A walk through the Hoerengracht

Why the Kienholzes' facsimile of Amsterdam's red-light district at the National Gallery is worth vis

Imagine that everyone around you is suddenly and magically turned into a wax statue. You're able to do things you wouldn't normally dream of doing -- peering closely at the faces of passers-by, for example.
 
The Hoerengracht, an installation on show at the National Gallery in London, which features the reconstruction of a chunk of Amsterdam's red-light district (the title translates as "The Whores' Canal", and is formed by adding an "o" to "Herengracht", meaning "The Gentlemen's Canal"), seems to make this odd fantasy come true. It comes with a cast of sculptures of people that inspire a kind of nosiness, rather as the super-realistic work of the American artist Duane Hanson does.
 
The installation was produced in the 1980s by the artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, outsiders whose trademark works were "tableaux", walk-in environments depicting provocative situations. Eleven young women look out of the tiny windows of their seedy, neon-lit workplaces, their heavily made-up eyes gazing blankly at the street. They are mannequins, yet you feel as if you're contemplating real girls, prostitutes waiting distractedly for the next client.

The work has at least two significant merits. First is the direct relationship that the viewer has with these modern Mary Magdalenes. One of them, Geralyn, stands on the street, her hands gripping her handbag. You're invited to confront her face-to-face, and to realise in the process that she is possibly scared for her life, and certainly cold and alone.

A grungy resin, used by the artists to stick the figures together, drips down the women's faces, creating the impression of tears. The temptation to play the voyeur is aroused by the attention to detail here -- to the range of objects crammed in each room: clocks, mirrors, telephones, and so on. Intruding into these lives is a bit like inspecting a personal cabinet, and one is reminded also of the vitrines made by the Kienholzes' contemporary Christian Boltanski.
 
The second reason I'd suggest you visit the show is the National Gallery itself. The Kienholzes' work is displayed alongside some 17th-century Dutch paintings from the permanent collection. Similarities in structure and means of expression are explored. But rather than dwell for too long on the similarities between The Hoerengracht and Vermeer's wonderful Young Woman seated at a Virginal, visitors should take the opportunity to have a closer look at Guido Reni's Saint Mary Magdalene, where superbly painted hair hangs loose on the highly symbolic red of the saint's robe (the echoes of carnal pleasure are impossible to ignore).

Nor should they leave without stopping for a moment in front of Lorenzo Lotto's beautiful Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, in the room opposite. The woman depicted in a sumptuous green and orange dress with candid décolletage emodies virtue, but is possibly a courtesan.

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution