A critical century not out
THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE: A CENTENARY ANTHOLOGY selected by Michael Levey Yale, £29.95, pp. 256 ISBN 0300099118 It is surely a cause for celebration when a magazine devoted to the fine arts almost reaches the age of Strom Thurmond. Not one but two of them, egad, have attained that great age in
recent months, one American and the other decidedly English. ARTnews of New York celebrated its centenary in November of last year. The Burlington Magazine, a glossy monthly, was born in March of 1903, and its roll call of contributors includes some of the greatest arthistorical names of the century just past. Roger Fry was an editor, as was Benedict Nicolson, elder son of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Bernard Berenson wrote for it, as did Lord Clark, John PopeHennessy and Francis Haskell. For several decades the cover proclaimed it a magazine for connoisseurs, but that term gradually fell out of favour because it came to smack of an increasingly poisonous mixture of amateurish dabbling, snobbery and aristocratic patronage. None of those things has much thrived since the war.
Generally speaking, ARTnews is keen to spend its time thinking about the present and the recent past. The Burlington is deeply, perhaps viscerally, devoted to the past, and it was Roger Fry himself who first encouraged it to begin to take stock of the present too. Now it certainly does so, though still a mite reluctantly, one feels. This centenary anthology, edited by a former director of the National Gallery, is an attempt to give an idea of the kinds of articles which have characterised the magazine since its inception. The range is surprisingly wide, if not eclectic. Subjects covered include the cleaning of the Raphael Cartoons, a madly enthusiastic piece about 15th-century armour by James Mann, and various brilliant exercises in the most minute and painstaking scholarly detective work imaginable — Martin Davis' fine analysis of Ingres' two portraits of Madame Moitessier, for example, which reads as vigorously as on the day it was written (in 1936), or Ernst Gombrich's famous analysis, written in 1944, of Poussin's 'Landscape with Orion', which is a model of clarity, lucidity and understatement. It is marvellous to witness a great critic plunging into a painting as if it were an unfathomable rock pool.
The selection includes profiles, exhibition reviews, book reviews, personal reminscences, and an exceptional piece of almost brain-numbing erudition from the pen of Erwin Panofsky on Jan Van Eyck. Some of the more personal pieces are particularly engaging. Augustus John's tribute to his sister Gwen, for example, is especially good. Augustus writes a noisy, muscular prose. He almost shouts at his poor sister — 'my sister's preference for slums and underground cellars never quite won my approval' — but you can still tell that, beneath all the slightly rancorous bluster, he is wholly in awe of her talent, and, as time has proven, she was the one who had it, in spades.
One of the best items is David Bomford's recent, vigorous demolition of David Hockney's bogus thesis (published, to a tinny fanfare of publicity, in a book
called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters) about how so many great artists have depended upon optical instruments for their greatness. Who needs talent when you can hire a camera lucida?
Perhaps I was wrong then. Perhaps the Burlington will engage ever more boldly with the present in the succeeding, triumphal decades.
Michael Glover is a London correspondent for ARTnews