Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored, Tom Lubbock (with an introduction by Laura Cumming), Frances Lincoln, 216pp, £18.99 (hardback)

In writing these meditations on artworks from Giotto’s Inconstancy, Anger, Despair (1303-6) to Peter Doig’s Concrete Cabin (West Side) of 1993, Tom Lubbock developed a sub-genre all of his own. Gathered together, these short articles published in The Independent between 2005 and 2010, each devoted to a single painting, are not only art criticism, not only ekphrastic prose poetry and philosophical observations, but all three things together. They have their own generic conventions, revealed when occasionally flouted, as in the piece devoted to Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Saints (1505) in San Zaccaria, Venice, when Lubbock writes: ‘Normally in these pieces I don’t say “I”. I assume that what I can see, anyone can see.’ This assumption is an important enabling fiction, one rather belied by the number of times a reader of these pieces may need to look back, as I did, at the reproduction of the painting to notice something that had gone unseen until his words had made it saliently visible.`

The pronoun Lubbock tends to use in these pieces, when in need of one, is the ambiguous ‘you’ – a pronoun that can feel addressed to the individual reader, or impersonally and inclusively plural, or intimately self-addressed. This pronoun appears in just three sentences from the piece on Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930), an exploration of the possibility that this painting portrays ‘a landscape as it is when I am not there’, in Simone Weil’s quoted words. Of this brightly sunlit, deserted, two-storey terraced street with shops in Brooklyn, Lubbock writes: ‘You’re looking at a scene without consciousness. And maybe you aren’t there either.’ The first ‘you’ could be the writer, or the reader, or anyone; but the second is a different figure, namely the ‘implied viewer’ constructed by thecomposition and handling of the painting itself. The same pronoun comes around in the last sentence of the piece, closing this poetic meditation with a resonantly equivocal final phrase: ‘With you or without you, the silent street goes on.’ This use of the most inclusively ambiguous of pronouns is in accord with the underlying theme of Lubbock’s art criticism here: the relation of parts to wholes, for the singular ‘you’, this particular writer or reader and viewer, or the ‘anyone’ who ‘can see’ itself mirrors the dynamic of parts and wholes in the works themselves.

What’s more, these works can stand as both parts and wholes. Notice how ‘the silent street goes on’ can mean that it endures through time in the infinity that goes up on trial in art museums, and also that it ‘goes on’ spatially beyond the left and right edges of the frame. The second of these interpretations is bound to be debatable – depending on whether you like to interpret a painting as no more nor less than its material limits, or as what is implied to be happening beyond the arbitrary-seeming cut of the support’s edge. The risk in the latter interpretation might be illustrated by comparing it with speculations about what happens to the characters in novels beyond their final chapters. Yet this is a risk Lubbock is prepared to take for the interpretive opportunities in seeing the whole as a part of something even larger.

Another generic convention in these pieces derives from the focus on a single work being discussed in a daily newspaper. Lubbock refrains, for the most part, from drawing upon a wider knowledge of painting that he cannot assume in his readers or illustrate in the newspaper format. Sometimes the habit of not making such comparisons means that he is tempted to make pronouncements which are, perhaps, less wholly true than they might be. In the final discussion of The Bed (1893) by Toulouse-Lautrec he writes ‘When it comes to couples in double beds, what does painting know?’ Noting that ‘the respectable art of painting avoids showing overt genital activity’, he adds that this ‘ban would still leave room for a range of more or less decent bed scenes, of couples amorously or sleepily together. They don’t get painted. Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Bed, made at the end of the nineteenth century, is one of the first pictures to show the normal case.’ When Lubbock picks up his own word ‘normal’ and reminds us that the two bodies tucked up under the covers are women, one great unmentioned exception comes to mind – Gustave Courbet’s Sleep (1866), a painting of two nude women in what seems an entangled, sexually satisfied doze. While Lubbock’s pieces may appropriately prompt memories of other works not mentioned, it is not within their remit to be making elaborate comparisons which would also have the effect of drawing attention to the ‘I’ that these carefully crafted pieces modestly eschew.

Their method is rather that of the homely teacher or parish priest constructing an analogy or metaphor that will place in illuminating perspective the part of a work that serves to focus a reader’s mind on its whole. Sometimes he begins with a citation from someone else, as when beginning The Bed with D. J. Enright complaining about sex scenes on television. Among the best of these is when he remembers some remarks of Tom Paulin’s about Degas’ representations of women: ‘They’re like performing animals; they’re like animals performing in the zoo. There’s some deep, deep hatred of women … I think it’s coded. Basically what he’s thinking about is women on the loo, and I think that is his eroticism. He’s an old tits-and-bum man.’ Lubbock coolly observes that this is ‘a stirring indictment, and in a way quite right’, but then adds: ‘take away the idea that the most revolting thing you can do to somebody is to imagine them on the loo, and you have a good insight here into Degas’ late work.’

