Friday, June 16, 2017

He Built Roads. He Oversaw Mines. He Shrank the Deficit. He Was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

by Michael Hofmann

New York Times

June 16, 2017

In many instances, the Germans have been content for the lives of their great literary figures to be written by Anglo-American biographers; there is a narrative flair, a curiosity, an animation, a love of character and anecdote, a juice, that it seems only the English provide. Biography may be the true vice anglais. Frances Wilson’s De Quincey and Ruth Scurr’s Aubrey (both published last year) are clever, considered and brilliantly unorthodox books; Richard Holmes’s lives of Shelley and Coleridge are masterpieces on any terms; would it have occurred to anyone but an Englishman or an American to call a life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan “Uncorking Old Sherry”?

And so, some early biographies of Kafka and Thomas Mann were written in English; the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages. Against such a background, the appearance in English of Rüdiger Safranski’s “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art” is a bit perplexing. (Happily, the cringe-making subtitle is utterly disregarded in the text itself.)

Safranski’s book (a best seller in Germany) is aimed squarely at a German readership of Bildungsbürger, educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases. It doesn’t feel the need to locate Goethe for a non-German readership. Safranski is an energetic writer, without much refinement or subtlety. Dozens of obscure names scoot past the reader’s eye with nary a word of introduction or presentation. There is little sense of the tiny, mad ferment of the so-called Age of Genius (the 1770s) — as if a nation had acne — the thing that Penelope Fitzgerald caught so miraculously well in her novel “The Blue Flower.”

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

From Vittorio De Sica, the Comic Anxieties of la Dolce Vita

by Glenn Kenny

New York Times

June 15, 2017

The Italian director and actor Vittorio De Sica is best known internationally for the searing, poignant, humanist pictures he made in the late 1940s and early ’50s. These are classics of the so-called Neo-Realist movement that include Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. Careers in film often take unusual turns. My film students teared up at Bicycle Thieves and then were both puzzled and amused when I showed them the opening of After the Fox, an elaborately silly 1966 caper comedy starring Peter Sellers that seems worlds away from Thieves but was also, as it happens, directed by De Sica.

The circumstances under which De Sica made After the Fox are too complex to get into here. But as deftly demonstrated by Il Boom, a 1963 film he made that is only now getting a United States release, courtesy of Rialto Pictures and Film Forum, comedy was always a part of this director’s skill set. Written by Cesare Zavattini, who did the screenplays for many of De Sica’s best-known works, the movie skewers the mendacity inherent in the postwar economic resurgence in his country.

Alberto Sordi plays Giovanni, a building contractor with big ideas and a lavish lifestyle that’s mostly enjoyed by his wife, Silvia (Gianna Maria Canale), with whom he is quite properly besotted. But the movie begins with our hero in a bit of a spot, owing a large sum of money he can’t pay. So convincing is his masquerade of affluence that when he asks a rich tennis partner for a loan, the other man assumes that Giovanni is joking. An appeal to his boss ends when that boss falls asleep in the middle of his pitch. During a heart-to-heart with the wife of a megarich industrialist, she makes him a proposition. “What I’m about to ask may surprise you: Would you sell an eye?”

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Shape-shifter: The careers of Philip Guston

by Prospero

Economist

June 2, 2017

In Philip Guston’s “bed paintings”, on show at Venice’s Accademia, he and his wife huddle under the blankets—an old couple, here clinging to each other, there sleeping peacefully side by side. The tenderness of the works comes as a surprise, given that they’re painted in the curious, cartoonlike style that Guston developed in the late 1960s, and continued to work with for the rest of his life. But it’s not the only surprise in an exhibition that invites us to delve into the psyche of an artist best known for the storm of disapproval he prompted by abandoning abstract expressionism.

Guston (1913-80) grew up in Los Angeles. He began drawing at an early age and soon fell in love with the art of the Italian Renaissance. At high school, he met Jackson Pollock and the pair were eventually expelled for distributing satirical pamphlets. Guston’s progression from muralist with the Federal Art Project during the Depression, to successful abstract expressionist, then back to figurative artist makes for an individually absorbing tale, but is also telling in the wider context of what was happening to art in America.

