An eminent scholar and critic collects her essays from 30 years of writing about art.
President of the Royal Society of Literature and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, Warner (Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction, 2018, etc.) brings her capacious knowledge of myth, fairy tale, aesthetics, religion, and literature to these erudite and luminous essays on art and artists. Previously published between the 1980s and 2017, the essays fall into four sections: “Playing in the Dark,” which examines connections to child’s play in the works of artists such as Paula Rego and Kiki Smith; “Bodies of Sense,” focused on how bodies become “theme and instrument” for five artists who investigate their own “teeth, hair, feet, skin, blood, semen, sweat” as “the principal arena of debate and the chief subject of representation”; “Spectral Technologies,” which considers artists’ “desire to capture mental images beyond empirical experience”; and “Iconclashes,” which examines artists as diverse as Hieronymus Bosch and Damien Hirst, whose work speaks to the “struggle over images today: over what they mean, how we interact with them and why they matter so much.” Warner sees art criticism as an aesthetic project in its own right, not merely “an accompaniment, as a pianist plays for a singer.” When writing about artists, “I try to unite my imagination with theirs, in an act of absorption that corresponds to the pleasure of looking at art.” She succeeds impressively. In a sensitive appraisal of Felicity Powell, whose art includes iconoclastic medallions, Warner describes Powell as “elegant, thoughtful, fascinating,” with “an unusual and poetic imagination and great curiosity about lesser-known corners of mythology and art.” That description could apply to Warner’s writing, whether she’s discussing Louise Bourgeois’ decapitated nudes and aggressively maternal spiders; Smith’s astonishing “inverse paradise” and “creaturely empathy”; Sigmar Polke’s interest in materials’ “capacity for transformation, their powers to poison and heal”; or her disappointment in Hirst’s art, which has “too many comprehensible metaphors with no outer rings of mystery and resonance.”
Fertile, probing responses to the transformative power of art.