical studies.

I had come across Palmer through the Society for Psychical Research and had assumed that SRT was something he did as a free service.  So I was surprised when looking at his website to see that he charges clients £100.  What then made me really take notice was the entry on his website, dated 26 November 2018, which stated that a target of 200 cases had been reached.

If they all paid £100 each, that is £20,000, in addition to a Patreon page which charges to access articles and income from his book The Science of Spirit Possession (2nd edition), retailing at £52.99 hardback, £37.99 paperback.  He is involved in a ‘School for Spirit Release’ which offers an accredited certificate (from the International Practitioners of Holistic Medicine) allowing the holder to practise SRT.  It costs, for courses held in the UK, £247 per weekend for two weekends; and for those outside the UK, £494 for four consecutive days (attendees can have 20% off his book even though the preface specifically states it is not a manual for student SRT practitioners).  It is even possible to participate in a course with Palmer to learn SRT in Mexico in March 2019, a mere US $695 for a four-day workshop.  There is clearly money to be made from releasing spirits.

One might assume that the £100 fee covers expenses, but no travel is involved.  The ‘fees and booking’ page of Palmer’s website states that the therapy is administered ‘remotely’, because conveniently for all parties, ‘Procedures are conducted in the ‘spiritual’ dimensions – not the physical. This means you don’t need to be in any particular place at any particular time to receive a remote procedure as they are conducted beyond time and space.’  According to the ‘A Spirit Release Intervention Protocol’ page on Palmer’s website, which lists 56 numbered steps, ‘Experience has taught us that the average time taken to use this protocol for an intervention is about fifteen (15) minutes. Simple ones can be done in eight (8) minutes.’

Two individuals split the fee: the facilitator (presumably always Palmer) and the medium (presumably always his colleague Andrew Porter who collaborates with the spirit guide ‘Chen’.  Palmer and Porter are both listed as ‘course trainers’ at the School for Spirit Release (‘Dr Terence Palmer PhD is the principal instructor, ably assisted by his colleague, the gifted medium Andrew Porter and the spirit guide “Chen”’) and Porter can be seen working with Palmer in YouTube videos).  The attitude to money expressed on the website is fairly brusque:

‘We live in a world where it costs money just to exist and occupy space on the planet. Maintaining this device costs money, as does communicating with anyone by phone, email or any other means. We are not funded by the NHS or any charity and our research costs are not covered by an institution. Unfortunately this means that we are not able to provide a service free of charge. If you are not able to acknowledge any value for the services offered here then perhaps you can find someone else who can give you a service for free.’

It does not sound very spiritual, and does sound like a business (Palmer freely uses his membership of the Society for Psychical Research as a credential, which probably contravenes the second of the Society’s members’ guidelines, which states: ‘Membership of the SPR may not be used for personal gain of any kind’).  However, Palmer says in his Psi Encyclopedia article that ‘...the modern Spiritist movement in Sao Paulo, Brazil engages thirty-five hundred mediums from all walks of life from humble illiterates to lawyers who provide their services to the suffering for no charge,’ and it is a fair bet that it costs money ‘to exist and occupy space’ in Brazil, just as it does in East Kent.

In addition to his website and the SPR article, anyone who wants to learn more about Palmer’s activities can find about 140 of his videos on YouTube.  They include an intriguing one from December 2018, ‘Case no. 269. Dialogue with intelligent reptilian using a human for incubating is (sic) offspring.’

Palmer undoubtedly achieves positive results with at least some of his clients (there are eight testimonials from grateful clients on his website at the present time); but whether this is due to the efficacy of SRT or to the placebo effect, or possibly to conventional treatments being undertaken at the same time, must be open to question in the absence of any properly-conducted research, along with the contentious reliance on mediumship and spirit guides.  More worryingly, as the subject of spirit possession is speculative, despite its claim to be scientific, it must be impossible to say whether his and Porter’s efforts might not make the situation worse for some individuals.   There are references to dissociative identity disorder on Palmer’s website, but they are couched in general terms, and I could find nothing to indicate that SRT may be unsuitable for some individuals.  If such guidance is there, it should be more prominent to prevent unrealistic expectations by vulnerable individuals.

NB All quotations are correct at the time of writing.


Palmer, Terence. The Science of Spirit Possession (2nd Edition), Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.

Palmer, Terence. Healing the Wounded Spirit (website), Accessed 11 January 2019.

