Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jaron Lanier, Michael Axworthy and Jane Dunn.

Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s latest book has received critical acclaim for its unique inquiry into the information economy. He writes about economic imbalances on account of online corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook dubbed “Siren Servers” which have hoarded valuable data from its customers in exchange for the use of their services, denying them remuneration for this information.

James Harkin of the Financial Times observes Lanier’s scepticism over the power of the internet to spur widespread economic growth. He states Lanier “complains that the latest waves of high-tech innovation have not created jobs like the old ones did” adding that the conventional “'levees' that protected us from economic devastation are being swept away by this digital free-for-all.”

The Observer’s John Kampfner states Lanier’s book has pointed out the presence of an internet “ruling class” as a factor of serious consideration by “policymakers and technologists.”Kampfner adds that "our insatiable demand for information and entertainment and for access to instant communication has come at a heavy price. Most people don't know they're paying it.” 

Lanier’s book proposes a method to balance what the Guardian’s Laurence Scott describes as “capitalism…gone digital.” Lanier suggests that a small royalty sum should be paid to each customer when they part with information used by the company in a similar method to focus groups used by market research firms.  Scott commends the book for producing an "inspiring portrait of the kind of people [in a] democratic information economy.” He adds Lanier’s hypothesis implies that “if we are allowed to lead absorbing, properly remunerated lives, we will likewise outgrow our addiction to consumerism and technology.”

The Telegraph’s Matt Warman highlights Lanier’s doubts that this system of remuneration could result in us “reclining in the lap of luxury” but commends Lanier’s hypothesis for the future as “persuasive” and one which cannot be disputed “until we get there.”

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

 

The Independent’s Helen Taylor praises Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier for its inclusive study of the three du Maurier sisters - Angela, Daphne and Jeanne during “a period of class and gender upheaval, and the sisters' response to social change.” She notes how biographies of artists “often ignore the interaction with siblings in favour of parent-child bonds” and adds the strength of the book lies in accounting for tense relations between the three sisters of on account of their mother Muriel’s favouritism towards Jeanne.

Nicholas Shakespeare relishes Jane Dunn’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters in the Telegraph and gushes how “Dunn, one of six sisters herself, has written before of sisterhoods”. He states she understands that “it is sisters who weave the most complex web of love and loyalty, resentment and hurt.” Shakespeare concedes that her portrayal does “sag in places” but it is a feat of organisation – flamboyantly explaining that Dunn succeeds in keeping, “each du Maurier sister separate and yet still bubbling at the same intensity, like three temperature charts.” Thus the overall effect of “her triptych is sensitive and sympathetic.” It is described as a compelling biography, with Shakespeare highlighting psychoanalytical themes including the du Maurier girls’ relationship with their father, their "forbidden" sexual experiences and dreams of child rebellion.

In contrast, Rachel Cooke in the Guardian  provides a damning and sparky review of this latest installment that tries to establish the lives of the du Maurier sisters. She writes matter of factly that, “Dunn has nothing much that is new to say about Daphne. This version of the writer is just as introverted and as selfish as the last.” Cooke points out that Dunn's most surprising discovery is the fact that the sisters were not rivals in adulthood, especially considering the fact that they grew up in a household where "histrionics were a way of life". The longueurs in the biography, as Cooke puts it, are mostly down to the problematic organisation of the book. Cooke criticises the way all three women are dealt with at once, and chronologically, rather than in separate sections, which gives Dunn’s narrative “a fatal blow”. She concludes how, “Bing, that great mistress of narrative pace, would have rolled her eyes at this book, and set about its more laboured passages with a sharp, red pencil.”

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

James Buchan praises Michael Axworthy in the Guardian  for his “calm and literate portrait of the Islamic Republic,”and explains how the central thesis in Revolutionary Iran is that, “certain long-lived chickens are coming home to roost.” The Persian nezam or system is under threat, and for Axworthy the turning point in Iran was the 2009 Presidential election – in which Khomeini's policy of balance between the factions in favour of "naked force" alienated the ruling clique, which served to weaken the republic. Buchan describes Axworthy as, “an academic historian, and sometime British diplomat” who “avoids the grand schemes and theories that have so clouded the study of Iran.” Buchan notes that Axworthy’s theory of the 1979 revolution has parallels with Tancredi in Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopold: "If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change."

The Economist writes that Axworthy mined newly opened archives effectively, balancing “scholarly precision with narrative flair”, exposing the failure of Western governments to keep abreast of fast-changing events, including the episode whereby the Iranian hostage-takers were astounded to find that none of the four CIA officers in the American embassy in Tehran could speak Persian. Axworthy is lauded for his description of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he draws on first-hand accounts of key military personnel, and challenges the contention that the Iranian air force was inept. The Economist’s analysis is that Axworthy breaks from James Buchan’s thesis that Khomeini was bent on exporting Islamic government to Iraq, “arguing instead that he saw the conflict as a just war to fend off a real threat.” Overall, the verdict is that Axworthy’s “analytical approach helps demystify a revolutionary regime that has needed to feed off myths.”

According to David Shariatmadari in this week’s issue of New Statesman, Axworthy has confirmed “his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment” and is good at putting Iran into context. A narrative with “plenty of historical echoes” is formed and Axworthy makes modern parallels, which is “important as [Iran] is too often seen as exceptional.” Sameer Rahim reiterates this sentiment for the Daily Telegraph, endorsing it as a book packed with gobbets of information and policy advice on how to deal with Iran, and that it “feels like a book designed for William Hague’s bedside table.”

Photo: Karen Bleier, Getty Images
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

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 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle