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Book Review

Visioning the Invisible
Recent Artists’ Biographies

Cézanne: A Life by Alex Danchev (Pantheon, 2012)

Caspar David Friedrich by Johannes Grave (Prestel, 2012)

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King (Walker & Company, 2012)

T HE BIOGRAPHY is, in many ways, the most conservative of popular literary forms. It is philosophically retrograde. It presumes many things that are at odds with contemporary thinking: the stability of the personality, the motor of telos or destiny, the landscape of good and evil, the mystery of choice. The artist’s biography, meanwhile, is conservative in its own way. It presumes, unfashionably, that the secret of the work of art does not lie (for example) in power struggles, mass fashions, or the abstract march of progress, but in the substance of an individual whose being, whose personality, is the foundation of the art itself. This reverence for the individual, this vaunting of the singular, striving, and idiosyncratic has implications beyond the text. It has implications for practicing artists today. For the artist’s biography presumes that great art can come if only one would live in a certain way.

It is not a coincidence, then, that artists’ biographies resemble a much older literary form, the vitae sanctae, or the lives of the saints. In the same way that medieval Christians read lives of Gregory the Great or Thomas à Becket in order to shape their own lives more justly, so today’s artists might read a life of Michelangelo Buonarroti or Paul Cézanne. The artist’s biography helps us see the universal artistic struggle all the more clearly for its having been staged in a different place, at an earlier time. Also, thanks to its natural respect for the personhood of its subject, the great artist’s biography helps us see, blinking from between the lines, a living, breathing person and not an eccentric character or idealized archetype.

Three recent books, by virtue of the way they are visually and rhetorically packaged, claim to capture the essence of a great artist. Alex Danchev’s Cézanne: A Life is the most traditional biography of the three. Johannes Grave’s Caspar David Friedrich is a monographic academic tome masquerading as the more populist genre of the opulent coffee table biography. Meanwhile Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper uses one episode in a great artist’s life, the painting of the famous Last Supper fresco in Milan, to create a total picture of a protean figure whose legend constantly threatens to obscure the real man’s accomplishments.

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All three of these artists—Leonardo, Friedrich, Cézanne—have left a distinctive legacy for those interested in spirituality and the arts. Leonardo da Vinci, the earliest of the three and the artist most firmly situated in a thoroughly Christian culture, is perhaps also the least likely of this triumvirate to be easily classified as a “spiritual” artist. His works are all about embodiment, firmness, solidity, sensuality. No painted woman before his Mona Lisa was ever so maddeningly physical: tactile and obdurate, lacquered yet doughy, squinting and smiling, crafty but oddly bovine, broad and smooth, beautiful but plain. Leonardo’s other celebrated portraits, of a Milanese nobleman’s mistresses, are elegant and flirtatious, featuring rich textures like ermine fur. His Last Supper, meanwhile, is full of stolid men poised in solid triangles, gesturing forcefully, all of them soft and massive at once, in Leonardo’s inimitable way. The master’s only known self-portrait (though its origin is debated) is notable for its prodigality of deliciously curling hair.

Despite his sensuality, however, Leonardo’s spirituality, like that of his fellow high Renaissance greats Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio, is of a distinctive and forceful mien. This is a visual spirituality that is both aggressively tactile and at the same time eerily unreal. The work of these Renaissance masters, in fact, puts one in mind of angels or pagan gods: the touchable flesh is somehow too perfect, the muscles too rounded, the joints too fluid, to be truly subject to physical laws. One remembers, when contemplating the paradoxical quality of a Leonardo saint or a Raphael Madonna, that Leonardo’s generation succeeded Italy’s (and Europe’s) greatest generation of illustrators. Works by Raphael’s teacher Pietro Perugino, Leonardo’s teacher Andrea del Verrocchio, and Michelangelo’s teacher Domenico Ghirlandaio, not to mention well-known works by the Lippis and their colleague Sandro Botticelli, share a flat, decorative quality admirably suited to the large-scale mural treatments of the quattrocento. The best paintings by these earlier masters unfurl across broad, plastered walls like sinuous, knotted, colossally complex vines. The figures of Leonardo and his peers, in their impossible gracefulness, are indebted to the work of these masters, but at the same time they seem to emerge bulkily from the old quattrocento contours, rolling into being like ropy sea creatures, capturing our gazes with knowing, living eyes while reminding us of their decorative heritage.

