Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Katherine Arden's debut is a perfect Russian fairytale

The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel and, by the time you’ve turned the final page, you’re left with a deep hope that there will be more and that they will be every bit as good.

Texan Arden spent a year in school in France and, before beginning her degree in French and Russian literature at Middlebury College, Vermont, a year living and studying in Moscow. Since then, she’s spent further time working in France.

And all that experience is important because her book is essentially a Russian fairytale.

Set in a past where Russians still pay homage to the Khan; where Moscow is built of wood and where the new religion of Christianity still overlaps with the old – at least in the far reaches of the countryside – Arden’s tale begins with a family gathering around a vast oven for the telling of a story on a bitter winter’s night.

It is a story of winter; a story of the season anthropomorphised; a story of greed and fear and courage and love.

When the family sits back at its end, we begin to learn about them.

There is Marina – a strange woman and daughter of an equally strange and unknown bride of an Ivan in Moscow, who was married to minor noble Pyotr at her father’s behest.

They have had healthy children during a happy marriage, but then she becomes pregnant once more and, even though she’s weakened by a particularly hard winter, insists she that will give birth and that the child will be a daughter who will, in effect, continue her own philosophy.

Dying in childbirth, Pyotr is left to care for the new-born Yasya – helped by the rest of the family and Dunya, the elderly nursemaid.

But some years later, when he travels to Moscow with his sons to look for a new wife, an incident occurs that sees him travel home with a special pendant for Marina’s daughter and fear in his heart for the safety of the child.

Traditional fairy tales have little character development.

One of the things that Arden achieves here is to develop character far more than is traditional, yet to simultaneously give us something that never ceases to have the real and discernible sense of a fairy tale.

She gives the characters enough depth to satisfy contemporary readers – and to make us care – while at the same time never taking us too far from the recognisable types. Equally, this delves into philosophical realms that you can choose to pick up on or not (the nature of religion, for instance).

Arden knows her Russian folklore and it’s a knowledge that radiates throughout this book, yet never feels false or forced.

A tale of deep, deep winter, the landscape is conjured sublimely. And perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the novel is actually the language. Somehow, Arden gives her tale a linguistic feeling of age – yet without ever a false note to make you squirm and feel that it is artificial or somehow wrong.

At least one review Ive seen suggests that this is, in part, magic realism. I disagree. And thats because it’s important to stress that what this certainly is IS fantasy/fairy tale – and on those terms, it is a work of literature and wonder and needs no such literary terms to justify’ it.

I will say no more than that Arden has written a wonderful, magical book, and that I can only hope that she will not be a one-hit wonder.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Sing hits the right notes to brighten cloudy days

It’s been said of Illumination’s latest animated outing, Sing, that there is not an original element in the plot – but given that there are also apparently a limited number of plots in the world, this hardly seems a particularly strong brickbat to lob.

Indeed, it’s possible that no collection of tropes and clich├ęs has ever been quite as much fun before.

Written and directed by Garth Jennings (who also provided some of the voices) this is, in essence, a sort of American Idol talent contest with anthropomorphised characters.

It’s a contest that only comes into being because theatre owner Buster Moon is desperate and broke, while all of the auditionees who win places in the show itself have Big Personal Problems.

Johnny the gorilla’s dad is a mobster and wants his son in the gang; Rosita the pig is mother to 25 piglets and wife to a workaholic husband who barely notices her; Mike the street musician mouse is more than a tad crooked; Ash the porcupine rock chick has a bastard of a boyfriend and Meena the elephant has the voice but nowhere near the confidence.

Meanwhile, there’s Buster’s friend, Eddie Noodleman, the son of well-to-do sheep, who’s looking for a role in life. His grandmother, Nana Noodleman, is a for star of the musical stage, and is very wealthy, very bored and downright misanthropic in equal measure.

You get the gist, don’t you?

What Jennings manages is to make this all seem remarkably fresh and funny, while you actually find yourself caring about the characters.

The use of music – there are more than 60 classic songs here and the cost of the rights accounted for a substantial part of the overall budget – is very clever. It’s one aspect that ensures this is not simply a film for children.

Watch out for the snail’s audition as a prime example.

The performances are great – who else but Seth MacFarlane could give voice to Mike: ‘Hey, Seth – fancy playing a bit of a shit character and getting to sing some Sinatra-style stuff?’

Reese Witherspoon is delightful as Rosita – and gets strong support from Nick Kroll as Gunther, the bubbly, camp German pig she’s teamed with.

Scarlett Johansson makes a great rock chick of Ash – and I really like what happens to her character – while Taron Egerton makes Johnny suitably torn between vastly different worlds (it’s all a bit Billy Elliot) and Tori Kelly does a lovely job with Meena.

Matthew McConaughey bridges the gap between con man and dreamer as koala Buster, Rhea Perlman has a nice cameo as an unsympathetic banker, John C Reilly pops up as Eddie and Jennifer Saunders goes a tad Dame Shirley on us as Nana Noodleman.

Jennings himself adds much humour as Ms Crawly, an elderly iguana with a glass eye who is Busters assistant and also gives Johnny piano lessons.

As I said – it’s a very good voice cast and if the animation seems simple on the surface, there are some very neat things going on.

The final section is particularly cleverly constructed, allowing the leads to all fully enjoy their musical moment in the sun while neatly pulling together assorted loose ends.

If Disney has Mickey Mouse, then Illumination has the Minions, and so much are they now established as the studios mascot that they even get another moment on the big screen at the start of the titles here.

Presumably, theyll be back for longer in the summer when Despicable Me 3 arrives.

We saw it late on a Friday afternoon at the end of yet another week in an increasingly surreal world: it was a perfect spot of therapy.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Not all revolutionary art inspires

Vladimir Lenin in Smolny
Picasso famously declared that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.

And that is certainly one of the things that art can do, but if that’s the sort of artistic experience you’re looking for, then don’t look toward the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932.

For this centenary year of the revolution itself, the RA got in quick. And while there is much to recommend a visit, there are also flaws and clunky curation to contend with.

It would help, for instance, if there was some context provided for the events of October 1917: even a meagre note that Czarist Russia was no paradise on Earth would be useful, if only to remind visitors that the revolution did not come out of some sort of vacuum.

Instead, we begin with a room dedicated to visions of Lenin and Stalin – as though the roots of the revolution itself are in the cults of the leaders alone.

The defence of Petrograd
Actually, set aside whatever your political and philosophical views of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union are, and there are some fine paintings here: Issak Brodsky’s Lenin and Demonstration from 1919 is very good: the eyes give you a sense of a powerful and charismatic character, a real human being, in marked contrast to other more iconised portrayals.

It’s light years away from the later ‘socialist realism’. And much better. Indeed, the later, idealised socialist realist paintings of agricultural workers are profound only in their blandness.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s painting of Lenin in his coffin (hidden from the world for decades because it was considered so controversial) inhabits the same world as other death paintings. Vladimir Lenin in Smolny, again by Brodsky but this time from 1930, is also excellent with its extraordinary sense of simplicity and lack of pomp.

Space Force Construction
The next room gives us works that seek to make industrialisation and industrial work heroic. It includes some brilliant photography – not least, Arkady Shaiket’s Construction of the Moscow Telegraphic Centre from 1928 – but also paintings that make workers look like robots. That might – or might not – have been deliberate, but it’s what we have in front of us.

One large canvas portrays three women in a cotton mill: not one of them has a facial expression or characteristic that marks her from the others. If this was supposed to convince people of the wonderfulness of the Soviet Union and industry, then it's difficult to see how it would.

There is some Kandinsky here and some Chagall – both of whose work is always worth seeing – and plenty of Malevich (I had enough at the Tate Modern’s 2014 exhibition, frankly, but this was new for the OH), although Landscape With Five Houses (1932) is worth seeing again.

Works like Space Force Construction (1921) by Lyubov Popova make you think positively of Constructivism.

There is an extraordinary design for a worker’s flat that has been recreated here – it still feels modern in the minimalist way that design TV shows love.

Construction of the Moscow Telegraphic Centre
However, it’s slightly surreal to view the displayed figurines in porcelain – revolutionary versions of Royal Doulton shepherdesses. The printed fabrics one does expect – but not these.

A wall in one room displays a series of portraits of cultural giants such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who pushed the boundaries of their art forms – yet there is with no real suggestion as to how we should view these in the wider context of the exhibition.

Given some of the mutterings on social media, by the sort of people who declare themselves experts on something without having actually seen it, it’s possible that the curators simply felt too wary of any backlash if they penned something that looked overtly positive, and have left such sections almost blank in terms of explanations. 

We have adverts, food coupons that are designed way beyond the strictly utilitarian and examples of works that celebrate the pre-revolutionary ‘Mother Russia’.

The final room is a disaster: there are some interesting works, but we end up with a logjam of viewers because there is (yet more) film to watch and the only way to see it is from a narrow passageway.

Adjoining this is the almost-final exhibit – a black box where you can sit and watch pictures flash by of people killed by the Soviet regime. Its black boxness seems to invoke the religious nature of Mecca. 

Tatlin's glider
Before this, though, Tatlin’s glider rises above much else on display – perhaps because one can view it without trying to understand or impose onto it anything overtly political. Displayed beautifully, on it’s own and turning gently beneath a dome, it conveys a sense of hope.

The Russian Revolution offered hope to many – including to artists. But the hope died as time passed: as counter-revolution caused war and suffering, and as the regime responded with a clamping-down on creative thinking and anything that might be consider individual.

The Defence of Petrograd, by Alexander Deineka (1928) is an epic canvas that sees blank-faced men head to the front to defend the new Russia. Above, on a gantry, wounded men return.

Alexander Samokhvalovs painting of a shot putter has a sense of being extraordinarily modern, though painted in 1933.

The Shot Putter
Much is pure propaganda, but its also evidence that propaganda can be good art.

Film footage throughout includes Eisentein’s October. We face the question of whether the Odessa steps is propaganda? Well, yes. But  is it good art too? Absolutely! Just as Leni Riefenstahl’s films are. Will seeing works by such artists ‘convert’ you? That’s up to you and you alone.

Just as you can appreciate great Western religious art without becoming religious, so you can see this exhibition without taking on a specific political view (pro or anti).

However, theres an extraordinary sense of modernity and vision throughout the exhibition that would make it difficult not to mourn the betrayal of the spirit of the revolution.

Its a fascinating view – albeit a flawed one. Inevitably, it’s hard to see it through anything other than the prism of one’s own political leanings, popular perception and history books, but if you can manage to push beyond, there are rewards here – as well as things to deeply irritate.

Some of what is on view is poor. But some is very good indeed.

You have until 17 April to decide whether for not you wish to see it.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Picasso portraits give a fascinating overview

Self-portrait with Palette
When you live in a large city it’s arguably the way of things that you will not know about every cultural event taking place, but even allowing for that, it was a surprise to realise, at the start of this week, that I’d been unaware of a major exhibition in London.

The National Portrait Gallery, in conjunction with the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, has been staging Picasso Portraits, which ends tomorrow.

With little time left, The Other Half and I booked tickets for last night and duly made our way there after work. And after all, given the Catalan giant’s observation that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” what better way could there be to begin a weekend?

It’s a career-spanning collection that takes us from the end of the 19th century to the 1970s.

Works on display include a small number of photographic portraits to a sketch on a paper napkin to fragments on cards to works in oil to sculptures. It’s an excellent way to get an idea of the range of Picasso’s work and styles.

