A Likely Story

Frank Kermode

Faced with such books as these it is hard not to regret the passing of an age when it seemed easy to write about painting and painters. The grapes of Zeuxis, as Pliny admiringly observed, were so real that birds came and pecked at them. Vasari, a painter himself, believed that in his day art had rediscovered those lost antique skills, built on them, and was now close to perfection. To make representations look deceptively real, and to remain untroubled by considerations of what ‘real’ could possibly mean, was the aim of the artist, and the function of the critic was simply to admire the technical accomplishments that made the illusion credible.

You could also express an admiring or even a disgusted interest in the personal life of the painter. Writing about Piero di Cosimo, Vasari does more than comment on the strange works of this artist. He adds that Piero lived more like a brute than a man, subsisted on boiled eggs, cooked 50 at a time while he was boiling his glue, studied a wall on which sick persons had used to spit, imagining that he saw there fantastic cities and combats of horses. Moreover he would never suffer his fruit trees to be pruned or trained, and so on. Vasari improves the story by arguing that there was method in Piero’s madness: he was so eccentric that people mistakenly thought him a fool, and this assumption prevented other artists from profiting by his example. George Eliot remembered Piero’s eggs and reclusive habits in Romola, improving the story yet again: why she has the eggs delivered ready-boiled is a question for Victorianists.

Vasari had got on to something important when he perceived that the lives of painters are likely to be of considerable general interest, as well as being rather easier to write about than their productions. He does describe certain works in detail: for example, Piero’s Car of Death, with tombs from which emerge figures with skeletons painted on their black body-stockings. He can remark that Piero drew well from life, that he painted St Antony wearing spectacles and reading an excellently represented parchment book, that he displayed to perfection the art of colouring in oils. Vasari was clearly aware that biographical information, gossip indeed, was seductive; as to technique, it was enough to say, without going into great detail, that Piero had lots of it. The excellence of his colouring in oils could be remarked without further analysis. So with Leonardo’s ‘great and marvellous art’ in the representation of the rotundity of the dates on a palm-tree, and the wonderful texture of the tablecloth in the Last Supper. If virtually the whole art of painting was perfect representation there was no need to strain for a vocabulary appropriate to anything other than skilled and diligent workmanship.

Everything was bound to get harder when painting found other tasks than mimesis. Picasso said that painters no longer live in a tradition but need to ‘re-create an entire language ... from A to Z’. This development could, he admitted, be called a liberation, ‘but what the artist gains in the way of liberty he loses in the way of order.’ The writer about painting is in an even greater difficulty than the painter himself, for he must learn the elements of that new language yet seek for himself a matching other, which has to consist of words. The problem of translation now looks insuperable.

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[*] Chicago, 392 pp., £31.95, 1 November 1995, 0 226 34949 7.