The Breakdown

46 • The Breakdown

By John Bulloch Souter (1890–1972)
United Kingdom, 1962
53 × 51 cm; oil on canvas, signed and dated ‘1926–62’

John Bulloch Souter was a Scottish artist best known for his portraits and successful copies of Old Master paintings. Yet one of his paintings caused such scandal it made headlines in the international press and was removed from display at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. That painting was The Breakdown and the year was 1926.

It shows a black saxophonist in white tie and a top hat sitting on the head of a shattered statue of Minerva, the classical goddess of music. Meanwhile a naked woman dances trance-like in wild abandon: head back, eyes closed, mouth open; arms and legs in full flow. A shaft of light falls on the front of her body, emphasizing its paleness next to the musician and highlighting the orange of her hair, neatly made up. There are other signs of the trouble she has taken to dress up: lipstick, painted fingernails and green earrings, colour-coordinated to her shoes; as well as evidence, bottom left, of the carelessness with which all this has been discarded.

Jazz was at the time beginning to make a wide cultural impact and Souter claimed his painting intended to ‘illustrate the tendency nowadays for jazz influence to permeate our daily lives’. This was a post-war era of paranoia, the Great British Empire was vulnerable and jazz came to symbolize all that was unsettling and disruptive of the time, foremost being the collapse of rigid social standards which jazz was perceived to be encouraging. It is this challenge to the established order to which its title – The Breakdown – surely refers, although cleverly the term is also used to describe a moment during a jazz performance when most of the band take a break, leaving just one or two instruments to play together.

Within days of it being exhibited, despite the Academy’s President praising it as ‘a work of great promise executed with considerable degree of excellence’, the RA was contacted by the British Colonial Office demanding it be taken down with immediate effect, for ‘reasons of state, not art’ and ‘in the interest of the Empire’. This made news as far as America, India and South Africa, carried by a wider culture of racism and concerns of empire, sparking comments by society figures such as ‘it would make ruling our natives difficult.’ Even the British music establishment reacted ferociously, the editor of Melody Maker magazine stating: ‘we jazz musicians…protest against and repudiate the juxtaposition of an undraped white girl with a black man’ as ‘a perversive danger to the community and the best thing that could happen to it is to have it….burnt!’ Which is exactly what Soulter did, shocked by the outcry. However, the painting obviously held great importance for him because he kept all his original studies and sketches and used these to re-create this painting in 1962, dating it 1926–62 to acknowledge the time that had passed.