Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Sue Gerhardt, Aminatta Forna and the Chris Morris biography, though not in t

Lucian Randall, Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye of Chris Morris

Sameer Rahim in the Telegraph finds that this biography of the man behind Brass Eye and Jam "cites many examples of Morris's personal kindness and generosity", while conceding that he is "not a crowd-pleaser", and his "uncompromising comic vision ... has often landed him in trouble". Elizabeth Day in the Observer notes that Chris Morris "trades on his anonymity", and "the first quarter of Disgusting Bliss is thus hampered by a lack of interesting information." She concludes: "impeccably researched and fluently written, Disgusting Bliss paints Morris as a frantic-minded perfectionist, a visionary unwilling to cede control of his projects. He emerges from this biography as someone maniacally convinced of the rightness of his vision, who steamrollers opposition and approaches controversy with relish." For Arifa Akbar in the Independent, the book is "illuminating, if all too admiring" and an "inspiring read for budding anarchists". Sophie Elmhirst in the New Statesman finds that "Randall offers a feast of anecdotes. It feels as if he has interviewed everyone Morris has ever worked with, a method that can read heavily at times", and restates the critical consensus: "Randall confirms the portrait of Morris as an uncompromising creator."

Susan Gerhardt, The Selfish Society

Phil Hogan in the Observer begins by this describing this book, inauspiciously, as "quite inspiring" and "the latest to join the clamour against consumerism revived in recent times". Gerhardt is "is more understanding than condemning" compared to other commentators on the subject, but "the diagnosis - that acquiring a lot of stuff doesn't make you happy - is the same". Lesley McDowell in the Independent on Sunday is impressed that "Sue Gerhardt's polemic is an unusual thing: it not only pinpoints what is wrong, but also suggests ways to put it right"; she also "knows that she is taking on long-cherished beliefs". McDowell sums up Gerhardt's approach thus: "If we don't change the way we bring up children, beginning from the moment that they are born, we will stay depressed and in debt", and concludes: "I believe her." David Evans in the Financial Times writes that "The idea that broken Britain might be mended with cuddles will attract cynicism, but Gerhardt has the neuroscience to back it up." He also notes that Gerhardt "quotes everyone from Engels to David Cameron along the way".

Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love

For Tim Adams in the Observer, Aminatta Forna's second novel is "ambitious and deeply researched", in which "Freudian archetypes are everyday reality" within its setting in Sierra Leone circa 2001. Adams quibbles that "There is a neatness and a coincidence to this plotting that at times seems strained but serves Forna's wider point that everything is connected if you look hard enough", while praising Forna's depiction of "Sierra Leone's monstrous recent history": "As Forna's forensic reinhabiting of the aftermath of the conflict reveals, these wounds may have vivid physical realities, but it is always behind the eyes that they are felt most keenly." Lucy Atkins in the Sunday Times agrees about the plotting: "This is delicately and skilfully done, and although sometimes the coincidences seem distinctly unlikely, they somehow work." She concludes that "This is a slow novel that occasionally feels as if Forna could have pared things back a little. But then, the steady pace makes the awful revelations all the more disturbing." Jane Shilling in the Telegraph declares that "This is an ambitious project", but finds that in this novel "Forna weaves an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tragedy and loss". Although she agrees that Forna's plot "has something too much of artifice - almost mechanical - about it", she decides that "Forna understands that it is only by making patterns out of chaos that humans find the courage to continue living."

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