In the early 1950s, Guston was one of the most influential abstract expressionists, delivering tightly composed webs of often pink or red brushstrokes that some critics thought evocative of Monet. In the following decade, however, he returned to figuration largely for political reasons. With the country embroiled in protest against the Vietnam war, he began to feel “schizophrenic”, asking “what kind of a man am I, sitting at home… going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going to my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

MoMA’s Makeover Rethinks the Presentation of Art

by Robin Pogrebin

New York Times

June 1, 2017

The final design for the Museum of Modern Art’s $400 million expansion project, which will be officially unveiled on Thursday, is striking and provocative less because of its look than its implicit message: MoMA isn’t modern yet.

Under the new plans, the museum is moving away from discipline-specific galleries that feature established artists — many of them white men — and toward more chronological and thematic approaches that include multiple formats as well as more minority and female artists.

Museum executives also want to update and streamline their Midtown Manhattan building once and for all, after several iterations over the years. The most recent — an $858 million reconfiguration in 2004 by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi — resulted in congestion and overcrowding.

The new design calls for more gallery space and a transformed main lobby, physical changes that, along with the re-examination of art collections and diversity, represent an effort to open up MoMA and break down the boundaries defined by its founder, Alfred Barr.

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The Magician of Delight

by Geoffrey O’Brien

New York Review of Books

June 1, 2017

Lubitsch: I heard the name long before I ever saw one of his movies. Adults whose movie-going memories went back to the Twenties or Thirties savored the texture of its syllables, as if it named a circle of delight to which I had not yet been admitted. It was a delight perhaps beyond recapture, enmeshed as it was with nostalgia for a vanished world, steeped in champagne and the melodies of cabaret violinists. “The world he celebrated,” Andrew Sarris wrote in 1968, “had died—even before he did—everywhere except in his own memory.” The Ernst Lubitsch retrospective about to unfold at Film Forum (June 2–15) will offer a most welcome occasion to gauge its dimensions and sample Lubitsch’s very particular pleasures. He offers a parallel domain of buoyant elegance, a theater of free-floating desire and inextinguishable humor ingeniously stitched together out of the fabric of Austrian operettas and French farces and the plot devices of a hundred forgotten Hungarian plays, flavored by delicate irony and risqué innuendo, where sex is everywhere but just out of sight behind discreetly closed doors, constantly implied in what is never quite stated.

The world conjured by Lubitsch had vanished all the more thoroughly for having never altogether existed to begin with, except as filtered through the imagination and observations of a Berlin Jew, a tailor’s son, with a passion for every form of theatricality and a genius for comic invention. A member of Max Reinhardt’s company at nineteen, he moved on to writing and directing short film comedies in which he also starred. He experimented constantly in early comedies like the grotesquely satirical The Oyster Princess (1919) and the visually audacious The Mountain Cat (1921), with its shape-shifting screen formats, but it was his lavish historical epics Madame DuBarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920) that brought him worldwide celebrity. By 1922 he was in Hollywood where he reinvented himself for American audiences as the purveyor of a “Continental” style steeped in civilized suggestiveness with silent comedies of marriage and infidelity like The Marriage Circle (1924) and So This Is Paris (1926).

He created not only a style but a place, his imaginary homeland: that paradise of sophistication disguised as Paris, Vienna, Budapest, the operetta kingdom of Marshovia, or even eventually as the Gay Nineties American Neverland of Heaven Can Wait (1943). We are always looking back toward some long-lost capital city of joy. In Lubitsch’s films memory is constantly being invoked—his characters are forever dwelling on cherished first encounters, unforgettable honeymoon excursions, the minutiae of tiny freshly recalled episodes that encapsulate the deepest of feelings—but it is always an open question whether these memories are not flights of invention, decorating and orchestrating an exquisite counterlife. Those flourishes—magic feats performed in full view of the audience—become something like a companionable accompaniment, enriching the action with deeper layers of joking and commentary.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Degas - A Strange New Beauty

Edited by Jodi Hauptman.

