Saturday, March 10, 2007

Book Review : Hang-Ups : Essays on Painting (Mostly) by Simon Schama (BBC Books 2004)

There must have been a point in Simon Schama's life when he stopped being a good writer and became a great one. His voice is now so familiar, his vision of Art so personal with that characteristic touch of informality which is necessary to prick the pomposity of the art critic's puff. Yet it was not always so. In this collection of essays from throughout Schama's writing career, one notices that, whilst the early writing is good, his voice has developed with growing fame and confidence.

Schama writes passionately, and his tastes are diverse. He seems equally at home speaking of the Masters of the Dutch Golden period or of modern abstract artists. But some stand out. His lecture at the New York Metropolitan Museum 0f Art in 1999 demonstrates a deep love of Keifer and Schama's unfailing ability to bring difficult, complex art to life.

Keifer can be a difficult artist for the layman to penetrate - his constant re-explorations of his roots, his Germanness and his relationship to German soil and forests and history. Schama acknowledges this. "For Keifer, the Holzweg is, as it is often understood in vernacular German, a dead-end, and instead of the slaughter being aesthetically euphemized in truncated trees and the inevitable raven, the dead-end is defiled by drops of blood dripped onto the begrimed snow". However, in rebutting a fellow critic who refers Keifer's "humour", Schama notes that "I don't exactly see him as the stand-up comedian of late 20th century art, a Teutonic Seinfeld."

This is the essence of Schama, his ability to puncture the pretentiousness that surrounds the Art world whilst simultaneously respecting and writing lucidly and vibrantly on it. He can penetrate the seriousness with which art tries to respond to the society around it, comprehend and summarise it, throw in the most perfectly balanced phrase - "the dead-end is defiled by drops of blood dripped onto the begrimed snow" is close to perfection - then puncture the seriousness by a reference to a "Teutonic Seinfeld."

It is difficult to summarise this diverse collection of journalism and lectures, there is no unifying theme, except to note that Schama's enthusiasm for fine art shines through consistently. There are no negative pieces included until the final article - a review of the 1492 exhibition in Washington. This commemoration of the discovery of America by Columbus manages to do so with only one exhibit out of 569 directly relating to the explorer - the rest cover 1492 in a multitude of cultures throughout the world, but excluding all unpleasantness such as the expulsion of the Moors from Spain which happened in the same year. Schama deplores this pusillanimous revisionism, a year cast adrift from its cultural moorings in a desperate desire to be all things to all men whilst offending no-one.

It is all that Schama is not - vague, generalist, unopinionated. For, as he is primarily a historian, Schama has rooted his art criticism directly into the culture of the painter. His vision is almost that of a gifted amateur, enthusiastic but learned of the context. And with that one great advantage - he can write.

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