Prospect recommends

April 23, 2014

“It begins with a bang”: Jia Zhangke’s film A Touch of Sin


Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation Tate Britain, from 20th May

With the BBC planning to remake Civilisation, Tate Britain’s timing could not be better for this celebration of Kenneth Clark, the creator of that groundbreaking 1969 documentary series. Perhaps the single most influential figure in the visual arts in Britain in the middle of the 20th century, Clark, born in 1903, did everything possible to promote the art he admired. He was an eclectic, opportunistic but discerning collector, as this exhibition shows, gathering art from Ancient Rome, Egypt and Tang Dynasty China alongside masterpieces by Renoir and Degas; acquiring works by Bellini and other Renaissance artists but also paintings by English landscape artists such as Constable.

Clark was a generous and influential patron, supporting artists from the Bloomsbury Group, the Euston Road School and, later, Henry Moore and Victor Pasmore. As the youngest ever Director of the National Gallery from 1934, however, he discovered his ultimate vocation in public education, a commitment deepened by the horror of the Second World War. He said of the collapse of Roman civilisation: “It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.” It was this fear that drove his brilliance as a teacher, as a founding member and Chairman of the Arts Council and, ultimately, as a broadcaster.

Emma Crichton-Miller


A Touch of Sin On release from 16th May

It begins with a bang: shots on a dusty road in Shanxi province, big guy on a motorbike gazing at red fruit spilt by an overturned truck. We’re in a corrupt mining town, watching a lone gunman with a righteous cause. It all seems to presage a shoot-’em-up movie. But the writer/director is Jia Zhangke and the bloodshed is far from random. His subject, in four lightly connected segments, is the cause of the pervasive violence that saturates life in the rural China he depicts. The stories are based on reported events; his protagonists are workers—in mines, assembly lines or massage parlours—surviving in a world of extremes, getting by while others get rich quick.

Though initially discouraged by his producer from this bleak critique of China’s commercialism, or at least of the cold monopoly of the wealthy, Jia went on to win best screenplay at Cannes. Graceful in execution, detailed (yet not fussy) in setting and performance, provocative in its blend of stylised action and realism, the film engages while it unsettles.

Francine Stock


La Bohème Opera North, touring from 29th April

More than two decades has passed since Phyllida Lloyd unveiled her radical production of La Bohème for Opera North. Swapping the tattered dresses and threadbare frock coats of the late 19th century for polo necks and jeans, it is set on the cusp of the 1960s, complete with beret-wearing Left Bank intellectuals, visual references to Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, and a palpable sense of Nouvelle Vague rebellion. While Anthony Ward’s designs—including a slowly disintegrating motorbike—display a cinematic flair, Lloyd’s visionary canvas extends far beyond the clichéd tropes of boho Paris, investing Puccini’s evergreen opera with a sense of immediacy. Above all, it reveals the core of the work as a story about a new and questing generation. Smaller in scale than Francesca Zambello’s recent Albert Hall 1940s-set production, Lloyd’s Bohème has a stronger sense of youthful idealism that makes the tragedy all the more poignant. Sometimes an updated production of a traditional classic comes along that is so perfect you wonder why nobody ever thought of it before.

Neil Norman


A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution V&A Museum, from 1st May

So much of the work done by the V&A is in conservation, where “arts and crafts” usually means William Morris wallpaper and Walter Crane book design. This free exhibition tells the story of a different sort of arts and crafts, focusing on posters that urge social change and aim to disrupt rather than conserve. The opening date—May Day—is suggestively provocative, and begins a season exploring the way protest shapes design.

Of the 70 or so posters on display here, some have become cultural touchstones. A poster from the Suffrage Atelier—the printing workshop founded in support of the Women’s Social and Political Union—shows men entering a polling station to vote, while distinguished women (an artist, a graduate, a mayoress) wait outside, their clothes picked out in the recognisable WSPU colours of purple and green. This resonates with the violent bright green of a later feminist poster. Entitled “Protest,” it was made in 1974 in the See Red Women’s Workshop, an organisation that promoted poster-making as a form of empowerment. The exhibition is brought up to date with “digital posters” from Ukraine, poster-like images that spread on the internet during the protests in Kiev. The curators even used social media to gather some of their material, sourcing images of placards through Twitter.

Laura Marsh


The Testament of MaryBarbican, 1st to 25th May

Colm Tóibín’s Man Booker Prize- shortlisted novella, just 81 pages long, is a haunting meditation by Mary, the mother of Christ, living alone in Ephesus after the crucifixion, steering clear of the Gospel writers and the disciples whom she describes as a group of misfits unable to look a woman in the eye.

Originally conceived as a dramatic monologue, the piece was first performed in 2011, and then expanded into the novella. Last year, Barbican Associate Director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw returned the work to its theatrical origin, shaking up Broadway with a staging that featured Shaw initially revealed in a large transparent cube surrounded by votive candles. There was also a live vulture involved.

That production is further modified for the Barbican and promises to mark another signal chapter in Shaw and Warner’s partnership, following their astonishing collaborations on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Testament presents Mary as a tragic heroine who goes from reluctant icon to confused virgin to bereaved mother, and Shaw’s raw stage presence will be the ideal match for Tóibín’s rhythmic, muscular prose.

Michael Coveney