The Story of Art – E.H. Gombrich

I am currently in the midst of a crash course on the whole of art (which may or may not continue indefinitely as there is a lot to learn…) and at times I have wished for a book which could provide a clear and concise overview of everything. While I was aware this was unrealistic, I hadn’t realised how close I could come to my goal with a pocket edition of The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. I expect that this book is already very familiar to those who have studied art in the past but I was amazed with how accessible but informative the writing was, especially since the book was written over 50 years ago. Gombrich opens with an explanation of his aims, such as only discussing books which can be included as illustrations and not avoiding paintings which have suffered from overexposure, as well as acknowledging the inevitable failings which the book must create, due to omission, oversight or new discoveries. Nevertheless, the next chapter immediately ambitiously dives into the beginnings of art, discussing cave painting and how contemporaries might have related to it, and the chapters roll on until the present is reached, several times with additional postscripts as the book was updated. The different styles, techniques and forms of art are woven into an overwhelmingly rich tapestry of stories and observations, aided at every turn by luminous illustrations.

A criticism which is often levelled at Gombrich is the lack of female artists in his depiction of the history of art. The ‘artist’ that he depicts is consistent in gender throughout the centuries despite changes in style, ambition and medium but this is suggested to be more related to the opportunities given to men, just as other circumstances also affect them, rather than an innate skill which women lack. Moreover, Gombrich admits early on that he neither expects nor wishes The Story of Art to become the definitive guide to art but instead should encourage readers to explore further on their own. I also wished for greater coverage of Eastern and African art, which are only covered briefly as they touch on the Western narrative of art, but will settle for hopefully discovering similarly comprehensive books for each area. (Any suggestions just let me know!)

I was particularly fascinated by the comparison of how art was expected to represent reality across the millennia. Although Ancient Egyptian and Cubist art appears very different, they both aimed to imitate the most representative facet of each object rather than a ‘realistic’ portrayal of the whole. Therefore, feet are seen from the side in Ancient Egyptian paintings but torsos face the viewer and the face is a similar mismatch of angles from the side and the front. This piecemeal approach is again experienced thousands of years later when Picasso began painting in a Cubist style, motivated by a desire to move away from the technical perfection of the Old Masters and solve the conundrum of representing life through art using (what appeared to be) new interpretations.

I thought I would close The Story of Art with a great certainty as to which my favourite ‘period’ of art is so that I could then turn and research it in greater detail. Instead I was left impatient to learn more about each period and also to see many of the paintings in person which I have so far only had the chance to see in reproduction. However, I now feel I am turning back to my continuous gallery visiting with a firmer understanding to learn and grow my knowledge further.

Next reading: Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the Twentieth Century

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

When I read the opening pages of H is for Hawk I quickly realised that the book would not be what I had been expecting. Following the sudden death of her father, Helen Macdonald was seized by the desire to train a goshawk, the most difficult bird of prey, and the book charts the developing relationship she has with Mabel, the bird she eventually chooses. I had originally thought the narrative would focus on her relationship with her father but instead layers of emotions are interspersed with falconry facts, a biography of T. H. White and musings on history. No single facet of the book is dominant and so a careful balance is created which draws the reader in even as it holds them at a distance. Macdonald does not try to explain why she reacted as she did which prevents any cloying morals from being patronisingly explained. Nevertheless, the goshawk both saves and overwhelms her as she chooses to retreat further into the wildness discovered when she begins to interpret the world as Mabel does.

I was surprised that I found the sections of H is for Hawk which dramatise T.H. White’s struggle to tame a goshawk more painful to read that the description of Macdonald’s own nervous breakdown. I think this is because they enable her to explore her own fears about failing to train Mabel whilst also acknowledging that White was completely unprepared and naive when training his own bird, Gos. He was motivated by a belief that it would act as a rite of passage to prove his manliness and self-sufficiency. However, Macdonald examines his attempts with the eyes of an experienced falconer and is distressed by how he unknowingly mistreats Gos, first through overfeeding and then by confusing training.

I can understand how the book has won so many prizes, it is neither self-important nor insular, as Macdonald acknowledges her failings but refuses to let self pity overcome her while also describing new worlds for her readers. I often found myself sympathising even when she turned her back on an obvious offer of help as she was clearly profoundly affected by her father’s death and the new escape which nature offered her was understandably tempting. The book has also tempted me to reread The Sword in the Stone as I am sure that the birds of prey which feature will now hold an additional claim on my interest as I will see the echo of White’s struggle with falconry.

Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

The story of Asterios Polyp, as he loses confidence and almost pulls his life apart, is narrated by his stillborn twin, Ignazio, and David Mazzucchelli illustrates it in a muted palette of purples, blues and pinks. It starts as Asterios’ apartment building burns to the ground, leaving him only enough time to grab three possessions. Although he has previously been a celebrated professor of architecture Asterios decided to turn his back on the embers of his past by taking a bus as far away as possible and finding work as a car mechanic. However, Ignazio fills in the details of this past as he narrates and suggests that Asterios is not making as clean a break as he initially claims. The three objects he saves from his home reveal stories about his parents, a failed marriage and past obsessions of Asterios’ personality. 

His relationship with a shy artist, Hana, is also narrated by Ignazio as their two personalities clash at times but also complement each other, with Mazzucchelli exploring how significant little moments can become. As Asterios struggles to rebuild his life while living with those who know nothing about his past his previous status as a celebrated professor of architecture is called into question as none of his designs were ever built and he is not recognised or respected outside of his elite circle. His character flaws also become apparent, as his loss of easy self-confidence reveals an arrogance in remembered past actions. Mazzucchelli sympathetically portrays the frustration of a man who has lost so much through carelessness and therefore turns away from the skills which he had previously also taken for granted to instead live by the work of his hands. 

The book includes a whole range of illustrative styles, with some pages laid out in a traditional way of evenly sized panels while others include overlapping frames, full bleeds and mismatching images. I particularly enjoyed the idea of separate interpretations of reality by each character which Mazzucchelli occasionally depicts through different colours and styles. The lines reach as far as the next character before breaking into a new kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. However, when Asterios and Hana start a conversation their two separate lines immediately merge to create a joint interpretation of blue and pink shaping. At difficult times in their marriage, this sympathetic union quickly separates and overtly visualises the distance that the couple finds between them.

I would definitely recommend Asterios Polyp as although the actual narrative is simple it is very carefully illustrated and there were certain scenes which I felt encapsulated ideas which would not be the same if written. My thoughts have often returned to the characters since reading it and I expect that they will continue to do so. 

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

I began Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje with very few preconceived ideas or expectations aside from the fact that I had enjoyed The English Patient when I studied it for A level several years ago. As it is very rare to find a book which you can still love and enjoy after pulling apart and analysing each sentence I should not have been surprised at how carefully structured and intricately balanced Anil’s Ghost was. Nevertheless, this book quickly became my constant companion and I could almost not bear to finish it. It follows Anil, a forensic pathologist, who returns to the country where she was born, Sri Lanka, to investigate crimes against human rights for the UN during the ongoing civil war. She arrives in the country after a long absence, more of a foreigner than a citizen since she has forgotten how to speak Sinhalese and no friendly face awaits her. Whilst there she is teamed with a reputable archaeologist, Sarath, who shows her a selection of skeletons, three are centuries old but the other is much newer, buried with them in an attempt to disguise its provenance. Anil then uses this as a focal point for her investigation into the government’s actions as well as using its supposed antiquity as an excuse for when her curiosity becomes too dangerous.

However, while the immediate plot is fascinating, as it demonstrates how the civil war fractured Sri Lankan society in a myriad of ways, it was the individual anecdotes woven into the central narrative which affected me the most. They allowed Ondaatje to explore how grief can possibly be approached or acknowledged when a whole country is overwhelmed in tragedy and violence continues to engulf them. People still die from disease and old age even as their surroundings are overtaken by the war and they act as a reminder that normalcy continues to find a place in their world. These deaths still need to be grieved even as unexplained disappearances demand sorrow and lives adapt to new circumstances. One doctor is kidnapped from a luxurious life in private practice and forced to aid the rebels but finds his new life strangely satisfying while another exhausts himself through constant work at an overcrowded hospital, often being mistaken for a patient. An old man becomes blind and lives in near solitude in a forest monastery but he cannot escape the outside world forever. Anil’s encounters or experiences with these people and others are also intertwined with her memories of life in America and London – her thoughts of noisy bowling lanes accentuate the silence of the rice paddy she stands in and questions what normalcy actually means. The Sri Lanka that is described in the book is seen through this filter of Anil’s interpretation as she learns to accept her status as an outsider even when remembering her homesickness in the past for Sri Lanka. Ondaatje’s pride in his Sri Lankan heritage is apparent throughout the book as even at the darkest points in the narrative everyday Sri Lankan people are shown to be compassionate and have great inner strength which helps them survive the brutal period in their country’s history.

Anil’s Ghost is one of the few books that I was already planning to reread before I had finished it and I expect that I will have reread it at least once by the end of the year. Ondaatje’s writing is so subtle and his characters reveal themselves so carefully that I know I will discover more with every visit. Since finishing it I have continued to think about Ondaatje’s characters, and their experiences and eventual fates have continued to affect me. I would highly recommend it and am very happy to discuss it at great length if anyone is interested!

