Archive for category Subject: Art History

Vincent’s Books || Mariella Guzzoni

Heer Van Gogh didn’t just paint and write letters, he read widely as well, you know. “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books”.

The primary source for this new approach to the artist is Vincent’s letters, his own eloquent commentary on his personal life and creative processes. Sometimes, you wonder whether he wasn’t maybe just a little too self-analytical. Those to his brother alone mention some 200 authors and he devoured fiction as well as monographs, biographies and museum guides. You might wonder how he found time to paint!

Do we need yet another angle on the life of someone we should really approach through their own output? Van Gogh was, after all, a painter, not a literary critic. Yes, his letters certainly can inform our view of his paintings and, it could be argued, his interpretation of what he read fed into his own work. However, an account of his reading does appear to be maybe just a little of one for the completists.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. An artist’s influences are certainly important and having Van Gogh’s own accounts of what he saw and how he reacted to it, especially when he writes as eloquently as he does, is undoubtedly valuable, maybe even fascinating.

One problem I encountered was the three-digit numbers that appear in square brackets in the text. Much digging in the supplementary material suggests that these are a reference to the archive of Vincent’s letters, but this is not explicitly stated. A note at the beginning would have been helpful.

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Vincent Van Gogh: a life in letters || Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen & Hans Luitjen

You can’t have too much Van Gogh, can you? Can you? Let’s leave that there and acknowledge that, for a man as complex as Vincent, his own words add considerably to our understanding of his work. As well as simply talking about his life, he was eloquent on the creative process itself. Artists, who mainly think visually, do not often write well – frequently either too much or too little, but our man was a deep thinker and a good analyst. Perhaps that was his trouble.

Even at over 400 pages, this is only a selection, but the editors (who are the team behind the full 6 volume edition of the letters for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) have been careful to make it representative. They also include manuscript reproductions as well as sketches and paintings that make this relevant to any study of Van Gogh’s art which is, after all, what we should be most interested in. The result is immediately accessible for anyone with maybe only a passing interest – specialists will probably have sought out the full canon anyway.

Sensibly, the arrangement is chronological, but also related to location, so that a connection with the artist’s often complex living arrangements is possible. Any temptation to try to introduce themes is sensibly avoided. Each section is introduced with a summary of that stage of Van Gogh’s life, his relationships and where he was in his artistic development. Once again, the more general reader is catered for and no detailed background knowledge is assumed.

The result is an effective and readable autobiography raisonné which is just learned enough to be authoritative without being indigestible for the audience it’s aimed at.

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London’s New Scene – art and culture in the 1960s || Lisa Tickner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sixties was a decade that was achingly hip and one of the most innovative in the history of popular culture. You could also make the case that its “anything goes” morality extended into the arts and that, just because something is new, it doesn’t have to be good.

All this is true, as is the fact that somewhere, as Philip Larkin assured us, something happened between the end of the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP. It’s not entirely an exaggeration to say that the monochrome world of Post War austerity exploded into colour or that the Teenager was invented, albeit the groundwork was visible some years previously.

If you wanted an image that sums up the spirit of the time, the opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up would be it. The scene is London and through largely deserted streets comes a motley crew of Harlequinesque characters who wouldn’t look out of place in that other seminal piece, the TV series The Prisoner. As a coup de théȃtre this is masterful, as it never leaves the viewer’s mind and sets the mood for the rest of the film, which adds a mystery that gives depth to what would otherwise be a superficial confection. It is however, one skilfully woven around the work of a photographer avowedly based on David Bailey, the wunderkind and chronicler of the time. Unsurprisingly, the film gets a whole chapter to itself in this thorough but eminently readable account of a remarkable decade.

The received view of the Sixties is that, if you can remember it, you weren’t there. The atmosphere was heady with the new and – er –substances. If this was you, the book will be a revelation; for the rest of us, a brilliant aide-mémoire.

