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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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