Bombs, beauty and painters of utopian anarchy

From The Australian
Camille Pissaro’s Eragny sur Epte (Flock of sheep) (1888), describes a bucolic existence that artists and writers of the time thought compatible with anarchist politics. Source: Supplied

FROM a modern perspective, the word anarchy implies subversion, lawlessness, chaos and violence. Neo-impressionist artists embraced anarchy from the opposite perspective: as an ideology that stood for individual liberty, collective sustainability and the idyllic union of labour and industry with nature.

The two leading theorists of anarchy whose writings influenced the neo-impressionists, Pyotr Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus, were geographers who wrote of the close links between correct cultivation of the land and ideal anarchist (or liberated) communal living, free from the restraints of centralised government.

Recognising that their cause needed visual representation, anarchist publishers such as Jean Grave, editor of La Revolte and Les Temps nouveaux (New Times), regularly asked Maximilien Luce and others to contribute illustrations to his journals, gratis. In 1891 Paul Signac published the essay “Impressionnistes et revolutionnaires” in La Revolte, in which he argued that the neo-impressionist’s unique vision of the world supported anarchy by struggling against convention and challenging the prevailing social order. Camille Pissarro, in fact, twice paid Les Temps nouveaux’s debts. Unsurprisingly, then, visual synergies with the aspirations of anarchism are not hard to find in neo-impressionist paintings.

“The very technique that the neo-impressionists employed,” wrote historian DD Egbert, “with its strongly accentuated individual brushstrokes that are brought together in harmony to form the picture as a whole, paralleled the individualistic yet communal spirit of communist-anarchism.”

GALLERY: The Neo-Impressionists

In 1886, some years before his move to the south of France, Signac vacationed at Les Andelys, in Normandy, and found a self-sustaining regional community that provided numerous motifs for his painting. Les Andelys, 1897, a colour lithograph reprising his memory of this town, offers an idyllic view of local women at one with nature, washing linen in the Seine. Pissarro’s Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte, 1888, and Delafolie Brickworks at Eragny, 1886, similarly depict dignified rural labour – sheep herding and modest brickmaking, respectively – in the small village of Eragny-sur-Epte in Picardy, where Pissarro had set up house in 1884. The Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe’s Calf Mill in Knokke (Windmill in Flanders), 1894, and Canal in Flanders, gloomy weather, 1894, also offer witness to humanity’s use of land for sustainable benefit.

Henri-Edmond Cross’s The farm, evening, 1893, blends the silhouetting of Japanese prints and the arabesque curves of art nouveau into a decorative vision of rural harmony. Cross’s peasant maiden – with basket perched on her shoulders, at peace with her domain – is a perfect leitmotif of anarchist bliss. Even Haystacks, 1889, by Belgian Willy Finch, who worked in the neo-impressionist mode for only a few years, can be read, as Robyn Roslak has shown, as echoing Kropotkin’s emphasis on the benefits flowing from properly managed land and agricultural production.

Another Belgian painter, George Morren, the son of a wealthy grain merchant from Antwerp, also embraced neo-impressionism briefly, between 1890 and 1892. Certain works by Morren from this period reflect a genuine empathy for the working classes of his home city, married to a close observation of atmospheric and temporal specifics inspired by impressionism.

The portraits of Parisian artisans that Luce painted in the late 1880s and early 1890s – for example, Coffee, 1892 – invited contemporary audiences to reflect on the precarious position of these skilled craftsmen as their livelihood was challenged by the rise of mechanised production and the department store. One of his subjects, the chessboard maker Eugene Baillet, was an old friend of Grave’s, as well as co-leader of the anarchist group of the 14th arrondissement. Luce himself started out as an artisan, making wood-engravings and working for a business that folded in the face of new printing technologies in 1883. In 1895 Luce visited the Borinage area of Belgium, a coalmining district filled with collieries and blast furnaces. Astonished by the beauty of these fiery premises when seen at night, and appreciative of the manner in which they dwarfed the workers who manned them (who had been involved in bitter confrontations with the authorities during labour strikes in the late 1880s), Luce devoted numerous compositions to the Borinage’s heavy industry, including his colour lithograph Charleroi factories or blast-furnaces, 1898. This was also the subject of the cover design Luce prepared for Grave’s 1898 pamphlet, Le Machinisme (Mechanisation), which discussed how machines both increased production to the detriment of the workers – who could not afford to consume the new products – and, because of the relative ease with which workers could be trained to use new machinery, removed traditional means of learning.

