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Exotica, erotica, esoterica . . .

Bevis Hillier reviews the latest lavish volumes and discusses what makes a masterpiece

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

The humorist Paul Jennings suggested that book reviewers could be divided into five vowel-coded groups: batchers, betjers (‘Betjer I could have written this better than him/her’), bitchers, botchers and butchers. In this review of the year’s art books, I am primarily a batcher — dealing with several books at one go. But from time to time I shall take leave to be a bitcher, though not, I hope, a botcher or butcher.

Two books stand out from the batch as absolute stars. Both are published by Prestel, a Munich-based publisher with tentacles in Berlin, London and New York. I am afraid either of the books will cost you £80, but they are value for money. They are Hokusai by Matthi Forrer and Albrecht Dürer by Norbert Wolf — each massive, superbly designed and written with dense but humane scholarship.

Batcher reviewers often lump together books that have no relation to each other. One thinks of Dr Johnson’s sour verdict on the Metaphysical poets: ‘the most heterogeneous elements, yoked by violence together’. Somebody uncharitable might say that about my present batch; but, in the case of Hokusai and Dürer, we have two kindred masters. One could well claim that Dürer stands in relation to Western art as Hokusai does in relation to oriental art: in each case, the supreme master of line. (I concede that, with Western art, that laurel might be bestowed on Rembrandt. Or Leonardo, whose attempts to represent the whorls and curlicues of sea-spume rival the purling foam-claws of Hokusai’s Great Wave.)

I do have one bitcher quarrel with the author of the Dürer book. Norbert Wolf begins his introduction by reproducing a Picasso self-portrait of 1902. He writes:

Picasso, the quintessential artistic genius of the 20th century, was obsessed with artistic metamorphoses … But the fact that the Spaniard had, very early on, engaged in an intimate dialogue with a … famous German artist has been almost completely ignored.

On the same page as these words is Picasso’s wretched scrawl — a plethora of feeble, groping lines showing how painfully uncertain he was when he tried his hand at representation. Turn to Dürer’s Prado self-portrait, illustrated later in the book, and two quotations from Hamlet spring to mind — ‘Look here, upon this picture, and on this’ and ‘Hyperion to a satyr’. In the Dürer, every line unerringly finds its place: no hesitancy, no scrabbling about. To ask us to admire Dürer because he influenced Picasso (however negligibly) is rather like inviting us to applaud the Mona Lisa because Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache on her. But once Wolf gets properly launched into his narrative and analysis, he is an illuminating guide to the master’s life and work. As he writes: ‘No other artist of the period between the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance is as well documented as Dürer’.

The artist grew up alongside his father’s luxury craft of goldsmithing. His interest in that led him to painting and the graphic arts. Like Hokusai, he excelled in prints from wood-blocks. As with the Hokusai book, the large format allows us to see the artist’s work in its full majesty; the occasional plucking out of significant details is especially eye-opening.

About the Hokusai book I should declare an interest. Its author, Matthi Forrer, who is curator of Japanese arts at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, was a friend and disciple of my father, Jack Hillier, who was an authority on Japanese art and in 1957 wrote a pioneering monograph on Hokusai (oddly not in Forrer’s bibliography). Forrer contributed to a 70th-birthday Festschrift for my father in 1982.

Because of my father’s specialism, I was lucky enough to be exposed to the finest works by Hokusai and other Japanese masters from early childhood. For a long time my dad catalogued the Japanese art for Sotheby’s. As he was not on the auction house’s staff, big consignments of paintings and prints were delivered to our house in Surrey. As a result of being shown those works, something curious happened to my art appreciation. Whereas to most Western art historians, Hokusai might seem to be taking constant liberties with nature and the human form, I became so far acclimatised to his style as to accept it as a kind of norm. I am reminded of the so-called expert on Modigliani who had seen so many fakes of the artist by the master forger Elmyr de Hory that, when shown a genuine Modigliani, he rejected it.

Matthi Forrer organised the great Hokusai exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1991. This book is the climax of his researches, and there has never been a book which enabled us to judge Hokusai’s mastery on the scale and in the detail of this one. The flower studies are a revelation. Forrer describes Hokusai’s rise to success, tracing his journey as a pioneering illustrator of gothic novels through to his invention of Manga (volumes of sketches) and his Shunga (erotic designs).

His erotic prints are also reproduced, along with those of many other Japanese artists, in Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories by Gian Carlo Calza (Phaidon, £29.95), which is entirely devoted to erotica. Among the illustrations (it is also in Forrer’s book) is the image of an octopus and its young groping a naked girl. I recall that in the early 1980s an entire edition of the Sunday Times magazine had to be pulped when the top brass at the newspaper decided that this scene was too blue for its readers. Things have moved on in Japan, too. When one of my father’s books that included erotic images was about to be published in Japan, the Japanese wanted to stick white triangles over the pudenda. My father — risking considerable financial loss — said he would not permit his book to be published in that way; and he prevailed. In Calza’s book, the erotic scenes have poetic titles, such as ‘The Shining Dimple of Love’, ‘Scroll of the Four Seasons’, ‘Prosperous Flowers of the Elegant Twelve Months’ and ‘Spring Rain in the Alcove’; but there is nothing euphemistic about the designs — a lot more than spring rain is going on in that alcove. If you wanted to be critical, you might say that the images are rather samey: one tumescent penis, one moist vagina after another. But the balletic arabesques formed by the entwined bodies are so beautiful that erotica never slithers into pornography — even with that Octopussy.

I have never quite been able to make up my mind about Walter Crane, the subject of a new book by Morna O’Neill (Yale, £35). In the Art Nouveau revival of the early 1960s — marked by exhibitions of Aubrey Beardsley and the posterist Alphonse Mucha at the Victoria & Albert Museum (the revival was a huge influence on ‘psychedelic’ art) — three excellent books on the style appeared: Art Nouveau by Robert Schmutzler (1962); L’Art 1900 by Maurice Rheims (1965) and the Dutton Vista ‘pictureback’ Art Nouveau (1966) by the late Mario Amaya — the art historian who was shot on the same day and by the same crazy woman as Andy Warhol. Of those three books, Schmutzler’s was the most significant; and in it he hailed Walter Crane — most convincingly — as the pioneer of the Art Nouveau style. It is disappointing to find neither Schmutzler’s book in O’Neill’s 28-page bibliography, nor the phrase ‘Art Nouveau’ in her index.

But artists are more important for what they are than for whom they influence. What was Crane? As far as his artistic style went, he was clearly a follower of Sir Edward Burne-Jones — on whom Fiona MacCarthy’s monograph is eagerly awaited. In Crane’s politics, William Morris’s socialism was his guiding light. He was also mu
ch influenced stylistically by William Blake, for whom he shared Swinburne’s swooning admiration.

At his artistic worst, particularly in sub-Pre-Raphaelite allegories, Crane is frankly preposterous. I think of his design ‘Freedom’, of which he created two different versions: in one, a nearly naked young man is in chains at wrists and ankles; in the other, the winged spirit of Freedom hovering above him has unshackled him. At his best, as in his painting ‘Neptune’s Horses’ (1893), he is very nearly sublime: these are wild horses one might submit to be dragged by.

There is a chasm in this artist’s work, between, on the one hand, his down-to-earth, robust designs for the socialist movement (as O’Neill writes, his scene of the May Day celebration, ‘The Triumph of Labour’, in 1891, became ‘the definitive image of English socialism’); and, on the other, his fey allegories. There was a similar dichotomy in his character: on the one hand, a champion of the working class; on the other, a social climber who, when made a Commendatore of the Italian Order of Merit, went round calling himself ‘Commendatore Crane’. Possessing, like Winston Churchill, the somewhat unfortunate initials W. C. (Churchill, when shipwrecked, was happy to find ‘a substantial wooden door’ floating by bearing his initials), Crane magicked them into a Japanesey rebus (a crane), as whimsical and elegant as Whistler’s butterfly monogram.

O’Neill has clearly put in intensive research on this book, and it is impressive; but there are some startling omissions, which I am told I have not space to mention. She is Assistant Professor of Art History at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Though, for all I know, she may have been born in England or Ireland, she is almost a parody of the American art historian, treating us to no fewer than 84 pages of notes. It is safe to say that no further book about Crane will be needed for a very long time. The hijacking of this very English artist by this very American scholar might be characterised as ‘the Crane Drain’.

The boot is on the other foot with Richard Ormond’s John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1883-1899 (Yale, £50) — an English scholar writing about an American artist. (His co-author is Elaine Kilmurray.) Ormond is Sargent’s great-nephew; and, having known him for over 40 years, I can say that as a young man he had a look of the young Sargent. After serving as lieutenant to Roy Strong at the National Portrait Gallery, Ormond became director of the National Maritime Museum; and earlier this year he and Kilmurray organised the Royal Academy exhibition Sargent and the Sea — something of a surprise to those who associated the artist only with portraits of Edwardian society beauties bedecked with tiaras and parures.