Essays by Carol Armstrong, Jonas Beyer, Kathryn Brown, Karl Buchberg, Hollis Clayson, Samantha Friedman, Richard Kendall, Laura Neufeld, Stephanie O'Rourke, Raisa Rexer, and Jill de Vonyar

Muse Books

May 25, 2017

Edgar Degas is best known as a chronicler of the ballet, yet his work in monotype reveals his restless experimentation. In the mid-1870s, Degas was introduced to the monotype process – drawing in ink on a metal plate that was then run through a press. Captivated by the monotype's potential, he embraced it with enthusiasm, taking the medium to radical ends. He expanded the possibilities of drawing, created surfaces with heightened tactility, and invented new means for new subjects, from dancers in motion to the radiance of electric light, from women in intimate settings to meteorological effects in nature. With his monotypes, Degas is at his most modern, capturing the spirit of urban life, depicting the body in new ways, and exploring abstraction.

Published to accompany an exhibition at MoMA, this richly illustrated catalogue presents approximately 120 monotypes and some 60 related works in other mediums. Texts by curators, scholars, and conservators explore the creative potency of Degas's rarely seen monotypes and highlight their impact on his wider practice.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Vitality of the ‘Berlin Painter’

by James Romm

New York Review of Books

May 24, 2017

Only twice in modern times have museums surveyed the career of a single Greek vase painter, and both shows were at major international institutions (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985 and Berlin’s Staatliche Museum in 1990-1991). Thus it is a marvel that the more modest Princeton University Art Museum has assembled a vast selection of the works of the master referred to as the Berlin Painter, who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BC. Curated by J. Michael Padgett, the show charts the development, over some four decades, of an artist whose name, nationality, and even gender remain unknown, but whose distinctive and confident illustration in the red-figure style stands out as clearly as any signature.

In his pioneering research on attic vase painting, the Oxford art historian Sir John Beazley devised the label “Berlin Painter” in 1911 in honor of a large lidded amphora decorated by this artist that is housed in Berlin’s Antikensammlung. He assigned thirty-seven other works to the same artist on the basis of the unique line they shared, which he described as “thin, equable, and flowing,” and various features of the depiction of the human form. By now several hundred vases have been attributed, more or less confidently, to this artist’s hand, many recovered from the graves of wealthy Etruscans in western Italy. More than fifty can be seen in the Princeton show, along with pots by the equally talented Kleophrades Painter—who, because of the similarity of their styles, is thought to have been the Berlin painter’s teacher—and by other, later artists who clearly took their inspiration from these two masters.

The Berlin Painter began working at the end of the sixth century BC, when the red-figure technique of vase painting—in which black glaze fills the background, leaving silhouettes of unglazed red ceramic to form the image—was just starting to replace its inverse, the black-figure style that had prevailed earlier. The possibilities offered by this new medium clearly intrigued the artist, who began to expand the black background and diminish the red subject to a single, static figure—a lyre-playing singer with his head thrown back in musical ecstasy, a young athlete holding a discus. These figures seem to float, anchored to the physical world only by the short geometric band on which they plant their feet. In some cases, even this tiny hint of landscape disappears.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Critical Thinkers: The Ties That Bind Orwell and Churchill

by Richard Aldous

New York Times

May 23, 2017

Among the many stories about Winston Churchill that may or not be true is the one of him barking grumpily at a waiter, “Take this pudding away; it has no theme!” In Churchill and Orwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thomas Ricks (who is now the Book Review’s military history columnist) clearly has a theme. Both subjects, he tells us in this page turner written with great brio, are “people we still think about, people who are important not just to understanding their times but also to understanding our own.” Nonetheless, given that Churchill and Orwell seem never to have met, the question is not so much if this dual biography has a theme but more whether there is actually a pudding in the first place.

It hardly needs to be said that Ricks has chosen two historical figures who are still in the news. Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984, enjoyed a renewed wave of attention in the days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. And as the new president moved into the White House, among his first gestures was to restore the famous Jacob Epstein bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. He is even said to model a scowl on that of Britain’s wartime leader.

