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Culture

Why so many artists do their most interesting work in their final years
16/02/17 16:44:03

OUT, out, brief candle! As life nears its end, thoughts can acquire urgent clarity. This truth is more perceptible among some artists than others; novelists, for example, find endless ways of disguising it. But it is so evident among playwrights, composers, and visual artists that “late style” has become an accepted critical concept. Consider the late plays of Henrik Ibsen, furiously rattling the bars of the bourgeois cage. Discount for a moment a brain-researcher’s recent suggestion that the abstraction of Willem de Kooning’s late paintings reflects the onset of dementia, and consider instead the late works of Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya.

Look at Goya’s “Black Paintings”, the most famous of which is “Saturn Devouring his Son”. No falling-off in technical mastery there, but a view of humanity which is visionary in its hellishness. Look at the paintings which Van Gogh made during his days in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, such as “The Olive Trees” from 1889 (pictured). Observation has given way to a celebratory stylisation, as swirling brushstrokes reflect exuberant patterns of clouds, trees, flowers and swelling ears of...Continue reading


A counter-argument to the “clash of civilisations”
16/02/17 16:44:02

The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle Between Faith and Reason. By Christopher de Bellaigue. Bodley Head; 398 pages; £25. To be published in America by Liveright in April; $35.

FEW topics are as bitterly contested today as the nature of Islam. America has just elected a president who speaks pointedly of “Islamic terrorism”; his predecessor balked at connecting Islam with violence and said those who did, including terrorists, were misreading the faith.

In Western intellectual debates, meanwhile, some maintain that Islam stultifies its followers, either because of its core teachings or because in the 11th century Islamic theology turned its back on emphasising human reason. Others retort indignantly that the Islamic world’s problems are the fault of its Western foes, from crusaders to European colonists, who bruised the collective Muslim psyche.

A new book by Christopher de Bellaigue, a British journalist and historian of the Middle East, hews to the latter side, but with an unusual twist. He describes how Islam’s initial encounter with modernity, two centuries ago, had some benign consequences...Continue reading


Why biographical documentaries have prevailed at the Oscars
17/02/17 17:01:25

IN THE months following the release of “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), the percentage of Americans attributing global warming to human activity rose from 41% to 50%. Six weeks after “Super Size Me” (2004) premiered, McDonald’s removed the “supersize” option from their menu. SeaWorld caved under the public pressure generated by “Blackfish” (2013), phasing out its orca breeding program in March 2016. Documentaries can have a tangible impact on society, and there are plenty of weighty issues for film-makers to bring to light. Yet in the past five years, those sweeping, substantial features have not been rewarded at the Academy Awards. 

Instead, the biographical documentary has risen to be a winner with both juries and audiences; since 2012, the Academy has preferred a biopic over investigative documentaries. These winning biopics—three on musicians (“Searching for Sugar Man” in 2013, “20 Feet from Stardom” in 2014, “Amy” in 2016), one on an athlete (“Undefeated”, 2012) and one a whistleblower (“Citizenfour”, 2015) —all revolved around compelling personalities. Nominees that focused their lens on social or political issues rather than...Continue reading


Tom Brady, 4.8-time Super Bowl champion
16/02/17 19:08:18

THE pundits have had their say, and the unscientific verdict is in: Super Bowl LI, barely a week in the rearview mirror, was the best championship game in the history of the National Football League...Continue reading


A century after the Russian revolution, a showcase of its art
16/02/17 17:58:09

ALTHOUGH it marks the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the true inspiration for the Royal Academy’s new exhibition is 1932. In that year, a vast retrospective entitled “Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic” took place in the Russian State Museum in Leningrad. Curated by Nikolai Punin, an avant-garde luminary, it was meant to be the zenith of the radical artistic current that had been growing in Russia for decades. Instead, it was a swansong. Within years, many of the thousands of paintings featured would disappear into hidden store cupboards, trampled beneath the inescapable march of state-backed socialist realism. Punin himself, accused of “anti-Soviet activity”, was to die, starving, in a desolate gulag north of the Arctic Circle. 

“Revolution: 1917-1932” covers the same 15 years as Punin’s show. The period has suffered some neglect. The myth goes that in the years after the Bolshevik revolution, bland socialist realism stomped on the avant-garde. In fact, after the revolution but before Stalinism tightened its grip on culture, there was a frenzied gasp of creative...Continue reading