Situationism and spectacle in London's East End

A dérive around Limehouse with McKenzie Wark.

Associated with a diverse range of figures including Thomas De Quincy, Walter Benjamin and present day psychogeographers such as Stuart Home, the dérive is a difficult concept to explain concisely. It was popularised by the Situationists who used it as a way of challenging a rampant capitalism they believed to be infringing on every aspect of contemporary life. The group are the subject of new book The Beach Beneath The Street. I recently met its author McKenzie Wark to go on - if that is the right way to put it - a dérive at Limehouse.

On the day, before talking to Wark, I looked over our meeting place at Limehouse train station. Composed partially of old red brown brick and steel girders, it is one of London's oldest having opened in 1840. But it is also essentially modern; the only trains that pass through it are on the relatively new DLR. Limehouse's history is however one of stark contrast.

Once a central hub of London's trade networks during the industrial revolution, Limehouse today is dominated by the buildings of financial corporations that attest to Britain's position as (until recently at least) the financial capital of the world. Swapping the shipyards and cranes for giant glass skyscrapers, it is now a monument to how Britain sought to reinvent and maintain her power after the fall of the Empire in the aftermath of Second World War.

But the transition from industrialism to finance was not smooth and between these two periods there was another Limehouse. It was this Limehouse - a place associated with poverty and crime - that was in its prime when the 4th Conference of the Situationist International (or SI, as it came to be known) met in 1960.

Upon meeting, Wark and I meander through areas of poverty, algae-covered canals and old style tower blocks but soon become lost in the areas of redevelopment that have become commonplace since the 1980s. We discuss many of the topics he touches upon in the book and - given the recent London Riots - the Situtationists' understanding of civil unrest as inextricably linked to the city and wider political economy.

We don't know where we are or where we are going but I think that is the point. As Wark describes in his book, a dérive was seen by the SI's members - comprising individuals such as Asger Jorn, Jaceuline De Jogn, H P Zimmer and, most famously, Guy Debord - as part of a twin project to understand and challenge capitalism's unrestrained growth. It is a wandering "about in the space of the city according to [one's] own sense of time," and finding "other uses for space besides the functional." The time of the dérive, he adds, "is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. Leisure time is often called free time. [I]t is free only in the negative, free from work ... what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive." Debord's Society of the Spectacle, in explaining how the commodity - the fundamental unit of analysis in Marxist theory - had been replaced by the "spectacle", and within it the drive to commodify all forms of human experience, added further theoretical depth to the SI's position.

That the Situationists in 1960 met at a place which was to become a central site of the "spectacle" goes beyond mere serendipity. As they sat debating the Spectacle at the 4th Situationist International, having chosen an area renowned in society for its criminals, it's almost as if they knew what was to come.

After an hour and a half of walking, almost predictably yet unexpectedly, we find ourselves at the centre of towering banks in Canary Wharf. It seems to be a fitting place to end our dérive. Screens of market data on the sides of buildings show the markets are in the middle of another catastrophic day. Nobody seems bothered.

Originally broadcast on Resonance 104.4 FM, you can listen to the interview with McKenzie Wark as we embark on our dérive around Limehouse by clicking on the soundcloud player below:

 

 

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle