Think Like an Artist review – where’s the big picture?

rembrandt-the-night-watch-009

erhaps I should have known more about Rembrandt’s midlife crisis. Thanks to Will Gompertz, the BBC’s endearing mad-professor lookalike of an arts editor, I now do. The great Dutchman was running out of money; his creative juices were no longer flowing and the nurse employed to look after his young son was suing him for not marrying her. Any visitor to Amsterdam’s masterfully rebuilt Rijksmuseum would stand in awe of The Night Watch. Yet the great man’s mood “wasn’t improved by a few snide comments made by some of the sitters… who grumbled that their features were poorly painted”.

This is one of many entertaining anecdotes in Gompertz’s romp through fine art history – or rather his bite-sized guide to the way artists think and behave. (He is performing a similar “how to” service on his Saturday morning … Gets Creative series on Radio 4.) One minute he is scoffing cake, and pondering race relations, at the home of the American artist Kerry James Marshall; in a particularly illuminating section, he is discussing iPhones with the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans while in Edinburgh observing the works of the Scottish portraitist Sir Henry Raeburn.

Then of course there is Theaster Gates, whose works – “from worthless materials he has found in the abandoned buildings in his run-down neighbourhood: broken floorboards, chipped concrete pillars and old fire hoses” – had gone unappreciated until he invented the name of an exotic Japanese master, whom he called Shoji Yamaguchi. People loved the show, but that was nothing compared with the revelation that whole conceit was a con. “The art world hugged itself with glee. What a wag this Theaster was!”
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Gates is a cultural entrepreneur and Gompertz’s link between art and business (we might as well call a spade a spade) is perhaps the most eye-catching observation. While he devotes barely a page to censorship and only a short chapter to the burning issue of education and the inability of the school system to enhance creativity, his musings on the grasping (bad) or innovative (good) side of the artist are useful in puncturing myths about “creatives” divorced from the grubby outreaches of the rest of society. One only needs to look at today’s bling-fuelled London auction houses to see the extent to which commercial concerns dominate.

But it was, the author contends, ever thus. “While his assistants worked all hours at his studio-cum-factory in Antwerp, the enterprising [Peter Paul] Rubens would travel to the splendid aristocratic houses and royal courts of Europe and inform their well heeled owners that if they were to keep up with their peers they would need one of his giant, fleshy, baroque paintings hanging in their Great Hall.”
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Fleshy – what an excellent onomatopoeia – for big walls, big paintings, big money: Gompertz has an endearing way with words, and an ability to mix history with the offcuts of his day job without ever seeming to name-drop. Some of his throwaway remarks are just a little too… throwaway. I fear he is trying a little too hard to be modish when describing the 1960s monstrosity or icon St Catherine’s College – take your pick, I know my view – as one of Oxford’s great buildings. And this in a passage that comes straight after discussing the merits of the singer Adele; yes, readers may well scratch their heads.

This book is a series of arresting small pictures, in search of an elusive big picture. Perhaps Gompertz was not seeking to find one. More often than not, his linkages work to good effect. I would never have associated the thought process of Belgrade-born performance artist Marina Abramovic with that of the 16th-century Baroque painter Caravaggio. Citing one of his greatest works, Salome With the head of John the Baptist, Caravaggio, like Abramovic, “wanted to make us part of the action, a character in the story”. Apparently, the film-maker Martin Scorsese credits Caravaggio for the bar scenes in his 1973 movie, Mean Streets. He was also an inspiration for the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Perhaps I should have known about that too – and of course the midlife crisis of Rembrandt, and many other artists who preceded and followed him.

John Kampfner is chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation

Think Like an Artist is published by Penguin (£9.99). Click here to order it for £7.99

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