In the Critics this week

Sarah Churchwell on John le Carré's and Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare's pretenders.

Our lead reviewer John Gray opens our Spring Books special this week. Gray reviews Philosophical Essays, a new collection of the non-fiction of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

“Judging by the standards of academic philosophy,” Gray writes, “there is little that is original in these pages.” But that is what he finds so alluring about Pessoa’s philosophical writings. “Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief . . . Pessoa was – with all his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.”

Elsewhere in Books Sarah Churchwell reviews John le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth. “[T]he plot proves to be as underdeveloped as the characters, the conspiracy so gestural, that it is hard to remember that the author is the man who gave us the intricate, internecine plots of Smiley’s world.” Peter Wilby celebrates 150 years of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. “These days I can rarely be bothered to attend cricket matches but can happily spend hours browsing Wisden scorecards, re-creating matches I have never seen in my mind’s eye.”

Jonathan Bate reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an anthology of essays dealing with the claim that the Bard was not the author of the plays performed in his name. “This book helpfully pulls together irrefutable evidence . . . that Shakespeare really was Shakespeare.” Simon Heffer assesses The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston. “Blake undermined much of what Britain was trying to do in the field of anti-Soviet espionage in the late 1950s.”

Claire Lowdon reviews Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, Clever Girl. “Muriel Spark without the spark: what Hadley lacks is stage presence.” Andrew Adonis reads Michael Waterhouse’s biography of Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s foreign secretary at the outbreak of the First World War. “[I]t was a month of political and diplomatic levity by Grey and Asquith that . . . led to the war and Britain’s fateful participation.”

Plus, in the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Chilean author Isabel Allende about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. “[My grandchildren] don’t know very much about Chile,” Allende says. “They don’t quite understand what a military dictatorship is – they can’t envisage it . . . I’ve written books about it and I hope some day they’ll read them with attention.”

Elsewhere in the Critics our film critic Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan; Rachel Cooke watches BBC2’s The Politician’s Husband; Antonia Quirke listens to The Food Programme on Radio 4 and its take on truckers; Alexandra Coghlan on an operatic collaboration between the novelist David Mitchell and the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa; an American tour diary from the singer-songwriter Barb Jungr; and “Fires”, a poem by John Greening.

Will Self’s Madness of Crowds columns this is on - because someone should really mention it - ceremonial funerals.
 

A still from Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous". Image: Columbia Pictures.
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