Wither the “Western” liberal model?

Wither the “Western” liberal model?

Affray and ruin? No. Just the start.

Cheer up. Do not underestimate unleashed humankind’s Reason and curiosity.


All men desire to know (Aristotle)


Quel temps pour être en vie! (What a time to be alive!) (French, anonymous)


We’re all riding on this freight train,

Made of rocks and sticks and mortar…….

Well the driver’s sleepin’ at the wheel,

Maybe there just aint no driver…….

We’re all ridin through this emptiness,

You just got trust your neighbour..   (T Bones Band)


FEATURED, The first Modern Man? Odysseus refuses immortality.

Sir William Russell Flint  (1880-1969), 1907, CALYPSO AND ODYSSEUS, oil on canvas, 101.5 by 127 cm.


The fork in the road?!


John Martin 1852, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah , oil on canvas, 136 x 212cm.


Henri Matisse 1953 Memory of Oceania 284.4 x 286.4 cm, Moma, Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on
paper mounted on canvas


  • There is currently much pessimism on the future of the “Western” liberal model, particularly from within the camp, some extreme, like talk of Europe “committing suicide”.
  • It’s easy to get downhearted, if you lose perspective.
  • This gloom appears misplaced, misses perspective, the wider context of Modernity.
  • Modernity’s breakout – driven by the “Western” liberal model – is epochal, the biggest transitional shift in humankind’s history, a 5 million year event.
  • It has brought unimaginable Progress, material and otherwise, including an explosion in knowledge, and also cultural expression.
  • But it’s a Faustian bargain. The genie is out, no going back. Relentless competitive curiosity is now unleashed.
  • It will likely bring further Progress, but the outcome will be messy, sub-optimal, because:
    • a/ of inherent reactionary resistance from Old Order interests, attitudes, thus facilitated by:
      • Man’s appetite for the Otherworldly / supernatural,
      • Man’s nostalgic attraction to tradition, including racism and social class.
    • b/ adjusting to, coping with the relentless economic and associated change is painful. A Sisyphean burden?
    • c/ self-serving sociopathic autocrats will always try exploit unrest engendered by change.
  • Also there is risk of dangerous “mishaps” which can have drastic near term consequences, like WW1, and, recently, the 2003 Iraq intervention.
  • However one transformational positive outcome of the breakout is that humankind now has meaningful collective technical prowess to react to natural challenges, especially like climate change, which factor has had such dramatic consequences in the past, like killing the Bronze Age.
  • Though, oddly, the end of the Bronze Age then midwived the radical proto-modern experience that was Classical Greece.


Prognosis for the “West”? Tears all round?

Many informed current observers are negative if not desperate in their outlook for the West, the “Western” liberal model.

Thus Mr Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (21 September 2017) reviews a clutch of recent books wrestling with a topic that doesn’t get much bigger, the future of the Liberal West, including its relationship with the rest of the world, books like: The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Edward Luce), The Fate of the West: Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea (Bill Emmott), The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Mark Lilla), The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (David Goodhart) and especially The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Douglas Murray). Greg Sheridan (in The Australian, 21 Sep.2017) reviews the last book approvingly in an aticle headlined Angela Merkel signals ruin for Europe.

All these books, by commentators well disposed to the West, take a dim even “Apocalyptic” view of prospects and in conclusion Mr Mishra – a fierce adversary of the liberal construct, known for castigating the depredatory excesses of “Liberal capitalism”, both inside and imperialistically outside – tags the authors as reactionaries, then (unfairly, illogically) lumps them with the Charlottesville white suprematists as all missing “the ancien regime”.

These writers join many past political philosophers pessimistic on the West’s future.

The pessimists  fall into two broad camps:

1/ nostalgic reactionaries who cannot see the West succeeding if it abandons certain Old Order precepts, especially the Christian story. Per the recent book by Mark Lilla these might be called Shipwrecked Minds;

2/ wary supporters who don’t see the Western model having the wherewithal and resilience to survive its foes.


Perspective: long prologue for Modernity

It’s a long and intriguing story and it’s worth outlining as perspective before attempting a prognosis.

Arguably it started with the old Greeks, as an outstanding if not unique early case of proto-democracy, and of thinkers prepared to slough off traditional religious frameworks (usually incorporated into some secular autocratic power structure) in asking frank questions about their world, their natural world, and Man’s conduct of his collective social affairs.

Interestingly this occurred within the context of an apparently prosperous strongly growing, competitive, trade-oriented, quasi-democratic economy, until they were eclipsed by infighting then by the Macedonians.

After a long hiatus – most notable for the remarkable 600 year experience of old republican cum imperial Rome, then, as it succumbed to voluminous waves of eastern incursions, the fortuitous leg up Rome’s large footprint  gave to Christianity’s spread – the immediate pathway to Modernity finally arose in Europe with the 18th C Enlightenment, crucially building on the 17th C scientific revolution and the associated philosophical upheaval, again in the context of a growing economy, of rising literacy, the printing press, and especially of ongoing and growing questioning of the Christian Church’s authority, which dated back especially to the 14th C upheaval of Black Death.

Arguably too, and somewhat analogous to the ancient Greek experience, the roots of the liberal breakout in Europe lay far back in Anglo-Saxon England, where the quasi-democratic practices of immigrant Germanic tribes evolved to restrain monarchs (cf Magna Carta 1215), and the moot evolved into parliament as a representative institution.

Then arguably the modern liberal economy was born in 17th C Netherlands – its secular competitive ingenuity honed and stimulated by fighting off the regressive Old Order Spanish empire – which helped to nourish the takeoff soon after in England.

A familiar precis.


Modernity’s troubled gestation

However, stepping back, we see the emergence of Modernity has been protracted and intensely painful, compromised by two major sets of factors.


The first is “unenlightened” reactionary  Old Order behaviour, expressed through concerted fightback, reflecting still potent traditional self-interests, appetites, loyalties and attitudes, religious (particularly theistic / theocratic) and nationalistic and racial.

First after the late 16th C religious wars in France, following the early 16th C Reformation,  the 17th C saw central Europe engulfed by the Thirty Years War (1618-48), as the violent and fruitless culmination of the Counter-Reformation, ie the Rome-based Catholic Church, led by the Papacy, in league with sympathetic secular leaders fiercely resisting the Protestant Reformation.


Oddly, alongside this reactionary fightback, there emerged in the Netherlands a small but dynamic pocket of progressive proto-modernity, a republican government atop a buoyant growing innovative competitive economy and a vibrant secular culture patronised not by the Church or monarchs but mainly by increasingly prosperous private people.


But the Old Order viewpoints persisted.

Thus the late 18th C bright New World adventure of the United States – its revolutionary secession from the British Empire, consciously launched as it was with laudable Enlightenment aspirations – was tragically compromised from the start by the bad Old Order ways.

Thus the founders instead established de facto a “selective democracy”, inconsistent with Enlightenment ideals, as they clung to slavery, big time, in the South, where about 5 million whites “oversaw” about 4 million enslaved blacks, basically for the money, fortuitously feeding cotton to a Europe then booming, ironically thanks to its “modern”industrial take off.

Alongside this the US governments violently evicted the native Americans, again for commercial gain.


Meanwhile similar Old Order priorities also saw ambitious large scale European imperialist colonial adventures in the 19th century, also, like the USA, with a racist flavour, ie particularly in India, plus a raft of interventions in Africa and elsewhere.


But then secondly, in tragic hugely destructive blowback, these residual reactionary attitudes also gave us WW1, as traditional Old Order European rivalries which had plagued the continent for centuries resurfaced, only, ironically, now among nations that much better armed and resourced militarily owing to the economically productive industrial take off. So an old fashioned war was fought with modern weaponry, multiplying the tragedy.

Some paint WW1 as the inevitable resolution of growing tensions in Europe, but ultimately it only happened after a match was thrown, and the relevant supervising politicians misread the total circumstances.


The second major complication has been enterprising sociopathic autocrats or dictators, history’s Bad Boys, exploiting the social unrest / chaos engendered by the modernizing process, again with calamitous results, thinking here of the three great “modern” revolutions (France, Russia and China), the latter two both midwived by world wars.

So the French Revolution gave us the Terror then Napoleon.

The Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, sprouting from WW1 induced chaos there , brought forth Lenin and Stalin.

Then WW1, crucially compounded by the Depression, also gave us Hitler.

Finally the Chinese Revolution gave us Mao.

Bad Boys, like Genghis Khan, have always worried history but the Modernity’s wider better resourced context gave them much richer pastures.


Some desperate Christian critics of the Enlightenment like to blame it and atheism for these totalitarian nightmares but quite the reverse is the case. Thus the astute Great Dictators, taking advantage of the unrest, each resorted to Old Order ways to legitimise their fiercely illiberal anti-democratic regimes, each propagating quasi-religious regime supporting ideologies.

Thus it’s often rightly remarked that the post-Tsarist Russian experience – both Soviet and now Putin – is really just neo-Tsarist, rule by the traditional strong man.


Outcome:  Humankind’s technological break-out! An epic watershed. A 5 million year event!

The gestation was unimaginably painful but it’s now clear Modernity has delivered humankind a species-shaking watershed, an historic breakout from eons of impoverished struggle.

Technologically impelled per capita economic growth has delivered:

a/ mass prosperity, for first time in the species 5m year history, notwithstanding unfinished business,

b/ a leap in life span, longevity,

c/ a leap in quantums of leisure time,

d/ a reduction in the intensity (per capita) of intra-species violence, notwithstanding (as various researchers have observed) the 20th C setback.

e/ in most “Western” countries, much improved governance in conduct of private economic affairs, especially corporations, eg see “When Corruption and Venality Were the Lifeblood of America”, (review by Sean Wilentz NY Times,  19 Sep. 2017 of The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Richard White, Oxford). “White’s book ought to worsen its [The Gilded Age] already dismal reputation for sordidness and rapacity.” White’s earlier work includes “a scathing exposé of the giant post-Civil War transcontinental railroads”.

Altogether it is by far the most dramatic single change in collective circumstances in the species 5 million years history.


Outcome: now humankind capacity to respond to climate change

The other incredible outcome is that for the first time in its 5 million year history humankind can use its new collective technical prowess to react to natural challenges, especially like climate change, which phenomenon has had such dramatic consequences for homo sapiens in the past, starting of course with the inter-glacial global warming c14,000 years ago which allowed Man to blossom. Then in recorded time there have been other portentous climate interventions, like the droughts that ended the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the Maya, but particularly whatever happened c1200BC to kill off a bunch of Bronze Age civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

One fascinating speculation is that the end of the Bronze Age appears to have then helped father, make space for, the eventual extraordinary proto-modern Classical Greek effloresecence (Josiah Ober’s term), a clear progenitor of the modernizing breakout in Europe near two milleniaia later.


Outlook: the Faustian bargain. No getting off the train: Man’s curiosity unleashed

However the uncovering by ingenius humankind – finally- of Modernity, can be cast as a Faustian bargain.

Modernity brings a bounty. The cup runneth over.

But it comes with a catch.


Firstly, now the process is unleashed there is no turning back, no leaving the train. Technological innovation is out of the box and humankind’s unleashed self-serving competitive curiosity will keep driving change.  We’re riding the Tyger.


Second, Modernity, driven by technical change, brings relentless economic and related changes, bringing winners but always some direct losers. So adjustment to change is constant and painful, a Sisyphean challenge.


Third, the Old Order does not go quietly, many cling to it. Modernity’s assault on, undermining and swallowing of the Old Order, tradition, is painful and disruptive.

There is a range of reactions, from active fightback to resignation.

A measure of reactionary resistance from Old Order interests, attitudes, seems inherent, reflected in Man’s appetite for the Otherworldly / supernatural,

Organised religion, well meaning or otherwise has exploited this predilection.

For many people there is tantalising appeal in belief in the “irrational”, as an antidote to the travails of life in this world, particularly among poorer and less educated people.

TS Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton, “.. human kind / Cannot bear very much reality


For some there is also nostalgic attraction to tradition, including racism and social class.


Aged only 20 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) published Frankenstein in 1818, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace but was still young. It is rightly billed as a Romantic novel, reacting to the 18th C Age of Reason, an allegorical comment on the dangers of Modernity, what can go wrong.


Outlook: four propositions favouring the “Western” liberal model

It’s working

First, despite its long and painful gestation, the Unintended Consequences of Old Order resistance from within, and despite stern opposition from antagonistic threatened external forces (like the Soviet Union, the USSR, for about 45 years during the Cold War, now like the Islamist rebellion and Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia), self-evidently the Western model has delivered, is delivering


An optimum modus operandi?

Second, perhaps controversially, heroically, there’s an argument that the secular Liberal democrat model (LDM), ragged and imperfect though it may be, is basically the optimum way, the go to way, for humankind to conduct its collective affairs, and is “Western” only in sense it happened to emerge there.

So it has universal appeal or relevance akin to natural laws of physics and other sciences, and as illustrated by its take-up beyond the home countries.

A curious observation in world affairs is how many patently non or anti-democratic countries pay lip service to the “Western” model, in many of their public announcements, and also in their theatrical efforts to maintain a pretence of democracy at home, through courts, conducting some version of parliament, holding elections etc.


Inherent appeal to most educated people?

Third, supporting the second point, there’s a case that this model will have inherent appeal to a majority of educated people almost everywhere, people generally attracted to a rule of law / governance based competitive but compassionate, tolerant, democratic, rights ruled way of life.

Why? Because ultimately the the number of Good People exceeds Bad People.


This proposition is supported by history’s outcome, particularly post WW2

Obviously the core West, as in Europe and the US (and direct outliers like Canada and Australia), basically subscribes to this model and will continue to.

But particularly post WW2 the model has spread – to a greater or lesser extent – beyond the home counties, especially to parts of Asia (notably Japan, India then Korea, Indonesia, Thailand etc), and also to parts of the Americas beyond the US and Canada. The outcomes in different cases vary, are not all mirror images of Westminster, but significant nonetheless.

In particular, after the egregious practical failure of the Red Road, we have seen populous China abruptly embrace the market economic part of the “Western” liberal model, with dramatic economic and now wider consequences. Their economic modus operandi might come from an Economist essay, though of course they still keep tight reins politically, wherever that might lead.


Outlook: Europe and Islam? Western model will prevail.

Regarding alarm over Islamic migration into Europe, the talk of an existential threat, the fundamental issue is how the imported “culture” will interact.

The  influx of refugees to Europe will obviously shift the complexion of society, render it more cosmopolitan and diverse, but ultimately, and crucially, the first loyalty of the majority of the newcomers in time will likely be to some version of the progressive liberal “Western” model, not to some imported antithetical ideological regime, religious or otherwise.

Thus end of the day the “Western” model, based on reason, freedom and tolerance, seems a far greater threat to the “ten pound weakling” that is regressive Old Order illiberal theocratic Islam than vice versa.

This prospect for Europe recalls the dramatic “cultural” transformations occasioned by non-European inward migration experienced  by the US starting some while ago and by Australia in recent decades.

Islam may prove harder to digest but digested it will be, another illustration of a striking and irresistible outcome of ongoing Modernity, the swallowing of traditional cultures, or mind-sets, one way or the othert.


Outlook: much better than many think?

Where from now?

Is the outlook really so dark for the Liberal West?

Far from it. Rather, based on the demonstrated success to date of the “Western” liberal model, there is a strong case for dogged Whiggish optimism.

Barring unexpected exogenous mishaps the likely overall long term prognosis for the West is far from gloomy.

Progress remains likely, in terms of economic and social outcomes, if not always smoothly.


Outlook: but messy. Challenges of adjustment will remain, are endemic?

However the outcome will always remain turbulent to a degree, messy and sub-optimal.


Technological changeis now relentless, driven by humankind’s competitive self-interested curiosity, commercial and otherwise. This change has underwritten rising prosperity globally, and, crucially, for the first time in millions of years of history, will help humankind respond to natural challenges like climate shift.

But it also necessitates constant economic adjustment which is painful for those directly affected.


First the two major factors that impaired Modernity’s gestation remain alive, evident today, are more or less  inherent, ie

a/ an irrational if understandable appetite for the therapeutic Otherworldly (religion (eg violent theocratic Islamism) and otherwise),

and b/ residual (if spurious) belief in race and class carrying inherited differentiating characteristics ,

The Radical Enlightenment, arguing the case to its logical conclusion,  attacked both.


Second, posterity will always have to cope with Bad Boys.


Outlook: risks of “mishaps”, an their Unintended Consequences.

There’s a case that WW1 need not have happened. However once triggered, by a sequence of events starting in Sarajevo, the Unintended Consequences were devastating, especially for all those directly affected, the victims and their families.

The ill-fated 2003 US intervention in Iraq (compounded by Libya 2011) is shaping as another major unnecessary “mishap”, with costly Unintended Consequences. For some protgonists the intervention was well-intentioned, seeking to evict violent dictators but reality is it has unleashed a sustained violent backlash from Old Order interests. Thus it has stoked intra-Islamic Shia-Sunni violence, and has triggered resentful Islamist violence against the West. The strong Old Order religious reality is that Iraq was no candidate for early adoption of anything like the “Western” liberal model.

However Modernity survived WW1 (and its corollaries like the Russian Revolution), and will survive the 2003 intervention, if at a cost.

However the rise of China, in particular, has for some resurrected the so called Thucydides Trap, the notion that its rise will somehow bring inevitable conflict with the US as the pre-eminent global power (much as ancient Athens and Sparta squared off, disastrously). WW1 is another popular example, with then Europebeing unable to accommodate peacefully the rise of Germany.

Yes there are dangers accommodating China but China has a pressing interest in avoiding serious conflict.


Cracking Jasper: Pop Corn art


FEATURED IMAGE: Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). 1951. Trodden Weed, Philadelpia Museum of Art


Reflections upon reading, Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”. The long read, By Barbara Rose. Published 7 September 2017. Royal Academy Magazine.


  • Means whatever you want? Pop Corn Art.

  • All this name-dropping. Starts to grate?

  • Critics can’t help themselves.

  • But art is also a business.


The art means what?

It came to me jogging.

What is the man actually saying? What does this heterodox flurry of images mean?

Answer, whatever you want. Like a candy store, there’s something for everyone.

It’s Feet Up art for the leisured generation.

So it mirrors the age.


Rummaging the treasure chest. Starts to grate?

One can have a problem with young Jasper.

Some way into Ms Rose’s panegyric, as a Mr Johns work “quotes” yet another art history icon, I was reminded of Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s now famous rejoinder to Republican Senator Dan Quayle in the US 1988 VP debate. `Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’

As we see how the hatching in Munch’s Self portrait by chance matches Mr Johns use of it, after, the story goes, he spotted it on a passing bus.

