The Books That Shaped Art History is a new volume from Thames and Hudson, and is one of those books about books. It covers 16 classics of art theory and history from the twentieth century, including E H Gombrich’s (above) Art and Illusion. Various scholars engage with these influential books, noting their ground-breaking nature and noting also in what ways these books were later contested and surpassed. This new book is splendidly packaged, with smooth end-papers, rough but creamy paper, a cover that imitates a well-worn copy of one of Gombrich’s books, and a page-marker ribbon. (This whole package, however, may reinforce the image of the works of art theory celebrated within as dusty old relics.)
An insightful essay on Gombrich suggests this art populariser, though seen as conservative because of his wariness of much twentieth century art, was actually simply wary of going with the flow of art critics who praised the supposedly innovative modernists. Part of Gombrich’s agenda was to demystify the painter, and he described the creation of art as more of a technical problem of reinterpretation of what has gone before, rather than radical breaks with the past. Similarly, Kenneth Clark (below), Gombrich’s rival in terms of size of audience, is praised, despite his undoubted upper class demeanour, for democratically opening art scholarship to the masses. Essayist John-Paul Stonnard comments that Clark’s book The Nude can be still read for the “pleasure of its sentences”.
Included is Clement Greenberg’s book of essays Art and Culture. Greenberg was famously a champion (with his contemporary Harold Rosenberg, who, perhaps surprisingly does not feature here) of the abstract expressionists including Jackson Pollock, and any first year fine arts student has likely grappled with his famously personal and fickle likes and dislikes. Greenberg also, as this book points out, made the distinction between avant-garde art and kitsch, a distinction that has connotations of elitism, and that became more important but muddied with the arrival of pop art. He also focussed on the technical aspects of creating art – particularly innovation in style – over its content.
Other theorists, such as Francis Haskell (above), in contrast, emphasised wider society’s influence on art and its creation. Haskell wrote particularly on the importance of the patron in determining art’s path. T J Clark likewise looked wider – at the political influences on and of art, prefiguring post-structuralist theory (of Rosalind Krauss, for one) by prying into the cracks in the underlying ideology of a painting.