Given their pervasive influence today, it is worth remembering that in the 1930s, before either reached the heights of reputation, both men were in disgrace. Churchill was a political pariah, alienated from his own Conservative Party by his opposition to the appeasement of Hitler. Frederic Maugham, Lord Chancellor in the national government, suggested that Churchill should be “shot or hanged.” Similarly, when the socialist Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938), a coruscating indictment of both left and right during the Spanish Civil War, he was denounced by many on the British left. His usual publisher, the Communist fellow-traveler Victor Gollancz, refused even to put out the book.

The “lower-upper-middle-class” Orwell and the aristocratic Churchill were both children of the Empire, yet they shared a certain contempt for the snobbery of British society. “For a popular leader in England it is a serious disability to be a gentleman,” Orwell wrote in 1943, adding admiringly, “which Churchill … is not.”

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Friday, May 19, 2017

A Radical Redo for ‘Madama Butterfly’ — to Save It?

by Mary Von Aue

New York Times

May 19, 2017

When Anna Netrebko appeared in full old-fashioned geisha get-up at the recent gala concert celebrating the Metropolitan Opera’s 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center, you didn’t need to look at your program to know that she would be performing “Un bel dì,” the most recognizable aria from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

Ms. Netrebko’s dramatically contoured eyebrows, black wig adorned with kanzashi (ornaments) and stylized arm and hand movements paid homage to traditional stagings of this beloved 1904 opera, which revolves around Cio-Cio San, a Japanese teenager who is seduced and then abandoned by a caddish American naval officer. But opera is going through a broad reassessment of the way its classics, almost all conceived by Western men, have regularly portrayed Asia.

The kitschy, kimono-clad white actors who have often been cast in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” have stirred outrage in recent years, setting off a debate about whether that 1885 piece can be acceptably presented to a modern audience. The gaudy Orientalism of another Puccini crowd-pleaser, “Turandot,” set in an imaginary ancient China and featuring three ministers named Ping, Pang and Pong, has also been criticized. “Butterfly,” an opera based on a short story and subsequent play, helped perpetuate the modern Western stereotype of the obedient, long-suffering Asian woman. “Love me with a little love,” Cio-Cio-San sings at one point, because “we are a people used to small, modest and quiet things.”

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Friday, May 5, 2017

The Disasters of War

by James Fenton

New York Review of Books

May 25, 2017

It comes as a surprise to a British reader to find World War I routinely referred to, by Americans, as America’s “forgotten war.” The British would never use such a term. It is true that certain significant aspects of the war have faded from the collective memory. Every one of us can remember why World War II was fought (“Hitler had to be stopped”), but few can do the same for World War I. Yes, the archduke had been shot in Sarajevo, but who the archduke was, and why his assassination led to general war, and why the war was or wasn’t worth fighting—that takes a rarer expertise to answer.

The war itself, though, is vividly, viscerally remembered through a series of images, stories, and rituals: bugle music—the Last Post and Reveille, framing the Two-Minutes’ Silence; the wearing of poppies on or around Armistice Day; the trenches; gas masks; the Christmas Truce (a famous moment of unauthorized fraternization on the western front in 1914); shell shock; the refusal to distinguish between the shell-shocked and the malingerer; the brutal idiocy of the generals; women handing out white feathers to noncombatant men; songs and parodies of songs; poets at the front line.

The list expands, contracts, expands again. It holds an abiding fascination for us. But that fascination changes with the decades. When I was a child the standard poppy had a black disk in the center, stamped with the name of the Haig Fund, named for Field Marshal Earl Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force. But over the years the reputation of Haig, the “Butcher of the Somme,” went into such a decline that his name was removed from the poppy. Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General,” written in a hospital in April 1917, gives us a generic World War I commander as he will inevitably be remembered—the affable fool with blood on his hands:
“Good morning; good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Virtuoso of Compassion

