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DEGAS AND THE BALLET

Picturing Movement

Royal Academy

17 September–11 December 2011 Admission £14, concessions available

DEGAS’ WORKING life splits in three; apprenticeship, the Realist Impressionist years and the final period where pastel and sculpture predominate. The dance was one of the themes of his maturity and the great theme of his last years. Even so, the Academy’s show of nothing but dance pictures gives an almost claustrophobic sense of the great artist’s concentration on the movement and posture of dancers. Visitors who come drawn by the promise of sugary daubs will be disappointed, but that’s nothing new with Degas.

So, there are wonderful pictures here but this is not dance prettified nor dramatized in a Black Swan sort of way – Degas despised vulgarity in art, his humanity ran much deeper. The best exhibits are the drawings and the pastels and the bronzes. By contrast, the oils are not the famous ones. That may be because there is, I think, only one picture from the pre-eminent Degas collection in the Musée d’Orsay. While there are many and generous loans from private collections and American museums, there is a no picture which stands out as a coup de théâtre. We have to look to find the show’s treasures.

Perhaps to make up for this and catch the unwary populace, the curators emphasize the importance of photography to Degas. It is well known that Degas was interested in photography and there are photos which he took of dancers. But photography came late in his career. His constant practice over many years was close observation and drawing direct from life.

Degas the draughtsman saw himself as a pupil of Ingres. There are a number of very fine drawings in the show, notably one of a dancer bending forward, the braiding of her hair and its iridescent colour brought out through turquoise chalk. In this Degas is like another great French draughtsman, Watteau. The way Degas reused poses and drawings was also something which Watteau did. And the show effectively brings together drawings which were then copied and worked up into different pictures, sometimes subtracting figures from a group, usually changing the dominant colours. This is a much more significant aspect of Degas’ practice than photography and an important way into his artistic vision.

Alongside Degas the draughtsman there is Degas the colourist, and here he was influenced by Ingres’ great rival Delacroix. The oils on show do not really bring this out. Rather it is the late pastels which blaze out in chromatic reds and violets and greens and reds. The colours are blended by the artist’s own hand so that their texture is part of the painting, or set against each other in vivid and jarring distinction. Perhaps the best example of this is of two dancers resting, the one work from the d’Orsay. The brilliant pale blue of the tutus of two exhausted dancers is set against a fading background. The drawing hung alongside shows the standard pose out of which Degas composed this picture, while further along we see another version with more figures which the artist pared down to make the d’Orsay’s purer and more austere picture.

This pureness and austerity of Degas’ final period reflects his return again and again to the tradition of ancient Greece, at least as he understood it. We shouldn’t label all his late works classical. His pictures of Russian dancers were made at this time; this was after all almost the time of the Ballets Russes, though Degas’ pictures are more standard Russian peasant dancing. And they are not as good nor as focused as the simpler, pictures of ballet dancers.

The classicism of the late pictures is not easy to define. Degas took classical elements and a classical feel and used them in his own way. This had begun with one of his few historical paintings, the National Gallery’s Young Spartans. Among the oil paintings this frieze effect is also seen in pictures of dancers preparing for a show of which there are interesting examples here. But the clearest ‘classical’ elements are the obsessive emphasis on posture and movement, which takes Degas to the heart of dance, and the removal of extraneous detail, such as the features of his dancers.

The show presents this most clearly in Degas’ sculpture. In the 1890s sculpture became as important for Degas as painting or drawing and the meticulous care with which he tried to capture movement in wax had a profound effect on his later pictures. One of the most successful rooms in the show presents studies for these maquettes – they were only turned into bronze after Degas’ death – notably a sequence in which he shows a dancer in arabesque. His dancers are sculpted into a pure expression of controlled, joyous movement. They are set alongside a contemporary and rather plodding bronze of a bird in flight. It shows just how great an artist Degas is compared to turgid naturalists.

The one sculpture which Degas did display in his lifetime was the Little Dancer, a copy of which is on show. J.-K. Huysmans compared it to the Spanish religious images of the kind displayed at the National Gallery’s show of seventeenth-century hyper-realism and the techniques are not entirely different. But even in this work, splendidly displayed with working drawings around it, Degas’ own take on classicism shows through. The dancer, like almost all his dancers, has a round, flat face, with a pointy nose but otherwise no real features. It is hard to remember that Degas was one of the great portraitists of the nineteenth century. And, just as in his later nudes, there is a complete lack of the erotic in Degas’ vision. He sees posture and movement which he had the skill and tenacity to capture with a magnificent obsession. Degas does not give us the drama of the dance, but the humanity of the dancer.

Owen Higgs

 

OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM

A History and Meditation in Words and Music

The Music Makers/Schola Cantamus, directed by Jeremy de Satgé

£12.75

THE MUSIC Makers have produced a fine disc celebrating in music and words the history of Walsingham in this 950th anniversary year. Laced with short bursts of mixed voiced plainchant interspersed among hymns, anthems and narration, the disc transports the listener to the ethereal surroundings of the tranquillity of pilgrimages to north Norfolk.

A wise and insightful commentary is provided by Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, summarizing the peaks and troughs in the turbulent history of pilgrims at the shrine. This narration provides an engaging account of the history of Walsingham, brought to life with notes from Erasmus’s visit of 1511 through to reflections on the present day from local residents. It also furnishes the disc with a useful educational underlay, something that may well prove a welcome introduction to those making their first visit to either shrine.

Aside from the plainchant, there is a splendid collection of Marian hymns; some familiar (perhaps more for their tunes), some not. Though the hymn form may not be music’s most beautiful achievement, the delivery of them by the Schola Cantamus is gratifyingly coloured by a variety of choral textures. Use of the organ is limited too, enabling the words to remain at the forefront of the texture.

Of the choral works, only one is what one might call mainstream: the perfectly formed Magnificat from the Short Service by Orlando Gibbons. Dufay’s Ave Regina caelorum may well make claim to this status too, if only for its (sadly much underperformed) composer’s academically canonical position.

It is, however, the standout choral track of the disc, perhaps for being best suited to the one per part voicing of the Schola Cantamus. This is not to take away from the arrangements of their director, Jeremy de Satgé, who skilfully adds colour to plainchant melody in various liturgical arrangements. There is also a recording of Lady of Walsingham, once Queen of England, the words and music both composed by the celebrated plainchant expert, the late Mary Berry.

Both as a collection of music from the Catholic liturgy and as an historical guide to Walsingham pilgrimages, Our Lady of Walsingham is a welcome disc that should be commended to, and enjoyed by, all visitors to that part of Norfolk loved by so many.

Christian Stobbs

 

O VIRGO BENEDICTA

Music of Marian Devotion from Spain’s Century of Gold

The Marian Consort / Rory McLeery Delphian Records DD34086, £9.99

THE MARIAN Consort is an Oxford-based group of young singers which specializes in Renaissance and Baroque music. They have performed w i d e l y throughout the UK and were finalists in the 2009 York Early Music Festival International Young Artists’ Competition. This, their first CD, was recorded in Oxford and features primarily music from the Spanish Counter-Reformation in honour of Our Lady. The CD follows the Marian Consort’s usual practice of singing one voice to a part, which makes for a precise, almost ascetic rendition of this beautiful music.

The director (and countertenor), Rory McCleery, coaxes an impressively wide range of emotions from his singers, the result being an album which is at once intimate and intense. One shuts one’s eyes and does not need much imagination to be transported to High Mass in the Seville Cathedral of the late sixteenth century, where the up-and-coming Alonso Lobo was serving as assistant to the ageing Master of the Music, Francisco Guerrero. Both composers are represented on this disc, with extracts from Lobo’s Parody Mass of his master’s motet Maria Magdalene featuring alongside the motet itself. It would in fact have been good to have the rest of the Mass included here, as the Kyrie, Sanctus and Benedictus are very beautiful and were completely new to me. The motet itself is a setting of verses from the Resurrection account of Matthew 28. Thus, depending on the view one takes of ‘the other Mary’ of Matthew 28.1, it might be argued that this is not actually Marian music! This is acknowledged in the case of Sebastian de Vivanco’s O Sacrum Convivium, which the cover notes tell us is included because of its ‘function as a devotional motet ... sung between the Sanctus and Benedictus’.

The notes themselves are entertaining and informative, though one wonders whether it was strictly necessary to suggest, in a CD of Marian devotional music, by an ensemble who have adopted the name of Our Lady, to suggest that Marian devotion supplied ‘a needed goddess, the feminine element, to the realms ofdivinity’. Bruno Turner, their author, is on safer ground when he concludes that in any case ‘musicians revelled in her image’. This point is well proved by settings of texts as varied as the Regina Caeli, the O Virgo Benedicta of the disc’s title, a beautiful Magnificat by de Vivanco, and a setting by the ever-wonderful Guerrero of Luke 2.15–19, Pastores loquebantur. Full translations of the texts are provided for those (like me) whose Latin is not as proficient as it should be. As this fine CD shows, Our Lady has been a source of inspiration to composers down the ages and continues to attract and intrigue musicians of distinction today.

