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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 9, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    All you need to know to make a masterpiece

    Laurence Mackin

    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)

    • Robespierre says:

      Seems quite short-sighted alright. Certainly the early work of Dali like his portrait of his father or the early paintings of his wife show off his technical excellence as a classically trained artist who in contrast to even the likes of Hockney can draw. Similarly, the is more than enought evidence in the work of Kandinsky, Magritte, Chagall and Kalo to name but a few more who worked with several mediums and who could draw. Chagal in particular worked with stained glass, pastel and oils. He has a beautiful stained glass panel in Cathédrale of Notre Dame de Reims in France.

      It also seems remarkable to ignore so much sculpture when early masterpieces post Fra Angelico and Giotto were commissioned statues. Rodin was active long after 1900 and I would challenge anyone to suggest his unknown soldier in Verdun is not merely a masterpiece but a remarkable piece of public art in a poignant place.

      As to the wider interpretation of his general point, some would agree with it. Robert Hughes did once ask why it is that if artists say they are willing to suffer for their art do so few learn to draw. Hockney’s portraits a few years ago lacked technical excellence and finesse. Lucien Freud on the other is a marvellous portrait artist and is straight out of Goya’s black period. Terrible and yet compelling.

    • Trish says:

      Though I’m not really equipped to intellectualise it, I completely agree with you that 20th century art can have (at least) as great an impact as that by the classic names. In fact in my experience, I am usually underwhelmed when confronted by the original works of some of the greats, while those that have not appeared as jigsaws and birthday cards the world over can jump out and hit you in a much more forceful way.
      There is a fantastic abstract expressionist exhibition at MOMA in New York at the moment. It includes an array of Rothko’s work which for me in any case are among the most physically overwhelming and beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Do yourself a favour & visit if you can…..

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Robespierre – Agree with most of that, and I love that Rober Hughes quote, though I’ve struggled to find the original verbatim. Rodin is in the mix here but not for his 20th century work – he gets the nod for Iris Messenger of the Gods from 1895.

      Trish – I saw a number of his works the last time I was there, in June or July, and tried to track down his last studio. I was on the right street at the right number, but no sign of a plaque. I wonder was it ripped down? I also saw the big exhibition in the Tate a few years back, which was fantastic (even if the paintings were hung too high). There was a very scientific and brilliant analysis of how he painted, showing how he built up layers of colout and pigment, and it really illustrated the genius, craft and pure Sisyphean graft that went into making those barely fathomable colour fields. And I bought some Rothko fridge magnets. Awesome.

    • My father took me to one of America’s best art museums, the National Gallery of Art. Here I learned two things: 1. My artistic tastes (Joan Miro’s huge mobile hanging from the ceiling and Dali’s Last Supper) and my father’s (Dutch Masters and french impressionists) are two different things. 2. I love art that is tangile (like Dali’s Lobster Phone, or lips Sofa). However what amuses me is when you read the caption of what it supposed to be. My absolute favorite memory of this occasion is when the my father and I (19 at the time) were walking along the modern art wing and we saw a painting that looked like spilled paint and my dad says for all to hear “You gotta be Shitting me” when he read what it was.
      What I like about 20th Century art is that it can be both soul stirring and a flight of fancy (said mobiles, lobster phone), it is not just fruit arranged on a cloth or someones portrait.

    • robespierre says:


      It is buried somewhere in The Shock of the New. Past mid-way after Pollock. Where he starts getting frustrated by the post modernist and abstract art.

      I have to say that the work of Rothko while impactful leaves me cold. Reminds me a bit of Patrick Scott. Attractive and yet forgettable.

    • marco says:

      There is too much arty-farty nonsense talked about masterpieces these days ! A masterpiece was a work executed by an aspirant ‘artist’ in order to be evaluated by his peers in order to gain acceptance into a guild or ‘arte’, in order to allow him access to the markets in a given town or region! Of course the ‘artist’ would be evaluated on his technical ability as well as his skills in dexterity and draughtsmanship – something so often sadly lacking today – fostered by sub-standard art colleges, who are more interested in encouraging students to “express themselves”! This explains why currently we are awash with so much poor ‘art’. As a visually impoverished generation that tends to accept anything, and evaluates works according to the, “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like”, mentality, it is hardly surprising that the book in question pulled the plug at 1900. However, by not engaging with more modern works and confronting the issue, the author, and the publishers, are failing in their duty to attempt to educate a wider public and to address seriously the extremely thorny, but fascinating subject, of “what is a masterpiece?” – a problem, incidentally, that even Leo Tolstoy found difficult to answer in his essay of that title! They also do a disservice to the great artists of the modern era, for simply, any discussion of this topic that failed to include Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, Mondrian’s ‘Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey’ , or Jackson Pollock’s’ No.14, 1948′ (among others), simply misses the point!

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Jennifer – I will be there in January! Delighted and intrigued even more so now after your post. When you say tangile, do you mean tactile? Or tangible? Or is this a new word I’m not familiar with? I agree with you about art such as the Lobster Phone, but I think this is the point of this particular book – its editor reckons that the kind of art you refer to is clever and witty, but not beautifully made. The point is the idea, not the execution, and this has come to define 20th- and 21st-century art.

      Robespierre – Terrific, thanks for pointing that out. I reckon I’ll just have to read the whole book instead again. As for Rothko, you’re entitled to your opinion. I mean it’s a wrong opinion, but you are entitled to it :) . I can’t say I find Rothko’s paintings attractive, for me they are more in the “terrible beauty” vein, much like Francis Bacon (another favourite). That’s not to say I’m not completely in awe of them.

      Marco – I don’t think the publishers have a “duty to attempt to educate a wider public”. That sounds like the function of a publicly funded publicaiton or institution to me, not a private art-book publisher. I agree they shouldn’t have pulled the plug at 1900, but this is a very good book. I suspect economics made the decision – more time would have meant more pages, and perhaps given that the missing works are more recent and fresher in the memory, there might be scope for a new book altogether.

    • Sorry Laurence, texting has made me horrible at spelling as I am all thumbs. I meant tangible, although I like the use of the word tactile in this sense too. I do have a question, Is the museum of Modern Art in Dublin the one at the Royal hospital near Kilmainham Gaol or this in a different location? It the one museum in Dublin I have not seen, along with the writers museum.

      Our National Gallery of Art in Washington is amazing and in no way can be seen in one day. Please take my advice , any one reading this blog, DO NOT take the stupid tour. It is best enjoyed wondering around and looking at everything on you own. A word of warning, do get a map . The one really magnificant peace of art is not in a museum but on the Mall, the Vietnam Momemorial or the Wall. It is a huge piece of granite (I think) in a simple design, that has carved into it the names, age, rank of all of those we lost in the Vietnam Conflict When you go to see this, the reaction comes from watching others looking for the names of those they lost to the horrors of war. It is amazing both as a piece of art and as a tribute to those that served.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Jennifer – It is indeed, and it has some excellent shows at the moment. Don’t forget to walk around the gardens as well, one of the nicest green spaces in the city. And thanks for the advice on the US National Gallery

    • Laurence, your welcome. I have visited Dublin twice already since last December, and will be visiting again in 3 weeks. I have visited many things Kilmainham Gaol, Collins Baracks, the GPO, Trinity College, etc and always seem to run out of time. The art museum has been on my list since my first visit, but this time I am determined to see it. I heard from another American that it was just amazing. I will also check out the gardens, because one of my favorite places in Dublin is St. Stephen’s Green.

      I hope you enjoy visiting our capital, as much as I enjoy visiting Dublin. Be sure to check our the National Cathedral as well.

    • BR says:

      Out of every era and in whatever discipline (especially fine art) exceptional individuals (especially artists) will capture the mood, concerns and interests of the prevailing zeitgeist for posterity and up until a certain point in history art was more or less representational.

      Some say Velázquez’ Las Meninas (1656) was a turning point where art became more that representational and hence could have been the precursor (albeit much later) of conceptual art. [Btw I don’t agree that Las Meninas was other than representational, since in my opinion (and the opinion of one other person on the Internet as far as I could trawl some years ago) most likely Velázquez placed a huge mirror at one end of the room and placed all the subjects including himself in front of the mirror and then painted what he saw and so Las Meninas is in effect a mirror image. When I mentioned this to a son o’mine, he said if that were the case then everything in the painting would be inverted (as in every mirror image) and hence Velázquez would have been left-handed in reality, since in Las Meninas Velázquez is holding the brush in his right hand, but no search I made revealed anything to confirm Velázquez left-handedness, or right-handedness for that matter. There is much more to this but I digress……….and all of the above is not to say that my desert island luxury item would not be Las Meninas the original – I could look at that painting forever.]

      Anyway to cut a long and winding comment short I think 1900 is a good cut-off point for appreciating the pre-modern masterpiece and some future work of compilation involving Art Historians/critics will surely revel in the “masterpieces” of conceptual art in modernity/post-modernity.
      PS – Don’t forget the colour RED has a very strong psychological impact and you may be confusing this effect with the profound impact that the Rothko piece (above) has on your appreciation of this work. Consider this (albeit not very academic) excerpt from the Psychology of Colors (sic) re the colour red:
      Red is the most arrogant, attention-grabbing, and energetic color of the spectrum. In terms of temperature, it is the warmest color. Emotionally, we relate red to love and passion. Red is the color associated with our hearts: roses are red, and so are boxes filled with chocolates on Valentine’s Day. It is the color that excites us most and makes us take notice–the color of stop signs, fire engines, and alarms. Red is an in-your-face color that demands your attention, not a color that sits idly by waiting for you to take notice. Because red excites us, it is not the choice of color in psychiatric wards, prisons, or hospitals. Excessive subjection to red can lead to agitation, anger, and even violence.

