Review no 13: Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), Painter of Disquiet (Switzerland)


I’d seen reproductions of Swiss artist Félix Vallotton’s work posted up all over the London transport network to advertise the recent exhibition of his work, and was determined to make it to the Royal Academy before the show ended on 29 September 2019.

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Vallotton left home for the French capital, Paris, at the age of 16. The RA’s exhibition guide says that Vallotton was described as the “very singular Vallotton”, and his versatility is astounding. He painted vivid and intense still lifes and landscapes, but was also well known for his piercing, satirical eye, his involvement with the resurgence of printmaking and his illustrations for satirical and left-wing journals. A contemporary of French artists Bonnard and Vuillard, he remained outside the mainstream.

The early still life above is brilliant in its technical virtuosity, with the hyper realistic reflective surfaces of the jug and the rumpled fabric. Later work included illustrations for the literary and artistic magazine La revue blanche, and his emergence as a prominent graphic artist.

Vallotton’s woodcuts were especially acclaimed, and a series of intense vignettes catalogued scenes of domestic intrigue and hypocrisy. For example, his work Cinq Heures, references the time, after work, when a bourgeois professional might call on his mistress at home before returning to his wife.

In a review in The Times, the critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston stated that Vallotton could be “an awful painter”, but I couldn’t disagree more. His technical skill is undeniable (as in the painting above), and when eschewing realism, his paintings are full of brooding intensity or knowing vitality. I loved the large, perhaps semi-ironic tryptych Le Bon Marché (which I was prevented from photographing, as the gallery hadn’t been able to attain permission to reproduce it) recording crowds in a 19th century department store, and the rise of incipient capitalism in Paris.

Later work focusing on interiors and home life retained that brooding and intense feel, following Vallotton’s marrage to the widowed, and rich, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. With the marriage came three step-children.

The painting reproduced at the bottom of the post below, The Red Room, Etretat, was modelled from a society photograph of his wife, but into it has been plonked Gabrielle’s baby niece, determinedly ripping a piece of paper into scattered pieces, and familiar enough for anyone who has spent time with small children. A pleasant domestic scene, though does it indicate a sense of unease at the disorder of family life?

In the painting Woman Searching through a Cupboard an uncanny feel is added to that feeling of domestic horror everyone has surely experienced while despairingly trying to unearth a crucial item when it’s long past bedtime.

Another painting, Le Ballon, shows a charmingly bonneted child chasing a ball, but the looming shadows from the over-arching trees lend a sinister feel to an evocation of childhood innocence. Parallels have been drawn between Vallotton’s output and the later work of Edward Hopper, and even Alfred Hitchcock. From 1904, however, Vallotton moved onto the female nude, and then landscape, and his arch subversion of the everyday largely disappeared from view.

All in all this was a fascinating and atmospheric exhibition of work by an artist I was unaware of before this year. His work is well worth searching out.

Review no 12: Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Ireland)


Irish writer Edna O’Brien is probably best known for her classic prize-winning novel Country Girls, published in 1960.  It dealt with sex and social issues in post-World War 2 Ireland, and was reportedly not only banned there, but set alight and denounced in church.

O’Brien’s career has spanned some 60 years, and she has been garlanded with praise. Her work has focused on women’s interior feelings, and their difficulties in relating both to men, and to society. Literary behemoth Philip Roth described her as the most gifted woman writing in English.

She published her latest, intriguing-sounding novel, Girl, this autumn, at the age of 88. Her subject matter has moved far beyond the Ireland of her youth: the latest work follows the experiences of a girl captured and forcibly married into Boko Haram.

I read her last novel, published in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus. The Little Red Chairs is a humane novel which appears to have been strongly influenced by events in the life of the convicted Balkan war criminal Radovan Karadžić.

Karadžić successfully evaded arrest for nine years, apparently living in plain sight in the Serbian capital Belgrade as well as in Vienna , Austria, and working as some kind of alternative healer and sex therapist, peddling the use of “human quantum energy” to resolve sexual problems.

