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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Refuge and Renewal: migration and British art || Peter Wakelin

Incomers provide a new perspective on their adoptive territory and also contribute to the development of its art through the integration of styles and techniques. This is not the same as internationalism, where artists from one country observe those in others and adopt and adapt their ways of working. Integration provides a fuller amount of exchange and symbiosis that works both ways. Something as simple as differing light can affect the way scenes are depicted, just as social mores and patterns of dress influence figurative work.

This book is based on a British perspective – to treat the subject from a completely international viewpoint would be enormous and far beyond the scope of this book and the exhibition, at the Royal West of England Academy, it accompanies.

For all that, it goes far enough back into history to look at the Sixteenth Century portraits of Hans Holbein and other artists who learnt their trade abroad. Peter Wakelin also considers the work of fleeing Huguenots such as Marcellus Laroon, whose Cryes of London has given identity to some of the forgotten masses – foreshadowing, in a way, Henry Mayhew’s Nineteenth Century narrative London Labour and the London Poor.

The main focus though, perhaps unsurprisingly, is on the Twentieth Century when wars and upheaval caused many, often large, population shifts. Helmut Herzfeld (who Anglicised his name to John Heartfield) portrayed those sought by the Gestapo in 1930s Germany, while Dobrivoje Beljkašic recorded his native Sarajevo in the 1990s.

Despite the potentially gloomy nature of the subject matter, this is an optimistic book, as reflected in the “renewal” of the title. The narrative is a complex one and Peter Wakelin is aware that he is dealing not with historical shifts but with individuals, each with their own stories and concerns. Ultimately, this is a book about art, not national and social history, and Wakelin marshals his material well, sparking interest at all points.

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Pushing Paper || Isabel Seligman

This rather gorgeous book accompanied an exhibition at the British Museum exploring and celebrating the medium of drawing in contemporary art. All this is in the past tense as I seem to have managed to overlook it at the time (it was published in September 2019). Although it’s probably too late to see the original works, this record remains.

The death of different media, or even art itself has been declared or predicted since virtually the dawn of time. There was probably an old curmudgeon sitting at the back of the cave, watching the flickering firelight on the wall images and muttering darkly. Fox Talbot announced that, with the invention of photography, “from today, painting is dead”. How did that go, Bill?

Isabel Seligman feels it necessary to explain why drawing has endured as long as it has and I won’t insult any of us by summarising or simplifying; suffice it to say that it has a remarkable persistence and that every generation finds new ways of using it and making it relevant and contemporary. The important thing is that pretty much everything here feels innovative and presents a new way of looking at the world. The images are by turn informative and challenging. There are only so many ways you can put marks on paper, but the how, why and where are what make the difference and make art.

The period covered is 1970 to the present day. That’s not “contemporary” to everyone, of course, covering as it does the best part of fifty years, but it does provide a useful backdrop to the present and a history of a sort that doesn’t get all historical and academic.

Drawing is a medium that excites wherever it appears. It’s simple, or at least starts in simplicity and that, I think, is the basis of why it endures.

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John Ruskin: an idiosyncratic dictionary || Michael Glover

Just how seriously this small volume should be taken is indicated by the rest of the subtitle (“an idiosyncratic dictionary encompassing his passions, his delusions & his prophesies”). There is a portentousness to the structure of the sentence that entirely reflects the man himself, who was in no doubt as to his own greatness, yet has influenced others as diverse as the first Labour Party MPs and Martin Luther King.

This is in some ways a vade mecum, a book to open at random for asides, insights, diversions and, maybe, inspiration. Whether baby language, badgers or railway stations, Ruskin had an Opinion. He promoted the value of physical labour and organised Oxford undergraduates in a scheme for repairing roads, which even involved Oscar Wilde (Glover doesn’t remark that this may have come in handy later, but…)

This is a book to be taken lightly. Although it pokes gentle fun at its subject, it is also aware of his place in history and does not debunk him, being rather an affectionate look at the lighter side of his eccentricities. As well as quotes and anecdotes, there are also entries, such as that rather unexpected one on Martin Luther King, that also enlighten and enhance our vision of John Ruskin on the bi-centenary of his birth.

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