David Sylvester

David Sylvester, who wrote many memorable pieces for this paper, died in 2001.

Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

Icannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

A good deal of indoctrination must have gone into that. Did it come from...

Unexpected juxtaposition is one of the great artistic devices of the 20th century. In collage. In passages from The Waste Land where each successive line is a quotation from a different source. In the editing of any new-wave TV commercial. In contemporary collecting and curating and anthologising – where those who play with the arts bring together artefacts from a variety of times and places in encounters meant to surprise at first and then look inevitable.

On the Edge

David Sylvester, 27 April 2000

The debate went on for most of the 20th century: was its greatest artist Matisse or Picasso? This was perhaps the only century of the millennium in which the championship was a two-horse race – and a very close race, so that there may never be a consensus lasting more than fifty years as to which of them was the winner. Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction in their greatness, one relating purely to its nature, not its degree. It’s that Matisse did not possess or need to possess genius.’

Art dealers are promising subjects for biographies. They buy and sell portable objects that can easily cost more than a castle or two. They survive by outwitting some of the world’s most cunning and ruthless manipulators of wealth, and they also know how to charm the old rich, key sources of supply. When they deal in the work of living artists they shape the careers of some of the most charismatic and paranoid individuals of their time. Their operations tend to sail dramatically close to the wind of commercial ethics and sometimes of the law. And, having lived lives generally presumed to have been even shadier than they were, they may well be immortalised as builders of temples of high culture.

In New York the Museum of Modern Art’s Pollock exhibition was thrilling in the manner of a saga. With exhilarating force it told the incident-packed story of an inspired and inspiring career cut off at 44 by a self-destructive death. It showed what confusion there was in the early development of a young artist of limited talent and uncertain direction. It demonstrated how he found within himself an intuition of the course he had to take, an uncharted course for which he was uniquely suited. It proved that by the time he was in his mid-thirties he had become a major artist who was opening up possibilities for a whole generation of painters, most of them older than himself, and then for a host of artists who came after. It displayed an extraordinary variety of formal invention and mood which nonetheless functioned inside the fairly narrow framework within which his peculiar talents were effective. It recorded a career fired by demonic energy, cosmic imagination, intense integrity, vast ambition and the physical intelligence of a great dancer or athlete. At the same time, it was an exhibition which affected the mind more than the viscera because of the unsuitability of the galleries housing it.

Notes on Cézanne

David Sylvester, 7 March 1996

‘Refaire Poussin sur nature’. Why did Cézanne single out Poussin when Rubens was his hero – his avowed and his manifest hero?’

The Real Magic

David Sylvester, 8 June 1995

I probably wouldn’t have chosen a work of criticism rather than Proust if the Bible and Shakespeare weren’t already there, but for some years now I have taken the view that my ‘Desert Island’ book, if I were asked, would have to be David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. First published in 1970, it has just re-appeared as A Biographical Dictionary of Film in a third edition that is revised and considerably enlarged. Despite its titles it is indeed a work of criticism: ‘each of the thousand profiles,’ as the blurb says, ‘is a keenly perceptive, provocative critical essay.’

A catalogue preface, whether rhapsodic, investigative, polemical or explicative, is also meant to be a piece of advocacy. This creates a problem over writing a preface about Richard Long. He has too many admirers. A quarter of a century has passed since he began to gain an international reputation at about the time he left art school, and this reputation has steadily grown upwards and outwards. Mounting stacks of books, catalogues and articles have ensured that his very particular, ascetic, ritualistic methods and their mystique have become common knowledge. His solitary walks through the deserts of the world have come to have a scriptural resonance. To start singing his praises now is like taking a food parcel to someone who is in the middle of eating his dinner at the Ritz, or his manna in the desert.

Something to look at

David Sylvester, 10 March 1994

Great art collections formed by individuals are generally highly specialised – French Impressionist paintings, English sporting pictures, early Chinese bronzes – or somewhat specialised – Classical antiquities, Old Master drawings, Islamic art. What is special about George Ortiz’s collection of antiquities and ethnographic art, part of which is currently on show at the Royal Academy, is its combination of quality and breadth. Ortiz is not only like a decathlon winner; he is like an unheard-of phenomenon, a decathlon winner some of whose results are better than those of the winners of separate events.’

In bed with the Surrealists

David Sylvester, 6 January 1994

This book presents good translations of verbatim reports of 12 organised discussions on sex between members of the Surrealist group in Paris and some of their acquaintances. Seven meetings were held between January and early May 1928, five between November 1930 and August 1932. The first two reports were published at the time in La Révolution surréaliste; the other ten were unknown until a French edition edited by José Pierre appeared three years ago. This translation has an Afterword by Dawn Ades, characteristically learned, limpid and illuminating. Incidentally, Pierre’s use of the word ‘transcripts’ to describe the reports of the discussions may not be quite valid. There were no recording machines in use, nor were the notes taken by professional stenographers. It may be that at times they summarise rather than transcribe. That is a minor problem, though, compared with the absence of any indication if and where there was laughter. That absence leaves us constantly wondering as to the mood of the discussions. The other unknown factor is how scrupulously the speakers are playing the truth-game.

Hanging Offence

David Sylvester, 21 October 1993

The Royal Academy’s exhibition of ‘American Art in the 20th Century’ at Burlington House and the Saatchi Gallery is a honeymoon with a marvellous girl who has been stitched into her nightie. No less than one in three of the 230 works arouse a desire to have them in a permanent collection here, but no more than three of the rooms in the show give a feeling of satisfaction.

