Archive for category Subject: Art History

Lee Krasner: Living Colour || ed Eleanor Nairne

Lee Krasner is this year’s rediscovery. Alongside a major European retrospective exhibition and Gail Levin’s biography is this new monograph that provides an account and chronology of Krasner’s working life as well as illustrating a thoroughly representative selection of her work.

That Krasner’s reputation has been largely obscured by the superstar nature of her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now a matter of record. As an aside to this, in On Chapel Sands, her memoir of her mother, Betty, Laura Cumming recounts her saying, of her marriage to another artist, that there is only room for one painter in a family. It seems that Betty willingly turned her creative endeavour to weaving. We can also look at Rose Hilton as an example of another partner whose work was, in this case, deliberately suppressed by a husband. Yes, it’s usually the men who prevail. Maybe Elizabeth (Betty) Cumming was right and artistic differences and jealousies do inevitably affect both creativity and a relationship.

If Lee Krasner didn’t get the appreciation she deserved during her lifetime, her reputation is being salvaged by posterity, which can examine her work through the lens of history. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Rather than being the Wunderkind that Pollock was lauded as during his life, Krasner can be seen as an artist both of her own time and that of the decades that have followed. It may be unfair, but it provides a different and, maybe, ultimately more subtle analysis: one with perspective.

If you want a one-volume guide to Lee Krasner’s work, this is it. True, such things may not be thick on the ground but, if you had to sketch out what you wanted from such a book, the format you have here would pretty much match it. The quality of the illustrations is generally excellent and, if the odd rather elderly colour transparency creeps in, that’s probably inevitable – better to have the picture than lose it because it’s not the sharpest slide in the tray.

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In 50 Works – Van Gogh/Matisse || John Cauman

There’s no shortage of books on the Old Masters, from scholarly interpretations to coffee-table collections of works.

Think of these, therefore, as manageable and affordable primers that contain enough biographical and analytical information to satisfy without overwhelming and which ultimately stand or fall on the curatorial ability of the author – to put it simply, how good is he at making a truly representative selection of the artist’s work?

There’s no definite answer to that question, as long as styles and chronology are respected (it’s worth noting that the illustrations appear in date order and, indeed, are dated). Your own favourites may be omitted, potentially leaving you shouting at the page. On the other hand, sometimes someone else’s view can lend perspective to your own – or maybe you just want the heavy lifting done for you.

However, it does work and, while not quite at pocket-money prices, these are genuinely good value and sit nicely in what is – let’s not be shy about this – a crowded market.

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The World Exists to be Put on a Postcard || Jeremy Cooper

We don’t send postcards any more. Social media and increasing costs have put paid to those snippets of holiday life that were at once intriguing, informative and frustrating. If you want to know that the weather is frightful, that the dog has a cough or Mavis a new top, you’ll have to turn to Past Postcard on Twitter (please do, it’s great fun). Those cardboard rectangles depicting sunny beaches, donkeys in hats, the shopping centre or new roundabout have been consigned to history. And maybe that’s a good thing.

But postcards have also been a part of the art world for several decades – this book and its accompanying exhibition at the British Museum covers the period from 1960 to the present day. The mood is always a bit left-field, revolutionary or subversive. This isn’t superfine art, but rather a semi-private world where the message is more personal. Mavis may not have a new top, but, in Art News Revisited (1976), Hannah Wilke has none at all – it’s part of a series where she uses her own body to make a feminist statement. A decade later, Michael Langenstein presents surreal images that include the Statue of Liberty in a yellow vest (how very now) and a parking meter on the moon.

The whole is basically art as non-art, but in an entirely artistic way. Yes, that is contradictory, but that’s the point of the form and, seeing what is largely a fragmented movement (if it was even that) together demonstrates that there was and is a theme and that art can, and probably should, be controversial and ask awkward questions.

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The Short Story of Modern Art || Susie Hodge

This is, in many ways, the companion to Susie’s earlier Why Your Five year Old Could Not Have Done That. Where that volume concentrated on explaining specific pieces to the general reader whose initial response would be likely to be “doesn’t look much like art to me”, this one is a more chronological narrative that traces historical developments, movements and important figures.

