24 September 2014

Anton Corbijn’s ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Corbijn’s film has been adapted from John Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name and is set in Hamburg, a city which, we are told at the outset, has become a hive of counter-terrorist activity in the years since 9/11 was planned there. The ‘most wanted man’ is a young Chechnyan illegal immigrant, Issa Karpov, half-Russian, who attracts the attention of rival units of the domestic German intelligence service. Philip Seymour Hoffman (not quite as convincing as in The Ides of March) plays the part of Günther Bachmann, an over-the-hill operative who plans to use Karpov to catch bigger fish. As might be expected in this sort of drama, things do not go well.

At two hours the film is too long for its plot, but interest is sustained by the quality of the acting: Hoffman, of course, but also Nina Hoss as his sidekick, Willem Dafoe as a shady banker, Rachel McAdams as an idealistic young lawyer out of her depth, and Robin Wright as the CIA liaison person. The producers and director chose an English-speaking cast to play mostly native German parts and squared the circle by having Hoffman adopt a German accent, an arrangement which turns out to be not quite so odd as it sounds at first.

How well-founded Le Carré’s understanding of intelligence operations in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world may actually be, who knows?  But the underlying assumption seems to be that personal rivalry, duplicity and intramural turf-wars carry on as always in the wilderness of mirrors, while all involved reassure themselves that they are trying to make the world a safer place. I’m not certain that A Most Wanted Man has deserved the praise it has received from some critics, but any judgement is likely to be swayed by the sad reality that this is Hoffman’s last major film appearance.

A Most Wanted Man is Dutch director Corbijn’s third feature film.  I didn't seen his 2010 thriller, The American, set in Italy with George Clooney, but  I may add a footnote here if I do.  His first feature was Control in 2007, a biopic of Ian Curtis of the rock band Joy Division.

23 September 2014

Martin Amis’s ‘The Zone of Interest’

There are three British writers whose adult lives, like mine, seem likely to straddle the Millennium: in order of personal preference, Ian McEwan (b 1948), Julian Barnes (b 1946) and Martin Amis (b 1949). Amis’s works don’t always appeal to me – I haven’t read Lionel Asbo (2012) and his roman à clef, The Pregnant Widow (2010) seemed flawed by attempting to put late-thirty year-old heads on early-twenty year-old shoulders. But, like other and far better qualified judges*, I found his latest novel, The Zone of Interest, impressive.

It is mostly set in an Auschwitz-like concentration camp, Kat Zet, (KZ, Konzentrationslager) in 1942/43, the period when the Red Army at Stalingrad began to roll back the Nazi advance. Events are seen in alternating succession through the eyes of Angelus Thomsen, a young, well-connected middle manager with the contractor IG Farben, Paul Doll, the camp commandant and Szmul, head of the prisoners who dispose of the bodies. Thomsen, an experienced womaniser, falls in love with Doll’s wife, Hannah. The novel ends with an Aftermath covering the years to 1948. It is clear from the Acknowledgments and Afterward: ‘That Which Happened’ at the end of the book, that Amis has an extensive knowledge of the authoritative Third Reich and Holocaust literature (his first Kat Zet novel, Time’s Arrow, was published in 1991).

The reader of The Zone of Interest is not spared the Holocaust’s “horror, its desolation and its bloody-minded opacity”, nor should they be. However, it is, inevitably, a far from easy read. Some reviewers have called it a satire, others a black comedy and no doubt technically they are right, but it’s far from Catch-22. Amis chose to let Doll, a particularly crooked timber who had been a Nazis since the 1920s, use German words in frequent references to female anatomy but to grotesque effect rather than comic. It seems unlikely to pose a problem in translating the novel to German, because, according to the New York Times, Amis’s usual publishers in France and Germany, Gallimard and Carl Hanser Verlag, have turned down The Zone of Interest. However, Calmann-Lévy, part of the Hachette group, has plans to publish for the autumn of 2015. French readers may find it unsettling that as early in the book as Chapter 2, the first transport to be described arriving at the camp is from Paris.

However revolting the activities of the self-styled Islamic State (IS, or ISIS or ISIL) may seem, Amis’s book is a reminder that they have, so far, been small violations by comparison with the Third Reich’s atrocities. Its publication in the UK is fortuitously timed. The British Museum will be showing Germany: Memories of a Nation from next month until January. In a FT Weekend Magazine interview with the BM’s director, Neil MacGregor, Simon Schama observes:
It is just because the public’s general knowledge of German history, such as it is, is so dominated by one immense and hideous narrative – that of the Third Reich and the Holocaust – that MacGregor wants to open minds to something broader and more complex. Those horrors he calls – provocatively – “extraordinary historical anomalies”. What he wants to present to the listener and the visitor to the exhibition is, rather, a strikingly under-determined national identity – one not, from the beginning, driving inexorably on the Autobahn to annihilation.
The Royal Academy has a retrospective until December of the German painter Anselm Kiefer (b 1945) whose work “wrestles with the darkness of German history”.

