The Guardian from London, Greater London, England on January 25, 1989 · 46
Get access to this page with a Free Trial

A Publisher Extra Newspaper

The Guardian from London, Greater London, England · 46

Publication:
Location:
London, Greater London, England
Issue Date:
Wednesday, January 25, 1989
Page:
46
Start Free Trial
Cancel

THE GUARDIAN Wednesday January 25 1989 The ancient art of rewriting history Empty spaces g into the sun 46 ARTS GUARDIAN David Newnham FIFTY years ago, the Japanese people believed that to gaze upon the person of their divine emperor would damage their eyes like looking into the sun itself. That being the case, many of them would have found Edward Behr's Hirohito: Behind The Myih (BBC 1) painful viewing indeed. Behr's film set out to challenge the post-war image of Hirohito as a benign, fatherly figure, interested in marine biology and absolutely not guilty in respect of certain events which occurred in or around the Second World War. The emperor did not emerge unscathed from the fray. Neither, it must be said, did the Americans. They, it transpired, went out of their way to ensure that Hirohito survived the war. Then they fixed him up with a spanking new image and all to make the world a safer place for their own imperialism. Behr's evidence against Hirohito came in the form of old film, eyewitness accounts and the surprisingly detailed diaries kept by former ministers and generals. Some bits of evidence contradicted other bits. A contemporary recalled ominously how his princely playmate had a passion for war-games. Yet later, the frail, short-sighted Hirohito, bored with his tutors, would amuse himself studying nature. When Daddy the Emperor showed signs of dementia, it was time to get engaged and to visit Europe. Hirohito loved his British counterparts. George V treated him with paternal affection and the bespectacled little god-to-be remarked that "here was genuine democracy without class distinction". Back home, the young man who had amazed European generals with his knowledge of warfare and military tactics, went heavily into Bohemia. No, he didn't invade it; he adopted the lifestyle. The music stopped all of a sudden. Just when Hirohito was enjoying himself, his father and the economy both seemed to die; it was time to growup, get married . . . and become a god. As the Twenties became the Thirties, Japan's economy picked up on the back, as usual, of an impoverished working class. With prosperity came a new expansionism. Edward Behr reckoned that when, in 1931, Japanese forces invaded neighbouring Manchuria, Hirohito was only slightly reluctant. Those who would have us believe in a kindly old Mr H tell us that, from that point, the Emperor was in the grip of an autocratic military machine. Hirohito, according to his post-war PR blurb, was not personally responsible for the escalation of Japanese aggression in China which so alarmed the Americans. Nor was he behind the Pearl Harbour bombing. He was, in short, tricked into the Second World War. On Behr's evidence. Hirohito knew just what was going on. Furthermore, he had become a warrior god. As his men committed atrocities, the emperor commented they weren't winningas? enough. Behr's account took us through the astonishing trick employed by Hirohito's staff to lull the Americans into a false sense of security in the hours before Pearl Harbour. Even the execution of young American pilots could clearly be laid at the door of this most hated of men. When we reached the bit where the stars and stripes knocked spots off the rising sun, Behr turned to his American witnesses. They told of a decision not to bomb the imperial palace, and of Washington "urging the importance of allowing the Japanese to retain Hirohito after the war". A tame emperor, to whom no blame was to be attached, would render the Japanese infinitely manageable. With General MacArthur installed ("To see a man. once so high, brought so low, grieves me"), America's PR men moved in to give Hirohito a facelift and history a rewrite. Behr wound up wondering who was the real Hirohito the lonely boy, the warrior or the reclusive grandad. But does it really matter? More important, perhaps, is the way the US recognised him as a mechanism for controlling society, then proceeded to use that mechanism to its own ends. Ever wondered why those republicans are so enthusiastic about our own Royal Family? Expansionism; imperialism; there were echoes here of an innocuous little programme from earlier in the evening. The Ancient Art Of Cookery (Channel 4), a series tracing the irresistible rise of English cuisine through the kitchens of six National Trust houses, had scoffed its way through to the 18th century. Sara Paston-Williams and Roy Strong were ensconced at Canons Ashby, an estate pinched from