Visiting a gallery in London during the February half term is a rookie error. In a bid to occupy restless children, and driven inside by the drizzle, the families of London descend on its cultural delights. Most are free, accessible by tube, and educational; those who dare to enter will be faced with overexcited kids shouting over distressed parents, flailing toddlers on a bid to escape, and those on the cusp of adolescence, cursing their bad luck for having to admit any affiliation with their parents outside of the house. You might expect the entrance fee for the Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition to turn people away. And yet the promise of an exhibition taking a retrospective gander through the life’s works of a cultural icon is enough to draw in the motley crew of the city’s half-termers. Even more surprisingly, they are all captivated. Amongst the trodden toes, banged elbows and pervasive stink of damp raincoats, there is a sense of awe shared by the multiplicitous generations and nationalities flooding the galleries.
The exhibition traces almost sixty years of Hockney’s work in loosely chronological thematic sections. His signature images of 1960’s Los Angeles appear, characterised by swimming pools and homoeroticism as well as rawer line drawings and sketches, experiments of form and medium, and Hockney’s modern forays into the world of technology. Chris Stephens’s careful curation makes this more than a walk through history, arranging the large, twelve-room collection with invention and flair. Each room has its own flavour, keeping even the Hockney aficionados on their toes. The first room – ‘Play within a Play’ – throws us into metatheatre, the art mimicking our examination of it, so that are forced to examine ourselves in the process. In the title painting, Hockney’s friend John Kasmin presses his self against a glass sheet, hands pushing desperately against the barrier between art and spectator. It is a concept that recurs throughout Hockney’s lifetime; ‘Blue Stools’ does not just stage paintings within a painting, but a whole gallery within a gallery. The gallery-goers are a collage of digital photographs superimposed on a painted background, the figures repeating themselves nonchalantly in a dream space that eerily mirrors the room in which the painting hangs.
Inevitably, such an expansive view of one man’s life’s works is full of variety, offering dark, scrawling pieces etched in graffiti and cryptic messages in stark dichotomy to the angular patterns and vibrant colours of his observational paintings. The exhibition excels, however, in giving us a glimpse into the artist’s way of seeing. The second half focuses on experiences of space and place, the same hyperreality of deep pigments and bold lines lent to both Hollywood Hills and Yorkshire countryside alike. The paintings brim over with effervescent joy, vignettes of still life and landscapes alike transformed into loud effusions of rich, warm colour.
A room is dedicated to The Four Seasons, where nine cameras pan down a rural Yorkshire lane. Standing in the middle of the room, you can turn to face any wall and feel the essence of one of the four seasons. The effect is completely enchanting, as testified by the collective awed intake of air when groups enter the room. The collage of nine slightly different perspectives lends the videos something beyond three dimensions; the flitting views give a sense of complete immersion. It’s disconcerting and jarring, but upliftingly beautiful. Hockney’s sense that a singular point of view is not enough to really see is stressed by his photography, layering collaged Polaroid in a patchwork that diffracts our line of sight, producing an image with less clarity and more complexity. Hockney saw traditional photography as ‘looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops.’ His forays into photography and video, like his sumptuous landscapes, allow us to see the extraordinary lurking within each ordinary scene. It is a wonderful glimpse into the world of Hockney’s genius.
By Charanpreet Khaira
Until 29 May 2017
£7.95 – £26.00
Freud is dangerous territory for poets. He did more than just make his mark on the literature of the twentieth century: he cross-hatched it. Psychoanalysis might have been discredited as a way of understanding the mind, but it still permeates the world of words. Freud’s hold on literature is so extensive that even the phrase describing the author’s fear of repeating what has come before them – ‘the anxiety of influence’ – invokes the Oedipus complex. Freud is so last century, because the last century is saturated with him. Few poets today dare to get near him, unless he’s packaged in allusion and irony. Not so, Emily Berry. Freud’s words – ‘the loss of a mother must be something very strange…’ – form the epigraph of her anthology so that his influence bleeds into each and every of the poems that make up ‘Stranger, Baby.’
She charges at Freud head-on in an affront that sidesteps the risk of cliché, instead abounding in individuality. Freud’s words slip into 35 poems that meditate on grief, lack, and despair – a meditation that, as we hear again and again, can never be answered. ‘Stranger/ Baby’ is unlike other anthologies: it does not attempt to universalise or synthesise loss, but obsessively recapitulates it, runs at it from different directions, all the while knowing that it cannot be tamed. If the collection does not ask questions – or, at least, does not expect answers – it simply screams instead. The poems are beset with the background of a female voice – a voice that we end up suspecting to be autobiographical – that ‘screams and screams without any self-control.’ In the play-poem ‘Tragedy for One Voice’, the screaming becomes the stage directions that form a perennial white noise behind the entire anthology.
Berry’s images are stark and polarised, the forces of fire and water competing throughout the collection. The speaker repeatedly fashions her image as water, the sea, or the curl of a wave, as is made explicit in ‘Tidal Wave Speaks’. The motif breathes life into the oft-repeated poetic exploration of the ineffability of emotions. In Berry’s poetry, it is clear that words fail to heal – the collection attempts to use self-expression as a kind of ‘talking cure’, but the speaker is left realising that this as impossible as an attempt to take hold of the ocean. Time and again, she makes a statement, only to remake and restate: ‘That is what I did./ Laid it all out like tidal wave./ Thought you could in fact/ lay out a tidal wave.’ What emerges is her sense that the process of confronting and turning into poetry her feelings is the experience of coming face to face with an unconstrained force of innumerable power.
Berry’s attempt to turn negative energy into positive through poetry is stated with the grim humour of the title, ‘Now all my poems are about death I feel as though I’m really living.’ The speaker mocks her own attempt to ‘lay it all out’ through poetry – to observe her own grief by putting it into words – by presenting a gauche image in parallel, of photographing herself in the cemetery. Predictably, she finds that the attempt rids her action of authenticity – ‘I pose and yet I cannot pose’ – just as an articulation of grief fails to capture its true face: ‘I wrote this down, regretted it.’ An angry undertone emerges, equating healing with self-effacement; ‘Once’ presents ‘embracing’ grief as welcoming ‘my own/ diminishment’. A desire to be healed emanates from the collection, but it is paired with the realisation that such healing relies on eroding the self. Therapy is spoken about bitterly as a faceless attempt to polish one’s feelings.
Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness. What is left is sometimes seen as hollow – the line ‘This is the rain, the October rain’ is unpicked instantaneously by its speaker with ‘I wrote that when it was still October/ It must have been raining.’ There are points where Berry herself shies away from the immediacy and starkness of her topic, asking ‘Can you distort my voice when I say this?’ – ‘So people don’t know it’s me.’ At times the realisation that poetry is not big enough to contain the sea of the speaker’s grief is bleak; at others, the resulting chaos is shown to be what invests the poems with such power. As the Tidal Wave itself says ‘Tidal Wave don’t sing… Tidal Wave crash.’
Indeed, this is powerful poetry. But it is also clever, modern, and playful. Berry refuses to withhold any of her poetic artillery; she experiments with form boldly, an experiment that might fail in the hands of a weaker writer. The poems modulate between different rhythms and styles, delighting in the elasticity of poetry. Some mischievously challenge the criticism of ‘prose-like’ poetry, others are laconic in their staccato lines; one converts the speaker’s conflicting feelings into dichotomous voices in a play. Sometimes, as in ‘Song’, Berry looks to other poets for answers. Here she responds to Luna Miguel, referring to Miguel’s tattoo of a mermaid representing her mother to inhabit tentatively her own mother’s psyche, paradoxically giving herself up to death and believing that it will save her. ‘Aura’ is a poem that revels in its own form, a visible chasm between the speaker and her mother that is bridged, movingly, in one line.
The destructive power of absence is quick, fierce, and brutal in these poems. Sitting in her mother’s cemetery, the speaker asks questions of her mother, breaking her own rule that only the ‘idealistic’ expect answers of their questions. She is forced to answer herself, and that lack becomes palpable when ‘Your silence reaches out from inside me and meets itself on the outside.’ The blank space left by the speaker’s mother creeps inside of her, linking the visible, external lack of a mother with the resulting emptiness inside in a destructive circle that ironically mimics the closed circle of mother and child. Berry’s second anthology, ‘Stranger, baby’ generates a high voltage; its energy feels dangerous for both writer and reader, and no one who reads it will deny the sparks that fly off it.
Cherry Jones returns to the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany. This London revival of American theatre’s classic memory play may be the timely antidote we need.
Like a softening dust, olive-ashen light floats among fading Victorian-style lampshades, a writing desk, a frumpy crimson settee, the trove of animal statuettes centre-front. Looming in the background is a fire escape that ramrods to the rafters, its stage level serving as the entrance to this ‘hive-like’ tenement apartment in 1930s St Louis. John Tiffany’s revival of The Glass Menagerie begins with the expected direct address: a mature Tom (played by Michael Esper), now in control of his life and career, looks back at his past, piece by piece. ‘The play is memory,’ Tom says. Actually, it is a ghost story in which Tiffany uses sound, the swapping of hysteria for more lightness, and a touch of choreography to give shape to the ghostliness of Tennessee Williams’ ‘picture of my own heart,’ his first chapter of author-family autobiographies. The production, which premiered in New York in 2013, and then featured in last year’s Edinburgh Festival, is aided by composer Nico Muhly’s twinkling but minimalist backdrop that avoids any whiff of frothy whimsy.
Of tenacious mother hens in English letters, we find ourselves warming to Cherry Jones’ role as Amanda—more bustling Mrs Weasley than hustling Mrs Bennett—likely coming as a shock to viewers who grew up with the éminence grise of Katharine Hepburn’s embodiment, which roiled on daytime television. Jones’ exultation on stage suggests that she is the only actress capable of a Southern accent who didn’t originally aspire to play Blanche, Williams’ withering Southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Jones lays an opulent Dixie brogue on thick. Her Amanda is a hardy prevailer, a nostalgist whose free-flowing dips into the past are not escape mechanisms strictly, but sustenance to carry her through the years of pain and social degradation created by bad choices made in first youth. In many ways, she does the dirty on Williams, stubbornly maintaining grace and love over the toxic interference that is necessary for us to want to run away from her, like Tom.
Kate O’Flynn once again harnesses her distinctive nasal squeak in order to intone Laura’s constant refrain: placating her mother’s stultifying concerns. ‘Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’s mother in the museum,’ comes straight from O’Flynn’s nose, the last syllable of each phrase expanding like scales ringing on a xylophone and accentuating her character’s perpetual nervousness. While she is the play’s faint but central pulse who necessarily does not act, but is acted upon, O’Flynn’s Laura inherits some of the steely glint in her mother’s iron sunshine. The resignation that she unfurls after the Gentleman Caller, Jim (played with puppy-like exuberance by Brian J. Smith) kisses her, and then admits that he is already affianced, is a saddening jolt—like a cold shower of rain on a sunny day. ‘You—won’t—call again?’ she matter-of-factly states more than questions, letting the bomb hang in the air and then dropping it. Esper is better as a son than as narrator, especially when he is performing a kind of elevated honesty that mocks itself: ‘Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminal’s hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin!’ Teasing his mother’s near-farcical enquiries into his twilight outings is all boyish shtick and put-on, a comic relief that increases our fondness for both characters but overshadows the story’s essential tension. In this way, Tom’s final abandonment seems less believable.
The choreographed gestures could come off as a gimmicky trick—Laura first emerges through a slit in the back of the sofa, for example, and, at the end, she dives back through. While Tiffany’s direction has been criticised for its departures from text-driven concerns, these moments are exquisite flourishes of reverie, especially the fleeting celestial duets between mother and daughter. If the production has a fault, it lies within Jones’ obvious pleasure in the role, left unchecked—if not emboldened—by the perceptible encouragement of the audience’s luxuriating smiles. The first act belongs entirely to her.
Today, much of the world expects awakening daily to the setting of the sun on a progressive era of American history, the country’s political reality steeped so heavily in its own neo-Victorian brand of backward-looking inspiration. Those hankering for warmer prelapsarian times will find temporary release in the luminescence that revives Williams’s first hit, which premiered in 1944—the middle of another period of deeply scarred American optimism. During the production’s two and a half hours, in a rare instance of cosmic collusion, a cell phone didn’t go off once.
“What do you know of the Moomins: the books, the television series, or maybe you just recognize the characters?”
That was one of the first questions asked at the Adventures in Moominland tour, an immersive exhibition currently on at the Southbank Centre; the span of all the different mediums mentioned perfectly encompassing the much loved Moomin’s longevity across generations and cultures. Originating as a series of picture books written and illustrated by Finnish author, Tove Jansson, the Moomin stories follow Moomintroll, a white-as-cloud hippopotamus-like creature, as he lives out his adventures with his family and friends in Moominvalley. Translated in over forty-four languages, readers both young and old have adored these characters for decades, ever since they were first published in 1945 as Jansson’s refuge from the cruel reality of the Second World War.
Part of a larger series called “Nordic Matters” at the Southbank Centre, the Moomin exhibition brings together a collection of Tove Jansson’s sketches, stories and memorabilia from her own life in a completely vitalizing setting. Low ceilings in most of the rooms create an almost child-like playworld, where anyone above the age of ten will likely have to crouch down, not least in order to see the wonderfully petite original drawings rarely showcased to the public before. For the duration of your time in Moominland, all that constitutes being an adult diminishes, starting with the most obvious of characteristics that make you a ‘grown-up’ (as the word suggests), stretching to the playful pantomimes that the escort will engage you in.
In fact, the entire physical set-up of the exhibit is a manifestation of all the different elements that are so central to the animated world. Chilled temperatures mirror the lands of Finland that inspired the author. Dimmed lighting in the space dedicated to the Groke encapsulates Jansson’s period of depression that the character reflected. Adventures in Moominland, rather than being a static tour from room to room, becomes a completely visceral experience, because these are not just drawings on a page, and this is not just a legacy behind glass casing. Tove Jansson drew from a bank of memories, people, feelings and encounters, posing the question: why should the artistry of the Moominworld – with its rich characters and riveting tales – somehow be segregated from its creator, as if it were something inorganic? The exhibition sets itself up to do just the opposite from the very start, beginning with the origin of Moomintroll, who was contrived from a scary tale told to Tove Jansson by her uncle to keep her from raiding the kitchen at night.
Rather than take us chronologically, the exposition continuously intertwines Moomintroll and Jansson’s life and times, both narratively and physically. One area might be Snufkin’s tent recreated, while in the next, the author’s studio in Stockholm. Though each room within the exhibit is immaculate in its ability to transport you to another world, the crux of Adventures in Moominland resides in the astounding attention to detail. Not counting the atmospheric lighting and sound that bring the space to life, so much of what makes this tour exciting for the young and old alike are the novelties that surprise. It’s enthralling to discover Easter eggs, like Kant and Schopenhauer’s manifestos, sprinkled about Moomin’s home – a call-out to Tove Jansson’s intellectual preoccupation with many of these great thinkers, often tackling them in references found within the comic strips. It is precisely in this kind of minutiae that so much of one’s nuanced (and newfound) appreciation for her work arises. The wonders of growing up lay in the fact that the world around us, though no longer simple, is even more fascinating in its complexity.
And Tove Jansson had a way of conveying that. Her narratives often focus on topics of love, tolerance, freedom and existence, hidden behind the guise of a children’s book. But a particularly overarching idea throughout was the author’s compulsion with always finding solace and beauty in the minute. That no matter how bad times may seem (and Jansson was, in fact, writing in the worst of times), there’s always good to be found. One of the stories, for example, shows Moomintroll horribly cross with Moominpappa after not understanding why he does and thinks the things he does. You later find out this was very much Jansson grappling with her own father’s Nazi sympathies, a sentiment common in almost half the Finns at the time, given that Hitler had been viewed as a liberating alternative to the oppressive Russians the country had had strained relations with for decades. In the end, Moomintroll can’t help but still love Moominpappa. Nor could the Finnish penwoman hold her affection for her parent at bay. To love is complex, rooted in the littlest of things, and whether by accident or by design, the exhibit is very much in line with that. And that’s important. Because in an all too familiar scenario we see echoes of today, whereby a population of people can be divided at the seams over a common issue, stories like those of the Moomins are not just a delightful and leisurely pastime for us to engage in, but a very dire reminder of our shared humanity. “One can’t be too dangerous, if they like to eat pancakes. Especially with jam on it,” Moomintroll tells us.
Madeleine L’Engle once said that if a book is too difficult for grownups, write it for children. But Moomintroll and Adventures in Moominland isn’t just for kids, or just for adults – it’s for anyone with a beating heart and a love to share. Paradoxically, a love that, like the devil, is found in the details.
As its title suggests, Rebecca Watts’s new collection seeks to reinvent nature poetry for the 21st Century: a tradition most closely associated with figures like Wordsworth (who re-appears within these pages) as well as an earlier era, and a vastly different ecosystem, of English poetry. While the landscape certainly figures prominently in this volume both as muse and method – even the shortest poems, like ‘Aldeburgh Beach’, are structured in shape and sound to approximate waves on the coast – there is far more here that warrants our recognition as one of the significant debuts of the year.
It’s rare to come across a first collection by a young poet that returns so eclectically to the past, taking as inspiration such historical footnotes as Samuel Johnson’s notorious debt to his milkman (‘Milk’), William Gilpin’s ruminations on the ‘picaresque’ (‘On the Proposed Bridge Over Ditton Meadow’), or the ‘German Tinder Box, c.1800’ which sat on the Wordsworths’ mantelpiece in Dove Cottage. It also ranges geographically from Antarctica’s vast stretches to the warm lawn of Jesus College via the Polar Museum in Cambridge, a city Watts presently calls home. These meticulously researched places and details are not excavated for their own sake; in so many of her poems, Watts thrives on relating the particular to the personal. Musing on a wall map of the British Isles, for example, she notes how:
is arbitrary and without consequence,
except this morning – when, waking too early,
I see that we are both from yellow places
and that while mine spreads out hazily
like an egg frying in a pan
yours is strung up on tenterhooks,
policed by a high-voltage fence…
Watts’s atlas is creased by experience, self-consciously subjective, and thus deeply inviting.
Other poems, reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (Picador, 1999) or Helen Mort’s more recent No Maps Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus, 2016), subtly – and convincingly – re-centre fusty ‘great man’-centred versions of history from a woman’s perspective. In ‘Emmeline’s Ascent’, the ‘unsupported / territory’ of a penny-farthing’s precarious, commanding height becomes a powerful image of Pankhurst’s campaign, while in ‘Dove Cottage’ it is Wordsworth’s wife, Mary Hutchinson, whose ‘pen scratches the paper’, not his. In a similar vein, poems like ‘Flesh and Bone’ (which gives voice to ‘two freaks displayed in the Hunterian museum’), or ‘Emperor Penguin’ (which speaks for the stuffed specimen in The Polar Museum), force us to reconsider the discriminatory and often cruel reasons behind the ways we remember history – and do so stylishly and successfully.
Perhaps as a result of their ambition, and the deliberate simplicity of Watts’s diction, some of her more adventurous poems come across as unintentionally reductionist on first reading. ‘It is not the force of nature / that holds the country in perpetual winter’, she writes at the start of ‘Letter from China’; later in the same poem, couplets like ‘Ask the elderly / they know what life costs […] they saw themselves wading / into old age’ do little work and create the sense that she is unwilling to engage her subject (an entire nation) beyond these broad brushstrokes. On closer inspection, however, the nuances reveal themselves; Watts’s generalizations can be read as an ironically rough assessment of China’s one-child policy: ‘now we live in a lopsided sum…’ In another piece, ‘Ickworth’, Watts turns a self-conscious gaze on her – and our – inability to condense the scale and breadth of what happens into words. The eponymous house is written off as ‘panoramic, / neat, historical, / unpeopled’, not the true province of those who try to ‘manage’ its grounds but of the bee quietly ‘applying and re-/applying its perfect body / to the mauve universe’. Nature and history play against each other in Watts’s counterpoint.
Such tensions prove most fruitful in the striking longer pieces of this collection (Watts’s poems rarely cross a page). If the briefer inclusions come across as quick, though expert, sketches, it is the sustained explorations of ‘natural history’ and its contradictions that best flesh out the many dimensions of Watts’s chosen idiom. Two personal favourites are worth mentioning. It’s hard to describe ‘Pigeons’ as a love poem, a historical poem, or a nature poem, yet it’s all of these and more: the poet’s voice ties several recollections together against the backdrop of Darwin’s legacy, and her brilliant conclusion (‘But things were different back then. / You have no need of a theory of everything.’) works on all of the poem’s levels. Another genre-defying number is ‘Confession’, which leaps between forms and voices, ostensibly charting the poet’s relationship with spiders (‘To my guardian over the shower I sing / scales and renderings of English folk ballads.’) but really placing a hesitant finger on what it means to be ‘so very self-consciously / human’.
The Met Office Advises Caution is, without doubt, a deft take on nature poetry, but we would be remiss to read it simply as that. Watts has not only begun reworking the tradition for the present era, but has also started to fill it with a life and range that helps us make new sense of the past – by paying attention to what is ‘moving in / plain sight, though we / hadn’t noticed before’.
By Theophilus Kwek
The Met Office Advises Caution, Rebecca Watts,Carcanet, 2016, £9.99
Picasso Sculpture opened to great acclaim last September at New York’s Museum of Modern Art before moving to the Musée National Picasso-Paris and is now to be seen at BOZAR in Brussels. The exhibition as it appears in Europe is not, however, a straight transfer of the MOMA show but concentrated on Picasso’s use of multiples, series and variations in his artistic work. Use of reproductive methods can be confusing but this is not in any way an exhibition of reproductions of diminishing interest or authenticity. It demonstrated how Picasso used reproductive processes to bring out different resonances and paths from a single design.
Reviewed across Europe the British press commented little on it. Despite his major influence on twentieth century art comprehensive exhibitions of Picasso’s sculpture have been few. Even during his lifetime while pieces were exhibited, it was infinitely less so than were his paintings. There were also fewer publications dealing with his sculpture. Some spread the word, like André Breton’s Picasso dans son element in the 1933 inaugural issue of Minotaure. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s book, The Sculptures of Picasso, finally published in 1949, was the first significant study of Picasso’s sculpture. Both these publications were aided by Brassaï’s haptic photographs that with dramatic camera angles and lighting emphasised the sculpture’s tangible qualities. It was not until the huge 1966 Homage à Pablo Picasso exhibition, in celebration of Picasso’s eighty fifth birthday, that he let much of the work he had kept hidden behind his studio doors be exhibited for the first time and the public at large were duly awed by its fecundity and invention. Since then major exhibitions of Picasso’s sculptures have occurred only once in a generation and his sculptures remain little known. As Picasso kept most of it himself, both the plasters and bronze casts, comprehensive exhibitions of it cannot be drawn solely from the four museums in France and Spain devoted to his work. Much of the work still remains with his heirs, the Picasso family, and they have made generous loans to the exhibition, adding to the exhibitions significance.
Picasso underwent a very thorough classical training as a painter but had no training at all as a sculptor. His approach to his sculpture was notably non-traditional and full of improvisation and the Musée Picasso’s exhibition starts with just such a piece of improvisation. Two not quite identical pieces face each other, two versions of La femme enceinte, from 1950. One is made in plaster incorporating ceramic pots forming the woman’s breasts and swelling belly; the other is a cast in bronze. It must be noted that throughout his life for Picasso it was his plaster sculptures that where the originals. They were not intermediary stages on the way to becoming bronzes. Thus these would be two separate works for Picasso. The change in La femme enceinte’s materials also changes their resonance. The plaster and hollow ceramic version conveys ideas of fragility and the concept of woman as vessel privately carrying the child within; cast in more robust bronze the vessel qualities and fragility are lost, but tradition, enduring, stable and timelessness is evoked linking it to monumental public sculpture.
Sculpture was an integral part of Picasso’s practice throughout his life, although it remained a sporadic activity done in distinct periods with years often passing between these periods. Each burst of activity brought a different approach and themes he addressed in one medium are found across his whole oeuvre.
Having opened with the 1950 La femme enceinte, the exhibition then follows a chronological path and the viewer is confronted with multiple pieces, many of them the same. They are casts from clay sculptures Picasso sold the art dealer, Ambrose Vollard, in September 1910 that Vollard, not Picasso, cast in bronze for commercial and traditional aesthetic purposes. While it is not clear how many casts Vollard had made exhibited here are three bronzes of Picasso’s 1905 Le Fou, two of the 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) and four bronzes and two plasters of Picasso’s 1909 cubist Head of a Woman (Fernande). The earlier 1906 Head of a Woman (Fernande) with its rough unfinished hair and an unevenly modelled face, one eye left just sketched in, looks back to Rodin’s obsession with the non finito, while Picasso’s 1909 Head of a Woman (Fernande) look forwards to cubism, the past and the future. Seeing so many multiples draws the eye to compare forms, finishes and patinations, of which I wish there had been more discussion.
A ‘Primitivist’ room devoted to wooden sculptures, carved with rudimentary tools from 1906 to 1908 shows Picasso edging towards cubism in an exploration of Iberian and early Romanesque Catalan sculpture and African tribal masks with totemic faceted qualities. His exploration of the multiple truly begins with his Verre d’absinthe from 1914, a piece the dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had cast in bronze. Rarely seen together as here all six casts of the Verre are displayed in the same case allowing direct comparison, in New York they were separated in separate cases. While the casts are similar in form and all topped with a real absinthe spoon and bronze lump of sugar. Picasso painted each cast differently with spots, solid colours and sand for texture varying them. His ability to play ambiguously with forms is seen in the jaunty angle of the absinthe spoon on the glass’s rim that recalls a flâneur’s straw boater, or the slouch of a drinker of absinthe? The same room contains tiny, hand sized, cubist bas reliefs that show the theme of opacity and transparency explored in the Verre that relate to Picasso and Braque’s cubist obsession with the piercing of solid form.
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Picasso again dealing with pieced or transparent forms creating a series of small maquettes in response to a rare commission for a monument to mark the grave of his friend, the poet and critic, Guilliame Apollinaire, who had died in 1918. Using rods and wires he created three-dimensional drawings in space, sculptures made from nothingness that echo the void his friend’s death had left and refer to Apollinaire’s The poète assassin in which Picasso’s alter ego, the Bird of Benin, had made a ‘profound statue made out of nothing, like poetry and glory’.
Not possessing the quality of mass usually associated with fine art sculpture, but made from a void by construction and forging techniques linked them to the minor genre of the decorative arts not to traditional, commemorative sculpture. They were just too radicle. The committee turned each maquette down and none would leave the artist’s possession. Yet Picasso’s engagement with the them continued and later in his life he commissioned enlargements of these maquettes from Joseph Marius Triola, through whom he made bent metal sculpture in the 1960s.
When working in metal Picasso was always heavily reliant on the technical expertise of others and for the Apollinaire maquettes he was aided by the Catalan metalsmith, Julio González. This period of sculptural activity, late 1920s and early 1930s, saw Picasso involved more personally in the making of many of his metal sculpture and the work on Apollinaire’s monument culminated, for Picasso at least, with his full sized La femme au jardin created out of scraps of iron found in González’s workshop. Picasso got González to copy this iron sculpture in welded and forged bronze and both pieces are in the current exhibition. They stand confronting each other with their philodendron branches and windblown hair on the museum’s first floor landing, one painted white, one patinated black. The collaboration with González resulted in the creation of other pieces, the Tête de femme and Tête d’homme among them. Like La femme au jardin they were made from workshop scraps, but Tête de femme incorporates a domestic object, a colander that forms the back of the woman’s head.
Undeterred by the failure of the Apollinaire commission Picasso continued working on sculpture during the 1930s at his country house, Boisgeloup, there he produced a series of tall narrow angular wooden figures, carved in fir that recall the stockier pieces he carved in 1906 leading up to cubism. None withstanding his untraditional approach to the making of his sculpture Picasso now had examples of these pieces cast in bronze thus treating them in a traditional way. They are among the first Picasso himself, rather than a dealer, had cast in bronze. He would use bronze to unify and evoke tradition in the most untraditional of materials.
There follows a series of plaster biomorphic human forms. Similar contorted figures appear in his paintings done the same year. They culminate in the great plaster heads of his mistress Marie-Thérèse in which he gradually distorted her physiognomy into surreal creations that express unconscious desires, yet classical art emerges in a series of plaster bas reliefs of Marie-Thérèse that recall classical Roman coins and more playful ancient Gallo-roman coins, popular with the surrealists at the time.
Earlier we had seen Picasso use found objects, the absinthe spoon and colander, now working in plaster allowed him to ‘borrow’ textures, taking casts from corrugated cardboard, cloth or leaves, amalgamating them into mythic sprites like La femme au feuillage, of 1934, in her classical chiton. All of these processes were transgressive but they would be translated into bronze as Picasso had a large number of his 1930s plaster sculptures cast in bronze during World War II. Ostensibly this was done for their security, plaster being delicate and likely to break, by that time using the traditional bronze casting process could be termed a subversive act.
His work with objet trouvé continued both during and after the war and employed with great skill and humour simultaneously having them cast into bronze. This time, as Picasso himself would say, it was to give ‘the most diverse objects such unity that it’s sometimes difficult to identify the constituent parts.’ Yet that double vision is the key to their magic. One sees the old basket, the outsized shoe and the corrugated card in his 1950 Petite Fille sautant à la corde, but they also read as the girl’s body, feet and hair. La guenon et son petit of 1951 famously incorporates his son Claude’s toy cars to form the ape’s head, a ceramic pot for the belly and a car spring for the tail; some say the sculpture is of the artist himself holding his baby son, Claude, or there is the 1958 Tête made from a wooden box, nails, buttons for eyes and plaster. This latter piece again incorporates a void; the inside of the box with which he evokes the volume of the head itself. The box’s thin walls look forwards to Picasso’s bent metal sculptures. All of these pieces are displayed next to their bronze casts, tradition and innovation, sameness and difference side by side.
Picasso’s bent metal sculpture begun in two-dimensions in paper then enlarged into sheet metal with the help of Tobias Jellinek in the 1950s, Lionel Prejger and Triola in the 1960s, the work again approaches the issues of mass and solidity by using media associated with their opposites. Their subtle folds cast shadows indicating the volume and weight of traditional sculptural qualities. Often asking his collaborators to make two or more examples of the same pieces, he would take come further painting them colourfully, like Femme au chapeau of 1961-1963 that sits beside an unpainted version, form and colour beside each other. This colourful work chimes with to his painting, his ceramics and painted wooden sculptures in turn linking them to medieval polychromy. Other pieces were enlarged to monumental size in Bétogravure concrete by Carl Nesjar fulfilling a long time interest of Picasso’s that of monumental sculpture, yet as always approaching traditional attribute of fine art sculpture in transgressive ways.
The exhibition carried the sculpture’s inventiveness lightly. Themes were explored in different ways over years. Their playfulness made it is easy to overlook or dismiss their subversive message. Still tradition was always there, Daphne still run from Apollo in his La femme au jardin. This was an exhibition that does what exhibitions should do: make you look and think.
Over her three-decade long career, Icelandic artist Björk has always blurred limits; genre limits between experimental and pop music, verbal limits between language and scat singing, formal limits between music and visual art.
‘Björk Digital’ is an embodiment of this blurring, for the exhibition is an unclassifiable show that is in equal parts tech demo, cutting-edge visual album and performance art. The exhibition is built on tracks from her latest record Vulnicura (One Little Indian, 2015), a self-professed ‘complete heartbreak album’ after the artist’s separation from her long-time partner. The first five of the six rooms that comprise the exhibition are different types of virtual reality presentations, each set to one of the tracks from Vulnicura.
First there is ‘Black Lake’, set in a dark room with projections on opposite walls and surround sound. Björk stumbles around a volcanic landscape as blue lava bleeds from the rocks around her. Her powerful interpretive dancing has her beating her chest until she dies and is reborn in lush green hills. The changing quality of sound is fascinating, and has viewers walking around the space trying to hear every note of the haunting track.
In the next three rooms viewers sit on stools with virtual reality headsets on, moving from the gorgeously sad beach of ‘Stonemilker’ to the nightmarish ‘Mouth Mantra’, filmed from the inside of Björk’s mouth as she sings the most terrifying track from Vulnicura. While the ideas are perfect, unfortunately they are ahead of the technology; the images are low-resolution and the immersion is broken by visible pixels.
This is not a problem in the penultimate room, that is also the most technically demanding. ‘Notget VR’, instead of using wireless headsets with smartphones in them, wired headsets hang from the ceiling, and viewers are invited to walk around the space. An initially life-size glowing outline of the artist grows and grows, endlessly pacing forwards as she spits out her words to angry strings. Not cowering away from her goddess-like apparition is difficult; the immersion is total.
While Vulnicura is a narrative album, the songs are here presented out of order. This has a jarring effect; while ‘Stonemilker’ is a heartbreaking attempt at keeping a failing relationship together, it comes after ‘Black Lake’, a song from the pits of post-breakup hell that has a clear turning point towards positivity in its closing minutes. The presentations must be thus interpreted as separate pieces, which means that some of the album’s momentum is lost.
Another problematic element is the placement of the rooms themselves. Paradoxically, what is supposed to be the most immersive form currently available consistently breaks the immersion that the artist works so hard to achieve. Aside from the unavoidable awkwardness of having to place heavy equipment on your head, and having to endure an explanation on how to adjust the focus and volume for each piece, the rooms are also separated by corridors and are on different floors, which causes drastic changes in lighting levels. This layout seems to be a result of the exhibition being spread out over Somerset House’s New Wing, and it would certainly benefit from a smaller, more contained space.
After the virtual reality rooms, visitors are led to the ‘Cinema Room’, in which over twenty of Björk’s music videos play on a large screen, with crystal-clear sound quality. While the videos are consistently thought-provoking and well presented, they highlight again the technical limitations in some of the virtual reality rooms.
What this room does reveal is that virtual reality seems to be the technology that Björk has been waiting for. Her videos have always placed emphasis on movement and immersion. ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993) directed by Stephane Sednaoui, for example, has Björk performing on the bed of a truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. It is difficult to think of a scene more suited to being filmed in virtual reality.
While Björk is the focal point of each piece (no other person features in any of the virtual reality videos, and very few others in the cinema room screenings) it is important to remember that ‘Björk Digital’ is a quintessentially collaborative project. From the directors of the videos, to the talented session musicians and multiple producers of Vulnicura, to the virtual reality boffins who make Björk’s wonderfully bonkers ideas possible, these are people working on art that is not technically perfect, but original and necessary.
‘I wish to synchronise our feelings’ sings Björk on ‘Stonemilker’. This goal becomes easy when the artist is standing in front of you, life-size, staring into your eyes, bearing out her soul just inches from your face. Briefly, you can forget the heavy contraption strapped to your head, and that the image has visible pixels. ‘Björk Digital’ uses virtual reality well, and does more than enough to be moving and establish a true connection between artist and viewer, despite its technical limitations. It is yet another success led by an artist who is always looking forward.
If you put on a production of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, how much does anyone care that the action is ostensibly set in the streets around them? My guess is that we understand when a setting is a stand in for ‘far far away’, and are happy to displace it in our heads to another similarly foreign location for the duration of the show. This question is at the front of the mind when watching Rufus Norris’s new National Theatre production of TheThreepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Victorian London-set fable. This is no more a play about London than The Barber of Seville is about Seville, but putting it on the National stage means you can’t avoid certain reflections on the city itself.
For Brecht himself in 1928, Victorian London was the very image of the bourgeois capitalist city, and thus a good place to set a myth about its myriad failings. To their credit Norris and translator Simon Stephens have chosen to lean into the grounding the locality provides, so that references to Rotherhithe and Canning Town don’t come across as the meanderings of a slightly lost German working off a dated guidebook.
Part of the effectiveness of the London-setting comes in the earthiness of Stephens’s script. The slightly distant quality of Brecht’s words when translated over-literally is replaced with filth, and fury, and a kind of almost Falstaffian ribaldry suiting the East End down to the gutter. Stephens is a playwright who, when it’s called for, can put contemporary spoken English to full obscene effect, and he relishes it here: we are left in no doubt which part of Macheath’s anatomy is doing his thinking for him. Nor are we left in any doubt as to what kind of comradeship he and the chief of police enjoyed in their army days (the production follows the current trend of removing the ‘sub’ from any homoerotic subtext in the original play; while this can be a little on the nose, it is probably worth it as long as men kissing is still even a slightly surprising sight on the stage).
In many ways, however, this is a relatively purist Brecht production: Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary set is constructed in front our eyes, managing to appear both elaborate and eye-wateringly precarious at the same time as counterweights fly across the stage and large pieces of moving scaffolding come within an inch of seemingly decapitating cast members. This is theatre not so much with its heart on its sleeve as with all its other internal organs worn for all to see. Indeed, the slapstick element, with cops running after robbers in physical sequences that play like the demented dark mirror of Benny Hill, is one of the production’s great trump cards. If the language is good at giving us the scummy undercurrent of London life, then the pictures on stage give us its equivalent: Hogarth by way of Keaton.
Fun as it is to see Brecht performed in a way we might imagine the Berliner Ensemble might have wanted it, all unpretentious bare bones and moving parts, I am not sure if the politics of the show come through clearly enough. For one thing, Rory Kinnear’s Macheath, while every bit as shark-like as his entrance number suggests, is never quite seductive enough either in antiheroic charm or in singing voice to really sell us on the corruption of aspirational capitalism. And while Rosalie Craig’s Polly is by far the standout performance, her extraordinary renditions of ‘Pirate Jenny’ and the ‘Barbara Song’ give such terrifying, vengeful bite to the gender politics of the piece that the class politics fades into the background. As with much Brecht performed today, when no longer agitprop the messages can become diffuse, and even contradictory.
Looking for contemporary resonance in the show might be a fools’ errand, but with a kind of left-wing politics with which Brecht might have been at least passingly familiar in the ascendant it is a fun game to play. Yet the exhilarating tensions of the Weimar Germany it derives from – when the world seemed in flux and the only question seemed which flavour of street politics, left or right, would triumph – are far removed from the comfortable academic lives of the left’s champions today. My chief thought watching the procession of pimps and whores and cut-throats was not only that Momentum members had never met them, but wouldn’t want to. The moral portrait Brecht paints is one of humans running around London driven by animal instincts, rats in the capitalist rat race. ‘It was for the tax advantages!’ pleads Mack to a jilted lover to explain away his sudden marriage to another woman, sounding like someone taken in by a David Cameron-era Tory party soundbite.
But if this Victorian society is hardly a Big Society, it is not a society ripe for a Corbyn revolution either. The ‘Ballad of the Easy Life’ with which Kinnear serenades us upon our return from the interval mocks ascetics and intellectuals of the bearded Islington sort. He just wants his comfortable life, and will happily walk over such people to get there. Brecht of course is parodying the cut-throats of the free market, but it is significant that Macheath is an aspirational lower-middle-class businessman. At the very least Brecht would have wanted any decent revolutionary party to understand them before changing the system. But in Norris’s production politics at street level is a carnivalesque tangle of gender struggle and disability rights, the false loyalty of a twenty-foot St George’s flag and the sudden treachery of a sex worker. There are too many people out for their own gain for the grand common purpose of a Corbyn-Labour London.
The desired class-consciousness of Brecht’s street-level theatre is not going to be the straightforward outcome on the audience of the National Theatre, I think. But this is still an excellent and timely production, and one that, given the hero’s falling foul of the offshore accounts he has attempted to keep his money safe in, should remind us to keep track of just where money is going and who stands to benefit in this (still) most capitalist of capitals.
By Fred Maynard
The Threepenny Opera, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann, in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens, The National Theatre, playing until 1 October.
For more information and tickets visit The National Theatre website here.
It is difficult to put a finger on the immediate aftermath of reading The Red and Yellow Nothing: there is puzzlement, rage, and wonder, but ultimately the sense that Jay Bernard has created a rare and beautiful thing. Part contemporary verse drama, part mythic retelling, the pamphlet – containing one long poem, broken into sections with stage directions – is framed as a ‘prequel to the tale of Sir Morien, son of Agloval’, narrating the backstory of the young Moor’s arrival in Camelot.
