Is it a bird, or the dark night of the soul?

29th November 1996 at 00:00
How can we interpret art? Martin Child finds materials to assist the art historian.

In The Devil's Dictionary Bierce suggests that painting is "the art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic". Critics deal in opinion more than fact. It would be easy, but not very satisfying, if everyone saw the same things in a work of art. Then facts could be learned and that would be it. This is patently not the case. One person's messy landscape with black smudges is another's profound statement about the artist's state of mind.

Of course, knowledge empowers the student to realise that "Wheatfield with Crows" was the last painting which Van Gogh did before shooting himself.

The jagged lines, painted with such vigour, are a physical manifestation of a mental condition. Fact entwined with opinion is a loose definition of art history.

Generally, art history is taught as an A-level subject which provides an excellent platform for students beginning to formulate strong opinions about the world, to exercise their critical and aesthetic faculties. Obviously, with such a complex subject, the history is in no way linear. Influences, culture, technological developments, even lifestyle all affect art work. Making sense of this complex jigsaw is challenging to say the least, but that is part of what makes art history such a rewarding subject.

Gallery visits are vital to any art history course. Not simply to pay homage. Experiencing a genuine painting shows scale, texture and true colour, and often provides a tingle factor, impossible to achieve with a poster or slide. Real sculpture allows you to walk around it, appreciating the whole rather than simply one viewpoint in a book. Much modern art is not yet available in books, so visiting exhibitions can be the only way to see works.

Getting resources for an art history course is not always easy. Best for showing art work to large numbers of students are slides. The problem is that the images you want are not always easily available. AVP has the widest range, usually sold in sets. For individual slides it is best to buy directly from galleries. Most have the complete collection photographed, but usually you have to visit the gallery to obtain them.

For research, you can't beat the book. The many specialist publishers include Phaidon, whose The Twentieth Century Art Book (Pounds 25), following on from its successful The Art Book, provides a wealth of familiar and not so familiar images. One of Thames and Hudson's latest books is The Panorama of the Renaissance (Pounds 29.95). Brilliantly designed, it clearly explains the Renaissance in its entirety.

Do not overlook the best way of augmenting the department's own resources. The local library, art school or even university can be very useful sources of materials.

Video is now much more readily available and film can give a real insight into art history, bringing it alive in a way impossible for books. Phaidon has over 50 first-class videos at only Pounds 14.99 each (excellent value for 55-minute programmes). Another source is Viewtech whose 10 titles Art History: A Century of Modern Art offer less-for-more at Pounds 34 for each 15-minute title. Sadly, the material is nowhere near as good as the Phaidon products. The other source for first rate videos is the BBC, which has a large catalogue of consistently high quality programmes, unfortunately so is the price, generally Pounds 65 per episode.

The most up-to-date resource for teaching art history is the CD-Rom. These are best for individual student research. Most large galleries now have one based around their collection. The Tate's is limited in the number of images available, but the National's is superb. A recent addition is Masters of Landscape - The Norwich School of Artists published by HMSO at Pounds 49. 95. The wealth of good imagery is slightly marred by a rather gloomy screen.

Thames and Hudson has released the superb Escher (Pounds 49.95) which is fully interactive and even animates some of his work. Although the best CD-Rom I have yet seen is Picasso from Grolier at Pounds 39.99. It is stunning. Containing more than 600 of his works, it is presented brilliantly, offering a fascinating insight into the artist's life and work.

New facts, slants and opinions mean that art history is a voyage of constant discovery for the teacher as well as the student. Start them off on this fascinating subject and they will soon become critics in their own right.

AVP, School Hill Centre, Chepstow, Monmouth NP6 5PH. Tel: 01291 625439 Phaidon, Regent's Wharf, All Saints Street, London N1 9PA. Tel: 0171 843 1000

Thames and Hudson, 30-34 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QP. Tel:0171 636 5488

Viewtech, 161 Winchester Road, Brislington, Bristol BS4 3NJ. Tel: 0117 977 3422

BBC, Room A2090, 80 Wood Lane, London W12 0TT. Tel: 0181 576 3101 HMSO, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT. Tel:0171 873 9090 Grolier Interactive, 60 St. Aldates, Oxford OX1 1ST. Tel:01865 264800

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