A historian’s writing on art can be doubly enlightening as it can draw a larger, more ambitious loop of historical context around the relatively smaller circle of an art historical context. This is just one of the reasons that make Simon Schama so valuable as an art critic. Schama, who has taught both history and art history extensively at some of the world’s leading institutions and contributed art criticism to publications like The New Yorker, is an English historian with a number of prize-winning books to his name. In 2004, BBC Books compiled some of his most important essays on art in the form of an enriching collection titled Hang-ups: Essays on Painting (mostly).
The eccentric title, though it is a fair reflection of the author’s innovative and entertaining readings of art, belies the seriousness of the book as a study also of the various epochs of art history, the different trends and movements that were crucial to its unfolding, and the contemporary concerns that surround it, such as questions of authorship and connoisseurship. A thrilling essay – Did He Do It? (Rembrandt) – from the first section of the book – Dutch Games – deals, for example, with the gruelling task of distinguishing works painted by Rembrandt from those produced by protégés and aspirants.
Written as a review of Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt, a 1995 exhibition held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the essay explains how the immense popularity of the Dutch master shaped a long and bustling commerce aimed at satisfying the enormous appetite for his work. It examines the techniques that connoisseurs have used to tell originals apart from imitations and also, with examples, the blind-spots that have led to problematic categorisations over the years.
Despite having, as his subject, what must have been a weighty and cumbersome exhibition (on multiple occasions, he refers to the museum’s mistake in presenting the public with too much technical detail), Schama is able to weave an interesting narrative that incorporates memorable descriptions of Rembrandt’s style (‘Rembrandt’s glinting caverns of darkness or one of his canvases covered in clotted ropes of impasto’), his position in the highest echelons of art history (‘Rembrandt has long been Everyman’s Old Master: emotionally direct, universally accessible’), and musings on the curatorial trends in America (‘What makes this show such an unmistakably American event is the cheerful faith that, given the material evidence and a crash course in close attentiveness, it should be possible to create a democracy of connoisseurs’).
His ability to discuss artists side by side with the socio-cultural influences determining their artistic approaches is evident in essays like California Dreamer (David Hockney), from Fresh Marks – the section on artists working in America. He reviews an exhibition of Hockney’s drawings at London’s Royal Academy, succinctly evoking both the work and the milieu that birthed it: ‘When Hockney… arrived at the Royal College of Art, in 1959, the crowd was going seriously Abstract Expressionist, excited by the news from New York. Though by no means immune to the crowd’s spell, Hockney…was from the outset determined to work in a figurative language, however playfully chewed up. Some of the most impressive products of this early gutsiness are the wiry, droll drawings that he scratched and scribbled on dingy paper and that recorded the exuberantly randy pleasures of gay life in the London of the early sixties.’
He describes the drawings more vividly as ‘unapologetically scruffy pleasure marks, full of holes and hickeys, as happy-go-lucky as the lavatory graffiti scribbled through them, and giving off a distinct whiff of tube-station piss.’ The description, though it may elicit some shock from more decorous readers, is illustrative enough to conjure the drawings in the mind’s eye. The fact that images of these drawings or the other artworks surveyed in the essays are not provided is a definite shortcoming, for the reader is forced to halt and look up the works elsewhere, and some of these works (Hockney’s drawings to begin with) are not the ones that commonly represent the artists’ oeuvres.
The care with which Schama recalls a pregnant, cultural pause leading up to a creative epiphany is extended to his retellings of private episodes from artists’ lives. His essay on the embodiment of fin-de-siècle recalcitrance, Egon Schiele, is a powerful piece that has, at its centre, a sense of that mounting hysteria which pervaded late nineteenth-century Viennese society and Schiele’s work. He takes the reader through pre-war Austria – commenting simultaneously on its political and psychological uncertainty – ‘The conflict of classes in major cities like Vienna was threatening to go revolutionary. But the most unsparing campaign of all was being waged within the minds of individuals: an exchange of fire between the shell-shocked trenches occupied by the ego and id.’ More specifically, he guides the reader through Schiele’s dark childhood – beginning with ‘his parents’ contaminated honeymoon’, his rebellious adolescence, and ultimately his most productive years before an untimely death.
Although he can be effusive in his appraisals of their art, Schama is never prone to sentimental sugar-coating of the more unpleasant aspects of the lives of the artists he reviews. For instance, having related an account of Schiele’s stint in prison and the artist’s resentment at having been treated poorly, he wryly concludes that ‘it’s hard to commiserate uncritically with his bewildered outrage that anyone could possibly take offence at his asking thirteen-year-olds to spread their legs for his graphic benefit.’
This worldly-wise, septuagenarian humour makes an otherwise entirely august historian fun and easy to read, while reminding one that nonfiction such as art history is so strewn with incredible events that they need only be presented truthfully and lucidly to continually enthrall readers.