This week: English nationalism, “Improvisational Structures,” John Ruskin & more from the world of culture.
English Nationalism: A Short History, by Jeremy Black (Hurst): If there is a more prolific man writing history today than Jeremy Black, please show him to me—I beg you. Amazon lists six books of history published just this year, and I’m sure they’ve missed some. They note another seven to be published next year. I first encountered Jeremy’s work while writing my undergraduate dissertation. His British Abroad: The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century was an invaluable source of information on the way Georgian Britons—from gentlemen to chancers—experienced Italy and brought that experience back to the United Kingdom. Little did I know, Professor Black is a man of wide historical interests, too wide, frankly, to name them here. One of his latest books (I hesitate to say merely “his latest” as there is always another book that’s just come out) is English Nationalism, which lucidly dissects a phenomenon so often misunderstood, and so misrepresented by the press. As Black perceptively writes, part of the trouble with studying English nationalism is the way England has been subsumed into the United Kingdom since the 1706 and 1707 Acts of Union. But with Scotland’s SNP promising another independence referendum, we may indeed see a re-divergence of national identities within the British Isles. “Timely” is a word too often thrown about when it comes to new books, but this one really is. Read it for edification and pleasure. —BR
“Thornton Willis: Improvisational Structures,” at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (October 27 through December 22, 2018): The abstract paintings of Thornton Willis can seem deceptively simple. But spend enough time with them and you start to see their daring complexities. Like a visual tutorial on the abstract dynamics of push and pull, figure and ground, the work hinges on Willis’s study of abstraction’s fleeting equilibrium, a contingency of color and line, often with the greatest drama happening in the flicker of the margins. In “Improvisational Structures,” his latest exhibition, opening this Saturday at Elizabeth Harris, his gallery in Chelsea, Willis uses smaller-format canvases to reevaluate some of his longtime motifs, with teetering blocks of color that find their own balance. —JP
“Perspectives: Yuja Wang,” at Carnegie Hall (October 26): In my early college years, the only grievance I harbored against my music instructor was that he insisted on teaching piano as a percussive instrument. I wanted to play Schumann and talk about melody; he assigned Bach and Bartók and drilled me on technique. Finally, I dared to protest. My instructor, understated as always, simply smiled and invited me to his upcoming performance of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Safe to say, that was the weekend I changed my mind: it turns out that the piano, a famously versatile instrument, can handle both Schumann and Stravinsky, both drum-like rhythm and music hall–stealing melodies (of course this statement, and my arrogance, both seem obvious now). This Friday at Carnegie Hall, the pianist Yuja Wang joins the percussionist Martin Grubinger for an arrangement of the Bartók sonata for one piano and percussion, an arrangement of Stravinsky’s equally rhythmically engaging Le sacre du printemps, and more. For more on Wang and Grubinger, read Jay Nordlinger’s review of their recent performance at the Salzburg Festival in the October issue of The New Criterion. —HN
“Ruskin and the Idea of the Museum,” at the Yale Center for British Art (October 24): “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.” With a distinctly Victorian flair and rhetorical panache, John Ruskin, perhaps more than any other writer of his day, laid out an argument for the moral imperatives of art and beauty. As a wildly popular critic of both art and social life, Ruskin was crucial in helping to create an intellectual underpinning for the modern public museum, in a formative era for such institutions. This Wednesday at the Yale Center for British Art, Tristram Hunt, the current director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, will present a lecture on “Ruskin and the Idea of the Museum.” For those not able to make the trek to New Haven, the event will be live-streamed. —AS
From the archive: “The trials of Edgar Allan Poe,” by James Tuttleton (November 1987). On the life and perception of Edgar Allan Poe.
Broadcast: “Spectator USA Life ’n’ Arts Podcast: History and Isms with David Pryce-Jones,” by Dominic Green. An interview with David Pryce-Jones, author of Fault Lines.