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In Search of Art, by Edwin Mullins

25 January 2019

David Wilbourne enjoys this art-lover’s recollections

IN SEARCH OF ART is a firework display, exploring lands of lost content, with Edwin Mullins proving art historian, people-watcher, sleuth, wit, and poignant chronicler, all rolled into one. An enlightened Sunday Telegraph and BBC gave Mullins carte blanche to visit and describe whatever took his fancy.

Along the way, Mullins produces “The BBC Nine O’Clock Nudes”, a hundred ten-minute programmes covering his favourite pictures; despairs that, had modern-day Damascus been like that “in the days of St Paul, he might have chosen to go elsewhere”; convincingly argues that Van Gogh didn’t kill himself, but was fatally wounded by a mischievous youth impersonating Buffalo Bill; recreates Monet’s water meadows, assuring Paul Getty, en passant, that Monet was not spelt with a “y”; and spurs on obstinate mules with Kurdish cries of “Yuruh, Yuruh,” buying a melon at a Turkish bazaar from “a smiling lady who looked like an expanded version of her wares”.

He poignantly reports on the November 1966 Florence flood. Donatello’s Magdalene’s ravaged features and torn garments are given added pity and humility by the clinging mud and filth. Restorers painstakingly comb the mud to retrieve countless minute fragments of paint from Cimambue’s Crucifix, a scene strikingly embodying “both the suffering of Christ and the suffering of art”.

© 2018 paul coxOn the Camino in the early 1970s, with a TV cameraman, in a car with a sliding roof; from the book

Equally poignant is a pilgrimage to the Crusader Castles of Syria, staying in the Baron Hotel, Aleppo, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express — the subsequent civil war reduced it to rubble. Syria’s most distinguished archaeologist, Khaled al-Assad, unfolds the classical treasure of Palmyra. Islamic State terrorists were later to dynamite Palmyra, torturing and executing al-Assad for refusing to surrender those artefacts.

Mullins chances upon Maaloula, a rare Christian village, where he was addressed in Aramaic, the ipsissima vox of Christ. Maaloula, too, is destroyed, and Mullins fears that the language of Christ is silenced for ever. Yet, fortunately, the accents of Jesus, clear and still, are caught by Mullins’s numinous text.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in the diocese of York.

In Search of Art
Edwin Mullins
Unicorn Publishing £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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