All you need to know to make a masterpiece
What makes a masterpiece? What is it about a piece that makes the hair stand on end, the blood boil, the pulse race and the eyes widen in wonder? Why are some paintings so effective and so unapologetically and brutally authentic that walking into a room with them, you can feel their presence humming off the walls, even before your eyes have crossed the room to try and take them in?
This is the question Thames and Hudson are trying to answer in a new book that features contributions from dozens of artists, historians and critics on what constitutes a truly great piece of art. Seventy submissions are richly illustrated with in-depth essays in this 300-page glossy behemoth of a book. Philip Pullman is getting all excited about Edouard Manet; Quentin Blake is driven to distraction by Degas; Christopher Dell (who edited the book) is bewitched by Rembrandt; and Martin Kemp (the learned professor, that is, not the acting Spandau Ballet-er) plays to the crowd and plumps for Leonardo da Vinci, in an essay that Christopher Dell reckons is a “groundbreaking” interpretation of the most famous picture in the world.
It would be foolish to argue with any of the selections in this book (which is a terrific collection and a blisteringly concise history of more than 2,000 years of art). But what is odd is that Dell has chosen to end the selection at 1900 (with Vilhem Hammershoi’s Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, if you must know). This point, as he writes, marks “the cusp of modernity in Western art”. I’m not sure exactly what his reasons for this cut-off point are, but there is one telling sentence: “It is also true that the 20th century saw the final overthrow of technical virtuosity as a prerequisite of a masterpiece: increasingly, it is ideas that count.”
I think this last line is bunkum, and if I were to be asked to make a similar submission to an expanded version of this book, there are two immediate candidates: my first encounter with the work of Mark Rothko, and an amazing discovery in a Beirut art dealer’s studio a few weeks ago. The first time I saw Rothko in the flesh in all its unearthly glory, it was almost like being punched. The air gets sucked out of the room by his best pieces, and I don’t think I have ever been acutely afraid of a painting before. I’ve tried to see Rothkos as often as possible since then, and the effect has almost always been the same.
Be afraid. Be very afraid
The more recent event was the work of a (to me) unknown artist, which I will write about in more detail at a later date. About two weeks ago, Fadi Mogabgab, a Beiruti art dealer and gallery owner, was kind enough to lend me a morning and show me some of his works, from his private collection and those for sale in his gallery in the Lebanese capital. Among these was a self portrait by a French artist that Mogabgab reckoned was fine enough “to hang alongside Velazquez”. He is not wrong, and the shock of seeing something that good outside of the usual confines of a national gallery was a pleasure I’ll carry around with me for a very long time.
But back to Christopher Dell, and his key point, namely that technical virtuosity is no longer a prerequisite for a masterpiece, which I think is misguided. Yes, art is all about subjectivity, and yes there are plenty of successful artists who don’t actually appear to have the good manners to be actually good at painting, drawing or sculpting in the traditional core sense. Instead, they trade largely on their wit, ideas and media savvy, and make what are often good piece of art, but would they truly be called masterpieces? I don’t think any of them has yet to make a work of art that will still be revered in a few centuries and can take their place comfortably beside the likes of Velazquez.
What Makes a Masterpiece? Encounters with Great Works of Art, edited by Chrsitpher Dell, is published by Thames and Hudson (€30)