In the same vein we are reminded of the work of another postwar American “giant”, Mr Cy Twombly, who also indulged a lazy sustained penchant for shamelessly tapping, “quoting” history, in an apparently banal, glib or obscure way,

So one thinks, in both cases, how about a blind tasting?

Assemble a panel of well informed “experts” unfamiliar with the work of CT or JJJ, show them a bunch of relevant images, then ask them to jot down what references each image might suggest: literary, historic, artistic etc.

So I wonder how many might find in JJJ… the Isenheim Altarpiece? Munch’s Self portrait? Not to mention Proust! And Hart Crane, William Faulkner, etc etc.

The Isenheim Altarpiece?? Isn’t it kind of sacrilegious to blithely cite this iconic work?


Lazy, feet up, follow your nose art, for the TV generation.

You live long enough, stay busy, keep pouring out visual encounters of a diverse and wondrous kind, permutations of which allow vastly more possibilities, and soon there’s enough material to keep legions of agile energetic minds occupied searching connections and meaning.

One likes the quip about André Gide! Like a wise quarry, play hard to get.

And you laugh near the end too, coming across the artist one Barnett Newman, a remarkable but dare I say successful diligent self-promoter (with help from a dutiful wife), labouring tirelessly to coax profound meaning from his trademark trouser aid motif. And labouring “heroically” too one gathers.

Well this heavy adverb might fit far better, for example, the work of an elderly lady Australian indigenous artist called Sally Gabori who died a year or so back, whose best work, also abstract, could easily hold its own against the AbEx leaders and also be effortlessly authentic.

So, unfashionably, Mr Andrew Wyeth’s 1951 Trodden Weed might beat any image here by JJJ?

There’s nothing in principle against contemporary art, so long as it says something, shows constructive purpose.


The critics let rip: into overdrive, no brakes!

Rather, he is great because, somehow, he accesses and articulates, in a gorgeous, sensual manner, mysteries that, for the rest of us, are unfathomable. …..

Indeed, many of his paintings have an arcane, rabbinical quality.

Like a priest, he seems to be in possession of great wisdom and spiritual insight into fundamental aspects of our existence.

We may employ a different phrase, and say that he taps, rapturously, into something divine…” Per A. Mr Sooke in the Daily Telegraph.

Lucky I was sitting down when I read this.

Yes well.

As I say, try a blind tasting and see how many tick, Divine hues, or Rabbinical overtones, or Hints of unfathomable mysteries.

Something here of that story about the Emperor who forgot his clothes?


Yes we need to remember art is also a business. The artists, the museums, the critics, the private commercial galleries, the auction houses. And for a small coterie of artists their output is big business. Lots of noughts.

So we have what the governance manual calls, conflict of interest.


Cheer up. Modernity is a wonderful thing

Finally as a Whig optimist, now unfashionable in many quarters, one smiles at the gloomy reactionary pessimism near the end of the RA essay, “the technology-dominated…. world threatened with extinction because of human greed, brutality and ignorance”. This is misleading, elitist and probably dead wrong.

Ask the billions of people today who can now access sewage facilities thanks to “technology”.


A tasting….


Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981.  Oil on canvas. 182.9 x 320.7 cm. Collection of the artist


Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Self-portrait. Between the clock and the bed, 1940-43, 120.5 x 149.5 cm, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway


Sally Gabori (c1924- March 2015). 2008, Dibirdibi Country, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 600 cm, Queensland Art Gallery.

Norman Wilfred Lewis: Driven to abstraction!

Norman Wilfred Lewis (1909 – 1979, 70)

Driven to abstraction! The discomfiting overlooked outsider who found a freedom in abstraction.

Slavery’s long shadow: authentic front rank NY School Abstract Expressionist painter bypassed one way and another because of his colour.

American art took path of least resistance, tip toed round a leading black painter, discomfited by race and his art.

Ironically his colour stimulated his work, likely encouraged his embrace of abstraction?



1936, Fantasy, Oil and ink on canvas, 80 x 102 cm, Courtesy of Leslie Lewis and Christina Lewis Halpern.

COMMENT: How unlikely. Yes there seem allusions here to Kandinsky and perhaps also Paul Klee. But nonetheless here is a striking image from the young (27 year old) painter, just after studying with Augusta Savage and at Columbia University in New York.



  • Norman Lewis’ contribution to American art from just before WW2 though to the 1970s has been profoundly underappreciated, underrated.
  • Lewis has been largely ignored by the mainstream art establishment (critics, museums and the market), in the US and elsewhere, then and until recently (1).
  • But from c1946 he was a front rank New York School Abstract Expressionist (AE) painter. Detached appraisal suggests the substance of his sustained abstraction oeuvre – its distinctive originality and constructive variety – bears comparison with the popularly feted AE big guns.
  • The only obvious material differences were firstly, scale (Lewis did not paint large look-at-me wall fillers, partly because he couldn’t afford the studio space), and, secondly, he did not settle on a catchy marketable artistic device – a signature stylistic template – and pursue it mercilessly, like Pollock’s intense “drip”, Rothko’s Color Field ethereal floating rectangles, Newman’s “zip”, Still’s geological shards, and de Kooning’s coarse Expressionist quasi-figuration.
  • Lewis’ total abstraction oeuvre was striking in variety and its originality, distinctive in a number of aspects: 1/ his calligraphic”, “neural” or “string-bag” abstraction; 2/ his fine linear abstraction, using angular fragments or “shards; 3/ his quasi-figurative, miniature, pictographic “little figures” abstraction; and 4/ his powerful pared black and white / red and white quasi-abstraction.
  • This equivocal mainstream reaction is ironic given the influence of “primitive” African art on modern Western art, and also the recent rapturous art market response to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was also NY based.


Why overlooked? Race.

  • Why was he overlooked, despite the objective quality of his work? The variety of his work is an issue. His very range was a mouthful, though to discerning critics this should be constructive.
  • It’s hard to avoid simply that color, being black, was the issue. His race and his art discomfited the art market, inhibited engagement and detached appreciation.
  • This not necessarily reflected overt racism as much as the path of least resistance (for both the mainstream and “black” art worlds), ie to avoid having to confront the matter of race (inherently controversial in the US because of the sustained injustice, across two centuries), and then Lewis’s particular case, ie first as the only black Abstract Expressionist and second as a painter who personally uttered on the matter, in a number of powerful works.
  • But though Lewis saw himself as a painter first (below) he could hardly avoid not commenting through his work, coinciding as he did with the historic Civil Rights movement which finally in the early 1960s brought remedial historic reform.
  • Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Painter of distinction, ironically in part because of race.

  • Lewis is a painter of distinction, interesting especially because of questions posed by his colour, a predicament not of his choosing.
  • It was a dilemma he could never escape or resolve.
  • Thus as a black painter in the USA he could hardly overlook his people’s mistreatment. But to the extent he responded politically through his art he risked devaluing or compromising his status as a painter, and, more concretely, hurting his income.
  • The real irony was that this dilemma was exacerbated precisely because he was not just a painter but a mainstream painter, the only African-American in the post WW2 New York School. So on the one hand he was under that much more pressure to publically support his people, but on the other had that much more to lose.
  • But near a century after the Civil War African-Americans in the USA still suffered systematic discrimination: comparative electoral disenfranchisement and widespread segregation laws. So as an informed and educated black painter in the USA, and a leading one, he did respond, across his whole adult life, in his personal life and especially through some of his art, through many polemical works, some searing, in both his early Social Realist career and later abstraction.
  • But as a painter, especially as a prominent full-time career painter, he was also concerned to be judged as a generic painter, not to be trapped or devalued by his identity as a “black painter”. Thus he was conscious of art’s aesthetic as well as polemical purpose.
  • But he couldn’t win. If he didn’t protest he let his people down. If he did it cost him. So he did protest and it did cost him, his polemical activity discouraging the commercial interest in, appetite for his work.



Lewis’ abstraction: encouraged by his colour?

  • As a thoughtful career artist Lewis was obviously aware of abstraction and indeed executed such a work early as 1936. But ironically it seems likely the difficult matter for him of colour was a reason for him finally embracing abstraction, suddenly and for good c1945, as Abstract Expressionism was arriving. It allowed him greater creative freedom, to further a career as a painter, not just a black painter.
  • But again ironically, while abstraction gave him more room to move it also arguably powerfully augmented his political statements, particularly the quasi-representational works in the early 1960s, an historic period of Civil Rights protest and reform.
  • Unlike many or most of the main 20th C abstract painters, Lewis’s abstraction was not ‘spiritual’, rather was motivated by his life experience, particularly music and Harlem city life, but also nature, and politics.


Notes.  1/ Lewis’ first large scale full retrospective show did not arrive till 2016, 38 years after he died. Then one of his works (and an important one) did hang in the late 2016 comprehensive Abstract Expressionist exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, the first such comprehensive show in London in over 50 years, since 1959. In the catalogue editor David Anfam rightly flags Lewis, mentions Elaine de Kooning’s support in the wake of his 1949 solo hanging at the Willard Gallery.




Twilight Sounds, 1947. Oil on canvas, 60 x 71 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum. COMMENT: Inspired by music. Recalls Joan Miro?



  1. American Totem, Oil on canvas, 191 x 114cm. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY



1964, Processional, 94 x 48.3cm, oil on canvas,

COMMENT: Two gripping political images from the tense early 1960s period in the US when Civil Rights protest and (finally) reform was coming to a head. The first refers to an art device used by some native peoples. The second shows what might be a march, white and black people walking together. Through the night of the struggle, daylight ahead?


