Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Me, According to the History of Art
Massey University Press
Publication Date November 12
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Dick Frizzell’s new book “Me, According to the History of Art” is remarkable for several reasons. He has the audacity to write a history of world art and then he has the chutzpah to illustrate it himself. He doesn’t even write this history the way that art history is supposed to be written – there is no bibliography, no proper footnotes and his choice of artists and illustrations is more pick and mix than scholarly selection. This makes for an entertaining, clever and enlightening journey through the history of art.
What Frizzell has attempted to do is produce an art history which is entwined with his own development and learning as an artist. From early cave paintings through the great masters to the present day he tries to discover what has made him the artist he is today. That has meant trying to explain what he thinks about art and artists, how artists think about their work, the ideas behind them as well as their methods and techniques of paintings.
This is not a delicate, refined or esoteric encounter with Western Civilization. If there were rules about writing such a book Frizzell discarded them in favour of his personal whims. As he notes in the books opening sentence “Art History is shit isn’t it? Part of the problem is the way it’s projected: an arcane world of lofty scholarship filtered through a dense web of mysterious medieval masters, workshops and grandiose attribution”.
This history in many ways reads like the famous art historian E H Gombrich’s first book “A Little History if The World” which was a cultural history written in a straightforward manner directed at children as much as adults. . Frizzell uses simple language to explain complex and often confused histories and ideas around the development of Western art.
He effortlessly wades through the history of art unencumbered by the standard approach, giving some artist more of a starring role than others, Leonardo and Michelangelo get a mention, but he is often more taken with artists like Giotto and Fuseli. This individualistic approach means having to think about artists and the whole direction of Western art in different ways.
Frizzell’s journey is one of explanation musing, discovery and the occasional epiphany. The reader/ viewer will also have some these discoveries. At one point the artist comes across Joseph Wright of Derby’s work ,an artist that I have always admired but Frizzell had never encountered before. But Wright doesn’t fit within his narrative, so he is left as just a personal footnote. Then there is his visit to the Matisse Chapel in the South of France which I have always thought overrated where he says “I felt oddly flat, let down” He is quite capable of dismissing artists he thinks don’t come up to scratch..
But there are times when his excitement is palpable, when his ideas seem to coalesce with another artist as though seeing the work for the first time. There are also times when he seems to revel in artists not unlike himself such as the idea of Manet ripping off Titian with his nude “Olympia” – all very Frizzell
As he developed this project he discovered that illustrating the book was going to be tricky financially as these days one has to pay for reproduction rights and copyright. Frizzell got over this problem by painting the125 works himself. So there are copies of Piero della Francesca, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Picasso, Frank Stella and even a Colin McCahon
Some of these are brilliant forgeries, others were probably a bit daunting such as the wonderful Poussin “Assumption” and he admits that painting the tiny reflection of the artist in Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding” was too much of a stretch for even him.
The book should be a standard text for all art history students, but its irreverence will probably see it listed as a footnote.
Frizzell has also put on an exhibition of work which has grown out of the project at Gow Langsford Gallery on until November 21. The consists of eighteen paintings, mainly of Gris and Picasso along with two McCahons.