This week: De Kooning, New York City Ballet, Churchill’s letters to his mother & more from the world of culture.

Willem de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, 1952–53, Oil on canvas, Private collection, Courtesy Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Orange World, by Karen Russell (Knopf):  The title story in Karen Russell’s new collection, Orange World, isn’t about what you might think. It features not the world’s most famous orange man, but a young mother who feels alone and afraid: because of the enormous responsibility of caring for a newborn, but also because, each morning before her family wakes up, she sneaks outside to breastfeed the devil. Or a devil—just an imp, really, nothing to be afraid of—as her young-mothers’ group tries to convince her after she confesses the diabolical deal she’s made to keep her child safe. This is the sort of strange logic at which Russell excels: she places characters in absurd and extreme circumstances in which the rules that govern daily life no longer apply. The line between reality and fantasy blurs. In one story, a teenager falls in love with a body preserved in a bog. In another, two young women attend an opening party for a mountain lodge in which all their dance partners perished in an avalanche years ago. In yet another, Florida has gone underwater and is largely unnavigable except by four gondola-driving sisters with powers of echolocation. With poetic prose and a sense of quiet comedy that transforms her often gruesome plots, Russell shows us that one of the great joys in life and literature is reckoning with the many ways that the extraordinary breaks into the ordinary. —HN


Willem de Kooning, Woman III, 1954–55, Oil and charcoal on canvas, Private collection, Courtesy Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Artwork © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“De Kooning: Five Decades,” at Mnuchin Gallery (through June 15): With “Picasso’s Women” at Gagosian and “Lucian Freud: Monumental” at Acquavella, a clash of the titans rages on the Upper East Side. Now at Mnuchin Gallery, “De Kooning: Five Decades” continues the titanomachy of the twentieth-century art gods. In our hypersensitive age, de Kooning’s mid-century “women” paintings can seem like windows onto a prehistoric era. Yet de Kooning’s wet-on-wet application still conveys a sensuously felt form. In paintings such as Woman III (1952–53) and Woman as Landscape (1954–55), the apparent manhandling of his crude female forms, up close, can rather seem like an embrace of color-rich oils and enamels. The five decades at Mnuchin follow de Kooning through from his mid-century revelations, when he wiped away the abstract froth to reveal the women hidden just below his surfaces, through the cooling of his palette and paint handing in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 1980s finally onto the gentle fog of his diminishing mental acuity. Look for my full review in the forthcoming June issue of The New Criterion. —JP


The New York City Ballet dancer Sara Mearns. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

“Balanchine: Big and Bold” and “All Balanchine,” at New York City Ballet (May 23–25): The New York City Ballet is bulking up on Balanchine this May. Over the next week, they will perform many of the legendary choreographer’s works set to Romantic-era music. Thursday is your last chance to see his Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (Lincoln Kirstein said the Austro-Hungarian atmosphere seemed “drunk on wine and roses”) and his setting of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3, an exemplar of classical ballet technique. Then, on Friday and Saturday, the NYCB will turn to Balanchine’s dances for Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony (worth attending just for the costumes), Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Duo Concertant (fascinating for the way the dancers peek over the fourth wall by pausing to listen to the onstage musicians), and Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine. —HN


Jennie Churchill with her sons, Jack and Winston, in the mid-1880s. Photo: The Royal Oak Foundation. 

“ ‘My Darling Winston’: The Letters Between Churchill and His Mother,” at The General Society Library (May 22): In his 2015 book No More Champagne, David Lough captured Churchill’s fraught relationship to his finances. Last year, he turned his focus to another revealing Churchillian relationship: that between Winston and his mother, Jennie Jerome. My Darling Winston collects forty years’ worth of letters between the two, starting in 1881. As is the case with most teenagers and young adults, there are some exchanges that we can safely say do not classify among Winston’s finest hours. But in many ways, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, and to see some of the similarities between mother and son—not least their common writing talents—is illuminating. Along the way, Lough provides excellent context of the events surround the two in the background. On Wednesday, Lough will be at The General Society Library to discuss the famous pair. —RH

Philip Larkin in 1984. Photo: British Library / Bridgeman Images.

From the archive: “Southern literature reconstructed,” by Richard Tillinghast (May 1998). A review of The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology, edited by William L. Andrews, et al.

From the current issue: “ ‘Unsavoury humbug,’ ” by Robert Messenger. A review of Philip Larkin: Letters Home, edited by James Booth.

From the Editors: “Be a Leader, Not a Liter,” by James Panero (The Wall Street Journal). Who needs the metric system anyway?

Broadcast: “Andrew Roberts & James Panero discuss Churchill & Burke.” An interview occasioned by Roberts’s reception of our seventh annual Edmund Burke Award.

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