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The Short Story of Art Review by Melanie Reynolds

Susie Hodge
Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
t +44 (0)20 7841 6900
361–373 City Road
London EC1V 1LR
United Kingdom

Do you ever wish that you had a complete book on the history of art; one that would inform you about key art movements, iconic artworks, famous artists and the materials they used? I’ve often found that books of this nature end up being enormous hardback compilations that are too heavy to comfortably handle or too overwhelming for the novice to wade through. If you’ve ever experienced this yourself, you’ll be thrilled to discover The Short Story of Art. Susie Hodge’s gorgeous, full-color paperback takes the reader on a compelling journey from prehistoric cave paintings to the art of the 20th century’s close. It is fascinating to read, beautiful to look at, and just the right size (at 8” x 5”) to hold. It costs $19.99.

The Short Story of Art is divided into four segments: Movements; The Works; Themes; and Techniques. Art movements are defined (often, after the fact but sometimes by the current artists themselves) as a recognizable style that artists create in, generally during a particular number of years. Most of us are familiar with some of these (like Impressionism, the Renaissance, or Baroque), but have we ever learned about what started the movements or kept them going? Hodge discusses 36 different art movements, devoting one page to each. She describes the movement, notes its key artists, mentions key developments of the style, its time period, then includes a photo of an artwork from the movement. Her descriptions are clear and well-organized, and utterly intriguing, filled with answers one might never have thought to ask. How did the French Revolution’s events move art toward Romanticism? How did the Reformation and the Catholic response to it shape the Baroque Movement? Why did World War I move artists toward a style of painting that became known as Expressionism? Hodge shows how historical periods influenced art and artists in each era of time; and although she covers many thousands of years it’s never overwhelming. She distills for the reader the important facts of each movement along with the ways history shaped art, and artists shaped history.

The second segment, The Works, introduces the reader to 50 paintings, sculptures, and installations which exemplify important moments of each artistic movement. Here, in the manner of the best museum docents, Hodge teaches about specific artworks, their histories, the artists, and the world around them. What are the key elements of one painting that causes it to land squarely in the Neoclassical style? How did Seurat learn something new about color theory that caused him to invent a completely new style of painting, Pointillism? What was Andy Warhol trying to express about modern culture with his screen-printed repeated images of Marilyn Monroe? How did Matisse’s physical illness cause him to bring the art of collage to his creations? Hodge’s teaching method of combining stories about the art and artist is quite effective and will enable the reader to remember and truly learn.

In Themes, the author explores 26 different ideas that artists have expressed through the years. These range from the more familiar, like portraiture, religion, nature, and color; to perhaps some less familiar, such as consumerism, the unconscious, or manmade items. Each page in this section includes a list of artists who worked with the themes; the themes’ descriptions; developments through the years; and photos of paintings or other artwork. 

Last, Hodge describes the tools of the artist in Techniques. What does the artist use to create? How are the tools used? Whether it’s a description of a medium (mosaics, chalks, marble, oil), a style employed by the artist (chiaroscuro, impasto, fresco, sfumato), the surface (canvas, panels, marble), or perspective (atmospheric, foreshortening), the reader is introduced to the practical elements that the artist utilizes. All of these impact the artworks’ style, the way they are created, and their final results (and even sometimes, their permanence).

The Short Story of Art made me feel as though I were back in college, enjoying a cleverly-taught course on the history of art. Yet even though this book includes a great level of scholarship and research, it’s eminently accessible and readable. Although it’s not a novel, it is actually a great read from start to finish. In addition, it’s a truly useful resource book, with the reader simply being able to access various movements, media, or artists as needed. I’ve used it both in our homeschool studies for artist study, and also as I have planned lessons for my upcoming art class in our homeschool coop. (Parents should be aware that there are a number of paintings or sculptures of nudes included in the book.) I am happy to recommend The Short Story of Art. It is an excellent, complete, and compact resource book; perhaps the only art history book you need for yourself or your homeschool!

-Product review by Melanie Reynolds, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August, 2018