Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Blake Gopnik's Art History Challenged (Again)

Last year, the Washington Post's Chief Art Critic Blake Gopnik's art history was challenged by William Woodhouse.

William Woodhouse scolded Blake in a Letter to the Arts Editor, for "being misled" about the importance of Toledo in El Greco's Spain as described in Gopnik's review of El Greco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In his review Blake anchors much of El Greco's unusual success with his odd realism upon the fact that El Greco was working "in the safe isolation of a provincial Spanish town" and essentially the locals didn't know any better. But William Woodhouse corrected Gopnik's perception of Toledo by pointing out that "it is a mistake, however, to characterize the ambiance of 16th-century Toledo as 'the safe isolation of a provincial Spanish town' vs. the court of Philip II in Madrid."

Woodhouse thus delivered a big hole in the review's central theory. But I defended Blake by pointing out that his Oxford Anglo-centric education probably gave him a skewed and flawed view of European history, especially of England's arch enemy, Spain.

But now Kurt Godwin, who is an Adjunct Art professor with Virginia Commonwealth University and a lecturer at Catholic University of America, writing in the new (and excellent) Signal 66 Gadfly makes a series of powerful points in reference to Gopnik's recent review of Gerhard Ter Borch and reveal a lot about Gopnik's surprising art history weakness and even more about his use of his pulpit to preach his own personal art history agenda.

Godwin writes:

Why Seer Jeers Vermeer Remains Unclear

Blake Gopnik begins his review of the Gerhard Ter Borch exhibition that recently opened at the National Gallery proclaiming this artist's superiority over his more familiar contemporary Johannes Vermeer (Washington Post, Style section 11/7/04).

Intrigued to see how this conclusion was derived I looked forward to finding a solid argument supporting this declaration. While, alas, this wasn't to be found other notions expressed proved to be real head scratchers.

To wit: Crediting Ter Borch with introducing the Netherlands to the supposed Velasquez "bare bones" means of portraiture Gopnick forgets that Hans Holbien the Younger perfected this method almost one hundred years earlier in neighboring Germany. Ter Borch could have easily been caught up in the sway of such readily accessible influences.

Gopnick continues to enthuse that Ter Borch's paintings in small scale are "almost as impressive" as Velazquez's large-scale work. Such a statement begs for further analysis.

Perhaps we'll be clued-in some other day.

Despite Gopnik's assertion otherwise, many of these paintings are narrative driven using such classic allegorical metaphors as letter reading and writing, the faithful dog, as well as playing card symbolism. Discussing the genre painting "A Gallant Conversation," Goethe is presented as an interpreter of that painting's implied narrative. Mysteriously, Gopnick refers to the German philosopher's novel not by title but solely by its publication date of 1809.

If famous authors serve as any sort of aid to art criticism, for good measure, let us not forget Marcel Proust's reference to Vermeer's "View of Delft" that played such an important role in the classic novel "Remembrance of Things Past."

The admiration Gopnik bestows on Ter Borch's supposed lack of narrative or allegorical pretensions is because, as he states, it favors "a kind of uninflected realism like cryptic reality itself." He goes on to chastise Vermeer for his "hint of portentous, poetic mystery." It's hard to imagine much of a chasm between describing a portrayal of life either as "cryptic reality" or "poetic mystery."

Later he refers to this artist's rendering of life as "captured in all its cryptic contingency." The repetitive use of this adjective is very cryptic indeed.

In his description of Ter Borch's innovative techniques and discoveries Gopnik offers this explanation: Observing "light bouncing from form to form and then into our eye, then coming up with surrogates for them using a handful of pigments."

With the exception of two painting done with collaborators, these paintings are rather dark. Vermeer's subtle, light infused paintings are their antithesis. What Gopnik has described is the painting process in generic terms rather than some unique 17th century development.

Continuing he exclaims the kind of "micro-bravura" (a phrase that seems to be an oxymoron) that Ter Borch provides should thrill us as much as the "macro-virtuosity" of a Hals or Rembrandt.

What these terms mean I can't attest to. Except for the fact they are all of Dutch origin lumping together these artists with such different painting styles is unclear.

To solidify his case for Ter Borch's superiority over contemporaries like Vermeer, he suggests it necessary to put ourselves in the shoes of a "17th century art lover."

Whoever that may be.

If we have to do that, and as he states, "rejecting modernism's hackneyed taste for the capricious," we are dealing with an artist who cannot transcend his own era much less achieve the timelessness and universal appeal that is the acknowledged mark of a true master. In other words we can't just merely be our selves to fully appreciate this art. We must have the specific perspective of an "art lover" four centuries ago. Maybe he's just suggesting that may help.

It is Gopnik's prerogative to champion anyone. Pairing two painters like a couple of racehorses might have proved interesting if a case was made.

Painting isn't a competition anyway. Perhaps posterity's fickle spotlight will further illuminate this particular artist's reputation. Despite Gopnik's wish I have a hunch there won't be long lines eager to gain entry to see this show unlike exhibitions in the recent past by a couple of other dead Dutch guys.
Professor, Therein lies the key to Gopnik's attempt to bring Vermeer down a notch or two: The public loves Vermeer and lines up for hours to see his paintings. In the mind of old-fashioned elitists like Gopnik, if the public likes something or someone, then it can't be any good.

Bravo Godwin!

No comments: