What do the greatest paintings and sculptures in cultural history – from Girl with a Pearl Earring to Picasso’s Guernica, from the Terracotta Army to Edvard Munch’s The Scream – have in common? Each is hardwired with an underappreciated, indeed often overlooked, detail that ignites its meaning from deep inside. That, at least, is the premise of my book, A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works, a study that invites readers to reconnect with works that are so familiar we no longer really see them.
This story was originally published in January 2019.
Taking as my starting point the most revered images in all of human history (from Trajan’s Column to American Gothic, the Elgin Marbles to Matisse’s The Dance), I went looking for what makes great art great – why some works continue to vibrate in popular imagination century after century, while the vast majority of artistic creations slip our consciousness almost as quickly as we encounter them. Combing the surface of these works, I was surprised to discover that each contains a flourish of strangeness which, once spotted, unlocks exciting new readings and changes forever the way we engage with these masterpieces.
As these remarkable details began to reveal themselves, from a ghostly finger fidgeting on Mona Lisa’s right hand to a tarot symbol for fortitude hiding in plain sight in one of Frida Kahlo’s most mysterious self-portraits, I was reminded of a remark by Charles Baudelaire. “Beauty,” the French poet and critic wrote in 1859, “always contains a touch of strangeness, of simple, unpremeditated and unconscious strangeness.”
What follows is a brief digest of some of the more extraordinary details – touches of strangeness that invigorate, often subliminally, many of the most recognisable images in art history.