Review: Stones of Venice

Review: Stones of Venice

The Stones of VeniceThe Stones of Venice by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.

I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.

Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.

It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.

This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:

I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.

Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.

Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.

In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.

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Review: Lives of the Artists

Review: Lives of the Artists

Lives of the ArtistsLives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An artist lives and acquires fame through his works; but with the passing of time, which consumes everything, these works—the first, then the second, and the third—fade away.

After Plutarch’s Lives, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is likely the most iconic collection of biographies of famous men. He published two editions of the book, the first in 1550, the second in 1568; and both found success in Vasari’s lifetime and have continued to sell well ever since. In life Vasari was a typical Renaissance man, achieving fame for his paintings (he decorated the Palazzo Vecchio) and his architecture (he was responsible for the loggia of the Uffizi), in addition to his work as a biographer. Granted, his paintings are not highly regarded nowadays (though many are pleasing enough to my eyes); but this posthumous verdict did not prevent him from making a fine living. And when you write the first book of art history in the history of art, the rest hardly matters.

The edition I own is highly abridged, as are nearly all popular versions, since the original contains dozens upon dozens of painters, sculptors, and architects—most of whom the casual reader does not know of or care for. This explains why most of the Lives are so short. Indeed, fans of any particular Renaissance artist are liable to be disappointed by Vasari’s treatment. He runs through Sandro Botticelli in all of ten pages, for example, barely pausing to mention the Birth of Venus. Indeed, many of these biographies are hardly biographies at all, just extended catalogues of works. This is certainly useful for the art historian (though Vasari made many mistakes) but it does not make for electrifying reading.

The modern psychoanalyzing mode of artistic biographies was, of course, entirely alien to Vasari, and he seems to regard the artist’s personality as a source of gossip but not of insight. This does not prevent him from including many good stories. Like Plutarch himself, Vasari is rich in anecdote—and, as in Plutarch, half of them are probably false. Fact or fiction, a good story is preferable to a dry fact, and this is when Vasari’s Lives really come alive. We hear of Cimabue agreeing to take on Giotto as a pupil, after seeing the young boy scratching on a stone; or of Paolo Uccello staying up long nights to work on problems of perspective. Whether these stories help us to understand the paintings is doubtful; but they do help to bring alive this amazing time in history.

Vasari begins the book with a sketch of the history of art as he understood it. His opinion is not a masterpiece of subtlety. In essence, the Greeks and Romans understood that art begins by copying nature, and so produced excellent works; then art fell into barbarism (Vasari coined the term “gothic” to describe medieval art) in which the ancient knowledge was lost and artists had no knowledge of proper technique; finally the painter Giotto came and revived the arts, inaugurating a process that culminated in the works of Michelangelo. I must say that this view, though little more than naked prejudice, is at least refreshing in Vasari’s conviction that art was ascending and culminating in his own epoch. (Most of us are disposed to think it is declining.) It is striking that Michelangelo’s historic importance was understood even during his own lifetime. This was not an age of poor Van Goghs working in lonely shacks. The great artists were recognized and rewarded when they lived; and younger artists were seen to have surpassed their masters—novel concepts in our romantic age.

The Life of Michelangelo, whom Vasari knew and worshipped, is by far the longest and forms the core of this collection. Indeed, all the other lives can be seen as mere leadup to the great Florentine, who fulfils all the promise of former ages. Vasari here turns from chronicler to hagiographer, praising Michelangelo with every breath. You might even say that Vasari turns into quite the Boswell, including various bits of Michelangelo’s conversation, and also several letters written to him by the great artist, as if to prove that Michelangelo really was his friend. All this makes for good reading, even if the worshipful tone is grating. The second longest Life in my collection is that of another Florentine (Vasari was a fierce patriot of his home city), Filippo Brunelleschi. This life is perhaps even better than that of Michelangelo, as Vasari charts the squabbles and drama behind the scenes of Brunelleschi’s dome.

Vasari’s style is easygoing and almost conversational, and the pages go by quickly. He strikes me as a man full of shallow opinions but of a generous mind and a steady judgment. This book—full of errors, lacking any historical context, and greatly out of step with modern opinion—could hardly be read as a standalone volume on Renaissance painting. But every book on the subject borrows, knowingly or unknowingly, from Vasari, who has given bread to scholars and delight to readers for generations with this charming book.

I have endeavored not only to record what the artists have done but to distinguish between the good, the better, and the best, and to note with some care the methods, manners, styles, behavior, and ideas of the painters and sculptors; I have tried as well as I know how to help people who cannot find out for themselves to understand the sources and origins of various styles, and the reasons for the improvement or decline of the arts at various times and among different people.

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Review: Selected Writing (Ruskin)

Review: Selected Writing (Ruskin)

Selected WritingsSelected Writings by John Ruskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taste is not only a part and an index of morality;—it is the ONLY morality.

John Ruskin can be said to be the John the Baptist of the religion of art, a herald of things to come. He was shortly followed by the great aesthetes, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Marcel Proust—who all read and were deeply influenced by his work. But Ruskin himself cannot be called an aesthete—at least, not in the sense that he considered aesthetic appreciate the central goal of life. For Ruskin, art provided not only aesthetic pleasure but genuine moral instruction; great paintings could be read like psalms, and great buildings were sermons in stone.

