Peter Saul, an anatomist of social violence

Political art tends to oscillate between the naïve, inept illustration of worn-out slogans on the one hand, and disparaging or insulting visual comments of other people’s views. Furthermore, as many such politically minded artists tend to be in want of talent, words are often added here and there on the canvas to make the message clear. Exceptions are few, and among them we should count the work of Peter Saul.

Born in San Francisco in 1934, he completed art school before leaving for Europe where he would spend eight years, first in Paris and then in Rome. He then came back to the United States, where he would then paint America, mostly through the lens of violence.

A painting by Paul Cadmus, Coney Island (1934), made a strong impression on Peter Saul early in his life.  Cadmus, a late master of the egg-tempera technique, painted Coney Island after he had ceased working for the federally sponsored Public Works of Art Project. Because it depicted in a satirical manner working class bathers on a crowded beach, that painting was viewed as offensive at the time.

However, it was stylistically and perhaps also intellectually close to the expressionism of Max Beckmann, for instance, who had written in his Schöpferische Konfession (1920): “After all, it is useless to like men, this heap of selfishness of which we are a part; but I will all the same. I like them in their pettiness and banality, their stupidity, their easy self-satisfaction, their heroism so rare, alas. Every day, every man is new to me as if he just fell from the sky. Where can we feel that better than in the cities? The city is the great human orchestra”.

Indeed, Saul was to paint in 2009 an interpretation of Beckmann’s The Night (1919), a gruesome episode where the artist shows cruelty in itself, detached from any historical pretext or seemingly heroic contingency; one of the greatest illustrations of evil in the history of visual arts. It is not surprising that Saul would have interpreted The Night, as he devoted much his art to showing evil as going hand in hand with power, evil as an unjustifiable manifestation of power, of dominance.

Another of Saul’s influences have been comic books, such as Crime Does Not Pay, Plastic Man, or the Mad magazine which, strangely, he discovered in Paris. The influence of Plastic Man is perhaps the most noticeable one in some of his elongated figures. As soon as 1958, Saul started introducing into his paintings such characters as Superman or Donald Duck.

Not only that, but his palette is reminiscent of the uniform swathes of colour which are so typical of classic comic strips. Mickey Mouse vs the Japs, painted in 1962, illustrates this introduction of characters out of comic books; they symbolize America, while the Japanese are only represented by their weapons, airplanes or pistol. The child-like style, where nothing is drawn in any meaningful sequence but is based on a juxtaposition of symbols, where bombs and bullets fall into toilet bowls, seems to dismiss the war as a children’s game, perhaps even a game merely dreamt of by  Mickey Mouse in his little boat. The opposition between good and bad, which structures most comics addressed to children, not to speak of western films, and is so typically American, is often used by Saul as a material which he bends and twists. Superman and Superdog in Jail (1963), where we read a sticker “crime does not pay”, plays on an inversion of values which creates a comic effect, as instead of catching the bad guys, Superman is the one jailed, after all. America’s values are upside down; the powers that be are getting it wrong, they are themselves implicitly designated as the bad guy. 

Shortly after arriving in Paris, Saul was introduced by Roberto Matta to the art dealer and gallerist Allan Frumkin, who would support him during many years. At that time, his work pictured suitcases or iceboxes which he took from ads in Life Magazine, and used as frames for the images which they contained. He then started adding stories into the picture, just as each vignette does in a comic book.  

Let us listen to Saul: I only had $300 left when I arrived in Paris. I realized that I needed to hit on something within a matter of two or three months. I needed something to interrupt the Abstract Expressionism. First I just put in stuff and then I got this idea from Mad magazine that you could tell a story with pictures, which no art was doing at the time—except for the work being made by really bad artists, like Salvador Dali and Norman Rockwell” (interview with Paul Laster).

Upon his return to San Francisco, Saul started painting his approach to the Vietnam war, as well as portraits of politicians, to be followed in the 70s by re-interpretations of some masterpieces such as Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. After moving to Austin, Texas, Saul will focus on what one might call “revisited genre painting” of suburban houses, for instance, never forgetting politicians as they represent a material for him, as long as their personality is strong enough, and as long as he dislikes their politics: “I’m not out to ridicule them; I’m out to use them for my art style. My art style says: Need a celebrity, who do we have today?”. Reagan, Bush or Trump were ideal from that perspective.

