Reviewed by Helen Parry
Although Marina Warner is perhaps best known (and deservedly) for her magnificent work on fairy tales, she has long been writing about other aspects of culture: from her exploration of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Alone of All her Sex, to figures of fear and horror in No Go the Bogeyman, to Phantasmagoria, which examines ideas about the spirit and the soul. In her preface to Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art & Artists she explains her abiding concern, the theme that unites all her work: ‘My interest in art and artists arises from a lifelong commitment to understanding the imagination and the part it plays in acquiring knowledge and understanding, for good and ill.’
Forms of Enchantment collects together essays on individual artists which Warner has published since the 1980s. The book is divided into four themed sections. ‘Playing in the Dark’ ‘explores the correspondences between make-believe and making art, between the child’s projection of the world through toys and the artist’s modelling of experience.’ Here are writings on Paula Rego, Henry Fuseli and Kiki Smith, among others. The next section, ‘Bodies of Sense’, ‘takes up explorations of the body chiefly but not only by women artists’, including Louise Bourgeois and Helen Chadwick. In the third section, ‘Spectral Technologies’, ‘the focus changes to the potential of new media, since the coming of photography and the cinema, to explore the limits of bodily vision and make visible phenomena otherwise unavailable to the senses’. Here can be found essays on Joan Jonas, Sigmar Polke and Christian Thompson. The title of the last section, ‘Iconoclashes’, derives from a 2002 exhibition by Bruno Latour: ‘Forms of Enchantment takes as its premise the idea that images have power and can impinge on the world as active agents; Part Four explores how artists consciously catalyse that power.’ Work by Hieronymus Bosch, Damien Hirst and Frans Masereel are discussed in this section.
Warner writes so beautifully, her language so accurate and varied, that it is always better to quote her than to attempt to paraphrase her, the attempt must always be clumsy. She approaches art-writing in a very particular way:
I […] wish to argue for writerly ways of exploring art, as developed in literary tradition. When I write about artworks and the artists who made them, I try to unite my imagination with theirs, in an act of absorption that corresponds to the intrinsic pleasure of looking at art. […] I like to explore above all the range of allusions to stories and symbols; not to pin down the artwork as if it were a thesis or a piece of code, but to touch the springs of the work’s power. Art-writing at its most useful should share in the dynamism, fluidity and passions of the objects of its inquiry.
She tries to go beyond ekphrasis, the vivid written description of a visual art, to make her essays artworks in themselves. By discussing their ‘allusions to stories and symbols’ she intends to open up our understanding of artworks rather than pinning them down to any particular interpretation. (I think this tends to be her approach to a lot of her writing, she constructs collages of, for instance versions of fairy tales from many art forms, sources and allusions and allows us to experience their richness and make our own connections without forcing them into simplistic conclusions.) And she adds that she also intends to communicate the ‘pleasure of looking at art’, because pleasure is a very important component of art though one which is sometimes forgotten.
As you might expect of someone so embued in literary tradition, she is attracted to narrative elements in visual art (though not exclusively). So I particularly enjoyed her examination of the work of Kiki Smith in relation to fairy tales, but Warner can look at a window by Sigmur Polke and tell us about Renaissance Natural Magic, she can draw the Chinese mystic Mi Fu, Classical mythology and the Gothic into her consideration of Joan Jonas’s performance art.
My only criticism with this intriguing book is that the reader cannot see all the art that Warner discusses. The book is nicely produced with some good reproductions, but necessarily not all the pictures can be included and none of the films. You will need to use the internet to find what you can. For this reason I enjoyed the essays on artists whose work I already knew more than those who were unfamiliar to me; sometimes I struggled to keep hold of the thread. Warner’s essays do not spoon-feed you; they are designed to awaken your interest and they reward rereading and thought. Thus Forms of Enchantment has turned out to be more of a project for me than a straightforward read, and a fascinating and stimulating project at that. But as Warner remarked in that quote with which I opened this review, she believes the imagination has an educating function; embarking on a project seems a fitting response.
Helen blogs at a gallimaufry.
Marina Warner, Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art & Artists (Thames & Hudson, 2018). 978-0500021460, 288pp., hardback.BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link).