Roving thoughts and provocations

The New Tower of London

Martin Filler

One of the most well-intentioned artistic initiatives ever undertaken by the United States government has turned out to be among its least successful: the embassy design program meant to present America’s best architectural face abroad. The latest evidence of this effort’s often dispiriting outcome is the selection of the little-known Philadelphia firm of KieranTimberlake to create a new US embassy in London.

How to Greet the Dalai Lama

Robert Barnett

Since President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama on February 18, the details of the closely-watched encounter have been carefully parsed, from the history of the room in which the two men met (the White House Map Room, an apparent indicator that a meeting is private, yet not personal) to the absence of the First Lady (making the meeting more official), and the serving of tea (making it less formal). Even the garbage bags that the Dalai Lama passed on his exit (seen as either incompetence by White House staff or a veiled message to Beijing) and the Dalai Lama’s flip-flops (seen as a metaphor for his policies or a rebuttal to Rupert Murdoch’s claim that the Tibetan leader wears Gucci shoes) were debated.

Kashmir: “The World’s Most Dangerous Place”

Pankaj Mishra

In New Delhi last week the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan met for the first time since the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008; the official talks concluded with both sides arguing over what they should talk about. India demanded that Islamabad prosecute the Pakistani militants responsible for the Mumbai attacks more vigorously. Pakistan insisted that the core issue between the two countries remains the India-held Muslim majority valley of Kashmir, where, out of a population of some 7.6 million people, more than 80,000 people have died since an insurgency supported by Pakistan began in 1989.

Slide Show: Hakawati Self-Portraits

Rabih Alameddine

In “The Anger of Exile,” from the March 25 issue of The New York Review, Colm Tóibín discusses two recent novels by writers from Lebanon now living in North America. One of them is Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, set in a Lebanon that is, according to Tóibín, “rendered in luscious, luxuriant detail, with an extraordinary sense of felt life both in the present and in the remembered past, as though Bonnard were an abiding spirit here.” But in Alameddine’s novel, Tóibín writes, “always there is the legacy of war, like gray or black pigment, both in the narrator’s memory and in the very gaps between buildings, the ‘shards of metal, twisted rubble, strips of tile, and broken glass’ that are still ‘scattered across piles of dirt.’”

The Hero Pose

Mary Beard

I am one of a team that has been redesigning the Greek and Roman Galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We’ve finished—and a couple of weeks ago the new display opened to the public. This is nothing on the scale of the new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of course. But, after the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford (also recently “re-hung”), the Fitz has the best collection of classical antiquities in the UK—thanks to generous donations since the mid-nineteenth century from professors and alumni of the University.

Austenolatry

Cathleen Schine

I met a friend for lunch the other day at The Morgan Library. In honor of their Jane Austen exhibit, they are serving a Regency lunch. Whenever I hear the word Regency, I think not of Jane Austen, but of Dickens’s Old Mr. Turveydrop, celebrated everywhere for his Deportment, who named his son Prince. I don’t know if Old Mr. Turveydrop would have approved, but we thought it was a delicious Regency lunch—Poached Atlantic Salmon, Fricassee of Macomber Turnips & Mushrooms, Mustard Greens, Baked Apple Cobbler—though what exactly about the menu qualified as Regency is somewhat obscure. The turnips? I have never eaten more delicious turnips. I happily imagined Jane Austen eating delicate, sweet Macomber turnips, too. But at home, after a little on-line research, I came to realize how unlikely it is that she did—Macomber turnips seem to be a cross breed of radishes and rutabagas developed by the two Macomber brothers in Westport, Massachussetts in 1876.

Himmler’s Favorite Jew

Ian Buruma

Hitler’s Third Reich produced no great films. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant innovator and superb editor, with an extraordinary gift for visual effects, but I would hesitate to call Triumph of the Will, or even Olympia great films, unless greatness can be confined to technical prowess. Nazi Germany did not have the equivalent of an Eisenstein or Pudovkin, who still managed to create masterpieces out of political propaganda. Perhaps this reflects a difference between National Socialism and Communism, even though Stalin was no less murderous than Hitler. Great work can still emerge from the utopian ideal of the workers’ paradise. It is harder to imagine artistic excellence arising from violent racism. D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist movie The Birth of a Nation is a possible exception to this rule, but this film, too, is more remarkable for its technical innovation than anything else.

Slide Show: New York, Moody City

Eve Bowen

A new exhibition of street photography, “Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959,” at the Milwaukee Art Museum, brings together work by photographers ranging from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans to Helen Levitt, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee; it also includes paintings by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Richard Pousette-Dart—all of whom were making images during and immediately after World War II. “Abstract Expressionism, film noir, Beat poetry, and the New Journalism are all widely recognized aftershocks of World War II,” writes Lisa Hostetler in the catalog of the exhibition. “It is time to add the ‘psychological gesture in photography’ to the list.” These photographs, with their emphasis on mood and atmosphere, and their exploration of blurred motion, shadows, and solitary figures, are very different from images made before the war.

Aalto Survives Geopolitics

Martin Filler

Although Alvar Aalto first won worldwide attention in the early 1930s as a leading exponent of the International Style—a reductive form of modern architecture proposed as equally applicable anywhere on the planet—his more expressive, site-specific work from the mid-Thirties onward marked him as a regional designer in the best sense, and the quintessential Finnish master builder. In 1989, however, thirteen years after Aalto’s death, his friend and official biographer Göran Schildt revealed Aalto’s rollicking 1943 junket to Germany at the invitation of Albert Speer, Hitler’s court architect-turned-munitions chief, to inspect construction there just as the Final Solution shifted into overdrive. Schildt’s tragicomic account reads like a plot outline for The Three Stooges Go to Hell.