In this, as in so many other ways, Ruskin can be jarring for the modern reader. Indeed, his ideas were jarring even back then. He made a profession of insistently, dogmatically, and unequivocally asserting opinions that, to most people, seem manifestly untrue. The most notorious of these opinions is thus summed up by him: “You can have noble art only from noble persons, associated under laws fitted to their time and circumstances.” Unethical people, therefore, could produce only base art. And if an entire age habitually produced shoddy paintings and buildings—as Ruskin believed of his own age—then there must obviously be something deeply wrong with that society.

Art and society were thus, for Ruskin, deeply intertwined. This is the bridge that connects his art and his social criticism. Art is never just for art’s sake; it has a didactic and a moral purpose. A work of art is great in proportion to the greatness of its ideas; and these ideas are not the products of an eccentric individual, but of a whole culture, evolving and refining itself through generations. Every great work that results from this evolution “is the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History, and Religious Faith of nations.” As such, these works have a vital social purpose; and it is the job of the art critic to explicate their moral significance. We see this most clearly in Ruskin’s major works on architecture, The Stones of Venice and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which are concerned, above all, with the ethical lessons inherent in gothic architecture.

For Ruskin, however, art was not only moral, but truthful. From this conviction came his youthful defense of J.W. Turner in his five-volume Modern Painters. Turner’s works, he thought, revealed a deep insight into the workings of nature; and since Ruskin was himself keenly sensitive to natural beauty, especially mountains, he became Turner’s champion. The job of the landscape painter, like that of the poet, is to record nature as faithfully as possible. Inferior painters and poets allow themselves to be overpowered by emotions, which lead them to personify or to distort nature: Ruskin called this the “pathetic fallacy.” But the truly great painter or poet, the Turners and Dantes, are always in complete control of themselves.

One can see why this was jarring. Most of us naturally distinguish whether something is good, beautiful, or true; but Ruskin insisted that these qualities were inextricable. Art could not be great if it was immoral or if it was untrue. Indeed, for Ruskin, you might say that these qualities were not separable at all; having any of them without having all three was inconceivable. But their existence was not dependent on solitary, virtuous geniuses. To the contrary: the ability to understand nature only exists in developed cultures; moral systems are the products of peoples; and great art can only exist within a school and a tradition. Society was therefore deeply important for Ruskin, being the wellspring of everything he admired and sought.

The later half of his life was, as a result, spent in social reform. Specifically, Ruskin set himself up as the enemy of industrial capitalism. Gothic art was great because each workman was an artist; but in mass-production the workers are reduced to machines. The division of labor is, as he said, really the division of souls, allowing for efficiency but stunting human growth. The ethic of enlightened selfishness could never inspire any great works, since the highest ethical value is selflessness. The environmental destruction wrought by industrialism was not only a crime against future generations but a crime against ourselves, since we were destroying the truth and beauty of nature, which is one of the vital sources of happiness.

This is the quickest summary I can give this selection of Ruskin’s work, whose volumes fill many shells and touch on many different disciplines. There are many reasons to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas. The relationship of beauty to truth and to goodness is obviously more complicated than he insisted. Murderers, rapists, and thieves have been great painters. Honorable men have built ugly houses. And what is the truth of a symphony? But for me it is a relief to find someone who finds beauty so socially vital.

I have spent far too long in concrete landscapes, surrounded by endless rows of identical houses, each one ugly in itself and uglier en masse. The effect that such thoughtless dreariness has on my mood—in contrast with the great enlivening freshness I feel when in a lovely city—has convinced me that architectural beauty is not merely an added frill or an extra perk, but is a positive social good. And it is difficult to dismiss Ruskin’s ideas on architecture, society, and the economy when one goes from a modern suburb to a well-preserved medieval town. How is it that finer houses were built by peasants? How is it that the most wealthy society in history can produce only the most mindless repetition, vast labyrinths of stupidity, destroying whole landscapes in the process?

Ruskin is the prophet of this phenomenon, and thus valuable now more than ever. But apart from this, Ruskin is worth reading just for the quality of his writing. His early style, flowery and involuted, gave way to a clearer strain later in life. But throughout his career his prose is rich with observation and abounding in memorable phrases. Even if one disagrees with all of his conclusions, it is impossible to read him without some stimulating thought.

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Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

Review: The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

The Letters of Vincent van GoghThe Letters of Vincent van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For great things do not just happen by impulse but are a succession of small things linked together.

The main problem when encountering Van Gogh is that his life has become the quintessential artistic myth of our age. The obscure genius ahead of his time, toiling in solitude, tortured by personal demons, driven by a creativity that sometimes spilled over into madness—and so on. You’ve heard it all before. You have also seen it before. His paintings suffer from the same overexposure as does his life story. Starry Night hangs, in poster form, in dorm rooms and offices; it is used in commercials and as desktop backgrounds. The challenge, then, as with all iconic art, is to unsee it before it can be properly seen.

The best way to pop this swollen bubble of this myth is, I think, to read these letters. Here an entirely different Van Gogh is revealed. Instead of the mad genius we find the cultured gentleman. Van Gogh could read and write English, French, and German fluently, in addition to his native Dutch. He peppers his letters with references to Dickens, Elliot, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola. His prose is fluent, cogent, and clear—sometimes even lyrical. His knowledge of art history is equally impressive, as he, for example, compares Shakespeare’s and Rembrandt’s understanding of human nature. Not only this, but he was far from insulated from the artistic currents of his day. To the contrary, he was friends with many of the major artists in Paris—Seurat, Signac, Gauguin—and aware of the work of other prominent painters, such as Monet and Cézanne.

But, of course, Van Gogh’s myth, like many, has some basis in truth. During his lifetime he did not receive even a fraction of the recognition his work deserved (though if he had lived a little longer it likely would have). He was often unhappy and he did suffer from a mental illness of some sort, which did indeed lead him to sever a portion of his own ear. What is less clear is the role that his unhappiness and his mental illness played in his work. In our modern world, still full of Romanticism, we are apt to see these factors as integral to his artistic vision, the source of his inspiration and style. Van Gogh himself had, however, quite a different opinion, seeing his suffering and illness as a distraction or an obstacle, something to be endured but not sought.

The letters in this volume span from 1872 to 1890, the year of his death. Most of them are addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and who supported Vincent financially. There are also a few letters to his sister, Wil, and to his artist friends. From the beginning we see Van Gogh as an enthusiastic and earnest man, very liable to be swept up into passions. His first passion was the church. Following in his father’s footsteps, Van Gogh went to England to work as a preacher. His letters from this period are full to bursting with pious sentiments; in one letter he even includes a sermon, which he composed in English. He quickly grew disenchanted with conventional religion, however, and soon he is pining after his cousin, Kee, who rejects him and refuses to see him. Not long after that he takes in a woman named Sien, a former prostitute, and his letters are filled with his dreams of family life.

But in all of these letters, even before he decided to take up art—which he did comparatively late, at the age of 27—Van Gogh show a keen visual awareness and appreciation. He includes long, detailed, and sometimes rapturous descriptions of towns and landscapes. He is also, from the start, independent to the point of stubbornness. He persists in trying too woe his cousin even in the face of his whole family (including Kee herself) discouraging him. He insists on taking in Sien despite the disapproval of nearly everybody, including his brother and his mentor, Mauve. When it came to art he was absolutely uncompromising, refusing to paint anything just for money, and getting into passionate disagreements with some of his artist friends (Gauguin, most notoriously).

Van Gogh’s intractability often landed him in trouble. He had a bad relationship with his parents and often quarrelled with his brother, Theo, who was his closest confidant. But it is also, I think, the quality that is ultimately most admirable in him. His personal standards drove him to work hard. He was no savant. His letters are filled with exercises and studies. He was tough on his own work and constantly strove to improve it. And though he sometimes got discouraged, there is never any hint of quitting or compromising. This is the classic story, often told. But it is easy to lose sight of how dreary and dispiriting this life could be, day to day. In films the struggling artist is enmeshed in a moving drama, and the audience always knows it will come right in the end. But for Van Gogh this was a plodding daily reality of struggle and failure, with no audience and no guarantee of ultimate success.

That we admire Van Gogh for persisting is, in large part, because his art was truly great. But what would we think if he was mediocre? This, you might say, is the paradox of persistence: We admire those who persist in the face of struggle when they have genuine talent; but when they do not, the spectacle becomes almost pathetic. What would we think of a man financially supported by his brother, constantly quarrelling with and alienating his parents, toiling away in isolation, who produced nothing beautiful? We might be inclined to call such a person naïve, foolish, or even selfish. Whether we admire or scorn stubbornness, in other words, depends on whether it eventually pays off. But in the meantime nobody can know if it will, least of all the stubbornly persistent person. It is, in short, a great risk.

Yet it cannot be said that Van Gogh wagered everything on his talent, since there is not even a hint of calculation or self-interest in his continuing persistence. He is so manifestly, uncompromisingly, absolutely obsessed and absorbed by art that there is no other option for him. Even when institutionalized and hospitalized he thinks of nothing but when, how, where, and what he can paint next. And though he at times expresses regret for the sacrifices this entails—he is especially vexed by the toll it takes on his love-life—he never discusses art with even a touch of bitterness. He is willing to live in a hovel and survive on crumbs if it means he can afford paint. To see such unqualified devotion, not in a novel or on a stage, but in the real, intimate context of his daily life is (to use a hackneyed word) inspiring.

Vincent’s story had a tragic ending. On a summer day in July he walked into a wheat field where he was painting and shot himself in the chest. He survived two more days, finally passing away in his brother’s arms on July 29. The circumstances surrounding this death are rather remarkable, and I don’t wonder that two biographers, Naifeh and Smith, have raised questions about it. The tone of his final letters, while troubled, are far from despairing. He even includes an order of paints in his final dispatch to Theo. And it is also extraordinary to think that a man who had shot himself in the chest could walk a mile back to the inn, or that a man locally known for his mental instability could get a gun. The recent film, Loving Vincent (which I haven’t seen), is focused on this question.

Theo did not long survive his brother: he succumbed to syphilis within just six months. Theo had married his wife, Jo, less than two years earlier, which proved an extremely fortunate circumstance—for art’s sake, at least—since it was Jo who championed Vincent’s legacy and who published his correspondence. Theo and Jo’s only son, named after his uncle Vincent, was responsible for founding the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which I recently visited. To any who get the chance, I highly recommend this paired experience, for the letters and the paintings are mutually enriching. Few people in history seemed to have lived so entirely for the sake of posterity: churning out paintings which few people saw, writing letter after letter few people read, creating a story and an oeuvre that now have the power to tear you in two.

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Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Review: Miró—Painter of the Stars

Miró: El pintor de las estrellasMiró: El pintor de las estrellas by Joan Miró

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Joan Miró’s name is hardly less known than that of Dalí’s or even Picasso’s, his art seems strikingly less popular. I have been told by several people that they cannot appreciate it. And, indeed, I was often left cold by the works I had seen in the Reina Sofia—some of which seems to confirm every negative stereotype about modern art. But I wanted to give Miró another chance; so I visited the Fundació Miró in Barcelona, and read this book.

One of the most difficult tasks before any young artist is to develop her voice. By “voice” I mean many things: style, philosophy, identity, themes, and so on, which taken together make an artists work immediately recognizable as hers. In a word, this requires originality. One might be inclined to think that originality is the easiest thing to achieve—being the natural product of everyone’s differences. But to produce a deeply original work—one that could not have been produced by anybody else—is anything but easy. Artistic voice emerges in a dialectical process with one’s influences, as they are first mastered and then synthesized, until gradually something appears which cannot be traced to any influence.

This process is most easily seen among painters. And it is wonderfully illustrated in Miró, whose work incorporated fauvism, surrealism, and cubism. But it wasn’t only artistic trends that shaped the young painter. He was deeply inspired by natural sights—particularly the countryside near Montroig (near the city of Tarragona, in his ancestral Catalonia). The voice that Miró developed through his formative experiences and influences is unmistakable—displaying a sensibility for forms and color that no other artist could replicate. And consequently one feels, upon entering the Fundació Miró, the same way one feels upon entering the Dalí Museum in Figueres—that one is entering a new visual universe that obeys different laws.

In short, I have come to enjoy Miró’s work far more than I had. I find in it a sense of playfulness, and sometimes a sense of peacefulness, that is deeply appealing; and I enjoy watching his manipulation of forms shift throughout his work, while remaining recognizably Miró, like a theme and variations. But I still must admit that it does not affect me very deeply. My appreciation, in other words, is more intellectual than emotional. And I think that would have suited Miró just fine.

This little book is full of glossy pictures and does an excellent job in covering the different phases of Miró’s career.

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Review: The Dehumanization of Art

Review: The Dehumanization of Art

La deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estéticaLa deshumanización del arte y otros ensayos de estética by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my judgment, the characteristic feature of new art “from the sociological point of view” is that it divides the public into two categories: those that understand it, and those that don’t.

The more I read of José Ortega y Gasset, the more I discover that he was one of the most complete intellectuals of the previous century. During his prolific career he made contributions to political theory, to philosophy, to literary criticism, and now I see to art criticism.

In the title essay of this collection, Ortega sets out to explain and defend the “new art.” He was writing at the high point of modernism, when the artists of the Generation of ’27 in Spain—a cadre that included Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca—were embarking on new stylistic experiments. Somewhat older and rather conservative by temper, Ortega shows a surprising (to me) affinity for the new art. He sees cubism and surrealism as inevitable products of art history, and thinks it imperative to attempt to understand the young artists.

One reason why Ortega is attracted to this art is precisely because of its inaccessibility. An elitist to the bone, he firmly believed that humankind could be neatly divided into two sorts, the masses and the innovatives, and had nothing but scorn for the former. Thus new art’s intentional difficulty is, for Ortega, a way of pushing back against the artistic tyranny of the vulgar crowd. This shift was made, says Ortega, as a reaction against the trend of the preceding century, when art became more and more accessible.

The titular “dehumanization” consists of the new art’s content becoming increasingly remote from human life. The art of the nineteenth century was, on the whole, confessional and sympathetic, relying on its audience’s ability to identify with characters or the artist himself. But the new art is not based on fellow-feeling. It is an art for artists, and appeals only to our pure aesthetic sense.

As usual, Ortega is bursting with intriguing ideas that are not fully developed. He notes the new art’s use of irony, oneiric symbolism, its rejection of transcendence, its insistence on artistic purity, and its heavy use of metaphor. But he does not delve deeply into any of these topics, and he does not carefully investigate any particular work or movement. Ortega’s mind is like a simmering ember that sheds sparks but never properly ignites. He has a seemingly limitless store of pithy observations and intriguing theories, but never builds these into a complete system. He is like a child on a beach, picking up rocks, examining them, and then moving on. He wasn’t one for sand castles.

One reason for this is that he normally wrote in a short format—essays, articles, and speeches—and only later wove these into books. It is a journalistic philosophy, assembled on the fly. Personally I find this manner of philosophizing intriguing and valuable. His books are short, punchy, and rich; and even if I am seldom convinced by his views, I also never put down one of his books without a store of ideas to ponder. He is even worth reading just for his style; like Bertrand Russell in English, Ortega manages to combine clarity, sophistication, and personality. I look forward to the next book.

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Review: The Beautiful Brain

Review: The Beautiful Brain

Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y CajalBeautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the entomologist in pursuit of brightly colored butterflies, my attention hunted, in the flower garden of the gray matter, cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday—who knows?—clarify the secret of mental life.

I love walking around cathedrals because they are sublime examples of vital art. I say “vital” because the art is not just seen, but lived through. Every inch of a cathedral has at least two levels of significance: aesthetic and theological. Beauty, in other words, walks hand in hand with a certain view of the world. Indeed, beauty is an essential part of this view of the world, and thus facts and feelings are blended together into one seamlessly intelligible whole: a philosophy made manifest in stone.

The situation that pertains today is quite different. It is not that our present view of the world is inherently less beautiful; but that the vital link between the visual arts and our view of the world has been severed. Apropos of this, I often think of one of Richard Feynman’s anecdotes. He once gave a tour of a factory to a group of artists, trying to explain modern technology to them. The artists, in turn, were supposed to incorporate what they learned into a piece for an exhibition. But, as Feynman notes, almost none of the pieces really had anything to do with the technology. Art and science had tried to make contact, and failed.

This is why I am so intrigued by the anatomical drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. For here we see a successful unification, revealing the same duality of significance as in a cathedral: his drawings instruct and enchant at once.

Though relatively obscure in the anglophone world, Cajal is certainly one of the most important scientists of history. He is justly considered to be the father of neuroscience. Cajal’s research into the fine structures of the brain laid the foundation for the discipline. At a time when neurons were only a hypothesis, Cajal not only convinced the scientific world of their existence (as against the reticular theory), but documented several different types of neurons, describing their fine structure—nucleus, axon, and dendrites—and the flow of information within and between nerve cells.

As we can see in his Advice to a Young Investigator, Cajal in his adulthood became a passionate advocate for scientific research. But he did not always wish to be a scientist. As a child he was far more interested in painting; it was only the pressure of his father, a doctor, which turned him in the direction of research. And as this book shows, he never really gave up his artistic ambition; he only channelled it into another direction.

Research in Cajal’s day was far simpler. Instead of a team of scientists working with a high-powered MRI, we have the lonely investigator hunched over a microscope. The task was no easier for being simpler, however. Besides patience, ingenuity, and logical mind—the traits of any good scientist—a microanatomist back then needed a prodigious visual acumen. The task was to see properly: to extract a sensible figure from the blurry and chaotic images under the microscope. To meet this challenge Cajal not had to create new methods—staining the neurons to make them more visible—but to train his eye. And in both he proved a master.

He would often spend hours at the microscope, looking and looking without taking any notes. His analytic mind was not only at work during these periods, making guesses about cell functions and deductions about information flow, but also his visual imagination: he had to hold the cell’s form within his mind, see the the cells in context and in isolation, since the fine details of their structure were highly suggestive of their behavior and purpose. His drawings were the final expression of his visual process: “A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.” For Cajal, as for Leonardo da Vinci, drawing was a form of thinking.

Though by now long outdated by subsequent research, Cajal’s drawings have maintained their appeal, both as diagrams and as works of art. With the aid of a short caption—ably provided by Eric Newman in this volume—the drawings spring to life as records of scientific research. They summarize complex processes, structures, and relations with brilliant clarity, making the essential point graspable in an instant.

Purely as drawings they are no less brilliant. The twisting and sprawling forms of neurons; the chaotic lattices of interconnected cells; the elegant architecture of our sensory organs—all this possesses an otherworldly beauty. The brain, such an intimate part of ourselves, is revealed to be intensely alien. One is naturally reminded of the surrealists by these dreamlike landscapes; and indeed Lorca and Dalí were both aware of Cajal’s work. Yet Cajal’s drawings are perhaps more fantastic than anything the surrealists ever produced, all the more bizarre for being true.

Even the names of these drawings wouldn’t be out of place in a modern gallery: “Cuneate nucleus of a kitten,” “Neurons in the midbrain of a sixteen-day-old trout,” “Axons in the Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man.” Science can be arrestingly poetic.

One of the functions of art is to help us to understand ourselves. The science of the brain, in a much different way, aims to do the same thing. It seems wholly right, then, that these two enterprises should unite in Cajal, the artistic investigator of our nervous system. And this volume is an ideal place to witness his accomplishment. The large, glossy images are beautiful. The commentary frames and explains, but does not distract. The essays on Cajal’s life and art are concise and incisive, and are supplemented by an essay on modern brain imaging that brings the book up to date. It is a cathedral of a book.

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Review: Picasso (Masterpieces)

Review: Picasso (Masterpieces)

Picasso (Masterpieces)Picasso by Jose Maria Faerna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We all know that Art is not truth.

In the Mediterranean city of Málaga, situated on Spain’s golden coast, on October 25, 1881, a little boy was born who would transform the course of art history.

The name written on the boy’s baptism certificate was Pablo Diego Jośe Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. This last name, Picasso, is not Spanish at all. The boy got it from his mother, who inherited it from her Italian grandfather. And it was this name, among a wealth of possibilities, that young Pablo chose as his signature.

To name Picasso as the most influential painter of the previous century is, by now, to merely state the obvious. He may also have been the most versatile. His young training in the academic style culminated in his realist Science and Charity, a painting worthy of a mature master which Picasso finished at the age of 15. After this classicist apotheosis Picasso moved to Paris, fell in with the Bohemian crowd, and then began his stylistic experiments.

His first major phase was the so-called Blue Period, associated with a melancholic period in Picasso’s own life, in which he used different shades of blue to portray poverty, suffering, and death. The influence of El Greco is, I think, particularly marked during this period, as seen in the elongated forms of his figures. This is easily observable in La Vie, an allegorical work that depicts his friend Carlos Casagemas, who had shot himself a few years before because of his unrequited love for Germaine Pichot. (This tragedy, however, did not stop Picasso from going out with her after that.)

Picasso’s mood seems to have lightened the following year, which led to his Rose Period, a similarly monochromatic exploration of pinkish tones. The subject matter changes here, too, as he paints actors in lieu of beggars, acrobats in lieu of dead poets, and harlequins in lieu of prostitutes. Of these, Young Acrobat on a Ball is one of my favorites, a playful scene that also showcases Picasso’s ability to create solidity, as seen in the statuesque seated man.

Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein—an important early supporter and patron—is also classified among the Rose Period, though her angular visage shows clear signs of his African Period. Like many young artists of the time, Picasso was enthralled by the forms of African masks that France’s colonial conquests were bringing into Paris. Picasso’s use of these forms may seem, nowadays, to be yet another example of the colonial gaze, appropriating traditional art for its connotations of primitivism; but it is worth asking whether his use, however uninformed, of these forms was preferable to the high-handed disdain of the traditional art world.

In any case, the abstract and elongated shapes of the masks proved compatible with the jagged, geometrical landscapes of Cézanne, a combination that led down the road to cubism. Picasso pushed formal simplification far past where Cézanne had left it, however, a process which most famously brought him to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

This work—his greatest after Guernica, I think—retains all its raw energy over 100 years after the paint dried. I once had a memorable disagreement with a friend about what it means. She thought that the stony gazes of the women was meant to empower them, depicting their battered humanity. At the time I was inclined to take the opposite view: I interpreted Picasso’s attitude towards the women to be one of fear and suspicion, and the geometrical treatment intentionally dehumanizing. Nowadays I think that both of these views miss the mark. Like all great works of art, >Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resists final analysis. The women are simultaneously dangerous and in danger, wounded and wounding, a victim of society and the victimizers of their clients. (It is speculated that Picasso has a venereal disease when he painted this.)

At first glance the poses of these figures—so stripped of all sensuality, warmth, and appeal—can be interpreted as an ironic comment, a satire of sex; and indeed Matisse thought the painting little more than a lewd joke. But the emotional impact of the work goes far deeper than parody. Picasso has turned the women into weapons, their curves sharpened into knife-edges; their dead stares neither accuse nor invite. The main feeling, for me, is a kind of horrified fear at sex—at what sex does to both men and to women—and at everything sex entails: animal passion, power and subjugation, and the mystery of life and death.

All questions of social commentary and deeper meaning aside, on a purely formal level the painting is remarkable—and proved to be a herald of things to come. The three women on the left, inspired by Iberian sculpture, have the same stony stares as Gertrude Stein; while the two on the left show the clear influence of the African masks. These methods of abstraction, combined with the fractured spacial planes and juxtaposed perspectives, would shortly be transformed into high analytic cubism.

Picasso developed analytic cubism side-by-side with his friend Georges Braque. Indeed, the paintings they produced during this time are virtually indistinguishable; they proceeded like “mountaineers roped together,” as Braque said. These works are typically in a monochromatic brown or gray, and are ruthlessly abstract. In the beginning the painting’s subject was clearly discernible, as in Girl with Mandolin; but eventually the subject is entirely lost in a jumble of broken lines, as in Countryside of Ceret.

I admit that I do not much enjoy these paintings. Their uniformly drab color and lifeless geometricality combine to produce a sensation of overwrought dullness.The formulaic nature of the technique seems to turn painting into a dry intellectual game. This is not always the case, of course. My favorite work of analytic cubism, in fact, is neither Picasso’s nor Braque’s, but Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase—a fascinating depiction of motion through time and space (though this work was, at first, rejected by the cubists as too futurist).

But the value of analytic cubism is arguably not dependent on the aesthetic pleasure to be extracted from its paintings. For this period of intense, systematic exploration created a new pictorial language. Picasso and Braque were busy creating cubism’s lexicon and its grammar, so to speak; but cubism’s expressive power, its poetry, was still to come.

Cubism emerges from its analytic phase, at least in Picasso’s case, with the addition of color and the introduction of other media. Besides cubism, you see, Braque and Picasso were also the co-inventors of papier collé, a type of collage in which they would incorporate quotidian objects—newspapers, advertisements, and even chair seats—into their works. I particularly like the still lifes from this period (1913-16 or thereabouts), since they are like aesthetic time-capsules, capturing the private, intimate elegance of Parisian life.

But cubism’s potential can be seen more fully, I think, in a work like Three Musicians. This painting is from the period known as synthetic cubism, and shows the new language’s ability to reorganize reality along unfamiliar lines without dissolving it completely. Fully apparent is Picasso’s unique ability to reduce objects to their most basic form, and to rearrange that form into something striking and new while still preserving its identity. And though it is painted with oil on canvas, the sharp blocks of color—along with the wrapping-paper of the guitarist’s outfit and the musical notes of the accordionist—show the clear influence of his collage phase on his painting.

Shortly after the conclusion of the First World War, however (in which Picasso, being Spanish, was exempted from service), Picasso made a return to the classic style. This was part of a larger trend in the art world, in a phase known as the “return to order,” which followed Europe’s own return to peace. Stravinsky, too, underwent a similar transition during this time, writing neoclassicist serenades and concertos, while Picasso made paintings like his Harlequin with a Mirror—devoid of all cubes and abstraction. This is not to say that his paintings of this time were perfectly realistic; indeed, Picasso’s use of fantastic elements attracted the interest of the surrealists, who in turn exerted an influence on him.

In 1930 Picasso commenced on a series of etchings for an art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Though sometimes dismissed as the lecherous scribblings of a narcissistic artist, these etchings have a playful vitality and a virtuosic ease that make them worth studying. Thematically, Picasso turns towards more “perennial” subjects: gods, wine, and the minotaur. Robert Hughes was inclined to view these etchings as the last gasp of that dionysian Mediterranean culture which animated the Greeks and the Romans. Without making any claim so grandiose we can, however, note the importance of this shift to mythological subjects in the years preceding Picasso’s greatest work.

This, of course, is Guernica. Few works of any kind can equal the raw power of this painting. I have seen it in person many times, and I can attest to this. Confronting Guernica is comparable to looking up at the Sistine Chapel. All of Picasso’s past, all his stylistic explorations, are at once summed up and perfected in this image.

The spark that set it off was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Germany’s and Italy’s airforces during the Spanish Civil War. This blatant act of terror outraged the entire international community, and led Picasso to create the most searingly memorable anti-war image in history.

Picasso, for all his avant-garde innovation, created a painting with deep historical resonance. The horse, innocent servant and victim of humanity’s violence; the minotaur, symbol of humanity’s animal nature; the fallen warrior, the weeping mother, the candle in the dark—it could almost have been taken from the cave paintings of Altamira. Confronting these eternals symbols is the light bulb, flashing down destruction and death. A more poignant image of the broken promises of modernity could not be conceived.

The slick and sterile language of cubism is finally shown as a complete idiom, with a flexibility and depth equal to any other in Western art. Everything in the style serves a deeper purpose, creating that total unity of form and substance towards which art always aspires. Once seen, it is unseeable; once felt, unshakeable.

This was Picasso’s apotheosis. Though he would live over thirty years after Guernica, he would never achieve anything half so gripping. This is not to say that his later work is uninteresting. I particularly like his variations on Velazquez’s Las meninas, a series of paintings that really reveals Picasso’s mind at work.

Picasso was a virtuoso of the highest order; and drawing any conclusions about somebody who had mastered so many styles is a difficult task. A comparison might help. And though it may seem ludicrous—since two more different painters could hardly be chosen—I find it profitable to compare Picasso with another Spanish painter, Joaquín Sorolla.

Sorolla shows a deep concern for what you might call “prettiness.” His paintings delight and charm the eye, creating an aesthetic pleasure that rolls over the senses. Picasso, on the other hand, rarely produced anything so effortlessly pretty. His paintings challenge, evade, taunt; and at their best they strike the viewer with a solid weight—but they do not wash over the eye. This is connected with another difference. Sorolla was fascinated by color; and his best paintings are vibrantly radiant. Picasso’s interest in color seems to have been relatively limited; indeed he often worked in monochrome. And though Picasso was capable of the finest draughtsmanship, many of his paintings, next to Sorolla’s, seem slapdash in their execution.

This is strange. How can Picasso, the iconic painter, be bested in prettiness, in color, and in draughtsmanship by a relatively minor artist? This is because Picasso’s strength, which served him in all his stylistic acrobatics, is not any of these. It is his absolute mastery of form.

In this he reminds me very much of Michelangelo. These two artists, so different in so many ways, are alike in being primarily interested in form and volume: the shapes of things. And whereas Michelangelo’s eternal theme was the emergence of perfect form from unformed chaos, Picasso’s is the interpenetration of the natural and the personal—of the shapes of the world and the forms of the mind. In this liminal space, where the world meets the eye, Picasso discovered freedom—the freedom to renegotiate the final product. And by producing so many counterintuitive but immensely powerful forms, Picasso’s work opened a window to possibility.

I am quite impressed with this book series. The photos are high-quality, the commentary tact and tasteful, and the coverage surprisingly full. Of course, no book this size could do justice to such a prolific and versatile artist, but it is a good place to start.

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Review: Sorolla (Masterworks)

Review: Sorolla (Masterworks)

Sorolla (Masterpieces)Sorolla by Jose Maria Faerna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you go to number 37 of the Calle de General Martínez Campos, in Madrid, and walk inside, you will find one of the most enchanting corners of the city. This is the Museo de Sorolla, a museum situated in the former house of painter Joaquín Sorolla, still furnished much as it was during his lifetime and which now contains the lion’s share of his most famous works.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863 – 1923) was Spain’s archetypal gentlemanly bourgeois painter. He achieved fame and fortune during his lifetime. He rubbed elbows with American presidents and businessmen, and finished portraits for philosophers, scientists, and novelists. And yet, for all this, nowadays he is most remembered for his luminescent scenes on the beaches of Valencia.

Sorolla had a miraculous ability to capture the play of light on his canvass. The way that skin gleams in the sun, the way sunlight filters through fabric, the way that rays glisten on the ocean surface. In a time when photography was not much respected in the world of art, Sorolla gave some of his most famous works the seemingly arbitrary boundaries, unstudied poses, and high angles typical of a photograph. He was at his best when his subjects were ordinary people—a young couple, fishermen at work, a group of kids on the sand. The resulting paintings are delightful: intimate and playful swirls of color in which air, water, clothes, and skin melt into one radiant fabric.

One is naturally reminded of the impressionists in Sorolla’s work; but he was not a self-conscious member of the vanguard. He was, rather, firmly rooted in the realist tradition going back to Velazquez. Indeed, during his life he was scorned by many as a commercial artists who adapted his style to conventional taste, and who was merely interested in surfaces. I think this judgment is highly unfair—Sorolla’s style was deeply original and often daring—but it is true that he did not try to self-consciously break with tradition or fashion. And finding unexplored room for growth in a tradition can be a more subtle and difficult task than simply trying to reject it.

Though his beach scenes are his most characteristic and his finest work, Sorolla had an impressive range. He was a capable landscape painter and a gifted portrait artist. I was fortunate enough to see the series of portraits of notable Spaniards that Sorolla undertook at the behest of the Hispanic Society of New York—a series that includes portraits of Unamuno, Pío Baroja, and Ramón y Cajal. What some say is his greatest work remains in the Hispanic Society building (currently closed due to renovations): Visions of Spain—a monumental mural that contains scenes from every region of Spain.

While nobody would mistake Sorolla for a profound artist—his paintings delight but never overwhelm—I find in him an admirable example of the life of the artist. He developed his own highly distinctive style, achieved commercial success without compromising his own vision, practiced his craft obsessively and incessantly—eventually working himself into ill-health—and extended his artistic range to the full. One walk around his house is enough to convince you that he was every inch a painter.

This book is a nice little collection of his work. The pictures are large and high-quality, and the commentary is economical, tasteful, and informative.

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Review: Gaudí—Visionary Architect

Review: Gaudí—Visionary Architect

Gaudí: Arquitecto visionarioGaudí: Arquitecto visionario by Philippe Thiébaut

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beauty is the mirror of truth, and since art is beauty, without truth there is no art.
—Antoni Gaudí

Gaudí has the distinction of being among the few genuinely famous and popular architects in history. Along with Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright, he is among the handful of architects that decently educated people can be expected to know of. More tourists flock to the Sagrada Familia every year than to the Alhambra—even if many of these gapers mistakenly believe that it is a cathedral (it is an expiatory temple).

And he wasn’t just some popular hack. Gaudí’s stature in the history of art is equally monumental. This wasn’t always the case, however. Both George Orwell and Gerald Brenan, two cultured men, thought that his work was pretentious rubbish. (Orwell regretted that it wasn’t blown up during the Spanish Civil War, and Brenan evinced his work as evidence that Catalonia was culturally behind Spain.) I admit that I had misgivings upon first seeing some of Gaudí’s work. It struck me as exaggerated and theatrical, too mindlessly showy.

But this impression disappears as soon as one begins to inspect Gaudi’s work with any circumspection: for the man was undeniably a genius of the highest order. And it is especially enthralling to encounter a genius architect. For, unlike a painter or a novelist, you can literally step into a world created by Gaudí. You can immerse yourself in his work—see it, hear it, touch it, even smell it.

And Gaudí’s world is incredibly rich. He was the capstone modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau, an art movement that was preoccupied with rich decoration. Gaudí’s art developed this preoccupation into an explosion; his works burst with ornament. To achieve his typically overwhelming effect, he combined several crafts: sculpture, landscaping, stained glass, ceramics, mosaics, carpentry, blacksmithing, among others. And underlying this passionate drive to beautify was a keen sense of space—the architect’s fundamental aptitude—making his works remarkable on both the macro and micro scale.

His method of working was famously unconventional. He seemed to operate by instinct rather than calculation, even when dealing with complex problems of structure. Gaudí thought spatially: instead of drawing plans he preferred to build models (many of which were burned during the Civil War). Most famously he hung weights from strings to study the optimal angles for weight-bearing arcs. Thus he was a kind of unconscious geometrician, and underneath the seemingly heavy ornaments are beautifully elegant forms.

One of Gaudí’s central passions was nature. A deeply religious man, he considered the natural world to be the work of God; thus he thought that architects should strive to emulate the original creation. Consequently you will look in vain for any straight lines in his works, since perfectly straight lines are seldom found in the natural world. This also helps to explain his use of color: how often are natural landscapes black and white?

A severe and passionate Catholic (not to mention a fervent Catalan nationalist), at first glance it is perplexing that a man so avant-garde in art could be so conservative in every other sphere of life. This is no paradox, of course, and only seems strange because we have come to associate cutting-edge art with the left—a historical and not a logical connection. In any case, Gaudí is yet another example of the truism that great artists manage to be both traditional and innovative in the same moment.

This little book is a nice companion and introduction to the man’s work. For my taste, the text consists too much of dense descriptions of buildings and not enough of biography or history; but any book of this length is bound to leave a lot out. The photos are excellent to have; and the final section, which includes several different interpretations of Gaudí’s work (including Dalí’s Surrealist-Freudian take on it), was very welcome.

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