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50 Artists You Should Know (50 You Should…
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50 Artists You Should Know (50 You Should Know)

by Thomas Koster

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50 Artists You Should Know probably makes those who truly study art cringe, much in the same way USA Today might to someone interested in serious journalism. It selects 50 artists in chronological order, from Giotto to David Hockney, provides a one page overview on each, and one or more of his works of art. I say “his”, and while I suppose I should say “his or her”, the fact is 49 of the artists are men, with Frida Kahlo being the only exception. The artists are also all western, and nearly all of them are painters. Perhaps with slight adjustments it would be better titled 50 Western Male Painters You Should Know.

That wasn’t really what was disappointing about the book though. My first problem was the format, which placed silly historical timelines on the top of 20% of the pages in horizontal stripes. When large works of art are viewed in a book they are minimized considerably, thereby lessening their effect, and these timelines as well as decisions by the editors to put additional works in at very small sizes made that worse. A rough idea of this at its extreme: Watteau’s ‘L’Embarquement pour Cynthere’, a work larger than 4 x 6 feet, was reduced to a puny 2 x 3 inches. For several of the paintings I thought, why include it at all?

The other problem I had was in the writing. Examples, for Da Vinci, this at the end: “He observed, for example, that the sun did not move in the firmament in the way people thought it did at the time.” (Really? In what way? There is oodles of white space left on the page at the point the text abruptly stops.) On Van Gogh: “By the time he died, van Gogh had sold only one painting: people found his approach too strange. Before long, however, his art began to influence many young painters. Today, his paintings fetch high prices. The man who believed he could not paint is now not just one of the most important painters in the world, but also one of the most expensive.” (Is this written for young children?!? And ‘By the time he died’? No mention of suicide?). And on Andy Warhol, not only the typo crediting him with getting his MTV show in 1968 (ugh), but this sentence: “Pop art suggests the everyday, and the Pop artists from England and the USA did, indeed wanted (sic) to depict popular, everyday items artistically.”

Moreover, unlike Impressionism: 50 Paintings You Should Know which I loved, the book does not focus its commentary enough on the art shown, nor does it offer nearly as many interesting nuggets of information about the artists’ lives.

Now you may wonder, wow, despite all that, how does it even get three stars? Well, there are some redeeming features. I liked seeing Klimt, De Goya, Edward Hopper, and Dali. Hans Holbein the Younger’s works were good, including the oblique skull in The Ambassadors which I loved in the National Gallery in London.

There were some nuggets as well: Michelangelo’s jealousy for Titian. Raphael spying on Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, so that Raphael could emulate the techniques before the chapel was officially opened. The link from Caravaggio’s play of light and dark in the ‘Chiaroscuro’ style to Rembrandt was interesting, though I suppose known to most who seriously study art. Lastly, the story of Henry VIII sending Hans Holbein the Younger off to paint possible candidates for marriage, so that he could ‘check them out’ first.

I found a common thread in the artists being inspired in the colors they saw in nature, sometimes while traveling, changing them for life. It must be interesting to see the world through an artist’s eyes! This included Turner seeing the eruption of Vesuvius and “changing his approach to painting radically after seeing the glowing lava pour down the volcano, gleaming in the incomparable southern light”, Klee having “discovered colour in Africa”, and proclaiming “Colour has got me. I do not need to go out and catch it. It has got me for ever, I know. That is the meaning of this happy hour, I and colour are one. I am a painter.”, and finally Alexander Calder having “never forgotten the way the sun rose off the coast of Guatemala”.

I have to say that while I’m not a huge modern art fan, the book helped broaden me in this direction, both for Picasso’s “Jacqueline with Crossed Hands”, and the works of Marc Chagall.

And so, all in all, not the greatest, but decent as an overview, and interesting to thumb through. ( )
2 vote gbill | Nov 25, 2013 |
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This reference guide profiles 50 major artists alongside their representative works. The entries are presented in an eye-catching format that includes brief biographies, time lines, and critical analyses.

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