Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Will Ellsworth-Jones, Robert Macfarlane and John Updike.

Banksy: The Man Behind the Wall by Will Ellsworth-Jones

Banksy is an endlessly intriguing figure. This latest inquest into the man’s life asks probing questions of the Bristol-born artist’s life and legacy. “[Ellsworth-Jones's] book isn’t a biography, exactly,” write Tim Roby in the Telegraph, “it would be hard to write one when you’ve opted not to reveal the identity of your subject.”

Wynn Wheldon, writing in the Spectator, found much to like about this “competent, broadly sympathetic and enjoyable book”. He finds it an entertaining and informative story of a man Wheldon himself is charmed by, yet oddly uncertain about. “Will Ellsworth-Jones’s book hardly reveals ‘the man behind the wall’,” he writes, “but it does make clear how voracious a beast the art market is, and charts lucidly the way in which Banksy, a brilliant organiser, has tried to manipulate it to his own ends”.

Peter Conrad, in the Observer also finds the title of Ellsworth-Jones’s book slightly wanting, noting that the author does more to enhance the myth than he does to deconstruct it.  “Breaking the promise of its subtitle, Ellsworth-Jones's book catches no glimpse of the man behind the wall. All he can do is contribute to his mystique …But as in the case of Father Christmas, the legend, as Ellsworth-Jones says, is ‘better than the real thing’". He does, however, find the more journalistic probing of larger questions about the artist admirable. “Ellsworth-Jones writes perceptively about the 'ethical dilemmas' created by Banksy's marketing techniques… [Banksy] is shown by Ellsworth-Jones to be as capitalistic as his hero Damien Hirst. Banksy once wondered whether an artist should make money from work that was intended to draw attention to world poverty, and solved the problem by calling it ironic.”

 

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is a man known for his long walks and thoughtful prose. His first book, Mountains on the Mind, was what Rachel Cooke, writing in the Observer, called a “meditation on altitude”. His next, The Wild Places, was the story of “all that is left untamed on our islands”. The Old Ways, she writes, is “a book about the consensual, habitual manner in which paths are formed and maintained down the ages,” one that “now completes this loose trilogy on the various ways we're shaped by landscape”.

Cook calls this collection of tales from Macfarlane’s rambles along the trails of the British Isles “an unwieldy rucksack of a book”, flitting as it does from location to location, from Sussex to the outer Hebrides, Tibet to Palestine, tracing the footsteps of famous poets and meeting tramps, travellers and shamans. On a walk with the author, Cooke acknowledges his great capacity for naturalism and romanticism: “The thought occurs that Macfarlane doesn't stumble on enchantment; he creates it. It is as though – batty as this sounds – it follows him about, the landscape and even the weather rising to meet the challenge of his prose.”

Sam Leith, in the Spectator, finds Macfarlane’s prose equally enchanting and joyfully unforced. “There’s little more tedious in a novel,” he writes, “than ostentatiously fine writing…It’s normally bad writing. But fine writing — in the sense of precise, careful and original prose; lyrical without being pretentious — does exist. Macfarlane is an example of it. His virtuosity isn’t unobtrusive, but his tics of style become familiar without drifting, quite, into mannerism or gimmickry.”

He applauds Macfarlane’s inspiring use of language and capacity to conjure up scene, setting and sentiment, and to engage the reader. “You see these trees and pathways; you hear those birds. And there really are few prose writers who take such a poet’s care with cadence…. . If you submit to its spell you finish it in different shape than you set out: a bit wiser, a bit lonelier, a bit happier, a whole lot better informed, and a bit more tempted to pop in to Millets.”

 

Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike

This collection of essays and criticism cuts a nice cross-section from the journalism of the late John Updike. Adam Mars-Jones writes for the Guardian: “Once or twice in the book Updike excels himself, once or twice he falls short of his own standards, and once or twice he produces work which stands at an odd angle to his usual preoccupations.” He is particularly impressed with Updike’s witty and surprisingly enjoyable musings on golf. “The pages on this subject provide some of the book's high points," he writes. “This is an America not much written about in the last half-century, not even by Updike.”

Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times praises Updike’s literary versatility: “Updike was that rare creature: an all-around man of letters, a literary decathlete who brought to his criticism an insider’s understanding of craft and technique.” Although she notes it “lacks the deeply thought-out literary essays” of previous anthologies, as well as containing a few “disposable scraps of writing”, overall she concedes that it “offers the reader plenty of palpable pleasures, reminding us of the author’s sorcererlike ability to evoke the worlds other artists created with a simple wave of his wand, and his talent for making scholarly topics feel utterly immediate and real.”

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst uses his review for the Telegraph to celebrate a writer whose “prose had the sort of swaggering brilliance that surpassed his readers’ expectations and left them wanting even more”. Again, he sidesteps the “weaker pieces” and chooses rather to focus on Updike’s deft critique of artists and writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Vermeer. “It will be required reading for Updike’s many fans,” he concludes, “but it also serves as an excellent pick ’n’ mix introduction to his omnivorous intellectual range.”

A piece of Banksy artwork gets shelter under a plastic cover in North London, May 2012 (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

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 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle