Wartime Dispatches

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Bell Telephone and Western Electric, “Sigsaly” digital speech encryption system, 1943 (Photo: NSA).

March 24 – The war at home

From Micanopy, Florida to Kyiv, Ukraine is 5,559 miles, almost a quarter way around the world, but the war feels dangerously close. Putin, however, is criminal not crazy and the Russian policy on first use is little different from ours, so the likelihood of a nuclear attack is small. But for anybody who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the shadow cast by the mushroom cloud is hard to evade.

I was only a child, on October 22, 1962, but I can remember the dread silence in our Forest Hills apartment the evening we watched the president announce his plan to stop, by force, if necessary, the installation of missile launchers in Cuba. A little more than a year later, we gathered again – two parents, three children and three grandparents — to watch Kennedy’s funeral on the same black and white TV. This time, the silence was broken by sobs. For the children, it was just as before: something big and distant threatened to destroy what was intimate and close. The Russian war against Ukraine, far away though it is, resurrects that traumatic memory, albeit dimly.

Distant danger encourages sheltering in place. That’s why our travel to England today felt so disembodied. But we bought our tickets months ago, and we were anxious to spend time with Harriet’s parents. They live in a two-story, brick and flint fisherman’s cottage in the village of Burnham-Overy-Staithe on the Norfolk Coast, about a three-hour drive from Heathrow. Harriet’s mother, Sally, is a writer and poet, and her father, Michael, a retired research scientist. They have remained active and engaged into their 80s, though Michael has failing vison and wobbly knees. They greeted us at the door with long hugs and kindly gazes. We quickly sat down to a dinner of broccoli soup and homemade bread. After dinner, I reflected that among family, going away felt like coming home, and I went up to bed relatively undisturbed by war thoughts.

March 25 – A brush with Covid

Apart from the death of the war criminal, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the NYTimes carried no good news this morning. The war against Ukraine continues to rage, and Biden met in Brussels with NATO leaders to coordinate responses to supposed “chemical, biological, and nuclear threats posed by Russia.” The Times has abandoned all pretense to objectivity in its war reporting, and now posts the most lurid stories with minimum documentation and maximum self-righteousness. It isn’t that I doubt the Russian army is capable of atrocities; it’s the implicit claim of American exceptionalism that disturbs me.

There is also a largely unmentioned complicating factor: When the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs, in the first days following the invasion, issued a manual about how to produce and deploy Molotov cocktails, it began the process of erasing the distinction between soldiers and civilians. When women and children toss incendiaries, they become targets. That doesn’t mean killing random civilians is ever a legitimate military action, only that Russian soldiers are not likely to be scrupulous about where they aim their fire when anybody might be a threat. The same blurring of military and civilian boundaries occurred with the Russian invasion of the Crimea in 2014 and the U.S. war against Iraq, and with equally horrific results.

After breakfast, we went up to Sally’s room to talk about our plans to travel with her to London to see the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Royal Academy. She came to the door wearing a mask – a bad sign. She said she woke up “feeling coldy” and so took a home Covid text. Positive! I suspected as much the night before but didn’t say anything. Sally explained her stuffy nose by saying it was the result of her allergy to Euphorbia (a type of milkweed). She didn’t want to believe she had Covid and now she was embarrassed as well as sick, which made me concerned for her feelings as well as her health. And I was struck by the irony of the situation: Harriet and I were worried that despite our vaccinations, masks, and other precautions, we would bring the disease to her elderly parents, not that they might catch it themselves and potentially give it to us!

Sally said she felt fine, and that Michael tested negative. We were relieved, but agreed to keep a bit of distance, wear masks in the house, and hope that she’d test negative the next day so we could go ahead with our London plans. That night, however, Michael started coughing and it was clear he was infected too. By the morning, they were both unwell, though fortunately not dangerously. (They’d been vaccinated and boosted.) But travel with Sally was off, and she encouraged us to leave at once to increase the likelihood of our remaining healthy. We made them promise to call an ambulance at the first sign of breathing difficulty. Then we headed down to London, unsure if we were infected and if we’d fail the Covid test required to fly back to Florida five days later. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Bloomsbury on the evening of the 26th, I had barely thought of Ukraine or nuclear annihilation in the previous 24 hours.

