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Art as Existence: The Artist's Monograph and Its Project.

Gabriele Guercio. Art as Existence: The Artist's Monograph and Its Project.

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006. xiv + 378 pp. index. illus. $50. ISBN: 0-262-07268-8.

The monograph has become synonymous with the study of an artist's life and his or her oeuvre. Significantly, for much of the twentieth century a monographic study was considered an appropriate model for the dissertation. With the greater focus on historical approaches to art and the advent of critical methodologies adapted from other disciplines, the monograph came to be associated most closely with museum-based scholarship. Indeed, one might now say that the monograph exemplifies the division within the discipline of art history between object-based research and studies of visual culture. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a study of the monograph becomes a study of the history of our discipline.

Gabriele Guercio explores this history in Art as Existence: The Artist's Monograph and its Project. In seven chapters, Guercio treats the artist's monograph from Giorgio Vasari's The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects of the sixteenth century to Mary Garrard's Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art of 1989 and Michael Fried's Courbet's Realism of 1990. An eighth chapter, "Reconsidering the Project," aims to "look beyond the monograph proper" to identify other directions or models artists and scholars have created for an explication of the artist's life-and-work: this chapter also suggests a future for the monograph.

The reader is introduced to "art as existence" in a poetic first paragraph in the introduction, where Guercio writes, "Whenever we look at an artwork and try to envision the dimensions of life embedded in its images and forms; whenever we think of an artist as a concrete individual as well as a presence in his or her work; whenever we conceive of artistic phenomena as manifesting living qualities and unfolding a sense of humanity, singularity, and identity in the making, we enter into a moment of consciousness in which and for which art is revealed vis-a-vis existence. We activate, even if unwittingly, the kinds of intelligibility and imagination intrinsic to one of the oldest models in the Western literature of the visual arts: the narrative of the artist's life and works" (2). Clearly, the writing of a monograph is a noble endeavor: indeed, Guercio states that the monograph "interprets what it is to be human relative to artistic creation" (3). From this perspective, the monograph is not only noble but necessary. While some art historians may view the monograph as obsolete, there are many reasons to work with this genre today. Guercio's primary research supports his thesis that a scholarly passion for art--without a thorough knowledge of the life of the artist--can only offer a cursory understanding of an artist's oeuvre. Our appreciation of the lives of artists is based, as Guercio relates, on the work of artists, connoisseurs, art historians, and critics of earlier centuries and of our own time.

It would be unreasonable to expect that all monographs be analyzed here; some are left out or dealt with only briefly. For example, Charles De Tolnay's five-volume work on Michelangelo published by Princeton between 1943 and 1960 is described as "the first complete assessment of Michelangelo's oeuvre" (240). It is surprising that such a remarkable undertaking receives so brief a treatment. And there is no mention of Robert Liebert's Michelangelo: A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life and Times, published by Yale in 1983. In many respects, Tolnay and Liebert offer alternatives to what the twentieth century came to define as a monograph. Tolnay's close reading of Michelangelo's drawings in relation to his completed works, combined with a grand study of philosophy is a model of micro- and macro-art history. And, as the product of nearly a professional lifetime, it should give us pause in a publish-or-perish academic environment. Liebert, a psychoanalyst and not an art historian, shows us that artists' lives and works are fruitfully examined by the non-artist and non-art historian. For an analysis of the monograph, however, the twentieth century is problematic not only because there were so many monographs written on major and minor artists, but because the model became, quite literally, a master with little apparent tolerance for variation. The twentieth-century monograph codified the canon, and established and upheld distinctions between major and minor. Once feminist art historians began to question the notion of artistic greatness and genius enforced by this model, the future of the monograph and the role of such an undertaking came into question. Guercio's work reminds us that the artist's monograph remains a core reference work for art historians and scholars in other disciplines whose research involves images and their creators. He also offers a history of art in the West based on scholars' accounts of artists: what is privileged and when, what issues are taken up, when do we study the master and when do we consider the pupil. This is an important book to read if one is contemplating writing a monograph, reviewing the discipline's history, or teaching the history of art.

Regretfully, there is no bibliography, although the footnotes are a rich resource. A number of the illustrations are of title pages, the earliest from Vasari's Le vite de'pia eccelenti pittori, scultori, e architettori published in Florence in 1568, the most recent being Bernard Berenson's Lorenzo Lotto: An Essay in Constructive Art Criticism published in London in 1895. The illustrations are interesting as artifacts: a discussion of these as objects with a history would be valuable and would also put into practice what is implied in Guercio's text, and that is that the subject of the monograph shares something with the history of our discipline.


University of Mary Washington
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Author:Och, Marjorie
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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