Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Siri Hustvedt, Patti Smith and 1930s history.

The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt

Rachel Cooke in the Observer celebrates how Siri Hustvedt's account of her "medical mystery" -- sudden convulsions and emotional hypersensitivity -- eschews the "fetid claustrophobia of the misery memoir". Hustvedt remains coolly intellectual in her approach to an illness whose symptoms have been treated with scepticism: "She is, by trade, a storyteller but she knows that narratives, of the kind that Freud so seductively conjured, can mislead. She is open to science but experience tells her some things cannot, yet, be explained by reference only to neurotransmitters and hemispheres."

In the Guardian, Hilary Mantel finds an insight into the craft of writing: "In part this book is an articulation of her inner process as a writer. When a writer is asked, how do you write, the temptation is to ask a question back: what order of explanation do you require? Mechanical? Mystical?"

Melanie McGrath in the Telegraph agrees that the book raises more questions than it answers: "Is the shaking epilepsy? Some neurological bedfellow to her migraines and earlier childhood febrile convulsions?" But McGrath is not wholly impressed: Hustvedt's "tales of medical appointments, lecture tours and vignettes from the past come over, on the one hand, as oddly detached and on the other as mildly irritating".

 

The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner

"Though Gardiner is too good a historian to draw glib parallels with the present," writes Dominic Sandbrook in the Telegraph, "one of the achievements of this hugely impressive book is to remind us that behind the clichés about dole queues and hunger marches, the Thirties was the decade of the car, cinema and the suburban semi, an age of self-conscious modernity that laid the foundations for postwar affluence."

Sandbrook has reservations about the book's length: "at nearly 1,000 pages, it is very long. Some readers may find the feast rather too gargantuan, especially as she downplays the kind of political narrative that might keep them turning the pages". But he claims that it is "a quite outstanding work of social history".

For Richard Davenport-Hines in the Sunday Times, Gardiner "has mastered a vast number of written sources, and the resulting synthesis is also a work of graceful, eloquent historical imagination". He admires the book's anecdotal intimacy: "The cinematic clarity of Gardiner's descriptions of accidents and ceremonies tells more about the decade than a page of statistics."

Lara Feigel in the Observer, having deemed it "a book too big to read in bed", determines that "this is history as told through a carefully woven web of stories, relayed by a consummate storyteller. Through these small, juxtaposed tales, a wider economic and political history comes into view."

 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The long-awaited memoir of Patti Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is, for Camilla Long of the Sunday Times, the perfect showcase for Smith's writing, which is "delicate, Gothic, laced with careful poetic references and metaphors . . . At times she is funny . . . At other times, the joke's probably on her."

She sees the book as a way for Smith to honour the luminaries of the day, particularly those who died prematurely: "her deeper theme of young lives needlessly lost, slowly developed through the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Joplin, is ultimately the most powerful". In the Telegraph, Michael Arditti proclaims it to be a "heartfelt, illuminating book".

"Just Kids" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle