I went to Stratford-Upon-Avon this weekend to see a performance of Brecht’s Life of Galileo. I start by looking at the Guild Chapel with its doom frescos before by the banks of the Avon to Holy Trinity church, with its elaborate monuments, misericords and Kempe stained glass. Back into Stratford and I have a look at Bancroft Gardens and its Shakespeare statues and the American fountain. I then visit the Shakespeare Birthplace and the New Place. The play itself is perhaps the least Brechtian of Brecht’s plays; a fact that may account for its popularity. To a large extent, it depicts an narrative of scientific progress as a determinant of social change by undermining reactionary forces (with the Catholic church paralleled to the Nazis) but Brecht’s rewrites after Hiroshima equally dwell on technology as a means of supporting conservative ends, as with the idea of telescopes as a support for the Venetian navy. Galileo accordingly emerges as an ambivalent figure; in one instance a hero of the enlightenment and in the other someone who advances his career, disregards his daughter’s future and recants out of self interest rather than as a means of covertly advancing scientific truth.
Back in London the following weekend and I visit the Royal Academy’s Manet exhibition. As an exhibition, it seems rather padded with bare walls and assorted historical notes to draw attention from the absence of most of Manet’s most famous. The exhibition is in many respects less about the paintings and more a biographical study of the painter, drawing attention to the backgrounds and biographies of his subjects. Perhaps as a consequence of that, Manet’s art comes through as rather protean, skipping between subjects and styles freely. A painting of Monet and his family shows the influence of impressionism but most of the paintings here tend towards portraiture of bourgeois subjects, excepting the small Courtauld copy of Déjeuner sur l’herbe; more realist works like The Absinthe Drinker or A Bar at the Folies-Bergère are not here. Many of the portraits are accordingly quite traditional; the painting of Zola with the emblems of the painter and his subject placed around the study could have been by Holbein. Many of the works include still lifes that recall Dutch paintings while the painting of Zastruc with a cutaway section behind him showing a kitchen recalls Velasquez. Like Velasequz, Manet is notable for his use of perspective, as wit his painting of The Luncheon where an indistinct figure in the background stares straight out of the canvas as the boy in the centre looks away from the viewer. Later works likeThe Railroad go rather further in challenging what should be central to a painting, with the child in the centre standing with their back to the viewer while a female figure at the edge stares outwards.