- Mirror of the World: A New History of Art by Julian Bell
Thames and Hudson, 496 pp, £24.95, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 500 23837 0
Julian Bell has written a tremendous history of world art, one that will inevitably be compared with Gombrich’s The Story of Art, published nearly sixty years ago. Since then image-making technologies that seemed mature have changed and expanded their reach. In 1950 we lived in an image flood. We are now, as Bell puts it, in an image jam. As you turn the pages of Mirror of the World and skip from illustration to illustration you feel the jostle of hundreds of other images that could equally well have been chosen as landing places, while thousands more that make no claim to be works of art still demand attention. The very persistence of art objects can seem a burden. Of a New Ireland mask Bell writes: ‘the mask, like the malanggans, New Ireland’s giant funerary complexes of carving, would probably on principle have been consigned to the fire. That is, until European collectors created a market for “primitive” exotica.’ The plate of available art is piled higher and higher. Will appetite fail?
Not yet, and nothing has been found that gives a better account of great tracts of art and art’s history than texts built around pictures like Mirror of the World and The Story of Art. About the art to which none of the illustrations is relevant, little is said. Bell’s time span runs from the emergence of art-like acts among the hominid ancestors of Homo sapiens to the present. His stated ambition is straightforward: to let the uninitiated know where things came from, when they were made, how they relate to one another, the experience in which they are rooted. He is also interested in what we might share with the works’ makers. The game has changed since Gombrich’s time; there is more to write about and assumptions about what art is, tenable in 1950, must be glossed if they are to frame what has happened since. To get an idea of the problem the historian faces, imagine a board with 350 or so squares, arranged and labelled chronologically and geographically. The player has a pack of thousands upon thousands of picture postcards. The object is to choose one for each square that both contributes to a coherent story and makes a good illustration. Among them there must be a good proportion of unfamiliar images. Even masterpieces get exhausted.
Other problems arise when the pictures, no matter how well chosen, are married with words. ‘A work of art,’ Bell writes, ‘seeks to hold your attention and keep it fixed: a history of art urges it onwards, bulldozing a highway through the homes of the imagination.’ In a lecture theatre the speaker’s click brings up the next slide. On the page we are out of his or her control, and we may get stuck or distracted. The idea that it is possible, desirable even, to arrive at a single winning set of cards, even at an agreed set of artists, has gone. Success lies in finding sequences that carry a narrative, although the notion that there is only one story to be told is now hard to sustain. Plenty of books illustrate ‘masterpieces of world art’, but writing that tells you more than you can see for yourself and makes you want to read on is harder to come by.
That is what Bell provides, with clarity and a wonderfully sustained faculty of response. A practical device he uses to carry you through is the long caption. He accepts that some readers will skim and dip; captions can offer a parallel story, but also persuade us to turn to the text for more. Another device, inherent in the structure of the book, is to set famous things alongside those that are obscure or surprising. Watteau’s Gilles of 1716–18 is reproduced on the same spread as a self-portrait of c.1710 by the Korean Yun Du-so. Yun Du-so looks hard at you from the last page of one section, Gilles less emphatically from the first page of the next. Gilles seems to ‘inhabit his own face with a certain unease. In his disquiet we can maybe read the hesitancies troubling that other plaything of the rich, his portraitist.’ While ‘to seek the motivations’ behind Yun Du-so’s ‘magisterial “I am” might take us deep into the history of a nation that . . . was now debating philosophies no less human-centred than the West’s’. Juxtapositions like this one arise because global history is presented chronologically; the narrative moves, as far as possible, period by period, not country by country or civilisation by civilisation. The pair of portraits offers a healthy challenge to the mindset that assumes Western cultures change, while others are static. The way Bell reads the two portraits, his willingness to postulate inner experience, to allow emotional engagement, is what is at once most ingratiating about his way of approaching works of art and, I guess, most old-fashioned. In the final chapters, where human intimacy with work and maker becomes less easy, he is less engaged and less engaging, though no less readable.
Mirror of the World begins with the startlingly realistic images of people and animals found on cave walls in Europe and on rock faces in Africa. They suggest that visual art can draw on an ability to find pleasure in representation that is as old as the human race, and that the move from schemata to images which depend on detailed observation came very early. Both Gombrich and Bell illustrate naturalistic heads in three dimensions from South America (Moche pots from Peru) and Africa (a bronze head from Ife). These scotch the notion that, once achieved, naturalism will always successfully challenge formalism and distortion. Some things asked of images can be arrived at only by flattening, distorting and decorating: the cartoonist’s truth, the mask-maker’s and the photographer’s are different. Bell is particularly good at finding reasons for un-naturalistic strangeness.
