Art: A New History by Paul Johnson, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, 777 pages,
No single volume could ever properly do justice to the history of art. Art has been produced by every human society, from the most simple to the most complex, throughout mankind’s long history. Even if we narrowed the subject matter to the history of one kind of art, lets say sculpture, in one civilization, that of Italy for example, the story would be far more than could be condensed into one book even if it were a thousand pages long.
Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History is not a thousand pages long although it falls short by only a couple of hundred pages. Nor does Johnson limit himself to a single civilization. For while he focuses upon the art produced by the various Western civilizations and their antecedents in the near East, he also brings far Eastern, African, and native American art into the picture as well. Everything from cave art to the anticipated art of the 21st century is covered.
Which is not to say that Johnson covered everything that could conceivably be included in a history of art. The art that he writes about consists of the visual arts – architecture, pottery, sculpture, painting, and basically any sort of activity in which the appearance of the items made is an important consideration in their creation. You will not find a history of literature, music, or the theatre here, although specific writers and musicians do appear when needed to illustrate movements and trends that cross over into their territory.
The necessary limitations on a book of this nature are such that any one-volume history of art must be considered an introduction to the subject. This is something Paul Johnson himself would undoubtedly agree with. He has the humility to know and acknowledge that his work is not the final word that could be or has been written on the subject of the history of art. As an introduction, his history is excellent. This is what we would expect from the historian who provided us with the superb introduction to the history of the 20th century that was his Modern Times.
Painting must have a pre-eminent place in any history of the visual arts and it has that place here. Johnson, the son of a painter and a painter in his own right, marvelously shares with us his knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of interest in his subject. Architecture, however, plays as important a role in his history. The chapters on the construction of temples, mosques and churches are among the most interesting in this book.
The repugnant phenomenon which has come to be known as “political correctness” is avoided like the plague which is a pleasant relief. In chapter 16, “The Golden Century of Spanish Art”, for example – the century which included Spain’s colonization of the New World, Johnson does not shy away from describing the ugly side of the indigenous cultures encountered by the Spanish colonists nor does he treat the actions of the European settlers as unpardonable sins. This does not mean that he does not appreciate the creations of the indigenous peoples, particularly their architecture. Interestingly, in discussing their architecture he explodes a popular myth:
Both Aztecs and Incas seem to have understood vaulting. In some areas they were superb masons. At Cuzco in Peru and elsewhere, there are Inca walls of irregular polygonal blocks, some of great size, which are carved and fitted together to the point of perfection. It is not true, as is often said, that a knife blade cannot be passed between the stones—I have tried and it can.
That came as a surprise to me as I had always heard that that was true.
A good book of art history must in some ways be like other history books. It requires basic facts – people, places, dates – that are brought together in a story told in a lively and interesting way. In other ways it differs from history books in general. Illustrations, which are optional in most history books, are indispensable in art history books. The more the better.
Then there is opinion. It is widely considered to be bad form to include a great deal of personal judgment in the writing of history. This is not a universally accepted standard, is perhaps impossible on the level of practicality, and is ignored by some of the best history books. In art history, at any rate, opinion can not be exorcised. An inevitable element of any art history book will be art criticism.
Johnson’s history is excellent when it comes to the facts. He knows his subject well and has clearly “done his homework” as the expression goes. He talks about architecture that he has personally visited, at one point even giving his readers advice about the best way to experience a particular building, and paintings and sculptures that he has seen in person. His book is fairly well illustrated although there is room for improvement here. An editorial decision to throw in a few hundred more reproductions of paintings, even if it brought the page total up to a thousand, would not have been amiss.
It is in opinionating, however, that the author truly shines. Johnson is a born opinionist and his judgments on artists and their art are both interesting and entertaining. His judgments sometimes appear rather singular. “Who commissioned the Mona Lisa? Whoever he was he must have been disappointed” he writes, and then two pages later he invokes Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Milton’s Paradise Lost to say of the Sistene Chapel “No one ever wished the ceiling larger.” There is nothing wrong with that, however, and as his history draws to an end he lets his readers know where he ranks the opinions of art historians, presumably including himself – only slightly above art critics on a scale of knowledge that has the critics at the bottom and the restorers of art at the top.
One of Johnson’s opinions which stands out in this history, is his conviction that the system of classification into various periods and schools utilized by most art historians is of little worth. He does not structure his book around it and dismisses it on several occasions. To give one example, he dislikes the term Impressionism, which he says has “confused art history ever since it came into vogue.” The term was derived from the title of one of Claude Monet’s paintings and applied by hostile critics to a number of artists associated with Monet in rebellion against the art establishment at the French Salon. Edgar Degas in particular, he makes a point of emphasizing, had little in common stylistically with the others and with the common idea of what “Impressionism” was.
