Repeatedly Beating Us Over the Head with “Classical Fascism” (In the Visual Arts and Literature)
Still Life with Old Shoe (1937) (Joan Miró)
A Cockerel Merges with a Cloud
“Dog Barking” depicts a ladder that Tate claims as a symbol of “independence” and “futile resistance”. This is pushing things: these are works from the mid-1920s, when the Ecole de Paris mood was light, absurdist, piqued by the irrational, but not political. Indeed, the key evolution here is between the 1920s and 1930s, when Miró’s work darkened with the clouds of fascism. The threatening forms and acid colours in the copper paintings “Seated Personnages” and “The Two Philosophers”, and the violent brown and tar-black series on masonite, with pitted, punctured, confused surfaces, from 1936, are his pessimistic reaction to the Spanish civil war.
The phantasmagorical “Still Life with Old Shoe” (1937), often called Miró’s “Guernica”, echoes the sombre spiritual Spanish still life tradition to which Picasso also returned during the war. “Without my knowing it, this picture contained tragic symbols of the period,” Miró remarked, “the tragedy of a miserable crust of bread and an old shoe that, like a burning house, spread its flames across the entire surface of the canvas.”
In Normandy when the second world war began, Miró answered with the modestly scaled, rhythmic yet free-floating oil and gouache “Constellations”, painted while listening to Bach, then rolled up for flight in 1940 to Mallorca. Tate’s fine selection includes the promise of light emerging from black in “Sunrise”, the velvety cerulean “Figures at Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails”, the luminous, erotic “Awakening in the Early Morning”, the snake and toothy bird cutting across rosy surfaces in “The Passage of the Divine Bird”, and the red/smoky black “The Escape Ladder”, which gives its name to this show.
Miró surely meant it as metaphor for the voyage to interiority that was his response to atrocity. Nowhere does his sprinkled colour and imagery of crescent moons, spidery stars, watchful eyes, mutating phallic and breast shapes, drawn with the wrought-iron tracery of art nouveau – recalling his youth in Gaudí’s Barcelona – achieve a more subtle balance between hope and darkness than in these poetic, concentrated nocturnes, which André Breton likened to “the note of wild defiance of the hunter expressed by the grouse’s love song”.
From inner exile in Mallorca during Franco’s rule, Miró emerged in the postwar period to take on international commissions and mural-sized paintings but his language ceased to evolve, was less effective when upscaled, and risked self-parody. For good reason, most Miró shows – the Pompidou’s in 2004, MoMA’s in 2008 – end in the 1930s. Tate, choosing to “focus primarily on Miró’s politically engaged art”, presses on with too many late sentimentalist works – “May 1968”, celebrating student revolt; vast series condemning Spanish repression such as the fragmented “Burnt Canvases” and triptych “The Hope of a Condemned Man” after the 1974 execution of Catalan anarchist Puig Antich.
The Other Side of Stieg Larsson
But for all the success of the novels, for Ekman, Larsson’s real achievement lay elsewhere. “Stieg was a political animal. He was a fervent advocate of women’s rights. He was an anti-fascist. Despite the runaway success of his thrillers, I have always considered his articles about Swedish and international rightwing extremism more interesting − and more important.”
In the early 1980s Stieg Larsson made contact with the British activists Gerry Gable and Graeme Atkinson, who ran the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. First launched in the early 1960s, then revived in 1975, Searchlight had become something of an institution for keeping far-right extremism under close scrutiny, and a number of similar magazines were launched in other European countries. In 1983, Stieg Larsson began writing for them as its Scandinavian correspondent. At Searchlight he came face to face with a hard-line anti-racism that was somewhat shocking for cautious Swedes used to their moderate popular movements.
But Larsson had long been interested in rightwing extremists. Back when he was living in Umeå, Stieg had discovered that there was a group in the town that was affiliated to the Nordic National party. He was so fascinated by the notion that such a crazy thing as real Nazism still existed in Sweden that he had begun reading up on the subject. When he wanted to write a school essay on neo-Nazism his teacher suggested he write about atomic power instead, but Stieg followed up his own interest and went to see what there was in the library, finding almost nothing. Much later, in an interview with the journal Humanisten, he said, “For many years I thought I was the only person in Sweden making a systematic study of this subject. But in 1979 a book appeared, Fascism Today: Advance Guard or Stragglers?, by the journalist Hans Lindquist. So I realised there must be at least two of us out there who were intrigued by this weird political fringe.”
