Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Laws, Polly Samson and Alex Ross.

22 Days in May by David Laws

In the Guardian, Peter Preston is impressed by the Liberal Democrats preparation for coalition talks in David Laws' account of the aftermath of the May 2010 general election: "the thoroughness of Liberal preparations long before any votes were cast is a revelation ... just as the shambles of Labour's non-fight for survival passes all previous understanding."

In this week's New Statesman Andrew Adonis (who was part of the Labour negotiating team which failed to broker an agreement with the Lib Dems in May) argues that Laws' view of the talks is highly teleological and points to the 2004 Lib Dem policy publication, The Orange Book as "a clarion call for a return to classical small-state liberalism", which "conditioned the party (the Lib Dems) into forming an alliance with the Tories that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago."

Sean O'Grady, in the Independent, finds that 22 Days in May offers up a convenient scapegoat for the failure of a progressive Lib-Lab coalition to form: "If, like me, you were half hoping for a "progressive coalition" of the Lib Dems and Labour, then you need to know who killed this dream: Ed "Tribal" Balls, who effectively sabotaged the talks."

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

Susan Hill in the Spectator finds Samson's prose in her new collection of stories to be refreshingly unaffected: "Samson does not show off as a writer; her prose is clear and precise, but she makes it sparkle every now and then by producing a brilliant image".

Writing in the Guardian, Shena Mackay points to Samson's talent for exposing the darker corners of middle class life: "Samson reveals the darkness and pain beneath the most polished surfaces ... she sees the worm in the bud, the canker in the rose, the mildew on the vine, the genetic time-bomb primed to devastate."

Olivia Laing, reviewing the book in the latest issue of the New Statesman, is similarly captivated by Samson's ability to expose the fault-lines in the most polished fictional surfaces: "Lives so artfully arranged they resemble scenes from a Toast catalogue are cracked open to reveal innards as unexpected as they are unsettling."

Listen to This by Alex Ross

From the Daily Telegraph Ivan Hewett, reviewing this collection of Ross's writings on music from the New Yorker, thinks that Ross has managed to claw back the dignity of music journalism: "By appealing to humble metaphors and common sense, Ross revives the spirit of those old-fashioned musical men of letters, of the type that flourished before academia colonised the field."

In the Guardian, Peter Conrad found Ross's infectious enthusiasm to be more illuminating than his criticism, writing that "the most fervent acts of critical appreciation here are explosions of contagious excitement, more like yelping ovations than cerebral analysis", whilst Conrad Wilson, in the Herald, applauds Ross as a critic "who shows himself to be the most elegant and engaging of writers."

Listen to This 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