Portrait sketches;Books

21st April 1995 at 01:00
GREAT MODERN MASTERS, MATISSE 0 8109 4685 8, PICASSO 0 8l09 4690 4 Dal! 08109 4679 3, BACON 0 8109 4675 0, General editor Jose Maria Faerna, AbramsCameo pound;8.95 each

Michael Clarke on introductions to 20th century art.

A substantial number of books introducing inexpert readers to 20th century artists already exist, but if the first four volumes in this series are reliable guides to those yet to come, secondary school teachers worried about pupils with limited concentration spans may well find themselves recommending these before any others.

Each volume has a four-page, illustrated introduction equally divided between a few, clearly headed sections identifying the artist's place in art history and the most salient characteristics of his work, then a short survey of the career highlighting important periods and interests. The generally well-reproduced pictures follow, some of them refreshingly unfamiliar, each one accompanied by brief but usually nicely pointed notes, and grouped together according to important stages or themes in a broadly chronological sequence.

In the volume on Matisse, accuracy of colour-reproduction is as good and often better than that in many much more expensive publications but the general reader's understanding of the vital role played by colour in the artist's work would have been greatly helped by an explanation of the colour circle and the interaction of its parts. Nevertheless, Matisse's release of colour from descriptive purposes, his development of new, radically simplified forms and structures, and the final synthesis of drawing and painting in the late paper cut-outs are clearly outlined, as are his use of classical motifs and taste for the exotic.

Picasso's extraordinarily diverse career has been severely edited to fit the restricted space available, so much so that the highly original and widely influential inventions paralleling the first decade of Surrealism are given no more than a retrospective reference in a note to a 1940 painting. Which is unfortunate, for having made great claims for the wider application of Cubism and managed a more than serviceable exposition of its very complex dimensions - multiple perspectives, simultaneity, formal syntax - and novel techniques (papier-colle, collage, construction) Picasso's own substantial development of its possibilities is reduced by this omission.

A satisfactory description of Dal!'s unique "paranoiacle critical method" is given in the volume on the artist perhaps most-favoured among teenagers. But this unusually level-headed account also emphasises the centrality of Dal!'s egocentricity and the fact that his originality depended on the combination of an increasingly academic and precise technique with hallucinogenic themes rather than any innovations in pictorial language. Had the overlap between Dal!'s painting technique and his collaborations with Bu$uel on the early Surrealist films been included, this book might have been one of the best introductions to the artists Andre Breton anagrammatically renamed Avida Dollars.

The most satisfactory account in the series so far and perhaps the best short introduction to the artist is the volume on Francis Bacon, judged by many to be the most important 20th century British painter. The text is rarely ever less than illuminating: influences from Michelangelo, Velasquez, Poussin and Picasso are identified; important sources of imagery in the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, the textures of X-ray prints and the positioning of the body in radiography are shown; and a veritable catalogue of the artist's devices, like the internal tensions and distentions of the human body in motion, is accumulated. Most succinct of all is the definition of Bacon's aim as, "An attempt to capture, through the painted image of the body, the sensations that its physical reality stirred within him."

This is much more accessible language than frequently encountered in the series. If the national curriculum has now familiarised teenagers with terms such as "tone" and "hue", they may yet be puzzled by "hermetic grisailles", confused by "harmonies of complementary colours" and defeated by "a method of representing reality within the superficial condition of painting which has its own coherent, internal logic". Maybe lapses in communication like these explain why no authors are named, only their (poor?) translators (from the Spanish). They could easily cause many readers to concentrate on the often very revealing selection and sequencing of pictures.

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