Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 2, 2015

Art in History, by Martin Kemp

Art in HistoryArt in History is an interesting little book.  Handbag sized, it’s ideal for reading a chapter at a time, in waiting rooms, on the train or over coffee in a cafe.  It’s written for people like me who are interested in art, but don’t know enough about it.  And as the title suggests, it’s about the way art intersects with historical events and how we can enjoy art more if we know more about this.

I found the early chapters the most interesting, probably because I could relate more to the kind of art Kemp was discussing.  He begins with a chapter on Greek and Roman art, and how it came to serve both religious and secular purposes, how it became able to express human emotion and pain (as in, for example, the Laocoon in the Vatican), as well as great events such as the Battle of Alexander against Darius, which can be seen in the Pompeii mosaic.  He then goes on to consider the arrival of Christianity which created a kind of crisis in art because the Bible proscribed ‘graven images’, as the Islamic religion still does today.  Fortunately for the development of Western art, Pope Gregory the Great sanctioned the use of religious images because they could stimulate devotion, and they could tell the stories of the Bible for the illiterate.   This is a very interesting chapter which discusses the role of icons in the orthodox church, Gothic art, and the ways in which the Church managed to find ways of defending the sophisticated religious image-making which emerged over time.   

Then, of course, there is a chapter on the Renaissance, and the age of patronage, and the influence of Humanism on art which aimed to imitate nature.  In this chapter and the following one about the role of the academies and the bourgeois, Kemp discusses paintings which would be familiar to many readers so it is easy to follow his train of thought and to enjoy the discussion.

Latter chapters hint that Kemp is not terribly enthusiastic about some modern art.  He acknowledges that Impressionism brought a refreshing new way of making art.  He explains that there is deliberate technique in the ‘unfinished’ look of a painting like Manet’s Le Dejneuner sur l‘herbe because it’s part of it being ‘of the moment’; fresh and direct. (p. 138).  But when it comes to the assorted –isms of the 20th century, (cubism, fauvism, abstractionism etc.) the occasional snide remark betrays less admiration. He quotes at length from the journal of Dadaism, The Blind Man, to show how ‘silly’ it is, and the example he has chosen as an exemplar is Duchamps’ notorious ‘Fountain’ (1917), (which is a urinal).  He sums up Duchamp by saying that he was ‘urinating on the art world – but he is absolutely dependant on it for his impact.’ (p.170)  Further on, in discussing Rothko’s work says:

The chapel he undertook in Houston, dedicated in 1971 one year after the artist’s suicide, houses a series of large sombre canvases on the walls of an octagon – the shape inspired by the Byzantine church of St Maria Sunta on the Venetian island of Torcello.  Again we sense the dark void, whether nihilistic or transcendentally spiritual. Regular meditators in the chapel testify to the latter, but I felt only the former. (p179)

So although I’m the first to admit that I’m no expert on art of any kind, I didn’t find these chapters very convincing.  I don’t think this is because I am prejudiced against modern art, because I find some of it visually beautiful and/or thought-provoking, and even when it’s downright ugly, sometimes I find the ideas underlying such art to be interesting and worthwhile even if it’s confronting.  It may be that the format of this little book just doesn’t allow enough space to discuss the 20th century, which is IMO the most difficult period to understand because there are so many art movements and some of them are rather alienating. 

(Probably the most difficult type of art to discuss in a book is performance art.  Kemp uses as an example Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece from 1964 but is of course limited to a description of it with words, and of course it fails to make any impact on the reader at all.  If you watch it on You Tube, you get an entirely difficult and very disconcerting effect. )

Another limitation is the use of B&W reproductions of the art works.  Art in History is not  an expensive book (RRP $19.95 in Australia) so of course it doesn’t have expensive glossy paper with full colour, full page illustrations.  The images serve only a reminder of the art work, which is only ok if you know the paintings in question, or can find them on the web with the help of Google. 

Still, for an overview of the movements which shook up the art world in the 20th century and more bizarre postmodernist attempts to do the same, this little guidebook is very useful.  However, while I appreciate that the cartoons which ‘animate’ the book are intended to unify this publisher’s Ideas in Profile series, I found them lame: I don’t think they contribute anything to the book and indeed they just take up space that could have been better used.  

You can listen to an interview with the author at ABC Radio National.

