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Customer Review

TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 September 2012
This is a BBC book, but if there was a programme associated with it I missed it. In any case it is mostly essays about various exhibitions held in the late 90s up to around 2004. Most of these were Metropolitan or abroad so I suppose I wasn't alone. Prof. Schama begins with anecdotes about his lunchtimes at the Courtauld. "Art," he says, "Begins with resistance to loss." I wondered how true that is. Didn't the cave men draw their animals partly to record their existence? Theirs and the animals, I would think. Perhaps with a belief that drawing them would make them appear again? Art, I am inclined to think, was more a matter of hunger, mixed with magic, perhaps, more art must have given the power of reflection. On the next page Mr Schama puzzles me again with a claim that art replaces seen reality rather than reproduces it. I'm not sure that makes any more sense than his first claim. I tend to the idea that we re-live what we have seen, through the beauty and power of thought and memory. It tends to be the simpler explanation (Occam's Razor) that provides the most likely answer. The notion of having to replace anything is redundant. I should pass on quickly because no one wants to read a refutation of something they haven't read themselves. I forgave Schama everything when he introduced me to Michiel Sweerts, a Dutch painter I had never heard of before.

Sweerts (who lived in Delft) worked as a painter in Rome before coming back to prepare for an evangelical mission to China. He and his companions were following the teachings of the austere Vincent St Paul. He proved to be a great trial for his companions because he could not stop talking and somewhere between Isfahan and Tabriz in the summer of 1662 there was a parting of the ways. Sweerts journeyed on to Goa and in 1664 he died there.

What remained of his work was technically superior to almost anything of that period - he could do anything - chiascuro like Caravaggio, dignified human monuments such as those turned out by Velazquez, Van Dyke's Stuart princes, a plague scene like Poussin. The rule since the Renaissance was, learn from the masters and Sweerts was equal to all. But by then all the northern Europeans were considered inferior to the Italians. Sweerts went his own way, like others he invested the commonplace with the dignity of the classical, like Caravaggio and Velasquez in their turn. You can google Sweerts if you're interested - his series of seven paintings (called the seven acts of mercy) are well worth seeing. His self portrait shows a good looking man with a slightly teasing smile. Some of his paintings go against the hierarchies in a sense - for instance - a well-heeled couple's encounter with a group of shepherds; solid, dirty, hairy men, unimpressed by their visitors. The wife stares out at the viewer, implicating us in her discomfort. Most of these paintings engage with the rather more fleshly reality behind the Arcadian fantasy - all to their credit I feel.

Elsewhere in this collection there is plenty of bland British hubris and some baked buttock of British Beef too.
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