Archive for category Subject: Art History

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.

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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.

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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.

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Nineteenth-Century Art: a critical history || ed Stephen F Eisenman

This massive brick of a book covers just about every aspect of artistic output including painting, sculpture, photography and furniture.

The comprehensive text from a variety of specialist contributors is accompanied by a generous number of excellently-reproduced illustrations. Big names are here, but also some less well known and even anonymous, such as the Native American representations of both their own culture and interaction with European settlers.

Although substantial and, as I hinted, heavy, this is by no mean unmanageable. The paperback format of this fifth edition is large enough to allow you to see what’s going on without being too big to sit in the hands and it falls open easily without threatening the integrity of the spine. These things don’t happen by accident and the production team at Thames & Hudson deserve credit for giving thought to the poor reader.

Content-wise, consideration has also been given to those who are not approaching this from a drily academic viewpoint. The illustrations leaven what are inevitable text-heavy chapters and breakout features add both summaries and additional depth, with background information on subjects as diverse as race, ecology, utopianism and even madness.

As well as being a thorough survey and history, this magnificent book also manages to show the position of the nineteenth century in the wider history of art and the development of the avant-garde and modernism.

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John Singer Sargent – his life and works in 500 images || Susie Hodge

This is one of the latest titles in a really rather excellent series. Susie Hodge is a perceptive anthologiser and her generous selection of images covers not just the gamut of her subjects’ careers, but also the whole breadth of their work.

Books such as this stand or fall largely on the quality of the reproduction. At a modest £17, one should not be over-critical and good enough is, frankly, good enough. It is therefore a pleasure to report that this is a whole lot better than merely adequate. To get this amount of material could easily cost three or four times as much and, unless you wanted a definitive monograph, you’re vanishingly unlikely to be disappointed. Frankly, I’ve seen books like that which are a whole lot worse, so you can confidently fill your boots with this one.

The text is necessarily concise, but the basic information is all there. Again, we are in the territory of an introductory survey for the general reader and you get, I think, a lot more than you might expect. It’s all very clear and there are some genuine insights – it’s a very great deal more than “this is a painting and this is what it’s of”.

There’s much to like here, much to get your teeth into and it’s an all-round thorough job.

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Artemesia Gentileschi || Jonathan Jones

The #MeToo movement has brought the story of Artemisia Gentileschi into sharp focus and this short biography is timely. Jonathan Jones takes the rather original route of telling the story via a series of the artist’s paintings of women – Susanna, Judith, Cleopatra, Lucretia and Mary, concluding with his own portrait of Artemesia’s own narrative. It makes for lively reading and manages to meld the art with the woman in a genuinely intimate way.

My copy is an advance proof, but the quality of the illustrations, which are collected in the centre rather than being distributed throughout the book, is good. It seems probable that the quality in the published version will be excellent.

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Studio Lives || Louise Campbell

It is, I think, permissible to wonder whether so much has been written about art and artists that new approaches have to be manufactured to keep the supply going. The basic thesis here is that artists have studios in which they work and sometimes live, and that these reflect their lives and the ways in which they are seen and interpreted.

It does, however, make for a good read and, if a project is well handled, coming at a subject from an oblique angle can lead to new insights that materially contribute to the aforesaid well-documented field.

Louise Campbell tells a good story, or rather series of stories, that follows the development of the purpose-built studio which was also accommodation from G F Watts through the Arts & Crafts movement, where art and architecture definitely went hand-in-hand, to Modernist collaborations with the Nicholsons and Barbara Hepworth.

The question to be asked is whether this is a book about art or about architecture? I am not sure just how much artists are influenced by where they work, although there is no doubt that a studio built to their own specifications would be comfortable and conducive to the sort of contemplation that can lead to successful work. Some would disagree and suggest that it is actually discomfort that spurs creation and originality, that the mind needs to be shocked rather than caressed into innovation. Back in the day, I ran an architectural bookshop and I can see this as something that would have fitted very well on its shelves.

In less than skilful hands, a project such as this could be a mess. There are too many artists, too many buildings and, perhaps, too many architects to make sense of what is perhaps a rather thin thread. Louise Campbell, however, marshals her material by telling the stories of the artists themselves within a collection of broad outlines that include The Studio As Home and Building For Art. The result is a clear narrative that, aided by the constraints of period and location (it’s entirely British-based), tells a fascinating and coherent story.

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