Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Art for Dummies by Thomas Hoving

I bought this as a gift for my wife a few years ago and she has never gotten around to reading it. That’s not unusual. I don’t think she’s ever read any book I’ve gotten her as a gift. But I think she may have actually been offended by this one. Dummy? I’m not a dummy. Especially when it comes to art. I took an art history class in college!

So I read it instead, and will only plan to look at it again the next time I travel to one of the cities Hoving profiles at the end of the book to see which art treasures I should seek out if I have any free time. It was informational, but ultimately failed in its primary objective—to help the neophyte distinguish good art from bad art. Here’s Hoving’s list of factors on which we should base that assessment:

1. Does it express successfully what it’s intending to express?
2. Does it amaze you in a different way each time you look at it?
3. Does it grow in stature?
4. Does it continually mature?
5. Does its visual impact of mysterious, pure power increase every day.
6. Is it unforgettable?

Speaking as a neophyte, I think I can safely say that the only factor I feel comfortable assessing is the last one. Is it unforgettable? And isn’t that pretty much as the same thing as “not knowing art, but knowing what you like?” Come on, Tom. Does it continually mature? How the hell am I supposed to know? I’m the one who bought a book called Art for Dummies, remember?

Hoving does provide a useful overview of great art through the centuries, but far too much of it is simply described and not shown. The book does have a few color plates in which a few dozen works of art of shown, but most of what he talks about it either not shown, or shown in small black and white photographs—including, laughably, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Travel to the Vatican to see it in person? Why should I bother? I’ve got a three by four inch black and white photo of it in my Art for Dummies book!

So I went to the Internet to see if I can find color photographs of some of the art he describes that sounds like I might find it unforgettable. And you know what? Tom's not batting a thousand as far as I'm concerned. His descriptions remind me of lay press reports of astronomical phenomena. The reporter goes to interview the astronomer about the rare planetary conjunction that’s going to take place, and the astronomer gets all excited because planetary conjunctions are her thing, you know, and the reporter, without any other frame of reference, carries that excitement into his newspaper column about it. We read it, and we get real excited about it, too, so we get up at three o’clock in the morning and go out in the freezing cold and look up into the sky and see one really bright star next to another not quite as bright star. Yippee. Likewise, Tom practically hyperventilates in some of his descriptions, but when I tracked down the piece on the Web, more often than not I couldn't help but wonder what all the fuss was about.

Despite that, it was still fun looking at all the art. And here’s what I’ll put on my list of great art, using the only definition that really matters. It speaks to me.

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The top expression of man’s desperate fate in the face of the arbitrary acts of the gods, which seems to have captivated Hellenistic audiences, is the over-restored but still magnificently powerful sculpture of around 150 B.C. in the Vatican Museum of The Death of Laocoön and His Sons. Laocoön was a high priest who had angered the gods, and he struggles mightily but helplessly along with his two handsome sons against two ferocious snakes who are devouring them alive. The sculptors were Athanodorus, Hagesandros, and Polydorus of Rhodes. The piece was unearthed in the Renaissance, and Michelangelo proclaimed it the finest sculpture ever made. In a sense, the trio created a work that sums up the turmoil, the twisted human form, and the free expression of the entire Hellenistic period.

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Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (1948), the most popular painting in the place [The Museum of Modern Art in New York], is a triumph of unromantic and coldhearted realism, showing the crippled Christina Olsen crawling across the field below her house in Cushing, Maine.

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This one is not talked about specifically in Art for Dummies. The artist, Egon Schiele, is mentioned as one of the standouts at The Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, Austria, but no individual pieces are described. I found this one, Seated Couple (1915) among many others when I Googled the artist. It depicts the artist himself and his wife, Edith. I know nothing else about it, but it places a powerful image in my mind of the mad and misunderstood genius and the woman who loves him and who knows she won’t have him forever. Look at their faces. His, distracted by visions of elemental truth in art, so distracted that he may not even be aware that he is not wearing pants. And hers, tender and fearful about what the insensible world will do to him, will do to anyone who dares to challenge its norms and standards of decency.

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Ivan the Terrible and His Son (1885) by Ilya Repin. From Wikipedia: “This canvas displays a horrified Ivan embracing his dying son, whom he has just struck and mortally wounded in an uncontrolled fit of rage. The visage of terrified Ivan is in marked contrast with that of his calm, almost Christlike son.” My God! What have I done? And what am I going to do now? The questions shoot like beams of light from Ivan’s eyes, and perfectly capture the misery of anyone who has ever destroyed the thing that they love.

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Saturn Devouring His Son (1823) by Francisco Goya. From Wikipedia: “It depicts the Roman myth of Saturn, who, fearing that his children would supplant him, ate each one upon their birth. Goya depicts Saturn feasting upon one of his sons. His child's head and part of the left arm has already been consumed. The right arm has probably been eaten too, though it could be folded in front of the body and held in place by Saturn's crushing grip. The god is on the point of taking another bite from the left arm; as he looms from the darkness, his mouth gapes and his eyes bulge white with the appearance of madness. The only other brightness in the picture comes from the white flesh and red blood of the corpse and the white knuckles of Saturn as he digs his fingers into the back of the body. There is evidence that the picture may have originally portrayed the god with a partially erect penis, but, if ever present, this disturbing addition was lost due to the deterioration of the mural over time or during the transfer to canvas; in the picture today the area around his groin is indistinct.” This is one of the many pictures Goya painted on the walls of his house which he never meant from public display and which have collectively become known as the Black Paintings. Most, but not all, portary dark subject matter like this one. It’s horrible all right, and shows, I think, the depths a man will stoop to to preserve his own position in life.

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Red Nude (1917) by Amedeo Modigliani. I can’t say much about why this one makes the cut. Reading up on Modigliani I know he was considered a staggeringly talented artist who was given to fits of self-indulgence and died young partly of alcohol poisoning and partly of some horrible inherited disease. Looking at his body of work, I see a lot of strange looking people with strange looking faces, and can’t help but wonder what all the fuss is about. But this one speaks to me. Maybe because it looks likes it is bridging time and styles. Her body—and her belly especially—look classical, as if painted by a Renaissance master himself, while her face and her surroundings are obviously modern and abstract. The more I look at it the more complex it seems. It probably is one of the nudes that scandalized the chief of the Paris police and caused him to close down Modigliani’s first one-man exhibition on December 3, 1917.

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