Global perspective

<strong>Mirror of the World: a New History of Art</strong>

Julian Bell <em>Thames & Hudson, 496pp

Is anything at once as heroic and hubristic as attempting to write a comprehensive history of world art? Surely it's impossible, especially in our fractured age. Since 1950, when Ernst Gombrich published his classic The Story of Art (now in its 16th edition), noticeably few writers have tackled such a daunting project.

But Julian Bell, a painter with an impeccable art pedigree (his grandmother was the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell), is one. Mirror of the World ambitiously attempts a grand art-historical narrative covering everything from prehistory's first fumblings towards figuration to the most sophisticated abstract works of the present day.

Reading it is an overwhelming, but ultimately rewarding, experience. The book is structured around some 350 images selected by Bell to illustrate what he calls the "necessary vocabulary" of art history. All of them are reproduced, most of them in colour. He then proceeds to join the dots, analysing each picture with the kind of technical insider knowledge that only an artist would have at his fingertips.

Some sections are patchier than others. Bell is least comfortable in the early stages of the book devoted to prehistoric art. Too often he resorts to broad-brush statements and abstract rhetoric. The stop-start approach, cherry-picking objects made in unrelated cultures, can feel frustrating. And some of the analysis is unhelpful, as when discussing a stone ball notched with intricate whorls, carved in Scotland around 3200BC: "What on earth was the stone ball's function? Your guess could well be as good as mine."

By the time he hits ancient Egypt and Greece, Bell is on surer ground, though the narrative he spins is somewhat stale: illustrating the transition from archaic to classical Greece by comparing the Metropolitan Museum of Art's stiff-looking kouros made around 590BC with the sensuously modelled Kritios Boy carved a century later is hackneyed stuff. I was particularly irritated by the footnote supposedly explaining the name of the latter sculpture: "The nickname, as sometimes happens in art scholarship, comes from a complicated chain of reasoning that now seems obsolete." What's the point of telling us that?

But fast forward several centuries and Bell warms up, injecting even the most tired and over-familiar passages of art history with energy and wit. A painter himself, Bell is clearly biased towards what he calls "the modern format of the detachable picture . . . that happens to be the format around which this book is based". His discussions of paintings produce some of his keenest and most beautiful phrases; one memorable example is his description of Frans Hals's handling of oils as "an undisguised stab-and-slither".

One of the book's more intriguing aspects is the way in which ideas, motifs and themes link far-flung chapters like wormholes running counter to the narrative's relentless chronological flow. For instance, Bell connects the frozen howl of the central figure of the antique marble sculpture Laocoön and his Sons to the terrifying grimace in Edvard Munch's iconic 1893 painting The Scream and Francis Bacon's tortured popes.

Similarly, he connects the Botticelli-inspired damsels floating down a staircase in Edward Burne-Jones's The Golden Stairs (1876-80) with Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No 2 from 1912 and the glamorous fashionista in Gerhard Richter's Woman Descending the Staircase (1965). Even if the latter artists weren't consciously influenced by the former, making arresting visual connections between different periods is surely what a history of world art should do.

Mirror of the World is not a book to turn to for in-depth understanding of any one artist or period - Bell admits as much in his preface - but it does work as a stylish and often surprising overview. The effect of reading it all the way through is perhaps best summed up by a passage from Albrecht Dürer's travel diary, quoted by Bell, in which the German artist records visiting Brussels in 1520 and marvelling at the glistering plunder that Spanish troops had shipped back from the new world of Mexico to Europe: "I have seen the things brought to the king from the new golden land . . . In all my life I have seen nothing which gladdened my heart so much. For I have seen among them wonders of art and have marvelled at the subtle inventiveness of people in foreign lands. Indeed, I cannot express all that they made me think." That's pretty much how I felt by the time I reached the last page.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?