Anyone who has looked at art or studied it for any length of time is bound to be disappointed when picking up greatest-hits guides in museums or bookshops. Authors tend to favor the works that are on their doorstep and that they grew up seeing. So a French author might choose works in the Louvre, a Florentine author works in the Uffizi Gallery, etc. Even the great Ernst Gombrich, a king among art historians, could not stop himself from focusing on masterpieces from the National Gallery in his classic “The Story of Art.”
So it comes as a pleasant surprise to see the selection put together by Kelly Grovier in her new illustrated coffee-table book, “A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works.” It ticks a lot of the right art-historical boxes, and avoids what is widespread elsewhere: an over-emphasis on Contemporary art. Leafing through it, you get a pretty good overview of the art that matters. You might take exception with a few, but who would argue with Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” Picasso’s “Guernica” or Monet’s “Water Lilies”?
There are only three living artists in the selection of 57: Sean Scully (a surprising but solid choice), Gerhard Richter (for the stunning 1988 painting “Betty,” based on a photograph of his young daughter taken 11 years earlier and that shows her turning away from the viewer), and Marina Abramovic (for her extraordinary threemonth performance at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, where she sat for a total of more than 700 hours gazing silently into the eyes of a succession of visitors).
What about the writing? There are the odd inaccuracies, such as in the text that accompanies the Abramovic image, where the artist is described as sitting in the Met, not MoMA. But beyond that, the book endeavors to figure out what it is that makes a work of art a masterpiece. And Grovier’s answer is: strangeness. She quotes the late art critic Robert Hughes: “It is a characteristic of great painting that no matter how many times it has been cloned, reproduced and postcarded, it can restore itself as an immediate utterance with the force of strangeness when seen in the original.”
Grovier then explains that every masterpiece “invariably possesses an element, detail or quality to which its inexhaustible strangeness can be traced and without which it would cease to reverberate, age after age in perpetuity.” She identifies an “eye-hook” in each work that makes it distinctive and special.
In some cases, that detail is obvious: the head in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” for instance, with its gaping mouth and its goggly eyes; or the white-shirted man holding his arms up as he faces an execution squad in Goya’s “The Third of May 1808.” These are details that the viewer’s eye is invariably drawn to.
But then there are others that are hidden clues even to those who have seen the painting hundreds of times, such as the basket of fruit in Caravaggio’s “The Supper at Emmaus” that casts a shadow shaped like the tail of a fish, the symbol of salvation; or the tiny black inkpot in the left foreground in Raphael’s “The School of Athens.”
Grovier has many theories and interpretations for what the artist meant with each work, and some of these are far-fetched, even by her own admission. But her book has the merit of giving art-history enthusiasts fabulous visual flashbacks, and of getting them scrutinizing more deeply and more carefully: telling them where to look. As for those who are only just discovering the marvel that is art, it tells them what to look at.
This story appears in the January edition of Modern Painters magazine.