Socialist Appeal activist and communist artist Nicholas Baldion has been shortlisted for the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize, for his poignant painting Social Murder: Grenfell in Three Parts.
We sat down with Nicholas to discuss Grenfell, and to find out what it means to be an artist and a communist.
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Why did you choose to produce a painting about Grenfell?
It was a painting I felt compelled to paint because I was furious – and I still am.
When the Grenfell fire happened, I lived in my mum’s council flat in Chelsea. I witnessed the shock, grief, and anger of people in North Kensington, and the outpouring of help from ordinary people.
Meanwhile, the council was nowhere to be seen. They completely failed to deal with the aftermath. In fact, fearing unrest, the only support they called for was police support!
It was a crime driven by the profit motive of capitalism. It was social murder. After six years, no one has been brought to justice, the profits continue to flow, and the lifestyles of the guilty remain unchanged.
Your painting depicts the lead-up to and aftermath of the fire, as well as the fire itself. Was it important for you to tell this struggle?
Yeah, it was. After five years of closely following the inquiry, attending silent walks and protests, and writing on Grenfell for Socialist Appeal, I felt compelled to tackle the subject in my art.
The initial intended audience was the community local to Grenfell, as well as my friends and comrades who understood the references, and who even saw themselves and their struggles depicted.
The form of the painting (a triptych of the old mediaeval kind that can open and close) lent itself to narrative painting – it could tell what happened; tell the truth.
The painting could have easily sat in obscurity, only to be seen by me and a handful of people. But it should be seen by a wider audience who have their own housing struggles.
What role do artists have in commenting on society in general?
A painter is more than just an ‘eye’, but a thinking, conscious member of society. I believe that the artist’s role is to reflect the times they live in – to have something to say. This is what I am aiming to do in my work.
As painters, we work to satisfy a deeply personal and internal need. But we can’t work locked away in an ivory tower, indifferent to the rest of humanity.
This painting is not made for decoration, or to be privately owned and hidden away in a vault. Rather, it is political, public art – made to stand as a testimony and to motivate people to join the living struggle for justice. This is my hope.
Did you take inspiration from any other revolutionary artists for the painting?
I had paintings like Hieronymus Bosch’s The Haywain Triptych in mind when I was conceiving of the painting. This work viscerally reflects the intense contradictions pulling apart feudal society at that time.
I was also looking directly at Diego Rivera’s murals when working on the side panels. I needed to find a way to stitch all these different scenes together in this complicated narrative, and Rivera is a master at that.
What role can art and communist artists play in the struggle for revolution?
Art does not exist separate from the world around us, but acts as a mirror of the time at which it was produced. It can get to the truth of events. And it can connect with people and inspire them.
In the words of artist and communist Pablo Picasso: art is not made to just be put up in apartments, but as an instrument of war. This is the importance of creating political art, which can capture problems with the world today, and inspire people to fight to change society.
As for the role of artists in revolutionary struggle: creating political art is only one step. The next is getting organised and taking part actively in the fight for revolution.
‘Social Murder: Grenfell in Three Parts’ will be exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, from 16 September 2023 to 25 February 2024. Tickets can be booked here.