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A New History

By Paul Johnson

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-053075-8
Publisher: HarperCollins

Unapologetically opinionated, slightly Anglocentric narrative from respected popular historian Johnson (A History of the American People, 1998, etc.).

Despite its all-embracing title, this covers non-Western art primarily for the effect it had on the art of Europe and its colonies. The extremely erudite author frames this epic, eloquent tale as a spellbinding, one-sided conversation in which he spills out the story of art, its production, and its meaning. Johnson, himself the son of an artist, appreciates technique. Whether it is the introduction of concrete in antiquity or oil paint in the northern Renaissance, he makes the tools of the trade and an artist’s facility in using them as much a part of the story as the art itself. His concern with technique and affection for the artist’s craft shapes his judgments: in the chapter covering Rubens, van Dyck, and Poussin, he eloquently lauds the two Flemings’ rich painterly art, suggesting that Poussin’s more classical painting is unduly cerebral and telling the Frenchman’s story with a certain astringency. The text is marked by bold superlatives (always backed up), good contextual points, and Johnson’s idiosyncratic choices. He covers the usual canon, but has his own, sometimes obscure, favorites. He provides, for example, an entire chapter on Russian art and patronizes the Sistine ceiling as “superior scene painting.” Johnson values great artists as they attempt to convey universal truths, so he praises the 19th century’s classically trained landscape painters (particularly Americans) at the expense of Monet, for one, whose treatment he deems more prosaic. The author considers Ilya Repin’s They Did Not Expect Him “one of the greatest paintings produced in the 19th century—perhaps the greatest.” He treats Picasso in a chapter on Fashion Art, and puts forward Walt Disney as the most influential artist of the 20th century. Elgin Marbles owned by the British Museum: good; Cubism: overrated; contemporary art world: bad.

Unorthodox, and definitely not for beginners, but a delightful exercise for the educated consumer.