Author: Martin Kemp
Title: Art in History, 600BC – 2000 AD
Series: Ideas in Profile
Publisher: Profile Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781781253366
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


  1. I have this reserved from the library already, a quote from it popped up in another book I was reading and it sparked my interest, so I’ll be glad to compare notes when it arrives and I’ve read it. It’s interesting that he picks on Duchamp’s Fountain and makes assumptions about the artist’s motives on making it though – it was actually made by a female artist, Baroness Elsa. She gave it to him to put forward for an exhibition and instead he claimed it was his and there was nothing she could really do about it once she realised what had happened. That story of Duchamp’s hijacking is fairly widely known (though it’s often whitewashed as ‘collaboration’).


    • Ooh, how interesting! I’ve checked the book and no, it doesn’t mention her at all, though it does say in passing, in the quotation from the magazine, “whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance He CHOSE it.” (p170). I, not knowing anything about Baroness Elsa’s claim, assumed that this was a reference to the urinal being bought from a shop that sold urinals!
      Having said that, the book isn’t indexed, so it is possible that there is a reference to her somewhere else, but I don’t recall seeing it.


      • Ah. The R Mutt signature on it is a big handwritten scrawl and it’s actually proof of the Baroness’s authorship – it’s a pun on her name in German (which she obviously spoke) and makes no sense if Duchamp had anything to do with it. :)


        • To be fair to Kemp, this is only a little book, 230-odd pages, and he probably didn’t have space to buy into this controversy. It may not be a fair analogy but it would be like writing a Beginner’s Guide to Shakespeare and not mentioning the Bacon controversy.


          • Fair enough. I was picking up on him not checking what he ‘knew’ as he wrote not the specific story but I see your point. :)


            • Oh, I’m glad you did, because I didn’t know about it, and now I do:)


  2. I’m not sure that the comments on the impact of Rothko’s work is necessarily snide. The power of his art rests in the impact on the viewer, whether dark or uplifting. The old Tate in London had a room for Rothko’s work and viewers reports similar, varying responses.


    • I can attest to that too. We have Rothko’s Red in the NGV here in Melbourne, and there are always people standing around it making comments of one sort of another.
      But it seems to me that while Kemp is straightforward in explaining what the artist’s intention or modus operandi is, and he also talks about technical skills e.g. with Mondrian and how getting it ‘right’ takes skill and expertise, there is something in his tone which suggests scepticism with some of them. An example at random: “As with De Stijl, Suprematism strove to reduce painting to the basics of form and colour in a way that its adherents saw as enriching visual experience: every real form is a world. And any plastic surface is more alive than a … face from which stares a pair of eyes and a smile.’ The plastic surface of Black Square (now rather cracked) is an extreme assertion of the work of art as an open field for interpretation. It is also an extreme assertion that whatever the artist chooses to call a work of art is a work of art. Malevich took the traditional notion of the sublime, developed in relation to our experience of nature on the late eighteenth century, and abstracted it as a form of pure mental contemplation. He set an unyielding agenda.” (p.177)
      Now, maybe I’m reading into this something that isn’t there, but when I see that word ‘strove’, it implies trying without necessarily succeeding; and I see the insertion of the words “to its adherents” to imply that the art may only have meaning to them and not necessarily to anyone else, perhaps not even Kemp. I see his choice of a quotation which makes someone like me consider all the lovely paintings I’ve seen with eyes and smiles which are still in good condition, in contrast with something created recently which is already “rather cracked”. Juxtaposing the “traditional notion of the sublime” with anything that “the artist says is a work of art” , and calling it extreme is, on the one hand perhaps merely a description of this kind of art, but on the other (as I interpret it) a judgement which finds that kind of art wanting in comparison.


  3. I assume the author isn’t the same Martin Kemp from Spandau Ballet / Eastenders fame :-)


    • LOL, Kim, I don’t know! He’s a Big Noise in the art world, but hey, maybe he moonlights on TV.
      No, I don’t think so, though he certainly seems good-looking enough to be an actor. He’s an Oxford don, (emeritus professor) and this is his website:
      It says he is a world renowned expert on Leonardo da Vinci. I wouldn’t mind reading some of his art books about renaissance art…
      But his website also shows that he’s been exploring the weird and wonderful in modern art, so maybe I’m wrong about his preferences. It says he’s been working on the science of art, and optical stuff and computers and whatnot. Presumably he wouldn’t do that if he wasn’t interested in it…


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: