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The Books That Shaped Art History, Edited by John-Paul Stonard & Richard Shone. Thames & Hudson, £24.95
Tuesday 14 May 2013
If you were asked to name just a handful of scholarly writers who have helped shape the modern sensibility when it came to looking and thinking about art, your list might go like this: Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Ernst Gombrich, Clement Greenberg. If you were really up on your art theory, you might add Rosalind Krauss, along with a few other names of a densely theoretical persuasion.
But then you'd pick up The Books that Shaped Art History, a collection of 16 essays by different authors on the most influential art thinkers of the 20th century. And you might be surprised to find a John Berger-shaped hole. Missing too, is Walter Benjamin, whose The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) is surely on the reading list of every undergraduate humanities' student.
What to make of these omissions? Obviously, the editors Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard couldn't include everything. Maybe they felt circumscribed by the length of the critical works under examination – books, not essays. But then we have Boris Groys's excellent account of Clement Greenberg, which concentrates on the American critic's most influential 1939 essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" while more or less ignoring the other essays in his 1961 volume Art and Culture.
As for Berger, perhaps they wanted to leave out a book that started life as a television series. One can't help finding it odd, especially as Berger has had a profound impact on the way we look at pictures.
What's left, however, is a solid and impressive, if variable, account of art history. Some contributions are decidedly knotty. Short in length but seemingly interminable is Anna Lovatt's essay on Rosalind Krauss, though given the theoretical bent of Krauss's writing one may have sympathy. Richard Verdi's essay on Roger Fry's 1927 study of Cézanne is, on the other hand, entertaining, even rather gossipy, and highly informed.
It is an admirable collection, even without Berger. But one does wish all the contributions had been as lively as the ones on Fry and Greenberg.
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