bookreview_breakfastatsothebys

Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A – Z of the Art World

Philip Hook had me at ‘Artists live differently from ordinary people’ – the thirteenth line of the first chapter of his sharp, fast-paced tome on art – Breakfast at Sotheby’s (Penguin Books; 2014). Artists love being expelled from the tidy little settlements of ordinary people. They love being banished. They take their pariah-like existences with extra satisfied sips of water. Or tea. Or alcohol. The myth of the artist is the greatest of all myths – to the artists. They feed on it, and feed it to the young who are foolish enough to stumble into their valleys of colourful doom and get ensnared by all that difference. And Philip Hook gloriously indulges the artist who’s reading Breakfast at Sotheby’s by giving him copious amounts of the sense of how different and unlike other people he and all his kind really are.

Actually, Hook had me at the Introduction to his book. The director and senior paintings specialist at Sotheby’s lays his cards flat on the table. He lets you know straight away that Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A – Z of the Art World is a look at the process through which art is given a financial value. Of course, what you don’t discover until you move beyond the Introduction is just how entertaining (and educational) that look at the process is. The Introduction presents art almost as a country with its own jurisdiction, administration, economy and climate (which art, in many ways, is). And Hook’s delightful candour finds its way into that too. ‘I have had close encounters with a large number of great works of art (and a large number of less good ones, too, which is also salutary,’ he writes, followed by, ‘I have met some extraordinary (and extraordinarily rich) people. This dictionary is an anthology of what I have learned from them.

But it is the ensuing racy and breathless chapter on Bohemianism (capital B, mind you), that actually gets you hooked. It is illustrated with quick, scandalous sketches of some exemplary bohemians, non-bohemians’ vaguely amused observations on bohemians, and a quick run-through of the fascinating history of bohemia – Paris, of course, was the first bohemia, Berlin became one before the first World War, New York turned tastefully degenerate in the 1960’s, and England, well, it ‘competed gamely’, offers Hook, ‘but despite valiant attempts at bohemianism the British ended up playing rather a lot of golf and cricket.’ The clincher to this chapter is a passage on the ever-so-slight ludicrousness of bohemianism, with Hook solemnly observing: ‘Part of your duty as an artist was to shock the bourgeoisie, to position yourself remorselessly against convention. This was all very well up to a point, until you found that the bourgeoisie were actually also your buyers. Then you sold out and joined the Academy. Or you didn’t sell out, and either went mad or died.

The chapter on Bohemianism sets the tone and the pace for the rest of the book. You have a chapter on Creative Block, and how propitious it can be for an artist to suffer such a block prior to creating something. ‘It is part of the romantic baggage of being an artist,’ Hook writes (with a wink, you might imagine), ‘and the public like to hear accounts of it partly because the suffering validates the work of art that does ultimately get produced.’ Then there’s a chapter devoted entirely to Degas who, recluse though he was, had enough personality for half a dozen people and has unsurprisingly, therefore, been the subject of so many colourful accounts through the years. Hook shares a few of the French maestro’s witty and acerbic observations on some of his contemporaries – how he described Gustave Moureau as ‘a hermit who knows the train timetable’ and how the plein-air painters would strike him as ‘impudent humbugs!’ But it isn’t just Degas’ penchant for telling it like he saw it that Hook shares. True to his promise in the foreword, he shares what he thinks it is about Degas’ iconic bronze of The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer that makes it so exquisitely French (and made it fetch $19 million at Sotheby’s, in 2009). It is ‘a bit of a cynical slouch’, ‘the suggestion of the coquette’, and ‘a look simultaneously proud, mercenary, slovenly and knowing’ in the girl’s make-up that points to the innate French-ness of her and her maker, and adds to her worth.

There are chapters on other artists, among them Gericault – a name that I obviously had to stop at, because ever since I laid eyes on The Raft of the Medusa, I have made it a point to obsess about the wild, young Frenchman who painted it, and talk tirelessly about it, and him, to friends and loved ones who don’t love me very much by the time I finish. Breakfast at Sotheby’s may just have appeased that uncouth, rural character in me who simply can’t get over how Gericault shaved his head to paint The Raft of the Medusa and had a mental collapse afterwards. Hook generously shares details about the painter and his magnum opus, also speculating on what it is that makes his output so valuable, besides the most obvious genius behind it and Gericault’s romantically untimely death. It is the fact that his output was limited and so has ‘rarity value’.

The areas covered by this dictionary are wide-ranging and cleverly chosen – areas you did not even know you needed to know about. Divided under the five sections of ‘The Artist and His Hinterland’, ‘Subject and Style’, ‘Wall-Power’, ‘Provenance’, and ‘Market Weather’, these areas (or chapters) cover Fictional Artists (artists as invented by literary giants; the results are hair-raising), Models and Muses, Emotional Impact, Framing, and – another delightful one – Anger and Angst. This one begins – ‘There are two sorts of anger in art, one bad and one good.’ There is also a Glossary – Hook’s redefinitions of words commonly used in writing on art – and if you are an artist, art critic, art student, art teacher or tutor possessing the ability to laugh at yourself, this is for you. Hook explains the word anticipate, for example, thus – ‘anticipate: prefigure, as in “Turner’s colour effects anticipate those of the Impressionists”. A misleading word, in so far as it implies some sort of intention on Turner’s part; as if he realised that there was some sort of better movement coming and he was doing his best to get close to it.’ This was undoubtedly the funniest thing I’ve read in a while and is a fitting example of Hook’s flair for combining art history with well-intended jest.

The only downside, if downside one would call it (I certainly wouldn’t), to Hook’s lively narrative is that you are continuously in danger of forgetting that the book is not a tabloid and is an assessment of art as commerce. But that, too, he prevents from happening by subtly inserting a financial fact or two on a certain artist or painting that is so gregariously having its insides inspected. It is as if you and he are discussing your mutual friends, acquaintances, neighbours, ‘frenemies’, in a style so sunny and chatty, it lives up to the name Breakfast at Sotheby’s.

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