Just finished a lovely book Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett.
It centres around the family of Sir Thomas More and the painter Hans Holbein the Younger.
Who is, by the way, my second favourite painter of all time. Probably the best portraitist who ever lived and I do not say these things lightly, nor am I sponsored by Carlsberg in any way. The man was truly and obviously brilliant.
His silverpoint sketches are even better than his paintings, in fact. So immediate and alive – you would recognise these people walking down the street (and not just cos of the funny outfits) and you’d already know which ones you’d want to befriend because he showed their character so clearly in their faces.
Anyway, I loved the book, apart from its tendency to insist on oodles of secret meanings in every painting. Such nonsense.
Okay, so renaissance painters used symbolic imagery – but it wouldn’t have been secret to the people looking at these paintings. Symbols like a dog for fidelity or a skull as a memento mori to counter the inherent vanity of having one’s portrait painted, were well-known and understood by educated people then.
Its just us who have forgotten, or never learnt, what it all meant.
Which brings me to my rant proper. Why do critics and art academics feel the need to read layers of spurious meaning into artists’ work? Can’t they just marvel at how the artist has mastered the light of a morning or the richness of a velvet texture, or how they can show a person’s soul in their expression?
The only painters who fill their work with abstruse symbols are pitiful creatures like Dali, who was not an artistic genius and, I suspect, knew it (hence the pity). He was simply a talented draughtsman with nothing to say other than ‘ooh, aren’t I weird?”.
I was at a Private View of an new exhibition of abstract landscapes recently, chatting to the artist (who was hiding in a corner, naturally) while other people wondered around spouting twaddle about being able to see all sorts of stuff symbolising everything from Global Warming to an Oedipus Complex in them.
I mean, for heavens sake. Can’t they just be gorgeous colours and textures and patterns? Can’t you see how that little splash of turquoise makes that burnt bitumen orange positively throb?