Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Rebecca Stott, Antony Beevor and Kathleen Riley.

Darwin's Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists by Rebecca Stott

“There may be no such thing as originality,” Richard Fortey writes in the Guardian in his review of Rebecca Stott’s latest book. It’s a work that examines just such an idea. What Stott calls "ghosts" are Darwin’s intellectual forebears – his predecessors and his contemporaries whose parallel researches gave rise, indirectly otherwise, to his own discoveries. The Origin of Species acknowledged a list of such  great minds; Stott’s book unearths and ever more intriguing list, revealing the way in which the strand of evolutionary thought has - like a living organism - refined, absorbed, and mutated over time.

Fortey finds Stott’s list “more interesting” than Darwin’s own. He’s fascinated by her exploration of an “extraordinary batch of free thinkers” such as French consul in Cairo Benoît de Maillet, Swiss naturalist Abraham Tremblay, and Renaissance ecologist al-Jahiz. “Every character that Stott introduces has a riveting story to tell, and all their histories are told with style and historical nous.”

But Fortey des not see these character are any discredit to the great theorist, rather an enriching backdrop against which Darwin worked – a great thinker who looked at the phenomenon of natural selection with fresh eyes. “As so often before and after, he [Darwin] was starting afresh, open to past influences, but fuelled by his Beagle voyage….the 19th century was truly the right time for evolution to emerge from the shadows…Stott has done a wonderful job in showing just how many extraordinary people had speculated on where we came from before the great theorist dispelled all doubts”.

Ziauddin Sardar, writing in the Independent , also lauds Stott’s efforts to show that “Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants.” He reads the book as less forgiving of Darwin, stating at the outset that “Charles Darwin was not the first person to observe mutation of species or work on natural selection. Indeed, the notion of evolution was not particularly original in Darwin's time.” Equally impressed by Scott’s detective work, he calls her thorough and unusual catalogue of “unsung heroes” a “fascinating history of an idea that is crucial to our understanding of life on earth.”

Gillian Beer, writing in the Telgraph, points out that Darwin was known for his ceaseless interrogations of the natural world. Stott shows “some of the same zeal in asking unexpected questions.” She calls the book “extraordinarily wide-ranging and engaging”, and places particular emphasis on Stott’s novelistic accomplishment: “each of her subjects emerges as living in ordinary weather and among objects, family, and political difficulties. So, without sentimentality, we come to feel the value of these often obsessional men”.

She picks up on Stott’s own awareness of evolutionary theory not as a linear, upward trajectory, but rather a sinuous, stop-start footpath. “Although the book is arranged chronologically, the ideas pursued did not steadily accumulate nor did the people Stott describes often feed off each other’s knowledge. Insights flourished and were lost…. She draws on an array of scholarship and assembles it into an intricate sequence of stories and investigations that are her own. The outcome is gripping as well as fair-minded.”

An essay by Rebecca Stott on Darwin's "ghosts" was published in the New Statesman on 16 May.

 

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

Former British army officer and acclaimed author of several histories, Beevor’s latest is a sweeping study of the Second World War, beginning from the unusual starting point of a Japanese victory at the Mongolian boarder in 1939. From there he turns his gaze across Europe and the Pacific, composing what Ian Thomson in the Spectator calls “a lucid and wide-ranging account of the most destructive war of all time”.

“Antony Beevor has done a great deal to popularise history,” writes Roger Moorhouse in the Independent. He calls The Second World War “a handsome, yet rather daunting doorstop of a book. But happily, its 800-odd pages fly by with considerable speed, as Beevor warms to his task, being especially strong on grand strategy and on the experience of ordinary soldiers. The narrative never flags and the myriad pieces of this intricate kaleidoscope are pieced together with exemplary skill.”

Moorhouse praises Beevor’s “searing accounts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man” and his “eye-opening revelations” including sanctioned cannibalism in the Japanese army. He finds fault only with comparison to Beevor’s previous work: “In tackling such a vast subject, Beevor has been obliged to sacrifice too much of the very aspect that had become his stylistic trademark: the telling anecdote, the poignant aside, the illuminating vignette. The result is that the book – for all its excellence – appears to lack some of the pizzazz of his earlier offerings.”

