Category: Non-Fiction, Art History – Hardback: 160 pages – Publisher: Harrison & Sons – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1938
Okay, so this is not so much a review as a sharing of treasure. 🙂
I read four books by the art historian Kenneth Clark in December/January, and while I will write a proper review of Civilization: A Personal View at some point (before they go ahead and make the planned remake of it *shudder*), this is the one I want to tell you about first.
In 1938, taking advantage of technical improvements in photography, Clark, who was in charge of the National Gallery in London at the time, devised this wonderful, wonderful book. What it does is simple: it offers big, clear images (A3 sized pages, near A4 sized images in the edition I had) of fascinating details in paintings within the gallery’s collection. Some of these paintings are internationally famous and some are overlooked by those crossing off the famous ones from their ‘artistic hit list’ as they swoosh through. All benefit from a closer second look.
By focusing in on small, interesting details rather than analyzing the whole of the images Clark offers any curious child or adult a way into the art without any stuffiness and little snobbery. (Well, he is a bit snobbish in the accompanying notes but you could easily just look through at the images and only dip into the notes.) All the notes are at the front of the book so that you can just look through the details without being bogged down in information. Each pair of details are presented one on the left page and one on the right to offer contrasts in style or show how techniques developed through time.
For example, that lovely image of a cat at the top of this post is from William Hogarth’s 1742 work, The Graham Children, a painting that focuses on rich, well-behaved children and then, in the background, there is this cat which has all the energy and personality that the children appear to be missing. As Clark says, you get the sense that Hogarth enjoyed painting the cat far more even though it’s such a small part of the complete painting. Clark says she is ‘the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynn among cats.’
Hogarth’s energetic cat is paired with:
This stately, grieving dog is from Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr mourning over a Nymph from c.1492 (here’s the complete painting) and has ‘the gravity of an antique philosopher’. It’s such an entertaining comparison that nudges you to look more closely. Other pairings compare van Eyck’s approach to portraits with Raphael’s, show a medieval hunting scene that inspires sympathy for the wounded stag opposite a painting of Saint Sebastian being killed with arrows where the artist’s sympathy appears to be with the archers rather than the murdered saint, and point out how much imaginative energy was pouring into the backgrounds of medieval paintings because the rigid list of approved subjects – the Virgin Mary, biblical scenes, the deaths of saints – limited artistic freedom. I wonder how many people with gallery fatigue spot the lion and bear fighting in the top right corner of this painting for example (you can zoom in using the tool on the right of the painting)? I also liked a cutely funny pairing where it appears the little girl looking through a doorway in the image on the right page is seeing the view in the image on the left.
I would question whether it’s worth telling you about this book given that I read the 1938 edition and the images are in black and white, except for the fact that I was debating whether to mention it and found that a modern edition, replicating the images and notes, has been published by Yale University Press. And its in color too!
So, if you fancy an unusual approach to art and exploring a gallery’s collection in a quirky way without leaving your armchair…