Roving thoughts and provocations

Picasso: The View From Florence

Ingrid D. Rowland

Collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

A show on Pablo Picasso may seem an odd occurrence in Florence, but the exhibition Picasso and Spanish Modernism at Palazzo Strozzi makes a cogent case for its location. After succinctly opening with Picasso in his studio, the exhibition presents the artist in all his infinite variety, spanning more than fifty years, from 1909 to 1963, and various forms of media.

Ransoms: The Real Cost

Graeme Wood

Aris Messinis/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s announcement that it is reviewing US hostage policy has brought fresh attention to what Simon Critchley has called “The Case for Paying Ransoms.” But the brutal executions of US and UK hostages should compel us to the opposite conclusion: that ransoms are a terrible idea, and that by contemplating paying them we are risking a kidnapping pandemic.

Flight MH17: Will Russia Get Away With It?

Amy Knight

Alexander Ermochenko/epa/Corbis

Western leaders have until now avoided directly confronting Russia about its part in the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine. But a growing number of unofficial investigations show unambiguously that a Russian missile system was used to down the passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board.

The Opera Stalin Hated

Geoffrey O’Brien

Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Met’s notes describe it as “towering tragedy,” but Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is equally a grotesque vaudeville, and Graham Vick’s intensely inventive production (which premiered in 1994 and is now revived for the first time in fourteen years) pays due attention to the grotesque component.

Falling for Photography

Martin Filler

The Francesco Scavullo Foundation

Beyond launching Robert Mapplethorpe’s career, Sam Wagstaff was a prescient curator of contemporary art, all-purpose tastemaker, and pioneering collector of photography. Now we are given a closer look at one of the most remarkable artist/patron relationships of the late twentieth century in Philip Gefter’s new biography, Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe.

Turner at Twilight

Jenny Uglow

Tate, London

At sixty, Turner was both admired and ridiculed, his work leaving critics and spectators baffled and sometimes angry. Many saw his shimmering canvases as a crazed denial of familiar rules. Was his eyesight failing? Was he going mad? Tate Britain’s Late Turner: Painting Set Free is a fittingly autumnal show. Seeing the exhibition with Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is like watching a strange, exhilarating conversation.

The Case for Paying Ransoms

Simon Critchley

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Is it better to remain morally consistent and refuse negotiation with an allegedly evil organization, but watch your citizens get beheaded? Or sign up to a principled agreement not to negotiate with “terrorists,” but then negotiate nonetheless, pay a large amount of money to release your citizens, and simply deny the fact publicly?

Why Read New Books?

Tim Parks

Winsor McCay

Virginia Woolf thought one of the pleasures of reading contemporary novels was that you have to decide for yourself if they are good. This uncertainty of ours, as we tackle, say, our first Eggers, our first Pamuk, our first Jelinek, our first Ferrante, or as we switch from an early Roth to a late Roth, is actually part of the pleasure.

Putin’s New Nostalgia

Timothy Snyder

David Levine

In speaking of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as good foreign policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What it is about this alliance with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment? In fact, Putin’s rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact follows other recent moves by Moscow to revive the idea of a division of Eastern Europe between Russia and the West.

Why the Republicans Won

Elizabeth Drew

Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

Never in memory has a midterm election been turned against a president so cynically as it was by the Republicans this year. Scott Brown was among those who made the comprehensive and efficient charge that ISIS was bringing Ebola into America over the Texas border. In exit interviews voters told pollsters that ISIS and Ebola were reasons they voted for Republicans.