Following in Ernst Gombrich’s footsteps must be daunting, but art historian Charlotte Mullins was determined to write a “new art history” by bringing to the fore artists and movements that the renowned Austrian art historian had left out of his seminal publication The History of Art (1950). Mullins A little art history follows that little stories Format developed by Yale University Press comprising 40 short chapters beginning with “First Marks” – focusing on 33,000-year-old cave paintings such as the coal lions on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France – and ending with “Art as Resistance” , examining the influence of contemporary pioneers such as South Africa’s Zanele Muholi and the ubiquitous Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei.
Art history is an exciting field to work in because it changes so quickly
That little stories Series was born from Gombrichs A little world history, written in Vienna in 1935, says Mullins. “Gombrich was only 26 when he wrote it; He then moved to Great Britain, where he was extremely successful The History of Art was published in 1950. Gombrich stood out when I started A little art history because his books really inspired readers to look at and engage with art and the world around them,” she says.
However, many introductory books on art, such as Gombrich’s, were written decades ago, when attitudes toward art and art history differed. “Looking back, we can see that they are short-sighted in their prioritization of male Western art at the expense of non-Western art and the work of female artists,” she says. A little art history includes many of the artists Gombrich featured, from Van Dyck to Van Gogh, but it also restores female and black artists and offers new perspectives on Western art through a global overview, Mullins adds.
The author sheds light on the 17th-century Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola, the Flemish still-life painter Clara Peeters, the 18th-century Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch, and the American impressionist Mary Cassatt, who “all defied the odds, at the highest level to paint planes,” argues Mullins. Other women are also the focus. “Lee Krasner has been overshadowed by the man she tirelessly nurtured [Jackson Pollock]. Elisabetta Sirani was buried with the same honors as Bologna’s leading male painter, Guido Reni, but was later erased from the history books,” she says.
“It was quite a challenge to pack 100,000 years of art into just 40 chapters,” says Mullins. Each begins with a vignette of a specific work at the time it was created. “I wanted readers to feel the sense of competition in the ancient Greek workshops, to be part of the team that built the Terracotta Army and Chartres Cathedral, and to meet Sultan Mehmet [the Venetian artist] Experience portraits of Gentile Bellini and Sinan Bey [the US-born sculptor] Elizabeth Catlett makes linocuts in Mexico City.” Illustrator Mat Pringle has created 40 new introductory linocuts
Mullins’ analysis taps into current revisionist schools of thought that are linked to broader social and political concerns. “Art history is an exciting field to work in because it is changing so rapidly: developments in postcolonial studies, a deeper understanding of artist networks, and the rehabilitation of the careers of many unjustly neglected black artists. However, many of these issues are still discussed in isolation in books and articles, and so the challenge was to pull all of these approaches together into a cohesive and engaging narrative,” she says.
New artist networks that uncover unknown art historical narratives and countercurrents will be discussed. “One of the greatest revelation for me was the discovery of unexpected connections and networks between art communities. For example, when Albrecht Dürer visited Brussels he saw Aztec gold sculptures on display; in nearby Ghent he bought a miniature from the young artist Susanna Horenbout, who later moved to England and painted Henry VIII,” says Mullins. In another crossover, salt cellar carvings from Sierra Leone and Benin state show early Portuguese traders, as do Japanese namban screens. “Nok sculptures being made north of the Niger River in present-day Nigeria are truly incredible and, at over 2,000 years old, provide an important parallel narrative to Greek and Roman art,” says Mullins.
After sifting through millennia of art, what’s next? Mullins is working on a new history of British art (Yale University Press) that will “encompass broader narratives and themes than its predecessors. I hope it will be a catalyst for debate and a celebration of the incredible art that has been created in Britain and by British artists throughout history,” she says. The forthcoming book even includes a discussion of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), the digital art phenomenon currently dominating the art world, and concludes Mullins’ art history odyssey.
• A little art historyCharlotte Mullins, Yale University Press, 336 pages, £16.99/$25 (hb)