As you might expect, this is a substantial volume but, thanks to a moderately compact format, it’s not an unmanageable one, albeit it’s really quite heavy. It should also be said that, in this instance, “compact” doesn’t mean “too small to be any practical use”. Regular readers may remember that this is one of my personal beefs.
First published in 2004, this is now the third edition of what has become the standard reference book on its subject. I’d love to know what has changed, although the standard response is usually “interpretation”.
Given the sheer wealth, as well as weight, of material, structure is important in a book like this and extensive cross-referencing allows the reader to chart their own path through what is best described as a maze: here are paintings, sculptures, posters, furniture and installations. The subtitle, “Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism” hardly does justice to all there is – I’m pretty sure the Twentieth Century ran to more than three movements and, to be fair, so are the authors.
When I find a page entitled “How to use this book”, I can feel my hackles rise. Isn’t that supposed to be obvious? Could I not just read it, I mean, for instance? But the truth is that this is a lot more than a book. In fact, think of it as a season ticket to all the world’s galleries, Google, and the far corners of the internet all rolled into one. The summary chapter heads, direct references to illustrations, pointers to related entries and suggestions for further reading, as well as break-out boxes that illuminate a particular topic, and handy date markers that remind you where you are, all go towards breaking what would otherwise be indigestible into manageable courses. Think of it as Service Française rather than Service à la Russe. A half dozen pages of basic chronology at the beginning add much, too.
This is an extraordinary book extraordinarily well managed. I do have a slight reservation over the illustrations – the amount of black & white surprised me, as did the vintage feel to some of them; as a result I was expecting the original publication date to be earlier than it is. You could argue though, and I think I will, that this isn’t primarily about the illustrations and that they’re there as pointers in the text, which is the most important part.
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