Anselm Kiefer, Nothung 1973
Tate Modern from October to February will be showing Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963–2010:
Polke [b 1941] grew up at a time when many Germans deflected blame for the atrocities of the Nazi period with the alibi, ‘I didn’t see anything’. In various works in the exhibition, Polke opposes many Germans of his generation’s tendency to ignore the Nazi past, as if picking off the scab to reopen the wound.
And in October the reconstructed documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, will be released as Memory of the Camps. Supervised by Alfred Hitchcock and drawing on film shot in the camps during liberation, it was pulled from distribution after the war for political reasons, a story told in another new film, André Singer’s Night Will Fall.

* Just for example: Alex Clark in the Guardian, Alex Preston in the Observer, Rebecca Abrams in the FT, Wynn Wheldon in the Spectator, JoyceCarol Oates in the New Yorker.

(Post amended on 27 September to include Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern and Nothung)

21 September 2014

Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Hauser & Wirth Somerset recently opened at Durslade Farm on the edge of the small town of Bruton. Part of a major international art dealership, it seems a long way from their other establishments in Zurich, London, New York and Los Angeles - which is not to say that South West England should be anything but grateful for the arrival of a world-class gallery and arts centre. The investment in renovating buildings and two new-build galleries designed by the Parisian architects, Laplace, must have been considerable. Hauser & Wirth’s aim for the gallery is to:
… share contemporary art with new audiences and … to engage the public with art, the countryside and the local community. The centre will also provide resources including an archive, reading room, landscaped garden designed by Piet Oudolf and a restaurant for locally-sourced food
Admission is free and there are two opening shows underway. Open Field consists of Oudolf’s designs for this and other projects including The High Line in New York and the Serpentine Gallery in London. Anyone interested in garden design and planting will no doubt enjoy learning more about Oudolf’s approach and his choices for the Hauser & Wirth Somerset garden which contains over 26,000 herbaceous perennials, (below, with Anri Sala’s perspective-defying Clocked Perspective 2012).

The inaugural art exhibition is GIG by Phyllida Barlow. Barlow was commissioned by Tate Britain in 2014 to produce a large sculptural installation for the Duveen Galleries, known as dock. At Bruton she has produced a series of installations responding to the gallery’s spaces and rural surroundings, made with common materials similar to those in dock: cement, cardboard, expanded polystyrene, plywood, timber and so on. Photography is not permitted indoors but images are available for untitled (suspended fabric pompoms, below left) and grinder, (below right.

After seeing postscorral inside and stackedchairs (below) outside in the Piggery, I began to wonder whether Barlow had been to the Somerset coast, the latter work called to mind deckchairs at Clevedon or Weston-super-Mare. But part of the fascination of Barlow’s work is that every visitor will be reminded of something different as they walk round, through or under her constructions. Moreover on close examination the viewer begins to appreciate how complex these constructions are in the ways they have been assembled from numerous components and also the subtlety of their colouring.

Photography is unlimited outside and works which I liked included Louise Bourgeois’ Spider 1994 (below, top) and Josephson’s Untitled 1970/73 (below, lower).

It was a delight to visit Hauser & Wirth Somerset on one of the last days of this summer. However, I couldn’t help wondering whether work by Pipilotti Rist will be as appealing to visitors from far and near on a wet Wednesday afternoon in February when the garden will have little to offer but muddy shoes. Across the front of Durslade Farm is a neon by Martin Creed, EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT (2011, Work 1086, below top with Subodh Gupta’s Untitled, 2008 in the foreground). Well, I do hope so and that it won’t be necessary to seek comfort from the stylish French neon described in a post here earlier this year: Jamais renoncer. And, of course, it’s far better for the South West that Iwan and Manuela Wirth chose to make Bruton their home and a location for a new gallery rather than, say, Beijing.

19 September 2014

How are the Red Princes and Princesses also rising?

It was almost two years ago that a post appeared here about the Red Princes and Princesses – the children of prominent Labour politicians who were thought likely to follow in their parental footsteps ("the son also rises"). A good article on the subject, What Labour’s Red Princes tell us about Britain, by Sophie McBain appeared in the New Statesman in June. She concluded:
… if you felt like being kind, you could say that Labour’s Red Princes have benefited from “high social capital”, but perhaps you would prefer the term “nepotism”. The children of MPs enter politics with an understanding of the Westminster system, as well as ready-made political connections and influential backers, which all help if you are looking for a parachute into a winnable seat. In this way, at least, Labour reflects the society it aspires to represent: the UK has the lowest level of social mobility in the developed world. 
… How does a party of political princelings and Westminster insiders convince anyone it can represent the working classes? …
With just over seven months to go before the election on 7 May 2015*, I thought it would be interesting to find out how they (and some other notables’ offspring) are getting on in the constituencies reported to be of interest to them. I expect that now that the Scottish referendum is over and an influx of Scottish Labour MPs seeking English seats has been averted, more will be learnt.

