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Leonardo's Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists

Leonardo's Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists

by James Fenton

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James Fenton, one of England's most gifted poets, has in recent years been looking closely at works of art and writing incisively and inventively about them and their creators. This collection of fifteen writings discusses a wide range of painting and sculpture, from the mummy portraits of ancient Egypt to the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper


James Fenton, one of England's most gifted poets, has in recent years been looking closely at works of art and writing incisively and inventively about them and their creators. This collection of fifteen writings discusses a wide range of painting and sculpture, from the mummy portraits of ancient Egypt to the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

"Ingenious. . . . Intrigued by emerging and unstable reputations, [Fenton] introduces us to Leonardo da Vinci's half-brother's son Pierino: a precocious sculptor celebrated by Vasari but virtually forgotten since."—Publishers Weekly

"Not surprisingly, Fenton displays throughout the passionate attentiveness of a scholar, the enthusiasm of an amateur, and the urbane cleverness of an English journalist."—Washington Post Book World

"[Fenton] is not, like Baudelaire, a poet moonlighting as art critic; he is something else again—a poetic art historian." —Karen Wright, Observer

"These essays educate, enlighten, surprise and thrill, unfailingly."—Robin Lippincott, New York Times Book Review

Editorial Reviews

Robin Lippincott
These essays educate, enlighten, surprise and thrill, unfailingly. —The New York Times Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A poet and Oxford don, Fenton claims to have made "no attempt... to impose any overall thesis" onto the 15 ingenious pieces gathered here on such topics as canon formation, patronage and the peculiarities of collecting (all but two written for The New York Review of Books). Intentionally or not, the essays overlap in subtle, mercurial ways, doubling back time and again onto the same conceptual territory. Fenton is our cicerone--the grand tour guide he invokes in his essay on Verrocchio--for an idiosyncratic round-up of artworks from ancient Egypt through the late 20th century. Intrigued by emerging and unstable reputations, he introduces us to Leonardo da Vinci's half-brother's son Pierino, a precocious sculptor celebrated by Vasari but virtually forgotten since; to the impoverished Welsh painter Thomas Jones, whose striking oil sketches from the late 1700s are only now making a splash; to Maillol's patron Count Harry Graf Kessler, whose diaries, rich with information about the European avant-garde and political rear guard, are currently being transcribed onto CD-ROM; and to other figures and phenomena on the periphery of art history. It is up to the reader to discover the essays' less conspicuous parallels: "Everything is on the same plane of interest" in Pisanello's naturalistic drawings and frescoes, while half a millennium later Rauschenberg paints and assembles "as if everything he sees appears equally important." Fenton's own eye is sometimes tweedily connoisseurial, yet he leavens his enormous erudition with a dash of colloquial, even ribald, irony.
Library Journal
Some of the best art writing is not in art magazines but in the weekly and fortnightly general literary journals that continue to traffic in fine essays. These two new collections feature the best work from two masters of the trade. Fenton (poetry, Oxford) writes intricate, erudite essays for the New York Review of Books in enjoyably nimble prose that retains a pellucid accessibility for college-level readers. The density of his pieces, laden with retorts and counterclaims directed at other critics, belies the fact that some of them are as short as ten pages. His intellectual reach is impressively broad, exemplified here by 15 essays covering territory ranging from Jasper Johns to Egyptian funerary statues. Brookner--known both as a scholar of art and a Booker Prize-winning novelist--contributes regular reviews to both the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. Her style evinces a contagious love of culture, with a tendency toward the ascerbic cri de coeur. One title under consideration she calls "badly produced, badly written and undeniably brilliant." In 22 compact essays, Brookner considers such diverse topics as Delacroix, Doris Lessing, and Dr. Herman Tarnower. It's to her credit that many of these reviews, some dating back to 1975, are far less stale than their onetime targets. Both of these books are comparable to recent collections by Robert Hughes, Lucy Lippard, and Andrew Graham-Dixon--good purchases for academic and large public libraries.--Douglas F. Smith, Oakland P.L., CA
Fenton, an English poet (Out of Danger, 1994) and professor of poetry at Oxford U., has in recent years been looking closely at works of art and writing about them and their creators. This volume collects 15 pieces, most originally published in The New York Review of Books, in which he discusses a wide range of painting and sculpture. He approaches art as a poet and journalist rather than as an academic art historian and offers some startling observations. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
A detailed, somewhat contrarian collection of essays on the interpretation of art and artists. James Fenton, professor of poetry at Oxford, wrote these essays for The New York Review of Books. He interprets art by asking three simple questions: What is it? Where does it come from? And why is it here?
Paul Trachtman
With journalistic panache, James Fenton cuts a wide and eclectic swath across the centuries...[His essays] are a particularly literary response to art. He is a poet and treats museums almost as a metaphor, leaping from the artwork to stories of the patrons, dealers, collectors, rivals, mistresses and scandals that surround it—especially the abiding and compelling scandals.
#&151; Smithsonian
Kirkus Reviews
A detailed, somewhat contrarian collection of essays on the interpretation of art and artists. James Fenton, professor of poetry at Oxford, wrote these essays for The New York Review of Books. They reveal an academic's sensibility in their thoroughness and depth, but Fenton has the advantage of not being an art historian by trade. He is, rather, a prize intellectual thorn who delights in skewering accepted interpretations of art when they defy common sense. Perhaps his best-known effort in this collection—which includes essays on Bernini, Verrochio, Degas, and Seurat—is his piece on funerary portraiture, called "The Mummy's Secret." In it, Fenton suggests that the portraits attached to the swathed bodies might have been commissioned well before death, citing the torsion of the sitter's body—a pose "elemental to portrait photography" as evidence. He mocks the experts at the British Museum who think otherwise and makes a terrific argument for the act of observation, pure and simple. It's a refreshing perspective, even when couched in his densely-packed, oddly rambling style—for some reason, Fenton seems driven to include everything that has any possible bearing on the subject at hand. But his philosophy of interpretation is quite simple: "It is good to ask of a work of art three questions," he writes. "What is it? Where does it come from? And why is it here?" And, one could add, why has it lasted? One of Fenton's strengths comes from his ability to delve into the history of an object, to trace the influence of politics on a particular piece of work—from its critical interpretation and assigned value to its very survival. In making the reader aware ofwhat has lasted—and why—Fenton also conjures all the art that has been lost, scoured, painted over, misattributed, and misread. A subversive academic, Fenton uses his intellect and vast knowledge to question the ways in which certain artworks—as well as their creators—have been framed by history.

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University of Chicago Press
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6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On Statues

In September 1938, Freud moved into his last home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, along with his collection of several hundred antique statuettes. How shocking, how hostile the previous sentence would be if for "antique statuettes" one substituted the phrase "fluffy toys." It's the fluffiness that would shock, though, the frivolity of it--not the idea that Freud had toys, and played with them all his life.

    For how could such behavior shock us, in a man known for his belief that happiness consists in the realization of a childhood wish? That was what made Schliemann happy when he discovered Troy. This was the way Freud thought, and if Freud too found happiness among his statuettes, we can hardly be wrong in looking for some infantile component in this happiness.

    Did he talk to his statuettes? Did they talk to him? Our metaphors are never far from such assertions, and Max Pollack's etching of 1914 seems to imply a dialogue between Freud and the objects on his desk. Striking too is the fact that, whereas many a horror story has been based on the idea that a toy, a doll, comes to life and acquires a will of its own, Freud himself thought there was nothing uncanny in such an event. He found that "in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating dolls like live people," and that "children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it."

    As for the idea that a marble sculpture might come to life--this is not only the theme of the essay on Jensen's Gradiva, it is also consciously evoked in the discussion of Michelangelo's Moses. "How often," says Freud, "have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero's glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned--the mob which can hold last no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols."

    And the statue must come to life, because what Freud wants to know is: What was happening the moment before the moment depicted by the artist, and what will happen next? What was the hand doing with the beard? What will happen to the Tablets of the Law? And it seems that Freud thought that one day he would be given the answer to these questions, if he came cautiously upon the statue, and seized upon its living self, just as a child captures a limpet unawares, by stalking it on its rock.

    That was the instinctive inquirer. You will recall that Ernest Jones, in whose honor this lecture is given, provided some scholarly evidence, a proof of Freud's hypothesis, when he sent a copy of the Burlington Magazine containing an illustration of a small bronze Moses in the Ashmolean Museum, then attributed to Nicholas of Verdun. And Freud was delighted that Jones had found a Moses that held its beard in the way that he surmised that Michelangelo's had been grasping its own, in that moment before the moment the artist chose. And the earlier, bronze Moses "shows us an instant during his storm of feeling, while the statue in San Pietro in Vincoli depicts the calm when the storm is over."

    So these statues are expected to serve in an inquiry into the mind and the emotions of Moses himself, and Freud stands before them in the role of the backsliding Hebrew. Surely if there can be life in such statues, there may be toys, speaking toys, among those several hundred statuettes; and it might well be that those who arranged Freud's possessions in Maresfield Gardens felt, as they set out the statuettes upon the desk, that they were making the old man happy, as one seeks to make a child at home by taking its dolls to the hospital bed. Statuette, doll, statue--they are not synonyms, but they belong to a family of meanings. Change the word a little, the whole sentence shifts to reveal new treasures of truth.


In September 1938, Freud moved into his last home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, along with his collection of several hundred statues. What an event that would have been! They would have had to pull down the neighboring houses, and lay out new grounds to accommodate the collection. And if we had been standing nearby as the old man arrived with his stone retinue, and if I had asked you who this Freud was, with his hundreds of statues, his thousands of antiquities, you would have been moved to make sense of it thus: this Freud is a foreign prince who has come here to die, and the statues have been brought for his tomb. And what you would have said would have been true, for these antiquities form both his memorial and his tomb--since they include the urn in which his ashes are buried, and since Maresfield Gardens is his mausoleum.

    But if, with a final turn of the switch, one were to transform the sentence yet again, and say that Freud arrived in his last home with a collection of several hundred colossi--statues so huge that the whole triangle between Finchley Road and Fitzjohn's Avenue and, say, Frognal Lane, would have to be obliterated to accommodate them--and once again we were bystanders, and I asked you for your interpretation of the event, then I think you would say that this Freud must be a magus, and that the king of this country has invited him here and laid out these new avenues and set up these colossi to protect this city and this country from its enemies.

    And once again I must congratulate you on the grandeur of your interpretation which, while it seems grossly flattering to our monarchy, reflects something of the grandeur of Freud's own sense of purpose. "After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus," he wrote, "Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakkai asked for permission to open a school at Jabneh for the study of the Torah. We are going to do the same. We are, after all, used to persecution by our history, tradition and some of us by personal experience ..."

    And so we have Freud's permission, his encouragement, to compare the retinue moving into Maresfield Gardens with the Jewish people at the start of the Diaspora, but with this difference--that Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakkai must have taken his books to Jabneh, but Freud's library had been sold. What Freud took into exile we might want to compare with the gods which Aeneas and his father carried from blazing Troy, were it not that, if we call these statuettes gods, we are in danger of walking straight into the plate glass window of taboo. Freud can be a rabbi on his way to Jabneh, can be Moses leading his people to the promised land--but not with these heathen gods in tow, not with these falcon-headed images, these sphinxes, these idols of Amon-Re and the Baboon of Thoth.

Did Freud worship these images? Did he bow down before the Baboon of Thoth? We know already, because we have had his word for it, that when he comes before Michelangelo's Moses it is as a member of the mob, "the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols." That is what we meant by calling him a backsliding Hebrew. It does not strike Freud as necessary to point out that the statue of Moses itself embodies an infringement of Mosaic Law, a particularly bold infringement if the statue is said to represent the moment at which Moses sees his people worshiping the Golden Calf. But this infringement is part of an age-old tradition, most vividly represented by a statue in Bern which shows Moses holding up the Tablets of the Law and pointing specifically to the second commandment:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

    You must not make any representational object, and you must not, having made such an object, venerate it in any way. No other art has been honored with such a general taboo. No other art is of concern to the author of the Ten Commandments. That the fight between art and religion is an ancient and a necessary one we may concede, since all art tends to arrogate authority to itself, and all religion aspires to a monopoly on authority. But the arrogance of the other arts can be contained. Music can be put to good use. Poetry too has been set its tasks around the house of God. Even drama has been allowed to encroach, although always under profound suspicion. But the representational arts, and particularly that of sculpture, come with such a freight of heathenish memory, such a burden of idolatrous implication, that they have been banned outright ...

    ... and have won, piecemeal, their appeal against the ban. So we learn that some Jewish authorities "interpret the second commandment as forbidding only those images made by a Jew for worship by a Jew, while at least one commentator asserts that the verse applies even to images a Jew might make for non-Jews to worship. Some take `sculpted' to mean incised as well as built up; others regard it only as three-dimensional. Some speak of `image' as referring to the human form; others see it as intending any form." And some, apparently, have tolerated a painted profile, while maintaining a ban on the human face seen fully frontal.

