“Always Looking: Essays on Art” by John Updike (Knopf, 224 pages, $45)
On a rainy November morning in Brussels, I bought my ticket to the new Rene Magritte Museum, then waited until my allotted time to view the chic, sophisticated galleries of paintings and sculptures.
Happily, the Magritte sits near Belgium’s Royal Museums for Fine Arts, which are packed with enough Flemish Old Masters and 20th-century treasures to fill several days of contemplating — all for free.
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Once inside the Magritte Museum, however, I forgot about any other artist. Magritte’s mind-bending works overwhelmed me with their breadth of detail and depth of technical expertise.
That’s why, when “Always Looking” — John Updike’s posthumous series of essays on art — arrived on my desk, I immediately turned to his chapter on “Magritte the Great,” the Zen master of Surrealism, whose crisp, smooth, unsettling images deconstructed reality into a jigsaw puzzle of ideas.
On Magritte, Updike and I saw eye to eye. And he certainly knew how to look at art.
“Always Looking” rounds out a trilogy of his art writings, joining “Just Looking” (2000) and “Still Looking” (2005).
The new book consists mostly of exhibition reviews, 10 of which appeared in the New York Review of Books, from 1990 to 2007, and showcases Updike’s immense intellectual prowess. He has probably contributed more to American letters, genre for genre, than any other contemporary author.
What makes him such an invaluable guide to appreciating artwork is his command of the vocabulary of the enthusiastic museum-goer and the dedicated artist, immersed in his or her calling to create.
Because of this rare blend of aesthetic acumen, many readers will gravitate toward Updike’s opening essay, “The Clarity of Things,” the Jefferson Lecture in Humanities that he delivered in 2008. In it, he tried to answer the question “What is American about American art?”
He surveys 40 paintings, from John Singleton Copley’s 18th-century portraits to the photorealism of the late 1970s. That constitutes a broad canvas, to be sure, one that forces him to skim the surface of some eras.
But he manages to include substantial reflections on Winslow Homer, Grant Wood and Norman Rockwell (even though I do not think that Rockwell belongs in their company).
Still, you don’t have to share Updike’s likes and dislikes to learn from him. Drawing his inspiration from the poet William Carlos Williams’ dictum, No ideas but in things, Updike concludes that “the American artist, first born into a continent without museums and art schools, took Nature as his only instructor, and things as his principal study.”
What makes American art American, therefore, is “a bias toward the empirical, toward the evidential object in the numinous fullness of being … .” Only Updike could equate the empirical with the numinous, and get away with it.
Since my tastes run along the lines of central European art, I carefully studied his pieces on Magritte, of course, Joan Miro, Edgar Degas and Gustav Klimt. In each, his writing brims with perspectives that enriched my understanding of these great artists.
Magritte, Updike tells us, wanted to dislocate our assumptions about reality; the painter said he lived in a realm of ideas “capable of becoming visible only through painting.”
Thus, for Updike, Magritte turns out to be as much a philosopher as a painter; his works represent the consummate problem of “how we see the world.”
Landscape proved to be only “a curtain placed in front of me,” Magritte declared. What lay behind the curtain beckoned as the sole, authentic subject of his work.
By the time we reach the paintings of Joan Miro in the mid-1920s, we inhabit a different world altogether from the American painters who populate “The Clarity of Things.”
For one thing, Miro had invented color field painting by then. For another, like all good Surrealists, he wanted to disassemble the world as a stable set of signifiers.
Hence, the birth of his biomorph forms, and his reliance on largely decorative symbols.
“I have managed to break absolutely free of nature,” he said, “and [my] landscapes have nothing to do with outer reality.”
So it seems that we are left with a fundamental choice, according to Updike: to follow or reject nature as the painter’s primary tutor.
Surprisingly, Degas, the consummate indoor Impressionist, has the answer:
“Wherever you look in [his paintings], his outdoor exercises taught Degas, color is in motion.”
Updike’s intelligent criticism is always in motion, as well, still
enlivening his readers four years after
Like Miro, he provides his own force of art: an elegant, rhythmic and highly focused prose.
American writing about painting doesn’t get more real than that.
How Cezanne revolutionized the way we view painting
“Cezanne: A Life” by Alex Danchev (Pantheon, 512 pages, $40)
After successfully searching for Paul Cezanne’s paltry painting studio on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, my wife, Laura, and I sat with friends at a sidewalk cafe to relax from our quest.
Watching the tourists and townsfolk whiz past, I thought back to the high, stuccoed wall that kept outsiders away from Cezanne’s disappointingly prosaic workplace — a fitting symbol of his art.
For even the most knowledgeable, open-minded visitors to his 1907 retrospective exhibition in Paris — a year after his death — complained about his “ugly” colors and distorted figures.
Of course, I didn’t agree. I knew that Cezanne’s detractors were stuck on the surface of their visual discomfort. They needed new eyes to see what was hanging before them.
Later, we picnicked in the shadow of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that Cezanne had painted and
repainted in his final years — first framed by tree branches, then unobstructed in full daylight, then draped in dusk’s shadows. Each view turned the mountain into his own.
Indeed, he looked so intently at Sainte-Victoire, one art critic claimed, that he made the mountain disappear.
How? It could have been his stark splotches of colors — oranges and tans, greens and blues, grays and purples. It could have been his skewed perspectives of nearly drunken geometric planes colliding into one another.
Or it could have been the feeling that
he painted into the landscape of
Whatever the cause, with each canvas he stretched in late-
19th-century France, Cezanne did something even more important: He transformed the subject matter of painting into painting itself.
As such, he ranks as the proto-modernist of Western culture. Cubism, for example, which revolutionized 20th-century European art and literature — and spawned Abstract Expressionism in America — would have been impossible without Cezanne. He shattered reality, in every conventional sense of the word, only to reassemble it according to his “barbaric” vision: The violent bear it away.
Alex Danchev, in his new biography of Cezanne, takes that revolutionary insight for granted. He seems unconcerned to explore its origins, to establish its classical foundations, or to meditate on its dialectical tensions with more traditional, “realistic,” representational art.
Instead, he levels his focus at Cezanne’s widespread influence in the 20th century, from Samuel Beckett to Woody Allen to Allen Ginsberg.
This may be important from a sociological point of view, but not a biographical one. A more instructive approach would have been to let Cezanne lead us to the key that unlocks the tiny door in the stuccoed wall shutting out intruders from his meager studio; the door protecting his precious painterly project from unknowing and unseeing eyes.
To his credit, Danchev tells as much as he can in highly accessible prose — especially the story of Cezanne’s friendship with Emile Zola, the naturalistic novelist who exposed the underbelly of fin-de-siecle Paris.
Together, they sought to escape the bourgeois clutches of France through the sheer strength of their art. They inspired and encouraged each other until Zola wrote his late fictional account of Cezanne, “ L’Oeuvre,” showing the painter as a social and artistic failure.
The irony, of course, is that Cezanne proved anything but a failure in art history, while Zola remains an acquired taste in world literature.
Danchev mines the intrinsic drama of this friendship, but conveniently sidesteps the almost daily influence of Cezanne’s family on his work.
For all his burly, antisocial, unsophisticated persona, Cezanne knew the significance of his gift, even as his wife and sister repeatedly questioned it, and his father tightened the purse strings, convinced that his son still needed a “real” profession, well into his 50s.
In the end, Cezanne merged the world and painting as painting’s definitive focus. You can still see the mountain in his works, but only if you see it made of pigment and raw brushwork.
All of which will likely endure longer in our imagination than the conical, volcanic stone of Mont Sainte-Victoire.