Archive for category Subject: Art Appreciation

Surrealism || Amy Dempsey

Say “Surrealism” to most people and they’ll immediately think of Salvador Dali. This is a shame, even if it’s inevitable, as Dali is a controversial figure who some argue was more about self-promotion than being a member of any group or movement. On the other hand, he also made a great deal of money, and this can make other artists mad as hell. And, before you say that a book on Surrealism can’t exclude Dali, there is plenty here. Pay your money, take your choice.

This is part of a series called Art Essentials and Surrealism is certainly that, being a major movement of the Twentieth Century when art was moving away from representation and finding its feet in a changing world. As well as Dali, you’ll find other well-known names such as Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Frida Kahlo and many more who won’t be so familiar but are part of the supporting canon.

This is mainly a primer, as the series title suggests, but it is also very thorough, particularly so for what is a relatively slim volume. The Surrealist movement is put in its historical context and its predecessors are covered as well – the index even has an entry for Lewis Carroll. It’s worth noting that there are two indices so, if the main (single page) one doesn’t have the artist you want, turn back for the one covering major figures.

This is an excellent introduction to its subject that you may well feel gives you sufficient information without the need to extend your library further.

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Sensations || Jonathan Jones

This somewhat left-field thesis takes the Enlightenment as its starting point and finds a link between scientific curiosity and the development of art. Jones makes a convincing case, beginning with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia – a work that is extraordinary not just because of its scientific novelty, but also the craft of its illustrations. From here, Newton and Locke come into the picture as scientific exploration inspired a passion for closer examination of the natural world.

It’s reasonable to ask whether this is a concoction, of making facts fit answers. Did the Gentlemen’s Societies where ideas were exchanged encompass both worlds as completely as Jones’s narrative requires? Well, you can’t argue with George Stubbs or Joseph Wright of Derby, whose work arguably continued a thread that Hooke had begun.

The sensations of the title mainly derive from the Sensationalist philosophy of Joseph Locke, which centred on experience (sense) as the key to understanding, and might be said to be the foundation of what is now called the Scientific Method. However, Jones also wants to create a sensation himself. The chapter on George Stubbs is called The Butcher of Horkstow and opens, “ He began by slitting their throats”. That got your attention, didn’t it?

In less careful hands, this style would become the message itself and obscure the narrative behind it. Jones has a surer hand, however, and has managed to create a history of British art that reads more like a thriller than a dry academic tome. It won’t please everyone, but it’s an enjoyable journey that’s also thoroughly inclusive.

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Painting Masterclass || Susie Hodge

At first sight, this has the appearance of another of Susie Hodge’s excellent analyses of the painting methods of historical masters. The format and binding are even the same as her Art in Detail series.

This is not entirely surprising, as that’s exactly what it is. However, the book is more specifically geared to the practical reader and uses what we’ll call great works to analyse a wide variety of topics. Call it learning by example, the descriptive rather than the prescriptive method.

The word Masterclass is bandied about rather indiscriminately in the book world and is frequently applied to anything the publisher thinks isn’t obviously introductory or for the beginner. Sometimes, my inner cynic mutters that they just want a title that appeals to the more experienced artist, who perhaps hasn’t been buying enough of their books lately. Well hush my mouth – a bit.

Here, though the word is entirely justified (and you might want to add that, if anyone isn’t going to misuse it, that person would be Susie Hodge). This is most precisely a masterclass. The teachers are masters and the class is absolutely for the experienced worker. There are no instructions – you won’t be following any exercises or demonstrations here. What you will be doing is learning how Georges Seurat used form and colour, how shapes work in Manet’s Déjuner sur l’Herbe (actually, Anglicised titles are used throughout) or light breathes atmosphere into a Fantin-Latour still life.

Susie is, as ever, concise and cogent in her analyses and the book works almost as well as an introduction to art appreciation, meaning you could say you’re getting twice the value which, given the quality and quantity of the illustrations, would make it an absolute steal.

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Look Again – how to experience the old masters || Ossian Ward

There’s no shortage of books on art history and appreciation or of assessments, frequently offering new insights, of Old Master paintings. The sheer weight and distribution of source material ensures a steady process of well-qualified authors. Ossian Ward is Head of Content at the Lisson Gallery and was previously chief art critic at London’s Time Out magazine.

There is much in favour of this new volume. For a start, it’s compact. If you’re trying to get to grips with art appreciation, the last thing you want is to be overwhelmed by material, and this is very much a primer. While relatively elementary, what it is not is superficial. There are plenty of well-reproduced illustrations that are, within the confines of a book that would fit in a jacket pocket, generously sized. Its binding also allows it to fall open easily, meaning that the reader is not forced to peer into the spine to inspect a detail the text has fixed on. These things matter.

The text is written as a narrative and the “again” of the title refers to the viewer taking an extended look at the artwork, rather than the book being a radical departure from received wisdom. This doesn’t mean that it is a re-hash of all that has gone before, but rather a distillation for a particular audience – one that will value the concise over the exhaustive. The chapter headings are “Art as…” and topics include honesty, drama, horror and folly. These are eye-catching as much as anything else, but allow an examination of many different works from many different viewpoints. The method is not to dissect individual paintings, but rather to demonstrate a variety of ways of approaching art as a whole and to show the newcomer what to look for in terms of composition, symbols and the overall treatment of the subject.

Add all this to an enjoyable read – even a bit of a page-turner – and you have a solid winner.

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In 50 Works – Van Gogh/Matisse || John Cauman

There’s no shortage of books on the Old Masters, from scholarly interpretations to coffee-table collections of works.

Think of these, therefore, as manageable and affordable primers that contain enough biographical and analytical information to satisfy without overwhelming and which ultimately stand or fall on the curatorial ability of the author – to put it simply, how good is he at making a truly representative selection of the artist’s work?

There’s no definite answer to that question, as long as styles and chronology are respected (it’s worth noting that the illustrations appear in date order and, indeed, are dated). Your own favourites may be omitted, potentially leaving you shouting at the page. On the other hand, sometimes someone else’s view can lend perspective to your own – or maybe you just want the heavy lifting done for you.

However, it does work and, while not quite at pocket-money prices, these are genuinely good value and sit nicely in what is – let’s not be shy about this – a crowded market.

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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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