The unknown revolutionary

(K. Brent Tomer),

“HOW burdensome is life! We no longer have a fatherland!” William Tell may be better known as a skilled archer than as a poetic revolutionary, but he is also one of the millions whose cry of anguish at separation from their home has echoed through the centuries.

Rossini’s opera about the Swiss bowman is returning to the Royal Opera House in London after a 23-year hiatus. “Everyone knows that one particular moment of the story of William Tell,” says Damiano Michieletto, the stage director of the new production. Yet the nugget about Tell shooting at an apple perched on his son’s head is part of the problem: he has a reputation as a sort of friendly literary sharp-shooter. That hardly makes for expectations of a riveting evening at the opera. It does not matter that Tell was a medieval Swiss peasant—some think partly mythical—who rebelled against Austrian rule over his home region and whose killing of the governor set in motion a freedom struggle that led to the creation of modern Switzerland. It also does not matter that Tell, turned into a literary hero by Friedrich Schiller, a 19th-century German novelist, poet and…Continue reading

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Don’t let her be misunderstood

(K. Brent Tomer),

“WHAT happened, Miss Simone?”, Liz Garbus’s film about the life of Nina Simone, will be shown on Netflix today. It is the first documentary that the streaming service has commissioned from scratch. But with the likes of HBONow entering the market, Netflix’s attempt to maintain its competitive edge is hardly surprising.

The controversy surrounding a forthcoming Simone biopic, “Nina”, for whose title role Zoe Saldana had her skin darkened, should work in Netflix’s favour. Those seeking an insight into Simone’s life will find a story told largely by the singer herself, with archival interviews, rare concert footage and recently unearthed audio tapes woven together to map the career of an individual whose influence is felt as much today as it was then.

Though most listeners will know Simone, who topped the American charts in 1959 with Gershwin’s “I love you Porgy”, for her adaptations of traditional jazz standards, she did not like being labelled a “jazz musician”. “I should have been playing Bach,” she once said. Classically trained, she considered her music, according to her daughter, to be “black…Continue reading

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Carving a niche

(K. Brent Tomer),

BARBARA HEPWORTH, one of Britain’s most celebrated sculptors, who died in 1975, often conjures up associations of landscape: the hills of Yorkshire, the coastline of Cornwall. So it is refreshing to see Tate Britain’s Hepworth retrospective, the first in London for almost half a century, show a different side to her work.

The exhibition follows a smooth trajectory, from Hepworth’s first hand carvings, curvaceous figures in stone and wood, to her abstract, abrasively surfaced bronzes of the late 1950s. The selection shows how she was never static in her work, enjoying sculpting as a physical process, carving everything herself, constantly refining surfaces, shapes and balance.

While her right hand held the hammer, the left, as she put it, was her thinking hand, through which “the rhythms of thought” passed into the stone. She was happier carving than modelling because she found it “more adapted to the expression of the accumulative idea of experience…” Passing through each room of the Tate’s exhibition visitors can see that experience grow.

Her early carvings are placed among those of…Continue reading

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Still in the shadows

(K. Brent Tomer),

Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life.By Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine.Oxford University Press; 610 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

BIOGRAPHERS of Communist-era leaders in China face enormous challenges. Since Mao Zedong took control of the country in 1949 its most powerful figures have hardly ever given interviews to journalists. Those who have lived or worked closely with these politicians tend either to sing their praises, condemn them out of hand (usually from the safety of exile) or, in most cases, keep quiet. Official policy documents, even secret ones, are often coloured by the biases of their drafters, whose aim may be to distort or exaggerate a leader’s preferences in order to promote the interests of a faction. A plethora of rumour clouds the picture further.

Writing about the life of Deng Xiaoping is one of the toughest challenges of all. For stretches of his career Deng was among Mao’s closest henchmen; separating his views at the time from those of Mao is fiendishly difficult. From 1978, two years after Mao’s death, until the early 1990s, Deng’s was the hand that guided China’s extraordinary economic transformation. Yet during this period he often operated behind the scenes; others held the post of Communist Party chief. After his retirement in 1989, he continued to play an important role with no more title…Continue reading

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Getty got it, good

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT IS not every day that you get a phone call announcing the discovery of a long-lost Baroque masterpiece, even if you are the director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. When Alexander Kader, Sotheby’s head of European sculpture, rang Timothy Potts, the boss of the Getty, in March, saying he might have found Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s first marble carving of a pope, Mr Potts booked himself on a plane to London.