Palmer, Terence. ‘Spirit Release Therapy’, Psi Encyclopedia, Accessed 11 January 2019.

Society for Psychical Research ‘Member Guidelines’, Accessed 12 January 2019.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Do Footballers use Psychokinesis?

Recently I was sent a link to a YouTube video posted on 4 January 2019 titled Mind Control, in which Arthur Fulford claims to show footballers using psychokinetic influence to direct the ball.  The video’s description states: ‘Obviously the scientists haven't checked this out – but I recon (sic) that footballers use their hands to manipulate a forcefield that helps them control the ball. Take a look.’  It is an intriguing idea, so I thought I would.

The video itself begins: ‘The best footballers appear to have the ball attached to their hand [as if] by a piece of string.   By using their hands they exert a force over the ball.  Here are some examples of strange acceleration, deceleration as well as change in direction of the football that are due to players using their hands.’  It must be stressed the hands are not in physical contact with the ball, but are apparently being used to direct a mental influence from the player to the ball to assist in controlling it.

A number of factors need to be taken into account in assessing the claim, such as: the condition of the pitch; dampness versus dryness; wind speed and direction; the speed, spin and curve of the ball (Bernoulli's Principle); the player's balance and direction of travel; the contact between boot and ball; the angle of the camera filming the action; and random arm movements that might seem to correlate with those of the ball.

There are seven clips in Mind Control, each preceded by a short summary explaining what to look for, and the clips are repeated numerous times.  I came away impressed by the ability on display, if not sufficiently to consider those in the top rank worth their obscenely bloated pay packets.  But bearing in mind these are players who can do amazing things with a ball through constant practice, I think that what is presented here is a long way from evidence of psychokinesis.  These are my thoughts on each of the examples in the video:
Pogba's ball seems to my eye to travel in a straight line, and his arm goes up to maintain balance and facilitate his turn.  He may even be following through the movement of the ball with his arm as he focuses on the ball’s flight to the goal, but that is not the same as saying there is cause and effect.  The summary mentions Pogba exerting ‘a telepathic force on the ball’ but this should be psychokinetic force.

Sanchez's ball is probably spinning, and while he does push his head forward, following the trajectory of the ball he has just headed, I cannot see the ball deviate from the curve initiated by the previous kick, nor speed up.

Edinho's play is brilliant, but again I cannot see the ball acting in a manner that suggests normal dynamics have been contravened.

Messi waves his arm but the ball does not seem to do anything unexpected, and after a quick glance to check the position of the ball as he receives it, he focuses on where to deliver his own shot, which suggests the suspected arm movement is unconnected with the ball.

In the first Giroud clip, he catches the ball on his foot, it goes behind him, he turns and kicks the ball; all seemingly natural with no psychokinetic influence.  In the second his footwork is nifty and he does not require any extra help in controlling the ball.  The hand movement looks synchronised but the ball's descent seems to be what one would expect from the preceding bounce, and both arms are being used for balance. 

Lukaku chases the bouncing ball, but if its speed has slowed appreciably in flight it is certainly not obvious, as the speed looks constant.  Judging by the way his opponent slides on his knees it is possible the ground is wet, and the ball accordingly bounces sluggishly.

As well as watching the arms in all these clips as instructed, I was watching the ball, and cannot say from its behaviour that there was anything unambiguously paranormal going on.  Really, if players were able to control the ball using some form of PK it seems likely they would be aware of it, and I cannot believe it would remain secret even if there was a feeling among some of them that such an admission could be embarrassing.

Of course it may be possible that some footballers are able to employ psychokinesis, and perhaps it was used in these clips and I missed it despite repeated viewings.  However, these players seem talented enough as it is, without the additional ability to control the ball using their minds.  If they can use their minds, why do they need their hands to direct the influence anyway?  And where are the examples of players using the ability to pull the ball away from their opponents?

Arthur indicates at the end of the video that this is merely a sample and there are many more to be seen once the viewer focuses on the player’s hands rather than feet.  Perhaps compelling examples will emerge from sustained study of football match recordings (preferably watched on a high definition screen), and the obvious step of investigating the theory under controlled conditions could then be carried out, particularly among footballers less skilled than those shown in the clips; those selected here are players whose level of skill provides a confounding variable.  In the meantime, the answer seems less likely to be found in psychical research than in physics and the possession of magic (in the metaphorical sense) boots.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Eleventh Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film

The 2018 Ukrainian film festival, held at Trinity College, Cambridge, on the evenings of 9 and 10 November, was unusual in not having Dr Rory Finin at the helm as he had begun a two-year sabbatical shortly before.  The festival programme, however, was up to the usual standard and mixed fiction and non-fiction, humour and the very serious.  It was introduced on the Friday night by Dr Olenka Pevny, Rory’s replacement as director of the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies department.

