I RECENTLY REREAD some art books that were very useful to me when I was writing about comparisons between literary works and the visual arts in England. These were not specialized books about English art but general works that have proven their usefulness through time. I did not go back and read again Helen Gardner’s Art through the Ages (1st edition 1926; I think I read the third edition), a book that gave me an early taste for art when I read it for our Columbia-style sophomore Humanities course at the University of Arizona. Gardner and her later rival H. W. Janson (History of Art, 1st edition 1962 and many subsequent editions) wrote texts that have gone through many editions and have grown into huge and heavy volumes. But I did begin Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1972), a different kind of art history that attempts a coherent narrative, especially of Western art. Gombrich keeps leading us back to the purpose art works were made for at given times and places, and he emphasizes how the artist is always modifying a template. These are also themes of Gombrich’s masterpiece, Art and Illusion (1956), a book I found extremely illuminating when I first read it—it holds up well to rereading, too. Gombrich shows some things about making art that every artist quickly learns but that are not obvious to the mere spectator: such things as how using color in painting is tremendously more complicated than simply matching a hue found in nature. He also stresses the importance of schema that, at least until very recent times, every artist learned in training, and that were then modified according to observation.
Years ago I was lucky enough to come across an art text used in the University of Chicago’s year-long Humanities 1 course; Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look (1st edition 1957) is a book that manages to teach an enormous amount about the expressive aspect of the arts in a hundred pages. Taylor begins with a comparison of two paintings to show how form can be used to get very different effects; he makes similar comparisons between two sculptures and between two buildings. All of this leads into a detailed discussion of art forms, materials, and techniques, introducing vocabulary and always stressing expression. Taylor thus makes a useful complement to Gombrich’s concerns with illusion and representation.
My introduction to the politics of art came in reading the book version of John Berger’s 1972 television series Ways of Seeing. Berger begins from ideas of Walter Benjamin: his first essay is an illustrated riff on Benjamin’s 1936 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and he warns against the mystification of art, the confusion of marketplace with aesthetic valuation and losing sight of what a work “uniquely says” by glorifying “what it uniquely is” as an original. Berger convincingly demonstrates that the observer in traditional Western art is gendered as male and argues that tradition in connoisseurship and artists’ practice serves the cultural obsession with property by what art depicts and how it is commodified.
The densest reading among these art books was Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939), but even though Panofsky’s subject was Continental art of the Renaissance, reading him enabled me to think more clearly about English art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Panofsky shows that classical visual motifs are modified by the Christian uses to which they’re put between the classical period and the Renaissance, so that the modified motifs can only be understood through the mediation of texts that span the period between their use to express classical themes and the time of their reemergence to do so again in the Renaissance. The mediation of texts in the understanding of art works was the key idea here; I realized it was even more important in a culture like England’s where the literary tradition was longer and stronger than that of the visual arts.