I had meant to put reports/reviews of books up on the blog throughout this year- but for various reasons and save for a few, I didn’t get around to it. So it’s seems fitting to post them now as kind of review of my reading of 2015 (not all!) for anybody who’s interested and may want to try the books.
I note a lot of attention to Aldous Huxley whose connection with art history isn’t that well-known. And Wyndham Lewis, probably my discovery of the year. Most of the material here falls into biography, art book, and the art novel of which I’ve read a lot because English modernism featured a lot in my teaching this year. Catalogues don’t feature at all because I only go to them for information, and let’s face it- the era of the good exhibition catalogue is surely coming to an end. One of my resolutions for 2016 will be post reviews/summaries of books I read along the way.
Happy New Year!
Richard Verdi, Rembrandt’s Themes: Life into Art, 2014.
Rembrandt’s Themes will appeal to some readers; it is a lavishly illustrated book with a pleasing look, and a crystalline, elegant prose style. For readers immune to these blandishments, and craving more meat on the bones, i.e., generous references and footnotes (the kind of book Yale usually publishes), and a structured argument with a real sense of a stake in the affair, Rembrandt’s Themes will inevitably disappoint since it fails to provide that Rembrantish background. Verdi is a first rate curator, and this project would have worked better as an exhibition with a comprehensive catalogue compiled by him and Rembrandt experts. Full review on the blog here.
Frances Stoner Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? A History of the CIA and the Cultural Cold War, 2000.
Truly an eye-opener. You may find yourself sceptical of Stonor’s claims of CIA involvement in MOMA and other cultural institutions. But it's true: the CIA used Abstract Expressionism as a propaganda asset, to use their jargon. Culturally invasive, the CIA even tried to influence Hollywood movies such as the adaptation of Orwell's Ninety-Eighty Four!
Irving, Sandler, A Sweeper Up after Artists: A Memoir, 2003.
Re-read. Art critic Sandler grew up amongst the famous (and not so well-known) members of the New York School in the 1950s and beyond. Sandler’s perspective is from the artist’s studio; he learnt more about art from talking to the likes of Pollock, Rothko and Guston rather than the art historians. An engaging and charming memoir summoning up the ghosts of the golden age of American painting.
Anthony Powell, The Acceptance World, 1955 (3rd volume of Dance to Music of Time sequence)
Only read the first two novels in the sequence til now. Not only does Powell command a impressive knowledge of the different schools of painting, but he uses his art history expertise in lots of different ways. Haven't counted them all, but here's a few: uses concepts like picturesque, the "figure in the landscape" to frame a scene, or set up an encounter; uses ideas such as beauty- as derived from various portraits- to discuss feminine types; uses genres, particularly portraiture, to explore changing sociological and cultural shifts. His theory that Isbister- a kind of composite of Lavery, Sargeant, Sickert, or Orpen?- introduced satire into his grand portraits to suit the changing mood in society made me think of Orpen's off-centre formal portraits: Haig appearing out of a sketchy background, that sort of thing. And let us not forget Powell's "paragone" discussion put in the mouth of Nick about the differences between literature and painting.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey, 1890.
Re-read. This time I found it disappointing, complete lack of discipline in novel structure and episodes. I thought it couldn't make up its mind wether it was a treatise on aesthetics, a satire on manners, a gothic murder mystery, or a vehicle for the author's experiments with language. The overpowering, cloying chapter which comprises of an outflow of decadent sensations is third rate symbolism. Huysmans did it with more economy and panache. One of the book's problems is its glaring unoriginality: it owes much to Pater, Huysmans, (naturally) RLS and a whole plethora of aesthetes and theorists of dandyism like Baudelaire and Barbey. It would have been more interesting if there had been more on the relationship between painters and sitters. This isn't a book about art either; painting here acts as vehicle for Wilde's ideas about homosexual love and its many manifestations.
Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1817
Re-read. Very enjoyable, and one feels that the author wrote it as fun. The walk with the discussion about gothic novels, particularly "Mysteries of Udolpho" followed by the "lecture on the picturesque" is one of the most famous parts. Like furniture in those old houses it creaks a bit: no smooth transition from the Bath section to the Northanger one. But this was a problem in the mature novels. It is decades since I read "Persuasion" but I recall that the accident in Lyme Regis stuck out as a plot contrivance to move the story from there to Bath. Still, I thought Northanger delightful, and it does have a serious intent with the conversation about novel-reading and morality. C Morland doesn't really come off as a character, but them she's a concoction based on certain novelistic conventions of the period. Very precisely observed social details: balls and dances.
