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This book is a great introduction to all the major names, movements, and paintings throughout art history. Its aim is very clear: it determines to walk alongside you as you investigate the new subject ‘Art History’. The presentation of the book is a little gaudy at points (e.g. the bright red font of the headers) and many of the plates are in black and white throughout (this really does have to stop in all books now) although there are also numerous colour ones included. The book really has a 1990s feel to it which I would hope the 2007 version would not.

Strickland starts with the most basic of ideas, providing definitions for understanding and approaching colour, movement, composition etc. This is useful either as a refresher or as a starting point. With the basics in place, Strickland moves on to present the various stages of art history. She breaks the book into chapters, for example the first chapter covers the earliest periods of art moving through Palaeolithic, Egyptian, Classical sculpture right up until the Middle Ages. This book is not an in-depth study, nor does it claim to be, but it is tough going to only give Greece and Rome four pages each. That being said, you are given enough of the names, sculpture or painting references that you can then go on and study independently.

Alongside the major sections Strickland often includes a glossary or a highlight artist / major painting section. Likewise, if you are unfamiliar with terms, this book will help orientate you and the occasional concentrated timelines help navigate you through the many periods.

Strickland’s authorial voice is very relaxed and entirely informal on occasion. On ocassion, the tone undermines its own authority with passé aphorisms or condescending ‘friendly’ declarations e.g. ‘Could anyone but Parisians make plumbing so stylish?’[1] In short, the tone, certainly to an English ear, is entirely American. The book seeks to be ‘cool’ and there is nothing worse than that. Exclamation marks rarely have a place in ‘text-books’ which is, after all, how one should describe this book. The American tone is one that runs throughout, and clearly affected what was chosen to go into the book and ‘who’ was considered worthy of inclusion. There are some rather odd weightings which appear to be a desperate sense to include American artists in a way which often leaves them rather hanging in the breeze, as indeed was the case during the path of early art history. The one instance where Strickland had licence to legitimately weight her text toward a transatlantic artist she rather strangely chooses to overshadow Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in preference for more text on British artist, Francis Bacon.

In general it is a reasonable attempt to counteract the long running European bias of art historical literature, although the final section of the book is purely American and becomes rather self-indulgent. Interestingly, Brit Pack artists such as Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin are absent from the ‘what is happening now’ section at the end of the book which was published just at the very point their careers were starting to accelerate (an interesting development we have the ability to now observe and I would hope is taken up in the later edition).[2]

These criticisms are perhaps a little harsh but they should not be ignored. The book does suffer because of them. That being said, the book remains useful, well considered in the main, and packed with facts, dates and names. It should be recommended to those just starting out in the subject or maybe even for those trying to reacquaint themselves, and refresh their memories as to art they like or dislike. It certainly made a happy Sunday afternoon.

[1] Strickland, The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern (USA: Andrews and McMeel Publishing, 1992) page 181.

[2] The book was published five years before the Royal Academy’s major 1997 ‘Sensation’ exhibition, during Hirst’s first year at Goldsmith’s College

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