By Carl Belz
|Julian Bell, Mirror Of The World: A New History Of Art, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2007. First paperback edition 2010, 496 pp. with 372 illustrations, $34.95|
You likely took an art history survey course at some point in your educational travels, and if you’re a Baby Boomer or younger, H. W. Janson’s History Of Art was probably your assigned text. Its authoritative voice and generous visual presentation understandably made it the text of choice here in the US for decades following its publication in 1963. Likely, too, your copy accompanied you to each of your post-college addresses and still occupies a sentimental place in your library today, for such was the lasting impression it regularly had on its readers. Still, I’m here to recommend you add to that library Julian Bell’s recent Mirror Of The World as an important and seriously engaging contribution to a newer art history, to art history as it is practiced now—now being signified by its global scope and contextual methodology—and is here further distinguished in being practiced by a writer who’s also a practicing artist.
Crafting a manageable survey of art’s ever-expanding global history, a survey that’s neither too heavy to lift nor too dense to absorb, is a daunting assignment. Bell tackles his history chronologically and structures it thematically into 12 chapters, each of which comprises four to six sub-themes. Chapters average 30 to 50 pages, sub-themes average six to ten, and each regularly transports us to separate but synchronous global venues. Thus, by way of example, Chapter 5, Doorways and Windows, includes Banquets and bare trees, China, 970s-1370s; Earth colours, Germany, Italy, 1240-1350; Texts and textures Iran, Italy, France, Spain, Russia, 1330-1420; Opening the windows Northern Europe, Italy, 1390-1460; and Private passions Flanders, Italy, France, Iran, Indonesia, 1440-1520. The modular organization enables, even invites us to open the book at random and begin reading for sheer pleasure, while extended captions on many of the illustrations serve as self-contained thumbnail summaries of their adjacent texts, not unlike the wall labels we see in museums.
Bell’s felicitous and accommodating prose, in tandem with his structural concision, facilitates our global odyssey and brings within reach the art and artists and cultures otherwise distanced from us by vast stretches of time and space. In turn, their otherness begins to yield, they become knowable, and the ever-expanding world they and we occupy becomes smaller, more humanly scaled, more familiar—as Bell periodically, and gently, reminds us. Here, for instance, he summons Ni Zan in China, 1372, working against the grain of acceptable Ming dynasty taste:
The parallels with what happened to later avant-gardes are intriguing, and any modern painter might sympathize with the bon mots attributed to Ni Zan: Skeptical viewer: ‘Bamboo? That doesn’t look anything like it!’ Ni Zan: Ah yes. That total lack of resemblance is quite hard to achieve. Not everyone can manage it.’
In a brief preface, Bell offers the following explanation for the title of his text:
I see art history as a frame within which world history, in all its breadth, is continually reflected back at us—rather than as a window which opens onto some independent aesthetic realm. I shall assume that the records of artistic change somehow relate to records of social, technological, political and religious change, however inverted or reconfigured these reflections prove.
Bell’s history, in other words, reflects the new art history in foregrounding the contexts in which artworks are made more than the formal properties they display. He is nonetheless fully aware that each approach is hollow when pursued to excess or in isolation, tending in either case only to diminish art and artist alike, and his text accordingly breathes everywhere with meaningful form/content unions. As in this description of Rogier van der Weyden’s mid-15th century Portrait of a Lady (National Gallery, Washington DC), which
… probably shows the illegitimate daughter of his master, the Duke of Burgundy. Van der Weyden was van Eyck’s successor as court artist, and by the 1450s, when this was painted, he too was an international celebrity. His art likewise explored the deeper tonal range and subtler modeling made available by oils. But he made his painting proclaim its own artifice: this formal arrangement of a few bold shapes within a rectangle…asks us to consider what a remarkable object a work of art can be. For this composition is also a feeling about a girl, about her pale sensual bloom, her pride and her pathos.
|Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460 ( Andrew W. Mellon Collection, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC., #1937.1.44).|
Or this account of Goya’s activity in the decades immediately following the French Revolution:
Of this cataclysmically violent period, Goya would strangely become the leading recording instrument. The illness of 1793 that left him unable to hear seems to have knocked through floors in his imagination. Its lumber of fantasies, fears, cracks and sneers shifted and gathered in weight. While he maintained his post as leading court portraitist, he now pitched into the kind of eccentric printmaking formerly practiced by Italians like Tiepolo and Piranesi. His set of Caprichos, ‘caprices’, from 1799 gave the genre a new pungency and grotesque force, prodding not simply at stock butts of derision like the priesthood, but at human propensities in general.
|Francisco Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828), The sleep of reason produces monsters (Caprichos 43, Delteil 80, Harris 78). Original etching and aquatint, c. 1798.|
As these passages suggest, Bell’s historical voice is the voice of an artist acutely mindful of art’s makers and the challenges and rewards of their job of work, a voice clearly personal, blending passion and humility, a voice guided by a steady moral compass. Yet, a voice that at times is also troubled on behalf of the artist and art. Here he reflects on Giotto’s early 14th century frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, in particular the scenes where Joachim is cast from the temple, his sacrifice rejected because he and his wife Anna are childless, so he returns to the hills in shame to tend again his flocks among the shepherds there. Joachim and Anna become the parents of the Virgin Mary, everything works out, but Bell responds
And yet I must admit that there are no pictures in this book that bring me so close to tears. I blame Giotto’s unerring instinct for social cruelty (those muttering shepherds) and his heart-gripping sentimental stagecraft (Joachim’s worried dog). But at the same time, insofar as ‘Western painting’ has been my own business, I suppose I read these primal moments in the tradition prophetically. There stands the temple—the great structure that the medieval world was about, if it was about anything. And painting starts where it ends—in the void, outside. It stalks the land, it broods, it dreams of the land, but it has no fixture in the land, just as it has no fixture in the temple. It is bound nowhere; it is mere mind-stuff, mere images.
|Giotto di Bondone, The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, c. 1303 - 1306, fresco, The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.|
We can appreciate the concern. Postmodern culture has seemingly turned culture upside down, announcing the death of the author and conferring upon readers the status of writers, exposing the myth of originality by celebrating ironic appropriation, and finessing meaning with the claim that it resides only in the eye of the beholder. All of this, moreover, in the name of freedom! Well and good, but who will tell the artist? Who will wrest the quill from the writer ‘s hand? Who the printmaker’s stylus? Who the painter’s brush? And who will break the news that the artist’s labors yield no meaning? Who possesses the audacity to carry out that assignment? Who the arrogance?
Julian Bell frets that art is bound nowhere. It’s not Giotto he’s talking about, it’s art now and modern art generally, for that’s the condition of its being: It knows no bounds imposed by church or state or any institution; at the same time, neither does it enjoy a home, an anchor—a fixture in Bell’s words—it’s altogether free. But freedom comes at a cost. As free as art in our modern era may be, it is nonetheless bound, bound to its past—bound to and by its very own urge to sustain that past’s level of achievement while at the same time challenging it—and bound, above all, by the cost of its freedom, which is the responsibility that attends its practice. And the result? Mere images, Bell tells us. Yet, his very own words effectively assuage his very human doubt in demonstrating the boundless meanings those images convey and the abundant pleasures they yield. His voice, very much an artist’s voice, adds an invaluable dimension to this new history of art.
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.