Gift Guide 2018: Art History Gets a Makeover

December 11, 2018 Comments Off on Gift Guide 2018: Art History Gets a Makeover

Sometimes you don’t know you’ve been waiting for a book until it’s right under your nose. David Hockney and Martin Gayford’s A History of Pictures for Children: From Cave Paintings to Computer Drawings (Ages 10-15), with illustrations by Rose Blake, is a fantastically engaging 128-page resource I didn’t even know our family was missing. We spend a good amount of time at art exhibits—mainly because I love to go and can usually convince my husband and kids (especially with the promise of brunch)—and a highlight of this past year was taking an online art class as a family.

Still, as much as we talk (and read) about art, I usually end up asking my kids the same two questions: What do you see? How does it make you feel? Even on museum outings, I feel like we end up in the same rooms (my daughter always wants to see Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollack). I’m hopeful that A History of Pictures for Children might rejuvenate the way I talk to my kids about art. I expect it may also make them aware of how pictures are as much a part of their everyday life as they are the museums.

A History of Pictures for Children is not your standard art history fare. For one, the text is framed as an intimate conversation between Hockney, well-known contemporary artist, and Gayford, art critic and author. Secondly, the book is not organized chronologically (although there is a neat two-page pictorial timeline at the end). The chapters are themed around what Hockney and Gayford find interesting about pictures, including what tools have been used throughout history, how artists have approached challenges like perspective and shadows, or even how our understanding of self-portraiture and reflections has evolved.

Thirdly, as the title suggests, the book isn’t so much concerned with a high-brow examination of “art,” as it is with an approachable exploration of the broader meaning of “picture.” While famous drawings and paintings from history are referenced, the authors discuss a refreshingly (shockingly?) egalitarian range of pictures, encompassing film (moving pictures), computer drawings, and even iphone selfies. Pictured here is one of Hockney’s own pictures, Pearblossom Highway, an exercise on perspective which incorporates 850 photographs to create a single image.

As much as the world influences pictures, so do pictures influence the way we see the world. The detailed drawing of a bull made 17,000 years ago on a cave in southern France reveals that the artist must have observed the bull very carefully. But Hockney muses about what it might have been like to watch the drawing happen: “I like to imagine that the first person to draw an animal was watched by someone else, and when that other person saw the creature again, they would have seen it a bit more clearly.” Likewise, Claude Monet drew our attention to the shimmering beauty of ice melting on the Seine, albeit by rushing outside and painting at great speed.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Hockney and Gayford’s book is the way in which it compares and contrasts pictures from different eras and styles to discuss the interplay of the visual medium. Vincent Van Gogh’s pictures were considered revolutionary at the time because of their bold colors and absence of shadows, but they were heavily influenced by Japanese art. Likewise, no one had thought to put a mirror (or oranges or “dirty wooden clogs”) in a picture until 1434, when Jan van Eyck did in The Arnolfini Portrait. Later, painters began exploiting mirrors for social commentary, or in studies of portraiture.

Chapter six offers a look at some of the props artists of the past may have (secretly!) used to create a “photographic” effect in their paintings. Johannes Vermeer, for example, may have relied on telescopic lenses to capture the impressive detail in his landscapes. With a “camera lucida,” an invention likely used by many portrait artists in history, a prism would have reflected a subject onto drawing paper, which could then be traced to almost perfect likeness. Hockney tried out this particular tool and compares his contemporary portrait of a National Gallery guard with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ 1829 portrait of a woman.

In the final two chapters, Hockney and Gayford take us into the 20th and 21st centuries to explore the way in which computer technologies have influenced picture making. Thanks to iphones and social media, never before have we lived at a time when it is so easy to take, manipulate, or see pictures. The sheer number of pictures being produced today mean that we can have very little idea about what will still be looked at or remembered in the future. Still, Martin proposes, it is likely “that they will have some of the qualities we have noticed in these pages.”

Because of its conversational style, A History of Pictures for Children begs to be read aloud, one chapter at a time, although older children may find the intimacy well suited to independent perusing. Either way, it’s one I see our family coming back to again and again, as much for the education into the art of the past as for the way it asks us to examine the pictures we see around us today.

Published by Abrams. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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