Self-portrait in charcoal and chalk
The earliest works include some of the most fascinating, including two self portraits – one, sporting a wig from 1897 and the other, in charcoal and chalk from 1889-1900.

Both have an intensity about them, but the latter (reproduction does not do justice to the light of it) particularly caught my eye.

It is difficult with Picasso – perhaps more than with most other artists – to separate artist and art. There is a sense of raw animal power about the subject in both these; of a force of nature that gives you an insight into what he created.

Close by is a 1901 portrait of the French art critic and writer Gustave Coquiot that seems to nod toward Fauvism in its use of green in the subject’s skin, and with a dollop of impasto at the shirt’s throat drawing the eye.

From a personal perspective, I ‘get’ the early Cubist works, but I can’t say I ‘like’ them, with their de-humanising analysis and the muddy palette, though the Head of a Woman bust is more interesting than the canvases.

Far more revealing, for me, are works such as Self-portrait with Palette from 1906, where we see a recognisable style emerging, that combines the classical and the primitive – and leaves us with a sense of the emotion.

Later rooms include one with a range of portraits of Olga Picasso – from the naturalistic to the Cubist.

Portrait of Olga Picasso
And here is the perfect chance to highlight a prime bugbear about this exhibition: the curator’s notes next to each work.

In one exhibit, sitting next to a sketch showing a friend of Picasso in a brothel, the words talk of the friend “carousing with a drunken prostitute”. Well, “carousing” is one way to put it.

Similarly, in a later work – a drawing of the artist Raphael having sex while the pope draws curtains aside to watch – there is no mention of the act, but we are informed that Raphael was known to have an ‘amorous’ character.

This terror of mentioning S.E.X. is only one aspect of the issue: throughout, we’re told what Picasso was thinking as he worked.

Now, it is a fair bet that, when an artist is, say, in a strained relationship, that might show up in their work, but asserting such connections as fact is irritating at best.

However, that is what happened in the room dedicated to Olga – Woman in a Hat (Olga) from 1935 is pretty much definitively described as making a sarcastic comment on his wife’s love of hats, yet also as showing her in such a way as to pity her even as their relationship broke apart.

Woman in a Hat (Olga)
Portrait of Olga Picasso from 1923 has a generally classical approach, yet the eyes have something of the mask-like look of Self-portrait with Palette – but even here the curator is straining to tell us that the formality suggests the relationship was already in trouble.

It’s hardly rocket science to suppose that a self-portrait from 1972 – effectively a skull with a piece missing – was influenced by a sense of his own mortality (he died the following year) but do we really need this stating as though we are incapable of making the links on our own? Indeed, Im going to suggest that such notes detract from the power of just such a work.

I never use audio guides in galleries, in the UK or abroad, precisely because I think that they get in the way of you really seeing the works.

It’s entirely possible that I might miss something that the in a painting or sculpture that had not been upmost in the artist had in mind at the time of its creation, but then that personal experience of art is part of the ongoing process of creativity; part of what makes art more than imply objects.

Self-portrait, 1972
Yet on occasion, the notes skate over what many people might not know, which could be said briefly and might add something.

In another room, for instance, two notes mention Matisse, yet with no mention of the sense of rivalry between them – most of it on Picasso’s part (see Hilary Spurling’s excellent biography of the French artist), thus not giving any real sense of the claim that the colours of one painting are a deliberate echoing of Matisse.

The other problem here is the lack of any works from the Blue Period. It feels like an obvious gap in what otherwise is a successful use of one type of art to give that career perspective.

All this said, there is plenty to delight – not least some of the more informal works Picasso executed for friends, including a 1957 sketch of the French composer and pianist, Francis Poulenc, which shows how he could get away with caricaturing his friends.

Unlike some exhibitions, this is also not so long as to exhaust. You still have time – just about – to catch Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It finishes tomorrow – and then we have until 2018 for Tate Modern’s just-announced Picasso blockbuster.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A heavenly dinner at The Salt Room

Mackerel, beetroot etc
In recent weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with people who question what a ‘fine dining’ experience gives you other than a bigger hole in your wallet.

