Monday, November 8, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Paul Barolsky, A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 147. ISBN 9780271036755. $49.95.

Reviewed by David Cast, Bryn Mawr College

This is, in the words of its author, an experiment, an essay to suggest or flesh out some of the basic patterns in the history of the artist in the Western tradition. We know Deus Artifex, God as Maker, from the appendix in E. R. Curtius' text, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948), which lays out so briefly, yet so magisterially, the history of what he calls the Platonic mythopoeia, known from the Timaeus and from that text in the Middle Ages in writers like Marbod of Rennes, Alan of Lille, Matthew of Vendôme and others. Here, as if in reverse, Barolsky is talking of the Artist as God, beginning with the mythological artist Hephaistos and the many women weavers of Homer: Helen, Andromache, Calypso, Circe and above all Penelope, who, like Scheherazade with her seemingly endless storytelling, bides her time, weaving and unweaving a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes. We end here with Picasso who, in saying to a Spanish friend that he himself was God—"I am God, I am God, I am God" —closed the circle of this history, taking us back to the beginnings of art history when God, the first artist, made all his first artful creations.

This is a rich intellectual journey, made all the richer by the extent and range of writers Barolsky is able to include in his account, Giorgio Vasari, of course and Dante and Boccaccio, but then many of more recent times, Goethe, Balzac, Apollinaire, Marcel Schwob, Jean Richepin, and even Gregory Corso, that beatnik lyricist, as he is called here, who spoke so lightheartedly of the knitted lances in Uccello's battle paintings and the soldiers dying in perspective, alive for eternity and thus never extinguished. Such allusions to so many writers, familiar and unfamiliar, are not, as so often in academic discourse, a resort to authority but a way rather to reveal, in the sympathy with which Barolsky approaches the figures in these sources, the endless richness of this story of the artist, purposefully laid out here, as he says, to stimulate the reader to see other possibilities and to imagine histories of the artist previously unimagined.

But what, beyond this purpose, would be of special interest to readers of this journal? The pages that open, as they must, with Homer, the first poet, speak of all the objects of art in his poem, shields, the walls of Tiryns and direct attention to names not so usually highlighted in Homeric studies—I think of their absence in such older canonical studies by D. L. Page and Maurice Bowra—Phereklos, the goldsmith Laerkes, Ikmalios, who constructed the silver and ivory throne of Penelope, and then Epeios, boxer and carpenter, maker of the Trojan Horse, a masterpiece, as Barolsky puts it, of mimetic art, the ancestor of all the great equestrian monuments. This is very striking. But as rich, perhaps even richer is the chapter following, that has Ovid and the Metamorphoses as its subject, the most wonderful work of literature, as Barolsky says, a poem that is at once a history of the world from its creation out of chaos and a story of desire and of the causes of things, of how indeed the birds, beasts, trees, flowers and rocks came to be. Unlike Homer or Virgil, as he himself makes clear in the first book, Ovid here speaks clearly of artifice, or of the origins of all the arts (handicraft, poetry, painting, weaving and on), making the epic hero not, as always before a soldier, but now an artist and praised as such. Perhaps, as Barolsky suggests in this account, the builders of the marble halls of the gods, so celebrated in the poem were the gods themselves, Vulcan above all. Yet the other architect praised is Daedalos, the master of the great labyrinth, which, in all its ambiguity, is likened by Ovid to the complexity of the poem itself where all the fables and their echoes—as between that of Pygmalion and that of Prometheus—may be seen as like the winding passages of the Meander River as it winds back and forth, even sometimes to return to its source. There is much here in Ovid also about other artists that Barolsky takes full note of: Argus, of Jupiter seen as a beautiful, snow-white bull, or Orpheus and Eurydice and those famous artistic contests, between Apollo and Pan, Apollo and Marsyas, the Pierides and the Muses, Arachne and Minerva, Ulysses and Ajax. And then, to tell the further story of traditions, we come at the end of this chapter to Dante who, if ostensibly guided towards the stars by Virgil, saw himself also under the star of Ovid's epic, as the hero of his own poem and in ways that can be taken to mark the beginning of the modern celebration of the artist as hero.

Such a connection, across the millennium, represents the essential texture of this essay as it moves then beyond Dante to Vasari—there is much here on his account of the mythologies of Michelangelo—and then to Balzac and his story The Unknown Masterpiece where the artist, the deluded, quixotic painter Frenhofer, is now filled with doubt and anxiety, aspiring to an absolute that was ultimately beyond his ability. As was also the rejected painter Claude Lantier—here lurks a reference to Cézanne—in Emile Zola's novel The Masterpiece, who destroyed not only all his works but even his own life. At which point there appears the artist as player, first that of Pierre Grassou, another figure from Balzac, and then from real life, the painter Douanier Rousseau, who, seen now in mock-heroic terms, became at once the butt of jokes and their perpetrator, innocently representing the rulers of Russia and Japan, when peace had been reached, holding hands and naked; this picture, we might not be surprised to hear, was immediately confiscated by the police. So then back to Ovid, for not only did Picasso in 1931 illustrate an edition of the Metamorphoses but also at that moment he produced a sculpture, Woman in the Garden, which is a parody of the metamorphic, Ovidian work he so specially admired, namely Bernini's Apollo and Daphne.

This is a very particular study, if one that Barolsky has prepared us for in a number of essays he has published over the years in the journal Arion. Yet the lightness of its tone—and here he makes reference to such a notion of lightness of Italo Calvino in his text Six Memos for the Next Millennium—may seem to be eccentric and un-academic. Perhaps it is. But as a biographical note at the end shows, the stories here are grounded in the fullest traditions of scholarship on this subject from the time of Otto Kurz and Ernst Kris onwards, to Margot Wittkower and Rudolf Wittkower, and then to more recent studies on the artist by Hans Belting, David Carrier and Catherine Soussloff. Plus much else that has been written on Ovid by Joseph Solodow, on Dante by John Sinclair, on Balzac by Dore Ashton and then at the end on the vast, and still unfinished biography of Picasso, by John Richardson. This work, despite its brevity, is a synthesis of what Barolsky calls a lifetime of thinking about the idea of the artist; and in its range, and in the passion it shows for its subjects in literature and art, from both the classical world and the modern—and here I am quoting another critic—it is a true and brilliant history of the imagination that, to call up the old phrase, we might all read with deep pleasure and benefit.

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