are the bare bones of a lecture given after 1980. Each time I gave
the lecture, audiences added more to my understanding. Further reading
about London at War 1914-1918 revealed more relevent aspects to the
study of the painting. To this day, I still find references to Zeppelins
over London, and difficulties experienced by civilians at the start
of Mechanised Warfare, harmonise well with an understanding of the
mood Gertler had created in this work.
saw the painting at the Ben Uri Gallery before it was transferred
to the Tate Gallery, a terrible and grave painting that oppressed and
puzzled. In the Ben Uri it was difficult to get back from it and
it was frighteningly oppressive. It was certainly unlike anything
else I had ever seen, and was unbelievably painted by a British artist.
was told by the Curator that there was a huge weight of pigment on
the back of its canvas because, standing unsold in his studio, face
turned to the wall, it bore the scrapings of Gertler's palette on
a daily basis.
of the Merry-Go-Round as Carnival attraction struck a resonance with
me because from childhood I always feared the mad, abandoned machine
fixed to the Fairground floor. Hitchcock chose the Merry Go Round increasingly
out of control as a setpiece in Strangers on a Train.
money for the privilege, you sit clutching a garish chicken or horse
screaming with pain, then as the machine is activated, you share the
air of hysteria gradually gathering among the riders and their spectators,
with the earspiltting music that accompanies the experience. The wheeling
shapes circling above above the steel machine seemed more ominous
than clouds (which was one explanation).
influences (either consciously or unconsciously) absorbed by the
artist,seemed to require closer study. As always D.H.Lawrence was attuned
to the energy of the work and its emerging programme of meaning. The
example of the Shrove Tide Fair in Diaghilev's ballet Petrouchka which
most of Gertler's set had seen before 1914 provided one aspect of understanding.
The convergence within the image of the Merry-Go-Round, of reflections
on the Circle Line as a means for poor East Enders to escape Zeppelin
bombing, and the destructive circling of the Moth around the Flame
emerged over the years.
CIRCLE LINE AS MERRY-GO-ROUND, PUNCH 1913
an article to Apollo and Denys Sutton. Luke Gertler read the text and
I was most encouraged. It just never appeared.I have ceased to write
to persuade, but here present the central texts and thoughts for you
to construct into what you will. The perfectly turned argument that
finds an admiring peer review before an acclaimed academic publication
seems hollow now. Much more exciting is the way in which exploration
of the context in which a work of art was created helps to bed it down
in the imagination, establishing a persuasive direct line to the impulse
of image making. It helped I was teaching practising artists, many
of whom were intellectually incapable of the towering structures later
generations of scholars may infer.
art historical analysis of the painting was
primarily style based whereas the rawness and impact of the painting
seemed to demand discussion of direct responses to experiences of the
War on the Home Front -
sublime spectacle of destruction of life and property from the air;
civilians taking shelter in the Underfound and in particular using
the Circle Line to escape the bombing;
guilt at being protected in Hampstead while his family living in the East
End were in danger of being bombed;
• the pictorial
possibilities of the scenario accommodating a cross section of British
society trapped in the claustrophobic cycle of destruction;
against an understanding of Diaghilev's ballet Petrouchka (set
in a fairground) as symbolic of the destruction of the innocent
by brute force.
While preparing for the lecture I met a man in the street who had seen
a Zeppelin coming in on the wind in 1917. He remarked with a sense of
the awe he felt at the great silver cigar shape in the night sky, coming
in on the wind on a journey down to the East End of London.
I found in the archives of Reckitt and Colman's a Zeppelin Detector
given away with mustard that calculated for you the likelihood of an
attack, based on the direction of the wind.
a small collection of visual material I have collected over the period
that tests my own responses to thechaos of destruction and its peculair
attraction. The Menu includes also responses from a wide range of people
to the spectacle of Zeppelins over London.
on aerial bombing in 1916 certainly chimed well with my anxieties experienced
in the 1980's in Norwich, being at the epicentre of the American airbases.
with Gertler's painting of Swingboats, an illustration of a Swing Boat
from a book on Garden Design, Amsterdam 1802
- THE AESTHETICS OF BEING BOMBED
76' x 56'; Tate Gallery London,
by September 1916 and exhibited at the London Group 1917.
" Gertler is by birth an absolute little East End Jew.... He is rather
beautiful and has a funny little shiny black fringe; his mind is deep
and simple, and I think he has the feu sacre." Edward Marsh 1913.
The talk addresses the problematic subject matter of the painting.
Why is the image of the Merry Go Round associated with hysteria rather
than happiness ?
What is the significance of the painting in its contemporary context ?
What influenced its extraordinary imagery ?
The Cylic in pictorial imagery,
Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951).
Gertler's early subject matter in the East End.
Early work, Rabbi and Daughter 1912.
The influence of Diaghilev and Petrouchka, 1912. The
Benois sets for Petrouchka, see A.G.Houbigant, Moeurs et Costumes
des Russes , Paris 1817, (01) lithographs
of Russian scenes upon which Benois seems to have based his celebrated
Fairground sets for Diaghilev.
