- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003


By Paul Johnson

Harper Collins, $39.95, 792 pages (with 300 color illustrations)


Not all critics read every word of every book that they review. Shocking, isn’t it? Up to now my own record in that regard has been clean. No more. Having spent over a month reading and annotating Paul Johnson’s new history of art, I found myself skimming its final chapters. So, why presume to review it at all? Well, for three very good reasons. In the first place, Mr. Johnson’s blockbuster is bejeweled with vivid insights drawn from his own personal experience of certain immortal works. He’s traveled to see them, and spent real time with each one.

In the second place, the author unobtrusively packs in oodles of useful information. He’s an admirably articulate, jargon-free historian with strong moral and religious instincts and a broad view of society. So this unwieldy and admittedly tendentious work merits careful discussion, not dismissal.

Third and finally, Mr. Johnson projects endearingly confident enthusiasm. “I argue,” he says, “that art predated not only writing but probably structured speech too, that it was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness.”

However, he goes on: “Age and human folly, compounded by ignorance and arrogance, are a fatal combination. Who knows whether Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, ‘restored’ at vast expense, display the colors and tones in which he painted them?” This is a subject I know intimately. Years before Michelangelo’s outermost, final draft of the Sistine Ceiling was chemically swabbed away forever, my wife and I spent over 100 hours atop a wheeled tower in the chapel, preparing a documentary film for ABC. I can testify that the whole “restoration” was unnecessary and disastrous. Art lovers should arise in rage to combat the burgeoning, witlessly destructive industry of art restoration.

Mr. Johnson says many sensible things which need saying, yet are seldom uttered. For example, having remarked that a thousand or more great museums are now open for business, the author mildly suggests that it’s not necessary to explore every one. And when we do go, he adds, we ought to taste only a few objects at leisure. True enough. Art is like wine in that respect, not good to gulp.

I’d hazard that Mr. Johnson’s original training was in architecture, for I’ve never read a better writer on that subject. He takes us back into medieval cathedrals, for instance, and shows us their glories unforgettably. I’ve visited most of the cathedrals he describes and analyzes; but oh, how much I missed. We’re right there with him as he recalls their construction and sketches their present charms. When he proclaims that these cathedrals constitute “the greatest accomplishments of humanity in the whole history of art,” I can’t find it in my heart to object.

Most art histories are ivory-tower affairs that tell you who influenced whom, and how. This one brings in art’s social contexts most instructively. The first example to pop out at me was the author’s shrewd characterization of ancient and modern Mesopotamian culture as palace-based — a product of the region’s “perennial tendency to centralize everything in the person of the king, all-powerful in theory but only too fragile in fact.” Yes, our own conquering heroes who are miserably holed up in Saddam Hussein’s old palaces at present can attest to that unchanging truth.

Contrastingly, ancient Greece created a revolutionary and marvelously diverse spread of art, as did the subsequent city-state culture of the Italian Renaissance. Mr. Johnson explains: “The city-state on the Greek model, with universality of access to, and participation in, culture, is the ideal social environment for art. Of course, the cities must share a sufficiently common notion of the good life, or civilization as it came to be called, to give them sufficient economic and demographic mass.”

Speaking of mass, this book weighs at least four pounds. The dust jacket is painfully poster-like and the horribly cramped reproductions are among the muddiest ever. For example, the sheer white interior of Henri Matisse’s chapel at Vence comes out charcoal gray. Physically, the whole volume is tasteless and overbearing. Recent technological advances should make such books as this better than before, but they’re generally worse.

Being heavily oriented toward the West, if you’ll excuse the expression, Mr. Johnson covers a little more than half the world history of art. He begins with the “Magdalenian” cave paintings of the early Stone Age, created in southern Europe, which he oddly treats as “professional” works of art. “Some Magdalenian artists,” the author rather loftily tells us, “clearly understood both the anatomy of the animals they depicted and their principles of motion, the result of intense observation over many years and of a self-discipline in rendering which suggests a long apprenticeship and extensive study.”

Were fur-clad cavemen — or cavewomen as the case may be — so incredibly clever and so fervently dedicated to what is now called “realism” in art? Having visited Altamira and Lascaux, among other painted caverns of this period, I can’t really imagine those sites as prehistoric “art galleries” — to borrow Mr. Johnson’s expression. The very few humans depicted in the caverns are mere stick-figures. They’re not at all competently, let alone “professionally,” painted. How is this curious anomaly to be explained?

My theory is that those caves contain the meager remains of ancient, magical, proto-religious ritual. It seems to me that the animals pictured in the cavern depths must have emerged, as it were, from the shadows cast by flickering torchlight along the uneven rock walls and ceilings. The animals’ frequent overlappings, together with their looming, rushing, flickering natures, and their conformation to the shape of the living rock, support this idea.

Art is not just a matter of keen observation and craftsmanlike representation. At best, it’s a visionary process. The great American philosopher William James posited that the consciousness of humanity as a whole is transmitted as “beams”: “Glows of feeling,” James said, “glimpses of insight, and streams of knowledge and perception float into our finite world.” A true masterpiece of any art transmits transcendental “rays” in the Jamesian sense.

This argument would be awkward to illustrate in the case of architecture, which I take to be Mr. Johnson’s critical forte. On the other hand, notable sculptures and especially paintings often project visionary qualities. Here lies the reason why I became increasingly impatient with the book’s chapters on the art of recent centuries. In my opinion, the highest genius of art is that which brings aspects of the unknown into human ken, making visible what was never before apparent.

Consider Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh. Both were basically untrained, unstable, and independent in the extreme, yet nakedly subject to the supreme visions that they were born to capture. Such artists do not feel called upon to act as assiduous recorders of phenomena that anyone can plainly see. Hence they receive distinctly grudging treatment in the present volume.

Mr. Johnson lavishes praise on laborious genre painters such as America’s gloomy, modest and respectable Andrew Wyeth and the Saturday Evening Post’s irrepressible cover artist Norman Rockwell — while pouring obloquy upon Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse. He seems to regard those titans of the modern art movement as zillionaire pranksters, promoters of rubbish, and destroyers of art’s dignity.

Yet this book is crammed with good things that far outweigh the questionable content. “The love of art is a subjective phenomenon,” Mr. Johnson tells us, “which comes to us through our sympathetic eye, and no expert should be allowed to mediate. In the end our own eyes are the key to making art our guide and solace, our delight and comfort, our clarifier and mentor — in short, the God-given staff of life in this vale of tears.”

I can only say amen to those well-chosen words, and offer thanks for the fine, flawed, but non-coercive, text of this egregiously ugly volume.

Alexander Eliot is an art critic in California.

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