Art history by confident father, cautious son



H. W. Janson,

revised and expanded

by Anthony F. Janson.

Harry N. Abrams.

856 pages; $55. Some fathers leave the store to their children when they retire or die. Horst Woldermar Janson, a professor of fine arts at New York University who died in 1982 at the age of 69, left The Book to his son, Anthony, for periodic revisions and updating.

The father's text first was published in 1962, and he revised it in 1977. Almost every college student taking a general history of art course has been assigned this text. Two other editions, in 1986 and 1991, have borne the additions of his son, an art historian and curator.

Nothing has been taken away from the original text. What has been added are sections on architecture and photography as art, as well as more attention to female and black artists and just more color plates of art itself.

The art of the past remains the same; art history, being an interpretive pursuit, as all historical analysis, is forever undergoing re-examination. H. W. Janson held strong opinions, and his great skill in telling the story of art was to make them sound less like personal opinions than the voice of God himself.

Anthony F. Janson either doesn't have the courage and skill to continue with this tone, or perhaps he believes that such a tone no longer is possible when talking about the length and breadth of art, but a lot of his updates smack of not wanting to offend by taking a strong stand.

When the first edition was published, "mannerist" painting of the Late Renaissance was described as imitative with a tendency to highlight bizarre effect over true feeling. The younger Janson writes that "today we take a far more positive view of the artists who reached maturity [in Italy] after 1520, and generally discard the term 'Late Renaissance' as misleading, [although] we have still to agree on a name for the seventy-five years separating the High Renaissance from the Baroque."

All of that is true, but it is more the statement of a journalist reporting the news than a self-assured scholar in the field. The aim is not to say anything that will quickly be attacked as false; instead, let's be generally positive and open-minded to changed thinking. Certainly, mannerist painting and the baroque period (1600-1750) in general have been undergoing a dramatic revision in critical studies, with mannerism especially seen in terms of artists turning inward, giving vent to their subjective reactions to the world.

The namby-pamby quality of Anthony Janson's scholarship is simply the reluctance to say that work of this period is good or important. Rather, he ducks the issue by reporting which artists were most prominent in this period, what they did and how they did it. That probably won't concern the college freshmen and sophomores reading book for factual information. The changes in tone from father to son may jar the more experienced reader.

Another weakness in the new edition is the discussion of more contemporary art ideas and movements. One can forgive Anthony Janson for some problems on two accounts. The first is that histories spanning 5,000 years in 500-plus pages should not be expected to discuss inclusively any one period or give the impression that the past is a big prologue to what is happening now. The second reason is that his father wasn't terribly interested in modern art, either.

H. W. Janson was a Renaissance scholar whose specialty was the Florentine sculptor Donatello -- lovingly described in this book. Other history-of-art writers also have favorite periods: Helen Gardner and Frederick Hart were also partial to the Italian Renaissance, and Lloyd Goodrich was a devotee of European and American modernism. Even Goodrich, who published his history at about the same time as H. W. Janson, only grudgingly acknowledged abstract expressionism, color field painting and pop art because they didn't fit into his thinking.

In the new Janson edition, the inclusion of artists who became popular in the 1980s, for instance, is so scant as to seem perfunctory, and one is attempted to ask: Why bother? (The answer, unfortunately, is the need of the publishing industry to seem up to date.) The four pages in the section on "Painting in the 1980s" mentions four artists -- an Italian (Francesco Clemente), a German (Anselm Kiefer) and two women (Susan Rothenberg and Elizabeth Murray) -- and, perhaps, these quite personal choices themselves make an unstated point about how the art world has grown to include more than just American males. Postmodernism, which came to the fore in the 1980s and is not simply a movement in the arts but an entire way of looking at art of the present and the past, is not described but dismissed crotchetily as a "loose collection of tendencies" that "depriv[es] us of much of art's pleasure, purpose, and inherent worth by turning its study into a scholastic exercise." It is unfortunate that the younger Janson's only sojourn into the realm of opinion is to dismiss the very ideas to which most of his student readers are likely to be exposed through professors.

"History of Art," despite the sins of the father or the son, remains the best book of all the general histories and an excellent foundation for any subsequent study of art. No money will be wasted here.

Mr. Grant is a writer living in Amherst, Mass.

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