The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert Galleries, London, SW1 & W1: Bridget Riley - Works 1960 – 1966, 23 May – 13 July

Bridget Riley’s meticulously crafted monochrome canvasses were something of a sensation in the 1960s. This exhibition - held in both of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert’s London spaces - will be the first ever solely dedicated to Riley’s black and white paintings. On their notoriously “optical” and “trompe l’oeil” qualities, Riley wrote in 1965: “The basis of my paintings is this: that in each of them a particular situation is stated…I have never made any use of scientific theory or scientific data, though I am well aware that the contemporary psyche can manifest startling parallels on the frontier between the arts and the sciences.” Whether you call her work painterly or mathematical, it’s undeniably as engrossing as it was 40 years ago.

Literature

Asia House, London, W1: Festival of Asian Literature, until 31 May

Asia House, the UK’s “leading pan-Asian organisation”, is currently hosting a two week festival that celebrates the writing of the Asian continent. Founded in 2006, the festival can proudly call itself “the only festival in the UK that is dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians, from the Persian Gulf to the Pacific.” This year sees another engaging program of events, debates and discussions that will touch on themes such as Women, Power and Politics, The Arab Spring and Asia, The Geo-Politics of Oil, Women and Water in Pakistan, Persianate Poetry and more. There will also be family friendly events like cooking classes and yoga.

Exhibitions

London Transport Museum, London, WC2: Mind the Map: Inspiring art, design and cartography, until 28 October

Opening today, this intriguing new exhibition at the London Transport Museum probes the “inspiration, history and creativity behind London transport maps”. Promising to be the largest of its kind, and drawing extensively from the museum's impressive archive, expect to see gorgeous cartographic works that map not only a city, but evolving perceptions of design, functionality, journeys and identity. The display with include “geographical, diagrammatic and decorative” transport maps, as well as – of course – an exploration of the impact of the iconic London Tube map on “cartography, art and the public imagination”.

Festivals

Weavers Field and Brick Lane, London, EC2: Boishakhi Mela, 19 and 20 May

This explosive celebration - now in its 14th year - rings in the Bengali New Year with a two-day bash that sees the self-titled “Banglatown” district of Bethnal Green transform into the consummate outdoor festival, with a line-up of acclaimed international performers, parades, music, dance, rickshaw rides and culinary delights. Having worked closely with the Tower Hamlets Council, Boishakhi Mela aims to showcase the best in Bangladeshi talent, arts, heritage and culture. While the primary fanfare will be taking place in Weavers Field, the nearby Brick Lane will also soak up the atmosphere, with most restaurants opening up for alfresco dining and live music.

Various UK Venues: Museums at Night, 18 – 20 May

Museums at Night is Culture24's annual after-hours celebration when the UK’s museums, galleries, and historic properties promise “to come alive when darkness falls”. With hundreds of evening events across the country, this will be an almost inescapable three days of glorious late-night madness and cultural curiosities. Amongst the many highlights: Experimental culinary craftsmen Bompas and Parr stage a jelly installation onboard the SS Great Britain in Bristol, Terry O’Neil discusses his photography at the Ragged School Museum in London, torch-lit tours through the Museum Discovery Centre in Leeds, sleepovers and midnight feasts in Dover Castle, the Sunderland Winter Gardens and the British Museum, and a late night-soiree a the Somerset House. What bliss!

Bridget Riley in 1963. (Photo: Romano Cagnoni)
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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era