Art: A New Historyby Paul Johnson
In Art: A New History, Paul Johnson turns his great gifts as a world historian to a subject that has enthralled him all his life: the history of art. This narrative account, from the earliest cave paintings up to the present day, has new things to say about almost every period of art. Taking account of changing scholarship and shifting opinions, he/b>… See more details below
In Art: A New History, Paul Johnson turns his great gifts as a world historian to a subject that has enthralled him all his life: the history of art. This narrative account, from the earliest cave paintings up to the present day, has new things to say about almost every period of art. Taking account of changing scholarship and shifting opinions, he draws our attention to a number of neglected artists and styles, especially in Scandinavia, Germany, Russia and the Americas.
Paul Johnson puts the creative originality of the individual at the heart of his story. He pays particular attention to key periods: the emergence of the artistic personality in the Renaissance, the new realism of the early seventeenth century, the discovery of landscape painting as a separate art form, and the rise of ideological art. He notes the division of 'fashion art' and fine art at the beginning of the twentieth century, and how it has now widened.
Though challenging and controversial, Paul Johnson is not primarily a revisionist. He is a passionate lover of beauty who finds creativity in many places. With 300 colour illustrations, this book is vivid, evocative and immensely readable, whether the author is describing the beauty of Egyptian low-relief carving or the medieval cathedrals of Europe, the watercolours of Thomas Girtin or the utility of Roman bridges ('the best bridges in history'), the genius of Andrew Wyeth or the tranquility of the Great Mosque at Damascus, the paintings of Ilya Repin or a carpet-page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. The warmth and enthusiasm of Paul Johnson's descriptions will send readers hurrying off to see these wonders for themselves.
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Read an Excerpt
Art: A New History
By Paul Johnson
Harper Collins PublishersCopyright © 2003 Paul Johnson All right reserved. ISBN: 0060530758
Painted Caves and Giant Stones
The human personality has been in existence for about 200,000 years, when Homo sapiens first evolved. His ancestor or doppelgänger, Neanderthal man, being less efficient at learning new things, disappeared, and the thinking man was left alone on the planet, to conquer, adorn and exploit it. He has been learning ever since, first almost infinitesimally slowly, then at gathering speed, which is accelerating all the time. Acquisition of knowledge and the ability to create are inseparably connected, and man, becoming sapient, began to create as fast as he learned. Thus art is virtually as old as humanity. By art I mean three things: useful art, concerned with survival; fine art, concerned with beauty; and fashion art, concerned with conformity to social rules.
The earliest art was body adornment, which included all three forms of art. Humans early discovered that they could impress other humans by certain calculated actions, of which clothing and painting their bodies was the easiest and most effective. Thus cosmetics was the earliest type of art, followed by primitive forms of jewellery and clothing, and this body art filled all three functions: it was utilitarian, it was aesthetic and it was social. Unfortunately, by its verynature, body art has disappeared. We do not know its salient characteristics or how it evolved. It is little help to study peoples who still practise it, as in Borneo, because these examples of Homo sapiens who have remained locked in the Stone Age self-evidently lack the dynamism which enabled primitive man, using his art-creating capacities, to break out of his predicament.
However, it is clear that skill in art, beginning with body adornment, was a precondition of human progress, including the production of tools and the forming of successful societies. Art came before everything. It certainly came before writing - a comparatively recent development, all forms of writing originally evolved from pictograms. It almost certainly came before speech, at least forms of speech expressing notions which were at all complex. By learning to record visible objects, and express ideas, by engraving or painting on relatively flat, two-dimensional surfaces, humans produced visual aids to such speech noises as they were originally able to make; these aids in time were reflected in refinements in speech noises, expansion of vocabulary and the evolution of syntax. The evolving genetic coding which made humans rationalise themselves into art was the same force which produced rational speech noises, so that the two processes were intimately connected from the start.
Once art took a non-bodily form, it began to survive, and it is possible for us to study it. This objective art took many forms, since humans began to decorate their tools as soon as they made them, but its most important and illuminating - and beautiful - expression is in cave or rock art. This consists of engraved or painted works on open-air rocks or on the floors, walls and ceilings of caves, some of them in deep and almost inaccessible crannies. They were created during the Upper Palaeolithic period (40,000 to 10,000 BC), and the best were done by what we call the Magdalenians (from the name of a site), peoples who flourished in Europe from 18,000 to 10,000 BC. Such works have a unity, and can be described as the Magdalenian art system, the first in human history. It was also the longest, lasting for more than two-thirds of the total time when humans have produced art.
In any history of art, then, the Magdalenian system must occupy a place of importance. Alas, of all the forms of art practised on the planet, it is the one about which we know the least. But our knowledge is by no means derisory, bearing in mind that the first cave art was only discovered in the 1860s, and it was not until 1902 that it was accepted as a fact by anthropologists and art historians. By the end of the twentieth century, there were 277 agreed examples in Europe, 142 in France, 108 in Spain, 21 in Italy, 2 in Portugal, 2 in Germany and 2 in the Balkans. Unfortunately, most of these works of art are extremely fragile. When a cave is 'opened', and the conditions which enabled paintings to survive are altered, deterioration can be rapid. The superb paintings found at Bédeilhac in the Pyrenees during the First World War disappeared completely within six months of the cave's discovery. Thus except in places where expensive air-conditioning has been installed, caves are no longer open to the public. Even the Altamira Cave in Spain, finest of them all, is now open only to small parties for brief periods. Scholars themselves find it difficult to gain admission. Some of these works are photographed but the camera gives a poor idea of their nature and quality. Some are difficult to see anyway: the best part of Altamira has to be studied lying down. Hence inaccessibility is a real and growing obstacle to unlocking the secrets of the Magdalenian art system.
However, here are a few items of knowledge on which we can build, beginning with subject matter. Cave art portrays human hands; large numbers of animals in different activities, including various species, such as the woolly rhinoceros, which are now extinct, and a few which were extinct even at the time they were painted; geometric figures and signs. Humans are also portrayed but these instances are rare. Next we come to methods and materials. The earliest and most rudimentary images are finger-drawings in soft clay on the rock surface, the artist following the example of claw marks made by animals. Then came engraving, by far the commonest method, using flakes of sharp flint and in some cases stone picks. Different types of rocks, and rock formations, were used to give variety, add colour and produce depth, so that some of these engravings are akin to sculptural low-reliefs. Fine engraving is rare and late ...
Excerpted from Art: A New History by Paul Johnson
Copyright © 2003 by Paul Johnson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Paul Johnson is a historian whose work ranges over the millennia and the whole gamut of human activities. He regularly writes book reviews for several UK magazines and newspapers, such as the Literary Review and The Spectator, and he lectures around the world. He lives in London, England.
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