Skip to main content

Conversation

Life Through Art’s Prism

HUMANITIES, July/August 2005 | Volume 26, Number 4

When NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke recently with British writer Paul Johnson, the subject was Johnson's latest book, Art: A New History. He is the author of several other books on contemporary culture, among them History of the American People, The Birth of the Modern, The Intellectuals, and History of the Jews.

Bruce Cole: Let's talk about your new book on art. This has been something that you've been thinking about for a very long time.

Paul Johnson: Yes. In it I shift the climax of European art from the early sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century. It's a point which I think is worth noting. I think the early seventeenth century was the richest period in the whole history of art, with the largest number of painters and also sculptors. You've got Bernini, who is one of my top ten artists.

Cole: And Caravaggio, of course.

Johnson: Yes, Caravaggio, but also I mean Rubens, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer. There is a tremendous concentration of talent there, whereas at the early sixteenth century you're very dependent on the big three.

Cole: Right.

Johnson: Of those, of course, Raphael was a realized artist, a superb artist in my view, but he died comparatively young. Leonardo was a flawed artist of great originality, but he couldn't finish things. Hardly anything of his is finished, or very few, or sometimes he made a mess of it like The Last Supper. And Michelangelo, who was another flawed genius. Michelangelo was a very great sculptor. His Pietà is arguably the greatest piece of sculpture ever, though personally my favorite is Donatello's David, which I have, incidently, a Florentine replica made of crushed marble, about 1800, in my garden.

Michelangelo was a very great sculptor and in some ways a magnificent architect--I think the Medici Library is one of the greatest works of art--but as a painter, he had very, very serious limitations. I think the Sistine Chapel is rather overrated.

Incidentally, the last time I saw that it was during the closure hours. Margaret Thatcher and I were in Rome to see the pope, but the pope said he was busy writing an encyclical and he couldn't see us that morning so would we like a private visit to the Sistine Chapel instead? But I think it was an over-ambitious failure myself and I'm not sure that the restoration has improved it.

Cole: Do you think that the reason that the early sixteenth century is seen as the pinnacle of art and the early seventeenth century is not is because the early sixteenth century had that great propagandist, Giorgio Vasari?

Johnson: I think maybe that's it. He wasn't the only one. The whole tradition of art scholarship in Europe is to put that period, the beginning of the sixteenth century, as the climax.

That has been true for three hundred years now. But I don't agree with it because, apart from anything else, it is a period of essentially figurative art. It's all on figures. Michelangelo was not in the slightest interested in landscape and most of his figures are disembodied. They are dislocated in space.

Cole: Right.

Johnson: If you look at The Last Judgment, it's dislocated in space, whereas Tintoretto's version is much better because it's actually in space. You can see it. By the early seventeenth century, landscape had arrived, so the range of painting was much wider. They were doing all kinds of new things with light. Anyway, that's my view, that that was the real climax of European art.

Cole: That's very interesting.

Johnson: I think art, particularly in the last two or three centuries, has been over-dominated by Western Europe and especially by France. So, in the book I show that in the nineteenth century an enormous amount of superb art was produced in the United States and a considerable amount in Eastern Europe and especially in Russia. It is now beginning to be fashionable, say in England, to show American and Russian art. There have been one or two big exhibitions in the last year or so and we've got a new one coming up on Winslow Homer, who most English people have never heard of.

Cole: A superb artist.

Johnson: An absolutely superb artist. I wanted to draw attention to some of these great painters who existed in America and, to a lesser extent, in Russia, and who are unknown to the Western European public, and I may say are still underrated even in America.

Cole: Absolutely. The revival of interest in American art is very recent because for some reason Americans really weren't interested or were maybe a little ashamed of their art.

Johnson: Yes. I think Frederic Edwin Church, you see, with the possible exception of Turner, is the greatest of all landscape artists. He's absolutely astounding. There are many others. I've been going through a catalog of the work of Childe Hassam. Now there's a superb person who is categorized as an Impressionist. As he said himself, he was not an Impressionist and had a rather low opinion of the Impressionists, most of whom he knew, particularly Claude Monet and Pisarro. It is outrageous that he should be tucked away as a minor American follower of French Impressionism. His mature style was formed even before he went to Paris.

