- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004


By Roger Kimball

Encounter Books, $25.95, 186 pages, illus.

At its core, Roger Kimball’s “The Rape of the Masters” is an anger-making book. In it, Mr. Kimball, managing editor of the New Criterion and a noted art critic, shows that the academic study of art history today is plagued in no small way by the misapprehensions and whims of political correctness.

By focusing on seven famous works of art, Mr. Kimball methodically demonstrates how prominent academicians have scrutinized some of Western civilization’s most stunning canvases and seen therein not art but sex, subjugation of women, racism, more sex and even more sex of the most perverted kind. Mr. Kimball’s aim in this book is to refocus attention on the works of art themselves and rout out the “rot,” the specious, self-referencing hyperbole that passes itself off as art criticism.

In the book, the formula Mr. Kimball employs to make his case is a simple one. Each artist is introduced — Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Winslow Homer (1856-1910), Paul Gaugin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) — and a representative painting is described.

Once the reader is comfortable with the artist and somewhat conversant with the painting being highlighted, Mr. Kimball goes in for the kill, offering up one or two experts who are cited for their astonishing miscalculations of the artist’s intent.

Mr. Kimball annotates what a variety of academicians write with a lively eye for balderdash, hypocrisy, vanity and any number of other affronts. And he does so smartly with searing humor, choosing examples that are eye-poppingly damning. So much so that in the source notes that appear on the first page of the book, Mr. Kimball writes that the question he was asked most often by early readers was “‘Are you making this up?’”

Consider Mr. Kimball’s treatment of John Singer Sargent and his painting “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882.” The author begins with a thumbnail description of the artist’s life. Sargent was a Florence-born American expatriate, the second of six children born to a family that “subsisted in a bubble of feckless hypochondria,” a shy man who never married but nevertheless moved easily in the world of his patrons.

Mr. Kimball continues, “And he was super-competent. Sargent early on mastered the art of subtle flattery. He did not make his sitters more handsome or more beautiful than they were, merely more sumptuous and alluring.”

Sargent took his share of criticism, most notably from the English critic Roger Fry, and he came close to throwing in the towel. “‘I have vowed a vow,’ he wrote to a friend in 1907, ‘not to do any more portraits.’ To another: ‘Ask me to paint your gates, your fences your barns, which I should gladly do, but not the human face.’ And finally: ‘No more mugs!’”

From biography, Mr. Kimball proceeds to the painting itself. “Just as Velazquez distributed his several figures [in ‘Ladies in Waiting’], including a dog and two dwarfs, asymmetrically around the Infanta Dona Margarita, so Sargent arranged the four Boit girls in a striking tableau in their elegant apartment in the Avenue de Friedland.

“This is not a typical family snapshot, the sitters grouped smiling together in the center of the picture plane; it is Sargent’s carefully posed aesthetic ensemble, part homage to Velazquez, part offering to his friend.”

After a closer look at the painting still, weighing light and color and all that completes the aesthetic enjoyment of the picture, Mr. Kimball launches his salvo: “Stanley Olson, who died shortly after his biography of Sargent was published in 1986, described it as ‘a literary picture; it could support endless

interpretation, fascination.’ He meant this as a compliment, as in the normal course of things it would be.

“But then it is unlikely that this lover of Sargent’s work had encountered David M. Lubin’s influential ‘Act of Portrayal: Eakins, Sargent, James,’ published by Yale University Press the previous year, before finishing his book. The chapter devoted to Sargent focuses on ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.’ It is an example of ‘endless interpretation,’ all right, but interpretation turned rancid.”

In a discussion of “texts,” Mr. Lubin reveals that contrary to the “well?appointed comfort” that we might see in the painting of the apartment, the painting depicts “an unhappy psychodrama fraught with exploitation, anxiety and tension.” Mr. Kimball adds helpfully, “It doesn’t matter, [Mr. Lubin] tells us, ‘whether Sargent meant it this way or not.’”

And so it goes throughout the book. An estimable artist is introduced, his beautiful painting is described beautifully and then the academicians weigh in. More than a few are published by Yale University Press, all have risen to occupy prestigious academic chairs or write books that are highly regarded, and all take interpretive license to advance whatever thought happens to preoccupy them. For each prominent academic quoted the respective paintings act as large and detailed Rorschach tests, in which they see what they apparently want to see as opposed to what is there. Of Courbet’s “Young Women on the Banks of the Seine,” Michael Fried, the J.R. Herbert Boone professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University, writes:

“My argument can be summed up by saying that in the ‘Young Women,’ what appears at first to be simply or exclusively a strongly oppositional thematic of sexual difference (the women as objects of masculine sexual possession) gives way to or at the very least coexists with a more embracing metaphysics of gender (a pervasive feminization of the pictorial field through an imagery of flowers), which in turn demands to be interpreted in the light of a specifically pictorial problematic (Courbet’s anti-theatrical project).”

More than once throughout this book, one has to stifle the urge to say, “Say what?” Nevertheless, one should add here that while grievances weigh heavily, Mr. Kimball (and this reader) might do well to keep some of the reactive sarcasm in check. However, whether being told that Rubens’ painting “Drunken Silenus” is really an allegory about anal rape or that Gaugin’s “Manao tupapau” is the way repression is “written on the bodies of women” or that Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” is “a visual encoding of racism,” the academic observations can be spectacularly jarring.

And it could be said that Mr. Kimball’s overwhelmingly negative accounting of the state of academic judgment on the arts these days and the long parade of self-important, would-be Michel Foucaults or Jacques Derridas is only relieved by keeping in mind an important point the author makes forcefully at the beginning of the book:

“Art history has lost its way. The road to recovery begins with a frank acknowledgment of where we have gone wrong.” In “The Rape of the Masters,” Roger Kimball has provided a lucid and persuasive guide to that itinerary.

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