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Book Review: A Short Book About Painting by Andrew Marr

Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet and artist who lives on the Wirral Peninsula in England.

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What's it About?

As the introduction to this book clearly states, this is not a 'how to paint' manual nor a treatise on art history. If you want those things, the text promptly encourages you to look elsewhere.

Instead, in this book Marr asks what attracts a person to a particular painting which not only captures their initial interest but continues to be inspirational after many decades of viewings. Life, he writes, can be beautiful but mundane, and art can help people to transcend the everyday world of dull routines.

Why do we take the time to travel to exhibitions and pay the entry fee in order to look at paintings, when we're all surrounded by so many diverse visual experiences? What makes paintings special? What makes any painter want to paint, to struggle through untold failures in order to create their paintings?

How do painters decide how to communicate the idea in their mind to their chosen support, be that canvas, paper or a plastered ceiling perhaps? When does art cease to be art and become, instead, merely colour and shape - a doodle with pretentions?

A Short Book About Painting is a book filled with questions to which Marr aims to provide answers, or to at least explore.

Marr writes that he enjoys looking at paintings. He likes visiting exhibitions and seeing what's new, and discovering what other painters have been creating.

He also enjoys painting, which has been his hobby since his early teens. His professional life as a TV broadcaster, news editor and author, unsurprisingly, seems to have left little time for painting until Marr suffered a stroke. Faced with the stark reality of mortality, he felt a need to express himself creatively, and to fulfil his desire for some kind of immortality.

But while any art form can be a fascinating and engaging activity, it can also be demanding, challenging and frustrating. Any learning process tends be steep, prolonged and, especially in a creative field, sometimes entirely elusive, and Marr happily shares his own struggles and failures with paint and canvas.

About the Author

A well-known radio and TV presenter and journalist, Andrew Marr became the host of the BBC's political programme, Sunday AM, in 2005. The show's title was later changed to The Andrew Marr Show.

In 2007 the BBC screened his documentary series, Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain to considerable acclaim.

This was followed by Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr's Megacities, The Diamond Queen, and Andrew Marr's A History of the World. Books accompanied these series. Marr had also written My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, and A Short Book About Drawing, and other non-fiction books.

What's to Like?

Mar asks what the phrase "good art" means.

"Good" might mean that a painting is commercially successful, or it could imply that a work has incorporated ground-breaking and innovative ideas. Equally, "good" might refer to an accomplished technique, even when keeping in mind that painting requires different techniques for different mediums and for also for exploring various genres or styles of painting. Or it could simply mean that a particular painting suits someone's living-room décor.

When trying to pin-point the meaning of good art, every person's opinion is as valid as the next person's, and the message communicated by a painting may or may not be understood by each viewer. Many a gallery visitor has stood before an acclaimed piece of art and felt only bewilderment or abject disinterest, even dislike. Opinions about art are, inevitably, highly subjective.

Marr briefly acknowledges the influence of the high-end art business, the big money, on artists' work - the pressure on professional artists to produce, the need to pay their bills, and to also satisfy expectations from gallery owners.

Marr also points to the chasm between the sort of art lauded by big name galleries, which is often scorned by the general public, and the wealth of art displayed and sold by smaller galleries. The big names plumb for abstractions, the smaller names tend to sell more easily-recognisable subject.

I've had conversations with small gallery owners who told me, without hesitation, that they've found abstract work doesn't sell well, so they are reluctant to stock much of it. Rural scenes, dogs and "pretty" images, on the other hand, fly off their walls.

Exhibitions organised by local art societies tend to follow established traditions of realism. Within hours of these exhibitions opening many of these works sport little red stickers showing they've been sold, as I have witnessed for myself on many occasions.

But do commercial sales necessarily mean that the art is good? Again, any answer is bound to be subjective.

The book's illustrative plates are often of Marr's own work. Otherwise, he offers a rather narrow selection of work by contemporary abstract artists such as Adrian Hemming, Anselm Kiefer, Kurt Schwitters and Jean-Michel Basquet. The choices reflect Marr's own taste in painting, and yet there is also a painting by Monet tucked away in there, which seems rather like an incongruous after-thought.

What's Not to Like?

This is indeed a short book. My copy was in hardback, with a chunky cover to lend a greater sense of solidity to what otherwise might feel flimsy. One third of nearly every page is left entirely blank, adding to the illusion of size. To be fair, the title clearly says "short".

I had enjoyed Marr's documentary series about British history. Until I'd spotted this book I hadn't known anything about his painting, so I was interested to read what he might have to say about art.

Unfortunately, there's no new ground here. The questions raised in this book will be familiar even to college-level art students. Marr's attempts to respond to the issues raised are either brief - again, it is a short book - or vague, because an age-old problem with trying to define good art is that it's largely a matter of subjective opinion, and opinions are not facts. Personal tastes and opinions do not form a one-size-fits-all scale of measurement.

Marr enthuses about abstract expressionism. It's what he likes to look at; it's what he likes to paint. That's fine if that's your bag. It's not mine particularly, but that's okay as I, too, like looking at diverse kinds of paintings. And yes, I also paint.

My main bone of contention with this book is that Marr appears to pour scorn on the thousands if not millions of hobbyists and professionals whose paintings express a love of realism. On page 105 he states that he's "not knocking this stuff" but it doesn't excite him. Well, fair enough; each to our own.

According to Marr, such artists are simply copying formulaic ideas and techniques which have been fully explored already throughout previous centuries. I could add that abstract expressionism was first developed back in the 1940s, and that was a quite while ago now....

Sources

The biographical and bibliographical information in this article came from these sources:

  1. https://twitter.com/andrewmarr9?lang=en
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Marr
  3. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1070816/


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© 2021 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

Comments

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on May 17, 2021:

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for dropping by.

Lady Dazy from UK on May 17, 2021:

I did not know that this TV personality also wrote books. You learn something new everyday. I enjoyed reading your article and it is an interesting subject.

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