A middling work of art history and criticism by the noted literary essayist (Into the Looking-Glass Wood, 2000, etc.).
Manguel views art as a process of creation and destruction whose signs are to be found, often hidden in symbols and allegory, in every work. What those signs mean, he maintains, is variable: “No story elicited by an image is final or exclusive,” he writes, “and measures of correctness vary according to the same circumstances that give rise to the story itself.” That said, Manguel walks his readers through a highly selective, fascinating gallery of images, placing works by famed painters (Picasso, Caravaggio) alongside ones by lesser-knowns (Joan Mitchell, Aleijadinho) to serve as examples of the ideas behind art. Manguel’s reflections on artists and their oeuvre are refreshingly wide-ranging: in writing about the doomed Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, for instance, he name-checks Pliny, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Mehmet the Conqueror, Primo Levi, and Plutarch, among others, while an affectionate examination of the work of the little-known Renaissance portraitist Lavinia Fontana offers a learned synopsis of the work of just about every theoretician on perspective from antiquity to the 17th century. The essays are sometimes a little haphazard; of Modotti’s motives, for instance, we learn little more than “she opposed injustice,” and he describes a painting by the contemporary artist Marianna Gartner as “static, a moment deliberately pulled out of time”—which is to say, like nearly every other work of art ever made. Still, Manguel’s observations often hit the mark, in particular his account of Picasso’s often-studied Guernica, a fine example of art criticism that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that works at every level.
Intelligent and well-written, though also glancing and provisional.