23 – Art that Changed the World

art-that-changed-the-worldBook Title: Art that Changed the World
Author: Ian Chilvers (Chief consultant), Iain Zaczek (Ancient and Medieval), Jude Welton (Renaissance and Mannerism), Caroline Bugler (The 19th Century), Lorrie Mack (The Modern Age), DK (Editors / Research)
Style: Coffee Table Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Non-Fiction, Art
Page Count: 400
Format: Hardcover (library)
Reading time
: 10 hours
Date Finished
: 1/14/17

My impressions: I can always brush up on my knowledge of art, and this huge coffee table book seemed like an ideal way to do so – after all, with a title like Art that Changed the World and a detailed timeline linking artistic movements to history, this seems like an ideal reference to learn about how art shaped the culture of global history. Unfortunately, the title’s majorly misleading; this book is much less about how art shaped culture than how culture shaped art. It’s also extremely focused on paintings from Western Civilization and Antiquity, with little to no mention of art outside of Europe (barring a chapter on ancient Egypt). I can accept that limitation since this book is massive as it is, but my expectation was that this would be a reference to art that’d played a role in shaping history, and it’s really not.

With that said, this book’s an excellent survey of painting from cave drawings created tens of thousands of years ago up through the contemporary art movements that shaped the 20th century. The book’s broken down into different artistic periods, and it focuses on presenting some historical context, a feature on an artist who helped to usher in the new era (as well as his/her influences), a timeline of history and artistic expression for the period, and a masterwork by a notable artist (which doesn’t always include the obvious choices). There’s a lot of information to absorb, and I was fascinated by some of the paintings I saw featured which I’d never come across before. I was particularly impressed by the sections on the Renaissance and the Pre-Raphaelites, both of which amazed me with some absolutely stunning artwork.

The depth and quality of information available reminded me why I much prefer reading books to browsing websites when I really want to learn something. The amount of information DK jammed onto each page is fascinating in and of itself, and my only complaint is that some of the most interesting paintings are shown in such a small space that the book’s little more than an introduction to them, requiring me to hunt them down online to really savor the bigger image.

I will also say that this book offers a fairly dull look at contemporary art. The flat, capsulized presentations don’t do much to explain the context or philosophy behind these styles, and I found myself quite bored as I got to these later sections on cubism, dadaism, abstract art, pop and op art and the figurative tradition – topics that are not dull, but which are not portrayed in a manner that’s particularly gripping.

But then, I can hardly fault DK for that, and what I will say is that this book offered me a lot of food for thought on how art shifted dramatically during the 15th century in Italy and how artists used religious and mythological storytelling to say something about their culture and ideas while embracing new (and old!) ideas about science, math and aesthetics. This one was probably my most ambitious read so far this year, but worth the time I spent hovered over it.


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