Books: Pictures and an Exposition ; the Oxford History of Western Art Edited by Martin Kemp Oxford University Press, Pounds 40, 546pp

By Hall, James | The Independent (London, England), April 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Books: Pictures and an Exposition ; the Oxford History of Western Art Edited by Martin Kemp Oxford University Press, Pounds 40, 546pp


Hall, James, The Independent (London, England)


Art history has been one of the big academic growth areas of the last half century. In 1950, you could only study it in three British universities: the figure now stands at around 50. For many years Oxford and Cambridge refused to take it seriously, only offering the subject as the second part of a degree. Both have now jumped on the bandwagon and offer full courses. Although the number of university applicants recently dipped by around 10 per cent, this year's opening of Lottery-funded museums is likely to fuel further expansion.

So the provision of books to students and art lovers is increasingly big business. Tate Modern, when it opens on Bankside in May, will boast the world's biggest art bookshop. Potentially the most lucrative area is the introductory survey. The best-selling art book of all time is Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art (Phaidon, pounds 19.95). Since 1950, it has sold over 6 million copies.

Oxford University Press is now trying to muscle in on this market. The Oxford History of Western Art is edited by Martin Kemp, Professor of Art History at Oxford, and includes contributions by 51 scholars. OUP have come out with all guns blazing. A polemical press release, which slighted the authors of rival works, has already prompted a scathing rebuke in Private Eye.

Kemp himself makes no bones about the iconoclastic nature of his magnum opus. Instead of a hagiographic plotting of individual careers, the emphasis is on the contexts within which artists worked. There are sections devoted to the settings for art, from churches and piazzas to museums, and to interpreters of art - historians and critics. Discrete sections discuss "lesser" forms such as prints, photographs and the decorative arts.

While some of the essays - especially on the non-canonical artforms - are impressive, it feels like a work in progress rather than the finished article. OUP hasn't heard the old adage "too many profs spoil the broth". This is a babel of different tongues with far too much repetition, inconsistency, and some extraordinary omissions. The design is poor, with illustrations bunched in chaotic groups rather than keyed into the text.

It is also full of slack writing. which should have been edited. Thus the Great Altar at Pergamon (c.160 BC) is said to be "in an operatizing, `baroque' mode"; a Bronzino panel painting is included in a section on painting on canvas; we hear that in 1906-7 Picasso "sought to tap more primal reservoirs"; Cornelia Parker's installations are "somewhat discretely and sometimes insistently spectacular." Such sloppiness is worrying in any book but, in an introductory survey, it is fatal.

With the more innovative aspects, it is a case of "what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away". Kemp's introduction states that the separate sections on the print stress that "one of the `lesser arts' played a hugely significant role in conveying imagery to an over- widening audience". This point appears to find confirmation when we are told in a later essay that Raphael "is said" to have hung Durer's prints around his studio.

But drawings played an equally important role in the diffusion of styles. Raphael and Durer exchanged drawings, and we know that Raphael was most impressed of all by a "marvellous" Durer self- portrait in gouache and watercolour.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Books: Pictures and an Exposition ; the Oxford History of Western Art Edited by Martin Kemp Oxford University Press, Pounds 40, 546pp
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?