Archive for category Subject: Art History

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

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.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

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.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

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.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

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.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

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.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

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.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

Leave a comment

  • Archives

  • Categories