A book review
...and yet, how wonderful. Who would have ever thought that a nun going through the museum would have (a) been interesting, (b) been publishable, (c) been television-worthy, or (d) been within the realm of credible imaginings? And yet, here is the proof, on my coffee table. Sister Wendy's smiling face, next to a scowling Vincent, greets me each day with my morning cocoa.
This is a book to be savoured. It cannot, like the morning cocoa, be rushed and enjoyed. This must take time. Not because the text is dense or confusing--indeed, it is not. It is lively, witty, historical, accessible, all that one could want in a book on art.
But, mostly, it is exquisitely visual in layout. Everything is photographed and reproduced in stunning colour and low-gloss format to make the pages vibrant and durable yet easily seen. Care has gone into the production of this volume. None of the art is reduced to black and white, but rather presented in glorious colour. With over 800 images in under 400 pages, this is a feast for the eyes. Each page is dominated by art, not text. That makes for slow moving, like reading a museum..
Sister Wendy Beckett takes us on an historical tour of painting (in the European theatre of history), beginning with prehistoric cave-art and drawings, leading up to modern and post-modern artists.
She takes representative pieces, such as the Bosch painting of Death and the Miser to illustrate points of colour, detail, composition, and story. Some paintings have complex stories (such as this one), others have simple composition (such as the `innocently disadvantaged' Mona Lisa) which give endless speculation as to the meaning.
Sister Wendy explores each era of artistic history, listed below in broad categories (there are several subcategories of each), giving history and philosophy as well as major and representative minor works, explaining in detail at least one or two works for each, concentrating on painting, but also bringing in as relevant sculpture, stained glass, architecture, and other artistic media.
+ Art of the Ancient World
In this section, Sister Wendy explores art from the origins of human civilisation, from cave paintings and drawings of various cultures around the world (Lascaux, France being the oldest example) to the earliest artistic renderings in places and times such as Thebes, Knossos, pre-Roman Italy and the Etruscans, Hellenistic art, Roman and early Medieval art, and into the Christian era. These are not just paintings, but also sculpture, architecture, pottery decoration, and later illuminated manuscripts of a glorious scale.
+ Gothic Painting
The Gothic style began in the twelfth century, at the height of the Middle Ages -- largely known as an architectural style perhaps best exemplified by cathedrals, Gothic painting brought a trend of realism to painting that had previously been dominated by idealistic renderings. Some primary figures in Gothic painting include Giotto, Hieronymus Bosch, Jan van Eyck, and some anonymous painters, such as the Master of Avignon of created a famous Pieta in 1470.
+ Italian Renaissance
In the history of Western art, no time period stands taller than the Italian Renaissance. Figures such as Michelangelo , Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco, Titian, and Raphael have names that still top any list when thinking about enduring artists. Famous paintings by these people, and others such as Piero Della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto and Correggio are famously used in so many settings their images seem almost commonplace today.
+ Northern Renaissance
This Renaissance started later but overlapped with the Italian Renaissance, producing the leading lights in the Dutch and Germanic schools. Artists such as Durer, Holbein, Brueghel, and others were influenced both by trends coming from the south as well as the growing Protestant Reformation. Biblical and secular themes abound.
+ Baroque and Rococo
The word 'baroque' was not originally a complimentary term, but came to mean a style that is considered one of the great divisions of art history. Rococo developed out of this. Rubens, Vermeer and Caravaggio are among the most famous names associated with this time, each being second only to each other and to Rembrandt, the leading light in the Dutch Baroque school.
+ Neoclassicism and Romanticism
Neoclassicism sought inspiration from the ancient arts of Greece and Rome, and rejected some of the more 'earthy' influences of Baroque and Rococo. Romanticism overlapped with Neoclassicism, but sought a more modern, rather than a more ancient, style. In the end, Romanticism won the day for the most part, but Neoclassic ideas remain into the modern period. Figures such as Gainsborough, Goya, Constable, Delacroix, and Turner are among the best examples.
+ The Age of Impressionism
Impressionism, a reaction against Realism, is a very enduring influence into the modern world. Painters such as Monet, Renoir, Manet, Whistler, and Degas show the breadth of possibility in the Impressionist world, in tune with efforts to give power to the fleeting impressions of light in the actual world, beyond studio and academic conventional painting.
Post-Impressionism is hard to define as distinct from Impressionism, as so many influences carry over and are felt in the paintings of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Cezanne, Gauguin, and even Klimt and Munch. They represent a wide diversity of responses and reactions to the Impressionist era, holding in some cases nothing in common with each other save the shared heritage of Impressionism.
+ The Twentieth Century
According to Sister Wendy, the twentieth century presents unique challenges and opportunities in the artistic world -- there were more painters producing in this century than the whole of the Renaissance, in an almost indefinable polyphony (perhaps even cacophony) of styles. Moderns such as Picasso and Matisse shared the scene with Dali and Pollock, Warhol and Kandinsky, and many others. Abstraction, Cubism, Hyper-Realism, Expressionism, Minimalism -- many schools, not all of which likely to be remembered.
Sister Wendy does an admirable job at not concentrating exclusively on religious and Christian art (for being a nun), however, given the history of art in Europe, this is a major theme in its own right.
The Epilogue, says Sister Wendy, 'is both an afterword and a foreword: hundreds and thousands of artists come after the disappearance of the `story line' into the maze of contemporary artistic experience and these same artists may of course, be the forerunners of a new story.' In concluding her volume, she highlights the paintings of Robert Natkin, Joan Mitchell and Albert Herbert, the art of each she hopes will endure.