gall and gumption

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Ian Buruma has a nice piece about him in the New York Review of Books. The same issue has a piece on Rembrandt by Robert Hughes.

I'm liking the Goya book. For one thing, I do like the way Hughes talks about individual paintings and etchings. He is observant, I mean he really observes and I get the feeling that observation always beats theorizing or "having a theoretical apparatus" with him, though you shouldn't take that to mean he's some kind of naif. He's a person who knows what it is possible to know. This makes him a real critic, not a pundit. His respect for Goya, based on what he can see of the painter's genius in the paintings, makes the book nice to read because he isn't crowding in on him with a lot of flatfooted psychologizing; nor is there any of the mean-spiritedness and unwarranted condescension to a greater mind that make reading your typical academic biography such a chore. You get the feeling Hughes is trying as far as possible to let Goya be himself in the book, to let him speak for himself in the book. Aside from the fact that Goya's life, his energy, are really interesting in themselves, Hughes's care to do him justice is a nice thing to watch too.

The result is a biography that does a good job with not a lot of biographical materials. Nothing is known, for instance, about how Goya got on with his wife. But the context of his work and his working life is put before you with great economy and clarity. Hughes is also really scrupulous about distinguishing between what you can know, what you need to know, and what you will never know that it may or may not have been nice to know. That's good, yes, but the real thing that I think got me going with this book was a warmth I feel in it. I feel that it is a personal book. As any really really good criticism should be. Hughes had this awful car accident in Australia during a period when he had gotten sort of stuck and blocked. He was hospitalized with terrible injuries that took a lot of surgeries and a lot of suffering to get over, it was a nightmare. Something of the consciousness of suffering (Goya was struck down by a mysterious illness in mid-life that left him suffering from vertigo for months after he recovered, and left him permanently deaf), of what a real thing it is, not a thing to speak of in a trivial way.

Another writer who writes about painters in a way that I like (I actually think he's a better writer than Hughes, if not necessarily so transparent in his explanations of what he sees in a painting) is Kenneth Clark. His book, the Romantic Rebellion, is a series of short essays about painters of the Romantic era, roughly, starting with David and ending with i think Delacroix. It includes Blake, who isn't exactly a Romantic but he fits in the book beautifully. The same quality of genial respect and curiosity -- I mean, why the hell not? -- is present in Clark's attitude to all of them. And there are some bits that made me laugh out loud. It's definitely light reading, but after what I said the other day about overviews, I'd take it all back if overviews were all written like this, to stimulate one's curiosity by picking out just the aspects of it that would do so and lucidly explaining why they are important.


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