Vol. 46 No. 1 · 4 January 2024

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Painting is terribly difficult

Julian Barnes writes that the ‘realistic social subjects’ of Monet’s earlier career were ‘as far as Zola was able to go with him’ (LRB, 14 December 2023). It was in fact Monet’s seascapes that Zola most admired. In his art criticism, he never failed to draw attention to the painter’s unequalled talent for depicting water. And in his preparatory notes for L’Oeuvre (1886), he reminded himself to try to describe the Seine à la Monet. That novel continues to have a distorting effect on our cultural histories. The most persistent myth is that its publication marked the definitive end of any contact between Zola and Cézanne: not even the discovery, a decade ago, of a letter Cézanne sent to his lifelong friend the year after L’Oeuvre appeared has discouraged art historians from rehearsing the more dramatic personal story first told by John Rewald in 1936.

Jackie Wullschläger’s new biography of Monet refers to the novel as a ‘betrayal’ on Zola’s part. It is further evidence of Monet’s ego that his letter to Zola of 5 April 1886 expresses the fear that he might be identified with Claude Lantier, Zola’s fictional painter. His contribution to the novel’s composite portrait is marginal at best. But Zola’s notes specifically mention that Monet was driven by commercial imperatives to produce works too fast, resulting in mere sketches lacking both structure and finish. This simply repeated what he had written in his art criticism in 1879-80 about Monet’s ceding to the temptations of facilité de production. The painter virtually admitted that such criticism was justified. What he may have recognised in L’Oeuvre was his inverted image: Claude Lantier refuses to compromise his artistic integrity by catering to popular taste. For Monet, when it came to making money, painting wasn’t all that ‘difficult’.

Robert Lethbridge
University of St Andrews, Fife

Julian Barnes writes that London and Venice were ‘about the furthest’ that Claude Monet ‘took his brushes’. It’s true that Monet was no great traveller (the Impressionists, as Barnes says, were above all painters of the familiar), but he did make it a hair further with his visit to Norway in 1895. There, he made 29 views of snow-capped hills, icy forests, bright winter cabins and fjords as turquoise as the Mediterranean. It was an uncharacteristically trendy choice: thanks to Ibsen, ‘la Norvègerie’ had fully gripped Paris by the time Monet took his two-month trip.

And though no paintings survive from Monet’s military service in Algeria in 1861-62, he would later say that the works he completed there were central to his artistic development.

Emily Cox
Yale University

Julian Barnes quotes Robert Hughes’s claim that David Sylvester ‘would demand gifts from an artist whose work he was about to honour with a review’, and fleshes it out with Hughes’s quote from Lucian Freud that ‘the expected rate was usually two pieces.’ From this pair of falsehoods, Barnes concludes that ‘critics and curators at the top of their profession … had become institutionally – and constitutionally – corrupt.’

Lucian Freud and Robert Hughes were mischievous and malicious gossips and in the case of David Sylvester, both men might have had a professional and personal agenda. Anyone who ‘knew David Sylvester for decades’ – or even days – would know that he was honest, straightforward and above board in all his dealings with the art world, probably to a degree that pissed off both these men during the course of their careers. That the LRB, who knew and published David Sylvester during his lifetime, printed these assertions so casually and unquestioningly, is disgraceful.

Xanthe and Naomi Sylvester
The David Sylvester Literary Trust

Deal or No Deal

John Lanchester cites the conviction rate of 99.5 per cent in US federal cases and remarks that ‘it’s hard to contemplate that number without thinking injustices must occur’ (LRB, 2 November). Injustices do certainly occur, but there is another way of looking at that bit of statistical information. Federal prosecutors choose their cases extremely carefully and take them to court only when a conviction is practically guaranteed. In 2022, according to an analysis carried out by the Pew Research Centre, nearly 80,000 people were defendants in federal criminal cases but just 2.3 per cent of them went to trial; 0.4 per cent were acquitted.

This continues a lengthy trend. The share of federal criminal defendants who entered guilty pleas rose from 82 per cent in 1998 to nearly 90 per cent in 2022, while the share of defendants who went to trial fell from 7 per cent to 2.3 per cent. In just over 8 per cent of cases in 2022, the charges were dropped before the trial began. Add to the mix the fact that federal convictions are overturned at a rate as high as 20 per cent. What we can deduce from all this is that if you are caught by the feds, make a deal. Otherwise, they will come down on you like a ton of bricks.

Vassilis Serafimakis

Statement from the Heart

Rosemary Hill writes about her stay in Yulara and Australia’s recent No vote in the referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament (LRB, 14 December 2023). The Uluru Statement from the Heart is not a petition, as Hill refers to it. The statement was published in 2017 by the First Nations Constitutional Convention, which consisted of 250 First Nations delegates, drawing on six months of consultation with more than 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives across Australia. It makes three demands: a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australian constitution; a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making between governments and First Nations peoples; and truth-telling. Its advocates summarise these three demands as Voice, Treaty and Truth.

The first proposal, the Voice, went to a referendum because it is only through a referendum that the Australian constitution can be changed. The Uluru Statement did not, as Hill suggests, request that Parliament create a constitutionally entrenched advisory body, because constitutional change is beyond Parliament’s power. This is a significant point: between 1973 and 1990, three First Nations advisory bodies were created by Parliament to consult with the federal government. Because they were created by Parliament, they could also be abolished by it, which happened in each case. Constitutional entrenchment for the Voice would have given it protection: it would have taken a further referendum to disestablish it.

The three demands of the Uluru Statement are not chronological; it does not specify that Treaty was to follow Voice. The government decided to pursue Voice first, thus opening it to attack. Among the opponents of the Voice was the Progressive No movement. For one of its leading figures, Senator Lidia Thorpe, a descendant of the DjabWurrung, Gunnai and Gunditjmara peoples, the Voice was ‘window-dressing’: in her view, substantive justice for First Nations peoples could only be achieved through a treaty recognising Indigenous sovereignty. On this line of argument, Voice was a danger to Treaty, not a precursor to it.

Following the outcome of the referendum, it was not the Yes campaign that called for a week of silence, but First Nations leaders involved in the campaign, who explained that the week was a time to mourn the result. That this was not a call from all members of Yes (a group that included the prime minister, Anthony Albanese), but specifically First Nations peoples, is indicated in their description of the referendum as ‘a chance for newcomers to show a long-refused grace and gratitude and to acknowledge that the brutal dispossession of our people underwrote their every advantage of this country’.

David Kearns
University of Queensland, Brisbane

Straight from the Udder

John Gallagher writes that London hawkers sold local milk because ‘goods spoiled fast’ (LRB, 2 November 2023). No description of the ‘fresh’ milk drunk by Londoners in former times can give a better – or more appalled – impression than that provided by Tobias Smollett for his irascible correspondent Matthew Bramble in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). This is Bramble’s account of the milk used for strawberries and cream:

but the milk itself should not pass unanalysed, the produce of faded cabbage-leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings, discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot-passengers, overflowings from mud-carts, spatterings from coach-wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke’s sake, the spewings of infants, who have slabbered in the tin-measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk, for the benefit of the next customer; and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk-maid.

A perceptive critic of Smollett’s own time remarked that this author was truly a poet, if the designation could be invoked for a writer of prose; and this passage (among many others equally vivid) surely justifies the claim.

Damian Grant
Villeneuve d’Ascq, France

Reasons to Learn French

Rosa Lyster remarks that Shirley Temple Black prepared for her job as US ambassador to Ghana ‘by taking a crash course in French (she seems to have forgotten that Ghana had been a British colony)’ (LRB, 16 November 2023). It is unlikely that she or the US State Department were quite so ignorant. Probably, since this was her first overseas diplomatic posting, it was considered essential that she learn what was still the international language of diplomacy, French.

Bruce McClintock
Perth, Western Australia

National Evil

Jonah Goodman’s essay on the ‘national evil’ of the goitre in Switzerland brings to mind what used to be called Derbyshire Neck, referring to the prevalence of goitre in parts of that county up until the early 20th century (LRB, 30 November 2023). It is thought that iodine deficiency in the local environment may have been the result of the binding of iodine in the alkaline soils of the area, which meant that less of it made its way into local farm produce.

David Bell

Jonah Goodman may be right that goitre is ‘all but forgotten’ in Switzerland, but the table salt I have in my kitchen comes with added iodine (0.0025%), and a reminder in French and German: ‘Un apport suffisant d’iode empêche la formation d’un goitre; Genügende Iodversorgung verhindert Kropfbildung’ – which means ‘sufficient iodine intake prevents goitre.’

Graeme Pearson

Jonah Goodman writes that ‘in today’s prosperous and healthy Switzerland’, goitre has been ‘vanquished so completely it has been all but forgotten’. Not quite everywhere. Riehen, a small town in the canton of Basel-Stadt, calls one of its carnival groups the Chropf-Clique. Chropf is the local Swiss German word for ‘goitre’, for which Riehen was a hotspot.

Doris Tranter

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