In The Little Red Chairs a man accused of Balkan war crimes, presenting himself as an expert in holistic healing and sex therapy, incongruously arrives in an Irish village. Doctor Vladimir Dragan, with his white beard and top-knot, pronounces about herbal medications and talks Latin.

Doctor Vlad, with folkloric charm, enchants those around him, and one woman, Fidelma, goes so far as to ask for his help in conceiving a child. Labyrinthine, the book has both comic and terrifying moments, as Doctor Vlad’s past begins to catch up with him.

The book has a broad canvas, travelling from rural Ireland to London and to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague, the Netherlands. It brilliantly conjures up the everyday as well as the arcane, and asks searching questions about the nature of evil.

Review no 11 – Rojo (Red): film by Benjamín Naishtat (Argentina)


First, you don’t need to know anything about 1970s Argentinian politics to enjoy this film, but I dare say it helps. Frankly I know next to nothing about Argentinian politics and I was blown away.

Second, you may struggle to track Rojo down to a local cinema. My local Picturehouse in South London didn’t seem to be showing it, so I travelled to Russell Square to the Curzon Bloomsbury. What a gorgeous cinema, small but perfectly formed, and specializing in world cinema and art house films.

I expected to be the only member of the public in a screening of an obscure Argentinian film at 10.40 on a Monday morning, but the place was buzzing with people, particularly cultured pensioners, queuing for coffees and freshly baked cakes and filling the seats.

The film, written and directed by Benjamín Naishtat, opens with a suburban house, from which people emerge, one by one, with abandoned domestic items. People are starting to go missing, but no one seems to be talking about it.

The film is set in 1975. The year before, President Juan Perón died and was succeeded by his wife, Isabelita. However, austerity measures and high inflation led to strikes and popular discontent. Finally, in March 1976 a military coup resulted in the installation of a three-man junta. Hundreds were arrested, Isabelita Perón was exiled, and suspected left-wing activists, including students, were tortured and murdered.

We are given none of this historical background, and the political situation is only hinted at. The action centres on the life of Claudio (played by Darío Grandinetti) , a lawyer, his teenage daughter Paula (played by his real-life daughter, Laura Grandinetti) and his wife, Susana (played by the excellent Andrea Frigerio). They live a privileged, upper middle-class life that involves tennis, free tickets to events, gallery openings and sailing through road blocks. I liked the cars and the artfully retro interiors, homes, offices and restaurants, full of polished Formica and overflowing ashtrays.

The film is heavy on symbolism. A bullock is wincingly castrated and a stuffed wild cat snarls from inside a glass case. In Paula’s dance class she enacts a highly choreographed tableau of entrapment and repressed violence. An eclipse scene hammers home the principal point: don’t look directly at things, you could get hurt. Flies multiply. The fabulous score, by Vincent Van Warmerdam, helps to accentuate the tension throughout, loading even the most unassuming episode with a sense of pervading dread, occasionally defused with humour.

Early, key events, when a disagreement in a restaurant between Claudio and another man escalates, are compelling and full of menace. When the lawyer’s wife enters the scene time slows down, her face is shown in close up, every gesture and every feature are lovingly hovered over.

Someone’s brother goes missing, and a Columbo-style, celebrity super-sleuth enters the fray. Sinclair (played by Alfredo Castro) is a great character, and suspicious of the inscrutable Claudio. Meanwhile, someone’s son goes missing, but no one seems to care. Claudio’s life has become something of a noirish waiting game, as the tension builds, tightening like a fist.

All the performances are excellent in this gripping film. Watch the trailer here:

Review no 10: Oyinkan Braithwaite – My Sister, The Serial Killer (Nigeria)


As I’m trying to work my way through books, film and art from across the world, it makes sense to ensure that I’m not spending too much time in one region. I need an even spread of countries from all five of the regions that I’ve divided the world -roughly evenly – into.

So I’m back in Africa, and as far away from the tone of my last book from the continent as you get. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is a quick, fun read, and a book that was long-listed for the Booker Prize 2019.

