Will Gompertz: ‘See What You’re Missing’

How might we see ourselves more clearly? Consult Rembrandt. Who can encourage us to see more intimately? Tracey Emin is the expert. What about helping us see through pain? Look no further than Frida Kahlo. Will Gompertz talks to Emma Clegg about his new book, See What You’re Missing ahead of his appearance at The Bath Festival.

Journalist, author and art critic Will Gompertz is a world-leading expert in and champion of the arts. He has been the BBC’s arts editor, the Barbican Centre’s Artistic Director and is currently Director of London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Heavyweight art appreciation aside, his latest book, See What You’re Missing, involves a personal journey of discovery with its mission to reveal and understand the creative perspectives of 31 different artists. These include contemporary stars to old masters, established and lesser-known names from all around the world, with the idea of showing us how to look and experience the world with their very particular way of seeing. From Frida Kahlo and Tracey Emin to Paul Cézanne and Peter Paul Rubens, this is a crazy journey to and fro across the centuries from one intimate insightful profile to the next.

“It all started from a conversation I had with David Hockney,” explains Will. “He makes these very bright coloured pictures of the East Yorkshire landscape in Bridlington. I said to him, ‘David, it doesn’t look colourful like that; it looks grey and miserable most of the time’. He said, ‘You haven’t really looked Will’.

“So I thought, ‘Fair enough – if it’s David Hockney saying that I better go and look’. So I went with him. To begin with it was miserable and the trees were brown and the leaves were green, as you’d expect. And then he told me you’ve got to wait and watch the light change. Then over 25 minutes I noticed how the trees did start to change colour – they weren’t uniformly brown, they were browns and mauves and purples and there were pinks, just as he described them.

“I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve been going around with blinkers on. I’ve spent my whole life out in nature not seeing anything I have been seeing, because I never had the time or inclination to stop and look.’ So this book is about stopping, looking and enjoying and seeing in a way that you haven’t done before, because you’ve never had permission.”

Surely the choice of 31 artists ranging across the world and across time was a tough whittling down exercise? Will declares that the selection was a highly selfish one: “There were a lot of contenders, but these were artists that I was really interested in – I didn’t know enough about them, wanted to learn more, and was fascinated by how they saw the world.

These artists are the product of their time… but there is also something universal in each artist’s view”

“The artists cover over 2000 years, from pre Aztec Mexico through to the present day. So we have a contemporary artist like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who imagines these fictional figures, exploring the mechanics of making a painting without the worry of getting a likeness wrong. Or this expressive Aztec Xochipala sculpture of a seated adult and youth in conversation. To think it was done so long ago, and yet if a contemporary artist made it today it would still be impressive. So we haven’t changed – we still see the world and feel the world just as our forebears did.”

The ordering of the chapters is curated, explains Will, but there is no categorisation by genre or century. “The order was just about the pacing. So I didn’t want to put a painter next to a painter, and liked the idea of shifts in time or place. Because we have this myriad of artistic perspectives, every time I wanted to give the reader a fresh surprise, so they don’t know what is coming next.”

Each chapter is entitled ‘Seeing…’ with the words following honed on the artist’s inner focus: ‘Nature’ for David Hockney, ‘Yourself’ for Rembrandt, ‘Spectacularly’ for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, ‘Fantastically’ for Paula Rego, ‘Intimately’ for Tracey Emin, ‘Beauty in Ugliness’ for Jean Dubuffet. The reader is swept from insights around how Frida Kahlo’s work reflected her suffering within symbolism and metaphor; to tuning into Agnes Martin’s Zen-like approach to making art where solitude inspired her abstract geometric grids; to marvelling at John Constable’s potent studies of clouds and light, bringing drama in the interplay of dispersed sunlight at a time when blue skies were more favoured.

“I do think these artists are the product of their time in the subjects they choose, and also ultimately they have to think commercially, so they are funded either by people buying their paintings or by Fra Angelico being paid for his work as a monk in a friary. But there is also something universal in each artist’s view, going back to that Aztec sculpture of a man and a boy – dynamism, truth, form, colour.”

Gompertz’s language is down to earth, dynamic, engaging and often humorous. Take phrases such as “Clouds are like estate agents, they get a bad rap” (on John Constable), “Gabriel’s angel wings stick out like a flamingo at a funeral” (on Fra Angelico) and “She gave us something as rare as sunstroke in a coalmine” (on Artemesia Gentileschi). This language recharges the erudite, often baffling explanations of art concepts and makes this an easy, diverting and fascinating read.

CREDIT: Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication and Far right : © Jean-Michel Basquiat/Wiki Art

The messages are also charged by the author’s own revelations. “Writing this book actually changed the way I see art. Prior to that I would see the picture and what it was communicating and I’d think of the colours and the form, but I would never think about the artist and what they were looking at. Now when I look at an artist I imagine them sitting there painting (or working) and thinking ‘What are they trying to show me?’, ‘What do they see?’, ‘What are they capturing here?’. Art, after all, is just a visual language. It has taught me is that there is a person behind that picture and that person wants a connection with me.”

This book holds so many artistic and personal visions of the world. But in making those connections clear, the universality of the human condition is also unravelled, as are the experiences that allow these stories to find their pathways. Let’s return to the Aztec figures: “No matter how crazed the world becomes, these two figures have risen above the noise and the nonsense to share a moment and enjoy each other’s company… they don’t only represent us, they are us.”

Will Gompertz is at The Bath Festival on Saturday 25 May, at 2.30pm at The Guildhall. £13/£8. His book See What You’re Missing: 31 Ways Artists Notice the Worldand How You Can Too is available at the festival, and from good bookshops. bathfestivals.org.uk