Monday, March 2, 2009

Review: The Secret Lives of Great Artists

Try as I might, I've never fully developed a great appreciation or understanding of art. Like opera, it is something that I admire but cannot fully comprehend. I know very little about artists beyond the usual stories (such as Vincent van Gogh and his ear). Consequently, when Quirk Books published The Secret Lives of Great Artists, I was very intrigued. After thoroughly enjoying The Secret Lives of Great Authors, I thought that this might serve as a good introduction to the lives of artists.

The Secret Lives of Great Artists is by Elizabeth Lunday, who also writes about art in Mental Floss magazine. While it has a great deal of provocative facts and stories about artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O'Keefe, the book didn't hold my attention, and I found myself skipping around and reading the book piecemeal. Besides the more tantalizing bits of information (such as O'Keefe's tendency to paint in the nude), Lunday also includes a brief overview of the artists' biography and discusses their important works.

Like The Secret Lives of Great Authors, this book's format mimics tabloids and contains pictures of the artists. However, the book does not include pictures of the art work Lunday discusses. While this may not be a problem for people who are familiar with art, the average reader may not be able to vividly recall Durer's "Knight, Death, and the Devil." Even pieces that are part of the cultural lexicon, such as "The Arnolfini Portrait" (which has been featured in the credits of both Growing Pains and Desperate Housewives) are not usually known by their formal names, putting the art neophyte at a distinct disadvantage when reading this book. Although the book's website tries to provide pictures of the pieces along with some brief analysis and information, it is not particularly convenient to read in front of the computer so that you can reference a given piece of art. Furthermore, many of the links don't work, leaving the reader to the mercy of Google Images.

All in all, this book is interesting and could give you enough info to help get you through a cocktail party or two. However, the lack of actual artwork in the book and the plethora of broken links on the website make it a somewhat user-unfriendly reference for those looking for an introduction to great art and the people who created it.