Le Baroque des Lumières

Jouvenet: The Magnificat (The Visitation)

Chefs-d’œuvre des églises parisiennes au XVIIIe siècle

(Petit Palais, Paris, 21 March-16 July 2017)

Spare a thought for French history painters of the 18th century. They’re overshadowed on one side by their glamorous 17th-century predecessors, bathed in the reflected glory of the Sun King and, on the other side, by the tousled, poetic 19th-century Romantics. If people associate anything with the 18th century, it’s frills, furbelows, plump putti and simpering shepherdesses. But this isn’t actually representative of what people would have seen at the time. The concept of the public national gallery hadn’t yet taken hold, but the French could still admire splendid works by the leading artists of the day – not in the secular cathedral of the museum, but in the literally hallowed spaces of Paris’s churches. This splendid show reunites some of the period’s great religious canvases, many of which have been restored. Vibrant colours shimmer on the walls, dismantled schemes are reunited, and a generation of virtually forgotten artists is brought back to the public eye.

Continue reading

Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin: David with the Head of Goliath

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 20 February-22 May 2017)

Around 1610, a French teenager arrived in Rome, hoping to study as a painter. His name was Valentin. Although he was just too late to meet Caravaggio, his artistic formation took place in a community beholden to the sharp contrasts and uncompromising realism of the older artist. Valentin would become known as one of the most gifted of the ‘Caravaggisti’, but this exhibition gives him credit as someone who was able to develop and transcend his sources. We move from rowdy Roman taverns, full of cardsharps, fortune tellers and impromptu concerts, to face-to-face encounters with brooding saints. Every room testifies to this underrated painter’s flair and intensity.

Continue reading

Dancer

Sergei Polunin

★★★★½

(directed by Steven Cantor, 2016)

Classical ballet has always been a foreign country to me. Until Thursday, I hadn’t even heard of Sergei Polunin. But then I read a review of his current show at Sadler’s Wells which, in turn, led me to YouTube and his video Take Me to Church. Even on an iPhone screen, it took my breath away. I’m always alert to the beauty of the human form, and I admire dancing in which we see the body pushed to its limits, at the point where grace and power blend into a singular alchemy of expression. This four-minute piece, danced by a lone young man in ripped leggings in shafts of sunlight, was a ravishing spectacle of exactly that. What was the story behind this raw and emotional performance? Fortunately, this newly-released documentary was on hand to tell me more.

Continue reading

As Nature Made Him: John Colapinto

★★★★

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl

Following on from Geniethis book explores another case which featured prominently in my A level Psychology textbook. It’s one of the most famous stories in the canon, a case which has been used on both sides of the nature-nurture debate, and one which does more than any other to prompt outrage at the medical establishment. It tells the tale of twin baby boys, born in Winnipeg in 1967 and admitted at eight months old for circumcision. When error, either mechanical or human, caused catastrophic burns to the penis of the elder twin, doctors advised that the only option was to castrate the child and raise him as a girl. His distraught parents followed this advice. This is the story of David Reimer: a story of dizzying medical hubris and humbling resilience, made deeply poignant by a tragic coda which postdated the publication of this study.

Continue reading

Oswiu: King of Kings: Edoardo Albert

★★★★

The Northumbrian Thrones: Book III

In this third and (currently) last instalment in The Northumbrian Thrones, the ramifications of Oswald‘s untimely death spread across the feuding kingdoms of Britain. It is now 642 AD and the unification that seemed within reach during the reign of Edwin has crumbled away. Even Northumbria is no longer united. Oswald’s younger brother Oswiu faces a long, hard battle to secure his kingship against the mightiest ruler in the land: Penda, ambitious and ruthless king of Merica. But Oswiu has one advantage that Penda lacks: the posthumous, miracle-working reputation of the murdered Oswald.

Continue reading

The Ladies of Llangollen: Elizabeth Mavor

★★★★

Like the Chevalier d’Eon, the Ladies of Llangollen came my way thanks to a work project. When trying to find an introduction to their lives, I judged that Elizabeth Mavor’s book seemed the best option, despite now coming across as slightly dated (it was published in 1971). Yet, for all that, it presents a thorough and sensitive discussion of these two remarkable women, who created an idyllic lifestyle together on their own terms and in defiance of social convention. Drawing on the Ladies’ own journals and correspondence, along with the letters of their immediate circle, newspaper reports and other documents, Mavor’s book isn’t just the sound introduction I was looking for, but an admirably unbiased and scrupulously fair double biography.

Continue reading

Vinegar Girl: Anne Tyler

★★★

The Taming of the Shrew Retold

I’ve been reading quite a lot of serious books recently and I wanted a bit of a break with something light and upbeat. This installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary writers reimagine the playwright’s storylines, was just the trick. Now, I’ll be honest, no modern reworking of the Shrew can match 10 Things I Hate About You in my estimation but, that caveat stated, I thought Tyler’s take on things was light and fun.

Continue reading

The Confessions of Young Nero: Margaret George

★★★

The only novel I’d read by Margaret George was Helen of Troysome years ago, which didn’t quite do it for me, but I was keen to try her new book, the first of a pair, about the Emperor Nero. Set in the duplicitous, cutthroat world of the Roman imperial family in the first century AD, this had the scope for plots and psychosis aplenty, an impression encouraged by its titular promise of ‘confessions’. I hoped for something along the lines of I, Claudius, taking the story of the Julio-Claudians into the next generation with the same kind of meaty detail that I enjoyed in Tom Holland’s Dynasty. However, George’s decision to take a revisionist viewpoint, and present Nero as a well-meaning, misunderstand and popularly-beloved emperor, means that much of the story’s dramatic flair is sacrificed.

Continue reading

Wicked Wonders: Ellen Klages

★★★★

Childhood memories are a potent force in our lives, continuing to resonate within us even as we grow older and come to believe that we’ve left the magic of that early age behind. Ellen Klages’s collection of short stories recaptures some of the innocence and enchantment of childhood, in a series of tales by turn evocative, romantic and poignant. Sometimes her stories bring us into the world of children who are on the brink of new lives, new potential and new discoveries; while sometimes we find characters closer to ourselves: adults who have put away childish things, but who find themselves drawn back in various ways to the brink between that age and this. We find children confronted with the cruel realities of the adult world, and fairy tales for adults, with nods to fantasy, science fiction and straightforward fiction. There really is something for everyone.

Continue reading

The Kingdom of Women: Choo WaiHong

★★★

Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains

Some time ago, I heard about a book called Leaving Mother Lake, which told the story of a young woman raised in a remarkable tribe in western China near the Tibetan border, and her journey into mainstream Chinese life. I haven’t yet got round to reading that, but it meant that I immediately jumped on this forthcoming book about the same Mosuo tribe, this time told by someone entering, rather than leaving, the community. The Mosuo are remarkable as (apparently) the only remaining matriarchal and matrilineal society in the world, and this book tells the tale of a successful Singaporean lawyer who takes early retirement and finds a spiritual home in this unique community.

Continue reading