The first film, shown on Friday evening, was Invisible Battalion: The Stories of Our Women at War (2017), directed by Iryna Tsilyk, Alina Gorlova and Svitlana Lischynska.  There have been shorts focusing on women in the conflict in the east of the country, but this documentary is being promoted as ‘the first full-length film about the Ukrainian women’s participation in the war with Russia.’  It focuses on six women who had, or still were at the time of filming, participated in the war in Donbass, showing how they are playing an active and vital role.

At the start of the conflict in 2014 the Ukrainian government was woefully underprepared, and the armed forces had been run down on the assumption that the country would not have to confront external aggression.  Volunteers filled the gap until the Kiev government could gear itself up to make a response, and many of these were women who considered they had as much right to defend their country from external aggression as the men, and should be treated on equal terms.  Unfortunately they found themselves discriminated against and fighting two wars: one against the Russian-backed separatists, and the Ukrainian authorities for recognition of their sacrifices.  That struggle is part of a broader effort to achieve gender equality.

There was no conscription and severely limited opportunities for women within the regular army when the war began, so they had to join the volunteer forces instead.  In that capacity they were not listed as combatants because they were not regulars. Consequently they have largely had to rely on ad-hoc help from the population rather than official sources.  As they receive little support from the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women devised the Invisible Battalion project.  This is designed to highlight, among legislators and the public, the roles being played by women both in the front line and in support, study the effects of war on women combatants, and improve conditions during and after their period of service.  The film is part of that campaign.

The six interviewees fulfill, or fulfilled, a variety of functions in the war effort.  Each segment is fairly brief, but gives a feeling for their day-to-day lives.  There is no commentary and the stories are left to speak for themselves.  Text information is provided on the participants’ civilian lives, and they come from all walks of life; what they did or do in the war, undertaking jobs as varied as medic, sniper, administrative support and trainer; the places they served; and their awards (which are often numerous).  Some have been directly involved since 2014 and tiredness is etched on their faces.

Participation takes its toll.  Emotions have to be repressed; as one interviewee says, she cannot cry despite the terrible things she has witnessed.  PTSD is a significant theme of the film.  A woman recounts how since she came back she has become alienated from her family.  There have been a number of suicides among female veterans and difficulties reintegrating into civil society after having been changed by the war.  Unfortunately there is little assistance for those in that situation, and such intervention programmes as there are usually not state-sponsored.  There are other effects of the war: one woman says she and her husband are desperate to start a family, but how can they at the present time?  Not all sacrifices are obvious to the outsider.

An element of the campaign was the presence after the screening of some of those women involved in the conflict, and they conducted a Q&A session.  In a wide-ranging discussion they said that part of the fight they are waging is to have all positions in the military open to women, and to ensure that promotion opportunities are equal.  At present women suffer discrimination as promotion for them tends to occur mainly in non-combat roles and the only female general is in the intelligence service.  The situation is improving though, with more front-line roles opening up for women, but progress is slow.  They also noted the asymmetry between the support Russia gives the separatists and the outside aid Ukraine has received to deal with a threat which affects a large number of countries in the west, and in 2014 the Russians had had much more experience of conflict in a variety of countries than had the Ukrainians.

Naturally the speakers were optimistic about the eventual outcome of the war, but only that morning I had listened to a report on the BBC World Service about elections in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the reporter pessimistically considered that the longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it would be for Ukraine to regain its lost territories.  Even if Ukraine does succeed, it looks like being an arduous slog.  Whatever the result, the impact will be long-lasting on the country’s civil society.  It was telling that one speaker noted her belief that Ukrainian citizens now trust central government less, and tend to rely on each other.  She said that the war has shown the people to each other.

After watching the film and listening to the speakers it seems remarkable that the government has not given more recognition to these women, who are fighting just as hard as the men, and not integrated them into the regular armed services.  One clue is perhaps in the response from one of the women at the Q&A when asked if the women were paid the same as the men.  She replied that while in the regular army pay rates for men and women doing the same job are the same as far as she could tell, the women volunteers are not paid at all.  Considering how many volunteers there are fighting alongside the regular troops, the government is being subsidised by all those women who give their time – and sometimes their blood – on behalf of the state.  They deserve better.  The obvious conclusion is that the Kiev government needs to develop a covenant that sets out its obligations to its armed forces, men and women, regular and volunteer.