C1960, Alabama, oil on canvas, 122 x 184cm.  COMMENT: This striking work recalls Jackson Pollock’s important late work, The Deep (1953). It was a response to a sit-in at Alabama State University in 1960.



1962 Evening Rendezvous, oil on linen, 127.7 x 163.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

COMMENT: A dark political work employing Lewis’s trademark miniaturised stick-figure quasi-abstraction, apparently depicting a nocturnal Klan gathering around a fire. The red white and blue scheme obviously parodies the colours on America’s national flag.



1962 Bonfire, Oil on canvas, 163 x 127cm, The Studio Museum in Harlem.

COMMENT: Another enigmatic political painting from the same tense early 1960s period



LEFT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950 (organized by de Kooning and Kline)

Left to right: Seymour Lipton, Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst, Peter Grippe, Adolf Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Alfred Barr (glasses far end, left), Robert Motherwell, Richard Lippold, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, James Brooks, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Poussette-Dart.


RIGHT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950

Left to right: David Smith, Seymour Lipton, ??? (behind), Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst.

Photos by Aaron Siskind. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.



An undated portrait of Norman Lewis. Credit Willard Gallery Archives.

COMMENT: Circa late 1940s? His important Metropolitan Crowd (1946), hangs to left of the artist.



Portrait c1975.

COMMENT: great photo


Jean-Michel Basquiat: ‘Mind-blowing’ art? Well certainly a mind-blowing commercial transaction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)


Untitled” (1982), acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm, just sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction on Thursday 18th May in New York, bought by a Japanese fan, Yusaku Maezawa , a fashion entrepeneur.

It’s mind-blowing,” said “collector” Mr. Larry Warsh.

Yes clearly a “mind-blowing” commercial transaction.

But “mind-blowing”art?

Well certainly it’s art, but it’s also fashion.

And as they say, money – and fashion – do funny things to people, and the more the money the funnier.

Like the sustained hyberbolic, hagiographical overdrive in Sotheby’s on-line write up of the art work, which dare one say does not come with an obvious disclaimer, ie their vested financial interest in this auction outcome, and in any relevant auctions in the future.

This self-serving commercial market phenomenon – involving dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors – applies to many other artists, usually dead but sometimes still alive. The late Cy Twombly is another prime example.

Yes Mr Basquiat’s work is eye-catching, distinctive.

And this seeds initial interest. But once he is “discovered”, and prices start to move up, the self-perpetuating promotion process takes hold and prices rise ever higher, a virtuous-circle, the process fuelled by its own exhaust.

Thus compare the painting of the moment with five broadly similar works for sale now though Sotheby’s in Paris in June 2017, all in a colourful animated neo-expressionist style, but estimated to sell for between only 10,000 and 200,000 Euros (US$11.2-224k), or 0.01-0.2% of Untitled (1982).

But Untitled (1982) is bigger – and scarier! – so say its art is “worth” 400,000 Euros, then that’s 0.4% art and 96.4% fashion.

On the other hand if Untitled (1982) is worth that much maybe Mr Appel et al are cheap?

Interestingly much the same commercial outcome has happened with the New York Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. Works of the main protagonists were executed soon after WW2 and some have sold for US$50-100m or more. A Pollock sold for US$140m in 2006.

But abstraction was alive and well in Europe at the same time, but these works sell for a tiny fraction of the priciest AE works.

The role of fashion in the matter is highlighted or emphasized by the AE school comprising markedly different abstraction styles, eg compare a Pollock gestural “drip” classic with Barnet Newman’s main works, in a stark simple geometric style. Thus what matters now is not so much the style and content of the painting as the now collectively celebrated specific historic early postwar artistic and commercial experience it was part of.

Compare …………

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) 1982, Untitled,  acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm,  SOLD FOR US$110.5 million, 18 May 2017, Sotheby’s New York.

 And five similar works for sale in Europe …………..


Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958, UNTITLED, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm;                 ESTIMATE 40,000 — 60,000 E


Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958. BATAILLE D’ANIMAUX , oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm;  ESTIMATE 150,000 — 200,000 E


Robert Combas (born 1957), 1989. UNTITLED. acrylic on canvas, 122 x 136,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 15,000 — 20,000 E


Toshimitsu Imaï (1928 – 2002), 1963, SOLEIL oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. ESTIMATE 30,000 — 50,000 E


Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913 – 2007), 1975, THE BLUE EYE AND RED FACE. oil on canvas, 101,2 x 83,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 10,000 — 15,000 E

‘Blue Poles’ shelters.. a red rider on a yellow horse!

Blue Poles (1952) shelters.. a red rider on a yellow horse!


Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)


FEATURED: 1952, Blue Poles, (DETAIL, far right), 212.1 cm × 488.9 cm; enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.


The Yellow Horse!

Le Cheval Jaune!

Gelb Pferd!


A red rider!

Un cavalier rouge!

Ein rot fahrer!


Surely these eyes are not the first to notice, but unmistakeably there they are far right, nuzzling the Eighth Pole, a yellow horse partnering a red rider.

No doubt it as not intentional.

But who knows.

And, if not, who knows if he didn’t perhaps notice it afterwards, which might have appealed to his earlier occasional Surrealist dabblings.

Anyway it’s an image redolent of metaphorical possibilities.

And speaking of yellow horses Franz Marc (1880-1916, who also found a dark end in this dimension) immediately raises a ghostly hand.

Ah ha, a portent!


Franz Marc (1880-1916, 36), 1912, Little yellow horses, oil, 104 x 66cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.



1952, Blue Poles (formerly Number 11, 1952), and details. Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 cm × 488.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

The Main Man of Abstract Expressionism, but owes his reputation mainly to specific historic circumstances.

  • The Main Man of post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionism (AE).
  • But the crazy prices for his distinctive large-scale full bore Gestural action abstract paintings mostly reflect specific historic circumstances, the collective commercial and artistic circumstances of the New York School, the Abstract Expressionism art movement in the cultural capital of postwar America, soon after W2, rather than any intrinsic value?
  • So another large-scale Gesturalist at the same time, Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) sells for peanuts because he chose Paris over New York.

Though there’s no doubt Pollock’s distinctive intense “drip” painting method fans his appeal.       

Camille Pissarro (and friends) – if you could only invite one to tea?


The Impressionists‘ engaging aesthetic „special effects“ man.

(Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, July 1830- November 1903, 73)


FEATURED IMAGE:   1874 Bad Weather, Pontoise, Snow Effect, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 61.6 cm, Private Collection.   COMMENT: textbook Pissarro, from the year Impressionism was formally launched at the first (of 8) official Salon challenging group exhibition in Paris. Thus through bare trees we see some “structure”, and the coarse brushwork captures snow flurried by wind.

If we can choose only two paintings …. .

2  3

1877, The Côte des Bœufs at L’Hermitage (Pontoise) Oil on canvas, 114.9 x 87.6 cm, National Gallery London. COMMENT: this is a relatively large painting, and the reproduction does not do justice to the dense fine impasto texture visible up close. Many paintings he composed around trees. And concealed, camouflaged in the shrubs are two women, near his then home.

1889 Shepherd in a Downpour, tempera on canvas, 60 x 73.3 cm, private Collection. COMMENT: more trademark Pisssaro, after the effect of rain beating a lone shepherd and flock, but through a pared simple zig-zag composition he sometimes used later, after meeting Georges Seurat, .



The gregarious multi-cultural outsider Camille Pissarro (Danish-French, of Portuguese-Sephardic Jewish descent) was important early, played a leading role in formally launching the Impressionists group in 1874, and then showed at all 8 of the group exhibitions to 1886.

Unlike some peers he relaxed creatively so apart from one interesting detour his painting style more or less trod water across 30 prolific years, as variations on Impressionism.

But he left us many „beautiful“ paintings, evident especially in the flesh. And many there were, mostly engaging aesthetic distractions from modern life.

For despite his „anarchist“ proto-socialist political sympathies Pissarro was in practice – like Monet (1840-1926) – a true Impressionist, basically a neo-romantic aesthete, preoccupied with aesthetic purpose.

Even his many cityscapes (especially the various series, painted later when ill health compelled him to paint only from indoors) are more aesthetic than realistic.

He preferred the country, lived near all his life there, and landscapes predominated, often chasing natural outdoors atmospheric “effects”, like snow or fog or frost, but usually built on some manner of compositional structure, especially trees.

But as a sociable person, known for empathetic relations with other artists, he also painted many people, in small or larger groups, particularly later:  family, friends (cf Cezanne), rural workers, and also himself.

Ironically his late 1880s„detour“ to Neo-impresionism produced some of his most „modern“ images.



Pissarro’s art

Pissarro, as the oldest in the official group (43 in 1874), and the only one then to show at all 8 exhibitions, is noted for his important role in helping launch Impressionism, especially with Monet, his friend since 1859, and both not long back from London. They, with Degas and Renoir, played a leading role in organising the seminal April 1874 Impressionist show.

The painter credited with first floating the idea of them forming a group, the engaging, generous Frederic Bazille, a close friend of Monet, sadly was killed 1870 in the pointless Franco-Prussian War so never reached the starting line. Pissarro (with Paul Cezanne (1939-1906)) knew Bazille from 1863.

But having become a committed Impressionist painter, Pissarro more or less remained there stylistically for rest of his life, about another 30 years. He toyed with Neo-Impressionist Pointillism in the late 1880s, but only for a year or so, and ignored the Post-impressionists like Van Gogh and Gauguin, then the 1890s Symbolists.

