Archive for category Subject: Art History

Designing The V&A – the museum as a work of art 1857-1909 || Julius Bryant

I almost passed this by as architecture rather than art, but the idea continued to intrigue me, and I remembered many years ago reading an account of the building of the Houses of Parliament that was fascinating just as a historical document as well as the process of designing and building.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is more than just a collection: it’s an institution. Indeed, the collection itself is almost secondary and doesn’t have the same redolence as, say, the British Museum does. This is, frankly, odd, as it’s much more coherent that its august cousin, aiming to reflect the nature of the nation as well as the Victorian obsession with accumulation: they were magpies.

The building itself was always more than just a showcase or a cabinet of curiosities. The museum’s first director, Henry Cole, conceived it as something for leading artists to design and decorate and, long before Marshall McLuhan, the medium did indeed become part of the message. His express policy was to “assemble a splendid collection of objects representing the application of Fine Arts to manufacture” and he applied this as much to the fabric of the building, begun in 1857, as to the contents. It was the natural successor in art to the Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Cole also had a hand. Many of the objects from that found their way into the V&A’s initial collection.

This book details the fabric and decoration of the South Kensington building, showing details that are difficult to see and drawings that are not often exhibited. It explains the philosophy, practice and pitfalls of the project and tells a comprehensive story.

It is rare that the building that houses a collection becomes part of the collection itself, but such is the case with the V&A and this is a fascinating account of a piece of Victorian art history.

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Capture the Castle – British artists and the castle from Turner to Le Brun

“Everyone”, it says here, “loves a castle”. That’s a broad, bold statement, but I for one wouldn’t disagree. Not my place, not my pay grade, I’m just here to write about books.

As with a lot of Sansom books, this accompanies an exhibition. I like that because I get to see a lot of paintings I otherwise wouldn’t – I can’t get to everything. It also provides a lasting record after the show has finished and, while the works are all collected together, there’s an opportunity to do some quality origination, as well as a captive market for the initial print run, making the whole thing an economic possibility. It’s a neat, virtuous circle.

Subject-based exhibitions provide an opportunity for a varied and eclectic choice of works: you’re not limited by artist, style or period. Here, we have watercolours, oils, etchings, drypoint, casein, linocuts and anything else I’ve missed. The castles don’t even have to be real – there’s one of Gormenghast. The choice of works is right up to date, the most recent being 2016 (more recent than Le Brun, by the way).

As if all that wasn’t enough, there’s even a potted history of the development of castles as well. If you’re interested (and, as the blurb hints, aren’t we all?), but not so interested to want a whole book on the minutiae of the subject, this will do nicely.

The arrangement of the book is topical, with each chapter introduced by a different writer: a historian, art historians and an archaeologist. Each illustration is reproduced at a good size and has an extended caption explaining both the subject and the image; some of these are by the artists themselves.

There is much to like about this book, from the subject matter to the curating and the standard of production and reproduction. It’s also very reasonably priced, another thing Sansom are rather good at.

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America Collects Eighteenth Century French Painting

When Americans collect, they really collect! It’s generally known that Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane is based on the life of William Randolph Hearst and that Kane’s massive and obsessive acquisition of European artefacts reflected both that of his original and of many contemporaries. This, then, is not a slim volume of dilettante collections, but a blockbuster of a book with 232 top-quality illustrations and all the academic research and authority that the Washington National Gallery of Art can bring to the feast.

The tale begins in 1815, when Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother) arrives from across the Atlantic with an impressive collection of the Eighteenth Century art of his country. This kick-started fashion and mansions were furnished with works by artists such as Boucher and Fragonard. In modern times, the neoclassicism of David and others has been added to the mix and the interest continues.

This book accompanies an exhibition which brings together sixty-eight paintings by thirty-eight artists, having been gathered from no fewer than twenty-five states. It’s worth quoting those numbers just to give an idea of the extent of the collection and the distribution of the works across the country. Even then, it’s been selective. It should also be said that the book stands alone as a separate product and is a long way from being an exhibition catalogue that would benefit from a visit.

The book, with contributions from eleven different writers, doesn’t just list, reproduce and explain the works, even if that might have been enough. It also tells the story of the collectors, collections, museums and galleries that now house them. It talks about the art dealers who brought them to where they are and becomes, in the process, something of a social history, both in terms of the process of acquisition and the American fascination with the France of the period – with revolution, in a word.

The artistic scope of the book makes it worthwhile on its own, but the historical elements make it compelling reading. Yes, it’s a book about art, but it’s also about collecting, obsession and society and what that tells us about ourselves.

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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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