Cole: Yes.

Johnson: So that's just an example of this cultural denigration of American art, which I hope is coming to an end. But I would like to see American writers on art stick up for these wonderful painters. Winslow Homer is a very good example.

Cole: Yes.

Johnson: This is a man of superb talent, both in oil and watercolor, a wonderful draftsman, very largely self-taught, who came to the fore during the Civil War and did some beautiful drawings for illustrated newspapers during the Civil War and then went on to do these magnificent seascapes and inshore waterscapes.

Cole: I agree. There was a wonderful Winslow Homer show at the National Gallery not too long ago. He is a sophisticated artist--formal and intellectual--and his work is very exciting.

Johnson: Oh, it is. In England, we regard watercolor as particularly our province--and so it is in many, many ways. But I often say to people that the two greatest practitioners of watercolor in the late nineteenth century are Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent.

Cole: Absolutely.

Johnson: I'm particularly impressed by the watercolors that Winslow Homer did in Bermuda.

Cole: Sargent has also been coming in for a revival. He's usually seen as a placid, superficial artist. I think we now see him in a very different way.

Johnson: He was a very great artist by any standards whatever. I'm in no doubt at all about that. And the other American artist who I think is still underrated is Mary Cassatt.

Cole: Yes. She's wonderful. You were talking about the large issues in your book.

Johnson: As I say, I was introducing to my readers art from these two huge countries, America and Russia. I have quite a lot to say about Russian art. There was a big show of Russian art in London over the last year, which wasn't very well attended. People don't know about artists like Levitan. That is going to come, I think, and then we'll get into other parts of Europe where there are very fine artists, like Poland, Hungary. There are dozens of great painters from Hungary who are totally unknown.

The final point, which in a way is the most important point I have to make in the book, is the bifurcation which took place in the beginning of the twentieth century of art--the bifurcation between fine art, which went on as a kind of minority culture, and "fashion art" founded by Picasso and his followers. Fine art I define as art in which 75, 80, 85 percent is skill and the remainder, innovation. Fashion art is fashion innovation, just like the women's fashion industry, involving maybe 10 percent of skill, in some cases none at all. That's still the position today.

The art establishment is still committed to fashion art, so there are numbers of very gifted painters who train hard and work hard who never get a showing or never get any praise and are producing still, against all the odds, good work. The fashion artists--I won't need to mention any of their names, they are all familiar--are ruling the roost still, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But that, too, will change, because in the end, worth always receives its due reward and the frauds are put back into the basement where they belong.

Cole: Why should we be interested in art? Why should we devote our lives to it?

Johnson: As I say in the beginning of my book, I think art is the oldest thing in human society. Before we could express complicated things in words, we could do art. Art was probably the first profession. Those cave paintings, some of them going back forty thousand years, 40,000 B.C.E., could not have been done by people who were not supported by the community while they were doing them. That's an important thing--about our self-knowledge as a people, as a race, as a species--to realize that the first real characteristic of civilization was artistic creation. It goes right to the roots of our being rational creatures made in God's image. Art ought to be right in the forefront, and it isn't. It varies from country to country.

In Italy, for instance, the Italians love art. You're sitting in the street on a camp stool painting and Italians come up and look, and they look at it properly, and they look at it in an intelligent way and in a polite way. You can tell they love art. The French and the Germans walk right in front and get between you and your painting. Then there's England. In London I've got a very good collection of all kinds of drawings and watercolors and things at my house and hundreds of people come to that house for all kinds of reasons every year. I shouldn't think one in twenty ever looks at the walls to see what I've got there, whereas when I go into somebody's house, I--rather rudely perhaps--the first thing I do is to look at their paintings, if they've got any.

Cole: It tells you a lot, doesn't it?

Johnson: It tells you a lot about the English, yes. Art, in England, is a social thing. The English will go to big premieres and blockbuster shows, the art markets, Sotheby's. It's a great social occasion. But actually loving painting, loving art, is something that very, very few of them possess. I think this is tragic.

