Archive for May, 2009

Fin de Siècle: Read all About It!

May 21, 2009

by Mel Cooper

Philip Hook, The Ultimate Trophy: How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World Prestel, UK £17.99

Rainer Metzger, Munich, its Golden Age of Art and Culture, 1890 to 1920, Thames & Hudson, UK £24.95

They are household words now, but Impressionism, the Blue Rider, the Viennese Secession, and Expressionism once represented a series of violent revolutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that forever changed the way we see light and form. The rebellion was worldwide, but France and Germany/Austria were the most influential hotbeds of then-young Turks wielding paint and chisel in their war against complacency. Two books just published in London revive the excitement.

Philip Hook concentrates on Impressionism as part of an overall shift in the philosophy of what art can be. “It wasn’t an isolated event: looked at in the European context, it was simply the most significant and sustained of the rebellions… Across the continent official, academic art had grown stale and moribund.” Hook, (who is also a writer of thrillers, and knows how to keep us turning pages) has a “day job” as Senior Director of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art department. He has also worked for years as an international dealer. With an insider’s knowledge of both art history and the marketplace for art, Hook gives a vivid and accessible account of Impressionism’s erratic beginnings and the history of its ultimate acceptance around the world. impressionism__SL500_AA240_The book also gets our attention with a compelling discussion of the essence of Impressionist work: “…flooded with light and with a capacity to lift the spirits”. Full of anecdotes about the artists and the art speculators, this is a lively read. My only quibble is that most of the illustrations are in black and white, and I wonder at the grammar of the subtitle: How the Impressionist Painting Conquered the World.

My recommendation for the Germanic side of the story is Rainer Metzger’s Munich, its Golden Age of Art and Culture 1890-1920. It details the city’s fascinating contribution to the history of Modernism when Munich was a magnet for avant-garde artists that rivalled Vienna and Berlin as the capital of a new German culture. This book has 466 well-chosen images (387 in color!), and the combination of text and visuals really gives immediacy to the culture of the time and place. munich__SL500_AA240_Metzger explains Munich’s sovereignty for those who “preferred the expansion of the mind to that of the purse…,” i.e. Munich to its arch-rival, Berlin, or the even more bourgeois Vienna. In fact, Metzger’s central thesis is that “Munich’s golden age at the turn of the century was characterized by its efforts to counter the attractions of Berlin.” The translation by David H Wilson is colloquial and easy to read. Each chapter is an essay on a theme, and the copious, and relevant, illustrations add depth and perspective to the story being told.

The book is a perfect example of how Thames and Hudson’s memorable, beautifully-produced coffee table books have been combining real substance with gorgeous images for decades (they are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year). If you are interested in the fin-de-siècle culture of 1900, its upheavals, and still-pervasive influence, and even if you think you’ve seen it all, Metzger and Hook are for you.

Cooper’s London

May 17, 2009

April/May 2009 in London
Mel Cooper: What to See


One man’s nostalgia is another man’s straitjacket! Right now in London’s time warp, you’ll find mostly old American musicals, more-or-less revived. But, when in England, try the English product? For starters, don’t miss the visually arresting Sam Mendes production of Oliver!, deftly revived at the Drury Lane by his original assistant, Rupert Goold, with a memorable cast. It’s a fabled history-laden venue for. a great night out. Get there early for some shopping in nearby Covent Garden market. Meantime, down the street at the Novello, the American rock musical based on Wedekind’s Spring Awakening has transferred from the Lyric Hammersmith. A clone of the recent New York production, it features high-energy young talent at their best.

Cage aux follesLa Cage aux Folles continues in a new, scaled-down production at the well-hidden Playhouse next to the Embankment tube station and is worth seeking out. It stars, at the moment, the BBC America chat show host, Graham Norton, as Albin. He hams it up, using his TV persona for the comic stuff (which has the audience in stitches because of the recognition factor) and is remarkably touching in the quieter or more powerful moments, especially his musical show-stoppers. There is evidence he can really act; though his singing is, at best, courageous. On 4 May, the superlative Roger Allam and Philip Quast take over the lead roles.

Cage is a transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory. Always check what’s on there when you’re in London. It’s an excellent off-West End theatre near London Bridge, known for tasteful revivals of classic material, especially musicals. Meal Deal: you can eat decently in the restaurant before the show if you book with the tickets. Note that the Menier version of A Little Night Music, directed by Trevor Nunn no less, has just transferred to the Garrick Theatre. The Menier team proves over and over again that these musicals have a life beyond big-buck productions.


The Donmar Warehouse near Covent Garden still attracts the UK’s best actors and directors at for the love of the work. It was Sam Mendes’ home base for years, and the current regime, under his successor Michael Grandage, continues to incubate “don’t miss” productions. Michael Sheen did his Caligula there, Nicole Kidman her Blue Room, and not long ago they mounted the best The Little Foxes I’ve ever seen, with a powerful and subtle Penelope Wilton as Regina.

