21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 18

On the sentimental side

Basil Taylor

Greuze; 1725-1805 Anita Brookner (Elek £7.00) Why — the question is also put in Dr Brookner's first sentence — another book now on this "not very lovable painter," to use her phrase? What sort of a book is this to be, about an artist described a page or two later as one "almost impossible . . . to introduce to the general reader of the twentieth century," one whose most characteristic works, his moralistic genre pieces such as L'Accorde de Village, were received by sophisticated contemporaries as masterpieces of expression ", affecting the soul with a sentiment so profound and terrible that one is obliged to turn one's eyes away." The author of t'hat comment, inspired by drawings for the compositions Le Fits Ingrat and Le Fits Puni was no milksop, but Greuze's most eminent apologist, Diderot; and such things could indeed, as Baron Grun reported, bring simpler spectators instantly to tears. Today when products branded as pornographic provoke anxious debate about their power significantly to deprave, we ought at least to be interested in pictures which should so stir the feelings, if in a contrary direction, towards compassion.

The whole of Greuze's art, portraits and " fancy " pieces, erotic or simpering, as well as the subject pictures already mentioned, depended upon a psychic mechanism of association by which images were presumed to invoke sentiments and passions, a matter which was of widespread philosophical interest in the eighteenth century. I doubt if any artist not even a nineteenth-century one, has so assiduously rattled his can for emotional favours. Every face he painted, whether alone or in one of his concerts of pathetic expression, seems to be seeking our sympathy, striving for a sentimental association with the viewer. This, and its connection with Greuze's life and ambience, is the phenomenon and the intellectual puzzle chiefly to be considered. Dr. Brookner's intelligent study provides a somewhat uneasy and indeterminate account of the dilemmas to which she is certainly responsive, if frigidly so, for she is plainly beset by the hesitations which her first pages show her to expect from her readers. She starts by explaining lucidly that current or mode of feeling expressed in the word sensibilite which, in the middle decades of the century, achieved in France the status of a cult, an emotional posture easier to recognise than to specify or define, feeling manged as an exercise of intellectual contrivance and taste.

This is the best part of the book, which thereafter declines in both interest and penetration. The painter's life — moving from humble beginnings through fame and notoriety and a variety of personal and professional frustrations and insecurities to an old age of penurious neglect — is described neatly enough, but this particular progress and career, so intricately linked to the artistic achievement, demands treatment by an author more responsive to the enigmas of the human spirit. The art may not now win much support, but the man, if unlovable, is permanently intriguing. What were the motivations, how honest was this adeptly ambitious creature? How were his sententious images, so painstakingly wrought and concocted, linked to the emotional life of one so cruelly cuckolded and financially betrayed by a wife of brutal insensitivity and coarse greed? The weaknesses of this study are illustrated by the author's last sentence in which she proposes that the painter of some of these pictures deserves a permanent place "not only in histories of art but in the affections of those . . . who try to understand the evolution of his century." The two things here distinguished are not distinct in this case or any other; art, society and the life of the individual, or to put it in other terms, image, ideas, sentiments and actions are not to be separately empanelled. Perhaps both would have been more expressively shaped and the chapters on the pictures less confined by the conventions of stylistic exposition if this sort of synthesis had been recognised and sought.

Dr Brookner has unfortunately been illserved by her publisher. The plates, except for those in colour, are lumped at the back, detached from the author's argument instead of illuminating it directly. In these circumstances the cross-referencing to the plates is quite inadequate. The captions do not provide dimensions, dates or locations. The index does not include the works discussed, so necessary to a book without a catalogue. Until art historians and critics enforce a more active and imaginative interest in the str,ucture of their books, readers will have to put up with — or reject — an old-fashioned piece of art-publishing such as this is.