Saturday’s films were a documentary and a fiction film, Slovo House (2017) and Between Two Hares (1961) respectively.  Slovo means ‘word’, and Slovo House (Budynok 'Slovo'), directed by Taras Tomenko, examines a remarkable period in Ukrainian literature when an entire apartment block was occupied by writers of the finest calibre in what was then the Ukrainian capital Kharkiv (before its relocation to Kiev in 1934).  Construction of the block commenced in 1927 and the film suggests it was a response to inflammatory remarks made by Maxim Gorky, who refused to allow his novel Mother to be translated into Ukrainian on the grounds that it was not a language but merely a dialect of Russian.  This naturally offended Ukrainian sensibilities, and as living conditions in the city were generally poor, the Slovo House was built to house its writers with Stalin’s blessing as recompense; Stalin had stated that Ukrainian was indeed a separate language as part of the policy of Ukrainianisation.  The block was constructed in the shape of an elongated letter C, which is the first letter of cлово (slovo), and residents began moving into the relatively luxurious apartments in 1929.

Having all your intellectuals in one basket made it a cauldron for a creative ferment, assisted by communal dining, and much of the film is a flat-by-flat profile of the residents, showing what remarkable personalities they were.  It also allowed easy surveillance by the authorities of these potential subversives.  After a creative flowering in the 1920s the Ukrainianisation policy was reversed in the 1930s as repression increased and dissenting voices were silenced in the purges.  The Holodomor signalled further efforts to subjugate Ukrainians, and the writers were accused of nationalism and even terrorism.  Gradually they were arrested by the NKVD and executed in a ‘cleansing campaign’, an effort that accelerated after the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December 1934.  By their end, the purges had touched almost two-thirds of the flats in the Slovo House.

The building is still standing, though looking rather dishevelled these days, and its story was told through a mixture of archive film to evoke the period of the Slovo House’s heyday (including some well-known – perhaps too well known – shots from Man with a Movie Camera) and contemporary footage, mostly drone shots which lovingly caress the building and its location.  A final section lists the inhabitants, a roll call of Ukraine’s intelligentsia, crushed by Stalinism.  Slovo House won the Golden Dziga for best documentary at the 2018 Ukrainian Film Academy Awards, and it is a worthy winner for bringing to wider attention an assault on Ukrainian identity that went hand-in-hand with the starvation being inflicted on the country by the regime in Moscow.

There was a technical hitch which delayed the start of the final film so sadly the audience for Between Two Hares (Za dvoma zaytsiamy), directed by Viktor Ivanov, was quite small, though the wine provided was adequate compensation for the wait.  Made during the Khrushchev period, ‘Ukrainian screwball comedy’ is probably not a phrase which is used very often, but this was a very funny film when non-Soviet audiences might have expected output at that time to be on the dour side.  The title comes from a Ukrainian saying that if you try to chase two hares you won’t get either, which was something of a spoiler.

The film concerns the misadventures of Svirid Golokhvasty, a dapper young barber in early twentieth-century Kiev who is on the brink of bankruptcy because of his profligate ways.  His solution is to marry for money.  One likely prospect is Pronya, the spoilt and exceedingly plain daughter of a pair of wealthy but peasant shopkeepers, whom he courts in the guise of being well-off.  Meanwhile he falls in love with Galina, the beautiful daughter of a poor woman who sells apples, but who wisely does not reciprocate his affection.

Caught by her harridan mother paying attention to Galina, he finds himself betrothed even though there will be no dowry.  What he does not realise is that the two mothers are sisters, so it can only be a matter of time before his duplicitous behaviour is exposed.  Galina as it happens is in love with the blacksmith and cannot abide Golokhvasty’s dandyish ways; Pronya on the contrary finds him attractive thanks to his sharp dressing and elevated (if often nonsensical) speech, and feels that he is of the right social status.  So, not aware of the true state of affairs, Pronya agrees to marry him.