However in later years there was generally more variety in his style and subject. He painted more people (like La Ronde (1884) and the many market scenes), he painted coarse colorful works (View of the Village of Bazincourt (1889), Sunset, Bazincourt Steeple (1890), Flood, White Effect, Eragny (1893), and The Dunes at Knokke (1894)), and he painted subtle subdued works (Valhermeil near Oise – Rain Effect (1881), Shepherd in a Downpour (1889), Rouen, Fog Effect (1898)).

Pissarro liked to build his paintings around some manner of “structure”, using trees in particular, also roads and buildings, and shadows, and sometimes rivers and bridges.

Ironically, his brief detour into Neo-impressionism (Pointillism) after meeting Georges Seurat 1885 produced paintings which are arguably his most „modern“ in terms of painting style and stylised composition, if not modern in subject, like Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte (1888). Ile Lacruix, Rouen: Effect of Fog (1888), and Old Chelsea Bridge, London (1890). Some of these works also reflect his interest in Japanese prints.


Pissarro was prolific, and landscapes predominated, as for his more famous friend and associate Monet, but his subject span was wider than Monet‘s, more interesting for it. Thus he painted far more people, especially later, after c1880, including himself (leaving four notable self portraits), his family, and many outdoors genre scenes showing working people, mainly women, in villages, markets, the countryside.

Monet’s Rouen cathedral series inspired him to also paint a number of “series”, ie repeated images from the same vantage point, starting 1896 with 16 paintings of Rouen. About then his failing health forced him to work inside, so the “series”made a virtue of necessity. Other series followed, like Dieppe, and in urban Paris, especially of Boulevarde Montmartre, also from his window over Pont Neuf.


Pissarro responded to modern life, painted far more views of modern life than Monet, like factories and changing urban Paris. About the 1896 Rouen series he famously wrote (to his son): “what particularly interests me is the motif off the iron bridge in wet weather with all the vehicles, pedestrians, workers on the embankment, boats, smoke, haze in the distance; it’s so spirited, so alive.”

And in Paris, working on his famous Boulevarde Montmartre series, he wrote 15th Dec.1897 to Lucien: “It may not be very aesthetic, but I’m delighted to be able to have a go at Paris streets, which are said to be ugly, but are [in fact] so silvery, so bright, so vibrant with life […] they’re so totally modern!

But nonetheless (and notwithstanding his “it may not be very aesthetic”!) this interest in the “modern” is primarily aesthetic rather than „realistic“ or clinical.

Pissarro’s reaction to „modern“ life contrasts with Fernand Leger’s (1881-1955) for example. The neo-romantic Pissarro was more interested in the aesthetic effects of the „modern“, and the countryside, while Leger on the other hand embraced the modern industrial age, seemed to think modern life was a good idea, despite even after serving at the front in World War 1.


Pissarro ultimately may have been less radical than say Monet, more conservative, but in relentlessly pursuing his aesthetic mission he did paint many “beautiful” pictures, particularly among his many landscapes and cityscapes. As often the case this is more evident when seeing some of these paintings in the flesh, when the detail can be better appreciated, as for many other artists (like Jackson Pollock).



Monet, also prolific, was more narrow than Pissarro in his subject matter – painted relatively few people pictures, especially later, and painted very few „modern“ subjects –  but he is now understandably more famous for pushing his aesthetic obsession with landscapes, through the famous „series“ of the 1890s (haystacks, the Rouen cathedral facade, river bank trees, on the Epte) to the legion of later radical large quasi-abstract images from his base at Giverny, many watery, like his early days by the Channel.


How hard was it! Monet letter 10 March 1879 to Georges De Bellio:

„..I am absolutely sickened with and demoralised by this life I’ve been leading for so long. When you reach my age [39!] there is nothing more to look forward to. Unhappy we are, unhappy we will continue to be.

Each day brings its tribulations and each day difficulties arise from which we can never free ourselves. So I am giving up the struggle once and for all, abandoning all hope of success……

(Richard  Kendall, Monet by Himself, (Macdonald & Co 1989, updated  Time Warner Books, 2004)



Pissarro’s relentless pursuit of the aesthetic is odd in some ways first because he was apparently a “socialist” (see below) and, second, because he was influenced early by the various pioneering French social realists in Paris, particularly the older Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875), who tutored him, encouraged him to paint plein-air. He cited Corot as his teacher in the catalogues to the 1864 and 1865 Paris Salons.

The bolder realist Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) was important too, also Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78) and Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875) from the Barbizon school.

So early on he also developed a keen appetite for landscape, which never left. Here he was influenced too by recent older British painters RP Bonington (1802-28) and John Constable (1776-1837). Constable’s work influenced the French Realists, especially after it was shown at the 1824 Salon.  Pissarro was aware too of the then ageing Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), like his use of color.


Like many colleagues from the late 1860s he also became fashionably keen on Japonism, eg through Japanese prints, though this is less obvious in his art than for others?


1869-71: Louveciennes and London, forming the Impressionist painting style

Pissarro’s Impressionist painting style clearly emerged when he was based at Louveciennes (about 18km west of Paris, on the road to Versailles) for about a year, from May 1869 through July 1870 when the war with Prussia broke out. Pissarro moved to Louveciennes from Pontoise, was joined in the area by Monet (based at Bougival) and Renoir, then Sisley, also Guillaumin.

During the early 1870s Pissarro, Monet and Sisley [and Renoir?] developed a communal style and collective artistic identity..” (“Camille Pissarro”, catalogue, Art Gallery NSW, 2006).

This area, the Seine below Louveciennes, became an important nursery for developing Impressionism, epitomised by Monet and Renoir famously painting side by side at popular riverside café la Grenouillère (The Frogpond) in summer of 1869, on the island of Croissy, just up the river by Bougival. Their paintings were milestones in the birth of Impressionism.

Oddly for an “Impressionist” Renoir painted a heap of portraits, and not many landscapes.

Pissarro also painted a view of la Grenouillère in 1869 but the style of his image is behind Monet and arguably it was soon after this, painting with Monet at Louveciennes winter 1869-70 (especially scenes of the road to Versailles), that Pissarro’s Impressionist style developed.

The same local scenes were painted repeatedly, in varying conditions, the same scene by the same artist (like the road at Louveciennes by Pissarro), and the same scene by different artists (like Louveciennes by Pissarro and Monet).

One popular feature was the aqueduct for Louis XIV’s Versailles water displays, fed by la Machine de Marly.

Then Franco-Prussian War, erupting July 1870, upended the productive Louveciennes association.


Impressionism – making sense of a definition: aesthetic realism

From its problematic formal beginnings in the mid-1870s Impressionism is now one of the most popularly appreciated art movements, though this popularity was hard won.

But it is also a term bringing some confusion?


The style is best described as  aesthetic realism“.

It was radical then first because of its unidealistic, frank, informal, everyday realism, striving to paint everyday, mundane landscapes in particular – and sometimes people – „realistically“, as they really appeared.

Some logically extended this approach and painted the same scenes at different times, in different weathers, and they savoured rich visual effects like snowy fields or fog or sunny treescapes or sunsets. Though Renoir did tell dealer Ambroise Vollard “But then, even if you can stand the cold, why paint snow? It is a blight on the face of Nature.”!

The radical nature of their subject matter is quickly evident when compared with typical paintings favoured by the official Salon, mostly still preoccupied with improbable obscure otherworldly history topics, like Gérôme’s The sword Dance (1868), or idealised landscapes.

Second, it was radical in its pioneering coarse, colorful, broad brush, „unfinished‘ painting method.


Impressionism’s aesthetic realism“, sometimes then called „naturalism“, stood in contrast to the by then well established and pioneering French school of „social realism“, which dated back to Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) Raft of the Medusa (1819), thence through Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875), the Barbizon School (Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875)), then especially Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).

The long unappreciated and less well known Barbizon “cattle painter” Constant Troyon (1810-65), who met Barbizon leader Theodore Rousseau in 1843, impressed Monet at the 1859 Salon (with 6 works), and it’s easy to see why, the light and atmosphere, the color and the brushwork (cf The Return). We also see Pissarro in Troyon (cf Road in the woods, mid 1840s, Met NY)

Encouraged by freer thinking after the 1848 political unrest, the Barbizon school painted nature and rural life, including peasants, for its own sake, rather than as a back drop to dramatic events, historic, mythological or otherwise. And they painted the scenes directly, realistically. Thus the Barbizon artists were early advocates of en plein air (EPA) painting, from about the 1840s, ie working outdoors, a method facilitated by 1/ the arrival paint pigments in tubes (versus traditional method of mixing pigment with linsed oil in a studio), and 2/ the portable French box easel, with built in paint box and palette.

Impressionism’s „realism“ by contrast – its artistic mission – was overwhelmingly aesthetic rather having any polemical or moralistic motive.

So it was, above all, essentially a neo-romantic movement, mostly preoccupied with „pretty pictures“, if anything seeking aesthetic distraction from the disruptive turmoil of modern life rather than to comment or reflect on it.

Striking it is that even the „political“ Pissarro, socialist /anarchist, was nothing of the sort in his art (with one isolated exception, below).

Eventually, after a long and arduous battle for popular acceptance, Impressionism succeeded, and then emphatically, because of the demand for “don’t worry, be happy” paintings.

By contrast, for example, the long lived English painter George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), whose work span covered the whole back half of the 19th C, including the birth and slow spread of Impressionism, was hugely popular then for his purposeful painting – visionary, moralising, exhortatory – but is now quite forgotten.



