Andrew Paul Wood
Me, According to the History of Art by Dick Frizzell (Massey University Press, 2021), 312pp, $65
It goes without saying that Dick Frizzell is a very clever man with an idiosyncratic view of the world. Somehow, he has also survived half a century or so’s worth of New Zealand art-world vicissitudes, so inevitably his thoughts about art are going to be interesting. He is also (and this is not intended as an insult) a narcissist. You would have to have the balls to write your own history of world art, playing at being Kenneth Clark. You also must be a bit of a celebrity for a publisher to let you do it. Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas. Behold: Me, According to the History of Art. Frizzell does to art history what Tom Scott did to Charles Upham.
‘Art History’s Shit, isn’t it?’ Frizzell says in the foreword, or rather the ‘forewarned’—expect a lot of dad puns of that ilk. What he really means is that art historians are shit, or obscure, or pretentiously highbrow—ignoring the aforementioned Clark, the Simon Schamas, Robert Hugheses and Sister Wendys who have been making art history accessible for quite some time now. It is a blokey vernacular version of Susan Sontag’s final sentence in her 1966 essay ‘Against Interpretation’: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.’ Less careerist fudging and more feeling. I don’t disagree, but a hefty span of art history does tend to throw up a lot of complicated theological, mythological or philosophical allegories that are not easily distilled into ten minutes down the pub.
‘What’s the biggest stumbling block to a clear understanding of this rich and rewarding subject?’ writes Dick. ‘Well mostly, it is the Renaissance, isn’t it? How do I plan to deal with that? Renaissance, such a scary word. Is it two “n”s, two “s”s? “Ence” or “ance”? What is it? Italian? Sounds French. What’s that about?’ And so on. Had he bothered to just check any encyclopaedia he could have spared us the navel-gazing persiflage. Ah, but obviously he has checked an encyclopaedia, because then he drops the acquired erudition, ‘A nineteenth-century Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt, took this chaotic and serendipitous conflation of history and opportunity and decided that it was to be called the Renaissance, although a French historian called Jules Michelet actually used it first—hence the distinctly non-Italian nature of the label. Who knew?’
Who asked? Also, not exactly accurate. Giorgio Vasari, near-contemporary biographer of the Renaissance artists was already calling it a rinascita (‘rebirth’) in 1550. Mind you, we are not here for accuracy, we are here for cheeky bants and shocking immodesty. ‘I’m going to tell that story against my background,’ quoth Dick, ‘which means it’s a very Eurocentric, Western story. Politically or historically correct or not, this is the story I feel behind me. It explains who I am as an artist. You could call it The Anatomy of Dick. Because art history might be shit. But the history of art is not. It’s the story of my life—and yours.’ And so, it is. Ecce homo.
Frizzell is at his best when describing his own experiences looking at the great works of art—and there is nothing here remotely obscure—and anyone who has stood in front of a famous masterpiece in Paris, London or New York can empathise with the overwhelming feelings. What quickly becomes apparent is that Dick likes art that is retinal, emotive and immediately obvious. He has not much truck with the complicated symbolism, the text, that excites art historians, because for much of history, as art historians will tell you, art operated on the Horatian principle of ut pictura poesis—as in poetry, so in art. Stick a skull in and he is happy. There are a few works that have apparently been included because they contain skulls, that enduring genre of the Vanitas … Memento Mori—remember: you too shall die. Skulls are cool a. f.
That is not to say the text is dumbed down or impoverished. Often Frizzell is incredibly insightful and witty, largely because he comes at the topic as a working artist. These are his colleagues and he goes about it with complete irreverence. He puts Duchamp and Dada in their place and has the number of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Frizzell is very good at dissecting stunts and opportunism. He dotes on Picasso and Gris—not surprisingly, as the book has grown out of an exhibition of recent Frizzell, Picasso and Gris pastiches at Gow Langsford. He does not care for the Pre-Raphaelites. Joseph Wright of Derby is new to him. He is unimpressed by Matisse. He is tickled by Manet’s Olympia (1863) paraphrasing Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538)—no, the shock did not kill Ingres. He learns to respect the Rococo. He perceptively links Tiepolo to comic-book legend Jack Kirby, Neoplasticism to Disney, and sees the Rothko in McCahon. Henry Fuseli gets an entire chapter for some reason. Why Böcklin’s boisterous Naiads at Play (1886) rather than one of the better-known, less bonkers versions of Isle of the Dead? Noticeably, nothing later than 1980s gets a look in, about when the sacred art object dematerialises—i.e. becomes conceptual and concerned with ineffable collective social experiences or entirely self-referential. As the anarcho-communists used to say, ‘You can’t blow up a social relationship’; but Gary Langsford can’t flog it to a Parnell millionaire either.
There are still a lot of school cert. art history banalities and back-issue The Great Artists truisms churned into Frizzell’s text. He is not interested in what he does not understand straight away or the elaborate details of social, economic and historical context. Far more interesting are latter parts of the book where Frizzell talks about his own work in detail, which is enthralling. Among all the pop pastiche and pseudo-late-Hockney landscapes, you get something wondrous like the 1987 illustration for Denis Glover’s The Magpies, which, for all its visual Nigel Brown-isms and Trevor Moffitt-isms, transcends the bullshit completely. The spectre that haunts Frizzell’s own work is that he has never quite mastered the trick of being himself, beyond wry, flatly painted takes on the ideas through a Kiwiana glass, or relatively safe and trope-riddled genres like country roads in a landscape. Ironically, while he is clearly suspicious and cynical about postmodernism, this makes him more postmodern than the freshest grad out of the ferny gullies of Elam or concrete bunkers of Ilam, duct-taping an LCD monitor onto a dead tree in a white cube.
Me is beautifully illustrated with Frizzell’s own versions of the old and not-so-old masters, deftly done in coloured pencil and photoshopped a bit, as weirdly cropped as the reproductions to hand. For centuries this is how artists learned their craft, by copying the greatest hits of the artists who have gone before. Curiously, Frizzell does not pick up on this, which frankly astounds me. How can you not learn anything from all that labour? For him, it seems mostly a way of getting all the inevitable and expensive copyrights to reproduce the real thing. Sometimes this falls flat on its arse, as in the waxworky take on Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride (1665–69), or the rather too softly naturalistic Memling Portrait of a Young Man (1465). He does a good Titian though, his version of the artist’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516–18) gets the Venetian’s buttery gold light exactly right and it fairly bangs. Frizzell gets the theatrical sell, and Titian is marketing God the way Frizzell marketed Four Square.
Frizzell admits to this not being a perfect process—for example, not being able to manage the tiny little reflected self-portrait of artist Jan van Eyck in the mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding (1434) and wisely eschewing trying to copy Fragonard’s The Swing (1767). When that is the case, when you are using such well-known canonical works, a mere general art history book or a hi-res mouse click away for the reader (he often tells you to Google works he has only mentioned), why not have some fun with it? There may be a hint in that of Frizzell’s crib of Mantegna’s Dead Christ (1480), where the ex- Jesus, if it is not my imagination, bears a slight resemblance to a young Dick Frizzell himself. I wish there were more of that and to a far greater degree, which would have given some point to the exercise. There is some fun when he reproduces Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning Drawing (1953) by performing the exercise himself on one of his own drawings.
This book is exactly what you would expect, but better and more fun. Is it some essential text that will enlighten you about art history? Probably not, but worth a read anyway. Is Dick full of himself with a boilerplate ego to match? Indubitably, but he knows that better than anyone else. Ultimately Me, According to the History of Art is a romp. Like Frizzell’s art, it is a bombastic plum pudding, an entertaining magpie of a thing. Enjoy it as such.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based writer, critic, independent art historian, freelance curator, poet, translator and cultural mercenary. Mostly harmless.