Every Picture Hides a Story

Authors: William Cane and Anna Gabrielle

I’ve really been trying to make an effort to clear up my Netgalley backlog – which is daunting. This is a more recent book from them, and … unfortunately, the bad ones are usually a lot easier to review. Someday when I have time I should come back and add images to this…

I’m really, really baffled by who the target audience is for this book. The language is juvenile – often outright childish – while some of the content is not. Although even the rather more grown-up topics – such as exactly what Adam and Eve were doing in Michelangelo’s pre-expulsion Eden – is handled coyly. And for every single artist addressed in the book there is a (happily) brief exchange at the section’s beginning, consisting of an extraordinary, bizarre snippet of “conversation” with or about or to the artist, featuring a level of offensive familiarity which would probably have gotten the authors pummeled by at least a few of the artists discussed (if not all). These horrible intros are only slightly worse than the style of the book as a whole, which is scattered throughout with so many exclamation points that some pages look like birthday cupcakes, covered in sprinkles.

I regret to say I saved examples, and will now inflict them upon the reader:

Ouch, ouch, ouch! I can’t take it! Don’t— please don’t make me stand like this! It’s killing me! My arm feels like it’s breaking! In actuality, although she loved his work, the princess was bored with the hours she had to stand still as a model for Ingres. But she didn’t really complain about her arm aching.”

“And so the Big Wig was tight with Caravaggio” – This is how Caravaggio’s patron Alof de Wignacourt is almost exclusively referred to in the section. It was truly nauseating.

“Then last, but certainly not least, good old Kilmty! Oops! Did we say Klimty? . . . Well, you’ll just have to wait and see why that moniker slipped out.” (The typo is a lagniappe.)

“good old Velázquez” – It’s so … jolly.

“When you hear about Michelangelo’s next bit of tomfoolery you may gasp at its scope and viciousness. Just keep in mind his temperament as you consider what he did.” I … didn’t gasp. And it wasn’t vicious or all that … scope-y. But at least the artist wasn’t referred to as “Mike”. (If only he had been – I could have quit right then and saved myself the pain.)

“Little Berty” – that’s Berthe Morisot. Lashings of respect for the artist, right? That’s even better than constantly referring to Velázquez as gagcoughgag “the Big V”. (I’m so sorry.)

“Now sit tight as you hear her story!” I’m sorry, did the authors expect a five year old reader?

What I was expecting from this book: Long ago, at the dawn of time, I went to art school. One of the art history teachers took her classroom of young adult artists at 3:00 in the afternoon, turned off the lights, and showed a series of bad slides of work somewhat close to what was in the book, ignoring the (literal) snores of her students as she basically read the textbook to us. The other art history teacher would sit cross-legged on the table at the front of the class, and talk. She told stories about the artists, about the cultures, about the works; she provided context and background; she made it live. When I requested this book from Netgalley, I expected it to be filled with the sort of thing she told us every week. Example: Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul. In this painting, Saul has just been knocked off his horse by a brilliant light; he was riding away from the viewer, and has fallen toward you – and the horse is angled away from you. Debbie – our teacher – pointed out that probably the first thing you see when you look at this picture is, frankly, the horse’s rump. The horse is a piebald, black and white, and takes up a large percentage of the canvas – particularly that large black and white tuchus. Debbie told us that Benedictine monks wear black and white habits. And Caravaggio had a deep loathing for Benedictines. So the position of the horse, the prominent anatomy presented to the viewer, and its color, is a very intentional commentary. I know there was a lot more, but it was a long time ago … But I never have forgotten that tidbit, because it deepens my understanding of the painting, and of the artist. I was harboring hopes when I saw that Caravaggio was one of the artists discussed in this book. I didn’t get The Conversion of Saul, though. Instead, I got “that portrait of the Big Wig shows him holding his staff suggestively!” and “that shadow in Supper at Emmaus looks like a fish!” OK. Thanks. Oh, and “That bit of the weave of that basket looks like half of the ichthys! No, it doesn’t = and if it did, it wouldn’t be too surprising since the icthys consists of two curved lines. Half of that is one curved lines. There are a lot of curved lines in art. Elsewhere, in discussion of a portrait of Cleopatra, much is made of the fact that she’s wearing a headdress with a rearing cobra. Somehow missing the point that the Egyptians who created her jewelry would have been using symbolism too, and this is more an example of the artist having done his homework than of hiding meaning in the painting.

That’s how it was all the way through. There are lots of overblown promises:

“Buried below the threshold of conscious awareness, our wily friend Leonardo may have encoded an unseen subversion of gender roles. Not only don’t people know what they’re seeing, they would be shocked to find out.”

“No one who has looked at the works of the most accomplished Spanish painter of all time has seen everything that we are about to reveal.”

“But be forewarned— what you’re about to see firsthand has been ignored and missed by every other art critic to date!”

“we’re going to uncover a final secret that it contains, a secret that no commentator has ever mentioned— or noticed. This secret concerns the way people interact with one another every day of their lives.”

As I mention below, I learned a couple of things – none of which was new ground being broken by this book. The “revelations” promised throughout were all … not much of anything.

So much of what was asserted in this book was odd, silly, obvious, or just plain wrong that it began to be painful after a while.

“As we mentioned in the introduction, some people are fearful, skeptical, and unbelieving when you tell them that there are symbols hidden or embedded in works of art” – I’m sorry, are “some people” new? I suppose if you’ve never come within a light year of an art history class of any sort you might not know about symbols being used in art, but – – that’s not the sort of person this is aimed at, is it? It goes back to my initial question of who the audience is. It’s presented as something that will take an art lover’s basic knowledge and deepen it, not as a primer for someone whose first thought on hearing artists’ names is of turtles. In the end, it doesn’t accomplish either task, so the question is pointless.

“Incidentally, why should the whole issue of subliminal advertising matter to you? After all, this isn’t a book about advertising, it’s a book about art and the way famous artists have employed sophisticated techniques to hide things in their work.” Seriously, out there reading this – have ANY of you not heard of Joe Camel? Anyone?

Caravaggio is not “the quiet and well-mannered artist you might imagine when thinking of a Renaissance artist” …Like Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo (who the authors just got finished describing as “obstreperous” and “impetuously lashing out at his critics”, and whose “tomfoolery” was supposed to make me gasp in shock)? Those quiet and well-mannered gentlemen?

“The painting is unabashedly erotic because the girl is naked, after all” – Which … I don’t even know where to start.

“Satyrs are half man, half horse” NO THEY ARE NOT. (see, this is what started to happen in my notes on the book. I started using as many exclamation points as the authors did (almost), and caps. And foul language.)

“…The scene in Nymphs and Satyr is highly idealized. That is to say, there’s no splashing or mud spatter on the bodies of the nymphs.” I’m sorry – show me an artist prior to the warts-and-all (or focus-on-the-warts) 20th century who ever put in all the mud. That’s a great part of what art has been … forever: idealized reality.

Phallic symbol after phallic symbol is pointed out – sometimes as the only “hidden” things in any given painting. And, yes, sure, ok, even pre-Freud I’m sure a slew of those long skinny objects really were intentional phallic symbols, especially given that a lot of these paintings were by men in their 20’s. But it strains credulity that ALL of the long skinny objects were intentional phallic symbols. What was that Freud said about cigars?

“In photography this blurred background is known technically as bokeh” – I mean … no, it’s not. A blurry background is the result of the lens focusing on something else. When it’s done intentionally, in a very specific technique (and since 1997, when the first use of the term seems to have occured) then sure, it’s bokeh.

“Tennyson tells us that the Lady [of Shallott] lays down” – lays what down?

The bodice of Sargent’s “Madame X” … brace yourself: “functions on a subliminal level as a magnified and enlarged image of a face— those two black loops being the eyes, and the upper part of her chest and shoulders being the forehead of an enlarged face.” Whose face? Zorro’s???? I mean … ?!?!?!?

“Here, Madame’s high contrast level— dark reddish hair and extra-pale skin tone— give her a high contrast level.” That’s deep.

