Russia: the West will need to totally seal the border with its neighbour from Hell

Vladimir Putin recently decreed that the Russian assault on the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the city of Mariupol – the enormous Azovstal iron and steel works – should be blockaded, rather than have Russian soldiers put in danger by having to fight through the warren of tunnels and basements that underlie the works. He told his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to “Block off this industrial area so that a fly cannot not pass through”.

The Iron Curtain, 1945-91

Ultimately, that’s how the West will have to treat Russia. It will need to be as tightly sealed as possible at its western flank so that only absolutely essential visits from, and trade with, the West can take place. The current sanctions regime is a first step in the building of a new Iron Curtain.

This unstable, militaristic state which can suddenly turn on its immediate neighbours, commit the most barbaric, genocidal atrocities, human rights abuses and war crimes against many thousands of defenceless civilians – and threaten the use of nuclear weapons – is one that will have to be kept quarantined from the civilised world, treated like a lethal virus.

The land that produced Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Chagal and Kandinsky, has a proud history, which includes eras when it boasted an empire covering even more territory than the USSR. It sent the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space on 12th April, 1961. And it lost some 25,000,000 people in World War II, compared to 8.8 million in Germany and 3.1 million in Japan. Its history has been turbulent, politically and economically … and wars and invasions have been an ongoing aspect of Russia’s development.

Let’s be clear: all wars are the result of a breakdown in the rule of law. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”1 I’m old enough to well remember the dreadful scenes which were reported nightly on TV during the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to admit it, but the twenty-year conflict in Vietnam sometimes seemed far away and disconnected from our own cosy world. But weapons and media technology have both moved on massively since those days. Grainy film of B52 bombing runs and flame throwers, whilst just as horrific in reality, had nowhere near the immediacy and impact of what we now witness nightly in our living rooms via real time satellite broadcasts which deliver images of death and destruction – in a European country – in crystal clear digital definition. Whilst Putin may sit in his luxurious command centre doling out dispassionate orders with no concern for the human misery he creates, no-one watching news reports can fail to be deeply moved, often to the point of tears. This media coverage is unprecedented, bringing home to us the plight of hundreds of individual civilians, children, women, men, the old and the young, caught up in this savage, unprovoked assault by a nuclear power, with its rockets, rapes, bombs, tanks, cowardly shootings, sieges, looting and so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ which turn out to be death traps.

So whenever the end-point of the current invasion is reached, be it short-, medium- or long-term, Russia’s relationship with the West will have undergone a fundamental mutation. The idea that any meaningful reconciliation can take place in the foreseeable future, with political, trade, cultural and social links re-established in a return to normality, is absurd. The geo-political and geo-cultural landscapes will have been utterly changed. Having transformed itself into a market economy in the 1990, albeit rife with corruption, Russia will find itself increasingly isolated, perhaps returning to the days of centralised planning. For reconciliation to happen, Western states would need to see proof that Russia had not only rid itself of the Putin regime but cleansed the social brainwashing inflicted on the Russian people for over a century – and that it had established a system of governance that rests on the predictable and verifiable application of internationally-agreed rules of law. And that isn’t going to happen. More to the point, the watching publics of the outside world will not look kindly on governments or commercial organisations which contemplate resuming ‘business as usual’ with Russia.

It’s certainly the case that Putin soft-sells his autocratic governmental style to the Russian public so that it reflects their long-held and deep-seated distrust of western countries, as neatly personified by NATO. But for all his manic war-mongering and heartless brutality, he is in power primarily because of a Russian culture which has a deeply ingrained paranoia about perceived threats from the West which stretch back hundreds of years, coupled with a well-spring of anger about the break-up of the USSR. Many Russians hanker for a return to the days of Joseph Stalin, who held eastern Europe in an iron grip, defeated Hitler and placed the USSR firmly in position as a leading nuclear superpower.

One of the safety valves for this paranoia in the Russian populace is their cavalier attitude to the use of nuclear weapons – amply exemplified by current TV discussions …

“The goal is for the sake of the peace of future generations of Ukrainians themselves, and the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia – from Lisbon to Vladivostok”, said Dimitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, recently. This ambiguous statement is quite typical of the veiled threats in rhetoric coming out of Moscow.

Putin justified the Russian attacks in his address to the people of Russia on the day the invasion of Ukraine was launched, 24th February, 2022, using selective facts and paying little or no attention to context. He began by citing what he called NATO’s eastward expansion, commenting first on NATO’s bombing campaign (“bloody military operation”) in Yugoslavia in 1999. “First a bloody military operation was waged against Belgrade, without the UN Security Council’s sanction but with combat aircraft and missiles used in the heart of Europe”. What he omitted to mention was that, although Russia and China vetoed it at the UN, the campaign in the Kosovo War was undertaken on humanitarian grounds, to stop the wholesale deportations of Albanians, described by Tim Judah in his 1999 book, The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia: ” … the Serbian police began clearing … people [who] were marched down to the station and deported … the UNCHR registered 848,000 people who had either been forcibly expelled or had fled”2 The break-up of Yugoslavia was a complex process and the bombing of Yugoslavia had numerous ramifications. But the fact of the matter was that NATO’s actions were undertaken with a primary goal of saving lives, not empire-building.

” … the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine”, Putin continued, in his 24th February address, “those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia”. This “freely-made choice” of the people of the Crimean peninsula involved an invasion of Russian troops without insignia, the capturing of the Crimean parliament, the putting in position of a network of checkpoints, the securing of airports, cyber attacks and the closing down of websites and the besieging of Ukrainian military bases.

Clearly the practicalities of excising Russia from the financial and trading structures of the west and its allies will pose immense challenges. It will be a series of processes, not sudden events, involving maximising resources devoted to replacing dependence on their hydrocarbons, growing more corn and wheat and replacing other inputs such as minerals and microprocessors. Russia is a major market for western goods and services and again this will need to be factored in. This may all sound wildly impractical. But wait … what’s the alternative? Continue to feed a war machine which seems intent on rebuilding an empire which is long gone by using utterly inhumane military strikes? Await the day when either Putin or another unhinged populist leader decides to risk launching a “Mutually Assured Destruction” (M.A.D.) strike against European and US targets, ignoring the inevitable deadly response?

In his relationship with the outside world, Putin thrives on appearing unpredictable and slightly unhinged. The Putin brand is such that world leaders are often on the back foot when it comes to negotiation. Take the situation with Sweden and Finland, who are currently considering joining NATO.

If they don’t joint NATO, there’s no guarantee that Russia won’t attempt invasion anyway, under the guise of removing the potential for them to do so. Putin aide Medvedev has already said that Russia will strengthen all its forces in the Baltic if Sweden and Finland join NATO. He stated that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in nearby Kaliningrad, an “exclave” between Poland and Lithuania. If ever my next door neighbour buys a machine gun and starts threatening me over the garden fence – which seems pretty unlikely – I’d not only contact the police; I’d also move house. Countries are not in a position to do that. That’s why Sweden and Finland – two peaceful sovereign states which have the bad luck to be living next to a neighbour from hell – are rushing to join NATO, having maintained a position of neutrality for many years.

Mass deaths in war, genocides and other atrocities – all terms subject to varying interpretations – took place throughout the twentieth century, in places such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and, of course, Germany, and in Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were many others. But in most cases these events were part of conflicts which eventually resolved themselves – and were not initiated by a nuclear state whose actions were sudden and unpredictable. There is no knowing how far Russia is prepared to go in pursuit of Putin’s stated desire to … do what?

The only way to deal with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour is to erect a notional but impenetrable barrier along its western edge. This new Iron Curtain will need to be far more than a simple matter of customs posts and sanctions; by which I mean that it will mean working towards the goal of excluding Russia from any international commercial, financial and cultural activity which may feed its militaristic appetites, including stronger defences against cyber attacks and even terminating its participation in the Olympic Games, which it routinely weaponises via a state-sponsored drugs program.

And yet, having said that, some commentators suggest that in looking forward to a post-Putin era, we should be careful what we wish for. The ensuing power vacuum could provoke a struggle for dominance amongst regional leaders which could catapult the country – and its nuclear arsenal – into an even more unstable state …

Credits

Map of the Iron Curtain: © Sémhur/Wikimedia Commons; licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kaliningrad: Location Map of Kaliningrad and the surrounding area; source – modified version of original in CIA Factbook, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Notes

1 Hemingway, Ernest, Introduction to Treasury for the Free World, 1946

2 Judah, Tim (1997). The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (2009, 3rd ed.). New Haven, ConnecticutYale University Press. p. 150.

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Uncovering the naked genius of William Etty

How important are the paintings of William Etty?

Now, for most people the answer will be “Who?” In a way, that’s surprising, given the potent mixture of controversy, praise, delight and horror his works have attracted over the last couple of hundred years. His depictions often got him into hot water and unsought controversy shifted attention away from his genius. Some of his later works failed to approach the magnificence of his earlier achievements and his star was in decline for many years after his death. It’s only recently, in the last thirty years or so, that it’s begun to regain its original brilliance.

