I was interested in; but intimidated by the Visual Arts, until a friend of mine (who fortunately studied Art History) told me, there’s only one book you need to read – E.H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’.

From the very first page, Gombrich takes away the fear of looking foolish. Because there really is no ‘Art’, only artists and what they create.

What ‘Art’ is really about for Gombrich, is nothing to do with experts, critics, audiences or patrons – it’s about the artist and their personal effort to produce something of intrinsic value. And then it’s up to each of us to decide whether we like it or not.

In Ancient Egypt, people often had two left feet – not because the artists or artisans couldn’t paint or carve, but because the Egyptian artist was capturing the ‘ideal type’, the ‘essence’ or essential attributes of the person, duck, fish, foot or god portrayed.

Key features for the afterlife – a full eye and two shoulders or the plumage of a wild fowl – were shifted, twisted, rotated or brought forward to ensure their ‘ideal attributes’ were clearly represented, and hence captured, to make sure the person or fowl had all they needed after death.

Similarly, the art of the Dark Ages was flat and naive (to our eyes) because it was about telling you something. The idea wasn’t to lose yourself in clouds, folds of garments or acres of flesh – but to ‘read’ a very simple and profound message (and appreciate some very expensive pigments and gold leaf). Since they were almost always an illustration of virtue, sin or gospel truth, simplicity and directness were the point in Medieval times.

Were I to embark on a painting, I’d feel constrained to ‘represent’; to paint ‘well’ and show some technique. But that’s not really the point. The starting point for an artist is: ‘what am I wanting to say or explore?’

Seen this way we are not ‘trapped’ by the fact that everything has been painted more beautifully by Titian, or precisely by the Dutch masters or bleakly by Caspar David Friedrich or vibrantly by Van Gogh. There are no end of things to say through art.

Still, pre-1790 pretty much everyone painted and built in their country or culture’s accepted prevailing style. Self-conscious choice of ‘Art’ was a 19th century invention. So learn your artistic eras; distinguish your Rococco from your Baroque, and you can date any building or a painting with reasonable accuracy – a nice party trick when you’re out and about.

But then it all goes Modern… which is a whole new chapter.


Required Reading:

The Story of Art

The classic – Gombrich’s tour de force – everything you need to know to get your bearings and a joy to read as he wears his weighty wisdom very lightly.

In the Picture: The Year Through Art

Out of print, but worth tracking down second hand – a picture for each week of the year from all eras and of all types with Andrew Graham-Dixon’s wonderful observations of what they mean. Look out for the Dutch cows – you’ll never see a cow the same again.

Art of Germany [DVD]

Andrew Graham-Dixon again. A series which changes the way you’ll see Germany forever. From lime wood carving to decadence and the ever-building foreboding and angst which leads to WWII.

For more, follow this blog or click ‘updates’ in the menu to the right and add your own recommendations via ‘comments’ below.

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