Tag Archives: italy

Interview: Bob Duggan of Art Blog By Bob

Over the past year and a half, Bob Duggan has carved out a niche for himself as one of the premier art bloggers on the Web. His daily meditations on the works and artists he loves best range over the whole scope of art history, both Western and Eastern, yet his site is as consistently unpretentious and good-humored as its title, “Art Blog By Bob.” A passionate amateur with a literary bent, he has brought the spirit of John Ruskin to a blogosphere that badly needs it. This week he graciously took time out from pondering the Old Masters to answer a few questions about (surprise!) art. And books, too.

AMoS: How and why did you get into blogging? What was your goal in creating Art Blog by Bob?

BD: Since the 2000 election, I’ve been hooked on political blogs, especially Eschaton and Daily Kos. Seeing the potential for such enlightened and lively discourse on a topic by “amateurs” and professionals interested in talking to laypersons rather than just other professionals, I began looking for blogs covering my other interests, including art history. To my dismay, I really didn’t find that much out there. I discovered lots of contemporary art bloggers, but nothing really touching on the “classic” art that you’d see in museums and in big-name museum exhibitions. One free Blogger account later, I started blogging in March 2007 with no aspiration other than writing for my own enjoyment and maybe picking up some like-minded readers on the way. (A psychoanalyst might argue that Art Blog by Bob is how I’m dealing with my impending midlife crisis; at the very least, it’s cheaper than a Corvette.) I’d like to think I’ve helped fill a neglected niche in my own way. My academic training is in English literature and literary criticism, so reviewing art books and museum catalogues became the next step in the evolution of Art Blog by Bob. Book reviewing in America is a dying art, but thanks to the forward-mindedness and kindness of many museums and publishers such as Abbeville Press, I’ve been able to review books that had little or no chance of ever getting reviewed in the mainstream media.

AMoS: Your mention of literature brings up a point that we’re always interested in at Abbeville (not least because several of us were English majors too): the relationship between writing and art. How do you feel your background in literary study affects your perception of, and taste in, art? What do you think explains the close connection between the two disciplines?

BD: Great question, and one I ask myself often in my more metaphysical moments. I think that my literary background certainly colors the kind of art that grabs me. A highly literary group such as the Pre-Raphaelites, evoking Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson, and other greats, certainly finds a special place in my mind and heart. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate more modern and abstract kinds of art, but that connection for me from a literary perspective is usually more intellectual. Theories of literary deconstruction fit in nicely with Cubism, Vorticism, etc. For me, Abstract Expressionism screams all kinds of Freudian literary interpretation à la Harold Bloom and his Anxiety of Influence. I’m so steeped in literature that I sometimes have to force myself to turn that off (if such a thing is possible) and look at something in a purely sensory way. I once sat in front of a Rothko for a half hour doing just that.

I think the two disciplines merge wonderfully because the interpretive techniques work so well for both. You can’t say the same for literature and music because the media are just too different, but marks on paper intending to convey meaning—whether they’re letters or brushstrokes—simply enjoy a common ability to withstand the best and the worst such analysis has to offer. Also, you can go all the way back to Vasari and the beginnings of art history and interpret that text as a narrative with built-in intentionality and biases and simultaneously interpret how it looks at art, too. I think that the finest writing on art, going back to people like John Ruskin and Walter Pater in the nineteenth century all the way up to Simon Schama, T.J. Clark, Craig Clunas, Robert Hughes, and others today, approaches the level of poetry in prose more frequently than any other type of nonfiction, which creates an endless loop of interpretation being interpreted. The wheel just keeps going round and round. I’d hate to be there if it ever stopped.

AMoS: It’s interesting that you mention critics like Ruskin and Pater (and Bloom in literature), whose criticism is often a species of personal essay. (Bloom has even been accused of writing concealed autobiography when he’s supposed to be discussing Shakespeare.) Do you follow this model when you blog? Do you find yourself writing about your own life and concerns when you intended to discuss El Greco or Millet?

