Thursday, May 28, 2015

What I Read: April 2015

The Blazing World - Siri Hustvedt

So this is very late... But at least I got it in before the end of May? Also, April was a busy month so things are a little sparse.
  • The Book of Life – Deborah Harkness: Given the limited time I have available for reading and the length of my To Read List, I don’t really understand how I ended up consuming this entire trilogy. It was mostly accidental, I certainly never paid for any of these; the pulp shelf, a library book, a loaned copy… The second one is quite fun but I didn't love any of them and the finale is a slog. It is/feels very long and the more enjoyable characters are largely absent. I am keen for bad ass witches in a mostly contemporary environment (although the Elizabethan time travel was the best part of this series – wish I got to say that more often) but I can’t recommend these in good faith.
  • Vivian Versus the Apocalypse – Katie Coyle: The internet (Tumblr especially) love Katie Coyle and I do too. She seems like a good, fun, interesting human and I'm psyched that she got picked up by a US publisher and is becoming a big deal. I have been meaning to read her first book, which won the Wattpad/Hot Key Books writing prize and was published in the UK a few years ago, forever and I'm glad I finally got around to it. The Rapture comes and there are holes in the roof of Vivian Apple’s family home, her parents are gone and she has to decide how to live without them. I think the concept is really smart, I love the Church of America and the zealous, conservatism of religious cults. I am thrilled that Vivian is neither a damsel in distress nor a goddess – she’s a confused, well behaved teenager trying to work out wtf is going on. Admittedly, this book didn't click with me emotionally but I'm happy that it exists and is being read.
  • Hons and Rebels – Jessica Mitford: I am a big Mitford family fan and I had owned this book for years and just, somehow, not got around to actually picking it up. This isn't a starter Mitford text (generally speaking I would recommend The Mitford Girls or The Pursuit of Love to newbies) but it is interesting to see Decca’s perspective. Like many of her sisters, she is an excellent writer and it is always fun to read about their lives. My own political affiliations are probably closest to Decca’s and I enjoyed her historical insights but, even in her own memoir, she is not always a sympathetic figure. Of course, if my sister was hanging out with Hitler I would probably be unforgiving but I did sometimes wish for a little more generosity. Also, the book closes shortly after the outbreak of WW2 and I wanted so much more. Still, always a pleasure to spend time with the Mitfords.
  • The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt: It has been weeks and I am still processing this. It was a fascinating and frustrating reading experience and I struggled to finish the book but it made me think so much. It wasn't really an enjoyable read and there’s no one in my real life I would recommend it to but I'm glad I powered through. A female artist has not received the recognition that she believes she deserves so, after her art dealer husband’s death, she exhibits her work behind the mask of three male artists. The story is told through her journals and news articles and art world essays and interviews with the characters around her. There is a fictional editor – one of my least favourite tropes ever ever. The author smugly name-drops one of her own books at one point; for a lot of the book it feels like she is having more fun than the reader. The satire of the New York art world is amazingly acidic. The book could be a straight polemic against sexism, and ageism to a lesser degree, but Hustvedt resists the urge to simplify. Reality is complicated and there are a thousand factors to any outcome and I really respected the book’s unwillingness to be obvious or binary. I didn't find it comfortable but it made me really consider art and commerce and success and personality and media and gender and our own and cultural blind spots… It’s not nice but it is a deeply interesting book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Issue 25: Weather, Small Talk and Social Anxiety

I've got to say, I think this is an especially good issue of Oh Comely. Beautiful cover and so many interesting features. I have written a piece about meteorological small talk and I'm pretty pleased with it. Plus, more nice things:
  • A really gorgeous series of portraits of outdoorswomen by Liz Seabrook.
  • An interview with the director and portraits of some of the cast of Girlhood which is high on my To Watch List.
  • A story from the Gender Trust.
  • An interview with the director of The Falling which is pretty close behind Girlhood on my To Watch List. (So many interesting female fronted and directed films around at the mo.)
  • An interview with Courtney Barnett who is a straight-up babe.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Art Recently

If you can ignore the crowds, long weekends are a great time to catch up on some art. Although, to be fair, neither the Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern nor the Joshua Reynolds at the Wallace Collection were that busy. I mean, they were busy, of course, but they weren't unbearable. The Wallace Collection isn't quite such a tourist hub and their exhibition space is discretely separate from the main house but I was surprised by the Tate Modern. I can't remember the last time I visited and it wasn't a total scrum. It was very refreshing. The John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery was completely packed on a weekday morning though so, really, you never can tell.

I love me some Reynolds and the WC exhib is only two rooms but the selection is excellent and it is free. I find his 'fancy' paintings of small children rather cloying but the larger of the two rooms is dedicated to actresses and courtesans and it is awesome. The focus of the exhib is on Reynold's technique (what he put in his paint, how he used his canvases etc.) and there are some interesting x-rays but I would happily take a hundred annotated rooms of 'Reynolds and the Bad-Ass Ladies of the Late 18th Century'. There's a free idea for you, art folks. Kitty Fisher, Mary Robinson, Nelly O'Brien, Mary Nesbitt, I admire your hutzpah and I'm sure you must have been pleased by these portraits.

The Sargent is the best thing I have seen recently even if the viewing experience would be much improved by a drastic visitor cull. I love him so much and the NPG have put on a truly fab exhib. He was the first artist I really clicked with as a child and then I went off him because I decided that his work was too neat and pretty and polished but now I'm back! Clearly I can be fickle but my fandom has held steady for the last few years and it shows no sign of shifting. Across artists and styles I love a portrait and this exhib is nothing but people. And so many interesting people - Henry James and W. B. Yeats and Ellen Terry and Auguste Rodin and Vernon Lee... The Yeats is a pencil sketch and I'm not sure if I've ever seen a Sargent pencil drawing before and it is remarkable. He captures beauty and character with such apparent ease, it's marvellous and baffling. The exhib really highlights his technical skill and it's fascinating to see him playing with styles. Impressionism? Yeah, I can do that too, nbd.

I liked the Delaunay least but it left my brain the buzziest. I don't think the exhib is very clearly narrated; Delaunay had a very varied career and turbulent life and I still don't understand how a lot of her work and history interacted. She was born in the Russian Empire, raised by a Jewish uncle and lived in Nazi-occupied France, which is a LOT of context, but the exhib still felt strangely ahistorical. I also don't necessarily care for her abstract paintings which is just personal taste. But her early portraits are very strong, she has an amazing eye for colour and pattern, I would happily have seen and read more about her graphic design work (lots of book/magazine/album covers) and when you come to her textile work it all falls into place. This exhib raised so many questions for me.
Delaunay clearly had a natural talent for textile design but did she find it satisfying? What are the risks vs. benefits of a very varied career? Would Delaunay have been more successful if she had been more focussed? Should you focus on the thing you love or the thing you show aptitude for? Did Delaunay's eye for products (fabrics, magazine, fashion, costumes, books) 'mean' anything? What might she have achieved if she hadn't put her energy into her husband's legacy after his death? Why did someone who made such a massive jump in her early artistic development (between her portraits and her abstract work) not make another jump later in her work? Was abstract art her end point or was she just exhausted by her commercial work?
The exhib doesn't really attempt to answer those questions and may or may not have intended to raise them but I can't help thinking about women-and-art and commerce-and-art and the nature of a career/portfolio. That's probably me though. Or maybe it was The Blazing World which I finished last week and which I will be living with for months. I'd recommend any of these if you are in London with time to burn and a friend/family member with a guest card. If you can only see one then I would rep the Sargent but there is food for thought all round.