Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: The Story of Art

E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art, is one of my favorite books of all time and one of the most influential books in the creation of this blog.  For nonfiction, it is an absolute page turner, impossible to put down.  Gombrich gives a survey of the entirety of art history, as much as we know, through the early twentieth century.  Each chapter covers a specific time and place, its architecture, paintings and sculpture.  He has a knack for looking at art and picking out details, showing the mindset of each era and artist and explaining our intuitive enjoyment of things.  The only flaw of the work is the missing chapters on Eastern art.  The Story of Art is a must-read for any beginner who wants to know anything about art. 

The story begins in prehistoric times with cave drawings, then moves to Egypt, then the Greeks and Romans, then the early Christian era, followed by the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and onto modern art, to put it briefly.  Each chapter looks at a specific time and place, such as Tuscany and Rome in the early sixteenth century.  He begins with the architecture, comparing it to what had come before, noting the changes and "advancements."  He then proceeds to use this same approach in dealing with paintings and sculpture. This is primarily a look at the creative artists and works that broke new ground.  New creation is the trajectory of Western culture.  Throughout this, he may bring in some level of historical context and related concerns, such as the Protestant Reformation and its effect on the art world. 

Gombrich has an amazing skill for analyzing art, and in layman's terms.  He can rather fully and intelligently explain our intuitive enjoyment of different works of art.  Another technique he uses is to find a work that we intuitively enjoy and then analytically rips it to shreds and you can't enjoy it as much any more.  He also does the reverse of this with things originally found not enjoyable.  He is incredible to read in the way he explains, each era, each school, each artist and his motivations.  He understands the framework and preoccupations of each era.  He makes a defense of nearly everything against the reader's unconscious prejudices.  His look at modern art, something the average person can only describe as "dumb," is very enlightening.  The in-depth looks at each era acquaint us with art theory and not mere trivia facts.

My only superficial complaint is that the book only had one, albeit very good, chapter on Eastern art.  I have yet to find a readable book like this on Eastern art, but I would certainly welcome it.

The Story of Art is a book I recommend everyone read immediately.  It is a beginner book that effortlessly opens up entire worlds.

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