Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, by Camille Paglia

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Camille Paglia’s latest book, Glittering Images, provides a brief survey of art through the ages from ancient Egypt to the cinema of George Lucas. The 29 essays that comprise the book mix brilliant erudition with a critic’s unerring sense of high culture.

Camille Paglia burst onto the literary scene in the early nineties with her weighty tome Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1992). Two collections of essays quickly followed. Since then, the Professor of Humanities and Media Studies has been slower in her output, releasing relatively slim volumes of critical appreciation. Her last book, Break, Blow Burn (2005) examined 43 poems.

Glittering Images sees Paglia returning to the visual image. In this beautiful but also very practical book she highlights 29 artistic styles and artists. Beginning with ancient Egypt and ending with George Lucas’ six part Star Wars saga, Paglia covers everything from Donatello to modern concept art and 60s happenings.

In the introduction, Paglia writes that part of her aim was to write a book that could be used by students as a basic art text book, like Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Each of the 29 chapters is about 3-5 pages long, and discusses individual art works, artist biographies, cultural fashions and historical context. The writing is densely packed with lots of fascinating details and insights, but not so much as to be cluttered and busy. Paglia retains her crisp, lapidary prose.

A quote from the chapter on the French Rococo, titled ‘The Swirling Line’, gives an idea:

“Rococo was a chapter in the history of pastoral, an ancient genre that worships but sentimentalizes nature. Rococo’s twining, twisting creepers show nature invading and recapturing the social realm. But instead of purifying what they touch, they introduce a self-conscious perversity. The empty white background of rococo paneling is a willed blankness, a blocking out of unpleasant realities. French rococo interiors have clarity, yet they are suspended, elusive, unresolved. So much pretty motion, and yet so much golden paralysis.”

The layout of the book is also a treat. The medium sized format and high quality colour plates make it easy to flip back and forth between text and image. In this way the book happily encourages slow, ponderous reading.

Glittering Images makes for a perfect student reference book or a general history for the lay reader. Some of the chapters are sure to stir debate, like the final piece on George Lucas, but for the most part these essays are rich, stimulating and informative.

Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, by Camille Paglia. Published by Pantheon. ISBN: 978-0375424601  $29.95