20TH CENTURY ART SERIES: 1900-1910 New Ways of Seeing. 1910-20 Birth of Abstract Art. 1920-40 Realism and Surrealism. 1940-60 Art in Emotion. By Jackie Gaff. 1960-80 The Object of Art. 1980-2000 Very Modern Art. By Claire Oliver. Heinemann pound;11.50 each.
This fresh and accessible series invites the 10+ reader on a contextual art historical journey through the last century. While holding to the idea of art historical movements or "isms", the books frame key artists and movements in their social, cultural and intellectual context. The approach is a considered one, in that popular misconceptions are dispelled (for example, while Existentialism is referenced in relation to Giacometti, we learn that this was not by design of the artist, rather it was a reference articulated by Sartre himself). By no means attempting to offer a full-blown revisionist history of the period, this approach enlivens art practices and rescues them from the horrors of hermetically sealed, autonomous, "traditional" western art history.
The 32-page glossy books have a high production quality; documentary cut-outs and images of art works jostle among bite-sized chunks of text including quotes by artists, information boxes that focus on a range of fields of know-ledge and cultural production (from physics to film to fashion) and key works by selected artists. It is a pity that the timelines are relegated to the back of each book, but these are trick things to do as they can only ever be partial. In this case their content is probably outside the experience of the target readership and will be of more interest to adult readers. The focus is on western, predominantly male artists, with a somewhat tokenistic nod to art practice outside these parameters. Likewise I was disappointed not to find any reference to feminist art histories in 1960-80 (for example, Judy Chicago's Dinner Party) and to find that work by women artists in 1980-2000 was under the heading "More Madness", thereby repeating the unreconstructed equation of female creativity equals an unsound mind.
A bibliography or web bibliography would also be welcomed. Having gently introduced the reader to Jungian psychoanalysis or Structuralism, where can the hungry mind continue its exploration?
Although these are important concerns, when the series is considered in its entirety it remains a strong contender for your bookshelf. In its recent report on the effectiveness of arts teaching in secondary schools, NFERRSA notes that one of the areas in which the visual arts can be of particular value is in providing opportunities for students to engage with the "meta" ideas or intellectual frameworks informing art practice. Key stage 3 students (and above) across a range of subjects could do a lot worse than to start their contextual studies here.
Helen Charman is education officer at Tate Modern