Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead

EXHIBITION

Manet: Portraying Life,  Royal Academy, Burlington House  Piccadilly, London W1, 26 Jan - 14 April
A retrospective devoted to the portraiture of Edouard Manet. Works from Europe Asia and the USA are brought together in this showcase of a prolific and influential painter. Despite the fact that around half of Manet's artistic output was made up of portraiture, this is the first ever retrospective of this kind. It includes depictions of the artist's  family and friends, as well as literary, political and artistic figures of Paris of the time. The over 50 works on display include portraits of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff, intellectuals of the period Antonin Proust, Émile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé, and scenes from everyday life, revealing Manet’s forward-thinking, modern approach to portraiture.

FILM

Breakfast at Tiffany's, British Film Institute, cinemas across London, 14 Feb

The BFI is screening Breakfast at Tiffany's, a classical romantic comedy, at 14 cinemas across London on Valentine's Day. Breakfast at Tiffany's tells the story of aspiring writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) and to his unconventional neighbour Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). Holly is a stylish socialite with a hidden past and her unlikely pairing with Paul has become one of the most well-known of modern love stories on film. The movie will be screened at the following cinemas: Charlotte St. Hotel, Everyman Baker Street, Everyman Belsize Park, Everyman Maida Vale, Clapham Picturehouse, Gate Picturehouse, Greenwich Picturehouse, Hackney Picturehouse, Stratford East Picturehouse and Prince Charles Cinema.The movie will be screened at the following cinemas: Charlotte St. Hotel, Everyman Baker Street, Everyman Belsize Park, Everyman Maida Vale, Clapham Picturehouse, Gate Picturehouse, Greenwich Picturehouse, Hackney Picturehouse, Stratford East Picturehouse and Prince Charles.

EXHIBITION

Sylvia Sleigh, Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock  Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool, 8 February – 3 May

Sylvia Sleigh was a realist painter in New York’s feminist art scene in the 1960s and beyond. Her explicit paintings of male nudes challenged the art historical tradition of male artists painting female subjects as objects of desire. This exhibition at Tate Liverpool will be Sleigh’s first UK retrospective. It is also the largest exhibition of her work to date. Sleigh’s portraits reject the idealisation of frmale bodies, painting details such as tan-lines and body hair. Her work highlights that there is beauty to be found in everyone, regardless of their imperfections. Tate Liverpool has invited LA-based artist Frances Stark to respond to the exhibition, offering an interpretation of Sleigh’s work and a contemporary consideration of her relevance and impact.

PHOTOGRAPHY

After the Fall - Hin Chua, Third Floor Gallery, 102 Bute Street, Cardiff, 2 Feb - 17 Mar
The photographs in After the Fall are taken at the edges of urban development, places where towns and cities dissolve in the surrounding countryside. These forgotten places - discarded fields, industrial hinterlands, geographical accidents – are described as “in a state of impermanence, their lifetime short compared to that of the man made sprawl that will take over them”. These images fix into photographic paper the unpredictable, often disturbing results of the collisions that are gradually and chaotically reshaping the spaces around us. Hin Chua uses satellite imagery to find locations; landing him in surprising and often deserted locations in unfamiliar countries. Taken over several years, After the Fall brings a global perspective on the process of urbanization, which is changing our landscapes.

THEATRE

The Captain of Köpenick, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1, 5 Feb – 4 April

Released after fifteen years in prison, trapped in a bureaucratic maze, petty criminal Wilhelm Voight wanders 1910 Berlin in desperate, hazardous pursuit of identity papers. Luck changes when he picks up an abandoned military uniform in a fancy-dress shop and finds the city ready to obey his every command. At the head of six soldiers, he marches to the Mayor’s office, cites corruption and confiscates the treasury with ease. But still what he craves is official recognition that he exists. A nation heads blindly towards war as the misfit takes on the state in Ron Hutchinson’s savagely funny new version of Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick, first staged in Germany in 1931. Antony Sher takes the title role.

LONDON - DECEMBER 1: People walk past the Manet's Masked Ball at the Opera (circa 1873), Graeme Robertson, CREDIT: Getty Images
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How The Mare throws gender, race and even language into flux

Mary Gaitskill's new novel presents an agonising world of "nice" and "nasty", where moral choice is always constrained.

I never loved pony books. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact – primal and protosexual – into a dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. But then I found that riding was less sensual than political; it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while doing it. So far, so much like other teen courting rituals.

The Mare, like many of Mary Gaitskill’s works, is the story of a teenage girl. The Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her home in Brooklyn for “Friendly Town”, where a white couple – the childless Ginger and Paul – offer her a holiday under the Fresh Air Fund. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” Ginger says. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is attempting that most dangerous of things: to do good. She pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which become an obsession, revealing society in miniature, or perhaps humanity itself.

Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically by means of interior monologues. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially about moments when she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” She is also dyslexic: “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand sentences put together”. No surprise; words are less than reliable. When Ginger talks to her contemporaries – biological mothers – she feels their “friendly unfriendliness” and wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?”

Words are also to do with nurturing: “mare”, as Gaitskill notes, resembles the French “mère”, and motherhood is central here. “I am going down . . . like every woman in particular,” Ginger says, as if women crumbled more easily than men. She means menopause, the end of potential childbirth. As Velvet becomes a woman, her birth mother finds her to be “like a stupid animal”. Parallels are drawn between women and horses through the body: “She kicks because of hormones, because – well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat the trainer about Velvet’s horse.

Naming is a powerful force. The abused horse Funny Girl is rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls, then “Fiery Girl” by Velvet, who both identifies with her and wants to save her, just as Ginger wants to save Velvet.

Ginger at first sees Velvet as a cute animal: “Her skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows . . . She was ours!” As Silvia Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet”, yet neither people nor animals are easily petted.

“Human love”, says Ginger, “is the vilest thing” and “the most powerful drug in the world”. Paul says of Velvet: “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.” S&M has long been Gaitskill’s paradigm and in The Mare it sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship. Why do they care if you hit them with a whip?” Velvet asks. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly the sadistic trainer. “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is back-up. Mostly.” While Velvet uses horse behaviour to excuse her participation in bullying (“We ran together”), Ginger holds on to the distinction: “You are not a horse. You are a person.” Horses remain amoral: “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power”.

The Mare is a book about “nice” and “nasty” – words Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at concepts of good and evil. Silvia finds Ginger “nice like a little girl is nice”. Velvet’s boyfriend, Shawn, says that “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them”. The difference is one of race. “Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my colour – cannot?” Velvet asks. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “just different”, and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.”

Gaitskill’s world is agonising because moral choice exists but is constrained by cruel circumstance. Silvia once had the privilege of riding a horse. Up there she saw “my life, going in different directions”. Thrown off, she has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit people.” Hell is a constant option. “I don’t think God would have to send people there, I think they would go there by themselves,” says Ginger who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting it by “a door in our backyard”.

It is easy to question a white artist addressing dilemmas of white privilege. Yet not only does Gaitskill take this as her subject, but the act of writing The Mare is a direct challenge to what Justine in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness”.

The Mare has little of the gleeful disgust of Gaitskill’s previous books but this makes it pricklier than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. I loved Gaitskill before The Mare because, with brutal hilarity, she gave humanity to bullies and mean girls. But here, like Ginger, she is telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything”.

Joanna Walsh’s books include the collection “Vertigo” (And Other Stories) and “Hotel” (Bloomsbury Academic)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail (441pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt