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Kelly Grovier’s secrets in art

Posted on 11 Jan 2019

Kelly Grovier, the author of 'A New Way of Seeing', reveals what Botticelli’s Venus has in common with hurricanes and galaxies.

Kelly Grovier is one of the few cultural critics who is wary of “isms”. When he looks at a famous artwork, Grovier isn’t so interested in its style or chronology. Nor does he subscribe to the cult of the artist as brand, or the understanding of their works as mere material commodities exchanged among the world’s most elite institutions and individuals.

Instead, Grovier wants to know what makes an artwork reach out and touch us, sometimes centuries after it was first made. How does Picasso’s Guernicastill scorch itself on our minds? Why does Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus leave us with a light and trembling vertigo?

In A New Way of Seeing, Grovier combs the surface of revered works from the Terracotta Army of the First Qin Emperor, to Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits allowing him to interrogate their enduring power. What he finds in each masterpiece is a single — often underappreciated — detail that, however small, at the heart of the work’s magnetic hold.

Take a look at some of his revelatory analysis.

Sandro Botticelli, 'The Birth of Venus' , ca. 1482-85. Uffizi, Florence.

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus

‘It is a hypnotic twist that transfixes the eye: the wind-spun spiral of golden hair suspended on Venus’ right shoulder, far too perfect in the precision of its logarithmic curl to be a mere accident.

Since antiquity, this spinning shape, whose widening vector is observable in the swoop of hawks and the swirl of nautilus shells, has fascinated thinkers as a natural measure of beauty. Two hundred years after Botticelli’s painting, a Swiss mathematician, Jacob Bernoulli, will propose a name befitting the twist’s magnificence: spira mirabilis, or “marvellous spiral”.

Detail of the golden spiral in 'The Birth of Venus, ca. 1482-85. Uffizi, Florence.

But what is this finely calibrated curve — which we now know corresponds to the twirl of hurricanes and galaxies — doing in a painting devoted to a pagan goddess, hover-crafting to shore on an outsized scallop? Venus tilts her head towards the spiral as if listening to its whispers of secrets of the universe.’

Edvard Munch, 'The Scream', 1893. National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.

 Munch’s The Scream

‘Munch’s 1893 portrait of a howling figure has become an archetype of existential angst and continues to hypnotise, like a flickering bulb swaying above us.  Munch took an anxious interest in electricity and the technological advances of the day, and once confessed to his journal that he was haunted by a mysterious shape that “directed the wires — and held the machinery in his hand”.

One can only imagine how he reacted to the spectacle at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris of 13,000 incandescent lamps arranged into the luminous shape of a gigantic light bulb. Like a bulging glass skull whose bulbous cranium tapers to an elongated jaw, the lamp towered above visitors.

Detail of the head in 'The Scream', 1893. National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.

The shape appears to have seeped deep into Munch’s imagination. It flipped a switch. The yowling head that glows in The Scream echoes with uncanny precision the crystalline contours of Edison’s modern god.’

Gustav Klimt, 'The Kiss', 1907. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

Klimt’s The Kiss
Look closely at the woman’s resplendent frock in Gustav Klimt’s much-adored portrait of passion and it appears decorated with round Petri-dish-like slides teeming with pulsing cells.

In 1907, the year Klimt painted his iconic work, the air in Vienna was abuzz with talk of platelets and plasma, red blood cells and white. At the University of Vienna (where Klimt himself had been commissioned to create some paintings based on medical themes), Karl Landsteiner, a pioneering immunologist who was the first to distinguish blood groups, was busy investigating how to make blood transfusions work.

Detail of the dress in 'The Kiss', 1907. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

Within each of the opulent ovoid slides that Klimt has stitched into the woman’s frock, vibrant platelets and agglutinating blood cells judder and throb, as if a microscopic glimpse into her cellular constitution has just been obtained – as if the artist has glimpsed a luminous biopsy of never-ending love.’


Words by Eliza Apperly.

Find more in A New Way of Seeing, exploring the enduring power of 57 major works of art through a single, extraordinary, and often overlooked, detail.

A New Way of Seeing

The History of Art in 57 Works Kelly Grovier