Archive for category Subject: Art History

Women in Abstraction || edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Lewandowska

You could, I suspect, be forgiven for expressing surprise at the extent of this very thorough look at abstract art as created purely by women. You might also assume that being selective in this way would restrict the coverage. Are there not styles and movements that are overlooked? Well, no, just about everything you’d expect is included as well as a full range of painting, sculpture, installations and performance pieces. As a survey and history of abstract art the book stands as something as complete as you could wish.

Unless you are a specialist, many of the names will probably be unfamiliar, but one stands out and tells the usual tale. Yes, Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem, of whom you have undoubtedly heard. She was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller and her subjects included Ornette Coleman, Pelé and John F Kennedy, of whom she was commissioned to produce an official portrait. If her reputation has been eclipsed by that of her husband (as so often happens, even if not deliberately), she had an extensive career in her own right. I particularly like her remark, quoted here: “To me, all art is self-portraits”. That’s one I shall reflect on for some time to come.

As well as examples from and short essays about 112 artists (yes, that many) there are further pieces that analyse wider aspects of the subject. Of particular interest is the piece about the roles of Hilda Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim, founders of major collections in what was then an absolutely male-dominated world.

One has to be wary of describing books as ground-breaking, because the truth is they are usually built on work that has gone before and ride a rising tide. This is, however, a major contribution to art history in general and a neglected corner (if that’s the right word) in particular.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

Napoleon’s Plunder and the theft of Veronese’s Feast || Cynthia Saltzman

At the heart of this story, and this book, is the Louvre. It also raises the vexed question of art appropriation and of collections generally.

Napoleon, the Emperor, was widely admired but also feared. His armies swept through Europe and his defeated enemies were required to hand over their most valuable works of art. This was not indiscriminate and, as Cynthia Saltzman explains, the process was done with taste – the commissioners, as we might call them, knew what they wanted and what they were going to do with it. France, with the great man at its head, would become the artistic as well as political capital of Europe and the envy of the world (although that, at the time, mostly meant Europe).

Great taste there may have been, and the artworks may have been valued and cared for, but there was also vandalism. The piece at the centre of this comprehensive account is Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast At Cana, literally torn from the walls of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Now unframed, the massive work was rolled up for transport. Elaborate art packing cases were unheard of in those days.

Stealing – there’s really no other word for it – a nation’s artistic treasures is to steal its creative heart and demoralise its people. Conquerors throughout history have known this and the elephant in the room is the Third Reich’s Twentieth Century appropriation campaign. That this only gets a mention in the epilogue here is not inappropriate because it’s a whole different piece of history and a tale in its own right. What is worth mentioning is that there was already a fear that Napoleon’s plunder would be eyed up for repatriation by its original owners – you steal my paintings, I’ll steal them back and have some of yours as well.

This is an engaging but thorough account that reads like a whodunit, as good history for the general reader should. It is a wider tale than the subtitle implies, but Saltzman rightly puts a painting that Ruskin said “always makes me feel as if an archangel had come down into the room, and were working before my very eyes” at its heart. Sometimes, the wider perspective is best seen from a central position.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

Illuminating Natural History – the art and science of Mark Catesby || Henrietta McBurney

There was John Tradescant, there was Joseph Banks, there was Robert Hooke and there was John James Audubon.

They are all names to conjure with and they are all broadly familiar. Mark Catesby is perhaps less so, but he belongs in the same canon. His working period (his dates are 1684-1749) coincides with the development of the scientific method and from amateurship to professionalism in natural philosophy.

Catesby was widely travelled (at a time when this was difficult, dangerous and expensive) and spent two extended periods in the New World at a time when it was just being opened up, producing the two volumes of the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands – the scope of the title alone gives an idea of his achievement.

The significance of this, apart from the scientific work, is the role of the artist. Two things had happened. Firstly, descriptions of distant lands were now first rather than second or third hand, with fantasy having no further place in travellers’ tales. Secondly, printing had advanced sufficiently that detail was possible and the idea of the illustrated book became a possibility (as opposed to the woodcuts that prevailed only a short while before). Colour had to be inserted manually, of course, meaning that books such as this were anything but mass-market, but we should perhaps see publications from this period as distributable reports rather than marketable books.

Henrietta McBurney is thorough. Her account tells the story of Catesby’s life and work, of course, but also deals with the history of science as well as the techniques and materials of illustration and the development of books and printing. All of these are integral to the development of the scientific method and the transmission of discovery and information. Although this is nominally a book about a figure most people will not have heard of, it is also, as it should be, a comprehensive history of the development of ideas that has echoes to this day.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

The Book of the Tree || Angus Hyland & Kendra Wilson

Trees, you love them, don’t you? Majestic beings that are at the centre of the countryside or indeed any landscape. Books have been published celebrating them ever since people started chopping them down to make paper. Oh.

I’m being unfair. This is an absolute delight and includes paintings and photographs from mostly Twentieth Century artists with nicely-judged explanations of how arboreal subjects fit into their work and life. Some, such as Claude Monet, get several pages and in these cases, the specific focus provides a fresh perspective on their work. You also get, of course, a variety of different styles and once again the single-subject approach allows for comparisons to be made that a wider view tends to obscure.

The result is a fascinating and enjoyable book that works whether you take an extended tour, concentrate on a specific theme or just dip into it at random. The authors never lose sight of the fact that the images are the most important thing and keep the words to the minimum required to complement them, but without leaving you wishing they’d said a bit more.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

The Whole Picture – the colonial story of the art in our museums || Alice Procter

This is about as timely as it gets and is certainly woke. Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours around museums in London were born out of a sense of frustration at a lack of acknowledgment of colonial history in art galleries.

This is only partly true, as any historian worth their salt knows about the role of colonialism in mainly the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. I would like to think that an image such as The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia, painted for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, could not fail to make any viewer feel at least a little uncomfortable. Images of kangaroos, however, perhaps more simply educate a willing public about the fauna of distant lands – even if they were invaded and their indigenous populations subjugated. Dürer, of course, famously drew a rhinoceros probably only from a description. It would not be unfair, I think, to say that George Stubbs was not quite so well-informed. And then we have the famous Tipu’s Tiger, an automaton that mauls an unfortunate British soldier. The point that Procter makes rather eloquently here is that while the original is in London, only a rather poor plastic copy exists in the original location.

This, of course, raises the perennial question of whether all art should remain where it was created, or whether it can be moved about the world. It is inevitable that such moves will involve a degree of plunder and this is not limited to a single place or civilisation. Sometimes, the very movement becomes the story itself and history can lend an awful lot of perspective – we can marvel at a Roman statue of a legionary dominating a subjugated Celt without feeling the need to ask for the whole of modern Italy to be cancelled.

To be fair to this book, and its author in particular, this is neither preaching nor a rant, but rather an examination of a subject that is very much to the fore. Should we pull down statues of slave traders or let them stand and tell the story of how they came to be there? Which one illuminates history and which consigns it even further to the dark recesses of memory than it already is? If you want information that will help you think, it’s here.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

Spirit of Place: writers and the British landscape || Susan Owens

It’s hard to know where to file this. Is it art or literary criticism? (A British Library cataloguing in publication record is available for all you perplexed librarians out there.) I write about art, but my background is in English literature and I only narrowly escaped librarianship, so I suppose I ought to be qualified to have an opinion.

It’s an intriguing concept. The idea of British (for which, read mainly English) landscape painting has been described as an Eighteenth Century invention, which is also conveniently about the same time that modern literature came into being. No, you shut up, I’ve read Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, Defoe and even Thomas Nash – I’m perfectly well aware of how we got to the modern novel.

The principal idea in this genuinely intriguing book is that the British Landscape is a construct, a quasi-romantic ideal that exists chiefly in the mid of its creators. Susan Owens looks as far back as Bede and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the latter, the concept of redemption through a green world progression is one that finds echoes later in Shakespearean comedies, as eloquently exemplified by the critic Northrop Frye. Into this, she weaves Gainsborough and Austen – the former’s landscapes certainly informing our mental images of the latter’s settings.

The narrative continues as the whole concept is refashioned by succeeding generations to reflect their own concerns, obsessions and preconceptions as much as representations of reality itself. I shall close here, merely pausing to say “Mervyn Peake” and leave you to think.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

The Story of Scottish Art (updated review) || Lachlan Goudie

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

Update, Autumn 2020. Originally announced for Spring, publication of this was delayed due to Coronavirus and a finished copy has now arrived. It’s a delight to be able to report that the quality of reproduction is excellent and the colours vibrant despite regular book paper being used, which can often mute them. The book feels as substantial physically as its contents undoubtedly are and is a genuine pleasure to handle.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

The Short Story of Women Artists || Susie Hodge

The National Gallery’s current Artemesia Gentileschi exhibition has made the title of this, Susie Hodge’s latest volume, all the more cogent. “Why”, asked Linda Nochlin in 1971, “have there been no great women artists?” And then along comes a film, Beyond the Visible by Halina Dryschka, that examines the almost unknown Hilma af Klint, who, the thesis goes, may have invented abstract art. Af Klint’s problem was two-fold: firstly, she was a woman and secondly, she was a medium who believed that her work was instructed by spirits. So, a witch, not an artist.

So, here we have two candidates, one of whom is a slam-dunk and the other at least a good contender. Susie adds a good selection of others. The title, by the way, fits with previous books, which have told the Short Stories of art, photography and architecture. It’s a series rather than a challenge, but challenging for all that.

Sensibly and honourably, Susie treats her subject like any other – that’s to say, as a piece of history. This isn’t a rant, or even a political statement, simply a well-told history of women in art, presented factually, chronologically and thematically. That women can be great artists is never in question. Put simply, here they are, admire their works.

The structure is simple and, as the title implies, concise. Single works are illustrated and summarised, usually in a single spread. All the major movements are here, as you would – or should – expect, from the Renaissance through Cubism and Dada to Performance and Conceptual Art. And, yes, Feminist Art. Susie also looks at the major breakthroughs: Equality, Independence, the Salon and so on, as well as themes which appear just as they would in any self-respecting art history.

This is an excellent guide to art history seen through a particular filter. It doesn’t attempt to be any more or less than that and is all the better for it. Simple arguments made coherently are always the most convincing.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

Shaping The World || Antony Gormley & Martin Gayford

Artists are not always the best people to talk about art. The creative process is intensely personal and can be driven by forces that even the practitioner does not fully understand. Equally, those who talk and write about it, are not themselves creators in visual media and have to tease the artist’s inner workings out of their own perceptions of the finished article.

However. There are times when these two worlds align, and Martin Gayford is usually one of the parties. He is one of the most cogent writers about art and the creative process there is and understands it in a way that few non-practitioners are able to. Even on his own, he is able to provide the reader with the sense of being an insider rather than simply a viewer – and this while that reader is looking at the page rather than the artwork.

Gayford is also a very effective collaborator and his conversations with David Hockney have illuminated works, the artist and the creative process all at the same time. This book takes the same approach: it is a discussion between Gormley and Gayford that covers three-dimensional work in stone, clay and metal from prehistoric times to the present day. Yes, it is substantial and it’s worth adding that the quality of production does full justice to the superb content.

If you asked a random member of the public to name a sculptor, the chances are that Antony Gormley would be the one they’d come up with. Not only will they know his name, but they’ll also be at least broadly familiar with his spare and idiosyncratic figures – the large public works such as The Angel Of The North that are impossible to ignore. We already know from other publications that Gormley can be eloquent on the creative method and he and Gayford here spark ideas off each other that are more illuminating than either of them writing alone.

A book such as this requires careful editing. All discussions include diversions and side-tracks that obscure the central point, but heavy-handed attempts to keep them at least appearing to be contiguous can easily leave the language stilted. Not so here and there’s a strong sense of a continuous narrative driven by shared enthusiasm and common, though not always parallel, ground.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

This lands on you like a major work. It knows it is important, but it wears its learning lightly and, even though we probably expect it, it’s a pleasure to find that this is so.

Leave a comment

Joseph Wright of Derby – painter of darkness || Matthew Craske

Joseph Wright effectively chronicles the Age of Reason and the rise of the scientific method. His most famous works show experiments and create the sense of wonder that miust have accompanied them. He was much more than that, though, and this magnificently thorough biography and analysis includes a wide range of other figurative and landscape works. Craske also examines contemporary engravings and prints that reveal details that are now lost. In addition, he turns the received view of Wright as a scientific insider on its head and reveals him to be more of a sceptical outsider, something which the whole chapter on An Experiment on the Bird in an Air Pump demonstrates. It’s a token of the book’s attention to detail that several pages are devoted to the history of the (vacuum) air pump itself and that, far from feeling like more information that we really need, is deeply fascinating.

It’s worth drilling down into this. The composition of the picture is chiefly a pyramid, but with a side-bar that adds a sense of Wright’s own sceptical view. At the head of the pyramid is the experimenter, a more than slightly sinister and Messianic figure who is clearly driven by the desire for experiment itself. He does not appear to share the inquiring mind of the male viewers, who are fascinated by the demise of the bird when the air is removed from its glass chamber – its death is all too visible. To one side are a couple who seem less interested in the proceedings than each other – for some, such things were more of a social event. And then there are the children. This is not, please note, A bird, it is The bird, a fact emphasised by the title, which has An air pump, not The air pump. This is their pet and their distress at its loss is clear to see. The adults may lack which we would now call humanity, but the children don’t. Again, there is emphasis: a male figure (their father?) points to the bird in a kindly way, expecting education and Reason to trump Emotion. All of this sounds like a sledgehammer, but Wright’s skill is to conceal the message in what is simply a damn good painting. The details have to be teased out.

And then there’s the side-bar. A servant looks quizzically at the viewer and is engaged in something, possibly closing the curtains, although the rod he is using neatly points out the bird’s empty cage. Any doubt that this poor creature was part of the household is dispelled. Through the window, a full moon peeps through clouds, a hint, perhaps at Reason and Enlightenment, or maybe that light can also be obscured – are those clouds breaking or closing?

The sub-title of the book is also worth a mention: Painter of Darkness. It hints at the sense of Enlightenment not always as a clear view, but also at Wright’s skill in using limited light – he is probably the best there is at that.

I’ve always liked Joseph Wright, but now I’m a confirmed admirer. It take a pretty good book to do that.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

  • Archives

  • Categories