Culture catechism

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There was a first … and a second. And now, Sister Wendy Beckett has found reason enough to author an expanded and enhanced edition of her art history book: The Story Of Painting. This time, 200 artworks are printed in full color; small-scale reproductions and full double-page spreads also appear frequently. The book offers 736 pages of visual and written narration, detailing the developments and movements in the history of painting during the past 800 years.

Since her reign as host of BBC’s fall miniseries “The Story of Painting,” the art nun has garnered an occult following of folks who affectionately hold her as equal parts droll connoisseur and kitsch icon. With fervor, the sister appreciates painting as a tactile link to the near-beginning of human existence. She nurtures each work as if it were the absolute offspring of the artist and his or her environment. But following a fantastic umbrella overview of Renaissance art that continues to excel through impressionism, The Story of Painting suddenly quickens the pace. Readers are shuffled through crucial art movements of the 20th century: rapidly past a few paragraphs on German art — good God, right at the outbreak of expressionism! There’s one page on minimalism, another single page on Pop Art and then the book concludes with a work by Joan Mitchell from 1990.

It’s to be expected that extremely enlarged full-page reproductions of images could become blurred. Still, in a book about painting, it seems a sin to forsake (even if it’s only on occasion) the hint of a texture and replace it with the ghastly sight of squared pixels from a computer-generated image. But Sister Beckett wouldn’t pull so close unless she had a reason. This is why the book fares well; the author begins by faithfully presenting dense historical context in a clear and concise manner. And her educated explanations and follow-up commentary are both reason enough for the nun’s popularity. Sister Beckett remarks on painterly style with the ardency of her own insightful interpretations. Here’s an example: “… Raphael is out of favour today; … too faultless for our slipshod age.” Beckett’s characteristic enthusiasm isn’t forceful or imposing; it is encouraging to audiences who are put off by the academic language of many elite art historians. And knowledgeable art lovers also will enjoy the entertaining read on the story of painting.

Rebecca Mazzei writes about music and the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail rmazzei@metrotimes.com.

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