Thursday, November 16, 2017

Norwegian Woods

by Ingrid D. Rowland

New York Review of Books

December 7, 2017

In a career that spanned more than six decades, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) produced thousands of works: woodcuts, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and restless, relentlessly experimental paintings on canvas. The Munch Museum in Oslo preserves, by its own count, “1,150 paintings, 17,800 graphic works, 7,700 drawings, 14 sculptures and numerous photographs taken by Munch himself,” all present in the artist’s studio when he died at eighty, and bequeathed to the city of Oslo in his will. For most of those sixty-plus years, Munch ran a successful business as a professional painter and graphic artist, exhibiting in, among other places, Berlin, Paris, Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne, Prague, Copenhagen, Zürich, Stockholm, Vienna, New York, and Pittsburgh. Between 1909 and 1914, shortly after his eight-month stay in a Danish psychiatric clinic, he created eleven monumental paintings for the Festival Hall of what was then known as the University of Kristiania. (In 1925, Kristiania took back its original Norwegian name, Oslo.) Elected to the avant-garde Berlin Secession in 1904, Munch was also awarded such accolades as the Norwegian Royal Order of Saint Olav (1908) and the French Legion of Honor (1934).

From the very beginning, his paintings excited both passion and controversy: his first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1892 closed after a tumultuous week of fistfights between admirers and detractors. Forty-five years later, in 1937, Adolf Hitler declared Munch’s painting “degenerate” and forced German museums to eliminate eighty-two of his works from their collections. In Norway itself, however, the National Socialist puppet government of Vidkun Quisling paid for a state funeral when Munch died in 1944. His stature within his own country was too great to do otherwise.

Clearly, Edvard Munch was never simply a Norwegian artist. His appeal, like his own life, has always been both local and cosmopolitan at the same time. He may be best known internationally for his anguished paintings of the 1890s, especially for the group of works (two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph) he created between 1893 and 1910 and called, in German (he was exhibiting in Berlin), Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). In Norway, on the other hand, he is at least as well known, and deservedly so, for his monumental paintings in the Festival Hall, dedicated to the sun and its pale, oblique Nordic light.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

El Greco to Goya review – tears, shackles and anguish in dark dramas from Spain

by Charlotte Higgins

Guardian

September 24, 2017

‘The best place to see Spanish art in the UK,” says Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection in London, “is the Bowes Museum.” This remarkable institution in Barnard Castle, County Durham, exists because of the philanthropic instincts of its founders, John and Joséphine Bowes. He was British, the illegitimate son of the third Earl of Strathmore; she was a Frenchwoman who had acted on the Paris stage. Neither lived to see the Bowes open 125 years ago, but they bequeathed some remarkable pictures to the people of north-east England.

In 1862, their art adviser Benjamin Gogué wrote to them about El Greco and Goya, saying: “I have sold several pictures by these two masters. Although these two don’t appeal to you as artists, I think you might well take one of each for your collection.” They did, and the result is that Barnard Castle has what Bray, former curator of Spanish art at the National Gallery in London, calls “easily the greatest Goya portrait in the country”, a penetratingly intimate image of the painter’s friend, the poet, lawyer and prison reformer Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés. It also has one of the best works made by El Greco, The Tears of St Peter. This subject, showing the saint in an agony of self-loathing after betraying Christ, was one that the Cretan artist returned to several times; there are at least six versions. This, however, is “the prime original”, says Bray.

Now, for the first time, these masterpieces, alongside a small but exquisite selection of Spanish paintings also drawn from the Bowes, can be seen (free) at the Wallace Collection, where they have been liberated from the somewhat congested “salon hang” of their regular home, and allowed to star in their own small-scale drama. The show’s faintly ecclesiastical atmosphere, with its dark, moody walls and dramatic lighting, is a reminder that most of these pictures were originally made for religious contexts, and that their acquisition by the Boweses was indirectly due to the confiscation of property in 1836 from the Spanish church by the liberal government of Juan Álvarez Mendizábal.

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Which Jane Austen?

by Ruth Bernard Yeazell

New York Review of Books

September 28, 2017

On July 18, the Bank of England marked the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death by officially unveiling a new £10 note in her honor, the second in a series designed to replace paper currency with a more rugged polymer. It would be nice to imagine that someone at the bank had been reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) and thought this an appropriate way of acknowledging the woman who figures in it as one of our most clear-sighted guides to the origins of current economic arrangements: one who grasped, in Piketty’s words, “the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women…with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” But Austen’s shrewdness about money seems to have been far less on anyone’s mind than a desire to rectify the absence of women other than the queen on British currency. (Churchill had pushed prison reformer Elizabeth Fry off the £5 note in 2013.)

It’s more than a little ironic, then, that what appears on the new £10 bill is not an authentic image of Austen but a prettified, Victorian version first circulated by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, as a frontispiece for his 1870 Memoir of his aunt. Based on a sketch of Austen by her sister Cassandra that is often said to be the only surviving portrait of the novelist—about this too there is controversy—the Memoir’s version erases the downward-drooping lines around the eyes and mouth, plumps the cheeks, and softens the compressed lips into the hint of a smile, thus effectively airbrushing the sharp, rather dour original. Even the ruffles at the cheek and neck contribute to the effect, as does the cropping of the crossed arms that helped to give Cassandra’s portrait its faint air of defiance.

Austen’s Victorian relatives were notoriously anxious lest she appear not genteel enough for contemporary tastes, and the bank’s designers have duly obliged them by backgrounding her image with one of Godmersham Park, the landed estate owned by the wealthy relatives who had adopted one of her brothers when he was an adolescent. Like the other great houses Austen visited, this was a place at which she always remained something of an outsider—a point rightly emphasized in Lucy Worsley’s new biography of the novelist, Jane Austen at Home. To compound the offense, the bank has reproduced on the £10 bill an anodyne quotation from Pride and Prejudice (1813)—“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”—that is actually spoken by one of the novel’s snobs, Caroline Bingley, as she yawns and flings aside a book picked up only because it’s the second volume of one Darcy has chosen. Miss Bingley, in fact, has been “quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own.”

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Friday, September 15, 2017

The endless adaptability of Philip K Dick

by David Barnett

Guardian

September 15, 2017

With the Channel 4 series of dramas based on his short stories starting, Philip K Dick has cemented his reputation as one of the most adapted science fiction authors of the modern age.

The most famous big-screen outing of recent years was Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, the year the author died. But there has also been Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (and its 2012 remake); Minority Report (2002), with Tom Cruise; the Richard Linklater “rotoscoped” version of A Scanner Darkly, which overlayed animation on live-action footage of Keanu Reeves; and 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau.

PKD, as he’s usually known, most recently came to prominence thanks to the Amazon TV series based on his 1962 alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, which posited an America controlled by the Nazis on the east coast and the Japanese on the west after the second world war.

Electric Dreams, the 10-part Channel 4 series, features adaptations of PKD’s short stories, each with a different screenwriter. The contemporary appeal is obvious. His stories often deal with themes of corporate greed, authoritarian control, artificial intelligence, drugs and how technology can be used to both elevate and subdue individuals and populations.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Peter Hall, British Theater Director and Founder of Royal Shakespeare Company, Dies at 86

by Benedict Nightingale

New York Times

September 12, 2017

Peter Hall, who created the Royal Shakespeare Company at the age of 29, oversaw the National Theater’s move to the south bank of the Thames and exerted a commanding influence on theater in the English-speaking world for well over 50 years, died on Monday in London. He was 86.

His death, at University College Hospital, was announced by the National Theater, which said the cause was pneumonia.

Mr. Hall was long acknowledged as the leader and prime defender of a profession whose artistic health was often imperiled by financial cutbacks and political hostility in the second half of the 20th century. That the period was regarded as one of the theater’s greatest made his achievement all the more considerable.

As a director, Mr. Hall introduced Samuel Beckett to English-speaking audiences, staged the premieres of eight of Harold Pinter’s plays, helped revolutionize the acting of Shakespeare and, as artistic director of the Glyndebourne Festival in England from 1984 to 1990, brought a new realism to the performing of classic opera.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

David Hockney, Contrarian, Shifts Perspectives

by Deborah Solomon

New York Times

September 5, 2017

When David Hockney began his career, figurative painting was considered old hat and even retrogressive. The assumption, in advanced circles, was that abstraction was wholly superior, raising large, lofty questions about the essence of painting instead of getting bogged down in the picayune details of postwar life. What possible wisdom could be gleaned from a painting that depicts a palm tree, for instance, or the glistening turquoise of a backyard swimming pool?

