Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Books that Shaped Art History

“…a terrific read.”

Collection development is in full swing at this time of year for academic libraries. I decided to order The Books that Shaped Art History (2013, Thames and Hudson) to help fill in any gaps in our collection. Sixteen acclaimed titles are critiqued by academics and curators in this publication edited by Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard. The books were written in English, French, and German, and all are now available in English; the corresponding essays are exclusively in English. Substantiating the selection is the fact that the sixteen authors are repeated throughout many of the essays; for example, Nikolaus Pevsner studied under Heinrich Wölfflin, whose approach to formalism influenced Kenneth Clark, who wrote Bernard Berenson’s obituary, and so on.

“A roadmap of sorts for reading art history” (p. 7), the entries are chronologically organized, from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Thus, the reader gets a sense of how art history has evolved—for example, moving from judgments about formal qualities, like Roger Fry praising Cézanne’s use of colour, to the tentative experimentation with and then the full embrace of a social history of art, to the extent that value judgments like Fry’s all but disappeared.

The groundbreaking 16 titles are:

Emile Mâle’s L’art religieux du XIII siècle en France: Etude sur l’iconographie du Moyen Age et sur ses sources d’inspiration, 1898; reviewed by Alexandra Gajewski—Written during a time when Medieval cathedrals were on the chopping block, this systematic exploration of these places of worship commented on multiple arts (sculpture, stained glass, and architecture) and found the perfection of form to be an “encyclopaedic account of Medieval Christian knowledge” (p. 21).

Bernard Berenson’s The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticized and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, 1903; reviewed by Carmen C. Bambach—Based on research from original drawings (which were then undervalued and improperly catalogued, making this an impressive feat), this multi-volume publication introduced a focus on connoisseurship and the comparison of works of art to substantiate attribution, a process that had been sloppy until that point in time.

Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neuen Kunst, 1915; reviewed by David Summers—Fascinated that four artists painted the same landscape differently in sync, Wölfflin used cultural-historical generalizations to explain artistic output: temperament, school, nationality, and race (which had interesting implications in light of the book being published during World War I).

Roger Fry’s Cézanne: A Study of His Development, 1927; reviewed by Richard Verdi—Back when Cézanne was only remembered by a handful of people in his hometown, Fry cast him as a modern master by deconstructing in clear language the process of abstraction his painting subjects underwent and introducing a style of art criticism that encouraged readers to scrutinize the elements and principles of design.

Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 1936; reviewed by Colin Amery—In this “‘gospel’ of modernism” (p. 68) that lauded Gropius and Morris for their socialist tendencies and their avoidance of ‘art for art’s sake,’ Pevsner legitimized the movement by establishing its forefathers (and, ipso facto, its provenance).

Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s Matisse: His Art and His Public, 1951; reviewed by John Elderfield—Based on extensive primary research and published at the end of Matisse’s life, this monograph was so big, so thorough, and so validating that even Picasso (on whom Barr had written his Harvard thesis) was annoyed.

Erwin Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, 1953; reviewed by Susie Nash—Panofsky made up for his poor memory (read: inaccurately described works due to time lapsed) with wit and writing finesse, in his exploration of the disguised symbolism in richly detailed Netherlandish painting.

Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, 1956; reviewed by John-Paul Stonard— In addition to defining nudes as a genre, this book held mass appeal for the public (which is unsurprising since the act of writing it—of capturing the eroticism and sexual appeal of nudes—caused the author to tremble).

E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960; reviewed by Christopher S. Wood—In his socio-cultural examination of the purpose of art, Gombrich tried to tap into the mindsets of artists before the rise of modernism and consider how they reconciled ideas for images with visual rhetoric and expectations of patrons and other audience members.

Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture: Critical Essays, 1961; reviewed by Boris Groys—In defending the avant-garde, Greenberg envisioned a polarity of high and low art rather than historical and post-modern art, pitching it as brilliantly self-referential in analyzing artmaking tradition and suited to audiences with a thirst for knowledge more so than aestheticism.

Francis Haskell’s Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, 1963; reviewed by Louise Rice—Haskell brought patronage out from the sidelines of art history, by conducting extensive archival research and bringing to life a host of characters whose unique situations were allowed to be seen as just that, rather than imposing patterns unnecessarily (thus serving as an alternative to ideologically-driven Marxism).

Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 1972; reviewed by Paul Hills—Baxandall’s sensitivity to language (for example, how classical Latin and vernacular Italian phrasing affect our perception of art) extended to his ability to engage a popular audience with a style that feels like “being taken on a quest rather than presented with a cut-and-dried body of facts, let alone a theory” (p. 154).

T.J. Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, 1973; reviewed by Alastair Wright—In this meticulously researched book, the neo-Marxist author presents Courbet as purposefully ambivalent towards the underdog, resulting in powerfully subversive paintings that confuse the audience and shake up their beliefs.

Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, 1983; reviewed by Mariët Westermann—In contrasting (and ultimately defending) characteristically pleasant and detailed Dutch painting against its narrative Italian counterpart, Alpers called for a return to seeing it as descriptive and as a practical craft befitting of a map-making and telescope-inventing culture that valued exactitude.

Rosalind Krauss’ The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985; reviewed by Anna Lovatt—Unafraid to adjust her methodology, terminology, and philosophical position in a continual reassessment of art history, Krauss ushered in a new era with this anthology by applying structuralist and post-structuralist theory to postmodern art and moving past the preoccupation with media and historical context of works of art.

Hans Belting’s Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst, 1990; reviewed by Jeffrey Hamburger—Responsible for making the terms ‘cult’ and ‘Medieval’ interchangeable to some, Belting described the movement of the sanctified image from east to west, ushering in pictorial development in Western art and causing such a substantial shift that he thought of the two periods as ‘before’ and ‘after’ the work of art.

This book had me as soon as I saw its sewn-in ribbon bookmark, but it’s also a terrific read. There are some juicy stories: for example, we learn that Berenson’s nemesis, a museum director, may have been behind a six-year delay in publishing his book because of image permissions, and that Krauss had it out with a museum director in print over the terms ‘original’ and ‘reproduction’ in relation to a Rodin show.

The Books that Shaped Art History is a valuable academic resource. It contains brief biographies and publication histories for the 16 authors as well as an index. Black and white images are included of each author and each book, including front covers and page spreads. It is highly recommended for librarians involved in acquisitions; art history students of any level who need to write annotated bibliographies; incoming graduate students; and professors selecting readings for undergraduate or graduate students.

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