Saturday, October 20, 2018

Books do furnish a Painting - Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Like many people I have a copy of Proust's 'Swann's Way', and like a good number of that demographic I've never made it past the first few pages. I never got as far as buying the rest of the series, and don't really see myself ever getting round to reading it. The one thing that might persuade me to make the effort is to search for the art, and artists, that Proust describes, something which is genuinely tempting.

Even more tempting is Eric Karpeles 'Paintings in Proust' which I've thought about getting a few times (but have resisted with heroic self restraint, because however tempting an exhaustive pictorial catalogue of every work of art Proust mentions is, I'm sticking to the rule that I can't have it until I start reading 'Swann's Way' in earnest). All of that is the reason that I was so excited when I saw 'Books do furnish a Painting'. There are no self imposed rules around this one.

Literature and art are two of my favourite things, so a book that sets out to explore the relationship between them in western art over the last 500 years - well quite apart from anything else, it's something I wish I'd thought of first.

There are 165 illustrations here to explore what the book might be used to mean in art arranged thematically. There's discussion of what a book is, and the symbiotic relationship between the development of books and the modern idea of an artist, before considering what books are being used to symbolise.

Some of that is obvious - education, religious piety, social status, professional achievement, scientific discovery. Changing patterns of transport, gender roles, romance, sex, friendship, aids to rest, dangerous or subversive behaviour - these things are maybe less clear to the inexpert eye. The painting isn't shown in this book but Augustus Leopold Egg's 'Past and Present, No. 1' is mentioned. It seems the house of cards the young girls are building is based on a book by Balzac. Moralizers of the day considered it a corrupting influence. Ruskin apparently suggested in a letter that the errant wife's likely reading would have been historical romance, and she'd have been incapable of understanding Balzac's subtlety.

It's the message in every detail that makes this particular sort of Victorian painting appeal to me so much, but Ruskin's waspish comment will also add to my enjoyment of it.

There are whole worlds of meaning and possibility to explore here, and either as a book to dip in and out of, or one to sit down and read, it's fascinating.

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