What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years Of Modern Art In The Blink Of An Eye
- Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 06 September 2012
- History of Art & Design Styles: C 1800 To C 1900
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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.
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.
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