the monks and inhabited without a break by the Dryden family. Being a man, it fell to Roy to show us around the house and history. "The 18th century," he explained, "was the century of Chippendale, Adam, Wedgwood and Stubbs. It was simply a time of everything flowering to perfection." Sara's place was, of course, in the kitchen. "And what to do with the pigeons? I'm going to jug 'em! Then I ask you to try strawberry fritters." Roy is quietly warming to the Age of Plunder. "Mahogany," he breaths. "Thomas Chippendale changed the flavour of English furniture with that rich brown-grained wood from the West Indies." Then there was ketchup from the Far East, piccalilli from India . . . "and always a decent war popping up to stir the blood and rekindle the spirit." In the kitchen, Sara's pigeons squelched from their jug. "Gosh, that smells good." For a second, Roy scents trouble on the horizon. "Next week it's Saltram and the revolution." Then it's back to strawberry fritters and the fruits of expansion. Bob Peck and Helen Mirren . Michael Billington finds guilt and obsession aplenty in Arthur Miller's Young Vic bill The contours of passion ARTHUR Miller has always seemed the most Ibsenite of American dramatists. And just as Ibsen increasingly forsook naturalism for poetic symbolism, so Miller in his later years has moved from social drama towards metaphysics. He himself has described his fascinating double-bill, Two-Way Mirror, at the Young Vic as being made up of "passionate voyages through the masks of illusion towards an ultimate reality". Actually the first and longer play, Some Kind Of Love Story, has a public dimension. An Irish-American gumshoe, Tom O'Toole, is quizzing a promiscuous ex-lover, Angela, about a five-year-old murder to which she holds a vital clue. He doggedly probes: she endlessly stalls lapsing under stress into the roles of street whore, abused child and snooty bitch. Finally, she reveals that she can prove the innocence of the sleuth's client and has evidence of massive police corruption spreading right to the top of the American judicial system. But we are never sure whether this is a fantasy to perpetuate her meetings with her old lover. At one point the detective says (in an unconscious echo of An Enemy Of The People), "somewhere way upstream the corruption is poisoning the water and making us all a little crazy". But I find the play less than convincing as an indictment of the American judicial system. The heroine is GEQQ0B3 "Hemes rang, emD . . 'doggedly probing, endlessly presented as a flaky dreamer suffering from delusions of power. Conversely the private eye, with his curious innocence about police tradeoffs with drug-runners, seems to be suffering from delusions of justice. Hasn't he been reading the papers lately? Where the play does work is as a painful, guilt-ridden confrontation of two desperate human beings afraid to let go. Without wishing to be unduly biographical, it also strikes me as another attempt by Miller to come to terms with his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Raped by her father, psychically damaged, struggling with an identity-crisis, Angela bears certain superficial similarities to Monroe; and the most moving moments are those where the decent, ex-Catholic cop is left helplessly floundering by her personality-shifts. Helen Mirren, clad in a Freudian slip and shifting easily from waif-like vulnerability to sexual aggression, even gives the role a breathy Edward Greenfield Made beautifully TO HAVE a Japanese soprano singing the role of Butterfly in Puccini's opera brings far more benefit than just an apt facial appearance. Yoko Watanabe has now taken over as the heroine for the second group of performances at Covent Garden this season, and the revelation is to see not just a genuine Japanese tigure but genuine Japanese movement, subtly different from the coy Mikado-like imita tions offered by most prima donnas. With Watanabe the natural, bird-like darlings of Butterfly when excited or eager added enormously to involvement, as did her total, sudden stillness when in the last scene she sees Kate Pinkerton and realises with chilled horror who she is and what she wants for her the sentence of death. Thanks even more to her act ing than to her singing, this Butterfly took a grip on the whole performance to rebut any thought of Puccinian sentimentality. This was a genuinely tragic heroine, made the more moving, when the character develops with such conviction. Watanabe's voice may Barbican Meirion Bowen London Schools SO THE London Schools Sym phony Orchestra has long been one of the jewels in ILEA'S crown. Let us hope the local authorities, to whom responsibility for music is to be devolved, will live up to their promises and provide the finance and facilities for it to continue. Monday's LSSO concert at the Barbican was a good in stance of the multi-faceted music-making the ILEA has encouraged. The children were working under an experienced conductor and trainer, Steuart Bedford, and having performed two classics of the orchestral stalling' Monroesque quality. Meanwhile Bob Peck as the 'tec provides a remarkable portrait of a man still gut-twist-ingly hooked on a woman who has almost turned insecurity into a style. But it is the second play. Elegy For A Lady, that really gets to grips with illusion and reality: it is as shaped and honed a piece as Miller has written in years. An ageing, married businessman comes into a classy boutique searching for a present for a dying lover who has cut off all contact with him. Gradually the shop's svelte proprietress takes on the qualities of the dying woman: her quiet understanding, her throaty laugh, her accusation that the man, by refusing to commit himself in life, has forfeited any rights in her death. Pinter inevitably comes to mind; and, as with Pinter, what I like about the piece is its sheer theatricality. In literal media like cinema or television, the piece would have an unambiguous reality. In the theatre it takes on sees a Butterfly spread have its rawness above the stave, and the quality is strong and well-projected rather than distinctive, but the warmth of expression grew from scene to scene, matching the total involvement of her acting. That was not as easy for her as might have been expected, when Mark Ermler, an inspired interpreter on his home ground of Russian opera, seemed intent here on handling Puccini's delicate score so roughly. After the extreme expansive-ness of Sinopoli's recent recording, in sheer sound the most sensuously beautiful ever, it came as a brutal shock to have Ermler whizzing through the piece like a whirlwind and hardly letting his singers breathe which was not good for ensemble. Like Watanabe as Butterfly, Mario Malagnini, the new Pinkerton, certainly looked the part, a handsome figure, tall and upstanding. With that appearance it came as an initial disappointment to find the voice on the small side. Opposite the vintage Goro of Francis Egerton in the opening scene, principal tenor and compri-mario were level pegging in repertory Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan they then tackled five movements from Messiaen's formidable Turan-galila-Symphonie. All three pieces involved learning to play long melodic lines: in the Schubert and Wagner this was particularly taxing for the woodwind, while in the Messiaen, the strings had to deal with extended stretches of slow melody (in the Garden of Love's Sleep Movement). In general, Bedford instilled enough confidence for the players to engage confidently with this difficult aspect of the music. His tempi for the Schubert were, however, a bit rushed, as if he were concerned that dawdling along would lead the players into lapses of breath control and phrasing. Bedford's shaping of Wagner's Prelude in Liebestod showed greater discernment. PHOTOGRAPH: DOUGLAS JEFFERY the precise contour of a dream: the way the characters are framed in solitary spotlights at the beginning and the end hint that the man is inventing the encounter as a means of acknowl edging his own guilt (always a strong motive in Miller). It is also economically written and shows Miller has lost none of his gift for the resonant phrase: "I can't bear the sight of my face in the mirror," the age-obsessed hero observes, "I'm shaving my father every morning." David Thacker's production, elegantly designed by Bob Crowley with giftslaid " out on what might be memorial plinths, has just the right etiolated clarity. And both Helen Mirren, thawing beautifully into compassion in a pearl-grey suit, and Bob Peck, confronting his own irresolution with nervously sweating brow, give fine performances. They remind me of Ibsen's remark that a passionate writer needs to be acted with passion and not otherwise. her wings in Japan size and projection. What brought satisfying compensation was that the quality of sound is refined, even honeyed. Others new to the cast include the Suzuki of Anne Mason - young, positive and powerful if rather grainy of tone. But the most memorable newcomer to the production is Thomas Allen as Sharpless, adding another character role to his repertory with typical imagination, power and beauty. Sharpless, you feel, at his every appearance represents the bedrock of sanity in a shifting Japanese world, made the more insecure in this updated, grimly realistic view of Nagasaki, post-atom bomb. The production of Nuria Espert, set in ramshackle tenement designs by Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino, has many points in its favour, but inevitably a tragedy in sordid