Self portrait, 1825

Etty was prolific, his 2,000-odd1 paintings encompassing a range of subjects, most often portraying a famous historical scene or an interesting character, as well as occasional commissioned portraits. His comparative obscurity – and to a degree his notoriety – is explained, first, by the fact that his overwhelming focus was on the female nude; and secondly (in my view) by the fact that he was just too good at painting the nude. And that puts him in a quite unique position …

He was dedicated. He found his metier early in life and pursued his chosen career path doggedly. Whilst it’s clear that he possessed innate talent, he also had the good fortune to be supported by relatives and to be tutored by established, accomplished artists. He learned and continued to develop his craft through lifelong study and hard work. At the age of sixty-one, when a student asked for guidance, his simple advice was “practice as much as you can!”; but he was often much more forthcoming.2 His greatest technical strengths were his ability to paint realistic flesh tones, to produce figures which were both lifelike and eye-catching in form and proportion and his prowess in appropriate composition and illustration. Nonetheless, he didn’t achieve his goal of being elected a full member of the Royal Academy until the age of forty-one (coming ahead of one John Constable in the poll).

An early great success was The Coral Finder (1820).

The Coral Finder: Venus and her Youthful Satellites, 1820, William Etty

It was this painting and the magnificent Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia (also known as The Triumph of Cleopatra) the next year, that finally established Etty in the top rank of English painters of the time.

Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia, 1821, William Etty

In his historical works, Etty used his talents to bring to life important mythical and literary events from the past. In so doing, he discovered that there was an unsatisfied market for large (sometimes gigantic!), illustrative, well-painted works of classical scenes: in other words, he had what marketing people would call a Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

More than this, whether knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or as a by-product, he frequently brought out new significances in his subject matter. And his all-too-realistic depictions had numerous other dimensions, an aspect explored in a recent stimulating discussion of one of his more famous works, The Sirens & Ulysses, in an edition of the British Art Talks3 series of podcasts.

The Sirens & Ulysses, 1837, William Etty

These eminent contributors highlight some really interesting points, including the effect of the “scientifically precise” rendition of the rotting corpses in the foreground of the painting; the way classical mythology as subject matter offers an “alibi” for the inclusion of nude figures; and how Etty “amplifies” the sensuality of the female figures. In my opinion it’s this amplification which is the root cause of much of the controversy surrounding his work: whilst there is rarely unnatural exaggeration of the proportions of limbs, bottoms and breasts, the angle selected or centre of interest can on occasion maximise the erotic component of the overall aesthetic, uncomfortably for some viewers.

But why the focus on the nude? It may well have been in part to do with Etty’s need to earn a living. He was playing to his strengths. His endless evening attendances at the Life School – throughout his life, “a perpetual student”4 – must have instilled in him a forensic familiarity with the unclothed human form, both female and male. In his autobiography, quoted in Gaunt, he describes in intricate detail stages in the development of his techniques for reproducing the human figure and authentic skin tones; for instance: “First night, correctly draw and outline the figure only; Second night, carefully paint in the figure (with black and white and Indian red, for instance): the next, having secured it with copal, glaze then scumble on the bloom; glaze in the shadows and touch on the light carefully”.5

Although Mary Beard‘s “alibi” point in the podcast is well made, nudity could be an off-putter to potential clients, as explained by Gaunt: “Sir Francis Feeling was concerned about the draperies in the Cleopatra and induced the painter to make some additions. Other [sic] who had bought a picture out of genuine artistic appreciation were disturbed to find that it was wrongly interpreted by relatives and friends; and the request for more drapery was frequent. The father of a family, desirous of purchasing a picture, could not think of letting his wife and grown-up daughters see such a work as Nymph and Faun Dancing and suggested a delicate compromise – ‘an elegant female figure with bare shoulders … perhaps one side of her bosom bare'”.6

Such personal concerns were as nothing in comparison to the adverse insinuations and criticism often visited on him by the press and indeed some of his peers. The painter C.R. Leslie took Etty to task for his “rejection of draperies” and his “peculiar treatment and choice of subject”. Many whispered in gallery corridors that his nude paintings and his constant attendance at Life School – where he paid such close attention to the naked models – were evidence of a lascivious nature. Etty firmly rejected this: “People may think me lascivious, but I have never painted with a lascivious motive”, he protested in his autobiography. “If I had, I might have made great wealth … if in any of my pictures an immoral sentiment has been aimed at, I consent it should be burnt”.

It needs to be remembered that in his enormous output there are many fine paintings which don’t include female nudes. There are numerous male nudes as well as conventional, commissioned family portraits and character studies. (Some critics have remarked that drapery and clothing was not his strongest suite).

Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball, portraits of Charlotte and Mary Williams-Wynn, 1833,
William Etty

Etty had quite a strong, if somewhat confused, moral conscience, leaning towards Catholicism, but quoted as saying that “I shall live and die a Protestant”. He preferred to look back in time. His religious cast of mind was coupled with a deep fondness for the Middle Ages and a distaste of progress. Gaunt and Roe7 quote him in 1835 foreseeing no future in inventions such as the steam engine. “So, we, grovelling, despise and forget the genius of the olden time and boast of achievements far surpassing them which will, in my opinion, be forgotten long ere the Dark Ages shall pass away”. (His body of work and such comments place Etty firmly in the Romantic movement, with its glorification of Nature).

And when he surveyed the vast canvas of art history, Etty saw that he was simply one of many great artists inspired by the naked female form. “Finding God’s most glorious work to be WOMAN, that all human beauty had been concentrated in her, I resolved to dedicate myself to painting – not the Draper’s or Milliner’s work,- but God’s most glorious work, more finely than ever had been done”. And to my mind his work should certainly be considered alongside other painters in the genre. Over the centuries, many of the supreme artists (one thinks of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Durer, Ingres and indeed Degas, who post-dated him) have painted nudes. Plenty of the world’s favourite paintings feature unclothed females …

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Édouard Manet, 1862/1863
La Venus del espejo (‘The Rokeby Venus’), Diego Velázquez, 1647-1651
La maja desnuda, Francisco de Goya, c. 1797–1800
Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1510

And yet, inexplicably, few British artists have been attracted to, or comfortable with, painting the nude, especially in its classical style. “Before Etty’s arrival, England had nothing to offset in nude-painting the tremendous performance of Titian or Paul Veronese”, wrote Gaunt and Roe. Does this say something about the British psyche? If fame is the sole measure of importance, Etty may be regarded as only a minor figure in the history of British art. As Sarah Burnage, then curator of a 2011/12 exhibition of Etty’s work at the York Art Gallery, in introducing the exhibition, admitted: “Today he’s largely forgotten”.

Whilst undoubtedly true, to me this seems ludicrous. It’s undeniable that his powers faded slightly towards the end of his life, but there are so many stunning works in his whole canon that we really should rank him alongside the Old Masters that he himself so much admired.

Musidora: The Bather
‘At the Doubtful Breeze Alarmed’, exhibited 1846, William Etty
Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm, 1832, William Etty
Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed, exhibited 1830, William Etty

Notes

1 Gaunt, William and Roe, F. Gordon: Etty and the Nude (Leigh-On-Sea, Essex: F. Lewis, 1943 – temporary war address)

2 Example: “A few colours; Naples yellow, light red, Indian red, a little vermilion, lake, Terre verte, – or blue, – raw umber, burnt ditto, and black; are about enough. The application, practice must give you. As to the vehicle to paint with: a little sugar of lead, finely ground, about the size of a bean, rubbed up with your palette knife; in a teaspoonful of mastic varnish. Add to this two spoonfuls of cold drawn linseed oil. Mix them well up together. If you like, add a little spirits of turpentine, as much or as little as you please. And with a large brush rub over the canvas or picture you have to paint on … this is a vehicle that will keep the flesh tints pure”.

3 British Art Talks podcast, Paul Mellon Centre For Studies In British Art; discussion between Anna Reid Research Fellow at the PMC, Professor Mary Beard, Classicist, Newnham College, University of Cambridge and Cora Gilroy-Ware, art historian, author of The Classical Body in Romantic Britain.

4 Gilchrist, Alexander: Life of William Etty, R.A (np)

5 More: “A few colours; Naples yellow, light red, Indian red, a little vermilion, lake, Terre verte, – or blue, – raw umber, burnt ditto, and black; are about enough. The application, practice must give you. As to the vehicle to paint with: a little sugar of lead, finely ground, about the size of a bean, rubbed up with your palette knife; in a teaspoonful of mastic varnish. Add to this two spoonfuls of cold drawn linseed oil. Mix them well up together. If you like, add a little spirits of turpentine, as much or as little as you please. And with a large brush rub over the canvas or picture you have to paint on … this is a vehicle that will keep the flesh tints pure”.

6 Gaunt, ibid.

7 Gaunt, ibid.

Credits

Self portrait, 1825, (c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Sirens & Ulysses, 1837, 442.5 cm (14 ft 6.2 in) by 297 cm (9 ft 9 in), (c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation; source – Wikipedia

Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia or The Triumph of Cleopatra, 106.5 cm (41.9 in) by 132.5 cm (52.1 in), Lady Lever Art Gallery – Wikipedia

The Coral Finder: Venus and her Youthful Satellites, 74.4 × 98.58 cm, source unknown – Wikipedia

Others – all public domain – Wikipedia

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