Still Looking: Essays on American Art
by John Updike
Knopf, 222 pp., $40.00
In the history of criticism, novelists and poets who write about exhibitions of painting and sculpture have a distinctive place. Their comments on the visual arts may (or may not) be less well informed than the writings of professional art critics and scholars, but some have been capable of subtle, independent observation that makes us see things freshly. The long tradition of literary art criticism began around the middle of the eighteenth century with Diderot’s reviews of the “Salons” and it splendidly continued with critical essays by Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, Zola and Huysmans, to cite only a few of the most famous names.
The Parisian texts reflect the passionate debates of the Parisian art world, the battles among the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the juries of the Salons, and the “Independents.” After more than two hundred years, Diderot’s pages on Chardin or Hubert Robert remain unsurpassed and the same is true of Baudelaire on Delacroix or Constantin Guys, while in the comments of Proust on Chardin, Valéry on Monet, Gide on Poussin, or Aragon on Matisse we can find original insights into the works of great masters. Horace’s phrase, “Ut pictura poesis“—”as with the painting, so with poetry”—has often been dismissed as an impossibility, yet it remains true that the poetical description of a painting, of its shapes and colors, can aspire to be an echo of the seductive power of the visual arts. The task is a delicate one and it demands from the writer a special openness. Henry James occasionally wrote pieces of art criticism and referred often to art works in his fiction; but he was probably too controlled and fastidious a writer to make his encounters with works of art memorable, and it is hard to disagree with Louis Auchincloss’s judgment in these pages that he was not “in any way a distinguished art critic.”
With John Updike the case is different. The relation between his fiction and his essays on art has a refreshing and masterful casualness. He is surprisingly well informed but avoids the inflated jargon of professional art criticism and its theoretical capriciousness. As with his novels and literary criticism his essays on art give pleasure by the quality of his prose, whether one agrees with a specific judgment or not. In his reviews the novelist gives the impression of a writer who strolls through exhibitions, taking his time, admirably relaxed, absorbing and sometimes challenging the catalog. He then writes down his impressions and observations with a fluency and verbal resourcefulness that few art historians could match. Once an aspiring artist himself, he evidently likes these moments of looking and musing in the galleries. Of all his critical prose—and he has written a great deal on modern fiction as well as other subjects—he seems particularly to enjoy his writings on painting and sculpture. He has collected some of his best essays on art in two volumes with the titles Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking …