THE ART OF ARTS by Anita Albus


Rediscovering Painting
by & translated by
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Not exactly art history, not exactly critical analysis, but a rambling meditation on the aesthetics, materials, and purposes of Northern Renaissance oil paintings.

Artist and writer Albus veers between sparkling observations, curious historical detail, and vapid pontifications on artistic genius, art criticism, and life in general. When she stands before specific canvasses and points out their most striking features, her comments are unexpected and illuminating: a three-page summary of van Eyck’s “Madonna of Chancellor Rolin,” for example, revels in every detail of the painting’s miniature world (cherishing the “tiny people” who stroll “along the winding path between the vineyards up to the wood on the hill, or chat to a neighbor under the lime-tree in a suburban square”). Art viewers in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance were trained to find innumerable layers of symbolism in visual images, and Albus provides leisurely, medieval-style explications of allegorical elements (including an explanation of the mysterious magpies in the “Madonna” that manages to be both playful and scrupulously researched). A discussion of a still life by Georg Flegel, a later follower of the school of van Eyck, unpacks the meaning of the elements it combines—“A glass of wine, a clay pipe, a roll of tobacco with a little pile alongside, a sheet of paper, a burning fuse, and two strawberries”—wandering over the history of smoking, the botanical and mythological significance of strawberries, the theory of the four humors, and the development of glass-blowing. Unfortunately, however, the author feels compelled to interrupt herself with mechanical attacks on “theory” in art criticism, accompanying her rants with grand-sounding but meaningless abstractions like “Nothing living can absolutize itself in the flowing stream of time without drowning in it as a corpse of illusion.” Still, the final chapter, which catalogues the thrillingly exotic and expensive materials (malachite, azure) used as pigments during the Renaissance, offers some thrills to make up for the pronouncements that bog down the work.

Genuine insights into Northern Renaissance painting, mixed with minutiae and impenetrable philosophizing. (b&w illustrations; 12 pp. color illustrations, 10 color gatefolds, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-40099-0
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2000


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