What are You Looking At? : 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye, Hardback

What are You Looking At? : 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye Hardback

4.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz - a wonderfully lively and accessible history of Modern Art by the BBC Arts Editor. "An essential primer not only for art lovers but for art loathers too". (Express). What is modern art? Why do we either love it or loathe it? And why is it worth so much damn money? Join Will Gompertz on a dazzling tour that will change the way you look at modern art forever.

From Monet's water lilies to Van Gogh's sunflowers, from Warhol's soup cans to Hirst's pickled shark, hear the stories behind the masterpieces, meet the artists as they really were, and discover the real point of modern art.

You will learn: not all conceptual art is bollocks; Picasso is king (but Cezanne is better); Pollock is no drip; Dali painted with his moustache; a urinal changed the course of art, why your 5-year-old really couldn't do it.

Refreshing, irreverent and always straightforward, What Are You Looking At? cuts through the pretentious art speak and asks all the basic questions that you were too afraid to ask.

Your next gallery trip is going to be a little less intimidating and a lot more interesting. "Robert Hughes' The Shock of the New redone a la Bill Bryson". (Telegraph). This book is essential reading for sceptics, art lovers, and the millions of us who visit art galleries every year - and are confused.

It will also be enjoyed by readers of The Story of Art by E.H.

Gombrich and is a perfect primer to the subject for the student or beginner.

Will Gompertz is the BBC Arts Editor and probably the world's first art history stand-up comedian.

He was a Director at the Tate Gallery for 7 years. He has a particular interest in modern art and has written about the arts for The Times and the Guardian for over 20 years.

In 2009, he wrote and performed a sell-out one-man comedy show about modern art at the Edinburgh Festival.

He was recently voted one of the world's top 50 creative thinkers by New York's Creativity Magazine.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 464 pages, 16 Pages of Colour Pictures, and black and white integrated pictures
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: History of art & design styles: c 1800 to c 1900
  • ISBN: 9780670920495



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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

Art used to be so simple: a picture of a King, Queen, or a hero/heroine; perhaps slightly touched up, but essentially WYSIWYG. Then some clever dick invented photography and artists, concerned that they were likely to be viewed as surplus to requirements, became interpreters of life, the universe and everything.It didn't take long for ordinary chaps, like me, to get lost in a sea of strange images and sculptures, all claiming a deep significance that passed us by: leaving that uneasy feeling that we were being conned. A trip to an art gallery does little to alleviate these feelings: a splodge of paint, a pile of bricks or a dead shark - all accompanied by a pretentious write up designed to tell those who claim to 'get it' that they are clever and that those who do not, that they are worthy only of being scrapped from the sole of the believer's shoe. Help is needed and this book is the ideal entrée to a subject that loves to cover itself in subterfuge. Will Gompertz does not try to convince the reader of the awe and wonder required to become worthy of modern art, he simple relates the story of why and how the different genres came about. Mr Gompertz treats the reader as an adult: someone capable of making us his/her own opinion as to whether a group of artists, or an individual work is worthy of attention. He very rarely allows his own opinions to surface and even then, does not insist that the reader agrees.Considering that it is slightly less than four hundred pages in length, and that it is copiously illustrated, this book does an excellent job of explaining one hundred and fifty years of art. The book begins with a pastiche of the London Underground Map used to show the major artists covered by the book by time and group. This, in the way of a map, is useful to ground the reader as to when and where each artist fits into the grand scheme of things. The text itself, is written in a knowledgeable, but light style. I would profess no more idea of modern art than the average bloke in the street, but I was able to understand and never felt that the author was talking down to me. I will not pretend that I shall be rushing to the next Tracey Emin exhibition but, even with works such as hers, I have a greater understanding as to what she is telling us. Of course, one may say, with some justification, that art should stand by its own merits and not need an instruction manual but, does not a Shakespeare play mean all the more when one has a little idea of the socio-political situation prevalent at the time that it was written? All knowledge is good and, whether we like it or not, the art genie is out of the bottle and we are not going to persuade him back to the narrow confines of a picture of the Queen. The main point of this book is to say that if we spent a little less time shouting this is/is not art, and more looking at something that we understand; we would perhaps have less expensive rubbish and more art in our galleries.

Review by

When I read, in relation to this book, 'Move over Gombrich - there's a new art book in town!', I thought 'in your dreams'! The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich is a classic, responsible for starting many a life-long enthusiasm for art and architecture, myself included.Will Gompertz is a delightful and thoughtful BBC arts presenter and his writing is witty and very readable. In 'What are you looking at?' he charts the progress of Modern Art from the work Delacroix and Manet of the second half of the nineteenth century, through Marcel Duchamp and his notorious 'Fountain' at the dawn of the twentieth century to the more recent phenomenon that is the YBA's. There are chapters on Impressionism - pre and post, Cezanne, Primitivism/Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Kadinsky, Constructivism, Neo-plasticism, Bauhaus, Dadism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism/Performance Art, Minimalism, Postmodernism and Art Now. So, who is this book aimed at? I think even the knowledgeable, well read art fan will find this volume useful (my own particular enthusiasm is architecture and I found the chapter on the Bauhaus enjoyable). The complete beginner will be intrigued. Gompertz's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious - he doesn't set out to preach or convert but to enlighten. I would, however, liked to have seen more illustrations (perhaps I mean better illustrations). We are given 29 half-page colour plates and 39 black and white illustrations within the text - a little conventional, given the subject of the book. Nevertheless we are given a wonderful fold-out timeline in the form of Beck's London Tube map.For me this book has come to my aid at just the right time. For years I have been giving young people, Godchildren etc the Gombrich book - they will now be given a copy of this book when they get old enough, perhaps about sixteen years of age.

Review by

The BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, is unusual for an arts commentator – he has a sense of humour and a mission to enthuse us about his subject. He is uniquely qualified – having worked for the Tate Modern and performed a stand-up show about modern art at the Edinburgh fringe. A colleague of mine met him at a recent charity event, and said he was wacky and brilliant company – he sounds a great guy, and he always comes across as if he enjoys his job when you see him on the TV.I love art – ancient and modern. I know what I like, but I don’t know enough about most of it to set it into context properly, especially modern art. In that, I have taken after my father, who enjoys modern art for what it is – which in some respects is what many abstract or minimalist artists intended, but I haven’t needed to take it further – until now, when I managed to get my hands on a copy of Gompertz’s new book.What are you looking at offers a personal introduction to the subject aimed at a wide audience. Gompertz is the perfect guide through the web of all the ‘isms’ and movements of modern art.After a sketch outlining the first true avant-garde act of modern art – Duchamp’s 1917 work, ‘Fountain’ – a signed urinal, we divert back to the Impressionists, the previous band of art rebels, to set the scene. Talking about abstract art in general, Gompertz says:"You could argue that Manet started it all back in the mid-nineteenth century when he began to remove (abstract) pictorial detail in his painting The Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). Each subsequent generation of artists eliminated yet more visual information in an attempt to capture atmospheric light (Impressionism), accentuate the emotive qualities of colour (Fauvism), or look at a subject from multiple viewpoints (Cubism)."From then on it’s a broadly chronological journey up to the present day from the Impressionists through Bauhaus and Surrealism to Pop-Art and bringing us totally up to date with the YBA (Young British Artists). A helpful fold out ‘tube map’ of the isms and key artists shows how all the different schools of modern art grew out of each other and how they interlink, and a handful of colour plates and a few monochrome pictures help elucidate the key works described.Gompertz’s style is clear and easy to read, chatty and humorous when needed and it is full of anecdotes which bring the artists to life. Whether you agree with him or not – I’m afraid that no-one will make me enjoy the paintings of Bacon or De Kooning – I did appreciate reading about them. He also has no sacred cows:"There are times when those of us involved in the arts talk and write pretentious nonsense. It’s a fact of life: rock stars trash hotels, sportsmen and women get injured, arts folk talk bollocks. Among the main culprits are museum curators, who have a tendency to write slightly pompous, wholly incomprehensible passages exhibition guides and on gallery text panel. At best their talk of ‘inchoate juxtapositions’ and ‘pedalogical praxis’ baffles visitors: at worse it humiliates and confuses and puts people off art for life. Not good. But in my experience the curators are not trying to be deliberately obtuse; they are talented individuals catering to an increasingly broad constituency."There are omissions – the Op Art of Bridget Riley only gets a passing reference, as does early David Hockney. Others who don’t feature include Georgia O’Keefe, giant scribbler Cy Twombly (another artist I don’t get!), much of sculpture, photography in general except for the work of Cindy Sherman, and installations of the kind that tend to win the Turner prize, which is another thing Gompertz doesn’t comment on. A book of this kind can’t hope, or want, to be all-inclusive however, and all the key artists and art movements are there and will give you a path for further personal research. An appendix lists where you can see the works mentioned.I found the chapter on Post-Modernism particularly useful. For instance, you have to know that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are designed to be stills from non-existent movies that reference other films. Gompertz says: “But the truth is that Postmodernist art rewards knowledge much like a cryptic crossword, where comprehension comes from solving the puzzle.” While I know this is not per se a picture book, a few more illustrations scattered through the text would have been welcome. I didn’t really need the occasional cartoons that pop up here or there – the only slightly heavy-handed nod to remind us this is a book for everyone. There are two sections containing around 20 colour plates, plus another fortyish illustrations in black and white. Given that the book’s RRP is £20 (not £19.99!), another insert of colour plates, even if it added a couple of quid more, would have been nice – someone willing to pay £20 would probably part with £22 say, (or it’s on-line discount price equivalent).I’m lucky enough to have seen works by many of the artists mentioned, so I could visualise most of the broad styles from Gompertz’s great descriptions. I learned a lot, and I’d recommend this book thoroughly for its lucid text, (another good Christmas present idea).Going to see art is better though, and my next visit to the Tate Modern will be a very different experience – which is, of course, what the author hopes we’ll all do having read his book. (8.5/10).