Archive for category Subject: Art History

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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Beyond the Brotherhood: the pre-Raphaelite legacy || Anne Anderson

Most people would, I think, assume that the Pre-Raphaelite movement was largely a backwater, fascinating undoubtedly, but complete in itself. A first reaction to the blurb’s mention of a reinvention in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones would probably be scepticism; it certainly sounds like a point being stretched for the benefit of a book.

However, prepare to be convinced, because the illustrations alone demonstrate the truth of the thesis and, while some of the most recent works in the collection owe as much to the general run of Victorian and fantasy art in general, there is nevertheless a visible thread. Perhaps it would be better to see the PRB as proto-fantasists.

The book accompanies an exhibition at Southampton Art and Russell-Cotes Galleries running between October 2019 and June 2020. If you want to see a really rather good collection in the original, this is an excellent opportunity. As we have come to expect from Sansom, the quality of the reproduction is excellent and the image sizes generous – major works mostly appear as near full-page as possible. The price, for what you get, is also quite modest, possibly because some of the costs have been defrayed by the exhibition – however it’s achieved, it’s superb value.

Inevitably, this is something of a specialised subject. There are plenty of books about the Pre-Raphaelites and not everyone who wants those will also be interested in the legacy. However, the book, which includes a thorough interpretative text, makes a very convincing argument and includes a great deal of material that isn’t often seen together.

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Artists’ Letters || Michael Bird

This is one of those books that probably benefits from being dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover, a thing to be kept handy when there’s an odd moment to fill. This is not to denigrate it to the point of superficiality, but rather to recognise that, while informative and often illuminating, correspondence in bulk (rather like collected newspaper articles) can get a little repetitive.

The blurb describes this as a “treasure trove” and I wouldn’t quibble with that. Michael Bird has had the good sense to be selective, even if his collection does run to a fairly substantial 224 pages. He also includes plenty of visual material because artists, being artists, often fail to resist the inclusion of a sketch or cartoon. Being largely private letters, these are frequently acerbic or amusing and refer to the relationship between the sender and recipient. And, without labouring the point, Bird also explains the context of the epistle in question, adding to both understanding and enjoyment.

The book handily subtitles itself “Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney”, emphasising the breadth of its coverage (no, the creator of Mona Lisa didn’t communicate with the painter of Mr & Mrs Clarke and Percy). Curation in a collection such as this is key and Bird avoids the temptation to get too clever or to stick to the ploddingly obvious chronological arrangement. He arranges his material by themes and his chapter headings make it clear that he isn’t taking his task too seriously (I refer back to my suggestion of dipping in). These include “I saw a new giraffe”, “Your book on witchcraft” and “Hey beautiful” – all quotes, of course, not meditations on the inner workings of creativity.

This is a book of entertainment rather than erudition and it’s all the better for that. There are plenty of studies of art and artists that cover their working methods, philosophy and private lives. This one exposes the workings of their minds when they were thinking less about art than whether Michelangelo’s nephew should marry, Mondrian’s teeth are in good shape or how soon Jean Cocteau will recover from illness. (Picasso adds, “I’ve got good ideas for our theatre story” – Cocteau was working on ideas for the ballet, Parade.)

This contributes more to an understanding and enjoyment of art and artists than you might expect, by bringing its characters to life in their own words.

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The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting || Norbert Wolf

A very long time ago, a remainder dealer managed to convince me that a book he was flogging called Florentine Art Treasures would be a perfect fit for my market. It was a hasty paste-up job, not very well reproduced, but it was large format and did contain a lot of illustrations for the relatively modest sum he was charging. In my defence I was young, rather naïve and a bit of a sitting duck. No, we didn’t manage to sell more than a small handful.

Some years later, reminiscing with another bookseller, we started talking about that dealer and my friend asked, “Did he try to sell you Florentine Art Treasures?” I admitted the truth. The story was, apparently, that the dealer used to drive around London with a box of the cursed things in the boot of his Rolls Royce (yes, it’s possible to make money out of bookselling, but you have to be sharp as a razor) on the off-chance that someone would run into him and he could offload a couple of dozen onto the insurance.

All of which preamble is a way of saying that large books of art treasures and I have a chequered history and that my view of them may be just a touch jaundiced.