    All of which is a tribute to the power of man's desire to represent, and to the ability of his mind to block out an inconvenient injunction--to interpret a text away. Freud was not at the head of a backsliding tradition--he was its heir. Jewish representational art, as seen in the old cemeteries of Europe, has a tradition dating back to the second century before Christ. The taboo had been well broken, and for long. But while Freud seems to have been happy to collect graven images (some of them, no doubt, of precisely the type that the scriptural writers abhorred), he was not as insouciant about the taboo as he seems in the essay on Michelangelo. At least, by the time Freud reached London he had come to the conclusion that the prohibition against worshiping God in a visible form had had a profound effect upon the Jews:

For it meant that a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea--a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality or, strictly speaking, an instinctual renunciation, with all its necessary psychological consequences--

which were that

the individual's self-esteem is increased, that he is made proud--so that he feels superior to other people who have remained under the spell of sensuality. Moses, as we know, conveyed to the Jews an exalted sense of being a chosen people. The dematerialization of God brought a fresh and valuable contribution to their secret treasure."

But this passage leads straight into a reference to the Jews' misfortunes, the destruction of the Temple and, once again, the opening of the first Torah school in Jabneh. It is as if the prohibition had some part to play in those misfortunes, as well as in the strengths of the Jews. It is as if that instinctual renunciation had exacted a heavy price.

    And among Christians too, the meaning of the second commandment was subverted, qualified or even reversed to accommodate a possible duty to venerate religious images, images which had found their place in worship at least by the time of the establishment of the Church under Constantine--so that there never was a post-classical world without statues and images that were revered. And some classical images were co-opted, as happened to Lysippus' statue of the resting Hercules, which stood in the hippodrome at Constantinople, but which was transformed by belief into Adam. The hero resting from his labors turned easily into the First Man sitting on a basket, contemplating the loss of Paradise--an image which spread throughout the Christian world in portable ivory form.

    They were marvelous, those statues which survived being "destroyed or toppled by the blessed Gregory" and which a certain Englishman, Master Gregorius, described in Rome in the thirteenth century. Of a Venus he says:

This image is made from Parian marble with such wonderful and intricate skill that she seems more like a living creature than a statue; indeed she seems to blush in her nakedness, a reddish tinge colouring her face, and it appears to those who take a close look that blood flows in her snowy complexion. Because of this wonderful image, and perhaps some magic spell that I'm unaware of, I was drawn back three times to look at it despite the fact that it was two stades distant from my inn.

That possibility of enchantment, that sense of a statue possessing its own inner life--that could not be contemplated in those days with anything like Freud's equanimity, or a child's eagerness that a doll might come to life. Too much was at risk, too solemn a curse hung over the idolater. So that, in Ghiberti's Commentaries (written around 1450), we find an account of the discovery in Siena of a statue also signed by Lysippus, which caused such enthusiasm among the painters and sculptors and goldsmiths of the city that it was set up with great pomp, as the focus of a fountain. But after the city had suffered much in the wars with Florence, the flower of the citizenry came together in council, and it was pointed out that everything had gone wrong since the discovery of the statue, that idolatry was forbidden to their faith, and that even if they buried the statue again on their own territory, their misfortunes would continue. So the statue was taken to Florentine territory, and reburied there.

    Such careful ratiocination, such concern for the eventual resting place of the image--such has only rarely been the fate of these dangerous images. Much more typical, at times of iconoclasm, has been a blank, destructive rage, a desire to mutilate and humiliate the object of veneration, a scene such as we glimpse in this account of the destruction of the altarpiece at Sint-Jacobs in Ghent:

The chapel was unlocked (I do not know by what folly) and a lad of fourteen or fifteen came in broad daylight with an iron bar to smash, gouge, and otherwise damage the faces and hands of the little alabaster figures in the altarpiece. No one had the courage to stop even such youngsters (even though there were only one or two involved), because they were all astonished, and afraid that it was done at the behest of some powerful individual. No one knew what led him to commit this act.

This was in the Low Countries, during the second wave of image-smashing in the 1560s, and a sense of that period comes pungently from the page. One child is out of control, smashing images which have hitherto been considered the treasures of the city: but everyone cowers indoors, afraid that something is afoot, some powerful individual has ordered this. It's not like cowering behind your front door as a mob smashes up the housing development, knowing that the destruction is aimless and spontaneous. It's like knowing there is an important power shift in process, but having no clue to what the shift might be--knowing only that at such times the people are helpless.


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