Published in the Times Literary Supplement, February 2019
Art historical survey texts – those brick-like tomes that place works of art in neat progression from ancient to modern – show no sign of losing currency, despite decades of academic critique. Their teleological flow, a hangover of the discipline’s roots in colonial collecting and display strategies, bears little resemblance to most people’s experiences of art, and yet it’s a habit that seems hard to break. Kelly Grovier’s A New Way of Seeing masquerades as another addition to that teetering stack – there’s even a sliver of the Mona Lisa on the cover and spine – but it’s in its particularity of focus that Grovier’s book finds its voice. In each of Grovier’s fifty-seven examples, the author locates what he calls ‘eye-hooks’, or specific moments in which an artwork’s broader suggestions are revealed. It’s that note of what Grovier calls, citing Baudelaire, ‘strangeness’: a whorl of hair in Botticelli’s Venus, say, or a knobbly lemon in Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Recalling Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum, Grovier’s ‘eye-hooks’ are the means by which his book escapes the long shadow of the many others that precede it, and opens up new possibilities in a very crowded field.
Including only fifty-seven case studies from the history of art means there’s self-satisfying fun to had pointing out what is and isn’t there: there’s Bosch but no Breughel, for instance, Rembrandt but no Rubens. Some decisions grate (why Sean Scully but no Mark Rothko?), but the idiosyncrasy of Grovier’s book is evident from the title in, whose allusion to John Berger’s classic text announces its intention to investigate the complex act of seeing itself. Unlike Berger’s, Grovier’s focus is less sociological than iconographic. Teasing open new ideas within a much-examined painting such as Raphael’s School of Athens through playful analysis of a usually overlooked detail – an inkwell, vanishingly small in the original – Grovier makes the case for the endless depths of interpretative potential in any great work of art. There is, indeed, always more to see.
Many of Grovier’s short essays disrupt the chronology of the text through comparative illustrations that imply an alternative history of artistic exchange; considering Mantegna in the light of Ron Mueck, for instance, throws open new thinking about embodiment that would be absent in conventionally narrative art history. Despite this, Grovier’s transhistorical allusions remain occidental in scope. That can be overlooked during sections that knowingly tread familiar territory (on the Renaissance and Baroque, say), but is more puzzling when art of a more recent globalised culture is addressed. But perhaps that’s the point of a book like this: to launch discussion over greatness, and above all to return us, our curiosity recharged, to what we thought we already knew.