March 27 – Bertram Eisenman, the V2 rocket, and Sigsaly encryption

After looking at the Times and Guardian this morning, my war anxiety returned full force. Yesterday, while I was blissfully preoccupied with the global Covid pandemic and oblivious to the risk of global, thermonuclear annihilation, Biden said about Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The remark, apparently off the cuff, is all the more threatening for being unscripted. The general rule is that whatever is written for a president to say is a lie, and whatever is improvised has at least a chance of being the truth. Assuming Russians share the same insight, they now know that the U.S. is not just aiming to preserve Ukrainian independence; it’s also planning for regime change in Russia, confirming what Putin thought all along. The Atomic Scientists need to climb up on their ladder and move the Doomsday Clock hands another few seconds toward Armageddon.

We planned today to see two exhibitions at the British Museum, one dedicated to Raphael drawings, and another to printmaking at the court of Rudolf II. But the drumbeat of news about bombs striking Kyiv, prompted us to spend some time chasing ghosts, namely that of my father, Bert Eisenman, who was stationed in London when it was hit by V2 rockets toward the end of World War II.

When dad died in 1986, aged 73, he’d been retired just three years, after a lifetime of work he hated, for men he despised. Bert was a factory foreman, taxi driver, vending machine entrepreneur (foiled by the Mafia – another story), and finally a purchasing agent, always acceding to the demands of others, and never acting for himself. As a young man in New York City, he liked to write, and joked that when he retired, he’d produce “the great American novel.” But by the time he stopped working, he was too tired – and then too sick — to do anything but rest. The only exception to my father’s life of alienated labor, was his period of service in the army during World War II. Then, his boss was Uncle Sam and a few lieutenants who mostly left him alone. The pay was bad, but he got to see the world and fight Nazis.

Dad was injured during a V2 rocket attack on Selfridges on the night of Dec. 6, 1944. The rocket destroyed the Red Lion Pub on Duke Street, and badly damaged part of the famous department store across the road on Oxford Street. The bomb also demolished a US army canteen adjacent to the store, killing ten American soldiers and wounding 32, included my father. His injury was minor – a cut to his left index finger – but he got to march in a parade, receive a Purple Heart, and gain a punchline: After telling acquaintances he’d been wounded in the war and winning their sympathy and praise, he stuck out his finger to show off an almost indiscernible scar.

Bert’s rank was Technical Sergeant, Grade 2, U.S. Army, a rank that no longer exists. He had postings in Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Reims. When he first told me this, I imagined him, Zelig-like, poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, in London during the Blitz, in Paris when it was liberated, and in Reims the day Germany formally surrendered. The truth was obviously more prosaic, but I never did get a precise account of his whereabouts during his four years of service. Nor did he say exactly what work he was doing in Selfridges except that he was operating some kind of primitive computer that used punch cards. I’ve recently concluded that he was probably involved with the top secret, encrypted telephone network, codenamed “Sigsaly” or “Project X”, developed by Alan Turing and others. The system, located deep underground at Selfridges, allowed Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to maintain a constant, secure phone line. Apparently, Churchill insisted upon 24/7 direct access to Roosevelt. There must have been a lot of boozy calls from Britain.

From what I can tell, no other U.S. military work except Sigsaly was performed at Selfridges. But dad was a college drop-out and had no skills in math or linguistics, much less cryptography. (It was my mother Grace, not her husband Bert who was master of the NYTimes crosswords.) So, it’s hard to figure out what was his contribution to Sigsaly could have been. Perhaps his computer work and punch cards was some sort of decoy to prevent detection of the top-secret program? Maybe he himself didn’t know the function of the machines he was using? A more attractive alternative is that he knew what he was doing, did his job well, and kept it secret, even to the grave. He was good at secrets. I never knew until almost the end of his life that he’d been married before meeting my mother. And he kept secret from me for decades that fact that he moonlighted on Sundays as a taxi driver. He was ashamed of it and so refused to say where he went when he left the house at 6 a.m. on Sundays and returned around 6 p.m. The funny thing is, I used to imagine that he was working as a spy. Maybe, a generation before, he was?

March 28 – Russian Oligarchs and Tate Modern

Never a frivolous city, London seemed dour this morning, despite the fine weather. It might have been my Covid alarm and war anxieties, but I reflected that Londoners, and the British more generally, have little to celebrate these days: a Brexit deal that depressed trade and threatens U.K. unity; rising prices and consumer scarcities, including eggs, meat and even that staple of the English diet, “crisps”, aka potato chips. In addition, wages are depressed, infrastructure is failing, and healthcare is underfunded. The political classes are a disaster: Corruption is rife in Tory-run Downing Street, Whitehall and Parliament, and the putative opposition, the Labor Party, is shedding its young, energetic cadres in favor of New Labor stalwarts who succeeded only in casting the party into the wilderness a dozen years ago. The war against Ukraine also exposed a profound, national shame: The selling of citizenship, aristocratic titles, sports teams, mansions, yachts, and fine art to Russian oligarchs, partners in Putin’s kleptocracy. The U.K. sanctions announced so far hardly touch the wealth of this federation of thieves, money launderers and parvenus.

Walking across the Millennium Bridge that morning, we discussed our lack of Covid symptoms and the exhibitions on view at Tate Modern, which included one on global Surrealism. And I recounted to Harriet, what I’d read a few days before: that the Tate had severed relations with two significant donors, Viktor Vekselberg and Petr Aven. The former is a close associate of Putin who made his $9 billion fortune by buying a state-owned aluminum company for an artificially low price and selling it back to the Russian government for an artificially high price. Nice work if you can get it. Aven, worth a mere $5.5 billion, made his money in 2012 when he and a group of other oligarchs sold their shares in the Russian oil company TNK-BP to state owned Rosneft for $28 billion. Also in on that deal was Leonid Blavatnik — a close associate of Vekselberg — whose name adorns the new wing of Tate Modern. Born in Ukraine, he has so far evaded sanctions.

Petr Aven is at least as socially and philanthropically ambitious as Blavatnik. He’s an art collector and Trustee of the Royal Academy – make that, former trustee. He donated money to the RA to pay for its current show, Francis Bacon: Man and Beast. I wrote an essay for the catalogue of the exhibition for which I was paid about $2000. That means I was indirectly compensated by a Russian oligarch! The RA returned Aven’s donation. So far, nobody has asked me to give back my honorarium.

March 29 – American oligarchs and the Courtauld Gallery

As far as I can tell, no Russian oligarchs paid for the great exhibition of Van Gogh’s self-portraits at the Courtauld Gallery, which we went to see today. Two American oligarchs did, Yan Ho and Kenneth Griffin. Their support isn’t surprising, given the celebrity of the artist and the vanity of the patrons. But what’s remarkable, is how totally opposed was Van Gogh’s moral system to that of the pair of hedge fund tycoons.

At the dawn of his career in 1882, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo concerning his desire to form a community of politically like-minded artists, and his simultaneous realization that the forces of reaction may be too strong to overcome:

“One would like to speak with the authority of the people of ’93 [the year of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror]: this and that must be done, first these have to die, then those, then the last ones, it is duty, so it is unarguable, and nothing more need be said.

But is this the best time to combine and speak out?”

Two years later, Van Gogh confirmed his determination to be an artist who represented class struggle. He wrote again to his brother:

“I wish you could just imagine that you and I had lived in the [revolutionary] year of 1848. We might have confronted each other as direct enemies, you before the barricades as a soldier of the government, I behind it as a revolutionary or rebel…. Neither you nor I meddle with politics, but we live in the world, in society, and involuntarily, ranks of people group themselves…. As an individual one is part of all humanity. That humanity is divided into parties…. Well, then it was ’48, now it is ’84, “le moulin n’y est plus, mais le vent y est encore.” [The mill is no longer there, but the wind still blows.]

To explore social “ranks” or classes, to depict the life and culture of peasants and proletarians, to construct an art that is at once an expression of individuals and their community, and to represent a dream of utopia—these are among the subjects of Van Gogh’s mature art.

Van Gogh thought of himself as a portrait painter most of all. Portraits, he wrote to the artist Emile Bernard, “are the thing of the future,” a way to record for posterity the physiognomy of a person, a class, a culture, and an epoch. His portraits of the former Communard Joseph Roulin (1888) and Eugène Boch (1888) are nearly ethnographic in their attentiveness to signs of class and occupation. The postman is posed proud and stiff in his uniform, and the artist Boch is shown as a man who “dreams great dreams….[therefore] behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination of the bright head against the rich blue background, I get a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky” (Letter 520).

Van Gogh, Portrait of Boch, Orsay Museum, Paris, 1888.

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Self-Portrait with Damaged Ear, Coutauld Galley, 1889.

Compared to his Boch portrait, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are less expressive. They were mostly painted as studies in the absence of available sitters, and thus display all the most formally advanced techniques of divided color and expressive brushstroke found in subsequent portraits, landscapes, and urban subjects. But a few are immensely poignant, such as the Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, painted about a month after the terrible row with Gauguin that led to the famous self-mutilation.

The picture shows the artist turned in ¾ view to his left, exhibiting the bandages covering the damaged or absent left ear. (In the picture, it’s the right ear because it was painted with a mirror. The fact that he still wears such an extensive bandage suggests it may have been the whole ear that was cut off, not just a lobe.) Behind the artist to the left is a canvas on an easel showing the outlines of a flower, and on the right, an unattributed Japanese print titled Geishas in a Landscape (c. 1870-80). Both elements articulate what he wrote in a contemporaneous letter to Theo, “I retain all good hope…as I regain my strength.” Van Gogh owned hundreds of Japanese prints and admired them both for their intrinsic beauty – precision of line combined with vividness of color – and for what he understood to be the brotherhood and collaboration of the Japanese craftsmen who made them. The unfinished flower may be an iris, a flower Van Gogh painted often and which, in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, represents wisdom, faith, and hope. That hope was for the artist fleeting as his illness took an increasing toll. (He probably suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy combined with depression and alcoholism.) Van Gogh shot himself on July 27, 1890, outside the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. He died in his bed two days later, at age 38.

Yan Ho, one of the sponsors of the Van Gogh self-portraits exhibition, is co-founder of Capula Investment Management, the 4th largest hedge fund in Europe with a portfolio of about $25 billion. In 2020, he donated more than $250,000 to the British Tory Party, which distinguished itself, the year before, by slashing health and social care benefits leading to an estimated 57,000 excess deaths among the most vulnerable — that’s after a previous regime of austerity that killed an estimated 120,000. To Yan’s credit, the Yan Ho Family Foundation has made multiple donations to Covid research, compensating for the tens if not hundreds of thousands of surplus deaths caused by Boris Johnson and his Tory colleagues due to mismanagement of the pandemic.

Ken Griffin is the founder of Citadel Investment Group, a hedge fund with almost $40 billion in managed assets. Unlike Van Gogh, who never owned a house and rented three small rooms in the Yellow House in Arles, Griffin owns residences around the world with a combined value in excess of a billion dollars. He also owns many works of art including Paul Cezanne’s Curtain, Jug and Fruit Bowl (1894), for which he paid $60 million. Van Gogh sold The Red Vineyard (1888) to Anna Boch, the artist and sister of Eugene Boch, for 400 francs in 1890. That’s the equivalent of about a thousand dollars today. He sold only one other work in his lifetime, a self-portrait.

Griffin opposes raises to the minimum wage and any increase of taxes on the rich. In 2020, he contributed almost $54 million to stop the Illinois Fair Tax ballot initiative that would have changed the state income tax from flat to graduated. He was successful in his effort. Had it passed, 97% of people in Illinois would have seen their taxes fall or remain the same. Only individuals with an annual income more than $250 thousand would have paid more.

In 2021, Griffin gave $5 million to Florida governor Ron DeSantis who recently promoted and passed laws: creating his own private military to police voting; criminalizing most public protests (blocked by a federal judge); and banning or limiting classroom discussion of gay or LGBTQ identity or history. What would Van Gogh — who worked as a minister to the poor in the Borinage region of Belgium, painted impoverished mill workers, invited a destitute prostitute into his home, and painted portraits of French Communards — have said about Griffin’s patronage? What side of the barricade would Griffin and Yan Ho have been on?


Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu