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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining and edifying read, 5 Feb 2011
This review is from: Hang-Ups: Essays on Painting (Mostly): A Collection of Essays on Art (Paperback)
In this collection of essays, originally written for publications such as The New Yorker, Simon Schama gives us his take on a wide variety of artists ranging from the Dutch Masters right through to the giants of modernism. In the introduction he describes how, when writing these pieces, he set out to reach a middle-ground between purely 'formal' approaches to art criticism, which pay little attention to social, historical and economic factors involved in the artwork's production, and the type of criticism that analyses the historical and materialistic forces in shaping the work, but which sidesteps any discussion of actual aesthetics. Schama believes we can give a more complete account of an artist's work by combining both approaches and so in these pieces we duly find a good dose of history and talk about the personal lives of the artists, as well as substantial passages devoted to the techniques, qualities and visual effects of the works of art in question. In fact, he weaves these strands together very effectively, on the whole; the history, not surprisingly from Schama, is erudite and (crucially) illuminating, and the discussion of the works themselves is always interesting and keenly perceptive. Schama's knowledge of the technical processes of making different art works is apparent and which, importantly, is never just mentioned for its own sake, but rather to explain or clarify the types of experience or sensation they help elicit in the viewer.

Stylistically, as the blurb rightly says, the writing is quite 'idiosyncratic', mixing together academic speak and breezy, colloquial phraseology, which makes for a type of art criticism that is both assured and lively. However, perhaps it should be mentioned that it is not always easily digestible as it tends to be quite referential, lexically dense and (perhaps unnecessarily) verbose in places - certainly much more so than in the popularly-pitched Power of Art. My one caveat is that, for me at least, Schama can end up very occasionally wandering into incoherence.

It should also be pointed out that Schama is almost always effusive with praise about his subjects (although one gets the impression that he does not consider David Hockney to be such a major art heavyweight). Anselm Keifer, Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly et al are all written about, pretty unequivocally, as geniuses. Not that this is a criticism as such; just don't go expecting an iconoclastic overturning of the modernist canon or anything. And while I don't personally share Schama's sense of rapture for Twombly, for example, this does not matter as the writing is never hackneyed or gushy.

All being said, this is a collection definitely worth reading as Schama is a vigilant critic, always on guard against unthinkingly recycling art-speak clichés.

(Note for those intending to buy the Kindle edition: there are one or two typos and a small section of text repeated at one point. However, aside from this, the Kindle edition is well laid out and easily navigable).
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