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Book Review: Creators – From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney by Paul Johnson

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It can be a terrifying prospect to go into your workroom and “face an empty canvas, a blank sheet of paper, or a score sheet, knowing that you must inscribe the marks of a completely original work.” Indeed, contends historian Paul Johnson in Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney — an anthology of exacting essays on major artistic figures, and a companion volume to his mindful Intellectuals of 20 years ago — creative courage is akin to physical courage in battle, which itself diminishes with repeated demands, and can even disappear.

On the other hand, creation is an exciting business, and “people who create at the highest level lead a privileged life, however arduous and difficult it may be. An interesting life, too, full of peculiar aspects and strange satisfactions.”

With a tightrope narrative reflecting the compelling and purposeful balancing act between the hardships of artistic process and the rewarding life reaped from success, Johnson portrays 17 creative spirits from the never-guilty pleasure of Twain to the lofty high-mindedness of Bach — ah, Bach… — in variable biographical essays that roam the scholarly scale from the babble-less psychology-based to the survey-says literary history of the times. In any case, we get a good dose of prolific masters of literature (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Hugo, Twain, Eliot); painting (Dürer, Turner, Katsushika Hokusai, Picasso, Disney); music (Bach); and architecture and design (A.W.N Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, Tiffany, Balenciaga, Dior).

Even though these figures are for the most part featured in stand-alone chapters, Johnson is attentive enough to present some in a manner — offhand or formal — that may be paired up with or trigger other individuals or subjects. Though separated by era and artistic arena, Albrecht Dürer and J.S. Bach, for example, casually evoke two sides of the same Mark, bringing out the complex richness of German culture and, as such, each other. Dürer, living in a period when German artists were beginning to move from medieval anonymity to Renaissance personality, was one of the greatest individualist creators, while family man Bach, proud of his family’s musical heritage, depicts how heredity can provide the underpinning from which creative genius of the highest order emerges.

Family also figures in the world and work of Jane Austen, and in a much lesser extent, T.S. Eliot. Their poetry and prose may not at first seem to be analogous, with Eliot’s verse drawing on classical, anthropological, and historical studies, and Austen’s novels on more provincial and immediate inspiration. But Johnson makes the point more expressly, through a subtle aside, that Eliot’s ability to invite participation, to “entice the reader into collaborating with him in expanding, interpreting, and transforming what he has written,” is not only a “rare gift,” but one also possessed by Austen, who intentionally offers hints and indications when it comes to characterizations and the most emotional episodes, leaving it to the reader “to fill in the gaps in her narrative, and delight in doing so.”

Perhaps, in contrast to Eliot, whose creative brilliance was nourished by the breadth and depth of his lifelong reading, Austen was resigned in recognition of what Johnson calls a “key point” about herself: "She was not a genius. There was nothing mysterious about her work." Johnson goes on, "In the work of the four supreme creative geniuses of English literature — Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Kipling — there remain and will always remain inexplicable aspects — moments of creative achievement that seem to be plucked out of thin air, are pure imagination, and cannot be related to the author’s known life. Each had his demon, and when this creature within flared up, the magic followed."

Indeed, in an expanded and deliberate pursuit of the topic of genius and intelligence, one unifying theme that loosely threads a grand paginal course through Creators, emerging here and there during discussions of Turner, Shakespeare, Eliot, Picasso, Chaucer… and just to throw the reader off course for a spell, the tidbit of the off-kiltered titularity that is “Victor Hugo: The Genius Without a Brain.” Johnson’s riveting writing makes this funhouse psychological and historical look at an artist of "high creative gifts but low intelligence" read like an ad for one of those old 1950’s Horror movies: “A century and a quarter after his death, he is still a loose cannon, crashing about the deck. Why is this?” For a double feature I could envision a film based on Balzac's quote, so seemingly seized upon with glee by Johnson: "Hugo has the skull of a madman…"

If an exploratory scrutiny of Hugo was Johnson’s most inquisitive and inconclusive, even to the extent of ending with a query of a comparison with Dickens (“Which is the greater creative artist? Impossible to judge.”), the penultimate chapter in this most topsy-turvy of tomes may be his most didactic and determined. It’s also part and parcel of one of the more formalized chapters throughout Creators devoted to a pairing-up of artists, of which the most striking is struck in “Picasso and Walt Disney: Room for Nature in a Modern World?” It’s structured for a comparison and contrast between two 20th century masters and set to signal a direction for 21st century art, Picasso representing the old-world manner of the artist’s studio, while Disney was of the New World of Hollywood and new technologies.

Not that things stayed that way. Disney, a product of the arts and crafts movement and of art nouveau, came to dislike the artificial side of the Hollywood “picture palace” industry. Hollywood was art deco, a different visual influence, and Disney's instinct was also to get back to nature, to “reinforce, transform, and reanimate nature, to surrealize it,” especially in contrast to Picasso — that champion of non-representational art — with his desire to get away from nature.

But that latter longing may be the least of the sins of Picasso, who was also known for his cavalier amorality and boorish debauchery. And if Johnson does not hold back in his non-artistic contempt for Picasso and the negative influence he’s had on painting, it is because the author has come around to believe — and to believe that it’s his mission to belabor — the point that “evil and creative genius can exist side by side in the same person. It is rare indeed for the evil side of a creator to be so all-pervasive as it was in Picasso, who seems to have been without redeeming qualities of any kind.”

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