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How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization

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Conceived as a gorgeously illustrated accompaniment to “How Do We Look” and “The Eye of Faith,” the famed Civilisations shows on PBS, renowned classicist Mary Beard has created this elegant volume on how we have looked at art. Focusing in Part I on the Olmec heads of early Mesoamerica, the colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the nudes of classical Greece, Be Conceived as a gorgeously illustrated accompaniment to “How Do We Look” and “The Eye of Faith,” the famed Civilisations shows on PBS, renowned classicist Mary Beard has created this elegant volume on how we have looked at art. Focusing in Part I on the Olmec heads of early Mesoamerica, the colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the nudes of classical Greece, Beard explores the power, hierarchy, and gender politics of the art of the ancient world, and explains how it came to define the so-called civilized world. In Part II, Beard chronicles some of the most breathtaking religious imagery ever made—whether at Angkor Wat, Ravenna, Venice, or in the art of Jewish and Islamic calligraphers— to show how all religions, ancient and modern, have faced irreconcilable problems in trying to picture the divine. With this classic volume, Beard redefines the Western-and male-centric legacies of Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark.


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Conceived as a gorgeously illustrated accompaniment to “How Do We Look” and “The Eye of Faith,” the famed Civilisations shows on PBS, renowned classicist Mary Beard has created this elegant volume on how we have looked at art. Focusing in Part I on the Olmec heads of early Mesoamerica, the colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the nudes of classical Greece, Be Conceived as a gorgeously illustrated accompaniment to “How Do We Look” and “The Eye of Faith,” the famed Civilisations shows on PBS, renowned classicist Mary Beard has created this elegant volume on how we have looked at art. Focusing in Part I on the Olmec heads of early Mesoamerica, the colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, and the nudes of classical Greece, Beard explores the power, hierarchy, and gender politics of the art of the ancient world, and explains how it came to define the so-called civilized world. In Part II, Beard chronicles some of the most breathtaking religious imagery ever made—whether at Angkor Wat, Ravenna, Venice, or in the art of Jewish and Islamic calligraphers— to show how all religions, ancient and modern, have faced irreconcilable problems in trying to picture the divine. With this classic volume, Beard redefines the Western-and male-centric legacies of Ernst Gombrich and Kenneth Clark.

30 review for How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization

  1. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    A beautiful and witty art survey, about one of my favorite subjects--people and how they represent themselves. What does it mean politically and socially to be painted "warts and all," or as a hundred foot tall, bare-chested incarnation of Ra? Beard carefully chooses pieces from around the world, setting them in context and revealing how they illustrate the culture's sense of self, power, gender and imagination.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Joshua

    How Do We Look offers the reader a question well worth exploring: how do humans use art to explain how they think and feel about themselves. This is a question stolen directly from an Intro to Art syllabus, but it is a question worth asking because human imagination is arguably the most powerful force in the known universe. It can literally impact the physical world as humans create visions based upon their experiences and perceptions and imaginings, and Beard takes her reader through the centur How Do We Look offers the reader a question well worth exploring: how do humans use art to explain how they think and feel about themselves. This is a question stolen directly from an Intro to Art syllabus, but it is a question worth asking because human imagination is arguably the most powerful force in the known universe. It can literally impact the physical world as humans create visions based upon their experiences and perceptions and imaginings, and Beard takes her reader through the centuries of the human experience to show how humans have channeled their imagination into creating some of the greatest artistic wonders of the world. How We Look is not always as in-depth as I would have liked, but Beard's works tend to leave the reader inspired to begin their own explorations. The value of a book like How Do We Look is how it can inspire new readers, or even experienced readers, to contemplate the purpose and function of art and remind us how art can impact our reality. Whether it's sculpting boxers out of bronze or literally carving a temple into the side of the mountain, human beings create. It's worth a moment of the reader's time to ask themselves where and why that impulse exists, and what they could or should do with it.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Lily Green

    Very informative and easy to read prose! This would be a fantastic addition to a 100 level art history class.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Akemi G.

