An answer to the perennially popular book by E.H. Gombrich, Stories of Art.
Originally, Stories of Art was designed to look like the current edition of Story of Art. (The publisher decided not to do that, perhaps for fear of copyright infringement.) The idea was to sell Stories of Art alongside Story of Art as its much smaller, and less expensive, companion.
The so-called “Picasso Madonna,” a restorer's joke. It has at least four layers, so that it’s possible to look back in time to earlier versions of the image. In the book, I take it as an emblem of the many half-concealed stories within the Story of Art.
Stories of Art discusses a number of art history books written outside western Europe and North America. They give unusual perspectives on art history. This one, written in Ankara, shies away from Western modernism in favor of Japanese and Chinese art. It is interesting to try to think of narratives like this one as adequate, or useful, histories of world art.
Stories of Art
(New York: Routledge, 2000)
Stories of Art tells many stories of art, while Gombrich’s tells only one. His story, which has become influential around the world, is about the rise and fall of naturalism in Western art. Even though he only meant his book to be a primer for children, it crystallized the central story that is implicit in many other survey texts, and it continues to have enormous influence. This book is intended as its antidote.
I present many different histories of art, from India, Japan, Iran, Turkey, Australia, Poland, Cambodia, and elsewhere, in order to show that the single story of art has many alternates.
The book opens with examples of imaginary maps of art history. Some are drawn by students, like this one; others are drawn by professors of art history. The exercise is a wonderful way of revealing how you think about art history. In this case, the student admits he doesn't understand Chinese or African art. He said he knew his UFOs weren’t p.c., but that is how he felt.
One of the purposes of the book is to ask about how history feels, how it is intuitively experienced, and therefore what in it is genuinely experienced, felt, engaged "from the inside" as opposed to "from the outside" -- that is, from the interests and obligations of academic life. Asking about non-Western histories is not only a way of critiquing the standard Western narrative (although that is the principal argument of the book): it is also a way of asking about what, in art history, can be immediately present to the writer, as the subject of history. That "hidden" theme is the motivation for the book, even more than the interest of thinking outside the Gombrich box.