Books: Edward Lucie-Smith and the visual arts in the twentieth century

This survey covers everything from Impressionism to Damien Hirst. Have we moved from uniformity to diversity or to post-modern incoherence?

This book of just under 400 pages is intended for a general readership and covers the visual arts of the twentieth century decade by decade in eleven chapters, the first chapter offering an account of the late nineteenth century and a discussion of the social and intellectual background of the industrial revolution, communism, Marx, Baudelaire, Nietzsche and Freud. Each section opens with a “time-line” marking events in politics and science, as well as in the arts. By “visual arts” is meant architecture, painting, sculpture and photography. The geographical scope includes Latin America, Japan, Africa, China and Australia, although actually the account concentrates heavily on Europe and the US.

Mr Lucie-Smith acknowledges in his introduction that his choices are personal and limited. He believes that his chronological approach produces a richer, more complex narrative and one more attuned to the historical contexts in which the visual arts have been practised and debated. He also believes that contemporary post-modernism, with its rejection of a search for a unified visual language in favour of a discussion between different languages, sets the tone for his book. This along with “hybridisation” and artists’ increasingly globe-trotting movements, suggests a century which moves from uniformity to diversity.

The result of these concerns is a fairly conventional account, beginning with Impressionism and the Communist manifesto and ending with Damien Hirst and the break up of Yugoslavia. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and the range of architecture and photography offers useful comparisons with the fine arts, which dominate most of the sections.

The book is, therefore, a well illustrated and fairly thorough account of mostly familiar material. There are mistakes (“Pittura Metafysica,” for example) as well as the usual, frequently unhelpful, captions which seem to plague all such books. But in the category of popular books this stands up well, with its clear prose and general enthusiasm. The next trick is for someone to write a truly multi-cultural and paradigm-busting account of the century in a few hundred pages.

Edward Lucie-Smith, Visual arts in the twentieth century, (Laurence King, London, 1996), 400 pp, 330 b/w ills, 170 col. ills, £29.95 ISBN 1856690903 £19.95 ISBN 1856690911

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Pentecost or Tower of Babel?'