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How to Read World History in Art

How to Read World History in Art

By: Flavio Febbraro and Burkhard Schwetje
Publisher: Abrams
Publication Date: October 2010
ISBN: 978-0810996830
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: March 29, 2011

Whether you’re interested in art, in art history, or in the history of the civilizations of our planet, this is an ideal book to read and savor. From the stela from 1792 BCE showing the Code of Hammurabi to a large mixed-media canvas giving the impressions of artist Jack Whitten of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the 130+ works of art in this splendid book illustrate our story. We’re fortunate that so many artists were either paying attention or were hired to sculpt and paint important events in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

The authors, Italian scholars, write that the book “investigates the complex relationship between art and history and demonstrates over and over again how art has retold and reinterpreted historical ‘facts’” (pg. 8). Examples of reinterpretation include paintings by Jacques-Louis David, the “official”—but hardly unbiased—illustrator of the French Revolution and Picasso’s Guernica, “which summarizes the destructive force of modern warfare and the blind violence of totalitarian ideologies” (pg. 8). We also see paintings of great battles painted a century or more after the battle in question to illustrate the agenda of the winner or the loser, the graffiti on the Berlin Wall, and even Whitten’s 9/11 canvas, into which this New York artist rubbed silica, crushed bone, blood, mica, rust, and ashes.

Each work of art is given a two-page spread (though a few get four pages). The headline names the event, followed by the title of the work, the artist, and its location (sometimes in situ, like the reliefs from the temple of Ramses II, more often the museum where it resides). The work of art is on the right-hand page. On both pages are sidebars in blue that summarize the history surrounding the work (the barbarian invasions from 375 to 476, the wars between the Hohenstaufen emperors and the pope, global trade in the 17th century, the collapse of Napoleon’s empire, European influences on Japan, modern urban technology) and details from the work with excellent explanatory captions. Styles go from a painted Mycenaean krater to the great works of the European renaissance to Persian miniatures to realism and expressionism. Every single page in the book is astonishing.

Quill says: The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We’re fortunate that so many artists have given us their visions of the past. If we have to repeat it, at least we can see what we’re repeating.

Feathered Quill

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