Archive for category Subject: Art History

This Is Tomorrow || Michael Bird

Now that we’re firmly established in the Twenty-First Century, its predecessor has become the subject of history and one to be evaluated from that perspective. What was once achingly hip, original, never seen before, ground-breaking, can be seen as part of an organic development as groups coalesce then fracture, movements build and hand their legacies on to those who inherit them as well as those who reject them in their entirety.

This is the story, told almost as an adventure, of how art and society developed in what the blurb tells us was an unprecedented pace of change (I think we could discuss that). It is certainly true that two World Wars and scientific development that took us from primitive motor cars to super-computers left a world unrecognisable from either of its bookends.

To view a whole century, especially one as dynamic as Michael Bird presents it, is a formidable task and one which requires careful marshalling of material and thesis. To do that in less than 400 pages presents plenty of opportunities not just for pitfalls, but spectacular pratfalls. To read it is almost to go to the circus just to see the wire-walker hit the arena floor and gasp as they manage not to.

The title, neatly, is taken from a Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition of 1956. It’s a significant date, because the country is just emerging from post-war austerity and youthful talent, while it may remember the war, was not an active participant. The mood of the times was optimistic. It was time to rebuild, but also to find new ways and approaches, we were in a hurry, time was of the essence and the old could be – and frequently was – discarded.

But there was also a foundation. The early years of the century had seen a change of regime. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria had gone into mourning and the whole country had to follow; life was stifled. Then, just as the century turned, Edward VII ascended the throne and the lights were turned on. And, yes, I am going to say that, in the words of Edward Grey, they were turned off again thirteen years later. From 1920 to 1939, there was another renaissance as art and architecture rejected ornamentation and simplification became the order of the day. Much of that movement, as well as many of its proponents, did not survive the next war and before you know it, another batch of young British artists (they weren’t YBAs yet) had come onto the scene. And it was a scene, this was art that shouted, demonstrated and told its parents they didn’t have a clue. The parents, as parents do, looked on with a mixture of bemusement and toleration – well, mostly.

This is not a book peppered with illustrations, and there’s hardly any colour, but that doesn’t detract one jot from its appeal. This is a story that unrolls the narrative of a whole century and Michael conjures up in words all the pictures you’ll need. It’s a heck of a journey.

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The Legend of King Arthur – a Pre-Raphaelite Love Story || Alison Smith et al

The Arthurian story is the mythological history of Britain in which a hero triumphs and brings pride and greatness to the nation. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does and almost every age has reinvented the tales for its own time. We all long for that period when our country was great and there is an academic study to be conducted into Golden Ages and how close they are to the current level of decay. It should also be said that all countries and communities have similar longings.

The earliest versions of the Arthurian legend are preserved in Welsh tales, but the story is older. The Celtic tribes of Britain were driven westwards by invasions, most notably the Roman one and, while the main corpus of Arthurian myths is in Wales, elements are to be found in Cornwall (especially the King Mark tales) and Cumbria (inheriting the legend of Govan the Smith who probably became Sir Gawain).

We should say at the outset that there really was a King Arthur. Well, not a King as such, and certainly not of Britain. The most likely figure would be a local ruler, possibly in East Anglia, but also possibly a powerful warrior (the name means The Bear). In the Welsh tales, his companions are Cei (Sir Kay) and Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere). This figure really did have a round table because he lived in a roundhouse, round whose central fire he and his most trusted companions would have sat. He also quite probably got his sword from a stone because it was bronze and therefore cast. It is not impossible to imagine a ceremony around the breaking of the mould and the weapon’s naming by its rightful owner, who would be the only person who could weald it (it being made to measure). Oh and, this being the Bronze Age, it really would have been thrown into a lake, quite possibly by the aforesaid Bedwyr, when Arthur died. There is plenty of archaeological evidence of bronze weapons returned to water . Their reception by the spirit, or lady, of the lake is perfectly credible in terms of the myth.

The full legend of Arthur came to be compiled around the Eleventh Century, probably in response to the Norman invasion. Such a traumatic time needed a heroic legend in response and what is known as the Roman de Brut, or just Brut, is a manuscript attributed simply to Layamon (Layman). It was basically sedition, but the Normans took it sufficiently seriously to pen an answer by Robert Wace, the only difference being that, in the French version, far from returning one day to save his land, Arthur is definitely dead and not coming back, ever.

As a result, the story came to the attention of the French romance writers, such as Chrétien de Troyes, who already had experience with the Charlemagne stories. Arthur gave them new material and their own figure of Lancelot was quickly added to the corpus.

The full story as we know it was assembled by Thomas Malory in the Fifteenth Century and is pretty much the only work of literature to come out of that time, which was troubled by the massive civil war that was the Wars of the Roses. For several hundred years, only the final section, the Morte, was known from the edition printed by William Caxton. It was not until 1934 that the full manuscript was discovered in the library of Winchester College.

All of which massive preamble brings us to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for which such a romance was tailor-made. Absorbing Malory, the French romances and Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, they set to work with a passion. This really rather magnificent book treats not just of the PRB approach, but also examines the Arthurian myth itself, explaining its many ins and outs and placing it in both geographical and historical context. The interpretations are important because the legend itself is almost less important than what it tells us about the ages that adopted it (in one of the French versions of the Mort, Arthur actually goes to Rome and defeats the Romans!).

Understanding their relationship to the Arthurian story is therefore key to understanding the Pre-Raphaelites themselves and this book is magnificently enlightening in this respect. There are many illustrations, both of well- and lesser-known works and also photographs of locations. Although the reproduction is not perhaps quite up to the quality one has come to expect from Sansom, it is perfectly adequate and it is hard to quibble about just how much you get for a really rather modest outlay.

This is definitely an excellent appraisal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a whole through an aspect that is central to understanding them, but also manages to be a really rather good explanation of the Arthurian cycle itself.

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The Artist’s Studio || James Hall

Art history is filled with accounts of the lives, working practices, trials and tribulations of artists as well as their working methods (of course) and, sometimes, business practices. What has been missing, however, is a consideration of their workplaces – how these were arranged, how they developed and their influence – perceived and actual – on the work produced.

This may sound esoteric, perhaps even a niche looking for a statue, but think of today’s concentration on ergonomics and, with lockdowns and working from home, how to set up a workspace that is practical, congenial and stress-limiting.

Working alone, an artist needs relatively little – a space to themselves, materials and light. Even that, though, in early times was hard to come by, and personal space a luxury. However, as art became a business, space needed to be set aside to receive and impress clients; assistants required training. As early as the Fourteenth Century, Cennino Cennini was laying out how long an apprentice should spend working with a stylus before picking up a brush, how many times a day an artist should eat, the benefits of not rushing the grinding of pigments and the value of having a massage the day before starting an important work.

All this is about a lot more than just spaces and exemplifies the huge scope of James Hall’s book. It is also about a lot more than simply the processes of creating art and is, in reality, a comprehensive social history centred on art, from which it radiates out through science, architecture and politics. The availability, use and control of light, for instance, enables the development of the Old Master works as the environments in which they were created came to be a thing to be controlled rather than battled – because of, rather than in spite of.

The word “atelier” is used a lot in art history and describes what are effectively business premises with large teams working on commissions, the Great Man’s involvements depending entirely on the price paid. Despite this, “studio of” works can be of considerable quality and are not always easy to attribute away from the hand of the named artist themselves. Quality control was an important element of the system.

And then, of course, there’s plein air work, where the elements of the studio have to be recreated outdoors – Hall references Claude Monet’s boat that combined perhaps the best of both worlds.

This is a comprehensive account of much more than the practice of art and demonstrates how artists have influenced, as well as been affected by, their working spaces from the earliest time.

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James Gillray || Tim Clayton

Although the claim of this book’s blurb that he invented political satire is perhaps an exaggeration, James Gillray was certainly the most prominent caricaturist in an age where the genre grew up and flourished.

