Wednesday, 31 October 2012

'A Treacherous Likeness' by Lynn Shepherd

First, there was the award-winning Murder at Mansfield Park, which saw Jane Austen’s much-loved classic re-imagined as a riveting Victorian murder mystery.  Then came the darkly gripping Tom-All-Alone’s, a thriller set in the shadow of Dickens’s Bleak House. And now author Lynn Shepherd has done it again with her third outing, A Treacherous Likeness.  Except this time, her fiction centres not on characters and settings from classic Victorian novels, but on real events and real people. 

However, this does not mean that A Treacherous Likeness is in any way less influenced by Victorian literature than her previous efforts.  If anything, it is more so – because the real people on which this novel is based are none other than the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, one-time lover of Lord Byron. 

But I’m in danger of getting ahead of myself.  Let me begin, as they say, at the beginning.
The year is 1850.  Charles Maddox, thief-taker par excellence, has barely recovered from the harrowing climax of his investigation into the Tom-All-Alone’s mystery when he finds himself summoned to the home of Sir Percy Shelley (only surviving son of the long-dead poet) and his crass wife, Lady Jane.  It soon transpires that Charles is required to investigate a rather straightforward case of blackmail – someone has threatened to publish papers relating to Shelley which, if genuine, may cast the poet in a rather unfavourable light (and, indeed, undo the family’s decades-long work in sanitizing his once-dubious reputation).

But, as is always the case in Shepherd’s novels, nothing is what it seems.  It isn’t long before Charles finds himself ensnared in a web of lies and deceit borne out of seething jealously, sibling rivalry and unfulfilled love.  It is a web which stretches through time and space – from 1814 to 1850, from the valleys of Wales, to northern Italy and the shores of Lake Geneva.  It is a web which witnessed the creation of Frankenstein, one of the most celebrated gothic novels ever written, but which could also have given rise to more than one shocking murder.

Drawing on all we currently know about the Shelleys and their turbulent lives, A Treacherous Likeness seeks to fill in the many acknowledged gaps in the factual records.  Told through the eyes on an omniscient, 21st century narrator (who benefits from both hindsight and advancements in our understanding of psychological disorders), this exhaustively-researched and intricately-plotted novel casts this fĂȘted literary family in an entirely different light.

While this is, undeniably, a work of fiction, it is a very compelling fiction – and one that will leave you questioning all you thought you knew about that ‘dazzling but doomed’ generation.

A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd will be published by Corsair in February

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Hollywood Costume at the V&A

“Costume is the most important element of my films.”

This is the assertion made by legendary director, Martin Scorsese, in an interview featured as part of the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition, Hollywood Costume.  Quite a bold pronouncement, even by Scorsese’s standards - and one I was initially tempted to take with a rather large pinch of proverbial salt.  Surely there are other parts of the film-making process which are equally, if not more, important than costume design?  Like casting perhaps, or script-writing, or maybe the all-encompassing process of directing?

However, a few hours spent wandering around the exhibition (or, rather, elbowing my way around – the gallery was packed to capacity) was enough to win me over to Scorsese’s view.  Featuring over 130 costumes from a century of film-making, and guest-curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose design credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blues Brothers, Coming to America, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video), Hollywood Costume is an exercise in promoting the often-overlooked role of costume designers in the movie-making process – an exercise in which it wholly succeeds.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis
But why the need for an exhibition to underscore the talent of Hollywood costumiers in the first place?  Surely, they already receive ample recognition and credit for their achievements?  Well, perhaps this is the case these days – but it wasn’t always thus.  In those halcyon days of early Hollywood, the role of the costume designer was not so much under-appreciated as ignored completely.  Often disregarded as being ‘women’s work’, costume design was, more often than not, referred to dismissively as ‘wardrobe’.  Tellingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only deigned to create an award category for costume design in 1948, despite handing out its first gold 'Oscar' statuettes in 21years earlier, in 1927 – and only then after extensive lobbying from people like the pioneering designer Edith Head.  This meant that, unbelievably, costume designers of such classic films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind (both made in 1939) never received Oscar nominations in recognition of their efforts.

And while attitudes have improved markedly in the intervening decades, costume designers were still being paid up to 33% less than their counterparts in production design as recently as the early 2000s.  Again, this differential seems to run along gender lines – the poorer paid costumiers still tend to be women, while production design is a predominantly male-dominated area.  (Incidentally, Landis succeeded in redressing this inequity when she became President of the Costume Designers Guild in 2001.)

The secret of this exhibition’s success lies in its three-part structure: Act 1, or ‘Deconstruction’, takes us back to basics by examining the beginning of the designers’ creative process and the research necessary to bring a costume to life.  Act 2, or ‘Dialogue’, focuses on the collaboration between the designer, the director and the actors who will eventually inhabit the costumes.  This section features video interviews with the likes of Tim Burton, the aforementioned Scorsese, and those perennial chameleons Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. 
And last, but certainly not least, comes Act 3 or the ‘Finale’.  This is the blockbusting part of this blockbuster exhibition featuring as it does a mind-blowing selection of some of the most celebrated costumes ever to have graced the silver screen. Uma Thurman’s yellow Kill Bill cat suit, Harry Potter’s cloak, Keanu Reeves’s full-length Matrix coat, Rose’s gigantic hat from her first scene in Titanic, Holly Golightly’s black dress and pearls, Dorothy’s simple blue pinafore from The Wizard of Oz – they all take their place in this awe-inspiring costume Hall of Fame.

Indeed, the sheer number of weird and wonderful costumes included in this exhibition leaves one in little doubt as to the integral role these outfits have played in the creation of an iconic movie character.  Would Marilyn’s infamous subway scene have succeeded if it wasn’t for her white billowing dress?  What about Dorothy’s jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road – would it have been quite so memorable without her ruby slippers?  And as for Charlie Chaplin’s tramp – that character has now become inextricably linked to his bowler hat and cane.

Hollywood Costume also brings into stark relief the quality of the workmanship that goes into film costumes.  While some of the exhibits have, inevitably, faded over time (Vivien Leigh’s green curtain dress comes to mind here – so much colour has drained from the fabric that curators have been forced to illuminate it with a green spotlight), others have remained in remarkably good conditions.  In particular, the wonderful sequinned fuchsia creation worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 film, Lady In The Dark, remains as vibrant today as it did 70 years ago – so much so, I initially mistook it as a piece worn by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.

There was always a danger with an exhibition of this sort that the costumes, displayed without their famous erstwhile inhabitants, would look flat and lifeless – after all, Brad Pitt’s Fight Club costume would inevitably look better if Brad Pitt was still in it.  However, the curators have cleverly overcome this problem by displaying the actors’ faces on strategically-place television screens above the headless mannequins –instantly bestowing a semblance of life to the overall image.

But for all its triumphs, this exhibition is not without its faults. 

The lighting of the exhibits is surprisingly hit-and-miss.  In some cases, light has been used to great effect in order to enhance the costume (like Leigh’s green Gone With The Wind curtains), but there are too many instances where the illumination detracts from the effect.  In particular, Johnny Depp’s Demon Barber ensemble is so poorly lit, it is difficult to even recognise the costume, let alone appreciate any of the detail.  Similarly, the choice of black mannequins works well in some cases but not in others, namely when the costume itself was black.  Natalie Portman’s black tutu from Black Swan, for example, is indistinguishable from the black mannequin upon which it displayed (a problem accentuated by the darkness of the gallery).

And finally, why on God’s good earth did the curators decide to mount the superhero costumes in such elevated positions?  Yes, I know that Spiderman likes to scale high buildings, but was it really necessary to re-enact the scene? Ditto for Superman (flying near the ceiling), and Batman and Catwoman (both perched in improbably vertiginous positions).  Such staging eliminates any chance of examining the detail of these hugely influential costume designs.

Which is a great shame – because I doubt we will get such a chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creations again.

High Points: Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp ensemble
Low Points: Inaccessible superheroes, dodgy lighting.

Hollywood Costume is sponsored by Harry Winston (for reasons which will become clear at the end). It runs from 20 Oct to 27 January at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Tickets £15.50 (Concessions and group discounts available). Booking fees apply.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Johnny Depp: Performer, Producer - and Publisher?

Johnny Depp has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Throughout his 28-year film career (yes - it has been that long), his endlessly left-field roles have earned him the enviable reputation of being Hollywood’s most unpredictable chameleon - from the many weird and wonderful characters he has created in collaboration with Tim Burton, to his rum-soaked depiction of Disney pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp seems to pride himself on his changeability.

Indeed, this precocious eccentricity is not just confined to his acting. In his capacity as a fledgling Hollywood producer, Depp recently adapted Hunter S Thompson’s typically off-the-wall novel, The Rum Diary, for the big screen, to somewhat mixed reviews from critics.

And now, just when we thought that his capacity to shock was beginning to wane, JD has done it again. In fact, with his latest career move, which was announced last week, he has delivered his biggest surprise yet – Depp, it seems, is about to try his hand at publishing. And by publishing, we are not referring to the usual run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. Oh no. That would be far too predictable. Johnny, in true Johnny style, has decided to launch a new imprint in conjunction with publishing giant, HarperCollins.

The new HarperCollins off-shoot will bear the same name as Depp’s film production company, Infinitum Nihil, and will promote “outspoken and visionary ideas and voices” and will "deliver publications worthy of people's time, of people's concern. Publications that might ordinarily never have breached the parapet." Among the first titles set to be released by Infinitum Nihil are two music-related volumes; The Unraveled Tales of Bob Dylan by Douglas Brinkley (a book which has, incidentally, received considerable input from its usually reclusive subject) is expected in 2015, while the folk singer Woody Guthrie’s previously unpublished 1947 novel, House of Earth will hit the shelves this coming January.

Reaction to news of Depp’s new venture has been almost universally positive. Many new authors find it difficult to get their work into print – and for those writers who fail to fit into conventional literary niches, the task is nigh-on impossible. But with Depp at the helm of Infinitum Nihil, hopes are high that this new imprint will come to their rescue. Indeed, any initiative that attempts to breathe new life into the staid and increasingly short-sighted book industry can only be positive.

Let’s hope Mr Depp doesn’t disappoint.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Yellowism - A New Definition for Vandalism?

Sunday is usually the busiest day of the week for most of London’s art galleries and museums.  In addition to the ever-present throng of tourists, Sunday is the day when city dwellers, freed of the shackles of the working week and the tyranny of Saturday chores, venture out to explore all that London has to offer.

And for the Tate Modern, that temple on the banks of the Thames dedicated to the worship of modern and contemporary art, this past Sunday was no exception.  From the time the doors swung open at 10am, the crowds began to build, with attendance reaching its zenith by mid-afternoon.

But, as it turned out, this particular Sunday was to prove rather more exceptional that anyone at Tate Modern could possibly have predicted.  Because, unbeknownst to the overworked museum staff and the hordes of jaded art lovers elbowing their way around the various exhibition spaces that make up gallery’s cavernous interior, one man stood poised and ready to commit the ultimate act of vandalism – the defacement of one of the world’s most valuable works of art.

Tate Modern's Rothko Room
The target was Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958), one of a series of large murals (originally commissioned by the Seagram beverage company to adorn the walls of the company’s premises in Park Avenue, New York) which the artist bequeathed, free of charge, to the Tate in 1969.  This bequest was to prove something of a boon for Tate curators, especially considering the murals are now thought to be worth in the region of £50 million each.  And now, one of their number was about to be vandalized.

By 3.25pm, the deed was done.  Brandishing a brush and black paint, the culprit calmly (and in full view of anyone who happened to be passing), tagged Black on Maroon with the words ‘Vladimir Umanets ’12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism’.  Ironically, the defacer seems to have misjudged the space required because the graffiti was executed rather clumsily – the words were squished into the lower right-hand corner of the mural, while the runny paint dribbled messily into tiny black rivulets on the purple-hued canvas. 
The defaced canvas
Witnesses immediately raised the alarm, and the gallery was closed briefly while police were called in to investigate – albeit too late to ensnare the vandal, who had already fled the scene.  But considering Vladimir Umanets had used his real name in the cryptic message scrawled on Rothko’s canvas, it wouldn’t prove overly difficult for Scotland Yard’s finest to track him down …

And track him down they did.  The following evening, Sussex Police arrested Mr Umanets, a Polish national, in Worthing - and having been transferred into the custody of the Met Police, he was charged on suspicion of criminal damage.

Umanets has made no attempt to deny the allegations, freely admitting that he is the culprit.  He does, however, deny that he is a vandal, preferring instead to believe his actions have furthered the cause of the hitherto unheard-of Yellowism movement (of which, Umanets is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a founding member).
Umanets (R) with his Yellowism co-founder

So, what exactly is Yellowism?  A new art movement?  Or is it an anti-art statement?  Well, neither, apparently.  According to Umanets himself, "Yellowism is not art, and Yellowish isn't anti-art. It's an element of contemporary visual culture. It's not an artistic movement.  It's not art, it's not reality, it's just Yellowism. It can't be presented in a gallery of art, it can be presented only in Yellowistic chambers.  The main difference between Yellowism and art is that in art you have got freedom of interpretation, in Yellowism you don't have freedom of interpretation. Everything is about Yellowism - that's it.”

Confused? I certainly was. The art world is often guilty of adopting affected and grandiose vocabulary – but this opaque description of Yellowism was one of the most perplexing I have ever come across. I have, however, endeavoured to translate it for you, dear reader, into the following definition which may be somewhat easier to understand:

Yellowism is an undefinable, abstract movement borne out of an over-fertile, deluded, and most likely unhinged imagination. It has no obvious function except to increase the public profile (and consequently the income opportunities) of the owner of said imagination by engaging in the destruction of genuine works of art.
So there you have it. However, don’t expect this definition to enter the OED any time soon - after all, vandalism by any other name is still vandalism.

Friday, 5 October 2012

The Company of Artists

The Company of Artists is new book by Charles Saumarez Smith which charts the origins of London's most venerable artistic institution, the Royal Academy of Arts.

My review for History In An Hour here: