The Bucket List

“The average time a gallery visitor spends in front of a painting is no more than two or three seconds,” according to Stephen Farthing, an instructor at the University of Arts in London. But like the walls of a blockbuster exhibition, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is over-crammed with visual display, and its reproductions are too small to invite a lingering gaze. 1001 Paintings, then, is a curious enterprise. Why do it?

Mr. Farthing, admitting that “the only way to understand how good a painting is” requires seeing it “in the flesh,” proposes his book as a travel guide — though it’s so heavy that you might think twice before packing it. Still, Mr. Farthing forges ahead. And not without interesting results.

The paintings here, cherry-picked from world culture across the centuries, were selected on the basis of four criteria: historical importance; memorable imagery; the “degree of perfection in balancing” form and content; and “the type of meaning that we generate as individuals”– in other words, personal taste.

And not just Mr. Farthing’s personal taste. The book’s subtitle claims that the paintings were “selected and reviewed by leading international critics,” and many art critics and historians are among the writers who penned the brief entries that accompany the images. But the 83 contributors here include some with no apparent art expertise: a “community organizer,” a “semi-professional clarinettist” and one Michael Farthing, who, we are told, used to walk by Hogarth’s “The Pool of Bethesda” when he was a gastroenterology professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

The book is thus a bumpy joy ride through art history. The first section, “Pre 1400s,” begins with Garden With Pool, a wall painting from ancient Egypt, and ends with The Wilton Diptych, devotional images created for England’s Richard II. In between are a Pompeiian fresco, a Mayan procession scene, a Chinese landscape. Mr. Farthing’s cross-cultural tack continues throughout, an approach that proves to be both delightful and, at times, didactic. We encounter the expected masterpieces of Giotto, Titian, Vermeer and Degas, but also meet such far-away artists as Ogata Korin (Japanese, 1658-1716) and Cándido López (Argentinian, 1840-1902).

The juxtapositions have a point. In showing both Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1789) and the Japanese artist Maruyama Okyo’s Sketches of a Black and White Rabbit (c. 1770-90), Mr. Farthing points to how two radically different approaches to painting can, in their own distinctive ways, be utterly realistic. Such insights don’t come as revelations exactly, but they do make us sit up and take notice.

Mr. Farthing is on shakier ground when he focuses on contemporary painting, if only because history, that merciless arbiter of quality, hasn’t had its say. While insisting that art “encourages us to explore its meaning independent of fashion,” he’s not altogether immune to it. Chris Ofili’s dung-adorned The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) makes the cut presumably on notoriety alone. The overheated reputation of Gerhard Richter, a conceptual artist posing as a painter, probably accounts for his inclusion.

But a few bum choices from history’s welter don’t diminish the breezy appeal of 1001 Paintings. Nor, for that matter, does the author’s decision to include two pictures by, well, Stephen Farthing. Since the book is a bit of a stunt to begin with, why not?

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 26-27 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

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