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‘Art’: A Diminished Magnificence

Damien Hirst, Love’s Paradox

Has any other art, even literature or music, ever exceeded the visual arts in its ambition, its richness, and its sheer beauty?


Publisher: DK Publishing
Subtitle: The Definitive Visual Guide
Author: Forward
Price: $50.00
Display Artist: Ross King, Forward
Length: 612
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780756639723
US publication date: 2008-10

Beginning in an ancient cave of the late Ice Age with the human race’s first surviving artworks, and ending nearly 600 pages and about 30,000 years later with a reference to a Hopewell Indian earthen mound used as inspiration by contemporary Chinese-American sculptor Maya Lin, Dorling Kindersley’s monumental survey, Art, comes full circle, and covers a lot of ground in the process, in nearly impeccable fashion.

This is a great book, but not because it breaks any new ground. As a survey of the visual arts through history and across continents, the purpose of Art is not to propose new ways of looking at art or individual artists, but merely to attempt to display that history in reasonably representative and comprehensive fashion. In this, Art succeeds spectacularly well.

However, there is an implicit theme to Art. For as the book demonstrates, the visual arts have indeed come full circle, after many centuries of experimentation with better and more beautiful ways to represent both everyday life and the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions. Eschewing traditional concerns with “artifices” such as perspective and composition, in recent years there instead has been a concern, in minimal art, with fundamental forms; in abstract expressionism, with the archetypal and the mythological; in Dada and surrealism, with the arational and the dreamlike; and, in graffiti art, with the spontaneous and the unmediated.

The rise of magical thinking; of the primitive or faux-primitive; of the naïve or faux-naif; of the inscrutable and the enigmatic; and of the secular, the pre-religious, and the mystical, are not the only things that characterize contemporary art, of course. But a book like Art makes it easy to see that visual art has in recent years bitten its own tail, albeit often in entertaining and colorful fashion.

Thus, the eviscerations of Damien Hirst, who has assured his financial future by haruspicating baby cows; the ancient but vibrant archetypes of the Italian painter Sandro Chia; and the visually and emotionally overwhelming sculptures on canvas of artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel, who, even as they discard the techniques of traditional figuration, add new-but-ancient elements such as twigs and branches, ashes and antlers, and broken plates and bits of straw to create, as this book puts it, "a troubling vision of a broken world."

Though some traditionalists might object, the impression created by a survey such as Art is not necessarily – or, rather, not merely – that the visual arts are in decline, but instead that the experimentation with representation and perspective that began from the moment the first human artist picked up the first ochre-and-charcoal-filled reed has been a more-or-less inevitable progression (even in the sense that it might also be a full-circle regression) to where we stand today.

And in fact, in its preoccupation with new media (video, neon, found materials, site-specific installations and the like) and new subject matters (sexuality, transgression, kitsch culture, detritus) contemporary art, even as it returns to ancient ground, has indisputably plowed new furrows as well. Still, for me and I would suspect the majority of readers, the greatest interest in this book lies somewhere in its very extensive middle, beginning in the 13th Century about the time of Cimabue or the Song Dynasty, and ending at some point during the long life span of Picasso.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

In the hundreds of pages and dozens of countries covered in this middle period, the magnificence on display is almost impossible to grasp at a single sitting. Has any other art, even literature or music, ever exceeded the visual arts in its ambition, its richness, and its sheer beauty? This book, which contains more than 2,500 reproductions, makes a compelling case that none has.

Having spent countless absorbing hours over the years at art galleries and museums in London, Oxford, Paris, Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, the Vatican, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Mexico City, Tokyo, and in cities small and large throughout the United States, and having looked at a great many monographs and art surveys, I thought I was at least passingly familiar with most of history’s major painters.

But this book exposed me to new artists I;d never heard of, or had (as a non-academic lay enthusiast) merely overlooked. The 15th Century Dutch painter Geerten, for example, who “relied on radiant light, slender, childlike figures, and naturalism to convey his holy vision,” and whose Nativity, reproduced here, is a tender marvel.

Or, from the same time, the German artist Martin Schongauer, who employed fantastic, twisting forms in his demon-filled engravings.

Then there is Guido Reni, whose work I surely must have encountered at some art museum at some point, but whose surpassingly gentle depiction of St. Matthew is reproduced so beautifully here that it might as well be the first time I had ever seen it.

Among the other lesser-knowns presented are the Danish painter Christen Kobke; the German Impressionist Lovis Cornith (yes, there were German Impressionists); the Vermeer-like Vilhelm Hammershoi; the Bolognese sculptor Francesco Primaticcio; the Finnish Art Nouveau painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela; and the Ming Dynasty painter Tang Yin, represented here by the brilliant The Immortal Ge Changgeng Sitting on his Three-legged Toad.

But the instantly familiar greats are well-accounted for, too. Many, like the sublimely accomplished Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, are represented not only by depictions of their greatest works, but by “Closer Looks”, in this case, a close-up of the astonished expression on the face of Daphne (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) at the very instant when she is transformed into a tree.

Others, like da Vinci, get several full pages of closer looks, in this case an examination of The Last Supper that surpasses (I can personally testify) the experience of seeing the work in person, in the refectory of the Monastery of S. Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

And Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights gets four full pages filled with fascinating detail – more detail, in fact, than can be found in some books devoted solely to the work of this devoutly Christian proto-surrealist. Botticelli, Picasso, Matisse, and Manet also get illuminating close-ups, although Monet, somewhat surprisingly, does not.

Samuel Palmer, Early Morning

Between the greats and the (at least to me) unknowns, there is a vast middle-ground of near-greats, niche artists and merely-goods, and Art covers most of them as well: Samuel Palmer, for example, whose monochromatic fantasia, Early Morning, is allotted a very small space in the pages of Art and yet is perfectly reproduced.

Without being at all politically correct, this volume also does a creditable job of covering non-Western art, and not only the Chinese, Japanese, and Islamic art one might expect in a book that attempts to pay lip service to the non-Occidental traditions. There also are sections on Oceania and Aboriginal Art, for example, the latter a brief but informative close-up of a newly fashionable style and of one of its most original practitioners, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

And, admirably, the survey of African art isn’t limited only to the familiar headdresses and fertility figures; there are also several pages of contemporary African painting and sculpture – undoubtedly, to a scholar, a painfully superficial survey, but understandably so given the enormous time and geographic range the publishers have chosen to cover.

Before the visual survey begins, the book also contains a useful overview for students and newcomers on topics such as subject and composition; color; media and techniques; light and shade; brushstrokes and texture; and perspective and viewpoint. And, over the book’s long journey from the caves of Lascaux to, on the very last page, American Indian artist Jimmie Durham’s sculpture of a rock with a crude face painted on it smashing into a mirror, Art is interspersed with two-page surveys, featuring plentiful illustrations, of significant genres, including landscape, animals, portraits, and the nude.

It is impossible to construct any anthology considering any art form without some carping critic complaining from the sidelines about what was shockingly left out or foolishly left in. So, in that grand tradition, let me carp about the fact that the section on Rembrandt seems a lot shorter than it should be, and that there should have been more and better examples of the works of Ruisdael. Bangkok is filled with magnificent art that is nowhere on display here, and Southeast Asia in general is nearly overlooked.

A few of my personal favorites, like the American Charles Burchfield, are omitted entirely, and there is only a passing reference to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And it would be really nice if some editor, somewhere, some day, showed some intellectual courage and gently excised Cy Twombly, that pretentious twit, from the canon of great contemporary painters. Oh, and while you’re at it, Franz Kline can go, too.

Tang Yin, The Immortal Ge Changgeng Sitting on his Three-legged Toad

Maybe in the next edition of Art.

But these complaints, or rather prejudices, don’t even rise to the level of quibbles. This magnificently designed (its page numbers are even color-coded) and painstakingly organized book was assembled and printed with such great care that there is not a painting or sculpture anywhere in its pages that is not reproduced well. There are misprints here and there, and a few questionable assertions as well, but again, in perspective, these are of minimal importance.

And, not incidentally in these times, this book is a great bargain at $50, and would make a wonderful gift for any art student.

Through no fault of its own, Art’s final pages seem somewhat diminished from all the magnificence that came before. It will be interesting, over the next few decades, to see if art’s tail manages to detach itself from its mouth and begin again to create paintings and sculptures that respond to the vibrations of contemporary culture and yet would still will be worthy of inclusion in a future historical survey as discerning and ambitious as this one.

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