The summer of 1911 burned with strikes and protests across Britain.
According to Winston Churchill, “Accounts from Liverpool show that the situation there is more like revolution than a strike.”
A revolution in painting was being shown in a Liverpool art gallery at the same time.
The Sandon Studios Society’s groundbreaking exhibition of modern and post-impressionist art featured 47 works loaned from a controversial London show, including those by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.
They were exhibited with art by 137 local artists. Art In Revolution, at the Walker Art Gallery, recreates the exhibition with many of the original works.
It comes from an idea by sociologist David Bingham. He told Socialist Worker, “It was an absolute phenomenon of its time. It’s a hidden marvel.
“I think you have to imagine these paintings were almost the work of aliens from another planet.”
The exhibition has pictures and newsreel footage of the mass strikes and protests that took place as the exhibition took place in 1911.
Some 4,000 dockers walked off the job on 28 June over pay. By the end of the day 10,000 were out.
The strikes were hugely militant. After a shipload of scabs appeared in the River Mersey, a newspaper reported on revolutionary strike leader Tom Mann’s address to strikers: “If he were able to sink the ship himself, he would do it. As for the scabs on board, the sooner they went to heaven or hell the better for the world.”
Soon, workers from the tug boats, Mersey Ferries, the giant Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse, the Cotton Exchange, breweries and the rubber plant all struck.
Importantly, the strikes united Protestant and Catholic workers in a city riddled with sectarianism.
When 1,000 dock porters struck on 7 August, a city-wide strike committee—including, vitally, the rail workers—agreed that all transport workers would add their support through sympathy strikes.
The next day 4,000 railway workers struck—against the wishes of senior rail trade union officials. The docks were closed and there were no freight trains out of Liverpool at all.
The government drafted an extra 2,400 police and 5,000 troops into the city. When some 80,000 people turned up to a mass meeting in support of the strike on Sunday 13 August, police and troops repeatedly attacked the crowd.
Two days later, five prison vans carrying some of those arrested at the rally, escorted by army cavalry, were attacked, with furious attempts made to rescue the prisoners.
Soldiers killed two dockers, Michael Prendergast and John Sutcliffe.
There is no linear link between the radicalism of the artists exhibited in 1911 and the events on the streets outside. But it is more than a coincidence. It is a conjuncture.
Art was going through a revolution of form and content.
The clash of the vibrant post-impressionists with the slightly staid paintings of the Sandon group highlights the extent of the radical change that was going on.
The stark, garish outlines of the now little-known Landscape at Cateau Cambresis by Auguste Herbin stands out.
The better known Gaugin’s Bathers and Tahiti and Sister of Charity, and The Seruiser Valle Temps Gris show how art had become modern on the continent.
Gauguin said that “in art there are only revolutionists or plagiarists”. The exhibition shows that to be true.
Works from the original exhibition are displayed alongside images from the Walker gallery’s own 1911 show to further display the contrasts.
The Liverpool Courier was the only paper to review the exhibition—and it certainly made the link.
It reported under the headline “Anarchy in the paint pot, mutiny in the brush” that “Post-impressionism was a revolution certainly, and respectable people objected to revolutions.”
One concrete link between the exhibition and the class revolt was the painter Albert Lipczinski, some of whose work is on display.
Lipczinski was a friend of the revolutionary trade unionist Fred Bower, and attended syndicalist meetings.
He used his home as a temporary refuge where injured strikers could be brought to safety.
Lipczinski painted strike leader Tom Mann—a painting that has since disappeared. He also painted union leader Jim Larkin. That painting was reputedly destroyed by the Black and Tans—British mercenaries in Ireland.
According to Bingham, while Lipczinski was painting the portraits of these two leaders it was suggested that he invite both Mann and Larkin to the Sandon Studios Society one evening for some entertainment.
Here the revolutionary bohemian and the radical trade unionist came together. This culminated in Mann standing on a chair to sing The Red Flag.
Too often art in galleries is removed from any context at all. Here it is the opposite.
We should congratulate the Walker Gallery for situating an art exhibition firmly in the radical working class history of the city.
That alone makes this exhibition a refreshing change.
Art in Revolution: 1911 is at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, L3 8EL, until 25 September. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker