I want to read more books about art without boring me to tears.
April 8, 2013 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Ironically, I have a master's in studio arts, but have not read a lot about single works of art/art movements. I have a litany of art history books that cover broad timelines and genres of art, and I have read extensively on theories of making and artist statements, but I'd like to read books that focus on single works of art in the context of world history that will not bore me to tears. For example, Picasso's War is about his masterpiece Guernica and how it came to be. Another example is Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics that discusses Hitler's art seriously. I'd like to read more books like this. I am interested in all forms of visual art; sculpture, painting, photography, etc. I'm looking specifically for books about a single work of art and its importance in the context of world history, or a how a movement of art fits into a world context. What have you got for me, Mefites?
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This biography of Marc Chagall is a wonderful read. It's not hyperfocused on a single work, but it's very, very good.
posted by colin_l at 11:35 AM on April 8, 2013

I have enjoyed both Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture and Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King.
posted by florencetnoa at 11:36 AM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Ok I'm not entirely serious.
posted by glasseyes at 1:10 PM on April 8, 2013

Ways of Seeing - John Berger
posted by bobdow at 2:13 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would check out The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss, author of the play Marat/Sade.
A large and complex work, the focus of the novel is the time from the late thirties into World War II -- though there is no strict chronology in the novel, and there are many varied essayistic digressions. Weiss uses historical facts and a huge number of personages as the basis for his novel. The central characters, insofar as there are any, are the members of a small resistance group (called "Red Orchestra" by the Nazis). The group was active until late 1942 when most of the members were captured and executed (after being tortured), scenes that Weiss vividly captures.
An unnamed narrator -- a Weiss-like figure -- tells the story. It is not, however, a simple narrative, beginning with its challenging opening section, a lengthy, precise, and evocative descriptive section on the Pergamon altar, a stunning relief piece taken from Greece and installed in a Berlin museum. Art is central to the novel, as Weiss returns again and again to the aesthetics of the title. GĂ©ricault's Raft of the Medusa is another piece discussed at length, opening the second volume. Angkor, Picasso's Guernica, socialist realist painting, and Goya -- to name only a few -- also find their place.
unfortunately, only the first book is translated into english, but the writing is kind of amazingly elegant in a Proustian sort of way. (there are pdfs of it all over the internet)
posted by ennui.bz at 2:58 PM on April 8, 2013

I really enjoyed The Lost Painting, which is a very accessible book about the history of a lost (but recently found!) painting by Caravaggio.

"Jonathan Harr has taken the story of the lost painting, and woven from it a deeply moving narrative about history, art and taste--and about the greed, envy, covetousness and professional jealousy of people who fall prey to obsession. It is as perfect a work of narrative nonfiction as you could ever hope to read." --The Economist
posted by forkisbetter at 10:17 AM on April 9, 2013

I'm reading Leonardo and the Last Supper right now & am really enjoying it.
posted by onell at 10:37 AM on April 9, 2013

The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress is fascinating and worthwhile.
posted by umbĂș at 11:59 AM on April 9, 2013

Pamela Todd's Pre-Raphelites at Home is marvelous. Basically it's sort of a mass biography of the Brotherhood and their models. It gives the same sort of art history context while humanizing the artists. It's also a lovely book - lots of images of primary documents and the artworks themselves.
posted by Jilder at 12:43 PM on April 9, 2013

I'd recommend The Lost Battle (Jonathan Jones) [Da Vinci vs. Michelangelo!] and Simon Schama's Power of Art (his favorite artists).
posted by Quaversalis at 2:10 PM on April 9, 2013

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