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
DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit