It’s a big subject and it’s a big book, so make sure you’ve got a solid coffee table! Yes, that’s what this is; the birth and development of modern art is a topic which can only really be hinted at in a single volume and not even touched without the generous proportions you have here. Serious students will undoubtedly be queuing up to complain about the omissions, but this really isn’t the point. Think of it as a primer for the non-specialist who just needs a place to start and it immediately makes a lot more sense. If it was a gallery (which, in a way it is), it would be the first exploratory visit.
Modern Art, of course, wasn’t a movement in itself and, although we often talk of schools, the truth is that development is largely organic. Yes, people working at the same time share ideas and approaches, but they also share influences, artistic, social and political as well as simple events. One bombing raid produced Picasso’s Guernica, which itself is a response in all those ways. It’s fair to say that art in the twentieth century was largely about ways of seeing, of moving away from straightforward representation and this gave us Cubism, Expressionism and Dadaism, for example. Within these movements, each individual artist had their own way of working, but there were definite theories that they were all exploring. It’s the role of this book, rather than this review, to explain them, but it’s also worth observing that schools of art existed long before the twentieth century and that each age has its own recognisable style which isn’t based on totally photographic representation but rather an agreed view of how the world should be seen.
Where all this is going is to say that it’s not enough just to divide things up into schools and movements; you also have to consider the individual artists: that categorisation brings its own very special pitfalls. The writer of this book recognises this and thus gives us chapters on the obvious movements (Cubism, Surrealism, Primitivism, for example) as well as some of the major figures (Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani et al) and also geographic centres (Italy and Germany between the wars, avant-garde movements in Russia), so that there isn’t a sense of artificial firebreaks being created, but rather of a constant flow of styles and ideas. Very sensibly and perceptively, he also looks at architecture, applied arts and design, photography and motion pictures, which all came under the influence of the avowed theories and movements and which have to be considered as part of the overall modern movement.
Like I said, this is a big book. There are 400 large format pages and it’s a heavy beast, something you’re going to notice when you look at it, as you will, for extended periods. It’s also something you have to take for what it is, not what you think it could or should be. I don’t mean that negatively: even in 400 pages you can only scratch the surface of modern art, but it makes an excellent fist of that and it’s both an excellent introduction as well as a useful one-volume survey. At £40 if not cheap, but 20 years ago books like it would have sold for half that so, in relative terms, they’ve got cheaper. If there is a reservation, it’s that the reproduction seems a little flat. It originates with the Italian publishing house of Mondadori who are renowned for their colour work, so I don’t know what’s going on. It might be the paper which is perhaps a little too absorbent of the ink. Am I being picky? Probably, but it’s worth noting.