Art criticism

Art and aspiration

When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone who’d once had dinner with the sister of a close friend of Art Garfunkel’s psychotherapist’. Having sent a tape of his songs over, he settled down to ‘write jokes for comedians. It seemed like a plan for life’. In a way it was. Though Gopnik has yet to hear back from Garfunkel, his oratorio about

How pleasant to know Mr Lear

Edward Lear liked to tell the story of how he was once sitting in a railway carriage with two women who were reading aloud to children from his Book of Nonsense. When a male passenger confidently asserted that ‘There is no such person as Edward Lear’, the writer was obliged to prove his own existence as ‘the painter & author’ (in that order) by showing the passengers his name on his hat, handkerchief and visiting card. In an extraordinary drawing of this event, Lear depicted himself and the two women realistically, but the doubting man is a cartoonish figure straight out of one of his limericks. Lear’s two worlds of

Kenneth Clark was much better at opening people’s eyes to great art than Marxist John Berger

It is one of those interesting quirks of postwar cultural history that John Berger, who has died at the age of 90, could have presented Civilisation. Millions of viewers who saw that unsurpassed – unsurpassable – series when its 13 programmes were screened in 1969, or who have seen it in the years since, associate Civilisation with Kenneth Clark – Lord Clark of Civilisation, as he came to be known. But Berger might easily have got the nod. It was Clark himself who suggested to Michael Gill, Civilisation‘s producer, that he might find a more congenial ally in Berger, who, of course, three years later presented Ways of Seeing as a counter-argument to

The grit in the oyster

Richard Dorment doesn’t do whimsy. Or Stanley Spencer. He’s a fan of Cy Twombly and Brice Marden, Gilbert and George and Mark Wallinger, Rachel Whiteread and Susan Hiller. He loves writing about contemporary art. And he worked as art critic of the Daily Telegraph for 25 years. Like the grit in the oyster he irritated the establishment, producing pearl after pearl that occasionally had even his own paper distancing itself from his opinions. ‘I looked edgy and transgressive,’ he says, ‘when in reality my taste in art was fairly cautious.’ Born in America, Dorment studied art history at Princeton and was assistant curator in European painting at the Philadelphia Museum

Fifty shades of blue

Like a lot of people, Olivia Laing came to New York to join a lover. Like a lot of people, she soon became unjoined. She stopped eating and drifted, moved from sublet to sublet, wandered the streets in a desperate daze. She craved intimacy and shied away from it, was painfully self-conscious but also anxious that she was in danger of vanishing. What does loneliness feel like? It feels, she says, ‘like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.’ The Lonely City is memoir, art criticism

The Ghost in the machine

One of the great joys of the late Brian Sewell’s style of writing was his almost child-like bluntness. He had a three-year-old’s lack of tact when it came to saying what he thought of things, be it art or food or life in general. The fact that he combined such unflinching honesty with intelligence, insight and erudite delivery was what made him one of the great critics. Always entertaining, occasionally right, cheerfully abusive, he showed us the world through his pince-nez, and it was both terrifying and magnificent. Despite a weakness for baroque vocabulary, he was a master of economy. It took him only a few choice lines to demolish

God in a stained glass window

Writing about Graham Sutherland in 1950, the critic Robert Melville observed: ‘When one looks at a picture one finds oneself over the frontier or one doesn’t. Criticism has no power of making converts to an experience which occurs without the intervention of reason … Criticism considers the sensitive flesh of the image and discovers its spiritual stature: indeed, unless we pursue the meaning of the image as language, painting may well fall silent and rest content in the pride of its flesh.’ This quotation is of relevance here for several reasons: because one of my principal roles as a writer is to function as an art critic; because Melville rightly

Sam Leith

How honest was Bernard Berenson?

When the great Jewish-American art expert Bernard Berenson died in 1959, he had acquired the status of a sort of sage. He was the relic of a prewar culture that had vanished. He was an embodiment of the idea of connoisseurship that had at once given birth to a great boom in art collecting and yet that was, by the end of his life, being superseded. When Berenson embarked on the career that would see him widely accepted as the world’s foremost authority on Old Masters, the painters of the Italian Renaissance were barely regarded in the US. He died — at 94 — in the age of Andy Warhol.