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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own