From 1862 Monet, Renoir and Sisley, then Bazille from 1863, painted together at Gleyre’s atelier in Paris. Monet had learned much from marine painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98) c1859 at his then seaside home town of Le Havre, then from summer 1862 from Dutchman JB Jongkind (1819-91), another seaside painter.

1863 is famous for the birth of Salon des Refusés, ordered by Louis-Napoleon after wide protest against the intolerant conservative Salon that year. Pissarro and Cezanne showed at Refusés but Manet’s (1832-1883) famous Déjeuner sur l’Herbe caused the real sensation, a candidate for the first important “modern” painting, for its subject depiction not its painting style.

After Gleyre’s studio closed 1864 the quartet painted a time in the Fontainebleau woods, outside Paris, near the Barbizon painters.

As we saw above 1869-70 found a number of the key painters working in the Bougival area west of Paris, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley.

In Paris during the 1860s the Café Guerbois on Rue des Batignolles (north of centre, west of Montmartre) became an important socialising venue for some of the group, fostering a semblance of commonality. It was dominated by the quarrelsome Manet, where Degas, Monet and Bazille contributed, also the critics Louis Edmond Duranty and Emile Zola, and Renoir and Sisley perhaps less so. Pissarro and Cezanne appeared only occasionally.

Two group portraits from 1870 celebrated the group’s presence: A studio in the Batignolles quarter by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) includes Manet, Renoir, Zola (an important supporting art critic, and writer), Bazille, and Monet; and, poignantly, Bazille’s Artists’s studio (Rue de la Condamine) which includes Bazille (“Manet painted me in“), Manet, Edmond Maître, and possibly Monet and Renoir. Bazille added a number of Impressionist paintings on the walls to stress the point.

Then the Franco-Prussian War intervened, claiming Bazille’s life, but persuading both Monet and Pissarro (with Danish citizenship) to decamp, independently, to London by late 1870.

London proved providential for Monet and Pissarro. Fellow refugee French painter, and friend, Charles-François Daubigny, introduced Monet January 1871 to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), also sitting out the war, and then setting up a gallery in New Bond St. Durand-Ruel revealed Pissarro’s presence in London to Monet, and he started to buy their paintings, becoming in due course a major supporter of Monet (who before the war was financially struggling) and many other Impressionists.

Pissarro was by then staying in suburban southeast London at Norwood where “I [Pissarro] .. studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime..”. He painted 12 oil paintings in London and, importantly, with Monet viewed the proto-Impressionist art of JMW Turner and John Constable in the museums.

Back in France 1871 Pissarro returned to Pontoise by August 1872 after finding Louveciennes (and many of his works left there) had been trashed in the war. Cezanne joined him a time at Pontoise, then stayed nearby at Auvers.

Monet next settled at Argenteuil (on NW outskirts of Paris, on the north bank of the Seine), till 1878, but he struggled some time for money.



Monet was the main man in the emergence, launch and progression of Impressionism? And arguably he stayed with the style the whole of his long career, through to the final vast colourful quasi-abstract floral visial meditations at Giverny, beyond WW1.

But oddly it was his close friend Frederic Bazille (1841-1870) who deserves recognition for apparently first thinking out loud about the Impressionists forming a formal group, the articulate, confident and generous young (25) painter who in 1867, after more rejections by the Salon, wrote his mother “So we have resolved to rent a large studio each year where we will exhibit as many of our works as we please. We’ll invite the painters we like to send their paintings….. With these people and Monet, who is stronger than all of them put together, we’re sure to succeed. You’ll see that people will talk about us.” Well known to others in the group, and emerging as a painter of clear distinction (if not by then a full Impressionist) he was – a week off age 29 – sadly killed (28 November 1870) in the futile Franco-Prussian War, triggered by France.

Conditions after the Franco-Prussian War seemed propitious for a time but then 1873 brought a tough financial downturn, which dragged on for 5 years or so, hurting painting sales. And the official Salon remained hostile. Neither Monet nor Pissarro showed at the 1872 and 1873 Salons, and Courbet was excluded from the 1872 official Salon. Then 1873 brought yet another hostile Salon, triggering another Salon des Refuses.

So now Monet revived Bazille’s 1867 thoughts for the loose like-minded group to mount their own exhibition (refer Phoebe Pool’s Impressionism, 1967, Thames and Hudson).

Critic Duret was hostile but Degas keenly supported the idea, despite some clear differences with others in the group. However Corot as an older „social realist“ also resisted, which discouraged the group approaching other „social realists“ like Courbet. Pissarro quickly joined the cause, as a quasi-ringmaster for the disparate group, mashalling the „nucleus of painters“.

Disillusioned with the Salon system the core group (Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir and Degas) began planning a formal launch, then on 27 December 1873 formed the Joint Stock Company of Artists etc (Societe Anonyme Cooperative a Capital Variable des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc.) using a charter Pissarro derived from that of the Pontoise bakers. Though Renoir then „successfully opposed this in favour of“ a simpler agreement.

The Society’s  inaugural show (165 works by 39 artists), known as the Realist Salon, opened 15 April 1874, about two weeks before the official Salon. The show’s title was the clumsy Societe Anonyme Cooperative a Capital Variable, not La Capucine (The Nasturtium) as Degas suggested. Pissarro hung 5 paintings and would show at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions, the only one to do so.

Beyond Pissarro the group included Monet, Renoir, the keen Degas, Sisley, Cezanne and the able congenial lady Berthe Morisot (1841-92).

But, notably, it did not include Manet, partly because, despite his travails, his heart still lay with the Salon, and perhaps too because of his distaste for Cezanne, his work and his rough rural dress and manner.

Pissarro, now actively encouraging Cezanne’s work, had to argue hard for Cezanne’s inclusion. Cezanne’s early oeuvre had a dark side, diverse and disquieting. Beyond landscapes, still lives and portraits he added some disturbing dark Expressionist works on religious and life subjects, like The abduction (1867) and The murder (1868), then (1873-74) a riotous sensual take (A Modern Olympia) on Manet’s Olympia: The New Olympia, which as one of 3 paintings he showed at the 1st Impressionist exhibition, surely one of the oddest „Impressionist“ paintings, in a similar vein to the later (1875) Afternoon in Naples. The two others shown 1874 were landscapes from Auvers, one The House of the Hanged Man.

The well connected Morisot more than held her own, studied with Corot from 1960 and by 1864 had two paintings accepted by the Salon. She knew Manet well (married his brother) who urged her not to join the group. She would show all 8 exhibitions except the 4th.

Seven other shows followed, 1876-1877, 1879-1882, and 1886, all in spring.

It was only at the third show (1877) that adopted the title Impressionist, lifted from critic Louis Leroy’s scornful review of the first show, suggesting wallpaper was „more finished“ than Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.


Impressionism – reception?

Critic Theodore Duret warned Pissarro (eg in a letter Dec.1873) not to run with Societe Anonyme, “not to think of Monet and Sisley”, advised staying with the Salon.

And so it was that critical reception was harsh, and Pissarro was cited by some critics as one of the “ringleaders”, along with Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley etc. “The scandal.. proved a catastrophic setback for sales.. Pissarro was now seen as part of a nihilist, hooligan fringe…” (op. cit AG NSW), which hurt him financially.

But history since has voted differently.

Back in Paris in 1871, after the war with Prussia, Durand-Ruel continued to support the wave of new art, despire battling criticism of the Impressionist style for years. But he persisted. He bought 23 paintings by Manet for 35,000F. Then 1885 his major breakthrough came in discovering what would become the enthusiastc and lucrative US market. Later, in 1895 back in London he mounted one of the largest ever Impressionist shows (c315 paintings).

As the National Gallery London (cf Inventing Impressionism, 2015 exhibition), “Despite rejection from the art establishment, the visionary Durand-Ruel was the single most powerful driving force making Impressionism the household name worldwide it is today and one of painting’s best-loved movements.” In the 89 year old dealer said in 1920, “At last the Impressionist masters triumphed … My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at sixty [1891], I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures…”


Pissarro the person

By comparison with other founding „French“ Impressionists Pissarro was somewhat of an outsider, Jewish, hailing from the Caribbean Danish Antilles, and then keeping his Danish citizenship despite (for the most part) residing in France.

Also while he served time in the cultural cauldron of Paris he was not a city person, preferred the countryside, and that’s where he lived most of his last 36 years. He was also a keen family man.

However the sociable Pissarro was well known for engaging with other artists, “Pere Pissarro”, working with them (like organising the Impressionist shows), and helping them. And they were a diverse group.

He was closer to the irascible Cezanne than most, met him early (1861) at art school, knew him in Paris in the 1860s, then painted with him, eg after the Franco-Prussian War, 1872-74, at Pontoise, then 1881 when Cezanne stays near Pontoise. Both were „outsiders“.

Monet he obviously knew well, painted with. Degas he met and worked with later too. American Mary Cassatt (ie another non-French citizen) (1844-1926) he was close to over a long period commencing 1870s. She was also close to Degas but later preferred the easier going Dane. Later he mentored Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and he worked with Seurat a time in mid 1880s.

Both Cezanne and Gauguin later recalled Pissarro with feeling. In a June 1902 catalogue Cezanne called himself „a student of Pissarro.”


The ‘political’ Pissarro?

A member of a diasporic Sephardic Jewish family“, Pissarro is billed as a lifelong, engaged „socialist“ /„anarchist“, keen on „the writings of the French proto-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and of the Russian émigré prince and anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin“, so his political views seemed important to him. “A committed supporter of anarchism, he was friendly with the leading representatives of the movement in France, such as Jean Grave and Élisée Reclus, and was well-versed in anarchist literature. His concern…  illustrated in…lithographs.. for Grave’s anarchist journal Les temps nouveaux, and, more privately, in Turpitudes sociales, a series of drawings he made for his nieces to educate them in the horrors of modern capitalist society.…” (Richard R. Brettell, 2011, catalogue, Pissarro’s People, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute).

But Turpitudes sociales is the rare exception. In broad terms these views do not reflect in his art, which seems overwhelmingly aesthetic in its purpose, not polemical or even realist? And again this is despite the clear early influence of the „social realist“ Barbizon painters.

Yes there are many rural figurative scenes, eg showing working ladies, but mostly conveying the “charm” of rural life not the harsher “reality”, the long hours labouring monotonously in all weathers.


Impressionist paintings sites




Pissarro was born 1830 on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies (Danish Antilles), of French and Portuguese Jewish extraction.

He was schooled near Paris 1842-47 (age 12-17), there encouraged in art by the headmaster.

Back home c1850, to work in his parents’ shop, he met a young Danish painter, Fritz Melbye (1826-1869), 4 years older, then travelled with him to Venezuela (Caracas and La Guaira) where they lived and worked two years, painted watercolours.



Pissarro’s father agreed he could return to Paris to train, which he did October 1855, fortuitously during the World Expo (Exposition Universelle). He took classes at École des Beaux-Arts 1856 then 1859 he was finally accepted by Charles Suisse (at Acadamie Suisse) where he met Monet and later Cezanne (1861) and Guillaumin (1862).

Meanwhile his parents arrived Paris 1860. He partnered with their servant, Julie Vellay, and was evicted from home. The couple later married in London, 1871, and would have 8 children, 1863-1884, Lucien being the first, born 1863.

1863 to April 1866, he lived with Julie Vellay and children mostly at La Varenne-St-Hilaire, southeast of Paris, where he painted, and nearby villages like Varenne-Saint-Maure and Chennevières-sur-Marne. He also painted at La Roche-Guyon, on the north bank of the Seine, NW of Paris.

He long struggled financially, not helped then by rearing a large family, but remained determined throughout.

Nov. 1862, after military service 1861-62, Monet returned to Paris, to join Gleyre’s atelier, there met Renoir and Sisley, and (March 1863) Frederic Bazille (“..my friend Monet.. is quite good at landscapes..”).

Pissarro (with friend Cezanne) first met Bazille and Renoir in 1863 when Bazille worked from a studio in Batignolles rented by Renoir.

After having a painting accepted at the 1859 and 1861 Salons Pissarro then showed in the famous inaugural 1863 Salon des Refusés (three landscapes, with Cezanne), then the Salons of 1864, 1865, 1866.

His 1863 work was well received by critics like JA Castagnary, Leroy and Desnoyers.

In the mid 1860s he met Zola, became part of the Café Guerbois set in Paris, when Zola was writing as critic for l’Evenement where in 1866 he praised Pissarro’s Banks of the Marne (1866) for its unfashionable “naturalism”.


Outside Paris

In April 1866 he settled at the Hermitage at Pontoise, north-west of Paris, north of the Seine, on the Oise flowing south into the Seine.

1869 he moves before May to Louveciennes, due west of Paris towards Versailles, now south of the Seine.

1870 with outbreak of Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-May 1871) he moved to London by start of December. He would return to London 1890, 1892 and 1897 after his son Lucien moved there in 1883.  They then corresponded frequently.

1871 he married Julie Vellay July in Croydon, London, returned to Louveciennes end of that month, but found many paintings left there had been damaged or destroyed during the war, so moved back to Pontoise in August 1872.

1872-74 he again worked closely with Cezanne, now based near Pontoise at Auvers-sur-Oise.

1874-77 he painted in Brittany.

He met Paul Gauguin (c20 years younger) in 1877, mentored him, painted with him at Pontoise 1879, invited him to hang at the 4th Impressionist show (1879).

Around 1880 he “collaborated” with Degas making prints.

1882 he moved to Osny, near Pontoise.

1883 Durand-Ruel organised a one-man show for Pissarro, also an Impressionist show in London.

1884 he moved to Eragny-sur-Epte, NE of Paris in Normandy, south of Pontoise, near Gisors, and near Monet’s Giverny and where he now stayed. Monet painted trees along the Epte.

In 1885 he met Seurat and Signac (and also Theo van Gogh) and became interested in the Neo-Impressionists’ Pointillist style and ideas, tried them, but reverted back by 1890.

1886 was the final Impressionist show, and he met Vincent van Gogh.

1887 he showed in Brussels with the Group of 20 (Cercle de XX), with Seurat, but Durand-Ruel caused trouble, rejected his Pointillist images.

Late 1889 he developed an eye infection which thereafter stopped him painting outdoors, but encouraged him to paint many urban scenes, from windows, particularly Paris, also Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe.

  1. 1890. he visited London again, c10 paintings there. And again in 1892 and 1897.

1892 Durand-Ruel gave him a 100 painting retrospective exhibition (and 1893 bought many paintings) which finally brought some financial relief, and critical acclaim, “[1892].. when the tide of critical opinion turned decisively in Pissarro’s favour..” (op. cit AG NSW).

Then 1894reprisals against Anarchists” forced him briefly back to Belgium. But 7 paintings entered the Musee du Luxembourg.

But 1896 “new financial problems”. Series of paintings in Rouen.

But 1898 another Durand-Ruel gallery show was again very well received, “critics and collectors were thrilled…” (op. cit AG NSW)

November 1900 he settled back in central Paris, in an apartment on the west end of Ile de la Cite, looking out on Pont Neuf, and continued painting, now from windows, including many from home.

He died in Paris 13 November 1903.

some works……….


1870, Châtaignier à Louveciennes, vers 1870, 41 x 54 cm, Musée d’Orsay. COMMENT. Here Pissarro is drawn by the structure of the skeletal bare trees in this one of his earliest Impressionist style paintings.

6c1884, La Ronde, thinned oil on paper mounted on canvas, private Collection

71888, Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte, 1888

81889 View of the Village of Bazincourt oil on panel, 15.4 x 23.8 cm, private Collection

91890, Old Chelsea Bridge, London, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Arts, 59.69 x 71.12 cm (old Battersea Bridge under construction at high tide).

101889–90.Suicide of an Abandoned Woman,” from Turpitudes sociales, Pen and brown ink over graphite drawings on paper pasted in an album, sheet: 31 x 24 cm, Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva

111898 Boulevard Montmartre, night oil on canvas 53.3 x 64.8 cm  The National Gallery, London

12901 The fair, Dieppe: sunny afternoon, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Arts, PA

 13 14

1873. Self portrait, oil on canvas, 56 x 47 cm. Musee d’Orsay.

c1898 Self-portrait, oil on canvas 53 x 30.5 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

15  16

1900, Self portrait. oil on canvas 35x32cm. Private Collection

1903, Self portrait, oil on canvas, 41×33,3 cm, Tate, London

Is “Western Civilisation” in peril? No.


Is “Western Civilisation” in peril?

Not obviously. The recent BBC story (1) is crying wolf.


FEATURED IMAGE…… Camille Pissarro (1837-1903). 1901 The fair, Dieppe, sunny afternoon, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

The menu?

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00490


Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01981

JMW Turner (1776-1852), 1812, Snow Storm, Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, Oil on canvas, 145 x 236,5 cm. Tate Gallery, London.                 c1835-40, Northam castle sunrise c. 1835-40; Oil on canvas, 78 x 122 cm, Tate Gallery, London


  • Talk of the threat of apocalyptic denouement, “Western” civilisation collapse, often recalling Rome, is basically misleading self-serving alarmism.
  • The outlook? Most likely generally boring, more of the same?
  • Comparisons with the fall of old Rome are spurious.
  • Two major radical sets of circumstances have transformed Man’s capacity to manage his future? Technology and the “Western” model.
  • There is a (very?) small chance of “catastrophic” disruption from unforeseen exogenous natural shocks (volcanoes, pandemics etc).
  • And a (very?) small chance of dramatic endogenous disruption (rogue nuclear explosions)

THE OUTLOOK? A prognosis: don’t worry, keep pedalling!

The most likely outlook, broadly speaking, locally and globally, is more of the same?

Yes there will always be economic and political “problems” because economic growth, change is inherently disruptive, driven by:

  • Ongoing technical change, in particular.
  • Companies / countries competing keenly for customers.
  • Some incompetent under-performing governments.
  • Corruption, actors in whatever entity or jurisdiction “stealing” money.
  • Imperfections in bringing miscreants to justice.

And there will be ongoing but manageable exogenous “natural disasters” to cope with.


The implications of “global warming” are unclear? Both the likely extent and the outcomes for any given extent? We know from history that the big climate problems have been sustained drought and global cooling.


But the two fundamental long term game-changers of the past century or so, of technological take-off, and the rational “Western” politico-economic model, give some broad cause for hope in Man collectively managing his affairs for the better.


HISTORIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: scrutinise views carefully  

A popular topic.

Thus the BBC has just run the story (How Western civilisation could collapse (1)).

It’s a popular topic, one that always gets attention, attracts comment, and commentators.


Popular case studies from history.

The collapse of ancient Rome is the perennial favourite from history, everyone’s go to for collapse story, because:

1/it was spectacular, thus Rome’s Empire was big, ringed the Mediterranean, covered all of Western Europe, then the population of Rome fell from over a million at its peak 2nd C AD to maybe 50,000 late 6th C?

