Book review: Wait, do nothing, and lay off the nudes

The Penguin Book of Art Writing Edited by Martin Gayford and Karen Wright Penguin pounds 12.99

What is art writing, ask the editors of this 600-page anthology of art writing. It comprises "histories, theories, anecdotes, epigrams, how-to-do-it manuals, recorded conversations, fictions and poems". Which explains the inclusion of an imperious Margaret Thatcher ("See, see, see, learn, learn, learn"), and the reflections of a certain Mughal Emperor Jahangir on a dying courtier's ghastly face. Gayford and Wright, professional art critics themselves, follow Baudelaire's maxim that "the best criticism is the criticism that is entertaining and poetic ... since a fine painting is nature reflected by an artist, the best critical study, I repeat, will be the one that is that painting reflected by an intelligent and sensitive mind".

There is no chronological order to this medley of utterances and writings; the approach is thematic. Each section mixes contributions from writers, critics and artists from across the centuries. And each contribution explores the world of art and its satellites; hence there are chapters entitled "On the Couch: Art and Psychology" and "Artists and Models, a Difficult Relationship".

This means that there is fun to be had, especially when we find Vasari and Freud rubbing shoulders as they conjecture on the reason behind Mona Lisa's smile. Vasari's line is that da Vinci employed musicians to entertain his sitter, Freud that the artist was thinking of his mother. The artists themselves, as evinced by Turner, are unpretentious, and extremely practical. A bedridden Roger Hilton describes principles for working in gouache as follows: "1. Never rub out ... Make of your mistakes a strength rather than a weakness. 2. Wait for it ... if you don't get a clear message, do nothing ... 3. Don't drink and smoke so much and lay off the nudes."

The lack of theorising from these artists points to the impossible task of writing about art. And the anthology lights up when, as Baudelaire suggested, it is with passion that the contributors attack their subject. Especially when the certifiably insane Antonin Artaud insists that Vincent Van Gogh was sane.

But, more importantly, the editors ask, what is art? A question that can only be halfway answered after reading an anthology such as this, is the implicit conclusion. Perhaps they are right. After all, when Andy Warhol was asked what he thought art was, he replied: "Art? Isn't that a man's name?"

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