Julian Bell is a painter and writer. His painting sequence Genesis is published in book form this October.

 (October 2015)

England’s Great Neglected Artist

A ‘tail-piece’ by Thomas Bewick, from his History of British Birds, 1797
“Thomas Bewick is an inventor, and the first wood-cutter in the world!” John James Audubon, the great recorder of America’s birds, saluted his equivalent in Britain in these terms in his journal at the end of a visit to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1827. In other words, Bewick was not …

‘There, This Is Life’

“I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.” The demur comes from Philippe de Montebello, who, having served as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an unparalleled thirty-one years before his retirement in 2008, must by any reckoning be one of the most eminent figures in the art world.

Taking a Wrench to Reality

Georges Braque: Trees at L’Estaque, summer 1908
In his artistic researches, Cézanne had been intent to paw at the boundary between his personal visual sensations and the “Nature” (or “the real world,” as we might now say) that he could walk through and handle and inhabit. I can go beyond that, Braque seems to claim. I can take a wrench to reality. Look, my brush lays hold on the angled planes of the object world, its facets; look, it locates the edges on which Nature must turn; see me unfasten the presented scene, open it up, seize it by a firm and encompassing grip.

The Mystery of the Great Piero

Piero della Francesca: Saint Jerome and a Supplicant, circa 1460–1464
Scholarly spats are the salt of art history, lending it savor. The pettier, one may feel, the more piquant. Readers of these pages will have enjoyed the recent review by Sanford Schwartz of a little exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters.” The show brought together five …

The Great & Singular Vallotton

Félix Vallotton: Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty, 1885
Félix Vallotton is best known for the pungent wit of the woodcuts he executed in Paris in the 1890s—images that often appear in these pages. Later, he gained a certain notoriety for the tart and confrontational canvases he exhibited in that city’s annual Salons. Born in Lausanne, he died in …

A ‘Treacherous’ Art Scene?

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin: Saying Grace, 1740
You pause for a moment in the fifth-floor lobby. There through the plate glass the Hudson River glitters, framed by converted warehouses, the traffic on the West Side Highway, and, on the far shore, New Jersey in hazy silhouette. Transported, your mind floats free of the business that brought you …

The Angel of the Bizarre

Henry Fuseli: The Nightmare, 1790–1791
“Dark Romanticism: From Goya to Max Ernst,” a survey first conceived and mounted by the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, has been retitled “The Angel of the Odd” by the curators of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it runs until June 9. Ambitious and forceful, the exhibition plunges you in …

The Dreamers

William Holman Hunt: A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids, 1849–1850
Two missionaries are fleeing a murderous mob. A Druid priest whips up the frenzy, for we are in ancient, heathen Britain, a land of megaliths and human sacrifice. Racing across the greensward, the natives are just catching up with one chasuble-clad Christian, but the other—and here we enter the picture …

‘Brimming with Sheer Cheek’

Damien Hirst: In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991. As Julian Bell writes, ‘On a central table, the butterflies have been supplied with bowls of orange and pineapple chunks steeped in sugar, and the mixture’s fermentation accounts for their languor.’
One reason to visit the Damien Hirst retrospective at London’s Tate Modern is to meet the drunken butterflies. They are in a two-room installation entitled In and Out of Love. In its first room you see a few dead butterflies randomly stuck onto a group of big canvases that have been gloss-painted yellow, purple, pink, and so on, like a jumble of xylophone keys. Then you pass through PVC curtains into a bright and humid gallery where dozens of live specimens, of tropical origin, woozily waft through the air. Their dark silhouettes, passing you by, flash iridescent blues, vermilions, and lime-greens.

Some Like It Hot

Violet Trefusis on her wedding day, June 16, 1919
Libraries were lending out their copies of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians ever less frequently before Michael Holroyd brought out his groundbreakingly indiscreet biography of the Bloomsbury writer in the late 1960s. By 1974, when the first of Holroyd’s two volumes on the life of Augustus John appeared, canvases by this …

The Mysterious Women of Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer: The Music Lesson, circa 1662–1663
The Louvre has lent one of the most revered of seventeenth-century oil paintings, The Lacemaker of Johannes Vermeer, to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, one of England’s most distinguished museums; and the Fitzwilliam has organized an exhibition around the loan, presented under the title “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence.” The thirty-two …

Manet: ‘Sudden Sensuous Dazzle’

Édouard Manet: L’Amazone, circa 1882
Outside Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, lines are currently shuffling under tall billboards that reproduce, some eight times life-size, L’Amazone by Édouard Manet. An amazone is a horsewoman, and by extension the tight-fitting black riding habit she would wear in the nineteenth century, matched by a black silk top hat. Thomas Couture, Manet’s teacher, noted how this “pretty costume…chastely delineates the forms of the upper body,” and Manet’s image dramatizes the tug of interests implied in his words.