Peter Westfield

 

GREAT CHRISTIAN THINKERS

From The Early Church Through The Middle Ages Pope Benedict XVI SPCK, 328pp, pbk

978 0281064748, £12.99

 

HERE IS a volume from SPCK of addresses given by Pope Benedict XVI during his General Audiences 2007– 10. It follows an identical publication from Fortress Press in the United States as well as several similar collections covering much of the same material from Ignatius Press (Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church; Church Fathers; Church Fathers and Teachers).

The Holy Father provides concise and erudite introductions to seventy significant Christian thinkers in the pre-Reformation (apostolic to medieval) era, from St Clement of Rome to Julian of Norwich.

Great Christian Thinkers is far more than an encyclopaedia or dictionary: key ideas from those considered are time and again related to contemporary ecclesiastical concerns. Pope Benedict lays emphasis on issues such as the relation of bishops to the see of Peter, and indeed also to their priests and people. He also draws on the teachings of these thinkers in relation to the Church and secular culture, and articulates a defence of a properly Christian historical method.

Topics covered include Trinitarian theology, Christology, ethics and spirituality. A recognizably ‘Benedictine’ definition of catholicity is derived from the work of the Venerable Bede. In an address on St Boniface, apostle to the Germans, the Pope’s repeated call for the evangelization of culture is powerfully defended.

Nor are these dry, academic portraits: throughout the book Benedict speaks of each of his subjects as ‘a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, with his fresh and timely faith’. Frequent references are made to the teachings of Pope John Paul II.

The majority of these portraits are made over just two or three pages; however, the Pope returns to some figures over the course of several addresses. Thinkers from East and West are given equal prominence: not all have been canonized, and the volume includes a number of lesser-known individuals such as Aphraates, Romanus the Melodist and Marguerite d’Oingt. The selection features laity, religious and clergy, of different nationalities, and nine of the seventy portraits are of women, although none is mentioned before Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179). Occasionally two figures are discussed within the course of a single address; the most extensive sections are on St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine of Hippo.

The text of these addresses appears to be a straightforward reproduction of Vatican translations (as can be found on the website of the Holy See). There are occasionally awkward turns of phrase (‘...enriching his rhetorical baggage’), and some overtechnical language (‘a man of accentuated dialectical antitheses’). Of Richard of St Victor, Benedict writes that his work ‘reflects perspicaciously on the mystery of the Triune God’, which seems needlessly oxymoronic. And the editors erroneously date Benedict XVI’s apostolic voyage to Great Britain to 2009 rather than 2010. SPCK have not corrected the Americanisms of the English translation – ‘neighbor’, ‘savor’, and so on. Indeed, aside from a half-page ‘Publisher’s Foreword’ by Fortress Press, there is very little additional material from the editors.

Despite these quibbles, Great Christian Thinkers provides a first-class introduction to the first fifteen hundred years of Christian thought, and would serve as a useful companion to the material provided for saints’ days in The Divine Office; it would likewise assist the clergy in the preparation of homilies for weekday Masses. The Holy Father’s simple and accessible prose simultaneously evidences his depth of learning and his pastor’s heart.

Richard Norman

 

MANY ARE CALLED

Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood

Scott Hahn

DLT, 160pp, pbk

978 0232528718, £12.99

SCOTT HAHN is a prolific Roman Catholic lay theologian from the USA. Other works include studies of the Mass, Our Lady, and the theology of Pope Benedict XVI. This study of the priesthood was the first of his books which I have read, and I found it an exhilarating, invigorating, if at times irritatingly colloquial read. Much of the latter syndrome occurs because Hahn is clearly writing primarily for an American audience, for whom phrases such as ‘The Bulls are an NCAA Division I team’ presumably mean something. The author’s penchant for punning in his section headings (‘Workers for Higher’, ‘Manna the House’, and my absolute favourite, ‘Surely a Temple’) is a little less forgivable. But this informal, almost jokey style belies a deeply theological approach to the theory and practice of priesthood which will be clear to new explorers of the subject, and provocatively refreshing to those who have studied (and perhaps lived the reality of) priesthood for many years.

