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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Great Artists: From Giotto to Turner
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., PH.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2127-2128. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2127
View Author and Article Information
Evanston, Ill.

By Tim Marlow with Phil Grabsky and Philip Rance. London, Faber & Faber, 2001, 319 pp., £16.99.

This is an absolutely superb book. It belongs in the library of any educated person and would also make an excellent Christmas gift. The British authors are Tim Marlow, an art historian, Phil Grabsky, a filmmaker, and Philip Rance, a historian and classicist. Marlow has done most of the communicating with the help of the other two, and the book is intended to accompany a channel-5 television series in England; I do not know if this series has been broadcast in the United States. Probably not, because it is very intelligent and informative and contains no sex or violence.

The authors have picked out 13 very famous artists and devote a chapter to each. Each chapter contains illustrations as well as inserts packed with historical and technical information. The main body of the text in each chapter is a review of the artist and his work and his time, written in a clear felicitous style that makes for very pleasant reading. Anyone, regardless of their level of sophistication in the arts, will gain new information from this book. It contains a number of illustrations, and the only complaint I have about the book is that it should have contained more illustrations, because in each chapter there is discussion of some paintings that are not included in the illustrations. Many people may not be familiar with these artists, and it can be very frustrating to try to see these paintings. For example, in May 2001 I went to Venice and took a side trip to Padua specifically to see once more the famous Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel. Only after I arrived in Padua did I discover that the chapel was closed for repairs.

The authors’ choices of artists are of course debatable in that many other famous artists could have been included, but there is no question that the artists described in this book are among the very finest in the history of the Western world. The book should be read one chapter at a time, and no attempt should be made to read it from cover to cover. There is so much information packed in each chapter that if one attempts to read several chapters at once one cannot possibly retain what is included.

The reading audience for whom the book is intended are visitors to museums and galleries all over the world who are not professionals. It spans 500 years of art history, and its basic orientation is historicist, that is to say, the authors believe that the artists can be understood only in the cultural and historical era in which they lived. One of the most interesting experiences I had from reading the book is the discovery that even illustrations as good as the ones in this book do not carry the full emotional and psychological impact of looking at the original paintings. If at all possible the reader should use this book as a springboard to visit the museums of the world to see the originals.

The authors begin with Giotto, who broke away from the old art of rigid appearance and formulae and was able to "imbue a scene with rare and subtle emotional intensity, capturing a moment of crisis, stress or revelation and showing something of what it was to be a living, breathing, feeling human being" (p. 35). Surely this will be of great interest to psychiatrists. Leonardo da Vinci is described as having "grasped a bigger picture than anyone history has hitherto produced. He brought the rigors of scientific study to his art and the creative imagination central to painting to the study of the natural world" (p. 61).

Albrecht Dürer was an "isolated figure, struggling for self-knowledge…the embodiment of the notion of the artist as lonely genius" (p. 76). All through the book there are excellent, detailed, and interesting discussions of famous works of these artists, as well as the effect on their work of their personalities and emotional vicissitudes (1). For example, we are told that Michelangelo entirely lost his faith in art near the end of his life. Apparently he was "racked with regret and guilt" (p. 110).

Raphael’s art "became the model upheld by the teaching academies which later flourished across Europe; and he came to represent the ideals of perfection, harmony and grace to which generations of artists aspired right until the late nineteenth century but which diminished after the birth of the modern movement" (p. 113). Titian used color and light in producing a sensual and hedonistic art: "He helped to pioneer new techniques in oil painting; indeed, by concentrating on oil on canvas he played a major role in defining a modern concept of painting" (p. 133). We are told that Brueghel "differed from his contemporaries…in his ability to go beyond the conventional, to invest his paintings with recognizable human emotion and quotidian drama, a kind of theater of the everyday but achieved through phenomenal powers of observation" (p. 161). A replica of his painting The Triumph of Death (now in the Prado, Madrid) has been in my study for many years. This masterpiece, produced in 1562, offers one of the most epic portrayals of death ever painted, reminding us that no one, however so proud, escapes this fate.

El Greco, with his idiosyncratic style and impressive distortions, is often thought of as a prototypical modern artist, a forerunner of Expressionism in the twentieth century. Rubens, the only painter in this book that I have never been able to really appreciate, is described as having a keen intellect, "which, when combined with his acute visual sensibility, created sensual, dynamic, often grandiose works of art" (p. 201). It is the grandiosity and excessive expressions characterizing his work that I have found annoying, but he certainly belongs in this collection of the greatest painters. Velázquez, on the other hand, has produced awesome works of profound philosophical and psychological depth; yet he was influenced by Rubens, say the authors.

Rembrandt was of course spectacular, not only in his technical mastery but in his progressive study of himself in a long series of self-portraits probably unequaled by any other artist. The authors state, "His work, perhaps more comprehensively than that of any other artist, makes us aware of our mortality and of our individuality, striking a humane chord that seems universal" (p. 249). Ten percent of his output was self-portraits, about 75 of them: "They are a combination of both fact and fiction, document and created image, as he wants to be and as he is" (p. 252).

Of course, "No one ever painted such visually clear but emotionally elusive pictures as Vermeer did" (p. 286). The book ends with a discussion of Turner, whose work was almost obsessed by explorations of light and color. In that sense he may be thought of as a forerunner of Impressionist and even Abstract Expressionist painting. Even though the reader is familiar with these artists, there is so much information packed into this book that you are bound to learn something new about art, artists, and their times. Therefore, I recommend it most highly to all readers regardless of education and situation in life. It is a pleasure to be able to recommend a book with so much unqualified enthusiasm.

Chessick RD: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
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References

Chessick RD: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
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