In search of the unfamiliar

9th February 1996 at 00:00
John Reeve assesses a series of books on the history of art. HISTORY THROUGH ART SERIES A History of Britain through Art A History of Italy through Art A History of France through Art A History of the USA through Art Wayland Pounds 9.99 each. Age range 11-14

Alan Bennett once did a quiz show spoof about "Kafka's knickers". Wayland's History of Art series offers a rare glimpse of Voltaire's pyjamas, one of an often erratic selection of illustration - some horribly familiar, others refreshingly original. Unfortunately, the pictures are uniformly too red, often murky and the most fascinating frequently reproduced too small. When Mary Queen of Scots has her head cut off, surely you want to see what is happening?

There are some attempts here to get away from the breathless catalogue of cabbages and kings satirised in 1066 and All That. The Great Unwashed don't get much of a look in, except in France, where rich and poor, lace and lice, are overtly compared. French Celts, however, are strangely represented by a Danish bowl, and the whole history of British Celts by the Lewis Chessmen (in a book about Britain). There are native Americans and Blacks in the USA title, but seen as usual through other people's eyes and through paintings rather than objects. If Wells Cathedral, a Ferrari, or a Versace dress are deemed "art" in this series, then why not other objects, photos, prints and drawings, which are hardly used here at all?

Where the unfamiliar does intrude, it is often very successful. An American photograph from the era of The Grapes of Wrath, a Ceri Richards panorama of London, force-feeding of suffragettes, Mussolini as lion tamer and a film clip with Sophia Loren.

As library books these volumes could be useful for a key stage 3 student trying to put in context a patch of art or history such as the Renaissance, the French Revolution, or the modern world.

Students will need to be alert to those images which are not contemporary, and should have been alerted more consistently by the authors to a discussion of how useful such images are as historical sources. It is rather as if we were all still teaching history back in the days before the Schools Council Project, when the "old art history" reigned supreme.

An educational publisher recently explained that he needed a new library title at least every three years in every main area. The idea for this series was a good one, but it has been handled on the whole in an outdated way. Art and history have not really been "entwined" in the way that the cover blurb suggests.

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