Reclaiming Art as It Is

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming Art as It Is


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

At its core, Roger Kimball's "The Rape of the Masters" is an anger-making book. In it, Mr. Kimball, manag

ing editor of the New Criterion and a noted art critic, shows that the academic study of art history today is plagued in no small way by the misapprehensions and whims of political correctness.

By focusing on seven famous works of art, Mr. Kimball methodically demonstrates how prominent academicians have scrutinized some of Western civilization's most stunning canvases and seen therein not art but sex, subjugation of women, racism, more sex and even more sex of the most perverted kind. Mr. Kimball's aim in this book is to refocus attention on the works of art themselves and rout out the "rot," the specious, self-referencing hyperbole that passes itself off as art criticism.

In the book, the formula Mr. Kimball employs to make his case is a simple one. Each artist is introduced - Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Winslow Homer (1856-1910), Paul Gaugin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) - and a representative painting is described.

Once the reader is comfortable with the artist and somewhat conversant with the painting being highlighted, Mr. Kimball goes in for the kill, offering up one or two experts who are cited for their astonishing miscalculations of the artist's intent.

Mr. Kimball annotates what a variety of academicians write with a lively eye for balderdash, hypocrisy, vanity and any number of other affronts. And he does so smartly with searing humor, choosing examples that are eye-poppingly damning. So much so that in the source notes that appear on the first page of the book, Mr. Kimball writes that the question he was asked most often by early readers was "'Are you making this up?'"

Consider Mr. Kimball's treatment of John Singer Sargent and his painting "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882." The author begins with a thumbnail description of the artist's life. Sargent was a Florence-born American expatriate, the second of six children born to a family that "subsisted in a bubble of feckless hypochondria," a shy man who never married but nevertheless moved easily in the world of his patrons.

Mr. Kimball continues, "And he was super-competent. Sargent early on mastered the art of subtle flattery. He did not make his sitters more handsome or more beautiful than they were, merely more sumptuous and alluring."

Sargent took his share of criticism, most notably from the English critic Roger Fry, and he came close to throwing in the towel. "'I have vowed a vow,' he wrote to a friend in 1907, 'not to do any more portraits.' To another: 'Ask me to paint your gates, your fences your barns, which I should gladly do, but not the human face.' And finally: 'No more mugs!'"

From biography, Mr. Kimball proceeds to the painting itself. "Just as Velazquez distributed his several figures [in 'Ladies in Waiting'], including a dog and two dwarfs, asymmetrically around the Infanta Dona Margarita, so Sargent arranged the four Boit girls in a striking tableau in their elegant apartment in the Avenue de Friedland.

"This is not a typical family snapshot, the sitters grouped smiling together in the center of the picture plane; it is Sargent's carefully posed aesthetic ensemble, part homage to Velazquez, part offering to his friend."

After a closer look at the painting still, weighing light and color and all that completes the aesthetic enjoyment of the picture, Mr. …

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