Review – Art: A New History by Paul Johnson

Review – Art: A New History by Paul Johnson April 21, 2015

Art: A New HistoryArt: A New History by 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 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.

I love the way that Johnson is able to make everything so clear in terms of how various civilizations’ art mirrors their governing styles. He also made me really respect early man (you know, the ones who filled those caves with all that fantastic art) by explaining things I didn’t know about both the art and what the artists went through for their accomplishments.

This took me a couple of years to leisurely work my way through. Now that I’m done I’m going to miss Paul Johnson’s voice looking at history and art and the fascinating, creative people who are artists.

This is simply superb. Johnson has his prejudices but they are few and fairly discussed. It probably helps that I share many of Johnson’s opinions but just never had the wherewithal to understand why. And now I do!

My only wish is for a companion volume that shows all the images that Johnson mentions. There simply wasn’t room in this book for enough of the actual art.

I’ll be putting this in my rereading stack.

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