Puzzled by art? Follow your eye -- to books Anxiety: There's nothing to fear but ignorance itself - and there's a simple way out of that.


Famous cliches corrected: "I don't know anything about art, so I'm afraid to like anything."

Sad but, alas, true: The world is full of people who are afraid to listen to classical music because they don't know what a fugue is, afraid to go to the ballet because they don't know what a pas de deux is, afraid to look at paintings because they don't know what cubism is.

Until very recently, I belonged to the last of these three unhappy groups. Then I made the following discoveries:

1. The way to fall in love with paintings is to go to a museum and look at them. That's all it takes.

2. The way to deepen your love is to read good books about the artists whose work has caught your eye.

3. The way to consummate your love is to buy folios containing good reproductions of the paintings you've seen.

The trick is to do these things in the right order. As a longtime book reviewer, I'm inclined by instinct to believe that the best way to learn about anything is to read a book about it. But art is different: I let the first 40 years of my life go by without ever really looking at a painting, and nothing I read during that time made me curious about what I was missing.

It was only when I walked into a museum in Kansas City last March and looked closely at a painting for the first time (Fairfield Porter's "Wheat," to be exact) that the lights went on. All at once, I realized that what I'd been missing was, quite literally, unimaginably wonderful. Nobody had told me that paintings were big, or that they weren't flat like a photograph, or that the colors were thrillingly vivid in a way no reproduction, however faithful, can fully convey. I had to see for myself - and once I looked, I was hooked.

I quickly discovered that once you've been bitten by the art bug, books can stoke the fever. It makes a difference, for example, when you know something about a painter's life, not so much in looking at his paintings as in shaping the way you think about them afterward. To read "The Painter of Modern Life: 1907-1917," the newly published second volume of John Richardson's magisterial "Life of Picasso" (Random House, 500 pages, $55), is to learn that Pablo Picasso's paintings did not emerge out of a vacuum: they were the work of a living, breathing man who led a wildly complicated personal life, no small part of which found its way onto his canvases.

When you've started to take an interest in the styles of specific artists, you'll find it useful to be able to place their work in historical perspective. Fortunately, the most popular introduction-to-art-history book ever published, E. H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art" (Phaidon, 688 pages. $29.95 paper), is also one of the best.

One of the handy things about this lavishly illustrated volume is that it sticks to familiar masterpieces, paintings you're likely to have heard of even if you know nothing else about art.

Just as important, Gombrich writes with the simplicity and straightforwardness of an expert who knows so much about his subject that he can afford to go right to the point: "Great works of art seem to look different every time one stands before them. They seem to be as inexhaustible and unpredictable as real human beings. It is an exciting world of its own with its own strange laws and its own adventures. Nobody should think he knows all about it, for nobody does ... I do not think that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture."

Critics as guides

What about criticism? I suggest you approach it with care. Especially today, art critics frequently have political axes to grind that may or may not shed light on the paintings about which they write. But there has always been - and still is - great art criticism, "great" in the sense that reading it opens your eyes to the way a superior mind experiences art.

It happens, for example, that Fairfield Porter, the painter who first caught my eye back in March, was also an outstanding art critic, perhaps the finest one this country has produced, and his reviews, collected in "Art in Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism, 1935-1975" (Zoland, 288 pages, $10.95, paper), will show you how a painter looks at painting. Another valuable book of criticism is Clement Greenberg's "Art and Culture: Critical Essays" (Beacon, 278 pages, $15, paper), a volume of essays and articles by the most influential of all American art critics - not necessarily to be agreed with, but invariably stimulating and thought-provoking.

Along with these books, you should acquire folios devoted to the artists whose work excites you most. The catalogs of "blockbuster" exhibitions devoted to a single figure are near-ideal starting points for the novice interested in learning more about an artist whose paintings he likes.

If you were lucky enough to see the great Cezanne show in Philadelphia this past summer, for instance, then "Cezanne" (Harry N. Abrams/Philadelphia Museum of Art, 600 pages, $75), the catalogue of that show, is a logical purchase.

But if that puts too much of a strain on your wallet, don't despair - there are good folios suitable to every budget. Karen Wilkin's "Paul Cezanne" (Abbeville, 287 pages, $11.95, paper), a recent addition to Abbeville Press' excellent "Tiny Folios" series, is a handsome miniature folio small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, featuring illuminating commentary by one of the best of today's art critics.

Now go look

Assuming all this has made you curious, what should you do first? Well, there's a show currently on display in Washington which offers an ideal opportunity to look at great paintings and then read about them: "Impressionists on the Seine," which is up at the Phillips Collection, my favorite small museum, through Feb. 9. Catch the next train to Union Station, and soon you'll be gazing at 60 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebotte, all of which are set on or near the Seine River in France. The centerpiece of the show is Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party," one of the indisputable five-star masterpieces of the French impressionist movement. (Incidentally, the Renoir is part of the Phillips' permanent collection, so you can go back and see it again and again even after the show closes.)

Having looked at these paintings, chances are you'll want to know more about them. So after you've seen the show, buy and read the catalogue, "Impressionists on the Seine: A Celebration of Renoir's 'Luncheon of the Boating Party' " (Counterpoint/Phillips Collection, 263 pages, $55). It contains excellent reproductions of all 60 paintings, accompanied by six thoughtful essays discussing various aspects of the exhibition.

What next? Do what I do: Follow your nose. If Renoir thrills you, make a point of seeking out more of his paintings. (Most American museums have at least a Renoir or two, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art has an especially rich and representative selection of his work.) Pick up a Renoir folio. Read what Clement Greenberg has to say about him in "Art and Culture."

If your reading makes you curious about other artists, check them out, too. Before you know it, you'll look up one day and notice that you've built a small library of art books - and that in the process, you've become passionate about art.

Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary. He also write the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, covers classical music and dance for the New York Daily News, reviews books for The Sun and the New York Times book review and writes about jazz for the Wall Street Journal. He is finishing "H. L. Mencken: A Life."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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