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Art: A New History

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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 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. Though challenging and controversial, Paul Johnson is not primarily a revisionist. He is a passionate lover of beauty who finds creativity in many places. With 300 colour illustrations, this book is vivid, evocative and immensely readable, whether the author is describing the beauty of Egyptian low-relief carving or the medieval cathedrals of Europe, the watercolours of Thomas Girtin or the utility of Roman bridges ('the best bridges in history'), the genius of Andrew Wyeth or the tranquility of the Great Mosque at Damascus, the paintings of Ilya Repin or a carpet-page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. The warmth and enthusiasm of Paul Johnson's descriptions will send readers hurrying off to see these wonders for themselves.


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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 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. Though challenging and controversial, Paul Johnson is not primarily a revisionist. He is a passionate lover of beauty who finds creativity in many places. With 300 colour illustrations, this book is vivid, evocative and immensely readable, whether the author is describing the beauty of Egyptian low-relief carving or the medieval cathedrals of Europe, the watercolours of Thomas Girtin or the utility of Roman bridges ('the best bridges in history'), the genius of Andrew Wyeth or the tranquility of the Great Mosque at Damascus, the paintings of Ilya Repin or a carpet-page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. The warmth and enthusiasm of Paul Johnson's descriptions will send readers hurrying off to see these wonders for themselves.

30 review for Art: A New History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Julie Davis

    As I foresaw, I am picking this up for a leisurely reread. (Original review below.) -------------- 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 lei As I foresaw, I am picking this up for a leisurely reread. (Original review below.) -------------- 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 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bart

