By MICHAEL CAINES
A ventriloquist's dummy was one of the more unusual exhibits on display in the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library a couple of years ago. The dummy represented a character who owes something to Dickens's Mr Micawber (as the ODNB puts it): "bulb-nosed, bald-headed, spindle-shanked, bespatted big boots, batter-hatted, and of course booze-nosed . . .". Ally Sloper was a rent-dodging rogue (as his name suggests, slopes up an alley to avoid paying up) and, unusually among the other "nineteenth-century precursors to the twentieth-century industry" (I'm lazily quoting myself here) in the BL's exhibition, a comic character popular enough to escape the confines of the page.
Several cartoonists produced Sloper-centric series, which had originated in the pages of London's weekly "Serio-Comic Journal" Judy (established as a rougher-and-readier riposte to Punch) in 1867. By 1884 this rogue had grown sufficiently in popularity for him to have a weekly of his own: Ally Sloper's Half Holiday. Only one cartoonist, however, has just had an online archive of her work launched at the Guildhall Library . . . .
By BRYAN KARETNYK
Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain.
Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look through the other end of the telescope and consider not what the novel can tell us about our world, but rather how similarities in our world might bring us to a closer understanding of Dostoevsky’s novel. Young painted a vivid picture of the St Petersburg to which Dostoevsky returned from his period of Siberian exile. The city he saw as he began work on Crime and Punishment was radically changed: there was overcrowding, a sudden influx of migrants, strange foreign ideologies floating around, and a surge in urban poverty and vice. The novel that he would go on to write – one that he intended to be "current", very much of the year of its composition – abounds, Chamberlain reminded us, in newspaper details and topical references. It was a book, Young surmised, written about "the world of today, but also fearful for the future".
"Barrage Balloons" by Eric Ravilious – copyright Towner gallery
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Claude Debussy probably didn’t have the English Channel in mind when he wrote La Mer. He did, however, complete the piece while staying in Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel in the summer of 1905. The Grand still stands elegantly on the seafront. A few minutes’ walk away from the seafront is the Towner gallery, a modern space (all concrete and glass) dedicated to contemporary art. The Towner, together with the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, forms a fine trio of galleries all within 25 miles of each other on the South coast. Brighton, further west up the coast and home to two universities and several art colleges, has nothing to match them.
Recording Britain, an attractive small exhibition at the Towner (until May 2, admission free), draws on work from the V&A’s collections. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Kenneth Civilisation Clark “commissioned artists to paint ‘places and buildings of characteristic national interest’, documenting rural and urban environments and precious buildings under threat, not only from bombs but from the effects of ‘progress’ and development”. The project resulted in 1,500 watercolours, which went on show around the country in order to, in Clark’s words, “inspire the war effort and boost public morale”. Forty-nine of these works are on display in Eastbourne.
By MICHAEL CAINES
Thomas Chatterton wasn't the only young man struggling to make a living in London in the 1760s. The painter George Romney was likewise trying to make his mark and not getting very far. Eventually, his determination paid off, however, and in later years he had to adapt his working methods in order to keep up with the demand for portraits. These were lucrative labours that came at a high personal cost: as time went on, his health suffered and he found it difficult to carry out his schemes for paintings on a grander scale, on historical and literary themes. Such ambitions mattered deeply in the art world of the time. As Norma Clarke put it in the TLS: "It is a commonplace that history painting was vaunted as the most elevated pictorial endeavour, but it might be more accurate to say that it consolidated the mythical stories the nation was telling itself".
The sketch above is one in a sequence from the early 1790s that testifies to Romney's passion for Shakespeare: it depicts the banquet scene from the third act of Macbeth (the one with Banquo's gatecrashing ghost). It also stands in, intriguingly, for the implicit finished painting itself, which Romney was never to execute . . . .
By ANNA ASLANYAN
Senegalese, Ethiopian and Zimbabwean monuments, all similarly phallic and Soviet-looking, despite the surrounding palm trees; statues of African gentlemen, embodying the socialist-realist idea of a generic nineteenth-century liberal; a drawing captioned "Vladimiro M. [Mayakovsky] has landed in Havana and is talking to the black guy who is selling the red fish". These are among the images offered by Red Africa, a series of talks and screenings run by the foundation Calvert 22. Its aim is to explore the links between Africa, the USSR and "related countries".
At the centre of the series is an exhibition whose working title, Black Students in Red Russia (borrowed from a BBC Radio 4 feature) has been changed to Things Fall Apart (borrowed from Chinua Achebe, who in his turn borrowed it from W. B. Yeats). In a recent talk at the gallery, the curator Mark Nash and some of the participants touched on the programme's references to the African independence movements, the short-lived socialist "utopia" that followed them, and "the Cold War that wasn't cold".
By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Drilling into a human skull and operating on a brain requires, I hope, a lot of training. But how do neurosurgeons practise, or even experiment? I ducked into a fascinating exhibition at the Hunterian Museum on Lincoln’s Inn Fields recently which shows how 3-D models of human anatomy are meticulously made for this very purpose. For trainee surgeons hands-on interaction, as well as theory, is crucial.
By ANDREW IRWIN
It’s almost Christmas. And while there are stockings, turkey and mince pies to look forward to, the star of the show is obviously the rare acceptability of pre- (and post-) noon drinking. And so what would be more fitting for a grey December afternoon than a visit to Tate Britain’s BP spotlight, Art and Alcohol? According to Tate’s website, the one-room exhibition – curated by David Blayney Brown – “examines the role of alcohol in British art from the nineteenth century to modern day”, as well as its “catalytic effect”.
One might be forgiven for expecting an exploration of various artists’ relationship with alcohol as they sought Rimbaud’s “dérèglement de tous les sens” – perhaps even an eager celebration of alcohol as inspiration, or a trigger for the Bacchanalian spirit of unbridled creativity. But no: what Tate presents is a whistle-stop tour through artists’ engagement with Britain’s changing views on alcohol.
Citroën DS 19 (Photo by Auto BILD Syndication/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
There’s a nice review in this week’s TLS of a novel about Roland Barthes. La Septième Fonction du langage by Laurent Binet (Grasset) imagines Barthes’s assassination (“Who killed Roland Barthes?” asks the cover line of the book). The writer was in fact knocked down and killed by a laundry van in Paris in 1980.
Barthes’s centenary fell on November 12, and was marked by an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France earlier this year. Binet’s centenary tribute is rather more irreverent. In his highly entertaining novel, Michel Foucault is depicted with a rare degree of insolence: accosted on the steps of a packed amphitheatre in the Collège de France by Jacques Bayard, the police officer in charge of the investigation into Barthes’s murder, “he looks at the hand gripping his arm as if it was the biggest assault on human rights since the Cambodian genocide”.
© Hergé-Moulinsart 2015/Somerset House - Installation image
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
"What if I told you that I put my whole life into Tintin?” asked Hergé shortly before he died in 1983. The man who revolutionized the cartoon strip and influenced the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol is the subject of a nice little exhibition at Somerset House, Tintin: Hergé’s masterpiece (admission free, until January 31, 2016). There is also a book to accompany the exhibition (published by Rizzoli).
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