The Magazine

Look and Learn

Camille Paglia on the best of the West.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By ELISE PASSAMANI
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In this hugely informative and highly entertaining study, Camille Paglia argues that to survive in our frenetic visual environment, we need to refocus our eyes on the sculptures and paintings and other works that compose the sweeping artistic patrimony of the West. As she notes, “Looking at art requires stillness and receptivity, which realign our senses and produce a magical tranquility.”

'Venus with a Mirror' (ca. 1555) by Titian

'Venus with a Mirror' (ca. 1555) by Titian

She reports with some urgency on the impoverished state of the fine arts and art education, condemning the weakness (and absence) of art history surveys in schools and colleges, and pointing out that students in the humanities “graduate with little sense of chronology or the gorgeous procession of styles that constitutes Western art.” And she highlights an even more distressing problem: The elite contemporary art world sneers at religion, relies on shock value, and “has no big ideas left.”

Paglia’s antidote to this nothingness is to contemplate individual works of art one-by-one, and, by doing this again and again, to develop an eye and understand and appreciate real achievement. To this end, her book is a collection of 29 essays about particular works of art and the artists who made them. In each essay, she provides the historical context of the work, biographical information about the artist and subject, the names of other artists who have been influenced by the work, and her own observations about why it continues to be of interest.

Glittering Images is similar to Paglia’s 2005 poetry compendium, Break, Blow, Burn, and her teaching experience shines in this format. Essentially, the book is a meticulously assembled survey course, accompanied by beautiful, full-color reproductions, and permeated with her clarity and wealth of knowledge. And the range of works is enormous: She leads the reader on “A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars” by way of ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, the Baroque period, and Art Deco, to name only a handful of the eras she discusses.

The question that guides Paglia’s editorial choices is “What lasts, and why?” and although she covers so much ground in great detail, the book is very readable, almost dishy. And full of surprising artwork. After reading the first chapter, about the tomb of the Egyptian queen Nefertari, you turn the page to discover a photograph of an unexpectedly modern marble statue with a long, graceful neck. It is one of the Cycladic idols (ca. 2800-2300 B.C.), which are Bronze Age figurines in white marble that were discovered in the Cyclades, an island chain in the Aegean. Paglia notes that they “carry an invigorating sense of the future. Even in their rightful positions on their backs, they are gazing skyward toward some other order—not necessarily a supreme deity but the shifting pattern of bright stars.” They primarily depict women and came to inspire a variety of modern artists, including Picasso, Modigliani, and Henry Moore.

Next, she calls our attention to the Charioteer of Delphi (ca. 475 B.C.), a bronze sculpture of a handsome athlete with inlaid eyes of onyx in white enamel. It originally formed part of a larger work, complete with chariot, horses, and grooms. According to Paglia, “the Charioteer of Delphi represents a stillness of perception, a peak moment where an exceptional person has become a work of art, the focus of all eyes, human and divine,” and he personifies the idea that “the beautiful and the good” are one and the same. She asks of Titian’s nude goddess in Venus with a Mirror (ca. 1555), “Is Venus awaking from mourning for her young lover, Adonis? .  .  . Hence perhaps Venus’s surprise here as she rediscovers her own beauty and, meeting our eyes in the mirror, resolves to live again.” Thus, she points out the regenerative power in seeing a beautiful face, illustrating how “the hushed spectacle of a woman gazing into her mirror has exerted a powerful fascination on male artists.”

Paglia captures Anthony van Dyck’s portrait (ca. 1638) of the cousins of Charles I in a sentence: “Lords John and Bernard Stuart, young English bucks dressed at the height of fashion, strike a pose at the foot of a dark staircase”; but she adds with some poignancy that these glamorous young men would be killed in the English Civil War a few years after the picture was painted. Apparently, “Women often seem placid or generic in van Dyck’s portraits, while powerful or handsome men radiate charisma.”

The full effect of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is lost in reproduction, since the painting itself, “an experiment in black magic,” is eight feet tall. It is a portrait of five prostitutes in a brothel, and in discussing it, Paglia conveys a strong sense of Picasso’s artistic output and personality:

These statuesque demoiselles, crowding the flat picture plane, are Picasso’s carnal Muses, patrons of his genius and titanic productivity. (He left fifty thousand works in a vast range of genres and materials.) In real life, one woman would never be enough for him. .  .  . Mutating through many faces, they are the models for the restlessly mercurial styles of his long career. He cannot conquer them, but their intense gaze conveys that they are choosing him, and only him.

Another, less well-known entry is Tamara de Lempicka’s elegant portrait of Doctor Boucard (1929). Explaining the artist’s small museum presence, Paglia writes:

Most of her paintings are privately owned, often by movie stars, which has compromised her reputation among art critics. Performers identify with the theatricality of her portraits, which confer glamour and status. In contrast, the favorite woman artist of mainstream feminism is Frida Kahlo, because of her folkloric themes, her militant Communism, her marital humiliations, and her ailments, accidents, and surgeries, which she graphically detailed in grisly paintings of symbolic martyrdom.

In her last essay, Paglia claims that “no one has closed the gap between art and technology more successfully than George Lucas.” The only work of film she includes is the volcanic duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005). The scenery is Lucas’s version of hell, and Paglia lauds it as “sublime elemental poetry.” The special effects, craftsmanship, and choreography that went into filming this one particular scene—including specially shot footage of Mount Etna erupting—are staggering. It ends as Anakin Skywalker “crawls like a serpent with demonic yellow eyes before he catches fire and is half-incinerated,” all but finishing the character’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader.

It is curious that Camille Paglia deems George Lucas to be the “world’s greatest living artist,” even when he has purveyed a good deal of the kind of “constant flashing or strobing” effect that she warns “fatigues the eye and may impede small children’s cognitive development.” Surely this conflict isn’t an accident, but is rather the strongest aesthetic judgment she makes in the entire book, and can be read as a scathing indictment of contemporary art.

Paglia’s concerns about the well-being and teaching of children echo what Edith Wharton wrote on the same subject over a century ago in her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897). Although Wharton couldn’t have imagined the animation and video games that now clamor for our attention, she insisted of rooms designed for children: Above all, the walls should not be overcrowded. The importance of preserving in the school-room bare wall-spaces of uniform tint has hitherto been little considered; but teachers are beginning to understand the value of these spaces in communicating to the child’s brain a sense of repose which diminishes mental and physical restlessness.

Paglia herself writes that “the odd class field trip to a museum, even if one is within reach, is inadequate,” mirroring Wharton’s assertion, “Parents may conscientiously send their children to galleries and museums, but unless the child can find some point of contact between its own surroundings and the contents of the galleries, the interest excited by the pictures and statues will be short-lived and ineffectual.”

Glittering Images represents such a point of contact. The numerous color reproductions are so enchanting that they encourage you to pause and linger, to flip backwards and forwards between the pages for pure enjoyment. It is wonderful as a picture book for schoolchildren, regardless of their reading level. Paglia surely had this in mind when assembling the illustrations: “All parents who can afford it should have at least one art book lying around the house for children to encounter on their own.” And again, Edith Wharton would agree: “To teach a child to distinguish between a good and a bad painting, a well or an ill--modeled statue,” she wrote, “will at least develop those habits of observation and comparison that are the base of all sound judgments.”

Elise Passamani is a graduate student at St. John's College, Oxford.

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