LIANE HANSEN, host:
Imagine if you could put 30,000 years of art on your coffee table. Well, thanks to Phaidon publishers, you can.
Their new book tells the story of human creativity around the world, from 28,000 B.C. to the present. It weighs 13 pounds and features 1,000 pieces of art.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: Amanda Renshaw is the editorial director for "30,000 Years of Art." Here's an essay in which he describes a striking example of Saharan rock art in Niger that dates back to 4,000 B.C.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. AMANDA RENSHAW (Editorial Director, "30,000 Years of Art"): The Sahara Desert isn't the first place you might expect to find giraffes. But if you're in the Niger and you head towards the Air Mountains, and then go west to one particular rocky outcrop, this is exactly what you will find.
Engraved on a gently sloping rock face known as the Dabous rock, there are hundreds of them. These graceful animals are around 20 feet tall and must have taken a certain amount of skill to make; however, we know very, very little about who made them. We can only guess that this specific site was chosen because of the way the rock slopes, so that at certain times of the day, when the sun is low in the sky, dramatic shadows form on the red sandstone, displaying the mighty figures to their best advantage.
HANSEN: Unlike the typical art book organized by stylistic themes or epochs, "30,000 Years of Art" is in strict chronological order. But open the book anywhere and you'll see a work of art on the left page and one on the right. Although the works were created at the same time, they came from different places and different cultures. For example, early in the book, on the left page, there's a sculpture of a man with a lion's head, dating from 28,000 B.C. in what is now Germany. On the right, there's a stone figure of a woman found in Austria dated 25,000 B.C.
Ms. RENSHAW: The lion man is interesting. It was very difficult to find a figure of a man that existed - a human man with a human head. There are many figures from that period of women but very few of men. And I think that this hybrid man-lion is very interesting in that how did we perceive ourselves all those millennia ago. It's interesting that women are very, very lifelike in sculptures - are very, very lifelike - and the men aren't. So there's something there about power, about, perhaps, domination of man - I would imagine - and a hunter - man the hunter. And that's how the book starts, with a typical image of how man may have been perceived, and woman.
HANSEN: Talk about some of the more surprising entries. On page 792, there's a wine cup that was made for the shah who built the Taj Mahal. But on the opposite page is this famous painting by Velazquez, "Las Meninas." That must have surprised you.
Ms. RENSHAW: Yes, I love that spread. It's great. I think it's a fantastic spread and it really encapsulates what the book is about. About 350 years ago, an artist, yes, called Diego Velazquez, was painting a family portrait for the king, King Philip II of Spain. And this painting was called "Las Meninas." And it's considered one of the masterpieces of Western art.
It's an enormous canvass. It measures about 10 feet high by, I think, 9 feet wide. And it shows Philip II of Spain's blond-haired daughter, the Infanta Margarita, who's at the center of the composition. And she's in this beautiful white dress with a blue and red trim, and she's surrounded by her attendants and mains all fussing over her.
And reflected in the mirror on the far wall at the back of the painting are Infanta Margarita's parents, the king and queen. And in addition to all these members of the royal family and different attendants, on the left-hand side of the picture, there is somebody standing very proud, holding a paintbrush in one hand and a palette in the other. And this is Velazquez - Velazquez himself. He included himself in this royal family portrait. And I think it was a very, very conscious decision that he made to emphasize his importance within the royal family and his social standing, and the importance of the status of the artist in 17th century Spain.
Now, on that opposite page, where you have this beautiful, delicate wine cup. While Velazquez was being fated as a great and important painter in Spain, four and a half thousand miles away in India, a man whose name we will probably never know was crouched on the floor of a workshop in India and with, also, incredible skill and dexterity, he carved an exquisitely delicate cup which is small enough to hold comfortably in the palm of your hands - the size is very different and status of the art is very different. It's made of very precious white jade. It has a goat's head for a handle and a stand that's similar of a shape of a lotus flower. It's translucent. It's a beautiful vessel. And it was also destined for one of the world's most powerful leaders of the time. And you said, this was the man who created - the Shah Jahan was the man who created the Taj Mahal.
So there are two extremely different things that were made at the same time, both for very, very important rulers.
HANSEN: To just look at the intricacy of detail in each one of these different pieces of art - I mean, the detail on this very small piece of jade is as intricate as the detail in Velazquez' masterpiece.
Ms. RENSHAW: Absolutely. And I think that you only know that by seeing them together because normally you would never ever consider them in the same book, let alone the same pair of pages opposite each other.
HANSEN: Moving to the 19th century now, and the very famous painting by Edvard Munch, "The Scream" where, you know, you have the - that elongated head with the two hands up against in the open mouth. This one is juxtaposed with a mask from Equatorial Guinea. And the one thing that I can find in common is that they both have elongated faces.
Ms. RENSHAW: Yes. Well, there was period in Western art when a lot of artists, expressionists - and Munch was one of the first expressionists. And also Picasso did the same thing. They were very interested in looking at African sculpture, and art historians have often described how that Munch comes from the pain and the angst that is also - can be found in African masks. And we were very lucky that when we made the chronological mix that these two actually fell on the same spread so that they are opposite each other when you open the book.
So the subject matter is in a way very similar but of course the painting is very expressionistic, the brush strokes are very rough and wild and the color is extreme. And the Equatorial Guinea mask is extremely minimal and calm. So two things that actually, physically look very, very similar but again they're treated in very, very different ways.
HANSEN: Amanda Renshaw, editorial director of the book "30,000 Years of Art" published by Phaidon.
We end with her essay about a tiny Middle Eastern sculpture dating back from 2,500 B.C.
Ms. RENSHAW: (Reading) With the head of a lioness and the muscular body of an Amazonian woman, this tiny, hard limestone sculpture is small enough to fit comfortably in your hand. At around three and a quarter inches tall, its size does nothing to reduce its power and physical presence. This sculpture was found at an archeological site near Baghdad in Iraq. It seems that she was created by the Proto-Elamite culture who lived in what was then Mesopotamia and is now Iran. This hybrid of human and feline features rears up on her hind legs.
She stands with her front paws clenched together over her muscular torso, her head turned in profile, gazing impassively over her heavy left shoulder. This pose, and the holes drilled into the back of her head, suggest that she was designed to be worn around the neck, perhaps as a charm to ward off evil spirits. For some 60 years the Lioness has been on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, however late in 2007 she was offered for sale at auction and sold for $57 million, making her the most expensive sculpture sold at auction -fitting for a piece described by one art historian as the finest sculpture on Earth.
HANSEN: You can see images from "30,000 Years of Art" and hear more essays from Amanda Renshaw at our Web site npr.org.