Thursday, February 12, 2009

Book review: The Art Atlas

The Art Atlas, edited by John Onions, is a heavyweight tome in more ways than one. It is undoubtedly going to become a benchmark book - one that ought to be on the shelves of every person with a serious interest in art history.

It's also a hardback book which is 352 pages long and has 600 illustrations plus a CD Rom - but it's also 34.8 x 25.7 x 3.3 cm (that's 13.7" x 10.1" x 1.3") which means you have to think twice before putting it down because of the weight!

Cover of the UK version of The Art Atlas

This is how Laurence King, the publisher, describes it
This is the first work to treat the art of the whole world from prehistory to the present day through the extensive use of maps. Covering painting, sculpture and architecture as well as other arts and artefacts, The Art Atlas provides an entirely new vision of the history of the world's art by showing how physical and political geography has shaped its developments.

Instead of simply showing where and when great artists lived and worked, or where major styles developed, the atlas also tries to show why these phenomena occurred. This requires not only giving information on their political, religious, economic and cultural contexts, but on the natural circumstances surrounding their emergence as well. It involves charting the availability of raw materials, such as pigments for colouring.

Organized in seven chronological periods and with contributions from 67 internationally renowned art historians, The Art Atlas is original, comprehensive and up-to-date enough to make it a benchmark reference work for many years to come.
Laurence King - Publisher
To be honest I'm still at the scanning, flicking, dipping and reading bits stage - I rather suspect that this book will take some years to read. However I'm already realising that this is the book I've wanted to have by my side when I want to start and try and understand the context for an artist I'm trying to learn about.

Spread relating to North American At 1800-1860

What I have how ever grasped is that this book appeals to the geographer in me (all those maps - heaven!) and that it tries to get to grips with explaining the flows between different parts of the world at different times in world history in visual terms. Thus it conceptualises art as a global phenomenon rather than something which is totally discrete and tidy (like "European Art") which is often the way art history can tend to be presented at times - even if this can be rather inaccurate.

Of course I'd already worked out just how influential other cultures could be when I began to realise just how much Western European art in the late nineteenth century had been influenced by the opening up of Japan and the transport of Japanese woodcut prints to places like Paris - which then led to my project on Japanese art and artists last year.

However what is also fascinating is to see the flows of artists to and from particular places at different times. For example, I knew Sargent, Whistler, Turner and Sickert had visited Venice in the nineteenth century but knew nothing about an artist called E.W.Cooke who I looked up and discovered was a marine artist who was elected as an RA and has various drawings in the RA Collection! I can see that this book will be full of apparent serendipity like this.

What is also important about this book is its emphasis on art as a visual expression of the story of different cultures at different times. Written transcriptions of what happened when in different parts of the world really only become prevalent in the last 500 years or so whereas art which provides information goes back some 40,000 years

It also highlights the story and the flows of the materials of art and charts the development of art from the places where art materials originated and then travelled - from the sources of fibers for weaving and pigments for coloring to wood for carving, paper for printing, and stone for use in sculpture and architecture.

One of the interesting aspects is how many different professions need to be involved in telling the story of art across the world from the earliest times. The people who have contributed to this book are not just art historians. They include archeologists, anthropoligists and people expert in a particular region - such as Egyptologists or just a local area. However, the book has created a framework where all these diverse sources can each contribute their knowledge in a framework which provides a unity across the book as whole and makes it much more accessible to the reader.

The book is also very well illustrated. Special mention must go to Advanced Illustration of Congleton in Cheshire for their really excellent cartography - and that's coming from someone who's a geography graduate and collects historical maps! It also comes with the entire book in pdf format on a CD-Rom - 175 pages of double page spreads which means you can search it for specific subject matter and also zoom in to an incredible amount of detail and really read the maps with considerable ease. I tested out the search function and it works very well - if a bit slowly (given its a pdf document which has to be 'read' from beginning to end. Otherwise I'd recommend a heavy duty magnifying glass for some of them!

The book is split into temporal and spatial divisions. The temporal are as follows. Each covers what was going on in each continent at the time.
  • Art Hunting and gathering: 40,000 - 5,000BC
  • Art, Agriculture and Urbanisation: 5,000 - 50BC
  • Art, War and Empire: 500BC - AD600
  • Art, Religion and the Ruler 600-1500
  • Art, Exploitation and Display 1500 - 1800
  • Art, Industry and Science 1800 - 1900
  • Art, Ideas and Technology 1900 - 2000
You can see a preview of the 2004 edition of this book (with a different cover) on Google Books to get a flavour of it if you.

What I like about the book is that it does try to embrace all of art. What makes it unsatisfactory is that in so doing it inevitably has to skim across the surface of some of the artists and aspects of art with which we might be more familiar. In doing this it made me realise just how much I didn't know! Which, as I indicated earlier, means I can see this book being around as a reference book for some years to come.

Consequently, I've added this book into two of my information sites:
THE ART ATLAS Edited by John Onians. Publication Date: May 2008
352 pages; 300 illustrations and 300 maps in full color; CD-included
ISBN-10: 1856695573 ISBN-13: 978-1856695572

Professor John Onians, BA, PhD, FSA. specialises in architecture, especially the architectural theory of the Italian Renaissance; painting, sculpture and architecture in Ancient Greece and Rome; material culture, metaphor and thought; perception and cognition, and the biological basis of art. His publications include Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age (Thames & Hudson) and Bearers of Meaning. The Classical Orders in Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1988), which was awarded the Sir Banister Fletcher Prize in 1989. He is also the founding editor, in 1978, of the prestigious journal Art History.


  1. Gosh...didn’t realise how much i needed this book until i read this...thanks Katherine

  2. Thanks Katherine. My daughter is studying Art History at University, this seems like a nice investment and a great gift. I showed her my copy of Gardner's, Art Through the Ages I had to buy as a young student. (I'll date myself and admit I have the sixth edition) First published in 1926, I think it's in it's 12th edition now. She didn't seem impressed.

  3. This is a great review and I'm going to check this book out.Thanks


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.