Overall though, he finds the work well worth his time, calling it a “splendid book, erudite, with an admirable clarity of thought and expression. For a summary of the Second World War – who did what to whom, when and why – the general reader would need look no further.”

Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, admired Beevor’s accomplished narrative. “Every nation experienced and remembers the war in different ways…” he writes. “A general history of the war needs to embrace this variety of experience and capture the interplay between the momentous events unfolding on different continents and the high seas. Antony Beevor effectively meets this challenge.”

He notes especially Beevor's knowledge of “how to keep a good story rolling”, delighting in the details: “Beevor shows an original touch by drawing attention to little-known but revealing episodes”.

“The Second World War is not without flaws,” he notes. “It is a narrative history from start to finish, mainly military in its focus. As such, it is too rigidly structured to permit proper treatment of important themes such as the war economies of the participants … Where Beevor mentions the economics of the war, his touch is less sure than normal.”

But overall though it’s high praise for a mammoth undertaking of such dense and varied subject matter.  “Beevor’s book is a pleasure to read and an example of intelligent, lively historical writing at its best.”

John Gray’s review of "The Second World" War by Antony Beevor will appear in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow.

 

The Astairs: Fred and Adele by Kathleen Riley

“It is hard to believe that Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of the celebrated partnership that so defined 20th-century musical comedy,” wrote Sarah Churchwell in the New Statesman last week, and it seems critics across the board are similarly eager for this account of the famous dancers. Ethan Morden, writing in the Wall Street Journal, delights at the arrival of an overdue biography.  “It's quite a saga,” he says of Fred Astaire’s life, “but we really only know its second half…thanks to his imperishable movies Fred is linked with Ginger Rogers; or with the most beautiful of his partners, Rita Hayworth; or with the most effervescent of his partners, Judy Garland; or with the most technically accomplished of his partners, Eleanor Powell…The most Astaire of his partners is forgotten… Kathleen Riley's book on Fred and Adele…is a welcome rehabilitation.”

He enjoys Riley rendering of the “crazy joy” and “guiltless worldview” that was theatre of the 1920s, calling The Astaires “a salute to an America at ease with itself and doing something wonderful in the song-and-dance line that seemed, for a time, like the hottest thing in the culture.”

Churchwell points towards Riley’s successes, especially the way she “usefully contextualises the way in which his partnership with Adele col­oured Fred’s initial reluctance to partner with Rogers.”

However, she finds fault with Riley’s apparently uncritical adoration of her subjects. “The Astaires undoubtedly deserve our admiration but The Astaires flirts with hagiography.” She cites one example in particular: “Noting that Fred referred in the 1920s to the blues as 'nigger music', Riley hastens to assure us that this does not mean he was a racist: 'It should be stressed that Astaire’s use of the term ‘nigger’ in this context was not intended to cause offence. It is indicative of a less sensitive and less enlightened era regarding race issues.' That’s one way of putting it. Another is that it was indicative of racism, of a time when white people didn’t give a damn if they caused offence to black people, rendering the question of intention entirely moot.”

Despite finding the book “reluctant to be too plain-speaking” and “partial to “occasional fits of overwriting”, she calls the work “an important, overdue recognition of the contribution that this remarkable partnership made to the popular theatre”.

Former New York City ballet dancer Toni Bentley writes an engaging review for the New York Times. “Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails…In her fascinating new book, 'The Astaires,' the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail.”

She applauds Riley's illumination of a relationship that shaped the world's most celebrated partner-dancer: “It becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honour her and make her glow.”

“Riley’s book suffers, though not egregiously,” Bentley argues, “from the rather humour­less, linear reportage — the laundry-list narrative — and the slightly defensive tone of so much academic writing, in which being correct is clearly more valued than being interesting”.

But overall, “Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.”

In "Darwin's Ghosts", author Rebecca Stott invetigates the heritage of evolutionary thought (Photo: Getty Images)
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage