Sunday, September 28, 2008
The Story of Art
Our book today is the venerated and much-beloved classic, The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich, here in a gorgeous, handy paperback by Phaidon. Gombrich's book has been clutched in more museum-going hands than any comparable tract in the history of art-writing, and looking at it again in the very pleasurable task of examining this Phaidon edition has afforded ample reasons as to why that might be so.
As long as there've been painted pictures, I suspect, there've been docents of varying abilities to explain them to the rest of the people looking at them (one wonders if art wouldn't be more honest if those docents weren't just not there but not necessary ... neolithic cave paintings, reached by arduous spelunking, were free to evoke a private and entirely sincere sense of awe; sharks in formaldehyde require explication right out of the box), and the key to the experience lies in that 'varying abilities' part. There are few things more annoying that to have a piece of art carefully explained to you wrong (like the Uffizi guide years and years ago who droned about the "fierceness" of a painting's dog when the animal was clearly playing and clearly painted as playing by a painter who clearly knew he was playing), just as there are few things as thrilling as having it all done well, or really well (in other words, all of your should put Robert Hughes' documentary American Visions on your Netflix lists ... maybe even bump it up ahead of the porn)(no names, mind you)(coughcoughbriancoughcough).
Nobody does it much better than Gombrich, which is probably why his book has sold a gazillion copies. He starts his approachable, even-handed tone right from the first lines:
There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the walls of a cave; today, some buy their paints and design posters for hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not 'Art.' And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.
His insights dart everywhere, seeming to shed light on every period and style he touches, and even if you don't agree with him, he gets you thinking:
This building is characteristic of the taste for which Venetian art in the Cinquecento became famous. The atmosphere of the lagoons, which seems to blur the sharp outlines of objects and to blend their colours in a radiant light, may have taught the painters of this city to use colour in a more deliberate and observant way than other painters in Italy had done so far. ... But so much seems to be clear: the painters of the Middle Ages were no more concerned about the 'real' colours of things than they were about their real shapes.
Always he's the public's unappointed substitute, the kindly professor who's been thinking about art and writing about art and clarifying about art for so long that he's effortlessly successful:
What upset the public about Expressionist art was, perhaps, not so much the fact that nature had been distorted as that the result led away from beauty. That the caricaturist may show up the ugliness of man was granted - it was his job. But that men who claimed to be serious artists should forget that if they must change the appearance of things they should idealize them rather than make them ugly was strongly resented.
And of course one of the treats of a book like The Story of Art is hunting out what Gombrich hs to say about your personal favorites - does he like them? Hate them? Have anything interesting to say about them? This is certainly true also of the painting that's everybody's favorite:
If we now return to the 'Mona Lisa,' we may understand something of its mysterious effect. We see that Leonardo has used the means of his 'sfmuato' with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that what we call its expression rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is looking at us.
This Phaidon paperback edition is by far the most aesthetically satisfying one Gombrich has ever received (it's especially welcome after the gigantic, gawd-awful trade paperback edition of a few years ago), a positive joy to handle and carry and tuck onto the nightstand. It's slightly smaller than an average airport mass market paperback, and half its length consists of color plates of the works of art being discussed - and it's the back half, so the reader is able - indeed, encouraged - to read the flow of Gombrich's delightful prose without constant interruption, and then to contemplate the paintings, sculptures, posters, buildings, and gardens in a separate, more informed process. The edition comes with two pretty cloth bookmarks, one centered in the front to help with the text, the other centered in the rear to help with the paintings. It's the best physical setup possible, and kudos to Phaidon for producing it.
Of course there can be no one volume on art that will appeal to everybody. But Gombrich's broad tastes and sympathetic outlook bring this one pretty damn close to being that universal volume, and this is the edition of it to have.