Archive for category Author: Susie Hodge

Modern Art in Detail || Susie Hodge

Modern art can be a hard sell to the non-specialist and requires a considerable degree of explanation and, often, a whole new vocabulary. This can lead to a sense of exclusion and a suspicion that experts (oh, don’t we hate them?) are making it up as they go along. The fact that some of them almost certainly are has nothing to do with it.

Susie is an erudite and experienced writer about art, but she wears her learning lightly. You might be forgiven, in fact, for thinking that she is a casual observer rather than one of the aforesaid experts. If there is a thing to “get”, though, she gets it and part of it is that other casual observers need simple explanations and their concerns addressed. Her previous forays into this minefield include Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That and Why is Art Full of Naked People? (the latter written for children). She has also written a number of studies of individual artists that, wisely, concentrate on the image rather than schools and places in history – although these are not ignored where they matter.

All art was, of course, modern in its day and this easily-forgotten fact slaps you in the face on the first page when you’re confronted with Van Gogh’s Church in Auvers-sur-Oise. This is wisely chosen as it combines a familiar image with a recognisable subject along with the artist’s characteristic trademarks. It is not, however, one of the more problematic paintings from his later manic phase. As well as the exploded details that give the book its title, there is a very useful sidebar of a much earlier work by Van Gogh that shows him following a more traditional path before developing his own style.

The analytical sections of the book explain each artist’s working methods: pictorial elements, perspective, colour and structure. The book is illustration-led throughout and the words are barely more than extended captions so that there is nothing to get bogged down in. The whole idea is that you should be able to appreciate a wide variety of work (although the total number is 75, they have been carefully chosen to be representative of the whole gamut of styles and movements). In short, this is about art, not academia, and it’s all the better for that.

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Art in Detail || Susie Hodge

Do you want to learn how to understand and appreciate art? To know what you’re looking at and what you should be looking for? If you’re reading this, the chances are that you do, but do you have the time or the resources to buy libraries of books or sign up for a full-blown course? If not, then this book, which is an absolute steal at twenty-five quid, is not merely the next best thing, but the next best thing by a very good margin.

Susie Hodge always gives you a lot more than she promises. This presents itself as what it is – 100 paintings concisely analysed through enlarged details that’ll explain imagery, symbolism and technique. Divide that into the 400-odd pages that are here and you’ll see that each painting gets just four pages. Not enough, I hear you cry. But it is, because this is an introduction, not a textbook. Susie won’t weigh you down with more information than you can absorb, or blind you with science – and science has an increasing role to play in understanding how paintings are constructed, worked on, changed.

If you want to know more – and there’s a lot more to know – about the Arnolfini Portrait, there are libraries full of books about it, about Van Eyck and the Flemish School, not to mention the fifteenth century as a whole. It’s the same with Breughel’s enigmatic figures and, of course, when you get to the twentieth century, there’s a whole new language to learn.

You see? Already, this isn’t just a primer in art appreciation, it’s a potted history of some 800 years in 100 carefully and wisely selected paintings. You don’t narrow a subject as big as this down to something manageable without a very deep understanding of it. Shaking a box of slides and seeing what falls out won’t cut it. And, while we’re on the subject of illustrations, Thames & Hudson have done us proud here. The quality is pitch-perfect – in both the full size reproductions and the details (which is arguably where it matters most). If you just wanted a collection of a hundred of the most important, significant or typical works from the aforesaid 800 years of art history, this book will do just nicely.

Add in, however, a simple critique and this cake is superbly iced. Susie’s previous book, Why Is Art Full of Naked People, was aimed at children. This one is its grown-up cousin you can give them when they’re older – assuming you haven’t kept it for yourself, that is.

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Why is Art Full of Naked People? || Susie Hodge

This is, in many ways, the young person’s companion to Susie’s earlier Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That. I say “many ways”, because, if you’re honest, it addresses a lot of the questions you hope someone else will ask. Only a child has the licence to comment on the emperor’s new clothes; as adults, we’re supposed to know.

Susie is an excellent explainer and can write at length when the context demands or allows it. She’s also, however, capable – and not afraid – of being direct and succinct, and nothing here takes more than a couple of pages, and often less. As well as the question in the title, topics addressed include abstraction (What is it exactly?), Cubism (Is it upside down?) and the existential: Do you have to be clever to look at art?

The text is simple and to the point and designed to be unintimidating. The effect of this, though, is rather reduced by a ragbag of fonts and point sizes, as well as random words in bold that make reading difficult almost to the point of impossibility. It looks more like an amateur let loose in a Letraset shop than a piece of professional work (sorry). There was a vogue for this in advertising a few years ago and it was quickly dropped for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, I’d urge you to persist, because this is actually one of the best primers in art appreciation you’re ever likely to find.

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Gustav Klimt (Masterpieces of Art) || Susie Hodge

If you follow Susie Hodge on Twitter (@susiehodge), you’ll know that she’s mastered the art of the pithy fact-pill. The same skill is evident in this rather beautiful and keenly-priced book, with nice large illustrations and two or three line captions that tell you all you need to know about each image without going into over-much detail and analysis. If you wanted an in-depth discussion of the content and relevance of every one of Klimt’s works, this wouldn’t be for you. However, if you prefer to reach your own conclusions and then go on to further research if you feel it’s needed, then this is perfect.

It’s easy to grab a handful of illustrations of an artist’s work, put some kind of simple structure round them and make a book of it. Publishers have been doing it for decades (indeed, arguably, since the invention of the half-tone block). The difficult bit is to add the right amount of critical apparatus, to group and order the illustrations and thus come up with something more than a quick fix job. Susie Hodge is nothing if not prolific, but with this comes a great deal of experience and she’s now the person to turn to if what you want is a quick guide.

There’s a thorough but not over-written introduction that tell you who Klimt was, when and where he worked and how he fits into the general pattern of history. The rest of the book is devoted to a catholic selection of works, grouped both to show his development as an artist as well as by subject matter. The big, iconic stuff is here, but so too are the smaller and lesser-known works, as well as a very generous collection of the landscapes, which will be a true revelation.

If you want a Klimt primer that’s more than just a random collection, you really can’t do better than this.

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How to Draw People in simple steps || Susie Hodge

I always said I wasn’t going to review this series because it has no words, so you’re really left with not a lot to talk about. However, I caved in when it got to Insects because, if a series gets that esoteric, it pretty much has to be popular. I mean, not only was it the only book on that subject (exclusively) I’ve seen, but it’s not exactly first-choice, is it?

So here we have people. They must have done that one before, surely? Or was is a morning-after editorial meeting? “ No, we’ve got to do the insects first.” “Have you been watching Dr Who again?” “Yes, MALCOLM TUCKER!!!”* (Sorry, but I really am excited about this).

For those of you who don’t know, the stock-in-trade of this series is a single page which starts off with the simplest outlines, then builds up a basic shape and works it, in six steps, into a finished drawing. For a subject as complex as the human figure, that does mean there’s an awful lot left out and some pretty giant leaps of the imagination, but it does work surprisingly well. If your main problem is getting started, then this is definitely the book for you and Susie does a fantastic job of choosing exactly which stages to illustrate so that you do get a genuine feeling of progression rather than giant steps.

The only fly in the ointment is that I wish each demonstration had stopped at the fifth stage, the finished drawing, because these are in every case beautiful and sensitive works in pencil that need no further embellishment. The series, however, demands a colour finale and this is done by adding (what I think is) a completely unnecessary wash that covers the pencil lines and makes the whole thing, in almost all cases, look heavy and clumsy. I don’t think it’s a problem with Susie’s work with a wash, I just think it doesn’t work with what’s gone before.

A couple of examples. There’s a woman sitting knitting. Perfectly fine in the drawing, but the colour wash leaves a chair she’ll fall off if she moves and which doesn’t look strong enough to support its own weight, let alone hers. And the man with the stick. I’m sorry, but that thing is two inches in diameter, it’s nearly as thick as his arm!

This is a quibble, but I do think it’s best to ignore stage six and just stop at five. Treat this as what it claims to be, a book about drawing and put your paint box away. You get a fantastic variety of figures and poses, both static and in motion and a stripped-down approach that simply dissolves so much of the mystique that always surrounds figure drawing.

* Peter Capaldi, Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It, was announced as the new Dr Who yesterday.

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Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That || Susie Hodge

I was given this for Christmas and my initial impression was that it felt similar to the Isms volume on Understanding Modern Art that I reviewed a while back. To be fair, it’s not really possible to get into a book against a background of Prosecco, rustling paper, squeals and general chat. You might think that saying, “Shush, I’m reading” is high praise for a gift but, trust me, it gets you dirty looks.

Back home, it immediately became apparent that the similarity is purely superficial. Similar titles, formats and layouts (most things dealt with in a single spread), but that’s as far as it goes.

This is a bold book. It starts with the cover, which intrigues only if you’re intrigued by that kind of thing. The piece by Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ is a slashed cloth and, while it embodies the contents of the book, it doesn’t scream “look inside me”. Given the nature of the book, it’s hard to see what would, to be honest. The next piece of boldness is to attempt, even to think of, explaining the perhaps unexplainable in a couple of pages. Whole books get written on this kind of thing, usually by people who wear large red glasses and use the word “juxtaposition” a lot.

So, what about Fontana the slasher? This is what he had to say for himself, “Matter, colour and sound in motion are the phenomena whose simultaneous development makes up the new art”. (I bet it sounds better in Italian – most things do, but try closing your eyes to slits: it makes perfect sense.). In short, graphically-delineated paragraphs (now I’m doing it, think panels and coloured headings!) Susie explains how Fontana developed his technique, how the cuts are both planned and decisive (think brushstrokes) and how he used materials that would be more than two-dimensional, a black backing often emphasising depth. I’m not saying I’m a convert, just that I understand that Fontana was not a charlatan and that these are not the emperor’s new clothes.

Let’s look, too, at something more familiar, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (the urinal). “No novice could have judged the right moment to intervene or chosen the best means to scandalise the public”, says Susie, placing the context perfectly. Duchamp was, of course, making a point in this and other pieces both about aesthetics and about the commoditisation of art; the piece is meant to be taken both seriously and not seriously at the same time, surely the best joke anyone ever played on the critics.

If you want to understand modern art but have trouble not giggling, then this is the book for you. Susie is serious without being precious and the format she has chosen takes full account of the attention span the general reader has for this kind of thing.

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