Archive for category Subject: Art History

St Ives- the art and the artists || Chris Stephens

Published in conjunction with the Tate, who very much have skin in this game, this thorough but eminently accessible volume presents an overview of the artists who have worked in St Ives.

The approach is broadly chronological, but is not so rigid that schools, groupings and movements cannot be accommodated. There is, inevitably, a lot of information and this is not something for those who would prefer a coffee table book concentrating on the works themselves, although it is comprehensively illustrated. At the same time, it is not so academic as to be of interest only to the dedicated historian of the period. This is a difficult balance to achieve, but something Chris Stephens has pulled off really rather admirably.

Although the main period of the St Ives school covered only some twenty-five years, the story continues into the 1960s and concludes with the opening of Tate St Ives in 1993. The names you’d expect to find are all here: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, but so too are less well-known names as well as sources of influence from Europe and elsewhere.

This is a story worth telling and, although much has been written about the art of St Ives, none of it has quite encompassed the arc of history that is contained here.

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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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Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism

This slim volume, which accompanies an exhibition at the RWA Bristol, manages to provide a comprehensive history of the Abstract Impressionist movement in Britain. This began with the 1959 Tate Exhibition, The New American Painting, which introduced the style to what I think one might call a surprised audience.

For young artists, the freshness of new ideas was intoxicating and the exhibition (and this book) includes works not just by Irvin, but many of his contemporaries, including Peter Lanyon, John Bratby and Gillian Ayres, who picked up the Transatlantic baton and ran with it.

As well as the superbly reproduced paintings, analytical studies look at the history of the movement and some of Irvin’s creative practices. There’s a great deal to get stuck into in the 88 pages that are here and the book covers more ground than many twice its extent.
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Students of Hospitalfield || Peggy Beardmore

Hospitalfield, in Arbroath, was essentially a finishing school for artists. Formerly an imposing private residence, it was gradually transformed into an art college following a bequest by the owners, Patrick and Elizabeth Allan, at the end of the Nineteenth Century. As its reputation grew, it became the place where Scottish art schools sent their most promising pupils for the summer.

If this is unfamiliar ground and the college’s story previously untold, the lacuna is more than adequately filled here. This comprehensive study follows the history of the building as well as the art school and its influence on Scottish art in the Twentieth Century. Alongside the historical narrative are studies of many of the artists whose careers were touched by Hospitalfield and there are also plenty of generously-sized illustrations that add the all-important visual element that a book like this demands.

The blurb describes this as “an essential reference for scholars, artists and curators”, hinting at the perhaps rather academic approach. For all that, it is a tale worth reading as well as telling and is by no means inaccessible for the non-specialist.

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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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