How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilizationby Published 04 Sep 2018
|How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization.pdf|
Conceived as a gorgeously illustrated accompaniment to “How Do We Look” and “The Eye of Faith,” the famed Civilisations shows on PBS, renowned classicist Mary Beard has created this elegant volume on how we have looked at art. Focusing in Part I on the Olmec heads of early Mesoamerica, the colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the nudes of classical Greece, Beard explores the power, hierarchy, and gender politics of the art of the ancient world, and explains how it came to define the so-called civilized world. In Part II, Beard chronicles some of the most breathtaking religious imagery ever made—whether at Angkor Wat, Ravenna, Venice, or in the art of Jewish and Islamic calligraphers— to show how all religions, ancient and modern, have faced irreconcilable problems in trying to picture the divine. With this classic volume, Beard redefines the Western-and male-centric legacies of Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark.
"How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization" Reviews
A beautiful and witty art survey, about one of my favorite subjects--people and how they represent themselves. What does it mean politically and socially to be painted "warts and all," or as a hundred foot tall, bare-chested incarnation of Ra? Beard carefully chooses pieces from around the world, setting them in context and revealing how they illustrate the culture's sense of self, power, gender and imagination.
How Do We Look offers the reader a question well worth exploring: how do humans use art to explain how they think and feel about themselves. This is a question stolen directly from an Intro to Art syllabus, but it is a question worth asking because human imagination is arguably the most powerful force in the known universe. It can literally impact the physical world as humans create visions based upon their experiences and perceptions and imaginings, and Beard takes her reader through the centuries of the human experience to show how humans have channeled their imagination into creating some of the greatest artistic wonders of the world.
How We Look is not always as in-depth as I would have liked, but Beard's works tend to leave the reader inspired to begin their own explorations. The value of a book like How Do We Look is how it can inspire new readers, or even experienced readers, to contemplate the purpose and function of art and remind us how art can impact our reality.
Whether it's sculpting boxers out of bronze or literally carving a temple into the side of the mountain, human beings create. It's worth a moment of the reader's time to ask themselves where and why that impulse exists, and what they could or should do with it.
tl;dr: This is an informative, brief read that gives us some insights into art and the relationship we have had with it over time.
I was a little surprised to see Olmec art in the book as it is typically the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans that get the burn in most books, but each of the art selections underscores a point Beard likes to make in each chapter. In this book, we are treated to writing on a number of notables artworks.
The Olmec heads get to kickstart the book. As we know very little about the Olmecs, Beard takes the opportunity to use them as a platform to spring questions that will percolate through the book. She more or less addresses or echoes these questions in each chapter or section. What is the use of the work? For who is the work for and what was their place in society?
The massive statues of Amenhotep III in Luxor follow. Here, we are following the Roman Emperor Trajan and his interaction with the "singing" statues. This story is used to exemplify art as an interactive matter. Beard is very well known for her writing on ancient Rome, so it is quite nice to see her continue that thread here even for a few quick pages.
From there, we get a view into gender roles and expectations from the ancient Greek pottery of around 600 BCE. There are sly bits of humor found in this book, particularly, in this chapter, and they are part of what made this book such an enjoyable read.
The Look of Loss chapter continues the focus on the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians and the naturalistic portraits found on their coffins. I was especially satisfied by this chapter. I was completely unaware of the existence of these coffins prior to reading this book, and I feel like they are a hidden gem.
The book's attention changes course to tell us about the Terracotta Soldiers in China. Beard guides us through the variety and individuality found in the soldiers of which is apparently due to a set of stock characteristics mixed and matched. Reading this chapter made me think of the "Create A Player" feature you can find in a number of video games.
The book makes its way back to Egypt to the "Ramsessium." The many massive depictions that adorn the tomb/temple of Ramses II/Ozymandias are all supersized. Beard points this place as one of the most well known cases of a ruler seeking to amplify their own grandiosity through the power of image and art. In the statues, Ramses II towers above all others. Beard also points out there likely was a contingent of nonbelievers. "The more power flaunts itself in your face, the more it risks undermining its claims to be taken seriously" the author writes.
