Studio portraits

8th March 1996 at 00:00
John Reeve on a series which puts artists' work in context

MASTERS OF ART series: Giotto and Medieval Art. Leonardo da Vinci. Rembrandt and Seventeenth Century Holland. The Impressionists. Picasso. The Story of Sculpture. Simon Schuster Pounds 12.99 each.

Age range 11-16

What a relief it is to open a new series of art books which, despite the white covers, is not jam-packed with tiny images interspersed with gobbets of knowledge. These handsome books, originated in Italy, are some of the most successful recent art books for schools and families, not least because they apply some of the procedures of "real" art history, instead of providing a watered-down overview.

Five of the titles begin by introducing a cast list of personalities (rather as in a high-class soap) and then plunge us into a strong sense of place and time which is so often missing from the Genius of Art approach. The large format makes it possible, for example, to have a clear panorama or bird's eye view of Florence with commentary alongside.

These books are consistently good on the practicalities of making art, and the social process of ordering it, influencing it, and then - sometimes - paying for it.

In Giotto we learn about panel painting and gilding, fresco painting and mosaic work. His innovations are demonstrated by comparing details of his work alongside that of his master, Cimabue. Giotto and Leonardo would be good places to start grappling with renaissance art in its own right and as part of the key stage 3 history option. Leonardo explores perspective, machines, maths, anatomy, and bronze casting, taking the reader to Milan, Rome and France as well as Florence.

In answer to the new art history's concern about how art was and is received there is a section on how the "Last Supper" was meant to be viewed and appreciated. The "Amazing Man and his Flying Machines" is also included. Leonardo's notebooks are itemised and described, illustrations throughout the series are located properly and we are told where to see works by most of the artists discussed.

Rembrandt starts with renaissance Flemish art and carries on via not just the usual windmills and tulips, but also with sections on history painting and genre, popular culture and the book trade. So we see the way in which images, both religious and secular, were spread to a mass audience, via etchings for example.

There is much more on the politics of the period in this book, making it a useful adjunct to the study of 17th-century Britain at key stage 3. Vermeer and Rubens are also discussed, and the vexed question of Rembrandt and his pupils.

Is it possible to say anything new about the Impressionists in a popular book? This series manages to do so, offering Morisot, Cassatt, Guillaumin and Caillebotte (subject of a forthcoming Royal Academy exhibition) as well as the familiar Big Names. Helpful maps of Paris and the region locate the setting for many of their works. The influence of Japanese art and photography are given their due, and the tensions with the Salon system and the art market are explored (as in the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition). Computer simulations help us to see Rouen Cathedral in different lights.

In Picasso we are guided through the complexities of his life, his changing styles and preoccupations and his involvement in political and cultural movements. The concepts are appropriate to 1990s art teaching: for example "Playing with the human form" and "Picasso's view of women".

In one illustration the German ambassador is shown in Picasso's studio in Paris viewing "Guernica" with its depiction of Nazi aerial bombardment of a Spanish town. The ambassador reputedly asked Picasso, with distaste: "Did you do this?" to which the artist retorted: "No, you did".

In line with recent exhibitions, Picasso's lithographs, ceramics and sculpture are given equal billing, as are the late works. The equivalent of the Medicis and Popes are the Guggenheims - cue for an extraordinary bird's eye view of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The Story of Sculpture is a difficult subject to structure and contextualise, and this book does dart around from one culture to another. However, the approach is clearly rooted in processes and media and the examples include Mesopotamia and India as well as Ancient Greece; China and the Olmec, as well as Michelangelo, Oceania and Africa.

This book will help with a visit to the sculpture galleries of the V A or the British Museum, with the Three Graces, Benin, Sanchi or the Parthenon, and the forthcoming Chinese exhibition at the British Museum (September 1996-January 1997), which includes a terracotta warrior from the astonishing imperial tomb illustrated here. This series is excellent value for money: I hope there are more titles in the pipeline.

John Reeve is head of education at the British Museum

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