Bell is a painter, and he tells the history of art from the maker’s point of view. The pleasure to be had in putting brush to surface, and what this says about pictures and our response to them, is a regular theme. Of Giorgione he says: ‘The definitiveness of brushmarks made on a perfectly flat wooden panel is gone, but something more alluring replaces it. A loaded brush quickly traversing canvas leaves traces on its “teeth”, not its valleys: the viewer, induced to complete the intended line in the imagination, also enjoys by proxy the sensation of the action that produced it.’ (This distinction points, incidentally, to converse pleasures: for example, the pleasure to be had from the long licks that Rubens makes when he uses a brush as a drawing instrument in portraits and oil sketches on panel.) To identify the way Vuillard’s ‘stubbing of his brush becomes a warm ambient drone’, the way Rothko’s working practice was to ‘coax big cloud-blocks of colour from the canvas with a soft glazing-brush, getting them to pulse against one another – now drawing in, now glaring out’, shows a consciousness of means, of the pleasures an artist might derive from the act of making which could then become pleasures for an audience.
In Mirror of the World a large-scale account of world art is mapped onto a geo-chronological structure, but one traverses these wide historical and geographical territories by narrow paths that cross more often than you might expect. It is not mere contemporaneity that is striking (Dürer’s amazed ‘I cannot express all that they made me think’ when confronted during his European travels with Spanish loot from South America), but evidence of global moods. In the pages that follow an illustration of Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse one reads that the millenary panics of 1500 promoted ‘an imagery of horror in Northern Europe almost as frenetic as that in contemporary Mexico’.
The briskness of a narrative that compresses into sentences and paragraphs matters that have earned whole books, whole libraries even, is often abetted by pictures which make one attend to the background. Masterpieces, by their nature exceptional, don’t necessarily demonstrate these things well. So while Rembrandt is represented by The Three Crosses and The Jewish Bride, and Michelangelo by the early Pietà and Day from the Medici Chapel, works through which the nature of their greatness can be addressed, there is only a drawing tucked into a margin from Botticelli, and from Boucher a tapestry. Yet the drawing – Allegory of Abundance – allows Bell to make a point better than Primavera would have done:
Naked infants, horns of plenty and gauze-clad maidens had lain on Italy’s studio shelves as slightly dusty templates ever since the country became Christian . . . Now, in a vogue that spread out from a few scattered palaces, they were all being dusted down, overhauled, re-embroidered in rippling reveries, fretted over. The metaphorical possibilities, the ambisexual implications were giddily fascinating.
While the Boucher ‘returns us to the easily forgotten fact that for centuries tapestry was Europe’s most labour-intensive and prestigious form of wall hanging’. The illustration puts on display Boucher’s talents as a designer of decorations – a painting would fudge that point – and it allows a comparison to be made with Giacomo Ceruti’s Women Working on Pillow Lace on the facing page, an image whose ‘unforgiving harshness . . . puts any other painting done in the late 1720s into shocking contrast’. Here, as elsewhere, art’s tendency to drift towards power and money is registered and Bell’s more general intention, to present art as ‘a frame within which world history, in all its breadth, is continually reflected back at us – rather than as a window which opens onto some independent aesthetic realm’ – is abetted.
But art is an imperfect and selective mirror that tends to aestheticise poverty and horror. Even when Goya pulls us up short with pictures of rape and murder, or when we realise that corpses not Spanish moss are hanging ragged from the widespread branches of a tree in a Callot etching, our looking is sustained by pleasure in the drawing. Uneasiness about the excuses art can make and the support it can give to bad government are evident in Bell’s treatment of David (‘this cheerleader-cum-weathervane’) and the Death of Marat. He tracks its ‘terse, glare-lit, blocked-off pictorial space’ back to Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi, and the genre, the martyr-portrait, to religious art: ‘David’s hero is caught between the great, visibly invisible scumble’ – the blank wall which occupies the top half of the picture – ‘that refuses to reveal some redemptive angel of pity and its equally grim and invisible counterweight, the blood bath in which he wallows.’ But while Goya’s late drawings and paintings ‘arguably take us to somewhere yet more desolate’, David’s design is ‘as inexorable as the curvature of Boullée’s visionary dome, and both now seem tainted with modernity’s more nightmarish associations’. It is better to concentrate the imagination on thick and solid flesh, even the flesh of Goya’s howling, terrified drawing The Idiot. One could make a better case for David’s greatness with other portraits, but the Oath of the Horatii and the Marat are, mirror-of-the-world-wise, more significant. Bell is not always willing to let time offer an excuse when art is on the wrong side.