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, 1940.
It's an insider's view, but curiously Woolf stays silent on some aspects of her friend's life: the mental illness of his wife is barely mentioned; nor is there much on his tortured relationship with Vanessa Bell; not much on his intellectual friendship with the Cambridge philosopher McTaggart either. Woolf reconstructs this portrait of Fry mainly through his letters, which as I'd read them last year, made the book almost like a re-read. She's good at presenting the many different sides of Fry's personality: the critic, the painter, the art lecturer, the business-minded organiser, the analytical scientist. At times Fry looms up before the reader like an ascetic saint in one of Bellini's paintings, an artist he wrote a book about of course. Woolf has some good devices and turns of phrase which are put to good use in the biography. I particularly liked the idea of Fry holding a book up to the light examining it for deficiencies, like a painting.
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That, 1929.
Organized into three main sections: family, education; life at the Front; and a post-war coda consisting of university, marriage, civilian life. The whole is written in a dry, slightly sardonic tone which presumably is at odds with his poetry? The war section is deservedly the most famous, and the longest. It merits the description account as there is something rational and calculating about the way the author explains the operations of war from rigging from cutting off a German salient to scheming a way out of the war. Clinical, almost scientific in the way he analyses the hierarchal class structure, which he is part of- but after the war he will become a socialist. Some complain about the post-war section with its roll-call of intellectual celebrities, (Hardy, Bertrand Russell) but I found it fascinating. Some interesting and useful materials on painting too. Graves compares Aug John's "heroic" portrait of T.E. Lawrence to Orpen's- more of a street-urchin's furtiveness about it. He also says things briefly about the Nicholson dynasty. Section on teaching in Egypt is très amusant: illiterate student essays from the ruling Moslem class who spit in the face of the fellaheens. But of course this was all written before Egypt went down in an inferno of religious fundamentalism and constitutional chaos, though Graves intuits something of this future in his time, hence his decision to resign and return to England. The title is actually a leave-taking of England- he lived in Majorca until his death. The most interesting comment was Grave's objection to what he called the "deer-park" eighteenth-century view of the English. He believed that Beowulf feasting amidst the warriors, and of course the perseverance through the horrors of the war are closer to what the English are.
Augustus John, Chiaroscuro, 1952.
The first volume of Augustus John's memoirs. It's easy to see why he painted portraits: he is an anthropologist studying the customs and idiosyncrasies of the human race. And doesn't he meet some interesting specimens? The stalker Madame Ibsen, soldiers, T.E. Lawrence, Monty, and a vast number of Irish writers, Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, not to mention an assortment of romanies who had a profound impact on his outlook. Much on France, especially Martingues- his home for a time-, Ireland, the U.S.A., Jamaica- a well-travelled man alright with a good eye for picturesque detail. Halfway between a tramp and a homme d'monde; one man's scruffiness is another's inverted dandyism. Many gaps in the narrative, but as he says, such biographical lacunae would be filled in by future researchers. Well-written and brutally frank about himself and his contemporaries.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Re-visited, 1945.
Re-read. Only the first half of this august novel retains its charms for me. The later sections drag unmercifully; the plots are less interesting; the denouement is completely unconvincing from Lord Marchmain's deathbed conversion to Ryder's discovery of faith. But the "Et in Arcadia Ego" elegiac conjuration of 1920s Oxford is evergreen. This isn't Waugh's greatest literary achievement by a long chalk, but if a novel can be characterised as successful at evoking an era, despite its structural and technical flaws, then this book might qualify.
