500 years on, are we living in Thomas More’s Utopia?

(K. Brent Tomer),

IT WAS meant as a joke, of sorts. Even the title of Thomas More’s “Utopia”, which was published 500 years ago this month, was composed with the author’s tongue in his cheek: a Greek pun on “ou topos” (“no place”) and “eu topos” (“good place”). The book recounts a conversation between More and one Raphael Hythloday, a sailor whose surname means “a pedlar of nonsense”, and who brings news of an eccentric, egalitarian civilisation on a faraway island.

If More could see into the future, he might be puzzled by his work’s far-reaching legacy. “Utopia” was not the first scholarly attempt to imagine a perfect society—More frequently acknowledged Plato’s “Republic”—but it has become the name that we use to describe such visions (with “dystopia”, its opposite, appearing in the 1950s). Perhaps most bewildering to its author would be the extent to which developed nations have achieved many of his Utopian ideals, once so laughably remote. 

Not all of the text is in jest. It opens with Hythloday’s critique of sixteenth-century England, as he laments the death penalty for petty thieves, the displacement of peasants by…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC 500 years on, are we living in Thomas More's Utopia?

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Impressionism from the land down under

(K. Brent Tomer),

THERE is a unique quality to the light in Australia. The sky seems bluer than it should, and the landscape leaps at you with golden browns, burnt oranges and warm yellows. The sun’s rays burn and destroy, but also illuminate and comfort. It is something Australians instantly identify as a symbol of their home. Now at the National Gallery in London, as winter shrouds the capital’s skyline with grey, an exhibition full of this distinctive light is on show. “Australia’s Impressionists” is the collected work of four 19th-century artists. Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and John Russell, although highly regarded down under, have remained relatively unknown in Europe. This display should help change that. 

Australia is a huge country, at 7.7m km² and the paintings in this show reflect what Christopher Riopelle, the curator, calls the “developing national self-consciousness” of the nation. Arthur Phillip and his First Fleet had arrived in Botany Bay in 1788  to establish a penal colony, and in the 100 years of British colonial rule that followed, the country was divided into six independent colonies. But,…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Impressionism from the land down under

Scorsese’s “Silence” could use a bit more bang

(K. Brent Tomer),

MARTIN SCORSESE’s last film was “The Wolf of Wall Street”, an orgy of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll that showcased the director at his most brazenly, blazingly entertaining. His follow-up, “Silence”, could hardly be more different. The palace of wisdom at the end of the road of excess, “Silence” is a steady, deliberate, and formally composed historical epic about faith and martyrdom. Many of its scenes are shot on hillsides and in forests in natural light, while its interior scenes, in shadowy caves and huts, are lit to resemble Caravaggio paintings. Needless to say, there aren’t any Rolling Stones songs on the soundtrack—although there are times during the film’s two-and-three-quarter hours when some might have been welcome.

Co-written by Mr Scorsese and Jay Cocks (the screenwriter of “Gangs of New York” and “The Age of Innocence”), the film is adapted from a 1966 novel by a Japanese Christian, Shusaku Endo. Its heroes are Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), two Portuguese Jesuits who were mentored by Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in the early 1600s. Ferreira left Portugal to work as a missionary in Japan, but Christianity has since…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Scorsese's "Silence" could use a bit more bang

Scorsese’s “Silence” could use a bit more bang

(K. Brent Tomer),

MARTIN SCORSESE’s last film was “The Wolf of Wall Street”, an orgy of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll that showcased the director at his most brazenly, blazingly entertaining. His follow-up, “Silence”, could hardly be more different. The palace of wisdom at the end of the road of excess, “Silence” is a steady, deliberate, and formally composed historical epic about faith and martyrdom. Many of its scenes are shot on hillsides and in forests in natural light, while its interior scenes, in shadowy caves and huts, are lit to resemble Caravaggio paintings. Needless to say, there aren’t any Rolling Stones songs on the soundtrack—although there are times during the film’s two-and-three-quarter hours when some might have been welcome.

Co-written by Mr Scorsese and Jay Cocks (the screenwriter of “Gangs of New York” and “The Age of Innocence”), the film is adapted from a 1966 novel by a Japanese Christian, Shusaku Endo. Its heroes are Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), two Portuguese Jesuits who were mentored by Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in the early 1600s. Ferreira left Portugal to work as a missionary in Japan, but Christianity has since…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Scorsese's "Silence" could use a bit more bang

The curious comforts of “In the Bleak Midwinter”

(K. Brent Tomer),

FEW Christmas songs temper the joy and light of the festive season with the dark realities of modern life. Most “wish it could be Christmas everyday”, or point out “what fun it is to laugh and sing a sleighing song”. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is rather different; sombre and earnest in tone, it offers up themes of hope and strife in equal measure. In a 2008 BBC poll, “In the Bleak Midwinter” won the title of “Best Christmas Carol”. Yet the 110-year-old carol’s snow-and-straw depiction of the arrival of the Christ child continues to resonate beyond the religious to move music lovers of all kinds. 

Historically, two primary settings of “In the Bleak Midwinter” have rotated through the repertoires of cathedral choirs, though both use the spartan 1870s verses of Christina Rossetti. The first, published in 1906 by Gustav Holst (the composer of “The Planets”), is a hymn based upon a simple folk melody with a major/minor chord progression; the second is a slightly more complex choral arrangement with organ accompaniment written by Harold Darke in 1909. 

Of the two, Jeffrey Baxter,…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC The curious comforts of “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Looking at the stars

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. By Dava Sobel. Viking; 324 pages; $30. To be published in Britain by 4th Estate in January.

IN THE late 19th century an extraordinary group of women worked at the Harvard College Observatory. Known as “computers”, they charted the position and brightness of stars on a daily basis by applying mathematical formulae to the observations of their male colleagues who watched the sky. Harvard was unique in taking advantage of the burgeoning numbers of educated women in this way. When the observatory’s research was redirected towards photographing the heavens rather than observing them merely by eye, the duties of the “computers” expanded apace. Many of them would go on to extraordinary achievements in astronomy. 

The work of Harvard’s female staff was paid for largely by two other women, Anna Palmer Draper and Catherine Wolfe Bruce, heiresses with an enduring interest in astronomy. Dava Sobel, a former science writer for the New York Times who made her name with her bestselling first…Continue reading

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Sending its fabulous collection of Western modernism abroad

(K. Brent Tomer),

Reading Warhol in Tehran

THE late 1970s were marked by high oil prices and faltering Western economies. For the empress of Iran, though, it was a time of opportunity; she went shopping for art, and in 1977 founded the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA).

The Islamic Republic of Iran now owns this trove of Western modernism, which is widely held to be the best collection outside Europe and North America. The most important work is Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece of 1927, “The Painter and his Model”, which one academic calls the missing link between his two greatest paintings, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) and “Guernica” (1937). It also includes Jackson Pollock’s “Mural on Indian Red Ground” (1950), as well as works by Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol (pictured) and Iranian masters such as Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam and Faramarz Pilaram.

Spirited away into TMoCA’s vaults at the start of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the hoard remained unseen until the first signs of postrevolutionary openness, in 1999, slowly revived the museum’s willingness to display its Western art. With the…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Sending its fabulous collection of Western modernism abroad

How Rasputin was killed

(K. Brent Tomer),

Lost Splendour and the Death of Rasputin. By Felix Yusupov. Adelphi; 304 pages; 288 pages; £12.99.

FEW murderers boast about their crimes. But Prince Felix Yusupov was no ordinary killer, and his prey—the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin—no ordinary victim. On the centenary of the assassination of the Romanovs’ Svengali on December 30th, the republication of Yusupov’s memoir provides a timely glimpse into the charmed, doomed world of the Russian aristocracy, and its hectic collapse amid the Bolshevik revolution.

His grasp of facts is shaky and his motives self-serving. But the princely capers make a gripping, if sometimes repellent, read. Yusupov’s penchants for transvestite dressing and wild evenings with gypsies show an interestingly unconventional side. His childish pranks (such as letting rabbits and chickens loose in the Carlton Club in London) were much funnier for the perpetrator than the hard-pressed servants who had to clear them up.

The most important part of the book is the description of Rasputin’s assassination. The humble Siberian peasant bewitched Tsar Nicholas…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC How Rasputin was killed

Why humans love cheese

(K. Brent Tomer),

The Oxford Companion to Cheese. Edited by Catherine Donnelly. OUP; 849 pages; $65 and £40.

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS has an impressive record producing culinary reference books, with their “Companion” food and wine volumes having already come out in several editions. Now it is the turn of cheese to get the same treatment. About 1,500 different varieties of cheese are made around the world, of which 244 are described here. The editor is right to emphasise that anything much more comprehensive than this would be overwhelming, though the book would have benefited from more illustrations. If the reader simply requires a directory of cheese, nothing comes close to Dorling Kindersley’s “World Cheese Book” (2015), with its 750 colourfully presented cheeses from around the globe.

But this is still a delightfully discursive volume for the armchair reader. If you would like to know more about the East Friesian cow (or sheep for that matter); or Sister Noella Marcellino (“the cheese nun”), a world expert on fungal surface-ripened cheese; or Epoisses (a very stinky cheese), this is the book for you.

Where…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Why humans love cheese

Why “It’s a Wonderful Life” needed an angel’s helping hand

(K. Brent Tomer),

IN THE late summer of 1945, Colonel James Stewart returned from Europe aboard the Queen Elizabeth; like the hundreds of other men aboard, Stewart wondered what post-war life might hold. His contemporary John Wayne had avoided service in the second world war, but since his enlistment in 1941 Stewart had risen from the rank of private, flying 20 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe: he re-entered civilian life as a decorated hero. The year before Pearl Harbour, he had won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as a tabloid reporter in George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story”—but his contract with MGM had expired during the war. “I just got a phone call one day,” Stewart said years later of this uncertain time. “It was Frank Capra, and he said, I’ve got an idea for a story, why don’t you come down and I’ll tell it to you. Well, I couldn’t get down there quick enough,” Stewart recalled.

“It’s a Wonderful Life”  was released seventy years ago, in December, 1946. The Sicilian-born Capra had also served America’s army, winning the Distinguished Service Medal for his documentary series,…Continue reading

via K. Brent Tomer CFTC Why “It’s a Wonderful Life” needed an angel’s helping hand