Understanding Modern Art (…Isms) || Sam Phillips

It would be terribly tempting to start this review with an “at last!”. Modern art has always had a reputation for being obscure and inscrutable. And I mean always. The first Impressionist exhibition was accused of “throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face” and caused riots. Hard to imagine that happening now; no-one suggested the disturbances of 2011 were a reaction to Damien Hirst’s spin paintings, although . . .

In fact, this is a book that doesn’t really set out to do what it says on the cover and it’s part of a series that Black’s are developing to cover more philosophical aspects – they’ve also done them on architecture and religion and the format is more of a short guide than an in-depth analysis. So, is it superficial? Well, not really. Rather, a series of schools, and they rather conveniently label themselves – Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism as well as Bauhaus, Pop Art and Street Art – are presented in more or less chronological order. Each one gets a single spread: just two not very large pages, but enough to summarise when it flourished, who were the main exponents and the basics of its philosophy.

If you wanted to study any one of these schools on its own, this isn’t the place to do it, but that’s not the purpose of the book. Instead, what you get is a readable account of how art has developed from Impressionism onwards, an annotated timeline if you will, and that works rather well. An art historian would undoubtedly huff and puff at the lack of detail, but the interested observer, among whom I count myself, is likely to welcome the opportunity to take an overview and to follow the narrative without getting bogged down on it. If you want more detail, there are plenty of other books, but this one is handleable, manageable, affordable and also benefits from Black’s commitment to quality reproduction.

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