The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Design

Valentino: Master of Couture, Somerset House, London WC2, 29 November 2012 – 3 March 2013

Recently described by Decca Aitkenhead as looking like "a mafia boss who has been confined under a sunbed for the past 20 years, then dressed as an Edwardian dandy", Valentino is arguably most iconic fashion designer of the last century. Somerset House is currently showing 130 of his most delightfully impractical creations in a retrospective exhibition. If you’re able to screen out the sycophantic fawning over "the life of the master" which constitutes the first part of the show, it’s worth persevering for the chance to admire close-up the hand-stitched masterpiece that is Princess Marie Chantal of Greece’s wedding dress. This Saturday there is also a screening of the outstanding Storyville documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor– indispensible for anyone seeking to properly appreciate the craftsmanship of the clothes and the eccentricity of their designer. Best of all, this show offers all the guilty pleasure you get from flicking through the latest issue of Vogue, with the smug satisfaction that what you’re looking at is culturally credible. Hey, it’s in an art gallery, after all.

Music

Sharon Van Etten,  Shepherds Bush Empire, London W12, 3 December

Yes, we're just as sick of hearing about trendy new "Brooklyn-based singer-songwriters" as you are, but Sharon Von Etten, though she resides in the aforementioned New York borough, is a cut above your average hipster. Her 2012 album Tramp has slowly but steadily been gaining international acclaim, and she has developed a near-fanatical following for her hauntingly mournful music. This show at the Shepherds Bush Empire is the only chance to catch her in the UK this year, so grab tickets while you still can.

Film

Nordic Film Festival, various locations, London, until 5 December

Nordic television has swept these shores and it seems film-makers want a slice of their success with the first Nordic film festival in the UK. A range of independent films from Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden will be shown. Tonight’s opening film is Love is all you need at the Ciné Lumière. The Danish feature film is a romantic comedy and was part of the official festival selections at the Venice Film Festival 2012 and Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Theatre

A Clockwork Orange, Soho Theatre, London W!, until 5 January 2013

This all-male adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s controversial dystopian novel has been widely praised. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s testosterone-filled production has Martin McCreadie take on the role of Alex, the charismatic yet terrifying young man hellbent on enjoying some "ultraviolence" with his friends.

Set in Manchester the play seems apt following the riots, according to the Independent review, and the fury and anger unleashed by the characters is not too dissimilar from the scenes we saw in August 2011, only violence in this ‘horrorshow’ is directed at citizens of the same society.

Art

Antony Gormley, White Cube, Bermondsey,London SE1, 28 November - 10 February 2013

Antony Gormley claims that his latest exhibition has been three decades in the conception. The artist who brought us the Angel of the North has never lacked ambition, so we shouldn't be be surprised to discover that what he has created this time is a cross between an art work and a climbing frame.

Gormley has filled Britain’s biggest commercial space – the White Cube Bermondsey - with an overwhelming maze-like sculpture, created from more than 100 tonnes of steel welded together. Viewers are invited to walk, climb, crawl through it -  “whatever they want really,” the artist saqys airily. 

Valentino with model Natalia Vodianova (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage