by John Updike
One of the most prolific American writers of his era, John Updike turns out glossy prose on just about anything he sets his mind to. That makes it logical to fear that by sheer force of language he might overwhelm any image in a frame he chose to write about. Happily, this is not the case with this collection of magazine essays on art Updike composed during the last decade. An articulate guide, he bounds around the artistic landscape examining such diverse artists as the American painter Richard Estes and the French sculptor Jean Ipoustéguy.
In “What MOMA Done Tole Me”—MOMA being the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—he traces his lifelong passion for art. Updike, who grew up in a quiet Pennsylvania village, took painting lessons with a neighbor as a boy and often walked with his mother to the Reading Museum, a provincial institution two miles from home. But his first encounter with capital A art came when he was about 12 at the Museum of Modern Art, where he admired a 1937 Braque, “Woman with a Mandolin” and a sculpture by Jean Arp, “Bell and Navels.” “Its blobby three-fingered shape,” Updike writes, “perhaps reassuringly [reminded] me of Mickey Mouse’s gloved hand, which also had but three fingers.” At MOMA he learned what it means to look at art: “that beauty and its fanatic pursuit persist even into the attenuated metaphysical ruin of the 20th century is, I suppose, the overriding lesson I absorbed.”
Updike’s greatest passion is for the Dutch master Vermeer. It was once his ambition, nearly achieved, to see each of the fewer than 40 authenticated Vermeers hanging in public museums around the world. Another, more curious, interest leads him to shadow at length the tragic life of New Yorker cartoonist Ralph Barton. (In 1931, a cigarette in one hand, Barton shot himself through the temple.)
At times Updike turns testy. Crowds at a 1978 Renoir show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts get on his nerves. The aging Renoir disappoints him; he likens the backgrounds of Renoir’s late oils to furry wallpaper. He is kinder to American artist Fairfield Porter, who painted WASPy family portraits that could serve as jacket illustrations for Updike novels.
Updike knows how to look and to report eloquently what he has seen. One of his favorite artistic subjects is the female body. He admires Wyeth’s notorious nudes of his model and neighbor, Helga. Of Amedeo Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude” he writes, “Her elongated torso links two bulging masses, one her hips and the other a complicated close lumping of arms, breasts and head.” This is most fine.
However gracefully Updike’s essays are composed, the lack of an internal unity is evident. They were written individually—with no intent to relate them to each other—and tossed between covers with no noticeable editing. (In his articles on both Vermeer and Richard Estes, to cite one irritating point, Updike trots out the same comment a Proust character made about a “little patch of yellow wall.”) So this is a book for sampling. Anyone seeking a history of modern art or a thematic approach to its appreciation should look elsewhere. (Knopf, $35)