Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Review: Art - the definitive visual guide

Dorling Kindersley's new book Art - The Definitive Visual Guide is huge, amazing and wonderful...and just a teeny bit flawed.

"He who must not be bored while I sketch" gave me it to me as a surprise present yesterday evening and I've spent quite a bit of time with had my head buried in it ever since! I was very pleasantly surprised by his perspicacity - this book was only published at the beginning of October and is so new that I've not even had a chance to review it in a book shop, let alone lead him to it and hint about Christmas!

What this book does

Dorling Kindersley, the publishers, have got together with the Bridgeman Art Library - which is the leading source of art images - plus Andrew Graham Dixon, Ian Chilvers and other consultants to produce an overview of the history of art - and make that art more accessible to the ordinary person.
The purpose of this book is as straightforward as its "does-what-it-says-on-the-tin" title. Its aim is to open, to the general reader, a thousand doors into a thousand different experiences of art - and by doing so, to make the wold of the museum and art gallery, church and cloister, temple and mosque, both more enjoyable and more accessible
Andrew Graham Dixon - Foreward
As you might expect from the people who are the market leaders in illustrated non-fiction books, this 610 page book:
  • provides a gallery of high quality reproductions of 2,500+ paintings and sculptures. Simply put, this book is packed FULL of images.
  • covers 700 artists in a 540 page chronological overview of the history of art relating to different cultures and the main periods of art history from prehistory to the present day
  • groups the artists into different art movements or genres.
  • examines key paintings in detail and depth (eg Las Meninas by Velazquez - including excellent close-ups of details of the brushwork, Goya's The Third of May 1808 and Seurat's La Grande Jatte) and provides very large reproductions of others (eg a double page spread purely devoted - no text - to Picasso's Guernica and Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights)
  • provides bio details, a timeline and a succinct summary for all the artists covered
  • examines the life and art of certain notable artists in a double page spread. Here's a few of the ones I noted got the 'enhancement factor': Piero de la Francesca, Raphael, Tiepolo, Durer, Vermeer, Turner, Courbet, Cezanne, Matisse, Mondrian, and Jasper Johns
  • throughout the book there are double page spreads devoted to different themes or genres of painting eg landscape, portraits, still life. These show how different artists have approached the subject matter at different times and in different places and provides a short synopsis of the importance of a genre to different cultures. For example it contrasts how landscape painting has always been popular within Chinese art but has had an uneven experience in terms western art.
  • it starts with an overview about how to look at art - in terms of subject and composition, perspective and viewpoint, light and shade, media and techniques, colour and brushstrokes and texture
You can get a preview and some insight into layout and content by taking a look at the book on the publisher's website

What I like about this book

The important word in the title is visual. This book makes visual art from every age accessible in a visual way to a wide range of audiences. It's lavishly illustrated in the tradition of all Dorling Kindersley books with excellent reproductions of a terrific amount of art from a huge number of artists.

The thematic spreads are useful as are a lot of the spreads devoted to an indepth analysis of one picture. They explain - in a succinct way - the appeal of both a tradition of art and why specific paintings or sculptures are highly regarded.

It appears to me to be a very good book for introducing people to art across the ages and different cultures. A primer for those wanting to learn more about the history of art and suitable for all students - young and old. Even those who are knowledgeable about some aspects of art will find content to interest them.

I like it because it helps to fill the gaps in relation my understanding about different art movements. For example, I know about Les Nabis in principle (and there's always the basic wikipedia entry!) but knew little about them in terms of visual impact - and this book fills that gap.

It is almost comprehensive - but not quite........

...I have a few quibbles about a few flaws

I suspect my quibbles about what I perceive as flaws relate to having a book which is so large that it is inevitably written by a team. There has been a strong guiding hand on the design and it very much has a Dorling Kindersley look and feel - with rather more images than usual if anything.

However I suspect the selection of artists may relate to the images which were available via the Bridgeman Art Library which in turn will be dependent on which museums they licence work for and what those museums have collected. That fact at the end of the day is a practical reality. What it means though is that book is excellent at covering different cultures up to the 18th century and then tails off quite badly. For example, it has a whole section on Scandinavian art and frequently mentions German painters while paying virtually no regard at all to the great Russian painters.

The 'Looking at Art section' is fine in relation to more traditional figurative art but in no way provides a basis for looking at a lot of the art at either end of the timeline ie prehistory and post 1945. Similarly, if one looked at the artists chosen for the section concerning art since 1945 one would be forgiven for thinking that virtually all artists had given up traditional figurative painting. So the start and the end of the book don't quite seem to 'fit'. That said, the 1945 onwards section seems excellent - I was amazed to find I knew a lot of the artists despite the fact they produce the art that I don't quite understand. For me the major gap is about 'how to look' at contemporary art.

I'd have really liked to have an index which listed the artists covered in each section of the book. What I wanted to do was to be able to scan a chronological list and pick out artists to view. Instead I'm finding them by flicking through the book. In particular, I'd have liked a list somewhere of all those artists and paintings which they cover in depth. At the moment, you only find this out by working methodically through the book.

I'd have really appreciated an overview of the leading museums where art can be seen first hand. After all, one of the outcomes of succeeding in interesting people in all aspects of art must be to get them to go and look at it in person! It's also quite difficult to find an overview and independent review of what different museums are good at and which ones are worth making an extra effort to visit. The ten top musuems and art galleries to visit before you die? Maybe a good topic for another book?


This is essentially a visual guide. Although the text is informative, it is also succinct and in no way provides an in-depth discussion of art in different periods. However, given the space constraints afforded by 600+ pages, it does succeed in giving a very good flavour of each art movement, art period, art culture and an awful lot of artists. Anybody familiar with Dorling Kindersley's guide books will have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The design and overall quality of the book also achieve Dorling Kindersley's normal high standards - which is very reassuring given the number of pages! This book gives you confidence that it is not about to fall apart despite the enormous number of pages.

Andrew Graham Dixon suggests it can be used as a work of reference or it can be consulted as a bluffer's crib - although he prefers to think of it as a guide and companion on a path to exploring art.

I'd like to suggest another use. This book is an amazing stimulant for all those who feel they can't draw or paint or that their art has got tired. It's also a visual overdose which had the visual cells in my brain going into overdrive.

I'd definitely recommend this book to all those who don't feel they know as much as they would like to about the history of art up to the present day. Now print out this review and leave it lying around where your nearest and dearest can find it........

Note: The Bridgeman Art Library is the world's leading source of fine art with images from over eight thousand collections and twenty nine thousand artists.

  • Art - the definitive visual guide (Dorling Kindersley 1 October 2008) Andrew Graham Dixon - Editorial Consultant. (Hardback, 252 x 301mm, 62 pages ) ISBN:9781405322430 £30


  1. Sorry to comment on a tremendously old post.

    I am, however, weighing up between this and Steven Farthing's 'Art: The Whole Story'. I'm more interested in European art, from 1200-1940, if that helps. Images would well be lovely, but I'm really looking for good, in-depth (for a general book, of course) discussions on, say, qualities of Impressionistic paintings, or whether Manet or Degas really are Impressionists, and why. That kind of level would be lovely, and I've only seen excerpts on the DK book, and almost nothing inside Farthing's, which seems more focused on text. In which case I assume there's more detail, but the DK one does have more than a hundred pages extra...

    Anyway - was wondering if you could be so kind as to be able to help. :)

    1. The thing is, if you're wanting something more specific as to geography and time period then a general history of world art is simply not going to be what you want.

      The level of debate you seem to want suggests you'd do better to look for a specific book about eg Impressionism. That's because all generic art history books tend to give a synopsis and a summary rather than in-depth discussion - simply because of the immense extent of both the timescale and the number of artists who need a mention.


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