Academic essays are not written with the primary aim of giving pleasure; they are meant to impart knowledge. But every now and then one encounters a piece of scholarship so elegant, so virtuosic in its ability to simultaneously enchant and inform the reader that it indirectly reveals the inherent masochism of our practices. The gift of wisdom should not have to be purchased with the reader’s suffering, but in the case of academic writing, it usually is.
Take a Closer Look is an outstanding example of what is possible when the stiff formalities of scholarly prose are cast aside in favour of a more playful, imaginative approach. Daniel Arasse, who died in 2003, was an art historian who specialised in the Italian Renaissance. This small, beautiful book consists of six short essays, each staged as a different kind of fictional encounter: a letter, a defence, a conversation, a short story. Arasse replaces the detached voice of the expert with the more intimate, urgent tone of a conversation between familiars. Five of the chapters offer new interpretations of old paintings, from Francesco del Cossa’s The Annunciation to Velázquez’s Las Meninas. There is one anomaly: the fourth essay, on the depiction of Mary Magdalene’s long hair in Renaissance iconography, is a more general discussion. It is the only chapter that is not about a specific painting, and it has no illustrations. This is a pity, as Arasse excels when he compels us, as the title has it, to look closer at the image before our eyes. How could we fail to recognise, for example, that the Magus in Bruegel’s The Adoration of the Magi is staring directly at the Christ-child’s genitalia? Or that the painted reflection of Vulcan’s backside in a mirror does not match his actual posture in Tintoretto’s Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan? Illusionists make you see something that you know isn’t really there. Arasse’s form of magic does the opposite: he makes you realise that you failed to see what was there all along.
Indeed, Take a Closer Look is as much about the art of interpretation as it is about art. Arasse’s main conceit is that the discipline of academic art history and iconography is a profoundly hypocritical enterprise: it purports to tell us how to “read” a painting, but in fact it is a distorting lens that dooms our looking and seeing before it has even begun. In his imagined encounters with fellow scholars, Arasse performs the role of the Socratic gadfly who goads and stings his targets, revealing their academic pretensions, and proposing that the truth was there for the taking all along, if only we would set aside our preconceptions and just look. His hermeneutic suspicion plays as a leitmotif throughout the book: “I don’t need texts to see what’s happening in the painting.” “I don’t need theory to state what I mean. One simply needs to look at the painting.”
This is a beautiful and enchanting conceit - as seductive as the pictures themselves - but it is also the least convincing fiction of the entire work. For Arasse is no simpleton, and his seemingly irreverent interpretations are clearly the fruits of a lifetime of disciplined study. The book’s existence gives the lie immediately: if it were really a matter of just looking, we would not need to read his essays. And thank goodness we do, because they show that virtuosic academic scholarship need not be packaged in the turgid prose that so often stands as the signifier of true erudition. Take a Closer Look reminds us that the true scholar, like Sir Philip Sidney’s true poet, can simultaneously teach and delight.
Take a Closer Look
By Daniel Arasse
Translated by Alyson Waters
Princeton University Press, 176pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691151540 and 9781400848041 (e-book)
Published 2 October 2013