surroundings seems relatively ordinary, completely missing the magic which Puccini drew directly from Old Japan and its colourful atmosphere. There are five more performances this season: tomorrow. Jan 28 and 31, Feb 3 and 6. enabling the great lyrical paragraphs to move inexorably towards their climactic points. Here the LSSO's tone control and tuning were admirable and their playing showed an understanding of the passion underlying the notes. From the LSSO's point of view, of course, the Messiaen offered them a taste of something big and juicy, and the movements selected were within their grasp technically. They relished the rhythmic challenges presented by the music, and where Messiaen's textures were at their most fragmented there was never a hint that the ensemble overall might break down. The brass were in fine fettle the trombones secure in the recurrences of the so-called Statue Theme and the trumpets hitting their high notes and exchanging short, fanfare-like phrases with an exciting panache. A plain, old-fashioned dislike of modern art must lie behind Andrew Brighton's new Serpentine anthology, argues Tim Hilton HOW would you set about your task if you wanted to devise a completely new art exhibition? An exhibition for today, in 1989, demonstrating the critical intelligence of our age? Not the old style of contemporary show in which works are seen for the first time, but a new kind of exhibition? Most of us wouldn't try, for we find that exhibitions like books have a pretty decent general format. Questions of space aside, they allow you to say what you wish to say, within limits that people don't find irksome. Except Andrew Brighton, an educationalist (and apparently a rather cross one) who is looking for something he calls "another kind of discourse". I don't suppose he wants all exhibitions to resemble Blasphemies, Ecstasies. Cries, his Serpentine anthology. If all displays of art were like this none of us would know anything about anything, and Brighton himself would not stand out. Surely he wants to be singular and forceful. He wants us to understand that he has seen through modernism. And, like so many teachers, he gains attention by demanding it. Brighton has filled the Serpentine with a couple of dozen paintings, photographs and drawings (for some reason sculpture has no place in his scheme of things), which he places on differently coloured panels. The Serpentine can take many more works than this, but Brighton explains that he has been sparing with art's riches because he wants to make sure that we look at each work carefully. To the same end, he has decided not to supply the names of artists or the titles of their works, though you'll find these on a separate panel in the west gallery. 1 don't know if Brighton is aware that this isn't an original idea. There have been several such exhibitions. For instance, at a show of modern pictures at the Ashmolean a decade ago, the management told us that such bizarre works might tie-better appreciated if we didn't know who had painted them. Withholding simple information about individual pieces of art is in fact quite an ordinary kind of superiority and perhaps comes naturally to people who organise slide tests once a term. Stephen McKenna's pastiche of 18th-century Venetian painting from Andrew Brighton's anthology at the Serpentine Uneasy with the thought of being one of Brighton's students, I have only a moderate admiration for this ploy. He has done something more interesting, however, by giving each painting a few lines of verse. The comptemporary American Richard Howard's translation of Baudelaire is presented by a spoof book whose pages, each containing three or more lines, have been photographed and mounted in glass-fronted cabinets next to each work. Everything in the show, therefore, is accompanied by a snatch from the writer whom Brighton calls "Baudelaire Howard", who aids him to (listen to the music of this prose) assert that: "Once Modernism's invisible text is made visible and the idea that art 'speaks for itself is dismissed, then the question is no longer text or no text, but which and what kind of texts. This exhibition and its catalogue breaks (sic) with the orthodox discourse to explore just one avenue. That it is an avenue sympathetic to what prompts some very able artists is indicated by their willingness to participate in the exhibition and by the fact that it was not difficult to find pictures that gained a different vivacity . . . etc etc." Before following Brighton along his post-modern avenue, might a friend of modern art say something about Baudelaire in English? The French poet was a superb problem for English-speaking culture from Swinburne's time to Eliot's. This was not a question of morality, or art's autonomy. It was a mystery of