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Art: A Field Guide

Art: A Field Guide

by Robert Cumming
480 pages; full-color illustrations throughout
© 2001 Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 0-375-41312-X
paperback; $27.50

Art: A Field Guide applies a basic 'field guide' format to a triple feature of artists, art 'stories and subjects,' and artistic terminology. Its interior is rich with color plates, entries, page after page of information; the cover dazzles with its promise of "Evaluations of more than 750 painters, 680 explanations of the symbols and stories of Western art, 650 definitions of artistic techniques, media, tools, movements and styles." That promise is kept, but not quite in the way the reader might expect. For one thing, this incredible amount of raw data could do with more thorough organization; for another, Art: A Field Guide makes a departure from expectations as far as the feel of its content. A field guide is, above all, objective; and Art: A Field Guide is the expression of the personal observations of its author, former Chairman of Christie's International Art Studies Program, Robert Cumming. The book was published simultaneously in the U.K. as A.R.T a no-nonsense guide to art and artists, and the British title more accurately hints at the flavor of a book that is based on personal observations: of an expert, to be sure, but personal observations nonetheless.

The book is divided into three sections, with "Artists" comprising well over half the content. Individual entries include the artist's name, dates, a paragraph of biographical information, and a listing of average and record prices for the artist's work. Depending on the detail accorded the artist, the entry may also include "What to look for" and "Details to pay attention to" (sic), describing salient features of the artist's work. (As an additional note, the "Artists" section of this American release of an essentially British book is subtly weighted in favor of British artists, many of whom are less well-known this side of the Atlantic.) The second section "Subjects and Stories" deals with themes, 'props,' and individuals of classical art. The third, "Glossary," includes such broad topics as "artistic techniques, media, tools, movements and styles."

A color-bar at the top of each page (sage green in the example below) identifies the section for quick reference; but beyond that, no sub-organization is offered for Art: A Field Guide's treasure house of raw data; within all three sections, material is then listed by straight alphabetization. In "Artists," the alphabetized entries (by last name) jumble 750 painters cheek by jowl, irrespective of time period; lookup and browsing might have been better served by sub-grouping painters according to period, the way they are most often organized in museums. Similarly, "Subjects and Stories" with its "680 explanations of the symbols and stories of Western art" would have been more accessible with subheadings of theme or source - Greco-Roman mythology, Christian cosmology, etc. The "Glossary" section likewise: unless one is conversant with terms and tools already, it can be difficult to look things up, or even to intelligently browse; the abundant information becomes an avalanche of uncorrelated bits and pieces. One can only guess that this organizational scheme was chosen to make the book simpler for the layman. Paradoxically, it makes using it more difficult.

Sample pages from the section "Artists" in Art: A Field Guide
In the color bar at the top of this sample, painting titles are to
the left, an art quote is to the right.

As well, despite a basic system to its layout, Art: A Field Guide's pages can be visually overwhelming. The painting titles are small, the spidery italic of the art quotes (which in themselves gild the lily) disappear against the color-bar. In referencing the color reproductions, the eye must jump from the numerically-indexed title high at the page top to the small numeral by the plate - the numeral often located ambiguously between two plates. As well, the plates, meant to illustrate artists or terms being referred to within the two facing pages, sometimes appear on the facing pages before or after - an irksome point, because one does not necessarily know to flip forward or back when referencing the entry on a particular artist or term.

Such obstacles aside, the essential realization of Art: A Field Guide is that it represents the distinctive voice of Cumming, describing what he sees and finds interesting and important about the artists. The book's descriptions and information are a mingling of fact and Cumming's opinion, most noticeable in the artists' thumbnail biographical sketches, which range from the conventional:

Caspar David Friedrich - "Now the best-known German Romantic landscape painter, but neglected in his own day. He came into his own later, influencing the late-19th-century Symbolists."

to the judgmental:

Yves Klein - "Untrained (except at judo), uneducated, short-lived megalomaniac dreamer who had a brief high-profile and influential presence"

Ferdinand Bol's An Astronomer, 1652 is
used in the section "Glossary" as an
illustration of the term 'chiaroscuro' in
Art: A Field Guide

Cumming's more irreverent entries can be entertaining once this aspect of the book is understood, but the approach itself could be more clearly noted; the reader who expects the cool objectivity of a standard field guide may find the sometimes flippant tone put-offish or inappropriate, as surprising as if Roger Tory Peterson noted of a bird, "chirps too loudly; ignorant; often flies stupidly into windows." The 'generic' look and feel of the cover only serve to reinforce the impression that the book is an orthodox field guide, and though Cumming does note in the introduction that "My observations are entirely personal," this one sentence is easy to overlook.

This is not to say Cumming's observations do not have value. His intent is to point out "qualities that anyone with a pair of eyes can see, and have pleasure searching for, throughout an artist's work..." and his detailed entries generally do so. He notes, "Nearly everything I have written in this book is what I would say if we were standing in front of a work of art;" and that is, in fact, the feel of much of the text in the "Artists" section: that of standing before the painting in a museum, listening to an educated and at times particularly witty guide.

The difficulty, then, is that Art: A Field Guide suffers from a bit of an identity problem. It is informative - but it is not necessarily a 'field guide' as that term is understood. It does contain a wealth of information, both factual and interpretive - as its cover proclaims, it is a work detailing hundreds of painters, subjects, and terms, lavishly illustrated in full color on every page - but with over 2,000 individual entries, it could have used a more thorough system of organization for ease of reference. It is a mingling of qualities, some of them serious and some seeming dilettantish (the symbols and stories in classical art are a valuable addition; the art quotes are of passing interest, but do not lend to the book as a tool). The book does, however, represent an immense amount of work and expertise in a single package, and one may find Cumming's distinctive, knowledgeable, at times irreverent voice appeals: and in that instance, Art: A Field Guide may very well satisfy.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the book itself. Roger Tory Peterson is the author of A Field Guide to North American Birds as well as field guides on a wide variety of topics.

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