Hahn’s knowledge and use of the Bible is impressive: he uses biblical quotations with the ready skill (and occasionally slightly suspect logic) of an Evangelical demagogue. He also talks about the worlds of the Old and New Testaments and the early Church as if they were places which he visits regularly. This impressive scholarship, lightly worn, is occasionally let down by editorial mistakes in the referencing of the biblical quotations.

This is, at heart, a deeply conservative book. Hahn’s basic thesis is that priesthood is essentially about fatherhood. For the priest, the exercising of his priesthood is the channel through which his masculinity, his identity as a male human being, is properly channelled.

All of the things which a biological father does for his children, a priest does for his spiritual children: ‘priests are father because they give new life, divine life, through baptism; but their obligation does not end with the pouring of the water. They go on to nourish the life of their spiritual offspring through the Eucharist. They discipline their ‘children’ through penance. They instruct through their preaching and teaching. In short, they raise their congregations to full Christian maturity as contributing members of God’s household.’

Writing for a Roman Catholic audience, Hahn takes it for granted that since priests are called to be fathers in a very special way, the priesthood is reserved to men. He also draws from this position a conservative defence of clerical celibacy. Within marriage, the appropriate manifestation of the commitment to give ourselves for the sake of another is sexual intercourse. Away from that commitment, sex simply becomes a form of idolatry. And so for the priest, the appropriate sign of his total self-giving is celibacy. Furthermore, Hahn argues (quoting Eusebius), the priest is concerned ‘with a holy and not a carnal begetting of descendants.’ It is self-evident that not all Anglicans will agree with Hahn’s conservative position on these issues, but (in my judgement at least) they are presented compellingly here, without ever slipping into misogyny or homophobia.

Hahn’s status as an avowed layman also means that his high doctrine of priesthood is never in danger of becoming simply an adulation of priest-craft. But high doctrine this nonetheless is.

A priest is someone who offers sacrifice, who mediates between God and mankind. In the priest, Christ is represented, literally re-presented, to his people. And the Christian priesthood is, like the priesthood of Melchizedek, not a hereditary right but the consequence of a special calling by God, through the Church. ‘By the sacrament of holy orders, a man is conformed to Christ in a unique way, a permanent way, empowered to do what only Christ has the right and power to do.’ This privilege cannot be merited: it is pure gift from God.

In short, not everyone in the Church of England, and not everyone in the Catholic movement within the Church of England, will agree with everything that is in this book. But it has much to teach us all.

Conrad O’Riley

 

SCENE BY SELWOB

Topical Cartoons (1998–2010) Frank D. Bowles

de Tabley Publishing,

128pp, pbk

978-0956945600, £12

Until this little book landed on my desk, I had no idea what herpetology was. It turns out that it’s the study of amphibians and reptiles. Not just amphibians, mind you; apparently it’s the reptiles that swing it, and the study of amphibians alone is called batrachology. As they say, every day’s a school day. For this zoological diversion, I have relied on the great work of fact and fiction that is Wikipedia; St Stephen’s House Library being rather short of books on amphibians and reptiles, with the exception of those that proffer fruit to naked ladies or eat insects that attack rhododendrons.

I mention Wikipedia because Frank D. Bowles (the inversion of whose name produces his moniker, Selwob) uses it for the information accompanying most of the cartoons of his book. These drawings reflect a life lived in the parish of St Salvador’s Church, Dundee (a magnificent building, by the way), and it must be said that for the people of St Salvador’s they are probably side-splitting: many of them appeared originally in the parish magazine.

For an outsider, they serve as wry vignettes into the life in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and for readers of New Directions they paint a sad picture of the work of Bishop Richard Holloway, with barrage balloons over St Mary’s Cathedral ‘to keep out flying bishops, of course!’, and of the gentleman who inadvertently refers to the vicar’s difficult work as ‘a soul-destroying job.’

Mr Bowles’ response to Anglicanorum Coetibus – a drawing of the Forward in Faith barque sinking, with a procession of cheerful rats scurrying down the ropes to safety on a shore with a very familiar dome in the background – will give pause for thought. And if it be the role of caricature to touch the heart and prick the conscience, then why not?

Elsewhere, the portrayal of snapshots of parish life will no doubt ring true to a greater or lesser extent. A Kitcheneresque rector reminding his people that ‘Your Congregation Needs You!’ unquestionably does us all good. However, best of all is the Alleluia Prison Service’s ‘newly contrived punishment for the over-ambitious’. Nominations welcome, no doubt.

