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Diary

Peter Wollen: In the Tunnel, 28 April 1994

... Our cosmopolitan party converged on Arras from east, north, south and west, to be gathered together and loaded onto a tourist bus and driven to the Channel Tunnel reception centre at Sangatte, near Calais. There things took an unexpected turn. We were issued with special boots, hard hats, goggle-like glasses and – most alarmingly – yellow oilskins ...

Unembraceable

Peter Wollen, 19 October 1995

Sex and Suits 
by Anne Hollander.
Knopf, 212 pp., $25, September 1994, 0 679 43096 2
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... My first thoughts, in connection with suits, are of Lucky Lucan, Joseph Beuys and the Thin White Duke, at the head of an imaginary horde of accountants, dandies, clubland heroes, zoot-suiters and funeral directors. It has taken me some time to realise that the question of suits is indeed a crucial question, not only about fashion but about sexual identity, national culture and art history ...

The Same Old Solotaire

Peter Wollen, 4 July 1996

‘Salome’ and ‘Under the Hill’ 
by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.
Creation, 123 pp., £7.95, April 1996, 1 871592 12 7
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Aubrey Beardsley: Dandy of the Grotesque 
by Chris Snodgrass.
Oxford, 338 pp., £35, August 1995, 0 19 509062 4
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... Yeats had no doubt how and when the fatal blow was struck. In his memoirs, he noted that ‘the condemnation of Wilde had brought ruin upon a whole movement in art and letters.’ Yeats himself was fortunate that the Celtic Revival, which ran in close tandem with Decadence, had special resources of its own. Two of the great iconic victims of the social purity movement, the repressive engine of Late Victorianism, were themselves Irish – Parnell and Wilde – and Yeats was able to incorporate their tragedies into his heroic narrative of Irish nationalism ...

Hitting the buffers

Peter Wollen, 8 September 1994

Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916 
by Christopher Butler.
Oxford, 318 pp., £27.50, April 1994, 0 19 811746 9
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... In the summer of 1913, Jacques Copeau, the French stage pioneer, who had just founded his Théâtre du Vieux Colombier in Paris, wrote to Duncan Grant asking him to prepare the costumes and design for an innovative production of Twelfth Night. Grant completed the commission, using fabrics from the Omega Workshop for the costumes, and went over to Paris the following February to attend rehearsals and install his work ...

Scaling Up

Peter Wollen: At Tate Modern, 20 July 2000

... The first breakthrough in the transformation of the South Bank of the Thames came in 1951 with the Festival of Britain, which established this stretch of riverside as a public space, and brought in its aftermath the Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre and, on the other side of Giles Gilbert Scott’s Waterloo Bridge, the new National Theatre. The next came in 1977, with the foundation of the Coin Street Action Group when, reacting against a decline in public housing and the proliferation of office blocks, the inhabitants of the area to the east of the South Bank Centre began to organise to defend their homes ...

Beyond Zero

Peter Wollen: Kazimir Malevich, 1 April 2004

Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism 
edited by Matthew Drutt.
Guggenheim, 296 pp., $65, June 2003, 0 89207 265 2
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... Kazimir Malevich was the most enigmatic and the most provocative painter of the early Soviet period. He can be seen as a pioneer of abstraction and of the minimalist works produced many years later by such artists as Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Yves Klein. Or he can be regarded as a folk artist, or as a visionary who proposed to launch his Suprematist constructions and artworks into outer space, where they would circle the earth as satellites ...

The Last Hundred Days

Peter Wollen: Kassel’s Mega-Exhibition, 3 October 2002

Documenta 11 
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... Late in August I visited Documenta 11, the most recent version of the mega-exhibition that has been held in the German city of Kassel since 1955, when Arnold Bode, a professor of art at the Kassel Academy, decided to organise an international art show. It achieved such success that it soon became a crucial element of Kassel’s character as a city, once the arms industry had gone ...

Wild Hearts

Peter Wollen, 6 April 1995

Virginia Woolf 
by James King.
Hamish Hamilton, 699 pp., £25, September 1994, 0 241 13063 8
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... Diaghilev ballet’. The influence of the Ballets Russes went much deeper than décor, however. As Peter Jacobs writes, it supplied a model of ‘a pagan liberty and a savage beauty, combined with a stylised severity or formal purity’, a liberty and a beauty embodied, one might add, in Nijinsky’s legs, to gaze on which Keynes briefly abandoned his Treatise ...

