Hang-Ups: Essays on Painting (Mostly) by Simon Schama - review by Jane Rye

Jane Rye

A Picture in a Thousand Words

Hang-Ups: Essays on Painting (Mostly)


BBC Books 352pp £30

In one of these essays Simon Schama speaks of enthusiasm as 'a peculiarly American condition'. It is certainly the characteristic of his adoptive country that most strikingly permeates this book. Schama can respond as energetically to Chuck Close or Ellsworth Kelly as to Dutch Old Masters; as sympathetically to Alex Katz as to Anselm Kiefer; as glowingly to Stanley Spencer as to Mondrian. Renaissance armour, the Glasgow tea-rooms of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, haute couture and the Irish Hunger Memorial all stimulate him to his own brand of erudite but bouncy eloquence. All but four of the thirty-one pieces collected in Hang-Ups first appeared in America, and most are reviews of exhibitions in American museums and galleries, only a handful of which were seen outside the United States. Though Schama credits John Gross for first encouraging him, a professional historian, to write about art in articles for the TLS in the late Seventies (two of which, on Thomas Lawrence and Thomas Rowlandson, are included here), two-thirds of this collection were written for the New Yorker after Schama became its art critic in 1995; and, perhaps because of the famously stringent New Yorker editing (enthusiastically acknowledged by the author), these are clearly distinguishable from the rest by being a good deal easier to follow.

Of course, it's a delicate matter to decide whether a failure to follow an argument is caused by one's own intellectual inadequacy or a lack of clarity in its setting out, but on asking around it seems the odd thing about this celebrated populariser is that even quite clever people

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