'A Guide to Art' takes sketchy look at past works

October 11, 1992|By Daniel Grant

A GUIDE TO ART. Edited by Sandro Sproccati. Abrams.

288 pages. $29.95. This has been a time of re-evaluation for the history of art. Revisionist theories of art keep appearing in book form; museums are increasingly creating exhibitions based on new studies of their own permanent collections. One is also seeing a growing number of history-of-art books that are being revised (Janson's "History of Art" and Gardner's "Art Through the Ages") written (Sanders' "The Nude: A New Perspective" and Wilkins and Schultz's "Art Past/Art Present") to keep up with new ideas.

One of those new ideas -- or, actually, an idea that art instructors are finally coming to accept -- is that most people are far more interested in the art of their own time than in what was done centuries ago. "A Guide to Art," which was created by a number of writers (Sandro Sproccati is an art critic) and translated from the Italian, is based on this assumption.

Less than 100 pages move readers from the early 13th century through the 18th, and the last 140 pages of this 288-page book are devoted to the 20th century, most of that to the post-World War II era. The past is truly prologue here.

"The foundations of modern European artistic culture start at the turn of the thirteenth century," the book's first chapter states, and it becomes that this foundation largely consists of formalist concerns. In effect, a modernist sensibility is applied to art of the past, and this language to describe art is what unites the past and present.

The "axonometric presentation of buildings" in Giotto's paintings, the "narrative immediacy, solidity of form and a balanced sense of color" are hardly descriptions that 14th century -- or even 19th century -- historians would have used. Elsewhere, on the subject sculpture, one reads that "the notion that space is there to be invaded by the bulk of the human form . . . was already present in fourteenth-century Bohemian art" -- that concept more directly applies to the intentions of Minimalist sculptors.

At times, this modernist language can be rough going, barely making any sense. Piero della Francesca's paintings are found to "achieve a sense of spatial homogeneity, in which every element (the human image, objects, buildings, landscape) shared a feeling of stylistic coherence based on the unambiguous quality of light and the essential truth of the vanishing point." What is this "essential truth"?

Stylistic changes in art are also seen less as evolutionary than the avant-garde of the particular time, such as when "mannerist" painters are described as looking to "shock and provoke." Newness, of course, is a very modernist concept, but these writers see little need to question their own assumptions.

The "history" part of this art history book, however, is less important than the modern and contemporary art with which it is most concerned. The most interesting aspect of the chapters on older art are the particular artists who are highlighted. Lots of Italian Renaissance painters and sculptors who receive passing (if any) attention in most art history texts are discussed here.

Caravaggio, for instance, is a much more highly regarded artist than Rembrandt, if the amount of space each painter is given is any indication. Of living artists as well, many more European (especially Italian) artists are described as influential than may usually be noted in American texts on the subject. Agree with it or not, this is a benefit of seeing the history of art through the eyes of foreign writers.

The somewhat jargonistic language seems most at home in the sections on modern and contemporary art. Conceptual art, which in many ways is about the language used to describe this kind of art, is the book's strongest area of interest.

The book is, unfortunately, not laid out well, with text jumping all over the page, interrupted by color illustrations and their captions (which require arrows to indicate to what they are referring) as well as inset boxes in the middle and biographies of artist at the bottom. Illustrations and insets should complement a

text, not distract readers from it.

Mr. Grant is a writer living in Amherst, Mass.

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