By Svetlana Alpers
I had forgotten what a fine writer and observer he was. And in this elegantly printed book, the effect of selecting writing that did not call for illustrations gives one the chance to savor the writing itself. Lawrence Gowing (1918-1991) was a latecomer to the great modern tradition of English artist-critics—John Ruskin, Roger Fry, Adrian Stokes. He came into his own as critic (but also as director of significant academic art departments, gallery head, and curator of major exhibitions) in the 1950s alongside British art writers such as John Berger, David Sylvester, John Russell, and Patrick Heron.
I would turn first to the excerpts on Cézanne, who was at the heart of Gowing’s passion for painting. If you have any acquaintance at all with Cézanne, it is gripping to read these texts on their own. The presence of Cezanne at work painting, which is induced simply by the clarity and drive of the writing, is remarkable. There are long excerpts here from his catalog essays on the late and on the early Cezanne. But for me the latter is the more interesting. Cezanne began with violence: small, dark, turbulent pictures of rape and murder. “In 1872 he turned to objectivity to sublimate both the love of violence and the violence of love,” as Gowing suggests, and “his later engagement in the actual held in check the very real burden of his fantasy.” Or turning it the other way: “As the work of the young Cezanne emerges in its full complexity it becomes more and more difficult to understand that the later painter, the classic formalist, that veritable Johann Sebastian of painting, was the same man.” And then in a remarkable move he goes on to suggest the factor of address to another that was so important in Cezanne’s apparently hermetic art: “Without loss or originality, perhaps with a concentration of it, painting soon after becomes painting to Pissarro, then to Chocquet, to Renoir. A great moment in Cezanne’s art in the 1880s was a watercolour to Hortense [his wife] with a hortensia [hydrangea] beside her on the sheet.”
Following after in this book is a revelatory essay on Renoir. He was admired by all the best painters of his time but—think of his juicy pink nudes—is out of favor now. Renoir was brought up in the image trade. When young he trained as a painter in a porcelain factory, and he admired 18th century artists, most particularly Boucher. He was a painter on Gowing’s account who unlike Cezanne (whom nevertheless he went to paint beside in Provence) never turned his back on anything of his boyhood:
“The parade of self-indulgence is the last quality to recommend itself to the ravaged taste of 90 years later. Renoir is cut off from us . . . by the fact that . . . his work offered no sign of what was to come. But (think of the Luncheon of the Boating Party in the Phillips Collection in Washington) these interactions of real people fulfilling natural drives with well-adjusted enjoyment remain popular masterpieces . . . and the fact that they are not fraught or tragic . . . is far from removing their interest.”
And then there is Matisse. The general essay reprinted here is not his finest, but the one on the Harmony in Red in the Hermitage is superb. Perhaps it is the sense that at his best Gowing is right there beside or perhaps even standing in for the painter as he broods (as Matisse notably did in this case) about his painting. His passing remark that the maidservant at the table in the red room was the mother of his daughter (so the object of what Gowing calls “reminiscent longing”) whom he left when he married gives a torque to the painter’s obsessive engagement with this particular image.
Gowing frankly preferred his art to be figurative, and he was not much taken with American painting. However, included here is his “Paint in America,” a luminous essay on the color white in American art. He locates what is American about American painting in the place itself. He insists (the year is 1958) that “the flourishes of American style travel everywhere, but without the meaning which they derive from the imaginative landscape of a particular community at a particular time.”
Long before our so-called global times the point is strongly and rightly made that the nature and strength of art is not global, but rather local.
And Gowing finds the local in American art in the color white—in the paint strands in Jackson Pollock, but also in the white painted strips of the less well-known Bradley Walker Tomlin (d. 1953) who is to have a much anticipated retrospective in New York this coming fall. He goes on to connect these abstract artists to painted whites in John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West. But more deeply he relates white to the vernacular American style itself—a country that replaces the stone and marble of Europe with painted (often white) wooden clapboard buildings.
This book is an invigorating tonic—if that is not a contradiction in terms. You are reading about 20th century art which is by now historic art—but written by a man who was more contemporary to it than we are and for whom the impact and the insights were immediate to his eyes, minds, finger tips. This makes for the invigoration. The tonic is the sense that the art-making in that recent past was so very good. With that in our minds and eyes we can only hope that it will soon become that once again.
If looking at art still is of interest to you in the midst of the ocean of images in which we live today, this is a book for you.
Svetlana Alpers, an artist, critic and renowned art historian, is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting scholar in the Department of Fine Arts at New York University.