Terry Grimley leafs through a new heavyweight coffee table book listing, apparently, the best 1,001 paintings in existence.
I like the idea of not being allowed to die until I've seen someone else's idea of the 1001 best films, heard their 1001 best albums and played their 1001 favourite golf courses.
With a bit of shilly-shallying I reckon I can drag it out for many years to come – more particularly as I have no intention of ever learning to play golf.
Now comes a new volume in this series of life-lengthening handbooks. While its spelling is American, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die has been selected by British painter Stephen Farthing, who has been immodest enough to include a couple of paintings of his own.
For an addicted gallery visitor like me, it's a fascinating book. In a way, my first impression of it was the exact opposite of my first impression of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I walked into MOMA expecting to find a comprehensive, three-dimensional encyclopaedia of 20th century art and was disappointed to find instead only masterpieces, most of them already over-familiar from reproductions.
Nothing could be less true of 1001 Paintings, which takes us from ancient Egypt to the 21st century with a remarkable breadth of field. So it's not just the familiar masterpieces of Britain, Italy, France, Holland and America but also less familiar European schools (Russia, Scandinavia, Hungary) and non-European traditions including India, Japan, Australia and pre-Abstract Expressionist America.
Of course many of the familiar touchstones are here, from Giotto's frescos in Padua to the Mona Lisa, Rembrandt's The Night Watch to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. But they rub shoulders with such obscure gems as Battle of Mailberg by Hans Part (Klosterneuberg Monastery, Austria), Portrait of Mr Dahesh by Marie Hadad (Dahesh Museum of Art, New York) or Drifting Smoke by Fred Williams (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne).
Some of the paintings are even in private collections, which might suggest that ticking them off your list is going to be a mite tricky. It's rather breezily suggested here that this is not such a problem because paintings are lent to exhibitions, but I wouldn't count on, say, Portrait of Archduchess Eleonora of Mantua by Jakob Seisenegger or Head of Woman by Jesus Guerrero Galvan coming to a gallery near you in the very near future.
When I came to do a count of how many of these paintings I had seen, I quickly realised that the most striking thing was not how many or how few they were, but how many I couldn't remember whether I had seen or not. Everyone is likely to remember looking at the Mona Lisa, the Demoiselles or The Fighting Temeraire, but did I look at The Death of Adonis by Sebastiano del Piombo on that day in the Uffizi?
Did I pause in front of The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur in the Metropolitan Museum in New York? Possibly, but I don't remember.
It perhaps reflects the fact that art-spotting is fundamentally unlike trainspotting, where you see a number, write it down and cross it off a list. With art there are many different levels of looking and seeing, and the experiences of looking at paintings in museums and in reproduction are inextricably linked.
Leaving aside such philosophical ponderings, my best estimate is that after several decades of enthusiastic gallery-going I've probably seen somewhere between a quarter and a third of these paintings.
Turning to a parochial perspective, I found five here from Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (the sole West Midlands collection represented).
Naturally the Pre-Raphaelites figure – there's Ford Madox Brown's masterpiece The Last of England, a more surprising Rossetti selection and The Stonebreaker by Henry Wallis – and there's Crossing the Sands by David Cox, one of the paintings from the recently disputed Nettlefold bequest.
But it's particularly pleasing to see the selection of Patrick Caulfield's Red Still Life, painted in 1964 but only recently acquired by Birmingham, showing how astutely it filled a gap in its postwar collection.
The book, incidentally, comes right up to date with three paintings from this year. Examples by living artists include Ian Davenport, RB Kitaj, Sean Scully, Callum Innes and Fiona Rae, all of whom have had works of comparable quality added to the Birmingham collection in the last decade.
And of course there are numerous other paintings from West Midlands collections which would have been as worthy of inclusion as many which made the cut. One minor irritation is the absence of Orazio Gentileschi, with Farthing repeating the conventional but questionable post-feminist opinion that his daughter Artemisa is a better artist.
Despite such minor quibbles, the book makes for a stimulating browse, though it's surely excessively optimistic to suggest that it would be a useful tool on your travels. It's a chunky, not to say weighty, tome and unless you are visiting half a dozen countries it's better left on the coffee table to serve as a complement to travel or – inevitably in the case of some of the less accessible paintings illustrated here – as a substitute for it.
1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is published by Cassell at #20.
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