Martin Smith’s ENO birthday celebrations Martin Smith, the meddling chairman of the English National Opera, has had a disastrous press, and it is doubtful that the appointment of Se?n Doran as artistic director will improve things. Doran is an unknown quantity and, arriving from the Perth Arts Festival, conspicuously lacks the experience of a great artistic director. It will take a while for Smith to regain the public goodwill he squandered in his personality clash with ousted ENO general director Nicholas Payne. But now that the fuss is over, it’s worth remembering that Payne’s contract was up for renewal anyway in 2004 and, as Smith celebrates his 60th birthday by conducting the Messiah (for which he has been taking conducting lessons), serious congratulations are in order. His vindication is the staggering scale of the Arts Council of England’s ?12m rescue for the ENO. Smith has found the key to the organisation’s long-term health. Soon, nobody will doubt the depth of his musical involvement and his passionate commitment to a range of organisations: ENO being the latest in a line that includes the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Prussia Cove, and the Bath MozartFest.
The ENO’s tendency for disastrous deficit stems from the kind of large-scale work everyone wants it to do at the Coliseum, with funding implications that have never been properly acknowledged by the Arts Council. Occasional surpluses have long helped disguise the reality that artistic ambition and accessible ticket prices require increased subsidy-about ?1m more annually. Smith is grasping the nettle. Hence the determination to cut staff by around 30 per cent. There are strings attached to the rescue, but ENO’s board, with Smith setting a personal example, have earned brownie points by chipping in ?7m of their own cash towards the current refurbishment. Transforming the vast dowdy balcony should push ticket sales towards 90 per cent of capacity, rather than the current 67 per cent. The ENO is not extravagant. Most of its staff are paid peanuts: exploited for their ferocious loyalty. Altering contracts and perhaps achieving Sunday performances, without the extra pay unions have always demanded, will impress this government. A debt-free ENO can prove its artistic and financial responsibility. It’s not El Dorado. But a stable ENO future will be a bankable achievement for the company’s thin-skinned chairman.
Prospect to blame for short story decline Here at Prospect, we recently found our amour propre being pricked by a Times “T2” cover story lamenting the decline of the British short story. “In the UK, there is no equivalent to the New Yorker, Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly,” explained the article’s author, Debbie Taylor. How we huffed and puffed about that. (Has Taylor read an issue of Harper’s lately?) Then we calmed down and admitted that, even if The Times wouldn’t know one literary-political generalist’s magazine from another, Taylor was right about the short story crisis. No one in Britain publishes them, no one reads them and, as a result, most writers probably aren’t very good at them any more (though who’d know?) And the problem? Magazines like Prospect don’t run short fiction regularly (we publish a miserable three a year). In fact, since there aren’t many other magazines around to blame (Granta only comes out four times a year), we’ve decided that it is, in fact, all our fault. We look forward to the results of research by Northern Arts into the reasons for the death of the story, followed by some harsh self-flagellation on our part. Then we’ll work out how to publish a short story in every issue.
No more blockbuster exhibitions for 2003 Is it the end of the blockbuster show? The National Gallery’s “Titian” and the V&A’s “Art Deco” are aiming only quite big in 2003 and are unlikely to rival the box office of last year’s “Aztecs” success at the RA (which itself has nothing further planned at this scale). Where is this year’s “Matisse Picasso”? Tate Modern’s big show is a retrospective of Max Beckmann, an exciting artist, but no crowdpuller. Why are these institutions struggling to secure more barnstormers? It’s the war, of course. Financial instability is biting into sponsorship for transport, installation and conservation costs. As the value of works increases, the insurance premiums go up, which makes some private lenders increasingly cautious about moving their collections. Still, this may not be a bad thing. New constraints mean that curators are thinking more laterally and thematically. Tate Britain’s “Constable to Delacroix: British Art and the French Romantics,” charting the links between France and Britain in the post-Napoleonic years, shows that intellectual rigour doesn’t need to grandstand to be noticed.
Hytner in Dartford Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre’s new director, made it clear at the razzledazzle press launch for his new season that education was top of his agenda. “Absolutely,” he exclaimed. “I’ve already been to the theatre in Dartford…” This will be a source of rejoicing for the people of Dartford. But less so for staff at the Albany Theatre in Deptford, which is where the National’s education project is based.
Neuroscientist’s dance The Royal Opera House has put a scientist, Dr Patrick Haggard, on the payroll as part of a new inclusive, interdisciplinary project called ROH2. A reader in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, Haggard will be investigating the brain processes behind dance. Hmm.
ART PREVIEW: You look beautiful like that
In colonised west Africa, commercial photography first took off in the 1930s, a crucial period in portraiture. In Germany, August Sander had embarked on an extraordinary photographic project to document every type of German-tradesmen, Nazis, artists, students, priests. Sander described his project as a “physiognomic image of an age” and it showed nothing of the convulsions of the times; at least, not directly. He merely provided full-length portraits, noting the poses people took, how they held their cigarettes, how they wore their uniforms. Associated with the neue sachlichkeit (new objectivity) artists such as Otto Dix, Sander out-objectified them all and provided a blueprint for many photographers, from Richard Avedon to the currently f?ted Dusseldorf school, which includes Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky.
Sander’s work remains the first place to look if you are wondering how much one can learn about someone from a photographic portrait. The question-to which the answer tends to oscillate maddeningly between “nothing” and “a very great deal”-becomes urgent when asked of two men who took up photography in Mali: Seydou Ke?ta and Malick Sidib?, whose work is being shown at the National Portrait Gallery.
At first glance, Ke?ta and Sidib?’s portraits from the three decades after the second world war appear to have been cracked from the Sander mould: most are full-body portraits posed with props designed to tell us about the subjects. But “objective” is the last thing they are. These are society portraits-not in Sander’s anthropological meaning of “society,” but in the flattering, John Singer Sargent sense: “You look beautiful like that.” This style of portraiture, in which both Ke?ta and Sidib? were innovators, caught on in west Africa like wildfire. You can feel an excitement about photography in the faces of their subjects. Sidib? explained that a person’s likeness was regarded by west Africans as more eternal than the subjects themselves.
This charming idea explains the lengths Malians went to look their best in these photos. And yet something of Sander’s objectivity still shines through their craven thraldom to artifice. A great truth emerges from these people’s longing to be beautiful, to be remarked upon, to be remembered. The kind of vanity that is expressed implies not a mere self, but a whole community. All this longing is tenderly caught-knowingly, one feels-by Ke?ta and Sidib?. Objective? The camera, in good hands, can’t help itself.
Sebastian Smee National Portrait Gallery, London, from 5th March
UNDER THE RADAR Low frequency listings
Alfredo Catalani’s Alpine opera La Wally is rarely staged, perhaps because of its yodelling song. On 23rd March the Chelsea Opera Group do a concert version at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall; all the music, none of the snow.
Forget the Venice Biennale; in Art Sheffield 03, 50 artists take over the city for three weeks from 20th March. Tony Kemplen turns urban clamour into birdsong while Ben Long uses dirty white vans as canvases.
Ted Hughes’s favourite theatre company Northern Broadsides pip the National to the post, reviving Henry V from 26th February at The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax.
An official war artist who flirted with Surrealism, Richard Eurich is always underrated. The Millais Gallery, Southampton, mounts a rare retrospective, from 14th March.
French-Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay’s latest haunting memory play, If Only…, has been translated into Scots for a production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 23rd March.
Captivating kathak dancer Anurekha Ghosh and mischievous choreographer Mark Baldwin present Moments of Give at the Contact Theatre, Manchester, on 7th March and London’s Clore Studio from 18th March.