Mr. Hockney, who is often described as England’s most celebrated living artist, has painted those precise subjects and is well aware of the suspicions of triviality his work can arouse. On a recent morning, sitting in his studio in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, he recalled an amusing snub. He was visiting a gallery in New York, when he bumped into the critic Clement Greenberg, abstract art’s most vociferous defender. “He was with his 8-year-old daughter,” Mr. Hockney remembered, “and he told me that I was her favorite artist. I don’t know if that was a put-down. I suspect it was.” He laughed softly, then added in his gravelly, Yorkshire-inflected voice, “I thought I was a peripheral artist, really.”

Nowadays, in an age when the choice between abstraction and figuration is dismissed as a false dichotomy, and when younger artists imbue their work with once-taboo narrative and autobiography, Mr. Hockney is an artist of unassailable relevance. One suspects we will see as much when a full-dress retrospective of his work opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Nov. 27. An agile, inquisitive draftsman inclined to careful observation, he has always culled his subjects from his immediate surroundings. His art acquaints us with his parents, his friends and boyfriends, the rooms he has lived in, the landscapes he knows and loves, and his dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley. He is probably best-known for his double portraits from the ’60s and his scenes of American leisure, the sunbathers and swimming pools that can have a strange stillness about them, capturing the eternal sunshine of the California mind with an incisiveness that perhaps only an expatriate (or Joan Didion) could muster.




Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Panorama of the Gilded Age, Seen Through Sargent’s Art

by Amy Bloom

New York Times

August 31, 2017

The Gilded Age (of white Americans), from the 1870s to about 1900, is a joy to research and write about. Crazy rich people doing, building and saying mad, impulsive, sometimes beautiful and often ridiculous things: traveling cross-country for séances; wearing leather pajamas while breakfasting next to a corpse; creating fantastical gardens and grand interpretive dance or poetry entertainments at lavish or ramshackle country homes. Mark Twain and his co-author Charles Dudley Warner are thought to have come up with the phrase for their novel of the same name, taking it from Shakespeare’s “King John”: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily ... is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

This period of rampant industrialization produced an enormously wealthy, largely oblivious 1 percent, of which Donna M. Lucey is a most sympathetic and intelligent chronicler. In Archie and Amélie, her 2006 book about a Gilded Age couple’s childhoods, disastrous marriage and lives post-divorce, she introduced us to Amélie Rives, goddaughter of Robert E. Lee and author of the once-sizzling The Quick or the Dead?, a novel about the erotic yearnings of a widow for her late husband’s brother, something Rives then repeated in real life with a similar passion for her eccentric-verging-on-floridly-psychotic husband’s younger brother. In that book, Lucey also took us through the life and poshly hard times of Archie Chanler, who was dashing, wealthy and crazy as a coot, with no modern psychotropic drugs to contain his florid delusions (I am Napoleon). They were a glamorous, absurd, doomed couple, and Lucey did her lucid, thoughtful best by them.

In Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas, she does even more of what she does best, creating a rollicking snow globe version of an almost unimaginable world of wealth, crackpot notions of self-improvement and high-flying self-indulgence (like now; you know who you are, Goop) woven around an often passionate commitment to, deep admiration for and wide-ranging pursuit of the fine and literary arts (less like now). Lucey is a persistent detective and a bemused, sometimes amused, storyteller, attentive to interesting, hilarious, disturbing detail: Isabella Stewart Gardner’s enormous diamonds, some of which had names and which she “wore atop her head on gold spiral wires so that they’d bob and sparkle as she talked”; the teenage Elizabeth Chanler, strapped to a “long machinelike” board for two years to “cure” her limp; Sally Fairchild, after a lifetime of serving as her mother’s nurse and bodyguard, hitting her stride at 80 by seducing a 30-year-old married man. “If that young woman can’t hold her husband,” she sneered, “that’s her lookout.”

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Two New Old Books That Show Walt Whitman’s Different Selves

by Ted Genoways

New York Times

August 30, 2017

More than any other American writer, Walt Whitman seems to have presaged our present moment. He came of age in an era of unparalleled national fracture and sought desperately, although fruitlessly, to unite the country through his poems. To birth a literary equivalent of Manifest Destiny, he created a new prosody, shucked of Old World meters and rhymes, in favor of sprawling free verse built from the sturdy idiom of Manhattan’s streets, what he called “the blab of the pave.” In so doing, he also overhauled the stance and social status of our verse. Believing that “the shelves are crowded with perfumes,” he declared at the outset of Song of Myself that he would not be seduced by such finery and fakery. Instead, he invited the reader along on a journey of self-discovery that would be both revelatory and remaking. “I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,” he wrote. In short, Whitman can be said to have invented not only American literature but also the American author — setting the mold for generations of visionaries willing to strip bare in search of essential truths.

