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Lecture - King's College, London - September 12th 2009

Exhibiting Guernica 1939–2009: Contexts and Issues

I would like to welcome you all to this symposium at the Whitechapel Gallery entitled:

Exhibiting Guernica 1939–2009: Contexts and Issues.

I’m Michael Rosen. I’m a writer  - mostly but not entirely – of children’s books. I’m also a broadcaster – mostly but not entirely – of radio programmes. I’m standing in front of you for a variety of reasons and the best way for to explain that is to tell some stories. So I would like to begin by putting you in the picture as to how this symposium came about before explaining how and why we’ve arranged the day.

My wife and I put up ideas for radio programmes and so both of us sometimes follow our noses looking up this and that on the internet. Some of you will have seen on the way in a blue plaque on the wall outside for the poet and painter Isaac Rosenberg. He and a group of painters who came to be known as the Whitechapel Boys are celebrated upstairs in a gallery all of their own. A year or so ago, I reviewed a new biography of Rosenberg for BBC Radio 3’s ‘Nightwaves’ and I became interested in the Whitechapel Boys, perhaps as a subject for a longer study on radio.

I’ve known of this gallery and what used to be the library next door because my father used to speak of it as his university. He was brought up not far from here, living in Nelson Street off New Road, behind the London Hospital from 1922 until about 1940 in the house his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had occupied since the 1890s.

So there I was idly looking up things to do with the gallery, when I came across the story that the Whitechapel Gallery had exhibited Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ what is now just over 70 years ago, and that this was done as one of the ways in which people in this part of London were raising awareness and funds for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. This was the last time the painting has been shown in London, and apart from a brief show in Manchester, following straight after Whitechapel,  the painting has never been seen in this country since.

So, we started to put together the idea of a radio programme that would, we thought bring together various strands and ask several questions.
How did the Whitechapel get the painting? Who organised the exhibition? Who came? What was going on in Whitechapel and the nearby East End of London,  leading up to the exhibition?

Now, some of this I knew even before I knew it. I’ll explain.

I was brought up in Pinner, in the London suburbs by a father and mother whose entire childhoods, adolescence and early adulthood had been wrapped up in an intense, personal, social, cultural and political way of life that has come to be known as the Jewish East End. This place and time was for my brother and me a mythic territory. By the time I was, say 10 in 1956, it had pretty well gone. What’s more, it was a territory my parents had left behind and yet constantly referred to and yet whatever they said about it, it didn’t resemble anything like our life in Pinner. So whether it was in their speech – which would revert to a London Yiddish; or  in the stories about, say, horses falling over on the ice outside the brewery, giving away bread to strangers at the beginning of Pesach – that’s Passover, about visits to the Lane – that’s Petticoat Lane or Middlesex Street; or the political stories about defending themselves against Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, organising support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War or supporting the huge rent strikes that went on in the buildings around this gallery – all this was part of this mythic territory. Mythic for me, real for them but gone.

Much, much later, my father wrote about these things in a book called ‘Troublesome Boy’ which he updated for the book ‘Are You Still Circumcised?’ And several times I ended up interviewing him on radio and on TV for the Culture Show when we sat here in the empty library and he talked about what this library meant to him and how he was brought here by his mother and he borrowed a book about whales and later when he was in his teens, he said he would meet people from all over the world, some, like Russian seamen, passing through, others being people from all over Russia and eastern Europe who had come to live here.

In all these conversations, informal and formal, he had never mentioned the painting of ‘Guernica’. As I combed the internet – me living not far from here in Hackney, and he now in Muswell Hill,  and very frail from a major op, I kept discovering new things that could or would go in a radio programme if we succeeded in selling it. There was a quote online from the Spanish Civil War veteran and trade union leader, Jack Jones about the ‘Guernica’ Exhibition. He was orginally from Liverpool but lived not far from here, like my mother, in Bethnal Green at the time of the Exhibition. He told a story that visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to bring shoes or boots and the solidarity committee would send the shoes and boots out to refugees in Spain. So soon, sitting on the floor of the exhibition, somewhere very near to us now was a huge pile of boots, which in themselves became something that people came to look at. What extraordinary echoes that has – forwards first to the terrible detritus of the Holocaust that speak so silently and awfully of what happened there, but also much less gravely to the kinds of exhibition and installation that we’ve become used to in the last decade: heaps and piles of objects speaking of randomness or multiplicities where usually there are only singles.

Then, it quickly became clear that ‘Guernica’ got here as a result of something to do with Picasso’s friend and biographer Roland Penrose and something to do with the local Trades Council. I couldn’t piece together exactly how this had happened. I couldn’t find out exactly who sat on that Trades Council. For those of you unfamiliar with the Trade Union movement, Trades Councils emerged out of the syndicalist movement on either side of the First World War. They were given a formal constitution allowed them by the Trades Union Congress, whereby representatives of Trades Unions in a locality could meet together and discuss matters of mutual benefit to those unions and their members. Their finest hour came, perhaps, in the General Strike of 1926, when it was the Trades Councils that did more than anyone else to sustain the strike and indeed to begin to organise beyond trade union questions of wages and conditions and on to questions like alternative food distribution.

In the period of the 1930s the local Trades Council, I guessed, would have tried to organise defence against Oswald Mosley and of course solidarity with Spain. But did someone on that Council know Roland Penrose? When the painting first came to London, it was shown at the Burlington Gallery in the West End. So was it always due to come here, or did Penrose and the Trades Council seize the time and get it shown here as a second thought?

Meanwhile, there were the three big stories I’ve already mentioned that would need telling in such a programme:  the anti-fascist action – in particular the Battle of Cable Street on 1936 when hundreds of thousands of East Enders fought with police to prevent the provocation of Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts marching through Gardiners Corner out there and along Cable street, which was at that time an almost 100% Jewish area; there were all the different kinds of solidarity-work for Spain – my mother had talked of what it felt like to go all round the tenement buildings knocking on people’s doors asking for pennies for Spain; and again the Rent Strikes  - one of the most brilliant pieces of action ever organised. I’ll explain: Oswald Mosley’s argument, if I can call it that, was that the working class was being cheated by Jewish landlords. Now, there were two major flaws with this racist argument: one that not all landlords were Jews and two most of the tenants round here were also Jews. But the housing conditions were awful. This was multi-occupancy and overcrowding at its worst. My father lived in a two up, two down house and for something like twenty years, there were twelve people living in that house – one outside toilet, no bathroom. My mother talked of bedbugs, TB and pneumonia. Most of the buildings round here had been put up in the mid-nineteenth century and hadn’t been touched since. A rent strike was an act of emancipation and liberation. It was a demand for a better life. And it cut right through the divisive racism of Mosley and his fascists. As I read about this, I found that one of the rent strike leaders and activists was someone my mother was at school with, Bertha Sokoloff. Had my mother, who died in 1976, ever mentioned Bertha in that light? I didn’t think so. My friend Chris, whose mother and father were at school with my mother and father said that Bertha was living in north west London not far from where I was brought up.

So, as you can see, we were piecing together the elements of a radio programme. I came to the gallery and spoke with Nayia, who you’ll hear from later, who showed me documents from the archive. I found a historian, now living in Canada – invited today but sadly couldn’t make it – whose Ph.D and later a book studied various aspects of the upheavals going on in the East End – he had wanted to work out the relative importance of three aspects of these struggles: the effect of the Communist Party, the effect of this having been a largely Jewish community and the effect that the rent strike had been largely organised by women.

