MAGNIFY Magazine | What Are you Looking At?
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What Are you Looking At?

A guide to modern art, including Tracy Emin and that installation.

Hirst, Emin, Ofili … ever wondered what all the fuss is about? Will Gompertz’s new book charts the often controversial history of modern art.

Copy by Ellie Fry

From Duchamp’s urinal to Emin’s notorious unmade bed, modern art has often been considered a muddied term. What are you looking at? is a guide, of sorts, to the complex, and often controversial, world of modern art – it’s certainly not your typical art history book. At one end of the scale, there is a group who have labelled modern art as pretentious and self-congratulatory, and at the other those art connoisseurs who doubt whether it is even real art at all.

Author Will Gompertz guides the reader through over 100 years of ‘modern’ art, which he believes started right back with the Impressionists, who questioned the artistic status quo as early as 1820.  Running through to the modern day, Gompertz navigates a far from linear path of development from fauvism to cubism, futurism to constructivism and Bauhaus to post-modernism.

Although this artistic timeline has been well documented before, Gompertz deals with it in a refreshing and novel way. Rather than starting the book with a summary of his expertise, Gompertz opens with something of a disclaimer.  He writes:

‘There are already plenty of excellent art history books covering the modern period. My aim is not to compete with such learned tomes – I couldn’t – but to offer something different: a personal, anecdotal and informative book that undertakes to tell the chronological story of modern art from Impressionism to now.’

This, he certainly achieves. Throughout the book there is a real sense of being taken on a journey with Gompertz. The preface includes a redesigned tube map, with Gaugin, Seurat, van Gogh and Cezanne on the west side, Bauhaus and Modernism running through the centre, through to Koons, Emin, and Banksy on the far east. This image sets the tone for the rest of the book’s journey – which is informative, easy to understand and full of fun.

Despite Gompertz’s initial self-deprecation, this is no simplistic interpretation of some of the most formative years in art’s development. With nearly 400 pages of analysis and research, Gompertz is a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout the book, he brings modern art to life – and enables the reader to make up their own mind as to what they think and feel about a variety of art forms. He continually urges the reader to consider questions such as, ‘What is it that people are buying into?’, ‘Why is art so important?’, and essentially, ‘What does the term ‘art’ really mean?’. Yet, juxtaposed with this intellectual rigour, Gompertz treats the reader to novelistic scenes (such as the image of Claude Monet sat in a café mulling over ideas) and amusing anecdotes to keep you hooked.

What are you looking at? is a worthwhile read for both beginners and those who already have an interest in modern art. It not only tells the story of its development, but also asks some really poignant questions about the nature of art itself, in a fun and engaging manner.