Ross King’s book on Leonardo uses the painting of the famous Last Supper as a lens through which to view the artist and his times. And while King is far more interested in the pulpy, salacious, or curious details of the artist’s life (a charge of sodomy, a close relationship with a beautiful young man), than in an explanation of the mysterious ethereality of the artist’s paintings, he does pause to consider Leonardo’s spirituality. For example, King defends Leonardo against assertions of atheism, proving instead that Leonardo’s investigations into all sorts of natural forms (botany, geology, anatomy) were a means by which this “thoroughly orthodox” artist worshiped God. (In the process, King debunks the popular myth that the dissection of corpses was forbidden by the church.) King also demonstrates, intriguingly, that the proportions of the Last Supper were meant to reflect musical harmonies. This synesthetic endeavor on the part of Leonardo—presuming some kind of ideal or cosmic harmony underlying both the use of tones and the use of forms—might bear comparison with the work of later painter-synesthetes like James McNeill Whistler and Vassily Kandinsky. King’s Leonardo is a man devoted to searching out the mechanics of nature precisely because they point to the mind of God.

As the title of his book suggests, King by no means carves a straight path through Leonardo’s life. Instead, he anchors each chapter in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, where the Last Supper still resides after a tumultuous history (the monastic complex was famously bombed during World War II, and the Last Supper, shored up behind sandbags, miraculously survived). With the Last Supper as his anchor, Ross then drifts here and there—really in any direction he must have found intriguing—in the process relating curious information on such topics as military strategy in Renaissance Italy, Renaissance Florence’s reputation for venereal disease, the dangers of Milanese politics and the niceties of northern Italian cuisine. Together with the painting of the Last Supper, one other drama serves as the narrative backbone of King’s book: the career of Leonardo’s patron, Lodovico Sforza, the ruler of Milan from 1489 until his death in prison in 1508. Ross’s Sforza is a paranoid, narrow-minded brute, but he is also, paradoxically, enlightened enough to supply the flighty Leonardo with a good living in the duchy of Milan. Indeed, Lodovico is so central to King’s narrative that the book practically ends upon his death (only an epilogue follows). This dual biographical focus, together with King’s enthusiasm for tangents, makes Leonardo and the Last Supper unsatisfying as a deep study of the artist’s work. King’s book does, however, have the benefit of effortless readability. Its lively, transparent prose contains just the right amount of triteness; this is a book one can relax into and finish quickly. King is a skillful journeyman writer, and he has done a competent job digesting and recounting the more sensational historical moments surrounding Leonardo’s most famous fresco.

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If Leonardo da Vinci was an artist of full, gorgeously monstrous divine presence, Caspar David Friedrich was an artist of absence, whose evocative landscapes seem to despond in the consciousness of their insufficiency to fully convey the sublimity they invoke. Consider what is perhaps Friedrich’s most famous painting, Monk by the Sea. On this revolutionarily spare canvas, a flat sky of blue, gray, and white rises above a dark band of ocean; below, on a pale strip of earth, a lone, dark figure stands. The scene is fully three-quarters sky, stressing the planar, rectangular nature of the canvas, and also recalling the meditative color blocks of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Because of the transcendent concision of his best paintings, Friedrich has been viewed as a precocious modernist—working sixty years before the modern movement in art can be said to have begun. But what appears to be a prophetic modernism might better be explained as a profound mysticism. A sensitive soul subject to many personal tragedies, including the early deaths of his mother and three siblings, Caspar David Friedrich was also an artist of unique spiritual insight, and even spiritual preoccupation, as his many “cross” paintings attest. Cross in the Mountains, another of his most famous works, was intended to function as an altarpiece. A whole series of later paintings, including Cross by the Baltic Sea, The Crown of Thorns, and The Cross in the Forest developed the theme. In each of these paintings, a lone (and lonely) cross sanctifies a quiet landscape. The crosses themselves are placed in high or cloistered spaces, away from thoroughfares or human habitation, as if their audience is not humankind, but the mute earth. In a time of rapid development and upheaval due to the Industrial Revolution, Friedrich reimagined the wilderness as a living thing that, like humankind, was also in need of salvation.

