Interview with The Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones.
Noah Charney interviews one of the most influential art critics in the world, Jonathan Jones, about his love of Renaissance art, what America taught him about Modernism, writing for The Guardian and his book, The Lost Battles. His latest book, The Loves of the Artists, was published today in the UK.
Where and what did you study?
I read history at Cambridge. I’m very lucky, because I went to a state school in Britain…I’m from north Wales…but I did get into Cambridge University. I studied history and I was very keen on it, I loved history. I wasn’t just a history student, I was an extremely enthusiastic history student. At one time I wanted to be a historian, but instead I ended up as an art critic for The Guardian newspaper.
You have what, for many art students, would be the dream job. How did you come to be the Guardian art critic?
I met my wife at Cambridge, and she became an academic, while I didn’t. She’s brilliant, she has a doctorate in Roman history. For a year she was a research fellow at Brown University, in Rhode Island. Neither of us had ever been to the US before that. Then we had this amazing experience of living in Providence. I was trying to write, and I was able to see the United States, and that was the first time I started writing about art. I’d loved art all my life, the first art I was into was Renaissance art. My parents were school teachers and took us to Italy in the summers, to see Michelangelo’s sculptures and art in Florence. An early exhibit of Leonardo’s drawings had a huge impact on me. But in America, living in Providence but going to New York on weekends, seeing MOMA. I fell in love with Jackson Pollock. Pollock and Warhol were the artists who started me writing art journalism. In Britain we’ve got fantastic Rothkos, at the Tate for instance, but you can’t see much Pollock in all of Europe.
Was there one painting in particular that was epiphanic?
I suppose Four Fathom Five (by Pollock). Heroicus Sublimus by Barnett Newman. But MOMA was fantastic for me. Up until that time I loved art up until Picasso, but I found it hard to get beyond him. In New York, I was able to see the development from Picasso to the Abstract Expressionists, and to Warhol and Richter’s paintings. Seeing work like that gave me an evolution of modern art from Cezanne to the present day. It’s hard to get that sense of Modern art in Britain. It also gave me great material, and I was able to sell some articles freelance based on what I saw in New York. Sorry, this is a bit long-winded, isn’t it?
No worries. So you began by placing freelance articles at The Guardian. How did you become their art critic?
Through persistence, really. If I give advice to people starting in journalism, it’s not about publishing one or two articles, it’s about keeping it going. On the one hand I was a critic for magazines, and on the other I was writing art features for The Guardian. It was a time when Damien Hirst was becoming famous, I think 1995, when he won the Turner Prize. So it turned out that there was an awful lot of art going on in London, the sense of a new contemporary art movement, the Turner Prize, and so there was an intellectual freedom to the way we talk about art in Britain, which I’d say I’m typical of. Let’s say I write criticism of contemporary art, but I trained in history, and I can’t think critically without thinking historically. Coming back to America, it meant a lot to me because I’m not from upper-class Britain, and I had a sense, at Cambridge, that it wouldn’t have really made sense for me to do art history, because that was the province of the aristocracy. But in the US people don’t think of class in the same way that they do in Britain, and this was important to me, in finding my voice as a journalist. Ideas were discussed for their own sakes, rather than the slightly snobbish way they are often in Britain. There’s been a general social and cultural revolution in Britain that’s turned over a lot of stuffy old attitudes. I think that reflects in the way writers like myself write about historical art, like in my new book, The Lost Battles. It’s a book meant to be accessible to anybody. To be a pleasurable interaction, to get close to those artists. I love the kind of art history that makes art feel further away from people, or makes people feel insecure about it. That is a disservice to the tradition, because it makes it more remote. If you look to why people prefer contemporary art, at least in Britain, when that art is often lousy? That’s because contemporary art feels more approachable, and that’s a shame. If young people are made to feel that “the great” artists are too difficult for them to understand, no wonder they just want to look at photography. The aim of this book is to make history immediate.
What is your process like when you write a full-length book, as opposed to an article for The Guardian? And what made you see the story of the Leonardo versus Michelangelo commission of two battle scenes for the Palazzo Vecchio, the subject of The Lost Battles, as a full-length book?
Actually I did write the story at first as a piece of journalism, originally, at least a decade ago now. That was the root of the book. That’s a good question, hmm. The honest truth is that I was discussing book possibilities with a number of publishers at the time, and I had various ideas. I decided, if I was going to write a book, spend years on it, then why not write about my favorite artists, the greatest artists, in my opinion. Be absolutely daring, write a book about the height of the Renaissance. I wanted to spend time with these artists, as much time as possible with Leonardo da Vinci. The chance to do serious, in-depth research over a long period was exciting. Of course, by the time I’d written the book, the media has changed a lot. A lot of journalism now is online, and that’s what I now do, and so it’s great to write books—of course there are eBooks—but it’s a chance to do something that is solid on paper.
Sure, it feels good to hold. You can’t cuddle the Internet.