2/ Rome was the “West” then, and more.

But there were other cases.

The end of the Bronze Age, c1200BC, is less well known but was momentous, encompassing and emphatic, as dramatic and important as Rome?

And we have cases in other continents, like 1/ end of Old Kingdom Egypt, c2200BC; 2/ end of the Mayans in central America, in 9th C AD; 3/ end of Angkor civilisation in SE Asia, early 15th C; 4/ end of the Harappan / Indus Valley civilisation, c1800BC.


But beware the sensationalists coming with agendas.

Because the topic is intrinsically popular it attracts people with personal agendas, vested interests, like academics, popular historians etc trying to build careers, sell books etc.

Many observers here play on vicarious or ghoulish curiosity for past “dark” periods, of societal breakdown, and hence fears that they might return, per Cormac McCarthy’s recent The Road.

Some bring religious agendas, ruminate on apocalypse scenarios laden with appeal for believers, comfortable in their mind that they will survive in another dimension.

A common feature of some relevant commentary is stressing the element of “mystery”, even if cool analysis suggests otherwise. But again “mystery” sells.


THE WORRY TODAY? According to the BBC.

A recent BBC article (1) rounds up a diverse bunch of worriers, thus:

1/ computer modellers, Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, and his colleagues, in a 2014 paper, for whom “two factors … matter: ecological strain (“depletion of natural resources”) and economic stratification. ..”

Thus: “elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour

2/ Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. Climate change is a bother for him, The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.” And inequity too.

3/ Thomas Homer-Dixon, “chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada”, author of “The Upside of Down”, worries about sudden “nonlinearities”, discontinuities. And empire over-reach? Like Rome getting greedy? And “complexity”? Thus he draws much on Tainter’s work, per below. Throw in waves of migrants, and, yes, inequality.

4/ Joseph Tainter (anthropologist), professor of environment and society at Utah State University, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988, which looked at “collapse” of Chaco, Maya and Western Rome)”, who is worried about.. complexity! And yes it’s back to good old Rome.

For him “investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse”.

What a clutter of woolly confusion.


THE PAST? Climate change the big culprit, and also warfare.

Looking at the past the TWO big factors that stand out in causing major collective disruption for large societies are 1/ climate change and 2/ warfare.

Climate change (CC) seems to have played a major role, seems to be by far the biggest culprit.

And by CC here we usually mean drought, sustained drought. The evidence for dramatic episodes of past CC has mushroomed in the past half century, particularly through data from like drill core, and tree rings.

It is almost certainly caused the end of the Bronze Age, c1200 BC, where a cluster of major “civilisations” round the Eastern Mediterranean (Mycenae, Hittites etc) expired more or less together, and emphatically.

It also seems very like to have closed Old Kingdom Egypt, the Mayans, Angkor Wat, and the Harappan / Indus Valley civilisation.

In North America the Great Drought across some decades around c1300 AD had a major impact on the Ancestral Pueblo people (including Chaco Canyon) and the Mississippian culture.

And going far back, to the ice ages and beyond, CC has been a massive factor in Man’s deep history. Only about 14,000 years ago, a blink in the c5m year history of hominid species, an ice sheet covered northern Europe, many 100s of metres deep over present London.


Warfare? This raises the fall of old Rome.

Despite some talking up “mystery” here, and while one can argue about the details, there is NO doubt that what felled old Rome – the pre-eminent factor -was “warfare”, and warfare associated with a flood of incomers, “refugees” from the east. Yes Rome had internal problems in coping with the inrush but the major factor was numbers of refugees, who ultimately would not, did not take no for an answer, so they fought.

Why the flood from the east? There was pull, attracted by the wealth of Rome, and it seems too there was meaningful “push” from climate change?

Rome is a unique case in the European context. We talk of “collapse” because it grew so big then fell so far.


However while warfare is obviously destructive – sometimes very destructive – it doesn’t always cause “collapse”.

Two mighty wars in Europe were the 30 Years War in the 17th C, which ravaged central Europe, and the World War of the 20th C, parts 1 and 2.

But neither war – while devastating for direct participants – caused civilisation “collapse”.


But there are some cases from history elsewhere, especially China, where “warfare”, allied with endogenous weaknesses, brought something close to collapse, like the Mongol invasion c 1250, then the Manchus c 1650. Though both times they recovered, and obviously are still with us.


THE PAST? Endogenous factors: “complexity”, “inequality”? Vague and unhelpful?

“Complexity” and “inequality” are endogenous factors, internal symptoms that emerge as “civilisations” develop, grow.

But the problem with advancing them as causes of “collapse” is simply, how? Why? What’s the mechanism for causing “collapse”?

All “civilisations” are “complex” by definition, and all emerge with varying degrees of inequality, often or usually marked.

But so what.

We need a precise mechanism for why they might cause “collapse”, otherwise it becomes a circular or tautological argument.


However two important endogenous factors which have had a big impact on the course of history, across millennia, are leadership and, more vaguely, internal ossification.

Thus yes they likely contributed to the fall off Rome, hastened its demise, even if were not the main factor.

Alexander the Great is a prime example of leadership causing “disruption”, certainly for the Persians, though what lasting impact his depredations had is debatable.


THE OUTLOOK? Two major new radical changes now condition history’s “lessons”?  

Most commentators on the “collapse” tack keenly to the “lessons” of history, rake over past “collapses” for helpful clues to our future.

But arguably two momentous sets of change have emerged in recent centuries in “Western civilisation” which now impact on, condition how we might learn from “lessons” of history, and also how we deal with the future.


The first is Man’s technological take-off which, notwithstanding earlier green shoots, really started more or less in the 17th C, gathered steam (!) in the 18th, took off in the 19th, and erupted in the 20th.

The implications of this take-off – and the resulting ever mounting corpus of technical knowledge – are hotly debated but what’s not in doubt is their impact on Man’s collective circumstances.

Applying technology has allowed historically unparalleled growth in material prosperity, globally, notwithstanding work still to do.

Arguably this factor is without doubt the single biggest change in circumstances for the human species in recorded history, if not since the end of the last ice age, if not the last 4 million years!


The second factor – less precise but perhaps as important in its own way – concerns collective human organisation (political, social and economic), namely the emergence of the rational “Western”, enfranchised, rule-of-law based, “neo-liberal”, liberal/social democratic model.

This model emerged in Europe, and has consolidated especially through the size and success of its offshoot in the USA.

Married to the technical take-off it has had a phenomenal impact on Man’s material economic affairs, whatever the imperfections in the outcome.

While it is called “Western”, because of its origins, the model has now taken root to a greater or lesser extent across the world, despite obvious scope for argument on the “greater or lesser”.

So it is now effectively a global model.

Thus it applies meaningfully to India, and some other countries in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. And it applies in parts of South America, and Africa.

It now clearly even applies to some significant extent to China. Yes China is in no way a liberal democracy but its economy now has a substantial private sector, and is now closely engaged with the global “Western” economy, through trade and investment.


This emergence of this model has major implications for 1/ how Man exploits, applies the pivotal technological take-off and, probably, 2/ resort to warfare.


Looking back at history’s “lessons”, at the problem of climate change, there is no doubt Man’s capacity to cope with climate change is vastly enhanced by these two new realities.

And maybe his past predilection for warfare will be undermined by the second factor.


THE OUTLOOK? “Collapse” seems highly unlikely, barring unforeseen exogenous shocks.

First let’s hit “complexity” and “inequality” to leg!

These factors seem quite spurious, seem in no way pose existential threats to ”Western civilisation”?

They might have implications for detailed economic and political outcomes, might cause problems to be managed, but, based on current analysis, there is remotely no way they can threaten system “collapse”.

The same applies to ”energy”, cited by some as potential major disruption. There seems little doubt that ongoing technical change, accessing renewable energy, will eventually lead to cheap, limitless available energy.


Second, climate change (CC). This is now a crowd favourite by any reckoning.

As we have seen CC has been a mighty factor in affecting Man’s past.

And now global warming (GW) worries many, as a major threat to the globe.

It’s a very complex issue, especially disentangling underlying “natural” change (which, as we’ve seen, in the past has been important) and Man’s impact, ie anthropomorphic change.

Who knows how warm it will get but two points are clear.

First, GW is a far easier challenge than global cooling, which has been the big issue for Man before.

Second, how Man copes with, adapts to GW, compared to CC crises long ago, will, first, be hugely advantaged by, mollified by his access to technology, and will, second be greatly helped by the emergence globally of the “Western” politico-economic model, notwithstanding difficulties to date in reaching action agreement.

So the difference with how Man faced deleterious climate in the past is stark.


Third, warfare? Well the big question here obviously is China. And yes there is a school of thought (especially in the US?) which highlights this danger, risk.

Yes there’s a chance but realistically is seems very low, simply because the economic consequences for both sides would likely be catastrophic. China, after huge economic achievement since it “saw the light” c1980, remains strongly focussed on ongoing economic advancement.

War would be utterly unproductive.


Fourth, asymmetric “warfare”? There is a (small) chance of mass casualties from a terrorist attack using WMD, nuclear weapons etc. We include North Korea. But this in no way threatens “civilisations”.


Do other factors pose existential threats?

Yes the big ones are exogenous, left-field, natural disasters, like the asteroid at the end of the Cretaceous, c62my ago.

The chances are small but given the stakes the matter needs constant attention,