Matters come to a head when he and Pronya are about to plight their troth at the cathedral.  He is recognised by some of the participants from the ‘engagement’ party at the poor relatives’ shack and they rush off to alert Galina’s mother.  As the happy couple process up the steps the poor sister denounces the groom for the cad he is, and Pronya berates him for humiliating her.  He vainly denies he had entered into an engagement with someone else but naturally the wedding is off and he and his cronies are thrown unceremoniously down the steps by the crowd.  Picking himself up he musters his dignity, and he and his friends retreat from the scene.

The film holds up very well and is an entertaining well-integrated mix of madcap comedy and social satire (complete with sexy nun).  Watching this version is a fairly new experience because we were told that the original Ukrainian soundtrack was only rediscovered five years ago.  On completion the film was dubbed into Russian and received wide distribution in the Soviet Union in that state.  In 2013 the Ukrainian soundtrack was found in a regional archive and the film restored to its original condition.  While there is great affection for the film in both Ukraine and Russia, there is something symbolic in recovering a Ukrainian film that had had its identity usurped by Russia.  After the serious films preceding it, it was a pleasantly escapist conclusion to the festival.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Day for Night: Landscapes of Walter Benjamin

Recently I flâneured over to the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck’s School of Arts in Gordon Square, London, to see an exhibition of photographs and two films related to Walter Benjamin (one of which was not running during my visit).  It is designed to be a celebration of his influence plus a sombre memorial to him in the form of a focus on landscapes known to him, particularly his final walk.

Benjamin’s story begins in Berlin, where he was born in 1892, and finishes in Catalonia, where he died.  He left Paris in May 1940 hoping to emigrate to the United States via Portugal, but committed suicide at Portbou in September 1940 when threatened with deportation back to France; an action that would have put him in the hands of the German occupiers, a group of individuals not noted for their kindness to Jewish intellectuals.

Alas for someone whose creativity has been so significant, Day for Night is a small show with small ideas.  The heart of it is a series of photographs of people holding either a large portrait of Benjamin – titled ‘Essential passage’; or placards with quotations from his best-known essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (or as it is also more clunkily known, ’The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’) – titled ‘More than a Sign’.

The placards themselves were included in the exhibition, in what was horribly termed ‘selfie corner’.  Visitors were invited to take said selfies while holding them, to be posted on Instagram.  The fragments were rendered meaningless by being ripped out of context (‘Authority of the object’, ‘Instead of being’, ‘Mode of existence’ etc.), and you don’t have to be a member of the Frankfurt School to suspect that Benjamin would not have been impressed by this particular act of mechanical (in more than one sense) reproduction.  The large portrait held up or carried around was even worse.  By evoking the portraits of dictators carried in processions it suggests a cult of Benjamin.

Screen grab, ‘More than a Sign (film)’

Literalness is taken even further in a set of photographs showing light effects, called ‘Luminosities’, referencing Benjamin’s Illuminations.  A further set, ‘Day for Night’, photographed in Portbou, uses the film technique in which scenes shot during the day mimic night-time by underexposing the image.  The curators make the rather obvious point that day and night can interpenetrate, as Benjamin found in Naples, day unravelling what the night has woven.  The link to Benjamin here is tenuous.

As if inspiration has failed entirely, the exhibition opens out to consider the issue of migration into Europe, equating it to Benjamin’s flight from the Nazis.  A rather nice group of photographs is titled ‘Life in the Shadows’ (hinting at L’Armée des Ombres?).  The caption reads: ‘This series of images focuses on a group of Senegalese migrants and their adopted home of present-day Port de la Selva, a town 14 kilometres from the place of Benjamin’s death.  The camera captures their figures in ambiguous, quasi-ritualistic poses in the empty streets of the off-season.’

Despite the persecution of Christians, and the usual problems women and gays tend to have in a Muslim-majority country, Senegal is not equivalent to Nazi-controlled Europe.  These are more likely to be economic migrants, as the gallery’s publicity concedes, and the comparison to Benjamin’s flight feels inappropriate.  The exhibition concludes with a film, ‘More than a Sign (film)’, tracing that final walk over the Pyrenees, covering 20km from southern France to Portbou.   Unfortunately it involves carrying the portrait of Benjamin, and becomes preposterous (fortunately we are spared the entire 20km).

The idea to celebrate Benjamin’s life and work was praiseworthy, but in practice the results presented here are rather dim.  We may hope for more substantial commemorations in 2020.  Day for Night: Landscapes of Walter Benjamin runs from 21 September to 27 October and is curated by Diego Ferrari and Jean McNeil.  A small book, edited by the curators, accompanies the event.