Author Archive for M. Milner


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Book Review: John Berger – The Success and Failure of Picasso

The Success and Failure of PicassoThe Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In an eloquent and insightful book-length essay, John Berger lays out his theories and critiques of Picasso, an artist almost everyone knows of but perhaps few seem to understand as deeply as Berger.

Essentially, Berger lays out how there were a couple periods where Picasso’s art was truly extraordinary and redefined the rules of painting. Conversely, he also explains the times when Picasso’s art was stale and lacking in inspiration. He does so through a deep analysis which ties together everything from Rousseau to anarchist theory to examinations of Picasso against peers like Van Gogh or Velazquez.

Of course, it’s far more than just that. When Berger’s insights are at their deepest, he’s examining the social differences of pre-Franco Spain and western Europe, the way art has been turned into a commodity by the bourgeois and the failings of Soviet artistic theory. But the most penetrating insight is Berger’s examination of success: what it does to people, how it changes them.

For Picasso, Berger explains success wasn’t something he aimed for, but something which profoundly shaped the arc of his work. It came early to the artist, who was so talented as a teenager that his father – also an artist – gave up painting entirely. As a Spaniard living in France, Picasso was an outsider (a “vertical invader,” as Berger writes) who belonged to no school. True, he was part of the Cubists. But they, as a general rule, lasted a short while and after the end of the first world war, their approach to painting was overshadowed by new schools like Dadist, Surrealism and others which reflected the horrors of the trenches.

As Berger writes, success didn’t ruin Picasso, but it kept his art from developing. In isolation, Picasso couldn’t advance as an artist and his best works came only when he had a direct, emotional response to what he painted. Berger lays out a compelling case for Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Therese, of Guernica and – most interestingly – a late series of sketches from late 1953.

Perhaps the observation which stands out the most is when Berger notes how Picasso can own things by drawing the, His fame was such that if he needed something, he could draw and turn the painting into whatever he desired: a house, a car, etc, etc. “There is the implication that his passions, his will, can control things – even against their wishes, and that by means of painting a thing, he possesses it,” writes Berger.

All in all, an engrossing and insightful work of criticism. It’s not a biography and it’s not concerned even a little with the private life of Picasso. There are few new things here to be learned about his life and if you’re seeking a list of events and influences, you’d look elsewhere. But if you want an understanding, a look at what makes a painter succeed or fail and how one person can shape the rules of painting, there’s probably few books as interesting. Recommended for art fans.

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Book Review: Nick Tosches – Country, The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll

Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock 'n' RollCountry: The Twisted Roots Of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Nick Tosches

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went into this looking for something detailing the roots of Rock: a book about the early, dusty years of 78 RPM records and the faceless artists contained therein. It’s not quite that, but Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll is an interesting read with a lot of information and colour.

In a series of alternating chapters, Tosches details the early years of blues and country music. He traces the arc of steel guitars, it’s common origin with blues and country and how it split not just into two styles, but two distinct instruments. He looks at the dark, dirty early country sides and contrasts them to the glitter-clean country music of Nashvill c. mid 1970s. He traces the arc of artists who’ve vanished like Emmitt Miller, those who rose to stardom, like Hank Williams, and those consumed by darkness like Spade Cooley.

At times, he bogs the narrative down in details, tracing a song not only through artists but though labels and catalogue numbers. A product, perhaps, of it’s time, but it happens enough I found myself skipping through the pages. And compared to his best work – Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story – the prose lacks the same punch. At it’s best, it’s an interesting read, but I can see it being a little too detailed for some.

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Book Review: Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely a well-deserved classic, Ellison’s novel still rings true more than 50 years on. Essentially, it follows a nameless narrator as he comes up to New York from the deep south, taking the reader on a trip from drunken underground fight clubs to communist rallies to mazes of pipes and machinery deep under a paint factory. But throughout, Ellison takes sharp jabs at high society snobs, patronizing rich men and nihilistic community leaders; his book has a dark, almost sardonic sense of humour at times but usually a justified sense of outrage.

Several scenes stuck out for me: rallies with the nameless (but obvious Communist-leaning) organization; a union meeting where everyone is both suspicious of him and glad he’s there, but refuse to let him actually speak; the race riot serving as the book’s climax; the early battle royale, where he’s blindfolded and forced to fight for a group of drunken civic leaders.

It’s hard to resist comparing Ellison’s novel to works by writers like James Baldwin – who I don’t believe Ellison was especially a fan of – because they were contemporaries of a sort. And Invisible Man has something of a conservative bent when compared to Baldwin; Ellison’s suspicious of Black Nationalist leaders like Ras the Destroyer, who he paints as a spear-throwing (literally!) troublemaker who’s trying to fan up violence; makes me wonder what he thought of Malcolm X. At the same time, his depictions of police violence are stunningly similar to what’s happened in recent years in places like Baltimore or Ferguson; the more things change, etc, etc.

In sum, a powerful novel which occasionally I found myself thinking of in terms of 2017 and as a product of the pre-Civil Rights 1950s. It’s compelling and I hardly put it down over the course of a month. Recommended.

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The Honest Autobiographer: Michel de Montaigne – Essays

EssaysEssays by Michel de Montaigne (trans. J.M. Cohen)

Any Montaigne is more or less something I’d recommend (aside from his distasteful opinions towards women, he’s remarkably timeless), so I’m concerned here mostly with the edition I read: J.M. Cohen’s older translation for Penguin Classics, which has been reissued with as Montaigne: Essays. It’s maybe a little stuffy, but it’s a charming translation, well annotated with lots of notes (mostly to identify and translate the various quotes Montaigne sprinkled throughout his text). The introduction is good too, providing a nice history of the author and this book’s legacy.

There’s only a couple of things I found lacking: there isn’t a ton of context for the way Montaigne composed his text (although maybe a commentary is asking too much for an introduction) and it’s a pretty short abridgement, containing just 26 essays, some of them quite short. It does include some of the more famous ones, though: On Friendship, On Cannibals, On Experience (easily my favorite of the collection) and On the Art of Conversation. There’s also a fun one on smells, too.

Rating: 7/10. I’d recommend it to someone interested in reading Montaigne but is wary of tackling the complete essays. And if you’re like me, you’ll quickly want to move on from this to a more complete collection (like The Complete Works published by Everyman’s Library).