This week: Milton Gendel, Machiavelli, Elizabeth Higgins, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 & more.
Just Passing Through: A Seven-Decade Roman Holiday: The Diaries and Photographs of Milton Gendel, edited by Cullen Murphy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): In the first two pages of the recently published diaries of the arts writer and photographer Milton Gendel (1918–2018), we get a sense of the man’s perception in his pen portrait of Gore Vidal. “The real accomplishment is his career,” Gendel writes, “which from its unfavorable beginnings—those unspeakable novels—has been perfected as an intricate, smooth-running mechanism. A Rolls-Royce engine of a career.” In the same entry (September 17, 1967), we learn how Vidal “is very good at broderie anglaise—and can turn an incident so that in effect it revolves around himself, like a description he gave of seeing Mrs. Kennedy after the assassination, in which he became a chief actor along with her, but unfortunately I had read the same detail in a magazine and recognized that he had substituted himself for one of her entourage.” Gendel is a sharp witness to the doings of the bourgeois bohemians of Rome, a city in which he spent seventy years as an expat. If his judgments are not always so fine as his of Vidal, they are often entertaining; here is a diverting book that can be dipped into continuously. —BR
Machiavelli: From Radical to Reactionary, by Robert Black (Reaktion): For the twenty-sixth entry in Reaktion Books’ biographical series “Renaissance Lives,” Robert Black has written a concise history on the life and work of the philosopher and politician Niccolò Machiavelli. Black hopes to show that Machiavelli—at times a radical republican, at others a staunch monarchist—is more than “just a name” that stands for “duplicity and amorality in politics.” Going beyond the famous writings of The Prince and Discourses on Livy, Black has produced a thorough intellectual biography of Machiavelli that traces the evolution of the Florentine’s myriad political beliefs as well as his forays into poetry, drama, and history. The author rounds out his study with an evaluation of Machiavelli’s emergence as a constitutional conservative in the last decade of his life, an otherwise neglected side of Machiavelli’s legacy. —JW
“How The Light Gets In: New Paintings and Prints by Elizabeth Higgins,” at Prince Street Gallery (through December 24): Elizabeth Higgins has mastered the art of looking. In “How the Light Gets In,” her tenth solo show, Higgins provides more than thirty new pieces of penetrating vision. These works, a panoply of figurative and landscape abstractions, welcome the viewer’s gaze and merge it seamlessly with the artist’s. In both title and subject, Higgins returns again and again to the action of looking and the objects of our attention: her figures peer out windows and into the vibrant worlds they reveal, bright canvases within the canvas. Elsewhere the figures are depicted in museums in which little delineation is made between museum object and museum visitor. All the while, Higgins strives for effects of light and color to be felt as more than just reductive “frequencies of energy”—she is, as T. S. Eliot once wrote, “looking into the heart of light.” —LL
“Emanuel Ax, Beethoven, and The Year 1917,” performed by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center (December 1, 2 & 3): It is difficult to square the popular image of Dmitri Shostakovich as the persecuted, rebellious composer with the man who later penned an earnest oratorio to Soviet “Loyalty” and his Symphony No. 12, a hagiography of Lenin released at the height of Khruschev’s liberalizations. At a time when even Solzhenitsyn’s writing was allowed to slip past the censors, the symphony seemed to Westerners a puzzling misstep from an artist who had faced undeniable struggles to bring his musical vision to bear under the reign of Joseph Stalin, flirting with death at times yet still managing to push the aesthetic and political envelope. Was this latest music genuine or simply lip service? The biographers have long had a field day. But set aside considerations of time and program for a moment, and we still have a legitimate creation in this odd symphony, full of intricate counterpoint, dramatic woodwind-heavy tutti, and a memorable main theme in the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov. The conductor Rafael Payare makes his (and this symphony’s) New York Philharmonic debut in three performances this week, together with William Grant Still’s Darker America and Emanuel Ax in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. —IS
“Roger Kimball introduces the December issue.” A new podcast from the Editor & Publisher of The New Criterion.
From the Archives:
“In the footsteps of Sade,” by Roger Kimball (March 1990). On Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia.
“A new opera at the Met” by Jay Nordlinger. On The Hours, by Kevin Puts.