Its premise is cleverly, and comically, formulaic. Morien and his horse, Young’un, gallop onto the scene in search of his father, a knight of the Round Table. They kill a poet, lose a tournament, encounter a mysterious woman, find Morien’s mother in a strange village, and endure other fantastical trials before crossing a wasteland to Camelot. The true quest, however, is not Morien’s but ours. Employing metrical ballads and concrete poems with equal vigour, Bernard takes us on a visual and allusive journey to test the imagination, thus putting the poet’s resources of sight and sound to full use.
While two conscientious footnotes point us to direct quotes from William Dunbar and Kendrick Lamar, it does not take long to see that the entire text is crinkled with allusions. Bernard’s use of Sir Morien’s story alone is a case in point: the tale has tangled roots with various Arthurian tales, including Parzival, and she draws fully on the immigrant resonances of Morien’s name (which in Medieval Welsh means ‘sea-born’) as well as his ethnicity. The fact that ‘Morien’ also derives from the Old Welsh ‘Morgen’, which is the spelling Geoffrey of Monmouth uses for Arthur’s gentle healer (or ambitious nemesis) Morgan le Fay, further lends her project its deliberately ambiguous – and subversive – character.
But this is not merely another Arthurian remix. Bernard casts a wry eye over the past, playing with our modern expectations; from start to finish we recognize supporting actors that look and sound, uncannily, just like we expect them to. Morien and Young’un enter (‘page left’) introduced by a bard – rhyming of ‘the distant land where books begin / where maids and men and hermits siiiiiing’ – whose over-the-top, modern lyrics fall into the quatrains of a minstrel’s song. Before they exit, they encounter St Maurice, the third-century black martyr and leader of the Theban Legion, and he is dressed (of course) ‘like a burned manuscript: gold halo, gold / on the collar of his breastplate’. The half-seen, half-remembered quality of each description brings the narrative’s intertextuality to life, and in one of Bernard’s own lines, ‘it is hard to hold the two halves of the past and future apart.’
Poems that aim to do this much with the past often buckle under their own weight. It takes a poet of Bernard’s skill and sensitivity to keep the lyrical movement of the sequence alive, and the joy of this pamphlet is in its language. From Morien’s exuberant taunting (‘Wanna fight? / I’ll fight you…I’ll have a disco inside you.’) to the echoey dream-world he shares with his father in a haunting twin cinema (‘black was the light / black was the field / and the rain was / falling backwards’), reading The Red and Yellow Nothing brings continuous surprise. Bernard is careful not to let her inventions slip into wordplay for its own sake. Many excerpts deliver hard-hitting critiques of colour and femininity; in one scene, after a wild man has won ‘a kiss from a black lady’ in a tournament, and the assembled scrum of courtiers express their relief that ‘beneath her skin the black was white in fact’, Bernard writes –
How white, is another thing. If the colour
Was the smell, then the maid was grey. Tallow,
Fish-oil and potash; saddle seat; monthly blood
In dusty streaks along the base and up the crease.
Brilliantly, this is what never happened as it happened, and not as we expect.
Ultimately, Bernard succeeds in bringing the travelling pair to life, and fleshing out her mysterious knight in the fullest sense. As they arrive at part x of the poem, Morien (now without Young’un’s reassuring presence) undergoes ‘something we won’t call a transition, exactly’, and we get a precious glimpse of the possibilities that are larger than both life and legend. In the slow, almost prenatal dusk where ‘shadow and form change place’, a new Morien is born: ‘s/he has ceased to be a thing, / but a rule – a how or why, / a reason, / a what things are / governed by’. Morien’s plea – and perhaps Bernard’s – is to put aside all we think we know about past and present, about the thingness of things, and learn the value, freedom, and colour of nothing itself. There’s something to be said about that.
By Theophilus Kwek
The Red and Yellow Nothing, Jay Bernard, London: Ink, Sweat, and Tears Press, 2016
Europe is a wasteland in Will Stone’s third collection The Sleepwalkers. The poet portrays the continent as ‘What’s left of burned out stars’ in these short poems that read well individually and better as a whole. Whether the setting is London’s Chinatown, a medieval monastic complex in provincial France, or a firebombed Dresden, the tone is bleak and melancholic. Respite cannot be found in religion (‘Each face wants to turn heavenwards/but each mourner looks across or down’), academia (‘At the lectern another rustled up/waxwork begins his speech’) or even art (‘The artist has left a dark cloth/draped over the unfinished canvas).
The symptoms of such debasement are myriad; the urban is murky and dark like in early Eliot or Baudelaire (who lends two epigraphs), environmental disasters menace civilisation (‘storm waves are below the last house/tireless, itching for the cornerstone’), and the dystopia of contemporary technology haunts the text with ‘surveillance under surveillance’, ‘the old town disappearing/globalised, googled, glazed,’ as ‘screens flicker on a billion eyes.’
Fundamentally it is a blindness to the lessons of history that dooms the European Sleepwalkers, ‘we who weave miraculously through/the smoking straw piles of the past’. Stone thus sets the most relentless of his poems during the Second World War, often in concentration camps; he frames the self-destruction of today with the darkest time in Europe’s past. For this sequence (the second of three sections), concise endnotes make historical context accessible, but the raw power of Stone’s images (‘roars and flames/taut chains and glistening ropes, yelling/of passing men, terror, sweat and stampede’) requires no explanation.
It is in his images that Stone shows his greatest poetic skill; he moves masterfully between the pastoral and the urban, the ancient and the modern, the religious and the profane. The effectiveness of the images remains constant throughout, and it is this effortless versatility that prevents the grim reality of the poetry’s subject matter from desensitising the reader to its darkness over the course of the collection.
Stone introduces his second section with an epigraph by Castellion: ‘Posterity will not be able to understand that we had to fall back into the same darkness after having known the light…’ and in fact Europe is regressing in The Sleepwalkers. The nostalgia of the final poem ‘Departure of the Loved Ones’ epitomises this fall. Here, the speaker’s ‘blessed’ parents leave to board a flight, testifying the disappearance of the innocent, paradoxical ‘new born elderly children’ into modern darkness: ‘I watch them recede in a chaos/of technology and systems, of guards/and glass and people who do not know.’
Although the poet relishes in romantic descriptions of death, destruction and decay, he betrays genuine despair for the loss of innocence. Whether in a lament for the lonely, univisited graves of Second World War airmen, or in a harrowing memorial to a child who died after just seventeen days of life, it is the figures who do not deserve their fate that seek to wake The Sleepwalkers. Looking up at the heights from whence the European civilisation has fallen only deepens the plunge to the emotional lows of the poems. ‘For Europe, our beautiful bone yard/the last ship of culture rich centuries/has passed on.’ While Will Stone cannot deny ‘The certainty of another century of darkness’, the century that he yearns for is a brighter one altogether, and this tension makes The Sleepwalkers a compelling collection.
By Ludo Cinelli
The Sleepwalkers, Will Stone, Shearsman Books, 2016, £8.95
The idea behind ‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’ is an exciting one, if a little difficult to communicate in a title. The exhibition explores the relationship between artists and the paintings which they owned: how they came to possess them, why they wanted them and the influence they had on their own art.
I wandered into the gallery from Trafalgar Square, so the subject wasn’t clear to me until I entered the first room in the S Wing and found that it had been laid out in a way that resembled an architect’s sketch of someone’s front room, with a portrait hanging over a shape that gestured at being a mantelpiece.
The front room was Lucian Freud’s and the portrait was Italian Woman by Corot, which Freud had gifted to the National Gallery in 2014 and which was the inspiration for the exhibition. Certainly, the portrait is worth building an exhibition around. In Corot’s hand this romantic, often saccharine genre becomes a stunning exercise in colour and shade. You can see how it appealed to Freud too, both in the ambivalence of the sitter’s expression and the physicality of her skin.
Freud’s room is rather sparse. We get a little illustration of his real room, which was also rather sparse. There is an ‘erotic’ Cézanne, a few other fleshy items and a stunning little Degas bust of a ballet dancer with her head pressed to one shoulder.
The exhibition then moves back in time through a number of masters until we get to Van Dyck. The curators have made sure that we are in the artists hands as much as theirs, which is inevitably a good thing. Matisse’s room is dominated by Degas’ vast, pulsating red La Coiffure, one of the galleries own pieces. Other highlights include two portraits by Picasso, one very funny, one grey and alienating, as well as more Cézanne. Everybody liked Cézanne. Matisse had long, personal connection with Cézanne’s Three Bathers – he used to wake up early in the morning to watch the light hit it.
The painters here acquired their works for a wide variety of reasons: artistic, personal, financial. At its best the exhibition is a fascinating insight into the artists’ lives and characters. Degas was such an obsessive collector that he gets two rooms worth of paintings. He bought more than he could afford. He swapped his own works to get his hands on other peoples. He gave the careers of struggling friends a little push by buying their paintings. He is very hard not to like. As for himself, he liked Ingres and his exacting neoclassicism, although there is plenty of Delacroix here too.
Degas also had brilliant taste in landscapes, despite not being known for them himself. Alfred Sisley’s The Flood, Banks of the Siene, with its simple French farmhouse wobbling in the distinctly unthreatening floodwaters is wonderfully wet. There is also a dreamy, violet valley by Theodor Rousseau, which Degas bought on mistaking it for a Corot: a happy accident, it turned out.
The curators were right to let the paintings speak for themselves. All the same, I did want to hear more from the artists. Had they made notes on their favourite pieces? Did they make records, lists? Even a purchase order or two would have been interesting. All we get is a photograph of the catalogue used when Degas’ collection was sold off posthumously.
More might have been said, too, about the way in which the artists displayed the works. Several of the rooms gestured towards recreating how the paintings would have been hung. I found myself wanting a room completely made up. Larger pictures of the rooms would have been nice in any case.
Exhibitions have to work with what the gallery holds but it remains a fact that these masters were all European men. The fact that they were men felt particularly urgently in need of addressing, given that one thing that almost all of these artists liked to collect was pictures of women, often in various stages of undress.
The question of the representation of women in art is hardly a new one and it is a shame it was not engaged with here in some way: the context of collection is especially illuminating. Corot’s Italian woman stares silently out from the posters and promotional material.
The reverse chronology means that the exhibition will be top-heavy for anyone who is not a dedicated fan of Reynolds and Lawrence, which I suspect is most people. Still, there is enough in the first few rooms to justify the entrance fee. The question of money lingers over the whole thing. The more modern artists appeared to have less of it, which I suspect is important.
Personally I was disappointed that the National Gallery is now charging £1 for exhibition postcards.
By Jeremy Wikeley
‘Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck’, National Gallery, 23 June – 4 September
When Richard Siken’s first collection, Crush, was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 2004, it won Louise Glück’s praise for its ‘cumulative, driving, apocalyptic power’ and was quickly shortlisted for a series of prizes, winning the Thom Gunn Award in 2006. In the intervening decade, few American poets came close to an equally well-received debut – until Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds sold out within a week of its release this April by Copper Canyon Press, which also brought out Siken’s second volume War of the Foxes. Published less than a year apart, the two collections offer ample ground for comparison and admiration.
Siken’s opening poem, ‘The Way The Light Reflects’, sketches the collection’s contours. From the first lines, it interrogates the connection between vision and reflection, reality and representation: ‘The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects, / so what’s there to be faithful to?’ As poet and painter, Siken’s answer honours the art, with a wistful eye to what it cannot capture:
I am faithful to you, darling. I say it to the paint. The bird floats in the unfinished sky with nothing to hold it.
The rest of the poem, like the rest of the book, hangs in the fertile space between the outstretched hand and the canvas. ‘Some people don’t understand’, he writes, ‘They see the man but not the light, / they see the field but not the varnish’. What matters most, he seems to say, is precisely the moment life hovers on the boundary, becomes art. As he writes in another poem: ‘Something has happened in the paint tonight and / it is worth keeping’ (‘Dots Everywhere’).
What is it, then, that happens in the paint? Poems like ‘Detail Of The Fire’ and ‘Landscape With Several Small Fires’ explore the rich palette of our colour associations: ‘Willpower, gunpowder, concussive / thunder. Pink, orange, red, orange dreaming red’. Other poems give life to their subjects, addressing them directly: ‘O little birds, you flap around and / make a mess of the milk-blue sky’ (‘Landscape With Fruit Rot and Millipede’). In his writing as in his painting, Siken tries to see beneath the safe topography of things; ‘painting the inside of anything is / dangerous’ – and magical. Friends, lovers, and family pass under the painter’s scrutiny, where he tussles with them and his own impressions of them: ‘I troubled the shadows and silvered his edges. / What can you know about a person?’ (‘Portrait Of Fryderyk In Shifting Light’). Siken himself, we discover, does not escape this cross-examination. ‘History is painted by the winners’, he admits, and he is implicated in the act of depiction. This tension comes through most clearly in the heart-rending ‘Landscape With A Blur Of Conquerors’, where Siken finds that he cannot keep himself out of the frame: ‘I shovel the colour into our faces, I shovel our / faces into our faces. They look like me’.
It would be a mistake, however, to think about War of the Foxes purely as an extended treatise on aesthetics. The thread of Siken’s argument is deft and persistent – like a fox – and his language, woven with a landscape’s beauty, is itself a powerful, vivid celebration of all the things he claims he cannot describe about the world and about himself:
I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark boat in the dark night, pure velocity.
Here, he finds common ground with Vuong, whose poems, though less self-consciously descriptive, are attentive to an astonishing visual universe, held together by the gravity of experience: ‘Snow shredded / with gunfire. Red sky. / Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls. / A helicopter lifting the living just / out of reach. / The city so white it is ready for ink’ (‘Aubade With Burning City’). Where Vuong adopts or alludes to the painter’s medium (in poems like ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko, 1952’), he shifts quickly between events, creating a more cinematic texture than Siken, but shares the latter’s knack for locating speaker and subject within the scene – ‘I stood waiting in the room / made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing / into four blurred walls. & you were there. / You were the window.’
If ‘The Way The Light Reflects’ provides a key to understanding Siken’s collection, Vuong’s epigraph – ‘The landscape crossed out with a pen / reappears here’ (a line from Bei Dao) – helps to unlock his. Because while Siken tries to uncover what’s really there, Vuong seeks a language for what isn’t. Many of his poems investigate vanished people or places with startling clarity, things he has ‘lost…with [his] eyes / wide open’ (‘Threshold’). What makes this remembering powerful and raw is the characteristic plainness with which he reports past losses (‘My mother said I could be anything / I wanted – but I chose to live’), paired immediately with jarring detail from the present:
On the stoop of an old brownstone, a cigarette flares, then fades. I walk to it: a razor sharpened with silence.
In this way, Vuong allows himself to trace the edges of each ‘exit wound’ with painstaking, grounded care, venturing into abstraction only as a natural leap from the material: ‘If not / the car, the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive, / put down the phone. Because the year is a distance / we’ve travelled in circles’ (‘Homewrecker’). Although these are deeply personal losses, Vuong’s pitch-perfect approach, through the legacy of war and forced displacement, shows us why we can’t afford to let him remember them alone.
Together, Siken’s second collection and Vuong’s first demonstrate how these two poets have, more than others in their generation of young American voices, pushed the boundaries of a new, visual register, finding fresh ways to bring image and imagination together in language. They have developed a medium with enough room to critique their own, subjective viewpoints while holding their readers close. In a time where words are often used to spread fear and falsehood, we have reason to study their best qualities – care, self-awareness, daring honesty. After all, as Vuong puts it in his penultimate poem, ‘Here’s today’ – and here is ‘the room with everyone in it’.
By Theophilus Kwek
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong, Copper Canyon Press, 2016, $16
War of the Foxes, Richard Siken, Copper Canyon Press, 2015, $17
Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play uses the wisdom of age to give this oft dubbed “modern masterpiece” a dark depth, comedy, and truth in flux.
Es Devlin’s stage design for Faith Healer is one of the most thrilling focal points in London theatre so far this year. It is, essentially, a water feature. Framing the stage with startling opacity is a chamber of synthetic rain that turns any semblance of the traditional Irish cottage play on its head. The three characters, Frank, the faith healer, Grace, his partner, and Teddy, Frank’s manager, speak solely in monologue, never communicating with one another. In this way, their three different viewpoints of the same events are severed by scene change, signalled by the dimming of lights and a downpour. The visual pun suggests an ominous fogging and suppression in the face of remembrance. How can we tell the fiction from the truth? Is Grace Frank’s mistress (as he claims) or his wife (as she and Teddy insist)? Was it Frank, Grace, or Teddy who insisted that Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight” be played during Frank’s healing sessions, inharmoniously so? (A less romantic aside, it must be said that the first row complained of damp seats. Just beyond, in the second row, this reviewer, her face pleasantly dewy, was taken back to her first visit to Niagara Falls.)
In Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee, and Ron Cook, this production has storytellers who know how to hold our gaze unconditionally. The sharp, searching eye contact with which all three flash unrelentingly onto the audience, from the standing seats in the rafters all the way down to the press’ circle, is akin to the “regard familier” which Walter Benjamin read in Charles Baudelaire. Translated vaguely from the French as the “familiar look” or “overly knowing,” this is the gaze that acts upon another person, but misses the intimacy of facing another being. Here, visual appropriation becomes poetic internalisation: each speaker’s purview, reconstructed through the spectacle of audience engagement, is an attempt to rewrite a shared backstory into his or her own aesthetic experience. “They speak conversationally, as though entirely unmediated by any convention and they are clearly addressing you,” states the Irish playwright Conor McPherson in the preface to the production’s catalogue. “And I’d contend that this subtle, profound, innovation melted the barriers of subjectivity in the theatre, reshaping how we experience plays and, inevitably, how the next generation of Irish playwrights wrote plays.”
The three friends, lovers, business partners, are united in their craving for the ache of affirmation. Dillane’s strategy as Frank takes on a quiet, elevated honesty that mocks itself, riddled with lyrical parenthetical asides and scabrous wit. In Gina McKee, barefoot and in a bedsit, there is Grace in her final gracelessness. But of the three, it is Ron Cook as Teddy who exhilarates. His full-blown Cockney bravura mode is one part rollicking romp, another part depersonalised, cold calculation of a manger, both running at odds with his underlying passion for Grace and his pedestalisation of Frank. “Friends is friends, and work is work, and never the twain shall meet,” he offered us (free of charge), resting his doubtful brow on the peanut gallery.
The trio of skilled performances notwithstanding, one leaves the Donmar Warehouse lacking emotional oomph (and gently misted by natural English summer rain). The ambience of the production as a whole is hazily sterile. If Frank acts as the force tugging and pulling the three of them back (his monologues open and close the play), then his proselytiser’s yarn is missing any of its necessary, irresistible pull. Still, Faith Healer as a realist drama is potentially revolutionary. It is an argument for the history of intimacy other than the one given—even if truths, lies, and the non-places of reverie are born into a world where their imminent failure is constituent of the play’s design. A year after Friel’s death, at age 86, we are reminded of what makes Faith Healer a major work of art: rarely have love and narcissism been so abundantly aligned.
In the perpetual twilight of the woodland world, trees loom like sinister monoliths out of the gloom. Leaf-mould partially obscures a discarded garment, or a glimpse of creamy flesh. But this isn’t the leafy bower of a Dionysian revel, the sylvan setting of some nymphic adventure or even the stag-haunted gloaming of a woodland tomb. The Poussins, Titians and Constables that have surrounded George Shaw during his residency at the National Gallery are, however, all implicitly present in My Back to Nature, which exhibits the fruit of his labours over the last two years.
The young George Shaw reportedly described the contents of the National Gallery as comprising in their totality of ‘naked women and pictures of Jesus’, and this tendency to bring out the profane rather than the sacred aspects of the collection endures in his mature work. The nymphs of Shaw’s woodland realm might reside on page 3, the Madonna-blue draperies be discarded tarpaulin and the ‘School of Love’ be a stained old mattress, but the line of inheritance from the enchanted glades of the Old Masters is direct and strong. Like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, or the deep forest from a Grimm fairy tale, Shaw’s scrubby suburban woodlands are marginal sites of liberation, where the ordinary rules and restrictions of society do not hold sway and the unobserved human can answer the call of their more basic instincts. Bottles, cans and crumpled pornography; this is the detritus of the Bacchanal, updated for modern day Britain.
And it is, indeed, the detritus – the things that are left behind – that are key to Shaw’s woodland series. A pervasive sense of lapetite mort haunts the paintings: the revel is over, innocence and novelty having been destroyed in the process. There is the perpetually unsettling sense of coming upon a scene where a taboo has been broken, where something secret and sordid and never meant for your eyes has taken place. Under the dim lights and high ceilings of the National Gallery, you are once again a child stumbling across a discarded Sun newspaper in that forgotten scrap of shrubbery between the housing estate and the main road. One of the few paintings which appears to depict the scene in medias res, ‘The Living and The Dead’ is perhaps the most startling as a result of this contrast. A blue tarp, apparently randomly caught and draped on tree branches, is also unmistakably the stalking form of the reaper, come to claim the remnants of human life, as is his custom.
There’s a strange, reverse alchemical process at work in Shaw’s paintings whereby the precious element of ‘high art’ absorbed from the vaulted chambers of the surrounding galleries has been transfigured into something cruder, earthier, but nonetheless enchanting. The familiar, sprawling mess of the urban green belt is transformed into the liminal space of the rite of passage; the scene of the first drink, joint or sexual encounter, of untold horrors or pleasures. The banal trash of human existence is made strange, totemic. An abandoned campfire is a Neolithic monument, a splash of red paint on a tree trunk, the site of ritual sacrifice, a dark tunnel between two saplings fronted by a ring of crumpled girlie mags is a gateway to hell. These images are alienating, disturbing, distressing even.
‘You don’t find yourself in nature, you lose yourself in nature’, says Shaw in the short documentary that can be viewed alongside the collection. It is, perhaps, a fitting comment on the nature of modern British landscape that an encounter with a more primitive human identity is located not in the heart of rural England, or remote forest or valley, but in what Stephen Moss recently referred to as the ‘accidental countryside’, the unloved and unlovely ‘edgelands’ between rural and urban zones. The intensive processes of land management which shapes Britain’s agricultural landscapes and even – though more traditionally thought of as ‘wild’ – our National Parks and AONBs, do not hold sway over the scruffy, forgotten wildernesses that are so often a feature of urban sprawl. These unmediated landscapes thus arguably allow for a more spontaneous meeting and merging of human and non-human, for social identities to be successfully challenged and elided.
A more puzzling counterpoint to Shaw’s sequence of woodland paintings are the self-portrait sketches ranged along one wall near the entrance to the exhibition, which portray the artist in the various tormented poses of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of his juvenile assessment of the Gallery’s contents, here we see a continuity in the artist’s project of remaking the works that have surrounded him throughout his residency in his own irreverent image. All the same, these studies are less compelling than their sylvan neighbours.
Half homage, half lampoon, ‘My Back to Nature’ is never one thing. Shaw seems caught between self-effacing awe and an inability to resist poking fun at the concept of ‘high art’. The very materials he works with – Humbrol enamel paints, more usually employed by the Air-Fix enthusiast or table-top gamer, applied to cheap MDF board – show a cheeky disregard for traditional techniques. A sequence of wonderfully thoughtful and nuanced tree portraits which bear the contradictorily flippant title ‘You’ve Changed’, most brilliantly exemplifies Shaw’s ability to show us the strangeness in a traditional subject matter, giving each tree a distinct and affecting personality; an almost-human aspect that is uncanny and unsettling. Critically, Shaw’s paintings of the urban-natural wilderness facilitate an apprehension of something within ourselves, holding up a dark mirror which reflects our anti-social selves. In his capacity as an artist who uses the natural world to expose something about the human condition, however, Shaw is in excellent company, and this collection both complements and comments on the artistic traditions of the pastoral and the sublime. In an article in which she coined the term ‘edgelands’, the environmentalist Marion Shoard asked who would be the writers and artists who would do for these urban-rural hinterlands what the Romantic poets had done for mountains. George Shaw may well be the answer to this question.
What is ‘home’? A person? A place? A feeling of belonging?
These are the questions that run through Barney Norris’s debut novel like a finely spun thread, drawing the disparate lives of his five protagonists together as they experience everything that defines a life: love, loss, disappointment, rejection, grief, illness, fortitude and forgiveness.
From the first prologue-style chapter—a phantasmagoric rendering of the origins of Salisbury, when five rivers flowed through the flatlands, their confluence carrying the undercurrent of an eternal “song” of human life that reaches its crescendo in the apex of the city’s Cathedral—through to its neat and conclusive denouement, the novel is a well-wrought piece of literary fiction that exemplifies and transcends some of the genre’s hallmarks.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is the characterization of its five narrators, whose stories, the metaphorical ‘rivers’, slot together and cross-narrate one another. In a refreshing move, the five narrators are not ‘special’ people. With low-key jobs and simple ambitions they are, in short, not the sorts of people that modern readers have been taught to crave. No high-flying lawyers or multitasking, City-dwelling, fashionably ‘creative’ types here; just five ordinary people whose collision on one particular evening in Salisbury town centre—a literal collision in the form of a car accident—represents the convergence of their life stories.
There’s Rita, the ageing hippie flower seller who bears her heart on her sleeve and a bag of marijuana in her back pocket. There’s the elderly gentleman who, having just suffered one tragedy, must now endure another; there’s the lonely military wife whose stunted career causes her a yearning and pain more severe than her absent husband can comprehend; then there’s Liam, the lost soul former city-dweller who retreats back to the safe confines of Salisbury to escape the unrelenting grind of London.
Yet by far the most compelling and well-written of Norris’s protagonists is Sam, the fifteen-year-old teenager whose eschewal of ‘normal’ teenage pursuits—“I never cared about the Internet or knew how to download anything. I went for walks instead”—and embrace of Fauré’s Requiem and quiet moments drinking tea with his father marks him out as a character whose personal tragedy is that much more profound and heartrending.
That the novel takes its epigraph from George Eliot’s Victorian classic Middlemarch—a quotation in which Eliot’s omniscient narrator champions the extension of pathos for “the element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency”—is entirely fitting, as Norris’s ability to touch and move using the most mundane of people and events is quite astounding.
Inevitably, the book is somewhat depressing. There are moments where the narrative churns and rolls like a giant raincloud, the imminent arrival of yet another downpour for one character or another seeming almost unbearable, but this is what Norris does well. He creates suspense, a sense of horror of the reality that we see all too often in real life but do not really like to read about in books. In many ways, his novel is the prosaic embodiment of a universal truth acknowledged long ago by T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton: “human kind cannot bear very much reality”.
