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Fine wine … detail of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1523-24). Photograph: Corbis

Walter Pater was one of the most honest critics to ever have lived. In his book The Renaissance, this Victorian scholar says something subtly disturbing to many people who love the arts. The purpose of criticism, he argues, is to identity and understand the particular types of pleasure that works of art can give us.

Pleasure! This is something few critics have ever been prepared to be so open about. Art, in a philistine world, is forever fighting its corner. Arts administrators resisting cuts feel obliged to insist on the deeper value of art, its use to society, its ennobling purposes. Artists themselves, when interviewed, also want to come across as serious people doing something of immense political and cultural importance. Only rarely does an artist reject the idea of social and spiritual purpose – as Bob Dylan does in the 1967 film Don’t Look Back, when he sneers at journalists asking him to explain his “message”.

Pater was art’s bravest whistleblower. He said frankly that works of art exist to give us pleasure, just like wines, or divans, or tobacco, or whatever else filled the archetypal Victorian aesthete’s boudoir.

It’s time for me to come clean, too. The reason I write about art is because it gives me so much pleasure. I delight in art. It is a drink, a feast. And this is the true reason why, much of the time, I choose to stress the great paintings and sculptures of history. This isn’t some cliched juxtaposing of figurative art and conceptualism – just a recognition that if you are looking at and writing about art every day you may as well explore the headiest flavours, the richest recipes. If you were a professional food critic, would you want to write about crisps – or haute cuisine? Great paintings that have stood the trust of time are like wines that have matured for centuries.


Jonathan Jones

Brushed aside … the Van Gogh Museum has dismissed claims the artist, shown here in an 1887 self-portrait, died in an accident.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam counsels visitors not to interpret his last works as clues to his suicide – which, according to conventional wisdom, took place when the artist shot himself in a field near the doctor’s house that was his last refuge in a world he found almost impossible to inhabit. Last time I was there, a label advised against taking an overly melodramatic view of his roiling blue, black and gold late vision Wheatfield with Crows.

Now the museum has once again urged caution, this time about the claim in a new biography that Van Gogh did not shoot himself after all but was mortally wounded in a bizarre accident. Well might the Van Gogh Museum express scepticism. After all, it seems like only yesterday that “scholars” were claiming poor Vincent did not cut off his own ear after all but was injured by Gauguin with a sword. That claim soon vanished into thin air and rightly so. Will this theory be as short-lived?

Both claims have the instant appeal of challenging the “myth” of Van Gogh the tortured artist, the man “suicided by society”, in the words of Antonin Artaud. Yet both come up against the mystery of why he never mentioned that he had been injured by others. In the case of his ear, it would seem strange that he allowed himself to be hounded by locals as a dangerous madman and incarcerated in asylum without mentioning that, oh, by the way, he was the victim of an assault. Similarly in this case, asks the BBC’s Will Gompertz, why let his family think he’d killed himself if that was not the case? He managed to walk back home and survived the gunshot to his chest long enough to speak out.


Jonathan Jones

In the fall of 1914, as Parisians scrambled to flee the approaching German army, Henri Matisse fled to Collioure, the fishing village in southwestern France where he had developed Fauvism, modern art’s first movement. When the Matisses arrived in the south, their first order of business was to find a tutor for their children, whose school-town of Noyon was swiftly taken by the Germans at the outset of the war. Not only did the Matisses quickly find a tutor, they found fellow Parisian exiles Juan and Josette Gris, who, as it turned out, were lodging with the tutor. The Grises were broke and desperate for both cash and companionship. Matisse quickly set about finding them both income: He arranged a system by which Gertrude Stein would help out the Grises in exchange for paintings (Stein eventually reneged on the deal), and he insisted that Josette accept a model’s fees when she sat for a series of etchings. The two families became fast friends.


