Art historian paints a big, sloppy canvas

Paul Johnson attempts to survey every artistic expression from the caveman to 2003, but his peculiar tastes limit the scope of this new art history book.

Historian Paul Johnson's "Art: A New History" is nothing if not ambitious. The author sets out to reexamine art - and by "art" he includes all the crafts, architecture, and even garden design - from the caveman to 2003. Inevitably, even in a book of 752 pages of small print, he only partly succeeds.

Some things are covered in remarkable detail, given that this is a generalist survey - Guido Reni, for instance, along with Ilya Repin, the Albert Memorial, and even Walt Disney. Such enthusiasms are conveyed in a compelling rush of readable and engaging prose.

In the latter stages of the book, from the Impressionists on, however, Johnson helps himself to substantial platefuls of deliberate disregard, and not just to keep this massive book within bindable bounds.

Johnson cherishes an animosity toward most modern art that goes back to childhood. And he's inclined to simplistically or cynically dismiss anything he doesn't like, a tendency that often makes him look ridiculous.

For instance, with no supporting argument, he claims that various artists could not draw. Renoir, Cezanne, Munch, and Bacon are just four he tars with that stiff brush.

He describes Renoir's work as displaying "uncertain draughtsmanship," yet the book reproduces Renoir's "Boating Party Lunch," which is drawn with a brush of exquisite sensitivity and with an accurate delicacy of touch that Watteau or Boucher might have envied.

If, as Johnson avers, Cezanne is little more than a manually incompetent theoretician (not to mention "an enthusiastic but unskilled practitioner" of watercolor!) then why, as the writer admits, has his work been so admired and studied by later artists? These artists, incidentally, included the sculptor Henry Moore, who is one of Johnson's rare 20th century heroes.

Such spiky expressions of personal distaste are a poor justification for the vigorous assertions and provocations favored by this reputable historian who also has a fondness for hyperbole. That practice leads him into a slap-dashery that in turn leads the reader to start questioning the accuracy of his writing on any art or artist, old or new.

This problem accumulates as the book progresses and numerous little assertions of fact are noticeably inaccurate: Maurice Denis was never a "cubist." Carl Larssen was not "a well-known illustrator of children's books."

Johnson also eagerly espouses or challenges various popular myths ("old" art history), but needs documentary support to be convincing, even if his claims are true. Van Gogh sold many more than one picture? He cut off his whole ear? How does Johnson know what caused Goya's deafness? How does he know what the rest of the world doesn't?

And this situation is exacerbated by a major publishing faux pas: the decision to omit bibliography and source notes. Johnson himself so strongly and understandably regrets this exclusion that he mentions it apologetically in his preface.

On the other hand, the author has gathered in this tome a vast swath of art appreciation. He frequently makes one look at familiarities with fresh eyes and new inspiration. Cave art is one striking example.

He also brings to vivid notice aspects of the world art that are still too little studied or completely ignored. He writes wonderfully about Chinese pottery and fascinatingly about African art.

If he is unfair to many artists, he reinstates others who have not deserved obscurity. He is not always completely "new" in this - art historians have in recent years given far more attention to the "whole picture" of a period, and not just to its heroes. But there is no doubting the extensiveness of Johnson's research. He sometimes makes cross-references that could only be made by a writer painting such a large canvas as he is. One example that gives pause for thought is the wild suggestion that there might (or might not) have been a link between Turner and Hokusai.

The book is a gigantic undertaking. It might have been better in several volumes, though. And the credibility of his effort is undermined when he cannot be bothered to seriously analyze the work of artists he considers overrated or too popular.

Also, he belabors his dislike of labels. Few art lovers like them. But, even when they were originally insults - like "Gothic" and "Impressionist" - it doesn't take long for the labels themselves, once attached, to have their meaning changed and taken over by the positive character of the period, style or group.

Johnson himself uses countless labels, even inventing more than a few (some ironical, no doubt). His silliest is to replace "modern art" with "fashion art." It's probably not a label with much glue, whatever its debatable truth.

Christopher Andreae writes about the arts for the Monitor from Glasgow, Scotland.

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