    This an exhaustive study of an almost limitless subject. At approximately 450,000 words, Paul Johnson's Art: A New History is more than 80 percent the length of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. This is a thoroughly honest book of opinion, and the opinions are often grim. A prospective reader, before committing himself to the 30 or more hours of reading this book will require, ought to peruse the introduction, in which Johnson, right at the tippity top, presents a resume that includes artist and art t This an exhaustive study of an almost limitless subject. At approximately 450,000 words, Paul Johnson's Art: A New History is more than 80 percent the length of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. This is a thoroughly honest book of opinion, and the opinions are often grim. A prospective reader, before committing himself to the 30 or more hours of reading this book will require, ought to peruse the introduction, in which Johnson, right at the tippity top, presents a resume that includes artist and art teacher for a father, who painted churches and discouraged his son's apprenticeship as a painter because the century was certain to be ruined by frauds like Picasso. There are departures from this theme - thousands in fact over hundreds of pages - but this book knows where it is headed and gets there: The last century, marked by the birth of Impressionism and codified by the arrival of Cubism, took fine art and turned it into fashion art, and in so doing, gave itself, mostly, to the frauds. After hammering at this theme for about 129 3/4 of the last 130 pages, Johnson reserves his final paragraph for a note of optimism, though it hungrily wants the sincerity of its 400 predecessor paragraphs. Johnson is an excellent writer possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of European art. He is a Brit, and so, unsurprisingly, a large number of the best works by the best artists can be found in London. There is nothing wrong with this approach, of course, but one does find himself turning the pages of many of Johnson's most effusive treatments wondering when the authority of the National Gallery will be brought to the witness stand. But again, the writing is excellent: In Rome, you achieved an effect by piling on the marble and porphyry, by doubling the size, by raising the gold and silver content, by gilding and embedding jewels in it, by importing immense quantities of rare plants, exotic trees and animals. ... There was an ineffable whiff of the nouveaux riches about the top echelons of Roman society which time's patina could never quite cover. (p. 97) Though one is forced to question slightly Johnson's reasons for working so hard at a definition of excellence over 650 pages, when he comes to the final 100 and finds the definition used like dynamite on the legacy of most every 20th century movement that took "ism" as a suffix, Johnson's efforts at defining excellence, and its origins, are fantastic nonetheless: If one had to define the success of Italian art during these times in one sentence it would be: a cultural climax occurs when a superb workshop tradition of craftsman is led by a ruling elite of discernment, taste and imagination. (p. 208) and Vermeer is now more generally, and unreservedly, admired than any other painter. (p. 379) and The genius of Le Nôtre, then, like that of all the greatest artists, was in creating apparent, or even real, order, and within it, effecting deliberate disorder to stimulate emotions and give pleasure. (p. 401) and The truth is, art is all, or mostly, a matter of self-confidence, which comes from the acquisition of reliable skills, and a major artist always possesses it. It allows him to follow his daemon, to the degree he wishes, consistent always of course with making a living, and a self-confident artist can usually do that. (p. 415) and . . . that salient characteristic of great art: if you owned one of them you would wish to look at it every single day of your life, as soon as you got up in the morning. (p. 555) Then Johnson goes after his own century, beginning with its forefathers, Monet and Van Gogh and even Munch: Like Van Gogh's work, The Scream has been acclaimed as a masterpiece by popular vote, since many people feel like it and can see themselves, granted the skill, actually painting it. (p. 617) Finally, Johnson comes to his unifying theory of fine art vs. fashion art: Cubism can fairly be classified as the first major instance of fashion art, as opposed to fine art. By traditional standards of measurement, going back over thousands of years in the Western tradition, fine art is a combination of novelty and skill. ... The distinction between fine art and fashion art is not absolute. All that can be said is that fine art becomes fashion art when the ratio of novelty and skill is changed drastically in favor of novelty. ... It is another characteristic of fashion art that it inevitably produces more fashion art since, when the novelty wears off and the low degree of skill becomes apparent, there is a demand for fresh novelties, and a new phase of art is produced to satisfy it. (p. 661) With rare exceptions, then, do not look at painting or sculpture created in the last 120 years, Johnson counsels, but rather at contemporary buildings and bridges, gardens and museum structures. He is right to dismiss much of Picasso, all of Warhol - "not so much an artist, for his chief talent was for publicity" - and, in a rather amusing way, Pollack ("much thought went into this inspired linoleum"), but he perhaps, and quite uncharacteristically, does not give two of his own British contemporaries, Hockney and Freud, nearly the credit they deserve. American readers will be relieved to know, however, Paul Johnson thinks the 19th century landscape paintings (erroneously) bunched together in the "Hudson River School" are the finest works of the last 150 years of paint, and it's hard to look at any work by Albert Bierstadt and disagree. This book deserves enormous credit for the size of its undertaking, an undertaking serious enough for its author to do something probably never done before: Post, in the introduction, his home mailing address, to which he asks any recommended corrections be sent.

  3. 4 out of 5

    JoséMaría BlancoWhite

    To me this is the Bible of all art books. One of the very best from the genius Paul Johnson.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    The always-original Paul Johnson is a wonderful tour guide through art history (and world history) as long as you remember that his opinions are not always the accepted opinions. Which is actually what I like about him. This book is immense but it flies by. There were sections I thought about skipping; but as soon as I read a sentence or two, I was hooked. He makes things that seem like they'd be dull fantastically interesting. I learned a lot; and of course it's a quick survey. But anyone I wan The always-original Paul Johnson is a wonderful tour guide through art history (and world history) as long as you remember that his opinions are not always the accepted opinions. Which is actually what I like about him. This book is immense but it flies by. There were sections I thought about skipping; but as soon as I read a sentence or two, I was hooked. He makes things that seem like they'd be dull fantastically interesting. I learned a lot; and of course it's a quick survey. But anyone I wanted to find out more about, or any works that I wanted to see images of that weren't included in the book, I flagged with yellow sticky notes. Now I plan to go online and to the library and learn more about people/works for whom and for which he has piqued my interest. I dont know a lot about art; this work was a great appetizer for me, and made me hungry to learn more.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    As with all of Johnson's histories this history of art is comprehensive and leaves very few stones unturned in looking at the art world from every angle that matters. How did and does art interact with, influence and reflect the influences of each and every twist and turn of history? Why is some art enduring and other fads that burn so brightly for a time come to ashes just as quickly? What marks an art world driven by the inner passion of the artist to create, or the patron to fund vs. one supp As with all of Johnson's histories this history of art is comprehensive and leaves very few stones unturned in looking at the art world from every angle that matters. How did and does art interact with, influence and reflect the influences of each and every twist and turn of history? Why is some art enduring and other fads that burn so brightly for a time come to ashes just as quickly? What marks an art world driven by the inner passion of the artist to create, or the patron to fund vs. one supplied by government funding and the need to empty a budget in order to have it refilled? The plates are beautiful and well chosen, and the older hardbound edition is a 'must have' for anyone with an enduring passion for art for art's sake.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jan Livingston

    I am an Art History buff and have read endless books on the history of painting, sculpture and architecture. This book had a fresh take on many of the tried and true opinions that have been voiced by Vasari way back when. Although the author is rather aged, judging from his portrait in the back, he seems to have a very young , flexible mind and was courageous enough to voice opinions that go against the general trend...(although he did jump on the Caravaggio bandwagon a bit too earnestly!) I very I am an Art History buff and have read endless books on the history of painting, sculpture and architecture. This book had a fresh take on many of the tried and true opinions that have been voiced by Vasari way back when. Although the author is rather aged, judging from his portrait in the back, he seems to have a very young , flexible mind and was courageous enough to voice opinions that go against the general trend...(although he did jump on the Caravaggio bandwagon a bit too earnestly!) I very much like how he drew trends together and then shattered some of our pat preconceptions. Way to go Paul!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Solid art history book with out all the academic jargon. Good for cocktail hour knowledge, but not for serious reference.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bet

    Ta Da! I finished it after on again, off again for years, but it wasn't because the book is not well written and interesting. It definitely is both. Paul Johnson is a very knowledgeable observer and has firm opinions about what he sees. This makes for a fun read. I especially recommend reading it with a computer at hand to call up pictures of the art as he discusses it. I will review the appropriate sections before travel so I can look for the work he talks so candidly about. Ta Da! I finished it after on again, off again for years, but it wasn't because the book is not well written and interesting. It definitely is both. Paul Johnson is a very knowledgeable observer and has firm opinions about what he sees. This makes for a fun read. I especially recommend reading it with a computer at hand to call up pictures of the art as he discusses it. I will review the appropriate sections before travel so I can look for the work he talks so candidly about.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Movie Vet

    I enjoyed it. I haven't read a lot of books on Art history to compare this to, but it taught me quite a bit. I enjoyed it. I haven't read a lot of books on Art history to compare this to, but it taught me quite a bit.

  10. 4 out of 5

    John Kaufmann

    Excellent overview of art history, in preparation for a trip to Europe.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ondřej Šefčík

    Refreshing, conservative, well written.

  12. 5 out of 5

    David Chivers

    The frist two-thirds of this comprehensive hisotry of art (widely defined to incude architecture, sculpture, as well as fine art)is wonderful. It puts the art in conetext, majes you rethink what went into it, and pulls you along. The final third reads like a list of artwork that he likes, without enough illustrations to follow well. (It is well-illustrated, but his lists become too long for the amount of illustrations.) In ther very last chapters he becomes very British-centric, listing English The frist two-thirds of this comprehensive hisotry of art (widely defined to incude architecture, sculpture, as well as fine art)is wonderful. It puts the art in conetext, majes you rethink what went into it, and pulls you along. The final third reads like a list of artwork that he likes, without enough illustrations to follow well. (It is well-illustrated, but his lists become too long for the amount of illustrations.) In ther very last chapters he becomes very British-centric, listing English artists who he feels are being overlooked. He also doesn't think much of, and gives short shrift to, 19th century Impressionism. But still, overall, a solid read, and a great introduction and guide to the huge history of Art.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David R.

    Johnson offers up a monumental art history with a refreshing perspective: that art should be about beauty. He's wonderfully dismissive of the twisted experiments of the 20th century that led to so many mindless dead ends. But his treatment of art does suffer from the usual causes: he can only approach artists at a very high level, focusing on one or two of their contributions, and must leave us hungry to see the plates that cannot be included. And this is essentially a tour of western art despit Johnson offers up a monumental art history with a refreshing perspective: that art should be about beauty. He's wonderfully dismissive of the twisted experiments of the 20th century that led to so many mindless dead ends. But his treatment of art does suffer from the usual causes: he can only approach artists at a very high level, focusing on one or two of their contributions, and must leave us hungry to see the plates that cannot be included. And this is essentially a tour of western art despite fascinating forays into Africa and Asia.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jimyip

    Rather than telling you what is Impressionism, Romanticism and how it start, like what is being taught in secondary school Art class, this book illustrates the notion of "gifted artists engendered a trend, rather than following a trend". Numerous prodigies like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio, Monet combined their skills learnt from past and creativity, created unprecedented masterpieces, which attracted other artists to imitate and expand. Only at a much later stage historians would Rather than telling you what is Impressionism, Romanticism and how it start, like what is being taught in secondary school Art class, this book illustrates the notion of "gifted artists engendered a trend, rather than following a trend". Numerous prodigies like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio, Monet combined their skills learnt from past and creativity, created unprecedented masterpieces, which attracted other artists to imitate and expand. Only at a much later stage historians would coin that new style with mumbo jumbo. This is how the history of art unfolds.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mark Herring

    Johnson is better known as the brilliant historian of such books like "Modern Age" and "The Intellectuals." His books are far-reaching and erudite in nature but with a most approachable style. Johnson is himself a painter and his book is 800 pages of the history of art. Johnson does not suffer fools gladly, and he especially does not suffer artiste fools gladly. While the book is a delight to read and astonishing in its scope and genius, this book will deflate and demoralize the coat hangers-as- Johnson is better known as the brilliant historian of such books like "Modern Age" and "The Intellectuals." His books are far-reaching and erudite in nature but with a most approachable style. Johnson is himself a painter and his book is 800 pages of the history of art. Johnson does not suffer fools gladly, and he especially does not suffer artiste fools gladly. While the book is a delight to read and astonishing in its scope and genius, this book will deflate and demoralize the coat hangers-as-art-with-metaphysical-titles crowd

  16. 4 out of 5

    San

    I was reading this amidst a stack of Jansons and fairly outdated art resources. The book doesn't give much to the technical analysis of the drawing, which I liked; it did, however, bring a lot more contextual insight into the artists' productive motives (read: not 'inspiration,' a word I have learned to use very carefully.) It's a very reliable overview of Western art; I'd say reading it felt like eating an open-faced sandwich, seeing it in its entirety and taking in every flavour afterward. I was reading this amidst a stack of Jansons and fairly outdated art resources. The book doesn't give much to the technical analysis of the drawing, which I liked; it did, however, bring a lot more contextual insight into the artists' productive motives (read: not 'inspiration,' a word I have learned to use very carefully.) It's a very reliable overview of Western art; I'd say reading it felt like eating an open-faced sandwich, seeing it in its entirety and taking in every flavour afterward.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bev

    This is the first art history book I've been able to read. Paul Johnson is not an art historian. He's an artist, a writer and from an artistic background but looks at the subject from the viewpoint of one who is passionate about art. The book explained what happened to art in the 20th century when art followed fads, isms. It is extremely readable, discusses individual artists, their backgrounds and what is good about them. This is the first art history book I've been able to read. Paul Johnson is not an art historian. He's an artist, a writer and from an artistic background but looks at the subject from the viewpoint of one who is passionate about art. The book explained what happened to art in the 20th century when art followed fads, isms. It is extremely readable, discusses individual artists, their backgrounds and what is good about them.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Richard S

    A very conservative and eclectic review of art history, of considerable interest in parts, although frequently and too often simply bizarre. It's interesting to read someone who hates Picasso thoroughly. Johnson is not an art historian but a conservative writer on a number of topics. Still there is considerable value here in a radically different approach to art history. Worth perusing, even if reading it is too much to handle. A very conservative and eclectic review of art history, of considerable interest in parts, although frequently and too often simply bizarre. It's interesting to read someone who hates Picasso thoroughly. Johnson is not an art historian but a conservative writer on a number of topics. Still there is considerable value here in a radically different approach to art history. Worth perusing, even if reading it is too much to handle.

  19. 4 out of 5

    An Idler

    Enjoyable and useful. Johnson's always been one to color outside the lines, and in this history he kicks the art historian taxonomies up and down the street. I appreciate the way he declares his perspectives and then proceeds to take positions and offer opinions. He does not equivocate, and the book is meaty and alive as a result. You don't need to have much existing knowledge of art, either, though a computer on hand to look up the many referenced works would be a good idea. Enjoyable and useful. Johnson's always been one to color outside the lines, and in this history he kicks the art historian taxonomies up and down the street. I appreciate the way he declares his perspectives and then proceeds to take positions and offer opinions. He does not equivocate, and the book is meaty and alive as a result. You don't need to have much existing knowledge of art, either, though a computer on hand to look up the many referenced works would be a good idea.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    I was hoping to read this complete book, but it is like a reference book that would take a huge commitment to finish. I did not like the beginning of the author's thoughts about art. Art did not exist before language, whatever you expect this to be. Most of the book had many popular pieces, but again, I did not like his focus. My personal thoughts! I was hoping to read this complete book, but it is like a reference book that would take a huge commitment to finish. I did not like the beginning of the author's thoughts about art. Art did not exist before language, whatever you expect this to be. Most of the book had many popular pieces, but again, I did not like his focus. My personal thoughts!

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ratforce

    If you are interested in art, you might like Paul Johnson’s Art: a New History, an excellent overview of art from prehistory to the present day. Despite the extensive scope of the subject matter, this is a very readable book in which the author not only puts art in its historical context, but also describes it with the love and passion of an artist.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    4 out of 5 stars...As far as art history goes, this book was fun to read. At about 700 pluse pages Mr. Johnson did a good job of taking a little time with each of my favorites. It's is funny to think the whole of art history could fit in one book. Thats why we all have our tastes. 4 out of 5 stars...As far as art history goes, this book was fun to read. At about 700 pluse pages Mr. Johnson did a good job of taking a little time with each of my favorites. It's is funny to think the whole of art history could fit in one book. Thats why we all have our tastes.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tyler Malone

    What a readable book! Paul Johnson's appreciation for art is incredible, and he explains pieces through efficient and enjoyable prose. If anyone wants to, in one book, absorb art history, it would be hard not to recommend this book. What a readable book! Paul Johnson's appreciation for art is incredible, and he explains pieces through efficient and enjoyable prose. If anyone wants to, in one book, absorb art history, it would be hard not to recommend this book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tara

    This is long, hard reading. But its very good.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joe Spencer

    Nothing too startling, but a very good history of art worldwide.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Roberta

    Not your usual take on art, Johnson thinks outside the usual box. His assertion that modern art is one fad followed by another is particularly apt.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Purple Wimple

    This is a long-term project. I'm in the middle ages now, and enjoying the pace. There are so many references to things unpictured that one needs to read it with google images handy... This is a long-term project. I'm in the middle ages now, and enjoying the pace. There are so many references to things unpictured that one needs to read it with google images handy...

  28. 4 out of 5

    Red

    Incredibly good history, my one complaint - not enough pictures!!!

  29. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    An interesting look at the history of the visual arts through the eyes of a lifelong art lover, historian, and painter.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy

    Johnson is my favorite historian and he has a deep passion for art. His insights are - so far - very helpful, I finally am getting a sense of ancient art and how it can be related to the present.

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