Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Maya Angelou, Charles Glass and Eric Hobsbawm.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

In the latest instalment of her memoirs, Maya Angelou tackles her tumultuous relationship with her mother. Miserable in her marriage and unable to cope with motherhood, Vivien Baxter sent Angelou and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, where they remained for ten years. The Washington Post’s Valerie Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom both as a storyof how [Angelou] came to love the woman who had sent her away” and “of a dangerous time when she struggled as an unwed mother”. Although she acknowledges a lack of detail in some instances, Sayers says it takes little away from the overall design: “As an account of reconciliation, this little book is just revealing enough, and pretty irresistible.”

Writing about Angelou’s style, the Independent’s Fiona Sturges praises the way in which some of the more harrowing incidents in the book are presented. “Angelou has never been one for florid prose, and here she maintains a precise and economical style which makes these bleak moments more vivid, like a film from which you can't look away.” Both critics praise Angelou’s perpetual optimism. Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom as a book delivered with Angelou’s “trademark good humour and fierce optimism”, while Sturges describes it as a “profoundly moving tale of separation and reunion, and an ultimately optimistic portrait of the maternal bond”.

Deserter by Charles Glass

The latest book by journalist, broadcaster and author Charles Glass provides accounts of three young men who were drafted into the infantry during the Second World War. As its title suggests, Deserter explores what motivated a group of British and American soldiers to make the decision to run away. While the Guardian’s Neal Ascherson notes that not much of the book is actually about deserting – “most of it consists of the three men’s own narratives of ‘their war’” – he nonetheless regards the accounts as important contributions to the historical narrative of war: “Because they are the stories of individual human beings who eventually cracked under the strain of hardly imaginable fear and misery, they are wonderful, unforgettable acts of witness, something salvaged from a time already sinking into the black mud of the past.”

The Telegraph’s Keith Lowe describes Glass’s book as “sensitive and thought-provoking”. Focusing on the story of an American coal miner’s son called Alfred T Whitehead, who wrote a war-time diary riddled with lies, Lowe praises Glass for his nuanced approach: “Most historians would probably have abandoned it as a source. For Glass, however, this is exactly the point: why did this man tell such tall tales?” Simultaneously appalled and moved by the witness accounts in Deserters, both critics conclude with the same the same question: confronted with such horrific conditions, who wouldn’t also have considered running away?

Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm

Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen has high praise for Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumously published collection of essays. This book, Cohen argues, “shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best”. Cohen praises the revered Marxist historian and asserts that none of his contemporaries was “better at deploying a killer fact to make an argument stick in your mind”. The Telegraph’s Alex Massie is careful to warn readers that anyone “hoping for the final showdown between Hobsbawm’s unabashed communism and the reality of the Soviet Union’s own failure will be disappointed”, suggesting that although the articles may have been published at different times, the common thread throughout is “a nagging crisis of identity and a parallel fear of redundancy” as the author explores the evaporation of classical music and elitist high culture.

This reading is echoed by the New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire, who notes that Hobsbawm “evinces melancholy empathy .  . . for the art and culture of the ‘bourgeois society’ that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War”. It was, Derbyshire argues, Hobsbawm's interest in “the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues" in the Communist Party Historians Group in the mid-1950s. Perhaps the highest praise for Hobsbawm comes from Richard J Evans, in the Guardian, who says his “pessimism comes through in many of the essays in this book more clearly than in any other work he published after the fall of communism”. Despite teaching and writing modern European history for 40 years, Evans says that he “learned an enormous amount that I didn't know before”.

The late Eric Hobsbawm in 1976 (photograph: 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