Tyler Green
Modern Art Notes

(David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, by the Italian artist Caravaggio Photo: Getty Images)

On July 18, 1610, a man named Michelangelo Merisi died on the southern coast of Tuscany. Recently, a team of Italian forensic investigators made the international news by claiming to have discovered his bones. By all accounts, he died miserably – the latest, not very plausible suggestion, being that lead poisoning had something to do with it. Murder has also been suspected. The earliest accounts describe a fatal attack of impatience, causing him to pursue on foot along the scorching coast a boat that was carrying his baggage away. Whatever the cause, the deceased was the great artist better known to posterity as Caravaggio. He was 38 years old.

Four hundred years later, he is, by many indications, the world’s favourite old master. Canadian researcher Philip Sohm has established that in the past 50 years, Caravaggio has overtaken that other Michelangelo – Buonarroti – as the favourite subject of art historical research. More, it seems, has been written about him in the past half century than any other artist.

This extraordinary level of attention invites the question: why? One answer lies in the sensational details of his life. Caravaggio committed at least one homicide – for which he was returning to Rome to receive pardon from the Pope when he died. He was involved in numerous brawls and made a dramatic escape from prison on the island of Malta.

But, though all this makes for a gripping biographical story, such behaviour was not that unusual for an artist of that era. The 16th-century goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini proudly relates in his autobiography the numerous assaults and murders he committed. These deeds have not, however, made Cellini the contemporary art historical hero that Caravaggio is.


Martin Gayford

Few developments central to the history of art have been so misrepresented or misunderstood as the brief, brave, glorious, doomed life of the Bauhaus—the epochally influential German art, architecture, crafts, and design school that was founded in Goethe’s sleepy hometown of Weimar in 1919. It then flourished from 1925 to 1932 in Dessau, an industrial backwater where the school’s first director, Walter Gropius, built its image-making headquarters (see illustration on page 25); and it ultimately but vainly sought refuge in cosmopolitan Berlin, where it closed in 1933, when Hitler took power. Now, nine decades after its inception and three quarters of a century after its dissolution, the Bauhaus has finally been explained to the museum-going public in terms much closer to its actual intent and immense achievement than ever before.

During the past year in Europe and the United States, a remarkable concatenation of survey exhibitions, monographic retrospectives, and their accompanying publications marked the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus (with comprehensive overviews in Berlin and New York), as well as the work of two of its major protagonists, the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (a traveling show seen at the Lenbachhaus in Munich and at the Pompidou Center in Paris before ending at New York’s Guggenheim Museum) and the Hungarian multimedia artist László Moholy-Nagy (with one show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and another at Chicago’s Loyola University Museum of Art). Even though it struck some as premature to hold full-scale Bauhaus shows ten years before the legendary institution’s centenary, it was certainly time for a long-overdue reassessment of this persistently stereotyped and often maligned powerhouse of modern culture.


Martin Filler
New York Review of Books

Practical magic? Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars at the National Gallery. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

The Florentine Renaissance weaver of floral fantasies Sandro Botticelli is a magical artist. Just to look at his masterpiece the Primavera is to have your spirits lifted, as if he knows how to release pleasure-giving chemicals in the human brain by particular combinations of colour and form.

The question is, how literal is the magic in Botticelli’s art? Are his paintings allegories, or entertainments, or something more – how shall we say this – practical? A fascinating new idea about Botticelli’s alluring idyll Venus and Mars in London’s National Gallery gives an old debate a contemporary twist. According to art historian David Bellingham, a strange plant pawed by a young satyr who plays about, clad in the discarded cuirass of Mars, at the bottom right of the panel, is a specimen of the hallucinogenic Datura stramonium, also known as “poor man’s acid”. According to this latest theory the pacified and disarmed war god Mars has actually been drugged by Venus, deity of love, who reclines wide awake and clothed beside his slumberous nude form.


Jonathan Jones

A fired clay Cucuteni figurine, from 4050-3900 B.C. (Photo: Marius Amarie)

Before the glory that was Greece and Rome, even before the first cities of Mesopotamia or temples along the Nile, there lived in the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills people who were ahead of their time in art, technology and long-distance trade.