While anarchism sought to peacefully replace state control of society with a new, decentralised egalitarian order, an ideal embodied in the vision of pastoral, self-sufficient and cash-free collectives, extremists within the movement inevitably turned to violence. At the 1880 Workers’ Congress in Le Havre, Grave proclaimed that money would be better spent on dynamiting politicians than electing them. In 1886 extremists took him literally by attacking the Paris Stock Exchange with acid and setting fire to the mayor’s residence.

In July 1892 the anarchist Ravachol was publicly guillotined for his part in a number of bombings in the capital. Avenging Ravachol, fellow-anarchist Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies, only to be beheaded in February 1894. Vaillant was avenged in turn by Emile Henry, who bombed the Cafe Terminus. At his beheading, Henry, a friend of the neo-impressionist writer Felix Feneon, yelled “Long live anarchy!” The French President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in June 1894 by another anarchist, set on avenging Vaillant and Henry.

Pissarro, who was in Belgium at the time, wrote to his son Lucien about “the assassination of president Carnot, which is going to greatly complicate matters in France. Who knows how it will end? The poor painters are certainly going to feel the heat”. His words were prophetic.

Grave, Luce and Feneon were all arrested and charged with complicity in anarchist terrorism. After intense interrogation and 42 days’ imprisonment, Luce was eventually released. Grave and Feneon were among those tried and subsequently acquitted for lack of evidence. Feneon, who planted a bomb in the elegant Foyot restaurant in April 1894 (a terrorist act he was never linked to by the police), was soon boasting of how “the anarchist attacks have provided much better propaganda than 20 years of Reclus’s and Kropotkin’s brochures”.

Away from this violence, working in the balmy south of France, Signac and Cross explored a different vision of world peace from an anarchist perspective. As Cross wrote to Signac: “Until now, the pictures dealing with the theme of anarchy have always depicted revolt either directly or indirectly, through scenes of poignant misery. Let us imagine instead the dreamed-of age of happiness and well-being and let us show the actions of men, their play and their work in this era of general harmony.”

Paintings such as Cross’s Mediterranean shores, 1895, depicting women relaxing and men contentedly working in a lush, warm seaside setting, perfectly embody Reclus’s vision of Mediterranean France as an anarchist paradise of self-sufficient communities.

To some extent, the painting also reflects Nietzsche’s ideas of a liberating paganism, which Cross envisaged would accompany the triumph of anarchism, contributing to a new union with nature. Cross told Signac: “I want to paint the happiness and the lucky citizens of some centuries hence, when pure anarchy has been achieved.”

This is an edited extract from Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists, published by NGV Publications. The associated exhibition is at the National Gallery of Victoria from November 16 to March 17.

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Comments

It's a beautiful feeling.

There is an evident need to distinguish between two types of ‘anarchism’; (a) anthropocentrist anarchism, and (b) natural anarchism.

In the views of Emerson, Nietzsche, Mach, organizing is something that derives firstly from the natural world. This primal Organizing, with a capital O, which transcends the organizing that we attribute to the ‘organizings’, commonly called ‘organisms’ and ‘objects’, as Emerson says in ‘The Method of Nature’, ... “not only inhabits but creates the organism”.

Now, Authoritarianism and capitalism would have us imagine that ‘organizing’ JUMPSTARTS FROM HUMANS, so that, like God in the Christian Creation myth, the ‘organizers’ who jumpstart the driving and directing of the ‘organizing’ from out of their own intellect and purpose, don’t feel obliged to ask anyone else for input as to what they are doing, not wolf, not eagle, not aboriginals, not anything, ... because their intellectual models impute the space they are working in to be empty, so that all they need concern themselves with is ‘what they are creating’. No, Virginia, they do not see themselves as Emerson sees humans, as organizings within the Organizing (continually transforming relational spatial-plenum). They instead see themselves as mainstream science, with its many simplifying assumptions and economies and ‘economies of thought’ [Mach] that allows our intellectual models to portray us as absolute, locally existing ‘things-in-ourselves’ that populate an absolute fixed, empty and infinite space and time reference frame-cum-theatre of operations. This ‘metaphysics of absolute space and absolute time’, as Mach calls it, gives us the illusion that we have JUMPSTART ORGANIZING CAPABILITIES.

This is where a notional ‘anthropocentrist anarchism’ comes from; i.e. we imagine ‘anarchism’ as a organizing schema that jumpstarts from humans and is thus driven and directed from ‘things-in-themselves’ and ‘what things-in-themselves do in time’ [in ‘cause-effect sequence’ which defines ‘time’].

