Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Book report: The Judgment of Paris

I don't really have room to complain. I've got a good job, wonderful family, nice house, tons of hipness.

But being this awesome does have its drawbacks.

For one thing, I don't have as much time for free reading as I used to have. That's why it has taken me two months to read the 375 pages of Ross King's The Judgment of Paris, which has been on my reading list since at least last August.

I was interested in this book for the subject matter (French art and the introduction of what became known as Impressionism), but also for the author. I had previously devoured King's Brunelleschi's Dome and was impressed with his ability to bring out the juice of history.

I wasn't disappointed in that regard with The Judgment of Paris. King has an ability to take the potentially dry dates and places of history and weave in the perspective and personality of the historical characters to make the events interesting and meaningful. In this way, for example, he connected the historical dots between the Battle of Puebla in Mexico (which gave us the Cinco de Mayo celebration) with the plight of starving French artists in 1860s Paris.
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe - Édouard Manet
The book chronicles and juxtaposes the lives of two Parsian artists through 1860s and 1870s France -- legend-in-his-own time Ernest Meissonier and legend-in-our-time Édouard Manet -- along with the social, political and cultural events of the time that produced artistic geniuses such as Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Pissaro and others.

The account stresses the interrelatedness of events, attitudes and people and the affects of all of these on the course of artistic endeavor. It's not what I would call your typical Sunday afternoon page turner. The stories take an effort by the reader to keep track of names and time lines.

But the effort is paid off in an added interest and understanding of how and why the painters listed above became known as Impressionists (a pejorative term when first coined by Parisian art critics). It also gives a view, through the lens of history, of the fleeting nature of fame and the fickle nature of cultural fashion.

It also speaks to to the universal tendency of one generation to deride the artistic heights of the previous. Just like there was a disco record burning in Caminsky Park, there were calls by some French art critics burn all of Meissonier's work. It's interesting how history repeats itself.

King expounds further in this clip from a book signing courtesy of ForaTV:

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1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I'll need to pick this one up although, "them painters from France, man theys pitchers are pretty blurry."



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