Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Master Pieces: The Curator's Game

Master Pieces: The Curator's Game
Thomas Hoving

I'll be honest: there's not much to this book, and it's only tangentially related to museums. It was a quick read, and for a non-art person it was amusing but not overly compelling.

The basic idea is that the first half of the book consists of detailed close-ups of various paintings in the history of Western art. Each close-up comes with a one or two sentence clue about its origins. Hoving calls this his version of the "curator's game" as they played it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: trying to identify a painting or an artist by the tiniest sliver of the whole. (Incidentally, Malcom Gladwell mentions this game in his book Blink, calling it an example of "thin slicing" or how the human brain can make astonishing connections by being exposed to only the tip of the iceberg of something.)

Each painting is then reproduced at the end of the book with a short essay from Hoving's point of view about its place in art history. Once again, we are reminded that Hoving brought Velazquez's Juan de Pareja to the Met; the re-re-re-telling of that story takes up half of the essay about the Velazquez that's actually featured in the book. The essay about Uccello's painting is really mostly about how Hoving tried to assemble an exhibition of the tripartite work and everyone scoffed at him, but it would still be a great idea.

I did like the way it set about training my eye and getting me to really look at certain details in paintings. In that way, it was something of a book version of a good museum education program in front of a painting: notice the drapery through the wine glass, notice the orange hues of the window casement, notice the bunching of muscles on this nude.

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