November 29, 2007

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The Art Book for Children, Book Two, text by Amanda Renshaw (2007, Phaidon Press, 80 pages)
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com

With text arranged in short, bite-size chunks for short attention spans, surrounded by lots of white space, this book presents 30 different artworks, some famous and some not — I recognized eight of the artists — and gently prods children into thinking about each one.

The works are not placed in any particular order. Browsing is certainly an option, and we are not at all concerned with chronology here. In fact each work is discussed without any indication of when it was made — could’ve been last year, could’ve been 200 years ago, for all the young readers know. Only in a separate reference section at book’s end can you find out what year each work was created.

This is about art, in all its timelessness, not about history. The oldest works of art included are from the 15th century. No cave paintings, African masks or Ancient Greek sculptures.

Each two-page spread deals with one artwork: one page for the work itself, nice and large-ish, and the facing page for text about it. A word about the layout: it works very well except in one instance, that of Marcel Broodthaers’ “Casserole and Closed Mussels.” The presentation doesn’t make immediately clear whether the artwork itself is a painting, a photo or an actual pot of mussels (bingo). The back-of-book blurb does, though.

The book opens with the word “Splash” in a splashy fun font and the question “Who made the splash?” next to David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash” painting. The text says nothing about Hockney or his times; it only asks kids to think about the painting and what it conveys.

Author Amanda Renshaw’s commentary is sometimes personal (“I think he is asking us to stretch our imaginations”) and sometimes playful (“Wow! What a name! Brootheaers is difficult to pronounce. Just think of it in two parts….”). She always asks the readers to wonder what the artist might have been intending, and usually tells us how others have interpreted the painting. She talks a little about technique — how to portray motion in a painting, for instance — and a lot about meaning and interpretation and how art makes us feel. Sometimes she points things out (“The bicycle’s wheels look as if they might collapse.”) and sometimes merely asks leading questions (“Who is the man on the right and what is he doing?”)

There’s some thoughtful, satisfying discussion of why a 175-pound pile of candy in a corner could be considered art.

Among the well-known works included are Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” painting and Salvador Dali’s melting-clocks painting.

I think this book would be good for particularly thoughtful elementary school kids or for more average middle-school kids. I learned a few things — I had no idea that Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” was the work of a man with a headache staring at leftover Camembert.

As per usual with kids and art, a large part of the message is that there’s no one right way to make art, and that you could maybe try it yourself.

Or, more cynically: you can get away with anything.

Retails for $15.64 at Amazon. BLisa Parsons