Outsider Art by Colin Rhodes | Voltaire's Coconuts by Ian Buruma | Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling | The Museum Guard by Howard Norman | Underground by Tobias Hill
Saturday 25 March 2000
Outsider Art by Colin Rhodes (Thames & Hudson, £7.95, 224pp) Despite a stodgy text, this is a book of the utmost interest. It concerns loners who are driven to express themselves through art. In Colin Rhodes's terms, such individuals are "often thought of as dysfunctional in terms of the parameters for normality set by the dominant culture," but are not to be confused with naive artists. A drawing of ravens' heads by an artist called Vonn Stropp, nightmarish in complexity, is compared to DÃ¼rer.
Rhodes divides outsider works into four categories. The first is "Art Brut": artists such as Dubuffet, who attempted to re-invent himself by eschewing formal techniques. More interesting is "Art by the Insane", often filled with cramped, intense texts. Four beautiful columns of scribble, reminiscent of the American minimalist Cy Twombly, turns out to be a work entitled Letter to Husband produced in 1909 by Emma Hauck.
The third category is "Alternative Worlds" - visionary art, sometimes disturbing. One outsider created his own "family" of model children. Another produced an illustrated autobiography described as "the most extensive body of secret fantasy material ever accumulated by one man."
The last category of "Self-Taught Visionaries" includes the enigmatic creations explored by Jarvis Cocker on Channel 4 last year. One artist worked on the three "breath-takingly tall" Watts Towers before leaving LA for good. Rhodes's survey is wide-ranging and informative, though he is inaccurate in saying that "Richard Dadd... was incarcerated in the Royal Bethlem Hospital, Beckenham, Kent". The Bethlem Royal Hospital (correct title of the original "Bedlam") did not move from Lambeth until 1930. CH
Voltaire's Coconuts by Ian Buruma (Phoenix, £7.99, 326pp) Despite the best efforts of our football fans, tweedy Englishness retains adherents among bon chic, bon genre French and Italian aristos. In this sparkling study, Buruma explores examples of Anglophilia ranging from Goethe and Kaiser Bill to his own Anglo-Dutch family. He visits Fingal*s Cave and Pevsner*s grave. In his ambivalant conclusion, Buruma finds something *heroic* about British resistance to the continental vision, but the Tory Party Conference reminds him of *people that Britain had done so much, twice this century to defeat*.
Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling (Faber, £20, 570pp) Leoni invented the spaghetti western because he adored American myth but detested the American way of life. This appropriately spawling biography is packed with entertaining detail. Clint Eastwood agreed to star in the first *Dollars* movie partly because his wife fancied a European holiday. Though Eastwood hated his trademark cigar, Leone insisted that it had to stay in the sequel: *It*s playing the lead.* The great auteur simply couldn*t think small. He was planning a film on the seige of Stalingrad when he died, aged 60, in 1988.
The Museum Guard by Howard Norman (Picador, £6.99, 310pp) Best known for The Bird Artist, Norman specialises in characters with strange names and even stranger jobs. The narrator of his latest novel, 30-year-old museum guard Defoe Russet, spends his life in a small art gallery in Halifax, contemplating Dutch masterpieces and his own uniform. Then he meets Imogen, curator of the town's Jewish cemetery - a woman as screwy as he is phlegmatic - and embarks on an ill-fated affair. The novel's storyline is eccentric, but Norman's pleasingly laconic style sustains it throughout.
Underground by Tobias Hill (Faber, £6.99, 248pp) Like Ruth Rendell, first-time novelist Tobias Hill, knows his London Underground. The novel opens with a spate of unexplained rush-hour incidents, as female commuters end up in the system's deep "suicide pits". Polish tube worker, Casimir Kazimierski, makes it his business to track down the killer. More than just a straightforward whodunit - Casimir has several childhood demons to bury en route - Hill's atmospheric book will no doubt be the inspiration for some new and terrifying urban myths.
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