Paula Byrne, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, 2011,
Much better than I expected. True, the author commits the cardinal sin of all biographers- falling in love and being over-awed by the subject- but the largely unexplored history of Waugh and this aristocratic family from Malvern, makes the book well worth reading. No amount of white-washing, special pleading, or psychological fresco restoration can save Waugh from the label of unpleasant, vitriolic social climber with no time for the more unfortunate of society, though he was steadfast to his friends in the "beau monde." A splendidly inventive comic writer who wasn't cut out for the grand tragedy of Brideshead which after the roseate, romantic Oxford section, crashes on the longeurs of the later sections, and is completely wrecked by the denouement- the "supernatural aid" of the Catholic theme in the House of Faith, which Byrne says Brideshead was meant to symbolise. The Lygons are painted as an intriguing top-drawer dysfunctional family with skeletons in their armorial closet. Hugh Lygon, ineffectual, drunken aesthete smiling out of his photo with a kind of doomed charm, seems credible as a model for Sebastian Flyte. And Lord Beauchamp with his Byronic wanderlust and forcibly imposed exile seems to have played a huge part in the creation of the fictional portrait of Lord Marchmain, though the homosexuality is almost excised in the novel.
Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot, 1984.
Ackroyd grows in my estimation. His Eliot biography does its job well, all the more remarkable as certain sources were kept from the author. Very perceptive on the Europeanized American male who makes the journey from puritan Harvard. A long tradition of this, which begins with Henry Adams "Education of Henry Adams" (which Eliot read) and runs through Henry James to TSE. Shows how Eliot absorbed F. H. Bradley's philosophical ideas on the Absolute and used it as part of his strategy of projecting a reclusive and withdrawn persona. Private monadic state of mind. A dandified Buddha in the drawing rooms of the upper middle class. With the aristocracy (Garsington set) he was completely out of his depth. This social awkwardness may have become second nature to this young, transplanted American ill at ease in Britain. Apart from uprootedness and withdrawal, there is the juxtaposition of aesthetics and finance. Eliot knew painters like Wyndham Lewis and he was a banker. Possibly some kind of field research; or some smug joke at the expense of these co-workers he categorised as "termites." A space for mentally composing poetry; or a refuge from his fraught domestic situation (Ackroyd's view).
Joyce Carey, The Horse’s Mouth, 1944
Disappointed. Some parts are done well- the scenes between the painter protagonist Gulley Jimson and the nobility. Not really a novel of artists in Bohemian squalor; more a tragi-comedy with purple passages and intermitten social comment, many poetic excerpts from Blake, all interwoven into the existence of the protagonist. Long passages of dialogue, sometimes not indented which lends the book a slightly Joycean (James) hue. Pub scenes have the bustle of Dublin, even though without the verbal pyrotechnics of JJ. Women earthy caricatures, symbols of fertility, or spiritual ideals. Jimson reminds one of S. Spencer, bucolic, spiritual, not urban which is partly why he's not really convincing as a Bohemian artist. One plot about Artist forced to produce saleable art ("Nude in the Bath" Rubens via Renoir, not Bonnard's Marthe in the Bath) while he wants to paint a serious masterpiece, along the lines of Michelangelo. His masterpiece (pulled down by the Council) seems a kind of surrealist Sistine, Jonah and a strange disturbing whale presiding over the proceedings. The novel was made into a film with Alec Guinness as Jimson, and the paintings were done by John Bratby.
Aldous Huxley, These Barren Leaves, 1925.
Re-read. Huxley's book was written in 1925, about the time of his first trip to India. And in fact the novel does deal with alternative philosophies, close to Eastern religions and worldviews; but these are mainly confined to the character Calamy. He and a few others are the guest of a ridiculous chatelaine, Mrs Aldwinkle, obviously based on somebody like Lady Ottoline Morrell, who has a baroque fortress on the Tyrhennian Sea. The first part is typical Huxley: an assortment of upper-crust, upper-middle types discoursing on weighty matters such as the decline of formality, the effect of warmth on the procreative habits of Italians in the south. After a long car journey to Rome, an opportunity for Huxley to show off his descriptive skills- while mocking them at the same time- which include reflections on artists like Fra Fillippo Lippi at Spoleto, we arrive in the Eternal city. The final sections are the most philosophical with long lectures on the difficulty of creating a non-tribal society due to the lack of stability in human affairs, and attitudes to death, a favourite Huxleyean theme. Calamy chooses mystical withdrawal, Cardan goes with Mrs A to Monte-Carlo, his chance of solving his poverty gone, and Chelifer returns to his bourgeois life. Certainly not as good as Point Counter Point, but no-one wanting a novel packed with ideas and reflections on Western civilisation and history would feel short-changed. The final discussion of tribal identity and technology seems very prescient - long before McLuhan- given the problems of our own times. This of course brings us back to the failing European Project, surely doomed to the scattering of the tribes very soon.
