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.