In the Critics this week

Alwyn W Turner on Daleks, Fiona Sampson on British poetry and poems by John Burnside and Samuel Beckett.

“Running through every fascist movement is a thread of comic absurdity, providing a counter-point to the violence and hatred that predominate,” writes David Shariatmadari in his review of Daniel Pick’s The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts. “Hess’s treatment by British doctors after an extraordinary solo flight from Germany in 1941 forms the kernel of Daniel Pick’s study of attempts to apply psychoanalytic theory to the phenomenon of Nazism.” “Here was no great supply of military intelligence but a man beset by delusions and hypochondria” who offered “the chance to explore the psychological underpinnings of the movement.” Yet these attempts to “analyse the German people as a whole did little further the Allies’ understanding of their enemy and less to affect the course of conflict. They contributed far more to intellectual debates about the limits of psychoanalysis and its proper applications.” “The question of whether psychoanalysis at a distance can ever be meaningful is a fascinating one” and Shariatmadari finds “Pick’s description of this reckoning the most interesting part of the book after the sections on Hess.” He concludes that this is “a meticulous work of history and an impressive achievement”, though it’s “hard not to feel disappointment that, for the layperson at least, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind makes for a rather desiccated read.”

The comic absurdity of fascism can also be detected in Doctor Who baddies the Daleks. In his "Critic at large" essay, Alwyn W Turner traces the roots of the Daleks to the Cardiff air raids of 1941m during which a young Terry Nation spent many nights “sheltering from the Luffwaffe’s bombs on his own, reading adventure stories.” Twenty-three years later he was commissioned to write a script for the nascent Doctor Who. “Perhaps it was the pace of the writing that enabled him so effectively to tap into subconscious fears,” Turner writes, and to create in the Daleks “a science-fiction incarnation of the Nazis”. By 1964 “Dalekmania was the only serious rival to Beatlemania”, and “as Doctor Who starts gearing up for its 50th anniversary year, it’s no great shock to find the Daleks revived once more to launch the new series.” By Doctor Who’s revival in 2005,  “the Daleks fed a new nostalgia”; “in 1964, the sight of Daleks in London had drawn on fears of Nazi occupation; now it evoked the swinging Sixties”. Stripped of the “doom-laden associations” of the Nazis and neutron bombs, the “Daleks have fallen out of favour . . . seen by some as limited and simplistic . . .  they’re also a bit embarrassing.” Yet “still they can’t be written out of Dr Who, because children continue to fall for them.”

The curious absence of the Nazis also figure in the life of Miriam Gross, whose memoir, An Almost English Life, John Sutherland finds to be a “short book” that “has the quality of a long conversation with a very interesting woman.” As a child, Gross's family “barely escaped the clutches of Hitler”. Yet “her parents were determined their daughter should not be brought up a ‘German’” and “was in her late teens before she was aware that something called the Holocaust had even happened.” She grew up anglicised by her education at Dartington, “a rather zany commune devoted to art, beauty and spiritual freedom” and graduated “a sophisticated adolescent, adept at French kissing (and French)” and “formidably well read”. After studying at Oxford she “drifted into the London literary world”, which “was not at the time open to all talents – particularly female talent”. Sutherland finds “Gross is better at demonstrating her qualities as a higher journalist than describing them. Pride of place goes to the literary interviews she did for the Observer.” “These interviews would adapt into wonderful radio plays. One would be tempted to say that they, alone, make the book worth buying – if it weren’t that the rest of it is.”

The examination of life stories is continued in Daniel Swift's review of D T Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, which he finds to be “a model biography, traditionally conceived.” “Wallace is almost as entertaining and moving to read about as he is to read. Yet it is precisely because this biography is so good at what it narrowly does that it is also an oddly misguided project, missing the point of the writer it so diligently tracks.” “Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life. He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life.” Now that Wallace is dead, “what remains – and what remains most moving – is the spectacle of care. 'It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies,' he told an interviewer, 'in be[ing] willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow.'" “In the end, he arranged the pages of his final novel into neat piles in his office, so that his wife would find them and so that others might be able to make sense of them, and he hanged himself.”

The suicide of another influential literary figure, in this case Slyvia Plath, is subject of Last Letter by Ted Hughes which the New Statesman published “to immense international interest” in 2010. In her introduction to our poetry special, Sophie Elmhirst shows how, since its earliest days, the New Statesman has been a staunch supporter of poetry, leading Edward Hyams, editor of a 1963 anthology of writing in the NS, to claim that its pages has been the home to “the early work of almost every poet to make a name since 1913”.

In an accompanying opinion piece, Fiona Sampson explains how her book Beyond the Lyric was driven by her dismay that “even arts journalists scarcely seemed aware that today’s British poetry is world-class.” “Poetry is flowering and expanding . . . yet it receives strangely little attention.” “So what is it that comes between today’s British poetry and its readers? One reason our verse is such a well-kept secret is that we lack robust, engaged critical practise.” So Sampson wrote Beyond the Lyric, in which she “set out to map the main poem-making strategies available to poets today. I found 13 fundamental visions of what a poem is and how it works. These range from using strict metre as a poetic motor to building verse on myth, from dandified re-workings of realism to postmodernity’s exploded lyricism.” “This way of mapping suggests how wide-ranging British poetry is.”

Sampson's piece is followed by poems by Samuel Beckett, James Lasdun, Rachael Boast, Azfa Ali and John Burnside.

Laugh if you like, but in 1963 Daleks channelled subconscious fears as SF incarnations of the Nazis (Image: Getty)
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