The first painting in Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate is of Vincent van Gogh’s “Shipping Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries,” one of the first images Alberto Manguel remembers seeing growing up in Buenos Aires. The images Manguel saw in van Gogh’s work resurfaced throughout his childhood, spawning a life-long love of images and art. Canada’s pre-eminent anthologist/translator/writer displays this love in Reading Pictures.
With Reading Pictures, Manguel didn’t set out to write about art history or theory, or how to interpret or judge art. He wanted to open readers’ eyes to the visual world around them.
“I wouldn’t use the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ because they have been so overused. I would talk, rather, in terms of why a certain picture moves you and why another doesn’t. What picture allows you to go deeper into it and continue to talk about it for generations and what others seem not to,” says Manguel, adding, “I don’t know what makes a picture be one thing or another. Not even the artist knows that. There is a magical combination between inspiration and craft and the right viewer looking at it.”
Manguel says that judging between two works of art is easy.
“If you see two people at a party, do you know if you’re attracted to one person or not? Well, that is exactly the same thing that happens with a work of art.”
The problem, apparently, is that people see art as “deeper” than physical attraction.
“You would think it outrageous that before you could go out with someone you would need a specialist telling you to look at this and that, you need to know this and that, and then tell you about the relationship in very obtuse terms. Now, as with people, you can say, ‘I don’t like this person at all, I wouldn’t go out with this person,’ and then somebody says, ‘Just wait a minute, you know, this is a really interesting person, you might want to look at this aspect of (them). Why don’t you have a conversation with this person?’ Whatever. There’s something else that happens that may spark something in you or may not, and the same goes for a picture.”
Manguel feels a person’s point of view can deepen or be reinforced by learning about theories of colour, conventions associated with colour and angles, the life of the artist, etc. But people shouldn’t stop looking at a piece of art as an anonymous work. They should just allow it to speak to them, and, hopefully, interest them. “You should allow yourself to look at a work of art and say, ‘I really like this, this moves me, this is important to me, I want to look at this’ or ‘I don’t want to look at this, I’m not interested.'”
Take the Mona Lisa. Manguel says you can look at it and either focus on the landscape behind her face (if you’re into landscape), at what da Vinci is doing with her face (if you’re interested in the representation of the female face), or just ignore it (if you’re sick and tired of hearing about it).
Reading Pictures encompasses the latter half of the last millennium—from the riddles of the past in the 15th-century painting of Robert Campin, to the life of “the hairy girl” whose matted fur shocked 16th-century Italy, to the 20th-century world of Joan Mitchell.
One standout image is Picasso’s “Guernica,” which has become one of the most powerful messages against war. Manguel’s exploration of the brutal complexities of Picasso’s treatment of his mistress is, like most of the book, just as fascinating and exhilarating as picking someone up at a party.