by Ingrid D. Rowland

New York Review of Books

May 11, 2017

Two museums, London’s National Gallery and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, mounted exhibitions in the fall of 2016 with the title “Beyond Caravaggio,” proof that the foul-tempered, short-lived Milanese painter (1571–1610) still has us in his thrall. The New York show, “Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio,” concentrated its attention on the French immigrant to Rome who became one of Caravaggio’s most important artistic successors. The National Gallery, for its part, ventured “beyond Caravaggio” with a choice display of Baroque paintings from the National Galleries of London, Dublin, and Edinburgh as well as other collections, many of them taken to be works by Caravaggio when they were first imported from Italy.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a new play about the artist, Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy, focused on the monumental painting of the same name in Naples that also provides the focus for Terence Ward’s moving nonfiction book The Guardian of Mercy. In November 2016, Caravaggio’s radiant Basket of Fruit moved to Rome from Milan to provide the focus and the poster image for yet another exhibition, “The Origin of Still Life in Italy” at the Borghese Gallery (which boasts its own incomparable collection of Caravaggio’s work). And yet, in the face of so much exposure, Michelangeo Merisi da Caravaggio remains a painter of infinite suggestion and infinite mystery.

Letizia Treves, the National Gallery’s new curator of Baroque painting and the creator of the delightful “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition, reminds us how few people in the mid-nineteenth century had ever seen a real painting by the artist. Many of those who did were unimpressed. John Ruskin called him “the ruffian Caravaggio,” “a worshipper of the depraved.” In general, Victorian Britons preferred the orderly sunlit world of the Italian Renaissance to the dark, chaotic Baroque, with its suffering saints and grimy beggars. It is not so surprising, then, that British collectors bought canvases by Antiveduto Gramatica, Giovanni Baglione, and Bartolomeo Manfredi in the belief that they were Caravaggio originals: dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, overt religious imagery, and gritty, louche scenes from everyday life seemed to authenticate them as much as an autograph (in fact, Caravaggio signed only one of his paintings, The Beheading of John the Baptist in Malta).

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Painter and the Novelist

by Paul Levy

New York Review of Books

May 11, 2017

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

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Friday, April 21, 2017

The Forgotten Women Artists of America

by Terry Tempest Williams

Pacific Standard

April 21, 2017

Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists by Donna Seaman is a passage through the lives of various extraordinary women—all of them largely forgotten in death but revived now on these pages in vivid detail. Working in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., throughout the 20th century, each of these seven women artists, as Seaman writes “must have felt like a lone traveler without papers traversing a hostile land as she struggled to live a freely creative life.” These artists didn’t just live a creative life — they also created vibrant communities around them.

Seaman’s portraits include Louise Nevelson, a mythmaker whose medium was discarded wood; Gertrude Abercrombie, a painter who created a surreal world from her dreams; Lois Mailou Jones, a painter whose vibrant palette vivified her African roots and love of the natural world; Ree Morton, who explored the borders between science and art; Joan Brown, an advocate for public art, whose search for God served a spiritual and communal vision; Christina Ramberg, an artist who explored the erotic tension of the female body through gestures of bondage and engagement; and Lenore Tawney, the animating spirit behind fiber arts who saw her handwork as prayer.

Why did these women create art? Tawney’s response is representative: “I didn’t have to please anyone but myself.” Indeed, Donna Seaman reveals how each of these artists defied convention with fresh vision and a fierce devotion to their work. Freedom was their reward, artful integrity their legacy. These artists created visual disturbances that asked their public to revisit the world in a different way — whether it was Louise Nevelson creating sculptural landscapes made out of wooden scraps, or Joan Brown’s arresting self-portrait, “Year of the Tiger,” where she depicts herself as half-woman and half-tiger and thereby confronts us with our own animal nature.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Superb Botticelli show at MFA traces the master’s arc

by Cate McQuaid

Boston Globe

April 20, 2017

Sandro Botticelli is remembered — cherished! — for “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera,” paintings that celebrate love, beauty, and the flowering of spring. But in the last years of his life, his art turned tight and dour.

“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” a stirring exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, traces the evolution of the early Renaissance master’s career. Its path is tender and rapturous, then dark, even angry, yet always visually lucid, always affecting.

