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The Visual Arts: A History Review by Jennifer Harrison

Hugh Honour and John Fleming
Laurence King Publishing Ltd.
361–373 City Road
London EC1V 1LR
United Kingdom

The Visual Arts: A History, by Hugh Honour and John Fleming, is by far the most beautiful book I have ever owned. Andrew Graham-Dixon calls it “the most compelling total history of art ever written,” and I don’t doubt it a bit. With nine hundred and eighty-four pages and a weight over nine pounds, it makes an impression before you even open it. Once opened, the content is stunning.

The authors have collected 1459 illustrations of paintings, mosaics, sculptures, architecture, photography, textiles, coins, pottery, jewelry, and more. Maps, timelines, biographies and more all help readers to understand the people and their art.

There are twenty pages of introduction, which do more than introduce readers to the book. These pages introduce readers to Art. What qualifies as art? What is its function and meaning? What is the impact of art? What techniques and materials are used? This introduction is an education in itself. I am sadly lacking in art education, and in all honesty, lacking in appreciation of art. This book changed that. The explanations and descriptions have helped me understand something that has previously been completely foreign to me.

Following the introduction, this breathtaking book is divided into five parts. Because of the massive scope of material presented, the authors chose to arrange the book chronologically. Each chapter includes a timeline of the Visual Arts alongside Historical Landmarks. I love this layout. The massive index in the back helps me identify any work of art I want to examine, but because of the format, I am able to use this book alongside my history studies, giving my students a full picture of the time and people we study. Our history lessons are much richer, being able to see what was important to the cultures we study. After these five parts, the authors also provide a glossary and an index, which are very helpful.

Part One is Foundations of Art. It begins with prehistory and progresses to Roman history. Chapter One is Before History. It thoughtfully describes what we know, as well as the limitations involved and what we don’t know. When speculations are made, they are pointed out as being speculations. Many unique images are shared and described, including cave drawings, paintings and sculptures found in the recent discovery of an 8000-year-old civilization in central Turkey, Stonehenge, and much more.

Chapter Two is The Early Civilizations. Art is introduced from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt, the Aegean, and China. It is fascinating to watch the change in styles and developments as each region is taken over by different people groups.

Chapter Three is Developments Across the Continents. It begins around 1570 BC with Hittites and with the beginning of the New Kingdom in Egypt. Assyria and Babylon, Iran, Zhou China, the Americas, and Africa are all featured.

Chapter Four is The Greeks and Their Neighbors. It begins around 850 BC with Homer and progresses to the death of Philip of Macedon. This section is understandably longer than the previous chapters. It focuses primarily on sculptures and architecture. It is interesting to watch the evolution of styles progress from more symbolic to realistic images of the human body.

Chapter Five is Hellenistic and Roman Art. It begins with Alexander the Great and ends with Emperor Constantine. Architecture and city layouts are featured. Mosaics and paintings begin to emerge. The text attempts to define Roman Art and explains the difficulty in pinning that definition down. The pictures are amazing.

Chapter Six also begins Part Two of the book, Art and the World Religions. Chapters six through eight include Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian and Byzantine, and Early Islamic Art.

Part Three is Sacred and Secular Art, sharing everything from Medieval Christendom to the Enlightenment and Neoclassicism. This is the era of art I feel most comfortable with. It includes the more familiar works, known to most of us and these works reflect an optimism and beauty that is pleasing to the heart as well as the eye. The history and culture descriptions that accompany these incredible images is fascinating.

Part Four is The Making of the Modern World. It begins with walks through the transitions of Romanticism to Realism (chapter fifteen,) Eastern Traditions (chapter sixteen,) Impressionism to Post-Impressionism (chapter seventeen,) and Indigenous Arts of Africa, the Americas, Australia and Oceania (chapter eighteen.) With this transition, you can feel that something is lost in our culture. Great, talented, and beautiful works of art were certainly created during this time, but the flavor is distinctly different as we enter into the era of Industrialism, the French Revolution, and Marxism. The world was changing, and it was reflected in the arts.

Part Five finishes the book with a study on Twentieth-Century Art and Beyond, covering art from 1900 to into the third millennium. This section is beyond me, but I appreciate that the authors carefully explain the meaning and purpose of the pieces. This is where you will find Duchamp’s famous urinal piece, The Fountain, 1917. While I will never understand how a urinal can be considered art, I can now understand the impact the piece had on the definition of art. This section includes a focus on Surrealism, which I still flip past as quickly as possible. It also includes the iconic photography of Dorothea Lange, the pop art of Andy Warhol, and much more.

I confess, I know little about modern art, which includes such gems as Damien Hirst’s, For the Love of God, 2007. This is a bedazzled human skull, featuring diamonds and human teeth. Sounds macabre, doesn’t it? I love that despite my complete ignorance of art principles, this book walks readers through the significance and influence of these pieces. For instance, this piece by Hirst is covered in real diamonds in an effort to be deliberately vulgar, sending the message of ‘to hell with death’ by ‘taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence.’ While I would never showcase this on my mantel, I do understand the message now, and I love that this book helps me understand something so far out of my abilities to comprehend on my own.

The first edition of this book was published in 1984. This seventh edition has been expanded to record recent discoveries – from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the late thirteenth-century frescoes in the Sancta Sanctorum in Rome. Other recent archaeological discoveries include excavation of an Aztec temple in Mexico City and excavations in south-eastern Turkey cultural center so old that it marks “a new beginning for the history of architecture and organized religion.” How exciting is that?? This edition also includes new photography, replacing some black and white images with full color pictures. The modern section has also been expanded to chart the “significant developments in the arts of our own troubled times.”

The cost of this book is $75.00. It is a piece that can be used throughout all of your homeschool studies, and will remain a treasured resource long after your students graduate and their children come to visit. I think it is an investment that every family needs in their home library.

-Product review by Jennifer Harrison, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August, 2018