Archive for category Subject: Art Appreciation

The Pursuit of Art || Martin Gayford

There’s a delicious archness to the title of this entertaining book that isn’t apparent from merely knowing what it is – in fact, it could be self-defeating, as it suggests a rather worthy tome dedicated to the labour of Being An Artist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, of course this is about the creative mind and its processes and, yes, you’d want to read it on that basis because … well … Martin Gayford. It is also, however, the story of his travels in search of art and artists. These, it turns out (should we be surprised?) do not simply involved rocking up at the studio door and being welcomed with open arms. Not all artists live conveniently close to a bus stop, train station or car park and some pieces, such as Brancusi’s Endless Column necessitate a hair-raising journey through a mountain pass and on roads that have partly washed away. The job of the critic doesn’t just involve sitting behind a typewriter and trashing reputations (that’s the reviewer’s job – ed).

So, this is a personal account of tracking down artist and artworks, of planned meetings and chance encounters. Sometimes, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain to seek out a shaman in search of wisdom and then discovering that there was no great revelation and that the effort itself was the enlightenment.

Writing about art is a serious business and can all too easily disappear up its own fundament. This, then, is a breath of fresh air and an indication that even the greatest writers don’t always take themselves entirely seriously. It would be so simple, writing about difficult journeys, to chronicle every twist, turn and impediment, but Gayford is too smart and too good a writer for that. The sense of distance and effort is there, but the passage of time is often only hinted at – a passing reference to a meal, for instance, can indicate that we are several hours on. As Gayford himself concludes, “The pursuit of art is a journey that never stops; the more you see, the more you want to see”.

After I’d sampled this for the purposes of a review, I kept going back to it and it eventually made it to my bedside table. It really is a thumping good read.

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Landscape Painting Now – from pop abstraction to new romanticism

Having relatively little in the way of critical or appreciative analysis, this is mainly a showcase of contemporary work. It is none the worse for that and, lacking an academic tone, is free to concentrate and, more importantly, allow the reader to concentrate on the art itself.

To establish some sort of order, there are general chapter headings – Realism & Beyond, Post-Pop Landscapes, New Romanticism, Constructed Realities, Abstracted Topographies and Complicated Vistas. These are, it should be said, largely curatorial constructs, but they provide a nice framework within which to order a wide variety of material. Within each section, works are arranged by artist and with a short introduction to each – handy especially for those who are less familiar.

The whole thing is substantial, both in extent and format, and conveys a sense of completeness that won’t leave you questioning whether more, or different, works should have been included. The market isn’t immediately obvious, although I suspect that anyone interested in contemporary art would be able to find a convincing reason for wanting it, and parting which what seems a relatively modest forty quid.

If nothing else, it proves that landscape painting is alive and well in the Twenty-First century.

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Hockney/Van Gogh – the joy of nature

Everybody wants a Hockney, don’t they? This book accompanies an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and is, it should be said, an excellent alternative for those who can’t make it to the show itself. The number and quality of the illustrations, mostly Hockneys, is substantial and the reproduction well up to the standard you would expect from such an august institution. There is also a useful introductory essay that sets the two artists’ visions in context.

Given all the above, and especially the predomination of work by Hockney, the question has to be asked: would you want it? There are plenty of excellent Hockney collections about, so does the addition of a few Van Goghs (he also being hardly thin on the publication ground) and a rationalisation of putting together two artists who, arguably, share little beyond a fascination with nature, bring anything to the party?

I’m not honestly sure I’d want to part with just shy of twenty-five quid unless it was as a souvenir of a visit, which rather flies in the face of what I said earlier about in being a good substitute for such. For all that, it’s well presented and nicely done and, you might think, worth it for that alone.

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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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