Review of “Reading Pictures” by Alberto Manguel, nthposition 2003

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Its almost become a cliché to cite Frank Zappa’s (alleged) quote that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” when decrying the tendency of music writing to hyperbole and the piling up of adjectives in an attempt to capture the uncapturable. Art manages to inspire almost as much verbiage. The normally spot-on Craig Brown’s parodies of Turner-Prize-speak are rather laboured, but do reveal a truth about writing on art: much of it isn’t very good, and consists largely on tendentious speculation about “what it’s all about.”

In his opening chapter, the always-fascinating Alberto Manguel tries to explain what his book is all about. It proves rather difficult to pin down – “I began this book thinking I would write about our emotions and how they affect (and are affected by) our reading of works of art. I seem to have ended up far, very far, from my imagined goal.” Manguel is a literary wanderer; literally, as evinced by the cosmopolitan variety of art he discusses), and figuratively, in his de Quincey like love of digression – digression which somehow ends up being to the point.

The language of art criticism is increasingly abstract, leading to the disconnection from the average viewer’s experience of art that Brown parodies. For most of history this was not so: art dealt in a language, symbolic and direct, that most viewers could readily decipher. Manguel’s essays are experiments in deciphering art, though at the very outset he is sceptical that this can even be done; quoting Whistler’s dictum “Art happens”, he adds “I don’t know whether he said it with a feeling of resignation or of joy.”

Twelve artworks provide the springboard for reflections on the image. Although titled ‘Reading Pictures’ the book also deals with photography, sculpture, architectural model cities, the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus at Pompeii and the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, and in his conclusion, Manguel laments the lack of space to write on billboards, on installations, on conceptual art, and the sundry other protean forms of art. He writes “every image in nothing but a dab of colour, a trick of stone, a trick of light on the retina [..] and yet, such reductions offer no explanation, no clue as to what is constellated in our mind when we see a work of art that, implacably, seems to demand reaction, translation, learning of some kind – and perhaps, if we are lucky, a small epiphany.”

As befits a friend of Jorge Luis Borges and editor of The Book of Imaginary Places, there’s a dizzying amount of erudition on display. We read how Caravaggio’s ‘The Seven Acts of Mercy’ would have been read as a rebuke to the desiccated charity of the pious Society who commissioned it, how the crippled Brazilian sculptor Aleijadinho subverted the braquaemento (“whitening” – meaning the gradual “evolutionary” whitening of multiracial Brazil) of his society. We read of Picasso’s deliberate brutality to his lovers, of Mexican radical photographers and the portrayal of the Virgin Mary’s lactation in Renaissance art.

The story of Lavinia Fontana’s ‘Portrait of Tagnina’ is of especial interest. Tagnina was a “hairy girl” who, along with her family, was a sort of resident freak show at various 16th century European Courts. Fontana, as a female artist, was equally a “monster”, and Manguel reads the painting as a sympathetic, defiant call of like to like. His skill is such that the Borgesian cascade of allusion and reference – discussions of “hairiness” as suggestive of wildness and sexuality, of the belief that the face is a marker for the soul – dovetails unobtrusively with an imaginative, sympathetic projection of Fontana’s feelings when painting Tagnina.

Manguel is particularly stimulating discussing the hardest style of painting to “read”: abstraction. He places abstraction in a tradition of “the enshrinement of silence” – the refusal of the Cynics of Ancient Greece to enter into dialogue, the Biblical prohibition of graven images, the tradition of the hermit, history’s periodic outbreaks of iconoclasm, leading to a 20th century refusal to portray what cannot be expressed. The refusal to be read leads to the possibility of infinite readings. As he writes, “when we are confronted with a work of art, this may be our only possible response: the equivalent of a prayer of thanks for that which allows us [..] an infinite multitude of readings, readings that, at our best and fondest, hold the possibility of enlightenment.”

In the essay inspired by the copy of Philoxenus’ mosaic of Alexander at Issus found at Pompeii, Manguel focuses on a detail – a dying Persian soldier beneath the fleeing Darius, looking at his reflection in his shield. A portrait is a mirror, argues Manguel, and one feels that “all art is a mirror” is implied: “In this intimate relationship a new identity is formed in which sitter, artist and observer become all at once one and the same.” Nothing is ever insisted upon; Manguel is the least dogmatic of authors, yet this seems to me to be the key to the book.

Does the book need its central conceit? It might work equally well a simple book of essays. The issue of whether or not there is a language with which we can “read pictures” often seems irrelevant to the brilliant detours through obscure histories. Yet one must admire the author for taking it on, and it gives the essays a sort of backbone. With Borgesian modesty, Manguel concludes the book with the claim that it is “made of haphazard notes and indecisions.” This haphazard course gives the book its power, and just as with his “prayer of thanks”, one feels an infinite multitude of readings are possible in the mirrors of art he has created.

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