Three characters in search of a blog

Frank Auerbach – there’s a major retrospective at Tate Britain, Wilfred Thesiger – living among the Marsh Arabs in Iraq in the 1950s, and Rudolf Abel, from Stephen Spielberg’s latest movie, Bridge of Spies.

A painter, an explorer, and a Russian spy.

Starting with Auerbach, and two quotations:

After each session he scrapes off the paint and begins again. A single painting might take months, even years, before something appears that he hadn’t predicted and, he hopes, means the work is finished. (Catherine Lambert, Tate Etc magazine) and The paint contorts to capture it [nature] …not the ‘character’ of a scene or even its atmosphere, but rather it simply ‘being there’… (TJ Clark, from Frank Auerbach , edited by Catherine Lampert)

Just two studios over sixty years, both Camden Town, subject matter all local to his corner of north London, and very few models for his portraits. Auerbach endlessly reworked his patch of land. Inspiration could come in a moment, realisation take many months, or longer.

I came across a book entitled ‘Zen Drawing’ recently but could find little of Zen in it. There’s much more in Auerbach. (Don’t know though if he’d want to own the idea!) Paintings conventionally freeze a moment in time, make the impermanent permanent. It’s as if Auerbach doesn’t want that permanence, and only when he feels he’s achieved that sense of a painting ‘being there’ is he content.

There’s also that sense of ‘being there’ in Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs, which I’ve re-read this week. Remote areas, as far from ‘civilisation ‘ as he could manage, were always his preferred location, and he didn’t travel in a conventional sense – as far as he could he inhabited  a region, shared it with the locals, lived and adopted their lifestyle, and even style of dress. (A cross between the Great White Hunter and Widow Twanky, according to Gavin Young.)

Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flighting in to feed, a boy’s voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reed beds, narrow waterways that wound deeper into the Marshes…. Stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this with life, and to be more than a mere spectator. 

Visiting at least seven months each year over seven years, he saw a millennia-old way of life slipping away at first hand, as oil money literally seeped into southern Iraq. There’s close observation but also the fragility of that evening moment. How much did he sense its imminent collapse? That the young people would leave marshes, maybe yes, but that Saddam Hussein would drain the marshes – surely not.

Thesiger was always on the move, but always within his chosen patch – this time the lower Euphrates and Tigris. Likewise  Auerbach, at a very different, almost infinitely more local level. Thesiger was always open to experience, and so too in his studio was Auerbach, waiting on inspiration and working it up into that marvellous thick impasto which makes some of his paintings as much sculpture as painting.

Also finally, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Cold War thriller built around the 1957 exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and American U2 pilot, Gary Powers. Tom Hanks is puzzled and patient and wise as the lawyer, Donovan, and Mark Rylance is mesmerising, as low-key and dry as can be, as the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. Talking to my daughter afterwards, we both wouldn’t have minded if more of the movie had been a Donovan/Abel two-hander. They develop an understanding born of few words, mutual respect, and Abel’s wonderful dry humour.

‘Aren’t you worried,’ Donovan asks his client. ‘Would it help?’ is Abel’s laconic and deadpan reply.

Connections between the three?  There’s something in their attitude, but also they share a decade…

Thesiger, travelling in 1950s; Auerbach, a young painter finding his way in the 1950s; Donovan defending Abel before the Supreme Court in 1957.

A decade where with each year the threat and fear of a nuclear holocaust grew, and scared me as a schoolboy, the open mind of childhood more than a little tinged by fear.

Auerbach just out of art college responded by producing a series of paintings of building sites, his dark palette obscuring detail. Thesiger escaped as only he knew how. The threat might be a local blood feud, the challenge a dangerous wild boar to shoot or circumcisions to perform. (There was nothing ordinary about Thesiger’s life!)

And the movie? Like me Spielberg is a child of the 1950s, born just thirteen days after me in 1946. What he conveys is a surprising optimism. The inviolability of the American political system, as he and Donovan would wish it, wins out over cynicism and fear. Abel, as Donovan discovers, is a man of integrity, and the American legal system has to respond in kind, whatever the CIA might think.

There a sense of triumph at the end of the movie, something I’m not certain many of us shared in the 1950s, faced with the Cold War confrontations that kept hitting the news. Spy swaps were tawdry affairs. And a Russian spy as a ‘hero’? But in his way, with his quiet courage, that’s how we see Mark Rylance’s Abel.

One final point. The Guardian review of Bridge of Spies suggests that those of us brought up on John Le Carre might expect is ‘shabby compromise and exhausted futility’. What we get instead is ‘decency and moral courage’.

Due process triumphs, as it has so conspicuously failed to do at Guantanamo Bay.

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