Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for The Times Literary Supplement, The Observer, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.
The thrust of the rather ingenious new exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, “Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art,” is that each of the clubs and cabarets included was much more than just an elaborately decorated drinking den. The show isn’t simply interested in cabarets and clubs in Modern art, or Modern art in cabarets and clubs, for that matter; this is a deeper and more thoughtful examination of the symbiosis between the two. Each of the clubs included in the show attracted the most avant-garde artists, writers, musicians, dancers, poets, and intellectuals of their eras, both as punters and performers. These venues were just as significant as the gathering places where artistic movements were cultivated as they were performance and gallery spaces. We should think of them, the curators suggest, as “total sensory experiences.”
As in so much of her work, the phantasmagoric takes on something of the real, a nightmare brought to life, or the turmoil of a psyche revealed. Paula Rego’s well aware that women’s bodies are sites of trauma. She recounts her own birth, for example, as a horror story: her mother labored for three days, at the end of which she, the baby—“this carcass,” as Rego pointedly describes herself—was “dragged” out, ripping her mother’s bladder in the process. Rego’s work is dense with symbolism, but all in service of portraying the realities—as unpalatable and grotesque as they sometimes are—of the female body.
The story of British novelist Penelope Mortimer is, in part, the all too familiar tale of a woman writer plagued by her readership’s inability to separate the life from the art. This situation was made all the more complicated because Penelope drew so very heavily on her lived experience when it came to the fiction she put down on the page. As debates around this issue still rage today, despite the fact that Penelope’s books languish for the most part out of print, there’s no better time for readers to discover both the fascinating story of her life, and her once highly acclaimed writing.
To visit Charleston, a farmhouse that the Bloomsbury Group transformed into their most famous work of art, is to be transported back in time. It has been open to the public since 1986, but it has just launched its first exhibition and event spaces, along with a new restaurant. At the same time, under Charleston’s modern guise as a tourist heritage site—having become a destination for day-trippers, complete with café and gift shop—it’s easy to overlook just how radically the members of the Bloomsbury Group lived their lives.
Gathered together in the excellent new show “Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain” is a selection of candid snaps both Miller and Man Ray took during their Cornish adventure. Most arresting is Miller’s photograph of an all-but-nude Carrington reclining in the sun, eyes closed, a smoldering cigarette clutched between the fingers of her left hand, with Ernst sitting behind her, his veiny hands clasped over his lover’s bare breasts, his head resting lovingly on hers, one half of his face hidden in a cushion of her thick, curly dark hair. This sudden Surrealist invasion is integral to the story told in the Hepworth exhibition.
“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” Re-reading Elizabeth Strout’s breathtakingly exquisite novel My Name is Lucy Barton in preparation for seeing the theatrical adaptation, I found myself knocked sideways by these lines. But where the play fell flat for me is that Laura Linney delivers a powerhouse of a performance. Alone on the stage for an hour and a half, there’s nowhere for her to hide, and she bracingly shoulders that weight from the moment she first strides forward into our company, confidently launching into her monologue. But she remains Laura Linney throughout, she never transforms into Lucy Barton. Lucy is all quietness and unease; Linney, meanwhile, commands the room.
There’s also a familiarity to the lesser-known works adorning the walls of “America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keeffe to Hopper.” Not because British audiences have seen them before; they haven’t—nearly half of the eighty-odd paintings, photographs, and prints in this relatively small, three-room show have never previously been exhibited in the UK. All the same, we know exactly what we’re looking at: representations of the mythologies of an “America” that has long inhabited the popular global imagination, from the towering structures of the archetypal modern metropolis to the rustic barns, uniform fields of corn, and white picket fences of prairie farmland.
Kettle’s Yard, four old slum cottages, tucked away behind St. Peter’s Church in Cambridge (named after the Kettle family, who had built a short-lived theatre on the site back in the 1700s), became the location of Ede’s experimental vision. He renovated them and unpacked his collection, around which he and his wife, Helen, set up home, thenceforth holding an “open house” every afternoon during the university term, when students were encouraged to drop by, admire the art, read the Edes’ books—and, if lucky enough to be invited, perhaps partake of a cup of tea and a slice of toast with marmalade. Part of the charm of Kettle’s Yard has always been the juxtaposition between old and new.