Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Cinema

18th London Turkish Film Festival. 21st February - 3rd March. Odeon West End, ICA, Rio Cinema and Cine Lumiere.

The festival begins with the Open Night Gala, the climax of which is the UK Premiere of Yılmaz Erdoğan’s ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’, starring Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, Belçim Bilgin and Mert Fırat. Five films are competing for the Golden Wings Digiturk Digital Distribution Award, one of which is the new film from Reha Erdem, ‘Jin’, which screened for the first time just a few days ago at the Berlin Film Festival. Beside a wealth of new and exciting cinema, there will also be events with features, documentary programmes, a selection of outstanding short films, Q&A’s and a Workshop with Reha Erdem.

Art

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. 14thFebruary - 26th May. Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld is presenting the opportunity to re-live the exhibition which launched Picasso as an artist. At only nineteen Picasso collected these rapidly produced, in many ways derivative works in Paris. The works demonstrate Picasso’s emerging aesthetic beneath the influences of Gauguin and Van Gogh. The exhibition includes pieces of remarkable assurance, such as ‘Child With A Dove’, and raw youthfulness, such as ‘Spanish Dancer’. The Courtauld allows us to witness the germination of the twentieth century’s most important artist, which the Telegraph has called ‘a tight, compelling, and beautifully installed exhibition’, and the Independent “a real stunner”.

Ballet

Aeternum. February 22nd – March 14th. Royal Opera House.

Christopher Wheeldon, who at 39 has already made over sixty ballets, is choreographing the world premiere of his Aeternum at the Royal Opera House, in a programme which includes Apollo and 24 Preludes. Wheeldon is using Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’, and directing Royal Ballet principal Marianela Nunez. He has put this performance together in little over a month, and it promises to be a vibrant treat for fans of his abstract, contemporary classic style.

Opera

Medea. 15th February - 16th March. English National Opera.

David McVicar’s production of Charpentier’s opera of sorcery and vengeance, starring Sarah Connolly, has garnered superb reviews. Baroque and bloodthirsty, it is the tale of the scorned lover of Jason of the Argonauts, who murders their two children when she learns that he will marry another. It is an opera teeming with violence and the supernatural, and Connolly, its mezzo-soprano, gives a highly-praised performance. Medea is conducted by period specialist Christian Curnyn.

If you fear that by the interval you and your company may require a relaxant (a distinct possibility) the ENO offers the opportunity to order champagne along with your tickets.

Comic Books

SuperLab. 20Th and 27th February. Bedroom Bar, 62-68 Rivington Street, Shoreditch.

Now for something different. A group of science Phd students and post-doctoral researchers from UCL and Goldsmiths are hoping to demonstrate to a willing public how comic books can enlighten our real-world experiences. An interactive event called ‘Crime’ on Wednesday 27th will discuss how science can explain artistic ability and whether illegal drugs can bolster creativity. Moreover, stalls will be set up to determine your own superpower (lie-detector cheating and the like). It might also be prudent to note that the event is free, and held in a bar. Golly gee whillikers Batman!

Pablo Picasso (RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser