Archive for category Subject: Art History

The World Exists to be Put on a Postcard || Jeremy Cooper

We don’t send postcards any more. Social media and increasing costs have put paid to those snippets of holiday life that were at once intriguing, informative and frustrating. If you want to know that the weather is frightful, that the dog has a cough or Mavis a new top, you’ll have to turn to Past Postcard on Twitter (please do, it’s great fun). Those cardboard rectangles depicting sunny beaches, donkeys in hats, the shopping centre or new roundabout have been consigned to history. And maybe that’s a good thing.

But postcards have also been a part of the art world for several decades – this book and its accompanying exhibition at the British Museum covers the period from 1960 to the present day. The mood is always a bit left-field, revolutionary or subversive. This isn’t superfine art, but rather a semi-private world where the message is more personal. Mavis may not have a new top, but, in Art News Revisited (1976), Hannah Wilke has none at all – it’s part of a series where she uses her own body to make a feminist statement. A decade later, Michael Langenstein presents surreal images that include the Statue of Liberty in a yellow vest (how very now) and a parking meter on the moon.

The whole is basically art as non-art, but in an entirely artistic way. Yes, that is contradictory, but that’s the point of the form and, seeing what is largely a fragmented movement (if it was even that) together demonstrates that there was and is a theme and that art can, and probably should, be controversial and ask awkward questions.

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The Short Story of Modern Art || Susie Hodge

This is, in many ways, the companion to Susie’s earlier Why Your Five year Old Could Not Have Done That. Where that volume concentrated on explaining specific pieces to the general reader whose initial response would be likely to be “doesn’t look much like art to me”, this one is a more chronological narrative that traces historical developments, movements and important figures.

In this way, Bauhaus sits alongside Magic Realism and leads to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. A look at The Treachery of Images is illustrated, perhaps inevitably, by Magritte’s Pipe (This is Not a Pipe) and we also get to meet Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock. Did I also say that Rodin’s Thinker is here too?

As the title implies, this is a potted history that is at once informative, entertaining and understandable. If modern art (and all art was, in its day, modern), leaves you confused, the estimable Susie Hodge cuts a swathe through mystery, jargon and the sometimes deliberate obscurantism that some critics seem to need to introduce.

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I Know An Artist || Susie Hodge

Once you get the hang of it, this is an intriguing ramble through the connections between artists, schools and movements. The structure is a series of short (one might even say potted) biographies of figures as diverse as Monet, Mondrian, Hepworth and Emin. The contents pages provide a guide through the maze and point out the various byways, as a look at (say) Bridget Riley stops off to consider Pollock, Cezanne and Matisse.

Art does not, of course, exist in a vacuum and completely fresh ideas are a rarity; rather, individuals and groups feed off each other and develop, or maybe react against, what has gone before. That this has been widely covered is scarcely news, and is the main meat of many art histories. Where this book differs is in concentrating on individuals and making specific links; indeed, majoring on that rather than a narrative thread of history.

The slightly idiosyncratic presentation, with amusing illustrations and what can only be described as kooky typography tends at first glance to cloud the message, but a read of the subtitle, the introduction and the contents list should provide a workable road map. I’m also not sure that without the look and feel, the book would be half so interesting. Precisely because this isn’t a linear history, it benefits from a non-linear way of working.

If you like unconventional ways of thinking that make you look at familiar material afresh, you’ll love this.

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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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