Magazine article The Spectator

A Love Affair Gone Sour

Magazine article The Spectator

A Love Affair Gone Sour

Article excerpt

AMERICAN VISIONS: THE EPIC HISTORY OF ART IN AMERICA

by Robert Hughes Harvill, 35, pp. 635

During the composition of this mightily impressive, beautifully written, astute and capacious book, Robert Hughes found himself describing it to others as 'a love letter to America' - a description which he now qualifies with the reminder that `different stages of an affair produce different letters and some are not free of reproach to their brazen, abundant, horizon-filling subject'.

Pursuing the analogy, we might observe that the relationship starts off with some cautious flirtation, is duly consummated, enjoys a passionate middle phase and then, as doubts and suspicions crowd in, turns acridly sour. By the book's end Hughes's love has turned, if not to hate, to something close to contempt.

If American Visions is the history of a love affair gone bad, it is also the history of a nation. Hughes, as well as being the doyen of art critics, is also a historian of the first rank (as The Fatal Shore, his history of the founding of his native Australia, and Barcelona testify). One of the extra pleasures of this richly pleasurably book is that on its completion one has read, almost by accident, a learned and succinct account of the last 300 years or so of America's existence, taking in and placing in context all the familiar milestones, from discovery to colony to revolution, to republic, civil war, industrialisation, depression and eventual world dominance. Hughes does this effortlessly, it seems (which means the vast scholarship and writerly skill are implicit), braiding his cultural exegesis with his historian's, giving us the history not only of the development of the visual arts in America but also of its multiform, energetic, striving and troubled people.

As far as the art is concerned, it was a slowish beginning. Pueblo architecture and Amish quilts apart, the painting produced in pre-revolutionary America is naive and on the quaint side. Tardily, artists of merit evolve as the 18th century turns into the l9th: Copley, the brothers Peale (Rembrandt and Raphaelle -- clearly their parents had ambitions for the boys); but the one dominant figure of this period is Thomas Jefferson, brimful of prodigious talents -- statesman, writer, farmer, inventor, collector and architect of real note. Hughes's mini-essay on Jefferson is a gem; the book is studded with such glinting nuggets, models of concision and insight.

The first artist of real status to emerge, and one who seems quintessentially American, is Frederick Church, the Caspar David Friedrich of American art, whose vast apocalyptic canvases drew huge crowds. But the interest we have in the painters of the 19th century (Eakins and Winslow Homer aside) is largely topographical (Thomas Cole, Audubon), or culturalhistorical (Remington), rather than aesthetic. Hughes is wisely cautious about making grand assertions (one is always aware, behind one's back as it were, of the muted roar of Europe's contemporaneous artistic achievements). For example, he posits Whistler as America's first great painter, but with the rider that it is `absurd to class him with Degas or ManeY.

Indeed one is always conscious, because of the historical context into which the art history is woven, of America's other claims to fame as the 20th century begins and advances - the industrial might, the innovations in architecture and consumerism, its increasing hegemony in the world - to such an extent that the accomplishments in the visual arts seem nugatory. …

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