Book Review
Personal Library
By Chet Yarbrough

A Concise History of Modern Painting
By Herbert Read
1959 Edition


Herbert Read illustrates how modern art metamorphosed from Leonardo da Vinci to Jackson Pollock. He opens eyes and minds to the art of the 20th century.

Picasso is characterized as the art world’s Shakespeare because of his varied contribution to the modern era. He contributed to Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Dada, and other “…isms” of modern art.

Picasso--Ambroise-Vollard cubist painting
Picasso–Ambroise-Vollard cubist painting

Read does a terrific job of juxtaposing paintings with explanations of what is going on in the minds of artists that were wrestling with world changing events between the late 1890s and 1950s.

Paul Cezanne--Woman with a Coffee Pot
Paul Cezanne–Woman with a Coffee Pot
Matisse--Still Life with Gold Fish
Matisse–Still Life with Gold Fish

Cezanne and Matisse are shown as early movers and shakers in the creation of symbolic, impressionist art.

Read breaks into the 20th century with Matisse and Edvard Munch to show how modern art becomes an expression of inner feeling.

Edvard Munch--The Cry (also known as The Scream)
Edvard Munch–The Cry (also known as The Scream)
Joan Miro--The Tilled Field
Joan Miro–The Tilled Field

The next leap is arts’ exploration of the subconscious with Dada and Surrealist representations of subliminal reality. Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Miro, and Salvador Dali’ create paintings that often shock and awe the imagination.

Salvadore Dali--The Persistence of Memory
Salvadore Dali–The Persistence of Memory


Wassily Kandinsky--Yellow Accompaniment
Wassily Kandinsky–Yellow Accompaniment

Read suggests that Picasso, Kandinsky, and Klee are anchors of the modern art movement. His photographs of Picasso’s “Three Dancers”,Kandinsky’s “Yellow Accompaniment”, and Klee’s “Battle scene from the fantastic comic opera ‘Sinbad the Sailor’”represent the artist’s inner thoughts. Read notes that artist’ (sometimes subliminally rendered) creations  emote different feelings in different observers.

Klee--Battle Scene...Sinbad...
Klee–Battle Scene…Sinbad…
Pablo Picasso--Three Dancers
Pablo Picasso–Three Dancers


The history of modern art is not linear; i.e. Read notes a parallel movement deals with color, mathematics, geometry, and emotive colors that make relationship and construction an important part of the modern art movement. Read sites several artists like Mondrian and his “Composition with

Mondrian--Red,Blue,and Yellow
Mondrian–Red,Blue,and Yellow

Red, Blue and Yellow”, Naum Gabo with “Op.3”, and Ben Nicholson’s “Still-life (off green)” that clearly reflect architectural and emotive qualities.



The book concludes with Read’s explanation of modern art as an “Art of Internal Necessity”. With pictures of paintings from Oskar Kokoschka (Woman in Blue),


Jackson Pollock(Portrait and a Dream), and Mark Rothko (Number 10); i.e.

Mark Rothko--Number 10
Mark Rothko–Number 10



he illustrates modern arts movement toward abstract expressionism, art that is meant to stand on its own, as something that exists as “…a distinct visual image of sensuous experience”.


Jackson Pollack--Autumn River at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jackson Pollack–Autumn River at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jackson Pollack exemplifies and peaks a complete break with representational art. His efforts focus on self expression’s interaction with natural world phenomena; dripping paint onto a canvas as the canvas or paint is moved by nature and/or the artist. The painting is created inside and outside of the artist’s control. The painting becomes its own creation; i.e. an independent reality born of nature’s immutable laws of motion and the artist’s intervention. This specific technique in modern art is classified in Read’s book as “action painting”.

In reading “A Concise History of Modern Art”, there is a danger that abstract art might become a decoration rather than a painting that emotes feeling and appreciation of something greater than itself.

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