I've never really `got' modern art. It's always been too abstract, too `out there' or just appeared to appeal to art snobs - those who wish to appear in `the know'.
Gompertz writes an interesting perspective that made me think about much of it, re-evaluate my views, and also re-inforced my view that some of it is still rubbish.
But it's an excursion that is well worth taking, my appreciation is much greater and Gompertz is a good guide.
on 15 November 2012
This is a good book. It admirably covers the development of modern art, discusses why certain things that might appear like a child made them are actually well thought-out experiments in abstraction and representation, has nice stories about the avant-garde painters, doesn't restrict itself to the Western Europeans, discusses political thought and ideology that coloured the perceptions of the new art, and explains in detail what a novice should look for when confronted with it. My cavils: many paintings are discussed that do not appear in the book, making it difficult to relate to the explanations; many paintings are presented in black and white; and, often, many paintings are discussed several pages away from where they appear in the book, resulting in constant to-ing and fro-ing among the pages. For a medium as visual as art, its presentation is somewhat fuzzy (but of course things might be different in the final product). If you've seen Gombrich's book on art, this might be a pale replacement; on the other hand, this is very accessibly written, and should do much to persuade people that they do know something about art, and can easily learn more if only they read it.
Irrespective of my views on Modern Art and whether or not I agree with the author's point of view I have to give this book five stars for the total mastery of the subject and the ability to keep the narrative flowing in a straightforward and humorous way. Will Gompertz is one of a rare species who is an an absolute master of his chosen field but does not take himself too seriously. Might help he has done a stand-up comedian's act about Modern Art, in fact with some of the stuff he has to review and write about - I'm sure a stand-up comedian's attitude is a big plus.
The book, some 450 pages, takes us on a fairly chronological journey through the world of Modern Art starting with the Pre-Impressionists up to multi million pound selling articles ( I cannot bring myself to call all of them 'works of art') that have been through the salerooms in recent years.
Art, especially what is loosely termed Modern Art means different things to different people, I have a very simple rule which applies to all Art including music - do I like it? I love Dali, like some Picasso, have several reasonable (ie affordable) Brazilian Abstracts on my dining room walls, find early Soviet Art and some later Soviet 'Propaganda' works interesting, love posters especially from the Spanish Civil War and have a passion for some of the psychedelic work of the 1960's & 70's, especially album covers. Will Gompertz, will all his passion, has a hard time convincing me that things like "Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab" (Sarah Lucas 1992) or Tracey Emin's "Tent of those I have slept with" and other items are truly works of art.
We get the stories behind all the 'masterpieces' from Van Gogh's sunflowers to Hirst's pickled shark via Cubism, Dadaism, Pop Art and everything else in between, before and after. As I mentioned, Gompertz really knows his stuff, as you would expect from someone who for seven years was director of the Tate Modern and there is no pretentious intellectualism or gooblegook speak, all written in good, clear, understandable English. Aimed at those who would like to know a little more about what they are looking at and would like to know why their five year old son, daughter or tame pet parrot could not do better. You might not end up convinced about all of it but it sure as hell is an interesting and thought stretching journey.
One important thing - this is book of narrative, not a coffee table sized volume of glossy prints on luxurious photo paper, there are only 16 pages of colour prints and another 39 black and white, mainly half page illustrations in the rest of the book. Like my daughter said when I mentioned this fact - what do you want for twenty quid? In fact only twelve if you buy from Amazon.
When I read, in relation to this book, 'Move over Gombrich - there's a new art book in town!', I thought 'in your dreams'! The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich is a classic, responsible for starting many a life-long enthusiasm for art and architecture, myself included.
Will Gompertz is a delightful and thoughtful BBC arts presenter and his writing is witty and very readable. In 'What are you looking at?' he charts the progress of Modern Art from the work Delacroix and Manet of the second half of the nineteenth century, through Marcel Duchamp and his notorious 'Fountain' at the dawn of the twentieth century to the more recent phenomenon that is the YBA's.
There are chapters on Impressionism - pre and post, Cezanne, Primitivism/Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Kadinsky, Constructivism, Neo-plasticism, Bauhaus, Dadism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism/Performance Art, Minimalism, Postmodernism and Art Now.
So, who is this book aimed at? I think even the knowledgeable, well read art fan will find this volume useful (my own particular enthusiasm is architecture and I found the chapter on the Bauhaus enjoyable). The complete beginner will be intrigued. Gompertz's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious - he doesn't set out to preach or convert but to enlighten.
