22 July 2006

This book

What Painting Is, by James Elkins, is kind of odd. The book is all about one metaphor, explored in great detail. Elkins wants us to understand that painting and alchemy are the same. I must admit that he gets off to a great start. He's an art history academic who was once a practicing artist, and he is inspiring in his ability to describe the obsessive, seductive, overwhelming fascination of playing with colored mud. From the Introduction:
According to the Library of Congress there are over 7,400 books on the history and criticism of painting, enough for several lifetimes of reading. Another 1,500 books cover painters’ techniques—most of them popular artists’ manuals describing how color wheels work, or how to paint birds and flowers. In all that torrent of words I have found less than a half-dozen books that address paint itself, and try to explain why it has such a powerful attraction before it is trained to mimic some object, before the painting is framed, hung, sold, exhibited and interpreted. But I know how strong the attraction of paint can be, and how wrong people are who assume painters merely put up with paint as a way to make pictures. I was a painter before I trained to be an art historian, and I know from experience how utterly hypnotic the act of painting can be, and how completely it can overwhelm the mind with its smells and colors, and by the rhythmic motions of the brush. [footnote removed]
Reading that made me really want to find out what he had to say. Unfortunately, the book would have been better as an essay—i.e., shorter. In Chapter 1 Elkins takes his single metaphor and pushes it, hard. Then you get to chapter two, and he keeps going.

For the rest of the book.

It doesn't take too long before the metaphor starts to get strained. We learn a lot about the different processes of classical alchemy and the bizarre ways that alchemists thought about them. For each process, Elkins comes up with a (usually) strained comparison to how painters work with their materials. If I happened to be deeply interested in the practice of alchemy (both historical and modern) as well as painting, I'm sure that I would have had lots of "eureka" moments as I read this. But even though I am fascinated by painting and sort of interested in wierd and arcane bits of history, Elkins lost me somewhere around the middle of the book as it became clear that his metaphor was all he had. It's just not quite enough to justify a whole book.

And what's really painful is that I'm sure Elkins felt like he was leaving a lot out. This is an interesting and quirky essay, stretched into a short-ish book, that wishes it was a really long book, with a whole lot more footnotes.

In other words, Elkins is even more of an art geek than I am. I'm impressed by that, but I can't recommend the book unless you are one of the seven other people who share these two interests with Elkins. If you are, and you didn't know this book existed, then you're going to love it.


Gregg from Houston said...

Another book that might interest you if you have not already mentioned it is:
"Colors" by Victoria Finlay. Do an Amazon search for it. The following is a quote from Booklist:
"Journalist Finlay travels the world in search of ancient sources of natural colors, recounting along the way the surprising chemical processes by which everything from stones to insects to mummies have been transformed into precious pigments for paint, dyes, and varnish."
I just finished it. It kept up my interest to the end, although I wish some of her chapters were longer.

David said...


Thanks. I'll check it out.