From prehistoric Mexico to modern Istanbul, Mary Beard looks beyond the familiar canon of Western imagery to explore the history of art, religion, and humanity.
Conceived as a gorgeously illustrated accompaniment to “How Do We Look” and “The Eye of Faith,” the famed Civilisations shows on PBS, renowned classicist Mary Beard has created this elegant volume on how we have looked at art. Focusing in Part I on the Olmec heads of early Mesoamerica, the colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the nudes of classical Greece, Beard explores the power, hierarchy, and gender politics of the art of the ancient world, and explains how it came to define the so-called civilized world. In Part II, Beard chronicles some of the most breathtaking religious imagery ever made—whether at Angkor Wat, Ravenna, Venice, or in the art of Jewish and Islamic calligraphers— to show how all religions, ancient and modern, have faced irreconcilable problems in trying to picture the divine. With this classic volume, Beard redefines the Western-and male-centric legacies of Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark.
Beard (Women & Power: A Manifesto) examines how people historically have interpreted art in this disjointed two-part narrative. Part one looks at depictions of the body in ancient art from around the world, including an enormous 3,000-year-old stone head that sits in a jungle in Mexico and ancient Chinese emperor Qin's tomb in China. In Greece, the sculpted, well-toned male body in statuary and painted pottery images of women performing domestic tasks convey a message about ideal living, which Beard likens to advertisements of the 1950s. Part two focuses on depictions of the divine in art as they appear in the Hindu temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia; cave art at Ajanta, India; a mosaic of Jesus at the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy; the Sancaklar Mosque in Istanbul; and elaborately illustrated Jewish Bibles that have sparked "human controversy and conflict, peril and risk." Beard's clear and often witty prose is on full display and, as usual, her book is filled with historical detail, but the two sections fail to come together. There are enough intriguing morsels to satisfy longtime fans of Beard, but the book as a whole feels underdeveloped. Illus. and photos.