What I Mean by Mexico

James Fenton

Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
I must have landed in the foothills, for the first impressions I had were of piles of rocks, as if emptied casually from a bag. And among these rocks and cactuses, a leafless tree with yellow flowers, a profuse flowerer, unfamiliar to me. Well, some things have to be unfamiliar; I have never visited this part of the world before.

William Blake: Wonderful and Strange

Jenny Uglow

Tate, London

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum has always been a place of surprises, which has made it an absolutely fitting place for “William Blake: Apprentice and Master,” an exhibition that is at once didactic and very strange. The exhibition left me dazed by the technical detail but aware that I would never look at a Blake work in the same way again.

A Film Without a Country

Alexander Stille

Loris T. Zambelli

Rightly or wrongly, we expect something different from the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars—something specific to the country that produced it, something that takes us out of the usual Hollywood way of making movies. The case of Human Capital, which was Italy’s entry for this year’s Oscar but was not nominated by the Academy, may be instructive in this regard.

Looking Harlem in the Eye

Darryl Pinckney

Van Vechten Trust/Eakins Press Foundation

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), enthusiast of Modernism and ally of the Harlem Renaissance, had a swell time while the Roaring Twenties lasted and his home became something of a cultural clearinghouse for black writers and artists. But his photographs of black people are perhaps his most personal work. Van Vechten’s admiration for his subjects was unambiguous and the portraits speak of his talent for friendship. They knew who he was. Even when the subject’s gaze is averted, as in Van Vechten’s 1936 portrait of Lottie Allen, described as a domestic worker, her “dates unknown,” the viewer believes that she, who appears to be in uniform, trusts the white man behind that camera.

A Flophouse Symphony

Geoffrey O’Brien

Richard Termine/BAM

Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh needs its pauses and its slowdowns and even its moments when the whole play feels like an enormously heavy contraption that has slipped off its base and is about to come crashing down. It needs the nearly five hours of stage time that it takes up in Robert Falls’s exemplary production, now playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater.

Our Wars, Our Victims

Charles Simic

Siena Cathedral

President Obama’s new request for war authorization, now pending before Congress, to fight ISIS over the next three years with further airstrikes and “limited” combat operations, despite the complete failure of all our previous attempts in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to do any good, may make our wars legal, but no less foolish.

Syria’s Lost Spring

Robyn Creswell

Alshaab alsori aref tarekh

What happened to the Arab Spring in Syria? Amid a wave of jihadist violence extending from Aleppo to Paris, it is sometimes hard to remember that many of the original participants aspired to something dramatically different. In their courage, humor, defiance, and occasional moments of optimism, these protesters already seem to belong to another era—before sectarian war and waves of refugees made the idea of revolution seem quaint.

The Great American Shooter

J. Hoberman

Warner Bros. Pictures

For all its patriotic rhetoric, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not a moral lesson but a tragedy. The causal link Eastwood establishes between the trauma of September 11 and the catastrophe of Iraq is less the dramatization of history than an illustration of historical paralysis—elaborating the implications of an endless, unwinnable war.

Lincoln’s War of Words

Ted Widmer

Art Resource

As It is clear that writing was a form of self-therapy for Abraham Lincoln, and before he could save the nation, he needed to find the right words, to save himself. The exhibition Lincoln Speaks opens with Lincoln as a young child scrawling some mischievous doggerel: “Abraham Lincoln, his hand and pen, he will be good, but God knows when.”