- The Books that Shaped Art History
- Thames & Hudson, 264 pp.
The opening sentences of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art certainly make one of the boldest assertions in cultural commentary of all time:
There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.
Gombrich eased-up a bit in his appraisal, recognizing wide latitude to art lovers’ preferences in painting, sculpture, architecture and photography. But he was adamant in declaring that “Art with a capital A has no existence.”
Gombrich’s views are not easily dismissed. But there is more to the depiction, presentation and enjoyment of visual stimuli, aka art, than he admitted. There are not only artists at work, but art historians as well. In the case of Gombrich and a very select company, these historians molded the ideas that are the foundation of the world of art.
The Books that Shaped Art History examines impact-making works by this elite band of scholars. Gombrich, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Clement Greenberg are only the more recognizable names among the great art historians who influenced the changing ways that people have come to perceive the visual arts – and indeed the world itself – since the turn of the twentieth century.
It would be a mistake to regard The Books that Shaped Art History as a collective biography of these art historians. Instead, the book focuses on a specific work by each of these scholars and shows how their commentary influenced the course of art appreciation. The quest for meaning, sometimes inspired, often contentious, that characterized the twentieth century unfolds on the pages of this unconventional book.
The essays in The Books that Shaped Art History originally appeared in the prestigious journal, The Burlington Magazine. Founded in 1903 by a group of art historians, The Burlington played an important role in the transition of art scholarship from an almost excusive German-language monopoly to a thriving Anglo-American concern.
This was the moment, too, when art scholarship began to garner a degree of prestige that was inconceivable during the early Victorian era. British and American industrialists, flush with disposable pounds sterling and almighty dollars, collected Old Masters and Impressionist masterpieces on a staggering scale. Bernard Berenson, one of the co-founders of The Burlington, advised Isabella Stewart Gardiner with her purchases. With his commissions, Berenson bought himself an Italian villa near Florence, I Tatti, which became a modern-day Platonic academy for the study of art. Art with a capital A.
The book by Berenson that is examined here is of the type that scholars, rather than rich collectors or general readers, especially value. And what is true of Berenson’s The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, is likewise the case for the works by Gombrich and Kenneth Clark that feature in this study.
Gombrich’s The Story of Art has appeared in numerous editions since its first publication in 1950 and has sold millions of copies. However, it is Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, published a decade later that is analyzed here. Civilization, the companion book to Kenneth Clark’s popular 1960′s television series, doesn’t make the cut either. Instead, The Nude, a collection of lectures that Clark presented in 1953 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is the subject of the essay in The Books that Shaped Art History.
Initially, it is a bit perplexing that the more popular books were not chosen for consideration. Clark’s Civilization, after all, made a huge impact. The success of Civilization prepared the way for a host of successors like Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. But the more you read about them, the importance of the specialist studies grows. The big popular books may open the minds of millions of readers, but the analytical texts or lectures, aimed at artists, curators and other art professionals, can change the way that art is envisioned and created.
Art historians can effect such major changes while themselves remaining seemingly unaffected. Clark’s brilliant use of the medium of television to uphold the primacy of the “greats” of Western culture, pre-1900, is a case in point.
Both Clark and Gombrich utilized modern technology while having profound reservations about the course that art took during the twentieth century. In some ways, Gombrich’s theories on perception were even more novel than the Abstract/Expressionist art being created during the 1950′s. But the mass of supporting evidence that Gombrich assembled – “representational algorithms” – did not lead him to promulgate another revolutionary “ism.”
Rather the opposite was true. Gombrich recognized that the creative process “conjures up brief, mirror-like visions of an art that finally shows us what life is like.” Such a theory was remarkably in the spirit of Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth century ideas on the central place of modernité in the scheme of art and literature.
Christopher S. Wood, the author of the essay on Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, notes that Gombrich projected his perceptual theories in terms of classical art. Ironically, this pivotal book was published just as multi-media and interactive art, the “Happenings” of the 1960′s, began. Gombrich pointed in a direction where art really did show “what life was like,” though he did not follow his own lead.
For all of their vision, these art historians were very much people of their times. Their writings fall into three chronological groupings. The early figures like Berenson upheld the art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance that was the foundation of Old Master classicism. Then, in the aftermath of World War I, art scholars like Roger Fry and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. wrote influential studies on seminal figures in the rise of Modernism, Cezanne and Matisse respectively. Later writers, from the 1970′s, engaged in the “culture wars” and other controversies of the late twentieth century.
Roger Fry’s book, Cezanne: A Study of His Development opened the way for serious study of modern art in the English-language community. But Fry, who was an accomplished artist and had been a distinguished curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, could not ignore the gravitational pull of Anglo-Saxon tradition and culture.
Fry, oddly enough, first wrote his study of Cezanne in French in 1926. A year later, he expanded his analysis of Cezanne’s paintings, writing in English. Cezanne: A Study of His Development was published by the Hogarth Press which was run by his friends, Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Given the latter’s status as one of the great English-language writers of the twentieth century, literary style was no small matter at the Hogarth Press.
Consequently, Fry’s book on Cezanne had to be more than a work of exacting scholarship aimed at a small audience of art historians. It needed to be – and was – a book that would appeal to a broad segment of the reading public.
In composing art commentary for general readers, Fry was actually carrying on the tradition established by the great Victorian writer on the arts, John Ruskin (1819-1900). In books like Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, Ruskin wrote in a vivid, visionary style that aimed to enlighten humanity as a whole, not just satisfy the meticulous criteria of an academic elite. This was a very different approach than that taken by the German art scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Like a runner in a relay race, Fry picked up the baton of literary art scholarship from Ruskin, passing it in turn to his protégé, Kenneth Clark. With an emphasis on readability in his books, including one on Ruskin, Kenneth Clark set the stage for able stylists among contemporary art writers like Andrew Graham Dixon.
All of the art historians in this “apostolic succession” were men. Art scholarship, like “Old Master” painting was very much a male preserve. Only toward the end of the twentieth century did women succeed in gaining entry into the inner circle of A Team art historians. The Books that Shaped Art History displays a commendable awareness of the achievements of female art scholars. Excellent essays are featured on Svetlana Alpers and Rosalind Krauss.
Art history, like life itself, is not immune to irony. And how ironical it is, that the urbane, sensitive and broad-minded Kenneth Clark should have been the art historian whose book sparked much of the controversy over gender in art.
Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art received glowing reviews upon its publication in 1956. Among its many virtues, The Nude reasserted the primacy of classical art in the Western world during the dark, drab Cold War era. America’s Abstract Expressionism confronted Soviet Socialist Realism in a long, drawn-out propaganda campaign. Clark showed that there was an alternative to such cultural brinksmanship. Art lovers, tired of ideology, were greatly pleased.
Clark’s laurel crown, however, soon began to wither. It proved difficult to assert an appreciation for the ideal beauty of the human body during the age of the Playboy Bunny and the countervailing feminist credo of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Clark is described in the essay about him as being “neither prurient nor puritan.” Yet, he was unable to stake a lasting claim to a middle-ground position for the nude in art. His distinction between the “naked” and the “nude” was applauded in the 1950′s. By the time of his death in 1983, Clark was seen in some quarters as “a figurehead of the patriarchal establishment.”
As The Books that Shaped Art History demonstrates, some of the greatest art scholarship was the product of the contentious 1970′s and 1980′s. The “other” Clark in the volume, T.J. Clark, probed nineteenth century society with his Image of the People, a Marxist critique of the radical French painter, Gustave Courbet, and the society he depicted in such works as Burial at Ornans.
Rosalind Krauss did not restrict herself to commentary on artists and schools of art. She brashly took on the art establishment, igniting a storm of controversy by drawing attention to the recent vintage of the bronze cast of August Rodin’s The Gates of Hell featured in a high profile exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. in 1978. Most exhibit patrons are under the impression that Rodin himself cast the statues attributed to him and few museums go to extreme lengths to acquaint them with the fact that he didn’t. Krauss called the bluff of the National Gallery curators and carried her point.
Unfortunately, the brilliance of the commentary of T.J. Clark, Rosalind Krauss and other art critics of recent decades has not taken art from the point of controversy to new heights of art appreciation. Krauss, for her part, embraced a bundle of “post-modern” French intellectual ideals that had little to do with actual works of art but rather “with how meaning is generated.”
Interpretation has trumped insight and inspiration – or so it appears.
Around the same time that T.J. Clark was beginning to interpret art in Marxist, ideological fashion, Michael Baxandall reasserted an approach more in keeping with the great traditions of Western culture. Baxandall’s 1972 Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy cogently made the case for the critical role of the viewer and the set of beliefs that he or she brings to comprehending a painting or statue. Baxandall argued that the “period eye” of the beholder created a sense of the “beauty” or spiritual meaning of the work of Renaissance art in question.
It remains to be seen which of the approaches to art history discussed in this thoughtful book will be the most influential during the twenty-first century. One hopes – and believes – that Baxandall was correct and that the “period eye” of contemporary art patrons will help create a new consensus rather than another “ism.” Art history is an open book and new interpretations of the “Story of Art” are never long in coming.