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
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism