Masterpieces in Details in Details

This book, Masterpieces in Details, has had a fairly large impact on my project “Mirrors in Art” (still does, in fact). More obvious level is that the book has several stories about the artworks depicting mirrors (including the famous Las Meninas by Diego Velasquez and La Belle Gabrielle that I was interested in before), but also few others as well.  It also has few stories about artists who painted mirrors, even if these works are not shown in this book, and in all these cases I have learned quite a lot.

However, and this is perhaps more important, I was triggered by the ‘methodological approach’ of the book (as well as its ‘user interface’, so to speak), that taught me quite a lot (and with which I also argued too, developing my own take on these things).

Below is a short story about all these things; you can treat it as a mini-homage to the book. I also included some personal story (and then eventually decided to copy here all the book’s “mirror works” as well).

It seems that the destiny was trying to bump me into this book for a long time, at least ten years, probably. I remember seeing the book a window of a book shop in Ghent. Back then it was a one-volume edition published around 2000s (it was called What Great Paintings Say). But the shop was closed, and then I lost track of the book (there was no Amazon back then!).

Some years later I saw in someone’s hands the first volume of the already a two-volume edition (interesting that in this edition both its cover artworks are the ‘mirror ones’).

I write “already a two-volume edition”, but in reality I do not know the exact history of this edition. With time the number of stories have been growing (the very first edition included only 32 paintings, the second already had 50, and then almost 80 works). The decision to split the book into two volumes seems to be logical, even only because of the size, but I think I also saw a one volume edition published much later then the two-volume version, so there is a chance they co-exist.

I remember that I both liked the book and was also a bit alarmed. It was quite different from many similar publications popularly talking about art (Taschen itself has plenty of those). It was not a detailed story about one author, or an era or a style. The book is collection of stories about all kinds of pictures – some very famous, the mega-hits of art, some are much lesser-known works of the known artists, and some things almost completely unknown (to me, at least).

Common to all the stories is the approach, or methodology, with which these works are presented: The authors vividly talk about what in serious academic works is called ‘the socio-historical context’, that is, all sorts of different interesting facts about and around. These stories are not only the work itself, or its author, but present a more general historical situation, related to the creation of the piece, and its perception by the public, both then and now.

These stories rarely deal with any of narrow details of art technique (such as painting technique, color, composition and the like), but more often present many facts about wider historical, political, economic or ethnographic situation related to the painting. If I would use psychological slang, I would say that the authors present the “motivational fields” of each work – what/whom for it was created, and why, what tension it resolved, and what (new) tension it created.

The characteristic visual sign of these stories are the “rectangles” – in every picture they select a few fragment (between 4 and 6), which then work as reference points for the stories.

I can see that this trick has evolved with time: initially they didn’t always use it, but with time it became their branded technique, a universal recognizable marker of their stories (although its GUI was always changing – I saw gray fragments on gray background, gray on color, color on gray etc). I am sure they will continue to experiment.

As I understand, the book(s) quickly became popular; there are many reprints, of both one- and two-volume edition, and I even heard about three-volume version (paperback).

Views of the “common people” are usually very enthusiastic, with many saying that these books have deeply changed they way they see and understand art (and in fact history in general). Almost every story has this very striking effect of ‘before & after’, when you realize that you previous understanding of the painting, the artist, and the historical context has been changed.

But I also read a lot of critical comments , too, mainly from the “serious experts”: they are saying that many of the conclusions presented by the authors are quite problematic, there are no sources provided, there is nothing new revealed etc. Something like ‘But what else should we expect from such pop-publisher as Taschen?

And another interesting point that is often raised is who are the authors? Of course, they are both mentioned on the very cover of every book, each of those containing their short biographies:

… but these descriptions are provided without any changes already for ten years! There is almost nothing about them online, no photographs, no interviews or presentations at conferences, I found nothing of this sort.

And this is despite the fact that the very Rose-Marie Hagen is author of the several other books on the history of art! There is of course a growing suspicion that these are not real names, but pseudonyms, hiding the team of ghost writers, or perhaps some well-known author who does not want to reveal his/her name (like, Umberto Eco).

Perhaps, because of this criticism, I decided not to buy the anniversary edition, published for the 25th anniversary of the publishing house (it also was not very cheap).

But now it’s all in the past, and I do have have a gorgeous two-volume book, which now includes 100 (one hundred!) stories, which I am now reading with delight.

By the way, in this edition the sources are indeed missing (they had been included in (some of) the previous edition, contrary to what critics say). And now, of course, I do want to double-check many of the facts they refer to, and argue with some others – but that’s exactly the value of that work, that the history of art suddenly becomes as interesting as a detective story, and doesn’t resemble a boring lecture by a hardcore art critic.

The bonus – the first pages of the artworks presented in these two vlumes that contain mirrors):

Vol I

Vol II

 

I still use this book actively, although I take more grains of salt by now, after I discovered a few omissions, and in general a little bit biased approach. Yet a very valuable source anyway.

 

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