Oyinkan Braithwaite is a Nigerian writer. I recently read a quote from Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University, describing the “Chimamanda glamour effect”. It may be that the huge success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the Orange Prize in the UK in 2007 for Half of the Yellow Sun, has led to a surge of interest in Nigerian female writers.

My Sister, the Serial Killer opens with Korede, a nurse, helping to cover up a murder. Korede’s glamorous, social media-obsessed, fashion-designer sister Ayoola has killed her latest boyfriend (he is not the first), and older sister Korede feels compelled to protect her. The young women come from a wealthy background that from the outside looks privileged, but there are dark family secrets lurking beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Korede has a massive crush on her hospital colleague Dr Tade, and when Ayoola notices him, Korede starts to fear for his safety.

Beautiful and beautifully dressed, with a sadistic enjoyment of death and a potentially incriminating love of Snapchat and Insta, Ayoola is a great character. She reminded me of Villanelle in recent TV series Killing Eve. ‘”We were in the room together and he suddenly starts to sweat and hold his throat. Then he starts to froth at the mouth. It was so scary.” But her eyes are on fire, she is telling me a tale she thinks is fascinating. I don’t want to talk to her but she seems determined to share the details.’

I also enjoyed the little insights into Nigerian culture that the reader is given, which include widespread official corruption, and discovered a new drink that I’d like to try, the chapman.

The plot moves along very quickly, with short punchy chapters, sometimes barely two sentences long, and never longer than a handful of pages. If I had to criticise, I’d have to admit to finding the ending a little flat, but overall this was a really enjoyable read.

Other female writers from Nigeria worth checking out include Ayobami Adebayo, whose novel Stay With Me was recommended to me by my friend Emily, and which we read as part of our long-running book club. I’ve also heard praise for Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi novella Binti.

Review no 9: Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) film by Almodóvar (Spain)


I went to see this film not knowing what to expect. I am not an expert on Pedro Almodóvar’s work, having previously only seen one of his films (Bad Education, in 2004). However, the terms of my little project required that I watch a Spanish film, and this sounded intriguing. This is definitely a movie I’m pleased to have seen.

The vividly and gorgeously shot film stars Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, an attractively angst-ridden Spanish film maker. Mallo lives alone among gorgeous works of art in a colourful, stylish Madrid apartment. His life is full of regrets (about his work, about being a bad son, about being a bad boyfriend to his ex-boyfriend), increasing bodily aches and pains and a massive creative block. By focusing on the story of a film maker, the film can hardly avoid being interpreted as at least semi-autobiographical, and it is deeply self-referential. (In one wry scene, for example, Mallo’s mother bitingly and incongruously expresses her disdain for auto-fiction.)

Almodóvar films have a reputation for melodrama, but Banderas plays Mallo with sensitivity and understated humour. Banderas’s charismatic performance was a real tonic compared with the meat-head roles he played in US blockbusters of the 1990s. That is not to say I never rated Banderas as an actor in English-speaking roles. I really enjoyed his performances in films like Desperado. But this role requires Banderas to reveal emotional depth, often through body language and expression alone, and he was utterly compelling. I’m not the only person to think so: he recently won the Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actor for this role.

The film darts back and forth between Mallo’s poverty-stricken (but always aesthetically pleasing) childhood in a rural village with his beleaguered, beautiful mother, played by Penélope Cruz, and the present day. Mallo has had a successful career, becoming the only Spanish film director widely known outside Spain (hmmm, sound familiar?) but has held onto grudges for decades. Despite the unwavering support of his friend Zulema (Cecilia Roth), plus a helpful maid, Mallo is depressed and battling self-condemnation, some serious mummy issues and his dodgy health.

Mallo’s classic work Sabor is being rereleased after some 30 years, and he engineers a meeting with the principal actor who worked on the film, junkie Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia), with whom he has maintained a long-running grievance over Crespo’s original performance. (Interestingly, Antonio Banderas did not work with Almodóvar for some 20 years, after acting in Tie Me Up Tie Me Down.)

After Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin I thought the film might take a darker turn. Instead, the drug scenes provide the basis for some of the lighter set pieces in the film, with a scheduled live Q&A session between Mallo, Crespo and cinema-going Sabor fans providing some hilarious moments. The introduction of drugs also cues Mallo’s drifting memories, as he conjures up hallucinatory recollections from his earlier life. The film’s conclusion, where it all gets even more meta, was life-affirming and optimistic. Watch the trailer here:

Review no 8: Leila Slimani, Chanson douce (Lullaby)


My daughter told me I had to be honest about how long this book took me to read. I bought it in French in Paris a year ago, and did little more than dip into it until this summer. I studied French at university, and inspired by that sense of zeal that comes with a nice relaxing holiday I’d thought it would be a great way of refreshing my rusty language skills…

However, I’d underestimated quite how rusty those skills had become, and it took me until I was about 100 pages in before I could read a single page all the way through without the aid of a dictionary. I’m not sure whether that’s because my French had improved just enough, or whether I’d simply become used to Slimani’s vocab preferences.

Slimani was born in Rabat, Morocco, growing up in a French-speaking family. She moved to Paris at the age of 17, and worked as a journalist. Her first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre (‘In the Ogre’s Garden’), appeared in 2014, and won a Moroccan literary award. It was published in the UK in 2019 as Adele. I read that novel, which focuses on a sex-addicted, dissatisfied mother, in English, and enjoyed it, a sort of modern-day Madame Bovaryesque fever dream.

Chanson douce or Lullaby is Slimani’s second published novel, but was the first to appear in English. In France, it was a winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Its massive success in the UK must be partly due to the fact that Slimani has tapped into the anxiety, exhaustion and everyday frustration that (amid the many joys of parenthood) encapsulate the experience of parenting young children.

It must also be down to the fact that once you have read the devastating opening paragraph, you are compelled to read on: “Le bébé est mort. Il a suffi de quelques secondes. Le médecin assuré qu’il n’avait pas souffert. On l’a couché dans une housse grise et on a fait glisser la fermeture éclair sur le corps désarticulé qui flottait au milieu des jouets. La petite, elle, était encore vivante quand les secours sont arrivés. Elle s’est battue comme un fauve. On a retrouvé des traces de lutte, des morceaux de peau sous ses ongles mous. Dans l’ambulance qui la transportait à l’hôpital, elle était agitée, secouée de convulsions. Les yeux exorbités, elle semblait chercher de l’air. Sa gorge s’était emplie de sang. Ses poumons étaient perforés et sa tête avait violemment heurté la commode bleue.”

Motherhood poses a dichotomy: educated, professional women can feel stultified at home with small children, but at the same time pursuing a career is exhausting when combined with broken sleep and running a home. Finances are also an obvious issue. But working generally involves finding paid child care, which means entrusting a stranger with the care of what is most precious. Parental guilt and ambivalence are pervasive – and the 21st century normal.

This novel doesn’t shy away from examining that aspect of femininity (it is still very much a female issue) in excruciating detail, as it invites us into the lives of lawyer Myriam, who lives with her music producer husband Paul and their two children. But it also slowly builds up a detailed picture of the life of disillusionment and everyday misery and poverty of Louise, Myriam and Paul’s nanny.

The descriptions of her time with the family are foreshadowed by the violence to come, and Slimani is a master of metaphor. In the park, Louise takes pictures of the children, Mila and Adam, to show their parents, lying on “un tapis de feuilles mortes, jaune vif ou rouge sang”/”a carpet of dead leaves, bright yellow and blood red”.

Slimani was partly inspired in writing the novel by a double murder case involving two young children in New York in 2012. The children’s nanny was later found guilty of having caused their deaths.

But the novel is also inspired by more personal events in Slimani’s history. During her childhood she was partly raised by a nanny, and in an afterword in the English edition she remembers noticing, at the age of 12, her nanny’s increasing depression and aggression. The nanny had spent 18 years living with the family, and had sacrificed her own chances of marrying and having children.

As an aside, I noticed something while flicking through the English edition, which I found hugely amusing for its reinforcement of stereotypes about the self-control of the appetites of women in Paris. In the French edition is a description of a group of nannies chatting in the local park and “grignotant la fin d’un biscuit au chocolat” (nibbling the end of a chocolate biscuit). In the same scene in the English edition, translated by Sam Taylor, the nannies “nibble chocolate biscuits”. No longer merely the ends, and no longer singular biscuits but several!

The novel is immersive, and Slimani’s style is hypnotic. Marketed as a thriller, the book is not a thriller in the typical sense – the book opens with the children’s murder, and we know the identity of the suspected perpetrator of the crimes from the start. However, the psychological intensity is ramped up little by little in a riveting read that focuses a forensic gaze on unpleasant truths to do with inequality, entitlement and also race that lie at the heart of modern society.

Review no 7: Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (USA)


It might seem like cheating to discuss a book by an American author so early on in this project, when the whole point is surely to open my eyes to other parts of the world. But after reading this short, devastating and immersive book I felt it had earned a place on the blog.

Colson Whitehead’s last novel, ‘The Underground Railroad’, won both the US National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

‘The Nickel Boys’ deals with the physical and metaphorical exhumation of the darkest recesses of USA history, and a part of its history about which I really knew very little.

The author has used as his inspiration the story of the US’s largest reform institution, the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which only closed in 2011. Racially segregated until the late 1960s, the school was dogged by long-standing allegations of abuse. The remains of many young boys were subsequently found in the grounds. A support group has been established by former students of the school.

The spare prose makes clear the horrors of the reform school to which Elwood Curtis, an academically brilliant young black boy, is consigned through a miscarriage of justice. However, the novel is never gratuitous in its evocation of Jim Crow-inspired violence and psychological subjugation. We are given just enough to paint a haunting picture.

The reader is emotionally involved in the plot, which twists and turns engrossingly, and is not without elements of pithy humour.

The novel discusses Martin Luther King‘s ideas and asks how one can challenge systemic racism. This all makes the novel sound very heavy-going and dry, but although it deals with serious issues, it is always a page-turner. This is down to Whitehead’s deft handling of the subject matter, and his application of a light touch where it’s needed.

The Nickel Boys was published earlier this year by Little, Brown, and it is a brilliantly written novel that I would recommend unreservedly.

“This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories.”

Review no 6: Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone (Sierra Leone)


A Long Way Gone is an important and often beautifully written war memoir set during the civil conflict of the 1990s in Sierra Leone.

In choosing books from African writers, I have no desire to reinforce stereotypes about the continent as underdeveloped, war-torn and characterised by widespread famine.

However, I remember a neighbour of mine from Sierra Leone telling me that she hated firework night in the UK as it reminded her of the civil conflict she’d lived through. I was shocked, and sad for her, but I couldn’t begin to imagine what that must have been like.

I also remember reading about the horrors of brutalised, drugged child soldiers when doing research on the international organizations working in particular areas of West and Central Africa in the 1990s for work, and wondered what hope there could be for such children, if they survived their experiences physically.

When I came across this memoir by Ishmael Beah, and saw that it had sold over 600,000 copies worldwide, I was surprised I had never heard of it before.

The book details Ishmael’s normal childhood as a rap-mad kid, whose life is suddenly ripped apart by rebel attacks on his village, and on many others. He is forced to survive day to day, encountering peril from every side, before eventually being enlisted into the army by the age of 12. He becomes dependent both on drugs, including brown brown, a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, and on the perpetration of violence, which he is encouraged to see as a way of avenging his losses.

Ishmael’s horrific experiences are vividly and unflinchingly described, as are his close relationships with some of his fellow kids, and the small kindnesses he encounters amid his nightmarish existence.

Just as compelling and moving as the losses he endures and the endemic brutality, is his rehabilitation with the aid of UNICEF, and his transformation into a human rights activist and political science graduate.

The subject matter means that this is not an easy read, but I think it is an important book, and one I’m glad to have read.

