Breezy, Accessible Modern Art History

Article excerpt

As a former media director of England's prestigious Tate gallery, Will Gompertz has been a front-row witness to what he calls "a central tension in the art world: public engagement versus scholarship."

Clearly the 47-year-old Brit is trying for a bit of both in his debut book, a breezy, accessible and educational history of modern art.

The Oxford-based Gompertz starts with a shout-out to two previous historians of art, E.H. Gombrich and Robert Hughes. While Gompertz can't manage Gombrich's intellectual depth or Hughes's incisive edge, he is a genial popularizer. Having worked as the BBC arts editor since 2009, he knows how to write jargon-free prose for a general audience.

The book had its genesis in a one-man show Gompertz performed at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe. It's not surprising, then, that he often favours anecdotes over analysis. He explains how Matisse's and Picasso's frenemy relationship helped to kick-start 20th-century modernism, for instance, and gives an entertaining description of a fist fight between Tatlin and Malevich over the coveted corner spot in a 1915 exhibition of Russian abstraction.

Gompertz has a knack for making contemporary connections, as when he describes Henri Rousseau, a provincial painter with a naive style who was picked up by Paris's avant-garde, as "the Susan Boyle of his day."

But he often strains after relevance. Is there really a direct line from analytic cubism "to the Modernist aesthetic of stripped pine floors?"

And sometimes Gompertz tries way too hard to "get down with the kids." (We're pretty sure no one over the age of 23 should use the expression "rocked up.")

The book does benefit from its comprehensive timeline, which starts with the 19th-century French realists and goes right up to Damien Hirst, his swaggering pickled shark, and the contested period of late contemporary art that Gompertz calls "Entrepreneurialism. …