Johannes Grave’s monograph on Caspar David Friedrich is the most academic of the three books considered here, and also the most lavishly illustrated. In fact, the text of the book and its physical character each seem calculated to appeal to different audiences. The writing often feels flat-footed, repetitive, and pedantic; each chapter has the air of a free-standing academic essay reconfigured to constitute part of a whole. Meanwhile the illustrations—numerous full-page reproductions ranging from whole, panoramic canvases to scintillating close-ups—are ravishing and plentiful enough to make Caspar David Friedrich qualify as a picture book.

And what of Friedrich’s precociously modern spirituality, with its dramatic gestures and its evocation of the ineffable? Grave, like any good Friedrich scholar, knows the artist’s spirituality was a cornerstone of his art. In fact, the strongest part of Caspar David Friedrich is the author’s attention to the way the artist thematized certain forms (the silhouetted figure, the blocked path), repeating them throughout his tormented life in resonant and predictable ways, in order to leave an oeuvre, a total personal statement, that truly speaks with a single-minded and melancholy voice. For Grave, Caspar David Friedrich indeed embraced a spirituality of absence—Friedrich’s theology, if you will, was negative. As Grave is fond of pointing out, Friedrich’s gestural, planar application of color flaunted his pictures’ materiality as canvas and paint, thereby preventing escapist reverie. And Friedrich’s pictorial use of blocked paths and high mountains, each preventing visual access into the depths of his paintings, threw viewers back on themselves (or within themselves), likewise forestalling any purely pleasurable rambling in the artist’s distinctive landscapes. Friedrich’s silhouetted figures, gazing sightless at blocked vistas, remind one of the spiritual seeker who has pursued God by every material means and who now contemplates only darkness. Friedrich’s art of absence, as described by Grave, clearly prefigures the work of certain modern and contemporary artists who also block the audience’s view in a paradoxical search for transcendence: one is put in mind, especially, of Agnes Martin’s meditative, fence-like grids, certain of Anselm Kiefer’s sedimentary canvases, or Lucio Fontana’s opaque planes of color wounded with desperate gashes. Though repetitive and occasionally dry, Grave’s Caspar David Friedrich nevertheless shares important insights about an elusive and eccentric artist.

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Paul Cézanne walked the line between presence and absence perhaps more ably than any other artist before or after. His works are both intensely allusive and bluntly literal; they picture bulky mountains, garishly bright apples with the obdurate surface quality of carved wood, chunky nudes of indeterminate sex, and spreading, suffocating trees. His subject matter is almost uniformly simple, narratively unencumbered, nearly banal, yet behind the blankness of affect, and behind the paint strokes applied almost as if with a trowel, there is a strong sense of thingness or thereness that gives the works an almost anthropomorphic quality, as if while you are looking at the paintings, the paintings are looking back. For those who love Cézanne (and assuredly, there are as many who hate him as who love him), his paintings have a special, almost unparalleled quality of perceptiveness, depth of insight, ontological understanding, that reveals hidden, soul-level things—that manifests invisible essences on the visible plane.

