Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Beautiful and the Damned

I both love and hate lists. They’re great fun to compile but always lead to an argument, which can be great fun, too, but not always. Someone always gets left out. A braver man than I, Stephen Farthing, editor of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, slaps a new bull’s eye on his back with 501 Great Artists: A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of the Art World. As with his previous book, the “and one” acknowledges that there’s always “one more” name that should have been thrown into the mix. Farthing and his minions, however, ably take up the challenge and bear the brunt of critique, to which I shall add here. 501 Great Artists, however, unarguably achieves its primary goal—getting people to talk about artists and art. From the rank beginner to the rankled expert, 501 Great Artists will get you flipping pages one way or another and before long you’ll find yourself hooked on new discoveries or griping over new injustices. “The reach is chronologically and geographically vast,” Geoff Dyer writes in his forward. “We begin in China over a thousand years ago and end, in Iran, with an artist born in 1974—a welcome reminder that the word ‘artists’ is not invisibly or tacitly preceeded, either in the book’s title or its conception, by the word ‘Western.’” Noble in conception, 501 Great Artists’ sins of commission and omission all fall under the category of crimes of passion—passion about art in all its incarnations.

Starting with Dong Yuan in China circa 900 AD and wrapping up with Shirana Shahbazi, born in the age of Disco, 501 Great Artists does it’s best to span the centuries and circle the globe with individual artists as the touchpoints. “In the end, art history boils down to people: writers, patrons, collectors, artists, and then finally the audience,” Farthing writes in his brief introduction, “without the people there is no art.” Almost every artist earns a full page of coverage, with some, such as David Hockney (above), earning more thanks to their greater importance in the scheme of art history. Beneath each artist’s name appears their lifespan, “artistic style,” a list of masterworks, a short essay, and maybe a sidebar with an interesting factoid or two. Oversized text features quotes either from the artist or from some critic on that artist, ranging from Giorgio Vasari to Sister Wendy Beckett. I found myself at one point just scanning for those quotes. (Two favorites—Henry James on Correggio, “That’s a very pleasant life, to renounce everything but Correggio!” and Carl Jung on Hieronymus Bosch, “The master of the monstrous.. the discoverer of the unconscious.”) The format really does humanize art history, giving flesh and blood to the cold facts and reinforcing the idea that art is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As comforting as it is to come across familiar names, it’s even more enjoyable to experience the thrill of discovering a new star situated within a constellation you already thought you knew too well.

It was heartening to see some names included that normally don’t find a place in the pantheon. Jean-Leon Gerome and Hans Hofmann deserve spots as much as for their influence as teachers as for their own art. Alfred Sisley and Emile Bernard emerge from the Impressionist tangle. The underrated George Bellows finds a place on this world stage, yet Robert Henri and John Sloan, equally influential members of the Ashcan School, fail to make the cut. As much as I applaud the visionary and deserved inclusion of composer John Cage (above, Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, a 1969 tribute to his friend Marcel Duchamp), I can’t agree with the logic of some of the choices. Farthing is British and I anticipated the same Anglocentrism demonstrated in 1001 Paintings, but what kind of good Englishman picks John Flaxman over Sir Thomas Lawrence? Do you really need both James Gilray and Thomas Rowlandson to acknowledge British political caricature post-Hogarth? Can Art Nouveau be understood without Aubrey Beardsley? In photography, is Edward Steichen more important than Alfred Stieglitz, Eugene Atget, and Walker Evans? I’m sure that the Guerrilla Girls would take great issue with the exclusion of Kathe Kollwitz (below, Kollwitz’s Self-Portrait With Hand on Brow, 1910), the otherwise fine selection of women artists notwithstanding. Although the essays are generally well written, clunkers such as calling Thomas Eakins “an unflattering portrait painter” that no Eakins’ authority would accept slip through.

The most dangerous part of this very dangerous list comes when dealing with contemporary artists. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst eat up several pages each thanks more to their notoriety than greatness next to the giants of the past. Hirst’s section almost comically includes among his “themes” “pharmaceuticals, narcotics, love, the nature of existence, mortality, and religion,” which pretty much covers everything. All the Young British Artists appear as well as anyone within sniffing distance of the Turner Prize. Among all these Brits, couldn’t a slot have been found for Kehinde Wiley, the great young African-American artist? 501 Great Artists does a marvelous job of finding the fine young artists of the Middle East, but I found myself wondering how many deserving artists such as Wiley fell short in the barrage of Damien Hirst wannabees. As I said, lists are dangerous, but trying to write art history on the fly, literally trying to predict the future giants, borders on madness. Farthing courageously accepts the challenge and that courage should earn him some forgiveness for perceived failings. 501 Great Artists belongs on the shelf of any art lover, especially that of a young person to whom these artists are often just names on a museum wall or footnotes in a book. Farthing restores the human touch to these works and incites argument in a good way, calling out those who love art to pronounce or defend their territory. 501 Great Artists restores the giants to life size and allows us to see them again as the wonderful, fallible, contextualized, and context-breaking people they once were.

[Many thanks to Barron’s for providing me with a review copy of 501 Great Artists: A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of the Art World, edited by Stephen Farthing.]

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