I would, however, liked to have seen more illustrations (perhaps I mean better illustrations). We are given 29 half-page colour plates and 39 black and white illustrations within the text - a little conventional, given the subject of the book. Nevertheless we are given a wonderful fold-out timeline in the form of Beck's London Tube map.
For me this book has come to my aid at just the right time. For years I have been giving young people, Godchildren etc the Gombrich book - they will now be given a copy of this book when they get old enough, perhaps about sixteen years of age.
on 18 October 2012
Whenever I ponder over 'modern art' I can't help thinking of 'con' artists like Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin; two chancers who are very rich - or, in Hirst's case, very, very VERY rich - due to the unjustifiably high prices their work fetches. No-one is ever going to convince me that these two pseuds have produced anything either original or worthwhile. For example Hirst's 'Away From the Flock' isn't art - it's taxidermy. And don't get me started on the girl Tracey's oeuvre... dirty knickers and all!
In this erudite, yet very humorous, look at the type of art gathered under the 'modern art' umbrella, Will Gompertz - who is the BBC news arts editor - attempts to persuade us that a lot of modern art isn't rubbish at all, and furthermore, that the quality of the work can't be reproduced or matched by a child!
What's so great about this packed volume is that it doesn't take itself too seriously and is completely unpretentious. 'Mad' Will obviously knows his stuff, but wears his learning lightly. Unpretentious? - he freely admits at one point that he may be talking b**locks!
His book spans around 150 years, or so, and encompasses the work of well-known painters such as Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. As a (completely untutored) admirer of art, I'd never considered them to be 'modern artists' previously; I believed that all three pre-dated the birth of the 'modern art' label. However, no-one, absolutely no-one, needs to convince me that Picasso, especially, was a genius. I see it writ large in virtually all of his art. Nevertheless, Will's coverage of these artists is still illuminating and he provides a marvellous insight into a few of their major works apiece.
And even when he discusses Pollock, or Hirst, or Emin, he's still interesting and often very amusing, offering comments that throw a new light on some of their pieces. However, as previously mentioned, I'm not buying all his arguments about the validity or value of their 'product'. Sorry Will, it's nothing personal, they're just rubbish!
All in all, for an overview of this specific type of art, this book is a superb read, and Mr Gompertz is a great teacher, guide and friend who cuts a swathe through all the bull that some other critics talk on the subject. He's done stand-up comedy in the past and his witty approach ensures a read that covers some fairly abstruse areas, yet remains accessible at all times. If you want an entertaining, not-too-heavy read on the subject, then Will's your man. Top stuff!
I saw Will Gompertz talking about this book at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this year and he was a very engaging speaker, bringing humour and passion to what could have been a very dry subject. Some people have commented that Gompertz's book replaces Ernst Gombrich's 'The Story of Art' as the definitive art history book but Gombrich has a much a much wider scope going right back to the Renaissance. As someone who was an art student in the 1960s our History of Art text was Gombrich and I would have loved to have had this book instead being much more modern and relevant to a young art student. However, Gombrich gave us that much greater background and now I'm really grateful for that although at the time I had no interest in Baroque, Rococo or Mannerism. I'm sure this book will be popular with modern art students but I think that they also need a 'Gombrich-style' book as well to give them that more historical perspective.
The book is also full of humour, including cartoons, but I thought that it was a bit short on illustrations - considering that this is a book about art. The book is organised in chapters dealing with all the major art movements of the period - expressionism, pop art etc and also includes a chapter on the Bauhaus before finishing with 'art now'. It is well written in clear, straight-forward English and Will manages to be relatively objective for someone who is obviously so passionate about 'modern art. There is also a useful comprehensive index, a list of illustrations and a list of artworks by location (country, gallery etc.).
I have to admit that it was rather a chore for me to read this; not because its bad, or uninteresting - its actually very good and well conceived for what it is - it simply didn't really tell me anything I hadn't already read in other art books. But in my defence, I have been reading about this stuff for more than 30 years.
To be scrupulously fair; Gompertz writes fluently and explains his topics well and with wit; he hasn't the insight that someone like the late Robert Hughes could bring to his writings, but he does a fair job. He manages to avoid the pitfalls of artspeak and the easy acceptance of some of the more pretentious ideas other art commentators can be guilty of.
Where he does have an edge is by being "in the now"; for example, he can quote the wisdom of Hockney on Cézanne and the links to past art in the work of more contemporary artists is now much more apparent, time having worked in its favour.
Up to the "Post-modern" chapter, his narrative is solid enough; he stops short of pointing out that many of the YBA generation are viewed as sell-outs by today's artists - perhaps he's unaware of this - having made what appeared to be un-sellable, edgy, challenging work commercial and becoming wealthy establishment figures in the process. This view isn't entirely justified - the "aesthetics of the white cube" and the rampant, commodity-driven art market created this, the artists are just the all-too-willing beneficiaries of it; but the rise of "celebrity" artists and the often tricksy, "ironic" - or banal - work some of this generation produced has led to a dominance of the obscure and often trivial academicism favoured by our art institutions which currently have a stranglehold on which kinds of art are considered valid. This has led to a period of hiatus Gompertz is aware of but doesn't have an answer to, hence his final chapter which considers the vacuum that has existed for the last 25 years as no obvious movement has arisen as the "Next Big Thing". Gompertz hints at a possible direction in street-art which is as good a predictive stab at a new direction as anyone can come up with. (My money's on Low-Art; the figurative, catch-all movement embracing neo-pop, neo-surrealism and alternative culture, which - unsurprisingly - isn't mentioned anywhere in the book).
Though Gombrich and Hughes remain my first recommendations, Gombertz`s book does what it sets out to do and is recommendable enough if you are unfamiliar with Modern Art. It does fall down considerably in its lack of illustrations - I don`t care if its on the internet, this is a serious inconvenience to any reader and does the author no favours, no matter how good his descriptions of artworks are. The book loses half a star for this - I`d give it 3 ½ if I could, but I`m being generous.
I am not knowledgeable about art - either classical or modern. I hoped this book would help me and it certainly does. On the whole it is accessible for non-experts such as myself. The information is given in a way that avoids being patronising, which is encouraging and I feel now I can at least ask myself at least some of the 'right' questions when looking at art work.
If you are interested in art but have no experience of being taught about it, this book is really helpful.
The blurb for this enlightening & entertaining volume gives the reader the impression that it will be an open minded & balanced view of modern art.
The writer is very much biased so if you're after a calm study of where modern art fits into art history as a whole you may be a little disappointed.
However, that said, Gompertz' sheer enthusiasm for his subject is infectious & if, like me, you're knowledge of modern art is basics only then he really does open up what has been a closed area for the uninitiated.
His introduction covering Marcel Duchamp is entertaining & fascinating. He moves on to impressionism but this is the one area in the whole book that is dry as toast & frankly offers little new.
Once back onto home territory he once again picks up the pace & drags the reader along for a very enjoyable ride clear through to todays crowd of Hurst & Emin etc.
The beauty of this work for me is both it's simplicity & the fact that you don't have to like every work being discussed to appreciate the skill & influence involved. It also has to be said that humour is used throughout & although he may be a fan of the genre's involved the writer doesn't baulk at poking fun at pomposity, ridiculousness & sometimes downright lunacy, ( the section looking at one mans fascist influence is one of many eye openers).
The colour plates are fine but this is not a picture book & both they & the basic images scattered throughout the book serve to help discuss & explain whats being said very effectively.
If you love art but have found the modern to be something of a confusing & frankly poor relation then this title is a must. It may not convert you to abandon whatever genre's appeal to you most but it will open up new understanding & often enjoyment of a subject that has been allowed to be guarded by the pompous & long winded for far to long.
Very enjoyable, easy to understand & a font of much knowledge. This is an excellent look at the history, meaning & influence of modern art & the huge array of often potty characters who have been involved. A great read that will be returned to often.
I'm afraid I thought this was going to be much more entertaining than it was. I know a bit about modern art and art history in general, which helped to fill in the gaps where this book is of necessity sketchy. It's very hard to fit 150 years of art appreciation into about four hundred pages, so some things have to go, but I am not sure on what basis Gompertz picked what he included and what he left out. it seems a very personal journey through the history of art, and what interests Gompertz does not always interest me. I found the whole tone of the work uneven, and some sections downright stodgy. The blurb gives the impression that this is a lively and humorous romp through art history. Gompertz himself admits in the introduction to imagining discussions between painters in various sections to 'liven things up'. I was, frankly, disappointed, in that they did not seem particularly lively and the whole section with the Impressionists in the cafe was as dull as ditchwater. If you're going to imagine a conversation between ground breaking artists, at least give it some welly.
The main problem with this book is that Gompertz talks about a lot of art work, but gives us pictures of few of them. Some of the pictures are badly reproduced black and white photos, which in a book about art is inexcusable in my opinion. The colour illustrations were few and far between and larded together in two small sections rather than inserted into the chapters they are relevant to. I struggle to understand too why valuable colour plate space was given to illustrating what a colour wheel is, rather than showing us the actual art works.
I enjoyed Gompertz's enthusiasm for his subject but this book was perhaps not the best way to showcase it, in my opinion.