Tom Sutcliffe: Who do you think you're looking at?

The week in culture

Related Topics

It's always surprising to find how long a history the newfangled has. Take "newfangled" itself, as one example. I remember once being surprised to find the word in Jane Austen, but the OED's first citation actually comes from as far back as 1496. I guess that's fairly obvious, when you think about it a bit. Fangling, whatever it is, somehow doesn't sound like a post-industrial process. But the larger point still stands. A lot of the things that we think of as sharply and distinctly contemporary turn out to have been around for ages.

I encountered an example just the other day, walking round Dulwich Gallery's new exhibition on Salvator Rosa – a painter who could, almost literally, be said to have put in the foundation stones for English romanticism and the English sense of the picturesque. The exhibition mostly consists of Rosa's landscapes – thrillingly wild assemblies of gnarled rock and boulders, lightly garnished with with banditti and splintered tree-trunks – though it also finds space for some of his paintings of occult meetings, a kind of 17th-century equivalent of Hollywood horror films, packed with deliciously terrifying visions of the devil and witches. But it was the portraits that prompted that sharp, missing-step, feeling that the past is much closer to us than we sometimes assume – and particularly two portraits that have been hung as companion pieces – here titled as Philosophy and Poetry.

What feels modern about these portraits is their contempt for the viewer. In one a young man with long, dark, hair looks at us sardonically, his expression underwritten by the placard in his hand, which bears the motto "Aut Tace, Aut Loquere Meliore Silentio", a Pythagorean tag which translates as "keep silent, unless your speech be better than silence". "Shut it", in other words – a bracingly aggressive communication which isn't softened by the man's expression.

In the other painting a young woman with a headband of blue cloth and bayleaves turns to look over her shoulder at us, as if interrupted – her expression just teetering on the edge of irritation. It isn't open contempt yet, but there's a strong sense in it that she's turned her head for something negligible – us – and away from something far more important – whatever she's writing with the quill in her hand. Together the pictures deliver exactly that little kick of disregard that is a feature of so many modern photographic portraits.

Laura Cumming, who writes illuminatingly of the former in her book A Face to the World, actually describes this as a "rock star pose" – which is another way of capturing its recognisable modernity. She accepts the long tradition that it's a self-portrait of Rosa himself (a tradition the Dulwich curators are inclined to dismiss) and reads it as a performative pose, the adoption of a sexy, bad-boy aloofness which is calculated to enhance his mystery and his appeal. And, whether it's Rosa or not, that's certainly the quality it has; the seduction of the character who will be hard to seduce and who isn't interested in your good opinion. If you want to see this look nowadays, open any copy of Rolling Stone magazine, or any fashion glossy, and you can see it's equivalent – the loftiness of those who know they're worth the climb. There are countless portraits that look back at you – implying a kind of reciprocity of gaze – and there are as many that look out at you, as if the picture is a container for a psychology. But these two unmistakably look down at you. I'd always assumed that it was a peculiarly late 20th-century expression, this – the celebrity sneer which helps its bearer to maintain the illusion that they aren't selling anything, and aren't dependent on our goodwill as consumers, but are actually romantic heroes.

But here it is, straight out of the pages of GQ and onto a canvas from 1641. Did Rosa invent this look, or does he simply record its arrival as another way of confronting the world? I don't suppose one could categorically decide either way, but it was somehow comforting to find that arrogant cool had such a long back-story.

Why it's all in the timing for today's performers

I wonder if the pendulum of fashion will ever swing back when it comes to the length of plays? I went to see Anthony Page's Design for Living the other day – mildly startled to discover that it contained two intervals and ran for something over three hours. Quite a few of the generally approving reviews also mentioned its length as a drawback, almost as if it was bad manners to keep an audience in for so long. And yet, when I first came to London in the late Seventies it was commonplace for productions to have two intervals and a three-hour stretch was utterly routine. To have grumbled about the fact would have seemed distinctly odd, and there was even a certain premium in theatrical marathons, such as David Edgar's adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. The steady reduction in the average length of plays over the following decades can't simply be a matter of degraded attention spans either, since the average length of a movie has been steadily increasing over the same period. And given that this is an alteration in fashion, there's nothing to say that it won't change again, just like skirt lengths but on a far longer periodicity. Reading about a new adaptation of The Great Gatsby, shortly to open at the Public Theatre in New York, I wonder if the shift has already begun: it runs for eight hours, with two intermissions and a dinner interval.

Come fly with me, let's fry away

It's one thing for John Prescott to be tweeting his approval of the singer Rumer – one assumes he has quite a bit of spare time on his hands these days. But it's a bit surprising to learn that the Prime Minister is a big fan of Angry Birds, a lethally addictive and utterly pointless iPhone game that requires you to catapult cartoon avians at a variety of structures, notionally built by egg-stealing pigs to protect their loot. I'm currently in an Angry Birds recovery programme – and I know how hard it can be to stop at just one or two attempts. So was the Prime Minister serious when he said he'd paid for the full version and if so when on earth does he find time to play? More to the point, perhaps, given that the satisfaction of the game consists entirely in destroying elaborate but fragile edifices (the more damage you do the higher your score) should we regard his enthusiasm as a symptom of dangerous underlying impulses or a harmless release of desires that might prove much more lethal if applied to Post Offices, say, or the NHS? And, if he does have time to kill, even in that most demanding of jobs could he – or Number 10's Angry Birds Strategy Unit – give me any tips on clearing level 8-10 with three stars?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall   

Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member

Mark Steel
The biggest task facing Labour is to re-think the party's economic argument, and then engage in battle with George Osborne and his policies  

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works