Daily Archives: March 18, 2010

Autodidact

Closeup of Brunelleschi's dome (photo by Sally Reeder)

There are certain words that shouldn’t be used in polite company:  one of them is “postprandial”.  All it means is after dinner, of course, but it’s such a snooty way to say it.  I was once seated next to a woman at a dinner party who, following dessert and coffee, informed me that it was now time for her “postprandial pee”.   Considering all the wine she’d had, a trip to the restroom was an inevitability,  but a simple “excuse me” would have sufficed.

Another word that should be banned from conversation is autodidact.  It’s certainly a fancy term, but if I said to you, “When it comes to art, I am an autodidact,” you might smile and nod, but you’d be thinking, “you’re also a jackass.”  On the other hand, if I simply admitted to you that I didn’t have a lot of formal art education, that I’m basically self-taught on that subject, you still might think I’m a jackass, but at least not an arrogant one.

It’s true that I only had a couple of art classes in school, so most of what I know about art I did learn on my own.  I’m no expert (as you can tell if you’ve been following this blog), but it seems to me there’s no substitute for standing face-to-face with the original artworks.  There are, however, hundreds of thousands of books on the subject as well, of which I’ve read, oh, maybe fifty or so.  Some are tedious — the print version of Ambien — but others don’t seem like homework at all.  In fact, several of them compare favorably with best-selling novels for making you want to keep turning pages.

There’s a British author named Ross King who has written three terrific books on aspects of art history.  You know how David McCullough has turned elements of U.S. history into ripping yarns in books like 1776 and The Path Between the Seas?  Ross King writes that same way about art.  If you’re so inclined, you might want to treat yourself to one or more of the following:

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling     Michelangelo was an artist of great renown when he took on the task of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.  Part of the challenge was that he had almost no prior experience with fresco (pigment mixed into wet plaster).  With a little help, he taught himself how to do it.  This book delves into the political and cultural dramas that swirled around Michelangelo while he spent over a decade creating a masterpiece.

The Judgment of Paris     My favorite book by King, it’s about Edouard Manet and his late-19th century colleagues who ushered in the era of Impressionism.  It reveals the personality quirks of these artists who were experimenting with new techniques, and charts the ascendancy of these “outcasts” in the art world.

Brunelleschi’s Dome     A Renaissance goldsmith in Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi was commissioned to build a dome for the local cathedral.  Domes had been fairly common a thousand years before, but in the intervening centuries, humans forgot how to build them.  I don’t think it’s giving away the ending to tell you that Brunelleschi essentially reinvented architecture.  And I’ll bet he had too much class to refer to himself as an autodidact.