Issue Number: 96
Julian Bell rewrites art history for a globalised world, finds Edmund Fawcett
With dazzling aplomb, Julian Bell’s new history of art, Mirror of the World, takes us from neolithic Spain, through Mesopotamia, China, classical Greece, Renaissance Italy and nineteenth-century Paris up to the global ferment of the present day with an aptly chosen painting, Dispersion (below), by Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian working in New York.
Julie Mehretu, Dispersion, 2002. Rohatyn, New York/Courtesy The Project, New York
The book’s margins are wide, the illustrations plentiful and the writing economically brisk. To pack world art into 496 pages is daring enough. Bell does it without a sweeping historical narrative which few would believe any longer, or a rigid theoretical system, which no one could apply.
A spontaneous kind of order emerges nevertheless. Bell is a painter and one of the best art writers around. He knows how to look and what it is painters and sculptors do. He points us to the big picture with close shots, not tiring pans. Though he has read hugely, he does not brag of it. He is pithy but rarely glib.
Bell offers a steady reminder that art has to be made. He is particularly strong on working processes, be it Duccio’s ‘pot of watered raw umber’ for sculptural shadows, the ‘exultant fury’ of Pisano’s chisel, Dürer’s ‘graceful’ and ‘almost dandyish’ hatching, Rembrandt’s restless reworking of his prints or Velázquez’s ‘shorthand brushwork’.
Bell can also catch in a phrase an artist’s characteristic alignment of form and feeling, as when he describes admiringly Ingres’s ‘tight-woven, full-on, ferociously controlled’ portraits.
He brings in social context not by means of suffocating general schemes, but by pointers here and there: photography and the rediscovery of Vermeer, the impact that the ending of dynastic patronage early in the twentieth century had on Islamic and Chinese art.
Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Collection Nicolas and Jeanne Greenberg
He has an eye for intriguing detail. Had you noticed the missing chandeliers in Las Meninas (above), sold off, Bell tells us, because the Spanish crown was again bankrupt? The glistening moon and stars in Elsheimer’s tiny Flight into Egypt look as crisp as through a telescope. Bell suggests he may indeed have used one of Galileo’s.
At the outset, Bell voices anxiety that his survey will be like ‘bulldozing a highway through the homes of the imagination’. He need not have worried. If there is a complaint, it is that his historical mapping is not imposing enough. But even that may be thought of as a fault of the book’s virtues.
Bell’s grandfather, Clive Bell, was a Bloomsbury painter-writer. His father, Quentin Bell, taught history of art. Bell himself writes in the same humane and sceptical tradition.
Any new history of art for the general reader faces a testing comparison: the late Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art. First published in 1950, now in its sixteenth edition and with seven million copies sold, it remains the gold standard in a world of floating currencies.
Three things made Gombrich’s task simpler than it could be nowadays, even for a scholar of his gifts. The historical story he had to tell, at least from classical Greece to the French Revolution, was familiar and coherent. Particularly from the Renaissance onward, he had an explanation for stylistic change, as artists worked by trial and error toward the unbiased rendition of appearances, then lost confidence in the project and entered the twentieth century unsure what, if anything, might take its place.
Lastly, Gombrich was able to confine the core of his story to European art. Only three of his original 27 chapters dealt with non-Western art, all before the year 1300. History now looks less tidy. We are ill at ease with overarching stories of stylistic change, and inevitably we see modern art as less of a piece. The art world, moreover, truly encompasses world art.
For good or ill, Mirror of the World reflects these changes. On the one hand, Bell’s historical story is more fluid. On the other, fewer than half of his 57 sections are exclusively Western and he writes more sympathetically of contemporary art. A fair conclusion is that, without replacing it, Bell complements Gombrich’s book.
A final difference is that Gombrich could get away with his urbane opening sentence, ‘There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists’, because of shared assumptions about what art was. Bell writes in a world where students are taught that art can be anything at all – a mongrel set of incommensurable practices or an imprisoning Western construct. His book is a refreshing an tidote to such halfanswers and evasions. No, Bell’s enthusiastic eye reminds us: art is this, this and this. Look at it first and argue about its character later.
Mirror of the World: A New History of Art by Julian Bell (Thames & Hudson, £24.95).