The title of Men and the City (2002) might suggest a manuscript found at the bottom of Thomas Wolfe’s trunk, but it is in fact the third novel by Saddam Hussein. This sprawling generational saga of anti-Ottoman revolt and incipient Ba’athism is one of the most important postcolonial novels. Mahfouz and Thiong’o only reflected the dramas of decolonization and nation-building, but the bloodthirsty Ba’athist bookman made history. The only other postcolonial novelist who made history is Salman Rushdie, with The Satanic Verses (1988). He did it by accident. When Rushdie realized the enormity of his unintentional contact with reality, he set an example that too few postcolonial novelists have since followed, and apologized to his faithful readers.
Despite the wmd–like proliferation of academic posts in postcolonial literature, Men and the City languishes untranslated and unstudied. We may never know whether Saddam intended Men and the City as a riposte to Leo Strauss’s The City and Man (1964), a defense of ideology delivered in the style of Herman Wouk. Or whether he had read Jack Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City (1950), as a student in the mid-fifties and unconsciously identified the resemblance between clan violence in Tikrit and the actes gratuits of the early Beats. Or indeed whether he had watched the abc political drama The Man and the City (1971–72) while pondering how to reverse Iraq’s humiliation by the forces of Zionist imperialism.
“Statesmen who are also artists are very rare,” David Cannadine writes in Churchill: The Statesman as Artist. Cannadine must mean statesmen we like and art we can enjoy; no one uses “statesman” as a pejorative. Hitler was a notoriously bland watercolorist. fdr and Mussolini dabbled too, though Mussolini, a journalist before he got a proper job, was consistently stronger in the verbal arts, and contrived to bookend his career with literature. Starting out in 1909, the young Mussolini wrote an anticlerical bodice-ripper, The Cardinal’s Mistress. Awaiting execution in 1945, he wrote a poem for Clara Petacci called “Variations,” which suggests that he knew his Gertrude Stein from his Georges Sorel: “like a cloud/ is how I want to one morning/ suddenly awake/ awake very lightly.”
Hitler thought that Mussolini looked bored when the Duce showed the Führer around the Uffizi and the Pitti. In Naples, Germany’s top watercolorist complained that Italy’s top novelist looked at only three pictures before appearing to lose interest. “Consequently I saw nothing of them myself,” griped the Teutonic tourist. This, though, may be just another of Hitler’s strategic misjudgments. Mussolini may have been focusing his attention deliberately. Clementine Churchill reported her husband doing the same:
When Winston took up painting in 1915, he had never up to that moment been in a picture gallery. He went with me . . . to the National Gallery and, pausing before the first picture, a very ordinary affair, he appeared absorbed in it. For half an hour, he studied its technique minutely. Next day, he again visited the Gallery, but I took him in this time by the left entrance instead of the right, so that I might at least be sure that he would not return to the same picture.
This was Churchill’s first visit to a public gallery, but not, Cannadine argues, his first exposure to art. In Churchill’s childhood, the collections founded by John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, made the family seat, Blenheim “one of the great treasure houses of Britain, meriting comparison with Woburn, Chatsworth, Boughton, or Burleigh.” Between 1884 and 1886, when Churchill was between ten and twelve years of age, canvases by Raphael, Breughel, Rembrandt, and Holbein were sold off. Even then, Reynolds’s 4th Duke of Marlborough and his Family (ca. 1777) remained at Blenheim, to be joined in 1905 by a companion picture commissioned by Churchill’s first cousin from John Singer Sargent, The 9th Duke of Marlborough with his Family (1905). But not until 1915 did Churchill take up the brushes and apply himself to the “hobby” of painting with the same autodidactic intensity that, as young subaltern in India, he had applied to literature.
Saddam Hussein’s novels sprang from the same imaginative woodchipper as his acts of murder. Literary quality aside, the author of Men and the City was his own Raskolnikov. The relation between political expressions and artistic expressions is more complex than that between an artist’s life and work. Political expression, like most artistic expression, is stylized, rhetorical, and self-conscious, an act performed with the public in mind. The degree of the actor’s awareness of the public may vary. The politician must never forget to remember the public, while the artist must remember to forget the audience.