      Advertisers and designers who understand this can easily manipulate our attention with it. Sale items in stores display red tags. Fast sports cars, and now, even not-so-fast cars are often painted red http://www.informit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=22782

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      BR – Yep, aware of the effect of red on me, I do have a pre-disposition to it. Even so, much of Rothko’s work I’ve seen has the same, consistent effect. The Untitled colour fields, especially the red, just ramp it up that extra notch. It’s definitely the man, not just the shade.

    • J says:

      This discussion of the 1900 cut of point can not be resolved in the blog post. But, why should it? It’s almost like it was chosen by the editors and authors not so much out of necessity to end somewhere, but as a bold question mark that was meant to stimulate the gasp “and what now? Is this it?” to come out of the reader’s mouth…
      I will most certainly reach for the book, but this debate brought to my mind a certain experience, a bit like Jennifer’s discovery in Washington, which helped me not so much to shape my view on the art of 20th century, as feel it through tingling in my fingertips, making my lips fell numb, huge palm reaching out of flat canvas, grabbing my guts, squeezing them and pulling me so close that my nose breathes with nothing but turpentine… It was visiting the Picasso and the masters exhibition in Grand Palais in Paris last year.
      With a confusion surrounding every aspect of my life back then it was a great 24h escape with no sleep, a therapeutic trip to bring back belief in something out in the world that will not only outlive me and any of my problems, but with it’s sheer grandness, the bright light of it’s universal beauty will burn all dark shades surrounding me. There must have been an element of mysticism in queuing outside Grand Palais in the middle of the night to get in for my designated ticket at 3.30 am, in drinking dense like a tar and disgustingly sweet hot chocolate when coffee was long gone from supplies of gallery café, just to make sure the body was able for what the soul was so hungry… Anyway, gathered from around the world, kidnapped from their safe and prestigious environs of MOMA’s, Prados’, Gugenheims, here they were: Rembrandt, Poussin, Velasquez, Goya, Delacroix, Ingres, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin… And beside them the bold, simplified, barbarian, deconstructed, distorted twisted, chewed and spit out, angry, motionless, unnerving, radiant adaptations of their story – by the 20th century genius himself – Pablo. The arrogance, in which he robbed, cannibalised and without any respect for tradition of accurate copping of the art was astounding. The exhibition catalogue was shouting at me: “Canibal who killed his mentors to free himself from their spells”. And yet, at the bottom of such irony, such perversion in interpretation, only honest and humble admiration and love can lay… There was no intension to compare or value, there is no room for decision which is the masterpiece. There was a path to learn – about whichever aspect was new to you. Will you see Goya’s “Maja” differently after seeing Picasso’s nudes, or will you go back for a second look to full of triangle like shapes “Mousquetaire a l’epee assis” after looking at Manet’s “Matadour saluant”. Masters were a conduit to a different Picasso then I knew before, Picasso rediscovered the power of Delacroix. After stepping out from Grand Palais 2,5 h later, into the streets of snoozing Paris, just covered up with fresh snowflakes, my feet switched the autopilot to numbly lead me to the metro, Port Maillot, bus, airport, metal hum of the steal bird, another set of escalators, another metal detector gate, sound of shutting car doors, Dublin roads, office, big mug of coffee…I dealt with all the edginess of the modern world with my heart still full of borderless beauty trapped in the perfect layers of paint, games of light and perspective. As only the piece of art which talks to you, which opens the gates to another level of sensitivity, which makes you go one step further, explore, read, learn, feel…can be a masterpiece.

    • fem/me says:

      @13…Phew…I think that is probably what is meant by Enlightenment or Epiphany…

    • fem/me says:

      @13 It’s also the best piece of writing I’ve read in a long time…I feel as If I was there with you…but as if I should whisper it so as not to break the spell…

    • BR says:

      @ 13 j – Extraordinary comment and much appreciated. However, you are in a construct that is a “Gallery” where “masterpieces” from different historical periods are presented “in the same room”, so to speak, and Côte à Côte. It is a luxury for the modern observer to be able to appreciate, compare and contrast works of art in such a setting. But it is the duty/pleasure of the art historian/critic to present the “gallery goer” with knowledge (historical/analytical) so that the “gallery goer” does not become so overwhelmed (as though of hemlock he had drunk!) by any particular “masterpiece”, which may be “side by side” with another………. from quite another dimension.

    • fem/me says:

      Well that’s destroyed it…sometimes it’s just nice to be in the moment…!

    • BRushstroke says:

      …..Art Galleries, all the same – like visiting prison where all the “inmates” have been framed


      …and why are the comments getting squished up too close to the date at the left-hand side of the page….

      L’Chaim !

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