Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Helen Dunmore, Jim Crace and a biography of Syd Barrett.

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph describes Helen Dunmore's sequel to The Siege as a "lovely, thoughtful novel", which acts for readers of the novels precursor as chance to discover "the fates of the surviving members of the Levin family - Anna, her husband, Andrei, and younger brother, Kolya". She finds that "Dunmore's lyric gift is at its best when describing the domestic minutiae that seem so unspeakably precious in the absence of security", and that "Only when the horrors become real does Dunmore's power to disturb weaken."

For Lucy Daniel in the Sunday Telegraph, this novel is "not just an impressive, enthralling sequel but part of an ongoing saga of ordinary people struggling against a city's beautiful indifference, and clinging on for dear life", and an exercise in "personalising a collective experience of momentous times". Katy Guest in the Independent on Sunday describes Dunmore's prose as "sensuous, physical and almost synaesthetic ... also sparse and elegant when needs be", while her skill as a novelist is "brave, tender and with a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste, smell and fear of a story." For Scarlett Thomas in the Financial Times, "This is such a page-turner, and is in places so gruesome, that reading it becomes more visceral than intellectual".

Jim Crace, All that Follows

Adam Lively in the Sunday Times describes Crace's new novel as "a book that for all its stylistic precision and intelligence is, as a whole, curiously half-hearted and out of kilter". Lively identifies the influence of other writers on this novel about an ageing jazz musician: Hari Kunzru, and "The real spectre that haunts the pages of All That Follows, however, is not a ghost from the past but Philip Roth. His influence is everywhere", so the novel "suffers from the sense of treading well-worn paths." Lively also finds that "the politics and the futuristic setting remain sketchy in the extreme."

By contrast, Giles Foden in the Guardian writes that "Crace has some satirical fun with this invented but not unlikely landscape", but he agrees that the novel is influenced by predecessors: "Crace isn't just nodding at Ian McEwan's Saturday. At other moments it is Don DeLillo who comes to mind, another writer who has been influenced by jazz and who has written about hostage-taking". He concludes that "Part of the book's attraction is its modesty, the way it gets big ideas down to a small domestic canvas on which individual emotions and family dynamics are authentically realised", and that "All That Follows is both thought-provoking and a delight to read." Ian Thomson in the Financial Times praises Crace's "spare but resonant prose", but finds it "more conventional" than his previous efforts.

Rob Chapman, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head

Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times writes that "This is a book of two halves, one memorable, one not"; she elaborates: "It is the second half of the book, about the life of Roger Barrett, that is interesting, because we don't often read the life of a recluse." Barber suggests that this may be because writer "Rob Chapman had full co-operation from Barrett's sister Rosemary and other family members, whereas the Floyds refused to talk."

Sean O'Hagan in the Observer describes the book as a "fitfully illuminating biography", finding that "Chapman has unravelled the skeins of rumour, exaggeration and anecdote that have been wound so tightly around Barrett", although he agrees that the book "inevitably suffers from his absence - and that of Pink Floyd, all of whom declined to be interviewed for the book". He concludes: "If Chapman overstates the case for Barrett's songwriting genius and sometimes writes from the point of view of an obsessive on a mission to rehabilitate his hero, A Very Irregular Head is a consistently illuminating, and often surprising, read."

 

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