Archive for category Subject: Art History

Places of the Mind || ed Kim Sloan

Subtitled British watercolour landscapes 1850-1950, this accompanies a major (free) exhibition at the British Museum. The works included are from the Museum’s own collection and although they are not necessarily some of the artists’ major works, they are rarely seen and some are being reproduced for the first time.

In spite of this apparent limitation, the coverage is comprehensive and an extraordinarily wide range of artists is included, making this truly representative of the period covered. You’ll find Turner, Nash, Whistler, Rossetti, Russell Flint, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland alongside less well-known names who nevertheless complete the canon.

The arrangement of the book is thematic rather than chronological, which leads to some nice juxtapositions; a simple A-Z arrangement always feels more like filing than curating. These themes are accompanied by essays by the book’s six contributors and include The search for a sense of place, A new ‘golden age’? – the ‘modern’ landscape watercolour and Some versions of pastoral. I’ve listed them to show the eclectic approach and the variety of interpretation that the book brings, rather than just being a catalogue.

There are many reasons to like this. The first is the quality and authority of the text, but you can add the excellent reproduction, the fact that these are unfamiliar works, the sheer extent and, finally, the price: at £20, they’re practically giving it away!

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Dada – art & anti-art || Hans Richter

Dada is, you might argue, one of those things that should never have existed. No, don’t go away, I haven’t discovered a new streak of reactionary Philistinism. What I mean is that a movement (I think we can call it that) that rejects the idea of art – and, indeed, of movements – is inherently destructive of itself. That such things almost always gain traction has the sort of nightmare logic that is at the centre of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant (the anti-massacree movement).

This is, no less, the centenary edition of a book by one of Dada’s central figures, so it has plenty of claim to be authoritative. While an inside job cannot be said to be objective, Dada is one of those things whose story is best told by insiders because it not only defies definition, it avowedly does so. The centenary celebrated is that of Dada’s emergence at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1915, it should be said, not of the book’s original publication. That was 1965, fifty years on from the origination, and allowed plenty of time for the dust to settle and a perspective to set in.

Dada, as the layout of the book makes clear, had several centres, mostly in Europe but extending to New York. As a force, it lasted less than a decade, but that is often the way with art movements – they arrive, they shock, they mature (or maybe immature) and then morph into something else. In this case, it’s argued, that would be Surrealism and subsequently Pop Art. The genie of free expression was firmly out of the bottle by then, though, and non-representational art was practically mainstream. Yes, I am planning to visit the Tate’s Robert Rauschenberg retrospective.

Such a historical work inevitably becomes a piece of art in its own right and this re-publication includes an extensive introduction and commentary by the art historian Michael White that allows it to be appreciated by a whole new audience.

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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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Winifred Knights || Sacha Llewellyn

The second world war has a lot to answer for. As well as the obvious upheaval, it marks a turning point in so much of the life of the twentieth century and marks a lacuna that effectively delineates a “before” and an “after”. The urgent sense of a need to change and progress in its aftermath took the form of a sort of desperate optimism that drove the building of the Common Market (later to become the European Union), the development of the United Nations and the construction in Britain of the welfare state. It has taken over seventy years of peace for it to seem logical to start dismantling all that.

The counterpart to such forward vision was a refusal to look back and a rejection of what was past, out of date and, in terms of the build-up to war, destructive. A whole art movement had been developing in the early years of the twentieth century. Some of it was eschewing naturalism, but there was also much that celebrated everyday life and saw historical or mythical events in terms of what we might call “ordinary people”. Stanley Spencer’s Entry of Christ into Liverpool is one such, and Winifred Knights’ The Marriage at Cana is another. Both are mundane and mondaine and strip the scene of its mysticism. The Cana marriage guests are sitting down to melon and dressed in what are, while not suits and ties, certainly not overtly Biblical clothes.

The point of this rather roundabout introduction is to attempt an explanation of why Winifred Knights (1899–1947) is one of the great ignored talents of British art. Her short life didn’t help, but then Eric Ravilious didn’t suffer from longevity either. The fact that she was a woman may have contributed, but women were not completely invisible at the time. Maybe she just didn’t have anyone to champion her at the right time and everything just got put onto a high shelf.

Whatever the reason, this substantial volume sets the record straight. Comprehensive in its coverage and number of illustrations, it exhibits the sweep of Knights’ work. Along with complete paintings, there are several portraits of Knights by other artists – she was quite striking – as well as drawings, sketches and studies. Maybe it is the proliferation of these that are the clue to her obscurity and there isn’t quite the body of work to give her the momentum to have been studied before. Quantity doesn’t equate to quality, and of the latter, there is plenty.

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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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The St Ives Artists – a biography of place and time || Michael Bird

You might be forgiven for thinking that not a lot can have happened in the life of an well-established artistic colony in the eight years since the first edition of this account was published. As Michael Bird points out in his introduction, the town itself has changed, much has been written and interpretations have changed. There has also been a series of exhibitions, including at the Tate Gallery outpost. It isn’t the art that has changed so much as the view of it.

This is a narrative account of a colony that did not establish itself entirely by chance and was, for the most part, populated by incomers rather than growing out of local work. That centred more around the fishing industry and it is the demise of this, as much as anything else, that has contributed to the changes in the town itself.

The story begins with the arrival of Terry and Kathleen Frost in 1946 and recounts the difficulties of a journey by train in the aftermath of the second world war, which provides a setting for what is an enthralling story as much as an art history. Such detail helps to emphasise the fact that artists are people who lead quotidian lives as well as producers of great works and figures in an elevated history.

The paper on which this is printed is designed to take type rather than illustrations, but there are plenty of these latter and they are reproduced surprisingly well. They are also carefully chosen to represent both the variety of personalities and styles that characterise a vibrant community that contributed a great deal to the art of the latter part of the last century.

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