In terms of contemporary artistic production, Cézanne is by far the most influential of the three artists discussed here. His gestural, painterly response to the spiritual content of his subjects foreshadowed the all-out abstraction of later artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline (where the painterly response remains, but the subject becomes, essentially, the interior self), as well as the heartfelt distortions of every artist who eschews the literal and reportorial in favor of a style that captures the “feel” of the subject on view. Cézanne, in short, is the father of modern art, and his importance can hardly be overstated.

Alex Danchev’s new biography of Cézanne is fluent and occasionally poetic, deeply researched and thoroughly compassionate. Danchev proceeds from the conviction that Cézanne is a great among greats, whose career is deserving of constant revisiting and whose life must necessarily be chockfull of instructive moments. Thus each phase of Cézanne’s life story is approached with a kind of reverence. Danchev steers clear of all-out hagiography, however. His Cézanne is crotchety, lacking in self-awareness, by turns standoffish and gregarious, loyal and unpredictable. He seems at times to be a simpleton and at other times a genius: Danchev works hard to acknowledge the stereotypes informing Cézanne’s posthumous reputation (the rube, the wise man) while problematizing and reconciling them at the same time. As a portrait, Cézanne: A Life is deft, communicating through dissonance and allusion as much as it does through straightforward narrative.

Like Leonardo’s Last Supper, Cézanne: A Life is written in a nonlinear fashion. While the book does begin with the artist’s childhood and end with his death, the chapters are thematic, overlapping in time and spanning decades each. In the opening chapter, titled “The Dauber and the Scribbler,” for example, Danchev tells the story of Cézanne’s lifelong friendship with the writer Émile Zola. This story begins, necessarily, when the two men were childhood classmates first discovering their talents; thus a self-contained narrative (brotherly love, frustration, estrangement) can doubly serve as an introduction to the artist’s oeuvre. Similarly Danchev’s second chapter, “Le Papa,” both charts Cézanne’s lifelong relationship with his father and tells the story of the artist’s first mature efforts toward independence. Once investigated for their impact on Cézanne’s life, characters like Zola and Cézanne Sr. do not simply disappear; instead their stories are implicitly woven into succeeding chapters. The effect is deeply satisfying: the reader’s diligence is rewarded, and the picture of Cézanne that emerges seems to flush into palpitating life after beginning as a mere outline.

Besides creating a portrait of the great Cézanne, Alex Danchev also aptly captures the romance of early modernism, conjuring the social networks and discourses that produced the aesthetic value system we all now take for granted. But at the same time, the reader also feels keenly the end of that charmed era. Never again will such passion and such rhetoric—at least on such a broadly public scale—accompany the development of painting. In fact, the world of oil painting in nineteenth-century France—of still and silent picture-making—was like today’s film industry, attracting the same kind of mass audience and summoning the same universal aspirations and single-minded passions. Readers mystified by Danchev’s reverence for his subject would do well to remember how absolutely crucial, how pivotal, painting was to nineteenth-century culture.

The art world today, after decades of dialectic and theorizing, is rediscovering the power of the individual and the biographical. The pop art of the 1950s and ’60s, together with the op art and minimalism of the 1960s and ’70s, seemed to bring fine art to an end: a century-long pursuit of a kind of universal transcendence had terminated, rather like one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, in a sort of confrontational opacity. But the mute and severe paintings and sculptures of the middle twentieth century (like Tony Smith’s famous sculpture Die, or like one of Frank Stella’s striped canvases) soon yielded to art that was more emotional and personal—art that wore its heart on its sleeve. Figures like Louise Bourgeois and Mike Kelley embarked on lifelong artistic journeys that were distinctively autobiographical. Today the art world is scattered, fragmented, no longer united by a single raison d’être, but it is at the same time (in some ways), more humane and diverse, more polyglot, more flexible. In such a context, artists’ biographies like Alex Danchev’s Cézanne and, to a lesser extent, Johannes Grave’s Caspar David Friedrich and Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper acquire a fresh importance. They offer the same kind of story that many of today’s artists aspire to tell by distinctively visual means: the perilous story of a single, fragile life.


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