Archive for category Subject: Art History

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours || P Syme

A band on the jacket helpfully advises that this is “the book Charles Darwin used to describe colours on his voyage on HMS Beagle”. So much, you might say, for that.

This is a facsimile (if you hadn’t guessed) of a book first published in 1814. It was invaluable then and, although mainly of historical interest now, contains information that can still be of use to the artist. This version took a previously existing colour naming system and adapted it for practical use by botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and artists.

Why, you might ask, was it necessary? Two hundred years ago, colour printing didn’t exist in any useful form. Those full-colour guides we’re so used to now are surprisingly recent. Only 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for painting books to be illustrated with only some dozen colour plates and those would be concentrated together, not run throughout the text. The quality of the colour reproduction in the present volume suggests that the swatches were hand-tinted, so this would have been a small edition, and by no means cheap.

But still, why place so much importance on how colours are described? Well, if you can’t reproduce it in print, you need a reliable way of writing about it so that the reader can mix it for themselves, and that requires a standard approach. Enter Mr Werner, ably assisted by Mr Syme.

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at Bluish Green. It “is composed of Berlin blue, and a little lemon yellow and greyish white”. The accompanying table tells us that it’s suitable for a thrush egg, the under disc of wild rose leaves or the mineral beryl. And that’s how you get the colours right, even if you haven’t got a reliable chart.

Yes, this is mainly of historical interest, but it’s a fascinating read and a reminder of how the world got on when everything really was black and white.

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Modernists & Mavericks || Martin Gayford

This remarkably thorough and authoritative account of the development of painting in London from the Second World War to the 1970s draws on extensive interviews Martin Gayford conducted with its participants and personalities. Gayford, art critic of The Spectator, offers what is effectively an insider view of an important period in, and strand of, contemporary art. Although it was not a movement as such, it was inevitable that any group, however diverse, that was working in reasonably close proximity would develop friendships and rivalries and share experiences and ideas both deliberately and unconsciously.

Just about everyone who was a part of the scene gets a mention somewhere here and luminaries include Hockney, Freud, Bacon, Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres, Peter Black, Allen Green and Howard Hodgkin. The book, however, is very much more than a simple trawl through the notes and a tour of the exhibits. Gayford, an insightful viewer and incisive commentator, demonstrates how the group (as we might just get away with calling them) were influenced by teachers such as David Bomberg and William Coldstream and also drew on American Abstract Expressionism and more traditional Western art.

Comprehensively illustrated, this should be set fair to be the definitive history as well as an appreciation of its period. The published version will have an index, the lack of which I felt dearly in my proof copy, indicating how essential it will be.

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Misère || Linda Nochlin

This is, on the face of it, a seemingly unlikely subject for a book about art history. However, it fits with the Victorian style of narrative painting and fascination with – and often glamorisation of – the lower orders of society. Many nineteenth century artists depict working people in suspiciously well-kept clothes, but there were others, themselves living hand-to-mouth, who shared the world of the underclass and understood the conditions of their companions all too well.

Linda Nochlin concentrates for the most part on these latter: there are no Stanhope Forbes, William Powell Friths or Ford Maddox Browns here, although Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (his dog) is reproduced and is a masterpiece of sentimentalisation. Her thesis, expressed in the cover blurb, is that the rapid changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution caused displacement and destitution for those whom it did not benefit. This is, I think, to stretch a point somewhat and potentially to fall into the trap that artists themselves sometimes did, distinguishing between the happy, free, rural poor and their downtrodden urban counterparts.

The book itself, however, does not bear this out and begins with a lengthy examination of what Linda calls The Irish Paradigm. This is the rural poverty brought about by the potato famine and which was documented in publications such as The Illustrated London News, many of whose images are reproduced. Linda also includes illustrations which show a less charitable viewpoint: that of drunkenness and simple depravity; not everyone idolised the “deserving poor”.

It is, I think, important to take note of the fact that the title of the book is Misère and not Misery, although that word does appear in the subtitle. The difference is subtle (Linda explains its genesis from a discovery in a Parisian bookshop) and represents a construct rather than a state of existence – the representation of poverty rather than its sociological fact. It is easy to fall into another trap: that of assuming that all the people here are unhappy. I’m not suggesting that Courbet’s agricultural labourers, Gericault’s street-dwellers or Degas’ prostitutes are happy noble savages, but the works illustrated are perhaps more documentary than comment. No-one likes being at the bottom of the heap, but there is sometimes, maybe often, a degree of acceptance. These are people and they survive, at least after a fashion.

This is an interesting work that explores a corner of nineteenth century art that is, while not forgotten, not frequently commented on. The narrative maybe stretches a point sometimes, but Linda is also careful not to wear a campaigner’s hat; she is an art historian, not a social one. Reading the book, I was reminded of the Kasmin’s Postcards series, which shines another light on our forebears’ fascination with poverty and disaster.

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Emile Nolde : Colour is Life

Colour is strength. Strength is life.
Only strong harmonies are important.