Say hello to Rodney

Peter Wollen: How art becomes kitsch, 17 February 2000

The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience 
by Celeste Olalquiaga.
Bloomsbury, 321 pp., £20, November 1999, 0 7475 4535 9
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... a group of artists whose work Greenberg summarily dismissed as kitsch – among them, Grant Wood, Peter Blume and Andrew Wyeth – should be seen in a line of descent from Le Douanier Rousseau and Chirico, artists Greenberg at least took seriously. Menton was struck by the sharp focus of Magic Realist paintings, their creation of a toylike world which strikes ...

Thatcher’s Artists

Peter Wollen, 30 October 1997

Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection 
by Norman Rosenthal.
Thames and Hudson, 222 pp., £29.95, September 1997, 0 500 23752 2
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... the properties of various drugs. Not only do they turn out to be textual paintings, cousin to Peter Davies’s painted list of the top one hundred all-time hit paintings: they effect a stealthy return to Hirst’s pre-occupation with the body and with disease and death. Keith Coventry’s white on white tribute to Malevich conceals portraits, painted in ...

Death (and Life) of the Author

Peter Wollen: Kathy Acker, 5 February 1998

... Writing about Goya’s Black Paintings in Art After Modernism , a collection of essays published in 1984 by the New Museum in downtown New York, Kathy Acker wrote: ‘The only reaction against an unbearable society is equally unbearable nonsense.’ She once said she didn’t expect anyone to read any of her books all the way through from beginning to end: ‘even in Empire of the Senseless , which is the most narrative book, you could read pretty much anywhere ...

Tankishness

Peter Wollen: Tank by Patrick Wright, 16 November 2000

Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine 
by Patrick Wright.
Faber, 499 pp., £25, October 2000, 0 571 19259 9
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... The tank, I was surprised to learn, was a British invention. It provided a much-needed response to the recent development of barbed wire, fortified trenches and rapid-fire machine-guns. Armoured against both wire and gunfire, the tank could lurch across trenches and traverse roadless battlefields pitted with shell craters. I was even more surprised to learn that the tank was developed in the first instance not by the Army but by the Navy, which had already armoured its gunships and was open-minded about new inventions, prepared to back them even if they had no naval relevance ...

Stalin at the Movies

Peter Wollen: The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism by J. Hoberman, 25 November 1999

The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism 
by J. Hoberman.
Temple, 315 pp., £27.95, November 1998, 1 56639 643 3
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... J. Hoberman’s book, appropriately enough, is a cinematic montage of reflections on the long-drawn-out demise of the former Soviet Union, seen through the eyes of a New York journalist and film critic: a process that began with the death of Stalin and ended with the sale of chunks of the Berlin Wall in Bloomingdale’s. Hoberman chronicles these events from the point of view of three related personae: the thoughtful Jewish New Yorker, reading the novels of Victor Serge or reconsidering the Rosenberg case; the compulsive film aficionado, intrigued by the representation of the Communist world in Soviet films, Hollywood movies and the work of the East European New Wave directors, such as Gyula Gazdag or Dusan Makavejev; and then the cultural historian, provoked by the appearance in a New York gallery of Sots Art, an ironic appropriation of ‘socialist’ art by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, into trying to understand the deeper significance of Socialist Realism ...

When the beam of light has gone

Peter Wollen: Godard Turns Over, 17 September 1998

The Films of Jean-Luc Godard 
by Wheeler Winston Dixon.
SUNY, 290 pp., £17.99, March 1997, 0 7914 3285 8
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Speaking about Godard 
by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki.
New York, 256 pp., $55, July 1998, 0 8147 8066 0
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... I was living in Paris in 1959, the year of both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, and I went to see both of these films the week they were released. In fact, I went back to see them a number of times. I couldn’t help noticing that Godard quoted from another Boetticher movie in the course of Breathless, in the scene where the small-time gangster Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, dives into a cinema on the Champs Elysées in order to shake off a wearisome tail ...

Hare’s Blood

Peter Wollen: John Berger, 4 April 2002

The Selected Essays of John Berger 
edited by Geoff Dyer.
Bloomsbury, 599 pp., £25, November 2001, 0 7475 5419 6
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... John Berger’s selected essays run to nearly six hundred pages, yet that is just the tip of the iceberg if one looks at the totality of his published work: the essays and reviews about the visual arts – drawing, painting, photography, film – but also short stories, journals, screenplays, travel articles, letters, television scripts, translations, novels, poems, even a requiem in three parts which gives a wrenching account of the untimely deaths of three of Berger’s neighbours ...

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