Words that open eyes

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Marina Vaizey introduces a selection of the art books she has found most illuminating. There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. " Thus the first two short sentences which begin the best selling The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich. It is the book for both absolute beginners and sophisticates (because many of its calm statements are in fact still controversial) interested in the history of art, or - I hope - the story of visual culture, embracing what we rather snobbishisly refer to as the decorative or applied arts and architecture too.

For his 85th birthday last year, Phaidon brought out an all singing all dancing version of The Story of Art at Pounds 29.99 (that is, lots of illustrations). The book remains itself and more: a stimulating series of essays: hardly inclusive, but always provocative. Fourteen other volumes of his collected essays are also published, ranging from four on the Renaissance to the studies of the psychology of perception and of pictorial representation.

The reason for me to start with Gombrich is the stress he always puts on both the physical nature of the object, its individuality, and our perception of it, its context. Gombrich himself noted in his wonderful introduction that he wanted his book "to help to open eyes, not to loosen tongues".

There are scores, even hundreds, of introductions to the history of visual culture. Most are either too dense or too superficial to be useful, very few are enticing and enchanting. But there are some wonderful exceptions. The wittiest, most inclusive, exhaustive and endlessly interesting is the tour de force by Hugh Honour and John Fleming, calmly entitled A World History of Art (Lawrence King Pounds 19.95), now in its fourth edition. Erika Langmuir's National Gallery Companion Guide (John Wiley Pounds 7.50) first published in 1994, provides a marvellous journey round paintings we can all see and for free; so intelligent, so full of information, and of feeling. Typical of the high standards our national museums and galleries provide is the earlier (1991) Giotto to Durer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery (various, John Wiley Pounds 22.50) which discusses the techniques of production, the organisation of workshops, and so on. It is an excellent model, providing a synoptic general history, allied to the particularity of individual artists and paintings. Kenneth Clark's Looking at Pictures may be old fashioned, perhaps, (first published in 1960, Harvard University Press Pounds 13.50) but is still affecting and illuminating.

The individual critic, professor, and artist as author, those with very strong points of view, make for powerful and captivating texts. High among my pantheon is John Golding's Visions of the Modern (Thames and Hudson Pounds 14.95) a series of essays discussing Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Duchamp, inter alia, with lucidity, wit, and erudition lightly worn. Thomas Crow is another author I follow, from his book on paintings and politics, 18th century France to Art of the Sixties (1960s that is) in Weidenfeld's Everyman Art Library (out of print) Artists may prove unreliable witnesses - painting must lie to tell the truth, to paraphrase Delacroix - but witnesses they nevertheless are, of course: to their own work, and those of others. A deservedly popular if intermittent series are compilations such as Degas by Himself, edited by the art historian and curator Richard Kendall (whose catalogue of Degas Beyond Impressionism, this summer's National Gallery special exhibition, is also outstanding, Pounds 35) which consists of chronologically or thematically arranged quotations from conversation, as well as written material, linked by historical commentary.

Other inspiring anthologies include Bruce Bernard's Vincent (van Gogh) by Himself and Juliet Wilson-Bareau's Manet by Himself (the series is published by Little,Brown, Pounds 19.99 each). For heavyweight historical narratives, the Yale Pelican History of Art in its many manifestations, embracing not only European art but Asian too, is essential, but some are very hard going indeed; here one must go for authors, such as Michael Levey or William Watson, as much as subjects.

Western art and architecture is of course but a fraction of the historic production of art and artifact; the Thames and Hudson World of Art series has a number of essential titles, on African Art, say, or North American Indian Art.

The most determined publishing programme for the non-scholar comes from the British Museum Press, the largest museum publisher of trade editions. The BMP is re-issuing its wonderful British Museum Book of Chinese Art (edited by Jessica Rawson, Thames and Hudson Pounds 16.99) in the autumn, to co-incide with the Mysteries of China exhibition. I follow authors and imprints as much as subjects; and as for now, I think I am going armchair-wards to read David Sylvester's About Modern Art (Chatto and Windus Pounds 25), as stylish as some of his subjects.

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