Blockbuster on a manageable scale: on Richard Dorment

A farewell collection of reviews by the American-born, British art critic

Despite its intriguing title, this selection of Richard Dorment’s articles from almost 30 years as art critic of the Daily Telegraph is not an autobiography nor a primer for the neophyte. Exhibitionist: Writing about Art in a Daily Newspaper is, like all such anthologies, something of an indulgence, but it is also a useful reference work; too heavy to take to the beach, more apt for consultation in the study. The writing is compacted, intense and focused. This is not a book to read from cover to cover, but to browse and dip into. At its best it is thought-provoking and informative. Dorment reprints 116 pieces out of thousands written between December 1986 and June 2015 with a new introduction that offers something of a CV, but left me wanting to know more. Dorment says at one point that he spoke to David Sylvester on the telephone every day for ten years; a little later he admits that his own taste was “fairly cautious”. The man behind the reviews remains a rather shadowy figure.

Richard Dorment is a good journalist with a lovely clarity of style, and is expert at describing and explaining paintings. He looks carefully for narrative meaning and enjoys decoding it. In fact, he is adept at appealing to the literary predilections of his readers, which helps to explain his success. The English are fundamentally suspicious of art, and much prefer to think of it as storytelling rather than the manipulation of plastic or formal values. The typical Dorment interpretation will button-hole the reader with anecdote (read him, for instance, on Thomas Lawrence, Landseer or William Bell Scott), then take on the slightly distanced but authoritative tones of the lecturer who can tell you all about a subject. Dorment gives us potted art history, a complete and often brilliantly descriptive short essay on an exhibition, rather than a review of it. His pieces encourage armchair viewing—they do not make you want to rush out and decide for yourself. They can, in fact, become a substitute for exhibition visiting.

As an American who has lived in London for more than 40 years, he admits that he still does not see the point of Stanley Spencer, Elgar, John Betjeman, PG Wodehouse or Gilbert and Sullivan. Humour is not his strong point. Nor is he quite so assured when it comes to modern English art (he is gloriously wrong about David Hockney and Gilbert and George). He includes here a review of a Keith Vaughan exhibition (but not a similar piece on John Craxton that I remember) in which it is clear that he does not know enough about Vaughan’s work to be quite so magisterial. This is the danger facing every critic: being opinionated only on the strength of what he or she is seeing rather than possessing deeper knowledge to draw on. But such failings are little in evidence here.

Dorment is expectedly good on the American Sublime and Sargent’s portraits, on Arshile Gorky, Twombly and Brice Marden, but also on Manet’s Luncheon in the Studio and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières. He is excellent on rethinking Van Gogh in his review of the Royal Academy’s 2010 “blockbuster on a manageable scale”.

Sometimes I felt the need for more controversy of the kind that the Symbolist Landscape clearly stirred in his breast, but asperity is rare in these information-filled pages. That said, he does attack Tate curators a couple of times—deservedly and enjoyably. A final point: although his writing is intelligent, pacey and engaging, Dorment—like so many other, lesser critics —seems to think that the word “artwork” means work of art. It doesn’t. It actually refers to the illustrations in a printed work. I saw it used correctly for a change the other day in a mail-order catalogue.

Exhibitionist: Writing about Art in a Daily Newspaper

Richard Dorment

Wilmington Square Books, 384pp, £25 (hb)