I’ve been meaning to read Updike ever since I asked one of my favorite authors, Ian McEwan who his favorite author was and he replied: John Updike. Since I also love reading about art – often laughing out loud at the hilarious reviews like “he must have painted this while falling downstairs” – I was thrilled to discover that Updike had written several essays about art in a book entitled Just Looking published about 30 years ago – AND it includes pictures of most of the art he writes about. This is a book to be enjoyed on many levels.
Here he is writing about his first impressions as a young man of his visits to MOMA:
“Gaiety, diligence and freedom, a freedom from old constraints of perspective and subject matter, a freedom to embrace and memorialize the world anew, a fearless freedom drenched in light: this was what I took away, each time, from my visits.”
This kind of transformative experience is what we all hope for (well I do, being largely an optimist!) when visiting a museum. His was a pursuit of beauty:
“..the pleasures of the eye, which of all our sensory pleasures are the most varied and constant and for modern man, the most spiritually pliable, the most susceptible to that sublimation called, in pre-modern times, beauty. “
As a result of his early visits to the museum (though alas not later) he felt “That beauty and its fanatic pursuit persist” within the art world.
He made a pilgrimage to visit every Vermeer hanging in a public museum – thankfully for him(though alas, not for the art world) there are but 40. These paintings, he felt, are “the loveliest objects that exist on canvas”. What a wonderful pilgrimage, to travel round the world to find the loveliest paintings! I wonder whether in a few years admirers will travelling to see the loveliest quilts! It would be excellent to think that someone somewhere is making work that will stand the test of time as well as Vermeer. Not that he did very well in his own time. He was an art dealer and supported his family of eleven children by selling other painters’ work as well as his own and by acting as an art consultant. When he died, his widow used some of his paintings to pay off the bills and others were sold for very little.
And so it goes!
Updike writes a wonderful description of his visit to a “blockbuster” Renoir show at the Boston Museum of Art where ticketed patrons had to queue for some time to get in to see the show:
“Half of the males looked like George Bush at assorted points in his evolution wearing end-of-summer suits and that blinking, stooping air of wry martyrdom with which Boston-area men escort their wives to cultural events’ and the other half looked like post-Howl Allen Ginsberg, outfitted by L.L. Bean.”
And he finishes the description with this hilarious line:
“It is no small compliment to Renoir’s vitality to say that he wasn’t trampled underfoot”!
Would that there were authors writing so elegantly about visiting quilt shows!
Well, I’m off for a cuppa tea…..if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth
PS Do recommend any art essays that you’ve come across that are as well and as interestingly (and jargon free!) written as these by Updike.