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Paperback Originals

Low-Cost High Culture

January 11, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Idiscovered the World of Art series from Thames & Hudson when a single stray title--Julian Rushton's Classical Music: A Concise History From Gluck to Beethoven--crossed my desk. Rushton's exceptionally readable survey offers an introduction not only to the music of the mid-18th- to early 19th Century, but also its social, cultural, economic and even legal context. Rushton explains, for instance, that the musicians of the classical era, like the self-promoting musical celebrities of our own times, "made themselves entrepreneurs as well as composers and performers" in an effort to trade in the "middle class market for music." Rushton observes that "Mozart, in his piano quartets and quintets, tried to carve out a market for himself and failed"--because his music was too difficult for the amateur musicians of the aristocracy who were his customers. Among Beethoven's accomplishments was the vindication of "a composer's right not only to sell his work but to be an independent, creative spirit." And the autonomy that Beethoven achieved derives in part from the legacy of J. C. Bach, who helped to establish a composer's copyright in his own work by suing a London music publisher in a landmark 1777 copyright case.

My further inquiries revealed that "Classical Music" is only the newest title in a series that was first published more than 30 years ago and has been refurbished and reprised by Thames & Hudson. The World of Art library now includes more than 80 titles on art, architecture and art history, an eclectic selection of surveys, studies and profiles ranging from "Art of the Byzantine Era" by David Talbot Rice to "Movements in Art Since 1985" by Edward Lucie-Smith, from Timothy Hilton's "The Pre-Raphaelites" to Christian F. Feest's "Native Arts of North America." Each volume is priced at $9.95, and each is handsomely designed, abundantly illustrated, elegantly printed and sturdily bound.

The series is encyclopedic in scope but not at the expense of detailed and focused scholarship. Thus, for instance, we are offered Kenneth Frampton's distinguished survey, "Modern Architecture: A Concise History," but we can also choose Frank Whitford's highly specialized study, "Bauhaus." More than a dozen titles deal broadly with art of the ancient world, such as David Talbot Rice's "Art of the Byzantine Era" and Mortimer Wheeler's "Roman Art and Architecture," but John Boardman offers a single volume on "Athenian Black Figure Vases" and a separate volume on "Athenian Red Figure Vases." Art movements and major artists are treated in specialized studies: Germain Bazin's "Baroque and Rococo," Phoebe Pool's "Impressionism" and William Vaughan's "Romantic Art," for example, as well as Edward F. Fry's "Cubism," Hans Richter's "Dada," Caroline Tisdall's and Angelo Bozollo's "Futurism" and Patrick Waldberg's "Surrealism." And the series includes one-volume studies of influential artists ranging from Blake and Bosch to Turner and Van Gogh.

While the World of Art series is understandably preoccupied with Western art and artists, an earnest effort has been made to reach beyond the familiar paths. Thus we have May Ellen Miller's "The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec," Philip Rawson's "The Art of Tantra," Frank Willett's "African Art" and David Talbot Rice's "Islamic Art." With Rushton's "Classical Music," the series now includes a half-dozen titles on less-often-treated aspects of the art world, including John Barnicoat's "A Concise History of Posters," Edward Lucie-Smith's "Furniture," James Laver's "Costume and Fashion" and Phyllis Hartnoll's "The Theatre."

With their black spines and elegant four-color cover illustrations--and a fetching but dignified dolphin that serves as the publisher's logotype--the graphic presentation of the World of Art series is self-consciously derivative of the distinguished Penguin Classics. But, as it turns out, the World of Art is a wholly worthy and appealing library that nicely complements the Penguin series: What Penguin has done for world literature, Thames & Hudson has done for the visual arts. As a result, the handsome illustrated catalogue of the "World of Art" is the Brookstone of the arts--it is almost a reference work in itself, and it is very much a wish book of scholarship and inspiration. The World of Art catalogue is available by mail from Thames & Hudson, 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110, and each of the titles in the series may be ordered by mail at $9.95 per volume, plus $1 per volume for postage and handling.

DR

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