I'm putting my hopes in America for the future of art. There are, in America, a lot of people who love art, as well as magnificent museums.

Cole: I want to ask something along the lines of Pevsner's book The Englishness of English Art. What makes American art American?

Johnson: I think you Americans started, as you did in literature, with a kind of cultural cringe. Some of the early landscape artists, 1800, 1820, were following patterns that had developed in England and, to some extent, in continental Europe. But you soon branched out on your own. You can't say that a man like Church, or even Bierstadt, who was, after all, an import--he wasn't born in America--you can't say that they painted in any way except in an American way. That involved grandeur, extravagance, sheer size.

I remember when I first went to America in the late 1940s. The thing which struck me most about everyday life in America was that everything was bigger. To some extent that is true of American art, too. Things are on a big scale there and they are very daring, adventuresome, and there's something fearless about it, which I personally love. That doesn't stop you having very subtle artists like Thomas Dewing, for instance. But there is this great scale, grandeur, of American art. It's very, very important and I hope that is kept up.

Cole: I agree. There is a kind of spirit and innovation and daring in American art.

I'd like to know a little bit about your background. What led you to the kind of writing you do?

Johnson: Well, I was born in 1928. I lived first in North Staffordshire in the center of the potteries where, before the war, all the pots which Britain exported all over the world were made. It's a curious landscape with two thousand or so pot banks, as they were called, these short, bottle-shaped chimneys. Pollution was terrific, but the landscape was extremely romantic. Those are my earliest memories, of the sky lighting up in the darkness as they fired the banks that made the pots.

I've recently published over here--it isn't yet out in America--a little book about my childhood, which I've illustrated, describing all this. It's called A Vanished Landscape because it's all completely disappeared now and the pottery is just like anywhere else in England. That was the background I grew up against.

My father was the headmaster of the local art school, which trained a lot of the craftsmen who made the pots, painted the pots, designed them, and so on. He was an artist in watercolor, etching, drypoint, all the processes, traditional processes, of art. I was brought up in the studio.

Cole: Who had he studied with?

Johnson: He was at the Salford School of Art, along with L. S. Lowry, who later became very famous. He also studied under a beautiful draftsman called Muirhead Bone, who was once referred to by Kenneth Clark as England's Piranesi.

My father did very detailed and beautiful, accurate architectural drawings. One I have in my library is a drawing he did of Canterbury Cathedral, in autumn 1938.

Cole: Muirhead Bone was also a wonderful etcher, wasn't he?

Johnson: That's right. My father did a lot of etching. He also did drypoint. He did steel engraving, pretty well all the forms of reproductive art, which were then practiced by artists of his kind, topographical artists.


Cole: You were talking about the potteries.

Johnson: Yes. So I grew up against this rather romantic, but very industrial background, which has since disappeared. Then I went to Stonyhurst, which is a famous English Jesuit boarding school, in Lancashire.

One of my earliest memories when I got there at age twelve--I was a bit homesick because I had never been away from home before--but the first thing that caught my eye in the corridor was a beautiful painting by Caravaggio of an Ecce homo. That reassured me. I used to look at it every day of my life at school, one of my favorite paintings.

From there I got a scholarship to Oxford, at Magdalen College, the most beautiful college in Oxford, with its magnificent tower and its deer park and so on. I read history there amongst some very good scholars, including A. J. P. Taylor, who taught me modern history. From there I went into the army. I did two years of national service, joined a rifle regiment and later rose to the rank of captain.

I then got my first job on a French magazine. I spent three-and-a-half years in Paris. It has a famous French magazine called Réalités. It doesn't exist anymore, but had very, very high quality color reproductions in it. It dealt with art, travel, all kinds of things.

Cole: Were you writing on art mainly?

Johnson: I was writing about everything, but I was learning about art. I met a lot of people in Paris, including Picasso, and a lot of writers. In those days, France was a great cultural center. Paris was full of writers and playwrights, poets, novelists, none of whom exist anymore. French culture more or less has taken a dive.

In those days it was a much poorer place, but it was more full of talent. All the talent now you get in America, but in those days there was still a lot in Europe. After, I moved to London, worked for the New Statesman, which was then the leading weekly, became its editor, and was its editor five or six years. Then, in 1970, having written a few short books, I decided to become a freelance writer and concentrate on writing big books.

