Review of ‘Art of the Extreme 1905-1914’ by Philip Hook

This book covers my favourite era of art, when many exciting modern movements were founded in Europe. Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, Fauvism, Vorticism, Orphism – enough ‘isms’ to shake a paintbrush at! I already had prior knowledge, which is just as well because this is not a book for beginners. The author expects you to know your art.

I liked how the European movements were examined from a wider perspective, so we could understand how they were linked and how they influenced each other. The chapters are focused on themes and places, which is useful but at the same time it’s harder to get a sense of individual artists, other than a few of them such as Munch, Picasso, Klimt, Schiele and Matisse. It’s not a biographical book and there is no potted history of each artist. Indeed, some artists are given no introduction before they are discussed, which emphasises the fact that you need to know about them already. There is a generous selection of images, some of these not very well-known. It was interesting to learn about the conservative popular taste and the huge market for Old Masters which was happening while the avant-garde artists were being ridiculed for freeing art from constraints of form and colour.

I had some issues with the writing style. It was rather wordy and sometimes hard work to read. The tone occasionally veered into humour and personal opinions, which jarred with the art criticism language that dominated the content. It felt like the kind of book you could use for study (it certainly would have been handy for my A-Level Art project which covered this era, if the book had been available 14 years ago), if you were prepared to ignore the more informal elements.

In summary, this book wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I liked it, but not as much as anticipated. I only recommend it if you have a good knowledge of these art movements and want to further expand upon this.

Published in 2021.

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