The influence of D.H.Lawrence, Women in Love ,1921,written
from 1912 and The Rainbow, Sept. 1915
The Home Front during the First World War, the early
bombing raids on London, the early shelters in the Underground
Effect on civilian morale. (01. 02, 03)
The nature of Gertler's creativity.
" You ask what is the matter with me ? Well, it is something serious
- the greatest crisis in my life - and you know what I have already suffered
in the past. I fact for the time being I see no solution - the trouble
is- my work - what is my value as an artist / What have I in me after
all ? Is there anything there worth while after all ? That is the point
- I doubt myself - I doubt myself terribly - after all these years of
labour and you know how I worked - so so hard with my blood and I have
lived and fed up my work - my work was by faith....." letter to
William Rothenstein, c1925. September 1939, dies by his own hand.
1. Responses to the painting .
1.1"With its harsh flickering restlessness the painting seemed to
be a comment on Mark's life in the various scenes through which he had
passed - Whitechapel slum, young artist's Bohemia, fashionable society,
the Garsington intelligentsia. It was impossible too to look at these
mechanical soldiers going round and round without recalling the horrors
of the deadlocked Western Front....." William Rothenstein, Men and
1.2 "In this extraordinary picture the folk art figures express,
although in a more sophisticated fashion, the brutality that the boisterous
jollity of the traditional Punch scarcely masks.... Never again as far
as I am aware did his folk art figures assume so grand or so sinister
a form." John Rothenstein.
1.3 "Your terrible and beautiful picture[in reproduction] has just
come. This is the first picture you have ever painted : it is the best
modern picture I have ever seen : I think it is great and true. But it
is horrible and terrifying. I'm not sure I wouldn't be too frightened
to come and look at the original." D.H.Lawrence.
2.Gertler on Art and Creativity .
2.1 "I paint pictures which seem to me wonderful but no one understands
them." Mark Gertler, May 1916. "Ideas for future pictures come
to me very often and these ideas are so mysterious and wonderful that
when they come over me - they come in waves - I get so excited and feel
so physically weak that I can hardly stand." MG to Edward Marsh,
August 17th, 1915.
2.2 "I get amazing visions for pictures, some of them too complicated
to paint but wonderful as ghosts. I got wonderful ideas here on Bank Holidays.
Multitudes of people. Bright feathers, swinging in and out of the clouds
in coloured boats... a blaze of whirling colour; the effect would be something
like a rainbow. It would be wonderful if one could give the effect of
the whirl and the excitement, but it's too complicated an idea to paint
yet." Gertler, letter to Carrington, 1915 written in Hampstead Heath.
2.3 "He was baffled by this association of art with things like
politics and music-halls, which he had always accepted as part of the
world's constitution, but essentially unimportant. He had no organised
mental life. His ideas came direct from his instincts to his mind, and
were used for immediate purposes or dropped back again to return when
wanted." G.Cannan, Mendel.
3. Appropriate texts; the image of the moth and the candle .
3.1 "This world in which she lived was like a circle lighted by a
lamp. This lighted area, lit up by man's completest consciousness, she
thought was all the world : that here all was disclosed for ever. Yet all the
time within the darkness she had been aware of points of light, like the eyes
of wild beasts, gleaming, penetrating, vanishing. And her soul had acknowledged
in a great heave of terror only the outer darkness. The inner circle of light
in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground
out their machine produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light
of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like an area under an arc lamp,
wherein the moths and children played in their security of blinding light,
not even knowing there was any darkness because they stayed in the light.....
Nevertheless the darkness wheeled about, with grey shadow-shapes of wild beasts,
and also with dark shadow shapes of the angels whom the light fenced out, as
it fenced out the more familiar beasts of darkness."
D.H.Lawrence, The Rainbow,1915, of Ursula Brangwyn.
Lawrence as an admirer of Thomas Hardy would not have missed the use
of the image used to describe Tess in Tess of the Durbevilles.
3.2"You seem to me to be flying like a moth into a fire. I beg you
don't let the current of work carry you on so strongly that it will destroy
you oversoon.." DHL to MG
3.3 "He lived in a circle of light into which like moths came timid,
blinking, lovable figures, and he loved them ; but they passed on and
were lost in the tumultuous heaving darkness of life, into which alone
he could not enter." Gilbert Cannan, Mendel ,1916.
Slide PUNCH May 26th 1909 p.363, and an example of much interest in airship
question. Here Punch makes light but there was considerable unease at
airships creeping in under the national defences.
For the standard biography see John Woodeson,
Mark Gertler Biography of a Painter , 1972;
Mark Gertler Selected Letters ,edited by Noel Carrington
The Letters and Diaries of Dora Carrington edited Noel
John Rothenstein Modern English Painters , Vol ii, 1956;
Gilbert Cannan, Mendel A Story of Youth , published October
Robert Gathorne-Hardy, Ottoline, the Early Memoirs of Lady Ottoline
Great Morning , 1948;
D.H.Lawrence, The Rainbow,1915;
George Dangerfield, The
Strange Death of Liberal England,