Monday, 13 October 2014

Another thing women can't do, apparently

Look, Tom! Medieval female celebrity chefs.

Infuriating headline of the day: Michelin-starred chef says women don't have the "fire" to make it to the top.

It amazes me that in every single career, but really every single one, there's a man saying women can't excel in it. Not in the Middle Ages, but now. 

Georg Baselitz - "Women can't paint". 

VS Naipaul - "Women can't write." 

Larry Summers: "Women can't do science." 

And most recently, this Tom Kerridge chef character: "Women can't be top chefs." 

Is there anything we can do? Ah, right, we can be muses, models and little helpers. 

You'll never make it to the top, dear, but there's something so soothing and pretty about watching you pose for my painting, help me with my research, wash my petri dishes and chop some onions for my molecular kidney pie.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Yom Kippur in A&E

Yom Kippur was a bit different this year as my husband's appendix started bursting half-way through Kol Nidre. The good news was that he was ready to be operated on as he'd been fasting anyway. The bad news was that there was no one around to operate him as we were in a super chaotic A&E with plastic bottles of stale pee left in the corner to ferment, and nurses asking him if he could remember how much morphine he'd been given as they were worried about overdosing.

When I went off to find a nurse for more morphine, I spotted a young Hasidic couple. The Hasidim  always seem to exist in some parallel world, certainly some parallel time, with their big hats and beards and shiny black coats and, for the women, wigs and headscarves. But we were all in A&E, and all going through the same experience of dealing with the A&E chaos on an empty stomach, so I wished them a loud and cheerful Shana Tova. They stared at me as if a Martian had just opened her mouth and started speaking Hebrew.

On my way back from the nurse, they had overcome their initial shock, and after confirming that I was Jewish, started to share their woes with me. The woman was pregnant, had started bleeding a little, was waiting for someone to confirm that the baby was okay.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "You must be so worried. Is this your first pregnancy?"

"No," she said, "My seventh."

By the time we had covered each of her pregnancies, births, and various other child-related subjects, my head was spinning a bit and I also remembered that poor Dan was sitting there in his cubicle, craving more morphine. The Hasidim decided that they should wish him a happy new year and generally cheer him up a bit, so they came along as well. Dan looked very happy to see me, and very surprised to see I'd brought two Hasidim with me.

Their baby was fine in the end, and they went back to Stamford Hill and their own little universe. Dan and I stayed - it took another 24 hours until they eventually whipped out his bursting appendix. We missed all the other Yom Kippur services. But somehow a hospital seemed a pretty suitable setting for atonement. After all, it's not often that you get to fast with the Hasidim.

(Note: apparently 15,000 Hasidim live in Stamford Hill! Europe's largest Hasidic community.)

Friday, 3 October 2014

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Ways of Seeing

I've started a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths College, which happens to be a great fit for my next novel on art and art forgers. The campus has a strong arty vibe (Damien Hirst et al went to Goldsmiths). Every time I attend a lecture or seminar there, I find myself scribbling down lots of intriguing fine art references. Last night I went to a talk on women and theatre in the 1970s. An actress read a passage on the male gaze in art by John Berger - it was brilliant and finally prompted me to look up his groundbreaking TV series, Ways of Seeing. Turns out they made pretty good television in 1971. The special effects are low-tech but very clever. I particularly like Berger's existential earnestness, the way he clarifies right away that we're not just going to be watching a programme about pretty pictures:

"We shall also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living."


Friday, 15 August 2014

Berlin dispatch

Friday evening yoga in Berlin, feisty yoga lady next to me: "Well I never join in with all the chanting because what if I chant one of those mantras and then I find out it means Heil Hitler." ‪#‎ThatsOneWayOfLookingAtIt‬

Thursday, 12 June 2014

German task force reveals history of lost Matisse

Femme Assise / The Sitting Woman.
Source: The Art Newspaper

The German task force investigating the provenance of potentially Nazi-looted paintings has concluded that one of them, Femme Assise by Henri Matisse, painted in 1921, was originally owned by art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg's granddaughter, the French journalist Anne Sinclair, has made a claim on the painting, saying the Nazis stole it from her family.

I received the task force's German press release this morning and will summarise the gist in a few bullet points, see below. The paintings were part of a stash discovered in the flat of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt had inherited the paintings from his father, Hildebrand, art dealer to the Nazis. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis seized thousands of art works from Jewish families through forced sales or direct confiscation - the biggest art theft in history. They also confiscated modernist art works from museums as the style was deemed "degenerate". 

Paul Rosenberg with Matisse's "Odalisque" in 1937

Paul Rosenberg was a friend of Matisse and an early champion of his work. He fled the Nazis in 1940, leaving France for Spain and then New York, but had to leave behind 162 paintings. A year later, the Nazis confiscated the entire collection. Gurlitt senior, it seems, was charged with selling some of the confiscated paintings on behalf of the Nazis, but kept some for himself. (Again, this seems to be the gist - I don't fact-check blog posts as thoroughly as I fact-check my other pieces, so apologies in advance for any inaccuracies). As the press release explains, the task force couldn't fully clarify how Femme Assise ended up in Gurlitt's hands.

Gurlitt junior came across as a tragic figure rather than a scheming villain. He lived a secluded, lonely life. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he said that he talked to his paintings every night, and that their confiscation had hurt him more than the death of his sister. Before he died, he declared that he would abide by the groundbreaking Washington Principles on the restitution of Nazi-looted art. Legally, he did not have to do this - the paintings were his, as the claims had expired under German law. Morally, it was of course the right decision, and set an important precedent for other private owners.

It's interesting that the task force sees Gurlitt's decision as binding for his own heirs, and also, that so many open questions remain regarding the work itself. You'd think it would be quite easy to seamlessly construct a famous painting's history from 1921 to 2014, less than a century. The fact that it's difficult shows just how many hidden stories are still there to be uncovered.

Here's what the task force said about investigating the history of Femme Assise (my translation, quick and dirty). I thought it might be interesting for people trying to track down their family's lost art:

- Research was difficult and complex, particularly clarifying the work's identity. There was mismatching data on the size of the work, as well as gaps in the timeline of the provenance.

- Investigators had to do extensive research in German, French and US archives, as well historical sources provided by the claimants.

- Not all questions regarding the work's history could be answered

- But overall, they concluded it was from the collection of Paul Rosenberg

- This expertise will be used as the basis for the decision regarding restitution of the work to Paul Rosenberg's heirs.

- Just before his death, Cornelius Gurlitt declared he would abide by the Washington Agreement (legally he didn't have to do this as any claims had expired under German law).

Quote from the head of the task force:

"Even if we could not document with absolute certainty how Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired the work, the task force has reached the conclusion that the work constitutes Nazi-looted art from the collection of Paul Rosenberg."

- Task force says a fair and just solution should be found "in the spirit of the Washington Agreement".

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

On not reading reviews

Dear readers,

I'm trying out a new review-reading strategy. It involves not reading any reviews.

The main reason is that I found Love and Other Wars incredibly hard to write.

It was a great privilege to interview former conscientious objectors, read letters and diaries in archives all over London and spend time with Quakers to learn about their pacifist beliefs. But at the end of my research I felt rather crushed by the sadness of it all: so many lives wasted, so many people killed along with their hopes and plans.

At the Imperial War Museum, I read the letters from a young RAF pilot to his parents and saw him mature from wide-eyed teenager (off to Rhodesia!! First solo flight! Elephants! Fifteen exclamation marks per page!!!) all the way to calm, unflappable RAF ace. When I reached the bottom of the box, after the last letter, there was nothing but a telegram to his parents: We regret to inform you...  

In the University College London archives, I leafed through old copies of the student newspaper. There, between an ad for a lecture by an eminent birth-control expert and a witty spat over a work of modern art in the cafeteria, was an appeal for British sponsors to help a Jewish student leave Berlin. What was the outcome of this desperate bet on the kindness of strangers? Did he make it out?

And so on. Every day brought a new encounter with some brave, optimistic, life-loving person who had been born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It seemed pointless to turn away and invent a story about fictional characters when all these true and important stories of real people were still untold.

In the end, a good friend reminded me that a novelist's task is to write a novel. Which I did. Since the writing part of the job is now finally done, since there is nothing I could have done differently about this particular book, and since the people whose judgement I am most curious (and perhaps most worried) about are dead, it's probably best to let others get on with the reading and reviewing part, and not interfere. Having said that, I am very grateful to have you as my readers and do hope you enjoy the book.

Best wishes