Art history

‘There are an awful lot of my paintings I don’t like,’ admitted Francis Bacon

In 1959, Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ was hanging above the bed where Francis Bacon nursed a fractured skull after falling downstairs drunk at his framer Alfred Hecht’s house on the King’s Road. It was there to be re-framed – a circumstantial detail Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan report neutrally, en passant, in their 2021 biography Francis Bacon: Revelations. An inadvertent cry, nay a scream, for attention? Or a frame-up? It was a decade after Bacon painted his first screaming pope, a palimpsest obviously based on Velázquez but equally in hock to Munch. Francis Bacon: A Self-Portrait in Words is an annotated compilation by Michael Peppiatt of statements, letters, studio notes

The golden age of Dutch art never ceases to amaze

This year’s Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Frans Hals retrospective at London’s National Gallery are testaments to the enduring appeal of the Dutch artists of the Golden Age. When the 80-year war between Spain and the Dutch Republic ended in 1648, it left the Dutch strong in military and economic terms. They founded colonies across the world. The affluence and stability provided the perfect medium for creativity. Painting flourished, and buying art was no longer the domain of the wealthiest. Benjamin Moser’s first book since winning the Pulitzer for Sontag explores this burgeoning world. The lives and works of the greatest and lesser-known Dutch artists of

Albrecht Dürer’s genius for self-promotion

Albrecht Dürer, one of the most narcissistic artists that ever lived (and it’s a crowded field), would have loved this book. It lays out methodically, with academic brilliance, the marketplace, techno-aware basis of the ‘Dürer Renaissance’ and the artist’s rise to immortal fame. With a glorious accumulation of detail, assiduous research and – as she acknowledges before her exciting journey begins – the benefit of ‘magnificent institutional support’, Ulinka Rublack, a history professor at Cambridge University, delivers a deluxe book, with chapter and verse to support her grand subtitle: ‘Art and Society at the Dawn of a Global World’. Dürer depicted himself in the central panel of the lost altarpiece

The shock of the new in feminist art

Lauren Elkin begins her book about bodily art with a charming ode to the punctuation mark that she in American English calls a ‘slash’ and we in British English call a ‘stroke’. She likes the way it expresses ‘division yet relation’. Brings disparate things together. Makes space for ambiguity. Blends and blurs. And/or. She writes: The slash is the first person tipped over: the first person joining me to the person beside me, or me to you. Across the slash we can find each other. Across the slash I think we can do some work. That work begins in Art Monsters with a lively and vibrant account of feminist art

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men. Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator: The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you

Women artists have been ignored for far too long

At first glance, Clara Peeters’s ‘Still Life with a Vase of Flowers, Goblets and Shells’ (1612) appears to be just that. Carefully arranged on a wooden tabletop, the collected objects are in conversation, the nubby curves of the shells echoing the ribbed neck of the stone vase, their dusky and rosy hues matching the open and squeezed shut buds. But look closer at the gleaming gilt goblet on the right and you’ll notice that the Flemish artist has smuggled tiny self-portraits into the polished roundels – a clever bid to avoid the misattribution of her painting to a man, perhaps, and a form of self-assertion in the male-dominated art world.

Why Tate Modern seems more like a playground than an art gallery

This book covers the period 1878-2000, offering thought provoking commentary on some 120 years of experiments in being modern, and begins with the famous court case after John Ruskin accused James Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. But Michael Bird does not limit his perspective to a single artist or cause per chapter. Part of the deep appeal of his writing is the range of reference across literature and art, bringing in key historical events where appropriate. He does a superb job of connecting and deftly summoning context, always seeking to illuminate the larger picture. And he stitches apt quotation through the text, returning to

Alive with innovation: British art between the world wars

When I mentioned the subject of this book to someone reasonably well-informed about 20th-century British art, the response was: ‘Isn’t that all portrait and still-life paintings?’ Well, perhaps if you’re looking exclusively at the contents of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions – and even there landscape was another popular choice. But actually the period was alive with innovation – with abstraction and surrealism infiltrating and balancing out a new kind of realism. Art was a melting pot of competing attitudes, drawing equally on native traditions and stimulating foreign influences, principally Cézanne and Picasso. In her enjoyable new book Frances Spalding identifies ‘a recurrent tension… between a precarious stasis on the

The effortless magnetism of Marcel Duchamp

One could compile a fat anthology of tributes to Marcel Duchamp’s charm – especially what one friend called the artist’s ‘physical fineness’ – but it would be hard to top Georgia O’Keeffe’s memory of their first meeting: Duchamp was there and there was conversation. I was drinking tea. When I finished he rose from his chair, took my teacup and put it down at the side with a grace that I had never seen in anyone before and have seldom seen since. A tempest stirred by a teacup! Duchamp exerted – without ever exerting himself – a magnetism at once obvious and inexplicable Made famous by his painting ‘Nude Descending

Restless visionary: Man Ray was always ahead of his time

In the summer of 1940, after almost 20 years in Paris, Man Ray fled the Nazis for the country of his birth. Disliking New York, where he’d spent his youth, he made for the West Coast. He hoped to get as far as Tahiti or Hawaii. But his trip came to an end when, braced by the space, lifted by the lack of skyscrapers (‘made me feel taller’) and swept off his feet by a dancing girl (the latest in a long line of hoofers for whom he’d have the hots), he settled in Los Angeles. Though he would live there for more than decade, he never really liked the

This radical Nativity is also one of the great whodunnits of art history

On 25 October 1510 Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, wrote a letter to her agent in Venice inquiring after a certain highly collectable item. ‘We believe that in the effects and the estate of Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there exists a painting of a night scene, very beautiful and unusual.’ She thus set off one of the great whodunnits of art history: a mystery hidden inside an enigma that caused a furious 20th-century quarrel between one of the greatest connoisseurs of Renaissance art and the most powerful dealer of the age — and which has never been definitively solved. It concerns a beautiful picture, now in the National

A keepsake – and to-do list – of Europe’s greatest cathedrals

In his new book on Europe’s cathedrals, Simon Jenkins begins with the claim that the greatest among them are our most important European works of art. Greater than the paintings of El Greco or Berthe Morisot? More momentous than the buildings of Mies van der Rohe or Norman Foster? More important than the organ music of J.S. Bach or the Duruflé Requiem? Still, I see his point. Given the vast numbers who have visited these cathedrals over the centuries for worship or on tour, their powerful multimodal communication (cathedrals incorporate the visual arts, architecture, stained glass, music, wood- and iron-work, masonry, weaving and many other forms of expression) and the

The life of René Magritte was even more surprising than his art

We live at a time in which we could (until recently) travel without difficulty and take for granted access to cultural treasures. It’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case, and minds were shaped by what possibilities were available. The Belgian painter René Magritte is a good example of huge talent pushed through a very narrow opening. His art has now become an exemplar of the striking image that commerce can feature. Advertising regularly uses his paradoxical visual combinations of faces replaced by apples, of skies in the shape of doves, of roses filling rooms and, supremely, the conundrum of the pipe demurely labelled ‘Ceci n’est pas une

Bright, beautiful and deceptively simple: the art of the linocut

In the 1920s the linocut broke out of the schoolroom and on to gallery walls. Here was a democratic new art form, perfect for the times with its lowly materials — a piece of old linoleum flooring for the block, while the best tools, according to the artist Claude Flight, were an old umbrella spoke for cutting and a toothbrush to rub the back of the paper. The finished prints, Flight hoped, would be cheap enough for working-class pockets. Above all, the bright, dynamic images themselves, often depicting scenes of contemporary life — busy streets, the London Underground, skating, the first motor races — captured the mood of the age.

The first patrons of Modernism deserve much sympathy and respect

If Modernism is a jungle, how do you navigate a path through its thickets? Some explorers — Peter Gay and Christopher Butler among them — have been fool-hardy enough to attempt an overall map, identifying factors common to a half century of music, art and literature. But the borders remain disputed and light cast on one area only leaves another consigned to the shadows. Philip Hook, however, has been less ambitious, confining himself to one patch of special interest: the painting and sculpture of the decade preceding the first world war. Although this may sound like familiar territory, it’s widely regarded, in Hook’s words, as ‘quite possibly the most important

Like burst balloons after a party: the last paintings of John Hoyland

When the internationally acclaimed abstract painter John Hoyland died in 2011 at the age of 76, a large chunk of light, laughter and danger went out of the British art world. Hoyland, who was born in Sheffield and trained at the local art college before coming to London and the Royal Academy Schools, was a force to be reckoned with. Reaching maturity in the 1960s, his career was established by a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1967, after which he divided his time for several years between London and New York. In the 1970s he settled back in London and Wiltshire, but travelled widely, often to the tropics.

Why should art have ever been considered a male preserve?

‘I’m a lady,’ insists the improbable damozel in David Walliams’s Little Britain sketch. I’m a lady, I kept thinking, reading these two books. More: I’m a lady art historian. Oughtn’t I to like books by other lady art historians about lady artists and ladies in art. Why don’t I? Why so out of sync with the sisterhood? Start with the positive. Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and the Palette follows an interesting, original line: ‘If she had access to a mirror, a palette, an easel and paint, a woman could endlessly reflect on her face and, by extension, her place in the world.’ Higgie, editor-at-large at frieze magazine and the host

Apostle of modernism: Clive Bell’s reputation repaired

Clive Bell is the perennial supporting character in the biographies of the Bloomsbury group. The husband of Vanessa Bell, brother-in-law of Virginia Woolf and friend of Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, he is often depicted as a witness to historical events rather than a participant in them, a sort of modernist Forrest Gump. At best he is a dilettante with good taste who didn’t quite belong with the intellectuals of Bloomsbury; at worst he is a womaniser with Nazi sympathies who took advantage of Virginia Woolf. In this useful book Mark Hussey lets him take centre stage and delivers a far more nuanced portrait. Bell liked to play up to

Ceramic art has been undervalued for too long

The use of ‘Ceramic’ rather than ‘Ceramics’ in the title of this book indicates Paul Greenhalgh’s passionate belief that ‘ceramic is a thing in itself: a many-headed but nevertheless singular entity, with an on-going intellectual discourse’ which he christens ‘the ceramic continuum’. He believes that this has been ‘actively denied its place as an artistic practice’ and that ‘its exclusion from the canon of art history is squarely to do with money, class and race’. The book is a prodigious attempt to right that wrong. Ceramic, Greenhalgh says, has been seen as ‘too cheap’ (though the sale of the Qianlong Vase in 2010 for £43 million might change that), is

A new blossoming: David Hockney paints Normandy

In 2018 David Hockney went to Normandy to look at the Bayeux Tapestry, which he had not seen for more than 40 years. He liked its great panoramic length and the absence of shadows. But while there he found himself seduced by the scenery of Normandy, its winding lanes and orchards of blossom trees. He decided he would like to paint the arrival of spring there, as he had in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, a decade earlier. He asked his long-standing assistant, Jean-Pierre Goncalves de Lima, known as J-P, to look into the possibility of renting a house. He was so delighted with the first one J-P showed him, La Grande