THESE FOUR SHORT BOOKS, one each devoted to Greek, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art, set out to do a number of things. Within a compact text of about 60 pages the caracteristics of a major European period in art are described and defined through the analysis of individual works, all of which are illustrated close to the written discussion. The books also provide some introduction to the larger historical setting and to the events that prompt changes in artistic style. Each volume includes a good short bibliography and a glossary of terms and definitions to assist the reader. The books are paperbound, hand-size and, by implication, portable, intended to accompany the traveler into museums and on trips abroad. The publisher promises further volumes in the series; Chinese, Egyptian, Islamic and Roman art will appear later this month.
A feature of the books are diagrams that accompany the photographs of the works. On a line drawing of the general forms of a building or objects a blue area indicates the part under discussion. At first this device seems helpful, but upon further examination its usefulness appears limited. Anyone interested enough to read a book of this kind would surely be able to look at an illustration of a building, for example, and find the center of the front without assistance. Of more concern is that the diagrams may focus the attention of the reader and learner on an aspect of the work instead of on its whole. This particularly true when composition is stressed at the expense of other artistic means, among them the complex interrelationship of material, space, ornament, color and the myriad other ingredients, from the subject of a painting to the function of a building, which after all, make art art.
The illustrations, and there are many, of only fair quality; the colors are often inaccurate, being predominantly orange, and the printing fuzzy; but these are problems present in some of the most expensive among the spate of "art books" which have appeared in response to the public desire for information and instruction on the history of art. The texts, only some of which are credited to authors, appear to have been carefully translated from the Italian, the series having been originally published by Rizzoli in Milan.
For whom are these books intended and to whom would they be useful? If the reader knows the history of art, then these volumes have a singular and sobering fascination, for it is interesting to observe what the authors include or exclude of the complex mass of fact and opinion assembled by art historians. If the reader is a beginner, then the books may confuse rather than enlighten, for they are not simple, unpretentious introductions to the first principles of art interpretation; they are, instead, accumulations of art historical platitudes. General conclusions are, perhaps, the most difficult kind of ideas to convey fairly in a short text intended to enlighten someone who knows little or nothing of the extended, sophisticated argument traversed before the general is attained. But part of the fun of the history of art is the observation, comparison and annotation by which conclusions are reached, and these books contain no hint of the excitement of that search.
Interpretation of art has been easy, reliable or enduring. Fashions change, and varied readings of the meaning of art are part of its history. Fortunately the objects survive the experience of being looked at and revisited. But over-simplification can be downright hazardous when an issue is moot. Such is the case with the approach to archaic Greek art, for example, to which experience with modern art has brought new insight. We now know that lifelike shapes need not be the aim of the artist. The view, expressed in How to Recognize Greek Art, that the style of early Greek sculpture remained "primitive" because of "the technical difficulties sculptors found in imposing their will on hard stone . . . as they sought with varying success to produce lifelike shapes from marble" is, at the least, an old-fashioned argument and, probably, wrong. It would be a pity were this idea to be firmly planted in the mind of a beginner and condition his response to one of the brightest and most lucid of the Greek styles.
Books of this kind are a relatively recent phenomenon in European thought. Such aids to looking appeared when people began to travel in numbers to foreign places and when works of art, valued as evidence of the past, as well as for their intrinsic beauty and their rarity, were accumulated in collection and museums. At the same time, and inspired by the same sense of the past as a panorama of man's though and feeling, some historians turned to the evidence offered by the arts. At that moment the guidebook assumed an ominous form. The complexity and dogmatism of interpretation grew in direct proportion to the amount of art available for study and the amount of thought devoted to it. Laymen required, and still require, assistance at that moment when they confront a work of art which, if it is portable, is isolated from its setting in a museum or, if it is a building, has lost its context. Many attempts have been made to respond to this need and assist communication between the work of art and the public of a later and foreign time. (Modern art has also proved difficult to understand and so disturbing.) Guides have proliferated, providing in themselves a large footnote to the history of ideas.
The How to Recognize books belong with these others. They tell us less about the art they discuss than they do about ourselves and how we think and feel about the past -- and about the present from which we turn, seeking the interpretation of experience and elegance of vision which art can offer.