BD: I subscribe to the theory that all writing and all forms of expression are autobiographical in some way and simply differ in the degree that you conceal it either consciously or subconsciously. One of the things that kept me out of the professional literary criticism track was the falseness of trying to drain all the blood and personality out of analyzing art. Without that human element, I just don’t know why anyone would bother. I pretty freely insert my own life and concerns into my writing on art.  Without that connection, I wouldn’t feel as driven as I am to engage these artists. El Greco’s been dead for a good, long time, but when I’m looking at his paintings and thinking and writing about him, he’s right next to me spiritually. There’s a danger, of course, of making it all about me, as so many bloggers who wallow in solipsism do. But I think that’s a brand of sloppy thinking and writing that’s more a part of our culture and educational system than a symptom of blogging itself.

AMoS: Speaking of the artists you’ve engaged with, which are your favorites? Of those that you didn’t know or like before you started writing Art Blog By Bob, which have you come to admire the most?

BD: I would have to say that the single artist I connect with most closely is Thomas Eakins. Because of all of Eakins’ links to Philadelphia, my birthplace and hometown, his works resonate with me as part of the environment itself. Plus, Eakins lived a tough life, some of which he brought onto himself with his brusqueness, and suffered neglect from the art world at large until well after his death, which, at least for me, makes him an emblem of the blue-collar, underdog mentality that I’ve always associated with Philadelphia. After that, my tastes are pretty eclectic. Michelangelo certainly holds a special place. When my wife Annie and I honeymooned in Italy, I was floored by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. (Annie was more taken with the David.) J.M.W. Turner, Picasso, Dali, Matisse, John Singer Sargent, Caspar David Friedrich, Rembrandt…I could go on all day with my favorites.

In regards to people I’ve come to appreciate more since writing Art Blog By Bob, a few stand out. After reading the Tate’s exhibition catalogue for their John Everett Millais show last year, I see him more as a distinct artist separate from the Pre-Raphaelites. John Sloan and Robert Henri have risen in my estimation thanks to new studies on the role of The Ashcan School in American art and culture. It seems like I keep finding new favorite artists. For example, right now I’m reading the exhibition catalogue for George De Forrest Brush: The Indian Paintings currently running at the NGA. The essays in that book really connect Brush to his period and the whole arc of art history, from alluding to contemporaries such as Winslow Homer to harking back to classics such as Rubens. Brush studied in Paris with Gerome, who also taught Eakins and many other American artists, so I can’t help but compare Brush with Eakins. Each new artist I discover fits into the larger picture of art history for me like a new piece to the puzzle. I got into blogging as a learning experience, so discovering a new artist or rediscovering someone I thought I knew well is a huge thrill. Next year is the centennial of Francis Bacon’s birth, so a whole slew of Bacon books are on the horizon that will put his work, which I find grotesquely fascinating, into a better perspective.

AMoS: Your blog seems to be defined by those kinds of discoveries and rediscoveries. What are your future plans for Art Blog By Bob? Do you want to keep doing what you’re doing, or do you anticipate taking the site in any new directions?

BD: I really don’t have any long-term goals for Art Blog By Bob other than continuing to enjoy the ride and letting the rest take care of itself. Whether it’s five or five hundred people reading my work each day, I’ll keep putting it out there. When I map out who I’ll be writing on each week, I always try to acknowledge the big names, but I also want to acknowledge lesser-known names who are interesting as individual artists as well as for their role in their period or school. If I could change anything about my current operations, I would include more women and more artists from outside the Western tradition. Reviewing the exhibition catalogue for the Nandalal Bose show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this year was pure joy for me. Bose participated in and designed the “look” for the most momentous events of modern Indian history—the creation of modern India itself—often right alongside Gandhi. I had never heard of Nandalal before, but now he’s part of my permanent consciousness. Finding that one gem makes me wonder how many other incredible artists from other cultures are out there waiting to be found. Michelangelo et al. will always find a place in my heart, but there’s enough room for an entire world of art in there. I think we’re all capable of containing multitudes if we just stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. As Robert Browning wrote in his poem “Andrea del Sarto,” his musing on one of the semi-forgotten names of the Italian Renaissance, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp—or what’s a heaven for?” No matter who did it or where it is from, I’ll keep reaching for the best in art, one of the biggest slices of heaven we may have here on earth.


Many thanks to Bob for lending his time, and for tossing out Whitman and Browning references so we don’t have to. As always, we encourage our readers to make Art Blog By Bob a part of their daily Web diet—and never more so than this month, when you might see another Abbeville contest hosted there…


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Travels in Italy, Part 2: The Uffizi

Ah, the Uffizi. The heart and soul of one of the world’s great capitals of art. The home of countless stunning masterpieces, including works by Giotto, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael. The subject of a book by Abbeville Press. Truly, the Fanta of art museums.

Not one to be intimidated by all this prestige, I spent a large portion of my time in the Uffizi looking for places to sit down. My friend and I in our wine-soaked laziness had waited too long to reserve tickets, so we had to slog through the hourlong wait at the entrance before being admitted. (Sadly, there’s no such thing as an Arbiter of Style press pass—I need to talk to the publisher about this.) By the time we actually started strolling through the gallery, my dogs were tired. The art was beautiful, but the cushioned benches, wherever I could spot them, looked absolutely ravishing.

Still, I was able to take in most of the collection over the course of the day, and was duly blown away by its contents. In my capacity as official sharer of unsolicited opinions, I’ve put together a list of quick pronouncements on The Best of the Uffizi:

Best Room: The Sala del Botticelli, hands down. I could have spent the entire afternoon in this one. If nothing else, the presence of so many of his greatest works in a single room drives home the fact that Botticelli painted the best eyes in all of Western art. He was the master of the soft-focus stare or “dreamer’s gaze” that always seems to be looking inward or elsewhere, outside the painting. Even figures that seem at first to look straight at you—say, the Christ child in the Madonna of the Pomegranate, or Flora in the Primavera—are on second glance just as dreamy and distracted as Venus stepping from her seashell. Nor is the faraway gaze reserved for goddesses and other holy figures; someone once said that in Balzac novels even the janitors are geniuses, and in the same way, at least half the figures in Botticelli look like otherworldly visionaries. The effect is arresting and genuinely moving: after seeing enough tilted heads and sad, bemused eyes, you catch yourself taking on the same look.

Best Madonna and Child: With the exception of Madonna of the Pomegranate, my favorite was Filippino Lippi’s Adoration of the Child. The simplicity and naturalism of this work, like the Madonna it depicts, are lovely. Too many Madonnas of the period are saddled with a kind of stiff, overt piety, and too many Christ children with features that look disturbingly (or comically) adult; Lippi avoids both pitfalls by giving us a dangling-haired Madonna regarding her baby with unforced tenderness, and a realistic Christ child looking back with a baby’s questioning eyes. By emphasizing the figures’ humanity rather than their holiness, the painting was able to tug the heartstrings of even a godless aesthete like me.

Best Crucifixion: This would have to be the one by Luca Signorelli, with its haunting background detail of Christ’s fellow prisoners being dragged down from their crosses, and its equally haunting (in fact, downright creepy) foreground detail of a skull with a lizard crawling into it. The suggestion is that amidst so much death, Christ and his followers endure, but the viewer’s attention is definitely drawn more to the death side of the equation.

Best Self-Portrait: It always makes for a little cognitive dissonance to see an iconic painting “in real life”—to see an apparently timeless, universal image confined to a single time and space. It’s even weirder to see such a painting hanging by itself in a corner, just above a dehumidifier—as was the case with Raphael’s famous 1506 self-portrait in the Uffizi. Amidst all the museum’s splendor, good old Raph, with his youthful face and soulful eyes, looked like he had been tucked away in someone’s den. The big tour groups that normally cluster around well-known works practically passed it by. I found this strangely charming.

Most Unctuous Lutanist: Speaking of charm, the mustachioed star of Van Honthorst’s Supper Party certainly seemed to be working his mandolin to great effect with the lady sitting next to him. I bet he’d have done even better with a piano-guitar, though.

Most Terrifying Single Image: No shortage of competition in the Uffizi for this title—all those lizard-skulls and bloody heads of Holofernes and hell, even the flowers coming out of Chloris’s mouth in the Primaverabut I’ll have to go with Caravaggio’s Medusa, if only because of its uncanny resemblance to a snake-haired Johnny Depp.

I could continue, but passing all these expert judgments has tuckered me out again, so I’m going to take the writing equivalent of a nice rest on a cushiony bench. Tomorrow we’ll put Italy on hold for a day and toss out a few pearls of style to our Japan-lovers out there. Arrivederci.

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Travels in Italy, Part 1: La Galleria

Today, stylish readers, I’m dropping the editorial “we” (and the royal one) to share a few personal reflections on my first visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Any discussion of the Galleria’s collection should start, of course, with Michelangelo’s David. But mine’s not going to. Why? Because even an Arbiter of Style has his limits, and knowing them is part of what makes him an Arbiter. (That, and cheerful self-delusion.) The statue and its place in art history are much too distinguished for me to say anything worthwhile about them in a brief entry, so I’ll just toss out a superfluous recommendation: if you haven’t already, go see the David. In Florence, not in a book. Not even in an Abbeville book. Go.

You’re back? Fantastic. Let’s move on to Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, the full-scale gesso of which dominates the room next to Michelangelo’s masterpiece (the final marble version is in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original David once stood). This statue was my favorite piece in the collection, and although I’ve linked to it, still images can’t do it justice; it truly needs to be seen in person. Unlike classical statues intended to be viewed from a single perspective, Giambologna’s sculpture makes brilliant use of the three-dimensionality of the medium, creating a spiral structure of three human figures that demands, and repays, viewing from every possible angle.

The piece depicts a brutal, frightening scene—one man trampling a rival as he abducts a terrified woman—but the viewer’s immediate impression is of dance, particularly ballet (I also thought of the ice skaters Torville and Dean, though as far as I know they never trampled anyone in their routines). As well as being both beautiful and technically extraordinary—the work was carved from a single block of marble—the helical structure has a figurative element, suggesting a vortex of chaos into which the three figures have been drawn. In life, the scene would be terribly ugly just before and after the moment at which it’s frozen, but that single moment is one of incredible harmony and balance.

The best part about Rape of the Sabine Women, though, is that the title and the classical precedent weren’t Giambologna’s idea; they were grafted on afterward at someone else’s suggestion because, well, precedents were big in those days. According to the Galleria’s caption, Giambologna created the work purely as an example of “excellence in art”—as art for art’s sake, in the best sense of that phrase. I think he succeeded pretty admirably, and I can’t help wondering what the master would have titled it in this day and age. Something peppier, like Ravishment Dance? Something mysterious and oblique, like Spiral No. 9? Anyone have other ideas? Maybe we should hold a contest.

Easily my next favorite part of the Galleria was its collection of antique musical instruments, or Dipartimento degli Strumenti Musicali. Along with all the pianoforti and Stradivarius violins you might expect are some instruments so esoteric and cool they’re just begging to be revived: the serpentone, the jingle, the hurdy-gurdy, and most amazing of all, the piano-guitar. Let me say that again: the piano-guitar—a guitar with piano keys built into it. Presumably this little marvel allowed Renaissance musicians to be Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix all at once, attracting nubile damsels from miles around with their supreme maiden-wooing powers. If we ever start a jam band here at Abbeville Press, I’ve got dibs on the piano-guitar. I hope that’s OK with the other Arbiters, because I’m going to need a little backup on the jingle.

So much for the Galleria; next week I’ll share thoughts on the Uffizi, the Vatican Museum, and Florence and Rome more generally. We—the editorial “we”—will also mix in some non-Italy-related content, including the much-anticipated Abbeville Manual vs. Chicago Manual Hyphenation Showdown. See you on Monday!

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The Return of Style

Our traveling Arbiter has returned, exhausted but triumphant, from his intrepid voyage to Rome and Florence. He’ll have much to report in the days to come, but suffice it to say that the trip was a success on every front as well as a veritable extravaganza of style. Monuments were visited, art galleries browsed, wine drunk in large amounts (along with real, i.e. non-American, Fanta, truly the Uffizi of sodas), and a lot of stylish dead people paid respects to, including Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Keats, and Andrea del Sarto. Upon returning to America, our traveler learned the sad news that Robert Rauschenberg had died as well. R.I.P. to you, sir.

But rejoice! Our Arbiter’s return also means the return of regular posts on this website, so check back in the coming days for some post-vacation notes and musings on the art, architecture, and artifacts of Italy’s twin capitals of style. Don’t worry, we won’t bore you with the vacation photos. Tomorrow: thoughts on the Galleria dell’Accademia, but not the David.

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Italian Frescoes At ABBB

Be sure to check out Bob Duggan’s very detailed and kind review of Italian Frescoes: The Baroque Era this week at Art Blog By Bob. Our favorite sentence:

“While such perspective was permitted [in Baroque fresco painting], it literally blew the roof off these churches, opening up the imagination of the viewer to an entire cosmos of spiritual possibility.”

We like to think our books do the same thing to our readers.

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