Framing no ferment

The Market Rallies, 2017, by Jenna Packer. Photos: Gregor Richardson/Getty Images/Milford...
The Market Rallies, 2017, by Jenna Packer. Photos: Gregor Richardson/Getty Images/Milford Galleries Dunedin
Want Mart, by Barry Thomas.
Want Mart, by Barry Thomas.
A Russian Socialist Realism painting featuring early 19th-century Russian revolutionary leader...
A Russian Socialist Realism painting featuring early 19th-century Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, very likely commissioned by authorities in Soviet Russia.
Think Revolution, 2017, by Nigel Brown.
Think Revolution, 2017, by Nigel Brown.

Peter Stupples has come to a controversial conclusion about art’s role in revolution. It is a conviction with origins in his eavesdropping for British military intelligence in the 1950s, writes Bruce Munro.

Peter Stupples, who is retiring as senior lecturer in art history and theory at the Dunedin...
Peter Stupples, who is retiring as senior lecturer in art history and theory at the Dunedin School of Art, says his research into art’s role in revolution does not paint a pretty picture.
This week's Art & Revolution symposium at the Dunedin School of Art is Peter Stupples’ swansong  after a long, fascinating and productive career.

It is hard to imagine this mild, white-haired academic was once a spy.

Not a spy, Stupples says. Just someone employed by his government to secretly obtain information on an enemy. A spy.

And it is equally intriguing to discover the link between this once-secret past and his controversial, dismaying thesis that art plays no lasting part in revolution.

Stupples moved to New Zealand from the United Kingdom  in 1973 to run the Russian Department at the University of Otago. Within the department, he taught Russian art history. In 1990, he left Russian studies to set up the university’s art history department.

He retired, as an associate professor, in 2003. But the retirement was as shortlived as it was boring. Eighteen months later, at the invitation of former university staff and students, he happily took up a position as senior lecturer in art history and theory at the Otago Polytechnic Dunedin School of Art.

A dozen years later, and now 81 years old, he is about to retire again, this time for good, he says.

But first, he has one last event to oversee and participate in, the ninth annual Dunedin School of Art symposium and exhibition.

This one is titled Art & Revolution. It is a topic of keen and abiding interest to Mr Stupples who is giving the opening address at Friday’s one-day event.

"I’m talking about art and the Russian Revolution of 1917," he says.

"It’s 100 years since then, but you wouldn’t notice it. The amount of media space given to it is absolutely minimal. We’re coming up to the centenary of Lenin’s October Revolution and you would think it never happened."

Academics from the school of art, the university and from out of town will be speaking and leading discussions throughout the day. Speakers include Lara Nicolls, Xavier de la Cueva Meade, Raymond Spiteri, David Cook and Catherine Bagnall.

An associated exhibition opens at the school of art tomorrow.

One of the central questions of the symposium is "Can art make a difference?"

Stupples’ response is startling.

"I’m talking about art during that 1917 to 1918 revolutionary period, and I’m coming to the conclusion that it didn’t really make any difference at all," he says.

A lot is made of revolutionary art. But nearly all of it is propaganda art that is made after the event, he says.

Artists did play a part in the Russian Revolution, albeit a minor role. And their vision for society was soon drowned out, Mr Stupples says.

"They certainly took part freely. But after 1918, the constraints on artists were such that they were told how to do it. So, the freedom which they had aspired to in revolution was short lived.

"In the scheme of things, art is nothing. I think political action strode straight over any art interventions. It is too violent, sudden and all embracing."

He gives the example of Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, who Stupples says "was and remains of perpetual interest".

Malevich was a pioneer of geometric abstract art. He was also the originator of the avant-garde Suprematist movement which was making waves in the international art world when the October Revolution occurred.‘‘Malevich was a man who never stood still in his thinking," Stupples says.

"Where he got to in his thinking yesterday, he was already criticising himself and finding a new position today."

He wanted to make art that expressed each new thought and to teach that thinking to students; teaching students how to think.

"He wasn’t necessarily easy to get on with  — he was too lively for some — but others found in him inspiration for their life."

Malevich took part in the revolution but it was not his vision that won the day.

"He was to the left of the left. He was more an anarchist ... He wanted freedom to think — outside the square."

His art did not influence the revolution, because it became the Leninist revolution, Stupples says.

Malevich did not want anything to do with the past, but the new Soviet leaders brought back the old styles of art — what became known as Russian Socialist Realism — and required artists to conform to it.

Malevich fell out of favour and was interrogated several times. He died of cancer, in 1935.

"If he hadn’t, he probably would have been shot in 1936 by Stalin."

Stupples does not confine his assessment of art’s paltry impact to the Russian Revolution.

The symposium exhibition will include some interesting prints from Mexico, which celebrate the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, he says.

"They are beautiful posters. But the area where they are made in Mexico is still a place of poverty, unrest and drug cartels."

Or think of the Syrian War.

"Any art that is made is pleading for people to try to understand or give help. But it doesn’t have any effect on the Syrian regime or on Putin or Trump or anyone else. They don’t even give it five minutes credence."

Or climate change.

"There is so much art about the devastation of the planet ... There is tonnes of it. But we still go on devastating the planet."

His last example is Picasso’s Guernica; a powerful, painted reaction to the Nazi’s bombing of the Basque town, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War.

"Guernica was made after the event. It’s like putting a wreath of flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The flowers are there but the warrior is dead.

"Guernica celebrates the tragedy, but the tragedy still happened. Visual culture doesn’t really change people’s behaviour. It usually follows, or it supports or emphasises.

"This is what I am trying to get at; raising people’s awareness doesn’t actually lead to action. The action comes from another part of the field."

Stupples agrees artists interested in politics will find that a somewhat disheartening conclusion.

Not that there are many New Zealand artists who are actively engaged in what would be called political protest, he says.

A number of those who are will be featured in the symposium exhibition. Artists such as Barry Thomas, of Wellington, and Jenna Packer, of Dunedin.

Thomas has a history of protest works that usually take the form of an intervention or an installation. In 1978, he sparked what was known as the Cabbage Patch Incident. He dug up vacant land in inner-city Wellington and planted a vegetable crop. The installation was later described by social commentator Chris Trotter as "a conceptual artistic statement against the life-negating conservatism of the Muldoon years".

Packer’s art works often feature a bull that represents capitalism, Stupples says.

"Her general theme is this bull of the economic system that we live under. And we are all minor slaves in one way or another, but we can also attack it or enter it and change it. She is an interesting artist."

He concedes many people would consider his view of art’s minimal power not just disheartening but controversial. But he adds, "This is just my feeling after studying and working on this theme for a long time".

That work grew out of a fascination with Russia that was triggered "by sheer accident". Without this chance happening it is likely he would now be a long-retired insurance underwriter living somewhere in the UK without the slightest interest in whether art can shape revolution.

It was the 1950s. Stupples was a young man just beginning two years’ compulsory National Service.

"I was selected to go on a Russian language course," he recalls.

"I learnt Russian from 9am to 5pm, five and a half days a week, for nine months. And then went to Berlin as an information gatherer."

"Spy" is "too romantic" a descriptor, he says. His job was to listen in on Russian military radio communications; particularly any chatter about new surface-to-air missile technology.

"I can talk to you about it now. But at the time I had to sign a 40-year non-disclosure statement.’’Stupples was taught Russian by an eclectic and eccentric group of mostly former refugees.

"I found them fascinating and ... the language was completely absorbing."

It was to have an enduring impact. After completing National Service, he tried to return to normal life as a Lloyd’s underwriter in London. But soon decided it would be much more interesting to follow his new interest.

"I was earning OK, but I gave it all up and went to university and studied Russian."

That led, in the 1960s and early 1970s, to a series of long visits to Russia; and a growing fascination with Russian art.

In many ways, those early 1970s were a personal high point, he says.

He was working at the University of York, participating in a project funded jointly by the ministries of education in the UK and Russia. He was heading up a team of writers, using a computer that filled a large room to assess and develop new materials for teaching British children to learn to read Russian.

It was the first time a computer had been used in language learning.

"What we were doing then on that computer could now be done on a laptop."

The low point, Stupples says, came in 1997 when the Russian department was "swept aside" during University of Otago restructuring.

He laments the decline of the humanities in tertiary education.

"Everyone wants to do economics and business studies or science."

Young people, and consequently society, is missing out "because the humanities teach you to think", he says.

That is a value Stupples and Malevich share in common.

"It is thinking that I have been trying to teach to my students," Stupples says.

Now, however, it is time to lay down that role. He and his wife are moving to Wellington to be closer to family. Putting into the public arena his controversial conviction about the negligible impact of art is one final offering to the ever-evolving discourse on art. The long-term impact will be for history to judge.

Soviet authorities tried to suppress Malevich’s art and his views. After he died, the memorial plaque marking where he was buried disappeared. It was not until four years ago that the spot was formally re-identified on the outskirts of Moscow.

One hundred years after the revolution that Malevich had little impact on, his burial site is now a place of pilgrimage for art lovers.


The exhibition

• The "Art & Revolution" symposium and exhibition are free, open to the public and being held at the Dunedin School of Art, Riego St.

• The symposium is on Friday, October 13, and the exhibition runs from October 9 to 21.

• For more information, visit online at


The Golden Calf, or false idol. That Jenna's a bit OT. It is powerful work.

I consider Art to be all manner of expressed creativity that makes a connection. The fascists were big on Art in Italy. David Low was an artist. There is poetry, prose, Dada ('a urinal', by Duschamp), and music. All have made a difference.

{Oy, did you tap our phones, Prof?}.