For me, the Sixties was the time when I became aware of the wider world, which is why I love this so much and am writing about it in such depth. Some of you will agree with me, others will regard later decades as “theirs” and the earlier period as desperately out of date and old hat. To you, I’d say: read this. I’m not asking you to be converted, but at least you’ll understand. The “scene” of the title conveys the idea that the period was remarkably coherent and a lot more than simply a jumble of ideas that poured out, although it was that too.

The structure is chronological and begins with a look at Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary, Pop Goes The Easel, which blew away many cobwebs in the still staid (and still black & white) BBC. 1963 sees the opening of the Kasmin gallery that celebrated many newly-emerging talents, as well as the idea of the gallery as a white cube. The whole thing is a chronicle of the movement that wasn’t a movement – rather, simply an expression of a mood – and tells the stories of the people who didn’t so much drive it as surf the wave that it sometimes seems to have created for itself.

The final chapter is The Art School Revolution and tells the story of Hornsey College of Art and the artists who emerged from the earlier groundwork and carried what we might call the flame forward. A rather useful epilogue, When Attitudes Became Form, hints at the legacy, but doesn’t omit the fact that some things were just mannered. As John Lennon put it, “Nothing happened except that we all got dressed up”.

Were the Sixties really nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes? You decide. It was a heck of a suit, though, and one of many colours.

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The Story of Scottish Art || Lachlan Goudie

Scottish art has a long and noble history that is perhaps not as often recounted as it should be.

This rather delightful book is part of what looks like a new “story of” series that deals with wide vistas in a straightforward and eminently manageable way. Much of this relies on the quality of the authors – they need to be able to understand their subject intimately and select and condense their material to make it comprehensible in a relatively short narrative arc. They also need to avoid the factionalism that all too often infects art criticism (although there will undoubtedly be those queuing up to say that they’ve got the approach, the facts and the interpretations wrong). General readers will, however, just be thankful for something that doesn’t require prior specialist knowledge or become obsessed with minor detail.

Lachlan Goudie is such an author. An artist himself, the blurb describes this as “a deeply personal account”, perhaps aiming to head off perceived avenues of criticism. However, as long as you know who you’re dealing with, a less that fully objective approach can itself be interesting, and Goudie is an author who commands respect.

The book is only 384 pages. I say “only” because it covers 5000 years, which means it moves form Neolithic symbols to Glasgow’s position as a centre for contemporary art. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it’s pulling off a neat trick to do so at pace, but without becoming breathless.

There are some 180 illustrations, but as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof, I can’t comment on the quality of the reproduction.

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The Story of Contemporary Art || Tony Godfrey

This is an excellent narrative account of developments in art from 1980 to the present day. Covering forty years internationally is an ambitious project and, at 280 pages, this necessarily doesn’t go into a massive amount of detail. That, you may think, is a blessing and this is a subject in which it would be all too easy to get bogged down. Contemporary art (like contemporary anything) is contentious and a relatively straightforward storytelling approach is a neat way of avoiding controversy and factionalism.

Non-specialists will undoubtedly welcome a lively, readable account, but even the cognoscenti may be glad of what amounts to an authoritative potted history.

The book has over 200 illustrations but I can’t comment on the quality as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof.

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Piranesi Drawings – visions of antiquity || Sarah Vowles

This is another of Thames & Hudson’s collaborations with the British Museum and accompanies an exhibition which, at the time of writing, is of course closed.

The quality of reproduction and generous page size make this a viable alternative to a visit and, if you want to see Piranesi drawings, shouldn’t disappoint. Fifty-one works are illustrated, mostly full page, and extended captions provide descriptive and background information. The purpose of the exhibition is to show how the artist developed as a draughtsman over time and the progression is broadly chronological, rather than by form or theme. Chronological notes and a select bibliography add both clarity and avenues for further study.

With venues closed, viewing originals isn’t possible at the present time and alternatives have to be found. This is a worthy one.

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Nineteenth-Century Art: a critical history || ed Stephen F Eisenman

This massive brick of a book covers just about every aspect of artistic output including painting, sculpture, photography and furniture.

The comprehensive text from a variety of specialist contributors is accompanied by a generous number of excellently-reproduced illustrations. Big names are here, but also some less well known and even anonymous, such as the Native American representations of both their own culture and interaction with European settlers.

Although substantial and, as I hinted, heavy, this is by no mean unmanageable. The paperback format of this fifth edition is large enough to allow you to see what’s going on without being too big to sit in the hands and it falls open easily without threatening the integrity of the spine. These things don’t happen by accident and the production team at Thames & Hudson deserve credit for giving thought to the poor reader.

Content-wise, consideration has also been given to those who are not approaching this from a drily academic viewpoint. The illustrations leaven what are inevitable text-heavy chapters and breakout features add both summaries and additional depth, with background information on subjects as diverse as race, ecology, utopianism and even madness.

As well as being a thorough survey and history, this magnificent book also manages to show the position of the nineteenth century in the wider history of art and the development of the avant-garde and modernism.

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John Singer Sargent – his life and works in 500 images || Susie Hodge

This is one of the latest titles in a really rather excellent series. Susie Hodge is a perceptive anthologiser and her generous selection of images covers not just the gamut of her subjects’ careers, but also the whole breadth of their work.

Books such as this stand or fall largely on the quality of the reproduction. At a modest £17, one should not be over-critical and good enough is, frankly, good enough. It is therefore a pleasure to report that this is a whole lot better than merely adequate. To get this amount of material could easily cost three or four times as much and, unless you wanted a definitive monograph, you’re vanishingly unlikely to be disappointed. Frankly, I’ve seen books like that which are a whole lot worse, so you can confidently fill your boots with this one.

The text is necessarily concise, but the basic information is all there. Again, we are in the territory of an introductory survey for the general reader and you get, I think, a lot more than you might expect. It’s all very clear and there are some genuine insights – it’s a very great deal more than “this is a painting and this is what it’s of”.

There’s much to like here, much to get your teeth into and it’s an all-round thorough job.

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Artemesia Gentileschi || Jonathan Jones

The #MeToo movement has brought the story of Artemisia Gentileschi into sharp focus and this short biography is timely. Jonathan Jones takes the rather original route of telling the story via a series of the artist’s paintings of women – Susanna, Judith, Cleopatra, Lucretia and Mary, concluding with his own portrait of Artemesia’s own narrative. It makes for lively reading and manages to meld the art with the woman in a genuinely intimate way.

My copy is an advance proof, but the quality of the illustrations, which are collected in the centre rather than being distributed throughout the book, is good. It seems probable that the quality in the published version will be excellent.

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Studio Lives || Louise Campbell

It is, I think, permissible to wonder whether so much has been written about art and artists that new approaches have to be manufactured to keep the supply going. The basic thesis here is that artists have studios in which they work and sometimes live, and that these reflect their lives and the ways in which they are seen and interpreted.

It does, however, make for a good read and, if a project is well handled, coming at a subject from an oblique angle can lead to new insights that materially contribute to the aforesaid well-documented field.

Louise Campbell tells a good story, or rather series of stories, that follows the development of the purpose-built studio which was also accommodation from G F Watts through the Arts & Crafts movement, where art and architecture definitely went hand-in-hand, to Modernist collaborations with the Nicholsons and Barbara Hepworth.

The question to be asked is whether this is a book about art or about architecture? I am not sure just how much artists are influenced by where they work, although there is no doubt that a studio built to their own specifications would be comfortable and conducive to the sort of contemplation that can lead to successful work. Some would disagree and suggest that it is actually discomfort that spurs creation and originality, that the mind needs to be shocked rather than caressed into innovation. Back in the day, I ran an architectural bookshop and I can see this as something that would have fitted very well on its shelves.

In less than skilful hands, a project such as this could be a mess. There are too many artists, too many buildings and, perhaps, too many architects to make sense of what is perhaps a rather thin thread. Louise Campbell, however, marshals her material by telling the stories of the artists themselves within a collection of broad outlines that include The Studio As Home and Building For Art. The result is a clear narrative that, aided by the constraints of period and location (it’s entirely British-based), tells a fascinating and coherent story.

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