For five years, from 2005 to 2010, Tom Lubbock wrote a weekly essay for The Independent on a single work of art, usually a painting.
That sounds so easy. Take a picture – something, for preference, that you hate or love – raid your bookshelves for historical reference and tell the reader, in 950 words, why he or she should love or hate it, too. If that is what Lubbock had done, it would have been money for old rope. It wasn't.
Perhaps "essay" is not the right word for the 50 articles reprinted in Great Works, Lubbock's own selection, made shortly before he died in January, from the more than 200 he wrote under that title. Essays sound like lectures, delivered de haut en bas. The Great Works pieces are full of learning, but imparting it isn't really their point.
Like Lubbock's views on art, they defy easy categorisation. "Monologues" may come closer to describing them, although that makes these pieces sound egotistical, which they most certainly are not. On the contrary, you often sense a frustration in Lubbock that his is the only voice allowed: "Come on," you hear him saying, "what do you think?". As befits their subject, the great works are oddly visual. I cannot read them without picturing the room in which their dialogue takes place: comfortable, a bit battered, filled, from time to time, with Lubbock's explosive guffaws; his jabbed forefinger emphasising a triumphant "Exactly!".
His writing is exact, although the Great Works pieces wear their exactness lightly. Before he was an art critic, Lubbock was a philosopher; there is none of that journalist's itch here to put the story in the first paragraph. His line on Juan Sánchez-Cotán's Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber starts with a theatrical anecdote about Tallulah Bankhead and passes, amiably, on to Pascal. Lubbock's discussion of Giotto's Vices (above) opens with a poem by Bertolt Brecht and cites Byron, Goethe, Dante and Simone Weil before arriving at the Scrovegni Chapel, 500 words in.
Once we get there, you understand the need for the diversion. It, too, was pictorial. As if circling a sculpture or building, we have circled Giotto's frescos; now we're ready to stand in front of them, Lubbock by our side. His approach is convivial. There is no art-argot or critical theory, but neither is there the patronising blimey-talk of a TV pundit. (Lubbock, I think, would not have done well on television; his genius lay in writing pictures into words.) He points out the sculptural solidity of Giotto's Virtues and Vices, their "physical fortitude, imbued by their stone nature".
It is Anger that catches his eye and so draws ours, the way she tears her dress "into an outlined rectangular void over her heart". "At first you don't see the shape," Lubbock says, meaning, at first, I didn't see the shape. We look as equals, not as master and student. And then there is the Lubbock moment, the one where the work comes down off the wall and is made human, a thing painted by men for men to see, to read and feel. "Her face smarts from the harm her feelings are doing," he says. "She is tearing herself apart." Art was real for Tom Lubbock; there was, for him, no separation between passion and reason. That alone makes this book a great work.
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