Iain MacGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, 2009.
The erudition contained in this book is dazzling- the product of 20 years research. Any expert from the humanities will find it interesting as it seeks to solidify its claims by recourse to music, poetry, visual art and a wealth of other disciplines and subjects. From the perspective of art history, the author channels the work on left-handedness and representation (Hall), visual thought and linearity (Arnheim), and his own musings on modern art and abstraction which he believes enshrines the disposition of the LH (left-hemisphere) which is solipsistic, self-conscious and unworldly. To give one specific example: Delacroix denied that there were straight lines in nature, but he maintained that there was linearity in the brain itself. This is a fascinating idea, and worthy of more study. For example, what was happening in the field of brain research when Delacroix was musing on how the external morphology of nature might be a product of the brain rather than a thing in the world. And at what stage was the brain/mind field when Delacroix was making observations that were well ahead of the curve both in art and science.
Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography, 1973.
Sybille Bedford's 800 page biography is written in a different way to most professional biographies, which is good. For a start she wrote it as a labour of love: she was a friend of the Huxleys; and she was a novelist who had more of an idea how lives and fiction play off each other. Her selective approach works well too: her quotes from the written and oral record are appropriate and not used to advance some argument or bolster the biographer's view of the subject. As a novelist it's unsurprising that she has taken an almost Proustian approach, at least in the early phase of Huxley's life, singling out the snapshot, moment, monumental remembrance. What's also better about this biography is that we get lots of insight from the writings of his family and friends. In preparation for this biography, Maria Huxley's sister, Suzanne, wrote her own recollections down in French- and this furnishes wonderful glimpses of Huxley's personality. For instance, S used to accompany AH on his concert beat and he would make it his business to educate her about the arts, music and literature on the bus. What follows is a wonderful portrait of AH as seen through the eyes of another.
"Aldous took to heart my education and to share his counsels following the intervention of Coccola (Maria). Aldous had the courtesy and politeness of his original Victorian education, despite the influence of the revolution in manners at Garsington. Although Aldous was a cerebral agnostic, free-thinking and sceptical, by nature he was timid, therefore less pushing, less hypocritical and very critical, all full of regard for people more simple like the charwoman, Mrs Jones."
There’s far too much to summarize here, but it throws a lot of light on parts of Huxley’s life, especially the Italian and Californian periods. One also gets more idea of Huxley’s significance to art historians. Excellent quote from Kenneth Clark (who contributed to the memorial volume on AH) about how Italy stimulated Huxley's ability to mentally cross- associate ideas and impressions: "the range, the confluence of associations, the power of speedy cross-classification." It was Huxley’s essay on Piero della Francesca’s “Resurrection” that fired up a lot of scholars!
Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay, 1923.
It doesn't disappoint. Not only are the portraits, almost all caricatures, beautifully framed and presented to the viewer as a gallery of directionless intellectuals; but the dazzling display of erudition. Look at the range of topics in the cafe scene: Sir Walter Raleigh's "O Eloquent, just and mighty death", "the Rostand era", Russianism, Castor fiber (Eurasian beaver), Voltaire's theo-scatological idea of the "boyau rectum", Herodotus's story of the "Bekkos" children, callipygian whores dressed in the colours of Augustus John, and so the erudite dance of intellectual rapture continues. And of course there's Lypiatt the painter, supposedly based on B.R. Haydon, with his conquistador pretensions. More here.
Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering, 1937.
Not a conventional autobiography; not a Robert Graves “Goodbye to all That” memoir by any means. For a start it just covers Lewis’s war years from the time the first "Blast" appears to his demobilisation.
“My life as an artist and my life as a soldier intertwine, in this unaffected narrative. I show, too, going from the particular to the general, how War and Art in those days mingled, the features of the latter as stern as- if not sterner than- the former. This book is Art-War-Art- in three panels. War is the centre panel. But for me it was only a part of Art: my sort of life- the life of the ‘intellect’- come to life. A disappointing imitation. I preferred the real thing: namely Art.”
