Book Review: “50 Art Movements You Should Know” Covers 170 Years In 139 Pages

Book Review: “50 Art Movements You Should Know” Covers 170 Years In 139 Pages

Everyone says “humbling” these days when they actually mean “flattering.” If you want to genuinely talk about “humbling,” think about how, say, Theo van Doesburg might feel if he’d lived to see Rosalind Ormiston’s 50 Art Movements You Should Know.

Sure, van Doesburg was a leading light of Concrete Art — but in the grand sweep of history, the average palooka now needs notes and a field guide to tell the difference between that movement and Geometric Abstraction or Color Field Painting. At least they all get capitalized.

Ormiston’s 2014 book, just reissued in a new paperback edition, is part of a Prestel series that also includes 50 Photographers You Should Know50 Designers You Should Know50 Paintings You Should Know; and so forth. It’s an appealing trope for readers who may be a little too intimidated by 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. 50 art movements? I don’t know ’em, but I can fake it if you hum a few bars.

The challenge for Ormiston is to distill 50 full-fledged (or at least semi-fledged) art movements with just one or, at most, two illustrations each. That puts a lot of burden on her brief explanatory text, which runs to only a few longish paragraphs per movement and is only about as engaging as the typical gallery label. A 1918 Marcel Janco poster is just going to have to do it for all of Dadaism.

Attractively bound and designed, 50 Art Movements is fun to flip through for the art aficionado who wants a little more context for the concept of Cubism or the aggressive offerings of the not-so-Young-anymore British Artists. It doesn’t claim to be an encyclopedia, and it can be helpful for students looking to brush up on Pop Art (or whatever).

Just don’t let it get into the hands of anyone who might start the next art movement worth knowing. By the time they get to the New Leipzig School, they might throw up their brushes in futility. Is there room in the world for a New Neo-Expressionism movement, or a Highbrow Lowbrow?

Jay Gabler