Saturday, 5 October 2013

The (True!) History Of Art by Sylvain Coissard and Alexis Lemoine Review

The (True!) History of Art is a book that uses the traditional three panel structure of a newspaper gag comic and incorporates some of the most famous paintings in the world to explain why they look the way they do. For example, Edvard Munch's The Scream is distraught because he lost his wig and people are going to see him bald! Or the reason why Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles is so tidy is that he cleaned up after receiving a text from his mum who's coming home unexpectedly early.

It's a simple idea but Sylvain Coissard and Alexis Lemoine do a great job of pulling it off effectively, and made me laugh several times over the course of reading it. It's by no means a long book coming in at just under 50 pages, and it's subject matter makes it more of a novelty book, but it's well produced in a nicely bound, little hardcover with high grade paper used so you're getting a quality book despite its brevity.

The strips are done with the final panel always being the actual, unaltered artwork and the preceding two panels either being an original piece of illustration or a photo-shopped image of the original to set up the punchline, kind of like Terry Gilliam's work in Monty Python. It's very skilfully done by artist Alexis Lemoine, especially as the jokes rely so much on the art stylings being consistent with the actual art to work.

Even if you don't know much about art history – and I'm one such reader – a lot of the pieces used are so famous, like The Scream or the Mona Lisa, that everyone can recognise and enjoy the subversive strips. But you don't really need to know the art to enjoy the book, each short strip is self-explanatory, and you're bound to come across an interesting piece of art you never saw before and might want to learn more about.

There's a repeated strip by a 16th century artist I'd never heard of called Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose work incorporates surreal elements into traditional portraits. So in pieces like Spring there's an ordinary woman in profile in the first panel, being hit by a massive bunch of flowers in the second, and in the final panel looks like the finished piece of a woman covered in flowers; or in Fire, an ordinary man with a cigarette is hit by a burst of fire and looks like Arcimboldo's piece of a man whose scalp is on fire. It's a silly, throwaway gag that's surprisingly funny as the book goes on, but Arcimboldo's art is so interesting it also made me want to find out more about him.

The (True!) History of Art is a short but well put together book, both physically, artistically and conceptually, and definitely worth a look for the imaginative and funny ways Coissard and Lemoine render famous art to tell new, funny stories. If you enjoy art and have a good sense of humour, pick up The (True!) History of Art for a fun little read.

The (True!) History of Art

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