Jean McNeil’s latest novel is Private View, set amid the contemporary London art scene.
1. Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Now dated and excessively undergraduate, this was the first popular study of art and aesthetics, done as a companion volume to a TV series in the early 70s. Berger, a painter, philosopher and art critic, gives us an illustrated historical analysis of ways in which we have engaged in representation and in seeing art, juxtaposing Renaissance art with advertising (hysterically naff early 1970s magazine ads). Although it now seems ponderously Marxist – “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society” -its achievement is its 150-page whistlestop tour of representation and The Gaze in art and advertising.
2. Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art by Francoise Gilot
A timely selection, hot on the heels of a recent major London exhibition curated as a kind of conversation between the work of the two great painters. The author was Picasso’s lover from 1946 to 1954 and a talented painter in her own right. Gilot reveals herself as an insightful critic in her brisk and authoritative descriptions of their work, but an even more penetrating student of psychology, dissecting – in the dispassionate, almost disinterested tone only French intellectuals seem to possess -her own role between these two great men, and drawing fairly deft if familiar conclusions about Picasso’s various complexes. On the gossip front, we learn that Georges Braque loved cars and employed a chauffeur, and that Matisse fell precipitously in love with Picasso’s Winter Landscape.
3. The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
About intimacy and immensity, Bachelard’s central premise is that we do not perceive space, or indeed the ‘poetic image’ (art) by dint of rationalism but by pure consciousness and instinct. With chapter titles such as Nests, The Significance of the Hut and Intimate Intensity, the abstract insubstantiality of the book will fail to appeal to those enraged by pomo posturing. Cheerily quantum, Bachelard urges us to transcend our experience in time, to release ourselves onto a plane where space replaces time, illustrated by quotes from other dreamy metaphysists – Rilke, Rimbaud, Poe. Great work, if you can get it.
4. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh edited by Ronald de Leeuw
A prolific correspondent, Van Gogh wrote over 650 letters in his lifetime, many of them to his brother Theo, with whom he had a symbiotic relationship. That Van Gogh is one of the most talented and visionary painters in the history of European art is now widely accepted, but he was no slouch as a writer, either. His prose, like his work, has an intense vividness, and the surprise is that this is as true for his verbal portraits of family and friends as his descriptions of landscape. Above all, the letters display Van Gogh’s compassion and sensitivity, his vast talent for perception, without lingering voyeuristically on his troubled psychology.
5. On Photography by Susan Sontag
The first modern critical study of photography as an art form, written with Sontag’s trademark punishing clarity. The camera, according to Sontag writing on Diane Arbus, “is a device that captures it all, that seduces subjects into disclosing their secrets, that broadens experience.” Like Berger, she is preoccupied with an ethics of seeing: “industrial societies turn their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.” While she reveres photography as a form capable of a probing beauty, its social role is ambiguous. “Photographs,” she notes, “are often invoked as an aid to understanding and tolerance.” But forget those cherished Oxfam notions – “strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.”
6. Blimey, and This is Modern Art by Matthew Collings
Collings has established a genre all his own, reliant on his insider knowledge, aphoristic prose and inclusive style. Blimey, his 1997 study of Britart in the late 1980s and 1990s has just been superseded by a recently-published update, but the original is a compelling and impressionistic snapshot of Britart, focusing on the role of galleries and the tension between new and established artists. Eclectic and chummy, it can seem too focused on the role of the media. Clubbiness is less a feature of This is Modern Art, the companion volume to the engaging Channel 4 series, and walks the treacherous line between art theory incantations and soundbite prose. His style is still the friendly parody of languid, aimless art world vernacular, and he has the gift – which not every critic possesses – of vividly describing the work of art at hand.
7. Force Fields, Phases of the Kinetic by Guy Brett
A beautifully illustrated catalogue written to accompany a recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Kinetic art is about movement and metamorphosis, and a long essay by London critic and curator Guy Brett takes the reader on a digestible theoretical trip through the cosmos, the space-time continuum, science and its evolution through the 50s, 60s and 70s, quantum theory, metaphysics and optics. Unusually wide-ranging – lesser-known artists are featured along with well-established figures Alexander Calder and Gordon Matta-Clark, and sculpture and performance art is included – it revitalises the kinetic art movement within contemporary trends.
8. Harland’s Half-Acre by David Malouf
There are challenges to portraying art and artists in fiction, but Malouf aptly portrays the character and work of Frank Harland, a gifted artist born into a poor dairy farming family in Queensland. A child of misfortune, his mother dies from a rose thorn prick, and it is left to Frank to rescue the remnants of his family. But he is, like many artists, a dreamer, overwhelmed by the harsh realities of life, who gains a sense of control only when painting. Malouf’s deft and empathetic novel portrays the struggle between artistic vision and family duty. As in all of Malouf’s work there is poetic, deeply felt writing, and a probing instinct for the pitfalls and destinies of character.
9. But Is It Art? by Cynthia Freeland
An accessible survey of the diversity of art and art theory. Wildly inclusive for such a small book, it looks at, varyingly, the aesthetics of disgust, African nail fetish sculptures, the contributions of anthropology to art, Bill Viola’s video work vs MTV, gender theory and the formal beauty of Japanese gardens. A particularly strong first chapter explores shock art from Goya to Serrano. More concerned with aesthetics in general than visual art, the book disentangles the insterstices between basic aesthetics: between beauty and purpose, disinterestedness and formality. Although tarred with the inevitable American political correctness, this little book is still refreshingly inclusive of other realities and cultures, and endearingly dismissive of Britart as a promotional label.
10. High Art Lite by Julian Stallabrass
Stallabrass upset the Britart applecart with this survey – some would say attack – of Britart in the 1990s. In essence the book has one theme – the corrosive symbiosis between the artist and the media during the decade. The result, Stallabrass decries, was a depthless cynicism, a shift from looking at the meanings inherent in art to how art is perceived, to the eventual vanishing point where art now “apes mass culture”. Stallabrass is less gifted than, say, Collings in describing actual works, but at least he does contextualise the Britart phenomenon politically and economically, charting its beginnings in the post-recession dive in the art market, to the advent of New Labour and its tacit endorsement of the lifestyle magazine construct of Cool Britannia.