Dreams from Underground

‘The Venus and the Sorcerer,’ a Paleolithic painting from the Chauvet Cave in southern France that ‘tantalizes’ Werner Herzog in his documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. ‘It shows the forequarters of a bison surmounting a woman’s sex,’ Julian Bell explains. ‘That is the lone glimpse of the human figure that Chauvet offers him.’
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a new documentary by Werner Herzog, is a striking work of art, framing another that is wholly extraordinary. In 1994 three experienced French speleologists, exploring the limestone gorges of the river Ardèche, crawled their way into a large cave system in which Paleolithic imagery swung into …

The Fantastical Neoclassical

Jean-Honoré Fragonard: The High Priest Coresus Sacrificing Himself to Save Callirrhoe, 10.1 x 13.1 feet, 1765
The Comte d’Angiviller, Louis XVI’s fine arts supremo, knew his man when in 1775 he picked the painter Joseph-Marie Vien to head the Académie Royale’s program in Rome. It was time to reimpose some control on the headstrong young Frenchmen studying at the Palazzo Mancini, the Académie’s Rome headquarters: and …

‘A Rapturous Spooky Dream’

Richard Hamilton: Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, 1956
“The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.”[^1] The line dates from 1917: it concluded Marcel Duchamp’s riposte to the New York exhibition committee that had turned down Fountain, his submission of a signed urinal. The objection that his alter ego “Mr. Mutt” had …

The Elegant Optimist

Edward Carpenter, 1905
“One fought and battled for hope and grew weary in the struggle,” Bertrand Russell told a fellow No-Conscription activist, Constance Malleson, one autumn night in 1916. Talking into the small hours in the young actress’s London flat, he “prodded home” (as she would later write) a harsh, half-tragic vision of …

Why Art?

At left,  a detail from Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang's painting The Ch'ing Pure Mountain in the Manner of Tung Yüan, 1617; at right, the back of Michelangelo's statueDay, circa 1530. Ben-Ami Scharfstein compares these two images in Art Without Borders.
Here are two books by professors of philosophy—one in Tel Aviv and the other in Christchurch, New Zealand—keen to grapple with the nature of art. Ben-Ami Scharf-stein is a veteran scholar of art and comparative religion: Art Without Borders, published as he turns ninety, surely stands as his aesthetic summation.

The Pleasure of Watteau

Antoine Watteau: The Two Cousins, circa 1716
Antoine’s Alphabet, the new book by the New York art critic Jed Perl, is a set of reflections centered on the painter Antoine Watteau. Some sixty short texts are laid out according to the alphabetical order of their headings. These spell out some themes that anyone familiar with the painter …

Back to Basics

The Craftsman, Richard Sennett’s new book, is a far-roving intellectual adventure. Touching here on the cooking of poulet à la d’Albufera and there on the construction of tunnels, here on Hesiod and there on evolutionary psychology, Sennett’s curiosity races across disparate fields of expertise much as an eclipse might sweep …

The Way to All Flesh

“For me, the paint is the person.”[^1] “I’d like to think that I had in some way caught a scene rather than composed it, so that you never questioned it.” “I could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of me. That would be a …

The Golden Age at Its Best

Abraham Casteleijn, a middle-aged newspaper publisher, holds up his right hand as if he might address us. But the roll of his eyes and his slack-shouldered slouch on the dining chair deprive the gesture of any energy. It resolves into a fond, resigned welcome, inviting us into the urbane muddle …

The Cunning of Francis Bacon

Some 40 percent of a plate has been ripped out of the Atlas-Manuel des maladies de la bouche, a French translation of an 1894 German medical textbook. The torn-away trapezoid shows “Fig. 1”: a heavily retouched photo of lips prised apart by forceps to reveal gums disfigured by an abscess, …

British Art: The Showcase

William Blake liked to read other authors with his pen poised for riposte: but eventually, the occupation of defacing your own library turns absurd. After littering the margins of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses with many a “Villainy!,” an “Infernal Falshood!,” and a “Damn’d Fool!,” Blake swung around to defend himself …