Thursday, February 20, 2020


Review of book: Christopher S. Wood, A History of Art History (Princeton)

A common perception is that the discipline of art history is of recent vintage.  Actually, its lineage goes back to the Italian Renaissance, and it probably began even earlier - in ancient Greece.  In this impressively learned book Christopher S. Wood seeks to characterize the fullness of this story.  Refreshingly, he does not limit himself to the European and American contributions, but takes note of traditions of other provenance.

As a general observation, there are various ways of writing about art, including art criticism and personal memoirs.  What are the qualities that distinguish art history as such?

  1. There must be due recognition of the contributions of innovative artists.   In this light, the achievements of such towering figures as Giotto, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, Cézanne, and Picasso are not just notable In their own right but serve to move the narrative forward.
  2. The history must reveal a meaningful sequence whereby the successive stages exhibit an      adherence to an ideal of Art as a unitary process, and not just a recitation of individual works and artists.

In this latter category, Wood fails, as his addiction to digression and arbitrary comparisons undermines narrative coherence.  For example, he concludes his discussion of Giorgio Vasari with a short account of Dust Muhammad, a sixteenth-century Persian artist and writer.  Yet only in the formal sense can these two figures be regarded as contemporaries as they were unacquainted with each other.  While his inclusivity is in principle admirable, Wood fails to give a context of Islamic art.

This lack of context is particularly evident in his discussion of Chinese art history, an impressive achievement that deserves its own account.  Instead, the coverage is parceled out in some dozen separate mentions.

Not long after the start of his section on Lorenzo Ghiberti, Wood breaks into an account of the art chapters of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.  In fact Pliny is a major source for what we know of ancient Greek art history.  As such this account deserves a special place near the beginning of this History.  However, Wood does not care much for chronological sequence, as we know from other writings of his.

At times this compulsive topic switching reminds one of The Cantos of Ezra Pound.

Towards the end, Wood portrays the rise of modern art as a basic challenge to traditional art history.  Yet there is no adequate discussion of the historiography of modern art, and the names of such major protagonists as Warhol, Rothko, and Duchamp do not appear.

There is a remedy for this lack of narrative coherence.  It is found in the two-volume work, The History of Art History (2016-2919), of Wayne R. Dynes (not cited by Wood).