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BOOK REVIEW | Stories of Art  


Usually books written by critics, historians and academics are about the history of art, whether of a period or a place, often combining the two; but James Elkins’ Stories of Art, deals with the history of art history, its changing modes, moods and methods. Elkins, a Professor of Art History at the School of Art Institute of Chicago and author of several books on art, maps the shift in the approach towards art history, from its initial structure of being Eurocentric, later turning into a more inclusive discipline. “What was once the single, crystal-clear Story of Art has become a tangle of Stories of Art”, actually the subject of this small book, published by Routledge, New York & London in 2002.


In five chapters Elkins constructs the past of art history, and how traditionally it has been split and defined into various categories by different historians. Some of these are like. Before Art: Prehistory, Classical Greece and Rome, Middle Ages; Art: Renaissance, Baroque, Modernism; After Art: Postmodernism. Or another classification, Normal Periods: Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Modern; Abnormal Periods: Postmodernism. Or from another angle, Non-Western Art; Western Art: Pre-Modern Art, Modern Art; International Postmodern Art. Another example denotes it in detail, Premodern: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Romanticism, Realism; Modern: Postimpressionism, Cubism, Abstraction, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Postmodernism!


In whatever demarcation, a reader realizes that these sections are arbitrary and these tell more about the age in which these are inscribed rather than their subject, past. It would be interesting to compare various editions of Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (standard text book of art history in Pakistani art schools), and how in each edition the concept of art expanded, including chapters on art beyond European and Western world. James Elkins comments on it: “When it first appeared in 1926, Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages was a small book….. As interest in multiculturalism grows, survey texts like Gardner’s have to include more non-Western material.”


James Elkins, in the second chapter Old Stories, of his book enumerates earlier art historians, beginning from Giorgio Vasari, Giovanni Bellori, and Hegel. In the next chapter one reads about E. H. Gombrich, Helen Gardner, Marilyn Stokstad with reproductions of some of their pages, comparing the tone and views of these masters of art history, who mainly come from Western world, hence their books offer a major tilt towards Western art, so much so that many in other parts of the planet, are alienated to their own art history, or if know, regard it inferior, raw and primitive.


Perhaps the reason for this lack of local art historian lies in the attitude of certain societies, which did not practice European model of recording and preserving history. Thus one needs to consult colonial historians and orientalists in order to access past of a nation that lies outside the Western world, since in the modern world, oral account never enjoyed the credibility of written text.


Elkins investigates other sources in the chapter named Non-European Stories. According to him in 1956, A massive volume (6900 pages) Universal History of Art was published in Moscow, discussing in detail the art of Soviet states, Eastern European block, along with Western art, Asian, African and Latin American Art and the Art of Antiquity. Elkins further provides information on Egyptian, Turkish and Iranian books, like Salamah Musa’s Tarikh al-funun (1929) written in Arabic, Burhan Toprak’s Sanat Tarihi (1960) written in Turkish, and Ali Nagi Vaziri’s Tarikh-i umumi-i (1959) written in Persian. He also mentions Edith Tomory, “who taught in the Department of Fine Arts in the Stella Maris College in Madras, India”. Her book “A History of Fine Arts in India and the West (1982) is a collaborative effort with faculty and students”. A page on Amrita Sher Gil from the book is reprinted, on which Elkins comments: “From a Western standpoint it may be hard to imagine how Sher Gil could be ‘master’ of Western technique and yet ‘wholly Indian in spirit’, but the writer (Krishna Chaitanya, for this section of Tomory’s book) decides “there is far more of Ajanta than of Gauguin in her paintings”.


Taking this divide between East and West further, James Elkins observes that “Persian painting has been well studied by Western art historians, but there are relatively few histories written by Persian authors. Qadi Ahmad ibn Mir-Munshi’s Calligraphers and Painters, a late-sixteenth century chronicle, is an early and important example”. Elkins sums up the discussion by mentioning “the Visnudharmottara Purana, a manual written in India in the sixth or seventh century C.E. It gives instructions for making painting and sculpture”.


It is rather eye-opening to read about this book written in sixth or seventh century by Priyabala Shah, and James Elkins’ research and position towards a multiple voice of art history, but since the publication of this important book Stories of Art, in 2002, today art historians, critics and academics from non-Western world are transcribing their histories in by themselves, so as the world of art is not a not a uniform entity, so is the word of art not a singular discourse.


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