    The premise of this book is intriguing. Art history often focuses on the artists, and sometimes their models, but seldom the viewers. However, as commissioners of the artwork, as art dealers, and as consumers, viewers determine the value of art and influence the creative processes with their preferences. It's especially interesting in portrait art; how we see ourselves, and even more importantly, how we wish to be seen--the cultural ideal--is manifested in the art. However, the book fails to dig The premise of this book is intriguing. Art history often focuses on the artists, and sometimes their models, but seldom the viewers. However, as commissioners of the artwork, as art dealers, and as consumers, viewers determine the value of art and influence the creative processes with their preferences. It's especially interesting in portrait art; how we see ourselves, and even more importantly, how we wish to be seen--the cultural ideal--is manifested in the art. However, the book fails to dig deep enough to make a point; it's just filled with interesting trivia. For instance, the naked statues of ancient Greece. The author points out it was probably inspired by the statues made in ancient Egypt, although Egyptian statues are dressed. Oh. Is that a mystery? When you make a lasting impression of your fellow humans, don't you want to make his image at his best, and for Greeks, that meant when the person was playing sports, and they played games naked. So the statues are naked. It also meant the statues were a shot in movement. In contrast, the best time for Egyptians were when he stood in front of the pharaoh, or dressed in their best clothes probably for special occasions like wedding. The author briefly introduces the terracotta warriors found in the tomb of China's first emperor, again without making any significant point but throwing questions casually; these were not meant to be seen, and yet so nice! Why? Well, no one knows ... (move on to the next chapter). (My humble opinion is that, for the ancient people, the underworld was as real as the living world; these warriors were very visible by the emperor.) I'll stop here. One of the stars is for the beautiful pictures.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    I really like Mary Beard and her perspective on human civilization through her expertise in antiquity. This book focuses on the question of who are we when we are looking at art, not only how do we see art, but how does art reflect our gaze. Using numerous examples of ancient figurative art from the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Olmec, and Chinese she tries to find the role of the viewer. Next she turns to the religious structures from multiple major religions to explore where the gods are in the a I really like Mary Beard and her perspective on human civilization through her expertise in antiquity. This book focuses on the question of who are we when we are looking at art, not only how do we see art, but how does art reflect our gaze. Using numerous examples of ancient figurative art from the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Olmec, and Chinese she tries to find the role of the viewer. Next she turns to the religious structures from multiple major religions to explore where the gods are in the art, and where the people are. It is fascinating, provocative and well argued.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tessy Consentino

    Fascinating read on art and sculpture and how people from long ago memorialized themselves and others.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    This was accessible and interesting, which are two things I wouldn't often say about art history.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    Sumptuously produced, it was an easy read in one sitting on a rainy afternoon. Mary Beard is a classicist of the highest order, yet this book was, for me, a prime example of overreaching. Her credentials as an art historian or critic are clearly lacking. Her statements are often pedestrian, and her ignorance of religion and art beyond Christianity and Judaism shallow.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    I read it. It happened.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    This book is, to the best of my knowledge, a companion to the new rendition of "Civilizations" that aired on PBS a few months ago. If you have not watched the new series, I highly recommend it. Among others, this book primarily explores how we look at figures from a western bias, as well as how faith has influenced how we interpret and understand images. As a teacher of art history, I found the series "Civilizations" extremely useful and engaging for both myself and my students. That being said This book is, to the best of my knowledge, a companion to the new rendition of "Civilizations" that aired on PBS a few months ago. If you have not watched the new series, I highly recommend it. Among others, this book primarily explores how we look at figures from a western bias, as well as how faith has influenced how we interpret and understand images. As a teacher of art history, I found the series "Civilizations" extremely useful and engaging for both myself and my students. That being said, I cannot highly recommend this companion book. I do not believe it adds anything substantial to what I have already watched. If I had NOT watched the series, then I would have found it difficult to find my footing in this book. The main problem is that unfortunately, just as Mary lets you in on some clever insight, she does not really expound upon it, or go further than a short paragraph about it. For example, Beard provides a cursory examination of the impact of realism in art in her chapter, "The Stain on the Thigh." The devotion of an entire chapter to what is one of many anecdotal reprisals, wets the appetite of the reader but provides no in depth analysis. One would think that a follow up book would be the perfect opportunity to go further into the discussions that began in the series. Sadly, when I was done reading, I felt like I had wasted my time and money.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Patti

