If Paintings Could Talk: Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History

ks to educate myself, and my thirst for knowledge about art and artist has been growing since my earliest consciousness.

With this characteristically lucid, forthright and engaging opening, Paul Johnson the conservative British historian undertakes an ambitious and closely argued one volume survey of the story of art.

Johnson carefully articulates several of the basic assumptions that underlie his approach, assumptions that are, at the end of the day, fairly standard in art appreciation and general art history and which are indispensable for those undertaking this adventure.

First, art is the ordering of human experience, which helps us to understand and to control “the wild world of nature”. Second, many of the individual works of art now in museums were torn out of their intended context. One must make often make an intensely imaginative effort to place them back in their original milieu.

Thirdly, Johnson argues that since it is other human beings who make art rather than “disembodied intelligences,” knowing about their lives and struggles adds immeasurably to our enjoyment of the painting. As Johnson puts it, if paintings could speak they would have strange and illuminating tales to tell.

Finally, given the necessity of pleasing patrons that most artists labor under, we are compelled to see the artist as ultimately “a prisoner of his time and culture, albeit a willing one as a rule.” But while saying this, Johnson allows that it is possible for exceptionally gifted, obstinate and willful artists to break free from the prevailing canon and its restrictions, and eventually to carry society and the public with them towards a new artistic greatness. This transformative process was exemplified at the beginning of the 17th century by Caravaggio’s rejection of idealism and mannerism for a new norm of realism, albeit a highly theatrical one. And in his wake followed Rubens, Rembrandt and Velásquez, to name just the greatest.

Johnson’s book differs from the academic tradition best exemplified by Janson’s and Gombrich’s classic histories of art in two points. He goes out of his way to explore and praise many neglected artists of the 19th century: Realist painters well worthy of attention. Secondly, Johnson dismisses the dominant trend of 20th-century modernism as being too much in the nature of “fashion” art, which is to say a combination of novelty and skills with an unhealthy emphasis on the innovation.

What Johnson really enjoys are those paintings that illustrate the great historical temper of that pivotal century, especially those representing the theme of man’s mastering of nature. He singles out certain American painters—Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt—for the spirit of sublime their work encompasses. Even more interesting is Johnson’s rediscovery of such European realistic masters such as Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, and Anders Zorn, hardly household names in our time, who each found ways of painting “the modern world in hopes of improving it”.

Especially noteworthy is Johnson’s chapter on “The Belated Arrival and Somber Glories of Russian Art” in which he discusses such artists as Issak Levitan and Ilya Repin. Johnson even goes so far as to claim that Repin’s They Did Not Expect Him (1884) is “one of the greatest paintings produced in the 19th century—perhaps the greatest.” Why? The merit lies in forcing the viewer to participate in its drama and as a consequence imaginatively identifying with the people of Tsarist Russia. “This is the way it was like”, seems to Johnson to be the highest kind of praise of a picture.

It is somewhat surprising that he devotes scarcely a page each to such giants as Cézanne and van Gogh. One wishes this eminent conservative writer had reread Winston Churchill’s short essay Painting as a Pastime before he wrote these sections of the book. There he would have found one of his political heroes describing these two titans of modern art in very complimentary and generous terms.

It is when we get to his dismissal of the mainstream in 20th-century art that Johnson’s book becomes more problematic. His attempts to overturn all the accepted canons of modernism and reduce Picasso and Matisse to “frauds” rings hollow. These artists may indeed have been guilty of either following fashion or aiming to create it, but given Johnson’s assertion that aesthetic judgment is ultimately just an expression of subjective preference, it becomes difficult to see just on what basis he is so firm in his assessment of certain modern trends.

Be this as it may, it is clear that Johnson’s prefers the realist tendencies in art to the more metaphysical or fantastical. This is attested to by his high praise he reserves for such American artists as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. But how can Johnson condemn Picasso and Matisse for a slavishness to fashion or “playing to the peanut gallery” when at the same time he praises an artist as commercial in character as Norman Rockwell, and even goes so far as to allow Walt Disney as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century?

One is initially surprised to find Paul Johnson in the rarified atmosphere of art history. Since his first publication in 1976 on the Suez Canal, he has produced a book every few years on an amazing number of subjects. But never before has he turned his attention to the field of art or art history. His major achievements have been his narrative histories of the modern world and of the rise of Anglo-American civilization. In particular he has focused on the historical causes behind relative success of the political, social and economic institutions of the modern West. He has expressed admiration for the genius at work in modern liberal civilization, as well as contempt for those critics who tend to take this civilization’s attainments for granted, even as they subject them to withering criticism ultimately designed to discredit the Western experiment in the eyes of the broader public.

Johnson started out as a left wing journalist for the New Statesman but has long since ceased to find any appeal in the arguments of the left and is frequently to be read in the pages of such conservative organs as The National Review and The New Criterion in the United States and The Spectator in the United Kingdom. Johnson is in some sense a traditional British cultural conservative who above all believes in combining the principle of an ordered civil society under limited government with an ethic of individual responsibility and initiative.

Allusion to Johnson’s overall political principles brings me to my major observation on his work. Johnson may be identified as a political conservative in the mould of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and no doubt he would take such categorizing as a form of compliment. And yet on reading his work we are forced to the conclusion that there is a kind of radicalism to his thinking, which belies any simplistic conservative labeling. At some level Johnson is an innovator with a creative bent who rejects much of the present and wishes to shape elements of the future.

In one of the last sentences in the book he writes, “All the mistakes made in the last century can be corrected…The human race is in its infancy.” Indeed, his talk of order in this book turns paradoxical when it is considered in the light of the radical streak evident in his interpretation of the world and the human condition.

This is a book, which aims to rival the volumes of Sister Wendy Beckett, Robert Hughes and Thomas Hoving, and from an older generation those of Kenneth Clark. Whether or not Art: A New History attains to its ambition of being ranked with these earlier efforts its will be welcome to those general readers who want to learn about this immense field and to tour some of the creative peaks and valleys.

A couple of minor technical notes with which to conclude—this volume is without any notes, bibliography or list of works discussed. Although there are over 300 handsome illustrations in its pages there are works mentioned in the text, which are not illustrated or properly identified. Also it bears remarking that Johnson makes no allusion to the fact that today’s museums put most of their works online. In so doing these institutions are engaging in an educational mission unlike any the world has ever seen a museum without walls in the truest sense. Despite his radical streak, Johnson’s traditionalism perhaps led him to overlook the most exciting development of the last few years.