Looking for ‘Life Itself’

National Gallery, London
Georges Seurat: Bathers at Asnières, 1884

Richard Dorment studied art history at Princeton in the 1960s, becoming a specialist in late-nineteenth-century British art. Curatorial work in this field later took him to London. In 1986 he was hired as art critic for that city’s Daily Telegraph, a post from which he retired in 2015. He has now published 115 of the exhibition reviews he delivered each week in a 528-page collection he punningly entitles Exhibitionist. Keeping up the banter, Dorment explains that he only chose those pieces that would make him look good. This objective is achieved. His compact essays—on everything from Aztec art to Matthew Barney, by way of Edward Burne-Jones and Joan Miró—are kumquat-sharp and stimulating. Cumulatively, they provide a master class in clear and informative criticism.

Art writing is a triangle. You must attend to what someone else has made, along with the intentions and circumstances that have informed the making. You must attend to your own aesthetic conscience. And you must attend to readers who may know nothing about either you or the work. Newspaper journalism naturally foregrounds the third of these demands. Dorment speaks for every hired writer’s dread as he begins a review by invoking On Kawara’s “more than 2,000 ‘date paintings,’ monochromatic rectangular canvases on which the only image is the date on which the work was made. At this point, I can almost hear the soft swish of thousands of pages of this newspaper being turned.” Fear of the browser’s twitching fingers makes the critic into a Scheherazade, reaching for any verbal wile to stave off execution. In this case, he disarmingly invites the reader to experience an alternate anxiety: “If you will bear with me, I shall do my best to explain why Kawara is one of the most unsettling artists working anywhere in the world today.”

“Bear with me”: to connect unseen readers to works unseen by those readers, the writer must put forward some face of his own. In one opening line, Dorment urbanely invites readers to share his literary interests, introducing John Singer Sargent by way of a passage from Henry James; in another, he clowns: “It finally happened. The thing I dreaded. Walking through an exhibition [of Egyptian sculpture] at the Grand Palais in Paris last week, I was seized with an irresistible desire to kiss a work of art.” His most arresting entrances are made sword in hand:

No, no, no. The Tate Gallery has got it all wrong. In its hugely enjoyable new exhibition, The Swagger Portrait, the Tate misses the whole point of the Swagger.

Have your cake and eat it, hate your show and love it: How can this mischievous gambit fail to hook readers? The three pages that follow reward them with a jaunty account of how lush oils and flash brushwork were put to the service…

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