I recently picked up a copy of The Art Book at a very reasonable price. It’s basically a list of major artists, one a page, with an article about a “typical” piece of work of the artist, usually a well-known one, with the bottom three quarters of the page displaying that work of art. Each article starts with a description of the work of art, and then moves on to general observations about works by the artist, sometimes with side notes about his life (rather unavoidable in cases like van Gogh). In all, 500 artists are featured, including sculptors (e.g. Rodin) and less categorizable examples (Koons, Merz). Having been shown in an art gallery may have been the criterion.
Entirely missing are Bouguereau and Spitzweg, a slight pain given the recent interest in Biedermeier art. Similarly difficult to explain is the absence of Riemenschneider, the unsurpassed genius of woodwork, while his contemporary painter colleague, Cranach the Elder, has been included (although not his son). The general impression is that while other forms of art are included, the focus is still firmly on works done in the plane, especially painting (photography is entirely absent, but Gerhard Richter is there). I had previously thought of Audubon as a highly accomplished book illustrator, but he is there, testimony to the focus on painting. Furthermore, the German traditions may have been slightly underemphasised. The Young British Artists are thankfully missing, although their predecessor, Josef Beuys, is there.
Artists are presented in alphabetic order, with cross-references suggested. These cross-connections are not always comprehensive, unfortunately. There is no link, for example, between Miro and Klee. The glossary at the end of the book is basic, and was of little utility to me, but will probably help complete newbies.
Now, what could be the value of such a comprehensive selection that gives little attention to each individual artist? For me, it makes an excellent internet companion that gives me all the essential artists that I may have missed, along with suggestions of other artists to explore. After a while, I got tired of the over-abundance of boring modern paintings which, once the experience has been had, need no longer be preserved – we have Kline, Klein, Hodgkin, Heron, Hayter, and that’s just two letters’ worth. I graduated from the book with a strong yearning for beautiful art, accomplished in craftsmanship as well as composition and aesthetics. All in all, it is a very good selection that leaves little to be desired, and a highly useful reference work at an affordable price, and given it was published in 1994, it is incredibly up-to-date and comprehensive.
Phaidon Press, ISBN-10: 071484487X, ISBN-13: 978-0714844879.