The idea that Paulin would be an intelligently helpful commentator on this art if it were not for his ‘feverish moralism’ is generous. It allows Lubbock to approach one of his most important focal points for the relation of part and whole, namely the human body. Yet I do feel that both may be short-changing Degas and his female figures – Paulin because of his attitudinising, Lubbock because of his fascination with the predicament of our having to suffer embodiment, of our having to be bodies in the world.

Degas began with classicising ambitions but, as if in the light of Baudelaire’s prerequisites for a painter of modern life, he found subjects in ordinary Parisian existence drawing expressiveness from clothed, nude or briefly- clad female figures in natural postures; significantly, even when sketching in brothels, natural postures that do not associate women with objects of sexual attraction (as do some of Courbet’s and Toulouse-Lautrec’s).

Degas, whatever the nature of his character, his conservative political or cultural attitudes, was in search of variable motifs for compositions. The worst you can say for Degas’ representations of women, even in portraiture, is that he was not interested in them as individuals, but as occasions for the articulation of line and form.

Through the accuracy of his lines and forms, however, you can read in the best of his representations – labouring laundresses, straining and resting dancers, café singers, circus performers, women in bath tubs, the female absinthe drinker – a profound empathy. To achieve that true and unsentimental attention in the terms of his art he had to show dedication and commitment which he was capable of expressing in calculatedly shocking terms, as when stating: ‘L’art n’est pas un amour légitime; on ne l’épouse pas, on le viole’ (Art is not a legitimate love; one doesn’t marry it, one rapes it’).

Yet it would be a mistake, I think, given the interpretive ambiguity noted by commentators, simply to assume from this remark that in his devastating Interior (1868-9) – also known as Le viol (The Rape), though not by the artist – Degas himself identifies only with the lofty, dressed man at the door and not at all with the woman stooping in a shift on the other side of the room. Among the paradoxes of making art is our having to be formally decisive even when inviting interpretive involvement by eschewing the fixities and definites of critical attitude.

Lubbock concludes his brief account of Degas’ Combing the Hair (1896- 1900) by quoting Marcel Proust on our being, when ill, ‘chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.’ This expresses a truth about sickness, but only at the cost of appearing to suggest that our minds are not in fact indistinguishable from that creature. Degas’ paintings of the human body also express this irreducible condition of being. That is what makes illness so difficult for consciousness. Being unwell simply emphasises the limits of our existence that can be brought home at any moment on any day, though health and youth may allow us to push it more to the back of our minds.

Proust makes another cameo appearance in the essay on Vermeer’s View of Delft (1660). Laura Cumming notes in her introduction that it was composed when Lubbock was about to undergo the first surgery on the brain tumour that would take his life at the age of fifty-three. This time it is the famous passage from volume five of À la recherche du temps perdu where the novelist Bergotte dies while staring at this very painting in an exhibition of Dutch art. Lubbock wonders which, exactly, is the part – the yellow patch – upon which Bergotte’s eyes un-focus in his last moments of life. His article concludes with a profound observation about our inclination to cherish parts and fail to appreciate the whole that gives them meaning: ‘Bergotte wants to see this detail as a separately precious thing, something he can isolate and grasp in his hand. Yet he can’t – any more than he can hold onto the last precious moment of his life.’

To see someone’s life as a whole, even when it appears to have been cut short, is a crucial burden of elegiac poems, such as Ben Jonson’s epigram on the death of his first son, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Reading Lubbock’s first book, a posthumous publication, cannot help start thoughts of the whole of which this is a part. About Gerhard Richter’s 1024 Colours (1973), Lubbock writes that there ‘is a constant dialogue between parts and whole. Presented with a variegated surface, your eye naturally seeks patterns in it, sub-divisions, some kind of internal order.’ Though it is not expressly stated, the editing of this book, the thematic and associative ordering of the pieces, has given the volume an implicit shape. It has allowed the reader to see pattern there. Great Works: 50 Paintings Explored is only a small part of the writer’s uncollected oeuvre. I very much hope that this elegantly produced volume with its fifty full-colour illustrations is just the first in a series of publications which will make available the satirical collages, paintings, catalogue essays, sustained art critical meditations and life writings on terminal illness which together form Tom Lubbock’s own variegated whole.

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