Art: A New History
by Paul Johnson
HarperCollins. 777 pp. $39.95
Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History is not so much a book as a sparring partner. It is a chronological, comprehensive narrative, brilliant and cranky by turns. Brilliance predominates, but if you intend to read Johnson seriously (as he must be read), bring boxing gloves.
Johnson’s History is extraordinary in part because his eye is sharp, his prose is dangerous to opponents, and his book is formidable in every way—starting with the fact that it weighs a ton. More important, Johnson is no mere professional art-writer. He is a wide-ranging, deep-digging thinker and scholar whose books on history, religion, and culture are classics in their own time. Johnson disdains the ever-tinier subfields bequeathed by thesis advisers to their academic offspring. (A typical academic specialty today is barely wide enough to turn around in.) He disdains politicized, “postmodern” scholarship. He understands art’s place on the map of human thought, its historical and intellectual context. And Johnson writes about art from the best possible vantage point: he is a painter himself.
The History is chronological, but not inflexibly so. There is, for example, no single “Italian Renaissance” chapter. Instead we get a chapter on cultural roots of the Renaissance and Renaissance architecture, then a chapter on Renaissance sculpture, then one on painting, and finally “The Roman Climax and Its Confused Aftermath,” which covers Italian High Renaissance painting, mannerism, and some northern European painters. This arrangement allows Johnson to follow the development of sculpture (say) without darting constantly into nearby fields. But it also forces Michelangelo’s architecture, sculpture, and painting into three different, noncontiguous chapters. There is no perfect solution to this problem; Johnson’s solution works well for Johnson—it lets him convey (for example) very different impressions of Michelangelo the architect versus Michelangelo the painter—and on the whole the narrative reads smoothly.
Illustrations are central to an art book’s mission. The History‘s are variable in quality but good overall. Vermeer’s Little Street comes out like a patchy watercolor, but Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne—the Olympic decathlon of color reproduction—is crisp and vivid, from its ultramarine sky to its smoky-orange leopard. It’s a shame that Johnson singles out in the text many artworks that go un-illustrated although there are miles of sad, wide, empty margin.
The History has no single organizing thesis but several implicit themes: architecture as the defining and “weightiest” art; the glories of British art; religious faith as the atmosphere in which art lives and breathes. Each of these three is unusual in a survey of art history, and Johnson is especially well-suited to expound them all. The three together, gracefully interlacing, give this book its distinctive and memorable tone.
Architecture is clearly Johnson’s favorite art, and the chapters on architecture are the best in the History. A series of small Byzantine churches “need to be seen,” he writes, “and their rich coloring enjoyed, under a hot sun; indeed their warmth should be felt by hand and the smell of their baked tile and brick eagerly sniffed up.” Only a man who loves and knows architecture deeply, not just with his intellect but with his whole body, could have written that sentence. Johnson speaks wonderfully about color in architecture—for example in discussing French cathedrals or the Taj Mahal, or praising Michelangelo’s Laurentian-library staircase for “brilliantly combining marbles of different color and radiance.” It takes an unusual eye to praise a shades-of-gray composition for radiance and color. It takes a fascinatingly perverse eye to praise this particular staircase at all; it has stumped many a critic and connoisseur over the centuries. “No work I have ever examined,” writes Johnson stoutly, “demonstrates more clearly the difference between great architecture and routine competence.”
In Johnson’s book, British art is usually (albeit subtly) the center of the story; his incandescent pride in British accomplishment lights the whole landscape. There is a superb discussion of William Blake. The overlooked genius of Augustus Pugin gets due recognition—Pugin who collaborated with Charles Barry on the Houses of Parliament, one of history’s most important buildings and “the ultimate masterpiece of the Gothic revival.” The best part of the long discussion of Turner is a list of the painter’s faults: “his appalling figure drawing and vacuous faces . . . his refusal to paint trees properly . . . his overuse of white and yellow when the frenzy took hold.” Johnson loves Turner. The list is a triumph of Johnsonian integrity.
You cannot write effectively about art unless you understand religion; Johnson understands. Writing about Byzantine icons, he explains the “state of continuous creation” that yields intermingled religious and aesthetic values: painters start the process but ongoing devotion carries it forward. The “drippings of wax, the oleaginous layers created over centuries by oil lamps set in front of the image” become part of it, mellowing and deepening and changing it. After a discussion of the complex history of St. Peter’s in Rome—a discussion taking in Bramante and Sangallo, Raphael and Michelangelo—Johnson asks: “So who built St. Peter’s?” His answer: “God and time.”
(If the History is brilliant on religion, it is sometimes clumsy on sexuality. How could anyone fail to register the erotic intensity of Corregio’s Io, especially given Io’s moody resemblance to Bernini’s Saint Teresa, about whom Johnson is loud and clear? And how could a respectable history of art dismiss Modigliani, the greatest master of the erotic nude in the last hundred years, without a single illustration?)
In English cathedrals, the History‘s three big themes come together like a choir, and the results are lovely and close to perfect. Here is Johnson on Lincoln, a “grand church”:
The cathedral, nave and choir together, presents a vast tunnel, twenty bays long, with the spiky shape of the organ silhouetted against the far-distant, but enormous, east window. When the sun is rising in the east, this is one of the overwhelming shock-views of European architecture.
