Books In case you've been wondering why I've been a bit absent from around these parts this past couple of weeks, assuming it's even been obvious, it's because six months after buying it at a bargain price from the local Costco, I've finally been working through the Phaidon coffee table book Art Museum. As described on their website, Art Museum "is the finest art collection ever assembled between two covers. This revolutionary and unprecedented virtual art museum in a book, features 992 oversized pages of nearly 2,700 works of art" which in chronological terms is roughly eight days of reading from about nine to five with the knowledge that you'll only absorb about ten percent of what you've read or seen.
Structured to resemble a building and almost as big, the Art Museum book replaces page numbers with rooms and chapters with themes attempting to mimic a visit an art gallery the size of a planet beginning with prehistoric cave paintings and ending at roughly the publication date of the book. These are peppered with "exhibitions" in which single or groups of work are highlighted, for example, to demonstrate how an aspect of art like portraiture developed during a particular period. Each theme is introduced by a block of text not unlike that which appears on the wall at the entrance of a display and each piece is accompanied by the sort of explanation you'd see on a label next to the work of varying length and detail.
Reading and glancing through the history of art in just over the week (give or take gaps here and there for work, eating and sleeping) has been an exhilarating, a mass of human creative achievement passing across my eyes like a malfunctioning Generation Game conveyor belt set to super fast. On the first day I'd already reached the turn of the first millennium and by the end of the first week seen myself into the twentieth century, connections between eras and forms both subliminal and explained in the text left and right or top and bottom, with constant reminders that artistic creativity is in a constant state of evolution and not a linear development. Just because someone discovered how to use perspective on a two dimensional surface, not everyone had a reason to utilise it.
For all that, despite this being a book rather than a building, museum fatigue did set in pretty quickly on the first day. Like a real museum or exhibition, breaks became important, moments to savour what I'd seen before setting off into the next section which eventually coalesced or timed itself around roughly every ten "rooms". As a side note, one of the great frustrations of visiting larger museums, especially if you're only in town for the day is an inability to see everything. I once tried to see the National Gallery in an hour. I spent so much time in the newly opened Sainsbury Wing, I barely had time to run over and have a glance at the Rembrandts. At least having this particular museum in book form meant I take my time if needed.
I'd like to say that the experience illuminated some eras in a new way, caused me to reconsider some of my likes and dislikes, prejudices perhaps, but for the most part I left having had my appreciation for some artists maintained and my lack of interest in others confirmed. One of the great themes of the book is how religious verver has been the engine of art history which means there are pages and pages and pages of annunciations, nativities and crucifixions with some artists being considered experimental because they've delved into old testament stories. Sometimes I longed for the genre paintings and landscapes, my eyes metaphorically running across the room to see images of ordinary people going about their business. Usually in darkness or snow or both.
Inevitably much of the book isn't just a history of art, it's the history of civilisation. In earlier centuries, the introductory text acts as a history lesson putting the objects in the room in their historical context with kinds and epocs passing by within pages, family legacies and allegiances never quite managing to stick. Almost everything is interrelated. There are fascinating passages which show how western painters were influenced by the small amount of imported artwork from the far east and vis-versa and how the natural development in some countries was snuffed out by invading armies in some cases to such a degree that it's now impossible to date what's left and develop a meaningful history of that culture's early development.
Having spent all of this time between its pages it's impossible for me not to find flaws, not least, the mechanics of reading this huge volume, too huge for the lap and too big even for the coffee table. Eventually I found myself sat on an office chair at the dining table with the back of the book pivoted upwards by a pillow so I could see both the explanatory text at the top of the page and all the art, with the curtains closed so as not to create glare on the glossy pages (if only this was possible in actual art galleries when lighting interferes with the viewing of paintings with necessary glazing). I wondered throughout hour the publishers themselves coped with this. Did they have a lectern made? Did they try and read it cover to cover themselves?
Plus there's the constant sense that you're not seeing the artwork at its best, which of course you're not because with the exception of some of the photographs, for all the book pretends to be an art museum it can't replace the originals. A vast percentage of the book is filled with images of sculpture and decorative arts and with few exceptions, it's impossible to really gain much more than a glimmer of visual insight into what's being presented, especially in the ethnographic portions where dozens of pieces are strewn across the page in tiny proportions. The quality of some of the images too is shockingly poor, the publishers presumably having sourced them from a third party rather than photographing the artwork themselves. In some cases that misrepresents what we're seeing. Examples of embroidery or mosaic look more like paintings.
Monumental artworks are presented across a two page spread which towards the centre of the book means a lot of visual information is lost down the spine, which is especially problematic in the case of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Guernica. I can see how this was the prefered option because of the impossible logistics of having extra leaves attached to some pages or putting the on a single page and losing definition instead. It's an impossible situation. My preference would have been to split the image in two with a clear line down the middle where the sections could be joined up in the middle across the spine if necessary. Not perfect either but at least all of image's information would be present.
It's frustratingly orthodox in its presentation of art history itself. Although it's true that the Western white male has for the most part been the prevailing voice because he's been allowed to shout loudest, even when female artists have been of key importance in some areas they've been ignored. Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun, court painter to Marie Antoinette is missing with only her husband warranting a mention and Anne Vallayer-Coster is gone too. No Bridget Riley. When they do appear they're represented by single piece, which is also true of some of the men, but why are Cindy Sherman or Louise Bourgeois the only woman artist to merit a page of her own? Just a page mind. Why not Georgia O'Keeffe or Paula Rego or Marina Abramović?
Some of the artworks chosen to represent artists and eras are frankly bizarre. According to interviews they've deliberately tried to find unusual work that aren't that easily accessible, which is laudable, but given that it has a dual function as an educational tool why omit Leonardo's The Last Supper or represent Magritte with images that don't feature bowler hats, apples or a pipe that isn't a pipe? Why is so much of the non-Western and non-Continental European world treated as a historical document when contemporary art thrives outside London and New York? Granted even with nine hundred odd pages there are bound to be omissions but if the idea is to illuminate unseen areas, surely Hammershoi deserves better than a single image.
Oh and some of the proof reading is up the wall. All too often the main text gets the numbering of the items of the page in the wrong order or in one case, I think, refers to an artwork which isn't there. The text also sometimes refers back to works on earlier pages and these can be incorrect and although its usually obvious which work its actually referring to, given the RRP of the book, £80, such mistakes should not happen. I was at a newly opened exhibition recently and two of the labels and their connected objects had been transposed. It was obvious which matched which but you still had to take a moment to work it. When I told the curators (because you know I told the curators) they said, "Oh we hadn't noticed" and had a general sense of shruggary. This is that in book form.
But for all that I enjoyed almost every minute of it and I did find new paintings to love. There's Agnolo Bronzino's Eleanor of Toledo one of the most expressively beautiful portraits I've ever seen which I'd have another peak at before heading off back into the book each day. Jan Troorop's The Three Brides, a rare shift into deco from an otherwise impressionistic artist. The genius of Giotto, who in the fourteenth century was creating images which feel entirely cinematic. The book also manages to somehow render Yves Klein blue with what feels like the correct luminosity across a single page, seemingly a single colour at first glance but with all the gradations obvious in the printing.
There's been a lot of moaning in here and for things beyond the book's control. For much of the time I was genuinely giddy, especially when I came across an artist I particularly love or there was an artwork I've seen in an actual gallery space, usually Tate Liverpool. At the end my interest in visual art is reinvigorated and I feel emboldened that when I next visit a real art gallery it will be an even more meaningful experience because I'll be able to put the paintings and sculpture into some kind of historical context, however hazy. Luckily with the Liverpool Biennial beginning next month, I'll soon be able to put that into practice.