This book is Volume V of the formidable catalogue raisonné which Ormond is masterminding as much more than a pious familial duty. Once again, those who think of Sargent as the creator of opulent mugshots will be impressed by the range of his talents. ‘Reapers Resting in a Wheat Field’ (c.1885) could almost be by Monet. ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, with its glowing Chinese lanterns, has a title, subject and style that are Whistlerian. (Ormond records that this work was inspired by a scene observed by Sargent in 1885 at Pangbourne, a quiet village on the Thames in Berkshire, where he was on a boating holiday with the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey.) It is risky to attribute ‘effortlessness’ to any artist: who knows what travails led to their skill? But you have the feeling that it came easier to Sargent than to most; that the cunning in his hand was instinctual. The brush strokes seem almost negligent; but, boy, did he know what he was doing. It is a pleasure just to browse among the illustrations; and anyone with more than a layman’s interest in Sargent will find Ormond’s scholarship exemplary.

Henri Matisse: Rooms with a View by Shirley Neilsen Blum (Thames & Hudson, £35) would make a good complement to Hilary Spurling’s prize-winning biography of the artist. The book brings together for the first time the rich collection of Matisse’s paintings of windows and interiors — 55 works are illustrated and analysed. You might think that this book marks a polar change from the book for which this art historian is best known, Early Netherlandish Triptychs; but when you open the new book, expecting to be dazzled with Côte d’Azur sunshine, the first illustration that hits your eye is the Mérode Altarpiece, painted about 1425-30 by Robert Campin. It depicts the Annunciation ‘as if taking place in a bourgeois Flemish living room … cluttered with domestic articles’.

Blum is setting Matisse’s interiors in their historical context, via Vermeer, Caspar David Friedrich and others. This useful preamble is followed by Matisse’s sun-drenched scenes. My sister has a flat in Roquebrune, not far from where the master had his studio in Nice, so many of these pictures strike me with ‘the delighted shock of recognition’. Like Van Gogh in Provence, Gauguin in Tahiti and Lowry in Manchester, Matisse was the ideal artist to depict his particular surroundings — as Harold Acton said of John Betjeman, ‘the genius of the genius loci’. When I peer into and out of those rooms, with their yellow, ochre, Indian red and purple hues, I feel I am just about to stroll along the promenade to the Hôtel Negresco, outside which, in life and death and the Ken Russell film, Isadora Duncan got strangled when her long scarf was caught in the wheel of her Rolls-Royce. (When Isadora not a Dora…?) What this book also brought home to me is the great influence Matisse had on the Omega Work- shop artists, especially Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. She is Matisse-and-water.

If you want an art book that really sets you thinking, rather than just looking, I would recommend What Makes a Masterpiece? Encounters with Great Works of Art edited by Christopher Dell, with contributions by Quentin Blake, Antony Gormley, Germaine Greer, Grayson Perry, Philip Pullman, John Julius Norwich and others (Thames & Hudson, £24.95). Even if you were just looking, the book is a feast of an anthology, with a nice mix of both very famous works (Botticelli’s Venus; the Mona Lisa) and some less well-known, such as the extraordinary ‘Lady of Elche’, a sculpture that looks like a woman wearing giant headphones. She was discovered at Elche in Alicante, south-eastern Spain, in 1897. Debate has raged as to whether she is Iberian or Greek; Rubi Sanz Gamo, who contributes the essay on her, plumps for the latter. One question is still open: goddess or mortal?

Philip Pullman contributes an exquisitely subtle and clever piece on Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies-Bergère’. He makes the point that ‘an English artist called Frederick Yeames’ (he was actually William Frederick) painted ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ at about the same time … the early l880s’ (Yeames’s work was painted in 1878, but no matter). And here is the cleverness: Pullman suggests that if somebody were to write a description of the Yeames, and then a competent artist were asked to paint a picture from the text, it would be pretty much like the Yeames; but if the process were followed with the Manet it would be impossible for the second-guessing artist to achieve anything like his painting — ‘What does the barmaid’s expression mean? How on earth would we describe that?’

In his introduction, Dell tries to establish what does make a masterpiece.Kenneth Clark is wheeled on for quotations from his 1979 book What is a Masterpiece? Clark identified two key characteristics as ‘a confluence of memories and
emotions forming a single idea’ and ‘a power of recreating traditional forms so that they become expressive of the artist’s own epoch and yet keep a relationship with the past’. A typically urbane piece of bet-hedging.

Just as important, Christopher Dell thinks, is ‘the artist’s unerring ability to know when a work is finished — when to stop’. Agreed: a familiar trait of naive artists is the horror vacui, antipathy for the blank space. (Tattooists are prone to this.) Others think masterpieces are the works that make the greatest emotional impact on us. Dell also addresses the questions, ‘How universal is the concept of a masterpiece? Do all cultures make value judgments about their art?’ Most intelligently, he observes that we decide which works are masterpieces by comparisons, often by means of illustrations in books like this. Comparisons are not odious.

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