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The Best Art History Books for Teenagers

recommended by John Harrison

Which are the best books to get a teenager excited about art history? We turned to veteran art history teacher John Harrison, formerly head of the art history department at Eton College, for his top five picks of the most illuminating and accessible books for getting a broad overview of the history of art.

Interview by Benedict King

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You’ve taught history of art for three decades. What have you found captures pupils—what fires their enthusiasm for the subject?

Art history students like drama and a good story. They like Caravaggio and Michelangelo both for the excitement of their art and their lives. But all art history teachers get a little bit tired when students write about the artists’ biographical details in an exam, because although it’s fascinating, it’s not really the point.

But I think when you see a conflict going on, and a struggle between two different ideologies, that’s always exciting. You can juxtapose a Baroque church and a Calvinist one, and discern these two competing views. Take St. Paul’s Cathedral—or any of the great city churches by Christopher Wren—with its emphasis on huge windows, with its absolutely uncoloured glass. This is so that the congregation can read their prayer books, because for the Protestants the Word is so important. Whereas if you look at one of those great Catholic churches in Antwerp of the same date (some of whose architecture Wren in fact copied), they are much more colourful. The light is comparatively dimmer because listening to the priest and observing Mass matter more.

“Art history students like drama and a good story”

You can do the same kind of contrast between 19th and early 20th century paintings: those which have taken a left-wing view (like Seurat) against those which are more conservative (like Degas) and the different values that they have. Or you can consider whether you’re pro-Dreyfus or anti-Dreyfus—a great conflict that divided France in two.

Generally speaking, my students have enjoyed a challenge. They don’t just think, ‘Oh, everything is beautiful and lovely.’ They like something which is a difficult problem.

Let’s look at the books you’re recommending. Top of the list is A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming. Can you tell me a bit about this book and why you chose it?

This book holds the field as the most comprehensive as well as the most intelligent survey of the whole of the world’s history of art. So if you’re a keen, interested teenager, this is the book to dip into. Don’t read it from beginning to end—although it’s a very good book—but take an area that you already like and explore it further. Maybe look at the chapter before, or the chapter after. See how they flow.

It’s brilliantly, intelligently written; it’s thoughtful; it’s up to date; it’s a relatively recent book. It’s also very well illustrated, and Honour and Fleming themselves are extremely good writers. All in all, it’s wonderful prose.

Most people want to start with an absolutely standard, golden book that covers everything. This does that. Then, you can go and get more details about areas that you like by looking at other books.

Is it primarily focused on painting and sculpture?

They always do a bit of architecture as well, so they weave it all together.

So of the five you’ve chosen is this the book you should start with?

Yes. Our parents would probably have said that Gombrich’s The Story of Art was the absolute go-to. That is a wonderful book, but it was a wonderful book in 1963. I think we have moved on a bit, and Honour and Fleming’s World History of Art, which is both much more up to date and has much more emphasis on world cultures, is the one you start with. It’s also the biggest by a long way.

Next on your list is Ways of Seeing by John Berger. If you dip into that, he seems to almost suggest it’s pointless to study the history of art.

Not entirely pointless, but he does take a radical, 1970s Marxist view. The book was written to accompany a BBC television series, which was very refreshing in its day but is now a little bit dated. The reason I chose it is that Honour and Fleming don’t give any grounds to the Marxist interpretation. They’re good on other interpretations—like the feminist perspective. But you need to know about Marxism because it still holds the field in most universities around the world.

The Marxist interpretation of art history says, ‘Look beyond the art and see who is controlling whom, who has the power, who is controlling the means of production and the means of exchange.’ Berger never actually deviated from that classic Marxism in the rest of his life, though he died a couple of years ago.

“Why should any child study art history? It sums up human life.”

And it is a very, very exciting new way of looking at pictures. Another brilliant book is The Painting of Modern Life, by T J Clark, who followed Berger. You have to understand the Marxist interpretation of art; it is absolutely fundamental to the way that art history departments now study the material. Then you have to critique it, because we’ve moved on from the 1970s and the collapse of Marxism in most of the world shows—amongst other things—that the model was flawed. But it’s still a very good book to read, for a teenager especially.

One thing that struck me reading Ways of Seeing is that he links the way we look at pictures to the way we look at advertising. There’s a link between a museum-based idea of art and a much broader context developed.

