1001 Paintings 2011: You Must See Before You Die

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1001 Paintings 2011: You Must See Before You Die (Cassell Illustrated), Stephen Farthing, book reviewI think I have come to 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die a little late in life, although I have seen a fair few of them already. Flicking through the pages for the first time, however, I could say for certain that there are plenty I have no wish to see, however significant they are considered to be. Others I will have to be content to see purely as reproductions in a book such as this one. Much as I would love to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, I think it is unlikely I shall ever do so. There again, if I needed an excuse to make another visit to Paris one day I now have one, as I have yet to go to the Musee d’Orsay.

The book begins with a two-page preface by Geoff Dyer, followed by a four-page introduction by the editor, Stephen Farthing. Unusually, this is followed by an index of titles. More useful to me is the index of artists at the end. The works are arranged chronologically. Chapter 1 is on pre-1400 painting, then the following seven chapters each cover a century of work. Before the artist index comes a glossary that gives definitions of movements and styles of art such as fauvism, hatsuboku and situationism. After the artist index is a list of contributors, as the texts are written by a number of artists, curators and critics. Only their initials appear at the end of each text, but in the list you can find out a little more about them. The book concludes with picture credits and acknowledgements in an extremely small font.

Some of the paintings have a whole page devoted to them, the top half for the image and the bottom half for the accompanying text, in two columns. Other paintings get only half a page, either the right side or the left. When there is half a page of text, the writer is able to give us a little information about the artist as well as a worthwhile commentary on the painting. A quarter of a page of text, however, isn’t really enough to do justice to a major work of art. I don’t know if the whole-page works are considered to be superior to the half-page ones. But the book is heavy enough as it is, and I dread to think how much more so it would be if every painting took up a whole page. All the illustrations are in full colour. At the start of every chapter is a double page with a listing of the movements covered. A painting takes up three-quarters of the double page, so we have that unfortunate sight of a page join breaking up the work. I truly wish I hadn’t had to see paintings cut like this, although they are reproduced in a smaller format within the chapter.

Of course it is easy to guess that iconic works such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Constable’s “The Haywain” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” are included here. There are, however, enough paintings by lesser-known artists to surprise or delight you and perhaps encourage you to visit a museum that is new to you. However, some of the works are from private collections, so the only chance the public would have of seeing them would be in a touring exhibition. Dyer recounts in his preface that he once visited a gallery in Boston in the hope of seeing a particular Gauguin painting only to be told that it had been put into storage. It would obviously be a mammoth if not impossible task for anyone to see all 1001 works.

The book kicks off with some delightful Ancient Egyptian paintings dating from as early as 1420 BC, and one of them can be seen in the British Museum. There is a wide variety of art in the first chapter, with works from Italy, India, Syria and Mexico; an enormous time-span is covered, but it’s not long before pre-Renaissance Italian masterpieces by Giotto, Lorenzetti and others are dominating the scene. Italy goes from strength to strength in the fifteenth century with Botticelli and Fra Angelico. China and India get a peek in the sixteenth century along with Bruegel and Holbein, but Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Leonardo de Vinci steal the show. Da Vinci’s “Virgin and Child with St Anne” is just magical for me; it’s in the Louvre, so I might just have to hop across the Seine after visiting the Musee d’Orsay.

Other European artists get more of a look-in in the seventeenth century, where Poussin, Rembrandt, and Velazquez are well represented. Equally delightful, however, are the examples of Persian and Mughal art. One of these is a portrait of Shah Jahan as a Prince by Abu’l Hasan, which can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The bejewelled Shah wears a brilliant orange costume against a flowery green background, and both sides of the painting have a decorated gold border. Eighteenth century art is not really my favourite, but I can understand why others appreciate the skills of Gainsborough or Canaletto.

As time moves on the chapters seem to get longer, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. The nineteenth century, however, is full of delights, and I would single out J.M.W. Turner’s work from among them. How I would love to see “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,” but unfortunately it’s in Philadelphia. In amongst the well-known Impressionist works in this chapter are one or two from eastern Europe and Scandinavia. A delightful discovery for me was Max Kurzweil’s “Woman in a Yellow Dress” from the Historisches Museum der Stadt, Vienna.

The chapter on the 1900s is perhaps the most varied of all, with the juxtaposition of abstract and figurative art. My favourites here are Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. Both Rothko paintings featured here are from private collections, but that doesn’t matter to me as there is the wonderful Rothko museum at Tate Modern. The book’s final chapter shows us twenty-four paintings from the first few years of the twenty-first century. It starts off with Banksy’s “Flower Chucker” and proceeds through Elizabeth Peyton’s “Keith (From Gimme Shelter)” and Tracey Emin’s “A Sleep Alone with Legs Open.” In amongst the predominantly western works of art we do also see Takashi Murakami’s “727-727” which depicts his signature character, Mr DOB, a creature with pointed teeth. Chinese Yue Minjun and Mexican Gabriel Orozco are also featured, but their works are in private collections.

1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die is a book for people interested in art who travel a great deal and will therefore have the opportunity to seek out many of the works. It would also be appreciated by those who love art and want to discover painters they are as yet unaware of. Even if it’s not possible to see the paintings featured in the book, it may be that other work by certain artists can be located nearer to home. I came across a painting that is on show in the Russell Coates Museum in Bournemouth; I’ve never been there, but it is near enough for me to consider making the trip. This is a book that would make an excellent gift for the right person, but I should perhaps point out that it is a rather heavy one to handle.

1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die by Stephen Farthing (Editor)
Paperback, 960 pages
Published by Cassell Illustrated, 2011

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1001 Paintings 2011: You Must See Before You Die
by Stephen Farthing

One Comment on "1001 Paintings 2011: You Must See Before You Die"

  1. eilidhcatriona
    15/02/2012 at 12:18 Permalink

    This sounds really interesting. I feel I should visit more art galleries. I’m now thinking about what I would include in a list of “must see” paintings…Dali’s Christ of Saint John on the Cross would be one of the top ones.

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