The Sleeve should be Illegal and other reflections on art at the Frick, Edited by Michaelyn Mitchell
£27, 168pp, Art Publishers
The curious title of this book The Sleeve Should Be Illegal comes from a short essay by the American novelist Jonathan Lethem on Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Sir Thomas More in the Frick Collection, New York. Lethem remembers growing up in Brooklyn, being in his last year at High School and killing time in Central Park. He used to sit with a friend on a boulder and smoke joints. High on art, youth and dope, they visited the Frick. Hans Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell “was a pinched nerd. We dug his hand, though. We stared a lot at that hand.” Holbein’s Thomas More was different: “More was our favourite, More was sublime. I was into science fiction and knew he’d written Utopia. Whatever it was. And More had that outlandish beard stubble, the weird “S-S-S” necklace, and, above all, the velvet sleeve. The sleeve was ecstasy, the sleeve should be illegal, the sleeve was Utopia.” I see what he means. It’s a helluva sleeve.
Facts, facts, facts are thin on the ground.
The Sleeve Should Be Illegal is a collection of 61 pen-portraits of works in the Frick Collection written by the great and the good (Colm Tóibín, Simon Schama, the late Dame Diana Rigg) and introduced by Adam Gopnik. It isn’t a gallery catalogue. Facts, facts, facts are thin on the ground. The scheme was inspired by the rhetorical device of the “ekphrasis.” As Gopnik explains: “Once upon a time, the ekphrasis was the standard, even the highest, form of art writing – an ekphrasis being the poetic evocation of painting by poet who had been sufficiently impressed by a picture to want to write about it.” Philostratus of Paros wrote an account of forty-five pictures. Plato thought ekphrasis essential to both poetry and art. Vasari was always at it. Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess is a marvellous evocation of a fantasy painting. “Will’t please you sit and look at her?” Don’t mind if I do.
At its best the ekphrastic method brings a painting alive. Where art has been lost – to fire, flood, purge or pillage – a written account may be all we have. At its worst – and there’s quite a bit of worst in this book – it is a dry recitation, a bald witness statement. “The victim, brunette, mid-twenties, last seen wearing a pink, silk ballgown…”
Not all the writers here are writers. Victoria Beckham makes nice frocks, but she has her limits as an art historian. That goes for Bryan Ferry, too. I began to play bingo. “I love this perfect work of art…” “I also love this painting….” “I love the contrast of the earthy bare feet…” “There are so many things that I love in the Frick…” “I love his painting of Cologne…” “One of my favorites…” “My favorite museum”… “My favorite painting…”
Not all the writers here are writers. Victoria Beckham makes nice frocks, but she has her limits as an art historian.
Still, there are pleasures here, too, and, having been cheated of a New York trip last April, it was a treat to have a guided tour. André Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name, writes a sensual tribute to Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Ville-d’Avray. Against a grey landscape, Aciman’s eye is drawn to a buoyant note: “a mirthy spot of red on the boatman’s hat… It’s the tiny coin in the King Cake, like a subtle hint of lipstick on a stunning face, like an unforeseen afterthought.” That’s lovely – like the coin in the King Cake. Lena Dunham, creator of the TV series Girls, having chosen Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s Madame Baptiste aîné, goes at it guns blazing. “In her portrait, Madame Baptiste purses her lips as if she’s waiting for a cup of water to swallow the vitamins she’s squirreling away in her cheek. Her bangs frame her face in the fashion of a woman selling vintage at the Brooklyn Flea, her hemp overalls for sale in her Etsy shop. She’s doing oatmeal monochrome like an Olsen twin at a Hamptons christening.” It’s ekphrasis for hipsters.
I was tickled to learn that Lady Meux, painted by James McNeill Whistler, used to drive herself around London in a sporty open-topped carriage drawn by two zebras. And my life is certainly enriched by reading William Carlos Williams’s poem ‘This Is Just To Say’, quoted by Edmund de Waal in his short essay on Jean-Simeon Chardin’s Still Life with Plums.
“I have eaten
That were in the icebox
And which you
Were probably saving
They were delicious
And so cold”
Laura Freeman is a journalist and author. Her latest book, The Reading Cure (Orion publishing), is out now.