translation that could not have been discerned before the early years of modern literature. Baudelaire's poetry, as anyone may discover, is hard to translate because of music and resonance: it's not literally obscure. He demands rhyme and consummate versification. Can we do this in English while hoping to imitate the alexandrine? No. The best translation would be in an English verse form that was at the height of its own development. Eliot therefore observed that the best translator of Baudelaire would have been Pope, the eighteenth century master of the English dicasyllabic couplet. True? Historically false, yet still true? I like to think about these modernist insights, but must return to "BaudelaireHoward". The American translation that is everywhere in the Serpentine is unrhymed. doggedly unmusical, and seems to be without feeling. I may be missing some point. Perhaps Richard Howard's dedication of his work to Roland Barthes is a sign that its apparent defects are calculated? In any case, Howard's distance from his model pleases Andrew Brighton and is apparently not displeasing to the (living) artists in this exhibition, who allow their work to be shown without their own names but with these of half-poetry. Wearisome though it is. Brighton's stratagem cannot wholly divert attention from the art on the wall. One still responds to the paintings by looking at them. The selection was not made at random. People make up poems by, for instance, finding lines from different books when blindfolded. But it takes time, mental effort and money to borrow paintings, insure them, arrange their transport and so on. Nonetheless, Brighton's show is calculated to appear as though it were a heedless anthology, especially since part of his method is to give no reason for including any artist. We do not even know if he admires khe work he-has hung.- 1 to a way, this tactic succeeds. By putting on a show that appears to be undirected by taste or judgment he forces us to consider "another kind of discourse" by which he means his own writing. The short catalogue costs 8 but is an essential part of the exhibition. Although Brighton's essay takes less than five minutes to read, there is much to ponder in it. His didactic purposes I find unfathomable, but one or two of his obsessive messages are clear. For instance, he hates the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and claims that he has more cultivation and acquaintance with literature and philosophy than the modernist bigots who serve as its curators. Looking at Brighton's Serpentine show, and therefore comparing it in the mind's eye with one of the most beautiful museums in the world, I wonder what demon can have led Brighton to such misjudgment. It must be plain and old-fashioned dislike of modern art. dressed up in contemporary guise. "This is a profoundly reactionary exhibition," he writes. But the word "profoundly" seems to be inaccurate. The floods of post-modernism are all over us, but their water is shallow. Alas, the youngest artists in the exhibition are the least convincing. The oldest picture in the show is a little woodland scene with a goat by the Dutch artist Abraham Begeijn (1637-97). which normally hangs in the Norwich Castle Museum. Its transfer to the present exhibition is unexplained. Other pre-20th century works are Fantin-Latour oil sketch, a Magdalen of 1862 by Sandys, a Robin drawing and an allegory by Watts, this last also borrowed from Norwich. These pictures have no connection with each other, unless you make fantastic connections by imagination. And perhaps there is a tendency towards fantasy in the exhibition. Certainly some of the artists, like Andrew Mansfield or John Murphy, are attempting a kind of poetic painting. But their imagination is at odds with the soft-porn treated photography by David Hiscock. the drawing of prostitutes by R.B. Kitaj, or the pastiche of 18th-century Venetian painting from Stephen McKenna. Of the more satisfactory works. Epstein's drawings are of interest and there are paintings by Gillian Ayres and Frank Auerbach. But Brighton seems often to have gone for paintings that are inconsequential or do not show an artist at his or her best. Peter Green-ham's small canvas, for instance, seems to be attempting effects that are alien to his true gilts. This seems unfortunate, especially if Brighton planned it that way. At the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, until February 26.

Get access to Newspapers.com

  • The largest online newspaper archive
  • 18,500+ newspapers from the 1700s–2000s
  • Millions of additional pages added every month

Publisher Extra Newspapers

  • Exclusive licensed content from premium publishers like the The Guardian
  • Archives through last month
  • Continually updated

Try it free