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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 April 2014
In the dim and distant past I remember watching the Channel Four television series `Art of the Western World' fronted by Michael Wood. This book, published in 1989, was linked to the series and considers the enormous breadth of the subject under consideration through eighteen chapters, each written by an acknowledged expert. Each chapter is illustrated in colour and b/w with a total of 300 and 200 plates, respectively.

The chapters are `Greek Art' by Sir John Boardman [25 pages]; `Roman Art', Richard Brilliant [25]; `The Early Middle Ages', Paul Crossley [37]; `Gothic', William Clark [25]; `The Early Renaissance in Italy', John White [29]; `The Early Renaissance in the North', Catherine Reynolds [29]; `The High Renaissance in Rome', A. Richard Taylor [25]; `The High Renaissance in Venice', David Rosand [23]; `Italy, France and Austria in the 17th Century', Jeremy Wood [25]; `Spain and The Netherlands in the 17th Century', Ivan Gaskell [27]; `The Age of Reason' [25] and `The Age of Passion' [19], both by Robin Middleton; `Realism and Impressionism`, John House [25]; `Post-Impressionism', Griselda Pollock [23]; `Alienation and Innovation; 1900-1918' [23] and `Between Utopia and Crisis; 1918-1939' [21], both by Christopher Green and `The Last Moderns' [25] and `Post-Modernism; Within and Beyond the Frame' [25], both by Rosalind Kraus.

There are Suggestions for Further Reading, a Glossary, a List of Plates and an Index. The illustration on the front jacket is Leonardo's "Virgin and Child with St Anne", 1508-10. The diverse chronology and the group of expert authors show the breadth of art historical approaches at the end of the 20th-century, including the detailed analyses of different styles and techniques of art and architecture as well as feminist, Marxist and post-modernist interpretations. The decision to include chapters of similar length certainly makes sense and offer an introduction to the topic that can then be studied in more detail through relevant books and other sources.

Each chapter contains two double page features that illustrate, examine in detail and interpret pivotal works from the period. These are complementary to the essay that is presented in two columns that are pleasant to the eye and optimise linkage between textural commentary and illustration. Where necessary, maps are included to show regional activities. Each illustration is accompanied by a sentence of description, in addition to comments in the body of the text. Within each chapter the author offers an analysis of the art of the period, paying particular attention to the social context within which the artists' worked.

The illustrations include acknowledged masterpieces of painting, sculpture and architecture [for example, The Parthenon, Trajan's Column, "Laocoon and His Two Sons", early first century AD, by Hagesandrus, Polydorus and Athenodorus, Chartres Cathedral, "The Arnolfini Wedding", 1434, by Jan van Eyck, "Birth of Venus", c. 1484-86, by Botticelli, Michelangelo's "Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel", 1508-12, Rembrandt's "The Night Watch", 1642, Velázquez's "Las Meninas", c. 1656, David's Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863, "Impression, Sunrise", 1872, by Monet, "The Starry Night", 1889, by van Gogh, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", 1907, by Picasso, "Birth of the World", 1925, by Miró, "Woman I", 1951, by de Kooning, "Lavender Mist No. 1", 1950, by Jackson Pollock, Warhol's "Marilyn Monroe x 100", 1962, and Anselm Keifer's "Meistersinger", 1982] as well as less familiar but equally significant works.

A particular strength of this book is that it describes the context within which art was created in the various periods under consideration. This context includes the market for art and of its patrons, whether the church, royalty and aristocracy or the self-made industrialists following the Industrial Revolution, and also the position of the individual artist in society, from medieval guilds with their restrictions and prescriptions, through the artists and their schools of the Renaissance and, later, to the Romantic concept of the artist as an outsider.

Any book that covers such a broad range will omit certain artists and topics - for example, Diego Rivera and the Mexican Muralists, late 19th century painting in Russia and north America. However, the authors have done a very good job in writing readable texts that are supported by contemporary [up to 1990] art scholarship and complemented by an excellent choice of works.

This is an excellent written and visual record of Western Art and is well worth investing in, either to read slowly in a chronological order or to dip in according to one's current interests and enthusiasms.
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on 24 May 2012
I was given this book as an 18th birthday present in 1990 and it helped me get through university essays and exams. Not only does it have marvellous reproductions of amazing paintings, sculptures, buildings etc. but it has in-depth essays about the cultures and politic pressures that produced these works of art. I wonder what would get into the book now and how they would write about the last two decades!
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