Yet there’s no turning away from this narrative, and bear it we must. Yet, reading the novel soon is a pleasure rather than a chore; Norris writes with such unwavering realism and lucidity that his words are truly compelling. This is the real power of the novel. Like George Eliot, the staunch defender of ‘the faithful representing of commonplace things’, Norris does not flinch from all that is real. People die, are ill, lonely, homesick, lovelorn, depressed, but amidst the scenes of crushing sadness and pained regret, of quiet pathos and unspoken sorrow, there are so many spots of joy to be found.
At points, the density of the novel can be hard work. Reading the prologue is like winding up a music box: a certain level of effort is required to plough through the metaphorical description of the primitive earth song that runs through the coursing river-veins of Salisbury, but as the narrative gains pace, its deep, rich tone and texture soon play out like a fine, carefully constructed piece of music.
Poetic in places, experimental in others—there are interview format chapters and Sam’s narration is interspersed with little ‘once-upon-a-time’ style vignettes—the narrative is fluid and rhythmic. The linguistic variation as the novel jumps from the melodic prose of the opening ‘river’ tableau to the jagged, rough-edged dialect of Rita is a particularly jarring moment which showcases Norris’s talent for adapting to different ‘voices’, a talent that is unsurprising given his successful career as a playwright and theatre director. In particular, Sam’s falling in love with Sophie, a fellow attendee at the after-school choir club, is a poignantly voiced memorial to the bittersweet intensity and transience of teenage love.
The novel’s avoidance of sensationalism is one of its strengths, too. Rather than focusing on externalities like the car accident, the narrative is more of an exploration of the cogitations of the human mind. The quiet dignity and resilience of its characters as they ponder the big, yet unspoken questions—what constructs an identity? What constitutes ‘home’? How do simple life events seem pivotal in retrospect?—offer far-reaching, silent lessons that make even the most cynical of readers pause for thought. George Eliot may have argued that the ability “to be deeply moved by what is not unusual…has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind,” but, fast-forward a century and a half and Norris’s novel proves that human emotion—nourished by texts like his own—has, thankfully, evolved.
By Louise Kane
Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris, Doubleday, 2016
The outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. Become a vegetarian, better yet a vegan, and soon enough your body will be formed almost completely from plant matter. This beguiling conceit lies at the heart of Han Kang’s extraordinary novel The Vegetarian, where a seemingly trivial change in the life of a young woman results in a terrifying transformation.
Split into three parts, Kang’s narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye. We see her through every perspective but her own, first through the eyes of her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative.
The first of these begins with a dream, a subconscious cry, the trigger that will initiate the many changes in her life to come. It is a grotesque scene, one that reemerges again and again in the book, bestowing Yeong-hye with Lady-Macbeth-like ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody mouth’. The vivid nightmare sees ‘those eyes, rising up from the pit of my stomach’, leaving her assaulted body in the midst of a deep and terrifying transformation as the fear of change inevitably turns itself inward: ‘Why are my edges all sharpening? What am I going to gouge?’
Food has always held a central place in how we connect and communicate with those around us, to sit around a table and ‘break bread’ is one of the oldest and most traditional acts we have. What Kang artfully shows is how the rejection of such conventions and traditions can create unpredictable and often fatal ramifications. The act of rejecting meat soon becomes one of rejecting flesh in any form, the sex life of the couple disintegrates as their bodies become different entities. When Yeong-hye rejects her husband’s advances he asks why: ‘The meat smell,’ she replies, ‘Your body smells of meat.’ Fed on different food, the two lose understanding of each other – if there was even any to begin with. This develops with a strange ferocity in the following chapter in which we see Yeong-hye openly welcome the advances of other suitors based purely on the floral paintings that adorn their bodies. She becomes not merely opposed to meat, she becomes enamoured by its opposite, ensnared by the botanical potential plants offer her, the relative seclusion and safety from a world of flesh beyond her control. The flora and fauna she clings to begin to grow in significance, becoming not just fuel for her body, but fuel for her mind, and just as her new obsession changes her body, it changes her mind as well.
Our vegetarian becomes ‘deflated from within’; her husband’s narrative is overwhelmed by his own inability to accept his wife as she challenges the conventional cage he has built for her. One of the most overused words in his segment of narrative is ‘normal’. He celebrates what he views as his wife’s ordinariness, the mundane and unthreatening shell that he had perceived her to be – any consideration for her in any manner that does not relate to his immediate needs is cast aside. She is a cook first, an object for sex second, a companion? Hardly. Yet when this definition of her ‘normalness’ is threatened, so too is the life that her husband leads. It is only when he begins to finally acknowledge that he has no power over his wife that he admits to himself: ‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’. The simple act of choosing what to eat, casts all Yeong-hye’s relationships into disarray – no one can fathom why or how she would make such a decision without a logical explanation, because of a dream. Rather than enquiring into the cause they dismiss it.
In her isolation Yeong-hye becomes ‘utterly unknowable’ – it is not so much that she is vegetarian but that she is unlike those that surround her. She remains immobile, a fixed point careering towards a seemingly inevitable end as her family collides around her in their attempts to connect. What is most disturbing in Kang’s narrative is the manner in which the changing female body is shown as a central concern for the family at large. When her relatives hear of her vegetarianism they respond with astonishment and apologies to her husband. It’s made clear from the start that what Yeong-hye choses to do with her own body preoccupies all members of her family, and that whatever choices she may make her body remains governed by those around her – something that comes to a climax at the end of the first section when her father attempts to force-feed her meat in suffragette fashion, and she retaliates with an equally violent act.
In the following narrative the perspective is immediately and refreshingly reversed, in stark contrast to the selfish and abrasive tone of her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law sees the events of the past section with fresh eyes, and his response is deeply empathetic. When he witnesses her hurt herself he hears ‘a sound like something snapping inside his own body’, and he preserves his shirt stained by her blood as an eerie souvenir. This bloody offering begins an obsession with Yeong-hye’s changing body.
Yet, just like her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes captivated by the idea of her rather than the woman herself. In this instance rather than her ‘normalness’ he is drawn to her transformation. Unlike her husband who recoils from change, this man is inspired by it, made curious by what he sees as a creature so like and yet unlike his own wife. This obsession soon gravitates around a blue mongolian mark, ‘petal-like’ on the small of Yeong-hye’s back. The point becomes fetisized, yet once uncovered it is revealed as ‘more vegetal than sexual … perhaps a mark of photosynthesis’. The mark, like many other points, signals a deeper and more surreal evaluation of a changing state. When finally faced with her naked body, rather than being aroused, the brother-in-law instead discovers ‘a feeling that simulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock’. Like the mark itself, Yeong-hye’s transformation begins to lose its seductive appeal. Her body becomes alien rather than alluring, weakened, its human core threatened.
As the tale progresses it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat is less about gaining control than it is about releasing it. Rather than appearing to take a hold of her life with the new rules she has drawn up for herself, Yeong-hye becomes a woman plagued by demons, but demons that she never truly articulates and ones that no one ever enquires about. Soon food is entirely dismissed, as is sleep. Instead of becoming more seductive when freed from the constrictions of her oppressive husband, as she loses weight and her marriage, she vegetates, day by day her own body growing more like the plants she consumes. Ironically throughout her book her actions only enhance the human characteristics of those around her. She inspires every emotion, from grief and anger to lust and joy. Her own rejection of humanity inspires constant expressions of it in those around her.
Yet the motive behind the transformation is never fully explained, the elusive ‘dream’ that plagues Yeong-hye, the one that sits in her chest, and forces her into hospital again and again, continues unexplored. Anorexia nervosa combined with schizophrenia is the doctor’s tentative diagnosis but the delusion runs much deeper than this, and what is most arresting about Kang’s prose is that she never gives the game away; we’re never sure whose side to take. Teetering between explanations both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’, she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights.
This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith’s achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang’s novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.
Deborah Smith has gone on to translate Kang’s novel Human Acts for Portobello Books (2016). The Vegetarian is shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s life has been marked by a sense of ‘suspension’. Born to Bengali immigrants but brought up in America, she feels ‘without a homeland, and without a true mother tongue’, caught between two worlds and cultures. Her desire to shake off the languages tarnished by personal history leads her to move to Rome and commence writing only in Italian, a language with which she has always been enamoured. In Other Words is a memoir that meditates on – and attempts to make sense of – Lahiri’s process of absorbing her identity as person and writer into a new tongue. It’s her first work of non-fiction, and it’s also her first book written in Italian. A translation by Ann Goldstein is provided alongside the original.
The book exudes a fascination with the materiality of words, from the ‘green plastic cover’ of her first dictionary to the notebooks in which she later inscribes phrases and underlines those she fails to remember. Often Lahiri’s engagement with language takes the form of a relationship with the material text in which she records or reads it. ‘I underline almost every word on every page’, she tells us, later becoming more selective yet equally fervent, underlining ‘like a lunatic every use of the verb essere in the past’. One chapter is called ‘Gathering Words’, as if aspects of Italian vocabulary are material objects to be collected and stored. Lahiri’s notebooks become a concrete reflection of the evolving state of the language inside her mind, their pages filled with the words of writers which shape her lexical knowledge: ‘Manganelli, Verga, Elena Ferrante, Leopardi’. The physical form of the notebook is a source of comfort, a reminder that at all times the words she might forget remain present in their inked incarnation, that she always has ‘a space where [she] can wander, learn, forget, fail.’
Italian, for Lahiri, is often conceived of spatially, as a physical terrain that she attempts to navigate. Her move to Italy which begins the book – a literal oceanic crossing – is quickly recast as a linguistic transition: ‘to know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore.’ The textual and the geographical are conflated, too, in the form of the dictionary Lahiri buys for her first trip to Italy which becomes ‘both a map and a compass’, and without which she ‘knows [she’d] be lost.’ In one chapter the author describes walking in Venice, an experience which she likens to writing in Italian: ‘both in Venice and on the page’ she feels simultaneously unbalanced and inspired. Lahiri can never excise the act of writing from the world around her, conceding that her fiction writing has always been driven by the impulse to ‘feel present on the earth’. It seems only fitting that Italian becomes a landscape in the book, even as it might seem to lack descriptions of the country itself. Her dealings in language become her means to locate herself in her surroundings.
In Other Words has a complex relationship to the concept of translation, and to its own translation. Goldstein, whose translations of the elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante have been critical and popular successes, was uneasy about the task of taking on a writer whose first language was English. Lahiri rejected the idea of producing an English version of the book herself, feeling ‘the temptation would be to improve it.’ The facing page edition allows us to navigate between the two languages, and there are well-chosen moments when Goldstein retains an Italian phrase in the English: early on, Lahiri’s request to Italian to become its user, ‘Permesso?’, is present in the English with its translation alongside it. The insertion of the Italian phrase into the translation enacts Lahiri’s tentativeness as she attempts to enter a new linguistic terrain, that which feels almost like a transgression.
The logic of this choice is a source of uncertainty for Lahiri, and her writing is interwoven with inconsistencies that complicate the construction of a clear set of motives. Her relationship with English, for instance, is a source of contradiction throughout the narrative: to what extent does she desire to reject it completely? At times, Lahiri suggests that English continues to be a part of her present existence: ‘English remains…the most stable, fixed side’, she writes, in contrast to Bengali, her past, and Italian, her ‘goal’. Yet in the next chapter it is relegated to the historic, described as denoting ‘a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past.’ There is, too, the acknowledgement that, despite the increased freedom Lahiri claims to gainfrom Italian, English will always be more natural to her, and her use of Italian somewhat forced: ‘Italian remains for me a language learned as an adult, cultivated, nurtured’. Her quest to root herself in Italian seems problematic when she remembers that this is the language furthest from being inherently part of her.
But the book confesses to its own uncertainty and this, ultimately, is it’s central theme. Lahiri is not trying to reach a conclusion; the book is a series of reflections that attempt to accurately represent a relationship that eludes circumscription. In the final chapter, Lahiri reflects on the nature of autobiography, commenting that ‘there is little difference between the life of the writer and the events of the book.’ Marking her book clearly out from her fiction – that which, she assures us, is ‘completely invented’ – Lahiri is careful to tell us that she considers it an accurate transcription of her lived experiences: ‘Almost everything in it happened to me . . . it remains my most intimate book but also the most open.’ The contradictions in Lahiri’s narrative bear testament to the openness of autobiography and any sense of finality would be a fiction. The book ends with a reluctant return to America, raising further questions about what Lahiri’s next steps as a writer will be. ‘I can’t predict the future’, she reminds us. We should view Lahiri’s book as she prompts us to view her, as something that remains in suspension, trying to find its place in the world.
Lauded as a subversive masterpiece, pegged as a favourite to win The Man Booker Prize and one of the best-selling novels of 2015 – A Little Life has earned Yanagihara the kind of success few but the improbable characters of her novel could ever attain. The story follows the lives of four graduates from an elite New England College as they move to New York. There is the kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes tactless painter; unassuming Malcolm, working his way up from the bottom rung of the architecture ladder; and finally, the captivating yet enigmatic Jude. Each of them is broke but buoyed by their mutual circumstance, friendship and ambition. This early section of the book describes the boys’ relationships so warmly and so vibrantly that it is truly irresistible.
