Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Story of Art

Author:       E.H. Gombrich
Published:   2006 (Pocket Edition)
Publisher:    Phaidon Press
Paperback: 1044 pages
Readers in India:
Prof. Gombrich takes us through a fascinating journey of art from the cave paintings of stone age to the contemporary art of 1980s. The 500 odd pages of text is well supported by 400 pages of illustrations of paintings, sculpture, and buildings.
The first edition of this book was published way back in 1950 and since then it has been published in sixteen revised editions and also a  pocket edition, which I review here.  It has been the most famous and best selling introduction to art ever written.

In author's own words in the preface of the book 
"The book is intended for all who feel in need of some first orientation in a strange and fascinating field. It may  serve to show newcomers the lie of the land without confusing them with details; to enable them to bring some intelligible order into the wealth of names, periods and styles which crowd the pages of more ambitious works, and so to equip them  for consulting more specialized books. "
"It sets out to place the work it discusses in their historical setting and thus lead towards an understanding of the master's artistic aims."
"The urge to be different may not be the highest or profoundest element of the artist's equipment, but it is rarely lacking altogether. And the appreciation of this intentional difference opens up the easiest approach to the art of the past. I have tried to make this constant change of aims the key of my narrative, and to show how each work is related by imitation or contradiction to what has gone before."

While writing this book, Prof. Gombrich follows three self-imposed rules in order to facilitate better understanding among his readers. The rules are:
1. Not to write about the works which he could not show in the accompanying illustrations. He does not believe in degenerating the text to "lists of names which could mean little or nothing to those who do not know the works in question, and would be superfluous for those who do."
2. To discuss only the real works of art, "..and cut out anything which might merely be interesting as a specimen of taste or fashion."
3. Not to discuss the lesser known works of art, even if some of them were his personal favorites, because  the book "is meant for  those who look for bearings in a new field, and for them the familiar appearance of apparently 'hackneyed' examples may serve as welcome landmarks."

Its popularity over the last six decades has been due to the direct and simple manner it is written, and also because of author's superb narration. Really, you feel you are reading a nice long, continuous and coherent  epic rather than an academic treatise on art.  

A few minor drawbacks purely from my perspective.
The last chapter loses some coherency with rest of the book. Probably because it is actually an add-on to the original first edition or maybe because it deals mainly with contemporary art for which I am yet to develop a complete appreciation.
The book should be titled "The Story of Western Art", since it hardly discusses the art of the eastern world. The author's son Richard Gombrich is an Indologist and a scholar of Buddhist studies. I really look forward to a book by him on the Eastern Art on the similar lines, assuming he possesses the excellent narrative skills of his father.
The cover page design of the pocket edition which I read is rather drab and academic looking. Since this book is intended to attract lay readers to the fascinating world of art, a better cover design - may be a collage of some of the master pieces- would have been more apt.

To sum up this is undoubtedly the best book I have read on art over the last two decades. It is one of the excellent examples of customer-centricity, where a learned academician has written a highly understandable, lucid and delightful book for the art newbies.
I would highly recommend this book to readers of all ages who want to develop a basic appreciation of art.
Introduction - On art and artists
1. Strange Beginnings - Prehistoric and primitive peoples; Ancient America
2. Art for Eternity - Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete
3. The Great Awakening - Greece, seventh to fifth century BC
4. The Realm of Beauty - Greece and the Greek world, fourth century BC to first century AD
5. World Conquerors - Romans, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, first to fourth century AD
6. A Parting of Ways - Rome and Byzantium, fifth to thirteenth century
7. Looking Eastwards - Islam, China, second to thirteenth century
8. Western Art in the Melting Pot - Europe, sixth to eleventh century
9. The Church Militant - The twelfth century
10. The Church Triumphant - The thirteenth century
11. Courtiers and Burghers - The fourteenth century
12. The Conquest of Reality - The early fifteenth century
13. Tradition and Innovation: I - The later fifteenth century in Italy
14. Tradition and Innovation: II - The fifteenth century in the North
15. Harmony Attained - Tuscany and Rome, early sixteenth century
16. Light and Color - Venice and northern Italy, early sixteenth century
17. The New Learning Spreads - Germany and the Netherlands, early sixteenth century
18. A Crisis of Art - Europe, later sixteenth century
19. Vision and Visions - Catholic Europe, first half of the seventeenth century
20. The Mirror of Nature - Holland, seventeenth century
21. Power and Glory: I - Italy, later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
22. Power and Glory: II - France, Germany and Austria, late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
23. The Age of Reason - England and France, eighteenth century
24. The Break in Tradition - England, America and France, late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
25. Permanent Revolution - The nineteenth century
26. In Search of New Standards - The late nineteenth century
27. Experimental Art - The first half of the twentieth century
28. A Story without End - The triumph of Modernism; Another turning of the tide; The changing past

Artists Featured
Limbourg Brothers, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, van Eyck, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, Uccello, Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, van der Weyden, Verrochio, Leonardo da Vinci, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, Titian, Corregio, Du:rer, Gru:newalde, Cranach, Bosch, Parmigianino, Tintoretto, El Greco, Holbein, Hilliard, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Carraci,  Caravaggio,  Poussin, Lorrain, Rubens, van Dyck, Velazquez, Hals,Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Vermeer, Tiepolo, Watteau, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Copley, David, Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Rossetti, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas, Rodin, Whistler, Cezanne, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Kandinsky, Picasso, Klee, Mondrian, Rousseau, Chagall, Dali, Pollock, Kline,Hockney.

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