This is written all over analyses such as permeate this article; e.g;

“The Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe’s Calf Mill in Knokke (Windmill in Flanders), 1894, and Canal in Flanders, gloomy weather, 1894, also offer witness to humanity’s use of land for sustainable benefit.

“Cross’s peasant maiden – with basket perched on her shoulders, at peace with her domain – is a perfect leitmotif of anarchist bliss. Even Haystacks, 1889, by Belgian Willy Finch, who worked in the neo-impressionist mode for only a few years, can be read, as Robyn Roslak has shown, as echoing Kropotkin’s emphasis on the benefits flowing from properly managed land and agricultural production.

“To some extent, the painting also reflects Nietzsche’s ideas of a liberating paganism, which Cross envisaged would accompany the triumph of anarchism, contributing to a new union with nature. Cross told Signac: “I want to paint the happiness and the lucky citizens of some centuries hence, when pure anarchy has been achieved.

“anthropocentrist anarchism” is, as presented in the article, something that humans are going to achieve.

This has NOTHING TO DO with Nietzsche’s philosophy wherein an ‘organizing force’ he calls ‘will-to-power’ is immanent in nature and applies to everything at the same time in the full Organizing and thus also at the same time to the little ‘organizings’ within the Organizing, that we call ‘humans’.

‘natural anarchism’ is one in which one recognizes, as Nietzsche, Mach, Schroedinger do, that ‘organizing’ DOES NOT JUMPSTART FROM MAN, ... man is inextricably included in the organizing. man’s organizing is not responsible for “agricultural production”, nature’s Organizing is responsible for the organizing of the sun, winds, water and earth, including the soil and the plants, and the worms and other organizings that till the soil and make it a fertile womb for the plant-organizings. the organizings called humans are in the same ‘class’ as the other organizings; i.e. they are organizings within the Organizing [continually transforming relational spatial-plenum, or ‘space-time continuum].

But, wait a minute. Some of these human organizings, which are both inhabited and created by the Organizing, have convinced themselves that ‘organizing’ JUMPSTARTS FROM THEMSELVES, ... from the mental models of themselves as local material systems-in-themselves, notionally with their own internal process driven and directed behaviours, as portrayed by science with its ‘metaphysics of absolute space and absolute time’ which GETS RID OF THE ‘Organizing’ with the capital O and re-frames the living space we are included in starting from a rectangular four dimensional x,y,z,t reference grid. The continually transforming relational spatial-plenum is gotten rid of by imposing this reference frame for our mental modeling convenience, to give us, as Mach says, ‘economy of thought’. Now we can explain things to ourselves in purely ‘local terms’ of ‘what things-in-themselves do in time’, the ‘cause-effect’ model.

Poincaré has described how we have built this ‘metaphysics’ into our scientific worldview. First, we assume that the present depends only on the immediate past [we divide the action up into time increments/differentials, and then we divide space up into separate LOCAL plots of space, so that we can concern ourselves with what goes on locally without having to think about how that relates to global dynamics, as are inherent in a continually transforming relational spatial-plenum [spacetime continuum]. In Poincaré’s words;

“Origin of Mathematical Physics. Let us go further and study more closely the conditions which have assisted the development of mathematical physics. We recognise at the outset the efforts of men of science have always tended to resolve the complex phenomenon given directly by experiment into a very large number of elementary phenomena, and that in three different ways.

First, with respect to time. Instead of embracing in its entirety the progressive development of a phenomenon, we simply try to connect each moment with the one immediately preceding. We admit that the present state of the world only depends on the immediate past, without being directly influenced, so to speak, by the recollection of a more distant past. Thanks to this postulate, instead of studying directly the whole succession of phenomena, we may confine ourselves to writing down its differential equation; for the laws of Kepler we substitute the law of Newton.

Next, we try to decompose the phenomena in space. What experiment gives us is a confused aggregate of facts spread over a scene of considerable extent. We must try to deduce the elementary phenomenon, which will still be localised in a very small region of space.” – Henri Poincaré, ‘Science and Hypothesis’

In other words, by imposing on our worldview ‘the metaphysics of absolute space and absolute time’, we produce an economy of thought that allows us to re-render ‘dynamics’ in terms of ‘what local material things-in-themselves do in time’. This synthetically reduced view of dynamics based on treating LOCALLY VIEWABLE dynamic forms or ‘organizings’ within the Organizing, as ‘things-in-themselves’ with their own ‘organizing-jumpstarting’ powers [thanks to substituting a metaphysical x,y,z,t grid in place of the continually transforming relational spatial plenum, which serves as an absolute operating theatre that enables the ‘what-things-in-themselves do’ mental model], is the foundation for ‘anthropocentric anarchism’.

