Over 2,500 Works from
Cave to Contemporary
Foreword by Ross King
(DK)If you drop it, it'll break your toe. That happened to me once. I didn't break the book --- a fine volume on wood-engraving from Oxford University Press --- but my toe grew to be nice and purple, like a grape.
It was lovely: the book, not my toe. I had a chance to spend a goodly time with it, a few days at least. Almost worth it.
It's best not to drop Art. You might lose more than a toe in the process. It's over six hundred pages, tall, thick paper, heavy-duty. Ross King is here. If you like him (his book on Michelangelo was a show-stopper) don't hold your breath. King's essay barely weighs in at 600 words, in five-point type, on a quarter-section of the first page (the rest taken up by the wavy sun-moon-stars out of Van Gogh).
King is of the art-should-shock and make-you-a-better-person critical school, but don't you pay that no mind, as my beloved mother would say. If you've ever been to the Barnes Foundation, you might think differently. The paintings that stay with me fifty years after are not the drab Chiricos or Soutine's hanging, eviscerated dogsbodies ... nor even the sole dark Rembrant or the imposing Tintoretto ... but the plump-breasted, wispy-haired ladies by Renoir, the funny, chunky Cézannes ... and Matisse's elongated dancing figures over the windows of the main studio, commissioned by Barnes himself.
Art is heavy, in all senses of the word, according to King, and as an example he offers up Guernica. Well, I say it's a fine example of political art, but not necessarily art art: just a huge block of black and white canvas, sitting there, balefully ... glaring at you. Picasso's early stuff I suspect is far better, along with some of the things he tossed off near the end of his life: I've always been fond of his immensely popular sumi-esque sketch of a wobbly Don Quixote alongside a plump Sancho Panza.
The prejudice in Art is shown by the artists who get more than a eighth or a quarter or a half-a-page. Seurat gets five which is OK by me: anyone who would drive themselves nuts by dividing their paintings into seven-million colored dots deserves some space. My beloved Matisse only merits three pages, with the atypically sad Sadness of the King getting top billing. Picasso rakes in the sweepstakes with eight full pages, four dedicated to Guernica alone. Stupendous Modigliani gets only one, Soutine --- no dead dogs allowed --- a half-a-page.
My other hero, Henri Rousseau --- they call him a primitive --- gets but a page, while that overblown Salvador Dali is awarded three-and-a-half ... including a lobster atop a telephone. The editors assure us that "both hard-shelled objects, lobsters and telephones held powerful sexual associations for Dali." Waiter, hold the Lobster Newberg.
The big bore Robert Rauschenberg gets three pages, Jasper Johns two, and that dunce Andy Warhol two too many, along with his cynical quote "Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art."
One of the editors, don't ask me who, in the chapter entitled "Post-war Europe" --- which war, there've been so many? --- tries to define Existentialism in sixty-five words. War also gets full billing on pages 510 - 511, fifteen paintings and a bas-relief squashed into two pages, in one of those all-encumbering theme pages ("Myth and Legend," "Animals," "Nudes," "Portraits.")
The eccentric but wonderful Thomas Hart Benton is mashed into but 1/6th of a page, just below Grant Wood and across from Edward Hopper. Semi-realist Georgia O'Keeffe merits a little over a half-a-page, and, she tells us, "Nothing is less real than realism." Diego Rivera is shrunk down to 2-1/2 paintings whereas wife Frida gets a full page. A box on page 499 tries to cram the whole of the "Mexican Revolution 1910 - 1920" into twenty words.
Jackson Pollock's inchoate drip-ery gets five pages, although he has to share a part of page 503 with Peggy Guggenheim who is quoted as saying that he was "the strongest painter of his generation." Stronger than what?
As far as we are concerned, you can quit this volume when you get to page 500 ... Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Kinetic Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art ... each one sillier and sillier. And by the time you arrive at Superrealism, Neorealism, Sacrorealism, Synchrorealism, Pantheocreaticrealism ... why, you might just as well hang it up. The lobster, that is.
In my book, the only one worth his salt from those years is Ad Reinhardt who, in the ultimate decade of his life, only painted variations of black. "I am simply making the last paintings that can ever be made," he is reported to have said.
Art offers an interesting take on a way to look at paintings: look at the patterns; follow the lines; recognize the balance of elements. But don't look at Art for the art. It will never be the be-all because great paintings have to be seen as they are, not as they are reproduced. We have here massive art works reduced down by 90 - 95%, leaving only hints of what we are missing.
And, that is, perhaps, the value. For you will see --- among the more than 2,500 paintings, drawings, sketches, sculptures, buildings shown here --- something that grabs your attention, something that, if you are lucky, will lead you to the source.
Wine glasses by Patrick Caulfield. The original Laocoön, the three figures enrapt by those snaky snarky creatures. Arabesque tilework --- which I must have on my dormer wall --- from at the Masjid-i-Jomeh mosque in Isfahan, Iran.
A windblown horse with groom, by Zhao Mengfu, now resting in Taipei. Bellini's very prissy Doge Leonardo Loredan. Giotto's very green Christ in Florence. Françoise Rude's very rude Liberty. Boccioni's very husky Unique Form of Continuity in Space [See Fig. 1 above].
Hokusai's famous and stupendous wave, cresting at the British Museum. Van Gogh's colorful, lovely, tiny, lively bedroom at Arles, now no longer in Arles, but in Chicago. Richard Bergh's stately Nordic Summer Evening complete with a dim Nordic sun, hidden, hanging hidden there in the Goteborgs Konstmuseum. Rousseau's leafless walk in the forest. And ... Lord Love Me ... Modigliani's stupendous Nude with Necklace, the nude (and the necklace, some necklace!) hanging together now at the Guggenheim in New York, where, some day soon, before I pop off, I must, somehow, get to see.
--- L. W. Milam