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Book Review: The Art Book: New Edition, Edited by Various

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When I was attending university there used to be these things called survey courses. They provided an introduction to a subject without going into a great deal of depth, giving students enough information to let them decide whether they wanted to investigate the subject further. They were commonly used in Art History departments as a means of introducing students to a particular period. So you could take survey courses in everything from Gothic to Modern art.

While I understood the purposes these courses served academically, I also found them boring. I mean who wants to spend week after week looking at paintings which all look the same? I like Impressionism as much as the next person, but there are only so many I want to see at once. If I’m going to look at paintings I would prefer to see as wide a variety of work as possible. Juxtaposing art by different painters from different eras may not make great sense academically, but I think it would be a far more interesting way to introduce somebody to the world of art. The contrasts alone would at least keep them intrigued as to what they might see next.

All of which explains why I’m a big fan of Phaidon Press’ The Art Book: New Edition scheduled for release October 1 2012. Containing over 600 full colour reproductions, the book offers readers an opportunity to experience art from the Medieval period to the work of contemporary artists. However, instead of organizing them by era, genre, style or any of the other ways, this type of book is usually laid out the work is listed alphabetically by the artist’s last name. Which means you have the opportunity to see paintings side by side with ones that probably wouldn’t normally be hung in the same building let alone on the same wall. Some might find that unsettling, but I think it ensures each new work is a surprise and keeps you interested and on the edge of your seat. Tell me, when’s the last time you heard anyone say that about going to an art gallery or opening up an art history text book?

Now, of course, these aren’t just random samples of various artists plunked down into a book. There’s been careful consideration given as to which artists are represented and the paintings chosen to represent each artist. No one editor or curator is listed as compiling this book. Instead, it seems like the entire editorial staff of Phaidon Press was involved in the process. In the video clip below Amanda Renshaw, editorial director of Phaidon talks about how The Art Book came together.

Of course, the paintings aren’t just baldly placed in the book with no word of explanation. Each one comes with a brief biography of the artist, a description of the work, what the artist was attempting to accomplish and, as applicable, something about the period or movement the work represents. As some of the terms used in art history aren’t ones most of us are used to hearing in our day to day conversations, the editors have also included a complete glossary of terminology at the end of the book.

They’ve also included a complete index of all the painters in the book and a listing of the galleries where the original works are hung, installed, displayed, or the means by which they now can be viewed. The last in that list is important as some of them were transitory in nature or too large to be contained in a building. Examples of this include; Francis Alys’ Paradox Of Praxis (pg. 14), which involved the artist pushing a block of ice through the streets of Mexico City until it gradually melted, Marina Abramovic’s The House with the Ocean View (pg. 4), an installation piece where the artist lived in the gallery for twelve days in three specially designed rooms elevated on platforms and Weiwei Ai’s monumental sculpture Template (pg. 8) found outdoors at a German art festival

However, the majority of the works are at least traditionally housed, if not traditionally displayed, in galleries. But that’s the beauty and diversity of the visual arts. They can be so many different things to so many different people. Just by looking through this book at the way tastes in style, form, and subject matter have changed down through the years is an indication of the way artistic expression has evolved. From the religious paintings of the Byzantine and Medieval periods which were completely flat and lacking in perspective to the introduction of the horizon line and depth of field in the Renaissance. Of course, events don’t follow a sequential pattern in this book, but in some ways that makes the way the art of painting evolved even more obvious.

Just seeing Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone (pg. 136) side by side with Charles-Francois Daubigny’s pastoral landscape, The Lock at Optevoz (pg. 137) tells you just how much the world of art can change in less then the hundred years that separate the creation of the two works. The same could be said of any two pages in the book, although not all of them are so extreme in their differences. Although the differences between Frans Hals’ Young Man With A Skull (pg. 240) painted in c1626/8 and Richard Hamilton’s Pop Art collage Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, So Appealing? (pg. 241) from 1956 come close. On the one hand is a fairly standard ‘Old Master’ type portrait of a young man holding a skull, while on the opposing page the artist has arranged a variety of imagery cut from contemporary popular magazines to form the interior of a living space. Of course, with nearly 400 years separating these works perhaps it’s not so surprising to find such radical differences. However, I wonder if Hals could have ever imagined a time when someone would have created art without using paint or brushes?

That’s what I find so wonderful about The Art Book? Aside from containing a wonderful collection of art work from almost every tradition imaginable and covering nearly a thousand years of human history, it encourages the reader/observer to use their own imaginations. You can’t help looking at the pieces and comparing them to whatever is on the adjacent page no matter what it might be. While this sort of process might be off putting to some purists, for the rest of the world it will delight and astound you to compare Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat (pg.140) of the neo-Classical school of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the cubist influenced Stuart Davis’ Egg Beater No. 4 (pg. 141) from 1928.

Maybe it’s something of a stretch to think people will be able to find common ground between two such wildly divergent examples of the visual arts. However, by simply placing the works in alphabetical order by artists’ last names, the editors of The Art Book give readers the opportunity to form their own opinions on the merits of each based on the work, the explanatory text accompanying it and free of the constraints of classification. While it’s true no work exists in a vacuum, the pieces selected make enough of a statement on their own to ensure they can stand on their own two feet. At the very least, like the best survey course, readers might find themselves discovering something new that they wish to explore in further depth. That in itself makes this book an invaluable resource for any household.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.