Inside Out

Highlights from this year's festival.

The New Statesman is proud to be a media partner for this year's Inside Out Festival, which starts next week. Here are some highlights from the programme.

Monday 22 October

University Challenged

Anatomy Lecture Theatre, King College London, The Strand, London WC2, 7pm

Marking the 50th anniversary of University Challenge, academics will respond to questions on life, the universe and everything in a cross between University Challenge and Question Time, with quizmaster Bamber Gascoigne.

Free.

To book, visit www.insideoutfestival.org.uk

Tuesday 23 October

Death and Space

The Deadhouse, Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2, 6.15pm for a 6.30pm start

"Death and the Contemporary" is a series of site-specific  discussion events organised by Dr Georgina Colby and Anthony Luvera .

Confirmed panellists for the first event  include Professor Robert Hampson and artist Tom Hunter, together with a rare opportunity to visit this venue.

£5 full price; £3 students, unemployed and over 65s. A glass of wine in included in the ticket price.

To book, visit www.insideoutfestival.org.uk

Tuesday October 23

On Some Threshold of the Air

St John’s Waterloo, London SE1, 8pm

Songs of Viktor Ullmann with English Touring Opera, the composer of The Emperor of Atlantis, composed in Terezin concentration camp.  Followed by a discussion about the work and its context with Professors Robert Eaglestone and Erik Levi.

£10; students £5; WDS £5.

To book, visit www.insideoutfestival.org.uk

Wed 24 October

Al-Qa’ida Resurgent?

City University, 10 Northampton Square, London EC1, 6pm

This forum will feature Abdel Bari Atwan talking about the subject of his new book After Bin Laden: Al-Qa’ida, The Next Generation, with Dr Shane Brighton providing his thoughts on the implications of a resurgence in Al Qaeda activism for Western policies to counter the phenomenon.

Free, but booking required.

To book, visit www.insideoutfestival.org.uk

Thursday October 25

Book as Artefact

Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London N1, 6.30pm

A discussion of the influence of digitalisation on the book  hosted by artist Sam Winston.

The panel of illustrious researchers, academics and practitioners from University of the Arts London, make  responses to a series of provocative questions, images and statements related to the changing face of the book in recent times.

Tickets £11.25 in advance; £13 on the door (cash only).

To book, visit www.insideoutfestival.org.uk

Friday 26 October 

London’s Lost Playing Spaces: Walking Tour

Fix Coffee, 126 Curtain Road, London EC2, 5pm

Visit the sites of some of Elizabethan and Jacobean London’s most important theatres in east London: the recently rediscovered Curtain, where Henry V was first performed; The Fortune, for which the original dimensions still survive; and The Red Bull, notorious for attracting rowdy and occasionally criminally violent audiences. Today, with its clubs and pubs, galleries and shops, east London remains a centre for entertainment and this walking tour will seek out its origins as a place of play.

Free with £3 returnable deposit.

To book, visit www.insideoutfestival.org.uk

Saturday 27 October

Conrad’s Secrets: London and its Others

The Johnson Bar, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street, London EC4, 12pm for a 12.15pm start

Join Professor Robert Hampson for a drink and a talk based around his new book, “Conrad’s Secrets”.

Conrad’s Secrets explores various secrets relevant to Conrad’s fiction – naval secrets, trade secrets, sexual secrets, urban secrets and medical secrets. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is a Fleet Street landmark. Rebuilt back in 1667, it has strong connections to Conrad and his work.

Free event.

Explore the secrets of Joseph Conrad at the Inside Out Festival (photograph: Getty Images)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

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