Wednesday, January 1, 2014

John Beckwith's 'Art of Constantinople' Contains No Colour Photographs

This shocked and saddened me: a book on Byzantine art, indeed, what appears to be considered a standard work on the subject,containing 203 photographs over 153 pages -- every single one of them in black and white.

I'm referring to the 2nd edition of 1968. The 1st was published in 1961. I thought that just possibly, what with Beckwith having spent the intervening 7 years in riotously-colorful Swinging London, it might have occurred to him add more color to his book on the very beautifully-colorful art of the Eastern Romans. This is an example of how buying books in used-book stores instead of online could have spared a horrible disappointment.

Beckwith begins his chapter on the iconoclastic period by remarking that there is an almost total lack of visual evidence relative to the time just before iconoclasm erupted. How ironic that Beckwith complains about this, the author of a book entirely lacking color photographs. Did color photography really suck that hard in 1968? Was Beckwith in 1968, not yet 50 years old, nevertheless already such a fogey that he was hopelessly out of touch with contemporary developments in color photography? Can it be that Swinging London did affect him, but negatively, so that he published his works in a black and white fashion as a form of conservative protest? (You know what would be really ironic, is if it turns out that the 1961 1st edition is chock fulla color.)

Something else which surprised me, much less unpleasantly so than the lack of color, is the very first sentence in Beckwith's book, at the beginning of the Acknowledgements, thanking Steven Runciman "for constant encouragement and advice." I'm so used to seeing lesser writers, enraged because Runciman has demolished their traditionalist, romantic, pro-Western notions about the Crusades with his consummate professionalism and command of many relevant source languages other than Latin and French, impotently attacking him or attempting to damn him with faint praise, but I can't remember having read anything nice about him in print before written by someone other than myself or William Gaddis or the writers of his obituaries.

Although I knew of course that Runciman had friends and admirers, still it was nice to see a dissent among all the usual anti-Runciman sniping. Still, it rebounded a bit against Runciman. Yes, I'm afraid I'm still on the photographs. You see, I'm the sort of guy who likes art books very much, but to look at much more than to read. I don't think I've ever actually read an entire art book. What've I got against Runciman now, because Beckwith was apparently his protogee to some extent? A renewed suspicion of elitism, is what. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for elitism in some cases, it's just that I'm against it in others. I'm all for it, for example, when in the preface to The Sicilian VespersRunciman bluntly informs the reader the the prose of the book to follow is complicated because the events it portrays were complicated, and advises readers confused by history to stick to fiction. But if Beckwith had nothing but black and white photos in his book because he, like Runciman, constantly traveled from one sumptuous collection of the actual objects under consideration to the next and gave little thought to those unable to do the same, well then there's an elitism against which I am, to imitate Winston Churchill.

It's only a suspicion, far from a certainty, and for all I actually know no-one was more upset by and protested more energetically against the lack of color illustrations in Beckwith's and Runciman's book than Beckwith and Runciman. An author, after all, is not the same thing as a publisher.

Anyhoo. Perhaps this will be the first book about art whose text I actually read from start to finish, and perhaps reading it will actually benefit me when and if I actually come across a book full of quality color photographs of Byzantine art. The fact that Runciman encouraged Beckwith definitely makes me more interested in his prose.

(And btw, yes, I am aware that quite a few of my blog posts, like this one, refer to books which I am about to read, instead of, much more conventionally, books which I have already read. A few thoughts about that. For one, a difference between a post like this and many a conventional book review is that I freely admit I haven't read the book, while book reviewers often lie and claim they have. One of many good reasons to read jack green's FIRE THE BASTARDS!is the way he busts big-time book reviewers for this rather serious sin. The entire book is about the shortcomings of the reviews of William Gaddis' first novel The Recognitions,which I, like green before me, have actually read. For the full delicious effect of righteous indignation I recommend reading the novel first, and then green's book. And two, eh, I think I write interesting stuff. So, just two thoughts about that, not a full few as promised.)

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