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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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

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