Top critical review
TOO MANY PENISES - AND THAT'S NOT ALL...
28 June 2017
I've counted 16 penises so far. This must be a record, even for Thames and Hudson.
T&H don't allow you the privilege of Amazon's "Look Inside" feature; if they had, I wouldn't have bought the book - which is presumably why they don't allow it...
I thought it might be up my street, because I'm on the side of anyone who talks down the 20th century obsession with abstract art; but I didn't take the trouble to look at the artist-author's web page or to research some of the unknown artists he writes about.
Whilst talking down abstraction, the author talks up another form of modern art which in many ways is far, far worse. It's very hard to make an abstract work offensive, vulgar, shocking, nauseating or repellent; whereas the "figurative" art of the kind the author lauds does so frequently; and the worst example is between pages 176 and 181, where the author deals with one Henry Darger whom he describes as "one of the significant artists of the twentieth century" - which destroyed any credibility the book might have had for me.
So what is this unknown, untrained, primitive "artist" significant for, you may ask ? Well, firstly, for escaping an asylum at 19, secondly, for the tracing of all his works - and thirdly an obsession with extreme cruelty towards children, especially little girls. We are granted an insight into his disturbed mind in the double-page spread on pp 180-181, wherein he depicts, in a nine-foot painting, dozens of children being horrifyingly tortured, mutilated, crucified, disemboweled and butchered... It was intended as an illustration for a 15,000-page narrative on a similar theme he had composed in the previous 23 years following his escape from the asylum, Since he apparently had no literary or artistic ambitions, we must assume he wrote and painted for his own entertainment.
I don't care if his traced works exhibit "astonishing colouristic and compositional gifts"; there must always have been literally thousands of untrained artists throughout the world with equal or better colouristic and compositional gifts (not to mention painting skills) - yet the art establishment chose to "discover" this one, and the author to praise him. How can we not wonder...? In the present climate, the glorification of child abuse of any nature, let alone such extreme examples, so clearly painted for the originator's own purposes rather than as the expression of a true artist, doesn't sit comfortably in this survey.
There are considerations of works by better known (and "proper" painters, including, including Spencer, Nash, Hopper, Vuillard, Bonnard and the likes - and "Three studies for a crucifixion" by Lucien Freud, who is quoted as saying that he painted it "under tremendous hangovers and drink; I sometimes hardly knew what I was doing". And it looks exactly like that. Various other works by (to the vast majority of us) unknown painters are equally hardly recognisable as art.
The book's subtitle, "Figurative painting in the 20th century", is grossly misleading; It's a highly selective (of necessity I suppose) fraction of such painting, and a poor and often a dark, unpleasant one at that. The writing style is decidedly professorial. I was slightly amused to note in one or two places that the author didn't know what he was seeing, "a city panorama... could also be a perfume atomizer" Not so far removed from abstraction, then.
I'm posting this review solely as a caution for those who don't share the author's tastes in art, or who may not like his over-academic language - being aspects which are not apparent from the product page. Apart from the child abuse aspect (which also crops up elsewhere in the book) I have no issue with those who do, and if you admire the artists listed in the blurb, you may find at least some of it of interest.