Contributing to Searchlight was like taking a university course in the theory and practice of the ultra right. Stieg obtained a comprehensive overview of how the connections functioned between the various groupings and how their ideas had spread over time and between countries. Searchlight was a focal point for international co-operation and exchange of information among anti-fascists in Europe and even north America. Atkinson co-ordinated a network of people and organisations who were intent on fighting fascism and Stieg Larsson became an active member.
Ever since its inception Searchlight had been investigating and exposing the sometimes overt, sometimes veiled anti-semitism of the far right. It wrote about David Irving, who presented himself as a serious historian and even managed to get his books published by respectable publishers in Europe. It described the ways in which ultra-right organisations, on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, had sought allies among leftwing nationalists or radical minority groups, not least those connected with Islam. In the 1970s and 1980s they cultivated links with the American Nation of Islam, whose leader, the black preacher Louis Farrakhan, employed his skilful demagoguery to interweave anti-semitic accusations into his speeches about black self-awareness.
For British anti-fascists, the clashes with Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts were still within living memory, but Mosley had become a tragic and impotent figure. By 1970 a fresh start was needed, a new organisation. It was given the name the National Front and launched as a party which, unlike the Nazis, advocated an apparently moderate and serious-minded critique of immigration. In that way it could exploit the xenophobic mood in the hard-pressed industrial centres and have some influence on the right wing of the Tory party, where such opinions already had a powerful advocate in the figure of Enoch Powell.
When in the early 1980s Stieg Larsson wrote an account of Keep Sweden Swedish, the grouping seeking to form a Swedish National Front, not much was known in Sweden about the implications, but for Stieg and others who had been following British developments it was clear enough.
. . .
Skinhead band Skrewdriver performs among a crowd of fellow skinheads in Stockholm, 1987
1987: Skinheads waving a neo-Nazi flag at a concert given by the British far-right punk band Skrewdriver, in Stockholm
By the end of the 1970s, Britain was in crisis, with factory closures and systematic welfare cuts for the worst off. The alienated young shaved their heads, got themselves tattooed and put on uniform jackets and military boots as if going to war. Punk had arrived: harsh, noisy, vulgar, a kick in the teeth for respectability. It generally leaned to the left, but not always. Ian Stuart Donaldson, a moderately successful singer in a punk band calling itself Skrewdriver, turned to the extreme right and the National Front where he became a youth leader and racist ideologist. He was an early member of Rock Against Communism, bringing together the bands that played what had come to be known as “white noise”, and organised concerts and recordings. As white power music grew in strength, it branched out and spread to other countries. New record companies came on the scene: Rock-O-Rama in Germany and Rebelles Européens in France. Donaldson helped to found Rock Against Communism in Sweden in the mid-1980s, and Swedish bands formed rallying points for young skinheads with Nazi ideals.
This was undoubtedly something new: Nazism in association with modern popular culture. The old men of the Swedish National Association could never have imagined anything like it.
Neo-Nazi culture made its way into other spheres as well. Football hooligans in Britain provided yet another rallying point for the National Front and other fascist organisations. Soon racist chants were being heard in Sweden, too, and so-called supporters took to mimicking ape noises when a black player on the opposing team (or sometimes on their own) got the ball.
There was a marked escalation in rightwing extremist violence in Sweden. Those who came off worst were the sections of society the neo-Nazis really detested: Jews, immigrants and homosexuals. In Gothenburg in the mid-1980s two homosexuals were murdered by neo-Nazis. Vera Oredsson, the Nordic Reich party leader, defended the murders by asserting, “It was cleansing. We don’t regard homosexuals as human beings.”
Nazi groups in Sweden persecuted people with threatening phone calls and letters, surveillance, graffiti, unordered deliveries and the like. Threats were directed at politicians and celebrities who had expressed anti-racist opinions, but also against anti-racist activists and members of Jewish associations. Other favourite Nazi tricks were damaging or firebombing political buildings and leftwing bookshops, and vandalising Jewish cemeteries. The violence culminated on Midsummer Eve 1986, when skinheads beat 20-year-old Ronny Landin to death on the coast in Nynäshamn, 50km south of Stockholm, as he tried to intervene in a fight between immigrants and neo-Nazis. Later that same year, at Halloween, a skinhead, Ronny Öhman, was murdered by four youths, most of them of immigrant origin, after an argument. Violence had become part of everyday life in Sweden. And it was obvious what subject would provide a unified focus for the Swedish rightwing extremists.