Must there always be a nasty edge to nationalism? We’ve already had a Scottish writer using the categories 'settlers and colonialists' about the English in Scotland and chuckling on a television interview over the reaction it caused. But artists have a very bad record in this area and much greater figures than Alasdair Gray have been guilty.
Wagner immediately comes to mind. He wrote a notorious essay Judaism in Music
and after his death, he had the burden of being Hitler’s favourite composer. It worked the other way for the Danish/German painter Emile Nolde. His posthumous reputation was saved by his work being included in Hitler’s Exhibition of Degenerate Painters. He was, in fact, a nasty northern nationalist, a member of the Nazi Party expelled from the Berlin Secession for anti-Semitism.
Some of the Russian nationalist composers known as the Mighty Handful were also anti-Semitic and on occasion it got into their music. It is difficult to see how music can show this vile prejudice, but apparently the Goldenberg and Schumuyle movement from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an attempt. Simon Winder in his history of the Habsburgs, Danubia, writes that Janacek ‘was a thoroughly unpleasant Slav nationalist of a dotty kind’. Because of the settling of nationalist scores after the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Winder also suggests that Mahler, a German-speaking Moravian and a Jew to boot, and Hugo Wolf, a German Slovenian, were perhaps fortunate to die before the deluge.
There are a fair number of great writers from the past who show a nationalist-hate side. Norway’s Nobel laureate, Knut Hamsun showed his nasty northern nationalism in his obituary of Hitler, calling him ‘a reformist character of the highest order (to whom) we his close followers bow at his death’. He had previously given his Nobel prize money to Goebbels. France also had a very unpleasant novelist of high literary quality, Céline, equally famous for his disgusting anti-Semitic tracts. At least France has not seen fit to name a public building after him. However, in the Norwegian village of Oppeid there is a Knut Hamsun Centre, which has been described as a stunning piece of concept architecture.
We can still to be shocked by what is unearthed about artists we admire. The current Times Literary Supplement has a note about a collection of Scottish war poems edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson. J. C. comments: “Unmentioned by the editors are the fanatical musings of Hugh MacDiarmid, who wished good luck to Luftwaffe bombers circling over London in the Blitz, and asked, ‘Is a Mussolini or a Hitler / Worse than a Bevin or a Morrison?’ Who would have thought that for all his outrageousness, C. M. Grieve could have been such a horrible N.N.N?