Art: A New History

Article excerpt

Picasso's Left Foot Art: A New History by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins, 777 pages, $39.95)

One day in the early 1990s, I fell into a conversation about painting with Paul Johnson. We had gone for a walk in Kensington Gardens, and Johnson stopped several times to do some sketching. At some point in our palaver, he lit into Picasso. When I made the mistake of expressing admiration for Picasso's painting Boy Leading a Horse, Johnson stopped in mid-stride, turned to me, and gave me a lecture on how sloppy, even cartoonish, was the lad's left foot. "Just take another look at it," Johnson said. "You'll see."

I thought of this when I picked up Johnson's latest book, Art: A New History, which runs to 777 pages, lush with high quality color illustrations. This is the book Johnson has wanted to write all his life, mixing his first love, art, with his second, writing, and it was worth the wait. He recalls that when he was a child he hid in a cupboard in his father's art room as his father-an artist and head of an art school-conversed with his friend L.S. Lowry. His father, he writes, didn't want him to become an artist. Said the father: "I can see bad things coming for art. Frauds like Picasso will rule the roost for the next half century. Do something else for a living."

So Johnson became a writer. His history of art is similar to his other great literary canvases-his histories of England, Jews, Christians, America, and our own time-beautifully crafted, packed with information, and illuminated by his own biases. Here is a history that starts with stone-age painting and ends today, while containing but two illustrations of abstract works (Jackson Pollock's White Light and Kandinsky's Capricious Forms). Much of the book is given over to architecture, particularly classical, though there are photographs of Gehry's museum in Bilbao and Calatrava's in Valencia.

At the start of the book, Johnson sets down what he calls "certain principles" which he holds "essential in understanding art and making sense of the way it has evolved." The first point, he says, is to grasp the "immense fecundity of humans." He argues that "art predated not only writing but probably structured speech, too, that it was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness." He comes back to this point several times. "Art," he says, "is fundamentally about order, whether the canonical or the new currently has the upper hand."

We need, Johnson warns, "to beware of the enemies of order, and particularly mere fashion ..." Lest one jump to the conclusion that he is talking merely about our current abstract painters or practitioners of conceptual art, he follows with a short disquisition on how the Pharaoh Akhenaten, "suffering from the delusion that he was the incarnation of a new high god, or even sole god," imposed his new fashion in theology on artists, producing "grotesque and revolting physical distortions of the way the body was represented." For Johnson getting it right, proper drawing and form, clearly is fundamental.

Johnson has a marvelous way of talking about painters. "Hals," he writes, "was an accomplished and innovative painter, who worked in a way most of us would call 'modern.' No drawings survive and it is likely that he painted straight onto the canvas, wet on wet. He was astonishingly fluent and must have worked at high speed, doing the faces and hands more carefully than the rest, obviously, but giving everything a dashing air which is always appealing."

Not that he's a sycophant of the great artists. In one paragraph about Rembrandt, he manages to observe that the Dutch master could not make a woman look conventionally beautiful, that all his efforts to paint Susanna and the Elders failed, that in Portrait of a Young Woman Seated, the "non-chin is repellent." In his Flora, the "girl comes close to fatuity." His Susanna Disturbedhas hands that are "huge and red" and "ugly feet" and "dreadful bedroom slippers. …