Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dave Eggers, James Shapiro and a history of anarchism.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Although he has reservations, Harry Shearer in the New Statesman welcomes this book on Hurricane Katrina: "Eggers is blessed with a story Hollywood movie-makers would kill for". In the Guardian, Valerie Martin criticises the "queasy-making hagiographic tribute that occupies the first 80 or so pages of the book", only warming to it once she has seen "what Eggers is after -- nothing less than an indictment of the entire Bush era". In the Telegraph, Sameer Rahim concurs: "Eggers clearly wants his story to be a parable about the War on Terror"; but wonders if "Eggers's good intentions might come at the expense of balanced journalism". Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Independent is not perturbed, however: "Reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's documentaries, this is a true story told with the skills of a master of fiction", he writes.

The World That Never Was by Alex Butterworth

John Gray, the New Statesman's lead book reviewer, describes this account of turn-of-the-century anarchism as "riveting... teeming with intrigue and adventure and packed with the most astonishing characters". In the Times, Iain Finlayson praises "an intelligent political and social overview", and in the Independent, Sheila Rowbotham says the book "conveys the labyrinthine coils of conspirators and spies with graphic panache", even if it "leaves the reader puzzling over what exactly this world that never was actually meant to [its] protagonists." Christopher Howse of the Telegraph is less enamoured: "among the cast of Butterworth's sometimes bewildering narrative, too many simply disappear".

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Although "fully explaining the authorship controversy isn't a job for a Shakespearean scholar: it's a job for a pathologist", writes Michael Dobson in the Financial Times, the result "isn't just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question." In the Times, John Carey finds that "Shapiro's book is unlikely to cut much ice" with conspiracy theorists. "All the same, it deserves to. It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny". Hilary Mantel, writing in theGuardian, is impressed, too. Shapiro's "glinting, steely facts" are "the most riveting part of his book." She continues: "Shapiro is at his most combative when he engages with the autobiographical approach to Shakespeare studies... Self-revelation, Shapiro persuades us, was not an early modern mode."

"Contested Will" will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition 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