A critic keeping it surreal

The late John Updike’s essays on Joan Miro and other artists are collected in Always Looking, Carl Dixon reports

JOHN Updike is best-known for his work as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest was the darling of literary critics, particularly in his native America, and a serial best-seller.

It will come as no surprise that Updike was an English graduate, but what is sometimes overlooked is that he trained as a visual artist, studying at The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford, with the intention of becoming a cartoonist. That ambition was soon abandoned in favour of writing, but Updike always maintained an interest in the visual arts, and much of his work as a critic was devoted to the subject.

Always Looking is the third collection of Updike’s essays on art, and the first to be published posthumously. It follows Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), and includes more than 200 colour illustrations among its 15 essays. Most of these were written for The New York Review of Books, though the first, The Clarity of Things, is the text of the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities that Updike delivered in Washington in 2008.

The Clarity of Things explores the origins of American art, as promoted by “that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of Northern European descent” in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is perhaps typical of Updike that he ignores the art of Native Americans and other ethnic groups new to the continent at that time, but he does write engagingly about the 18th century portraitist John Singleton Copley, who eventually fled the New World for London, and his 19th century successors, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

In the essays that follow, Updike further explores the development of American painting, as practised by the likes of Gilbert Stuart and Frederic Edwin Church. He has great sport with a criticism Copley’s contemporary, Benjamin West, made of a portrait he submitted to an exhibition in London in 1766, to the effect that it was “too liney”.

Updike remarks that “a certain lineyness” and “a bias towards the empirical” are inevitable in American painting, “as the artist intently maps the visible in a New World that feels surrounded by chaos and emptiness”.

When he has done with the Americans, Updike turns his attention to the Europeans. He salutes Gustav Klimt as “a womaniser, in an era when womanising still had a good name” and remarks of the naked models in the artist’s studio, that they engaged in “a great deal of sprawling about, rear end foremost, or thighs generously spread”.

In fairness, Updike also insists on recognising Klimt as having “an awkward position on the threshold of modernism”, and he writes particularly well of Klimt’s great portrait of the 26-year-old socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer, made more famous again in 2006 by its purchase, by the cosmetics billionaire Ronald S Lauder, for $135 million.

As a critic, Updike pulls no punches. He writes of Max Beckmann, whose intentions he finds “ambiguous” at best, that he “could not, or would not, draw: his figures are lumpy and misshapen, with comically ponderous feet, and hands that are all fingers”. Updike remarks of Beckmann’s most famous painting, Falling Man, that “it is hard to know what is happening; the very sensation of falling is negated by the foot that just reaches over the top edge of the canvas, so that the man seems to be more dangling than falling”.

In his essay on Joan Miro, Updike asks: “What is a painting? Since Impressionism, the answer must be ‘some square inches of paint’”. Updike dismisses much of Miro’s work of the 1930s as “ugly cartooning, garish and mock-primitive”, but admires the Constellation series of gouaches the artist completed early in the following decade. Still, he concludes that Miro “had the grand modernist impulse to formulate a new religion, but the privacy of his materials left the iconography thin”.

He is more admiring of René Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist whose mother drowned herself in the river near their home when he was 13. Magritte would later recall that when her body was found – all of 17 days later – “her face was covered by her nightdress”. Updike acknowledges that this might well be a false memory – a sort of wishful thinking on Magritte’s part in later life – but also suggests that “the many veiled or absent or exploded or impassive or averted heads of the paintings here have a psychic source”. Then again, Updike also suggests that the artist’s obsession with anonymous men in raincoats and bowler hats might best be explained by the contemporary filmmaker, Jaco Van Dormael’s assertion that “Belgium is an absence of identity”.

Updike is wise to the paradoxes of contemporary art. In his essay on Roy Lichtenstein, he remarks coolly that “the art establishment loves nothing better than packageable anti-establishmentarian”.

Always Looking is not so up to speed as to include Updike’s thoughts on the likes of Jeff Koons and his production line method of creation, but the concluding essay on Richard Serra does draw attention to the fact that his massive steel sculptures are made to his specification by a plant in Germany. One senses that Updike approves with some reluctance, observing that Serra has “a considerable involvement”, at foundry level.

It might be observed of Always Looking that Updike only writes about artists whose achievements have already been validated by mainstream museums and collectors. There is nothing here to suggest that he spent time seeking out the next big thing in graduate exhibitions or backwater galleries and studios. This might be attributed to the fact that these essays were written to commission, and Updike only covered what was asked of him. But there is also the lurking suspicion that Updike was never unduly concerned with very much beyond the mainstream. That was his metier, as a creative writer and critic, and though he writes exceedingly well on his subjects, he is also guilty of a certain smugness: one senses he enjoys describing the sneaker scuff-marks that unruly children have left on the lower reaches of Serra’s sculptures, as much as he enjoys describing the artworks themselves.

*John Updike: Always Looking (Hamish Hamilton, £25 Hardback)

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