Art Historian Paints a Big, Sloppy Canvas ; Paul Johnson Attempts to Survey Every Artistic Expression from the Caveman to 2003, but His Peculiar Tastes Limit the Scope of This New Art History Book

Article excerpt

Historian Paul Johnson's "Art: A New History" is nothing if not ambitious. The author sets out to reexamine art - and by "art" he includes all the crafts, architecture, and even garden design - from the caveman to 2003. Inevitably, even in a book of 752 pages of small print, he only partly succeeds.

Some things are covered in remarkable detail, given that this is a generalist survey - Guido Reni, for instance, along with Ilya Repin, the Albert Memorial, and even Walt Disney. Such enthusiasms are conveyed in a compelling rush of readable and engaging prose.

In the latter stages of the book, from the Impressionists on, however, Johnson helps himself to substantial platefuls of deliberate disregard, and not just to keep this massive book within bindable bounds.

Johnson cherishes an animosity toward most modern art that goes back to childhood. And he's inclined to simplistically or cynically dismiss anything he doesn't like, a tendency that often makes him look ridiculous.

For instance, with no supporting argument, he claims that various artists could not draw. Renoir, Cezanne, Munch, and Bacon are just four he tars with that stiff brush.

He describes Renoir's work as displaying "uncertain draughtsmanship," yet the book reproduces Renoir's "Boating Party Lunch," which is drawn with a brush of exquisite sensitivity and with an accurate delicacy of touch that Watteau or Boucher might have envied.

If, as Johnson avers, Cezanne is little more than a manually incompetent theoretician (not to mention "an enthusiastic but unskilled practitioner" of watercolor!) then why, as the writer admits, has his work been so admired and studied by later artists? These artists, incidentally, included the sculptor Henry Moore, who is one of Johnson's rare 20th century heroes.

Such spiky expressions of personal distaste are a poor justification for the vigorous assertions and provocations favored by this reputable historian who also has a fondness for hyperbole. That practice leads him into a slap-dashery that in turn leads the reader to start questioning the accuracy of his writing on any art or artist, old or new.

This problem accumulates as the book progresses and numerous little assertions of fact are noticeably inaccurate: Maurice Denis was never a "cubist." Carl Larssen was not "a well-known illustrator of children's books."

Johnson also eagerly espouses or challenges various popular myths ("old" art history), but needs documentary support to be convincing, even if his claims are true. …