The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: A new exhibition argues the Renaissance drawing was the height of achievement, a rollicking history of anarchists, and what exactly were Chopin’s sexual passions?
The Cult of the Renaissance Sketch
Which rates higher, the Renaissance drawing or the Renaissance painting? The critic James Hall considers the question in the TLS this week, reviewing the catalogue of the exhibition Fra Angelico to Leonardo that is currently at the British Museum in London.
Giorgio Vasari, one of the first to take a view, regarded drawings as the building block of the finished works, collecting, and framing them in elaborate mounts but seeing them as very much a means to an end. Vasari, as Hall recounts, rarely mentions individual drawings when recounting the lives of the great artists. Then, under the eyes of the 18th-century connoisseur, the status of drawings changed; they became primordial visual expression. The child was superior to the man, and the cult of the sketch was born. Puritanism and intellectual snobbery played a part, too. When the poet Schiller saw the Italian paintings in the Dresden Gallery, he said: “All very well; if only the cartoons were not filled with color. I cannot get rid of the idea that those colors do not tell me the truth.” Hall notes the title of the British Museum’s last drawings blockbuster, Michelangelo: Closer to the Master (2006), as typical. Only through the drawings, it insisted, do we breathe the same air as genius. A few wax and clay models were also included. The level of intimacy went from the sublime to the mundane, however, as critics swooned over Michelangelo's shopping lists and poems on the same bits of paper as the studies for his greatest works.
The British Museum’s exhibition is a return to the older view. Most of the drawings are studies for a painting, and where that painting exists, small color reproductions are shown alongside, or massive projections overhead. Several of Vasari’s drawings, still in their mounts, are included. The show is strikingly different in conception from the exhibition in 2006. It could justly be subtitled: “Closer to the end product.” Two preparatory drawings—by Lorenzo Monaco and Raphael—are shown next to the relevant panel painting. Other drawings, by artists such as Mantegna, are shown next to the print derived from them. Hall declares the result to be “the most expansive and thought-provoking drawings exhibition I have seen.”
Will any of today's terrorists become cuddly icons of the future? Phil Baker reviews Alex Butterworth's The World That Never Was, a 150-year history of anarchists who have very varying reputations today.
From cries of “Long live dynamite!” to arguments for vegetarianism, the anarchist cause has been a very broad church. United—if at all—by a resistance to imposed authority, the characters range from the almost Tolstoyan figure of Peter Kropotkin to the far wilder François Koenigstein, better known as Ravachol. Kropotkin was the great theorist of Mutual Aid and critic of Darwinism who had a soft spot for the rabbit as a species, admiring it as “the symbol of perdurability [that] stood out against selection.” Ravachol, on the other hand, began his career by disinterring an old woman’s corpse, murdered a 95-year-old man, and then embarked on a terror bombing campaign which some commentators romanticized for the perpetrator’s “courage, his goodness, his greatness of soul.” Although it has always had highly intelligent proponents and sympathizers, anarchism has also been dogged by a reputation for ill-directed violence, leading to what Butterworth describes as “the movement’s pariah status in perpetuity.” While concentrating on the more lurid end of the anarchist tendency, Butterworth at least tries to treat his pariah subjects with a counterbalancing sympathy.
Lastly, from this week's TLS, the sex life of the genius and the proper approach for a biographer. JPE Harper-Scott considers Adam Zamoyski's life of Chopin finding the author “impatient with biographers who have attempted to clarify Chopin’s sexual life.” For Zamoyski, “an adolescent obsession with Konstancja Gladkowska was unconsummated, and the superficially plausible evidence of Chopin’s homoerotic relationship with Tytus Woyciechowski unpersuasive.” Even in adulthood, sex barely comes between Chopin and his piano. If other biographers have dwelt on his relationship with Countess Delfina Potocka, it is only because they are “distressed to find a sexual blank in Chopin’s first six years in Paris”; similarly, his interest in the 16-year-old daughter of his father’s former lodger, to whom he subsequently proposed, “hardly [showed] signs of passion.” Zamoyski may be right, Harper-Scott concludes, but finds it typical of his dehumanizing of Chopin that every sexual partner but one, George Sand, is excluded from Chopin’s world and that even in this relationship, the emphasis on her nursing and mothering is predominant. "The discredited 19th-century view of the non-corporeal, spiritual subjectivity of the artist should have no place in biography today. It does neither subject nor biographer credit to repeat it.”
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy . He is also the author of Thirty Days , a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.