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Posts Tagged ‘history of art’

The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall (Thames & Hudson 2014)

I enjoy books that have me taking notes and looking for more online. This book certainly had me doing that: it’s erudite and informative, full of fascinating asides and anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that the arrow transfixing the martyr’s neck in Pietro Perugino’s St Sebastian (c. 1493-4) actually consists of a narrow line of text: PETRAUS PERUGINUS PINXIT, meaning “Pietro Perugino Painted (This)” in Latin? I didn’t know that and I’m not sure I’d’ve noticed anything strange about the arrow if I’d looked at the painting for myself. Good art-criticism enriches and informs our experience of art like that. And if you wonder how you missed something that seems so obvious once it’s pointed out to you, well, that’s a reminder that you should look more carefully when you’re on your own.

But I wasn’t so sure that this book was good art-criticism as I worked my way through it. Or at least, I wondered whether it was as good as Laura Cumming’s A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (2009). I don’t think it is, but Cumming set a high standard. She also followed a well-trodden track that Hall has followed again. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez appear in both books, but it would be perverse to avoid them in a history of the self-portrait. Then again, perversity is one way of making a name for yourself when so many critics have written about a limited amount of art for so long. James and Cumming don’t employ it, but I wish they had in the case of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638-9). It would be perverse of an art-critic to call Gentileschi a bad painter and this second-most famous of her works an ugly, awkward and uncouth mess.

But it would also be true. Hall and Cumming aren’t perverse: they treat paintress and painting seriously. Where’s Brian Sewell when you need him? Six foot underground, that’s where. I think he could have written a better book on self-portraits than either James and Cumming have done. It would certainly have been more idiosyncratic and politically incorrect. But would Sewell have been able to draw a parallel between self-portraiture and acting by quoting from Diderot? I don’t think he would. James could and did (but I’ll put the original French first):

Garrick passe sa tête entre les deux battants d’une porte, et, dans l’intervalle de quatre à cinq secondes, son visage passe successivement de la joie folle à la joie modérée, de cette joie à la tranquillité, de la tranquillité à la surprise, de la surprise à l’étonnement, de l’étonnement à la tristesse, de la tristesse à l’abattement, de l’abattement à l’effroi, de l’effroi à l’horreur, de l’horreur au désespoir, et remonte de ce dernier degré à celui d’où il était descendu. – Denis Diderot, Paradoxe Sur le Comédien (1773/1830)

Garrick puts his head between two leaves of a door, and in the space of four or five seconds, his face passed successively from wild joy to moderate joy, from this joy to composure, from composure to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to sadness, from sadness to gloom, from gloom to fright, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and then back again from this final stage up to the one from which he had started. (ch. 7, “At the Crossroads”, quoting from Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting, written 1773, published 1830)

That was one of the parts of The Self-Portrait that had me taking a note and finding out more online. But erudite and informative as the book was, it was still, like all artistic criticism, trapped inside a web of words. Critics write constantly about geniuses but can’t explain them or analyse their work other than superficially. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez all had special brains. I want to know how those brains evolved not just in a cultural sense but in a biological sense too. And I don’t believe that all races were capable of producing the dazzling art that’s discussed here.

Biological analysis of art will seem perverse and even blasphemous to critics, who mostly belong to the biology-denying Guardianista community, but their prejudices won’t stem the flood of perversity that is on its way. And if art criticism is something will never be the same again, then nor will the human race.

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Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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A Face to the World by Laura Cumming
A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

An interesting, erudite and enlightening book. And I didn’t come to it hoping for the best: Laura Cumming “has been the art critic of The Observer since 1999”. The Observer is the Guardian-on-Sunday, and is more of the same. Only more so: it’s even more pretentious and more politically correct than its weekday partner. And sure enough, Cumming uses that special dialect of English known as Guardianese:

Jan Van Eyck was here. It is not strictly accurate in terms of tense, of course, for Van Eyck has to be right here now as he paints his story on the wall. (ch. 1, “Secrets”, pg. 20)


But it’s endurable Guardianese and I managed to read the whole text as I looked at all the pictures, which ranged from the heights of genius, like Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio, to the depths of dreck, like Philip Guston, Wyndham Lewis and Egon Schiele. I don’t think much of Van Gogh or Artemisia Gentileschi either. Gentileschi led a more interesting life than other female self-portraitists like Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) and Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842), but she didn’t paint as well.

And though I like Velázquez, I don’t like Las Meninas (c. 1656), his study of a moment of life in the Spanish court, with the painter himself included. But Cumming has some interesting things to say about it, setting it into its historical, cultural and biographical context. And you’ll see Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (c. 1602) in a new way when you learn that the figure on the right holding up a lantern is Caravaggio himself:

He is on the very outskirts of the picture, struggling to see and make the gospel story visible, this artist evangelist. But his light also aids the soldiers he appears to accompany. Is he not in some sense their accomplice? (ch. 4, “Motive, Means and Opportunity”, pp. 65-6)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)

Caravaggio, Cattura di Cristo (1602)


Careful thought goes into great art and it takes an intelligent critic to draw it out. Cumming does so with skill and subtlety and sets a good example for people with lazy eyes like me. I found myself looking ahead in the book, trying to understand the pictures better before I read what she had to say about them. I didn’t do it very well, but I’ve learnt the error of my ways. I just wish she would learn the error of her ways in terms of “in terms of” and other items of Guardianese, because it would make the text worthier of its subjects. And the text didn’t convert me to the greatness of Rembrandt and Goya. Their genius remains veiled: I just don’t like them. Not so for Van Eyck, Dürer and Caravaggio. I thought they were geniuses before I read this book and I understand them better now that I have.
Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

Philip Guston, The Studio (1969)

But to understand them even better, we’ll have to use science and genetics. White European males have supplied a disproportionate share of greatness to art, just as they have to literature, science and mathematics. There’s something to explain there, though I’m sure that Cumming would be horrified at the suggestion of male and European superiority. She certainly doesn’t hint at it here, but her choices speak for themselves: Frida Kahlo is one of the rare exceptions to the white-male-European rule. And I don’t think she was a good artist, though she was a powerful one. Self-portraits have a special power and this book helps you understand it better.
Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck (1433)

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (1433)

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Front cover of Outsider Always Almost Never Quite I by Brian SewellOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.

After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like

…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)

It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:

I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)

But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:

I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)

But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:

In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)

[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)

If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.


Proviously post-posted:

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

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