Which I think is very healthy.

The third book on your list is another doorstop of a tome: Watkin’s A History of Western Architecture.

From a very left-wing interpretation with John Berger we now go to a very right-wing interpretation from David Watkin. I also praise his smaller book, Morality and Architecture, which is possibly his most elegant summation.

This book is a great celebration of the skills of architecture. What he admires are patrons working with architects to produce great masterpieces. It covers Western architecture, not world architecture. Here we are dealing with the great, famous buildings. He was such a widely read and widely travelled man and he writes beautifully.

Although I’ve said Honour and Fleming do deal with architecture, you were right to suggest that mainly they’re dealing with painting and sculpture. This outstanding book gives you the history of architecture, which none of the other books I’ve mentioned do.

“It’s such an intellectual challenge to think in three dimensions”

You’ve got to understand the history of architecture—it’s taught at all university departments. It’s a challenging subject because it is three-dimensional: you have to intuit that if the staircase is there, and there’s a window there, then that window will not properly light this staircase—or you’ve got to move that room to fit there. People like Sir William Chambers designed these incredibly clever 18th century houses and other buildings. It’s such an intellectual challenge to think in three dimensions. A lot of people can’t do it, but you’ve got to learn if you’re going to delve into architectural history.

He seems to be trying to set modern architecture within the broader context of the classical tradition.

Yes, that’s right. His book Morality and Architecture says that we mustn’t think in terms of the 1920s and 30s idea of there being ‘good’ architecture and ‘bad’. His basic thesis is that you can disconnect morality from architecture. Therefore, he likes the modern architects who are more playful and maybe post-modernism was something he would appreciate. That was a critique of the rather serious and austere work of the international modern movement, of which he has some criticisms.

Your next book, Women, Power and Art and Other Essays, is by Linda Nochlin who is more in the Berger camp, with a particular focus on how women have been portrayed throughout the history of art.

One of the most exciting things that’s happened in the last 50 years has been the feminist interpretation of everything, but not least the feminist interpretation of art. Along with Griselda Pollock, Linda Nochlin was the great pioneer of this. “Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists?” is her most famous initial essay, which was a question actually put to her by a gallery owner. She went away and said, ‘God damn! It’s not that there aren’t great women artists—the point is they’ve been excluded by society. They haven’t been given a chance.’ And she brilliantly went through all the social and economic constraints—the two are of course linked—which kept women artists out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (There’s the famous campaign, ‘Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met?’)

She’s humane and witty in a way that we appreciate and admire. She’s brilliantly well-read, and I’d also like to recommend her last, posthumous book which is coming out this year. It’s called Representing Women and it’s a wonderful summary of her most important essays. She deals very well with French art, particularly the role of women there and in America (she was American). She broadens perspective in a way that Honour and Fleming would have loved to do if they’d had the chance, but David Watkin would have detested. She’s an outstanding writer.

In her essay on women artists, she makes the point that many women artists we’ve heard of tend to be the children of artists, because they were able to circumvent the constraints. But she also explores how women are represented in particular ways. Has that thesis held water and remained influential?

It has. She goes a little bit off-track when she follows Edward Said’s Orientalism, a book which, in my opinion, has stood the test of time much less well. It’s a great, challenging book, an important one in its time, but some scholars have shown that Edward Said was biased in his use of examples. In particular, he gives no attention at all to homosexuality and queer theory, whereas she’s prepared to do that.

The portions of her book that have stood the test of time deal with how women artists have been constrained and held back, and how some women were able to surpass constraining social conventions.

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It helped to be wealthy. Berthe Morisot, for example, as a wealthy woman, could be an artist and successful in her own right in the 1860s, 70s and 80s. She married Manet’s brother and was a very good artist. In that same period there was Mary Cassatt, who was American. It’s a bit like the novelist Edith Wharton: she could be a great novelist because she was a very intelligent writer and because she married a millionaire and was rich herself. She could have the kind of confidence and financial security that was out of the question for wonderful women artists who might have been very good—like Rodin’s mistress, or the young girl posing as Olympia in the painting by Manet, Victorine Meurent. We know her name; we know she wanted to be an artist; and we know that she essentially was destroyed, or failed to get anywhere because she wasn’t rich.

Your final book is by Svetlana Alpers, called The Art of Describing. What emerges from this book is that there isn’t one, distinct Western tradition of art history, but two.

Every book I’ve mentioned so far is relatively easy and enjoyable to read, but I thought I’d give you a difficult one. This is a wonderful book, but it is not an easy read. She’s arguing that maps and mapping are a way of understanding much of Dutch art. She’s absolutely brilliant in the way that she shows that Dutch art is, in many ways, following the mariners, the tradition of seagoing.

A lot of maps actually appear in the background of the paintings she’s talking about. But it’s more than that—it’s an epistemological way of approaching it. Mapping and describing come naturally to the Dutch for all sorts of reasons. It is a very challenging and original way of responding to Northern art, to Dutch art in particular, which has been a bit absent. It’s obviously there in Honour and Fleming, but not so much in the John Berger or the Nochlin. It’s nice that Dutch art is given a little special attention here.

She draws a distinction and suggests that Dutch art is a more static tradition than the figurative art below the Alps.

That’s certainly true, although she shows how the great artists can ring the changes, like Vermeer. She explains how brilliant Vermeer’s art of describing is, the way he avoids contour but instead uses modeling with light, and how a lot of his work can be understood with Dutch cultural context.

It’s a difficult society to understand, having an emphasis not only on hierarchy but also on Calvinism. This is something which is very interesting in Vermeer’s paintings. He was a Catholic so working against the grain and yet at the same time celebrating some of those Calvinist-inspired values.

This is taken up by Simon Schama’s very good book, The Embarrassment of Riches, which he wrote at roughly the same time as Svetlana Alper’s but has got a different take on it. He comes at it much more from the political and economic side, but I think that her work is still preeminent in this particular field.

Here in the UK, ‘A’ level history of art was nearly abolished a year or two ago. How do you sell the merits of studying art history as a subject?

Let’s be careful about context here. There was a proposal to abolish the A Level, but it was quickly brought back from the dead. Eton College had already abandoned the A Level and moved to Pre-U. Most subjects at Eton are now Pre-U, which stands for pre-university. It’s more difficult than A Level and it’s run by the Cambridge International Examinations Board. However, if that hadn’t been invented, we’d still be with the A Level. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching A Level course, which I did for 25 years.

“Why should any child study art history? It sums up human life.”

Why should any child study art history? It sums up human life. The same issues that might be involved in geography or English or economics come into art history: poverty and wealth, the growth of cities, the landscape, colonialism. You can study Gaugin, or you can study Manet, but it’s the same issue.

The great stories in poetry or novels or drama you can also find in great paintings. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is the story of the Creation and the Fall of Man. All the excitement and humanity of human beings is there, as in any great artist’s work, right up to the present day with David Hockney. So art history is humanity in the most important sense of the word. It is something that young people should be allowed to study if they are interested.

It does require a good visual memory. It’s not for everyone. As with the study of physics and chemistry, there are complicated technical terms. It’s not an easy subject for the mentally lazy.

That’s interesting, because it has a reputation as being an easy option.

It used to. It must be clear that you’re sitting in a darkened room looking at slides—this is still the case, as it was when Anthony Blunt was teaching at the Courtauld. There’s a temptation for the slacker to think a darkened room looks nice. But any good teacher pounces on people and asks, ‘What does that look like? What have you learnt here? What’s new about this and do you think that succeeds or not? Is that a balanced painting or not? Is this a moral subject well expressed or is there some problem here? When you’re looking at Degas’s famous pastels of naked women—where he wanted to show the woman, as he put it, “like an animal” and they’re observed as though through a keyhole like a voyeur—does one feel uneasy about this, especially in the year 2019 after Me Too?’

You’ve got to make it quite difficult, because its reputation used to be of a fairly easy ‘A’ level or Pre-U. But I think and hope that reputation is not the same today.

Interview by Benedict King

January 23, 2019

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John Harrison

John Harrison

John Harrison teaches history of art at Eton College, one of the leading independent schools in the UK, with around 1,300 boys, and was head of its art history department for a decade.

John Harrison

John Harrison

John Harrison teaches history of art at Eton College, one of the leading independent schools in the UK, with around 1,300 boys, and was head of its art history department for a decade.