Serenhedd James

 

A JOURNEY TO EMMAUS

A Retreat to Do at Home

David Forrester

St Pauls Publishing, 120pp, pbk

978 0 85439 768 6

THIS BOOK is based on retreat addresses given to Roman Catholic religious centred on the story of the Emmaus Road in Luke 24. It is stuffed with fascinating references including notes at the end of each of the ten chapters, and also has a useful bibliography. It is also strong in the Bible department. It is not easy going but demands careful attention and the connections with the Emmaus Road become more tangential as the thought develops; for my mind it would make a month’s rather than a week’s retreat.

It also struck me as rather dry and lacking in any dynamic connection with day-to-day secular life. It cannot escape its original context; it is very churchy. Each ‘address’ ends with points to reflect on, suggested Scripture readings and some practical suggestions. After the chapter on the ‘Meaning of community’, the practical suggestions include ‘doing something for the youth in the parish, e.g. organising a retreat.’ I just wondered how practical some of these suggestions were. But, in the same chapter there is this shaft of light from Bonhoeffer: ‘He who loves community destroys community; he who loves the brethren, builds community.’ This book has many other gifts like this even if it might not work as a retreat at home.

Andy Hawes

TELLING OTHERS

How to run the Alpha Course Nicky Gumbel

Alpha Publications, 249pp, pbk

978 1907950315, £6.99

QUESTIONS OF LIFE

13 booklets

Nicky Gumbel

Alpha Publications

978 1907950xxx, £1.50 each except The Holy Spirit, £2.50 - also available as a set, £22

IF THE good news of Jesus is best encountered through hospitality in which there is truth-telling Alpha is a prime tool. This newly revised book helps interested church leaders weigh up whether this tool might operate in their context as it has in many thousands of churches reaching an estimated 16 million people worldwide since 1993.

Nicky Gumbel’s revision of Telling Others incorporates new testimonies and updated material and imparts the vision, excitement and challenge of Alpha. The book is unapologetic about the need to commend the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit including tongues as a vital component of Alpha’s capacity to be transformative. This means the course is best run by thoughtful, pastorally sensitive folk who have particular experience of God.

The reissue of the Questions of Life booklets h e l p s refresh a resource t h a t throws several lines to Christian enquirers. The material was written by Nicky Gumbel for use in presenting the Alpha Course. The books presume f a i t h in the existence of God, the authority of the Bible and, less explicitly, that of the Church. As each booklet could be read in 30 minutes to an hour the treatment of topics is not exhaustive  and yet there are simple, clear guidelines on Christian teaching. T h e r e are a few sketches a n d pictures like Holman Hunt’s Light of the World to lift the text. Gumbel’s stories and illustrations also colour his presentation of Christian truth and make his booklets a helpful resource for less agnostic enquirers worth leaving at the back of Church.

John Twisleton

 

YOUCAT

The Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church CTS, 312pp, pbk

978 1860827280, £9.95

THE WONDERFUL scenes of World Youth Day in Madrid of young people holding posters bearing the slogans ‘100% Catholic!’, ‘We love our German Shepherd’ and ‘Papa Ben we love you!’ can leave us in no doubt that there is a resurgence of Catholic life among the young. This Youth Catechism sets out to ensure that young Catholics have a full understanding of their faith, its doctrines and moral teachings.

This is a book endorsed by Pope Benedict that seeks to tell the youth of today ‘what life is all about’. It places faith at the centre of their lives not in a superficial trendy way but in a meaningful and accessible way. YOUCAT is well illustrated and set out with quotations from other Catholic sources relating to each section of the Catechism, including quotations from Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis. The Catechism serves to show that our daily lives and our faith cannot be separated, they are entwined and linked. The different moral and doctrinal sections are set out in the form of questions and answers, and so this is as much a resource for the teacher as for the student of the faith. Youth groups and confirmation classes could be enlivened by the use of YOUCAT.

This version of the Catechism pulls no punches: the full weight of the moral teaching of the Church is included in undiluted form. The style of the book and its vivid yellow colour simply serve to remind us that living the life of a Christian means engaging with world, serving the world and seeking to live as God has called us. This book helps Christians young and old to engage with their faith and to explore it to the full. It is a great gift to the Church in the twenty-first century and should be found in the homes and churches of all Catholic Christians.

Edward Beaumont ND

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