Johnson is not the only writer to take this position. Indeed, in researching the matter further I found more writers who tried to distance Degas from the Impressionists than who supported the supposedly routine inclusion of him in the school. Impressionism is not the only classification that Johnson writes off however. He takes a very individualistic approach to art, stressing at several times throughout his history, that artists are individuals and that it is in this light that their work must be viewed.
Johnson uses Degas’ own terms for himself – “realist” and “naturalist”. These are terms of high praise in Johnson’s vocabulary, and rightly so. In his chapter on the northern European art of the late medieval to early Renaissance he argues that the influence of Christianity at this time produced individualism among artists who made the depiction of reality their ideal. He writes:
Realism meant stressing individuality. The artists perception of how people differ, in body, mind and soul, the essential foundation of any great art based on human beings, inevitably made him more self-conscious. The fifteenth century, especially in northern Europe, is the first occasion in history (so far as we know) in which the self-portrait becomes frequent.
This chapter, in which the early Flemish masters are discussed, culminates in the career of the German Albrecht Dürer who, a century and a half before Rembrandt, routinely painted self-portraits of himself. Johnson thinks very highly of Dürer who is his bridge to the Italian Renaissance in the next chapter.
It is in his assessment of the Renaissance and those who subsequently followed its tradition that I would most question Johnson’s judgment. He points to humanist writers like the art biographer Vasari and the scholar Lorenzo Valla who dismissed the cultural and artistic output of the centuries between the fall of Rome and the Italian Renaissance as being worthless because it was “gothic”.(1) While I agree with Johnson that this was a huge flaw in humanist thought I think that he allows it to overly colour his assessment of the value of the Graeco-Roman revival in art.
This is especially noticeable after he moves beyond the Renaissance itself. When he comes to the seventeenth century he writes that Caravaggio “achieved one of the most important revolutions in the history of painting” and that the era of realism that began with his work was “both the climax and the golden age of European art”. While Caravaggio was certainly deserving of this praise, we we find later in the chapter that the Bolognese Carracci family are cast in a very negative light.
Johnson writes: “It is arguable, however, that Italian painting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would have flourished more healthily if the Carracci methods had never been taught”. He goes on to write “All three main Carracci drew well but their sense of colour was defective, their composition painstaking but ultimately dull, and none of them seems to have been capable of creating an arresting image”. This is not how I would describe what I have seen in reproductions of Annibale Carracci’s paintings for the gallery ceiling of the Farnese Palace in Rome. Perhaps they look worse when viewed in person.
Johnson’s treatment of Nicolas Poussin in the chapter on “The First Great Landscape Paintings” is less harsh than his treatment of the Carraccis but is along the same vein. Here the contrast is with Peter Paul Rubens, who is described as the “eventual successor” to Titian and “not only one of the greatest, he was also one of the happiest of artists”. As with the contrast between Caravaggio and the Carraccis, it is difficult to disagree with Johnson’s assessment about those he lauds, but he gives the impression of being less than fair to the others. He describes Poussin as being too bound by rules and too engrossed with his books to notice the real world around him and allow it to influence his art. In this we hear an echo of Johnson’s earlier work The Intellectuals but it is by no means clear that his assessment is valid in this instance.
The difference between realism – the depiction of things as they appear, and classical idealism – the depiction of things in perfect form, is less important in the later history of art, when the very idea that art should be representational at all was challenged, a development that Johnson is not at ease with, nor am I. When he gets to the twentieth century, he discusses “one of the key developments in the history of art: the rise of fashion art as opposed to fine art”. The distinction, he notes “is not absolute”. “All that can be said is that fine art becomes fashion art when the ratio of novelty and skill is changed radically in favour of novelty”. He identified Cubism as “the first major instance of fashion art” and writes that fashion art “inevitably produces more fashion art since, when the novelty wears off and the low degree of skill becomes apparent, there is a demand for fresh novelties, and a new phase of art is produced to satisfy it”. I can see some people being quite furious with these remarks although I tend to think they sum up the 20th Century rather nicely myself.
Many of the early chapters of this book were devoted to architecture and it is to architecture that Johnson returns in his last chapter. He looks at the accomplishments of architecture and structural engineering in the production of skyscrapers and suspension bridges as the true marvels of artistic expression in the 20th Century. In architecture there is the good, the bad, and the frivolous and here Johnson distinguishes between what he calls “High Frivolity” and “Low Frivolity” in architecture. He offers Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as an example of the former, and the buildings in Los Angeles and Las Vegas as examples of the latter. “Low Frivolity” is ephemeral – “built to entertain but not to last”.
Despite this, Johnson ends on a positive note, expecting greater things from architects, engineers, and artists in general in the century to come.
(1) “Gothic” was originally used as a pejorative because it is derived from the name of several of the tribes who sacked Rome in the last days of the Roman Empire. It literally means “German”. The Gothic revival of the 19th Century, which Johnson discusses in his chapter on Romanticism, was an architectural movement that looked to northern Europe in the medieval period for its inspiration, just as the classical movements looked to Graeco-Roman civilization for theirs.
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