Since then I've written a number of very big books as well as other short ones: History of the Jews, History of Christianity, History of the American People, a history of the twentieth century called Modern Times. They've done very well on the whole. Modern Times was translated into thirty languages, Intellectuals, into twenty.

Finally, having always wanted to write about art, I wrote my book on art, a new history which goes from the time of the cave paintings, 40,000 B.C.E., right up to the present, and embraces the whole world. It's mainly a history of Western art, of course, because that's what I really know, but I do have quite a lot to say about other forms of art as practiced in the rest of the world.

Cole: I like it because it's also a very personal book. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Kenneth Clark's Civilization. It's difficult to think about art objectively. You can do that to a certain extent, but then it is really very much a personal view.

Johnson: That's true. I studied under Kenneth Clark at Oxford. He was far and away the best lecturer I've ever heard anywhere in the world. He gave a very good course on Rembrandt and another on Tintoretto. He was an absolutely wonderful lecturer, a very nice, kind, friendly man, who loved young people and wanted them to care as he did about art.

Cole: One of the things I like so much about your art book is that it is written so well. It's rare to find that quality of writing about art.

Johnson: The trouble is, you know, there is something very wrong with academic art scholarship, in my view. It's over-specialized. Kenneth Clark was an outstanding exception to the rule because, as a rule, it's overspecialized with each scholar jealously guarding his own little, tiny patch.

Cole: I think the finest compliment I've had is that when I published my first book on Giotto I sent it to Clark and he sent me back a very nice note and he said, "You have rescued Giotto from the hands of the specialists," which I took as the highest compliment. Don't get me wrong. We need fine-grained scholarship, but we also need to write for people outside our specialty.

Johnson: Exactly. One of the consequences of over-specializing is technical writing of a very high boring quotient.

Cole: Another thing I feel about your book is that it shows a lifetime of very, serious looking.

Johnson: Fortunately, during my journalistic career, I did a lot of television; it took me to five continents, all over the place. I've always made a point of visiting the local galleries, whether of Western art or of other forms of art, and collecting their catalogs and so on. That was the beginning of what has become a very large, personal library of thousands of art books, which I keep down in the country.

So I used to go to all the local galleries all over the world-

Cole: Yes.

Johnson:-to see the paintings on the spot and also to look at the local talent. I think that's very important. I've always done that. I've got my own art collection here, mainly in London, of all kinds of things, mainly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century watercolors in the Western tradition, but quite a lot of paintings, too, and Old Master drawings and things like that.

Cole: How long have you been collecting? What kind of things do you collect?

Johnson: Well, I've never had very much money, but in the 1950s when I first settled in London after living in Paris I used to buy drawings by people like Burne-Jones and Rossetti and so on, which you could then get very, very cheaply, as well as watercolors. So I've got quite a lot of that kind of thing. Occasionally, I would buy oil paintings, but I didn't have all that much room to begin with, so I haven't got so many of those. But I've got some very nice watercolors by people like the Varleys and Thomas Shotter Boys, Girtin. I've got a nice Girtin. I haven't got a Constable, and it's very annoying because when I was an undergraduate there was a hard-up, wealthy young man who was temporarily out of funds who had a Constable, a beautiful watercolor, which he offered to sell me for eighteen quid, which is what he owed his tailor at the time, and I just didn't have eighteen quid. That was a lot of money in 1947. I didn't buy it.

So I haven't got a Constable and I admire him very much. But I've got quite a good selection, and a few odds and ends. I've got a big painting by Guido Reni, which I bought for five quid fifty years ago. It's a famous painting after Michelangelo expelling Satan from Paradise, which was done for a Roman church. He had a huge studio with about seventy assistants, who produced copies of these things. Still, it is a Guido Reni and I have that hanging in my studio.

Cole: You have your studio outside in the back?

Johnson: Yes. I've got one in the country, too, of course, but in London there was an old hut at the bottom of my garden and I had that pulled down and I had a beautiful studio designed by a young architect, which is in cedar wood. That's where I paint, and I've got my Guido Reni hanging in that studio.

