History of Western Art in Comics, Part Two: From the Renaissance to Modern Art by Marion Augustin, illustrated by Bruno Heitz, translated by George L. Newman. Holiday House, c2017, 2021. 9780823446476
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4
What did you like about the book? Ready for some art history? Join Grandpa (presumably a retired professor) and his two grandkids (a boy and girl) in their vintage Peugeot station wagon as they wind through Europe on a grand tour of memorable paintings, architecture, and sculpture. Starting in Milan, and then progressing through Rome, Venice, the Netherlands, Paris, and other art hot spots, the trio’s journey is accompanied by dense text and extremely detailed artwork (including cartoon versions of all of Western art’s greatest hits). Augustin is especially interested in illuminating the connections and influences among the artists, as their work moves ever upward, becoming more accomplished and shifting from the sacred to the secular. The book puts art into a historic context, looking at changes in religious devotion, the development of a growing mercantile class, and new ideas about the social contract. Augustin also highlights practical advances that impacted art: the growing primacy of canvas, the invention of the camera obscura, and the adoption of oil paint in tubes. I especially enjoyed the frequent contemporary asides on the art. Nobles and monks alike marvel at Caravaggio’s novel use of light while British commoners excitedly pour over Hogarth’s political series. Famous artists also reflect on the art; in scene after scene we’re treated to da Vinci muttering about Michelangelo and Raphael or Monet and Pissarro admiring the English painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Full confession: I didn’t read Part One of this series, so I had to fill in the blanks from prehistory to the Renaissance. Back matter includes an index and photo reproductions of the masterworks presented in the book (along with brief descriptions and where the art can be seen).
Anything you didn’t like about it? The title is a bit of a misnomer. Modern art only gets about 8 pages at the end of the book. Also, it’s almost all European art. The only American artists covered are Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol (all on 2 pages) and then Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who each get one small panel. I think Louise Bourgeois (French-American) is the only female artist included in the book.
To whom would you recommend this book? I’m a little unsure who the audience for this book might be. The French have a tradition of very dense informative comics for an older audience but lacking that in the U.S., readers might assume this is for children; it’s not. The level of background knowledge needed to get through it is pretty high, especially when it comes to the historic elements. I think readers in grades 8 and up would enjoy this as an introduction to art history and as a supplement to more staid offerings. Readers hoping for a story, an adventure, or any kind of character development for Grandpa and the kiddos will leave empty handed.
Who should buy this book? High schools or public libraries, especially if the first book has proven popular. It might make a good addition to classroom libraries for high school art teachers. Fans of Larry Gonick’s classic The Cartoon History of the Universe might be a natural audience.
Where would you shelve it? 709.04
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: December 28, 2021