Creativity in context

9th May 2003 at 01:00
ARTISTS IN PROFILE SERIES. Post-Impressionists By Linda Bolton. Abstract Expressionists By Rachel Barnes. Cubists By Jeremy Wallis. Heinemann pound;11.99 each

The philosophies that motivated the 20th century's key artists give meaning to their work, says Betty Tadman

The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them." In a single sentence, an entire aesthetic, and a very neat way of expressing what it was that made Mark Rothko - a poor boy from Lithuania who achieved huge fame before he committed suicide - so powerful a painter. Rachel Barnes's deft analysis of what motivated this and other Abstract Expressionists will leave young readers both enlightened and enthused.

Indeed, these are clever books, full of fascinating did-you-knows, whose format is both clear and informative. First a definition - "What is Abstract Expressionism?" - in which this will-of-the-wisp movement is nailed down in terms of its leading figures, their philosophy, and the political and economic context in which they worked. Then a series of potted biographies, with each luminary profiled in turn. Then a section indicating who their artistic successors were. Finally, a timeline, a glossary and a resources section.

Given the fissiparousness of her territory, it's no surprise that Linda Bolton's Post-Impressionists gets bogged down in the competing isms in Paris around the start the 20th century, but Jeremy Wallis's group portrait of the Cubists is a model of lucidity. All these books score top marks for the choice and reproduction of their illustrations.

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