By Will Gompertz (2012)

Pages: 395, Final verdict: Great-read

Could your 5-year old really have painted that work you've seen at the modern art museum? Will Gompertz answers this and other questions in What Are You Looking At by reviewing the most important art movements of the last 150 years.

Gompertz, previous director at the London Tate Modern and current responsible for art programming at the BBC, does a great job at explaining the different currents in modern art, while keeping the reader interested. Contrary to Gompertz, I am by far not an expert in modern art, my background is engineering. In fact, reading this book was my attempt at getting introduced to modern art, and it served that purpose very well.

Impressionism, Cubism and other -isms.

Our story starts in Paris, in the second half of the 19th century. A group of avant-garde painters decides to break with tradition and start a new way of painting: going outside to paint real life situations in quick brushstrokes. The impressionists become the first modernists.

Manet, Renoir, Monet and Cezanne are among the most prominent artists of the impressionist movement, a group brought together by their disgust for the previous way of painting and the constant refusals by the Paris academy of arts to exhibit their work. Their objective was to represent a new society, transformed by the industrial revolution: a modern world.

As such, we continue the journey by learning about Post-Impressionism - Van Gogh and his suicide, Cubism - how the painters Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso pushed each other to new highs in the first decade of the 20th century, Russian Constructivism - one of the first abstract art styles which served as base for the design style of the USSR, or Surrealism - popularized by Salvador Dalí, and still today very present, from plastic arts to Hollywood.

Will Gompertz leads the book through the lives of artists, recounting dinner parties and discussions they might have had. Fictious or not, this style is a great way to keep the reader entertained, as well as educated.

One of most relevant events happened when Marcel Duchamp proposed nothing less than a white urinol for an art exhibition in 1917. In a time when plastic art was mostly about masterly crafted paintings and sculptures, Duchamp's "Fountain" brought a new (and outrageous) perspective to what could be considered art.

The avant-garde moves to America

As World War II tore Europe apart, many artists moved to America, and it was in New York that most of the post-WW2 art advancements occurred. Abstract Expressionism was the first of such movements, with Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock as its most famous exponents.

An important character in the promotion of Abstract Expressionism was the millionaire Peggy Gugenheim, who promoted the up-and-coming artists, including Pollock, through her New York gallery. In fact, along the development of modern art, an interesting role has been played by art patrons. When society dismissed breakthrough art movements, it was many times wealthy visionary individuals who provided the new artists with the resources to bring art forward.

As with previous movements, Abstract Expressionism eventually became uninteresting for the newer generation - they wanted to represent a society in great change, the consumer society. These were the Pop Artists, now ubiquitously recognized through the work of Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein. Like their predecessors, they also brought new ways of representation to art through their use of brands and advertising techniques, questioning the consumerism of 1950s America.

We learn about the movements that followed: Conceptual Art, Minimalism, happenings and performative art, Post-Modernism, and up to the period between 1988 and 2008, which Gompertz calls "Entrepreneurialism": the making of world famous, godly rich artists such as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.

Bottom line

What Are You Looking At is a great book. I was even considering suggesting it as a should-read book for everyone, as learning about art is learning about living in society - something of value for all of us. But, maybe 400 pages is a difficult start for someone who would otherwise not be very interested in the topic.

Nonetheless, I missed a finale to the book. I was expecting a wrap-up by Will Gompertz, an analysis of what had happened before, and what all those art movements had in common. Unfortunately, the book closes with the analysis of the most contemporary art movements, but no looking-back wholesome reflection.

I am very happy I took the time to go through What Are You Looking At. In 400 pages there's much more to be told than what I can describe in this short review. Going through the art movements of the last 150 years was a great way to better understand the evolution of society through culture changes, technological revolutions, and how it all came together in beautiful and thought-provoking art works.

Further learning: