Archive for category Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Seven Keys to Modern Art || Simon Morley

This broadly academic look at art from Matisse to Louise Bourgeois is also a commendable attempt to bring serious art criticism to, if not the masses, then at least the more general reader.

The Keys of the title bear enumeration: Historical, Biographical, Aesthetic, Experiential, Theoretical, Skeptical and Market. The idea is to present a common, formulated approach that evaluates all works equally. The thesis is further simplified by focussing on only twenty works which must, necessarily, stand as representatives of their genres. It becomes apparent that this isn’t, in fact, a work of art history, criticism or evaluation, but rather about a way of seeing and understanding. You’re not here to learn about specific works or artists, but rather how to function when presented with something new. This all rather implies an unemotional, maybe even entirely cerebral way of appreciating art and I’m not entirely convinced any artist would welcome it, even if it did get you a distinction in your PhD thesis.

It’s an interesting idea though, and Simon Morley carries the whole off with gusto and aplomb. I would have liked the illustrations to be more prominent, perhaps. They’re not only quite hard to find, but also quite difficult to see in the relatively small page format. I leave with the feeling that this is more about the writing than what the writing’s about, and that’s a shame.

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A New Way of Seeing || Kelly Grovier

The subtitle, The History of Art in 57 Works, indicates just what a fascinating idea this is. It is also, of course, a fiendishly difficult trick to pull off – one false step in the choice of pieces, or one allusion misplaced and the whole structure is in danger. You will probably have your own ideas of what should have been included or left out, but there’s a sure-footedness to the curation that makes the thesis hard to argue with.

Grovier is a perceptive critic and analyst and doesn’t just use obvious choices as a convenient hanger for the conventional story. This is not just a list of works with standard links from one school to another. Rather, he picks often familiar pieces apart, looking for small details that enhance their meaning and significance. This does not, as it so easily could, result in a clever reading that showcases the author’s learning, but rather adds, as intended, to the reader’s understanding and appreciation. At the same time, it reminds us to look with a fresh and enquiring eye and not always to accept the received view. That’s quite an achievement.

As well as looking at detail, Grovier compares the main work to others in the same genre, but rarely from the same period or even the same medium. Figurative works can lead to photographs: Rodin’s The Thinker includes a look at an André Gill caricature of Charles Darwin as a monkey. Matisse’s The Dance considers not just other work by Matisse, but also William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. It all makes perfect sense and adds a context that goes far beyond that which is immediate.

This is, indeed, a very handy and beautifully illustrated overview of art history, but it’s also about looking and seeing. The choice of works is catholic and designed to work with the thrust of the thesis, but overall, it’s a case well made.

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Art: the whole story || ed Stephen Farthing

It’s a bold title and an even bolder undertaking. Telling the story of art from cave painting to Post-Modernism is always going to be a difficult task and there are bound to be drawbacks and trade-offs. I’m not going to make list of what I think has been omitted but, if this is a game you want to play, knock yourself out. Doing that, though, is to miss the point. This isn’t the art history book to end all art history books, the last one you buy after a lifetime of study. Rather, it’s a handy introduction for those with a less than total, or maybe a passing, interest in the subject. It’s a single volume that won’t break the coffee table or occupy a whole shelf of your library. It provides both a straightforward chronological overview of the development of techniques, movements and styles. If you want to know more, there are plenty of sources of further study.

The trade-off that I hinted at previously is that each section is necessarily concise, but that may also be what you want from a book of this type. The number of illustrations is impressive and there are also useful detail analyses of the major works shown. This, of course, leads to rather small sizes and this can be frustrating. Again, however, it’s part of the nature of the beast and, in the end, worth accepting as part of the broad scope offered in a book that’s ultimately very manageable, both physically and intellectually. At a whisker under £20, it’s also stonkingly good value.

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Josef Albers: life & work || Charles Darwent

Josef Albers was one of the members of the Bauhaus, that institution that did much to revitalise creative life in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Less well-known than names such as Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky, he was, however, responsible for much of the spirit and direction of the school.

Albers’ fame is mainly built on his work in America, where he relocated after the dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933. It was there, now in his 60’s, that he worked on Homages to the Square, a series of 2000 images that explore the interaction of colours. If this reminds you of Robert Rauschenberg’s Black and White paintings, the influence is palpable. Much of Albers’ archive is devoted to correspondence with John Cage (whose 4’33” was itself influenced by Rauschenberg’s white canvases), Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. That list itself shows the breadth of Albers’ interests and influence, representing as it does music, art and architecture.

