PRINT January 1999


James Fenton

JAMES FENTON, FOR BETTER OR WORSE, is one of the main reasons I still read The New York Review of Books. His art journalism is both plainspoken and perverse, theory-free, zesty, and loose-limbed—at times, admittedly, to a fault. He ushers in a cavalcade of historical greats, from Pisanello to Rauschenberg. He locates many a gay skeleton in the closet. He’s on the prowl for odd bits of arcana, both scholarly and scabrous, as well as fresh dish—dashing off, for instance, to Marbach, Germany, to consult the journals of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde patron Count Harry Kessler. Fenton gets good mileage out of his research: He uses this overripe Teutonic fruit, fairly dripping in anti-Semitic sentiment and homoerotic innuendo, in not one, but four different essays in this collection. The invaluable Kessler becomes somebody we feel we know after reading James Fenton.

This Britain-born poet and professor of poetry at Oxford, who is now nearing fifty, began his journalistic career as a stringer in Vietnam and Cambodia, also putting in some time in Germany for The Guardian. He later became a drama critic in London, for The Sunday Times, and chief book reviewer for The Times. As of this writing, there is even speculation that he will be named poet laureate of England. Like his compatriot the late Bruce Chatwin, he figures prominently in other people’s books—for instance, Redmond O’Hanlon’s 1984 travel memoir, Into the Heart of Borneo, in which the young Fenton, balding and Buddha-like, agitates for a grueling boat trip in search of a rare horned rhinoceros.

Fenton’s art writing likewise denotes a gourmand’s appetite for adventure, connoisseurship, and anecdote. His essays reenact the eighteenth and nineteenth-century English gentleman’s Grand Tour. When he writes about Verrocchio, for instance, Fenton goes to see every piece by the Renaissance sculptor on view in Europe and America and publishes his city-by-city account in “Verrocchio: The New Cicerone.” With Picasso on his mind, Fenton is on his way to the Louisiana Museum in Denmark to catch an exhibition and symposium on “Picasso and the Mediterranean.” For his Joseph Cornell piece, he feels it imperative to talk to Cornell collectors in Chicago and Washington, DC. (Was he able to work this in on the Verrocchio trip? Where does he find the time?) To some extent, these global mad dashes are the efforts of a (late) ’60s person shooting for Eminent Post-Victorian.

When it comes to books and exhibitions, however, the purported subjects of his critical assignments, Fenton has trouble making hard calls. What specifically does he think of the unforgettable 1996 show “Degas: Beyond Impressionism” alluded to in two of his essays? We’ll never know, since in both “Degas in Chicago” and “Degas in the Evening” we get big, juicy chunks of historical narrative: the pungently incriminating story of a dinner involving Degas, Kessler, and Vollard, and then the brass-tacks story of the sale of Degas’s collection after his death. Still, it might be nice to get some sense of the show or the book that goes with it.

In his review of the second volume of John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, Fenton writes glowingly (in “Becoming Picasso”) that Richardson “likes the story he is telling to be good, and if it contains bad, or monstrous, behavior, we are going to be let in on it.” The same might be said of Fenton. What does our poet make of Deborah Solomon’s biography of Joseph Cornell? Once again, it must remain a secret, because Fenton is so caught up in the history of the Renaissance Wunderkammer. After this learned digression, he arrives at the surprising conclusion that some of Cornell’s miniature theaters were meant to be shaken. And he goes full tilt at the hyper-delicate matter of Cornell’s sexuality: “He wanted to talk about Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murry and Gurdjieff. And he wanted . . . well, oral sex.”

Fenton is not above the bitchy tweak. Adam Gopnik, for instance, is lightly skewered in “Becoming Picasso” as “the man in the long skirt with the cloche hat, doling out these white feathers to the artists of the past, and hitting them over the head with his parasol.” He is terribly polite to Jasper Johns in one essay, “Johns: A Banner with a Strange Device” (which is, I think, one of the best things written about the 1996-97 Johns retrospective at MoMA); then, in “Becoming Picasso,” he turns around and says that Johns deserves “a special lifetime award” in an imaginary exhibition to be called “A Century of Sucking Up,” a show of artists’ portraits of their dealers. Johns, he points out, “during the whole of his artistic career, appears to have represented only three recognizable faces: himself . . . , the Mona Lisa, and Leo Castelli.”

Fenton has a vigilant (yet judicious) eye when it comes to suppressed homoerotic content. Pierino da Vinci, Leonardo’s nephew (who died at twenty-two), had a patron, one Luca Martini, who was “perhaps” his lover. In “The Secrets of Maillol,” Fenton considers the recurring Kessler, an important patron of Maillol’s, and gently concludes that “he was deeply queer, and most probably deeply repressed.” On the other hand Rodin, who is also discussed in the Maillol essay, did not really, it seems, sleep with his male models: “It was a collaboration, not a seduction,” Fenton carefully concludes. “To call it homoerotic would be to stretch the term beyond its useful meaning.” If Fenton sometimes wisps out into anecdote and the merely interesting, well, c’est la vie.

This book is dedicated to the painter Howard Hodgkin (and his companion), and indeed the poet-critic and artist-collector share affinities. Like Hodgkin’s painting, Fenton’s writing is full of chromatic inflection. They have in common a slapdash surface that belies an underlying intensity that is almost overwrought. Each reflects the highest perquisites of British class and education. Both men readily invoke Lucullus, along with the pleasures of reading, looking, and sex.

For all the varied bounty on its shelves, Fenton’s kammer nevertheless feels a bit close. The author’s boa embrace of the connoisseur’s creed produces its own kind of angst, and one finds oneself longing for some kind of acute present tense, some fresh blood, maybe a little barf material. Unfortunately, in Fenton’s tireless quest for refinement and excellence, he doesn’t quite bother to ask why his subjects matter—how, apart from the commendable exhumation of gay subtext, they might in the broadest sense be relevant to artistic praxis in the here and now.

Brooks Adams


James Fenton, Leonardo’s Nephew: Essays on Art and Artists (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 228 pages.