The Vietnam war series inaugurates a process where style itself is a metonymy of the depicted subject, meaning that the violence of war, or triggered by a war situation, is expressed by the visual violence of excessively bright colours, intertwined characters, twisted or elongated bodies. In addition, the flaccid yet neat shapes of the Surrealists have found their way to Saul’s bodies so as to represent a lack of ethics, of moral strength, and inspire disgust as slugs do. This trait, by which style expresses or accentuates the underlying message is one of the most striking aspects of Saul’s art. But his message is never a slogan, a posture: Saul does not want to express a political view, but rather tell a story, a story often loaded with an ethical issue which is left for the viewer to solve. When asked by Paul Laster if he is interested in social injustice, he merely answers: “If I can make use of it in my pictures, yeah. I agree one hundred percent with something that I read by the art historian Harold Rosenberg: Politics can help art, but art can’t help it. I sort of agree with him. I think anyone that’s influenced by a painting must be insane”. Saul is no propagandist, merely a presenter of what you might call political misdeeds. This is probably why his art avoids the usual traps of political art. He remains an artist without attempting to become a politician through the image.

Let us take a look at some of the works shown in the 2020 retrospective which took place in the New Museum, in New York.

Saigon (1967) depicts – as is written on the canvas itself in capital letters – “WHITE BOYS TORTURING AND RAPING THE PEOPLE OF SAIGON”. In the middle, “Innocent Virgin”; on the left, “Her Mother”, crucified to a palm tree, letting blood from her limbs; on the right, “Her Sister” tied to another palm tree, strangled or decapitated. “Her Father” seems to be impaled together with some Vietnamese soldier by a long tree trunk, pants on his ankles, while holding a bottle of Coca Cola being drunk by an American soldier who holds a knife, his dick in the shape of a cannon shooting at Innocent Virgin’s vagina. The eyes of another soldier, who wears a green beret but could be a Vietnamese considering his yellowish skin, pop out of their orbits to rest on the Virgin’s huge breasts. KP, written on the butt of the trunk-sodomized soldier on top of the painting, probably stands for “Kitchen Police”, military slang for cleaning up duties, as if sardonically. Tying up the hands of the Innocent Virgin, while licking her and more, is a hollow blue, formless shape with three gilded stars; perhaps an aviator’s uniform. The two faces of American soldiers which are visible look away from the horror scene, indifferent. 


An art critic compared the painting to Guernica, with Innocent Girl as the screaming horse in the middle, and the Mother and Sister as the two women screaming in desperation on each side of Picasso’s canvas. This is certainly a clever comparison from a formal perspective. One could also sense a modern echo of Callot’s Great Miseries of War. Here, the soldiers are clearly having fun, as we are told by the music notes floating around. By resorting to the imagery of a comic, Saul makes us feel that the scene is a mere entertainment, that it is unreal, as if what happens to these Vietnamese is deprived of any importance or consequence. He creates a symbolic distance which is in fact a critique of the actual distance which existed – and probably continues to exist – between the depicted realities and their perception by government and citizens alike. These soldiers are deprived of bodies, they are only flappy, ghostly shapes: not humans, really, just mutating shapes as if made of gelatin, or gum. The aggressor is thus made inferior to the victim, he only manifests a sadistic power deprived of any other attributes.

This canvas may be complemented by Pinkville (1970), another work inspired by the war in Vietnam and more specifically by the affair of My Lai, that village where American troops perpetrated the massacre of a few hundred civilians. Here, a muscular, four-armed soldier, naked but for his short pants, rapes and murders four large-breasted Vietnamese women with rifles, which symbolize sex, but also a lit match and a knife, which imply gratuitous, sadistic torture. What is striking is the contrast between the distorted bodies of the victims, pulling out their tongues in pain, and the utter indifference of the soldier, who seems engaged in some perfunctory task. He wears a cross as a necklace, with the words “mother” and “father” sharing the “H” letter: a reminder of the contradiction between values inherited and actions, or perhaps of the intrinsic hypocrisy of a culture. We are reminded of the treatment of the same topic by Banksy, a couple of decades later, where the soldiers are replaced by the powers supposedly at work behind the scenes, making an ideological point.


Let us look now at Saul’s interpretations of some famous pictures, such as Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851), or The Death of Sardanapalus, by Eugène Delacroix (1827). The former, painted in a heroic vein with the standing hero looking at the promised shore of his people’s destiny while crossing dangerous, icy waters which symbolize the perils of war, is reinterpreted as a fighting episode with the British army, where the red coats are taking cannon shots and looking silly. The latter is a Grand-Guignol version, painted in 2005, of Delacroix’s masterpiece, where Sardanapalus can be seen having his head chopped off by two monsters out of Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell. Instead of having the Assyrian legendary king calmly wait for his death while his wives and horses are slaughtered before his eyes, we have a screaming wife in bed, her beheaded lover on top, and the king’s head gently sitting on a sword. In both cases, by means of his style half-way between an illustration for children’s tales and a comic’s vignette, Saul turns the meaning upside down: the original heroic, tragic dimension, is changed into a farce. What was moving is just funny. Bloodshed is as innocuous as a child’s game. Instead of being transfigured, reality is ridiculed. This contributes to the demoting of heroes, and of any kind of epics, which is so typical of contemporary western societies.

A similar comment could be made about Custer’s Last Stand #1 (1973), a well-known episode of the Indian Wars told by Saul with his usual verve, and where nothing much is left of the heroic sacrifice of general Custer and his men of the 7th Cavalry. Oddly, he even introduces two Indian women in the picture, who are being raped by soldiers while these are getting slaughtered by Indian warriors, as if rape and combat were synonymous, but appearing as if those soldiers could not think of anything else at that moment: this farcical discrepancy “desecrates” the image one step further.

Custer’s Last Stand #1

The electric chair has been a source of inspiration to Peter Saul: Ethel Rosenberg on Electric Chair (1987), Sex Deviant Being Executed (1964), Man in Electric Chair (1964), Superman in Electric Chair (1963)… The electric chair as such is a fascinating instrument, as it was meant to be a more humane form of execution than hanging, a method with sometimes messy outcomes which threatened to exacerbate criticism against the death penalty in the late 19th century. In a sense, the electric chair was meant to make ultimate violence appear non-violent, although such was probably not the impression of its first “tester”, William Kemmler, who took some eight minutes to die. So that Saul probably felt instinctively that the electric chair was a good metaphor of a civilization that strives on many forms of violence, be it through all-out competition, war, homicides or executions, while pretending to care, to disseminate human progress, and to be God-chosen. A metaphor of an unpleasant contradiction that is perhaps inevitable, but best swept under the carpet thanks to advanced technology. After all, weaponized drones are no different, whatever the guilt of their victims.

The violence of the chair is visible in Ethel Rosenberg on Electric Chair, with the top of the skull in flames; it verges on the comic for Sex Deviant Being Executed, picturing a gay man on the chair, thinking of his mom represented as a pink tube, his lighting a last cigarette from a device made for another purpose, his broken heart, his thumb up meaning “OK”… Saul was always troubled, it would seem, with the punitive obsessions of his country.

And he could not resist painting the execution by lethal injection of John Wayne Gacy, this serial killer who often disguised as Pogo the Clown on the occasion of charitable events in order to lure children and then kill them, in the 1970s; a murderer who would then spent his time in prison painting. A clown, a pedophile, an assassin and a painter all in one: the most disgusting violence had merged with farce in real life; not only that, but his paintings – including self-portraits as Pogo the Clown – were later auctioned. Any better example of the extremes meeting, of a culture able to absorb anything under the impulse of voyeurism on the one side, and greed on the other? Who could say that Peter Saul did not paint a world which sometimes becomes itself a caricature?

With Subway 1 (1979), Peter Saul has perhaps achieved his most impressive composition. A derailed metro carriage full of thieves, drug traffickers, rapists, muggers and their victims, is assaulted by the police, who seem to be killing at gunpoint more or less everyone, although most are handcuffed.  Saul manages to crowd sixteen people on the canvas, leaving large sections void of any person so that the action is masterfully concentrated in the area where the steel sheet is torn open, lit by the carriages yellowish light. Here is violence in every angle of the scene, without any concession to the farcical or the mere comic; the violence of society and the violence of police respond to each other, with the police outdoing everybody else by that measure. This carriage is a microcosm of society, or at the very least of large segments of a society of many ills. The carriage is in a tunnel, in the dark. There is no light outside, no horizon, no view onto another world, no redemption. Just a self-sufficient frenzy of elimination. This work is a masterpiece of its kind.