    Mary Beard is not as well known in America as she is in Great Britain I dare say, but this down to earth Cambridge professor has entertained, and educated me via Youtube. She delves into ancient civilizations and makes their world part of our own with her intelligent and witty tutorials. How Do We Look is a book that explores how we as modern people, look at ancient art. The first half of the book deals with the human body in art, the second part tries to decode the very complex world of relig Mary Beard is not as well known in America as she is in Great Britain I dare say, but this down to earth Cambridge professor has entertained, and educated me via Youtube. She delves into ancient civilizations and makes their world part of our own with her intelligent and witty tutorials. How Do We Look is a book that explores how we as modern people, look at ancient art. The first half of the book deals with the human body in art, the second part tries to decode the very complex world of religion in art. This is a short book with many photographs (a quick read) which my leave some readers wanting more. I found that I learned much by reading this book, and used the internet to expand on her writing. The book seems to globe trot without any cohesive meaning either in time or geography. I think we as readers expect some cohesive thread to lead us from beginning to end, at least I do. Even though I gained some knowledge from this book, I must say that I would rather watch and listen to Mary Beard on Youtube.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Terence

    In sum: "So much depends on who is looking, from ancient master or ancient slave to eighteenth-century connoisseur or twenty-first-century tourist. And so much depends on the context in which they look, whether ancient cemetery or temple, English stately home or modern museum. I am not sure that it is ever possible entirely to recreate the views of those who first saw classical art, and I am not sure that it is the be all and end all of our understanding anyway (the changing ways these objects h In sum: "So much depends on who is looking, from ancient master or ancient slave to eighteenth-century connoisseur or twenty-first-century tourist. And so much depends on the context in which they look, whether ancient cemetery or temple, English stately home or modern museum. I am not sure that it is ever possible entirely to recreate the views of those who first saw classical art, and I am not sure that it is the be all and end all of our understanding anyway (the changing ways these objects have been seen through the centuries is an important part of their history too). But in How Do We Look I have tried to reflect the domestic ordinariness - and occasionally the flamboyance - of some ancient art, and I have tried to recapture something of 'the shock of the new'." (p. 205-6)

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

    This is a companion book to a TV series (well 2 episodes of said series), so it is a short and somewhat shallow introduction to the topics it covers. The illustrations were very integral to this book, which I appreciated. Unlike most books, I was able to see a picture of each and every piece the author mentioned (saving me the time of looking them up online). I wish it had been more in-depth, hence the lower rating, because I would like to learn more about many of the conclusions drawn. The end This is a companion book to a TV series (well 2 episodes of said series), so it is a short and somewhat shallow introduction to the topics it covers. The illustrations were very integral to this book, which I appreciated. Unlike most books, I was able to see a picture of each and every piece the author mentioned (saving me the time of looking them up online). I wish it had been more in-depth, hence the lower rating, because I would like to learn more about many of the conclusions drawn. The end of the book gives a list of resources for readers interested in learning more about the specific works of art and locations, but lists nothing for people who want to research more examples of the themes discussed.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Patrycja

    I guess I was expecting a different read or maybe different format of this book. This is basically research based on sculptures and art through centuries to show how human interpreted and had looked at art. Different cultures and different traditions would show a person in a different way. And depending on who was looking at the statues, they would see something different in the art. The sculptures and art varied and were changing through centuries. F.ex. the Greek statues often showed a man naked I guess I was expecting a different read or maybe different format of this book. This is basically research based on sculptures and art through centuries to show how human interpreted and had looked at art. Different cultures and different traditions would show a person in a different way. And depending on who was looking at the statues, they would see something different in the art. The sculptures and art varied and were changing through centuries. F.ex. the Greek statues often showed a man naked, while Egyptian one not. Through time sculptured human would also change appearance, poses. They became more lively. Religion, status had also impact on how the statues were seen. There are a lot of images accompanying the book, which I is very helpful and informative.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Luis Cuesta

