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Heaven on Earth: Painting and the life to come, by T. J. Clark

30 November 2018

These socio-historical essays are invigorating, says Nicholas Cranfield

TIMOTHY CLARK was a young professor of art history at the University of Leeds when I began training for ordination. When I came to complete my final-year dissertation on Caravaggio, I hoped to have his advice, but he had already moved to the United States, first, to a professorship at Harvard, and, in 1988, to a chair at UCLA.

This meteoric progression is all the more extraordinary, as Clark has made no secret of his Marxist agenda in writing a social history of art. The last chapter of this collection might serve as a funerary oration for the hard Left, and paints a bleak picture for “the life to come” of his subtitle.

He retired to London in 2010; his long essays on detailed aspects of paintings delight those who read the London Review of Books. The chapter here on Veronese first appeared in a different guise in the April 2014 edition.

This volume consists of such essays, teasing out elements of doubt for the secular, sceptical, and atheistic mind as much as for the believer. Each is a tour de force that happily marries art with literature. T. S. Eliot comes to the fore with Giotto’s painting for the Arena Chapel, Verona, and A. C. Bradley on Shakespearean tragedy informs his political invective.

Mondadori Portfolio/Archivio Antonio Quattrone/Bridgeman imagesA detail from Joachim’s Dream, c.1303-05, by Giotto, in the Arena Chapel, Padua; from the book under review

He treats of five works: Joachim’s Dream (Giotto); Pieter Bruegel’s 1567 Land of Cockaigne, a crazy paradise for gluttons; Poussin’s The Sacrament of Marriage, from the series of the seven sacraments painted in 1648 which are now owned by the Earl of Bridgewater; Paolo Veronese’s Allegories of Love, commissioned by the former king of England, Philip II of Spain; and Picasso’s stark mural for UNESCO (1958).

He ranges widely, such that his discussion of Bruegel the Elder includes consideration of more than two dozen further works by the artist, and that on Picasso encompasses Matisse, Cocteau, and Brueghel again (The Fall of Icarus).

He is always invigorating and provocative. I might choose to differ from him over Poussin, as I prefer Neil Bartlett as a more interesting guide (1998) to the individuals leaving the scene; but this is art criticism at its best.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

Heaven on Earth: Painting and the life to come
T. J. Clark
Thames & Hudson £24.95
Church Times Bookshop £22.46

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