Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charles Moore, David Sedaris and Damian Barr.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning by Charles Moore 

Charles Moore’s biography has been 16 years in the making and is based on unrestricted access to all Margaret Thatcher's papers, as well as on  interviews with her and all her major colleagues.

For Anne Applebaum, writing in the Telegraph, Moore’s work is the "definitive account" of Thatcher’s life. She celebrates Moore’s ability to "‘make Thatcher’s story fresh again" and to create a "multi-faceted picture of a compelling and unusual life".

Similarly, Jane Merrick of the Independent claims that Moore’s exhaustive work provides us with "enough new material (including previously unpublished correspondence with her sister, Muriel) to offer a fresh, even vulnerable person behind the mythology". That said, Merrick is wary of the "Establishment-backed and largely uncritical" version of events presented by Moore.

The Guardian’s Andy Beckett is more reserved in his praise. Whilst admiring the book's flashes of "dry wit" and acknowledging the "thoroughness and skill" involved in writing such a large tome, Beckett argues that the writing tends towards hagiography - Moore’s telling of her Grantham upbringing is "reverent" and "sepia tinged". Moreover, Beckett echoes Merrick’s assertion that the biography is lacking in honest criticism - "a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hangs over this book, and is never quite dispelled".

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

David Sedaris presents his new collection of essays from his journeys around the world. Occasionally, David Shariatmadari of the Guardian writes, Sedaris’s writing can appear "contemptuous" and hard "to like". Nevertheless Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls "also sings about how brilliantly clever, inventive and funny he is, a poet for everyone who wouldn't live the ordinary life if you paid them".

Whilst Max Liu of the Independent praises Sedaris’s humour, he is critical of his forays into fiction, describing them as "clumsy". When writing about his life, Liu argues, Sedaris is "poignant and amusing, but it's hard to recommend a slim volume of autobiography padded with forgettable stories".

This view is shared by Tom Cox, writing in the Daily Express. Cox argues that Let’s Explore Diabetes… gives unfortunate credence to the notion that Sedaris was at his best when writing about the menial jobs he did in his twenties and thirties, and now must resort to wringing comic episodes from his life as a rich author, catching aeroplanes between his multiple residences and spoken word shows. To fans of Sedaris, Cox claims, this may feel "flimsy", but to those new to Sedaris the book will provide "some of your biggest laughs of the decade so far".  

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

Maggie and Me is Damian Barr’s blackly comic memoir about growing up gay during the Thatcher years. Although critical of the "brassy finale" in which Barr "squanders the subtlety that went before it" by giving in to a "forced Thatcherism", the Observer's Adam Mars-Jones praises Barr’s "shrewdly constructed" memoir. It is, he writes, imbued with a "winning dry humour" and manages a "very sharp control of irony".

In a similarly laudatory review, Andrew Holgate in the Sunday Times praises Maggie and Me as "full to the brim with poignancy, humour, brutality and energetic and sometimes shimmering prose, the book confounds one’s assumptions about those years and drenches the whole era in an emotionally charged comic grandeur. It is hugely affecting."

This view is also shared by Olivia Cole of GQ: "[F]or all the pain, Maggie and Me is a tremendous, surprising read". She is also quick to praise the "honesty" and "difficulty" of Barr’s record of his experiences, praising the author as an "exemplary figure".

Margaret Thatcher on election day in June 1987 (Photo: Getty Images)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

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