Which of us, when finding ourselves in the presence of a painting, has not sensed that we lack the keys to decipher it? We feel an emotional response, but the work still seems to evade our understanding.
Francoise Barbe-Gall combines a nuanced understanding of the way viewers respond to paintings with a rich knowledge of their context and circumstances of their creation. The result is like a tour of a dazzlingly eclectic museum in the company of a gentle yet authoritative guide.
She takes as her point of departure the impressions that we all feel when confronted by a canvas and takes us on a voyage of discovery fired by her own passionate enthusiasm for the subject. What is the painting’s relationship with the real world? Has the artist idealized nature, or distorted it? Did they want to shock the viewer, or provide consolation? With a clear approach and straightforward yet subtle analysis, the meaning of each work slowly becomes clear.
From Raphael’s penetrating character study of Castiglione, through Hopper’s cinematic take on the wee small hours of the morning Barbe-Gall begins by covering a number of ostensibly realistic works, made from the stuff of everyday life. Going in quite the other direction, she looks at the way paintings can express moments of heightened reality, from the perfection of Boticelli’s Primavera to the arresting glance of Vermeer’s girl with the Pearl Earring. She discusses paintings that distort the visible world (Parmigianino’s Madonna with an improbably long neck to Dali’s melting clocks) and those that sow confusion to make us more vigilant and pay closer attention to the real world (Cezanne’s depiction of a forest glade, or a mysterious fifteenth century altarpiece). Questions of history, style, iconography and composition are not neglected and are dealt in context of the paintings she discusses.
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Françoise Barbe-Gall studied history of art at the Sorbonne and also at the Ecole du Louvre, where she now teaches. She also directs an association called CORETA (Comment Regarder un Tableau), for whom she gives many lectures. She is regularly called upon to participate in management workshops, where her experience of analysing images in relation to publicity and marketing is called upon. Editions de l'Agenda de L'Empresa have published a collection of her articles, and she is the author of several articles on the work of the sculptor Tom Carr. She is the author of How to Talk to Children about Art and How to Understand a Painting, both published in English by Frances Lincoln.Review:
I love this accessible French bestseller, which helps us look afresh at 36 works from Raphael to Rothko, Brueghel to bacon. The quality of the illustrations is of high quality too.
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