Archive for category Subject: Art and Design

Designing The V&A – the museum as a work of art 1857-1909 || Julius Bryant

I almost passed this by as architecture rather than art, but the idea continued to intrigue me, and I remembered many years ago reading an account of the building of the Houses of Parliament that was fascinating just as a historical document as well as the process of designing and building.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is more than just a collection: it’s an institution. Indeed, the collection itself is almost secondary and doesn’t have the same redolence as, say, the British Museum does. This is, frankly, odd, as it’s much more coherent that its august cousin, aiming to reflect the nature of the nation as well as the Victorian obsession with accumulation: they were magpies.

The building itself was always more than just a showcase or a cabinet of curiosities. The museum’s first director, Henry Cole, conceived it as something for leading artists to design and decorate and, long before Marshall McLuhan, the medium did indeed become part of the message. His express policy was to “assemble a splendid collection of objects representing the application of Fine Arts to manufacture” and he applied this as much to the fabric of the building, begun in 1857, as to the contents. It was the natural successor in art to the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Cole also had a hand. Many of the objects from that found their way into the V&A’s initial collection.

This book details the fabric and decoration of the South Kensington building, showing details that are difficult to see and drawings that are not often exhibited. It explains the philosophy, practice and pitfalls of the project and tells a comprehensive story.

It is rare that the building that houses a collection becomes part of the collection itself, but such is the case with the V&A and this is a fascinating account of a piece of Victorian art history.

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Art + Religion in the 21st Century || Aaron Rosen

OK, let’s be a bit provocative, shall we? If you don’t know much about art, there’s a good chance you know what you like. If you don’t know much about religion, there’s every chance you know what everyone else should like. No two topics have ever been so universally divisive, though I don’t think anyone ever said their five-year-old could have come up with a religious doctrine. Oh, hang on, I bet they have!

So, having offended as many people as possible, let’s look at what we have here. First off, I like the title. It’s not “art & religion”, it’s “art + religion”. I’m going to hazard a guess that that little difference isn’t a typographical mannerism but rather a deliberate indication that this is a book about where these two (I think we’ve already established) controversial topics collide. Fusion, rather than fission, of course, produces a whole new element.

The blurb tells me that this is a “timely and thought-provoking” book. You don’t say! It’s certainly not afraid to get you thinking, and to shock if necessary. Not all – in fact I’d probably go so far as to say few – of the images are religious in themselves and certainly not devotional. Marco Brambilla’s Creation, for instance, culled from film vignettes from The Sound of Music to Star Wars, gets in because it premiered in one of the oldest Roman Catholic cathedrals in New York and was accompanied by a live choir. It evoked (it says here) queries about what visionary experiences people expect to have in church today. Pardon me while I stick my head out of the window and shout “bum” as a critique of modern life in a traditional English village.

Inevitably, there’s an element of The Emperor’s New Clothes here and you can have fun choosing your own favourite exemplar. However, the book is indeed thought-provoking and I’ll venture to suggest that this is what religion should do. Jonathan Hobin’s A Boo Grave recreates the famous Abu Graib image, but using children. I’ve looked at it a few times and it’s still unsettling. Less so, but still thought-provoking, are the Tower of London poppies, which made a point about war, death and remembrance. The obligatory Banksy is, well, obligatory. I’m still trying to work out what Spencer Tunick’s Sydney 1 has to do with religion or spirituality – or his assertion that being nude “can be a very spiritual experience for [participants]”. Cold, uncomfortable, yes. On the other hand, shamans often use discomfort to provoke an out-of-body state, so what do I know?

OK, I know I find this an interesting, provocative and frequently disturbing book. What was intended, I think.

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Contemporary Drawing – key concepts and techniques || Margaret Davidson

There was a time, long ago, when Watson Guptill was the kid on the block when it came to art publishing. True, some of their books were almost aggressively, insularly American and really didn’t travel, but they still came up with such gems as Charles Reid’s Flower Painting in Watercolor, the first practical art book to be illustrated in full colour (which was not until 1979, amazing as that might seem). In later years, the quality seemed to fall off and there was a sense that they had lost their direction. More recently, there has been an indication of a climb back, with some solid offerings that got the job done, even if, perhaps, they didn’t have the old spark.

It’s with a real sense of delight, therefore, that I can report that they’ve finally regained their mojo. There are three of their books in this batch of reviews and I’ve been enthusiastic about all of them. OK, technically, I haven’t been enthusiastic about this one yet, but I’m about to say that it’s a tour de force.

This is a book about drawing. So much, so obvious, and so simple. Actually, it’s pretty much the book about drawing that I’ve been trying to get publishers interested in for several years, though with a rather specific author in mind. What I mean is that it’s neither a practical manual, nor a collection of pretty or interesting pictures positioning itself as a survey of current work. Its both of those things and yet it’s so much more as well. It’s a book about the philosophy of drawing as well as its practice, both in creative and technical terms. When I say it’s about drawing, I mean it’s all about drawing and it’s about all drawing as well. Literally opening it at random, I’ve come up with two sections that sort of show you what I mean: “The Self-Governed but Unforeseeable Mark” is what other books would refer to as a happy accident, but putting it the way Margaret has raises something simple to a much higher plane, yet without being pretentious. Then again, “A Brief History of Paper” is exactly the sort of digression a book like this should go in for and, as you might expect, it becomes not a digression at all, but an essential part of the main thesis.

I could go on, but I’m hoping you get the idea, because now I’ve got to talk about the illustrations. These are extraordinary. They’re beautiful, intriguing and often challenging and they’re magnificently reproduced. A lot of care has gone into this book and it’s apparent that the editors have fully understood the nature of what the author has presented them with. The pictures themselves come from a variety of contemporary (American) practitioners but are also interspersed with Margaret’s own work and diagrams when it comes to the practical sections.


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The Chronology of Pattern || Diana Newall & Christina Unwin

Subtitled, “Pattern in art from lotus flower to flower power”, this is essentially a work of reference for the designer. The blurb assures us that it’s “a must on the reference shelves for all those working in the visual arts” and “useful for all artists who use patterns in their works”, which, I can’t help thinking, both generalises and limits it at the same time.

But no matter, it is what it is and there’s no denying that it’s a sumptuous book that’s had a lot of care in its production and both looks and feels marvellous.

The form of the book is chronological and covers artefacts of all kinds, flat, solid, paper, cloth, wood and more. The collection isn’t exhaustive and doesn’t set out to be; the authors’ objective is to provide a representative history of the use of pattern across forms and cultures and they do it admirably. Inevitably, everyone is going to have their own idea of what’s been omitted, but this is to miss the point. It’s about what Diana and Christina are telling you and the detail of their selection is as important as the point they’re trying to make.

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Basic Design: The Dynamics Of Visual Form || Maurice de Sausmarez

This is a reprint of a quite technical classic which first appeared in 1964 and in this second revised edition in 2001.

By no means something for the casual practitioner, this is an in-depth study of how form can be both represented and manipulated in both two and three dimensions. The book is copiously illustrated with both drawings and diagrams and also semi-sculptural objects which show how forces, movement and dynamics are observed visually and can be captured and transformed into artistic representation. Although actual artworks are included, they do not form the majority of the illustrations and this is not a book which is, on the whole, led by its pictorial content.

The intended reader is, without a shadow of doubt, the serious art and design student and this is much more of an academic textbook than a practical manual. There is also no doubt that the intended reader will have it well-thumbed, probably before they even get it home from the shop. It’s one of those books that tells you everything you need to know about its subject and then flips round and tells you even more. As such, it’s a snip at £14.99 and it’s one of those books that only a few publishers are able to produce in these more commercially-aware times so, once again, this website takes its hat off to Black’s (Herbert Press is their imprint) for doing it.

First published 1964, first revised edition 1983, second revised edition 2001, reprinted 2006

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