10 Great Quotes from “The Pursuit of Art” by Martin Gayford (2019)

I recently read Martin Gayford’s tales of life on the road as a traveling art critic. The book is titled The Pursuit of Art: Travels, Encounters and Revelations and was originally published in 2019. Here ten quotes from the book that particularly stood out to me.


“There lies a paradox for a dedicated lover of art such as David or me: we devote a great deal of time and energy in the pursuit of art, diligently visiting museums, galleries, churches, mosques, temples and ruins where it is to be found. But of course, much of what we look at was made for completely different reasons by pious Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Moslems.”

“There is a paradox here: the purpose of a great number of the things we call ‘works of art’ was and is religious. But when we encounter them in the circumstances for which they were made our reaction – or at least mine – is to feel awkward, a bit embarrassed at being there under false pretenses. This is, perhaps, the mirror image of the bewilderment felt by a true believer at finding a sacred image in a museum, lined up with pictures of landscapes and kitchen tables.”

“Photographers, like painters, seldom retire.”

“In fact, a great deal of life and art is about serendipity: discovering shapes and forms in the confusion around us, beginning with those prehistoric painters noticing that a mark on the side of a cave looked a bit like a bison, or Leonardo looking at an old, stained wall and seeing battles or landscapes.”

“There is an odd but revealing phrase – ‘in the flesh’ – for seeing art in reality, not reproduction. With Lotto and other Venetian painters it’s almost exact: to appreciate them properly you have to stand in front of them. Only then can you sense the carnal reality of the people they depict, the glistening of their skin, gleam in their eyes, the weight of their bodies, the texture of their clothes. These are physical experiences, because paint is a physical substance: a layer of organic and inorganic chemicals that reflects the light, and consequently changes every time the light alters. There is no substitute for being there.”

“I hate being lost, so much so that quite often I dream of not being able to find my way. Along with two other nightmares, missing trains and planes, it happens in reality quite frequently: cruelly often when I am searching for a church or museum containing a rare work of art.”

“A great deal of the information embedded in a work of art is not – yet at least – accessible just by looking at an image of it while sitting at home. The deepest and richest experiences are not virtual but physical: they involve looking at real things and talking to real people.”

“The pursuit of art is a journey that never stops; the more you see, the more you want to see.”

“Were they not avid, even unseemly, pursuers of publicity? On the contrary, they responded, there was football in the newspaper every day, but their work was scarcely ever mentioned. ‘We think that there is an enormous hunger out there for art, and most people can never see a Gilbert & George picture’, George expounded, ‘So the publicity is not for us, it’s for the viewer: informing the viewer that there are pictures he can go and see.’ Gilbert chimed in: ‘Artists are extremely unfamous’, and George echoed solemnly: ‘Extremely unfamous.”

“There is no greater work of minimalist art than the dry garden in the Zen Buddhist temple of Ryōan-ji, Kyoto. This comprises fifteen rocks of various sizes set in a sea of white, raked gravel; almost nothing, but you could look at it for hours. It was made about 500 years before the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe remarked that less is more.”


Click here to buy The Pursuit of Art: Travels, Encounters and Revelations by Martin Gayford.

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