Top critical review
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Great picture selection, let down by the text
on 13 February 2010
The best thing about this book is the selection of paintings. No-one is going to agree with all the selections (too much mediocre 19th century work for me) but they cover an impressively wide range of dates, styles and nationalities, and certainly introduced me to artists I was unfamiliar with.
My main criticism would be of the text. Although the book is by Stephen Farthing and Geoff Dyer, they contribute only the preface and the introduction; the comment on each painting is by one of around ninety other contributors. There is no indication of how the contributors were chosen but they range from a professor of art through a professor of gastroenterology to a semi-professional clarinettist and a web-designer. Nothing wrong with that, a wide range of viewpoints could be interesting, but one might have expected the editing process to have removed the more obvious errors.
In "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" by Carl Friedrich, the central figure is said to be looking out at a "frightening, raging sea"; the whole point of the picture is that he is standing on a mountaintop looking down on the world through banks of cloud. The labourers digging up the road in Ford-Madox-Brown's "Work" are described as "naval workers"; presumably the writer has been confused by the fact that 19th century labourers were sometimes called "navigators" or "navvies" because they worked on building the canal network. Other contributors show that they do not know the difference between a cross and a crucifix, or the distinction between a fresco and a mural. None of these things are overly important in themselves, but they do raise doubts about any unfamiliar fact one comes across in the text.
The book is well worth looking at for the interesting and wide-ranging selection of paintings (5 stars) but it could have been so much better with a bit more care put into the text (2 stars)