“I have a map of the United States... actual size,” deadpan comedian Stephen Wright jokes. “It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile.’ I spent last summer folding it. I also have a full-size map of the world. I hardly ever unroll it.” Reading Abbeville Press’ mammoth new publication, The Art Atlas, you kind of get the same feeling as you journey through a full-scale education of the history of art around the world over the last 40,000 years. (Take that, 30,000 Years of Art!) John Onians edits the work of 68 internationally renowned art historians who encapsulate their own specialized fields into two-page time capsules that, together, bring you the entire world of art since the beginning of time. Onians gathers all of this together masterfully by linking these eras and locations by the common factor—Earth. “The [seven chronological] categories used are founded as far as possible on nature,” Onians writes in his introduction. “It is nature as a set of resources and constraints, principally those embodied in the nature of the earth, of time and of man.” By getting back to nature, Onians neutralizes the forces that pull cultures apart and shows how all people in all places and times really aren’t that different. “We are animals,” Onians believes, and “the production of culture” is “part of our nature,” something “inborn and therefore universal.” From that starting point, Onians and his army of experts take us on a dizzying and delightful ride, circling the globe seven times in all, beginning with the earliest cave drawings and finishing with the latest internet-based artwork.
Onians begins each historical period with a brief introduction, setting a wide stage for the global players to act upon. Introducing the age of “Art, Hunting and Gathering: 40,000 to 5,000 BC,” Onians explains how “artistic activity seems to have been often strongest in localities where either survival was most difficult,” thus requiring advanced “visual and manual skills,” or where, “because of accidents of landscape, food supplies in the form of migrating animals were periodically particularly rich.” Onians explanation reminded me of the scheme of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which saw the course of civilization and conquest in terms of these “accidents” of landscape and resources. Again, this approach allows these far reaching ideas to hang together beautifully across the eons. While old warhorse art history books such as Janson’s or Gardner’s overwhelm you with details and particulars, The Art Atlas allows you to see the big picture, often via smaller “big” pictures such as the map of Africa from 900-1100 (above), which shows the course of empires, trade routes, slavery, ivory and salt trade, rock art sites, and even languages all in one graphic. (The accompanying CD-ROM’s searchability and, more importantly, zoomability allows the interested to really look closer at these maps and learn how all these coexisting forces shaped that place and time.)
Some sections are tantalizingly brief, especially those covering times and regions not usually covered in surveys of art history. Just flipping through the book, you’ll come across works of art that make you stop and read, such as the self-portrait of nineteenth-century Chinese artist Ren Xiong (above). Whereas the realism of his face and body shows the influence of Western painting invading Chinese culture, the calligraphic rendering of his robe reflects the still-persuasive hold of the old traditions of Chinese painting. This is not the art history survey for you if you’re looking for a collection of “greatest hits.” However, if you’re looking for little known treasures you won’t find anyplace else, prepare to be enlightened. Many of the contributing art historians to The Art Atlas present their work to the general public for the first time here, so the bibliography at the end becomes the road to further enlightenment once you’re hooked on a particular subject.
Europe and North America receive their just coverage, especially as the present day approaches. The map of North America 1900-1950 (above) shows the beehive of activity as art institutions pop up across the United States, artists move within the U.S. in search of new subject matter, refugees from Europe’s wars arrive, and WPA projects ease the sting of the Great Depression. Again, to see all of these activities all represented simultaneously can be both overwhelming and endlessly fascinating. For those steeped in the Western tradition of art and culture, The Art Atlas shows that it’s truly a big world full of possibilities. As Onians puts it, “Those who take advantage of all the opportunities the Atlas offers will acquire an unprecedented understanding of art as a worldwide human behavior. They will also acquire a much-needed awareness of our ignorance about it.” The Art Atlas is a humbling book in the best possible way. Nobody could possibly cram all this information into a single cranium, but accepting that impossibility frees the reader to dismiss Western-centric ideas of art and culture and drink in previously untapped resources of imagination.
One image that knocked me over early in the book was the picture of Cueva de las Manos (above), the “Cave of the Hands” in Argentina covered with stencils of human hands dated back to 7,300 BC. I freely admit my ignorance of the art of many times and eras and would welcome “world enough and time” to experience them all. Looking at that collection of hands done nearly 10,000 years ago, I understood how The Art Atlas reaches across space and time and creates a true chain of being of human culture on Earth. We know so little about such early cultures, but we can clearly see that they had many of the same desires, including the desire to create, as we do today. The Art Atlas also allowed me to get a little hopeful for this fragile world of ours, threatened by both pollution and warfare. If art can persuasively prove how our most common bond is the Earth itself, perhaps we can stop destroying it and each other.
[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a copy of The Art Atlas and for the images from the book.]