In this way, Bauhaus sits alongside Magic Realism and leads to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. A look at The Treachery of Images is illustrated, perhaps inevitably, by Magritte’s Pipe (This is Not a Pipe) and we also get to meet Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock. Did I also say that Rodin’s Thinker is here too?

As the title implies, this is a potted history that is at once informative, entertaining and understandable. If modern art (and all art was, in its day, modern), leaves you confused, the estimable Susie Hodge cuts a swathe through mystery, jargon and the sometimes deliberate obscurantism that some critics seem to need to introduce.

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I Know An Artist || Susie Hodge

Once you get the hang of it, this is an intriguing ramble through the connections between artists, schools and movements. The structure is a series of short (one might even say potted) biographies of figures as diverse as Monet, Mondrian, Hepworth and Emin. The contents pages provide a guide through the maze and point out the various byways, as a look at (say) Bridget Riley stops off to consider Pollock, Cezanne and Matisse.

Art does not, of course, exist in a vacuum and completely fresh ideas are a rarity; rather, individuals and groups feed off each other and develop, or maybe react against, what has gone before. That this has been widely covered is scarcely news, and is the main meat of many art histories. Where this book differs is in concentrating on individuals and making specific links; indeed, majoring on that rather than a narrative thread of history.

The slightly idiosyncratic presentation, with amusing illustrations and what can only be described as kooky typography tends at first glance to cloud the message, but a read of the subtitle, the introduction and the contents list should provide a workable road map. I’m also not sure that without the look and feel, the book would be half so interesting. Precisely because this isn’t a linear history, it benefits from a non-linear way of working.

If you like unconventional ways of thinking that make you look at familiar material afresh, you’ll love this.

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St Ives- the art and the artists || Chris Stephens

Published in conjunction with the Tate, who very much have skin in this game, this thorough but eminently accessible volume presents an overview of the artists who have worked in St Ives.

The approach is broadly chronological, but is not so rigid that schools, groupings and movements cannot be accommodated. There is, inevitably, a lot of information and this is not something for those who would prefer a coffee table book concentrating on the works themselves, although it is comprehensively illustrated. At the same time, it is not so academic as to be of interest only to the dedicated historian of the period. This is a difficult balance to achieve, but something Chris Stephens has pulled off really rather admirably.

Although the main period of the St Ives school covered only some twenty-five years, the story continues into the 1960s and concludes with the opening of Tate St Ives in 1993. The names you’d expect to find are all here: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, but so too are less well-known names as well as sources of influence from Europe and elsewhere.

This is a story worth telling and, although much has been written about the art of St Ives, none of it has quite encompassed the arc of history that is contained here.

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A New Way of Seeing || Kelly Grovier

The subtitle, The History of Art in 57 Works, indicates just what a fascinating idea this is. It is also, of course, a fiendishly difficult trick to pull off – one false step in the choice of pieces, or one allusion misplaced and the whole structure is in danger. You will probably have your own ideas of what should have been included or left out, but there’s a sure-footedness to the curation that makes the thesis hard to argue with.

Grovier is a perceptive critic and analyst and doesn’t just use obvious choices as a convenient hanger for the conventional story. This is not just a list of works with standard links from one school to another. Rather, he picks often familiar pieces apart, looking for small details that enhance their meaning and significance. This does not, as it so easily could, result in a clever reading that showcases the author’s learning, but rather adds, as intended, to the reader’s understanding and appreciation. At the same time, it reminds us to look with a fresh and enquiring eye and not always to accept the received view. That’s quite an achievement.

As well as looking at detail, Grovier compares the main work to others in the same genre, but rarely from the same period or even the same medium. Figurative works can lead to photographs: Rodin’s The Thinker includes a look at an André Gill caricature of Charles Darwin as a monkey. Matisse’s The Dance considers not just other work by Matisse, but also William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. It all makes perfect sense and adds a context that goes far beyond that which is immediate.

This is, indeed, a very handy and beautifully illustrated overview of art history, but it’s also about looking and seeing. The choice of works is catholic and designed to work with the thrust of the thesis, but overall, it’s a case well made.

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