The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollingshurst

The Line of Beauty is not a book that I would normally pick up in a bookshop – I didn’t know a huge amount about it and my only previous experience of Alan Hollingshurst’s writing (The Stranger’s Child) had not encouraged me to read more. I am therefore very grateful that I trusted the judgement of the Man Booker prize and spontaneously bought a cheap copy. As soon as I had read the first page I knew this was a book which I would be completely absorbed in and continue to think about long after finishing. It is the story of a young, openly gay man in 1980s London who is exploring the possibilities that life currently offers him. Throughout the book Nick Guest, the shy and naive protagonist develops into a mature, worldly-wise adult but he still continues to question and observe in a wistful manner which originally made him endearing. The book opens in the summer that Nick graduates from Oxford and chronicles his time as a lodger with the family of his wealthy friend, Toby Fedden. As he occupies this ill-defined position of both guest and tenant the intricate snobberies of the society he has entered become apparent. Nick joins dinner parties to ‘make up the numbers’ but is privy to all the Feddens’ secret. His sexuality is politely not discussed unless completely necessary but he still remains divorced from those around him as he obviously does not conform to the heterosexual norm of the many weddings he attends.

The book is split into several parts which span the majority of Nick’s twenties and it is striking how each section includes a different cast of characters as people move through his life. As Nick embarks on his first relationship, unsure of who to tell, whether to introduce Leo as his boyfriend or even whether he should introduce him to his other friends I experienced every concern and hope. However, at the start of the second part, several years later, this lack of confidence was gone and replaced by a totally new attitude to relationships. Nick now leads a glamorous lifestyle, fuelled by coke and an insatiable desire for new and luxurious things. The ‘line of beauty’ begins to take on several meanings as his aesthete’s habits focus both on the clear, swirling ironwork of a bed and the white power ordered by a credit card. Inevitably the weight of the AIDs epidemic begins to make itself felt across the pages as 1980s gay London is stricken and Nick is painfully reminded of mortality as lovers and acquaintances quietly grow gaunt. I felt this section was particularly poignant as characters which have long been forgotten or avoided by Nick return and force him to assess his life, both emotionally and philosophically. Just as The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway is unable to relax, throughout The Line of Beauty Nick Guest compares himself to his hosts, friends and acquaintances to his detriment. Lasting attachments appeared to escape Nick throughout the book because he was unable to wholeheartedly trust those who befriended him or did not believe he deserved the love he received. His status as an outsider pervades even his closest relationships.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Line of Beauty as not only does it present a heart wrenching portrait of the reality of being openly gay only two decades after homosexuality had been legalised but it also carefully dissects privileged 1980s British society. I could imagine the power suits and the arrogance which each character wears just as clearly as I felt Nick’s disappointments or expectations. This experience has motivated me to reassess my judgements on other authors who I have dismissed after reading only one of their books. The next author to re-evaluate is Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea is one of the least enjoyable or interesting books I have ever read!

The Happy Reader

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/7b3/70711961/files/2014/12/img_0138.jpg

I was very excited to receive my copy of the first edition of The Happy Reader in the post recently. The magazine is a joint enterprise between Penguin and Fantastic Man to celebrate the luxuries embodied by print and the art of reading itself. They promise that each issue with feature a lengthy interview with a famous reader, whether they are primarily known for reading or not, followed by an in depth exploration of a classic book, in this case The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. They have had a very strong start with an interview with actor and Booker prize judge Dan Stevens which meanders over studying literature, reading to children and not least starring in a range of literary adaptations. This is all accompanied by black and white photos of the man himself to make the experience even more luxurious. At times it felt that unnecessary amounts of detail were reported in the interview, such as discussions with a waitress regarding a glass of water, but overall it was very interesting to read about how Stevens approached reading around 140 books when judging the Booker prize whilst still being on set for Downton Abbey – apparently his Kindle was never far from his hand. The interview ended with several recommendations from Stevens and it has prompted me to search out Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog which sounds fascinating and heartbreaking.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/7b3/70711961/files/2014/12/img_0139.jpg

The Woman in White is a book which I have read many times and so know the twists and turns of the Victorian Gothic plot inside out. The opening scene where Walter Hartright glimpses a woman dressed solely in white in the dead of night on Hampstead Heath sets the tone for unexplained and unnerving events throughout the book which does not let up or disappoint. It involves an evil count, one frail invalid with a fiercely devoted sister and a dastardly plot to steal an inheritance which Hartright stumbles upon when he takes a new job as a drawing master. The Happy Reader takes this intricate tale of love, betrayal and deception and produces fashion pages, recipes and recommendations for walks alongside reminiscing around the book itself and pieces on its history and genre. I particularly enjoyed the article on the links between the colour of a character’s clothes and their identity in film and literature. Emily King suggests that single-coloured outfits pigeon-hole women as either saint, whore or crazy while men are allowed to reveal more of their identity through their clothes.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/7b3/70711961/files/2014/12/img_0140.jpg

