James Fenton is a British poet and literary critic. From 1994 until 1999, he was Oxford Professor of Poetry; in 2015 he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize. He is the author of School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts and, most recently, Yellow Tulips: Poems, 1968–2011.
 (October 2017)

IN THE REVIEW

Moses in Mexico

Cristóbal de Villalpando: Mexican Painter of the Baroque

an exhibition at the Palacio de Cultura Citibanamex–Palacio de Iturbide, Mexico City, March 9–June 4, 2017; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, July 25–October 15, 2017
It is good to see Cristobal de Villalpando’s huge altarpiece at the Met placed at the very center of the Robert Lehman wing, where it can be admired from two levels, top-lit by daylight. At just over twenty-eight feet high by fourteen feet wide, it benefits from isolation, both from the objects in the Lehman collection and from the small selection of lesser works by Villalpando exhibited in their own gallery nearby. The lower half of the crowded composition depicts Moses raising the Brazen Serpent; the upper, the Transfiguration of Jesus. What we are not shown is the way it is displayed in its permanent Mexican home (for which it was painted) in Puebla cathedral.

Learning to Love French Art

Noël-Nicolas Coypel: The Abduction of Europa, 1726–1727

America Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May 21–August 20, 2017
In the latter part of the 1820s, the novelist James Fenimore Cooper was in Paris, observing French society and meditating on the lessons to be learned from it by the United States. In one surprising segue from his book Gleanings in Europe: France (1837), he recommends the expenditure of thirty …

The Disasters of War

World War I and American Art

an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, November 4, 2016–April 9, 2017; the New-York Historical Society, New York City, May 26–September 3, 2017; and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, October 6, 2017–January 21, 2018

The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War

an exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, January 27–April 9, 2017
It comes as a surprise to a British reader to find World War I routinely referred to, by Americans, as America’s “forgotten war.” The British would never use such a term. It is true that certain significant aspects of the war have faded from the collective memory. Every one of us can remember why World War II was fought (“Hitler had to be stopped”), but few can do the same for World War I. Yes, the archduke had been shot in Sarajevo, but who the archduke was, and why his assassination led to general war, and why the war was or wasn’t worth fighting—that takes a rarer expertise to answer.

Duterte’s Last Hurrah: On the Road to Martial Law

Rodrigo Duterte the day after he was sworn in as president of the Philippines, Manila, July 1, 2016
One of Rodrigo Duterte’s chief selling points as a leader is that he doesn’t give a shit. So, when he gets in front of any crowd, he will say whatever he thinks will make an impact at that very moment, and it is striking that most of the most shocking things we have learned about Duterte have come from his own mouth. For instance, it was Duterte who compared himself to Hitler.

NYR DAILY

What I Mean by Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico, 1999

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.

Two Kinds of Magic at Radio City & Lincoln Center

The finale of Cirque du Soleil’s production of Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, New York City

Who knows in how many directorial breasts a conflict rages between a desire for intimacy and the yearning for the very grandest of effects? On the one hand, there is the ambition to mount, in the smallest of theaters, a drama of the most intense kind, in which the actors are never obliged to raise their voices to suit the acoustics of the space, because nothing is going to be missed. Working through improvisation, perhaps, or through other revered techniques of self-discovery, the performers arrive at dangerous levels of intensity and verisimilitude.

‘The Book of Mormon’: No Offense

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells, and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon

Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to view, its pseudo-archaeological racism, its prevarications over the practice of polygamy, its almost exact resemblance to a cult, stand up to all that gleeful juvenile ragging?

A Heavy Vase of Irony, Broken Over Our Heads

Mark Rylance, center, and Danny Kirrane in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem

Strictly English nationalism comes with a sense of diminishment. It is like a falling back to a defensive position, a withdrawal to the last redoubt. The Empire has long gone. Ireland has mostly gone. Scotland and Wales keep threatening to be next. England is what we will be left with, more of a consolation prize than “England’s green and pleasant land.” William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” with its vision of building the Eternal City in the squalor of the “dark Satanic mills,” is sung by a young girl in a fairy costume at the opening of Jez Butterworth’s play—named for Blake’s poem—in front of what the play text stipulates: a “faded cross of St. George.”