Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Great Works & Details: Tom Lubbock & Kenneth Clark

Just as a great river does not flow from a single source, but is made up of innumerable tributaries great and small, so the total impression of a work of art is built up of a hundred different sensations, analogies, memories, thoughts - some obvious, many recondite, a few analysable, most beyond analysis.

Kenneth Clark wrote this sentence in the introduction to one of my favourite art books, 'One Hundred Details from the National Gallery', which was published in 1938; given that the entire collection was removed from the gallery a year later for safe-keeping, there must have been young art lovers who grew up in its absence, for whom this book was like the catalogue to a fabulous lost treasure trove. What I love particularly about the book is its winning combination of erudition and simplicity. Clark was of course fantastically knowledgeable and wrote countless books, but in this case he was limited by the form of the book to making succinct comments about specific pictures.

His 'details' - pictures within pictures - have a life of their own, and Clark merrily compares fragments of landscape or minor characters that share some basic similarity but are perhaps centuries and hundreds of miles apart. A comparison of hands painted by Holbein and Rubens allows him to make pithy remarks about the differences between Renaissance and Baroque painting, while we are left to observe for ourselves the contrasting handling by Rubens and Uccello of musicians in a martial crowd.

For anyone who finds it a struggle to wade through art history books, 'One Hundred Details' is a delight of brevity, wisdom and dry humour. It's as if the great man has taken his jacket off, loosened his tie and is wandering the gallery with a glass of brandy, chatting about his favourite pictures. I can't think of a better way to talk about art, which makes it all the more tragic that another strolling expositor, Tom Lubbock, died so young.

Like this off-duty Kenneth Clark, Lubbock approached paintings (and exhibitions) with intelligence and wit. I remember being slightly appalled by his review of 'Familiar Visions', the 2010 Towner Gallery exhibition that placed the work of Eric Ravilious alongside photographs by his son James Ravilious, because he dismissed the photographer pretty much in one word - 'dull'. But that was Lubbock all over. He wrote it as he saw it, and if an exhibition failed to inspire him, he said so.

Of course in his long-running 'Great Works' column he didn't have that problem, since (I assume) he was allowed to choose pictures that did inspire him, and he approached them very much in the spirit of the off-duty KC. You may already own a copy of the 'book of the column', but if you don't I would recommend it very highly; chuck away the books about how to look at pictures and revel in fifty paintings explored in fifty different ways. The short essays won't get you through an art history exam, but they will do what so little art writing does - make you look at familiar paintings with new eyes.

Like Clark, Lubbock is concerned first and foremost with the act of looking. Forget the biography, forget the period or the movement, ignore the label. Just look. And, as you look, allow your mind to open and welcome a 'hundred different sensations, analogies, memories, thoughts'. Rather than trying to reduce the picture by fitting it into the pre-arranged scheme of art history, let it expand. Rather than trying to identify or even read a picture, look at it in pictorial terms - as a combination of shapes, lines or areas of light and darkness.

Henry Fuseli, Silence (1799-1801)
The aim isn't to find answers but to appreciate the work more fully. In the essay accompanying Henry Fuseli's painting 'Silence', Lubbock focuses on the form of the figure portrayed. In fact he starts off like this:

The psychology of shapes is good business. Find out your shape-personality type and you'll know yourself, both well and profitably. The square? Your colleagues will come to you for help. The circle? People will bring you their personal problems.

From there he winds his way towards Fuseli and this painting and, having caught our attention, proceeds to analyse the figure's shape, trying and rejecting different interpretations of its meaning. In a few short paragraphs we look and look again, seeing that the figure is 'sunk into itself' but that its form is not so much closed fist as 'softly closed hand'. By the end we're fully involved in the story of this solitary figure, but what does it mean? Will all be revealed?

So Silence speaks in an abstract emotional language. Its feelings go inwards and downwards. Its feelings are soft and not hard. Beyond that, it doesn't say anything specific. It's too basic. It's an archetypal figure, personifying a very fundamental state of the human mind. True, if this figure belongs to one of the shape-personality types, mentioned above, it surely has to be "circle". But you probably wouldn't go to it with your personal problems.

Fernand Leger, Holly Leaf on a Red Background, 1928 (private collection)
I've always felt that it's easier to discuss, in layperson's terms, pictures that represent something, but Lubbock demonstrates an ability to talk engagingly about paintings that offer no obvious way in, about pictures consisting only of a few circles on a uniform background, or of a simple hut against layered colours. In December 2009 he took on Fernand Leger's 'Holly Leaf on Red Background', beginning with the evergreen's seasonal symbolism and then subjecting Leger's version to his gleeful scrutiny:

The leaf has only tone and form. Our attention is all on its light and shade and shaping. 

And the leaf's shaping is especially stressed because it is so peculiar – extremely complex and perhaps impossible. This holly leaf is made out of curves and spikes and waves just like a normal holly leaf. But the way these forms are assembled is another matter.

For example, try to follow its formations, its bumps and hollows, as indicated by the shadings and highlights, across its surface. It's like an area of corrugated iron, dented and folded. Now compare this landscape with the landscape implied by the outside edge on the left side. Can the two be co-ordinated?

The picture, he concludes, strips the holly leaf of its associations to marvel at its sheer physical presence. Tom Lubbock did something similar himself with pictures. What a shame he had to stop.

'Great Works' continues in The Independent.

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