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
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
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
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. …