Emile Nolde wrote this in the final volume of his four-volume autobiography and it serves as a manifesto for his art – indeed it could stand for much of art in general.

Nolde was part of the German Expressionist movement, but lived in the northern part of the country near the border with Denmark, and was in fact a Danish citizen when he died. Much of his imagery reflects the landscapes and, above all, the people that surrounded him.

This survey of his life and work, which is much more than a catalogue of the exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Ireland, stresses that he was, for all that, not merely a regional artist. He was fully up to speed on trends and movements in contemporary art and also a master of both technique and colour. His use of the latter can, in the Expressionist manner, shock, but that’s designed to get attention and make the viewer think. It also provides a vibrancy and, in figurative works, a depth of character that is not always possible by other means.

As well as a generous format and some superb reproduction, there are also considered essays on a variety of aspects of Nolde’s work that make this, while more of a survey than an in-depth study, a thoroughly worthwhile assessment of the man and his work. It also stands well even when separated from the exhibition.

Note: the edition reviewed is that with the imprint of the National Gallery of Ireland. It is, however, also published by the National Gallery of Scotland and that is the edition linked to below.

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Victorian Watercolours from the Art Galley of New South Wales

Victorian watercolours are often dismissed as being sentimental works of no great artistic or societal value. While it is true that a great deal of idealisation goes on, this is not something unique to that particular period; brutal naturalism is something that has perhaps really only gained traction relatively recently.

There is not a great deal to be said about this book. The title leaves you in no doubt as to what it is and it’s something you’ll either pick up with enthusiasm or retreat quickly away from.

However, if you’re still listening, you’ll want to know that the selection is varied and representative and the works, if you’re UK-based, not easy to see in person. The quality of the reproduction is very high indeed and the generous sizing and concise analyses thoroughly welcome.

Quite simply, if Victorian watercolours are your thing, you’ll want and love this.

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Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art 1760-1870 || Christiana Payne

One of the first things you notice from a cursory glance at this is that the painting of trees has gained a lot more life in recent years. Maybe it’s the speed of travel and the reduction in afforestation, but a modern painting will show the tree as much more heroic than many historical examples. Today, we travel at 70 miles an hour on open roads, with trees as part of a distant view or flashing by. This is a far cry from the days when the fastest thing around was a galloping horse and many thoroughfares were little more than tracks, with trees often towering over them. Then, trees obscured the light, harboured footpads and wild animals, as well as impeding the way. They were things to fear rather than love.

It’s quickly apparent that, in the period covered by this really rather magnificent book, tree drawings and paintings fall broadly into three camps: the detailed, almost botanical study, gloomy clearings, or incidental growths whose precise species is not always apparent. Trees were so commonplace that an artist would assume that all their viewers knew what they were looking at without being told in any detail.

This doesn’t mean that trees were unremarked – as the illustrations here make amply clear – or unrevered. Writing in 1792, William Gilpin observed that a tree was “the grandest, and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth” and John Ruskin asserted that “if you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world”. And, of course, trees have been seats of learning, points of devotion, meeting places and waymarkers since the dawn of time.

This book accompanies the exhibition A Walk In The Woods at the Higgins Bedford and the launch of the Woodland Trust’s Charter For Trees which celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter (effectively, the commoners’ Magna Carta). Christiana Payne includes history, folklore and art as well as looking at the role of trees in the country-house culture of the time and issues relating the felling of trees to provide timber for navy ships. It all makes for a fascinating and complete study.

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Also available from the publisher: http://sansomandcompany.co.uk/shopping/silent-witnesses/

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Robert Storr: Interviews on Art

There is, quite simply, nothing else like this. Robert Storr is a curator, critic and painter. From 1990-2002 he worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as a curator (subsequently senior) in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. He has also interviewed a huge number of artists and these have appeared, since 1982, in a variety of publications. Substantial as it is at 928 pages, this volume is just a selection.

The secret to Storr’s interviews is their intimacy. His involvement, both as a curator and a practitioner allows him insights into his subjects that breed an easy familiarity and a sense, for the reader, of inclusion in a charmed circle. A sensitive interviewer, by making the subject feel at ease and not merely on the receiving end of a questionnaire, will always elicit more information and personal insights. The discussions here range from painting and drawing to sculpture as well as installation, photography, film and performance. Storr’s interest is in the artists themselves and their intellectual and creative processes rather than any pre-conceived notion of what art might (or might not) be. As well as being an insightful interviewer, he is also a sympathetic listener and honest reporter.

The cover presents a list of the subjects included – Louise Bourgeois, Buckminster Fuller, Jeff Koons and very many more. Which ones stand out for you will depend on your personal interests, but you won’t want to read the book for those alone. Very usefully, representative samples of each subject’s work are included as well as previously unpublished photographs of the artists themselves. Books that are predominantly text-based often do not handle illustrations well and it is a point in favour of this one that it does, greatly aided by the quality of reproduction, paper used and page size.

This is a fascinating book that reveals much about the processes involved in creating works of art in many formats and media.

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