Peter Robinson

Abstract Expressionism

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At the close of the Second World War, the Western art world pivoted from Europe to the United States. The great wave of artists influenced by the Russian and German revolutionary movements had crashed in the 1920s when socialist realism became only art style sanctioned by Moscow.

In New York a collection of ambitious young emerging artists was producing work that escaped the confines of representation and sought to interrogate the feelings and emotions of the age. Some were natives of the city, some were escaping the horrors engulfing Europe.

Spain 1936: from war to revolution

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On 17 July 1936 a cabal of army officers staged a military coup against the Spanish government. Workers had to decide how to respond. It was a pivotal moment for the politics of the 1930s and there are important lessons for socialists today.

For revolutionaries the Spanish Civil War resonates through the decades. It provides an inspirational example of the heroism, creativity and self-organisation of workers. Everything was possible. When the English writer George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 he wrote, “It was the first time that I had been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.

The Club

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This powerful and disturbing film from Chile is set in a retirement home “for priests who can no longer serve”. Although it is naturalistically shot, the setting — a down-at-heel fishing village with a house on the hill containing terrible secrets — has the all-pervading malevolence of a horror movie.

The Danish Girl

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The visibility of trans people has taken great leaps in the past couple of years. The release of The Danish Girl is well timed to continue that trend.

Lili Elbe was born Einar Wegener in 1882. Einar became an award winning painter of rather restrained landscapes. She died aged 49, legally a woman, with a passport in the name Lili Elbe, after undergoing five experimental operations for gender confirmation.

Goya: recorder of turbulent times

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In 1814 Francisco Goya, who was almost 70 years old, was commanded to paint the portrait of the restored king of Spain, Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand’s father, Charles IV, had appointed him first court painter to the king 15 years earlier.

Since then there had been a furious battle in Spanish society over the direction of the state. Goya was in a perfect position to record these tumultuous shifts.

There were few secure career paths open to a painter at that time. Goya had been an ambitious provincial artist and he moved to the capital, Madrid, at the first opportunity.

Communal Luxury

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This little book collects five essays about the Paris Commune of 1871 and some of the writers who looked to it for inspiration.

Ross seems to have set herself the task of marrying the two main threads of radical thought from the second half of the 19th century — Marxism and anarchism.

The author presents illuminating episodes from memoirs and texts by communards.

She writes thoughtfully on internationalism, anti-colonialism and the idea of the Commune which sprang up in radical clubs from 1868.

Medium Cool

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The year 1968 was a defining one for a generation of political activists and it is not surprising that artists sought to reflect this. In Europe film makers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Lindsay Anderson made explicitly political movies savaging the ruling class and calling for revolution.

In Hollywood the studios were floundering under their own weight and insignificance. They could only hint at the cataclysms going on in society, bringing out subversive genre movies such as Planet of the Apes and Once Upon a Time in the West.

The Look of Silence

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Adi is watching TV impassively, transfixed, as two ageing men describe in detail how they killed his brother, Ramli, almost 50 years before. They are laughing while they act out the murder in the exact spot where it took place by the Snake River in North Sumatra.

They describe how they repeatedly stabbed him but somehow he managed to escape. They had to drag him back to the river, where they made him crouch down so they could slice off his penis with a machete so that he bled to death. After recounting the story they pose for a photo waving “v for victory” signs.

Who invented impressionism?

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Mass-produced prints of works by impressionist artists are so readily available that some people now see the art as bland with little to say about modern life. But when it was created it was seen as shocking and dangerously avant garde. The artists used experimental techniques and new media — such as ready mixed paint in tubes — bright colours, quick, obvious brush strokes and layers of texture.

Inherent Vice

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This entertaining movie has been described as a “surfer noir” and Joaquin Phoenix’s private investigator, Doc, as not so much a “gumshoe” as a “gum sandal”. It is the first film to be based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon and is suffused with dope smoke, paranoia and trippy episodes. The novel, which was published in 2009, renders 1960s Los Angeles counter-culture with aching nostalgia.

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