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The Power of Paint

The Opening: twelve love stories about art by Stephanie Radok
Wakefield Press 2012

Reviewed by Ruth Brassingtonthe opening
If you’re expecting love stories about two people whose eyes meet across an art gallery, you won’t find them here. It’s Rodok’s own love affairs with specific art works that she details, analyses and explores – and shares meticulously and lovingly, a topic-chapter for each calendar month relating her past and her present to the artwork she describes. I looked up some of the paintings she loves, to see why she loved them, and to see which ones I loved too – “oh YES,” I cried.

Recognition of the power of a painting to absorb, to inspire, to engender obsessive focus, thinking outside a painting’s frame: “The painting includes just one teacup, because this is not a tea party but an image of pleasurable solitude involving food, drink and intellectual sustenance” (re Fantin-Latour’s Still Life).
An art writer, critic and reviewer, Radok’s main focus in her working life is Australian Aboriginal art, which she clearly loves and respects. But she moves as easily among other Australian artists’ work, along with the more traditional European. Sculpture and photography get her attention too, with Michelangelo and Rodin unselfconsciously named in the same sentence as Ah Xian, the Chinese Australian sculptor who specialises in cloisonné, the ancient technique of decorating metal objects. Radok’s painterly language colours in the blank spaces of artworks we cannot see in her book, but which are disclosed to us through her mind’s eye. As she says: “Like people art is made of complex patterns”.
This quaint book brought to mind Chris Price’s Brief Lives, and Jeanette Winterson in general, with these authors’ poesy and philosophical slants. Also Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, in its slow-moving and detailed way. Not that any snails get a mention. It’s the attention to detail; the absolutely right focus on minutiae, the disclosure of aspects dear to the author’s heart as she relates paintings to childhood memories, places past and present, and the ghosts all around us as they affect our worlds: “Each time art is made it reflects or remakes part of the world.”
This book is for anyone who has ever looked at a painting or thought a thought. It’s also for those who haven’t – because after you’ve read it, you will.