Exactly. And the books are beautifully designed, beautiful things. As a critic, you’re always reviewing people, so it’s great to put yourself in a position where you’re being reviewed.
Do you read reviews of your own books?
Good for you. I try to avoid them!
I’m terrible, I read them all. You always get some that you really don’t want to read, but the whole process is fascinating. I don’t want to sound cheeky, but a book is something that you’ve crafted, and that’s nice, if you spend all your time pronouncing on other people’s efforts, it’s good to put out your own efforts.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
It depends if it’s a journalist day or a book day. A book day? I’d probably have to have written ten pages. For journalism, it should be one column-type article, which I do just about every day. Nowadays I do something every day, a daily thing on The Guardian online, a weekly political piece on images for The Guardian, and on top of that reviews, features, and so forth. In terms of British newspapers, The Guardian is the most committed to online publication, and so we’re working online all the time, and do stuff in print, as well.
The Lost Battles originally came out in the UK a few years back, but is just now out in the US. Has the book been updated since Maurizio Seracini made his discoveries with regard to the lost Leonardo Battle of Anghiari?
To be honest the main fact that has changed is not Seracini, because he was in the background since I started it. The first article about this topic was about Seracini’s search for the painting. The newest thing in this addition that, for me is quite amazing, it’s about Leonardo’s Burlington Cartoon, in the National Gallery in London. It’s his only surviving cartoon, as in full-size preparatory drawing for an altarpiece. There’s a story in Vasari that says that Leonardo went back to Florence, and was commissioned to do an altarpiece for the Annunciata, a particularly sacred church with a miraculous painting of the Madonna in it. Vasari says he never finished, Leonardo just did a drawing, but the drawing was exhibited, and people came to see it, queued down the street. Art historians have always seen this cartoon as a rather fussy, connoisseurial thing, a preparatory drawing for the cartoon mentioned in Vasari. And the curator of the National Gallery’s big Leonardo exhibit pointed out that this is actually the cartoon mentioned in Vasari, the one that was displayed, that caused all this fuss. Noting that is the most significant new discovery.
Let me ask you a question that I asked [Leonardo expert] Martin Kemp, as well. What’s your best guess as to what will be found, when Seracini excavates behind the Vasari fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio, in search of Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari?
I think Kemp is quite skeptical, isn’t he? As I say in the book, I think it’s completely conceivable that something is there. It’s obvious that Vasari reveres Leonardo, why wouldn’t he try to preserve a painting by him? Vasari loves secret corridors and things. If there’s a way he could have preserved it, there’s every reason to think he would have. He eloquently describes the unfinished painting, and it seems weird that he would’ve destroyed it. Having said that, there’s a danger that, in our desire to see this lost work, we turn a deaf ear to the violent political history of Florence in the 16th century. The reason the works disappeared, the reason the room in the Palazzo Vecchio was redecorated, is to do with politics. With the Medici versus Republicanism. What I see as a contest between Leonardo and Michelangelo was set up, in 1504, by the Florentine Republic. In 1512, the Medici come back. They sack Prato, near Florence, as a clear warning to Florence, an act of terror, and it worked. When they came into Florence, they let soldiers enter the Great Council Hall and lay it waste. It was an official thing, guastare, laid waste. The records show that, after some time that they’d been trashing this room, some kind of box is put over Leonardo’s painting, the Battle, which is described as Leonardo’s “horses,” so they were definitely still visible by the 1540s. But they didn’t immediately protect it. So it probably would’ve suffered some damage. So there’s every possibility that it’s there, but what will it be? Just a few spots of pigment?
That’s what Dr Kemp thinks. That is certainly was there, but that all that might be left, after centuries sealed away behind a false wall, might be a disappointment, some shards of pigment and that’s all.
Well, given what’s happened to The Last Supper, which has been loved and looked after for centuries, and yet it’s still in a terrible state, then yeah. It might just be some spots.
Do you have a funny story from when you served on the jury for the Turner Prize in 2009?
Yikes, one that I can actually tell? I went to the first meeting expecting to be the only anarchistic person there, surrounded by art world types. I had an image of them all as a bit humorless. I think the first thing someone said at the meeting was “When are you going to tell us the winner, and when do we get paid?” It was a barrel of laughs, we spent the whole time like that, joking around.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
Describe your evening routine.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Fantastic. My daughter.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Oh my God, guaranteed to make me cry? If they ever find the Battle of Anghiari.
What is your favorite snack?
Ah-ha! Well, I don’t know if I should be honest about this one… Artichokes.
What phrase do you over-use?
“This is the greatest work of art I’ve ever seen.” My editors will confirm that, by the way.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
I hope that never comes up!
What is your next project?
I’ve written a book called The Loves of the Artists, which comes out in Britain in the spring. It’s an homage to Vasari, and is about art and sexuality in the Renaissance, and about stories of artists being heroic lovers.
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