3 MAY 1975, Page 14

Seeing it whole

John Steer

Venetian Art from BOlini to Titian Johannes Wilde (Clarendon Press 0.95) Johannes Wilde was an art-historian, born in Hungary, Viennese by training, who came to Britain at the time of the ansehluss and died in 1970. Through, his teaching at the Courtauld Institute, he had a formative influence on the post-war generation of British art-historians and most of what is simple, clear, balanced, unpedantic and loving in British art-history comes from him. He was, as Sir Anthony Blunt says in his introduction to this book, "a perfectionist who published little" and his lectures on Michelangelo, on Masaccio, on Leonardo, on Ferrarese art and on Venetian art were, apart from articles in learned journals and his catalogues of the Italian drawings in the Royal Collection and the Michelangelo drawings in the British Museum, the means whereby his ideas were disseminated.

This book publishes, more or less unaltered, the Venetian lectures. Apart from the Michelangelo series, these were the most sustained and complete, and, since in any case Venetian art was his first love, the choice, made by his executors in the Courtauld Institute, is appropriate.

Wilde had the admirable, and 'uncommon, quality of never saying a word more than he meant. When he had finished he would stop, and his utterances, lacking altogether the usual elegances of the professional leCturer, sometimes had an abruptness which could be quite startling. This comes over in the book. What comes over too is a simple, although often idiosyncratic, command of the English language. His formal grasp of it was never, as the introduction says, sure but, my goodness, he could use it so that it said what he wanted to say!

Wilde's art-history started from the individual work of art. He had the great advantage of having spent much of his earlier career as an assistant-curator in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna — a collection, of course, particularly rich in Venetian paintings, so that some of the greatest of them were, as it were, directly under his hand — and he always begins and ends with the painting itself.

Where problems are central,. as for example in the case of Giorgione, he deals with them scrupulously; never jumping fences, always constructing hypotheses on the basis of known fact. But he recognised that the facts of art-history are visual, not just documentary and that its problems, however fundamental they may be, are only worth solving in order that we may understand the works themselves better. The constructions which he builds from the evidence and the solutions he proposes are always the result of a striving towards a more coherent vision of the creative personality of the individual artist and a clearer apprehension of the qualities of the individual work.

Indeed these lectures are as illuminating as an exposition of aims and methods as they are as a treatment of their particular subject. Looking at the oeuvre of an artist painting by painting, they always start with a consideration ' of each work as a physical object; discussing its size, its medium, its condition, the purposes for _ which it was commissioned and the circumstances in which it was intended to be seen. Wilde had a number of questions which he always asked himself when confronted with a work of art, and one of these, whether or not the work had been added to or cut, is a constant preoccupation throughout this book.

What, by laying stress on such matters, 'Wilde is emphasising is that the art-historian, and indeed the art-lover, must, in his appreciation of a work of art, take into account a very wide range of facts about it, and for a balanced view of the development: of an artist's style must consider, not only what has happened to the individual work since it was painted, but also the function for which it was intended.

By starting in this way Wilde clears the ground for a more informed consideration of general questions of style and of the creative process of the individual artist. Giorgione and Titian, whose works form the core of this book, both composed on the canvas itself — the first artists indeed to do so — and, through X rays (in the uSe of which he was a pioneer) as well as through long contemplation and analysis of the finished work, Wilde explores the actual process of painting and the practical roots of the evolution of style. In his writing, as in that of only a very few other art-historians, one can smell the paint as it goes on the canvas.

But such analysis is always set within the context of iconography and patronage, and within a general view of the internal logic of

stylistic evolution (transcending on occasion the mere charting of direct influences) which

sees. spiritual links between great artists working simultaneously in different places at the same time. The whole conception of the book is indeed like a complex knot, in which the individual work of art is the fulcrum or point of join, and the related strands are the ribbons of a bow, twisting and turning around the knot itself, but always in the end tied firmly into place.

The result is a coherent and personal view of the history of art in general and Venetian painting in particular, which fires one, to begin with, with the author's love of the works of art themselves and then illuminates the nature of that love through a deeper and deeper understanding of all the levels at which the work of art is apprehended and enjoyed. Like all good history (or indeed good criticism: whichever you like to call it) Wilde's talking and writing about art was a matter of personal revelation.

This quality, of course, does not come over quite so powerfully in a book as it did in the lectures themselves. The printed page is a less suitable medium for direct visual exposition than the lecture room, and a little, I suspect, gets lost. Less would be lost, however, if the quality of the reproductions was better. These were made from Wilde's own photographs, the quality of which was generally extremely high, and that they emerge so poorly must be laid at the door of the publishers. Economics may provide some excuse here, but not much. It may not always be possible to achieve first-class reproduction in a book which is reasonably priced, but it should not be beyond the powers of the Clarendon Press to see that the plates are the right way up!

Nonetheless this remains the best and most useful book on Venetian painting available or likely to become available. Its publication is also apposite at a time when, through a whipped-up cotitroversy about his attributions of the Michelangelo drawings in the British Museum, Wilde's name has become for the first time, more generally known. Journalists, looking for an intellectual sensation to liven up the news pages of the smarter Sunday newspaper, like nothing more than to drum up a pseudo scandal about the attribution of famous works of art. Before starting the next one they would do well to read this book and find out what the informed study of works of art is really about!

John Steer is Professor of Fine Art at the University of St Andrew's.