Then again, I started to ask some questions about Picasso and the painting.. He is not only the giant of twentieth century art who invents and reinvents himself and art several times over. For the left, and Communists in particular, he was their guy. Or in my parents’ view of things, he was ‘ours’.  As it happens we didn’t have his paintings up on our walls, but they were certainly up in the homes of virtually all the Communist families that I knew as a child. But wasn’t there something incongruous here, something contradictory? Many people here will know that in 1936, explicit guidelines were laid down from the Soviet Union about socialist realism, not to be confused with social realism. Socialist realism would be an art, in all forms, music, painting, sculpture, literature and so on, which would express something optimistic and triumphant about the working class in its struggle to make and build a new and better world. This art would show workers as heroes working in factories and fields, overcoming the old order, or beating off enemies of the new.  And artists were under strict instructions to produce art of this kind.  (You may know the bitter joke that came out of the Soviet Union against this kind of art. Impressionism is what you see. Surrealism is what you think. Expressionsism is what you feel. Socialist Realism is what you hear.) And part of this move to socialist realism was the appearance of a set of critics who got to work attacking other art movements for being variously too individualistic, nihilist, pessimist, anti-social and the like. The experiments of modernism which had given birth to such forms of art as cubism, fauvism, futurism and surrealism, say, were frowned on. How did they serve the working class? Their problem was that they either explored the minutiae of the psyches of the individual painter, or they gave the working class confusing and confused messages where reality was broken into meaningless fragments. And yet somehow, this great weight of opprobrium could exist side by side with a sanctifying of Picasso, of all people, of whom we can almost say, that he invented modernism. How did that shake out?

So, we packaged all this up as an offer to Radio 3 and we were delighted to hear that they were interested. It occurred to me that even though my father was very ill, in one of our conversations, often interrupted by pain and nursing, I should tell him about all this. In a sense I owed it to him, because if it wasn’t him and my mother, I probably wouldn’t have been following up this whole story anyway. I think he was in hospital and coming in and out of an opiates haze, when I asked him if, by chance he had actually seen ‘Guernica’ when it was exhibited here.

‘Oh  yes,’ he said straightaway, ‘I went with Moishe.’ Moishe being the old school friend I mentioned earlier.
I thought, why didn’t we have this conversation years ago? Or indeed ever?
‘Yes, I remember,’ he said, ‘walking down the stairs from the library with him and into the gallery. It wasn’t just the painting. There were some other drawings or paintings showing how he had done the painting.’
I told him what I had found out and that I had put it in as a radio programme. I think perhaps  he thought he had done enough of that kind of talking with me and for me on radio.

The message came back from the radio commissioners that we must make sure, when we put in the final proposal to describe the political and social context for it all. We must explain how the bombing of Guernica actually happened, I filled in a lot of what you’ve just heard me say and off it went. A few months later we got the thumbs down. No, they wouldn’t want the programme because, they said, they were doing some programmes on art and Spanish Civil War anyway. So that was that, and few months later my father died.

I was determined – perhaps it was the death of my father that gave me that extra push – to do something about ‘Guernica’ at the Whitechapel. So, you’re here today because there is no radio programme! We have something better, I think. And that’s because the wonderful  Whitechapel Gallery were more than keen for today to happen. I think we’ll be going on quite a journey, taking in questions of politics, culture, painting, poetry and even the question of what galleries themselves are for. We’ll be looking at that extraordinary time of the late 1930s in this locality, Picasso as political painter, the response of this country, London and the East End to events in Spain. We have a fantastic range of speakers: historians, critics and we are extremely lucky to have two speakers from that time who I’ll mention now; my mother’s friend Alice (one of ‘the girls’, as my mother used to call the group who went to Central Foundation School for Girls when it was in Spital Square) and last talk today, Sam Lesser, International Brigader, journalist and writer. And we’ll finish the day with one of my friend David Rosenberg’s famous walks, strolling round the very places where the events I’ve described – and many others – took place, within earshot of this gallery.

We’re hoping that you will participate where and when you can. As you can see, today is being recorded in various ways. If you object to being seen on camera, perhaps you can make sure you’re sitting with your back to it.



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