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‘The Books that Shaped Art History’
How strangely comforting and ironical, it is to grasp that Roger Fry's ‘Cézanne’ slipped into the world, literally, in far less than stellar circumstances. First published in 1926 in a French magazine sans any illustrations, all it yielded to the author were a few free copies. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, his close friends, did a version in English for their Hogarth Press. It still left much to be desired. Yet these loopholes did not matter when seen against the backdrop of the writer’s monumental achievement with his thoughtful text. By scrutinizing the interrelations of form and color, he set down the framework for a proto formalism, which went on to become the dominant way of constructing art criticism for years to come.

Released earlier this year, a major scholarly compilation provides a roadmap of the art & culture domain by reassessing the perceived impact of a wide gamut of significant written works such as these from historical, social and cultural perspective - from Alpers and Krauss to Gombrich and Greenberg. Edited by Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard, ‘The Books that Shaped Art History’ (Pages: 268; 54 illustrations; Price: £24.95) reanalyzes and takes a fresh look at Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Gospel of Modernism; ‘Pioneers of the Modern Movement’, E.H. Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion’; Alfred Barr’s ‘Legendary monograph on Matisse’; Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art and Culture’ that had a seismic effect when first published in 1961, apart from Rosalind Krauss’s ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde & Other Modernist Myths’ (it introduced structuralist/ poststructuralist line of thought into art historical study), among others.

It’s an interesting account of important scholarly books, placing them within the broader disciplinary field, narrated through its important seminal texts. Each chapter - written by a known curator, art historian or one of today’s promising art scholars- revolves around a single theme- so as to individually and collectively present a varied and in-depth overview of the rich history of art. Stonard in an explanatory essay explores how art history has been cohesively forged by these significant contributions, as well as by the sustained dialogues and even ruptures between them. There is supplementary documentation to summarize each art historian’s achievements, a detailed publication history of their respective texts and suggestions for further reading.

An introductory note to the comprehensive compilation states: “With leading writers including Boris Groys, Susie Nash, Richard Verdi and John Elderfield, each chapter tries to analyze a single major book so as to set out its premises and argument as well as to map the intellectual development of its author. The chapter discusses a particular book’s position within the vast field of art history, considering its significance in the larger context both of its initial reception and its legacy.” Richard Shone, editor of ‘The Burlington Magazine’, has authored a number of books on both French and British art like ‘Bloomsbury Portraits’ and ‘The Post-Impressionists’. He contributed to the exhibit catalogue for ‘Sensation’ at The Royal Academy, London. An art historian and former Contributing Editor of The Burlington Magazine, Stonard’s ‘Fault Lines: Art in Germany 1945–55’ was greatly appreciated. He has worked as a Visiting Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and was a Senior Fellow at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2010–11). He has published several titles on modern and contemporary German and British art.

The Guardian columnist Kathryn Hughes underlines the fact that the erudite essayists are all bound by connections in this enriching account of the 20th-century art history. Describing it as ‘a thought-provoking and meaningful reflection on nearly a century of Art Historical scholarship’ Daisy Dunn of the Telegraph UK points out: “Praising the masters even while accepting and assessing their errors, the volume sets the bar for the next generation. It heralds a bold approach. Art historians find it difficult to dodge the lofty lineage of earlier scholarship. It hammers home that point with subtle force: Art History is little else than received wisdom. It’s as much about theorizing and re-theorizing other theorists’ theories about art, these days, as it is about looking at pictures. The books of Fry, Kenneth Clark, Bernard Berenson, and all the other famous historians discussed in this collection certainly shaped Art History today. However, one cannot help thinking that in doing so they might also have zapped it of its own voice.”

In a point, Susie Nash puts particularly well in her essay on German scholar Erwin Panofsky, for 20th-century criticism to be great it didn’t necessarily have to be right, always. Many of his arguments were rather ill-conceived since he often was from accessing primary material. But Panofsky’s vibrant, big-guns approach to his discipline made his work so engaging.” In general, the art writers who have found a deserved place in this volume were invariably ‘ambitious and avid risk takers’.