But something distances Jude from his friends. He struggles with his legs, suffers from episodes of severe spinal pain and his life before college is shrouded in mystery. The narrative, usually in the third person, is told from the perspective of each of the four friends and Jude’s adoptive father; giving each character the chance to recount their personal history and chronicle their experiences and thoughts about Jude. Context set, our first hint of trouble comes as Jude wakes Willem in the dead of night after an incident. Bleeding profusely from his arm, Jude is shifty about the cause of the wound and insists that he doesn’t want to go to a hospital, asking Willem to take him to a mutual friend named Andy, who is a doctor. Having sewn up Jude’s wound, Andy angrily points out to Willem, “You know he cuts himself, don’t you?”
From then on the reader is repeatedly subjected to scenes with Jude mutilating his own flesh with a razor blade, which Yanagihara describes so viscerally it might make some readers queasy. All the while, concrete information about Jude’s background is withheld and hinting phrases such as ‘those years’, along with sinister references to ‘Brother Luke’ and ‘Dr Traylor’, ensure that the mystery surrounding his previous life becomes the narrative vehicle that drives the novel forward.
As the novel progresses so do the career paths of each character: all four go on to become unparalleled successes within their respective fields. The middle-aged Jude becomes a much feared corporate litigator, Willem an Oscar-winning superstar, Malcolm the CEO of a globally successful architectural firm and JB has pieces from his first series of work exhibited at MoMA. But despite their incredibly unlikely and dramatic change in circumstance, character development screeches to a halt. The men remain boyish, with their attentions remaining obsessively inwardly focussed on their friendship group. New characters are introduced but seem two-dimensional, and their relationships with the quartet are wooden and contrived. Apart from enjoying a culinary/domestic upgrade, nothing much changes over this a-historic decade. The characters seem simply to age rather than grow.
The narrative then begins a series of repetitive contemplations on Jude’s mental stability, alternating between Jude and Willem’s points of view. Eventually the precise nature of Jude’s suffering starts to become clear as Yanagihara doles out a series of flashbacks; an unflinching catalogue of childhood sexual abuse, violence, suffering and difficulty, each one, more gruesome than its predecessor. It is sometimes more suffering than the novel can believably take, and though A Little Life is definitely not quite misery porn, its voyeurism explains a lot about this book’s popular success.
On the plus, just about everybody in Jude’s present tense loves him on a deep and profound level. They all seem to care more about his welfare than sometimes they do their own and without fail they each provide the paternal care and attention that Jude demands well into his fifties. There is something infantilizing and overly indulgent about Jude’s world in which the people who love him are as tirelessly infatuated by his drama as he is; at worst, Jude’s story errs towards cliché, martyrdom and melodrama.
However it is precisely the constancy of their affection and Jude’s disbelief of it that has excited critics. Jon Michaud, in The New Yorker, praised its “subversive” representation of abuse, which, he asserts, lies in the book’s refusal to allow “any possibility of redemption and deliverance.”
As contrived as this novel sometimes feels, it has the makings of an interesting story about a subject that is too rarely explored. Jude’s tale demands questions about whether we can ever truly understand the trauma of abuse or come to terms with it. In parts (particularly the exchanges with the most realised character Willem) the story can be genuinely affecting and Jude’s mystery successfully holds the readers curiosity. Ultimately however, a novel in the realistic tradition must be relatable to be effective. A Little Life stretches credulity just that bit too far and teeters on the edges of sensationalism. Its shock value is distracting and the impossible feats of the characters are difficult to relate to and emotionally engage with as we should.
‘Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’ is the title of the fourth poem in Jack Underwood’s recently published collection Happiness. Highlighting early on in proceedings that the eponymous state cannot be explored without reference to its antonym, the poem refers with some resignation to the inaccessibility of the emotions of those we believe to be closest to us. Happiness, indeed, is sometimes found only when we are able to hold sadness ‘to the edge of our bed, shutting our eyes/on another opened hour’.
The unicorn of happiness in Underwood’s debut is thus revealed to be roughly what he – and a whole generation of those coming of age in a climate of uncertainty, introspection and irony – have come to know it as: transient, difficult to express with sincerity, and apt to vanish when subjected to direct scrutiny. When it does show up, it is often in small and unexpected ways, such as ‘in the form of two purple/elastic bands round a bunch of asparagus’ in the title poem ‘Happiness’. This is one of the many images which bears witness to Underwood’s refusal to exclude the mundane, and even the distinctly unpoetic, from the poetic experience. In a lucid essay written for online magazine Five Dials, Underwood argued that poetry requires more than just the description of a revelatory or poignant experience from the poet, but must be predicated on a connection with the reader: ‘No one wants to turn up to a poem only to find someone enthusiastically telling you, ‘It was awesome – you should’ve been there!’ So when, in this collection, we come across ‘smokers/huddled round a lunch hour’, a lover with ‘biscuit hair’ or a figure ‘pausing to move a snail somewhere safer in the rain’, or when a poem notices ‘a smell in the fridge’, far from bringing the poetry party to a crashing halt like an ill-timed ballad on an Ipod shuffle, the reader is invited in, offered to dump their coat in the bedroom and take a lukewarm Corona.
If all this sounds a little too much like poetry for a generation whose experience of life is characterised by relative privilege and organic vegetables, you’re not entirely off the mark. Underwood belongs, as another reviewer has noted, to an emergent school of British poets who share a language which might be called ‘post-sincerity’, in which poems struggle with the opposing impulses to reveal and conceal; to admit the presence of a strong emotion whilst simultaneously undermining earnestness with deliberately mundane and unsophisticated language and imagery, as in ‘Love Poem’, in which the poet is ‘thinking of you and going/itchy from it’. For some critics, this form of expression is alienating, disingenuous and lacking in poetic rigour. Indeed, one high-profile poet (and self-confessedly ‘ancient and sceptical reader’) conjectured that some poems seemed deliberately to be ‘aspiring to invertebracy’, and found fault with a style that is ‘defensive for all its apparent self-exposure’.
However, such an assessment misses the point of all this evasiveness. The collection as a whole sets up a delicate, playful back-and-forth of sincerity and flippancy which ultimately conveys the sheer terror of experiencing and communicating human emotion in a world in which social mores require us to appear largely unflustered by significant life events. ‘Poem of Fear for my Future Child’ is both a terribly funny and very moving portrait of the insecurity of a parent-to-be:
When I think about pushing your pram by the pond,
all the dogs off their leads, nothing between us and
the dark, weedy water, I drown you. I’m sorry
All this fear, like a fizz building in a bad, grey egg,
is waiting for you. All this greenstick, nodular love,
so tense, perversely stored like a bubble in my lungs,
will be here, a huge trembling hand, when you arrive.
Underwood’s true worth as a poet is revealed in his ability to take the profane trappings of contemporary middle-class British life – eggs, asparagus, ‘a white plastic patio/chair’ – and present thoughts and observations within them which achieve something close to the sacred. In ‘An Avoidance’ ‘bad news ticks/in the kettle as it rests’ and ‘fragments of happiness’ are distributed as the lime garnish in drinks at a house party. Moments of clarity in love or life usually disrupt the somnambulism of small happinesses, rather than forming part of them, and give lie to any assumption that Underwood is not capable (to misquote Plath) of loving well and saying it in good lines. In ‘William; at four days old’ the poet, on meeting an infant relative for the first time is ‘uncooked’:
– I can feel my socks being on –
utter, precious apple
churchyards flatten in my heart,
I’ve never been brilliant so scared
For all the initial appearance of millennial subterfuge in irony or whimsy, Underwood’s collection contains several moments of gem-like sparkle, diamond-sharp phrases which cut through the deceit and right the bone. The last couplet of ‘Weasel’, for example, which could otherwise be taken either as an immature love poem or the self-conscious and self-mocking imitation of such, reveals the voice of a graver lover: “was I even hungry once for eating?/Were you ever not the end to all fasts?” These poems invite the reader to engage with their subterfuge and revelations rather than be the passive mirror onto which they are projected, reflecting only the poet’s own image back. They provoke, affect and occasionally weary (as in the case of the three poems which list deliberately quirky and random elements – ‘a crab on the phonebox floor…the waxwork head of Chaplin’) but always invite discourse. And, most importantly, they have something significant to say about the human experience, and they say it well. The final poem ‘Thank You for your Email’ both calls into question the veracity of the poetic imagery of the entire collection and contains its most stark and unadorned confession.
only now I think it was not, perhaps,
a mountain, it was not, perhaps, a shrub on fire, and not
a fighter-jet boring its noise through the sky, and I am
certain now, it was not me, or a wing or body of a broken
bird, but the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself
about, and to my friends, and to my family.
This admission of dishonesty paradoxically forms the strongest and most frank connection yet with the reader whilst simultaneously expressing the fact that happiness through mutual knowledge and understanding is likely to remain elusive given the human capacity for deceit. Perhaps fittingly, this collection ultimately delivers nothing but ambiguity on the subject of happiness, reminding us both to treasure what we have and not to expect its endurance: ‘we know happiness/because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave’.
I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in London recently, when a Scottish man stopped me to say how much he’d enjoyed it – ‘best book ever’, he said. No-one, Scottish or otherwise, had ever done that to me before. But the man went on to say that he’d found another of Pamuk’s books My Name is Red disappointing (I think he used stronger words). I protested, but suggested he try The Museum of Innocence. I hope he does. But, regardless – Snow? Best book he’s ever read.
This ambivalent response is common, a function of the fact that Pamuk approaches every new book as a challenge to do something different. But A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) looks, at first, to be treading familiar ground. Pamuk returns to the theme of his memoir Istanbul: the city itself, and the way in which it has changed as Turkey has modernized. Pamuk’s formal hallmarks are all present: balance, limpid prose, a wicked sense of humour and a playful propensity to shift perspectives.
Strangeness is a new departure. The scope of the book is astonishing. The story is told through the life of Melvut, a gentle, naïve, migrant from Central Anatolia who spends his life walking Istanbul’s streets selling ‘boza’ a fermented yoghurt drink, and pondering on thoughts about fate inspired by his love for his wife, Rahiya, who he eloped with after having written her love letters for three years, but having only seen her once. While Melvut’s friends and family scramble to gain a foothold in modern Istanbul, he watches the city change beyond recognition, as wave after wave of migrants arrive and the slums become high rises Pamuk documents the development of Istanbul, and Turkey itself, over forty tumultuous years, with politics, religion and the relations between the sexes gliding on and off the stage.
Yet Strangeness never feels burdened with the expectations of a ‘state of the nation’ novel, or an experiment in Realism with a capital R. The background, while invariably fascinating, remains background. Melvut is always more concerned with his family and the city itself. Pamuk talks as engagingly about the loneliness of old age, and teenage masturbation as he does about Islamists, or ethnic politics in the suburbs. Often, the narrative voice loses itself in details of urban life, building sites, the contents of fridges, the history of electricity scams or, memorably, a tanker of sheep that runs aground in the Bosporus (with amusing consequences).
If the plot is kept moving by anything it is Melvut’s love for Rahiya and his search for an explanation to the ‘strangeness in his mind’. Why is he so drawn to the streets? Why is he so afraid of stray dogs? But the freedom and sympathy with which Pamuk moves through Melvut’s world means that he never needs to resort to the normal weights and pulleys: problems come and go unexpectedly, taking on more or less significance in unpredictable ways. Although Melvut has his share of hardships, he’s also almost permanently good natured and if this optimism starts to drag, which inevitably it does, Pamuk is always ready to jump into the heads of friends and family members, who address themselves from the page, boldly, secretively, always contradicting one another and arguing for their right to be heard.
In My Name Is Red Pamuk impersonated a tree, a dead-man and – brilliantly – a coin. In Strangeness he limits himself to people, but within those limits he’s at his most promiscuous, chopping and changing perspectives within scenes – though never at the expense of the reader. Most engaging are the women, who are invariably wiser than their men. Pamuk recounts the frustrations of domesticity, but also shows how they take ownership of their lives within these constraints. It soon becomes apparent that it is Melvut’s sister in law, Vediha, who is holding the extended family together.
There is no obvious agenda to any of this, which can become disorientating. But there is a definite thread running through Strangeness: the peculiarity of fiction itself, that ‘strangeness in the mind’ which compels someone to dream up whole worlds. Elsewhere, Pamuk has talked about how he has spent his life ‘narrating the streets of Istanbul’, and about how he feels that the city, its rapidly changing streets, the melancholia of the old buildings, the day-to-day life of the people that work there, has become a part of him, to the extent that he feels he has dreamt the whole thing up; the ultimate romantic vision, if you like, but also one laced with a sense of unease. If Pamuk has dreamed up Istanbul, what is it that he loves beyond his own powers of invention?
Pamuk’s achievement in Strangeness is to square this circle through a tremendous concentration of empathy. As Melvut’s best friend Ferhat, a meter reader, remarks, in a phrase a novelist would die for, ‘everyone in this city has a heart, and an electric meter.’ Pamuk has set all these hearts going, but they appear before the reader as completely human (no small task). Melvut is often struck by how it is ‘difficult… to tell the truth and be sincere at the same time.’ Difficult, A Strangeness in My Mind, seems to suggest, but not impossible.
If you were to be turned into an animal what animal would you choose? This question remains at the forefront of Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature The Lobster, where his protagonist David, the bumbling hairy-lipped Colin Farrell, decides he’d like to be turned into just that, a lobster. The premise of Lanthimos’s world is, like his previously acclaimed feature Dogtooth (2009), suitably surreal; singletons have forty-five days in order to find a mate, if they fail they are turned into animals. Co-written with his long-time collaborator Efthymis Filippou the echoes of the past are clear.
