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Art is one of those things that I'd like to know more about, but just don't know where to start! Aside from the classic paintings that everyone's heard of, and a few favourite artists I've stumbled across like Turner or Chagall, I really didn't have a clue. This book sounded like a good resource for someone like me, wanting to get a general overview of art history, and find out more about where I could see some of the most highly acclaimed paintings of all time. So I bought it online. I can't remember exactly what I paid for it, but I think (and hope!) it was more like the current Amazon price of £11.86, rather than the Waterstones price of £20.
This book is smallish for a reference book, but it's very chunky indeed, and weighs quite a lot. It's listed as a paperback, but it's well protected by a reasonably sturdy cover of thin card. The Caravaggio painting 'The Head of Medusa' on the front cover makes for a bold and shocking opening to the book, which will have you eager to see what other surprises are in store for you inside.
Before we get stuck into the main body of the book, there's a short introduction by Stephen Farthing, a painter and professor at the University of the Arts, London. As the general editor of this book, he sets out his aims in compiling it, stating that it 'sets out to be visitor's handbook and travelling companion, not an armchair travel guide'. In other words, the book aims to be an overview of great paintings, which will point people in the right direction to see these masterpieces in the flesh. He states that all the paintings in the book earned their place in it by being 'important or interesting, or both'. He hopes that readers will question what links all these paintings, and why all have achieved renown.
The rest of the book is divided into centuries, with the exception of the first section, which covers paintings from before the 1400s. This section has paintings from as early as 1420 BC, and it's quite remarkable to see some of the intricate works of art that were created so long ago, with such basic equipment. The sections aren't all the same length- the 1800s and 1900s make up well over half the book. Perhaps this is because there are fewer paintings from the earlier eras still in circulation, or perhaps they feel that more 'important' paintings were created in this period. The final, brief section of the book is the 2000s, so it really is very up to date.
I really liked this format- it makes it very easy to get a feel for the kinds of paintings that were being produced in each century, and how things have moved on, or in some cases, harked back to earlier times (the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, for example). Working through the book, you can clear see when new styles started to emerge, and how they took off for a while, before morphing into other forms.
Most of the paintings have a whole page to themselves (although a few pages are divided between two paintings). The page consists of a small photograph of the painting, information about the medium used to create it, and where it's displayed, and then a section about the painting and its creator. It's interesting to read more about the life of the artist, what inspired them, and the particular significance of the painting. The one problem I had with the book was the size of the photographs- they really are very small, no bigger than 15 by 10cm, so it's very hard to make out the details in them. This is frustrating- you can see that there's much more to the painting than you can make out. Whilst this is an incentive to see the painting in the flesh, it detracts from my enjoyment of the book as a whole. As mentioned in the introduction, the book is only meant to be a guide, and not a substitute for seeing the paintings themselves, but I do think they could still have been a little more generous with the photograph sizes, as they have been in other art books I've come across. It's great to have so many (1001!) paintings overviewed in one book, but perhaps the book would be more accesible if it allocated more space to fewer paintings.
Still, overall, this makes for a very interesting reference point to some of the world's greatest masterpieces, many of which I'd never have heard of without this book. The indexes mean it's easy to find a particular painting either by name or artist, so you can read up on it before going to see it. There's also a list of the art galleries throughout the world that the paintings have come from, which would be very useful if you were visiting one of them, as you could pick out any paintings you particularly wanted to see beforehand.
I would cautiously recommend this book to anyone who wants to get an overview of art history without having to wade through any heavy tomes. It's the kind of book that you will find yourself referring to time and time again, so it's definitely worth having. However, if you're looking for a book packed full of glossy pictures that you can feast your eyes upon from the comfort of your armchair, then this will disappoint. Likewise, if you're after an in-depth look at a particular artist or period, then this isn't for you. But for the rest of us, the light yet interesting tone of the book, combined with the number of paintings it introduces us to, make it a useful and enjoyable read.