Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
by Caroline Fraser
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books remain for many a formative literary experience of our childhoods: we retain, as if they were our own memories, vivid fragments of little Laura’s adventures with her older sister Mary, her younger sisters Carrie and Grace, and their parents Caroline and Charles, the former calmly capable, the latter bringing joy with his fiddle and songs. Part of the books’ appeal lies in Laura’s perspective: the plainer, naughtier sister, with a temper and selfish impulses—a child with whom any reader can identify. Then, too, Wilder records her experiences with attractive Chekhovian simplicity, patiently explaining the material details of pioneers’ daily lives, including how Pa oiled bear traps, how the women prepared for a dance, how to build a log cabin and make a latched door with no nails, hinges, or lock, and how to protect the house from a prairie fire.
Zadie Smith’s fifth novel addresses many themes—dance, as an idea and an art form; friendship and rivalry between girls and women; mothers, daughters, and motherhood; racial and cultural identity; creativity and success; ambition; love—and touches, too, on many more: contemporary forms of liberal Western cultural imperialism; the effects of social media; the return to religion in developing countries (in this case, to Islam, in Gambia); the culture of celebrity and its effects; Europe’s immigration crisis. It is an unwieldy list, to be sure, and represents, in fictional form, the consuming and urgent preoccupations of one of our generation’s significant literary minds.
What Yasmine El Rashidi attempts in her deceptively quiet, adamantine novel Chronicle of a Last Summer is no less than to suffuse the present with the past, to convey the way in which a walk through Cairo and the purchase of vegetables are acts filled not only with vivid present detail but also with echoes of historical and political significance.
Many of the artists here will be relatively new to American audiences, who are likely more familiar with pre-war German names—Beckmann, Dix, Grosz, Klee, Kandinsky—and contemporary ones—Baselitz, Richter, Kiefer. The exhibition features German art from 1943 to 1955: late works by Otto Dix, as well as by Fritz Winter (including that first acquisition), and an exhilarating range by Willi Baumeister, with exuberant large paintings such as Growth of the Crystals II (1947–1952) and Large Montaru (1953). The energy, colors, and lines of these later Baumeister works, recalling Kandinsky and Klee, delight—but more unexpected are the small early lacquers he produced, along with Oskar Schlemmer and Franz Krause, in Wuppertal during the war. Their ethereal beauty in the face of such destruction is itself a type of resistance.
Matisse, unsurprisingly, had strong feelings about the objects of his daily life. They delighted, inspired, or confounded him, in their humble ordinariness and in all that they evoked. These mundane items, the organizing principle for the exhilarating show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, served as sparks for Matisse’s art. The exhibition’s considerations of these objects enable us to see Matisse’s works anew.
The current exhibition of Herrera’s work at the Whitney Museum endeavors to rectify the American art world’s long-term neglect: it focuses on Herrera’s work from 1948-1978, from her earliest abstracts through the various stages of her artistic evolution. For audiences, the revelation over the past decade of Herrera’s bold and vital work is a glorious gift.
Alice Neel’s portraits are rarely serene but always memorable. The new book Painter of Modern Life demonstrates how her early paintings range from the unsettling to the disturbing. Her later paintings largely eschew melodrama, but they are always uneasy, inviting the viewer into a direct and often alarming intimacy with their subjects. Awkwardness abounds, and with it sometimes dark comedy.