He's a runner

Tom Ravenscroft tries to find the perfect songs to soundtrack a jog.

Due to me slightly overestimating how romantic it would be to spend the spring sofa-surfing at friends' houses, I am staying at my mum's a fair bit at the moment. Which means that I'm eating too much and not getting any exercise. So this week I decided to be a goddam man and go for my first ever run on a public road, taking an MP3 player with me, like in an advert. I now have a greater understanding of what makes good and bad running music, so here are my findings.

Feeling a little self-conscious, I set off with the oft-mentioned Burial and his new single "NYC" (Hyperdub) slowly building in my ears. It's not just beautiful but also a rather elegant thing; the beat sounds very much like the ticking of an old grandfather clock, with sparse female vocals over the top which feel like they may be coaxing you towards running to the end of time and ultimately death, albeit rather majestically. Listened to while on a run, it creates a strangely comforting sense of being alone. I suspect this also applies when standing still. Either way, I strongly advise that you try it.

After a brief stroll in order to catch my breath I put on Daniels-Deason Sacred Harp Singers and the track "Hallelujah", which features on the box set Roots n' Blues: the Retrospective 1925-1950 (Columbia). It at once transpires that this might be one of my favourite records of all time. Going back to my earlier point, it almost makes you look forward to an untimely death, just so you can have it played at your funeral. The song takes the form of a musical round, most of the sound, due to the age of the recording, is a not entirely unpleasant hiss. But the selection of voices in the song is mind-bogglingly moving, with a main chorus quiet in the background, overlaid with various elderly men at different pitches and a solitary, slightly shaken female voice sitting above them all. It is other-worldly and at the end of it I found myself standing still with my mouth open, staring at the sky. Not a great form of exercise but a nice way to pass the time.

Finally, a therapeutic mile or two later, as I had been travelling at an astonishingly slow speed, it was time to play some rock. I went for a track called "Like a French Assassin" by the Cosmonauts, who hail from California, and here's what happened: immediately, two US military helicopters starting flying above me at an unusually low level. I wasn't sure whether they were escorting me or weighing me up, but it did, I am fairly certain, hasten my pace. The first two minutes of the track are just guitars rocking out, building slowly in anticipation of the vocals. On the next bend, the words came in and I was met by two snakes bathing in the sun. On the following corner, a posse of five or six deer ran along with me briefly before bursting off into a nearby wood. I think one of them winked at me. Despite the lazy-sounding singer, the guitar kept me going as two men flew past on motorbikes and then a group of attractive girls in a convertible pulled over to make way for me. This, people, is the power of rock: great to run along to, but if you don't respect it, it will tear your arm off.

Tom Ravenscroft's radio show is broadcast on BBC 6 Music every Friday at 9pm

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This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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