(Unfortunately you will have to consult Johnson’s British Cathedrals of 1980 if you want to see a picture—and after that final sentence, how could you not want to?) Reaching the lantern over the crossing at Ely, he makes us feel that we have arrived at the pinnacle of art:
We move up the long, twelve-bay nave, which is narrow and therefore seems high, and pass under the great end-of-nave arch into infinite space.
Such experiences are the point of art, and such sentences are the point of art-writing.
There is another, implicit theme in this book that occasionally compromises it. That Johnson should be unimpressed by contemporary academic art historians is only fair. Some are too specialized to see the point, some are corrupted by politics, many are blown around shamelessly by the winds of fashion. Johnson’s History is brilliant when he is skillfully hacking away at the poisonous vines that clutch at art’s tall trees; it is cranky when he makes too free with the machete and prunes away masterpieces, too. The problem is especially conspicuous when he declines to justify a strange or questionable judgment but allows us to guess (like a cat burglar leaving a monogrammed handkerchief behind) that he is anti because the profs are pro.
It is hard to swallow, for instance, his calling classic Greek vase painting “a little meretricious, even vulgar” when he fails to include even one illustration of the work of the (5th-century B.C.E.) Berlin Painter—one of history’s great draftsmen, whose art has the wit, the restraint, and the mint-cool elegance of Ingres. It is strange that the only illustration of Greek vase painting is black-figure and not red-figure, when Johnson himself has pointed out that red-figure painting “allowed for much greater fluidity and freedom of expression.” You might almost conclude that Johnson has a personal grudge against Greek painting. You might almost be right: at the end of the section we learn that “it is the modern academics who have made Greek pottery an art form” (a judgment John Keats, for one, might have rejected).
Or consider Michelangelo. Johnson’s discussion of the staircase for the Laurentian library is brilliant, and he does well not to be bluffed into the back alley where the academics come and go, talking of homosexuality and Michelangelo. (Yet we eagerly await the day when some brave soul makes a career by pointing out that the two operative sexes in the art world are not male and female but heterosexual male and homosexual male.) But does he really mean that Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican is “the best work of his life”? Surely it is less great (for all its uncanny virtuosity, its remote, slippery perfection) than (for example) the infinitely far-seeing Medici Madonna. Once again it is hard not to suspect that Johnson is twitting academics who delight in demoting and dispraising the Vatican Pietà because mere people love it.
And what about the cleansed and resurrected frescoes in the Sistine Chapel? Do they really “show little attempt to portray character or individuality,” do they lack all “arresting detail or subtlety in tone, color, or light”? (Restoration of the Sistine ceiling was completed in 1989, of the Last Judgment on the altar wall in 1994.) Could Johnson and I be looking at the same thunderstruck, desperately astonished Jonah—the cool verdigris of his tunic shading into pale lavender against coppery skin? At the same painfully sunkinto-himself Jeremiah, the warm orangey-yellows and gray-roses of his robe set off by crisp gray-green edging? These masterpieces, together with the Last Judgment‘s cleaned and reborn colors, threw me for a loop when I first saw them almost a decade ago; I had thought (as a painter) that I had finished learning about color.
The least convincing section of the book is the one on modern art, an area where (surprise!) academics are more heavily implicated with their theories and favorites than anywhere else in art history. Here is Johnson on cubism: “No one has ever explained convincingly why it improved painting, if it did.” But cubism has been well explained, as the inexorable compression of the imaginary space inside the picture, the rear plane moving steadily forward until it crashes into the front and the picture-space becomes flat—where-upon abstraction, or pure design-painting, is born. Whether cubism “improved” painting is hard to say. It did give rise to lots of junk, but also (thanks to Picasso, Gris, Duchamp, Jacques Villon, Stuart Davis) to a few stunning masterpieces—same as virtually all other schools of painting. When Johnson calls cubism “the first major instance of fashion art,” he is right, and he makes an important point. But when he speaks of the “low degree of skill” that goes with fashion art, he can’t be serious. Picasso not skillful? A draftsman so prodigious, an eye so acute that even Giacometti (himself merely a brilliant draftsman) was awestruck at his ability to glance at a face and memorize it in one instant forever?
And when Johnson simply omits such artists as Stuart Davis and Joseph Cornell, and passes over Willem de Kooning in a quarter-sentence and no illustrations, what to think? De Kooning was the greatest abstract painter by far, and stands alongside Matisse as one of the two genius colorists of modern times. Joseph Cornell’s case is even more puzzling: the finest of modern American sculptors (although his “boxes” are, admittedly, unconventional sculpture), whose representational, intensely atmospheric pieces bring Vermeer and Hopper to mind—and Johnson is all for Vermeer and Hopper.
In short: Paul Johnson paints with a broad, confident, springy, heavily loaded brush. The effect can be mesmerizing, even Titianeseque; or infuriating. The History must be sipped carefully, respectfully, warily. It is a book that demands to be challenged and argued with.
Yet there is no one with whom I would rather argue. “The medieval cathedrals of Europe,” says Johnson, “are the greatest accomplishments of humanity in the whole theater of art.” That sort of statement is what Paul Johnson is for; what art-history books ought to be for. It is not only bolder but truer than the typical heavily-hedged academic pronouncement. No statement loaded with qualifiers can get up enough speed to leap the wide gap between the everyday commonplace and the life-expanding truth. But Johnson leaps that gap all the time, and makes it look easy. He is, after all, the most eminent thinker to write art history in our time.