If you asked me that same question 15 years ago, I’d have been thinking along the same lines. But experience can be a great educator.

On Saturday night, working once more in Brighton, I headed for the Salt Room.

Having opened in February 2015, I’d first tried it, along with the Other Half, last June. When I was in the city again in October, I returned for a solo meal and after that, I never had any doubt that I’d be back as soon as possible.

If I’ve worked out one thing about what divides top-level dining from eating out lower down the scale, it’s that the really good experience is flawless throughout – however many courses you have.

Elsewhere, you might find that one or even two courses will be fine, but something else just won’t be up to the same level.

One of the things that I like about the menu at the Salt Room is that it’s proudly seasonal.

At the weekend, I began with a dish of mackerel, miso and beetroot in a variety of way, including pickled and as a ketchup.

Slip sole, turnip, nori butter, shrimps, celery, capers
The fish was cooked to perfection: griddled on the skin side until it was black, but with the flesh just done; flaking and moist.

One of the things that this sort of cooking makes you notice is just how fresh the fish was in the first place: you can taste the freshness – and the contrast with the crisped skin was sublime.

The use of Japanese flavour in miso was subtle and never threatened to overwhelm the delicate fish, while the beetroot provided an earthiness to the whole thing.

This was a joy to eat.

For a main course, I stuck with fish and opted for slip sole with diced turnip, nori butter, tiny shrimps, capers and celery.

Honestly, it really is no exaggeration to stress just how good this was. Again, the fish was clearly impeccably fresh and had been equally impeccably cooked.

It was a dish of extraordinary natural sweetness, tempered by the capers: very satisfying.

I didnt bother with any side dishes (Ive mentioned before that such a concept seems peculiarly British) – the portions were a perfect size for me.

One little guide to how good the food is at any restaurant is the issue of seasoning. There are salt and pepper pots on the tables at the Salt Room, but in three visits, I have never felt any remote temptation to pick either up.

My waiter – Alfonso from Sicily; a knowledgeable charmer – thought that it was wrong to even offer customers the salt and pepper: some douse their food before even bothering to taste (something that Raymond Blanc described being appalled by in his book, A Taste of My Life).

It does beg the question of why you bother going to a good restaurant if you don’t start from a point of implicitly trusting the kitchen.

Another basis on which to recommend the Salt Room is that it has a far wider range of wines available by the glass than is often the case.

Here, Alfonso chatted with me about matching wine to my choices and gave me the chance to taste two wines before selecting. That’s really good service.

In the event, I enjoyed a Riesling Trimbach – but it was fascinating to have tried another possiblilty.

Being given time to sip my wine and contemplate the dessert menu in an unrushed gap between courses is, for me, vital.

So, what could I select to conclude such a meal?

It was an enticing dessert menu, but what stood out for me was rhubarb and custard: “custard tart, roasted rhubarb, rhubarb & Sauternes ice cream”.

Rhubarb and custard
It’s the start of the season for forced rhubarb, after all, and rhubarb is one of my favourite fruits, so selection was made easier.

A ‘custard’ of vanilla infused panna cotta, rich yet light at the same time, is served with rhubarb in a variety of ways – including a wonderful, wafer-thin crisp and ice cream – and a hint of crumble.

It was heavenly. There is nothing more that needs to be said.

If I have a liqueur after a meal, it’s usually a Disaronno, but Alfonso persuaded me to try something different – Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur – and it was a very pleasant way to conclude a simply superb meal.

You do get what you pay for in food terms – certainly in the UK at present. In France, you can still find little bistros and brasseries that give you a memorable experience for little outlay.

But as I’ve seen, time and time again in recent years, dining out both for pleasure and particularly when away from home for work, that sort of middle tier of eatery in the UK is often far from cheap for food that is far from sensational.

I have no doubt that I’ll return to the Salt Room again.