This year they’ve opened a second home at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End. After Kenneth Branagh as Ivanov and Derek Jacobi as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the new venue is presenting the Yukio Mishima play Madame de Sade,judidench directed by Grandage. Starring an all-female cast (including Judi Dench, Rosamund Pike, Frances Barber and Deborah Findlay), Madame de Sade focuses on women affected by the marquis’s infamous debauchery. Of course it’s sold out. But if you want to see Dench on stage, live – and how often do you get to do that? – working with some of the best actresses in the UK today — try for returns just for the hell of it. (It’s on till May 23.) On the other hand, if what you want is more about de Sade, read At Home With the Marquis De Sade: A Life by Francine du Plessix Gray. The book is gripping. The play plods.

Next up: Donmar’s West End Hamlet with Jude Law judelaw
(29 May to 22 August). Book this one now! Go to: http:////

NB: Hamlet, and Jude Law, are coming to New York in September of 2009. Book this one now, too!

I liked the extremely strong revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Duke of York’s with Ken Stott, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Hayley Atwell, directed by double Olivier Award-winner, Lyndsay Posner. The staging conveys a strong sense of the place and time of the story and the performers give a master class in ensemble acting. It’s a good chance to experience the strengths of Arthur Miller’s writing away from his home turf.

Another don’t-miss choice: the Kneehigh Company from Cornwall performing their version of the Don Juan myth, Don John, updated to 1978 and that year’s UK discontents, and playing now at the Battersea Arts Centre. Also consider trying HighTide, a company currently performing Stovepipe by Adam Bruce in the Shepherd’s Bush shopping Centre. Spoiler alert: it will dragoon you and make you part of the site-specific show.

Finally, it’s unlikely to get much better than this: a new production of Becket’s Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket….staring Pg-14-Godot-gusov_150838sIan McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup! It opens April 30, and you really need to book early with this dream cast!



On Thursday 16 April, Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky continues his complete Rachmaninoff cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra playing the Second Piano Concerto under Jukka-Pekka Saraste. (The programme includes Stravinsky’s Firebird. Lugansky won the International Tchaikovsky competition in 1994. Compelling, big-souled, often technically courageous and surprising, he is in the tradition of the great Russian pianists. And he’s a heartthrob in the bargain!

Of special interest: pianist Lang Lang of the crystalline-perfect (some say ice cube-cold) technique (with the LSO) giving a series of master classes, recitals and concerto works from 18 – 26 April as part of the Barbican’s festival of music from China, Beyond the Wall.

At Wigmore Hall, a wonderful venue with legendary acoustics for smaller scale music-making, my best bet for the month is the Vienna Piano Trio on 12 and 14 April. I also plan to hear two of today’s finest chamber music artists, Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, on 25 April.

The Royal Ballet has a lovely Giselle and its famous Swan Lake in repertoire at Covent Garden; and the Royal Opera is reviving Verdi’s great Il Trovatore with a cast that worries me (except for Dmitri Hvorostovsky), but led by conductor, Carlo Rizzi, in whom I have utter confidence. I have confidence too in the director of this production: Elijah Moshinsky, regularly underrated by UK critics. You might want to start looking ahead to Covent Garden’s Lohengrin, Un Ballo in Maschera, a brilliantly cast Barber of Seville and, of course, Das Ring
in July.

In April, while the home of the English National Opera (the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane) is occupied by dance companies, the ENO itself takes up its annual residence at the small-scale Young Vic Theatre — a venue always to be checked when you’re coming to London. Do not confuse it with the Old Vic! Luckily they are only 200 yards apart on the same street, so if you go in the wrong door, you can run like hell and still make curtain time!

For the 350th anniversary of composer Henry Purcell’s birth, the ENO and Young Vic are creating After Dido, an original film and theatre performance directed by Katie Mitchell. Now in her mid-40s, Mitchell has a talent to really polarise UK audiences. mitch460Known for imposing a strong personal vision on everything she does, she creates intensely emotional productions. She studied with Lev Dodin in St Petersburg and is heavily influenced by Eastern European theatrical traditions. After Dido will employ an ensemble of singers and actors using cameras, lights and sound effects as counterpoint while the full score of the opera is performed live. Whatever After Dido turns out to be, I predict it will be fascinating — and possibly also infuriating. The run is limited: 15 – 25 April, and tickets are selling fast. Book at:

A very egalitarian place; arrive early, because the seats are not numbered. Start queuing for the auditorium about half an hour before curtain time if you want a good seat; but it’s an intimate space, reconfigured for each show, and there are very few bad spots. If you go, remember that the Young Vic restaurant serves excellent cheeseburgers!

%d bloggers like this: