- Mirror of the World: A New History of Art
- Thames & Hudson, 496pp.
The Unfolding Story of Art
For Julian Bell, art is much more than a matter of masterpieces on museum walls. There is something deeper to art, indicative of a universal spirit, the “ever-varying wave of the human imagination.”
Bell’s new book, “Mirror of the World,” surveys the development of the visual arts across time, space and the artificial boundaries of tribes, nations and religious sects. From the time when images were first painted deep within the recesses of caves such as those of Chauvet in southern France, there have been remarkable degrees of affinity in the work of artists separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years. From Bell’s vantage point, the creative record of humankind can be viewed in terms of cultural interaction and spiritual synergy.
Julian Bell is an accomplished artist, as well as a perceptive scholar and writer. He is the son of art historian and writer, Quentin Bell, and the grandson of Vanessa Bell, painter and sister of Virginia Woolf. A British humanist in the grand tradition reaching back to John Ruskin, Roger Fry and Kenneth Clark, he is uniquely suited to the task of chronicling the history of art.
But it is not as an Englishman expounding on the merits of artists and styles that Bell should be judged. With “Mirror of the World,” Bell aims to place the artistic heritage of humankind in a global perspective. On Bell’s vast canvas, the legacy of East and West in painting, sculpture, tapestry and photography, the work of primitive artists and masterpieces by the like of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Matisse are all given their proper place.
Bell’s technique for handling such a multi-faceted subject is based on a wide-ranging, scene shifting narrative. Although some favorites like Winslow Homer and Modigliani do not figure in his text, Bell is judicious in his choice of subjects. Given his book’s relative brevity, Bell succeeds to an extraordinary degree in giving a balanced assessment of the global history of art.
Much of Bell’s story is familiar but his insights are always fresh, fair and expounded with vigor and charm. Furthermore, his analysis transcends a mere study of the ways in which civilizations influence the art of neighbors and rivals. The synthesis of Greek art and Buddhist spirituality which followed in the footsteps of Alexander’s march to India in the 4th century BCE is a notable example of the direct sharing of ideas and techniques. But there are so many instances of comparable artistic development among tribes and cultures with no shared boundaries or points of contact, such as the jade-working craftsmen of Ancient China and pre-Inca Peru. This contemporaneous emergence of creative insight becomes a major theme in Bell’s book.
A fascinating example of such parallel realms of expression is studied in Bell’s chapter on Medieval art. The rising cathedrals of 12th century Europe and their temple counterparts in Hindu India displayed amazing points of similarity in their design and embellishment. Separated by thousands of miles and the near-abstract art of Islam, Christian Europe and Hindu India created sacred spaces housing venerated images of divinity inside, with earthy and erotic decoration outside. Cathedral walls in Europe sported bewildering displays of symbolical beasts and demons, while depictions of the tortured body of the crucified Christ sanctified the hallowed precincts within. Similarly, statues of the dreaming figure of Vishnu were surrounded in Hindu temples by the sculpted bodies of lithe, embracing couples evoking themes from the Kama Sutra on exterior friezes.
Bell explains this baffling contrast of sacred and profane by noting that the sanctum enshrining the image or Christ or Vishnu provides “the main dish for the heart and mind, while friezes are mainly hors d’oeuvres.”
Whether it appealed directly to the soul or by more earthly means, sacred art always had a serious purpose. It sought to create visual representations of God, the cosmic struggle of good and evil and the human hope of redemption. For most of history, religion provided the primary impetus and patronage for the creation of great works of art, now displayed on the walls of secular art museums. Sadly, as Bell notes, religious zealotry and intolerance also supplied the motivation for destroying or desecrating sacred art in all too frequent “Holy Wars.”
It was partly in reaction to the religious discord and iconoclasm of the Reformation, that artists in Europe around 1700 began seeking inspiration from sources removed from Christian spirituality. And where European innovators led, artists of other traditions and cultures would in time follow. The journey on the road to “art for art’s sake” had begun.
The moment when art became “modern” is a matter of scholarly debate. Whether it began with the Romantic era’s search for the sublime in nature or the Impressionists’ attempt to paint “everyday life,” is perhaps a moot point. At every turn, when a new insight or innovation offered the promise of establishing an authentic visual tradition for modern times, a new school or agenda swiftly rose up, presenting a challenging alternative: Social Realism, Pointillism, Symbolism, Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, Vorticism … to name but a few.
These rapid shifts in focus were attended by a mania for talismans from primitive or pre-industrial societies that could legitimize these art theories. The alacrity with which artists of the late 19th century seized upon Japanese prints and African masks betrayed a desperate longing to validate their new art in the way that faith in Christian values had grounded the painting, sculpture and architecture of the Middle Ages.
Consider Paul Gauguin’s “The Vision after the Sermon,” painted in 1888, one of the works analyzed by Bell. Gauguin, based in the village of Pont-Aven in Brittany, created a masterful representation of Breton women, piously imagining the Old Testament tussle of Jacob and the Angel. But what the Breton women see in their minds’ eyes, Gauguin witnessed at second hand. He recreated the scene as an outsider, an observer of the faithful rather than as a fellow believer. He painted, moreover, in an alien art tradition, the style of a Japanese print. The difference between Gauguin’s intellectualized depiction and the display of religious certainty in the fourteenth century frescoes of Giotto’s Arena Chapel underscores far more than a change in style. It represents a crisis of faith.
The response of artists during the twentieth century to this spiritual crisis is graphically depicted in the later chapters of Bell’s book. Art, especially during the nightmare years of the two World Wars and the Great Depression, may have been categorized in terms of one of many “isms”. But it speaks well of the courage and integrity of many of the artists of the era that they addressed issues that much of the world ignored until it was too late.
Bell discusses Picasso’s “Guernica”, the twentieth century’s most iconic illustration of the barbarity of war, yet he does not limit his analysis to this familiar work of Symbolist painting. He studies the searing realist work by Felix Nussbaum, “In the Camp,” painted while Nussbaum was interned by the French in 1940 as he tried to evade the advancing Nazis. Nussbaum, who later escaped from the French only to be captured by the Germans, died in Auschwitz. The brooding figure of “In the Camp”, sitting amid the desolate wasteland of the concentration camp, offers no concessions to aesthetics or the finer points of art criticism. It is a universal image of suffering, an indelible example of art’s ability to shock and to console, to indict and to inspire.
Spiritual tension lies at the heart of the glory and the tragedy of art. In today’s world of mass-produced commodities, the art world is perhaps the last remaining place that people can go to make a unique expression of their belief or doubt, be it with a work of art of their own or in thoughtful consideration of the art of others.
And it is precisely from this vantage point that Bell addresses the artistic record of the past. He writes neither in the spirit of acolyte or iconoclast, but as a believer in the creative energies of humankind. In “Mirror of the World”, Bell assesses key works of art, placing then in the cultural framework of the time of their creation, but with a contemporary resonance that encourages readers to question, to ponder and ultimately to paint, sculpt or explore in whatever medium they choose.
“Mirror of the World” is a book of great relevance for a new century still searching for its own vision. It is fitting that Bell concludes his superb survey of art history, not with magisterial pronouncements, but with a call for readers to make their own creative mark, to affirm their place in the unfolding story of art.