The cover of The (True!) History of Art tells you virtually everything you need to know about what you will find inside: a triptych of images, only one of which – the image on the far right – you will possibly recognise. On the cover, the (true!) image is Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The two images that precede it show a Munch-like figure sporting a Warhol wig. A strong gust of wind removes the wig. Hence the Scream. Hilarious, non?
In some ways, then, the book is easy to dismiss as a series of jokes about great works of art. Hilarious, you think as you start to flick through. A few pages in you start to wonder why someone would go to so much effort – creating jokes around famous works of art in the style of that particular work of art feels like a lot of effort for the sake of a joke. And then you start to chuckle.
Honestly, you do. It happened to me. It happened to my wife. It happened to my daughter. Each of us in turn went through exactly the same little change curve: cynicism, incredulity, begrudging acceptance, laughter. Perhaps the best thing about this journey was that it was a different joke for all of us, a different take on a famous work of art that set us chuckling.
For me, it was Edgar Degas’ Absinthe, which shows a woman having a belting time, shouting and carrying on in a bar, a great many empty bottles littering the tables round and about. A check is presented and then we see the Degas original: a glum looking woman at an empty table in her cups. For my wife it was Paul Delaroche’s Napoleon 1 at Fontainebleau on 31st March 1814 – Napoleon is watching the footie, waving his hat in the air, until his team loses; and then he is as glum as our Absinthe-soaking friend. For my daughter it was the running joke involving Guiseppe Arcimboldo, an artist, if you are unfamiliar with his work, given to constructing faces from the likes of fish, wood, fruit and birds.
For such a slim volume, The (True!) History of Art is quite snaggy: make your way from one side to the other and you’ll find yourself going back, wanting a closer look or another look at something to make sure you took it all in first time. It’s clever, of course, wry, amusing, risible, a terrific waste of some very talented people’s time but for all that one of the funniest books we’ve seen in 2013.
Any Cop?: As Christmas is on the horizon, you could do a lot worse than pick up this as a sweet stocking filler for the arty type in your life.