This is a big book – I mean, really big. If you want your own private art gallery on your coffee table (it’s not something to sit with in your lap for long), this will give you one of the best collections of Lowlands art it’s possible to have. No more peering into tight spines or at really-too-small reproductions, the illustrations here are as near to being in a gallery as you’re going to get. There is also a good narrative of the history of the times and critical analysis of schools and artists. Rather handily, several of the major works are set alongside comparison pieces by other artists that treat the same subject or use similar compositions.

Excellent though this is, the reproduction does seem a trifle soft in places and you might find yourself struggling to see some of the detail. This doesn’t impose, though, and may be something you only really notice when you start looking really closely. It’s a shame, but sometimes publishers are restricted by the quality of the photographs they can get (high-resolution scanning is not generally available for priceless paintings in public collections). For all that, if I was going to part with a whisker under £100 for a book, I might expect it to be the acme of perfection.

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Living With Leonardo || Martin Kemp

Leonardo Da Vinci has captured the public imagination like almost no other artist. Why else would they queue in their thousands for hours just to shuffle past the Mona Lisa without ever getting a proper view? Why else would Salvator Mundi, having been “restored” almost to destruction, sell for unimaginable millions, even though its attribution has been questioned at the highest level? Maybe it’s the enigma, maybe it’s the writings – the intriguing idea that, even if he didn’t invent the helicopter, he at least invented the idea of it.

This is an account of a lifetime of study. There is no shortage of Leonardo experts (Kemp is one of the best), pundits, collectors, dealers and fantasists. Precisely because the man himself is such an enigma, stories can be told about him, the truth bent into shapes that themselves could count as works of plastic art. If you want to sell a thriller, The Da Vinci Code is probably the most eye-catching title you could give it – after that, who cares how much hokum it contains?

This is a serious but accessible study of Leonardo’s work, but also an account of the industry that feeds on it, and of the process of untangling fact from myth and fantasy. A focus merely on the art would be one for the specialists (though, when it comes to Leonardo, everyone is arguably a specialist). This, while being authoritative in that respect, is also an account of the chase and very much accessible for the more general reader.

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The Elizabethan Image || Roy Strong

This is the ideal companion, as well as counterpart, to Elizabeth Goldring’s fabulous account of the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard.

Where miniatures were intensely personal, this is the public face of art. Appearance and perception were paramount in the Sixteenth Century, where the intrigues and machinations of the Court have parallels in the politics of today. It is greatly to Roy Strong’s credit that, while he makes this point, he does not labour it. It’s introduced as a way of understanding the past, not to explain the present.

Elizabethan art was full of iconography – the position of hands, what they hold and minute details of clothing all tell the viewer something about the subject and Strong shows how these run through the period covered. Not all the paintings were intended for wider public consumption, but they would probably have been seen by an inner circle and served as a reminder of, and to cement, position. They are, in many ways, the voices of those who commissioned them.

This is a full and thorough account of a fascinating period of English history that necessarily also covers the politics of the time. Strong never forgets, though, that he is primarily writing an artistic account and his narrative always concentrates on this. The illustrations are many, well-chosen and superbly reproduced.

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Surrealism || Amy Dempsey

Say “Surrealism” to most people and they’ll immediately think of Salvador Dali. This is a shame, even if it’s inevitable, as Dali is a controversial figure who some argue was more about self-promotion than being a member of any group or movement. On the other hand, he also made a great deal of money, and this can make other artists mad as hell. And, before you say that a book on Surrealism can’t exclude Dali, there is plenty here. Pay your money, take your choice.

This is part of a series called Art Essentials and Surrealism is certainly that, being a major movement of the Twentieth Century when art was moving away from representation and finding its feet in a changing world. As well as Dali, you’ll find other well-known names such as Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Frida Kahlo and many more who won’t be so familiar but are part of the supporting canon.

This is mainly a primer, as the series title suggests, but it is also very thorough, particularly so for what is a relatively slim volume. The Surrealist movement is put in its historical context and its predecessors are covered as well – the index even has an entry for Lewis Carroll. It’s worth noting that there are two indices so, if the main (single page) one doesn’t have the artist you want, turn back for the one covering major figures.

This is an excellent introduction to its subject that you may well feel gives you sufficient information without the need to extend your library further.

