When you look at a great painting or sculpture, what more would you like to know about it? Three recent books examine familiar works of art from very different angles. Whether or not they really illuminate these works depends on what you would like to know. James Fenton's essays in Leonardo's Nephew are extravaganzas of social history; James Beck's Three Worlds of Michelangelo sets genius in the context of family and political biography; and James Elkins' What Painting Is digs into the nature of paint, and shows how a painting reveals the artist's mind and hand at work.
With journalistic panache, James Fenton cuts a wide and eclectic swath across the centuries, from Egyptian mummy paintings to the table talk of Degas to Freud's obsession with statuettes, and on to the department store window displays of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Fenton's essays, culled from the New York Review of Books, are a particularly literary response to art. He is a poet and treats museums almost as a metaphor, leaping from the artwork to stories of the patrons, dealers, collectors, rivals, mistresses and scandals that surround it — especially the abiding and compelling scandals.
If you want to know that the immortal Florentine sculptor Bernini broke his brother's ribs with a crowbar and sent a servant to disfigure his mistress — after discovering the brother and mistress together — you'll find that grisly story recounted here.
Viewing a Seurat show inspires Fenton to write at length on the question of whether the boys shown bathing in the Seine, in The Bathers, were actually bathing in raw sewage. Probably not, he concludes. This "broad approach to the elucidation of art through social history" has its virtues. Fenton gives us wonderful glimpses of painting en plein air in the 1700s, complete with details of the paint boxes, palettes and glass paint tubes used at the time, or the curriculum of an art school in Paris in Degas's day. In his essay on Leonardo's nephew Pierino da Vinci, he gives a lucid account of how the artist transformed Dante's poetry into a bronze relief. But Fenton's erudition, and his love of gossip, often seem more a distraction than an appreciation of art.
Three Worlds of Michaelangelo
James Beck's biography, the author tells us, "is intended as an interpretation of the personality of Michelangelo." Beck is an academic art historian and gives us Michelangelo's life from the remains of his letters, the accounts of contemporaries, the works of early biographers, the histories of the Medicis in Florence and the popes in Rome, and even the proverbs and scuttlebutt circulating in the streets and courts of the day. Beck transforms all these sources into stories. As a student in the Medici Gardens, Michelangelo got into a dispute with the sculptor Torrigiani over the merits of their Florentine predecessor, the great painter Masaccio. Here's what Torrigiani later told Benvenuto Cellini of the outcome: "I extended my hand, giving him such a hard punch on the nose that I felt the bone and cartilage of the nose give way, as if it were a sponge cake; and thus, marked by me, he will remain for the rest of his life."
And so he did. Except for the quote, the story Beck tells is as much a piecework of suppositions as an act of scholarship: in the two short paragraphs it takes to describe the incident, the narrative is interspersed with a half-dozen caveats — "must have," "probably," "I imagine," "would have," "likely" and "could have." Such phrases dot the landscape of the book, as required by the art of interpretation, making this very much a Michelangelo-according-to-Beck. The "three worlds" in the book's title refer to Michelangelo's relations with his father, with Lorenzo di Medici and with Pope Julius, the pontiff who commissioned the Sistine Chapel paintings.
At its best, Beck's sense of art history gives us fascinating vignettes, such as the debate in Florence over where to place Michelangelo's giant marble David, or an account of the interlude when the artist was painting the Sistine Chapel, learning and inventing a series of new techniques as he worked. But biography, while it may broaden, does not always deepen our appreciation of the art itself. "Throughout his life, Michelangelo almost never wrote about art as such," Beck observes. This may be why Beck's book never transcends its intentions, interpreting Michelangelo's personality without throwing new light on his art.
What Painting Is
In a somewhat different vein, James Elkins looks squarely at paint, not through it, finding meanings in hues and brush strokes rather than in histories and biographies beyond the canvas. Elkins is also an academic art historian but was a painter earlier in life, and his words can seem as immediate as oil off the brush, as in this passage: "Painting is scratching, scraping, waving, jabbing, pushing and dragging....Some painting motions are like conversations, where the hands keep turning in the air to make a point. Others are slow careful gestures, like touching someone's eye to remove a fleck of dirt."
Elkins' intimate words are accompanied by color plates showing tiny details of paintings, so close up that we can see the painter's hand at work. He describes his discovery of Monet's technique as he helped a student attempt to copy the master. They discovered two secrets. The paint had to be of a shiny, resilient texture, "thicker than cream, more liquid than vaseline, more rubbery than melted candle wax." Only such paint would withstand Monet's gestures, which turned out to be "violent attacks followed by impulsive twists and turns as the brush moved off. First the brush would scrape wildly, epileptically, against the canvas, jittering across its own trail, breaking it up, laying down thick paint alongside dry paint, and then it would abruptly lift and swivel, turning the jagged edges into little eddies." And what does this tell us of Monet? To Elkins, the gestures reveal an inward-turning concern with the act of painting, more typical of later, action painters. "The paintings are certainly not the instantaneous records of nature that they once seemed," he concludes.
Elkins offers similarly refreshing glimpses of Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Jackson Pollock and other painters at work. Besides all this, he offers digressions into the workshops and writings of the alchemists, believing that painters and alchemists have shared a passion for transforming physical substance into transcendent results. Understanding the alchemists, he says, should help readers see more deeply into the art of painting. "To painters," writes Elkins, "unexpected and inexplicable metamorphoses are the stock in trade of everyday work. No one knows what paint does, and when an artist is fooled into thinking paint can be entirely understood, then the studio becomes an [arena of] annoying tedium." It is a nice conceit and produces some interesting analogies, but Elkins gets so engrossed that he sometimes makes painting seem more of a black art than it really is. There is much in this book that makes painting more alive to our eyes. Just take the alchemy with a grain of salt.
Paul Trachtman is based in New Mexico.