I will add/amend as information becomes available, but so far, and in alphabetical order:

Child of: Benn dynasty
Age*: 25
Constituency: Croydon South - Majority in 2010: 5818 (Con, 28%)
Status: PPC (Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, ie will be Labour candidate in 2015)

Child of: late Tony Benn
Age*: 63
Constituency: Lords hereditary member
Source: Daily Mail 8 April 2014

Child of: Tony Blair
Age*: 31
Constituency:    Coventry North West - Majority in 2010: 6288 (Lab, 13%)
and                   Bootle (Merseyside) - Majority in 2010: 21181 (Lab, 51%)
Status: ?

Child of: Jack Dromey and Harriet Harman
Age*: 31/32
Constituency: Lewisham Deptford - Majority in 2010: 12499 (Lab, 30%)
Status: interest denied
Source: Daily Telegraph blogs 3 September 2013

Child of: Late Philip Gould and Lady Gould (Gail Rebuck)
Age*: 27
Constituency: Erith & Thamesmead - Majority in 2010: 5703 (Lab, 13%)
Status: Failed to become PPC in 2010

Child of: Neil and Gladys Kinnock (Lord Kinnock and Baroness Kinnock)
Age*: 45
Constituency: Aberavon - Majority in 2010: 11039 (Lab, 36%)
Status: PPC

Child of: Austin Mitchell
Age*: 50s?
Constituency: Dulwich & W Norwood - Majority in 2010: 9365 (Lab, 19%)
Status: Withdrew from PPC

Child of: Lord Prescott (John Prescott)
Age*: 44
Constituency: Hull East - Majority in 2010: 8597 (Lab, 25%)
Status: Failed to become PPC
Constituency: Greenwich & Woolwich - Majority in 2010: 10153 (Lab, 25%)
Status: Failed to become PPC

Child of: Jack Straw
Age*: 34
Constituency: Rossendale & Darwen - Majority in 2010: 4493 (Con, 9%)
Status: PPC

* Age on 7 May 2015

7 September 2014

John and Paul Nash at RWA Bristol

Perhaps because Britain has a hereditary monarchy, we seem to look kindly on dynastic successions (acceptable even to the political left – the ‘Red Princes and Princesses’) but are reluctant to consider brothers as equals. One Johnson or Dimbleby is regarded as numero uno – fairly or possibly unfairly, for example in the case of the Attenborough brothers. One wonders if some people will ever forgive Ed Miliband for overturning what was perceived as the correct order of things. When it comes to the painters John Nash (1893-1977) and Paul Nash (1889- 1946), it’s Paul who is the more highly regarded, so part of the interest of Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) Bristol is to see whether in this case the consensus view is the correct one.

This show is part of a wider RWA activity:
Back from the Front - Art, Memory and the Aftermath of War is a programme of exhibitions and events at the RWA commemorating the start of The Great War, and 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. It explores the theme of conflict and memory across a series of interrelated exhibitions …
So it is disconcerting that although both brothers were official war artists in both World Wars when they produced major paintings, there are only peacetime works, landscapes mostly, in Brothers in Art, some from just before the First World War, the majority from the interwar years. Accepting this constraint, among the 40-odd items on display, there are some interesting pieces to see, particularly works by John which are less familiar than those of his brother, for example, A Gloucestershire Landscape (1914, below top) and The Cornfield, (1918, below lower):

Although there are similarities in the brothers’ approach to landscape in the years after the First World War – John’s The Edge of the Plain (1926, below top) and Paul’s Dymchurch (c1921-4 below lower):

Paul’s interest in modernism would lead to Landscape of the Megaliths (1934, below top) and to the surrealistic Equivalents of the Megaliths (1935, below lower):

The absence of any wartime works means that the visitor cannot progress to the next stage of Paul’s work such as his celebrated Battle of Britain, 1941 (see a post here earlier this year) and Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1. Similarly, there is no opportunity to examine the relationship of John’s The Farm Pond (1940, below top) to his Oppy Wood, 1917: Evening (1918, below lower):

However, there are some interesting examples of John’s skill as an engraver and illustrator, something which is explored further in Paul Gough’s catalogue Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash and the Aftermath of the Great War.  For a much more informed opinion than this one, see Andrew Lambirth’s review in the Spectator.

Brothers in Art: John and Paul Nash ends on 14 September.

2 September 2014

An elegantly written tweet

Anne Elizabeth Moutet (@moutet), who I follow on Twitter, retweeted this from the UK’s ambassador in France (@HMARicketts):

The first successful cross-Channel telegraph cable began operation in 1851, the year before Wellington’s death, so I couldn’t help but respond the next morning with:

and received a prompt response, nominally from Our Man in Paris:

Well I wonder if it was. But whether he does his own social media (“#digital diplomacy”) or not, his Twitter timeline since 21 August is an interesting read, much of it marking the 200th anniversary of the British Residence in France, the first permanent residence abroad apparently. Today we learnt where Wellington’s ‘elegantly written despatch’ got him:

No doubt not the last time that Whitehall would be unenthusiastic about requests concerning foreign allowances.

I'm now following @HMARicketts and I've discovered that HM Ambassadors blog too!