Next, the "Greek Revolution" is covered. A series of photographs from varying time periods help us understand the dramatic changes that took place. The highlight of the chapter goes to "The Boxer." I know little about sculpture, but it is clear this statue is really quite magnificent in its craftsmanship. Beard's selection of works shines ones again.
Beard tells us about a rather crude bit of history regarding the "Aphrodite of Knidos." The story is a little sordid but the chapter in all did very well to help me understand the changing landscape of its time. It is easy for us to think of the major characteristics of the Greeks and their art while failing to remember that the Greeks were not always "the Greeks" and that the evolution of their art and values took hundreds of years.
Of course, Beard takes time to also remind us that *our* world's lofty views of the Greeks and their art have changed over time as well. Beard tells us the story of Johann Winckelmann, the Syon House, the Belvedere Apollo and the Dying Gaul. Winckelmann's writings regarding the classical works were hugely influential and helped shape much of the values we places on the ancient works.
In the second half of the book, we are taken to Angkor Wot where the astronomic religious intent of the design is juxtaposed with the contest of 'best selife' taken by tourists. Its a funny little bit but not the only thing that makes up this prologue to the second section. It serves to have us consider the way art and religion work together and apart.
This thread brings us to the Cave Art of Ajanta as detailed by Christiana Herringham in her life. Beard asks us to think about how art changes, no matter how slightly, when we try to re-record it in an attempt to save it from fading from memory.
Next, we move on to a number of works that exemplify the use of art in the hand of Christianity in the Roman/Byzantine Empire. The Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, with the emperors and empresses in proximity to Jesus Christ in the mosaics, various paintings such as of the Last Supper and Tinteretto's Nativity, the Virgin Mary of Macarena in Seville. Each of these works reflect, reject, or push the boundaries of what was the doctrine of their times. The inclusion of the Emperors and Empresses in the paintings, the inclusion of their-time commoners in the backgrounds of paintings, the extreme ornateness of idols. These pieces push, pull, establish their places in the wider discussion of Christian doctrine.
For the last section, Beard writes about Islam. She repudiates the thought that Islam is an artless religion. The Sancaklar Mosque is of grand modern design, the Blue Mosque of Istanbul is clearly a masterful piece of art both on the interior and exterior. The calligraphy found in Mosques is complicated and delicate. Beard essentially makes the case that we, westerners, often fail to appreciate and understand the nature of Muslim art in the wider sense.
In one of the last chapters, Beard brings us to a particularly curious case: the Kennicot Bible. It is an extremely interesting part of the book. This bible was created at a time in Spain where Muslim, Christian and Jewish artistic sensibilities would swirl together in a way. The illustrations found in this Bible clearly show the different visual influences of the Abrahamic religions. If you have never seen it, you check it out. It looks like it comes from a different timeline.
Before the book ends, we read a little about the destruction of some symbols and imagery. There are incredibly ornate, intricate places of worship and there are bare, austere places of worship. And as such, there are people who cannot imagine there is any other way that is correct and faithful but theirs. One can follow logically that there would be conflict as a result. We are given details of some destruction as result of these schisms. Some statues had their faces destroyed, or some churches were stripped of decadent decoration. Beard asks us to reorient ourselves and remember that when look back at such history, we are looking at it as we are, as image lovers.
And maybe thats a good thing for Mary Beard! If we were not image lovers then perhaps Beard would not have gotten the chance to write this book haha But even better for me, as I have gotten the chance to read this book and enjoy it thoroughly. This is probably the briefest book I've read in twelve years but this is easily the longest review I've written. This is because writing a review of this length allows me to remember better the contents of this book before I have to return it to the library.
This probably isnt the first or even fifth book, I'd think to recommend to someone when it comes to history or art, but I think anyone's reading on those subjects would feel incomplete without this essential little volume
Very informative and easy to read prose! This would be a fantastic addition to a 100 level art history class.
This was accessible and interesting, which are two things I wouldn't often say about art history.