Archive for category Subject: Art Appreciation

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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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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Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art? || Kyung An & Jessica Kerasi

Please, sir. Me, sir. I am, sir. The trouble with modern art is the fear of saying the wrong thing, of being unable to recognise the juxtaposition of referenced elements within the contemporary zeitgeist. The last thing you want is someone with over-sized glasses rolling their eyes.

There is, though, a coming realisation that non-pictorial art does need to be explained, and Susie Hodge has previously made some valiant and remarkably successful efforts. This, written by two experienced curators is, at first sight, not welcoming and user-friendly. A tendency to diagrams, word clouds and rather small illustrations does not help the casual reader get into it.

This is a shame, as it’s a remarkably helpful book and there’s a stream of quite subtle humour running through it – the authors may be highly experienced in their field, but they really do want to help the uninitiated.

The best way into the book, I think, is to start with the contents list. This is arranged in a A-Z format and reveals topics such as How Did We Get Here (contemporary before contemporary), Geeks and Techies (when did it all get so technical) and Picasso Baby (why does everyone want in on art – Kanye West, a minimalist in a rapper’s body). You see what I mean about inclusion and humour? You want to know more now, don’t you. Add to this explanation of the Guerrilla Girls, the Emperor’s new Clothes (what makes it art?), Fun, and the language of contemporary art (that word cloud) and you begin to see that this is a very clever way into a complex subject that often does close itself out to a world outside the cognoscenti.

The sections are short, so you won’t get bogged down in lengthy explanations – if you want to know more, there are plenty more books – trust me, plenty!

Overall, this is a brave and largely successful attempt to explain something that threatens to be unexplainable.

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Art Since 1900 || Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H D Buchloh & David Joselit

As you might expect, this is a substantial volume but, thanks to a moderately compact format, it’s not an unmanageable one, albeit it’s really quite heavy. It should also be said that, in this instance, “compact” doesn’t mean “too small to be any practical use”. Regular readers may remember that this is one of my personal beefs.

First published in 2004, this is now the third edition of what has become the standard reference book on its subject. I’d love to know what has changed, although the standard response is usually “interpretation”.

Given the sheer wealth, as well as weight, of material, structure is important in a book like this and extensive cross-referencing allows the reader to chart their own path through what is best described as a maze: here are paintings, sculptures, posters, furniture and installations. The subtitle, “Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism” hardly does justice to all there is – I’m pretty sure the Twentieth Century ran to more than three movements and, to be fair, so are the authors.

When I find a page entitled “How to use this book”, I can feel my hackles rise. Isn’t that supposed to be obvious? Could I not just read it, I mean, for instance? But the truth is that this is a lot more than a book. In fact, think of it as a season ticket to all the world’s galleries, Google, and the far corners of the internet all rolled into one. The summary chapter heads, direct references to illustrations, pointers to related entries and suggestions for further reading, as well as break-out boxes that illuminate a particular topic, and handy date markers that remind you where you are, all go towards breaking what would otherwise be indigestible into manageable courses. Think of it as Service Française rather than Service à la Russe. A half dozen pages of basic chronology at the beginning add much, too.

This is an extraordinary book extraordinarily well managed. I do have a slight reservation over the illustrations – the amount of black & white surprised me, as did the vintage feel to some of them; as a result I was expecting the original publication date to be earlier than it is. You could argue though, and I think I will, that this isn’t primarily about the illustrations and that they’re there as pointers in the text, which is the most important part.

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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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