12 April 1968: “The country has lost not just Dr King but the King”

Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated forty-five years ago today. Here, Alan Brien reports from a grief-stricken New York.

The only cheerful faces I have seen here since the assassination of Martin Luther King last Thursday have been those of the Negro looters on television. Colour is a great romanticiser of electronic images, painting tragedy as melodrama, tinting actuality with the pastel shades of Hollywood farce. Vietnam has almost vanished from the screens these last few days with its ketchup blood and dry-ice smoke, recalling inappropriate images of John Wayne wading novocaine-faced through the swamps of Iwo Jima. Now the long-distance camera eyes sprout on stalks in the riot areas of America's own cities, and many sequences we watch might almost be from some innocent, whimsical, indulgent, black-face musical of the Forties like Cabin in the Sky. The impulse-shoppers of the slums, celebrating an impromptu, out-of-season Christmas, could be observed queueing in an orderly fashion, like wartime civilians in Britain, outside broken-open shops. The fantasies of the commercials, where goodies rain down from Heaven and gadgets magically furnish empty rooms, were being acted out for real. The kind of easily portable wealth that professional criminals would search out - cash, jewellery, watches, etc - seemed often ignored. One woman staggered under the weight of a monster carton of Kleenex. A man almost danced down the street pushing a cumbrous dressing table with a huge mirror - and waved to the watching millions at home as he went. Another sat among the splintered glass, sparkling like tinsel in the TV spotlights, sensibly trying on a liberated pair of banana-yellow boots for comfort and style.

At first, the police stood by in most places, simply directing the traffic in flood-lit robbery as the exploited expropriated a little of the surplus profit of the exploiters - only to be gently rebuked by the New York Times next day for such un-American priority for people over things. Later, sniping and fire-bombing broke out and the law reasserted its traditional role. In Manhattan, rumour was full of tongues, pandering to that guilty thrill in anticipating the apocalypse which is one of the deep excitements of modern metropolitans. Reports of besieged suburbs, hijacked buses, mutinying schools and marching mobs leapt from lip to lip. The true facts, available instantly on such radio stations as WINS, which broadcast an uninterrupted flow of news around the clock, were barely more credible as the astonishing weekend began.

The curfew in the nation's capital retreated to 4pm on Saturday - earlier than that in Saigon. More regular troops were deployed to protect Washington than Khe Sanh. New York is the only American city I know at all well. I have spent an annual working holiday here every year since 1961. Each time I arrive I feel an intensifying weight of violence in the air which presses down on the visitor like the atmosphere of Venus on an exploring astronaut. The electric crackle of static which arcs from the hand to the doorknob or the lift buzzer - and makes many an unwary tourist imagine his coronary has caught up with him at last - seems to symbolise the bottled aggression stored in these human batteries. In the past, my friends here have vied with each other, whether expatriates or natives, in telling tales of life in the asphalt jungle - mad taxi-drivers who kidnapped passengers to tell them the story of their lives, sadistic vandals terrorising an entire subway carriage for an hour's journey, six-year-old children threatened by knife-carrying nine-year-olds on the fringes of the Park, lessons invaded by drug-addicts, alcoholics and sex perverts. My reaction has been shock and fear and a desire not to believe. Their's has been a rather callous bravado - like sixth-formers putting the wind up a cissy new boy.

Now, this week, I am the one who has always expected this hell to break loose. Looking from the outside across the Atlantic, like many Britons, I have seen the storm cones hoisted for a hurricane. Since the killing of President Kennedy and Malcolm X, it seemed inevitable that more sacrificial victims would follow in time. It is the residents who cannot believe their eyes and ears and implore you to tell them that what is happening is impossible. For once, the old liberal cliché about everybody being guilty for the crime of one psychopath seems, if not true, at least universally believed to be true. There is a widespread desire to canonise Martin Luther King, a great and good man fit to stand alongside Gandhi or Danilo Dolci, into a saint and martyr unrivalled in history. Each man loves the thing he kills and the civil rights leader is rapidly becoming an immortal. His reputation escalates from hour to hour. A Negro leader described him as the noblest human of our century. A rabbi called him the Black Moses. The Pope's comparison of him to Christ crucified seems to almost nobody even a trifle hyperbolic.

It is an awe-inspiring and rather unnerving sight to see the mass media of American opinion-making (what one British journalist unkindly calls “The Bullshit Machine”) firing on all cylinders to a single theme. Dr King's picture is in every shop window, in every paper and magazine, punctuating almost every programme on TV. The US flag, and this is a nation of flag-fliers, is everywhere at half-mast, sometimes upside down (the sign of a nation in distress). Public events which might seem tactlessly light-hearted, such as the Oscar awards, are postponed or cancelled. Radio announcers assure you that you will hear nothing frivolous all day on their channel. The country has lost not just Dr King but the King. These words and images have done more to damp down riot than all the police and troops. Any Negro anywhere is treated by whites as if he were personally a close relative of the murdered man. How long this spontaneous unity in mourning will last, no can tell. But it is an America I have never seen before.

Martin Luther King Jr calls after encountering a white mob in Alabama. Photo: Getty.

Alan Brien (1925 – 2008) was a critic, foreign correspondent and author of “Lenin: a novel”.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

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