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The best books on Art History

recommended by Charlotte Mullins

A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins


A Little History of Art
by Charlotte Mullins


The critic Charlotte Mullins, author of A Little History of Art, recommends five books that have altered her understanding of art history. Too often, she argues, we have forgotten that our concept of the past is deeply influenced by the views of those who wrote about it first; these readable, well-researched books offer readers a fresh perspective.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins


A Little History of Art
by Charlotte Mullins


Thank you for recommending five of the best art history books. Could you talk us through your rationale for this selection?

Well, it’s an impossible task to select just five books on the subject. I mean, on my desk right now there are probably 30 books that I’m trying to read. That’s just this month’s crop! So I found it difficult to distill them down. So, I thought I’d choose five books that really changed how I thought about art. They aren’t monographs, they aren’t about one artist. One of them isn’t even really about art—it’s about writing about art, quite meta. But what I wanted to do was to choose books that show us that art history is a perspective on art. And that there are many perspectives, not just one. These books were important to me because they helped me to find a new understanding of a period I thought I knew really well or brought me to something completely new and unexpected.

You recently published A Little History of Art, which traces 100,000 years of art history. That sounds like an enormous task—how do you approach a project like that?

It was nearly impossible—to master everything from cave painting to the Young British Artists and beyond! The idea was to update The Story of Art, that famous, accessible narrative by E.H. Gombrich that came out in 1950 and is still sold in galleries today. And I wanted to show that the story that he wrote, beautifully narrated though it was, was only one story—the story of white, male, European artists. That isn’t the full picture.

Thankfully, in the last fifty years, art history has moved in leaps and bounds, in terms of feminist studies, post-colonial studies…. We can see that the Gombrich view is dated now, although it was very influential at the time. It just needed updating.

A Little History of Art sits in a series that started with Gombrich’s A Little History of the World in 1935. I was very mindful of stepping into his giant shoes; he was an excellent writer. But, as a woman writing in the 21st century, it was important to me to bring in artists who had been unfairly overlooked.

“When we read about art, we must think about where the writer is coming from, as well as what they’re writing about”

I didn’t put people in just to tick boxes. The people in my book should always have been there: women artists who worked for kings, who were admired by the Renaissance masters that we know today. Amazing Black and Asian artists. So, there was that idea of bringing in unfairly overlooked artists, returning them to the narrative, and showing that that narrative doesn’t have to be singular, it can be plural. That is actually a richer picture of art history.

I think that, as a statement, is also reflected in your book recommendations. Shall we talk about the first art history book on your list? This is This is Tomorrow: Twentieth Century Britain and its Artists by Michael Bird.

This is a book that’s just out; I was lucky enough to review it. I like this primarily because it’s just excellent writing. And we should celebrate that, you know? You might read the most worthy art history book about the most brilliant subject, but if the writing isn’t any good, you can’t get to the end of it.

There are lots of books that cover this period in history—the ‘long’ twentieth century of British art history—but, not only is Michael a lovely, poetic writer, he also gives the artists their own heads. His book before this was called Studio Voices, and it was based on an archive held at the British Library in London which includes hundreds of recordings of artists being interviewed over the last 30 years, talking about what it’s really like to be an artist. These are not the puff quotes you’ll see on the cover of a monograph, this is how hard it is to be a woman artist who has kids, or how hard it is to be an artist who has to make ends meet, and therefore has to do a job he doesn’t like…

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Michael spent hours and hours going through these interviews for Studio Voices, and I think This is Tomorrow is a kind of distillation of those patient hours of listening, because he quotes heavily from artists in This is Tomorrow, allowing them to tell the story of British art from the ground, as it were, rather than imposing a view. He allows artists to speak for themselves, and also allows them to come in at different stages in their lives. It’s not all about their big moment, but the reality of being an artist, which is hard work.

He’s also really good on the politics, the time period—and on showing how art is made within its own time. It feels like a new way of writing about this period. Although I must say, this period is really well written about—Francis Spalding wrote a beautiful book this year called The Real and the Romantic English Art Between Two World Wars, and there are lots of other great books that aren’t historical books. But I felt that This is Tomorrow was really accessible, really readable, and that you could have no knowledge of art history and still enjoy it. And surely that’s a good thing.

What you said there about art being a product of its time, or at least created within it, made me wonder: how visible are the trends and developments of art when you’re living in the moment? Are these labels that get imposed after the fact, or are artists aware of the movements they are working within as they go?

I think both. You can have artists who group together and create a movement. Look at Futurism: it was launched with a manifesto, a manifesto that other artists gravitated towards, and that was definitely seen as a movement. Whereas something like Abstract Expressionism was a term that no one really liked, and the New York School didn’t see themselves as a group at all, just artists working in the same area at the same time, pushing art and painting forwards. With something like Minimalism, which we think of as a big movement, the artists hated that term.

The title, This is Tomorrow, is based on a 1956 exhibition in London, where architects and artists and other creators came together. It was quite an iconic exhibition, the start of British Pop Art before American Pop Art really got going. But at the time, of course, they didn’t know that. They were just coming together to create this amazing thing, they didn’t realise it was the start of something. The energy of Britain in the 1950s came out in that show, the cultural energy.

But also, you should realise that Black and Asian artists often felt overlooked, as did most women artists. They were working just as hard as the white men getting all the press. I think that’s why the feminist movement in the 1970s, thought, well, this is not right, we’ll take it into our own hands. They put on their own exhibitions and what have you. So there’s a degree to which you can help yourself. But what I think is great now is that artists of all backgrounds, irrespective of class or race or gender, can be visible simultaneously.

You mentioned Abstract Expressionism. Can we talk next about the next art history book on your list of recommendations, Ninth Street Women: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel?

Ninth Street Women is about the women who were part of that collection of artists in post-war New York, who had really been written out of art history. When we think of Abstract Expressionism, we think of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko. It’s almost like a string quartet. But this book shines a spotlight on the period and shows that there’s a full orchestra playing, not just those four men. I really loved it, because it wasn’t preachy. It didn’t say, ‘they’ve been overlooked.’ It just told the story of Abstract Expressionism from a really, impeccably well-researched position.

Mary Gabriel is a brilliant writer, very readable. She’s been shortlisted for a Pulitzer. She showed how hard these women worked and how they were overlooked. At the time they were accepted by their male peers but, unfortunately, prejudice worked against them. And at times they worked against themselves. Lee Krasner was a fantastic painter and thankfully lived long enough to have a successful career after the early loss of her partner, Jackson Pollock. But while Pollock was alive, she supported him to the extent that her own work was sidelined as she tirelessly promoted him as the greatest living painter. In articles about him, she was referred to as ‘Mrs Pollock’, or ‘the former Lee Krasner’, which would really destroy my sense of self. Yet she was there painting alongside him, her work being sometimes, I feel, ahead of his. She was really important.

Ninth Street Women is a welcome reassessment of the whole history of the period, with all of them in it together, particularly the second generation of Abstract Expressionist artists like Helen Frankenthaler—a phenomenal artist—Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan.

Biography seems like the perfect way of uniting that sense of personal experience, of the moment unfolding, and the broader historical narrative.

Biography is an important strand of the history of art. It must be well written, or it just becomes turgid and boring, a load of dates. What Mary Gabriel, the author of this book, does is use a particular moment in their life to illustrate the whole scene. It takes huge skill to do that as a writer.

Well, thank you, that’s an excellent recommendation. Does it bring us to your next book recommendation, A History of Art History by Christopher S. Wood?

I took this off and on my list of books to recommend, because it’s not perfect, and it feels to me a sort of meta-recommendation because it’s a book about writing about art, not about art itself. So already you can tell what kind of academic book this is.

Wood is a professor at New York University who can write really well. But it is definitely a book for art history nerds. The reason it’s not perfect is that it completely ignores women writers about art. In my opinion, he does this by having a cut-off date—it covers art history writing from the Renaissance until the 1960s. Which is very convenient, because feminist writing really started in the 1970s, and post-colonial writing just after that. So there are brilliant woman voices, like Janet Wolff, Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock, that aren’t included. So I really ummed and ahhed about it. We really need a woman to write another version of this book.

But the reason I finally put it in was that it’s important to appreciate that when people write about art, their perspective colours how people see art. Often this is overlooked—that art history itself can be very prejudicial. I started at the Courtauld in the 1990s and was very privileged to do so, it’s a fabulous college. But I very much learned about white western men through the history of art, and the books I read were the books Christopher unpicked in this volume.

It’s a really clear, very erudite, very wordy, very lengthy look at some of those big names in art history to show how the reporting of art has changed, and how we all need to be mindful of that. When we read about art, we must think about where the writer is coming from, as well as what they’re writing about.

Right. It’s about understanding the context, not only of the artist, but of the perspective itself.

Exactly. I made the analogy with Abstract Expressionism of the quartet versus the orchestra. Well, let’s take Winckelmann—

This is Johann Joachim Winckelmann, author of The History of Art in Antiquity (1764).

Yes. He fell in love with Classical art, and the whole Neoclassical way of looking at art was born. He particularly loved the male nude, so he wrote heavily about that, and that really influenced not only art history, but how art itself was made—because this was seen as important, therefore people painted it and it was taught in schools.

So that’s useful to know, and that’s why this book is ultimately on the list—it helps us see how art has been shaped by these stories as much as art history has been shaped as well. He touches on John Berger, who wrote Ways of Seeing in 1972, and that is a good ending because Berger did open up the way we look at representations of women. He was really ahead of his time. So at least that made it into the book.

We’ve spoken quite a bit about women artists, and that’s explored further in your next choice: Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick. Can you tell us more about why you recommend this art history book?

Absolutely. This book was first published in 1990, when I was 18. I first saw it towards the end of my undergraduate degree at the Courtauld, and I was kind of astounded—because here was a whole book of artists I’d never heard of. The volume I have is the fifth edition; it’s much fatter, with even more artists in it.

I believe it’s now made it into a sixth.

It’s terrific to see it still in print.

It’s from that fabulous introductory series from Thames and Hudson, ‘World of Art’, where they get the best writers to write clear, accessible, no-footnotes volumes on art. I really appreciate writers who can do that.

Whitney Chadwick is a great exponent of writing on women’s art. I’d never heard of Sofonisba Anguissola—who features in my book—before I read Women, Art, and Society. Whitney puts each artist in context, without making a campaign that these women were unfairly overlooked. She just shows they were great artists, and gives them room to come to life in her pages. It’s also really well illustrated.

I think it’s the best primer out there on women’s art, although there are lots of new examples—Katie Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men, which is just out; Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and the Palette, which looks at women’s self-portraiture… These are great books that, if we really go back, have come out of the Whitney Chadwick model. And that book itself came out of the work that Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin did. I see this as a really important book, and a great entry point into women artists, if you want to read about them in isolation.

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I hope where art history is going, women will come back into the narrative as equals in a mixed-gender volume, and that’s certainly what I tried to write in my book. But while there isn’t a level playing field, these books are invaluable.

That brings us to your final art history book recommendation. This is Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–Now by Alex Farquharson and David A. Bailey. I believe this was a book that tied in with a Tate Britain show of the same name.

Yes, I bought it after seeing the 2021 exhibition. I cannot overstate how important it was as an exhibition in terms of redefining the post-war period in British art history. Again, this shows a whole other narrative going on alongside the artists that we’ve all heard of, like David Hockney and Eduardo Paulozzi and Bridget Riley. There were all these other brilliant artists working too: Frank Bowling and Aubrey Williams, and, later on, Lubaina Himid—these artists who had come from, or had a connection with, the Caribbean. The show predominantly features artists who came from the Caribbean to the UK to work and study, and how they existed both individually and as a group. It felt so eye-opening—as a great exhibition should do. An exhibition should take you to a period you think you know and present it in a new light.

As a record of the show and as a book in its own right this catalogue deserves to make this list. It’s fully illustrated, has great essays, is accessible but it is also erudite and packed with information. It also connects to a whole range of books that are just now coming out, questioning what is shown and isn’t shown, and how we perceive things. Books like Alice Proctor’s The Whole Picture question the story of colonial art in museums, and Loot by Barnaby Phillips, offer a timely new perspective on stolen colonial art.

It seems there’s a great re-framing of the historical narrative at the moment. Do you feel this to be a turning point in art history?

Yes, absolutely. It’s an exciting time to be a writer because the ground you are walking on is shifting all the time. I mean, it’s been a slow build—books and papers in post-colonial studies and feminism have been written since the 1970s. But it feels like it’s coming into the mainstream more and more, impacting on exhibitions, collecting strategies, popular books. Mine sits in that camp. And just in terms of people’s interest—there’s an understanding that we can look beyond our own shores. The internet has really helped ideas and art circulate. There’s a sense of being in a global art community now.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

November 24, 2022

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Charlotte Mullins

Charlotte Mullins

Charlotte Mullins is an art critic, writer and broadcaster. She has worked
as the arts editor of The Independent on Sunday, the editor of Art Review,
the V&A magazine Art Quarterly, and is the newly appointed art critic for
Country Life.