Just Looking: Essays on Art by John Updike - review by Philip Hughes

Philip Hughes

Writing on the Wall

Just Looking: Essays on Art


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When John Updike was a young kid picking psoriatic skin from his back, he drew a picture called ‘Mr Sun sees Mr Winter in his office’. Mr Sun, a corny ball of fire with stick legs is seated behind a desk like an orthodontist, in consultation with his client Mr Winter, a large rain cloud. When Updike grew up, he took another look at that painting and rather typically he saw in it an artist providing a service for his customer like an ordinary professional. Just Looking, a splendidly illustrated volume of art criticism, exemplifies this attitude. In it Updike performs a valuable service, strolling through the galleries of Boston and New York on our behalf saving us the air-fare and the congas of American art-fiends that make American museums such an ordeal.

Of course, Updike is no mug when it comes to art criticism, and Just Looking is a disingenuous title. In his twenties he studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and, though by no means an exciting talent, is a capable draughtsman himself. He does not just look at a painting, he dissects it. Effortlessly he exposes compositional devices – tricks of perspective, emphasis of focus, juxtapositions of colour – generally empathising with the technical challenges the artist faces.

This empathy spills over into the economic problems confronting painters. Updike spots that John Singer Sargent, a turn of the century portraitist, flatters his sitter to the detriment of his art, but does not take him to task for it, recognising that realistic portrayals of pig-ugly socialites won’t bring home

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