A wild, unpruned tree

When reading an author on an important topic and that author tends to agree with me on important issues, I tend to think that that author is a genius. Paul Johnson, the author of Art: A New History is such a genius.

I don’t make a habit of reading art history survey in books big enough to need their own wagon to cart about but I came across this one at a used book store and thought, “Why not?” The last such survey I had read was the standard Janson’s way back when I was in my early twenties. I know this because since I didn’t go to art school the Janson book was not a textbook to me, it was a birthday gift. From my mother. Her handwritten inscription wishing me a happy 21st is still there, inside the front cover.


Janson is a slog. He covers everything it seems, from the obscure to the well-known. Everybody gets their little paragraph, everything has its own movement and category. Academics love to categorize and define and this book has probably adorned more art school desks than any other. But no one reads Janson for pleasure. Fewer still read it cover to cover (although, I confess, as a foolish young man, I did just that).

So imagine, as a budding photographer, you have made your way past late Byzantine painting, you’ve studied the polish of the work of Luca Della Robbia, you’ve tried to imagine the world of Le Nain, all the while looking forward to the emergence of photography. Finally, in the last, tacked on chapter you are there. Janson mentions Robert Frank, he mentions W. Eugene Smith. He covers all the required ground. And then you reach the end, the very last page in the nearly eight hundred page book–where Janson, or at least his son, metaphorically kicks you in the teeth.

The last section is on David Hockney, the English painter then living in California who had begun to make photo colleges a few years before. The two paragraph section begins:

The most recent demonstration of photography’s power to extend our vision has come, fittingly enough, from an artist.

From an artist. I remember, way back in 1986, reading this. I read it twice. Then, involuntarily I scowled “F___ you, Janson” aloud.

Not a good way to end a tedious and often unrewarding journey.

So you can see why I might be reluctant to embark on another of these epic reads. But I’m glad I did, though I’m only halfway through.

Johnson’s Art, A New History is a pleasure to read. His joy and fascination with art comes through clearly. He eschews the categorization and definitions that are grafted onto art history and just tells the story. Like Janson, Johnson’s book is a weighty one, with almost the same page count. But though they cover the same ground the books could not be more different.

I can make the point no more simply and no more clearly than to touch on an equivalent passage from each, so that their style and approach are in direct comparison.

Here’s Janson’s opening lines on Dürer:

 ALBRECHT DÜRER: For Dürer (1471-1528) the Renaissance held a richer meaning. Attracted to Italian art while still a young journeyman, he visited Venice in 1494/5 and returned to his native Nuremberg with a new conception of the world and the artist’s place in it. The unbridles fantasy of Grünewald’s  art was to him “a wild, unpruned tree” (he used this phrase for painters who worked by rules-of-thumb, without theoretical foundations) which needed the discipline of the objective, rational standards of the Renaissance. Taking the Italian view that the fine arts belonged among the liberal arts, he also adopted the ideal of the artist as a gentleman and humanistic scholar. By steadily cultivating his intellectual interests he came to encompass in his lifetime a vast variety of techniques and subjects. And since he was the greatest printmaker of the time, he had a wide influence on sixteenth-century art through his woodcuts anbd engravings, which circulated everywhere in Europe.

Johnson, by contrast, does away with any encyclopedic entries. He introduces Dürer with great fanfare and true feeling and then has him head off to Italy–and asks “Why?” Johnson then frames the exciting developments happening there, in northern Italy, which are covered in the next several chapters before returning to Dürer, as he returns to Germany.

Janson is making a list. Johnson is telling a story.

If you’ve read Janson’s History of Art, give yourself the pleasure of reading Johnson’s Art: A New History. If you haven’t yet waded through an art history tome–and if you are a photographer you might really want to consider doing so–then maybe Johnson is the one to try.

(Note: I just checked the Amazon prices. Wow! And double wow! The first wow is the price of the Janson–ready for this: $134.89–and that is discounted. The second wow is the price of the Johnson: it is listed as  bargain book for only  $15.98. You decide….)

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