A HISTORY OF WESTERN ART By Laurie Schneider Adams Harry N.
Abram, 512 pp., $55. ART PAST/ART PRESENT By David G. Wilkins,
Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff Harry N. Abrams
606 pp., $49.50. THE ART BOOK: AN A-Z OF ARTISTS Phaidon
512 pp., $35.
ENCYCLOPEDISTS have their musts and their maybes. When the subject is art history, Rembrandt is a must. But Hercules Seghers, for instance, is a maybe.
To leave out Rembrandt would be ridiculous. To leave out Seghers seems to be a matter of preference. Three of the most recent art books of this encyclopedic ilk (each of which claims some kind of fresh variation on the genre) omit Seghers. They have this omission in common with Janson's ``History of Art'' Third Edition, of 1986. The fifth revised edition of Janson is due out in January (I have not seen the fourth), and I wonder who will be in and who will be out.
I suppose a sign of acceptance into the canon of art history is when an artist becomes an encyclopedic must. But with Seghers, even though he is a 17th-century artist and not one of your modern fly-by-nights, it seems that the difference between must and maybe is the difference between the taste of the 1970s and the '90s. He is included in three encyclopedias I own published in the '70s and in two published in the '50s.
But in these new books, ``A History of Western Art'' by Laurie Schneider Adams; ``Art Past/Art Present, Second Edition, by David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff; and ``The Art Book'' (which doesn't seem to have an author), Seghers is nowhere to be found.
Read the fine print
The difficulty is that fat compendious books like these give the impression of telling it all. They do not. If you read the smaller print, you sometimes find they do not claim to be quite so comprehensive as they appear.
``A History of Western Art,'' for example, offers ``unlike other surveys'' a concentration ``on a smaller number of artworks, but explores them in satisfying depth.'' Thus it talks about Mark Rothko but ignores Barnett Newman.
``Art Past/Art Present'' offers ``a great continuum of human creativity and expression from all the world's cultures.'' Thus it mentions Casper David Friedrich but leaves out William Blake. Neither book mentions Italy's supreme 20th-century artist, Giorgio Morandi.
And ``The Art Book,'' although it is a more conventional list of artists (including Morandi), is unconventional in devoting a full-page color plate of one work by each, with room only for a minuscule text.
Although the tome is massive, it has been confined to only 500 artists. Since it stretches from the Middle Ages to today, it has had to be highly selective. Thus, although it includes Rothko, Newman, Friedrich, and Blake, it forgets Samuel Palmer, Philipp Otto Runge, John Sell Cotman, and Giovanni di Paolo.
The exclusion of such artists cannot be simply justified on the basis of minor importance. Often the reasons seem to be as vague as some tenuous sense of a current consensus. Nobody would claim that Seghers is of the same stature as Rembrandt. But the point is that ``stature'' is not what art history is all about. In the great continuum swims smaller fish who, to put it ecologically, are vital parts of the food chain. Yet, almost inevitably, the encyclopedist has to net the marketable species. Also, to leave out some ``lesser'' (but still unique) figures is to foster the idea that only ``great'' artists matter. Or fashionable ones.
Fashion does not only apply to recent artists, though when these encyclopedias talk about 20th-century art they generally start to fall apart at the seams. At least this is where there is most room for eccentricities.
What possessed ``The Art Book'' to include a flat portrait of Prince Charles? Or an illustration by Audubon in a book that otherwise overlooks book art? The presence of a pretty birthday-card picture by Tsugouharu Foujita also suggests the book is partly aimed at popularity rather than designed to uphold aesthetic standards.
Which side of the Atlantic a book is published also has a bearing on its contents. ``The Art Book'' has a European bent. The other two books are American in outlook - which is why they include under modern sculpture the conglomerate assemblages of Louise Nevelson, and not the groundbreaking sculpture of Anthony Caro, while ``The Art Book'' has Caro but not Nevelson.
``The Art Book'' is self-consciously eccentric in another way. Although dictionaries of art have been arranged alphabetically before, this has not meant a visual confrontation across the book's spine of the most unexpected bedfellows.
This arrangement-by-chance is amusing, at least, if not precisely revealing: Albrecht Durer's self-portrait averts its eyes from Sir Anthony Van Dyck's ``Charles I on Horseback'' and Roy Lichtenstein rubs shoulders with the Limbourg Brothers. To counter such ad-hoc neighboring, the symbol of a pointing hand suggests cross references of one artist with others - some acceptably obvious connections like Jacob Jordaens with Rubens, others baffling like Naum Gabo with Mark Tobey. The game is to work them out for yourself. But who says art history is a game?
Even when encyclopedic volumes like these deal with artists who might be considered established and understood, their authors can come up with quite divergent views. Adams, for example, talks about Cezanne's apples being outlined in black. In ``Art Past/Art Present,'' we are told ``Cezanne does not outline his forms ... it is the internal color that creates their solidity.''
Adams, I suspect, betrays a misunderstanding about how Cezanne's paint has been applied and overlayed. She also makes some strangely irrelevant (though clever) remarks concerning something Cezanne said about ``astonishing Paris with an apple.'' But even encyclopedists must be allowed the occasional lapse into whimsy.
One thing all three books agree on: Jan van Eyck has to be represented by his remarkable painting ``The Arnolfini Marriage.'' That is a must. But why do they also agree about leaving out poor old Hercules Seghers?