Read It: Art That Changed the World

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Informative new book on history of art movements makes a loaded subject an easy and enjoyable read.

There is more than one way to appreciate the art of Henri Matisse. For many people, the vivid color palette of his Fauvist paintings is more than enough to focus on. Others enjoy the colors, but choose to dig deeper into his work, asking themselves how he chose the colors, what personal experience led him to paint the picture, and how he found it so easy to break the established rules of painting up to that point. For those more inquisitive art aficionados, the new book Art That Changed the World (DK Publishing, 2013), is a must read.

Organized as a chronological encyclopedia of art movements starting with prehistoric art and wrapping up with contemporary phases of abstract and figurative work, there’s a narrative flow throughout the book that makes it unique among those focused on art history. While a reader can always utilize the handy index to find immediate information on an artist or specific movement, the real benefit of this book is its ability to illustrate how one movement influences the next, how artists often reach back into history to change the direction of the present, and how singular works can wield the power to literally change the world. For this reason, I recommend reading it as a conventional book. Although it’s 400 pages, the breakout boxes, timelines, large color photos, and masterwork profiles make it a quick and enjoyable read from start to finish.

Still Life with Vegetables (circa 1905), Henri Matisse, oil on canvas; Jaques and Natasha Gelman Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Photo by Christian Williams). 

What stuck with me after reading this book was how well it handles those truly revolutionary artists that influenced multiple art movements. Discussion of multi-dimensional artists like Matisse isn’t limited to the chapter on Fauvism; instead, the whole breadth of his work is taken into account and appropriately mentioned in all of the various forms of early modern art that he helped shape (and continues to shape). Even someone who thinks that they have a pretty good handle on their favorite artists will undoubtedly learn something new about those artists thanks to the book’s presentation.

Look for Art that Changed the World in your local art museum book store or on Amazon. And while it looks great on a coffee table, the book is also available as an eBook for those looking to save a little shelf space. 

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at, and follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  

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