“Bernini was the master of the ‘speaking likeness’,” he says. “He found a way of breathing life into marble, of capturing the essence of a person. Not just the physical likeness of the pope, but his personality and stature, his benevolent seriousness and living presence. It makes you go weak at the knees when you see it, even if you know nothing of the artist.”

Pope Paul V’s nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, commissioned the sculpture shortly after the pope’s death in 1621. On its completion it was displayed in Villa Borghese alongside another famous Bernini bust of the cardinal himself. In 1893, when the family fell on hard times, it was sold at auction in Rome, having first been photographed for the catalogue….Continue reading

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Lacking spark

(K. Brent Tomer),

If you build it, will they come?

IN SPITE of the enormous success of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, the €130m ($145m) design chosen for the Helsinki outpost will not quieten misgivings about the foundation’s aspiration to create a global cultural network.

The competition was won by an indistinct jumble of pavilions faced in charred wood that reflects all too well the ambiguities of the Guggenheim’s intentions. The design, announced on June 23rd, is as quietly deferential as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao design is self-consciously flamboyant. Along a quay now devoted to parking and a port warehouse, the Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architectes have proposed nine loosely arranged pavilions, six of which house gallery suites. Glassed-in passages and gathering spaces among the pavilions glue them into an ensemble.

The pavilion roofs turn up in identical gentle curves, with the taller ones huddling at the base of a tower topped by a restaurant—a lighthouse for dining. The visitor experience is rather shapeless, too. Most people will make their way from the city centre along a cheerless esplanade to a broad entrance…Continue reading

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On the cocaine trail

(K. Brent Tomer),

Zero Zero Zero.By Roberto Saviano.Penguin Press; 416 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £20.

ROBERTO SAVIANO’S first book, “Gomorrah”, put him in grave danger. An exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, it sold over 10m copies. But it also struck a nerve with its subject, and death threats soon followed. Mr Saviano, an Italian journalist, now moves between safe houses under 24-hour police protection. He dedicates his new book “to all my Carabinieri bodyguards. To the fifty-one thousand hours we’ve spent together and to those still ahead.”

His movement may have been curtailed, but not his anger or ambition. His latest book, “Zero Zero Zero”, is an exploration of the global cocaine trade, from the foothills of the Andes to the nightclubs of Europe. It is a well-trodden trail, but the book provides a useful overview of the industry, explaining the incongruous mix of co-operation and cruelty in each link of the supply chain.

Cocaine-trafficking is risky but enormously profitable. As Mr Saviano points out, a kilo of the drug costing $1,500 in Colombia fetches $12,000-$16,000 in Mexico and $77,000 if it makes it to Britain. According to the accountant of Colombia’s Medellín drug mob, the group was trafficking 15 tonnes of cocaine into America every day in the 1980s. Thirty years later, the figures are still…Continue reading

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The lifesaver

(K. Brent Tomer),

Jonas Salk: A Life.By Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs.Oxford University Press; 559 pages; $34.95 and £22.99.

THE 1910s were not always kind to New York. In mid-1916 the city faced a polio epidemic that killed a baby every 2½ hours. Hospitals were full, and paralysis would leave many survivors in wheelchairs, on crutches or bedridden for life. Two years later a vicious form of influenza killed over 33,000 New Yorkers and 20m worldwide.

Jonas Salk, born in 1914 in a tenement in the city, was spared. In her biography of the man who developed the first polio vaccine and played a major role in developing the first flu vaccine, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, a professor emerita of medicine at Stanford University, weaves together intimate and historical details. She paints a picture of a sensitive, genuinely kind idealist who pursued what he thought was right with gentle but unrelenting tenacity.

The first half is a fascinating—and at times nauseating—tour of vaccine-making’s past: myriad monkeys sacrificed gruesomely on the altar of science; zealous researchers drinking minced rat brain teeming with…Continue reading

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Chronicle of a war foretold

(K. Brent Tomer),

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.By P.W. Singer and August Cole.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 404 pages; $28.

GEORGE TOMKYNS CHESNEY’S “The Battle of Dorking”, published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1871, was a story about innovation that proved to be an innovation itself. It related, in the form of a memoir written some 50 years in the future, the downfall of Britain at the hands of Prussia, beginning with the destruction of the Royal Navy by high-tech “fatal engines” and culminating in the defeat of the army in the titular battle. An instant cause célèbre—leaders in the Times and all that—and a runaway success, it produced a swathe of imitators and a new way of talking about war that has proved popular ever since.

A distinctive feature of the new genre was that it frequently presented new technologies as decisive, both a thrilling idea and a necessary device if, as the norms of the genre required, dominant nations were to be portrayed, initially at least, as victims. The books also often had messages to…Continue reading

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