    I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway. To star I wold say that Mary Beards book is a joy to read, too short for certain and packed with lessons quickly absorbed.Thebook is filled with historical details and Beard’s ideas about the images of gods are fascinating, especially with regard to the Ajanta Cave drawings in India, which force viewers to actively interpret their complexity, searching for truth and faith in the darkness. Even more thought-provoking is the Islamic use of calligraphy, I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway. To star I wold say that Mary Beard´s book is a joy to read, too short for certain and packed with lessons quickly absorbed.Thebook is filled with historical details and Beard’s ideas about the images of gods are fascinating, especially with regard to the Ajanta Cave drawings in India, which force viewers to actively interpret their complexity, searching for truth and faith in the darkness. Even more thought-provoking is the Islamic use of calligraphy, more symbolic than practical, bridging the gap between art and the written word.Overall and most important, in the book she has come up with her own narrative and personal vision of art.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly Schlarman

    Very basic introduction to how we have looked at and engaged with art objects throughout the centuries. This is a very quick read with short chapters focused on a specific place, object, or topic. Unfortunately, it is very Western-centric although Beard says she tried not be. Even when she discusses Olmec statues or Ajanta Buddhist cave art, she devotes a lot of time to how Western archaeologists and art historians viewed these works. Despite this, I love how Beard approaches art history--with a Very basic introduction to how we have looked at and engaged with art objects throughout the centuries. This is a very quick read with short chapters focused on a specific place, object, or topic. Unfortunately, it is very Western-centric although Beard says she tried not be. Even when she discusses Olmec statues or Ajanta Buddhist cave art, she devotes a lot of time to how Western archaeologists and art historians viewed these works. Despite this, I love how Beard approaches art history--with a focus on the consumer rather than the creator.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Rupert

    This is a beautiful book with many lovely photos of ancient people, gods and architecture. The book is divided into two parts. The first part is about the body image as seen in ancient cultures through their art, particularly their statues and paintings. Part 2 deals with religious faith and the portrayal of the gods. Some faiths would consider images of god idolatry. I loved the book but felt the narrative could have been deeper. It was a very fast read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    I greatly appreciate Mary Beard's writing, and this book is no exception. A light, enjoyable read containing art, history, and the context the art would have been seen in/what it would have meant to contemporary viewers. Fascinating food for thought! I received a digital ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss+.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Crystal

    While it was a good book and I did enjoy what was written and the art work covered. I was left with a feeling that something was missing. Since it is meant to accompany the "Civilizations" shows, maybe that was what was missing. Overall good, but somehow lacking.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jacqueline

    Much more approachable than I expected. I enjoyed the information, but I’m not sure I came away with any particularly profound new ideas. She did raise some good questions that I think will stick with me.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    Very interesting, especially for an anthropology major like me! The pictures were sometimes in very strange places in the book, like an image would be referenced and the image itself would be 3 pages back.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    A good basic read on how we look at art. Reflects the importance of historical context, religion, and even historical perceptions on the role human form in deciphering and understanding art, especially of ancient civilizations. Great for those looking for an intro to looking at ancient art.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    The author presented an interesting way of thinking about art history and archeological interpretation. However, this book might not be as meaningful for someone who doesn’t already have some familiarity with the cultures and art movements discussed as only basic backgrounds are provided.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    A very short book with many photos. I do not think it is correctly titled. More than half the book concerns religious art. The section on “ how we look” is relatively short. I guess that comment assumes that “look” means “appear.” The title could also refer to how we view art.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Batesharbuck

    Interesting, but seemed to skim the surface a little too lightly.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Callista

    One of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. I loved her approach, her writing style, her conclusion. Bravo.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Leena Dbouk

    I love Mary Beard and I love her writing! However, some of this book felt unfocused. I'd still recommend it though!!!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Marlies

    Wanted to give more of a 3.75 star review. I really liked it, but it was just a little too little. Wanted more. Guess it would be better to have seen accompanying documentary. Love her though.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Zach

    I see how this worked better as a TV series, but I enjoyed looking and learning.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sydney

    I wish it was longer! It was an easy read with beautiful photos! I really enjoyed the ride.

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