It would be churlish for Britain to turn down Churchill’s paintings
Source:The Guardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2014-10-09 Size:
The precious relics of the wartime leader’s hobby embody the way of life that he defended so tenaciously against fascism...

Winston Churchill at his easel in February 1946, Miami Beach, Florida.

It has all the makings of a radical rant. Thirty-eight paintings by Winston Churchill have been offered to the nation in lieu of death duties, after the death of his daughter, Lady Mary Soames, in May. So once again the rich find a loophole in the system. Churchill’s descendents get to palm off his chocolate box daubs, pretty-pretty pieces of amateur impressionism with no place whatsoever in the history of modern art, on a credulous country and walk away cash in pocket while ordinary people struggle to make ends meet.

But before firing off that blast against Churchill-worship and the easy breaks that seem to fall so readily to the upper crust, hold on a minute. This looks like a reasonable offer to me. It is not exactly the Picasso donation. Then again, without Churchill the painter of Guernica might have spent decades – rather than three years – of his life passively resisting a Nazi empire.

OK – hero worship. What is Churchill’s true place in history? Was he the war hero we were taught to revere? Historians are sceptical about many of his policies and strategies during the second world war. He was impulsive and romantic. Again and again he got it wrong – from his vision of attacking Nazi Europe via Scandinavia to his obsession with the Mediterranean as Hitler’s “soft underbelly”. On the home front, his total failure to read the progressive mood of wartime Britain led to Labour’s famous victory in 1945. Is it time for the cigar smoke of patriotic myth to be blown away?

No. Churchill’s paintings may not stand among the great artworks of the 20th century but they tell us a lot about why he was such a unique and memorable leader. His political genius lay in the very creativity that the paintings quietly embody. His love of painting was just one outlet for a genuine artistic side that was quite at odds with conventional politics (it would be even less likely today).

Churchill did not take up painting as a stunt – it was his hobby for a long time and he worked sincerely at it. He started when he was 40, painting regularly from the 1920s onwards. He is a model to amateur painters because he took his hobby seriously without ever claiming it was more than what it was. Like champions of “Sunday painting” and drawing todaysuch as the broadcaster Andrew Marr, he defended his enthusiasm as a form of relaxation and a way of being happy.

Yet in Churchill’s case the bright jollity of his landscapes was just one release for a deeper creative fire. He really was an artist in his own way. Churchill’s imagination was unleashed by the battle of Britain into flights of oratory that rank with the greatest poems and plays in the English language.

Art is strangely central to Europe’s age of extremes that entered its bloodiest phase in 1939.

Hitler too was an artist – or thought he was. Hitler’s failure to become a painter in pre-1914 Vienna was put behind him as he shaped German art after 1933, ostracising modernists as “degenerates” and promoting grandiose architecture and art. Leni Riefenstahl’s films endure nightmarishly as Hitler’s aesthetic legacy.

Churchill’s genius was to fight such fascist fantasies with a democratic art of leadership. At his birthplace, Blenheim palace, I recently gawped at the maroon velvet romper suit he slept in during the war, so he was ready to get up, already dressed, in any emergency. This kind of aestheticism reveals the colourful soul hidden within his gentle paintings – a deeply, even eccentrically imaginative character.

At Blenheim, you can see why young Winston grew up to be a war leader. The house and its grounds constitute a vast shrine to the first Duke of Marlborough who put Britain on the road to power by defeating France at the battle of Blenheim. A column to Marlborough rises from the soft English fields. It is sublime – and yet in his own art and life, Churchill rejected the sublime, that sensation beloved of fascists everywhere.

He painted sweet scenes, carefully observed landscapes. These paintings should not be dismissed for they embody his democratic world view. Political theorists argue over the meaning of liberty. There is in western political thought, as the historian JGA Pocock has revealed, a counter-tradition that sees true liberty as active, not passive. To be free in this republican tradition is to be an engaged citizen.

But in reality, the most precious liberties – the ones that work – have got a lot to do with being left alone to enjoy private life. Churchill’s paintings manifest a true enjoyment of simple private existence – the least ostentatious, most basic pleasures of democracy. These are truly liberal paintings. They symbolise the survival of democracy in the 1940s. It is fatuous to deny Churchill’s heroism, and it would be churlish for the nation to turn down these precious relics of a great man.

[Editor] 刘建兰