Today I listened to Julia Weiner talk about the artist Fermin Rocker, son of East End anarchist Rudolf. Given my irascible comments about London Underground of yesterday, I was fascinated by Fermin’s many depictions of people in the act of using communal services, particularly public transport. In each work the people are irenic and the places, cared-for. Among other works he painted tube passengers, ferry passengers, queuers, people waiting for their train and their plane, library browsers and a surgery waiting room. In Fermin’s world, people are patient and still, companionable and self-contained.
Although I am very much warmed and soothed by this artist, there’s a lot in these images which is not of my time. Some of his works are more inactive than peaceful. The serenity of some (by no means all) of the subjects verges on sedation. There is no overcrowding, no groups of teenagers chattering and hopping around like starlings (this has never bothered me, incidentally), nobody is drunk or arguing. In particular, I was struck by Julia’s observation that even in his later life (he died in 2004) Fermin’s subjects were very much of the post-war decade – for example this one with a young woman in a headscarf and round-toed courts at the top of a london transport escalator is from 1985.
I don’t know much about Fermin Rocker, but given his socialist and communal upbringing, I wondered if this nostalgia might be to do with the attitude, now extinct, with which adults who had never known anything like a welfare state approached, almost reverently, the sharing of the many public services which were set up after the war. I wondered if perhaps the self-possession of Fermin’s subjects reflects a mindfulness of their surroundings and the people in their vicinity arising from beliefs about how it is considerate to act in shared spaces.
Maybe even mindfulness is too dispassionate for a public transport system like ours. Our public transport system is amazingly good and we are mind-blowingly fortunate to have it. I think it’s reasonable to look at it this way: people in many of the world’s societies live out short lives mainly occupied by coaxing miserable fields to life while others – we – are carried to offices on a system which is comfortable, pretty reliable and, with the crucial exception of price, increasingly accessible to all. The least we can do is look after it and share it fairly.
Any anarchist would agree.
You can seen 86 of Fermin Rocker’s pieces at the Chambers Gallery site. I am really happy to know about him.