Archive for category Subject: Art History

Curious Creatures – Frans Post and Brazil

Between 1637 and 1644, the Dutch artist Frans Post travelled to Dutch territories in what is now part of Brazil to record the exotic flora and fauna found there. The paintings he made after his return to Europe became celebrated and were the first time many had seen creatures so far from their personal experience. These finished works are now in galleries around the world.

The original drawings on which the paintings were based were presumed to have been lost, but were recently discovered in an archive in Haarlem. It is these that form the basis for this exhibition, on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. For those unable to visit, the reproduction in this slim volume that accompanies it gives an excellent indication of the closeness and accuracy of Post’s observation as well as the opportunity to compare the drawings with the conventionality – in European terms – of the full paintings.

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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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Conflicting Views – pacifist artists || Gill Clarke

As we approach the anniversary of the end of the First World War, this is a timely publication. Fittingly, it is also not a sequence of proselytising anti-war images, but rather works by artists who were not recording heroic battles or glorious victories. Yes, Mark Gerlter’s Merry-Go-Round (1916) is here, as are George Micklewhite’s cartoon-like drawings of life as a conscientious objector, but there are also images from the home front and of life behind the lines.

There are two main sections, First World War and Second World War, each being treated separately. With a few exceptions, the artists featured in the second part were too young to feature in the first and, apart from attitudes, there are few comparisons to be made that are not immediately obvious to the viewer. It is interesting to note that some of those who refused WW1 changed their views in the 1930s in the face of Nazism. A short final chapter, Coda: a legacy of war and peace, sums up the theme of the book, but conflicts that fall outside the two main wars are outside its scope – to be fair, extending the brief would have made for a very large tome indeed.

The selection of artists is broad, as is the type of work illustrated. It is something of a shame that not every artist gets an illustration, but that could be seen as adding to the book’s completeness, rather than detracting from its appeal.

This is a useful and thought-provoking addition to the literature about war and art and is nicely put together and presented.

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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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Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours || P Syme

A band on the jacket helpfully advises that this is “the book Charles Darwin used to describe colours on his voyage on HMS Beagle”. So much, you might say, for that.

This is a facsimile (if you hadn’t guessed) of a book first published in 1814. It was invaluable then and, although mainly of historical interest now, contains information that can still be of use to the artist. This version took a previously existing colour naming system and adapted it for practical use by botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and artists.

Why, you might ask, was it necessary? Two hundred years ago, colour printing didn’t exist in any useful form. Those full-colour guides we’re so used to now are surprisingly recent. Only 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for painting books to be illustrated with only some dozen colour plates and those would be concentrated together, not run throughout the text. The quality of the colour reproduction in the present volume suggests that the swatches were hand-tinted, so this would have been a small edition, and by no means cheap.

But still, why place so much importance on how colours are described? Well, if you can’t reproduce it in print, you need a reliable way of writing about it so that the reader can mix it for themselves, and that requires a standard approach. Enter Mr Werner, ably assisted by Mr Syme.

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at Bluish Green. It “is composed of Berlin blue, and a little lemon yellow and greyish white”. The accompanying table tells us that it’s suitable for a thrush egg, the under disc of wild rose leaves or the mineral beryl. And that’s how you get the colours right, even if you haven’t got a reliable chart.

Yes, this is mainly of historical interest, but it’s a fascinating read and a reminder of how the world got on when everything really was black and white.

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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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