The imaginative expressions of politicians can be divided into two kinds. The most common kind accords with the political persona, and augments its public reach: Michelet as historian, Disraeli as novelist. At its most cynical—Saddam’s Men and the City, jfk’s Profiles in Courage—this form of political writing becomes propaganda. We refer to Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti and John F. Kennedy as “Saddam” and “jfk” because we feel that we know them, and we feel we know them because the media assists in their characterization. Churchill’s paintings fall into the, second, and rarer, category, in which artistic expression originates as a therapeutic consolation, an energy displaced from public activity.
In May 1915, the disaster of the Dardanelles campaign forced Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, to resign. He fell into a depression deep and long enough for Clementine to fear he would die from grief. They retreated to Hoe Farm, a small country house in Surrey, where Churchill’s younger brother Jack and his wife, Gwendoline, were regular guests. Gwendoline was “an accomplished water-colourist,” and she persuaded Churchill to try his hand. Loving it at once, he quickly transferred to oils, the more robust medium of history painting and portraiture, and dispatched Clementine to the nearby town of Godalming to buy more paints. When he returned to London, he opened an account at the artists’ supplier Roberson’s, in Covent Garden, and started studying the competition at the National Gallery.
The Churchills were then renting a house on the Cromwell Road, in South Kensington. In the winter of 1915, Winston apprenticed himself to a neighbor, the portraitist Sir John Lavery. Cannadine sees Churchill’s early paintings as a graph of his moods and political fortunes. The almost monochrome self-portrait of 1915 does evoke William Orpen’s portrait of 1916, in which Churchill looks haunted and bowed. But Churchill’s restricted palette may also reflect Lavery’s tutelage and the pupil’s development from a simple to complex palette. Churchill’s progress was certainly rapid. Within weeks, he had enough control over his tertiary colors to endow Sir John Lavery in His Studio (1915) with a rich smearing of Dutch browns.
In 1916, Churchill secured the command of a battalion at Ploegsteert on the Western Front. In the bright, almost naïve Plug Street (1916), cloud puffs of shellfire burst over pollarded trees and a patch of spring grass is cratered with giant molehills. The shadowing on the damaged church at the right margin is skillful, the clouds less so. Four men run from a shell burst on the left margin, and the last of them is blown off his feet or dives for the ground. The biographically inclined may infer that Churchill retained a romantically distant view of warfare. The technically inclined may observe that the airborne man is positioned in the region of a “golden section” in the bottom left corner, and that reversing said section lands the eye on a deadly black cloud of shell burst in the upper right corner.
As with language, so with painting. Churchill had an intuitive feel for form and rhythm, and a willingness to express strong emotions in bold strokes. In 1900, he had published Savrola, a novel in the image of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). By 1921, his assimilation of painterly precedents was accomplished enough for him to exhibit some of his early work at the Galerie Druet in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin, and sell four of his five landscapes. In 1925, he competed under his own name in an amateur competition in London and won. The judges included Kenneth Clark, the society portrait painter Oswald Birley, and the dealer Joseph Duveen.
By now, Churchill was quoting Ruskin; studying Turner, the Impressionists, and Matisse; and attending the Royal Academy’s dinners as a painter as well as a minister. His painting underwent two further developments before he was distracted by the maniacal Viennese watercolorist turned dictator who, Cannadine says, was a “failed professional” to Churchill’s “successful amateur.” In 1927, Churchill met Walter Sickert, whom Clementine had known since her girlhood in Dieppe. Over the next two years, Sickert showed Churchill how to prepare his canvases, shared “his own techniques for the handling and laying-on of paint,” and also taught Churchill how to work from photographs. “I am really thrilled by the field that he is opening to me,” Winston wrote to Clementine. “I see my way to paint far better pictures than I ever thought possible before.” Learning by impersonation, Churchill soon pulled off an impressive grisaille of the second Duke of Westminster in the act of patting a Lurcher.
In the early thirties, Churchill befriended the French war artist Paul Maze and the British still life specialist William Nicholson. Clementine, who had reservations about the exuberance of Churchill’s colors, was pleased that Nicholson’s influence seemed to cool Winston’s palette. Churchill was to describe Nicholson as “the person who taught me most about painting.” In Churchillian terms, this means that, after Nicholson, Churchill had learned enough to do it his way, and keep doing it his way.
Painting was Churchill’s “escape from the pressures of public affairs,” his preferred subject the Mediterranean coast or the domestic scene. This escapism may explain why he allowed himself to be more modern in paint than in print. The rhetorician wrote like Burke, Gibbon, and Macaulay, but the painter of The Loup River, Alpes Maritimes (1936, now in the Tate) clearly had been looking at the Post-Impressionists. In print or paint, Churchill was a skilled pasticheur, especially of Sargent, who, like Churchill, was the end of the line for the grand manner. The Harbour, Cannes (1933) is Sargent via the palette of Delacroix, while Cap d’Ail, Alpes-Maritimes (1952) is Sargent via Monet’s Antibes. Churchill, who represented both the Liberals and the Conservatives, was a Whiggish painter. In 1938, he advised the Royal Academy to “hold a middle course” between tradition and innovation. “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” In 1948, the Academy elected him its first, and so far last, amateur Honorary Academician Extraordinary.
The Statesman as Artist is ordered into three sections—an accomplished biographical survey by Cannadine, an intermittently interesting collection of Churchill’s speeches and writings on art, and a more interesting collection of other people’s observations on Churchill the artist. Though painting was an escape from politics, Churchill soon incorporated art into his public life. In 1932, using his after-dinner address to the Royal Academy to satirize the National Government from which he had been excluded, he compared the anodyne vagueness of Stanley Baldwin’s policies to “jolly old English pictures” hypothesized as Pigs in Clover and Broccoli in Autumn. Reviewing the RA’s 1932 Summer Exhibition for the Daily Mail, Churchill praised his mentors Orpen, Lavery, and Sickert. In 1934, feeling more adventurous, he praised Duncan Grant and Matthew Smith, but was resolutely unconvinced by the postures of Stanley Spencer’s sinners: “The predicaments in which they are exhibited are as unaccountable as their structure.”
In 1937, days after the opening of the “Entartete Kunst” exhibition in Munich, Churchill spoke at the opening of “Sea Power in Art” at the New Burlington Galleries in London. He had no objection to combining art and propaganda, but condemned Hitler’s “drastic and formidable announcements” on the role of art: “If you had only the alternative of being hung if your picture were accepted or hanged if it were rejected, it might put a great damper on individual enthusiasm.” Politics soon put a damper on Churchill’s painting; his only complete wartime work is a view of Marrakesh entitled Tower of Koutoubia Mosque (1943), presented to Roosevelt. As Churchill had begun in 1915, he resumed in 1945 after losing office. In 1949, this time as “David Winter,” Churchill submitted two pictures that were accepted into the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition.
Churchill’s painting became an aspect of his fame, and the “hobby” that warded off the “black dog” of depression became a corollary of his saving of civilization. The post-war assessments of Churchill as artist are voluntary hagiographies, not much more enlightening than the involuntary ones that greeted Men and the City. But a previously unpublished recollection by Augustus John has a nice vignette. After lunch and a few brandies, Winston took Augustus to his studio and showed Augustus his latest canvas. Augustus told Winston that he had missed a bit. Winston “raised his brush, now richly charged with necessary pigment, took aim, and then with one stride forward, bang! the operation was over; he had scored a perfect bull!”
1 Churchill: The Statesman as Artist, edited by David Cannadine; Bloomsbury Continuum, 192 pages, $30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 55
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