Show me that again and I'll scream

The fight to rescue iconic art from chronic overexposure

By

Michelangelo's "David."

Van Gogh's "Sunflowers."

Munch's "The Scream."

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Leonardo's "Mona Lisa."

What makes works of art like these into universally popular icons? And what happens to them when ubiquity and familiarity – pushed to extremes by endless reproduction and unstoppable commercial exploitation – breed not so much contempt as simple numbness?

Such works are known to millions. And though millions can't resist going to look at them in the original, particularly as part of a vacation package, these works have become almost impossible to see and feel afresh. You might say they have become so public that the private intimacy and one-to-one contemplation that art demands have been lost.

"The Private Life of a Masterpiece," by Monica Bohm-Duchen, endeavors with some success to provide fresh insight into eight such iconic works – though why they have become iconic remains as unexplained as ever. (The other four she looks at are "The Third of May 1808," by Goya; "Olympia," by Manet; "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," by Picasso; and Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm.")

This lucid book is primarily for the lay reader, and, mercifully, is largely free of art-history jargon. Her essays are always thought-provoking and informative. They amount to "biographies" of each work.

She looks directly at them, but, using a wealth of background material, looks even more thoroughly at their hidden or forgotten "life" – their historical and geographical context, the cultural climate that fostered them, and the character of the artists who gave them birth. All this is really just the regular stuff of art history.

Less usual, perhaps, is her interest in the details of their iconhood, their "after-life" as the works turn into popular myths. A prime indication of such status is caricature in the press. An image has to have already achieved extraordinary fame (or notoriety) before it can be effectively caricatured. Such caricature is a kind of recognition that the work in question is a potent challenge to aesthetic conventions.

And there are other intriguing surprises here. One might logically expect, for example, that works of such acknowledged originality would be widely imitated. But Bohm-Duchen points out that they tend "to exert an aura inimical to would-be imitators" and that "their influence has for the most part been both more oblique and more pervasive."

The "all-over" paintings of 20th-century American artist Jackson Pollock did not spawn a host of look-alikes. "Autumn Rhythm" is one of his more famous paintings (though Pollock seems unlikely to have found the concept "masterpiece" appropriate to the nature of his work).

Instead of exercising stylistic influence, what Pollock did, according to Willem de Kooning, was "destroy painting" – though to constructive effect. De Kooning said, "Cézanne did it. Picasso did it. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell." While the Pollock "myth" concentrates on his (determinedly American) persona and the most obvious aspects of his "drip" technique, to other artists he was principally a groundbreaker.

Picasso also attained mythical status, which he scarcely discouraged. Though several paintings he produced over his long career have qualified as icons ("Guernica" is another), "Les Demoiselles" is an inarguable choice. Yet, like other works in this book, it is ultimately both inexplicable and enigmatic.

In fact, these selections suggest that enigma might be a trait of iconic works of art. Mystery brings on mystique. And once again, the direct influence of this work on subsequent art is highly debatable. Bohm-Duchen quotes Picasso's biographer John Richardson: "Demoiselles is ... the most innovative painting since Giotto."

Its innovation did not, however, send shock waves through the known universe for the simple reason that it was seen for many years almost exclusively by Picasso's intimate friends (to their initial disbelief and dismay). And between 1907, when he finished it – or abandoned it as unfinishable – and 1939, it was exhibited in public only once or, possibly, twice. Nor was it reproduced much. Yet it was considered, according to Bohm-Duchen, "the major milestone of modern art." In this case, then, popularity had nothing to do with iconhood.

Bohm-Duchen also agrees with a point only a few others have made. "Demoiselles" has often been described as the first appearance of cubism. Cubism followed soon after it, certainly, and was the invention/discovery of Picasso and Braque. But, Bohm-Duchen notes, none of cubism's basic characteristics can be found in "Demoiselles." If it opened the way to cubism, it was not in terms of style.

The notion that a "masterpiece" is somehow a consummation, an end point, is exploded by these iconic works. With the possible exception of the Mona Lisa, they are all much more like "works in progress" than culminations. David, carved early in Michelangelo's career, is undoubtedly an icon and a masterpiece. But, like other works chosen for this book, it is not an end but a beginning. It is blastoff, not touchdown.

• Christopher Andreae writes for the Monitor from Glasgow, Scotland.

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