Review no 5: Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Turkey)


I went to see Elif Shafak speak at an event at the British Library recently, and was impressed. A political scientist and champion of minority rights as well as an author, she’s charismatic, beautiful and spoke intelligently of the need for engagement between cultures in order to challenge and break down populist stereotypes and prejudices. She also spoke thought-provokingly about our expectations of literature from other places: for example, our preconceptions mean that we might not expect, say, an Afghan woman to write a work of sci-fi.

Shafak is living in the UK, effectively in exile from her homeland of Turkey, where she remains the country’s most popular female novelist. However, by writing about controversial topics, such as the Armenian genocide, she has come into conflict with the authorities, which also apparently see her engagement in her fiction with topics such as the abuse of children as tantamount to their promotion.

Shafak previously wrote in Turkish, but several years ago began writing in English, which is obviously not her first language. Her mastery of her adopted tongue is impressive.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, published in 2019 by Viking, follows the life of a murdered prostitute, Tequila Leila, through a series of vignettes. These are experienced in time-bending flashback as her mind is shutting down in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her killing.

I don’t like to give too much away in terms of storyline, but the book doesn’t shy away from tackling the various prejudices and abuses suffered by both Tequila Leila and other characters in the novel, and is polemical in preaching a worthwhile message of equality and tolerance. Sometimes, to a liberal Western reader, these points can feel a bit claw-hammered in.

The book is also a celebration of friendship, as despite her hardships, Tequila Leila has been surrounded in her life by a diverse circle of supportive companions.

Amid the often difficult subject matter is also humour, and even slapstick. This is particularly the case during the latter part of the novel, when her friends determine to ensure that Tequila Leila receives an appropriate burial. Although I enjoyed the book overall, I could imagine it might work best as a film. I’m also not wholly convinced that the concept of the book, based on the neurological processes surrounding death, entirely works.

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World is above all a love letter to Istanbul, which is beautifully and sensuously described. The novel has, somewhat surprisingly in my opinion, been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker prize.

Review no 4: Olafur Eliasson, In Real Life

@ Tate Modern, London, UK from July 2019 until January 2020


Olafur Eliasson, born in 1967, is an exciting and accessible contemporary artist, who was brought up in Denmark and Iceland. In the 1990s he moved to Berlin, Germany, where he established the Studio Olafur Eliasson. In 2003 I visited his evocative Weather Project , which filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. I remember visitors sprawled on their backs under a simulated glowing sun, relaxing in a hazy fog.

The exhibition In Real Life is a retrospective covering Eliasson’s career from the early 1990s to the present, and displaying works that ‘elicit and perturb our impressions of colour, light, sound and material’ (Michelle Kuo, MOMA).

I visited the exhibition with my children (aged 10 to 15). It is very much an exhibition to go to with someone else. My youngest daughter was in a ferocious mood, so it didn’t go entirely as I’d planned, but the interactive elements lent themselves to a family day out, and my son, in particular, really engaged with the exhibition and had a great time.

My eldest sneered a bit at Window Projection (1990), which she wrote off as student juvenalia. Beauty (1993), however, shown below, we found really effective: a soaking wet curtain of mist, in a darkened room, through which magical rainbows appear to materialise by means of the effective projection of light.

The exhibition also features a wall of living moss (Moss Wall, 1994), and a 39 metre tunnel suffused with glowing misty light (Din blinde passager or Your blind passenger, 2010), which we had to feel our way along. The exhibition was crowded with excited children, so any contemplative sense was lost from this experience. One (positive!) review I read, however, genuinely likened the process of passing through the tunnel to how the writer imagines it is to die. Presumably they visited in term time!

Eliasson is interested in stimulating the senses, but also in documenting environmental degradation. Over two decades he has taken a series of photographs which details the changing Icelandic landscape. (My copy of the Extinction Rebellion handbook arrives today…)

In Real Life is definitely worth a visit, or probably even two: one with noisy family members, one at opening or closing time with a quiet friend.

Eliasson hasn’t dislodged my favourite Danish artist from the no 1 spot though. The wonderful Vilhelm Hammershøi will always be one of my favourite artists of all time.

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