There are many reasons why such a lack of respect for authority should emerge in the late Eighteenth Century. The republican experiment under Oliver Cromwell some hundred years previously had shown that monarchs were not indispensable, and absolute power, even after the Restoration, was waning. The Hanoverian Georges seemed, and frequently were, alien. Finally, the Regency became a period of loose rules and morals that emboldened what we may call the chattering classes. Yes, that is a very simplified account, but this is a book review, not a history and Tim Clayton’s thorough and admirable account of the life and work of a major figure in the creative life of the age will fill in all the gaps for you.

Gillray was prolific, acerbic and precise in his targeted attacks, both on individuals, events and public mores. This is a lavish account of his life and work that is set firmly in its historical context. Caricature in the Eighteenth Century was an elaborate affair. The simple line of modern cartooning had not developed, neither had the simple one-line caption. Every illustration rewards detailed examination and more than a superficial understanding of its context. In modern times, the work of Martin Rowson and Chris Riddell offer something of a parallel, with minor figures, repeating motifs and sometimes, too, in-jokes.

Many of Gillray’s works remain famous today, such as The Plumb-pudding in danger, which has the Emperor Napoleon and Pitt the Younger carving up the globe and is an excellent example of Gillray’s incisive ability to reduce complex politics to simple motifs. There are many more works, however, which have faded into obscurity as the individuals and events have fallen away from general memory. Tim Clayton includes many of these as part of the broad canon of Gillray’s work. This is a complete and, indeed, beautifully produced account of the work of man who, although by no means forgotten, deserves his time in the spotlight once more.

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The Life of Mark Akenside || Barbara C Morden

Throughout history, there have been figures that, while now largely forgotten, were instrumental in oiling the wheels of events and influencing the cultural and political life of their time.

In the Seventeenth Century, John Ogiliby was at the heart of royal events up to the deposition of Charles I and then effectively ran communications, at considerable risk, for those who were planning the return of the monarchy. His chief visible legacy is Britannia, the first road atlas, whose style can be seen to influence most others, right down to the last Ordnance Survey One Inch series. It was in fact a guide for an anticipated Catholic invasion after the installation of Charles II as absolute monarch.

A hundred years later, Mark Akenside, who trained as a barber-surgeon, was one of the formative figures of the Romantic movement. Born in Newcastle, he is commemorated in Akenside Hill, formerly Butchers Bank, where a literary group gathered in 1821 to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Akenside was a poet as well as a man of medicine and his volume The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) was one of the founding works of the Romantic movement which celebrated nature with a spiritual and emotional, rather than a utilitarian, response. Politically a Whig, he opposed and satirised Robert Walpole, along with Alexander Pope (in The Dunciad). Later, his life would be written by Samuel Johnson who, although he disliked blank verse and Whig politics, came to admire the quality of Akenside’s work in spite of those preferences.

Having moved to London, he became part of the circle of Keats and Lamb, both of whom recognised his rejection of classical forms and were influenced in their own writings. He was later himself satirised in Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle – a mark, if it were needed, of his prominence and influence.

This thoroughly readable account of Akenside’s life, work and place in the artistic canon includes much detail without getting lost or bogged down. Barbara Morden goes on to demonstrate Akenside’s influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular the Lyrical Ballads. The chapters are short, but well organised, and I particularly like the summary at the head of each one, something which would have graced books of Akenside’s time and is useful even today.

Those who operate behind the scenes are frequently just footnotes in histories of their time, but Barbara has rescued a man who deserves to be more widely known and has done him ample justice. The subtitle, Breakthrough to Modernity provides a strong clue to Akenside’s relevance today.

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Me, Myself, I || Tessa Jackson & Lara Perry

You might think that there isn’t much to be said about the self-portrait beyond the fact that’s it’s the artist’s view of themselves and, from earlier ages, often the only image we have.

There is, however, considerable social context and, if the artist worked on other portraits, an insight into how they saw their sitters both as figures and human beings.

Any painting is, necessarily, a reflection of its times and the authors here give consideration to how these works, all by British-based artists, reflect their own era. Robert Home, for example, appears in The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Lieutenant General Cornwallis (1792). It’s a large work of Imperial greatness in which the artist appears at one side, portfolio under his arm to identify him. He doesn’t look over-impressed and you can’t help wondering whether, despite taking the undoubtedly lucrative commission, he wasn’t entirely happy with the scene.

