Theatre in Wales

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A Critical Master in Full Flow

On Criticism & Critics

Simon Schama , Hay Festival , June 1, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Simon Schama Simon Schama‘s subject at the Hay Festival for 2019 is “Rembrandt’s Eyes.” Schama is an academic and media phenomenon for a reason; he is an art critic of greatness. Great critics move across four levels. They home in on the detail. They know their aesthetics intimately, confident in their judgements on form, content, meaning, expression. They have facts at their finger-tips: the life, love, money, or the lack of both, the context of history, the critical climate. And they yoke the first three to personal response. Jejune critical writing, that is swamped with the words “I” and “me”, makes a categorical error, that the subjective takes first place.

Thus Schama shows a Rembrandt drawing of a cottage in a snowy landscape. The paper is overwhelmingly white. He knows the precise type of paper that Rembrandt was buying and its expense. He describes the nature of the quill and the way it holds the ink to make the strokes. In the depiction of a face, Schama sees the minute dot of colour that animates an eyelid. In the “Night Watch” he points to the shadow of an arm that makes an innovative composition work.

Schama has the customary Hay allotment of an hour. When the warning comes up that his time is approaching its end he says “We could go on for hours” and it is quite true. He is a fountain of words, a torrent of sentences, that are both complex and replete but never lack sharpness. He is a presence on a stage akin to the novels of Saul Bellow at his peak. He speaks without notes and thus has no need to cling to the protection of a podium. He paces the stage, pivots to re-assess a picture. His physical presence is as animated as the life of the language. Thus he relates that Rembrandt had a familiarity with Pliny’s assessment of Apelles. The artist is not the popular view of a “knobbly-nosed, pugilistic everyman.” He looks at the dashes of paint on fabric that would not be repeated until Manet. He refers to Rembrandt’s assault on the concept of finito as “a porridge of pigment.” He shows the extraordinary image of the artist and the easel, the artist “obsessed with the integument nature of inanimate things.”

But art does not exist for analysis. It is there for emotion. The Hay timer is clocking that he has 60 seconds to go. He keeps “The Jewish Bride” for the very end. His response is one of intense emotionality. He focuses on the two hands that meet. The location is carnal in reference, the delicacy of expression in the fingers its counterpoint in tenderness. There is no greater expression of love in the canon of art. And the critic-historian is awed in emotional response. That is the mark of true critics. They offer wisdom without self-aggrandisement in the knowledge that they are art’s servant, its interpreter, but not its equal.

This article first appeared in Wales Arts Review.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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