Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

That captivating curl

The floor plan leaflet for the Prado in Madrid includes thumbnail images and the gallery locations of nearly 40 paintings that are part of its collection.


Sean Sheehan


They have been selected because they are particularly acclaimed works of art and the information helps visitors who want to cut to the chase and not rush around trying to see everything.

Kelly Grovier has done something similar by selecting nearly sixty famous works of art from around the world.

His pitch goes a step further, claiming that they all have something in common, a single detail, feature or quality that can be isolated and highlighted as the key to their ability to connect with viewers.

Grovier co-opts Baudelaire’s observation that beauty always possesses ‘a touch of strangeness’ and he traces the source of such strangeness in great paintings to a unique detail or element that reverberates across time.

He calls this unique quality the eye-hook and his book demonstrate the thesis. A picture of each one is shown alongside a close-up of the eye-hook detail and a commentary explains the significance how it ‘sculpts’ our seeing and ‘shapes our understanding of who we are and what it means to be alive in the world’.

These are bold claims and sometimes his interpretations are suspect, as when he singles out a barely visible horizontal line in one of the eleven panels that make up Sean Scully’s “Backs and fronts” and invests it with an importance that seems disproportionate.

The author is on sounder ground when he writes how Warhol’s “Brillo boxes” forces us into an intellectual and not an artistic mode of seeing.

On the whole, this is a lovely book both to read and to look through and there is delight to be had in Grovier’s descriptions.

He asks of Venus, “Who hover-crafts to shore on an oversized scallop shell” in Botticelli’s painting of the birth of the goddess, why she appears with that flourish of golden hair swirling around one side of her head.

Grovier resists any dogmatic interpretation and is content to dwell on its “captivating curl” that remain  poised between “a symphony of floating rose sprigs that perfume the air on one side of her, and the embroidered polyphony of daisies and cornflowers that adorn the wind-flapped fabrics to her right”.

The curling hair is the unreadability that resists interpretation, eluding and deferring any ready comprehension.

John Berger’s seminal study of art, “Ways of seeing”, appeared over fifty years ago but the title is still resonant and presumably Kelly Grovier was aware of this when choosing the title for his own book.

This is probably not the act of hubris it could be and Grovier’s ‘new way’ of seeing is best approached as a supplement to and not a replacement for other ways of understanding art.

As such his book adds to the interest and enjoyment of gazing at famous paintings.

“A new way of seeing”, by Kelly Grovier, is published by Thames & Hudson.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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