PRINT February 1963


Germain Bazin’s The Loom of Art

The Loom Of Art: By Germain Bazin. Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1962. 328 Pp., Illus.

The large, expensive art books are, for the most part, like nothing so much as our big, beautiful, blonde leading ladies of the screen. Dressed up in breathtaking technicolor, worked over from head to toe by hairdressers, cosmeticians, and other assorted perfection-makers, they are given a jumble of meaningless lines to recite, and presented to the world. At first sight, they are dazzling; later, they pall.

This one is different. The usual perfection of layout, designed to increase our appreciation of expensiveness, has been cast to the winds; photographs are jammed on a page wherever they will fit, costly color reproductions, instead of being featured by prominent isolation, are crowded aside by simple black and white photographs. The orderly progression from period to period, movement to movement, major figure to major figure is also distractingly neglected: the book moves over art history like the shadow of a cloud, missing some areas completely, covering and completely changing the look of others. Most unusual of all is the quality of the text, which is brilliant.

The book is organized into ten sections, each section with its own text and its own group of illustrations. Certain strands woven by the loom of art reappear in each of the sections: the path of the naturalistic image, and that of the abstract image; the path of rhythmic expression and that of melodic expression; Nature and Idea. The themes are neither abandoned nor driven into the ground—they are, in fact, little more than guide-lines to the workings of M. Bazin’s unendingly curious mind.

Chief Curator of the Louvre, M. Bazin offers this book as a sort of game of musings on art, but it is far more than that. His pithy, well written observations never leave a subject the same as before he touched on it, whether he is bringing a discussion of the Jansenist heresy to bear on a distinction between spirituality in 17th-century French painting and 17th-century Italian painting, or commenting on the crowds that visit modern day museums:

The grace of culture can touch individuals in all classes: added together, these make the crowds that frequent our museums, and we marvel at them; but the churches too are well filled on Sundays and our age is godless.

His lines are beautiful and provocative, whether discussing Renaissance Venice, (“The real eternal city is Venice, not Rome.”), or the contribution of Caravaggio, (Caravaggio . . . introduced into Western art a new metaphysical value, nothingness.), or the beginnings of the modern period, (“But then came Van Gogh, falling like a meteor and setting the world on fire.”), or in commenting on Matisse’s Dominican chapel at Venice:

The relations between society and the artist have been, as it were, reversed: it is society that expects inspiration from the artist; it is he who must fill out its culture. In this solitude, the ‘reference to the work’ has lost all its operative value, giving place to a ‘reference to one’s own self’—a self built up into a hero-prophet from whom the crowd expects a sort of magical revelation of the absolute. In this way artistic creation tends to resemble a neurosis, obliging the creator—separated as he is from men and the world—to fashion and live in what the psychiatrists call a ‘world of substitution.’

In the end, perhaps, the most fascinating aspect of this book is the portrait of the mentality of the author that gradually emerges. Wry, gloomy, removed, skeptical, it is a mind that can question whether the great efforts undertaken by contemporary belligerents to protect works of art in wartime is not the result of a prevailing inferiority complex with regard to the past, that can see the current museum passion for cleaning old paintings as an attempt to give them “the discordant colors, improvised modeling and harsh surfaces” of “Matisse, Derain, Rouault or Van Gogh.” It is a mind that has entertained many values, and falls back upon art as the only enduring one:

No doubt it is disgust with history—that story of lost opportunities, that recitation of the political and social messes ceaselessly made by humanity, which creates only to destroy without delay—that has unconsciously stimulated the admiration for the works of the spirit—the only human creations to be really accomplished, which have succeeded one another from metamorphosis to metamorphosis, in a chain with no link missing from the remotest ages to our own times.

Philip Leider