Monday, 21 August 2017

My Books that Shaped Art History

Selecting the top ten books in any topic is usually something of a parlour game, but I was inspired to think about a top ten list on reading The Books that Shaped Art History (Thames and Hudson, 2013).  
This fascinating collection of essays, published 2013, brings together 16 articles about seminal books on art history published, for the most part, in the 20th century (although the earliest was published in 1898). The choice of titles, and the choice of authors to write about these titles, creates a fascinating overview of 20th-century art history. It is a rare volume that is for the most part more than the sum of its parts. 

Before reviewing the book, I created a list of the ten books on art history that had the most effect on me - by which I mean, the most effect on the way I look at images and at the built environment. As soon as you see the list, you will realise that several of them are about the Renaissance, and some of them are not strictly about art history at all. Nonetheless, they all affected the way I look at works of art. Interestingly, only two of these titles overlap with the books on the official list. Whether I am right or they are wrong I would not try to state. More likely, a list of the top 50 books might have more of an overlap. 

In no order, my books are:

1.      Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism (1949) – for Wittkower’s emphasis on how many Renaissance architects favoured classically inspired central planning for their churches – whether or not it created a functional building.
2.      Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1940), or Early Netherlandish Art (1953) - either of these titles, for the sheer pleasure of sharing Panofsky’s combination of art history, intellectual history, and iconography, linked to some remarkable detective work.
3.      Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Renaissance Italy 1420-1450 (1987) – because Burke provided a quantitative basis to appreciation, rather than relying on connoisseurship; for example, he lists the most popular saints in Renaissance Italy.  
4.      T J Clarke, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the art of Manet and his Followers (1984) – for a full grounding of Manet in the Paris of his day, drawing on an amazing range of sources.
5.      Kenneth Clark, The Nude (1956) – for tackling the centrality of the human body in Western art, and for his distinction between the naked and the nude.
6.      S J Freedberg, Painting in Italy 1500-1600 (1971) – for the idea of “High Renaissance Classicism” in Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Andrea del Sarto.
7.      John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972) - for reading a painting in a way I had never before experienced. As Berger asks, “Why did Mr and Mrs Andrews commission a portrait of themselves with a recognisable landscape of their own land as background?”.
8.      Jakob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance (1860) – for presenting as no other book a vision of the Renaissance as the turning point of world history. It is certainly out of date, and you will disagree with it, but you can never forget the image he presents of a new, non-Medieval world.
9.      John Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (1963) – for a clear demonstration of how so much art and architecture is underpinned by Classical ideas and rules.
10.   Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance (1966). Baron presents the Renaissance as a heroic expression and result of civic republicanism in 14th- and 15th-century Florence.

Why these books? Many of them are more than 50 years old. I’m sure that they have all been refuted by subsequent scholarship, but I don’t think that matters. What they have in common is that they are immersed in their subject and fully committed to it (one anecdote recounted in The Books that shaped art history is that Kenneth Clark would have relinquished all art since 1900 for one Raphael drawing); plus, they tell a story, a narrative that provides an explanation of a historical period. For these writers, a period in art and history is certainly not one thing after another. They all present a social view of art, in which what is displayed (or what is implied by a building) is a reflection of an idea of society, an idea of people. Once we have read one of these books, we can no longer see the world in quite the same way. Even Clark can be read in this way; his distinction between the northern nude and the southern nude seems to remain valid, even if it comes dangerously close to Wolfflin’s characterisation of art in terms of national stereotypes. But that is a topic for another post. 

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