Seen through the eyes of the ‘anthropocentrist anarchist’, man is the point from whence ‘organizing’ jumpstarts and thus ‘anarchism’, as an organizing schema, is something ‘man-made’. It is seen as a kind of ‘technique’ possessed by man and applied to the world around him as if it is something that ‘man will bring about’;

humanity’s use of land for sustainable benefit.

Kropotkin’s emphasis on the benefits flowing from properly managed land and agricultural production

when pure anarchy has been achieved.

“Natural anarchy”, on the other hand, as in the philosophy of Nietzsche and in the aboriginal tradition, arrives from a ‘change in values’ wherein we suspend our western thinking wherein ‘the organizing buck starts and stops with man’ and we acknowledge that we are ‘organizings’ within the ‘Organizing’ so that ‘anarchism’, organizing that has no need of jumpstart, point-sourced direction, acknowledges the outside-inward orchestrating influence of the Organizing as the key to cultivating resonance-based organizing, wherein the outside-inward orchestrating influence and the inside-outward asserting actions are sustained in conjugate relation. This cultivating/sustaining of the habitat-inhabitant relation is the ‘Natural anarchism’ of the aboriginal tradition, and it is what is being blocked by globally dominating Authoritarianism/Sovereigntism and Capitalism, and it is what Decolonization strives to restore.

By contrast, ‘anthropocentrist anarchism’ is an organizing schema that jumpstarts from man, and thus from his internal processes, namely ‘knowledge, intellection and purpose’, and thus REQUIRES an INTELLECTUAL THEORY to drive and direct it; i.e. a common ‘anthropocentric anarchist’ program in everyone’s head to sustain the ‘organizing’ in the sense of ‘organizing’ involving human beings and the plants and animals that are important to them. That is, ‘anthropocentrist anarchism’ hijacks the role of the Organizing, by interposing ‘the metaphysics of absolute space and absolute time’.

These two choices, ‘natural anarchism’ and ‘anthropocentrist anarchism’ are related to one another in the manner that a polynomial of degree two [curved relational space] relates to a polynomial of degree one[linear, point-wise, non-relational space], or, in the manner that Organizing is related to organizing (that appears to initiate from the ‘organizings’ that gather within the Organizing.

BOTH/AND logic applies if one starts from acknowledging the BOTH/AND relationship of BOTH Organizing and organizing, however, if one is an ‘anthropocentric anarchist’ and thus replaces Organizing with the metaphysics of absolute space and absolute time and STARTS with ‘organizing’ as if it jumpstarted from ‘local, material things-in-themselves’, then we are in the world described above by Poincaré where dynamical phenomena are abstracted in terms of local differential portions of space and local intervals of time, as if these ‘differentials’ were ‘real’ when they are instead abstract idealizations, obtained by chopping the Organizing flow-field into tiny pieces by interposing an absolute time and absolute space measurement reference grid, and reconstructing dynamic forms and their actions from notional ‘locally arising processes, in space and in time’. Once dynamics are synthetically reduced to local things-in-themselves in local pieces of space and time, then EITHER/OR logic generally applies; i.e. we can no longer get back to the BOTH/AND relation inherent in the Organizing/organizing dynamic, where as Emerson says, ‘the Organizing not only inhabits the organizings, but creates them.’

‘Natural anarchism’ employs BOTH/AND logic and thus, also EITHER/OR logic [the former and latter relate in the manner that a polynomial of degree two relates to a polynomial of degree one].

‘Anthropocentrist anarchism’ employs EITHER/OR logic.

Take your choice, but why not declare where you are coming from, because the behaviours that respectively associate with these two views of anarchism [immersing oneself in Natural-anarchism and constructing Anthropocentrist-anarchism] radically differ.

Holy shit, that's the longest comment I've ever seen in this website. Kudos to you brah for writing it. I kinda' get what your trying to display, but the wording could be clearer, an' shi' man you could hold back on the CAPSLOCK JAM a little too. Don't look too good.

Holy shit, this appeared in The Australian. It's the most right wing paper in Murdoch's empire.

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