Summer's almost over! Time to think about going back to school! Hitting the stores in September is a new art-history survey by University of Kansas art historian Marilyn Stokstad, the two-volume, 1,200-page, primally titled Art History (Abrams, $95). This big, beautiful book covers it all, with clearly written text and lots of gorgeous color pictures, from the Venus of Willendorf (ca. 22,000 B.C.) to Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary (1996).
In between is a scamper through the fascinating treasure house that is art history. Its 29 chapters range through Herakleitos' 2nd century CE Unswept Floor mosaic, showing lobster claws, cherry pits and other leftovers from a Roman banquet; Kosho's 13th-century wooden statue of the Buddhist monk Kuya, with six small buddhas emerging from his mouth, one for each syllable of his chant; and a 16th-century gilt silver apple cup from about 1510 that may be based on an Albrecht Dürer drawing.
There's even a discussion of "Recent Controversies over Public Funding for the Arts," with mention of the contretemps involving works by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and the "Sensation" artists.
Revised and updated since its original publication in 1995, Art History is definitely a post-MTV, post-Quark kind of book, designed not as a straight-thru, illustrated read (such as Janson's History of Art) but as a multidisciplinary mix of historical and cultural context. The chapter the "Art of India before 1100," for instance, includes a map of the subcontinent, a timeline, sidebars on Buddhism and stupa architecture, and a guide to several common "mudras," or symbolic hand gestures.
Critics of modern textbooks have wondered whether such jazzy productions aren't a symptom of a general "dumbing down" of textbooks for jaded readers who have to be entertained every minute. In Art History, however, the impression is rather different -- it's as if the design were engineered to make actual learning not only seductive but a bit more efficient.
Both volumes include glossaries of unusual art terms, designed no doubt to help with those knotty crossword-puzzle clues. For those of you relaxing by the pool, herewith, a quiz. Match the clues, left, with the definitions, right:
a. beam supporting a Byzantine dome
b. Muslim holy niche
c. Buddhist third eye
d. buxom Buddhist nature spirit
e. Christian consecrated altar stone
f. the Egyptian eye of Horus
g. sketch for a fresco
h. curved church timber
i. Catholic hand-washing pitcher
k. lead strip for stained glass