Just after sunset in The Lizard, Cornwall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Friday Arts Diary | 19 September 2014

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Festival

Little Big Gig, Kynance Cove, Cornwall
Friday 19 September - Monday 22 September

This is a quirky, family-friendly music and ale festival set on The Lizard - the peak of southern England in Cornwall - overlooking the Atlantic. With music from every genre - jazz, rock, soul - everyone is sure to find something. The location allows a full 3-day festival experience with beautiful sights to compliment. 

Theatre

64 Squares, New Diorama Theatre, London
Opens 23 September

This upcoming play is adapted from the novel The Royal Game by the 20th century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Set in the late 1930s, the world’s greatest chess player is challenged by an odd newcomer. As the game unfolds, move after move, the mysterious stranger reveals his dark past. An exciting tale of identify and madness moving over a board of 64 Squares.

Music

Game Music Connect, Southbank Centre, London
24 September

This one-day conference is for aspiring and professional composers of all backgrounds as well as those interested in learning about the art and craft of creating today’s cutting-edge video game soundtracks. You don’t need to be a composer or industry professional to be a part of Game Music ConnectFans of soundtracks and, indeed, anyone with an interest in music or games is more than welcome to attend any Game Music Connect event.

Film

Encounter’s Festival 20/20, Bristol
Tuesday 16th September - Sunday 21 September
 

Connecting the past to the future, Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival celebrates short film from its origins as an analogue medium right up to the expanded worlds of live audio-visual, immersive and interactive digital cinema. The 2014 festival continues to revolve around two main venues - the Watershed and Arnolfini - and extends at the weekend to include the Cube Microplex and Harbourside. There will also be opportunities to participate online. The festival aims to push the boundaries of cinematic expectation, explore social and technological film futures, reimagine the analogue/digital fusion and debate the post-medium condition of film.

Art

London Design Festival
Tuesday 16 September - Sunday 21 September

The London Design Festival is an annual event, held to celebrate and promote London as the design capital of the world. Building on London’s existing design activity, the event was launched in 2003 to create an annual event that would promote the city’s creativity, drawing in the country’s greatest thinkers, practitioners, retailers and educators to a deliver an unmissable celebration of design.

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