In the 20th century, photography became the benchmark of true reflection. Bell introduces it with Niépce’s 1826 view from a window, the earliest known photograph, ‘a genuinely new type of object in the world’. Another landmark follows, Muybridge’s studies of a walking man of 1887 – ‘naked-eye experience, hand-and-memory experience, familiar habits of vision and making – all of these were now being insistently challenged. The momentum of technology was overruling all constraints.’ Then, from 1912, there is Lartigue’s photograph of a racing car, Delage at the Grand Prix – ‘his picture has a lightness that no painting could ever quite hope to achieve’ – and from 1915 Paul Strand’s Wall Street, in which architecture of awful, simple severity dwarfs passers-by who cast long, sad shadows. Bell admits a preference for ‘the primary rather than what is derivative . . . Lartigue’s vision of speed rather than Boccioni’s; Strand, not Duchamp, on America’. But when it came to looking for a record of the atrocities of the Second World War, no photograph – something that might give ‘dignity and meaning to the sheer act of witnessing’ – was adequate. Instead he shows a picture by Felix Nussbaum, ‘one of the many individualists painting through the 1920s and 1930s in what one might call a genteel minor key’. In In the Camp ‘the medium and manner that used to stand for “European civilisation” smear us in shame and bathos. Far (though not that far) from Dalí’s charades of transgression, one man shits, one man slumps in a shit-brown blanket, one man wipes his backside. Which way does authenticity lie? Which way art?’
Authenticity now lies, it would seem, with purely mechanical records like CCTV clips. But the gallery’s Midas touch can turn those too into art, and in the process wipe away the uninterpreted truth they seemed to carry. Art’s truths are constructions, open to question. Luc Tuymans’s Diagnostic Views are paintings made from pictures taken to record the facial symptoms of disease. His thinking, Bell says, was ‘one step on from the photo-fixated philosophy of Gerhard Richter, but placed an equal emphasis on diseases and guilty secrets.’ Facing it is a 1988 photographic portrait by Thomas Ruff of a nameless friend ‘stonily preparing for the advent of CCTV and the iris scan’.
In much of the work described in the last chapters the artist is a designer, architect or planner of work rather than a maker. The final skirmishes in the battle that raised art from the low status of mere handwork to gentlemanly respectability have taken place. Art can be a thinking, clean-hands business. It can also, at the other extreme, take the connoisseur’s long-standing concern with touch as evidence of personality and skill, separate them from the task of representation and applaud their abstract, gestural authenticity. The last image in the book is of this sort: Lee U-fan’s With Winds, five big marks in indigo-grey and four patches of dirty cream scribble. Whether it opens you (as a Westerner) to the Zen Buddhist tradition or (as Bell suggests East Asian viewers might conclude) to an imposed art culture is not a fact about the work, but a product of its place in the viewer’s mental universe.
The confidence that avant-gardes, even if beleaguered, were holding to the true line of artistic change (even if it no longer quite seemed like progress) was still about in 1950. Bell now records its waning. ‘When did the Western avant-garde tradition breathe its last? On the night of 15 March 1989, when contractors tore down Richard Serra’s sculpture in Federal Plaza, New York City.’ Tilted Arc was demolished, after a court case, because local workers found this 36-metre steel wall oppressive. As the work made its way from physical existence to memory ‘there was a widespread feeling that the old avant-garde impulse – to deliver a salutary aesthetic shock, to clear a space for critical reflection – was ceding to the free-flow of consumers and information in a world of unchecked capitalism.’ Another work Bell writes about in his last chapter, the life-size wooden figures carved by Ana Maria Pacheco, opens a channel of communication with the past, in this case with work Bell considered earlier in his book by the 18th-century sculptor Antonio Lisboa from Pacheco’s native Brazil. The most interesting hope for the future may lie in such raids on the past.