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Sensations || Jonathan Jones

This somewhat left-field thesis takes the Enlightenment as its starting point and finds a link between scientific curiosity and the development of art. Jones makes a convincing case, beginning with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia – a work that is extraordinary not just because of its scientific novelty, but also the craft of its illustrations. From here, Newton and Locke come into the picture as scientific exploration inspired a passion for closer examination of the natural world.

It’s reasonable to ask whether this is a concoction, of making facts fit answers. Did the Gentlemen’s Societies where ideas were exchanged encompass both worlds as completely as Jones’s narrative requires? Well, you can’t argue with George Stubbs or Joseph Wright of Derby, whose work arguably continued a thread that Hooke had begun.

The sensations of the title mainly derive from the Sensationalist philosophy of Joseph Locke, which centred on experience (sense) as the key to understanding, and might be said to be the foundation of what is now called the Scientific Method. However, Jones also wants to create a sensation himself. The chapter on George Stubbs is called The Butcher of Horkstow and opens, “ He began by slitting their throats”. That got your attention, didn’t it?

In less careful hands, this style would become the message itself and obscure the narrative behind it. Jones has a surer hand, however, and has managed to create a history of British art that reads more like a thriller than a dry academic tome. It won’t please everyone, but it’s an enjoyable journey that’s also thoroughly inclusive.

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Painting Masterclass || Susie Hodge

At first sight, this has the appearance of another of Susie Hodge’s excellent analyses of the painting methods of historical masters. The format and binding are even the same as her Art in Detail series.

This is not entirely surprising, as that’s exactly what it is. However, the book is more specifically geared to the practical reader and uses what we’ll call great works to analyse a wide variety of topics. Call it learning by example, the descriptive rather than the prescriptive method.

The word Masterclass is bandied about rather indiscriminately in the book world and is frequently applied to anything the publisher thinks isn’t obviously introductory or for the beginner. Sometimes, my inner cynic mutters that they just want a title that appeals to the more experienced artist, who perhaps hasn’t been buying enough of their books lately. Well hush my mouth – a bit.

Here, though the word is entirely justified (and you might want to add that, if anyone isn’t going to misuse it, that person would be Susie Hodge). This is most precisely a masterclass. The teachers are masters and the class is absolutely for the experienced worker. There are no instructions – you won’t be following any exercises or demonstrations here. What you will be doing is learning how Georges Seurat used form and colour, how shapes work in Manet’s Déjuner sur l’Herbe (actually, Anglicised titles are used throughout) or light breathes atmosphere into a Fantin-Latour still life.

Susie is, as ever, concise and cogent in her analyses and the book works almost as well as an introduction to art appreciation, meaning you could say you’re getting twice the value which, given the quality and quantity of the illustrations, would make it an absolute steal.

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Look Again – how to experience the old masters || Ossian Ward

There’s no shortage of books on art history and appreciation or of assessments, frequently offering new insights, of Old Master paintings. The sheer weight and distribution of source material ensures a steady process of well-qualified authors. Ossian Ward is Head of Content at the Lisson Gallery and was previously chief art critic at London’s Time Out magazine.

There is much in favour of this new volume. For a start, it’s compact. If you’re trying to get to grips with art appreciation, the last thing you want is to be overwhelmed by material, and this is very much a primer. While relatively elementary, what it is not is superficial. There are plenty of well-reproduced illustrations that are, within the confines of a book that would fit in a jacket pocket, generously sized. Its binding also allows it to fall open easily, meaning that the reader is not forced to peer into the spine to inspect a detail the text has fixed on. These things matter.

The text is written as a narrative and the “again” of the title refers to the viewer taking an extended look at the artwork, rather than the book being a radical departure from received wisdom. This doesn’t mean that it is a re-hash of all that has gone before, but rather a distillation for a particular audience – one that will value the concise over the exhaustive. The chapter headings are “Art as…” and topics include honesty, drama, horror and folly. These are eye-catching as much as anything else, but allow an examination of many different works from many different viewpoints. The method is not to dissect individual paintings, but rather to demonstrate a variety of ways of approaching art as a whole and to show the newcomer what to look for in terms of composition, symbols and the overall treatment of the subject.

Add all this to an enjoyable read – even a bit of a page-turner – and you have a solid winner.

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