I got this one as a gift from Tasha/heidenkind whose lovely book blog is always worth a visit– thank you very much for your generosity!
It is a series of six rather short but very original essays about some of the most well-known paintings of the Western Art. Mr. Arasse shows what it is to enter into the complexity of a work, inspect the nooks and crannies, and reject conventional wisdom while interpreting what you see in a quite new way. Overall I appreciated the fact that the author’s approach was so fresh but sometimes I felt he got too carried away by his own erudition and truly Gallic garrulousness. Oh yes, I know: he is French and he has the gift of the gab but still there have to be some limits. For your readers’ sake.
Anyway let me analyze each essay separately; I promise to be concise.
Cara Giuila (based on Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan painted by Jacoppo Tintoretto)
One of my favourites. In a fictional letter to a colleague and a friend from Italy the author takes a painting and turns it inside out. His suggestions and conclusions left me with my jaw dropping very low indeed – I wouldn’t have managed to spot half of these details and draw such creative conclusions on my own. A great analysis!
The Snail’s Gaze (based on The Annunciation painted by Francesco del Cossa)
A great text as well, this time in a form of a dialogue with the reader (a monologue in fact but strongly suggesting an interlocutor) which focuses not on the Virgin Mary or the angel telling her that she will be the blessed mother of the Messiah but on an ordinary snail. Very French, n’est-ce pas? Even if it was painted by an Italian ;p.
The analysis did made some fantastic points (like observing the similarity between the shape of the gastropod in the painting and the shape of the God Almighty hovering in the distance – ha!) but some parts of it were really too verbose.
Paint It Black (based on The Adoration of the Magi by Peter Breugel the Elder)
I loved it. One of the better analyses of that particular painting I’ve had an opportunity to read/hear. Finally somebody dared comment on the fact that the kneeling magician/king is firmly looking at Baby Jesus’s crotch. It was all explained and examples were provided showing that strange fixation can be observed (but rarely commented) in many other old paintings too. Finally somebody paid attention to the handsome, black king/magician offering the most gorgeous gift to the Child. Well done!
Mary Magdalene’s Fleece
There was no concrete painting to anchor Mr. Arasse and believe me, the man needs anchoring badly. Anyway the result was disastrous. If I was forced to tell you what that essay was about I would say it was, roughly, about hair – pubic hair, body hair and your head’s mane as well. Or rather not yours but Mary Magdalene’s, as depicted by many painters. Well maybe yours too, after a fashion. My biggest carping? The narration and reasoning was waffly, torturous, neither here nor there. If I was the editor of that book I would ask the author to rewrite it or I would throw it out.
The Woman in the Chest (based on Venus of Urbino painted by Titian)
An essay in a form of a discussion between two friends. One of them claims the painting of Venus is a kind of very expensive and personal pinup, ordered by a rich Gonzaga prince for his bedroom. The other claims roughly the same but does everything in his intellectual power to make it sound differently. Heavens forbid they agree at all!
I got bored in the middle of their discussion although they did make several great points. The description of the chest in the background was fantastic, some remarks concerning the composition of the painting (as compared to the famous Olympia by Edouard Manet) were more than pertinent but they somehow got lost in the middle of waffling and endless quarreling. Not impressed. Oh well.
The Eye of the Master (based on Las Meninas painted by Velasquez)
Perhaps I indeed heard/read too much about this particular painting. The result was such that nothing impressed me in this essay, not even a bit. The author constantly quoted different sources, especially Foucault, and his garrulousness once again made itself keenly felt. Well, if Foucault has already said all important things about this paintings then why write another essay at all?
Apart from that I had a distinct impression that Mr. Arasse had too many ideas in his head and couldn’t/didn’t want to set them in proper order. I waded through his ramblings but only with real difficulty. Las Meninas is of course one great piece of art but this essay was not.
An interesting book full of great ideas but written in a style not especially easy to follow. I would recommend it only to very motivated readers – preferably those who already have some basic knowledge about the artists and paintings Mr. Arasse is writing about. Fortunately, as it is divided into separate essays, you can skip less interesting parts. Still the cover art on the dust jacket is lovely – that snail! I love gastropods!