An alternative version of art

The Oxford History of Western Art
November 10, 2000

The art of today appears to me to be a tough nut for Oxford historians to crack. Deep into this book, one of its authors, Paul Crowther, writes on "The rise of art history" and puts into a nutshell what he thinks art history is about: "It involves discovering who created which works, what subject matters they represent and how they represented them, how they came to be commissioned and executed, what kind of audience they were intended for, how they were received at the time of their creation and how they have been interpreted subsequently" - all of which should not be very difficult if the works were produced last year.

In his introduction, the editor, Martin Kemp, adds to Crowther's checklist "cross comparison" as a critical tool. "A constant throughout the writing and production of the book has been to use groupings of pictures to give some sense of the visual 'texture' of the various periods and episodes," he writes.

This survey is a big project, designed to give each reader the feeling that they are working their way through an entire university art-history slide library with a hand-picked team of specialist tutors identifying for them the key moments, winning artists and theoretical underpinnings of - what the guides see as - the history of western art.

Hidden within this privilege is a niggling problem: the term western art. In Oxford it is taken for granted; the Ashmolean Museum is divided into three departments: antiquities, eastern and western art. For most, however, it is a phrase that we have grown to feel uncomfortable with, unless our radar is pointed towards the museums and art schools of the Far East, where the term western means "foreign".

In true Oxford style, the editor has attracted a brilliant group of scholars from far and wide to share ideas and set up arguments. Andrew Stuart from Berkeley, Stella Miller from Bryn Mawr and Nigel Spivey from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, start the story and take us in just 20 pages, and as many colour plates, through the high points of Greek and Roman art. On the way, they pass sleek male nudes, a Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos, a taster of 5th-century Attic figured ware and some Roman wall and floor art. The section concludes with a short essay called Greek art beyond Greece. Amusingly, however, if you go to the index you will find only one reference to the Etruscans. This sends you off into the centre pages and the Robert Adam "Etruscan" drawing room in Osterley Park. The index has no mention of tombs in Tarquinia.

The high points of this book are the essays that float within each section. Part one concludes with such an essay by R. R. R. Smith, professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford. This succinct, interesting and helpfully written text explores theory and criticism in the ancient world.

The story develops at a fair lick. Part two deals with early Christian art: illuminated manuscripts, architecture, stained glass and the altarpiece. Part three takes a more secular path through the period 15-1770 and part four manages to get us all the way from 1770 to the start of the second world war. The best summary I can give of the content of this part of the book is simply to list the full-page illustrations as they emerge: the Elgin marbles; The Mass by the Master of St Giles; the sanctuary of S. Vitale, Ravenna; a page from the Book of Kells; another from the Hours of Mary of Burgundy; the Trivulzio candlestick; Ekhehard and Uta from Naumburg choir; stained glass from S. Lorenz, Nuremberg; the Wilton diptych; the Rinuccini Chapel; Las Meninas; the Andrea Pozzo ceiling in S. Ignazio, Rome; and a flurry of church interiors painted between 1600 and 1700.

The mood and structure then change and the editor delivers his art history country by country. Italy and France are thrown together and we get a Caravaggio and a boy with fruit; Spain is represented by a copy of the Toledo El Greco from S. Domingo in situ and the English get the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I. At this point, I began to wonder whether the country-by-country approach provided a sufficiently strong visual thread between images and considered, as an alternative, the Tate Gallery's "themes across time" as a possibly more sympathetic classification mechanism for the period.

What became clear once I reached the last third of this book was that it is classification itself that either hinders or helps art historians; if the classifications are right, the rest, in theory, flows. Get it wrong and art historians are doomed from the outset, which is, I think, why the final part of this book emerges as such a choppy sea.

The pictures tell a story that is familiar to everyone working in the art world in the United Kingdom. But others in the western world will ask why include Stephen Campbell, Therese Oulton and the computer artist William Latham? Are they really the Caravaggios and Goyas of our time?

With this in mind, this story of art strikes me as only well told up until we arrive at the present day. Then, bogged down in old-fashioned attitudes towards categorisation, the editor falls back on materials, subject matter, geography and ethnic origins as subdividers. Throughout the opening sequences, the editor's categories seem helpful: Greek sculpture, Roman painting and mosaics, early Christian art, even print during the 1400s. By the middle, they are adventurous. But when we get to the final section, his methodology seems to lack invention and perhaps even belief, which I suspect has forced everything into becoming either an "alternative" or an "exception". One contributor plants British sculptor Anish Kapoor uncomfortably into a section called "Alternative centres: India" another puts David Hockney into "Geometrical worlds" along with Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian.

"Alternative" pops up far too often and, by doing so, not only consigns to the margins the artists of India, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, but also Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Dan Flavin, Alexander Rodchenko and Jenny Holtzer for not using traditional media. Surprisingly, the editor has decided that there is something offbeat about the work of those late 20th-century artists who chose to work with installation, performance and video.

Although it is probably unfair to conclude by comparing this history to E. H. Gombrich's The Story of Art , it is also irresistible. Working alone, Gombrich avoided ever stepping out of his depth and, as a result, produced a work with which most readers feel comfortable. The Oxford History of Western Art is far more ambitious and clearly aimed at a much bigger audience but, in the end, is possibly let down by the way it deals with the present.

Stephen Farthing is executive director, New York Academy of Art.

The Oxford History of Western Art

Editor - Martin Kemp
ISBN - 0 19 860012 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 564

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