The Devil in the Gallery: How Scandal, Shock, and Rivalry Shaped the Art World – Noah Charney

An art history book! A controversial one! All for me!

No, well, not really, but I was perusing the frontlisted titles on Edelweiss and The Devil in the Gallery popped up in my feed, promising me scandal, shock and rivalry in the art world. A siren’s song would have had less effect on me. I mean, Noah Charney had me at Caravaggio.

I’m a bad person, sue me. Anyway.

**

There would be no Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo had rival Raphael not tricked the pope into assigning him the commission, certain that Michelangelo, who had never before worked with frescoes, would botch the job and become a laughing stock. Scandal and shock have proven to be powerful weapons when harnessed and wielded willfully and well. 

From Damien Hirst presenting the public with a shark embalmed in formaldehyde and entombed in a glass case to Marcel Duchamp trying to convince the art community that a urinal is a great sculpture shock has been a key promotional tool. The Devil in the Gallery is a guided tour of the history of art through it scandals, rivalries, and shocking acts, each of which resulted in a positive step forward for art in general and, in most cases, for the careers of the artists in question.

200 pages
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Art history
Goodreads

**

Cover: Meh. I wanted something more daring, like, say, Bernini’s Ecstasy? I’m biased toward sculptors, I know, I know.

Yay!

  • TDitG is a celebration of art. To be more precise, Charney put together a book depicting both the greatest scandals and the lesser known rivalries within the art field, spanning centuries. Michelangelo and Leonardo? Check. Brunelleschi and Ghiberti? Check. Ulay and Abramović? Check. Caravaggio and anyone crossing his path? Check. Academies, art galleries, little and big feuds taken apart and explored in a clever writing style. 
  • It took me a while to finish it, as it’s a slow book in itself, one that needs to be savored rather than rushed through. Think of it like fine wine, take your time – maybe even make time to search for art pieces that are not present in picture, only mentioned. I know I did it, and it enhanced my experience.
  • As you might already suspect, I’m rooted in the Aristotelian Camp. Artists like Caravaggio, Bernini, Cellini talk to me, while modern ones leave me here like, ‘and?’. It’s not a hate reaction to their pieces, it’s more like indifference, and I’m aware this is maybe the biggest slight I could make to an artist. Still, while I often found myself disagreeing with Charney, I also have to admit that his takes have been thought-provoking. Performance art doesn’t do anything for me, say, but reading about it offered me a new perspective. Maybe there’s more to it than meets the eye? Maybe I’ll be able to appreciate Duchamp’s Fountain at some point? Who knows. The fact that Charney led me to analyze my tastes is a testimonial of a good writer.
  • The art world is not news to me, but I still managed to learn something. The Tintoretto vs. Titian anecdotes made me laugh just as much as the Banksy vs. King Robbo ones.
  • I appreciated the three different sections, even if I would have loved to see more pictures. ‘More pictures’ is my battlecry, apparently.

Special mention:

  • Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio. I do have a predilection for him, because his works are so vivid. 
  • Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Manet. Look at the contrast between the men and the woman.
  • Coffered ceiling of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Borromini. White leaves me meh, with one exception. This.
  • Urban Lights, Burden. This surrealist sculpture is far more interesting than self-inflicted body harm, just saying.
  • The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Bernini. The marble is alive.

Nay!

  • I already mentioned how TDitG is a slow book – good – but sometimes slowness translates into repetitiveness. Concept repetition, to be more precise, and I think that it could have been avoided. 

TL;DR
4 stars on GD. It was a spectacular read. I’m not just saying – it was.

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