Tuesday, October 04, 2005

book review: the orientalists

in the introduction to the book, “the orientalists,” author kristian davies makes a connection between much of the art of the 19c. and today that i have often made:

today there are many art genres that speak to the same part of the brain as orientalism that are so often discussed with that sense of joy. the brandywine painters and their storybook land of indians, sorcerers, and pirates, frank frazetta and his heroic barbarian world, alan lee and the many illustrators of the lord of the rings, and the rich tradition of illustration in national graphic—they have always been celebrated with a delirious energy, a tangible, uncomplicated enthusiasm that orientalist painting deserves but lacks.

that the author noted a genealogy of art that extends from even before and through the italian renaissance, through the baroque, on down through the classical revivals of david and his ilk, through the 19c. academic painters, maxfield parrish and the brandywine artists as mentioned, and finally to modern fantasy/historical painting is no coincidence. that he sought to mention it in a major publication of this sort is pleasantly surprising. score one for the team, you know?

nevertheless, for anyone who enjoys modern day fantasy art and who undoubtedly appreciates one of the main aspects that makes good fantasy art so appealing, namely a concern for technique and craft, this book comes incredibly highly recommended by me.

the group of artists in question all worked in the 19c, and were nearly all european. though many also worked in other genres, they had in common a fascination with the beauty of the lands, people, architecture and costume of the east, as variously defined to extend from north africa through india. and as alluded to in an earlier post, they managed along the way to create some of the most beautiful paintings mankind has ever produced.

this fascination with color, beautiful architecture and costume, and a penchant for representing it with the intent of dazzling a viewer with the otherness of it all are traits that today’s genre artists still carry. i would also group american southwest painters among the scattered progeny of yesteryear’s academic tradition. whether it was the german romantics who portrayed fairy tale and myth, the victorian classicists who painted greek mythology and roman/greek recreations based on then-breaking archaeological finds, or the orientalists opening the east up to the west, what was certain was the incredible talent of so many artists of the period.

davies’ book is written at the lay level, seeking to introduce the reader to the genre under the recognition that most folk today have no idea who jean-leon gerome is, for instance, though he was one of the 19c.’s most celebrated artists before abstract expressionism pulled the spotlight away (as an aside, one of my professors in college called the artist in the prior link the greatest living painter at the time. sigh). in this regard it is a great art book to read (who reads art books, anyway?), filled with an overview of the relevant history. it is also largely written from a personal context which makes it approachable, although his tendency to inject commentary into what he is describing often leaves one with a sense of personal disagreement that normally isn’t experienced when reading a more academic art book. davies has a healthy appreciation for the culture and traditions of the east which makes him able to communicate the sense of wonder the artists intended, but often this is at the expense of having an equally inspired view of the west he contrasts it with.

if you are a lover of art, you owe it to yourself to get this book. you will be amazed at the quality of work presented, and it may sadly cause you to be a bit spoiled when considering the offerings presented today. but since pictures speak louder than words, i present to you two examples that should convince you if nothing else will:

and the following, by a guy whom i had seen a painting by once, without knowing his name but is now probably near my favorite ever (need to see more):

oh yeah his name is ludwig deutsch. and once again i’m left feeling like a monkey with a stick.