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The Novelist in the Gallery

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: Essays on American Art (2005), the book under review. Still more of his essays on movies, photos, and art are to be found in his copious volume More Matter (1999).

The first essay in Just Looking, a reminiscence of his early visits to the Museum of Modern Art in the Fifties, has some of the qualities of a fairy tale. In “What MoMA Done Tole Me,” he writes, “For me the Museum of Modern Art was a temple where I might refresh my own sense of artistic purpose, though my medium had become words.” The young novelist and critic brings up the traditional question of “ut pictura poesis,” and the hope that there can be stimulating interplay between images and words, between the visual arts and their echo in a poetic language. Looking at the paintings on the walls of museums becomes for him a source of literary inspiration. How, he asks, did artists compose their images of landscapes and figures and charge them with dramatic or symbolic meanings?

For Updike the answers to this question are to be found neither in theory nor in detailed art-historical erudition. Every reader of Updike’s fiction knows that he is a very visual writer, describing with remarkable precision places, rooms, persons, cityscapes, which then have their own part in the stories he tells. With Updike the talents of novelist and essayist become reciprocal in astonishing ways. He is a sensitive perceiver of beauty, the unfashionable word whose use he eloquently justifies in his conclusion to his essay on early visits to MoMA:

These writings are the fruit of just looking, of the pleasures of the eye, which of all our sensory pleasures are the most varied and constant and, for modern man, the most spiritually pliable, the most susceptible to that sublimation called, in pre-modern times, beauty.

Another striking connection between Updike’s novels and his essays on art comes from his being deeply and sometimes mystically rooted in America; his novels—the “Rabbit” series, for instance—have the distinct flavor of regional, even provincial America, and so do many of his essays on art. Updike likes American painting from the days before New York replaced Paris as the center of modern art. He seems deeply fond of that painting’s character, its colors, and its “smell,” even its unsophisticated and occasionally awkward craftsmanship. In his essay on the sublime in American painting we read: “The daily data of American life belong to a raw, evolving present, and not to the circumambient remnants of the past that a European can draw upon when he undertakes a historical landscape in the manner of Poussin or David.” Updike continues: “No, the American Sublime must be taken straight, without even a Hiawatha…to act as guide. America was where Western Man discovered, not for the first time, that what is, is.”

Updike’s visual pleasures are not narrowly restricted to American regionalism. In his first volume of collected essays on art one finds admirable pages on paintings by Vermeer and Antonello da Messina. He is always particularly attracted by quiet paintings in which one senses an intense, reflective attention on the part of the artist to the subject of his work. When he writes on Renoir or Degas—essays one finds in the same volume—he doesn’t seem to be quite at home with them and is even slightly irritated. Among American artists, those who have been deeply affected by the tricks and the elegance of European painting—Whistler or Sargent—are clearly not his favorites. About Sargent he writes:

What, even, did the straw-hatted boatmen and rosy-cheeked midinettes dear to Impressionism mean to him? He came back, with his British accent and the massive embonpoint earned at a thousand dinner parties, to the United States, and to New England, because mural commissions abounded in Boston.

The fashionable glamour and the luxury of Sargent’s canvases arouse a Puritan reserve in Updike and even a moral condemnation. Toward the end of his essay he is full of enthusiasm about Sargent’s uncharacteristic painting of LakeO’Hara from 1916, praising it in words that border on hyperbole: “The unrelieved North American wilderness makes a somber, simple, grandly raw landscape,” and he concludes: “The one thing American about Sargent was the wilderness in his eye.”

Just Looking, Updike’s first collection of essays on art, included very different articles and had a casually eclectic character. The essays in the new volume with the title Still Looking are exclusively on American art. Updike has selected the reprinted articles with more deliberate care so that they form a coherent and well-balanced whole. It is a very personal collection: the homage of a great American writer to the distinctive character—to the specific “local” genius—of American painting. In his introduction he writes: “Editors and their minions are at the mercy of what exhibits happen along, and the coverage is to that extent random. Still, the American vistas surveyed here add up, I would like to think, to a panorama….”

With great charm, but also in a very discreet way, he tells us of his art lessons as a child and how a year spent at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford “enlarged my acquaintance with the practice and appraisal of the fine arts.” There was nothing theoretical about his early interest in the visual arts. They were for him practical and seem to have been naively focused on the “mimesis” of nature. The first painting he saw in his childhood on the walls of his mother’s house was an American landscape, a view of Cape CodDune “vast and intimate in its loneliness.” This painting was signed in 1933 by Alice W. Davis, a painter teaching at the University of Iowa, who left no great name—hardly any name at all—in the annals of art history. But it is a sensitive, quiet representation of a corner of American landscape. It is for him a precious trophy of his earliest artistic reminiscence, and he gently calls it an “old friend from my childhood” and tells us how he is still looking at it and learning from it.

These were the modest and intimate beginnings of his visual interests before he started going to museums and galleries. Acquiring his own perspective on the visual arts seems to have been a long, slow, and continuous process. Walking through exhibitions, he is seldom drawn to novelty, experiment, sensation, or a sense of a performed “event.” “The effort of an art critic,” he writes, “must be, in an era beset by a barrage of visual stimulants, mainly one of appreciation, of letting the works sink in as a painting hung on the wall of one’s home sinks in, never quite done with unfolding all that is in it to see.” His patient viewing of paintings, above all paintings from the time of our parents and grandparents and the generations before them, is for him like an escape, a conscious stepping back from the visual flickering that surrounds our daily life.

The dominating subject of the nineteen essays assembled in Still Looking is America; they show a passionate interest in the American landscape, in the faces and bodies of American men and women as they are reflected in art. This enthusiasm recalls at certain moments the rhapsodies of Walt Whitman, though Updike maintains his own tone of sophisticated elegance and of thoughtful distance. For a European reader, such as the writer of this review, Updike’s convinced yet ever so subtle Americanism is the particular attraction of his essays. “Nature His Only Instructor” is the proud title of the essay on John Singleton Copley, America’s first distinguished portrait painter, which contains some of the most thoughtful and reflective pages in the collection. On Copley’s portraits from his early American time we read:

Like an old-time studio photographer, Copley posed his clients in their best clothes and among props suggesting social aspiration; but, like the camera, he could not lie. The tricks of English glamorization were not in his American nature.

  1. *

    Louis Auchincloss, “The Eye of the Master,” The New York Review, April 9, 1987.

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