This week: Conversation pieces, new releases & more from the world of culture.
The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace, by David B. Woolner (Basic Books): With his establishment of several “New Deal” programs that intrinsically altered the powers of the United States Federal Government as well as its relationship to the American people, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set a benchmark of political activity for future presidents. As David B. Woolner argues in his new book The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace, perhaps we should look to the last months of the thirty-second president’s life with equal attention. Though “a much-diminished man” due to his increasingly frail condition, FDR’s idealism remained as enthusiastic as ever. Woolner’s hope, as he writes in the book’s preface, is that by analyzing FDR’s actions at this period of “reduced capacity for work,” we can understand “what mattered most to him.” His frequent international travel—against the warnings of his personal physicians—in efforts to curb isolationism is a fitting example, and belies FDR’s greatest interest as World War II drew to a close. Though the success of these various efforts, from the establishment of the U.N. to the establishment of Israel, is certainly up for debate, that they are worth studying is clear. Thus enters The Last 100 Days as a serviceable introduction, even if it perhaps skews at times to uncritical acceptance of FDR’s vision. —AS
“Wolf Kahn” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe (through December 23): This week is the last chance to catch “Wolf Kahn,” an exhibition of paintings that push the limits of an abstract language that the American artist has been developing for over seventy years. The exhibition, at Chelsea’s Ameringer McEnery Yohe, comprises fifty-six oil landscapes that were all made within the past two years—a considerable testament to the vitality of Kahn’s vision and practice. These new paintings exude Kahn’s trademark high-pitched color, employed within fields of flittering, calligraphic textures that that seem to remove the pictures, more so than ever before in his mature work, from the natural world. This comprehensive survey of Kahn’s most recent direction, which closes on Saturday, is not to be missed. —AS
Jacqueline du Pré, 5 Legendary Recordings (Warner Classics/Parlophone):In case you missed it, vinyl’s making a comeback. Re-releases and even new releases on LP from major record companies are becoming more and more common as connoisseurs and hip aesthetes alike turn to analog as their preferred medium. Warner Classics has just issued a five-disc set of legendary recordings by Jacqueline du Pré, the great English cellist who died tragically young, thirty years ago. Included are staples of the cello repertoire by Haydn, Boccherini, Schumann, Saint-Saëns, and Dvorak. One disc in particular is worth revisiting: du Pré’s performance of the Elgar cello concerto with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra is widely considered to be definitive, a deep, plangent reading of a late-Romantic masterpiece. On the reverse side of the same album is a less heralded but spellbinding interpretation of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, sung by that exemplary interpreter of song, Dame Janet Baker.—ECS
Hansel and Gretel at The Metropolitan Opera (through January 6, 2018): When it comes to Christmas-time family fare, there may be no equivalent to The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s ballet warhorse. In the world of opera, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel may come the closest. This fairytale opera of the story by the Brothers Grimm was first performed on December 23, 1893, with Richard Strauss conducting in Weimar. The opera has been associated with the Christmas season ever since, including at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, which broadcast its first complete radio performance of the opera on Christmas Day, 1931. Yet this tale of witches, breadcrumbs, and abandoned children is hardly a sojourn in the Land of Sweets. Starting this week through January 6, the Met presents seven family performances of Richard Jones’s 2007 production that enlarges the story’s unsavory bits into an absurd, surrealist staging of giant fish-heads, baked witches, and triumphant children, with Donald Runnicles in the pit. —JP
The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, by Kate Retford (Yale University Press): In an illuminating new book, Kate Retford rescues the so-called conversation piece—a group portrait in a domestic or landscape setting—from the dusty confines of the drawing room. While conversation pieces—pioneered by those Georgian masters Hogarth and Zoffany—have historically ranked below both history paintings and individual portraits, Retford establishes the conversation piece as both prestigious and prodigious in its own right. Out now from Yale, Retford’s book will go far in correcting the misconceptions that still surround these remarkably compelling paintings. —BR
From the archive:“The curse of the Irish” by Richard Tillinghast (Sept 1998). A review of No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien by Anthony Cronin.
From the current issue:“Andrew Wyeth forever” by James Panero. On the career of Andrew Wyeth and the traveling exhibition “Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect.”