Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

From Death to Death and Other Small Tales, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 15 Dec-8 Sept 2013

Presenting masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the D Daskalopoulos Collection, one of the most private important collections of modern and contemporary art, this exhibition offers the visitor 130 works.

The focus of the exhibition is the importance of the body as a theme in 20th and 21st century art practice. Visitors will be able to see works that have not previously been available to view in Scotland. The D.Daskalopoulos Collection has developed since 1994 and artists include Marcel Duchamp, Tracey Emin and Marina Abramovic.

Comedy

Josie Long, Romance and Adventure, BAC, London SW11, 19-21 December

The comedian is on tour with her sixth comedy solo show, Romance and Adventure, which was also nominated for the Edinburgh comedy award for best show (the third year in a row she's received that nomination). The show promises high-end adventure pursuits and even a moment when Josie will pretend to be some kind of posh Godzilla on the rampage. Focusing on the issues facing those turning 30, including the struggle to keep going when you are tired and the myriad doubts one faces.

Theatre

Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2, until 2 March 2013

Having opened in the West End a few days ago, this production has already received rave reviews in the national newspapers for the star performance from Simon Russell Beale. The play, directed here by Michael Grandage, is a comedy set against the murderous backdrop of the Malaysian campaign at the end of the Second World War. Private Steven Flowers is sent to the Song and Dance Unit in South East Asia where he meets Captain Terri Dennis, played by Russell Beale. Private Flowers soon learns from the flamboyant captain that becoming a man is more than just the uniform.

Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, until 9 February

This all-female production of one of history’s most prominent figures in Shakespeare’s play has likewise been successful among critics. It is Phyllida Lloyd’s first appearance as director since the Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, and it is a return that is certainly lauded. Although Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry’s casting in Twelfth Night in an all-male production appears to have gained more headlines, the Donmar’s show is set to be a hit with the focus on the all-important issues of power and corruption.

Music

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev, Barbican Centre, London EC2, 19 December

As part of UBS Soundscapes, the London Symphony of Orchestra will be performing next weekin the Barbican Hall. They will perform Szymanowski’s Symphony No 4 ("Symphonie Concertante"), his Violin Concerto No 2 and Brahms's Symphony No 4, conducted by Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev. Gergiev will be conducting several performances between 19 December and 31 March 2013.

Tracey Emin, whose work will feature in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's latest exhibition on 15 December onwards. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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