THE BEST ART HISTORY SURVEY BOOK

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Survey books are rarely given much attention, being viewed as necessary evils to be read only in the most elementary courses and to be set aside immediately after the final exam . Svetlana Alpers’s disdain for the survey textbook hastened that process along even further: she assigned Janson’s History of Art in her hugely popular introductory course, but vehemently ordered the 400 undergrads, who had just shelled out a $95 for the it, not to read even a word of the text and to use it only as collection of images. When I was a TA for the same class, I never read a word of Janson and never alluded to the book over the course of a 14 week semester.

However, I not only still have, but I still read–and learn from–the survey book assigned in my first art history class. So compelling was that book at the time that I changed majors and graduate school plans, and became an art historian. Not only did I have a conversion experience as a result of that book–this will be hard to believe–Iit. If you picked up a $4.00 used copy on Amazon you too would see why The Visual Arts: A History, co-authored by Hugh Honour and John Fleming, is without any doubt, the best introduction the the history of art written to date.

First published as two volumes in 1982, and now in its 8th edition, the thousand page text, as one would expect an introductory survey, covers all human activity in that can be construed as art from 30,000 year-old markings on cave walls to the present day. Their work differed significantly from established heavyweights like H.W. Janson’s History of Art (1963)and Gardener’s Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages(1948) in its foresighted expansion of the canon to include the art of Africa, Oceania, and East Asia. Ernst Gombrich had included non-western art in The Story of Art (1954), but the brevity of the text and eccentric choice of works gave the book a cursory, even whimsical air. Honour and Fleming avoid this pitfall by giving equal time the the non-western material and treating it with the same thoroughness. This even-handed, yet non-polemical, approach provides a point of entry into the subject for a broad spectrum of readers, while at the same time creating a compelling image of global art.

As if doubling the number of works available for study weren’t enough, Honour and Fleming also decisively broke with the tradition, pioneered by Wölfflin in the 1860s, and doggedly replicated in Janson’s History of Art, that equated the history of art with the history of style. Following the premises of Penguin’s Style and Civilzation series, for which Honour wrote his peerless, earlier studies, Neoclassicism (1968) and Romanticism (1979), Honour and Fleming presented works of art within their social, historical and political contexts. In the wake of post-structuralism and the campaign for ethnic diversification within they academy, this contextualizing approach became the standard for introductory and advanced art history surveys, although the importance of The Visual Arts: A History has yet to be sufficiently acknowledged.

While its method may be widely imitated, the literary artistry of The Visual Arts: A History smokes its competition. Drawing on the great tradition of English art criticism written by prose stylists including John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Henry James, Roger Fry and W. H. Auden, Honour’s decorous yet unpretentious style lingers in one’s mind, and one hears echoes of it in the works of later art historians, such as Thomas Crow and Paul Hills. The application of such literary talents to a survey book that will be marked up with yellow highlighter may seem excessive, but it is in fact essential to the task, because a few well-chosen descriptive words bring an object to life and make it memorable, allowing it to stand out momentarily from the unavoidable avalanche of information the comes with the territory.

Hugh Honour (b. 1927) is the greatest living expert on European and American Neoclassical art and European decorative arts. With his partner John Fleming, he produced a succession of studies and reference works that refined indispensable today, including Neo-Classicism, one of his two contributions to the influential, but short-live Style and Civilisation series, is a model of synthetic art history that single-handedly rescued an entire movement from oblivion. He also the author of Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay (1961); The Companion Guide to Venice (1966), and a major contributor to The Image of the Black in Western Art series (2010 – ). Currently, he is completing the first scholarly edition of the letters of Antonio Canova. He and Fleming relocated to Italy in 1954 where they would spend the next 46 years together, mostly at the 18th-century Villa Marchiò, outside of Lucca, which they bought together in 1961 and, where Honour, now 87, lives and works.

John Fleming (1919 – 2001) was originally a solicitor who, after meeting Hugh Honour became, the business manager of the highly-successful series publications, which began when he and Honour assisted Niklaus Pevsner in the completion of The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture(1966), which they went on to expand from one to four volumes. Although the book was largely written by Honour, Fleming was given a co-author credit for the Dictionary of the Decorative Arts (1977). He oversaw the publication and later revised editions of The Visual Arts: A History (1982) and wrote, again with Honour, a memoir about the expatriate Percy Lubbock, The Venetian Hours of Henry James, Whistler and Sargent (1991). John Fleming died in 2001.

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