Summer 2005

Art writ large

Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism

By Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Thames & Hudson, £45

This big book is a rich and meandering exploration of the art of the past century. Organised by year it uses a key art event of each twelve months as a launch pad to discuss a particular movement, artist or climate. Each entry is a short self-contained essay and includes a brief reading list. Unobtrusive symbols at the side of a line cross-refer to related entries.

So, for example, 1925 provides a fascinating account of the Art Deco exhibition in Paris. This, we learn, was nothing more than an aspirational window-shopping exercise for the middle classes. Its lack of innovation is cleverly used to highlight a number of burning issues of the day. The social crisis of the post WW1 period is touched upon – the fair was criticised for ignoring calls to use it as a testing ground for much needed social housing in postwar France. It also gives rise to a discussion of the still-rumbling dichotomy between austere Modernism and comfortable pastiche. The chapter also offers a succinct introduction to the ideas of Le Corbusier, an exhibitor and the fair’s most vociferous critic, and his Plan Voisin – proposing to demolish the centre of Paris and replace it with tower blocks. We also learn of his anti-Cubist painting movement, Purism. This in turn leads on to a discussion of the work of Fernand Léger, whose work Le Corbusier featured in his pavilion. There is also an excellent account of the Soviet entry, with Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club and Melnikov’s Soviet Pavilion, both of which offered by far the most daring and innovative exhibits.

From 1925 you could, among other things, rewind to 1913 for more on Léger and an essay on early abstraction or turn to 1926 and 1928 for more on Constructivism. Following the design trail leads to Bauhaus, De Stijl and more. The discussion on the Bauhaus, though informative on the political context and personalities involved, leaves one wanting more about key designs and the school’s legacy. This omission is no doubt partly a symptom of the book’s huge time span.

This is primarily a textual work: the pictures are very much at the service of the text. Visually unassuming, the layout is uncluttered and consistent. Although the short essay format is perfect for dipping into it is not an easy bedtime read because of its weight. The choice of coated paper is unfortunate because the paper’s sheen causes reflections in the gutter making it hard to read the line ends without shifting the book. The unattractive dustjacket will get tatty quickly and the green cloth binding underneath is dull – it might have been nice to have had a more attractive binding and to have ditched the jacket completely.

Foster, Krauss, Bois and Buchloh are heavyweights of art critical theory who can be a challenging read, but the book is edited in a clear and readable style. Four introductory essays provide a way in to key theoretical approaches ‘that have framed’ art practice and art history of recent years: psychoanalysis; the social history of art; formalism and structuralism; poststructuralism and deconstruction. These act as good introductions or refresher courses, and given the theoretical basis for much work of the past 100 years, it is useful to have a one-stop place to dip into the main theories. There’s a glossary at the back explaining terms like ‘aporia’ or ‘semiology’ which is handy given the frequency with which people writing about visual culture use this type of terminology.

This is an inspiring book that is definitely worth the hefty price tag.

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