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Interview: Lee Cheshire on 'Key Moments in Art'

Posted on 31 Jul 2019

We sat down with Lee Cheshire, author of 'Key Moments in Art' to find out what makes good accessible art writing.

Image: Michelangelo: David (replica in Piazza della Signoria)

How did a twenty-six year old Michelangelo create the iconic David statue?  Who were the first supporters to propel Frida Kahlo into international stardom? Caravaggio was accused of killing whom?All of these answers and more can be found in Key Moments in Art, wherein author Lee Cheshire describes fifty moments that changed the course of Western art history forever.
“As an introductory book,” says Cheshire, “I wanted to give readers a good overview of the ‘big names’ of art history – artists they will be familiar with, see in museums and those who have had large influences on other artists and the way we see art history today. But I’ve also tried to show them in a different light, to show them as real, often flawed, people shaped by their historical or social contexts, or even just buffeted by the random events that shape all our lives.”

Beginning with Renaissance and continuing all the way to the present day, Cheshire has risen to the challenge of educating readers without making Key Moments in Art feel like a textbook. As a Senior Editor and Copywriter at Tate, though, Cheshire has ample experience in making art accessible to all sorts of audiences, and finds that “good art writing is like any other form of (non-fiction) writing.” Because it relies on “clear thinking,” he says, “if you aren’t clear what you are trying to say – or are trying to bluff that you know more than you do – then it will result in a muddied piece of writing. Often I find that the better a piece of writing is made the more it has been thought through, then it works better for both casual and expert readers. People in the art world don’t enjoy reading meaningless tracts of ‘art speak’ any more than a first timer does. But on the other hand, ‘dumbing down’ insults your readers’ intelligence. It’s about expressing complex ideas with confidence and precision.”

Image: Hubert Robert: Projet d'aménagement de la Grande Galerie du Louvre

One of the ways that Cheshire expresses these ideas is by treating each key moment into its own “vivid, amusing, [or] unusual” story, in the hopes that those unfamiliar with art history might better “understand and remember an artists’ work.”
“Another advantage,” Cheshire finds, “is that by focusing on events as they unfold, you can restore the sense of excitement and discovery. The events of the past weren’t inevitable – the masterpieces that everyone knows today could never have been made, or they could have languished in obscurity.”

Although he knows that some of these more sensational or gossipy stories don’t work in every kind of art writing, one of the reasons Cheshire doesn’t shy from these layers is that he finds “it difficult to imagine,” for example, “how to talk about Caravaggio without considering he spent a large part of his working life on the run for murder! How could that not have an effect on what you see on the canvas?”

Image: Jacques-Louis David: Death of Marat

Another such scandalous event the book covers is the theft of the Mona Lisa. It’s a story Cheshire has known since childhood, and he knows that it might be easy to “dismiss it as an irrelevant crime story.” However, “then you find out that Pablo Picasso was one of the first suspects. Picasso had ancient Iberian statues in his sock drawer that his friend, Guillaume Apollinaire, had helped steal from the Louvre. Subsequently, he used those as an inspiration for his ground-breaking painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In this story alone, you have the birth of modern art and abstraction and the interpersonal relationships of the French avant-garde. It deals with issues which are still crucial today, such as who owns art (the thief wanted to give the Mona Lisa back to Italy) or the cultural appropriation of Picasso’s ‘primitivism’. As you can see, this one little story has lots of threads you can follow.” It’s those many interweaving threads that make Key Moments in Art perfect for a nuanced look into art’s most transformative moments, no matter which thefts, icons, or artists readers latch on to.

Words by Danielle Benedetti.