The pitfall for readers, of course, is in confusing an author’s persona with the author’s person. The problem is especially pronounced in Whitman’s case, because he sought to make a drama of his transformation, dividing his writing career between juvenilia published under the name “Walter Whitman” and mature works published as “Walt.” The change was made visible by dropping the fancy, dandyish attire of the formal young man, in favor of a frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass that depicted the author as a roughnecked, open-collared workman with one hand on his hip and his hat cocked back to reveal his sunburned face and mottled beard. He published the book without an author name on the title page, announcing himself only in the midst of his long opening poem as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos.” For generations of poets to follow, this established a myth to imitate. For biographers, this created a cottage industry, now more than a century old, of stripping away Whitman’s self-mythologizing, in order to better understand which parts of his persona were self-revelation and which were self-invention.

In recent years, the search has been aided by new technology. The Walt Whitman Archive, a decades’ long project to digitize all of Whitman’s manuscripts — as well as his published work in all of its variants — has been coupled with numerous independent projects digitizing newspapers for which Whitman wrote, books that he owned and read, manuscripts of other authors he knew and bureaucrats for whom he worked. What has emerged is not a single “song of myself” but a proliferation of selves, each revealed or concealed according to Whitman’s purposes and the occasion of his writing. Early in his career, he wrote in full obscurity as “the schoolmaster,” “a traveler,” “a pedestrian,” “you know who” or with no byline at all. At other times, he wrote under pseudonyms that seem to wink to his friends and future scholars — “Paumanok,” the ancestral name Whitman used for his native Long Island; “Velsor Brush,” a nom de plume composed of his grandmothers’ maiden names; “Mose Velsor,” a riff on that earlier name combined with a popular ruffian from the Bowery stage, with whom Whitman was frequently compared.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ending at the Beginning

by John Banville

New York Review of Books

August 17, 2017

Reiner Stach has a droll way with epigraphs, and in Kafka: The Early Years he heads his chapters with a selection of gnomic snippets from numerous ingeniously obscure sources. Chapter 1, for instance, has a tag from a song by Devo, an American rock band of the 1980s: “Think you heard this all before,/Now you’re gonna hear some more.” This is Stach’s impish acknowledgment that the present book is the first of three volumes, the second and third of which have already been published. The joke is a good one, and sends the reader off smiling on what will be a long though immensely rewarding journey. This volume completes one of the great literary biographies of our time—indeed, of any time.

The reason for the delay in the appearance of the first volume is explained in a preface by Stach’s devoted and richly gifted translator, Shelley Frisch:
This order of publication, which may appear counterintuitive—even fittingly “Kafkaesque”—was dictated by years of high-profile legal wrangling for control of the Max Brod literary estate in Israel, during which access to the materials it contained, many of which bore directly on Kafka’s formative years, was barred to scholars.
In August of last year the Israeli Supreme Court found against Brod’s heirs, and ordered that the withheld documents be transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem. Frisch states that Stach “has been able to examine three volumes of Brod’s diaries in this collection, those from the years 1909 to 1911,” and indeed it is clear that Stach did draw heavily on the diaries—so heavily that at times the book might be mistaken for a joint biography of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.

In August of last year the Israeli Supreme Court found against Brod’s heirs, and ordered that the withheld documents be transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem. Frisch states that Stach “has been able to examine three volumes of Brod’s diaries in this collection, those from the years 1909 to 1911,” and indeed it is clear that Stach did draw heavily on the diaries—so heavily that at times the book might be mistaken for a joint biography of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Anna Netrebko Sings Her First ‘Aida’ in Salzburg

by Zachary Woolfe

New York Times

August 7, 2017

For those of us who admire the soprano Anna Netrebko, it’s been a heady time. During the past few years, as her voice has darkened and swelled, she’s added a flood of new roles by Puccini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky and even Wagner that demand lyric sensitivity but also searing power.

Tosca comes next season, and Maddalena in “Andrea Chénier.” But first, she has taken on one of the pinnacles, Verdi’s Aida, in a coolly impersonal production that opened on Sunday as the centerpiece of this year’s Salzburg Festival. It brings together Ms. Netrebko for just the second time with Riccardo Muti, perhaps our finest Verdi conductor, and pairs them with the celebrated photographer and video artist Shirin Neshat, directing her first opera.

Ms. Netrebko is ready for Aida — or at least ready to spend more time with her. Her arias on Sunday were steady, careful, earnest. Like everyone who works with the exacting, showboat-phobic Mr. Muti, she sang with clean, even modest classiness. So too did the tenor Francesco Meli, a polished, sweet-toned Radamès, and, as the jealous Amneris, the mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, restrained to the point of weakness.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Twelve Ways of Looking at Frank Lloyd Wright

by Martin Filler

New York Review of Books

August 17, 2017

1.

Few things are more satisfying in the arts than unjustly forgotten figures at last accorded a rightful place in the canon, as has happened in recent decades with such neglected but worthy twentieth-century architects as the Slovenian Jože Plečnik, the Austrian Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, the Austrian-Swedish Josef Frank, and the Italian-Brazilian Lina Bo Bardi, among others. Then there are the perennially celebrated artists who are so important that they must be presented anew to each successive generation, a daunting task for museums, especially encyclopedic ones that are expected to revisit the major masters over and over again while finding fresh reasons for their relevance.

Barry Bergdoll, the Columbia professor who served as the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of architecture and design from 2007 to 2013, continues to do exhibitions for the museum, and his latest, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” (which he organized with Jennifer Gray, a project research assistant at MoMA), was a more hazardous proposition than its universally beloved subject might indicate. Despite the seeming effortlessness with which the Modern has spun out popular Picasso and Matisse shows decade after decade, Bergdoll wanted to avoid rehashing its 1994 Wright retrospective or repeating material covered in more specialized exhibitions on the architect held in New York at the Whitney in 1997 and the Guggenheim in 2009.

He decided instead to organize this sesquicentennial tribute around a mere twelve projects, including rarely discussed unexecuted designs such as Wright’s Depression-era plans for a self-sufficient agricultural community and his postwar scheme for the world’s tallest skyscraper. These and others are illuminated by some 450 drawings, documents, photographs, models, and architectural fragments selected from the mountain of objects obtained by MoMA and Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library when they took possession of the architect’s archives from the economically troubled Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in 2012. Financial details of the arrangement have not been revealed, but it has been rumored that a transfer of money was involved, on terms said to be very favorable for the acquiring institutions.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Where Charlotte and Jane Meet

by John Williams

New York Times

July 28, 2017

At the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s, John Pfordresher was teaching Wuthering Heights when he confessed to his students that he hadn’t read Jane Eyre. “One of them,” Pfordresher told me, “in a voice heavy with chastisement, informed me that I’d better read Charlotte Brontë’s novel soon. I did, with astonishment.” Four decades later, Pfordresher, now an English professor at Georgetown University, has published The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece.

Pfordresher matches the events of Brontë’s life with those of her heroine step by step, showing where they overlap and where they meaningfully diverge. According to him, Brontë’s “painful and devastating” yearlong experience at Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge served as the inspiration for her portrayal of Lowood Institution, the school for orphans in the novel. But since Jane had a rougher early childhood than Brontë, the author’s experience at school would have been even “more terrifying, more overwhelming, more meaningless” than Jane’s.

Pfordresher goes on to analyze how Brontë drew upon her emotional ties with five men (two of them fictional) to conjure the passionate connection between Jane and Mr. Rochester. These ties included her “early adolescent love for and rivalry with” her brother Barnwell, which led to a “short, nearsighted, skinny, red-haired kid” being part of the inspiration for Jane’s formidable love interest.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

A Possible Keats

by Fleur Jaeggy

New York Review of Books

July 24, 2017

In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy. Children also had toy cannons that fired real gunpowder, and puzzles depicting the great battles of England. They went around chanting, “Victory or death!” Do childhood games influence character? We have to assume that they do, but let’s set aside such heartbreaking speculations for a moment. War—it’s not even a proper game—leaves influenza in its wake, and cadavers. Do childhood games typically leave cadavers behind in the nursery? Massacres in those little fairy-dust minds? Hoist the banners of victory across the table from the marzipan mountain to the pudding! It’s perhaps a dreadful thought, but we’ve seen clear evidence that both children and adults have a taste for imitation. Certainly, such questions should be explored, and yet let us allow that there is a purely metaphysical difference between a toy guillotine and war. Children are metaphysical creatures, a gift they lose too early, sometimes at the very moment they learn to talk.

John Keats (1795-1821) was seven years old and in school at Enfield. He was seized by the spirit of the time, by a peculiar compulsion, an impetuous fury—before writing poetry. Any pretext seemed to him a good one for picking a fight with a friend, any pretext to fight.

Fighting was to John Keats like eating or drinking. He sought out aggressive boys, cruel boys, but their company, as he was already inclined to poetry, must have provided some comic and burlesque treats. For mere brutality—without humor, make-believe, or whimsy—didn’t interest him. Which might lead a person to extrapolate that boys aren’t truly brutal. Yes, they are, but they have rules and an aesthetic. Keats was a child of action. He’d punched a yard monitor more than twice his size, and he was considered a strong boy, lively and argumentative. When he was brawling, his friend Clarke reports, Keats resembled Edmund Kean at theatrical heights of exasperation. His friends predicted a brilliant future for him in the military. Yet when his temper defused, he’d grow extremely calm, and his sweetness shone—with the same intensity as his rage had. The scent of angels. His earliest brushes with melancholy were suddenly disrupted by outbursts of nervous laughter. Moods, vague and tentative, didn’t settle over him so much as hurry past like old breezes.

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Nose of the Master

by Michael Gorra

New York Review of Books

July 22, 2017

For Henry James’s seventieth birthday in 1913 a group of his admirers commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint him; and Sargent’s own birthday gift was to waive his fee. The novelist sat some ten times in the artist’s London studio, and the painter always asked him to bring some friends along—“animated, sympathetic, beautiful, talkative friends,” as James put it, whose conversation would break the “gloom in my countenance by their prattle.” That was Sargent’s usual practice, and the evidence of its success sits this summer at the entrance to “Henry James and American Painting,” a compact but wonderfully heterogeneous show at the Morgan Library.

The portrait presents James full-faced and with his baldness fringed by gray. His head tilts just a bit to the right, his eyes are slightly hooded, and his expression looks shrewdly confident and skeptical; judging us far more than we would dare judge him. He’s wearing his usual winged collar and a bowtie, and seeing it here—its regular home is London’s National Portrait Gallery—I was struck by the fullness of his lips and the warm tones with which Sargent has painted his face. In 1914 the painting went on display at the Royal Academy and was slashed with a hatchet by a suffragette, not because she had anything against either James or Sargent per se, but simply because it looked like a picture of masculine prominence. It was expertly patched and to my untrained eye the damage isn’t visible; but a picture taken at the time shows a gash at the temple and another across the mouth.

The Morgan’s exhibit includes a comprehensive selection of Jamesian portraits along with other paintings of and by his friends. His brother William had planned to become a painter before deciding in 1861 to take up science instead, and worked for almost two years in the Newport studio of William Morris Hunt. But in the end it was Henry who spent the most time in artists’ rooms, and got the most from it. He too had gone to Hunt, and put in his hours with charcoal and ink, though where William and his fellow pupil John La Farge drew from life, Henry merely copied plaster casts. Still, it was enough to give him a taste for the painter’s world, the portrait painter’s in particular. It was a sociable existence, its easy chat mixed with the purposeful work of the hands, and the solitary writer was drawn to it as he would later be to the drawing room or the dinner party. One consequence was the frequency with which he used the studio as a setting for his fiction, whether in the early Roderick Hudson (1875) or a tale from his maturity like “The Real Thing.” And another was that he himself was often painted or drawn or photographed.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tom Stoppard’s heartfelt high jinks

by Andrew Dickson

Prospect

August 2017

Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme in July, Tom Stoppard admitted he was stuck for what to write next. Brexit, Donald Trump, the election result, the Grenfell Tower fire: it was too much to process. “Art is somehow so overshadowed by real events,” he sighed. “Every time I blink, there’s a play begging to be written. But not always does it feel like a play by me.”

It is a tantalising question of how this most inventive of writers might respond to the events of the last 12 months. But one of the striking things about Stoppard’s career—now, as he begins his eighties, nearly 60 years long—is that inspiration strikes him in unlikely ways. It’s hard to think of another playwright who would write a spy thriller based on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (1988’s Hapgood) or a drama that calls for a symphony orchestra (1977’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour). Had anyone else pitched a two-act comedy about logical positivism, the script would most likely have ended up in the slush pile rather than at the National Theatre. Yet in 1972, with Jumpers, Stoppard not only pulled off the trick, but took it triumphantly to Broadway.

It is sometimes said of Stoppard’s work that it is all head and no heart; that his fascination with verbal high jinks and conceptual fireworks doesn’t mine the deepest truths about human existence. Yet few writers have engaged so passionately with the big issues of our time—faith, politics, revolution—or pushed the boundaries of theatre so far. And in a period of nervy global uncertainty, perhaps a few high jinks are what we need.

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