Solid and Fleeting

David Sylvester, 17 December 1992

It is interesting that Richard Serra, who is not short of offers of highly promising locations for which to make site-specific sculptures, accepted the Tate’s invitation to do something in their domineering central hall – a space ostensibly built for showing sculpture but serving that purpose rather badly, partly because it makes the things put into it look as if they were lost at the bottom of a well, partly because its huge Ionic columns dwarf other forms in the same field of vision. For that matter, it is interesting that Nicholas Serota has ignored the space’s bad reputation in restoring it to its original purpose and shape, this at some expense because of the need to strip away various accretions which had been added out of despair at the difficulty of showing sculpture there, as against certain kinds of painting – Picasso’s Meninas series, for example – that have looked quite good on the walls.

Constable’s Weather

David Sylvester, 29 August 1991

Perhaps our weather is the main ingredient in our education as well as in our conversation. Could it not be that the origin of the Englishman’s phlegm is a childhood of last-minute cancellations through rain of long-awaited treats, inuring him for ever to disappointment? In any event the great English painters of weather did not have to submit to the weather’s domination. They recorded it with closer fidelity than any painters before or since, but they were free to put it where they wanted it.

Italy’s New Art

David Sylvester, 30 March 1989

The Italians have the same sort of problem over making art as we have over playing football. After ages of doing it far better than anyone else, they had to come to accept that quite a lot of foreigners were doing it better – with the difference that our football has been in that situation for about thirty-five years, Italian art for about three hundred and fifty. However, the time of its supremacy had been even longer, so that the accumulated riches, plus the legacies of the Romans and the Etruscans, plus its all being so ubiquitous and conspicuous, make life easy for tour operators but complicated for artists: ever-present glories of the past create inhibition and resentment but also constant temptation, like that of a well-stocked cellar.

Late Picasso at the Tate

David Sylvester, 1 September 1988

At the Tate Picasso’s late paintings seem almost to be different paintings from those they seemed to be at Beaubourg. There they looked, by common consent, more aggressive and explosive and electric, here more luminous, more beautiful, more grand. The differences in the selection, the hang and the ground-plan have not been crucial enough to account for so extreme a difference of effect. Clearly the Tate’s having daylight, a light that is soft and diffuse, must be relevant, but the difference has also been there, though not as extreme, at times when the lighting has been mixed or purely electric. It must, therefore, mainly be due to the architecture. In Paris the spaces were not enclosed by the walls: above the tops of the manifestly temporary partitions you could see those hyperactive Beaubourg ceilings. Here, the moveable walls reach the ceilings and these are vaulted, so that the paintings are surmounted by an amplitude of space in which to breathe. Those vaulted spaces do not suit every sort of art, and there are some paintings in the show which look less telling than they did in Paris. But others look greater than I have seen them look before and the list of outstanding late paintings which I propose in the catalogue demands the addition of the Reclining Man and Woman with a Fruit Bowl of 29 December 1969 and The Embrace of 1 June 1972. And by and large the paintings do look very much at home in these vaulted spaces.

Giacometti and Bacon

David Sylvester, 19 March 1987

Giacometti’s widow, says the preface, has chosen ‘to prevent the appearance in her husband’s biography of any unpublished writings by him of whatever sort: letters, journals or random notations’. Another recent biography of a leading modern artist was composed under similar restrictions. Peter Ackroyd says he was ‘forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence’. As it happens, the two subjects, while profoundly unalike inasmuch as Giacometti was an atheist, a leftist and a bohemian, had many things in common, besides good looks, charisma, chronic mental torment and the hesitant production of a relatively small corpus of work notable for its marvellous marriage of innovation and tradition. Both of them came from cultivated and comfortably-off families rooted for generations in a backwater and both went on to spend their adult lives in a metropolis in a foreign land; both were quick to win fame as artists and quickly became legends, yet almost into middle age could not earn a living from their art and had to work in other areas to survive; both of them married but had no children; both were dominated – people say – by a mother – and haunted – the work says – by the idea of doing a girl in.’



18 May 2000

David Sylvester writes: I am extremely grateful to John Elderfield for his criticisms (both of my text and of the LRB cover announcement). Nevertheless, I don’t think I can accept two of the claims made in his third point. He proposes that a historical installation is ‘a specialised sort of “thematic" installation, one organised according to historical themes’; he goes on to...
When writing in your columns (LRB, 1 April) about the Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Tate, I made frequent allusions to the daylight there and to the advantages which I felt it gave this showing over the initial showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. All the same, the daylight of late February and early March in which I had seen it when I wrote was not pure daylight. It was augmented by...

Under Wraps

12 January 1995

The long review of my book on Giacometti (LRB, 12 January) provokes the thought that long reviews can take so long to write that the reviewer is left short of time to read the book. In the present case Mr Lubbock would only have had to read the Preface to discover that, contrary to his statement that all five chapters in Part One are reprints, in reality two of them are, three are not. (Dammit, it’s...

Get out: Francis Bacon

Julian Bell, 19 October 2000

Somewhere in London, two heads would be nodding together: one tall like the boulder topping a cairn, the other broadened like a Hallowe’en pumpkin. Two lordly sensibilities, the...

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Not His Type

Frank Kermode, 5 September 1996

In a preliminary chapter called ‘Curriculum Vitae’ David Sylvester explains that he became interested in art when, at 17, he was fascinated by a black and white reproduction of a...

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Men at Work

Tom Lubbock, 12 January 1995

Personal witness has a peculiar status in the criticism of painting and sculpture, a status which it seems not to have in the criticism of other arts. There’s some feature of the visual...

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Robbing banks

George Melly, 25 June 1992

Inspired by the bourgeois ‘bad taste’ of Magritte’s house in the Rue des Mimosas in suburban Brussels, Jonathan Miller took off into one of his self-intoxicating fantasies. We...

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Bacon’s Furies

Robert Melville, 2 April 1981

In the preface to his new edition of montaged interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester draws our attention to what has become the last section of the fifth interview. Altogether, there are...

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