Robert Fisk’s World: If every picture tells a story, what do they say to each other?

Years ago I framed a postcard of Archduke Ferdinand, posted in Vienna in 1914

Share
Related Topics

Pictures maketh the man. But do they? I look around my Beirut apartment and am frightened at the choice of paintings and lithographs and photographs on my walls. There are American soldiers leading Iraqis into captivity in 1991. There is a startling poster of Iraqi refugees in 2003, drawn for a lecture I gave in Galway by a young Irishman who had never been to Iraq. The fear in a little girl's eyes stares back at me from this blood-red poster. There is even a painting of an Irish ghost train by Ted Turton, puffing contentedly – carriages all lit up – over a moonlit railway bridge of which only the piers still exist.

I guess we correspondents grab the things which grip us in long and dangerous lives. In the hall by my office is a lovely copy of a watercolour by the Lebanese artist Farrouk – Rocks and Pine Trees 1935, Lebanon – which may have been my attempt to soften the walls, to evoke the fragrance of mountain valleys amid all the harsher things which adorn my apartment. There is also a bright oil painting of Lebanese cedars by a long-standing Finnish friend, the slowly fading valleys of blue mists behind the trees perfectly rendered. But I am drawn to other pictures.

There are three precious lithographs of the débarquement des premières troupes françaises à Beyrouth and there are indeed the French soldiers coming ashore from their sailing ships, republican blue uniforms and red kepis, to save the Christians in Lebanon during the civil war of 1860. One illustration shows the French army camping at the forêt des pins which remains today the location of the French ambassador's residence. Another illustration – clearly cut from a French magazine of 1860 – shows more French soldiers rowing into Beirut harbour, a magnificent Crusader castle behind them. And yes, the Lebanese tore the entire castle down 100 years ago to use as a stone quarry.

Then there's a photograph of the old Beirut police headquarters at the end of the 1975-90 civil war, a pseudo Gothic building in ruins which prime minister Rafiq Hariri pulled down and then told me this was a mistake. I keep it there to remind me of how he promised to rebuild it. He never did, of course. More movingly, there's an oil painting by a Jewish reader of The Independent. Old Jim Hirst asked me for a photograph of the Beirut ruins when the war was over and painted this bleak, stark reminder of the disasters of conflict, a house sheared neatly in half, still standing on an old city wall.

Jim and I had sparred many times over my reporting of the Middle East, but I eventually met him in London and helped him to edit a book of his life – he was torpedoed in the English Channel while serving on a merchant ship in 1940 – which was sadly never published. His description of growing up poor in London's East End was an eye-opener for me. Eventually, he wrote to say he was dying of cancer and would like to see a photograph of his painting hanging on my wall.

As I gravitate towards my front door, I find that years ago, I framed a postcard which I had bought in Paris. There was a holiday message on the back: "I hope that you will look after your beautiful sister in my absence." It was sent to a Madame Burtoy in the Marne but its writer's signature is illegible. The card was posted in Vienna and received in France on 5 July 1914. But the photograph on this holiday card is of the Archduke Ferdinand. "Leaving the Town Hall five minutes before the attack," it is printed on the card and there is the Archduke, plumed hat and medals, on the arm of his wife, a sunny day in Sarajevo, 28 June 1914, only five minutes left for both of them to live, a group of fawning Muslim notables saluting their departure. I tell my friends it is a warning. You never know what happens when you walk out the front door.

What happened to the card's sender? And what happened to Madame Burtoy's home when the Marne was so swiftly overwhelmed in the aftermath of the archduke's assassination? Beside it, however, hangs a darker painting, given to me by the German Institute in Beirut after I delivered a lecture to their members eight years ago. Printed on silk, it shows a sunny landscape of red-roofed farm cottages, blue mountains behind – like my painting of the cedar trees – and was painted by Wolfgang Correns, a quiet countryside, Germany 1935, the same year that Farrouk painted his innocent pine trees in Lebanon. Correns was married to Eva Wedekind, daughter of a famous German poet, and Hitler had been in power for two years. Who lived in those houses?

Correns spent the Second World War in Berlin and was there at the end – he died in 1958 – but his 22-year-old son bravely deserted from the Wehrmacht, refusing to fight for Hitler, and hid in the basement of his grandfather's home in Berlin until the Soviet Army hoisted their banner over the Brandenberg Gate. Shortly after the fall of Berlin, he emerged from his hiding place and was in the garden of his grandfather's home when he was shot dead by Russian troops. His name was Robert.

What do they mean, all these pictures? The French landing in Beirut in 1860 in the first civil war, Jim's oil painting of the ruined house from the latest civil war – the same Jim whose ship was sunk five years before Robert Correns was shot; the Archduke, 21 years before Wolfgang Correns painted his idyllic German countryside and Farrouk painted Lebanon, pompously saluting with his white gloved hand as the world was about to be destroyed? I rather suspect that paintings and photographs build up their own hidden relationships as they hang on our walls, that perhaps this is why we collect them – on a whimsy, perhaps, which acquires meaning the longer they are there. I ask myself what they are trying to convey as they hang there at night, the ocean roaring outside my windows. Pictures, I suspect, speak to each other. I try to read their message.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dom Joly owns a pig. That thinks it's a dog.  

I'll bow out. Let Wilbur, the pig that thinks it's a dog, bring home the bacon

Dom Joly
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'