“It hardly need be said that the decision to feature the nude youth must have been a conscious choice of the artist.” THEN WHY DID YOU SAY IT?! This attitude – that everything in a painting is not under the full control of the artist – is either something the authors think everyone else thinks, or is something they’re none too sure of themselves, as they’re endlessly surprised at shadows and backgrounds and, yes, symbols.

“When we showed [John William Godward’s ‘Dolce Far Niente’] to a forensic pathologist— a person who testifies in court about murder cases— he stated quite bluntly that the posture looked like a death scene.” This opinion is apparently based on the fact that the model is lying on her side with her knees drawn up, lying on a “haphazard” arrangement of furs. Well, authors, that position happens to be almost exactly how I sleep most nights – and if you look at the furs, you’ll see that they’re spread out so that every part of her but her lower legs and feet are cushioned by them. They’re not as tidy as a bed with hospital corners – but the disarray isn’t a sign of a struggle. (But hey – thanks for defining “forensic pathologist” for me.)

This was just terrible writing: “Godward’s parents became estranged from him, and because of his suicide they even went so far as to destroy references to their son in family records.” Why is this bad writing? Because it’s the second time in a very few pages that the reader is told that the parents erased Godward from their family history – but it’s the first time they let slip the little detail that he committed suicide.

The authors constantly show a weird exclusive bias toward fine art as possibly the only worthwhile field of study. Pre-twentieth century fine art, and only that, mind you!

“His influence— with his distortions and unusual anatomical perspective— led to some of the worst excesses in modern art, including the absurdities of cubism. Picasso seized on the idea, and as Tom Wolfe and Fred Ross point out, used it as an excuse to paint in such an unrealistic manner that art critics— desperate for something new to hang their hat on— elevated him to the status of a competent artist despite the fact that his drawing skills never advanced much further than those of a fledgling art student.”

YIKES. I’m not a fan of Cubism either, but I’ve never slandered Picasso’s ability to DRAW. What – those who can, paint; those who can’t, Cubist? The authors slander Impressionists a bit too – I mean, why else would you want your work to be impressionistic unless you were trying to disguise a lack of draftsmanship?

“The modern Guggenheim, where curators regularly exhibit works of debatable merit … When people go to the Guggenheim or other museums of modern art, they don’t have that specific intention, that is, they think they’re going to see good art and are then shocked by the garbage that’s on display”

OK. Wow. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I don’t loathe a lot of modern art. I’m not going to pretend that that moment the authors describe – of walking into a room filled with abstract art and truly wondering if the artists were pulling an elaborate, horrifyingly successful con on gullible patrons who will see what they’re told to see and think what they’re told to think – that this didn’t happen once to a friend and me in New Haven. But WOW. Don’t mince words, folks.

The authors certainly know nothing about literature: “In literature, a writer is said to have created a three-dimensional character when the individual possesses characteristics that ring true, usually because they go against type. A sheriff may have a foible or weakness that makes him less than perfect, a preacher may yearn for worldly goods, or a wife may have an affair.” Yes. Yes, absolutely, all the writing advice manuals suggest exactly this method for making a character three-dimensional. Brilliant.

“Isn’t architecture, after all, a tedious study of blueprints and stress factors and load weights? Isn’t architecture rock and stone and masonry? How could such a subject ever help a painter, especially one like Godward, whose specialty all his life was fair maidens, even a few tastefully depicted nude ladies swathed in ancient Greek and Roman togas and soft diaphanous gowns?” * paging Peter Grant … would Peter Grant please report for duty *

I did learn a couple of things. I hadn’t known, or remembered, that the slab the David was carved from was basically a reject of other artists, and the size and shape constrained Michelangelo’s posing of the figure. That’s great. I’d never heard of a “licked finish” before (though I had to go online to get a better definition telling WHY it’s called that). I didn’t know (or really care) that Oprah Winfrey bought Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer II – and then sold it to a Chinese collector, which I wish I hadn’t known. Apart from that I collected a short list of books to look for at some point – hopefully by writers with less nauseating styles and more data. One more quote: “You’ll probably be eager to tell your friends what they’ve been missing, too!” No. No, I’m not. I’m eager to tell my friends to avoid this book. Because despite all of these assertions, there is very little substance to what is “revealed”. If any.

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