There is a great feel to the The Happy Reader and it really does make its reader appreciate the print form, with its thick pages and accompanying book marks. It also has lovely wide margins which are occasionally filled with an informative or whimsical side note, ranging from the timetable of a Brooklyn Ferry to information about Peter Capaldi or fan fiction. The magazine plans to produce a new issue every quarter and they have already announced that the next book to be featured is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. I’m already looking forward to the next issue and will definitely track down a copy of The Book of Tea to ensure I am ready for The Happy Reader‘s arrival. I’ll also be looking out to see if I can spot any other readers preparing and reading the book! At the moment they are doing some great deals on their subscriptions so if you’re likely to be interested I’d definitely recommend investigating the opportunities as The Happy Reader is likely to become popular fast.

Grayson Perry

The current exhibition by Grayson Perry entitled Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery is one that I have already returned to several times and thought about a great deal. Perry has created fourteen pieces of art to reflect the people that he met while making a TV programme for the BBC which shares the exhibition’s title. The works include tapestry, pottery and silk along with other mediums and so there is a completely new experience with each piece. This is also encouraged by placing the objects alongside the gallery’s permanent collections. There is a feeling of being a treasure hunter as you follow Perry’s map to discover each new object, unsure of what it could be made of and how easily it might blend into the background of older paintings featuring established personalities. I am still tempted to drop in again as the layout ensures that it is easy to view a section or two without a huge time commitment.

Each object within the exhibition is accompanied by a small plaque which explained a little about the person who inspired it and why Perry represented them as he did. There are couples, fathers and celebrities involved as well as friends and soldiers. Perry acknowledges that the identities which he is attempting to reproduce in three dimensional forms are multifaceted and can change due to circumstances such as hardship, illness or necessity. The description alongside his pot for Chris Huhne, the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP, explained that Perry had smashed the carefully patterned pot before reassembling it using gold, an ancient Chinese technique. He felt that the recent destructive events had actually improved Huhne’s identity by forcing a greater degree of individuality into his life therefore making it easier to now sympathise with him. The pot was indeed enhanced by the addition of gold and I thought this was an interesting interpretation of such a well known public drama. However, I would be interested to see what Huhne himself has to say about this representation of his life.

This is the first exhibition by Grayson Perry which I have had the chance to go to and I was excited to see his work, due to already knowing so much about his public persona. However, I quickly realised that although his transvestite alter ego Clare has become as famous as him this became immaterial when facing the artwork. It is clear from the exhibition that Perry enjoys producing art through a variety of media and his choice of crazy and exuberant dresses are another method for him to demonstrate how porous the art world can be. He asks in Playing to the Gallery (more on this later) whether it is not possible to be both loved by the public and a serious artist and Perry’s numerous television and public appearances are encouraging these boundaries to blur.

One of my favourite pieces was The Ashford Hijab, a beautiful silk hijab scarf which also depicted the life of a white girl in Ashford who had converted to Islam and was now married with children. Perry explores why the religion might have attracted her and why she chooses to wear the hijab, something which Western cultures often cannot understand. In the scarf she turns her back on the constant demands of a Western consumerist society and instead reaches out for the solidarity and sisterhood provided by other Muslim women. A sense of community emerges which cannot be matched by the culture she has left behind. I found it fascinating that Perry could present such a sympathetic portrayal on what is a very controversial topic and also create a very beautiful, and possibly useful, object.

Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery provides an insider’s viewpoint on the art world to explain the decisions and conversations that happen behind closed doors. Alongside Perry’s engaging prose are also many amusing drawings which refuse to allow the art world to be too serious and question some of the established assumptions. I found it an easy and enjoyable read that nevertheless challenged my automatic construction of what constitutes art. Perry believes that anything can be art but that does not mean that everything should be called art. While I disagree with some of the reasoning he gave behind this I would argue that it is important to be able to keep art distinct so that it can be critiqued differently from objects which are meant for more commonplace uses. I would definitely recommend the book both for those who are well versed in the art world and for complete newcomers as I think it will provide valuable points of view for all in its assessment of how the worth of art is valued and how it is accepted into society.

If you want some further thoughts on the exhibition check out this blog by Emily, who I went with and who gave me Playing to the Gallery, here. Otherwise you have until 15th March 2015 to go to the National Potrait Gallery as many times as you like – it’s free and easy to dip into. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/graysonperry/display.php