Cole: Let's talk a little bit about your painting. How long have you been painting?

Johnson: All my life.

Cole: You started with your father?

Johnson: Yes. I used to go out with my father when I was four or five. He used to love drawing churches and we'd draw churches together. That's when he said to me, "You're not bad, Paul. You can draw a bit, but I beg of you don't become an artist. Artists have a rough time at any period, but I can see that this is going to be a particularly bad period for art. Frauds like Picasso will rule the roost for the next fifty years at least." Well, that's proved to be true. He said, "Do something different," so I became a writer.

Cole: But you continue to paint.

Johnson: I have shows, occasionally. Some people even buy them.

Cole: And who do you look at? Who inspires you in your painting or in your watercolors?

Johnson: Bonington.

Cole: A wonderful watercolorist.

Johnson: Francis Towne. Winslow Homer would, if I could use watercolor with his skill.

Cole: Watercolor is one of the highest and most difficult art forms.

Johnson: It's just so difficult. You have to work so fast. At the end of an hour I've either got a picture or I've got a mess.

Cole: It's very easy to ruin a watercolor.

Johnson: I also do oils occasionally, but I like watercolor because always when I was traveling around the world I could take a little paint box with me and a pad and if I had half an hour, if I was in Bangkok or Nairobi or whereever it was, I could do a little painting. So I have got paintings from all over the world. I go painting on Lake Como, twice a year because the light there is so interesting.

Cole: These are landscapes? Architectural scenes?

Johnson: Yes, architectural drawings, that sort of thing.

Cole: Do you do any portraiture?

Johnson: I've tried it. Portraiture is one thing where you really do need instruction under a master. I've been trying it for years and I suddenly came across a sentence from Mary Cassatt saying, "With portraits you must start with the eyes." Now, it had never occurred to me to do that, but once you know that, it becomes obvious that it's true.

Cole: I love Sargent's definition of a portrait: "A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth."

Johnson: Yes. I've got the three magnificent volumes of his complete portraits published by Yale University Press, which has now been joined by the volume on his child portraits. Those four volumes can teach you more about portraiture than anything else. If I were starting again, if I were now eighteen, I think I'd become a portrait painter.

Cole: I have a quote from you where you say, "Portraiture is the most humane and fascinating of all the arts."

Johnson: It is. You're not going to become a good portrait painter unless you're really interested in people and not just their outward appearance, their face and figure and so on, but what's going on inside.

Cole: That's the mark of a great portraitist. I think that's why Titian was so successful. You get something other than just the visage. But what does portraiture tell us about the society that produces it? Why should we be interested in this?

Johnson: Portraiture is what the English like. They've done a lot for landscape, but basically they see art as portraiture. The favorite artist among the English has always been Van Dyke. When Gainsborough was dying, he not having been on good terms with Reynolds, Reynolds paid him a visit on his deathbed and they were reconciled. Gainsborough's last words were, "We are all going to heaven and Van Dyke will be of the company." I think that's so typical of the English attitude to art.

Cole: That's wonderful.

Johnson: And, of course, Van Dyke was a very great painter. But, in a sense, it goes against reason to put him higher than his master, Rubens, doesn't it?

Cole: I read a marvelous piece by you about your books and the difficulty of being pushed out of the house by books.

Johnson: My real collection of art books is down in the country in Somerset. I've got about five thousand, I should think, which are mainly large volumes, folio volumes or demi-folios; I have to keep them in my country house, because I had special shelves made for them there.

In my library in London I have things like The New Dictionary of Art, in thirty-four volumes, and one or two other odd dictionaries, because I need to have that at hand when I'm writing my weekly articles for The Spectator. It's very annoying because sometimes you have to look up something and it's not there. It's down in the country.

Cole: I know that you are following contemporary art. Are there any particular people that you have your eye on now that you think are going to, say fifty years from now, going to be seen as important artists?

Johnson: I'd prefer not to say. I will say that I had to tea the other day the man I regard as our greatest living draftsman in England, a man called Michael Leonard, a superb draftsman. He's just one example.

Cole: Let's turn to your book about the history of the American people. Here at the National Endowment for the Humanities we've embarked on a nationwide program called We the People to encourage learning about American history and culture.

Polls and tests and surveys showed that Americans, especially school kids, know almost nothing about their history. Democracy is not self-sustaining, and if our liberties are under attack and we can't even define them, how can we defend them? That's the premise of this initiative. So I read your History of the American People with great delight. You really are enthusiastic about our great democratic experiment here. I know that you've been preceded in this by Churchill, who I think wrote wonderfully about Americans, but tell me about how you came to write this book and your experience with America.

Johnson: When I was at Oxford reading history just after the war--we didn't learn any American history at all--A.J.P. Taylor said to me, "Well," he said, "you can do a bit of American history when you've taken your degree, if you can bear to do such a thing," and he was probably more open-minded than most. There were a lot of great historians at Oxford then, but there was not a single lecture in three years on American history.

That was fifty years ago or more. Now things have changed. But still American history is not sufficiently known in Europe. I'm always telling the French, if you studied American history about the way the Americans created their Constitution and made it work, you wouldn't make so many mistakes with the European Union. But, of course, they never take any interest.

I learned American history by meeting Americans. I went to see Eisenhower in Paris when he was running the forces of the West there, and we talked about American history. And when I was serving in Gibraltar in the army, the Sixth Fleet used to come in and I met American admirals there and we'd talk about American history. Then, when I became a journalist and visited America many times, I gradually learned a lot and began to write about it in some of my other books. I suddenly thought, I ought to write an American history myself, from the start right up to the present day and teach myself. I regard myself as a very ignorant fellow. One of the ways in which I teach and educate myself and learn things is by writing books.

Cole: My mentor used to say, "If you want to know something, write a book on it."

Johnson: It's the best way to learn because you have to read systematically. I learned an enormous amount about American history in the course of writing this book. I was learning very interesting and important things and I tried to convey them in as lively a manner as I could.

Cole: When was your first visit to the United States?

Johnson: It must have been 1951 or 1952. It was in the age of President Truman.

Cole: What particular perspective do you think you bring as an Englishman? That's one of the things I love about Churchill. You get an outside view.

Johnson: The great thing about America is it is the freest country in the world. You people often grumble about restraints on your freedom, but there's nowhere like America in size where there is so much freedom. And because there is so much freedom, you are constantly renewing yourselves. People are encouraged to do new things and the rewards for doing new things successfully are considerable. So America is renewing itself while Europe is dying on its feet.

America is renewing itself. Its population will be 420 million by the mid-century and bigger, probably, than the whole of Europe by that time, and it is discovering new things.

So when people say, oh, "Germany is going to be the great leader of the world" or "Japan is going to be the great leader of the world"--now they are saying China is going to be the great leader of the world--I say, "Just watch. Wait for the Americans because the Americans will renew themselves again and again and again." Because you cannot beat freedom for producing ideas and it's ideas in the end that matter.

Cole: This has, I think, been a characteristic of America from the very beginning.

Johnson: Yes.

Cole: By the way, I just finished reading your book on Washington.

Johnson: Well, it's just a little book, you know, a short book.

Cole: But it's harder to write a little book, don't you think, in many ways?

Johnson: Well, my New York publishers said to me, young people in America don't know enough about Washington, and in particular, they think he was just a stuffy fellow and they don't know what a wonderful man he was. They said the reason is all the books on Washington are too long, many bulky volumes and so on. Can you give us Washington in sixty thousand words? So I said, yes, you bet.

Cole: It's a great panoramic sweep of the time. What did you learn from writing that book?

Johnson: As I say, I learned the importance of freedom, but I also learned the importance, really, of the rule of law. That is what America is about. It's about the rule of law and how you reconcile a fundamental and detailed obedience to the law with the concept of freedom.

Cole: Exactly.

Johnson: It seems to me that America has got it just about right, and that's why it will continue to flourish. So any doomsayers about America get short shrift from me. I have a very, very strong and fundamental belief in the future of America, as well as in its present.

Cole: That's gratifying to hear. It's been good talking to you.

Johnson: God bless. Bye.