This is a world in which we are reminded again and again that there are ‘no half sizes’. A world run by strict regulations, no one measures by halves – there can be no deviations. You are or are not a size, just as you are or are not a human, you are or are not a couple. Identities in The Lobster are defined through the ability to conform and ‘match’ oneself to another, or at least the ability to pretend.
Here a man must fake a lack of heart, a perchance for nose-bleeds, a love of something other than what he is in order to survive. Men must adopt a disguise in order to ‘fit’ with a potential mate. Yet what Lanthimos astutely shows us is that this form of adaptational love rarely leads to happiness, that through compromising our identities, the strange oddities that make us who we are, we risk losing ourselves, a price hardly worth the sanctuary of a human shell. As an animal you will still be able to think, you will still be able to eat, you will still be able to have sex, you won’t – in the words of Olivia Colman’s exquisitely deadpan Hotel Manager – be able to appreciate a good work of literature. It’s an amusing premise, but one that casts a serious shadow. What are the distinctions that separate us from our animal selves? For Lanthimos it appears the differences are few and far between.
In this way The Lobster ultimately brings into question the ludicrous nature of human emotions, our wilful and spontaneous desires, along with the illogical and often bizarre means by which we attempt to connect. How do our lives intertwine with those around us? How do we form relationships? How do we fall in love? The dystopian ‘hotel’, where the majority of the film takes place, is the site that sees singletons through the process of finding a match. If they fail they are taken to the ominous ‘transformation room’ and emerge recast according to their aforementioned bestial preference.
The entire set up feels like some horrific dating night or spa retreat gone wrong (comparisons to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror often come to mind). When they enter contestants are stripped and made to dress in the same clothes; individuality – the trait you would think would be essential for potential match making – is eradicated. Participants then endure bizarre seminars in which re-enactments of scenes from ‘life’ dictate the importance of the binary pairing of man and woman (interestingly the question of homosexuality barely raises its head in the film). The strange conference setting, complete with a podium and loudspeaker, only adds to the horrific humour of the whole situation. Ballroom dances and breakfast dates are interspersed with the brutality of human ‘hunts’ performed with ritual regularity day in and day out. One of the most enjoyably surreal shots of the film sees the hotel guests leaping through the forest in slow motion to a classical soundtrack, the writhing of their victims and the animal behaviour on both sides magnified to an eerie dance, the madness made almost mundane.
Struggling within the system David breaks away, finding solace in the hunted rather than the hunters. Fleeing to the woods – itself an act of magnificent symbolism – he joins a group of stray loners. Loneliness is marked as something that lasts; unlike the restrictions of singleness in a coupled word, here in the woods ‘there is no time limit’, a stable security in a world ridden with sudden and abrupt alterations. However, led by the wonderfully stony Lea Seydoux, this new environment of supposed ‘freedom’ proves equally austere, with the regimented rules of the hotel staff replicated in the undergrowth of the woodland grounds. Despite its continued comedy the film is grounded in the tragic inability of real relationships to grow either inside or outside the walls of the hotel. Instead we are merely shown new problems, which fester a different kind of social unease. Those who break the rules may not be turned into animals, but they are similarly branded. Betrayers who seek to form deeper more complex relationships with their companions are transformed through grotesque punishments with comparable dehumanising qualities, a sinister ‘red kiss’ (a warped Glasgow smile), ensures no kissing, no connection, perfect silent isolation.
Love inevitably intervenes – Rachel Weisz’s voiceover attesting to this may be the single most annoying fault in the film – but Lanthimos’s deadpan examination of how relationships are built is surprisingly tender. Yet with this tenderness it seems the director sacrifices something. We lose a little of that rare tone of veracity Dogtooth struck: when previously we were made to watch a girl hack at her own body, in The Lobster the eye of the camera is shyer, more elusive, and – in the final moments –potentially more brutal.
Scotland herself is the main character in this blood-soaked reimagining of Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy. So enamoured is director Justin Kurzel of his Highland landscape that it becomes his focal point: a gaping maw of brutal heights and contours before the poor players. This is a cold pagan place, where the respite from war and rain is never very long.
From the opening scene– a child’s funeral –we discover a country of hope murdered in its infancy. Power is wielded by a clutch of men, whose in-fighting has led to continuous conflict for Scotland’s people. Michael Fassbender’s eponymous hero is gladiatorial: a fiercely rugged and committed Thane (of Glamis, Cawdor etc.) whose noble spirit turns sickly with untamed ambition. This is very much a Macbeth about men-at-war, a reading that Kurzel follows through effectively, albeit at the cost of some of the play’s best and strangest elements.
The ‘weird sisters’ are not so very weird at all. They appear on the fringes of the battlefield as wandering mothers, accompanied by their children and whispering prophecies that always sound closer to prayers than incantations. Indeed, the famous coven scene with its fabulous potion-brewing is sliced from the text; instead, Macbeth wanders through a field of ghostly soldiers, whose deaths haunt him throughout the film.
The substitution of the witch for the apparition is a crucial one. Shakespeare’s supernatural solicitings get short shrift here, and this is nowhere more evident than in the characterisation of Lady Macbeth. It ought to be one of the very best roles in the entire canon, and the ever-impressive Marion Cotillard does what she can within the confines of the direction. But this is a wraithlike portrait of a grieving mother, not a guilt-ridden murderess, for whom the ‘damned spot’ is an infant’s smallpox rather than a bloodstain. The raven himself is silent as Kurzel foolishly crops her stunning first soliloquy, a move symptomatic of the broader effacement women suffer in this film.
Visually, however, Macbeth is magnificent. The country’s storm-tormented glens and verges are a topology of the play’s bitter and hallucinatory psychology, forming an apt counterpoint to Macbeth’s frenzied decline. Fury builds through the slow-motion scenes of slaughter, and an attention to the rituals of war: the application of paint, and the assembling of weapons. In his soldierly interpretation, Fassbender is an outstanding Macbeth. His readings are underplayed and natural, yet full of ire beneath a hardened countenance. The final scenes of grief-stricken madness are particularly powerful, as he prepares to fight again with the ashes of a fiery Dunsinane blowing through the battlements.
As a war film, and a study of men and power, Kurzel’s adaptation is both well-acted and engrossing. But so much of the original play is framed by the plotting and prophesying of women, and the supernatural summons Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth whispers in her bedroom ought really to be cackled from the ramparts.
I’ve got a new eternal certainty to file alongside death and taxes: if you walk around London enough, and you know what he looks like, you will eventually see Will Self. My friend Hannah noticed him outside a Chinese restaurant near Charing Cross. My buddy Ben saw him on the road between St. Pancras and Euston. I’ve bumped into him on a stroll through Hampstead Heath. One day, it will happen to you too.
This is because he loves walking. He really loves walking. In fact, he and Ian Sinclair are key figures in the modern incarnation of psychogeography; a field that involves drifting around urban areas with a sense of freedom and philosophical inspection. Whilst it’s Parisian mid-century beginnings imbued it with a radical leftist political edge, it’s now become something more playful and therapeutic whilst maintaining its philosophical bent – i.e., it’s still about people reclaiming the streets, it’s just that the meaning of that phrase has changed.
In the tranquil grandeur of the Victoria and Albert Hall’s Lydia and Manfred Gorvy lecture theatre, Will Self and Iain Sinclair – both notable writers of the art of walking – took a break from their endless perambulations around London to talk about what going from place to place on one’s own feet means to them. The great relief of the evening was that, despite the subject’s arcane academic roots and Will Self’s tendency to announce things like “this whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal” on Question Time, the talk was both accessible and fun.
The crucial argument of both Self and Sinclair is that you never really know a place unless you’ve walked around it. It’s how you change London from abstract spaces around tube stops into a vibrant living city – Self explained how you come to feel the physical geography of London as hills leading up from a valley river that lie beneath so many buildings and roads. You communicate with London’s character: he expressed his (surprisingly optimistic) belief that the current trend for landscape distorting skyscrapers and oligarch-funded planning is no match for London’s ‘anarchic, hallucinatory personality’ – when you walk around it enough, you realise that what’s innately ‘London’ is also eternally ‘London’. He was more pessimistic about technology; he’s upset by the sights of people walking the streets with one eye on Google maps on their phone, their minds full of social media rather than architecture and living history. “They’re only half here, and half present on some virtual plane”. People are losing the ability to get truly, beautifully lost.
Urban walking has a surprisingly serious side. Self spoke about how it helped to occupy him after he gave up drugs, and how teaching the subject to recent immigrants to Britain had helped them become more connected with a land they felt alienated from. Walking really aids the mind in so many ways: it’s not for nothing that Nietzsche said “I never trust an idea that didn’t come to me on a walk.”
Self and Sinclair are persuasive champions of the cause, and it was a fascinating, eye-opening discussion. I’d never realised how much walking did for you, and how much there was to think about it. Incidentally, I’d walked to this lecture to get into the spirit of it; a two-and-a-half hour stroll from Hendon station down the Edgware Road. I can authoritively tell you that it does feel really good, and is both far more interesting and less tiring than you might imagine. I really recommend leaving the oyster card at home next time you have to transverse the city. For a talk about an obtuse academic, philosophical field this was hardly abstract, purely theoretical subject matter: it’s something you can really feel – if you choose to get on your feet.
By Rory McCarthy
The V&A are currently doing a series of evening events that you can find out about here.
McQueen Theatre Royal Haymarket Limited run from 19th August
Reviewed by Lauren Hepburn
It’s been five years since Lee McQueen took his life. The exquisite dress worn by Kate Middleton on her wedding day along with the V&A’s fabulous ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition this year have meant that the name Alexander McQueen has become synonymous with British design. James Phillips’ play, currently enjoying a limited run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket after having been transferred from the West End, comes in the wake of these momentous events. But this offering spotlights the designer differently. It’s an exploration of Lee the man – not Alexander the brand – the imagination, the creative genius and the darkness that went hand in hand with his talent.
In an interview with The London Magazine, lead actor Stephen Wight described McQueen the Play as a ‘Dickensian journey through London… back in time’, a dark fairytale about the pivotal moments and relationships in the life of one of Britain’s national treasure’s. Indeed, from a nostalgic visit to the Saville Row tailor where McQueen learnt his trade, to a poignant meeting with the ghost of his original mentor, Isabella Blow (Tracy-Ann Oberman), James Phillips’ play is packed full of McQueen trivia.
Wight, who is literally and figuratively the star of the show, looks astonishingly like the real man with his Celtic colouring, striking blue eyes and close-shaved head, and brilliantly conveys the dry wit and razor sharp mind of Lee McQueen as well. Wight’s comic timing is well balanced with the presentation of McQueen’s emotional turmoil and regularly saves the performance from a script quite dense with clichés. His subtle rendering of the man also served to counterbalance Carly Bawden’s performance, whose character, Dahlia, delivered the majority of the play’s more adolescent lines in a singsong voice, and whose role didn’t come quite as naturally to her as Wight and Oberman’s did to them. In fact, one of the play’s most successful scenes is delivered by the latter two; an otherworldly meeting between McQueen and Blow in a room decked out with butterflies and a white chaise-long. Wight and Oberman exude chemistry and the result is a very touching exchange, fueled alternately by humour, playfulness and tragedy.
In the beginning it’s hard to tell what direction the production is going in – a mixed media dance piece? A musical? A catwalk? Dahlia’s self-consciously casual singing sporadically interrupts the script and I couldn’t really work out why – except that Bawden has a good voice. Contemporary dance, choreographed by Christopher Marney, also punctuates the performance and is inventive and skillfully delivered (though, as a fan of Sadler’s Wells productions, I wouldn’t recommend the play for its dance element alone). But by the end of the play, it’s clear that the production’s unwillingness to be relegated to a particular genre is all part of its relationship with McQueen’s oeuvre. Even the soundtrack is drawn from his catwalk shows.
Disappointing is the notable absence of original McQueen designs. The play’s inspiration, his 2008 show The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, is played out in Dahlia’s fanciful claim that she has sat in a tree outside the designer’s studio for eleven days. It’s also there in her thick black, almost triangular bob (as per the models in the catwalk show’s first half), and in the black dress McQueen makes for her – though this came closer to Vivienne Westwood than McQueen in aesthetic. The play uses (from what I could glean) only two other replicas of his designs. The copies are impressively crafted and capture all the theatricality of McQueen’s clothes but going into the show I expected more – isn’t that the allure? However, in retrospect Director John Caird was probably right to avoid the performance becoming an endless catwalk of McQueen’s designs – anyone who visited the V&A’s exhibition knows that it would be hard to compete with.
The focus on Lee McQueen the man (as opposed to the big-name brand) is a point drummed home as the narrative exhibits the pressures of artistic ambition and the fashion industry on the designer. It is a powerful story, flashy and theatrical but also dark and tragic and that was how, according to this play, McQueen’s creativity worked. Both Wight and the company’s Dance Captain, Amber Doyle, were keen to tell us that the fusion of theatre, dance, fashion and music in this multi-genre play came directly from an appreciation of McQueen’s shows. It is ironic then, that a central focus of the script is on McQueen’s anger about the assumptions of outsiders who think they might know him after a single ‘Google search’. A recurring motif in the play that couldn’t help but prompt me to think that Dahlia, who alternately represents McQueen’s inspiration/subconscious/alter-ego, is a character created on the assumption that we might ever be able to understand what went on in the mind of this troubled genius. In a metatheatrical twist, it occurred to me that Phillips may have chosen to highlight McQueen’s frustrations with ignorant ‘outsiders’ in order to remind us that even if we leave the theatre thinking we better understand the man behind the craft, Lee McQueen, true to his spirit, would likely come right out and tell us we didn’t.