Subway 1

Bush at Abu Ghraib (2006) represents another aspect of Saul’s work, not his best. It is a slightly gory political caricature, which requires no interpretation whatsoever: the smiling president sticks his index into the mouth of a horribly disfigured individual, as if it were a kind of trophy. The usual method of confronting a feeling with a fact with which it should be incompatible, the satisfaction of the president and the pain of the victim, but also stylistically a realistic portrait of the president with a caricature of the victim. The realism underscores the composure of the one who, indirectly, inflicts the pain, while the caricature underscores the excess of the pain thus inflicted.

Violence in all its aspects is not limited to politics, to war, or to killings in the dark corners of a city. It also lies in business, that most common of activities. Let us look at Businessman – Young Executive (1980): the body and face of this executive is distorted, exploded by the frenzy, the compulsions, the demands which constantly assail him. He shouts, smokes, trades, buys women, stocks perhaps, manages his oil fields, presses buttons, all at once. His arm seems to be articulated with the shoulder by some bolt, he is already only part human. A whirlwind of shapes, anonymous people, cash, objects gyrate around him. Everything leaks and melts, as if in a state of fusion. The Young Executive is crushed by a violence which is not even visible. Social pressure is an insidious enemy which became an enemy within, an enemy in his own mind.

Peter Saul reaches his effects by a mix of rhetoric, stylistic and technical means. The rhetoric is often based on stark oppositions or contrasts, as already discussed, between violent attitudes and a leisurely tone, heroism and farce, suffering and pleasure or at least indifference, the latter being the very definition of sadism.

The style is a transposition of expressionism by the means of the aesthetics of comics, with perhaps the additional borrowing of the “soft form” from surrealism as we could infer from Dali’s Sleep or from the work of Yves Tanguy, who actually moved to the United States in 1938, following his partner, the insufficiently praised surrealist artist Kay Sage whom he would then marry. Comics are not “photonovels”, they evoke an imaginary world with a distended relationship to reality, a world where we are allowed to believe the implausible while knowing all along that it exceeds reality. When reading a comic, we never identify with the characters: we focus entirely on the story, and take pleasure in the graphics. In this particular instance, the story is America’s, for the most part. To what extent does the disconnect still operate ?

Technically, the use of bright, quasi-fluorescent paint such as Day-Glo is particularly effective as it prevents any aesthetic feeling from seeping in, it is semiotically coherent with brutality, and here again, it concentrates the mind on the story rather than let it wander from detail to detail. One is tempted to add that bright, neat colours tend to conjure up the idea of America, its logos, its diners, its “super heroes”, a world of action rather than nuance.

The Government of California

By using the above-described means outrageously, Saul achieves a kind of vulgarity of the image which compels the viewer to some form of reaction out of disgust, unease, or amusement. Violence and ugliness have often been associated, because visual ugliness tends to index moral ugliness. Ugliness was always something to be hidden; here it is exposed, society turned inside out so as to put in full view the less pleasant guts. Ugliness of the image as a reflection of social ills.  

Indeed, Saul brings to the fore things which the American society prefers would remain hidden, or refuses to acknowledge, or views from a more comforting perspective, and forces them into the viewer’s mind. Saul is not out willingly to destroy or undermine society as it is. He mostly lifts carpets and opens cupboards, without attempting to demonstrate anything. It is up to the viewer to make up his own mind, should he wish to do so. However, Saul’s achievements are the exact reverse of those of the great 19th century historic paintings, with the exception perhaps of Washington Crossing the Delaware. Instead of glorifying individual or collective feats through visual or written narratives, which is the way through which the European and American cultures mobilized their energies during centuries, Saul goes in reverse, choosing to depict politicians, actions or mindsets which disparage the culture from which they emanate. Although this may explain the lukewarmness with which Saul’s work is received, this trend has become powerful in the arts of “western” societies. One might call it the “unravelling narrative”. We cannot be sure yet of the cumulative impact of such unravelling narratives on the psyche; it does question the function of the imaginary and self-representation in society, a function which has perhaps been neglected in the academic world, but which has provided the bread-and-butter of political activism for decades.

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