Book Responses are a series of posts where I detail my personal reactions to and opinions of the books I read (on the subject of art, design, or math, of course!). They’re like book reviews, except less impartial and less concerned with new releases.
I’m not going to lie: Sometimes art history just sucks.
I love art, and I’ve poured hours and hours into painting, finding the right brushstroke and hue and intensity and everything else, and even I know this. Art history is a subject that can easily become dry or boring or just really distant from daily life, a subject that can easily have an intelligent, capable individual bobbing their head awake every few minutes between dozing sessions.
The Story of Art is nothing like that. If you’ve ever been confused by why a piece of art is considered a “masterpiece,” or been in any way annoyed at the works hanging on a museum wall, go read this book; it’s truly eye-opening. Don’t be alarmed by its hefty size and 600+ page count, for the text is big and there are plenty of pictures (on over 50% of pages, according to the Wikipedia page).
The big difference between the Story of Art and most other art history books of similar scope is the sense of perspective it provides. Ever wondered what it was really like to paint the Mona Lisa? Yeah, you’re out of luck. But Gombrich’s writing can bring you closer than most can. Throughout the book, he uses the following techniques:
- Connecting works of art to historical events, beliefs, and moods
- Explaining the relationship between different works of art mentioned, and
- Telling the history like a story (hence the title), with all the associated emotions and (conversational) tone
The overall effect achieved here is a robust sense of context. By explaining why each work of art was created and the value of each piece, the reader is given the opportunity to shed some of the biases of an age in which artistic skills, techniques, and philosophies are widespread. Several times while reading, I experienced a new appreciation for an artist who would otherwise have seemed like just another name on a wall placard. For an example, take the following passage about the wall painting Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and donors, by Renaissance artist Masaccio:
“This revolution did not consist only in the technical trick of perspective painting, though that in itself must have been startling enough when it was new. We can imagine how amazed the Florentines must have been when this wall-painting was unveiled and seemed to have made a hole in the wall through which they could look into a new burial chapel in Brunelleschi’s modern style. But perhaps they were even more amazed at the simplicity and grandeur of the figures which were framed by this new architecture… We feel we can almost touch them, and this feeling brings their message nearer to us.” (229)
As you can see, there is a real sense of empathy in Gombrich’s descriptions of the great artworks of the past. This offers the reader the ability to experience the challenges and triumphs of long-dead artists and their patrons. This exploration of the mental and emotional aspects of art brings art history closer to art itself and to the highly subjective and emotional reasons we pursue it.
Of course, I’m far from the first person to sing the book’s praises. In fact, it’s literally “the most popular art book of all time” as detailed by William Skidelsky in the Guardian. The writing is uniquely charming and accessible, and its sales reflect that. In fact, one interesting facet of the work is that, after the critical acclaim it received, Gombrich updated it for reprint several times, adding three additional chapters to the end of the work.
From what I’ve found, today the most common offhand criticism of the book is that it focuses too heavily on Western art. There are several reasons for this, starting with the fact that it was published in Europe in 1950. On top of that, Gombrich evidently took a personal interest in Medieval and Renaissance era European art, devoting a substantial number of chapters to each of these subjects. The book does not suffer from this, however, and in some ways it benefits, as Gombrich’s enthusiasm for his subject is a large factor in the book’s success. Finally, the book aims to tell a relatively concise but unified story, and it would have been contrary to this goal to prioritize inclusion and completeness. The Story of Art does not claim to be comprehensive, and I would not recommend reading it with this expectation.
Let me finish by saying that the final few chapters of the book, published later than the bulk of the work, in many ways reflect my own confusion and fear about art today. Concerning modernism and postmodernism, Gombrich’s words display a sense of conservativism but also one of hope. He attempts to reconcile any apparent exhaustion of art’s exploratory potential with the observation that specific artists or artworks become truly significant only when viewed through the perspective of history. As an artist and creator myself, these chapters hit close to home, as I have often questioned whether there is any new frontier left for art to conquer.
For me, this was the ultimate appeal of the Story of Art: It portrays emotion and empathy, breathing life into events long past (or closer to home). Never fear, art history skeptics. The subject need not bore you. The reasons we’re drawn to art today have existed throughout history, and they live on, even behind the dry academic texts art history sometimes becomes.
If you're looking for the reading behind the response, you can buy "the Story of Art" on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or the website of the publisher.
There's also a pocket edition, in case you need to whip out your art history book in the middle of a party, for whatever reason. You can get that one at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
To delve deeper into the art of Masaccio, as referenced by the book excerpt, try starting here, or just venture to the Wikipedia page.
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