For 1,500 years, starting earlier than 5000 B.C., they farmed and built sizable towns, a few with as many as 2,000 dwellings. They mastered large-scale copper smelting, the new technology of the age. Their graves held an impressive array of exquisite headdresses and necklaces and, in one cemetery, the earliest major assemblage of gold artifacts to be found anywhere in the world.

The striking designs of their pottery speak of the refinement of the culture’s visual language. Until recent discoveries, the most intriguing artifacts were the ubiquitous terracotta “goddess” figurines, originally interpreted as evidence of the spiritual and political power of women in society.

New research, archaeologists and historians say, has broadened understanding of this long overlooked culture, which seemed to have approached the threshold of “civilization” status. Writing had yet to be invented, and so no one knows what the people called themselves. To some scholars, the people and the region are simply Old Europe.

The little-known culture is being rescued from obscurity in an exhibition, “The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C.,” which opened last month at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. More than 250 artifacts from museums in Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are on display for the first time in the United States. The show will run through April 25.


John Noble Wilford
New York Times

Biagio di Antonio and Jacopo del Sellaio’s Morelli Chest and Spalliera, with scenes from Roman history, 1472. Photograph: Richard Valencia/The Courtauld Gallery

The room glows with gold and art. Colossal chests with feet carved into talons squat luxuriously. The paintings embedded in them – scenes of tournaments, battles, episodes from ancient history – seem frankly secondary to the sheer display of wealth. Rich people certainly knew how to live in Italy five hundred years ago.

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence at London’s Courtauld Gallery is an exhibition of “wedding chests”, huge items of furniture that were an essential part of the equipage of a newly married couple of good family in 15th and 16th-century Florence. These ornate, finely carved items were decorated with paintings and also had painted backboards above them: if you look at Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery, including Piero di Cosimo’s Battle of the Centaurs and Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, you may wonder why they so often have a wide horizontal shape. This is probably because they were originally associated with this kind of bedroom furniture. The Courtauld owns the only two examples of these chests that still possess their original backboards – so this is a chance for them to contextualise their treasures.

It is also a lie.

Perhaps lie is too strong a word. But this exhibition – which is at a gallery closely associated with Britain’s leading academic department of art history – expresses a view of the Renaissance that I believe is fatally skewed. This is the idea that the Renaissance was above all a great burst of consumerism, a wave of buying, in which wealthy merchants splashed out on objects of all kinds. It’s an idea that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, popularised by Lisa Jardine’s book Worldly Goods, theorised in Richard Goldthwaite’s work Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600, and recycled since then in many exhibitions and learned articles. I wonder if this idea of the Renaissance as one huge spending spree will survive the current economic crisis.

People look for mirrors of themselves in history. In the 19th century, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt saw the Renaissance as the birth of the modern middle-class world he inhabited. In the 1980s, when greed was good, people started to fixate on the gilded consumers of the past – and not just in the Renaissance. Consumer revolutions have also been discovered in the 18th century and even in the Bronze Age. I suspect these commodity-conscious theories will start to look less interesting now the wheels have fallen off the free market.

There’s something narrow and dry about reducing the Renaissance or any other cultural epoch to “material culture”. Sure, people spent lots of money on art in the Renaissance and paintings were luxury items, but aren’t there more interesting things to say about, for example, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon?

I’m not pleading for a spiritual idea of art over a material one. Art is a part of everyday life, but it touches on many regions of that life, from beliefs in magic and the supernatural to politics, war and sex. The greatness of Renaissance art lies in its ambition and poetry, which has more to do with ideas than objects. In another current exhibition, a reconstruction of Paolo Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece at Dulwich Picture Gallery (until 3 May), you can see an immensely extravagant religious painting commissioned by private donors. But you miss the point if you dwell on how much the Petrobelli family paid for it. You reduce the sublime to the slightly dull. The materialist view of the Renaissance has helped make the greatest period in cultural history a bit less exciting.

Jonathan Jones