by Christopher S. Wood. Princeton University Press, September 2019. 472 p. ill. ISBN 9780691156521 (h/c), $29.95.
Reviewed January 2021
Jenna Dufour, Research Librarian for Visual Arts, University of California Irvine, firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher S. Wood’s A History of Art History is a robust volume that traces and critically examines the evolution of art history as a discipline, beginning with the late middle ages and leading up to the emergence of contemporary art history. Wood reassesses canonical texts and the thinkers who are considered pioneers of the field. For example, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Giorgio Vasari in the Italian Renaissance, and in the modern period, Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky, and Meyer Schapiro, among others. It is in this close re-examination of the role of the art historian, of individuals and their writing, that Wood offers a rethinking of art’s history.
The book is written chronologically focusing on the fifteenth century through to the 1960s with a geographical nucleus in Western Europe and attention to the United States in the latter half of the book. Wood’s extensive introduction functions as a critical foundation by introducing readers to three main approaches to the history of art: annalistic history, typological history, and fabulous (fables) history, all of which are revisited and referenced throughout the book.
Woods’ writing style is highly academic and philosophical, yet it is also witty and poetic. Wood seems to have considered that this book may not be consumed cover-to-cover–readers are consistently informed when an important text or individual has already been discussed in a previous section, which allows for easier cross-referencing throughout.
Illustrations are unfortunately black-and-white and limited to approximately two reproductions per chapter. Anyone without an extensive background in art history might find it frustrating to come across so many references to artworks without the visual to pair it, but the quality of the images that are included appear clear and are frequently full-scale to the page. Included at the end of the book is a substantial reference list of thirty-four pages, and a thoroughly detailed index of thirteen pages which lists critical institutions, events, critics, artists, historians, concepts, and terminology.
While this book offers a renewed exploration of art history’s history, the publisher’s claim that it is an accessible text for readers inside and outside of art history is certainly deceiving–it is not a digestible handbook or reference text to be consulted with ease. It is dense with complex ideas and conclusions about art history’s history. This book is appropriate for humanities PhD students in need of a detailed account of the development of art-historical thinking, or for an advanced upper undergraduate looking to engage deeper into art history’s methods. For librarians looking to refresh their knowledge of the discipline, this could be an interesting choice, but it is certainly an intellectual commitment.
This book is recommended for art libraries, university libraries with art history and visual studies programs, and museums.