In Conformity: The power of social influences, the renowned constitutional scholar Cass R. Sunstein acknowledges that social conformity can provide the glue to bind a society together. As he makes clear, there are many particular norms – legal or moral – that we would do well to follow for the sake of the common good. At the same time, he argues, conformity can facilitate atrocities, destroy creativity, drive out nuance, conceal valuable information, and crush free-thinking individuals.
‘Spellbinding’ is an apt word to sum up the effects created by Russian-born German artist Walter Spies in his phantasmagoric, darkly glowing landscapes and figure paintings, particularly those that he fashioned when living in Java and Bali between 1923 and 1941. Tropical luxuriance has other superlative renderers in art – Gauguin, ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau, Donald Friend – but none of their works has the eerie, mesmeric intensity of Spies’s. He deserves a full retrospective exhibition at that temple of early twentieth-century German art, the Neue Galerie, in New York (the last show of his work was in Holland back in 1980), but for the moment we can feast our eyes on the sumptuous illustrations in John Stowell’s biographical study of the artist – the first study in English of such substance, and a long-evolving project by an Australian scholar based at the University of Newcastle.