Alternative lives; revolutionaries rebooted.

These portraits are coming up for auction next month in America.


There’s something of A Hard Day’s Night about them, or Julian Opie’s Blur Greatest Hits cover, but intriguingly they’re catalogued as:

Portrait of a General; Portrait of a Banker; Portrait of a Symphony Orchestral Music Conductor; and Portrait of a Gentleman.

Stalin is obviously the General. With his arty hair and beard Marx must be the Conductor. Lenin has a touch of JP Morgan but the banker is probably Engels, and Lenin is the gentleman.

Is it miscataloguing? Or are the Fab Four of Communism unlikely to sell in America under their real names? But – if they hadn’t been radicals – these alternative lives are weirdly plausible. Marx was brought up an enlightened Bohemian. Engels’s Dad was a rich textile manufacturer. Stalin swapped one discipline for another after he  was expelled from the seminary; if it hadn’t been Communism it could well have been the army. And Lenin’s parents were newly ennobled conservatives on the way up.

It reminds me of Woody Allen’s If the Impressionists were dentists: an exercise in the transposition of temperament (1978), written as letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo:

Dear Theo
Toulouse-Lautrec is the saddest man in the world. He longs more than anything to be a great dentist, and he has real talent, but he’s too short to reach his patients’ mouths and too proud to stand on anything. Arms over his head, he gropes around their lips blindly, and yesterday, instead of putting caps on Mrs Fitelson’s teeth, he capped her chin. Meanwhile, my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very, very large mouths and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls ‘a full, fresh mouth’. It has an architectural solidity to it, but is it dental work?

(c) Random House courtesy of Queen Evie.

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