November 29, 2007


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30,000 Years of Art: The story of human creativity across time and space (2007, Phaidon Press, 1,064 pages)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons

Whatever kind of art you like, you’ll find some of it here, and the pages are big enough so that the images can have an effect. You might even find some new things to like.

There are occasional phrases like “a compositional style dominated by a rhythmic articulation of line, form and colour,” but the material remains perfectly accessible to lay readers (like me).

A core feature of the book is its physical arrangement: a broad one-artwork-per-page layout of works chronological order, which allows you to see that while X was going on in Asia, Y was going on in Germany and Z in France. An index lets you easily find any given work by title or artist; there’s also a glossary, with references to relevant pages in the book, of terms like “Impressionism” and “Expressionism” and “Toltec Culture.”

The text is your guide through this museum. Looking at the painting alone, you’d be left thinking “Why are these people in this boat, and why is that naked person drowning (or, conversely, why is that drowning person naked)?” Reading the text, you get some insight. Also some insight into the painters’ lives — who knew Whistler won a libel case against a critic? And some discussion of the context in which the works were created, and why some are famous. The authors attempt to tell us — how convincingly depends on the reader — why something as seemingly mundane as, for instance, a white square lined with pencil marks is art (that’s “Untitled No. 4” by Agnes Martin, 1984).

The tour starts with ivory carving c. 28,000 BC and gallivants through the years, presenting around 1,000 works of art — paintings, sculptures, conceptual art, video art, photography, portraits, tapestries — and at the end there’s a huge timeline showing which forms of art were prevalent when. Of course there’s plenty here you’ve never heard of, and there’s plenty you have — your Cezanne, your van Gogh, your “The Scream” and so on. The are many masks and sculptures by unknown artists.

For each artwork, we’re told where it resides, when it was made, and how big it is, in both metric and English units.

30,000 Years of Art is a huge book, heavy on your lap, and you’ve really got to linger over it. Settle into a comfortable chair for this one. Retails for $32.97 at Amazon. ALisa Parsons