Essential art guides that really are essential


By Justin Spring


By Robert Goff


By Ingrid Schaffner


By Justin Spring

All published by Harry N. Abrams

112 pp., $ 12.95

Art museums have become popular places. Blockbuster exhibits - like the current Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington - are cultural events that feature long lines.

But popularity does not guarantee that visitors understand what is on display. Nor is it easy to find out: The same tendency toward specialization that has become a hallmark of intellectual life has led art historians and museum curators to write ever more academic and scholarly exhibition catalogues.

In an effort to address the absence of clear, accessible information for the average museum visitor, Henry N. Abrams, a leading art publisher, has launched a series of books called "The Essential Art Guides." Four volumes have been published, and at least 10 more are planned.

The books have a common format: They are small enough (about 6 by 6 in.) to fit in a purse or a coat pocket, fairly short (112 pages each), well written, and jargon free. They are profusely illustrated, and the color quality is remarkably good. A few paintings in each volume are analyzed in detail to complement the general summary of most of the works.

The books also provide a good summary of the artist's life, working style, and accomplishments. This means the focus is almost exclusively on the individual artist rather than on his school. For someone like Edward Hopper and Van Gogh, this is fine, but in the case of an artist like Jackson Pollock, who was central to the development of Abstract Expressionism, it does not work as well.

For the most part, the books offer a standard art history interpretation. In writing about the Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali, for example, Robert Goff starts with the artist's early life in Catalonia. He then analyzes the impact of Sigmund Freud on Dali's work, describes the artist's relationship to Andr Breton and the other members of the Surrealist movement, assesses Dali's fascination with Franco and Hitler and his excitement about living in America, reviews his constant cultivation of fame, and discusses Dali's apparent involvement with a print scandal in the 1980s that seriously damaged the artist's reputation. The writing is crisp and accurate, with the exception of a glaring error regarding the atom bomb. (It was not dropped on Pearl Harbor.)

Especially notable are the simple, clear summaries of the symbolism in Dali's seemingly impenetrable works. Virtually anyone who has ever stared at a Dali painting and wondered what it means will appreciate this little volume.

While these books are of high quality, there are several small shortcomings the publisher should address. For example, some of the reproductions are as small as one square inch. This is too small to be worthwhile.

The tone could use some attention as well. The publisher boasts that the books have an "edge." "Cute" or "flip" is more like it. Consider some of the subheads in the Van Gogh volume: "The Elvis Presley Problem," "Reality Check," "Flower Power," "...I'm Outta Here," "Surf and Turf," and "Please Leave!"

Knowledgeable readers will find the occasional overstatement frustrating. For example, Dali is said to have achieved "unrivaled acclaim in the international worlds of art, culture, and society." Picasso more than rivals Dali in this regard.

Despite their shortcomings, however, these books are terrific. They are easily read in a couple of hours, and the vast majority of museum patrons will find them insightful and helpful.

* Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.

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