A similar mood continues on the next page, which shows us Pieter Christoffel Wonder’s Study for Patrons and Lovers of Art. Here, three men, who exude solidity and connoisseurship, are examining a work in what we can assume is the artist’s studio (the painting is unhung, unlike others depicted). A classical bust emphasises the seriousness of the scene. From behind one of the patrons, a figure, a palette indicating that he is the artist, leans out and looks straight at the viewer. His expression is best described as sardonic and the message is hard to interpret as anything but “they may be wealthy and I may depend on them, but they know nothing”.

The works cover the years between 1722 and 2022 and it is instructive to see how attitudes have changed yet remained the same. Stanley Spencer’s view of himself is more than a little mocking, Rachel McLean’s a caricature and there is frequent irony across the ages. The one thing none of them do is aggrandise, which is worthy of note in itself.

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Hans Holbein: his life and works in 500 images || Rosalind Ormiston

This series from Lorenz Books has been going for a long time and provides a useful, well-illustrated, way into the works of a great many artists from all periods of history.

Hans Holbein played a central role in the history of Britain, being Court Painter to Henry VIII, creating images of him for which the word “iconic” can never be redundant and, famously, painting the portrait of Anne of Cleves that caused so much trouble for Thomas Cromwell and led, at least in part, to his downfall. A portrait of Cromwell himself is uncompromising and suggests a figure the artist perhaps didn’t like that much. Did Henry reject “the Flanders mare”, or did the reality of his physical appearance disgust her so much that she rejected him? History does not relate, but it might explain Cromwell’s fate. Henry was not a man to cross in any way.

Holbein did, however, have a much broader and longer-sustained career and received commissions form Hanseatic merchants as well as the scholar Erasmus. Details of his early life are sketchy, but Rosalind Ormiston, who has taught art history at Kingston University, provides as much detail as possible. She relates known events from the artist’s life to the chronology of his work and analyses works from the whole gamut of his career, often using enlarged details for clarity and to explain a particular point. The book is large-format and all the illustrations that matter are reproduced at an appropriate size, often full-page. The quality of reproduction is excellent, and certainly remarkable for the price – you get a huge amount, not just of illustrations, but of scholarship, for a ridiculously modest outlay.

Overall, a bit of a tour de force.

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The Real and the Romantic || Frances Spalding

As we move further into the Twenty-First Century, the ability to look back to the previous one and see perspective becomes more feasible. What were once organic developments that were happening around us are now seen as groupings and movements. This look at the period between the First and Second World Wars is therefore much more than a simple, or even simplistic or convenient, chronological slice of time.

The name-checks here are impressive: the Nashes, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer to name just a few. At the same time, women artists came to be recognised as serious practitioners and Laura Knight, Evelyn Dunbar and Barbara Hepworth, along with others, put in more than a fleeting appearance.

The ends of wars tend to engender hope, but also a demand for improvements and new horizons. Although much of the groundwork had been done in the 1920s and 30s, the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 is a case in point, as was 1951’s Festival of Britain. Both of these are outside the scope of the book, but they demonstrate the appetite for renewal as a nation rebuilds.

Frances Spalding’s thesis is that the art world (the book is specifically about English art) was left directionless in 1918. Many of its best known names were either now fading or had simply been killed, but the idea of things being effectively thrown up in the air is a compelling one. Everything was in turmoil and everything was possible as the desire for a connection to the past met the possibilities made available by new directions and the avant-garde. Quite simply, the old world was revisited on the terms of the then present day, with artists, writers and sculptors also open to Continental ideas.

As the skies darkened during the 1930s, the mood became harder and Surrealism, for example, fed into the continuing tradition.

It is Frances Spalding’s contention that the inter-war years saw a fruitful conjunction of forward-looking realism with more backward-facing romanticism to create an art structure that was unique to, but also very much a product of its time.

The writing is thorough and the arguments convincing, with plenty of examples, analyses and histories. The book is also generously illustrated and Thames & Hudson again pull off their trick of getting good colour reproduction on book paper.

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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.

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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.

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