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The Story of Art (thoughts)

February 10, 2009

arthistory(Note from Eva: the small pictures decorating the space between the pagraphs are thumbprints of my favourite art shown in the book; click to enlarge them, and scroll to the bottom to find a complete list.) I first came across The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich while reading his children’s book A Little History of the World (which I’m still moving slowly through!). In the little author bio, it mentioned that he’s best known for his art history primer The Story of Art. Since I often wished I could take an art history class in college, I immediately perked up. And when I saw the Art History Challenge, I signed up and put this one at the top of my list. I was so excited to read this, I checked it out of the library right before New Year’s, since I knew it wouldn’t be open on the 1st. And as soon as that clock hit midnight, I broke open the book (I tend to avoid partying on New Year’s…I’d rather be with my family or a few close friends, quietly doing our own things, then coming together for a toast).

Attempting the ImpossibleThe Cellistrecumbentfigure

You know how, sometimes, when you have really high expectations, the book falls flat? Well, The Story of Art lived up to every single one of my expectations.

Dancing ClassThe Hand of GodA Tiny Tale of a Tiny DwarfEcce Ancilla Domini

First of all, I was very intimated, because it’s over 600 pages and a big hardcover (I think it’d beat my War and Peace in a brawl). So in case you feel similarly, let me tell you not to worry! There are a ton of pictures in the book, so it’s not actually 600 pages of text. And for the text, the font is a reasonable size (you know how sometimes academic books need magnifying glasses? not this one!) and the writing style is very accessible. As someone who knew nothing about art history going in to this, I never felt confused or in over my head, just enthusiastic and curious. It’s like having coffee with a really intelligent professor, who’s chatting with you about his favourite topics.

Saying GraceGroup On a BalconyThe Ecstasy of St TeresaMiss Bowles With Her Dog

Speaking of the pictures, possibly my very favourite thing about the book is the way it’s laid out. All of the pictures are high-quality cover, and since there are so many the pages all have a great glossy feel. And there are several fold-outs! Most importantly, the picture of the art is on the same page or facing one of the text discussing it. Gombrich talks in his preface about how this made publication more difficult, but he found it to be essential and I completely agree. There’s no flipping around or anything, which is great.

The Kitchen MaidThe Opening of the Fifth Seal of the ApocalypseNymphs from the Fontaine des InnocentsLas Meninas

As for the scholarship, as a newbie to the art history field, I definitely don’t have a critic’s eye. But there were a few things I really liked abotu Gombrich’s style. First of all, he continually said that even though he’s presenting the ‘story’ in chronological order, that doesn’t mean the artwork of the 1800s is at all ‘better’ than the 1600s, just different. I think it’s easy in Western cultures to get caught up in the idea of Progress, so I loved that Gombrich tookthe time to deflate that, and he did it more than once. And I just love his whole attitude towards the subject; here’s how the introduction starts out:

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today some buy their paints, and design posters for hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art so long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not ‘Art.’ And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.
Actually I do not think that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture.

I’m so glad he’s not a snob. :) At the same time, he pushes the reader, reminding them to not write off a piece of art simply because it isn’t immediately beautiful.

The Holy FamilyThe Journey of the Magi to Bethlehemthetempest2Correggio's The Holy Night

The rest of the book looks at how art has changed, beginning with cave drawings, moving quickly to the ancient world of Egypt and then Greece, all the way up through modern times. I will say that the book is heavily focused on Europe; there are a few chapters on Asia, the Middle East, etc., but the majority of chapters deal with Europe from England to Italy. So if you’re not super-interested in European art, this probably isn’t the book for you. But for anyone who’s never known about art history, but always been at least a little curious, I think this would make an excellent starting point. The chapters are easily digestible-very few break twenty pages, and most hover around fifteen-and Gombrich really believes that art is for everyone. Oh-and he doesn’t just look at paintings; there’s also architecture, sculpture, etchings, etc. included. I’m certainly glad I began the Art History challenge with such a wonderful selection, and I’ve discovered a ton of new artists I want to find out more about! (And even though I read a library copy, I think I’m going to buy one for myself, because I think it’d be a wonderful reference to dip into and even reread. Can praise get any higher?)

The Betrothal of the ArnolfiniMayThe AnnunciationAn Elephant and Its Keeper

Other Favourite Passage
Of course, the fact that a thing is difficult does not necessarily prove that it is a work of art. If it were so, the men who make models of sailing ships in glass bottles would rank among the greatest artists. But this proof of tribal skill should warn us against the belief that their work looks odd because they cannot do any better. It is not their standard of craftsmanship that is different from ours, but their ideas. It is important to realise this from the outset, because the whole story of art is not a story of progress in technical proficiency, but a story of changing ideas and requirements.

Favourite Works of Art
Portrait Head, c. 2551-2528 BC, Found in tomb at Giza; limestone; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Madonna and Child on a curved throne, c. 1280, Altar-painting, possibly painted in Constantinople, tempera on wood; National Gallery of Art (Mellon Collection), Washington, D.C.
Matthew Paris, An elephant and its keeper, c. 1255
Simone Martini & Lippo Memmi, The Annunciation, 1333
St. John the Baptist’s, St. Edward the Confessor and St. Edmund commend Richard II to Christ (the Wilton Diptych, c. 1395, National Gallery, London
Paul and Jean de Limbourg, May, c. 1410
Jan van Eyck, The betrothal of the Arnolfini, 1434
Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, c. 1459-63
Martin Schongauer, The Holy Family, c. 1480
Giorgione, The Tempest, c. 1508
Correggio, The Holy Night, c. 1530
El Greco, The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse, c. 1608-14
Jean Goujon, Nymphs from the Fontaine des Innocents, 1547-9
Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656
Jan Vermeer, The kitchen maid, c. 1660
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1645-52
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Miss Bowles with her dog, 1775
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Saying grace (Le Benedicite), 1740
Francisco Goya, Group on a balcony, c. 1810-15
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’, 1849-50
Edgar Degas, Dancing class, 1873
Auguste Rodin, The hand of God, c. 1898
Henri Matisse, La Desserte (The dinner table), 1908
Paul Klee, A tiny tale of a tiny dwarf, 1925
Henry Moore, Recumbent figure, 1938
Marc Chagall, The Cellist, 1939
Rene Magritte, Attempting the impossible, 1928

26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2009 3:13 am

    I agree with you, “There really is no such thing as Art”. I love art. I think art is the way by which one can be creative and can show his creativity. nice job. :)

  2. February 10, 2009 3:19 am

    I really enjoyed this post and all the pictures. I have this book – I had it for my Open University degree, but I’ve only dipped into it and read sections. Now I’m wanting to read it properly. Art history is just fascinating. I see you like Rossetti – he’s one of my favourite artists. I’m doing a short course on the Impressionists at the moment – I know very little about them so I hope to learn a lot.

    I’m going to look at the Art History Challenge now – I hadn’t read about it before.

  3. February 10, 2009 5:27 am

    I loved Gombrich’s Little History of the World, and have had this book on my list for a long time. Thanks for the comments on it.

  4. February 10, 2009 5:42 am

    Oh, this book sounds wonderful! I can tell I will love this author completely with that first passage you shared. I actually started out as an art major in college, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve just indulged myself in a wonderful art book. Definitely will be keeping my eyes out for this one! Thanks, Eva!

  5. February 10, 2009 8:48 am

    I’m definitely a novice when it comes to art appreciation, and I’ve always been a little intimidated myself. I love the passage you include in which the author says that there really is no Art with a capital A, but just artists. That is so all-encompassing and lets people like me into the circle. I can say what I like and why and not worry that someone else will tell me that I’m wrong. Great review.

  6. February 10, 2009 9:03 am

    What a great review! I am completely uninformed when it comes to art (save for the things my boyfriend has told me when we’ve visited museums and galleries), but this review has really made me think I’d like to learn more. I had never really considered how much knowing the story behind a painting (including how techniques and perspectives have evolved to get to it) could enhance my appreciation of it (even if that is an obvious thing to assume). We have an art book here at home that I might just have to take out and try!

  7. February 10, 2009 9:10 am

    I liked a lot of the things you mentioned here, Eva, but I was particularly happy to see your comment on the great god Progress. I couldn’t agree with you more about that. In fact, I often wonder why so many bloggers seem so wrapped up in the flavor of the week (be it books, movies or anything else) when there’s thousands of years of history, art, and literature out there to discover and over a hundred years of movies to dip into (as just a few examples). Is everything better now? I don’t think so! Anyway, thanks for the nice, thought-provoking review. I just recently discovered your blog up close and personal, and I quite like it here! Kudos to you!

  8. February 10, 2009 10:52 am

    I love art and art history! I will have to check this book out. I have checked art history books out of the library before and have never actually read through an entire book. They are pretty intimidating – and if you lug them around long enough – a great workout. :) They are so much fun to peruse though.

  9. February 10, 2009 1:09 pm

    At the first university I attended, one of the gen-ed requirements was a History of Civilization class. The beautiful thing about it was that they offered the course in a few different disciplines. My future-husb and I wanted to learn something new so we took it in the music department and it was a History of Civ through art, music, architecture and literature class. It was so amazing and such a refreshing change to a standard history class. This book seems like a nice way to remember some of the things that I have since forgotten. Thanks for the review!

  10. February 10, 2009 1:52 pm

    Looks a gorgeous book, I keep putting off joining this challenge as I’m already taking part in so many but it keeps tempting me and I have 2 books from the library which would easily count towards it.

  11. February 10, 2009 2:06 pm

    It looks like a beautiful book. I haven’t read anything this lengthy on art since art school, but it sounds very readable. Thanks for sharing the images- they’re wonderful.

  12. February 10, 2009 7:04 pm

    I like his approach…all I know about art is that I either like it or I don’t.

    “I think it’d beat my War and Peace in a brawl.” Hah! Someone should do a “My book is bigger than your book” challenge. Oh wait…there’s a already a chunkster challenge, isn’t there?

  13. February 10, 2009 7:49 pm

    Great review! I know nothing about art history proper, just bits picked up from going to the rare museum. This book would really help; I’ll have to check it out…

    P.S. Like your blog, too!

  14. February 10, 2009 11:17 pm

    This sounds like an absolutely gorgeous book Eva – I will have to look out for it. Like you I would love to have done an art history course – one of my friends did her whole degree in that area and I was always envious! I hadn’t heard of this challenge before either so I might have to check it out.

  15. February 11, 2009 1:29 am

    Jupiter, that was a quote from the book, but I agree with its sentiments. :)

    BooksPlease, thanks! The pictures took forever! lol I don’t know much about the Impressionists either, but since they’re not my favourite, it doesn’t bother me as much as it should. ;)

    Margaret, no problem!

    Debi, how neat that you were an art major!

    Lisa, yep-Gombrich definitely makes you feel like a compatriot in the art world from the beginning. :)

    Steph, thanks! Reading this definitely made me look at art differently; I wish I’d read it before I lived in St. Petersburg.

    Richard, thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts! :)

    Alyce, this one is definitely a workout. ;)

    Kristen, that sounds like a neat class!

    Katrina, hehe-I’m horrible at resisting challenges.

    Jeane, it’s definitely readable!

    Softdrink, that’s all I knew about art too. ;) I wanted to read it originally not for the history part, but just to be exposed to more artists. You know?

    DS, thanks! And I’m glad the review helped. :)

    Karen, it’s definitely a gorgeous book, although the cover is boring. ;)

  16. February 11, 2009 6:26 am

    What a wonderful post! I possess this book, too, but have never cleared space in the reading diary for it. I can see that I really should.

  17. February 11, 2009 5:32 pm

    What a wonderful post! I must get the book — I know I’d enjoy it. And I loved all the art to look at!

  18. February 11, 2009 5:42 pm

    Thanks for this review, Eva! I’m adding it to my TBR.. :)

  19. February 11, 2009 10:51 pm

    Litlove, thanks! :)

    Robin, I think you’d really enjoy it too. :)

    Claire, no problem!

  20. Kim permalink
    February 21, 2009 5:43 pm

    I have various areas of art history that I know well, but this sounds like a great book to bring it together. I love that it’s accessible, too much of the art history writing is a mystery to me, I can finish a sentence and think “I know all of the words in that sentence, but somehow in that order they don’t make any sense at all.” Thank you for the pictures, I love the Vermeer.

  21. January 22, 2010 7:55 am

    This book is on my keeper shelf. It’s a wonderful resource.
    I’m commenting almost a year after your review was posted but I linked from today’s blog post. *smile*

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