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In the Madding Crowd

Startling, acutely analytical often bordering on inanity or crystalizing as profound, the volume Writers on Artists demonstrates that the possibilities for discussing art are as idiosyncratic as the writers and artists themselves. Anyone interested in understanding the levels of ‘madness’ that fuel artistic endeavours should seek out this brilliant collection. Featuring fifty great artists of the 20th century and challenging new talent of the 21st, this penetrating anthology has been authored by some of the world’s leading novelists, poets, critics and artists.

Compiled in collaboration with DK Publishing, Writers on Artists comprises selected articles from Modern Painters, an art magazine founded by the late writer and critic Peter Fuller. Termed ‘the Ruskin of his time,’ by art writer Sister Wendy Beckett, Fuller argued for the importance of spiritual values in art, claiming that a materialistic approach was an impediment to perception. This pertinent observation gains deeper and wider meaning as one gradually sinks into the hardback.

Initially it is the stunning visuals that hit the eye and compel instant page flips. Some iconic images of paintings, installations and objects liberally mixed with rarely published pictures jog the senses and prompt spot reads of excerpts in bold texts. Quotations by the artist within the essays provoke deliberation; quotations by other critics in the side panels provide opposing points of view.If these extracts and the artist and writer photographs and biographies in the sidebars are meant to draw in the reader then the DK book designers have been successful. Surprisingly the main textual read is where the slow haul begins.Each piece is extraordinary and needs to be assimilated within its own context. As singular writings each article is also a testament to the many meanings one can attribute to creativity.  Nobly upheld to being just plain murdered the creative impulse skedaddles in several directions. Art lover and musician David Bowie’s interview of bad-girl British sensation Tracey Emin, Hockney’s insightful journey through Picasso’s oeuvre, Richard Wollheim’s unraveling of David Hockney and pop artist Bridget Riley’s commentary on Mondrians early landscapes and figurative works, Patrick Heron’s analysis of Cezanne’s spatial awareness and A S Byatt’s descriptions of Patrick Herons abstractedly chaotic portraits are some of the many tangential swings that rock this book. Each piece is a revelation of both the artist and writer and in the cases of Hockney, Riley and Heron, indirectly of the art of the writer as well of the artist discussed.

Driven by inner compulsions, inflated egos or heightened vulnerabilityit are the incorrigibles like Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin who really stretch the definition of creativity to the edge. Is there sarcasm in Duchamps’ remark, “I thought to discourage aesthetics…I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.”In the Jeff Koons article by Matthew Collins the king of kitsch expounds, “I am making some of the greatest art being made now. It’ll take the art world around ten years to get around to it.”Consider Damien Hirst’s outlook,”It’s ridiculous what I do. I can’t believe it – but I have to,”and Tracy Emin’s admission“I had to come to terms with my failure as an artist … I had to find a way for myself.”Fortunately, such eccentric declarations are well rationalized by some authors. Never shy from moralizing, Sister Wendy Beckett examining Dali’s fantasies in her article writes,“It is obvious that he is a deeply disturbed man and that these disturbances are visible in his paintings… the same is true of Van Gogh, but with what a difference! Van Gogh reaches past his unbalance, incorporating it into his vision. He is communicating through his panics and delusions, passionately urging them into some sort of order. The brushstrokes leap and shudder, the shapes of tree, earth and cloud swing with emotion. We are awed by Van Gogh’s courage, his persistence, his seriousness. …With Dali there seems to be no fight at all.”

Germaine Greer’s piece on Paula Rego’s art is a must read – both exude strength, one through her writings and the other through her work. Greer espouses“Women’s paintings are rarely powerful, for the culture of the west has no representational language to express the power of femaleness. Paula Rego is a painter of astonishing power, and that power is undeniably, obviously, triumphantly female. Her work is the first evidence that I have seen that something fundamental has changed: the carapace has cracked and something living, hot and heavy is welling through. The process in Rego’s work is so dramatic that one holds one’s breath for fear that some cataclysm will prevent its full development.”

By no means a textbook the volume nonetheless spits up surprising bits of information that fortify the reading experience. Hockney tells us that a complete set of Zervos, 32 volumes, a unique document covering about 75 years of Picasso’s art, is a mind blowing experience. Documentary filmmaker Ian MacMillan’s confession about film director Harmony Korine“I realize right now the problem with writing about you, Harmony Korine, is that words cannot convey what it is you do with images”is another revelation but on a different plane altogether.

Outrageous, informal, scholarly or humane it is the unexpected slants on established artists that really revs up Writers on Artists and the credit goes mainly to the authors – all of them are genuinely interested in the subject they are writing on –  and adding power to the punch is that the book teams strong selection instincts. Editor Karen Wright’s confession that “the task of selection (of articles) has been difficult, even painful”reveals how closely the quality, content and temperament of Writers on Artists has been monitored.

Salwat Ali is an eminent researcher and art critic.

 

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