The exhibition contextualizes Botticelli’s development amid the creative hothouse of 15th-century Florence, and on through an immense societal upheaval in the 1490s. That’s when the great patrons of the arts, the Medici family, fell from power and the fire-and-brimstone preacher and canny political strategist Fra Girolamo Savonarola stepped into the void.

The show, a terrific joint undertaking by the MFA and the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, is the largest Botticelli show yet in the United States, featuring 15 works by the master and several by those in his circle. Many have never been seen before this side of the Atlantic.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Quiet Firebrand Feminism of Emily Dickinson

by Katie Kilkenny

Pacific Standard

April 17, 2017

Though biopics of famous and important people are all the rage these days, it’s little wonder Emily Dickinson has been largely absent from the silver screen. Dickinson lived the majority of her life at her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, save for a brief stay at an all-female seminary. And though she wrote over 1,800 poems, Dickinson published only 11 during her lifetime. She died at 55 having never received the acclaim she deserved.

But then, independent filmmaker Terence Davies, the director of the new Dickinson film A Quiet Passion, has never made films with obvious commercial prospects. Two of Davies’ previous films — Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes — chronicled the lives of ordinary, blue-collar English characters; in his The House of Mirth and Sunset Song, Davies adapted books by Edith Wharton and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, seemingly only for the English-major demographic.

A Quiet Passion takes place almost entirely at The Homestead, where Dickinson struggles with her lack of renown despite her voluminous poetic output (she also suffers from some serious existential angst). And yet, Davies’ Dickinson is far from dull; Davies writes Dickinson (portrayed by Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon) as a firebrand feminist before her time. In one scene, she tells off her brother when he implies that women lead an easy, domestic life; in another, she snaps at a suitor who she fears might steal her independence.

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

A Marvelous Moment for French Writers and Artists

by Julian Barnes

New York Review of Books

April 6, 2017

You see her from a distance, at the end of a long enfilade of rooms. As you approach, you notice that she is already turned toward you. She is in her fortified underwear: a light blue bodice, white slip, light blue stockings; in her raised right hand, a powder puff like a vast carnation. To the left, over a chair, is the blue dress she will soon put on. To the right, though you might not at first observe him, is an impatient, mustachioed figure in evening dress, his top hat still—or already—on his head. But once again, you are aware that she has eyes only for you.

She is Manet’s Nana, in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, benefiting from a recent rehang that makes her even more of a cynosure. Nana is the courtesan protagonist of Zola’s 1880 novel of the same name, and you might reasonably assume that Manet’s painting is, apart from anything else, one of the great book illustrations. But it is more interesting than this. Nana first appeared as a minor character in Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). Manet spotted her there, and painted his portrait of her. When Zola saw it, he realized that, yes indeed, she was worth a novel in her own right. So, far from Manet illustrating Zola, what actually happened was that Zola was illustrating Manet.

The close friendship, interaction, and parallelism between writers and artists in nineteenth-century France are the subject of Anka Muhlstein’s The Pen and the Brush. Balzac put more painters into his novels than he did writers, constantly name-checking artists and using them as visual shorthand (old men looked like Rembrandts, innocent girls like Raphaels). Zola, as a young novelist, lived much more among painters than writers, and told Degas that when he needed to describe laundresses he had simply copied from the artist’s pictures. Victor Hugo was a fine Gothicky-Romantic artist in his own right, and an innovative one too, mixing onto his palette everything from coffee grounds, blackberry juice, and caramelized onion to spit and soot, not to mention what his biographer Graham Robb tactfully terms “even less respectable materials.”

Flaubert’s favorite living painter (also that of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes) was Gustave Moreau, and his Salammbô is like a massive, bejeweled, wall-threatening Salon exhibit—this being both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Baudelaire, Zola, Goncourt, Maupassant, and Huysmans were excellent art critics (Monet thought Huysmans the best of all). The subject is enormous, and might threaten to go off in every direction. What about photography? And book illustration? And sculpture? What about poets and pictures, both real and imaginary? Anka Muhlstein wisely limits herself to prose writers, and to five who speak to her most clearly: Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and—a slight chronological cheat—Proust. The result is a personal, compact, intense book that provokes both much warm nodding and occasional friendly disagreement.

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