It starts with Lewis drilling on a parade ground and fielding a question from a superior about Vorticism. Then he excerpts several pages of "Blast" before embarking on a narrative description of a journey at the outbreak of war. Seen through the eyes of his "Blast" alter-ego, Cantleman, a sort of Vorticist Man of the Crowd who clinically and cynically observes the behaviour of the English masses as the country is drawn into war. It employs several styles ranging from the bluff, hearty direct mode of address to the reader in the introduction to the slightly absurdist register of Cantleman's narrative which demonstrates an amusing facility with language and dialect.
"The Crowd, that first mobilisation of a country, now is formed in London. It is established with all its vague but profound organs au grand complete. Every night it serpentines in thick well-nourished coils, all over the city, in tropic degustation of news. The individual and the Crowd. Peace and War- Man's solitude and Man's Peace. Man's Community, and Row- or war.
After training, Lewis passes a mathematics test ("a mute, inglorious Pascal") and buys himself "two well-cut suits of old gold khaki in Saville Row, a cane, a revolver, and a sumptuous British Warm." He is "now an officer whom hundreds of thousands of men still living have saluted- have trembled at the sight of, if they were half-seas over." He thus passes "into a more abstract class." There’s also interesting comments on fellow war artists like Orpen and Augustus John.
Paul Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, 2000.
Like Huxley, some kind of overview or guide is essential for the reader setting off across the huge continent which is Percy Wyndham Lewis life and works. As the title suggests, Edwards has the daunting task of analysing both textual sources as well as works of art. But you’re in good hands as he takes you through a bewildering mass of material from the pre-war years through the Vorticist period, and onwards to the 1930s, Lewis’s most fecund period, certainly as far as writing was concerned. From his novel about artists in Paris (Tarr) to his prescient thoughts on politics and mass culture, Lewis seems more and more relevant to our times. Edwards claims that some of his writings invent fields like cultural studies, which I can well believe. Maybe a bit weighty – in more than one sense- for the beginner. There’s also the slimmer Wyndham Lewis the Artist: Holding the Mirror up to Politics which is good though not as lavishly illustrated as Edward’s book which has aesthetic appeal as well as intellectual heft. Some surprises, especially on the Canadian period. Scarcely exhibited, there are some drawings and paintings of bathers, including “Homage to William Etty” from the 1940s. Lewis was a complex personality.
John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1992.
This is the second time I've read Carey's book, and my first reading of decades ago was before I knew the writings of Gissing, Lewis etc. Gissing is roughly handled here, in the "case studies" section: too unfair and downright wrong in making comparisons between Hitler's Mein Kampf and Gissing's autobiographical Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. The section on Wyndham Lewis was disappointing, more on Hitler, though in this case one can't argue- WL wrote a book praising the Great Dictator which shipwrecked his career. Carey metes out rough justice to Huxley too: a hatchet job on one of those mass-hating elitists that Carey had/has in his sights. Not that Huxley was anything of the sort. He just had reservations about large scale social organisation, wether of the right or left; universal education; unchecked population growth. Carey's slim volume is a mid-cult rant against modernism whose main thesis is that modernism made itself "difficult" in order to keep the hoi polloi out. In addition to the above, the usual suspects are lined up here: T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf.
W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, 1915.
Perhaps Of Human Bondage is too protracted, full of longeurs that might have been edited down, or even omitted. We embark on a considerable journey ( 600 pages) from childhood through the art world of fin de siècle Paris, onwards to a medical career interrupted by poverty, and culminating in happiness consisting of marriage, financial success and the realisation that this is the perfect "figure in the carpet of life", one of the books leading themes. Unashamedly realist, delivered in a plain style, it would have looked odd appearing at a time when modernist experimentation was a mark of literary ability. The book's title, borrowed from Spinoza, heralds the novel's main plot: a masochistic relationship with a slattern who seduces, and serially discards our hero, supposedly based on Maugham himself. Also, there was a sense of different books tacked together: the opening sections suggest the provincial lives of genteel novelists like Austen and Eliot, then we have a "Trilby" like tale of models and painters in Paris, culminating in a Orwellian/Gissing kind of meditation on money, status and poverty on the streets of London. Some parts really stand out like the philosophical sense of calm that descends on Carey in front of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. However, the structure of this novel seems to creak with all these constant change of scenes and genres. I can see why the middle-brow would enjoy this though. Maugham tells a good tale, isn't bad at depicting character and leavens his philosophising with life lessons, something that would be acceptable to the bourgeois puzzled by the relationship of the abstractions of metaphysics and art to the material world and his own existence.