Art History starter pack
December 3, 2016 8:18 PM   Subscribe

A friend and I want to get a good introduction to art history. I'm seeking recommendations for the best resources to do this, be they entertaining, authoritative books, lecture series videos, local resources (we live in San Francisco), or something else entirely!

- Main objective is to be able to look at an artwork and understand the context it was created in: what it's reacting to or the changes it provoked. We'd prefer a broad survey over honing on a specific period but are persuadable otherwise if there's a better approach to getting started.
- Due to our schedules, attending a class at a community college would probably be tough unless you'd strongly recommend it.
- However, we'd love for some component of this to take advantage of the Bay Area's museum/gallery/universities ecosystem. We both have memberships to SFMOMA.

- I think an ideal solution might look like: a great textbook, a intensive weekend workshop that some institution happens to host, and an engaging online course—but I defer to y'all!
posted by estlin to Education (14 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Anything Sister Wendy! Video series and books. She has wonderful insight and can take you from prehistory to today.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:26 PM on December 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Smarthistory! Their goal:" We created Smarthistory to provide students around the world with the highest quality educational resources for art and cultural heritage—for free." I used some of their videos to teach some beginning sections of art history. They're a great resource.
posted by PussKillian at 8:40 PM on December 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

We had to watch/read The Shock of The New when I was a freshman in college. It focuses on Modern art (like, art between 1870-1970 more or less), so might be more specific than you're looking for.

I kind of hated it because Hughes, the writer of the book and tv series, is quite conservative, but I still think it's a valuable introduction to Modernity.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon, and here's a link to the first episode on youtube.
posted by hapticactionnetwork at 9:19 PM on December 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Simon Schama
posted by effluvia at 10:00 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I only kept two textbooks from my university days: the Complete Works of Shakespeare and HW Janson's History of Art. It is a usable, approachable text and it's available cheap.
posted by workerant at 10:12 PM on December 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Khan Academy: Art History
John Berger, Ways of Seeing: episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, & episode 4
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:23 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I only kept two textbooks from my university days: the Complete Works of Shakespeare and HW Janson's History of Art

...are you me?

I'm sure the edition I had in college is now well beyond outdated in terms of scholarship but the book continues to be updated.
posted by praemunire at 10:27 PM on December 3, 2016

Not a textbook, but fabulous and fascinating, is the oversized coffee table book by Phaidon The Art Museum. It covers the world's art in a comprehensive way, meant to be adored a page or two per day. If you were to buy only one book, it is the one I might recommend.

The Cliffs Notes style overview of Western art is The Annotated Mona Lisa. It is pretty good at zeroing in on what most people think is the most important art from all time.

The sassy overview is Glittering Images, recently published by controversial public scholar Camille Paglia. It is a fun read. Reading level is high school.

The last attempt to treat the world's art as a continuous story was one in the 1950s; Gombrich's Story of Art. It is by far the most readable overview, which is why it has never been out of print. Unfortunately, as is unsurprising for a book from that era, there are basically no female artists included and there are occasional statements that are a bit racist in it. It was revised a bit for the 1995 edition, but the sexism and racism endured. If you were to pair Gombrich with Chadwick's Women, Art, and Society, you would have both genders covered well. The reading level is high school.

If you want DVD overviews, Sister Wendy is indeed fun. She is the "emotional" art historian. She has little formal training in art, but she has studied extensively on her own. Her strength is describing the emotional impact of paintings an sculptures.

The best systematic overview of Western art done to date on DVD is Michael Wood's Art of the Western World. It is quite entertaining and interesting. Unfortunately it was filmed in the 1980s, so does not look stunning on HD TVs. But really good content.

If you want more specific focuses on DVD, The Lost Kingdoms of Africa is the best for that continent. The Shock of the New is the classic for Modernism. The Power of Art is great for dramatic stories about the Renaissance through Modern era. The Private Life of a Masterpiece series is wildly entertaining and fascinating. How Art Made the World is the best for ancient. For female artists, The Story of Women and Art is great.

The standard 2-semester college textbooks are all thousand-page doorstops and not very good to read cover to cover. They can be fun to browse and make good coffee table books. I will include links to previous editions, as there is little point in painting $250 for the current version rather than $10 for one that is 2 years old:

Adams's Art Across Time is the best survey book out today, in my opinion. It was written by one person, so has a unified voice. The language is accessible, and she makes a good effort to treat non-Western art in an interesting way. She includes work by women. Reading level is high school.

Janson's History of Art. This was formerly the most frequently used book, but its lack of any contributions at all by female artists in editions through the 1970s caused backlash, and it is now less frequently used. Recent editions have been written by committees and revised to include some women. It now reads like an encyclopedia written by a committee. Reading level is college.

Gardner's Art Through the Ages has had a less dramatic fall, but it is also now written collectively. Reading level is college.

Stokstad's Art History. This was written during the 1990s as the feminist art history survey textbook, intentionally including a lot of work by female artists. It reads like a book written by a medieval specialist who also like a bit of everything else, which is what it is. Reading level is high school.

Honour an Fleming's The Visual Arts has been the standard in the UK. It is a great book too. The reading level tends to be too high for American undergraduates though. The authors were a gay couple and feverish collectors, and the strength of the book is including more decorative art, Asian art, and prints than their competitors. Reading level is graduate school.
posted by mortaddams at 5:12 AM on December 4, 2016 [10 favorites]

I just got a review copy of a short book called "Making a Mark" by Marjorie Watts, which is an easy-to-read overview of, like, all history and art history. It's really good so far!

Much easier to digest is Rick Steves's "Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler" if you want a title that orients major art works both in history and place.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:48 AM on December 4, 2016

How about a podcast? Modern Art Notes is about an hour each and he interviews curators, art historians and artists: Look up the artist's work on Google so you get some visuals with the audio.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 10:34 AM on December 4, 2016

This Coursera offering from MOMA was great for understanding what choices impact a photograph.
posted by SyraCarol at 11:17 AM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

H. H. Arnason's History of Modern Art taught me much of what I know about the subject. It only covers since around 1870 or so, but it's wonderful for that period.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:05 PM on December 4, 2016

The Art Book by Phaidon is a very good simplified introduction to the basic contexts of various old and new artworks, but without getting too academic about it. The commentary in it is quite minimal, but it is well-thought out and insightful. Smaller format available. Hours of fun!

(We've also looked at all of those fine academic doorstops that mortaddams reviewed, and our personal preference was for the 'Stockstad'.)
posted by ovvl at 7:41 PM on December 4, 2016

Thank you all so very much! Excited to dive into these.
posted by estlin at 8:07 PM on December 6, 2016

« Older What do I do if I know what business stole my...   |   USPS package delivery problem Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.