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The conservative connoisseur

Art: A New History; Paul Johnson; HarperCollins: 778 pp., $39.95

October 05, 2003|Hilton Kramer | Hilton Kramer is the editor of the New Criterion and the author of numerous books, including "The Age of the Avant-Garde" and "The Twilight of the Intellectuals."

For newcomers to the voluminous and highly popular writings of Paul Johnson, the English historian, journalist and polymath, the first thing to be said about his latest outsize production is: Don't be dismayed by the immense length of "Art: A New History." Johnson is one of the most accomplished writers of nonfiction English prose on the current transatlantic literary scene, and art is a subject he knows and cares deeply about.

"This book," he writes in his preface, "is something I have wanted to write all my life, for I write books to educate myself, and my thirst for knowledge about art and artists has been growing since my earliest consciousness. My father was an artist and head of an art school, and I remember, as a small child, trying to overhear his conversations with his friend [painter] L.S. Lowry. This meant hiding in a piece of Jacobean furniture, called the Court Cupboard, in my father's Art Room (he never used the word 'studio'). But all they talked about was cricket."

Then, as a cautionary preview of the very personal perspective that Johnson brings to the inordinate task of producing a one-volume world history of art, he writes that "[m]y father did not want me to become a painter, though he admitted I drew well, and he took me with him when he went out to draw churches. When I was six, in the mid-thirties, he said to me: 'I can see bad times coming for art. Frauds like Picasso will rule the roost for the next half-century. Do something else for a living.' So I became a writer.... But I have continued to draw and paint, and have even held one-man exhibitions in London in the last decade."

That unembarrassed reference to Picasso as a "fraud," by the way, may be taken as a warning that Johnson's new history does not refrain from sporting some distinctly reactionary opinions. It has to be understood, too, that he is uncowed by the received judgments of the art bureaucracies in the academy, the museums, the commercial galleries and the news media. Johnson's talents and outlook are of a very different order. He is a master of narrative history, and his gift for vivid storytelling is matched by an astounding command of large, complex subjects and an unflagging capacity for rendering them intelligible and compelling. We are never in any danger of confronting a dry or boring page in even the longest of Johnson's books, and very long books -- among them "A History of the American People," "A History of the English People," "A History of Christianity" and "Modern Times" -- are his forte.

As for his reactionary opinions, especially in regard to Modernist art, they need not dismay the reader either. Reactionary artists and the views of their critical champions also belong to the history of art, and Johnson is by no means alone in his disobliging censure of Modernism. In this country, in the 1930s, Thomas Craven's "Men of Art," a runaway bestseller in its day, vigorously upheld the notion that the Regionalist school of the period -- Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood et al. -- was a far greater achievement than anything to be found in the art of Cezanne and the Modernists influenced by him. And for an even longer period, Royal Cortissoz, the immensely influential art critic of the old New York Herald-Tribune, denounced the work of American Modernists as "Ellis Island Art" -- "promoted by types not yet fitted for their first papers in aesthetic naturalization." Yet the reactionary Cortissoz could write beautifully about the Old Masters, and so does Johnson -- as, for example, in this account of Peter Paul Rubens' "Descent From the Cross" (1612) in Antwerp Cathedral:

"Once Rubens had thought a project through, and proved to himself that it would work by drawings and oil sketches, he created the finished painting at impressive speed. He drew on the canvas with a special brush as though it were a piece of chalk, putting in the lines with total accuracy without hesitation or pause. When he applied the paint, the brushstrokes were fluent and long -- sometimes 3 feet -- but firm or delicate at will. These great, sweeping strokes, marvelous to watch, and filling up the canvas with almost miraculous speed, involved a meticulous manufacture and choice of brushes, careful preparation of a huge palette, and a skill in measuring the quantity of paint, and placing it on the brush, which was a personal technology in itself. When the master was going at full stretch, clambering up and down his stepladder, striding from one corner of the canvas to another, shouting for more, and yet more, paint while the fit was on him -- or rather while he could feel the power radiating from his hand, for he was always calm and in control -- he must have been an amazing sight, one which a young artist would retain to the end of his life."

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