Is Is it a book? Is it a brick? Is it a last stand against the Internet? Weighing about the same as one of those stone bricks from which the British Museum is built, Phaidon’s immense, inspired, important, and slightly insane ‘Art Museum’ is a museum-made-flesh as well as the latest attempt by a publisher to take on the Net and say: hey, googlers, paper and the printed word still work, especially when it comes to ogling fine art.
The result of ten years of collaboration between more than a hundred art experts, and containing no less than 992 pages featuring 2700 beautifully detailed photographs, the 42cm x 38cm book weighs in at seven kilograms (it feels like more when you’re on the Tube). The stats impress but also mean ‘The Art Museum’ is definitely more of a coffee table than a lap experience, and taking it to bed could be fatal. Starting from cave paintings in Patagonia and Egyptian tombs then zooming to early Chinese pottery and Amerindian masks, before making the long hike through the galleries of Medieval, Renaissance and Modern art, the megabook aims to present a balanced view of nothing less than civilisation.
Extensive captions inform and educate far more than those you find at galleries and short essays provide potted histories and some context. But it’s the art that blows you away: at this size, Bruegel’s cunning eye for detail, Vermeer’s originality, Cezanne’s sensuous brushwork and Mondrian’s boldness are all fully on display, as indeed is the ordinariness of the likes of Damien Hirst, included as an example of ‘art as business’. A browse through the book feels slightly wrong; this tome deserves time and effort.
Books editor Chris Moss, who chooses an Eye-candy almost every week for his section, says ‘this one could provide us with enough eye-candy to goo up readers’ retinas for a century; it’s a startling book and for me rivals the Google-powered online Art Project or other virtual showcases’.