This is an extensive and very complete biography of a figure who, although not now widely known, was one of the Twentieth Century’s great creative theorists. The roll-call of those he taught and who felt his influence is testament enough to his importance and this, coinciding with the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, is a timely reminder of his genius.

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Books do Furnish a Painting || Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Once you start looking, books are all over paintings. Particularly in portraits, they can be used to provide the sitter with something to do with their hands, suggest serious study or devotion. They can even suggest leisure – nothing says indolence quite like a discarded volume. The more you think about it, the more intriguing the thesis becomes, which I suspect is how this rather delightful book came about.

In the wrong hands, this could easily have become just another tenuous excuse to draw together a collection of paintings from Albrecht Dürer to Stanley Spencer and claim connections that were never there, either on canvas or in the artist’s mind. Books, however, are different and provide not so much a point of focus for the painting as for the subject – the works here are almost exclusively figurative and the important element is the interaction of the sitter with the tome.

The blurb tells me that the first question asked is “what is a book?” I’m relieved to report that this is not a chapter heading and, although there is a brief history of printing, the esoteric debate over whether manuscripts (never mind scrolls) carry more weight than printing is not one that will detain us. I checked that there is no index entry for “incunabula”, a sure sign that any author (unless they’re discussing early printed works, of course) is taking themselves too seriously.

What we do get, though, is ten pages devoted to “who invented the artist?”, a question I’d never really considered before. I visited the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum, so I’m tempted to say that they probably invented themselves. However, the idea of The Artist as cultural icon might be attributed to Vasari, and artists do certainly tend to put themselves forward a lot more than authors. Maybe I’m just cynical (and a writer…)

I’m being unfair. This is well done, scholarly in a way that’s not overwhelming and a lot of fun. The authors are a former Editorial and Managing Director of Thames & Hudson (why, yes, they have published this) and an art historian who has worked at the National Gallery (and is now a senior picture researcher at – you guessed it – Thames & Hudson).

Would this have seen the light of day without those connections? I rather doubt it. The proposal would have been a hard sell, but it was worthwhile. The result is not, as it could so easily have been, a vanity project the publisher simply couldn’t turn down, but a scenic wander through what turns out to be rather more than a byway of art history.

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The Lives Of The Surrealists || Desmond Morris

Well, I thought, this’ll be interesting. Who better to have an anthropological study of than the Surrealists? But, yes, it is that Desmond Morris, he of The Naked Ape.

The success of that book, his extensive television career and the fact that, at the age of 90, he is less prominent in public view, has drawn something of a veil over his life as a Surrealist painter himself. The last survivor of the original movement, this is the inside story of Magritte, Miró and May Ray as well as names not always associated: Picasso, Moore or Bacon.

The book itself does pretty much what it says. It is a collection of biographies, all of them relatively short and, as Morris says in his foreword, focussing on lives rather than work. Valuable as it is, this is something of a shame, as a view of interactions, philosophies and working methods would have been welcome from the insider point of view. Yes, this ground has been trodden so heavily that it’s practically tarmacked, but Morris has what is now a unique perspective, both from where he was (a Surrealist) and where he is now (a viewer from the historical perspective) and an account of that must surely have had considerable value.

Nevertheless, this is what it is and it’s very good at that. Concise, factual, witty and entertaining, it’s a thumping good read and still presents a viewpoint you won’t get anywhere else.

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Modernists & Mavericks || Martin Gayford

This remarkably thorough and authoritative account of the development of painting in London from the Second World War to the 1970s draws on extensive interviews Martin Gayford conducted with its participants and personalities. Gayford, art critic of The Spectator, offers what is effectively an insider view of an important period in, and strand of, contemporary art. Although it was not a movement as such, it was inevitable that any group, however diverse, that was working in reasonably close proximity would develop friendships and rivalries and share experiences and ideas both deliberately and unconsciously.

Just about everyone who was a part of the scene gets a mention somewhere here and luminaries include Hockney, Freud, Bacon, Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres, Peter Black, Allen Green and Howard Hodgkin. The book, however, is very much more than a simple trawl through the notes and a tour of the exhibits. Gayford, an insightful viewer and incisive commentator, demonstrates how the group (as we might just get away with calling them) were influenced by teachers such as David Bomberg and William Coldstream and also drew on American Abstract Expressionism and more traditional Western art.

Comprehensively illustrated, this should be set fair to be the definitive history as well as an appreciation of its period. The published version will have an index, the lack of which I felt dearly in my proof copy, indicating how essential it will be.

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