Rembrandt’s Artist in his Studio
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Canvasing opinions: what can books by Julian Bell and Andrew Marr tell us about painting?

They are the latest to attempt to nail down the slippery nature of paint on canvas.

From the Renaissance onwards, when art first separated itself from craft, painting has been the focus of innumerable attempts to explain and define it. Cennino Cennini’s Il libro dell’arte c 1390 was among the first and was essentially a painters’ primer with a sideline in moral advice (he instructed painters not just to eat and drink in moderation but warned of something that “can make your hand so unsteady that it will waver more… than leaves do in the wind, and this is indulging too much in the company of women”). Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura of 1435 was the most influential; systematically discussing such elements as composition, geometry, colour and the newly discovered science of single-point perspective.

Leonardo, meanwhile, took part in a debate in Milan in 1498 arguing the relative merits of music, painting, sculpture, poetry and geometry. Such paragone – comparisons – were a staple of Renaissance intellectual life and Leonardo made the case for painting as being the prince of the liberal arts because it dealt not only with light, shade and colour but also with mathematics, optics, observation, intellect and imagination. What’s more it was “less tedious to follow” than poetry.

The latest writers to try to nail down the slippery nature of paint on canvas are Julian Bell and Andrew Marr. Bell’s What is Painting? first appeared in 1999 when, in an echo of Francis Fukuyama, it seemed that painting as well as history had finally had its day, vanquished by conceptualism and installation art. As it turned out, this ancient form was merely moribund and has come back to sprightly life. This new edition has been heavily revised so that Bell’s examination of what defines, links and changes the act of painting raises live questions.

Bell’s strengths as a writer on art are that he is a painter himself, and that he has both a wide historical frame of reference and an analytical mind. He quickly shows that the question of his title has no simple answer. While Leonardo claimed that “the first intention of the painter is to make a flat surface display a body as if modelled and separated from this plane”, Zola thought that a painting was rather “a corner of nature seen through a temperament”.

Bell points out that as the history of art has progressed so have the number of variables involved in what a painting might be. As each new concept is added, so the definition comes to resemble an equation of ever-increasing complexity: from the simple starting point that painting is mimetic – imitating nature – needs to be added imagination and then the idea (which for Plato meant the divine and archetypal, perfect forms), then feeling and expression, plus style and medium, plus the viewer’s perception, plus meaning and intention. Some other elements of painting, such as abstraction and narrative, affect different parts of the equation at different times.

His basic arc is the “freeing of colour from form, the freeing of painting from imagery, the freeing of art from the frame” but the real interest of Bell’s book lies in his asides. He notes, for example, that: “The experience we generally have of location and objects is mobile… and for this reason painters have sometimes called a break with single-point perspective a bid for realism,” and how “the psychology of depiction readily interlocks with the psychology of narration”. It is this depth of engagement, coupled with the fact that Bell is as familiar with philosophers as he is with painters, that gives his inquiry fascinating heft.

Marr’s book is less ambitious. His historical scope is largely confined to the 20th and 21st centuries and his perspective and references are those of a practising painter. Marr has long been an amateur artist and painting has become more important to him since his stroke in 2013.

His own pictures, which are reproduced throughout the book as a way of illustrating his points, reflect the work of late 20th-century British artists such as Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow and Anthony Frost – near-abstract artists who used rich colour and biomorphic forms as their default means of expression. And although Marr covers many of the same topics as Bell – colour, representation, optics, the market – he is at his most interesting when at his most personal.

His view of art is a post-Romantic but deeply felt one: painting, he says, is at heart a means to find transcendence and to “give the sensation of being more deeply alive than usual”. What’s more, if it is to be any good it must be difficult to do: “You have to push away the easy messages… and work and think harder.”

Thinking harder means, even in an abstract composition, working out where structuring lines should go, how to build in rhythm, which colours should intensify or clash with others. It is a rigorously intellectual exercise. Above all, Marr stresses how it is the artist looking long and intensely before touching a brush that is the most important aspect of any painting.

The conclusions both these writers reach dovetail nicely: painting, says Bell, is really the artist saying “I exist, and therefore you, the viewer, do too”, while for Marr it is a talisman: “The best response to the cold digital present.” What both agree on is that proper painting, even when it seems simple, has to be both capacious and complex. 

What is Painting?
Julian Bell
Thames & Hudson, 224pp, £24.95

A Short Book About Painting
Andrew Marr
Quadrille, 142pp, £15

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist