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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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100 Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces, Gordon Kerr (Flame Tree Publishing 2011)

For me there is a simple test for Pre-Raphaelite art and many of the paintings in this book don’t pass it. The test goes like this: is this art deeply, soul-stirringly ugly and unpleasant on the eye? Are its colours garish and ill-judged, its figures stiff and ungainly, its general air stilted, simpering and sentimental?

If I can say “Yes” to those questions, it’s Pre-Raphaelite art. So Sir John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849) is Pre-Raphaelite. And Millais’s Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849) is too. And Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2) definitely is. And so are William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd (1851), The Awakening Conscience (1852) and The Light of the World (c. 1852). That last, which shows Christ knocking on an overgrown door, is one of the most famous paintings ever created. For me, it’s also one of the ugliest. Pre-Raphaelite painters often turn flesh and other matter into something that looks like plastic. Here it looks like putrescent plastic.

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)


But Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854) doesn’t pass the “Yuck!” test so successfully, so it’s not very Pre-Raphaelite for me. Nor is his Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867). And most of the paintings here by Dante Gabriel Rossetti don’t even come close to passing the “Yuck!” test. He wasn’t a particularly good artist, but he could capture the beauty of female hair, skin, lips and clothing, and even set them glowing, so I don’t like to classify him as Pre-Raphaelite. I don’t like to classify Sir Edward Burne-Jones as that either. He too could capture beauty, though less earthily and more ethereally.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Monna Vanna (1866)


But Rossetti and Burne-Jones were Pre-Raphaelite, the best of a generally bad movement. Anthony Frederick Sandys was technically a better artist than either of them, as he proved with Medea (1866-8), but he couldn’t capture beauty so well. William Waterhouse could, but he definitely wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite. He was neo-classical and skilful and if the two of his paintings included here, Ophelia (c. 1894) and Juliet (1898), don’t seem particularly out of place, that’s because they are far from his best. In fact, I would say that the only masterpieces here are by Rossetti. He was an uneven artist who belongs with the Pre-Raphaelites at his worst and transcended them at his best. Millais never transcended anything. But perhaps Pre-Raphaelitism would have been a less interesting movement if it hadn’t failed so often and so uglily.

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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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StellissimusThe Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Dealing Death at a DistanceSniper: Sniping Skills from the World’s Elite Forces, Martin J. Dougherty (Amber Books 2012)

Serious StimbulationCleaner, Kinder, Caringer: Women’s Wisdom for a Wounded World, edited by Dr Miriam B. Stimbers (University of Nebraska Press 2013)


Keeping It GweelGweel and Other Alterities, Simon Whitechapel (Ideophasis Press 2011) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Ave Aves!Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (second edition), text and maps by Lars Svensson, illustrations and captions by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström (HarperCollins, 2009) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Flesh and FearUnderstanding Owls: Biology, Management, Breeding, Training, Jemima Parry-Jones (David & Charles, 1998) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Hit and SmithSongs that Saved Your Life: The Art of The Smiths 1982-87, Simon Goddard (Titan Books 2013) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Van Eyck by Simone FerrariVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Even if you look at the paintings in this book so closely that your nose touches the paper, you’re still looking at them across a vast distance: the centuries that separate the highly religious, proto-scientific age of Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) from our own post-Christian, science-saturated age. We can’t see them as Van Eyck meant them to be seen and his contemporaries did see them, because the old beliefs and certainties have vanished or changed. Perhaps the portraits – including his own shrewd, thin-lipped and highly intelligent face, watching with careful, observant eyes beneath a red turban – have best ridden out the centuries. But what do the Madonnas and Annunciations mean now? Not what they meant once: Protestantism and secularism have trampled on Van Eyck’s Catholic world.

By doing that, they also trampled on the paganism preserved in Catholicism. I get a strong sense of Dionysian joy from paintings like the polyptychic Ghent Altarpiece of 1424-32. Van Eyck was using Christian symbols to celebrate an un-Christian love of the earth and its secular splendours: light, colour, jewels, music, living flesh, rich fabrics and luxuriant hair. The Deësis that dominates the altarpiece, “an iconic representation of Christ enthroned, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist”, has a stern-faced, tiara-wearing, fully bearded Christ, but there’s a sense of personal or private mythology in the Adoration of the Lamb below it, where the Lamb bleeds into a chalice atop an altar and an angel-topped fountain plays amid the worshippers:

…in front of the Lamb stands the Fountain of Life, which is referred to in Revelation. Crowds are thronging to pay homage to the Lamb, the Savior of Mankind: Apostles, Prophets, virgins, saints, Fathers of the Church and martyrs. The mystic scene is depicted in a paradisiacal landscape full of botanical detail, depicting flowers from all over the world, including valerian, lily of the valley, narcissi, lilies, basil and poppies. Van Eyck has moved away from the medieval style towards an authentic representation of nature, down to the most minute detail. (pg. 50)

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck 1433

The Annunciation (1433)

Van Eyck didn’t take the crazed and disturbing excursions of his near-contemporary Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), but there are hints of Bosch here and there in his art and hints of heterodoxy too. More obvious are the precision and accuracy of Eyck’s eyes and the skill with which he captured what he saw with his fingers and brush. That realism would appear, even more highly developed, in artists like Dürer and Vermeer, as the forces we can see stirring in Van Eyck’s art begin to exert their full strength.

For Van Eyck is important not just artistically and culturally, not just as a witness to vanished piety: he was one of the midwives of science, because his painting depended on mastery not just of art but of technology. He was the great pioneer of painting in oils and the richness and detail of his paintings still pay tribute to the chemical skills that allowed him to capture light and shape on canvas. The Italian biographer Vasari credits him with the invention of oil-painting: “It was first invented in Flanders by Johann of Bruges” (Van Eyck in Close-Up, pg. 138). This is significant in uncomfortable ways. I was careful above to call our own age “post-Christian”, rather than “post-religious”. Religion in disguised forms is still very strong, as would soon be apparent if Simone Ferrari, the Italian art historian who wrote this book, had spoken the full truth about Van Eyck. He wasn’t special just as an artistic genius, but as a white male north-western European. If Ferrari had said that, she would have punished for it rather in the way Galileo was punished for challenging the reality-denying religion of his day.

But the truth is that Van Eyck’s genius grew out of his genetics and the individualism fostered in his small corner of the world by the church’s prohibition on cousin marriage. In-breeding leads to societies that look inward; outbreeding leads to societies than look outward, not just sociologically but philosophically and epistemologically too. Van Eyck’s art was an early fruit of what might might called extraspection; Protestantism and science, both foreshadowed in Van Eyck, were later fruits; and the fruit will turn to ashes when civil war breaks out in Europe because of mass immigration. Individualist nations have been relatively easy for tribal ideologues to corrupt with universalist snake-oil. Van Eyck and his contemporaries began the process, but they would not have accepted Muslim migration. They would have been right. And though Islam has overseen some great art and architecture, and still has a calligraphic tradition that surpasses anything in Europe, it has never produced a Van Eyck.

And I don’t think Van Eyck ever produced an image more beautiful and inspiring than the rainbow-winged angel in The Annunciation of c. 1433-5. Smiles are rare in art from this period and the Virgin Mary herself is both unsmiling and plain as she receives the news that she will bear a divine child. But the angel is beautiful and smiles radiantly, crowned with gems and clad in an intricately pleated robe. That painting alone might secure Van Eyck’s reputation and Van Eyck alone makes Europe worth preserving. We can’t look at his paintings with his eyes any more, but his genius and importance are still plain to see and his legacy is still ours to defend.

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