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Art: A New History Hardcover – September 30, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Having produced in a fairly short span equally weighty histories of the Jewish diaspora, the modern world and America, as well as a number of smaller books and a stream of articles, near-septuagenarian Johnson, historian, journalist, conservative gadfly and Sunday painter, has produced a massive and contentious history of art. Johnson (Intellectuals) is a product not of the cloistered academy but of the rough-and-tumble world of British journalism (before his conversion to Toryism he edited the left weekly New Statesman). While his narrative is for the most part a conventional journey through the canon, his headlong pace, quirky views and pungent prose make it anything but dull. The quick, forceful judgments Johnson makes on the art and artists he encounters are always amusing and sometimes enlightening, particularly his attention to the undervalued "regional" realist traditions of the 19th century. But the tone of constant bluff provocation can become wearying, and the book's putative polemical mission-to help develop an appreciation of art that would help "society defend itself against cultural breakdown"-doesn't really make itself felt until the book's last and weakest section, a rather scanty section on modernism and postmodernism that is pure New Criterion-style cultural conservatism. All writers of single volume art histories must contend with the rightly ubiquitous and magisterial Janson and Gombrich, and despite its wealth of free-flowing ideas and 300 handsome reproductions, Johnson's book (which also lacks a bibliography and footnotes) simply cannot compete. But as a passionate amateur's personal survey, the first seven-eighths of Johnson's history bring a refreshing sense of bluntness to an often staid tradition.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Johnson, an eminent, versatile, and opinionated historian, is also a successful painter, and he now indulges his lifelong passion for art in a gorgeously illustrated and provocative interpretation of the evolution of Western art. Johnson believes that art is essential to humankind's well-being, and he begins his great trek by marveling over the sophistication of cave paintings and the continuity of vision over many generations required for the building of Stonehenge and Europe's magnificent medieval cathedrals. As he summarizes the worldview, aesthetics, and technologies of each culture he so fluently analyzes, from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, to the Normans and on to individual European and American artists, he traces the artist's "struggle between the canonical and the innovatory," the swing between elaboration and simplicity, and the contrast and overlap of religious and secular, public and private art, discussing with great expertise painting, sculpture, architecture, gardening, and modern commercial art. A traditionalist, Johnson nonetheless loves resurrecting forgotten and overlooked individuals and movements and making provocative pronouncements, and however debatable select assertions may be, this volume is thrilling in its scope, fluency, and zest. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 792 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (September 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0641731876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060530754
  • ASIN: 0060530758
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 7.8 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #381,263 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Beginning with Modern Times (1985), Paul Johnson's books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis. He is a regular columnist for Forbes and The Spectator, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

118 of 123 people found the following review helpful By Paul S Boyer on October 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This work is far better than the reviews, some of which make it sound as if the author has peculiar ideas. I find his attitude sensible and valid. For example, it is true that art is taught widely nowadays, and yet the practical skills are not. It is certain that a tradition of skilled craftsmanship, once broken, is almost never completely revived.
Johnson's writing is remarkable for his ability to condense into a single sentence, with clarity, an idea which would take others a paragraph to state. As an historian, he is better able than most art critics to place art in its historical context. In order fully to understand and appreciate art, one must see it in relation to culture, history, and ideas.
Johnson is an excellent writer: his prose is lively, compact, and he makes it easy - and a pleasure - to read.
The selection of illustrations is good, with the pictures placed in the text for easy association with the discussion. The trade-off is that the pictures are not large and glossy, and the reader may feel moved to visit a library to see reproductions at higher-resolution.
By today's standards, the book - an education in one volume - is a bargain for its price.
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42 of 43 people found the following review helpful By P. Martin on January 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I would give this book 10 stars if I could! Paul Johnson's clear, engaging writing style, his experience as an historian, combined with his obvious love of art make this book a unique and valuable contribution to art literature/history. While there are several great comprehensive/encyclopedic books on art history, who has ever been able to read one from cover to cover? This is a book that pulls you into a story and captivates you, and yes, I read it from cover to cover.
Even though you know what's coming (historically speaking---most of the "big names" are covered), you can't wait to hear what Mr. Johnson has to say. Is he opinionated? Absolutely! But that's a great part of the fun. He has obviously devoted a great amount of his time and impressive intellect studying art. He is also a practicing artist, thereby incorporating an appreciation for the technical aspects into his views. You may not agree with everything he has to say, but it is well worth your time to read his perspective.
From his narrative of the pre-historic cave paintings in Chapter 1 to his narrative of modern architecture (dominated by bridges) in Chapter 32, Mr. Johnson captivates and illuminates. I have struggled with appreciating modern art and found the author's view that most modern art is "fashion art" to be most helpful, although I am sure there are countless others screaming in protest. I found myself chuckling at each mention of Picasso ("What made Picasso so successful professionally and financially was not so much skill as commercial inventiveness, artistic originality, ruthlessness and extreme cunning, sometimes supplemented by intelligence of an unusual kind.
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134 of 153 people found the following review helpful By Michael Gunther on October 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
"Art: A New History," by historian and arts writer Paul Johnson, takes the reader on an ambitious survey of Western art (non-western art is touched upon only briefly, and then only as it impinges upon European consciousness.) Johnson, although not a professional art historian, both knows and loves his subject, and proves throughout to be an urbane and enthusiastic, if rather opinionated, guide. (Johnson has seen the 20th century, and does not approve.) Painting, sculpture, and architecture are included. The book's 300 color photo illustrations are a little small, but finely printed.

In terms of coverage, the book tries to do too much; it crams in numerous items of secondary import, but does not leave adequate room to discuss the most important topics in depth. The result is almost paradoxical - a lengthy, yet rapid and shallow, run-through. There are only ten pages on the Impressionists, and no mention of Raphael's "School of Athens" or Masaccio's seminal frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. Johnson explains in his preface that he had wanted to include much more material, which presumably would have gone to redress such imbalances, but was unable to do so for practical reasons (the publisher balked at making the book any larger than it already is.) Unfortunately, one of the parts that got eliminated was the book's notes and bibliography, and this makes the book less than useful for scholarship or study.
There are some errors in the book which seem to have been propagated from older reference works: Shah Jehan actually built the Taj Mahal for himself, not for his wife; and the Vatican's "Apollo Belvedere" is now considered to be a Roman copy, not a Greek original. Definitions of technical terms are not always careful.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Paula Carter on March 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As a professional artist, I have been annoyed for years by art historians focused only on their largely faddish views. What is wonderful about Paul Johnson's Art:A New History is that he gives me the information I have craved: what were the artist's life and times like, what were his or her techniques, what was the popular art of the day. This is more useful to me than an art historian's fantasies about where he himself fits into art history. It is clear, and refreshing, that Mr. Johnson loves beauty and knowlege.
I would have given this book five stars if it had had a bibliography and more reproductions. I hope that we can hear more from Mr. Johnson on the vast subject of modern art, especially the fine modern realism that is not covered in the mainstream art magazines.
This book spoke to me like a friend about what I have loved and sought in art all my life.
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