Friday, 20 November 2015

Just Looking by John Updike


This is quite unlike most of the books I read. It's not fiction, which is the vast majority, or a focused non-fiction. It's a collection of essays about art and artists, written by a man best known for his literature. (I have only read Rabbit, Run, and I can't say I loved it.) I know very little about art. At all. 

So it's interesting to get a perspective from a layman, although Updike is careful to make sure he comes across as an educated and erudite layman. He wants his readers to know he knows what he's talking about. Still, this is primarily essays from the perspective of someone who enjoys art, but has not put a lifetime into studying it. Very few people can do that, and they would be unlikely to reach that stature of Updike has in popular consciousness. This is not a book someone who wasn't already famous could get published.

These were bite-sized chunks about various artists, some of whom I'd heard of before, and some of whom I hadn't. For the most part, they were informative, even if they occasionally shaded into needing to make sure I knew how smart Updike is. There are a good number of pictures, but many of the works taht Updike references aren't in the book, leaving me feeling like I might not have entirely understood his point, without the full set of examples to look at. 

He's a little snooty about Renoir and Wyeth both, although I quite enjoyed the photos of their artwork in the book. I know nothing about whether or not that's a good opinion, but I have far less knowledge than Updike, having to rely solely on whether or not I respond to what I'm seeing.

Maybe that's it. This book in enjoyable, but he's not "Just Looking." That's the pose, but there is enough needing to show that he has the right to write these pieces that he is constantly pushing to get away from the very title he's given the book. He is analyzing, and the analysis is frequently very enjoyable to read. It's just that the pose is uneasy. 

Several of the artists he writes on, particularly the sculptors, are incredibly intriguing, and I would like to know and see more. Particularly to see them in person - all art should be seen that way, if possible, but with sculpture that feels even more necessary to be able to walk around it , see the proportions and how it occupies the space.

I don't know if I have much more to say about the book. The essays are certainly accessible to a total amateur in art appreciation, like me. They are for the most part enjoyable, and if there aren't as many reproductions as I might want, I got a great deal of pleasure from staring at the ones that are there. In the long run, I may remember the pictures more than the prose that accompanied them. 

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