A new collection of David Sylvester's writings on art demonstrates an awe-inspiring scope and luminous vision
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The Independent Culture
One of the pleasures offered by such a collection as David Sylvester's About Modern Art, with its long range over time, is the opportunity to watch the development of the critic's relationship with his material. Such is Sylvester's access to his own and an artist's vision and so direct and luminous his expression of it that the reader is able to watch a sensibility develop and define itself, as in the miraculous films of Picasso painting on glass, where one sees the fleet thoughts and decisions of the artist without being distracted by his thinking person.

Sylvester in his early pages acknowledges the rare quality of editing he has enjoyed from Karl Miller, first on the New Statesman and later on the London Review of Books, J R Ackerley ("diffident to a fault ... I always longed for him to iron out all my clumsiness") and others. He is spot-on about American sub-editors:

They probe you here, they grope you there, insinuate themselves elsewhere; when you protect yourself in one place, they paw you in another; when you protest, they tell you what to do to give them pleasure and use emotional blackmail till you do; it's all a long struggle to preserve a shred of your virginity. And yet they're somehow so endearing in their desire for logic and intelligibility that you feel guilty about your anger. The worst villainy occurs when they bypass consultation. You receive the published work and find sentences totally rewritten, inevitably missing the point, and it's like having been abused while asleep.

He goes on to say, later in the same essay, that "the attraction of editing is that it is much easier but equally gratifying at the time of a birth to be a father than a mother". Since he is speaking here of his own editing, in concert with his teaching, committee, and curatorial work, there is a nice self-subversion.

Bold use of metaphor, extended as above like the trailed serifs of thick paint - "those delightful skeins" - he admires in the work of Kossoff, or used locally to highlight, comes naturally to Sylvester. A metaphorical spin in a good writer can be innate; it is how he sees the world, not how he overlays it. A writer born with a metaphorical vision interprets the world as does a painter or sculptor in his characteristic use of his medium. Sylvester's metaphors have a fidelity and transforming attention that pay implicit tribute to Cezanne's constantly renewed combination of these qualities. The sense of illumination - lightness, too - achieved by continual inordinate work is common to both.

Sylvester's peculiar achievement is to interpret one immensely complicated created thing - an artefact or a vision - through another - good prose - and to align and clarify the two for us. This authority is the product of knowledge of the past, a rage for vigilance as well as for looking, and an intolerance of the intervention of veils of theory. In 1949, in a review of an exhibition of Frank Auerbach's work at the Beaux-Arts Gallery, Sylvester listed the qualities that "make for greatness in a painter - fearlessness; a profound originality; a total absorption in what obsesses him; and, above all, a certain authority and gravity in his forms and colours".

Although it is with Bacon and Giacometti that Sylvester is perhaps most immediately linked in the public mind, the artist of whose work he spent several years co-authoring a catalogue raisonne was Magritte: "more of a painter, less purely an image maker, than his enemies and friends supposed. And I still love the work; but the fact remains that I spent years of my life, like Swann, on someone who was not my type."

This swoop across the arts recurs rewardingly; he observes in his essay on Anthony Caro that the sculptor's feelings about the human body did not disappear "merely because he turned from the 'figurative' to the 'abstract', (any more than the human voice disappeared from Mozart's voice when he turned from writing an opera to writing a piano concerto)". And of Cezanne: "In some of the landscapes there is a great silence and emptiness and at the same time a throb, a pulse. It's like the experience of certain polyphonic music, such as Bach's chorale preludes - an uncanny equation of relentless onward movement and total stillness."

While writing a review in January 1953 (of a small Matisse exhibition at the Tate), David Sylvester "made a resolve that my career as a critic was to be dedicated above all - even more than to the promotion of a Giacometti- Bacon axis - to establishing that Matisse was a greater artist than Picasso". Self-knowledge and moral clarity combine in Sylvester, who declares a preference more than once for "tentativeness" over "patness". "My standpoint was undoubtedly much influenced by devotion to Giacometti's work and approach. Picasso was a quintessential finder, Giacometti a quintessential seeker, and it seemed more virtuous to be the latter." Elsewhere, he refers to Giacometti as "the saintly knight without armour who had come to redeem art from facility and commercialism."

This elegiac prelapsarian note is constant behind these essays, whether they touch on De Kooning's slithery nudes, the "big machines" of Guernica and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the rich subject of the work of the artist in age, the "strange transcendent note" it has that is, Sylvester observes, surprisingly often present in the late work of those who die young, or on the effect of wars on art.

The entire world of art had the kind of creative energy, in the years before 1914, which is often said to be the prerogative of the genius who is shortly to suffer an early death.

It was to be the death, as has often been said, of everything that Europe took for granted - of all kinds of values and beliefs and hopes that were now seen to be ill-founded, presumptuous, and naive. The wisdom that comes from disenchantment is not a climate that suits the growth of art: art, it seems, thrives on innocence. In this it only follows the principle that the more one knows the less one tends to do.

This wide lucidity coexists with an intimate understanding of the small (the "all-overness" of Klee) and even the parochial - "It seems to be the misfortune of British painters to be born with more in them of Shelley than of Keats" - the "reasonableness" that distinguishes Moore from Picasso. The beautiful poise of Sylvester's consideration lies in that subtly undermining yet Englishly decent adjective. No page is without at least two such felicities, and the collection is stuffed with aphorisms that are neither stiff nor apt to come to bits when you think about them. "Every clown wants to play Hamlet, no Hamlet would prefer to be a clown"; Miro "feigns a superb spontaneity"; the art of the "wine culture" (Europe) versus that of the "Coke culture" (America); "For a woman, the horror of ageing resides in no longer attracting; for a man, in no longer acting". There is some toothsome art-critical cattiness evident in the short prologues to the essays, and, once or twice, in them: "To praise [Richard Long] now is to take a food parcel to someone who is in the middle of eating his dinner at the Ritz." (The thorn may perhaps be retracted by the comparison Sylvester makes between Long and Caspar David Friedrich.)

The different colours of black in Spanish art, the "heroism of the real in Cezanne and Poussin", the art criticism of Adrian Stokes, the unanimous affirmation of Jewish painters that "art has no business to exist if it does not speak to the onlooker of the miseries and occasionally the triumphs of human existence", the slippage of Pop into Zen, the truth about Bonnard's Marthe and her baths, Mondrian's artificial tulip, each is given its proper weight and attention. Because we come to trust him almost as soon as we open the book we read of Gilbert and George's more extreme exhibitions or of Warhol or Twombly and see that there are more ways of seeing than we know.

! 'About Modern Art' by David Sylvester is published by Chatto & Windus at pounds 25