In Brief: Art Book Reviews

The Art Book/The 20th Century Art Book

I know that I probably sound like a broken record about cultural literacy and the intersection of photography and other arts, but I happen to think it’s an important thing. No art exists in a vacuum; photography, especially in its earliest days, owed quite a debt to things that happened outside of photography, and really, that will likely always be the case. For as much as the arts have to say to us, they’ve generally had quite a bit to say to each other as well.

I have quite a few art books on my bookshelf, most of them dating from before I took up photography. I bring these two up because they’re good if you want, or need, a quick reference or a brushup. The Art Book is a sprawling affair that covers art from the Renaissance all the way to the present day, while The 20th Century Art Book confines its sprawl to the last century. You won’t find any photographers here (that territory is ably covered by The Photography Book, another Phaidon title of similar layout and breadth), but if you’re interested in seeing some of what influenced photography, existed contemporaneously with certain photographers, or just what else’s gone on in the art world in years past, that’s all here in abundance.

Both books are laid out from A to Z, encompassing artists from several countries and movements. While I can understand the appeal of ordering the artists alphabetically — it’s easy if you’re looking for Miro, Chagall, or Klimt, and it’s also a browser’s delight — it’s simultaneously a frustration. There’s no context to speak of, as there’d be if the artists, and their works, were arranged chronologically so you can see how styles progressed over time,  how artists influenced one another, and even how individual artists found themselves equally at home in multiple media and styles. The cross-referencing system settled on by the editors represents only a half-assed solution, since you lose the visual clues and it’s harder to draw comparisons when you’re flipping among half a dozen different pages. This doesn’t represent a fatal flaw; it’s balanced quite well by the variety of artists on display, as well as a willingness on the part of the editors to occasionally use a lesser-known work to represent an artist.

The books are available in two sizes, one of which is very nearly pocket-sized, and the other of which wouldn’t look out of place on your coffee table. I picked up the pocket-sized works (they cost half their larger counterparts), but would caution that you’re losing quite a bit of detail when a piece is reproduced at something close to 4×6″. For all its flaws, the one thing this book does very well is to encourage you to delve deeper into art, and different artists, on your own… especially those you might not have heard of otherwise.

How about you? What non-photography books or art inform your art and craft?

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